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