Off the Record
Posted on October 31st, 2011 by Douglas McKnight, Persephone Busard and Ashexana
“Off the Record”
Douglas McKnight as Charles Coburn
Persephone Busard as “Boom Boom” Bernaea
Ian Blackthorne as Ashexana
It wasn’t Earth. That was the fleeting initial thought that flashed unbidden across Charles Coburn’s consciousness as he eased the Errol Flynn out of his ship’s docking bay and the craft’s destination came to dominate the fore window. It was similar, to be fair, the kind of world that Federation surveyors would instantly recognize as a prime target for colonization if they ever extended their reach out this far; the planet below boasted wide open oceans, savagely towering mountain ranges, spacious grasslands, in short everything your basic humanoid needed to feel welcome. About the only visible indications a human would have down there to prove it wasn’t the homeworld all involved a glance skyward. This world rested in a binary star system, and the basic blue sky was sometimes broken up by a wider array of reds and greens at certain times of the year.
But from up here, it served as a brief reminder of what he’d been forced to surrender for a life of real challenge and adventure. Overall, he was at peace with the tradeoff…mostly. After all, surely risk and reward both awaited the capable out here in great abundance. The days he’d spent alone in this very craft, a tiny fleck adrift in an ocean of brilliance that words failed to describe while he sought his “Northwest Passage” to Renzik’s slaver base had been a necessary chore, and yet even that had also been just the sort of adventure he’d daydreamed about all those years ago, in his stolen days as a first year Starfleet cadet. But as he’d fled the world of his birth in the face of an inquiry into illegal genetic modification, as he’d savored his last look at the Indonesian Archipelago and the sweeping expanse of Oceania around it, he knew he’d never find anything out here to stir up the same feeling of awe and reverence. Some genetically human thing perhaps, ingrained too deeply for the resequencing to touch. But he was the only occupant of this craft right now born on Earth, and there was no sense bringing down the mood. So, not for the first time, he put aside thoughts of loss and ancestry in favor of playing the part he’d chosen.
“We hit atmosphere in the next minute. Landfall within the next five. So by all means, use that time to play out whatever assassination fantasies you like. ACTUALLY killing royalty is just gauche.”
“Oh come ON!” Bernaea exclaimed in frustration as she started donning her “security uniform”, which consisted of a remarkably risque armor-plated jacket and pants, as well as generally unhealthy levels of things that go “Blam”, “Boom”, and “Fzzzt”, “That bitch has it coming from every goddamn angle! First she gets us to help in that retarded, RETARDED nuke scheme, and now she’s toting herself around, calling herself QUEEN?”
The now stupidly armed Risan woman let out a loud string of very colorful obscenities as she worked very hard at restraining a punch to the nearest panel offending her gaze. After a few minutes and several assassination fantasies, she managed to lower her frustration to a growl. The growl turned a very dark smile as the Second-in-Command of the Surprise remembered her childhood days on Tartarus, a penal colony gone rogue just outside Federation space. There wouldn’t have been all this fuss about politics there. They’d just wake up the next day to find a newly charred hole in the ground where the offendee used to be. Sadly, it was never that simple on the outside, but there were remarkably fewer attempts on both her life and the lives of her parents (now relocated back to Risa). Still, it didn’t mean she had to be happy about everything that went on.
“I’m just saying, the only kneeling I’ll be doing is to aim Daisy.” She indicated the guided missile launcher slung on her back. “And even then, only maybe.”
“Where we’re going, I’d say that’s the very picture of decorum!”
Before too long, about three minutes after the Flynn had cleared the high altitude cloud cover, their destination came into view. The secret meeting place of the pirate council was not, in fact, a derelict space station, or a hollowed out asteroid in the middle of a vast minefield, or any other grisly hideout most people seemed to imagine the moment the word “pirate” was uttered. Rather, fresh air and sunshine were the preferred themes of such meetings, and it really did wonders as far as keeping the proceedings civil, given that most of those attending tended not to make their way in life by tact. That was not to say, of course, that there wasn’t a bit of flair to the place. The fact was that its discovery had been the find of a lifetime.
They were coming down now over a wide and verdant stretch of grassland which, not far up ahead, ended abruptly in a high sheer cliff. The sudden drop meant a truly stunning view of the adjacent valley, the raging river at the bottom which had carved it, the distant forests that crowded its banks, and the jagged, towering mountain ranges at the far edge. A sizable hill nearby to the cliff edge offered an excellent vantage point from which to admire the scenery, but more importantly, though the long trench it must have dug on impact had long since vanished, even a layman could tell at a glance that only that hill had saved the ancient wrecked battleship partially buried in its side from becoming little more than a scattered part of that impressive panorama. To date, they didn’t even have a name for the race that had launched and crewed the craft. Damage in the crash and centuries of slow deterioration had rendered the ship’s databanks unsalvageable. But Charles liked to believe that if nothing else, he and his colleagues did honor to this legacy of their long perished benefactors by ensuring that their ship was useful once more, even if it would never leave this planet.
“Ah, looks like we’re the fashionably late ones. I’ll circle a few times, just for you,” he promised with a chuckle, as he programmed in a sedate landing sequence which would deposit them within easy walking distance of the ship’s largest accessible entry hatch.
Ashexana awaited their arrival alone in a room that was now exposed to the sky above by centuries of deterioration. A polished wooden conference table and plush leather chairs had been added, normally covered as protection against the elements, but now the binary stars decorated the exposed tabletop with surreal Esher-esque intersections of their light and shadows from the remains of the ceiling. Ashexana was, of course, sipping tea and sitting in the shade, raven curls arrayed fetchingly around her smiling alabaster visage. “Ah, Charles, Bernaea, so good to see you both again!” she began, placing her teacup in a saucer on the table before gesturing at the chairs. “Please, do come in and have a seat. It’s just grand to get some fresh air, don’t you think?”
Coburn had no particular illusions that genteel decorum would prevail as the overall theme of this meeting. In fact, he suspected he’d be grateful for simple civility. But even if recent developments had rendered him, in his own private way, nearly as exasperated as his second in command, it was nevertheless his preference to conduct all his dealings as smoothly and in as dignified a manner as possible, a preference that had nothing at all to do with whether any actual sincerity lay behind his urbane appearance of good will. As such, he figured he’d take his best shot at setting the tone right away, before Bernie had time to choose her favored greeting. Fortunately, a genetically enhanced reaction time could be quite the plus.
“Ashe!” he replied at once, arms thrown widely out in greeting on his approach, his signature hunter green and gold patterned justacorps fluttering just a bit in his wake with the sudden explosion of movement. “I must confess you have me a bit flustered. I pride myself on knowing quite a bit, but off the top of my head, I’m just not sure how one greets a head of state in this part of space. Queen, is it? I suppose, just this once, I could manage a bow if you like. And since, as you say, real sunlight and unfiltered air are an uncommon boon for one’s humor, I could perhaps manage to go as low as, say…35 degrees! Oh, but no genuflecting. Not in these boots.”
She waved a hand dismissively, knowing exactly what it was he was complaining about. “Oh, pay it no mind, Charlie! You know how it is dealing with those Federation types; if we want them to take us seriously, we have to come across as a unified front behind a single leader. I figured mine was as good of a face to present to them as anyone’s, and pirate lord, pirate queen, what’s the real difference anyway? Here, we are as we always have been: a confederation of equals. Free.”
Bernie’s murderous scowl had reduced itself by now to one of simple, though remarkably intense dislike as she kept her distance. Instinct always taught her to never get too far from a doorway when attending one of these meetings between “pirate lords”. You never knew when someone would decide they wanted a little less equality in the hierarchy. Still, slightly more distant as she was, her scoff would have been heard across a concert hall.
“Oh, my, yes. Pay it no mind! Hey, it’s no big deal that you attacked a fucking Federation flagship, especially because you labeled yourself as our fucking figurehead. Which means that WE openly attacked a Federation flagship. But hey, at least you didn’t, y’know, do something stupid like let them live to squeal back to Daddy. Oh, wait, you DID you say? And not only that, but you identified yourself AND your affiliation to us before you let them limp home?”
At this point she started grinning. There was nothing in that grin that implied friendliness.
“Oh well, at least you did it for a good cause. Oh, UNPROVOKED attack, you say. On a Federation flagship. While claiming to be our Queen.”
The grin faded very quickly as she took a step forward, hands never far from a ready position to fire something.
“Well, then, oh Queen,” She almost spat the word, “what the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
About when Bernaea opened her mouth was when Coburn figured he’d received his cue to shut his eyes, sigh quietly, and take a personal moment. Christ, Bernie. Don’t sugar coat it or anything. Well, at least she’d saved him the trouble of broaching the topic, and it wasn’t as though she didn’t have a point. In fairness, the Federation had been gamely ignoring every statement, space claim and ultimatum that their ad hoc PR department had been putting out for months. An armed escalation was inevitable, and always had been. Third Fleet needed to be dealt with eventually, and that meant Atlantis had to be dealt with. But the timing…
“Thank you, Bernie! Now, I believe what my lovely second meant was that…”
Well, dammit. It didn’t happen often, but Bonnie Prince Charlie was coming up empty.
“Alright, so it’s pretty inescapably obvious what she meant. Though personally, I’ve always found it extremely valuable to have someone around who prefers speaking plainly. Still, what I choose to take from that is…we’re concerned you’ve played our hand early. It was not, granted, the first time one of our ships has attacked one of theirs. Why, it wasn’t the first time we attacked Atlantis. It was, however, the first time such an attack was carried out as an official declaration on behalf of the Free Fleets. You wanted them to take us seriously? Bravura performance, really. But I trust we’re both aware that open conflict becomes distinctly less desirable for us if we are not on an equal footing with our enemy. Which, ultimately, we are not. In any sense.”
At that point, Charles finally elected to take Ashexana up on her initial offer. Hanging his rapier frog up on a wall hook installed for just such a purpose, he took one of the seats, and backed it up just enough so that when he sat, he was able to prop his feet up on the table. If nothing else, he didn’t get many chances to show the boots off to a discerning eye. Black Italian leather, the carefully considered arrangement of straps and buckles a work of art unto themselves, and all shipped through intermediaries at great effort and expense all the way from Earth. Oh, and the tucked over cuff at the top, naturally. Style, he had it. Looking back at Bernie with his best smile, he gestured in invitation to the seat next to him before reaching into his justacorps, withdrawing a silver liquor flask from an inner breast pocket.
“So in short, dear colleague…” he concluded as he unscrewed the top of his flask and helped himself to a bit of rum before passing it off to his partner in crime. “…our position is suddenly that much more precarious. So you understand, I’m sure, why it’s a subject of some frustration for us that we were not in any way consulted before you took such steps on our behalf. Now, me? You know I’m a pretty laid back guy. But Bernie…well, things tend to explode when she’s frustrated.”
“Oh, Charlie, those boots are absolutely divine! I simply must meet your supplier!” Ashe took a drink of her tea, watching them over the cup’s rim with black eyes. Of course, she was deflecting for a moment in order to properly address their concerns, but there was no need to lie about the boots; they certainly warranted such praise. Ashe was no slouch in the style department either, but hers was less grounded in the romanticized pirates of Earth’s past and more in the fact that she had a modern business to run.
She had turned sideways along the table to face them when they sat and crossed her legs, the upper one elegantly defined by the unmistakable sheen of a pure silk stocking, its long line running straight from a high-heeled pump, up the curve of her calf, and onward to a black knee-length cotton skirt that embraced her hips. A jacket that matched the skirt was draped over an unused chair, but now the field of black gave way to white at her waist, where an impeccably tailored blouse of almost transparent linen flared out over her thighs. The blouse ineffectually attempted to cover a full white satin slip whose delicate straps were almost invisible against Ashe’s porcelain shoulders, where her tumbling black curls just brushed the sheer cloth. So much natural fabric in an age of replicators was a subtle statement of wealth that would be missed by the bourgeoisie, but still obvious to the sophisticated eye.
Gently placing the teacup back in the saucer, Ashe looked at her companions again, the smile gone from her face. Her lips were slightly pursed, their redness a stark contrast with her skin as she held her mouth closed with inflexible control. Satisfied in the approach she had decided upon, and that no one was about to try to shoot her, Ashexana spoke. “It was, of course, an attack of opportunity, but not one without benefits. My purpose at Refuge was to attempt to bring Venya Kashar back into line, but it would seem that she’s chosen new friends without regard for the consequences of her decision. Regrettable, but irrelevant right now.”
Ashe perched her hands on her knee, one atop the other, and continued, “Atlantis’s arrival was unexpected. I was leaving Refuge when I saw her drop from warp and immediately cloaked, and you’ll have to forgive me, but there just wasn’t time to put the matter to a vote. Her shields were down and Blackthorne was clearly oblivious to any threats at a friendly port. Now, Charles, can you honestly say that given such a tactical advantage, you wouldn’t have done the same? Don’t answer just yet, darling. As for letting them live to tell the tale back home? That was precisely the point, though given your trademark style, Bernaea, I can understand why you might have missed that one. Destroying Third Fleet’s flagship would have definitely provoked a war, but instead, I showed that we are a credible threat, but not an idiotic one. Asking nicely to be left alone hasn’t worked out so well for us, has it?”
It was interesting, Bernie would remark on later, to compare the two women in the room. Had it not been for her current less-than-friendly attitude towards Ashexana, Bernaea would have admitted that their appearances were remarkably similar. Both were raven-haired and pale-skinned women, of similar size and shape, and both had a presence that emitted power. For Ashexana, this power seemed to come from her highly disciplined, elegant and polished manner. She was, in short, a businesswoman, and it showed. For Bernaea, the power that resonated from her being was something decidedly more feral and violent. At her core, Bernaea (jovial as she could be at times) was a killer.
And at this moment, the killer was being, in a fashion, challenged. For the most part, Ashexana had entirely ignored her with her chosen response. In fact, the only time she addressed Bernie’s existence was to offer a veiled insult. Normally, Bernaea’s kneejerk reaction would be to plant a mini-torpedo directly in Ashexana’s chest, but alas, politics removed that possibility in this case. Instead, she made a slightly more subtle play of her own. Ashexana’s attention, for the moment, seemed entirely spent on Charles. That was fine and dandy for Bernie, so long as Ashe realized that he was not by any means outside her influence. To make the point that she could not be ignored, she casually dropped the minitorp-launcher from her back, and went to sit directly on her captain’s lap. She knew Charles was smart enough to get the significance, and straight enough not to mind having her cleavage in his face. She’d let Charles be the one to respond, but she kept a sharp eye on the other woman in the room.
Charles had always counted himself superbly fortunate in the tools he was given to make his way in life, feeling that for all the trouble they’d eventually brought him, his suite of genetic enhancements were on average still a powerful advantage. Times like this offered very concrete arguments in favor of that viewpoint; even struggling against a momentary 30 point IQ drop, the gears moved more than fast enough to allow a timely response. Well, reasonably timely. Ignoring the enticingly feminine presence (and the deliberately encouraged impression that she was about as harmless as a restlessly caged tiger did LESS than nothing to dent her kind of femininity) would be to miss the point entirely.
“Here’s the problem, as I see it,” he chose to begin, once he’d shifted in his seat sufficiently to make the position comfortable for two. “You ask me what I’d do with a tactical advantage, but as I use that term, it doesn’t apply in the absence of some solid tactical BENEFIT. For instance…let’s suppose, hypothetically now, that I’m really very fast. Enough so that if I really wanted to, I could warn you I was about to draw my disruptor and shoot you with it, and then still have enough time to follow through on that before you were able to act meaningfully to stop me. I COULD do that, but without the will of the Council at large backing it, what good would it do me? At best, maybe it could create some momentary chaos in your organization that I could exploit, but I’ve come to respect you enough as a rival to assume we’ve BOTH put some work into creating an organization that can survive without us there to run it. So ultimately, I’d have accomplished very little, and on top of that, I’d have handed my OTHER rivals an excuse to have me declared a traitor. Even my dear Bernaea would have to turn from me at that point. I would, in effect, be picking a fight I had no realistic hope of winning.
“Now, all that said, my fallback option is NOT to draw my disruptor and simply graze you, just to demonstrate that I could. Because, you see, from a business standpoint, revealing my intent and my ability simply for a moment’s petty satisfaction is not a rational transaction! I’d still have openly attacked you, just like attacking a Federation starship and not then finishing the job is still attacking a Federation starship. And the means…there was a reason, as I recall, why our weapon of choice to this point has been nuclear warheads. Easily obtainable in large number, and effective if used creatively, but all the same, vintage technology. We did this so that when we judged ourselves ready to commit to any sort of large scale engagement, we’d face an enemy that had deployed their forces with the goal of stamping out an ad hoc, poorly equipped band of space thugs. Now, we instead face a superior adversary which is aware we possess the means to obtain and deploy cutting edge military technologies of the sort fielded by first rate threat powers.”
At that point, Coburn thought it best to settle back and relax a moment. Even the brief raising of his voice so far represented more unveiled anger than he preferred to show. So he gave himself a few seconds to close his eyes and collect his thoughts. When he chose to continue, his voice was once more even, but he trusted his words themselves to convey much.
“And you know, for all that, it might still have been a fine tactic, a master stroke even. That is, if we faced an enemy for whom military strategy was simply a straightforward calculation of strength. But you see, Ian Blackthorne is not a Vulcan. He is a product of both our worlds, Ashexana. Passion matters. Ego matters. And you went after his people. You went after his ship. He will not respect your capacity to do him this injury. He will simply redouble his efforts to track you down, and make you pay for it. Which is to say, to make US pay for it. All of which I, who alone among our number had made a point of evaluating him in person, would gladly have shared had you thought to ask. So, to answer your question in my own leisurely fashion, yes. If I was not prepared to utterly obliterate the flagship of Third Fleet, I would simply have chosen to go nowhere near it. Their ignorance about us was quite literally our chief advantage. And you have given away that advantage…for nothing. Nothing at all. There are those of us who are less than entirely happy about this development, my queen. And I don’t just mean on this side of the table.”
For a moment, it was as if her face had shattered and fallen to the floor, but Ashexana quickly regained her composure. Even so, the change in her demeanor was noticeable, mostly because the man had a point, but was the first to actually bring it up to her face. Taking a hurried sip of tea for a moment to think, Ashe supposed that she should have expected this of Charles Coburn, having known him all these years. “Charles, let’s be honest, you and I are a bit more equal than most of the others in this so-called confederation of equals. We possess the largest fleets and most of the power, and we’ve worked together a long time, so I’m going to be completely truthful with you, on the hopes that what I am about to say does not leave this room.” Her voice had lost its air of veiled condescension, and despite being much quieter, was still assertive.
“The story I told you was the charade for the other captains, and for Blackthorne, so that my image remained intact. What actually happened was that Atlantis got off a lucky blind shot and knocked my plasma torpedoes offline. I fully intended to destroy her and could not, again failing to accomplish what we tried to do with that nuclear weapon.” Ashe watched him closely as she spoke, trying to gauge a reaction from the man whose apparent inability to be empathically read had frustrated her for years, and from the woman who sat on his lap, who could be read but would quite likely follow her captain’s lead.
Bernaea was relieved when she noted the mask coming off, even if it was just for a moment. She knew the whole charade was for the business end of things, but quite frankly, she was more willing to work with someone if they were willing to admit that they’d just genuinely screwed up. Of course, one cannot rule one’s own with an iron fist and be willing to do so, as she recalled the not-so-little anarchist sect she’d ruled over before Coburn made his attractive offer. Taking a long sigh, Boom Boom Bernie’s features softened, and while she wouldn’t yet offer any nicer words, she at least offered a meaningful nod of recognition, and looked to her captain for his response.
“So, you took your shot, and you missed.” Coburn added by way of summary, his own features softening slightly to mirror Bernie’s. Not that he’d ever appeared outwardly hostile to begin with, but for one who had occasion to interact with Charles Coburn on a regular basis, even small subtleties in his cheerful demeanor could be significant. “It happens…but I suppose you’re right, it’s not good enough for the Council at large. We may run our organization fast and loose, but even I can’t think of an outfit where failure and promotion come in the same package.”
Taking a deep breath, he once again closed his eyes in silent thought. A moment later, he gave a small nod.
“Alright, your first story can work. But if that’s how you want to play it, then we need to sell it better. We’ll need a followup, specifically, something that we can declare at the outset to work toward a goal of demonstrating power and restraint…and most importantly, something that will WORK as advertised.”
A smile made its way across Ashexana’s face, born of both relief and cunning. “Well then, dear Charles, it just so happens I have an idea that may strike your fancy…”