Dominica's surprise at having found a meditation room in a Caldari-designed station was surpassed only by her gladness at finding it unused. Unused for quite some time, in fact, to judge by the layer of dust that covered every surface. She had managed to divert some cleaning drones into the space, by the simple expedient of spreading some dust into the corridor outside and leaving the doors open, and now it was fit for human use.

Now, she sat in the meditation room, looking out at the stars, collecting her thoughts for assembling messages to send back home. One was necessary, and the others...well, they'd warned her, when she'd tracked down their office and applied for membership, that it would be a very long time before she saw her family again. Still, she wasn't privy to any classified information, so messages were all right.

From: Malumut Estmei
To: Elsie
Subject: Slashers

I got your list while I was out on a job. Yes, believe it or not, 
there are corps out here that offer jobs that aren't a lot different 
from the jobs the Republic offers. In fact, the only difference I've 
seen so far is that the jobs come from corporate agents instead of 
government agents. Otherwise, it's the same: rat hunting, courier, 
retrieval, and so on.

Looking at your list, I checked with the CSS database, and you'll get 
a better price for the Slashers in Rens than you would out here. If 
you're looking for profit, Amamake and Rens are the way to go, for the 
most part. Speaking of profit, I looked over the balance sheets, and 
everything looks good. Geirahod's even been economizing on ammunition, 
finally. Did you put her on a diet or something? :)

As long as it's just the two of you, I'd recommend you stay in Empire 
space. If you really want to support the war effort, keep doing what 
you're doing, pick up some more blueprints, and if you get any we can 
use, make copies and let me know so we can send someone to pick them 
up. As much as I'd love to have the two of you out here with us, you 
need Geirahod to fly cover for you, so you can focus on what you do 
best. And what you do best can best be done where you are. We have 
people out here who can use blueprint copies to build what we need, 
but we need people where you are to produce those copies. I'll attach 
a list of the things I know we need blueprints for, so you know what 
to pick up when the prices are right.

Oh yes, you were right about Galnet. I was a fool to think that I could 
accomplish anything there, given that the people who are most vocal in 
posting seem to have no problems associating themselves with the kind 
of people who not only keep slaves, but are unashamed – even proud – of 
the brutality with which they treat them. "Pushing the river" doesn't 
even begin to cover it. I'm done with it as anything more than a means 
of transmitting messages like this one.

Stay good, and don't forget to write.

Dominica opened a new file, then sat back and thought for a minute before starting her list. Everyone thinks of ships when they want blueprints, but do they think of the little things? Guns, ammo, missiles, jammers, targeting computers, all the little things that transform a ship from a flying target to a useful weapon. Hopefully this list will give Elsie an idea of what we need.

By the time she finished, Dominica's list ranged from Rifters to control towers, with a little of everything she could think of in between. She attached it to her message to Elsie and sent it off. That took care of business. Now it was time to take care of friends and family.

From: Malumut Estmei
To: Snorri Kettison
Subject: Lesson Bundle

I've attached the latest of my lessons and worksheets. I had some questions 
on a couple items, which I highlighted and linked to the questions. I know 
you're not officially a teacher, which only increases my gratitude at your 
willingness to oversee my studies. If you could pass the questions on to 
whoever handles things of that nature, I'd appreciate it.

I'm in Utopia these days, which has its ups and downs. I could not have 
imagined the number of people who would rather spend their lives and energy 
squabbling over small bits of profit and power, than unite behind the goal 
of freeing our people, until I came out here and saw it first-hand. Sometimes, 
it seems we spend more time fighting our own, just to keep from being overrun 
by the greedy and power-hungry, than we do fighting slavers.

If not for the fact that we do remain focused on our goal, and do continue 
fighting the slavers, even while the others harass us, I would quickly grow 
to wonder what the point is. As it is, though, I've been training with the 
corporation on the basics of working with a fleet, traveling through hot zones 
without being burned, and other skills that my instructors in the Imperial Navy 
did not seem to think were necessary.

I'm grateful to you, for offering me the chance to atone for my past, and for 
sponsoring me into the Tribe when Gerd decided to adopt me. I kind of see you 
as my godfather. That may be presumptuous, and if it bothers you, please tell 
me, and I'll do my best to step back and see you only as a teacher and guide.

I'll be watching for the next bundle of lessons. They help, a lot. Not only do 
they help me learn about the history and ways of the Tribe, they help me keep 
my mind busy when I'm not actively working or training. As long as my mind is 
busy, I'm not as likely to spiral down into the mess I was when I first came 
to you.

If there's anything you need from Utopia, let me know and I'll do what I can 
to get it to you.

Dominica smiled as she checked over her latest lesson to make sure her worksheets and answers were complete, and that the questions she had were properly linked and attached, before archiving all her lessons and attaching them to Snorri's message. With that message sent, she turned to the meditation room's transparent wall and watched the stars for a while, absently making note of the ships that passed the station and mentally comparing them to the ships and pilots she knew. Given how long it had been since anyone had been in this room, she knew it was the one place on the station she could count on privacy, outside her own ship, and since she was still in training, she didn't have to worry about being called out on an op, unless it was an "all hands, even the clueless fuckwits" kind of op, so she could relax here the way she couldn't anywhere else.

Dominica's PDA chirped, its alarm screen repeatedly flashing "Dinner Time" in a jarring lime green on fuchsia.

"Damn!" she muttered, while canceling the alarm and tucking the PDA into a coat pocket. "Nearly three hours lost. I have got to keep a better handle on myself. Getting lost like that could lose a ship out here."

On her way out of the meditation room, Dominica made sure to close it up as tightly as it had been when she first found it. No one else had found it yet, and she wanted to keep it that way as long as possible. From there, she made a stop at Ti-Ti's Revenge, to plug in her PDA for recharging and data exchange, while she took a quick shower and a change of clothes. It wasn't as if she had a lot of choices to change into, but she wanted something fresh before heading out to get dinner. Given that her jeans and t-shirts were all in need of a trip to the cleaner's, she retrieved one of her old uniforms, from which she had carefully removed everything – rank, unit, decorations, all of it – and had replaced the name tape with her new handle, the only name most of those out here knew her by.

There was a bar on the far side of the station from Dominica's docking bay, which was where most of those she knew from Mirkur Draug'Tyr went when they were in-system. While bar food wasn't exactly gourmet, it was a cut above the concentrates she normally ate in her cabin, and several above the nutrient liquid she drank while in her pod. As she walked through the station, Dominica began to notice people whispering and glaring at her as she passed them. The hostility and whispers continued, all the way to the bar, leaving her feeling paranoid enough to sit at a table in the middle of the bar, facing the door. The bar was what outsiders might call a spaceport dive. For those who spent time there, it wasn't a dive at all. It was cozy, familiar, even comfortable, and they knew everyone who normally drank there.

"OK, what'll you have?" Kolya asked, before Dominica was settled in her chair. As she looked up, he blinked a couple times. "Mal! What are you doing in that uniform? Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"Not particularly," Dominica said. "Everything else needs a trip to the cleaner's. I've been so busy ratting and training, I never got around to getting stuff cleaned."

"Do you at least have a t-shirt on under that uniform shirt?" Kolya asked.

"Of course," Dominica answered. "Why?" Noticing a couple thugs coming into the bar and headed her way, she muttered, "Frak. Kolya, you'd better get Misha. Trouble's coming."

"Eh?" Kolya glanced toward where Dominica was looking, and grumbled. "As if we didn't just finish cleaning up from the last time they showed up. Misha! Get out --"

Dominica saw the gun in one of the thug's hands and pushed Kolya to the floor, rising to her feet to stand between him and the thugs. An instant later, she felt a sharp blow to her chest, just below her left breast, accompanied by a sensation of something breaking – one rib, maybe two, she wasn't sure. The pain wasn't any worse than a 150mm proton shell hitting her armor, but the broken rib was making it kind of hard to breathe. She started toward the thug with the gun, but had barely cleared the table when one of the others – she thought it might be Cribb, but wasn't sure – tackled the one with the gun.

While the thug who had shot Dominica was falling under the weight of a Mirkur pilot, and Dominica was flipping the table out of her way so she could tackle the other thug, the other one produced a gun from hiding and fired a burst. Dominica felt six hits, stitching a trail from her right hip to her left shoulder, each one slamming into her like a 75mm DPU.

"All I need is a couple more steps," Dominica thought. "Why won't my legs...." The floor came up to meet her with a solid thud.

"Eh, don't worry about it," Dominica heard as she swam back from the darkness. "Happens to you pilots all the time. If I had an ISK for every time one of you forgot he was outside his pod and ended up in one of my regen tanks, I'd be impossibly wealthy. Oh. Wait. I am impossibly wealthy."

Dominica opened her eyes and groaned into her air mask. She was in a tank of fluid that felt a lot like the support fluid in her pod, but without the connection to her ship that made it tolerable. "Ow. Who cut loose with the gatling gun?"

"That would be the punk in the tank next to you," the blurry figure outside her tank said. "Yes, we've jacked you into the tank, so you can communicate while you're healing. Consider yourself lucky that the uniform you were so stupidly wearing was bullet resistant. You have a Spigelian hernia, three broken ribs, a broken collar, and had a perforated intestine, which I repaired when I removed the bullet that penetrated your shirt. You're going to be in there for about a week, so I suggest you spend the time profitably. If you need a connection to your ship, or anything your friends can provide, I'll see what I can do."

"I guarantee, she'll be spending the time profitably," a second blurry figure said. "We have a number of simulator programs that run fairly well through the tank systems. We can start with this one."

"All right," the first blurry figure said. "Just let me plug it in...."

"Wait," Dominica said. "Who's out there, and what happened? The last I remember, I was hit by a burst of something light."

"I'm your doctor," the first figure said. "Yes, that's right, a real doctor. People around here call me Asa. I'll be the one who decides when you're ready to come out of the tank."

"Who's out there with you?" Dominica asked.

"Nobody," Asa said. "He left after giving me this program. I have to tell you, he's not impressed with you. Wearing that Navy uniform was an incredibly stupid stunt. Were you trying to get yourself killed?"

"," Dominica answered, her voice soft as she thought about it. Had she? Had there been some unconscious desire on her part to die, and by dying, offer up a small payment for her sins?

"Well," Asa said, "just consider yourself lucky that you didn't get any of your friends killed with that stunt. The punks were both focused on you, so when your friends tackled them, none of them got hurt. Can't say the same for the punks, though. One of them is likely to need his clone activated if he ever intends to be fully functional again, and the other is going to be spending at least two weeks in the tank, maybe three, given the beating he got. Now, I'm going to activate the rest of your connections and plug in this program your friend left for you. The system says it'll run for about two hours, which should give your friends plenty of time to bring in new programs for you to run. If you need anything, I'll be in my office."

With that, Dominica felt her senses expanding and shifting, the same way they did when she was linking to a program in the training simulators. When they settled into place, she found herself in an office, the thrum of a capital ship filling the background, and a familiar figure rising from the desk at the far end of the office. Without thinking, she snapped to attention and waited for him to speak. In the back of her mind, she wondered if she'd pissed him off so much he'd recorded this specifically for her, or if there were so many new pilots who screwed up that he had created this to save himself the trouble of chewing them out in person.

"Of all the stupid, hairbrained stunts I have ever seen a new pilot pull," zoolkhan started, "you have managed to top them all."

By the time he finished, two hours later, not only did Dominica feel as if she were the most useless recruit to ever drag down the Mirkur Draug'Tyr, she was absolutely convinced that zoolkhan had recorded this message specifically for her, and that if she ever wanted to raise her status from "utter fuckwit" to "clueless frigate-jockey", she was going to have to spend every waking moment working at surpassing herself, in the simulators, in space, and in face-to-face dealings with her brother pilots.

From: Malumut Estmei
To: Gerd Gregorsdottir
Subject: Settling In

Hello, Mother. You know, that's the first time I've been able to say that 
in a message and feel love and happiness behind the word. I'm sure Mr. 
Ketti – sorry, Snorri – has been keeping you up to date on how I'm doing 
with my studies, so I won't waste bandwidth on that. I'm just writing 
because I was thinking of you, and how much it means to me, to finally be 
able to use the name for you that my heart has used since I was a child.

I'm settling in fairly well out here, where the battle to free our people 
is ongoing and I'm able to act directly to help those who are fighting 
the slavers. I'm working with a good corporation, of people who know what 
they're doing and who care for and support each other, even when someone 
does something dumb.

It's likely to be a while before I can visit home, but when I do, I'll be 
bringing a few souvenirs I've picked up here and there. Contrary to what 
they used to tell us in the Empire, there are inhabited planets out here, 
and the people I'm working with help to protect those planets from the 
slavers and pirates. In some ways they do a better job than the Navy ever 
did. It feels good to be a part of that. Sometimes I feel as if Ti-Ti is 
watching over my shoulder and smiling.

How is the vineyard coming? Will the harvest be a good one this year? I'm 
looking forward to the year we can release our first shipment of wine. Do 
you need me to send anything home from out here, to help keep things going 
until then?

I love you, I miss you, and I look forward to your next message.


Dominica closed the message and released it for sending, then considered her agenda for the rest of her time in the tank. She didn't want Gerd to know how badly she'd fucked up, but just looking at the training she had lined up for the next week brought it home to her. A few moments of carelessness – in station – had caused all this trouble. She couldn't afford to be that careless in space, not where other people were relying on her.

Dominica let out a heavy sigh and began her first lesson.