The Most Helpful Pilots in the Galaxy

By Lewis Packwood on at

“I am insanely proud of the Fuel Rats - they're the greatest bunch of gamers I've never met.” - Marcus Ranum

Commander Neospike had all but given up hope.

He’d been roving around the deepest parts of the galaxy for months, logging millions of credits’ worth of exploration data. But a close encounter with a neutron star had left his spaceship critically damaged and running low on fuel. Worst of all, his fuel scoop was broken beyond repair, so it was impossible for him to gather fuel for his ship - and the nearest inhabited planet was around 3,600 light years away. There was simply no way he’d be able to make it back: it looked like his only options were to hit self-destruct or wait until he ran out of oxygen. He’d respawn in both cases, but his months of valuable research data would be lost.

All but resigned to his fate, he decided to log on to the Fuel Rats’ forum to see whether they had any ideas on what to do, any way for him to save his ship. What happened next was eponymously dubbed ‘Operation Neospike’, and would rightfully earn a place in the Fuel Rats’ log of ‘ Epic Rescues ’.

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Fuel Rat Rusticolus (left) drops fuel limpets for Neospike ( Image credit )

“We bucket brigaded the guy,” says Marcus Ranum, a.k.a. Commander Surly Badger, the first of the Fuel Rats. With a broken fuel scoop, Neospike wouldn’t be able to make it back to human-occupied space on his own. So after an initial refuelling, around half a dozen fuel rats spread out in a chain across space. Neospike would make a hyperspace jump of a few tens of light years to where a Fuel Rat was waiting, refuel, then jump again towards the next Fuel Rat. The Rats kept jumping ahead of him, relaying their coordinates, waiting for him to arrive and then siphoning off precious fuel, all the way back to inhabited space.

The operation took three days.

A chance to be creative

This is just one example of the extraordinary lengths that the Fuel Rats go to to rescue stranded players in Elite: Dangerous . Their tagline - “We have fuel, you don’t. Any questions?” - sums up their purpose and attitude. As a group they will go above and beyond the call of duty to rescue and refuel anyone, anywhere in the galaxy - and they have a lot of fun while doing it. What’s more they don’t ask for anything for their services. But the more epic the rescue, the better.

“We thought it was awesome because it gave us a chance to be creative,” says Marcus about the three-day Operation Neospike. “Our attitude all along has been: ‘We’re playing against the game itself’.” And the game often throws up plenty of obstacles to thwart even the most dedicated Fuel Rat. Instancing is one of the most frustrating issues - in other words, arriving at a destination only to discover that the person who called for help is on another instance of the game on a different server. The Rats have come up with various strategies to deal with this, such as game restarts and sending several Rats on a single rescue in the hope that at least one will be on the same instance as the rescuee. Marcus jokes that the Rats “know more about instancing than [developer] Frontier does at this point”. But the challenge is part of the fun.

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The arrival of a Fuel Rat is a relief, as this gamer found out .

Kerenn Vatueil, the 11th Fuel Rat and ‘Unofficial Fuel Rat Historian’, thinks that the Rats’ efforts have helped to spice up the game enormously. “Exploration was kind of boring,” he says. “You just jump, scan, wait, jump, scan, wait. [The Fuel Rats] meant breathing life into the game, meeting players - you had to go somewhere for a purpose.”

RadLock Recursion agrees. He joined the Fuel Rats in 2015 for similar reasons: “I was intrigued by the concept and by the emergent gameplay aspects of doing something with Elite: Dangerous that was more than the offered trading, combat, and exploration opportunities.”

In essence, the Fuel Rats are role playing an emergency rescue service in space. Kerenn says simply: “Frontier made a game, and we made a game in the game.” And that role-playing game has become ever bigger and more elaborate.

Anarchic collective

The Fuel Rats began in the summer of 2014, at around the same time that Frontier introduced the refuelling mechanic into Elite: Dangerous . Marcus had previously experienced the frustration of running out of fuel - on a delivery trip to Hutton Orbital, which takes about an hour to reach from its parent star in real time, his fuel gauge hit empty within sight of his destination. Infuriatingly, there was nothing he could do except blow himself up. So when the refuelling mechanic debuted, he vowed never to let the same thing happen to other people.

He approached two of his in-game friends, Mossfoot and Anuranium, with the idea of setting up a space emergency service called the Fuel Rats. The two enthusiastically agreed: they posted a thread on the Elite: Dangerous forum to advertise their services, and Marcus knocked together a website . And then they waited. And waited.

Eventually, about two days later, they received their first call for help. Marcus recalls the moment. “I was actually asleep, and Anuranium rescued some guy, then that guy went on Reddit and a couple of places and said: ‘This is awesome! I ran out of fuel and these dumb dicks flew out and refuelled me and then left!’” Word of the Fuel Rats was out. And this rag-tag team quickly gained a proud reputation for being, in Marcus’s words, “a little bit cocky, a little bit goofy and kinda weird”.

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The Fuel Rat community is thriving ( Image credit )

The ranks of the Fuel Rats quickly began to grow, but they tried to stay true to their founding philosophy. “I didn’t want us to be a guild with leaders,” says Marcus. “So I decided I was going to create the Fuel Rats as what I called an ‘anarchic collective’, which is simply a bunch of people who all agree that this is our mission … The whole focus was let’s just make this work however we can.”

But as the numbers of Rats ballooned and more and more rescue calls flooded in, they realised they needed to be more organised. “It just grew organically,” says Kerenn. “We called ourselves anarchic at the beginning, but … we needed some structure, some organisation. We needed people to tell other people what to do.” The group evolved into what Kerenn calls a ‘cooperative’. Some people have roles as ‘dispatchers’ or ‘overseers’ in which they give orders to other members, but everyone still has a say in how things are run, and disputes are solved amicably.

The Rats developed an increasingly-sophisticated system to deal with rescues at about the time they were starting to get four or five requests simultaneously. But as with everything they do, it was designed with enjoyment as a priority. “Our original model started to break down, so we set up a professionalised dispatching system, and that turned into another whole mini form of gameplay. Whoever’s the Fuel Rat dispatcher takes on this very cool, ultra-professional, jargon-laden language … And we did all of that in order to make it work - but also because it’s tremendously fun!” (Head here for an example of the enjoyably complex dispatcher-speak.)

The Rescuers Down Under (and Everywhere Else)

Over the past couple of years, the number of Fuel Rats has increased dramatically. Kerenn reckons that at the last count, there were somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 in total. The Rats completed their 10,000th rescue after just under two years of operation, and they are currently closing in on their 20,000th - the second 10,000 has taken a fraction of the time to complete thanks to the increasing membership.

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It’s truly a global operation, too. Kerenn is from Paris in France and Marcus hails from Pennsylvania in the United States, but he reckons that the majority of players are based in the UK. “We’ve got a substantial contingent of Australians, we’ve got Germans, we’ve got Swedes, Norwegians, Canadians, we’re from all over the place,” he says, adding that the widespread player base means that the Fuel Rats can provide a 24/7 service across the world.

The global nature of the service does cause language problems, though. Sometimes the Rats have had to rely on Google Translate to organise a rescue, and Kerenn recalls a time when he had to act as a translator for a Swedish dispatcher and a Brazilian client. The dispatcher explained what he needed the client to do in English, and Kerenn then translated this into Spanish for the client, who could understand Spanish as well as Portuguese.

The Anti-Griefers

The Fuel Rats offer a welcome tale of cooperation and helpfulness in online gaming, and a potent antidote to stories of ‘griefers’ roaming the world of Elite . The Smiling Dog Crew is particularly notorious for causing mischief , such as sniping charity streamers. Despite their anarchic origins, the Fuel Rats are the antithesis of the SDC’s mayhem. “We’re the anti-griefers,” proclaims Marcus. “We’ll do whatever we can to help people, just because it’s cool.”

Then again, the Rats are no stranger to trouble when they’re on a mission. RadLock isn’t the first to note that “The galaxy can be a cold and unforgiving place.” He remembers several occasions on which Rats and their clients have been targeted by other players or NPCs in the process of refuelling. “I recall one instance where I had forgotten to load any weapons onto my ship and had an NPC pirate follow my wake into the client’s instance. After firing off the needed fuel limpets, I turned my attention to ramming the NPC to distract them long enough for the client to power back up and turn the tables on the opportunist.”

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Space can be a dangerous place… ( Image credit )

On other occasions, clients have run out of fuel in the worst possible places, such as conflict zones or hotly contested mining sites. “One particular instance of this occurred in a hazardous resource extraction site,” says RadLock, “where the pirates tend to hunt in wings to pick off profits from mining ships looking to take the risk for greater profits. Knowing what we were walking into, we set up a wing of combat and rescue ships to simultaneously distract the attacking pirates and accomplish refuelling of the client to get their shields online as soon as possible. Fortunately the client was in a decently armoured ship, so they only lost half of their hull in the rescue, and lived to mine another day.”

Some Fuel Rats also play as bounty hunters or pirates when they’re ‘off duty’. But when they’re on the job, they take refuelling seriously - albeit with a sense of humour. “If you’re flying under the banner of the Fuel Rats,” says Marcus, “you should do everything to be as cool and as funny and as helpful as possible.” .

Long-Range Rescues

As well as defending clients from pirates, the Rats have performed some truly epic rescues. On one occasion, Fuel Rat Alex Brentnall jumped continuously from around 10pm to 5am in the morning to reach a client about 17,000 light years away. And in the video below, a Fuel Rat travels for seven hours to help the becalmed YouTube streamer ChaosWulff.

Those are by no means the Fuel Rat records, however. Anuranium once took on a rescue near Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy. Sag A* is about 26,000 light years from our Solar System (Sol), and the client was another 5,000 light years above the black hole, right on top of the galaxy. But the farthest point anyone has ever been to on a rescue was a massive 57,000 light years from Sol. Bear in mind that it takes about an hour to travel 2,000 light years with constant hyperjumping, depending on your ship.

The most exciting rescues for the Fuel Rats are what they term ‘Code Reds’, which is when the client’s life support is failing, and they’re down to only a few minutes of oxygen. In these cases, the dispatcher tells the client to log off, which suspends the countdown timer for their oxygen. Meanwhile, several Fuel Rats converge on where they think the client is in space, sometimes helped by screenshots of the client’s last coordinates, as in the video by RadLock below.

Then, after a countdown, the client logs in and appears back in the game, at which point the Rats race towards the stricken ship in a bid to beat the oxygen timer. For a long time, the record for a Code Red rescue was when someone was saved with 1 second of oxygen remaining, but recently even this was beaten when a Rat saved a client with 0 seconds on the clock.

The Future

Marcus has taken a back seat from rescuing in the past few months. He now acts as the group’s ‘quartermaster’, sending out ‘loot’ - including free stickers . Likewise, Kerenn does little rescuing these days, instead spending his time on the six-month Shepard Expedition, an endurance mission across the galaxy. He is still a regular presence on the forums.

The Fuel Rats have come a long way, and the cooperative now basically runs itself, as Marcus always envisioned. He’s understandably proud of what they’ve achieved in the world of Elite: Dangerous . “It’s a sandbox game, it’s what you make of it. And what we decided to make of it was this weird, quirky, arrogant fun.”

Meanwhile, membership of the Fuel Rats is still growing strong - although Marcus notes that they currently have a much weaker presence on the Xbox One version of the game, which is separate from the PC version. The Fuel Rats have also inspired plenty of other players: in-game groups such as the Hutton Orbital Truckers and the East India Company have set up rescue efforts of their own. But what of the Fuel Rats’ future?

“Eventually the game is going to shut down and die, because games all shut down and die,” says Marcus. “We’ve already got a plan for that, because we like to have a plan for everything. And our plan is to declare victory and quit.”

Lewis Packwood is a freelance writer and co-author of A Most Agreeable Pastime .