Tuesday, 28 April 2015

The conflicted mercenary and the tail of the tiger

I didn't think they'd trust me. Certainly not at first given my somewhat chequered and difficult past.

Now there's an understatement if I ever heard one, even though I'm only telling myself that crock of... spin. At least that particular turn of phrase is running more easily through my mind, and I might soon start to believe it.

That isn't what brings me into HR 706 though. I'm following a hunch.

The focused battle at Kui Hsien left me angry and drained. That Senator Patreus sold the survivors into slavery as a business decision was something I had not anticipated. The mercenary in me was paid, but the conscience did not rest so easily.

The next contract didn't quite fall into my lap the way they normally do either. A GalNet news article on the Emperor's assassination attempt, and a call for assistance in investigation from the Princess Arissa Lavigny-Duval in a nearby system.

Only two jumps from the carnage I left behind in Kui Hsien. Two jumps from Eotiensis, the home system of Senator Denton Patreus. And finally, with the Senator's patronage of HR 706, I feel I am only two jumps away from making a connection with the Emperor's assassination.

Patreus would not be the first ambitious Senator kept young by the longevity drugs that are the favoured of the rich. Nor the first to have laid an envious eye on the highest position of power in the Empire. Such thoughts against a Senator who has declared himself loyal to the Empire would also be treasonous in their own right, and they are buried deep while I play a dangerous game.

So I find myself in a resource site of a nearby system, helping to calm the criminal elements in this nearby sector of space. Listening to the lawless go about their business and gathering transmissions, data on time and location, and then finally their bounty as well. Sifting and searching on my own meagre resources before feeding it up to a much larger organisation with wider reach and better capabilities that I could ever muster.

Hoping to find a tremor on the spider's web of deceit that leads me ever further on. One of us will see it first.

The data processing techniques of the Princess have impressed. A rapacious thirst for knowledge that can correlate data at that pace would raise eyebrows and could even have constrained AI capabilities. Though it is no straightforward task to keep them occupied and distracted with puzzles to solve. At the moment it pays to be indifferent to these things, and it certainly wouldn't be healthy to inquire further.

I'm not entirely sure that I'm trusted yet, but I know they're willing to accept the discerning information that I bring. Some do occasionally seek me out for my skills and contacts, but this time it is given freely with an ulterior motive on my part. The mercenary inside me is most satisfied however, for the pay is very good indeed.

Another payload of data dropped off at Laming Orbital. Another paycheck. But still nothing that satisfies.

The GalNet news overflows with speculation once the HR 706 chapter of the Emperor's Grace was found by the Princess to be operating without sanction. Though their protests to the Senate did delay these findings, as the guilty are wont to hide behind the protection of process and assumption of innocence, it did buy time for another operation to complete.

Kui Hsien fell. Hard.

Any leads that might have led there from HR 706 and then back into the adjacent system of Eotienses, home world of Senator Denton Patreus, have now been utterly decimated. Its people scattered to the corners of known space as slaves where they have no voice, and no presence.

The business decision to sell the assets of Kui Hsien now makes perfect sense. It severs a connection.

That the Senator did eventually intervene to allow the investigation into HR 706 goes a long way to establish credibility and distance from what might be discovered. However when there are conspiracies inside conspiracies then the assassins are themselves ultimately expendable.

For now the trail has chilled beyond my ability to follow.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

The RES site through the looking glass

Every so often you get a RES site that you just want to stay in forever, where things are curiouser and curiouser, larger than life, and oh so bountiful. So very bountiful.

Playing in open this morning I had one of those RES sites.

As soon as I finished off one target then there was another to go after. And another. And then another. Everything was larger than life, and twice the size. The spawn list looked something like this:

Sidewinder Anaconda
Eagle Imperial clipper
Viper Federal dropship
Adder Python

Other players came and went, and while the were there the spawns seems... well... somehow less than they had been before. More adders and sidewinders, and far fewer of the magical stuff appeared. When those players wandered off then the bounty shyly returned for the slaughter.

The Gold Society really really don't like me for taking out so much of their fleet and are now spontaneously hostile. Future targets are of course now clearly visible on the scanner.

Its just a shame there aren't nearly so many of them left now.

[On a blog that deals with roleplay and characterisations of imagination then it does feel odd that reality can still surprise. Yes, this really did happen to me. Almost 8mil credits in about 3 hours of play.]

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The conflicted mercenary

I rescued a slave girl once. A very pretty slave girl. She saved my life and didn't even know it. At least that's what I believed at the time.

Nothing is ever as it seems.

I shake my head to try and remove the unwanted intrusion, and the recollection of events past falls away as I store the powerful memory back into a locked chest I would much rather leave untouched.

With the memory suppressed my anger returns with nothing to distract it. Boiling and seething inside me at the goddamn feckin' arrogance of an Imperial Senator. Thousands dead and an oh so simple change of plans that wasn't telegraphed at the start.

Used, exploited, and discarded is how I feel and that should never, ever be the outcome of a mercenary contract. The slaves of Kui Hsien weigh heavily on my conscience.

Defaulting on a debt is no small matter, though knowing this the small colony of 30,000 people on Kui Hsien refused to accept a one sided rate increase imposed on them. All of this is normal for the business world of a wheeling dealing senator like Patreus. A debt only has meaning when it provides a return on investment.

That the entire colony is then crushed under the weight of a cadre of loyal or mercenary commanders is a text book response. All the commanders involved are looking for a profit and have been handsomely rewarded once the dust has settled. They probably don't look any deeper.

That Senator Patreus has expended huge amounts of money to achieve this makes little business sense though. Over 10 billion credits in combat bonds and probably the same again in personal reward. The interest increase and remaining debt could not have been worth spending all of that, could they?

Apparently so, for it has happened.

Yet this must have been foreseen as one possible or even desirable outcome, for it would not be a good business decision to have started the campaign otherwise. The asset foreclosure is also a normal part of business, and huge tracts of land are sold with a tidy dowry of slaves to a Senator who has a penchant for slavery as a profitable business.

The memory of the slave girl intrudes again unbidden, raising a dam against the flood of my emotions and changing their course.  The adrenaline rage struggles weakly before acquiescing again, and the memory tries to nudge me towards something I can't quite see yet.

A pretty slave girl is easy on the eyes and quite the distraction. There are many uses and some are even documented in the contract, and invited as an easier way of life than many of the alternatives out there, but...

A moments silence hangs heavily in the air as other recent events play back through my mind, and for the second time I put the memory of the slave girl back into the past where it belongs. This time it is different though: a connection has been made. The raging emotions that had clouded my mind are gone; replaced by a cold and calculating view of the universe that demands facts and evidence to go any further.

What I've imagined would be treason in the Empire at the highest level.

I'm stunned. Could a Senator be so bold?

It would be quite the powerplay for a senator in waiting. A young senator who is going places and isn't known for patience or compassion.

Signposted by the enslaved of Kui Hsien, a new path opens up in front of me.

[Note: the link back to an earlier blog entry is, at this point in time, an unfinished background story. I'll get around to writing the rest of it one of these days...]

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Powerplay - a pre-beta view

Frontier have just announced more about the Powerplay major content update for the next release of Elite:Dangerous, and we should be entering into beta soon.

Looking at the screenshots provided then this one has, for me, the most information in the newsletter about what to expect, the image being an overview of control activity within the faction.

It shows the internecine nature of Empire politics in action that we've been following in the news feeds: Patreus working against Torval despite the public support she has provided. Although Aisling Duval might be dating Patreus in the news feeds the phrase "undermining Aisling Duval" now takes on a whole new meaning!

This has a significant impact on how players will view their relationship with major powers. Those loyal to the Empire now look like they have to choose a faction within the Empire, and this is no longer as simple as the Empire vs Federation insults that are hurled around from time to time!

Do you want a more traditional Empire? Support Chancellor Blaine. A more progressive and economically aggressive Empire? Patreus is your man.

Overall this is a much closer take on the tribal nature of politics: two people who patriotically support their country can disagree vehemently on which political party best represents and protects that country.

The equivalent political tensions have been set up in Federation space with Halsey vs Hudson, though the Alliance has been strangely quiet up until now and we know very little about it.

Mission goals
The missions within Powerplay look very much like the community goals, and with good reason. The goals have become foci for player activity and, in a huge galaxy, have brought them together into a tight space.

Each of the missions will have to surface for players to interact with however. A signal source with a mission profile that contributes to a goal is one way to set up a mission like this, and in line with the range of ways of satisfying community goals that we've see so far.

It looks like the "obtain mil plans" objective in the Lugh campaign is how the mission shown here to liberate prisoners from private security ships will play out.

Lugh was was an intensely focussed community event that drew in around 5000 players into the combat alone. Powerplay looks like it will create a lot of hotspots across the galaxy, but with a smaller number of players. With this will be the likelihood of knowing and meeting an adversary again and again.

Mission complexity and importance
More tiers in an objective would represent larger levels of change, and to achieve them would need a determined effort by supporters, possibly at the expense of successes elsewhere.

Support costs
Systems that are controlled appear to be in one of three upkeep costs: undermined, controlled, fortified. This does translate into an economic dimension that will feedback negatively on expansion. A confrontation on too many fronts is one that would destabilise a faction and force it back into a core controlled space.

Control vs Preparation vs Expansion
The view here is of a "Control" tab which suggests consolidating your systems and ensuring they are economic to run. There is also an Expansion tab, as yet unseen, but it does indicate elements of strategy.

A Preparation tab also points to changes in systems boundaries needing time to set up rather than being regular occurrences. Wars can be won or lost in the supply lines. Fail to set up the expansion and you can't try to move into a new system. Move into a new system and control costs will be high. Manage control costs before you try to expand again. Fend off incursion at the expense of preparation for expansion.

Players that are too gung-ho on the expansion will find they have dragged their faction's economy to a halt, and so a period of consolidation through control would be required. So players within a faction can find themselves undermining each other through lack of co-ordination!

A vicious cycle that means strategy within the faction and a more focused/coordinated gameplay will do better.

The Preparation and Expansion goals might well be more demanding than the Control goals - we'll have to see.

Interesting times are ahead...

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Wrack, Gear and Pinion - part III

The comm feed has been quiet for a few minutes now. The jump away from the station and into supercruise has taken place without incident, and the ship starts the gradual climb out of the planet's gravity well.

No messages from Gearwright though... nothing. Though he'd be deep into the preparation for sneaking into the station by now, so best leave well alone.

The background chatter on the comms feed falls away and that absence of noise triggers a sensitivity to the moment. That uncomfortable embarrassment when loud and competing conversations go quiet when all have reached a pause in conversation at the same time. For a few seconds everyone shuffles awkwardly as a pervasive silence settles.

It feels like the universe is holding its breath while watching something unfold... watching something important. The hairs on my neck and arm stand up as if a chill wind has brushed by.

Something crashes the party and the loud chatter floods back on the subspace channels in a squawk of protest. The interdiction klaxon brings me back and with an startled surge of adrenaline.

The aggressor had been holding position in supercruise and just outside the station jurisdiction, picking on targets that have just left normal space and are still searching for immediate threats. The snare is snapped shut before there is time to adopt a defensive posture.

A trap, and one that is expertly closed at that.

A quick check of who has targeted me. A Naval Viper and probably carrying sensitive detectors. I've got a secretive comms links open and can't shut it down quietly while I'm the focus of attention. The struggle swings away from me in the tug of the interdiction, and the rough and tumble takes on an added urgency.

The planet falls back into view and for a moment there is a dizzying feeling that I'm about to crash into it. A crazy thought becomes action, seizing the moment without any debate, and I dive towards the planet before twisting away.

The atmosphere slides past as the nose of my ship nudges back towards the stars and strains to pull clear. Whether misjudging the distance to the looming planet, or just concentrating too much on the pursuit, I'll never know, but the interceptor isn't quite so fortunate and the tether snaps free.

An exit wake behind me marks where gravity overwhelmed the Viper and slapped it back into normal space.

Returning to the bounty hunting at the resource field proved relatively uneventful. I've taken careful note of who was still there mining away, and who had departed. Communications chatter from the ships that stayed behind could reveal secrets, but do need careful analysis. Not the kind I can do while scanning nearby space for hostiles.

The sheer amount of metal in these resource sites can hide signal origin, and I'll have to admit that I wasn't paying too much attention the first time round when it all kicked off. I'll have to be careful of that from now on. There's an unknown player out there with intentions that are not yet clear.

When I get back to base I'll run a perimeter check and inspect the sensors: a tighter lock-down protocol for this evening is in order. Sometimes paranoia and intuition can agree.

Now I'll wait to hear from Cmdr Gearwright. Its been too quiet.

I hope all is well.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Wrack, Gear and Pinion - part II

By the time I'd reached the station I had a plan of action.

A commercial data feed that usually shares news information between systems changes subtly. Content shifts imperceptably. The data transmitted is modified to carry some concealed text. A receiver attuned to the change will pick it up and forward it on, not knowing what it is sending or who it is sending it to. Hidden amongst all the other feeds a ghost travels across the galaxy searching out the recipient, with a message in hand.

"Hello friend - long time no see - how are things?"

A pause that draws out, and then a rather harried reply: "I'm good thanks and running a delivery on a tight deadline. Feckin' missed picking up from my usual source so have had to look further afield. Only 11 minutes to deliver on the contract."

Looks like Gearwright is falling back into old and comfortable routines. No bad thing when belief takes a battering.

"Don't let me distract. But picking up some bounty here around Lave, so settling in again as well. Back in Dulos with the family?"

I toy with the idea of volunteering the gossip I've heard 100 light years away, but something makes me hold back. We fought together at Lugh, but this is different.

"Not quite - they're coming back soon now the Feds have been kicked out here as well."

The pause runs into a few minutes while the universe keeps us both occupied. A tight delivery run isn't something to disturb with gossip or concerns as yet unfounded.

"Have taken to keeping an eye on things, want to know if my family will be safe."

This could be it.

"A little profit on the side, you know how it is. Find some missing data chips about plans for this part of space."

There. That's the connection made. The miner's gossip was true, and current, and far too specific to risk being a random overheard comment. Suspicion creeps into my mind: twisting facts and bringing together supposition in a dangerous way.

"Feck, this is hotter than I thought. A counter offer has been made and I thought it was a simple recovery."

Others are interested. They've also followed the vibration on the web, and have now played their hand overtly. If I've noticed at this distance then others have as well. Gearwright may be in trouble and is probably only just starting to realise.

"Got it! Hidden amongst the debris. Need to run this past station sec now..."

Its further along than I had realised, and I'm too far away to get involved. A small utilitarian fuel scoop on a combat heavy ship is for emergencies only, not a quick flight into danger.

That thought of helping dies a death as soon as it is born.

It would tip my hand and show a connection. It might just have been random miners displaced from Dulos who had a bit of harmless gossip. But I can't know, and may never know if I follow that path.

Paranoia tells me to run. Pretend I haven't seen anything that might speak of a deeper purpose beyond my comprehension. Hide. Escape notice. Live for another day where I can jump at another shadow.

Intuition says otherwise: look but pretend not to look. Follow the web back up to its source and learn more about who is playing. Play the player and in doing so gather some intel hoping that it shows more of the bigger picture.

I have run quite a few bounty trips into that res field so normal behaviour would be to return after cashing in the bounty.

Decision made. Nav lock set. Launch requested.

And no regrets.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Wrack, Gear and Pinion - part I

It drifts into focus every now and again.

"...*%$...and then she said: Put it..&*%..%£..good price on those perf..*$..%~..<raucous laughter>...%$..."

The rocks slip past. The miners mine. The local sec wanders over and sticks its nose in your business and, realising you're not on their wanted list, loses interest thereafter.

Sometimes its a goon running with the local trouble makers who wants a piece of the pie. Someone else's pie. Then it gets loud, noisy and violent before a peace can return again.

"...$*£...heard about some trouble...%:*...some mil plans lost...%*$"

The focus sharpens. It is all too common for the military to lose some of their intelligence, and you're left wondering how much they actually have left. Gossip about it on an open channel is dangerous though.

For those who care about gathering intel there is a need to find who is listening. Who notices. What action is taken. How they cover their tracks.

Set a mission with some honey and the vibrations will ripple out, touching the honest, devious or down right dangerously psychopath. For those gathering knowledge it is often the path taken that has more interest, rather than who picks up at the end. New and big players are more important than the small fry: after all they can do a lot of damage... and quickly.

Some courier running a mission from the bulletin board is playing the game and rarely knows who else silently watched them sign up. Whether it is a genuine data chip or some misdirection planted onto an unsuspecting mule - well that's never too clear. The courier's ship is wrecked though by interested parties, and some cargo left drifting for the scavengers to pick upon.

"....&*%...lost near Dulos....~&£...local commander...%$:*...right returned after the troubles...*£@"

Pin. Sharp. Focus.

That's over 100 light years away and its still on the local comms traffic. A long way to go for casual chatter on an open channel.

Could that have been part of a name? I fought at Lugh alongside a friend, and he mentioned returning to Dulos for his family after the conflict. The same commander?

There is also a question on whether I'm the one being played here... who will notice an attempt to establish a connection with an old friend. I have to remind myself here that there is a fine line between intuition and paranoia. It can only take you so far, but play it out so long as it keeps you alive.

Hand on throttle I casually push my ship clear of the rocks after a few more uneventful passes. The miners left behind seem oblivious to the departure of a protector.

I need to find out if I still have a friend.