Danig nervously tapped the chrono on his wrist, activating its display: 0350 hours. Its ambient temperature sensor indicated the air inside the lift was a cool 18°C. He wiped the sweat from his brow. He kept his gaze averted from the black hemispheres of the security cams mounted in the ceiling and above the lift control panel. He knew his people were watching. It should have given him confidence to know that station security was backing him up. It should have.
There were too many factors in play to be comfortable with anything right now. Danig straightened his back and squared his shoulders. He forced himself to let his hands hang at his sides and tried to look relaxed, confident. He was anything but. The muscles in his shoulders and neck felt like they were in knots. His collar felt clammy around his neck as it dampened from his sweat.
He blinked rapidly as a bead of sweat dripped into his eye. His breath quickened, and he could feel his heart pounding. Oh god, he thought, I’m going to have a panic attack. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and frantically mopped the sweat from his flushed face.
Bing! The doors of the lift opened to reveal a luxurious antechamber. He hurriedly tucked away his handkerchief and tried to re-assume his former air of poise. There was a woman facing the lift, hands folded together at her waist, clearly waiting to greet him. Old instincts saved the moment. He flashed the woman a charming smile and smoothed the front of his suit.
“Hello, you must be—” Danig’s words cut off as the lift doors tried to close on him as he stepped through. He extricated himself from the damned doors and turned back to the woman. She quirked an eyebrow, turned on her heel and began walking towards a set of double doors set into the far wall. Flustered, Danig followed after and tried to recover.
“I’m Danig Renshaw. You must be the…you must be his assistant.” His stride brought him even with her as she headed towards the large double doors at the far end of the chamber. She glanced sidelong at him for a moment before answering.
“I am one of many of Mr. Beyle’s employees, Director Renshaw.” Her voice surprised him; it had an incredibly warm and rich timbre, in marked contrast to her rather severe appearance. Her dark hair was pulled back tightly into a small bun. A pair of expensive, high-end glasses perched on top of a lightly freckled nose. She wore only touches of makeup in dark shades, very understated.
Danig wasn’t particularly clued into the current styles of women’s fashion, but even his unfamiliar eye could tell that the blouse and long skirt she was wearing was an outfit as expensive and tasteful as his own custom-tailored suit. It was somewhat disquieting to realize that this man’s receptionist must have as much disposable income as Danig himself.
They reached the wide double doors, paneled in natural wood treated with a dark varnish. She glanced pointedly at him as her hand hovered over a control panel set above one of the door handles. He cleared his throat and turned away, making a show of studying the room as she tapped on the keys behind him. If anything, this lobby was as disquieting as the quality of attire worn by the assistant, or secretary, or whatever her job description was.
The floors were tiled in black marble shot through with veins of dark green. Across from a reception desk was a waiting area formed by the arrangement of a matching set of chairs and couches upholstered in rich chocolate-colored leather around a low glass table. The walls were hung with numerous works of art, both reproductions of famous classics and more contemporary pieces. Generic but pleasant instrumental music played softly in the background. Generally, Danig wasn’t overly impressed with displays of wealth, but he had to admit that this place made an impression.
A huge viewport, taking up most of the three-meter high ceiling, provided a stunning view of the gas giant around which the station orbited. Half a dozen security camera drones drifted silently around the room, high up near the ceiling. One of the drones swooped down lazily, and as he watched it, Danig started in surprise as his view tracked across someone standing very still against the wall behind the reception desk.
The guard was positioned in the corner off to one side, where they were out of view of anyone exiting the lift, which seemed to be the only available entrance to the lobby. Danig couldn’t tell if the guard was a man or woman because their form was fully encased in a lightly armored dropsuit. The guard wasn’t standing at any form of attention, but was instead casually leaning against the wall, arms crossed, head cocked to the side, studying Danig in turn. A sleek but very large pistol rested in a holster slung low on the guard’s hip.
Behind him sounded a chirruping beep, followed by the muted buzz of a solenoid and the heavy thunk of a disengaging lock. He turned around as the assistant worked the door handle and stepped inside. She turned, holding the door wide and politely gestured for Danig to enter. As he stepped through the doorway, he glanced back over his shoulder and felt his unease deepen when he could no longer see the guard anywhere in the room.
The assistant closed the door and it buzzed and thunked again as it locked behind them. Danig mentally cursed, but tried to keep his face composed.
“Please follow me, Director. Mr. Beyle doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
Danig followed her down a wide corridor featuring the same marble flooring as the lobby. A long, patterned carpet covering the middle of the hallway ran down its length.
They passed several closed doors along the corridor’s length; each was secured with a security control panel. The only light in the corridor came from spotlights shining down on various sculptures and paintings featured in small alcoves evenly spaced down the corridor.
The corridor ended in another pair of wood-paneled double doors. As they neared it, Danig began taking deep breaths, mentally preparing himself for this meeting. Danig’s steps faltered as the assistant said, “This way, please, Director.”
Intent on his own thoughts, he hadn’t noticed that she had turned aside from the main double doors to the last door on the left side of the corridor. It stood open and she was standing off to one side in the same pose as when she greeted him coming off the lift.
She raised her right hand across her body, pointing through the door. “Follow this to the end of the line, sir. You will be met.”
Danig looked through the doorway. It led into a cramped and utilitarian service corridor. Bare deckplates and bulkheads led a short ways in to the top of a staircase leading down. The only light came from a single emergency lighting fixture in the stairwell. He looked back at the assistant.
“You must be joking,” Danig scoffed. For a moment, his nervousness was eclipsed by annoyance. “You mean to tell me that your master is down in that hole and not in his office?” he said, pointing at the nearby double doors.
She arched a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “Shall I inform Mr. Beyle that you object to meeting him, after all, Director?”
A hot response almost escaped him before he clenched his teeth on it. He replied in a strained voice, “No. Of course not.”
She motioned him through the door with an exaggerated gesture, a mocking imitation of her earlier courtesy. He gave her his most icy glare, but she only smirked at him. He stalked into the bare corridor in affronted silence, and she swung the door closed behind him. He could hear the door lock click into place. He paused for a moment, his shoulders slumping as he tugged out his damp handkerchief to once again wipe his face.
That girl was a disrespectful little bitch, but his anger had mostly been for show. Standing there in the darkness near the locked door, he admitted to himself just how scared he really was. There was no getting out of this, no turning back. The girl had known that.
He was an important man; there was only so much that could be done to him. But he wasn’t eager to experience just where that line fell. He resolutely put his handkerchief away and made his way to the staircase. The corridor was just wide enough for one person to pass easily.
The stairwell was equally narrow. It wound around the outside edge of an open square shaft, descending exactly one level down for each complete circuit around. Danig glanced over the handrail, down the shaft. This was one of the utility access stairwells, intended to give station service workers alternative paths for moving through the station in the event of lift failure.
At each level, there would be an access hatch with an emergency light above it. The emergency lights were the only illumination to be had. They descended down further than he wanted to contemplate, if he was supposed to go all the way to the bottom. He wondered if they intended to just give him a heart attack.
He grumbled under his breath and started down. The metal of the staircase clanged loudly with each step, creating strange echoes in the deep shaft. When he reached the first landing down, he frowned. The control panel for the access hatch was gutted, the circuitry inside ripped and scorched. The edge of the hatch was welded shut. Well, that was a blatant violation of station policies. Not that he was really in a position to assert his authority in that regard.
He continued on; each level was the same. After descending 17 levels, Danig was breathing hard and his legs were burning. He sat down on the steps to catch his breath.
“No time for that, Renshaw,” said a heavily modulated voice in the darkness.
Danig’s heart leapt up into his throat, which may have explained the strangled squeak that escaped him as he stumbled his way to his feet. He couldn’t tell where the voice had come from.
“Who…who’s there? Is that you, Beyle?” Danig pressed his back to the access hatch and looked around wildly. He couldn’t see anyone. More importantly, he hadn’t heard anyone’s steps clanging on the stairs.
“Not Beyle. He’s still waiting on you, though. Not a patient man is Beyle. You’d think he’d have all the patience in the ‘verse, but he really doesn’t. Especially not when it comes to you, Renshaw.” The mechanical voice was followed by several loud impacts of metal against metal.
Whatever gave that voice its modulated sound also made it nearly impossible to determine from which direction it came. But the raps against the metal gave Danig something to orient upon. He stepped to the edge of the railing and looked down. Two flights down stood the armored guard Danig had seen in the lobby above. Danig narrowed his eyes. At least, it looked like the same guard. For all he knew, Beyle had a legion of the damned things.
“Who are you, soldier?” called out Danig.
“Just another employee,” said the soldier in his distorted voice. Danig realized that the mercenary’s weapon was out. It was the butt of the pistol that had rapped against the handrail to get his attention. The merc flipped the pistol around to grip properly. He held it at his side instead of holstering the weapon. “It’s time.”
Danig swallowed and wiped his neck under the collar with his handkerchief. He finished descending the last two levels, where the mercenary waited, in much the same pose as upstairs—arms crossed, leaning against the wall, helmet cocked to the side.
Danig couldn’t see the mercenary’s face behind the helmet, but he thought he could hear what he imagined to be a dark amusement in the soldier’s voice as he said, “End of the line, Renshaw.”
* * *
It was the sound that let Danig know where the mercenary had finally led him, long before he could see anything but more bulkheads or the back of the merc’s dropsuit.
The background rumble of huge machinery; the distant, muted shrieks of metal against metal as damaged ships were repaired; the garbled chatter of station announcements over loudspeakers; the distant roar of active starship engines; the constant stream of station traffic going by, the overlayed hum of their countless maglev lifters combining into a steady background thrumming.
It was a cacophony, mitigated only by some measure of distance. The mercenary had led them through what must have been a couple of miles or more of access corridors to one of the station’s many hangar decks. Danig didn’t bother attempting to engage the mercenary with questions. He’d stopped trying after probably the first quarter mile of their walk. Oh, the merc would talk. He wasn’t shy about that. But all Danig got out of him—or her; Danig still wasn’t entirely sure which—was either mocking humor, casual threats, or circular answers.
Danig realized the corridor they were traveling was ending at an open access hatch. Even with his view mostly blocked by the towering soldier in the dropsuit, Danig could tell that beyond was hangar space of some kind. Most likely, he reasoned, this mercenary agent had led him to Beyle’s personal hangar.
He tried not to dwell on how vulnerable his situation really was. Far more vulnerable than he had expected to be during this meeting. Station security probably assumed that Danig was still meeting with Beyle up in that plush office suite however many decks above them. Danig had no expectation of help from that quarter. The way had been sealed behind them by more of Beyle’s employees. Even if station security stormed the office and found the access stairwell, there’d be no indication of which level he’d exited on, let alone the path they’d taken since.
When they reached the access hatch, the mercenary turned and grabbed Danig by the lapel of his suit, dragging him through and marching him at a fast pace several steps down the catwalk running along the side of the hangar wall. Danig held onto the soldier’s gauntlet and did his best to keep his rubbery legs under him. The mercenary pointed down towards the end of the catwalk, leaned down and put his helmet close in to Danig’s face. Danig could hear the menace in the mercenary’s voice, even through its heavy modulation. “There’s your meeting, Renshaw. Behave yourself, now.”
He released his grip of Danig’s suit and stretched back up to his full height. Danig hurriedly stepped away from the soldier and began walking where he’d pointed. He didn’t look back. He wasn’t sure what would be more unnerving: knowing some mercenary agent with dodgy Sleeper tech crammed in his head was staring at his back, or if the merc had pulled his vanishing act again.
The access corridor had exited onto the catwalk not very far from the hangar control station. Several hundred meters distant, suspended in the center of the hangar, was a Sansha’s Nation Phantasm cruiser. Danig looked at it sourly as he made his way down the catwalk. He supposed Beyle could have chosen a more ominous looking ship to have active for Danig’s walk up, but he couldn’t really think of one offhand.
His steps slowed as he passed the hangar control station and turned in towards the captain’s quarters. On the long walk here, Danig had ample time to think over his situation. He was pretty sure that things were a lot worse even than he’d thought when he’d been woken up at midnight by a priority transmission. He’d already been reprimanded for most of the previous afternoon by various corporate officers at TransStellar.
The midnight transmission had been different. It was from an officer much more senior than the ones before. It had been a very calm set of instructions. There was a way to salvage the situation. Attens Beyle had requested a personal meeting with the station’s director. Danig had been told in no uncertain terms that he was to be entirely accommodating and do whatever was required of him to resolve this dispute. If he still wanted a career with TransStellar Shipping at the conclusion of this meeting, he would appease Beyle by any means necessary.
Danig was pretty sure now that he’d been fed a story. The dispute had already been resolved at a much higher level. And this meeting was just delivery of what it had actually taken to appease Attens Beyle, by any means necessary. If that was the case, Danig was proper fucked. No getting around it. He’d pissed off a capsuleer and his employer had decided to cut its losses. He was a dead man.
If that was the case. There was an outside chance that the meeting had been legitimate as far as TransStellar was aware, that all this was a play by Beyle. In which case…Danig sighed. In which case, it didn’t matter. He was still proper fucked. The only thing for it was to try to bullshit his way through this and hope for the best. It could even be that this was all just an elaborate mind game Beyle was playing to rattle him into botching what were technically supposed to be negotiations.
Danig chuckled to himself. Right. He felt like some of the mercenary’s black humor had infected him. Unused to this much physical exertion, Danig’s muscles were either numb or on fire. His fine custom suit was ripped and smeared with grease, not to mention soaked in sweat. But Beyle had made a mistake in giving him time to think. It had given him a chance to reach a much better head space for this meeting. Danig was entirely intimidated, utterly terrified. But he wasn’t nervous anymore.
He’d been underestimated his entire life. He’d always used that to his advantage, too. It was how he’d advanced more quickly than his colleagues; they never thought to guard against a knife in the back from big, bumbling Danig Renshaw. It was how he’d capitalized on information no one thought he had or could acquire. It’s what let him scam hundreds of millions of isk from countless capsuleers throughout his career.
Maybe he’d been found out this time. Maybe not. But he always came out on top. Despite his current circumstances, despite all his bleak thoughts and genuine fear, that conceit refused to let itself be snuffed out. He always came out on top, and he would again this time. Surprising himself, Danig found a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.
He gave that smile a little push, turning it into a wide conman’s grin as he stepped through into the captain’s quarters. “Mr. Beyle?” he called out. He frowned. The captain’s quarters were empty. “Hello?”
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up as he became conscious of the increasing intensity of the sound he’d been hearing. An impossible bass note, so deep that you felt it vibrating in your chest as much as you heard it with your ears. Danig turned around and stumbled back, falling into the room with a cry.
The Phantasm was right on top of him. Not a few hundred meters out, but hovering as close it could get without impacting the hangar wall. Right the fuck on top of him! He scrambled to his feet. He rushed over to the room’s only other door and frantically keyed the door release. The light on the control panel stayed red and a text message appeared on the display: Station atmosphere not yet decontaminated for capsuleer consumption.
“That’s bullshit!” he screamed at the door. “Let me through!”
“Hello, Danig,” said a voice behind him.
As his head whipped around, the last thing Danig Renshaw saw was something blurring towards his face.