Dig­i­tal Res­cue


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Rick Lane charts the epic tale of an Elite Dan­ger­ous player’s 60,000-light-year quest to save a pi­lot in trou­ble.

Bea­gle Point is a non­de­script star sys­tem sus­pended in the misty void be­yond the Milky Way’s spi­ral arms, over 62,000 light years away from our lo­cal star, Sol. It be­came fa­mous within the Elite Dan­ger­ous com­mu­nity as one of the most re­mote charted sys­tems in the game’s sim­u­lated galaxy, dis­cov­ered by a player known as Com­man­der Erimus One dur­ing his 2015 ‘Dis­tant Suns’ ex­pe­di­tion to map the most re­mote sys­tem pos­si­ble. Last year, Erimus One headed up an­other ex­pe­di­tion – Dis­tant Worlds – which aimed to chart as many sys­tems as pos­si­ble be­tween Sol and Bea­gle Point. Un­like Dis­tant Suns, this ex­pe­di­tion was open for other play­ers to join. One of them was Com­man­der Felix Mace­donica, a fel­low ex­plorer keen to ven­ture into the dark­est reaches of space. Lit­tle did he know he would end up stuck there. ‘I had been a part of the Dis­tant Worlds ex­pe­di­tion to Bea­gle Point and was trav­el­ling slowly back through the Void,’ says Com­man­der Mace­donica, whose real name is Fran­cis Ha­gan. Ha­gan was pi­lot­ing a Lakon Type 6E, a small cargo ves­sel with only a lim­ited range, to jump be­tween star sys­tems. The Void is the area of space be­yond the galaxy’s spi­ral arms, and com­prises mostly black space with only a hand­ful of stars for play­ers to jump safely be­tween. ‘This area of the void is a very sparse one, and I had to man­u­ally plot each jump us­ing a tank with lit­tle fuel in it to lighten my Lakon’s mass as much as pos­si­ble,’ Ha­gan says.

Ha­gan been ex­plor­ing the edge of the in-game galaxy for months, and had be­come com­pla­cent about the risks of be­ing so far out from most forms of civil­i­sa­tion. ‘I took my eye off the ball, as it were, and jumped into a re­mote sys­tem with­out check­ing if I had enough ma­te­ri­als to boost my jump range on leav­ing.’ Es­sen­tially, Ha­gan ran out of fuel in a sys­tem com­prised mostly of gas giants with only one planet on which you can land. His only hope was to find the re­quired com­po­nents on the planet’s sur­face to cre­ate enough fuel to make the jump.

‘I knew im­me­di­ately I was stuck,’ he says. ‘I would nor­mally use ma­te­ri­als har­vested from plan­e­tary sur­faces to do a one-off boost to the jump range. But I was miss­ing a vi­tal ma­te­rial: ger­ma­nium. With­out it, there was noth­ing I could do. The only land­able sur­face didn’t have ger­ma­nium as a minable ma­te­rial. I was stuck.’

In Elite Dan­ger­ous, play­ers who end up in such a sit­u­a­tion have only one op­tion – self-de­struct their ship and respawn at the space sta­tion in which they last docked. But for Ha­gan, the cost of such a dras­tic move would have been enor­mous. ‘I would have lost all the months of ex­plo­ration data – mil­lions’ worth of cred­its. But more im­por­tantly, I would have lost time. It took me months to get out to Bea­gle Point,’ he says.

The res­cue plan

At a loss, Ha­gan posted a mes­sage on the Elite Dan­ger­ous fo­rums ex­plain­ing his predica­ment. The post was spot­ted by Troy Med­ley, who plays Elite Dan­ger­ous as Com­man­der Chiggy Von­richtofen. Med­ley im­me­di­ately re­alised the only way out of Ha­gan’s sit­u­a­tion would be to use a min­ing laser to harvest re­sources from the rings of the gas giants in his sys­tem. ‘I knew the area, knew he was in a tight spot, knew very few if any [play­ers] in his im­me­di­ate area would be lug­ging around a min­ing laser. That would be the only way out of the jam he was in.’

Med­ley of­fered to help Ha­gan, and to­gether they hatched a plan. Med­ley would ren­dezvous in-sys­tem with Ha­gan, and they would travel to the near­est gas gi­ant. Med­ley would mine the as­ter­oids in­side the planet’s rings for ger­ma­nium, and then Ha­gan would care­fully ma­noeu­vre to scoop up the re­sources. ‘Of course, there was no guar­an­tee he would lo­cate ger­ma­nium, so it was all a bit of a gamble re­ally,’ says Ha­gan.

There was one fur­ther prob­lem. At the time of the dis­tress call, Med­ley was sur­vey­ing for Earth-like worlds in the area be­tween the Colo­nius and Sagit­tar­ius A sys­tems – over 60,000 light years from Bea­gle Point. Even with the game’s abil­ity to jump be­tween star sys­tems in sec­onds,

it would take two days in real time to reach Bea­gle Point. ‘I thought he was mad,’ says Ha­gan. ‘Bril­liant, but mad.’

Med­ley’s ship also wasn’t out­fit­ted for such a long mis­sion. ‘My ship was stripped to the frame – with no shields or min­ing laser – for ex­tra range, and only a one-jump 8t fuel tank.’ Be­fore em­bark­ing on the jour­ney, Med­ley had to re­turn to a sta­tion at Colo­nius to equip ‘a big­ger tank, small shields and a min­ing laser’.

The jour­ney be­gins

Med­ley be­gan the jour­ney the fol­low­ing day, mak­ing a to­tal of 600 sys­tem-jumps through­out the day and cov­er­ing a dis­tance of 30,000 light years. When asked about the po­ten­tial risks of such a long trip, Med­ley’s re­sponse is ca­sual and dis­mis­sive, say­ing ‘the only real risk was face­plant­ing into a star or run­ning into the oc­ca­sional close bi­nary sys­tem.’ Ha­gan, mean­while, was able to track Med­ley’s progress to Bea­gle Point. ‘It was stag­ger­ing to see his con­tact move so swiftly. It made my jaw drop.’

By the time Med­ley ar­rived in the sys­tem where Ha­gan was stranded, the story of Med­ley’s res­cue at­tempt had be­come one of the most talked­about events in the Elite Dan­ger­ous com­mu­nity. ‘The fo­rum ex­ploded with mes­sages of sup­port and en­cour­age­ment,’ Ha­gan says. The fol­low­ing was so large that Ha­gan de­cided to live-stream the ac­tion, as he and Med­ley trav­elled to the near­est gas gi­ant to mine for ger­ma­nium.

Just un­der an hour later, Med­ley hit upon a seam of that vi­tal re­source. ‘That mo­ment when the ger­ma­nium fi­nally popped was in­de­scrib­able, not just be­cause it freed me from a doomed sit­u­a­tion, but also be­cause so many peo­ple were watch­ing and will­ing Chiggy on,’ Ha­gan says. ‘If you watch the live stream, you can hear the re­lief and ex­haus­tion in my voice!’

The res­cue of Com­man­der Mace­donica from the far­thest reaches of Elite Dan­ger­ous’ vir­tual galaxy is a fan­tas­tic ex­am­ple of the emer­gent, player-driven play that the game aims to gen­er­ate, but it’s also a rare glimpse into the pos­i­tive sides of on­line gam­ing com­mu­ni­ties. ‘Some­times, fo­rum boards can be toxic places with peo­ple diss­ing or pa­tro­n­is­ing posters, but this was the com­plete op­po­site,’ Ha­gan ex­plains. ‘Ev­ery­one with­out ex­cep­tion was wish­ing me well and sup­port­ing Chiggy in his mad dash across the galaxy!’

Games, and par­tic­u­larly mul­ti­player games, are of­ten crit­i­cised for bring­ing out the worst in play­ers, but Ha­gan’s res­cue at the hands of Med­ley demon­strates that they’re also ca­pa­ble of bring­ing out the best of hu­man­ity.

Ha­gan’s Lakon Type 6E space­craft hangs in the void in an un­named sys­tem out­side Bea­gle Point

The lo­ca­tion of Bea­gle Point, where Ha­gan was stranded. You can also see Sagit­tar­ius A, which is ap­prox­i­mately where Med­ley be­gan his voy­age

The icy moon where Ha­gan set down his ship to await Med­ley’s ar­rival

The view of the Milky Way from Ha­gan’s Lakon cock­pit. He played the game with an HTC Vive, which ex­plains the cam­era dis­tor­tion

Af­ter the res­cue: Ha­gan took this im­age of a bi­nary star from a dif­fer­ent sys­tem

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