Hekate's Call, Chapter 3

The mobile military base and hanger that Hekate’s Call operated out of had almost finished the process of closing up shop outside of the city of Cryse. It was a nothing town with a bustling market filled with off-world goods, because the only thing that the city had that was worth anything was a large mass driver and a dedicated orbital station. It was also lousy with mercs and riffraff, since the only way that Cryse had to protect its mass driver was local PMCs that squeezed every cent they could out of it.

Ilina was well known and well liked around the town, she had operated out of it for so long after all — before her stint in one of the larger rebellion factions and her subsequent treason to signup with Carrion — which was a real damn shame because she didn’t get to actually go out and meet with anyone before they were scheduled to go up.

She was busy loading crates and doing inventory work in the hangers, catching glimpses of Hekate’s trio of titans being outfitted for low- and zero-gravity hardvac work. The only person she was actually responsible to was Crater, but the commander had her running around helping out and getting familiar with their resources. Morian’s doing, no doubt, as doing mechanical work and odd-jobs around Necromancer’s Fall was how she learned how Carrion operated.

There was a meeting she was going to be late to. She was ordered to be late to it. She got excused too early by the maintenance crew she was helping because she kept looking at the clock. Was she supposed to be five minutes late or ten? Should she go wait outside Crater’s office?

She caught a glimpse of herself on her way out in some mirror-polished plate. Her hair fell around her awkward, freckled face, framing it just like Velia taught her to do, with the rest of it up in a high ponytail. Her face was slightly smudged with dirt and grease and her fatigues were as dusty as the jumpsuits the mechanics wore. She did not look like a pilot, had no rebel trappings, and wasn’t cut sharp enough to be an Imperial soldier.

Ilina Falke was unmistakably, undeniably, a good-for-nothing lowlife mercenary. In a rather cute, childish way and not the sexy, rakish way that would make that kind of statement a compliment.

It was her eyes, she figured. She had neither the endless confident of ace pilots nor the dead-behind-eyes cold stare that could make her intimidating. Hell, she’d even been told that she didn’t have the eyes of a fresh-faced recruit, brimming with life and hope for a better future.

“You look tired and sad,” Velia had said with that gentle voice, petting her in a rebel barracks, “like an abused puppy.”

By the time she had made it across the base she was fifteen minutes late to the meeting. Morian was standing outside the office teetering back and forth, shifting from one leg to the next, smoking beneath an overworked air scrubber. It wasn’t an anxious tic of hers, she was just like that. It was their first direct encounter in almost a month.

“You gave them Velia.”

“You took her back,” Morian grinned. “In we go!”

Morian threw open the door and took several big, cartoonishly clomping steps into the room, leaning dramatically with each step. Ilina followed in quickly after, walking in a normal way like normal people do, and politely closing the door behind her.

“Dr. Morian Kyrnn,” Crater spoke as if the two of them were exactly on time, entering at exactly the moment in her introductions that they were supposed to, “will be the primary physician of the pilots. You will all be undergoing regular checkups.”

“You hired the fucking Corpse Eater to be our doctor?”

The comment was made by a blonde woman, slightly obscured by a tall gorgeous thing that Ilina wanted to avoid looking at directly, for personal reasons.

When she leaned around her relaxed friend she turned her nose up, “Isn’t that the boy they carved out of the tin can the dog brought back?”

Something about the way she said boy made Ilina bristle. She'd been called a boy many times, but the woman's tone was so much more derisive than that.

Crater cleared her throat, prompting silence from the room. The three pilots were there: the blonde one that had been speaking, her couchmate that Ilina couldn't look at, and the commander's golden girl on the opposite couch. Then there was Morian and herself, standing between the couched and the door. Finally, opposite them was Elisabet Crater.

"This is Ilina Falke, callsign Hunter, pilot of A Parting Word -- the tin can that had you two scurrying around in the mud for six minutes and almost soured the entire operation," Crater's voice was cutting in an entirely new way for Ilina. Was she being defended? "Intelligence suggests that she was also the mech jockey from years back that paralyzed two Imperial bases by sabotaging repair and maintenance operations."

"Damn," purred the pilot of the Work From Home -- whose purr Ilina only recognized for wholesome, professional reasons.

"Hey," Morian elbowed Ilina sharply in the rib and pointed to her before Crater could continue introductions, "isn't that the woman from all those pornographic battle logs you keep watching?"

"I suppose we'll start there," Crater interjected before Ilina could make a bigger fool of herself. "Manya Carie, callsign Illustrious, pilot of the Work From Home. It seems she doesn't need much more introduction."

Illustrious was an infamous pilot who regularly released edited battle logs for sale. They combined battle data and video feeds with an interior view of the cockpit. There was no use dressing it up as anything but what it was: it was porn. Ilina regularly ponied up money for the battle logs, paying extra for advanced access, because she was sexually frustrated on a dustbowl planet with a population of what felt like fifty people she knew by name, most of them men.

Manya Carie was a tall woman, the tallest in the room, perhaps taller than Velia — Ilina was short so most women were tall, which was a delightful bonus. Her most notable features were the black arcing horns jutting out from just above her temples, and her matching scaled prehensile tail. From Ilina's extensive viewing from the battle logs, she seemed to have black plates running up her spine, probably a neural connection for her augments. Or maybe they were just for decoration.

Ilina just nodded, briefly catching a glimpse of Manya waving at her. In the momentary eye contact of this mistake, Manya flashed the same peace sign she flashed the camera whenever she lined up doubles with the rail. This was going to be a tough assignment.

"The loud one is Krystyn Zecks--"

"Don't use my last name!"

"Krystyn Zecks, callsign Charlatan, pilot of The Problem With Inertia," the commander simply talked over the pilot. "She's the field commander when there isn't an operational line to control."

Charlatan looked like the kind of women they featured in Imperial propaganda films with her long straight blonde hair, perfect painted nails, and all the trappings of a perfect heroine. She spoke with a slight accent that Ilina couldn't place that reminded her of those movies even more. Ilina instinctively hated her for being pretty and perfect, and being a massive bitch already did little to make her feel guilty about it.

“Symeon Vigil, callsign Hound, operator of Zheng-class frame A Scandal In Heaven,” the soldier declared independently. Her delivery was practiced, she was used to introducing herself that way.

Symeon Vigil had a soldier’s build. The kind that resulted from active infantry combat in various warzone environments, founded upon standard military training regimes. Not special forces, but top class. A natural, dirty blonde against Krystyn’s dye job, and cut rough and short to keep it out of the way. She sat on the couch awkwardly, taking up little space, like someone seated in one of those too-small chairs at a doctor’s office.

The meeting resolved shortly after, explaining the mission they would be undertaking. A long space-faring journey aboard a small 6-bay carrier, Gestalt and Gravity, to Sky-Knight Errant HQ. It would take six months to a year travel depending on gates, plenty of shore leave along the way. Basic escort duty, though Falke had no zero-g battle experience and had never been off-world either.

"Hey, new girl," called the Inertia's pilot once she'd made it out into the hall. She was unpleasant but had softened considerably in a short time, greeting her with a large smile. "I'm sorry I called you a boy," she laughed nervously, "I didn't mean anything by it."

"She just thinks men aren't suited to be pilots," Manya's smooth voice led her appearance. She wrapped an arm around Charlatan and gave her a little pull. "We have to check our machines and get them loaded. C'mon."

Well. She still wasn't going to feel guilty about hating her. In fact the way Manya touched her so casually made her hate the woman even more. She was being petty and stubborn about it, she knew that, but her new field commander set a bad working tone to start and it wasn't on Falke to fix it.

There wasn't much more to do than simply help inventory and organize for the company's move to space. She was learning faces and names, and remembering the ones that said they would be going up — she was likely never coming back after all. A Parting Word had already been rebuilt and would be in orbit by now, since it could be sent up with other materials. The other mechs weren't so lucky on that front.

It was in the dusty haze of the deep afternoon, only a bit before the sun set and the temperatures plummeted, that a rough looking Symeon Vigil approached her. In this light she looked mildly handsome, though that wasn't Ilina's type, and her figure was less intimidating than it was in the break room.

"What are you doing?"


Vigil looked awkward at that. She looked like she looked awkward at a lot of things. She didn't strike Ilina as slow, but perhaps more deliberate than others. The woman wordlessly followed as she carried boxes and passed them off to other staff and returned for more.

"The commander says we shouldn't do work outside our contracts."

That was the mercenary rule. You stick to your contract because you can't charge for any work you do outside of it. Ilina had followed that rule since she was sixteen up until the day she was forced into one of the rebel factions. Then the rule became if you don't work you don't eat – among many other rules that Velia graciously guided her through until she understood all of them innately.

Falke nodded, and stepped away from the box she was about to pick up. "That's right. But this is the fastest way to understand how things work around here."

"You just do what you're told, saddle up when you're told, and shoot what you're told. What more is there to understand?"

Maybe she was slow. There was a flatness to her voice, and she repeated the words almost mindlessly as if she'd never thought twice about them in her life. A level of naivete at her age that Ilina just wasn't used to seeing in mercenaries.

Her parents words came back to her. "You can understand a system's purpose by what it produces, but you can't operate it without understanding the system itself." It went over Vigil's head, but of course it did. "If I understand how the company operates at every level, from assets to processes, then I can make more informed choices about how I execute the contract."

Vigil crossed her arms for a second, "I guess that makes sense. I'll have to check with the commander later." She picked up a large crate of cargo and started walking away.

Vigil and Falke stopped their work deep into the night, along with everyone else. They were both quiet for most of it, though she spent a lot of time passing herself around from person to person and favor to favor to learn people's names. It wasn't until Falke stopped at her designated room that she realized that Vigil wasn't just heading off to her own room and was absolutely following her.


"I was told to apologize, for striking you before."

Oh! Falke had forgotten. She'd been hit before for lesser reasons so often it didn't even register as an offense.

"By the commander?"

Vigil nodded. Paused. Abruptly, “I am sorry for striking you. It is against various planetary and local sphere laws to abuse prisoners. My conduct was improper, and I am prepared to make whatever reparations you require.”

Falke laughed and shook her head, “Didn’t hurt. You were just jealous of the attention you thought I was getting. It’s fine.”

The red-faced soldier shifted, looking uncomfortable, like the act of thinking about why they had done it hurt somewhere deep.

"If you don't demand reparations, then this is settled."

With that Vigil marched away, apparently having met the requirements of whatever test set her on this errand to the letter. That was the last time Falke met Symeon Vigil until long after they had relocated to space.