Saturday, 21 January 2017

Signal Cartel's Second Anniversary

Signal Cartel was founded two years ago yesterday by Mynxee and Johnny Splunk. This period of time almost exactly coincides with my own existence as a capsuleer as I was also 'founded' two years and one month ago, when Hedion University decided I was ready to be pushed out into the void in my laughably-equipped rookie ship. This parallel evolution meant I was always aware of who and what Signal Cartel was, and given that my interests always coincided with its core philosophy, it was inevitable that I would join the corporation eventually.

Signal Cartel's other philosophy of conspicuous neutrality has been very successful, in the sense that it has provided an independent base, not aligned with any of the major powers, for those capsuleers who actually have a functioning brain and a vestige of social conscience - those capsuleers who do not instinctively seek to undermine New Eden's fragile homeostasis in the pursuit of self-interest, and who don't realise that the universe always has the final say when it comes to that sort of thing.

In its time, Signal Cartel has become the premier independent advanced training organisation for enlightened knowledge-seekers and explorers. Proof of this was evident after 'Alpha Day' late last year, when over 120 new recruits joined us over the course of about two weeks. Seriously, Sanxion was recruiting about ten per hour at one point, like fishing with explosives.

So when I learned of this corporation milestone, I decided to generate some corporation propaganda to commemorate the fact:

I'm currently in Syndicate, experiencing what is probably the most ethnically-diverse, vibrant and liberal region in the cluster, and spending a lot of time in the various Intaki Syndicate stations soaking it all up. If you're there, you can expect to start seeing this virtual poster on billboards, station noticeboards and holofeeds everywhere.

Because you can't stop the signal!

Saturday, 14 January 2017

The Strangest Thing I Saw All Year

"I go on expeditions for the same reason an estate agent sells houses: to pay the bills."
Farislen Caladana - archived interview from the anarchic indy vid channel Black Rise Buzz (now defunct)

Hedion University station orbiting Conoban VII - 12/11/118

Two months ago...

Unwarranted Advice Is Criticism

"You're manifesting Infomorph Corporeal Detachment Syndrome. Otherwise known in the scientific literature as immortality boredom. You're bored with living forever. It's all that cloning around."

Taltha. She has a certain turn of phrase.

This was my erstwhile nightclubbing sidekick, bar buddy and eventual occasional lover Dr. Taltha Glaziere Romero, Director of the Clone Research Facility in the Empress Jamyl Sarum I Medical Suite here in Hedion University in the Conoban system, where I was docked for a few days layover (because this is the station that I did all my advanced training in two years ago so I get nostalgic for it). Taltha is only five years older than me and does not conform to any of the scientist stereotypes, which is refreshing. Her meteoric rise through the ranks to a department head role was attributed to her being a 'prodigy' and having 'an instinctive feel for DNA'. I only knew the off-duty version of her, which, among other academic eccentricities, used to play drums in a band called Jovians Never Smile.  They were experimental. They used to prefer it when nobody showed up to watch.

Right now we were sat on the standard-issue couch in the quarters I'd rented in the station's Guests Wing. Taltha had just run a blood test on me using a portable she'd brought with her from her lab. I'd told her I wasn't feeling great and hadn't for a few days.

She looked at the results on the portable's small screen and laughed out loud.

I said: 'What's so funny? I'm not diseased! Am I?' I felt a certain discombobulation. Disorientation. Shaken my foundation. Nobody ever told me capsuleers could get ill.

'Yes you are," she said. "It's all there in your blood chemistry. It's not that big a deal though. I've just seen this pattern a lot lately. Are you using citadel clones?' Taltha already knew the answer.

'Yes?' I said.

'What are you in now? Where was it?'

'Ah..." I had to think - when was the last time? ", hang on, it was ESOCI's new Fortizar in the Mista system.'

'Were you one of the first persons to use it?'

'I was the first.' I said this like it was my claim to fame.

'Goddamn first-pass calibration job. Settings were probably off. Idiots.'

'I don't believe it.'

'Believe it! Citadel clone bays are all dreck. Built to a price. Did you never wonder how they all get established and up and running so quick? Bad biomass, no quality control - at least not as strict as mine. Highest quality biomass in the cluster, mine is.  You haven't been in the Republic have you?'

'Er, yes? Yes to both counts.'

'What, citadels in the Bodysnatcher Republic? Dreck...'

'I thought ESOCI were OK. They seem legit. They are legit. I know a bunch of them.'

'Who the hell are Eesocky?'

'The Evesploratory Society. The citadel in Molden Heath I've been using is theirs. They're a good crew.'

'Bad bio is bad bio. Ask them where they get their biomass for clones. Bet you it's contract garbage. Up there it'll be from Core Complexion because they're the biggest and nobody else is doing it - nobody I've heard about anyway. Anybody independent doing biomass and I hear about it. What are you doing in Molden Heath anyway? It's a toilet!'

'Er, premium ratting? Bit of casual ice mining? It is kind of quiet up there and I don't get hassled by anyone -'

'You know they mix offal in with it up there? You know they raid abbatoirs? You know Minmatar sell their children to biomassers?'


'I'm joking! Ha!'

I first met Taltha in the Mora Mosh Pit Club (where her band was playing) during one of my regular monthly class trips from my time here as a trainee. She and I became friends quickly, which was tolerated because she is not Hedion University faculty. I've mentioned her before on here, but not lately, because I've had no recent business in Conoban, and because the last time I arrived in her clone bay - any clone bay - directly from a TEBS cycle was sixteen months ago. I wonder if that statistic is not in fact a record in New Eden.

Those double omissions meant I hadn't seen Taltha for a few months so I was surprised to see her in her bright red mohawk phase again. As a chief surgeon/clonejacker, it amazes me she gets away with it, but then her position gives her the power of life and death and therefore a certain immunity to criticism in this theocratic monarchy that thrives on dogma.

'You have three-hundred-million ISK's-worth of cybernetic implants in your head but you have the body of a pensioner, but only on the inside,' she said.

Now I was really depressed. She saw the look of disappointment forming on my face and tried to reassure me.

'Look, it can be sorted,' she said. 'I have fixer serums for it that use nanorestorers. No need to recycle you, you'll be fine. Then," she leaned forward and put a hand on my shoulder, " - that other thing, the existential boredom, take some time off. Some proper time off. Don't kill anyone. No Blood Raiders. Go and do something constructive. Don't hang around here like a bad smell either, otherwise you'll put all the Alphas off. You know their optimism has to be carefully cultivated, almost programmed into them. They're like pets. They seem to get scared easily and the last thing I need round here is a bittervet stinking the place out.'

'I'm not a bittervet!'

'OK well most of you are. You could be. It tends to be self-selecting in that you all eventually disappear off to your own little private empires in null-security space, and stay plugged-in forever and become moronic. I don't want to see you ever become like that.'

'So you're telling me all this bad stuff because you still care about me?'

'Yes, of course. I wouldn't give my serums to just any of you idiots. They're far too valuable. I wouldn't even give then to the goddamn Navy.'


We turned the holovid on and watched some trashy drama for a while in one of those comfortable silences. It was like I'd never been away, which was nice. After twenty minutes or so she half-turned her head towards me while keeping her eyes on the vid, and said 'You're with Signal Cartel now, right?'

'Yeah? That was ages ago. Six months or more now,' I replied.

'I heard about that outfit. This is the crew that are always looking for the cutting edge of weird. You make a point of not killing anyone. You're worse.'


She turned fully towards me. 'Terminal curiosity? Burns you out. Shreds your nerves. Just sit in a library and read a book. Stick your head in a holo. It's safer. Seriously, I'll do you an end-state clone and you can stop doing it. I'll get you a job. Do you want to look like Jamyl? It's my speciality.'

'Isn't that blasphemous?'

'Yeah, whatever. You think I'm scared of the Thought Police? All I have to do is tell them I can clone two of them at once and put both copies in the same room and CONCORD would never know, and that shuts them up.'

'You're unbelievable.'

'You're going soft.'

We turned back to the holovid.

The Architecture of the Bizarre

That thing Taltha said about 'always looking for the cutting edge of weird' - after she left the next morning I kept thinking about just how 'weird' the last six months have been.

I'd arranged to visit Taltha's lab later in the day to take some of those fixer serums she said she would cure me with. To kill some time I took my datapad to one of the University's student lounges - the one that overlooks the docking bay and therefore contrives to inspire the chattering trainees in here. I sat at a table with what passes for chai here and browsed my archive of cam drone stills, which is far larger than is sensible.

I found the Echelon.

Backstory: well over a year ago now, I bought an Echelon frigate purely on impulse. I have a thing for collecting examples of those rare ships that appear on the market from time-to-time; those ships that are considered unsuccessful, or developmental dead-ends, or too esoteric for some reason. Part of my reasoning for buying the Echelon at the time was because a couple of examples of the unique equipment module around which the Echelon was designed, happened to reside in Outdated Host Productions' hangar in the Gehi system, so that gave me cause to satisfy that terminal curiosity that, let's face it, all explorers have got.

More backstory: the Echelon frigate was designed by CONCORD for one reason and one reason only: to hack into the data networks and electronic countermeasure systems that Sansha's Nation was using around the time the Nation first commenced its series of Incursions. CONCORD had covertly and clandestinely acquired an example of the 'Purloined Sansha Data Analyzer' device that was needed to get a ship to 'speak Sansha'.

CONCORD realised the device wouldn't work on a conventional ship's data buses, so designed the Echelon entirely around it. The Echelon was unveiled in YC112, but did not see regular use by the Empyrean community - mostly because the Echelon is so optimised for the Sansha hacking thing that it has no other equipment bays and can't do anything else. Echelons then became mostly curiosities for obsessive collectors like me.

Mostly curiosities, because somebody realised that an Echelon can hack regular Data Sites as well.

It's not a simple ship to operate. It's more like one part of a modular system. If you want to use an Echelon, you have to go out there beforehand and travel several light-years through several systems, probe-scanning everything first with a regular scanning ship, because the Echelon hasn't even got the internal space to fit probes.

If it's your lucky day, like it was mine when I found a Covenant facility in the Assez system near to where my Echelon was docked in Zoohen, then the hassle of returning the several light-years back to base to swap your capsule over to the Echelon can be justified.

Just about.

Terminal curiosity...

I took my Echelon over to the Covenant site and set about hacking it. It did not take long; in fact it was pleasantly straightforward as I realised the Sansha module and the ship's optimisation around it - its default state - gave it the same hacking power as a fully rigged-up Covert Ops frigate with Tech II-class analyzers.

The interface, by the way, is identical to that of the standard analyzer module, which is the whole point of the ship.

That interface of course appears in your head through your optic nerve and you manipulate it by thought. Same capsule, same system.

Assez is one of many systems in the Genesis region that are classified as low-security space. The system was quiet, there was nobody else around to hassle me, so this one time the potential risks were absent. I found the experience quite enjoyable.

Genesis, being the oldest, longest-settled region in the cluster, has a haunted vibe, with far more than its fair share of enigmas, which has to be related to the fact that Genesis is home to the EVE constellation and you-know-what. I see those ancient dead station hulks, defunct stargates and other random wreckage drifting around, and I wonder why nobody ever bothered to clean it up - maybe it's all possessed by the souls of dead colonists so nobody touches it.

I mention this because the Covenant data site I hacked with the Echelon had a kind of sentinel or overseer sitting nearby in the form of a metal sphere that I'd never seen before. Another Genesis enigma.

I hadn't noticed it at first, because my Overview was on the wrong (right) page so it did not register there. I initially dismissed it visually as a nearby moon.

After I'd finished hacking the site I headed over there to check out this weirdosphere.

It was not large, it emitted nothing, was unscannable, made no response to any enquiries on my part, and seemed to pose no threat. If it was a weapon, then the Covenant scumbags in those bunkers that were no doubt watching me, did not deign to activate it.

If it was a station, then it had no means of entry and exit.

If it had engines, then those engines had no exhaust. It made me think of Drifters and those abominable battleships and their 'Prong Drive'.

I read theories about constructing a sphere like this around a star, enclosing that star and building a biosphere on the inner wall, resulting in a habitat on a mind-boggling scale.

It's never been done.

Perhaps this was a prototype. A test device. A feasibility study.

Maybe it was just some local Covenant boss's idea of a joke. An inert sculpture. A piece of jewellery...

Seeing this bizarrosphere - the only one of its kind I've ever seen - in my cam drone still library summed up Taltha's comment about the 'cutting edge of weird'; but as I scrolled through more of the images, I saw that the list of weird is long, and being in Signal Cartel means it gets longer every time I go out there.

I see coincidences of planetary alignment producing transient moments of hypnotic beauty -

- contrasted with desecration, violence, vulgarity, atrocity. Sansha:

I see the fundamental chaos of the universe expressed in the brief flare of criticality -

- contrasted with the rigid order and symmetry of gas giant rings:

The blasphemy of Anoikis -

 - where there are too many secrets:

The impossible power of Thera:

The hubris of humanity expressed in the wreckage of failure -

- and ruined technology from forgotten pasts: 

Artifacts that defy all reason -

- including the strangest of them all:

 And yet the simple things detain me every time, like patterns of light playing off ship hulls -


- or surfing stellar coronae. How close can I get..?

This meditation on the limits of the bizarre was interrupted by my datapad ringing like a bell: my reminder to head to Taltha's laboratory to take her exotic health-restoring serum. I got up from the table in the lounge and turned to the door. I saw some of the trainees gazing out at ships in the docking bay. One of those ships would be mine - the ship I used to bring a hold full of ammunition here to sell on the market. No doubt some of them would be buyers in the future.

Taltha was right: we do exist on the cutting edge of weird. The greatest risk is not the risk of getting killed, it's becoming blasé about it - existential boredom. But Taltha was wrong about me there because I'm not bored yet. Not by a long shot.

Two days later, I walked up the ramp towards the pod gantry where my ship was docked, my business in Hedion University done for now. Any journalist knows their entire life is an ongoing narrative. Ascending the ramp towards the docking bay is always the beginning of another chapter. I knew then, there were a lot worse things to have in this business than terminal curiosity -

- because I don't want this to just be about paying the bills.