As I mentioned last time, Signal Cartel has a programme aimed at new recruits that are also newly-qualified capsuleers. The programme provides those new recruits with standard-class frigates carrying an exploration-optimised equipment fit, all at the corporation's expense and free to the end-user.
The philosophy behind the scheme is obvious: ISK-poor new recruits are not in a position to easily replace the ship they are more likely to lose during that initial learning phase, and that crucial period can breed terminal risk-aversion. On the other hand, exploration is arguably one of the riskiest occupations that a capsuleer can undertake because of the long list of uncertainties that preface every mission, so a risk-averse capsuleer has no future in exploration, which is a tragedy to be avoided - unfulfilled potential etc.
The free ships are available by contract at all three of Signal's bases. I decided to check out a 'contract Heron'. I did this because it was high time I actually did some exploration after spending three interminable weeks moving and consolidating my assets. I needed to start doing what I joined this corporation for. In the process of that 'Move Op', I said goodbye to my base in Danera: I lived there for well over a year and during that period I saw it evolve from a quiet backwater highsec refuge into a bit of a centre for industrialists with a concomitant increase in ganking activity, so this was a good time to move on.
I felt a momentary pang of guilt while taking delivery of the contract Heron at Zoohen, because I'm not really its target user. I am no longer an inexperienced novice, I have a nine-figure sum in the virtual bank now, and I have three Covert Ops vessels and a number of standard class frigates in my hangars already. I could buy a hundred Herons and barely notice the impact on my bottom line.
The reason I embarked on this experiment was to prove just how good a standard-class frigate can be at doing science out there, while giving me the practice I needed to get properly current on exploration doctrine again (because despite my reputation for exploring within [PHP1], I hadn't actually done any for ages).
When I took delivery of the Heron, I got the station's engineers to make a couple of minor upgrades, replacing the ship's Nanofiber structural mods and Inertial Stabilizers with their Tech II-class equivalents. A ludicrous extravagance on this ship, I know, but this modification, my overall skills and experience and my navigation-oriented headware collectively gave this Heron a 52% improvement in performance over standard spec; with aligning-from-rest and acceleration-to-warp reduced to 2.6 seconds - not the 'magic number' of two seconds that virtually immunises a ship from gate camps, but not far off. More than acceptable in fact, because that level of performance places the onus on the aggressor rather than me. Smartbombs aside, I am more likely to survive than not.
Mitigation of risk is everything in this occupation.
I dislike prolonged immersion.
I've been jacked into the contract Heron now for a week. The last time I was in-capsulo for this long was one time last year doing ELINT/recon in A2-V27 for [PHP1]. I remember docking again after that ordeal and thinking what a glorious thing it is to be able to smell the air and taste food and drink; how I sat in our now-defunct bar in Nandeza just staring at a spiced chai, watching the steam rising from it, and thinking this is what it means to be human and how baseliners take the realm of the senses completely for granted. How life is wasted on them.
I undocked in the contract Heron from our station in Zoohen a week ago not intending to stay out anything like this long, but as is normal with me, I fall prey to a degree of impulsivity. A couple of wormholes brought me to a lowsec system in Placid, close to the border with the Cloud Ring region and the vivid green halo-shaped nebula that bears its name.
Cloud Ring is all nullsec. I hadn't done serious null for ages. I needed the practice. This ship needed the validation of null, so I dived in.
Operational doctrine suggests crossing regional borders into nullsec is excessively dangerous because of gatecamps. With the proper diligence and intel-gathering, the time-of-day when camps are less likely to be present can be deduced, and anyway, my licence says I'm a 'Border Runner' and my father was involved in a smuggling operation so really I was just following an ancestral imperative.
I arrived in the Placid - Cloud Ring border system of F7C-H0 safely enough, but there was a camp on the far side of the system. More intel-gathering from the usual literature - the DOTLAN service, the Zkillboard service and others - and I deduced that the lone capsuleer camping the stargate in question was some sort of professional gatecamper who spent eight hour stints at this gate (!), trapping ships in a disruptor bubble and using 'fleet boosts' to kill them. I know he was using boosts because he said so in Local.
Not to me, mind, but to one of his buddies passing through. Being out here in remote and unpopulated nullsec clearly messes with your head enough to make you give the game away like that.
Risk assessment: this guy could one-shot me while I'm in the humble contract Heron. I could avoid the disruptor bubble easily enough by approaching the stargate 'off-axis', but with the Heron lacking a true Covert Ops Cloaking Device he'd see me coming, so ideally I needed this guy to disappear. From intel, I knew his pattern. I decided to wait him out, because patience is underrated in this occupation. As capsuleers, we enjoy a unique luxury that baseliners do not have: the absolute certainty that there will always be a tomorrow.
In situations like this, program a sleep cycle. Put yourself in hibernation. Your capsule can sustain you for up to ninety days before the neuroembryonic fluid needs changing and even then you'll get a few more days before infection sets in.
Wait them out. Nullsec sov fodder doesn't like it and prefers the instant hit of self-gratification. Use it against them.
Cloak up, sit tight, and disappear like the Ghost of Omist.
The Cloud Ring Nebula surrounds the region that bears its name like a cosmic necklace; a huge swathe of green gas light-years thick - the visual legacy of an ancient supernova. It's an arresting spectacle and I rate it as highly as The Cauldron. It's easy to speculate on what effect the redistributed heavy metal elements released in that stellar explosion will have on the future evolution of planets in this sector of the cluster. Heavy metals means planets with iron cores that become mineral-rich rocky terrestrials that beget life, millions of years hence, long after we've been forgotten by the universe's callous disinterest.
The noted Intaki astronomer Alnadil Jouber was the first to study the Cloud Ring Nebula in detail, and he theorised that the supernova that caused it may have triggered waves of gravimetric distortion that spread out like ripples on the spacetime pond. He went on to speculate that when those ripples reached the EVE Gate, they destabilised it and caused its collapse into the raging, deadly flaw in spacetime that persists to this day.
Jouber's theory is not widely accepted today, as there is plenty of evidence that the nebula is much older than the EVE Gate, but whenever it happened, that supernova must have been an incredible sight and will have been visible from every part of the cluster. Were there any indigenous lifeforms around at the time to observe it? Archaeologists have certainly never found any evidence; maybe the explosion wiped it out in a blizzard of atmosphere-frying cosmic rays - it would have been an extinction-level event for everything within 30 light-years or so.
Politically, current intel indicates that most of Cloud Ring is under the sovereignty of the Psychotic Tendencies alliance. Intel also indicated the region is mostly deserted for most of the time. During my mission here I saw single-figure jump counts on the DOTLAN service through most of Cloud Ring's systems. This lack of activity is at odds with some of the news reports I've read about huge battles taking place here over the last few years.
Most of the infinite looping playback of alliance politics passes over my head, but it appears I visited Cloud Ring not long after the winding-down of 'World War Bee', which was fought mostly in the regions nearby. If that ceasefire was the reason for the inactivity here in Cloud Ring then I wasn't really concerned because as an explorer-scientist I exist in a world without borders, but I took full advantage of that quiescence when I realised that the notorious Legends Trial Arena was in this region and just a few jumps away from the border system I was sat in. The pro-gatecamper was not present when I awoke the ship, as predicted, so I set course and enjoyed the temporary freedom of totally empty nullsec.
* * *
The Legends Trial Arena is in the PPG-XC system, which is in the Assilot constellation in Cloud Ring. I warped to the facility's marker beacon and got a hell of a surprise as I wasn't expecting anything like this:
This weird facility, a quasi-gothic fusion of high tech and barbaric ceremonial ritual over a hundred kilometres across, features a pair of Gallente-style stations placed at either end of a semi-circular arrangement of nine identical asteroids, no-doubt all deliberately carved like that.
One of the stations is connected to its adjacent asteroid, but the other asteroids are not themselves connected to each other and just hang there in space. A thick cloud of dust and gas permeates the area but does not spread beyond it. Bizarre globes of hot gas float around aimlessly like sentinels. The system's red giant primary shines through the gaps between those asteroids like a baleful eye shining upon a Dark Ages stone circle: an arrangement that must be deliberate.
The reason this place exists is because of the event that it's named after. The Legends Trials was, and still is a deathmatch tournament that used to be held within the borders of the Fed and was obscenely popular among its citizens. The event moved to this purpose-built facility here in Cloud Ring for the publicly-cited reasons of expense: insurance, liabilities, operational costs etc. all being cheaper out here in the wastes of null. The real reason it moved out here is because of the increasing influence of organised crime on the event's conduct. Allegations persist of rigged fights, widespread odds-fixing, harrassment, threats, disappearances, all deniable and none diminishing the spectacle or affecting the event's popularity in any way.
The facility was not currently being used when I saw it. If there were any people in those two stations, they will have been caretaker staff. Certainly the facility paid no attention to me and the Heron, although that dust cloud in the centre was so thick that it obscured my sensors and inhibited my cam drones so I couldn't have known for sure who or what was watching me. Visibility was practically nil.
The only other signs of activity here were the group of Gallente COSMOS agents whose ships were parked nearby. This was a bit odd, as the Serpentis Corporation will have a large influence here and yet here were four of the Fed's Finest in plain sight.
The mesmerising spectacle almost made me forget where I was: deep nullsec. I had this system to myself for the vast majority of the time I spent here, but periodically another capsuleer would show up on Local. When this happens, I keep one eye on that Local channel and count to thirty. If they don't disappear from Local within that time (which they all did in this case) then the capsuleer in question would not be merely transiting through the system, so I would have to start assuming they were commencing a system-wide search for me.
If they wanted to kill me, a tactically-minded nullsec sov-fodder capsuleer would not find it hard to deduce my whereabouts in this system: one look at my database profile and who I work for would indicate the strong likelihood that I was at the tourist attraction because of the scientific curiosity thing. If I was one of them, that's where I'd look first.
Imagine my surprise then, when one of those transients actually spoke to me in Local:
I'd heard about this phenomenon before I joined Signal Cartel: that its position as a non-aggressive corporation dedicated to science and knowledge means that some of the other capsuleer alliances out there consider us unofficially 'blue' and don't target us. It's like an honourable code thing because of the wormhole surveying stuff that we do and how those other alliances decide to use the information we generate. Not killing us is a form of payback.
I spent a not inconsiderable period of time here just holding station and using cam drones to get a detailed look at the place. I decided that the Legends Trial Arena is without doubt one of the weirdest places I've encountered yet. The last thing I did here before I warped away was to overfly one of the station skydomes. In other Gallente stations they always look so tranquil with their circular boulevards and bodies of water. In here, they're just venues for various creative methods of killing.
After the encounter described above, I spent a couple more days in Cloud Ring, moving slowly and methodically through each system and finding only three archaeological sites. Cloud Ring is therefore a wasteland. So I set course for Outer Ring, where I performed the same routine: look for sites, remain as silent as the vacuum itself and exercise the patience of a glacier. In the process I found loads of sites here and I've covered less than half the region's systems.
Eventually I docked in the Outer Ring Excavations Mining Outpost in 4C-B7X with salvage, archaeological relics and miscellaneous techshrapnel worth 62 million ISK in the Heron's hold, which is still only a quarter full.
Sidebar: among those ancient relics is something the database identifies as a 'Yan Jung Thunder Kite', which is definitely a keeper for the collection because the Yan Jung civilisation is believed to have been a contemporary of the Talocan in pre-Dark Ages New Eden. I'm all over that stuff. Not just that, but I also found evidence of a Sleeper presence here in Outer Ring in the form of a 'Limited Sleeper Cache'. This is why exploration is such a satisfying career choice: so much uncertainty, so many surprises. Not unlike peeling the layers of one of those things called an onion.
Eventually, I'll find a convenient wormhole that will take me back to civilization via the 2,600-light-year Anoikis Detour and with what I hope will be a full cargo hold. I might be out here for weeks, but it doesn't matter because there will always be a tomorrow. The long-duration immersion will be worth it, because I will look forward to the sweetest-tasting spiced chai in all of the Empire when I eventually get out of the pod again.
On the other hand, I could keep the ship here in 4C-B7X and jump-clone back to base, returning at some future date to continue where I left off with what I might call the 'Signal Cartel Outer Ring Survey'.
Management will like that name.
The main conclusion I'm drawing from operating the contract Heron is this: a fully-equipped Covert Ops ship can become a crutch and can make you feel that you can't undock without it. This is nonsense and leads to that risk-aversion thing I mentioned at the start. With the right experience and knowledge, a humble standard 'T1' frigate like the Heron can do almost everything in the exploratory role that a Covert Ops ship can do, especially if you know about the Rule of Six when hacking sites.
Successful conduct in hostile space requires skill, experience and knowledge that no ship by itself can give you. With the right implants and training you can compensate for most of a T1's shortcomings, and experience will do the rest. Of course I'd always bring a Covert Ops ship when available because they do have undeniable advantages, but don't ever think you have to have one before embarking on a career in exploration, because you don't. You don't need that bling Astero either. Learn your trade first in a ship like the Heron (especially a Heron), then in time your Covert Ops ship will become a surgical knife that can slip past hostiles and hack through sites with impunity.
There is of course the untapped potential of the interceptor as an exploration platform too, but that's for future reference...