I Used to Run Barefoot

I used to run barefoot through these woods. The twigs and sticker-leaves were like nothing to me as I rushed through the trees, chasing the animals or fleeing from the ghosts I made in my head. The adventures I had in these woods rivaled those of the greatest storytellers.

But that was a long time ago. The woods and the stories had been diminished.

“Congratulations,” they had said. “You are now a pod pilot.”

Of course, the training wasn’t over. They just knew I wouldn’t mind lock from the interface. Another year of grueling exercises, designed to sharpen my perception, harden my willpower, augment my charisma, expand my memory, and increase my intelligence. And it worked. By the time I was finished, I was beyond anyone I had ever known.

Moira stood by me the entire time. We were in love, so we told each other. And at one point, we were. But that was before.

“Where is the knife?” she’d ask, when it was in plain sight, its outline clearly visible under the dish towel. “I can’t find the photo album,” she’d complain, despite having just looked at it three months ago.

She was beneath me. And she was so fragile.

“No, you can’t go to Jita with me. It’s too dangerous.”

“But it’s only three jumps and I’ve never been!”

“It’s too dangerous. Stay here on the station.”

We were both stifled by the other.

I slowly walked through the woods. My boots crunched loudly on the fallen leaves. A stick snapped with a loud pop. The animals I had seen freely in my youth all fled well before I noticed them. Even the song birds, usually so vocal in the early spring, had gone silent.

Before I knew it, I had reached the old fort I had built. It was really nothing more than a few pieces of metal siding and plywood nailed together. Now only the siding remained, all toppled over in a heap.

I walked over and pulled some of the panels out of the way. Underneath was an old plastic bag, filled with the rotted remains of the pornographic magazines I’d stolen from my father and hidden out here.

I covered it back up with the siding and kept walking.

The rush of combat never failed to get my blood pumping. The first time or the thousandth time, it was the same. That curious mix of euphoria and fear; the knowledge that in a few short seconds my body might be drifting in the middle of charred wreckage while I woke up disoriented, queasy, but safe trillions of kilometers away, coupled with the knowledge that I could do the same thing to my opponent.

One battle in particular always stuck out in my mind. There were five of us, all in cruisers, and we’d gotten reports of an enemy fleet twice our size with battleships and battle cruisers roaming nearby. Without hesitation, we all agreed to engage.

They jumped into us and we were ready. We pounced on one of the battle cruisers, an Amarrian make, and quickly stripped its shields. The armor naturally took longer, but it was being ground down.

We were being ground down faster. One of the others exploded, but his pod went tumbling off into warp. We kept on the battle cruiser, determined to inflict some damage. Another of my gang mates went down, the battle cruiser at half armor.

“Keep on it,” the gang leader said. As if there was an option not to.

The gang leader went down next, right as the last of the battle cruiser’s armor melted, exposing its fragile structure. We continued to pound even as we were pounded. It finally exploded right as my remaining gang mate did.

I tried to escape, but it was a futile gesture. Scrambled and webbed, I simply sat and waited for my ship to explode, then warped my pod off.

The five of us had all avoided being cloned that day. The destroyed battle cruiser had been carrying modules worth more than our entire ships combined. It had been a suicide mission, but it was a victory for us, even though we lost five cruisers full of people.

When I was a child, I had never crossed the stream that trickled through the woods. It had seemed impassable. A deluge as wide as an ocean. If I fell in, I’d surely have been swept away. What was beyond was unknown. A mystery. A place from where the ghosts and monsters came.

It still slowly trickled through the trees, as wide and as deep as ever. I took a few steps back, then jogged forward and jumped. I landed on the opposite side, but a part of the bank crumbled away and sent me sliding down into the water. I ended up to my shins in the water, soaking through my boots.

I cursed and slowly climbed out. I looked back across the stream, to the way I’d come. I should really go back, but I didn’t.

Instead, I kept walking.

Our corporation had been through a lot. We had been hardened in battles, usually coming out the victor, always coming out stronger than we started. We related to each other. We had bonded. And through it, we had come to know and respect many other corporations as well.

Eventually, we founded an alliance. We had some growing pains. Being able to fly into battle with someone did not mean you could hammer out policy with them. Friendships were damaged, some irreparably, but still we came out stronger.

The alliance fought wars. The core corps grew stronger and closer. New corporations asked to join us. We scratched and clawed our way into null sec space. We conquered a small bit of territory that was not rich but was by no means poor.

Some tried to kick us out, but we always resisted. We stayed strong in the face of adversity and always swung back twice as hard as we were hit. We won. And grew. And prospered. We conquered more. We became the aggressors, kicking out those who had been like we once were.

Our might made right. It was the way of the universe.

The opposite side of the stream held no great wonders. Instead, it was more of the same. Trees, fallen leaves and branches, and animals that were gone before I would ever notice them. The water that had seeped into my boots sloshed as I walked. It was uncomfortable.

I tried to take them off, but walking without them was more uncomfortable than the water, so I put them back on and trudged. I could stand it. I had the willpower.

I came across a small clearing. In the center was a small shack, about the same size as my fort used to be. A small boy stuck his head out, in suspicion.

“Hello,” I said.

“Who are you?” he asked.

“No one. I was just going for a walk. My parents used to live on the other side of these woods.”

“Used to?”

“They’re both dead now.”

“Oh. What do you want?”

“Nothing,” I said.

He squinted at me. A stray ray of light must have caught an implant jack, because his eyes went wide. “Are you a pod pilot?”


“Cool! Can I see them?”

I shrugged. “Sure. They’re not much to look at though.” I pulled off my shirt and turned around. The small line of jacks ran down my back, starting at my neck and ending just below my shoulders. The metal was still shiny, the result of a fresh clone.

“Do they hurt?” he asked as he poked one.

“Not anymore.”

“I want to be a pod pilot one day.”

“It’s hard work, so good luck.” I pulled my shirt back on. “I need to be going. Goodbye.”

“Uh, bye.” He ran back into his own fort and I walked back into the woods.

All good things must come to an end and so it was with our alliance. We grew large and fat. An entire region was ours. We still fended off challengers, for sure. But we relied on our friends more and more. Many of the corporations only provided a few reluctant fighters on defensive operations. Offensive operations were even more undermanned, with only the most hard core coming out to fight.

Older members had left. I always wondered what drove them away. The newer members were enthusiastic, but they had neither the experience nor the vision our older members did. There was a split in the alliance and the corp. The old who remembered the struggles it had taken to get us where we were and the new who benefited from our toils.

When the sword finally fell, the alliance was not of the mettle to survive. It was driven from its home, broken and battered. The corporations that had not been much fighters left to find another belly to leech from, those that had blamed each other for letting the alliance get to such a state.

It fell apart stunningly fast. Even my corporation dissolved, torn apart by accusations and pettiness and anger.

A few of us remained friends. We were the oldest, the founders. We pledged to start all over again. To build it from the ground up and come back and retake what was ours. To avoid the mistakes we’d made.

It had been a good dream.

I reached the other end of the woods. I looked at my watch. I’d barely been walking for an hour. I looked out at the small cluster of homes. I could easily get a ride back to my old home. It was only a few minutes away, after all.

Instead, I looked back through the woods. I paused for a long minute. Then I kicked my boots off.

I started to run barefoot through the woods. The twigs and sticker-leaves cut into my feet. If I’d bothered to look, I would have seen the blood. But the ghosts were chasing me and I couldn’t spare the glance.

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