'I want to make this clear: I'm only accepting volunteers for this. If you don't want to go, don't sign up for it. It'll be long dull hours, and there may be times where we don't dock up for a day or two. If you're not opposed to that... great to have you.'
I watched as the assembled crews filtered out of the room, muttering amongst themselves. The operation I'd just revealed to them was almost as far from the usual as it could be without me fitting mining lasers on a ship.
Hell, I don't even own any mining lasers.
Someone cleared their throat politely at my shoulder, and I turned to give a nod to Ambry Koll, the woman I'd hired as crew chief for the Vexor I'd playfully nicknamed Handbasket. She had better experience dealing with the challenges where we were headed than most of my regulars, and had jumped right into helping me prep the ship for action.
'It's pretty obvious to the crew that you're not thrilled about this. Care to talk?' She looked at me with serious blue eyes, and I sighed.
'Sure. C'mon into my office.'
I held the door open for her and gestured towards the couch as I went to the back to obtain cups of coffee.
'To answer your unspoken question: No, I'm not eager to do this, but it's for a good reason.' I set the cups down on the low table and dropped onto the couch beside her. 'I'm not comfortable in nullsec. I've lost too many ships and crews there to really want to go back, even for such a brief period this will be.'
Ambry simply nodded and blew lightly over the top of her drink before sipping. I inhaled sharply through my nose, then leaned forward, scrubbing a hand over my face. 'I've been an outlaw for nearly two years. This should tell you that what we'll be doing down there is not what I normally do. Shooting Serpentis to improve my ratings with CONCORD? I barely know where to begin. I'm too used to the challenge of engaging other capsuleers.'
'Well...' She paused, looking thoughtful. 'I can tell you that hunting nullsec pirates has its own challenges.'
'You mean avoiding being caught.'
'No, I mean getting into engagements where you're outnumbered and outgunned and bouncing off the rocks they've manoeuvred into. They do that, if they've their wits about them. Many a pilot has lost their ship because they got stuck and scrammed and couldn't rep fast enough. It's a different world, but don't go thinking of it as easy.'
I cupped my mug in my hands, enjoying the warmth against my palms. The taller woman was regarding me seriously, and I believed her. 'I always figured the hardest part about this would be getting in and out.'
Snorting, she shook her head. 'Difficult in different ways. Serpentis are wary of you podders, but don't get me wrong: they're not cowards. And they want you alive. You have tech and knowledge they could use, and they will try to take it. These boys won't be out for easy kills the way their underlings in highsec are. You're asking your crews to go into a situation where they are more likely to be captured, tortured, maybe conscripted, perhaps killed, if you lose your ship. The Syndicate is slow to send out rescue teams.'
Thoughtfully, I stared through the steam rising from the surface of my drink. 'What do you advise, then?'
'I advise you to stay focussed out there. But I'm telling you to show more confidence to your crew about this. They need to know you won't let them die.'
I shook my head. 'I have no intention of letting that happen.'
'You better not.' She was smiling, despite the threat implied in her words. I smiled back and took a swallow of coffee.
'I have no reason to believe that you'd put any of us into unnecessary danger, Captain. So let's go make CONCORD believe you've cleaned up your act, huh?'
Drifting somewhere between planets, watching the armour-repper tick over, I realised how right Ambry had been. Twenty-three percent armour left, one Rear Admiral down, and his support flotilla extremely pissed off that I'd popped their scrambler ship and escaped. Fun for the whole family. The crews were at work patching the nicks two of my Hammerheads had received when the smaller support had unexpectedly swapped targets, and I mused that while I probably had a better chance surviving out here, it was a rougher life than I was accustomed to.
-9.36. Such a long way to go, still.