The Forge Region – Anttanen Constellation
Uitra System – Planet VI, Moon 4
State War Academy Station
7 March YC 121
If Tarumo was disappointed that Tahamar escaped again he didn’t show it. In fact, I think he was relieved to see me return in one piece after having sent me to a mission without proper intel. His eyes lit up and he nodded approvingly when at the debrief he learnt that I had downed eleven pirate ships. My mission was deemed successful and I was given three days of R&R.
Although I welcomed some rest I didn’t need that much of it. The fact that Tahamar was still at large weighed heavily on my conscience and by Thursday my level of anxiety was at a record level. So first thing in the morning I turned up at Tarumo’s office and pretty much demanded the report on Tahamar investigation.
Tarumo looked like he didn’t sleep since our last meeting. He rubbed his eyes and said wearily, “Tahamar is still active. He changed his base but we haven’t been able to locate it yet.”
“Is there any way I can help with reconnaissance?” asked I.
“No, I don’t think so. We have arranged 24/7 space scanning using the best equipment Caldari Navy could provide, and when we discover Tahamar’s base, I promise you, you will be the first person to know. In the meantime, all we can do is mitigate the fallout from our failure to terminate that pirate.”
I knew that Tarumo did not mean to blame me for that – he clearly said “we” – but his last words caused a pang of guilty conscience and there was only one way to soothe it. That way was blocked now but any action was welcome.
“At your service, Mr Tarumo,” I said earnestly.
“Very good. You see, Mr Korff, there are a few Amarrian trade envoys in our system who are scared by this sudden outburst of pirate activity. They have contacted us to organise safe passage for them.”
“Where do they want to go?”
“Hmm…” frowned Tarumo. “They didn’t tell me their specific destination but I assume that the escort will be needed only within Uitra system.”
“I guess, it doesn’t really matter as long as their route goes through hi-sec, although,” I smiled humorlessly, “the notion of a high security zone is a bit blurred these days.”
I got the coordinates of the envoys’ pick-up location and left for the docks.
“Aura, honey, what do you think about a pleasure cruise?” I asked after boarding the capsule.
“Yes, yes, yes!” Aura clapped her hands. “Where are we going?”
“Believe me or not, I was given a mission which requires a visit to a pleasure hub.”
“Cool! Do they also have assignments which require shopping? You can tell them that we are very good at such missions.”
“If there are any, they are at your personal expense,” chuckled I and undocked.
The Forge Region – Anttanen Constellation
Uitra System – Hotel Kim
The pleasure hub was located near a natural rock formation and surrounded by perimeter defences.
“Very nice, ” said Aura. “They had a good architect. You know, I’ve read that most people are uncomfortable being in stations surrounded only by endless space. They prefer to have something material nearby; something solid that they can use as a reference point even if it is an asteroid. Can we take a closer look?”
I willed my camera drones to zoom in on the structure and exclaimed, “What the hell?!”
There was a huge hole in the wall of the pleasure hub and the space around it was strewn with corpses.
“Contact the security tower,” ordered I.
“Can’t raise them,” said Aura tensely. “And there are no life signs within the habitation module and the defence structures.”
“We are too late,” whispered I.
“Should I call Tarumo and ask him to cancel the mission?’
“No. We have to get closer even if it’s just to collect the bodies.”
“Be careful,” said Aura. “I have a bad feeling about it.”
Continuously scanning my surroundings I slowly approached the pleasure hub.
10 km… No signs of life.
5 km… I could see the destroyed perimeter defence guns.
2 km… Ampuhaukka was entering a radioactive cloud produced by a leaking reactor. My shield started coruscating.
1 km… I could see individual corpses without zooming my cameras.
At that moment the station exploded! Half my shield was gone and there were three hostiles on the overview.
“It’s a trap!” screamed Aura. “The mission is over. Warp out! Warp out!”
I was about to align to the station when a strange object caught my eye. Checking its designation on the overview I discovered it was an escape pod.
“Shit! We need to save them,” shouted I.
“You can’t save anyone if you get killed. Look, you have only quarter of your shield remaining.”
Aura was right – while I was inspecting the pod, the hostiles did not waste time and pummelled me with missiles which were steadily eating through my shield.
“Don’t panic, I can take care of myself. Let’s see how good Tarumo’s gift is,” replied I and activated the shield booster simultaneously willing the Merlin into a 14-km orbit around the nearest pirate ship.
It was magic! As Ampuhaukka went out of enemy missile range the incoming damage dropped to zero; at the same time the shield booster, working in fast 2-second cycles, was restoring 13 hit points per second. Less than a minute later my shields were at 100% and I stopped the module.
Keeping out of the pirates’ firing range I had time to inspect the assailants; there were two Pithi Plunderers and one Pithi Wrecker. The latter was curious – just like Ampuhaukka, it was based on Merlin-class frigate but it was equipped with three missile launchers instead of turrets. Obviously, Guristas went to some lengths redesigning the base model as Merlins did not have launcher hardpoints at all. I wished I could buy or capture one of those Wreckers; if the hull also provided bonuses to missile damage, it would come as a nasty surprise for any attacker who, seeing a Merlin-class ship, expected to fight a gunboat. In the given circumstances though, the best I could do was wreck the Wrecker. Focusing the fire of two railguns on it, slowly but steadily I overcame its shield booster’s attempts to tank the incoming damage and blew it up.
The destruction of the Wrecker took too long to my liking; the survivors in the escape pod might have needed urgent help and I had to finish that fight as soon as possible. To increase the damage I decided to get closer to the remaining Plunderers and engage my blaster. Unfortunately, that turned out to be a mistake – not only my railguns were unable to track the enemy ships at such close distance, but I also started taking damage. In order to counteract the hostile fire I activated the shield booster and it very quickly exhausted my capacitor. Ultimately, I had to admit that my fit was not good for brawling, and withdrew to 14-km orbit. There, my rails started consistently hitting the Plunderers and after a few minutes the battle was over.
When the area was cleared I approached the escape pod and dragged it into my cargo hold. Then I addressed the survivors.
“Hello. This is Captain Vladimir Korff. You are on board my private frigate Ampuhaukka which will deliver you to State War Academy station. Do you need urgent medical assistance? I can contact the Academy to arrange help.”
There was a pause after which a strong male voice replied, “Thank you, Captain. We are good.”
“Alright,” said I. “Get ready for a warp. Shouldn’t take too long.”
The Forge Region – Anttanen Constellation
Uitra System – Planet VI, Moon 4
State War Academy Station
Three minutes later I docked at the Academy, got out of the pod and went to my item hangar where the escape pod was unloaded. There I found a group of ten weary people all dressed in some kind of brown uniform. The eldest of them stepped forward and said, “Captain Korff?”
Judging by his voice, he was the same person who talked to me on board.
“Yes, that’s me,” replied I.
“Nice to meet you, Captain. I am Vilppu Jouni, the Team Lead.”
I shook his hand and asked, “What kind of team are you leading?”
“Oh, sorry, I should have told you,” said Vilppu apologetically. “We are janitors.”
I should have guessed, thought I looking at their uniforms. But the thing is, the service personnel on stations is so good at making themselves inconspicuous that if anyone asked me about their appearance I wouldn’t be able to describe it.
Aloud I said, “How come all of you boarded the same escape pod?”
“That was just a coincidence. We had our weekly team meeting when the hull breach alarms started blaring. All of us immediately ran to the nearest pod. Do you know what happened?”
I was taken aback, “Don’t you?”
Vilppu shrugged, “We haven’t received any comms and the pod did not have viewports. So we just waited inside until you picked us up.”
It made sense. “I don’t know the whole story,” said I, “but I believe your station was attacked by pirates. When I arrived and approached the station it exploded and ejected your escape pod.”
“Did you pick up other pods?”
“There were no others. You are the only survivors.”
Vilppu gasped and stepped back as if I had hit him, “But there were hundreds…” His voice trailed off and he didn’t finish the phrase.
I didn’t know what to say; I was never good at comforting distressed people.
After a long pause Vilppu overcame his emotions and said in a steady voice, “Captain, we owe you our lives. As you understand, a janitor’s salary does not permit us to express our gratitude in financial terms, but we will be happy to sign a heavily discounted contract for our services.”
I smiled, “You don’t owe me anything, Mr Jouni. Even if you did, the only place that I need cleaned is my hotel room at this station, and the service is included into the rent.”
“With all due respect, you are wrong, Captain. Without your help we would die or would be picked up by pirates who’d sell us into slavery. Call me superstitious, but I believe that Lady Luck will ignore us until we pay you for the rescue. If you don’t need our services the next best thing we can do is offer you a contract option.”
I frowned, “A contract option… What’s that?”
“It’s a legal obligation to provide cleaning services, on standard terms, at a location of your choosing.”
“But I told you, there is no location where I need or will need your services in near future.”
“That’s okay,” said Vilppu. “In such case, you can simply sell the option.”
“Sell it? Who would buy a contract option for cleaning services? Aren’t there thousands of candidates looking for job?”
“You are only partially right, Captain. There are thousands looking for job but not for any job. Did you try to hire janitors for a Keepstar in Anoikis lately?”
I shook my head, “No.”
“You see, work on stations in wormhole space, especially as large as Keepstars, was considered pretty safe. It was so hard to destroy such station without capital support that no one seriously thought about it. It all changed after The Initiative took down Fort Knocks Keepstar in Rage system last year. Now J-space station owners are fighting each other to attract qualified personnel because Anoikis suddenly became a very dangerous place to work. The rates are at all-time high and there is a whole market for contract options like the one that we are offering you.”
“Hmm… But if I sell your options then, most likely, you will end up on some godforsaken station which may be blown up at any time. It seems cruel and unfair given you have just escaped death at your previous workplace.”
“But that’s the whole point, Captain,” said Vilppu. “Great benefits should come at great price. I believe every bit of luck must be paid for, and you will put my conscience to rest by accepting and selling our contract options.”
“Well, if you insist…” I said uncertainly.
“Thank you! Thank you, Captain!” exclaimed Vilppu cheerfully. “And don’t hesitate to contact us if you need any help. This contract option is just a small token of gratitude. We shall always be in your debt.”
After bidding farewell to the janitor crew I went to Tarumo’s office. The agent listened to my account of events and, for the first time in the history of my interaction with him, got angry. He didn’t lose it as an emotional person would, but nonetheless it was scary to behold his pent-up fury venting through the clenched teeth.
“Damn,” said he with quiet intensity. “It will cost Caldari State billions in lost opportunities. Billions! Do you understand that, Mr Korff?” he glared at me.
I felt defensive but resisted the urge to explain myself and simply said, “No. Can you please elaborate, Mr Tarumo?”
The agent demonstrated an enviable self-control – before answering my question he made a few deep breaths and visibly dialled down the ferocity of his verbal expression.
“The company represented by those envoys, Inherent Implants, has recently announced its plans to sign long-term contracts with Caldari corporations for electronic parts manufacturing. But we managed to blemish our reputation even before the negotiations have started by failing to protect our partners on our own territory. We – you, Mr Korff, and me – and by extension, the War Academy and the State have lost face.”
Having said that, Tarumo buried his face in his hands as if he couldn’t bear the sight of me. I was shocked at the magnitude of repercussions of what seemed to be a simple mission, but at the same time I felt something was wrong.
“Excuse me, Mr Tarumo,” said I, “did you say that the negotiations have not started yet?”
“I did,” replied the agent raising his head.
“Don’t you find it strange that businessmen arrived to our state with an intention to sign an important deal, and first thing they did was go to a backwater system like Uitra to have fun at a second-rated brothel located in the middle of a pirate-infested area?”
Tarumo narrowed his eyes, “What are you driving at, Mr Korff?”
“How confident are you about the source of the escort request?”
“It has been signed by Inherent Implants’ official e-signature which was verified by our House of Records. I have no reason to doubt its authenticity.”
“Mr Tarumo, may I suggest that we contact Amarrians and verify this request before jumping to conclusions? This whole situation seems highly suspicious to me.”
“Please be assured, Mr Korff, that there will be full investigation into this matter,” replied Tarumo curtly. “Do you have anything to add?”
“No, Mr Tarumo.”
“Then don’t let me detain you,” said the agent and turned to his monitor.