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The Elitist, Part Five: Hunting Dogs

Dog Eat Dog

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Brendan continues his life as space misfit in our Elite Dangerous Diary. In this final entry, he finds himself settling down among the stars with a steady delivery job. But how long can the simple life last?

There she is, the Asp Explorer. A gargantuan beast of a spaceship, she is able to blast every wannabe outlaw out of the sky and still jump 10 lightyears to drop off one-hundred tonnes of coffee to some jittery, caffeine-starved miners two systems away. Able to function both as a military vehicle and a civilian transport, she is the interstellar equivalent of a Land Rover. Standard fittings include multi-cannons, heat sinks, point defence turrets. Average engine mass of 500 tonnes, power usage threshold of 17.00mw. She is wonderful. I watch as the Asp veers over my head, out of the docking bay and into the black beyond. The Asp is not my ship. No. This is my ship…

The Lakon Type-6 Transporter. Aka, the Cosmic Lorry. A great, shuddering bulge of rectangular metal, sporting a decent cargo hold and not much else. There are those who sing the virtues of the Type-6, referring to her compartment size as if it were some great interterrestrial booty ripe for the twerking. I don’t see it like that. To me this thing is a chain, an anchor. I have been flying the Type-6, it seems, for a century. Ferrying superconductors to one system and progenitor cells back again. I have never Googled what either of these items are. All I care is that they net me a 180,000 credit profit for every round trip – more than I have ever earned in a steady trade route. More than I have ever heard anyone earning.

My days are slow. I make a cup of hot chocolate and rev up the old lorry’s engines. I jump from Canis Venatici to Canum Venaticorum, two systems so similarly named that even translating them from the original Latin does not help to identify one from the other. Both names mean “Hunting Dogs”. I suppose one name is the genitive case, if you read Latin and care about that sort of thing. I don’t.

I jump from Canis to Canum and back again. I drop off my cargo and do the same thing a dozen more times. Sometimes I take a detour to the backwater Ivanchenkov colony, to sell them robotics and take cheap scrap back to the Dogs. When I’m there, I sometimes stop to look down on the planet below, it’s cracked volcanic surface wrinkled with canyons, glowing with fire. I frown at Elite’s lack of planet-landing features and the time it will likely take to implement these things. Hopefully, when I can finally go down there, to the surface of LHS 2691 A2, it won’t simply be a cosmetic add-on. I hope to God there will be something to do.

I leave the backwater and carry on my trucker’s life. From Canis to Canum, from Canum to Canis. In reality, the constellation I currently inhabit is a regular target of SETI’s radio telescopes. One of the stars nearby, Chara, is so like our own sun that scientists hope it harbours an Earth-like planet. I myself have never been to Chara. There is no demand for superconductors there.

From Canis to Canum. Back and forth, back and forth. I have raised my bank balance from 900,000 to just under 3.5 million credits. But life in space has not gotten any better. I fit out my lorry with bigger cargo holds, I strip away the shields and add an Auto Maintenance Field for on-the-hoof hull repair. I strap a point defence turret onto the roof, so anybody launching missiles will be disappointed when they burst impotently, metres away from my naked hull. I do all this in one of the spaceports and I picture myself as a mechanic on a dolly trolly, sliding out from underneath the Type-6’s engines, wiping my hands down with a blackened rag. But really, all I am doing is tinkering with the game’s semi-penetrable outfitting menu.

I jet out of port with my new defensive upgrades, yearning for someone to come and interdict me, to pull me out of warp and start a scrap, the thrill of escape, the heart-thumping fear of rounding on an aggressor and firing all cannons in a fit, because even space rats fight in corners – just like the old times!

But nobody ever comes. Back and forth I go, dropping off the progenitor cells, picking up the superconductors. Back and forth. 180,000 credits. More money than I have ever made. Woohoo. I guess.

The space cops of Canum know me well. Gone are the days when the security were my worst foes. Now, they practically nod me past with barely a scan. They appear as green, ‘friendly’ blips on my sensors. In fact the whole of Janifer Port appears green, because I have done so many odd-jobs for the Bureau of Canum. The port hovers above a rocky world, capped with ice on either end. Sometimes I stop here too, looking down (up? sidelong?) at the icecaps and the clouds. This planet has an atmosphere of… whatever. It doesn’t matter, I can’t land there. And even if I could, I have grinding to do.

In Canis there are no green blips. The Crimson Cartel own the station where I drop off my cargo load – Kornbluth Station – and they only offer dodgy missions involving stolen goods, or less-profitable mineral runs. I turn the Cartel down every time. I have found the best money-making route in the known galaxy, why would I leave that? I float out of Kornbluth’s blinking gateway and hover above the station’s rotating bulb.

There is a city below, skyscrapers and apartment blocks with winking yellow windows. I wonder what the Crimson Cartel is like to look at. Who are their leaders? And do they rule the revolving city with a Mafia-like grip, unstable and edgy? Or do they have a more measured rule? More importantly for Elite’s ambitious future, I want to know if I will get any sense of the place at all, or any sense of the people, when I am finally allowed to walk behind those windows. The game is so much a space sim, so much a computer screen, that the upcoming human element worries me. In fact, now that I think about it, a lot about Elite’s future worries me.

I steer away from the bulb of lights, automatically flicking my destination lock back to Canum. I can see the twin gas giants that hang in space nearby. Both of them have a ring of icy rocks, except you can’t see the nearest planet’s ring because Kornbluth orbits at exactly the latitude of the belt. The hoop of ice is so thin that it doesn’t appear, even as a tiny line around the planet.

All this atmosphere and down time allows me to think. Elite is a brilliant game. I love it to bits. I wouldn’t have played 90+ hours of it if I didn’t. But come the day of its release, it had better deliver. It better be rid of all the annoying bugs (the flickering dashboards, the way the landing bay options sometimes default to ‘Launch’ even though you have only just landed, or the banjaxed Friends and Private Group system, which just plain doesn’t work). And it had better have more to it than this, or at least more ways to make a decent dime. Not for the sake of obsessives like me, but for the sake of the punters who backed the game ages ago – people who must have in their minds an image of the game set out in that Kickstarter video. Because I’m not sure if that game is all here yet and Frontier have only a month left to put the wax on. This plateau I have encountered between ships, for instance, is less “game” and more “second job”.

Right now, it is simultaneously capable of both stunning beauty and inescapable boredom. I have taken part in adrenaline-fuelled dog-fights, terrifying near-crashes and lethal pursuits. But I have also taken part in 15-minute journeys through an eventless vacuum, travelling in a straight line long enough to go and make a curry. It is saying a lot when I, the worst multi-tasker in the known universe, will only play Elite if I am able to listen to the radio at the same time.

At Janifer Port – that green-hued, jolly place – I spot another human player, piloting a Cobra. He wobbles into the station and starts to land on one of the docking bays. It has been a long time since I saw another person. For a moment I think I may be too far away from the central systems for real people to visit, but my galaxy map says I am only a handful of jumps away from the systems where new players start. I have been doing the Canis-Canum run for so long, it just feels like I have gone a long way. I direct my comms at the human ship.

“Hailing,” I say. “Come in.”

His ship freezes in mid-air. For a while, there is nothing. I rev up my engines and leave the station. This is how it always is. Nobody really talks in Elite. Nobody ever —

“thanks”

I pull back my thruster and come to a halt. Backer #45155, as he is named, is responding. And he is giving me thanks.

“What for?” I ask.

“you said come in as i was docking”

Ah. I had meant “come in” like a radio operator’s “come in”. Like, “come in, Apollo” or “come in, Bowie”. But Backer #45155 had taken it as a literal invitation to my adoptive space port. I glossed over the mistake and we got to talking. What trade routes was he doing? How much cash was he making? Did he like Elite?

“i love it,” he said. “can’t wait to see what they add”

I guess that’s the general feeling, out here in the inky black. We all love the game but it just doesn’t feel finished. I suppose that’s because, well, it isn’t. I looked at my bank balance and at the route to Canis. I looked at the hologram of Janifer station on my dashboard, friendly and safe and sickly green, its twin arms twirling round a single cuboid chunk, like some giant rotting shish kebab.

I broke. 3.5 million credits deep into my savings for the Asp, I gave up on the dream. I dipped into the money and visited the station’s shipyard. I bought an Eagle, a Viper and a Cobra. But still, having a garage full of spaceships didn’t feel like enough. I wanted more, I wanted to use them. So I emailed Pip.

The plan (although Pip didn’t know it) was to head out to a Nav Beacon, near a central star, and scan everyone passing by with a warrant scanner. If clean: let ‘em go. If wanted: boom. But the game did not want to play. The Friends-list management is not working and no matter how we fiddled with the menu, we were unable to see or meet each other in the same instance. After some flying about, Pip left for bed. It looked like a dud evening. I had spent all my cash on a fight I would never have. No Asp, no friends, no fight. Idly, I targeted another human who just happened to be floating by.

Commander Monkeyspunk.

I followed him. He was heading towards Asellus Prime, and my computer detected his jump drives charging. Without thinking, I did the same. When we landed in Asellus Prime I lined up behind him and fired off my Interdictor – the device that lets you pull someone out of super cruise. Monkeyspunk wasn’t Wanted. He wasn’t even dangerous-looking. Something about his name just grated against my mood. It was like some obscene graffiti on this gorgeous cosmic canvas that I just had to wipe clean. I grabbed him out of super cruise, rounded on him, pulled my multi-cannons out and without warning, started to let the bullets fly. He turned and dived, shot back and even cracked my windshield, bringing my hull down to about 80%. But my heart was pumping, this was what I wanted. No more Canis, no more Canum. I was the hunting dog here. I let off a volley of dumbfire missiles, right as he crossed my sights. Monkeyspunk exploded and I felt…

Wait. Actually, I feel shit. Why do I feel shit? A message flashed on my info screen.

“Warning: 1020 CR bounty gained: murder of Monkeyspunk.”

Murder. All the fear and the combat high of the dogfight left me at once. This wasn’t some NPC crim. This was just some dude playing on his computer, trying to make a decent spacebuck. He was marked as ‘clean’ and ‘harmless’ by the scanner. Why did I want to fight him? Boredom? Was that all?

I landed at an unsecured orbital, repaired my hull and reloaded. I felt bad about the kill but not so guilty that I didn’t bribe the local security office into forgetting about my bounty. I took off again, clean and fresh. Still, maybe there was no need for that carry-on anymore. Let’s just stick to Wanted targets from now on, I thought. That business with the… Yeah. Never mind, it can’t be changed. But from now on, only criminals. Only “Bad Guys.”

I entered super cruise and saw another human, speeding through the system. I scanned him. His information lit up.

Commander Loran Lovanchy: Wanted.

Okay. this was it. If I can kill this Loran, that’ll be me square with karma, right? That’s how this justice stuff works, doesn’t it? I weaved near the pilot and fired my Interdictor. My computer flashed.

“Get behind target”

I looped around and tried again. They would be travelling the other way now.

“Get behind target”

Huh? This didn’t add up. The ship was going in one direction, then the other. I curved around for a second time. I couldn’t think of why the pilot would turn so sharp in super cruise mode, unless they were…

“Get behind target”

They were. Loran was trying to Interdict me at the same time. To any outsider, it would have looked ridiculous. We were whirring around each other in faster-than-light spirals, each trying to get behind the other. Okay, I decided. Why not play the victim? Lovanchy may not have realised what I was trying to do as well. They might not be expecting a clean catch to fight back as soon as we both drop. I lowered my thrust to an amiable speed and waited. Within a few seconds, there it was. The warble of an interdiction field. Let’s go, Double-L.

We drop out and I correct my ship’s direction instantly, deploying weapons and turning to face Loran. The gimballed cannons lock on and start whirring. Soon, bullets are churning out, clipping off my target. Caught completely off-guard, Loran dives and disappears behind me. I curl around and get the fugitive back in my sights. But the distance between us is too great. I waste gallons of cannon rounds just giving the enemy Cobra a light peppering. And now that I’m reloading, Loran is turning to come at me, face first. The Cobra bears down. Lasers burn over everything.

Foolishly, I stay on track, spinning to try and deflect the beams. But by the time I have reloaded, Loran has already passed. Now I can’t see, the beams are landing on me from an angle I just can’t deal with. My hull is being eaten. How did this … how did turn so fast? My windshield cracks again. A single word flashes in my mind.

Murder.

Maybe this is how that justice stuff works?

I explode.

Back in Canis and Canum, the NPC transports ferry cargo back and forth, back and forth. Backer #45155 is probably asleep, or powering down his ship in the green comfort of Janifer Port. Tomorrow: another day of deliveries.

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Who am I?

Brendan Caldwell

Staff Writer

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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