Let the Gods Sort Them Out…

The_Space_Pirate_Ship

By: Darryl Kupsch

Tohil System

Escort Mission

07 February 2939

The call came through comms within minutes of transitioning from hyperspace to normal space in the Tohil System.

SOS… This is the trader Marseille out of Castra, en route to Tohil. We are under attack from pirates! There is one vessel but we have no armament and they have disabled our jump engines. Someone please help us.”

The message repeated on a loop and appeared to be only a couple hours old judging by the time stamp, so in accordance with Imperial Law, Jaeger set an intercept course. The armed freighter Dionysius, his current client, followed cautiously. As they closed on the coordinates and heading attached to the SOS recording, there was no response via sub-space radio. Eventually the screens showed the freighter maintaining a steady course, but with no changes in acceleration or direction. For all intents and purpose, the freighter was a hulk tracking across the outer reaches of the Tohil system. Jaeger pulled up the manifest for the vessel and noted ship personnel numbers registered at eight.

His lips curled in a humorless smirk. It must have been a long voyage indeed as a life support scan now showed 28 humanoids on board.

Lothbrok to Dionysius. Keep your shields up and weapons primed. Our scans are showing multiple survivors but no one is responding to hails. Do not attempt any rescue or accept any landing parties unless I give the all clear.” In other words stay the hell out of my way while I check this fucking mess out.

“AI, keep hailing the Marseille and try to ascertain status.” He then glanced at his screens. ” Scheisse. “That’s two different engine signatures, from the ion trails. AI, initiate defense mode alpha delta mike three. Activate all shields and weapon systems. Lothar! Buckle in: we might have to blow some space trash out of existence.”

There was the sound of fabric on leather and then the clicking of harness buckles as Lothar, his co-pilot, valet and all round henchman slid into the second officer’s seat. “Orders, sir?” His deep voice carried just a trace of an accent to hint at his Turkish origins.

“Let the AI handle the guns. Bring up the nav-routines and start looking for origin points for pirate activity out here, and the best way to avoid a potential ambush. Scans are showing two vessels, so the second must be docked with the freighter.”

“As you wish sir.”

“Time to call an end to the bullshit,” he muttered, toggling the hailing frequencies.

Marseille, this is the Lothbrok, escorting the armed freighter Dionysius. We received and responded to your SOS signal and are closing on your position. We see that you have an additional vessel alongside and we are reading multiple life signs. Please respond.”

After a short delay, a signal responded.

Lothbrok, this is the Marseille. The SOS was not authentic, it was a computer glitch from a shipboard drill we were running. We sincerely apologize for any misunderstanding or alarms that we have raised but thanks for responding just the same.” There was a pause then another voice spoke across the comm line. “Uhm…Lothbrok, please standby. We might have a problem you can help us with, over.”

Lothar spoke quietly from the XO’s consol. “Sir, the scans are showing the drives on Marseille are crippled. And they didn’t address the fact that the second ship is there with them.” He frowned suddenly then glanced at Jaeger. “I am picking up incoming traffic to the coordinates of the Marseille…no registration signatures and flying with signal scramblers wide open but they look like fighters. Their ETA is 30 minutes to the site…”

Jaeger stared at the crippled ship, his jaw clenching. The combined firepower of the incoming ships and the as yet hidden predator would outgun him. These scavengers always took courage from superior numbers. “Any UEE patrols or commercial traffic in the vicinity?”

Lothar shuffled screen overlays and searched, finally shaking his head. “Closest patrol is 23 hours out.”

“AI, time until we are within weapons range?”

“We will be within missile range in 40 minutes, Captain. Beam weapon range in 2 hrs, 30 minutes.”

Jaeger eyed the ship’s manifest, registering the largely female crew. His lips pressed into a thin line- slavery, torture, and worse awaited these people at the hands of the pirates if they were taken. But the raiders had been clumsy bringing so many crew to a single target. He had an opportunity to cripple this particular band of bottom feeders and possibly knock them out of service permanently, making this sector relatively safe for future voyagers. He made his decision.

“AI, once we are within missile range, we will open with both batteries, full spread. Now open a channel to Dionysius, encryption echo echo charlie seven.”

Lothbrok to Dionysius:  Freighter Marseilles is crippled and has been taken by pirates. Make all haste to Tohil and inform port authorities. We are going to engage and neutralize the pirates. We will be less than a day behind you.”

* * *

The Lothbrok docked at Tohil 15 hours after the Dionysius’ arrival, to collect their escort fee and to report to the port guard that one salvo of missiles was fired at the pirate entity. Both vessels were reported as destroyed after what appeared to be a direct hit on the Marseille‘s main drive reactor. The Lothbrok had then ambushed and destroyed two fighters at the scene. Several days after the encounter, salvage crews (who had to purchase the location of the wreckage from Jaeger) recovered partial logs from both the Marseille and the pirate vessel, which was later tentatively identified as the Concordia, an armed freighter that had been missing for approximately 5 years, last known to be on a run from Terra to Stanton. The last recorded crew manifests for both vessels totaled 28 crew. No life boats were recovered by either the salvage vessels or the Lothbrok. Of the two fighters, little remained to identify, though DNA residue identified individuals wanted by the UEE for piracy, murder, extortion, smuggling and a string of petty crimes. Jaeger was awarded a sizeable bounty.

* * *

 the_outskirts_by_whatzitoya-d5hirpd

3 Years Later…

Stanton Station

The Last Resort Bar and Restaurant

21 June 2942

Ursula LeBlanc was late.

This wasn’t like her.  She knew him well enough that she would never keep him waiting if she thought a situation important enough to ask for him.

He hated waiting.

He had no idea what the eccentric waif wanted with him.  It could be some sort of strange favor for his services she coaxed out of his boss Mr. Morgan, or it could be a paying job though he didn’t think it likely.  She had picked the time and place, though at this point the time did not seem not seem to be this place.

So he waited.  In public.  In a place he would usually avoid entirely. He just didn’t do social venues well- unless of course he was on security detail for Mr. Morgan.

The problem with waiting was that sooner or later, someone would recognize him, and either that someone would start talking about the stories, or worse, confront him if they were feeling brave. The most irritating part was that they almost always got the facts wrong… like the tall blonde chick about five meters away by the bar, trying to be “discreet” with her male friend who looked slightly less intelligent than the furniture in the joint.

“Yeah! That’s Von Blucher!  The one they call Jaeger,” she squeaked, trying to keep it as a whisper, but Jaeger heard every word with the amplifiers connected to his dark glasses.  “He’s the guy that blew up that freighter in the Tohil system dusting eight crew! I don’t know how he hasn’t been arrested or spaced or somethin’.”

Her male companion mumbled something (thankfully) unintelligible over the noise of the bar that his amplifiers couldn’t parse.  However the gist of it was pretty clear as she reacted in alarm and grabbed her companion’s arm as he turned to move in Jaeger’s direction.

“Don’t be stupid!”  She held onto him as tight as she could. “He’s probably got something stashed under that jacket! If you want to do something, let’s go to Station Security an’ let them grab him. Maybe we’ll get a reward or somethin’.”

Jaeger shook his head slightly and slowly exhaled, betraying his annoyance as the couple made a quick exit. Station Security knew all about him…he was an Enforcer and worked for the Advocacy after all. He idly pondered arresting the idiots for the crime of public stupidity if they returned…perhaps it wasn’t against the law to be stupid but it certainly should be.

“I wouldn’t worry about them,” came a familiar voice that brought him out of his thoughts, “They’ll just get a shrug and a ‘move along’ from the authorities or you can just flash your badge.  After all I can’t have half my team locked up before we begin,” Marcus said, trying not to laugh at his own joke in front of Jaeger.

Jaeger just stared at Marcus through his glasses without a word.  The big German’s annoyance was palpable as Marcus quickly got to the point.  “If you are waiting for Ursula, she won’t be coming. There’s been a slight change of plan, so I’ve come here to escort you to the new location.  Here, have a look at the mission specs on the way- this is gonna be a sweet haul.”  He handed Jaeger the glas detailing the objectives.

Though Marcus couldn’t see them, Jaeger closed his eyes and summoned reserves of patience to ease his irritation with the garrulous team leader.  He gave a slight sigh and motioned Marcus to lead the way.  He typically kept his distance from this man.  Marcus was a laid back family oriented type, always wanting to play nice with every godamn person he came in contact with. His cheerful easy-going manner just rubbed Richard the wrong way.  Jaeger typically tuned him out every time he tried to strike up a friendly conversation, and did his best to do so now as well.  In a perfect universe Richard mused he’d be able to reach his massive hands around the guy’s neck and squeeze until he was unable to talk or laugh ever again. Ah, the things he endured for the boss…

Despite his misgivings about his cheerful companion, Richard followed Marcus to wherever the hell they were going.  Not because the suggestion of profit had been made, but because Mr. Morgan had told him to go along on this one.  Richard resigned himself that this would mean tolerating Marcus’ talkative tendencies and shit eating grin with no questions asked.

But he didn’t have to like it.

The Crucible

sci_fi2_by_0800

By: Dawniel Kupsch

Tiber System

Tiber Orbital Space

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

They harried the enemy in lightning quick sorties that would draw Vanduul fighters out of the pack, then pick off those too eager or too slow to return to the larger group. They sewed confusion into the large congregation of alien craft, breaking their concerted attacks on the troop carriers and battlecruisers of the Empire.

They worked together like a perfectly engineered machine- one always knowing what the other would do, the accompanying groups of volunteers from the Squadron brutally efficient at culling targets of opportunity.

Gunslinger and Capm worked together in what seemed explosive acts of god- the human gods of Old Earth; violent and staggering in reprisal and power. Nothing could touch them as they dove and strafed and spun in the clusters of enemy ships hovering like gnats over the blue-green planet. It was beautiful and breathtaking and deadly, and soon the enemy squadrons fell back to their own destroyers to regroup and gain the protection of the primary swarm. Many soldiers that would have otherwise perished won free of the falling warzone and made the jump to safer space.

Spirits that had fallen as comrades had died rallied in fierce joy as fighter pilots attached to the remaining Empire fleets recognized the legendary presence of the famous ‘Gunslinger’ amongst them, and their own efforts redoubled.

Xander bared his teeth at his partner on the comms display in a fierce grin. Another troop carrier shielding a Hospital ship won free as the Midnight Squadron flight and UEEAF wing closed behind them to fend off any thoughts of pursuit.  Frank spoke up on the personal frequency.

How about we take a break and let these boys and girls catch their breath, Capm?

Xander looked over his screens, studying the activity surrounding the planet. He registered that despite their heroic effort, the UEE was still taking a pounding, and their small corner of the battlefield was the only place to be seen where a relative calm was evident. He noticed a cluster of engagement several minutes away where a limping Corvette and a couple desperate fighters were struggling to break free of a pursuing group of Vanduul. He considered only for few seconds before responding.

“Negative Gunslinger- once more into the breach dear friend…then we head home. First round on you, of course,”Xander grinned.

He watched as his friend gave him a one finger salute, laughing as he switched to team comms and directed his wing to fall in for a final run.

 

* * *

Tiber System

Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space

Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

She pulled herself slowly along the exterior of the vessel, the mottled grey space excursion suit molded tightly to her body, the face shield dark and obscuring her features. Arriving at her shrouded vehicle, she slipped into the pod where it clung to the outside of the Midnight Squadron command ship. Even a discerning eye would have written the rounded lump off as a sensor modification- one of the advantages of targeting a group like Midnight Enterprises, where no ship profile resembled the factory specs, and most of the personnel would not have access to the particulars of how a ship was modded out. Hundreds of eyes had likely scanned over her pod, and none had seen anything amiss. The ship itself had simply accepted the pod as yet another specialized accessory thanks to a certain little program she had access to.

She paused for a moment after she was secured. Enforcer Richard von Blucher was more brutal and efficient than she had expected even for an individual trained by the Advocacy. He had forced her to alter her timeline considerably by apprehending her dupe so quickly. Of course it had worked out beautifully when Xander Morgan and Frank LeBlanc opted for an unscheduled excursion to the battlefront.  She smiled at the perfection of it as she entered the code to activate both packages, then disengaged after setting her nav computer to the rendezvous  point. She was confident her small pod would simply register as debris floating off into space from the warzone. Once far enough away from the ship sensors, the pod’s dampened propulsion system would set her course. She relaxed into her seat, a smile curving her lips.

***

On the flight deck, the security scanning crew was coming up empty. The signatures from the various types of armament made it impossible to identify any alien residue that would indicate sabotage to the ships within an immediate timeframe. Sifting through the billions of chemical particle layers would take time he just didn’t have right now. Of course he had no proof that anything further was amiss, yet his instincts were screaming at him that there was something to that brief flash of expression he had seen on the spy’s face.

There was no help for it. He was going to issue the priority mission cancellation code and have all fighters return from wherever Xander had taken them. It was better to be safe and arouse Xander’s ire than the alternative. As he turned to relay the order to Lothar, he found the Turk frowning slightly as he stared at his glas.

“What is it?”

Lothar glanced at his boss and stroked his beard. “Maybe nothing.  It’s just…well, there was a signal burst- it was tiny…barely detectable. In fact without your security protocols it would not have been detectable. At the same moment AI logged a sensor array went dead on the exterior of the ship with diagnostics stating it no longer existed- that it had never actually been there. It could be a glitch…coincidence…,” he conceded dubiously.

Jaeger scowled and snapped out an order. “Override executive orders via security prioritization and bring all fighters back NOW!” He was already running for his ship, bellowing for a security team to mount up. Lothar cursed as the recall failed to ping any Midnight Squadron command craft on the battlefield, and turned to sprint after his boss.

***

gabriel_loves_to_crash_by_tituslunter-d5yvx9x

Tiber System

Tiber Orbital Space

March 7, 2937

Fall of Tiber

Pain.

He didn’t know how it was possible to continue breathing with this much pain stabbing into him. Yet he fought the oblivion of unconsciousness, as merciful as it would have been. He clung to the rage as waves of anguish and agony washed over him, clawing at the darkness that had become his world as he drifted in the cold, debris strewn space. He focused on one thought: Whoever had done this would pay.

He could hear his men dying as they threw themselves valiantly against the Vanduul while trying to save him, but all other communications chatter had gone dead the moment the small explosion had gone off. By some miracle, there had been no breach, but his controls had been reduced to slag and his fighter was floating space junk.

He cursed and wept at the brave sons of bitches shielding him from the Vanduul fighters, begging them to leave him, ordering them to fall back to the command ship. But no sound could reach them with his outgoing comms melted into slag. In some distant corner of his brain, he registered that it was a small mercy that he did not have to watch.  In a desperate measure, he had even attempted to eject in order to save his people the need to protect him. But even that mechanism had failed, leaving him entirely helpless in the prison of his fighter cockpit.

And so he sat and raged and wept and yelled in turn, his pain secondary to the images blasted into his memory as his best friend had died before his eyes.  Gunslinger had died the way he had lived; fighting to the last, the most heroic bastard he had ever known. Whatever insidious damage had been done to the ships of both flight leaders, Gunslinger had seen the effects first. He had been intentionally crippled though, where Xander’s ship seemed to have been rigged to explode. Whoever had concocted this death sentence had seemed intent on killing Gunslinger’s legend by simply handicapping him enough to be taken out by random, unremarkable contact; a move calculated to kill morale on the UEE armed forces side. He filed all of this away in his head even as he mentally watched it happen over and over.

The final look Frank had given him. The wistful smile. His gloved hand pressed to his cockpit window towards his friend as he directed his ship in front of Xander’s after his final words.

“Take care of my little girl.”

And then he was gone, his fighter taking the hit and knocked aside like a toy; a fiery comet descending to the roiling, war torn surface of the planet below. A heartbeat later the detonation took his sight and destroyed the interior of his fighter. A clinical part of his mind wondered at the delay, and considered the faulty result of the tampering done to his fighter. Intentional or accidental?

The smoke made it hard to breathe as the scrubbers in the fighter limped along attempting to recycle oxygen. He wondered if he would simply suffocate. He coughed, the spasm awakening a fresh onslaught of agony from his burns and acid seared face.

He was losing the struggle to remain aware, and then dimly he registered a shout on the short wave and a ragged chorus of cheers from far too few remaining voices. Cries of “Jaeger!” overrode the sounds of engagement and he was confused further; men cheering Jaeger? Was he delusional?

He felt a vibration and faintly heard the grate of metal. There was a terrible static on his comms and then the deep, intense voice of the Enforcer came through as if from a vast distance.

“Damn it Lothar, I’m right on top of him, get those comms open!”

The signal was lost then swung wide again, this time clear as a bell. “Lothbrok to Capm, can you hear me? Sir…. I have you… Xander…hang in there.

Vaguely Xander decided he was hallucinating…his Enforcer had never called him by his first name. He was far too regimented for such familiarity. And that gruffness in his voice sounded like concern. The sounds of fighting had died away and there was silence. He sighed and slipped into a deeper darkness that blessedly made the pain go away.

Of Heroes, Villains and the Parts In-between…

Image

By: Dawniel Kupsch

Tiber System

Fringe of Tiber Orbital Space

Midnight Squadron Mercenary Group Command Carrier ‘MSS Parallax Descent

March 6, 2937

Fall of Tiber

 

In the way of old friends, there wasn’t really a need to discuss it. They already knew each other’s hearts in this, and ultimately the end result was as inevitable as starlight. Yet they spoke of it anyway.

The Destroyer was in night mode with most nonessential crew bunked for the next several hours, and lighting reduced to a muted luminescence. They watched the fight on the forward array, far enough distant to be ignored by the enemy but close enough that the desperation of those fighting and dying weighed on their souls.

One of the men leaned against the railing of the observation deck over the commander’s station, a steaming mug of coffee loosely grasped in hand. The other stood tall, feet braced as if on an ancient Earth maritime vessel, watching the multitude of distant explosions on the screen. Cigarette smoke swirled in accompaniment to the steam venting from the insul-mug held by his companion. The taller of the two men with dark hair and a lean frame clad in a dark blue flight suit with a Midnight Squadron badge on the shoulder, glanced sideways and spoke the words he knew should be voiced. “We are under orders to stay out of it…” he offered casually. “Civilian corporate entity…private sector…yada yada…”

The other man clad in a matching uniform nodded, not taking his eyes from the screen. “Yup…we are,” he agreed.

The first man took a sip of his coffee then pursed his lips, head canting to the side slightly. “Of course there’s nothing says we can’t work more than one contract at a time…take the occasional government job…,” he speculated.

His friend glanced at him for the first time, a slight smile touching his lips and faded blue eyes. “Technically that contract is almost fulfilled anyway…they took the bait. Now we just take care of loose threads. Besides- we already have another non combat mission going.  Reese is planet-side with a salvage crew grabbing components to subsidise the cost of our presence here. ”

The taller man grunted and stretched his back as he stood to his full height, then rolled his neck. “Hmm…of course we’d have to work up the figures on contractual fees, tally resources, prepare a plan…and we haven’t actually been asked to that particular party out there…we can’t violate the conditions and bylaws of our Mercenary status…” He glanced sideways at his friend, a gleam of mischief in his hazel eyes. “Say Xander…you think maybe you might know a guy out in that mess might wanna hire a couple old space pirates like us..?”

Xander Morgan, CEO of Midnight Enterprises and Officer in Command of the mercenary squadron detachment grinned. “Why Frank, I do believe I might know one or two folks with the authority to make a contract with us.”

Frank LeBlanc scratched at the back of his head thoughtfully.  “Of course, a couple hack pilots like us…can’t ask too much. Only fair. Let’s say…a credit?”

Xander laughed, shaking his head as Frank grinned at him. “Sounds about right to me. A single credit for two old dogs that should know better and are probably going to get themselves killed. Let me make it official. I’ll have Senator Willoby approve it and we can drum up a couple volunteers.”

Frank saluted Xander with his mug held high, then quaffed the contents and turned to the portal. “Meet you at the ships, bossman!” he teased, his energy subtly changing as the promise of a fight flipped some hidden internal switch that instantly changed the man’s energy. He strode through the exit as the door slid open, a fierce light shining from his eyes and purpose evident in the spring in his step. His smile was grim as he mentally switched gears to a state that had earned him the reputation of being one of the most dangerous men in the ‘verse when behind the controls of a fighter.  If Xander had not seen the transformation countless times before, he might have been startled. As it was, he felt an answering intensity stir in his own breast.

Xander pressed a button on the console in front of him. The portal opened again, this time admitting the hulking form of his Security Chief and Enforcer. Richard stepped forward and then waited, his hands crossed in front of him, his stony gaze alert despite the late hour as he looked at his boss. “Yes sir?” came the rumbling question.

“The game is afoot, Jaeger. The trap is sprung and you are now free to find and question our turncoat. I will be allowing you the wherewithal to deal with this issue as Frank and I have other business to attend to. The transmissions we captured should lead you right to our man, and from him to the Senators working against the Imperator, and ultimately identify the corporations involved. I don’t need to tell you how important it is that we glean any and all information from the source here on the ship in order to follow the trail back to the source.”

Pale eyes narrowed slightly. “I may see to this person in a manner I choose?”

Xander met his Enforcer’s eyes, a matching hardness there that lent truth to his reputation as a ruthless and dangerous man that was not crossed without consequence. “Yes.”

Richard nodded, accepting the glas Xander handed to him. He saluted sharply and turned on his heel, joined by his security team as he strode out the door.

Ten To Midnight

the_magi___space_port_by_bradwright-d33fe4m
(Written by Robert Michaud (Rizman), edited by Dawniel Kupsch (Guardianwulf)- Work In Progress)

14 June 2942
Terra System
Argos III

Xander stood with his back to the room, looking through the holographic observation window that panned out over the blinking lights of Argos III’s external docking bays, apparently absorbed by the endless cycle of embarking spacecraft. He was dressed in a finely tailored suit from the evening’s engagement, his tie and cuffs loosened and his coat unbuttoned. A lit cigarette dangled from his fingers and the electric blue glow of his augmented eyes reflected in the thick observation glass. The room was quiet for what seemed like minutes, save for an occasional muted remark from a crew person on the security footage array that monitored the bridge.

Marcus was sitting patiently as he carefully watched Xander Morgan, CEO of Midnight Enterprises and Commander of the Squadron, gauging his response. The husky voice was quiet as usual when he spoke, the hint of a drawl indicating his fatigue. “We have several engineers, bio-mechs, and techs for you to choose from. Why Ursula?” He glanced back at Marcus with an inscrutable expression. “You know putting her at risk needlessly would have given Frank every reason to kick your a s s.” A slight, almost wistful smile touched the thin lips as he mentioned Ursula’s father, and his old friend.

Marcus shifted in his chair and leaned forward. “Commander,” he spoke, his voice intent on getting to the point, “When was the last time this squadron had a big score? I mean you said yourself with the UEE spread thin, the DoD is scraping the bottom of the war chest and can’t pay us what we’re worth. Renting out parts of this station to the corporations looking to ‘skirt’ a few laws here and there to keep us profitable in this system is not going to result much in shares that will maintain our roster. People are gonna start leaving. Some have already taken off looking for a better gig.”

Xander’s gaze thinned toward Marcus, “You still have not answered my question. Why Ursula?” he asked again, a thin ribbon of smoke curling from the cherry tip of his cigarette and casting a haze across his rugged features.
“Because she’s the best,” Marcus replied. “When it comes to tech and the ships, she can deal with any situation on this mission on the fly. That is what I need. Anyone else will freeze up, or say something can’t be done- but she always manages somehow. With Ursula you never hear how it’s impossible. That girl has never seen the box she is supposed to think inside of that the rest of the lot are stuck in.” His lips quirked. “ That’s her special ingredient..her mojo…which makes her just as essential as the rest of the lot I have in mind. Each of them has something that makes them perfect…a perfect team to pull this off.” He took a deep breath and shifted his shoulders slightly, glancing aside from his watchful commander and looking briefly uncomfortable. “And, well, she also, er…told me she was coming along…,” he trailed off.

The commander turned away from the window and crossed his arms as he leaned against it. One brow rose questioningly. “What?” he drawled, a tinge of amusement hinted in his voice.

Marcus took another breath and straightened his posture. “She found out about it and said we had to take her so she could keep an eye on ‘her’ ships” he said in a low tone, knowing this is not what the commander wanted for an answer. But before Xander could object, Marcus continued, “Look, it’s been months since the poor girl has been able to do anything but ship evaluations, modifications, retrofits and all the usual Vanduul crap from this squadron as well as the corporate side-gigs.” He pointed to the large imaging window and the vastness of space beyond the docking bays and blinking lights it showed, “God only knows what Sapper and his merry band are going to bring home to her on a given day.”

Marcus softened his voice, tilted his head slightly and then cocked a smile as he leaned forward again and tapped a finger on the desk as he spoke, “Sir. You know this is what she needs. A few weeks away from the grind, a few weeks of a different view…kind of…well…a vacation. Before you know it, she’s back safe and sound, arguing with Ninety-nine about the proper hydraulic settings for a Jansonite armature rod.”

Commander Morgan gestured to the Glas containing the details of the proposed mission where it rested on his desk. “But this mission?” he said with emphasis, “This is not a milk run Marcus. This can get far more dangerous than an average escort or supply run. That’s not even considering what could happen if the UEE or one of our rivals ever got wind of it.” He exhaled a cloud of smoke after a hit on his cigarette and shook his head, “I just don’t see an equitable ratio between risk and profit.”

Marcus pulled up his own Glas from his lap and touched the screen a few times. The commander’s Glas beeped in response and the readout flickered with images from several ID pictures flashing onto the screen. “That is why I’ve requested our dear Mother Goose to bring back a few of her ducklings to the fold. With these particular pilots and their specializations the risk becomes negligible and the profit becomes substantial. With any other group you would be right.”

The commander reached down and picked up the Glas unit once again, studying the proposed personnel list as he pursed his lips. The icy blue gaze flickered back up to Marcus after a moment. “Go on,” he commented, a faint gleam of interest sparking his expression. “Let’s hear your take on it.”

Knowing this was his final chance to convince his boss, Marcus looked at his Glas and began to go down the list, “Well we will need to start with a tactical team. Where we are going, small group tactics are key. So let’s start with Deckard Knyghte. He’s been out of the game for quite some time, but his particular flavor of tactical knowledge is perfect for this. He’s as old school and as level headed as they come. I’m going to need that to counteract Laloric and his perfectionist manner.”

He acknowledged the look his commander gave him at the thought of those two together and nodded. “I know, intuition versus perfectionism. But we’ve seen them do this all the time; they get into their arguments and somehow end up with this bizarre compromise of a tactical conclusion that beats any UEE Action Advisory Committee in the ‘verse.”

He slid his finger down the Glas to the next name. “Kieran Sloane. Aside from being a long time friend to Ursula, which I believe ensures he’s going be looking out for her, his record on recon is superb to say the least. We need a man of his talents to scout ahead if we are to succeed.”

“Worried about UEE and corporate rival run ins?” Marcus continued, holding up his Glas to display the next profile image on the list. “I give you Tyven Daalus. If it wasn’t for offline data files and paper, this man would be nothing but a ghost in the machine. His multitude of talents, trades and connections can get us through most Advocacy interference.” He paused as he looked at the long record that scrolled thru his Glas, lips quirking. “This guy’s life story has been steering clear of the ‘all seeing eye’, and he knows the blind spots better than anyone.”

“And you know I need ‘Crazy’,” Marcus added with a smirk. The commander just looked resigned as he glanced over the next crew profile portrait, though there may have been the ghost of a smile touching his lips. “Robbie Burgundy. His unorthodox piloting skill makes him a wild card ace. Not to mention, he’s an expert demolitions man. He’s a two-for-one! He’ll come in handy once we put down on the surface and find what we’re looking for.”

“Then there’s the not so crazy and the dangerous,” he went on, “Bellisaria Romanov and Richard Von Blucher, aka ‘Jaeger’- your Enforcer. Excellent pilots and soldiers in their own right. Bell somehow manages to keep Sapper alive, and Jaeger well…Jaeger has just enough menace to keep him in line. Besides that….I know you keep him as a clean-up guy and his connections to the Advocacy won’t hurt. If it goes sideways, well…nothing ever comes back to you. He’s the assurance it either works out or…. we both know the deal.” Marcus grimaced slightly as he stared at the austere, unsmiling face of the Squadron’s Enforcer reflected in his Glas.

“And of course, though not officially employed by Midnight Enterprises, Ursula’s Basque Aitaxchi will manage to invite himself along to ‘update his maps’ though we all know he will be keeping an eye on her ….and far be it from me to object to having the old man and his star charts along. One never knows when one might need a jump point that doesn’t exist on any UEE registry. . .or a genuine bottle of mahatsamo from his winery.” Marcus half mumbled the last part, lowering his voice so his words could only barely be heard, and scratching his nose to cover the motion of his lips. Xander just grunted at him in response, making it clear he had heard the comment about the wine- well aware that the old navigator was rarely without a bottle or two no matter what the mission might be.

Marcus placed his Glas down on the desk and stood up as he continued to talk, “There are a few other members I have in mind. Most are either semi-retired, on leave, or of course on missions. Ursula is still waiting for Cav to get back to her, but this here is the core unit. Regardless of who comes and who stays, the uniting factor for this crew, aside from individual talent, is two things, the loyalty to this squadron, and loyalty for you beyond the standard casual affiliation.”

Xander took the last drag of his cigarette and took a seat, allowing the chair to mold to his form. He leaned forward after discarding his butt, stretching his legs out beneath the desk. He rested his chin in his left palm and pointed at the information on his Glas in front of him. “The Orion system is a restricted area for good reason. And once on Armitage, how do you even know if what you are looking for hasn’t been bombarded into space dust?” He eyed Marcus closely, noting the confident grin. “Did I mention the Vanduul raiding parties, or the Void Pirates?” He said dryly, one eyebrow rising slightly as Marcus’s grin widened.

“I understand your concerns,” Marcus replied, with a placating gesture of his hand and doing his best to reign in his enthusiasm slightly. “Getting to the Orion system and landing is actually the easy part. The Vanduul sightings in the Armitage quadrant have decreased greatly of late. We time it right, with the right intel, chances are slim to none that we’ll even see a Vanduul raiding party. As for the Void Pirates,” Marcus paused for effect to let the commander know he had something in mind for them, “we do have ways to keep them busy and off our trail.”

“As for the package in question,” He leaned down and pressed the glas on the desk, “They may have destroyed the surface, but what we are looking for is far deeper.” First an image of the Orion system displayed and then the Glas zoomed in on the Armitage and then onto one of the hollowed out cities. In the middle of the city, a bright red X marked the spot where Marcus intended to go.

Silence filled the room as Xander considered the presentation. “I’ll be honest. I still have reservations about Ursula going along on this excursion.” He leaned back and let his breath out in a sigh as he regarded Marcus somberly. “But I also know if she said she was going already, I won’t have much of a chance of stopping her.” He grimaced and rubbed at his scalp, then let his hand slide over his face before he grunted. “I’m intrigued. And d a mn it, I know she is too.”

“I’ll bring her back without a scratch,” Marcus said with an assuring smile. he knew that was his chief concern. “We’ll be back with the goods before anyone even notices we are gone.”

Decision made, Xander frowned as he picked up Marcus’ Glas and signed off on the mission. He slid it back across the desk to a still smiling Marcus. “Just one thing,” he noted, “I’ll be seeing Ursula at dinner tomorrow, and I’ll inform her after I lay out some ground rules for her.”

As he took the Glas, Marcus nodded in agreement. He gave Xander a salute and headed to the door. As the door slid open, Marcus paused and looked over his shoulder at Xander, a glimmer of mischief in his eyes. “You still trying to do that whole…old Earth, real food cooking…thing?”

“I am,” Xander replied, narrowing his eyes.

“Ah, got it.” Marcus mused as he continued to the door, laughter coloring his parting shot, “I’ll tell her to eat before she gets to your place then. You know how you get when she comments on your food. We wouldn’t want her honesty to alter your decision.”

Marcus ducked and hurried out, chortling as the closing door whooshed behind him, the soft snick from the airlock cut off the sound of his merriment and returning the subdued office to its usual late evening quiet.

Again silence returned to the room, only the muted images showing the bridge command deck on his security screens keeping him company. For a few moments Xander sat in contemplation, his faint smile at the parting joke fading. He stood up from his desk and strode to a side table, pouring himself a glass of scotch. He turned to the observation window as he lit himself a new cigarette, then took a sip from his glass, letting the burn slide soothingly down his throat and into his belly. Electric blue eyes glowed softly in the darkened room as he watched the stars beyond the habitat and cargo rings. “Well Frank,” he muttered to himself, “I can’t keep her locked away and safe forever.” He lifted his glass to the memory of his old friend, the pain of his loss as sharp as ever, and then drank down his last swallow.

He turned, placed the empty glass on the desk and noted the time. It was ten to midnight. He smiled at that before his thoughts turned to bed and he considered making it an early night. Then he remembered, What was her name? Debbie? He hoped she had decided to go home and wasn’t waiting to surprise him in his bed again. He thought maybe it was time to move on before this one got too attached. He weighed his options as he turned to leave the office, slipping his Glas into his suit pocket as he went. The door opened as he approached, then snicked closed behind him.

The sensors registered the emptiness of the executive suite and turned off the dim lighting and the overhead monitors. Only the clear image of the holographic observation window looming large against the back wall remained active. The view encompassed the bustling activity of the space station that never slept, as well as the cold vastness of waiting space spangled with stars that seductively promised endless wonders to those who spent their lives reaching for them.

Memories Are Made of This…

gearhead
(Written By: Michael Kenney, Player of Kieran Sloane)

Terra System
Terra III
Prime, Monorail station
11 February 2939

Kieran stepped from the monorail and tugged his bag higher up on his shoulder. He scanned the station lobby until he spotted the Advocacy registration station. He slid into line behind a Banu merchant and a couple of tourists. He slipped his mobiglas out of a pocket of his flight suit and pulled up his documentation to have it ready. While he waited for his turn with the Advocacy official, he pulled up the latest news from the Terra Gazette. He was halfway into an editorial about the need to step up actions against piracy in the area when the Advocacy agent motioned him over to the desk.

Kieran smiled and handed the agent his mobiglas and identity card. The bored agent placed the mobiglas onto a glas unit built into his desk. The mobiglas immediately transferred Kieran’s information and the manifest for the ship he had left at the hangar near Prime’s landing port. A laser scanned Kieran’s identity card and then the agent offered it back to Kieran without even glancing up at him.

“Mr. Sloane, are you here in Terra for business or pleasure?” the agent said in a tired monotone voice. His eyes flicked up to regard Kieran briefly before turning back to the information relayed by Kieran’s mobiglas.

“Business mostly, here to get some specialized work done on my ship. I had also hoped to visit my brother and his family while I am here.” Kieran motioned towards the information on the agent’s screen. “I’ve listed my brother’s address as an alternate address to the room I’ve rented locally.”

The agent was already handing Kieran his mobiglas back before he had finished speaking. “Enjoy your stay, next in line please.”

Kieran slipped his mobiglas back in his pocket and made his way out of the station. Once outside, he stepped to one side of the door and leaned against the cool marble façade of the station. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to shut out the cacophony of sound of the crowd of people going about their daily business in Prime. The deep thrum of hovers smoothly moving through the city’s streets he sensed in his chest more than hearing with his ears. The pungent scents food being cooked and served from a myriad of little booths and carts mingled with the fragrant essence of Terra’s indigenous flora and the perfumes worn by the women passing by.

Kieran drew in a short, sharp breath to clear his head and steady his nerves. He had never been comfortable around crowds, and after spending countless hours in the black of space alone with only the sounds of his ship and his own voice for company it was always a shock to his senses to go planet side in the massive metropolises found within the Empire. He faintly tasted bile in the back of his throat and knew his stomach would be queasy for a day or two until he adjusted to air that had not been scrubbed, recycled and scrubbed again until it carried few odors. He took a few slow, deep breaths before opening his eyes. “Ah, civilization. Lovely place, don’t know how people stand it” he muttered to himself. The lanky pilot ran one hand through his hair, then shifted his bag higher up on his shoulder before pushing off the wall to propel himself through the crowds moving through the station plaza. He navigated through the crowd, unsuccessfully attempting to plot a course of least resistance. Finally, he managed to make his way to a hover taxi stand and quickly hopped into the back of a waiting one.

He gave the driver the address for Ursula LeBlanc’s workshop and settled back into the seat for the ride. A few moments later, the pulsing vibration of his mobiglas broke into the mindless daydream he had been having. It was his calendar reminding him of items scheduled for today, but before he slipped the device out of his pocket he knew what would be displayed on the screen. There would be a list of three names: Captain Ellen Stuart, Lieutenant James Kim and Second Lieutenant Javier Moretti. And the date 11 February 2935. All killed in action fighting against a Vanduul clan raiding in the Vega system. Kieran’s squadron mates back when he was a Hornet pilot – Moretti had been one of the four pilots in his flight. He’d have to find a bar to continue his tradition of drinking a toast to every fallen friend and squadron mate he’d ever flow with. Some thought it macabre to remember them all, but he could not envision honoring the memory of the fallen in any other way. Nor could he ever allow himself to let the memories of their sacrifices fade away. He stared blankly down at the text on the mobiglas, his mind seeing their faces rather than registering the names. He slipped the mobiglas back in his pocket and leaned his head back to stare up at the wind-sculpted Terran clouds through the transparent canopy of the hover taxi.

The taxi dropped him off in the midst of a mostly mundane district of small warehouses. Many were for small-scale engineering and machine shops, but one stood out completely. It would have stood out even if it wasn’t for the bright green, glittery purple and sparkling blue colors depicting some sort of marriage of a circuit diagram and a tribal tattoo pattern that shifted and swirled over the walls. It would have stood out even if it wasn’t for the small pond with luminescent pink flamingos fashioned from what appeared to be odds and ends of old hover taxis, refrigeration units, janitorial robots and duct tape. It would have stood out even if it wasn’t for the fountain in the midst of the pond that made ever-changing fractal designs from a multitude of miniature water jets equipped with colored lights to form an almost living kaleidoscope. It would have stood out without the fact that all of these things moved in time to the old 20th century songs playing through cleverly designed and hidden speakers. This particular warehouse would stand out due to the small gypsy camp that had been set up in front of the building.

The gypsies all appeared to be working on various items. Some seemed to be tinkering with small repair bots, others looked to be patching and repairing small household items. Still others seemed to be assembling mechanical things for which Kieran could discern no purpose or function. Others danced about to the music playing from the building, offered to tell the fortunes of passersby or attempted to entice potential customers to try the food they were cooking.

Kieran took in the chaotic display and murmured to himself, “This must be the place…” He approached one of the gypsies selling food and after purchasing a skewer of roasted meat he wasn’t sure he asked for, he confirmed that this was indeed Ursula LeBlanc’s workshop.

Upon entering the building, he was struck by the fact that the sounds outside were completely gone after the door had closed. He wasn’t sure if that was due to sound proofing methods being used on the windows and doors or if the sound was just completely drowned out by the song blaring somewhere in the workshop.

‘…every time I go for the mailbox, gotta hold myself down cos I just can’t wait till you write me you’re coming around…’

Bright flashes of arc light from a plasma torch flickered in the depths of the workshop.

‘Now I’m walking on sunshine, wooah…I’m walking on sunshine, woooah…I’m walking on sunshine, woooah…’

Kieran moved through the various projects in the workshop heading in the direction of the flickering arc light. Coming around the stripped down airframe of what appeared to be a one third replica of a lifeboat pod from a Bengal carrier, he caught his first glimpse of Ursula LeBlanc. She was dancing and singing wildly as she welded, punctuating the lyrics she was belting out with kicks and fists flying into the air while she spun with the arc welder in one hand never seeming to miss a beat or a weld point.

‘And don’t it feel good? Hey, alright now… And don’t it feel good? Hey, all right now, yeah!”

Ursula’s voice trailed off at the end of the line as she saw Kieran standing there. Kieran struggled briefly to suppress a laugh when he could finally make out how she was dressed. She was wearing an old, scarred welding vest dotted with small burn marks over a white and blue polka dot tube top and a pair of metallic green pants. Kieran could not recall the name of them, but images his mother had shown him of explorers on Earth in the 1800’s sprang to mind. The pants were tucked into rubber wellington boots painted with leaping trout. Two tattoos of brilliant sapphire and emerald scaled oriental dragons entwined around each other adorned her shoulders and upper arms. Her welding goggles had been modified to fit within a novelty pair of yellow happy face sunglasses. She raised the goggles to the top of her head and squinted at Kieran. She smiled brightly and yelled to a utility ‘bot repairing a smaller unit, “Ninety-nine, customer! Music off!” The song didn’t die off as much as completely disappear from one beat to the next.

“Hey ho there!” she said, waving the still-lit plasma torch at him. “Come to pick something up, get a tattoo or got something that needs fixin?” She seemed to notice the plasma torch in her hand finally and she hastily switched it off.

Kieran smiled and held out his hand in greeting, “Hullo, my name is Kieran. I’ve been told you might be able to help me with a problem I need solved.” He paused for a moment and furrowed his brow. “Well, that is assuming you are Miss Ursula LeBlanc?”

“That’s me, damn glad to meet ya Kieran.” She shook his hand and then made an exaggerated salute. She then clapped her hands and rubbed them together in anticipation. “So what sort of problem are we talking? Mechanical…? Technical…? Repair ‘bot getting persnickety…?”

Kieran chuckled softly, and then cocked his head to one side as he considered the question. “Technical and mechanical I s’pose. I’m a freelance surveyor of sorts and have recently been asked if it would be feasible to recover mineral and ore resources from comets. Trouble is, to get the scans my client needs I’d have to be close to the core of the comet due to the x-rays and radiation. The buffeting the ship will take in the wake of the comet will cause issues with the scanning equipment my client would prefer that I use.”

She nodded at him thoughtfully and absently toyed with a Victorian-era cameo choker around her neck. The dragon tattoos were shifting subtly under her skin, and though Kieran had seen it before the effect still made him slightly nervous whenever he saw it.

Kieran cleared his throat and went on, “Now I’ve been told you have a shield capacitor modification that might make my job easier. Something called… oh, one sec.” He made a show of patting down his pockets searching for his mobiglas, and then exclaimed, “Aha! There we go…” He pulled up a small notation page and read it quickly. “A capacitor you call ‘Little Wing’.” He smiled slightly and raised one eyebrow in inquiry.

When he said the words ‘Little Wing’, she froze and her eyes narrowed sharply. Her skin flushed and the colors of her tattoos shifted and shimmered as the dragons transformed into deep crimson and black tribal patterns.

“Well, your solution is easy. Fly next to the comet instead of behind it, no turbulence and greatly reduced radiation. Who is your client? Advocacy? Office of Executive Services? Military? Cause it sure isn’t someone prospecting for minerals.” She crossed her arms over her chest, and started tapping her foot.

Kieran blinked in surprise and confusion.

Miss LeBlanc turned around and started walking away from him, muttering a string of curses as she walked. Suddenly she spun on one heel and pointed the plasma torch at him. “Whoever your client is, tell ‘em to stay the hell out of my computer.”

Kieran felt his face go hot and heard his blood rushing by his ears. “Damn them” he whispered to himself. He turned and smashed his fist into the airframe of the lifeboat pod next to him, punctuating the action with string of profanity – some of which was directed at Major Lidderdale and some at the pain shooting through his hand.

He heard Ursula laughing and a moment later she handed him a cold pack to put on his hand. “Well, that tells me you’re military. Advocacy can’t cuss like that and the Executive Services associates aren’t dumb enough to punch plasma forged and neutrino hardened titanium strengthened by graphene nanotubes.”

She sighed and shook her head slightly. “And judging by that reaction, you didn’t know that other than myself there are four people who know I call one of my capacitor designs ‘Little Wing’. None of them would have to ask me for it.”

Kieran shook his hand and winced at the flash of pain lancing through the back of his hand. “Yeah, they didn’t say much about the device. Though I might have thrown them off when I sang the Jimi Hendrix version of the song.”

Ursula beamed with delight and clapped her hands. “You know the song?!?” she said incredulously. “Finally someone who knows it!” She threw out her arms and did a spin, nearly smacking Kieran in the head with the plasma torch.

“Just for that, I may help you out.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You need to tell me what it’s being used for though, I won’t let my stuff be used for bad things.” She nodded sagely and concluded, “That’s bad mojo-juju.”

Ursula motioned for Kieran to follow her and she led him over to a table. He noticed that her tattoos had changed back to the dragons. They sat down and over the course of the next half hour or so, Kieran explained his mission to her, leaving out the details of the system and the target. They spent the next two hours discussing old music, which usually entailed Ursula dancing and singing the song at the top of her lungs while Kieran chuckled at her exuberance.

Kieran’s mobiglas buzzed and after taking a glance at it he cursed softly under his breath. He’d almost forgotten his other obligation today.

“Miss LeBlanc, it’s been a pleasure but I have something else I need to attend to before the end of the day. Might there be a bar nearby or a store that sells port?” he inquired.

She gazed at him curiously, “You need to go to a bar before the end of the day?” She raised her hand to her throat and absently fiddled with the cameo choker. “You don’t look like an alcoholic and I can’t imagine what you might need port for in conjunction with your mission.” She tilted her head slightly and her eyes glanced upwards in thought. “Well, unless there is some obscure naval ritual my dad never told me about…”

Kieran smiled sadly and shook his head. “No, no secret rituals or anything like that. Just something I need to do to make things right in a small way.” The pilot sighed and ran his hand through his hair. “I’ve seen more than my share of people die during my time in the Navy. Seen them die in heroic ways, sometimes by choice, sometimes out of fear, and others just because they were doing their duty and carrying out the mission.” Kieran paused for a moment, blankly staring out into nothing as his eyes focused on fragments of memory. “Sometimes they died because they panicked or because someone else screwed up.” He sighed again and rubbed his face.

“Sorry, I tend to ramble when I think about it.” He shrugged and made an apologetic gesture. “After I first enlisted and was in flight school, we lost two cadets in a training accident. People I’d spent every day with for the previous forty eight days. People I’d flown with during that time, spent time getting drunk in the bars in MacArthur.”

He grimaced and looked away, “People that I could not tell you honestly that I remember. I know their names and their faces only because of that incident. No matter how hard I try, when I think of them it’s only the photos for their memorials I can see. Even though after checking my flight log, I know I flew with them a couple times each.”

Ursula smiled sadly and gently placed her hand on his to offer comfort. The tattoos on her arms slowly shifted from dragons into multi-colored birds.

Kieran smiled his thanks and went on, “After that, I vowed I would remember all of them. That I’d honor their memories and sacrifices somehow.” He leaned back in the chair and gazed up at the ceiling. “When I was a kid, instead of hearing fairy tales or other children’s tales my mother would tell me about history. Mostly about Earth… the empires… the cultures… the wars…” Kieran smiled ruefully. “Always doomed to repeat history… Empires rise, Empires fall.”

He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “Being a young boy who wanted to go off and fight against the Tevarins or the Xi’an, of course my mom told me stories of the soldiers and sailors.” Kieran lost himself to the memories, the ghost of a smile upon his lips. “Took me years to realize my mom wasn’t telling me stories… she was teaching me history. She explained the traditions of old soldiers, that no matter the army they fought for after they had retired when they would gather they would toast old friends who had fallen, either in battle or when old age finally caught up with them. When I recalled it, it seemed fitting. Since then, I keep a list and for a few moments on the anniversary of their deaths I remember them and honor them with a toast.”

He sighed and slumped his shoulders. “I have three toasts to make tonight.”

Ursula squeezed his hand in sympathy. “Wait here.” She stood and walked to the back of the shop, he could hear the sounds of her rummaging around for something. She returned with a bottle of port and two glasses. She set one in front of him, and filled the glass about a third of the way with the golden-brown fortified wine and then filled her own glass.

She pulled a mobiglas from her wellington boot and tapped on the display. The music system kicked back on and started playing ‘Break on Through’ by the Doors. Kieran smiled and raised his glass.

“In memory of Captain Ellen Stuart…” Ursula lifted her glass in salute as well. After polishing it off, she slid the bottle over to Kieran and he refilled their glasses for the next two toasts.

Kieran filled the glasses a fourth time. “I knew them, I remember them, and they will not be forgotten. Honor to the fallen.”

He bowed his head and closed his eyes, seeing their faces in his mind’s eye.

The next song Ursula had selected started playing, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s ‘Have You Ever Seen the Rain?’

‘Someone told me long ago… there’s a calm before the storm…’

Little Wing

commandcenter
(Written By: Michael Kenney, Player of Kieran Sloane)

Stanton System
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…

Garron System
Near Jump Point to Tiber
UEES Terrance Nolan –Bengal Class Strike Carrier
System Defense

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.

…What’s Good for the Goose…

Kieran Sloane (Written By: Michael Kenney, Player of Kieran Sloane. Bio here: http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaigns/stories-of-the-39th-midnight-squadron/characters/kieran-tuatha-sloane)
Stanton System
Stanton IV, Crusader
Crusader Shipyard Platform XJ45-3, Surplus Refit

Kieran fished the vibrating mobiglas out from one of the pockets inside his flight jacket. A quick glance showed him that he had four messages waiting. The mobiglas buzzed again and Kieran muttered to himself, “Make that five…”

He flicked his thumb across the screen to check the message list. Two of them he was expecting, one from the UEE Navy with his packet of information and forms to fill out now that he was a former naval officer and one from Covalex, the freight and storage company he had contracted to transport his personal ship here. One eyebrow rose as the mobiglas buzzed again. “…and six.”

He shook his head and pocketed the mobiglas. Miss LeBlanc would have to wait just a little bit longer. Kieran glanced up to where several UEE Navy engineers were directing shipyard workers in the removal of military-grade weapons and their mounts from the now-decommissioned frigate Praetorian. Several other engineering teams were inside the ship doing the same with the scanners, fire control systems and any other electronic systems the Navy felt the need to keep out of civilian hands. He noticed the foreman he had spoken with earlier walking beside a diminutive naval officer who was half listening to whatever the foreman was saying. Her attention was focused more on the book in her hands – his book. A burly master chief walked just behind the officer carrying a box with what Kieran concluded was the rest of his books. He mentally kicked himself again for leaving them behind after his retirement ceremony last night.

The officer stopped when the foreman placed a hand on her arm and gestured with his other arm over to where Kieran was standing. The officer nodded to the foreman, said something to him and flipped the book closed. Without looking back, she handed the book to the master chief. The foreman tapped his brow as a mock salute and turned back to the ship, gesticulating and shouting wildly at work crews.

Kieran smiled as the officer approached and pulled out his identity card from the breast pocket of his flight jacket. He handed it over to the officer – a lieutenant he noticed- before she could even ask for it. “Afternoon ma’am, I apologize for interrupting the work day. Paperwork and forms should be on the datachip in the card.” He nodded at the card.

The officer smiled slightly, took his card and her eyes flicked down to give it a cursory glance. “I am sure everything is in order Mr. Sloane. Just a few moments to transfer your forms over so they can be tucked away safe and sound lost in the Navy central filing datacenter like everything else.” She pulled out a mobiglas and pressed his card to the back of it. She tapped out a quick command on the mobiglas, it made a few electronic noises. She held her hand out to him while the hand-held device worked, “I’m Lieutenant Rasia Khamisi, and this is Master Chief Mondesir.” The mobiglas chirped, and then she nodded slightly to herself before handing Kieran his card back.

“All set.” She turned her head to the master chief and spoke, “Chief, the books are now no longer Navy property.”

The master chief grunted and moved to place the box on the ground beside Kieran, then stepped back into place beside the lieutenant.

Kieran nodded his thanks and knelt down on his haunches to make a quick inventory of the books. They were all there; the one on the top that had captured the interest of Lieutenant Khamisi was Dumas’ ‘The Three Musketeers.’ “She’s got good taste,” he thought to himself as he rose to stand.

“Mr. Sloane, a question if I may?” she asked, her head tilting to one side.

Kieran flashed a quick grin, the one he knew that set women at ease but that made fathers nervous. “You want to ask why I have books, right?” He cocked one eyebrow

The chief muttered something and the lieutenant laughed and nodded to him. “Exactly, why books? They are bulky and when you can store entire libraries on a mobiglas it seems to be an oddity. I mean I know pilots are quirky, but to be honest the first thought that crossed my mind when the request came in was that they were either contraband or a strange auto-correction that should have said ‘boots’.”

The chief gestured at the box with his chin, “Aye, mum. Starman Chisick didn’t know wot to do with ‘em. Poor fella had a bit of a scare when he picked one up.” The chief chuckled to himself before continuing, “He had never seen one other than on vids, when the book fell open ‘cause he only had a hold of the cover, he threw it away from him like it were a snake. Squealed like a l’il girl too.”

The chief blanched slightly and glanced at the lieutenant, “Beg pardon, mum. No offense to yerself meant.”

The dark-haired lieutenant only smiled up at the chief, “None taken, chief. We heard the squeal all the way up in the bridge area. Petty Officer Owens thought a bulkhead had given way or something.”

The three of them chuckled and Kieran gestured down at the box with one hand.

“Simple answer really. For most of my career, I was a long-range recon pilot. I spent a lot of time on my own in Vanduul space, a good bit of that time with almost everything on the ship powered down to blend in with the background noise of space.”

Kieran pondered things for a moment before continuing. “A glas unit, mobi or otherwise, still leaves an electronic signature. Faint though it is, it might have been enough to give me away at times combined with whatever signal the essential items would be putting out. A chemlight and a book leave no signal at all if there are no windows. It gets rather boring sitting there in space for days at a time waiting on passive scans to gather data or for a random Vanduul scout to happen by.”

They all spoke for a bit longer before the lieutenant’s mobiglas chimed and informed her she was needed to explain to a civilian engineer why he was not able to go into the communications room just yet. He left with his box of books – and Rasia’s contact information. She wanted to meet him later for drinks and to discuss books. One corner of his mouth twitched up into a rakish grin and he glanced back over his shoulder to see the pretty lieutenant striding back over to the ship with the master chief and another foreman dragged along in her wake. She looked back over her shoulder to say something to the foreman. When she noticed him looking she grinned impishly. Kieran wasn’t certain, but he would almost swear that she sashayed the rest of the way back to the old Praetorian.

His mobiglas buzzed insistently once again. A few seconds later the buzz repeated accompanied by a series of audible blips that notified him it was a priority message.

He muttered something to himself about an impatient mechanic getting her tribal tattoos all twisted up with her oriental dragons as he shifted the box to tuck it under one arm and slipped out his mobiglas in the other. To his surprise, the priority message was from a Covalex representative needing to speak to him urgently about his ship.

He furrowed his brow in thought and touched the button to return the call.

A frazzled-looking older man answered the call. Kieran heard the unmistakable sounds of Cream’s ‘Strange Brew’ echoing in the background, as well as the unintelligible sounds of another man trying to make himself heard over the sound of the music. “Ah, Mr. Sloane, thank you for getting back to us quickly. I am…”

The old man flinched and looked off to the left in response to a loud, jangling crash of noise, like several steel items of some sort being dropped onto concrete.

“Ah, as I was saying, I am Mr. Fontaine, the manager of this facility…” The gentleman’s voice trailed off as he was once again distracted by events in the store – this time Sloane thought he caught a glimpse of a clipboard-sized glas unit spinning through the air to land just out of view behind Mr. Fontaine.

The manager continued, a note of desperation twining itself around his words as he spoke, “A young woman dressed most peculiarly arrived at our location and requested access to your ship, one Miss Ursula LeBlanc.”

At that moment, the manager’s face was eclipsed as Ursula LeBlanc’s head poked in from the left side of the view. She waved enthusiastically at Kieran, setting several thin silver and brass bracelets on her wrist to tinkle and chime in an oddly comforting way.

“Hihi Kieran! I went to tune up your ship and found the mixtape you brought me! Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” she said breathlessly and spun out of frame, one braid pleated with multi-colored strips of cloth flicking Mr. Fontaine’s startled face as she disappeared.

Before the manager could recover, Kieran caught Ursula’s voice again singing a verse from Strange Brew, “…‘She’s some kind of demon messin’ in the flue’, C’mon Joe, sing along you know the words! ‘If you don’t watch out, it’ll stick to you…”

“Ahem, as I was saying… Miss LeBlanc was shown to your ship as you requested but then this…” the old man paused while searching for the right words, in the background Kieran heard Ursula’s unmistakable Joplinesque wail, “Straaaange Brewwwww…”

The old man continued, “…noise started blaring out from your ship’s speakers. And her dancing has been quite a disruption.”

Mr. Fontaine’s voice took on a pleading tone as he finished up, “Could you please stop by immediately to collect your ship and your…” The old man glanced over to the left, “mechanic?”

Kieran laughed in spite of himself, “I apologize Mr. Fontaine, Mo… Ursula can be a bit unrestrained when she gets into her music. I’ll be by directly.”

As he closed the call, he could see Mr. Fontaine frantically gesturing to someone on his left. “No, no, no… do not let her dance near the flo-pets!”