14 June 2942
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.