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Episode 8 Part 9

By:  Lenady and Wynn

The agent stumbled groggily over to the console of the ship. One would think after the many times he had gone through the stasis procedure he would be accustomed to it, yet he never failed to come out of the machine feeling bedraggled and lethargic. After dropping into his chair he peered into the mirror in front of him. His appearance struck him as absolutely horrifying. Although staying in stasis while in space was meant to preserve his natural perfection the temporary affects were at times nearly inexcusable. He could only hope that the computer had given him long enough to make himself look presentable this time. Although his choice in clothing was as impeccable as ever, he would need a span of time before the rest of him would be able to catch up.

            “Bernadette, how long until we reach the outpost?” he asked, preening his hair while still staring into the mirror.
            “Approximately fifteen minutes. Would you like a more exact calculation?” the computer replied.

            “Dammit!” He yelled, slamming his fist against the armrest of the seat. “I told you to wake me up sooner. This is the last time. At the next possible port I’m wiping you and getting a new system!”

            “While you may wish to do so, it would not be advisable. You do not have clearance to make such alterations without emergency justification. Such tampering would result in-“

            “I would consider my inability to utilize all avenues of persuasion to be emergency justification, Bernadette. And if that were not the case I believe certain connections could be utilized to gain higher clearance. Do I make myself clear?” he asked icily.

            “Yes,” the computer replied. “You now have approximately twelve minutes to destination.”

“Right”, he growled, reaching to his right to open a drawer. He pulled out several jars, a comb and a brush. He didn’t have long, but he was going to make the best of it. As he began to pull the brush through his unruly hair he spoke again. “Go ahead and send the landing notification to the outpost. They’re probably already aware of us anyway, so we might as well announce ourselves now and beat them to the punch. Meanwhile, I’m going to attempt to fix this mess.” He said, gesturing towards his hair. “Let me know when we’re about to enter the atmosphere.” He stood up with the jars in hand and began to turn around, then turned back towards the console.  “Enough time to get seated,” he stressed.

“Of course,” replied Bernadette. “You have ten minutes.”

He walked back to the ship’s bathroom and sat in front of a large mirror. ‘What am I going to do with this mess?’ he thought, running his fingers through the long blond bangs lying limply in front of his face. Opening a jar, he set to work on rectifying his current dilemma. Little could be done about the dark circles under his eyes or his skin’s unusual pallor. The problem was that his appearance would slowly improve over the next hour or so, making any sort of cosmetic he applied gradually the wrong tone altogether, thus making the cosmetic obvious. ‘But perhaps if it was thin enough of an application,’ he thought. Nothing could be worse than his current state.

He focused solely on salvaging his appearance until he heard the voice from the cockpit say nonchalantly, “One minute to atmospheric entry.”

He cursed under his breath and grabbed the items from the counter in front of him. He walked out of the bathroom to see the small planet they were approaching sitting in front of him in space. The viewport was no longer covered. The queasiness he began to feel added a few seconds on the journey to his seat. He was beginning to wish he had put the cosmetics on a little thicker. He sat down quickly, stowed the jars, brush and comb back in the drawer, and buckled the straps that secured him to the seat. “You did that on purpose,” he said through clenched teeth, deliberately focusing on adjusting the clothing underneath the harness.

“Regulations state that the viewport must be opened before entry into atmosphere during all landings. The viewport will now be dimmed for eye safety,” stated the computer.

He said nothing, instead closing his eyes and leaning his head back against the seat. If he could get the image out of his head then the turbulence involved with landing wouldn’t be a problem. The dizziness and churning in his stomach began to subside, but he could feel his palms sweating against the armrest. He focused on breathing in and out during the journey to the planet’s surface, hoping the strain wouldn’t show on his face after they docked. If anyone ever found out he still got space-sick he would never live it down.

He finally trusted himself to open his eyes when he felt the ship firmly on the ground, rolling along the runway. Seeing a firm planetary surface was the ultimate cure for his shakiness. He felt himself finally able to breathe fully again. By the time the ship was firmly in its designated resting point he felt ready to stand up.

The moment he stepped off the ship he realized exactly how out of the way his location was. The ship’s database described Vulsia as a small planet with no major trade routes or other habitable planets nearby. It was essentially in the middle of nowhere. In turn the outpost itself appeared to be as secluded as the planet. The runway, one of the pair that the port featured, was surrounded by trees. At one end he could see a platform for ships designed for vertical take-offs and landings, while on the other end he could see a small building, which he assumed held the offices.  He waited for a moment outside of his ship before he realized that he had not been sent transportation. They expected him to walk.

His ship had been parked relatively close to the offices luckily, but the trek was still long enough for him to observe in detail the port’s appearance. To describe it as dilapidated would be giving it far too much credit. He had expected the out-of-the-way location to be diminutive, but not quite so pathetic. There was a small sidewalk which separated the runway from a few small hangars. As he walked along it he amused himself by counting the amount of cracks in each section. The areas directly in front of a hangar had taken more damage obviously, but the entire stretch of cement was in bad condition. The hangars weren’t in the best of shape either. What he had originally thought to be a bad paint job was actually a coating of rust, punctuated here and there by a few clean spots.

To his surprise, there was a single exception to the generally degraded state of the hangars, a wide building near his destination that featured three openings, each obviously designed for smaller craft.  This hangar had been graced with a comparatively fresh coat of paint, the black only beginning to fade and crack.  At each opening, a single vertical red stripe passed from the building onto the door itself, an unexpected decoration that made his lip quirk in amusement. “Fancy,” he noted sarcastically, shaking his head.

      A moment later, he arrived at his destination, the office building bearing a sign that declared it the headquarters of the local Council law enforcement.  He stepped through the door and walked over to the desk. He stood there a moment, waiting to be acknowledged. The secretary sat, fully absorbed in the paperback she held in one hand. She occasionally lifted up a sandwich with the other and took a bite.

“Ahem” he said, finally out of patience.

“Yeah, what do you want?” the secretary asked, without looking up.

“I’m here to see your commander.”

            The secretary nodded towards a seat. “Go sit down,” she said, never looking away from her book.

            He followed her instructions and waited, tapping his finger on his knee. It was the only outward sign of his agitation. After a few more bites of her sandwich and several page turns the woman behind the desk finally went back through a set of closed doors. He hoped she was going to announce his presence, although for all he knew she might have been going to get a drink.

He looked around at the office. It looked as if it hadn’t been redecorated in thirty years. The outpost was the sort of destination that made him question his choice in profession. A man with a background like his own should have no reason to step foot inside such a hole in the wall.
            He was contemplating with disdain how many times the chair he occupied must have been sat in when the doors opened.  The secretary walked out, motioning him listlessly to enter the portal she had just exited. “Commander Balest will see you now,” she offered him, returning to her chair and taking up her paperwork, completely indifferent to his actions now that her task was complete.  He restrained the urge to scowl at her, instead standing and walking without haste towards the doors.  If they saw no reason to rush, then he could be just as adept at wasting time, he assured himself.

After passing through a short hall, lined with indistinguishable doors and the occasional board featuring a plethora of outdated work-safety regulations, he arrived at what he assumed to be the proper entry: a thick door, identical to the others save for the brass nameplate bearing the title of the installation’s commander.  Bracing himself for more arrogance, he knocked lightly, pausing for several moments before a brusque voice from the other side ordered him to enter.  Composing himself, the agent nodded and complied, opening the door and stepping into the office.

While the rest of the building showed a marked lack of consideration in its upkeep, this particular office was considerably more opulent, or at least strived to be.  The furnishings, once lavish, had begun to show wear and cracks in their surfaces, and the agent noted a nearby table, surrounded by chairs, that bore a worn spot that suggested someone had made a habit of resting their boots there.  The pair of bookcases lining the walls bore what would no doubt be an impressive collection of military writings, though the faint cobwebs that decorated the corners of their homes would make it somewhat harder to notice.  Other elements of the room showed no such misuse: the computer station located in one corner, for example, looked surprisingly advanced for its location, while the office’s main desk was polished and, judging from its composition, impressively expensive.  A pair of diamonds in the rough, the agent noted with the barest of sneers; such a shame the ‘rough’ was exceptionally so.

The sole occupant of the room sat at the desk, unconcernedly scanning papers before him.  The agent seized the opportunity to appraise the commander: from what he could guess, Balest was young for his position, perhaps early in his third decade of life.  He wore his dark hair in a military style, short and to the point, as it were, with no facial hair.  His uniform matched the tones of the more elaborate hangar outside, black with red trimming, and it was entirely bereft of any further adornment.  At the least, the colors of the uniform confirmed he had come to the right place, the agent noted with a grim smile, as did the canine ears that peaked above the commander’s hair.

“Yes?” the commander asked bluntly, finally deigning to glance up at his visitor.  His calculated rudeness failed to upset the other man, however, as he had already been well prepared for it by the secretary’s behavior.  Instead, the agent offered him a cold smile of greeting and a nod, offering the commander all of the standard niceties he was being denied.  Balest scowled, but his next words were markedly more refined. “Can I help you, Mr.…?”

“You may refer to me as… Gold,” replied the agent, and the commander smirked slightly, getting the joke. “I have come to request the aid of your agency in the pursuit and apprehension of a missing person, as per the agreement made between your organization and-”

“I’m well aware of the deal we’ve got going with you people,” Balest interrupted, smiling darkly. “I was involved in some of the wet work that went down a few years back over there.” Trading the brief mask of familiarity for a sharp examination of the other man, the commander snorted roughly. “And what do you want from us?”

Despite his efforts, Gold’s own composure was beginning to slip.  No glorified security officer had the rights to-!  No, these people were more than that, he knew, but perhaps it would be best to remind him of their mutual places. “Well, after all, it is said that there are no better trackers in the Council than the Nathian Guardsmen, and-”

“We’re not the Guardsmen,” the commander pointed out, his eyebrow twitching upward as he let a scowl spread across his face.  Gold smiled in response, realizing that he had succeeded in irritating the man.

“But I thought the Nathian Black Guards were chosen from their ranks, the elite of your military.  Is that not so?”

Commander Balest frowned at him, fully aware the agent was toying with him. “We prefer to be called Bloodstripes, thank you very much.  And yes, we’re twice the Nathians of any of those law-lackeys.  If you need something taken care of,” the last trio of words bearing a slight edge, “we’re the people to come to.  If, of course, your government is willing to pay the price and keep it secret…”

“Of course, as per our previous agreement.” Gold decided to relinquish his game in favor of his true business. “Which is why I’ve come to you today.  I would like for your assistance, or more specifically some of the resources of your agency, in tracking down a certain individual.”

“Oh?  And who specifically is-”

“I don’t believe full disclosure is part of our agreement.”

“Heh, fair enough.” Balest grinned at the agent, the two now on equal footing in his eyes. “However, our assistance, ah, doesn’t come cheap.  Especially if you want it done quietly.  The bosses back on Nathia tend to pay a lot of attention to matters that could be sensitive politically, and something tells me this might be one of those.  So…” His grin now bared all of his teeth, including his too-sharp incisors. “What are you offering to sweeten the deal?”

“Included in this memory cartridge,” Gold held aloft the finger-wide unit, “is information of the person you are being asked to locate and, if possible, peaceably detain.  Included along with it is a limited collection of data on a spaceship that is believed to bear particularly advanced weapon and transportation systems… a ship that is what carried your quarry away from her home planet.  Our interest is the girl; the ship would be yours, no questions asked.”

“Well, that would be a prize,” the Nathian noted, his eyes half-lidded, “except that, in order to get the girl, we might have to wreck the ship.”

“In such a case, further compensation might be discussed,” Gold responded, shrugging. “Such would be out of my hands, however.  I’m certain that you could see the potential advantage in holding the girl, either way.”

“You have a point,” the commander conceded, nodding to the other man.  He stood from his desk, his lip curled in a leer as he offered his hand. “Don’t worry, the Bloodstripes will no doubt be on the case within a matter of days.  I presume that you have left contact information on the memory cartridge?”

“Yes, along with several channels of contacting my superiors in the case I am not able to be reached.” Gold nodded, taking the Nathian’s proffered hand and shaking it once. “If that is all that we need to discuss, then I will be returning to my ship.”

“Pleasure doing business with you,” Commander Balest replied, watching as the agent walked out of the office.    

Gold walked out through the doors, back into the hallway. The discussion he had just had was weighing on his mind somewhat. The fact that he had to bring in the council’s hounds was going to count against him in the long run. He should have been able to apprehend his problem before she got off the planet to begin with. On the other hand, now that he had the Bloodstripes, and not just these local buffoons, but the entire agency, his job would presumably get much easier. He cast a glare at the secretary as he walked through the doors of the office building, simultaneously wiping his hands on his pants. ‘Still’ he thought, ‘the quicker I can get off this hell-hole of a planet the better’.

 

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