by Nathan Clancy
Caldin had never been one to frequent bars, yet here he was in a trashy little one on the edge of a station. The bar was simply called The Tavern; so cliché, he thought. It was empty except for the man that sat across from him in the booth, and three or four others at the bar itself.
There had been a lull in their conversation, as their negotiations were coming to an end and they had nothing else to talk about at the moment. The two of them had been sitting in silence for a few moments, not saying a word, when a small gong above the bar's entrance rang, signaling the arrival of a group of new patrons.
The three newcomers stood in the doorway for a few seconds, taking in the surroundings, then made their way toward the bar.
“Damn capsuleers,” Caldin's associate growled.
“How do you know they're capsuleers?” Caldin asked, peering out from beneath his hood.
“Look at that skin,” the man said, nodding in their direction. The tallest of the three newcomers, a woman with a shaved head and a long, green cloak, glanced at them briefly as if she knew what they were saying. She had a strange beauty to her that Caldin couldn't pin down. He snapped his gaze away from her when their eyes met. “They have no scars, no blemishes. They're like porcelain dolls, the lot of them. Those bodies can't be more than a year old,” the man continued.
“Maybe they know a really good plastic surgeon,” Caldin said sarcastically, taking a sip from the thick green drink in his pint glass.
“It's in the way they walk, too. They step... carelessly; As if they have no grace to their strides. It's something most people don't notice, but ol' Bungy's got an eye for that kind of thing,” the man said, tapping the side of his head. “Only people who walk like that are people who have died so many times that they stop caring for their surroundings.”
“Let's get back to why we're here. If CONCORD knew what you were carrying, you wouldn't see the outside of a prison cell for years.”
Bungy glanced at his wrist screen for a second. “I'm not a man who likes to hurry. When people hurry, they make mistakes.”
“I do have places to be. If we can't make this deal today then I'm going to have to take my money elsewhere.”
Bungy watched him for a moment, then his gaze turned to the door again as the gong chimed, announcing yet another newcomer.
Caldin turned in his seat to look. In the entrance was a large man-a few inches taller than the door frame, and barely wide enough to fit through. He met Bungy's eye, and frowned. The man approached their booth and made like he was going to sit next to Bungy. He stopped next to Caldin, however. Caldin looked up at him, sighed in annoyance, and moved over. The man sat down, blocking Caldin's exit, and pressed the barrel of a small firearm to his ribs.
“You see Mr. Caldin,” Bungy smiled again, “I see how you walk too. How you keep your right hand close to your belt-you're used to carrying a sidearm; How you don't sit with your back to the open-you have to keep an eye on your surroundings. I had my suspicions of you when we first met, but they hadn't been confirmed until just now. I put a bug in the CONCORD data network to see what they knew about you, but I found out so much more. It turns out they were collecting information on me. It said somewhere that one of their agents was currently meeting with me, and... well, you're the only one I'm meeting with.” Bungy's smug grin stretched from ear to ear. “Now you're going to come with us, and we're going to leave this station. There's a small pirate base who's inhabitants are friends of mine...”
“I don't think so,” Caldin said firmly.
“The only way I'm leaving this bar is in a body bag. The same goes for the two of you as well if 'muscles' here doesn't put his gun away,” Caldin looked up at the larger man, who pushed the barrel further into his side.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Caldin?”
“I'm not going to do anything. The agent behind the bar and the three others sitting and pretending to drink however will gun you two down before you can so much as blow a fart in their direction.”
The larger man faltered for a moment, turning his attention to the bar. Caldin saw his chance and shattered his pint glass against the man's face. He pushed off the seat and stood to his feet, knocking the table over and pinning Bungy in place.
The big man fired, missing him by mere inches.
More bursts opened up from the bar as the other agents opened fire on the big man, who turned his attention to them.
Caldin dove on top of Bungy, shielding him from the volley of bullets and preventing his escape at the same time.
The bar fell silent. Everything had taken place in a span of a few seconds. Caldin lifted his head to survey the aftermath. The big man was dead, lying like a ragdoll over the side of the seat. The three capsuleers were dead as well, but the CONCORD agents were fine.
Caldin looked back at Bungy, who was pointing a small, one-shot pistol at him.
The silence continued, as everyone left standing froze. Caldin lost track of time. Even the rush of adrenaline that had been there moments ago seemed to have abated.
“Bungy... don't,” Caldin said.
“Don't be stupid. It's not for you,” he said, turning the pistol on himself.
“I know. Don't...” Caldin began.
“Apax Bungy has had a long life...” Bungy said. He turned to look at the three capsuleer bodies. “Damn capsuleers,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
Salisa Graysun watched her charges hit the Cormorant broadside. Nothing happened at first, but then several small explosions blew out the other side of the ship, followed by the Cormorant's power signature dropping to zero. It was floating dead in space now, after several hours of running from her. She smiled to herself.
Salisa's view of the enemy ship zoomed in on a crack in its midsection, just aft of where the charges entered. A small cloud of atmosphere was escaping. The cormorant wasn't able to section off the damage-not without any power. The occupants would be dead in a matter of hours if they weren't already. Maybe they would take their own lives just to end their suffering, she imagined. She marked it as a kill.
Her ship docked with the station that was the headquarters for the Caldari Internal Crimes Bureau hours later. It was towed into a bay that had been sectioned off for special operatives like herself.
After climbing out of her pod and cleaning herself up, she was greeted by James Ostulo, a fellow operative for the CICB.
“Another kill?” he asked, grinning at her.
She hated the man dearly, but never let it show. “Like always,” she said, returning the smile.
She tied her loose hair back as the two of them walked.
“I heard rumors that they’re going to be setting up an operation to track down the pirates that attacked Omar,” James was saying, when something in another hangar caught her eye through the window.
She stopped in her tracks. It was a mangled ship, of an old design. She could barely make out its class, but something about it looked familiar.
“That's not Omar's ship, if that's what you're thinking. No, that's one of my finds.”
The damage to the middle. The spot-on target hits to the engines. There was no doubt about it. It was one of her kills. “What do you mean it's one of yours?” she said, eyeing him nervously.
“I found it orbiting a moon out in a low security system. It was marked as a kill five years ago, but on closer inspection I discovered these.” He held up his wrist screen, and it projected a three dimensional image of the side of the damaged ship. He entered a command, and the picture zoomed in on an airlock towards the front of the ship.
She knew immediately what she was looking at. Four marks in the hull around the airlock-holes left by grappling hooks. Grappling hooks from a rescue ship.
Something swelled in the back of her throat. She never felt this much dread in her life, but she remained perfectly composed.
“I scanned the wreck, and there was no corpse. There was, however, a missing space suit that the wrecks computer said should have been there.” Every word he said was like a knife digging deeper into her chest. “Someone inside CICB claimed a false kill. Someone didn't do their job right. Whoever was aboard the ship survived. If I can find who it is, it'll look really good for me.” He grinned at her, totally oblivious to the fact that the person he spoke of was standing right in front of him.
“Listen,” she said. “I've gotta run. I have to submit my report about the kill I got today. I'll talk to you later though.”
“Alright,” James said. “I guess I'll see you later. We can grab a drink or something...”
She was already walking away, and didn't grant him a response. As soon as he was out of sight, she began sprinting for her quarters. She threw open her private computer console and began pulling up the information on the kill.
After a few minutes of searching, she found the associated files. The ship that James had found was in fact a ship that she had claimed as a kill. It was in a low security system, like James had said. It was an older Navitas. Time had done its damage before Salisa had even gotten to it; its armor was corroded, and many of the internal systems were beyond saving. It didn't tell James who claimed it while he was in space, however. She inserted a small drive into the console. It contained a virus that she had acquired by less than legal means which, when she activated it, would permanently wipe a portion of data from the records. She hadn't known when she acquired it how much she would one day need it. Without waiting a second more, she set the virus to work. It would only take a few minutes, and then she would be in the clear.
Before the data wipe was complete, she scrolled through the file to see the name of the pilot she had falsely marked as a kill-the pilot who she would now have to hunt: Bjorgo Caldin.
Caldin’s commander had ordered him to take a leave of absence after the sting with Apex Bungy had ended so badly. Now as he ran his hand along the edge of his jaw line, he felt the stubble that he'd let go unshaven over the past few days. He stared long and hard at the man looking back at him from the mirror. He had short, brown hair and dark circles around his tired, old eyes. His nose was thick, with a deep scar that began on one side of the bridge, and swept across to the other side, then up and over his scalp to where it ended on the backside of his head. There were many scars on-and inside-his body; Most littered his skin, others his insides-punctured lung, ruptured kidney, more than a dozen set bones-but how he got this one he remembered clearly. It nearly cost him his life, after all.
He pulled his gaze away from the reflection, unable to face the pain that it brought back to him. He made his way to his ship's cockpit, just as a feeling of utter fatigue washed over him. He threw himself into his pilot's chair and breathed heavily.
Thousand of lights turned off in the small compartment as he told the ship he wanted to rest. Instrument interfaces and screens all around him began fading into the dark, as the speakers began to play a haunting piece by some long forgotten composer. There was a quiet humming as the impact shutters over the cockpit's canopy slid open, bathing him in the light of New Eden. The ship was in a minor state of rotation; His seat slid forward until he was only a few feet from the canopy bubble, surrounded on all sides by the diamond-strong glass; He closed his eyes as the galaxy full of slowly swirling stars put him to sleep, their numbers too great to count, yet everyone of them seeming to shine just for him.
He didn't sleep well, and didn't sleep for long; his dreams full of terrible memories. Then as if he was still in a nightmare, his ship's alarms woke him up, their high pitched shrieks like that of a banshee's. His chair was already in its secure position away from the canopy. The impact shutters slammed shut in the blink of an eye as something rammed the side of his ship, throwing him against the side of his chair. Monitors flashed to life, feeding him damage reports. He rubbed his eyes roughly, trying to get them to focus.
A large antimatter charge had skimmed the upper side of his hull, fired from a ship that was fifty kilometers out, and closing fast. Its trajectory had likely been aimed at a more vulnerable position on his belly, but the distance combined with the ships rotation while he slept had made it hit a more armored spot on its spine.
The enemy ship was now thirty five kilometers out.
His engines screamed to life as he put as much acceleration as he could on them. His ship had little in the way of offensive capabilities against an enemy this powerful. He keyed a warp coordinate into his ship's computer.
The enemy ship was thirty kilometers out as another charge hit him. It was further back than the first one, but did a bit more damage. Several minor systems went offline as his ship aligned with its destination.
A small notification on one of his screens let him know that the enemy ship was using a warp scrambler. He had two warp core stabilizers, so he knew it wouldn't be able to stop him from warping away. He didn't know what its warp ceiling was, though, and whether or not it'd reach his destination before him.
His ship threw up a warp bubble as the enemy dropped behind him until he could no longer see it. It would surely overtake his small ship; that he was sure of. His mind raced for a solution.
The enemy would have entered warp by now; in the next few seconds he would exit his warp bubble, and it would be waiting for him in orbit around the moon he was fleeing to. That's when it struck him; both ships would be warping through a gas giant in order to get to the moon. He entered the commands into his ship's computer, telling them to cut the hard links for the power to the warp engines. The system complied as the hard links to the warp core were severed. His ship shuddered violently as it slowed down, struck with the full density of real-space. If his ship could, it would be cursing at him with all the alarms and warnings that were going off in his ear. They were still in one piece, however, and that was all that mattered. Whether they survived the second phase of his plan, though, remained to be seen.
The gas giant was growing outside his canopy at an alarming rate, and though he couldn't see it through the impact shudders, his sensors were telling him that they were about to smash into its atmosphere. He didn't have enough time to slow down; He activated his ship's shield boosters and steered the ship as much as he could so that he was coming in at less of an angle. He aimed for the 'edge' of the gas giant. He planned on just skimming off the surface of the atmosphere, like a pebble off the surface of a pond. It would be violent, yes; but he hoped his ship would survive. This option had the highest chance of success, he kept trying to convince himself.
He closed his eyes. He didn’t want to see what came next.
Salisa swore to herself. The ship was nowhere to be seen. She had been orbiting the moon for fifteen minutes, scanning local space for Caldin's ship. He was nowhere to be found.
She knew his ship didn't have the resources for a cloak, so it seemed he never made it to the moon.
She had a number of ships who's captains owed her a favor or two guarding the gates out of the system. He had nowhere to run-it was only a matter of tracking him down.
Caldin survived. His ship took a lot of damage, as expected-his shield boosters were destroyed and nearly all of his armor was burned away in the maneuver, but he had glanced off the atmosphere and back into open space successfully. He limped to the nearest asteroid belt on what remained of his engines, and was now hiding in the deep crevice of a super-dense crokite asteroid. There was a retriever at the far end of the belt, but Caldin had been able to slip in unnoticed.
He rested while his ship took the time to repair itself, drifting in and out of consciousness. He fell back into the memories that had plagued him before all this came about:
There was dried blood on his hands, stuck in between every line and print on his skin, and he felt like his head was splitting open. He was starving and thirsty, on the verge of death. He was huddled in the corner of his hangar, clinging to a heater blanket for warmth. He'd been there for weeks, having gone through what little rations he had days ago. The attack had come out of nowhere. A ship had fired on him from long range and got lucky, destroying any chance he had for fighting back. His shields failed, and his power levels dropped to nearly zero percent. The Navitas was sitting dead in space. He retreated to the hangar and locked it down, keeping what little atmosphere that was left in the ship contained to the cargo hold. The air was growing bitter and foul, being recycled over and over again. There was a pool of something that resembled blood collecting in the middle of the hold; Who's blood, he didn't know. A familiar figure rose from the pool of red liquid. The corpse of Apax Bungy grinned at him, sporting a hole in its own head. "Damn capsuleers," it said, and began to laugh. It's laugh turned to a growl, and the growl turned to a rumble.
He jerked awake in a cold shiver. He threw a cloak over himself to try to warm up. His ship was done with its major system repairs, and his armor was back to full status. He sat for a bit, then decided to head back out to see if he could make it back into Gallentean territory before his hunter found him. He booted up his flight control system, and powered the engines on. The ship turned smoothly for the crevice's exit without any problems. Everything seemed to be running perfectly...
And that's when he saw it. A marauder was orbiting the wreck of the retriever. The mining ship had been gutted, and there were plumes of blue plasma bellowing into the space around it. Within seconds the marauder's computers were targeting his own ship.
He fired a volley of missiles at the marauder, and turned to make tracks for open space. The missiles hit, but the marauder's shields regenerated by the time his launchers cooled down. He changed tactics. He ordered his ship to get as close to the enemy as possible, to shorten the missiles flight time, thereby shortening the time the marauder had to recharge his shields. He took several hits to the front of his own ship. The gap quickly closed between the two of them; he sent volley after volley at the marauder, each one hitting sooner than the last. In a matter of minutes, he had dispatched the enemy's shields and was about to make the final killing blows when another ship warped into the asteroid belt.
The ship that had been hunting him.
It aligned towards him, putting a round through the marauder's ship. He swore, searching through his scanners for someplace to run. The marauder exploded. The blast threw him back into his seat, pieces of the ship tearing through his own. The blast wouldn't have been so bad if he hadn't been so close to it.
The caldari ship then targeted him.
He scrolled through the available warp destinations and paused on one-an abandoned military outpost. A smile crept across his face as he activated his warp drive.
Salisa knew he was hurting. Whatever he'd done to piss the marauder off had helped her. It had taken its toll on his ship. Now she just had to chase him and finish him off.
She gave the neural command for her ship to follow his. Her ship's warp core began spinning up, and without a second more she was after Caldin.
She knew he would be there-he could only get lucky so many times. Her ship reached its destination, and the warp bubble collapsed.
Alarms went off all around her. There were eight... nine marauder ships circling the outpost. Two tower guns immediately opened fire on her.
She swore, forcing her shield boosters up. She sent out an emergency signal to the ships she had guarding the gates.
All nine of the marauder ships targeted her and opened fire.
Caldin dropped out of warp only to find himself in the midst of utter chaos. A fleet of marauders was laying into the ship that had been hunting him, which was taking heavy damage.
A few of them broke off their attack and targeted him. He tried to steer clear, but was unsuccessful. He still hadn't recovered from his previous fight.
He was tossed around as he tried pushing through the battle, trying to make it to the abandoned outpost. Just then, three more caldari ships jumped in.
As she watched, Caldin's ship made it past the firing protocols of the tower guns, well within their no-fire zone. The ships that had jumped in to help her had stupidly targeted the ships that were chasing him, and they broke off his trail to return fire. One of the tower guns exploded, but not before crippling her shields. Her ship was able to get a few good shots at Caldin's, but it was a losing battle. She was taking too many hits. Her ship was falling apart.
She ordered the self-destruct command. Within seconds the ship disintegrated around her, leaving her pod floating freely through the battle. She didn't need to worry about anyone targeting her-she was too small of a mark to lock onto in the midst of the chaos. She made tracks for the outpost, not giving a second thought to the carnage that was going on around her.
She approached it cautiously, unsure if Caldin was laying in wait for her. Her pod glided in through the main hangar entrance, scanning every ship parking space, looking for Caldin.
There it was-Caldin's ship was parked at the far side, several holes in its hull. She could see lights flashing as its repair systems attempted to fix the damage that had been done.
Her pod touched down gently, a good ways from his ship so he couldn't detect it. She fell from the pod's gel sack and hit the floor with a dull thud. She quickly dressed herself, then took a small projectile rifle from a compartment and made her way towards his ship.
In space, in the safety of her own ship, Caldin's ship had seemed so small. Now that she approached it, she felt insignificant beneath its looming mass. She saw something moving at the base of his ship's entrance ramp and jumped for cover. She pressed her back against a pylon and raised the rifle's sights to her eyes. She leaned out and took aim at the figure, trying to control her heavy breathing.
That's when she saw a flash to her left. The beam of a laser cut through the air towards her. It burned a hole through her stomach; cauterizing the wound as it went through.
She screamed in pain, and dropped the rifle. She fell back behind the pylon, clutching her side. She fought back tears as she tried to listen for footsteps.
She heard nothing. What the hell was he waiting for? She leaned her head against the cold metal pillar, trying to steady the world as it spun out of control, trying not to lose herself to the pain.
Then she felt the barrel press against her temple. Her heart stopped. She looked up, and met his eyes.
His eyes were old and full of pain, hers young and burning with hatred.
"How..." she said through gritted teeth, "How did you..."
"I was a soldier once," he said. "I learned to survive. Whether by moving quietly," he continued while he made his way around her, kicking her rifle across the hangar floor, "Or out-thinking my enemies."
"I thought I killed you... years ago."
"You almost did," he said, tracing the scar on his face with his fingers. "But I survived. I was picked up by a small exploration craft. It's a good thing you're not very thorough."
"I remember now... the specifics," she paused, thinking back to when they first met; thinking back through all the people she had been sent to kill. "You were smuggling weapons for a group of minmatar freedom fighters."
"I didn't think the caldari military would scan my Navitas. I had hoped they would think it was just another mining vessel. It worked, for a while. Then one pilot wanted to prove how seriously he took his job..."
"And then they sent me."
"And they sent you," he nodded.
A silence fell over them as she remembered. She disabled his ship like she had so many others, then left him to die slowly. It was all she could do to them for wasting her time. They were gods, capsuleers, and they didn't need to play fair with the lesser humans. No one would remember them, and no one would care once they were gone. But somehow this one had survived. Somehow he had made it out. "How... why?"
"Because I want to live," he said simply, as if the answer was clear.
She laughed. "Now what? You're just going to fly your ship out of here? The caldari out there will shoot you down before you even creep out of this hangar."
He looked back at his ship. "No, that thing's taken too much damage. It's beyond repair. That little light show was set up so you'd think I was repairing it," he said, nodding at the flashes of sparks that she had thought were the ships machines fixing it.
"How the hell do you plan on getting out of here then?" she said with a grin, thinking he'd slipped up.
"I plan on taking your pod. It has a caldari IFF beacon in it so I can make it past the others."
She laughed again. "Only a capsuleer can pilot a pod," she said.
His face was somber as ever.
Then something terrible dawned on her. Even as he lowered his hood, she knew what was coming. Even before she saw the glint of metal from the back of his neck, and the top of his spine she knew the mistake she'd made. He wasn't human.
"My god..." she said, "You're a capsuleer... then I did kill you..."
"No. I've never died. You're the only time I've ever come close. And now I have this scar to remind myself not to lose sight of what's important."
"But we can't die. We live forever."
"It's not life if you don't give it meaning. It's not life if you treat it so callously. You think it means anything if you just keep throwing it away? Over and over again. You think you're alive right now? After all the times you’ve died, the body you possess now is just a vessel for a fractured soul."
"Don't be stupid,” she groaned, “There's no such thing as a soul."
"Then you prove my point," he shook his head. There was no longer pain in his old eyes. There was something else: Pity.
"Don't you dare..." she raised her voice, and then grimaced at the pain in her side. But the fact remained that that single look he gave her hurt more than anything she'd felt before. "Don't you dare look down on me."
He held his gaze, then turned to walk away. He picked up her rifle, and took it with him back to her pod. "So you can't kill yourself. Maybe you'll find a way to survive and keep this life you have. Maybe you'll find yourself again," he said, and left her there.