Elite Dangerous players have taken a significant step in solving a mystery that has befuddled its most rabid secret-hunters ever since the game came out.
The Formidine Rift mystery, as it's known, kicked off back in 2014 with the release of Drew Wagar's novel Elite Reclamation.
Since then players have searched for clues in an attempt to solve this mystery. This week, a major discovery was made that suggests a solution is near.
Elite Dangerous is no stranger to cool mysteries, ARGs and in-game secrets, and its community of players is infamous for spending months - sometimes years - trying to make sense of teases and clues planted both in-game and out by developer Frontier that may or may not relate to the coming of an evil alien race called the Thargoids.
The Formidine Rift mystery, though, is probably Elite Dangerous' longest-running puzzle. It was set in motion over three years ago, with clues dating back to January 2014, when author Drew Wagar was putting the finishing touches to his officially-licensed, considered canon book, Elite Reclamation.
Elite Reclamation features an old lady called Rebecca, who spoke of something lost within the Formidine Rift, something she couldn't quite recall because, it appeared, her memory had been wiped. But she knew this much: what she found there was extremely dangerous.
Ever since the novel came out, Elite Dangerous players have tried to work out what Rebecca was talking about. All they had to go on was a vague trajectory plot found in secret Imperial data banks: "Take a line from Reorte to Riedquat to the edge of the arm ... and keep going."
This being Elite, players kept going, triangulating the course as they uncovered clues such as beacons and bases. Along the way players discovered abandoned settlements in the Rift, settlements that included data that discussed an expedition from which no-one returned. But what was the expedition for? What was its goal? Players had no idea.
"For a long time we've known the Formidine Rift area was hiding secrets," CMDR Jackie Silver, intelligence officer of the Children of Raxxla, says.
The Children of Raxxla is a group of players who are dedicated to uncovering the truth behind some of the mysteries of the Elite universe (the titular Raxxla is a legendary lost planet described in the novella which accompanied the original Elite).
"The area has been intensely searched by pilots for years, she says. "Fairly recently, a series of communications satellites were found in three areas of the galaxy, including some near the Rift, and they pointed to abandoned bases on the surfaces of a few planets.
"The bases were associated with the mysterious Dynasty Expedition, which had been seeding beacons in remote places; the working hypothesis is that these beacons are possible areas of refuge in the event of some catastrophe overtaking humanity. (Human settlements in the game are mostly limited to within a few hundred light years of Earth.)"
On 16th April - over three years after Elite Reclamation was released - the community was given a prod with the release of a transmission from an old, scrapped Cobra Mk 3 exploration ship by The Galactic News Network, aka Galnet. The message consisted of a series of 20 or so mythological references. The Elite community set to work.
Members of the Children of Raxxla were among the first to crack the code. Its members noticed that the first letters of the answers to the riddles included among them the word Rebecca, which the Children of Raxxla knew to be the name of the owner of the old Cobra.
A significant clue, then. But another came soon after: it turned out the remaining letters are the name of a star sector set way out across the Formidine Rift. The full message indicated a particular system within that sector: SYREADIAE JX-F C0.
"Those of us who were (relatively!) nearby immediately set off," CMDR Jackie Silver, who is credited with the discovery, says. "And pretty much everyone else in Intel made the galactic equivalent of handbrake turns and headed towards the Rift.
"I was docked at an asteroid base in the Heart Nebula a few thousand light years away, and joined up with fellow intel members CMDRs Sajime, Aleister Fox and Andrew Gaspurr as a wing of ships.
"Crossing the Formidine Rift can still be difficult even for a heavily modified exploration ship like the Diamondback I was flying, but after a couple of hours or thereabouts I was approaching the target system with CMDR Sajime close behind flying a much more capable Anaconda.
"When I jumped into the system, I immediately noticed the presence of a signal in orbit around the first planet, powered up my ship's meagre defences and dropped out of frameshift (warp drive, more or less) and found a giant derelict ship, the Zurara."
This derelict ship is a gargantuan megaship - the biggest class of ship in Elite Dangerous. Megaships were introduced into the game with the recent 2.3 The Commanders update, and are comparable in size to most stations. But there was something off about this particular megaship - everyone on board was dead. It was quite obvious to CMDR Jackie Silver, a lifelong fan of the Elite series and sometime astrophysics graduate, that the Zurara was significant.
"I was very nervous," she says. "When I first saw the ship, I was relieved that it looked to be a human ship - not hostile aliens!"
CMDR Jackie Silver found the ship's log files were accessible by scanning different points on the ship - and at that point something very unusual for Elite Dangerous occurred: voice acting.
The first log was in full audio. The second log opened and CMDR Jackie Silver heard Rebecca's own voice. "I was very taken by that," she says. "She's a character we've known about for a long time, and to hear her speak..."
CMDR Shabooka, another member of the Children of Raxxla, was watching the discovery unfold in the group's Discord server. "I won't lie, I flipped out a little," he says.
"We've been looking for answers in this particular area of the galaxy for a long time, and when we discovered that what we just found was profoundly significant to the story, I lost it. Girly squeals, lots of giggling, and trying not to yell because it was midnight and my wife and baby were asleep."
CMDR Shabooka created the video, below, which contains the audio logs. (If you want to avoid spoilers for what they contain, don't watch the video or read on.)
The logs indicate the Zurara was a part of the mysterious Dynasty Expedition players had already discovered, and that the people who sent the megaship never intended for it to return. The logs also suggest the ship was sabotaged with a mind-altering poison that turned some of the crew into killers.
The implication is that there is some grand and highly resourced conspiracy being played out among the major powers of the game - the Federals, the Imperials and the Alliance - and that they're doing so because they are scared that something terrible will happen soon. The coming of the Thargoids? Perhaps. Whatever the case, all this appears to be some kind of contingency plan.
The Formidine Rift mystery was conceived by author Drew Wagar and incorporated into the game by Frontier, but what's cool is the actions of Elite Dangerous players are being factored into the sequel to Elite Reclamation, Elite Premonition.
According to Wagar, Premonition dramatises the behind-the-scenes story of events taking place in the Elite Dangerous universe, combining the overall narrative from Frontier with in-game player activities and exploits.
"This book isn't aiming just to be a compelling story, nor is it just a chronicle of what happened after events in-game," Wagar wrote in a post on his blog. "It has been and is still being written 'live' as the story develops and continues to be steered by player actions."
The finalé of Premonition, Wagar says, will be determined by players. To this end, a combat-focused in-game event that revolves around an in-universe character called Commander Salomé, aka Lady Kahina Tijani Loren, is planned for 29th April. CMDR Salomé, protagonist of Wagar's Elite novels, is the person responsible for releasing information on this conspiracy - and as a result there is a bounty on her head.
Here's the setup:
The actions of players during this in-game event determines the fate of the in-game characters, including CMDR Salomé. Wagar has insisted that "if they die, they die". What if players kill all the characters? "So be it. That is a valid end to the story. The player-base decides the outcome. Our view is that in open mode everyone is 'role-playing' even if they're not consciously doing so. From a story perspective there are some contingency plans for continuity if this occurs."
So there you have it: the hunt for CMDR Salomé is on. Will players kill her? Or will they defend her?
"Her survival could be the key to everything that happens next," CMDR Jackie Silver says.
Whatever happens, the Children of Raxxla wait with baited breath for the next clue in the Formidine Rift mystery. Salomé, it turns out, is the group's figurehead leader. This is their moment.