Chapter 45: Epsilon-9
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In the office, Hadrian began explaining highly secretive information to Athena and Adrianna. He was just steps away from the panic button, but he made no attempt to reach it. His body might be free, but his mind had already been irreversibly enslaved by the Swarm.

“Jarvis told me your family doesn’t manufacture the narcotics you sell to this city. You are just a distributor, but none of your lieutenants know where your supply comes from. They only know they go to a different location every week to bring them back to your own warehouses. So tell me. Who is supplying you with your merchandise?” Athena asked.

“Our supply comes from an organization called Epsilon-9.” Hadrian gave out the important information that he had kept from his most trusted men for years without a moment of hesitation. “I don’t know if you have heard of Epsilon-9 before, my Queen.”

“I haven’t. Tell me what you know about them.”

“I don’t know much besides what they told us, my Queen. They are highly secretive. They seem to be an extremely powerful interstellar criminal organization with multiple holdings in the Chaos Sectors. One of their main businesses is the manufacturing and trafficking of a series of narcotics illegal in most of the galaxy, including in the Kingdom of Decima. They would find smuggle their goods to populated worlds and find locals like our family to act as distributors. We only get to keep a small portion of the profits, but even that is much more than what we made before this partnership. We have a monopoly on the market, after all, and narcotics have a way of making people less fiscally disciplined than they would like to be.”

“And why isn’t the government doing anything to stop this?” Adrianna clearly wasn't too happy about what she heard. If anything she felt insulted. “It is to the detriment of the Kingdom of Decima to allow this to continue. I have looked at some of the numbers. They are losing a lot of money every single year, and the drugs this money is used to buy are all highly addictive and can often cripple the users. The kingdom has every incentive to put an end to this.”

Athena glanced at Adrianna but didn't interrupt her friend.

“Stop this? How?” Hadrian chuckled. “They can take us out, but that is more or less meaningless when the supply and the demand both exist. I don't know how exactly the narcotics are smuggled to this city, but most likely Epsilon-9 is using a combination of bribes and threats to get civilian captains to work for them. There is already an established client base on this planet, consisting of god knows how many hopeless addicts. Unless the Kingdom can track down the bases of operation of Epsilon-9 and take them out, removing distributors like us simply means Epsilon-9 needs to find a new partner in this city. As long as there is still money to be made here, you can bet there will be people willing to take up this role.”

"Of course," The young man continued. "that is if the government wants to make a move on us in the first place. Money and threats alike are good at convincing officials and law enforcement to turn a blind eye to certain transgressions."

“Do you really think there is nothing a government can do about this?” Adrianna really wanted to wipe the smile off of Hadrian's face. “I admit I don’t know what the fuck is going on with the Kingdom of Decima, but even if they are really powerless against you, your days are still numbered with the Imperium soon to take this planet.”

“That is not necessarily true.” Hadrian scoffed.

“What do you mean?”

Hadrian hesitated for a second, prompting Athena to give a command.

“Answer the question.”

“Epsilon-9 has a plan for when this war is over. A plan they have shared with their allies.” The young man glanced at Jarvis and Hank and saw the surprise on their face. Unsurprising, given he had never mentioned this to his lieutenants. “I believe you have noticed the public demonstrations that have been going on around the city, my Queen. With the bodies…”

“I have. What of them?”

“Similar demonstrations are been made all over the planet by partners of Epsilon-9. It is meant as a show of force to the Imperium. It is meant to display to the Imperium the damage we are capable of doing. If we wish, we can bring chaos to every city on this planet.” Hadrian said confidently. “This will force the Imperium to the negotiating table after they claim this planet. If they want some resemblance of peace in their newly conquered territories, they will have to make concessions. Without our support, their new planet will soon devolve into a pit of chaos and crimes. It will go against everything they want to show the galaxy."

There was silence in the office for a few seconds before Adrianna suddenly burst out laughing. Athena sighed and shook her head. Hadrian and his two lieutenants simply stood there, confused.

“You have got to be joking.” Adrianna finally said after taking a few seconds to recover.

“Why would I be?”

“Well, it’s either that or you and this so-called Epsilon-9 are a bunch of idiots.” Adrianna sighed. “That plan may work on the Kingdom of Decima, but do you really think the Venya Imperium can be intimidated by a bunch of criminals and narcotics dealers?

“They will have to if they want to have any semblance of control over this planet,” Hadrian replied, not too happy with the disdain Adrianna showed him. “The Imperium is strong, but we will not be facing them on the field of battle. We will be lurking in the shadows, using threats and assassins to send our message. If we want, we can simply cut the drug supply to this planet and watch as all those among the civilian population who have gotten used to our products riot against the Imperial reign. After enough messages, I am sure the Imperials will learn to swallow their pride and work with people they see as lowlifes.”

"We? You really do think you're a member of this Epsilon-9? That you're capable of standing up to the Imperium?" Adrianna chuckled. “Have you ever met an Imperial commander?”

“Can’t say I have. Why?”

“Well, if you have met just one of them, then you will know they are some of the most arrogant and stubborn bastards out there,” Adrianna explained with a scoff on her face. “Maybe it is their best option to work with Epsilon-9. Maybe it’s not. It doesn’t matter. The Imperium prides itself on being strong and uncompromising. Any general or admiral that strikes a deal with a crime ring will immediately be looked down upon by their peers and likely chastised by their superiors. Hell…this is an empire that once dropped nuclear warheads on a rebel city as a show of force! It’s not about the materialistic gains and losses. It’s about sending a message to the galaxy: The Imperium cannot be intimidated.”

She continued as Hadrian stood there in silence.

“Sure. Maybe it’s gonna take a while. Maybe there will be a lot of civilian casualties. But in the end, the Imperium will win, and every single member of Epsilon-9 and their allies who didn't surrender to the Imperium when they had the chance will find themselves on the burning stakes for daring to challenge Imperial rule. Protests? Riots? You think the Imperium will care about that? The Imperium will gladly sacrifice ten innocents just to kill one of you. You people have gotten so used to intimidating civilians and dealing with the weak, pathetic nation that is the Kingdom of Decima that you think the same tactic will work on the Imperium! Especially the Imperial Army that will be deployed to garrison this planet! If anything, taking out infamous criminal organizations like yours will earn Imperium the love of the people on this planet!”

Athena sat there and listened to Adrianna’s words with intrigue. On one hand, Adrianna disliked the oppressive Imperium that treated her as an expendable cannon fodder. On the other hand, she took pride in the mighty, uncompromising Imperium and the strength it projected to both its own people and to the galaxy. Even after deserting the Imperial Army, she still looked down upon the relatively weak and corrupt Kingdom of Decima, as well as the criminals and lowlifes that have been surviving thanks to the incompetence of the Kingdom. Perhaps in her head, for all its flaws, the Venya Imperium was still the strongest nation in the galaxy. A part of her, a small part, might even be glad that she was born in the Imperium instead of a nation like the Kingdom of Decima.

Maybe it was the result of a lifetime of propaganda. Maybe this belief had some merit to it. Athena just found it quite interesting.

As the conversation ended and Hadrian had few counterarguments to offer, Athena brought the topic back to the matter at hand.

“What do you know about the military strength of this Epsilon-9?”

“I am aware that in multiple cases, Epsilon-9 had brought in mercenaries from off-world to take care of local allies who have stolen money from them. These battles were often bloody and all ended with the complete destruction of said allies.” Hadrian replied. “I don’t know about their space forces, but most likely they have at least some ships for combat to defend their bases of operation. Given how much money is to be made in this industry, they must have plenty of strength to fend off jealous competitors.”

“I see.” Athena tapped her chin. Most likely infiltrating Epsilon-9 would be a lot more difficult than infiltrating the Lee Family. This crime ring felt a lot more professional than some goons in a small city. “I want you to ask around and see if there is a way to get me inside Epsilon-9. If that is not possible, look into ways to smuggle me off this planet, preferably through Epsilon-9.”

“As you command, my Queen.”

“Also, have you heard about the Centaur Shipyard?”

“I have, my Queen.”

“Look into that base and try to find people who work there. Your objective is to find ways to access the schematics of ships produced there. Any ships. In fact, any schematics will be helpful. Contact me the moment you have any leads.”

“I understand. What about after the mission has been accomplished, my Queen?” Hadrian asked quietly.

“After the mission?” Athena glanced at Hadrian. She had seen the things this organization had done, and to say she wasn’t a fan of them was an understatement. In a sense, these people were worse than Doctor Vincent. Doctor Vincent at least had a somewhat noble justification. These people? Everything they did was for their individual profit.

“After the mission is over, round up every member of your family who has blood on their hands and execute them all. After that, terminate yourself.”

Usually telling her operatives that they would die after completing their tasks was a bad idea. Not this case.

“By your will, it will be done.” Hadrian simply nodded. The neural parasite had made sure that Athena’s command was more important than anything else, including the survival of him and his family. He couldn’t even form a word of objection, nor could he allow this to keep him from giving the mission at hand his all despite knowing very well that the day he was successful would be the dead everything he had cared about was destroyed. From the moment the neural parasite took control of his body and mind alike, his life no longer belonged to himself.

On the side, Adrianna tapped her chin thoughtfully, but she didn't say anything on the spot.

As the day began turning dark, the meeting came to an end and Hadrian went to work. Athena and Adrianna stayed at one of the properties that belonged to the Lee Family. It was a two-story mansion located in one of the wealthiest residential areas in the city.

Most of the members of the Lee Family didn't know who the two of them really were. They were simply told by their superiors that the two women were honored guests of the family.

As Athena lay down on a large leather couch in one of the bedrooms, there was a knock on the door. Athena frowned. It wasn’t one of the people infected by neural parasites. She quickly summoned a Terran marine to open the door.

“Athena,” Adrianna said as she nodded at the marine and stepped into the bedroom.

“How do you like the place?” Athena sat back down on her sofa.

“It’s much better than the hotel room. That’s for sure.”

“Well don’t get too comfortable. We won’t be here for long.”

“I know.” Adrianna sat down in front of Athena. She tapped her finger a few times before bringing up the reason she was there. “Just out of curiosity, when you told that guy to terminate himself…will he actually do it?”

“Yes.” Athena paused, her voice cold. Despite all the assistance Hadrian might offer her, she still despised the man. The neural parasite didn't change the fact that Hadrian Lee was a sadistic psychopath. It simply made him a sadistic psychopath who was loyal to her. “I suppose he won’t have a choice.”

“That’s...terrifying.” Adrianna paused as she wondered what it would feel like to be in Hadrian's position. “By the way, have you considered keeping this family around after their mission with the shipyard is over?”

“What for?”

“Well, if I understand our plan correctly, we will be leaving this planet, and if we can get rid of Epsilon-9 in the process, we do it.” She explained. “But if we don’t have an opportunity when we leave, keeping the Lees alive will allow us to keep a tab on Epsilon-9. Learn more about them and maybe track them down eventually.”

“I thought you despised criminals like the Lees. Didn't expect you would fight to keep them alive longer.”

“I do despise these criminals, which is why I’m not too satisfied with only getting rid of a single crime family in a small, almost insignificant city when we can take down the entire syndicate that is Epsilon-9. There is no place in the galaxy for thugs like them. If the Imperium fails to get rid of them, we will. When Epsilon-9 is gone, we can exterminate the Lees like the vermins they are.”

"I have considered that possibility before I gave the order," Athena admitted. "but given what we say Epsilon-9 is extremely careful in its operations. A local ally like the Lees will never be able to learn enough about them to pose a threat. Unless...unless I leave an infestor here to help with the infiltration, but that leads to a whole different set of risks. In fact, the Lees may not even survive the Imperial purge, as you said to Hadrian. In the end, I just decided to get what I can from them and dispose of them afterward. I suppose I could've hid that decision from them, but I really wanted to watch them squirm."

"You're right. I haven't thought about that." Adrianna nodded. Indeed, the organization that Hadrian described was careful. So careful that even their existence was only known by the head of their allied factions. It was unlikely the Lees would achieve much.

"That being said..." Before Adrianna could leave, Athena snapped her fingers and had a brilliant idea. "the Lees may still serve some value after they're done with the shipyard, but not by continuing to work for Epsilon-9." She looked up at Adrianna. "You know how the Imperium ensures the loyalty of conquered people. The carrot and the stick. They will publicly punish those who resisted and heavily reward those who yielded. In that case, if the Lees were the first ones to surrender to the Imperium and offer their aid against Epsilon-9 and the other criminal organizations on the planet, how much reward would they get in return?"

Even as she said those words, Athena could feel herself getting excited. Sending spies into the ranks of her enemies might just be her new personal hobby. Just the idea of spies like Doctor Vincent climbing the ranks of the Imperium pretending to be loyal Imperials while secretly feeding her information made her want to smile. She could even imagine the look of shock on the faces of her enemies as their most trusted men suddenly revealed they had been spies all along.

It seemed like she had a new plan for the Lees after all.