They were coasting in FIXME, out of regular sensor and probing range. The last year had been both a blessing and a curse. A blessing the first part of the year, which had slowly turned into a curse. The revelation of Alea Zatar's prowesses allied to her telepathic abilities had stunned the known universe. There was literally no corner of space that had not heard at least a very garbled story of what had happened in Illinfrik. Alea had inspired a whole batch of holo reels and fiction around the term "Shipwalker", coined by an Amarrian reporter and which was supposed to designate pilots like Alea that could control a ship without using a pod. Tarellek was stunned by the silliness of it all, and the effect of the fame was overwhelming. They drowned in contracts, and government officials welcomed them as saviors. Most of it was merely a front, of course. People wanted a share of the fame, a cut of the wealth they supposedly brought out of the field with them.
To actually have angel operatives surrender to them at the sight of the noseless Abaddon was one of the unexpected, albeit positive side effects. The entertainment ended somewhat brusquely however with the first kidnapping attempts. As some intel later revealed, the governments of the four races wanted Alea. They could not risk the bad publicity of publicly taking her into custody for being telepathic, so they now resorted to more stealthy ways to get what they wanted. Tiarell had his hands full, and after the third failed attempt Alea decided to limit her movements to the ship.
What followed were acts of increasing desperation. The former tries to kidnap her turned into unveiled assassination attempts. It seemed that if they could not get her whole, the next best thing was to get rid of her. The height of their famedom had passed, so the chances of her death making her a martyr had somewhat dissipated. The morale of the crew started to sink then, and six months later they might just as well have been officially on the run. The rare agents that would give them work paid very badly, most now being afraid of the silent and deadly retaliation of the government's assassins. A number of examples had been made, and that had hurt Alea more than the attempts on her own life. She felt responsible for those deaths, and Tarellek shared her grief.
This was where they stood now: demoralized and in hiding from just about everyone. Their frustration and hopelessness had reached new heights, and even the ship itself seemed to ooze melancholy. Alea and the ship were connected more than Tarellek nor herself had ever imagined, so the ship seemed to reflect her disposition. To Tarellek, that did not bode well. If only she could open herself to him a bit more, but depite their relationship she remained a mystery to him. He had spent the last six months trying to find a way out of this mess, but could not find any. The government's patience to get her seemed limitless, and what could they hope to achieve battling against them? Maybe this short respite would help to clear their heads and find a workable solution.
Alea had scanned down a small asteroid belt out in uncharted space, and so far no one seemed to have been able to follow them. Thalea monitored scan for any hints of pursuit, but even if someone did come this way they would be hard to find. Alea had powered down everything so that the position of the ship would be very difficult to pinpoint precisely. For their meeting, Alea had chosen a rather peculiar place: the destroyed pod chamber. Tarellek understood the symbolic value, but as usual her motivation was unfathomable. He trusted her utterly of course, so he knew this would put them on a new and hopefully better path. They had spent a whole month preparing their escape from their constant escorts, and it definitely felt good to be alone. Hell, any change felt good.
Tarellek had not set foot in the pod chamber since Alea's accident. To his surprise, it had been refurbished and her old destroyed pod was sitting in the middle like a sculpture from an artist with a decidedly warped sense of humor. She must have had one of the engineering crews work on this without telling him. Alea was looking at him, and the look on her face betrayed a hint of apprehension at his reaction. He nodded gravely. She had gone to great lengths to do this, and even if the memories it triggered scared him just a little, he understood it had a special meaning for her - and him as well, as it was the one event that precipitated their - albeit strange - relationship.
He did not know what to expect; She had spoken to a lot of people lately, called in old favors and revived dying friendships. She had been out of touch for a long time, so few of the conversations she let him overhear worked out. He was there as moral support, even though he did not comprehend in which way his presence affected her in these moments. He knew she had conversations without him present as well, but he did not mind. He genuinely loved her, but he knew their relationship was on borrowed time. She was a pod pilot, he was an engineer... as much as he wanted those barriers not to exist, they came back to haunt him. He felt like he was living in a cliché like those trashy pod pilot romance stories that you could buy anywhere for 2 isk. Maybe it was all in his head, after all. Alea did not seem to be troubled by all this, but then her mind was on other things at the moment.
He realized he was moodily staring at the floor, and brought his attention back to the assembly. Only key personnel had been invited, but Tiarell still made no effort to conceal his outrage. Breaking established laws like the maximum of two people in the same room with a pod pilot did not sit well with him, but he knew better than to berate Alea about it. His sour mood plunged the room into an awkward silence. Tarellek did not know what Alea was going to talk about. He had caught a few hints and glimmers of information, but he knew that in the end he was just as clueless as the others present.
„I think you will forgive me if I do not give you a florid speech like I usually do, I will get straight to the heart of the matter.” Her audience smiled at that, everyone knew that was exactly what she always did. The Caldari have ramped up their hunt: They have put a handsome price on me and the ship through their loyal mercenary network, and I am sure it will not be long before the other empires do the same. I had still hope that I could turn this tide somehow, but so far my efforts have been fruitless. Long story short, we can consider ourselves to be officially classified as fugitives now. I have given this a lot of thought, the only way we can hope to survive is if we cease to exist in their eyes. The first step is to be able to travel without being instantly recognized. That means we have to change the Anthea's locus signature as well as her visual aspect.
It made perfect sense of course: the locus signature was unique to every vessel, and could not be changed so easily. It required a lot of modifications that could only be done in a shipyard, and required a lot of paperwork and official scrutiny. Pilots usually did not bother even if they had legitimate reasons to change it: it was deemed too much hassle. In their case however, it would not be possible at all. No shipyard would ever allow them to do it - besides, it would be like walking into a government building to surrender. He quickly glanced accross the room, the silence was so deep that you could have heard a nanite crawling on the floor. Everyone was most likely coming to the same conclusions.
As you all know, official shipyards are not an option. However, our current situation has brought me to reconsider an offer that was made to me a while ago. I had dismissed it so far, thinking we would never accept the likes of it. The game has changed, however. The offer comes from the owner of a bootleg shipyard, and I am sure you have all heard of it: Troy.
To say that he had heard of it was a gross understatement. Troy was as fabled as the original Troy back on earth - except that in this time and age, it was a bootleg shipyard and a cesspit. Ruled by "Hector", the title of the man (and occasionally even woman) in charge of the whole operation. Troy represented everything CONCORD had been created for: It served as role model for thieves, pirates and the whole spectrum of scumbags that could possibly exist. It was reputed to be untouchable; CONCORD had given up long ago to bring it down. Whenever forays had been made into uncharted space to destroy the place, a new Troy would magically rise from its ashes.
Tarellek was sure a lot of these stories were nothing but propaganda and hearsay. CONCORD would still regularly issue statements that Troy had been destroyed, only to be dismissed by renewed rumours and stories that CONCORD was pulling everyone's legs again. Conspiracy theorists were quick to make Troy a government-funded operation for whatever objectives conspiracy theorists liked to believe in. Tarellek had no tangible information on the matter, so he preferred not to come to any hasty conclusions. One thing was certain however: Troy was a dangerous place for a ship like the Anthea. He waited for Alea to continue.
It is not as bad as it sounds, however. Like every other shipyard, Troy is a commercial venture. It is ruled by ISK, and we have enough to pay for the required transformations. The reason for which I did not consider the offer at the time was because it involved running a mission that went against my ethics. Seeing that the very people we used to work for are now hunting us down relentlessly, my code of ethics towards them has shifted somewhat. At least enough to consider this mission again.
Tarellek was troubled. He saw eagerness on his friend's faces, but he did not feel eager to become a full-fledged outlaw. If Alea had turned down the offer at the time, he would most likely not approve of it now. He kept his apprehension to himself while Alea continued her pitch. Somehow this sounded like a battle speech, like a general gives to his troops before sending them to their doom. He glumly watched on.
I still do not approve of the mission, yet the irony in it makes me wonder if we should use the occasion to clear out some loose ends we left behind. The mission statement says that the Ammatar have paid off a ranking Minmatar officer to serve as a shield for a covert operation in Minmatar space that is meant to compete directly with Troy's drug sales. We are to destroy their base of operations located in Traun, and to terminate their minmatar contact.
Tarellek was relieved, at least in part. He had no qualms whatsoever going against drug dealers. Killing that traitor was something else however. While killing the man did not appeal to him, he was a traitor - yet no one else knew about it. In the eyes of the world, they would be the cold-blooded killers that went after a minmatar officer.
Jumping to conclusions all over again, he saw that he would have to work on himself a bit more. He let himself categorically doubt her motives. Without realizing it, he shook his head at his own stupidity. Criticism was healthy, but you could also overdo it. Besides, his motto had always been to wait until he had all the pieces of the puzzle to pass a judgment.
Alea had seen him shake his head, and cocked an eyebow questioningly. He blushed, and dismissed it with a wave of his hand. He hoped she had not read his mind.
The part with the termination does not have to be taken so literally. In the business of people like those that run Troy, death is an easy means to an end. They are so used to it that they dispense it freely. If we were to arrange for that traitor's activities to come to light and thus take him out of the picture permanently, they would certainly be just as satisfied. And here is where the irony comes in: the traitor is none other than our dear friend Agdelger Ruflaner.
That last bit put a big grin on everyone's faces. Thalea even laughed aloud. Agdelger was the agent that had sent them into the trap in Illinfrik. They had come up against a full-sized Angel battlefleet and ended up trapped in a field of crystalline rock formations that had crushed the Anthea's nose. They had found out a while after their escape that he had not been assassinated by the Angels for that big fiasco as they had expected. He must have had better connections than they had anticipated.
Now however, they would have the chance to do something about him themselves. That thought cheered him up enormously.
- Abaddon rebuilt with new turret hidden in the nose. - Anthea's nose opens up to reveal the turret - Go through wormhole to get to Troy?