The three of them shared a psychic connection, so he knew the others made it safely to the space station. However, at the moment, Lothar had to put on his tough-guy act.
It was called The Watering Hole. An unimaginative yet fitting name for such a dubious establishment. Colonel Nachtritter walked inside the pub with his back straight, projecting confidence to the disreputable faces gauging him from every corner.
He wore a dark-gray Imperial officer uniform with golden buttons and epaulets. The collar and cuffs were a mix of black, silver, and red. Finally, a polished eagle insignia was pinned on his chest. If that conspicuous display wouldn’t deter troublemakers, his curved, single-edged sword in the ornamental scabbard was likely to give them pause. After all, a man entering a precarious spot alone without a firearm or armor was likely insane, a capable fighter, or both.
Lothar approached the bar and smiled at a hulking, unkempt ginger man in a stained white shirt, who leaned over it with two massive, tattooed arms.
“Got any aged scotch?”
An overly optimistic request that evoked a coarse, rude chuckle, like a rusty mechanical saw.
“Beer or grog.”
Right. A pirate space station… the colonel decided to gamble his health on the beer.
Lothar put on a provocative smirk and lowered his deep, cultured voice.
“A rather steep price.”
“Don’t like? Go someplace else.”
“Not a very customer-oriented attitude.”
The ogreish face came near and exposed a grin full of plasteel prosthetic teeth. Those, along with ugly scars and a high degree of muscle, led Lothar to believe the bartender was a renegade Grenadier: genetically enhanced men bred by The Empire specifically for war.
“Scram,” he spat, his breath a marriage of an open sewer and an abandoned lavatory. However, the colonel wanted this man close so he could whisper his true intent.
“I’d pay twenty if you can answer a question.”
“A tough negotiator,” Lothar smiled. It was half as high as he was willing to go. “Any idea where I might find a Boss called Herzmann?”
His bills disappeared quickly while a tankard filled with ocher liquid slammed on the bar.
“Gambling hall; deck four. Wears a large, stupid purple hat.”
No love between the bartender and the target. Competing businesses, perhaps.
“Is this place yours?” Lothar asked out of curiosity. A mere sniff of the beer convinced him to leave the mug where it stood.
“A friendly tip, then: be prepared for an influx of fresh customers.”
A short while later, he returned to his rented room. A dirty, smelly, cramped space with rusty bare metal walls and two vents that could barely maintain breathable levels of air. The folding bed’s mattress was likely infectious, and the entire bathroom required decontamination. His companions would undoubtedly abhor these conditions.
Speaking of the devils, Colonel Nachtritter had just heard a knock on the door.
Outside stood two people covered by layers of drab robes, hoods, thick gloves, and full-face gas masks with dark goggles.
“You look astonishing in those pilgrim costumes,” he said glibly with a hand over his heart.
The taller person shook their head while entering the room. The second stuck out two fingers in a dirty gesture and followed suit.
“Did you encounter any difficulties?” Lothar asked once the door was locked.
“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” the taller pilgrim said in a voice muted by the mask.
“Rowdy men with greedy fingers?”
“One,” the shorter pilgrim muttered, “I broke his hand.”
“Such titillating imagery.”
That salacious remark earned him another dirty gesture. While the couple struggled to remove their cumbersome outfits, Lothar took out his minipad – a mobile communicator, camera, and computer – and playfully snapped a photo.
“A souvenir,” he smiled, but they did not like that idea at all and jumped on him in an attempt to grab the device. At 6′1, Colonel Nachtritter stood several inches above the taller pilgrim and towered over the shorter one, so he had little trouble keeping it out of their reach.
“Seven hells, those clothes smell!”
"Delete the photo,” the taller pilgrim held a finger threateningly before his face. Chuckling, he pressed the delete button, and the two returned to remove their robes.
“After you drop the haute couture look, we can go look for food, although… you may need a shower, first.”
“So?” the taller pilgrim asked.
“To save time, you should take it together.”
“That’s it!” the shorter pilgrim shouted, “While you paraded in uniform, we had to spend hours snooping on the lower decks. I stepped in, and accidentally touched, every type of disgusting material in existence, and–”
With a raging yell, the pilgrim charged at Lothar. He merely placed one hand on his scabbard, and the person was lifted in the air as if held by unseen hands.
“Come on, you two,” said the other pilgrim, “Stop this nonsense.”
“Not before he apologizes. Lothar, you’re an asshole!”
“Duly noted, Lieutenant.”
The taller pilgrim finally removed the mask and hood. Underneath was the face of a woman in her early twenties, with mid-length, caramel-blonde hair, gray eyes, delicate features, and thin yet inviting lips.
“Colonel, please,” she said, “We’re tired and hungry.”
He made a motion with his hand, and the floating pilgrim was unmasked as well, revealing the face of an Asian woman of similar age, with long black hair, intense dark eyes, a cute nose, and heart-shaped lips.
“You’ve heard Lieutenant Fortin. Will you behave?”
“Lieutenant Nakami! You can either stay here, floating, or join us for a good meal. Choose.”
“Put me down already,” the brunette muttered, crossing her arms. He waved his hand, and she was lowered back to the floor. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Fortin looked at him curiously.
“Can you really keep a psionic lift over a great distance?”
"I can,” Colonel Nachtritter tapped on his sword, “Because I have Teufelsjäger to enhance my already considerable abilities.”
Like all Psi Core field agents, the three were psionics: people born with a special connection to a mystical realm. Through intense training and by utilizing a catalyst – an item made of a specific, scarce material – such a person could perform extraordinary feats and even bend the laws of physics.
While the two lieutenants got rid of their filthy suits, he made a call on his minipad.
“Pilot! What? Yes, I can call you Pilot if I want, because that’s what you are… fine, fine! Captain Pilot, open your Emperor damned ears and– what?”
He turned to the women and said, “I can’t believe this guy. Can you believe this guy?”
“Listen, Pilot! I use the Emperor as a deity in a sentence because we’re inside his territory! Now, I need you to contact Command and let them know we’re closing in on the target.”
“Isn’t it early to claim that?” the blonde asked; Lothar muted his side of the conversation.
“Let Psi Core think we’re working while I wine and dine you two.”
“Don’t expect any action for it,” the brunette spat, kicking her two dirty boots onto the wall.
Smirking, he resumed the conversation.
“Yes, I’m here… yeah, Sophie is okay, but Aino’s head is filled with dirty thoughts about me. I’m not sure if she’s fit for the job.”
Even before Lothar finished speaking, someone had attempted to punch his lower back.
“We’ll talk later, Pilot. Lieutenant Nakami is being insubordinate again.”
The short girl stared at her hand in disbelief. The fist was blocked by an invisible barrier. From the corner of his eye, he could see Lieutenant Fortin chuckling.
“H-how did you know?!”
“In case you forgot, Lieutenant, we are all connected. That’s how a Psi Core unit works.”
“Shimatta!” she cursed in Japanese, “Didn’t I mask my intent?”
“Absolutely, until the actual attack, when you became too eager.”
Under the layers of robes, the two athletic women wore dark, skirted Imperial uniforms with silver buttons and epaulets. In addition, each lieutenant had a shiny eagle badge pinned to her tunic, which served as a potent psionic catalyst.
“I need a hairbrush!” Aino whined, “Sophie, please tell me you brought a hairbrush!”
Lothar watched in bewilderment as the blonde handed one over. She took that on a mission? Noticing his stare, Lt. Fortin smiled shyly.
“If you had a long mane, Colonel, you’d understand.”
He ran a hand through his hair and chuckled.
"Definitely not the look for me.”
“Why not? You’d look adorable,” she said, caught a glimpse of his disapproving stare, and averted her eyes. The familiarity was too obvious.
“Girls, is this going to take long? I don’t want to hit thirty before we leave.”
They called him an “old man” and snickered. It was definitely going to be a while.
The pirate station, referred to as “old crumbly” by the locals, was designed around a long, vertical axle and contained no less than fourteen narrow decks. Rather than chance running into their target on an empty stomach, the squad first took an elevator to deck eight, which contained a food court. Lothar and Sophie had swords strapped to their belts; Lt. Nakami carried a large backpack.
Aino liked calling him by his rank in Japanese, and Lothar enjoyed responding in kind.
“What is it, Chūi?”
“This guy we’re after – is he supposed to be tough?”
“Intel didn’t specify. Could go either way.”
“I hope he is.”
Deck five. Several grimy men entered the elevator. Although the lieutenants had showered – sadly, not together – most of the life-forms on the station didn’t seem to believe in hygiene, and he noticed the girls held their breath. Before long, he had to do the same.
When the doors finally opened again and the pirates dispersed, Lothar inhaled deeply and proudly held up his arms:
“Ladies, allow me to satisfy your hunger. One of them, at least.”
“More like neither of them,” Lt. Fortin said in disappointment. The food court looked more like a food alley if the alley were neglected for a century; and then bombed.
“Is this...” Aino said in horror, “Is this human food?”
“Are these people even human?” Sophie added.
Smacking his lips, Lothar looked around.
“Perhaps some falafel?”
“I’m not eating here!” the women yelled in perfect coordination. Another result of the psychic connection they all shared.
“Alright,” he smiled, “We’ll go straight to the gambling hall.”
Indeed, as a demon elimination squad, they had to deal with enough risks without adding food poisoning into the mix. The taxpayers could bear the cost of feeding them properly.
A short while later, they walked out to deck four, which was almost entirely comprised of gambling areas. There were clusters of noisy, flashy slot machines as well as luxurious, private poker rooms. Lothar didn’t spot a man with a “stupid” purple hat, so he asked the hostess at the entrance, who wore a revealing bunny-girl outfit, to lead them to a dining table.
Naturally, on the way, he kept flirting with the woman, which irked Lt. Fortin. They sat on two soft, leathery couches in a corner and attempted to navigate the labyrinthine digital menu.
"Synthlamb kebabs,” he read out loud, ”Unspecified sausages… mystery-meat steak?!”
“Expensive,” Sophie commented on the latter. How very adult.
They decided to order it anyway because the pictures were downright mouthwatering. While waiting for their dishes, Lothar tried his luck with a blackjack game built into the menu tablet device. Yes, playing with taxpayer’s money was unethical, but as a gifted psionic, all he had to do was sense which cards were coming next, and…
“Twenty-one,” the digipad declared in a feminine voice, “Blackjack. The house wins.”
Three hundred marks gone in two minutes!
“Could I try, Taisa?”
Resigned to his fate, the colonel let Lieutenant Nakami take his place. In the meantime, he was free to have a short conversation with the lovely blonde.
“You know, Lieutenant, we’ve been together, I mean, as a team, for two months now, and yet I don’t even know when you enlisted.”
“Didn’t you read our profiles, old man?” Aino asked with a challenging grin.
“I pick cannon fodder like you based on the photos.”
The she-demon’s eyes remained fixated on the digital cards. She had just won back over one hundred marks of the taxpayer’s money! Meanwhile, Sophie gazed softly at him.
“Six years ago, when I was sixteen.”
“Me too!” Lt. Nakami jumped, “At sixteen. Five years ago. I was top of my class at everything!”
Lothar psychically sensed dishonesty but decided not to pry. They were still on a mission.
“Well, back in my days, Psi Core used to train only children.”
Sophie seemed appalled by the concept, but Aino concentrated on the game. She even regained the rest of the sum lost earlier. He was supposed to be the most potent psionic there! How was she doing this?!
“A psionic’s potential is best nourished from a young age,” Lothar continued, “Sixteen is considered almost too late. I’ve been with Psi Core since I was nine.”
Lieutenant Fortin placed a sympathetic hand on his wrist, but at that moment, their dishes arrived, and the conversation stopped.
“Gott im Himmel!” he declared after tasting from the steak, “I’m in heaven right now.”
While they ate, Lothar scanned the other visitors inside the gambling hall. People of different shapes and sizes, almost all of them criminals, but a few intelligence agents might have also been present. Their official uniforms stood out in the crowd, but that’s what he wanted.
“What about your family?”
The colonel turned his eyes back to Sophie.
“That’s on a need-to-know basis, Lieutenant.”
His tone was too harsh. Her eyes darted down like a rebuked child.
“I’m with you, Taisa,” Lt. Nakami said with a mouth full of mystery meat, “Fuck families!”
Lothar happened to know Lt. Fortin was more sensitive than most. Shutting his eyes, he concentrated on a mental image of her until he felt the gossamer edges of her mind. A psychic link didn’t mean telepathy, but the colonel could transmit a positive vibe in her direction. Half a minute later, while chewing on a baked potato, he felt a subtle nudge inside his mind.
The words, “It’s okay,” floated before his eyes.
Better continue that line of thought later. While observing the shady clientele, something caught his attention: a large, stupid purple hat.