"Surprise!" Rico's Roughnecks shouted in unison.
Robert Higgins cursed himself for relinquishing his camera at the airlock. The look of utter bewilderment on Rico's face as he stepped into the Captain's Mess was priceless. Dizzy Flores pecked Rico on the cheek not five feet in front of him and Higgins didn't even have a still-shot to capture the moment on disk.
It was going to take a while for Higgins to get accustomed to working for UNN. All of his Fed-Net contacts and press corp security status would probably evaporate. But in the end it would be worth it. Chancellor Kel'Rae had offered him the one thing the Federal Network never could -- editorial control. No more censorship, no more re-edited info-packets. Limited access to SICON's domain was a small price to pay for editorial freedom.
Higgins made sure that everyone at the dinner table heard of his imminent career change as it was the only real news he had to offer. Most of the table conversation centered around Rico and his experiences at Officer's Training camp. It was, after all, Rico's surprise party. Every member of Rico's old Roughnecks squad was in attendance with the exception of "Colonel" T'Phai. The whole squad would be reunited with Ambassador T'Phai in a couple of days to bear witness to the christening of some new T'Phetti prototype starship currently in orbit around Terra. When Rico commented on T'Phai's absence, Max Brutto mentioned that his father still corresponded with T'Phai on a monthly basis.
"So, how is the old coot? T'Phai, I mean, not your old man," Rico jibed.
"Uh...actually, last I heard...T'Phai was kinda upset that both of his kids joined SICON. His son, T'Phal, qualified for Fleet. M'Rette was singled out to participate in some experimental program that tries to detect psychic abilities in Skinnies," said Max.
Higgins remembered all too well a video message T'Phai had once left for his kids during the Bug Wars. "I fight so that you will not have to," had been T'Phai's primary sentiment. Higgins could only imagine the anguish T'Phai must have felt when a member of his own brood chose to enlist in the armed forces.
An uncomfortable veil of silence had been draped over the room. Leave it to Max Brutto to dampen the mood at a party.
And leave it to Dizzy to liven it right back up again. "Hey, remember that time we threw T'Phai a surprise party for his birthday?" she giggled.
"I think I would have remembered something like that," said Charlie Zim.
"Oh, that's right," said Doc, "You and Brutto weren't members of the squad yet when we tried that. Man, you guys missed out big time!"
"Hmm. When was that?" mused Jeff Gossard, "Man, that was ages ago. Must've been during the Karvok campaign."
"No way," said Dizzy, "It was near the end of the Klendathu campaign in that one bunker were the lights kept going out."
"I'll bet I have it on tape somewhere," said Higgins, "I could double-check later, but I think Diz is right."
"You should have seen it!" Dizzy continued to tell Max and Zim, "As soon as we jumped out and said 'surprise,' T'Phai whipped out his service pistol, and for a split second it looked like he was going to shoot Rico in the head."
"No way, Diz, he was aiming at you! You're the one who yelled the loudest," Rico teased.
Everyone at the table laughed and the conversation was once again steered toward a safe litany of playful banter. This was how Higgins preferred to remember his friends -- laughing and joking together over a lavish meal. It could hardly compete with the awful memories of sleepless nights, rationed food and contentious bunk mates that had filled almost every other waking moment during the heyday of the Arachnid conflict. But soon Rico's Roughnecks would be scattered to the four winds and the "good" memories would be the only ones worth hanging onto.
As Rico's Roughnecks left the party to bunk down for the night, Higgins caught up with Gossard before he reached his billet.
"Hey, Gossard, I have a favor to ask."
Gossard must have still been in a jovial mood because he said, "Sure thing, Hig. What is it?"
"Umm, remember when I said that I just switched networks?"
"Uh-huh," Gossards expression was that of blank incomprehension.
"Well, the thing is, my security clearance isn't what it once was. I've requisitioned a shuttle so I can take some close-up shots of that new Skinnie ship once we get to Earth, but Captain Ibanez refused to assign me a pilot."
"And you need me to pilot the shuttle because you can't shoot and steer at the same time?" Gossard guessed.
"Uh, yeah. Basically. So, you up for it?"
"Yeah, sure, Hig. Sounds like fun."