The bulging vein in the captain’s forehead was not the only sign of his stifled irritation. He continued to ask me questions for an hour after the debrief room cleared of my weary compatriots. I wondered briefly if he was going to ask me to diagram the internal structures of a warp drive. I hoped he did, I could draw it in my sleep.
He looked around noting the room was clear then said, “I guess the only question I have left Lieutenant is what the fuck where you thinking when you configured your ship this morning? Were you not given an intel brief? What kind of thick skulled, cocky stunt…”
He continued to drone and I knew he didn’t want an answer. I had explained myself to the flight chief and my instructor already. The obvious choice for the engagement based on the intelligence report was missiles. I should have orbited outside of the pirate’s blaster range and pounded them with missiles until they popped. But what fun would that be? Blasters seemed like a better test of skill for my first combat checkride.
It was exhilarating, everything I imagined and more. My instructors, playing the role of pirates, came at me with everything they had. Honestly, I only had the upper hand because of my unorthodox tactics. The engagement should have ended with the first ship destroyed before it could take a shot, and the second one chasing me from the asteroid belt.
I jumped the first pirate before the second made it to the belt. It was a close fight, but I keep an eye on my transversal and maintained optimal range, taking down the first pirate before the second one was on top of me. When I turned to engage the second, my shields were almost gone. The second instructor was ready for my blasters. He fought hard, but in the end I blew up his Merlin before I lost my structure. Okay, I was one shot away from a hull breach, but I still won.
“It makes me sick to pass you on this ride. In the future you will be expected to listen to the intel and make an appropriate plan. We are not pirates. We are the most skilled pilots in the known universe. Why are we the most skilled? Because we are the best trained and most disciplined. If you cannot prove you are smart enough, and disciplined enough, I don’t want you in my Navy. Do you understand?”
“Yes, sir,” I said, smile slipping across my face a little too early.
“Get out of here!”
I stood and shot toward the door. I couldn’t wait to get downstairs and compare notes with Tasha. My adrenalin and excitement grew as I replayed the engagement in my head. I hardly noticed the corridors passing by or the lift rides as I descended deeper into the station where the trainees lived. In 20 minutes I found myself at the end of a long access tunnel with a particularly large window looking out into space. It became our secret meeting place months ago when I was assigned to help Tasha with training. She was already there looking out the window.
“Tasha, I had the most amazing flight,” I gushed, smiling from ear to ear.
She turned, and in the light I could see tears streaming down her face.
“What's wrong, Tash?”
She stood there trembling. I braced myself to keep from going over to her.
“I failed my checkride. I don't know what in the world I am going to do. It was horrible.”
“I jumped into the belt and the pirates were waiting for me. The first one was on top of me before I even knew they were there. I tried to get into range but every time I shot I missed. It is so unfair. They are trying to wash me out!” She said, wrapping her arms around herself and staring at me.
“It sounds like you got out of optimal range for your weapons. You just need...”
She stomped her foot on the ground and gave me an exasperated look that was text book Tasha. I couldn't help but smile. When the second look came I felt my cheeks flush and my heart start to pound. A warm emotional starburst spread out inside of me. Did I have a crush on her? When had that happened? I pressed the thought down inside. Now wasn’t the time.
“I know what I needed to do Laka! Nothing was working right and they were there so fast!”
I walked over and put my arms around her. She tensed for a second and then fell into me. I held onto her tight and ran my fingers through her hair. It was drenched. How long had she been crying? I pulled my hand away and it was covered in blood. I tried to step away but she slumped against me. I squeezed my arm around her cold body trying to help her stand back up.
“Tasha, there is something wrong. You need to stand up so we can see if you are ok.”
She shook her head against my chest and let out a little laugh. When she backed away I looked down to see both of my hands covered in blood and thick things I didn’t want to think about. I wanted to run but my legs buckled and I fell to my knees.
Icy panic spread down my arms and I turned my head to look out the window into space. The window no longer held the beautiful light of distant stars because it was covered in flowing blood. Blood was running from the ceiling, down the walls, into the floor.
I closed my eyes and turned my head to confront the terror in front of me. When I opened them she was standing there looking down at me eyes filled with amusement. Her arms were crossed, foot poised ready to tap the ground in the pose I so often remembered. She was too white and her smile was a fraction wider than humanly possible. Blood poured out of her eyes and the corners of her mouth.
“You think too much Laka.”
She stepped toward me and I awoke to the buzz of an incoming communication blaring inside my skull. I almost ripped myself loose from the pod before I realized what was happening. I gasped for air and the pods life support system relayed somewhere in my mind that it was compensating for my increased respiration. A thousand other feeds burned through my mind at an almost maddening pace.
Instinct built from thousands of hours of training kicked in and I mentally sent out the command to deaden the information stream bringing it to a manageable level. I fell back into my seat, panting and trying to get my bearings. Slowly, the lightning storm in my head subsided.
I didn’t know how long I had been asleep. Time between sleep had become longer the more I stayed in my pod. The need for sleep is masked when you are attached to the machine. You can drive yourself to exhaustion without noticing. Dying of dehydration or lack of food is a real possibility too. I had to take care of myself. It would be embarrassing to starve to death in a perfectly good pod while Antov was out there somewhere.
I had been trying to chase down Antov for over a month. About a week into my quest I resigned from my corporation and alliance. I couldn’t lead them anymore. After Tasha's death I didn't think it would bother me. But giving up the corporation had been painful.
Antov had turned into a ghost. Every time I was close he became vapor and slipped through my hands. I was starting to question if he ever really existed. So here I was, pushing my body to its limits inside a pod, with a single unfulfilled purpose to kill a man I could not find.
The death incarnate feeling had long since faded. Now I was running on anger and hatred. It was more than enough. However, as the feeling of being a god left me I had to give into the fact that I was a mere mortal. I was mortal who had given into a dark side that I always resisted.
I shook away all thoughts of morality and tuned back into to the pods information feeds. There were a lot of messages waiting for me, but only one I cared about. I cued it up and waited for the playback to start.
Lakasha, this is Karver. Call me back as soon as you get this.
Surprisingly enough I found help where I never expected. Karver had become so interested in the spoofed Titan transponder readings that he kept digging until he found the Titans belonged to the Amarr government. Now he couldn’t seem to stop himself from digging deeper into my grave. I wasn’t so naïve to think that if someone traced all of his hacking attempts it wouldn’t come back to me though. I didn't care as long as I found Antov. Whatever happened after that was irrelevant.
I opened up the communications channel and punched in Karver's access code. After a few minutes he answered
“I see you’re awake. I have exciting news.”
“Well, don't hold back let’s hear what you found”
“While you have been having dreams of me I have been busy running thousands of data link searches. If you understood the complexity of the algorithms you would see my genius.”
“You are a very smart man. That is why I’m starting to like you so much.” It wasn’t a lie, the slug of a man had started to grow on me. But I was tired and frustrated so my patience for his ego stroking were growing thin. “Is this getting somewhere?”
“Well, my frustrating friend, yes it is. I cross referenced all the known Raiders, members of Geklov’s corporation, and anyone who would have Titan access in the Amarr government. I couldn’t find any correlation until six hours ago.”
“You have my attention. Go on.”
“Antov Romanski has a cousin high up in the Amarr government. His name is Leger Moltov, and he is the Deputy War Minster of the Amarr Empire.”
For the first time in a long time I smiled. It looked like I was heading to Amarr Prime.