Major Clarence Pitts stood at the docking entrance as passengers disembarked from one of many shuttles to arrive at the space port that morning. He stood by and watched each individual carefully, knowing the manifests of every single shuttle. A pair of Critainian dignitaries scheduled to meet with Admiral Fastback of the Lupine Star Alliance. Commander Tanum Charot of the Imperial Pantheran Fleet, a science officer scheduled to join the Huntsman. Urial and his Nadia along with their children, cargo runners from the Lionid’s Pride. And finally he saw them.
“Corporals Maynard and Billings,” he said aloud as he stepped toward the two Vulpine who had just disembarked. Recognizing the rank stripes on Pitts’ shoulders, Hardy and Clarfax snapped to attention. Pitts replied with a salute of his own. “At ease, Corporals. I am Major Clarence Pitts, assistant to General Matilda Gerring. We spoke this morning over long range communications. If you will follow me please.” He bowed slightly and began to walk along the main deck toward commanding officers’ work area, speaking to a slightly confused Hardy and Clarfax. “I would like to pass along the General’s apologies if this entire matter has seemed rather mysterious. But, the General has gone over your training achievements and believes you two are perfect for the job she has in mind.”
“Exactly what job is that?” Hardy asked as she and Clarfax tried to keep up.
“I’ll let the General explain everything to you,” he said as he stopped in front of an office door. He pressed a buzzer and the communicator sounded out with the tinny voice of Gerring saying ‘come in’. Pitts escorted the two pilots inside, where General Gerring was working. She rose to her feet as they entered, Hardy and Clarfax snapping to attention as she did.
“At ease, Corporals,” she said as she motioned for them to sit down. “Thank you, Major. That will be all,” she said with a nod to Pitts. Pitts offered a salute and quickly left the room, the door swishing quietly closed behind him. Gerring’s office was quite a sight. Practical, yet ornate at the same time. One wall contained many photographs of past great ships of the Royal Vulpine Fleet, another held the pictures of well respected Admirals, Generals and Captains of the many different branches of the Royal Vulpine Authority. As Hardy and Clarfax looked idly around while taking their seats, General Gerring offered them each a cup of tea. “I apologize if the tea isn’t up to standards, here on the port we don’t have access to some of the best teas like you do in Chattingham.” Both pilots nodded their thanks and took their cups gladly, as General Gerring moved back behind her desk. “Let’s get down to business, shall we. I’m sure you have a good number of questions since Major Pitts contacted you this morning.”
“Sketchy at best, ma’am,” Hardy said as she set down her tea. “We’ve been given specs on hull plating, hyper drive capabilities, navigational arrays. But none of that really points to anything. To be frank, ma’am, if I may speak freely,” she said and paused. General Gerring nodded and motioned for her to proceed. “This is all speculation and conjecture, but we sort of feel like fish being baited. Is this for some test piloting procedures? And, if so, are we being assigned by you?”
“I know that you are rather confused by this,” Gerring said as she tried to find a word to describe it. “Let’s call it, a bit of subterfuge. But, I’ve gone over your service records at the Academy.” She picked up a data pad and began to recite the information. “Maynard, Hardy. Rank of Corporal. Service number 563-B. Expert in engine maintenance and repair. Top ten in aeronautics. Your commanding officers said you had a knack for demanding you test a fighter craft to ensure it’s serviceability before anyone else got behind the stick.” She looked up to Hardy for a moment, who only nodded slightly in reply. Gerring picked up another data pad and looked to Clarfax. “Billings, Clarfax. Rank of Corporal. Service number 564-C. Says here, your interests lay in exobiology, which the last I looked, wasn’t a prerequisite for fighter pilots. However, you, just like Maynard, were ranked as a top ten fighter pilot. The only ones higher than you were Corporal Philburt Collinworth and Private Jadda Hawkspur, who was kicked out of the Academy. And, Left-tenant Senia Felix.” She set down the other data pad and clasped her hands together as she looked at the two young cadets. “Under normal circumstances, I have no jurisdiction in the affairs and placement of cadets in the Air Corps. As a matter of fact, I know several Colonels who will be upset by what I am about to do. But I just see that as water off a duck’s back, really. I’m a General, they’re Colonels. And when they assign an air cadet to a station under my jurisdiction without my full support, then I feel it’s only fair that I give that cadet all the resources she requires.”
Hardy and Clarfax looked to each other for a moment as they mulled the situation over in their own minds. Finally, Clarfax spoke up. “But bounty hunters are only supposed to work alone, I thought.”
“There’s no charter that dictates such a thing, Corporal Billings,” Gerring corrected him.
“And, if you beg our pardon, ma’am,” Hardy seemed the need to add. “We’re fighter pilots. I know that Senia was…”
“Given the short end of the stick, Corporal, I know,” Gerring said as she rose to her feet. “You also are fighter pilots. You two and Left-tenant Felix worked extremely well together. I’ve read all the reports. From your instructors to your superior officers, even what Air Marshal Bascombe and Captain Collinsworth told me.” She smiled a bit as she saw the look on each of their faces at the mention of Natalie and Rita. “I also know that you’re going to need something with a little power where you’re going. And something that can utilize all your skills.” She walked over to a panel on one wall and pressed a series of buttons. The wall began to descend, revealing a picture window that looked out into the construction area of the ship yards. Gerring pointed out one ship in particular. A blue coloured vessel, with sleek design and practical arrangements. She looked like a hunter. “Corporals, do you see that large, dark blue ship in the centre of the yard?”
“What is it?” Clarfax said quietly as he and Hardy approached the picture window.
“She, Corporal Billings,” Gerring corrected him. “She is the new Nighthawk. With ablative hull plating, trivector shield emitters, six phaser banks, three torpedo launchers, both fore and aft, long and short range sensors, and she has tri-lateral assault technology.” Gerring looked over to Billings and Maynard for a moment, their eyes wide with awe. “I take it you’ve read about tri-lateral assault, Corporal Maynard.”
“It was theorized in quite a few engineering journals,” Hardy said quietly as she looked over the design of the Nighthawk. “But I thought it was decades from implementation.”
“That’s what we hoped would be thought,” Gerring replied with a sly smile.
“So,” Clarfax spoke up as he continued watching the crews around the sleek, blue ship. “I assume our orders are to join Senia after she arrives at the Main Authority.”
“Not after, Corporal Billings,” Gerring said as she faced the two Corporals. “You will be going with her. I have cleared everything through the Air Corps Tribunal. They had some issues, but I reminded them they placed a pilot under my jurisdiction without thought or consideration for my division, the least I could do is give that cadet the assistance she deserves.” She turned to look at the Nighthawk once again. “And you’ll have her to help you. She isn’t just one ship, Corporals. The Nighthawk is three ships, connected at the hip. She was built for deep space. You may be bounty hunters, but you’ll be doing more than just apprehending criminals. You’ll be protecting the space lanes.” She looked back to Hardy and Clarfax again. “You’ve got a long day and a long night ahead of you two. Get some lunch and then get to work familiarizing yourself with these ships. I’ll send a wave to Left-tenant Felix telling her that she’ll have a new ship to fly. I’ll also give her your regards, but I’m only letting her know that you two will be helping to put in the final touches to the Nighthawk.” Gerring nodded to them both. “Dismissed. You two have a lot of work ahead of you.”