Four weeks ago...
The Sunburst was Flaschmann's pet project, a bar for capsuleers burrowed in the depths of the station the Blackball Rocketeers based from in Stacmon. The layout was station-basic -- an extended, bowed rectangle with the entrance positioned roughly at the midpoint of the inner curve -- but Flasch had installed raised and lowered floors, domed niches and curtain-walling to break up the monotony, with varied levels of gold-hued lighting promoting social activity or intimacy in different areas.
The walls had been plastered and painted a deep cinnabar, giving the room the feel of being planetside rather than suspended in stationary orbit above a moon. Lurking beneath gold-leafed industrial metalwork arches strung with tiny lights to the right of the door, the bar snaked along the inner curve of the room, its far end tailing off in a semicircular island projecting into the space; at the opposite end of the room, a stage had been set up, raised high enough above the main floor to preclude audience intervention, and lit so that the display could be viewed from the furthest reaches of the bar. Thin wisps of smoke pungent with substances both legal and illicit drifted throughout the space; the smell of spiced, roasted meats hung redolent in the air near the door to the kitchen at the back.
Val paused in the entry, breathing in deeply, then relaxed, feeling the torpor of a lazy visit home dropping away like a shed skin. Momentarily entranced by the sinuous curves of the two dancers on the stage moving in time to the music, he didn't at first notice the man who had entered the bar behind him; now the other jogged his elbow and repeated, 'Jack?'
He started and turned in surprise, then grinned. 'Miska. How's it going?'
The older Amarrian nodded. 'Not bad, not bad. You seemed a bit... absorbed,' he commented, a mischievous smile crinkling the corners of his eyes as he gestured towards the stage. 'One might think you hadn't been planetside on a Gallente world for a few days.'
Val shrugged. 'There's a big difference between training and natural talent. It looks so much better when it's not flawless.'
The men appreciated the display a moment more, then Miska tilted his head towards the bar. 'Join me for a drink?'
They claimed a table in a niche along the outer curve of the room and Miska lit a cigarette from the candle in the centre, inhaling and sighing out an aromatic plume as he relaxed into his chair. 'Rough day. Nearly lost my ship twice. Damned Serpentis don't know when to give up, I think, sometimes. So how was your trip? Where did you go?'
Val sipped his drink. 'I was back visiting my dad... only meant it to be a few hours, then back into space, but he insisted I stay longer. It was good to be back for a bit, but I felt well out of place. It was weird.'
The older man grinned on a mouthful of smoke. 'You've come a long way in the last month and a half, Jack. Fresh out of the Navy, you were. Would it have felt like home then?'
Giving it some thought, Val frowned. 'Maybe. Maybe I just thought that was what home felt like.' He shook his head: it was getting far too philosophical for his comfort.
The Amarrian rested his elbow on the table, holding his cigarette at eye-level, and watched smoke curl from its end. 'In life, there are many stages. We do not remain always who we think we are. Seven years ago, I served the Emperor faithfully. I had a wife, children. Honour.' A regretful smile crossed his face; it was gone so quickly Val wondered if he'd imagined it.
'What... what happened?'
Miska gave a laugh and drew on his cigarette. 'I am as you see me. New name, new life.' He gestured to the thick scarring which pulled down the outer corner of his right eye and tugged his upper lip into what could almost be mistaken for a sneer. 'I even have a new face.' The older man looked amused, but it was clear he had nothing more to say about it.
Val looked down thoughtfully, his youthful face pinching into a frown; he went so still he scarcely seemed to breathe. Miska looked at him curiously. 'I changed my name,' he murmured, finally, 'but it wasn't enough.'
Glancing up from his drink, the younger man explained, 'I'm in trouble. Maybe. Because of who I'm related to, not something I've done. Dad's... semi-important, and some people wish he wasn't.'
'You left the Navy to escape that?' Miska sipped his drink absently, paying more attention to Val's words than to what was in his cup.
Val shook his head. 'I left because I was asked to, to do... something. Didn't stop to wonder why at the time, it just seemed to make sense.'
The Amarrian quirked his unscarred eyebrow. 'I see.'
'They've been after my sister, too... that's what they wanted me to do, to find her for them. I think she's safe for now... I'd've heard about it if they caught her. I'm afraid if I contact her at all now, if I pop that... safety bubble... they'll try to use her.'
Miska's other eyebrow rose to join the first. 'Oh?'
The Gallente took a moment to collect his thoughts. 'While I was there, Dad was preparing for a major vote, something to do with surveillance oversight and citizen tracking. It's a big issue, really, um... what's the word...?'
'Divisive?' Miska supplied.
'Well, it is that, definitely. Dad would be well against the proposal, and he's pretty much a crux-point on the issue.'
'I thought the Federation was wholly democratic?'
Val shrugged and ran his fingers back through his hair. 'It's a security issue, so the council members are elected by the people, then they handle everything internally. If an issue hits a fifty-fifty snag, it goes to a public referendum.'
'And the people would hardly accept a policy which invades their privacy,' the older man finished. 'I see. That's what your father wants to happen, yes? And it's fairly obvious where the other council members are voting, then?'
'Not really; there are a few other moderates who are sitting on the fence, they're also being bullied.' Val sighed and leaned back in his chair, staring up at the amber glass of the lamp drifting suspended in its own antigrav field above the table. 'It's pretty ugly with infighting. Gallente politics is hardly as straightforward as it likes to say it is. Politicians seem to have shorter life spans, for no apparent reason. Especially if they're outspoken and radical.' Like Dad, he didn't add, but the thought was clear on his face.
The Amarrian looked surprised. 'So no people for the people, then?'
'People for their own people, more like.' The younger man looked tired. 'Sir, can I ask a favour of you?'
Miska shrugged. 'You can ask anything. Whether I agree depends on what you ask.'
'It's nothing principle-violating. My Dad said something, that I'm too trusting to be caught in this sort of mess. Can you tell me if there's something... anything... glaringly obvious that I seem to be missing? Anything that seems wrong? Can.. I trust you?' Val asked, knowing he was verging on offending the proud Amarrian.
Miska went quiet for a while as they finished their drinks, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully but focussed on nothing in particular. At last he said, 'I can do that. May I first suggest you find a new agent to work with? Anyone under Gallente orders could easily set you up. There's a Minmatar office in the system here you can talk to.'
The younger man nodded. 'I was considering that. Thanks, sir.'
The older man smiled and stubbed out the remains of his cigarette in the dish provided; the charred paper and leaf residue disintegrated to nothing on the corrosive surface. 'Talk to Flasch about standings if you need them. Corp meeting soon. You coming?'
Val nodded and rose to follow him out towards the bank of lifts in the concourse; the dancers blew kisses as they passed.
As they waited for a car to arrive, Miska seemed to come to a decision. Turning to Val, the older man said, 'Did you never think the political things might be why your sister left the Navy?'
The Gallente's jaw dropped. 'I'm sorry... how do you...'
'She was based here a while with her mercenary friends. You look a bit like her. To find out why you looked familiar, Jack, was not hard.' Miska looked serious. 'You're right. Changing your name, it was not enough. In the corp, you can trust the directors. We are mercenary, but we look after our own. Some newer members, maybe not so much. If you think there's trouble, talk to one of us.'
A lift car arrived, the door sliding open silently. After a moment's hesitation, Val followed the older man in, feeling somehow both more secure and painfully exposed.