One week ago...
The station was pleasant at this time of the evening, he thought, though it gave him fewer faces to get lost among. The dimmed lights gave the interior a dreamlike quality, and the smaller numbers of people allowed the soft hums of the machinery that formed the heartbeat of the structure to come through.
He strolled casually through the station, a common maintenance manager on his late-night rounds, confident and unassuming. The security officer he was paying off had signalled five minutes ago, and Neron had an hour to do his work undisturbed.
This appeared to be the final window he would have to fulfill his contract; the mark's corporation was giving every sign of making ready to pull out of the area any day now, and they'd been cagey about the location of their new base. Thankfully, the tech who'd been working unexpectedly late the last time seemed to have forgotten about the incident.
He'd been annoyed when the first attempt had failed. The mercenaries who'd been hired to ambush the convoy two weeks earlier had mysteriously vanished, and attempts to contact them had turned up empty offices and abandoned dead-drops. It was as if they'd been consumed by the Void. If the target had noticed the tampering that would have left him vulnerable, there'd been no sign of it.
The service techs might have simply written it off as faulty equipment and repaired the damage.
He had no idea what the target had done to warrant his removal -- permanent removal, no easy task when a target could be revived minutes later using neural backup copies. Neron didn't care; he wasn't being paid so well to ask questions, particularly since knowing the answers might get him in unnecessary trouble. That was the nature of the beast: knowing too much could be as dangerous as knowing too little, a complex game of poker where even the dealer was unknown.
He let himself into the hangar, made a show of checking offices and gathering forgotten refuse to tip down the disposal unit in case anyone had lingered late. When he was certain the place was deserted, he retrieved a datapad from his pocket and issued a command. A few minutes later, a response came back, and he unlocked the door for his assistant. The man knew starship systems nearly as well as Neron understood the system they served, and they set to work on the Taranis left on the main pad. It was the sole hull remaining in the hangar; everything else had been moved out by the target's corporation.
'Third time and all that, eh?'
Neron nodded, carefully picking his way through the computer system, erasing all signs of their access.
'Your credits are good enough, mate. Pleasure doing business with you.'
Neron took a few minutes longer to finish wiping the records before following the tech out, stopping short at the sight of the security detail waiting for him, stun-sticks at the ready. With a resigned sigh, he showed his hands empty and raised them to shoulder height as two men moved forward to give him a pat-down and secure his hands behind him.
The tech lay unconscious in the back of the waiting transport hover, a bruise slowly colouring on the side of his jaw evidence that he'd resisted more than was wise.
I had wanted to be there when they caught the guys who'd been messing with my hulls. Security Chief Parulis would hear none of it: I was untrained, and stars forbid a capsuleer be injured on her watch. Sati had taken an almost perverse pleasure in exposing Neron Euvidar and his connections, and the dirty security officer had been identified and taken in an hour before he'd been meant to loop the security systems. A long list of people were being located and brought in for questioning; Parulis had suggested that only a handful would know anything of any worth.
I was permitted to watch from the monitor room while the operation went on. It almost seemed too easy; why would an agent be anywhere near where they were meant to break in?
'Because the best plans are the simplest ones. Fewer loose ends to slip out of your control.' Sati put her arm around my waist. 'Speaking of simple plans, time to make you disappear, sweetie.'
We'd spent the last week building a handful of imaginary Rocketeers pilots, any one of whom could have been mistaken for me. All that was left was for me to slip behind one of the masks, rejoin the Blackball Rocketeers in Cloud Ring, and slowly fade 'Madjack Rackham' into digitised ether. Valar Tiann remained a semi-artificial construct under the Navy's care, and might eventually be reported lost in the line of fire, which was fine as far as I was concerned. The people who mattered knew the truth and that was enough.
'So what do we call you now, man?' Flasch asked as we completed our final undock procedures from Stacmon V-M9 station.
'Dunno, I've not decided yet. I'll figure it out once we get there, I suppose. Which route are we taking?'
'Same as the first time. Skies ought to be clear, we won't need scouts til we hit nullsec, anyway.'
I rolled the Taranis a couple times, enjoying how light she felt, like a feather drifting on the ions. Miska was so right about inties. Flasch laughed at my antics.
'Feels good to leave that crap behind ya, huh?'
'You have no idea.'
'Right, we got everyone? Drop an X in fleet channel when you're all out.'
I entered my confirmation along with the twenty or so others who were all that remained of the Rocketeers in Stacmon. Everything else had been moved out via blockade runner or jump-freighter. Offices closed this morning, with a last poke around the corp hangars for any bits of gear that might have been overlooked. Each ship was hauling some communal goods, mostly ammunition, alongside our standard spare rounds. I had two foundling Hammerhead drones and a handful of missiles in cargo, Flasch's Ruppy was playing hauler for a load of battleship-sized hybrid antimatter rounds. Sati was remaining behind to sweep my trail clear, and then...
Well, I didn't know. It was scary and exciting at the same time.
'Alright boys and girls, align to Covryn, prepare for fleet-warp.'
The scattering of mismatched vessels surged forward, hitched, then shot towards our exit gate at six AU per second, flashing past the sun in instants. I wondered if I'd ever get tired of that feeling, and hoped I never would.
'Covryn is clear, heading for ex'.'
'Everyone jump, align to the out gate.'
We were almost there -- only a few jumps from home -- when it happened. Jackal called the next system clear, but when space reappeared around us, we were in the middle of a massive bubbled camp.
Flasch cursed. 'Jackal, what the fuck?!' But the scout had disappeared from the fleet, and we huddled in the temporary security of our post-jump cloaks while Flasch thought fast. My mind whirled with a moment of panic.
'Shit. Shit. Right. That's a lot of bubbles. We're not fighting this, there are too many people here, who the fuck are these guys? When I say “go”, burn hard for the nearest edge and warp to the rendezvous as soon as you're clear. Just scatter, give them too many targets to focus on. Right, go, go now!'
I angled my ship down, aiming for the lower edge of the warp disruption field, and kicked in the microwarp drive. The incerceptor punched through the edge of the sphere just as another appeared around me. 'Fuck! What...?' A Sabre-class interdictor had been orbiting the bubble, and I found my ship slowed to a crawl by a half-dozen stasis webs.
'Flasch, this is Jack, I don't think I'm gonna make this one. You guys go on ahead, I'll see you at the far end.'
I gritted my teeth as I watched my shields and armour melt away. This wasn't exactly how I'd imagined things going. Flasch's voice cut through the cacophony of cannon-fire. 'There's something funny going on here, Jack. Nobody else was targeted. I'm sending word to Miska to impound Jackal's gear til we figure out what the fuck he's playing at.'
At my command, the alarm to evacuate the ship blared through the interceptor's cramped confines. I had only a minimal three-man crew on this run, but that would be three too many to lose. The gate rescue crews would scoop them and take care of them til corporate recovery could make a pickup.
The hull disintegrated, and they started nibbling on my pod. An alarm went off in my head and I winced in pain. A diagnostic query confirmed the worst: we'd missed the tampering on the capsule's transmitter.
It seemed I wasn't getting out of it, after all.
The capsule's minimal defences redlined, and the shriek of pod fluid venting into space was the last thing I heard.