Chapter 3. Iteron

This is chapter 3 of “Redemption” a fictional tale set in the EVE Universe.  Please see this page for more background on this story.  

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To the great relief of the security guards, Orv boarded the old but well maintained Iteron III cargo hauler. Like so many of its class it had been converted to carry up to 200 passengers in a tight forward compartment and although creature comforts were not its high point, it served well enough on long routes across New Eden. Sure, a capsuleer could just set the destination, activate the autopilot and fall asleep but haulers like followed planned routes with dozens of stop-overs. They carried the bulk of New Eden’s goods and people.

He was greeted by a cheerful but scared Gallente crewman, evidently, this was his first big journey and the experience of docking at a quasi-military facility deep in enemy space was the stuff action holoreels were made from. After a few hundred stations this enthusiasm would surely abate. On the other hand, having a Gallente capsuleer on board in this region would mark them as a target for any enterprising enemy. After all, Orv was not going to be plugged into his pod and would die as easily as any man. “Ending” him permanently would earn someone substantial bragging rights, the couple of hundred civilians he would take with him would not matter. Orv knew all of this and was convinced that his presence had been advertised to every police and customs office on the way in hope of a smooth passage. It was logical but ill advised. Not everyone working for Concord had severed all ties to their own race and corruption was always a problem in large organizations. He should have gone with his original plan and change ships and ID frequently but he would have to be traveling for weeks rather than days.

The crewman issued the mandatory survival suits to the passengers and noticed that Orv carried his own, a very expensive, military model, hardly used. Haulers of this class have virtually no armor and a rogue asteroid or missile would cut through the ship like a knife through butter. In that case, the suit would detect the drop in cabin pressure and fire explosive charges around the neck, encasing the head of the bearer in a thin plastic hood. The cheap on-board suits stored only a few minutes worth of air and heat and needed to be plugged into a universal jack of which there are many in the passenger cabin. If they worked at all. Orv’s personal suit however had its own isotope heater and compressed air for several hours. Only the very paranoid, ex military with post-traumatic stress disorder and those with first-hand experience of space disaster carried their own. The crewman pondered to which of class his new passenger counted.

Orv dozed off while the loading continued and the hauler’s capacitor charged. The hissing of the outer-hatch’s air-seals and triggered a surge of memories to rise up slowly and unstoppable, like fat bubbles in pod goo. He could have suppressed them, he was good at it after years of practice but he realized that one day he would have to confront his memories  – if nothing but to justify the suffering he imposed on himself and on his sister. While his body now stared absentmindedly out of his porthole, his mind relived that fateful day 8 years ago.

He had just turned 15 and was on his way to the University of Caille to accept a “Genius Scholarship” in cybernetics. He would be the youngest post-graduate student there ever and the scholarship would restore the honor and dignity of his family who had lost everything and lived in cramped refugee quarters, fleeing from system to system ahead of the frontline of yet another capsuleer war. They had lived in nullsec, his father part of a capital ship construction crew, building carriers and dreadnoughts for capsuleers. When the invasion came, they jumped onto whatever could carry them and fled across nullsec for nearly a whole year. Orv himself had burrowed into cybernetics textbooks more to escape reality than to study. And when the talent scout showed up, he aced the tests with ease. He never wanted to be an academic. He wanted to travel the stars like his dad, an engineer, maybe even a navigator. But the scholarship would change all of that. He simply could not back out.

The university required a parent to enroll him in person and so his father’s employer allowed him extraordinary (and unpaid) leave. He managed to play his old contacts for two seats in the cargo compartment of a gigantic Iteron V and spent the first 2 hours of the flight staring at a packaged Amarr shuttle on its skid. Then his father had a quiet word with the crew and Orv was invited to ride out the rest of the journey on the bridge, clamped into a jump-seat behind the navigator. It was ostensibly to honor his scholarship and Orv absorbed a crash course in star travel the amused bridge crew gave him. Much later would he learn the real reason why his father wanted him to travel on the bridge. It was the compartment with the most armor.

The first 12 jumps across very hostile territory had gone surprisingly smoothly thanks to the experienced crew and two Covert Ops frigates jumping ahead and scouting for activity. Three times, they had reported “hot” gates and the hauler kept jumping ceaselessly from one safespot to another to thwart detection and attack. Although stressful to the crew, it was routine. All knew that someday their luck would run out but not on this trip. Never on this trip.

Finally they reached the last null sec gate leading them back into Concord space, one more jump and they would be reasonably safe. Their destination was still low security, meaning anyone could attack them but it was sparsely populated, the single outpost in that system was their last dock for the night and everyone needed sleep. The scouts went ahead and gave the “all clear” to the large cargo ship. Their crew aligned and warped right top of the gate initiating the jump as soon as they could. The massive jump system propelled them into their final system and the Iteron came to a slow stop, still cloaked from the warp. By now Orv understood the sequence of events and could anticipate the pilot’s action. He aligned the heavy ship towards their station and readied to initiate warp when the navigator in front of Orv jerked and reported the sighting of eight new ships within their d-scan range. He read the names and the corporation aloud – a wormhole outfit which explained how they appeared so suddenly. A tense second later, the small fleet landed almost on top them. Amongst them two battle cruisers, Amarr Harbingers with enormous firepower and very short reaction time. They could lock down the huge and slow Iteron almost instantly and kill it’s warp drive if they were geared for it. These ships were all piloted by capsuleers and hence anything was a target worth destroying. But the hauler had another 10 seconds of cloak left and was only 24 degrees off from their target. If they could just line up and fire the afterburner while initiating warp, they might still surprise the the capsuleers and warp off before they were able to react. Orv heard himself already telling this adventure to his dad who sat in the cargo hold, clueless about the events outside. But Orv also did not quite see the danger for what it was. He had been lulled into a feeling of safety by the experienced crew, their banter and war stories and – when the situation required – their focused professionalism.

The eight combat ships approached the gate oblivious to the cloaked hauler amongst in their mids. They were in jump range. And then they stopped, only a Helios went through the gate, a scout ship to check out if the other side was hot. The remaining seven lazily orbited the gate.

Time had run out. The Iteron slowly decloaked, first, the structure became visible and turned opaque and finally, the ship emerged from the stars. Now that the game was up, the pilot issued a stream of orders that were crisply confirmed by the crew. One of the commands started the massive but still undersized afterburner and Orv was almost deafened by the howl of the system as it pumped raw energy into the turbines. It takes a lot to accelerate an Iteron V and it would take many seconds before the ship markedly gained speed. The navigator furiously called in the local coms channel, repeating their ship ID and that they carried nothing of value. The combat pilots out there would not care if hundreds of civilians died but might want to save munitions if all they would get was worthless scrap metal. It was a gamble, and may have paid out with other capsuleers but evidently not with these. Instantly, one of the Harbingers peeled out of formation and started targeting them. The bridge crew instinctively hunched when the shrill beep-beep-beep flowed through the speakers, then stopped. The Harbinger had locked the hauler down within seconds and the last remaining question about the intent of the capsuleer fleet was answered when their warp drive was stalled by force of the battlecruiser’s scramming system. They were hanging dead in space with little forward velocity and no means of escape. The co-pilot tripped a red switch and the “abandon-ship” alarm sounded through the hull. This would be the first sign of trouble his father and the rest of the passengers heard and it came just before the first salvo hit amidships. Orv had stared out of the bridge window at the small spec of light 35km away, moving quickly starboard when the battlecruiser opened fire and the Iteron’s flimsy shields evaporated in a spectacular display of yellow and blue light. Klaxxons sounded and the pilot tried to gain some transversal velocity, more out of reflex than necessity, an Iteron V does not outrun an Harbinger. But sitting there helplessly was worse than doing something useless and so, everyone was intensely busy. Everyone but Orv who realized that he was almost 100m away from his father. The next salvo hit deep into the armor and Orv saw pieces of it being flung into space and then congealing in front of the window. He stood, and fell more than climbed down the stairs to the passenger compartment.

The passengers screamed in many languages, struggled in their belts trying to move away. To where, Orv asked himself. But he too had the urge to move, do something, anything just not to stand and wait for the next laser to burn him alive. He started to run down the central isle of the hauler behind the crew who aimed for the lifepod exits in the midsection of the ship. These were lashed to the outside of the hauler and would float free when tripped by the crew. And that was exactly the section where the next salvo of the laser batteries hit, literally melting the lifepods and burning deep into the armor of the hauler. Acrid smoke started to pour through the ventilation, the structure was damaged already. The next salvo would finish them off. Orv sprinted past the crew towards the aft section of the ship. The bulkhead to the cargo hold had failed to close.  Some passengers used the cycling time of the enemy’s weapon systems to paw for their survival suits’ umbilical and with wide and panicked eyes looked for the jacks to plug themselves in when the lasers finally burned through structure. The hit was in the extreme rear of the passenger cabin, right in front of the bulkhead and the intense light bored through the compartment wall from starboard, incinerated several rows of passengers and ignited the air around it into a roiling yellow plasma before it melted its way through the port side. Orv came to a skidding halt about 10 rows away and shielded his eyes from the granular light. Just for a moment, he admired the beauty of this horizontal column, the tongues of fire leaping away from it. Then it just disappeared. Air rushed out of the holes and Orv’s survival suit triggered it’s hood with a sharp report.

Everything went quiet as the air escaped and with it the ability to transmit sound. Orv felt the Iteron buck under his feet. The afterburner was still active in the engine rooms aft, pushing hard at the mass of the ship. But the structure had collapsed and would not take the massive force trying to accelerate it. Orv started to ran aft again and lifted off. The gravity field had ceased and he propelled himself by kicking off the passenger seats. Most passengers had their hood on like Orv and were panicked but seemed safe for the moment. For others, the suits had failed and the vacuum and intense cold of space had burned their faces to black masks, boiled their eyes and lungs. Some were still alive and jerked with spasms, their faces frozen into an inaudible scream. A Gallente woman tried to pinch a leak in her daughter’s suit that was bleeding air. Orv caught the girl’s eye staring at him not understanding, not knowing and yet full of terror. He half sprinted, half floated in the dying gravity field towards the bulkhead where he could already see the wing of the packaged shuttle when the lasers hit again, this time behind him, closer to the bridge. He did not look around but the light suddenly changed, cold glaring sunlight poured into the hauler and illuminated the shuttle in front of him. A tear in the floor began to widen. The Iteron was falling apart. Orv did not think, reflect or weigh his options. All he could think about was his father. If he found him, all would be good. His father survived literally hundreds of attacks and and surely could work a way out. Orv jumped over the tear at the last second. The aft section of the ship pushed the passenger compartment aside as they ripped on each other. He found himself in the cargo hold when the next salvo hit the remains of the passenger cabin. It crumpled and melted into a congealed mass of metal, wires, plastic and human flesh.

Orv spotted his father hovering above the packaged shuttle. He was tearing at the tarp that had covered it, revealing its stubby wings and domed canopy. He was alive. They would live. Orv propelled himself towards the shuttle, his father turned and eyes grew wide recognizing his son. He caught Orv with his left arm in a hug and held on to the shuttle with his right arm. Tears welled up in Orv, he had found his father all would be good, when he felt himself pushed backwards. His father’s face was tense and twisted by pain and determination. He motioned towards the shuttle open cockpit. Orv looked closer and saw what his father was pointing at, a single universal jack for power, air and heat. Their supply in their suits would not last for more than a few minutes. Orv looked around. All spaceships have power jacks for these emergencies in the passenger compartment and on the bridge. But not in the cargo hold where – ordinarily – nobody would allowed. His father had understood this and hoped his son was safe in the cockpit. For himself, he had identified the packaged shuttle as his only chance. Orv’s confused brain almost understood the implication when the air on his suit ran out. These cheap survival suits gave no warning. The faster you breathe, the faster they run out. And Orv had been hyperventilating.

Holoreels made suffocation look almost like a peaceful fading-out. The reality that Orv experienced was very different. His breathing was getting harder and harder until the lung spasmed. He was fully conscious when blinding headaches and involuntary tremors signaled his end. His vision turned black and white, narrowed to a tiny tunnel. His world had shrunk to naked panic and terror, forgotten was his father, forgotten was his family, the hauler and why he was here. He even forgot about himself in this last struggle to live. He had already unlatched the umbilical from its pouch, a 2 meter long finger-thick armored hose and now tried plug himself into the shuttle’s connector. His arms trembled badly and he failed again and again. Finally, he lost control over his shaking hand and knew he would not make the connection when he saw his father’s hand gripping his wrist and ramming the connector home. Orv was rewarded with an instantaneous rush of air into his suit. The air soon warmed as the isotope reactor came online and Orv felt as if an immense weight had been lifted from his chest. Nausea hit him, cold sweat and the urge to urinate all at once but all he could think about was that he was going to make it. Orv started to breathe. He could feel his heartbeat slowing. They were going to make it. He had known it all along.

Carefully, Orv pivoted around looking for his father. He was not there anymore but floated by the forward bulkhead that, now that the passenger compartment had gone, formed an open door to infinite space. His father turned, raised his arm, barely controlling the tremors, waving goodbye to his only son. Then he jumped into the light of his beloved stars.

Orv broke down in tears, uncontrollable shaking and sobbing. He screamed knowing nobody could hear him, he pounded the shuttle’s canopy and more than once did he grab the connector of the umbilical wanting to end it all. But every time he did, he saw his father’s hand steadying his wrist. He could not undo what his father had died for and so he stayed connected to the shuttle, tethered to this machine inside a wreck. His breathing slowed, his eyes dried up and the warm air defogged his visor. He could see, he could act, he was alive. His father wanted him to live, save his mother and sister and live his life. He had a duty now to get out of this wreck and into safety. Orv recalled the last seconds on the bridge. The pilot desperately trying to steer the hauler to safety. The red flashing of the square on the navigator’s computer showing that this Amarr battlecruiser had opened fire. The name next to the Icon on the same display. He remembered the name of the pilot who destroyed the hauler, killed the crew and passengers and his father.

He would find that capsuleer and destroy him.

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