"One of your men is dead, and I know who killed him."
The station comptroller stared at the woman who stood on the other end of his office. She was Gallente from head to toe, with their intrinsic combination of arrogance and ease emanating from every aspect of her pose. She was also older than him but nonetheless quite attractive for her age, something he was surprised at himself for noticing.
"You're one of our prisoners, and got past my guards," he said. "Keep talking while you can."
"Those people who attacked us – the ones who you let on the station – tried to finish the job. They came to the prison and were going to execute us, but we managed to escape. Your warden wasn't so lucky."
"Assuming you're telling the truth, and we're going to find that out very soon," the comptroller said, keying in a combination on the holovid surface of his desk, "why shouldn't I have you thrown right back in jail and deal with this myself?"
The woman walked slowly towards him. He tensed up, but she raised her hands to her head and said, "At ease, soldier. I'm unarmed." She kept approaching, and as she was halfway over the room he noticed that she'd apparently been hurt: What he'd taken for rouge was a blood-red bruise, and the thin film of healing powder she'd spread over it had not yet finished working its magic.
"Did they do this?"
"They did more," she said shortly. "But we lived. Look us up now, dear. See what we can do in return."
He finished keying in the sequence. A seed of data unfurled on the pane of his desk, spreading its digital petals to every corner. The woman stood in silence while he read it over.
At last he raised his head again, looked her directly in the eyes and said, "Why should I let you do this?"
She walked over to the desk and leaned forward, resting her knuckles on it. He saw the knuckles turn white. His gaze traveled back up to her face, taking in other sights along the way, ones that were a little too close and smelled far too good.
"You'll see we've done this countless times before," she said in a quiet tone. "You'll see we've helped law enforcement, Empire and pirates both. You'll see we can be trusted to do what we do. You'll see that it's far better to risk people like us than any more of your own men, and we'll do it quietly so your denizens won't find out until you're ready to tell them what happened. And if that's not enough," she murmured, "well, here you see me. Gallente have no limits. Do you have any reason to think I can't do anything I want to?"
The comptroller stared at her for a while. "According to what I've seen, no, I don't suppose I do," he said at last. "You've got six hours before I set the guards on them. Find the people responsible and get them to me, alive. Everything checks out, you'll undock from this station after that, free and with our thanks."
"The thanks will be mutual, sir. I'll be seeing you soon," she said, and blew a kiss into the air between them. He watched her walk out as slowly as she'd walked in, and never quite noticed the sweat that had been trickling down her back, nor the faint trembling in her hands.
There was a very fine balance between blissful success and suicidal failure. The multitude of scars on this man's body told of a rewarding, if rather eventful, life rocking around on the scales.
The result of the small EMP bomb he was painstakingly constructing, for instance, had potential for one very positive outcome but a myriad unpleasant ones ranging from failure at zero hour to an unfettered launch during testing. The former would very likely rob him of his only real countermeasure against his adversary's mechanized attack, while the latter would give him an epileptic seizure and a heart attack before shutting down all electrical processes in his brain.
He hummed as he soldered together the wires in his bomb, taking care to coat them right away with conducting gel and insulant. He lived for this.
The surroundings were bare: an empty warehouse on the edge of station central, near enough to the industrial areas and far enough from human traffic that nobody would notice him working there. He had a worktable and a chair, both plastic, a generator and some analytic equipment for the bomb, a nonstatic plastic tarp he'd spread out on the cement floor to hold various parts, and a portable console for finishing off the station hackwork.
He put down the soldering iron, regarded the console's blinking screen beside him, and sighed. He had two tasks here. First and most important was to hack undocking permission for his team into the station's operating procedures. This was the escape route, which mattered more than the mission. Second was to rig countermeasures to the drones that had been used against them. This was the revenge, which mattered in other ways he'd have a hard time putting words to.
He turned to the console and worked with it for a while. It was complicated work that required speed, attention and an instinct for adaptation. The Guristas' own system was one of the greatest examples of ad-hoc hacking in the universe, and poked its multitude of tendrils into innumerable cracks in Empire systems. The trick was not to touch it directly, for it was a skittish beast, but let it come to you. He'd constructed a large batch of fake data and set up a badly protected broadcast mirror in an abandoned mining colony nearby. It was nonsensical stuff, but it had a patina of sense, which was all the Guristas datatendrils needed to coil around it and pull it in for later analysis; and in so doing, grab a nice little packet of very polite requests to please let a particular ship undock before they could think about it twice.
It took some time for the full amount of data to weave its way into the Guristas system, and to his heart-stopping surprise he found himself fiddling with the wires of the EMP bomb. He put them down very slowly and moved his chair out of absent-minded reach, leaned back with his hands behind his head and let his mind wander, while the console finished the final runs of its program.
He'd made a life out of this, one way or another. When he'd been freeing slaves there'd been two ways: the clean, like the console he had beside him, or the dirty, like this bomb. And if he were to be honest with himself, after all the time he'd been doing this, he truly preferred the dirty. That was what he did when he signed up for this mercenary crew, instead of fighting for the true Minmatar cause. Some of the mission profits he would set aside and give to his friends back in the underground, so they could free their brethren and better their lot, and with what this team was pulling it certainly beat being just one more life fading from a body lying in a ditch somewhere, gun in one hand and flag in the other. This, to him, was the Minmatar lot. You saw an opportunity, no matter how unorthodox, and you did something with it. You went for it.
He smiled, moved back to the desk and got to work. Half an hour later he had a theoretically functioning EMP bomb. He carefully laid it down on the ground beside some test equipment, said a brief and silent prayer, and set it off.
The equipment lost all power, and Artenal did not. The bomb worked.
Laughter bubbled out of him, and turned into a guffawing roar when he looked back to the desk and saw that the EMP wave had completely fried the console, too.
Some people walk through cathedrals, while others tread in the gutters. Kralean, with his past ties to the Amarr clergy, had one foot in either, which could be a drawback when you needed to move fast without anyone knowing, but provided excellent ground when you could pick your steps and tread silently.
It is a common misconception that pirates and mercenaries are faithless. The worst of them have little time for intangibles, certainly. But behind every pirate is not merely a trail of past victims - there is also a shadowy mass of people whose lives are affected or entwined with the pirate's own. They are people who live that life less of choice than of hand-to-mouth necessity, and whose hidden, if always unstated, hope is that one day, in some kind of transition, they can leave it behind for good.
Their pent-up faith might be unnamed, but it glowed so bright it burned. The trick lay in recognizing the houses of worship.
Kralean traversed the station. He visited a few churches, who welcomed him as a fellow man in the spirit of faith, if not its exact letter. From them he drew information on where the truly devout could be found.
He then visited several homes in the poorer quarters and saw many parents, and visited streets and bars to see their multitude of children. He had talks that were short in time but seemed very long to his conversants, and after he had spoken for a little while, they began to listen.
It took a while, but by the end he had quite a flock.
It is another common misconception that pirates are the most powerful people in any group of miscreants. They're visible and loud, certainly, and make great boasts of their own prowess. But the wise pirate – the one possessing the proper mix of suicidal fighting instincts and basic common sense – knows that he truly has nothing without the support of the people in the shadows.
So when Kralean returned from his pilgrimage, he had assurance that wherever his enemies went, and whoever they talked to, they would be given no shelter, no refuge nor assistance, and they would be shunned like the uncleanest of them all.
For it is a wise man who captures the heart of his flock, and a clever man who manages to feed that quelled and flickering flame which burns shyly within them.
She couldn't use guns, but that was alright; there were other ways.
Scaara stepped into the foyer of the Steel Barrel, completely unrecognized. People here didn't pay much attention to newcomers unless there was pressing reason to do so, and it helped that she wasn't visibly armed. She surreptitiously patted her pockets, in which she'd secreted a couple of tiny activating pads and a metal ampule.
The Steel Barrel was not quite as crowded as the last time, though she still recognized a lot of faces. This was good.
She moved up to the bar but did not take a seat. Instead, she stood there, quietly regarding the seated patrons, the bartender and the rows of drinks behind him. She paid special attention to the ends of the bar line, where the regulars sat. One or two of them appeared to register her presence, and there was a flicker of attention in their eyes.
There were no guns anywhere on her person, but she had something much better. She slowly slid a hand into her pocket and withdrew the weapon's activation switches, holding them clenched in her fist. She noticed with quiet pleasure that those same people who had noticed her now sat up straight, like slaver hounds at the escape whistle, tense and alert. Her fist rose into the air like a rocket seen from afar, the human hounds following its slow trajectory. As it reached its apex she thumbed one of the switches, then dropped it to the floor like a used fuel tank. It had barely a moment to clatter before the bar resounded with the clang of security doors sliding into place over all exits. Station security took precedence over personal liberty in times of crisis, and if the automatic housing controls received a message that a unit had to be sealed off, then that's exactly what would happen.
Everyone in the Steel Barrel had noticed her, but only the guilty parties stood up. They moved fast towards Scaara. She waved at them and pressed the other switch in her hand.
The high-frequency sirens, long since embedded in every bar on this station by an overseer very much into crowd control, roared with eardrum-piercing noise. The patrons dropped like depowered robots, clutching their heads for a few twitching seconds before passing into blissful oblivion. One of them had made it almost to Scaara, his hands going for her neck, before he dropped and plowed face-first into the floor.
Scaara dropped the other switch, and made a silent promise to buy Artenal a stiff drink for rigging this up, both the system interrupts and the tiny earbud sound filters that had protected her own head from the aural assault.
From her other pocket she withdrew one of the metal ampules, a perfect cylinder about half the length of her pinky. She twisted off its seal. There was a click and both ends extended, one terminating in a stopper, the other in a needle. Kneeling by the man next to her, she jabbed the needle into a vein on his neck and waited for the stimulant to kick in. The mind-scrambling siren would have stopped by now, but nobody would come back to wakefulness for a while yet unless assisted by a little synthetic adrenaline.
The man gasped and opened his eyes so wide that they bulged. She smiled.
"Sssh," she said. "This is going to hurt, but try to relax."
Her fist clenched again, but this time it held nothing but her anger and need for release.
Some time later, after she'd established that yes, he was one of the contacts for the Shahoun's team, and yes, he could tell her where they were, and no, he was telling the honest truth and could she please please please not break any more bones, she withdrew the other capsule from her pocket, twisted its seal, and plunged its needle into his neck. This time it was not a stimulant but a soporific, powerful enough to reduce a full-grown man to dreamless, unwakeable sleep. Once the subject regained consciousness, they'd be completely incapable of normal communication. Or walking. Or blinking.
The team assembled in a hidden place and got ready for violence.
"Are we even going to be allowed back on the station after this?" Scaara asked.
"Strictly speaking we haven't done anything wrong, other than cost them the life of one guard," Kralean said nonchalantly. "With luck and skill, we'll be gone before they realize the deception, and we can make amends later. These people have big tempers that need a little time to cool, but they're not unreasonable." He looked at the others. "How did you guys do?"
"The pheromone perfume makes me gag every time," Joreena said. "Even if it's just for the first few seconds. I can't understand what you people like about it."
"Neither do I," Artenal said. "You're just as ugly as ever." He ducked as she threw a pack of ammo at him.
"Well, it worked," she said. "Comptroller will let us do our thing. I also had a chat with one of the top guardsmen, who was extremely unhappy with losing a man and promised me help if needed."
"I had a quick chat with someone, too," Scaara said wistfully. "I liked that. Anyway, I confirmed our intel. The team that guarded Saroun is still split up and calmly going about their business before they leave later today. Whatever they hear about our plans won't be from their station contact. And also, that Caldari dude who got in my face at the Steel Barrel? He's mine."
"Amazing how you always go after your own people, dear," Joreena said.
"They're not my people," Scaara replied and shrugged. "Everyone I meet in this job is a traitor to the State."
"Be that as it may," Kralean said, "Shahoun's team will have a little less support to draw on."
"How much less?" Artenal asked.
"None at all, pretty much," Kralean said. "The faithful many will shun them. And on that note, if we're going to pick our targets from that team, I want the Minmatar woman. She's been making some inquiries and I have reason to believe that despite my efforts, she's managed to assemble a small team of miscreants. I'm not happy with this."
Artenal frowned. It was a perfectly valid reason. Of course it was. And cooperation within the team was good. But in recent missions, Artenal felt, Kralean had been going after Minmatars quite a lot.
"I'm taking on the Gallente guy. We're used to betraying our friends and betters," Asadir said and gave Kardeth a meaningful look that went completely ignored. He continued, "He's the one who knocked us all out. He's a tech-head, so the rest of you wouldn't know what to do with him. I've seen his shopping lists here, and it's interesting stuff. And besides, he put in some things about us in the Guristas dataframe that I'm not too happy about."
"You sure you can handle him?" Joreena said, possibly with the slightest edge of offended racial pride.
"Oh please," Artenal said. "The man uses drones."
Still ignoring the spat, Kralean turned to Scaara and said, "You know, if you go for the Caldari guy, you'll run into Shahoun as well."
"I won't kill him," she said quickly.
"I know you won't. I've got a plan for him..."
A while later they left, each headed their own way, quiet and deadly.