Thanks to Devan Corvel for participating.
Luminaire VII (Caldari Prime) – Moon 6 – Federation Navy Assembly Plant
The comm link was open; her fleet commander was talking.
“Good job today. The Serpentis are down fourteen to our none. You all know the drill: report for debriefing after docking and disconnection.”
Sakaane stretched in her pod while she waited for her ship, a Vexor-class cruiser affectionately named Happy Face of Death in honor of the arrangement of its forward-facing viewports, to be towed into her hangar behind those of her squadmates. Their missions had ended the same way, day in and day out, since she’d graduated that past March and she suspected more than a few of her squadmates were able to do ‘the drill’ in their sleep.
Graduation. The word passed through her mind like a sigh. Four years of study, of sweat and late nights, little sleep, of being hooked up to machines and suffering endless medical tests. Four years of struggling to maintain some sort of life outside the academy, of holding onto memories and motivations. Four years of being terrified she would fail, end up mindlocked or worse, while watching it happen to other classmates. Four years worrying that everything would turn out to be for nothing and she would have to go back to Intaki to an empty house and a ruined life. Sakaane took a shuddering breath. No, she’d made it. She’d pushed through, all so she could call herself a capsuleer.
But. The ceremony had been stiff, boring, and replete with words like “honor”, “duty”, and “glory for the Federation”. A sour taste bit at the back of her throat as she recalled Devan’s oft-repeated talks about how so many capsuleers left the navy after graduation. That day, when she and her classmates had finally proven themselves to be better than the best, the navy had focused more on itself rather than celebrating the achievements of their too-small class of graduates. There’d been palpable desire to retain as many of her class as possible within the navy’s ranks. In retrospect their desperation seemed prescient.
Sakaane shifted restlessly in her pod fluid. Despite the Malkalen disaster and all of Tibus Heth’s insanity that had followed, Sakaane still couldn’t blame those of her classmates who had already left in search of more glorious fortunes. If she could have yawned she would have, but the air mask covering her mouth and nose only permitted a deep sigh. Know the drill indeed. Sure, she had been fighting Serpentis today and that contributed to her goals, but the way the navy rubberstamped the missions and handled them as if the squad was nothing more than a cog in an assembly line made for a boring op. There was no guarantee she’d get to fight them again tomorrow. The better assignments always went to more experienced pilots first, and for the last few months most everyone was usually sent out to fight against the State regardless of seniority.
“Eionell,” the FC said, catching her attention. “Following your debrief, report to my office.”
That was new. She pushed her musings away and flashed her acknowledgment to the channel, following protocol which mandated that only the FC and the designated scout—of which she was neither—were permitted to speak on comms.
Once docked, dressed, and debriefed, Sakaane made her way to his office. “Commander,” she said, knocking lightly on the doorjamb. “You asked to see me?”
“Yes. Come in. Good run out there today?”
“Yes sir, I think so.”
“You’ve settled into your combat role well.” He glanced out the window to the curve of the planet’s horizon. Although it wasn’t visible against the black, she knew he was looking for the State Leviathan. “Good thing.”
“Thank you, sir.”
She watched him manipulate the controls on his desk. Commander Halerit was a career military man, happy to take recent capsuleer graduates under his wing and change them from green academy plebs into seasoned pilots with expert skills. He enjoyed his job to the point of near obsession. If Halerit wasn’t in his office then he was in his capsule, drilling those under his command and pushing them to be ready. If he wasn’t in his pod suit, he was in uniform, and often sported dark aviator glasses. “In this climate,” he frequently said to them, “you can’t be caught with your pants down. The Caldari are out there.”
He brought up her personnel file. “I see you’ve requested a few days of leave to go to Bereye. You seem to travel there often.”
The barest ghost of a smile pulled at her lips. “Yes sir. Personal reasons.”
He nodded absently. Halerit had little interest in or patience for his pilots’ personal lives beyond grudgingly admitting they were entitled to one when not on duty. “You understand leave approvals are all but impossible to get right now? We want to have all personnel active and available at a moment’s notice to handle the State’s shenanigans.”
Her heart sank. “I understand, sir.”
He carried on. “Something’s come up in Mies that I’d like you to handle. If you complete the assignment, I’ll see your leave request is granted.” He sat back in his chair. “We don’t normally operate this way with agents but in this case we’re making an exception. Depart as soon as you’re ready. Travel to the Federal Administration station at planet five, moon seventeen.”
Heart lifting, Sakaane saluted, then hurried to her quarters.
Mies V – Moon 17 – Federal Administration Information Center
About an hour later her ship slid into a berth at the agent’s station. He replied almost immediately to her request to see him. “I’ve been expecting you,” he said. “Please come to my office right away.”
Ophaeghe Aufer was a nervous little man with drooping brown dreadlocks. His huge office dwarfed him; the walls were covered almost entirely by holoscreens, all of them active and crowded with feeds of information. Sakaane glanced at them briefly, noting each seemed to be tracking a different capsuleer, monitoring each for a particular activity.
“My clients,” Aufer said, jerking upright out of his chair as she stepped into the room. “Too much effort to track them all manually.” His eyes flitted over her, blinking when the traditional Intaki headdress covering her forehead caught and reflected the orange light of the holodisplays. He glanced down; she watched him pause for a significant amount of time to stare at the pistol holstered in plain view at her hip. Finally he looked back to her impassive face. “Halerit sent you for that special job, did he? Good, good. Won’t you sit down? Would you like, um, some tea or something?”
She declined politely and remained standing.
“Right.” The man was sweating and wiped his palms first on each other, then on the waist of his vest. “Right. Let’s see here.” He rummaged through files, calling up window after window on the nearest display. Suddenly he blurted, “How are things at home?”
Aufer jerked his head in her general direction. “Intaki. Your headdress and hair gave you away. I haven’t been home for…a long time.”
“Neither have I.”
“Oh.” He bit his lip and continued to rummage. “All right. Here we are.” He sank into his chair and swiveled to face her, wiping his brow. “So. This is… Actually, it’s pretty embarrassing.” His voice dropped so that Sakaane had to step closer to the desk to hear him. “Somebody broke into my brother’s home yesterday and stole his entire gun collection.”
Sakaane raised an eyebrow. “That’s unfortunate. I trust the authorities are investigating the theft.”
Aufer’s eyes widened and he shook his head emphatically. “Oh no! No. It hasn’t been reported. He’ll get into heaps of trouble with his superiors if they find out!”
A cold sense of disapproval seeped into Sakaane’s gut. “Was the thief a capsuleer? A pirate? Am I to pursue and destroy?”
“No, nothing so drastic. It really doesn’t matter who the thief was!” Aufer kept shaking his head. “I want you to help my brother make the problem go away.”
A star chart appeared in the air between them with a particular system highlighted. “Fly over to Wysalan Eight…the FedMart Storage station at moon one. Drop off a new set of weapons for him—they’ll be waiting for you to pick up in your hangar.” He shifted nervously in the chair and stared up at her through the holographic display. His voice cracked when he spoke. “I’ve modified the ID codes on the guns. Nobody will suspect a thing!”
Sakaane crossed her arms. “You want me to help you cover up a theft just to save your brother some heat? You do realize this is just as illegal as the theft itself? Does Commander Halerit know this is what you wanted done?”
At once his face crumpled up. “I was promised unconditional assistance from the navy! I know you have orders, miss!”
Having been about to argue further, Sakaane snapped her mouth shut.
“Did you do it?”
Devan nodded, slowly. “Had to. Orders. They don’t exactly appreciate it when you say no.”
A chill crept over her skin at the memory. After a moment she nodded.
Aufer wiped his hands again. “That’s what I thought. Now—” He turned back to his console and typed rapidly. “There. The weapons will be delivered to your hangar, and I’ve uploaded a bookmark for you to your neocom.” He glanced up; his tongue flicked nervously over his lips. “Go on, then.”
“This stinks, Devan. I don’t like it.”
“I don’t blame you.” She heard his voice clearly inside her head, relayed from the comm unit in her capsule.
“I can’t believe Halerit would send me out here to do this garbage! Since when is the navy at the beck and call of some lowlife agent to do his dirty work? If it was a legitimate theft, what’s the problem? But he was way too nervous for this to be anything but a sneak job.”
She could imagine Devan biting his tongue to keep from making any number of disparaging comments about the navy’s antics, all of which they’d argued about before. Instead he said, “What are you going to do?”
“I haven’t decided yet. Aufer was right: I have orders. And Halerit won’t get my leave approved unless I do this.”
“Gee. That doesn’t sound like a bribe at all.”
She didn’t answer. Having input the security code to the quarters adjacent to her hangar, Sakaane had stepped in and called up the manifest to check Aufer had sent the replacement weapons he wanted delivered. Her jaw hung open as she read the display.
“Sak? You still there?”
“Fifty-four hundred!” she blurted.
“There are nine large crates in my hangar. They’re all labeled ‘small arms’!” Sakaane had the computer recalculate the total volume. The number blinked and remained the same. “Nine crates,” she repeated, “totaling fifty-four hundred meters cubed in cargo space. I don’t know how to fly anything that can haul this!”
“There you go then. Tell Halerit you can’t do the job because you don’t have the skills. He can’t fault you for that, unless he expects you to sit around while the skills compile.”
“Who in their right mind considers nine crates of guns a ‘private collection’?” She stared a moment longer at the display before copying the information onto her personal datapad. “I need to talk to Halerit. This is ridiculous. Hold on a bit, would you?” Setting the channel with Devan to standby, she immediately opened another one to her home station in Luminaire, requesting direct connection to her commanding officer.
He took his time picking up the call. “Yes, Eionell, what is it?”
Sakaane briefly explained and transmitted the data to him. “Something is wrong,” she added. “The agent claimed it’s a private collection but there are enough guns here to equip an army. This job is dirty, sir. The agent is trying to pull something and is hoping I won’t care enough to see through it.”
He was silent a while. “I see.”
“I have possession of the weapons but lack the skills to fly something big enough to move them. Is there a local navy rep I should contact who can handle this further? Shall I contact the DED?”
“You are to deliver the cargo as requested by the agent.”
“Er—what? Sir? No, sir. Don’t you think we should investig—”
“Ensign!” His voice was sharp. “Is your commlink malfunctioning?”
“Think carefully before you answer,” Commander Halerit said, his tone steely. “It’s not just your leave request on the line here. If you disobey my direct order you will be brought up on charges of insubordination. You want to risk a court-martial this soon into your career?”
She fell silent, too stunned to answer.
He must have taken her silence as acquiescence. “Carry out your orders. I look forward to receiving Aufer’s favorable report on your assignment, Ensign.”
Sakaane found her voice. “But I can’t move the cargo myself.”
“I don’t care how you do it. Just get it done.” He closed the channel.
She sat in silence on the couch after that, contemplating the datapad’s display of Aufer’s request, turning it all over in her head, and trying to calm the sick churning in her stomach. What to do?
Another sigh passed through her. Only one choice.
“Can you meet me, say, in half an hour? Bring something big enough for this.”
He was incredulous. “You’re going to do the job?”
“I have orders. I’ll be court-martialed if I disobey them.”
“They can’t make you carry out orders that are unethical or illegal! That’s the right of any solider or officer. If they court-martial you for following your conscience they’ll be breaking so many of their own standards it’s not even funny!”
“I know. Will you please meet me here?”
His exasperated sigh transmitted over the channel. “Yes, all right. See you soon.”
Sakaane tossed the datapad onto the coffee table and then accessed the region’s star charts, flipping through a list of nearby systems until she found what she wanted. Satisfied, she added a bookmark to her neocom.
When Devan arrived she was waiting for him in her Vexor, her crew briefed and on standby. As soon as he was fully docked she initiated the cargo transfer to him.
“What station in Wysalan did you say these are to be delivered to?” he asked when they finally undocked, his voice flat.
“Doesn’t matter. We aren’t going there.” She called up her bookmarks and set a destination. “Align to Bereye gate.”
“Where are we going?”
As their ships entered warp together she wondered if her smile carried over the comm channel. “We’re going to make sure I get a court-martial.”
Everyshore Region – Giatole Constellation – Elarel System
“You know we’re in low-security space, right? No CONCORD.”
“Mhmm. I saw the warning before we jumped from Bille.” Her heart rate picked up; she hadn’t been on her own in lowsec since her flight from Intaki in the wrecked Griffin. How long ago was that? Four years. It feels like a lifetime ago. “Let’s not linger.” She picked an asteroid belt at random and warped them both to it.
“You’ll get flagged to TGPI,” Devan said, sounding relieved as he caught on.
“Are you hiding a set of turrets on that Iteron somewhere?” she teased.
“Well…no. But you know Eric has such an itchy trigger finger and he is kind of a cloaker freak. He could be watching us right now!”
“I’m going to tell him you called him a freak.”
He laughed, but then grew serious as the asteroid belt loomed into view and they re-entered normal space. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes. Halerit must be in on it. He has a reputation for being by the book on everything else, so for him to push me on this when it’s so clearly a dirty job… He must know what’s really going on.”
“For all you know these weapons are destined for some ground assault force planning to infiltrate the State, or take back Luminaire Seven.”
“That doesn’t explain why the navy isn’t moving supplies through normal channels. They have other, legit ways to do their cloak and dagger crap. If this was legit they wouldn’t be asking me to do it. If they trusted me to do it they wouldn’t lie to me about it, or set me up to take the fall if something goes sideways. Pop it.”
A moment later a cargo container appeared next to Devan’s ship. She set her camera drones on it and watched as it turned slowly end over end.
“If Halerit won’t allow me to refuse the order, then all I can do is force him to bring me up on charges. That’ll get this out in the open.”
“So long as you’re sure.”
She targeted the can. “I’m sure.”
Mies V – Moon 17 – Federal Administration Information Center
Aufer’s face had gone a mottled purple-red. “What do you mean, ‘the crates were destroyed’?!”
Sakaane shrugged and spread her hands helplessly, adopting a dismayed expression. “System-wide malfunction, I’m afraid. Somehow the cargo was jettisoned and while I was trying to get it scooped back my IFF protocols scrambled. Suddenly I was presented with a Strain Annihilator Alvum with active lock. As it appeared I was being aggressed, I initiated fire only to find the opponent to be a rapidly expanding cloud of dust after just one volley. It was then I realized what had happened.”
His mouth opened and closed several times. Gone was the nervous fellow she’d met earlier; Ophaeghe Aufer was straight-backed, hands resting lightly on the desk before him with fingers laced together, eyes glowering at her. No longer sweating either, he seemed to dominate the room from his seat in the plush office chair, rather than the reverse.
She stood her ground, gazing calmly at him. Go on, call me a liar.
“I would hate to believe,” he said slowly, “that our fair Federation could produce such shoddy equipment for our pilots to defend us with. What a strange coincidence to have that many issues at one time. What ship did you say you were transporting my cargo in?”
“I don’t believe I did say.”
His hands balled into fists and he stood up. Sakaane shifted her weight and casually rested the palm of her right hand on the handgrip of her sidearm.
Aufer eyed the weapon but remained standing behind his desk. “I’m very disappointed with this result. For failing this mission you’ve earned a black mark with Federal Admin, young lady. You’ll not find work with us again anytime soon!”
“Is that so?”
His face darkened even more and she expected he would shout at her. “The navy promised me they would send their best, and this is what I get? Rest assured your superiors will hear of this!”
Sakaane nodded and smiled at him. “I look forward to that. Suprab nahi, Mr. Aufer.” Then she turned on her heel and walked out.
Luminaire VII (Caldari Prime) – Moon 6 – Federation Navy Assembly Plant
Sakaane took her time disconnecting. Happy Face of Death floated quietly in its berth; for the first time, all her crew had long since disembarked before she summoned the pod gantry to extract her. She’d let them know chances were good they would shortly be unemployed, then paid out their contracts. Most of them, she figured, were probably relieved to be getting off “the egger’s” ship.
Not for the first time she thought about her original crew, lost in Tierijev just a month prior when her current Vexor’s namesake had been destroyed. At least this crew won’t end up like that one…
The neocom registered all green and she felt the slight jolt that meant the capsule was now connected to the station. But before sending the necessary commands she carefully composed her mission report, outlining in detail everything she had done and why, including her deception to the agent, and submitted it. Then she waited for the capsule to crack open; the containment fluid drained away with a woosh, leaving her wet and shivering on the deck.
She showered, dressed, and took care to put her hair up in the traditional Intaki fanned style. Her headdress was spotless but she polished it anyway before donning it. She examined her uniform carefully, flicking away invisible bits of fluff.
Finally, there could be no more delay.
Time to face the music.
She passed other officers going about their business as she made her way to Commander Halerit’s office. If they knew her they exchanged greetings; otherwise nothing seemed amiss. But now she looked at everything just a bit differently, and wondered, What are they really up to?
The hall to her commander’s office was empty. She approached his door, the cold grip of anxiety tight around her chest, only to find the nameplate blank and the lights within dark. The door opened when she pressed the chime, revealing nothing more than an empty desk and chair. Everything was gone.
“Something you need, Ensign?”
She jumped at the voice, spinning around and coming face to face with someone she didn’t know. But the bars on his uniform indicated he was a colonel, so she snapped to attention and saluted.
“Just looking for Commander Halerit, sir.”
The colonel pulled out his own datapad and flicked through it. “Halerit. Your CO? Seems he’s been reassigned. Replacement should transfer in tomorrow at 0800. You’ll receive orders then.”
She stared, dumbfounded. “Uh. Thank you, sir.”
He started to walk away.
“Wait! Sir?” She hurried to catch up. “Sorry to bother you sir.”
He stopped and looked expectantly at her.
“I submitted a report tonight about a mission Commander Halerit sent me on. The circumstances were…dubious. I had wanted to request an inquiry…”
“Hmm.” He flicked expertly through his datapad again, then examined the nameplate on her uniform, and frowned down at the display. “There is no report submitted from you with today’s datestamp. You’re sure you filed it properly?”
“Yes, sir. No different than any other report.”
“Well, there’s nothing here. Send a request down to IT. Nothing to be done without your report filed. Carry on.”
He left her standing in the hallway. After he’d gone, she pulled out her datapad and checked for her report.
The colonel was right: the logs showed nothing.