The Swap

The Forge Region – Anttanen Constellation
Uitra System – Planet VI, Moon 4
State War Academy Station

24 March YC 121

Three days after the encounter with Tahamar I was sitting in Tarumo’s office and discussing the implications of my discovery.

“We long suspected he was a capsuleer,” said Tarumo, “given the ease with which he escaped our traps and evaded surveillance.”

“So we can expect him to return soon?” asked I despondently.

“Not necessarily. Firstly, it depends on whether his capsule was equipped with the brain scanner.”

“Was it?” I asked eagerly.

Tarumo sighed, “We don’t know. By the time our forensic investigation team arrived to the battlefield someone had already salvaged the wrecks.”

I angrily slapped an armrest, “I should have stayed on the scene and guard it!”

“Don’t blame yourself – it wasn’t part of your mission,” said Tarumo soothingly. “Anyway, whether there was a brain scanner or not, he could have been backed up. In such case he would be recloned but would lose some memory, which is good as it means he won’t learn anything from the last battle.”

“That’s not much comfort. We hoped to get rid of him for good; now there is a high chance of his comeback.”

“Again, its not a given. Thanks to your efforts, the cost of conducting illegal activities in Uitra and Anttanen constellation has risen significantly. Guristas may find it unprofitable to do business here and move their operations, together with Tahamar, to a different area.”

I snorted, “But that’s just passing the buck. We are simply shifting the problem, not solving it.”

“This is the nature of law enforcement – it’s a never-ending quest. If all corporations do their job as well as the Academy, with your invaluable help of course,” Tarumo gestured at me and then continued with a smile, “then, who knows, Guristas may consider leaving the State’s space altogether and going to, say, Gallente.”

I laughed appreciating the elegance of the solution – pitting two of the State’s worst enemies against each other – and said, “I am glad, Mr Tarumo, that I could be of assistance. Talking of which, what will be my next mission?”

“There won’t be any, Mr Korff. Your Military Career course is over and I would like to congratulate you on it successful completion.”

“Wait, wait, wait,” exclaimed I. “What about Tahamar? What if he returns?”

“We will deal with him when and if that happens. Trust me, Mr Korff, we have no shortage of eager students who want to join the fight against the pirates. As for you, I believe you are ready for more difficult assignments,” Tarumo turned to his monitor and typed something on the keyboard. “I have just sent my friend Ijumachi Vuonolailen a reference letter which describes your performance at the Academy. Mr Vuonolailen runs an Advanced Military Career course and I highly recommend enrolling in it. You show great promise as a fighter pilot, Mr Korff, and I’d like you to consider further developing your talents.”

Such turn of events totally bewildered me. After the horrid realisation that Tahamar was a capsuleer and could come back, I was denied the chance to face him again, but at the same time I was given an opportunity to continue the fight against pirates at a different level.

My head spinning, I mumbled, “Thank you, Mr Tarumo. It was a pleasure working with you.”

“The pleasure was mine,” said Tarumo shaking my hand.

To be honest, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. I came to the Academy to try different professions and military course provided a very motivating and meaningful training which I wished to continue. Checking the station map on my datapad I discovered with surprise that Vuonolailen’s office was next door to Tarumo’s. It goes to show how much our experience is defined by the paths we take. I visited Tarumo a dozen of times but I always came from one direction and left the same way – the world past his door was terra incognita for me.

Ijumachi Vuonolailen, Advanced Military Career Agent
Ijumachi Vuonolailen, Advanced Military Career Agent

Ideally, I should have requested an appointment but I decided to try my luck and crash the gate. As it appeared, I was still in the Lady’s good books as Vuonolailen was alone in the room. Dressed in high boots and a khaki T-shirt he looked like a commando ready for a raid. I wondered what was his background and how he ended up with a desk job.

Turning his gaze from the monitor to me Vuonolailen chuckled and said, “Welcome to the Advanced Military Career Training, Mr Korff. I’ve been reading Ranta’s letter and thought that sooner or later you would drop by but I didn’t expect you that early. Are you sure you don’t want to take a day off before starting your first mission?”

A new mission? I was caught off guard – my plans didn’t go beyond walking in and introducing myself. On the other hand, no one dragged me into that office so I just had to roll with a punch.

“Nice to meet you, Mr Vuonolailen. I am ready for an assignment,” said I.

“Excellent,” said Vuonolailen and rubbed his hands energetically. “Please take a seat.”

I settled in a visitor’s chair and the agent continued, “We have been tracking one of Guristas gangs who specialise in extortion. So far, they managed to evade our attempts to trap them and killed two of our undercover intelligence officers. This time, I think, we have a solid chance to strike back. Yesterday, our security department was contacted by a citizen who had been blackmailed by that same gang. The pirates summoned him to a face-to-face meeting in one of their deadspace pockets. I want you to take his place and exterminate every Guristas ship you will find in that area. Are you up to it, Mr Korff?”

“What kind of resistance should I expect?” asked I.

“Nothing serious, small-time thugs. Your Merlin should suffice.”

I nodded, “Consider it done, Mr Vuonolailen.”

Walking to the docks I thought about the imminent conversation with Aura regarding the new training course. Earlier she expressed strong disapproval of my military pursuits, so I needed to find a way to break it gently to her.

“Hello, darling. I have good news for you – we have just completed the military career course,” I started on a positive note.

Aura threw her hands up in the air, “Yahoo! No more pirates!”

“Erm… About that…”

As I was telling Aura about my enrolment in the advanced military course, a smile slowly disappeared from her face and was replaced with a stony expression. When I finished talking she buried her face in her hands and rubbed it.

“Aura, are you okay?” I asked delicately.

Aura opened her face, then out of nowhere produced a lit cigarette and took a drag on it. Propping her chin on one hand she looked me in the eye and said, “You will be the death of me, Vladimir Korff.”

I smiled apologetically, “‘Death’ is probably too strong a word. Maybe just a bit of amnesia.”

Aura choked on the cigarette smoke and started laughing. She laughed so hard that the tears started rolling out of her eyes. After a while she wiped her face with a sleeve and said, “Alright, but I don’t want to lose that memory. Just give me a second to back it up before we undock.”

Having arrived to the mission location I took an acceleration gate which led to a deadspace pocket filled with veldspar asteroids. There was a Pithi Arrogator whose pilot contacted me in the local channel and asked, “Have you brought the money?”

Pithi Arrogator
Pithi Arrogator

Trying to sound scared I replied, “Yes, yes, as we agreed.”

“Then jettison the container and get lost.”

I checked the distance – he was just on the edge of the optimal range of my rails.

“Sure,” mumbled I and targeted the Arrogator.

“Hey, what are you doing?” were the pirate’s last words.

Immediately after the explosion two more Arrogators arrived at the scene.

“I don’t know what you are thinking, tough guy, but your debt has just tripled. No one messes with Guristas,” growled one of the newcomers.

“Really? I think I just did exactly that,” replied I and allocated a personal railgun to each pirate.

They died before they could shoot a single missile at me.

Three more Arrogators warped in; I wondered how long that arithmetic progression would continue. Ignoring pirates’ curses and threats I targeted all three ships and dispatched them one by one.

“Vuonolailen says the mission is finished,” said Aura. “I can’t believe it. You’ve destroyed six pirate ships, staying put and without taking any damage. How is it an advanced course?”

I shrugged, “Dunno. Maybe I was supposed to do it in a Venture.”

Aura snorted, “If it goes on like that I might have to apologise for overreacting. Anyway, let’s loot those wrecks and go home.”

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