For those joining us late, this is part of an official series on the Hunter's backgrounds. The index of stories is here.
His eyes had been open for a while, Abe had noticed. Abe didn't think that meant much, and so just sat there reading, waiting.
Eventually, Parnell's eyes started moving around the room. Came to rest on Abe.
Abe scooted his chair around so he could look Parnell in the eye.
"Hey man, how you doing?"
Parnell opened his hand, Abe took it.
"You're gonna make it," Abe said. Parnell squeezed his hand. "You been out for about three weeks."
Parnell's eyes took in the chair and the stack of comics. Abe smiled.
"Nah man," he said. "They took the tubes out two days ago. I only been here since then."
Parnell tried to talk. Abe let him. He knew what Parnell was going to say.
"We lost them," Abe said, his eyes getting red. "Nobody...nobody made it."
"Solaris?" Parnell asked.
Abe shook his head, looked at the floor. "The engines went critical. Took out both ships. The cockpit saved you and me but. . .."
"We lost them," Parnell said, his voice dead. Unbelieving.
"Press is kinda going crazy over it. Looking for someone to...you know, looking for an explanation. No one seems to give a shit about what actually fucking happened."
Parnell's eyes welled up, but there was no other sign of emotion or reaction. His mouth was half open. Lips cracked from disuse, blood caked around his nose from endless tubes inserted and removed. But no expression on his face. Whatever was happening, it was deep behind his eyes.
"But that order," Abe said. "That rescue. Getting everyone off that ship. That was the bravest goddamned thing I've ever seen." His voice broke as he said it.
Parnell gave no indication he heard.
"You're the best man I ever met," Abe said, his eyes darting back and forth. Unable to look at his friend like this. "Only reason those people had a chance was 'cause of you. No one else coulda pulled it off. Not many would have tried."
Parnell's face betrayed no reaction.
Abe pulled the chair closer.
"Solaris' engines went into overload. Some regulator probably got eaten by Sirius A. Explosion took out The Sword. Most of Solaris was unrecoverable. They couldn't find all the bodies. Mason, Sunny. Probably never find 'em.
Parnell started at nothing.
"I gotta find something to do," Abe said. "Gotta go check the line, look for bounties," he said. "I can relax now that you're awake."
"Ok," Parnell said.
Abe stood up. "I'll be back tomorrow," he said. He picked up one of the comics, showed it to Parnell. When Parnell didn't look at it, didn't give any indication he was even aware Abe was in the room, Abe tossed the comic back down. "Try to find you some more comics," he said. "You'll grind through these in an hour, I know you."
"Ok," Parnell said.
Abe looked at Parnell. Looked at the comics, the room. He found it difficult to be in the room with his friend like this. Parnell needed room to take it in. Grieve.
Abe headed to the door. "I'll be back tomorrow," he said.
"Ok," Parnell said.
"Maybe I'll come back tonight," he said, and watched for a reaction from Parnell.
"Ok," Parnell said.
Abe sighed and screwed himself up. Grabbed the door handle, gave it a moment, and left.
"Ok," Parnell said.
Parnell looked at his Antietam Red. He had hoped it would be enough. It wasn't. Smoke from the fogh-pipes was making him antsy. He needed something to calm him down.
He signaled the server. "Double malt," he said. She nodded and moved through the crowd.
Parnell realized someone was standing near his table, watching him. An Asian guy. Older, but fit.
"Mind if I sit down?" the man asked, signaling to the server to make it two.
"Probably I do," Parnell said. "Don't reckon any man looking for me is coming with good news."
The man nodded, and sat down. "Well that's a reasonable assumption," he said. He was wearing a Sol Guard Air Agency bomber jacket. It wasn't a replica.
"Nice jacket," Parnell said
"Thanks," the older man said.
"You were with the Hellfighters?"
The man smiled. "Nope," he said. "I'm old, but I'm not that old. Jacket belonged to my father. I was, uh..." he turned and presented his shoulder to Parnell, so Parnell could see the patch.
"FTF," Parnell said. "Hub Marshall." The man nodded. "You a ways out from your jurisdiction."
"Oh I don't...," the man shrugged. "I'm not in that business anymore. I'm...," he twisted in his seat to present the patch on his other shoulder. Pointed to it.
"Planet tamer," Parnell said, and their drinks came. Parnell didn't touch his, didn't even look at it. His guest noticed that. "Like Leading Edge, yeah? Same thing?"
The man raised his eyebrows. "Ah, yes," he said. "You remember the Edge?"
Parnell scratched behind his ear, remembering. "There was a comic we were all reading back in the Guard. Called...," he remembered. "Wounded Wolves, that was it. All about Leading Edge. Pretty bad-ass. Supposed to be real. We all figured it was made up."
The man nodded. "Probably," he said.
Parnell peered at him. "Leader was this guy born on Ganymede. Real hard ass with a robot partner. Something bad happened to his wife, he sorta took it out on the wildlife. I don’t remember his backstory though. What he did before that."
The man picked up his drink. "He was a Hub Marshall," he downed the shot, "named William Cabot."
"William Cabot," Parnell said. "Holy crap."
"Pleased to meet you," Cabot said.
"Man I read your comic book," Parnell said, suddenly animated, smiling.
Cabot smiled back. "It was mostly made up. Never got the name, either. Wounded Wolves. What is that?"
Parnell said back in his seat, grinning hugely. "It's a quote, man. From MacArthur. About his men, how hard they fought, how much he loved them."
"Well that I like," Cabot said, nodding. "Huh. Never knew that."
"I'm James Parnell," Parnell introduced, they shook hands. "Figure you know that though."
"Figure I do," Cabot said. "You're a hard man to find."
"Well," Parnell said, and the smile faded somewhat, "Not hard to lose yourself in the Arm." He looked at the older man. "You looking for me in particular?"
Cabot nodded. "Man who led The Sword."
Parnell stopped smiling. "Why'd you have to bring that up?”
Cabot shrugged. "You have to move on sooner or later. Can't hide from it forever."
"Yeah? Try me," Parnell said.
Cabot nodded. He seemed to understand. "I read about what happened," he said.
"You got no idea what happened," Parnell said. "Whatever you read was crap."
"I can sorta read between the lines," Cabot said. "Why was your crew on Solaris and Solaris' crew on your ship?"
"It don't matter man," Parnell said, grabbing his drink. "It's all crap."
"Solaris comes out of C-space, and fires its nukes point-blank at Sapphire Station?" Cabot asked. "That sounds like crap. Since when did Hub carry nuclear ordnance?"
Parnell said nothing.
"Word on the line is, you were commandeering their ship, holding their crew for ransom back to Hub."
"Whatever, man. What's this about?"
"But I noticed something looking at your record," Cabot said, ignoring him. "You and your crew went on over thirty ops, mostly bounties. In every instance you're fighting corp-pirates and slavers. Huge bounties out on station directors, regulatory agents. You never took one of them."
"Lotta bounties out there man, that don't mean anything. Why come to talk to me?"
"Ah hell," Cabot said. "Means everything. Means you're not the kind of man the line thinks you are."
Parnell said nothing.
"I'm guessing," Cabot said, pressing his finger down onto the table, "that the nukes were Sapphire's defenses. I don't know why they'd fire them point blank, fry half their staff, but then Solaris retreats. Fouls up. Jumps into the surface of a star. And you went in to rescue them."
"Why would I do that?" Parnell asked, his eyes unfocused, staring at nothing.
Cabot leaned forward. "Because it was the right thing to do," he said. "Because it was a ship full of kids in Sol Guard, innocent kids like you were once. Just following orders."
Parnell looked down at his drink, said nothing.
"You make life or death decisions every day," Cabot said, "sooner or later your number comes up. Doesn't mean you're no good. You have to be lucky every time you go out, the bad guys only have to be lucky once. Hell, your record? I've never seen anything like it. You know how many hunters we lost in the Edge? How many times the whole team almost got wiped?"
Parnell stayed hunkered down over his whiskey.
"You asked why I came here, this is the brief," Cabot said. "Colony way out on the rim. Shear. About thirty thousand people spread over a dozen settlements. These are working class folks, taking a chance for a better life. Better life for their kids. Risking everything. And the wildlife is serious. Makes Axil look like a petting zoo."
"Why me?" Parnell looked up from his drink. "I don't know planet taming, there have to be better guys."
Cabot nodded. "Well, experienced tamers are not in short supply, I grant you. But I sort of. . .," he tilted his head back and forth, weighing an idea.
He looked at Parnell and flashed a brief smile. "I don't trust NORDITA."
"You don't," Parnell said.
Cabot shrugged. "Not really. They wanted me, specifically. I've been out of wildlife services for years. So why me?"
"Cuz you’re famous."
Cabot pointed at Parnell. "Exactly. It's the kind of thing the corps do to make something look good on paper."
"Cover their ass."
"You get it," Cabot said. Happy he and Parnell spoke the same language. "There's some big problem coming, they're worried, they don't know anything about wildlife, but they have money. So they spend five minutes on the line. . .."
"Your name pops up," Parnell said. "'Best hunter the Arm ever saw.'"
"Someone, some executive somewhere, says 'Why don't we just hire that guy?' That way, when everything goes south, they can say 'wasn't our fault! We hired the best!'"
Parnell looked at his drink. "Sounds about right. I buy that." He looked up at Cabot. "So what's this big problem? Corp pirates?"
"Maybe," Cabot said. "But Shear has an EbonStar detachment. No, I was sorta thinking something military.”
"Sol Guard?" Parnell repeated, unbelieving. "Twelve guys against Sol Guard?"
Cabot thought for a minute. “Yeah, I dunno. Maybe some kind of expeditionary force. Small. Maybe it is corp pirates. Hell, maybe it’s just an important planet with nasty wildlife and they want to make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. But if it’s anything but wildlife, I need someone who knows tactics and strategy and that is not me.”
“I get it,” Parnell said.
“You took on Hub, pirates. You’re the guy.”
Parnell grimaced, skeptical. “I’m the guy.”
Cabot leaned in again, like they were conspiring. "You and me build the team. We vet everyone. We go out there, we spend six months teaching the wildlife to stay away from humans. Get paid, go home."
He sat back and watched Parnell. "Simple job. I've done it a hundred times. And you feel good doing it. Just a bunch of wild animals one on side, good honest people on the other, and nothing but us between them. All your training? Your gear? You'd be a hero to these people."
Parnell looked around the bar. But he was breathing easier. Seemed less down.
"And there's something else," Cabot said.
"What?" Parnell asked.
Cabot leaned back and spread his arms across the back of the booth. "You get to work with the guy from the comics," he said, smiling.
Parnell laughed. It seemed like he'd come around. "And you're running the show?"
Cabot shrugged. "I like being in charge," he said.
Parnell nodded. "That suits me. Suits me fine."
"You ask me," Cabot said, "you're a born leader. You had one crap mission, it happens. Don't let it...you know, don't let one incident ruin a good man. Let's go to Shear. Help some people. Nothing to worry about except teeth and claws. No nukes, no Hub. No press."
Parnell smiled a little. "You're a persuasive man," he said.
Cabot shrugged. "When I want to be."
A server walked by. Parnell put his drink on her tray. Looked at Cabot.
“Ready?” Cabot asked, already standing.
Parnell looked around the bar. Smoke from the fogh-pipes clung to the ground. Dim, warm light from the ceiling failed to illuminate much. How much time had he spent here over the last six months? Too much.
“Yeah,” Parnell said. “Yeah I’m ready to get out of this place.” He reached into the inside vest pocket on his jacket. Cabot beat him to the punch, scanned his messenger across the table’s receiver. Paid the bill.
“It’s on me,” he said.
Parnell nodded his thanks. “I’ll get the next one,” he said.
Cabot shook his head. “We’re a crew now. Means we can write this off.” One corner of his mouth curled in what might have been a smile. “Business expense.”
“You pay taxes, man?” Parnell asked, getting up from the table. He was a head taller than the older man. He’d never thought of William Cabot, captain of Leading Edge as worrying about anything as mundane as taxes.
Cabot mock-frowned at the younger man. He knew the drill. Specialist crews didn’t keep books. How was anyone from Hub going to find them out here in the Arm?
“Always,” he said, pocketing his messenger. “Everything above board, get receipts. Pay what you owe. We’re working for NORDITA. You deal with those guys, you need everything above-board.”
Parnell pursed his lips in thought. “Taxes,” he said, somewhat disbelieving. Then he shrugged. “That’s how it’s done, that’s how we do it,” he accepted. “Long as I’m not the one doing all the math.”
Cabot smiled. He clapped the younger man on the shoulder as they walked out. “We hire accountants. Lotta money in planet taming if you’re not pissing it away on repairs and booze.”
“Accountants? Man we all thought Leading Edge was like a bunch of superheroes. Meanwhile you guys running around with accountants. They don’t put that in the comics.”
“Not romantic,” Cabot agreed.
As they left the bar, Parnell asked “So what is this, like Leading Edge II or something?”
Cabot shrugged and then stopped. Parnell and Cabot stood there in the corridor leading to the rest of the station with people walking past and between them.
“Hadn’t thought that far ahead,” Cabot admitted. “Had thirty guys in Leading Edge, whatever this is, it’s not that.”
The two men thought. “Does it matter?” Cabot asked.
"We're going to recruit another ten people," Parnell said, "feel weird doing it without knowing what this is. What's your ship called?"
"The Laurie-Anne." Cabot said with a rueful grin.
"Ok well, we ain't the Laurie-Annes," Parnell said smiling.
“A name makes it official,” Cabot said, weighing the idea.
“Yeah you know,” Parnell said, “makes it more real.”
Cabot sniffed. “How about...The Crew.”
Parnell didn’t react for a second. “That’s it?”
Cabot tilted his head back and forth. “Yeah. Everyone’s always got these names, ridiculous names. Ringstorm, Magnetar, the Six from Sirius and every other damned thing. Even Leading Edge, always sounded like we made razors. I just want to be in the crew.”
Parnell stood there staring at nothing, people walking by, ignoring them.
“You don’t like it, we can...,” Cabot began.
“Nono,” Parnell said. “No. The Crew. Yeah. Yeah it’s like...it’s elegant. Simple. People see that name on the board,” he said, meaning the specialist job board everyone on the line used, “they’ll think 'these are serious guys.'”
“That’s us. Serious guys,” Cabot said, and the microsmile flashed again.
“Serious as a heart attack,” Parnell said, extending his hand.
Cabot took it. “Serious as taxes,” he said.
Parnell barked a laugh. The two men walked out into the heavy traffic of the station.
"So what happened to being a Hub Marshal?" Parnell asked. "The comic said they fired you, but didn't say why."
"I was insufficiently ingratiating," Cabot said with exaggerated precision. Like he was quoting someone.
"And what's that in English?"
"It means I punched my superior officer one too many times."
"You!?" Parnell exclaimed. "Man you spoke two sentences and I knew you were the coolest dude on this whole station. Having a hard time imagining you blowing your top."
Cabot looked up at Parnell as they approached the docked Laurie-Anne and smiled.
"I was a young man once," he said.
Continue reading: Cabot's Story