by Druur Monakh
Smooth jazz flowed from the sound system and filled the air above the few late night patrons and their hushed conversations. It wasn’t the pilot’s favorite style of music, but it matched her zen-like mood as she sat at the bar, watching a couple slow-dance on the empty floor. It had been a couple weeks since she had returned from a remote outpost in lawless space, and slowly normalcy was creeping back into her life. She even had started flying regularly with a group of other pilots again, some of which she knew from old, others which she didn’t. Just sleep was still slow to come, her sub-conscious wound up too tight to relax, unless pure exhaustion overcame it.
She turned to set an empty glass onto the counter, and to pick up a fresh one the Bartender had already prepared, reading her like a book. Swirling the deep red liquid in the glass, she thought about everything and nothing, when a sudden commotion from the entrance drew her attention.
A group of people in ship’s uniforms entered, their chatter and demeanor a fresh spark in the room. Behind them, a capsuleer, likely their pilot. The group commandeered a table, and while a waitress walked over to take their orders, the pilot approached the bar counter. A brief conversation, the passing of a credit chip, and the pilot settled onto a stool. Taking sips from the drink which appeared from him, he occasionally glanced towards the table where his crew was starting to have a good time. Even taking his true Amarrian lineage into account, his expression was too grim for his young age.
With a small shrug, she grabbed her virgin Bloody Gurista and walked the few steps over, sitting down next to him.
“Why don’t you join your crew?”, she asked, skipping unnecessary things like introductions.
He took a sip before answering. “I’m not sure they’d like me there – seeing that I’m the one who almost got them killed today.” he said darkly, and she recognized his mood. She shifted into a slightly more comfortable position, not by accident making sure that he got a glimpse of her neck connector, and smiled encouragingly.
And bit by bit, his story came forth. He was a young, budding industrialist in New Eden, and considering that he had only recently been certified, he was doing quite well: member of a small bustling corp, gifted with a sense for leading the market with his products, his net worth had increased rapidly. Until a bad call left him with almost all his assets tied up in sell orders while the prices dropped.
“I had a choice: hole up in a station until my products moved again,” he explained, the potent drink having made him more talkative, “or branch out for the time being. So I took up tramp-hauling – courier contracts, small stuff trading, the like.”
“I remember doing one or two stints like that.”, she threw in.
“Then you probably know the crucial factor,” he sighed, “Location. Location. Location.
“It went well until earlier this week, when I accepted a courier contract – hi-sec to hi-sec – with a reward above average. Only after I had already paid the substantial collateral, I actually looked at the route.” He took a drink. “Pickup was in a hi-sec pocket, surrounded by low-sec two systems deep. And all I have at hand is a regular hauler, none of these fancy Blockade Runners.”
“I could have failed the contract, but the money was Too Good! So I did my homework,” he continued, “kept an eye on the systems, sussed out the traffic patterns. And today, with only two days left on the contract I made my move.”
His eyes lost focus, reliving the memory.
“I had timed it well: I had chosen a lesser used entrance system, and the route was clear. Easy-peasy – I hop into the hi-sec pocket, pick up the cargo, and make best haste back. First system – clear. Second system – a cruiser and a HAC awaiting me on the gate, both outlaw.”
His eyes focused again, and he set his glass onto the counter. “Ok, imagine this is the gate. Then these…”, he pulled up two empty shot glasses, “…were the two outlaws, and this here…”, he pulled up another shot glass and turned it upside down, “…was me.
“The HAC was at 10-ish km distance from me, the cruiser was about 7km away, both orbiting the gate. I know about the Cloak+MWD maneuver, but all I had was a Cloak and Afterburner.” He picked up the ‘gate’ and drank a sip before putting it down again. “Crashing the gate was not an option, and I wasn’t sure that I’d last long enough for the gate guns to take down both of them.
“So, I waited as long as I could, and when both were moving sort-of away from me, I fired up the engines, dropped gate-cloak, kicked the Afterburner and engaged the cloak. Immediately the cruiser turned and sped towards where I had briefly appeared, but he had actually overestimated my speed and passed 5km in front of me.” He moved the shot glasses for illustration, then looked at her with deep grey eyes.
“I thought that I had gotten away, but then I saw him turning and heading back towards me.” He nudged the cruiser shot glass a bit. “And this time he came right at me.
“Panicking, I changed course, heading straight down, hoping that crawling along at 10m/s would make a difference – and he still came barreling at me.” He lifted up the cruiser shot glass and moved it towards and above his industrial, to allow for the 3D nature of the movements. “And all I could watch was the distance between us – 8km… 5km… 3km… 2.8km… 2.5km… 2.3km… 2.1km…”
His hand stopped at the moment of closest approach.
“The bastard came within 2030 m from me.” He dropped the shot glass and picked up his drink, taking a large sip, and she whistled through her teeth: regular cloaks failed when other objects came inside a 2000 m radius. A close call – too close.
When he continued, he spoke without looking at her. “Had he angled his course just a fraction of a radiant differently… had I turned just a fraction of a second later…,” he turned his head towards her and jerked a thumb towards the table with his crew, “… all of them would be dead.”
“It’s funny,” he said musingly, looking into his glass, “I shouldn’t be so upset about it – I have more riding on the market than on this lousy shipment. But when this cruiser came running for me – I was paralyzed. Scared shitless.”
He fell quiet, and she waited a few seconds before encouraging him on. “But you got away.”
“Yeah.” He emptied his glass. “We drifted for like half an hour until they got bored and left, then we made it into hi-sec. Delivered the goods, got our money. Another day in the life of an industrialist.
“And that’s the most annoying part!” He gestured with his empty glass. “I almost got them all killed today – but nobody will ever know! Nor care! There was no battle, no combat record, no dramatic gun camera footage, no triggering an avalanche of events – it’s not even enough to go pondering profoundly about larger meanings. All I did was run away.” He tried to take a drink from his glass, but finding it empty, set it onto the counter. “And who is going to want to listen to something insignificant as that.”
“Well,” she said softly after a moment, “I listened.”
He looked up. “Heh – that’s true.”
She nodded towards his crew. “You should join them – show them that you still care.” she said, a bit ruefully. “After all, today was quite significant in their lives.”
“Hmm,” his voice was pensive for a moment, “maybe you’re right.” He stood up, but held up for a second. “Thanks. For listening.”
“You’re welcome.” She smiled. “Go.”
He hesitated, as if to say something, then nodded and headed towards his crew. She watched his retreating back, knowing that she’d never see him again.
She finished her drink and set her glass next to his onto the counter. And for once, sleep actually seemed like a good idea.