Reflected sunlight dazzled from the clouds blanketing the planet below and bounced playfully from the metal skin and green-glazed domes of the Gallente station parked above one of the small moons. A corona of ships and maintainence drones flitted about the vast structure, nurturing and sustaining it.
As if on cue, a number of ships jetted forth from the station exit, a fleet of all sizes and types from gnatlike frigates to lumbering battleships, slow-moving industrial haulers and their faster blockade-runner counterparts. More and more emerged, forming up in a cloud in front of the station.
Plugged in at the helm of his Ishkur, Valar checked the load of liquid ozone in his cargo for the fifth time. The Blackball Rocketeers had recently negotiated a Non-Aggression Pact with a larger alliance which held territory in a quiet corner of null-security space, in exchange for two systems the corporation could use for construction and mining bases. At the meeting the week before, they had set in motion preparations for moving in, and Val hadn't slept well at all knowing that today he would be providing the cynosural field the corp's only jump-freighter would use to bring in the fuel for the six towers contained within their phalanx of transports and haulers.
It was a tense operation: the haulers were particularly vulnerable, and their contents would be a fantastic prize for an opportunistic pirate. The Rocketeeers' entire complement of combat pilots had turned out to provide security.
Flaschmann's voice cut through the murmur of pilots' voices. 'Everyone clear comms, align to planet three. Embryn, Jackal, go on ahead and check out Covryn; Emmy, continue into Cumemare.'
The two forward scouts vanished under covert-ops cloaks as they cleared the crush of traffic and warped off. The rest of the fleet surged as Flasch's warp caught them, driving the convoy towards a safe-spot bookmark between planets.
'Fleet align to Covryn. Scouts, report.'
'Covryn is clear.'
'Cume gate, Cov is clear. Jumping.'
It was the largest non-military operation Val had ever been part of, and the level of discipline surprised him. Everyone seemed to understand their roles; there was little in the way of confirmational chatter. If the convoy came under attack, the smaller ships would webify the haulers, reducing their warp times to safespots which had already been made in the week beforehand in each system along the route; each industrial ship was equipped with a cloaking device to keep the convoy safe from probing eyes should the combat fleet be forced to fall back.
As the primary cyno pilot, Val was expected to avoid combat if at all possible and to warp to a secondary safespot which had been made for ships without cloaks. One of the haulers carried enough liquid ozone and a cyno-gen for another ship to fill his role if necessary, but that would rely upon having a place to dock -- either a ship maintainance array should one of the towers be erected successfully, or at the nearest station.
The few jumps through lowsec were uneventful; the Rocketeers' scouts had checked the area out and identified a day and time during which that part of space was quiet. It was the long run deep into nullsec which had everyone on-edge. Once the convoy reached the NAP territory, they would be guarded by the guns of their new allies, but the twenty or so jumps between were wholly unprotected and potentially hostile. Secondary and even tertiary routes had been painstakingly plotted in the eventuality of the convoy being compromised.
'TXW is clear and empty. Continuing to 5-F.'
Nervously Val ran a system-prep, then paused. Opening comms to his assault frigate's small support crew, he subvocalised, 'Mims, run a manual turret check for me, would you? I'm getting some dodgy readings, I think they may not be connected properly.'
'That's not possible...' Miriam paused. 'Sir, the fittings haven't been touched since the Firestorm was fitted.'
'I know. Can you check it please?'
His commander sighed. 'Voids forbid you make us work, here.'
Val chuckled. 'It's what I pay you for.'
The fleet materialised on the far side of the gate; haulers aligned ponderously and warped, the combat ships trailing momentarily before their greater warp-speeds flung them ahead of their charges.
'Captain Rackham... sir, you were right.' Mims looked worried in the small video-feed projected onto Val's retinas. 'The connections to the turrets have been tampered with sometime since the last systems check two days ago. It's.... it looks deliberate, so that cursory checks would show them functioning perfectly.'
Feeling a chill steal through him, Valar asked, 'Have you checked the cyno-gen?'
'Yeah, it's fine. We added it this morning, there was no chance for someone to...' She stared into the feed, eyes unfocussed and momentarily lost in thought. 'Is someone trying to get you killed, sir?'
'Hell if I know. Run a full system diagnostic. I'm changing the maintainence queue effective immediately, I want connection checks twice daily, when you first come on-duty and before you log for the night. Any discrepancies you find, leave them untouched until I can get a look at them.' Unnoticed within the enclosed capsule, his perceptions expanded to those of the ship he commanded, Val's brow furrowed. 'Something's not right here.'
Putting ship comms on hold, Val sent a request for a private word with Flasch off-comms. A text-box popped up in his HUD.
[Sup, Jack?]There was a long pause as Flasch coordinated with the scouts and sent the fleet toward the next gate.
[My turrets have been tampered with. We're running checks right now, but I'm out of any fights.]
[Sry, duty calls. Hope all goes well, stick with the convoy if we get into trouble. Once we get a tower set up, dock and we'll check things out. Don't let your crew fix anything.]Val skimmed the report Mims had just logged from the diagnostic.
[We can't, anyway, don't have the equipment for it.]
[Looks like it's turrets and MWD out, everything else is sound.]They closed convo and Val concentrated on staying with the fleet, tucking his worries away for later, his father's warning that he'd made himself a target cycling through his head.
[All you need for now. We'll check it out.]
When Sati answered comms, she was scowling fiercely, traces of frustrated tears smeared acoss her face. Her expression lightened when she saw who it was on the other end. 'Hey sweetheart.'
'Hey you. What's got you upset?' Val curled up in his desk chair, clasping his arms around his knees and focussing on his lover's image in the video feed. Sati rarely cried, or even showed distress; ordinarily she took the good and the bad in stride.
'Oh.' She wiped at her cheek with the heel of her hand. 'That bastard agent... I turned down the last mission he offered me, and when I went in today he acted like we've not been working together for the last year. That--' she used a Caldari word Val didn't know, but he was certain it was offensive '--he was smirking as he suggested I didn't have the standings to work for him. He wiped my records! And he sat there and he smiled at me because he knows I can't do anything about it!'
She raged for a little longer, while Val made sympathetic noises and wished he was back in Stacmon to hold her. After a bit, Sati slumped back in her chair with a sigh.
'I'm sorry... you called, and here I am venting...'
'Hey, are you kidding? I'd rather you tell me about stuff instead of pretending everything's perfect, you know.'
The smile that crossed her face made his heart melt. 'You're sweet, Jack. How'd the move go?'
'Oh, the move was great.' Val shifted position in his seat; neither he nor his sister had ever been comfortable in standard chairs. 'We got the towers in and up safely. Cyno nearly worked the first time but somebody spotted the freighter at the station and it had to dock. A gang camped it for a couple hours before they got bored and left. At least we had more than enough liquid ozone for a second cyno field.'
Sati cheered up at that. 'That's great! How's the area look?'
'Quiet. There's an ice belt in the other system out here, it's.... wow. Just amazing. You should see it! The miners are really happy.'
The Caldari woman chuckled. 'I bet.' She looked at Val a moment, then said, 'What's up, Jack?'
'I can't hide anything from you, can I?' Valar shook his head. 'Somebody messed with my ship, probably last night after I turned in.'
'What?!' Sati looked alarmed.
'Nothing serious, but we're checking on it. The connections to my blasters and emm-dubbleyu-dee were snipped rather precisely. We've checked it and it's being fixed.'
He could practically see the thoughts processing behind Sati's eyes as she stared into the distance. 'Really... That would have to be deliberate, if the startup check didn't see it immediately. Have you checked with your hangar crew?'
'I will do once I get home. We'll be out here a few more days getting settled in, probably a week.'
Sati pouted a little. 'I miss you already. Don't be too long...'
'I promise.' Vai smiled softly. 'I'll be back before you know it.'
'Alright, Jack, I should let you go, huh? I love you.' She kissed the tips of her fingers and pressed them to the screen at her end of the feed; Val responded in kind.
'I love you, too.'