Nitir has gone dark [WCGS RPG]


Rear Admiral
2659, August 9 1120 UTC

Flight sims, TCS Majestic

Nina Epinosa, Cyric Karde, Philip Bradford and Julianna Singh emerged from the space sim. They were on a hot streak, having finished off 2 waves of Hhriss and a Drakhai Gothri wing.

The score board for the simulator was now showing:

Capt. Nina “Zorro” Espinoza
2nd Lt Cyric “Talon” Karde​
2nd Lt Philip “Iceblade” Bradford​
2nd Lt Julianna “Karen” Singh​

The pilots continued with their training routine and personal time. The four pilots met up for lunch. Nina was as usual looking fabulous, with a new hairstyle and a neatly pressed outfit. On the other end of the spectrum, Julianna was in her same sweats she would wear whenever she was off duty. Cyric was still glistening from his post sim workout, and Bradford was his cool self, still in uniform but top button open.

At lunch, Singh broke the ice: “Uh... guys... I got this mail, looks like we’re all CCed”

“Attention pilots,

You are cordially invited to attend the **Gemini Special Operations Task Force** (GSOTF) in the Nitir System, Due to your exemplary performance in the simulations. The first mission will be coordinated by Colonel Edgar DeVrees. Please clear an availability with your commanding officer special operations before accepting. The Mission details shall be divulged in person if you have accepted. Rendez-vous information is attached. Please reply by August 12th 1800h.


Albert Steele, PhD, MASc, B.Sci, IA35F”

she read in an official voice, trailing off at the titles though.

Nina gave an unimpressed look while taking a sip of water, “Special Operations? That sounds like it could be interesting and dangerous.”.

“But why would they want US?” Julianna asked.

“My brilliant hair of course!” Nina winked and patted her new curls.

“Well let’s see what they want, we can always back out... I guess.” Julianna chewed on her sandwich at a faster pace while answering.

Nina understood her wit flew way too high over her friend's head, “Indeed. Let’s do that. Where do they want us to meet?”

“They said a shuttle might pick us up and that we are to bring minimal personal effects.” Julianna said.

“Well, I’m bringing my bikini then...” Espinoza winked.

Cyric joined in “Any details?”

“It’s white and strapless” Nina said.

“... about the mission, ma’am?”.

Julianna said “we all got the same email, unless the captain here got more...”

“It’s got sequins, nothing else.” Espinoza got one last joke in, seeing a harsh audience. “No they didn’t tell me anything either.”

Bradford was kicking back and enjoying the spectacle. He gave Nina a knowing nod.

All the pilots had no difficulty clearing the mission with their superior officers and replied accepting the mission the same day.
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2659, August 10 1530 UTC

Command, TCS Majestic

The four pilots were invited to an office near the captains cabin. They meet a squat and powerful looking man. He looked like a mix of an office supply store sales rep and a marine grunt. He was balding, clean shaven and sporting a unibrow. He was wearing the standard confed uniform, with a black turtleneck underneath. His sidearm was on display in a shoulder holster, he also had two eagle colonel insignias neatly placed on his collar.

Without skipping a beat he gave a sharp yet relaxed salute, “Colonel Edgar DeVrees, CIS.”

The four jumped to attention,

“Captain Nina Epinosa. TCSF”

“2nd Lt. Philip Bradford. TCSF”

“2nd Lt. Julianna Singh. TCSF”

“2nd Lt. Cyric Karde. TCSF”

DeVrees nodded “ Your enthusiasm is . commendable. I already know . who you are.”

Nina smiled “My reputation precedes me.”

“We have . a situation . That special operations can use your assistance. As with all pilots we recruit your performance records are remarkable.”

“Hard work” Nina added.

DeVrees continued in his staccato timber. "Of course. Discretion... is required. and your superiors will be informed of your actions on a need to know basis."

“Of course” Nina replied.

“The Majestic, as you can see is still aching for repairs. So you will not see action on her any time soon. You can enjoy the amenities of a 20 year old Bengal, or you can do your species a service.” He paused, even longer than usual. “Everything I say after this point is on a need to know basis. Please sign these releases to ... ensure... you understand that it cannot be ... divulged... to anyone until declassified.”

He passes a device that had the non-disclosure agreement on it. Julianna was the first to sign with her thumbprint, then Bradford, Karde who eagerly added “We are ready for whatever Confed requires of us, Colonel”. Epinosa was the last to sign. There was no hesitation in the team. DeVrees took back the pad and upon seeing everyone was on board started.

“We are suffering from a . lack of activity in the Nitir system. It has effectively gone dark. Kilrathi, Pirate, Retro, Unionist and Bounty hunter. Our basic background noise... went down. Our relay satellites are working fine. Or at least they are reporting they are working fine. There is no debris, no signals of energy discharge on gravidar. We don’t know what’s happening, we need people who can perform reconnaissance far off the normal jump lanes.” DeVrees explained. “A shuttle will pick you up at 900h tomorrow, please be punctual”.

He sat down. “Do you have any questions?” he asked, smiling and raising his eyebrows much like a professor .

“What will we use for this recce?” Nina inquired

“I am afraid that is classified for the moment, but it will blend in very well.”

Singh asked “How long will the mission take?”

“It should not be too long, under a week as mentioned earlier. The mission per say. Would be a standard issue 6 hour flight."

“Does intel have any further suspicions for us to go on as to the extent of the opposition we will face on this mission, sir?” Karde added.

“We are. Intel. We doubt there will be much opposition... this sector is typically quiet, but now it's too quiet." "For all we know, this could be a wave of dark. Matter or other particle. that is blocking our sensors. It could also be a new alien race. We need you. To reduce the possibilities. If this mission were a. deemed. higher risk. we would have put. more veteran pilots on. it.”

“Could it be a bug in the satellite software?” Philip inquired.

“A distinct possibility, we would need to have some pilots get close to them to check the logs.”

"That would be an astronomically unlikely event for all of them to bug out at the same time unless it's some sort of system-wide jamming or worm switched on at the same time in the software operating on some sort of timer." Cyric expanded.

“The chances are negligible”

Philip nodded at the team.

If that’s all, I will be leaving, I have other issues to attend to. Nina was unable to resist adding a “See you later, alligator. Sorry, sir.”

DeVrees tersely dismissed them.

After exiting the office, the group agreed to meet-up pre flight.
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2659 August 11th, 0715 UTC

Mess hall, TCS Majestic

The mess hall had the usual bustle associated to a change of shifts. In the background, a large technician is carrying two dishes, a stack of doughnuts and a whole dish of fried onions. Julianna was sitting at a table with three empty seats, she has a large ping smoothie and a vegetarian omelette. Nina arrived and is greeted by a smile. She had pancakes and a large glass of orange juice. Julianna did not understand the hype around the orange juice, sure it tasted almost as good as the non-reconstituted kind, however, the un-enhanced and unsweetened flavour was bland by her standards. Cyric showed up third, his southern roots were showing, as he had a full platter containing bacon, scrambled eggs, toast and grits, with more OJ, much to Julianna's chagrin. Finally Philip arrived, with a tall tea, some bangers, hash and eggs.

“Well, you’ve got to eat MREs to appreciate real food”, Nina opens while gracefully eating her pancakes. Philip seeing the ice was broken, projected his voice to ask “What will you do with your week off? I’m going to catch up on some time in the potter quadrant, see the nebulas.”.

“What are you talking about?” Singh asked staring blankly at Iceblade, “Aren’t you coming with me to the mi..” it clicked “ssion...ary... er.. help” She blushed “ museum?”

Nina tried to distract from the faux pas “I’ll be modelling.”

On the other hand , Cyric had jumped at the opportunity to toy with a flummoxed Julianna “Museum? Moonlighting as a tour guide are we?” He proudly asked while salting his eggs. Julianna slumped down in her chair. She was already quite petite, but she tried to look even smaller at that point. “I’m not cut out for this museum stuff.” Philip eyed Singh, and sighed at the lack of creativity on display. “Yeah... I’m gonna give a tour... reveal all the secrets... I’m gonna eat now...” She grabbed her smoothie and started chugging. “Some museums are better than others.” Nina added. “Museum life is a challenge, but I think you’ll fit right in!” Cyric raised his glass of OJ in a jovial toasting salute. Phillip turned his attention to Nina, much to her pleasure. “So Zorro, you ever gone on a museum tour?” He asked with a knowing smirk. Julianna precariously blushed, knowing the answer. “I’ve been IN a museum exhibition”. Julianna sunk even further into her chair. “Oh so you’ve gone full mannequin I see?” Philip nods. “It wasn’t a mannequin, I was in a photographic exhibition as one of the models.” Nina proudly announced. “It’s alright! A nice little exhibition will bring out the best in you!” Cyric added mirthfully joined in.

A private doing KP shouted out “I would spend some creds to go see her exhibit”. Accompanied by the chortles of his colleagues. Lt Bradford attempted to reign in the conversation, “I think the nebulas will be more interesting than the museum.” “Send me some creds and I’ll send you the pictures” Nina hollered back. The private high fived his buddies in back. Julianna started to appear calmer, “Probably... Hope you get to see some ionic activity... at a distance of course.”

“Whatever happens in the museum stays in the museum” Cyric said, eating his grits and moaning at the sophomoric direction the conversation went that morning.

“Ugh, it still amazes me why the TCSF even needs enlisted personnel” Bradford murmured, before answering Julianna “Oh yeah, i hope to get many good high quality pictures.”

Cyric answered Philip "It’s for the grunt work, I guess. The army gets them so why not us?". Nina added “Some grunts more than others.”

After a collective groan at the humour, the four pilots finished off their breakfast and retrieved their affairs. Ready to hop onto the shuttle.

At the docking bay, a young captain awaited then. “Col DeVrees needed to make an urgent night flight, I will be ferrying you.” Nina squinted her eyes inspecting the young man. “Right, what’s your name?” “Lt Colbert, ma’am. I can see you’re Espinosa” He replied glancing at her flight suit. “I most certainly am, what’s your specialization?”. "Shuttle pilot, I pilot shuttles." he paused, "Need a hand getting in?"

"What's your specialisation code?" Nina continued. Cyric studied the pilot with care but responded with a nod as well before packing away his belongings. "I think we can manage, sir." Singh handed him her duffle bag and thanked him. "2t2x1 ma'am, shuttle pilot" Colbert replied with a slight crackle in his voice. It was obvious Captain Espinoza was an intimidating force for him.

"He's cool Zorro, just head on in," Bradford finally says as he enters the shuttle.

"OK. Right. Let's go then. Take my bag, shuttle pilot."

"Yes Ma'am" Colbert replied, nearly melting in relief.

"Thank you for your service, shuttle pilot." Cyric embarked the shuttle and took his seat strapping in with his seat belt.
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2659 August 12th 1300 UTC
Shuttle, Nitir System
The shuttle flight was a longer one than expected. It was uneventful. Though Julianna nitpicked every action the pilot performed. They rendez-vous with what looked like a slightly larger than usual Vigilant-class tanker, the TCS Rathburn. The docking process was quick, and the airlock servos were deeper sounding than expected.

Upon entering, the tanker, it was obvious, something was different. The walls to the outside were as thick as those of a destroyer. Cyric patted the wall, “Nice armor plating!”. An nco welcomed the four pilots to the Rathburn and invited to pilots to pass by decontamination and meet their liaisons.
The four pass the the standard issue laser fields, outside to individuals are waiting, a tall lanky and unusually pale man identifying as Analyst Steele, and a much smaller, older and wiry woman with greying auburn pixie cut who presented as Analyst Nicole.
“Why the decontamination?” Nina mused.
“Standard practice, we have people from different sectors here, no need to have another outbreak of Watsons.” Steele replied proud to be able to answer. “Elementary” Nina interjected.
“Well, we don’t want to infect the natives of the nebulas, now do we?” Bradford joked.
Nicole waited for a lul in the conversion. “Would you like a tour of the Rathburn?”
"Of course, ma'am. I assume this is no standard tanker is it?" Cyric said observing the other oddities of the ship's interior besides the unusually thick armor plating.
Steele giggled with a slight snort: "Oh no... " Nicole cuts him off: "May I remind you that to sensors and everyone outside it is"
"Noted. What does it really do?", Zorro cooly asked.
Steele replied "Yeah, but we're in now... shouldn't we show the cool gear... .they signed the NDA."
Iceblades had the look of apprehension on his face, "A tour would be most appreciated, thank you."
Steele seemed to be bouncing from one foot to another. Nicole put a hand on his shoulder to calm him down. "Yeah... but look, we discussed this... they are pilots, they don't care about the frequencies of the carrier waves." "5 sentences per item OK?" Steel looks dejected. "Fine".
Where the cargo hold should have been, there was a flight deck. The pilots are guided to four talon fighters and two unrecognized fighters.
Zorro narrowed her eyes and grinned "OK, some secret sauce".

Cyric immediately fixated at the two craft, taking notes of every angle in the chassis, inferring their functions. They were shaped like the letter ‘A’ where a large engine followed each line of the frame and a dome cockpit was located near the apex. "So, what's this? A Squat Shooter?" Zorro asked. Iceblade tilted his head, "Arrows?" Certainly seem like the older fighter design, maybe a fresh new variant, Iceblade wondered.
Steele inhaled sharply to say, "this is the future of li--" Nicole interrupted "these fighters are in testing and will be deployed if and or when they are ready."
"So we're not flying them today. We're in Talons?" Zorro asked.
Nicole replied "the flight is scheduled for tomorrow and I don't have that answer, but probably." Steel interjected: "They aren't ordinar..." Nicole darted a look at him "y... they are OK I guess"
"Moving on, we get to the sensors deck." Nicole declared "These are the eyes of the ship, please note, the Rathburn has a staff of 160, half of the crew are analysts."
"Noted. I'll have to chat with them later,” Nina said..
"We have more sensors than a heavy cruiser, we have a full Lidar, active and passive, a gravidar net, and a 160GHz microwave sensor array."
Lt Bradford appeared to tense up. “Remembering when you were almost assigned to data science by command?” Nina poked. “Yeah…” he sighed.
Steele looked at Nicole seeking approval. "Yes, this ship has eyes." Nicole replied. "Our computers can't keep up with the data... we act as filters"
"Does it have a baguette oven?" Nina interjected. Steele widened his eyes.
"or a mouth?" Iceblade smirked.
"Ba-baguette? let's go to the mess hall" Steele stammered, trying to keep the conversation clean..
"after the tour, of course Sir." Cyric was absorbing all that information and started to see how important the Nitir system is to confed intel. More proof that this was no standard recon mission.
Nicole nodded back.
Moving on, they arrived at the “CIC”, as there was little combat on this boat, it was simply referred to as ops. The CIC does not look like a standard CIC, you can see DeVrees sitting in the captain's chair, but behind him appears to be 3 conference tables with many non-commissioned officers hustling to parse data. Each table had a small sign above it, “Lidar”, “Gravidar” and “Other”.
The four pilots came to attention and salute the colonel. DeVrees smiled appreciating the rare formality and sharply saluted back. One of the analysts laughs... "Check out the stiffies over there" DeVrees replied: "we need them, or would you rather fly a fighter?" "Sorry sirs and madams, we don't see outsiders, or well, people... much"
Steele reported in "Colonel, the crew has made it, we showed them the fighters and the eye room... " DeVrees smiled and replying "Excellent. get comfortable, here, we are going to launch tomorrow. I will brief your liaisons. on the mission, Steele, Nicole, the four pilots are friends you can tell them whatever you know. pertaining the Nitir system."
Zorro crossed her arms. “OK, let’s hear it.” While Steele replied with a big smile and a salute:"Yes sir, with pleasure" They start walking toward the mess hall.
"We have an accumulation of pirate vessel sightings, and several disappearances. But no signs of fights, no terran debris... this just makes no sense And you know those privateers... the quick buck ones? they are disappearing too." Nicole interjected "Sol thinks the cats have a superweapon being produced nearby." Steele countered "It would explain the extra activity in nearby sectors. But the cats are not this clean"
"We need to figure out what is going on." Nicole summarized.
They passed through the mess hall, the selection of food was spartan, but surprisingly fresh.
"So... you know how jump nodes are normally full of debris... almost as dense as a planet's ring?" Steele expended.
"I guess they're not?" Nina retorted
Nicole continued Steele's sentence. while they guided the team to their quarters.
"Bingo. This also makes optical navigation difficult as merchants can no longer locate jump points. this of course is a hazard confed would not want to have."
"Most certainly". Nina replied
Steele half smiled "We are on a mission to pollute space again. "
"Maybe this is the KIlrathi's scorched earth method, when they pulled back." Philip inquired
“We thought about that…” Nicole replied almost hesitantly, “but we aren't sure... you see there are asteroids still just very little refined material."
"We don't have the skill to navigate these asteroid belts…” Steele expanded “and well... there are still pirates and cats and mercs."
"- And retros" Karen quipped.
"So, we're here..." Steele continued ambiguously arriving at the conclusion and the door of the pilot’s quarters.
"Supposed to be those around, anyway." Nina replied trying to reassure.
Nicole smiled "Smart girl. we'll have a briefing at 1800h, get whatever rest you can." as they arrived at the door to the quarters.
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2659 August 12th 1755 UTC
Ops, TCS Rathburn

DeVrees waited for the pilots, Iceblade arrived last still feeling ship-lagged.


"Atten-shun officers."

"At ease, at about 1900h you are to fly two 5 point patrols to flank the Rathburn through the asteroid belt. You will be posing as minor pirates. You will be flying modified talons with 10 units of weapons components each. In system patrols should avoid your route, but please note you do not have authorization to engage them unless you are engaged, do not shoot first. Also, your IFFs will read hostile to civvies. Pirates and other malcontents should leave you alone. Bounty hunters probably will see you as an easy reputation boost."

"Alpha flight will consist of Captain Espinoza and Lt Karde, they will fly through the lighter asteroids, they have a higher probability of seeing action, Bravo will be Lts Bradford and Singh. Bradford will take point. Your patrol will be through some denser thickets. Your knowledge of minerals should aid in this area."

"Fly forward through the asteroid belt and attempt to find the listening post. The pirates in this sector are unusually shy, and frankly, that has us worried, they seem to be organizing something and we don't know what it is."

"Note that your talons will be slightly modified. They carry a towed sensor array. This data along with all flight data will be logged redundantly on your onboard computers. In case of an engagement, drop the sensor array, we don't want pirates to figure out our game."

DeVrees pauses, "Now this is where special ops differs from the navy. If you have an opportunity to recon the base, do so within reason. If you see an opportunity, take it."

"If you spot anything on your sensors, you have my express permission to investigate, We will perform two short-jumps, one to hide behind the moon after you depart then one to return in 6 hours. If you do not return on time, you will be considered AWOL unless you drop your towed array _and_ your transponder. If that was the case, you will be checked out in 4 days. Note your talons have a cargo hold with 6 days worth of public MREs, and, of course, "facilities", as well as some missile guidance systems in order to gain legitimacy. Finally, change into some “civilian” outfits, the last thing you want to show on the comms is a confed star."

"Are there any questions?"
Karen sheepishly raised her hand. "If we have the weapons in hold, should we really ... LAND on the base?"
"Yes, what if we're under heavy attack and need actual assistance?" Zorro asked without waiting to be called.
DeVrees answered Zorro "These pirates are not engaging confed/militia, they are very defensive, we strongly believe you could do such a thing safely."
"Your sensor array should make them visible way before they see you. After all, you shall be towing a 35 meter sensor array. Common sense applies though, don't engage unless you're sure to win.
Karen follows up "What can we do if we see pirates that want our cargo?"
"Drop some of your cargo, negotiate or fight, up to you. But I want you to stay alive, don't get fragged by a punk." The colonel answered.
Karde raised a concern: "Sir, What is the primary objective of alpha wing beyond as a mere screen or distraction for the malcontents?"
"Excellent question Karde, you don't want to be a screen, you want to tail them. Find out where they're going, assuming you find one"
"Sir, won't a listening post or sensor array itself have much better sensors than the typical 30000k limit of the usual civilian stock array of sensors? Will they be able to see through our disguise at ranges comparable to our own sensor array boosted Talons?"
DeVrees replied: "You're much smaller than any base that can land a talon. I strongly doubt you'll be spotted before you spot them. Hell if they have an active sensor like a gravidar, you'll spot that before they spot you"
An analyst chimed in: "We've calculated the odds of being detected, they would need sensors with a power output greater than that of a bengal's deflectors array to even have a 5% chance of seeing you first."
Cyric nodded at the analyst in thanks briefly before returning his eyes to the Colonel. "Thank you, sir. I understand the mission parameters."
"That's nice to know,'' Zorro said, "but you can get a drink spilled on you at any time during a party."
“This is a dry ship” the analyst replied obliviously.
"What happens if we do get engaged?" Zorro repeated.
"Up to you. You can negotiate, fight, run, dump your hold. you have many options." DeVrees replied.
"We show them that we aren't tame little civvies," Iceblade chimes in.
"Only start what you know you can finish though. we don't want a blown cover" Devrees reminded.
"If the cats turn up in force and I die, I will haunt you in your sleep." Zorro snarked.
"Yes, sir. Engage only if fired upon, tail any suspicious craft back to their listening post. We will not disappoint you, sir." Cyric answered with the practiced confidence of youth.
"Don't worry about that, if the cats do turn up, we are all screwed." Iceblade said sardonically.
"Get in line. in this business we're all about calculated risks.. You stand to save thousands of lives by doing this, and you can see the cats before they see you. At the sight of a gothri, or a jalthi, you run, but you should be able to handle a krant."
"I'll bear that in mind, sir." Zorro hissed displeased at being reduced to a number.
Karen looked nervous… "Affirmative."
The analyst chimes in. "You know, you have 6 days worth of food on board, you can definitely outrun anything short of a salthi."
DeVrees replies, "yes but I doubt that will be an issue."
"Duly noted. No further questions." Zorro finished.
"Well I am ready, sirs," Iceblade chirped. "Come on Singh, let's go play mouse." Phillip skipped out with false euthanisism.
Karen followed dragging her heels.
Cyric walked with an easy confidence behind his wing commander eager to begin the very strange mission of undercover recon-spy pilot.
The four pilots proceed to the launch tubes. Zorro was wearing a low cut bustier and leather pants, and thigh high high heeled boots. Cyric was wearing an eye patch, white shirt and vest. Karen and Iceblade raised their eyebrows thinking they were in a historical re-enactment. Iceblade had a damaged civilian jumper and bandanna on. Karen was wearing a jumper with many leather patches and thick straps keeping her suit together. She also carried her sidearm openly on a thigh strap. This was something unusual for her, she would always keep it in her sidearm at her hip and in a closed holster.
The tech, asked "Ever use a launch tube? it has a bit more kick than a standard deck. Especially with these civvy acceleration absorbers." Every member of the team as comfortable with the tech. During the pre-flight check, Julianna was surprised by the amount of analog instrumentation in the ship, used to the sleeker Stiletto or the much simpler shuttles and draymen. Nina had experience flying talons for leisure before, this was all familiar to her. Iceblade and Talon were quite comfortable with the changes in the control scheme too. It had to be said that the Rapier and Talon cockpits were both designed by the same engineering firm, so the Rapier pilots were surprised people found the talon’s layout odd.
“Launch in 5-4-3-2-1…” The gravity whip launched the four fighters simultaneously out of the dock. This was accompanied by a bright flash, the whip was overcharged to clear ships in that launch vector and lossier. A few seconds later all four birds automatically deploy their sensor arrays. A large buoy attached by an umbilical floated gracefully behind each fighter.
Singh popped up on the comm. <<See you in four hours Alpha wing…>> She nervously added <<good hunting!>>
<<Got it, Debris. Good probing to you.>> Zorro replied.
Talon chimed in grinning on the VDU, <<Acknowledged, Bravo flight! Godspeed and Good Hunting!>>
Then Zorro and Talon flew off to their patrol leaving IceBlade and Karen on their side.
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2659 August 12th 1940 UTC
Nitr system, Deep space
<<Switch to tight beam comms, Talon>> Zorro ordered. Tight band being harder to intercept and typically having a better signal to noise ratio, it as ideal in covert ops, however, it failed to track ships in combat, so it was not used by default.
<<Aye ma’am>> Talon replied
<<Cyric, may the odds be ever in our favour?>> Zorro wished.
They had a five point patrol, the first nav point was barren. Between nav 1 and 2, Talon picked up a faint blip on his towed array. He was picking up active lidar pings. Cyric notified his wing commander immediately. <<I've got a sensor blip at the edge of my sensor range, can't localize it yet. Do we follow? Please advise?>>
<<Yes, let's go and take a quick look>> Zorro calmly replied.
The talons eased towards the energy source, minimizing deflection to have a smaller EM signature.
A pair of corsair fighters engaging a pair of pirates. Over hear the open comms the pilots heard <<Killing you will put me in the black flyboy.>>
<<Right, I think we'd better leave that one alone. You know what the RoE says>> Zorro advised.
<<Understood. Does that mean we wait until it's over then follow from extreme sensor range?>> Cyric said in a tight-beam transmission to his Wing Commander with visible reluctance.
<<That sounds like a good idea. We're meant to be following the pirates, right?>>
<<Yes, ma'am. Readjusting course.>> Cyric returned to his usual professional tone.
The corsairs looked like they were getting the upper hand, then another wing of talons swept by, <<Forget this, I'm leaving>> one corsair coms and leaves. The other disengaged and flew off using full burners in an opposite direction. His vector brought him dangerously close to the fighters. Zorro was well aware.
<<Looks like we'll have some company soon. Go around and approach from behind or stay where we are and count on our disguise?>>
The talons did not pursue, rather they regrouped. forming a convoy.
She sent a tight beam message. <<Fly in a relaxed manner. If they hail us, sound like the civvies we are>>
Both of their coms flared up. <<I'll keep my mouth shut I swear!>>
<<Hey, what's wrong?>> Zorro radioed, <<We're not out to hurt you…>>
<<I have a family back home, don't sell me... wait ... what?>> The alleged bounty hunter replied.
<<We're just a couple of civilians out for a pleasure cruise. That’s our story and you’re sticking to it.>>

The corsair veered 90 degrees off course and burnt away.
Cyric embracing the pirate mentality mused to himself, "Hmm. Methinks this one is skittish." Then he radioed <<Enjoy your flight!>> only to add <<Yeah, man. Run back to your mommy or we blow you up!>>
<<Tell you what, if you don't tell anyone about us, we'll let you go home to watch your porn in peace. I hear Wild Wet Rapids is great>> Zorro finally added, she giggled in tight beam to Talon, <<I like good cop, bad cop. I prefer Naughty Cop though>>.
The two pilots turned to keep the convoy at a comfortable distance in his upgraded sensor's range. <<It’s a bit old school, I admit; but I like it that way, boss.>> Cyric added. After two hours of flight time, Nina commed to Cyric <<You see that? It’s huge! Karde, cut the towed array>>.
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2659 August 12th 1940 UTC
Nitr system, near the ⍴lzi asteroid belt
<<Hey Singh, switching to tight beam, if it fails due to asteroids, let’s communicate at 20% power… we don’t want to attract unwanted attention>>. <<Sure thing IceBlade, plotting a course through the thick of it.>> Singh and Iceblade entered the inhospitable asteroid field. After a couple near misses Karen attempted to break the tension. <<Man these are thick, thicker than the caf’s gravy!>> Then her lidar lit up. <<Hey Iceblade... you see that blip? Having a hard time with the sensors... these dials are odd>

<<Uh... maybe, it is hard to pick up.>> Iceblade responded.
Iceblade observed a spike of energy on his sensors, 1 uV above noise that appears at a regular 38khz. He almost instinctively adjusted his sensors to amplify the signal. Nothing, it was just their reflections off the iron in the rocks.
They ventured deeper into the field and picked up the same signal, it was stabilized but surrounding them, they were unable to infer a direction to it.
Iceblade wondered if the signal is still just noise. <<Might be something, might be our imagination and pattern matching.>>
<<Hrm... maybe we can move to a clearer area... or a denser area.>> Karen out of her element and moderately incoherent. <<If there is a signal and it’s being reflected, denser would make the signal stronger>> <<Yeah, maybe>> <<Sparser would be less strong but easier to follow if we find it.>> <<Let's keep flying a bit?>> She rambled.
<<Denser area, I would rather be a bright signal dimmed by fog than a bright light on a black background. Keep it slow, Karen.>> Iceblade radioed.
They slowly navigate through some unusually dense thickets of rocks, probably a shattered larger asteroid, then they hit a clearing.
<<Hey Iceblade, you see the rocks there? they are a bit darker than the others? Vanadium, I think... can't figure out the sensors yet... >>
<<Hmm.. possibly iron 'roids. Would explain the sensor trouble.>> Iceblade responds.
<<Yeah, the iron is obvious, look at the orange streaks there... but the other ones are clean.>>
<<Orange???>> Iceblade refocused his scanners on the orange patches.
<<Iron Oxide… Rust>> Karen dryly replied.
<<FeO... you're not the only one that did chem in high school.>>
<<But that doesn't happen naturally in space, you would normally see Fe3O2.>> Iceblade retorted.
<<So...>> Karen asked excitedly.
<<Something went splat on the rocks?>> Iceblade queried.
<<Potentially... but on lots of rocks?>> Karen was pretty sure of her answer but as leading IceBlade on, mostly out of the boredom of having spent two hours in an asteroid field.
<<Not sure what you’re getting at?>> Iceblade answered, the ennui of looking at rocks was getting to him.
<<There must have been a slow leak in some engines, just enough unburnt O2, H2O and heat… along a path. You know... they are going along a line... I think we should follow it... Carefully.>>
<<OH right, I see want you are saying. A breadcrumb trail. Alright stay tight and head on swivel.>> Iceblade responded.
As they followed the trail, their sensors resonated at 1.42 GHz and 400 MHz. They started following the deuterium trail.
<<Looks like we follow the orange rock road.>> Singh sung.
<<Follow the Deuterium road, follow follow follow the Deuterium road.>> Iceblade joined in on short wave.
The two pilots are so enthralled by their hydrogen trail they failed to notice a pair of talons and towed arrays at an extreme distance.
Iceblade noticed a bit later, and slammed the retros, slowing down by half. <<Karen HALT!>> He cried. She cut all thrust and then their sensors also began resolving something massive.
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2659 August 12th 2225 UTC
Nitr system, near the ⍴N asteroid field
<<Hi guys>> Nina narrow banded to Bravo wing.
<<Hello Alpha>> Iceblade replied.
<<Big bad bogey ahead>> Cyric noted.
The radar lit up with a "friendly" IFF. A large silhouette shadowed a swath of asteroids. This shadow was clearly larger than a Bengal. A Gettysburg class heavy cruiser! It was missing part of it's hull, but was patched up using what looks like the ship hulls of draymen and some copper parts looking like scrap kilrathi ships. The green hull plating was scarred with stripes, looking like spirals originating from the reactor core. The lights are on though, and the engines were working, barely. It appeared to be traveling at approximately 900 mps. It reversed its tractor beams to deviate the asteroids on a collision course. The hull was marked TCS Mary (the rest of the panel was missing) but it was written over as "Jeanne D'Arc".
Singh tight beamed <<Guys, this is huge... and look, it's still alive, what's it doing here?>>
<<That's a very good question...>> Zorro replied.
<<Out connection to galnet obviously doesn't work here... anyone know of this ... Jeanne D'Arc?>>
Zorro was looking out of the window of her ship.
<<Wasn't she some French teenager who got burnt at the stake?>> Zorro asked.
<<I am dropping my towed array, don't want them spotting it, and sending it back to the node. Julianna adds>>
Iceblade naturally formed on Zorro's flight, <<Definitely a former Confed Cruiser lost in this sector. The name is ... familiar.>>
<<Obviously, our friends have a sick sense of humor. Maybe they are French pirates? BTW, How close should we get for the intel?>>
Iceblade drops the tow, <<Not too much closer. Surprised we haven't been detected yet.>>
<<Well those talons landed... we were told to get as close as we can... I think we should investigate. You're all in costume right?>>
<<Perhaps we ought to, you know, give them a call?>> Karen asked.
Iceblade radioed to the group, <<So what should we say, "Arr, this is Captain Zorro and this hear be a crew, One-eyed Talon, Lazy Karen, and Grunge iBlade.>>
<<Maybe dial down the stage piracy a bit>> Nina retorted.
<<Cool comm but I'm sure the Arrgh went out of style in the 19 century, Ice-man. We gots to have a plan before we get stuck in so who wants to be the face of our little pirate warband?>>
<<Aye Aye, Captain>> Iceblade retorts.
<<Ok, so... we land, we figure out 1- what's going on. 2- how they are surviving here and why their ship is plastered with Kat ship parts, 3- return with designated info. 4- Go back to comfortable Mage beds>> Karen interrupted <<Also... Lazy?!?!>>
<<Karen? You up for this?>> Zorro asked.
<<I have had many sorties where I talked down pirates and they turned themselves in... they're often people down on their luck>> Karen said.
Iceblade countered <<These guys don't see so down on their luck though.>>
<<I know, typically you'd see a drayman or free trader, not a cruiser!>> Karen replied.
<<Well, you've clearly got considerable charm then. I could charm them, but I'd be too charming>> Zorro said.
<<Yeah, I doubt that if they can keep that Gettysburg running that they are hurting for spare change. Likely these are the more successful pirates.>> Talon replied.
<<Maybe an abandoned mining base, but this is ... odd. A cruiser...>> Karen continued.
The wing of pirates Alpha was shadowing finished landing, and the hatch just closed up behind them.
<<Well the Talons have landed, so now would be the best time to go in.>> Cyric noted.
<<Indeed. Let's say hi and see if we can find out some intel about these people.>> Zorro said.
<<How about just... "Requesting permission to land"?>> Karen said in a flat tone.
<<Sounds good. Need a good cover story mind.>> Zorro approved.
While the four pilots were still discussing, a tarsus merchant ship flew by you and lined up to land on the cruiser.
<<Pirates, selling weapon components, like we have in our hold>> Karen proposed.
<<We are just here to fence our lovely stolen cargo. What could be more practical than that?>> Cyric emphasised the made up word.
<<Yep. Go for it, Karen>> Zorro approved.
<<Something like We're just honest merchants trying ta make a living under the oppression of the MAN.>> Iceblade said.
Singh’s sweat was accumulating in her helm, and she felt her chest tighten. “Ok Julianna you can do this.” She told herself. <<Attention Joan of Dark. Requesting permission to land>>
A flat comm officer voice responded << Land on deck C. ALS is non functional, use your instruments>>
The four pilots practiced these manoeuvers hundreds of times and it showed, they all landed dead center on the flight deck.
2659 August 12th 2312 UTC
Aboard the Jeanne d’Arc
Some deckhands shuffled listlessly to the landed craft with ladders. The landing bay looked to be in a degraded state, but functional. The ALS cables and rigs were in the corner, and looked quite clean. The deck on the other hand was very scratched up and scuffed. A mosaic of patch work was done in some areas with small scraps of hull armor to patch it up. The deck had a general anodized, rainbow shimmer to it, as the paint had been stripped away and it was clear, many hot takeoffs and landings were done here.
Zorro slid down the ladder and looked at the deck hand. "Glad you could make it. No you're not getting a tip."
The scruffy deckhand blankly stared through Zorro. Not reacting to her quip.
The other three followed down. Cyric scanned the hanger bay looking for threats with a casual look on his face. He saw slow moving techs clumsily unloading the tarsus that landed right before them, and no other ships. There were a couple abandoned lifts and plates of durasteel scattered around the floor. Some of the deck panels were also missing, exposing the trusswork underneath.

"Welcome to the Jeanne D'Arc please surrender your sidearm and proceed to decontamination" A deckhand droned off, as if reciting a poem he didn’t understand.
Karen tugged at her laser... and whispered... "It stays with me..."
Zorro surrendered her sidearm. "What's the decontamination involve?" she asks.
The deckhand looks lifelessly at her... not understanding
Cyric gives the tech a casual salute as he hands over his laser pistol.
Iceblade casually hands over the sidearm.
Karen inhaled and proclaimed, "This is my right to bear arms"
The deckhand looked nonplussed.
"What does the decontamination process involve? Do I have to take off my clothes?"
The deckhand, still awkwardly holding three pistols looked at Zorro not reacting to the prospect of seeing a beautiful woman nude.
The pilots suddenly smelled something awful sour and bitter.
The tarsus’s cargo had was flung open. One of the crates leaked and the chemicals started their combustion process. White flames were jutting out and a whipsy smoke slowly was filling the area. The pilot was running screaming. However, the deckhands don't react, continuing to try to ferry in the parts of the cargo hold that were not on fire.
Zorro dashed up to her ship, grabbed the portable CO2 extinguisher from cockpit cockpit and from and threw it to Karen.
Meanwhile, Iceblade scanned the deck for a fire extinguisher, or anything that looked like a set of fire extinguishers, a cabinet for same. He noticed the fire was not coming from the ship itself but rather the hold, and appeared to have started in a way that would not damage the tarsus. This ship was an odd one. It did not carry the dual mass drivers, rather a single neutron gun and what looked like a poorly welded tractor beam in its place.
Cyric dashed to the tarsus and took the one from its cockpit. He used it on the flaming pilot. The pilot stopped running and looked at Cyric. Her suit was covered in ice crystals from the co2, and several holes were burned through on her back exposing her shirt underneath. She has a resting angry face. Her eyes locked on the man who doused her.
Cyric dropped the extinguisher. "Hey! Any doctors in this berg?" Cyric asked all and sundry.
"Get a me... doctor down here, NOW!" Zorro repeated.
The pilot's face shifted from angry to a goofy laugh. "Not going to medbay. No time. No way. It’s not bad, I’ll get the autodoc to deal with it. Thanks for saving me... cyclops?"
During this time, Julianna extinguished the original fire with Philip.
"You are welcome! So what's the rush?"
"Time is money... and my shipment just cost me some."
A deckhand in back slowly starts carting the smouldering beryllium off.
"Ah, but what good is money if you aren't alive to spend it, eh? Medical bills can get expensive" Zorro asked.
"I'll be fine, what's it to you... got a medkit back in platypus over there.'' She pointed at her tarsus.
Cyric looked over at the Tarsus now that he was closer. He just noticed the stencil lettering on the engine nacelles. Indeed the word “platypus” was emblazoned on the engine shafts, and a cute image of a beaver with a duck bill hugging a bag of money was painted on the side panel under the pilot’s window.
"I'm just a concerned pirate. Don't want to lose a potential sex partner."
The merchant hushed her voice. "and you do not want to go to medbay here"
Iceblade and Karen rejoined the pilots, leaving the group of "techs" with patch repair gear idling around the Taurus.
Cyric studied everything and everyone with all the power of his cyclopean eye! The pilot removed her flight cowl. Scarlett waves flowed out, she shook her head to loosen out the kinks in her neck and to air out her hair. The cowl was obviously a poor fit. Cyric's full attention immediately snapped back to the lady with the long red curls.
"Tell you what... while my bird is being refueled, let's sell our hauls at the market." She eyed Cyric... "and maybe get a beer?"
Zorro smiled at the woman. She's going to let Cyric go for this target.
She smiled back, kind of eyeing Zorro seeing what's the game.
Zorro was wearing a bustier, leaving very little to imagination. This was distracting to the new pilot, however, none of the deck-hands batted an eye, they just continued shuffling along.
The five pilots exit the flight deck and walk up to an empty security checkpoint
"So what's your name, pretty lady?" Cyric asked walking through the decontam field. Alarmes started blinking red around all the retained sidearms. The hand manning the post ignored the warning, staring listlessly while continuously waving anyone and anything through the checkpoint.
"Miranda Cassidy, and you?"

Zorro grimaced, and Miranda looked shocked, she thought her name was not so offensive.
Iceblade gave a bemused shrug at this whole situation. He focused himself on the recon job.
"Cyric Grey. So you bring exploding chems here often, Miranda?"
"they buy that for a lot... even half burnt, I'll probably make a crap ton of credits… Freedom 32, huh?"
The deckhands are all wearing civvy mechanic suits. These people do not look military. mostly blankly looking ahead of them, and their posture looked like they have never done a drill in their life.
"Sounds like a good racket. Any idea why they want so much of it?"
"No clue, don't care, keeps me healthy and wealthy." She winked and awkwardly tried to smile.
The group then passed a large medbay, it was clean, well lit and had four guards sporting mass driver scatter guns at the door.
Miranda nervously grasped Cyric’s arm and sped up her pace. The group followed.
"Figures." Cyric noted the large medbay and her reaction with interest. "Let's go get paid, shall we?"
"Y..yeah... let's..." Miranda replied, much paler than she was a minute ago.
While still listening to the conversation, Zorro walked over to one and waved a hand in front of their face. The custodian kept working, ignoring her.
Iceblade guessed real quick that the medbay harvested parts more so than fixes people.
The team arrived at the market, and it is packed...
"Say Miranda have you been here before?" Iceblade inquired.
There seemed to be two sorts of people there... very calm individuals that are oblivious to all around them, and people aggressively trying to buy and sell, treating the others as furniture or some other form of obstacle.
Zorro looked to see what is on sale.
Miranda replies, "Yeah, two runs so far... they just eat up EBH like it's luxury food laced with ultimate."
Cyric scanned the place as if looking for his fence but really he is counting up the booths, seeing what items are for sale, and trying to get a feel for the faces inside the marketplace. The market is approximately 50 square meters, filled with over 100 people, and many overhead monitors showing prices rolling by.
"You know why everyone belonging to this place is so.... Catonic?" Iceblade continued.
Many people are waving their quines around.
"They weren't careful. Don't ask, walls have ears." Miranda replied in a hushed and rushed voice while making sure to have eye contact with Iceblade.
She then whipped out her pad and sold her the beryllium very quickly.
Singh is tried to offload her warheads trying not to negotiate too much and not draw too much attention. "We sold our stuff, let's get a drink and rtb." Karen was aghast at what she said. She repeated loudly "Are t vs a thing here?" hoping to cover up her miss step.
Zorro decided not to sell her guidance systems and so sets a price far too high. These people were too dodgy for her liking...
Iceblade was terrible at selling stuff, but he managed to get a buyer interested... only for him to get pissed off during haggling. Singh goes to Philip, seeing a bit of commotion over there.
Cyric sold his cargo of weapons components for a decent price since he's got to play a part in front of their new contact. "Alright, works done. Let's go get drunk. After you, my lady." A big man turns around and tells Cyric, "I ain't no lady". Miranda was nowhere to be seen.
Cyric looked at the man. "Hey sorry about that big guy." Then he walked over to Phillip scanning around the place for Miranda. The big guy gave a rejected look and slowly returned to his affairs. Cyric could not find Miranda anywhere. Meanwhile, the haggler starts yelling at Iceblade and causing a general ruckus. The erratic bartering style was not working and now there was enough noise to cause guards to start filing through the people looking for the source.
Cyric and Karen both grab Iceblade by the arm and gently yet forcefully walk him away from the scene. "Maybe we should make ourselves a bit scarce guys. Drinks anyone? We seem to have lost Miranda." A BIG security guard with a bigger stun rod walked by them. Karen was holding in her hand a pad with a couple thousand credits on it. "Come on Phil, you win some you lose some... drinks on me?" She then looked around "where's Nina?" she asked as they walked to the bar’s entrance. Zorro was waiting for them at that spot. "Girl's room. Horrible place."
The four pilots arrived at the bar, marked Superiors's Strip. The word “Superior’s” was written over the word “Pilot’s” which was partially scratched off. They entered, trying to look inconspicuous. Most people were calmly shuffling around. Some though were standing tall and proud, nearly a head above the others.
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There was a killboard over the bar in lieu of a Holovid

HeroSortiesKats Killed
Kade, Paxton94446
Al Dawa, Esmail73200
MBembe, Kadija65193
Sarkov, Anton71190

Cyric immediately took note of the names and scoffed at the ridiculous kill counts.
Zorro also mentally noted the names. If they'd killed that many, she would have heard about it.
Iceblade looked the board incredulous... those of high Ace numbers... beyond the scores for most of Confed.
Cyric rolled his eyes. If these random pirates had killed that many, then the war would be over by now.
Singh looked up... "you think they found individuals or ships... something is hokey here"
"Actual cats" Zorro replied
"A troop transport could count as 100?" Singh added, trying to rationalize what she was seeing.
A gaunt, bald man drinking from a double sized shot glass spotted the pilots. "Privet Kak dila" He said in a deep gravelly voice "I em Anton Sarkov." "I have not seen you here before. Are you here to help with just money, or are you killink the Kilrathi too?" He follows with a boisterous laugh. "Eet is obvious that you are here to fight, You prefered to stay armed, so you are havink warrior's blood in you."
Zorro starred the man down "190 Kilrathi?"
"We have no love for the feline" Iceblade said.
"Dah! and klimbink more at every sortie. We are keeping Nitir safe." "Come, you like vodka?"
Zorro quietly replied "More a rum girl."
"I'll have one. Thanks!" Cyric’s slavic descendants passed down the taste for vodka.
"Blyat, not havink rum here." "Tavarish... hiere you go," he passes Karde the bottle.
"Rum aye, I'll have that as well.... and Long Island for the short one here." Iceblades said referring to Singh.
"Wha well... sure... got any mango martinis?"
"Maybe you should get the Bloody Mary, instead, eh?" Cyric mused back to the name Jeanne de' Arc is painted on the ship itself.
Sarkov downed another double shot glass
"So what's the story behind the kills, mate?" Cyric asks the bartender after taking his drink and paying the man. "You got a favorite hunting ground where the cat hunting is that fine?"
Julianna pulls out her tablet and orders the synthesized drink for her friends...
"Not cheap.”
Zorro while waiting for her drink to be served tried to strike up a conversation with the barman. “So, what’s up with that pilot? He sure likes his vodka!”.
The Barman served up three dirty glasses, they were adequate at best.
The barman blankly looked forward almost through Nina. "The superiors are keeping us safe. They find kilrathi, they kill them."
"The superiors?"
"The superiors who keep us safe"
Singh repeated the questions to Sarkov: "so... 190 kills?"
"How did you get into this gig? seems ... to suit you." she followed up.
"Sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Which of these superiors should we talk to if we want to sign up for some of the action too?" Cyric joined in.
Sarkov gently put down his empty glass, "Ees seemplified term... used to keep things easier. Eet is easy. You choose to fight, you are superior to those who chose to surrender."
Zorro interjected "Well, sometimes. Unless the fight is a stupid one to engage in."
"Or run, the blyins...Yes, but any fight with kilrathi is one to take."
"Hiave you hierd bounty hunters on the comms with cats?"I em lowly coward!" He says mockingly. Kilrathi only understand death. We bring it to them You know, before, I was mercenary, only carink about profits. Paxton showed me how to become Angel of Death for kiats... Eez funny because I get to kill them nine times each." He laughed. "But jiokes asside, Paxton is good man, knows how to fight kilrathi and stop invasion. You see kilrathi retake Perry? Confed is weak, We are true protectors of sector."
Zorro raised an eyebrow "Who is this Paxton guy?"
Meanwhile Iceblade sipped his drink, "You said it, feds are way too reactive..."
"He ees ... " Then he smiled.
A very tall and well built man walked into the room, he looked to be at least 70 years old, but his movements were as spry as those of a man half his age. His uniform, a ceremonial confed one looked like an outdated Commodore's uniform. He wore it with pride and grace. His hair was silver colored and he has a crew cut and a chevron moustache. He had a metallic eyepatch covering his left eye. His piercing blue eye locked onto Sarkov. "Son that was some great flying, let me buy your next round." He grabs a bottle of vodka from the bar and placed it on the table. "I see you have some friends... new recruits maybe?".
The four pilots stared at the man, trying to recognize him.
Zorro tries to recall if she recognises this Paxton from anywhere. Iceblade snapped an answer "Certainly interested. Sounds more fun than dodging lazy fed and militia patrols." Cyric grinned. "Yeah, it looks like you guys are getting in on a lot of action. Didn't know the Cats were so active in this sector. That's a lot of kat kills, Commodore. Are they really so active hereabouts?" Cyric whistled in admiration.
Then Karen lit up: "You're that commodore! but you were lost in action 3 years ago! I saw you in ...” Iceblade gave a sharp yet subtle elbow jab at her side maintaining a neutral expression. “the news feeds?” She continued.
Kade looked at Julianna, a slight smile crossed his lips. "So ... the cat's out of the bag, we aren't pirates." "Well we are... starting a true new confederation."
The four pilots paused.
"True confed?" Zorro asked, "the other one is fake?"
Cyric continued "So you guys are hunting down pirates, Kats, and the like?"
"We're fighting the war and doing a better job of it than the confed ever did." Kade continued, "Now what do you know about the confed. I assume the whitewashed drivel the news feeds give you, funny that word, news feed, they feed you what they want."

"So you say," Zorro said, "I'd like to see some hard evidence. Because this operation looks half-baked to me."
Kade ignored the reply from Nina and looked at Karde. "Thank you son, I see you're interested in the glory we found. There's plenty to go around"
Cyric couldn’t help but smile at that. "Oh, I'm definitely out here to skin some Cats, Commodore."
Anton chimed in: “Skeen them 9 times" and boisterously laughs
Iceblade was silently observing, trying to keep his cool and attempting to get a read of the men here.
"And hazardous to health, judging by the lady who was literally set on fire earlier in the day." Nina continued.
Paxton gave a practiced look at Nina, "Who? none of the contributing officers were injured as far as I've heard. Besides our med team can patch her up."
"People on the deck stood around and took zero action." Nina followed up, nearly spitting the words between her teeth.
Kade paused as if pierced by that insight. "Oh, them... I need to explain something about that... war is messy. I'm sure you've seen. The confed is spineless and not ready to fight at the level of the cats. You know, I was commodore of the vessel for damn near 10 years now."
Iceblade finally chimed in, "There is messy and there is clueless... they looked just confused."
"You may remember its original name... the TCS Maryland." Paxton fired a salute to his fallen lady. "Yes... son, they are not like you and I.”
"They did seem a bit out of it. Why is that Commodore?" Cyric asked slightly leaning in empathetically.
Kade resumed, "They weren't ready to fight for humanity... they stood against it. We were running picket when the cats ambushed a civvy convoy." Kade's veins on his temple seemed to bulge, his breathing becoming more and more laboured. "A damn convoy WE EXPLICITLY TOLD TO NOT PASS HERE"
He tried to regain composure, inhaling deeply and re-adjusting his uniform during the exhale.
"It's dangerous you know... we sacrifice so much to save humanity."
"Including your own people, it seems." Zorro pressed.
"We were given a golden opportunity though. A Snakeir was prime for us to take out at this point. We needed to get into position."
Julianna was staring intently at the other five people, trying to make herself as small and inconspicuous as possible.
"Imagine all the intelligent citizens we have saved... We slagged the snakeir, but the fight was costly. We took several torpedo hits from their gratha... Our antimatter core, gone. Our engines, shot.”
"So, you're dead in space?" Zorro asked.
"Our comms, fried. Yes, dead, blind and mute." Kade acknowledged Zorro.
"Right," Zorro said, "In that case, we need to do something about this."
"We were drifting for days... "
Iceblade asked "So you did something quite heroic and justified and were presumed KIA?"
Juliana nudged Nina. "I think we should listen and discuss later?"
Zorro nodded and whispers to Juliana "Good idea. Not sure if he's talking about now or the past."
"SAR did not find us, assuming they searched, but a drayman pilot did... that piece of shit. rest his soul, he tried to extort us out of our battery just to get a message back home... We complied, but he didn't call, rather, he came back with some friends... I would not have my lady gutted. We did what any warrior would. We eliminated the threat. Sneaky bugger, he destroyed his comms and sensors when he saw us posturing... Now, we had recovered enough hardware from these ships to stabilize the ship. We are several light years away from regular lanes and our jump drive was non functional."
Iceblade led on Kade, "What you and yours have done was very heroic, Commodore. May we ask how you managed to get out of that one from such a disadvantageous position?"
"Yes, " Kade replied "our pilots, most of them, were rooks still, but we managed to take out the pirates by bluffing with our turrets and forcing them to dock. We gassed them. When they were under, our medic... A brilliant man, but not quite the same after the Snakeir, medbay took some hits, it was irradiated."
Iceblade didn’t grimace or even flinch, "Well you gotta do what you gotta do."
"He found a way to reform the pirates." Kade continued, at this point looking off at a distance. "He was always smart, a brilliant man, he wasn't quite the same after the fight with the snakeir, he was colder, more efficient." He chuckled slightly, "As he put it, the brain is the most delicate instrument."
"With this we can keep the fight at the cats, and since we're presumed dead, we would be helping without filing reports, answering to bureaucrats or babysitting the fools. All the glory, none of the pain.
But, the pirates came looking for their friends... we had to make sure none reported back home. We enrolled some at first with certain collateral. Now I know what you're thinking... I'm not a monster, I thought it too. Changing the way a pirate thinks... that's awful. Lobotomizing members of the church of man... terrible.
Julianna looked worried, trying to hide her expression.
"Let me ask you this, what would a confed pilot do if they were attacked by one of those miscreants? Blast them the hell out of our sky!"
Iceblade’s eyes narrowed, he truly was seeing the gravitas of the situation. He believed Kade has gone beyond out-right criminals with his 'treatments'.
"Sorry, what's the Snakeir?" Nina asked, feigning ignorance.
"I don't strip them of their humanity, they did a long time ago by attacking their own people."
Anton replied to Nina in: "A Kilrathi carrier... as nasty as it sounds."
Zorro leaned in to Julianna. "Sorry, lobotomy?"
Julianna looks very pale... "Brain surgery... practiced before tachyon laparoscopy was a thing."
Iceblade commented "So you took out part of criminals brains and now they are docile drones? Sounds like an interesting solution if done within limits."
Cyric continued, "Surprisingly efficient solution though if our friends on the dock are anything to go by. You don't have to worry about them killing you in your sleep or selling you out to whoever can pay with more than a bowl of soup and you make them marginally useful too. I can see the military advantage in turning an enemy to the cause and using them against the enemy but I wonder how much more you could have done if you had more of a logistical support than some brainwashed knaves with half the brains they had before the surgery."
"We are a venus fly trap of sorts, we take them to be rehabilitated, then we use their resources to help our species survive." Kade seemed relieved to see Cyric and Philip understood and sympathized.
"You turned them into drones?" Zorro said, "Without their consent?"
Kade shouted sharply, "They gave up their consent by threatening us."
"I doubt judges would agree." Zorro replied.
"We are protecting your species. I see you have the warrior’s instinct, still armed and all." Paxton replied looking at the guns.
Zorro immediately got up.
"And you treated us fairly, so we will do the same."
Julianna was looking very very nervous.

Zorro turned beet red, "¡Qué montón de fascistas!"
"Hell, these criminals we brought the Maryland back from the crypt and it's rising from the ashes like Joan of Arc."
Zorro left the bar in a rage. Iceblade raised an eyebrow at his CO rather askance, uncertain, and wondering if she is really taking such as a high and mighty stance about these Kilrathi Killers.
Cyric reassured Kade, "Absolutely, Commodore. The first objective of any warrior is to kill the enemy and accomplish the mission. I am curious though as to how you can maintain such a strong outfit without a stable logistical base even with the Black Market working for you. Getting spare parts and supplies alone must be tricky out here without more support from local systems."
Iceblade chipped in, "They probably salvage a lot."
Zorro was standing in a corridor, privately fuming and considering her next moves. These people might be fighting the Kilrathi, but they have violated all the dictates of morality in the process. This was not the warrior way. This was the way of the butcher. These people would ultimately do more harm than good if they were allowed to continue.
"Now... as you've seen, the process is not perfect, we prefer to keep the bright ones intact, sometimes enhanced. Now the four of you look pretty bright, you were bright enough to stay armed as a warrior, and not shoot friends, like a proper warrior would do." Kade said with a slight threat in his voice. The implication was dire.
Cyric did not believe half of what the Commodore is saying regarding his effectiveness against the Cats let alone much else beyond the lobotomies. He was undercover so he kept his opinions to himself and steeled himself to accomplish his mission here to the best of his abilities. First Rule of being a Warrior, after all; is to accomplish the mission before securing his own survival he reminded himself.
"I am giving you the option to join us first".
Sarkov interrupted "Comrades, I was geeven this choice years ago, now I am saving the Sector. Join us!"
Iceblade was 50/50 at this point between letting them live and keep operating or taking them down. Well if ordered he'll do his best to take them down, just not wholehearted.
Zorro was still out in the corridor. She eavesdropped on the conversation while considering her next move.
"I'll give you an hour to decide. I'm going to be in ops. Sarkov, show our guest dignity please."
Julianna looks sheepishly at Anton... "I need to use the ladies’ room..."
"By the way, what happened to the girl that was with us before... the one who was caught on fire in the hangar bay?"
"I em niot knowink... Ship has over one thousand drones and 30 superiors, I don't keep track of the cattle."
Cyric was all for killing Cats but he wasn’t the leader of this outfit and personally, he thought this isn't the end of it. How many ships does this Commodore have at his disposal really? There's something darker going on here than simply lobotomizing a few criminals into a penal legion of techies and guards.
Julianna motions to Iceblade and Cyric... "May I have some help?"
"Absolutely, what do you need us to do?" He whispers.
Singh goes to a quiet cargo bay inviting the trio, Sarkev waits.
Zorro was biting her lip, trying to keep herself from doing something rash... but she knew she would do it if she had to. She followed the group.
Iceblade nods farewell to Sarkev and heads along with the others.
"We need a plan... and less ears around us." She puts her music player's headphones on a hole in the wall.
She waits until everyone is in and keeps an eye on the door in case anyone is listening in.
"You lead, we follow." Cyric answered in a whisper.
"We leave here." Zorro said with conviction, "Then bring Confed down in these people before they cost us the war."
"This whole setup give me the creeps. We all have our quines, right?" Julianna asked.
"And if it does us, it will give the wider public one as well." Zorro continued.
Iceblade added "I'm suspicious about just who they qualify as a criminal/pirate."
"How can we get out without causing a fuss?" Julianna asked
"I don't care, lobotomy is cruel and inhumano." Zorro answered, slipping back into her mother tongue. She was that angry.
"Estos monstruos pueden morir en un incendio nuclear."
Iceblade tried to cool off the situation, "Okay, Okay, Nina, please breathe and count to ten. Cool heads are needed here."
"Yeah, they can definitely need a bath." Singh pretended to understand the spanish.
Nina inhaled and started counting...
"Don't we need to secure more information about numbers, methods, ships, and where the rest of these "superiors" are first? Perhaps, we could pretend to join and then leave. Surely, he doesn't lobotomize his pilots so perhaps we can make our escape after saying yes or else finding another way out."
"We fly out now." Zorro answered firmly.
"I imagine drones mean lobotomized, so perhaps no more than 30." Iceblade added.
"We need to get to our fighters... and get the hell out of here, rendezvous with the Rathburn... you know how we found the place, we also have the EM signatures, they can locate it." Julianna replied. "I would figure. how about the civvies coming and going? how do we keep them safe?"
"Getting out could be a problem, I'm sure he isn't interested in taking no for an answer." Iceblade noticed.
"We get Confed to properly garrison this system." Zorro replied, in a slower cadence. Then she gave an impish grin, "We create a distraction, silly."
"Do they have the resources? lt doesn't get this kind of info."
"Its strange that he can fund this operation like this with just a scattered black market operating here." Cyric pondered, "Keeping these people in situ is a negative resource."
"Ok, I like that... how can we get out, distraction. let's play along in joining and distract in space? or do we distract here and run?"
Iceblade’s eyes widened, "They are probably ambushing civilians as well."
"And whoever is funding this needs to go to prison." Zorro replied.
"As for a distraction, how about using the munitions and setting up some sort of accident to get away in the confusion of all the civvies leaving the ship?" Cyric continued his train of thought.
"Good idea." Zorro said.
"I like it, so we answer yes for joining, and then... distraction buh bye?" Singh said with the first glimmer of hope she had in a while.
"Sounds like an effective plan. Pity they don't have a fire on flight deck alarm here to pull." Cyric said, remembering Miranda.
"Agreed on that, he is going to be suspicious and watchful if we say no or nothing." Iceblade reminded the team.
"Judging on our luck a fire alarm will just vent out all the O2." Julianna replied, tensing up again.
"Yes..." Zorro said, "Tell them that I need to get some stuff from the cockpit. I'll likely lose it in there and if this goes wrong, at least one of us can get out of this perdido."
Sarkov knocked on the door. "Are you finished in there?"
Singh looked at the trio. awaiting approval. Everyone was in.
"Yeah... we want in." Julianna answered, feeling her chest tighten.
"GREAT SUCCESS!" Sarkov cried.
They walked back with Anton to the bar. Kade was waiting there.
A siren sounds at that moment. "Attention, Gravity ripple spotted in quadrant 0-2-0. Mass analysis indicates 18000t. High probability of a Ralari."
Zorro smiles.
Kade thinks for a second, "Anton and Kadija, I'm gonna need you and your boys to dispatch that... try to recover some hull plating, we're a bit sensitive in the belly."
"A Kilrathi destroyer. The perfect dis... destruction opportunity." Zorro said, seeing an opportunity.
Iceblade immediately jolted up, his blood rushing.... burning for a fight. He was no longer the cool man trying to soak up information, but a precise fighter, ready to strike when the moment aroze.
Cyric smiled too at the anticipation of seeing combat again!
Singh jumped in "I want in! I totally flew my talon for months and I want to help humanity!"
"Let's do this! We have got some cats to kill!" Cyric didn’t have to feign his eagerness at matching his wits against an enemy once more.
Paxton sees the four pilots look excited at the thought of a ralari instead of fearful, the normal pirate response.
"Vamos!" Zorro yells and turns to walk quickly back to the landing bay. Cyric runs alongside her. Iceblade and Karen rushes along with the first two.
Flight deck
Kade and the four pilots arrived at the previous flight deck. The door closed behind them.
"About that... I needed the talons to repair some other ships. Consider it your gift to the war effort... But we have something else you can fly"
Zorro put her hands on her hips. "Really? I hope it's good."
He strolled to the empty flight deck and showed you 6 ships that looked like a giant engine strapped to a cockpit with a long-ish hold behind it.
"These courier ships don't have much protection, but they are the damn fastest ships you'll ever see. They have a gatling laser that can take out a drakhri in under 12 hits. No missiles but it does have a small cargo hold so you'll be the remoras on the mission, you find scrap, pick it up, bring it back. No grain though. Also, we did transfer your rations to these ships... nobody here eats the vomlet."
Cyric gave an unimpressed look at the fighter. How is this better than what we had? It had sunk in, the team was in enemy territory, surrounded, and they just lost their ticket home. He felt a lead weight punch him in the gut like the death of an old friend.
Kade saw he was in a power position and ribbed the recruits. "You can work up to something with more teeth..."
Just then Zorro drew her weapon “Enough of this charade! You're a monster, Kade!", Zorro took aim at Kade’s head.
"I'm the monster the Confed needs." Kade smirked.
"Nope just a monster." Iceblade retorts.
Kade looked amused at the situation, "Now I'm just disappointed, you think we don't have a dampening field... how do you think we captured the pirates? Funny how temperamental the optics in them laser blasters are. It’s a damn shame that enriched beryllium is so hard to come by. I take it, the answer for joining is no?" Kade halfheartedly smiles, it's obvious he delivered this line dozens of times before.
She shot at his head, calling the bluff. Her gun overheated. Its optics were muddied up from the beryllium and all the energy of the blast converted to heat right on the lenses.
Kade looked at Zorro, "You remind me of an ex".
Iceblade tensed up and is ready to pounce.... fists clenched. Cyric automatically entered an offensive stance.
"Now this is sporting, kudos to you for thinking you stand a chance. I like the cut of your jib." Kade answered and entered a fighting stance.
Kade sidestepped almost whimsically while Iceblade attempted to rush and grapple him, missing completely. Karen just stood there frozen in panic. Cyric thrust a standoffish sidekick at Kade. His adversary deftly blocked it and pushed back destabilizing his opponent.
He then tapped his ear: "Security, seal off the flight deck, Nobody enters until I exit, I'm gonna do my calisthenics now. Also, inform ops, open the flight hatches, I may throw out some trash soon." He threw aside his earpiece, then cracked his knuckles and beared a new vicious grin.
Cyric attempted to coax Kade into attacking him and ignoring his colleagues, hit a solid reverse roundhouse at Kade’s rib-cage. A metallic thud could be heard. At that time, Zorro feigned a jab to Kade’s left and ducks under a hook to knee him in the same spot as Cyrics did. The same sounding thud could be heard.
"Bet that she wasn't that good in bed. I'd have kept you from being so evil." Zorro snapped, trying to keep Kade angry.
Iceblade recovered his balance and darted his eyes around the room for something, anything.
Seeing that he was distracted by Zorro, Cyric attempted to put the Kade in choke-hold and kick his knees out from under him. Kade struck Zorro a left hook right in the left thigh, this knocked her down as she let out a cry of pain. “Now you really remind me of my ex” he quipped.
Cyric hearing the distress climbed onto Kade's back and tries to choke him out. Meanwhile Nina dropped to a knee in front of Kade trying to punch him in the nether region. Kade rolled back knocking the wind out of Cyric and dodging an incapacitating blow then performed a kip-up getting back on his feet.
Cyric got back on his feet and almost reflexively jabbed Kade in the non cybernetic eye socket. This stunned him slightly. He looked at Cyric, “Boy, you wanted my attention? Sorry, I’m old fashioned, ladies first.” He reached almost instinctively into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. He donned it on his head, a luchador mask. Cyric’s stance became more aggressive, knowing his friend was in danger. Kade swung again at Zorro, but his fist was blocked by the panel of durasteel, courtesy of Singh. She then ducked and Zorro leapt onto the panel and struck the gun into the weakened rib-cage. The metal has buckled and Kade’s uniform was turning reddish.
Kade was somewhat holding his own against the three pilots when Iceblade shouted, "Why don't you decompress!". During all this commotion, nobody noticed Iceblade on the sidelines, he had strapped air canisters to a cart and bound some 45 degree L brackets to the front. Meanwhile Cyric connected a hook kick with Kade’s shoulder, striking a glancing blow. Zorro and Singh both attack his weakened side with the foreign objects and he staggers, but tries to grapple Cyric. In mid strike Cyric heard a thud, all the air has been forced out of his opponent. He instinctively heel kicked Kade square in the chest, causing a rusty bracket to pierce his sternum from behind, Iceblade’s deadly contraption had impaled the fallen commodore through a talon's strike.
The commodore slumped down. He looked down at his chest and tried to acknowledge his defeat, but did not have enough life in him to perform this last action.
The four pilots realized this was their one chance to escape and ran off the the courier ships, taking off and performing an aggressive after-burn away from the defunct cruiser.
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2659 August 13th 0115 UTC
Nitir Deep Space
The four pilots arrived at the rendez-vous point and set their ships to ultra-low emissions mode. There negligeable shields were ironically a boon for this. They were also maintaining radio silence in order to hear the pick-up’s arrival and avoid detection. They had narrowly escaped with their lives. Now they needed to return the information to base. They were exhausted, the adrenaline had worn off. They took sleep shifts starting. Zorro was the first to sleep, she had downed many pain killers for her thigh.
Cyric was surprisingly still alert, so he volunteered for the first guard shift. It would be first him and Iceblade, then him and Karen, Karen and Zorro and finally Zorro and Iceblade. However, there was something wrong. He heard a shuffling in his cargo hold. It had become obvious when he shut off most powered systems. He grabbed his sidearm, a bluff as the optics were still damaged and hugging the side of the hull, he swept the hatch open to see what was there.
“Back off scumbag, I’m not afraid to use this!” A panicked and familiar voice yelled. A silhouette had an aimed laser pointing at Cyric. Her hands were visibly shaking. It was Miranda, she had stowed herself away in the cargo hold. “Relax, lady. I’m not here to kill you. I just want to know what you are doing down in my cargo hold.” Cyric asked, blaster still drawn, but clearly aimed away from her.
“It’s you!” She recognized Cyric and let her guard down, immediately snapping it back up.
“You were the distraction that got me caught by the med-team. I was almost programmed as the good doctor called it. I was afforded a distraction some pirate rigged his broken pistol as a grenade. I slipped out and ran to my tarsus. It was gone, they took my platypus, so I found this fighter was full of rations, and I hid in its hold. I figured, at the next distraction, I could vamoose. Then there was the ruckus on the flight deck. Figured that was my window of opportunity. But you ran into the cockpit before I could escape.”
<<You good in there Cyric? Your ships is drifting. What’s your status over.>> Iceblade broke radio silence.
"That's fine. We wanted to escape too so let's escape together! We got the guy in charge and needed to make a quick exit so it seems we have a common goal here. I don't mind you hitching a ride."
Miranda squinted at Cyric “So… you expect me to believe you won’t sell me off to slavers at your next outpost?” She paused. “Your eyes.” Cyric had long forgotten about the eyepatch
“Heck, no. For one thing, there’s more to me than meets the eye.” Cyric winked “Allow me to re-introduce myself, 2nd Lt. Cyric Karde of the Terran Confederation, at your service, ma’am.”
“You have got to be sh**ing me! No way are you confed.”
<<Talon, what is your status?>> Iceblade radioed <<Karen, I can’t get Cyric to respond. You reading?>>
<<Loud and clear, Imma fly by his cockpit>> Singh answered <<His cockpit is empty… maybe he’s using the facilities.>>
Cyric lowered his gun. “My friends are going to want to know what’s happened to me, so how about I respond to them then we can have a more friendly conversation.” Miranda nodded and lowered hers slowly.
<<Hey IB, you got bucket too, right?>> Karen asked.
<<No just the suit bag as usual>> Iceblade responded.
“Thanks” Cyric backed away while he kept her in sight. <<Hey guys. Looks like we aren't the only ones needing to make a quick exit from the place. Anyone remember Miranda from the docks? She's here and wants out just as much as we do so let's take her with us back to base. Okay, guys?>>
Miranda slumped down, the reality settling in, “So if you are confed… can you folks use some resourceful freighter captains?”
Cyric smiled, “We would be happy for you to join. You looking to sign up?”
Karen’s voice cut into the comms <<Oh, OK, keep an eye on her… I don’t think they’ll let her onto the Rathburn, but Perry for sure.>>
<<I’m not sure, but we don’t have any means of dropping her off. We’ll just have to let the… commander… decide what they want to do with her.>>
Miranda eyed Cyric. “I’m stuck now, with a “confed” pilot who pretends to be a pirate. How can I trust any oth this. Either way, we’re stuck here for a while… how about a don’t kill each other pact?”
Cyric nodded “That’s fair. Looks like we got a little while to get to know each other better, eh? So what do you do for fun when you aren't stowing away in the cargo holds of strange ships?" Cyric tried his best at small talk.
“Yeh, eked out a living. I was gonna make it big you know… now this… well… Being stuck in a cargo hold with you is probably the least bad thing that could happen to me at this moment… considering the zombies.” She shuddered.
<<Hey Z, you reading the comms?>> Iceblade tight beamed Zorro during her sleep cycle.
<<Yes, I was just putting a brace on my thigh… that man hit like a train. Miranda can stay for now, we’ll see what the commander says.”
“So… anything you can think of that we can do as entertainment until the pickup” Miranda asked Cyric in a playful tone.
2659 August 16th 1315 UTC
Nitir rendez-vous spot.
The courier ships waited within sensor range of the rendez-vous spot, shadowing an asteroid. Two days have passed.
Iceblade opened up a tight beam channel, <<My sensors appear to be glitching.>> The three other pilots agreed.
Julianna answered <<I’m picking up a blip, it’s changing vectors really fast. No wait, it’s a squadron. Cancel that, a single ship, no… I can’t make it out.>>
Zorro took command <<I see it too. Everyone, be ready for combat action.>>
Karen replied <<You mean running, right? We have a single laser cannon>>
Iceblade added <<I hope they will be friends, these aren’t Talons we’re flying after all.>>
<<Singh here, I suggest we hug the asteroid until we know they spotted us, it’ll minimize our sensor profile.>>
The blip was gaining intensity, but did not appear to approach, rather just morph.
<<Perhaps I can do a striptease in front of them?>> Zorro said <<Although, probably not, I’m still disturbed by lobotomy man>>
Miranda woke up from the commotion, staying in the back of the craft, “What’s going on Cyric?”
“Sensors are weirding, we’ve got company. Come and see.” He replied.
Miranda approached the dash, “Iris mk1… piece of crap… I don’t know what that could be though…”
Zorro’s radioed <<I see some purple dot… casually moving along.>>
<<Diligent purple?>> Karen asked
<<Mark One Eyeball purple?>> Iceblade asked
<<Retro purple?>> Cyric asked, and instinctively grabbed the flightstick.
<<A purple dot getting larger, might be retro purple.>>
“Shitshitshitshitshit. OK, Jules, time to run again.” Julianna muttered to herself.
Iceblade was imagining how a single talon could take out the four courier ships. He was not impressed.
Cyric wished he was still in a talon, his battle lust frustrating him as his ship was so impotent.
<<Prepare to leg it and split up if required. It might only kill one of us>> Zorro ordered.
A wide band message played on all their comms <<Unidentified courrier craft, this area is reserved for a military operation, please vacate the area or we will take action.>>
<<It’s confed! Confederation vessel, this is captain Nina Espinoza, requesting a tight beam ad-hoc mesh link up>>
Cyric exhaled a sigh of relief and turned to Miranda “See! Told you we were with Confed, nothing to worry about”
<<Acknowledged, this is ensign Karlbeck, TCS Rathburn>> <<Hey, are those the pilots?>> a familiar voice interrupted. <<Welcome back, we are launching a pair of interceptors to escort you back to the vessel. Their sensors are calibrated to pierce the eJamming.>>
A small flash was visible from the blip.
<<Ready to return to base>> Iceblade snapped back.
<<Interceptors have launched, they are on a full burn to your location, you shall return ASAP.>>
Zorro added in a resigned voice <<Most definitely… We’ve seen some creepy stuff.>>
Two unidentified craft burned in at a very high speed. They look like the letter A where the legs of the A extended into engines. The pilots formed on the interceptor wing and engaged a paired autopilot, allowing the interceptors to guide them.

The four vessels docked with the Rathburn. Upon entering the ship, they were greeted by a security detail and Miranda jumped to attention. A guard pointed at her “I’m sorry, your friend needs to come with us, she’s not cleared to leave the green zone.” Miranda looked at Cyric. “Don’t worry, you’re safe now, they will look after you. Debriefing is for everyone, yeah?” He tried to reassure her.
“Officer, she’s been through a lot” Julianna said and Zorro added “She’s an important witness, take care of her.”
Miranda nodded and followed the guards to a private room on the side.
“She was also a big help getting us out of that place, so take care of her, alright?” Cyric shouted as the guards were walking away.
One of the two guards stopped and answered “She’s a guest but we need to make sure she stays in the green zone. She will have all the accommodations she needs.”
Miranda waved bye before turning into the room. The team went to decontamination. Upon exiting, they were greeted by Steele. He was obviously there for a while, and was eagerly jumping from one foot to the other. “so.. So … SO… whatdyasee?!?” Steele asked in a higher pitched voice than usual. “Were there any interesting tactical developments?” The team didn’t even notice Nicole standing right next to Steele.
“Space Zombies, Sir” Bradford replied. Nicole and Steele stopped in their tracks.
Cyric snapped a reflexive salute “Also, a former Confed Commodore, sir. Out waging his own war against the cats and pirates on his own private warship." Singh chipped in “The former TCS Maryland, Sirs” and Zorro corroborated the story: "A Confed Officer thought dead, running an anti-piracy and anti-Kilrathi operation... where captured pirates were lobotomised against their will."

“And those would be the space zombies” concluded Iceblade.
“The cap should hear this,'' Nicole said.
DeVrees arrived to the meeting, and invited the team to his office. “I’ve been told you spotted a Gettysburg waging a personal war against the Kats?”
“Yes, that’s correct” Zorro said, “I’ve not had time to write a report yet, but here are my notes.”
“Would they be friend or foe to us?” DeVrees pressed. “Could we work with them, like those Landriech boys down south? Should we just try to recover the cruiser?”
“Foe” Zorro said with conviction. “Their methods are damaging the war effort.”
“Commodore Paxton Kade, MIA as of 3 years was the one in charge, sir”
Singh replied “Unequivocal foe, they are enslaving civilians and not trying to help us, they just were carving out their own empire. They are as much of an enemy to humanity as the Kilrathi, committing crimes against humanity than I could count.”
Iceblade defended Kade though, still impressed by the results, “You know, we will probably have to commit countless war crimes against the cats just to beat them, right?”
“Paxton is dead. We killed him when he tried to prevent us from leaving” Zorro smiled.
“Paxton Kade? The man was known for having punched a Kilrathi to death. We assumed he was KIA with his ship.”
“As you may expect, sir; He refused to surrender and was not going to let us go without a fight.” Cyric said.
The colonel rubbed his chin and leaned back in his chair. “Officers, we will attempt to recover the Maryland. The will be coordinated with whatever resources we have in the sector. The existence of this resource is not public knowledge, and as such will be a positive surprise for the war efforts.”
“Recover? What do you mean by recover?” Zorro asked
DeVrees looked off almost dreaming “A Gettysburg cruiser costs several trillion credits to make, we have maybe 40 in active duty. We should get it back if possible."
"My notes provide what information I can recall about the ship; it may put up a fight." Zorro tried to help, handing her quine over. “You may need to deal with swarms of lobotomized pirates, then.”
“Thank you captain, now this brings us to your little rescued friend. Karde, she was in your ship for a couple of days, what’s your bead on the merchant?”
DeVrees changed the subject.
“Miranda seems amenable enough, though she may need a medical check, to make sure she really did escape. She may be a sleeper agent.” Iceblade interjected.
“I told her nothing that would compromise security, sir. She knows who we work for and she would have seen it regardless of helping on that ship but little else that involves our work, sir!” Cyric answered, stone faced.
“I would suggest bringing her in as a consultant” Zorro added “It’s all in the report”
“Thank you captain.” the colonel said. “Last point, you mentioned a doctor... did you speak to him or her?”
Julianna replied “The medbay was heavily guarded. We didn’t enter.”
“Uhhh... good point, he’s probably in charge of the operation now.” Iceblade realized.
“So you may need to kill him as well” Zorro stated.
"Unlikely, the Commodore was useful as a figurehead for the doctor's work. Any pilots if they are still active would more than likely refer to the one authority figure they have left to command them." Cyric countered.
DeVrees looked satisfied. "So we have a plan for the Maryland, and the witnesses. I will set up patrols to tell civvies that the area is contested and to remind them to stick to established lanes for all the good that does. These lobotomized pirates, were they hostile? do you think they will resist?" Looking at Nina's notes. "I see there are over 1000 people on board but maybe 50 functional."
“One last thing, sir, the flight deck is flooded with a gas that corrodes laser optics, all security there were using mass driver scatter guns and neutron repeaters.” Singh recalled.
“Very well, if we have more questions, we will ask you soon.”
The colonel snapped a casual salute and then shook every pilot’s hand. Congratulating them on their efforts.
The four returned to the mess hall and see Miranda eating with a security guard monitoring her. “Ok, this food is clearly better than the generic food on mining bases.”
Iceblade ran to the back and filled up a dish with macaroni and cheese. His eyes lit up as his inner child pushed through to the surface. Zorro took some potato waffles and baked beans. Singh took the veggie dog platter and sat next to Miranda. “How are you hanging there?”
“Honestly, pretty good, I think. I’m still alive. I’m eating... that’s a plus, right?” Miranda replied, mouth half filled with strawberries.
Cyric distractedly grabbed a plate grinning at Miranda. “Heya! How did it go? Certainly beats those MREs in the courier ship, doesn’t it?”
“Pretty good Cyric. I was asked mostly about the doctor. What he looked like, who was with him, how he spoke to others.”
“You know, you are so brave!” Karen said.
Cyric nodded “Yeah, you did great getting yourself out in one piece.”
“Thanks Julianna, is Shorty your real nom de guerre?” Miranda replied.
“Singh is pretty brave too... a veggie dog? Really?” Iceblade joked.
Julianna tried to answer, her mouth full “Full of vitamin Q13”.
“Nothin’ wrong with a veggie dog” Zorro added.
Miranda stood up, sullen, and realized, "Yeah, I don't know how I would take it, having worked my whole life to have everything lost in an instant... Would insurance cover that?"
Iceblade answered while facing his mac and cheese “You probably won’t be able to tell insurance about it.”
“That’s right” Zorro said “But we can try to make sure you’re supported.”
“And you know... you can’t see your friends or family for a while... that must be brutal” Karen continued.
“Cheer up though, you can always join up with confed. Never lacking new recruits.” Iceblade suggested.
Miranda rolled her eyes at the thought. Cyric continued ”Yeah, Confed takes care of its own pretty well. You can make a new home for yourself here. Good Food, Good Friends, Good Fun. What's not to love?" Cyric smiled with bashfulness, having opened up more than he likes.
Zorro countered. “But some of the bosses....”
“And the pay is decent, you could buy a used ship after a 5 year tour of duty.” Iceblade interrupted.

Miranda was aghast. “What. Do. You. Want. Me. To. Answer. I. Was. THISCLOSE. To. Retiring. Freedom 32. I made that run 8 times, 8 times! On number nine, I see something nice, I’m allowed to treat myself now and then?” Pointing at Cyric. “I let my guard down, I get dragged to medbay, I barely escaped that doctor!” She stormed off with security following her.
“Well” Zorro said, “I don’t know about you but I need a bath.”
“She must have disliked the strawberries.” Karen observed. She then smelled herself. “Yeah, I could use a shower.”
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