Minmatar Republic, Metropolis region, Ankard constellation, Eygfe VIII – Moon 9 – Ishukone Corporation Factory, YC113.07.26.13.47
“Just to let you know, I won that cage match. You owe me Seventy ISK. You can pay me next time we go drinking.
Obvious code if her mail really was being read, but recognising it as code and understanding the real message were two very different things.
Aato read the rest of her messages, staying entirely professional as she sorted out the day-to-day of her employer's personal itinerary and safety. She wasn't alone in the office, though nobody ever sat too near her desk, no matter how cramped the facility they were in on any given day might be. She had a tendency to unsettle people.
Once, she wouldn't have. Not so long ago, she'd have been the life and love of the security team, everybody's best friend and the object of most of their fantasies and affection. It went against the grain somewhat to drive them off with a prickly demeanour and the utterly cold façade that her clothing and thin buzz-cut of blonde hair were calculated to create.
So, she completed her work and then, without a word or glance to anyone else, she stood up and departed, locked herself in the head, and allowed herself to cry for the first time since she had left Jesken's Reach, and for only the second time in her adult life.
The message had read, to the dwindling supply of people who knew how to read it: “G-14 captured, presumed dead. Get in contact.”
Eight left, herself included. Eight out of thirteen.
With the self-control that had been drilled into her since early childhood, she forced her professional mask back into place until the redness around her eyes was gone, until her chin was steady enough to balance a glass on, and cleaned sticky tear runnels from her cheeks. Then it was a simple, short walk to Pilot's office.
Pilot Hakatain was reading a message written holographically in the air above his desk when she entered, which vanished as those targeting-laser blue eyes flicked over to a command icon, then focused on her. He didn't appear to notice anything out of place, which Aato took as a good sign that she was outwardly as composed as ever. If a Capsuleer with a top-quality social adaptation chip couldn't spot evidence of her grief, then she wasn't showing any at all.
“Afternoon, Aato. Report?”
“No report sir, everything as we agreed yesterday. I'm here to request leave.”
Pilot blinked in surprise, and one of his eyebrows quirked upwards for a fraction of a second, but there were reasons that Aato liked working as his Personal Security Officer. The cloning contract and the umbrella of his diplomatic immunity were part of it, but Hakatain was also nicely discreet. He would definitely be curious, but he had a very clear sense of what was and was not his business.
“Effective...?” He asked, leaning back in his chair and stroking his beard.
“I may need as much as a month, sir.”
“I'll need a replacement PSO while you're gone.”
“Jenesk” Aato said, without even having to think about it. Pilot nodded.
“Then your leave is granted effective as soon as you've briefed him.”
“Thank you sir.”
“You've never taken leave in three and a half years, it's about damn time. Take two months, fully paid. In advance, if you want.”
“That won't be necessary, thank you sir.”
He shrugged. “Offer stands.” He gave her a long, calculating stare then shrugged again. “Any other business?”
Aato could feel him watching her as she left.
Caldari State, Lonetrek region, Malariya constellation, Endatoh V – Echelon Entertainment Development Studio, YC113.07.28.22.20
It was a subdued, very Caldari greeting for people who hadn't seen each other in four years and who were in many ways closer than siblings. A brief embrace, a quiet “Saisa” and then they were immediately down to the business of opening the bottle of Hak'len.
It was a busy bar, with sound-mute fields around each table to give everyone some sonic elbow room and prevent eavesdropping. In an Echelon studio full of teams who spent their working lives turning out mass-media for an insatiable market, gatherings of eight people weren't uncommon, and nobody glanced twice at them as they lifted eight shot glasses and drank a toast to the ninth, sat full in front of a vacant seat.
Present: A-7, Aato Sihayha. A-12, Akio Munioten. D-3, Dahtoh Miit. F-1, “Big” Fisk Onaneri, F-2 “Little” Fisk Sichono, K-8 , Kirase “Puppy” Korkukka. M-15, Mikasa Navirola and Y-2, Ylamaa Aritie.
Absent: D-10, Danani Pekewara, G-14, Geshozura Askuo. M-2 Mitakada Vantoh. S-3 Sundan Appas and S-9, Skitichida Ronken.
“We can't hide forever.”
That was Big Fisk, a man whose nickname hadn't required much imagination. “G-14 was just as good as any of us. We've been safe for four years now, but if they got to him...”
There was a general nodding round the table as he trailed off meaningfully. They all had gone through the same training, the same half-hell, half-heaven childhood.
“Better than me.” Ylamaa opined. “Gesh was one of the best of us. Almost as good as you, A-7.”
Aato didn't bother denying the compliment. She had come second in the class, beaten only by S-3 who had been the first to die, on the day when the corporation decided their services were no longer necessary. Instead, she knocked back another shot of black liquor, content to just enjoy the company of her classmates, even in such sad circumstances.
“So trying to get lost isn't going to work.” Puppy said. “It's a big State, but not big enough.”
“Not a big enough damn cluster, really.” Navirola said. “Skits went to the Guristas for cover, that didn't stop CBD from finding him. And I think M-2 was working at a pleasure hub in the Federation.”
“So... what do we do?”
Aato set her drink down. “We Troubleshoot.” she said, simply.
The reaction was mixed. Both the Fisks, D-3, Navirola, and Y-2 nodded, as if the answer was obvious, but Puppy and A-12 looked alarmed.
“You're kidding!” Munioten exclaimed.
“We can't hide, we can't run. May as well try doing what they trained us for.” Aato told him.
“Troubleshooting some backwater Serpentis courier is one thing. But we're talking about an unknown number of people of unknown competence with Megacorp backing.” Puppy said.
“So it's uncertain just what we're up against. Whereas we know damn well that if we just stay hidden and try to put ourself out of CBD's sight and mind that they won't give up, they'll just hunt us down and either send in a strike team while we're asleep, or have some fucking egger blow us up like happened to Vantoh.” That was little Fisk, who was only “little” when compared with Onaneri.
“Besides. I'd rather go down fighting.” Navirola added.
“Show of hands” said D-3.
It took a few seconds for Korkukka and Munioten to decide, but eventually even their hands went up. They were all in agreement.
“First step is finding out who our targets are.” Aritie said, sniffing another shot of Hak'len.
“If I know Gesh...” D-3 mused “he'll have had a contingency ready.”
“Probably, but... Seven, you work for one of those eggers, right?”
“We're not involving him” Aato said, flatly.
“Why not? He's got the money, the connections, the tech...”
“We're not involving him because capsuleers are trouble. Mine's not bad, and I think he'd help me if I asked him... but getting him on board would solve three problems and create twelve.”
“Besides, it was a podder who killed Vantoh.” Little Fisk repeated.
Aato restrained herself from correcting him with the slightly more painful truth that the podder in question probably hadn't thought for a microsecond about all the people on that pleasure hub when they blew it up, and that they'd probably never even heard the name Mitakada Vantoh. It would just have been another in a long, anonymous string of contract work to them. Instead, she ran a hand across the fuzz of her scalp.
“I know somebody who could probably help who isn't an egger.” she said. “Assuming he's still alive.”
Caldari State, Lonetrek region, Makiriemi constellation, Pakkonen system, Planet III – colony “Jesken's Reach”, YC113.07.29.00.38
Daii Tarko was warm, comfortable and a little tipsy after a large whisky, so having to haul himself off the couch was a source of instant grumbling, but the voice recognition controller for his apartment hadn't worked properly in months and his pension never quite seemed to stretch to getting it sorted out. He lightened up very slightly when he saw who was calling.
“Aato, Kirjuun, it's good to hear from you agai-” he paused, looking again at the image made slightly fuzzy from cheap fluid router line rental. “The fuck'd you do to your hair?”
Aato gave him a rare smile. “Sorry it's been so long since I last called, Daii. You don't like the buzz cut?”
“Makes you look like a man, kid.”
“Beats the hell out of not being taken seriously, partner.” she said.
“You never make social calls, Kirjuun. What do you need this time?”
“A few friends and I are coming to Jesken's Reach on an... assignment. We're going to want to talk with Neurone.”
“Neurone?!” Daii's voice went up half an octave partly out of outrage, partly out of fear. “No. Aato no, seriously, I swore I'd never deal with that son of a...” he paused, mindful of Neurone's reputation “...of a woman who I'm sure was lovely and kind. Anyway. Never again. Not after the first time.”
“Scrip? Aato, I wouldn't go within a mile of Neurone for that kind of money, he scares the white out of my teeth.”
“Not Scrip. Interstellar.”
It was almost as if a stiff gale had suddenly blown from the screen, rocking Daii back on his heels as he performed a swift currency exchange in his head and produced a number large enough to banish prudence. His voice caught in his throat.
“That's... I don't know Aato. Neurone...”
She's desperate, Daii realised. An old cop's instincts swung into place, the fatal ones that always meant you backed your partner up, no matter what. Anybody willing to pay twenty K Interstellar to talk with one of the most dangerous Guristas in Lonetrek had to be in serious trouble, and not so long ago, Aato had been his ward and partner.
And with twenty thousand I could retire to New Caldari.
“Done.” he said. “But I pray to my ancestors you know what you're doing, Kirjuun.”
“I'm quite sure I don't.” Aato said, characteristically blunt. “But that's how life is for me right now. Meet my at line bottom when my friends and I arrive tomorrow?”
“Thanks Daii. You might literally be a lifesaver.”
She signed off, leaving Daii to the bitter thought that anybody putting an old friend in touch with Neurone was pretty much the opposite of a lifesaver.
His cybernetic knee whined in protest as he limped back to the couch and poured himself a whisky much larger than the one he'd just finished.