Stories of The 39th Midnight Squadron

The 39th
Storyline by Robert Michaud, Dawniel Kupsch, Michael Kenney, Petre Motiu, David P. Osborn, Robbie Burgoyne

The Great Orion Heist

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Ten To Midnight

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 the Argos IIIs’ external docking bays, apparently absorbed by the endless cycle of embarking spacecraft. He was dressed in a finely tailored suit from this 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’s imaging glass. The room was quite silent for what seemed like minutes, save for the muffled voices from the bridge just down the hall.

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 present 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 ass.” 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, resigned to answer a question he notably tried to get around. “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 uhm…told me she was coming…,” 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 foward 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 mission. That’s not even considering what could happen if the UEE or one of our rival corporations 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 duckling 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’. 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. 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 damn 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 back 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 mussed 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 that to change 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 early morning quiet.

Again silence returned to the room, only the muted images showing the bridge command deck on his security screens kept 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 eye 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 snickered closed behind him.

The sensors, registering the emptiness of the executive suite, 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 on. The scenery carried beyond the bustling activity of the space station that never slept, the cold vastness of the dark space that waited, and the stars that promised endless wonders to those who spent their lives reaching for them.

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A Day in the Life of Midnight Squadron
Night Moves

15 June 2942
Terra System
Agros III Space Station, home to Midnight Squadron

Music pulsed inside the cavernous metal hulk of the hangar, overlaying the low hum of environmental capacitors and power generators like a fetal heartbeat inside a synthetic womb. Evening cycle was in full effect with non essential lighting turned off and the endless bank of diodes, emergency lighting and function indicators reduced to a soft glow of occasionally flickering ambient luminescence mimicking fireflies in the depths of some primeval, Architectural Grade, Industrial Ship-steel forest.

The psychedelic, cadenced vibration of a modified old Earth Telecaster electric guitar echoed amid the ancient, fuzzy acid sounding Les Paul throbbing out the primary notes of the musical composition. A figure on the floor of the dark hangar spun in delight, dark hair swirling as her head bobbed to the rhythm, athletic form gyrating in appreciation of the sounds filling the bay. When the rhythm was joined by tambourine, drums and the recorded sounds of clapping timed to the sounds of the throbbing guitars and a low rumbling bass, she let out a shout of pure enjoyment, arms raised in the air. She twirled and shimmied, twin lengths of long dark hair fastened to either side of her head jumping and gyrating in enthusiastic accompaniment as the tenor voice of the old-Earth singer added his voice to the chorus of instruments:

“When I die and they lay me to rest, Gonna go to the place that’s the best, When I lay me down to die, Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky!”

She brought her hands together, echoing the efforts made by the musicians in the recording almost one thousand years in the past, as the backup choir joined the lead singer.

“Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky- That’s where I’m gonna go when I die, When I die and they lay me to rest- Gonna go to the place that’s the best!”

The girl let out an appreciative little howl as she twirled and grabbed for the laser assisted spanner wrench. She waved it about and boogied her way towards the open access compartment on a sleek looking gunship. Her wide, sensual mouth was curved in a smile as she leaned in to eye the bared components of the fighter, the work light hung over the compartment like a spotlight in an operating room revealing the startling color and layers of the young woman’s apparel. She pushed the prickly tulle panels of her skirt back from the sensitive electronics and calibrated the wrench with her thumb as her toes tapped to the music in turquoise flip-flops adorned with a colorful array of plastic flowers. She hummed and sang snatches of the music as she began to work, the tattoos along her arms shifting and issuing a subtle light as she became focused on her task.

On the catwalk far above, a shadow separated itself from a bulkhead, the man turning away with a sigh and a slight shake of his head. He wasn’t sure at what point he had stopped being irritated at Ursula for blaring the vintage American Earth rock in the hangar during night cycle yet again, but he couldn’t help his fingers from tapping the beat as he headed back to the crew quarters to resume the friendly game of poker with the on call team. If loud music was part of the formula that made Ursula the gifted technician she was, he could deal with it. He didn’t notice he was humming the tune as he walked down the dimly lit corridor, a smile curving his lips for no particular reason at all.

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15 June 2942

Odin System
Open Space
Midnight Squadron Escort Duty

WARNING! PROXIMITY ALERT! MISSILE LOCK!’

“No shit,” Sapper mumbled to the ships automated voice as he put his 325a into a tight corkscrew. “I’m looking right at him.” The ship rocked as another flurry of laser bolts flew past, close enough to make his face shield auto polarize.

With a quick hand, Sapper engaged the chaff system and fired off another burst of laser fire and scored a direct hit on one of the six pirate cutlasses swarming him. A millisecond later the pirate ship’s engines went critical and with a bright flash, the ship turned to space junk. With a quick adjustment of his Vectoring thrusters Sapper flipped the ship 180 and killed the main thrusters, and all power to the 325a, and coasted through the wreckage of the Cutlass as yet another alarm went off.

MISSILE LAUNCH! 100 METERS…75 METERS…50 METERS…25 METERS

Sapper flipped a switch to silence the warning. This was going to be close, but for Sapper to pull the trick off, it had to be. completely in the black, Sapper counted the seconds under his breath. A soon as he hit one, he engaged the chaffing system while, in a daring move, popped the upper maneuvering thrusters and then opened his own cockpit, thrusting all air out into space. The move jerked the ship in a downward motion as the missles passed so close heading for the chaffing lights, he could almost read the manufactures label.

FLASH! The missile detonated soundlessly as it reached the chaffing mix. The ship rocked a bit from the blast wave that followed. As Sapper could see the thrusters of the other pirates coming to investigate, he brought weapons on full power he targeted four of the remaining Cutlasses with missiles, and the other, with laser cannons. As the pirates crept in to confirm the wreckage of his ship, Sapper pressed the firing stud for both weapons.
Sapper fired off two salvos of guided missiles, and a flurry of laser bolts, catching the pirates by surprise. Two Of the novice pilots panicked and crashed into each other. Engaging full power to engines, Sapper quickly mopped up the remaining pirates, now damaged and scattered from the missile salvos, with a few quick bursts of his cannons.

A quick scan of the area indicated that of the fourteen pirates that had attacked the convoy he was guarding, twelve were destroyed and the other two were limping away as his two wing-men took chase.

“Leave them be” Sapper ordered over the squadron net, “It will do our squadron a favor if we let one or two of them go back to tell their boss that fourteen of their fighters couldn’t take 3 of ours.” With a slight chuckle, Sapper did one more scan of the area before lighting up the cigar he had pulled from his flight suit.

“Escort flight report in,” Sapper said over the com, as he took another puff on his cigar.

The accented voice of his female wingman sounded into his ear. “Marx, Still here, Ship in the green.”

Cav’s gravelly voice came over the com next. “This sucks too much to be Heaven so I guess I must still be here. Ship in the green.”

Sapper grinned at Cavs response, “Ok, form up on the convoy. Same deal as before, we may only have one jump left till we are home, but I’m out of missiles and my oxygen has run a little low for some reason. I don’t want us being caught complacent. Find a Tanker and stick to his shadow.”

Sapper’s grin widened as a thought came to him. ‘Why not dodge the after-action debrief and mess with Mother Goose at the same time? Fourteen to three and we hardly even took shield hits. Why tell Ursula about this one and be subjected to the anxious scrutiny she wielded over both crew and ships after a couple harmless dogfights? I could be relaxing in the bar and officially off duty before her post op scans picked up any sign of the encounter.’

Sapper tapped on the sqaudron com again, “Guys, let’s not tell Mother Goose about this one, I think it will be funnier that way.”

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18 June 2942
Terra System
Agros III Space Station, Hanger bay 12

She looked at him suspiciously from under a furrowed brow, her lips pressed into a thin, disapproving line. “So….what you are telling me…is you came back with an empty missile payload…and that “Nothing happened.”

Sapper nodded benignly, rolling his ever present cigar to the corner of his mouth as he bared his teeth in a wide grin. “Totally routine.”

Ursula squinted sideways at Bell as what sounded initially like a snicker turned into a snort then a cough. When she noticed she had won Ursula’s attention she abruptly turned and started tapping the overhead and pretended to be immersed in the information displayed there. She glanced back towards Sapper only to find he had made use of the distraction and was strolling away from the debriefing. His studied nonchalance made her grit her teeth and she turned back to the fighter abruptly.

“99, I want a full exterior particle scan. Notify me of any carbon scoring or ionic residue.” Ursula instructed her long time cybernetic unit as she started to move to another part of the ship. 99 had also been watching the former explosives specialist stroll away and purred in smoky, sensual voice, “Mmm….hubba hubba….”

“99!”

The unit jerked and turned toward the given task, issuing a series of electronic noises that sounded suspiciously like someone muttering under their breath. Ursula began the process of connecting the ship to the diagnostics center, slanting an irritated glance towards Cav as he gave an unabashed guffaw and buttoned up his own fighter in the adjacent hanger slot.

Sapper moved swiftly toward the exit door, glancing down at his wrist readout. He checked the elapsed time as he approached the lounge just to the left of the hanger. He counted under his breath, “and… three……….two………….one……….” He canted his head, listening as he paused.

“SAAAAAAPPPPPPER!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

He began to laugh out loud and hooted in enjoyment as an irate Mother Goose bellowed after him from the hangar. He ducked into the lounge as a muted series of clangs and clattering and an impressive flood of curses followed after him.

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Gangs All Here!
Meeting at Stanton IV

29 June 2942
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!”

It wasn’t long till Kieran was outside and into the aero-taxi he had hired to take him to the Covalex office. He gazed out the window of the aero-taxi; 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…

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29 June 2942
Stanton System
Stanton IV, Crusader

Laloric Ilmasen, Phantom to his fleet friends and acquaintances, turned over the data chip on the navigation panel for what must have been the millionth time since receiving it weeks ago.

“Commander, all sensors report secure from down transition. Sub-light engines ignition in 30 seconds. Long range scanners online and passive, electronic countermeasures and emissions dampeners operating at normal efficiencies.”

“Thank you Sil” Laloric replied. The verbal confirmation of the systems checks his cranial relay implant had already delivered weren’t necessary, but the routine was comfortable. He unconsciously probed the starship, a MISC Freelancer model he had customized and upgraded to become an exceptional exploration vessel, to make certain the newest upgrades weren’t going to bring any surprises.

Swiveling his chair to the front and reaching for his insul-mug of strong coffee as he looks out the front view panel towards the two currently visible planets of the Stanton system Laloric can’t help but wonder what to expect next. After just a couple of short years in an moderately successful mercenary squadron, serving as fleet electronics warfare specialist, with his contract expiring in comes a cryptic commlink message from Ursula.

Now there is a piece of work, the last and only time Laloric had met the young mechanic she had made a passing comment about the location of sensor mounts aboard the very same Freelancer he now piloted. After bribing her with a meal Ursula explained a significant improvement she had been thinking about for similar sensor mounts. Incidentally, her idea gave a 15% increase to the scanning arc of each sensor.

Now years later and halfway across the galaxy, here he was; responding to a message about some sort of squadron being put together by this crazy mechanic. Well anyone that savvy with machinery and mechanical solutions has to be worth listening to. As long as she has others as suited to starships as she is, this could be an interesting time.

Well anything will be better than the last batch of half wits he served with, then again she did specify Stanton IV… with its low density atmosphere.

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29 June 2942
Stanton IV, Crusader
City Starship Port

Deckard Knyghte looked over his panels again, leaning forward in his flight chair. No change, everything was ship shape. He laced his fingers together, folded his hands, and placed them under his chin. He hadn’t seen any of his squad mates in almost six years. So many were gone now, some during the war and a few more since they had all retired from active service. He had served with them, knew them, liked some of them; but the ones he had been closest to were all gone now. That was how he had come into the ship he had. Those who had no family had vowed to leave what they had to the ones who lived. Now, of all those he had been close too, he was the last.

He needed the camaraderie, the connection to those who remained. He needed to keep in contact with them more closely. He needed to know he wasn’t alone in the ‘verse. The blacker side of it? The main purpose of his meeting with them, was that he needed to find people he could trust to leave his ships to in his will.

Frankly, he was a bit shocked when he got the comlink from Mother Goose. He had no reason to expect to hear from her, or any of the others for that matter. He hadn’t been that close to them. But he remembered her well enough; she was the best mechanic the unit could have hoped for. The way she tended for their ships was almost pathological.

He stared down at his panels again. He needed to get up and go. He ran his hands across the arm rests trying to wipe off the sweat. Then he forced himself to his feet and walked back to the bunks. He dug through the disheveled sheets and found his trench coat, stuffed it under his arm and moved through the galley to cargo hold. He ran his left hand along the wall as he walked. Bucephalus was his by his long-time friend, Ed ‘Lancelot’ Ryan. Lancelot bought the farm, flying escort for a fuel tanker not six months earlier. Knyghte picked up Bucee three months ago and could barely pry himself out of her since he had taken possession. She was all he had left of those he had called friend. She had a fitting name for a guy who went by the call sign of Knyghte; Bucephalus being the name of Alexander the Great’s horse. Lancelot had chosen well.

He was dragging his heels again. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was the idea of being judged and condemned by his peers. Most likely they were all having far more success than he was; less loss, less regret, less failure. It was a foolish sensation, fear of coming into contact with his old unit. He knew it was irrational. He felt pigeonholed into a fate he could not alter. He felt insufficient; he was a fighter pilot, nothing more. He was no trader or merchant and he had no aptitude for mundane work or taking on a regular job planetside. All he knew was flying. And killing. He had been eking out a living running courier jobs and light transport, it didn’t pay well but it kept him in raman noodles and fuel. At least he didn’t have to shoot anyone down any longer.

He shrugged into his jacket and opened the rear hatch. Stepping out with some difficulty he glanced back at Freelancer and hit the remote to close her up. The docks were active but not crowded. Workers were loading up smaller vessels with light loads and refuelers were standing back, talking and laughing as they gassed up the ships in dock. He walked over to the dock foreman and arranged for Bucee to get a full tank, paid in advance and nearly emptied his account.

He looked back at her one last time and walked out into the open streets to his destination.

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29 June 2942
Stanton IV, Crusader
City Starship Port

The starship port was quite quiet for this time of day. But this was fine, for Tyven. The less people around, the easier it was to keep a low profile. It also didn’t take long for him to move up to the clerk check in counter. He placed his case down and inserted his ID card into the slot before the clerkbot as he sat down.

There was a short pause as the card was read. The clerkbot blankly gazed through Tyven and asked, “Tyven Daalus, please state your business on Crusader,” It asked blandly.

Tyven just shook his head at such an automated response. “I have many ventures to attend to here on your planet,” he replied back, seeing what kind of response he would get, “You name it, I will probably be doing it.”

The clerkbot, in the same unchanged blandness, began to read down a list , “You are listed under, soldier, miner, farmer, explorer, CEO, scientist, merchant, privateer,” the clerkbot’s droning voice continued, “pirate, vagrant, bounty hunter, engineer, scavenger, and starship captain. Which shall it be?”

Sitting slightly back with a wry smile of amusement on his lips, Tyven shrugged. “Never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.” At first glance, Tyven looks younger than he is, but the grey was finally creeping into his beard and into his walnut hair. “Indeed. Process all those credentials and permits so I’ll have all the paperwork ready once my ship is ready to fly.” He paused and looked thoughtful for a moment as if just now hearing the whole list and then stared back at the machine. “Did you say pirate and vagrant?”

“Affirmative. Our records show a series of still valid arrest warrants issued for one Tyven Daalus filed in system 731-72J-DD over 20 years ago. That solar system has recently been integrated into our UEE databases. I’ve included them in the list for accuracy. Local law enforcement should be arriving to discuss with you…,” it’s voice trailed off as it powered down.

Tyven had recovered quickly from the surprise information, furtively glancing about while his left pinky finger at the second knuckle was exposed to show a data plug connected to the ID card reader. “Authorize identity Arbiter-Intercessor Moatra DeltaPrime 0783242 of planet 731-72J-DD…” he whispered his commands.

Two minutes later, Tyven ’corrected’ the old files and cleared his name. He then proceeded to send coordinates to another part of the starship port to the authorities to give him time to leave. The authorities would find an error in the system that sounded a false alarm.

He had played both sides of the law back in that old asteroid belt junkyard of a system. Over all, he felt that he did more good than not, but sometimes the local officials get mighty picky on the technicalities. Too bad for them they never found and revoked his legal Advocacy authority. The agency may find it now, but too late to recover those crimes of his youth.

Chuckling to himself, Tyven leaned over and stuffed the newly printed permits and credentials in to his briefcase, hefted it up and headed to the Origin dealer. He would need a new ride after his meeting with some old squad mates…..

…just incase.

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29 June 2942
Stanton Station
the Last Resort Bar and Restaurant

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 about them. 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 this place.

“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 that killed 8 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 distinguish. 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…

“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. 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 specifics on the way- this is gonna be a sweet haul.” He handed Jaeger the glas detailing the objectives.

Though Marcus could not 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 for a reason. Marcus was a laid back family oriented type, always wanting to play nice with every goda m n 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.

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29 June 2942
Stanton IV, Crusader
ArcCorp Bar Within the City

Deckard walked slowly down the causeway staring at his feet. He passed various shops all selling goods he wasn’t interested in; high end clothing, sporting goods, and more shops than he could count all selling similar women’s clothing. Then he spotted it, he hadn’t been consciously looking for it, but there it was in front of him all the same. ArcCorp Bar. He pulled his mobiglas out of his pocket, it was 2pm local time, he didn’t have a set time to arrive at the hangar and meet up with Ursula. I could really use a drink to loosen me up anyway, he reasoned. His step turned and his pace quickened as he moved toward the bar. Stopped briefly at the top of the stairs leading down into the establishment, and then shuffled down the steps.

Inside he caught smell of stale cigarette smoke and booze. He breathed it in deeply and stepped quickly inside stopping about ten feet in. He looked around, it was a clean place, dimly lit where it needed to be for discreet conversations in back booths and relatively well lit everywhere else. The booths looked almost new, the stools were polished and clean, and the bar was immaculate. Hanging from the ceiling were old engines and a piecemeal of parts from outdated ships. The bartender stood quietly serving a handful of men and women at the bar itself, most of the booths were empty.

Deckard stepped casually up to the bar, biting his lip and glancing over his shoulder. The barkeep, a clean shaven man in late 30’s, apparently named Stan stepped over to him, “What can I get for you, Sir?”

Deckard turned back to the bar and looked up at the barman, “Scotch, straight up, make it a double.”

The barkeep nodded and turned away to get the drink. Deckard turned back to looked around the bar, it had flare. The flare, sadly, was very corporate but beggars, or drinkers in this case, can’t be choosers. The clink of the glass being set down on the bar behind him brought him around.

“Anything else?” the Barman said.

Deckard smirked a bit, the left corner of his mouth drifting up, “Any chance you have cigars back there?”

The barman looked at him and smiled a knowing smile, “I do at that,” He said as he turned to reach back under the rear counter, “but they are 15 credits and the worst cigars you have ever smoked.” Both men chuckled slightly.

“I wouldn’t expect anything less”, Deckard said handing him his Glass to put the charge on.

Stan took his glass, coded in the drink and ‘cheap’ cigar, and handed it back to him. Deckard signed off on the charge, lifted his drink and took a small drink. He was gonna need to nurse this one; he wouldn’t be able to afford another.

“What brings you in to Crusader, stranger?” Stan wiped down the bar and it was obviously something he did so often he wasn’t even thinking about it.

“No idea. Old friends I guess, if you can call ‘em friends. Maybe it would be better to call them old acquaintances” he smiled his crooked, smirky smile.

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