Solaris – Part 3: Encounters4th February 200511th March 2018Iron Wolf

The day had come for Darius to make his first supply delivery to Ramar’s new unit. The destination was deep in the Derelik region, the heart of the Ammatar system. Darius had mixed feelings about the Ammatar people. True, they were cousins by blood and those ties would always be stronger than those that were formed in words. Maybe that is why it hurts the Minmatar people so to think about their betrayal. Such hurt often translated as anger and hatred in many people he had spoken to on the matter. However, he had heard the stories of the once shunned child who preached to her peers that the Minmatar would be a better race if the Ammatar would rejoin them and be forgiven. Later in life, she received the Voluval mark of destiny that was known as the “Ray of Matar” at her Voluval ceremony that symbolized a future of great importance to the Minmatar people. Suddenly, people began to listen to her and her argument more than they had, and with less contempt for what she was saying. Darius too wished that his people could be united once more. However, it was not just the Ammatar, or the Nefantar as they were once known. It also included the Thukker who had prophesied the Amarr invasion of Matar, then fled before the Amarr invasion when no one listened to them, and the Starkmanir who were nearly annihilated under the orders of the Amarr heir, Idonis Ardishapure in revenge for his father’s death in the uprising that lead to his people’s freedom. However, the realism of the situation shows that such unity was no longer possible and as such, Darius could only afford to dream of it, nothing more.

Darius had his reservations about this job. Ramar had assured him that it would be no more routine than his previous work. Despite that, Darius felt uneasy. There was still something about his meeting with his new contact, by the name of Tourvel, that tormented Darius with thoughts that he could not articulate. The Minmatar was a little detached and, as Ramar had described, off balance. But it was more than that, there was something in his eyes that was not right. Unlike previous people he had dealt with, who would bore a hole into the back of your skull with their eyes in constant suspicion of you, Tourvel’s gaze seemed empty as they made eye contact at that meeting behind the bar. Almost as if he was looking through Darius rather than at him. Even when Darius had him pinned against the wall and his gun to the man’s throat.

For the last two days, Darius had been working out a fitting for the new Stabber he had been given by Ramar. It was called the ‘Vurlan’, after its previous owner’s pet wild cat. He was told before being given it that it was “fully loaded”, to quote Ramar’s exact words. That hardly came close to the reality of the situation. Immediately as it pulled into the hangar, there were obvious signs of damage along the armor. When he asked the pilot, before he made a quick departure, if he had been attacked on his way here, he shrugged and shook his head.

“She looked that way when I picked it up last week.” He said. “She hasn’t seen combat since then.” Darius was, to say the least, bemused with that. Surely if it had been forced into combat in the state it was in it would have been destroyed quickly.

When Darius made his way through the ship to inspect the fitted modules and weapons, things went from bad to worse. Ok, so maybe Ramar was on a tight budget, that came with the territory of being a freedom fighter. But Auto Cannons? Sure they were all 425mm guns, the largest of the breed, but if you are going to limit your range even Darius knew that there were better weapons than that. And the missile bays were laughable as they were equipped with a standard frigate-size missile launcher each, both of them rigged to squeeze in two heavy missiles. If Darius were to get into a fight, he had hoped to fire something a little more substantial than the moderate warheads on these missiles, if the launchers worked at all.

At least he had some time to work things out and equip the ship properly before leaving. And he was fairly satisfied with the work that was done in the short space of time allotted before his mission. He had replaced the two light launchers for heavy bays, and filled them with cruise missiles. However he also kept the heavy missiles too in case he had to fire at something that was moving faster. He also had two of the 425mm autocannons ripped off and replaced with two 650mm artillery cannons for longer range battery, keeping the other two autocannons in reserve for smaller ships.

And not a moment too soon as his package had arrived, wrapped in a much larger one that concealed the true nature of the real merchandise. He was not entirely sure what it was, nor did he care. He was told that it was a supply of weapons, both personal and ship mounted. As a small forklift loaded the pallets into the ships open cargo bay, that uneasy feeling came back around again. The drop off point was not in space as usual. In matter of fact, it was in an Ammatar station. Ramar had insisted that this be the method for the first delivery, and he assured Darius that the port master at that station was one of their own men and would turn a blind eye to the exchange. It was also essential to deliver in the station and not space as the ships they had were still unarmed, and going into space would put them at the mercy of fate, not to mention the Ammatar security. Should their exchange be found out by the security forces or the navy, they would be wiped out for sure. In future, all drop offs would be in space as they had always been. If nothing else, Darius would insist that this be the case. However, this did not serve to ease his mind.

The high pitch sound of the forklifts reverse warning buzzer broke his train of thought as if some giant bird of prey were loose in the hangar. The load master reported that all was secure and asked Darius if he wished to inspect the cargo before proceeding. Without so much as looking at the crewman in acknowledgment or reply, Darius simply gave his thumb print on the pad and headed for the elevator that led to the overhead gantry accessing his ships hatch. The hiss of the hydraulically lifted platform was followed by a dry clunk as the lift reached the top, the sound of Darius’ boots on the metal grating that passed for loading platform resonated through the hangar above all the noises in his mind as he reached the hatch and, with the press of a pressure pad, the hatch slid down and locked behind him. A resounding thud signaled that the pressure locks had activated, and with that, the Vurlan was ready to depart into the cold black of space.

The trip had been long, uninteresting and filled with deep introspection and soul searching. Darius had never regretted any decision he had made in life. Even when he was a youth on Matar, in an effort to impress a girl whom he liked, he climbed to the roof of the domed tribal hall of his family to show her his strength. He had climbed that roof many times when he was a child, much to his mother’s frustration as she repeatedly admonished him for doing so. He had nearly reached the top of the dome, that was made of traditional dried and bound Kerma tree roots, when he made the mistake of straying too far from the thick wood support beams. These roofs could withstand heavy storms that brew off the coast of the islands several times a year, yet they are not strong enough to take direct weight pressing down on the top. Darius fell through the roof and crashed through a table in the room below, broke his shoulder, and severely dented his pride. Still, he didn’t regret it as it was a learning experience for him and showed him how being bigger, despite having its advantages, could also have its drawbacks if taken for granted. As for the girl he was trying to impress, as much of a fool as he had made himself look, she so sorry for him that she nursed him back to health, and in the process became fond of him. They were together for several years after that. And it gave them both something to laugh at from time to time, though she would laugh more than him. Especially when she would recount the tale to her friends, family, and total strangers while socializing.

Darius turned his attention back to his work. He did not regret choosing to work like this, far from it. He knew deep in his Brutor heart that he was at least doing something effective to help end slavery. But he felt it had come at a personal cost. Were his doubts about this mission signs that he was becoming increasingly paranoid? Maybe it was the curse of such a lifestyle. One could never be too careful and, after a while, you tended to suspect everyone. Maybe that was why Tourvel seemed to behave so oddly. Would he end up like him in the future?

Darius afforded himself a glance at his navigation computer, and he quickly realized that he was parked at the opposite jump gate in his destination system. He did not know how long he had been sitting there, he had lost all track of time. He cursed himself for letting his thoughts distract him and engaged the warp drive to the station. He sent an advanced message to the port master to let him know he would be there in a couple of minutes, then cursed himself again for losing his concentration like that while he was in, what was effectively, enemy territory. If the Ammatar security had found out about the true nature of his cargo he would surely be dead by now. Even this stabber would not last long against an Ammatar security or fleet attack force. This job was indeed getting to him and beginning to compromise his work.

His ship rattled and shook, as it always did, as it forced its way out of a warp tunnel and glided to a silent halt outside the station. He sent the usual automated request to dock and made his way to the perimeter anchor. As he neared, there was no reply. His ship grew ever close to the station docking bay as he waited. He felt a hot prickly sensation in the back of his head. Something was not right about this. He panned the camera around and activated the scanner. Nothing. He was now less than a kilometer from the docking zone, he would cross that in a few seconds. Something definitely was not right. Was it a trap? Maybe their port master was not as reliable as they had said. Or maybe he had been captured by security? We began to think about warping from the area…

“Docking request accepted.” Blurted the automated voice over the channel as he neared the docking bay. “Power down your engines, your ship will be towed into hangar 6.” Darius let out a long and heavy breath. He hated station drop-offs. If they would pick them up in space, this would not be a problem. He knew what to expect there as he would fly there, jettison the goods at the right time and fly away again. It was their responsibility after that if they didn’t get there before he left to pick up the goods.

With his ship docked and secured in the bay, Darius punched the code into the main hatch and pressed the pressure pad and it hissed open. The sudden rush of fresh air inside the station was nice, it always was. Though it was not that much fresher than the re-circulated air in his ship, it was different. He stepped onto the platform that extended towards his ships hatch and walked towards a door at the end of it. There was no hangar floor below him, only a void that seemed to stretch forever. The hangar was built level with the side of the ship and accessed from the walkway through this door further down to the left. Another door just passed that one, and dead ahead no doubt led to the station admin area and pilot’s quarters, then the residential and commercial sectors beyond. As he walked, he noticed that the gantry seemed different. Not only was it a solid construction rather than the metal grate in a Minmatar station, it was also carpeted down the middle with white and blue marble on either side. It was somewhat different from the clunky metal walkways high above the ground in the Minmatar stations and even some Caldari stations he had visited. It felt a little strange under foot, somewhat softer than he was used to and felt slightly springy as if the floor was moving below him. For months now, Darius had been used to walking on hard metal and concrete floors of stations and hangar walkways. This felt more like he was walking on the soft ground of a planet.

Darius pushed the door open and went through into the hangar section. It felt strange to him as he was usually looking up towards the bottom of his ship, not the side of it. There were several people removing the crates with anti-grav loaders. They didn’t look like station crew. He was about to ask who they were until he noticed Tourvel approaching him from the other side of the hangar, those vacant eyes staring right through him again.

“Nice to see you again Darius.” He said with a smile as they shook hands. Despite the smile, his words seemed to echo in monotone through the hangar area. Darius just nodded in response. They both turned to watch the men unload. Darius was not entirely sure what to say during these proceedings if anything at all. Usually, he would open a comms channel to a ship that came to claim the container he would have jettisoned. Code words would be exchanged and when confirmed, Darius would move off from the container. It was better like that as he preferred to avoid as much personal contact with his customers as possible. Not so much out of snobbery, just a simple fact that the less they knew about each other, the better it would be for both of them if the worst happened. It seemed that Tourvel shared this sentiment as he did not make small talk while the crew unloaded the crates in front of them.

The silence was broken by a quiet but nervous voice behind them.

“Excuse me sir?” Asked the voice. Darius turned to see a rather thin and pale looking Ammatar.

“What?” Barked Darius. The man recoil as if he had just had a heart attack.

“I’m the port master here.” Darius realized that this must be their inside man. “Could I get your thumb print?” Darius hesitated for a second. He didn’t expect to have to sign anything. “It’s OK Mr Krane, you permits have been… taken care of.” Darius was about to correct the man on his name before he got the idea, and nodded. Darius pressed his thumb to the pad and gave his print. The name on the pad and the picture that matched the file was not him. No doubt this was to ensure that the paper work seemed in order for the station authorities.

“I also need your invoices, sir.” He asked nervously, as if being scared of being swatted away by the large Brutor who was nearly half-again his size. Darius reached into his jacket inner pocket. As he did he realized he had left them in his ship.

“I must have left them back on my ship. Wait here, I’ll get them.” With that, he quickly marched back to the ship’s hatch and made his way to the bridge.

As Darius neared the door that led back towards the hangar, he heard raised voices from inside. He stopped short of the door and listened for a second.

“Watch it! Don’t damage those chips!” He heard Tourvel shouting at a young crewman, who had just recovered a falling box before it landed on the hard hangar floor. “Be careful with them, you idiot.”

“Sorry, sir.” Replied the crewman, nervously. Darius glanced around the corner and saw other men removing several small cases from the packages. They were obviously not ship-class weapons, they were too small. Maybe they were explosives? One of the men opened the case he had nearly dropped to inspect the goods and pulled out an optical data chip. Tourvel walked over to the crewman and checked the chip, then the crate for any damage. He turned to the withering crewman.

“These chips contain plans of the Minmatar resistance’s push into our space next week.” He said coldly. “Ships, weapons, fleet layouts, everything. Break them and I will break you, understand?” Darius’ heart pounded in his chest, and blood ran cold. He didn’t know what was happening, but this was definitely not what was supposed to happen. Those crates should have contained personal and ship mounted weapons and several crates of ammo, all hidden between cases of fruit and consumer products. Not optical data chips that had plans of a Minmatar push into this space. This was supposed to be the push into Ammatar space. He waited a few more seconds until the boxes had been packed up and then stepped around the corner. He would have to play dumb to survive this and get out of here in one piece. Once he was back in Minmatar space he would have to make contact with Ramar immediately and let him know what he had seen today. Ramar was falling into a trap with these men.

“I have those invoices for you.” He said to the port master.

“What took you so long?” Asked Tourvel. “We were wondering about you.” Again with a smile.

“I couldn’t find them at first. I had left them somewhere else.” Darius shrugged and handed them to the port master. As he took them from his hands, Darius noticed the tattoos on his arms. A simple cross-hatch pattern. Darius looked up at the port master for a second. A flash of familiarity ran through his brain like a lightning bolt, here then gone in an instant.

“Anything wrong?” He asked. Darius tried to concentrate on what had just run through his mind, to grasp it before it eluded him again. That tattoo. He had seen that pattern somewhere before. He looked at Tourvel, then down at his arms. They were covered by long sleeves. He remembered their meeting in the alley behind the bar that day. They were the same tattoos he had seen on Tourvel’s arms when they shook hands the first time they met. He looked back up at Tourvel again; all the crewmen had stopped working and were watching the exchange of glances.

“Darius?” Asked Tourvel innocently. This man, he was not a Minmatar, he was an Ammatar too! Tourvel could see the realization in Darius’ eyes and glanced back to his men. Several of them began to step forwards.

”Get back!” shouted Darius as he reached into his jacket and pulled out his shot blaster. The same one he had used to threaten Tourvel with when they were in the alley. Darius leveled the gun towards Tourvel, who was now in a defensive stance. Tourvel held an arm out to his men as if to hold them back. Now he could see it. For the first time, there was something in Tourvel’s eyes. They were cold as steel. He was no longer looking through Darius, he was looking straight at him, burning with a mix of rage and smug superiority.

“You really think you’re going to get away from here?” He asked. Darius looked for a second, and then started to take steps backward towards the door to go back to his ship. “I doubt that you could shoot all of us before you are overrun.” He remarked.

“Perhaps,” replied Darius as he pulled the firing pin back on the huge gun, “but anyone moves too fast for my taste and you die first. Get it?!”

Darius reached the door and took a step back onto the platform leading to his ship. As he did, he caught a flash of movement in the corner of his eye from his right on the platform where the access door was. Darius swung his gun around to meet the intruder, an Ammatar security officer with a charged neural rod, made to stun. The man stepped back quickly and raised his hands.

“DROP IT!” Darius shouted to the man. But before he could, another movement back to his left in the hangar caught his attention. He swung back around and, before he could level his gun on the target, he was struck by a sharp shock of energy from the stun-pulse gun that the port master had produced from under his robe. White hot pain shot through every nerve in Darius’ body, every muscle tightened and tensed as if they had been stabbed by a thousand hot knives. As quick as that, Darius collapsed in spasm on the walkway as his world filled with darkness.