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Containing a selection of published articles from various print media.

E-ON Chronicle: Exchange Rate (fiction)

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“Awesome!”

An ocean of stars set against a stunning wash of brilliant colour greeted Avi Tarken’s eyes as her gleaming fresh-off-the-showroom-floor Condor frigate burst from Kisogo station’s hangar bay. God must be an impressionist, she thought, devouring the glory of a distant nebula with her eyes. In that moment she made one of the cardinal mistakes every new capsule pilot eventually makes – she smiled.

Recoiling at the vile hydrostatic fluid now filling her mouth, she nearly gagged. It would take her a long time to adjust to being an egger, she mused, but now she had eternity at her disposal. A carbon copy of herself waited at Kisogo, ready to be imbued with her soul should she perish in space. Avi had always dreamed of this – since childhood, she felt herself enraptured by stories of daring capsuleers establishing nation-states in the wilderness; even uncovering mysterious monoliths and artefacts lost to the millennia in the no man’s land between star systems after a chance drift through the fringes of civilization. To Avi, this was the great frontier, the crucible where dreams were forged to fruition. Nothing was beyond her reach now. Incorporating a business of her very own, mining a fortune in the frigid rock belts she visited two days prior in her old Ibis, and perhaps even trading fire with outlaw marauders plaguing less-secured systems.

This last part would have to wait, she agreed as her sweeping cam-drone eyes came to rest on the twin hundred-and-twenty-five millimetre turrets jutting from her Condor’s wing – the awful stories Avi heard in interstellar orientation class back at Kisogo still left her with a gnawing dread of combat in space. Fresh in her mind was the weapon merchant’s sales pitch; oh, how he went on and on, extolling the many virtues of his “One-twenty-five mill ‘Castigator’ linear kinetic accelerators, guaran-damn-teed to blow a hole this big in anything you point it at!” He even offered to throw in a few crates of slugs, “just ‘cause she was pretty”.

She shivered. Violence was simply not her way, reasoned Avi – having holes blown in you? Not that appealing. She had always managed to set herself apart in this way from her classmates at the State War Academy. All of them seemed so bloodthirsty, so eager to kill. She took comfort in that moral high ground – didn’t they understand that what lay before them was nothing short of heaven, a place so vast and free that people had no reason to shed blood for any part of it?

“Autopilot approaching stargate.”

Avi half-heard the ship AI’s sedate announcement, and willed her autopilot offline. The vista before her was breathtaking – Kisogo’s star was just now cresting a nearby rock-world and bathing the rush of stargate traffic in a golden hue. Truth be told, she had only visited three star systems so far, but this place was her favourite.

The young pilot couldn’t contain herself. “Paradise!”

“Where?” The male voice filled her mind, and Avi blushed furiously. In her awestruck state she neglected to release the broadcast toggle, and inadvertently transmitted her innermost thoughts on the local channel. Never one to pass up the chance at a conversation, she replied without skipping a beat.

“All around us! Don’t you think it’s wonderful?”

When the voice came back, she traced it via carrier identification to a small group of ships holding position just off the gate’s periphery. “Oh, that paradise, I thought you meant the warhead. Yes, I suppose it is rather awe-inspiring, though you do tend to get used to it. New pilot, I take it?”

She inched her Condor closer to the ship that her AI now recognized as a Zealot class assault cruiser. Holding in perfectly fixed formation above and to the sides of that gleaming predator were two Malediction interceptors, appearing to Avi like menacing daggers. She wondered what such deadly warships were doing in so secure a star-system, standing out among an idyllic stream of civilian cargo tugs.

Almost forgetting herself, she blurted out a reply. “Yeah, that is, yes sir! I’m just a week out of the meat-grinder, how about you?” She referred of course to the State War Academy, an institution seemingly hell-bent on churning out semi-competent eggers.

“Oh, I’ve been out here for… decades now.” His comm-avatar certainly seemed heroic enough for Avi’s liking. She wanted to know more about this Caldari fighter.

“So what do you do out here? Corporate enforcer?” She chirped.

“Mercenary”, the captain trailed off, clearly scrutinizing multiple comm-channels. “You?”

He had to have been kidding, she thought, glancing over the captain’s public profile. She had heard of mercenaries, those capsuleers who sold murder as though it were an SCC-sanctioned commodity. He seemed too nice. And no self-respecting mercenary corporation would have a name like that.

“Don’t know yet.” Even Avi heard the ice in her formerly chipper voice. “Whatever it is though, it probably won’t be as… exciting as your line of work.”

Now between the stargate and the handsome captain’s warbird, Avi could hardly see the bloom of light behind her, or the city-sized behemoth that burst from the gate’s mouth. Soon as it did, the Megathron class battleship – lit up like downtown in space – began to anxiously bank and turn.

“See, I’m a pacifist, this girl wouldn’t harm a fly!”, she continued, aware but at the same time oblivious to the stir of movement in her field of view. “So how do you justify killing people for money?”

Avi received no reply. The interceptors before her were gone from sight, and the handsome captain’s assault cruiser was barrelling straight toward her. She felt the rumble of its passing in her hydrostatic cocoon. Whipping her cam-drones around, she repeated her earlier mistake as her jaw dropped in disbelief at what was unfolding behind her.

Bright bolts of light shot from the interceptors faster than she could count them, their silhouettes little more than shadows hurtling in break-neck orbits around the immense Gallente battleship. This was Avi’s first time seeing one up-close, and she felt her stomach do a cartwheel when the first of its great cannon answered the interceptors’ assault. An errant blaster-shell streaked crackling past her Condor, missing it by what felt like inches; faster and faster the battleship began to spit hell at its assailants, deep concussive blasts washing over her gnat-like frigate like tidal waves.

“Justify it? You make killing sound like it is something worth rationalizing.” There was a steadfast and grim resolve to her conversation partner’s voice, suddenly coming loud and clear through the onslaught of fire.

The Megathron’s drone bay slid open. Avi knew that combat drones were the capital ship’s first line of defence against small aggressors. Were this any other moment, she would have been formulating a stereotypically idealist retort to the other captain; instead, Avi merely prayed she would get out of this mess without having to resort to a clone.

“Out here, killing comes as naturally as breathing.” His voice was so cold now, so unnaturally devoid of excitement. Now came the drones, spilling from the battleship’s gaping hangar. Swarming, angry, they made for the interceptors, but did not get far before the mercenary Zealot’s lasers spoke. So that’s why he kept his distance, Avi realized. At distance, his lasers could track the tiny drones easily. In seconds, there was nothing left of the drone swarm but a blizzard of tumbling shrapnel and eerily flinching robotic limbs.

“Take the InterStellar Kredit with which you do business. Did you know it has an exchange rate for human lives?” The mercenary droned on callously. As the Zealot’s murderous pulse lasers turned on the iridescent-hulled battleship, she realized that this was no glorious battle from the holovids. This was a slaughter. Local was alive with the screams of the dying.

“Mayday, mayday, mayday! This is the merchant escort battleship Wintersong! We are under attack! Any loyal ships help us! For god’s sake help us!” The panic in the Gallente captain’s voice brought tears to Avi’s eyes.

The punishing cannonade took on a brighter hue as numerous plumes of roiling white gas broke through cracks forming in the Megathron’s carapace. Each fierce spear-point of light seemed to gore and ravage her superstructure, and Avi found herself stunned that so small a warship could wreak such havoc. The battleship’s blasters frantically redirected all fire toward the mercenary, but it was far too late.

“Six thousand lives aboard that ship, and fifty million ISK to sink it. You do the math.” The captain blankly elaborated on his handiwork, not in the slightest distracted while maintaining his murderous barrage. The way he spoke, not gloating or mocking but utterly devoid of joy, made Avi aware that he had probably been at this for a lifetime. Was this what lay in her future? Was this what she would become?

The Wintersong died ingloriously. No spectacular explosion, no shattering shockwave – her lights merely winked out and her singed, burning hulk was all that remained. Still, the mercenaries peppered the dead wreck with unremitting fire, clearly set upon preventing even a single crewman from escaping with his life. Being no more than three klicks off its starboard afforded Avi a visceral, chilling view of Kisogo’s newest mass grave, and she averted her cameras from the horror.

“Six thousand lives. Six thousand strands of fate, severed, just like that. You would do well to abandon your naïveté, Avi Tarken, or this universe will eat you alive”, concluded the butcher as his wing of predators stretched out and vanished into warp. His parting words arrived a split second before his avatar entry vanished from local comms.

“Welcome to Eve.”

A piece of Avi Tarken died.

This article originally appeared in E-ON Magazine.

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Written by tomczerniawski

March 14, 2010 at 1:25 pm

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