Stories of The 39th Midnight Squadron
When Kieran met Ursula
3 February 2939
Near Jump Point to Tiber
UEES Terrance Nolan –Bengal Class Strike Carrier
…Kieran stared in disbelief at Major Wilfred Lidderdale after the man finished outlining his plan. He looked over to Captain Ernst Luke, the leader of the Greyhounds and then back to the marine major. Lidderdale did not look like the stereotypical Marine. The man was slight of frame and short; Kieran guessed he was perhaps a meter and a half tall and may tip the scales at sixty kilos if you weighed him right after lunch. Lidderdale also had a very odd tint to his skin; he wasn’t quite pale but not really jaundiced either.
Kieran cleared his throat and asked, “Permission to speak freely sirs?” Both officers nodded their assent.
“While I can understand the need to take out this Widowmaker fellow, my role in the plan has left me somewhat confused on a few minor details,” a tone of sarcasm woven into his words. “So let me get this straight major, you want me to pilot a 325a – my personal 325a no less – behind the head of a comet? In the area of both the dust and the ion tail?” he asked, letting a note of incredulity slip into his tone. He raised one eyebrow as he continued, “And said cometis on a path through an area of space littered with mines, electronic countermeasures, and at least a dozen fighter craft of unknown specifications guarding what you believe to be a derelict UEE light cruiser from the second Tevarin war?”
A short, sharp bark of a laugh burst out of Kieran. He turned to Captain Luke, and pointed at the plan displayed on the vidscreen in the captain’s desk. “This is insane sir. I could fly behind the comet with my eyes closed and a hand tied behind my back, there’s nothing to following something that closely, “he said. “Anyone in the second month of flight school could do that. But the conditions here…” Kieran slowly shook his head as his words trailed off.
Kieran tapped the animated comet icon on a chart of the Cathcart system displayed in one of the displayed windows. He shifted his gaze over to Major Lidderdale and continued, “Here the stuff streaming off of that comet is another story.” He paused and cocked his head, “What did you call the comet, ‘Orbweaver’?”
“That is the name, yes. No one had ever really named the comets in Cathcart after it was discovered; there wasn’t much need with the system being devoid of planets. But you know the military bureocracy…“ 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 call sign 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 Station, absently humming the tune ‘Little Wing’ the entire way from his quarters to his transport.
11 February 2939
Prime, Monorail station
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, “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, flour 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, Kieran had seen it before but 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. “flour 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…’