He snapped awake, as if ripped from slumber by the angry hand of God Himself. The blaring of the simulated alarm clock was bewildering.
“Who invented these bastard devices?” he mumbled to himself, stabbing the screen to silence the noise.
Swinging his feet to the cold steel floor, Ahha Axmatoba rose from the bed, flexing his neck muscles to ward off his uneasiness. He paused to let his eyes adjust to the dramatic lighting of the room. Shadows stretched across the gold-hewn walls, punctuated by amber spotlights.
“Amarrians,” he chuckled, “they’d paint their faces gold if the Gods demanded it.”
He turned towards the large, holographic screen that floated a few inches from the far wall. In the center of it spun the logo of Concord – the “space police” of New Eden. The upper left corner displayed the system name in which Ahha currently stood; Palas. More specifically, he was in the Amarrian Royal Khanid Navy Assembly Plant, stationed at the eleventh moon of the seventh-furthest planet from the system’s star.
“How did I wind up here,” he wondered aloud, “and what the hell did I drink last night, anyways?”
A glance at the Vidcom screen near the bed provided both good and bad news. There were no new messages, and likewise, no recent deposits.
“Dammit,” he muttered, clearing the screen. “Sometimes I wonder why I even bother.”
Ahha was not a novice capsuleer, though he was no veteran, either. He often looked back at the frantic years of his life as an immortal – he had been a Goon, for God’s sake. One of the largest private organizations of New Eden, the Goonswarm Federation was also the most hated by those unaffiliated with it. Among its ranks were pirates, murderers, and wanted criminals. He had been glad to leave it behind. His life was quieter now; more peaceful. His wallet was lighter, too.
Moving across the room, Ahha dressed himself. Along the way he checked various screens and holographic images around the room, updating himself of his current state of affairs. His ship – a battlecruiser-class Drake – was still floating in the station hold where he had left it.
“Well that’s a relief,” he mumbled. He was most relieved however by the local population report, generated by Concord. It detailed the capsuleers currently present in the Palas system.
“Concord,” he grinned. “What would we do without you?”
Ahha was the sole member – and thus deemed the “CEO” of Exmate Corporation. The title was somewhat erroneous but then again so was the corporation designation altogether. These terms would indicate structure, organization, and a hierarchy. Ahha was just in it for the tax exemptions.
Exmate had recently endured some deliberate contention by another corporation, one considerably larger than his, who referred to themselves as The Fraternal Order of Raddei. The local population report told him that none of Raddei’s members were in Palas at the time. He breathed a sigh of relief, but the tenseness in his body refused to surrender.
The conflict was justified, Ahha reminded himself. Despite his solitary lifestyle, he had not necessarily eschewed the mischievous ways of his past. Some might say he struggled to live the life of a capsuleer. Others would say he was a parasitic, space-dwelling rat.
“It’s not my fault,” he would insist, “I’m just making the best of an ugly situation.” New Eden after all was a massive universe – one made smaller by the advances of technology. Warp core engines allowed capsuleers to travel unimaginable distances in mere moments. Capital ships with their massive jump drives could traverse an entire constellation of stars in the literal blink of an eye.
But despite its vastness, New Eden was a busy place. Massive space stations dotted the solar systems, providing services to capsuleers – for a fee of course. These stations were owned by giant, mega-corporations, each aligned to one of New Eden’s prevailing factions.
Capsuleers however were nothing if not resourceful. Before long the moons of New Eden became cluttered with control towers, owned by the private corporations of capsuleers – corporations much like Exmate.
Ahha had no interest in any of that though. He considered himself an opportunist. Many of these control towers were abandoned – left behind by their corporations. With the fuel consumed from their holds, their lights, production lines, and most importantly defenses, were offline.
These shimmering, priceless structures were the truffles of space to Ahha. Upon discovery of such a tower, and a cursory glance at Concord’s data report of the owner, he would use Exmate to declare war on the corporation. His Drake would make fast work of the defenseless structures, and afterwards Ahha would scour the wreckage in search of valuable salvage and loot. Sometimes he would find minerals used in construction, datacores for research, or the ultimate prize; a coveted blueprint. These frail documents were the very backbone of New Eden’s industry, allowing capsuleers to construct everything from basic weapons to Titan-class starships.
Sometimes however Ahha’s fortune would be denied, as was the case with the Fraternal Order of Raddei. When Ahha had returned to the Yoma system to siege a tower belonging to Raddei, he instead found the tower online and armed to the teeth with new weapons. To make matters worse, a small fleet of Raddei’s pilots had been patiently waiting for him. Ahha responded as most capsuleers of his status would: he ran like hell. From startgate to stargate, he had somehow wound up here, in Palas, some thirty four light-years away.
Checking Exmate’s war report – yet another wealth of knowledge provided by Concord – Ahha suddenly remembered why he had stayed in Palas. He had found another abandoned control tower. It belonged to Dark Tower Pilgrims, another one-member corporation, and Ahha had stumbled upon it while fleeing from Raddei’s forces. With the CEO of Dark Tower nor Raddei’s army anywhere in sight, he had issued Exmate’s declaration of war and then retired to the night club of the local station to sit out the mandatory waiting period.
The thought of fresh, smoldering metal brought a tingle to Ahha’s jaw. Without realizing, he had clenched his teeth tightly. Suddenly aware of the pain, he forced himself to relax.
“It’s pay day,” he grinned.
Ahha grabbed his coat from a railing at the back of the room and began the walk to his ship. He was both anxious and elated. Crossing the threshold into the long hallway, he could feel the stares of the Amarrian deities, represented by oversized statues adorning the doorway, boring into his back.
Reaching the end of the hallway, he stopped at a small computer display above which floated a holographic image of his ship. He had always wondered the purpose of this, as the balcony on which he now stood afforded a view of the Drake’s glistening underbelly. Punching up the fitting window, Ahha checked the Drake’s loadout. It was a basic configuration, relying on advanced missile launchers and a variety of shield enhancements. These were modules for which the Drake was well suited. He frowned however at his ammo supply – only a few dozen rounds of Scourge heavy missiles remained. Enhanced by specific systems of the Drake, these missiles would deal massive kinetic damage to its helpless targets. He would need more, however. Punching buttons with ease on the display, he pulled up the local market, and, finding a fair price on a few thousand rounds available in the neighboring system of Safshela, used the terminal to transmit the destination to the Drake’s onboard computer. His precious control tower would have to wait a few extra minutes to experience its demise.
Ahha climbed down the steep stairwell to his escape pod and climbed in. This small, defenseless vessel was the very source of the title his people bore with pride: capsuleers. It closed around him as connections in the seat found their way to the terminals implanted along his spine. The feeling was familiar, and Ahha closed his eyes as he felt his mind connect to the ship. Powering up the capsules rudimentary systems, he began the brief trek across the hold to his Drake.
The Drake was a venerable, reliable battlecruiser. Once valued for little more than security enforcement, underestimating the Drake’s capabilities had led to the deaths of countless capsuleers. With its systems powered up and control routed through his now-secure capsule, Ahha brought its fifteen powerful thrusters online and turned the ship towards the station’s exit. He requested undocking clearance, and waited for confirmation of his request by station control.
“How long will you bastards make me wait this time?” he growled.
A short while later, a light on his control panel told him he was cleared to depart. His vision went dark as the stations powerful anti-grav generators accelerated the Drake to its maximum cruising speed, hurtling his ship from the hold as if it were a toy released from a child’s grasp. For a moment he was disoriented, not from the acceleration, but by the fact that his ship was pointing straight down, as indicated on his virtual horizon display.
“Ah yes, that’s right,” he chuckled, remembering this characteristic of Amarrian stations. Caldari stations – in which he had spent most of his time – always exited pilots parallel to the virtual horizon.
Ahha leveled his ship, a procedure he would have liked to occur quicker. He took a brief moment to scan his overview, a display showing ships present in the sector immediately surrounding the station. A handful of other capsuleers were undocking behind him, one piloting a massive Abaddon. Through his view window Ahha could clearly make out the massive laser turrets running down the battleship’s impressive length.
Turning the ship towards the Safshela jump gate, Ahha commanded the Drake’s warp drive to engage. Knowing this would take a brief moment, Ahha took one more glance back at the station. He nearly failed to notice the small ship floating a few dozen kilometers from the station. It was a Caldari Kestrel-class frigate, a light-duty combat vessel. Instinctively furrowing his brow, Ahha wondered what the ship could be waiting for. It had not undocked recently – it was too far from the station and its thrusters were inactive. It was also outside of docking range. Before his curiosity could turn to brood however, the Drake’s warp engine reached full power and hurled itself and its pilot towards Safshela. Ahha shrugged off the curious ship, and stared down the swirling warp tunnel, awaiting the appearance of the jump gate.
“Sashela,” Serenity Gorron spoke over the secure channel, “he’s going to Safshela.”
“Confirmed. Funds transferred.” The line went dead. Serenity turned the Kestrel towards the station and requested docking clearance. That was the easiest million credits she had ever made.
It was a terrifying and awe-inspiring experience all at once – the nearly instantaneous travel between the stargates of distant solar systems. With a brilliant flash of golden light, Ahha’s ship was transported nearly half-a-light-year away, coming to a dead stop a mere ten kilometers from the stargate back to Palas.
For the moment Ahha’s Drake was dark – a customary period as the ship’s systems gathered data on its new location from the stargate. Though it would take only seconds for the ship’s overview to fill with this new information, the wait always seemed like an eternity.
“Confirmed. All pilots to Safshela, now.”
The eternal wait over, the Drake’s overview lit up; showing first the static, celestial entities – stations, stargates and planets. Then, another tedious second later, all ships in the stargate’s vicinity were outlined. Ahha froze, his eyes fixated on the single icon – the skull-and-crossbones, surrounded in red. An enemy was waiting for him.
Ten kilometers away, and nestled so close to the stargate that his ship’s shadow obstructed the metallic hull, Vipieris waited patiently in his Kitsune-class attack frigate. Ahha pulled up the info database on the pilot. He flew for the Fraternal Order of Raddei.
“What the hell are they doing out here?!” Ahha needed no time to realize that though a fraction the size and stature of his Drake, the Kitsune possessed the superior electronics necessary to ensure that Ahha would be soon be able to do nothing and go nowhere. Ahha had mere seconds to act to ensure a safe getaway.
His subconscious, as experienced or not as it was, knew those few seconds wouldn’t be enough.
“Why the hell did he have to come here first?” Vipieris groaned to himself. The Kitsune was a specialized attack frigate – capable of disabling the targeting systems of significantly more powerful ships. This enhancement came at the cost of strength, however, and despite his skills at the helm, he suddenly wished he had chosen a bigger boat.
Ahha’s heart rate had instantly doubled, and he franticly analyzed his options. He would be cloaked for only a few more moments – a standard security protocol granted by the stargate itself. The Kitsune was well within range to act on his Drake, which in turn would take far too long to target the Kitsune and open fire. The Kitsune would never survive a single volley – a volley his Drake would never manage to deliver.
Ahha’s only hope laid on the five small combat drones housed in the Drake’s drone bay. If he could get them launched against the Kitsune before his enemy disabled the Drake’s engines and computers, they might be able to take out the frigate and grant Ahha freedom.
With this new glimmer of hope, Ahha stiffened in his pod. He instructed his Drake towards Safshela’s singular station. He then launched the unmanned drones, instructing them to guard his ship. As the warp engines spooled to full power, Ahha was nervous. It was a feeling he did not care for.
“Shit. Drones,” Vipieris reported. He commanded the Kitsune to orbit the Drake. He could disable the Drake’s warp engines and targeting systems, but he knew the drones would immediately engage his Kitsune. He began the targeting sequence; three seconds until all hell broke loose.
“You’re prepared for this,” came the reply, “just keep moving.”
“Easy for you to say,” Vipieris thought to himself. Still, the pressure was on him for the time-being, and he refused to be responsible for the failure of this mission. As the electronic rendition of the Drake filled his tactical screen, Vipieris inhaled deeply.
Ahha tensed as the yellow crosshairs surrounded the Kitsune’s indicator on the overview. He was locked. Glancing to his tactical screen, Ahha knew it would take at least another five seconds for the Drake’s sensors to focus on the much-smaller frigate. The crosshairs turned red. Ahha’s tactical screen fell silent.
“Target is jammed!” Vipieris shouted. His tactical screen indicated that the Drake’s targeting systems had been instantly neutralized. A moment later his overview indicated that the combat drones had determined his actions to be hostile. They had targeted his ship, and were moving towards him at a rapid speed. Though small and comparatively ill-equipped, combat drones were incredibly fast and dangerous in numbers. Vipieris was not sure how long his Kitsune would survive their onslaught, but he intended to make it difficult on them. He engaged his experimental afterburner, propelling the frigate to a speed of nearly one thousand meters per second. His distance from the Drake having reduced to the appropriate range, Vipieris engaged the final electronic countermeasure – the warp disruptor.
Ahha felt his face flush with fear and anger as the warp engines suddenly fell silent. He had expected this, though he couldn’t resist the feeling of helplessness. He engaged the thrusters regardless, and watched his drones close in on his attacker.
The first round struck the Kitsune’s shields, then the second. Defensive modules installed in the frigate deflected some of the damage from the drones, but his HUD told Vipieris enough was making it through.
“Taking damage!” he shouted, more out of instinct than to relay information. With his target rendered silent and immobile, all Vipieris could do now was wait. He hoped it wasn’t death that waited for him. More rounds struck his ship, and Vipieris struggled to maintain his composure.
Ahha couldn’t help but grin as he watched his drones engage the enemy ship.
“That’ll teach you,” he whispered. He checked his speed – he was moving fast enough that in the event his attacker lost radar lock – by of course losing his ship – Ahha would be able to engage his warp engine and instantly leave the area. He was willing to leave behind the drones if it meant saving his multi-million dollar battlecruiser.
Then the stargate began to shimmer. Without realizing it, Ahha held his breath.
“I’m at the gate!” Vipieris heard over the intercom. “Jumping in now!”
Psycorembrandt watched impatiently as his overview lit up; one station, one stargate, two ships. He turned his ship towards the enemy.
Ahha’s heart sank. The Ferox-class battlecruiser was a formidable opponent – made more so by the fact that it was his opponent. His info screen showed Psycorembrandt as a member of Raddei.
There was another flash from the stargate. This would not be Ahha’s day.
Korbeen Dallas chimed over the intercom. “I too am here.” His accent was strong, but his voice was music to Vipieris’s ears. As the Manticore-class stealth bombing frigate appeared on his overview, Vipieris could feel tranquility running through him. Death would have to wait another day.
“Thirty seconds to arrival. Keep him busy.”
Ahha felt solitude unlike any he had ever felt. He was outnumbered, and relatively sure he was outgunned. Yellow crosshairs appeared around the new arrivals. Then they turned red.
“I need to lose the drones!” Vipieris shouted, pointing the Kestrel to the station. “He’s your problem now!” Seconds later his ship was enveloped in the warp tunnel. He had succeeded, and his pride was overflowing. He couldn’t help but smile.
Watching the Kitsune leave the field, Ahha stiffened. The Ferox had taken point, jamming his warp engines, but his gravimetric radar system had been freed. He immediately set his focus on the battlecruiser. When his computer indicated successful target lock, Ahha launched the first round of warheads from his seven cruiser-class missile launchers. At the same time, the drones – having lost their previous target – immediately focused on the new one.
“I’m taking fire!” Psycorembrandt shouted, watching the first missiles launch from the Drake. “I need to engage!”
“Granted. Jumping in,” came the reply.
The first volley of shells from the Ferox slammed into the Drake. At first Ahha was surprised. “Autocannons on a Ferox?” He watched his missiles strike the Ferox, his computer system reporting an excellent hit. “Well whatever,” he grinned, “they won’t help you today.” His smile quickly disappeared as his ship shuddered again. The Manticore had opened fire, sending small but potent specialized torpedoes into his shields.
The Drake held a reputation across New Eden for its considerable resilience. With the right combination of defensive modules, and in the hands of the right pilot, the Drake could withstand a punishment that would reduce larger ships to rubble. Ahha was taking damage from his foes, but not enough to break his will or his ship. He let loose another salvo against the Ferox, and felt an eagerness swell within him as its shields continued to weaken.
Then the stargate flashed.
Adamanteus Raddei surveyed the scene. Vipieris had escaped safely. Drones were attacking Psycorembrandt who was firing on the Drake. He was taking damage, but was far from being out of the fight. Korbeen was moving to a safe distance while peppering the Drake with torpedoes.
Adam had waited for this moment. He had been furious upon receiving the declaration of War from Exmate. His men relied on him for protection, and he loathed the thought of dragging them into battle. His research however had brought him here. Agents employed by Adam’s contacts had provided him with the location of his enemy, and he had rallied his troops to the systems surrounding Palas with the intention of trapping Ahha Axmatoba like the rat his history proved him to be. He brought his ship to bear on the enemy, and begun the targeting sequence.
“Oh shit,” Ahha muttered to himself. The appearance of a Cerberus-class cruiser was intimidating enough. The fact that this one was piloted by the CEO of the Fraternal Order of Raddei didn’t help matters. This was a heavy assault cruiser, and Ahha was confident it would possess both the pilot and the firepower necessary to overcome his Drake’s defenses.
Adam spoke flatly into the intercom. “Firing.”
Ahha watched with newfound terror as salvo after salvo of missiles were fired from the launchers of the Cerberus. He couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe at the speed in which the ship could fire. As the first rounds assaulted his shields, his HUD confirmed his growing suspicion; he wasn’t going to survive this.
“Vipieris, now!” Adam commanded. He gnashed his teeth as he viewed the Drake from his position. Artillery shells from the Ferox were consistently finding their target, while explosions from both Korbeen and Adam’s missiles lit their vessels like lightning. Psycorembrandt had launched his own attack drones, which were systematically destroying those of the enemy.
For Ahha, time had come to a halt. His assault on the Ferox paled in comparison to that of his attackers. His experience told him to redirect his missiles to the Cerberus, but his instincts told him it was far too late. His computer reported the loss of another drone, and as the alarm began to sound indicating the imminent loss of his shielding, Ahha hung his head. With his eyes closed, he could clearly discern the first round that struck the metallic armor of his prized ship. It wouldn’t be long now.
Vipieris waited as the ship decelerated from warp speed. He couldn’t help but smile at the scene. This enemy had intended to steal their belongings, to weaken the fraternal spirit among his brothers-in-arms. Today, the Fraternal Order of Raddei would defend itself, they would contest for their treasures, and the long trip back home would be glorious. He moved his ship closer to the Drake, ignoring the urge to target it. His next target would be very fast, and he had to be ready.
“Of course,” Ahha chided to himself as he watched the Crow draw near. “Not going to make this easy on me, are you…” The Kitsune pilot had left the fight only to switch ships at the station. The Crow was an assault frigate, their specialty being speed in both flight and targeting. Ahha suddenly realized he would be losing more than just his ship today. Another alarm rang from the Drake’s computer – his armor plating was nearly gone.
The Drake’s defenses were limited to its shields. Their ability to deflect a large percentage of damage delivered to the shields while recharging those shields with impressive speed was what kept them alive for so long. With those defenses unanimously overpowered, Ahha’s armor and hull offered little protection against his enemies.
Explosions rocked the Drake. Fires erupted from the hull. Screens began to dim inside as its systems began to fail. A salvo of missiles fired from its launchers, the ship’s final attempt to claw itself to safety.
Then it was free.
“Now now now!!” Adam screemed to the intercom. He knew time was precious.
Ahha exhaled sharply as his pod was ejected from the Drake. As the ship exploded beneath him, his pod received the last bits of data on his surroundings. He willed his capsule to the nearby station. He just needed to…
Vipieris had trained for this. In a fraction of a second his Crow targeted the newly-ejected escape pod. His warp-jammer, prepped for target lock, immediately activated on the pod. He had succeeded once again.
With his capsule disabled, the anguish of defeat seeped into Ahha’s soul. He had failed to escape in time. Knowing that death was approaching, he braced himself for impact. It would only take one round to destroy the tiny capsule. He would wake up light-years away in the body of his own clone which he had purchased some time ago. While cloning gave capsuleers their immortality, activating a clone contract was the purest shame ever known. It allowed one to live to see their own failure.
Instead of death however, he was greeted by a blinking message. The CEO was attempting to communicate. Ahha opened the intercom.
“This is Adamanteus Raddei, CEO of the Fraternal Order of Raddei. Your crimes against us are intolerable, and we have traveled here seeking retribution. We have destroyed your ship, which you have used to lay waste to the belongings of countless other capsuleers. However, we will allow you to live in exchange for one billion ISK.”
Was that all, Ahha wondered to himself; a billion credits? The life of a capsuleer was a hard one – no one was exempt from a little extortion. Ahha sighed as he switched off the intercom. He would rather die a rat than live a victim. He closed his eyes, and for the first time in this miserable day, he allowed himself to relax.
The chime of his email awoke him. Blinking his eyes in the blue light, Ahha knew what it would say. He had been granted a brand new Ibis, a ship so worthless it couldn’t even be offered for sale. Still, they were granted to all pilots returning to a station without a ship to call their own.
Sitting up in the bed, he turned to the vidcom screen. There were no new deposits. He decided not to be surprised by this, considering he had just died a minute ago. He laid down on the bed, taking in the blue walls and lights of the Caldari station.
“I think I’ll renew my clone tomorrow,” he thought to himself, allowing sleep to take him.
Rising from his slumber, Ahha stretched. The new body would need some breaking in, he pondered, and maybe some alcohol. The blinking light on the wall caught his attention. He had been issued a new contract.
Curious, he opened the virtual document. His brow furrowed as he read.
Type: Item Exchange
Issued By: Psycorembrandt
Availability: Private – Ahha Axmatoba
Location: Palas VII – Moon 11 – Royal
Khanid Navy Assembly Plant
You Will Get: Corpse of Ahha Axmatoba
You Will Pay: 1,000,000,000 ISK (1 Billion)
Info by Issuer: Thought you might want this back.
Jeffrey S. Knapp
Not for Distribution or Sale
Third Prize Recipient – Pod and Planet Fiction Contest – “A Day In the Life” Category