Friday, November 23, 2012

Ennui and Agony

        “You can’t win! It is pointless to keep fighting! Why, Mr. Anderson, why? Why do you persist?”
        “Because I choose to.” -- Agent Smith, Neo (Matrix Revolutions)

There was no denying it: I had lost my conviction over the last weeks. While I had been active, it was mostly to assist my sister with her logistics, or on one occasion double-checking the numbers of the PI setup by a number of former Flyers. But combat? Why get good at it, if your opponent just up and reships; if a system taken is just lost again soon after? What good is a high combat record if it’s all in gang, and you’re helpless on your own?

And yet there I was, plugged into a Hydra Punisher, engines on idle power, crew reduced to the minimum battle size, for we were about to undock and roam the skies. Until a few days ago I hadn’t even known that I’d be here, until the confirmation had arrived in my mail; together with the comment “Go undock and shot something, stupid!” . No sender, of course, but I strongly suspected that my sister was behind it - that kind of thing was right up her alley.

Nevermind - it had been ages since I’d flown with Agony, and even though on this for-fun Alumni Militia roam nobody would care that much, I was painfully aware of my rustiness with fleet operations. And that I had had only time to stage two ships.

The command channel came alive, FC Greygal issued her commands, and we were off! And I didn’t even scratch any of the other ships on undock!

Our mighty fleet of 40 or so frigate hulls pulled away from Berta station and set course to Sendaya first, where we’d pick up another 20 less reputable fleet members, and then towards VOL-MI.

Of course we didn’t make it.

A HAC gang in the border system of Doril proved to be a too-tempting target, and our roam found its first glorious end after less than half an hour. As I steered my pod back towards Berta to reship, an unexpected smile crept onto my face - this was more like it!

My second, and last, ship was a Crusader - the Amarrian combat interceptor. It was essentially a can of tinfoil with an oversized engine, and four laser turrets taped on. While I had owned this ship for years, I had never had the chance to take it out into combat, unlike its Malediction sibling. Well, first time for everything, learning by doing, and so on.

Quickly I caught up with the rest of the fleet, and we headed back into 0.0 . At first, we found nothing but empty space, but then opportunities picked up. A Tempest and Fleet Typhoon here, a Maelstrom there, an Agony member getting inducted into Core... At some point, I even had hostile web drones frantically trying to catch up with my ship - eventually I relented and stopped so that they would experience at least a little cybernetic job satisfaction before I pulled away again.

All the while getting more comfortable with my Crusader, adding secondary points and bits of damage where useful. I quickly learned that I couldn’t always follow orders like ‘align to the sun while engaging’ as my speed would quickly carry me out of the weapons range. The best I could come up with was orbiting a target until I was noticed as a threat, and then take advantage of my superior MWD speed to race away into whatever direction was most convenient at that moment before warping off to the fleet’s safe spot.

Eventually we entered 4B-NQN, on our way to a brief rest in Assah, and encountered a lonely Onyx at the gate. He dutifully put its bubble up, we dutifully attacked.

Then a Hurricane jumped in. And a Drake. A Blackbird. And I stopped paying attention to newcomers because I figured I wouldn’t survive long enough to see the demise of even one of the first four anyway. The Onyx’ resists were making for slow work, so primaries were changed, but it was too much: we had to bail, making best speed to Assah for repair and regrouping.

And then went right back into the fray. It was a different gang this time, but the composition was about the same: HIC, Hurricanes, some EWar and Logistics. We ignored the Onyx and attacked the first Hurricane entering the fight. As before, I concentrated on the primaries and secondaries, letting my lasers dance over which hull was closest. As before, eventually I got noticed, and both the shield and armor breach klaxons sounded almost as one. I laid in a course for the sun, our escape point, punched the MWD, and then looked at what was shooting at me.

O-ho! Oh-ho-ho! Every combat drone on the field seemed to come after me!

Ok, maybe not all of them, but at least three or four flights. And by choosing to go towards the sun, my course led directly through the battlefield - I wouldn’t be able to warp off until I cleared the bubbles!

My increased speed messed up the drones’ tracking, but enough shots landed to start evaporating the structure of my ship. Mere seconds passed, but it seemed like an eternity before I could finally enter warp to safety, and at that point my ship consisted mostly of forcefields and desperate hope, and only a smidgen of metal alloys. And I was one of the lucky ones.

Back to Assah. The Space Traffic Controllers made a few jokes about our repeated coming and going, but quickly shut up when we threatened to test fire our repaired weapons inside the docking bays. Some people had to leave fleet at this point, but new ones joined. We weren’t done yet!

For the next round, FC Greygal planned on being more tactical, splitting the hostile fleet around the gate - but the hostiles refused to play ball. After a good ten minutes of unpromising reports from the scouts, she called it.

        Greygal> I am getting bored. Let’s do this.

Inside my pod, I wholeheartedly agreed.

Our hostiles were prepared: having gotten tired of losing valuable ships to a random gaggle of frigates, they had brought more firepower. We jumped in, shots were fired, and the command to align to the sun while taking pot shots came. I did my best to follow it, but my unfamiliarity with the Crusader came back to bite me: once breaking target orbit, I never got into range of anything, while at the same time providing a nice target to be shot at. It was sheer inertia which carried the wreck of my once proud Interceptor clear of the bubbles, allowing me to warp off in my pod.

Our fleet had been thoroughly routed, but spirits were unfettered: comms were busy with planning how to get everyone back to reship. Myself however, I had to call it a day:

        Druur Monakh> I have to head out at this point. I’m outta ships.

Seeing that we had several other hostiles running around in the vicinity, I estimated my chances to come out unscathed to be rather low, but nothing lost by trying. I selected a possible route, and warped off. Just about when I was about to land, comms caught my attention again.

        Unknown> Druur, what gate did you warp to?

Damn. I haven’t given a proper report in months. Before I could answer, my pod dropped out of warp and activated the jump sequence. When my senses cleared, I could already notice the shimmer of a bubble going up.

        Druur Monakh> YW. It is bubbled from the other side.

And there were a lot of ships on grid. Some of which were targeting me. Did I bump something? Did I move by accident? Didn’t matter! I had only seconds left - screw proper recon reports.

        Druur Monakh> On grid: Hurricane, Hurricane, Blackbird, Onyx, ...

and I rattled off the list of hostiles while frantically trying to crash the gate.

Too late!

I fell out of my clone vat, blinded yet again by the neuro-scanner headache - but this time it was more bearable, more purposeful. “Cost of doing business”, as Eta would put it.

I more felt than found my way to the micro-galley, when my hands touched something unfamiliar. Opening my eyes carefully, I could make out a bottle of Arcturian Mega-Port, with a sign on it.

        “You earned it.”

I was still too thrown for a loop to question this unexpected appearance, but I did manage to grab a glass and fill it without spilling too much. And I held it up in a silent salute to the pilots which had let me tag along on their roam this day, as well as those which had given us exciting fights.

While I still wasn’t sure about my conviction, those pilots had allowed me to remember why I had chosen this career in the first place.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Punching Above My Weight Class

        “Little piece of advice. You see an Agent, you do what we do: Run. You run your ass off.”
         -- Cypher, The Matrix

In the academy they had told us that while it would hurt, it would only be for a moment. What they hadn't told us, though, was that for some pilots it would also be the first conscious moment when awaking in a new clone.

I stumbled out of the vat, dropping onto my knees for support until the searing pain diminished to a dull throbbing behind my temples, and my eyes were capable again of providing the visual clues necessary for standing and walking. On the plus side, it did distract me from the unpleasantness that was coughing up the vat fluid from my lungs.

No wonder that some people never left the safe embrace of high-security space, and sometimes I wasn't too sure about myself, either.

But as I eventually walked back into my main quarters which I had left scarcely three hours ago, dressed in a simple gown and nursing an Arcturian tea, the images on my terminal reminded me why I was out here. Setting the mug onto the console, I sat down and paged through the images my camera drones had managed to send home before succumbing to the energies swirling around them.

Nashh Kadavr had invited all pod pilots to a party, on account of his retirement from active flight duty - and fitting to his occupation, the highlight of the party was to explode him and his carrier one last time.

This would be the second time that I was involved in such an event, but last time it had been as part of a fleet, with something resembling a plan - but this time, it had been just me. And to make things more interesting, I still hadn't finished staging all my ships here, despite all best intentions to the contrary (and much grumbling from dear Eta).

So in the end, my ship of the day had been again a humble Purifier, hastily fitted, which carried me towards Goinard through systems I didn't yet had time to explore. Or put more charitably: I would be fashionably late.

Hopefully they’d leave me some of the drinks!

Jumping into Goinard (finally!) came as a physical shock: one moment my Purifier was elegantly flitting among the stars, the next it had all the responsiveness of a cat lying in a puddle of sunlight after a good meal.

It had been known for years the the presence of a large number of ships and their space-warping engines did bad things to the fabric of space and time; which in turn affected the delicate interface between the brains of pod pilots and their machines. Hardened circuits and careful programming of the nano-routers limited the effects to perceived slow down of time, where the ship reacted much more sluggish than the pod pilot could think. Of course the phenomenon had a scientific name, but every pilot just called it 'Time Dilation'.

But annoying as time dilation was, it was a giant step forward from the state of technology just a couple of years ago, when capsuleers usually lost all contact with their ships in such a space-time crumple.

With that in mind, I gritted my teeth, gave my Purifier an encouraging pat on its imaginary head, and warped to the POCO at planet III, the center stage of the party, to take measure of the situation.

Of course, Nashh's partners in literal crime couldn't bear the thought of one their own going down without a fight, and had brought a squadron of carriers of their own to keep Nashh's carrier in good health. No way my meager torpedoes would be able to make a dent there.

There were a number of frigates and cruisers chasing about, but I had learned the hard way that my Purifier was no match for them.

An Absolution briefly cought my eye, but it was on the other end of the battlefield.

There - a cluster of Guardians. Spider-repping, of course, but maybe I could distract them a bit. And one of them was close enough to be just at the edge of my torpedo range.

Yeah - a very long shot. But I hadn't come all the way here to just sit and watch. Plus, I had never shot at a Guardian; at minimum, it was going to be educational.

Cloak disengaged, I punched the MWD to full power, directed my ship into a wide orbit around my target Guardian, and activated the my launchers. Every dozen of seconds, a volley of might Mjolnir torpedoes would burst out of the launch tubes, and even through the multitude of layers of tritanium alloy and inertial compensators I could feel the report.

The Guardian’s shield strength dropped rapidly, and I managed to keep my orbit without straying too close to any of the other combatants, when suddenly, but not unexpectedly, my damage projection completely vanished: the Guardian had hit Armor, and the repairs from its buddies took effect. I had a load of Nova torpedoes in my hold, but I knew they would be wasted.

Spider-repair: 1 - Druur: 0.

Maybe it was time to lose some shots at at Nashh - if only to get registered on the official battle report. Usually I wasn't into that kind of thing, but after all this was a going-away party...

But the universe had other plans. A polite mental chime from my combat computer informed me that I had been warp-scrambled.

And a slightly less polite chime informed me that most of my shield had just been obliterated.

One quick command, and computer showed me my aggressor: one Ty Delany, fighting for the insurgents in this factional war, flying a Crow-class interceptor and lobbing light missiles at me. This was bad news - and I did the only thing sensible.

I ran.

I didn't remember a Crow's top speed, but it would be close to my own, and while my torpedo launchers belched their nominally deadly payload at the Caldari ship, I knew that my only chance of survival lay in outrunning his point while my Ancillary Shield Booster was gobbling up charges to keep the ship's components in somewhat resembling of a close formation.

If it would have helped, I would have gotten out and pushed.

But it worked! Suddenly I was free of the Warp Disruptor's influence, free to go.

Except that I had failed to align my course to a warpable destination.

Cursing at myself while I did so, I swung the ship around into the direction of a safe point I had created earlier, knowing full well that this could give the Crow enough time to re-establish contact again.

It did. The race was on again.

Intently I watched the heat meter on the MWD approach the red line, while the ASB chewed up its last charges, and dipped into the ship's capacitor, and still the Crow was coming. What little armor my Purifier had possessed was long gone, the hull breach alarm screeched into my brain, the structural damage overwhelming the damage control system, the ASB reaching once more into the ship's capacitor, robbing it of so much energy that I couldn't even have engaged the warp drive anymore...

... and the Crow vanished off sensors.

Grid Separation! The very same assembly of warp drives which played havoc with us Capsuleer's perceptions, could also throw up very real walls in real space. You could be just a few kilometers from your target, yet not see him nor get a sensor return, nor shoot at him.

It was my life saver.

I disengaged the ASB, so that it could reload the spare set of charges in the cargo hold, and coaxed the capacitor energy management systems to spare enough energy to warp to my safe spot. A short reprise to let the engines cool down a bit, and onwards I headed towards the next stargate, to find a station for repairs in a neighboring system.

Leaning back from the terminal, I emerged from my reverie. Of course I had returned to the battle field after finishing repairs, only to be shot up by a bored S0TF gunner, returned yet again in a rookie ship, to etch my mark on Nashh's carrier, and returned one last time in my pod to catch a glimpse of Pandemic Legion's slowcats, which resulted in me getting podded. But all that already began to pale in comparison to the memory of the two, three minutes of me running away.

Running away - and, against all odds, making it.