Terran Standard Year (TSY) 2879

Orion City, Orion Prime

It's about time, he thought as the Minister of Defense, a pair of suits, and two admirals and a captain in Armed Space Forces finally uniforms paraded into the room. They took the remaining six seats at the round conference table. Collin knew that they were older than they looked, thanks to anti-aging genetic therapy. Once seated, the Minister, a fit looking middle aged man of equally dark complexion and hair, the latter kept in a conservative buzz cut, began in a professionally apologetic tone, "Sorry to keep you waiting, Mister Walsh, bu-" halting suddenly as Collin abruptly cut him off with a raised index finger.

"Captain Walsh," he said, emphasizing the rank, "or just Singularity, whichever you prefer. The Minister paused to look directly into Collin's green eyes for a moment, obviously reconsidering him. This being their first meeting, he had had to rely on secondhand information such as intelligence files, a handful of news reports, and that one after action field report. The latter was no doubt the least flattering, coming from a TacCom team leader after backing down from a staring match that began when Collin's Minutemen had seemingly appeared out of thin air, surrounding the elite commandos and called dibs on a hostage rescue mission in a remote pirate stronghold. Mercenaries in general were held in low regard by most military types, elite forces in particular, and that lieutenant had been pissed about being caught by surprise. Collin thought he was over reacting out of wounded pride; after all, none of the TacCom team possessed psychic talents, unlike every single one of the ten men and women that comprised his Minutemen. The fact that they were all psychics did nothing to help their reputation of recklessness and unpredictability; most non psychics considered people with such abilities irregular at best and unstable at worst, particularly "wild psychics" like Collin himself. "Structured psychics", like the two women at Collin's sides, were considered more stable, but still generally regarded with at least some suspicion because they still tended to think differently than "normal" people, and tended to act accordingly.

After a brief moment of uncomfortable silence, the Minister turned to the blond admiral at his right, her long hair tied into a tight bun. While the others looked like normal people in their late twenties or perhaps early thirties, she and the three mercenaries actually were in their early thirties and looked like teenagers as a result of the anti-aging therapy. "It seems you were right on that one, after all, Admiral Dennid," he said in a calm voice. She simply nodded, her eyes never leaving Collin save for an occasional quick glance to the women flanking him, a short haired, petite blond on his left and a tall, lithe woman with slightly slanted eyes and long, jet black hair falling down her back. All three of the mercenaries wore identical black boots, cargo pants, and comfortably loose short sleeved shirts devoid of any decoration save the palm sized "MM" finely embroidered on the left breast in silver.

"Please pardon my mistake, Captain Walsh," The Minister said in the same apologetic tone as before. "I must also apologize for asking you here on such short notice. I know you are a busy man and-" he suddenly halted as Collin again lifted a finger to interrupt him.

"I've kept the Minutemen on leave for nearly a month waiting for your call," he began, watching every face across the table go blank except for the captain, who suddenly glared suspiciously, and Admiral Dennid, who leaned back a bit as she rolled her eyes. "To be honest, I didn't actually expect the call for another couple of days, but I did expect it." He carefully met the eyes of everyone facing him before continuing. "You called this meeting because you want my Minutemen to be part of the Core Exploration Expeditionary Force, and you want us because we have abilities that none of your people possess. In the case of Lioness and I," he tilted his head curtly to the petite blond to his left, "abilities that no one else is known to possess. I'll tell you, up front, that we're very interested in the job. If we weren't then we wouldn't have gone to the lengths to find out why your intel pukes were spending so much time and effort watching us for the past year and a half. But, before we sign on, we need to know the terms. We are, after all, skilled professionals possessing very lucrative skills that are always in high demand."

"Where did you find out about the CEEF?" the glaring captain erupted, "It's very existence is classified at the highest level! Who leaked the information?" He suddenly halted, face going white at his own outburst. Admiral Dennid saved him from having to explain himself or, worse, letting Collin explain it for him.

"I told already you that he'd know," she calmly stated in a mater of fact tone. "Aside from a situational awareness that I'm confident crosses the line into paranoia and contacts God only knows where, he's arguably the most powerful psycho in the human race," her eyes intensified as she used the common slang for a wild psychic, a moniker that most such individuals, including Collin, wore like a badge of honor, "but he also has that infernally advanced AI of his. And, for the record, I still have no idea how any architect," the slang term for structured psychics, equally embraced by those to whom it was applied, "even one as nuts as Lisa, could so much as survive linking their mind with the likes of him, let alone manage to mesh well enough get the ludicrous power levels said link creates and remain sane enough to create an AI like Molly."

Commander Lisa "Lioness" Madison, Collin's longtime friend and second in command, sitting at his left, cracked a smart grin. "There's a madness to my method, and it meshes surprisingly well to the method to his madness. As to an architect being nuts, she's the one that actually married him," she said sarcastically, gesturing with her right hand to the woman at Collin's other side. Hirume "Tomo" Walsh simply leaned back, crossed her arms, and smiled.

The Minister cleared his throat to get everybody's attention. "We've gotten a bit off topic, people. While I'm sure we'd all like to know just how the Minutemen got ahold of intelligence concerning the Expedition, I recall the captain inquiring about terms." At Collin's acknowledging nod, he continued, "The Expedition is going to be going to be going places that no human has ever been to and that means we have absolutely no clue what to expect. You and your unit, Captain Walsh, is the largest cohesive group of psychics in Alliance space, and while many wonder exactly how so many psychics manage to operate smoothly and efficiently," psychics of both varieties were notoriously

independent minded, "what matters is that you do. We want you on board as a backup in case the Expedition comes across something that the fleet, the TacCom teams, and our negotiators can't handle. As your little intel coupe demonstrates, your abilities go a good deal beyond causing mayhem and mass destruction even though that is what you are best known for.

"Most of the time, you'll just be along for the ride. You and your people will be the Expedition's trump card, held in reserve for when nothing else works. When you aren't being actively called upon, we are willing to pay your standard exclusive retainer fee." Having the Minutemen on exclusive retainer, meaning they refused any other job until called upon, cost about as much as maintaining a light cruiser including the crew's salaries. With a mission expected to last a Terran Standard decade they'd make enough to retire to a very luxurious lifestyle even if they were never actually called into action. "In the event that you are called into action, we will give you the same as your current hazardous duty rate." That was three times as much as the retainer, charged hourly. "We will provide any supplies and materiell you require," the Minister went on, "but you will be expected to handle

any maintenance and upkeep of your own equipment."

"Actually, Minister," Collin replied, "we would insist on doing our own maintenance regardless. Besides giving us something to do on what you clearly hope will be a largely uneventful trip for us, we don't trust anybody else to take care of our gear. No offense to Kim and her people," he nodded to Admiral Dennid, his use of casual address earning a stern glare in return, "but the fact is that any soldier worth his uniform sees to maintaining his gear and weapons as much as possible himself because it's his ass on the line if they break down. Also, most of our stuff is not exactly standard issue and a nearly all of it is has charms on it to enhance its performance one way or another, so your people wouldn't have a clue what to do with it in the first place."

"That's good," Dennid spoke up, "because, knowing what I do about you three, here, personally, I wouldn't let any of my people touch so much as your toothbrushes for fear they might inadvertently kill themselves and blow a gaping hole in the side of my mothership." All three of the mercenaries chuckled, and Collin guessed what the Minister was thinking by the look on his face. "I'm serious," she said to the Minister in answer to the unspoken question, "I've seen some of the 'improvements' he likes to make to anything he gets his hands on. He didn't get the handle 'Singularity' without good reason; when it comes to wholesale reckless destruction he's as good as a walking black hole, and that's not even when he and Lisa are linked, which is nearly any time that they're both conscious and on the same planet." She extended a hand, pointing the first two fingers at Collin and Lioness before adding, "I've seen those two literally level a city block, with my own two eyes," bringing the same two fingers to point at each of her eyes.

"For the record, Minister," Collin interrupted, "we were under contract to clear that block by the

development company that owned it. They hired us because we offered to do it for half the price the demolishers were asking for, and we did it in a day and a half instead of a month. Not exactly a normal college job, but that's really all it was."

"In all honesty," Lioness added with a mischievous grin, "thats not all it was, entirely. It was also a chance to show off and a hell of a lot of fun."

Eyes wide, the Minister cleared his throat to buy some time to regain his composure. After slowly taking and releasing a deep breath, he said, "I can see now why Admiral Dennid was so...cautiously reluctant about having you along. Just to be clear, as commanding officer of the Expedition she will be the direct representative of your employers, the Alliance government. That means that disobeying her orders violates the contract and, should such a situation occur, she will have the authority to end your contract and drop your team off in your corvette wherever you may be at the time. Should that happen, upon your return to Alliance space you will be paid for any services already rendered and then politely asked to leave and not return again. This point is absolutely non-negotiable. Am I clear, Captain Walsh?"

"Absolutely, Minister," Collin answered immediately. He wasn't surprised in the least but, in fact hadn't believed that the military would even have them on the Expedition without reserving the right to kick them out should they prove unreliable. "I do, however, insist that a corollary be added." Ignoring the dozen eyes suddenly narrowing at him, he continued, "It is already clear that the reason you want us to join the Expedition is that we have talents that are unique to the rest of its personnel, which also means that we're the only ones to understand exactly how they can best be of use. We sit back and enjoy the ride until Kim tells us to do something, along with any guidelines as to what we should not do, and then we are left to carry out the task in whatever manner we see fit according to our orders.

"I won't let a few personal disagreements stop me from freely admitting that I believe Kim is fully qualified to wear those Admiral's stars, even if she is the youngest to do so in the past two hundred and six years, which is why I'm willing to follow her orders, but when she gives me a mission she's going to have to leave the details to me." He narrowed his own eyes for the first time as he met first Kim's eyes, then looked back to the Minister. "If a non psychic is allowed to micromanage psychics in combat conditions, people could easily die. Most likely the psychics, which means me and my people. This is my own non-negotiable term. If you do not agree to it, we will literally be out the door before you've finished saying the word 'no.'"

For a moment, it seemed so quiet that everyone in the room had gone deaf. The second admiral, whom Collin knew from his intelligence gathering was present as an observer for the Armed Space Forces High Command (he was a senior member thereof) and the two suits, whom he also knew were representatives for the defense contractors involved in building the ships for the Expeditionary force and the largest merchants' guild in the Alliance, didn't dare blink, let alone breathe. Finally, after a few seconds that seemed an eternity, the Minister slowly took another deep breath and turned to look at Admiral Dennid. She met Collin's eyes for a few seemingly endless seconds before finally moving her grave expression to the Minister and nodding her agreement to the terms.

The collective exhaling of held breath seemed as if it could be heard a klick away. The only ones that hadn't been holding their breath were the three mercenaries; they had remained calm and relaxed the entire time. Collin hadn't been bluffing; the Minutemen never accepted any mission without that condition. Furthermore, Collin and Lioness, using their own power as well as more lent by Hirume through the three way link that had been established before they even walked into the building, had already formed a charm that would cause all three to literally fly out the door in the blink of an eye. Granted, the charm would have only taken them about a meter past the doorway and the process would have involved an impact that would have sent splinters flying about so forcefully that they would end up embedded into walls, but Collin's promise would have been kept.

"Your condition is acceptable," the Minister said with the obvious relief. "The Admiral gives the orders and sets the mission parameters and then it's your job to complete the mission using whatever method you decide is best."

"Thank you, Minister, because I would have hated to have had to walk away from such an interesting job," Collin said. "One more thing. To prevent any confusion as to authority, I want ASF commissions for me and my team, for the duration of our contract, equal to our ranks within our unit. I understand that it isn't entirely necessary since we'll be answering directly to Kim most of the time, but our having official ranks should help smooth interaction with the rest of the Expedition."

The second admiral leaned forward and spoke for the first time. "Actually, captain, we've already taken that matter into consideration. While the ASF generally tries to avoid needing outside contractors, there have been a few previous instances where it was deemed necessary to do so. The biggest difficulty in most of those cases was smooth integration of the outside team. Dealing with such friction on a mission that involves a few days planning and perhaps a day or two to execute is one thing, but we're talking about years here. We came to much the same conclusion that you have just suggested. I have the authority to approve it, as long as I deem the ranks appropriate. What rank system does your team use?"

"The same one that you do, sir." Collin grinned at the brief look of surprise on the admiral's face upon hearing that the Minutemen, with their reputation of unpredictability and nonconformity, observed a "proper" chain of command. "We may be mercs, but we're still Orions, so it just seemed natural. As to individual ranks, we have myself as a Captain, as you already know, one Commander, one Lieutenant, seven Ensigns, and one Sergeant."

"That makes eleven, Captain Walsh," the admiral replied with a slightly creased brow. "I was under the impression that the Minutemen only had ten members, when did you sign on someone new?"

"I didn't."

"Then wh-"

"The Sergeant is Molly, Hank," Dennid interrupted with a mild hint of annoyance, "he wants us to grant a commission to his ship."

"Not the ship," Collin corrected before anything else could be said, "the AI that controls the ship. There's a big difference. Molly is a valuable member of our team and does more than just operate the corvette that she's named after. She's our specialist in matters of electronic security, both protecting our own secrets and finding out those of others; Lioness and I have the much the same knowledge of such things, we're Molly's programmers after all, but even master psychics' brains can only process so much at once. Being an artificial intelligence, and also the most advanced one known to exist, she can do anything that we can in a fraction of the time, and the most effective way to breach a security system or prevent somebody else from breaching your own is often simply being faster. Nobody is faster than Molly. Nobody. Also, as a true AI, she can and has evolved, learning new things. Her information technology prowess has actually surpassed our own. On top of that, she also acts as our archivist, secretary, receptionist, quartermaster, and legal advisor."

"Legal advisor?" The admiral sounded incredulous. "You mean to say that you take legal advice from a computer?"

"I included every document on every legal system we could find in her programming," Lioness said. "Sure, we could have read them all ourselves, but that would take us years when Molly can access any of them in an instant. It's much more efficient this way. Besides, we trust her with our lives when she's controlling the ship, and we trust our own abilities when we created her, so it would be foolish not to make use of such a valuable asset. She's observing this entire meeting through our cerebral implants," she tapped her right index finger to her temple, "and is, as we speak, drawing up a contract and altering it as necessary while we agree upon terms. It'll be ready the moment we finalize the deal. You'll probably want to have your people look it over, which we don't mind at all since we wouldn't expect you not to want to be assured of what you're agreeing to, but I can transmit a copy to you as soon as we're finished."

The admiral drummed his fingers on the table for a moment, eyes closed as he considered the situation. "Though this is highly irregular, I suppose I can agree to it, considering you're only asking she be given a fairly low ranking commission," he finally said, "but I must insist on a concession. We were already planning on asking it but if you want your AI to have an ASF commission then you'll have to agree to it. Take it or leave it."

"We're listening," all three mercenaries said in unison.

"It concerns the Expedition's mothership, which I suspect you are already aware is named the Lewis and Clark."

Collin nodded to confirm that he already knew. "One of my hobbies is precomp Earth history. That's where I got Molly's name from. Lewis and Clark is the one of the most appropriate names I could think of, considering that the Expedition is going into uncharted territories. I'd probably have chosen Erikson or Columbus, or maybe Gagarin, but Lewis and Clark is just as fitting. What about the mothership, exactly, does your request concern?" He couldn't contain his knowing grin.

"From your expression," Dennid broke in before the senior admiral could answer, "I'm pretty sure you already know that, too. What's your answer?"

"You always did seem to be able to read me pretty well, Kim," Collin chuckled. Turning back to the other admiral with the pleased smile still on his face, he continued, "You want an AI like Molly for the Lewis and Clark. You also want it to behave according to proper military discipline and accept orders without question. That last part is actually quite superfluous since Molly herself is hardwired to do exactly the same, from my team and I, at least, which is related to her holding the most junior rank among us. She might be a bit sassy sometimes, but she never disobeys a direct order. But I've already told Molly to add the appropriate wording to the contract just to assure you that your wishes are met. I hereby officially name our price to be four million Orion belts." The Belt of Orion, the center star of which was the location of Orion Prime, was the symbol of the Alliance as well as the namesake of it's currency. His price was the exact maximum that High Command was willing to pay; he'd read the transcript of that meeting himself. It had been highly classified, as many such meetings were, but he had Molly and that meant that anything recorded electronically was effectively at his beck and call.

It was the Minister who answered this time. "It seems you've proved your intelligence gathering abilities yet again, Captain Walsh. Since I am rather certain you will accept nothing less than the most we are willing to pay, I accept your price. How long will it take you to construct this AI for us?"

"It took me just under four days to make the necessary programing changes," Lioness answered, "then a little more than three for us to lay down the charms to make her truly sentient."

The Minister couldn't hide his surprise this time. "Took? You mean you've already done it?"

"Yes," Collin couldn't contain his smirk, "the hardware is sitting in Molly's cargo bay on the landing pad out back." Like most important government buildings, the ASF High Command office had it's own berthing facilities for small spacecraft. At a length of one hundred and thirteen meters the Molly Pitcher took up a rather large portion of that area, but since they had an appointment arrangements had been made for the space to be available. "You can offload it right now if you want, but you'll need Lioness and I to perform the actual installation, so it would be simpler to just have us make the delivery ourselves. We do, of course, already know the coordinates of the deep space base for the Expedition." The easiest place to hide something you didn't want anyone else to know about was the vastness of interstellar space. The only effective way to find something hidden in that eternal void was to already know where it was. Thanks to Molly, Collin knew exactly where it was. "As soon as the contract is signed, we can be there in just under four days.

"The sooner the better," Lioness added, "at least from our perspective; lacking a hull to be installed into, she hasn't had much else to do but talk to Molly. She's started complaining that Molly isn't very nice, and Molly's been bitching about having to babysit her 'punkass kid sister.'"

"Gee," Admiral Dennid said, "I'm already quivering in anticipation to meet the brain of my flagship. You know what, don't tell me anything else about her. You always like to speak in riddles about stuff like this, so I'd rather just find out when I meet her."

"Great," Collin returned, "she really wants to meet you too. I've told her all about you."

"Oh joy."

The Minister cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. "I think we've covered just about everything, unless anyone present has any objections to the terms we've already agreed upon, or anything else to add?" None present said anything. "Very well then," he continued, "Captain Walsh, I believe you have a contract drawn up?" At Collin's confirming nod, he went on, "Transmit it to me and I'll have our people look over it, just to be sure of the wording. I'm confident that, by this time tomorrow, it will be signed by the President himself. We'll contact you as soon as everything is

settled."

Nineteen hours later

"Minutemen Command, Sergeant Pitcher speaking."

"Yes, I'm Alex Olson, aid to the President, may I speak to Captain Walsh?"

"The Captain is unavailable at the moment, but I can take a message."

"I need to speak to speak to your Captain about contractual issues."

"I'm the unit legal expert, and Captain Walsh has given me orders to handle such affairs if he was unavailable when the call came. You'll have to deal with me, or call back later."

"Um, how much later?"

"I don't know. The Captain and his wife engaged the privacy mode in their cabin about ten minutes ago. Considering what they were saying and doing before that, I expect them to be in there for at least a few hours."

"Uh...can you hold for a moment, please?"

"I'm not doing anything else important right now, so yeah, fine.

"Can't anybody ever bother to find some actually good music for putting people on hold Seriously, this crap sucks hulrin ba-"

"Sergeant Pitcher?"

"Still here, even though that music made me want to disconnect."

"Um, uh, I'm sorry but I don't pick the music. I agree that it's bad, for what it's worth."

"'Bad' is a gross understatement. What do you have to tell me?"

"I had to get clearance to tell this to anyone except Captain Walsh. The contract has been signed by the President and the Minutemen are now under orders to proceed to the appropriate coordinates immediately to begin performing the duties to which they, err, uh, you, have agreed to."

"Orders acknowledged. It's about damn time. I've had the course plotted for over a week. Engaging now. MV Molly Pitcher over and out."