“That’s ok. Sometimes we need a break from you, too.”
Sweat ran down my face as I dropped the empty magazine from my blaster rifle and clicked a new one home. Further down the obstacle course, a combat drone weaved in and out of cover, waiting for me to get out from behind this obstacle. No way I could defeat it from here, but if I could flank it… without a second thought I turned the corner, fired two unaimed shots to make the drone duck back, and broke into a sprint to the nearest obstacle to the side. Sliding to a stop added a few bruises to my skin, but I smiled: it was nice to be back at normal weight and proportions. Now if only I could make it to the next cover… I got moving again: turn the corner, two cover shots, another sprint, and then the world turned a painful red when a blaster bolt hit me mid-stride.
Collapsing to the ground, momentarily paralyzed from the blast, I cursed: the bloody thing had flanked me!
Groaning I rolled onto my back, when suddenly a heavy weight landed on my chest and a long, rough tongue licked my face. Hands still tingling, I reached up and nudged the dog’s head away, giving me some room. “What are you doing here, Buddy? You could get shot!” Nearby, I sensed the practice combat drone powering down - no longer a danger now that it had won the exercise.
Distracting Buddy with an intense ear-scritching, I managed to sit up and look at the Amarrian teenager standing next to me. “What is it?”
“You have a visitor, Ma’am - a certain Lady Phage. She says that you know her?”
I frowned - I certainly remembered ‘Lady’ Rhea Phage. I just didn’t expect her to show up again in my life. But apparently she wasn’t done with me after all.
“Make her feel welcome - I’ll be joining her shortly.” I looked down at my sweat-glistening upper body and the happy shepherd dog draped across my legs. “I need to freshen up first.”
‘Freshen up’ - I was quietly chuckling at my choice of words as I directed my steps towards our porch. A couple of splashes of water into my face, the worst of the dirt brushed off my camo pants, a dark-mauve blouse thrown over my still sweat-drenched tank top - that counted, right? Nursing a large glass of water, I sat down across of Miss Phage and mustered her. Despite the heat of the day, she looked quite comfortable in her refined business outfit, tea cup in her hand.
“I am sorry to have kept you waiting,” I said, skipping formalities, “but I see that you have been taken care of.”
“Yes, thanks. And no apology needed” she replied, “I didn’t exactly announce my visit beforehand. And the wait did give me time to admire your dwelling here - it is quite impressive.” She cocked her head slightly. “It’s not what I would have expected from you.”
“More than just ‘ran with it’, from what I’ve seen.” she remarked, taking a sip of tea. “But that’s actually why I’m here - to offer you an opportunity of my own.”
I leaned back. “Is that so? - Thank you, Laura.” The last was directed at the teenager who had come out and set a carafe of fresh cold water onto the table. “That is all for now - go tend to your other chores.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Laura bowed her head and retreated back into the house. I looked back at Miss Phage, who was watching me with an amused smile. Ignoring the bait, I emptied my glass and refilled it from the carafe. “So, what opportunity are you here to sell me on?”
Miss Phage set her cup back onto the saucer. “I want to finalize Hazardous’ foothold in Querious, and I need pilots.” She focused her gaze on me. “Pilots willing to do the boring work of eliminating structures, and doing so without much of a safety net.”
I held her gaze for a moment. “Then why are you coming to me? I haven’t exactly been active the last months. And you know what I think of large fleets.”
“That’s not true,” she retorted. “You were on roams recently, and with quite a number of pilots in fleet at that.”
“They were on roams, fighting the war.” I corrected her. “I was unwinding with one-woman slosh-ops. We just happened to fly into the same general direction at about the same times.”
Miss Phage studied me curiously for a few seconds, then nodded. “Good.”
“‘Good’?” I asked.
“Good.” she repeated. “I can’t use pilots who are oblivious of their limits.” She paused to pour some more tea. “At first, you weren’t even on my list,” she added coolly, “but the other pilots I reached out to - who I’d trust to get the job done even on their own - insisted that I’d talk to you as well. ‘Crotchety, reckless, and knowing it’ I think were the words.”
“Ouch.” I grimaced, but it was true. “Who are those fools who consider these to be good things?”
“See for yourself.” She produced a data pad, and pushed it over. I caught it and scanned the list of names - it was rather short, and familiar.
“These pilots…”, I began, but Miss Phage didn’t let me finish. “It’s your team - in more way than one.” she said. “What do you say?”
I looked at the pad. “Let me think about it.”
Drakus eventually found me in our paskan suskone - the shrine he had constructed in our house. I didn’t subscribe to his spirituality still, much less my own, but it was a calm, quiet room - perfect for…
“Hey. What are you doing?”
“Thinking.” I replied.
“About what?” He sat down next to me.
“The decision I have to make.” I averted his eyes for a moment.
“What decision?” He reached over to stroke my neck.
I took a breath. “Well, just a few hours a ago I got a contract offer…” - and I filled him in about my conversation with Miss Phage. When I was finished, he was silent for a while, his hand absentmindedly caressing my hair.
“You are going to leave me. Again.” he finally said.
“It’s only for a couple of weeks,” I implored, “and given how null-sec works, I might be spending more time here in my jump clone, than on the battlefield.”
“But Zoë…”, he began, but I cut him off.
“…Zoë is old enough that she no longer needs me around the clock, and she is in good hands.” For emphasis I grabbed his hands and squeezed them. “Namely, yours. And Laura’s.” I looked at him. “But I have to do this - otherwise I would no longer be the woman which caught your eye so many months ago. And believe me, you don’t want that to happen.”
Drakus looked out of the windows for a while, then turned back to me. “You have already made your decision, haven’t you? Without consulting me?”
That gave me pause, then I nodded somberly. “Yes. Yes, I think I have.” Looking into his earnest eyes, I added, more sure than I was before, “Sorry.”
For a few seconds, Drakus held my gaze, then he let go and stood up, with an expression I had come to know quite well by then. I made no attempt to stop him, and after he had left, I stood up myself and went to peer out of one the windows. Yep, there he went, axe shouldered, headed straight towards the woodshed.
Briefly I rested my head against the window pane and sighed, then straightened up again and turned away. Space was calling me.