This was not the first time I had died, and it would not be the last.[ALL CAPITALS, SUPERS, TITANS, EVERYTHING UNDOCK. JUMP TO MJI3. THEN JUMP TO ASAKAI. DREADNOUGHTS: SIEGE GREEN. 2000 M3 FUEL] —Flash Message from the Boatman to all-capitals.
Like dozens of other Capital Fleet pilots, I acknowledged the message and told my crew to prepare for an immediate undock and to rig the ship for combat. A friendly titan had been interdicted and the Deklein Coalition—my coalition—went all in to save it. Everyone else—and I do mean everyone—went all in to destroy us.
I jumped into a battle in progress. Thousands of ships were already engaged. Over the next few hours, we had fought as best we could, destroying the heavy interdictors pinning the Boatman’s titan, freeing him to jump to safety. Other titans had jumped in to save the Boatman, too, only to become interdicted themselves. Titans were the largest ships in space. The cost of replacing a single titan warship could bankrupt entire planets. In the fight to free our titans, the Capital Fleet had lost several carriers. It was worth sacrificing a carrier to save our titans. Even ten carriers would have been an acceptable sacrifice. Just not my carrier.
My carrier was currently trying to transfer enough shield energy to the Boatman’s flagship to keep it alive under a fighter bomber assault. Dozens of other friendly ships were doing the same thing. He had come back to Asakai to try and get the rest of us out, knowing it was a one way trip. Since he had gotten us into this whole mess, it was decent of him to come back and die with us.
And die he did. Under heavy fire the shields failed and armor buckled. The night sky lit up in a flash of white, and for a moment, the Asakai star had a smaller twin. The Boatman’s titan suffered a breach in a grav-focused fusion reactor that powered its doomsday weapon, the explosion releasing enough energy to crack a planet’s crust. The ship that thousands of pilots had come to save—igniting the largest battle in years—had just been obliterated. All that we could do now was save as many ships as possible in the retreat.
Defeat was fast turning into a rout.
I didn’t have much time to ruminate. Even with the loss of the flagship, F-COM, that is fleet command, had not broken down. New taskings were being sent across the encrypted interlinks. A Wyvern-class supercarrier was reporting new incoming targeting locks, requesting assistance. A new hostile target was broadcasted.
Floating in the amniotic tank in my hydrostatic pod, deep in my ship’s core, all of this information—along with the targeting tracks, sensor data, internal status, and dozens of other feeds of the ship’s telemetry—was fed directly into my brain with an elaborate suite of cybernetics. A capsuleer doesn’t look at display screens or hear warning sounds; we’re augmented and enhanced to receive all that data directly so we can fly a ship better than any normal human. No computer, no matter how advanced the artificial intelligence was, could match an augmented human mind in ingenuity, snap decision making, intuition, or pattern recognition. Just myself in my pod performed an order of magnitude better than a well-trained bridge crew. By taking all of the ship’s data directly into my brain, in a very real sense I had become my ship, the Chimera-class carrier Queen of Swords.
The Queen was my prized possession. At two and a half kilometers long, with grey armor plating and harsh angles, she wasn’t much to look at, but dammit, she was mine. It had taken me months to finally be able to fly her and months more of saving to buy her.
I started the shield transfers to the Wyvern that broadcasted for assistance, keeping a close watch on my capacitor. It took fifty-two thousand gigajoules to spool up my jump drives, and I fully intended to do that when the order came. F-COM wouldn’t call for the carriers to jump out until all the supercarriers were off their field, so I was stuck here trying to save this one. Of course, if it was destroyed, I would be free to jump out too.
The Asakai system had become the battleground for one of the largest fleet engagements in the history of New Eden. More personally, this mess was far and away my largest battle. Almost five thousand ships—from tiny one hundred meter long frigates to my two and a half kilometer carrier, to eighteen kilometer titans—were firing every laser, rocket, and railgun they had at each other. Victory was impossible, but I wanted to get away with my titanium diborite skin intact.
Step one: save the friendly ships. Step two: kill the hostile ships before they kill me.
“Grey squadron, new tasking.” My synthesized voice was tranquil over the comms to the fighter squadron. “Come about to 143 mark 027. Target is a Thanatos carrier. Hostile Pilot: Alasker.”
The Queen’s drone command channels also transmitted the relevant data to the fighters, but unlike the unmanned drones, the fighter pilots would do better with a verbal command; my dulcet tones were a far better motivator than a flashing icon on the HUD indicating their new target. Normal humans couldn’t absorb data like a capsuleer. Hearing my calm voice over the comms in the midst of this chaos would boost their confidence. At least, that’s what the training manual said.
To port, I watched an Archon-class carrier list out of formation, trailing atmosphere with zero-g fire billowing out from the gashes in her golden hull. The Black Legion dreadnought fleet—only one of the hostile fleets arrayed against us—had just claimed another victim. Personnel escape pods shot out from the wreck. The hydrostatic pod with the capsuleer ejected violently, burning out for distance in a desperate attempt to get away. The oily green pod didn’t make it. A TEST Alliance interceptor’s autocannon fusillade shredded the pod with contemptuous ease.
In response to frigates swarming among us, the supercarriers ignited their smartbombs. Smartbomb was a misnomer; the powerful energy pulse damaged everything in its eight kilometer effective range, including friendly ships. The Queen had the powerful shields of a capital ship, and so was largely unaffected by these energy bursts. The smaller enemy frigates however, were not so well-protected.
When I said that I became my ship, I wasn’t being completely metaphorical. My body was in a near-suspended animation, with all other sensory input suppressed. My eyes were the ship’s sensors and camera drones. My ears were the data interlinks. My skin the shields. My bones the beams of the hull. The psychosomatic sensations were all part of the human mind linking with a ship.
The gentle breeze of the smartbomb’s trivial impacts was easily ignored. The pins and needles tingling in my hands were not. The threat warning receivers reported dozens of sources, mostly radar and magnetometric locks. The hammer of the Black Legion dreadnoughts would fall on me next. Well, my ship, but like I told you, there wasn’t a lot of difference.
I reported my situation over the fleet interlinks, and requested any remote shield transfers available. Under normal circumstances the two score dreadnoughts shooting me would be survivable, but not today. Today, there were too many enemy fleets; too many ships were under attack. The remote shield transfers that would have kept me alive were all needed elsewhere. TEST, Pandemic Legion, Northern Coalition, and Black Legion had all come to Asakai; the Boatman had led the DekCo’s capital fleet into their own bespoke ambush.
I wasn’t planning on laying down and taking it. I started to reconfigure the power systems to shunt all the energy from my capacitor to the shields. Then, I opened the control links to reconfigure to energize the armor plating. At this point there was no question of keeping my ship intact. There was simply no way that I could survive that sort of firepower without assistance; all I could do was try to buy time for my crew to get out.
“Soise, get to a pod and get clear,” I said via a private comm link to my best friend and executive officer. She’d come to the stars with me, and I’d given her a bridge slot on my carrier. Capital ships were supposed to be safe. While I was telling Soise personally, I sounded the abandon ship call to the rest of the crew.
“Alright,” she said, the bridge microphones picking up her voice and feeding it to me. “I’ll see you back in Deklein. Be safe!”
Now, I just needed to stay alive long enough to get my crew time to evacuate.
It wasn’t enough.
Giga beam lasers and siege blasters battered my shields. Angry red welts appeared on my torso, floating in my pod. This was real damage. Desperately, I tried to route more power to the shields, overloading the booster.
It wasn’t enough.
Capital torpedoes and 2500mm autocannon rounds blew shuttle-sized shards from my armor. The amniotic fluid of the pod tinged crimson as my nose started to bleed. The ship was in pain and so was I.
Explosions smashed through the armor and raced deep into the hull, through bulkheads and compartments. Hundreds of my crew perished from shrapnel or immense overpressure. The lucky ones died quickly. Others would die slowly from decompression, agonizing as their blood boiled in the vacuum of space. My crew carried out untold acts of bravery, trying to get comrades out of damaged compartments, or tourniquet a stump of a limb to save a friend. Everyone ran to the escape pods.
It wasn’t enough.
A railgun round streaked through my ship at one tenth the speed of light and breached one of the graviton power cores. The computer initiated a SCRAM to keep it from going critical. The emergency shutdown worked. Barely.
It wasn’t nearly enough.
Zero-g fire billowed from holes in the hull, propelled outward by escaping gas. Several of the main structural integrity girders were twisted or snapped completely by enemy fire or explosions. The thrusters flamed out. The burning pain of my dying ship radiated all over my body, almost too much to bear. It was too much to bear. I had bought my crew all the time I could and ejected my pod.
All the pain ceased as the mind/machine interface links severed my connection with the dying carrier. I mentally shook myself, going from a two and a half kilometer long carrier to a four meter long pod. It was as if my mind had been stretched almost to the breaking point and then snapped back. The camera drone feeds changed over to the command interfaces of the pod and my sensors reached out so I could see again.
The Queen was wrecked; my prized possession had been savaged by enemy fire. The grey hull was scorched black. The armor was splintered and cracked. The rear engine housing hung at an odd angle, only connected by a thread of twisted metal. The tiny thruster blooms of escape pods burned away, getting my crew to safety, including Soise.
The hydrostatic pod had nothing that could help. All I could do was watch and hope that I had bought them enough time. The battle still raged all around me. Glittering laser beams cut through the night. The red-tinged detonations of the inferno missiles, bright blue thruster trails as the behemoth ships maneuvered were quite pretty. It reminded me of the fireworks displays on Federation Day.
A smartbomb pulse wave from a gleaming gold Aeon-class supercarrier smashed into the side of Queen of Swords’ hulk. With no shields, no armor, and a broken keel, the blastwave rushed through the ship and split one of the reactor housings.
The camera drone feed washed out white. When the feed had cleared, there was no carrier wreck and no escape pods. Just a cloud of expanding debris.
If I could have screamed, I would have. All I could do was wail mentally in anguish, the only outward sign the brightening of the navigation lights on my pod before they burned out. I sat dead in space, the salt of my tears mixing with the amniotic fluid of the pod. Everyone was gone, including Soise; the least I could do was join her.
I didn’t have to wait long. The smartbomb on the Nyx-class supercarrier above me had completed its recharge cycle and detonated. The blastwave overwhelmed the pod’s shields and savaged the hull. By the time the amniotic tank inside decompressed, I was dead.
Like I said, it wasn’t the first time I had died and would not be the last. My name is Astra Benivette, and I am a capsuleer. In a cluster of trillions of people, only the smallest fraction of a fraction of a percent can do what I do. For most, the linking of a brain to a ship, even something as small as a frigate would cause them to go catatonic. It happens to capsuleers sometimes, too; we call it wetgraving. The training is so intense and demanding that there’s a ninety-five percent failure rate. Almost twenty percent of the candidates that start the program will die during training, but capsuleers are too important to die permanently.
Capsuleers lead mankind’s expansion into space. We go to the far edges of the map—and even off the map into wormholes—to the margins where “here there be monsters” is written and fight the monsters. We mine precious metals from asteroids and moons, build infrastructure, and research new technologies. In the margins of the map lie the ruins of civilizations long past with secrets to explore and wealth to plunder. In the lawless regions of space, the only protection is force and friends, so I had joined Goonswarm, the most powerful organization in null security and learned how to fight. This made me very rich and powerful. Rich, powerful, and immortal, I am a demigod, but there are a few hundred thousand others like me. Most are not my friends.
The main asset of a capsuleer is her mind, specifically, the elasticity. Going from a person to a ship and back to a person again requires a mental flexibility far and above what an average person can do. It also allows us to learn all that we need to know to effectively fly a ship. A capsuleer learns by having the information directly downloaded into her brain with cybernetics. On any given planet that I step on, I am in the top ten—not percent, ten total—smartest people on the planet, excluding other capsuleers, with knowledge equivalent to several doctorates in science, engineering, technology, and math. I can do poly-gravity well intercepts in my head. I can plot a multi-light year jump, taking into account thirty stars, one black hole, a pulsar, and three comets in the destination system. I know how to calibrate fusion thrusters and high energy railguns. In learning all of this, I never cracked a book once.
I am still human, though, with a human vessel to carry my consciousness. When I am not a warship, I am a five feet and five inch tall woman. My weight is none of your business. I have pale grey eyes and raven black hair.
With my humanity comes human emotions. A microchip does not care about the data that it processes, nor does it notice if parts of the computer are replaced. It impassively crunches numbers to produce a result. I laugh and love. I cry and mourn. I anger and rage. My best friend had just been murdered, so let me tell you how I got revenge.
This article originally appeared on TheMittani.com.