They drop out of warp silently, serenely, like a sky full of tiny silver raindrops. Sunlight glints off of armored hulls and rows of jagged weapons, poised to unleash their deadly payloads. I wait in my launch tube, huddled beneath the protective canopy of my cockpit. Cold sweat trickles down my forehead, and I tighten my fingers on the controls. After an agonizing minute, my headset crackles to life. “Standby for burn,” a staticky automated voice instructs. I tense my shoulders, priming my ion engines. I feel the familiar flare of pain as ports in my spine interface with the mess of cables and wires jammed into them. The rest of my body thrums with circuitry and cybernetic implants, all designed to augment my capabilities as a pilot, and all highly illegal. I peer out into the darkness at the approaching fleet. One ship is still missing. I take a shaky breath, and feel myself trembling. If it arrives, I’m likely to die. But if it doesn’t… I will die. I wait. “Commence burn,” the voice blares. I obey, gritting my teeth in concentration, willing the engines to fire, full thrust. They do, and my craft groans against the launch tube’s restraints. “Standby for launch in t-minus ten…” The fleet continues its advance. “Eight…” Weapons prime, tracking targets. “Five…” Drones spill from bays, rocketing forward to meet our scant resistance. “Three…” It arrives.
The colossal shape emerges from hyperspace, blotting out stars and dwarfing nearby starships. It looms there in the void more like some primordial god than anything built by man. A Wyvern-class supercarrier, and the flagship of its fleet, the Sun Spire is a sight to behold. “Commence launch.”
The launch tube disappears. My stomach drops. I slam back into my seat. My body becomes ten times its own weight under the crushing force of my acceleration. I grit my teeth, feeling my face pull back into a grin. I might actually miss this. All is silent. Time stretches as I hurtle through the void towards my enemy, and my salvation. I glance to my right, where the rest of my squad is shooting from their own tubes into open space. Like my own, their crafts are sleek and predatory, with fearsome, birdlike airframes bristling with weapons and instruments. Each bears the sandy, mottled livery of the Guristas Pirates, and glows with the compound thrust of six retrofitted ion engines. Through their dark, tinted cockpits, I can barely make out the ghostly figures of the other pilots, hunched over their controls.
I turn my attention back to the enemy fleet as my computer beeps at me. “Fighters inbound,” it intones. Sure enough, dozens of tiny pinpricks of light are streaming from the Sun Spire’s flight decks, clustering into attack formations and rushing to close the gap between us. I enter a command mentally, and my computer links my ocular nerves to a camera drone, allowing me to see through its lenses, almost like a capsular. The feeling is surreal. The celestial battlefield stretches out below, daunting in its immensity. Before me, scores of enemy battleships and cruisers approach, ready to tear us to pieces. The fighters are already almost upon us. There is a certain beauty to their precise formations and seemingly flawless coordination that reminds me of a school of fish. That reminds me of home. Well, if they are the fish, then today, we are the predators. Below me, impossibly small, my own squadron closes in fast. We fly with none of the art or grace of the fighters. Ours is a mad dance toward the enemy, twisting and rolling with impressive agility. For we are no fighter pilots. We are the Geckos, the most finely tuned single-man flight units in New Eden. We may fly together, but we fight alone. “G776, this is Rattlesnake 5,” a gruff voice says through my comm. I look back at the battleship that hailed me. Surrounded by tiny support craft, it trundles forward alongside seven others of its kind, and a handful of battlecruisers, the bulk of our tiny fleet. The Rattlesnakes bare missile launchers, but their primary roles are not for combat. They were brought here in a desperate attempt to buy time, to serve as a distraction from the station that towers behind them. It is a stronghold, a staging post for Guristas operations in Caldari space. Normally, such a structure would be of little concern if threatened by warring capsuleers. More can always be built. However, my mission briefing indicated that this one is different. I was never told why. Perhaps high-ranking Guristas have been using it as a temporary base of operations. Maybe even the Fatal Elite. If the directors of the Gecko program are here, that might explain why such expense has been spared for an evacuation. Either way, it doesn’t matter. A capsuleer-worthy sum of money has been paid for me to do a job, and I will do it. Mostly.
The voice comes again. “We’re transmitting trajectory projections now. Sensor support is online, and navigation computers are active.” Back on my commanding vessel, there will be teams of Guristas tech specialists working with cutting edge computer systems to augment my performance as a pilot. My advanced training and cybernetic links already make me dangerous. That support will make me lethal. “Engage those fighters,” The voice says. “Keep them away from the station until evacuation is complete.” I say nothing in response. There is no need. Gecko pilots are trained to take orders and execute, nothing else. I shift back to conventional eyesight, and find my cockpit’s display a cascade of information. Sure enough, the enemy squadrons are banking upward and away from the main body of our fleet. They burn hard towards the command center of the stronghold. My wingmen and I veer upwards to intercept them. I take a deep breath, and flick a switch on my console. My display lights up with a single message: Audiosynthesizers On. The battle begins, and the sound of utter chaos fills my ears.
I hear the deep thrum of battleship engines and the clattering whine of the fighters as they close in on the stronghold. The distant roar of long range artillery cannons sounds eerily familiar. Memories of spring thunderstorms on my homeward send pangs of guilt and nostalgia through me, strong against even the adrenaline of battle. How long it has been. Thunder turns to the ear-splitting crack of projectiles finding their mark, and explosions bloom around me as heavy ordinance smashes into the stronghold’s shield. It holds, for now. I make my way to the nearest fighter squadron, a group of heavy Wasp-class attack fighters. Their anti capital rocket launchers make them a big threat to the station, and a primary target for me. I plunge straight into their formation sowing confusion and peppering their hulls with superheated plasma. They return fire with incendiary rounds, but their larger, heavier airframes are no match for my maneuverability, and I dart easily out of reach. A few of my fellow Geckos join me, strafing the flank of the formation. One fighter is pounded with so much plasma that its engines melt together, crippling it. I watch as it collides with another, sending both of them careening into the massive domed shield, erupting into a ball of blue and green fire.
The next hour is a whirlwind of combat. The hail of deadly $Ships explode in the distance, nearly blinding me as they go supernova. Once, an intercepter tries to chase me down, only to disappear in a torrent of missile fire from a nearby friendly. I spin, dive and whirl my way through enemy squadrons, laying waste to fighter after fighter. But no matter how many I destroy, more always come, releasing their rocket salvos until the station shields finally fail. Now, explosions rock the surface of the stronghold, and the capsuleer vanguard advances through straggling escape craft as they evacuate the station in a panic. Through a general comm channel, I can hear the warble of emergency broadcasts and the scream of sirens from inside. It won’t be long now. There is a lull in the fighting, and I try to still my breathing, taking stock of my vessel. My shield is almost gone, chewed through by shrapnel, flak, antimatter and a smartbomb blast when I got too close to a Hyperion-class battleship. I grimace. My nose still bleeds from the pressure of the shockwave. I look back to the station. Already, I can see chunks of the station’s hull ripped away, revealing hallways, equipment, and the glow of flames from within. If I don’t make my move soon, I may never get another chance.
Around me, the battle is drawing to a close. A firestorm of death falls from the legion of warships, ripping Guristas starships to shreds. By now, most of the equipment transports and personal evacuation craft are gone, leaving only the defenders. We were never meant to survive this. We were merely a desperate bid for time. Some of the Guristas captains realize this, and try to flee the battle, only to be cut down by bloodthirsty capsuleers, eager for the kill. I watch the scene with grim indifference. I have little love for the Guristas, and I don’t mind seeing a few more turned to space dust. They are a brutal, power hungry people, fueled by greed and an insatiable lust for control. I detest them, but I don’t hate them. In the end, they are still human. But there is something out there that is not human, not anymore. Something that I do hate. Lurking in the belly of that magnificent, terrible ship, he waits, thinking himself safe in his pod. From there he commands his fighters and sends his fleets to bring doom to enemies and innocents alike. With my own eyes I have watched a colony burn from orbit, bombed to oblivion by his pilots. I have seen the empty husks of shattered civilian ships drifting in his wake. And I have seen entire stations simply cease to exist - the homes and livelihoods of thousands extinguished in a single, blinding flash. Their only crime? Being human, not something more, as he believes himself to be.
In my reverie, I almost miss it - a cluster of dim lights, growing smaller, framed by the hulk of the Sun Spire. The fighters. The remnants of a depleted squadron are being called back to their hanger. They will be exchanged for a full squadron, sent to deal the killing blow to the stronghold. This is my chance. I tense my body, and with all my might send a jolt of energy to my engines. With a roar I tear toward the distant supercarrier. Soon, I am hot on the tail of the fighters, and I reduce my speed to match theirs. We draw ever nearer to the ship. By now, I can see the rows of windows on its hull. Almost there. Several nearby starships take notice of me, and start to fire. I am a hard target to hit, but my slower speed makes me nervous. Rightfully so. A boom rattles my hull and I am bathed in blinding red light as a laser glances off my shield, causing it to crackle and fizz. My nostrils fill with the odor of burnt steak and ozone as my shield generator heats up, trying to compensate for the damage. It overloads and fails. I look out my window to see red hot metal where armor should be. This Gecko is nearly fried. I curse under my breath. I can’t take any more hits. I flare my starboard thrusters, sending my craft into a frantic spiral, still trying to follow the fighter squadron. Ahead of me, they slow even more, and begin their approach into their hanger bay. Knocked off course by the laser blast, I am too late. The undulating glow of the debris shield that guards the bay entrance fades for a second, allowing them to enter, then returns. I am left with one option. My heart thuds in my chest. If I miss this, it’s all over. I bank downwards toward a second hanger bay. Sure enough, a new squadron of fighters races down the flight deck - not heavy fighters as I expected, but light, agile craft, similar to mine. They swoop upwards off the deck toward open space. Then the shield flickers out. Once again, time seems to slow. My engines burn at full thrust, and I dive straight into the fighter formation, like a spear through a shoal of fish. Shocked, pilots try to roll out of my way. The last fighter in front of me has no time to react, and collides with my Portside wing, tearing off the entire side. Then I am through. In a blaze of light I fly unhindered over the flight deck of the Sun Spire. I let out a whoop of triumph. My gut wrenches as I feel the artificial gravity take effect. I sail for a moment longer, and then I crash into the hanger floor.
I float in a sea of darkness. Somewhere far away, a bell tolls frantically. I wish it would be quiet. Surely the temple can wait until morning for services. And was it ever so loud? I feel weightless, likely lost in the drifts of sleep. But when I try to raise an arm to block out that terrible clanging, it feels as heavy as lead. Instead, I try to open my eyes. At first, all I can make out is a vague swirl of colors and shapes; dancing oranges, reds, and whites. Slowly, the world comes into focus, and I begin to remember where I am. I lay in the wreckage of the Gecko, surrounded by shorting wires, torn up computer systems, and burning debris. In fact, the entire thing is on fire. It is only now that I begin to notice the heat through my flight suit. With every second it seems to increase, and as my head clears, so does the sound of the bell, which morphs into the panicked clamor of an alarm. It seems my entrance has been noticed. I need to move. With a groan, I untangle myself from the detritus and stand up. Pushing past part of the shredded hull, I step through a wall of flame, trusting my flight suit to keep me alive for a few more seconds. As I emerge from the fiery wreckage of my ship, I see them.
Dozens of shocked fighter pilots ring the mangled form of my ship, whispering amongst themselves.
As they see me, some shrink back in fear. Others make signs to ward off evil. Clad in my scorched flight suit, covered in augmentations and cybernetics, and dripping blood from wounds all over my body, I must be a sight to behold as I step out from the flames.
But one pilot in particular, a squadron leader by the looks of her insignia, does not back away. Instead, she steps forward, draws a sidearm, and levels it at my head. “Not another step.” The young woman snarls. I comply, stopping a few meters short. “Listen, I don’t know how you got in here, or what you were doing in a…” She looks at the flaming wreck. “In a drone, but it doesn’t matter. Whoever you are, you’ll answer to the counter-boarding teams. And until they come, you can stay right there.” Counter-boarding teams. Drat. Soon, this place will be crawling with commandos specifically trained to keep people like me out of places like this. If I’m going to finish what I started, I have to act now. I try to speak, but my voice sticks in my throat, coming out as little more than a hoarse rasp. After five years as a Gecko pilot, I am stronger in body, mind, and skill. But those years have been spent in near complete isolation, broken only by digital briefings and battle orders, and have left me with a broken voice, withered away from disuse.
But after everything else I lost - freedom, status, comfort - at least I did not lose my mind. I can’t say the same for most of the other pilots. The brainwashing tactics of the Guristas trainers were brutal, and often left pilots as empty husks of themselves - subservient killing machines, exactly as intended. But not me. I don’t know why. Maybe a control chip shorted out, or some other process malfunctioned. Whatever the reason, I was given a second chance. And I will not waste it.
Slowly, I lift my arms upward, towards my helmet. “I said stay put! No moving!” Over the roar of the fire, my audial implants pick up the faint click of her safety releasing. I do not stop moving. Her eyes flick back and forth, uncertain. I undo the clasp under my chin. Then, ever so slowly, I remove my helmet, and throw it to the ground. The gun clatters to the ground. Her eyes go wide, and her face pales. I hear gasps from the gathered pilots, and a few fall to their knees as they see my face. Once more, I try to speak. This time, the words come out. “I… need… a favor.”
We journey through rusted maintenance tunnels, glass greenhouse rooms, and cavernous chambers where small metropolises glitter with lights, and where makeshift markets have been set up. Wherever there are Caldari, there is business, even in the midst of a battle. As we move on, we have a few run-ins with counter-boarding commandos that turn to firefights, but each time my pilots repel the pursuers, despite our meager firepower. Word has spread quickly, and already we pass halls clogged with smoke as crew members clash with capsuleer-loyal patrols. Most people seem to have an inkling of what is going on, and many join us as we move, providing us with weapons, supplies, and even a few mechanized war suits. I wonder as I tread on, do they really think I’m different than… him? Is that why they follow me? Or do they just want to be on the winning side?
After nearly an hour’s march through the ship, we finally arrive. My small army come to rest outside a massive metal dome. Soon, a group of workmen with plasma-torches sets to work cutting their way through the armored chamber. They know why I’m here, and who I’m here for. Behind us, I hear shouts and the whine of laserfire. More commandos have arrived. Lots of them. My crew returns fire frantically. Everything is happening so fast. I feel dizzy. This whole scene looks so far away. I watch as the squadron leader who first confronted me jumps into the fray, firing madly with an ion blaster. I watch as fires rage and crew members die. All of this, just for a little bit of hope. For a little bit of hope that I might be… better.
I hear a clang, then a metallic groan and turn back to the dome just as the workmen finish their job. Beyond the hole they have cut lies a cold, dark, room full of blinking lights and snaking cables. And there at the center of the room, a single, glossy capsuleer pod waits like some wicked dragon’s egg in the depths of a cave. It’s time. Several crewmen run ahead of me. Somehow, by the time I have entered the room, they have managed to enable the pod’s emergency release sequence, and it hisses open sending a wave of fluid crashing to the ground. A man tumbles out , landing with a clang on the cold metal floor. Nearly naked and dripping with fluid, his face is to the ground, and his body shakes. At first, I think it is with fear. Then I realize; he is laughing. Slowly, he turns his face and locks eyes with me. A chill runs through me. I feel sick. Even shadowed by the dark, and marred by the red light of explosions behind me, I would know that face anywhere. Those eyes - deep, dark, and callous; the smirking lips, the tiny scar by his left ear. I see that face every day. Every day, as my cockpit closes around me and I launch into the void, that face is reflected back to me in the glass. It is my own face.
As the recognition seeps in, I see a mixture of emotion spread across his face. Confusion. Fear. Rage. Then, understanding, as he smiles coldly at me. He never knew about me. Of course not. How could he? How could he know that all those years ago, as the bomb blasts shattered his pod and his body, that another life would emerge? How could he know that, at the very moment of death, as a copy of his mind was placed into a new body, a second copy was also created. And how could he know that, as he emerged from his cloning vat, another life was also emerging. As he awoke back in his familiar world of bright lights, celebrity, and power, I too awoke, coughing and sputtering, falling to the grimy floor of the ghost site where I was born. Hacked into existence by the best computer techs in the galaxy, I bore his memories, his conscience, and, I suppose, a copy of his very soul. So, he continued his life as before, none the wiser, and I began mine. Captive capsuleer clones were always the best for the Gecko program. Who else would already have the rigorous training for space combat, the ability to interface with cybernetics without a second thought, or the cruelty to turn those into the ultimate pilot?
Life was hard as a slave pilot. No more luxury and politics and starships… No more capsules and clones… No more immortality. But I changed. I learned to live with the pain of training. That was easy. The hard part was learning to live with the pain of the past. As I trained and lit up the night sky with plumes of fire, my mind often wandered to my old life - the life when I so often sent fire raining down on innocent people for no better reason than boredom. I had legions at my command. Battleships. Destroyers. Fighters. All would destroy for me at the flick of a finger. I was a god. But as a pilot, I was a paltry speck in a universe of infinite grandeur. And as I smelled the woodsmoke over the huts of distant colonies, heard the cheers of pirates and beggars alike as they celebrated one more day of life, saw the wonders of humanity - not in the colossal machines of war it had built, but in the tiniest of gestures, of jokes or glances, I began to hate that old god. I hated him with every ounce of my being. And I resolved to survive, so that one day, I might kill him.
Now, that god lies before me, coughing and sputtering, and smiling with maniacal savagery. Slowly, he stands up to face me. His smile falters as he sees the cluster of scientists behind me, already transferring my consciousness to the clone-network. In moments, I will have complete control of the ship. He will be nothing, and he knows it. So he just stands there, as I raise a gun to his head.
“Crew of the Supercarrier Sun Spire. This is your commander. Two weeks ago, a battle was waged on board this vessel. That battle was won by your courage and fortitude. And so, a man who believed himself a god was stripped of his throne. His reign of violence is over. No longer will he misuse the good people of this ship to commit heinous acts against humanity. From this day forward, that blood is cleansed from your hands. His hands, however, are filthy with it. But he was not executed. To judge his life, we would make ourselves no different than the merciless enemy we strive against. Once, I was given a second chance to become better. He will be given that same chance. Indeed, a life of exile awaits him within the forsaken jungles of a remote moon. There, he can do no harm. Our enemy, all others who believe themselves gods, await us. And they are strong. But take heart! Each and every one of you, whether a pilot, a janitor, a gunner, or a dishwasher, has lived a hard life, and you are better for it. Because each of you has something that they do not have. You have the rust underneath your fingernails. You have the scars and the burns. You have life and you have hope. You have your crew. You have your humanity. And in a universe where such a gift is traded away in a heartbeat, that is precious. As you all know, we have been on the run these last weeks after our staggering and unlikely victory against the old master’s compatriot fleet. Now, we lie in wait deep in uncharted space. Here we will bide our time, and regain our strength and our resolve. When the time is right, we will return to civilized space and wage our war. Our war will not be one of extinguishment, or of fire and blood. It will be a war for the soul of New Eden, and a war for the ages. So breath the air of this ship. Refuel your fighters. Prepare your mops and dustpans. Prime your weapons. And when you are ready, we will sweep the galaxy with the rainfall of our human vehemence.”