The Forge Region – Anttanen Constellation
Uitra System – Planet VI, Moon 4
State War Academy Station
25 March YC 121
“Mr Vuonolailen, what was the point of the yesterday’s mission? Shooting Arrogators is not what I expected from an advanced military course,” I asked a bit testily. “Surely, Mr Tarumo’s letter gave you a good idea of my track record which contained much tougher encounters.”
“That was just a quick test, Mr Korff. I prefer to verify my students’ credentials before sending them into the fray,” explained Ijumachi.
“Okay, I understand, Mr Vuonolailen, but I hope that the future missions will live up to the expectations set by the course name.”
Ijumachi smiled and said, “So you want me to set a high bar for you? Okay, how about piloting a hellburner?”
“I have never heard of such ship model. Is it Caldari?”
“It’s not a model, it’s a ship’s role. Hellburners are loaded with explosives and are blown up near the enemy’s fleet or structure.”
I couldn’t believe my ears, “Wait a moment! Do you want me to blow up myself?”
“Well, I know that I am sort of immortal, but I wouldn’t like to test that without a good reason. Is there any other way?”
Vuonolailen threw his hands in the air, “Whoa! I am not asking you to kill yourself, only self-destroy the ship. You will be perfectly safe in your capsule. As to the reason, we have found the headquarters of the pirate gang that you fought against yesterday, and we want to demolish it. To do it using conventional weapons you must fly at least a battleship. As far as I know, you don’t have neither the ship nor the skills to pilot it. So, the easiest and fastest way for you to accomplish this mission is to fly a hellburner to the pirates’ tower and explode it.”
Although I was glad I wouldn’t need to commit suicide, I still had my reservations, “Are you sure that blowing the ship from inside will not damage the capsule?”
“Don’t worry, Mr Korff, we will install necessary safeguards. For one thing, your capsule will be ejected from the ship a few seconds before the explosion. It will give you enough distance and velocity to mitigate the explosive damage.”
I felt that further objections would paint me as a coward and begrudgingly acquiesced, “Okay, Mr Vuonolailen, I am taking this mission. Hope the reward will be large enough to cover the loss of my ship.”
“I’ll tell you more, Mr Korff: we will give you a Condor-class frigate so that you don’t have to sacrifice your own.”
“Much appreciated, Mr Vuonolailen,” nodded I and left the office.
When I came to the hangar the new ship was already there. While I was grimly studying its specifications a man in engineering uniform came over and addressed me, “Mr Korff?”
I looked up from my datapad, “Yes?”
“My name is Lassi Saito, I am Chief Mechanic. My team have been working on rigging this little beauty with explosives. Have you piloted a hellburner before, Mr Korff?”
“No, not really. Do they have any other peculiarities apart from short life expectancy?”
“Yes, it’s the way the charge is detonated. You can’t control it through the regular neural interface. In order to activate the bomb you’ll have to ram the frigate into the target.”
“Sounds simple enough.”
“Yep, simple and effective,” nodded Lassi, “I wish you good luck, Captain,” he shook my hand and winked, “Just make sure you don’t bump into any ships on your way, or this Condor’s life expectancy will be shorter than it should be.”
I smiled wryly, “Thank you for the advice, Mr Saito. I’ll be careful.”
After Lassi had left I boarded the capsule and asked the dock crew to load it into the Condor. Then I made the second hardest decision that day – I woke up Aura.
“Good morning,” chirped Aura. “Ooh cool, we have a new ship! Why is she still called Vladimir Korff’s Condor? Let’s give her a proper name.”
“No, it will have no name,” said I and told Aura about the new mission. “I guess, you can appreciate that I’d prefer not to build any kind of emotional rapport with this sacrificial lamb by giving her a name. It would haunt me till the end of my life, which may be a very, very long time.”
Aura was listening with a horrified expression on her face. When I finished she looked at me compassionately and said, “You don’t want to fly this mission, do you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“But you will?” She made it sound more like a statement than a question.
“Yes, I will.”
“But why? Can’t you decline it?”
I shook my head, “No. This is the test that I have to pass. By the way, will you fly with me?”
Aura lowered her eyes and whispered, “I don’t know. I am scared.”
“What are you scared of?”
“Scared to never see you again.”
I was astonished, “Why would that happen? Neither of us is gonna die on this mission and even if worse comes to worst we are both backed up.”
“I don’t know. I have never died before. What if the backup is corrupted? What if it doesn’t work?” gabbled Aura.
“Well, if you wish we can test the backup. I can order another capsule and restore your copy there.”
Aura’s eyes grew large, “And what are you going to do with it afterwards? What will you do with two Auras?”
I shrugged, “Nothing. I just planned to switch the copy off.”
“But you will kill me. The moment the copy is restored we will be indistinguishable but separate individuals. How will you choose which one of us to kill? How will you dare to make such choice?” cried Aura.
That was getting too complicated. I raised my hands, “Forget about the backup. If you are afraid to fly just transfer your consciousness to the station data centre and wait for me there.”
“I am sorry,” sniffed Aura and disappeared.
Three minutes later I warped the Condor to an acceleration gate whose coordinates were in the mission brief. The gate was unguarded which was lucky as I didn’t mount any weapons at all. Activating the gate I moved to a deadspace pocket occupied by a spindle-like tower – this ship’s final destination. The station was guarded by two Pithi Arrogators and one Imputor which immediately engaged me. I didn’t have time to lose so I willed the Condor to approach the tower and increased the speed to the maximum. As the station grew larger in the viewport, the blood in my veins was replaced with pure adrenaline and my heart was bursting through the rib cage. Suffocating, delirious, I cried “Banzai!” and closed my eyes.
I expected a headlong collision but instead, a split second before the contact, I felt like a giant foot gave me a mighty kick ejecting the capsule through the roof. Despite the protective goo I was almost flattened and for a while I couldn’t breathe at all. At the same moment I heard a terrifying scream which made my heart go from 300 beats per minute to absolute zero. Frozen with horror I managed to squeeze, “Aura?”
“Yes,” she whimpered.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
Before she could answer the Condor exploded and its shock wave sent the capsule tumbling through space. Aura screamed again. When the capsule’s gyros stabilised our position she sniffled and said, “I… I just couldn’t leave you alone.”
I was about to tell her off because she scared me silly by her scream but then I realised what she had actually gone through: frightened to death herself she still had chosen to go with me on a dangerous mission because she thought I needed her. Touched by her loyalty I said gently, “Thank you, Aura,” and added, “Are you okay?”
She smiled through tears and said, “I am alright. What about you?”
“Me?” I took stock of my senses, “Without any modules, or even slots, I feel like some of my body parts have been amputated. It’s been a while since I piloted a capsule so I forgot that feeling.”
“Same here. Without a ship I feel naked, exposed,” complained Aura. “Let’s go home.”
“But what about the mission?”
“Look,” said she and trained one of the camera drones on the pirate headquarters.
The tower was still there but it had developed deep cracks in its surface through which long tongues of flame jetted into the space. Suddenly they were all sucked in and the structure seemed to become smaller as if it was about to implode. Then the whole view was filled by pure white light which blinded me for a few seconds. When my sight was restored the station was no more – in its place there was a rapidly expanding ball of debris. The Condor explosion had carried us to a safe distance from the tower so the capsule only rocked slightly when the shock wave reached it.
Aura smiled at me and said, “The mission is accomplished, Captain.”
I smiled back, “Then take us home, babe.”