Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Mouse That Squeaked

        “We’re going to face extreme peril … Private probably won’t survive.”
         -- Skipper, Madagascar

The corporate office was as small as I remembered it from the last time. Small, but admittedly cozy. Usually we didn't spend much time here, being pilots, but boss woman had called for a pow-wow - hopefully to tell us that we could move out of the exercise phase into the execution phase. She wasn't there yet, though, and I took advantage of the situation by digging into a selection of pastries from a seller I had discovered just a few days earlier. They were light, flaky, not too sweet, and went really well with coffee as second breakfast. Or midnight snack. I did tend to lose track of time.

The shuffle of boots on synthetic carpet fiber drew my attention, and I looked up to see Myra emerge out of a doorway. Unlike spoiled me, she didn't mind staying in the spartan corp-owned quarters. Getting herself a cup of coffee as well, she sat down next to me, looking askance at my baked goodies. I pushed the paper bag towards her a bit, and happily she took one.

"Listen, I've been thinking," she said without preamble between bites, "Did you mean what you said yesterday evening?"

I grabbed another pastry, stalling for time while trying to remember what I had said... Oh. That.


"In that case," she gestured with her pastry at me, "you won't mind to stop calling me 'Kiddo' at every opportunity."

"Careful where you point that!" I pushed her pastry-armed hand aside. "And if I remember correctly, you started it."

She chewed on her lip. "Guess I did." Another bite of pastry found its delicious end. "If you stop, I stop. Deal?"

"Deal, Ki-", I saw her tense up, "-tten."

Here eyes narrowed, then she chuckled, formed a claw with her free hand and took a mock swipe at me, while hissing ferociously.

A discrete cough drew both our attentions to the other side of the table, where now our employer was sitting. Damn, that woman was sneaky!

"If you two are quite finished with your bonding," Miss Phage began with a hint of amusement, "then maybe we could get some real work done?It won’t take long.“

My ears perked up, pastries and kittens forgotten. "Real work? We are finally a 'go'?"

"Yes we are.” She prodded at her data pad. "I have selected our targets, financing is arranged, paperwork is ready for filing, and your simulation reports look good. Ships?”

“Staged and fitted.” I confirmed. “We should have enough, but if not…”

“…then we can buy more.” completed Miss Phage the sentence. “You know the initial deployment plan - I expect you to be in position once CONCORD acknowledges the paperwork.” A cruel smile played around her lips. “And from there on out I’ll leave it in your capable hands to achieve the objectives.” A thought occurred to her: “Oh, and Myra - I’d like you to prepare a couple of cyno frigates. Nothing to do with this operation, but we might have to give a hand in ferrying a capital around.”

“You got it.” acknowledged Myra.

“With that, ” Miss Phage leaned back, “there is just one thing I need to cover.” She mustered us both. "Last chance to change your minds."

I held her gaze for a few seconds, then muttered, “People keep saying that to me..."


"Usually I tell them to shut it." I grinned. "Usually it also means that it’s going to end badly, so why break the streak now?"

"Minuscule chance of success," clarified Myra happily, "almost certainty of public welp." She finished her pastry. "What are we waiting for?"

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Team-Building Exercises

        “Good! Adaptation, Improvisation. But your weakness is not your technique.”
         -- Morphius training Neo, The Matrix

We were back in space. Naturally, as that’s where pilots were supposed to be. Station-life, even with its constant threat of permanent injury and death once you left the safe confines of the capsuleer-only levels, was nothing in comparison. There was nothing like it.

Except, maybe, driving a Walker, but I knew myself well enough to not give in to that temptation. And even Myra seemed to have forgotten about that part of her life, considering how she took to scouting like the natural she was. It had felt odd for me to rely on somebody else again to achieve an objective, but after the first few sorties we had started to gel and I found myself actually enjoying the team work. It definitely had helped Myra’s mood, seeing that I wasn’t replacing her in her role, but merely complementing it. And maybe it was her mercurial nature, but her initial cool stance had turned into an almost working relationship.

'Almost'… there was still some tension I couldn’t quite put my finger on, and for some reason it bugged me. Not that it would matter in a couple of weeks, when this operation would be over and we’d be going our separate ways again, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something.

Our fleet comms came alive, and Myra’s voice pulled me out of my idle musings.

[ I am closing in. Primary target will be Takane Manaka, Harbinger, secondary target will be Alarra Doshu, Drake. Time to intercept… 40 seconds. ]

I focused. Timing was not quite everything in this endeavor, but a big part of it. Silently I counted down the seconds, while aligning to her position.

Thirty seconds - I killed my cloak.

[ I am in range - waiting for mark. ]

I kicked my warp drive into gear, and kept an eye on the countdown of the distance. Other more organized pilots probably would have calculated this down to the milli-second, but me being me, I flew by the seat of my slip.

“Mark!”, I announced.

[ Uncloaking…] three seconds passed, [ Point Secondary.]

Our timing was good enough: I dropped out of warp right at her announcement, when the targets attention was focused on her, giving me time to lay a point on the primary, catching him unaware. Or at least that was the theory - in a few seconds we’d see how it would work in practice. My hull cameras activated first, showing me the Harbinger and the Drake flying in close formation, Myra’s tackler buzzing at high speed around the Drake, evading its missiles, while the field was littered with the wrecks of two or three Sansha squadrons.

My sensors punched through the last interference from the warp, the targeting computer spent interminable seconds on resolving the lock, and as one my offensive systems went active: missiles sped towards the battlecruiser, narrowly missing the ECM drones headed in the same direction. My disruptor shut down his warp drive, and the blackness of space between us lit up with red wavering streams of energy as my neutralizers shut down his active tank. He was taking damage, and he was taking it fast.

[ Taking damage now.] announced Myra on comms. [ Damn Drones! ]

This wasn’t completely unexpected: while her ship was small enough to evade most damage from the Drake’s heavy missiles, the drones were eager to make up the difference. And they were good at it, which meant that Myra might have to bail sooner than expected. Watching the Harbinger’s telemetry, I willed my missiles to go faster, explode harder, but even with its tank disabled, the ship had a sizable amount of armor for me to chew threw. Too much armor.

[ Sorry! ]

Myra’s engines lit up, and seconds later she was gone, and not a moment to soon: the last volleys had put her into deep structure. A warning flickered on my virtual display as the Drake finally realized that my Cyclone was the bigger threat on the field, and started lobbying its missiles at me.

But it was too late to save the Harbinger: one volley, and compartments vented into space. Another, and the reactor’s containment failed, obliterating the Harbinger in a bright blue explosion. But there was no time to celebrate the victory: the Drake was making headway into my shield, and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to survive a protracted battle against that flying brick. With a quick command, my Cyclone swung towards our safe spot, and seconds later my warp drive rumbled into action.

As the warp tunnel engulfed my ship, unbidden lines of text appeared on my virtual sight:

        Simulation: Mission Ambush
        Kills: 1/2
        Losses: 0/2
        Overall Score: 50%

Layers of electronic pretension fell away, and my ship felt again like the Purifier it was, and not the battlecruiser the simulation had required it to be. And somewhere out there, two missioning ships continued to pursue their trade, blissfully unaware that they had just been the subject of a live-navigation exercise.

[ Well, Grandma, ] Myra spoke up on comms, [ that could have gone better: the Drake got away. ]

“The Drake was always a long shot, flying brick it is.”, I countered. “More important is that we got the Harbinger, and survived to tell the tale. Unlike a certain previous run-through, if I may remind you.”

[ You may not! …not that that’ll stop you. ]

“Damn right, Kiddo!”

She sighed theatrically, then asked [ Again? ]

Already her frigate was setting a course towards the next star gate.

“Again.” I confirmed, and my Purifier became a Cyclone once more.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Leave of Absence

        “I knew he was trying to kill us!”
        “This is a surprise? Didn’t you read your employee handbook?”
         -- The Whiteboard

I double checked the address on my pad - yep, this was it: a small, unassuming corporate office, on one of the lower office levels of this station. Clearly a temporary office, which wasn’t too surprising considering the clandestine nature of my completed assignment. Triggering my pad, it transmitted a key code to the door’s receiver, hopefully convincing the electronic locks to allow me access. For a second or two nothing happened, then with silent authority the door slid back and I stepped through.

Inside, an empty reception room awaited me, and a voice from the room behind the reception called to me to just come through. I walked the few steps, knowing full well that the emptiness of the room was deceiving: hidden security systems had me in their cross sight and could easily render me incapacitated with a wide range of lethality. Having a receptionist these days was mostly a matter of courtesy, if you were a corp doing public business, which this wasn’t.

Stepping into the main room, I saw that it had been arranged into the combination of a briefing and common room, taking advantage of the flexibility these kind of offices offered to their renters. Taking a quick inventory of the room - comfortable seats arranged around a table, a couple of doorways leading to further rooms, a large display screen on one of the walls, food units, but sadly no viewport to the outside - I enjoyed the change from the stark offices and quarters preferred by the 24th Imperial Crusade. Not that I spent much time in them in the first place.

Sitting in one of the seats, leaned forward and emanating a very business-like aura, was my employer. I chose a seat across from her, put the pad onto the table, and slid it over to her.

“The information you requested, Miss Phage.”

“Thank you.” She took up the pad, her DNA signature unlocking its encrypted storage, and started perusing the contents. After a a minute or two she looked up. “Very good, that is exactly what I was looking for. Obviously I will have to…”

She was briefly distracted when one of the doors to the other rooms opened and allowed a young Minmatar into the room. Immediately the description “punk” settled into my mind, even though she was clearly a capsuleer. But apart from the spinal plugs, the image fit: a bright red mohawk, at least a decade younger than me, worn leather pants tucked into calf-high boots, t-shirt in a bright red-black color pattern, surprisingly simple tattoo for her heritage, and a glare which promised me an unpleasant experience should I ever cross her. And that in her opinion, even being here was already toeing the line.

I sighed inwardly: this would be a piece of work.

As the punk sat down at the table, Miss Phage picked up her line of thought again: “As I said, obviously I will have to look into this more closely, but what I have seen, does match and complement the intel had Myra here has gathered.”

My respect for the Ni-Kunni rose: using more than one recon pilot was a smart move, especially if they didn’t all know about each other. And now I had a name - “Myra” - and not for the first time I wished that I had gotten some of my old implants for direct net access reactivated, regulations be damned.

My thoughts must have reflected on my face - or she was freakishly good at reading body language .

“Don’t bother, Grandma,” she said suddenly, her voice soft yet cold. “You’ll be lucky to find anything from me in the official records. I don’t fly much anymore.”

‘Grandma’, hm? I turned to her. “And why not, kiddo?”

“Not really your business,” she replied sharply. “But if you’re questioning my qualifications: I fly enough to still give you a run for your money, plus I am qualified for Mechanized Warfare Operations.” When the term didn’t immediately register with me, she added with a slight hint of exasperation: “’Walkers’.”

I let that settle for a moment. ‘Walkers’, as the two-legged machines of ground warfare were colloquially known, were a sure discussion starter between military experts and wannabes alike. Some liked them for the ability to scale difficult terrain while carrying tremendous firepower, others argued not without reason that a combined arms approach of tanks, infantry and air strikes achieved the same results for less maintenance overhead. Mercenary corporations loved them for the effect of sheer terror their presence could inflict on hostiles.

And driving one - especially the small ones - carried the very real chance of final, ultimate death.

I looked at Myra. “Respect.”, I said, letting my voice reflect the sincerity of my opinion. She held my gaze for a few seconds, then nodded slightly, and her demeanor relaxed.

Miss Phage had followed our conversation while still paging through the information on the pad, but apart from a strange smile hadn’t commented on it overtly. Now she sat up a bit straighter, laid the pad onto the table and pointed at one particular entry.

“What is that?”, she asked. “’List of Recommended Ships’?”

“I took a guess at what you had in mind,” I explained, “and had a couple of ideas of what ships I would want fly.” I glanced at Myra. “Since I didn’t know what other pilots you had available…”

My voice trailed out, and she mustered me. “Would you like to fly these ships in the operation?”, she asked eventually.

That was the question I had asked myself over the last weeks, and I had found that there could be only one answer. “That’s why I made that list.”

Myra raised her head in surprise and looked at me, but said nothing.

“You realize that people won’t like you.”, asked Miss Phage. “That this operation is likely to fail and humiliate you in public. And of course you can’t remain in the Militia for the duration.”

I had thought about all that already. “People don’t exactly like me as it is;”, I replied calmly, “public failure is nothing new to me; and I bet you already know that I have retired from the Militia today.” I shrugged. “They don’t care - I can always come back to them.”

“Indeed I have noticed.”, she replied, a wry smile playing around her lips. I looked at her, and suddenly it clicked and I narrowed my eyes.

“You knew that I’d join in voluntarily!” I pointed my index finger at her for emphasis. "This was just a test!"

“A bit of a test," she allowed, "but know? No.” Again this wry smile. “But I had good reason to believe that you would.”

Miss Phage glanced at Myra, who had looked at me throughout the whole exchange with an enigmatic expression, and was now silently nodding agreement.

“Excellent.” She entered some data into her pad, then stood up and held out her hand, which I grasped in an old-fashioned hand shake.

“Welcome to Hazardous Goods.”

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Two Drinks Minimum

        "Lights! Camera! Anguish!" -- Rob "Tyger" Rubin

Taking a sip from my plain latte, I looked around the room from my sister. Her message directing me to this locale had been as telling as it had been cryptic - "Bar! Now!" - but even given the only figurative meaning of "Now" in the age of interstellar travel vagaries, it was unusual for her to be late.

I finished my cup, and almost immediately a waiter materialized.

"Another one, Ma'am?", he asked, efficiently shifting my empty cup onto his serving plate.

"Yes, please.", I agreed.

"I take one, too.", said Eta's voice over my shoulder. "Hello, Sis."

She sat down heavily across from me, barely containing a burning anguish. "No sugar, no milk. But add some brandy. Hold the coffee. And make it two."

"Very well." the waiter took it in stride as if her order wasn't anything out of the ordinary. "Anything else?"

I shook my head, and the waiter vanished, only to return a minute later to place two glasses of brandy before Eta. Sturdy low ball glasses, correctly reading her mood.

She took one glass and downed it one gulp, and slammed it onto the table.

"We surrendered!", she said bitterly. "We fraking surrendered! To the tune of one point two Billion ISK."

I pulled in a sharp breath through my teeth. "Ouch. Why this sudden change in mind?"

"Apparently because we had losses in a recent fight which amounted to about a Billion as well." She pulled out her pad and pushed it over. "See for yourself."

I took a look at the record, and nodded. "Two Command Ships and a Drake. And a shiny pod - yep, that'd do it. All shot up by a gaggle of T3s and a Navy Mega.”

"Don't forget the Maller." she pointed out. "Calcinus thinks that he was the bait to spring the trap." She took a sip from her second glass. "Not that anyone tells us anything."

"But why the surrender?" I gestured towards the pad. "Yes, it was an expensive loss, but you live and learn, and next time bring cheaper ships. It's still only ISK lost, not ISK they gained."

"Apparently leadership is concerned about the height of the losses," she mocked, "and was justifiably afraid that the war would be extended beyond this week.

"And yes, it is a pain having to look over your shoulder all the time, and yes, I'm lucky with my timezone and that I can do my stuff in cloaky haulers, and yes, my POS almost was lost this weekend if not for a lucky null-sec contact, but Damn!" she glared at me, "I was able to run reactions in hostile lo-sec by myself for a year before I burnt out, and as an Alliance we don't even last a single week?!"

Grumbling she took a swallow, and I let her calm down a bit before asking the followup question.

"And now?"

"Well, the war has been dropped, and if previous victims are to believed, these guys are just serial hi-sec griefers: extort one target, move on to the next." She shrugged. "We'll know in two weeks when the blackout period ends." She stared at her glass. "Hate their kind. Bastards."

I took a taste of my coffee, which by now had materialized as well.

"What annoys me most, however," she continued, "is the abysmal communication. If we didn't get the CONCORD notifications anyway, I wouldn't even had known that we had surrendered."

"It may be partly my fault", she allowed, "as maybe I should have tried to participate in Alliance politics more, despite being stretched thin. But usually, by the time I get to jack in, all important things have already been said and done." She took an angry swallow. "If only somebody would tell me afterwards what had been said and done!

"Like the rumors about a plan to rent ratting rights in a null-sec system," - I raised an eyebrow, but didn't interrupt - "it would be nice to get a definite 'No' or 'Yes' on that one." She emptied her glass.

I caught the eye of the waiter and glanced meaningfully in Eta's direction.

"What are you going to do then?", I asked carefully. "Take the Flyers and leave?"

"Break away?" She laughed mirthfully. "You don't know me very well if you think that I give up that easily! - Thanks." The last was directed at the waiter.

"Besides," she continued more soberly, "small as the Flyers are, we are still heavily invested in both the area and the Alliance, and I simply neither want to rebuild that kind of relationship from scratch elsewhere, nor do we have the resources to do so. No," she shook her head, "I'll simply have to try to get involved more again, ask more, keep the young bucks on their toes, and watch how it develops."

She held up her glass, and looked at me through it. "However, I wouldn't be surprised if some other people went their own ways." She took a sip. "It is no longer the Alliance you left last year."