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17

The Elitist, Part Three: Picking A Fight

Fight The Law And Run

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Brendan’s misadventures in deep space continue in our Elite: Dangerous diary. This week, he gears up for some risky bounty hunting and runs into his old foes, the space police.

It was the silence that worried me. I had dropped out of warp into a pocket of space marked on my navigation chart as a ‘High Intensity Combat Zone’, and yet when I looked into the distance there was nothing but empty, quiet space. The only thing on my sensors was another lonely player, floating through the noiseless void, probably just as spooked as I was. It did not make sense. Where was everyone? Then we heard it. The instantly recognisable sound of trouble.

WHOMP.

Dozens of spacecraft dropped out of super cruise in a single moment and, without a nanosecond’s hesitation, the laser fire began. I panicked, shut down my engines and shields and willed my ship’s temperature to drop to unrecognisable levels. The game doesn’t lie when it says ‘High Intensity’. More ships than I could count filled up my sensors with flickering yellow lights, wavering about above the holographic disk in my cockpit, like fireflies.

On the other side of my windshield, a huge Anaconda screamed past, metres away from me. It seemed too busy with incoming laser beams to notice me.

Further away, fuel trails left by fighter craft twisted around each other like worms suspended in a bottle of formaldehyde. A ship exploded a few kilometres away, then another.

Another sped past me, joining the fray with a gladness I seemed unable to muster.

It was the kick I needed. I was here to kill, according to the mission I had taken from the Azeban City authorities. If I could get just 3 kills of the right kind I would be rewarded fairly. And on top of that, I might get bounty money for each individual. I flipped on my shields and engines, then clicked the button that signalled my allegiance to the lawmakers.

“Warning,” said my ships computer. “Under attack.”

Uh, wait.

“Thrusters malfunctioned.”

No, er, hang on.

“Engine stabilisers disengaged.”

The what?

“Shields offline.”

Please, just —

“Eject. Eject. Eject. Eje–

Bang.

Elite is a game about making mistakes. My mistake with the Azeban warzone was to join a faction without giving my shields enough time to fully recharge. I also went into a conflict zone way too heavy for my preppy little Sidewinder (two pulse lasers, no speed stripes) and way too populated for my piloting skill to be anything but laughable. Let’s face it, I am no Isinona. The ranking on my ship’s status screen reads: “Cmdr Caldwell: Harmless”.

But Elite is also a game about rectifying your mistakes. I was not poor, by any means, and the loss of a staring Sidewinder always costs the grand sum of Zero Dollah. A plan started to come together in my head. I had about 370,000 credits by this stage. I could afford to buy a new ship, something fast and heavy. I poked around on Chango Dock until I found exactly what I was looking for. The Cobra Mk III.

10.46 lightyear jump range. 60 tonne max cargo capacity. 4 weapons hardpoints. And a maximum boost speed of 400 metres per second – almost double what I could currently achieve. She was no Asp but she was what I needed to get there. I put down my well-earned cash and bought the beauty right there and then. She was smooth, fast and tough. But most importantly, look, she had a co-pilot’s chair!

This wasn’t my first time piloting a Cobra, so I was ready for the heavier handling (she is slower to brake than the nippy Sidewinder, especially her lateral and vertical thrust). I wasn’t prepared to load her up with expensive war gear just yet. Not until I could afford some good stuff and still have enough for the insurance for when it all went inevitably south. I suppose ‘south’ is a pointless term in space. Bad, I should say. For when it all went inevitably bad.

So money, as always, was my first objective. The easier the money, the happier the space scum. In the trade-lite, courier-heavy universe of Elite’s second Beta, you have to rely somewhat on your ability to come up with a good ruse. I was one of the petty conmen who engaged in the theft and reselling of one of the game’s most commonly sought prizes – gold.

The ruse works like this. You fall into a space station you know for sure has a black market and read the bulletin board. Maybe you accept some odd jobs – message delivery, light cargo runs, all legal and above board – but you always keep your cargo space free by at least one tonne. Because every now and then someone posts a job that requires gold (or maybe silver) to be transported. This, you accept with a smile on your face. Then, using your cockpits mission screen, you immediately abandon the mission. This has the negative effect of marking the gold sitting in your cargo bay as ‘stolen’. Luckily, you know this station has a black market. Immediately, you head over and sell the stuff, like so much dodgy jewellry, for whatever price your fence is offering.

You will usually only get half or a third of the money you would have if you had simply delivered the precious metal. But importantly, you did not have to travel anywhere. Time. That is the thing you have saved. The only instance transporting gold is worth it is if there are already a lot of other jobs going to the same place.

It sounds a lot more criminally cool than it is. The beta has not yet implemented (as far as I can tell) any punishment for this type of theft. No fines, no bad reputation. Players still argue amongst themselves whether the gold con should be classed as an exploit or not. Whatever the case, it is not as exciting as it sounds on paper. It’s an opportunistic crime, as these missions are not as common as others. And really all you are doing is navigating computer menus in such a way that marginally increases your bank balance, like some kind of amateur hacker.

I am not ashamed. I was desperate to kit out my Cobra with some decent firepower. If succumbing to the shallow acts of a cosmic fraudster was what it took, so be it. Anyway, most of the money I made was legal. Not that the policemen of Brooks Estate would believe me.

This is Brooks Estate. An upper-class station in an upper-class system. It can be identified by its palm trees, parks and greenery. The police in this system do not like smugglers. Recently, I had been jettisoning tonnes of fruit and veg (so wasteful) and pitching scrap metal into the void because if the cops scanned me and found me with stolen goods, I would have been done for. And the Feds seemed particularly scan-happy these days. Twice I was rudely pulled over, shunted out of super cruise, so that a security vessel could go through my cargo manifest. It was like they were looking for a reason to shoot me down. Well, they got what they wanted, in the end.

After a lot of mission-stacking, I took a look at my Cobra. I was ready to make her whole. The money I had scrubbed got me 3 gimbal cannons (projectile guns that track your target’s position), one of them a ‘high impact’ monster. It also bought me a missile rack for the ship’s underbelly and shield cell bank – a gadget I was not wholly sure how to use. The thing had something to do with re-charging shields and I bought it, mostly, because it was cheap. It would eventually conspire to save my life.

On top of all this I upgraded my cargo space by an extra 16 tonnes. This was it. Not only was my Cobra able to make more money in haulage than ever before, she was also finally war-worthy. Now, it was only a matter of picking the right fight.

It always feels like coming home, when I close in on Freeport. There was a queue at the docking bay when I arrived that day but once inside I knew I was safe (as safe as you can be in an anarchic system). I refuelled, reloaded my munitions and bribed an official to clear my bounty. There was no way I was being gunned down over a simple error. But now I had an idea. The rings around Anahit, the sector of space I used to panhandle in my prospecting days, was also home to a resource extraction point – a mining operation among the asteroids. I had visited it before and watched from a silent, frozen cockpit as vessels picked fights with each other. It was like Freeport’s fight club. A place anyone could go to get into a one-on-one scuffle, occasionally pestered by other ‘contestants’.

It was also full of known criminals.

This was the fight I would pick then. I boosted out of Freeport and soon landed neatly in the planet’s ring. It wasn’t long before I found two ships duking it out. One was a wanted criminal (I made sure of it) by the name of Fiona Saxby. The other: a cop. Disgusted as I was by the stench of bacon in the place I consider my home system, there was no reward for killing a lawman. I locked onto Saxby and squeezed the trigger. The gimballed cannons tore through her shields and shredded her hull, sparks flew out, lighting her ship up like a firework display. I launched a missile but she turned too fast and it spun off into the rocks. On the next turn I got her straight on and held down my cannon’s trigger until I saw her hull reading hit 0%. Saxby spun out of control, pivoting uselessly like a dying insect, then exploded. I flew through the debris, howling.

Her friend Johnny went down even easier.

And their buddy Taziir too.

I’m making money at such a rate, why didn’t I try this before? But my celebration is short-lived. Once again, it’s the police who are crashing the party. A ship had started to peck away at my shields as I was fighting the third outlaw. Only now, with my target destroyed do I see it is a security fighter craft – an Eagle with an inflamed sense of justice and a pair of pulse lasers steaming at the nozzles. “Okay,” I think to myself, “here comes the law, time to bug out.” But that’s not what happens. I see the red reticule around his ship and part of my brain goes reptile. My arm is already turning my joystick to face him. I get around with a quick manoeuvre and end up tailing him. The law ain’t welcome here. This is Freeport space!

I pepper the cop with cannon rounds, keeping pace with him so that the damage doesn’t fall off with the range. But some opportunistic dirtbag (more likely a fellow cop) is taking potshots at me, lasering me from behind. My shields are dropping rapidly but I can’t turn to face it – I have to stay on this one’s tail. Shit, now my shields are nearly half down. How am I going to —

The shield cell bank! I swap weapon groups and press the button for the device. It works! My shields are regenerating quickly and the laser fire is having negligible effect. I veer with my target and take a last volley at the policeman. He bursts into light and fire. Yeeeeeeooooooo! I fought the law and the law got blown up! I smiled. Then I looked at my radar.

Two red blips.

Three red blips.

Four red blips.

Oh god.

I turned away from as many of the flashing blips as possible and slammed the afterburner. Fire was raining down on my back hard. I hit my shield cell bank again but it was too late – my shields were out clean. Now it was just some chunks of metal between me and the cosmos. I hammered the thrust full pelt, completely at the mercy of this pack of law-wolves behind me. Hull at 65%. Hull at 40%. Hull at 30%. This can’t be happening, not again. If I die I’ll lose all my bounty vouchers and I’ll have to pay for the destroyed Cobra. Want my advice? If you ever want to feel some fear during an Elite skirmish, just think of the insurance costs.

I sped onward, desperately pressing and re-pressing the afterburner button, as if the empty clicking sound would make my engines recharge quicker. Then I saw my saviour. An asteroid was swelling into my path, close as hell but easily dodgeable. I didn’t even think about my next move. Instinctively, I dived and swivelled toward the rock, banking hard behind it just as I skimmed the surface, probably by no more than 500 metres.

It worked. The firing paused. The asteroid had blocked the path and view of the pursuing ships long enough for me to slap more power to systems and engines. My shields came back online and I angled the Cobra upward, away from the belt. The hull was holding at 23%, but in my mind the ship was being held together by Pritt Stick. I was still mass locked to the ring but one more burst of afterburner lifted me out of the way. I was clear to jump. My drive charged and charged and charged until I heard that wonderful sound. That sound that had so recently crippled me with fear but now was the most welcome thing in the world.

WHOMP.

There was another sound. It was coming from my mouth as I sat in front of the computer screen, like the elated yelp of some happy madman. I was laughing. I was actually laughing.

When I saw the bill I passed my tongue over my teeth and sucked air in annoyance. The fight had been tense (so tense that you’ll notice no screens of the latter half exist, so terrified was I to take my hands from my ship’s controls). But I had not expected the bill for hull repair and ammo replacement to be over twice as much as the money made from the three bounties.

I sighed. Never mind, I was only down about 3000 credits. I looked over at my status screen. In one fight I had jumped from 3 to 7 kills. My ranking still read “Harmless”. But you know what? For the first time in my career as a space rat, I didn’t feel it.

Next week: Mining! Fuel scooping! New ships! THE GAME HAS HAD ANOTHER MASSIVE UPDATE.

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Features Editor

Brendan likes all types of games. To him there is wisdom in Crusader Kings 2, valour in Dark Souls, and tragicomedy in Nidhogg.

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