Height: 202 cm
Weight: 105 kg
Corp: Rogue Aces
They call my kind "slavechildren", kids born to Minmatar slaves in the Amarr Empire. I wasn't treated too badly, coming from a bloodline of gladiator slaves. You don't beat up your prize slave. Instead, you hurt his friends and loved ones, make others depend on his good act. They did it. They worked me and I fought and killed for them, proud that I could help my friends. They worked my mind allright. When the resistance came to free me, I fought them too. Leader, Cenerr, lost his eye. I guess I owe my life to his mercy but they really should have come earlier. Most slave children are smuggled out of the Empire as infants. I was 15 before they got to me. And after Cenerr spared my life, he tossed me into a military school. Fair enough: what else do you with a 2-metre-100-kilo trained killer whose loyalties are a bit suspect? I passed the entry and I passed the exit.
I bought my first ship on a school stipend, ran some escort missions for Cenerr's clan members and then went freelance. I am currently flying a Rifter, patched up with better guns and boosters than your average Joe's. I like it small and fast. Most pilots entomb themselves in their pods and after a year, five years or ten years they don't even want outside anymore. And they buy bigger ships, and more of them, until they have a bloody fleet. Their ship becomes a parasite, feeding off them, growing and multiplying, until the will of technology takes over the will of Man inside. I am getting out whenever I dock. Getting dressed, getting drunk, getting laid. No crew to fuss over. No standing expenditures. Free to go wherever I choose.
That's my way. That is the Rogue Road.
I guess you could call it a hit. An Amarr Admiral smokes one too many incence sticks and takes his task force on a little roundabout deep into Republic territory. The guy is obviously batty, so the Empire and Republic cut a deal. The Republic uses a private hitman to take the guy out so the Amarr Navy can call the rest of them back and the Republic won't make a stink out of it. No need for a public trial, no nothing. I'm the hitman and the general is dead already. He just don't know it yet. It's all very hush hush, so my crew never knows any of this. They jump where they're told, fight when they're told and... well... I guess them dying is not entirely up to me. If I told them, they'd me making boasts and toasts about it in the very next port of call. It's a whole new experience. There are too many people to manage so I am talking to teams. Little flesh bots making sure everything run smoothly and improvising when they don't. You can't achieve that with bots. Rogue Tiger was bot run but overall it is a much smaller system. On a heavy assault ship there's just too many things that can go wrong.
Seeing the overlay display I think I'm looking at one of those things gone wrong. The Admiral has put his ships into an asteroid cluster to confuse scaners. If I barge in, I'd be making the same all too tight curves as they are, while his swarm of support frigs and destroyers tears me apart. Sensor readout confirms tacklers among them. If they grab me and the big battleships have time to realign their big beams, I'm toast. I need to somehow separate the lights from the heavies and draw them out into the open. So I set a trajectory on a fly-by and fire up the engines. Acceleration makes the hull shudder and the crewmen not strapped into their seats are sent flying down the corridors and hallways.
Vagabond sure looks funny. It's like three ships in, held together with wire and duct tape. The command section is a long, narrow nose right up in front of the ship, flanked by wing-shaped heat dissipators. A long neck leads into the provisions module which also houses the crew when not on duty. That looks like it has been more or less thrown onto the engineering section, a barrel-shaped structure with engines on one end and gun stations encircling it like a crown. I am using high-tech models of the 180mm double autocannon since they have a hope in hell to hit small craft while still providing the range advantages against the large. Even so, I'm firing EMP so you'd think I need to be in their face. Wrong! Those buggers can land a round home from 18 kliks with a little luck.
Ark Rogue whooshes past them at about 12 kliks, just outside the tackler range. While at it, guns on the fleet side pepper both ships and rocks with repeated volleys, doing little damage but getting their attention for sure. Big ships stay put, turning slowly to bring their beamers to bear. Smaller craft light up like little comets and surge out of the rock cloud in an angry swarm. But I'm already gone. With a relative velocity of over three mach, they can't keep up. I'm watching the visual sensors, observing the growing gap between the heavies and their frigate screen. Then I give the crew a shock of their lives: "Kill the afterburner". The enemy frigs are gaining on us now and the swarm looms ever larger on our tail. If the tacklers get in range, it could still be all over.
"Gunnery bridge, fire at will! Drone stations, launch and engage!"
Your average frig is hard to hit with a medium autocannon, even with the 180-doubles. But they are coming in almost in a straight line. We're dragging a tail of frigates behind us and now the very first of that swarm are flying through a hailstorm of medium-calibre ammo, their hulls ablaze with the aurorae of electromagnetic pulses. Lightning crackles between ships that are close by. Our drones, their operators hooked into the sensors of the craft much like I am hooked to my pod, fly straight into the fireworks, first targeting the closest tacklers but soon shooting whatever falls in front of their sights. Low-grade gunships disintegrate almost as soon as the gunners can target them. A tackler veers of course, tumbling through space before its reactor engulfs it in a plasma ball. A destroyer tries to turn tail and is immediately hit by three rounds, last of them punching right through the hull as the armour plating vaporises. Some of them make it and start buzzing around us like angry wasps. Without the tacklers they dont have a prayer. We are surrounded by the ion streaks of swerving frigates and drones. Guns are firing in all directions, trusting on sheer luck not to hit our drones.
I turn Ark Rogue and pick up speed, falling towards the heavies. Our acceleration catches the enemy by surprise and they fall behind, into the same rear sector they flew in before. They turn to follow but it is too late. By the time our shields register first hits from the heavy laser beams, the frigate escort is a constellation of wreckage stretching for almost a hundred kliks. Enemy battleships are holding fast but even they must be a little horrified to see me coming at them, close enough to ram them if I wanted to. I see the big command ship, all gold and glitter, hiding behind the others. Taking that out would be enough but I am not letting of any of these bastards go. All that gold! It's gonna be mine!
What's a pod pilot? For the crew, it's a much more efficient but also tyrannical replacement for the ship AI. That is the big difference between capsuler ships and the same ship without a pod cradle. You still need a crew if the vessel is big enough. And you need them three times over to compensate for sleep cycles, plus some extra in case something gets through the walls in a fight. A battleship might have a crew of thousands, even if just hundreds are on active duty at any one time. Rogue Tiger could've used three or four deckhands but those could be replaced with robotics to keep the weight down. However, if you get anything bigger, even a dessie and that's no longer an option. And my new baby is much bigger.
To be honest, crew quality is often poor and their tasks are kept simple enough for trained monkeys. They have little chance of escape if a ship is destroyed, so we capsuleers think of them as equipment destroyed along with the ship. Or should. That's my problem. For haulers, you can have any kind of scum with two working hands (keep the grav off and they won't even need their legs). For combat vessles, you need someone you can trust. There's two ways to do it: Fear and Friendship. I went for the latter in Rogue Sword and never stopped regretting it! When they died, something died inside me. There'll never be another Rogue Sword. Never. I'm looking at 150 new recruits for a Vagabond-class heavy assault ship Ark Rogue. It's a smallish crew but the ship is more automated than most so it should be enough.
Now it's time for some fear.
I recruited my crew from the Brutor Tribe Station in Abudban. It's not backwater like Bosboger and that's good because I want my people able to read. A hundred and fifty stand on a docking platform, handpicked from a crowd of hundreds. They still hang around the hangar bay entrance, looking at us through a red-tinged forcefield. If I dump someone on this final inspection, I'll turn to them for an immediate replacement and they know it. It ain't over until it's over. People on the platform are a motley bunch from station habitats and surface colonies. They were selected by credentials, gut feelings, bribes and for some of the women, sex. Or so they think. They don't know it but I only got into bed with those I would have picked anyway. They think I picked them for their bodies and fear I'll kick them off just as easily. From now on, they'll do their damnest to prove their worth as crew rather than whores.
Big brutor males, some of them war veterans, mumble among themselves, not looking at me while I talk. I need the experience but I don't need the attitude. It's that band of warriors thing again but this time I'm not in it. I wasn't in the war. So be it. This is a page right out of captain Lanfear's book, with a little personal touch. I take off my coat and throw it half away across the platform. That gets their attention.
"Anyone here think he can take me out in a fair fight?"
Silence. I can feel the eyes of every other pilot docked here on me, watching through their external cams. It's so quiet I can hear the bystanders behind the force field holding their breaths.
Still nothing. I look straight at the vets.
"You four, take off your war stripes."
They look at me, stunned. Then one of them rips off the decorated stip of garment his tribe gave him for a valour in combat. Then another and finally the third. Fourth one, a scarred vet with a crude battlefield surgical implant for an eye is just standing there, holding on to the strip but not tearing it off. They rest look at me with puzzled expression, embroidered rags dangling in their hands. I wave at the edge of the platform.
"Throw them off the side. The bots will clean it up with the rest of the garbage."
Shaking. Knuckles turning white as they grip the stripes. Just as I thought, the scarred one was the leader. He let's off his coat and steps forward.
"I won't do it, *sir*", sneering at the end of the sentence but his eyes are burning with rage.
"That was a not a request."
He shoves people in front of him aside and keeps walking at me.
"I take up your challenge, sir. I challenge you for my war wreath."
"I don't give a shit. You signed up and I tell you to take it off."
He stops and takes off his own coat.
"Oh, I will. I'll lay it on your eyes when the paramedics come to take you away."
I smile and remove my eye-shades, throwing them in front of him.
"Okay. Close in when ready."
He takes up the fighting stance of one of the many tribal fighting traditions in the Republic and makes a point of stomping on my shades as he moves in. I also fall into a posture, the one I learned in the Amarr temple grounds. Someone in the crowd gasps. Fool! My past reads right there on my forehead. I've never made any attempt to cover it up. Then the warrior is on me and we fight. He fights to kill and why wouldn't he? He can't be charged since they all witnessed my challenge and he knows I won't die. He might even have a job after this. I block his moves, sidestep his kick and as he rushes past, strike backwards with my elbow. I'm not even looking at him. I'm looking at the crew when his skull cracks and neck snaps. He falls like a rag doll.
At first nobody moves. Then one of the vets tosses his stripe on the floor, half-way between himself and their fallen comrade. Others follow suit and its good enough for me. I know Lanfear would have just shot the guy and probably the other three as well but I think it's better this way. As I said, this is not backwater. My wristpad says the guy was Moritz Gurash, a senior munitions engineer. I make a show of picking up my shades, then stand up facing the crowd behind the force field. The smartmetal frame in my hand is already righting itself and cracked lenses flow back in place as if they were liquid.
"Munitions engineer! I need a munitions engineer!"
There is a show of hands and I count more than thirty. Damn! This is going to take a while.
The mud fees like pod-gel, even if its cold as ice. I am floating, weightless, the icy sludge supporting my weight as I lie on my back. I can see the gray skies and feel the rain as it falls on my face. Even so, my body can't tell where's up or down with all these chems and ethanol. Weightless. Just like the pod. We all lie in this puddle. I can see a face here and a limb there, pale as bone where the rain has washed the dirt off. I know they're not really here but does it matter? They burned as bulkheads around them turned into a mineral vapour. Their blood boiled and eyes popped when the vacuum set in. They suffocated in whatever tiny pockets of air were left in the wreckage. I think I'm lying on top of them, their corpses holding me up from the mud so that I live. I taste salt despite the rain. Tears tinged with the vinegar taste of cheap Bosboger booze. I try to wash it away with another sip but my coordination is so poor I end up pouring it on my face.
"Clearing your eyes, mister Roy?" asks a female voice. Arrogant, insolent, bemused and polite to bloody extremes. Down here, in a sorry excuse of a failed terraforming colony on Bosboger, I am god. Nobody talks to me like that here. As a matter of fact, down here, nobody talks like that to anybody. She is standing over me, looking down at me and my buddies. Pale oval face framed by jet-black hair, its colour matched by a Caldari business suit, prim and proper to the extreme.
"There's nothing wrong with my eyes", I grumble back, hoping that the apparition would go away. The thin black lines that serve as her eyebrows look like they were painted on her, making her look more like a doll than a person.
"Acid rain. Keep staring at the clouds and there will be. I've been looking high and low for you on this misty ball of rock, mister Roy. I expected to find you in a club or brothel, not mudwrestling in the backyard of your own hangar."
"I'm weeping on a grave, okay? It's fucking private, so get lost."
She kicks the mud at the point of her boot. "I don't see anyone buried in it."
"They're there alright. My crew. So watch it. I don't want you standing on someone's ghost."
She laughs, or rather chuckles, like in those high circles where it's impolite to show emotion but sometimes you can't help. I throw the bottle at her but my aim so screwed it misses by a mile. Where's my gun? I'm going to shoot this bitch.
"I've read your data, mister Roy. You've had crews shot from under you before and never cared."
"They were hauler crews. Bunch of fucking apes. Nothing like the crew on Rogue Sword." I am convulsing and can't tell if I'm coughing or sobbing.
"And what makes apes on an interdictor different from apes on a hauler?"
"You wouldn't understand, Caldari bitch."
"As a matter of fact I do." She kneels to get real close to my face and looks me in the eye. Her eyes are the colour of brushed steel. Dark gray with a metallic glint.
"You were a temple gladiator. A blood-fighter for the Amarr."
"It's been a long time, bitch."
"You don't just walk away from that! Live, kill and be ready to die for the warrior's honour!"
She is almost shouting but suddenly lowers her voice to a whisper.
"You always flew alone into battle before. Then you had to take a crew aboard Rogue Sword and it all came back to you. They never were a crew. They were your battle-brothers and you betrayed them by your survival."
I clench my teeth so hard I taste blood. "Fuck you..." comes out as a hiss, drowned in my own rage. She turns her head aside and suddenly stands up straight.
"The Caldari laugh at your kind for such thoughs, mister Roy. Yet here I am, looking for you instead of one of my own because you have them. So it's you who should be laughing at me."
Either I am more drunk than I think or the bitch really does understand. She may not agree but she understands and is making decisions based on it. Hate to admit it but she's really got my attention now.
"What do want from me?"
"Mister Roy, I'm going on a very dangerous mission for people I can't trust. I need a wing-man. I need someone who'll follow me to the jaws of hell because he said so. I need someone I can trust, no ifs, ends or buts. I need a battle-brother, not a mercenary."
It's my turn to chuckle. "I can't even walk straight no more, let alone shoot. I haven't been to the pod for six months. It was a nice speech but I think you're wasting your time."
She shrugs, like the wreck of a body and soul before her didn't matter. "I've asked about you from some rather bad people, mister Roy. They told me of your skill and what a wily rogue you are. But they all trust you. People not to be trusted trust you with their lives. Will you fly with me, Roy? Share glory, treasure and loss as my brother in battle?"
Of all the things I've ever heard in a pool of mud. There is a long, awkward pause. My addled brain doesn't know what to say. Something comes out. "What's you name, miss?"
"Nidel Shawen", she says and I believe her.
"Miss Shawen, I'm touched but I can't. I am not fit to fly and my oath to my crew binds me until death."
She smiles and nods. "I know mister Roy. It's okay."
I never see the gun in her hand before the muzzle flash. Something heavy hits my face and...
* * *
High-altitude winds buffet the shuttle as it drops through the clouds. Abandoned centuries ago, the incomplete terraforming left the weather here a mess. It quiets down when I get beneath the clouds. Rain obscures all visual but the sensors tell me all I need to know. I set her down between two hangars, both converted from ancient warehouses already centuries ago. The egg opens and spills me onto the metal floor, the gel vanishing through the grills. Shuttles don't have many domestic comforts but a water hose works just fine. I don't like feeling sticky when I get into my out-of-pod clothes. And what do you know, they fit! I throw in a long coat to keep the rain off. I can smell it now, a faint tinge of something that you can't quite put your finger on but it definitely stings your nose.
I'm there where she left me. Nobody comes here anymore and the last rat got eaten a hundred years ago. Still, my body has swollen in the dirty water like a balloon, so I can't really tell how much out of shape I was. Now I'm fine, except for some of the tattoos I have to get redone. Good thing some of that stuff is embedded in my genes. My body doesn't smell, though. The rain must be killing bacteria on the outside. And it misses a head. All that remains is the lower jaw barely hanging on to a blackened stump of a neck. Holy shit. Nidel sure meant business when she wanted me as a battle brother. I have to ask what she was packing. Well, I am not touching myself either. I don't want my new body to catch anything from the old. I am here for something else.
Three hours later the hangar walls are getting splattered with mud as the small direction control thrusters are lifting Rogue Tiger off the ground. Jaguars can land and actually have something of an airframe in supersonic speeds, but mostly planetary flight is about raw power. When I'm clear of the walls, I tilt the nose up and hit the main thrusters. The view to the rear vanishes in an explosion of mud and steam as the engines blast a crater into the street. It then falls away, vanishing into the grid pattern of the half-empty colony. For a while, high-altitude winds buffet me inside the clouds but they soon pass. Picking up speed as the atmosphere fades, Rogue Tiger climbs towards the distant stars.