Copper fought off another wave of nausea as she watched the digital image of the mercenary fighter flip end over end, and disappear from the electronic gun sight. She'd never fired at a target in space before, and found out instantly it was a whole different ball game with more velocity and a myriad of attack angles not found when engaging targets planet-side. It didn't help that the weapon she was using was a dorsal mount 2 13/50, with a slow tracking director, that wasn't designed to do much more than look vaguely menacing. Still, she'd managed to score at least one solid hit on the little fighter, apparently causing enough damage to dampen the pilot's enthusiasm and send him retreating back to Marawayne.
"Good shooting lady," the co-pilot yelled from behind and below. "He doesn't want any more of us!"
That was good, because she didn't want any more of this ride, either. Copper was fighting her own private battle against a body that had decided enough was enough after the last 24 hours of running on pure adrenaline and little else. She was exhausted and dehydrated; the cumulative effect of such and her injuries were finally taking their toll on her well-conditioned physique.
A vicious four-claw slash from a juvenile saber-cat crossed her left biceps. She'd disinfected and bandaged the wound in the field, but it would require more professional attention soon, and her right knee was grossly swollen from a kinetic energy round that had struck her armored knee pad after passing through the shuttle's light flicker shield. If almost all its inertia hadn't been absorbed by the shield, there would be a one-legged corpse rotting in the hot Marawayne sun right about now.
In addition to all of that, was the stress which came with having her routine tour of duty, of the last 18 months, suddenly yanked out from under her, and being forced to furiously fight for her life and the lives of others she didn't even know. All of this was without warning and against not only a completely unknown and unexpected foe, but also members of her own company. That was the betrayal she was trying to get straight in her mind. Still, she'd managed to hold it together this far, and for now, they were in the clear.
"Looks like we've got another new friend, here," came a yell from the pilot a few seconds later. "Wait one..... got a Solarian navy IFF badge. Funny, she's not giving me a positive ID, but she's big, inbound, and almost on top of us, so, she better be friendly."
Copper swung the gunner's seat around and looked down into the cockpit tub. Over the flight crew's shoulders she scanned the displays for the new arrival. It was too far away to be seen on the visual screen, but the little shuttle's modest sensor suite had created a slightly fuzzy 3D image on the cockpit HUD display. Capital ship recognition wasn't her strong suit, but the pedigree and purpose of the new ship was readily apparent: massive drive venturis aft, angular and wide amidships then tapering forward to a long slim prow, with dorsal and ventral radiator fins swept back. A pure predator, built for speed and striking power, like most Solarian warships. She was big, too. A battleship for sure, but the graceful symmetry of her design put one more in mind of much smaller and swifter vessels.
"Don't recognize her," the co-pilot said. "She's not in the war book, either."
Almost on cue the comm channel buzzed: Alpha D, the automatically coded and scrambled channel used exclusively by Solarian warships and government vessels.
"Diplomatic shuttle Vu-2440 this is Captain McKord, USS Oceania. Am I right in assuming you're carrying the legation from Marawayne? I have orders to secure you aboard, ASAP. Over."
Short and sweet, thought Copper. At least somebody in the outside universe was aware of what was happening. That was good, at least. An uneasy silence still reigned in the cabin as the other passengers contemplated this turn of events. Nobody seemed quite ready to dare to believe they were safe, yet.
"Affirmative, Captain," the pilot replied. "This is Lt. Pruce, Diplomatic Corps. I have the consular, his family, and staff aboard - seven people total. Plus one....." He turned to look up at Copper as he searched for the right words. "Plus one NGO - the person who actually got us out of this mess."
"Ok Lt. My CAP will be over there in a minute. Just follow them as I'll bring you into the port hangar bay. Then I'm going to make a quick sweep of the system in case anyone else needs help. Oceania out."
The realization that they might actually be finally safe dispelled the remaining tension among the passengers, and everyone broke into the excited babble of relief.
Consular General James Mitchell Buillard, head of Solaria's tiny government delegation on Marawayne, unbuckled his safety harness and made his way forward. He stopped at the foot of the gunner's station to look up at Copper, "My dear, we can't thank you enough. We all owe our lives to you. You have my undying gratitude, and the gratitude of the entire Solarian government. I'll make sure you receive your due for your outstanding actions, here, today."
Before she could do or say anything, Buillard graciously slapped his hand down on her right knee. She'd already loosened off the armored gaiter to try to relieve the pressure from the swelling. Her head slammed back against the headrest as a white hot surge of pain shot through her. A fresh wave of nausea followed the pain and all she could do was hold on and try not to decorate the interior of the tiny gun turret with the contents of her stomach.
Completely oblivious, Buillard descended into the cockpit. He slapped the pilots on the shoulders enthusiastically, "Magnificent flying, gentlemen. If you don't mind, I must speak with Captain McKord again. Could you connect me, please?"
Pruce began the motions of activating the comm channel, but Buillard in his eagerness couldn't wait. Seeing no obvious microphone to direct his voice to, and not being familiar with ship to ship communication protocols, he simply opened his mouth and started talking loudly, "CAPT. MCKORD, I WOULD LIKE TO THANK YOU FOR COMING TO OUR AID IN OUR TIME OF NEED."
It sounded like he was trying to physically shout across the vacuum of space to the battleship. "Sir.... Sir," Pruce interrupted. "The transmitter is self adjusting." He saw the question on Buillard's face, "You can talk normally; they will hear you normally," he simplified.
Nobody had the chance for more words because Mckord's voice came back over the speakers, "Yes, Sir. I'd like to maintain radio silence until you're aboard. We're still assessing the threat level, and any unnecessary communications could cause confusion and distraction when we don't need it. Oceania out."
Buillard didn't notice, or pretended not to notice, the reproach. He had so many things he just had to tell someone that he was afraid he'd burst if he didn't get it out soon.
"Terribly sorry, Captain," he said, in an almost apologetic tone, not having realized that the channel was closed at the other end. Behind him Copper smiled to herself. Ship captains didn't usually tell off diplomats, even low-level ones like Buillard. This Captain McKord didn't sound like your average line officer. There was no hint in his voice of the arrogance and autocratic nature of many of the big-ship captains, and with his last message he basically told the consular to shut up. Interesting. Just one more oddity in a day where anything normal had been blown to hell.
"Hope you didn't offend that guy too much, telling him to shut up like that," Commander Alan Ban said ruefully. Ban was acting as the ship's intelligence officer on this cruise, and right now he didn't have a lot to do. Under normal circumstances no captain would tolerate another officer so casually commenting on the wisdom of his directives, on the bridge in front of the entire watch, no less, but Ban was not technically part of Oceania's chain of command. Rather he and his team were assigned to the ship as a separate special unit, and why Ban could get away with such a blatant violation of discipline and protocol was the fact that he was McKord's oldest friend, and the two of them had fought, side by side almost from the day they enlisted two decades earlier. They'd served together, first in a tiny corvette, then up through the ranks in increasingly bigger ships. The tight sense of community and camaraderie found in the small ships, and the less formal style of command it fostered, had never left McKord. Even in command of ships like Oceania, over three million tons of mass greater than the old Paladin, he still maintained and encouraged close, and what would seem to an outsider, very informal working relationships with his officers and crew.
"No, I didn't tell him to shut up," Ken McKord replied, slightly stiffer than he'd intended. "I told him we should maintain radio silence while we assess the situation, and that we didn't need any useless communications in the mean time." He let that hang for a moment, then he softened. "Alright, so I told him to shut up... basically. I'm sure once we get him aboard we'll never hear the end of him, anyway. I just don't feel like listening to it right now."
McKord didn't have to tell Ban that he regarded just about anything diplomats had to say as useless communication; he already knew that, but the diplomat wasn't the reason he was feeling so inwardly testy. In fact, he wasn't sure himself, but ever since parting company with Paladin and getting the signal to proceed here on this ad hoc little rescue mission, his mood had soured noticeably. McKord had tried to stay his usual easy-going, calm self on the outside, but inside, this unwanted distraction was playing hell with his mental plans. He wanted to get the Oceania back into dock. There was an endless list of minor adjustments to be made, intelligence reports and debriefings about the action in the Gabon system to go through, and on top of everything else, major personnel changes to be made.
At the top of the list was his Exec. He'd basically had to resort to a bit of old-fashioned begging to get Commander Tara Buckmaster assigned to him one more time for this cruise. He couldn't imagine commanding a ship without her, but from now on he was only holding back her career. Her fit-rep that he was working on would, without reservation, recommend her for command. It was going to be like cutting off one of his arms not having Tara to back him up, and not just as a trusted officer, but as one of his closest friends.
His CAG, Rex McMurray, and his ship's chief medical officer Bob Mathias, were two other friends who had been with Mckord since the early days, which included more fights than any of them could remember. They were mustering out. Replacements would have to be found.
Then there was McKord himself. Big changes were coming to the Navy, and by proxy to McKord. There would be a new government within a year, and with it a comprehensive top-down review and reorganization of the Navy's strategic and tactical obligations and operations. That had been promised since the end of the Lugan war a decade earlier, and everyone in the service was going to feel the effects.
McKord's twenty years were almost up, and promotion to flag rank was out of the question for him. His lone wolf, anti-establishment personality and style of tactics made him somewhat of an outsider, even among his peers in the service, and seldom endeared him to the top brass. McKord wasn't an academy man, and his rise through the ranks and promotion to the officer corps had been accomplished the hard way, through sheer blood, guts, and sweat. His entire career, almost from the time he enlisted, was defined by bold, decisive action, usually influenced by the immediacy of events around him, and more often than not, in contravention of standing orders and procedures. In almost two decades, McKord and the ships and crews he served with, and later commanded, had fought more actions and earned more battle honors than a good deal of his contemporaries or even predecessors in the Navy's proud 350 year history.
That used to matter at one time, but as a centuries old saying went, "The times, they are a-changin'." The Republic, and indeed most of the human-ruled parts of the galaxy, were in a state of flux, where everything was open to change. The Navy was going to have to reflect that, too. Men like McKord, who didn't always play ball with the high command and their political masters, were not going to be wanted. He was sure all his efforts and sacrifice would be all for naught, in that he was going to be discarded, thrown on the beach, and forgotten, like the increasing number of decommissioned warships now filling up the reserve shipyards.
All of this dogged his thoughts as he contemplated the sudden change of operational plans. It shouldn't be a big deal though, right? Plans change all the time. It would seem they had been lucky, as well. Oceania had jumped out of hyperspace almost on top of their objective. No searches or rescue missions needed. Just bring him aboard, keep him on ice for awhile, then drop him off wherever the brass said to. Nice and neat. No complications. Yeah right. The universe rarely gives you nice and neat, and Mckord learned a long time ago that complications came as standard issue with the uniform.
Oceania had bled off enough re-entry speed now to almost match velocity with the small shuttle. On the repeater monitors at his command station Mckord watched as his 4-ship combat air patrol took station alongside the small craft, and the whole formation made a slow arching turn until they approached the battleship from astern. The CAP broke off into two pairs and entered the starboard hanger, while the shuttle carried on to the port side bay.
"Lt. Rizzo," Mckord called to his junior weapons officer.
"Sir!" He was there instantly, almost as if he physically jumped from his position on the lower bridge deck to the captain's elevated command station.
"Joe, take a couple of marines and go down to greet our guests; give them my regards, take care of anybody that needs immediate attention, and keep them busy for a few minutes. You know, the routine "welcome aboard" stuff. Look really official and make them feel important. I'll be down in a few minutes."
There was specific protocol conventions to follow when welcoming aboard any visiting diplomats or dignitaries, and sending so junior an officer as Rizzo to greet the head of a diplomatic mission, in anything but the most dire of circumstances, was violating most of them. Everyone from His-Most-Exalted So-and-So down to the most minor officials like this Buillard character, were supposed to be met by the captain and some of his most senior officers. At the very least, if he couldn't make it, he should have sent the XO. Protocols aside, they were in a potentially hostile environment, and Mckord was definitely not going to take any chances. Routine could change to complete disaster almost instantly, and even though no threat to his ship was expected, he was going to sweep Marawayne once first anyway. Then he would talk to the diplomat.
Rizzo snapped rigidly to attention as he realized the responsibility in this unexpected order. He snapped off a salute so stiff it was a wonder he didn't dislocate his shoulder. Then he was gone through the double doors at the rear of the bridge, leaving Mckord with a slight smile on his face, despite his grumpy mood.
"Hopefully that won't offend anybody, too much," Alan Ban offered.
"Did you come up with anymore useful intel on this place that might be helpful?"
"Not since last time you asked me."
Mckord knew Ban's response might have sounded slightly unconcerned, but he also knew that if his friend had the slightest doubt or information about any danger, he would have said so immediately.
"Well, first things first." Mckord said.
They were much closer to Marawayne now, and it only required a little forward thrust added to Oceania's inbound momentum to put the battleship on a course that would carry it around the cock-eyed, little, red planet. Mckord kept her at a distance, well out from the two robotic ore processing facilities that orbited just clear of the planet's gravity well, and the numerous navigation and automated communication beacons that guided visiting ships down to Marawayne's one tiny commercial spaceport, just outside the capital. At this moment, no ships waited in orbit for their turn to descend to port, and none were leaving after emptying or loading planet-side.
They had plenty of space to deal with any unexpected threats. There wasn't supposed to be anything bigger than heavy infantry weapons on Marawayne, but they'd already seen one fighter chasing the consulate's shuttle, so, these new conspirators could have introduced any number of surprises to the equation. If they had, and they wanted to take issue with Oceania's presence, then Mckord would make sure their little coup d'état ended here and now. Orders, or no orders.
However, nothing challenged their passage, and the only hint of interest came from a single sensor sweep from the commercial tracking system at the port.
As they pulled clear of Marawayne, Mckord tapped his ear mike, "Tara, could you come up here please?" he said to his exec, five decks below in the auxiliary CIC. "I'm gonna secure to yellow and sit out here a ways until I've talked to the consular. We'll probably drop him at the port of entry...."
He stopped in mid-sentence. Something had suddenly occurred to him. If you were going to properly take over a small planet like Marawayne, one of the things you'd be sure to do was to neutralize the system entry point; the large station that acted as the processing center and gateway to the planet for all inbound and outbound traffic. The obviously named MPOE-1 held hundreds of people, businesses, docking facilities, government offices, and a private security firm, supposedly tasked with defending the planet.
He tapped the mike again, "Communications," Paul Morrow, his comm officer replied from the starboard side of the upper bridge.
"Paul, try to raise the port of entry. Talk to whomever is in charge; find out if anything funny is happening there, and then send a burst transmission to Fleet. Tell them we have the legation. Threat level yellow. Awaiting instructions." He added "I'm going down to talk to the consular." He nodded at Ban. "Let's go."
The starboard elevator doors opened and Tara stepped out. "XO on the bridge."
"You have the deck, Tara," Mckord said as he and Ban headed for the port elevator doors.
"I have the deck, Capt.," she said with the casual formality that existed between the two.
The elevator doors hissed shut and Mckord and Ban were whisked downward toward the center of the ship. The elevator reached a cross tee and with a barely susceptible motion, ceased it's downward plunge and began to move sideways through the hull towards the port hanger bay.
"So," Alan Ban finally said, when the elevator was almost to it's destination, "you think something's going on here after all, that might concern us?" On the bridge he hadn't said to much about the situation or what he really thought. He'd given McKord what intel about Marawayne he'd been able to dig up, which wasn't much. McKord was usually quite engaged with him, and all his officers before they jumped into any situation that was actually or potentially dangerous. However, since they'd diverted from their home bound track, Ban had seen McKord's demeanor change considerably. He was sullen and mildly irritated, and wasn't asking anybody for their opinions one way or another.
Right or wrong, Ban was usually completely in sync with the man he had known his entire life, and fought back to back with in so many battles. That's why it struck him as odd this time, the way he saw McKord ramping up to face some threat that he wasn't even sure was there. A casual acceptance had come over Ban, that this little side trip was nothing more than an annoying diversion, meant to test everybody's patience. Nothing, not hard evidence, instinct, or just an old-fashioned gut feeling, had come along to change his mind, either. For the few moments the two of them were alone in the elevator, it was just two friends talking. Ban could try to find out what was really bugging McKord.
Mckord hesitated for a moment, then he spoke, "Well, I think something's going on here, alright, but whether or not it concerns us, I don't know. I'm not sure if Fleet will want us to stick around and deal with it, or not either, but I hope they decide against it. I just know what usually happens to us with these stupid, seemingly meaningless operations. Right?"
Ban conceded, "The shit hits the fan..... big time. Yeah, I know."
"Yeah," McKord agreed, "and when somebody doesn't tell us the whole story beforehand, it's because they don't know everything that's going on, or their holding back on us. And you know what happens, then? Like you said, 'the shit hits the fan,' and we end up in some desperate battle to decide the fate of the universe." He was exaggerating slightly of course, but there had been times that the analogy hadn't seemed that far from the truth.
"You think the fate of the universe will be decided here, on Marawayne?"
McKord finally allowed himself a thin smile. "No, of course not, but I still have that ol' funny feeling there's trouble here that were gonna find ourselves in."
Ban looked at McKord for a minute before he continued, "Alright, so anything can happen anytime, anywhere. Yeah, we all ought to know that by now. If Fleet wants us to deal with this, I'm sure we've got more than enough for the job. I just don't think it's gonna be necessary this time. Solaria isn't even a major player here. Hell, there's only seven people in the whole legation, and the head guy, this Buillard character, isn't even a real ambassador, only a consular of some kind. Since we've got them out already, our job is pretty much done. The other UN parties that have the big stakes here can decide how to handle things. Besides, you know how much they hate us running around half-cocked with guns blazing all the time. As much fun as that usually is, someone else can do the dirty work this time. We can just wait for the brass to tell us what to do with the diplomats, and then it's home, like we originally planned. The sooner we do that, the sooner we get back to where the real action is." He paused to see if his logic was having the desired effect on McKord. "Trust me, old buddy, there's nothing about this whole episode you'll even need to remember in a week."
The elevator ceased it's forward motion and the inner doors opened, revealing a pair of armored blast doors. They parted with a hiss and McKord and Ban stepped through. Marine sentries on each side of the opening snapped to attention.
"Captain on deck!"
Diplomatic shuttle Vu-4550 sat on the VIP parking spot at the forward end of the port hanger bay. The choice parking slot was close to the main personnel elevators leading up out of the hanger, so any important visitors could be rushed off to more comfortable surroundings with minimal exposure to the harsh environment of a working hanger deck.
When the tiny shuttle had passed through the positive shield that separated the cold vacuum of space from Oceania's pressurized internal flight deck, everyone aboard had felt a palpable sense of relief at finally being safe and secure - everyone except Copper. As Pruce had guided the shuttle down the length of the cavernous flight deck to a lighted landing pad, Copper was reminded of a world she had left four years earlier. A world she was now re-entering under the most bizarre of circumstances. Given the situation, she felt a gnawing sense of uncertainty about how she would be welcomed back.
The shuttle's landing skids alighted on an illuminated, octagon shaped elevator pad, and seconds later it dropped down to the hanger deck below. Once on the floor of the hanger, Pruce kept his eye on an orange-clad deck hand who motioned him forward with a pair of luminescent wands. With minimal power he guided the shuttle off the pad and over to their final destination, the VIP parking slot. The plane-guide made the appropriate signals with the wands, and Pruce put the craft down and cut power to the engines.
Inside the passenger cabin everyone sat still as the low wine of the power plant faded to nothing. The internal safety lights flashed green, and with a pop the exit doors on each side unlatched and folded down. Nobody moved for a moment, unsure of what the next step would be. Then, just as he had done at the beginning of the flight, Buillard's eight year old son bolted from his seat beside his mother. He was through the open door and down the ramp in a flash, before anybody had a chance to react.
"Secure that child!" somebody outside yelled.
The child's mother rushed out of the cabin after him yelling his name. Buillard was right behind her, followed by his staff, with everyone piling out the door in a most undiplomatic stampede. Pruce and the co-pilot finished their shut down procedures in record time, and then, they too, made a good and hasty exit.
Copper was left alone in the now deserted shuttle, still strapped into the gunner's seat. With the climate control off, she was starting to sweat. She was almost spent, but she knew she had to hold it together just a little while longer. A lot of questions were going to be asked, and even though none of this was of her doing, some official types were going to be expecting answers from her. What she was going to say, she had no idea. For all she knew, Capt. McKord might just throw her in the brig until things were sorted out.
She tried to focus her mind, step outside of circumstances, and look at things as an observer rather than an unwilling participant. It was almost useless. She'd been a tiny piece of flotsam, swept along by a raging tide of events that threatened to overwhelm her.
It had started with the mysterious lights in the southern desert, just beyond visual and sensor range. Paying too much attention to that and not her surroundings, had lead to a life and death wrestling match with a 200kg juvenile saber-cat that thought it had found an easy lunch. The viscous wound on her left arm and the slashes on her cheek, where stark testimony to a fight that she shouldn't have won.
Next, the alarm from the ore mine, and a drop ship of Uzbek claim jumpers. Their obvious surprise at her presence gave way to complete shock as they went down under accurate fire from Copper and her mech, Churchill. Then, the mysterious blackout of the entire net followed, necessitating a 12 hour forced march back to the capital to report. Bi-pedal mechs can only run so fast, and not with anything that could be called comfort.
A fight at the tiny airstrip ensued, with Mike Hoare getting ready to waste everybody with a plasma scatter gun. If he was in on it, then Tully and everyone else must have been, too. Then, more unknown mercenaries attacked - fighters and drop ships. Churchill's guns blazed away, actually downing one of the wedge-shaped fighters and shredding two of the drop ships with their cargo of mercs.
All of this had ultimately lead to the decision that saved her life by way of abandoning Churchill to rescue Buillard's wayward child before diving aboard the departing shuttle, and getting shot in the knee in the process.
Then the flight skyward, and the frantic effort to drive off the pursuing fighter, to finally find safety in the belly of the Solarian battleship. Now, all Copper wanted to do was crawl away and die somewhere unnoticed, but that was probably wishful thinking.
There was a sudden commotion outside the shuttle, and Buillard's excited voice could be heard above all else. He had obviously found his welcoming committee and was loudly regaling them with his narrative of events.
It was time for her to face the music, too. She slowly unstrapped and climbed down from the gunner's position. There was a small lavatory in the rear of the shuttle. She looked aft for a moment, then out both passenger doors. Everyone had gathered around Buillard on the port side. Copper couldn't help but notice that nobody she saw among the navy types resembled a battleship captain. So Capt. Mckord, for reasons of his own, hadn't deemed it important enough to come down and meet them. Oh well. No matter. The less brass that noticed her, probably all the better. Copper looked out the starboard door. No one was around on that side of the shuttle, So after looking aft one more time, she made a decision. Suck it up and walk tall. Gingerly testing her injured knee, she slowly exited via the starboard door, and cautiously made her way down the boarding ramp. As soon as her foot touched the hanger floor, it was suddenly all too clear she'd made the wrong decision.
A fresh wave of nausea hit her and her stomach heaved. This time there was no holding back the inevitable. It would have been easier to plug an erupting volcano. All she could do was double over and vomit what seemed like an endless stream of sickly sweet blue gunk onto the steel deck.
Hydra Core 2000: Blue Death: an artificially created liquid designed to maintain hydration and nutrient levels in human bodies operating in extreme physical environments. That's what the brochure said, anyway. The lab rats that tested it probably puked, too (or died). That was all Copper had consumed in the last day or so, and her since mech's refrigeration pump was out, she'd been drinking it warm. Mix it with a huge overdose of adrenaline, and you were asking for trouble.
"How much of that crap did I drink?" she thought, looking at the disgusting blue puddle at her feet. Her stomach answered her with another heave and a second stream of blue vomit hit the deck. That's when she heard the marines announce the Captain's arrival in the hanger bay. Suddenly, even the brig looked like wishful thinking. Capt. McKord would probably have her thrown out an airlock for this insult.
She straightened up and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She actually felt a little better having gotten that out of her system, although she knew it wouldn't last. Mercifully, nobody had noticed her yet, all alone on this side of the shuttle. It was time to join the party and get it over with. Today ranked right up there on the scale of the worst days of her life, and the sooner it was finished, the better.
It was barely two dozen strides from the elevator to the VIP parking spot, but it was obvious that no one had noticed McKord and Ban's arrival. A crowd was gathered beside the shuttle, and in the center a tall thin-haired man in a safari suit, whom McKord immediately guessed was Consular Buillard, was face to face with Lt. Rizzo. The diplomat was talking hurriedly and gesturing with his arms like an excited child. Rizzo was looking slightly taken aback and appeared unable to get a word in edge-wise. Buillard's wife stood beside him, clutching their fidgety child and looked slightly shell-shocked from the whole experience. The rest of the legation, and the two shuttle pilots, stood silently, vigorously nodding in agreement at whatever points Buillard was making.
To McKord's relief, it didn't sound at all like he was complaining about his reception or any perceived insult to his diplomatic status. Quite the contrary, it looked like he had found, in Rizzo, a willing listener, to whom he was now describing with over-dramatic prose and accompanying sound effects, the violent litany of events that had brought him to the Oceania. It sounded like quite a story, too. McKord looked at Ban and shrugged.
Oh well, this ought to be good.
McKord was about to open his mouth to get everyone's attention, when a movement out of the corner of his eye distracted him. Someone had emerged from behind the bow of the shuttle. Another passenger?
"Holy Hannibal Missouri," a clearly surprised Alan Ban said, somewhat louder than he'd probably intended. His hand went instinctively to the grip of his sidearm. Behind them was the rustle of leather and steel, as the marine guard leveled their weapons at the new arrival.
McKord turned to look and froze in his tracks as he locked eyes with the woman who now stood a few feet in front of him. She was at least six feet tall, clad head to toe in black leather, armed to the teeth, and judging from her somewhat battered appearance, a bit the worse for ware from her recent experiences.
McKord's entire universe condensed to a small circle that she stood in the center of, as his brain tried to comprehend what his eyes were showing him.
She wore a full form-fitting leather vest with matching pants that could have been painted on. Armored gaiters covered her knees and Kevlar wrappings protected her lower legs. The whole outfit served to accentuate her well-toned physique.
A navy-issue laser pistol rode on her right hip, and a pair of kinetic energy guns, in the style of 20th century automatics, were strapped to each side of her ribcage. The lethal ensemble was capped by an ancient style Katana blade slung over her shoulder.
A dirty bandage was wrapped around four long nasty slashes on her upper left arm, and she stood leaning slightly to one side, favoring her right leg. The gaiter on that knee hung loose in it's bindings, attesting to an unseen injury. Her lightly tanned skin was streaked with dirt and sweat, and she was covered top to bottom in a fine layer of dust from Marawayne's gritty surface. A faint, but still pungent odor that smelled a lot like animal urine, emanated from her direction.
Her hair was dark and straight, and was pulled back in a long pony tail that reached the small of her back. Her sharply contrasting copper bangs were plastered to the sides of her face, but still perfectly framed her finely sculpted nose and cheekbones. A thin slash below her left eye had turned her cheek a swollen purple color, and her delicate countenance had a slightly ashen color to it.
The single most striking feature about her though, was the bright copper colouring of her eyes that McKord could not look away from. They blazed with the intensity of mini-suns. The body was bruised and battered, but the spirit within was unbroken. It seemed to find strength as she held his gaze with no effort, looking deep within McKord.
He felt as though her eyes were searching his, through his very being, right to the core. For a split second, everything about McKord was laid open and totally exposed to her. All of his carefully honed defense mechanisms refused to activate. He stared back, completely lost for words, for what seemed like the proverbial eternity, even though the rational part of his mind knew it was only a few long seconds. Don't just stand here you idiot, say something. Do something!
From a million light years away Buillard's voice suddenly boomed into his consciousness. "Captain,....Captain, may I present the hero of Marawayne. Our savior!"
Copper was acutely aware that she was now the center of everyone's attention. Since almost walking into the man she knew instinctively was Capt. McKord, she'd stood there slightly wobbly, locked eye to eye with him. It made no sense, but she'd known instantly that she wasn't going to the brig, or out an airlock. Something even stranger told her now, that as long as she kept looking into McKord's soft green eyes and held this sudden weird connection between them, then all the unpleasantness of her current situation would be held at bay, as if by a powerful flicker shield.
Neither of them spoke, and she was still at a loss for how to proceed. She had to say something that sounded good. She fell back on what was drilled into her during her own brief navy career: a disciplined and conditioned response. Without breaking eye contact with McKord she raised her right hand up to her forehead in a shaky salute.
"Specialist 1st Class Jordana Tuckwilla, Navy Reserve. Serial no 46550. Current assignment Black Moon Inc., Private Security Corporation: Marawayne Protection and Assistance Force. Request permission to come aboard skip....... er, I mean, Captain."
She saw the reaction in McKord's eyes, and as he was mentally forming a response, Buillard started clapping. To her absolute horror, her roiling stomach, which she'd managed to ignore for the last few moments, now decided to expel it's remaining reserve of Blue Death. The wave of nausea hit her like a body blow, and that was all she wrote as all pretenses of maintaining dignity were over.
Copper puked the last of the blue slime onto the deck at McKord's feet, splattering his boots in the process. Her empty stomach heaved spasmodically and the bitter taste of bile filled her mouth. Her good leg didn't want to support her weight anymore, and the entire hanger deck was suddenly spinning uncontrollably. With a barely audible moan, the hero of Marawayne pitched forward, crumpling to the deck in an unconscious heap, at the feet of a still speechless and motionless Capt. Ken McKord, who had just come to the conclusion that she was the most mesmerizing and beautiful woman he had ever encountered.