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How EVE Online commandos pulled off a suicide mission to save 170 elite pilots

EVE Online
(Image credit: CCP Games)

On Monday evening a pilot in EVE Online's PAPI coalition got a top-secret message that made his stomach drop. For nearly a month, Tony Rocca and around 300 of his comrades-in-arms had been trapped in one of the most dangerous sieges in EVE Online history. And in just 24 hours, PAPI was going to stage a daring rescue operation costing trillions of ISK, EVE's currency, to get them out alive.

It might seem silly to risk so much for so little, but Tony Rocca isn't your average EVE Online player. He's a Titan pilot. Commandeering 18-kilometer-long supercapital ships equipped with devastating Doomsday weapons, Tony is a part of an elite brigade that forms the military backbone of EVE Online's player-made empires. These massive ships cost over 100 billion ISK, take years of training to fly, and are the deciding factor in major battles between EVE's different factions. When one side's fleet commander calls in the Titans, the other side has two options: Call in their own or die. 

If we had lost everything on that field, we would've been finished. The Imperium would've hounded us until we broke.

Tony Rocca

That's exactly what happened in the early morning hours of December 31, 2020. Nearly 7,000 pilots formed to brawl over a Keepstar Citadel in the M2-XFE star system. When one side escalated the conflict by calling in its Titan fleet, the other called in theirs. Around 700 Titans (and several thousand smaller ships ranging from interdictors to supercarriers) fought for 12 hours until EVE Online's servers shut down for 15 minutes to initiate its daily reset. As the dust settled, almost 250 Titan wrecks were smoldering on the battlefield. It was the deadliest fight in EVE history.

But for Tony and three hundred PAPI Titan pilots, that fight never ended. They've been trapped on that battlefield for close to a month, unable to log into EVE without being turned into flaming wreckage by hundreds of enemies that have been camping their spawn zone 24 hours a day. "This Titan is very special to me," Tony tells me over Discord. "It took 10 years of playing to get the character, the training, and the money for it. I was not keen to sit and watch it explode."

Act 1: The Greatest Battle in EVE History

War is coming

Tony Rocca

EVE Online

(Image credit: CCP Games)

Titan Pilot in TEST Alliance (PAPI Coalition).

For six months, EVE Online has been engulfed in the biggest, most devastating war in its 18-year-history. Nearly 700,000 ships have been destroyed—worth about $1.8 million when converted to EVE subscription game time—in a fight to exterminate EVE Online's most notorious coalition, The Imperium.

The Imperium have been the kings of EVE Online for years. With an army of 50,000 players and a corporate infrastructure that could rival a Fortune 500 company, it's turned winning at EVE into a science. And though many have tried, no one has successfully dethroned it. During the 2016 Casino War, for example, almost the entire galaxy of New Eden rallied to take on The Imperium using funds provided by a cartel of third-party ISK gambling websites. After that cartel was banished for breaking EVE Online's terms of service, the war quickly fizzled out.

Things were peaceful for a time. Then, in July of 2020, an unprecedented coalition of some 150,000 players formed with one objective: eradicate The Imperium once and for all. Led by an ex-Imperium fleet commander named Vily who has a bone to pick with his old boss, the newly formed PAPI coalition consisted of over half of EVE's biggest and baddest power blocs. At the center is the TEST Alliance, where Vily serves as a military commander and Tony as a Titan pilot.

For the past seven months, those 150,000 PAPI pilots have worked tirelessly to smash down the gates of Delve, the region home to The Imperium's principal alliance called Goonswarm. But with everything at stake, The Imperium has put up a vicious defense. "These people want us to stop doing our hobby," Asher Elias, one of Goonswarm's most venerated fleet commanders, tells me. "They hate us so much they want us to quit the game that we enjoy. It's pretty good motivation."

Laser fire cleaves through Titan supercapitals at the battle of M2-XFE. Photo taken by: Maximus Brutalior (Image credit: CCP Games)
ASHER ELIAS

EVE Online

(Image credit: CCP Games)

Fleet commander in Goonswarm (The Imperium).

Despite PAPI's larger forces, however, it has failed to secure a sizable advantage in the war. Delve is still hotly contested, with star systems and constellations changing hands on a weekly basis. Keepstar Citadels are erected, then blown up, then replaced. And even though PAPI has managed secure a foothold and deploy a Keepstar one system away from Goonswarm's headquarters, the system of 1DQ1-A, the war is likely months from being over. But on New Year's Eve, PAPI's leadership council saw an opportunity to change that.

While fighting to destroy an Imperium Keepstar in the otherwise unimportant M2-XFE star system, PAPI had managed to build a Cyno Jammer. These devices prevent certain ships from activating their Cynosural Fields, the warp gates EVE armies use to jump entire fleets into battle. Cyno Jammers are a double-edged sword—they also prevent you from activating your own Cynosural Field—but this meant PAPI could effectively control the flow of battle. If the fight started leaning in PAPI's favor, they could flip the Cyno Jammer switch and cut off further Imperium reinforcements.

"It takes five minutes to turn on, however," Asher says. "If someone shoots it, there's a 15-minute repair cycle first. We were having this long, rolling battle and a new player—two months into the game—manages to fly over to the jammer, shoots it, and then dies immediately. We know we have 20 minutes until they can turn it on, so we're like, let's go. We just started piling every Titan and supercapital we have into the system. We're sending pings out with all capital letters like 'This is it boys. We said we'd fight on the Keepstar, here's the Keepstar. Let's go!'"

A window of opportunity

Dran Arcana

EVE Online

(Image credit: CCP Games)

Head diplomat and acting commander in TEST Alliance (PAPI Coalition).

Dran Arcana is TEST Alliance's head diplomat and acting leader. He was in that battle, alongside thousands of PAPI pilots like Tony, when The Imperium's Titan fleets began warping in. "Whenever you go into a big fight like that, you always wonder 'is this going to be the big Titan fight?'" Dran tells me. "If it is the big Titan fight, you throw away every objective and you try to win the Titan fight. If you can rout an entire enemy Titan fleet, you win a war. If you have that supercapital superiority, as long as you don't do anything egregiously dumb, you can't lose. The moment that we saw Imperium Titans drop we said, 'This is the fight, let's do it.'"

For the first few minutes of the fight, both sides stared at each other across a gulf of empty space. Though PAPI had superior numbers and the Cyno Jammer, The Imperium had several advantages of its own. Keepstars aren't just giant space stations, they're the EVE equivalent of a goddamn Death Star. Like Titans, they have their own Doomsday weapons that can obliterate capital ships in a single volley. Even better, friendly players within range of a Keepstar are "tethered" to it, granting them invulnerability until they choose to fire their weapons. That means it was up to Asher to make the first move.

To a silent audience of over 3,000 Imperium pilots, he gave the order: "I know you've been waiting a long time to hear this. Lock up your targets and Doomsdays are free."

The first battle for the M2-XFE Keepstar

If you can rout an entire enemy Titan fleet, you win a war.

Dran Arcana

That initial fight for the M2-XFE Keepstar lasted 12 hours until, at 3 am PDT, EVE Online's servers went offline for quick, routine maintenance. By that point, each side had destroyed over 120 enemy Titans and countless smaller ships. The Keepstar's armor plating, PAPI's initial objective, had been destroyed. But the station was still operational. As downtime approached, PAPI made the call for pilots to start pulling out to prepare for the next phase.

"We started moving to extract, and many of us did." Tony tells me. His own Titan, an 18-kilometer-long Leviathan, began pulling back from the fight. Just as he prepared to warp out of the system, though, an Imperium interdictor pilot spotted his retreat and fired a warp disruption bubble at him. Tony was stuck on the battlefield as the final seconds ticked down and the servers went offline. Dran, too, was unable to escape in his Ragnarok-class Titan. If either were to escape, they'd need to wait for EVE Online to come back online so they could log in and make a run for it.

An Avatar-class Titan amid a hail of laser fire during the first battle for M2-XFE. Photo taken by: Razorien (Image credit: CCP Games)

PAPI had 15 minutes before the servers came online to make a decision: Log back in and continue the fight and hopefully get out, or leave it for another day?

Sieging space stations in EVE Online is complicated. Like ships, Keepstars have three different types of health: shields, armor, and structure. In order to make it fair for the defenders, CCP Games created special systems to spread out battles and give defenders an opportunity to rally—this is still a game played by people with kids, jobs, and loved ones, after all.

When a Keepstar's armor or shields are depleted, it enters a state of invulnerability that lasts anywhere from 24 hours to 4.5 days depending on different factors. The defenders also get to choose a window when that invulnerability ends so they can ensure it happens during a reasonable time for their pilots based on their timezone. 

During the initial battle for the M2-XFE Keepstar, PAPI had successfully destroyed its remaining armor hitpoints. The Keepstar would survive at least until January 2, when PAPI would have the chance to destroy it once and for all. "Even if we had logged in after downtime, the only thing we could do was shoot more Titans," Dran explains. "There was nothing we could do to continue the objective that we were initially there for."

Because the battle escalated so suddenly, PAPI had Titan fleets in nearby regions that were out of position and unable to fight. And though Dran and Vily had overcome multiple disadvantages in the battle, they knew prolonging the conflict could be disastrous. The enemy Keepstar, though damaged, was still a threat, and pilots had been fighting non-stop for over 12 hours straight. Everyone was exhausted.

Imperium Titans dwarfed by the enormity of the M2-XFE Keepstar. Photo taken by: Maximus Brutalior (Image credit: CCP Games)

The decision was made to end the fight and not log in after the server maintenance was over. Because ships disappear when pilots log out, PAPI's armada would simply disappear from the field of battle until those characters logged back in. Instead of having to spend hours slowly extracting that fleet following the first battle for the M2-XFE Keepstar only to have to spend hours getting it back on the battlefield days later, the Titans could just stay where they were but logged off.

Even in hindsight, Dran stands by the decision. In a few days, The Imperium Keepstar would exit its reinforced state and be vulnerable to total destruction. Meanwhile, even more PAPI reinforcements would arrive to reinforce the army that was already at the Keepstar's front door—logged off and effectively invisible. When that happened, PAPI would muster the single largest army ever seen in EVE Online, destroy the M2-XFE Keepstar, and wipe out The Imperium's remaining Titans. Goonswarm would be defanged, and the war would end soon after.

But PAPI forgot one important thing: In EVE Online, your biggest enemy is the server itself.

Act 2: The Final Battle for M2-XFE

PAPI makes a risky decision

Despite being an 18-year-old MMO, EVE Online continues to push technical boundaries. Instead of breaking players up into separate but identical servers like World of Warcraft, everyone shares one universe together. "Server region" isn't a separation in EVE Online. 

It's EVE Online's greatest strength and biggest weakness. When thousands of players pile into one place, the servers struggle to keep up with all that data streaming to PCs located all over the world. Years ago, CCP Games slapped a Band-Aid on the issue by introducing Time Dilation (TiDi). When pilots gather in large numbers in a single star system, TiDi slows everything down so that the servers can keep up and process everything accurately. Under normal conditions, Tony tells me, firing a Titan Doomsday takes around five minutes. Under full TiDi that same action takes up to 50 minutes. It's why EVE Online battles like the fight for the M2-XFE Keepstar can take up to 12 hours. A dogfight can become a ponderous chess match.

Above: This video shows what EVE Online actually looks like when played under full TiDi.

That's not even the worst of it, though. During these enormous battles, players will often disconnect from EVE entirely or spend hours staring at loading screens as their ship tries to warp onto the battlefield. In the worst cases, your ship will arrive on the battlefield long before you do and the enemy will destroy it before you even have a chance to turn on your shield modules. If this sounds like a nightmare, that's because it is. But EVE Online's pilots aren't cowed so easily. Both Dran and Asher tell me these server issues are accounted for in their battle plans. 

Five hours before the Keepstar became vulnerable, The Imperium called a "State of the Goonion" where its leader, The Mittani, roused the troops with a speech. DJs played music over voice comms while players began the laborious process of warping into M2-XFE. Asher says that it was imperative that every capable Imperium pilot was logged in and ready before the fight even began. They couldn't afford to have anyone stuck in loading screens.

PAPI meanwhile, had another tough decision to make: "The two options on the table were jump in safely and spend half the night positioning ourselves and maybe lose the objective, or jump straight in at a good position, acknowledge that you're going to spend an hour or two stuck at loading screens and [losing ships], but then win the objective, rout the Titan fleet, and win the war," Dran says.

If PAPI jumped in from a safe distance, they'd have to slowly maneuver within range. It would be safer because their ships would be well outside the range of Imperium guns while pilots waited in long loading screens under heavy TiDi. PAPI's leadership council decided to go straight in. PAPI fleets would jump right on top of the M2-XFE Keepstar but pilots would have to spend a few hours fully loading into the battle. Many ships would be lost, but Vily was counting on PAPI's overwhelming numbers to win the day. Tony, Dran, and the rest of the logged off Titans from the first battle for M2-XFE would also log back in at the same time. The Imperium would be sandwiched between the biggest armada ever assembled in EVE.

The call was made and PAPI stealth ships fitted with Cyno Beacons raced to designate the landing zone for the incoming armada. Once those beacons were lit, PAPI Titans would initiate their jump bridges and warp the entire fleet just in range of The Imperium Keepstar and the biggest battle in EVE Online history would begin. A total of 13,770 players had logged in—twice as many as EVE's Guinness World Record battle from just a few months prior. Everything was on the line.

The Imperium's Titan fleet waiting below the M2-XFE Keepstar. Photo taken by: Maximus Brutalior (Image credit: CCP Games)

I don't know any game where you can stick 5,000 people into the same arena. We're already pushing the limits of what can be done here.

Asher Elias

Then the servers did something unexpected. "Instead of jumping everyone in, dying for two hours while everyone loaded to the grid and then having a fight," Dran says, "Everyone jumped in, half of our Titan fleet got duplicated, and nobody loaded grid."

What Dran, Asher, and Tony saw that night was an unprecedented mess of bugs and glitches. The servers were so overwhelmed that when players initiated the warp to the location marked by the Cyno Beacons most stayed exactly where they were. What they didn't realize, though, was that a duplicate of their ship was appearing at the drop zone—only they didn't have control of it. The Imperium opened fire on a fleet of ghost ships that should never have existed.

That wasn't the worst of it. Some pilots warped to systems they never intended to go, others had their ships or their modules disappear entirely. Players were even receiving killmails (a record of your ship's destruction) even though that ship was perfectly fine.

After over two hours of glitches, crashes, and server issues stopping PAPI fleets from getting onto the battlefield, the PAPI called off the fight. 

The aftermath of the final M2-XFE fight

In a blog post following the failed battle, CCP Games admitted it had no way to control what happened in fights of this size. "These numbers are unrivaled—and unrivaled numbers in New Eden lead to uncharted territories when it comes to performance," CCP wrote. "Neither side of the war, or CCP, can, could or will be able to predict the server performance in these kinds of situations."

Though the battle was a whiff, PAPI were the undeniable losers. The Imperium thought it had killed 165 PAPI Titans, but 90 of them were actually duplicates that never should have existed. But the losses were still extreme considering The Imperium didn't lose a single Titan and managed to fully repair the Keepstar's armor at the same time. PAPI was back to square one.

EVE Online

PAPI capital ships shatter under the onslaught of Imperium Titans. Photo taken by: Razorien (Image credit: CCP Games)

When I ask Asher about it, he has no pity. "It's 100 percent their [PAPI's] fault," he laughs. "Some of them say CCP should know better, but I don't know any game where you can stick 5,000 people into the same arena. We're already pushing the limits of what can be done here. And all the people on the other side have been playing this game, most of them longer than me, and they've all seen this happen before."

In the span of a few hours, PAPI had squandered every advantage it had earned from the first battle over the Keepstar, and its one remaining advantage—overwhelming numbers—was now a wildcard that could break the servers. None of that compared to the fact that 300 Titans, including Tony's, were now stranded with no way to get out. These Titans, the backbone of PAPI's military, were now completely trapped underneath a fully operational Keepstar, surrounded by thousands of Imperium pilots on a battlefield littered with warp disruption bubbles. Troy, Dran, and 300 of PAPI's most valuable ships were caught in what EVE players call a Hell Camp.

Act 3: The Hell Camp

Trapped in the M2-XFE Hell Camp

It was utterly terrifying.

Tony Rocca

When I first spoke to Dran and Asher for this story, it was on the 23rd day of the M2-XFE Hell Camp. For 24 hours during each of those days, a rotating shift of hundreds of Imperium pilots sat on the now fully repaired Keepstar. Most were at work, watching Netflix, or spending time with their families. But when the one fleet commander in charge saw a PAPI Titan log in, they'd raise the alarm and everyone would rush to their computers to destroy it. Hell Camps are a common tactic in EVE Online, and players have learned to adapt their lives so that they be ready to hop online at a moment's notice.

On his blog, player Wilhelm Arcturus documented daily life in the Hell Camp. "We’ve been at it for two weeks now and the camp shows no sign of slackening," he writes. "There is always a full fleet worth of ships on when I join, and an overflow fleet with 50 [to] 150 more hanging about, putting a sizable force on call around the clock. It is helpful that being on the camp doesn’t demand much attention."

"The fact that PAPI forces keep logging on trapped ships is probably the biggest thing keeping people active in the camp. At this point I am sure PAPI knows the situation and has communicated it as far and wide as they are able, but people make mistakes … Every kill revitalizes those in the camp."

A screenshot outlining The Imperium's enormous bubble traps at the M2-XFE Keepstar. Each one is hundreds of kilometers in diamater. Photo taken by: Wilhelm Arcturus (Image credit: CCP Games)

The war wasn't at a standstill, however. Though 300 trappedTitans represented a sizable chunk of PAPI's total supercapital forces, the coalition had more than enough forces to continue fighting for objectives all over Delve.

During the long weeks of the M2-XFE Hell Camp, trapped Titan pilots would occasionally try and make a break for it and die, but a few made it out with the help of small PAPI reinforcement fleets that provided cover fire while they evacuated. These attempts were haphazard. Meanwhile, another war was raging on public forums like the EVE Online subreddit to whittle morale and position each side as the dominant force.

This ceaseless propaganda machine is always churning in EVE Online, but the ongoing battle for M2-XFE presented a rare opportunity for both sides to declare victory. While interviewing Asher and Dran, both rattled off very good reasons why the events at M2-XFE were either disastrous or not that big of a deal. And because battle reports that tally the total number of ships lost aren't always accurate (especially when those ships were duplicated by server bugs), it all boils down to a matter of perspective.

That struggle to control the narrative doesn't help trapped pilots like Tony, though. He tells me his Leviathan Titan is the first he's ever owned. It was his dream ship when he first started playing 12 years ago, and he wasn't about to let it go easily. Pilots have to spend years training the required skills in order to fly one, and their 100 billion ISK price tag means most can't even afford one, nevermind replacements.

When logging into EVE, ships don't just pop into existence where you left them but warp to that spot from an unreachable safespot. It gives pilots a few precious seconds to do some basic tasks before their ship appears on the battlefield and can be targeted and destroyed. If you do this right before the servers go offline for their daily reset, the game will go offline before that can happen. But your timing has to be perfect. "For a few weeks, every night just before the server shut down, I'd login and slowly get my ship back in a place where it could jump out at a moment's notice," Tony says.

The Leviathan is one of EVE's biggest ships, measuring 18 kilometers. (Image credit: CCP Games)

"It was utterly terrifying," he adds. "If I logged in too soon, or the server took a little longer to shut down, there were hundreds and hundreds of Imperium ships there waiting to instantly volley my beloved Titan off the field."

In order to actually warp out, Tony's Leviathan needed to have at least 72 percent of its capacitor, the slowly regenerating energy used to power ship modules. During the initial fight, Tony had spent most of it to fire off his Doomsday weapon, but he needed to be ready to warp out at a second's notice in case an opportunity presented itself. So, every night he would log on less than a minute before 3am PDT and consume an item known as a cap booster during the few seconds before the servers shut down.

But The Imperium are the kings of EVE Online for a reason. Its pilots are exceptionally clever, and they noticed him and other trapped Titans logging in each night right before the servers went down. They couldn't target him directly, but they could still attack his ship with weapons that damage anything within a specific area. "At the last moment every night, they began to use their own Titans to fire powerful area-of-effect attacks—called lances—directly where I would be landing. The first night they started doing this, I got lucky and survived. But it meant I could no longer log in every night to get my ship's capacitor up to 72 percent."

Logging in was too risky, now. All Tony could do now was wait.

Remember the Titans

When I spoke to Dran and Asher initially, both said they were in it for the long haul and felt good about the position they were in. While PAPI didn't have the bulk of its Titans, it still had enough power to take fights elsewhere in Delve. Meanwhile, The Imperium had to commit a few hundred of its pilots to the M2-XFE Hell Camp, spreading thin its already inferior numbers. Despite that, The Imperium had continued its trend of killing more ships than it lost in every fight. It was becoming a war of attrition and both sides were eager to make it seem like their pockets were deeper than the other.

Below: Goonswarm is famous for their song parodies, like this cover of We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel.

When I asked Dran what the next step would be, he gave a vague answer about continuing the fight elsewhere until the right moment presented itself to stage a jailbreak. What I didn't know was that moment had already come. The day before, Tony and other pilots received a personal message from Vily, PAPI's military commander. "Good afternoon [or] evening," it read. "Your Titan/Super has been noted to be in bubbles. Please be available to be online starting between 0430 and 0600 Wednesday EVE time (Tuesday night USTZ). Do not share this message with anyone."

"I messaged my boss via slack," Tony says, "and told him I might be late to work the next day."

Finale: The Great Escape

The great escape begins

That Tuesday, while Dran was playing coy with me about PAPI's plan, Tony was trying to keep himself distracted. "Most of the day I spent just being anxious," he tells me. "I used alternate characters to scout the exact spot my Titan would reappear at, and marked which of the warp disruption bubbles The Imperium had planted that would need to be destroyed before I could escape."

Due to the operation happening on such short notice, only 176 of the trapped Titan pilots could be online. It would have to do. At around 9 pm PDT on Tuesday, the operation began. And like so many of EVE's best battles, it began with a ruse.

Tony explains that PAPI figured The Imperium would expect a breakout to happen just before downtime so there was an "emergency stop button" if something were to go wrong. Instead, PAPI began the rescue mission much earlier. When the call went out to alert everyone to login and begin the fight, Vily didn't say it was a rescue mission. Instead, the ping told PAPI pilots that an Imperium supercapital had been ambushed in M2-XFE and everyone needed to login and destroy it.

"The Imperium's spies can see our pings that go out to all members," Tony explains. "We needed to catch them off guard. The combination of that confusion and everyone instantly logging on our side to kill a hypothetical big ship led to us having so many ships on field we were able to kill most of the anchored warp disruptors before The Imperium had meaningfully responded in force."

Propaganda about the warp disruptor bubble traps at the M2-XFE Keepstar. Created by: WeylandNZ (Image credit: WeylandNZ)

On Reddit, Goonswarm pilot 'lastmanaliveithink' recalled his side of the story: "I was sitting in M2 chillin' in my carrier. All was quiet at the gate camp and I had deafened comms to focus on some spreadsheets."

Just then, a ping came through Goonswarm comms channels: "Wake up." Before lastmanaliveithink could even respond, he was hit with another. "WAKE UP."

"I thought, 'what's going o-EVERYONE WAKE THE FUCK UP RIGHT NOW,'" he wrote. "In the next minute, about 10 pings came through that were equally as concerning, summoning battleships, carriers, faxes, and then finally, supers. I was just looking around at an empty grid [at the] M2 Keepstar, wondering what the fuck was going on."

Then they started to hear the sound of thousands of ships warping onto the battlefield. "My overview exploded with red," they wrote. "Carriers and supers on-grid... fighters already deployed and moving... then I looked at [my directional scanner]... fuck."

Hundreds of PAPI pilots hit the grid, including a fleet of TEST Alliance Nightmare battleships that began attacking The Imperium's Hell Camp. In their wake came 150 "Goku" torpedo bombers that unleashed hell on the minefield of warp disruption bubbles covering the area. As they poked holes in the Hell Camp, PAPI fleet commanders cross referenced the locations of its trapped Titans to make sure they'd be landing in a safe area.

Because the game moves so slowly under TiDi, EVE players often log in with multiple different characters and control them all simultaneously. Tony had six other EVE windows open at the same time, piloting everything from a battleship to a Hel-class supercarrier positioned thousands of kilometers away using heavy fighter drones to destroy Imperium capital ships. Before long, Tony heard Vily give the call. It was now or never.

Tony and the 170 trapped Titan pilots logged in.

And so did 347 of The Imperium's own Titans. 

The jailbreak of M2-XFE begins. Photo taken by: Maximus Brutalior (Image credit: CCP Games)

The Imperium Titans arrive

"I had to at least make something explode before I die."

Tony Rocca

The Imperium might've been caught off guard initially, but now the full force of its Titan armada was poised to strike at the fleeing PAPI Titans. It was going to be a slaughter.

"My heart was pounding the whole time," Tony says. "It was very chaotic. Once The Imperium Titans had landed, they would split into squads of 30 and use targeted Doomsday weapons to instantly delete four or five of our Titans every five minutes.

When Tony finally hit the grid in his Leviathan and saw The Imperium Titan fleet, he said his blood pressure spiked. But there was an even bigger problem: EVE Online's servers were beginning to buckle again and Tony's Doomsday module randomly switched to being offline. He was a sitting duck.

When ship modules are offline there are only three ways to turn them back on, Tony tells me. Players either have to dock up and do it in a station, get close enough to a friendly capital ship which they can use like a mobile docking bay, or get their ship's capacitor up to 95 percent and then spend 70 percent of it onlining the module. 

Tony's Leviathan landed just inside the edge of a warp disruption bubble but outside the range of other friendly Titans. He only had to move about four kilometers to get free so he could warp out if he needed to, but Titans are big and painfully slow—even without TiDi they only move at 50 meters per second. There was a good chance he'd need to shoot something in that time. He had to make a call: Spend all his capacitor and online his Doomsday so he could fight, or save it and pray he made it to the edge of the warp disruption bubble before The Imperium Titans targeted him. The choice was obvious.

"I had to at least make something explode before I die," he tells me. Tony switched on his Doomsday and prepared to fire. His Titan's capacitor depleted to 20 percent. It would recharge over time, but chances are Tony wouldn't be alive that long anyway. 

Then Vily called in the cavalry.

Dreadnought wrecks adrift amid the fight. Photo by: Maximus Brutalior (Image credit: CCP Games)

Send in the dreadnoughts 

As soon as Imperium Titans warped onto their Keepstar, Vily gave his secret force of 414 dreadnoughts—smaller capital ships that specialize in killing Titans—the green light. PAPI pilots fitted with stealth cloaks had silently infiltrated the blob of Imperium Titans and lit their Cyno Beacons. Moments later, those 414 dreadnoughts dropped in at point blank range and opened fire.

Though Dran wasn't present for the rescue attempt due to real life commitments, he helped plan the operation. He says PAPI's senior command knew The Imperium would do everything it could to destroy its trapped Titans. The Blood God demanded a sacrifice, and Vily was going to ram one right down its throat.

"It forced The Imperium to choose," Tony says. "Continue shooting our extracting Titans—who weren't shooting back—and take extreme losses in their own Titans, or only shoot our Titans with Doomsdays but use their guns to save themselves from the onslaught of dreadnought fire. They chose the latter."

With the dreadnoughts distracting The Imperium Titans, Tony's own Leviathan had finally crawled outside of the warp disruption bubble. Most of his trapped comrades had already escaped, but his capacitor had yet to recharge to 72 percent. He couldn't jump. All eyes turned to Tony. "I was counting the readout of my capacitor over voice comms to the rest of my fleet—50 percent. 55 percent. 60 percent."

It was then that Tony got an unexpected boost. A friendly Minokawa-class Force Auxiliary capital ship—what Tony calls a "space priest"—locked onto him and began transferring some of its own capacitor, pushing him past 72 percent. He punched his warp drive. "The game took a long time to respond," Tony says. "It was the longest five minutes of my life because no one knows exactly how things will work under heavy TiDi. I was announcing each step over comms: 'I'm spamming jump! The capacitor for the jump has been taken! I'm showing jump fatigue! I'm in the jump tunnel!'"

PAPI propaganda following the great escape of M2-XFE. Made by: Noble-2-Kat (Image credit: Noble-2-Kat)

I've been in equally dangerous situations—even with the same ship—in small gang fights, but there was never a moment where my entire team's existence was on the line quite like that.

Tony Rocca

"When I finally said 'Titan is out!' my Discord exploded as close friends on my team gave me a digital pat on the back," Tony says. It wasn't until later that he found out that the Minokawa that saved his life was destroyed soon after. It died so that Tony could get out. "I gave the pilot of that Force Auxiliary a lot of money."

Bittersweet retreat

By the time the fight was over it was just after 2 am for Tony. Of the 300 (depending on who you ask) PAPI Titans, around 170 had been safely extracted. Only six had died, but The Imperium also lost six of its own Titans. For the dreadnoughts, though, there was no escape. All 414 of them were sacrificed. In the end, PAPI burned over 2 trillion ISK—an unfathomable fortune—to save just over half of its trapped Titans. It's a bittersweet victory.

"I think it was a smart play but it was great for us too," Asher says. He says adding 2 trillion ISK to the butchers block is a win. And he can't imagine PAPI is going to sacrifice another 400 dreadnoughts to extract the other 130 Titans left behind. To him, this feels like a turning point where the last of PAPI's momentum fizzles.

Dran, naturally, feels differently. "We're exactly where I said we were when all of our Titans were trapped—still having fun and still winning the war."

With both sides so bloodied, it's hard to tell who's sincere and who is bluffing. We won't know for sure until PAPI gives up the assault or The Imperium is ousted from Delve. Given the record-setting intensity of the war so far, the only guarantee is that whatever the outcome is it will be a bloody one. That's exactly what pilots like Tony are hoping for.

He tells me that his escape is "the closest" he's ever felt with his fellow pilots. "We worked really hard together to make that happen, and all hundreds of us were laser-focused on getting the Titans to safety," he says. "I've been in equally dangerous situations—even with the same ship—in small gang fights, but there was never a moment where my entire team's existence was on the line quite like that. If we had lost everything on that field, we would've been finished. The Imperium would've hounded us until we broke."

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.