"I married beneath me, all women do. "-- Nancy Astor (1879-1964)

330, 1122.

Cena Fitzpatrick gets an invitation at work (Regina Trauma) to the Jasmine Club, from the Duchess, for lunch in two days. Yeah, right! It's got to be one of the residents pulling a prank. She looks around and no one's watching her read it. There's a phone number on the bottom of the invitation to call for the RSVP. Cena calls, and a person who seems to match the name and descriptions in the papers of Corina's social secretary answers the phone. If it's a prank, it's a damned good one, so Cena will go along with it. Besides, on the off chance it's on the level, she's never been to the Jasmine Club.

So for the next two days, Cena gets to wander around wondering if this thing is above the residents' IQ or not. If this is legit, what the heck does the Duchess want??

332, 1122.

On the appointed day, Cena shows up at the Jasmine Club fifteen minutes early, in a new dress. Hey, never pass up an excuse to shop for something nice. And hey, maybe the Duchess really did send the invitation. Why is the question. George the Doorman is there, and looks really familiar. And he's wearing a REACT ring - red stone, unlike the Naval Academy's blue one. Interesting. George: "May I help you, miss?" Cena: "Yes. Theoretically I'm to meet someone for lunch here. My name is Cena Fitzpatrick." George checks, and sure enough, she's on the guest list, so she is allowed in, and escorted to the restaurant section of the club.

The maitre d' takes her jacket, and hands it to the coat check boy, and takes her to a small dining room. Oh yeah, this place has style. The members are really interesting - some of them are in very casual, street clothing. An older gentleman in snakeskin boots at one of the tables Cena recognizes by reputation as Tabasco Jack. Only the best organleggers go to the Jasmine Club. Cena is the first one at the table, and declines the offer of a cocktail, opting for tonic water to start, just in case.

In another part of the starport, Hunter has been up for hours - he's gone for his walk, had breakfast, and made coffee by the time Angela staggers out of her bedroom in her robe. Hunter: "Is it 9 o'clock already?" He gives her coffee. Angela picks up the snail mail, and then sits down at her computer to check her e-mail. Hunter: "Yeah, that e-mail stuff, that'll never catch on." Angela: "The thing that startles me the most is the fact that you don't carry a club." Hunter: "Who says I don't?" She gets three levels into the hard copy mail and asks "Hunter, what have you done?" Hunter: "Ah...what do you mean?" Angela <reading>: "'Mr. Hunter's application for space in the newly rezoned Old Port is under consideration, and he is to appear at a meeting to go over specifics.' I put in the application for space with the zoning board, but it's not addressed to me, it's addressed to you. Did you piss some one off?" Hunter: "Not that I remember. Not more than usual." Angela: "Oh my God." Hunter takes the letter from Angela, crosses his name off and writes hers in, then hands it back. Hunter: "There you go. Problem solved." Angela: "Hunter, that won't work." Hunter: "Sure it will, I'll just put the Duchess' initials by it." Angela: "How about if I call the office, and try to straighten it out?" Hunter: "Okay, if you'd rather." He sits at the kitchen table, shining his boots, while Angela tries to fix things. After about an hour, she hangs up and tells Hunter that "You'll have to go to the 11:30 meeting, and just tell them it should be in your fiancée's name, okay?" Hunter: "Okay."

The Duchess does show up at the Jasmine Club, to Cena's surprise. Corina says hello, and offers her hand. Very nice pleasantries are exchanged, and an order is placed. Corina: "I know you're wondering why you're here, so allow me to explain. First, I wanted to personally thank you for your assistance in helping Ghaer retrieve Senator Wyatt. He assures me that you were invaluable, and it never hurts to have a doctor with combat experience along." Cena: "You're quite welcome, your Grace." Corina: "Have you lived on Regina a long time?" Cena: "Since I left the service." Corina: "I've reviewed your service history; that, and the fact that Ghaer thinks highly of you means a lot. I was thinking that I might need a doctor who's competent, trustworthy, and carries a gun, and even on Regina, that's a short list." Ah, now the real reason comes out. Corina: "I have a family member who's gone missing. I've tried to go through Imperial channels, and corporate channels, but with no luck. I've even spoken with the Arch Duke, in case this was something 'official'. His response was not helpful, and not non-helpful. He said 'It's like a Chinese finger puzzle.' That was it, that was the entirety of it. No explanation, nothing. But he didn't suggest I not pursue the matter further. The person who's gone missing is someone of significant importance to my family, and to the corporation. If the Zhodani or another corp were to get their hands on this person... she is privy to information that could be used against the company, and against me personally. I want you to go after them. I can tell you where they were last seen by the megacorporation, but that's about it. I can't send a Naval vessel, that would be hitting an anthill with a sledgehammer. They may have just gone off, I don't know. I will pay for whatever expenses are incurred, and as far as how you get to the location, I will leave it up to your discretion. You can take my private yacht as far as the planet on which she was last seen, but my yacht is not inconspicuous. Did you have any other people in mind for the job?" Cena: "I definitely want backup, so that means at least one other person." Corina: "I have already made tentative contact with a Captain Hunter. I understand you've worked with him before, and I hope you have no aversion to doing so again?" Cena <smiling>: "None whatsoever. Hunter's always a good choice if you want a good merc." Corina: "Captain Hunter also has commando experience that might come in handy, depending on how things go. If you think it would be more beneficial for me to ask him, I am certainly willing to do so, or if you would rather do it yourself?" Cena: "It's really tempting to have you ask him, if I can watch." Corina: "That can be arranged." She presses a button on the table, a secure phone is brought over. Corina makes a call, and talks to a "Michaels" about "installing a camera in room B in the zoning office". Corina: "Is there anything I should know before speaking with Captain Hunter? I wouldn't want to accidentally offend him." Cena: "Hunter is a very direct man. He's intelligent, but uncomplicated." Corina: "Good I like that." After a lovely lunch, it's off to the zoning office.

Hunter goes to the meeting, and is met by a Mr. Heritage, Drexel Heritage. Heritage: "I have your application packet here, Mr. Hunter." Hunter: "Whatever." Heritage: "We've reviewed your packet, and I believe everything is in order." Hunter: "Look, I understand how these things work. How much?" Heritage: "If you could go to room B and take a seat, I will process your application." Hunter: "Right." He stuffs a $10 credit note in the man's pocket, and goes to room B. Room B empty, except for a table, and some chairs. He sits down, facing the door, with his boots up on the table. Cena is watching over the video camera. After two or three minutes the door opens and the Duchess of Regina walks in. Not that Hunter notices. Besides, this woman has a much better stack than the Duchess does.

Corina: "Mr. Hunter. Please have a seat." He sits back down, putting his feet up on the table again. Corina: "I have an operation I would like you to go on. In exchange, I'm willing to give your fiancée her pick of locations in Old Port for her business." Hunter: "Did you say her pick?" Corina: "That's correct." Hunter: "Sounds good. You tell me who to kill, and I'll go take care of it. And you can send some one to Angie's with the paperwork." Corina: "I don't necessarily need you to kill some one Mr. Hunter." Hunter: "Well, I just figured it's going to be unpleasant, otherwise you wouldn't have come to me." Corina: "What I need is some one who's reliable, close mouthed, stays bought when he's paid, and is a bad M-F in a fight." Hunter <sitting up>: "You've got your man." Corina: "Good." She extends her hand. Hunter shakes Corina's hand, and then pats her tummy. Hunter: "It's a boy." Corina does not rip his lips off. Corina: "Yes, it is. But don't tell anyone. If you'd wait here, I'll be right back."

Corina goes to the hidden room to fetch Cena. Corina: "Did you enjoy the view?" Cena: "Oh yes." Corina: "I can see why you like to work with him." Cena: "He's a good person to have on your side. And I've given it some thought - I don't think we should take your ship at all. This person is connected to you personally, so I don't think it would be wise to involve you at all." Corina: "As you wish. Do you need operating cash?" Cena: "Probably a good idea." A case containing $100,000 credits appears. Always plan ahead.

Corina and Cena move to the room Hunter's in. Cena: "Hey Hunter." Hunter: "What's shaking?" Corina: "Here's a picture of the person you're looking for. Her name is Ming-Na Ling, she's the head of Ling Standard. She was on Regina about three months ago. About two months ago, I received word that her ship was missing, in the Jewell subsector. As I have already informed Cena, I spoke with the Arch Duke and I don't think he had her disappeared. I don't think it's anything official, or personal, at least as far as Astridi's concerned." She relates the Chinese finger puzzle comment to Hunter. Corina: "I suppose there might be any number of reasons for him to have made that type of reference, but I'm really not sure. The Ling family, if you go way, way back, is Terran Chinese." She takes out one of the puzzles and hands it to Cena. Hunter: "Terra. That's in the Rim, right?" Cena: "Yes, Hunter. The trick with these puzzles is, once you're in them, the first instinct is to try to pull your fingers out, but that just draws the trap tighter." Hunter's solution is to get out a knife and just cut through the middle of the puzzle. Corina: "Ming-Na normally travelled with her own retinue, and travelled quite extensively in the Marches. The last place she was on was Louzy, in Jewell. Everyone assumed that she was on her way to meet with the Arch Duke, so when she left here, her jump route was along the X-boat route to Efate, then to Louzy. It's not on the route, but it's the next logical spot if you're travelling on a small ship. It's a poor, agricultural planet with a D class starport. Basically, it's a shit hole." Hunter's impressed with the Duchess' command of the vernacular. Corina: "Her personal servants went on to the port with her. She dismissed them, and was talking to a man in a bar." Hunter: "Well maybe she has needs." Cena: "Hunter..." Hunter: "No problem. She has a boyfriend, or not." Corina: "She's a very elderly woman. No on in the family is sure how old she is. The reason she's carried around so much on a palanquin isn't because she can't walk, it's because she might bump into anything and break." Hunter: "This is not going to involve any of those....things. You know, like they have on the tri-dee ads. You know..." Cena: "Is this a guy issue?" Hunter: "No, no. You know, when old people lose control? Cause I don't do that. That's a medical thing." Cena: "That's fine, Hunter. Leave that to me." Corina: " Ming-Na told her personal assistant 'Regardless of what happens in the Black Zone, I don't want you to feel like you're responsible.' That's the last thing he remembers." Cena: "Does that mean anything to him?" Corina: "No. that's the last thing he remembers, and the last thing the crew remembers is her walking into the ship's common area." Cena: "Does 'the Black Zone' mean anything to you?" <pause> Corina: "What I'm going to tell you next falls under the Imperial Secrets Act." Cena and Hunter <in unison>: "Been there, signed that." Cena: "Repeatedly." Corina: "I figured as much. There are such things in the Imperium as Black Zones. They are a level higher than a red zone, and are interdicted by the Navy. There is something on those worlds, persons or objects, or whatever, that if they were to get out, would be a danger to the Imperium. The captain of the ship is the only one who knows the coordinates, or why they are really there. The navigator of the ship actually leaves his station before the navigational coordinates are entered by the captain, who then deletes the viewable portions of the data, and the navigator then is allowed to return to his station. I'm assuming there has one of these Black Zones within a jump or so of Louzy." Hunter: "You know what that sounds to me like? That sounds expensive. Hey, a man's got to eat!" Corina: "Talk to her." Hunter <looking at Cena>: "You're bankrolling this?" Corina: "If you have expenses, relay them to her." Hunter: "This isn't about expense money, it's about something I want. <brief pause> It's not what you think." Corina: "I wasn't thinking that at all." Hunter: "I can almost obtain this, and it's not just a matter of money. The Army trained my how to use it, but the skill's useless without the equipment - battledress." Corina: "You want the item, or the permit, or both?" Hunter: "I can almost afford it, but it's hard to find. A permit would be nice, and if you could point me in the right direction..." Corina: "When you return from your mission, it's yours."

Cena: "I have one or two other concerns." Corina: "Okay. First of all, do you have any recent medical information on Ming-Na?" Corina: "No. That's one of those sensitive areas. I can give you a letter of introduction to her retainers....it will be up to you to use your personal skills to convince him to either give you access to the information or join you." Cena: "Fair enough." The Duchess goes out for a bathroom break - she's pregnant. Hunter: "I should have asked for a pair of her underwear." Cena: "Hunter!" Hunter: "Hey, it's a great conversation starter. What's not to like about me. I'm punctual, I'm in good shape, I make sure my partner has a good time, and I'm tidy." Argh.

Corina returns to the room. Corina: "Is there anything else?" Cena: "Yes. Since it seems likely we'll be going to one of these Black Zones, I'm concerned about repercussions afterwards." Corina: "We know for certain that this is an interdicted world. For one thing, you'll have to make it alive onto and off the planet. The Arch Duke didn't say no, he didn't say not to go. He understands that if he were me, he wouldn't drop it. Astridi knows what could happen to a megacorp if this highly placed an individual should fall into the wrong hands. I didn't have her disappeared, I don't think the rest of the family did, and if she does disappear permanently, in my territory, the family would assume I did it. This would be fine if I did do it, then I'd have all my ducks in a row, but as it is, I would be in a difficult position. If you get a hold of her, and you get to the point where you're bringing her out alive, you could probably surrender, and with Ming-Na there, I don't think the Navy would do anything to you. On the other hand, should you get caught trying to get on to a Black Zone, I can't guarantee that you won't do the rest of your life on a prison planet." Hunter: "A prison planet isn't that bad." Cena glares at him. Hunter: "What? Well it' not - you just need to establish right from the start that you're the one the other guys should look out for and not the other way around." Cena: "We'll just have to make sure that doesn't happen, won't we?" Corina: "That cryptic comment by Astridi gives me to believe that he doesn't not want me to do this." Cena: "The Arch Duke has a reputation for being an intelligent man." Corina: "Don't give an order you don't want disobeyed?" Cena: "Or an order you don't want to come back to haunt you."

The only problem is Hunter's impending wedding, currently set for day 365. This trip is going to take longer than that. Corina: "Do you think Angela would consider rescheduling it?" Hunter: "I don't know. It has to be at a time when my daughter can attend." Cena: "Your daughter??" Hunter: "Yeah." Cena: "When did this happen?" Hunter: "You know, in my younger days, I got around. Come on, don't tell me you never sowed any wild oats?" Corina: "Do you think she'd be willing to elope?" Hunter: "Not an option. This is her first marriage - she deserves the whole church, fancy dress thing. In fact...Screw the battledress. I know what I want. Angela would really like it if the Duchess would show up at her wedding." Corina: "That can be arranged."

Corina meets with Angela, and the wedding is set for two days from today. It's amazing how much you can get done if you have the Duchess' staff. Cena: "Do you know some one who could arrange the bachelor party on short notice?" Hunter: "Sure." Cena: "Hunter, who's the best man?" Hunter: "I don't know, this is Angela's thing. I've stayed away from that." Cena: "Hunter! The groom has to chose the best man!!" There's a huge problem, because Hunter can't decide who to have for best man. His friends consist mostly of women, but he'll come up with someone, and besides, he can't pick a Marine, Hunter's Army. Damn. Cena: "The hell with it! You worry about who the best man will be, and I'll take care of arranging the bachelor party, A party for a bunch of intoxicated men - how hard can it be?" Hunter: "Have you been to a lot of bachelor parties?" Cena: "No comment." Hunter: "I know. I'll call up my old buddy, Parts Peterson. He mustered out on Regina." Cena: "Give me his number." Hunter: "I don't know how he's doing. the last time I saw him he was being wheeled around in a box." Turns out Parts is on Rhylanor, having parts regrown.

Cena talks to Angela about the bachelor party arrangements, telling her she's sort of volunteered for the job. Angela: "You have my deepest sympathy." Cena: "Are you having your bachelorette party tonight too?" [Never have a bachelor party the night before the wedding - not wise.] Angela: "Yes. You might try JR's Place. At least I know the girls are clean." Cena: "Good. And send me a copy of Hunter's phone numbers so I don't have to beat them out of him." Angela sends her that and Col. Hore's number, and the list from the last reunion.

Cena pulls off the perfect bachelor party. A man couldn't have done as well - she even thinks of the morning after preparations. Yes, in fact, there is a fistfight at the party, but the combatants are willing, so no police are called. It's just a friendly fight, and Cena made sure anything flammable or breakable had been removed. Hunter has four stitches and a lump on his head, but nothing visible. Manly food was served (none of those foofy little quiche things), and manly games, like horseshoes, because close only counts with hand grenades and horseshoes, and they don't get to throw hand grenades.

333, 1122.

Hunter bounces back fairly quickly, fortunately. And he's got until tomorrow to recover completely. Although he's having the 'my life is over' kind of thoughts. Good grief. Angela also survived the bachelorette party, which is wilder than the bachelor party, although they clean up after themselves and others. An appropriately Army-like best man is found among Hunter's former comrades at arms.

334, 1122.

THE WEDDING. The Duchess of Regina attends the wedding of a prostitute and a merc. Either it's a sign of hormone issues due to pregnancy, or part of the Duchess' plan to maintain her touch with the common man. The wedding is gorgeous, in the cathedral Down Port. Angela is stunning, and Hunter is very spiff looking in his dress blues. Hunter bought Angela a gorgeous ring, and spent $40,000 credits on it - a two carat blue diamond, with several surrounding carats in white diamonds. Zowie!

At the reception, Hunter gets to introduce his friend, Corina to everyone. And Hunter's friends get to eject nine members of the press. The 'victims' go to the nearest police station to file complaints, but after several days of filling in forms and not being allowed to leave, they realize they have pissed off some one in power. Jack gets to test hand strength with Hunter. And Jack's good looking, too; pity he's taken. Cena <to Corina, looking at Jack>: "You've got good taste, your Grace." Corina: "You mean Jack? Thank you." Cena: "He doesn't have a brother, does he?" Corina: "Not around here." Cena: "Pity." <sigh> Hunter and Jack do bond, in spite of the testosterone, and mutual teasing takes place. Jack: "We could use some people with real combat experience in the Duchess' Hussars..." Hunter: "You know, as exciting as that sounds, I've given the Emperor sixteen years of my life..." And the male bonding continues, on to the drinking games. Jack ends up under the table, and Hunter's hyper-liver triumphs again!

In the limo, en route to the honeymoon suite in Clairidges, Hunter wants to test the firmness of the seat, but Angela isn't having any until they get to the hotel. Angela: "Get your hand off my knee." Once in the hotel room, she's all over him. And Angela is spectacular. If Hunter had known sex could get this good, he would have married her sooner!

Angela was used to doing more work, and now that she's a madame, and has been busy with the wedding plans, why she's probably starved for sex! A fine time in the honeymoon suite is had, and then they stagger downstairs to have dinner with Estelle. Eventually, they had to eat, and come up for breath.

Hunter makes sure he gets Angela's other garter, as he's decided he has to carry it with him on ops now. Angela kisses him good-bye. Angela: "Be careful." Hunter: "I'll be back." Angela: "You better." Hunter: "You're not wearing anything under that robe, are you?" Angela: "No." Hunter looks at his watch. Hunter: "I've got fifteen minutes." Angela: "Not any more." Hunter: "Oh, and by the way, I spoke with the Duchess, and you can have your pick of places in Old Port." Angela: "My pick of places? You mean zoning or rent?" Hunter: "Zoning. Don't go cheap - I'll take care of the rent." Ah, that's why she married him.

Cena has no problem getting a leave of absence from Regina Trauma. She's been on Regina too long, and she's starting to really lose her patience with the admin jerks, and the nurses are concerned some one is going to get decked at one of the staff meetings. Cena: "Well some of them are such idiots!"

On researching the area around Louzy, Cena finds a Bermuda Triangle between Ruie and Grant (both red zones). According to the Tattler, ships disappear like crazy in that area. It's not a good place to travel through. 0809 - 0209 - Grant 3 parsecs each direction is the bad area. It doesn't extend down to 871-438, but ends just above it. There's theoretically nothing in that area - no planets. The trip will need a jump-4 ship, at least. Cena gets two doses of anagathon from Anders, who knows her from Regina Trauma, and from the volunteer work Cena does at the NQA Clinic. Anders advises that if the person is a long time anagathon addict, and has gone without longer than they should have, it will be best to administer both doses at once. Cena thanks her, and goes to make contact with Hunter to discuss other plans.