Five weeks ago...
Sati had said that the first step lay in finding out who could possibly object to Dad being on the Security Council. My mission had come through the Navy, the seals were confirmed official, which meant at least one member of the Admiralty was complicit. Commodore Isaar either was, as well, or had been lied to skillfully.
There was only one person I knew I could trust to give me a straight answer.
Still working under my assumed Global ID as Madjack Rackham, a name I was slowly coming to identify with more than my actual name, I arranged an appointment to speak with Counsellor Tiann. It took a few days, but I finally managed to obtain an hour with my own father at his office in Lesith on Athinard V. I begged a day off from my CEO, flew out to the Sisters of EVE station over Athinard IV and took a mass-transit shuttle to planet five, figuring that a capsuleer actually landing planetside would cause much more of a stir than one coming in with the spacegoing plebes.
Once planetside in the spaceport city of Reims, I hopped the public transport monorail, to be whisked north though the five hundred kilometres of frozen marshlands to Lesith. With my relative wealth, I could have reserved a first-class cabin with cushy chairs, complimentary drinks and GalNet access terminals; but I wasn't in the mood. I paid a meagre sum for Standard class and spent the trip propped against a narrow shelf of a 'seat' along the wall in the entryway to one of the carriages, sharing my leg-room with a pile of other passengers' baggage on the overfilled train. It was somehow comforting, I thought as I huddled in my heavy leather jacket, to be just another citizen. The overpriced rail network coffee was sharp and acidic, but hot enough to warm my hands through the insulated paper cup.
From the monorail terminal, I transferred to the public tram service, clinging for dear life to a grip bolted into the ceiling as the rattletrap car sped a drunkard's path between the aging, graffittied buildings. Decaying stonework and brutalist steel-and-glass, decorated with the diamond-dust of a recent snowfall, flashed past the fogged windows.
The building my father kept his office in was one of the tallest buildings in the city, and one of the most recent, though it predated me by a good twenty years. A garden dome arched above its otherwise bland façade, all the corners smoothed into organic ripples and long windows peering sleepily from behind patinaed copper bars that only looked decorative.
The receptionist nodded distractedly as I presented my appointment chit. 'You'll have to pass through the security checkpoint like everyone else, sir,' he said in a bored tone that dripped with a lack of sympathy for any objections I might have. Not that I had any. I relieved my pockets of loose items -- notepad, wallet, ID -- and set them aside for an officer to check, pressed my hands on the contact points and watched laser light play over my body as they scanned me down.
The capsuleer hardware showed up bright as daylight on the scan; I didn't even have to see the monitors, it was all in the way the woman at the controls straightened in shock and the flurry of sudden activity behind the bulletproof glass. A uniformed man bustled out and hurried over as I accepted my things back from the bewildered officer at the gate.
'I'm terribly sorry, sir, we had no idea you were a pilot.' The way he said it made my job sound as important as a foreign ambassador's. I suppose in a way, that was what I'd become: capsuleers transcended borders and factional allegiances. Despite that, there were some utterly filthy scoundrels out there, and if people had any inkling what many capsuleers did for a living, they might not be so quick to offer their trust.
I waved him off before his simpering could get on my nerves. 'I'm here on personal business. If you could show me the way to the lifts?' He wanted to arrange an escort, which I declined as politely as I could, and soon I found myself in the executive lift's posh, brass-mirrored box on my way to the upper floors.
I'd always wondered if the execs got better elevator music. The answer was 'no'.
Dad's personal secretary looked up with her bland, generic greeting smile as I entered the lobby; her expression changed to stunned amazement as recognition set in.
I grinned. 'Hey Marisa. Dad's in?'
'Um,' she stuttered, half-rising from her chair. 'He is, but he's got an appointment shortly-'
'I know, it's cool. It's with me.'
Her pretty face looked confused; I'd had an awful crush on her when Dad first hired her, and she still looked hot. She brushed a fallen lock of chestnut hair out of her eyes with a long-fingered hand; her nail varnish was metallic green today. 'Oh, um, okay. He's been in all morning.'
'Thanks.' I couldn't resist giving her a wink as a I passed; she blushed cutely.
Dad gave a gruff reply when I knocked at the door; he was putting on a good show of being busy, but as soon as he saw me he leaped up and embraced me, kissing me on the cheeks.
'Valar! Dog's bollocks, boy, what are you doing here?' He held me at arm's length and looked me over, taking in the changes I'd made to my appearance. 'You're this Jack Rackham who asked to see me today, aren't you?'
He'd put on weight since I'd last seen him, at my graduation from the academy, and there was a bit more grey in his hair than I remembered. I nodded. 'It's great to see you, but I think I'm under surveillance. I thought it would be best to use a different name.'
Dad squinted at me. 'You're looking good. But what's all this, now?'
'Do you know somewhere we can talk in private?'
He pursed his lips and frowned, then said, 'Feel like taking a walk?'
We ended up in a rock-garden on a lower section of the roof from the greenhouse. It had started snowing again, very lightly, and what was on the ground already nearly obscured the rippled patterns raked into the pebbles; the small fountain in one corner had been turned off and drained for the season. We waded through the snow, hands in our pockets and breath steaming from our lips.
'What's going on, Val?' Dad always cut right to the point; a devastating attribute if you were twelve and trying to avoid homework, but refreshing now. Of everyone I knew, he was all too aware that people were people no matter their status or occupation, a cynical mindset my sister shared.
'I need to know why you're paying to have Shae brought home.'
Dad stopped and cocked his head at me. 'I'm what, now?'
An ironic smile twisted my mouth. 'No, huh?'
Brushing snow from the head and shoulders of a graceful Jin-Mei sculpture, he said, with a touch of regret, 'Your sister is entirely her own person, Val. What she does with her life is up to her. Who am I to try to control that? Even if she chooses a life of crime and piracy, I can only hope she comports herself with the dignity and honour I tried to teach you two.' Dad looked up at me, a sorrowful expression on his face. 'I regret my initial reaction to her announcement that she was leaving the Navy, since it only hit that rebellious trigger she got from your mother. I wish she would talk to me again. But having her brought home would only see her tried and executed. I would never do that.'
I pulled my notepad out and inserted the data chip I'd concealed in one of the jacks in the back of my skull, calling its contents onto the page. 'This wasn't you, then?'
Dad read the text, then read it again, his eyes narrowing. It was a transcript of an audio conversation, ostensibly between himself and the last bounty hunter who'd been hired to locate Shae. Sati had acquired the copy at the cost of a few million ISK and not a little hardcore database cracking. There'd been other communiques like it, but this was the most in-depth of the lot; the hunter had apparently been the particular, moralistic type, and the person using our father's name had clearly done a close study of his style and attitude. The voice I'd heard was nearly perfect. There'd been something in that conversation, though, which had struck me as being out of place. Dad's darkening expression confirmed my suspicion that it was an act of deception played at the hunter's expense.
'Where did you find this, Val?'
'A friend found it--'
His finger shot up, interrupting me. 'I didn't ask who, I asked where,' Dad said, aiming that finger at me, still focussed on the notepad in his other hand.
'Well, it was--' I stopped. 'I don't know. A database somewhere she broke open.'
A grim smile played around Dad's mouth without fully appearing. 'A database. Who leaves a record like that lying around in a networked database? Who's this gentleman I'm supposedly talking to, the one who located your sister?'
I shook my head, feeling the cold bite my exposed skin. 'Some mercenary. He's not been located since the last communication in the record; Commodore Isaar said they suspect Shae killed him.'
That arched Dad's left eyebrow. 'I wouldn't say she's not the type. She can be vicious if pressed too far.'
Like father, like daughter. 'The audio recordings are attached to the text files if you want to give a listen--'
Dad scoffed and passed the notepad back. 'I assume it will be someone speaking through a filter based on recordings of my voice which anyone might have obtained. That recording was left there to be found, but I can't possibly think why.' He gave me a narrow look. 'You do realise that by accepting their 'mission' and leaving the Navy you have made yourself as much a pawn as your sister? There are no commanding officers to get in the way; anyone close to you can be bought.'
The chill I felt was no longer just from the winter air.
Frowning, Dad leaned on the high balustrade, looking out over the city as the snow fell. 'I have an idea who it might be. Someone in Federal Intelligence.' He tossed me a wry grin. 'I was elected because of my proposed policies towards Caldari immigrants living on Gallente soil. There was an attempt to discredit me when someone there did a little digging and discovered Grandma Airenn was Caldari, but it just made me more popular with the Moderate vote. I doubt they sleep well with me on the Security Council.'
I looked down at my feet and attempted to tap the caked snow off my boots. 'So what should I do?'
'Is that the only copy of that recording?'
'No, there are a couple others. You want this one?'
He nodded. 'In that case, yes. Val, are you absolutely certain you can trust this friend who did the cracking for you?' he asked as I handed the chip over.
I gave it a moment's thought, then nodded. 'Yes. It's what she does for a living.'
'Right.' Dad still looked sceptical. 'Make certain you have more than one friend out there, Val. You really are too trusting to be getting caught up in these types of political machinations. Get in touch with your sister. You know you can trust her to back you up.'
A laugh forced its way out of me. 'Heavens help the neighbours' kids if they beat up on her favourite punching-bag, huh?' Dad punched me on the shoulder lightly, grinning, but there was a touch of iron in his smile.
'The neighbours' kids will be throwing worse than snowballs if they suspect that I can't be controlled through my children. I know they tried through your mother: she called and ranted at me for a couple hours about keeping the government out of her life since it ruined our marriage. I hope she gave them as much of an earful.' He sighed and wrapped his arm around my shoulders. 'Come on, let's get some lunch and talk about the more pleasant things in life. As long as you're here we might as well have a good visit.'