'Yes? I'm busy, just now... Who?... Her standings are a bit poor. ... Yes, yes, I'm aware of that. Very well, send her in.'
I stood in the outer office, staring at the Slays starscape in the fake window -- really a feed connected to a camera mounted somewhere on the skin of the station -- behind the secretary's desk, feeling both nervous and annoyed. After flying with Under the Wings of Fury for a couple weeks, my standings with Centre for Advanced Studies had taken quite a hit thanks to killing one too many of their idiot students in the nearby nullsec regions. I didn't want to hurt my standings too much -- I bought my skillbooks from these people, after all. I needed this agent to give me a chance.
The secretary returned, mincing delicately in stiletto heels and a skirt too tight for her curves. 'He'll see you now, Pilot Tiann.' I gave her a tight smile, thanked her politely even though she was clearly no longer concerned with me, and went through into the agent's office.
Ivonalle Galelare looked up from the computer terminal inset into his desk as I entered, giving me such a thorough once-over that I may as well have stripped naked right there. Instead, I came to attention -- no salute, he wasn't military -- and kept a straight face as I said, 'Thank you for seeing me, sir.'
Softened, too-perfect features which looked disturbingly underage regarded me impassively. The he snorted and gestured carelessly at the chair placed before the desk. 'Sit down, Pilot.' As I made myself as comfortable as possble, he said, 'You're here for an underlying reason. I don't care what it is. People like you only come to me when you want something to do.' Galelare spoke with a casual attitude, not caring if his words offended me or not.
'Now, you...' He aimed the first and middle fingers of his right hand in my direction. 'Your standings, Pilot, are shit. You have a bad record here, and the only reason I agreed to see you is that my superior sees your father as someone to support. If I had to tell him I turned you away, it would look bad. Do I make myself clear?'
Politics. It gets into everything, like sand at the beach. I mirrored his bland, unconcerned expression. 'Perfectly clear.'
After a moment more spent regarduing me through narrowed eyes, the agent leaned back in his chair and tapped a couple times at the terminal. 'Word's just come in that the Serpentis have attacked one of our people who was on a routine survey patrol. He's not lucky enough to be immortal like you lot-' the agent gave me a baleful look '-and it's my unfortunate duty to inform his wife and family that he won't be coming home tonight. We have the location of a Serpentis base in a nearby system; I want you to go over and make an example of it so I can tell the widow that his loss has been avenged.' Galelare raised his eyes to mine. 'Do you have a problem with this assignment, Miss Tiann?'
I shook my head. 'No, sir. I'll take care of it.'
'Good.' He tossed a chip across the desk; I caught it. 'The location bookmark is on there. System is Iges, you have two hours. Don't come back to me unless you have something good to report.'
Iges. Iges was a low-security system a jump away from UWoF's base in Stacmon. I was still a relatively unskilled pilot; low-sec made me nervous as anything, and the shallow end of Syndicate was home to capsuleer pirates. I debated my options, then had the hangar crews prep my Vexor. The drones, I thought, would help speed things up.
I was nervous, now, and not in the same way I'd been when I went to meet the agent in Slays. Low-sec was unpredictable. There was nobody else from my alliance who was around to help me, and I was feeling very alone as I eyed the system maps. Three pilots in Iges, and that was three too many. I called Suze.
Suze'Rain was an acquaintance I'd made through friends nearly a year earlier; I'd suffered a girlish crush on the dour Caldari pilot for a bit, but I'd been seeing the son of a Poteque pharmaceutical technician at the time and suppressed the attraction before I did anything regrettable. Suze was a fun person to be around, with a dark, cynical sense of very twisted humour and excellent taste in music. He'd been an independant pilot for some years already, and was only too happy to come on comms and coach me through things whilst still being on training duty for The Grey Academy half the galaxy away.
'There are three pilots in Iges, yes, but two of them are docked up. That's only one in space that you have to worry about, and there hasn't been much traffic lately -- see the option titled "jumps in the last hour"? You should be fine getting in, just warp to the bookmark straight away.' Suze's posh accent was reassuring in my ear. I knew he was too far away to help if I needed it, but it was nice to know I wasn't wholly on my own.
Iges, when I entered, had acquired an additional local, but the gate was clear. I keyed in the location I'd been given and initiated warp to zero km. The bubble popped, dropping me on top of a Serpentis patrol, and I set about with railguns flaring.
'Do you have your scanner open, Shae? Keep an eye on that, keep refreshing it. It'll tell you if there's anyone trying to probe you out,' Suze warned. 'Those Hammerheads of yours are like a great big sign advertising an all-you-can-shoot buffet.'
'Oh, brilliant,' I muttered. Every ten seconds or so I ran a scan on everything in the system within 14 AU, even as I dispatched pirate frigates. A blip on my system overview made me look twice. 'What's that?'
'What? What's what?' Suze sounded a bit alarmed; perhaps I might have been, as well, hed I his experience.
'Cyno... cynosural field?' I said distractedly, attempting to nail down another Serpentis frigate.
'Oh shit. Check your scanner, Shae!'
I was trapped in the middle of the fight, now engaged at close range with a pirate in a cruiser which was hammering into my ship's armour-tank with everything he had. Another Serpentis frigate exploded as my drones swarmed it like a flight of angry bees. Multitasking was difficult, and I suddenly noticed that the local population of capsuleers had risen by ten.
'What's a Cheetah?' I asked, spotting the new ship on the scanner as it cycled again.
'Covert ops. Get out of there!' The Caldari's voice sounded strained; most likely, he was wishing he was down there to help me rather than being stuck at the AIAA offices in Korsiki.
'I have to finish this,' I protested. The pirate cruiser finally exploded, but there were more frigates coming at me and I still had to destroy their base.
'Then do it quickly. Don't bother salvaging.'
Risking another glance at the scanner, I saw something else I didn't recognise. 'What's an Archon?'
I could practically hear Suze's eyes fall out of his head over the comms link. 'It's a carrier. Fuck, you stubborn cow, don't stay in there!'
'I'm only in a Vexor... they wouldn't consider me worth hunting down, would they?'
'That depends on who they are. Link pilot names when you can.'
I finished off the last pirate frigate and powered toward the Serpentis habitat module anchored to a nearby asteroid, sending the drones ahead. 'ID links coming now...'
Suze coughed. 'They're nasty, you really don't want to be in there Shae.'
'Almost done here...'
'Great, great. Finish it off and scram. Any probes on scan?'
I checked. 'No...'
'Doesn't mean anything, they could be using the 20AU variety and you'd never know til it was too late.'
The habitat module blew with a spectacular fireball and shockwave of ignited pressurised gases. 'Right, I'm done here.'
'Pull your drones and go, girl, you don't want to get caught.'
I made it out of Iges intact, though somewhat shaken. It wasn't the first time I'd been in the same system as a capital ship, though the ones I'd seen before were friendlies. I somewhat doubted that I'd been in as much danger as Suze had thought -- he was known to be a little more on the paranoid side than I was -- but it had still been nerve-wracking.
Galelare eyed me critically when I appeared in the doorway to his office.
'It's done.' I folded my arms, well aware of the effect that would have with the close-fitting jumpsuit I was wearing. 'The pay better be worth it, that was less than fun.'
The agent's eyebrows went up, and he held out his hand for the chip, which had recorded the data from the run as proof-positive the job was completed. I flipped it to him and he plugged it in, scanned the contents briefly, then nodded. 'Excellent work, Pilot Tiann. I'll add your records into our database.' He paid me a sum that was just shy of paltry -- it would make up the cost of the ammo I'd used and repairs to two of my drones which had taken armour damage -- then stopped me as I was about to leave.
'I must say I'm relieved you didn't disappoint, Tiann. You have no idea how badly a failure from you might have affected my status here.' He ran his fingers back through his short brown hair. It seemed everyone was trying to climb on everyone else's shoulders first around here; I wasn't particularly impressed. 'A longer association will afford you some benefits as well, by the way. We need pilots who can carry through on their promises.'
'Mr Galelare,' I said as I turned to leave. 'I never make a promise I can't keep... unless breaking it is more beneficial to myself and my crew.' I paused in the doorway to look back at the self-important little man. 'Try to remember that in the future.'