Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Path Divides

Clear the Sky sat above the asteroid belt. Under her stern, Asghatil I burned dark umber-red against the blackness of the Oraron Constellation. The pyroxeres asteroids were pale, illuminated to a washed out creamy brown by the yellow sun tucked into the systems center. Lasers ripped through the massive chunks of rock as the retriever sucked the ore deep into its gullet.

Encased in her pod, Clear Play was insulated against the relentless throbbing of the ship. The dull, non-ending drum of the ore crushers was lost to her. Instead, she measured the asteroids and redirected the lasers. Each moment was precise and calculated. Numbers flickered across the scanner as it measured the mineral concentrations locked deep inside of the asteroids. Clear Play directed the lasers in rhythm with the numbers, each movement focused on maximum yield from the rocks cores.

In the corner of her HUD the position of her Hobgoblins flickered past, their patrol relentless. A red icon flickered alive. The targeting arrays illuminated and her attention was diverted. The hobgoblins, tied into her own awareness reacted even as she looked to see the danger. A tiny frigate, black against black had attempted to creep through the belt. What harm it held she did not know. The targeting system locked and the hobgoblins left their complex patterns in brilliant spurts of green energy as they swarmed the frigate.

For a moment, the belt was illuminated by brilliance. Then, the pieces scattered the force that had created them hurtling them into the void. Bits of what had once been a ship bounced against Clear the Sky's sides. The massive retriever, plated and armored shrugged off the miner irritant. Clear the Sky might not be a graceful ship, Clear Play, thought smugly, but she was a living ship. Her sides were scored by dozens of attacks. Unsuccessful attacks.

“What are you doing, girl?” asked a deep voice. The com channel, always open, carried the voice of its speaker.

Clear Play smiled. “Mining.”

“Mining are you? I guess you are busy then.”

“It depends.” There was something in his voice. Something teasing and questioning at the same time. Clear Play was new to the life of a capasuleer but she was not new to life in general. She was also not new to him.

“I have a job for someone.”

“Oh?”

“I need some stuff hauled into low sec.”

“Hello Chase,” said a crisp clear voice. Ramulas Salnaid, CEO of her corporation Industrial Illusions, chimed in. “A hauler into low sec?”

“I was seeing if anyone was interested.”

“Well.” There was silence. “We have a patrol planned. The Sansha push has been particularly nasty since the last incursion. Perhaps after that, we can sit down and discuss terms.”

“I’ll go.” Clear Play was surprised by her own voice. “What do you need done?”

“Sky,” began Ramulas. "I will discuss this with Chase, later. He can pay the corporation a fee for it."

“I have a spare iteron, Ramulas. I won’t use any corporation assets. Besides, my throax is being refit.”

"He is a pirate, CP."

"And he's never been anything but helpful to us." Clear Play flickered her channel and opened a direct line between Chase and herself. Her voice was strangely steady.
“Tell me what you need.”

***
“You sure about this?”

“You said you’d get me through.” The locks released her ship. The iteron twisted on itself. The long, tubular ship was almost agile as it slid out of the docking ring and drifted through the open bay doors into space. She distracted herself by shipping him the bill. One hundred fourty million ISK had vanished from her account in moments. It had been converted to fighter drones, ore and ammunition. Her wallet sat bleakly at sixteen million isk. If betrayal were to happen now would devastate her.

Her wallet flashed. One hundred fifty million ISK was transferred in. A knot she did not realize had formed loosened. “What is that ore?” she asked as the ship met open space. The conversation distracted her from the traffic. There were so many ships. She had been to Rens twice before but always in her Atron. Now, as she twisted her hauler to avoid the massive shape of a Charon and slid under the shadow of a Fenrir that followed an Orca she focused on her flight path.

Her ship wallowed. Gallente technology was fantastic when it came to hauling but the design was terrible. The more compact forms of the Sigil and Wreathe would have handled things more gracefully. The Iteron Mark IV she was using did not have central stability thrusters like the Iteron Mark V. It rolled to the sides and she put her trust in the stabilizers in the cargo hold as she worked her way clear of the undock. Who controlled it? she wondered. They let ships spew into space without a thought for order.

Around her, a half dozen ship icons flared red. Clear Play bit back a shriek. She automatically slammed down the warp activator. Deep in the bowels of the engine the Iteron's warp core spun up. Light consumed her ship . The camera's shut down for a second as they attempted to process the view. Then bits of a shattered Badger slammed into her Iteron's shields. The Iteron leapt into warp. Particles trailed behind her for an instant as she left the expanding cloud that had once been a Caldari Badger.

Her heart thudded in her chest. In warp she was safe. The Iteron had landed, jumped, and entered warp again before she began to calm down. Focus. She was not dead. Whatever reason the Badger had been attacked was no concern of hers. Her Iteron plowed through space. Once it got moving the tubular structure ate up the AU through the systems. No one challenged them on the gates. The space she passed through was unfamiliar. The deep red nebula that houses the Minmatar Republic swirled around her. She had never been through this area before. The systems were quiet. None of the people here knew the Badger pilot. Nor would they have cared. It was just another spaceship destroyed. A statistic that most people planet side would never even notice.

"CP? Where are you?" her com snapped her out of her brooding thoughts.
"Leaving Rens."

"You can have them wait you know. I'm not fully sure this is not a trap."

"A trap for what? The stuff they paid for? If they pop me they lose their own ISK. I don't think my Iteron is worth that to them."

"I understand that. But they are pirates."

"And they have never been anything but straight forward and honest with us." What she bit back was that she trusted Chase more then she trusted her own CEO. Things had not been adding up lately. The last fleet mining trip that they had made, Ramulas had announced that the corporation vote was to keep the ore for the corporations ship building project. Only, no one that Clear Play had spoken to could remember being asked to vote on the topic.

"How much are they paying you?"

"Ten million."

"We can discuss the corporation's percentage when you are done in case you lose your ship. The standard five percent tax rate will probably do. If they can get you back out in one piece."

"This is my ship, Ramulas. My time."

"Your time is the corporation's time. We had an accepted security mission for the Ammatar Mandate that you are now going to miss. Our corporate standing with them is of utmost importance. We rely on our refining rates to keep going. Also, your retriever came in with room in the ore hold. I don't like that you abandoned one job to take another that could have waited. We will discuss this later. Good luck." She stared at the empty channel. Anger started a slow burn. She closed the channel. She didn't have time for that. He could not force anything on her. She might be his employee but she was a free agent. Let him lord over his non-capsuleer staff.

"I don't know why you stay with him."

"You heard."

"Aye."

"He gave me work."

"Yeah? So? He needs you more then you need him."

Does he? She changed the topic. "I'm in system. Where do I go?"

He let her change the topic. "Transmitting the gate to your autopilot. There are several gates here. We're going to go nice and slow in case we turn around and meet a fleet." The system name was illuminated in dark yellow-orange in the upper left side of her HUD. "I'm on the other side of the gate. It's just me here. System's nice and quiet Come on through. D Pole D is scouting us through."

She had already made her choice. The Iteron was barebones. She was fond of it. Without the money to rig it she had only managed to expand the cargo area to squeeze in the order. Deep breath, she told herself. It was only a ship. She had paid it off quickly. This was an opportunity. A chance that she might not get again. If she was going to carve her own path she might as well start somewhere. She didn't want to hover under the corps wing forever. She ordered the jump.

"The destination system is 0.3 security status. This is extremely dangerous and Concord police cannot guarantee your safety there. Do you want to proceed?"
Turning back was no longer an option. "Accept." Somehow her voice did not shake. She could taste her fear in the back of her throat. The gate filled with light. Her ship, transported by technology older then she understood, was thrown across the bleak void between stars.

***
Low Sec. That fine innocent looking line where Concord could not keep control. It looked exactly like high sec. The only immediate difference was the lack of faction police at the gate. She had never noticed them until they were gone. The gate was barren except for a singular hurricane set in a slow, lazy orbit.

"Hold cloak. When I tell you head to the next gate," Chase told her. The hurricane broke its orbit. The rusted wedge looked like a blade as it turned. "It's clear for now but let's make sure." Dark orange gouts of energy poured from the engines and accelerated it into warp."

She waited. It was very quiet. The local notification list was empty. She had never felt so alone. Space felt colder here. The energies from the gatecloak dissipated. She aligned the Iteron towards its next destination and let it pour on the acceleration until it hovered under warp speed.

"Hit the gate. DPD has trouble up ahead. You need to keep rolling. Don't stop no matter what you see."
"Okay." She pushed the Iteron up and over into warp. The gate receded behind her. The gate that she landed on was empty. It was almost enormous. The massive, tubular structure was all angles and heavy support structures. It opened at one end like a sharp edged flower, the tips piercing space to support the massive burst of energy needed to transport ships from one region of space to the next.

The next system was also empty. Clear Play again set her Iteron into warp. She was still alive. Three systems deep into low sec she was fine. She decelerated from warp. A ships thruster slammed into the Iteron's front. The ship vibrated with the impact and slew to the side. Clouds of vaporized metal and plastic swirled around the ship. Wreckage was everywhere. For a second she froze. Chase's calm, deep voice played in her head. "Don't stop no matter what you see. Just a little problem up ahead."

"Problem?"

"Nothing we can't handle. I want you to warp directly to the gate. Preset your jump coordinates and set them to activate immediately upon minimum proximity. Then hold."

The Iteron jumped.

She landed in the middle of a battle. Five kilometers away, a Drake exploded. The gatecloak held as she stopped, her eyes wide. Chase's hurricane dove between the twin peaks of the gate. Autocannons spat volleys of death. Past him, a Rapier spun in a fast circle, a Naga caught in its stasis webs. The battle cruiser spat plasma fueled hybrid ammunition at the hurricane. The hurricane's shield's absorbed the damage as it arced over the helpless Naga.

"He's dead," D Pole D said a moment before the Naga erupted into blue flame and energy. It's two halves tumbled away from each other. "Idiot."

"Hold." Chase said to her. Clear Play realized her gatecloak had faded. "His friends ran."

"I'm on it." The Rapier vanished off of her sensors. "They weren't going to stay for a decent fight anyway."
"That's because you scared them all."

"Hardly. Drake, Naga, Hawk, Harbringer against a Rapier and Hurricane and they ran. They are not here either," he added. "Clear I'm going on ahead."

"We're passing a null sec gate. Stay alert but keep burning DPD will tell us if anyone comes."

"It's clear," said the recon pilot. "Smooth sailing all the way home."

***
She had never been so happy to see a station when she docked.

The last unassembled firbolg was transferred towards the docked carrier, high above. Clear Play wiped her forehead. Tons of ore, dozens of fighters and crates of munitions had been unpacked. It was her most expensive delivery she had ever made.

"I don't think that I want to stay with Ramulas."

"That's up to you," Chase told her. He watched the firbolg loaded into the carrier's bay. "You can stay, sure, but that life isn't for you."

"I like mining."

"Sure you do. No one said you don't have to." The firbolg tucked into the carrier he looked down at her. "But, Ramulas didn't step up to make this haul. He's been all over us but you ask him to put out and he shuts up. You are so new your ships still shine and you were willing to haul this for me. Your CEO wasn't going to do a thing."

"I could afford to lose it."

"I didn't doubt that. You're new not dumb. You didn't die."

"I still have to get back home." The task was daunting. Who would have thought that a low sec station would feel safe?

"You made it once you'll make it again. Everyone has these ideas about low sec. They expect to die so they do die. Self fulfilling and all that mess. Sure there are pirates everywhere and ain't no sweet Concord to come and keep your tail safe. None of that matters. None of its necessary. You dragged a hauler down here and didn't die. That's better than many and braver than most."

"I'm glad I didn't lose your stuff."

"So am I. Stuffs replaceable though. I've lost more stuff then this. I'll do it again.

"I don't know what to do." Her words were soft but somehow he understood what she meant to say.
"Doesn't matter if you know or don't know. It's your choice. You can stay where you are and fill Ramulas' wallet or you can come to us and learn how to make your own way. Neither's right. Neither's wrong. Only you get to decide. Not me. Not that arrogant dude you work for. Not anyone but you. Let's get food before we send you home."

She trailed after him her eyes on the Chimera above them. The carrier barely fit into the hanger. It was a city of its own larger than the town she had been born in. Powered down, thousands of tubes snapped into its body. Fuel, power and supplies flowed through chutes and across ramps. Repair crews were replacing the hull plating alongside one engine.

Make a choice...

She ripped her gaze away and trotted after Chase. Dinner sounded good and, perhaps, some new friends.

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