Meet EVE's search and rescue task force who will fly to the edge of space to save your ass

For how often it happens, there's no greater shame in EVE Online than getting stranded in 'J-space.' Stitched together by an ever-changing network of wormholes that have habit of disappearing moments after you venture through them, J-space is a collection of some 3,000 lawless star systems that are everywhere and nowhere at the same time. These wormholes to J-space randomly appear all across New Eden, and you never really know what's on the other side until you stick your head in. Doing so without proper caution is not advised. If the cutthroat local players don't kill you, even the smallest of mistakes will. 

Scanner probes are your lifeline in these systems. Used to triangulate radio signatures—like those of other wormholes—these drones help you determine what areas of interest are in a system. Of all the mistakes you can make, losing your connection with your probes (and not having backups) is the one that will most likely kill you. Maybe you forgot to recall them before jumping through another wormhole, or maybe you just had an unfortunately timed server disconnect. Whatever your reason is, Signal Cartel doesn't care. They only care about getting you home alive. 

To the rescue

It's just the idea that you can do something different in EVE. You can contribute to the community in a positive way.

Johnny Splunk

When a pilot loses connection to their scanner probes and doesn't have an exit wormhole bookmarked, they could try messaging the locals for help—if there are any—but they're more likely to be ransomed or destroyed outright in regular EVE fashion. It's far better to die with a little dignity as you initiate the self-destruct sequence on your life pod and blow your consciousness back to a respawn point in normal space. If you're flying a cheap ship, that might not be so bad. But if you're sitting pretty in a 600-million-ISK strategic cruiser with another few hundred million ISK worth of implants jacked into your skull, you're not just killing yourself. You're killing your livelihood.

That's where EVE-Scout Rescue comes in. They have seeded over 1,800 J-space systems (around 70 percent) with password-locked rescue caches. If you're lucky to be stranded in one of those systems, all you have to do is message EVE-Scout through its public channel and a representative will tell you the local cache's location and password. Inside, you'll find a probe launcher, more probes, and maybe some fireworks just to lift your spirits. And if there's no cache to save you, they'll deploy pilots to come and save you. 

"About eighty pilots a month do just that," Thrice Hapus, EVE-Scout Rescue's manager, says. "They just have nine or ten [rescue caches] in their cargo holds, and as they encounter systems that don't have a cache, they drop them off." Because of how EVE works, pilots also have to "maintain" those caches by opening them once every 30 days to prevent the server from automatically despawning them. It's a monumental logistical effort.

In just the last 12 months alone, EVE-Scout Rescue has saved 175 pilots with rescue caches and another 83 players by fully-formed search and rescue operations. While the average wait time is six days, 47 percent of all rescue ops are completed within 24 hours from the moment a player sends out an SOS.

"I recently got stuck in a wormhole and lost my scanner probes to a disconnect," one testimonial reads from EVE-Scout Rescue's website reads. "I contacted them via the in-game channel and immediately people responded with help offers. One person guided me to the rescue cache with the help of [my directional scanner]. I got some scanner probes and fireworks out of the cache. Soon I could finally make my escape."

But in an MMO that outright encourages hostility and mistrust, why would EVE-Scout Rescue pilots work so hard to exemplify the opposite? It's one of the biggest questions I had when I sat down with Johnny Splunk. He's the chief executor of EVE-Scout, an umbrella alliance of explorers like those in Signal Cartel (the two names are largely synonymous). But Signal Cartel and EVE-Scout are more than just an exploration guild: Their ultimate goal is to serve the EVE community regardless of who they are and who they fly with. "It's just the idea that you can do something different in EVE," Johnny says. "You can contribute to the community in a positive way."

EVE Online's reputation as a savage and merciless MMO is well earned. Not only is it hopelessly complex, but players will gleefully murder you, scam you, and murder you again. You can protect yourself by joining a player-run corporation, but EVE doesn't have the best track record when it comes to trustworthy allies, either. While most players respect that it's just a game, it can still sometimes feel woefully short of honest folk. And that's exactly what Johnny wanted to change. "When we set Signal Cartel up, we didn't think it'd last more than three weeks—if that. We just had no idea that it'd even be successful because it was so different." 

And it's not just rescue operations, either. The origins of the alliance started when Johnny and fellow founding member 'g8keeper' started their 'Thera service,' a tool where players can log and track wormhole connections to Thera, a kind of de facto basecamp of wormhole space.

Wormhole connections are constantly changing. One minute, Thera might connect to several other systems, but the next day those wormholes will collapse and new ones will tear open and Thera will neighbor a wholly new set of systems. EVE-Scout's Thera service turns explorers into pathfinders, helping chart these ever-changing connections so pilots can get to Thera more easily. What's more, the service has an API that is free to use for any alliance who might not want a Thera-bound wormhole opening up deep in their territory. And then there's Signal Cartel itself, a corporation that welcomes new and old players alike with the promise of one-on-one mentoring and camaraderie.

Don't shoot 

It's a counter-culture movement in EVE built on service and generosity to the community that has grown to around 700 pilots, with thousands more former members who have moved on to new endeavors. And at the heart of that is Signal Cartel's "credo"—the core belief that Signal Cartel pilots are, first and foremost, to treat other EVE players with dignity and generosity no matter which banner they fly under. As Johnny tells me, Signal Cartel pilots "never shoot first and never hold a grudge."

Instead, these pilots explore the vastness of EVE's galaxy, dropping caches and rescuing others, while also participating in normal exploration activities like looking for ancient relics. But no matter how you spend your time in Signal Cartel, you're expected to be an ambassador of goodwill to any pilot you come across.

It's for that reason that Signal Cartel has quickly become one of EVE's most universally celebrated groups. Johnny says that even in the lawless frontier of J-Space Signal Cartel members are rarely attacked. While most ships rely on shields or armor to 'tank' damage, Thrice jokes that Signal Cartel members have a "reputation tank."

"It's one of the ways we get out of bad situations, because people know us," he says. "People will say, oh you're Signal Cartel, come on through. Or people will apologize after they've blown us up saying they didn't realize who we were and they've even sent us money to cover the cost of replacing our ship."

Over on the EVE subreddit, you can see that goodwill in action. Whenever Thrice posts to raise awareness of EVE-Scout rescue, the comments quickly swell as players share their stories or express their gratitude (even if it is somewhat begrudgingly).

All of us want to see it continue to thrive—not just the corporation, but the entire EVE Online world.

Thrice Hapus

But for Thrice, Johnny, and all the members of EVE-Scout, it's not just about being nice to strangers, but ensuring the survival of EVE Online itself. While they can't control the decisions CCP makes about the long term health of the game, they can absolutely do their part to fight back against the often too-negative reputation EVE has. "We really do see ourselves as protecting this wonderful thing that sprung up unexpectedly," Thrice says. "All of us want to see it continue to thrive—not just the corporation, but the entire EVE Online world. We want it to continue for years and years to come, and part of how you do that is to have an entity that counterbalances all of the nastiness."

So the next time you're deep in J-space and without an exit, just know that someone out there will take the time to come and bring you safely home.