Stanton IV, Crusader
Kieran gazed out the window of the aero-taxi he had hired to take him to the local Covalex office. A fond smile crept across his face as he thought of the chaos his old friend Ursula LeBlanc must have thrown that office into after finding his gift and cranking up the ship’s speakers. He made a mental note to leave Mr. Fontaine a nice tip and an offer to pay for any damages and clean up.
As the vehicle smoothly maneuvered through the web-like lattice of wires and girders that linked the platforms that drifted in the clouds above Stanton IV, Kieran’s mind slipped back to an old memory, of another web-like network similar to Stanton IV, only constructed from old pieces of starships, random junk and in some spots, nearly fully functional ships – the Spider in Cathcart system. It was due to an assignment there that he had met Ursula.
He had been a newly-minted Lt. Commander (well, somewhat newly minted… it was his second time being promoted to the rank) when his squadron captain had summoned him to a meeting with a UEE Marine major that needed a pilot with Kieran’s skills for a mission the marines were planning.
After hearing the plan, Kieran had thought the man was insane. Kieran would have to fly a ship in the wake of a comet traversing the Cathcart system to gather intelligence on a notorious arms dealer called The Widowmaker who had lately expanded into the drug trade.
There was only one small problem…
Near Jump Point to Tiber
UEES Terrance Nolan –Bengal Class Strike Carrier
Kieran stared in disbelief at Major Wilfred Lidderdale after the man finished outlining his plan. He looked over to Captain Ernst Luke, the leader of the Greyhounds and then back to the marine major. Lidderdale did not look like the stereotypical Marine. The man was slight of frame and short; Kieran guessed he was perhaps a meter and a half tall and may tip the scales at sixty kilos if you weighed him right after lunch. Lidderdale also had a very odd tint to his skin; he wasn’t quite pale but not really jaundiced either.
Kieran cleared his throat and asked, “Permission to speak freely sirs?” Both officers nodded their assent.
“While I can understand the need to take out this Widowmaker fellow, my role in the plan has left me somewhat confused on a few minor details,” a tone of sarcasm woven into his words. “So let me get this straight major, you want me to pilot a 325a – my personal 325a no less – behind the head of a comet? In the area of both the dust and the ion tail?” he asked, letting a note of incredulity slip into his tone. He raised one eyebrow as he continued, “And said cometis on a path through an area of space littered with mines, electronic countermeasures, and at least a dozen fighter craft of unknown specifications guarding what you believe to be a derelict UEE light cruiser from the second Tevarin war?”
A short, sharp bark of a laugh burst out of Kieran. He turned to Captain Luke, and pointed at the plan displayed on the vidscreen in the captain’s desk. “This is insane sir. I could fly behind the comet with my eyes closed and a hand tied behind my back, there’s nothing to following something that closely, “he said. “Anyone in the second month of flight school could do that. But the conditions here…” Kieran slowly shook his head as his words trailed off.
Kieran tapped the animated comet icon on a chart of the Cathcart system displayed in one of the displayed windows. He shifted his gaze over to Major Lidderdale and continued, “Here the stuff streaming off of that comet is another story.” He paused and cocked his head, “What did you call the comet, ‘Orbweaver’?”
“That is the name, yes. No one had ever really named the comets in Cathcart after it was discovered; there wasn’t much need with the system being devoid of planets. But you know the military bureaucracy…“ the major responded dryly. “…everything must be labeled and quantified in a file somewhere.” Lidderdale smiled wanly and motioned for Kieran to continue.
Kieran ran a hand through his close-cropped black hair and gathered his thoughts and his calm before resuming, “That comet is going to be spewing out ionizing radiation, x-rays, chunks of ice the size of small asteroids and possibly even actual rocks depending on the core’s composition. To top it all off, the dust tail would obscure my vision. Which I might add is needed to dodge the rather large balls of ice coming at me through that dust cloud from roughly 100 meters away at closing speeds approaching thousands of meters per second.”
“Dodging will be necessary because to keep the stealth needed for this mission’s success, I will have to fly without shields.” The small scar under Kieran’s left eye twitched involuntarily as he spoke, “The radiation and x-rays being deflected by the shield will give off not only ‘noise’ that can be detected by the electronic micro-satellites you tell me are positioned in the area – they will make the shield glow like a firefly on a warm, moonless summer night.”
“So, it seems to me you are essentially asking me to throw my life away in one way or another.” Kieran glanced over at his captain briefly to gauge his reaction, and then focused back on the major. He inhaled slowly and pressed forward, “I am compelled to ask is this to force an incident that allows you to act in the system or was the planning committee unable to find anyone with knowledge of basic astronomy and astrophysics?”
The major and his captain exchanged a glance, something unknown passing between them. Captain Luke’s normally stoic face split into a wide grin he appeared to be struggling to suppress. Captain Luke waggled one finger at the major, barely controlled mirth threatening to turn his words into laughter, “I told you he was the right one… no other pilot on this ship would have thought of the shields, “ the captain winked at Kieran and continued, a note of pride obvious in his tone. “It’s why he’s one of the best when it comes to scouting Vanduul territory. He not only relies upon his instincts, he thinks about where his ship is and where it is going.” Captain Luke tapped one of his temples to emphasize his point.
The puzzled look on Kieran’s face only deepened as he furrowed his brows. He was uncertain what was more shocking – the captain laughing at something; anything – or the obvious pride he had in his pilot. It had not even been a week ago Kieran was here enduring one of the old man’s infamous verbal sandblastings due to Kieran being late filing a report.
Major Lidderdale was chuckling to himself as he tapped out a quick line of commands into the Captain’s desk display. Several new windows popped open in front of Kieran, one showing a holographic picture of a young woman with alabaster-pale skin and wine-dark hair tied back into a pony tail, others showed what appeared to be shield harmonics equations and blueprints for what he thought might be a capacitor of some sort.
Lidderdale looked Kieran in the eye before he spoke, “Sloane, please believe me when I state that I would never be part of an operation that willingly sacrificed anyone like that. The plan – my plan – does take the issue with the shield’s interaction with the forces in the comet’s tail into account.” The major reached out and tapped one finger on top of the hologram’s head. “This is where she comes in, a rather brilliant if unorthodox engineer named Ursula LeBlanc. She isn’t military – just barely old enough to even be able to enlist truth be told.”
Captain Luke broke in to add, “You have likely heard of her father, his callsign was Gunslinger.”
The major nodded to Luke and tapped on the window that showed the capacitor blueprint. “LeBlanc is a gypsy on her mother’s side. She’s developed a few things to help the clan’s ships be more functional out in space, this is one of those items. She calls it ‘Little Wing’, a rather odd name.”
Kieran softly sang, “Well she’s walking through the clouds, with a circus mind that’s running round… butterflies and zebras; moonbeams and fairy tales…riding with the wind…”
Lidderdale blinked in confusion. “Beg pardon?”
Kieran blushed sheepishly, “Sorry sir. It’s an old song from Earth. Benefit of having a music-loving mother who was also a history teacher,” Kieran said with a lopsided grin. “The name makes sense when looking at these equations.” Kieran tapped the window showing the shield harmonics calculations. “These show that the shield’s magnetic and ionic fields can be reconfigured to allow a ship to ‘walk through the clouds’ and ‘ride the wind’ to borrow from the song. Essentially, it acts like a shock absorber to give your ship a smoother ride. She likely had flying through nebulae or the upper atmosphere of gas giants in mind, but it’d work for this as well as the same principle will prevent the aurora-like lightshow.”
The major nodded and cleared his throat, then continued. “That’s correct. So, we are going to be sending you to Terra to have her install one of these ‘Little Wings’ onto your ship. As she is not military and this operation isn’t necessarily completely legal, you will be going in as a civilian. Hence, the need for your own ship…”
With Kieran’s last objection neatly circumvented, he spent the remainder of the meeting listening and making mental notes. He still had serious reservations about his mission, but no one would call his usual recon patrol work routine or safe. At the meeting’s conclusion, he was given a packet of information and a new identity card showing him as a civilian doing research on potentially mining comets and tickets on a civilian ship bound for Sol where he would pick up his 325a. He would fly it to Terra and meet with Miss LeBlanc to get her device installed. They had also given him an account with a rather nice credit balance to use for travel and outfitting his ship. He had approximately six weeks before the comet Orbweaver would be in position.
He quickly packed a bag and hopped the next flight leaving the Nolan back to Garron.