Nedar watched through his screen as the enemy ship burst into flames. It was done; it was finally done. This Serpentis meetup point would be safe, at least for a while.
He turned to his second-in-command, an intent and serious man named Raze, and said, "There are two encrypted messages waiting on my personal line. One is to Command, the other is not. Send them both." Raze nodded, gave a sharp salute, and left.
"Sir, sir, look! Reinforcements!"
"Oh, thank heavens," Nedar said. The capsuleer was pounding their ships. Half of the man's drones were gone, thanks to Eron's sacrifice, and his ship looked like it was falling apart, but he was still tearing Nedar and his compatriots to pieces.
In popped three Serpentis ships, providing webifyers, warp scramblers and target jammers.
"Tell them to go directly for the pilot. We'll deal with the rest of these drones."
Raze got on the intercom. The ships set course for the capsuleer's frigate.
Eron came in close, as was his usual tactic, and the capsuleer started to web his ship. Over the intercom, the crew aboard Nedar's vessel heard Eron's feedback. "All right, I'm going to need some backup once I start rotating him, and-... wait, what ... I can't break his lock! I can't break his lock!"
As Nedar watched on the overhead display, the capsuleer released a group of drones, all of whom went directly for Eron's ship. The capsuleer was still firing at Eron, past his shields and now into armor, burning it away and getting close to the hull.
"Focus on the drones, people!" Nedar said. "We let them loose, we can forget about winning this."
"And Eron, sir?" Raze asked in a quiet voice.
"Eron will buy us some time," Nedar replied, equally quietly.
In front of them, the capsuleer and his drones continued to rend Eron's ship apart, until at last it exploded in a fiery blaze.
They were being pummelled. Overhead, the ship's speakers crackled. It was Fremer. "I'm going down!" he shouted.
Nedar switched the view over to Fremer's ship. It was falling to bits under the capsuleer's fire, but stayed on course.
"Fremer, get out of there," Nedar said.
"No. No retreat," Fremer said.
"I mean it, get out! We'll deal with the brass later."
"Sorry, man," Fremer said. "Tell Marsha I love her."
Nedar had to choke back his emotion. "I ... will. Absolutely."
As his friend went up in blazes, Nedar turned on the intercom again and said, "Eron, you're lagging behind. Get your ass in there right now and deal with it."
The speakers crackled a "Sir!" in response.
We're about to head into battle, Nedar wrote, and I cannot go any further with you. I am so sorry. He was sitting in his cramped quarters, his frigate en route to the meetup point. If the capsuleer's combat pattern held, he'd be coming there shortly after. Intelligence indicated that all they needed was one proper victory, one good offensive, and the assailant would never return.
We are going alone into these dark places, and it has become too dangerous for anyone to follow. After we're done here, if we make it out alive at all, the game changes. I will be envied and hated. There will be people out for my blood and I cannot, I will not, let you get caught in the crossfire. I'm going to be associating with some very dangerous people from now on, and if they find out that you're connected to me, they might decide to harm you. I couldn't bear having that happen. Take care, Aredia.
He pondered what else to add, but felt completely empty. They'd had some good times, and she'd been of great help to him, but that was about it.
He saved the letter, ensured that it was encrypted and prepared it for delivery along with a status note to Command, but did not send it. Once they'd emerged victorious from the battle he'd have them transmitted, but not until then.
It was the day of the attack, in the docking ports, and Raze came running after Nedar. "Sir!" he shouted, "Wait, sir!"
"Raze, for gods' sakes," Nedar said. "Use my name. We're going into combat in a few hours, and the last thing anyone wants to hear before dying is an honorific."
"Sorry about that," Raze said, trying to catch his breath. "Got your message this morning. Just finished the tech runs. You were right. Current redirected in an engine subsection. I'd never have caught it if you hadn't asked for deep checks."
Nedar rubbed his eyes. "Great. Wonderful. Just what we needed."
"Who was it?" Raze asked.
Nedar glared at him. "What makes you think I know?"
"You asked for these checks, so I know you suspected something. Who was responsible?"
"Does it matter?" Nedar said. "We found the error, Raze."
"It matters and you know it. We don't have time to report this, not now, with all the bureaucracy and issues that'd arise. I'm not giving up my chance to go after the capsuleer, and I'm sure as hell not going to do it with a cutthroat flying somewhere beside me."
"Look, we ... ah, hell," Nedar said. "It was Eron. Or someone from his crew. I don't know if he'd had the knowhow to do it himself, but he'll have given the order."
"No bloody news there," Raze said, his face red from anger. "Man's been at your throat for ages."
"He has. I just wish it hadn't come to this," Nedar said.
"Well, it has. And now we need to retaliate."
"Anyone who does something like that doesn't deserve to live. I'm sorry, but it's that simple. I'm going over there, and I'm going to break his ECMs. He won't find out until he starts them."
"You know I can do this," Raze said. "I've got engineering background, I run all the checks on our ship, and I know exactly what to do with an ECM to make it conk out. All I need is your permission."
Nedar leaned up against the metal wall, and looked up at silent stars. "All right," he said at last. "All right. Do it."
As he returned to his quarters, thinking about the attack tomorrow morning, Nedar noticed Fremer, and walked over to him.
"Hey there," Nedar said.
"Oh, hey. You still up?"
"Yeah, had to take care of some business. Listen, uh ... about what you mentioned earlier, with the guys. Are you quite serious about this?"
Fremer scratched the back of his head. "Yes. As a matter of fact I am."
They started walking towards Fremer's section of the compound. "When on earth did this happen?" Nedar asked him.
"Well, quite recently."
"Were you drunk? Tell me you were drunk."
"Mmm, well, uh ... no. No, I wasn't," Fremer said in a reproachful tone.
Nedar stopped, and grabbed him by the shoulders. "Please tell me you're not going to see this woman again. Please. For the love of all that is holy, please."
Fremer stammered, avoided Nedar's gaze, and scratched his neck again. "Her name is Marsha," he uttered at last.
"Oh, for gods' sakes!" Nedar yelled, and stalked away from him.
As he walked towards his own quarters, he heard Fremer call to him, "I've never felt anything quite like this!"
"Neither would if, if I'd done what you have!" Nedar yelled back, before he crossed out of earshot.
Nedar had just returned from the docking ports, and was settling down in his cabin when he received a message. It was encrypted, and not from Command. He smiled, and opened it.
It was from Aredia, who wished him good luck on his mission, and said she looked forward to hearing from him whenever he had time. She mentioned that he shouldn't worry, for even if everything would go wrong he'd still have her, and she'd use her contacts to ensure that his career wouldn't get derailed. She ended the letter by mentioning the butterflies she got when thinking of him, and said, with a little wink, "I just hope your wife doesn't find out."
He smiled again and deleted the message, then started writing a new one to Raze.
"We need to talk," Eron said.
"Sure," Nedar replied. He was on his way back to the living quarters, after an evening spent with the captains of the frigates set for next day's mission. He felt relaxed and calm, and had managed to go a full fifteen minutes without thinking of Fremer's revelation.
"Your wife is meeting with the Furies," Eron said.
Nedar kept walking, but slowed down his pace. "What are you saying?"
"Everyone knows what this mission will do for our careers, and I don't blame anyone who wants to take advantage of that. But this is wrong, Nedar. This is deeply wrong."
"How so?" Nedar said, in as neutral a tone as he could muster.
"These women are absolute terrors. They've held countless families in an iron grip for as long as I can remember. Now they've lost one from their ranks and finally have a weak spot, and we should be taking advantage of that."
"And I'm not doing that?"
"Damnit, will you stop with the questions! We can make a change here, Nedar. We truly can. But if your wife joins up with the Furies then it's all going to turn to ruin."
"Eron, are you honestly saying that the Serpentis should have revolt and treachery over strong leadership?"
Eron spat. "Not even the Serpentis deserve these women."
"Be that as it may, I'm not changing a thing. Maybe Scyldie is talking to them, maybe she isn't. But if she joins their ranks, I certainly wouldn't be disappointed."
"We will have to have a long talk about this after the mission is over," Eron said.
"There is nothing to talk about!" Nedar yelled at him. "This is how it is, Eron! Either you accept that or you don't, but your opinion on this matter really doesn't count for anything at all."
Eron said, "I'm sorry to hear that. I guess I'll just have to make it count," and stalked off.
Nedar stared after him, slowly clenching and unclenching his fists, until he was out of sight. He stood there for a long while, thinking in silence under the aimless gaze of the stars. Eventually he turned and walked off, not to the living quarters but to the docking ports. He had some currents to redirect.
The captains were sitting together, shooting the breeze and trying to relax. The night before battle always gave people the jitters, and this was worse than they'd ever faced. Regular pirate crews didn't usually pick fights with capsuleers - that task was best left to their factions' own small, elite cadre of pod pilots, or to the unlucky few assigned that duty as punishment - but for a mortal captain it was one of the best ways to win glory and respect in his organization. This particular capsuleer was considered a low-grade threat to their interests, an amateur at best, but an amateur capsuleer was still an incredibly dangerous creature. It was a secret surprisingly well-kept from the general public of the pirate factions that a head-to-head encounter with a capsuleer of even moderate talents was practically a death sentence.
So at one point, they started talking about girls they'd slept with. Nedar, piously married, refused to comment.
"Oh, come on," Eron said with something approaching rebuke. "You've got a girl on the side, I'm sure."
Nedar just grinned at that, and Eron grinned back. The conversation moved on, but to Nedar's mind, Eron stared at him for a little too long.
"Okay, okay, here," someone said. "What's the oldest you ever slept with?"
"Oh, come on!" said another.
"No, no, it's good," Eron commented. "Let's go with it." He laughed, and Nedar laughed with him.
"I've got one," Fremer said. The others immediately stopped talking, and listened. Fremer, that guileless animal, was a good captain but had about as much social intuition as a Fedo. He wasn't known to ever have been with a woman, and most people present would have bet their right eye that he never would.
"When was this?" someone asked in disbelief.
"Just recently, in fact," Fremer replied, little twitches of his mouth forming ephemeral smiles. When no one could think of anything to say, he added, "Eighty two."
Eron choked on his drink. Nedar felt his jaw drop.
"... what?" someone managed, at last.
Fremer sat up straight, defiant and blushing furiously. "Eighty two."
There was utter, dead silence in the room. Nedar could feel his heartbeat. Someone finally asked, "So, uh, was she hot?"
"She was eighty two!" Fremer said in exasperation, and his voice sounded raspy and frail.
And there they might have sat for all eternity, overcome with the vast thoughts of human endeavour, but Nedar couldn't resist. "So ... was it alright?"
"Oh yeah," Fremer said and smiled like an idiot. "She was very gentle."
He was in a call with his wife.
"So how's the mood?" she asked.
"It's pretty good. We're about to meet up for some drinks, chat a bit, you know. Lose the stress."
"Does that even work?"
"Not really. It passes the time, keeps us from getting even more nervous."
"How do you feel about the mission?" Scyldie asked him.
"About the same as you do going to the Furies, I suspect," he said with an exaggerated tremor, which she laughed at. "I love your laughter," he said.
"Thanks," she said demurely, and added, "Anyway, it's all for the good. We both succeed and we'll be on our way to power and happiness. No more insane, crazy risk missions. No more seeing that bitch Aredia."
Now it was his turn to laugh. "She's been very useful," he said, in a teasing tone of voice. "And you know she's going to be vital if either one of us gets burned."
"Oh, I'm sure she's been useful," Scyldie replied, "in all sorts of ways."
"Shame that we can't take her with us," Nedar said
"You have made sure that she won't be coming after us?" Scyldie admonished.
Nedar hesitated. "I will. I'll write her a letter and send it once the mission's a success," he said.
"I don't meddle in the way you conduct your affairs, such as they are," Scyldie said in a teasing tone, "But are you sure that once you break things off, she won't reveal everything?"
"Nah, it'll be fine. I'll write the letter in a sincere tone that'll throw her off, even if she does suspect the truth. And I'll hint quite heavily that revealing the tryst would get her into serious trouble. If she ignores that, I'll just have to have her killed."
"Pity," Scyldie said. "By the way, you really haven't told me anything about the mission, except for the target. I'm dead curious. I hope you're well prepared."
"Don't be so nosy, nosy girl," he replied in the same teasing tone, but he felt the darkness behind his voice. "It'll be fine."
"You sure, baby?" she asked.
"I have to be," he said with a sigh.
"All right," Scyldie said. "Take good care, and we'll be in touch tomorrow night."
"You bet," he said and impulsively added, "I love you. You're like a summer breeze in this cold and weary life."
She was stopped short by that, but at last replied, "I love you too, honey. I'm grateful every day for having found you, and for the fact that you became a pilot and not a writer," and hung up while he was still laughing.