It was, as office rooms went, a dull one. No decor, no furniture save for a skeletal table and four of the most basic of chairs; one for the sole occupant, the other three arrayed on the other side of the table. Lighting came from a single overhead unit that looked five centuries out of date. The door was locked from the outside.
When it did unlock, some twenty minutes after the aforementioned occupant had been brought in, to permit three more people inside. Two of them were male, with postures and features that spoke of the hard, Spartan lifestyle typical of the Imperial military’s front-liners. The third was a woman, fair of features but with sharp, piercing eyes. She alone wore the pristine white uniform of a Navy pilot; the others went for sombre black suits.
“Good evening,” the first suit said as all three took their seats. “My name is Dmitri Vakov, Imperial Irregular Supervisor. This is-”
Before he could finish, the interviewee cut in. “Big Ivan, strategic support pilot formally of Legion’s Section Zero-Eight. Currently serving as a ‘military advisor’ to NASA Corp’s private squadrons. No official rank or entitlements within the Navy at large, nor Legion in particular; bit of an oddity for someone who’s claimed to be on their books for the past five years.”
The men were left a little surprised by this interjection, but the woman seemed quite amused. “Very good, Mr Quinn; you have done your homework.”
“I know my business rivals,” Jasan Quinn replied. He learned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on the table, meshing his fingers to give his chin somewhere to rest. “Why am I here exactly?”
“My name is Amelia, Group Captain of the Imperial Fourth Armada.”
“Ah,” Quinn replied, slowly unfolding back into his default sitting position. “The Wardens. I was wondering when you’d come after me again.”
“You are still technically under our employ, Mr Quinn; we simply chose to give you a little autonomy.”
Slowly, the mercenary looked at each face in turn, turning over in his mind how all three of them could be linked. As he did so, Amelia placed a data-slate on the desk in front of him. “What do you know of Patricia Taggart?”
Quinn’s eyes, bronze-tinted from the augments he’d had inserted years before, immediately flicked down toward the pad. “That’s… callsign ‘Lucky-Six’, one of NASA’s rising stars. Three years in the Navy, eight months in Gamma Squadron, two with Alpha, then right into a command role of NASA.”
“How do you know her?” The pilot ‘Big Ivan’ asked gruffly.
“I flew with her,” Quinn responded. “One of my first contracts with the Wardens was flying alongside her; we were ordered to destroy the defences around key jump beacons to pave the way for the Giants.”
The accountant gave his companions an uneasy glance. “Given her status within NASA, and the importance of the missions she has been entrusted with by the Emperor’s Office, we feel that Ms Taggart, and her knowledge of the Empire’s front-line elements, pose too significant a threat to be left unchecked.”
“So?” the mercenary answered flippantly. “By my reckoning this is a problem for your HR department.” He punctuated that comment with a nod toward the NASA representative.
“NASA are out of the picture,” Amelia answered. “They tried to deal with it and failed; Lucky-Six got away, and so now the Wardens are taking over. Our intel suggests she’s in Sector 1331, possibly the Mercurial zone. You have contacts within the Armada and beyond that may prove useful here; raise a squadron, find her and kill her. The Empire will foot the bill.”
“If anyone asks, what’s our mission objective?”
“Combat Reconnaissance,” was the reply. Quinn had expected it.
“Ah, that old chestnut… if we pull this off I want a hundred and twenty kays in unmarked standards, paid upon my return and when the kill is verified.”
“Deal.” The Warden Officer answered before the accountant could interject. “Pleasure doing business, Captain Quinn.”
As the trio rose to leave, Quinn rose too. “Amelia, was it? A quick word before I go? Alone?”
Despite the suspicion of her comrades, Amelia accepted. They sat back down together and Quinn leaned in close to whisper, “what is my real mission here?”
In the same secretive tones she answered, “Taggart was one of our freelancers, much as you are. She absconded with sensitive information. We would like it back. Destroy it if there is no other option, but consider recovery to be a high priority, second only to the assassination of the traitor.”
“Emperor watch over you, Miss Amelia,” Quinn said with a smile as he stood up to leave.
“As we watch over him,” she answered automatically. “Good hunting… mercenary.”
* * *
Stations like New Condaroga existed everywhere. They were ad-hoc conglomerations built by everyone and no-one; places that fans of a certain kind of fiction might call ‘wretched hives of scum and villainy’. This was an unfair descriptor for the most part; the occupants were law abiding amongst themselves, they just had different moral standards to most people.
Oron Gol had forgotten how much he loved places like these. The ruling elite of the Empire liked to imagine they had real power, but in practice the fate of the galaxy was decided here in the drinking dens of the Dogs of War. A few choice words, a few rounds of moonshine and the contents of an untraceable off-world bank account and the fate of half a dozen sectors could change overnight.
Gol and his squadron had dressed down for the visit. Imperial mercenaries were not that uncommon, but the flight uniforms of the Navy got people on edge. They passed into a guarded common room and found Quinn talking with a tall, robed man of Jericho descent. When Gol approached, the man gave a quiet parting word and excused himself.
“You’ve been forming quite a force,” Gol noted casually as he took the recently occupied seat. “I couldn’t help but notice we’re not a part of it.”
“The Wardens don’t want NASA involved,” Quinn replied.
Gol sneered at the excuse. “I don’t care what the Wardens say. Taggart betrayed us; we deserve to be the ones who bring her down!”
The mercenary captain turned his attention to the holo-map mounted on a wall bracket. It displayed a map of 1331 and was updating in real time. “Alright, I’ll give you the kill. It won’t be easy; you’d best be prepared for hell.”
The comment made Gol laugh, “Who do you think you’re talking to? When we fly, Hell is what happens to other people.”
The bravado made Quinn smile. “We scramble at 09:00 local. Assemble your pilots here in fifteen minutes… and prep your heaviest hitting ships.”