Grange strides into the lounge, casually tossing a glossy black cube – not much bigger than a gambling die – in his right hand.

Kinako nods attentively. She is sitting at a booth along the side wall. General Jensen is across the table from her. They are speaking in relatively hushed tones, and the conversation appears to be on the ‘heavier’ side. An order arrives, two mugs of green tea. The presence of sugar, milk, and tea bags seems quite puzzling to her, but she rallies, turning the cups a few times and watching the liquid swirl within before carefully removing the bags and placing them on the saucer. The first cup she sets in front of the general, and then takes her own. “Ah, yes,” she says. “Such things have, throughout history, been… what is the word, an inspiration? Inspiring? A force such as this to encourage harmony, cooperation, and development.”

“Indeed. With luck, that is exactly what it will be. The allure of seeing new worlds, and perhaps even new beings. Who knows what is out there?” the general says. “That is news that even the most radical holdout governments can not suppress no matter how hard they try. And they /will/ try.”

Grange rests an elbow on the bar counter and continues bouncing the cube in his hand as he tells the barbot: “Custer’s Last Stand. No parsley.”

“Of course,” Kinako says, turning her mug of tea around again. “Withholding information, spreading incorrect information, these are tools of the disharmonious, likely since the dawn of communication. But as a single bamboo shoot in a tangle of poisonous weeds, the right words will spread. Curiosity is one of the bright powers of the human spirit, and should never be dampened.”

The barbot returns with a squat glass full of what looks like tomato juice mixed with (maybe) vodka and a twist of lemon. Grange pinches the cube between two fingers of his right hand while he uses the left to take a gulp from his drink. Then he sets the glass on the counter and holds the cube closer to his eye, musing: “What *are* you, then?”

Jensen takes his tea and takes a sup of it, his face showing his approval. “Damn right, pardon my French.” he says with a smirk. “It’ll happen one day. Humanity has never simply stood by and said it wasn’t possible. People used to say that man would never fly.. now we fly every day. Said we’d never break the speed of sound… Yeager put that one to rest. The light barrier is just one more obstacle waiting to be broken and left behind us in a pile of dust.”

“Oh, I do not speak French,” Kinako says, with absolute seriousness. “Of course. We have clearly not reached the, ah, boundary of our potential, not in substance nor in spirit. Failure is only the end if we do not learn from it.” She sits back, wrapping both hands around her own mug. There is just a fleeting moment between seconds where her attention is drawn to the light reflecting from Grange’s smooth-faced die, but she draws promptly back to the informal patient before her, offering an apologetic smile for the millisecond’s lapse in attention. “So this is a matter of great importance to you, not just the research itself but its potential in restoring some harmony to the population.”

“I suppose it *could* be a bomb,” Grange notes before pocketing the cube and taking another sip. To no one in particular, he says, “Maybe best not to keep tossing and squeezing it then, yes?”

“Indeed, I have a strong desire to break this barrier.” the general says, before one word Grange says catches his attention. ‘bomb’. His eyes narrow a bit, and his attention is now divided between Kinako and Grange…

Grange is at the bar, sipping some sort of red beverage. General Jensen and Kinako are sitting at a table together.

Kinako seems to have heard the ‘b’ word as well, and while her complete anti-poker-face is failing to stifle surprise and alarm, she composes herself as well as she can, taking another sip of tea and clearing her throat delicately. There is a long, quiet pause before she offers, with violin-string-taut politeness, “…do you think someone needs to, ah, see to that, sir?”

Grange finishes off his drink, then plucks a pair of mirrored sunglasses from the breast pocket of his flightsuit and puts them on. “*Another* Last Stand, please,” he says to the barbot. Then he tilts his head. “Which, I suppose, makes the first one a Next to Last Stand. Unless this one isn’t really the last. And it might not be. So…I’m just gonna call it a Custer.” The barbot is paying him no attention. It went to get his drink ready before his tangent.

Jensen slowly stands from his sitting position, his coat shifting a bit to reveal the slugthrower holstered at his belt. “Let’s find out.” he says as he strides over to where Grange is standing, casually leaning up against it. “So, do you always carry high explosives around with you, or only on special occasions?” he inquires, an eyebrow raised.

A tallish woman comes storming into the lounge, her thin lips set in a hard line, a wire-bound reporter-style notebook under her arm. She walks past Grange and drops angrily onto a barstool, leaving three between them. The notebook is slammed down on the bar, and her delicate fingers mash buttons on the nearest selection station.

Kinako cautiously sets down her tea, and then leans around the corner of the booth to observe whatever might be going on. She looks terribly uncertain of the entire situation, nibbling her bottom lip pensively and fixing the general with the doe-est of doe-eyed expressions.

Grange raises his eyebrows as he turns to regard the approaching Vanguard chief. He wrangles the cube back out of his pocket and holds it in the palm of his hand, showing it to Jensen. “I’m probably higher than it. Maybe more explosive too. I got no idea. Someone left it stuck to the wing of my test jet. The afternoon shift mechanic spied it. Removed it. I was gonna give it to that Harrison fella when he comes on shift. But, hey, if you want it, I’m glad to give it up.” He tosses the cube in an arc toward Jensen while picking up the fresh drink for a gulp.

Jensen snatches the cube out of mid air and glances down at it. “Hmmm. I’m sure the lab boys would be able to get something out of it, but I’ve never seen anything like it.” he says, tapping on his commlink. “Send Specialist Wilson to the Lounge ASAP.” he says into it, before looking back to Grange. “Sabotage or espionage, my money would be on either.”

Kristine grabs the glass of something vaguely mahogany-coloured the moment it’s full, lifting it to her lips and taking a small sip. She flips the notebook open and turns its pages harshly, crinkling each one more than is necessary. “You,” she hisses, pointing accusingly at a page with a pen she withdraws from behind her ear. She nudges her glasses further up the bridge of her nose with a knuckle. On hearing the word ‘explosive’, she cuts her eyes toward Grange, her grip tightening on the pen. Her gaze follows the path of the cube until Jensen catches it. “Sabotage?” she mutters, mostly to herself. Her forlorn notebook is momentarily forgotten as she focuses on this new development.

Kinako flinches away slightly when the cube is tossed, and seems quite ready to take cover until the cube is proven to be ‘not exploding at this time’. She takes a slow, deep breath and exhales, shaking her head and murmuring something under her breath.

“Yeah,” Grange replies. “Maybe. Maybe some of Downes’ pals.” He shrugs, takes another sip, then says, “I was thinking of re-attaching it, sitting in the hangar, and running the engines while playing this punk rock ‘La Traviata’ thing I found on the loudspeakers for about eight hours or so. Really jam their storage systems with garbage.”

Jensen chuckles. “That’d be one way to handle it.” he says, as a young Vanguard Specialist arrives and snaps a salute, to which the General returns. He hands the cube to the Specialist. “Take this to the lab and find out what makes it tick, and if it has any data on it, extract it and decode if necessary. Report to me when it’s done.” The Specialist snaps a salute. “Yes sir!” and then hustles back out of the lounge. “We’ll find out what it is, and if we’re lucky, whose it is.”

Kristine’s eyes narrow; the edge of her lip curls. She watches the Specialist enter, collect the cube, and leave. “Luck has nothing to do with it,” she says, loud enough to be heard by Grange and Jensen.

Kinako flinches again, this time at the mention of Downey’s name. She puts her hand over her mouth and shakes her head. The exiting Specialist is watched with a small measure of concern, and a larger measure of concern is expressed towards the General. “…is… is everything all right, sir?”

Grange jerks a thumb at Kristine. “She’s right, General. And I’d put my money on any tampering setting off another one of those nifty EMP burps like the one that took out Downes’ artificial heart. It might be even more useful to, y’know, talk to some of the jarheads who stand watch in the hangar. Talk to them and talk to everyone else who had anything to do with Downes. Someone had to stick the cube on my bird. I know it wasn’t me. Security cams might show if it was one of my grease monkeys. God, I hope not. They’re almost as good as I am.”

“Oh I intend to.” the general replies. “We’ll find out what it is, one way or the other.”

“If someone’s trying to sabotage my project,” snarls Kristine, “I want to know who the hell it is.”

Kinako puts both hands up to her face this time, not just covering her mouth, and sinks a bit lower in her seat with a beleaguered sigh as talk continues of the progressively more unfortunate Mr. Downes.

The pilot nods agreement with Kristine once more. “What she said. Anyway. I’ve got a poker game to crash. Y’all keep it frosty.” He strides toward the exit.

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Wes Platt

Lead storyteller. Game designer and journalist. Recovering Floridian.

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