A Space Odyssey - Prologue
Posted 07 March 2006 - 03:43 PM
Hyperspace near Durton’s Star
22nd Enarn 1569 M.E.
1023 hours Ship Time
Captain Bran Varnas leaned back in his command chair, eyes focused on the course projection displayed on the main viewscreen. The Gorion was less than a minute from realspace translation. He was not concerned, simply alert, like the rest of his bridge crew. He anticipated no difficulties as they were translating in well outside of the system’s gravitational hyper-distortion barrier and his ship and crew were in top condition.
Still, the translation between hyper and realspace was one of the most dangerous aspects of modern space travel. Ships still disappeared, victims of usually unexplained translation accidents. A miscalculation in the reentry vector could lead to problems as minor as being slightly off course to simply never re-entering realspace. At least in this dimension. A failure in the Mectrix drive generators could lead to the hyperfield collapsing prematurely, causing the ship to shear apart, shredded into a million shards. The ship could translate too close to another vessel in realspace and collide with it. Or a ship could stay in hyper too far beyond the hyper-distortion barrier and simply be yanked back into to realspace with disastrous results.
Not that such accidents were common. But a good captain needed to be wary of them. It was why a ship captain’s two most valuable assets were a good navicomp and a good navigator. Bran smiled slightly knowing he had both.
As the seconds ticked down, Valygar, the Gorion’s dark skinned navigator looked up from the displays on his board and reported levelly, “Twenty seconds until programmed realspace translation. All systems show green. Ready to begin final translation sequence. Awaiting authorization, Sir.”
“Understood Navigation,” Bran replied in a similarly formal tone. “Ops, sound Translation alarm. Navigation, begin final sequence.”
Valygar tapped in the appropriate key sequences while the red haired woman at the operations station pressed a button as well. Four low register hoots boomed out of the ship’s speakers, announcing the imminent re-entry into realspace.
“Realspace in 5. 4. 3,” Valygar intoned as the seconds ran off the chronometer. “Realspace translation!”
The blackness of the void flared to life with a burst of bright, coruscating colors that signaled a Mectrix drive-enabled ship making a successful translation between hyper and realspace. Slowly, the long, flattened cylindrically shaped starship emerged from the twisting waves of blue and indigo. Bolts of blue energy crackled along its silver and blue nanopainted hull as the ship’s Mectrix generators bled off the residual energy from the hyper translation. Finally, the last of the extra translation energies dissipated, revealing an Olympus Corp DS-52C in its entirety.
The DS-52C’s basic design was cylindrical, flattened at the top and bottom. She ran 250 meters from stem to stern, 110 meters from port to starboard and 107 meters from her dorsal to ventral armor plates. She tapered inwards towards the bow along the central line before flattening out at the bow. Two sets of heavy doors for her shuttle bays broke the smooth curve of her sides a third of the way down from her bows, not just serving the ship’s small craft needs but marking the separation between her crew and cargo sections. Her stern engineering section flared to accommodate her four powerful Sardusky Kave Yard sublight engines and her two Mectrix field hyper pods. Her hull was dotted with weapon ports and shield emitters and communications and sensor relays ran along her horizontal and vertical centerlines. The DS-52C was a powerful, maneuverable and resilient design, all which served her as a good choice trawling the less civilized regions of space.
However, what made the Olympus Corp’s DS-5x series so popular and long lived were not her utilitarian but pleasing design or her powerful engines. It was her detachable cargo holds that ran from slightly forward of amidships, just behind her shuttle bays to her stern engineering sections. They attached to hard points within her central keel, allowing the ship to be easily reconfigured to nearly any cargo carrying configuration without the need for expensive and time consuming yard time. The one that now sailed in-system’s two dorsal spaces had full length containers while the ventral spots were a mix of smaller and larger containers.
The ship, up until now sailing only her base velocity from hyper stirred in real space. Running lights flashed to life along her hull, illuminating the current name Gorion on her forward starboard quarter. Radio and subspace comsystems activated, getting flash updates from the in system nav and comm satellites. Finally, her four sublight engines roared to life and the deep space cargo ship Gorion accelerated in system.
Leaning back in his command chair, Bran looked at the starscape displayed on the screen and smiled. A subtle relaxation settled over the bridge as they all took in the welcoming orange glow of Durton’s Star’s single G3 primary. His crew diligently checked over their stations, checking the ship and surroundings for anything amiss. From the set of their shoulders, he could tell everything looked good. Their translation had been especially spot on, with Valygar dropping them right along the axis for a least time course for New Flushing and their destination.
“Good work, Valygar. Assuming max efficient speed for the Finnaker’s Fancy, what’s our ETA?”
“Thank you, sir,” answered the dark skinned navigator, as he referenced the displays on his station. “And ETA to zero V intercept of Finnaker’s Fancy, provided he doesn’t go and switch orbits on us, is three hours fifteen minutes.”
“You know, if we kicked it up to something a little more exciting, like, oh I don’t know, maybe 85% max accel we could shave off a good forty minutes of that time,” interjected Imoen, the puckish red haired woman sitting at ops.
“Sure we could. We could even crank it all the way up, kiddo. Course, we’d show to the whole galaxy exactly what our actual max speed is. And we’d really irritate Nalia. So, in a word, no.”
Imoen waved a hand dismissively. “That’s why I said 85%, silly. And as to Nalia and her precious fuel consumption reports, I say Pfah!”
“I’ll make sure to note your ‘pfah!’ in the log,” deadpanned Bran.
“Good. And for the record, it’s Pfah! not pfah!” Imoen replied impishly.
“Your attention to detail is commendable, child, however, a greater attention to your instrumentation might be preferred,” Jaheira, the Gorion’s X.O. chided.
“Oh stop being such a…” Imoen retorted, breaking off suddenly. “Oh frell!”
“What’s wrong?” asked Bran, catching the growing smile on his X.O.’s face.
“Your hug muffin is going to be insufferable for days is what’s wrong,” groaned Imoen. “I’ve got a warning light on Thruster Beta Five.”
Bran couldn’t help the wry smile that tugged on the corner of his mouth. “Well, I guess you should have been watching your alert board instead of concentrating on your ‘witticisms’.”
“Oh great, I get it from you too,” groused Imoen without looking up from her board. Stabbing the comm button on its lower right hand edge, she said, “Engine room, this is the bridge. You there Nals or are you doing your nails?”
“Engine room, Nalia here,” replied the exasperated sounding voice of a young woman. “Go ahead.”
“Got a warning light on the board for Thruster Beta Five,” Imoen replied. “What’s up?”
“I was wondering when you were going to call me about that,” Nalia replied in that same exasperated tone. “I take it you were too busy demonstrating your ‘rapier’ wit to actually notice a warning light and tell me about it?”
“Very funny, Nalia,” Imoen replied, shaking her head. “I miss an indicator light for a few seconds and everyone jumps…”
“I mean, it’s not like warning lights could be something important,” Nalia interrupted with a sigh. “I’m down here in this engine room all by myself and I could have been busy with some vital piece of maintenance when an alert came up. And while I slaved away tuning a gravitic sensor, something disastrous like an instability in the plasma conduits feeding a maneuvering thruster could have been building. And because you had to make your little witty comments, you miss the alert and we all are incinerated by a massive plasma explosion. Such a terrible burden, but one I suppose we must suffer for the sake of your ‘comedy’.”
Imoen blinked and stared at the comm speaker built into her console for a few seconds as a few snickers broke out around the bridge. Rubbing one hand against her temple, and casting baleful glances around the bridge, most fixed on Valygar and Bran, she said flatly, “Hey Nals, remember how I told you that you should try to be more like me?”
The sound of snickering filled the bridge and was sure to be filtering through the comm circuit. One could almost hear the smile in Nalia’s voice as she replied, “So, do you want to know?”
“Know what?” Imoen demanded.
“What actually caused the warning light? Or would you rather continue on in blissful ignorance until the wrong command blows the Gorion in half?”
“Only if it blew out the engineering section first,” Imoen fired back.
“Hate to disappoint,” Nalia replied. “It was just a minor fault in the actuator software. Got a remote on it now. Should be squared away in just a few minutes.”
“Thank you Nalia,” Bran replied, deciding to take the opportunity to defuse the brewing war of words between his sister and his chief engineer. “I’ll have Valygar lock Beta Five out of the navigation matrix until you let us know it’s back online. Bran out.”
“Understood Captain. Engineering out,” replied Nalia quickly, cutting the comm line.
Bran continued to smirk at his fuming ops officer. Deciding to distract her with her duty, he asked, “Im, any word from Flushing Space Control?”
Imoen blinked and nodded. “Yup. It seems their controllers are actually awake this time. I already received their ID and flight plan query and supplied them the necessary data. We have been cleared to approach the ‘Fancy’”
Bran nodded, somewhat surprised himself. Most single system polities like the Republic of Flushing weren’t known for extremely alert space controllers, especially systems that dabbled as much in the ‘grey’ market as Flushing. Probably nothing to be concerned about, but…
“Minsc, bring the shield generators to hot standby,” he said to the tall and powerfully built man sitting at the Gorion’s secondary tactical station.
“Of course, Captain Bran! Minsc is always ready for Evildoers!” boomed the tattooed weapons officer, his broad smile changing the shape of the wide purple swirls that covered the left side of his face. “Should we bring Gorion’s mighty weapons online?”
“Not quite yet Minsc,” Bran replied to the grinning gunner.
“Of course, Captain Bran,” echoed the gunner.
“Jaheira, anything unusual on the scopes, ships not on normal approach patterns?”
he asked, turning from his now busy gunner to the shapely woman sitting just across from him at the ship’s primary tactical station.
Jaheira turned to her tactical station, quickly studying her readouts. As her eyes flicked over the screens, she ran one hand absently through her thick chestnut braids, revealing the slightly pointed tip of her ear which betrayed her half Seldaran heritage. “No, Captain,” she replied as she turned to face him, “We are the only ship in this sector of the system. Nearest ships under power are all either in near orbit or the inner asteroid belt.”
“Alright. But keep an eye on those scopes. Just in case.”
“I always do,” she answered succinctly, turning her attention back to her displays.
Nodding, he turned his attention back to Ops. “Imoen, raise the Fancy for me, would you?”
Imoen nodded as she opened the channel. “Comm channel open.”
“Finnaker’s Fancy, this is Captain Varnas of the Gorion. Respond please.”
There was a short pause before the main viewscreen switched from starscape to the broad, grinning face of shaggy haired blonde human. His gray eyes glittered with amusement as he replied, “Good to see you Bran. And I see you and your ship managed to arrive ahead of schedule again. You sure you won’t sell me that ship of yours?”
“Sell my baby, Jason? Sitting in that station of yours must be causing some brain imbalance or something. When we get in, I can have my doctor check that out for you,” Bran replied with a chuckle.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying,” Jason replied with a ready grin. “My sensors show you’re about three hours out, that right?”
Bran nodded. “Our ETA is three hours five minutes.” He cocked his eyebrow and asked, “Hey Jason, Control seems a little more alert than usual. Anything up?”
Jason’s smile widened. “Yeah. The Flushing Navy just got itself a new, shiny admiral and she’s shaking things up just a tad.”
“Anything to worry about?” Bran asked.
“Nah. She knows you’re good people,” Jason replied reassuringly.
“Alright then,” Bran said with a nod. “I guess I’ll see you when we make dock.”
“Good,” Jason replied, the edges of his smile faltering just slightly. “Looking forward to it. Finnaker’s Fancy out.”
“Gorion out,” Bran replied as the starscape and the growing ember of the Durton’s Star primary replaced the image of the smiling space station commander. Leaning back on the comfortable leather of his command chair, he stroked his goatee, staring at the screen.
“You’re thinking about something,” Jaheira interjected. “Something about that conversation.”
“Yes I am. Something is up, and it’s not just some new uppity admiral. There was something Jason wasn’t telling me.” He shrugged. “However, I figure we’ll find out when we meet with him. Still, keep an eye on those scanners and let me know if you spot anything. Jaheira, you have the bridge.”
With that, the dark haired captain stood and walked off the bridge. Jaheira sat at her station for a moment before grabbing a datapad from underneath her console and standing herself. Cradling it under her arm, she looked at Imoen. “Imoen, you have the bridge.”
As the tall, athletic executive officer left the bridge not moments after the captain, Imoen leaned back in her chair and gave Valygar a significant look. Grinning wickedly, she proclaimed, “Because of our senior staff’s inability to keep their hormones in check, the burden of command falls to me. So begins my reign as the Commander of Cuteness!”
Valygar cocked an eyebrow and deadpanned, “We’re all doomed.”
Imoen leaned over and thumped the dark skinned navigator on his shoulder. “Hey! I’d make a great captain, you sourpuss. Right Minsc?”
Minsc looked like he was about to speak when a strident squeak burst from the chest pocked of his utility vest. The big man leaned his head down as a golden fuzzy head poked its head above the black pocket. The small creature squeaked once more and Minsc nodded his head slowly. Then, Minsc half turned towards Imoen and said ruefully, “Boo says that we shouldn’t comment or little Immy might throw us in the brig.”
Valygar broke into a low chuckle and Imoen fixed them both with a baleful glance. When the navigator’s chuckles only grew louder, Imoen barked, “Alright! That’s it! No ice cream for either of you!”
Posted 07 March 2006 - 03:45 PM
Bran settled into his office chair and sighed as its servos adjusted it to his body. After spending a moment basking in luxury, he powered up the computer built into his desk and started scrolling through the reports flagged for his attention. There were far fewer of them than even the lightest day’s worth of reports when he commanded an Alliance warship, but they still dogged him. As far as he could tell, there was no actual way to escape paperwork. Well, besides fleeing to the dark heart of some jungle world or burrowing into the ice fields of a frozen planet. And smashing any comm unit you might be carrying.
Smiling despite himself, he opened up the first report. A list of supplies the Gorion needed scrolled down the screen, each flagged with an amount and a priority. His absently scratched his goatee as he ran through the long list and a slight chuckle even managed to escape his lips. Not because of its contents, some of which actually were badly needed and others which were painfully uninteresting, but because while Nalia might not have ever gone to the Academy, her report writing skills rivaled any of the engineers he’d served with during his career.
He was two thirds of the way through acknowledging and adding his comments to the equipment request list when the door chime to his office rang. Quick saving the document, he looked up and said “Come.”
The door slid open to reveal Jaheira. She walked in with a quick nod and Bran allowed his eyes a moment to drink in her graceful form. She was dressed in her shipboard ‘uniform’, dark cargo pants, white tee shirt and her usual cargo vest. It was not as stunning as some of her other ensembles, but the casualness of it added an earthiness to her beauty. Of course, he had to admit that she could be wearing sackcloth and armor scraps and still manage to take his breath away.
Her appearance in his office sparked hope in a reprieve from paperwork. Perhaps a very exciting reprieve from it. Smiling warmly, he said, “Jaheira, definitely glad to see you. What can I do for you?”
One eyebrow cocked as she slid into one of the two seats opposite the desk and crossed her legs. “There is a matter that we must discuss,” she said as she held up a datapad.
Bran’s smile faltered as his suspicions on its contents flashed through him. “Is that what I think it is?”
“If you suspect that it is the crew roster, than you are correct, Bran,” she replied levelly.
“Do we have to discuss this now?” Bran sighed as the prospect of something as mind numbingly dull as a fuel consumption report started to appeal. “I have a lot of paperwork to do.”
“I have a feeling that you would have forgotten all that paperwork if I had come here with other intent,” she observed dryly, her moss green eyes glittering with both amusement and determination.
“Of course I would have for something so important,” Bran replied with a half smile.
“Indeed,” Jaheira snorted. It was her turn to sigh as well as she tapped the datapad now sitting in her lap. “However, this is important as well. And while I no more look forward to this than you do, we have let this issue fester too long. We’re running this ship even more understaffed than we can even with the remotes. It is starting to impair our efficiency, and that is my responsibility.”
Bran nodded ruefully. “You are right. I’ve just been dodging doing it...”
“Because doing this would mean that they really aren’t coming back. But they aren’t. Dregin and Deylan retired. Redrik is dead. And Nathan and Suzanne are off on their crusade.”
“I still think we could get Predik and Morgan back if we tried hard enough,” Bran insisted.
“They chose to join Cartinas and her fellow revolutionaries willingly. The woman has undeniable charisma and her tale of noble resistance against the ‘corruption and waste’ of the Alliance was intoxicating. We both know how much of a romantic Morgan always was. She couldn’t resist Cartinas’ siren call. And once she had Morgan, Predik was bound to follow. But that was nearly five months ago and we have to start looking for their replacements.”
Bran stared off into the distance for a long moment before letting out a long, slow breath in agreement. “You’re right. It’s just I miss them. They were like family to me. And as much as I miss them and I know we need replacements, it just feels wrong somehow. We’d been together so long, and as stupid as I know it sounds, it feels like betraying them to replace them.”
“You didn’t feel that way when you brought on Nalia as our chief engineer,” Jaheira pointed out.
“Different scenario. She needed some place to go and damn if she wasn’t qualified. Redrik was over his head once Deylan left and we needed someone. She was perfect. I mean look at she’s done with this old girl.”
“True. She has done impressive work. But Bran, Nalia doesn’t have Redrik backing her up anymore. She’s overworked. It’s a lot of ship for one person, no matter how good they are.”
Bran held up his hands in surrender. “I know Jaheira. You’re right.”
Jaheira cracked a smile. “Once more, I put to you that you could save tremendous time if you could simply acknowledge the fact that Jaheira is always right.”
Bran chuckled a little ruefully. “You know, I keep on meaning to get around to that. One of these days,” he said with a snap of the fingers. “Now I assume you have some sort of proposal for me, otherwise you wouldn’t have jumped right in on me.”
She studied him for a moment, one elegant eyebrow arched. Lifting the datapad from her lap, she tapped a few keys and handed it over to him. As he looked it over, she started, “What I did is reviewed our requirements and broke them into three categories. The first is the critical areas of need, the second is less critical but would significantly improve ship operations, and the third would bring us up to what I would consider a full compliment based on our general mission parameters and the ship’s equipment.”
“Which do you consider the most critical, Jaheira?” Bran asked, looking up from the pad.
“An assistant engineer would be the most telling need in our T.O., however the other two positions, an assistant tactical officer and another navigator/pilot are also growing necessities. Especially if one of them can also serve as a cargomaster.”
“The assistant engineer I can certainly see,” Bran replied. “Nalia could use the help. But Valygar and Im have navigation covered and don’t you and Minsc have tactical covered? And Im’s been doing pretty well at cargomaster.”
“First, Minsc is performing adequately at tactical, but he isn’t truly suited to the task. And even though Valygar and Imoen are both excellent pilots, as you are, Valygar is our only skilled astrogator. And as to Imoen as a cargomaster, it is not really her forte either, is it sir?”
Bran thought for a moment, tapping the pad against his desk. “Alright. The engineer and a second astrogator certainly. The tac officer I’m a little more hesitant about, but if we find the right candidate, we can consider it.”
Jaheira nodded. “Agreed. What about the secondary category?”
Bran flicked his eyes down to the pad. “You have a couple of entries here. A comm officer, a third engineer, weapons techs… this would be a substantial increase in our crew size, Jah. Adding that many people would be a security risk, never mind the reduction in share size.”
“True,” Jaheira countered. “But such an expansion could allow us to be more flexible in our field deployments. And a comm officer would free Imoen up from that duty, which could be useful in more… hairy situations. And a third engineer could mean posting someone in the drive section instead of just main engineering.”
“True. But I still don’t like the idea of nearly doubling the crew in one go,” Bran replied. He stared at the datapad for a moment, tapping it idly against his left hand. Finally, he nodded slightly and turned his attention back to Jaheira. “Here’s what we’ll do. We’ll focus on the critical personnel and keep an eye out for any outstanding candidates to fill these other slots.”
Jaheira nodded in agreement, even if the set of her jaw indicated she’d rather push the issue. “Very well, Bran. The next question is where to start.”
“Well, once we’re done with the Fancy, we’ve got no pressing business. And I take it you would rather we get started on this before some new, great adventure,” he said jauntily in hopes of getting a smile. He didn’t quite manage it. “So, our nearest and best chances of picking up the type of people we’re looking for is at either Westgate Station or on Killarney in the Theta Draconis system.”
“Despite my desire to stretch my legs on a planetary surface, I’d suggest Westgate. It has the highest traffic in the area and it is closer. And it increases our chances of getting another one of your ‘new, great adventures.’”
“Alright then. Westgate it is,” he said with an expansive smile, pushing the datapad into a pile on his desk. “Now unless you have some dastardly plans to drag me away from the drudgery of paperwork…”
Jaheira stood and smiled down at him broadly. “No.”
“Nuts.” Bran schooled his face into a scowl, but quickly banished it. “Well, if you aren’t willing to rescue me from it missy, then what good are you?”
Her smile morphed into something much more wicked. “If you have still have questions to my worth, I’d be happy to go over the specifics. Once you’ve finished your paperwork of course. Now I’m off to the gym.”
With that, she turned and sauntered out of his office, swaying her hips. As the doors closed on that lovely vision, Bran shook his head to clear it so that he’d have some chance of concentrating on the task at hand. With a little laugh, he turned his attention to something far less entertaining. Nalia’s supply requests.
Oh, the burdens of command.
Jaheira slipped into the quiet locker room adjacent to the Gorion’s gym and headed for her locker. With the rest of the crew either on duty or buried in paperwork, it would give her a chance to use the gym alone and get in some valuable training time. She had let some of her kata work slip of late, an oversight she intended to rectify.
Popping open her locker, she subconsciously moved with the door, using its metal as a shield. Living on the same ship as one Imoen Varnas trained a person to watch for ‘amusing’ booby traps. Locker clear of such foolishness, she breathed a sigh of relief and proceeded to rummage about. She grabbed her workout togs and dropped them unceremoniously on the bench that ran the length of the room.
She looked forward to peace and solitude an empty gymnasium would give her. A chance to restore balance, she mused to herself as she stripped down to a pair of green silk, high cut panties. They were a rare luxury she allowed herself to indulge in when they last called on Degardan Station. They were made from silk from the old colony world of New Kyoto where a trick of the planetary climate gave birth to silkworms that produced silk not only more luxuriantly smooth but hundreds of times more durable than the finest Terran silk. That last fact allowed her more indulgent side to override her usually iron-clad practicality, and she certainly had not been disappointed in either the silk or in Bran’s response to it. Still, as wonderful of fabric the New Kyoto silkmasters could create, they weren’t appropriate workout wear. At least for the kind of workout she planned. She smiled to herself as she added them to the pile and slipped her neatly folded shipboard clothing into a small storage bin. Still remembering Imoen’s ever constant propensity for mischief, she clicked the lock into place.
The societal need for always being clothed sometimes proved annoying, she mused as she stretched her long, slender arms luxuriantly over her head, bending backwards to loosen her back as well. Fabrics and armor constricted natural movement, and even all the synthetic wonders that the chemists and fabricators had come up with over the centuries couldn’t compare to the total freedom afforded by nothing at all. Even something that came as perilously close as silk.
She treated the gray sweatpants draped over the bench to a disdainful look. The door received a similar look. If she could only be positive that none of her crewmates would interrupt her, she could allow herself a true shipboard luxury, practicing her kata skyclad. However, she’d learned her lesson that most likely did not equal certainty a few months earlier when she snuck off to the gym to do just that only to discover that Bran had been watching her from the shadows of the weight equipment. The ‘consequences’ of his clandestine operation had proven more than exemplary, however she also recalled in his haste he had jammed the compartment door so thoroughly that it would (and did) take Imoen almost an hour to hack her way in to ‘rescue’ them. Had she not been willing, they might have required Nalia’s assistance, and the constant stream of jibes and jokes were far better than what her reaction would have been. The evening was one of those exotically wild and exquisite times that were so rare in such a confined space as a ship where privacy and intimacy were at a premium.
Knowing that this time Bran was buried in reports and not desiring to give any of her other crewmates such a demonstration, she grabbed her grey sweatpants with the slightest inward sigh. The fabric was incredibly soft and flexible, perfectly suited for the workout she had planned. Having daydreamed long enough, she pulled the soft fabric up over her long, athletic legs and knotted the tie.
With utter contempt, she picked up the sports bra. She still wondered if Immy was secretly laughing at her as she was the one who had extolled its virtues and convinced her to use it. She pulled it over her head and adjusted it to fit, the natural curves of her breasts besieged by the garment. It did fulfill its purpose, but it was far less comfortable for her than it must be for the much more slightly built troublemaker. She wondered what horribly sadistic person had given it that name. Probably some silly Terran who wanted to make a halter top designed to hold one’s breasts in place sound sexy. As she looked at her reflection in the full length locker mirror, sexy wasn’t even remotely connoted here, she thought. No curves, no cleavage, just a firmly-locked-into-place pair of breasts. She knew she looked fit and trim, but it was an uncomfortable and unattractive garment – regardless of Bran’s opinion.
Shaking her head at the strangeness of males everywhere, she pulled on a pair of soft slippers and tied on a simple, un-dyed hemp belt. Last, she grabbed her spare fighting staff, a 3 cm thick cylinder of memory metal that collapsed down to fifteen centimeters in length for easy storage and carrying. Stuffing it into the belt at the left hip, she strode out into the gym proper.
Lights flickered on as she entered, the sensors acknowledging her presence and the fact the gym area was unoccupied. Walking past the weight and exercise machines, she padded into the open space at the gym’s center. If it had been occupied, she would have had to use either a corner or one of the smaller training rooms adjacent to the main room. Thankfully it was not and she had the whole space to herself, a true shipboard luxury, even one as understaffed as the Gorion was now.
Jaheira walked to the middle of the padded floor and turned to face the mirrored back wall. She withdrew the collapsed staff and proceeded to run through a series of basic stretching drills. Drills she’d been taught when she first entered the dojo at the precocious age of fourteen.
As she took a seat to stretch out leg and back muscles, the image of her powerfully built sensai flowed into her mind. The image was still clear in her mind, her teacher, Master Tatiana, resplendent in her crisp white gi and close cropped hair, looking over a defiant teen, body still gawky and ungainly from the slowed maturity of the anti-aging treatments. She had strongly but gently informed her new overly headstrong charge that not properly stretching out could be detrimental, even to a girl as flexible a younger Jaheira.
As she grabbed the soles of her feet to pull her chest to the ground and stretch the lower back and hamstrings, she remembered how Master Tatiana’s warning words had proven to be prophesy. Not halfway through the evening’s class went by when her left leg seized up in cramp and dropped her to the floor. As she lay there, leg curled in pain, Master Tatiana had padded over to her and knelt by her side. She reached down and kneaded the cramped muscle without comment. But what she had remembered was the look in her mentor’s eyes. There was understanding there, her teacher knowing why she had not joined in the stretches tempered by the cold realization that her defiance would have no effect on Master Tatiana. She could learn or not.
It had been a powerful draw to a young girl whose life and family pushed her to achievements and activities of their choosing. Her defiance of them had annoyed them, even angered them, but for her sensei, it just didn’t matter. Master Tatiana’s world didn’t revolve around her, she was just another student. Unused to that response, the young Jaheira found herself needing to prove herself to this powerfully built woman. Earning her sensei’s respect and recognition had led to a life’s devotion to the martial arts, a legacy that had served her well in her years. She finished her stretches with a last deep knee bend and a smile as she thought back to that dojo, so many light years away.
Now fully limbered up, Jaheira retrieved her weapon and returned it to the belt. Clearing her mind with a deep breath, she dropped into a ready stance, feet shoulder-width apart and fists clenched just slightly in front of her navel. Now in position, she settled into a perfect calm, her body completely still, like a sapling on a becalmed day.
The quiescence shattered as Jaheira moved with a sudden explosiveness that would have shocked an observer if there had been any. The silvery cylinder of metal seemed to simply appear in her hand as if by dark sorcery. Her thumb flicked along its surface and the cylinder expanded rapidly to its full length of one and a half meters. She swung the light alloy staff in a tight arc so that it stuck out straight under her right arm, using the momentum to slide her gripping hand down to an upper third grip. The next movement brought it back across her body, her left hand grabbing a hold at the lower third grip.
From there, she flowed forward, the lower end of the staff flicking upwards to strike under the chin. From there, a half turn to the right, the staff end pivoting in place before leaping up for an upper block. Then a lower block. Forward top lunge. Turn and block. Body thrust. Bottom end chest blow. Leg sweep. Finishing overhand. Turn and middle block. Lower block. Upper block. Top end feint. Bottom end knee strike. Top end overhand strike. Reverse to bottom end upwards strike. Hold. And return to ready stance.
She flowed on, working through her kata, pausing only to achieve final stance and then flow to ready stance to begin again. Her focus never wavered as she continued to move, not allowing her body to rest. She strove against the limits of her body, pushing her muscles to the limit while maintaining poise and control. As muscle exhaustion grew, that fine balance between power and precision became a harder line to walk, but that was the purpose of the training. It served to assert the mind’s control over the body, to hone both into fluid weapons and achieve the state of null mind necessary to wield them effectively.
Finally, she finished her sets, coming to a final ready stance and then lifting her fighting staff in a formal salute. She thumbed the weapon closed and slipped it back into her belt. Sweat poured down her body, running along her bronzed flesh, staining the back of her sports bra. Muscles burned from the constant exertion, but she savored the feeling. Master Tatiana’s favorite phrase was “There is no greater wisdom than kindness.”
She usually said that right after throwing someone around the dojo.
She started in on a quick set of cool drown stretches when she noticed the soft footfall of someone behind her. She whirled towards the source, hand dropping for the staff more as a matter of training than a perception of threat. However, the person she saw posed no threat and she dropped her hand and offered a genuine if slightly confused smile.
The intruder was a mere wisp of a woman, very slightly built. Pale golden hair so light as to be almost white hung down to her shoulders and sky blue eyes looked out from an angular but pretty face. Pointed ears stuck out from her blonde tresses, marking a shared ancestry but the relationship was distant. Jaheira was half Seldaran while the woman she looked out was of a race who called themselves the Avarelians, a subset of the ancient Seldari strain that had gone its own way in ancient times and had altered themselves to point of growing wings. Wings that fate and the universe had stripped from the woman before her.
The blonde woman returned the smile and said apologetically, “Ja.. Jaheira, I apologize for startling you.”
“It is nothing Aerie. I was just simply surprised. I figured I had the gym for myself.”
“I.. I had hoped to find the same thing. I.. I came here to meditate. I… I needed a more open space than my quarters provide,” she replied, her hands gesturing down at the rather voluminous robe she wore. “And the cargo bays are so…”
“Bleak and sterile,” Jaheira finished for the soft spoken woman.
Aerie nodded and smiled slightly. “Y..yes, they are. The gym is much more warm and calming.”
“I would think that a gym would be more distracting than calming,” Jaheira replied, her curiosity changing the statement into a question.
“If one looks at the purely physical, yes,” Aerie answered. “But the mental and emotional aspects of it are very relaxed and calm. Few jagged edges and lightening shifts, more just strong constant flow. Like a deep river.”
Jaheira cocked an eyebrow slightly. “I… I never thought of it in that manner. The repetition of the exercise acts to balance the mind…”
“A..and in turn, wh..while the emotional resonance is strong in this place, it is even. It is a loud note, but a constant one,” Aerie finished for her. “Much like you were while you practiced. P…powerful but level.”
Jaheira nodded, not entirely sure of what the appropriate response was in this case. Choosing a more neutral course, she replied, “One of the goals of the martial artist is to achieve a state where of null mind, of no conscious thought. I can see how that could be attractive to someone with empathic senses.” She paused and tapped the fighting staff at her hip. “I could teach you if you wish.”
“N.. no thank you Jaheira. I.. it’s a kind offer, but meditation is enough for me,” Aerie replied with a slight smile.
“Very well then,” Jaheira said with a pleasant smile. “I’ll leave you to the gym. I should get cleaned up and back to the bridge shortly anyway.”
“Un.. until later Jaheira,” the slight woman replied as she moved to the center of the room. Jaheira nodded one last time and headed for the locker room. A quick shower would be quite pleasant and she really should go make sure Bran wasn’t swallowed whole by his paperwork.
Posted 07 March 2006 - 03:46 PM
Valygar sat comfortably in his chair and studied his console displays. Everything was perfectly on spec. The Gorion was deep inside the Durton’s Star system and entering near orbit of New Flushing at a very leisurely one fifth of her max sublight power. Her course was trim and sure for a least time rendezvous with the station and he hadn’t to make a single course correction. Part of that was due to New Flushing control being kind enough to keep the rest of the intrastellar traffic out of the space lanes, he admitted. The rest was the result of meticulous work.
For the last three hours, the Finnaker’s Fancy had grown from an icon on his navigational display to the hulking behemoth now filling the viewscreen. The station had begun life as a core systems superfrieghter. Those massive ships dwarfed the smaller deep space runners like the Gorion. In the core systems, maneuverability and speed were at far less a premium than they were on the frontier, and ship builders had responded by building ships as massive as they could. Some of the largest could hold heavy cruisers in their main bays and while the Fancy was not built around one of those designs, she wasn’t much smaller.
How such a massive ship like the Fancy had made it out to a frontier system like Durton’s Star was an interesting one. Over a hundred years ago, Juan Finnaker, a wild-eyed entrepreneur had watched the rapid expansion of the time and spotted a way to cash in. Space stations formed the nexuses around which trade churned, and the people who controlled them could virtually print money. However, station construction was always an extremely expensive proposition in both time and capital. Finnaker’s ‘genius’ hit upon a way to get around the expense of shipping out station components and waiting for them to be assembled. He went out to one of the larger shipping conglomerates and bought an obsolete freighter slated for the breakers. He loaded the ship’s holds with the extra support structures he would need and set a course of Durton’s Star system.
The ship arrived in system and Finnaker proceeded to set up shop. The station had done well for the first few years, even managing to turn a profit, but the First Yolandan War and the collapse of the thorarium market, the chief export of the Durton’s Star system’s mines, wiped out local trade in a heartbeat. The fortune the Fancy was supposed to bring Juan Finnaker dried up and left him the ownership of an oversized space station and crushing debt. Two years later, Juan Finnaker cleaned out what remained of his accounts and disappeared to parts unknown. The station itself stayed operational, barely, bouncing from owner to owner. Its current owner, Jason Howard, formerly of the Alliance navy, had won it in a card game and by a matter of will and connections turned it into a wheeling, dealing trade center much like its original owner intended.
And now, Valygar mused, his baby was just about to enter the control area for the Finnaker’s Fancy. If Calhoun was still running their docking ops, the docking maneuvers should go smoothly. If not, he just had to hope whoever they replaced her with was at least competent enough that he wouldn’t have to ignore Control just to get his ship safely docked.
Once the chronometer hit the five-minute mark, he turned his head to look back at the man sitting in the command chair. He was absentmindedly stroking his goatee as he stared at the screen, a sure sign he was deep in thought. However, he was not the doctor, so he had now way of telling exactly what. Years of friendship did give him some insight into reading the captain, and by the thin lips and creased brow, he figured it had to do with whatever it was that had bothered him about Howard’s first comm transmission. He really didn’t care to interrupt his thoughts, but procedure demanded certain protocols be followed.
“Captain, we are approaching the Finnaker’s Fancy’s control area.”
“Thank you Valygar. Imoen, contact the Fancy and request permission to dock.”
Imoen nodded and punched in the call code. A few seconds later, the main viewscreen flared to life. The image of the bulky Fancy disappeared, replaced by the much more pleasing image of the smiling face of a young, mahogany skinned woman with a shaved head and sporting a silver plated headset. “Gorion, this is Finnaker’s Fancy. Welcome to New Flushing. Your request to dock is granted.”
“Thank you Finnaker’s Fancy. We are awaiting docking instructions,” Bran replied with a smile of his own.
The woman nodded and replied, “Please proceed to Docking Slip 2. Uploading docking instructions now.” The smiling woman winked and added, “Just in case your navigator’s gone to sleep on the job again. I’d hate for him to dent your pretty ship banging into something.”
“Provided your approach vector actually bears some resemblance to reality, that won’t be a problem, Alya,” Valygar replied.
“There is never a problem with my approach vectors,” the woman sniffed haughtily. “The only problems I’ve ever had is pilots who can’t tell their z position from their thrust vectors.”
“Well, V always was a bit dyslexic,” Imoen added helpfully.
Valygar shot the redhead sitting at ops a dark look as Ayla laughed. “He can be a bit short sighted at times,” the woman on the screen replied with a chuckle. “That’s why I sent him such detailed directions.”
“All based off some basic calculation error that even Imoen would have caught I’m sure,” Valygar deadpanned as he pulled up the transmission.
The docking instructions were very detailed. Far more detailed than he had expected, as most docking masters didn’t include instructions for him to follow after the ship rested in the docking clamps. Especially ones that included such details as which restaurant to rendezvous at, what wine to bring and what she would be wearing. And what she wouldn’t be wearing. Eyebrow arching just slightly, he cut that section off the transmission body and dropped that in his personal database and replaced the original with the edited version. Those were directions he felt he would enjoy following very much. Very much indeed.
Surgery performed, he looked back up into that smiling face and returned it with one of his own. Shaking his head in mock surprise, he replied, “Surprisingly, it does seem there are no glaring errors in this.”
Alya sniffed again, “Of course not. Now just try not to bungle them too badly,”
“I will endeavor to do so.”
“Good,” Ayla replied. “I will contact you in two minutes to guide you through final docking procedures. Calhoun out.”
The screen switched back to growing image of the Fancy as the comm channel closed. Valygar’s fingers flew across his console, punching in the necessary adjustments and slowing the Gorion down for docking maneuvers. As she rolled to starboard and her velocity dropped, Bran quipped, “It’s good to see you two getting along so well.”
“Mutual respect for each other’s abilities, sir,” Valygar replied dryly.
“I’m sure that’s what it is, V-man,” Bran replied with a chuckle. “Of that I’m sure. Now take us in and try not to scrape off too much paint hot dogging it.”
“Of course, sir,” Valygar replied, easing back on his braking thrusters despite the order. The approach lane was clear enough, a little extra speed wouldn’t harm anything. He was proud of his ship, and a chance to demonstrate a little artistry in his ship handling and the quick reflexes of this unassuming freighter couldn’t be passed up.
A snort from Imoen on his right told him the redhead must have noticed their deceleration rate but surprisingly no comment came. Curious, he glanced in her direction. She was hunched slightly over her console with her tongue touching her upper lip, a sure sign of concentration. He checked his own status boards, but everything burned a reassuring green, giving him no inclination as to what she was working on.
Eventually, curiosity got the best of him, and he leaned over and asked, “Is something wrong?”
“Nah,” she said after a moment. “Nothing wrong. Its just pulling comm records from the raw feed backups is time consuming.”
His eyebrow arched suspiciously. “Why are you doing that?”
“Discrepancy in the communication database,” Imoen replied without looking up. Valygar felt an eerie sense of dread rising up from his feet as she continued, “The upload from the Fancy in the db isn’t the original one. Timestamps don’t match. So, I’m backtracking to find the original.”
His stomach fell as any hope of distraction fell to the inconvenient superiority of Seldaran hearing as Jaheira asked, “Do you expect external tampering with our systems?”
Valygar sighed inwardly as he caught sight of that malicious, evil smile that graced Imoen’s puckish face whenever she found a little tidbit she believed she could use for her own amusement. Even if he could have cut Imoen off quickly, Jaheira asking about it guaranteed that it was going to be general knowledge. Therefore, he decided to take some of the fun out of it for her by denying her an exultant discovery.
Valygar turned his chair to face them and admitted, “Ayla inserted a personal message into her transmission. Since it was personal, I removed that portion and returned the rest to the message cue. That is all.”
“A personal message?” Bran asked with a knowing smirk.
“Yes sir. A personal message,” Valygar replied plainly. “I did not consider it a matter for the ship’s logs.”
The smirk became more insufferable. “So my navigator is receiving clandestine messages from the station? Who knows what schemes Calhoun is trying to embroil you in.”
“I assure you, there are no schemes.”
“Really?” Bran shook his head sadly. “I’m so very disappointed in you.”
Jaheira groaned and put her head into her hands and Minsc merely looked confused. Imoen made up for it with her gleeful announcement, “Got it! Now lemme see here… Oooooh. Now that’s juicy.”
“Oh?” said Bran with a wicked grin. “What is it?”
Imoen turned around and fixed the bridge crew with a smile so bright suns paled beside it. “Oh nothing. Just the most detailed docking instructions I ever did see. I just downloaded it to your display.”
Bran looked down at one of his command chair’s displays and Valygar stifled a groan. Looking up with a grin only slightly less evil than his sister’s, he chortled, “Our hot shot pilot needs such detailed instructions? V-Man, we’ve kept you in space way too long.”
He needed to take Nalia up on that cyber security refresher she offered a few weeks ago. Cocking his head slightly to one side, he replied, “Even the best pilot needs to know where the target is. I was just receiving good intelligence.” Half turning to face the ops officer, he added, “Something sorely lacking in some.”
“Hey flyboy, at least when I’m getting propositioned, I don’t need step-by-step instructions to seal the deal. I do perfectly well on my own,” Imoen retorted.
“Raw enthusiasm is no replacement for refined technique,” Valygar gave her a wide smile and savored Imoen’s annoyed eye roll. With a slight nod, he turned his attention back to his navigation console.
“Valygar, navigator, slicer, witicist: Ladies’ Man,” Bran laughed. To his right, Jaheira groaned again.
Valygar rolled his eyes. “Two minutes to final approach, Captain.”
“Well, at least for the Gorion,” Imoen added.
“As you say,” he replied, refusing to rise to such a paltry jab.
“Oh, and your girlfriend is on the comm for you,” she said with saccharine sweetness.
“Patch her through,” Bran answered before Valygar could.
Once more Ayla Calhoun’s smiling face filled the screen. The same radiant smile shone from her face as she said, “Gorion, you are within profile. Prepare for final docking procedures.” The smile widened just a little bit more as she turned her chocolate eyes on to him and added, “A little fast on the approach, Gorion. Someone feeling the need to show off?”
“Valygar’s been aching to show off his skills,” sassed the Obnoxious One to his right. “He’s just been looking for the right opportunity.”
Confusion flashed across Ayla’s eyes for just a moment as she turned to look at Imoen. Before she could say something to give Imoen a further opening, he interjected, “We are all quite ready to get off the ship for a while. We are in final approach now.”
Calhoun blinked once and the smile returned. “Approach profile is good. Adjust up angle one degree and reduce speed at 250 KPS.”
“Acknowledged,” Valygar said, making the requested adjustments.
The two worked back and forth, making the minute adjustments critical for docking. With just a few minor corrections, the Gorion nosed into her assigned docking birth and came to a complete rest in relation to the station. The boom of metal on metal contact reverberated through the ship as docking arms extended from the sides of the berth, clamping onto the ship to lock her in place. Umbilicals and personnel tubes snaked out, attaching to the ship’s main airlocks and contact points.
Finally, she said, “Docking complete. Personnel tubes and umbilicals have positive contact. Welcome aboard.” She turned her brilliant smile on Valygar before adding, “Good to see you again.”
“All contacts confirmed, Ayla, and thanks for guiding us in. Valygar couldn’t have done it without your expert guidance,” Bran replied jovially. “Gorion out.”
As the screen went blank, Bran thumbed the button on his command console to go to intraship. “First, good work people. Another mostly uneventful voyage, and now some well deserved R&R. Before we adjourn, a few last items. Drop any general equipment or supply request in the queue if you already haven’t. Jaheira, power down all tactical systems. Nalia, spin down the reactors and switch over to station power. Imoen, implement level three security onboard, then grab Nalia and head for cargo control.” An evil smile crossed his face. “And Valygar, well, you already have your orders.”
Posted 07 March 2006 - 03:51 PM
The airlock hatch hissed open into one the Finnaker’s Fancy’s embarkation rooms. A small cluster of people milled about the large compartment. Two relaxed but armored men manned the security station and a third in coveralls was buried in an open access panel nearby. Another busied herself at a flanking console. In the center of all this waited a bear of a man with long, shaggy blonde hair. He was dressed in the usual spacer ‘uniform’ of cargo pants and boots, topped off with a well used and pocked armored vest. A long barreled pulse pistol hung at his hip and sausage like fingers drummed on its grip impatiently.
As soon as Bran stepped down into the station proper, a huge grin split the massive man’s face. Loping over, the big man clapped Bran on the shoulder so hard he nearly lost his balance and boomed, “Bran, you old dirty space dog, it’s good to see you again.”
Bran smiled and consciously didn’t rub where the big man’s meathook had slammed into his shoulder. Jason was from New Casca, a high grav world and sometimes his old friend forgot the power his homeworld had gifted his frame. The smile on the giant’s face seemed completely genuine and no sign of what had troubled him earlier was apparent. Smiling, he punched the big man in the shoulder and laughed, “Good to see you too, Jason. I see you haven’t managed to blow this old rust bucket up yet.”
“Rust bucket!” Jason roared good-naturedly. “You can say that about my beautiful space station when you drive that bucket of bolts you call a starship?”
“Careful now, you wouldn’t want my chief engineer to hear that,” Bran admonished.
Jason waved a hand dismissively. “Ahh… she likes it.”
“I’ll remind you of that when she reverses your grav systems. And programs your food synths to only make anchovies.”
“I see you boys are getting along well,” lilted a voice from behind them.
“Jaheira my dear,” Jason said, taking her hand and bowing over it with the grace any Dohlmani courtier could envy. “I see you are still following around this disreputable tramp. I beg of you, let me whisk you away to the life and luxury you so richly deserve.”
“Your offer is tempting, but without my guidance I have no doubts of the depths of depravity Bran would sink to,” Jaheira inclined her head slightly and then gave Jason a sad smile. “So, once more I must make a sacrifice for the good of the universe.”
“A shame, my dear,” Jason said sadly. “However, it will assuage my aching heart with the knowledge that you so diligently work to keep the universe safe from the scourge of a mad Varnas.”
“The faith the two of you have in me is deeply touching,” Bran deadpanned.
“I know.” Jason clapped Bran on the shoulder and chuckled.
“Remind me why I still do business with you, you overgrown ape?”
Jason scratched his hairy chin in thought for a moment. “I think it’s because I pay you well and haven’t tried to stiff, rob, cheat, double cross, or kill you. Yet.”
“Which would put him in the upper ten percent of our customer base,” Jaheira added.
“Ganged up on again!” Bran exclaimed. He waggled a finger at Jason. “Such behavior I expect from an uncouth barbarian like yourself.” He turned to face his smirking X.O. He spread his arms wide and half staggered towards her. “But you. You. Betraying your captain like this? Betraying the man you love? You cut me to the quick.”
“And you are a complete and utter ham,” she said with a smile.
Bran flashed her a half grin as he drew himself to his full height. “Yeah.”
“Now that we’ve gotten the prep school theatrics out of the way, can we get to business? Preferably before Imoen and Nalia get into any trouble? Although more likely any more trouble.”
Bran delivered a bow with enough flourish to satisfy all but the most insecure and power-hungry of potentates. “Yes mistress.”
An eyebrow arched and was followed by a short derisive snort as the heavyset Jason’s massive chest began to tremble with suppressed laughter. A wide grin cracked Bran’s face as he straightened. The smile remained in place despite the glare being delivered, the shielding of the captain’s mirth proving stronger than his exec’s annoyance.
Knowing that victory does not just require force but timing, Bran spun on his heel and reached into his leather jacket. To their credit, the two security guards tensed at the sudden movement, but the nonchalance in their employer kept them their weapons in their holsters. With a little bit of a flourish, Bran extracted a thin data crystal wafer and held it out to Jason. “Your shipping list, Jason.”
“Thank you, my good sir,” Jason replied, plucking the thin crystal plate from Bran’s fingers. He pulled a matte black handcomp from his belt and slid the crystal into the dataport. The screen extended and flashed to life and the big man began to scroll through the contents.
Watching Jason scroll through the shipping manifest, Bran narrated to add pertinent details. “Everything you ordered is there. Asking for all new components did make it a bit more difficult, but I think we managed to do quite well by you.”
“It does appear that way,” replied Jason without taking his eyes off the data.
“The drive injectors were a bit hard to come by and the flow stabilizers are a few design generations old, but well within specs. The only problem was with…”
“The Mectrix drive field governors,” Jason interrupted.
Bran shrugged. “I couldn’t get the capacity and control you wanted. At least not new. But I did manage to get them freshly refurbished. Nalia tested them out and they’re in great shape. Her certificate is attached and you are of course welcome to inspect them and test them yourself.”
Jason looked up and gave him a smile. “I’m sure they are. Your Nalia is a hell of a tech. Remind me to increase the bribe I offer her to get her to come work for me.”
“Good luck on that one ol buddy,” Bran laughed. “She might just ask for your head.”
“One little mistake,” Jason said with a chuckle. “You think she’d be more forgiving.”
“Considering the circumstances of your first meeting,” interjected Jaheira, “I would doubt that very much.”
“I was only a little drunk.”
“And space is only a little cold.”
“Pah!” replied Jason dismissively. “Some people are just way too uptight.”
“Considering how much hell I caught for that evening, and I was only an innocent…” Bran trailed off under Jaheira’s glare. “Okay, mostly innocent bystander…”
Jason threw up his hands in surrender. “You’re right. Venting all over her nice silk dress was a horrible way to make a first impression. But it doesn’t change the fact I’d be lucky to have her working for me. Especially with my new projects,” Jason waggled the handcomp for emphasis. “So, I’m certain that your reconditioned governors are just fine. My engineering crews will want to confirm that, but I consider that a formality.”
“Safety first, Jason. I know she was thorough, but…”
Jason simply nodded.
“Oh, and there is one other thing at the end of the manifest Jason. I don’t know if you’ve seen it yet. A little bonus to a loyal customer. It’s under Miscellaneous.”
One shaggy eyebrow arched as Jason’s grey eyes flicked down to the screen. A deep chuckle seemed to rise right out of his boots as he read the entry. He turned an amusedly suspicious look on Bran. “A case of Varbringy whiskey?”
“Good stuff too.”
“Why do I think you included them not just to curry favor but because you figured I’d share?”
“Because you know how devious I can be.”
“And because you’re right, you smarmy bastard.”
“Well, there is that too,” Bran said innocently, taking a moment to buff his nails against his shirt.
“In that case, I suppose I’ll just have to pay you,” sighed the shaggy giant. Reaching into a belt pouch, he extracted a data wafer of his own and tossed it to Bran. Bran snagged it out of the air and passed it over to Jaheira, who already had her handcomp out.
She slid the crystal in with a click and the screen flared to life. After a moment’s study, she said, “As expected, all in order. Transfer completed.”
“Of course, I’m happy to trade any of those credits for any supplies we might have available,” Jason said with a wide grin. “At reasonable prices, of course.”
“Of that I’m sure,” Bran deadpanned.
“Well good. And now that all this nasty business is concluded, how about a drink and a tour. Give two old space dogs a chance to catch up?”
Nothing in the question seemed out of place for Jason, but that feeling that something wasn’t quite right struck him again. Figuring a few drinks seemed a good a way as any to find out if there was anything, he replied, “Sounds good. I’d like to see what all this stuff I dragged across the Border Sectors is actually going into.”
“Oh, I’m sure we can get around to that. Eventually,” Jason chuckled genially. “After we make a few other stops.”
“Why do I think this is my cue to bow out,” Jaheira said with a shake of her head.
“No no no, dear Jaheira. I wouldn’t dream of excluding you. The more the merrier,” Jason countered.
“Considering how well I know you, I have a feeling I know where you are planning on dragging Bran. And I will pass on such entertainment.”
“Well, I suppose I can understand that,” Jason replied with a nod.
“Don’t worry dear. I’ll keep him out of trouble,” Bran replied.
“I’m sure you’ll try.”
Bran walked over and planted a quick peck on her cheek. “I knew you’d understand.”
“Of course. It is the role of the exec, is it not? To mind the store while her captain goes off gallivanting?”
“Does seem to be the case from time to time.”
“Very well. I will make sure the cargo gets unloaded and that your sister and our engineer don’t do any irreparable damage. You boys go and have your fun.”
“Meet you at Shirlen’s for dinner? Say 1900?”
Jaheira simply nodded before heading back into the Gorion. Bran watched her disappear down the personnel tube, allowing himself to marvel at how lucky of a man he was and how good her ass looked in those pants. A heavy hand landed on his shoulder and Jason said, “That is a really fine behind.”
Bran cocked his head to give Jason a significant look. Jason smiled back, causing Bran to roll his eyes at the burly stationmaster.
The smile softened and Jason patted him on the shoulder, “She’s a great woman, Bran. You got damn lucky, son.”
“That she is. And who knows, if you behave, even you might get so lucky someday.”
Jason barked a laugh. “Maybe. That’s why I keep up such a rigorous testing schedule.”
Bran laughed and shook his head. “You know, you’re just terrible.”
Jason beamed. Standing up ramrod straight, he said proudly, “Yes. Yes I am.”
Both men cracked up, filling the compartment with laughter.
Posted 07 March 2006 - 03:52 PM
Cargo Control was located in the aft-most section of the crew compartment on C Deck, positioned right above the central corridor on D Deck that ran the full length of the ship. The compartment was rectangular, with a large, multi-screen viewer covering the aft wall. The starboard and port sides each had secondary stations for heavy-duty jobs, but for the most time sat unused.
The heart of Cargo Control was the large, crescent shape control station that dominated the center of the room. From there, the people running the ‘The Board’ controlled all of the Gorion’s cargo bays and the tractor webs that allowed merchandise to be moved. The Board also gave the cargomaster control over the attachment points that held the detachable cargo containers to the central keel.
Under the Board is where Nalia De Arnise found herself, attempting to track down a faulty circuit that had peevishly decided to choose this moment to surrender to Entropy’s grasp. As she unlatched component cases, she wondered if her ship was doing this intentionally. With the long list of little failures over the last three days, she was starting to suspect it was. It was like the girl knew just how much like crap she felt and decided it might just be fun to pile on even more. If that was the case, it damn well was working. Her head felt two sizes too big with a belt two sizes too small wrapped around it.
She couldn’t get anything done without some stupid subsystem deciding to frell up. And always in some way that someone noticed just after she did but before she could fix it. So they’d helpfully point it out to her. They were always understanding, especially with the insane schedule they’d been on to make the delivery. They understood she hadn’t had enough time for maintenance lately. Or anything else important.
So, now she was stuck underneath this console, decoupler clenched between her teeth, hoping she could get it up and running before anyone decided to helpfully point this failure out too. Wielding her circuit probe like a surgeon, she probed for the fouled component. She’d just isolated it to one particular control bus when she heard the hatch doors slide open. There was a bit of an extra grind there, which added the blasted hatch mechanism to the thrice-damned maintenance list.
Marking the control bus so she wouldn’t have to repeat her search, she flicked her eyes down to look out of the console panel she’d crawled into. A pair of legs clad in a pink jumpsuit over shiny silver boots stepped into her field of vision. Unless the laundry systems had gone on the fritz again, those legs could only belong to Imoen. She loved Immy, but she really wasn’t in the mood to deal with perky or chipper. Her head might just explode.
“Heya!” the owner of the legs called out cheerfully. “What’re you doing crawling around on the floor?”
Considering she was chest deep into a console, Nalia figured what she was up to would be obvious. Her temper fraying just a little farther, she fired back, “Well, Immy, I figured that since you spent so much time on your back, there must be something to it, so I decided to give it a try.”
She heard a chuckle before a smiling face appeared in the panel opening. Blue eyes danced with amusement as Imoen replied sweetly, “You’re missing a key component Nally baby. When I do it, I bring someone else with me. Not just some electronic tool.”
“Nice one,” she fired back, voice dripping with sarcasm. She lifted her head to glare at Imoen through the open access panel. “I’m the one with the problem because my selection criteria for a man is a little more advanced than ‘Is he breathing?’ And sometimes I wonder if that is a hard and fast rule.”
Imoen cocked her head to the side and laughed. “Hey Nals, for the record, not breathing is a definite deal breaker.” The smile remained, but worry appeared in the sky blue eyes. “So, everything alright? I didn’t expect you to go from zero to bitchy so quick.”
Nalia heaved a sigh and let her head thump against the console base. The thud was strangely comforting. She gave the balky control bus a desultory poke with the probe and apologized, “I guess I did, huh? Sorry bout that Immy.”
“Hey, no sweat. I knew ya didn’t mean it,” Imoen replied, giving her a warm smile. “Now, why dontcha tell me why you decided to impinge my virtuous name.”
“Virtuous?” Nalia snorted. “I think that might be taking it a bit far.”
Imoen shrugged. “Maybe, but that was a nice dodge. So, are you going to answer the question or am I going to have to interrogate you?”
She entertained the notion of telling Immy to simply drop the subject, but she knew it wouldn’t work. Mainly because Immy was so persistently nosy and if she thought something was wrong she wouldn’t give up. Add a few not-entirely-friendly insults to the mix and there was no way in hell she was going to let it go. Sighing, she said, “It’s nothing really, Immy. I’m just a bit stressed out is all. Lately, it seems like every time I sit down, something decides to break and off I go running again!” She reached up and pulled the control bus cover, “Like this stupid, piece-of-crap console. Decides to go haywire right when we need it.”
Imoen gave her a deep, speculative look. “It’s been a rough couple of weeks, hasn’t it? But I don’t think it’s just the workload.”
Nalia lowered her hand from the wafer she was about to pull and shot her a look. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Just what I said,” Imoen replied, hunkering down to get a better angle to look into the access panel. Holding up a hand to placate her, she added quickly, “Not that I don’t think keeping this girl up and running is tough or that you could use a break. It’s just I don’t think that’s the only thing bothering you.”
Nalia arched an eyebrow and fired off a look of her own. “Okay. There is something else.”
“Yeah?” Imoen asked with anticipation.
“You really want to know?” she asked, pushing her way out of the access panel to better look at Imoen.
“Of course,” Imoen replied. Nalia wasn’t certain, but from the look on Imoen’s face, it must have been taking a significant amount of effort for her to not rub her hands together in anticipation. “I’m your friend.”
“Alright, fine. I’ll tell you. It’s been over a week… a whole week since I’ve had a good cup of coffee! I ran out of beans and since then I’ve been forced to subsist on whatever that foul stuff Jaheira brews up in the mess,” she said gesturing violently towards where the mess hall was. “And don’t even get me started on the sheer dearth of a decent latte!”
Imoen blinked and then started to giggle. Waggling a finger at Imoen, Nalia fired back, “Hey! Just because you can’t understand the richness and complexity of the quest for the perfect coffee doesn’t mean you can laugh at it, you Philistine!”
Imoen clutched at her stomach as laughter began to pour out of her. Nalia tried to fix her with a glare, but her best attempts seemed to have no effect as the laughter continued unabated. Nalia even found the corners of her mouth treacherously crinkling up into a smile despite her better efforts. It was just too hard to maintain a stern face in front of all that mirth. Giving in, she finally said, “So what’s so damn funny about me needing coffee?”
“Well…” Imoen managed between chuckles. “It’s.. it’s just I expected you to complain about something else.”
“Like what?” Nalia said, giving Imoen a confused look.
“Oh I don’t know,” Imoen replied, finally corralling her laughter into a big grin. “Something more important, like Jaheira’s Lasagna Surprise, Minsc spilling that container of engine coolant all over E Deck broadway, or… the fact that your sex life is currently deader than a deck plate?”
“Oh.” Nalia said, giving Imoen a look.
“That’s why the coffee thing was so damn funny,” Imoen replied pleasantly.
“Well, you made cracks about my sex life, so I figured you had a serious case of sex on the brain.”
Nalia rubbed her neck and continued to stare at Imoen. Imoen’s smile slipped just slightly as she continued, “Well, I mean, it has been awhile, right? There hasn’t been anyone since, well, you know, you two broke up, right?”
“No, there hasn’t.”
“It’s been over a year now, hasn’t it?”
“One year, six months and three days, but hey, who’s counting,” Nalia replied, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Umm… you are?”
Nalia shrugged. “What can I say, I’m a counter.”
“Or something. You know, you really do need to get over him and move on.”
“I know that Immy. It’s just, well, I can’t get him out of my head or my life completely, so it isn’t all that easy. But it’s not like I’m obsessing over it or anything. I figure the right guy will come along, so why worry about that. I’ve got enough to deal with keeping this ship running.”
Imoen nodded slowly. “You know what you need, Nally?”
“What’s that Immy?” Nalia asked, rolling her eyes.
“A good roll in the sack.”
“You do know the world doesn’t revolve around sex, right Immy?” Nalia replied.
“Duh,” Imoen replied, rolling her eyes. “Of course I know that.”
“Good. Glad to hear it.”
“So, all this cranky is coming from no coffee?” Imoen replied in a tone that could almost be labeled as serious.
“You do know the world doesn’t revolve around coffee, right Nalia?” Imoen replied with a grin.
“True. But it does make the world a livable place.” Picking up her discarded probe, she added, “And now that we’ve made the amazing discovery that Nalia gets cranky without coffee, I’m going to fix this control panel before someone comes down here and yells at me for not having it fixed. Because this morning’s coffee was atrociously bad and I can’t take that today.”
“Too late,” Imoen hissed softly as the doors to Cargo Control slid open to reveal the form of the Gorion’s X.O.
The brown haired woman strode into the room, stopping just a little ways beyond the hatchway. Hands on her hips, she treated the both of them to a piercing stare without speaking. Nalia found herself subconsciously tugging her coverall smooth and noticed out of the corner of her eye Imoen standing up a little straighter. After a moment of icy silence, Jaheira finally said flatly, “I just received a comm call from the Fancy. They signaled they were ready to receive cargo but had not received a response. Knowing you were both down here, I decided to I should investigate what the hold up was. Now, would either of you care to explain why we haven’t started transferring cargo that’s been paid for?”
Nalia’s stomach churned with chagrin and anger. The fault in the control systems was her fault for not catching it earlier, but she was in no mood to hear a lecture on responsibilities from Commander Perfect. She bit her lip to keep herself from firing off the retort she wanted to. No matter how satisfying it might be at that moment, the resultant ass chewing wouldn’t be. Especially since Jaheira was right. Again.
Anger corralled, she said calmly, “There is a fault in the cargo control systems. One of the main control buses went down and took the entire board out.”
“The secondary failed as well?” Jaheira asked, eyebrow arching speculatively.
Do they ever read any of my reports? she growled internally. Externally, she kept her face composed and her voice even as life had taught her to and replied, “The secondary processor blew completely over a month ago. I noted it and requested we get a replacement as I don’t have the time to do the rebuild.”
“I see,” said Jaheira with a nod, obviously remembering she had seen that. A second later, the annoyed stare returned. “So, all that giggling I could hear from down the corridor was part of the repair process then?”
“No, not exactly,” Nalia replied sourly.
“Then would you care to explain what it was you were doing?” Jaheira asked, looking from one woman to the other.
“Discussing Nalia’s sex life,” Imoen replied innocently.
“What!?” Nalia exclaimed, throwing a withering look at her red haired friend. “We were not!”
Imoen snapped her fingers and pointed at Nalia. “You’re right.” Turning to face Jaheira, she explained, “I thought we were talking about her sex life, because she was being all grouchy. Turns out we were talking about her deep and all consuming coffee addiction. It’s really all quite fascinating when you get down to it.”
Nalia groaned and started to rub her brow in hopes of driving away the headache that was rapidly gaining steam. She wanted to scream. She didn’t even know which one she wanted to scream at more. Both were so richly deserving.
In the end, the decision was taken out of her hands. Jaheira cocked an eyebrow in thought before a strange, quizzical look crossed her face. She nodded and said, “I see. Why don’t you continue that question once you’ve got that cargo unloaded. Howard is one of our better customers after all.”
Through gritted teeth, Nalia replied, “Of course, ma’am. As soon as I get the controls online.”
“Understood. I’ll pass along that message.” With that, Jaheira nodded and walked out of Cargo Control.
As soon as the doors slid shut, Nalia whirled towards Imoen, who was leaning against the console with an immensely satisfied grin on her face. Imoen turned that smile on her and laughed, “That was a bit easier than I thought.”
“What? She storms down here, chews me out and then you go and start talking about my sex life to her and you call that easy?”
“I said easier,” Imoen said with a shrug. “Not easy, silly. And she did leave, didn’t she.”
“Yes,” Nalia fired back. “But it seems my dignity left with her.”
“Pfah!” Imoen replied, waving her hand dismissively. “It’s not like you were butt ass naked or something, gee whiz. And beside, which would you rather have, my smiling face helping you out or a grumpy Jaheira chewing a new hole in your hide?”
Nalia’s eyes narrowed for a moment. After a few more seconds passed by, Imoen exclaimed, “What?”
“I’m thinking about it!” Nalia sassed back.
“Oh! Oh ho ho!” Imoen replied, waving a finger at Nalia accusingly. “Look who’s Ms. Witty now. See if I rescue you again.”
“Well, considering you’re the one who got me in trouble with Commander High and Mighty, I don’t see how that’s a serious threat. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish replacing this component before she comes back down here and sees if she can crawl just a little farther up my ass.”
Imoen opened her mouth and closed it silently as Nalia grabbed her tools and pulled herself back into the console. She worked in blissful silence, deftly removing the failed components and slotting in the replacements from pouches on her tool belt. With each click of a replacement part sliding home, some of her frustrations slipped away. She let out a sigh as she replaced the last of the damaged components, her uneven temper finally leveling off. She was still annoyed at Imoen, but there was guilt floating up as well as she realized just how much vitriol she’d vented on her friend. She was being exceedingly cranky. Her problems with the X.O. weren’t Immy’s fault, and taking it out on her wasn’t fair.
Slowly letting out another breath, she slid her tools back into their respective pouches and gripped the outer edge of the console. She owed Immy an apology. Sliding out from the console, she pushed herself up and looked for her friend. She found her sitting in one of the chairs at the main board with a pensive look on her face.
“Look, Immy, I’m…” Nalia began.
“No, wait,” Imoen interrupted, holding up her hand. “I’m the one who should be apologizing. I pushed the jokes maybe a little too far.”
“No, really, I should apologize,” Nalia countered. “I… I haven’t been myself lately and I just lashed out at you. You didn’t deserve that.”
“No, no, no, I’m…” Imoen broke off into a laugh. “This is rich. If we’re not careful, we’ll be fighting over how much sorrier we each are. Which would be pretty damn sorry. So how bout we’re both sorry and we move on?”
Nalia had to laugh. “Good point. Alright. Agreed.”
“Now why don’t we get this cargo moving before we hear about it again from on high?” Nalia replied as she clambered up off the floor and into the other chair.
“Sounds good,” Imoen replied as she brought the console online. Her fingers flew across the keypad, sending the long awaited message that transshipment was about to begin. Along side her, Nalia keyed in the sequences to open the necessary cargo doors and activate the tractor web. By the time the Fancy signaled she was ready to receive, Nalia had everything online and her board reading green.
Loading queues were updated and the two women went to work moving the recently sold cargo from the Gorion’s holds across the void to the waiting holds of the Fancy. Fingers flew across the consoles and quick words were exchanged between ship and station as their displays showed the moving canisters and crates of equipment in their intricate dance. Thankfully, the process seemed to be moving smoothly, even if the work was intense.
The process of moving cargo wasn’t especially difficult on its surface, but doing it quickly and efficiently was. Relative sizes and masses needed to be handled on the fly by the handlers on both ends so that cargo wasn’t damaged in transit or in stacking. The receiver had the more difficult task as he had to arrange the incoming cargo for proper, safe storage while the shipper only had to disgorge the cargo. Coordination between the two eased the process greatly and reduced the shipping damage greatly. A little friendly, and sometimes not –so-friendly, competition tended to arise as well, as cargo controllers challenged each others’ speed and skill, sending cargo whizzing through space at greater speeds until one or the other gave up.
A situation very similar to the one emerging between the Gorion’s and Fancy’s controllers. It was not as intense as it could get, due to the very delicate nature of some of the components being delivered. No challenges had been issued, no bets placed. But that didn’t keep both sides from slowly scaling up the speed, pushing each other’s skills just a little.
“Well, this is about as much fun as one girl can handle,” Imoen deadpanned as she shifted cargo priorities.
“I know. I know. Any more of this and I’m going to frankly burst,” Nalia replied, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
“I know! I know! It’s just so much fun! It’s so good my brother decided to give us this job, huh?”
“He really did give us something special, didn’t he?”
“He sure did,” Imoen groaned. “How much more specialness do we need to endure?”
“Seventy eight percent of the cargo has been moved. It’s really only the engines and one of the containers of Mectrix coils left,” Nalia replied after a quick consultation of the cargo queues.
“You know, I wonder what Jason wants ‘em for, but frankly, right now I just want to be done.”
“Not much left to do. A couple more minutes and we’re free.”
“Thank the gods.” Imoen half turned to Nalia and asked, “So, what are you doing once we’re done here?”
“Probably go back to my quarters and finish some tech journals I’ve been wanting to. Maybe get a start on some of the overdue maintenance,” Nalia replied without looking up.
“Oh no. Heck no. You are not nerding out on me,” Imoen fired back.
“Look, you’ve damn near torn my head off and you looked ready to try and take out a chunk of the duranium alloy that constitutes Jaheira’s ass,” Imoen waggled a finger admonishingly. “You need a vacation to start your vacation.”
“Imoen, I really…”
“Sorry. Nope. Not happening. You and I are going out. You need out of this ship and out into some fun.”
Nalia sighed. “Okay. Maybe we can go get a drink at Tino’s.”
“Wrong answer!” Imoen buzzed. “Thank you for playing. No, we’re going out. You need to air out some, Nally. Go dancing, have some.” Imoen nudged Nalia conspiratorially, “Maybe even meet some nice boys, ya know?”
“Immy,” Nalia sighed. “I really don’t feel up to it.”
“Look,” Imoen said more reassuringly, “I know you don’t. But you’ve been cooped up on this ship too long. You bowed out the last two times. But not this time. We’re gonna finish up here, you’re going to go to your quarters, get dressed appropriately, like that dark blue sheath number of yours. Then we’re going to go out and blow some of our cut and have a good time.” Imoen gave Nalia a look that brooked no disagreement. One that she could have learned from Jaheira. “Alright?”
Knowing it was better to surrender gracefully in such situations rather than fight a spirited defense, Nalia nodded in agreement. Plus, maybe Immy was right. Maybe she’d been cooped up too long. “Fine. But on one condition.”
“What is it?” Imoen asked with an arched eyebrow.
“No strip clubs.”
Imoen stuck out her lower lip in a pout.
“None. Not after last time.”
“Oh fine. Be that way.”
Posted 07 March 2006 - 03:53 PM
Jason Howard, owner and operator of the Finnaker’s Fancy, had many different offices tucked into corners of the station’s massive structure beyond his official office attached to Station Operations. The one he was leading Bran into was one the starship captain had never seen before. It was deep in the ship’s bowels, and he’d been led here circuitously through a series of bars and clubs, all showing off the Fancy’s wide variety of entertainments. Some of them quite good.
Before they could enter this new office, they passed through a complicated and top of the line security scanner system. As Bran walked in, a series of red lights blinked, and Jason punched a code into a panel, explaining, “No worries. It was just picking up your weapons. Or should I say your personal arsenal?”
“Hey Jason, these are dangerous times we live in,” Bran said by way of explanation. “A man has to be prepared.”
“Certainly.” He said, flashing a toothy grin. “That’s why you’re still standing and not free floating component atoms.”
“Well, that would certainly ruin my day,” Bran said, giving the security screener a much more thorough look. He noticed some very discreetly hidden energy emitters in the ceiling. Emitters he somehow missed initially. A little too much bourbon there, lad. Have to stay sharp.
“Yeah. That’s why I didn’t have the system vap you,” Jason said, punching in a second code.
The hatch at the other side of the compartment opened silently, revealing the opulent office beyond. The walls were paneled in silvery-gray native wood and polished brass. Paintings and other artifacts lined the walls, each illuminated by recessed spotlights in the ceiling. Plush red carpet covered the deck plates. At one end of the space was a desk made of highly polished grey stone with a large, luxurious looking black leather chair behind it. In a semi circle in front of the desk were three more similar looking chairs. And in the center of the office was a low table made of the same stone and two decadent looking leather couches. It was very much the office of the extremely successful and refined businessman.
The effect caused an eyebrow to arch. While Jason might be successful, refined would have been one of the last qualities he would have attributed to his friend. The man was a salty dog of a chief, capable of blistering bulkheads in at least thirty languages. His taste in art and music were virtually the same, women singing while wearing only the slightest amounts of paint. Watching Jason stride into the office was like watching a pre-iron native with a distruptor rifle. It was just plain wrong.
Jason, now deep into his office, turned towards him and gave him that same toothy grin. “Pretty impressive, huh?”
“Yeah. For an Alliance Senator or corporate mogul maybe. Which unless the universe has gone totally mad, you aren’t.”
“Hey, can’t a man have a few nice things?”
“Certainly. But your definition of ‘nice things’ is a lot different than this.”
“Hey, Bran, we all have play our parts. And for part of my business, I have to look the proper businessman.”
“Well, are you going to stand at the hatch and gawk like some dribbling nosed recruit all day?” Jason asked with a chuckle as he lowered himself onto one of the couches.
“No, I suppose not,” Bran answered, leaving his perch at the hatchway and lowering himself into the opposite couch.
“Good. I’d hate to think you didn’t trust me.”
“I don’t,” Bran said, cocking an eyebrow.
Jason laughed. “Good. Nice to see that mush you call a brain is still working.” He pressed a few buttons on the table and the center opened, revealing two crystal glasses and a decanter full of an amber liquid. Jason leaned forward and poured large helpings into each glass. Popping the stopper back into the decanter, he waved to signal Bran to help himself to a glass while selecting one for himself. Raising his glass in salute, he said jovially, “Now, how about a little scotch to celebrate the completion of another successful business deal?”
Bran reached forward and picked up the indicated glass. He gave it a small, speculative glance before asking, “Isn’t that what we’ve been doing all day?”
“Well, yes. But there isn’t enough celebrating in the universe these days,” Jason quipped, pointing at Bran with one meaty finger. “Plus, this is good scotch.”
“Fair enough. And I’ve never been one to turn down free scotch.”
“Excellent!” Jason said with a broad smile. He raised his glass up again and said, “To obscene profits and women with even more obscene minds!”
“I suppose I can drink to that,” Bran laughed as he reached over to clink glasses with his dirty minded friend. After a long pull of warm, smoky ambrosia, he lowered his glass and sat back to study the big man across from him. He took another sip of the very good scotch being offered to mull over things in his mind.
It was obvious something was up. Had been since he came in system and been reinforced since then. The initial comm calls, his reaction when they boarded rang just a little wrong. The fact that Jason had taken him to the more ‘exclusive’ clubs on his station, playing more the VIP then the active partygoer he usually was. And now, sitting back and drinking fine, fine scotch in some private, secret office, Bran knew something was up. The question was what.
It was often said that Fortune favored the bold. Cradling his glass in hands, Bran leaned and asked point blank, “Alright Jason, what’s up?”
Jason blinked. “What?”
“I mean, what’s going on?” Bran insisted. “Something’s been up since we dropped in system.”
“What gave you that impression?” Jason asked suspiciously.
Bran just fired off a stare.
“Damn. I thought I’d been getting better about tipping my hand,” Jason replied.
“You have. I’ve only had a vague sense, and most of that is because I’ve known you so long.” Gesturing towards Jason with his glass, he added with an almost smile, “Well, that and the fact that you didn’t take me backstage to meet your new favorite dancer.”
Jason nodded sagely. “I suppose that would be a giveaway.”
“Jason, in all the years I’ve known you, you’ve never had a favorite dancer. Hell, it only took about an hour for us to hit dirtside on even the most back assward dirtball before you had one, and you always had to point her out. I mean, you remember the time on Guaron Prime?”
“That was a great shore leave, wasn’t it?” Jason said with a grin.
“I suppose that’s one way of describing it.”
“Hah! I know you had a good time,” Jason laughed.
“Yes. I love hiding out in the bush because some oversexed subordinate likes the ladies a little too much. And I even love hiding it from my captain even more.”
“Well, I meant the first part of the leave,” Jason said reproachfully. “The part with the booze and the bevy of naked women.”
“Well, yes,” Bran said exasperatedly. “That part was fun.”
“See? Told you.”
Bran fired off another stare, eyebrow arched precipitously. “Nice work in changing the subject. But do you think I earned my fourth bar by being easily distracted by slippery, devilish types like yourself? No. So, what’s up Jason? You in trouble again?”
Jason laughed darkly. “No, I’m not in trouble.”
“Then why all the song and dance?”
Jason reached over and topped off Bran’s glass before filling his own. “You talked to DiFranco lately?”
“Oh,” Bran sighed and slumped back in his seat. He stared into the depths of his glass before taking a long drink from his glass and saying, “What the hell happened?”
“It’s worse than you think,” Jason said grimly.
“He cross swords with that bastard Ignara’s goons again?”
“In a way. In a way,” Jason said grimly. “Except he did more than cross swords this time. He crossed the line.”
“You can say that after what that bastard Ignara had done to his wife?” Bran fired back hotly. “If someone tried….” Bran cut himself off, his jaw clenched.
“Yes,” Jason acknowledged. “I know. I pity the fool dumb enough to hurt her for what you’d do to them. And, if they were lucky enough to survive your revenge, they’d have to deal with mine. But there are still limits.”
“Not many once you attack a loved one,” Bran said with a certain finality.
“But there are still some. And DiFranco went passed one.”
“Okay, maybe there are,” Bran said, voice showing signs of exasperation. “So are you going to tell me what he frelling did, or are you just going to spout platitudes at me?”
“Of course,” Jason said taking a sip of his scotch. “I just wanted to prepare you. I know how close the two of you are.”
“Get on with it.”
Jason took another drink. “Fair enough. Five days ago, DiFranco took the Mad Cutlass and dropped hyper in the Bedari system along with two unmarked Scimitar III fighters. They dropped right on top of the Golden Hind, Ignara’s personal ship, right as it was prepping to jump out of the system. He must have had near perfect intel. I mean, they caught her with her shields down and her guns cold. Apparently, the Hind tried to surrender, but I guess DiFranco had no interest in that. He just lit up his guns and tore into her.”
“The fight lasted maybe three minutes from the reports I hear. They just blew her apart. They pounded the scrap until there wasn’t the possibility of an airtight space left. Then, they hunted down and blasted the escape pods too. Then, he fired off a victory transmission and jumped out.”
Bran had to take a long drink after Jason finished before he could speak. And when he did, he almost smiled. “Damn, I knew DiFranco wanted revenge, but I didn’t expect anything like that. Anything so cold-blooded or so… spectacular. That’s not his style. But at least he got that bastard Ignara. Made the universe a slightly better place.”
“I’d agree with you,” Jason said heavily. “If he’d actually managed to get Ignara.”
“I thought you said he got the Hind? I mean you said his intel was near perfect.”
“It was near perfect. The one problem was that Ignara wasn’t onboard. Something apparently came up or something and he hopped his private shuttle back to Bedari Prime and sent the Hind ahead.”
“Well then, what’s the problem?” Bran asked quickly.
“Ignara wasn’t onboard,” Jason replied, each word as heavy as lead. “But his family was. His wife. Two of his kids. And their kids. The bastard’s grandkids were onboard. Apparently, they were in one of the pods he blasted.”
“So, he managed to assassinate Ignara’s family, but not him?” Bran asked the universe. “While being dumb enough to just have to claim credit for the act?”
“Oh frell. Ignara’s going to scorch systems hunting for him and DiFranco isn’t going to have many people willing to hide him either. Not after doing that and not getting Ignara. Not that I think Ignara will find him. I figure DiFranco is long gone. Won’t see him for the better part of a century.”
“You better hope Ignara does find him,” Jason said sadly.
“Why? I don’t like what DiFranco did, but I sure as hell don’t want that murdering scumball of a crime lord to get his hands on him.”
“Maybe. But the thing is, Ignara didn’t just put a mark out on DiFranco. He put a bag and drag mark out on his known close associates. Apparently he wants to talk with them. And you’re…”
“On the list,” Bran said flatly. “Son of a bitch.”
“How long ago?”
“You went up about two days ago, but it hasn’t spread too far yet. Not up on the Bounty Hunter’s Guild web though, for some reason.”
“I have, an understanding, with a certain key member,” Bran said with just the hint of a smile.
“I see. But that’s not going to help. Ignara’s goons are out in force from what I hear, as are some of his allies. And pretty much every freelance scuzhead looking to make a name or some serious credits will be gunning for you too.”
“Lovely. So, how much is my ass worth?”
“Nice. Well, you know, I’ve been feeling a little unwanted lately,” Bran deadpanned. “But I’m feeling much better now,”
Jason snorted. “I’m glad you’re taking the news so well. Here I was worried you might be concerned that one of the larger crime lords had taken a deep personal interest into your wellbeing.”
“What can I say, it’s a gift.”
“Right. That’s it.” Jason leaned in. “Look, Bran, I can protect you. I’ve got a lot of clout with the locals and I can keep you out of sight until this thing blows over. Plus, I’ve got something…”
Bran held out a hand. “Look, Jason, I appreciate the offer, but I’m not going to drag you into the mess. I already have been, no need for you to get sucked in as well.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jason argued back. “Plus, I could use your help as well…”
“Jason, the concern is touching, but you’ve got a great set up here. I don’t want Ignara’s boys coming in and trying to mess with it.” Bran then smiled darkly. “And plus, if he wants to come looking for me, he’ll find he’s picked some right dangerous prey.”
Jason snorted again, shaking his head. “Of that, I have little doubt.”
“So, how much time do I have, do you think?”
“A few more days, I’d imagine. I’ve got my people screening traffic for any mention of this thing and it’ll take a while for get around through other channels.”
“Provided he doesn’t already know I’m here,” Bran pointed out.
“Hey! My people are good people Bran,” Jason fired back, his voice hard. “They aren’t going to go talking, especially not to someone like Ignara.”
“I’m sure they won’t,” Bran said, holding up a hand in a placating gesture. “But can you be sure that all of their people are that reliable? Or that someone hasn’t managed to get a tap on your systems? Or that he doesn’t already have an agent onboard? No. You can’t be a hundred percent sure, not with this big of an operation. That’s why I can’t gamble on having a lot of time.”
“The possibility does exist,” Jason grudgingly admitted. “But, even if he does know you’re here, now, I doubt he can jump on you too quick. He’s got his people too far spread out.”
“Yeah, but that’s where the freelancer problem comes in. Damnit. Not good. And talk about rotten timing. My crew and my ship need some solid downtime, a couple of weeks, just to get the stress out of the system and take care of all the little things that crop up, both personal and mechanical. Frell.”
“Look, I can hide you out for a few weeks then. Just long enough to get your ship and your people ready.”
“I like the idea, but by then, either I’ll be clear or the noose’ll be drawn so damn tight that the hunters will be right on my heels. No, if I go now, I’ll have enough of a head start that they shouldn’t be able to find me.”
“Good point, I suppose. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“You’ve done enough already giving me the heads up before I found out from some clumsy, half-witted moron with delusions of wealth and grandeur,” Bran said with an almost chuckle.
“What are friends for?” Jason laughed.
“You mean other than the drinking and the partying and the occasional warnings that crime bosses have put hits out on you?”
“Not much I guess.”
“Funny, but it doesn’t answer the question. You said you needed maintenance. Get me a list of what you’ll need and I’ll get you the parts. At wholesale even.”
“That is generous,” Bran replied, now knowing his friend was truly worried.
“Don’t I know it. Doing business with friends is always a loss leader.”
Bran couldn’t help but laugh. “I should get the ball rolling then,” he said, reaching into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a slender, silver comm unit and flipped it open.
“Won’t work. Scramblers will toast the transmission,” Jason said, pressing another button on the table. This time a small, sleek comm station popped up, its holoscreen flickering to life. “Use mine. Completely secure, all hardline.”
“Thanks,” Bran said, replacing his own comm unit and punching in the proper keystrokes to call his ship. A large hourglass filled the holofield as they waited for someone onboard the Gorion to acknowledge the transmission. Finally, the hourglass faded out, to be replaced with the slightly confused image of his X.O.
“Bran?” she asked, sounding just a little surprised despite the ID code.
“Sorry about the unusual channel, but it is secure. I’m here with Jason.”
“Ahh. I see,” Jaheira replied flatly. “What trouble are you in now?”
“Well, funny you should say that. It seems we’re all in a bit of trouble. Well, actually more than a bit.”
“Why am I not surprised? What did you do?”
“We did nothing. Who is still onboard?”
“Just me. I was… taking care of paperwork before dinner. The others have all left.”
“Damn. Okay, I’m on my way back to the ship now. I need you to send the recall signal to everybody. Priority One.”
“Priority One?” she asked, eyebrow arching. It was obvious she wanted to ask more, but she was too much the professional to do it now. “Understood. Anything else?”
“Yeah. Upload our maintenance request list to this location. Jason’s going to help us out with some parts.”
“Understood. I’ll send the upload and the signal. Gorion out.”
As the holofield went blank, Bran turned to Jason and said quickly, “Thanks old friend. Jaheira’s uploading the list. We’ll take whatever you can get us in the next four hours, with priority to foodstuffs and the like.”
“Understood,” Jason smiled back. “Just like old times, eh?”
“Yeah. Whole bunch of people want to kill me, just like old times.”
An hour later onboard the Gorion.
Bran finished his tale and leaned in on his fists as he stood at the head of the table in the ship’s mess. The look around the table was definitely grim, and not just from his news. This was a group of people who were very much looking forward to some well-earned R&R, and they’d just been cheated of it by circumstances outside their control. He just wished there was something he could do to make it better. Unfortunately, lower powers had intervened.
“Well, this sucks giant huge monkey balls,” grumbled Imoen as she tugged on the black half jacket that topped off her silver and black clubbing gear. “I mean, Nalia and I get all dressed up and just hit the damn floor and we have to come back here? This sucks.”
“Never mind the fact that there is ton of work that I need to do, stuff that a yard would make ten times easier,” groaned Nalia from her seat where she was dejectedly pulling the long pins out of her elaborate hairdo.
“Indeed,” grumbled Valygar, looking singularly unhappy at being rousted from his romantic evening.
“Minsc does not like to go running from Evil,” Minsc boomed, slamming a fist on the table. “Heroes do not run from Evil! They face Evil and drive the Boot of Righteousness through Evil’s stinky face!”
“A..allowing the evil men to hurt us would be evil too, Minsc,” Dr. Av’lina said, resting one slight hand on Minsc’s huge forearm. “A.. and if we hide, we can sneak up on the evil later, so that it cannot hurt those we love.”
“Boo agrees with the wise and pretty Aerie,” Minsc said much more softly, patting the doctor’s hand with his own. “Boo also says that Captain Bran is a great Hero. If the wise doctor and Captain Bran says we have to, then it is Heroic!”
“That is one way of looking at it,” Bran said lightly. “Not that I think anyone is going to be telling any tales of this little scaper.”
From his right, Jaheira snorted, “Hopefully not. That would mean it will be a quiet little voyage. We could use that.”
“Actually, I could use a month in a hot tub being pampered by a trio of hard muscled New Tokyo trained pleasure slaves, but I don’t think I’ll get that. So, I guess I’ll settle for quiet,” Imoen quipped. Shooting her brother a look, she asked, “So, what are we going to be doing?”
“Well, we still have that gas mining equipment we got from Harris to cover part of his bill. Since we’ve got to be scarce for a while, I figured we could use that to at least make some credits while we’re out in the ass end of space.” Bran said, quickly tapping a sequence into one of the control panels on the table. The holoscreen behind him flashed to life, showing a detailed view of open space. “So we’re headed here. Sector 154 by 38 by 17, which encompasses the western edge of the Hinode Nebula.”
Jaheira jumped in at this point, tapping out a few more buttons to bring up further highlights. In prefect lecture mode, she said, “The last survey records we have, date back nearly three hundred years old when the Alliance last sent a survey mission into this sector. According to those records, the Hinode Nebula is rich in quite a few valuable substances such as diordinine gas, activated triphosphore sulfide, and niridu gas. We’ll spend our time there, harvesting and then we’ll try in system to see if the heat has died down in a month or so.”
“Gas mining? Lovely,” said Valygar from his seat.
“Yeah, no crap. Talk about excitement. Someone hold me down!” sassed Imoen.
“Oh yeah. And retrofitting one of the cargo bays to actually get all this to work is going to be so much bloody fun.”
“Look,” Bran said flatly, his voice near a growl. “I like this probably just about as much as you do. I wanted the R&R as well, and I find the prospect of gas mining to be just as exciting as you do. However, it’s duck and cover or go try and hurt Ignara’s organization enough to get it to leave us alone. And considering his state of mind right now, we’ll just get ourselves added to the actual ‘conspirators’ list as opposed to ‘people wanted for pointed questioning.’ And then we’ll be in real trouble. I never said this life would be easy, and it often isn’t. So anyone who doesn’t like the plan is free to leave. I’m sure Jason’d be happy to hide you until this blows over. Any takers?”
He raked his eyes across the mess, lingering for a second on each face. There were no takers on his offer. “Good,” he said, visibly relaxing. “Well, we don’t have much time before we leave. Nalia, I need you in the engineering, getting this bird ready to fly. Let me know of any critical needs that we can’t leave with out, otherwise, we’re taking what Jason can scramble up in the next three hours.”
“Right, sir,” Nalia said, with only the merest hint of sullenness showing through.
“Imoen, I need you in Cargo Control, coordinating the cargo transfer.”
“Whoopie!” Imoen fired off sarcastically, but nodded to show willing.
“Doc, I need to know if there is anything you’re going to need for medbay. We’re going to be out in the Vast for a while and supplies are going to be hard to come by.”
“O… of course.”
“Jaheira, I need you and Minsc to do an armory and weapons check. I know it’s not a lot of time, so just hit the top necessities.”
“Certainly,” the bronze haired X.O. replied.
“Finally, Valygar, you and I are going to work up a devil of a course to that sector. I want to drive anyone who tries following us absolutely batty. Think we can do that?”
“Definitely,” his dark skinned navigator replied with an evil grin.
“Alright people. Let’s get to work. The clock is running.”
Valygar and Bran hunkered down at the table while the others headed off to take care of their tasks. There was a lot to do and not much time to do it in.
Outer limits of New Flushing Star Republic of Durton’s Star
23nd Enarn 1569 M.E.
0214 hours Ship Time
“Good luck and good hunting, Gorion,” Jason said from over the secure channel as the Gorion accelerated towards the hyperlimit of Durton’s Star. “We’ll see you when you get back.”
“Roger that, Finnaker’s Fancy. Thanks for the hospitality. We’ll see you later. Gorion out,” Bran replied, leaning back in his command chair.
“Until then. Finnaker’s Fancy out.” Jason replied, firing off one last half smile before the main viewscreen went dark.
“Commline clear,” Imoen said from her station at operations.
“Approaching hyperlimit now, Captain,” Valygar said from navigation.
“Very well. Engage Mectrix drive and implement the Alpha course.”
“Roger,” Valygar replied, imputing the correct commands into the console. “Course set and locked into navigational computers. Jump vectors and field strengths set for waypoint one. Time to translation in 10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4.
With a flare of blue-white energy, the Gorion leapt into hyperspace, leaving the Durton’s Star system behind.
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