The Forge Region – Anttanen Constellation
Uitra System – Planet VI, Moon 4
State War Academy Station
19 February YC 121
Next day after the mission I again called Tarumo to check the progress of the search and rescue operation but he told me not to bug him and that he would contact me himself if there were news. I heard somewhere that investigators had only 96 hours to discover a missing person after which the chances of successfully recovering a kidnappee were virtually zero. As days went by, I started to lose hope but on the fourth day came a message from Tarumo requesting my immediate presence in his office. Ten minutes later, agitated and out of breath, I appeared at his doorstep.
“Have you found him?” I blurted out, skipping the niceties.
“Good morning, Mr Korff,” said Tarumo, unperturbed by my faux pas. “No, we haven’t.” Then, seeing my face grow long, he quickly added, “As embarrassing as it is for our intelligence service, it is other way round. Today we were contacted by a Guristas agent who offered a deal – they will return the miner in exchange for, I quote, ‘the bastard responsible for their comrades’ deaths’.” A thin smile appeared on his lips, “What do you think, Mr Korff?”
I was nonplussed by such turn of events. Trying to gather my thoughts I stammered, “I… I need to think about it.” Then I had a light-bulb moment, “Yes, let’s do it! I have a backup clone, so the worst thing that can happen to me is a short-term loss of memory, but we will save the boy.”
Tarumo shook his head, “That won’t do, Mr Korff. If we were sure that you would be killed, there would be no problem but I doubt you will get off the hook that easy.”
“Easy? You call dying easy?”
“I do, because alternatives are literally worse than death. For one thing, I expect that they will first torture you.”
I blanched. The fact that in the distant future I wouldn’t remember the pain, did not make my immediate prospects look any better.
“Besides,” continued the agent, “Guristas may be thugs but first and foremost they are businessmen, and a capsuleer is too valuable an asset to simply destroy it. My educated guess is that you will be sold into slavery.”
“To whom? To Amarr?” I whispered in shock.
“Unfortunately, not. In the Empire, as a valued pilot, you could lead a pretty decent, albeit Vitoc-addled life. But the thing is, Amarr hate Gursitas so much that they issued kill-on-sight standing orders against them. That feeling is mutual, and there is no trade relations between those factions. No, if you are to be sold, it will be to Guristas’ long-standing partners – Sansha’s Nation.”
I reeled. Sansha’s Nation converted people to True Slaves who did not have any will of their own. I swallowed hard and asked hoarsely, “Is there any other way to save the guy?”
“In fact, there is, Mr Korff. I think the bandits still haven’t realised you are a capsuleer. They will send to rendezvous some rank-and-file members who are no match for you. Flying a Merlin, you should be able to engage and destroy them.”
“But if I blow up their ships, I will also kill the miner,” objected I.
“We’ve done hostage exchanges with Guristas before. Invariably, they put a person in a metal container which is jettisoned from the cargo hold. That container is sturdy enough to survive the explosion, and the guy inside should be very unlucky to die in such circumstances.”
I weighed my options. On the one hand, there was no way I would risk becoming a Sansha’s True Slave. On the other hand, I might spend the rest of my possibly eternal life feeling guilty for the death of the boy. On the… well, I didn’t have a third hand.
“I am ready for the fight, Mr Tarumo,” resolutely said I.
“I am glad that you have had courage to accept this mission, Mr Korff. By the way, for this assignment I highly recommend fitting a shield booster.”
I thanked Tarumo for the advice and went to the docks. Checking the shield booster prices I found that they were almost five times higher here at the Academy station than in Jita. Having no desire to waste money but also having no time to go to Jita, I decided to wing it and fly without a booster.
The rendezvous point was an unremarkable spot in space near a group of dreamy asteroids. Not visible to the naked eye, but clearly seen on the overview there was a small gang of three Pithi Arrogators waiting for me.
“Good morning, gentlemen,” I started conversation on the local comms channel. “I understand you’ve brought a hostage with you. Please release him.”
“Who is speaking?” asked one of the pirates.
“My name is Vladimir Korff.”
“Ah, so you are the fucker who killed Tyko. Now, listen here, we are not giving the hostage away; we are exchanging him for you. That was the deal with the Academy.”
“Fair enough. Feel free to come and get me,” said I, and then added, “If you can.”
“Ha, you heard that, guys? This piece of shit wants a bit of personal service. Let’s squeeze that oyster out of its shell,” yelled the pirate, and they burned toward me.
The following events showed that my decision about the shield booster was correct. Having trained a separate railgun on each of the Arrogators, I destroyed all of them before they could make a single shot. Interestingly, the pirate ships were equipped with shield boosters which could restore half their shields each cycle but, at most, it bought them just a few more useless seconds during which they were still out of their firing range.
To my dismay, all the wrecks were empty. I was about to approach the debris and search for the body when two more Arrogators warped in. I didn’t waste time talking to the newcomers and quickly reduced their ships to smoking heaps of deformed metal, one of which contained some loot. From that wreck I disentangled a single container with a living being inside. While the tractor beam was dragging the container to my ship, I noticed that it was charred and leaking air. As soon as the box was inside the cargo hold I tried to contact the person in it but there was no reply. Alarmed, I warped back to the station where the rescued guy was immediately transferred to a hospital.
Four hours later Tarumo called me on the commlink.
“How is the boy?” was my first question.
“He is fine now,” said the agent. “I don’t know if I can call it luck though. I told you that I didn’t expect the container to be significantly damaged by the explosion, and I was right – it wasn’t. Unfortunately, just before you blew up that Arrogator, one of your hybrid charges penetrated the hull and hit a corner of that container, breaching it and setting it on fire. Fortunately, the fire didn’t last long as it ran out of oxygen both inside and outside the box. All in all, the guy suffered asphyxiation, burns and concussion, but he will live.”
I took a deep breath and finally felt a heavy weight of anxiety lifted from my bosom.