"Hello Garmasi. I hear you like getting people in trouble."
The Amarrian whose name had been spoken slowly put the merchandise back on the vendor's display bench, and stood up straight. His wrinkled features coagulated into a smile.
To the voice behind his right ear he said, "Depends on who deserves it. How did you get out?"
The voice said, "We had some help. Amazing what people will descend to doing, just for their own personal interest."
"Isn't it just?" Garmasi said. "But if you don't mind me asking, what makes you think that coming here, out in the open, is going to do you any good? Do you perhaps have a laser knife on your person?"
"None such," the voice said.
"A small gun, silenced or perhaps pressurized, and loaded with change-state ammo? Something to really put me in my place, during those last few agonizing seconds of my life?"
"Not at all."
"Disintegrating garrote," he said. "At least that. To lure me into a dark alley and snap on that self-tightening noose that does the job for you."
"Nothing of the sort."
Garmasi turned and faced her. "So what exactly is to prevent me from calling the guards and having your"-he looked her over-"admittedly marvelous figure thrown right back in jail, now on suspicion of disorderly conduct, kidnapping and jailbreak?"
"Oh, I don't think you want to do that," Joreena said. "But I do think you want to tell me about your plans."
"I do?" Garmasi said with a smirk. From his seat behind the display board the vendor coughed politely, for the pair was blocking sight to his merchandise, but neither one of them moved. When he coughed again, the Amarrian turned to him and in one swift motion pulled out a datacard, keyed in a number, touched the card to the vendor's scanner, plunged the card back in his pocket and hit the scanner's confirmation pad with a fist. A series of digits scrolled up on its screen. The vendor promptly shut up.
"You do," Joreena said. "You had us arrested on small charges, but you've been hanging out here with not a worry in the world. You must have figured we'd be coming after you and messing up your business."
"Not really, dear," Garmasi said. "We have no real business here other than to protect our client. As for you coming after us, one of our guys knows a thing or two about Gurista datasystems. I'm afraid we gave you a rather ugly past. Nothing worthy of a capital offence, but certainly enough to have you retained while the authorities figure out what to do with creatures like you."
"Creatures like us?"
He shrugged and smiled. "Fires. Children. You're bad people."
Joreena stared at him for a moment, then smiled and seemed to make up her mind about something. "So we'll disappear. Strike at you from the shadows. And we will get our target."
"You'll do nothing of the sort," Garmasi said. He stepped in and took firm hold of Joreena's upper arm, turned his head and said to the vendor, "Triple the amount I gave you if you get the guards here right now."
The vendor nodded eagerly and moved his hand underneath his stall. There was a clanging noise, and suddenly guards were all over the place.
"I'm afraid this is the end, my dear," he said.
"Yes. It is," she said.
The guards moved in.
"It's a shame you didn't have any other purpose here. We might have come to some kind of arrangement," she said.
"Oh, it's far too late for that now," he said.
"Certainly," she replied, quite sanguine.
He furrowed his brows, but didn't have time to say anything else, for a muscular hand was clamped on his shoulder. "Alright, murderer. Time to go."
He looked around. A large Guristas guard stood there, backed by five others. Two of them already had their stun batons out.
Garmasi stammered out "Wait, what-" before the guard holding him pulled back a fist and punched him in the stomach. "Shut up, asshole," the guard said as the Amarrian doubled up.
Joreena knelt beside him. "Save your breath," she said. "You'll need it for the interrogation. I hear it's a little harsh for someone of your reputation."
Garmasi's eyes bulged at her.
"You're bad people now," she whispered and blew him a kiss before the guards dragged him away.
The good thing about doing your own crazy science experiments in warehouses and empty rooms across the universe was that you learned to recognize the signs. Artenal approached the building, taking his time and looking closely at its doors and windows.
There wouldn't be a risk of explosives or other area-of-effect damage from this guy. Drones meant accuracy and clean hands. That suited Artenal fine. He wanted to get dirty.
On the other hand, drones could also mean early warning systems, and fighting conducted from a distance. Artenal walked very slowly and used his eye for patterns. Nothing beeped, and nothing blinked, and it seemed like his opponent hadn't rigged up anything at all. It was understandable – the man was leaving soon and his enemies were supposed to be rotting in prison – but very stupid. It was assumptions like this that got a person hurt.
Artenal grinned, and patted the small sphere in his pocket.
The warehouse door was creaky, but a gearhead always carried some kind of oil. He made his way deeper into the building.
Inside, its periphery was dotted with all manner of debris and junk - mostly skeletons of hover vehicles that had been scrounged for every useable part - but the center was an open area that had been cleared out. In it, by a metal workbench, sat the Gallente man Artenal had seen at the bar, quietly tinkering with something. The high roof and bare walls caused every metallic click from the Gallentean's tools to echo.
"Safety's the illusion of the unprepared, Ontre," Artenal said, stepping out from cover. Ontre looked up and regarded him for a moment before bowing back to his work.
When there was no further reaction, Artenal walked a few steps closer. He was too far from the Gallente mercenary to see what he was working on, other than a pile of silvery mechanics and a mess of wires, but close enough that he could see several small attack drones lying neatly sorted on the edge of the bench.
"Are you going to turn those on?" Artenal said, with perfect calm.
Ontre stopped his task and for the first time seemed to properly register Artenal's presence, looking at him with quiet interest. "Should I?" he said.
"It's either that or you surrender and come have an unpleasant conversation with me and some friends of mine."
Ontre seemed to honestly consider this for a moment. Then he shrugged, said, "I do have a lot of work to do here, you know," and reached out for a switch on a small activation board lying on the bench.
The air was filled with an angry buzz as the drones came to life. Ontre adjusted a few settings on the board, then leaned on one elbow and watched Artenal.
It took a few seconds for the electric machines to rise in the air and orient themselves. They hovered ever higher, adjusting their formations and apparently communicating with other. Despite himself, Artenal was fascinated. "Do they always take this long to get into gear?" he asked. "If I had a gun you'd be dead by now."
"They go from zero to kill in point eight five seconds per meter in mid-air, assuming no wind. There're some emergency features, too, that let them launch themselves up or even directly at someone. Total from offline to guaranteed impact is one point one two, with my hand on the activation trigger," the Gallentean said. "And if you'd had a gun you would've shot me at range, so I figured I might as well let them go through the whole syncing routine. They get a little grumpy if I use them too much with realignment."
"Let's see what they can do, then," Artenal said and started walking towards the mercenary. The drones, who were floating in the rafters by now, immediately turned their electric eyes to him. There was an echo of a dozen little prods extending from their carapaces, followed by the crackle of electricity.
As Ontre shrugged and flicked another switch on his control board, Artenal reached into his pocket and pulled out the EMP bomb. The drones roared downwards, electric oblivion aimed at Artenal, and it took more self-control than he'd expected not to run. He clicked on the bomb and tossed in the air.
There was a whomph, and the drones clattered lifelessly onto the ground along with the spent bomb.
Ontre frowned. Instead of reacting to Artenal's approaching presence, he looked back to his work and prodded it a few times with a screwdriver. "You just cost me a full day of very complex work," he said.
"Shame. Maybe next time you'll know better than to mess with us," Artenal said. He was closing in on the Gallentean and had started to reach out a hand that he expected would grab the man by his neck, when the mercenary ducked, shot in and clamped his arms around Artenal's knees, tripping him up. Ontre immediately followed through, resting one knee on Artenal's sternum and pinning him, the other leg stretched out for ballast, and started raining punches on his head.
The shock of the attack cost Artenal several valuable seconds, and his vision had begun to blur at the edges when his brain caught up with what his body was undergoing. He bucked his hip, then dropped it again and rolled away, getting to his knees. As the Gallentean rushed towards him, he pulled his small steel blade out of a hidden part on his belt and held it behind his hands, feigning wooziness. The mercenary aimed a kick at his head, and as it curved close Artenal swiped his knife at the leg. He'd been hoping to hit a tendon, but the blade buried itself midway into Ontre's calf, and the kick hit the side of his head with lessened force that was nonetheless enough to nearly knock him out.
Ontre dropped to the floor, screaming. He tried pulling out the knife, but its notched edge wouldn't budge. By the time he had the sense to look up again, Artenal's other hidden knife slid neatly under his chin and into his head.
Ontre slumped, lifeless.
Artenal sat there for a long time, reflecting on career choices, and on the idiocy of assumptions.
It was dark and the alley was deep, but he had been told she would be here. He knew she wouldn't be, at least not unprepared and certainly not by herself, but that was all right; he'd made preparations of his own.
Kralean walked about slowly, listening for noise and for silence.
"Hello, weakling," a voice said.
He turned. A woman of Minmatar origin entered the mouth of the alley. She wasn't dressed in much, and the distant lights of neon and stars made her dark skin glisten, highlighting its tattoos and scars. Kralean saw the cut of her muscles, which writhed like coiled snakes, insinuating themselves in effortless motion. It was the woman from the bar, but he hadn't paid any attention to her back then.
She was followed by a dozen people, all of whom looked like they came from the darkest part of space.
"Word has it you've been going after my associates. Got free somehow, think you're gonna be real clever and take us out. I tried contacting them, thought it was just the usual Guristas shit station service. Turns out it's you, and that you've turned the guards against us."
"That would be Artenal. He figured you'd be easier dealt with if we imposed a blackout. Sorry about the inconvenience," Kralean said and put his hands in his pockets. The Minmatar woman's associates tensed up, so Kralean added, "I'm not pulling a gun. Relax."
"So I let word spread that I'm panicking," the Minmatar woman said, "And set up a meeting with an escape contact. Lo and behold, you show up. Where are your pals?"
"I honestly have no idea," Kralean said. "I explicitly requested that I get you to myself, and I see I made the right choice."
The Minmatar woman frowned. She turned to one of her associates and said, "Kill him."
The man nodded and wordlessly started making his way into the alley. When he'd covered half the distance, Kralean pulled out of his pocket a small item and said, "Come any closer and I'll press it."
Everyone froze in place. In calm and very clear tones, the woman said. "What is it you have there?"
"Oh, it's just a button," Kralean said, and pressed it. To his great enjoyment, everyone but him pinched their eyes shut for a second, then looked around in amazement. "Told you," he said.
"Great Tribe of earth and sky," the Minmatar woman said in exasperation, sighing with spent adrenaline. "Kill him!"
Her man moved in. Kralean smiled. There was a brief scuffle.
After the man's body had stopped twitching, Kralean dusted off his robes and said, "Look, maybe we can work this out."
The Minmatar woman and her people stared at the broken form lying by Kralean's legs. She said, "What ... what do you suggest?"
"Well, you've got a tiny golden Khuumak hanging around your neck. I like those, they're cute. Break it off and toss it to me, and I'll give you a running start."
Even at this distance he could see her face tense up and her jaw clench. "Don't forget to recite the names of the Emperors," he added. "You must've been taught them at some point."
She looked directly into his eyes and said in a dead voice, "You will never walk out of this alley alive." She started walking towards him, her team in tow.
He gave a brief smile and cocked his head, as if listening, then looked towards the sky.
Had this been a mere alley fight, he thought, she would have continued. But even despite her visible rage she stopped, and told her men to stop as well.
He found himself relieved that he'd secured backup. The transmitter in his pocket felt far too light, but he pressed it again, sending the second and final message.
"Why are we waiting?" one of them said, in the plaintive tones of a child being told it can't play with its favorite toy. "He's just standing there."
"Yeah," she said. "That's the problem. What are you listening for, preacher man?"
"The people," he said. "And I think they're arriving."
There was a susurrus in the air. Kralean said, "You know, most people had the sense not to help you out. The ones who did sign up in your little crew are the ones that everybody else on this station positively hates and fears. But there's strength in numbers."
"What are you talking about?"
"There's a lot of faith in a place like this," he said. "And it took quite a bit of convincing, but I've been a Wanderer for the Speakers of Truth for a long time, and I know what to tell the people who want to hear, and how to listen to those who otherwise never get to speak."
The susurrus turned into a tremor. The mercenaries looked around and saw groups of people pouring into the alley.
"You really should have listened," Kralean said before the beatings began.
Shahoun moved through the darkening night, alone and unprotected.
The last of his team had vanished. They'd been heading towards the docking area when his Caldari bodyguard stopped them, saying he'd heard a noise. The guard had ordered him to stay put, then gone off to investigate and never come back. He'd heard a woman's laughter in the distance and it had given him the shivers. He ran.
Now he was at the docks, moments away from his ship. Nothing mattered but to get away.
The customs agent took a long time looking over his data. Then he said to Shahoun, "I'm sorry, sir. Your ship has been sequestered."
He did not even bother arguing. "Is there any way I can get off this station? Any way at all? Please?"
The customs agent looked at him for far too long.
"Look," Shahoun said, "I'm very sorry if I'm being too forward here. I don't mean to imply anything about you, your job or personal ethics. But I absolutely positively have to get somewhere very soon, and I'll do anything I can to make it happen. Please. I'm begging you."
The agent kept looking. Then at last he said, "Well, sir, your ship has been seized but you're under no official obligation to stay, though I don't doubt you will be once investigations have run their course. But I can see you're in dire straits, and I'm willing to consider a compromise."
"Name it. Anything," Shahoun said.
"There's a ship leaving soon, and I know someone on it. Spoke to him earlier tonight, as a matter of fact. They've finished their business here and have plenty of room for passengers. I'm sure you could bargain with them to get you where you want. They're good people."
"Thank you, please. Yes. That would be most wonderful."
The customs agent handed him a card. "So if you'll just make a quick donation to the customs agent retirement fund, I'm sure we can sort you out."
"Of course, of course," Shahoun said and grinned. "How much?"
"How much is it worth to you?" the customs agent said without expression.
Shahoun signed off an amount, and the agent looked it over and nodded. "Section 34C, red area, sir. Move quickly, now."
"Thank you so much," Shahoun said and ran off.
He made it to the ship on time, was waved through by another customs agent without a word, and went into one of its waiting chambers, where he sat down with a heavy sigh of relief. He didn't want to talk to anyone just yet, merely to be whisked away into the oblivion of deep space.
After not too long the outside door closed automatically. The only other door was the one that lead deeper into the ship, standing ajar.
There was a tink from that door. Shahoun looked up and saw a big, burly Minmatar man smiling at him, a small canister in one hand. The man threw the canister at Shahoun, who instinctively grabbed it.
"Welcome onboard," Artenal said and shut the door. The canister started hissing, and let out a white non-odorous gas that filled the room.
Shahoun's felt inertia pull hard on him, though through the increasing fuzziness of his thoughtweb he didn't know whether the ship was taking off or if he was merely losing his consciousness. It felt oddly relieving.
His last thoughts before passing out was that he really should have hired these people instead.