Six weeks ago...
The coffee sitting in the mug at his elbow had gone stone cold; Valar hadn't touched it in over an hour. He was absorbed in compiling the data he'd collected over the past month and a half. Many people had recalled his sister, some fondly, some with a touch of annoyance or disgust. Only one, a scary-looking Sebiestor with a sepulchral complexion under his black facial markings, had any clue where she might have disappeared to with her corp.
'You should maybe try Amarr space? She said something about a move to Genesis, I think.'
'Genesis...' he muttered. Val pulled up the map, his previously-used settings for system populations casting a golden glow on his face. Life away from the strict military regimen had thinned him a bit, and he'd experimented by growing a short goatee. Val had allowed his hair to grow in order to present a less military appearance; the total effect was one of a rogueish charm that women seemed to find appealing, a realisation which bemused him. Changing the map settings to system security, he focussed the hologram on the Genesis region.
'You're still up?'
Sati's voice, unexpected, caused Val to start. He turned his chair on its pivot to face her and stretched, hearing his shoulders and spine flex with a series of pops. 'Yeah.'
She stood silhouetted against the dim light from the sitting-room, leaning against the doorjamb. Her dressing-gown was secured loosely and revealed a delectable flash of skin from throat to waist. The Caldari woman had surprised him by staying after that first night, and the words Your place or mine were often the first he heard after leaving his pod for the evening. Val had long since lost his wartime wariness of her background: she was just another person, albeit one who was sexy as hell and could drive him crazy.
'You're a machine, Jack. This obsession can't be good for you.'
He shook his head. 'It's not an obsession. I need to find her.'
'Well, why don't you just bloody call her, then? I've been trying to figure you out from the start, Jack, and that's one thing that makes no sense. If your cousin or whatever is as nice as everyone says, there's no reason she'd refuse to talk to you.' Sati crossed the small room, picked up his coffee-cup and sniffed experimentally, wrinkling her nose.
'It's not that easy, she's killed everyone else who went looking for her and disappeared right afterwards. I don't want to spook her.'
'It is that easy, Jack.' Sati put the mug down hard in exasperation, sloshing a little tepid liquid over the edge onto the desktop. 'Who gave you the idea this is the only way to go about this? Someone's put you up to it, and you're just heading further down a road that leads nowhere. Who's made you do this?'
'I-' Looking up, Val saw her lips pressed into a thin, angry line; her eyes met his with all the warmth of a glacier, and just as immovable. He sagged. 'The Navy. They want her brought in.'
'The Navy.' Her tone was frosty. 'What the fuck are they holding over you?'
He looked away, staring through the holographic star-map. 'They don't trust me enough to offer a better command while my sister is running around playing pirate.'
Sati slapped him.
'I don't believe you. I thought you were better than this.'
His face stung, but he resisted rubbing the place where she'd struck him.
'Look at you! A better command? You're going to trade your sister's life for a better command from the people who will destroy her? They'll torture her for information, then publicly execute her as a warning to other pirates; if you believed the soft lies they fed you about mercy, you're a bigger fool than you look right now.
'And as for a better command? How much better can you get than what you have here? You can afford to buy a battlecruiser of your own! No waiting for somebody to tell you you're worthy of it. Personally, I'd say you aren't, but that couldn't stop you if you wanted it.'
There was little Valar could do but bear the brunt of her ire: she was right.
'The only thing holding you back right now is yourself, and I hope that's because somewhere in the back of that pretty, empty head, you recognise that you're being an idiot. I can't believe you're such a tool,' she sighed, suddenly sounding tired and sad. Val glanced up again, the mark of her hand still hot on his face. She looked close to tears.
'Somebody's using you, Valar. That is your name, yes? I looked Shae's background up, but... the face in your profile isn't yours.'
'Yeah,' he muttered, 'they changed it.'
Sati sighed, then sat on the edge of the desk, pulling her robe around herself. 'So somebody's got to a lot of trouble to send you out here... why? Who's pulling your strings, my dear puppet?'
He shook his head. 'How do you figure that?'
'The Navy never takes pilots back once they've left, Valar. No official military does; the closest you could get is joining one of the militias. Anyway, do you really want to go back, after all you've known out here?'
Val looked thoughtful. 'I don't... I haven't really thought that far ahead. I don't know, anymore.'
She reached over and stroked his hair. 'I thought as much. They didn't expressly say they'd take you back, did they?'
Frowning, he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. 'No... I asked and they said if I failed, it would be because-' Val stopped, a horrible realisation dawning.
'You'd be dead?' Sati finished. 'Strong choice of words there, don't you think? No specific rewards for handing your sister in for a jumper trial, and termination if you don't. Why do they want your sister so badly? They never actively stir themselves to discipline outlaws unless one is sitting right in front of them with his pants down.'
Valar rubbed the back of his neck. 'Our father's involved... they said it was part his request that Shae be found.'
Sati snapped her fingers. 'Your father, what's he up to?'
Gerard Tiann was a minor functionary who'd risen from blue-collar worker to government official through determination and the sacrifice of his family life. The prestige of having both children become capsuleers in the Navy had given him a recent boost to the position of...
'He's on the Security Council.'
A grim smile spread across the Caldari woman's face. 'Sounds to me that someone doesn't like him there. This isn't about you or Shae. Imagine what it would do to him if his daughter was revealed in a public trial to be an outlaw? Even if you managed to salvage some honour from it, your father's credibility would be lost. Quite a dirty family secret, your Shae.'
Val finally allowed himself to massage his burning cheek. 'What a fucking mess. And I walked right into it.'
'You're too naieve, sweetie.' Her voice was gentle, and her smile had softened; she leaned over and kissed his forehead. 'So what now, Valar Tiann?'
The young man's eyes narrowed as he looked at the three-dimensional projection of Genesis slowly turning in the air above the desk.
'My name's Jack. And I'm tired of being played. Let's find out what's really going on.'