7: Sundown (2/3)

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March 24, 2180 (New Era Calendar)/
Deep Space, Patriot Destroyer Patriot One

It was a fool's errand at best, yet here was Zamir Stenbach about to meet the task force -- or what was left of it -- on the flight deck of his flagship and get a glimpse of their -- his -- prize for the first time. He could barely contain his glee as he stepped off the lift and made the walk down the corridor that would bring him to the main hangar bay. Stenbach should have been irate. They sent two fully equipped Battle Cruisers to Arveria and, according to preliminary after-action reports spilling in, the only survivors were aboard the Horizon-class freighter and the mercenary pilot known as Black Jack, both of whom just made berth.

As soon as he entered, he saw them.

They rested on landing struts, parked behind a pair of hover towing tractors. The pair of starfighters were like nothing he had ever seen. The cockpit section forward reminded him of the venerable Hammerhead, what with the pair of angled canard wings. From the cockpit back, however, was an entirely different beast. There were four engine housings, two dorsal and two ventral, that sandwiched a pair of variable geometry wings in between them. Zamir couldn't put his finger on it, but there was something about these ships that excited him. That same intangible feeling also frightened him just a bit.

Sitting, nonchalantly on one of the towing tractors, Black Jack, himself. Dark skinned and menacing, Black Jack wore a patch over his left eye. This was the first time Stenbach had ever seen the man in person, and it felt almost comical.

"As promised, Mister Z. Two state of the art Alliance prototypes," said the mercenary with a shit-eating smile.

The man did deliver, Zamir had to give him that. But he wasn't sure that the cost was worth it. The two Battle Cruisers he acquired from Admiral Stack would have done wonders to bolster his fleet off staging for an upcoming operation. In a way, he had gambled in a major way on these two starfighters in the hope that they were everything they were believed to be.

"Now they're yours," Jack added.

"Under normal circumstances, I'd congratulate you on a job well done, but I sent you with two Battle Cruisers, and you come back with just this beat up freighter and your Interceptor. I just need a little clarification on how that might have happened."

"What can I say? Defiant Squadron lived up to their rep."

That was when Mahogany Stenson entered, her heels clicking with every step, echoing as she walked. Wordlessly, she handed Stenbach a datapad and he quickly glanced over it. Stenbach noticed the leering gaze that Jack gave to Mahogany and an unfamiliar feeling of jealousy crept up. He mentally admonished himself for that brief transgression and focused on the business at hand. Zamir made one final check of the datapad and then looked to the mercenary. "Not entirely as it would seem. According to this, your Mjolnir Team took out four of them. That puts you in for a bonus."

"Save your bonus."

This was out of character for any mercenary, let alone one with the reputation of Black Jack. It caught Zamir off guard for just a moment.

"The only time a man doesn't want money is if he wants something else."

Black Jack looked up at Stenbach with a side eye and his eyes darted to Mahogany and back. Then he stood and approached Stenbach leisurely. "I just want another shot at Antreya."

"Why don't you stick around for a bit, Jack? It sounds to me like there is an arrangement we should discuss."

With a dismissive hand, Jack waved off Stenbach's hint of a future partnership. Again, Zamir was faced with a feeling that he rarely ever came into contact with. This time it was incredulity at Jack's seeming invalidation of Stenbach's offer. No one had ever done that to him, not since Septem Eslos.

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