Modifying a ship was far from an easy process, even for the smallest of them. Especially the smallest, in fact, since the modifications had to be fitted precisely within the already compact design. Rigs were expensive off the market, only marginally cheaper if the pilot built them from bits salvaged from wrecks. There was a thriving market in salvage where no questions were asked about the parts' origins, and none were answered. Once assembled, the modifications had to be permanently affixed to the ship's inner workings, which could only take so much tinkering before they called quits.
Which was how Valar came to find himself up to his elbows in delicate electronics and nanogel insulation in the guts of his latest acquisition, a Taranis-class interceptor. Small, quick, and capable of a frightening amount of damage for its size, Miska had recommended the ship to Val when he'd commented that he wanted to try something new.
'The turrets, you rig for damage, or the engine for speed. Inties are fun to fly.' Miska had demonstrated teh capabilities of his Malediction in a 1v1 fight to structure with Flaschmann's Rupture-class cruiser; both ships had peaked structural damage at the same time, but the pilots agreed the Malediction would have won.
When the rigs for the turrets arrived, Val insisted on getting his hands dirty alongside his crew. 'Not that I don't trust you guys to do it right,' he'd laughed, 'I just want to get to know her better.' On a personal level, Val felt it was important to develop a connection to his ships, and that he couldn't truly call them his without helping with the work. It was a mindset which had concerned his commanding officers in the Navy, but more than one of his new corp-mates sympathised and were more than happy to discuss experimental fits of which the navies would certainly never approved and which worked far better than one might think. Rather than allowing their superiors to tell them what to fit, the independent capsuleers Val had met knew their ships and their capabilities, and fitted to play towards their individual strengths.
Working on the ship personally also helped to narrow the gap between captain and crew. They chatted amiably as they worked, teasing Val about what he had to endure, physically, as a pilot.
'... I mean, really, all those wires, man. I dunno how you do it.' Jial Amsen was a cheerfully irreverent technician from Gallente Prime, fair hair still growing out of the drunken buzz-cut his friends had inflicted on him the month before. At that moment, he was flat on his back on an antigrav prop beneath a console.
Val grinned as he helped Resja manoeuvre a flexible turret stabiliser panel down through the console's top hatch until Jial could catch its lower edge and wire it in place. 'After the first few times, you don't really think about it.'
'I don't really want to think about it now, and I'm not a pilot!'
Resja d'An, a Stacmon native, pulled a face at Jial through the open console. 'You fixate on that a bit; you got a fetish you wanna tell us about?'
'Only where you're concerned, baby.'
The dusky-skinned Intaki tech wiped sweat from her forehead, leaving a streak of murky nanogel across her face. 'In your dreams, you mean.'
'Funny you should mention that, cuz last night- ow!'
'Oh, sorry. Could you hand my spanner back up?'
Suppressing laughter, Val dropped down and fired up the console when Resja signalled the panel was in place. The turret maintenance bay was cramped, with barely enough space to pass among the machinery surrounding the mounting, and he had to be careful not to trip over Jial's feet or the tools littering the walkway. 'That's green, close her up and let's get the system meshed.'
Jial closed up the underside panel and slid himself from under the console. 'That reminds me, Cap'. Did that guy manage to find you last night?'
Frowning, Val glanced up. 'What guy?'
'I finished off a bit late on the port-dorsal turret last night. I was just logging the checks for the night when this guy showed up in the hangar, said he was from the Scope doing a series on the effects of capsuleer piracy. Said he wanted to ask some questions about your sister and that you'd told him to meet you here.'
Val straightened, running a hand back through his hair. 'I have no idea. This is the first I've heard of it...'
'You got a sister, Captain?' Resja asked.
'Well, yeah, but-'
'I'd like to know why you didn't tell us you're related to a pirate. That's like something out of the holos! You have any idea how cool that is? It she hot?' Jial had that gleam in his eye he usually got when talking about his weekend conquests. Val shook his head.
'Whoa, time out. I don't just tell people that for a reason, you know.'
'Yeh, lackwit. The word "retribution" mean anything to you?' Resja punched Jial lightly on the arm.
'That's a type of Amarr ship, right?'
The machinery around them hummed to life, the timer making a rhythmic pip sound as it counted down to full system readiness. The capsuleer leaned back against a readout panel. 'Yes, my sister's a pirate. No, I've not seen her in a year. No, I don't discuss it because I don't want people pointing fingers at me in effigy of the illusory evil forces who took their stuff and their ISK. And how the hell did this reporter guy get past the security into the hangar? Someone leave the door open again?'
The two techs looked at each other. Then Jial said, 'That's a really good question.'
'Well,' Hangar Security Manager Parulis said with a shrug, 'I don't know what to tell you, Pilot. There's no sign the hangar entry was forced at all. The only thing to do, really, is go back through the camera footage and see if there's anything dodgy.'
'Can you do that, then? Please?' Val added as he saw the expression on the woman's face.
She sighed and looked at him, the lines around her eyes pinching with thought. 'It's that important to you.'
'Unknown individuals have been tampering with my ships. This wouldn't be the first time someone's got into my hangar.'
The older woman's hand smacked heavily on the desktop, making both capsuleer and technician start. 'And you never came here before?' She stared at him, incredulous.
'Well, um...' Val rubbed the back of his head awkwardly. 'It... was a security risk. We kept it within the corp directors because we didn't know who might be bought off...'
'I could have been bought off and you're asking me to show you the camera records from your hangar.' The Security Manager sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose. 'When will pilots learn that it's not always them against the world? Come on. Can one of you identify the man if you see him on the footage?'
'I can,' Jial answered. The tech looked more than a little intimidated to have been dragged up to the security offices, but Val had insisted he wouldn't be in trouble.
Parulis led them down a short hallway and through a couple of secured checkpoints to a room which was walled with flat 2-D panel monitors. The centre of the room displayed a wire-frame hologram of the station, bright green points highlighting the sections being shown on the monitors. She crossed to a control panel. 'Which hangar, Pilot, and what time was this?'
'1012-A at... Jial? About oh-one-hundred?'
'A bit before. Um, start from half-twelve, maybe.'
The monitors cleared to black for an instant before showing multiple views from within and without the hangar; the hologram display showed bright spots only around the hangar location. Parulis skimmed through fourty-five minutes of footage quickly, Jial paying close attention to the screens.
Standing behind them, Val frowned -- the cameras were still and nothing moved within the fisheye framing.
'Are you certain this is the right time?' the security chief asked.
Jial was shaking his head. 'I was definitely there, why doesn't the recording show me working?'
'Since when have you ever done any work?' Val said distractedly. 'Go back a bit, I thought I saw something. Keep going... There! You can just see Jial in the corner of that screen.'
'Huh.' Parulis ran the recording back and forward a couple times. 'Should be able to see him fully in this monitor and this one. So someone's fiddled with the system.' She sighed, looking tired. 'I hate when they do that.'
'What?' The two men stared at the security chief as she crouched down, levered a disguised hatch from the wall beneath the control panels, and made some adjustments to the wiring inside.
'There have been enough wars in Stacmon that people have circumvented the cameras before. I had backups installed a while ago.' The monitors flickered a moment and the bright spots on the hologram winked out. 'It's totally independent of the main system, records to a seperate buffer.'
Folding his arms, Val asked, 'What makes you think it's safe to tell us this?'
The security chief threw a toothy grin over her shoulder. 'It has an additional security system wired in.'
'Couldn't you put that security on the main camera system?'
'It'd violate health and safety regs. I trust that because I'm using this to help you, you won't go reporting it.'
'What additional security system?'
Parulis cracked a laugh and stood. 'Now let's see who was sneaking around.'
It didn't take long to spot the man, a slender, generic-looking Gallente, entering the hangar with what appeared to be wholly legitimate access codes. He moved as if he had every right to be there.
'I'm going to assume, Pilot, that you didn't give this guy any access codes. Let's get a rep on him.'
Sati was at her desk working when Val finally got back to their quarters.
'Heya.' He kissed her on the cheek. 'What's that?'
'Oh, someone wants me to compile a list of their competitor's market activities. Boring stuff. Funny, though, their competitor asked me to do the same thing last week. How's the Taranis?'
'Coming together. Look, Sati, um...'
She turned in her seat to look up at him. 'What's up?'
Wordlessly, Val handed her the datapad Parulis had loaded the search results onto. Sati was silent as she scanned the information, but her lips pressed tightly together and her expression grew more severe.
'What is this?'
'He was in my hangar last night. His Scope background checks out but it looks kinda thin.'
'He's not from the Scope, that's why. He's a free agent, like me, but he's not as... discerning, shall we say.'
Val leaned against the front edge of the desk. 'He was in there the night before the moving op, too. Let some random guy in. We found evidence of more tampering on ships I've not used recently, too.'
'Brilliant. Have you told your CEO?'
He nodded. 'We have an idea of how to deal with this, but we need your help. You up for it?'
The Caldari woman smiled but there was little humour in her eyes. 'Absolutely. What do you need?'