Saturday, 29 December 2012

How Can We Improve EVE Community Blog Banters?

The EVE Community Blog Banters exist to encourage cross-blog conversation and the sharing of traffic amongst blogging sites. The Banters are also a great way to marshal the resources of the eclectic EVE blogging community for broader projects, such as the currently active Community Review of EVE Online for BB42.

It's been great to rack up another successful and vibrant year for Blog Banters, in which we've seen them evolve and improve with the end-of-Banter reviews, which are now entirely written by the most magnificent of community members. Additionally, Banters have enjoyed a healthy relationship with CCP, with devs often suggesting the topics and occasionally even contributing to the conversation. EON Magazine has also recognised the significance of Blog Banters as a community voice.

Respecting the Roots

However, it is important to remember the underlying purpose of the Banters. Whilst I find curating the initiative very rewarding, it is not mine to direct. I never lose sight of the fact that Blog Banters belong to the blogging community, I just do the admin and try to prioritise community-sourced themes and focus on topics which are relevant.

Since their inception in 2008, Blog Banters have always been a way of keeping the grassroots blogging community connected and they are intended to be inclusive and community driven. They are for you, the blogger, so you should have your say.

Your Voice

As such, it's important that the blogging community guide the initiative. So as we look forward to the sixth year of bantering and bloggification, I'm hoping all you contributors; past, present and future, might let me know how you would like to see the Blog Banter initiative proceed. What works and what doesn't? What makes you inclined to get involved? What puts you off? How do we keep things fresh and evolving?

I'm happy for banters to plod along as they already do, but this is your Banter and any suggestions which would improve your experience are very welcome, so please have your say in the comments below.

[Whilst I've got you, BB41 needs summarising and BB42: Community Review of EVE Online is still wide open and hankering for more reviewers. Don't be shy.]

Thanks in advance for your input.

Your friendly Blog Banter custodian, Seismic Stan

Monday, 24 December 2012

Do Capsuleers Dream of Electric Ships?

I've lost a day somewhere, I'm sure of it.

I've just checked my NEOCOM and it's been over twenty-four hours since I accepted the mission I've undocked for, yet it feels like it was just minutes ago I finished my last account. Is “Scotty the Docking Manager” somehow putting capsuleers on ice for some sinister purpose? What the hell is going on?

And whilst I'm on the subject, what about that “Scotty” character? No one ever sees him, yet we get messages suggesting he's in every station? Is it some kind of job title or more evidence of the cracks in reality that are leading me... somewhere.

Maybe I'm having a breakdown. I've heard of mental problems arising from one too many clone transfers. Maybe I should get on GALNET to see if there's treatment. I'll just get this job out of the way first. Onward to the Nahyeen system.

I give it a moment for my shuddering brain to accept the lie that my body is a torpedo-laden stealth bomber, then think my way toward the first indicated stargate. The Manticore responds instantly, banking toward the destination like the slow turning of a head, before spooling up the warp drive and blasting me past a nearby moon and almost into planet. I nearly crap myself. I'm pretty sure evolution never intended for the human mind to be doing this kind of thing.

Arriving at the first of many stargates, I take a moment to will my camera drones to take it all in. It's a massive structure in space that belt-feeds temporary wormholes like a drinks dispenser, propelling vast masses light-years to distant stargates. It's amazing that they never seem to need maintenance. My overview tells me it's nearly five kilometres in size and as I glide closer, I can see there are what look like windows. Are there people in there? Do they live there or commute from home? The stargate structure can't be self-sufficient, but where do supply ships dock and why do I never see them?

A hulking Amarr Imperial Navy battleship starts to take an interest in my loitering behaviour, so I press on. Bracing for the stomach-lurching sensation of jumping, I log my request to the gate and my universe turns momentarily black.

My journey becomes an entrancing yet somehow haunting experience as I muse at the passing planets I'll never visit and eye the other traffic that drifts toward the gates. Aside from the working security forces, my route takes me through systems where I see an increasing number of vessels highlighted as fellow capsuleers. Undoubtedly each has their own agenda, but I wonder if they see the same cracks I'm starting to see.

Anyway, onward. I've got a one million ISK cheque to pick up from some idiot Amarrians who are giving money away.

As I drop out of warp in my destination system of Nahyeen, I note that the trademark golden nebulae of the Amarr core worlds have given way to other hues. Whilst the blue-green haze that fills much of my view tells me I'm close to the border of the Gallente Federation, a smudge of rust in the sky hints of an unwelcome home in the Minmatar Republic.

Hells, man up Stan! You're whinging like a Jin-Mei ladyboy who's just had his cover blown. Stop ruminating and get on with the job at hand.

Moments after having my request to dock granted, my reality twists gain. I'm nowhere for long seconds. I can't focus, I can't sense my ship. In my mind's eye I can access the NEOCOM, but my vision is blurred and I'm disoriented.

Then the magic happens.

Inexplicably, I'm on the balcony outside my quarters, fully dressed, dry and thankfully excrement-free as I look up in bemusement at the ship I was piloting through space only seconds ago. I check the clock to confirm. Yep, definitely only seconds. Too weird.

Shrugging off yet another jarring reality fracture, I stroll down the gangway toward my accommodation, resisting the urge to deface the ridiculous statues outside the open doorway. I consider adorning them with ridiculous garments from the over-priced station clothes store for my own amusement, but put the idea aside until later.

Let's give this Sandar character a call and let him know I'm ready to meet. I pull up the fella's file and notice he looks like he got his face caught in a closing airlock. And I think he's wearing make-up in his official mugshot! I start having doubts about dealing with him, but as I select the NEOCOM option to make contact, a pleasant sound emanates from somewhere, letting me know that the Amarrian witch back in Kor-Azor Prime has already sent payment. Job done.

Irritatingly, Airlock-Face chooses not to speak to me, instead he just sends me a faux-conversational wall of text;
Late Reports
Ah, a capsuleer, are you? Fortunate. 
I am Kandus Sandar, the Ministry of Internal Order officer in charge of Pirate Affairs in this area. Under normal circumstances, I would send you to one of our many agents for proper work, but I have a special task for you. 
I am waiting for one of my investigators. He is now several hours overdue in delivering his reports. Fly out to his last known location. Despite whatever you may find there, I need those reports.
Bloody cheek. Maybe his airlock accident has made him as simple as he looks, but if he thinks he can send me on some random jaunt instead of giving me “proper work” and not even bother to speak to me in person, he can kiss my Khumaak.

Irritated, I shut down the conversation with the Ni-Kunni half-wit and head over to my bunk. Despite the complete lack of time continuity in my life, for some reason it feels late. Now if I can just figure out how to lay down...

Sunday, 23 December 2012

They Call Me Stan

They call me Stan. Seismic Stan.

Actually, that's bullshit. No one calls me anything, because I talk to no one. You see, I don't exist.

I've been at this game for as long as I can remember, but that's the problem - I never remember much. Everything's fragmented and hazy. Most of what I do remember is when I'm in the pod, hooked up and swimming in my own piss.

But when I'm out of the capsule, I look at the fella in the mirror and realise I barely know him. That's probably for the best as he's a twat with a silly haircut and I'd don't think I'd like him much anyway. But lately, I've been getting to thinking about stuff, big stuff, like existence.

Mainly mine. And that fella in the mirror.

I'm not much of a deep thinker, but even I'm starting to see the cracks. Things just don't add up. I can't remember anything beyond the walls of this damned Amarrian suite. How long have I even been here?

I know I've been in this life for a while. Looking at my GALNET details on the NEOCOM, I've got an employment record that stretches back nearly ten years, but it is recorded in some arcane calendar system I've got no grasp of. As best I can remember it's YC 113, at least I think that's right, I can't even be certain of the year any more. In any case, it seems I'm employed, even if I don't know what as. I must be reasonably good at it though, I've got the bank balance and the assets to prove it. But it all seems hollow and meaningless, like a scorecard in some grand game.

A game I can't even remember how to play.

I take a seat on the miserable excuse for a couch and ponder the wider universe according to the holoscreen feed; more sovereignty changes, yet another incursion, some vaguely familiar bint with an obscene price on her head. I idly wonder if it'd be worth hunting her down for a cut.

I absent-mindedly browse through the endless panels and windows of my NEOCOM interface, looking for some sense in the gibberish. I find nothing profound, but I do come across an unanswered “conversation” from a sour-faced looking True Amarr hag called Karde Romu, based in Kor-Azor Prime. It says this;

Aiding an Investigator
Something just came up that's right up your alley.
Greetings, pilot. Her Majesty's Ministry of Internal Order wants your aid.
My fellow agent, Kandus Sandar, is currently investigating Sansha activity in Kor-Azor, more specifically in the Miyan territories. Are you willing to lend help to his investigation?

I can't say I'm much taken with the idea of working for her, especially since there didn't seem to be a conversation to be had, as had been suggested. Not sure I'd have much to say to her anyway. But it seemed for a cool million ISK, all I had to do was go talk to some Ni-Kunni fella in Nahyeen, a high-security system a couple of constellations away. And if it helps to screw those Sansha freaks over, all the better. I could even accept the gig remotely so I wouldn't have to travel all the way to Kor-Azor Prime to deal with the crone in person, which was a bonus.

Who knows, maybe it'll do me good to get out - it might get me some answers. Besides, I'm a Brutor capsuleer in an Amarr cell, perhaps working for these saps is what I do. At the very least it's something to do.

I should pick myself something nice to fly and figure out the rest as I go, but I'll be honest - I'm a bit nervous. I know that the moment I make that conscious decision to undock, there'll be another blackout and then I'll inexplicably be plugged back into my pod, apparently naked and with no recollection of who undressed me or where my clothes went.

That's not even the worst of it, next I'll have to deal with all that 'nauseating-spatial-awareness, my-body-is-my-vessel, if-the-ship-slows-down-when-I-clench-my-arse-cheeks-then-how-do-I-activate-the-afterburner-without-having-an-accident?' kind of lunacy. It's humiliating. Maybe that explains why I can never remember it, I'm suffering from some kind of post-traumatic stress amnesia.

Oh well, I'm a capsuleer. Dealing with floating shit is what we do.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Rixx Javix's Summary of BB40: Interstellar Blood Sports

In a strange confluence of Banter activity, whilst BB42: 2012 Community Review of EVE Online spools up and BB41: Director's Cut winds down (but there's still time if anyone else wants to pitch in), the summary of Blog Banter 40: Interstellar Blood Sports casually glides into view.

And then everyone dies of laughter.

Seriously, this is the most fun I've had reading a blog post for as long as I can remember. The shy and retiring Rixx Javix has flexed his creative funny bone to prove he has yet another creative talent. He's like the Blogosphere's answer to that Peter Phelps fella. Not content with delivering regular engaging bloggery, peerless artwork, videos, comics and the occasional in-game event, this unique take on summarising the views of 26 bloggers on the subject of eSports in EVE Online should win Rixx the gold medal in absurd comedy. Apparently he's actually quite good at EVE too. I think I hate him. ;)

Anyway, I'd have posted about it sooner, but it took me two days to recover from my first read. I may have another go now though, why don't you join me and if you're not reading the voices out loud by the end, then you're dead inside.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Exploring EVE Online: The Journey So Far

As explained in my previous post introducing Game Skinny, there's a bit of bloggery jugglication going on. As such, my regular column for Guild Launch; Exploring EVE Online, is moving. Here's a new index of the monthly feature articles as they now appear on Game Skinny.

The EVE Online Mentality and Me

I love EVE Online. I have a deep and long-standing affection for EVE Online and what it represents. I understand its history and its pedigree. EVE was the ambitious product of pioneering Icelandic ...

Exploring EVE Online: Introducing the Guild Launch EVE Correspondent

Fanfest, the yearly celebration of the epic science fiction MMO EVE Online, is in full swing in Iceland and as Guild Launch’s new EVE Online correspondent, I have the privilege of being in the ...

Exploring EVE Online #1: Fanfest and 'the Nation of EVE'

The Dust has finally settled in Reykjavik and the locals have got their restaurants and bars back. The hundreds of players who came to celebrate their favourite science fiction MMO have left their undoubtedly ...

Exploring EVE Online #2: The Rookie's Path and EVE University

In last month’s edition of Exploring EVE Online, I pledged to spend the next year reporting on the different communities and play-styles available to the EVE player. My goals were simple; to investigate the many game-play options offered whilst exploring the myriad of communities ...

Exploring EVE Online #3: Playing 'World of Spaceships' with Red vs. Blue

This next leg of our New Eden tour promises to take us to into the heart of EVE’s brutal spaceship combat as we join the endless conflict between the Blue Republic and the Red Federation ...

Exploring EVE Online #4: The Aura of Aideron Robotics

The ecosystem of communities in EVE is labyrinthine, with vast player-run organisations dominating the landscape ...
Exploring EVE Online #5: The Metagame Rabbit Hole

Just as a real-world nation has its TV channels, newspapers, national sports and renowned celebrities, so too does New Eden have its streams, podcasts, blogs, tournaments and celebrity players ...

Exploring EVE Online #6: The Rise of Factional Warfare

Set over 21,000 years into mankind’s future, the human race has migrated to a distant star cluster and lost all knowledge of its origins ...

Exploring EVE Online #7: The Story Beyond the Pixels

EVE Online is a social engine. Far beyond a simple game of statistics and pixels, it is an entertainment environment that unites and divides people. It is no coincidence that the name of the developer CCP stands for Crowd Control Productions.

More Exploring EVE Online features will be forthcoming in the future.

New Eden Open Coverage on Game Skinny

As mentioned in my previous post, I'm looking at providing coverage of EVE events and news for a new site called Game Skinny. As an experiment I provide some (admittedly incomplete) coverage of the New Eden Open during the alpha phase of the site.

I'd greatly appreciate your feedback and input.

 Here's an index of all my New Eden Open coverage:

Introduction material
  • Matches 1-4 reports and video
    • Raiden 58th Squadron vs. Last Huzzah
    • Why Dash vs. RONIN and pixies
    • Expendables vs. the HUNS
    • Tinkerhell & Alts vs Tengu Terror
  • Matches 5-8 reports and video
    • Oxygen Isonopes vs. Africa‘s Finest
    • Something Else vs. The Exiled Gaming
    • Perihelion Beryllium Duralumin vs. Goggle Wearing Internet Crime Fighters
    • ISN – Incursion Shiny Network vs. Baaaramu
Subsequent Coverage

Introducing Game Skinny: EVE Community Feedback Needed

I'm very excited. I've got a new writing gig and I'd like your help.

Game Skinny is a new community-minded initiative which provides a united platform for gaming articles, news, features, videos and any other content the fevered minds of the internet-savvy masses can concoct.

The website has been quietly building up steam for several months, as the Game Skinny techno-elves continue to weave their magic behind the scenes to allow luddites like me to jam words and pictures into the system with it exploding.

It is still very much in a beta state, which is why there's been no big push to announce it yet, but as one of the key alpha team contributors, I want to make sure I'm delivering stuff that folk want to read. So please take the time to check the site out, leave comments, provide feedback and let me (or them) know what can be done to improve your experience and what kind of content you'd like to see.

I'd like to put together a list of site improvement suggestions for the techno-elves, so please don't hold back. I for one would like to see more robust search and navigation tools.

EVE Coverage on Game Skinny

I've had an interesting journey over the last couple of months as I've spread my gaming wings in search of material other than EVE to write about. I fully intend to contribute EVE-related material to Game Skinny too, but I also want to continue producing material for the EVE-specific Freebooted and EON, so it's nice to have other strings to my bow.

That said, I enjoy writing about EVE and if the traffic and demand for EVE material is high enough, the Game Skinny overlords will be happy for me to provide more internet spaceship content. As an experiment during the Alpha stage, I put together some coverage of the New Eden Open. Please give it a look and let me know what you think of it and if similar coverage would be of value for future EVE events.

I'm also very proud of the journalistic odyssey which is my Exploring EVE Online column for Guild Launch. This has now been moved over to the Game Skinny site and will resume just as soon as my writing schedule settles down.

As well as big features like these, I will be aiming to provide regular news content for EVE and other games, particularly those of a science fiction nature. For that, I've just got to learn the art of brevity, which ironically is the fundamental principle of Game Skinny.

I have much to learn and I hope you'll come along for the ride.

Check out Game Skinny now.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Blog Banter 42: The 2012 Community Review of EVE Online

"A gaming universe as vast and unique as EVE Online is constantly evolving and the experience is different for every participant. Conventional games review techniques cannot possibly hope to provide an accurate measure of every aspect of EVE's gameplay. However, with a community initiative like the Blog Banters, we have the resources to deliver the most thorough and up-to-date review ever.

By combining the experiences of contributors from across the EVE metasphere, we get a wealth of opinions from veterans and rookies alike. We'll be able to combine input from faction warfare specialists, wormhole residents, null-sec warriors, missioners, pirates, industrialists, roleplayers, politicians and more to paint a complete picture of the health and progress of EVE Online in its current Retribution incarnation.

Who better to review EVE Online than those who know it best?"


Welcome to the 42nd EVE Blog Banter, the cross-blog conversation that gives voice to grassroots communities throughout the EVE metasphere.

Take part in the 2012 Blog Banter review of EVE Online right here.

Last December, the Blog Banter community first attempted a review of EVE Online with pretty effective results. We had 21 reviewing bloggers who pitched in to deliver their varied reviews. You can read the 2011 Community Review summary and browse through the individual reviews here, but as a spoiler, each submitted review which included a numerical score was fed into the Bantertron Megacruncher and EVE Online was awarded an metacritic-style overall score of 82% for the post-Crucible 2011 period.

How it Works

Each contributing blogger will write a review on their blog, which will adhere their own standards and opinions. At the bottom of this post will be a collected list of all such reviews. At the end of the banter period, someone will absorb the entire field of opinion and produce a masterwork of a yearly review. Or die trying.

In order to make the Blog Banter Community Review all come together here's a couple of guidelines:

  • Focused Analysis: Each banterer is encouraged to focus on their area of expertise to provide an expert opinion on the aspect of EVE with which they are most familiar. This doesn't have to be an exclusive focus and of course a broader overview is also welcome, but targeted analysis will encourage greater variety across the reviews and enable the reader to better understand your point of view.
  • Numerical Scoring: The inclusion of a scoring system which suits your chosen reviewing style would be great, because numbers are super helpful for people who are scared of words in large groups. It also makes presentation of the final summary a little easier. 

Remember this is a community review, so by all means get feedback from your corpmates and readers. The more opinion we can distil into a single uber-review at the end of the process, the more relevant it will be. I hope we can deliver an overall picture of community opinion in the New Year, so take your time and have a great holiday season.

Incoming Reviews

Friday, 7 December 2012

No Retribution for Old Drones

Retribution has been a largely well-received patch to EVE Online. I use the term "patch" deliberately as there hasn't really been any significant content added to constitute describing Retribution as an expansion. I'm not alone in this thinking - even CCP Soundwave described it as a "patch" on air during the New Eden Open.

But this is no bad thing. This third patch in a series of broad fixes over the last eighteen months has seen EVE Online's core gameplay and usability receive a lot of polish that was desperately needed in a game designed well over a decade ago. I've been particularly pleased with the introduction of the tracking camera, something I've long lobbied for here on Freebooted (see Fanfest Flashback: The Spectacle of Combat [April 2011], BB30: Director Mode [Nov 2011] So Beautiful, I Can't See It [May 2012]). It has received a lot of positive feedback too, so I can only hope that we might see more camera functionality and a suite of tools as described in those posts sometime in the future.

But not everything has been so universally embraced. The new Bounty Hunting system has seen a lot of folk getting upset on the forums, but this was predictable as people unaccustomed to the threat of PvP start looking fearfully to the skies as the targets on their heads grow. It looks to be an entertaining and emergent system which seems to be working as intended. It's certainly amusing. The revised Crimewatch system is neat and clear, although the soon to be fixed lack of persistence on the safety feature is a nuisance.

After a development period spanning almost a year, the Unified Inventory has finally achieved the degree of usability and flexibility to equal the system it replaced. I still feel it was a shame that some bad choices were made in its delivery and implementation, but we're through the worst of it now, so let's leave that one alone. Other areas of the UI have benefited from a facelift.

The revised soundscape adds a magnificent layer of immersive depth into New Eden, with a host of ambient noises and new effects to be heard. The dynamic music-scape heard in null-sec is fantastic - hugely atmospheric. I hope there are plans to introduce more regionalised personality to the soundtrack. There does seem to be a lack of bass in some of the new weapon sounds, making them sound weaker than before, which is a bit of a shame. The removal of the Jukebox has been a controversial decision, but CCP TorfiFrans did give reasons for this in a recent Devblog (see the section entitled "If thy jukebox offends thee, hack it off").

Time for Drones v2.0?

One of the most significant controversies arising from the Retribution changes, or at least the one causing the most noise on the EVE-O forums, is the AI changes to NPCs. Now less predictable, with some of the far more challenging Sleeper AI being implemented, NPC "rats" across New Eden have apparently taken to massacring players' drones. I've not yet had the opportunity to investigate this phenomenon, but anything that refreshes the tired mission system that CCP have no intention of improving upon sounds good to me.

Reports of the degree of anti-drone violence are varied, with primarily solo mission runners feeling the pinch. Many are complaining that the new AI behaviours have made drone boats non-viable as mission ships, whilst others are claiming that players simply need to adapt.

It may simply be those who can no longer sleepwalk through missions using drones as a passive DPS system who are being the most vocal, however this does throw light on an area of EVE's antiquated gameplay and UI that desperately needs some love. Improvements elsewhere in EVE are increasingly making drone-based gameplay the most prominent ugly sister. It would be great to see the following tweaks:

  • Improved Interface - With increasing need to micro-manage drones in time-critical combat situations, an intuitive means of doing so is desperately needed. The present drone interface - a right-click dropdown menu buried within a clunky drone management window - is awful. It would be great to see a clear and simple, button-driven panel allowing the organisation and command of flights on drones. A number of solutions spring to mind, all of which would be better than the existing system. See the below mock-up by Ruato (made in 2006!) for an example. [Edit: it should be noted that the existing keyboard shortcuts are an alternative drone control option, but that is no excuse for a diabolical UI.]

Circa 2006. The drone interface was considered bad even then!

  • Drone Fozzification - CCP Fozzie has done a great job of rebalancing many of the ships in EVE. Have drones been slated for review? Or are they considered to be fine as they are? Certain drone types remain as unused as many of the pre-tiericide frigates and cruisers, so I suspect there may be some work for He Who Juggles the Numbers.

  • V3 the Drones - These poor little fellas have long been overlooked for some visual love. First and foremost - give them engine trails, it'd look fantastic as they whizzed around and it'd mean that they'd exist as more than just a HUD "x" when viewed from a distance. Also, give them a redesign so they don't look so ridiculous when they fire sideways from their fixed forward-facing weapons.

  • Revised AI and In-Depth Drone Gameplay - If we've got to micromanage them, make it fun - perhaps making drone-based gameplay more involved. If the launch-and-forget days of mission farming are over, why not give the player a little more control over the behaviour of his drones. Beyond the passive/aggressive settings, why not allow the player to define more specific behaviours, from target priorities to range thresholds and tactics. Perhaps flights of drones could have a command drone within them to provide boosts, or maybe bonuses could be given for using particular formations (speed improvement for 'chevron' formation, accuracy boost for 'sphere', damage for 'cluster', etc.)

With no sign of CCP relenting on their singular focus on spaceships (they have now quietly and completely abandoned all work on avatar gameplay - read the final paragraph of CCP Unifex's October forum post), and will presumably press on with their programme of refinement and polish. Surely drones have to be on the to-do list somewhere.

[I've copypasta'd the drone-related portion of this article into the EVE-O Features & Ideas Discussion. Please take the time to go show your support for drone revisions by following this link to the thread and upvoting/commenting.]

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Clouded Judgement

“Results, not theories!” barked the angry Director, “The Board didn't insist I personally visit this shambles of a colony so I could listen to your excuses!”

Administrator Toukka winced at the pacing Director Valta's displeasure, the viperous woman was known for her intolerance even on a good day, and today was certainly not a good day. Nonetheless, he marshalled his best diplomatic tone and pushed his point.

“To fully appreciate the situation, I really think you should hear Doctor Yuskollin out.” Toukka saw the impact of his words as the Director fixed him with a cold glance. Toukka broke eye contact, taking a slow breath as he stared out at the billowing cloudscape on the holoscreen behind the seething woman. Then he looked across the table to the elderly Doctor Yuskollin, who sat sombrely, brow furrowed.

The Director bit back another snarl and followed his gaze to the impassive scientist. She waved dismissively, “Keep it short.”

Yuskollin nodded before he spoke, giving Toukka the briefest of glances to indicate that he held little faith in their cause.With the calming yet engaging voice of an experienced lecturer, he explained, “The cause of the reduced yield of gas products is as a result of increasingly frequent and unpredictable changes in atmospheric conditions. We have repeatedly innovated to overcome these varied environmental challenges, but it seems that for every solution we deploy, the conditions change almost immediately - bypassing countermeasures and destroying extractor equipment.”

Director Valta's eyes narrowed and she spoke in a tone which mimicked the doctor's calm timbre, but with added predatory menace.

“Are you trying to tell me you've been out-innovated... by clouds?”

Yuskollin smiled. “Well in a sense, yes.” Toukka watched as the scientist persevered despite the Director's derision. “With the sudden and inexplicable shifts in the chemical composition and corrosive nature of storm fronts, the evidence is increasingly suggesting that what we are seeing is something akin to an allergic reaction, or even,” he hesitated, “an intelligent response.”

Toukka grimaced as Yuskollin shared that particular pet theory. Prior to this meeting, Toukka had implored the doctor to keep his more outlandish ideas to himself. However, the Administrator was not surprised his request had fallen on deaf ears; Yuskollin's need to prove his wife's far-fetched theories had become an obsession since their recent tragedy.

The grey-suited Director now stood with her back to the seated men as she studied the ethereal blue-purple vapour sea over which their command facility hovered. Here in the upper stratosphere, the view was often peaceful despite the high winds, with occasional motes of ether playfully dancing across the dull metal skin of the facility's outer structures.

“Intelligent. Response.” The Director's words fought their way slowly past gritted teeth. “Intelligent response?” She turned back to face the men, placing her hands meticulously on the black table surface before looking up with measured poise to speak in a cold, even tone. “Doctor Yuskollin,” she paused to force an entirely unconvincing smile, “I have read your file. Unlike Toukka here, you are a highly educated man. I expect nothing less than an ‘intelligent response’. However, I'm having a hard time believing that is what I'm hearing.”

Yuskollin responded, “All our data points toward...”

“NO!” the Director bellowed. Then more softly, “No, Doctor Yuskollin. ‘All our data’ points toward an unacceptable decline in the acquisition of the raw materials this colony exists to obtain. Nothing else is of concern to me, to The Board, nor to The Owner. All of whom, by the way, will be receiving an unabridged recording of this entire review.”

Well that explains the histrionics, Toukka thought to himself. He buried a wry smile as the Director continued.

“So, in the interests of your continued careers, I suggest you both consider your next few statements very carefully. The only concerns I have is how you intend rectify your woeful performance and return this operation to respectable levels of output. Both of you should take a few moments to think, then tell me exactly what the solution is.” She turned back to her study of the sky field.

For a period, the only sound heard in the meeting room was the deep, constant hum of the equilibrium generators as they maintained the facility's altitude and position. In contrast, Toukka could feel his position as Senior Colony Administrator slipping away from him, but he had one more roll of the dice.

“We could try sending manned teams to dynamically manage the extractor heads.” Toukka offered, knowing it was a desperate, cavalier suggestion, “Personnel at the sharp end might be able to read the conditions and respond to stay one step ahead and keep the gas flowing.”

Yuskollin shot Toukka a look of complete disgust. “That's not an option! You know what happened to the last team. The risk to life...”

“Yes! Good!” the Director interrupted, clapping her hands. “Finally, solutions. So, how would that work?”

“It wouldn't.” spat Dr. Yuskollin as he sat back in his chair, not shifting his berating gaze from Toukka, who continued to explain.

“The extractor heads are what do the resource gathering, remotely operated from the Extractor Control Unit. But we could modify the heads to accommodate a small crew.”

“And how would that improve yield?” asked the Director as the Yuskollin shook his head in silent disapproval.

“These heads are getting destroyed because the remote ECU crews can't respond quickly enough to the changing conditions in the storms.” Toukka went on, “Dr. Yuskollin has developed a number of adaptive defence systems which, if activated early enough, could prevent the damage.”

“But you've already tried these solutions and they have failed so far, have they not?” said the Director.

With a resigned sigh, Dr. Yuskollin offered his view. “As I stated before, we have been experiencing an incredibly unlikely variety of assaults on any equipment lowered beyond a certain altitude; directed electrical charges, extreme shifts in temperature and pressure, and some astoundingly complex corrosive compounds, all delivered with unerring accuracy by hypersonic storm fronts of incredible force. We have developed measures to counteract many of the antagonist forces, but they can't be accurately deployed remotely.”

“Exactly,” interjected Toukka, “so by having eyes on scene to respond to the threats as they happen, they can react in a way that the remote operators would never be able to.”

“But with no guarantee that it would even be effective.”

“Well, your science team did manage to keep their exploration capsule in one piece. Mostly.”

A look of unadulterated fury burned across Yuskollin's face. “I...” His words failed him. He looked once more each at the Director and Toukka then, without a word, stood and walked from the room.

Toukka knew he'd landed a low blow and he wrestled with his conscience. Yuskollin had a point, there were indeed risks. But every individual who signed up to work at this or any similar facility knew that. Tragedy or not, Yuskollin's moralistic grandstanding was threatening to undermine the one chance he had of preserving both their jobs. As colony Administrator, Toukka accepted it was his role to make the hard decisions.

“Interesting.” said the Director who, apparently untroubled by such matters of conscience, was flicking through a holofile on the science team accident from the previous month. “So the upstanding Doctor Anders Yuskollin sent his daughter to her death and left his wife crippled and in a coma. All in the name of science. Hmm. I would very much like to see this Sky Bell exploration capsule. Lead the way, Mr. Toukka.”


Toukka had led Director Valta silently through the austere corridors of the facility. Like all structures built to function on gas worlds, resilience and weight were the only design considerations. Maintaining equilibrium was both law and religion, with strict controls on personal effects of every one of the hundreds of employees on each of the hovering platforms that made up the colony network. Everything necessary was built from high-strength, lightweight materials. Everything unnecessary was contraband.

Now they stood on a shielded observation platform, looking down over a scarred and pock-marked metallic sphere. A narrow shelf around the base of the orb gave the structure a more bell-shaped quality. Various malformed wrecks protruded from hardpoints on the shelf, presumably the remains of what was once scientific equipment, now nothing more than shattered evidence of the sheer power of natural forces. A circular hatch hung awkwardly from one damaged hinge.

“So talk me through what I'm looking at.” said the Director.

“This capsule was designed by Yuskollin and his science team – including his wife and daughter - to capture environmental data to help improve gas-harvesting efficiency. It would be deployed from the facility via high-tensile cable and lowered into the troposphere to gather samples, conduct experiments and so on. For the most part, it was unmanned, fitted with equipment able to be operated remotely.”

“Well, judging by the figures you've been sending my way for the past six months, it doesn't seem to have been very effective.”

“On the contrary. Early on, it was invaluable in isolating pockets of rich resource which our sensor equipment couldn't lock down. However, as the high value reactive gases became more difficult to isolate, we started to rely more and more on Yuskollin and his team to find them. They found they were having to dive deeper into the troposphere and that's when the retaliatory storms started.”

“Retaliatory storms?”

“Well, that's what the Yuskollins called them. When the probe brought back some live bacteria from one of the lower strata, they all got really excited and started talking about ammonia-based life and ecosystems. They started to believe that these storms were being sent deliberately as a deterrent.”

“Hah! They really thought there was something intelligent down there?”

“I guess so. In any case, they decided it was worth a manned trip in the Sky Bell to make some observations. Whatever happened crippled the Sky Bell, destroyed most of their data and killed two of the occupants.”

“The daughter Dr. Jessica Yuskollin and...” the Director glanced briefly to her holopad, “Technician Uhrata.”

“Yep. By the time the Sky Bell was winched back up, the capsule door had been torn open and only Maeve Yuskollin was found inside, clinging to life after being exposed to who knows what. There was some evidence of the other two occupants, but it, uh... took a while to identify them. It's all in the file.”

“Hmmm. So I see.” she flicked through the text on her holopad. ‘It's inconclusive though. Events could equally be explained as a result of operator error.”

“True. Yuskollin firmly believes otherwise though.”

“Well of course he would.” Director Valta considered for a moment, “Presumably, we need him on side to make your proposal work?”

Toukka nodded, “I've got other people, but without Yuskollin's input, it'll be a slower, more risky project.”

“Then I think we should go... pay our respects.”


Through a haze of tears, Anders Yuskollin watched the slow rise and fall of his comatose wife's chest as the ventilation equipment forced air into her ruined lungs. Most of the skin on her body had been seared off in the incident and the medics had been unable to graft new tissue due to a crystalline infection that had sealed her wounds. Her condition left her too fragile to survive removal of the foreign material and so here she remained, stable against the odds, but with little hope of recovery.

Yuskollin desperately wanted to touch her, just to let her know he was there. But she was completely covered in a protective gel and the medics had explained that the chemical burns had stripped away her nerves, so she would feel nothing. Speaking to her was a hopeless effort too - exposure to the elements had destroyed her hearing. Yet still he spoke, perhaps for his own benefit more than Maeve's.

“They want to send more people down there.” he whispered. “But I can't let them. Not after what I did to you and Jess. I know you wouldn't want that. Neither of you.” He looked to the framed picture of the three of them on the bedside cabinet, taken after his daughter's graduation from Hedion University in YC 93 - the three doctors Yuskollin. The poor na├»ve family in that holograph had no idea how it would end.

The door opened behind him. He did not react.

“Doctor Yuskollin, may we come in?” It was Director Valta's uncharacteristically sympathetic voice. She was accompanied by the toadying Administrator Toukka, presumably fresh from making a new deal with The Devil.

Yuskollin wished they'd leave, but could not find the voice to say so.

“Toukka has explained recent events to me.” she soothed, “I just want to say how genuinely sorry I am for your loss. I can't imagine how hard this must be for you to deal with.”

Yuskollin looked round at the woman, her empathy was convincing. But Toukka, who was loitering shiftily behind her, betrayed the fact that they had an agenda with his awkward body language and constipated expression.

“What do you want?” Yuskollin croaked.

“I want to help you,” the Director said without pause. “or more accurately, I want to help your wife. I've spoken with the medical director and he explained that they do not have the capability here to repair or replace the damaged tissue or effect a full revival.”

Yuskollin nodded, his reality given such voice caused an upswell of emotion he was failing to stifle. The Director's hand came to gently rest upon his shoulder.

“But what if we could get your wife treatment elsewhere that might bring her back to you? I'm sure the Board would be supportive given everything your family has sacrificed. Let us help her.”

Yuskollin's heart ached and his stomach lurched. He knew what was coming.

“And in return you want my help to risk this happening to more people?” He indicated to his wife's shattered body.

“Well, I prefer to see it as needing your help to stop this from happening to more people. If the advances you and your family have made can help pioneer a new way of atmosphere harvesting, then not only will the Board be very grateful, your name – your family's name – will become immortal.”

Yuskollin's head bowed. The pain of his grief grew sharper as hope made its edges more keen. It seemed the deal with The Devil wasn't Toukka's to make, it was his. He looked to his wife's frail form and saw two futures, both filled with sorrow and regret. But at least in one, his beloved Maeve lived.

“I'm sorry, my love. I need you.” he whispered into her ruined ear.

Then he stood with the resolve of a condemned man and made the deal.


Toukka twitched with anticipation as the senior colony personnel assembled in the executive meeting room. He had been surprised how quickly the operation had come together, but in little under six days Dr. Yuskollin had managed to oversee the complete conversion of an extractor head to accommodate a control pod for two occupants. With the Director further greasing the wheels of motivation with some financial incentives, the two “vapournaughts” had been selected from a pool of over fifty enthusiastic volunteers. Toukka had idly wondered if that was a sign that he needed to run a colony-wide psyche-screening programme.

Nonetheless, the vapournaughts and assorted support staff had been briefed and drilled, and waivers had been signed. They were scant minutes from the moment that had originally been borne of a desperate attempt to save his job, but could now very well launch his career to unexpected new heights.

Of course, showcasing the launch as some kind of corporate event had been the Director's idea; ‘A display of confidence and brand identity' was how she had put it. Showing off, in other words. But the whole build-up, as hard work as it had been, was intoxicating and only Dr. Yuskollin, now sitting quietly by himself in one corner, seemed to have been unaffected by it.

The buzzing audience fell silent as the lights dimmed. Dressed in her signature slate-grey business suit, the wiry Director Valta stepped up to the illuminated podium, the corporation logo slowly revolving on the giant holoscreen behind her.

“Ladies and gentlemen. Scattered across the State are countless colonies just like this one, each populated by brave and pioneering frontiersmen like yourselves, who face the daily challenges of a thousand harsh, alien environments. Yet it is in these conditions where innovation thrives, where fearless individuals confront challenges and great minds conjure solutions. On occasion, such brilliance has far-reaching implications which can change the future. I'm proud to say this is one of those occasions. Chief Administrator Toukka will talk you through it.”

Toukka stepped up to the podium with a nod, “Thank you Director.” He paused for a moment to compose himself, “As I speak, our two ‘vapournaught’ volunteers are piloting their extractor head deep into the troposphere. Using state-of-the-art monitoring equipment and dynamic countermeasure systems, they will be able to harvest a continuous stream of gas resource while safely protected from the conditions around them.”

He operated the podium control panel and the holoscreen behind him blinked into life to display the familiar upper atmosphere cloudscape. Toward the horizon, the twinkling of distant navigation lights indicated the presence of floating facility similar to the command centre. Beyond the structure, the azure band of the stratosphere gave way to the star-spattered heavens above. With another finger movement, the view zoomed in to the angular platform of an extractor control unit.

“We're looking at the extractor control station situated 496 kilometres north-west of our position. In a moment we'll be talking to their control room to get a better idea of what's going on.”

There was a momentary hiss as open channels were established and stabilised, then a voice spoke.

“This is Senior Control Technician Tettava at ECU bravo-intaki-uniform-three-papa. Are you receiving, Command?”

“We are indeed Tettava.” replied Toukka as the screens switched over to display the ECU's camera feed showing a bluish haze with a black cylinder extending from the left of the screen away into the distance. “We've got your visuals, what are we looking at?”

“That is the feed from our first external camera on the underside of this facility, looking along the supply conduit extending down toward the extractor head, which is in transit to the designated test point at 350 kilometres below the tropopause. We will be onlining further cameras along the route as conditions allow.”

“How are the pilots?”

“They're fine. We're in constant contact with them, and they're reporting all systems are nominal as they pass the 300 kilometre mark. At that depth, the methane clouds which you can see on your view start to give way to the ammonia and hydrogen sulphide strata. This is the upper threshold of where the volatile conditions have previously been encountered. We'll activate another camera drone to show the change.”

The picture shifted to show the shadowy image being transmitted from deep within the churning cloud layers of the troposphere. The cloudscape had taken on a deeper azure hue and the occasional static discharge would momentarily illuminate new formations. Liquid particles glistened in the electrical light and the conduit was visibly buffeted by the whirling vortices of ether dancing along its length.

Toukka glanced over to Dr Yuskollin, who was watching the feed intently with a tortured expression. He couldn't help but feel for the man, he was facing many personal demons today.

Tettava's commentary continued, “The extractor crew have arrived at their designated testing depth, reporting an ambient pressure of 1200 kPA and an external temperature of one-hundred and seventy-six Kelvin. We're patching through to the capsule feed now.”

The screen blinked for a moment, then the image of two men in a cramped cockpit came into focus. They were wearing white protective suits and secured into cradles. The heavy-jawed pilot, closest to the camera, winked playfully.

“Hi folks and thanks for flying Air Vapournaught, I'm your captain Cyrus Punainen and this is my co-pilot Frank Paita. We are currently flying at an estimated altitude of: unknown, with an expected landing time of: later. The weather outside is... a little cloudy, with a heady mix of acid rain, lightning bolts and herds of rampaging tornadoes. But we're pleased to report all systems are operating at nominal levels, we have just fired up the extraction filters and the view... is spectacular. See for yourselves.”

The pilot pressed a switch and the screen filled with a view of elemental majesty. The extractor head had broken through the violent storm and come to rest over an ethereal vista. Pulsating ambient light from the storm above erratically illuminated a dense bluish-purple terrain of dark crevices and shifting vapour plateaus. Between these gaseous tectonic plates ran rivers of paler blue with yellow striations which would often boil over and encapsulate a portion of the terrain. Periodically, a sequence of blinding electrical discharges would strike across causing a kaleidoscopic eruption of light and gas that rippled out across the cloudscape.

Toukka looked over to Yuskollin. Even in the dark room he could see the tears rolling unimpeded down his cheeks. Toukka wondered what the scientist saw that so moved him.

“Check check.” It was the co-pilot's voice. “Control, we're picking up some anomalous readings. We've recalibrated shielding elements and deflection frequencies.”

“We've got a broad pressure shift and an increase in ionised ammonia in surrounding strata.”

To Toukka' eyes, the image showed no obvious signs of change, insofar as could be assessed in an ever mutating environment.

Suddenly, the picture spun.

“Woah! Did something hit us?” The audio was still coming through, but the video, now hazy, showed only blurred, intangible shadow.

“Negative. All readings still steady.”

“Wait, what's...moving... mass...” The audio started to fragment, then cease. The picture darkened.

Toukka looked over to Yuskollin to see the doctor's head was in his hands. Every other spectator sat in morbid silence. Toukka thumbed the comm. “Extractor Control? What's going on?”

“Uh..we're trying to re-establish contact, but we're getting no incoming data. The 300k camera is still up though. Switching the feed.”

The picture returned to the view from the remote camera showing the writhing conduit. As before the conduit trailed into darkness as it twisted in the winds, but now with more violence. The conduit thrashed as electricity arced along its length and vapour coalesced around it. Dark clouds beyond shifted angrily and began to expand like an erupting fountain.

Tettava spoke again, tension in his voice, “Our sensors are picking up a storm front that makes no sense. It's moving retrograde to the tropospheric current with huge force and speed. It's... it's following the conduit. Permission to detach?”

Toukka felt sick. He looked over to Yuskollin to find the scientist staring at him with an unreadable expression. The camera feed blinked to darkness as the raging cloud consumed it. The view shifted to the camera attached to the underbelly of the Extractor Control Station. The usual, gentle blue haze of hydrogen and helium had already darkened and distant flashes from the growing storm could be seen in the depths.

“Administrator?” Tettava's panic was evident, “The incoming pressure spike is enormous. We're going to have to detach the conduit and engage emergency protocols.”

Storms were not unprecedented and every gas colony facility was designed to withstand phenomenal forces, but to do so required all non-emergency processes to be shut-down and protruding structures to be withdrawn or detached.

“Understood. Go ahead.” Toukka's throat was dry.

He watched as the conduit silently disappeared into the expanding maw of the storm and with it, any hope of the vapournaughts' survival. Then the feed cut off as the camera deactivated.

“What's going on?” The Director had appeared beside him.

“We've lost the extractor head and the incoming storm has forced the ECU into lock-down.”

The woman pursed her lips in frustration, but said nothing. She operated the podium control to bring up the external view still focused on the distant extractor facility. Sensor rods, hanging like stalactites from the underside of the structure were slowly retracting. Resilient bulkheads slid across fragile surfaces. Then, with all safety procedures complete, Tettava re-established contact,

“Command. Lock-down successful. But our telemetry is showing this storm is... its behaviour is odd. When the conduit detached, the storm front slowed initially, but now it's accelerating and expanding again. It'll be on us in seconds and I'm not sure if...”

The signal died. They watched as the tranquil foothills of rolling hydrogen vapour beneath the distant platform buckled and erupted as a violent mass of dark, roiling cloud vomited upward, spitting lightning and acid as it consumed the fragile facility. The helpless onlookers watched it fragment and shatter even before it was enveloped by the growing, enraged storm.

“It's turning.” The fear-filled voice of Dr. Yuskollin stated as he rose from his seat and paced toward the podium, not taking his eyes from the holoscreen.

“What?” spat the Director. They watched the expanding storm front as it continued to pump out from the lower atmosphere like an overflowing geyser.

“Don't be daft man.” said Toukka scornfully, “It's just reached its zenith and now it'll just spread and dissipate along the pressure gradient.”

“No. No it won't.” Yuskollin said with morbid certainty. “It's coming for us.” He turned to the grey-suited woman. “This, Director, is your intelligent response.”

“That's ridiculous.” she retorted as the increasingly disturbed audience began to fluster and move toward the exit. “Sit down you idiots!” she bellowed at the fleeing crowd. “It's five-hundred kilometres away.” They paid her no heed.

“I'd say that storm front is doing well over a thousand metres per second.” said Yuskollin, “Five hundred kilometres is nothing, it'll be on us in minutes.”

“I'll engage lock-down.” said Toukka, desperately.

“Yes, that worked well for them, didn't it.” replied the doctor, without humour.

“Then we need to leave, what are the escape procedures?” the Director asked earnestly. Toukka shook his head.

“The Hohmann mass driver has a single lifeboat projectile. But it'll mean scuttling the entire colony and abandoning all personnel not able to get to it in time.”

“Do it.” she ordered.

Toukka thumbed the comms control.

“All hands, this is Administrator Toukka. This is a state of emergency. I have been authorised to abandon the colony. I repeat, all facilities are to follow evacuation procedures and proceed to lifeboats where possible or engage lock-downs where not.” He disabled the comms and looked to Doctor Yuskollin who was still watching the oncoming storm front intently. “How long?”

The doctor shrugged. “Probably less than five minutes.”

“Then let's go.”


The heaving tide of panicked bodies seemed to propel Doctor Yuskollin forward. Peversely, he was at peace as all those around him grew increasingly frantic. Yuskollin was barely aware of Toukka's firm grasp on his arm, dragging him along. He thought of his wife. He had failed her. Her suffering would soon be over but his would continue. Perhaps it was a fitting punishment for making the deal with The Devil.

“What the f...” Toukka's voice dragged him back to reality. They were approaching the entrance to the emergency launch platform, but those who had arrived before them were still gathering on the concourse rather than entering and boarding the lifeboat. The crowd was manic and several individuals lay unmoving on the floor.

Toukka led Yuskollin and the Director as he forced a path through the mob to the launch platform entrance and thumbed the door open button. It remained closed.

Yuskollin was vaguely aware of an increasingly aggressive conversation between Toukka, the Director and several mob members, but he paid it no heed. He was drawn to the nearby viewport looking out onto the emergency launch platform. Peering through, he could see the broad chamber was in darkness. Neatly arranged emergency equipment led up to the four lifeboat entrance portals. In contrast to the increasingly feverish mob, it looked peaceful in there.

Then, his attention was drawn to a single figure standing by a control panel. His old eyes struggled to make out any detail, especially in the darkness.

The world shuddered and Yuskollin was thrown hard against the corridor wall. The storm had arrived.

A nearby sound alerted him to the fact that the crowd had somehow gained access to the launch platform and the mob poured in, the emergency lighting blinking on as they did so. The mysterious distant figure was illuminated at the very same moment the storm tore open the facility.

He saw his wife, Maeve.

As corrosive, alien winds howled in through widening cracks and flayed the crowd, dissolving clothing, skin and bone, he watched as the ether caressed Maeve's ruined body. He felt a chest-bursting sense of love and relief as she crumpled to the ground and wisps danced from her form to join the cacophony of destruction. He smiled.

“You were right, my love. They were here all along.”

With a final scream of distressed metal and the roar of elemental wind, his conscience became unclouded. As he drew his last acid-filled breath, Doctor Anders Yuskollin accepted the judgement and found peace.