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The 9-year journey to explore each of EVE Online's 7,805 solar systems

(Image credit: CCP Games)

The most famous people in EVE Online are often the most violent. If they aren't emperors or warlords, they're most likely scammers, pirates, or thieves. Each is a thread in a bloody tapestry of galactic conflict spanning 16 years—players immortalized by heroic feats, dastardly schemes, or just sheer stupidity. But Katia Sae is different. In a world full of tyrants and usurpers, she's a pacifist and an explorer.

Earlier this year, Katia Sae quietly made history (and earned a Guinness World Record) when they became the first player to visit every single one of EVE Online's 7,805 solar systems. It's a monumental quest that took over nine years to complete with the help of hundreds of other explorers, a proprietary AI database tool named Allison, and unfathomable persistence. And Sae did it all without losing a single ship. Though, as Sae told me during EVE Vegas last month, the journey around the galaxy was anything but smooth sailing. 

Around the galaxy in 3,385 days 

Ethan Richards, the actual person behind the Katia Sae character, is far from the first player to have the wild idea to visit every solar system in EVE. Others had toured "known space" before—the static systems that make up the virtual galaxy of New Eden—but those pilots typically raced from one to the next and lost plenty of ships along the way. When developer CCP Games released EVE Online's Dominion expansion on December 1, 2009, which included a visual overhaul of EVE Online's planets and moons, Sae decided it was the perfect time to do some sightseeing. But he was going to do it his way. "I didn't just want to blast through like everyone else had," Sae tells me. "So I decided that I'd roleplay it and tell this character's story. I'd visit every planet and take a picture of each one in every system."

Unlike other space sims, like Elite: Dangerous, New Eden is almost entirely colonized by players, so Sae was rarely ever alone—especially in the beginning. The journey started in the civilized sector known as high-sec, where unlawful player conduct (like shooting one another without due cause) is swiftly punished by an omnipotent police force called CONCORD.

Almost every system in EVE is connected by stargates, and while some solar systems might have a dozen stargates, others might have only one or two. Each is a small part in a vast and intricate web of the 5,201 systems that comprise known space. 

Most solar systems are indistinguishable from one another, Sae tells me. After a while, you can only see so many volcanic or oceanic planets before they start to blend together. But EVE does have its tourist destinations. During his journey, Sae visited unique locations like the Molea Cemetery, where a small group of gravekeepers protect and maintain tributes to people both real and fictional.

To keep track of where he'd been and maximize efficiency, Sae created—you guessed it—a spreadsheet. "Whenever I entered a new region, I'd look at the region map and kind of figure out what the best route to work my way through that region," Sae says. "I tried to have minimal backtracking but it's inevitable. You're going to backtrack because of the dead ends and stuff like that. But I always tried to work it to my advantage."

In those early days, Sae was averaging about six systems a night over the course of an hour or so. It was a meticulous process to not only map the best route but also stop at every planet in each system and catalogue it. Sae also kept a blog that chronicled his adventures with frequent updates and short stories written entirely in-character.

(Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

Of the all the known space systems, only a fraction are policed by CONCORD. Low-sec space, for example, lies on the fringes of high-sec and is home to tribes of ruthless pirates who prowl about, killing other players and stealing their cargo. Beyond low-sec things get even more dangerous. There lies a vast periphery where EVE Online's player-built empires battle for sovereignty and resources. Most of these 3,000 systems are divided up between just over 150 different alliances, many of which are, in turn, vassals of bigger, scarier alliances. And Katia Sae was going to have to sneak into every single one of their fortified systems to complete his mission.

Out for blood 

One of the guys who put a bounty on me would message me every once in a while saying 'I'm going to know when you die.'

Katia Sae

"In the beginning, I never had the goal of doing this all without losing a ship," Sae admits. "My goal was to just visit all of known space and that was it." But in the five years that it took him to visit every single system in both high- and low-sec space, Sae was painfully aware of how lucky he was.

Sae explains that by the time he began venturing into null-sec, word began to spread of his mission and amazing streak of not having lost a ship. EVE Online's community had taken notice, and some EVE players wanted nothing more than to ruin Sae's fun.

It was these encounters that Sae frequently omitted from his blog. "I didn't want to cast a spotlight on someone that I escaped from. I didn't want it to look like I was bragging about it. And so my whole strategy was to keep it low key and vague."

Sae's Tengu is an explorer's dream ship, fitted for safety and stealth. (Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

But that didn't stop Sae from drawing the wrong kind of attention. Dozens of players had put bounties on his head just so they would be notified if someone happened to kill him. Others were even creepier. "Obsessive is a good word for it," Sae laughs. "One of the guys who put a bounty on me would message me every once in a while saying 'I'm going to know when you die. I'm going to know when you die. I'm going to know when you die.' And like, okay, there's the fun side of it. But that's a little weird. You're taking this a little too seriously."

But talk is cheap. Catching and killing Sae was another matter entirely. During the voyage through null-sec Sae piloted a Tengu strategic cruiser, one of EVE Online's most versatile ships. Fitted with warp core stabilizers, an interdiction nullifier, and a covert operations-grade cloaking device, Sae was nearly impossible to pin down long enough for any targeting computer to get a lock.

Sae also had some clever tools at his disposal. Websites like Zkillboard, for example, log every player death that happens anywhere in New Eden while Dotlan tracks every time a stargate is used. With these two sources of intel, Sae could reasonably deduce how dangerous a given star system was before risking his neck. "I would use any and all tools out there that could pull up information on my area of space," Sae says. "I always knew where I was at, who was in the neighborhood, and what was their activity. Were they early morning folks, evening folks, or weekend folks? A lot of the reason why it took me so long was because I was spending a lot of time just going 'where am I, and how active are they?'"

Even the most educated guesses, though, are still a gamble.

Nowhere to run 

Sae doesn't remember the system where he almost died. He doesn't even remember the name of the players or their corporation. All Sae remembers is the intense adrenaline rush of realizing he was trapped at the tail end of a string of null-sec systems with only one stargate leading out—and 12 players were sitting on it, patiently waiting for Sae to make his move.

"I was sweating because I thought, okay, these guys are really after me and so this is probably where I'm going to lose a ship," Sae explains. "I'm gonna play my damn hardest to get out of here. I'm not just gonna sit here let them take me out."

(Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

I'm gonna play my damn hardest to get out of here. I'm not just gonna sit here let them take me out.

Katia Sae

Though death can be disastrous in EVE, Sae says he mostly didn't want to break his record and deal with the inconvenience that comes with being blown up. Losing a ship would mean a lengthy and perilous trek in a defenseless escape pod to the nearest trade hub to buy a replacement. Deep in null-sec, that could mean hours of flying just to get back to civilization.

Losing his escape pod would be even worse. Sae would wake up as a clone all the way back in high-sec, several dozen jumps from where he needed to be. "I was thinking of the nightmare of trying to get back there to keep going or having to come in from a different spot and backtrack and I just didn't want to do that. So I said, you know, if they catch me, kill me, fine. I'll have to deal with it. But I'm going to get out of here." 

Sae thought he had one advantage: "I had patience on my side," he says. "I figured I would win because they probably wanted to go do something else after a while."

But he was wrong. For three days, he logged in to find the stargate locked down by the same small gang of assassins. Sae started logging in during the early morning or late at night, hoping that he'd catch his trappers when they weren't playing. But every time he logged in, at least a few of them were prowling around the stargate waiting. And then one day they weren't.

"I honestly figured they were on the other side waiting for me," Sae says. "But I decided to make a run for it anyway." Since he was at the tail end of a branch of solar systems, Sae would have to make three separate jumps before he would finally arrive at an intersection and could hopefully shake whatever pursuers were chasing him.

(Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

So Sae warped to the stargate and engaged his jumpdrive. No one was on the other side. "I thought it was a trick," he says. "The tension just kept building up, you know? You get through the first gate going, okay, but I got two more to go. They're going to get me. They have to be there. They've been this dedicated for this long…"

But no one was there. Katia Sae slipped away unscathed and unnerved. To this day, he doesn't even know why they wanted him dead—they never once tried to taunt or mock him. No contact, just the quiet threat of annihilation.

Into the great unknown

On November 26, 2015—over six years after he first started—Sae finally finished his tour through the last solar systems of null-sec. He was now the only pilot to have visited every system in known space without losing a ship. But Katia Sae wasn't done yet.

After a short break over the holidays, Sae decided to continue the expedition into the most dangerous and impossible part of EVE Online: Wormhole space. Unlike known space, wormhole space doesn't have stargates linking each of its 2,604 systems together. Instead, each is bridged by transient wormholes that randomly spawn and then slowly collapse. Though there's some loose logic to where these wormholes go, there's no way of knowing for sure without sticking your head in. 

Originally, developer CCP Games designed wormholes as a terrifying challenge for EVE Online's most hardcore players. The idea was that pilots would go on short excursions into wormhole space, battle the powerful NPC aliens that lurk inside, and retreat home at the end of the day. Instead, EVE Online players colonized wormholes permanently. And if Katia Sae was going to explore each of its randomly connected systems, he would need more than a spreadsheet.

Wormholes' random nature makes them extremely dangerous to navigate. (Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

I started feeling the burnout. I didn't think I could make it. At that rate, it felt like it was going to take me another ten years.

Katia Sae

For the first two years, Sae had no other option than to jump into every wormhole he could and hope it would lead to a system he hadn't yet visited. It worked reasonably well for the first 2,000 wormhole systems, but the final 600 were a demoralizing gamble.

Because the wormholes that lead into and out of each system are randomly spawning, Sae was having to manually scan them down one at a time to see where they might lead. The more wormhole systems he visited, the smaller Sae's chances of finding one he hadn't been to before. That extra effort was eating up so much time that Sae could no longer afford to take photos of every planet in each system he was visiting, so he settled for snapping a single picture of each solar system instead. Entire weeks passed without finding a new wormhole system.

"I wasn't going to kill myself doing this," Sae explained. "So I had to spend my time trying to find more new systems per day. And when I had to start doing that is when I started feeling the burnout. I didn't think I could make it. At that rate, it felt like it was going to take me another ten years. And that is when I said, you know, either I'm going to have to get help or I'm just going to have to give up."

Back during his null-sec pilgrimage, Sae fell in with a renowned player named Mynxee who became famous for leading EVE Online's first all-female pirate gang. When Katia Sae met her, Mynxee had reformed and was now launching a new corporation for explorers. Sae was a natural fit.

(Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

Called Signal Cartel, this new organization quickly exploded in popularity and became expert navigators of wormhole space. More humanitarian aid organization than explorer's guild, Signal Cartel became famous for their search and rescue task force whose hundreds of members have seeded more than 90 percent of wormhole space with special rescue caches that contain the necessary items for stranded players to scan their way out of a wormhole. A program called Allison helps coordinate it all.

Like many of EVE Online's third-party plugins, Allison is a player-built program Signal Cartel explorers use while flying through wormhole space. Allison tracks their location and provides relevant information about whatever system they're in, like the location and status of any rescue caches. But Allison was just what Sae needed to complete his mission.

Mynxee and Signal Cartel's other leaders agreed to help Sae by modifying Allison so that whenever a Signal Cartel pilot entered a wormhole system Sae hadn't yet visited, Sae and a small team of trusted allies would immediately be notified. When the alarm sounded, one of them would retrace the path that pilot had taken and get inside the wormhole as quickly as they could. As long as someone was in the wormhole, they could always map a way back to known space that Sae could use to get in.

But with a corporation as big as Signal Cartel, there was an enormous risk that a spy might use this as an opportunity to ambush Sae and ruin his no-death streak. Because Signal Cartel is mostly home to roleplayers, it was decided that the corporation would create a fictitious community event, a false story for why these 600 wormholes had to be mapped out. Signal Cartel members eagerly began mapping the location of these remaining wormholes having no idea they were actually helping Sae. And it was working. "I went from averaging two systems a day to averaging like 15 systems a day in that first week," Sae laughs. "In that first month, we had already found 300 of the 600 wormhole systems that I needed."

(Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

Journey's end 

On March 9, 2019, Sae's nine year journey came to an end when he entered the final wormhole system. After months of keeping Signal Cartel in the dark, Mynxee and other members of Katia's inner circle finally revealed the truth. No one seemed upset. In fact, they were ecstatic that they had played a part in helping Katia Sae become the first player to visit every single solar system in EVE Online. That he didn't die once was just icing on the cake.

To celebrate Sae's success, Signal Cartel issued a press release to the EVE community. The big question was whether anyone at CCP Games would acknowledge Katia Sae's monumental achievement. 

The following day, Sae was contacted by CCP's community manager at the time, Paul 'CCP Falcon' Elsy. "I got the nod from Falcon," Sae explains. "And he said, that's a great achievement, but you missed something."

It turns out that there was one system Katia Sae hadn't yet visited: Polaris. This special solar system is only accessible to developers from CCP Games. To celebrate the end of Sae's journey, Elsy offered to personally tour him through Polaris. When Sae arrived, CCP surprised him with a welcoming party of dozens of developers.

Dozens of CCP developers surprised Sae with fireworks when he arrived in Polaris. (Image credit: Katia Sae and CCP Games)

I spent nine years in Katia Sae's head and here she was at the end. Her story is complete. It's bittersweet.

Katia Sae

Later that month CCP Games prepared a much bigger surprise. Announced during the EVEsterdam fan gathering in Amsterdam, CCP unveiled an enormous in-game monument of Katia Sae that would be placed in his home system of Saiso III. It is the first time that a player has ever been officially canonized in EVE Online's lore.

"To see your character transcend that boundary and become a part of the lore, to be an official part of the game is just... I couldn't ask for anything more after that," Katia Sae tells me. "I mean, I didn't even ask for that. It's just, like, holy cow. It's surreal."

Now that his journey is complete, the character of Katia Sae is officially retired. She is now permanently stationed in Saiso III, next to her monument. "It's still really difficult to put into words," Sae explains. "If you're not a roleplayer it might not make sense, but you spend all this time with the character—I kind of think of it as an author, you write characters and build their story and their adventures. I spent nine years in Katia Sae's head and here she was at the end. Her story is complete. It's bittersweet."

I couldn't help but wonder if Sae's nine-year voyage revealed any profound truths. If travelling the real world makes you more worldly, what does traveling EVE Online's galaxy make you? "It's funny because a lot of folks ask me what was my favorite area of space, or what was my favorite sight," Sae says. "But it really came down to the people. After everything I'd seen, the planets all looked the same and the stars all looked the same. But what really gave the shape to the world was the people. The people make the landscape."

Steven enjoys nothing more than a long grind, which is precisely why his specialty is on investigative feature reporting on China's PC games scene, weird stories that upset his parents, and MMOs. He's Canadian but can't ice skate. Embarrassing.