Giles Kurns: Rogue Instigator
By Ell Leigh Clarke & Michael Anderle
Molly’s conference room, Base Safe House, Gaitune-67
“It’s been four days!” Molly paced her personal conference room upstairs in the safe house.
Joel, attempting to be a supportive, calming influence, sat patiently, watching her like one might watch a quaggle ball being pinged back and forth across the net in a match.
She paused, turning to face him with one hand on her forehead, holding her hair out of her face. “I mean, what was he thinking? Leaving us no way to trace him. Who does that?”
Joel pushed his bottom lip out in the most sympathetic way possible. “Molly,” he said firmly, “it was his choice. We have to respect that.”
“But what if this is something he can’t handle on his own? What if he’s in trouble right now?”
“Well then, that was also his choice. He’s a big boy. And he’s been around longer than you and I put together, I’d guess.”
Molly looked at the chair in front of her and thought about sitting down. Her holoscreen was open at the seat, holding a freeze frame of the video—the only clue they had about what Sean was up to.
Molly, Emma has detected the Scamp Princess in the vicinity. She’s hailing Scamp now.
Molly froze, before repeating to Joel what Oz has just told her.
“The Scamp Princess is back!” she announced quietly in a state of complete shock.
Joel’s eyes widened in surprise, but he said nothing.
“Oz?” Molly called so they could have the conversation over the in-conference audio so Joel could hear.
“Yes, the ship is on its way in.”
“And Sean? Is he ok?”
“So far Emma has only been able to communicate with Scamp. Scamp is saying that Sean isn’t on board.”
“Apparently, he left orders for Scamp to return without him if he wasn’t back within a certain time.”
Molly scowled, tears brimming in her eyes. “What, and Scamp just followed those orders?”
Oz paused a moment as if waiting for data. “Well, not exactly. Ze managed to override the programming for a significant time longer and did a sweep of the area where Sean should have been. Ze also tried to follow clues in things that Sean had let slip and told zir, and ze tried to put it all together. Personally, I think if I were to take a pass at the data, I might be able to figure something out. We’ll need Scamp to pull it off though, and for Brock to manually download the conversations off the hard drive.”
Molly’s face set firm. “Have Brock meet us at the hangar deck. We’re on our way down.”
Joel looked confused.
“Sup?” Molly asked, about to stride out of the door.
Joel’s brow furrowed another inch. “Why is Oz talking like that?”
“Like . . . ze and zir?”
Molly tried to connect her brain to her mouth to explain something that was important but not urgent to the impending situation. “It’s . . . erm. Well, you know how Shamans and some AIs don’t identify with one gender over the other?”
Joel shook his head, but Molly ignored it.
“Well, those are gender-neutral pronouns. It makes it easier to refer to them correctly without having to overuse their name.”
Joel, still confused, at least started to get up.
Molly started moving out the door again. “Yeah. I dunno why we didn’t adopt it centuries ago, but hey, that’s the Sark System for you. Anyway, Scamp has chosen gender neutral because ZE is sick of being identified as a princess and is feeling kind of boyish at times. This just allows zir the fluidity to be who ze is.”
Joel’s head was about to explode. “Ok, let’s revisit that when we’re not trying to save someone’s life . . .” he muttered as he followed her out and down the corridor.
Lecture Theater 3, Skóli Uppstigs Academy
Giles sat at the front bench of the darkened lecture theater. Anne was still with him, sitting at one end of the bench drawing on some actual paper he’d found for her.
He had some work to do before he dropped her back, and she seemed reluctant to leave the university straight away. He was secretly happy for the company.
And the lecture theater was as safe as anywhere on Gaitune, especially since no one knew they’d be there.
Besides, he liked it here. It was peaceful.
Most faculty members preferred doing their marking in their classrooms . . . where they had their creature comforts—mocha machines, slippers under the desk.
Not Giles. He preferred the majesty of the lecture theater. It reminded him of his glory days when he’d be called from all over the Empire to lecture on space archeology, helping the military figure out how to deal with their newest encounter. Or helping fresh recruits come to terms with the customs of their fellow comrades of different species.
Yes, being an arch and anth specialist certainly could lead to a varied career. Yet between the tomb raiding and military ops, he’d always return to the lecture theater. It was his one touchstone—even if now, stuck educating kids on some backwater planet in a relatively insignificant system . . .
He sighed, his gaze drifting into the rows and rows of empty seats ahead of him.
Just then, his wrist holo flashed up a message. It was Oz.
PLS CALL, the message read.
Giles hit the return call button, and Oz instantly connected through his audio implant. “Giles, hi. We’ve had a development. Scamp just arrived back. Without Sean.”
Giles took a moment to absorb the information. “What do you mean, without Sean?”
“Just that. Scamp was programmed to return if Royale didn’t show backup at the appointed time. And he didn’t. So he came back without him.”
Giles’s mind whirred, wondering what might’ve happened. “How can I help? Are we going to retrace Scamp’s steps?”
“Affirmative. Joel is getting the team together now. They ship out in a few hours.”
Giles was already on his feet, closing holoscreens. “I’m on my way!” he relayed quickly.
“No need,” Oz countered.
Giles wasn’t sure he’d heard right. “Say again?”
“No need. They’re leaving Paige and Maya to look after the base. And Anne. And Molly needs you to hold the fort on campus. We’ve no idea how long this will take.”
Giles felt the air leaving his sails. He sat down on the stool again. “Are you sure I can’t be of assistance on the mission. I know the world that Royale comes from . . . if this is anything to do with his past . . .” his voice trailed off, hoping that Oz was going to interject and give him a role on the crew.
“I’m sorry, Giles. Molly was clear. She wants you here.”
Giles thought about protesting. Or calling Molly directly. Maybe this was because of their close encounter . . .? he wondered in passing.
“Well, er . . . let me know if you need anything then,” was all he could manage.
“Will do. Thanks, Giles. Oz, out.”
His audio went dead.
Anne had stopped drawing and was watching him with a concerned look. “What is it?”
Giles sighed, taking his glasses off and placing them gently on the table in front of him. Their presence disrupted the light of the holoscreen he’d been working on. “Well, it seems Scamp is back. But no Sean.”
Anne pulled her lips to one side, a slight frown forming across her young forehead. “Hmm. Well, he seems pretty tough. Was he out drinking and got lost?”
Giles smiled despite his obvious concern for his chum. “Possibly,” he lied. “Although, that would’ve been rather careless of him.”
Anne looked very serious for a moment. “Well, I’m not an expert in behavior, but I’ve seen lots of people do careless things.”
Giles chuckled to himself. Could this child be any more precocious? he wondered.
He decided to keep packing. “Come along, young one,” he called over to her. “We should probably get you back to base before Molly disappears anyway.”
Anne started gathering her drawings. “Yeah right. You just want to see her before she goes.” She continued packing. “Either that, or you want to be in on the preparations so you can wheedle your way onto that trip.”
“Mission. It’s a mission, Anne. Not a trip. These things aren’t jollies, you know.”
Anne rolled her eyes at him.
“And you should have more respect for your elders!” he said, noticing her reaction.
Anne smirked but made a feeble attempt to keep her face straight—meaning her mouth got all twisted up.
Giles couldn’t help but be amused. “Come along,” he said, pretending to be cross with her. “We’ll call Arlene from the pod. At least we might gain access to Scamp if she ever gets those coordinates sorted out.”
Anne carefully clocked all the information Giles was hemorrhaging. After all, she never knew when details like this might come in useful.
Hangar Deck, Base, Gaitune-67
Molly strode as fast as her enhanced legs would carry her across the hangar deck. Even GI Joel struggled to keep up with her.
The dense vibration of Scamp Princess’s engines filled the space between the hangar doors and the free landing pad.
Molly felt the anxiety flood through her. They didn’t know that Sean was dead. There was still a chance he was ok. They just had to find him.
Breathe, she told herself, willing herself to stay in the present moment. Her mind spindled out like an evil machine monster from a horror movie, swallowing up hope like a demon.
Be present, she willed herself. Stay. She took her awareness into her breathing, feeling each breath as Arlene had taught her. Then she brought her awareness into her toes to ground to expel the excess energy she was producing. The last thing she needed now was to realm jump. She needed to focus.
The tone of Scamp’s engines shifted into hover mode as Scamp deftly set zirself down in the landing area. Molly waited only long enough for the radiation to settle from the core before she was walking into the stirred-up air towards the door. It took several more seconds for the back door to open. It felt like an eternity.
Molly watched every moment, imagining that it’d all been a terrible a miscommunication and that Sean was indeed on board. Maybe he’d just been injured. Maybe Scamp had got it wrong and he was going to be standing there a bit beaten up but otherwise very much alive.
Maybe it was all just a practical joke. She prayed it was a practical joke.
On my ancestors, please let this be a joke. I promise I won’t be mad at him. I promise, I’ll do anything. Just let him be ok. Let him be standing there.
The tailgate opened enough for the belly of the ship to be visible. There was no Sean standing there. No one present.
Joel looked up from his holo, then showed Molly the results.
LIFE SIGN SCAN: No life signals.
Molly felt her insides crush in on themselves. The anxiety ripped through her chest and gut as strongly as if it were a knife. But there was no time for feelings now. She could process later.
Right now, she had to find Sean.
Brock appeared at her side. “What do you need, Boss?”
Molly nodded into the ship. “We need to know everything that Scamp knows about this trip. Every coordinate. Every conversation—even between Sean and Scamp as well as the ship-to-ship communications. Every satellite Scamp has pinged off on the journey, and every sensor reading. And then have Emma send the raw data to Oz.”
Oz, I hope you’re ready for this. This is going to be a shit-ton of intel.
Don’t worry. Since Lance hooked me up with the extra capacity, I’ve never come close to being full.
Ok, well that’s something.
Joel headed onto the ship to help Brock and to perform a visual sweep to make certain Sean wasn’t there.
Molly started to think about their next move, but then sensing the eyes of the others, she turned and looked up. Lined up at the railings, ready for orders, standing at the entrance to the hangar deck stairs were Crash, Paige, Maya, Jack and Pieter.
She smiled, realizing she wasn’t the only one in emotional turmoil over potentially losing a crew member and friend.
She headed over towards them, made the wind-up sign with her right hand, then pointed at the doors to the corridor on her level. They nodded, knowing to meet her in the conference room.
You’re going to fill them in?
Damn right. We’re going after Sean as soon as we have those coordinates. We’ll be taking the Empress. Make sure you have the data with us. We’ll have to figure this out on the fly.
Roger that, Boss.
And with that, Molly took herself off to the restrooms for a few minutes while the team made their way down to the base conference room.
When she showed up to brief them, only Paige could tell she’d been crying, and thankfully, she never said a word.
For the next couple hours, the base was a hive of activity and tension. Everyone on the team knew what they needed to do and worked as if they were one mind to make everything ready for their departure.
Now, loaded up with as many weapons from the artillery as they could fit into the cargo hold, they were ready to leave.
“But we should be coming with you?” Paige protested quietly to Molly as they stood on the yellow deck behind the Empress.
Molly shook her head. “I need you at the base. We might need you to run an op from here. We might need you to call for reinforcements. Heck, Sean may even show up here and need help. I need you to stay.” Molly was emphatic.
Paige nodded, understanding that she wasn’t just being benched. She was holding the fort.
“And Anne. You need to take care of Anne. This mission is no place for a kid.”
Paige nodded her understanding again, then shifted into friend mode. “It’s going to be ok. If anyone can take care of himself, it’s Sean.”
Molly dropped her leadership veneer, allowing Paige to see her real feelings and expression.
Paige leaned in and hugged her tightly. “I know he’s special to you. And there’s no way he’s not coming back. It’s going to be ok.” She chuckled through the emotion. “I’ll bet you get there and find him drinking with the locals or something. And then you’ll be forced to give him such an ass-kicking . . .”
The two girls giggled as a couple tears escaped down Molly’s face. “You’re right,” she agreed, pulling herself together again. “He’ll be due an ass-kicking, for sure.”
Paige rolled her lips together and held Molly at arms-length. “That’s the spirit. Go get ‘em.”
Molly smiled weakly, her lip twitching with tension and emotion even then. She glanced up to see Maya at the railing again. She waved. Molly nodded back before turning to the Empress and heading up the invisible staircase along the side of the ship.
At the top, she waved, then remembered something. She opened an audio line to Paige. “Oh, and make sure that Anne practices those exercises every day. No excuses.”
Paige nodded from the hangar deck floor and waved. “Don’t worry. I got this. See you soon.”
And with that, Molly nodded her thanks to her friend and disappeared into the Empress.
Moments later, the air around where the staircase had been visibly rippled as the stairs dematerialized. A second after that, the engines of the core came online.
The Empress lifted gracefully, tipped her wings, then glided out towards the open hangar door and disappeared into the darkness.
Paige stopped waving. The hangar deck suddenly eerily quiet and deserted. She felt an emptiness settle inside herself.
Maya was still up top waiting for her.
“Anne,” Paige muttered to herself. “Look after Anne,” she said, repeating the instructions to herself. “Need to check on Anne.”