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Cloak & Dagger

The next morning all of the applicants gather back in the auditorium. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wolf, the white rabbit, and the humans are no longer present. When Sakura comes in the Texan bat saunters over to her to sweep his cowboy hat gracefully off his ears and skree, "Ah'm so glad to see such a lovely lady return. Ah do hope we have th'chance t'work t'gethah."

Indra Burnett from HR, ever-perky, comes on stage, "We have selected the primary crew for this assignment. The rest of you will be trained as well, as backup for the positions you applied for. There will be four weeks of training, simulators and class time. You will each be prepared to participate in this launch."

Indra checks her notes, then announces, "Primary crew: pilot -- Travis Neil Armstrong, medical/science officer -- Sakura Murasaki, engineering -- Douglas Percival, captain -- Tanista Bonecrusher." The bear only nods. The Texan bat's smile widens smugly as he glances at Sakura, while the Texan armadillos seem a little surprised. Unaware of this quiet interplay, the HR Vice President continues, "Backup crew: pilot -- Kerry Skydancer, medical/science officer -- Richard Robert Briggs, engineering -- James Robert Briggs, and captain -- Vashti Ramos Montoya primarily, and secondarily William Robert Briggs. Joseph Robert Briggs will be trained also, in case of mishap during training." The armadillos frown and mutter quietly amongst themselves.

Indra concludes, "You will each receive a training schedule. Please wait in the auditorium until one of the staff members has had a chance to speak with you. Any questions you have you can ask them." With a last smile at the audience she leaves the stage. Anne and one of the other technicians from before circulate, handing everyone a thick manila envelope.

Vash winces visibly. He hates hearing his full name. Kerry scowls at being named to the backup crew, wondering if Armstrong had to deal with an overload acceleration surge during his trial... but at least he's made the second string. He opens his envelope and pulls out the documents. The documents are a syllabus, and a schedule of classes and instruction for the next four weeks. Looks like everyone will be busy.

Time flies when you're always busy. Four weeks later, after a huge amount of studying and far less simulation time than anyone might like, the company gathers all of the crew and backups at the airport to see the shuttle off. There've been no mishaps during training. Everyone's aware of the close guard and cautious attention to details which TAG is expending on this project.

    Chicago International Airport: Gate F22
    This is a gate at an airport, like most others. This is one of the smaller ones, designed for maybe an hundred people to wait for their departure. There are chairs bolted to the floor in alternating T-shaped rows, and huge windows out onto the busy airport itself, as well as a couple of monitors showing "The Airport Network" or some such inanity, which have had their sound turned off. Gate 22 itself is roped off and surrounded by TAG security lines, with an armed guard at each corner. Another guard is checking ID at the entrance, running cardkeys through a portable to test their validity.

The sleek, shining shuttle is standing outside the gate, with ground crews working busily around it. Three of TAG's Vice Presidents are present. Daniel Lovett, the VP of the aerospace division, and Indra Burnett talk animatedly, while behind them Harold Turk of International stares intently out the window at the ship. A news crew is standing next to the security line plaintively trying to get anyone to talk to them. All the shuttle crew and backups are here, watching with anticipation or talking quietly.

The gleaming shuttle, with the company logo and the name "Herrick" emblazoned across the tail, resembles a jetliner more than anything else. It has three jet engines mounted in special housings that seal for protection in space. In addition, it has a single large rocket engine, mounted in the center of the ship's rear, and several smaller engines scattered about the plane to allow fine control and navigation. There are several other lumps in the smooth exterior which are less obvious.

Along the shuttle's thirty meters of fuselage there are only few windows, but a full compliment in the nose of the ship for the pilot. The wingspan is nearly as wide as the ship is long, at twenty eight meters, and the tail rises eleven meters into the air. On the ground, the shuttle's landing gear extends down from the bottom of the fuselage nearly a full three meters, and is sturdier and more heavily reinforced than any commercial vessel, to allow landings on rougher terrain.

Access is provided via either a personnel lock, which has a stairway when extended on the ground, or via a large cargo ramp which folds down from one side of the vehicle.

Ms. Burnett picks up the horribly scratchy PA for this gate and requests the four crewmembers to please board. The jet-way door is opened, revealing the connecting tube to the shuttle. Bonecrusher (who looks surprisingly unexcited), Armstrong, Percival, and Murasaki rise and head down the tube. Out by the shuttle a ground crew can be seen making last minute checks near one of the back hatches... and a moment later Douglas comes down the back cargo ramp to talk concernedly with them. Mr. Lovett frowns at his hand-held radio with an ear piece, speaks into it, then makes his own announcement, "The take-off checklist has revealed a faulty seal on one of the hatches. It will be just a few minutes to replace it."

The Aerospace VP talks on the radio a bit more, "I don't know -- ask Science! That's her job." Almost as he says that someone leans to call up the back cargo ramp of the ship, and soon Sakura emerges from there, to also be drawn into the conversation by the back hatches. Harold Turk turns away from the window, and snaps, "What the hell's the hang-up here? We're supposed to be taking off in five minutes!" He waves irritatedly at the ship.

The three VPs talk for a bit, murmuring concernedly back and forth. Sharp-eared uplifts can hear Turk's short tempered concern for prompt takeoff, while Burnett and Lovett seem more interested in making sure everything's fine on the shuttle first. The conversation ends abruptly when Turk snaps at Burnett, "Don't touch me!" and jerks away to stand on the other side of the open jet-way door, glaring out at the shuttle. The bobcat looks stunned and hurt, while the other human tries ineffectively to reassure her, only to be interrupted by his radio.

Vash squints, tensing a little unconsciously. He glances to the positions of the other security ops. What the hell is going on out there? Kerry glares at Turk, though it's not obvious behind his blackened goggles. "Jerk." In spite of that opinion, though, he walks over to the open door to get a sonar-image of what's going on outside. Vash fishes in his breast pocket for a pair of heavy, dark, wrap-around shades, and tries to get a better look through the jet-way. It's too goddamned bright, it's too goddamned noisy, and it's too goddamned hot. And this guy wants to throw a fit just prior to launch. I'm not getting paid enough for this.

Turk is still staring at the shuttle when he notices the small bat standing next to him. He snaps, "Go sit down! They'll call you when they're ready, Texan!" then turns to continue glaring out the window. Kerry shrugs. Nothing but a standard jet-way down here... what is he so angry about all of a sudden? He listens carefully to Turk's heartbeat, then decides to deliberately ignore the order since he isn't a Texan.

Vash grumbles. "What is that guy's particular malfunction? I thought the brass were coming all over themselves about this launch..."

No one inside has any more warning than those outside. The brilliant bloom of fire peeling out of the ship's underbelly is eerily silent for only a fraction of a second -- and then the painful, thundering *BOOM* hits, deafening, the shockwave rattling the windows.

The news crew almost drops their equipment in startlement -- then perks right up. Lovett is yelling at his radio, Burnett is clutching her tufted ears in pain, leaning against the doorjamb of the open jet-way door. Kerry collapses in agony, his wings folded around his head in a belated attempt to protect his ears, Keero ears being singularly unable to handle such overload. The sharp, acrid tang of fuel smoke hits, drifting in through the jet-way tube door. The ground crews outside are running about madly. Someone cuts power from terminal to shuttle, and its lights go out. Pandemonium spreads quickly through the terminal -- people are screaming and fleeing, fire alarms are ringing, emergency personnel are struggling to get through the crowds, and outside fire crews are swiftly foaming down the shuttle.

Vash stands up and sprints as best he can through the crowd, muscling past where necessary to shoulder through to where he thought he saw someone go down. He nearly trips over Kerry, startled, and drops down to one knee. He jostles the bat's shoulder lightly. "Kerry? Kerry! Come on, this is no place to lose your shit... we gotta get out of here!" He sighs as he realizes the bat is not focusing on ANYTHING. Loopy. He looks around quickly, glancing back at the commotion outside. He sighs again, "You owe me one," and scoops up the limp chiropterid in his arms, as quickly as possible retreating from the wall of glass... he doesn't trust that surface not to become a sheet of screaming projectiles if something goes down out on the pad.

Kerry twitches as he's picked up. "Huh? Wuzzat?" He starts to shake his head, but quickly stops.

The ground crew begins to run up the cargo ramp with fire gear, and the airport's fire trucks arrive with an ambulance in tow -- that's when the second huge explosion goes off. This one is much worse -- painfully louder, more visible, more damaging -- the starboard engine bursts into dancing flame, the wing droops heavily. Secondary explosions crackle off insanely, like gunfire -- fuel and oxygen lines light up with flame, rippling through the shuttle in eerie, destructive beauty. In the aft a panel blows off, tumbling madly through the air to smassssh! with a sharp shattering sound into a terminal window, which turns into a starred mess -- then the body panel sags, falling slowly to the ground -- thankfully the heavy-duty Plexiglas doesn't explode into a million razor-edged shards. Smoke is billowing in the cockpit -- then suddenly the fuel tanks for the shuttle are jettisoned, their heavy framework dropped clangingly out the back, before they too could explode, probably with enough force to take half the terminal out with them.

Vash doesn't look down or stop moving, except to shudder violently at the shockwave. He ducks his head and gathers his arms in closer, hunching down to curl as much of his armor between himself, Kerry, and the explosion. He stumbles a little, "Keep your head down, Kerry... this is getting worse by the minute."

With a roar, Bonecrusher comes bursting out of the jet-way door, her remaining fur smoking, slamming the door behind her and leaning against it heavily. Draped over her huge, smoking shoulder in a fireman's carry is the limp form of Armstrong. The bear slides slowly to the ground, growling, "Somebody help him," even as she passes out herself. The bitter, disgusting scent of burned fur drifts through the air. Outside, people are running around the shuttle like disturbed ants. Sakura can be seen trying to work through the crush to get back inside, where the wounded were taken -- Douglas is on a foam hose with several other uplifts. Inside things are calming only slightly, due to the TAG security -- but the gate is being kept clear of passersby, and emergency personnel is being allowed through.

Vash dashes down through the terminal to a quieter lounge. He stretches Kerry out on the seats there and leans down a bit, carefully articulating, "STAY PUT." Kerry sits up, resting his head on his wings as Vash runs back. He's got no interest in going anywhere at the moment, still feeling groggy and his hearing slowly recovering from the shock. Vash sprints back toward the damaged lounge, skidding to a halt near the jet-way, sneaker soles slipping on bad airport carpeting. He turns and shouts to one of the other security ops, "Hey, come on and HELP me here!" He takes up one arm of the bear. "Come on!"

Several people are clustered around the now-closed jet-way door -- Lovett is yelling instructions still into his radio, while others are carefully carrying the limp form of the bobcat away. Still more are preventing anyone from moving the badly damaged and burned Texan bat, and a stretcher is coming at a run down the hallway. One of the security guards recognizes Vash and nods once sharply, then stoops to loop the bear's other arm around his shoulders. Bonecrusher's head is lolling, but at the yell next to her head she mumbles basso-voice, "Get vounded out virssst, commanderr..." then struggles slowly to move her massive body. The security guard oof!s startledly and sags at the sudden weight bearing down on him, then yells for more help. Several others come to lend a hand.

Vash shoulders the bear's arm and, with a protracted grunt, sets to dragging her clear of the jet-way. It's slow going, but before long they manage to get her clear of the danger zone. He turns to Bonecrusher and shakes his head, "Everyone's gonna be okay, Tanista, we're gonna get everyone clear. Try and relax, okay?" He lowers his head and sets to against the uplift's bulk, teeth gritted.

Bonecrusher blinks at Vash, her huge head inches away from his much smaller one... she nods slowly, her eyes beginning to clear, "Goot vork... spasebo..." then snorts slightly at the stench from her own fur.

The Texan bat is loaded very, very carefully onto the stretcher, then hastily trundled away. One of the attendants pauses by Kerry, eyes alight with worry. She puts a hand up in front of Kerry's face, holding up two fingers, "Can you hear me? How many fingers am I holding up?" even as she's already hastily visually examining him for obvious injury.

Kerry shakes his head again, the effects of the blast fading. (One good thing about Keero ears is that they do have a protective mechanism for loud noises.) He nods to the tech and holds up two fingers. "'S coming back. I'll be fine."

Vash keeps his head down, straining against the load with the other security ops, until they come within sight of EMTs. He grates out from between his teeth, "We... got... wounded!"

The EMTs finally relieve Vash and the other security ops of Bonecrusher, lowering her onto a specially reinforced gurney. She's still grumbling quietly about helping the wounded before her, but fortunately follows instructions and lies still. The EMT by Kerry nods, gently checks his ears anyway with an aural light-probe, then looks relieved, "Excellent. Take it easy... your ear drums are fine." She pats Kerry lightly on the shoulder, then dashes off after the group around Armstrong's gurney. Harold Turk stalks away, snapping at the perimeter security, a look of deep disgust on his face.

Kerry follows the tech's movement as she leaves, drawing his gaze to Armstrong. "Oh, !eee#*. Poor devil..."

Vash drops down to one knee, panting raggedly, sweat matting in his fur. He reaches up and grabs a passing EMT's sleeve, "Huh... Hey! How many... hunh... unh... who else is inside?"

The EMT pauses, "What? Inside where? The shuttle's evacuated, and here's the only -- hey, are you all right?" He stops, kneeling swiftly next to the smaller armadillo and running his hands lightly across Vash's clothing and the back of his head, looking for any damage.

Vash shakes his head, and grins weakly. He tries on what he thinks is a winsome grin, "Nah.. no... I'm alright. Tanista weighs a goddamned ton." He laughs a little, and gestures to the other security, "Good job, y'all..."

The EMT is too pressured to do more than nod once, "Good, good..." then he grins, "Well... she probably does. Take care, good work!" and he's gone, dashing off to help push the slowly moving gurney Bonecrusher's lying on.

Vash sprawls out on his back, and gasps in a DEEP breath, closing his eyes for a few welcome moments. Then he scrapes himself up, and begins to slowly make his way toward the lounge where he left Kerry. The security guy that first helped just sits and pants, with a tired grin, "Thank god she wasn't an elephant uplift!" The others zip hastily off to other jobs, and soon things are calming down. Eventually even more security turns up and politely insists that Kerry and Vash go to the hospital as well for checkups.

    TAG: The Corporate Hospital
    This is a hospital room like most others, with white walls, a slightly blue pastel ceiling (which is supposed to be "calming"), and a black and white checkerboard tile floor. It smells predominantly of disinfectant. This room has two beds, each of which has a curtain that can be closed around it. Each bed has a nightstand with a call button for the nurse, and a television remote control for the one set in the far corner of the room. A wooden door with a little window in it leads out to the hallway.

Vash is given a checkup and released. Kerry and Indra, on the other hand are both examined, then held overnight for observation and hearing tests in the morning. They get put in a room across the hall from Armstrong and Bonecrusher, who will both probably be there a number of days. Indra has the bed farthest from the door, and she appears to be dozing when Kerry is brought in. Vash gingerly pokes his head in the door, looking around. He seems acutely uncomfortable butting in on people who might be suffering, but he relaxes visibly and smiles again at seeing he's got the right room. "Odelay."

Kerry grumbles, and would pace if Keero were built for it. "Stupidity. I could come in tomorrow for the recheck, but no, they have to waste money putting me in this reeking place..." He glances toward the sleeping 'cat and settles into a chair. "Anyway... thanks for stopping by, Vash. What's the word? This sounds like sabotage, you ask me."

Vash says, "Lookin' that way. Security's told me exactly dick. Since I'm part of the crew, technically, I'm out of the loop for intelligence. But... it's a hell of a coincidence, isn't it?"

Kerry skrees, "They were saying something about bad seals just before it went up. For a new ship to be that bad.... something is off key."

Kerry notices that Indra has opened her eyes and is listening, and Vash notices it when she sits up slowly in bed. She murrs quietly, "Hello, gentlemen." She looks as if she'd say something else, but stops, merely sitting there kind of groggily, pausing to rub her muzzle.

Vash says, "Indra... you're awake. How you feeling?"

Kerry nods. "Ms. Burnett. Feeling better?"

Indra murrs, "I feel like I ran in to a wall while I was drunk. Now I ache and feel hung over." She smiles a tired half-smile, adding, "My ears are still ringing. How do you fare, Kerry?"

Kerry skrees, "Mine are back to normal. Little known fact, Keero can actually shut their ears down if we know something's coming. Protective mechanism so we don't deafen ourselves with our own sonar pulses. The first one took me by surprise, but the second I was ready for." He sighs. "Unfortunately, the people-docs downstairs don't know it either, so I'm stuck here 'til tomorrow."

Indra looks at Kerry, and comments quietly, "Learn something new every day." Looking appraisingly between the two of them, she murrs, "May I ask you two gentlemen a question?"

Vash hmms? "Yeah... go ahead."

Kerry nods, and adds with a lopsided grin, "Of course. We'll probably even answer it."

Indra shifts on the bed, flicking her tail out from under her so she isn't sitting on it anymore, and grins wryly back to the bat. Her question is: "Considering what happened today, will either of you two have any second thoughts about the position?"

Kerry glances at Vash, then looks back at the bobcat. "Depends on who does the preflight checks. I'd want a new ground crew, and I'd want our own flight engineer involved. Aside from that? When someone wants to tell me I can't do something, it just makes me curious."

Vash hmms. He looks away for a few moments, then looks back with a grin, "Nah. I've got too many questions now to let it go that easily."

Kerry looks back at the 'cat. "May I ask you a question, as well? Do you have many problems with that Turk character?"

The bobcat looks back and forth between the other two and smiles slowly. "I'm glad to hear you say that," she murrs softly. Still quietly, almost conspiratorially, she adds, "To answer your very observant question about how the seal could be bad on a new shuttle, Kerry... it wouldn't have been. The shuttle wasn't new."

Kerry raises an eyebrow. "It wasn't? Someone spent money on Turtle Wax instead of on construction?"

Vash says, "Someone went to a lot of trouble to give us that impression."

Indra's whiskers fold in a bit and her ears flatten as she mutters, "That supercilious weasel. I don't think he likes anybody. I certainly don't know anyone on staff he gets along with." Composing herself, she adds, "And I'll be damned if I let him have the last word on this." Realizing she's gone off a bit, she quiets and returns to the topic at hand, answering, "Yes, we did go to a bit of trouble. It was intended to look like a new ship. Most of the company paperwork says it's a new ship -- the only one we have, in fact."

Vash says, "Okay... since you seem to have an in on the paper trail, I have a question for you."

Kerry listens carefully, not quite sure why anyone would want to make an old ship look new, and wondering what the answer is... Indra grins, a sharp-toothed feline grin, and murrs, "You might say that. Ask away."

Vash says, "Have you laid eyes on the report concerning the previous Texan shot at the Gate?"

Indra nods and murrs, "Of course."

Vash says, "So what's your take on it."

The bobcat murrs, "That you should be very careful."

Kerry snorts. "That may just be the understatement of the century. Was there any technical data?"

Vash says, "Looks to me like someone doesn't want this to go through. I wonder if someone got spooked by the reports... I wonder what happened to the guy that lived."

"Anything more, I don't know and can't suggest." Indra shakes her head and answers, "Not that we could find, no."

Kerry chirrips. "Got it. If that was supposed to be a new ship, and the company records say there's a new ship.... where is the real new ship. Eh?"

Indra smiles her own mischievous smile at Kerry and answers, "There isn't one. There are two retrofitted shuttles instead. By using pre-owned equipment for the shuttles and main ship superstructure, we were able to arrange a second complete shuttle. One that nobody thinks we could possibly afford, including most of the Board."

Kerry skrees, "And now that the saboteurs have taken out the 'only' shuttle...." He looks a question at his fellow uplift. "Was this intended from the first, then? The backup crew intended for the second shuttle?""

Vash says, "But with the potential returns on this shot... why wouldn't they be going at this hand over jerking fist?"

Kerry snorts. "You kidding, Vash? Most of the front office folks are hoping it fails, so the ones pushing it will look bad. Corporate infighting is not a pretty sight."

Vash says, "Do the front office people have the wherewithal to BLOW UP a shuttle?"

Kerry skrees, "Might have been an accident. But to suborn a prep crew engineer to damage fuel seals? Sure, they would."

Indra agrees with Kerry, "The complete backup crew would have been able to use the second shuttle, if and when we could fund a second main ship. A success from the first would guarantee it and put us that much farther ahead of schedule and the competition." Looking at Vash, she concurs again with Kerry, "There are some difficult politics surrounding this issue. I wouldn't have been there today, and I wouldn't have had my staff there today, if I had thought it would have gone to any lengths like this, though. I haven't heard anything official though, having been here myself, so I don't know what the story is." She adds, "I'm terribly relieved that no one was more seriously hurt than they were."

Kerry skrees, "Just Armstrong and Tanista."

Vash says, "I'm having trouble believing that someone could get sacrificed for the sake of a promotion. How's Armstrong, by the way?"

Indra sighs heavily, and murrs, "I know. Either of them could have been killed. It's a miracle they weren't." She answers Vash, "The doctor said they've both got some bad burns. Armstrong's hearing is damaged, and they don't know if it's permanent, although perhaps with the Keero ears being what they are it's not as bad as they fear. He's also got burns on his hands and forewings. Tanista, the bear, is mostly suffering from smoke inhalation and burns, as well as having lost a large portion of her fur."

Kerry skrees, "Fur will grow back... she'll just have to wear heavier clothes for a bit."

Vash nods. "She seemed to be semi-lucid when we got her clear. She's remarkably resilient." He grins. "Weighs a metric ton, though."

The bobcat returns to her prior idea, adding, "The reason I'm telling you we have another ship is so that you don't become discouraged when you hear others talk of canceling the program. If we'd lost the only shuttle, politics would probably be able to scuttle the whole thing with that delay -- but we haven't. Nobody much knows this, besides a few techs at the site, Mr. Lovett, and I."

Kerry skrees, "So... if this is going to move right ahead, that puts Vash and myself in the crew. Or are you going to wait until they recover?"

"I don't think we can afford to wait, Kerry, which is why I was asking if you're still willing to go," explains the bobcat, "and why I'm telling you not to worry too much when people worry the trip is cancelled." Indra leans back in the hospital bed, chuckling to herself, adding, "Don't worry if you should receive an unexplained transfer in the next week or two, either. That, I can arrange."

Vash says, "I see. So now we're subversives, is that it?"

With a smile the feline says, "If you like. Myself, I'd describe it as having been transferred to a very small department, but that's how I work lately."

Vash grins. "No, no... I think that's an adequate description. As long as I know whose flag I'm under. That's fine."

Within the next couple of days, everyone receives a letter from the company, very anonymously directing them to bring a travelling kit and to meet in a small office outside of town. When they arrive they find the office is in a nondescript park, and furnished with what is obviously cheap rental furniture, most of which seems unused. It's predominately empty, although the desks are occupied with people's things and all the phones have lights on them. The staff is merely quite absent. The receptionist in the front asks everyone to wait as they arrive, directing them to a waiting room stocked completely with bad coffee and outdated magazines. She vanishes for a few moments after having shown the first arrival in.

Kerry drops his duffel by the entrance. "Hmm... they give everyone else the day off?"

Vash steps from behind a support column, unslinging his duffel bag. He pushes up his heavy shades, "Looks that way, doesn't it?"

Sakura arrives next. Directed to the waiting room, she bows quietly to the ones present, and says, "Good morning, gentlemen."

Kerry sniffs at the coffee in disgust. "Humans actually drink that stuff?"

Douglas arrives last, looking around somewhat curiously, saying, "Hello, everyone. Are we the only ones here?"

Kerry skrees, "Us and the receptionist from the Security Service. You think this is it?"

Sakura softly murrs, "Quite mysterious indeed."

Vash leans back against the column, folding his arms. "It looks that way." He huddles back into his nylon jacket. "So I guess we've been 'transferred.'"

Outside, a white van pulls up in front of the building, with the TAG logo on the side of it, and a tall human gets out, and jogs briskly in to the building. Vash leans a bit and looks at the window. "Hey. Company."

Kerry skrees, "Looks like our ride. Whatcha want to bet that we leave here before the staff gets back?"

Vash says, "Hope y'all brought clean underwear."

Sharp ears will hear a genial voice asking, "So, where have you put 'em?" to the receptionist, and a moment later the answer, followed by, "Thanks, Marge!" Moments later the fellow from outside opens the door and knocks on it a couple of times, saying, "Hi there! Everybody ready?" He is tall, and in reasonable shape. He wears tan pants, a white shirt, and a brown leather bomber's jacket, as well as some mirrored sunglasses and a cheerful, slightly carefree grin. His hair is cut short, only a little longer on the top, and is just beginning to go gray.

Douglas says quietly, "They're eager to get us underway, it seems...."

Kerry skrees, "I think so. Where's the stevedores for our luggage?"

The human grins cheerfully and says, "It's not like there's anything much going on here. This is mostly a place for them to send the mail and for the network connection back to the main office." He casually answers Kerry, "You brought it in, you can bring it out." He thinks to add, "Oh! My name is Owen Carter. Hi!"

Vash nods, "Owen. You're the wheelman?"

Owen nods and suggests, "I am the wheelman, you are the wheelmen, they are the wheelmen, goo goo ga joob. Hmmm. Doesn't parse. Let's head out, eh?" and gestures to the door out front, leading the way.

Vash stands there blinking uncomprehendingly for several long moments before picking up his gear and following. "I don't understand people." Sakura picks up her small bag and follows the confusing human. Kerry shoulders his duffel again, wondering about Owen's comment. Something familiar about that... Douglas blinks at Owen. I'm almost scared, he thinks. First a shuttle blowing up, now this... person. Somebody in corporate doesn't like us. Still, he finds some enjoyment in Carter's turn of phrase; it's a damnsight better than the suits he'd expected. He picks up his own bags and follows them out. Owen has already made it outside, and opened the back doors of the van, where he waits for the group to stow their gear.

    The Van:
    This is a white, fairly normal looking Dodge Electroline van. The company name and logo are painted on the sides, and it reminds one more of a service truck than an exploratory vehicle. Unlike most of the service fleet, this appears to be four wheel drive, and has a larger than normal number of antennas on the roof.

Owen makes sure the bags are in place, saying, "Everybody in, and find a seat belt." When the back doors are dogged shut he climbs in to the driver's seat, and asks, "Everybody ready?"

Douglas blinks, looking in as he slips in. "This isn't a typical company car," he notes dryly.

Kerry dumps his duffel in the back of the van and climbs in, trying to find a comfortable place for his wings. "They don't usually have orbital-range radios, no." Douglas blinks to Kerry, then looks again at the radio set, his expression mostly unreadable but showing some intriguedness.

Vash sits toward the end, leaving his duffel near his legs. "Curiouser and curiouser."

Owen checks that everyone has all found the seat belts and that they're all long enough, and chuckles to Douglas, "It's pretty normal. We use a lot of these vans. Most aren't four wheel drive." Popping the parking brake and shifting the van into 'drive,' he chuckles again and adds, "No, I guess most don't. Most don't need it, do they?" About then, he puts his foot on the accelerator -- and the van lurches forward, makes a hard turn around the fountain in the center of the business park's parking lot, and then zooms out the front exit. Owen drives deftly, if abruptly and somewhat fast, heading down the arterial outside the park and out of town. "We're a bit away from the field. Do you folks have any questions?"

Kerry skrees, "Just one, here. How long before we take off?"

Vash hehs and smirks a bit. "He took mine."

The van continues to speed out of town, merging on to a state route which is straight and fairly flat, where Owen really picks up some speed, the electric motors on each wheel singing on the road. Fields soon spring up around the road, full of some tall, dense green thing that is unidentifiable at this speed. Vash says, "Look kids, corn!"

Kerry twitches a wing. "If you say so. You sure it isn't sunflowers?"

Vash says, "I dunno, actually. Just something I do on long trips."

Douglas frowns, glancing out the window. He really has little interest in real corn, but he does have interest inn how fast they're going. "Are we worried about being chased? Or are we just late?"

With nary a bobble, Owen takes both hands off the wheel and uses one to pull the sleeve of his jacket back to look at his watch, worn with the face against his wrist. He answers, "Soon. We're ready, once we get you folks onboard the shuttle, and let you get a bit comfortable with it." He grins at Vash and adds, "So it is!" To Douglas, Owen says, "No, nobody's bothered us -- it's just a boring drive. We're getting close now." Vash snickers a bit and leans back against the wall, folding his arms. Douglas gives a start as Owen lets go of the wheel, at the speed they're going. He doesn't start breathing again until the man puts his hands back on the wheel.

Outside, in the sea of green which is hurtling by at just over a hundred kilometers an hour, the group can see something, mostly notable because it's darker than everything else and straight, leading away from the road at a perpendicular. Vash says, "Well now..."

Kerry skrees, "Our turn coming up?"

"Sure is," grins the driver, "-hang on!" And, so saying and only slowing a little, he makes a hard left turn across the blacktop (fortunately there's no oncoming traffic), and into the narrow graveled road that seems to lead off to nowhere in a gentle curve. The van continues down the road, not slowing much, with gravel pinging madly off the floorboards at the van's speed. Owen hums happily, and steers around a gentle hill. Behind the hill, you can see a flat roofed building with windows all around it, angled so the tops are farther out than the bottom, above the corn, and little else. Douglas is, slowly but surely, wishing he could do something to the van's engine just so he can make it slow down and keep them all from getting killed.

Kerry skrees, "So... an old style control tower. This is interesting..."

Vash says, "Small department, eh?"

Owen stops the van (none too gently) close to a sliding gate with the words "PRIVATE PROPERTY" and "NO TRESPASSING" on it in large, menacing letters. A smaller sign announces, "Aurora Group Identification is to be worn at all times in this facility." Owen leans on the horn, and the gate rattles its way open. Douglas winces at the blaring of the horn. His intriguedness at this Owen character has been successively replaced by mortal fear for his immediate life, followed by confusion, and thence a bit of worry. "I wonder how many driving ordinances we broke getting here..."

Once inside the gate a small airstrip is revealed, with little but the top of the cyclone fence, the tower, and the tail of the shuttle showing above the corn. Owen doesn't stop the van, driving headlong to the shuttle (which he drives the long way around), before slapping the gear lever in to 'reverse,' turning and putting his arm over the back of the seat, giving Sakura a probably-not-very-reassuring wink, and backing the white van fairly rapidly up the cargo ramp in to the shuttle, where it clangs to a jarring stop in its power harness. "We're here," announces Owen, needlessly, and climbs out of the van, "Everybody out of the pool!"

Kerry skrees, "Thank you, Mr. Kreskin..." Vash checks his jacket out of habit, making certain that his Security 1 ID is dangling from the appropriate place and has the picture facing outward.

    Indigo's Shuttle: The Cargo Hold
    The shuttle is divided in to four separate sections. This one is for cargo storage and entering and leaving the ship. It is the farthest aft on the main deck. This space is about a quarter of the ship's volume, the deck being a little below the widest point of the body's tubular shape, and a sturdy bulkhead lying forwards. A hatch in the bulkhead, which is usually open, allows access to the next compartment. Another hatch, this one in the deck, leads below to the cramped space of Engineering. The personnel airlock and the large cargo ramp both open out of the starboard side of the shuttle into this space. The aft-most section of this space is a narrow spot, which the ground van backs in to, with mechanical clamps to anchor it firmly by its frame, and a power connection to recharge its inductors. On the other side of the cargo door the space is filled with several racks, most of which hold a small modularized cargo container. A wheeled hydraulic lift for them is strapped securely to the outside edge of the racks. Access to the forward hatch is allowed by a narrow walkway next to the racks.

Kerry clambers down from the van, dragging his duffel along with him. Vash drags his duffel up over his shoulder and looks around, grinning. "Finally. I can't wait to get this cloak-and-dagger action behind us and get underway."

Kerry looks up. "Were we supposed to bring our daggers?"

Vash says, "Yeah, well, you can't go anywhere without your cloak, can you?"

Douglas glances to Vash. "I'm afraid, Captain, that we won't be able to get it out of the way until we're on the other side of the Gate. And then, we'll be too busy worrying about dangers we don't know about."

Vash says, "You worry too much, Douglas."

The cougar doesn't quite bristle at that. He only says calmly, "Better than not worrying enough."

Owen asks, "So, what do you folks need before you're ready to take off? Is there anything about the shuttle or the grounds you'd like to know or to check?"

Vash turns, "Yeah, actually... what's the security on the grounds look like?"

Owen replies, "Constant video surveillance along all four fence lines, and only the smallest number of staff. Without getting really paranoid, the best we can do. Some of the offices you saw back at the park belong to people here, and others belong to part of the sales force who works at home, and assumes the people on the other half of the building do the same thing."

Kerry skrees, "Heh. Sales and marketing are the easiest to fool, eh?"

Vash frowns a little. "I see. Alright... guess it's the best we can do." He doesn't sound completely convinced, but resolves to shrug it off for right now. "Alright. I'll let engineering and our helmsman here handle the relevant technical questions."

Owen grins, "Security through obscurity." He then adds, "We've also had a distinct lack of incendiary devices on this shuttle's fuel system. Those blasted terrorists won't stop us again."

Kerry raises an eyebrow in Douglas' direction. "You won't mind if we make our own check?"

Douglas nods. "Right."

Vash hehs quietly. "Yeah. Damn PLO and their anti-space manifesto..." He shakes his head.

Kerry skrees, "Seriously... I assume that Ms. Barnett's people will keep an eye on our apartments and such? Move things into storage, or whatever is easiest?"

The tall human says, "What, you didn't hear? Oh, maybe you didn't. Came through corporate -- they faxed every fax machine we have, and claimed responsibility for the fiasco at the airport. Some group called 'The Hand Of God' or something, who feels the Gate is the entrance to Hell and must not be used or some claptrap."

Vash grins. "That's a nice touch, I like that."

Owen snorts, "Bunch of lunatics." He does add, almost grudgingly, "Smarter bunch of lunatics than usual, though." He gestures, "C'mon outside, and you can inspect the shuttle from stem to stern yourselves. As to your apartments, the company's standard relo-package will take care of everything. If anybody asks, you're being transferred to Florida." He leads the way outside.

    TAG: Private Airfield
    The Aurora Group has a private airfield for this project. It seems to be literally little more than a field, surrounded by a two meter high chain link fence with plastic slats slid in to the links to add privacy. The airfield's "tower" is a building in the far northeast corner of the space, with the classic outward-angled windows on the second floor up above the fence, and more antennas on it than might be normal. The runway isn't paved, it's just oiled gravel, and the rest of the field is just that -- a field -- where the grass is being driven on until it is merely dirt or mud. There are a couple of pickup trucks and vans parked near the building, and a large bulky shape under a blue tarp behind it.

Owen looks around outside and says, "She's not exciting, but she's private," and grins. Looking back at the shuttle, he says, "The Indigo's shuttle, and your way to your ship." Walking slowly around it, he mentions, "This is, of course, only the surface-ship shuttle. The Indigo is much better appointed for a long trip."

Kerry can't resist jumping out of the shuttle, spreading his wings wide and gliding more-or-less gently to the ground. "One would hope so. Wouldn't want to go to hell in a mere hand-basket, after all..."

Vash snickers quietly. "Your chariot awaits, Kerry."

Owen watches the bat's glide -- admires almost -- then laughs, responding, "Well, we've done what we can to keep this from being a mere hand-basket. More of the Custom Cruiser of hand-baskets."

Kerry skrees, "And a good thing. We'll be on board for a long time. We'll need something to do."

Owen nods, and says, "Accounted for, never fear. There's a complete library on disc, as well as a varied and interesting movie collection, in addition to a gymnasium and rec-room. We took the design from the long-haul freighters and improved upon it." He beams, obviously pleased with how the ship and shuttle have come out.

Kerry skrees, "Sounds like it should work. When do you want us to lift?"

The tall human looks at his watch again, and says, "Before lunch, if you're comfortable with the shuttle by then."

Vash turns to look over the remaining crew. "What do you guys think? Up for it?"

Kerry blinks. "In a hurry, I see. Let me check the orbital parameters. Indigo is parked in geosynch?"

Owen says, "Yes indeed, she is. The computer has all the co-ordinates."

Last modified: 2002-Mar-28 18:33:18

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