When he found me, I was passed out in the lower civilian levels, a dark alley behind a local station pub, favoured by the norms. I’d been heading towards my rented room and stopped to clear my spinning head, but that last pint of Ethanol had gotten the best of me. I’d curled up in a corner between two cozy walls instead and closed my eyes.
“Get up, Roc.” Emrys punctuated his command with a kick to my ribs. His feet were all business, with a steel toed boot to reinforce his point.
“Back off!” I came to my feet in one well-practiced motion, clenching my fist for a haymaker at his head. I instead loosed the contents of my stomach all over myself.
“I’ve got orders to give you more and better.” That was Valkear General Kuan Yida, a Kandjal across his back nearly as tall as he was. As near I could tell, he hated the stench of a drunk only marginally more than everyone else I had met. “Shakor wants to see you.”
This was not good news. Prime Minister Maleatu Shakor held information over me that far exceeded the value of anything I still owned, including the fistful of Republic medals I’d been awarded before I put military life behind me and embarked on a career of heavy drinking, far from anyone or anything I cared about. That he had sent Emrys after me meant that however paltry the debt might be to a man of his means, he was serious about getting the most of his investment. That he’d sent Kuan implied that if push came to shove, he’d be fine with taking it out of my corpse. Both men were feared throughout Amarr space and respected within the Republic. I had once considered them friends, even allies.
“Just get moving, Roc. Now.” Kuan gave me a shove.
“Tell Shakor I’ll come see him in the morning,” I said to Emrys, ignoring Kuan. “Right now I’ve got a headache, and I need my sleep.” I turned back in the direction of my room above another sinkhole pub in the next alley.
I heard the whisper of Kuan’s kandjal coming into play, and the space between my shoulder blades buzzed fiercely in anticipation of the blow. “Not smart, even for you, hero,” he said with the right balance between threat and sarcasm.
I raised my hands slowly and turned around. “That’s saying a lot.” I told him. I didn’t care much for life these days, but even less for the alternative. What I saw on Kuan’s face – or maybe what I didn’t see – convinced me that my true death would mean as little to him as my lives had.
So what makes a man with an unpaid debt to the virtual ruler of the Republic turn himself into a highly visible target? Stubbornness? Stupidity? It hadn’t been ignorance. The Sebeistor who watched the door to Shakor’s favourite “escape” had pulled me aside as I left the convivial warmth of the brothel earlier that night. “A couple of eggers were in here asking for you,” he’d said, pitching his voice above the normal racket of the place. “I told them I’d seen you leaving via public shuttle towards Amamake.”
“Thanks.” I dropped a few small creds into his hand. “Thanks for looking out for me.”
He handed the creds back. “You’d better look out for yourself.” he advised. “I heard you did poorly at the tables tonight.”
“Some nights are better.” I told him, but I couldn’t really remember one right now. Gambling while drunk is probably not the surest path to success.
“Just be invisible for a few days.” he advised as I stepped out into the dim, red-lit quarter. “At least until you can pay those damn immortals whatever debt it is that you owe them.”
I’d nodded my thanks and gone on my way. It was good to think someone still had my back.
So I’d known that my name had been thrown around the lower levels of the stations local to Rens, but the way I’d seen it in my state of carefree inebriation, I still had creds in my pocket, and plenty of drinking, wenching, and gambling to see before I decided which of my war medals to pawn first. So yeah, stupidity might be the answer after all.
Emrys laid a meaty hand on my shoulder and pushed me in the direction of the main promenade. I walked away with Kuan on one side of me and Emrys on the other, my fear fighting it out with numb resolve. I was stuck in the middle, a half-drunk hostage to my own worst judgement.
Shakor reclined on a green velvet couch, wrapped in so many fine garments that he looked like an Amarrian Holder instead of the aging, thin ruler of the Minmatar Republic. Fires blazed in every corner of the room, and still he shivered. Last time I’d seen him, he’d look tired and strained; now he looked nine parts dead. He raised an unsteady hand as we entered the room, motioning for us to stop. The room smelled of medicines and sweat and disease – sour and bitter and too sweet all at once.
“I have a task for you,” Shakor croaked. Right to the point. He didn’t look like he could afford to waste words anyway. “It will make things right between us.” The effort of saying that much caused him to break out in a fit of coughing. His skin, pallid from its usual healthy hue, hung on his face like it didn’t fit him any longer, and his blind eyes looked even more dull with what might have been pain.
“What kind of task?” I envisioned several lifetimes of cleaning toilets in every latrine from here to Old Man Star, and that was the most pleasant of the thoughts racing through my mind.
“Re-enlist, Colonel. You’re one of the best pilots I’ve known, and Emrys assures me that your time with Ushra’Khan has only made you more of a weapon for my disposal.”
Oh, how I wished he hadn’t said that.
“You want to be square with me, and I want to avoid sending my friends into the bowels of stations looking for you.”
“Leave me.” Shakor murmured. He wiped his mouth, leaving spots of bright blood on a square of cream-coloured silk that probably cost more than my net worth.
I followed the others to toward the door.
“Wieler, you stay.”
Kuan raised an eyebrow, but Emrys just smiled as he closed the door behind them.
“I was going to leave for vacation in Amamake …”
“Alone? Unarmed?” Shakor sank back into the cushions behind him. “I’m not a very great fool – you shouldn’t suppose I enjoy being treated like one.” He gestured me to a nearby chair.
“Why am I really here?”
“Emrys speaks highly of your skills, your courage … apparently you’re still a hero to some.”
“Do I look like a hero to you?” Right now, a week from my last shave and months from a haircut, wearing my only remaining clothes and boots, I didn’t exactly cut a heroic figure.
“You certainly don’t smell like one.” He raised the silk to his nose. “But you’ll be under my roof until you make your decision and re-enlist.” He paused for a breath. “I’m sure we can find you a shower and razor between now and then.”
I listened to Shakor as he slowly detailed his plan, interrupted by considerable coughing and shivering. I would have a new squad under my command, complete with elite trained crews, as well as several shiny ships waiting for me in my recently renovated and paid for personal hangar. Everything ranging from frigates to Command ships, and anything else I wanted in between.
The future safety of the Republic was of the utmost importance, as was keeping a high public profile, and a small, nimble fleet would allow me to shine in the spotlight once again, to remind our people that heroes still existed, to give them hope. We were to engage the Amarr anywhere we found them, giving no fear to attracting Concord’s attention. High sec, low sec, null sec, wormhole space, wherever our guerilla war would take us, so long as it boosted morale amongst the Tribes.
Given all that, Shakor didn’t have to explain that this conversation never happened. He could never be connected to any of this, could never be seen as the master puppeteer pulling strings. I knew in my gut that regardless of the outcome, he would twist it to his long term advantage.
“So sober up,” he told me. “Fit your ships. Meet your crew. Free our people.”
“I don’t particularly want to sober up, but I don’t suppose you’re offering a choice.”
“I’m not. You do this, we call things right, and I’ll even throw in enough credits to enable you to continue drinking yourself to death after you’re done. I’m dying, Roc. I have more important concerns than you.” He rang a small bell.
“No one lives forever, Shakor.” I rose to leave. “In some cases, that’s a good thing.”
He chuckled. “You still have balls, at least enough to insult me to my face on my deathbed.”
“I’m flattered, really, but I was talking about me.”
I didn’t see Shakor after that; he didn’t leave his rooms, and I wasn’t invited back. I wondered if Shakor would live long enough to see this through, regardless of the outcome.
Not that it would matter at the end of the day. Despite the lapses in judgement that had brought me here, I wasn’t entirely stupid. Shakor talked a generous game, but the only thing likely to be cancelled, as I figured it, was me. Once I guided our people to the path of his devising, inciting them to belief and action, I would become a liability – one more person who knew some of the many secrets he was protecting, and not one whose livelihood depended on him. I needed to figure out how I was going to win this game within a game.
The floors were pristine. I was already hungry, but suddenly had the urge to eat off the immaculately clean surface. Hundreds of uniformed men and women lined each side of what was once my old hangar bay, three rows deep per side, all holding a crisp salute as I walked in.
I nodded back, still not committed to this, though at the end of the day I knew I had no choice in the matter – the reluctant hero complex and all that – and walked towards the business end of the deck.
A gentle whistle escaped me as I looked at my fleet of ships. They were new, crisp, as if straight from the manufacturing line: Rifter hulls, Vagabonds, a Rapier, a few Sleipnirs, even a Tornado. Shakor had definitely undersold on what he had delivered.
As I approached the armoury, two men opened the large bay doors. If I still owned a pair of sunglasses to wear, the shock in my eyes may not have been as noticeable, but as it stood, my jaw hung open dumbly and my eyes widened comically. There in front of me was a massive warehouse addition to my hangar, looking like they had bought, gutted, and rebuilt the neighbouring bay, stocked floor to 300 ft ceiling full of organized ship fittings: Republic ammo, autocannons, artillery, cloaking devices, shield modules, armour plating, dozens of different modifiers – it was like a candy store, but with bullets.
I turned as I heard footsteps, noticing Emrys and Kuan. “You’ll do well, Roc.” Emrys said, a hint of remorse tugging at his lips. “Shame we really never got to know each other better.” he said.
“Shakor spoke about my time in the alliance as if it was past tense.” I commented, understanding what was driving his sentiment.
“It is.” Emrys said flatly. He patted me on the shoulder, then turned and silently made his way out, leaving Kuan and I essentially alone.
“Sasawong liked you.” he began. “I used to think you might be something, but you’re nothing more than a disgrace. You don’t have to prove anything to me personally, and for the life of me I can’t figure out what Shakor sees in you, but when you fail, and you will fail, I’ll be first in line with a smug look of satisfaction on my face, knowing your name will never be heard again in the history books.” With that, he turned on his heel and left.
I didn’t really know what I had done to Kuan to piss him off so much, and to be honest, I really didn’t care. I could still walk away from all this. I could pawn what little I had left, live on the run, under the radar – it could happen. Maybe I could even become a pirate.
“Sir?” a female voice said, my attention turned towards her. She was beautiful – tall, thin but chesty, long legs, long red hair, flawless skin, high heels … damn.
“That’s Colonel Wieler, darlin”. I replied, smirking, looking her up and down, forgetting the fact that I stank of booze and was unshaved and unshowered.
In that moment, my heart felt right, my conscious was clear. A heavy weight had been lifted from my very soul.
This was my destiny. This was my calling. I would free the Minmatar. I would crush the Amarr. I would prevail.
“I have an inventory list for us to review. We need to get started.” she said.
“Indeed we do.”