"Captain Van Carney aboard the fighter ship Excursion," said the man into the radio, "requesting entrance on to Colloid 232." He watched as the ship's pilot flicked the thrusters, easing the spacecraft into orbit around the manmade military base.
"State your purpose, Carney," came the disgruntled reply. Van frowned as the pilot suppressed a snort; it seemed he still wasn't popular amongst his higher ups.
"Reporting the results of my mission," Van said, fighting the urge to say something he'd regret later. "We have apprehended the smugglers and seized their ship and cargo."
There was a pause and then a sigh. "Access granted," said the voice, sounding defeated. "I'll need to talk to you."
After Excursion had been moored and her crew had passed customs, Van made his way to the rear admiral's office. Knocking on the door, he let himself in to find his commanding officer waiting for him.
"Your mission was recon," the man said curtly.
Van shrugged. "I saw an opportunity, and I took it. Would you not have done the same thing?"
"I would have waited for my superior officer's okay," remarked the rear admiral. "You were outmanned, captain."
"I've pulled out of greater odds," said Van, grinning. "No casualties this time, and we nailed the perps. Why are we having this conversation?"
The rear admiral shook his head and picked up a manila envelope off of his desk. The admiral's stamp labeled the document as confidential. "Because you're a good man, Carney, and one day luck isn't going to be on your side."
Van accepted the envelope but didn't look inside. "I've never relied on luck," he said as he left, shutting the door behind him. Then to himself, he muttered, "Never have, and never will."
He met with his crew in one of the conference rooms aboard the Excursion; here, they had easy access to hologram machines and big screens, both of which cost money without authorization in official military conference rooms. Van highly doubted that the rear admiral would give him authorization for anything after their discussion.
"Ada left," said the pilot as soon as Van walked in.
The captain sighed, running his free hand through his slick blonde hair as he laid the documents on the conference table. His longtime friend Ada Stoller disliked remaining in the same place for long. While technically not military personnel, she was a sensible woman who often accompanied him on difficult missions.
"It's fine, Reese," he told the pilot. "We'll manage."
Reese Haut smiled. Van had handpicked Reese for his crew a year ago, and the man had not let him down yet. Nicknamed Goliath from his cadet days, the pilot towered over Van at 6'4. His stature was not his only intimidating aspect; Van had chosen Goliath for the man's killer poker face.
"She said she'd be in touch," volunteered Dr. Stoller, the woman's younger brother and the ship's main physician. Lancaster Stoller was usually polite and thoughtful; no one but Ada understood Van's inexplicable fear for the man. Still he was a reliable doctor and had inherited his sister's common sense.
"Is it just you two?" Van sighed. "I called a ship-wide meeting." While he ran the Excursion with a noticeably smaller crew than was recommended, he wasn't rash or young enough to consider flying with only three men. "Does no one respect my authority on this ship?"
"You wouldn't have hired them if they did," replied Goliath. The man was leafing through the files, occasionally nodding to indicate his understanding.
"Jane wanted me to tell you that she was too sleepy for a meeting," said Dr. Stoller. "Claes and Gallough said they were busy."
Van groaned. "Where's Lucassen?"
As if summoned, the cadet kicked open the door, missing Van by a margin. The out-of-breath twenty year old paled before turning several interesting hues of red and purple. "Jesus," he gasped. "Sorry I'm late, captain."
"Better late than never, I guess," Van grumbled, waving the boy over to a chair. "All right, assuming the others are too good to join us, I'll start. Our next gig is a diplomatic mission into Eridani. Hopefully they speak English because I ain't speaking…Eridanian or whatever."
"Erid," Goliath said, turning the page.
Dr. Stoller nodded. "Their empire originated from Hatze, or what we call Epsilon Eridani b. Their physical structure is remarkably similar to humans, although I'm sure there are some differences."
"Right," said Van. "That."
"Did you say diplomatic mission, captain?" asked Goliath. "Because it looks to me like a suicide mission."
"Where've we heard that before?" Van replied with a grin. "It's nice to see they still trust me with the dangerous missions."
Lucassen had sidled over to Goliath and was perusing the papers with interest alongside the pilot. "That or they're dying to get rid of you," the cadet remarked. "We haven't been on good terms with Eridani for the past decade, and everyone on this ship is human. We'll be slaughtered."
Van snapped his fingers at the boy, shaking his head. "Not so fast, Myre. Our mission is to divert a war, not start one."
"Actually," Goliath said, pointing to one of the papers, "it says our mission is diplomatic recon. We're to go under the pretense of negotiating a treaty and scope out Eridani for threats."
Dr. Stoller sighed as a smirk worked its way on to Van's face. "I hate sneaking around," the captain said. "I've been through war, and Sol isn't ready for another one. Clearly Admiral Gaines trusts me with leading this mission, so that's what we're going to do." Van emphasized his point by smacking the broken seal of the admiral.
"You'll get us into serious trouble one day, I swear," said the physician, leaning back into his chair.
"Your siblings would kill me if I did," returned Van. Dr. Stoller broke into a grin.
Lucassen rolled his eyes. "I guess I'll have to get used to this, huh?"
"Now that we've gotten that out of the way," said Goliath, waving a packet around, "have you even read these?"
"I read the summary," said Van.
"'To protect the interests of the Sol military, a representative in the Department of Internal Affairs will be assigned to the cruiser ship Excursion under the surveillance of Captain Van Carney,'" read Goliath. "They're sticking a yellowback on us?"
Van frowned before shrugging. "It's about time, honestly. I'm surprised they didn't try sooner."
Called yellowbacks for the yellow stripes across the back of their uniforms, Internal Affairs agents were strongly disliked throughout the military. The department was in charge of seeking out illegal activities within the Sol army.
"They've been on our tails for a while now," lamented the pilot. "It's all the shady correspondence you keep, captain."
Van chuckled. "I don't know, they seemed pretty thankful five years back during the war."
"This isn't a laughing matter," Lucassen insisted. "Internal Affairs is serious on stripping you of your rank."
"If you worry too much, you'll ruin your pretty face with wrinkles," said Van. At the cadet's glare, he said, "I'm clean, Lucassen. They won't find anything."
"That doesn't eliminate the danger though. Some yellowbacks will do anything to fill the quota." Lucassen snatched the papers out of the pilot's hands. "Lasaiah Ward," he read.
Van frowned. "Ward? I may know her." He looked contemplative before waving his hand dismissively. "She's honest."
"I think she used to work with my sister," said Dr. Stoller.
"An archivist?" said Lucassen with obvious distaste. The Archives hosted a thorough array of newspapers and documents which people could pay to access. While the Archives were an unaffiliated privately-owned organization, it was common knowledge that archivists worked closely with the military. Unfortunately, archivists as a whole tended to be represented by the select few individuals who actively hunted for scandals.
"She quit a few years ago," said Van. He started to gather the files. "I have to go run this by Jane. How fast can you get us en route to Eridani?"
"Have you filled out the papers for the last mission yet?" asked Goliath patiently. One look at Van's face told it all. "Claes took care of everything else while you were gone, but we still need your signature."
Van sighed. "Very well. I'll do it after I drop by the medical bay." He surmised that was where Jane Medley would be. The woman was a registered battlefield medic and often helped Dr. Stoller with his work. "Reese, go make sure we're stocked for the trip; Lucassen, clear our departure. And Dr. Stoller? Make sure Gallough and Claes know what's up."
"Yessir," saluted Lucassen as Van turned away.
During his war days, Van had procured the nickname "Lord Carnage" for his masterful handling of what was widely regarded as a bullet ship. Specifically designed as a compact and speedy ship, the Excursion had been slated for a kamikaze mission before Van had gained control of it. He'd executed several high-risk missions that eventually led to his promotion to captain a year ago.
Perhaps less known was "Lady Carnage," as Jane Medley was known as in the rumor mill. One popular rumor was that Medley ran Excursion behind the scenes. A certified medic who had worked under Admiral Gaines, she was also adept in martial arts. She spent her free time hunting. Needless to say, Van dreaded talking to her.
He slipped into the medical bay unannounced, finding the area empty. The cots were neatly made and the counters were devoid of the medicines that scattered the room whenever Medley was working. The door to the examination room was locked. With increasing apprehension, Van turned his attention towards the physician's private quarters.
He knocked twice to no answer before turning the handle. Swallowing, Van pushed the door open and stepped into the room. He had not made it three steps before a knife flew past his face and embedded itself hilt-deep into the door frame.
"You're paying for that," he responded immediately. He regretted the decision as soon as the words left his mouth.
Jane Medley turned to face him, her cat-like green eyes darkening. "I thought you were Myre."
Van took his time examining his body. "Nope, still me."
The medic was dressed in a lacy lilac nightgown that looked more like a sleeveless blouse. Her blonde hair, which was usually pulled back in a ponytail, fell down to her shoulders. Van diverted his gaze.
Jane rolled her eyes. "Van, you can look at me. I know you have no sex drive; I'm not going to be offended."
"Put on some pants," the man insisted. "And that's not true."
She sighed and complied, locating a black pair of leggings and slipping them on. "Okay, why did you wake me up?"
Van gave her a quick run through of the situation. "We're headed to Eridani next."
"Epsilon Eridani?" Medley asked, narrowing her eyes.
"The very same. Scoping out the situation, identifying threats, that kind of thing."
The medic nodded, chewing on her lip. "Should have expected that. Sol and Eridani have been exchanging threats for the past decade. We lucked out when they decided against joining the last war."
"They're sticking a yellowback on us too," Van said. "Ward."
Medley frowned, folding her arms. "She hates you," she said. "It's a good thing Stoller's not here or we'd be in bigger trouble. For some reason, she's always had a bone to pick with you two."
"I don't know why," Van said as he suppressed a grin. "Ada and I were always civil to her."
"I'm sure if you think hard enough, you'll come up with a reason," Medley returned, unimpressed.
"Probably," the man admitted cheerfully. "I'm thinking it'd be nice to have a bigger crew anyhow."
"Always the optimist," she said. Jane located a black hair band on her vanity and reached up to tie her hair back. "All right, I'm up. How soon are we leaving?"
"As soon as Reese can pull us out of here," said Van. "I think I need to sign a few things regarding that last mission though."
The medic raised an eyebrow as she pulled her nightgown over her head without warning. Van turned red and spun around, resolutely facing the door, and ignored her laughter. "I'm surprised how quickly you took to that pilot. I know you like his face and all, but don't you think you've been putting a lot of responsibility on him?"
"You're worried?" Van asked.
"You're a shit judge of character, Van."
"Reese is a good man," Van said. "Are you decent?"
"Goliath may be, but not everyone you allow on the ship is," said Jane. "I'm decent." He turned around. She was dressed in her usual black attire; her clothes were skintight but allowed her a wide range of movement. Atop this, she wore a loose white lab coat that probably belonged to Dr. Stoller.
Van nodded at her. "I'll heed your advice because you've been right before," he relented. "I will be careful who I trust outside of this ship, but I will trust my men."
Jane gave a long-suffering sigh as if this was an argument they'd had too many times before. Van had to admit she might've been right. "Fine, Van, but don't come crying to me."
He left her cabin with a backward wave and a heavy heart.
Van found himself inexplicably headed towards the bridge. Dropping his paperwork in the pilot's lap, he checked the ship's vitals out of habit. "Whoever refueled, good work," he said.
"Thanks," responded Goliath wryly. "You're sure eager to get out of here."
Van shook his head. "I don't feel comfortable unless I'm doing something," he confessed.
"You and Ada are similar, you know," said Goliath. Van shuddered.
"Please," he said. "We're nothing alike."
Goliath snorted but offered nothing else to refute him. Van chose to take his silence as agreement. "Anyway, I don't want to make any stops until Eridani b but be prepared in case customs turns out to be a lot stricter than expected."
The pilot nodded. "Unlike you, I read the papers," he said with the hint of a smirk. "The Erids have been our rivals in space colonization for years, which is the main point of tension between Eridani and Sol."
"I've heard about that," Van acknowledged. "You think they'll be dangerous?"
"I'm not an expert but I hear they're prideful. I don't think they'll attack unless they deem us to be a threat."
"We'll see about that," said Dr. Stoller as he walked in. "The Erids are infamous within the medical community for their lack of ethics concerning genetic modification. They seem to prioritize the advancement of their race over the lives of individuals. Tread carefully."
Van turned to face him, noting that he was not alone. A dark skinned woman dressed in the standard Internal Affairs uniform, complete with the notorious yellowback jacket, followed him into the bridge. She crossed her arms when she saw Van and scowled.
"Agent Ward," the captain said.
"Carney," Ward returned coolly. She made her distaste evident in her tone.
"My name is Reese Haut," Goliath said, holding out his hand. "I look forward to working with you."
Ward looked at him but didn't return the gesture. After a moment, Goliath dropped his hand and adopted a neutral expression.
"You will not engage in foolhardy expeditions while I am on this ship," she snapped, looking directly at Van. "The mission is one of recon; we are to investigate any threat Eridani may pose to us and report to the Admiral. I will not accept any deviation from this plan, understood?"
"We'll see," Van replied. Ward scowled again while Goliath sent an incredulous look at the captain. "Are we ready to depart, Agent?"
The woman gave Van a dark look, turning on her heels and stalking away. When the sharp click of her heels had receded into silence, Dr. Stoller said, "I see you've retained your touch with the ladies."
"Shut up, Lancaster," Van said, grimacing. "I don't see you progressing in that field either."
The doctor's reply was all of a single finger as he, too, left the bridge. "Tell me when we leave."
Van sighed. "Those siblings have no tact," he lamented.
"Say that to their faces," Goliath replied as Lucassen jogged into the bridge.
"In the interest of keeping my head attached to my body, I must decline," said Van. He turned to the cadet. "Do we have clearance?"
Lucassen nodded. "I take it the angry woman is the yellowback?" he remarked. Both men nodded. He sighed. "Why is it that we can never find nice, calm women to work with?" he muttered. "Why are they all psychotic?"
"You've reminded me," Van said, "did you do something to upset Jane?"
The cadet made a derisive noise. "She keeps commanding me to do her dirty work. I understand menial labor like fetching papers and arranging appointments." In fact, the captain was guilty of assigning grunt work to the cadet as well. Van averted his gaze. "But I refuse to clean her bathroom! That woman sheds hair like a dog!"
Van smothered a laugh, but Goliath just raised an eyebrow. "I would be careful what I said in here," he said calmly. "You never know which of the psychotic ladies may have bugged this room."
Lucassen turned white. "I – uh, ah… We've clearance, captain," he muttered, looking at the ground. "We're free to leave at your discretion."
Van grinned. "Very well. Reese?"
The pilot saluted. "Yessir, captain, initiating takeoff."