Logbook - How I Got Here: The Calm Before The Storm | Elite:Dangerous | INARA (2024)

07 Jun 2024Columbuss

Commander Justin Estok. Stardate 7-JUN-3310.

(EST. DATE OF EVENTS: 17-FEB-3308)

"...we need to survive too."

The hours before a battle are always... complicated. After all of the ships have been prepped. After all of the flight checks have been completed. After the weapons tests, there's a chillingly quiet lethargy that tends to settle over those waiting on the edge of it. The hustling and bustling of human traffic on the flight deck is over. The mechanical whir and heavy, magnetized clang of the loading mechs has subsided. The sparkling fizz of the welding guns securing last minute patches to needy ship systems, that’s all gone. Now, there's nothing. Now, it’s just quiet.

For the new pilots, this is their first time. Despite the obvious age differences, it isn't hard to tell who they are. It’s the look on their faces. That's what gives them away. They fidget. Like they can't sit still. It’s the way they rock back and forth, trying to expel the adrenaline. It’s the way their eyes shift back and forth like they can’t focus on any one thing for too long while the thoughts in their head race by at a mile a minute.

“Will I even feel it if it happens?”
“If it does, I hope it’s fast.”
“I don't want to asphyxiate.”
“These shoes are too tight.”
“This is so dumb. I’m not afraid. I’ll be fine.”
“What am I even doing here?”
“I want to go home.”

This is fear taking over. It’s fear that transplants these thoughts. In moments like these, the human mind becomes hyper focused. It’s that “fight or flight” response to increased adrenaline uptake. Everything we see, everything we hear in these moments seems exaggerated and amplified. All of it with some relevance added to it by our imaginations. That clink you hear coming from an exhaust vent in your Cobra, suddenly, you're concerned about the pressure in your 02 tanks. That swivel you saw on the port side multi-cannon that wasn't as smooth as it could have been, suddenly you're wondering if that will be the thing that gets you killed. Suddenly, you're wishing you had calibrated the tracking system on your PDC a third time.

They say we form more core memories in times like these because our brains are hyper focused on every detail, no matter how trivial. Everything in every moment seems relevant. We check the clock over and over, confident that time has passed only to find that maybe a few minutes might have ticked by. All of that excess detail and time consideration our brains usually drop, we maintain it, so minutes start to feel like hours. That added focus; that added time and detail retention; that’s the fear. The same fear these young, new pilots are trying to hide behind those blank, expressionless faces. The same fear they would never admit to the veterans that they have. The veterans, however, don't need to be told. The veterans on the flight deck, they already know... because they're afraid too.

Standing in silence, my body weightless in the zero G but tethered to the flight deck of the Imperial Carrier Mencius, I bite into a protein bar, glancing over at Brandson who has the burning red cherry of a cigarette smoldering between his fingers. He raises it to his lips, trying not to shake too much before taking a long drag from it and exhaling the smoke. He lowers it, not taking his eyes off of the steel floor out in front of him, before lowering it down and placing it under his boot. I watch as the cigarette disappears between the magnetized suction of his boot and the flight deck, the final whisp of smoke slithering out before dissipating in the compressed air of the room.

"Hey," I call out, taking an extra protein bar out of the case sitting, Velcro'd to the bulkhead next to me and handing it to him. It takes him a second to look up, but when he does, he takes the protein bar and slowly starts to unwrap the plastic around it.

"Eat something," I say. "You'll feel better."

Brandson lifts the bar to his lips, taking a small bite from the corner and chewing it, his gaze lowering back to the flight deck again. Across from us, two more pilots are waiting. One has their magboots switched off and their arms interlocked around some scaffolding welded to the exterior of their Vulture. The second has a data pad and is doing some last minute system checks. Next to them, another pilot lights a half burned out cigar between his teeth before puffing away the smoke. He pulls a knife out of his boot, and starts looking at his reflection in the steel, pushing his hair back as if his appearance matters. Halfway through the protein bar, I glance past the man and his cigar, focusing my attention down the walk way between the ships stationed here to see Finn walking back toward us.

"I just spoke with Toro," he says as he magnetically suctions his way to us.

"And," I ask. "What'd our Imperial host have to say?"

"Imperial scout satellites caught the Peregrination entering the Summerland system a few days ago. They believe it linked up with the Darkwater fleet."

"That's her ship alright. So she's here?" I ask.

"They seem to think so," Finn says, grabbing a protein bar from the case and unwrapping it. "Toro says, and this is Imperial word so take it with a grain of salt, that IF she survives and is captured, he'll permit us to speak with her... briefly."

"How briefly?" I ask.

"I'm not sure," He replies. "He said 'briefly'. Hopefully long enough to get what we need from her."

"We're getting what we need from her whether he want's us to or not," I say. "Whether that causes a problem between the Empire and us is a bridge we'll have to cross when we come to it."

"There's another factor we need to consider," Brandson says, finally looking up from the flight deck and drawing out attention to him. "We need to survive too."

**********************************************

Rewind a week to The Chelsie Grin dropping out of hyperspace in the Cemiess system with a now empty cargo bay. I vector The Chelsie toward Mackenzie Relay, the Orbis star port where The Purple Council held court. The local boss here was a woman by the name of Kiersten Morrow. Kiersten ran things for the Council on Mackenzie Relay. She had her hands in everything from extortion, racketeering, bribery and even murder for hire. She wasn't a difficult woman to find and, these gang boss types, they like it that way. They're not the sort, otherwise ordinary, people actively seek out unless you have business with them and by then, you're already in too deep.

Kiersten stuck out among the other Purple Council member's we'd found before setting course for Cemiess. Any would have been prime candidates to find out how they're connected with the bombing on Al Mina but Kiersten was especially promising. Kiersten ran a number of mining supply companies acting as fronts for her illegal operations here. A number of which had access to, and were distributors of, low yield mining charges. After some careful investigation, we'd also discovered that a number of these shell companies donated heavily to NMLA aligned factions.

She was a good looking, albeit slightly unpleasant, woman. She had short blonde hair with sharp edges to match the sharp contours of her facial features. She was short, direct and to the point when talking business and she was always talking business, if she wasn't talking about the Empire and the Republic it was meant to be. Her idealism was matched only by her fastidious attitude toward business so when I showed up with a Tycoon level trade rating and a fast ship, she only saw the possibilities. She only saw the credit signs.

We started small, doing light transport work for her various fences and fronts. We moved mining supplies and survival gear to various star ports and surface colonies across the neighboring systems before eventually graduating to more contraband. She never told us exactly what we were moving, but she always called what we were carrying "product" when it was meant to be illegal. The most recent "product" she said was "quite volatile" and should be handled with the upmost care. So when she loaded a handful of crates labelled "catalytic combustibles" onto The Chelsie, we couldn't deliver them fast enough. Not failing to recognize that our target was dealing in explosives. This would give her access to explosive compounds... like Cirillium CB4.

We close in on our destination as I cut the FTL and we drop, Mackenzie Relay growing rapidly in the canopy until it's enormous and revolving out in front of us. We close our distance as Imperial Flight Control lights up our comm to submit a docking clearance. I submit the couriers code provided to us by the on station warrant officer before receiving a tight beam back that we're clear for approach. Once through the mail slot, we descend to landing bay four, touching down and cutting power to the engines.

I begin to undo my flight harness, hearing Finn behind me doing the same, when Brandson calls up from the deck below.

"Hey Boss," Brandson calls up. "How long are we gonna haul illegal contraband for these assholes? I didn't sign up for this to become an errand boy for gangsters. Imperial gangsters most especially."

"If you know a better way than money to get these people to trust you then I'm all ears kid," I reply.

The metallic echo of Brandson's boots on the rung of the ladder leading into the co*ckpit from the deck below can be heard before his head appears in the hatchway.

"It's just," he says. "That last load... I'm pretty sure those were explosives. You saw the symbol on the side. I mean, who knows what they'll be used for."

"They're probably for a mining outfit who doesn't want to pay full price for their charges," I reply.

"That's optimistic," he says. "Considering who we're dealing with."

"We gotta do what we gotta do to get the information we need Brand," Finn says. "Besides, The Purple Council dealing in contraband explosives tells us we're on the right track."

"I don't want to be an accessory to killing innocent people Finn," he replies. "I don't think I'm out of line not wanting to deliver bombs to dangerous people."

"Dangerous people blew up our home Brand," he replies. "The bombs they used, they came from here. Let's worry about proving that first, then you can worry about saving the rest of the galaxy."

"Alright," I say, standing up and heading for the co*ckpit door. "I'll check in with Kiersten. Let her know we made the delivery. Kid, I'll have my transponder on so keep an eye on me."

"Are we still going forward with the plan?" Finn asks. "We've been here for a month. She has to trust us by now."

"I'm going to float the idea when I see her," I reply. "Let her know that running shipments isn't the best use of our talents. If she's open to meeting, we'll set a time and place. We can grab her there. Are we all okay with that plan?"

"Works for me," Finn says.

"The sooner this is over the better," Brandson replies.

I disembark from The Chelsie, giving a nod to the Imperial Warrant Officer who's name I couldn't remember, and head toward the lift. Once inside, I hit the pad for the public concourse. The lift doors close and, after a short descent, open again revealing a bustling public space. To and frow, people dart back and forth from varying "castes" of Imperial society. Stepping off of the lift platform and into the road, it's decidedly obvious that I'm an outsider. Even the slaves in this place were well dressed. The only people dressed the way I was were other pilots and most of them were off of the street, tucked into one on station bar or another, drowning themselves in whatever Imperial liquors they could afford before their next flight.

Turning right, I begin heading up the crowded road that, far off, makes a sharp turn, looping up and out of view before reconnecting with the road behind me on the other side of the station. I push my way through a crowd of merchants, holding up their wares and calling out to a sharply dressed aristocrat heading in the opposite direction. Most of these people, they'll live their whole lives here, quite possibly never setting foot on the surface of the planet below. The more I think about the revolving nature of this station compared to the sedentary lives of the people here, the more this place starts to look like a hamster wheel.

I push through another crowd to find a young, well dressed woman listening to a man tell her how beautiful the hat he's placed on her head looks. The hat is gaudy and loud, adorned with decorations and feathers from rare birds he insists are from the wild worlds of the frontier. She seems reluctant about the design of the thing at first, but the salesman assures her that the hat is the height of fashion on the surface.

"Senator Junious's daughter wears a hat just like this you say?" the woman asks him.

"Oh yes, Lady Gentry!" he exclaims. "Lady Junious has a keen eye and an insatiable appetite for my wears. I've fitted her for a plethora of cranial adornments. She IS on the vanguard of fashion, after all. Soon, there won't be a highborn lady in the whole of the Empire without one."

The woman admires herself in a mirror as I pass by, making my way to the next turn and turning left into an alley between two office buildings. The alley is dimly lit and the buildings on either side do well to drown out the noise of commerce from the street behind. Reaching the end, I come to a store front with a man standing outside.

"Lucious," I say, giving the man a polite nod as I approach. "Is she in?"

"Ah, Columbus," he says in a thick, working class Imperial accent. The kind of accent that makes him sound like someone who's seen the wrong side of Imperial slavery at some point. "Lady Morrow ain't here."

"Any idea where she is?" I ask,

"Beats me," he says. "Boss said she was leaving and then she left. Galeon's inside though."

"Galeon?" I ask with a sigh and slight aura of distaste. Galeon Tirschius was a typical, aggravatingly pompous Imperial despite his extensive criminal career. He was a member of The Purple Council, same as Kiersten, albeit of slightly lower rank. A grave injustice, he thought. We'd spoken a number of times but he still made an effort to forget my name and to appear overwhelmingly busy every time we spoke.

Walking through the doors, I'm greeted by the same dimly lit bar I've been spending so much time in over the past month. Lining the bar, a number of pilots sit, nursing drinks and waiting for someone to hand them their next delivery job. Against the wall, two more pilots sitting together at a table analyze a couple of data pads. They both look up, making eye contact with me as I pass, before bringing their eyes back down, returning to what they were doing.

As I reach the back of the room, a familiar face walks out from behind a wall.

"Galeon," I say.

"Y... yes?" he replies, looking at me the way a man looks at a beggar in the street who just grabbed at his pant leg. "I'm sorry, who are you? Did you need something?"

"I'm Columbus," I say, with an upward inflection to insinuate that we'd met before. "I just got back from dropping off a load for Kiersten. I was hoping to speak with her. Could you tell her..."

"You must mean Lady Morrow," he says, looking slightly annoyed at my lack of propriety. "Lady Morrow isn't here. She's gone off to Summerland to play soldier for Darkwater. Left me here to run the show, as it were. But will Galeon get any recognition for picking up the slack? I should think not. Typical. In any case, she isn't here."

"Any idea when she'll be back?" I ask.

"Back?" he asks, sounding confused as if his mind is already elsewhere. "No idea. With the way things are shaping up out there she might not come back at all. Wouldn't that be just perfect?! Then who will they ask to run things here? Galeon! NMLA has their idealistic claws in everything. No sense of propriety. In any case, they called and she came running. I'm still here but you can bet I won't see a single red credit for it. Speaking of, have you been paid? Is that why you're still here?"

"That won't be necessary," I reply. "I'll just wait for Kiers... or... Lady Morrow to return."

"Don't hold your breath," he says, before turning and heading for another room.

Back on board The Chelsie, I sit in the galley next to Brandson while Finn analyzes a holograph of the Summerland System projected from the center console. He moves his hands and the graphic moves with them, spreading his hands out to zoom in on various planets and asteroid clusters, then contracting them to bring the whole system back into view.

"So that's why security is so lax here," Brandson said. "I haven't seen one Imperial ship since we've arrived."

"Every fighting ship in the Empire looks like it's converging here," says Finn, pointing to the holographic image of Summerland. "If the headlines are anything to go on, something big is going down."

"According to GalNet," I reply, "Darkwater Inc. has been training NMLA cells there."

"What the hell is Darkwater?" Brandson asks.

"Private military firm," Finn says. "They have links to Theta Seven, the primary suspect behind the Nine. They think he's the mastermind behind the NMLA."

"Which, if Kiersten was so quick to come to Darkwater's defence, she might have a connection to," I reply.

"Exactly," Finn says. "We have to go to Summerland. We have to find her now more than ever."

"Wait," Brandson says. "That system is about to be a warzone! You're actually considering taking The Chelsie into that?!"

"We have to kid," I say. "The Imperial fleet has already sent the word out calling for volunteers."

"Seems simple enough," Finn says, turning back to the hologram. "We fight for them and if Kiersten survives, they let us talk to her. Not a big price tag."

"You seem to be forgetting, Finn," Brandson says. "We need to survive too."

Logbook - How I Got Here: The Calm Before The Storm | Elite:Dangerous | INARA (2024)

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