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Again, we see that Aethra Sunder is seated in a well-cushioned chair, reclining with a mug of coffee close at hand. Through the station’s observation windows, the curve of a massive greenish-blue gas giant filled half of the sky.

Standing out starkly against the colorful background, the ships arriving and departing through the station’s primary launch tube were a shabbier lot than she was used to.

Neighbors notwithstanding, her host’s coffee is divine.

She ponders the possibilities of having a state-of-the-art drug synthesis facility housed in the same building as a pilot’s bar. She gently swirls the liquid in her mug as she peers at it intently. Seemingly satisfied with her inspection, she downs the last drops and stands smoothly, turning to greet her lead technician.

“Ma’am,” he nods deferentially. “The preparations are complete, and we await only your command to launch.”

“How is the crew dealing with our newest employers?” she asks.

He looks surprised. Immortals, especially capsuleers, tend to develop a sense of detachment from those whom they term ‘ephemerals’, individuals who only lived one lifetime, in one body. Those few who felt more affection for their short-lived brethren often turned to roles which required both interpersonal skills and immortal perspective often found that their unique skills made them indispensable to their more aloof employers. It was rare for a pilot to display even this small degree of concern for the crew whose lives were completely at her mercy.

“Many of them are quite excited, actually. They say that our contracting for the Cartel will provide more opportunities for the thrill of combat. I suspect that their thrills are more mundane and… financially oriented.”

“Yes, well, you do keep the books. Talking about money always makes me tired; tell me about the new weapon systems. Have their final diagnostics been completed?”

“Ah. Yes, well, it took quite a few overtime hours for us to have them ready this quickly. Their design is quite unusual, and we had some setbacks during their calibration. Other than that, this new ship that our new employers have been so generous with is a work of art.”

She grins at him. “That she is. Are we ready to take her out for a shakedown cruise?” As a cloud of worry falls across his face, she laughs. “Don’t worry! We’re just going to head out through some relatively quiet systems nearby and make sure the astrometrics package is working properly.”

“After all, we’re not doing anything dangerous. We’re just pretending to work with one of the most dangerous criminal organizations in the galaxy for long enough that they let us into their most-protected regions of space, all to gain the opportunity to steal their greatest treasure. What could possibly go wrong?”

Again, she leaves the mug on the side table to observe her departure. This time, as the sleek wedge shape of a Hurricane-class Battlecruiser slides silently past the window, it is not the lettering on the hull which draws the mug’s attention.

Just below the ship’s name, “Tree Of Life“, are two stencils. One is a trio of stars on a silver circle, the corporate logo of Bannion Astrometrics. The other, the interlocking crescents of the Archangels. It is painted with silver, but the dull red light of the massive system star stains it with bloody rust.

How ominous, thinks the mug.