It was one of those shopping ‘plexes that was illuminated in all kinds of neon colours: Green, yellow, pink, blue, purble… Together all the lights were dancing all across the area and a multitude of voices, melodies and background noises created a suitable symphony for this consumer madness. The ground port had only recently opened – six months or so – and already all kinds of traders, brokers and businessmen of all shades of grey had moved in and were selling their commodities at this forum-like structure. The Imperial colony was under ‘Patronage’ and along came all kinds of discounts and tax reductions for off-worlders. Quite naturally, it did not take long for them to arrive.
They sat together in a cafeteria. The man had ordered matcha tea with dried plums and cinnamon for them. Meanwhile, the woman who sat opposite to him was watching the scene and absently stirred her spoon in her cup of tea. Equally absent she adressed the man without so much as looking at him: „So you are still chasing ghosts and fairy stories across the universe?“
He looked at her: „I never chased ghosts, Mir. Although they made us believe they existed. They really tried hard and at one point or another we were really close to creating one ourselves. The rest you know pretty well. There’s a point of no return and either you take it or you don’t.“
She brushed away her long blonde hair and finally looked at him: „And you did?“
He looked back at her, half angry and half sorry. „We have been over this when you offered me your favor. You don’t just say ‘no’ and leave. Some parts of the Federation just don’t work that way.“ He smiled: „As do the Empire and the Alliance. You know that pretty well.“
„Yes,“ was the somewhat hesitant answer. „All three are so power hungry that they consume all those they deem useful or an asset. And after having exploited them they just spew them out and make sure no one else has use for these poor shells anymore. In all their arrogance all three fail to see that the loyalty they command is only a snapshot. It’s an illusion really. But since they are also masters of illusions for the many, the many willingly seek them out and offer their resources. Like you did.“
The man smiled wryly: „Yeah, thanks for telling me. It’s always nice to be reminded of past glories and the fact you are only one of these ‘shells’ you mentioned. Thanks.“
She bowed her head slightly and gave an affirmative nod. She also started again to stir the tea in her cup. „Why did you contact me again? I thought we were fair and square after we made sure your nightmares were put to rest and your moral highgrounds reinstalled.“ There was sarcasm in her voice, one of the rare occasions the woman let something like an emotion slip into her otherwise carefully worded speech.
The abrupt sarcasm surprised and irritated him. On all their occasions the woman was not prone to making moral judgements. She was a contractor for a rather secretive association of pilots within the Pilots Federation, and she reputedly was one of the best. All he knew about that organisation was that it aimed at finding or restoring relics from an ancient past, something in between science and myth. Other than that she had never let slip anything about her motives, despite him being something of an investigator himself. This was telling, as was the fact that everything about this woman was absolutely unrevealing: No life details, no preferences, no personal attachments, no interest in more personal relationships. He knew that type of person and he knew that despite her appearance she was a dangerous figure to deal with.
„Moral highgrounds? Come on, don’t lecture me. You have your own utopia you seek, and you believe it’s out there.“ He nodded out of the window. „So much is clear. But you will never hear me questioning your motives. I have seen too much weird stuff and most of it seems to be connected to even weirder stuff. Science taught me that and the Long Arm incident just was the tip of the iceberg. It was then that I decided I had had my fill and yes, thanks to you and your ‘associates’ I made it out. And I also gave you what you requested in return, didn’t I?“
She looked into her cup of tea again and gently inhaled the fragrance of sweet fruit. „Yes.“
„Now if you’ll excuse: There is something I want to point out to you. Well, someone really. You still surround yourself with your own ghosts. Or shall I say demons?“ He raised an eybrow. As the woman made no sign to object he continued: „You once told me you and your ‘organisation’ are always looking for low profile data runners and especially promising explorers who can get their shits together.“
He looked out of the window as if that person was standing just outside the cafeteria. „I may have identified one.“
She looked up again. „Who?“, she demanded.
„The guy that was employed by your ‘associates’ for my extraction. He didn’t know then of course.“
She immediately shook her head. „We never involve external sources twice that way. They are a liability.“
„Make an exception.“
„I owe him one. He didn’t kill me when he had the order and the choice. The Federation showed him the door for it and now he’s freelancing. You might want to say he found his moral highgrounds and was willing to pay with his career for it. A career with a government you yourself describe as a monster. Plus, he did some good jobs as a data courier and the Pilots Federation got wind of him. Took him a week to somehow obtain a Cobra and retrofit it for data running. In all this madness of power plays, espionage and counter espionage gambits he seems to be refreshingly pragmatic. As do his contacts. I checked them. They may be a bit shady but they are solid and quite well chosen All in all it’s a sophisticated, promising start-up.“
„How do you know?“ She had that wary look on her face that said ‘I know already but tell me’.
„You what?“ She put the spoon aside. „Do you realize you jeopardize your cover after all the hassle? We did everything to cover your tracks…“
She suddenly looked around cautiously and lowered her voice. „We did everything necessary to facilitate your transferral of service. There should not be sufficient data for any conjectures on behalf of your former employer and considering the level of …insight… you had it most likely is a good thing. I couldn’t care less but I cannot believe you are willing to…“
The man smiled and interrupted her: „Calm down, Mir. I may be ex-Federation but I still know my stuff. I also couldn’t care less about that guy. Isn’t that absurd? We both couldn’t care less but then again we just can’t? Make of it what you will but this is my advice to you: Employ this guy and see for yourself. Drop him if he screws it up but give it a try. Remember, you are looking for an ideal out there, something of a myth in itself if I’m right; detached from the regular cosmic business and you need contacts that are both idealistic and pragmatic. It’s not like your list of suitable contacts is infinite.“
At last she took up her cup and sipped a bit of tea. Finally she sighed: „Very well…“
The man chuckled: „At last! I knew you had a soft spot, Mir.“
„No worries. And yes, the tea is on me.“ With that he inserted his (fake) ID into the appropriate slot and stood up, grabbing his jacket. „Ah yes, one more thing…“
The woman looked at him.
„He’s been to the Corona Australis region on his own I am told. Chasing pulsars or something. You might want to take that into account.“
After he had gone the woman sat there for some more minutes, weighing her options. There was some truth in his words and basically there was not much to lose. Finally, she rose and made her way to the landing pads.
Within half an hour both had gone their separate ways again. The man still had some things to do, though. He had booked passage on an Orca liner bound for Alrai Sector and while he was waiting for boarding he typed a short message on his datapad, encrypted it, aligned his tight beam towards a preset vector and sent the message away. The message was nothing more than: ‘Alliance longterm mission out soon. Make sure our friend learns about it.’ After that he boarded the Orca and started to read the local newsflashes and magazines. Somehow the news made him wary but he didn’t exactly know why. Maybe it had been wrong to contact that woman again but he had the feeling that something major was about to happen.
The woman in turn, after having headed back to her Imperial Courier, first activated the frequency scrambler and then the subspace communicator. She was trying to reach a ship that by now must have come out of the sun’s sensor shadow: Time to act.
„Operator, I need you to check a new prospect, an Ex-Fed Logistics Officer. We used him for an extraction before. Set him up with a few contracts for one of the local expanding corporations like ‘Wolf 406’: Data runs and maybe a few delicate salvages. Make him improvise and put in a stress test or two but keep him on the hook. Also check his contacts and their contacts, the usual drill. I need a performance evaluation asap. Get things going, I’ll give you his contact details once we rendezvous in deep space.“
There was no answer. She knew she had been received and she knew that now things were put in motion.
Six hours later Pilots Federation freelancer Andrew Gaspurr got his first business contact with Wolf 406 asking for some discrete data package deliveries. The wheel was turning.