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Fiction, Science Fiction, Serial Novels
Echo 13, Chapter 4
by: Derek Hawkins
Part I : The Dance at Dulodann
Chapter 4: Rendezvous
Saturday, 16 May 4742 2320 Local Time
Saturday, 16 May 4742 1820 Galactic Mean Time
A junior officer from communications brought in the Storm Shadow's first report.
"Damage?" asked Kilkenny.
The nervous Lieutenant Thomas Dolan quickly scanned the report. "Heavy damage to all the main drive nozzles, a fuel cell exploded, and she lost the out bound comm. array. Six fighters that were launched against the attackers were destroyed. Two more were blown up in the port hanger bay, causing extensive fire damage. The Storm Shadow reports her primary forward fire control was damaged before her screens went up."
"Send to the Storm Shadow to evacuate the Bravado. Have the crew wipe her down and abandon her." Devon wanted the ship's computer memory erased of all information that could point to the previous owner. He had decided to simply abandon the ship rather than make the costly repairs that would take nearly a year to complete. "Then have her report here as soon as possible. I want to talk to the Bravado's Captain and XO as soon as they get in-system."
"Yes, sir." The lieutenant hurried out of the room as fast as politely possible. Kilkenny's presence was not only intermediating. Sometimes it was scary.
Kilkenny called up his intelligence head. "Any word on the update that our agent promised us?"
The thin gray haired man on the other end kept the worry out of his voice. "No, sir. But we should be receiving it shortly."
"Notify me the moment it comes in." The agent in question was the whole key to the success or failure of the entire operation. The information that came from the shadowy agent known only as Echo was worth double its weight in any precious metal.
* * *
The Blue Dream was well over seven light years away when the delegates were settled into the spartan visitor's accommodations. After the team had gone through it's post-mission debriefing, Cruze, Mcklure, and Forester asked Senator Mial to accompany them to the captain's private cabin.
Bartholos came over to his guest. "Ah, Senator Mial, it is good to see you safe and sound again." He offered them all seats and then sat on the low-backed couch near the Senator. Andron Mial had taken the time to clean herself up and now looked like the regal Senator seen on the holovision broadcasts from the Senate floor.
"On behalf of all of the delegates, let me extend my government's thanks to you for all the efforts of your ship and crew to rescue us," she said formally and then relaxed. "Now that that's over with, I'd like to add my personal thanks to those of my government." She turned to the three-team members present. "You risked your lives to rescue me. Thank you."
Jonathan Cruze shook his head. "You can't."
This really threw the Senator for a loop. Here she was, trying to show her sincere appreciation, and she was being denied. "What do you mean?"
"We don't exist," Forester told her simply.
"Now I'm confused. What do you mean you don't exist?"
The Captain spoke to Senator Mial for several minutes. He explained that they were a small special action force that the Galactic Council quietly funded, as a research and development unit. They received the latest technologies and advancements that the government labs created. However, the Galactic Council had not acknowledged connection to the X-Corps the way it did with the Alpha Force Rangers or the mysterious Seven Blue. He explained how his group operated at the Council's request, but outside of their control, preventing any connection between the Corps activities and the Council, for security reasons. He then asked the Senator for her help in maintaining the X-Corps anonymous presence.
Andron Mial tried to understand everything she had just been told. Secret funding? Uncontrolled special action groups? Don't Exist?!? What's going on here? She wondered. "How can I help?"
Captain Bartholos looked at the Senator seriously. "By encouraging your delegation to forget everything about this rescue. If one of the delegates asks who they are to forget, tell them we are the group, Seven Blue." The Senator, being the only one to learn the name of their rescuers, true or otherwise, could prevent any further inquires.
"What if someone else asks about us being late?"
"You'll have a cover story." Z. thought a few moments. "The Rand's Adventure had an accident. The delegation was able to jettison before all aboard were killed. You were rescued two days later by the light freighter Blazing Glory and taken to the supply station near Solistar III." Blazing Glory was a falsified ID that the ship sometimes operated under.
"Sounds believable enough, Skipper," put in Jason Mcklure.
Mitch shook his head. "It's good but it's not air tight." He called up the Head of Maintenance/Engineering, Chief Yang Malstrom and talked with him briefly. The old man had been around and seen a lot. He could come up with the kind of situation Forester was looking for. While he did this, Bartholos impressed upon the Senator the need for her delegation to accept and stick to the cover story they were providing her.
"Thanks, Chief. Ok, here's what happened. The Adventure ran through an unexpected meteor storm." This was a common occurrence, meteor storms suddenly popping up without warning. It was just one of the little surprises of traveling between the stars. "The damage to the outer and inner hull was too extensive to quickly repair. Only the delegation had time to jettison in an escape pod before the hulls ruptured, ripping the Rand's Adventure apart. The only people who'll know the difference are we, the delegates, and the scout."
Captain Bartholos politely brought the meeting to a close. "I will try to convince them to use the cover story you are giving us, Captain," she promised.
"Senator, it's been a pleasure. These two gentlemen," he pointed towards Cruze and Mcklure, "will see you to your cabin."
After Jason and Jonathan left with the Senator, Forester asked "You wanted to talk to me about something?"
"Yes. You're going on a vacation," Z. said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. Mitch knew from experience that the Captain was trying to be sneaky. "When we get to Solistar III, you're getting off."
"Where will I be 'vacationing' at?" he asked, amused by the fact that he was about to take some time off anyway.
"It's not a total vacation for you. You're going to be meeting the Broxian Mining Scout that brought the situation with the delegates to us. We've arranged to meet her someplace public and out of the way." Bartholos handed Mitch a data packet. "Your cover is that you are a starship dealer on a pleasure cruise through the Pelini moons."
"So all I have to do is gamble a little, and kick back and party with Miss Mining Scout? Or is there something you're not telling me?" Forester asked with a half grin on his face.
"There's work to be done on this trip, Forester. This isn't a free vacation. There are some things that we want you to find out from the Scout. She may know something that may help us finally catch these guys. Her picture is in the packet along with a list of things that we want you to find out about." The Captain turned serious. "We need this one. Don't screw it up."
Mitchell Forester took a look at the photo. "I won't"
* * *
Parnel's voice crackled out of the speaker. "Yes, sir?" He was half way to the Pelini star system. The moons in the system held some fascinating geological features that made them a favorite tourist spot. Years ago, one enterprising soul had decided to begin star cruises to take tourists through the moons and became deliriously wealthy.
"Change of plans," Kilkenny informed his second in command. "I need you for the Vega operation."
The scrambled line hid most of the disappointment in Vykos' voice. "Yes, sir," he said flatly.
Kilkenny noticed the disappointment anyway, despite the scrambler's odd characteristic of rendering voices emotionless during the scrambling and unscrambling process. "It's important, that's why I'm asking you to do it Parnel."
"I understand," the other said. "What do you want me to do?"
"Thank you, Parnel. What I need is for you to get a line on some small transports, at market value and set up a future meeting with your contact. Things turned out to be less than I had anticipated," he explained, meaning that he was having trouble finding the necessary starships required for the operation.
"I'll cancel my trip and get on it right away."
The head of the largest private military force in half the know galaxy thought before he answered. "No. Enjoy the moon run, you've earned some down time." 'Down time' was spacer slang for rest and/or relaxation. Kilkenny very rarely used spacer slang, even though it was the language he spent most of his life around. "You can start while you are on the cruise."
Parnel signed off, leaving Kilkenny alone with his thoughts. Devon began contingency planning. If the necessary ships could not be bought, then they would have to be taken, by force if necessary. He called intelligence and asked them for two things. One was the best shipyards producing small transports and light freighters. The other was the location of the bounty hunter, Danor Sendahl.
* * *
Two hours after stepping off the shuttle, Mitch Forester cadged a ride to the Pelini system, a couple of star systems over from where he was now. He had spent the last three standard days in transit; hopping from system to system on any transport that was going in his general direction. Now, he had a two-hour wait before the cruise liner was ready for boarding. He spent the layover in the terminal's passenger lounge. Mitch was sipping an exotic golden colored beverage made from fermented grain, when he saw Holly Nyx for the first time.
Long, loosely curled brown hair framed an attractive face. Twinkling brown eyes hid behind the oversized sunshades that were currently in fashion. She was slightly shorter than he was by about half a head. Her slim figure and graceful movements suggested to him that she knew how to quietly slip into a room, or to turn it into a swirling storm of attention.
This is a mining scout? He thought, after his first look at her. Better to wait until we're aboard before I talk to her, he decided, watching as she took a seat near the gateway. Forester sat back and sipped his drink again.
Nearly an hour later he noticed another arrival to the passenger lounge. The stranger's deeply tanned face was common looking. The only telling mark on his face was a small scar partially hidden by a neatly trimmed, full, dark beard. He was dressed in a fashion that suggested considerable wealth without being gaudy.
Mitch's sixth sense was twitching. He had an unbelievable intuition that made him seem almost prophetic at times and had gotten him into trouble on more than one occasion. He'd been accused of cheating in more card games than he cared to remember. It was a condition native to his home planet, everyone having it to some degree. Now his intuition was telling him to keep an eye out for this stranger.
Parnel was consulting a data pad, oblivious to those around him in the lounge. His attention was on a list of known starship dealers of all types; the legal, the illegal, and the marginally legal, looking for the most likely dealers who were willing to deal with him. In this case the deciding factor was the dealers' bank accounts and who in the most desperate financial position.
One other thing that he was to do was to meet with Danor Sendehl while on the cruise. Kilkenny wanted a personal update from the hunter. He worked right through to the first boarding call, never realizing that the bounty hunter's objective was seated in the lounge with him.
* * *
The Captain and the Executive Officer of the former patrol ship Bravado filled the video screen of Kilkenny's display." What happened, Captain Tynn?" he asked the image.
The XO answered first. "Sir," Aqui Vasor spoke up, "I was on the bridge at the time the attack began. I would be able to give you a first hand account of what happened at the beginning better than Captain Tynn could. I can answer your questions." He was probably throwing away his life, but it wasn't Tynn's fault, he decided. Vasor's actions weren't part of the solution, so they had been a part of the problem. For better or for worse, he was going to defend his captain from Vasor's own mistakes.
Kilkenny sat without saying anything for a moment. "Proceed." he replied evenly.
Aqui Vasor recounted the events as they happened for ten uninterrupted minutes, from the attacking vessel dropping into normal space, to the appearance of the Storm Shadow and the departure of the rescuers. "After they exploded our fuel cell, they jumped and that was the last we saw of them, sir." he said nervously.
"Relax, Commander Vasor. Your behavior throughout this entire affair has been exemplary, especially the way you handled the Rand's Adventure. That was some excellent work. Everything you have told me has more than justified your actions. I have big plans for you in this organization. You are dismissed Captain Vasor."
"Yes, sir." Aqui turned and walked out of the screens range, both relieved and frustrated. Relieved that he still had his life, and even amazed to get a promotion out of a situation that normally would end any other military career. Frustrated because he was thinking of getting out of this lifestyle and doing something different for a change.
Kilkenny turned his full attention to Tynn. "Now, Captain, we have much to talk about."
* * *
The cruiseliner Bacchus floated in a sea of stars, at the edge of the Pelini system. It was a broad, rectangular starship, looking mostly flattened, like a squished fruit. Only along the center of its beam did it appear to have any thickness. Curving, raked pylons supported two nacelles half the size of the main hull. These were dedicated to the passengers use as game rooms and observation decks.
After a light lunch, Forester went to the main observation deck where the cruise was giving an introductory planetary geology lecture. There were about two hundred people at the lecture he judged; maybe half the number of people on the five day cruise. Nyx was there he saw. She looked only half interested in what was being said. The rest of her attention seemed to be on the people seated around her, particularly the dark bearded stranger that Mitch was wary of. Mitch noticed that Nyx got nervous and turned away whenever the stranger glanced in her direction. This may complicate things a little, he thought.
The lecturer announced a fifteen-minute break between the sessions. Many, including Holly Nyx, took this opportunity to freshen up their drinks at the bar. Mitch saw his chance to approach her and moved in.
"Pardon me, miss," he said when he reached her side. "This stuff looks like it's boring you and this is my second trip through the moons. Why don't we get out of here and go have a drink somewhere?"
"What?" she asked, looking for the proposer of the question. "Oh. Uh, hum," she said, sizing him up. Her questioner was 1.8 meters tall, with a good, but not overdone, build and shoulder length blond hair tied back in a ponytail. Mysterious gray eyes peered out of a tanned face with no visible scars, but modern medicine could do wonders with scar tissue. She herself knew that by previous experience. She didn't know who was meeting her, only that the unknown person would recognize her and appeared to be a starship dealer. "Ok. Let's go." Holly decided.
They left the observation deck and walked down the corridor in silence for a minute. "Where would you like to drink?" Mitch asked her.
"This is my first time aboard a cruiseliner," she admitted. "What have they got here?" Nyx's voice was pleasant to listen to, with an almost musical quality to it. Mitch wanted her just to keep talking so he could listen.
"Well, there's three or four places here in the main hull or we can go up to one of the atmosphere bars up in the tubes." The tubes were nacelles built up above the main hull, offering spectacular views of the moons and surrounding space.
"Is there someplace quiet we could go?"
He considered it for a moment. "We could get something and take it back to my cabin." His suggestion received a raised eyebrow from Nyx. Mitch laughed at her, and himself. "It's not any kind of pick-up line. I meant that we could go and talk."
Holly smiled ruefully at him. "I know what you meant. That would be fine."
They walked to the main deck's cantina where Forester bought two one-liter bottles. The first was a fruit flavored brandy, the other an exotic sour mashed grain alcohol that he had acquired a taste for, called bourbon.
Purchases in hand, Forester and Nyx walked to his starboard-side cabin. "So, what brings you here and would obviously cause you some amount of boredom at a geology lecture?"
"I'm sorry if I looked bored in there," she replied truthfully. "It's just that I'm supposed to meet someone on this trip."
It was Mitch's turn to cast her a raised eyebrow.
"It's a business deal." Now she got both eyebrows. She laughed at what he must be thinking of her. "I'm a mining scout. The company that I work for is looking to purchase additional transports."
Forester laughed until it echoed of the walls and filled the surrounding corridor. "This must be your lucky day. I'm a starship dealer."
Parnel could hear laughter in an intersecting corridor and caught the words 'starship dealer'. He walked around the corner and into the source of the laughter.
"Excuse us," the man that Parnel bumped into apologized. The woman beside him suddenly seemed shy and very nervous. The couple stepped around Parnel and walked on down the corridor.
She looks strangely familiar he thought. She could be anybody he decided, especially after all the people he'd met over the years. He looked back over his shoulder in time to see the couple disappear down a side passage.
Still, there was something about her that seemed familiar. He thought about it all the way to the casino and then put it out of his mind. He had a meeting with Danor Sendahl, the part human, part-cyborg bounty hunter to think about.
"You know your way around pretty well," Nyx commented after Forester closed his cabin door. She glanced around the cabin. It was a mid sized cabin as far as standard cruiseliner cabins went, and twice as big as the little cubbyhole she was being overcharged for. He either has a very successful business, she thought, or else he's not what he appears to be.
"Thanks. I've had some experience aboard this design before, well actually, a Del Draxian conversion." He handed her a half filled tumbler and a conspiratorial look. "As you no doubt also have."
Nyx gave Mitch a questioning look. He grinned at her devilishly. "Yes, I'd say as recently as, oh, ten days ago."
"What?" she asked as innocently as possible.
Mitchell Forester drained the glass and set it down on the table. "We can quit the cloak and laser games Holly Nyx, and get down to business."
She seemed shocked to hear her name from an almost complete stranger. "How did you know that?" She demanded.
"Because you're lookin' at the guy who led the team to rescue the delegates."