Syndicate Files: The Relic - Part 1

The gun was pretty new. Never figured I needed one before, and the bribes to carry one were steep. After a few nasty run-ins I'd reconsidered. It was a slug thrower, chemical propellant. Messy, ugly, and reliable; qualities I could trust.

The priest was old. Intaki, I think. Maybe a native. Skin that looked pale and fragile like the yellowed, heat-warped plastic of a discarded protein-bar wrapper in a recycler slag-heap. He'd probably never been off the station. Heavy robes, with a symbol over the breast: an orange crescent like an umbrella over three red dots in a triangle. He was a Dronie. A member of The Church of the Created Ascendancy.

The CCA was one of the more notorious bunches of religious wackos on the station, which was saying a lot. From what I'd heard, Dronies believed that rogue drones were a hop-skip-and-a-jump further along the road to godhood than people. Worshiped the things. Word was, they were behind a spate of disappearances a few years back: people to feed to their mad, mechanical overlords. Or something. The details were sketchy.

If they had done it, either there wasn't much evidence or they paid up their bribes, because no official action had been taken. These days they mostly kept to themselves in a few below-decks compartments.

The priest blinked watery blue eyes at me past the end of the gun, as if he didn't see it. Maybe he thought that was the way I greeted everyone. Some days he wouldn't be far wrong. I already had a sinking feeling about this day.

He cleared his throat, and his voice was a wheezy exhalation with an off-rhythm, irritating cadence - clearly he wasn't the great orator for the congregation, "Tarva? Rordon Tarva? Yes, of course you are. I want to hire you. To recover stolen property."

Well, he didn't seem to be trying to grab me as the next sacrifice. I lowered the gun. Might as well give him a chance, "Is this a personal item? Something of yours?"

"Oh yes, very personal. Very important. A relic of the Lords of the Stars" - he meant rogue drones - "of great religious impor-"

"Nope, sorry." I cut him off, "I don't do religious, bub."

"We can pay quite-"

"Answer's still no." I know what you're thinking, but for once I really was doin' ok. The jobs that encouraged me to get the gun also gave me the stack of syns to buy it with. I had a feeling this guy wasn't being straight with me anyway, "I don't. Do. Religious. Gods make lousy clients."

He blinked at me a couple of time, looking confused, "Oh, but-"

I picked the gun back up, waved him toward the door, "Really, no. Plenty of other PIs that'll take the case, go bother one of them, huh?"

He regarded me with eyes that suddenly seemed a bit less lost and watery, and then turned and hobbled out.

My morning just kept improving, after that. I'd just gotten up to get a cuppa coffee, having given up on getting my new neocom working right, when my door opened again. More priests. Five, six of 'em this time. Red crescents, orange dots. The leader looked to be in her thirties, a bit scrawny, fevered looking. Her eyes bulged, maybe from all the crazy she was stuffed with; it made her look like one of those little dogs that shake all the time. I regretted that the gun was back in the desk drawer.

She pointed an accusatory finger at me. "We followed the Heretic here!" I could hear the capital 'H'.

"Well, good work. Guess you don't need a detective if you can do the following yourself. Don't let the door hit your ass on the way out." Like I said, one of those days, sinking feeling. They were members of the Congregation of the Greater Mind. They worshiped artificial intelligence. Minders and Dronies hated each-other in the way that only people who believe not quite but almost exactly the same thing can. It ran to bloodshed pretty frequently.

"You are the Thief that the Deviants hired to steal the sacred Relic." More audible capitals, which in my experience were only slightly less dangerous than audible bullets. It looked like her eyes were so outraged they might actually pop out of her head to attack me. This one believed what she was saying, even if it was dead wrong, "Seize him!"

Who actually says that? She was the only little one in the bunch, and the others didn't look like they'd been picked for their perfect memorization of the holy texts, if you know what I mean. And me without even my stun stick. I let'em grab me and tried reason and truth, "It wasn't me. Never seen the guy before in my life. Plus, I'm a PI: I find things, I don't steal 'em."

"Lies!" Well, I knew it'd been a long shot. I watched with foreboding as white foam collected at the corners of her mouth, "You will return the Mind to its rightful Owners or we will remove your Brain so that we might learn from its Imperfections."

One of the goons - acolytes? - punched me in the stomach, gave me a good right hook to the face, and they dropped me on the floor. They headed for the door. Bulgy-eyes paused before she left, "Two days, Thief."

Then they were gone.

I'd never found religion, but it looked like religion had come and found me.


I got to my feet, got that cup of coffee, and got to my desk.

I don't like being threatened. It made me stubborn, made me wanna take stands, and in Syndicate neither of those was good for life expectancy. Still, I didn't see a way around it. Find the relic and then I'd at least have a bargaining chip. And maybe know a little more about what the hell was going on.

If you want to find out about something that's been stolen, ask a thief. I had a hunch about which one to talk to. I got my kit, my stun stick, and my pistol and headed out.

HoloHut's are the same, anywhere in the cluster you go. There is a plan to all of them, and it's the same in Tash-Murkon as in the middle of Syndicate. Neocoms by the counter, the newest display of Egones on the table in the aisle, the latest in holodisplays along the left wall; you know the drill. I wasn't shopping though. The franchise owner for this particular HoloHut - the real one, at the end of the chain of front corporations - wasn't the same as all the others. Not nearly.

I told the kid at the register, "I'm here to see Ydet. Tell her it's Tarva."

He nodded and disappeared into the back, then reappeared moments later to wave me through and resume his place at the counter, flipping through a Zainou catalog with a bored look. His boss probably got a lot of people who weren't there to buy electronics. I went through to the back.

Ydet was sitting at her desk, doing paperwork. She looked over and smiled when she saw me, "Hey Tarva. Long time."

She was in her late twenties, maybe early thirties. Open, friendly, trustworthy looking face. Like your kinda cute neighbor. Built like a dancer. Or a cat burglar. I smiled back, "Too long, Ydet. How've you been? How's business?"

"Oh, I get by." I'll bet she did. There are thieves everywhere, but Ydet was a professional, worked contracts. The list of people who do that isn't long. The number of people on that list willing to do me any favors was exactly one.

"I'm looking for some specialty electronics. A certain piece of software, something real smart. Someone I know lost one, recently. They really want me to replace it." Bulgy-eyes had called it a 'Mind' - that's Minder slang for an A.I. Of course, it probably wasn't a real one, cause no way could a bunch of loonies like that get their hands on prohibited tech.

Ydet considered for a moment, eyed the shiner that was starting to show around my left eye, "Well, I can't help you. Sorry."

"Thanks anyway. Take care, Ydet." I turned to go. I wasn't about to lean on her. Long story.

"Tarva, hold on." I looked back at her and she went on, quick and low, "There was something like that, recently. A special order, one of mine. Quick and easy. Can't tell you who for."

I nodded, "Thanks. Guess I'll have to order mine somewhere else. The person who ordered it, drone enthusiast were they?"

"Can't tell you. You know how it is. Clients." But she shook her head slightly, and I'd seen the flash of confusion when I'd mentioned drones.


"I'll just add it to your tab."

"I know. You're Fortune's own smile, Ydet, really. See ya."

I chewed it over on the way back to the office. The Minders had what they thought was an AI - one of their gods. Someone hired Ydet to steal it. Whoever it was, it wasn't the Dronies. The item itself was probably pretty small too. Ydet liked crawlspaces, vents, things like that. She said it'd been quick and easy.

So, I had not too big, not stolen for the Dronies, and it was somewhere on the station. Probably.

Rordon Tarva. Master investigator.

I got to my office, and the door was open a crack. I'd left it locked, though some days I wonder why I even bothered.

I drew my pistol and kicked open the door, "Hands!"

The intruder showed me his palms. In one of them was a badge with an ID, "Tybak Simaaka, DED. I have some questions for you, about an AI."


Syndicate Files: The Relic - Prologue

It's no accident that the first syllable of Syndicate is 'sin'. Every kind of offence against god or man can be found on the teeming stations of this sector: venal, mortal, sins of commission and of omission. No wonder the priests and the preachers did a roaring trade, promising salvation and a better, brighter afterlife than the here and now. Every child of Syndicate knew that everything could be had for a price, somewhere, somehow: even divine forgiveness.

Syndicate is home to a thousand gods, a million beliefs and sometimes it seems like a different cult for every man, woman, and child. Intaki children with too-old eyes who remember the first meeting with the Gallente, and their people's first steps into space, and watching Caldari Prime burn; the Red God of the Sani Sabik, in its bloody glory; the Void and Life, her partner in infinite one-night-stands; fickle Lady Fortune and her coins; Cold Wind with hard lessons, hand in hand with ancestors; and just 'God', of the Empire and other places.

Those are just some of the big ones, too. The Quafes and KKs. Then there's the little ones, the 'Jaque's Liquor Store' or 'Yakia's Pharmacy' of the religious world. Cults for Ametat, Avetat, the Deceiver, and the Divine-Emperor. Endless variations of neo-tribal shamanism. Star worshipers, planet worshipers, and even station worshipers. Con men and mad men scooping up the lost, the desperate, and the gullible even faster than the rest of Syndicate can eat them up - sometimes to worse ends.

That's the point I'm getting at, really: the worse ends and the 'holy' folks. Otherwise it might give you the wrong idea, me pointing a gun at a priest's head.


Things Unseen

Covops frigates didn't come with a lot of passenger space, and when those passengers were wearing combat armor, squeeze was an understatement.

Amieta had got Cia's crew to take out the seats usually used by whichever passengers with enough ISK to pay an agent to arrange their trip via a pod-pilot, and the marines from the Utopian Ideal stood shoulder to shoulder, backs against the wall, feet braced against the shifts in local gravity that threatened even an experienced crew-member with nausea as the Fortune's Figment skipped through gates and shot across systems. The hum of the cloak was a reassuring reminder that the Figment slipped through space unseen.

"System's clear," Cia's disembodied voice said over the intercom. "Stand by for warp. WDA for Vard Gate."

The voice was calm and even, with only the faintest trace of the slurs and lilt of Cia's accent, and sounded somehow older than Cia ever sounded in person. As an XO, Amieta approved of the computer filter that gave Captain Roth's crew the reassuring impression that their pilot knew exactly what she was doing, annoucements triggered automatically by commands to the ship, with their subliminal message the Captain's on top of things, the Captain remembers you, the Captain includes you..

As a sister, she wished she had a better sense of how Cia was doing, locked into her pod, multi-tasking between warp drive and cloak and nav-maps. She hates low-sec, always has. At a crew station, Amieta would have had access to the biometric readouts that would warn a senior officer of increasing fatigue and stress.

Down here, she had a computerized voice.

She activated her internal comm with a thought and made a private connection to Cia's comm.

Hey, how are you doing up there?

The voice that she 'heard' was as smooth and synthesized as the one that issued from the intercom. Fine, Ami. Getting a little bored.

Ami grimaced to herself. Cia, this is me. You need to dock up for a break?

A hesitation. Maybe in the next system. Five minutes.

"Stand by for jump," Cia said over the intercom. "Jumping in three, two, one."

Ami barely noticed the shimmering dislocation of jump these days. And can you cut the filter out of this channel? She paused, and found a lie that would work. I'd be less nervous if I could hear it was you flying this ship.

A ghost of a laugh, and Cia's real voice said Don't worry, Ami, I'm not going to risk anything happening to Silver's XO.

The laugh was good, the edge of strain behind it wasn't. Yeah, the paperwork would -

Cia cut her off. Contact on directional. Bestower, listed as GF42. That ship we traced out of Arzad was GF19, wasn't it?

Yeah. Adrenaline started Amieta's combat 'plants spooling up. "Heads up, people," she said aloud.

A clang and a bump signaled the launch of scanner probes. Amieta called up the files on the system and checked for planets and moons that might have population. Check the second and seventh planets, she told Cia. If they're the same corporation they might be looking for easy targets.

Looks like they're at seven, Cia said tightly. Someone is, anyway. Taking a look.

Waiting deaf and blind in the hold of a ship for whatever trickle of information would herald fast and bloody action was something marines got used to, or they didn't last. Amieta had nearly forgotten, after years as an XO, used to information at her fingertips.

"Looks like our targets," Cia said calmly on the intercom. "Holding cloaked at one hundred clicks."

Can you see what they're doing? Get a close up with the camera drones?

"Looks like they're launching shuttles. HAS, I think. Down to the planet." Cia paused, and then said on the private connection. I'll hang here until they're done and then with a bit of luck we can follow them to where-ever they're docking.

Amieta glanced at Col. Saernal Teirild, her CTO. "Stand by," she said quietly.

Saer nodded. Around her the other marines straightened; the sergeant, Jadat, running a critical eye over them as they checked weapons and double checked the light armor they wore during transport.

Close with them, Amieta told Cia Get their shields down, we'll get a boarding party over. There has to be someone on that ship who can tell us where they've shipped Hiri to.

In this ship? Cia sounded incredulous, and more than a little shrill. It's for scouting. I don't even have a gun mounted!

Amieta sorted through her memories of her employer's ships. Helios, two highs, five mids, five cubic meters drone bay... Not a heavy hitter, but against an industrial, probably not even piloted by a podder?

Cia, do you have a point fitted on this?


Drone in the bay?

A warrior.

You'll do fine. You just have to get the shields down enough for us to board.

With one drone? Cia sounded increasingly panic-stricken.

Cia, you can do it. You want to find Hiri, don't you? She's depending on you.

Ami, I'll get the ship blown up and you'll -

Okay, okay, calm down, okay? I'm pulling Silver onto comms.

Seconds later she heard the voice of her employer, Captain Silver Night. Ami, Cia. What's the situation?

Amieta filled him in, ending with Cia can do this, right? A tech-two drone will have those shields down in no time.

You're still using the fitting we discussed when you bought the ship, Cia? Silver asked.

Yes, Cia said. No guns or anything.

You can assume they're armed, at least lightly, Silver said thoughtfully. The intel from the attack on Dr Akell's shuttle indicates that, and it's probably a standard corporation fitting. Cia, there's a small Unstable Power Fluctuator neut on contract to you at the Six Kin station at the third planet. Dock and have your probe launcher swapped out for it.

Amieta felt the ship move and shimmer into warp as Cia asked Should I mount a gun, as well?

No, the cloak will be more useful if reinforcements arrive.

Which won't happen, right? Amieta said with meaning.

Silver paused, so slightly that only someone who'd known him as long as his XO had would have noticed it. Very, very unlikely. Better safe than sorry, though.

The Figment docked with the clang and shudder of a pilot in a hurry. They're changing them over, Cia reported. Done. Undocking.

Amieta left comms to concentrate on the work at hand as they dropped out of warp and Silver began reminding Cia about transversals and minimum ranges. She checked her own armor and her sidearm. Should have brought a rifle.

She gestured to her CTO, "Saer, check me?"

The other woman checked Amieta's armor with the ease of long practice as a low, rhythmic buzz filled the hull - the neutralizer. Quick tugs here and there, a couple pulls and prods, and Saer gave her the thumbs up. Amieta nodded and returned the favor. By the time she was done, the rest of her people were already standing ready. She switched to the open tac channel, "Most of you have done this before. Target is a Bessie. We want prisoners, so if you see someone important looking, try not to off them. We'll hit the bridge. They have shuttles down, so whoever is in charge should be there coordinating. Jadat, take a squad, make sure no one compromises our exit. Everyone else will be with me."

A dulled thud ran through the ship as they made contact with the much larger industrial. They waited near the airlock, checked the soft-seal against a circle of golden-hued hull with an airlock hatch in the middle. Two marines brought forward the heavy breaching charge, attaching it. Cia had picked a good spot, a quick check of schematics showed. An airlock between the bridge and the crew section. Probably all that practice on rescues.

The breaching charge went off with a low-key roar, knifing through the thinner armor of the outer airlock door. Another, smaller charge demolished the inner door, and they were in. Jadat and the squad he'd picked set up just down the corridor, ready to bottle up off-duty crew and keep anyone from making it up from the cargo-hold to hit at their backs. Amieta led the rest of the marines through the corridors toward the bridge, the layout familiar. Silver owned a couple of Bessies.

The first resistance was a group of crew at an intersection. They had laser rifles but not much discipline. It was over in seconds, a concussion grenade incapacitating most of them, those unlucky enough to still be standing taken out with tight bursts of hypervelocity flechettes. Two marines were assigned to herd the survivors back to the Figment and they continued on to the bridge.

A tiny recon drone showed several officers inside, along with a handful of crew. All armed, mostly poorly, but one man in body armor - his helmet off. Amateurs. The breaching charge blew the bridge door in, and flash-bang grenades came behind it.

The slaver in armor was just bringing up his weapon, eyes still screwed shut, when a burst from Saer's rifle hit him in the bridge of the nose. Amieta shot a recovering crew-member twice in the chest and then jabbed her stun-stick into the back of an officer who was trying to stand.

By then, it was over. The slavers were all dead or disarmed and being herded to one side as they were hauled from the floor and cuffed. Saer was going around ending it quickly for the more seriously injured slavers. Amieta looked around for the Captain. Drone showed him in here, and there's only the one door.


Amieta turned to see Rorkulo, the medic, peering under that same door, "Hard to tell, but I think that was the Captain, sir."

She helped her lift the door a bit further, and the mess underneath was indeed wearing a Captain's uniform. "We get the first mate, at least?"

"Saw him with the others, sir." Rorkulo indicated an officer trying to make himself inconspicuous behind a couple of other crew, "Should we-"

Amieta was already shaking her head, "Time to get out of here, we'll take them all back to the Figment. Pack it up people! We want to be back on the Figment in five."

They herded the prisoners back to the airlock. Jadat's squad was holding steady, keeping the rest of the crew from cutting them off. Here and there, wild shots lanced into the walls and ceiling of the corridor - mostly nowhere near any of the marines. The sergeant glanced back as Amieta and the others arrived and started transferring prisoners, then reported over the comms, "Looks like they finally woke up, sir. Fucking clueless, but there're quite a few of them, sir."

The last of the prisoners aboard, the marines who'd taken the bridge covered Jadat's squad in turn. One of the marines fell, a lucky shot finding a weak spot in his armor low on the abdomen. Jadat grabbed him by the strap of his weapons harness and dragged him into theFigment, Amieta, Saer, and a last couple of others following.

The airlock clanged shut behind them. A spin of the wheel and the indicator shone green. The floor beneath Amieta's feet shifted slightly as the Figment kicked free and aligned into warp almost instantly.

Jadat and Rorkulo were kneeling by the fallen marine.

He looked up at Amieta and shook his head slightly. Dead.

Corporal Murlar Ahramian, age 24, picked up back when Silver was with ICT, and... Amieta's implants helpfully provided more before she remembered to ask them not to, married, with one kid, and a second on the way. Dead because a handful of slavers put their profits ahead of the law and were stupid enough to think that ship's crew could hold off trained marines.

Amieta felt the slight cold-prickle of her nano-tats creeping up her neck and across her cheeks at the thought.

She grabbed the nearest of the prisoners they'd taken, yanking him free of the grip of the marine who held him. "Where do you take the slaves, shithead?"

He was a dumb one, all right. "No slaves on our ship!"

Amieta tightened her grip on his neck, careful not to press too hard on the arteries taking blood to his brain and give him an easy escape into unconsciousness. "Your corp takes slaves. Where do they go next?"

"I don't know - what you're talking - about!" he gasped.

He braced himself as Amieta raised her other hand, no doubt expecting a blow. Relief showed in his eyes as she simply put her hand against the side of his face, palm against his cheekbone.

Showed briefly. Amieta flexed her thumb, only a little, a carefully calculated movement that was just enough to penetrate the sclera and pop his eyeball like an overripe grape.

A flickering indicator at the corner of her vision told her Cia was trying to connect to her internal comm. Amieta ignored it, letting go of the slaver just long enough to reverse her grip.

She pulled him forward a little and slammed him back against the wall. "You have another eye," she snarled, "two testicles, two hundred and six bones, a liver, a couple of kidneys and, technically at least, a heart. We'll work through them one by one until you talk, you piece of shit."

"Ami." The intercom filter made Cia's voice calm and even. "Ami, stop."

"Sir," Saer said beside Amieta, and when Amieta glanced at her the CTO made a small gesture, the slightest sketch of pointing towards her eye. Cameras watching, she meant.

"Ami," Cia said again.

Amieta cursed her sister's squeamishness. Doesn't she want to find Hiri?

A deep breath, a deliberate assertion of control over the combat 'plants and the adreniline flooding her system, and Amieta knew that was unfair to Cia. She wants to find Hiri as much as anyone.

She just has funny, dirt-sider ideas about things.

Wouldn't be Cia still, if she didn't.

Amieta let go of the slaver and pushed him back to the nearest marine, who seized him and held him securely. A thought accepted the incoming call from Cia's pod. Sorry, sis. This isn't the place for a proper interrogation. I guess I'm impatient to find Hiri.

I know, Cia said sympathetically.

Can you dock up, give us the chance to take these shitheads off your ship and talk to them a bit more calmly?

In warp now, Cia said.

You'll need to refit again, make sure the engineers check there's no damage. We'll handle these assholes while you make sure the ship's all right.

The slightest hesitation, and then: All right. Docking now.

As the marines dragged their three prisoners out of the hold and across the hangar floor, Amieta thought about that slight hesitation.

I pretend we're going to offer these fuckheads tea and biscuits, Amieta thought as they hauled the slavers into a cargo can, two marines taking up station on the outside of the door. And she pretends to believe me.

Otherwise, Amieta knew, Cia would feel she had to stop it, out of some sentimental attachment to the Yulai conventions or the Federation Constitution or one of those old books she liked to talk to Silver about.

Wouldn't be Cia, if she didn't.

Which is why it's a good thing she's got me to do the dirty work.