"18,000!" Chairman Andrei Gagarin snarled loudly and viciously at the fifteen council members seated around the orotund table. The violent life of a smuggler, slaver, and drug lord had given him a permanent sneer, and he exuded a minacious presence that the most expensive suits and assiduous grooming could never completely disguise. His vitriolic delivery, expelled with the force of a solar flare, rebounded off the smooth, unadorned walls of the spacious elliptical chamber and returned to again assault the eardrums of his fellow council members. A short man, standing no more than five-foot five-inches, Gagarin was nevertheless powerfully built. His barrel chest, short brown hair, and dark beady eyes were in no small part responsible for the nickname of ‘Pit Bull,’ conferred upon him by intimidated subordinates. An obvious reference to the vicious and deadly canine species on Earth, it remained unspoken by anyone who wisely placed value upon their life.
"18,000!" Gagarin reprised just as loudly and vehemently. "Do you know how long it takes to recruit 18,000 employees? Do you know how long it takes to screen them? Do you know how much it costs to train them?" With each shouted question, his anger and vocal fever pitch seemed to escalate.
The massive Raider organization, constituted through unification of a dozen independent smuggling operations more than a decade earlier and growing steadily since its inception, had just suffered its first major setback. And that reversal of fortunes had been perpetrated by, of all people, a lone ensign in the Galactic Space Command; one operating without the knowledge or involvement of her superiors.
The meeting hall where the eighty-year-old pirate was again giving voice to unremitting anger with the responsible Spacc officer was as secure as the headquarters of any nation’s intelligence service. Located in the sheltered industrial complex of a legitimate business conglomerate, a combination of the most advanced electronic jamming equipment and sound-deadening building materials available made eavesdropping on conversations, celebrations, and tirades conducted within the room, impossible. Each of the council members was believed to be a respected member of the conglomerate’s executive pool, and in fact they were. The Raider organization, universally accepted as the scourge of the galaxy, had long ago begun wrapping itself in a cocoon of legitimate companies to hide its activities and give it the means to easily move large concentrations of currency. It even hijacked its own shipments occasionally, but never so much that bona fide insurers became overly suspicious.
No one suspected that each of the council members was, in fact, also a key figure in the Raider hierarchy. As members of the powerful Lower Council, they spent their days planning and coordinating nefarious activities and deeds that would be perpetrated throughout the known galaxy.
"Plus," Gagarin continued, thick blue veins in his massive neck standing out like lengths of nylon cord, "fifty-four of our warships were utterly destroyed, and dozens of snared and repaired passenger liners, cargo ships, shuttles, and space tugs were reduced to so much worthless scrap. I’m not even taking into account the two warships, along with another two thousand employees, which she destroyed during ship to ship engagements, nor the two battleships that she appropriated. Most significantly, our only base in that deca-sector of space was obliterated. Obliterated, people. Now, I want to know what you intend to do about it."
"Andrei, since the base, ships, and people have been either destroyed, captured, or killed," Councilwoman Erika Overgaard said, carefully pushing aside a small lock of platinum blond hair that had slipped down over her eyes from her expensively coiffed hairdo, "there’s nothing that can be done about it except write it off as a business expense. We certainly can’t recover anything of value from the detritus. As you’ve said, the assets are gone." At sixty-four, Overgaard was one of the younger members of the council. Her area of expertise was drug manufacture and smuggling.
Gagarin stared intently at Overgaard; long enough for her to begin to squirm slightly in her impeccable ten-thousand credit two-piece business suit. Gagarin could make you feel like a small child being taken to task by an angry parent, even when you knew you were innocent of any wrongdoing. Personal warmth was a descriptive term that would never be used in the same sentence as Gagarin’s name, unless it was to aver that he had none.
"I agree," Councilman Bentley Blosworth said calmly, as he stared somberly into his coffee mug. "There’s nothing to be gained here. You should be concentrating on your two upcoming operations." The seventy-two-year-old finally looked up as he took a sip of the black beverage. The introverted little man, whose specialty was bank fraud and money laundering, didn’t fear Gagarin half as much as he probably should have.
"No!" Chairman Gagarin screamed. "I’m not going to simply write this off the books. Our losses exceed a trillion credits. I want the Spacc responsible to feel our wrath."
"I, too, am of the opinion that we should simply drop this matter," Councilman Arthur Strauss said. Unlike Gagarin, Strauss had the slick, polished look of a true business executive, or perhaps even a successful politician. He was tall and handsome, with a smile that could melt the hearts of most women. At sixty-six, his thick, wavy hair was still a deep brown. His association with, and support from, certain members of the Upper Council made him the second most powerful member of the Lower Council. His words carried as much weight as any five of the lesser members combined, so Gagarin couldn’t simply dismiss his viewpoint as he had that of the others. "Her death would be a cause célèbre. We certainly don’t want Space Command to know that we’re responsible; she would become a martyr in their eyes."
"What do we know about her, Councilman Strauss?" Gagarin demanded.
"We’ve only just begun to develop a file on her. Although we begin collecting information on Space Command cadets who choose to follow a career in political science or intelligence while they are still at the Academy, and for officers selected to attend the War Command Institute as soon as such selection is made, we normally don’t begin collecting information on other officers until they at least attain the rank of Lieutenant. And we almost never pay attention to Engineering, Economics, Science, Medical, or JAG officers until they attain the rank of Lieutenant Commander. Anything our people might have gathered at Raider-One while she was being— ‘adjusted,’ is gone. We know that she’s an ensign, comes from a prominent military family, and is highly intelligent. Although she consistently placed at the apex of her classes in mathematics and science, she was ranked near the bottom of her class at the Academy due to reported indecisiveness. For that reason she was judged to be totally unsuitable for command. Apparently, even their intelligence people didn’t feel she was worth the recruitment effort. She received our age prolongation process while she was our slave, and a substantial DNA rewrite. Although attractive to begin with, by the time the DNA changes have finished altering her body, she’ll look like a goddess, and no normal man will be able to resist her charms. We had expected to reap considerable profit from offering her sexual services at one of our resorts, and if the modification process was later found to be without— side-effects, we intended to administer such modification to all future acquisitions."
"Don’t remind me about that fool Arneu. He should have sent copies of his research documentation to headquarters at periodic intervals. If he had, the billions we invested in developing that science wouldn’t have been lost when Raider-One was destroyed."
Gagarin had been looking forward to receiving the age prolongation and recombinant DNA processes himself soon, and had been working with genetic researchers to develop a model for his new body. He would be tall and handsome, like Strauss, and his new appearance would finally make him an acceptable candidate for investiture on the Upper Council. His dream had died with the entire scientific group at Raider-One, and he couldn’t let go his desire for retaliation against the individual responsible.
"Where is this woman now?" Gagarin demanded.
"Our people on Higgins tell us that Ensign Carver has been posted to an insignificant position in an obscure area of their Science Section and assigned to study recently gathered data on a globular cluster. She presents no further threat to us."
"It doesn’t matter. I want you to continue your investigation. I want to know everything about her."
"How deep do you wish us to go?"
"I want to know how old she was when she cut her first tooth."
Strauss nodded. "Maximum depth then. But if you must have your pound of flesh, I suggest that you wait a while. Wait six months or a year, until the public eye is completely off this little girl, and then arrange a simple accident. I’m a firm believer in that old saying about revenge being a dish best served cold."
"Very well," Chairman Gagarin said. "I can be patient for a while since she represents no further threat. You have your six months."
"My six months?"
"It’s your idea to wait," Gagarin said. "And in six months time, I’ll either be reading about the unfortunate death of one Ensign Jenetta Carver, or we’ll all be reading about the untimely demise of one Arthur Stephen Strauss, Deputy-Comptroller of MedZip Electronics.
Strauss effectively masked the loathing he felt towards the man. He certainly didn’t underestimate the ability of Gagarin to make good on his threats. He decided that it was time to make some arrangements of his own.