In the cold, hyperlit metal corridor, the two women faced one another at firing distance. Jeanelle, who'd brought them here, slowly lowered her hands to her hips, resting them on the handles of her guns. Skids, who'd kept them alive, kept her hands crossed behind her head, as if she planned to take a nap. She looked entirely unconcerned.
In one swift and silent motion, Jeanelle drew her guns, aimed at Skids and fired.
The deafening noise echoed through the corridor. In the aftermath of the muzzle flash, Skids stood with hands on her hips, an astonished expression on her face. She looked down at her body, in search of the vermillion stain, but before she could find one her eyes rolled back in her head, and she dropped to the floor.
They were in a meeting with a very nice man who spoke softly and had a face that was easily forgotten. This man, who had not given his name, told them that their team was one of many that qualified for the hunting of former Grand Admiral Anvent Eturrer.
Eturrer, or the Great Traitor as he was now known, had been instrumental in causing the Gallente to fumble their response to a mass invasion by hostile forces. As a result they had lost an entire planet to the Caldari, and had been forced into war on their outlying borders. Eturrer had disappeared right after his betrayal. The Gallente wanted him found.
Jeanelle, Skids, Kardeth and Asadir - Gallente, Caldari, Amarr and Minmatar respectively - had been called in. They were a merc team, one of many that worked in the corporate halo of 0.0 space. Their different backgrounds, national and corporate, allowed them a great flexibility in their operations, even if it made for the occasional bit of friction. Asadir was a tech head, excellent with machinery. Kardeth was a Wanderer, a clandestine subsection of the Speakers of Truth tasked with bringing the faith into the darkest of places. Skidochi was a supreme fighter, nimble and merciless, but her rebellious nature was in constant conflict with the guilt over her inability to properly serve the Caldari State. Jeanelle had a background in politics and entertainment, and a rather checkered past in her pursuit of happiness.
As it turned out, this past was proving surprisingly useful. One of the people Jeanelle had charmed in her passage was Uriam Kador, one of the Heirs to the Amarrian Royal Throne. The relationship was long since over, but Jeanelle had a way of making friends where she went and still had a lot of contacts in Kador's court. This was good, the nameless man said, because one of Eturrer's many possible hideouts was in Kador's part of space. The Gallente didn't know where, he said, and they certainly weren't going to risk any of their own people in these black ops stunts unless they had a very good reason to believe they'd get their man.
"Why not just have us extract Eturrer?" Kardeth asked.
That was not an option, the man said. Even if it turned out he was located there, their team would never get close to the man himself - he'd be too heavily guarded, and all they could hope for was reaching one of his co-conspirators - and any failed attempts to that end would drive him even deeper underground, ruining any chances the Gallente had of catching the villain at last. The team's task was the extraction of information, nothing more.
"Why do you think Jeanelle wouldn't just warn Kador instead?" Kardeth said, nodding his head at his visibly annoyed team mate.
They had a good track record, the man said. And besides, betrayal would mean they'd have Blaque's Black Eagles to deal with.
"Let me just add something to this," Jeanelle said, loosening something around her chest and standing up. She turned to Kardeth, glaring at him, and dropped her top.
"See that scar, running right between my breasts?" she said.
Kardeth, eyes wide, nodded wordlessly.
Jeanelle pulled the top up again and took her seat. "Kador's private persona is not the same as his public one. He gets excited. And he can't handle failure. I liked the people who worked for him, idealists who believe in hard work and loyalty, but I don't owe the man anything."
Skids said, "I've known you for years, but I don't remember that. Was it before we met?"
Jeanelle looked at her, then looked away. "Something like that."
Kardeth tried to rally. "Alright. Anyway, yeah, we'll do our best to triangulate Eturrer's position from whatever our sources reveal." Asadir snorted, and Jeanelle rolled her eyes. Skids, legs drawn up to her seat, said nothing.
The man thanked them for their time.
They were gearing up, receiving shipments of equipment to their ships. Jeanelle and Skids were checking over the data.
Casually, Jeanelle said, "Everything all right?"
Skids was silent for a while, going over ammo schematics. She said, "Yeah, it's fine. I don't like working for the Gallente, though."
"I know. But it's a job like any other. Asadir hates it when we do Amarr jobs, too."
"It's not just that. Eturrer's treated like a hero, back on Caldari. I don't like the thought that we're going to ruin things for him."
"I think that it's unavoidable," Jeanelle said. "He called this over himself the moment he betrayed his fleet. They would never let him go."
She put her arm around Skids' shoulders and gave her a quick hug. "And besides, it's not like the Caldari would venerate you even if you skipped out on this mission. They've got strange ways of showing their appreciation. You've seen that before."
"I guess," Skids said. "Still don't like it."
Jeanelle nodded and went back to the schematics. "You'll be fine," she said.
"What do you mean, I've seen it before?"
Jeanelle thought it over. "You come from one of the most rigid empires in the world, where people are kept locked in place their whole lives. And yet you now work for a mercenary crew. That really says it all, sweetie. Go to sleep."
After having adamantly refused to use Jeanelle's contacts in Kador's court, Kardeth received information from his own people in the dark end of space. He brought it to the team, proud and boisterous, and they set up and headed there quick.
According to Kardeth's sources, their target was a small colony staffed with very religious people who had some information on Eturrer's passage. The inhabitants, Kardeth maintained, would undoubtedly respect his rather clandestine authority as a Wanderer and rend unto him any assistance he required in his hunt. They would arrive late, have a prayer session and a nice dinner, get some proper sleep, and sort out their business in the morning. When Jeanelle asked whether the colonists knew the real purpose for their visit, Kardeth merely grinned.
Day Four (or very late in Day Three)
The main street was empty, as befitted a late night in a religious colony. Light posts shone on the grey stone below.
But there was a rumble in the air, and a few of the posts started to tremble, their lights jittering and swaying.
Skids came first, her slim body racing down the street. Jeanelle followed, her ampler proportions and more decorative clothing slowing her pace.
Kardeth, who'd stayed behind to reason with his people, came last, his sandals beating a tattoo on the ground, and his face as stony as an icon. Behind him came an army of Amarrians screaming raw bloody murder. The team had certainly unearthed something, but once their real intentions were discovered the colonists had not been happy.
Asadir, who had waited for them onboard the ship and already started the launch pattern, laughed his ass off as they jumped onboard. As the control panel closed, a yelled conversation could be heard between him and Kardeth.
"Welcome to my world!"
"How'd you like it on the Matar side!"
"I got a Pax Amarria in my nightstand, in case yours got a little dirty!"
Jeanelle took over and sent out feelers to some of her own sources in the area. Kardeth, chastened, grudgingly and rather sheepishly allowed himself to be assigned tech prep duties instead. On one of his trips into the hardware section of the cargohold, he showed Asadir a list of the items they were going to use: simple, non-electric weapons that wouldn't show up on scanning or break at the worst possible moment. One of those items was a familiar one.
Asadir reached Jeanelle at her quarters. She did not seem surprised to see him.
"You know that Skids has a quickdraw implant," he said.
"Yes," she said.
"On your list is a miniature EMP bomb. You know what it does."
"Are you just going for the quickdraw?" Asadir asked.
"No. I need you to mod the EMP, like you did in the Caldari space mission we did a while back. I need to run it twice."
Asadir stood there for a while, looking at her. Eventually he said, "You think we'll have to take this all the way."
"You've seen how she's getting. More sullen. Withdrawn. I don't thinks she's comfortable with this mission at all. I know she'll do it as well as she can, but there'll be a breaking point, and I don't want to have anyone get hurt."
"So you want the Dead Man's Switch."
"Yes. And I need you to do something else, too," Jeanelle said.
"Blanks for your gun."
"I hate doing this to the child."
"Well," Jeanelle said, in a tone that indicated this conversation was over, "You know what alternatives we have. It's this, or end it for good."
Later in the day, a source sent back a coded message. It contained the locations of a colony that housed one of Eturrer's old lieutenants, a fellow traitor who'd eloped with him.
Asadir missed it, for he was stuck in the lab, working on the EMP device.
They'd docked at another colony and been given permission to enter the place. It was still Amarr space, which meant that Asadir was, in his words, staying inside the ship on pain of death and religion and dumbasses. Kardeth stayed in as well, in the embarrassed and probably true belief that showing his face to any Amarrian in Kador space would complicate the mission. Jeanelle and Skids disembarked and headed for the bars.
It was a social hub of sorts for the nearby area, but heavily sectioned off. Colonists, these hermits of the world, knew how to respect privacy. The two women took a while to get familiar with the place, during which Jeanelle socialized heavily with every group they met while Skids grew increasingly morose. On one occasion they nearly wound up in a fight with the locals, when someone offered Skids a drink and she batted it out of the man's hands. Jeanelle made good but quickly retreated to another locale, taking a mumblingly apologetic Skids with her.
Eventually they managed to confirm the lieutenant's presence and approximate whereabouts on the colony. Unsurprisingly, he was being guarded by devout servants of Kador, who was used to taking good care of his people. Jeanelle knew many of these people from her last extended visit with the Kadorians, and it wasn't long before she was let into the circle. Skids, who could no longer disguise her discomfort with the colonists and the mission, hung back and did reconnaissance.
Jeanelle eventually returned, victorious and shining. She located Skids in an alleyway nearby, where the Caldarian was pacing about and kicking at rocks. Together they set off to find a secure communications terminal.
"How'd it go?" Skids asked on the way.
"Better than I dared hope," Jeanelle said. "You leave anyone in the dust?"
"Not so much, really. Anyway, did you have to do anything to get the info?"
Jeanelle gave her a bemused look. Skids blushed. "You know. I hate talking about that stuff outright."
Jeanelle laughed and put an arm around Skids' shoulder. "It's alright. I love what I do. But no, we really just talked. It's a shame. He's a good-looking man and I was hoping he had some interest in more, but really, he's under so much pressure that it took fairly nothing to open him up."
Skids raised an eyebrow. "So he gave Eturrer away."
"Not at all. But he talked about military installations and resource flow, in the delightful belief that a woman couldn't possibly understand it all anyway. Really, he thought he was using me as a sounding board and little more."
"And from that you can..."
"Deduce more or less where Eturrer is, yes," Jeanelle said. "Which may or may not be worth spit, if the guy moves or if anyone finds out there was a leak, or even if I was being told the truth. But we'll get paid either way."
"So where is he? Is he even here, in this part of space?"
Jeanelle put a finger up to her lips. "That would be telling."
Skids said nothing. Jeanelle asked, "How did your shift go?"
"Nothing much happened. Some people made a little trouble, but I sorted it."
Jeanelle, who knew Skids, understood this. "They still alive?"
"They weren't happy with your meeting. Thought you were a security risk. They were going to investigate us."
"And that would have been bad trouble," Jeanelle said.
"They're still alive, no worries. Are you sure you know where Eturrer is?" Skids said.
"Yes. Are you happy with the way the mission turned out?"
Skids briefly looked at her and said, "Absolutely," with not much conviction. They kept walking.
Eventually they made it to a narrow metal corridor in a reinforced part of the colony. A lone terminal was located there.
"Now we'll just have to send off the data and we'll be home free," Jeanelle said.
Skids had been walking in front of her for a while, and now turned to confront her. "I'm afraid not," she said to the merc.
Jeanelle sighed. "Skids ..."
"I can't let you do this. I can't."
"Yes, you can."
"You need to tell me where Eturrer is," Skids said.
"So you can contact the people who hate you and try one more bribe to change their view. It's not going to work, Skids. It never does."
Skids blinked, and said, "I don't recall having been the team traitor, but yeah, that's how it goes. I'm so sorry. I hate to do this, but I can't just help the enemy this way."
"You mean our employer."
"I mean the Gallente Federation. I don't expect you to understand, Jeanelle. Please give me the code."
"Why didn't you just tell on me? Sounds like you've joined the other side already."
Skids looked shocked. "I would never put you through that. Do you have any idea what they would do to you here if they knew what a traitor you are?"
"About the same as what the Caldari have wanted to do to you for years, Skids. Don't be stupid."
Skids didn't move. "You don't understand. Give me the info now."
"Let me put this in language that you'll understand, Skids. If you don't step away from that control, I'm going to blow you away."
Skids tensed, then relaxed and slowly grinned. "Go on, Jeanelle. Draw."
Jeanelle slowly reached into a pocket and pushed a button on something. Then she withdrew her hands and placed them near the guns on her belt.
Skids, in her element at last, stretched languidly to the ceiling.
Jeanelle sighed, walked over the body of her merc companion and keyed in a code on the control board Skids had been protecting. On the other side of the thick metal walls, wires crackled into action, switches passed on live currents, and a brief message was shunted out into the ether. Its contents spoke of the greatest traitor in the current history of the Gallente Federation and where he might be found, and they eventually weaved their way onto large monitors that cast reflections on the darkly grinning faces of his betrayed people.
Jeanelle picked up Skids' body and headed back to the ship. On the way there she contacted Asadir, confirming successful completion of the mission, and its collateral cost.
"Bring her back to the bay and I'll reset the Switch," Asadir said through the comlink. He added, "She'll be fine," though Jeanelle didn't know whose conscience he was assuaging.
She breathed deep and looked at the Caldarian's inert body. Unbeknownst to Skids, her quickdraw implant had an extra function. When set off with a specially prepared, deliberately focused EMP bomb, the implant would knock her out and erase all her recent memories. It wasn't healthy and it didn't work as well as it should - her past selves leaked into the present like trickles of water through the dam of quiddity - but it was necessary for someone like Skids, whose identity issues reached far beyond her conscious mind. She'd work things out some day. Until then, she needed support, and enough jobs to keep her abilities fresh.
The team did everything they could to keep her from harm. It was a unique and bothersome requirement of the Dead Man's Switch that its victim had to be made to feel as if she were dying. If they merely turned on the switch without faking Skids' death, the risk of irreversible psychosis rose by several orders of magnitude. So they loaded guns with blanks, and they faked hull breaches, and all the while they pressed little buttons and made their friend go through yet another death, to awake an earlier, cleaner self.
"You're sure she's not going to remember this one?" Jeanelle said.
"No more than the others, "Asadir said. "Way we've tuned it, she'll go back to herself before this mission even started. We just need to remember to keep our mouths shut."
"That's alright. We forgive her. Just like last time, and the one before that."
"She's a good one," Asadir said.
Jeanelle nodded in the gloom. "Yeah, she is. A little lost and out of control sometimes, but she's a sweetheart."
In the distance she could see the docking bays, steel and iron, waiting.