Richard Taylor Northwood-Price

5th March, 2942
Sol System
Earth

“Richard Taylor Northwood-Price, I expressly forbid it!” The elegant cream dress, the refined hint of powder and eye-shadow, the manicured brow, the perfectly brushed back hair with not a hint of grey, all were betrayed as her poise and grace turned to annoyance.

“Mother, please,” he replied, his face turning crimson. "Don’t use that name. You know I hate it, it’s so…. old fashioned. "

“Old fashioned!” she snorted. “I gave you that name; the least you could do is use it. And don’t change the subject. Your father worked hard for a seat on the Senate, like the Northwoods before him. We didn’t spend a fortune on your education just to have you turn your back on family tradition. To become….”

“Become a dusty old politician? Shall I join in the fiddling while the Empire burns? Do you actually know what’s happening in the Galaxy, Mother?” His eyes gleamed as he prodded every vulnerable spot in his mother’s sensibilities. “Pick up some comm-links from a credible source, why don’t you? Did you know about the Vanduul raid on the outpost in Elysium? Three thousand colonists killed, and not a single report on the official channels.”

His mother paused, and for a fraction of a second it seemed he might, at last, win an argument with her. Her lips thinned, hand tightly clasping an ornate crystal glass filled with the rarest white Burgundy. “Has it come to this?” Her tone was low and dangerous. “Are you really stupid enough to believe this… alien propaganda? Unofficial comm-links are restricted to protect the citizens from nonsense like this. Why are you being so… impossible?” She jabbed a finger towards him in reproach.

Ricky rose to his feet, determined not to back down. Not again. He’d done everything the old dear’s way, and while in his core he was grateful for the privileges he’d been afforded, he had long since made his decision. Cambridge was beautiful, a city more than 1500 years old, a place where many of Earth’s finest leaders had studied and taken their place in Imperial history. But the weight of history, tradition, cobwebs and dust was too much. Fortunately, the trust fund matured as he reached the age of majority.

“I’ve already enlisted,” he whispered, and swallowed hard to relieve the sudden dryness in his throat.

Time seemed meaningless, the moment stretching to infinity as his mother’s disapproval turned to incandescent rage. She screamed an ancient Earth curse and the glass left her hands, flipped over and over and over, its priceless contents flung across an equally valuable heirloom rug. The glass whistled past Ricky’s ear and smashed into the marble fireplace behind.

* * * *

14th August, 2942
Sol System
UEE Navy Orbital Basic Training Facility

“The engineering report shows nothing out of the ordinary, Mr. Northwood-Price,” said Commander Reynolds impassively.

“Sir, I’m telling you… the navigation system failed somehow, then the engines. Comm system was dead, no diagnostics. I was fully in formation all the way to Titan, then… nothing responded.”

“Your flight recording is blank,” replied Reynolds, shaking his head. “You dropped formation at 14:56 CUEET, and your squadron continued the designated patrol route when you failed to respond to hails. You know the rules, Cadet. If I had any leeway, I’d keep you around. I thought you were shaping up well. But these strange lapses… just too many for comfort, and the third strike is your last.”

Ricky closed his eyes as he buried his head in his hands. Harris, Phillips, York… why didn’t they help? ‘Nobody left behind’ was the Squadron’s motto, yet here he found himself nailed to the wall. He’d never hear the end of it from “Sparky” Dobson, the man who’d replaced his despised nickname of “Silver Spoon” with a barely improved “Ricky Rockon”, coined after an embarrassing incident in the dorm showers. And now he would sell his last bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé‎ for a fourth chance to graduate, ribbing or no ribbing.

“You are hereby discharged from the UEE Navy. Military flight credentials and authorizations have been cancelled. Under Section 12a, paragraph 5, you passed basic flight training and will retain a full Civilian pilot license accordingly. I’m sorry, Richard. Good luck.”

Ricky numbly took the offered hand, his mind screaming and blank all at the same time.

* * * *

12th December, 2942
Stanton System
ArcCorp

“Could I see the wine list, please?”

The barkeep at ArcCorp Bar paused, threw down his rag and carefully looked Ricky up and down, a sarcastic expression spreading its way across his grizzled features.

“Don’t think a pretty boy like yerself would really like the wine we stock,” he grunted, and resumed cleaning the bar.

“Synth?” asked Ricky sadly, eliciting a nod. “What else do you have?”

“Look, kid, I ain’t got time, other people are waiting. Open your eyes. The beer’s warm and flat but it’s real. And the moonshine only sends you blind if you drink more than a bottle, ok?”

“Beer then,” said Ricky, his feigned composure shattered. This was not an auspicious start to the pickup. Even so close to the Sol system, it seemed the finer things in life were rare, and with rarity came expense. Viticulture on Earth had been declining for centuries, but the most prestigious vineyards still maintained a steady production – for those who could afford it.

For months he’d been trading fine wine around the core systems, using his expertise and eye for quality to turn an occasional profit. It was not something he’d planned. When he first left Earth he was still intent on making a difference, and so procured an inappropriate ship for too high a price, dreaming of intercepting pirates and single-handedly smashing Vanduul fleets. The Anvil Hornet bristled with weaponry, but his first encounter with a pirate squadron quickly brought home some important realities. The excess on the insurance smashed a further dent in his trust fund, but the humiliation of defeat – the sheer embarrassment of his escape pod being rescued by a passing ore freighter – smarted more.

So here he was, following up a tip from an insider in the trade. The Hornet lacked cargo capacity, but a dozen bottles of the right wine could make an inter-system run worthwhile. Ricky gulped down the insipid beer and as he double checked the details on his pad, he caught sight of a brute of a man enter and seat himself in a quiet corner of the room.

“Are you Thomas Maynard’s…. representative?” asked Ricky after he sidled over. As the bruiser nodded and rose to his feet, Ricky tried not to guess how much taller and heavier he might be. A whole foot and about 100 pounds, said an unbidden voice in his mind. “Shall we?” he exclaimed breezily, trying not to focus on the iron bar clipped to the hulk’s belt. Suddenly he wished he’d been creative about getting a firearm through the weapons scanners upon disembarking.

They walked for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, through clusters of interconnected hallways doing double duty as gangway and marketplace. They came to an unmarked door which slid open only after the representative tapped in a six-digit code. He motioned Ricky inside the small, dimly lit office, nodded to the smartly-dressed, bespectacled figure inside, and stood sentry at the entrance.

“Richard, how pleasant to meet a fellow connoisseur,” said the grinning man, not bothering to stand. “Thomas Maynard. Please, do take a seat.” Ricky quickly scanned the room: four standard cargo crates were stacked neatly behind Maynard, breaking up an otherwise featureless wall. An imposing mahogany desk separated him from the merchant, bearing a stoppered bottle of clear liquid and a couple of heavy glass tankards. As he seated himself, he discreetly glanced sideways, checking what the brute was up to. Satisfied that Goliath’s hands were going nowhere near his weapon, he almost relaxed.

Maynard reached below the desk and lifted up a small plastic crate, big enough to hold perhaps six bottles of wine. He pushed it towards Ricky. “Jean-Philippe Fichet Mersault, 2904 vintage. As I’m sure you understand, this is exceptionally rare. In fact, these may be the last bottles in the galaxy. My price is 60,000 credits per bottle. 340,000 for the case.”

Ricky opened the flap of the plastic crate, and carefully lifted the bottles out one by one, his heart thumping in his chest. He cast his eyes over the labels, reverently scanning them with his pad; then, holding each bottle up in turn, beamed the light from a small daylight emitter through the golden liquid. Authentic. The find of a lifetime. He struggled to slow his breathing, to ignore his racing mind which told him his client on Terra would pay double that amount for wine of such rarity.

“320,000 for the case,” he stammered. “The label is slightly damaged on the fifth bottle.” Ricky folded his arms, putting on his best poker face. To his surprise, Maynard laughed.

“You’re a man of good taste and hard bargaining, my friend. Very well. I need a quick sale. Transfer the funds, and let me pour us a drink to seal the deal.” Ricky briskly typed a string of numbers into his pad, authorising the payment. Maynard pushed a tankard of spirit into Ricky’s hand, and drank deep of his own. Regaining some sort of composure, Ricky brought the drink to his lips, but swallowed none.

“I take it this packaging will suffice?” Maynard asked brightly. Ricky nodded in assent, and as Maynard began packing the wine back into the crate, a single blue spark flickered across the neck of one bottle.

“Electro-sealed?” Ricky yelled, and leapt to his feet. “The old French producers still use natural cork!” The brute lunged forward, ready to bring the iron bar to bear, but Ricky was quicker; if he learned anything from his mother it was the aerodynamics of a drinking glass. He threw it with full force into Goliath’s face and, as the giant stumbled, smashed the other tankard into his temple, felling him. Ricky leapt over the desk, sending the crate crashing to the floor, but Maynard had already fled through a barely visible hatch and bolted it behind. Swearing, banging his fist ineffectually on the door, Ricky vomited up beer, then bile, then air, then stomach lining.

* * * *

Ricky had no idea how long he’d been wandering through the unofficial trading quarter. His eyes darted from stall to stall, hoping to spot the fraudster. At last he realized that Maynard – or whoever he was, because a query on the primary network no longer found any record of him or his office – was long gone from orbit, if not the system. Dejected, he bought a tray of chicken stir fry from a nearby stall and sat down, devoid of any appetite.

He tried not to think about the fortune he had lost today, tried to silence the admonishing voice in his head, tried not to reel at his own stupidity and greed. But worst of all, his Terran client was not a man to accept disappointment. This disaster might have been funded with his own money, but he would still need to go and apologize in person. The thought nearly made him sick again. All hope of eating gone, he set the pallid grey meat down beside him.

Hardly believing such good fortune, a large marmalade cat sauntered up to the discarded tray and tucked in heartily. “How rude. Hope you enjoy it, puss,” sighed Ricky, and stroked the soft orange fur. The cat, sated, thrust his tail in the air and stepped onto Ricky’s lap, purring loudly and insistently, then emitted a short, plaintive miaow. “Hmm. Guess you’re a she after all, Rudy,” he mumbled, stroking her head and receiving a grateful head-butt in return, the purr reaching a fever pitch.

He reached for his pad, and for the third time in a day found no record of the scanee. “Good condition for a stray. Few fleas, decent coat, well nourished. What do you say, puss? Want to come in with me? Bring me some luck?” The lady ginger cat blinked, then head-butted him again, and in that moment he knew he’d blow the last scraps of his money on feline-friendly tech for his cockpit.

Richard Taylor Northwood-Price

Stories of The 39th Midnight Squadron Sharhun