"Break left! Break left!" The voice in Bondarevsky's helmet receivers was urgent. "Come on, Captain, you can nail this guy!"
Bondarevsky pulled the joystick hard over, rolling to the left and trying to spot his query. The Strakha bucked and kicked as if it resented the very idea of a human pilot flying it, but he fought the controls and forced the fighter into the turn. He reached for the sensor controls to narrow the focus and try to get an accurate position estimate on the cloaked enemy fighter he knew was closing in for the kill, but a split second too late he realized he'd instinctively reached for the spot where they would have been located on one of the Ferrets he'd flown back in his days as Tarawa's Wing Commander. The sudden realization made him try to shift in mid-reach, but that sent his bionic arm into a feedback spasm.
The delay was fatal. The enemy Strakha decloaked bare meters off his starboard side, and the red flash of incoming fire washed through Jason Bondarevsky's cockpit.
The buzzer going off in his ear made him wince and grind his teeth. The cockpit opened up, revealing a crowd of men and women surrounding the simulator unit. Money was changing hands as they paid off their bets. Bondarevsky blinked in the glare of the lights.
"Bang, you're dead," Doomsday Montclair announced from the other simulator cockpit, climbing out with the aid of a pair of his squadron's younger pilots.
"I noticed," Bondarevsky replied dryly. "I've got to hand it to you, Doomsday. You haven't lost your edge." Montclair grinned. "Didn't let them promote me out of the cockpit, skipper," he said. "But don't sweat it. You'll get the moves back. And if you don't, I'll be around to bail out your sorry ass!"
That sparked laughter from the audience. Bondarevsky started to clamber out of the cockpit, and Harper and Sparks were quick to help him. The simulator modules were cobble together from a combination of Confederation and Kilrathi technology, mostly the former. The Kilrathi had less use for detailed simulations of flight missions than human pilots did. According to Jorkad lan Mraal, the senior pilot from the Nargrast survivors who had been working with Sparks on building the modules, the Empire preferred live-training exercises with real ships, real maneuvers, and live ammo.
Jorkad was there now, looking out of place amidst the revelry of the Flight Wing's Christmas party. The Christmas holiday was something the Kilrathi couldn't quite grasp. The message of "peace on Earth, good will toward men" was so alien to their way of life that they simply had nothing to compare it to. But a kil enjoyed a good party as much as any human, and Jorkad seemed to be developing a special fondness for eggnog.
"I was studying your performance, Captain Bondarevsky," he said gravely. Jorkad was always studiously correct and formal. At first some of the members of the wing had assumed it was a mask for some underlying hostility to the humans, but on closer acquaintance the general consensus was that Jorkad was just naturally serious and punctilious all the time. "Your instincts are good. But I fear your reactions have been somewhat slowed by your injuries. The artificial arm..."
"Is a problem sometimes, yes," Bondarevsky said, feeling impatient. He still didn't like discussing the plastilimb, especially not with a Cat. "I'm getting the hang of it."
He wasn't good at reading Kilrathi expressions, but he thought Jorkad's look might have been the Cat equivalent of a frown. "I believe that Hrothark and I could design an interface that would connect your arm directly into the controls of the fighter,- he said. "It is possible that you could substantially improve your performance by having many of the onboard systems essentially controlled by thought-or at least by the muscular impulses associated with specific actions, such as operating sensors or firing weapons."
"Thanks, but no thanks," Bondarevsky said.
Jorkad studied him curiously. "I do not understand. Why would you reject something which could give you an advantage in combat? Particularly when it turns a current handicap around and makes it an asset instead?"
Bondarevsky shrugged. "I don't know if I can explain it, my friend." He held up his arm. "Look here. You can see that the limb is designed to look as much like a biological arm as possible. It would be a lot more efficient, and cost-effective too, for that matter, if it wasn't built this way, but you'll find most people prefer artificial limbs that don't look artificial."
The Kilrathi pilot gave a very human head nod, at the same time making the Cat grasping gesture that stood for understanding.
"The thing is," Bondarevsky went on, "a lot of us don't like to be forced to admit to something like this. I've got a machine doing the work of a limb, and I'm damned glad to have it, but I'd far rather have the original. And the last thing I want is to lose my humanity more than I already have by plugging myself into my cockpit like one more onboard system. I learned to fly by my gut, and I'd rather keep on doing it that way even if I have to work a little bit harder at it. Do you understand?"
"I believe I do, Captain," Jorkad said slowly. "Your sentiments are reminiscent of some of the passages in the Seventh Codex. You've given me much to think about."
"Glad I could help out," Bondarevsky muttered as the Cat pilot stalked away in search of a refill for his empty cup of eggnog.
"Well, well, Jason Bondarevsky trading philosophy with a Cat. I never thought I'd live to see the day." The crowd parted as Kevin Tolwyn approached, trailed by a junior lieutenant carrying a large, bulky box.
"I've swapped that kind of stuff with stranger types than him," Bondarevsky said with a smile. "In fact, I'm looking at one now."
Tolwyn's expression was one of mock horror. "I'm wounded! To be insulted so, and by my own dear mentor! Maybe I'll just call off this whole Christmas thing right here and now."
"Christmas thing?" Bondarevsky frowned. "Please tell me you didn't..."
"Oh, don't worry, I'm not going to give you anything." Tolwyn grinned at him. Bondarevsky had never been much for celebrating Christmas, beyond putting in the expected appearances at the festivities held by the people in his command. Born and raised on Razin, a distant frontier world settled by Russians of mostly Eastern Orthodox religion, Bondarevsky had been brought up to celebrate Epiphany, the baptism rather than the Nativity of Christ, and even yet he still was apt to keep the Twelfth-Night holiday rather than the more traditional Christmas Day. He and Kevin had a long-standing tradition of not exchanging presents until Epiphany. "No, I brought over a gift from all of the Liberators to all of you ... whatever it is you're going to call yourselves. Lieutenant, if you please..."
His assistant stepped forward and set the box down on the table. "Open it up, Jason," Tolwyn said.
He looked at the box for a long moment, half-expecting some kind of prank. Then he noticed that the lid of the box was pierced by half a dozen small holes, and that piqued his curiosity. Just what was Tolwyn up to, anyway?
Bondarevsky lifted the lid and looked inside. There, almost invisible in the shadows, a pair of green eyes regarded him curiously.
"Thrakhath!" he said. He reached in and lifted out the black cat, who responded by rubbing on his chin and purring loudly. That set off laughter from the officers clustered nearby. "Kevin, are you sure about this? I had the idea Thrakhath was kind of a favorite of yours. This one, at least."
Tolwyn grinned. "Yeah, I like him a lot better than I ever liked the one from Kilrah, but there's a dozen cats on Independence to keep our rodent population under control. And we thought you guys could use a mascot over here. Given your new home and all, it just seemed like a good idea."
Bondarevsky put the cat down on the table, but kept petting him. "Just as long as he doesn't cause as much trouble as his namesake..."
"Oh, he'll cause a lot more than that." Tolwyn grinned again. "And he'll bring bad luck to anybody who crosses his path. Like Ragark and his Kilrathi..."
"Or the confees!" one of the pilots called from the back of the watching crowd. "Or anybody else who gets in our way!"
Tolwyn looked embarrassed. "Anyway, Merry Christmas from the Liberators to..." He trailed off. Bondarevsky's command had been officially designated as FW-137, but it didn't have a name as yet. The carrier hadn't even received a formal Landreich Navy name yet.
"The Black Cats!" a voice from the crowd declared loudly. Commander Alexandra Travis came forward and stretched out a hand to scratch Thrakhath behind the ears. The animal looked satisfied with himself and redoubled his contented purring. "What do you say, Captain? What better name for a Flight Wing operating off a Cat carrier, with Cat fighters, and probably in Cat space, sooner or later?"
There were plenty of comments from the others, and they all sounded favorable. Bondarevsky nodded. "All right, the Black Cats it is." He paused. "Mr. Harper, I am hereby appointing you as Chief Cat-tender, with all the duties and responsibilities that traditionally go with that post. And somebody else is going to have to explain all this to Murragh. I sure as hell don't want to tell him we've got a house pet named after his cousin."
"To hear him talk," Travis said, "house pet would be a step up from what Murragh's people think of their ex-Prince." She grinned. "But you know well be bad luck to anybody who crosses our path!"
Tolwyn and his aid stayed on for a drink, then left to catch the tail end of the Christmas party aboard their own ship. Soon after they had taken their leave Bondarevsky stopped at a side table to refill his drink, and encountered Travis once again.
"So ... you lost your simulator duel, huh?" she said "The legend has feet of clay after all. I lost ten credits on you, Captain."
"Sorry, Commander," he said with a faint smile. "If Id've known you were betting on me I would have worked harder."
She returned the smile. "Or bet against me and thrown the fight deliberately," she said, arching one eyebrow. "Seriously, though, how did it feel? Do you think it's an accurate simulation of a Strakha?"
Her interest was understandable. Alexandra Travis had been designated as squadron commander for VF-401, one of the new fighter squadrons being organized aboard the supercarrier. Once she and her pilots finished training they'd be flying the squadron of Strakha fighters salvaged from the Kilrathi planes on board. Her previous experience had been confined to the Raptor heavy fighter, and they had little in common in terms of handling with the Cat Strakhas.
Bondarevsky was impressed by her record and by the skill she'd displayed getting her squadron in shape these last few days. Of all his new squadron commanders she was the one who seemed most in tune with him, her mind often following the same leaps of imagination that his own did as they discussed the ways and means of making the Flight Wing work.
"I don't know how accurate it is," he said, "but Sparks and Jorkad seem to think it isn't too far from the real thing. If it's anything like the simulator, the Strakha's going to be heavy going. Big and mean, but not exactly subtle ... except for the stealth technology. I guess the Cats figured they had a cloak, so why bother making the thing nimble too? Takes some getting used to when you've come out of the high-maneuverability school."
"Sort of like trying to fly a shuttle after a stretch of duty with Hornets," she said, nodding.
"Well, not quite that bad, maybe," he said, remembering his landing on Independence and how clumsy the shuttle controls had seemed. "I figure with enough sim time it won't be too much of a problem getting these Cat planes down cold. I have to admit, though, that it's pretty strange thinking of how to use them in combat, and not just how to beat them."
She laughed. "You could say the same thing about this whole operation," she said. "A year ago a Cat was just something to shoot at. Now I'm starting to understand how they think ... and it's starting to scare me. Sometimes I wonder how we managed to hold them off so long. They sure as hell know how to build a carrier."
Bondarevsky nodded. "I know what you mean. And working with the Cats from Murragh's bunch ... they're not exactly what we always thought they were, are they?"
Before she could reply they were interrupted by a chord from Aengus Harper's guitar. The young lieutenant had found himself a perch on one of the tables and taken the battered-looking instrument out of its case. For a moment he contented himself with strumming chords, apparently at random.
"Well, the Bard of the Spaceways is at it again," Bondarevsky commented with a smile. "What's it going to be tonight, Lieutenant? More of your old Irish rabble rousing songs?"
"Ah, now, sir, should I be playin' such things and ignoring the spirit of the season?" Harper replied with his easy, charming grin. "No, tonight I'll not be speaking of the Gaels and their long struggle for freedom, more's the pity. Instead I thought I'd give you a Christmas song me auld mother taught me when I was just a lad."
He started picking the strings with practiced skill, closing his eyes and starting to sing in a soft, pleasant voice. It was a song Bondarevsky hadn't heard for years. The crowd was rapt as the young Taran sang the story of the child Jesus and his scornful playmates in Egypt, and the miracles that alarmed their mothers.
Thinking of the work they'd done on Karga, Bondarevsky couldn't help but think the lieutenant's choice was deliberate ... and apt. They'd all worked their share of miracles out here on the edge of the frontier, and after this holiday was past they'd be right back in the miracle-working business once more.