Hekate's Call: Chapter 2

Ilina Falke woke up on a tan, ripped couch with the weight of A Scandal In Heaven's massive fist slamming into her chest. Flashes of the fight burned against the back of her eyelids as she measured the room.

The curtains of the room were clipped shut with office stationary and she could make out a peeling wallpaper behind the break room furniture on the far side of the room.

The Scandal traced her movement with agonizing, perfect accuracy through the rad-mist, blocking her at each moment with a crash of a displaced imperial mech or the its own bulk. Like someone corralling a rat into a corner.

She wasn't bound. In fact she was rather comfortably tucked in under a throw blanket and her head was propped up by a pair of the throw pillows, recently doused in air freshener.

The Inertia and WFH occupied The Scavenger, who had kept telling her to evacuate. Eventually the oil slick that had seeped into the ground hardened into a ferrous wall of spikes and launched her into the air like a carnival target. The Scandal's movements up close were far quicker and precise than they seemed in the battle logs. It won first prize with one swing.

It was in the moment when she lifted her head that she remembered the heat and crushing impact again and wretched into a conveniently placed bucket. Total system failure and her armor bricked. They must have carved her out of it. It was a miracle that she seemed to have all of her limbs and wasn't in the morgue.

She knew one thing for certain: A Scandal In Heaven explosively vented reactor exhaust through it's knuckles in a much faster and more dangerous way than how The Scavenger used its reactor heat to ignite its lance. It was designed with even less care for the operator than anything the doctor had ever conceived. If you cracked the arm while it was primed, you'd be lucky to find anything left of the operator.

Falke just rolled back onto the couch after wiping her mouth on some tissues that had been left next to the bucket. She was done thinking. She was a prisoner now. At least it was a cozy cell. There was several bottles of water with packets of electrolyte mix secured to them, and some protein bars. Like someone was treating her for a bad hangover.

Perhaps she had barely started to fall asleep, because otherwise she should have heard the voices before they had reached the doorway.

"Now, now, Ms. Kyrnn, she's right in here." A confident voice, commandingly feminine.

Three women entered abruptly and turned the light on bright, almost blinding Falke. The first one she recognized as her boss, Dr. Morian Kyrnn. The second was an officer looking woman, obviously in charge of the local outfit. The third looked like a soldier, maybe?

A lit cigarette hung limply out of Morian's mouth as she leaned this way and that to get a look at Ilina, adjusting her big round glasses around those bloodshot and perpetually sleepless eyes. She was wearing her stupid embroidered lab coat, the one with skeletal arms reaching up from the bottom hem. As Falke pushed herself up Morian grabbed her by the face and began to check vitals, fussing over her hair and clothes.

She felt like what she imagined a sick child getting picked up from school felt like.

The officer spoke, "Confirm this is your employee and that she has been treated properly."

Morian sighed. It wasn't malice that led her to exhale a lungful of smoke directly in Ilina's face, she just didn't care to think not to. "Yeah. It's Hunter Falke, and they're fine," Morian tapped ash onto the floor and spat, "So, why did you fuck me this time, Elisabet?"

The officer stepped forward to fill the space directly in front of her. The woman had long brown hair, meticulously cared for, and what was recognizable as an officer’s uniform on. Though Hekate’s Call was a small mercenary outfit with a few ace pilots, it was hardly military through and through. The woman was just cosplaying. Even still, she was dreadfully pretty and her smooth fingertips brushed against Falke’s face with a lover’s gentleness.

“The license data we pulled identified you as Ilina Falke, gender woman.”

Morian groaned, “This doesn’t matter. Answer me, Crater!”

“It matters a great deal to me,” Elisabet Crater, the officer who was tracing circles on Falke’s lips, snapped back. “Please introduce yourself, pilot.”

It didn’t particularly matter to her. But there was a pressure for her to answer. This wasn’t about Falke, it was about whatever these two had going on. She didn’t need to be a part of it. But she still needed to answer.

She took a drink to moisten her mouth before speaking. “My license information is up to date. Hunter is my callsign, unregistered.“

Before anyone could speak the soldier who had been standing behind Elisabet stepped into view only to strike Falke across the face. It was sudden and violent, and obviously inappropriate. There was a quick reprimand from the officer -- Heel! -- that caused them to back off and wait by the door. It was only a moment later that she realized that the soldier was probably trying to stop the officer from touching Ilina's face.

It worked.

“My apologizes, Ilina,” the officer conceded politely.

She took a step away and brought the conversation with her to Morian. Whatever was going on was between them now, and whatever role Ilina played was done. If she was just trying to show up Morian with how respectfully she treated people she probably didn't know how low the bar really was.

“You asked why I fucked you,” Elisabet’s face was painted by a lordly, smug little smile. “How bad was the damage?”

Morian teetered in one direction then the other. “Gross estimate: I’m completely screwed. You hit me two weeks before the year-end investor call and took out my best two drones and completely destroyed the Necromancer’s Spoils. My company is dead, regardless of our reserves.”

“I’ve won then,” Elisabet preened.

Morian gave an exaggerated shrug followed by a deep and disrespectful bow, “You have won. Now, what do you want?”

"Let me savor this." The woman hummed to herself, taking in the moment.

This was an ongoing thing between the two of them, then. Not that it was Ilina's business. Not that she cared. There was twinge in Falke's chest that told her she did care, but she was desperately trying to ignore it.

"I'd like to hire you, Morian." Elisabet glanced back towards Falke, "I'll hire your pilot too. Report is she almost spoiled this mission and came very close to killing my golden girl here." She motioned to the soldier, frothing by the door. "So, I want her."

Morian Kyrnn was a woman who always had something to say, usually derisive or macabre, but to this she only hummed and considered. Ilina on the other hand felt a kinship with the brunette soldier silently fuming by the door waiting for this meeting to be over.

"Well, she's not mine," Morian laughed, scratching at her neck. "She's a free agent. I closed out her contract before I took the shuttle over here. We'll talk details, though."

Elisabet Crater marched out of the room with her golden girl in tow.

"I'm sorry, doctor," Ilina started, quietly. "I should have called in the ambush faster."

Morian placed a hand on Ilina's head and gave her a very gentle pat. "You made it out alive. That means there were no casualties." As she headed towards the door to follow she paused, "I brought your woman with me. You wanna see her?"

Ilina shook her head and laid back down. She didn't seem to be grievously injured but she was still sore throughout. Rest first. Leave the thinking to the smart people. Just put your head down and do what you're told to.

After a boring two weeks in which she did not have to see or deal with Morian, and didn't get to see any of Hekate's pilots, a contract was finally placed in front of her by Commander Elisabet Crater that detailed her new employment.

Ilina Falke, callsign Hunter, was officially a pilot registered as a member of Hekate's Call -- a Sky-Knight Errant Private Military Services subsidiary! Protecting your planetary hegemonic rule for half the price of maintaining your own army. Contact your local subsidiary before your enemies do! -- under Crater's direct command. She could at least be thankful she wasn't responsible to anyone else.

"I don't think I've ever seen someone read the whole contract before signing," Crater hummed pleasantly as Ilina stood over her desk reading every line and clause of the contract with exacting care.

"This is less than Carrion was paying me."

"You will be making exactly what my three other pilots make."

No favorites, then. But also no incentives for sticking around. The end date of the contract was arrival at a destination off-world, but the pay was steady during the time and she would have shore leave. The rest of the contract was rote, with absolutely no surprises.

The absence of something is as important as its inclusion.

"Kyrnn coached you on this contract," Ilina placed it back on the desk.

Crater practically beamed. "Why do you think that?"

All things told, it was a gut feeling, but every gut feeling came from experiences and perception. It wasn't that Morian Kyrnn was less scummy than other clients she'd had, just differently scummy. It was an honest contract that gave her a lot of freedom over how she completed her tasks, though it demanded she followed regular company protocols. It was safe, there were no risks with the contract demands or anything that would prompt Ilina to reject or renegotiate the offer.

"She’s been trying to get me to go off-world since I signed up,” Ilina was working backward. She knew she was right because of Crater’s expression, but this was part of the test. “This contract will take me off-world to a new place in a much more populated area of the galaxy, and has no return clause. I’ve negotiated contracts with Carrion through her every year for the past four years so she knows what kind of things make me suspicious, and this is the cleanest, most agreeable contract I’ve ever had as an independent. It’s too convenient.”

Crater nodded and stretched in her chair, and when she spoke she sounded noticeably relaxed. “You are good. She’s got a good eye. I’d be glad to have you on.”

A common complaint Morian had about her was that she was often too hung up on details, and always had to draw larger conclusions from them. It was a form of anxiety and a reaction to trauma, she had said. Being raised by intelligence officers made you paranoid like that.

Ilina leaned over and turned the contract back around, pulling a pen and updating her salary. If she was right, she could get away with 30% extra, but was willing to get haggled back down to 20% at most.

“Why?” Crater furrowed her brow, “You said there was no reason to turn it down.”

”Because if I’m right, Dr. Kyrnn won’t agree to go with you until I’ve signed on,” she started with a grin. “That’s why the contract is so agreeable. How much is Kyrnn worth to you?”

Crater sighed as she stood to adjust her coat and make her way around the desk. She stopped beside Ilina and examined her. A taller woman with practice looking down on people like Ilina. She reminded her of one of her moms in the black officer uniform. Ilina had lots of experience being looked down on by people like her too.

“How much,” Crater’s voice was slow, measured such that each word carried weight, “is Velia Lore worth to you, Falke? Is she family? Or a lover, perhaps?”

Differently scummy. Even if the woman hadn’t explained anything to Crater, she still put Velia into their hands knowing Crater was keen enough to realize she was a bargaining chip and was cold enough to use it.

“Morian’s contract will include boarding and medical care for Velia Lore,” Crater smiled at Ilina tightening up, and she continued at a more natural pace now that she’d shifted the momentum. “Having seen the state of the woman, I’d prefer not to leave her in Morian’s care. Accept my price and I can put Velia’s care on your contract instead. We can negotiate the details of that care starting from Morian’s demands.”

There must have been a reason why she needed to ensure the pilots were paid equally. But this was more than enough of a compromise for her, even though walking away with everything she wanted and more, with no pushback, felt wrong.