[MESSAGE POSTED ON UNGSTIR COMMUNITY SERVICE BOARD]

TITLE: Crew sought for Operation Outrigger

AUTHOR: V. Prague

MESSAGE: Hiring crew for Consortium-sponsored exploration mission. Got ship; need people. Leaving ASAP.

A red-haired Pyracani is on his way towards a transport back to his homeworld, suitcase in hand. He pauses as he happens to catch sight of the post. After a moment’s glance at the transport, the pilot pulls out his comm and dials someone up. “Sir? Meuc Sionnach. Who do I talk to about extending my furlough?”

Said same Pyracani fighter pilot finds his way to the ship bound for nowhere. He’s not in uniform, but his military-issued pulse pistol is slung on his hip. A cup of early morning coffee is held in one paw as he presses the airlock’s call button with the other.

“Yeah, what?” comes a grumbled voice over the speaker.

“Meuc Sionnach,” the caninoid replies, his cheer not even slightly damaged by the response, “We spoke on comm about the job. I’m the pilot.”

“Ah. OK. Come aboard,” the voice grumbles. A beep. The hatch unlocks.

The Pyracani waits for the airlock to cycle before stepping in, adjusting a duffel bag on his shoulder as he looks around the inside of the vessel.

The ship’s owner leans against the bulkhead in the cramped central corridor. He wears a battered fedora and a trenchcoat. Cigarette smoke wafts from beneath the hat’s brim. “You good for a long trip? Got cards? My poker face sucks.”

Meuc’s muzzle wrinkles a bit as he gets a whiff of the ship’s interior, but he quickly grins back at the smoker. “Yes, and I do,” he says, “And you’d be the first person I’ve met to make that claim truthfully, if you are.”

“Well, just waiting on one more for the crew, then we’re ready to go,” the squat man replies. He extends a hand. “Vechkov Prague.”

Shaking the extended hand, the Pyracani nods with a toothy grin, “Reub Meuc Sionnach,” he says, “Pleasure to meet you. Lookin’ forward to this trip.”

“Yeah? Makes one of us,” Prague replies with rolled eyes. “Scares the shit out of me.” He draws himself away from the bulkhead, then points down the hall to a hatchway. “Bunks.” Fore toward a ladder. “Up to the cockpit.” Aft toward another ladder. “Engines.” Stomps a foot on the deckplate. “Cargo access, down below in the belly.” The wrinkles around his eyes crinkle upward. “Welcome aboard the Ekaterina’s Pride.”

“Ekaterina, eh?” the Pyracani says, craning his neck to look up the ladder leading to the cockpit, “Name of anyone important?”

“Dead wife,” the ship’s owner replies with a shrug. He takes a drag off his cigarette before tapping ash on the deckplate. “Finally taking her on the trip I always promised.”

“Fair ‘nough,” the Pyracani says with a quick nod, “My condolences, of course. And I’ll do my best to bring her home safe.”

“Appreciated,” Prague says. “Our first stop’s going to be a rendezvous with a fuel tanker called the Rucker. We can depart just as soon as…”

And that’s when the airlock buzzer goes off again. He raises a pudgy index finger and then pokes the intercom: “Yeah. Come on.” He thumbs the lock trigger.

Moments later, a slender woman with severe-cut blonde hair steps aboard. She nods to the Pyracani, then offers a hand toward Prague. “I’m your engineer. Eloise Sharpers.”

The ship’s owner gestures to Sionnach. “Rob-Roy Sionnach.” He gives an apologetic shrug to the Pyracani. “Never can get those names right.” He then points toward aft. “Engineering is down that way.” A faint smile. “I suppose you can unpack at your bunks before we get underway.” With that, he heads toward the cockpit and clambers up the ladder.

The Pyracani snorts in amusement before nodding to Eloise with a smile. “Meuc, Meuc Sionnach,” he says before turning to unpack his meager belongings. A few changes of clothes, a bit of rations, and a quickdraw holster tailored to fit the same weapon as the military-issue one he carries.

Eloise eyes the weapon as she stashes her duffel under a bunk. “Soldier?” she inquires.

“Fighter pilot,” the caninoid says as he proceeds to change out the holsters, “Knew I was saving up furlough all that time for something.”

“Try not to break her too often,” the woman replies with a chuckle. Then she ducks out of the bunks, aft toward the ladder, and down into engineering.

“Get ready for the easiest job you ever had,” Sionnach calls back with a confident smile before clambering up the ladder to prepare for departure.

Not a lot of room in the cockpit. Vechkov is hunkered down in a bucket seat that gives him access to sensors and communications. The only other chair is a bucket at navigation, with a gridwork window canopy that currently offers a view of the bustling Ungstir docking bay area.

The Pyracani slides gingerly into the pilot’s chair. “Say when,” he says, flipping switches as he mentally goes through a quick checklist. It takes him but a few moments to familiarize himself with where everything is.

“We clear for launch?” Prague asks via commlink to engineering.

Eloise checks the gauges and monitors. Nothing alarming on the readouts. “We should be good to go, as long as our pilot can steer through the rock fields out there.”

Vechkov nods, then switches off the commlink. “If you screw up, guess this’ll be a nice short trip.”

“You folks worry too much,” Sionnach says, laughing, as the ship begins to rise, “Flown through much tighter spaces than what you have out there.” As the ship whizzes out of the hangar and into space, perhaps a little faster than some might be used to, “Course, this is a bit bigger than what I usually fly.”

The ship’s owner transmits data to Sionnach’s console. “Last known coordinates for the Rucker. They’re a last-stop fuel depot for the Outrigger op. Next stop after that is…” His voice trails off as he watches Ungstir Prime disappear to the side and behind. “Well, I’m open to suggestions.”

“I guess we could always see what looks like the most interesting direction once we get there,” Sionnach offers as he turns the ship out in the direction of unexplored space. “Preparing to engage Tilsworth-Cooke drive,” he announces.

In engineering, Eloise checks her PDA one last time. She finds an encrypted message with a masked voice that states: “Safe travels. Keep moving. Like a good shark.” She deletes the message. Frowns. “Screw you,” she mutters to no one in particular.

Back in the cockpit, Prague says: “Let’s go.”

The Pyracani nods as he pulls the lever that sends the vessel hurtling into FTL. “ETA … four hours, twenty-three minutes, Captain,” he says.

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