The team made it safely out of warp, though Joreena didn't open her eyes for a full minute. It was a beautiful universe, dark and vast, but interstellar travel was rough on the flesh.
Once all stomachs were settled and safety equipment disabled, Scaara made a show out of checking her weapons, with very little visible tremor as she peered down sights and checked ammo counts. Artenal was more subtle about it, rubbing his muscled arms and hovering his fingers over the various pieces of metal and alloyed plastic that hung from his tool belts and bandoliers. Kralean alone looked entirely unconcerned, looking out the window and yawning. Steel behemoths passed them on either side, the sun's rays reflected off their hulls.
Joreena, Scaara, Artenal and Kralean - Gallente, Caldari, Minmatar and Amarrian respectively - each had their own set of unique skills, ranging from public relations to mechanics to pure, unadulterated violence. They had worked together for a while now. The money was good; that was what mattered.
A speaker sounded. The voice of the ship's pilot, Kraeja, rang out. "We're heading to the docking bay, right on time. Traffic's about what we expected, and some capsuleers are getting advance treatment as usual. Anyone needs more time to recuperate, speak up now, please."
The team instinctively looked at Joreena, who was her regular pale post-warp self. She held one hand in front of her mouth, but shook the other and mumbled, "I'm good, thanks," in pinched breaths. "Water, please. Thank you. Let's do a final run." She turned towards the one vid screen in the room, surreptitiously fishing out a pill from one of her dress pockets and popping it into her mouth.
An image filled the screen. It showed a craggy face with bushy hair and eyebrows that cast shadows, all captured in the fat, smily countenance of someone who had no right to look so happy.
"This is Shahoun Asa," Kraeja said through the speakers. "Got quite a track record, as we've seen. One of the best mission coordinators for the Amarr Navy, responsible for countless incursions against those brainless nitwits in Sansha's Nation. The capsuleers love this guy."
Shahoun's image faded and was replaced with a picture of a space station. It was Gurista, and through the windows its real-life counterpart could be distantly glimpsed. "Sansha being what they are, they just kept throwing themselves in front of the guns. Unfortunately for the Amarr Navy, and luckily for us, not every pirate is stupid and brainwashed. Sansha's friends the Guristas stepped in and made Shahoun an offer. If he switches sides to the Gurista side, brings over all those nice secrets on Amarr Navy tactics, they'll set him up for life. Might even give him a nice Sansha slave for his bed."
"Dangerous move," Kralean said, without looking from the window.
"Stupid move," the speakers replied. "Navy's got countermeasures for exactly this sort of thing. He got past them with money and charm. There are rumors he flipped for ideology more than benefits."
"Does it matter?" grunted Artenal. He fiddled with a small piece of metal that looked half like a tapered linchpin, and half a tiny notched knife.
"No chance of diplomacy, I guess," Joreena sighed, ignoring him.
"Not on our timeline," Kraeja replied. "It's a marvel we got to him before he went deep. I still haven't figured out what business he's got on this station, apart from waiting on some kind of package and making a bunch of minor, hi-tech purchases, but he won't be staying long. It's one of the edge outposts for the Guristas, so we can dock freely, but we should assume that he's got at least some kind of protection there. And please, guys, remember that Navy wants him back intact. No repeats of what happened last time."
"That was a fluke," Scaara said.
"No, that was you removing somebody's head," Kraeja said. "Let's rein it in, alright? And for goodness' sake, don't kill anyone else. You know the laws on that station."
"I still can't believe they make it work," Scaara said, aiming an unloaded gun at Artenal and adjusting the sights. "How can you run a pirate station where nobody's allowed to kill anyone?"
"Discipline," Artenal said, pointing the metal piece at her in turn.
"Among pirates?" Scaara said to him.
"You'd be amazed what conditions people will accept, just so they can live in a little safety," Artenal said.
"And how close you can take someone to the point of death without pushing them over," Kralean added nonchalantly. Artenal gave him a look, but didn't comment.
"It's not quite like that," Joreena added in a stern voice. Her face had regained some of its color, and she gave the Kralean and Artenal stern looks. "Pirate or not, you've got to keep things under control if you want to get anything done. There'll always be some conflicts and that's fine, you deal with those when they happen. Everything can be patched up somehow, except death." She took another sip of water and added, "I looked through some of the station's laws on the way here. The comptroller's an old Intaki Syndicate man, and they know how to keep control of the madness. If we do end up killing some civilian, it'll mean a mass of paperwork for us. Not to mention getting held back so long that Shahoun'll be long gone. If we kill guards, on the other hand, we're in a lot of trouble. Let's try not to do that unless this agent is about to slip out of our grasp."
Scaara loaded her gun with a click that echoed in the small room. Joreena was about to say something to her, but the pilot's voice crackled out of the speaker. "Going on docking route, people. Strap in and look sharp. I'll pick you up when the cargo's ready."
Outside the viewports they saw the station loom large, its thousand eyes of light blinking in rapid succession. The ship drew closer and was swallowed into its mouth.
For a Gurista operation, the station ran pretty clean.
Joreena had rushed off to secure permissions and grease palms, delighting in her area of diplomatic expertise. The rest of the team ambled around the main marketplace, getting a feel for the area and enjoying a bit of time away from one another. Space was infinite, but cramped rooms on long spaceship hauls accompanied by other mercenaries and an extensive arsenal were quite the opposite.
The noise in the main shopping areas was near-deafening but came mostly from overzealous vendors rather than violent skirmishes. Gurista operatives visibly patrolled the areas and shut down any confrontations, which left shoppers to do their business relatively unbothered.
Most of it was regular fare: Condensed food, synthesized drink of all colors, and general supplies for people about to venture into the unclaimed territories. Every now and then there'd be a stall with a flashing banner that proudly proclaimed the availability of small arms or narcotics. There was a certain odor that always went with these booths: stinging sweat, dry powder and strange chemicals, and the sharp iron smells of metal and blood. More complex machinery could be had as well, ranging from subcutaneous implants to semi-autonomous attack bots, but it was sold only through representatives that handed out 3D catalogs, tiny seeds of information that blossomed in your hand and lit up a rotating display of the death-dealer of your choice.
It was mercurial, but it worked. Station areas were expansive and their ceilings inset with both windows and shaded lighting, which helped the populace avoid the claustrophobia that always came with life in space. For all their focus on business, the stalls, storefronts and electrocarts served equally as hubs of general conversation. The noise and the chatter held together a community hanging perilously over the chasm of chaos and disorder. It was an environment of constant adaptation to its own destructive elements, overseen by someone with enough sense to make it work. Kralean hoped that whoever was in charge of this place would see the sense in letting his team go about their business without any trouble.
He spotted Joreena approaching. There was a faint smile on her face, and she kept a fast pace even as she passed through the throng of people. Before she'd even reached hailing distance, he knew they were good to go.
Large as it was, the Steel Barrel bar managed to be densely crowded with all sorts of patrons, and the team blended in easily. Caldari designs were everywhere, but redecorated towards Gurista sensibilities, celebrating brash individuality and complete, self-centered hedonism.
The Steel Barrel only had one floor, though there were several raised areas which offered more privacy: circular platforms spacious enough to hold a dozen people, laden with comfy seating and plentiful drink, and surrounded by aural isolation fields, electrical anti-intrusion shielding, and large people with crossed arms and short tempers.
It wasn't long before they made contact. In one of those raised areas, Scaara glimpsed a man in his late middle age - lounging on a sofa, drink in hand, his craggy face lit up with a carved smile.
She looked around and caught the eyes of the other team members, each of whom was scouting out another area of the bar. They moved over to Shahoun, making their way through the crowd as unobtrusively as they could. Each eschewed complicated equipment, which could break all too easily during critical mission points. They'd worked together long enough that glances, gestures and movements said all that needed to be said.
Joreena got there first and was about to speak to the bodyguards on the platform when they stepped aside without a word. Her mouth snapped shut, and she walked into the private area, followed by her teammates. Shahoun raised his glass to them and smiled even wider, but didn't otherwise react. There was a small group of people in there with him, one from each empire, watching a holovid overhead and plugged into the isolating world of egonic headsets. None of them seemed to register the team's appearance, or care much.
Kralean moved to the forefront, gently shouldering aside the annoyed Joreena. "We'd like you to come with us," he said.
Shahoun took a final sip from his glass and handed it to a waitress, then twined his fingers together behind his head, leaned back, and looked at the ceiling. One of his friends got up and stumbled over to the bar, helped himself to a drink and ambled back to his seat.
Scaara grunted. Kralean added, "Actually, some of us would probably quite like to kill you, so I do strongly advise you to come with us." He tensed for the man's friends to react, but they remained in their seats, calmly sipping their drinks.
"Do you know why I'm here?" Shahoun asked, in a voice that was a little slurred. "On this station, I mean. The more precise location, lounging here on this nice couch with wonderful drinks - oh thank you, my dear, always a pleasure," he said, accepting a fresh glass from the waitress, "With wonderful drinks and such nice company, that much I don't know. But here," he said, pointing at the ceiling or the vidscreen. "On this station." Pointing at the floor. "That much, my friend, I know." He finished the tirade by pointing at Kralean, who sighed quietly.
"If I put a bullet in his head, he'll shut up," Scaara said.
"It doesn't matter why you're here," Kralean said to Shahoun, wondering why the guards hadn't been called yet. Shahoun's drunken entourage was clearly useless, and it was usually at this point that the team had to fight someone. Scaara was starting to jitter from adrenaline and excitement.
Shahoun leaned forward and said, "In fact, I think it matters. It matters very much. I was waiting for something and it arrived a little earlier than I expected. I'd been planning to leave right after, but thanks to this recently arrived ... package"-he clearly relished the word-"I heard that some people were after me. That would be you, I surmise," he said, and took another sip of his drink.
Kralean didn't comment. Shahoun leaned back in his seat and said, "So I decided I might as well put this package of mine to the test. I expect it will prove quite useful."
One of Shahoun's companions got up at last, and ambled over to him. It was a large, burly Caldari man, angular and massive. He walked in front of Shahoun, positioning himself between the rogue agent and the team, crossed his arms and grinned.
"This is part of my package," Shahoun said.
The Caldari winked at Scaara and said, "Hey there, little thing. Wanna ride my Raven?"
There was a muffled thud as Artenal impacted with and held back Scaara, whose feet were scraping at the carpet. "Let's not go for the moron with the battleship jokes," Artenal grunted, holding Scaara tight.
Kralean said to Shahoun, "Do you honestly think we can't deal with muscle?"
Shahoun regarded him, and in a voice that suddenly sounded far too sober, said, "No, you probably could. But you're clearly not very good at dealing with brains. Or decoys."
In the next few breaths, as time crystallized and adrenaline started its dead run down the team's veins, a few things became briefly apparent. One was that the isolation field had been growing more and more tinted, to the point where people on the outside probably couldn't see very much at all what was happening on the inside. Another was that the man who'd gone over to the bar hadn't returned, and had in fact turned his back to them for quite some time. The last was that there was a faint, if insistent buzzing noise that had been hovering at the edge of consciousness, but was now unmistakable.
As everyone in the team started to move and draw their guns, the man at the bar spread his arms, and an army of tiny drones flew into the air. Before a single shot could be fired they had zoned in on every member on the team, flown up to them and given off a sharp electric current. Joreena dropped right away, and Kralean shortly after. Artenal stumbled to his knees and tried to shake it off, but several other drones flew up and shocked him, and he tumbled down.
Amazingly, it was Scaara who lasted the longest. Biting her lip hard enough to draw blood, she shook off the initial shock and managed to evade the other drones long enough to rush towards Shahoun, but in the quick of action she overlooked the Caldari bodyguard, who stepped within range, lifted a meaty fist, and hit her so hard in the face that it felt her head would twist off her neck. She crumpled to the floor, out cold.