Thursday, 17 November 2016

Legion: Shakedown Trials in the Drone Lands

Prologue: Morning - The Ni-Kunni Tea Ritual

My alarm clock goes off at 06:37 NEST. It's actually more of a gentle, benign chime through the oversized holovid on the wall opposite which is all cutting-edge multi-purpose media centre with no expense spared. It currently displays the time in the top right corner in faint green numbers a metre tall. I ignore it. It doesn't stop.


Silence, except I can now discern a gentle, faint humming in the background that my foggy and semi-awakened brain attributes to traffic noise outside. I lie there in bed with my eyes shut for a few more minutes. Then the snooze alarm triggers and the lights in the room begin to grow in brightness. No escape now.

"I said cease."

I sit up in bed and look around. I welcome the quiet since I'm not jacked-in and my implants are banded-down and not functioning, so there is no cluster-noise being transmitted to my head whether I want it or not. I feel grounded.


My bedroom is only the size of a small lounge and has a low ceiling. I went for various shades of 'warm' with the decor: pastel oranges and reds that suggest sunrise or sunset. I've furnished the room with some ancient Ni-Kunni artifacts like a thousand-year-old tapestry rug that I've hung on the wall behind me and opposite the holovid; a kind of cultural juxtaposition that makes me feel less like a capsuleer and more like a normal person who has a normal life. There is a bookshelf by the bed with some actual books in it, such as a hardcopy of The Achuran Book of the Dead (Translated & Unabridged) because I'm riffing on Caldari-lit right now. The wall to my right has a couple of other small displays with some random wall art completing the decor. I have a walk-in wardrobe in here too, which is awesome.

I turn my head in the direction of the holovid and say "Scope News, audio only, low volume. Summary."

Alton Haveri's disembodied dulcet tones emerge from the wall. It's something about the Sisters of EVE again. I get out of bed, do a few stretches, then walk round the end of the bed and out of the door that swishes open as I approach it, then enter the kitchen next-door. The small bathroom is opposite. The lounge area is over there to the right. Lights activate in each part of the apartment as my presence is noted. Haveri's voice follows me from room-to-room.

The kitchen is full of seamless doors and is all sleek metal utilitarianism everywhere, except for the fifty-year-old boiler that I bought in one of Mishi IV's many bazaars, and which now sits on the shelf by the sink. A day started without a properly-brewed fine chai is a day wasted, and synth-chai is totally unacceptable. Haveri is still talking about the SoE as I switch the boiler on. Ahead of me and the sink is a large, closed, slatted blind that is set into the wall and merely an affectation - a style statement - because behind that is a window that is currently electrochromically opaque, so I don't need a blind; but since when did necessity outweigh style?

Then I reach up and open the blind in front of the window and say: "Kitchen window, clear, medium shade." In a nanosecond the window changes from opaque to clear, so quickly that its previous state seems like a false memory.

This is the view out the window:

The vivid torchlight from the blue giant out there is startling. This is the captain's lounge in Empress of Amarr, in high orbit above a gas giant in some system-or-other - I'm not sufficiently awake yet to remember where this is.

"Aura, status please."

Alton Haveri is muted.

[Good morning Cassandra. All systems and subsystems are nominal except for the Scorch frequency crystals' critical serviceability status. I estimate they will become unserviceable by the end of this day based on rate of use. Tactical: no threats observed otherwise I would have woken you. In any case we are cloaked, so we are as invisible as a Caldari's conscience]

I like this new Aura. She could present Scope News with Haveri.

"You're learning..."

[I already know everything that has ever been known about everything there is to know]

"There are always unknown unknowns."

[The unknown is merely a known that is yet to be discovered]

"Never mind. Prep the capsule. Give me thirty minutes and then I'm jacking-in. We have a busy day."

The boiler starts to whistle like the ancient kettle that it is - it's that thing about staying grounded again. This ship is the most exotic kettle in New Eden. A Tech-III-class chai machine. My father always said make no big decisions before chai.

The Molden Heath Sessions

It wasn't long before I moved Empress of Amarr from Mista over to the other ESOCI citadel in the Horaka system in Molden Heath.

There is nothing wrong with Mista. At nine light years it is 'close' to Amarr, yet still quiet and underpopulated except for its fair share of industrialists, but the geometry of the stargate network in the Heath is more favourable for access to a better - lower - classification of space for the sort of operations I was conducting. The biggest bonus is that hardly anybody else lives here so it's easy to get around without attracting attention, which is good when you're learning to operate a ship worth half-a-billion ISK.

In a very short space of time I've developed a fascination with the Heath. I assume the general lack of activity here is in part due to the Republic's position on the Heath being 'open to all and claimable by none', so in consequence nobody bothers with it. I say 'nobody', but I really mean nobody legit. There is a large mining presence because of the prevalence of ancient cometary ice fragments and asteroids; there are some settled planets in the highsec constellations; there is some general industry, and a lot of ruined and derelict ex-industry, but that's it.

I saw all this industrial detritus all around me. Evidence of speculators and of fortunes won and lost. Shattered dreams.

In Horaka, The Wanderers Den is largely empty for most of the time except for the token support staff that live there, so I can do what I like. I can even get my favourite Impetus feeds more easily from here in the Den than I can from Zoohen because the Republic is the Fed's closest ally in New Eden, so FedMart shopping channel still rules, although shipping to here would be problematic (lowsec premiums).

I know that some of our current 'war targets' patrol this region because I've seen the occasional lone roamer show up in Local. They're no big deal - all I see there is the desperation of the unfocused wandering opportunist. The dominant criminality in the Heath is the Angel Cartel, which is a new breed of antagonist for me. I've even seen a new class of vessel here. I know the Dramiel because I owned a civilianised version for a while, but I've never seen one of these before:

I skirmished with the Cartel as part of my weapons workups. Brief encounters lasting less than a minute each. Thing is, Legion vs Cartel is never a fair fight, not when I'm packing Tech-II-class Heavy Pulse Lasers and nanobot-enhanced armour with explosive and kinetic resistances up around 90%. Empress hardly noticed.

'Tis but a scratch, especially when you're carrying nanobots & a repper

Sidebar: do you know what a Matari Hummingbird is? It's spent projectile ammo fired at relativistic speed that misses its target and disappears off into interstellar space, forever, unless it finds someone else, maybe even a millennium from now, when orbital mechanics dictates that some other unfortunate is in the way. It might be you. You'll feel a ting on your hull and put it down to micrometeoroids.

This is why energy weapons are more pure. They're cleaner. There's enough pollution in New Eden already.

But that red nebulosity: it's everywhere.

You see it reflected on the interior walls of stations where those walls face a window.

You see it on the back of your eyelids even when you're jacked-in. You start seeing it in every possible facet of your own future. Amarrian ships always reflect their surroundings better than any other faction's designs because of that armour plate. In Domain, the Legion is yellow. In the State, it is blue.

Out here, it is bronze.

I couldn't even get away from it when I took Empress into the centre of a hollowed-out asteroid to test the finesse of its manoeuvring thrusters.

This is no cave

The frontier vibe that I've mentioned previously is deceptive because the Heath is, in stellar cartographical terms, at the very centre of the New Eden cluster. Even though that 'frontier' is merely a political boundary, abandonment is everywhere. The long-discarded, massive solar harvester arrays in the cam drone still below, summed up the region. Long-since powered-down and without station-keeping capability, orbital precession has turned them away from the star they're supposed to face. Now they're looking in the wrong direction, towards decay.

And yet in spite of that, I could grow to like this vibe, where you can sit in a system for an hour and know you're the only starship for three light-years in any direction, because there are no intra-system shuttles, hardly any InterBus and just the occasional supply ship for whatever it is that passes for settled planets out here. It always activates my inner ancestral homeworld memories and makes me think of the wastes of Mishi IV, which is a full thirty-five light-years from here.

But in low-security space it's always a false quiet. I did think that Molden Heath was to the Republic what Khanid was to the Empire: mostly lowsec, with a quiet that could shatter at any minute if you betray your own vigilance by getting complacent. However Khanid doesn't labour under the contempt of its overseers like the Heath does.

Molden Heath is a lot like the nullsec that borders it; two regions of which are right next-door in stargate terms, but they're both across the other side of the huge cluster-bisecting void known as Divinity's Edge.

To stay on schedule with the Legion's workups, I needed to go there next.

Etherium Reach - Face-to-Face With Several Demons

The aftermath of Operation Spectrum Breach and the rise of the strong-AI Rogue Drones saw the eventual genesis of the Drone Lands. Once capsuleers started going in there, all the regions to the galactic east of the Republic have invited mostly contempt from the Empyrean community for various reasons: either a dearth of exploitable resources or a lack of people to do crimes against. It doesn't stop many of them living there and establishing 'sov'.

Etherium Reach is accessible from Molden Heath through the disputed Skarkon system: controversial after what happened on Skarkon II when the Cartel spontaneously orchestrated the equivalent of a sov grab there.

The Rogue Drone collectives that are to be found in Etherium Reach attack on sight, just like they all do everywhere they occur. One wonders why. Do they just want to be left alone to do their Drone thing? Whose territory is this? Is it really the Drone Lands now or, in the case of the constellation I daytripped in, is it the territory of 'Hells Pirates'?

There are occasional oases of tranquillity in nullsec but very few of these benign-looking terrestrials have anybody living on them other than capsuleer 'PI Colonies' or isolationist weirdo setups that are escaping from something. The planets are deserted partly because these are (supposed to be) the Drone Lands, and partly because not all of them are habitable. Just because an ocean is blue doesn't mean the air is breathable.

In fact I might set up an operation of my own here. A mine, run by bots or contract temps shipped-in. How long would it be before anybody else noticed it? With easy access from the Heath, how can it fail?

I'm digressing. The thing that disturbs me the most about Etherium Reach is that thing over there: the Ginnungagap Nebula. Etherium Reach is close enough to it that you feel like you're staring it in the face. Whatever process is at work in this active bipolar emission nebula that is forming stars like a conveyor belt, casts an enveloping ambience over the region like a warm fireside glow that reflects in every facet of the Legion's armour.

That's what this thing is: a cosmic furnace. It's totally unlike the giant blue pool of The Cauldron that dominated my home planet's night sky for five years at a time. That spectacle felt reassuring and its return to Eclipticum's night was always celebrated by massive festivals.

Not this.

Out here you even get a glimpse of what's behind it: the ghostly white nebulosity in Outer Passage.

Here be more Drones.

As I travelled around the 1VN-XC constellation, I looked out for sporadic Drone presences and exercised the weapons system on them wherever I found them. Some of them are as big as battleships.

And yet for some reason I felt bad about killing them. Do they hit us because we hit them or is it the reverse? 

Are they as bad as Sleepers, or Drifters, or post-Jove or whatever in Divinity's Edge those people really are? I don't believe so. Maybe I should configure Empress to hack into one of these things again before they fall apart: 

All these distractions made it easy to forget why I was really here in nullsec: to fine-tune the ship's antennae and scanning subsystems by tracking down some sites.

Here in the Drone Lands, any sites of archaeological interest have long since been corrupted and absorbed by Rogue Drone infestations and turned into something else entirely.

These sites can still be hacked with a Data Analyzer module. The Legion is effective - better than expected - at hacking sites, although some of that capability is enhanced by my own cybernetic connection to the ship. A Hacker-Legion doesn't match the capabilities of a covert ops frigate (nothing does), but with the subsystem optimization it is close enough to be reliable and exactly what I need for the long-duration excursions I commissioned it for.

The other essential system for hacking sites in a Legion is a large-capacity, battleship-class 'prop mod' for crossing the often large distances between hackable containers, which otherwise would take forever and leave you fully exposed; but my God it gives the Legion the acceleration and manoeuvrability of a Titan. Definite downside there; some more tactics need to be refined.

On the whole though, these tests were a complete success. I even scored some quality Augmented Drone blueprints in the process along with most of the components needed to build them.

On this basis I called an end to the workups and decided that Empress was ready - that I was ready - for its first excursion. 

Apart from the drones, no other entities saw me while I was here, and nobody found me. Covert ops subsystem rules.

I'm a Signaleer, so I enjoy a kind of freedom of the cluster where not everybody wants to kill me. If I operate in a nullsec region like this, no doubt I'll be reported on somebody's intel channel and the 'nv' code will be issued in my name. It means 'No Visual'.

Some of you might say she's with Signal Cartel and leave me alone. Some of you might try to hunt me down anyway; but with Combat Probes on board too, I'll have seen you long before you ever find me, and you'll never find me anyway because I conduct ops when most of the rest of New Eden is asleep.

Sweet dreams, boys...

Back to the Heath

I flew back to Horaka and conducted some final tests with a Mobile Depot facility outside the citadel's front door. Then I docked, and declared the Legion fully serviceable and ready for action.

I needed a few days to take care of some loose ends before launching in the Legion again, so I headed back to Mista in an Ibis 'rookie ship' - known as a Corvette now - that I had found abandoned near the Horaka - Orien stargate and taken possession of.

I do this rookie-ship-repo thing often. I just keep them and use them as shuttles. Although I do wonder whether this is in fact Grand Theft Ibis and is strictly credo-compliant.

This ship's designator said 'Dave Stark's Ibis'. I looked up Dave Stark and checked out his history. Turns out he's ex-Pandemic Horde, ex-WiNGSPAN, and appears to be a 'wormholer'. I don't really care to be honest, which means some of Molden Heath must be rubbing off on me.

I mention this because I flew from Horaka back to Mista on the day that the first generation of 'Alpha Clones' was announced, along with some other info on new sightings of Drifter activity in the cluster. If the Drifters are back, then that is perfect justification for disappearing into nullsec for a while. From what I've heard about this new incursion, I may be gone some time.

Alphas: welcome to New Eden. Your timing is perfect because space is about to get very busy. My advice: be careful what you wish for, because there are plenty of other capsuleers out there who are willing to give it to you and then take it away again.

We're heading for interesting times...

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