Chapter 1 - Mustering out

Turlon Vantilles was always described as a "good kid, just intense" throughout his early schooling. Around puberty is when that line got finer, terms like "loner" and "antisocial" seemed to follow him and whatever consequences attached, stuck.

At the age of fifteen Turlon was shuffling back from the Outskirts (an observation point on the edge of town usually reserved for lovers and dreamers, of which Turlon was the latter). A shortcut through the alley brought the young Vantilles face-to-face with one of the roving youth gangs who decided property crime was more valuable if they actually stole something, so a gemstore lost it's back door. Whether it was the threat of a witness or Turlon actually said something, it is all fuzzy now, but the youth of 15 was embroiled in a battle that saw him awaken in MediPen surrounded by Police and charged.

Nevermind there was no recovered property on his person (which helped in the reduction of charges) nor prior trouble with the law, the kid with "problems" who evaluated "out of the mainstream" was farmed out to a Nomad family as a Unremunerated Laborer.

Life was not pleasant crawling across the desert in search of metals, and "discipline" was reinforced time and again. Turlon had no problem with discipline, neither its acceptance nor its enforcement, so he accepted the hand he had been dealt and grew. Family life had never been too cheery, the son of a miner who was rarely home and a mother who found her needs met elsewhere; Turlon learned early on that self-reliance was more trustworthy.

After three years, his term was up. He was surprised when the nomad family offered to hire him on at full wages, but instead he chose to leave the planet entirely, seeking a place where the rigidity of strict discipline was best focused -- the Commandos of the StarForce.

Mordor VI had a service exchange agreement with the Terran United Federation of Planets, the TUFP, and so Turlon found himself doing some of his training and service on board TUFP vessels, usually far from home and far from the Mek'Purr Aristocracy in order to avoid conflict of interest. In fact, most of his term was served far away on the border with the Azuriach Imperium.

The Commandos signed him up for a 5 tour option. During the first year or his service, just after his initial training, he was contacted by a mysterious organization and psionically awakened. For a month, he dropped out of regular service and trained in use of his hitherto unsuspected Psionic powers. Much of what happened to him during that time remains fuzzy in his memory. He was given a PsychoKinetic (PK) Crystal, which may be used to boost psi talents, and returned to service.

Turlon spent his first three tours of duty as a StarTrooper, then was promoted to CAP Trooper. (Combat Armour, Powered). The slow start was probably due to his low empathy and the long time it took him to build relationships. The fact that he needed to be integrated into the TUFP structure also meant he started at a disadvantage.

He served out his next two tours as a CAP trooper. Then at the age of 28, he retired from the StarForce.

* * * *

Turlon Vantilles watched as the shuttle which had brought him down from the Richtofen made a long burn and headed back toward orbit. That was it, then. He had his discharge papers and a low passage ticket back to Mordor VI in his pocket, a set of combat fatigues on his back, and a duffel bag containing the rest of his worldly possessions at his feet.

All around him was Spica Prime, capital city of Spica IV the sector capital for the TUFP. The city alone had more people than his entire home planet. He had been told that Spica Prime was a sprawling complex of mini-cities connected by a high-speed monorail system, and was situated on the only substantial body of water on the arid planet.

His briefing on the planet indicated that although his blasters were not illegal, ostentatious display of them would be frowned upon. Of course, this did not apply in and around the spaceport where extraterritorial distinctions were in effect in a complex web around the various ships.

"It never gets old, does it?" purred a voice near him. Highly trained reflexes were supressed and so he didn't attack whoever it was who had snuck up on him. Turning to look, he saw a lithe Mek'Purr female in a blue jumpsuit. She wore a Mek'Purr weapon which was functionally equivalent to a katana, marking her as a member of the knightly class if not higher in the aristocracy.

Turlon shifted the duffel bag to his other side by habit, to free up his right side for a better look. "Sorry, what did you say?" with a rub at his eyes, "I must have zoned out there for a second." Quickly, Turlon sized up this talkative stranger taking note of the way she carried herself, the curve of her stance, and the inner confidence in her words.

"Lift-off," she gestured at the rapidly vanishing shuttle, "It always gets me right here," she thumped a hand into her lower abdomen. "Wait a minute, for you that would be ... here," she thumped her chest in the region where a human heart would be. She extended a hand, "R'claw Purr'owma, but my human friends call me Red."

"Turlon, Turlon Vantilles," he replied with a firm handshake. "You're right, lift-off does have excitement of the unknown. Just think, no one on that shuttle knows what tomorrow holds. Then again, neither do we," he mused with a smile. The smile appeared to require a great deal of effort, not in a deceptive or insincere way yet in a way that said genuine, but unfamiliar. He always had little to smile about through his years, the concept was new to him and finally he had something to smile about, for the first time in his life he was free -- or at least freer than he had ever been, and that was a cause for celebration, as foreign as it seemed.

The smile eclipsed as quickly as it appeared, as he glanced at the snug jumpsuit she wore. "You a pilot." he said more statement than question,

"Yep. Got my own little ship over thataway," she gestured off towards the landing bays. Then she looked back up at the shuttle. "Lift-off is like a breath of fresh air." She emphasized the word 'breath' perhaps a bit more than it needed. "You're a civilian now, aren't you." Her words, too, were more of a statement than a question. "Do you know Spica Prime well, or at all?"

Turlon arched an eyebrow but did not turn from the viewing bay as he glanced over at her. He inhaled and exhaled with a sigh, "A breath -- of fresh air, indeed."

He executed a three-quarter turn to face her and gave a gentle nod. A subtle pat over his breast pocket, met with "Yes, I'm a free man and no, Spica Prime is but a stop on my journey to wherever I must go."

"Well then, why don't you let me take you out to dinner, and we can talk about your journey," said Red. "I know a place near here, it ain't pretentious but it's pretty damn good. Spacer bar, you know?"

Without really waiting for an answer, she led the way. A few minutes walk on the moving sidewalks brought them to a smallish establishment calling itself 'The Dropship.' Red led them inside and sat at a small booth. A videowall had the menu of the day lit up, and the fare looked good to a man who had been living on military rations. There were live waitbeings, too, something that folks on smaller ships appreciated. A few moments passed quickly as they made their selections and settled back with their drinks to wait for the food.

Turlon sat back, swirling the orange viscous liquid around his glass, finding comfort in its whirlpool. The vet seemed uneasy, and preoccupied as he neglected to make eye contact and spoke "How long you in port, and what course is your astronav singing?"

"A couple of days, then it's back home for me," Red lapped delicately at her drink. Then she came to a decision and looked up to stare straight at Turlon until he made eye-contact. "Look, let's cut to the chase here. It's no accident that I met you at the shuttle bay. Actually it was," Red snickered, "they said you'd come down on the shuttle to Fort Houston, but I guessed you'd muster out shipboard and come down on the Prime shuttle. They aren't quite as smart as they think." Just as suddenly, her mood shifted back, "But I was looking for you. So now, I've got a question for you. What are your plans?"

It wasn't shyness behind those ice blue eyes that averted gazes, but an intensity that bespoke of danger. Turlon took the remaineder of his drink and winced from the burn on his throat. "Look Red, I'm a soldier. Whether I'm wearing the gold trim on my collar or not, that's what I do. And like a good soldier, I follow orders." He raked a steady hand through his close cropped hair, "and until I get orders, I'm at ease."

"Fine, you're a soldier. But it looks to me like you got no army. Just who are you waiting to take orders from? Anyone in particular?" Red made the small sound in the back of her throat that passed for a smile in most feline cultures (where smiling, the baring of fangs, was considered hostile if not an outright challenge.) "Sorry, you're fresh off the boat. Let me back up and try again.

"Do you have any job prospects at the moment? Or are you planning to head back home and see the family? You've got your discharge pay, right?"

"No family, just me." Turlon pushed his glass aside, "No job either." He brought his elbows up on the table and rested his chin across his interlaced knuckles, "but I figure since you were sent for me, you must have something in mind. I know it isn't my winning personality that earned this dinner."

Red's lashing tail caught Turlon's eye. Having grown up around the felines on Mordor VI, and having augmented that with training in the Commandos, he read that movement as amusement. "Right you are," said Red. "I was sent to pick you up and take you to Valperce in Belrix sector to see a man there. A sort of a job interview. Interested?"

Turlon sat back and smoothed what little hair he had and tugged at his collar as if straightening an imaginary tie. "How do I look?" he questioned.

Red actually laughed, "You look fine. Now ..." she was interrupted by the arrival of their food. Her plate was loaded with an extremely rare steak and a pair of sausages. She poppped a claw and poked one of the sausages, then looked up at Turlon, "Just checking. Vegetables are bad enough, but raw ones are the worst. Where was I? Right! There's no rush, so if you want some time off before we go, that's fine. Did they give you a ticket back home? Good, cash that in for a bit more ready money. Then live it up for a bit. Enjoy yourself. Then we can head out."

Turlon dove voraciously into the meal. He had almost forgotten how different the texture and taste was between the real stuff and the nouri-sim foods served in StarForce. He chased a potato around the plate drenching it in gravy, "so, I take it you work for whoever you're taking me to?"

"Well, not him directly, but for the organization, yes. I'm on call, kind of. When they need someone or something moved around quickly, they call on me. The rest of the time I'm on my own." Red leaned back and stretched. "Now, that was good food. Not as good as really fresh, but not bad at all."

With a swallow, Turlon marvelled at the speed and grace that she had finished her meal. He was busy shoving fork-full after fork-full into his mouth and still had some left. Gesturing with the knife in his left hand to the Mek'Purr weapon she wore, "that's an impressive piece, you don't use that to stick desert hogs." Even with a mouth full of food, Turlon was able to pronounce the formal name flawlessly; which surprised even himself.

"No," R'claw Purr'owma said, placing a hand on the hilt of her weapon. "This is for use only in war or the duel, as I'm sure you know. I have studied many years to unlock the secrets of the blade, but there is still much to learn." She switched to Mek'Purr, "I did not know that you spoke 'The Language of the People'. That is good. He will be pleased."

Turlon replied humbly in her native tongue, "enough to get by." Taking the last roll from the basket, Turlon sopped up the remaining gravy. "How long you been delivering packages for the organization?" he asked casually trying to get a vector on her age. He knew that she wasn't an ordinary Mek'Purr, the weapon told him that, but why would she choose to take this route of employment instead of the knighthood.

"I've been with them for about six years now," she replied. "They've been good to me. That ship out there is mine, outright. Of course, you never own a ship -- it owns you. Docking fees, fuel, repairs. The purchase costs sometimes seems like the smallest piece."

"Yeah, that's one thing about having nothing but the clothes on your back," Turlon picked at his teeth, "the hidden costs of life is what kills you. That and a blaster happy enemy." Turlon drummed his fingers on the desk and looked out from the table at who else was around them. It wasn't like him to get lost in anything and immediately survey his surroundings. He'd spent too many hours being trained to be suspicious of everything to throw it all away over a good meal and friendly Mek'Purr. As an aside he tossed out the question, "So, what do you hear from the space jockeys? They hear damn near everything."

"Hear? About what?" Red asked.

"I don't know, pirates, leechee-ball matches, the galaxy in general, got to be something that makes the timid take heed," mumbled the vet. Turlon stared outward thinking he saw a familiar face, but realized he was mistaken. So many people from everywhere, it was a calvacade of sounds and sights. All the years he had spent in the service had almost made him forget that not everyone wore a uniform or practiced the discipline of self-control.

"Well, let's see. Some tourist got eaten by a sandworm on a hunt last week. Rumour has it that a big bug offensive got shut down by the TUFP in No Man's Space. The usual rumours about ForeRunners. That's about it," Red said.

"Thanks for the chow -- and the company," he said awkwardly. "There's not much for me here, you want to ship out, say, in 24 hours? that way I can grab a little R&R before I see your friend about a job."

"Sounds fair. The ship is in bay 1148, listed as Red's Firebird," Red said. "I'm patched into the planetary subspace comm network, as per SOP, so you can reach me there if need be." She looked Turlon over, "Anything else you need? If not, I'll see you at the ship tomorrow."

"Just point me to a cheap place I can crash," said the man as he pulled himself up from the table and reached for his bag.

"Well, you're welcome to crash at the ship, but otherwise you can try one of these places," she rattled off the name of three nearby hotels. "They're OK, but not great."

Turlon eyed her cautiously, "Thanks for the invite, but I'd hate to wear out my welcome before we left port. Although it could save me the trouble of being blasted out of an airlock if we found out you couldn't stand my snoring now.." He slung the bag's strap over his shoulder. "You need me to pitch in for the meal, or is that a business expense?"

"Business expense," she pulled out a CrediComp and plugged it into the interface. As the biometric scanner verified her identity, she asked, "Want to do any shopping before we lift? Valperce is a little rural compared to Spica."

In a flash Turlon snapped to attention, and softly barked out, "As you recommend, Red sir." Turlon broke into his uneasy smile, "any suggestions? don't forget, I'm used to being told what I'll need, no more, no less. We can browse around a bit."

"Can't help you there, I'm afraid. Unless ... maybe some civvies?"

"See, that's what I was afraid of. Now I have to make sure my clothes match," Turlon joked. "With your knowledge of Valperce, care to do a little fashion consulting. A woman's touch is always needed."

"Never cared much for fashion, as you can see," she indicated the plain jumpsuit she was wearing. "Besides, Valpercian fashions look funny unless you've got a tail. What do they wear where you come from? Native fashions from your home planet are always good. You don't come from a cold planet do you? It gets warm on Valperce."

"Mordor VI is my home. Ever been there?" Turlon thought back to the sweltering days in the desert and suppressed a smile. "Rags are the rage there."

"Mordor VI? So the heat shouldn't bother you at all, then," she replied. Carefully ignoring the bitter tinge to Turlon's words, she continued, "Hmm, Mordorian fashions would be fairly appropriate on Valperce. Why don't you pick some up. I don't think you'd need a stillsuit on Valperce, though."

"Gotcha." The duo found themselves in the main hub where Turlon saw the array of merchant shops and stands, including the ticket exchange window. "Looks like I can handle it from this point on," he confessed. "Bay 1148," he confirmed.

"Right. I'll make up the spare bed," said Red, before vanishing into the throng.

Turlon gave a cursory glance around the bustling mob and made his way to the exchange window reaching for his shuttle ticket home.

The clerk was obviously used to freshly created civilians cashing out, and in short order, Turlon's funds had been increased by 4800 credits.

Finishing this piece of business, he turned to the mercantile row. The bazaars back home had little on this place, there appeared to be every kind of fashion available one could imagine. There were even some Turlon had never seen before, not even on his military deployments. After window shopping a bit, he found a place that was displaying some clothing that would stand up under a hot, arid climate.

The clerk was happy to show the young ex-soldier a variety of clothes and styles. In addition to several varieties of stillsuits, there were light jumpsuits, loose robes of natural or synthetic fibers in light colours to reflect various kinds of radiation, and so forth. Some of the clothes would have fit in beautifully on Mordor, while some, while obviously functional, were of designs unlike any Turlon had ever seen.

Turlon didn't need any extra attention heaped on him in a strange land, so the more outlandish designs were immediately excluded. Fingering a functional outfit he decided to purchase a jumpsuit, and an outfit of more traditional wear in the moderate price range.

The clerk happily packaged up the items and entered the codes on his terminal, which he presented for Turlon's CrediComp. After checking the numbers, Turlon paid and left the store.

Turlon walked along the promenade for a bit and turned to the docking bays, to check out Red's Firebird. 'Maybe I'll ditch this bag and explore the area some,' he thought.

She led him around to the main hatch, "Come on in and drop your bag." Like any parent, Red enjoyed showing Turlon her pride and joy. Turlon, used to the larger naval ships, was impressed by the compactness of the ship, and the compulsively tidieness, typical of the astronaut, that was evidenced everywhere.

"This is nice," complimented Turlon as he walked about. "Armaments?" he said, betraying his military training.

"Not much, frankly, a pair of Nova 50's in the main battery. She'd take six 25's in the nose, and rack of a 157 torpedoes, but that would pretty well take up all the space in the ship. She's built for speed, not a fight."

"Sometimes that's a good offense," he remarked distantly as he patted the interior wall. "Hey, I was hoping I could change and maybe do a little sight-seeing before shipping out tomorrow, try out my new duds."

"Knock yourself out," said Red. "The lodgings are probably better then you're used to in the Fleet. I know they're better than what I had. Here's the access code to the bay," she read off a string of numbers, "have it check your biometrics before you leave. We'll lift when you get back, you can sleep in space."

"Thanks," Turlon said as he ducked in and began to change into his new jumpsuit hoping to blend in. It had been ages since he was out of fatigues and it felt strange, not in a discomfort sort of way, just unusual. Checking himself in the mirror, he decided he wasn't going to look any more presentable so he underwent the biometric scan and headed off to what he hoped would be a beneficial adventure.

Turlon was able to quickly find the section of town that suited his needs: a little seedy, a little questionable, and dimly lit.

He bought drinks and kept his ears open. Valperce didn't ring many bells with the locals, although they could usualy place it as relatively nearby and in Mek'Purr space. One man did light up a little bit at the mention of the planet, and after a few more drinks you figured out that he seemed to be involved in some kind of smuggling operation involving kralda pelts. You gather that "kralda" are some kind of Valpercian animal and protected by Valpercian law.

Turlon questioned the man further, "Good business? Are parts of the Valpercian law 'cooperative' with the right incentive?"

The man snickered. "Parts of everyone's law are cooperative with the right incentive." He collected himself, "Not that I know anything about that, of course." "You're too good to need that insurance," Turlon said before taking a gulp from the opaque tankard.

"You're a well connected sort, who would a guy see about finding employment, lucrative employment on Valperce?" Turlon knew that every city, or planet for that matter, had somebody who ran the cartel, either directly or indirectly. Knowing him could prove beneficial if this job with Red didn't pan out, and being able to drop a native name when you're a visitor never hurt.

"I wouldn't know," said the man, and he refused to talk further on the subject.

Turlon stood, squared the bill with the barkeep and soon was outside the establishment. After a couple more stops, Turlon was justified in the conclusion that he wasn't a big fan of people. Socializing wasn't his forte, that was for diplomats. He was a solider, he broke stuff and no amount of clothing changes was going to change that. When he finished assessing the situation, he looked up and his walk ended at Red's Firebird. He entered and crashed.

He snapped back to full wakefullness and reached to grab his attacker! "Whoa there, big fella," said Red. "Just strapping you in for lift. Relax. Unless you want to sit up front?"

The tenseness in his body melted away as his head cleared and he remembered where he was. Wiping the sleep from his eyes, he mumbled "Yeah, I might as well get up now anyhow." Turlon rolled out of his bunk, grabbing for his jumpsuit and zipped up, he followed Red out to the cockpit to watch lift off first hand.

Red dropped into the pilot's seat and indicated that Turlon should sit in the other. Clearly in her element, Red checked with the air traffic controllers and ran her final checkout. Satisfied with everything, she double-checked her safety straps and made sure Turlon had done the same. Then she engaged the Torch drive and with a muted thrum went through the ship. She rotated the ship gently in space, then goosed the throttle. The Firebird took flight. As soon as the ship reached 10 km, it went supersonic, and as soon as the atmosphere was cleared, Red ran it up to sublight cruising speed of 225. (The standard measure is Light Seconds per 300 seconds.) She popped her straps. "We've got about three hours before we clear Spica's gravity well. Then we'll go warp." She stepped to the hatch leading to the quarters. "Before I forget, I want to give you something." She dissappeared and then appeared a moment later with a chipcase. "He said you might want these." Red tossed Turlon the case.

The case contained eleven standard datachips for a MiniComp. The labels were things like, "Advanced Meditative Techniques", "Internal BioFeedback", and so forth. They were conveniently numbered to indicate the order in which they should be read.

Turlon nodded with approval as he shuffled through the chips. Snapping the case shut, he got up and stretched. Take off was exhilarating, but he still wanted to grab some time in the refresher since this would be the first time in a long while that he wasn't under a time constraint.

Red watched him go, then called back, "Strap down this time, and I won't wake you."