When Blair and Obutu arrived in the wardroom, they found Angel, Gerald, Hunter, Maniac, Lieutenant Commander Jhinda, and two fully armored Marine security personnel waiting for them.
“Hey, we’re still missing three,” Maniac blurted out. “Maybe we can have their cake and punch delivered to sick bay.”
Angel’s gaze practically reached out and strangled Maniac. “Lieutenant,” she warned.
“Sir,” Blair began, eyeing Gerald tentatively. “Before I say anything, should I have a lawyer present?”
“You won’t need one,” Jhinda said. The stocky black woman glanced up from her data slate and spoke in an imperious baritone that had become her trademark. “Captain St. John and Lieutenant Marshall explained what happened. Besides, during the time of the beating, you were on patrol, as indicated by your flight recorder.” She tapped a knuckle on her slate where she had just pulled up the data. “If you were involved, Lieutenant, you have a strong alibi.”
“I wasn’t involved.” Blair looked to Obutu, who returned a look of equal impatience.
“Captain, Lieutenant Blair and I need to speak with you privately,” Obutu said emphatically.
“If it concerns this case,” Jhinda said, “then you’d better say it right here, right now.”
“It doesn’t concern the case,” Obutu fired back.
Gerald regarded the Marines. “Confine Captain St. John to his quarters and escort Lieutenant Marshall to the brig. We’ll conduct a formal hearing on this matter at nineteen hundred.”
“Sir, you can confine me to quarters as well,” Maniac said. “I won’t make any trouble.”
Ignoring the plead, Gerald widened his gaze on the guards, who quickly moved forward. One took Hunter’s elbow, and the other slapped a gloved hand on Maniac’s shoulder.
Grimacing, Maniac turned and let the guard escort him away.
Once the hatch had closed after them, Gerald crossed to the front of the wardroom, folded his arms over his chest, and turned his dark eyes on Angel. “It’s also come to my attention that you and Commander Obutu have been conducting an investigation of your own.”
Angel took a step forward. “Sir--”
“I warned you of the consequences.”
“I said that if you interfered with Lieutenant Commander Jhinda’s investigation, I’d have you brigged for a month.”
“Sir, you can’t possibly--”
“I can. And I will. Effective immediately, you are suspended from duty for a period of no less than thirty days. You’ll be confined to quarters and allowed out only for sim training. Your meals will be delivered. What’s left of your squadron will be turned over to Captain Berkholtz. Now, will you return to your quarters willingly, or should I call for a guard?”
“Sir, you can’t suspend her,” said Blair, clenching his fists. “Not at a time like this. We need every--”
“We need officers who know how to obey orders,” Gerald boomed. “Officers who do not question the chain of command.”
Blair got the message loud and clear, though it took an extreme effort to hold back from cursing at the captain. He turned to Angel, who nodded slowly and did everything she could to bottle up her own anger. She pivoted smartly and left.
“Sir, I understand what you’re doing, and I don’t question it,” Obutu told Gerald. “What I’d like to know is if the Lieutenant Commander Jhinda has come any closer to identifying the perpetrators. The reason I ask is because Angel and I believe we have.”
“To be honest, Commander, it’s none of your business what the Lieutenant Commander has discovered or not discovered. You’re the executive officer of this ship, and your duties don’t involve investigating hate crimes. I’ve a mind to suspend you for three days. Consider that a warning.”
Jhinda shifted along the perimeter of the room, zeroing in on Obutu. “So, what do you think you’ve found, Commander?”
“We believe three members of Captain Gunner’s squadron are responsible for this, three pilots who go by the call signs Loaf, Mango, and R. We can’t account for their whereabouts during the commission of the crime, and their officer profiles reveal that two of them, Loaf and R, descended from Confederation officers who fought and died in the Pilgrim War. We haven’t confronted them. We’ve been trying to bait them into striking again.”
“Which accounts for your sudden coming out as a Pilgrim,” Jhinda concluded.
Obutu’s expression tightened. “I believe that’s something I would’ve revealed anyway, ma’am.”
“Enough,” Gerald ordered, waving a hand. “Commander Jhinda, I assure that no one else will interfere with your investigation. You have my word.”
“I hope so, Captain. Obstruction of justice is a serious offense. Suffice it to say that if any of your officers are convicted of such charge, they won’t be returning to this carrier any time soon.”
Even as Jhinda delivered her threat, Blair shook his head at Obutu and mouthed the words, “You lied to me.”
The commander looked away.
So Obutu and Angel had thrown him to the sharks. And for what? To stir up trouble? To get his ass kicked again? He would have appreciated at least knowing that they had jammed a hook into his spine and had dangled him before the enemy. He suddenly felt no more affection for Obutu than he did for Gerald.
After thanking Jhinda for her attendance, Gerald pulled out a seat, sat, and thumped his elbows on the wardroom table. “Do you gentlemen realize how thin the ice is? That woman has the authority to indite and remove any one of us from duty.” He sighed disgustedly.
Great. Now that we’ve got you all buttered up, you’ll definitely let me go after Karista, Blair thought darkly.
“Sir, we need to send Lieutenant Blair to McDaniel’s World. He needs to transport a woman named Karista Mullens to the Concordia. She has evidence that could affect Admiral Tolwyn’s decision to bomb the Pilgrim systems and enclaves.”
Gerald sat there for a moment, just breathing, his face registering no more than his discontent. “XO, I’m still waiting for the punch line.”
“I’m serious, sir. We need to send the lieutenant there immediately. As he earlier pointed out, a comm drone would be too slow. I’m asking for permission to dispatch him to McDaniel. He will arrive there in about four days.”
“Let’s see now. Lieutenant Blair is needed here to help reinforce the no-fly zone. He’s also part of an investigation to bring in three criminals who beat him and will be needed by Lieutenant Commander Jhinda if and when the time comes. And let’s see now, you haven’t produced any hard evidence to convince me that what you’re saying is true, never mind the fact that you’re both Pilgrims. In all, XO, I’d say that you’re audacity is exceeded only by the amount of bullshit coming out your mouth. You’re wasting my time.” Gerald smote fists on the table, then pushed himself up. “You’re dismissed.”
“Sir, I know you don’t believe us, but you have to--” Blair cut himself off as the captain rounded the table and came within a quarter meter to stare him down.
“Let’s go, Lieutenant,” Obutu called.
“Captain, maybe we can’t prove anything, but at least hear us out,” Blair said, softening his tone. “Karista has evidence that a Pilgrim fleet is approaching Confederation space. They’ll come in through Sirius on one-five-eight. We might’ve lost that destroyer to a Pilgrim scouting party. If Tolwyn attacks the systems and enclaves, he’ll provoke that fleet. And sir, you have no idea how many ships we’re talking about. No idea.”
“Admiral Tolwyn won’t be issuing any orders, Lieutenant. Guess you haven’t been paying attention to the news. The admiral’s on Earth, and he’s been arrested for that bombing in Washington. Space Marshal Gregarov is now commanding the fleet, and she won’t be bombing anything. So this whole little mission of yours is pointless. Now, let me issue that order again. We’ll call it a hearing test. You’re dismissed!”
After the XO and Blair had left, Gerald went to the wardroom’s comm terminal and contacted Marine Corps Lieutenant Tori Andover, head of ship’s security.
“Lieutenant, I’d like you to continue your surveillance of Commander Obutu and Lieutenant Blair.”
“Aye-aye, sir. Got a hunch, sir?”
“Yes, I do. Don’t let them out of your sight.”
“My people are on it, sir.”
A mere fifteen minutes after Blair had returned to his quarters to do little more than curse and sulk, Commander Obutu’s voice piped in from the hatch’s intercom. “Open up, Lieutenant.”
Puzzled, Blair ordered the hatch open, and Obutu stepped inside. The ship’s executive officer wore an olive drab flight suit that had to be at least fifteen years old. The patches on his sleeves indicated that he had belonged to 128th Fighter Wing, 54th Squadron, the “Phantoms,” and the ghostly image of a Rapier streaked across one the largest emblems. He gripped the rim of his flight helmet, and though his call sign was upside down, Blair managed to read it: “Mystery Man.” Obutu’s reticence had obviously been recognized by his fellow pilots. Blair had suspected that the commander had been a pilot, though Obutu had only said that he had had some experience.
“Suit up, Mr. Blair.”
He nodded and hustled to his locker.
Remarkable. He and the ship’s XO were about to go AWOL.
“What the captain didn’t tell us,” Obutu went on, “is that the Confederation Senate voted to endorse Tolwyn’s plan to destroy all systems and enclaves before he was arrested. As far as I know, they haven’t changed their minds. So it doesn’t matter who’s in control of the Fourteenth. The vote has been cast, and if Aristee doesn’t stand down and return the Olympus by one-five-eight, the attack will commence.”
“Sir, we could be court-martialed for this.”
“No, we will be court-martialed for this. But I saw those ships.”
“I can do this alone,” Blair said. “You have a lot more at stake than me. Why don’t you stay here? Just help me get out.”
“I’m coming for two reasons. We’ll need clearance to get Karista back to the Concordia, otherwise we’ll find ourselves in a furball. The space marshal might have an easier time believing me than you. I know you didn’t score any points with her during the investigation into Paladin’s defection.”
“And what’s the second reason?” Blair asked, zipping up his flight suit.
“I’m a Pilgrim.”
Blair shrugged. “That doesn’t mean anything, sir.”
“It means everything.” Obutu looked to Blair’s locker. “Get your sidearm. You’ll need it. The captain has had us watched for a while. We can bullshit our way into a couple of Rapiers, but our tails will tip-off Gerald before we’re done preflighting.”
“Why don’t I just call down to flight control now and have a couple of fighters standing by?”
“Why don’t you just call Gerald and tell him what we’re planning to do--because Raznick will need authorization, and I can give it, but the moment I do, our names pop up on the roster and all Gerald has to do is glance at the board.” He shifted back toward the hatch. “Just trust me. Our rides will be ready.”
Trembling like a cadet during his first training flight, Blair followed Obutu into the lift, and they headed down to the flight deck. As the doors opened on the flight control room, Blair tensed, hesitated a moment under Obutu’s silent insistence, then kept after the man as they crossed quickly through the room, eliciting curious glances from the officers and non-comms on duty. At least old man Raznick was too busy supervising the landing of a patrol to look up from his terminal.NEXT
They double-timed down the stairs to the flight deck, checked in at Peterson’s desk with a story from Obutu that he and Blair had classified business to attend to, then jogged along the bulkhead until they found the ample cover of Rapiers and Broadswords parked in their berths.
Weaving stealthily through the bewinged obstacle course, they finally reached two CF-117b-L Rapiers, variants of the standard utility fighter. The 117b-Ls had been outfitted with enhanced sensor packages and, Obutu explained, upgraded from seventy-two hours of life support to one hundred. They would, however, pay for that extra cruise time by losing the rotary barrel neutron cannon. In it’s place hung a blunt cone jammed to the gills with enhanced scanners and extra fuel tanks.
Surprisingly enough, Obutu had already ordered the ships preflighted, loaded with rations, and had asked the crews to remain quiet and leave when they had finished, lest they become involved in any wrong-doing. He quickly mounted a cockpit ladder rolled up to the starfighter nearest him.
Blair turned to mount his own ladder and nearly walked into the muzzle of a C-244 pistol gripped by a Marine whose battered face seemed assembled by a three-year-old. Stick the nose a little crooked here, the eyes a little crooked there. “Where you are, sir.”
“Yeah,” Blair sighed. “Where I am.” He slowly raised his palms.
“And you, too, Commander.”
Turning his head ever so slightly, Blair caught sight Obutu on the ladder. The XO showed his palms.
“Lieutenant, this is Nana. I have the Commander and Lieutenant Blair in custody. Request assistance.”
“Private,” Obutu said quietly. “If you don’t lower that weapon, I’m going to come down this ladder. You don’t want me to come down this ladder.”
“That’s right, sir. Remain where you are.”
Obutu started down the ladder.
“Sir, I said to--”
Blair slapped his hands on the Marine’s pistol, expecting the guy to fire in the struggle. But the Marine had kept the safety on, and even as Blair jerked the soldier toward him, then whirled to drive the guy into the cockpit ladder, someone else shoved him aside and jammed a stunstick into the Marine’s neck. The jarhead fell slack, and Blair glanced up to find--of all people--Gunner Berkholtz holding the stick. “Uh, thank you, sir,” Blair said, still reeling in shock.
“Mount up,” Gunner said tersely, then he favored Obutu with a quick nod and saluted. “Can’t buy you more time.”
Blair opened his mouth to ask at least one of the half dozen questions that had him frowning until it hurt, but he saw that Obutu had already settled into his cockpit. He charged up the ladder and lowered himself into the Rapier.
He rushed through the identification and activation sequences so that he could establish a private comm link with Obutu. He finally found the channel as the Rapier’s turbines issued their whine in the warm-up sequence.
“Sir, why did Gunner help us? What’s in it for him? And don’t you and Angel think three of his jocks are the ones who beat me? Or did you lie again?”
“We still think Gunner’s people are responsible--but Gunner isn’t. There’s no love lost between us, but I’ve known him for a while. And suffice it to say that this isn’t the only favor he owes me. Besides, he’d like nothing more than to see me get court-martialed.”
“Yeah, but he just took that same risk by helping us.”
“His choice. His style. Now let’s get the hell out of here. Andover’s people are on their way.”
Boss Raznick suddenly broke into their private channel. “Commander Obutu? The deck boss informs me that you and Lieutenant Blair are headed out on classified business, but classified or not, I don’t have an authorization number to cross reference with the datanet.”
“That’s right, Boss,” Obutu said coolly. “It’s going to take a while for that number to appear. It’s coming in via decrypt seven. Just give it a few minutes.”
Blair had to hand it to Obutu; the man could shovel bullshit with the best of them.
“Very well, Commander. But I can’t issue clearance until I cross reference,” Raznick insisted.
The canopy lowered, seals locked, and pressurization began in Blair’s cockpit. He clipped on his oxygen mask and felt a slight sting on his face even though his bruises had all but vanished. The life support clock began ticking: 1845 hours on calendar date 153. He would have oxygen until 2245 on 157. After that, he had better be anywhere other than his cockpit. He glanced over at the XO, who shook a thumbs up. Blair returned the signal, took in a very long breath, and watched as Obutu dialed up the thrust and fired maneuvering thrusters, taking his Rapier into a three-meter hover. The XO advanced out of the berth, triggering a volley of questions from Boss Raznick.
“Merlin? Activate,” Blair ordered.
The holograph flashed across the dash, then ignited into the semblance of the old man. Merlin sat on the dash and scowled at Blair. “What is it, you pain in the ass?”
Blair recoiled in surprise. “Merlin, I want you to monitor incoming traffic. The XO and I need to launch.”
“Treat me like shit, I treat you like shit. How do you like it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re not my friend. You just use me.”
“You’re a computer, for god’s sake. Now do what computers do and assist me.”
“Fine. I’ll use the ship’s Tempest. Switch off.”
Blair slapped his wrist, as though he could somehow fix Merlin’s microprocessor embedded in his skin. “Switch off.”
“You’re go for launch, asshole. See you.” The incensed old man shimmered away.
“We’re clear,” Blair told Obutu, still shaking his head over Merlin’s insurgence. He would have to limit the computer’s access to the datanet. Merlin had been surfing in waters of data way out of his league.
Blair switched off the general frequency so that he wouldn’t have to listen to Boss Raznick’s swearing. He throttled up and rose into his own parking hover, then waited as Obutu lined up, ran the red light for launch, and blasted through the energy curtain.
Flight crews began gathering near the runway to see what all the commotion was about, and as Blair lined up for his own takeoff, he lifted his thumb. Confused, a few offered nods while others looked up to the Plexi window of flight control. Boss Raznick stood behind the glass, pointed a finger at Blair, and strained his jaw muscles in a grand philippic of curses and threats.
One day Blair would get to know the man. As it was, Raznick represented the stereotypical, pilot-hating flight boss whose only pleasure came in disciplining jocks. But what caused him to be so argumentative?
Well, unauthorized takeoffs for one thing.
Blair thought of waving cockily to the boss, then decided not to turn the knife in Raznick’s back. He rolled on the thrust and swept over the runway. The energy curtain now stood as the line between a court-martial and a severe reprimand.
Three, two, one, and Blair welcomed himself to Court-Martial City, home of the insubordinate and famous for its liberal judges and fast-food justice. Then again, he was being lenient with himself. As Angel had once pointed out to Maniac, the penalty for disobeying a direct order was, during wartime, considered treason and punishable by death.
It’s not like you’re putting any pressure on yourself, Blair thought. And it’s not like you don’t have company in your misery.
“Lieutenant,” Obutu called. “Raznick’s ordering three Rapiers from Third to break off from the no-fly zone and pursue us. Two more from Second are launching early to assist.”
Blair scanned his radar scope, then looked over his shoulder. Behind them lay the patchy brown orb of Netheryana and the ever-shrinking cylinder of the Tiger Claw. Another glance to the scope revealed three blue blips closing in from the six o’ clock perimeter. Two more would soon follow.
“We’ll light the pipes on my mark,” Obutu cried. “Ready, ready... mark!”