There’s an abundance of choice out here. At times it can seem overwhelming, and the consequences can be rewarding, debilitating, or deadly. Billions of stars circling a massive center, and each other, the majority of them offering up something to do. Smeared out across a tiny section of those billions of stars, people carry around and evangelize their many varied designs, compounding the possible choices. In a single populated center, there’s enough to do for a full-time job. The simple surface of a choice belies the complexity and the absurdity beneath. And there you are, stuck with the choice you’ve made.

I wanted to test out a new Frame Shift Drive I’d installed, and take it easy for a few days since I pulled something in my upper back while tinkering around in said FSD. I had crawled down into the service hatch, like I’d done a dozen times with the old drive, to take a look around and see what’s what in the upgrade; checking out the location of the thermal regulator, circuit conduits, that sort of thing, in case I need to jump in there and patch something together in a pinch. While lifting myself back out it hit between my shoulder blades, like getting stabbed with a hot needle. I’ve got one in my lower back that pays me a visit occasionally, too. I have no idea what causes these little pangs in my back to occur, but it’s always something minor and dumb, like leaning over to pet a kid’s dog at a park on Bain Ring one day. I remember the look on his face shifting from joy to confusion when I stood back up, uttered a weird guttural “hurrnt,” and my face screwed up like I’d shit myself. Just a couple of the neat little permanent additions to my body that I’ve acquired from the more self-abusive choices I’ve made over the years.

So I opted for a little recreating by way of some casual exploring and trading. It felt nice to put on some music, sit back, and periodically fire off the discovery scanner and surface scanner to collect data on a system, or wander the bays while a dock crew load up marine equipment, ore, and whatever else that needs to be hauled from A to B. I floated around for a few days, letting the knot in my back unwind, and browsed the chatter going on in the Mercs channel from out of Mikuun.

A lot of the usual stuff scrolled by: discussions on how the Dukes continue to gain influence (complete with downloads of Popinski’s charts and diagrams), a few organized raids into checkpoints in HR 7327, and the how the Dukes now have a minor faction growing in Sukua. Money’s hard to come by in all that political wrangling, though, and with the recent hull upgrade, and now the new FSD, I needed some income. Then something caught my attention; discussion of conflict zones popping up in Falisci and Ngaiawang, and a request for any nearby Mercs of Mikuun to lend a hand in trade for a few extra guns when the Dukes might need them.

The Empire apparently left a small independent system smack-dab in the middle of their domain, and a pirate faction had started causing trouble for trade routes out of Ngaiawang and Dongzi. I thought I saw something on the regular GalNet feed about Senator Patreus calling for help out there, but I only occasionally scan the chatter from the big politicos, and rarely give them any mind. Seeing discussion on the Mercs channel about a big payout from the imperials as well as possible future support from other imperial special interest groups, I decided to take a look and see what type of money could be made. Besides, I was only about a hundred and sixty light years out, all of eight jumps with the new FSD. Let it not be said that I’ve grown beyond making potentially bad decisions.

The conflict had been in full swing for four or five days by the time I heard about it and got out there. I checked in at Dornier Terminal, and registered with the Citizens of Tradition, an imperial faction leading the charge against the pirate group out of Falisci. On my way back to the Asp, I passed a guy on a gurney, his legs cut off mid-thigh and encased in a gel enclosure. He looked like some sort of busted toy, fused together at the bottom. I stopped and to make way as he was carted through, and he grabbed my arm calling out, “Woo! For the Empire! Yeah!” Then I got a good look at him, his stomach had also been ripped open, and was taped together with emergency sutures. The orderlies rushed him through another pair of doors and I could still hear him cheering at anyone he passed in the hall.

As I stepped into the bay, I saw that he was apparently part of a wing of Eagles that had just returned from the nearby conflict zone. One of the ships had the nose sheared off, cockpit canopy completely missing. I had to guess it was flown by the kid that they just wheeled past me. Fairly impressive to survive that and land it. Probably holding his intestines in one hand, the stick in the other. At another Eagle, a young woman stumbled round the landing gear, slapping its underside. The plating and been ripped apart by a fragment cannon, you could tell by the large hole, surrounded by a bunch of tiny holes. She was no better than her ship. A medic followed her around, chasing her like a needy child with his arms out. She kept cheering, slapping the ship in places, then suddenly stopped, buckled over, and vomited. Having caught up to her, the medic managed to get to her wounds, which were significant. The outer edge of a blast had caught the right side of her body; flight suit, skin, and muscle were a bloody mixture hanging off the bones of her arm and chest. I suspect she’ll have periodic recurring pain in her future, too.

Nobody in the bay seemed to care. All the locals laughing, cheering, bleeding, dying. For them, it was enough to be supporting the Empire, to jump at the whim of Patreus. It was even better, or worse, that they were winning.

Over the course of the next few days I made around a half a million credits in combat bonds. When all was said and done, I struggled to get through the throngs of people cheering Falisci’s inclusion into the Empire so that I could sign out at the combat office. I turned in my last combat bonds and collected a hundred thousand bonus, then I grabbed a terminal and relayed my work to one of the Mercs of Mikuun liaisons so that he could use my contribution in negotiations. On my way back to the Asp, a group of young pilots ran past me.

“The Feds are going after our win!” One shouted.

“Opportunistic bastards,” growled another, as he slowed to a walk beside me. He stared off at nothing as if deep in thought, “I bet they were backing the pirates all along.” Then he stopped, as though he’d finally pieced it all together, found the truth of it, or believed he had. The rage in his face grew, his jaw flared, and he sprinted off down the hall. In half a dozen steps he tripped on a coil of power cable some maintenance duff had left lying in the hall, fell flat on his face and skidded for a couple meters. In a second he popped back up and ran off to catch up to his friends.

I wonder how he’ll come out after his choices.

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