Wing Commander Freedom Flight Chapter Two

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Chapter One
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Book Wing Commander Freedom Flight
Parts 5
Previous Chapter One
Next Chapter Three
Pages 23-48

Dramatis Personae


Part One

     “I’ll raise you ten,” Hunter said, propping his feet up on the table and fanning himself with his hand of cards. The temperature controls in the pilots’ barracks were on the fritz again, and it was just a little too warm in the room.

     Though it ought to feel just like home, he reminded himself. Hot and muggy, not a breeze in sight, with just that cozy little hint in the air of mildew and old tennis shoes. And they wonder why I smoke cigars. Home on the bilabong, mates.

     Like the rest of the systems in the Confederation carrier Tiger’s Claw, the cooling system was over eleven years old, and starting to show its age.

     Like all the rest of us, I guess. “How ’bout it, mate?” he asked the only remaining player.

     “Too rich for my blood,” the young redheaded lieutenant said. “Folding.” Lieutenant Peter “Puma” Youngblood looked like he’d bitten into something sour as he tossed his cards onto the table.

     Hunter grinned around the fat cigar in his mouth and reached for the small pile of chips. “Thank you, thank you. You’re all too kind, financin’ my leave.” He picked up a small blue plastic chit out of the pile, a voucher for the planetary shuttle, and smiled at the young Japanese woman next to him. “Thanks for the shuttle ticket, Mariko,” he said. “That’ll be real useful for my trip downside to the planet tonight.”

     Mariko sighed, and shook her shoulder-length black hair away from her neck again. “You are welcome to my seat on that shuttlecraft, Hunter. I will be on duty for the next week, now that Colonel Halcyon has changed the duty roster. I hope you have a pleasant stay on Firekka.”

     “Thank you, m’dear,” he said, dropping the voucher into his pocket. “I’m looking forward to it.” He picked up the rest of the cards and began shuffling them with deft motions. “Anyone up for another hand of seven-card stud, or maybe five-card draw?”

     Iceman shook his head and gathered up his few remaining chips. “You’ve already won enough of my pay for this week, Hunter.”

     Lieutenant Youngblood, one of the new pilots who was visiting from the TCS Austin, the sister ship to the TCS Tiger’s Claw for this mission, looked like he’d rather spit. “No thank you, Captain St. John,” he said tersely, in an obvious effort to be polite, and left the room.

     My, my. Them Yanks surely can be sore losers.

     “Prickly little runt, isn’t he?” Hunter observed after Youngblood slammed the barracks hatchway shut behind him.

     “He’s young and doesn’t like to lose,” Iceman said, and came about as close to a grin as he ever did. “He reminds me of you, Hunter, when you first transferred aboard the Tiger’s Claw.”

     “Surprised you remember that far back, Iceman,” Hunter drawled.

     “Remember?” Iceman’s eyebrows rose toward his hairline. “None of us are likely to forget Lieutenant Ian St. John, callsign ‘Hunter’ . . .” He shook his head, in mock mourning. “Oh yes, I remember when you came back from your first combat mission, swearing that the Kilrathi had never even managed to get close to you, and then all of us saw all the burn marks on the side of your ship. Looked like half your engines were fried!”

     Hunter laughed. “And I’ve learned a lot since then . . . like when and how to lie!”

     “You’ve learned, but you haven’t changed,” Mariko said in her gentle way. “You are my friend, but many times I feel that I do not know you. You are always so cheerful, always looking for the next ‘good time.’ Sometimes I wonder if any of this really matters to you, whether anything or anyone really touches you at all.”

     “What do you mean?” Hunter protested. “I risk my ass flying missions every week against the cats! That’s not enough?”

     “You fly missions for the adrenaline, not because of the enemy,” Iceman said quietly. “I’ve seen it. That’s how you are, Ian, whether you admit it or not.”

     “Well, enough pickin’ on poor Hunter already! Let’s play some cards!” Hunter put the cards, neatly shuffled, in the center of the table so that anyone could examine them if they chose. Old tradition, and no one felt the need to check for cheating. Tiger’s Claw pilots didn’t cheat, and with luck like Hunter had, he wouldn’t have needed to anyway.

     “Not me, Ian. I’m flying patrol at oh-six-hundred tomorrow, so I need to hit the sack,” Iceman said, shoving his chair away from the table, and rising to his feet. “Good night, Ian, Mariko.”

     “G’night, Ice.” Hunter grinned. “Thanks for the credit chips.”

     “I’ll even the score next week, you’ll see,” Ice said from the hatchway.

     “In your dreams, mate!” Hunter laughed. In the sudden quiet of the barracks, he glanced at Mariko. “So they’re not lettin’ you take any leave, lady? I’m surprised the Old Man is doing that to you, considerin’ how well you flew in our last campaign.”

     Mariko Tanaka, callsign “Spirit,” smiled and shook her head. “It is my choice and by my request, Hunter. I am too distracted now to enjoy a downside leave.”

     He knew why, unfortunately. Those bastard cats. First her man gets transferred away from her, and now the buggers are trying to capture the installation he was sent to, Hunter thought, wishing there was something he could do or say that would make any difference at all. Poor little Spirit, with her calm, remotely sad eyes and gentle ways . . . Ah, Mariko, life hasn’t been fair to you at all. First your dad’s death, and now this. You’re like a little sister to all of us here in the fighter squadron, and a damn fine pilot . . . I hate to see you hurtin’ like this, girl.

     “Still no word from Epsilon Station?” Hunter asked gently. He thought he saw tears forming in the beautiful young woman’s eyes as she looked away for a moment; but no, those dark eyes were calm and clear, as always. She would never show her pain; that was her strength and her weakness, both.

     “The last report said that the station was still under assault, but that reinforcements were on the way,” Spirit said, her voice as dispassionate as if Philip was nothing more than a casual acquaintance. “My last communication from Philip was before the Kilrathi invaded the system. I have not heard from him since.”

     “Hell, your fiancé is a tough guy, he’ll do all right,” Hunter said. “I remember arm wrestling with him last time he visited the Claw, the bloke nearly sprained my wrist. He’ll give the cats a good fight for their money, I’d wager on it. Next time you see ’im, he’ll probably have a half-dozen kills stenciled on his fighter!”

     “I know, but it is so difficult, not knowing what is happening there . . .” The dark-haired young woman managed a smile. “Better to stay here, and on duty, where I have other things to think of.”

     “But some downside leave might do you good,” Hunter argued. “You could go see the sights; something new, something to think about! Go see one of them Firekkan Fire-Temples or something!”

     “Maybe some of the squadron could all take leave together,” Mariko suggested shyly. “Like a family. Go somewhere together . . .”

     “There’s an idea,” Hunter agreed heartily. “When we’ve finished playing babysitters to the Diplomatic Corps here in the Firekka System, and our Confed boys have chased those damn cats away from Epsilon Station, the entire squadron could take their leave together. Maybe we could go to Earth. Has your fiancé ever seen Earth?”

     “Only once, before I was stationed here on the Tiger’s Claw. I have not been home in several years now,” she said hesitantly. “Sometimes—I wonder if it has changed too much. Or I have—”

     He clapped her on the shoulder, and turned it into a brotherly hug. “Then we’ll do that, Mariko. Tell you what, we’ll go visit my old homestead. I’ll treat you, Phil, and the squadron to some genuine Australian hospitality . . . I’m sure Grandma would love to have company out on the ranch, and we could do a little scuba diving off the Barrier Reef. Hit a concert in Sydney. Get a friend of mine to show us the Rock, when ’is tribe isn’t havin’ a Dreamtime shindig. And then we can catch a low-orbital flight up to Tokyo and see your family. Just so long as I don’t have to eat any of that raw fish, okay?”

     “Sushi is very good food, Ian,” Mariko began. “Very healthy for you, low in fat, high in minerals . . .”

     He shook his head and laughed. “Not for me, sweetheart! I’ll take you to the best steakhouse in Sydney. Costs a week’s pay, but it’s worth it!”

     “Thank you, Hunter,” Spirit said seriously.

     “For what?” he asked.

     “For making me think of something else. Anything else. It’s been so difficult.” She shook her head, as if to chase away whatever thought followed that. “So, tell me . . . when are you going down to the planet tonight?”

     “The nineteen-hundred flight. Should be interesting. I’m curious to see the place,” he said, keeping his tone light and bantering. “Great chance, actually, seeing the newest planet to join the Terran Confederation before it gets to look like everyplace else. Shotglass was telling me about them . . . the natives look kinda like parakeets. Big, six-foot-tall parakeets. But I’ve never met any of them.” Except for K’Kai, and I never really saw her, she was just a voiceover the comlink . . . a vague kind of blur on the viewscreen.

     “I have seen vids of them,” Spirit said. “They look like friendly people. Do you like birds, Hunter?”

     He nodded. “I used to raise pigeons and doves back on my Grandma’s ranch outside Sydney. It should be interestin’. A little excitement to liven things up.” He sighed. “What a boring assignment Honor Guard to the Diplomatic Corps . . . who’d have guessed they’d farm us out to this, after the Vega Campaign!”

     Mariko sighed, and played with her remaining chips. “I think they gave us this assignment so that we would have some time to recuperate from Vega and Operation Thor’s Hammer. I’m sure they were concerned about the effects of that many combat missions on our crew.”

     “Hey, we’ve all held up just fine under the stress!” he laughed.

     “All?” she asked gently.

     “Well . . . Except for Todd Marshall, who’s completely slipped his leash, if you ask me.” He shook his head unhappily. Marshall worried him. It was something that he and the other pilots in the squadron didn’t talk about, their fears of being assigned the kid as a wingman. He was totally unpredictable now, possibly suicidal.

     You don’t want a guy like that on your wing, not if you were plannin’ to come back from your mission.

     “That boy never had his brains screwed in tight enough to start with, and with the stress of that last campaign . . . too much for him, I think. He sure picked his callsign right; Maniac fits him just fine now.” He tried not to think of how Marshall might have “called” his own fete by picking that callsign in the first place. That’s what some of the others were saying. Any more thoughts like that, and he’d start wondering what fate Spirit was calling with her chosen callsign . . .

     You’re too damn superstitious, he scolded himself. Don’t get like the others, lookin’ for omens and hangin’ onto good-luck trinkets! Mariko is no more callin’ her fate than Maniac called his!

     He picked up his flight jacket. “Well, I’d better start packing for the trip. See you when I get back, eh?”

     “Enjoy your leave, Hunter,” she said, smiling a little.

     He just wished her smile hadn’t looked so . . . faded.

Part Two

     Ten minutes later, Hunter was walking down the corridor to the flight deck, his haversack slung over his shoulder. He figured he had everything he’d need for the trip . . . a couple of sets of clothing, a carefully-folded Confed Navy Dress uniform for impressing the ladies, a pair of hiking boots for exploring the native turf, and several bottles of good Scotch. Couldn’t go on shore leave without the Scotch . . . no telling what the Firekkan natives drank, but he figured the odds were against twelve-year single malts. He wondered if he should bring some rations with him, just in case they tried to feed him birdseed, too. No, there are plenty of humans down there now, they’ve probably opened a bar and grill for all of us.

     There was already a line outside the flight deck for the downside shuttle. He nodded a greeting at the two flight-deck technicians who were directly ahead of him in line, and one of the Bridge officers, who was wearing a brightly coloured Hawaiian shirt and skirt instead of her usual crisp blue uniform.

     Looks good, too, he thought, admiring her legs. Hmm. Didn’t realize quite how good. Have to look her up when we get downside. We’re both Captains, even . . . that’s a good opening line I can use, maybe . . .

     No one from his squadron, though. In a way, Hunter wished that there was. Going downside with some of his closest friends, the people who flew combat missions with him every day, would’ve made this trip better. There was something about partying with the people who watched your back and had saved your life a few times—not to mention the fact that you’d done the same for them—that made downside leave more enjoyable. Mariko was right, they should try to organize a squadron trip someday. Someday when the Confederation didn’t need them . . .

     Someday when they weren’t spending watch after watch in the thick of battle, taking on the Kilrathi at impossible odds in one dogfight after another.

     This was probably the closest to peace and quiet that they’d ever see. I shouldn’t bitch about this assignment, we could be getting our tails shot at by the cats . . .

     “Captain, did you hear about the patrol that ran into a Kilrathi transport convoy?” It was one of the techs, a blond boy with a serious expression on his face. The kid looked maybe in his late teens. And scared as hell under the bravado.

     God, we’re robbing the cradle now to get our combat techs! Hunter thought. How old is this kid? Eighteen? Nineteen?

     “Impossible,” Hunter said. “There aren’t any Kilrathi in this system. We’re completely off their trade routes, and several jumps away from the battle front. That convoy must’ve gotten lost, jumped into the wrong system by mistake. Happens sometimes; even the cats get bad navigators once in a while.”

     The kid persisted, his blue eyes nervous. “But, Captain, what if the Kilrathi try to invade this system? We don’t have any real forces, just us and the Austin . . .”

     Hunter sighed. “Kid, don’t let your imagination run away with you!” He took a closer look; noted the new look to the uniform, the spit-and-polish and regulation haircut. Lord love a duck. Kid hasn’t even got the shiny rubbed off him yet. “Let me guess . . . you were assigned to the Claw after we came back from Goddard, right?”

     The kid looked puzzled. “Yes, sir, but . . .”

     Hunter interrupted him with a wave. “Don’t go chasin’ cats before you have to. And don’t go seein’ ghost-cats where there aren’t any. You’ll see real action soon enough, when we’re reassigned to the battle front. In the meantime, you’ve got a whole planet to explore! Have you ever met an alien before, kid?”

     “No, sir,” the young man said earnestly.

     Oh, Lord. I can’t stand it. Never could resist temptation. “Well, you’re in for an interesting experience,” Hunter said with a straight face. “The Firekkans are kind of like wasps, huge six-foot bugs with deadly stingers. You’ve heard that they catch mammals and tie them up in their nests to use as breeders for their young, right?” He paused, and the kid nodded vigorously, his eyes big and round.

     Of course, he hadn’t heard anything of the sort, but he wouldn’t admit that to Hunter. Not to the Big Bad Fighter Pilot . . . Hunter dropped his voice, and spoke in a confidential tone. “That’s what happened to the exploration team that discovered Firekka, you know. They were trapped in one of the nests . . . we didn’t know what happened to them for months, and by then, of course—” he paused again, for effect “—it was too late.”

     The kid swallowed, visibly pale. “How—ah—interesting, sir.”

     Hunter shrugged. “Once they realized we were fellow sapients, they took us off the hunting list. Or—well, they were supposed to, anyway. Of course, some of the Firekkans don’t want their planet to join the Confederation. So I’d be careful if someone invites you on a tour of a nest, if I were you. You might never make it back.”

     “Thank you for the advice, sir,” the kid said, looking like he was going to be sick, right there on the flight deck.

     The hatchway opened in front of them, and the shuttlecraft pilot stepped through. “Drop your duffles in the forward hatch, take a seat and buckle in,” he droned, holding out his hand for the plastic vouchers.

     “I don’t . . . I don’t think I want to go down to the planet after all,” the young tech said faintly.

     “Oh, come on, Jimmy!” his friend protested. “You can’t back out on me now!”

     The pilot watched this exchange with a bored expression, finally reaching out to yank the flight voucher from the kid’s nerveless hand and shoving him forcefully toward the shuttle hatch. “Drop your duffle in the forward hatch, take a seat and buckle in,” he muttered to Hunter, who smiled as he presented his shuttle voucher.

     Hunter slid into one of the forward seats, closer to one of the clear ports that would give him a good view of the planet as they approached. A few minutes later, he heard the rumble of the shuttle’s engines igniting, then the shuttle accelerated out of the launch bay and into open space. He tightened his seat straps again as they left the artificial gravity of the carrier. Someone’s flight cap drifted upward to float near the ceiling as the shuttle banked away from the carrier, heading down toward the planet.

     It’s a very pretty world, Hunter thought, watching the planet through the port, growing larger and larger as the shuttle approached it. Blue and while . . . Looks a little like Earth, with all those oceans. I’ve spent too much time in ship corridors and space stations, I’d forgotten how beautiful a planet can be.

     The ride down to the planet was bumpy with atmospheric turbulence, but no worse than some of the planetary combat missions Hunter had flown. The technician, he noticed, looked more and more nervous the closer they came to the planet’s surface. The touchdown was gentle, considering that there wasn’t an Automated Landing System yet for this planet. Hunter’s opinion of the pilot’s skills went up several points . . . he wasn’t certain if he could’ve brought the shuttle down that smoothly. Through the viewport, he could see the barren rock of the landing strip, with red-brown mountains visible in the distance.

     The pilot popped open the shuttle hatch almost as soon as the ship had stopped moving. Hunter picked up his haversack as he climbed down the ladder, looking around at this strange new world.

     They were parked on a tall mesa of dark brown rock. Off to one side, Hunter could see a Firekkan nest tucked into another cliff face, the tall towers fashioned of what looked like tan reeds sewn together. It was larger than he’d expected, several dozen towers silhouetted against the sunrise.

     And he saw his first Firekkan, as several of the alien creatures flew over the shuttlecraft, obviously curious about the new human arrivals. Shotglass wasn’t entirely right, he thought. They don’t look exactly like parakeets. More like some kind of predatory bird, with that sharp beak and the brown and yellow feathers. Like a hawk, kind of.

     He wondered how they’d get across to the nest, when he saw the improvised rope bridge that had been slung over the gap. He started for the bridge, and heard an outraged yell from behind him. The technician, Jimmy. “Hey, they’re not bugs at all! They’re birds! They’re six-foot birds!”

     Hunter grinned, and pulled out a cigar. Maybe this shore leave wasn’t going to be as boring as he’d thought . . .

Part Three

     He was sweating by the time he got across the bridge; not from fear, like the tech, but from sheer exertion. He’d forgotten what it was like to balance your way across one of those things—basic training had been a long time ago.

     “Anything to declare, Kep-tain?” asked a strange voice in his ear, as he paused to take a breath and ease the ache in his side.

     He jumped, and turned. A tall Firekkan stood beside him, half-hidden by the shelter of woven reeds.

     “Like what?” he asked. Customs! Son of abrand new world, and already they’re setting up Customs agents!

     The Firekkan cocked his head to one side. “Anything to sell,” he said. “Anything to trade.”

     Hunter heaved a sigh of relief. He’d gotten off easily—

     “Anything to drink,” the Firekkan concluded. “Al-co-hol.”

     Aw, hell. Resigned, he unloaded his precious Scotch from his bag, and lined up the bottles on the Customs table. The Firekkan watched impassively.

     “Ten credits’ duty,” he said. And as Hunter started to object, added, “each.”

     “What?” Hunter yelped. “This is personal consumption only! This is highway robbery! This is—”

     “Ten credits each,” the Firekkan replied impassively. “You have choice. Pay duty, or—” He pulled a box from beneath the table, containing padding, a roll of tape, and a marker “—or you send back to ship on shuttle.”

     Well, there was no choice. Paying the duty would seriously cut into his funds. Grumbling, he packed up the bottles with careful, loving hands, sealed the box, and wrote name and ID on it. The Firekkan added it to a stack of similar boxes behind him, and even as Hunter watched, one of the loading crew came to take it back to the shuttle he had just left. He sighed, watching his lovely Scotch going back home . . . leaving him behind.

     “Have you an escort, Kep-tain?” the Firekkan asked as he watched.

     “I’m supposed to meet Captain K’Kai here,” he muttered, wondering what he was supposed to drink now. Water? It would be a damn poor shore-leave . . .

     “Ah. Kep-tain K’Kai is waiting for pilot-Kep-tain. There.” The Firekkan pointed with his beak, towards the right. “Look for sign of Red Flower.”

     “Thanks,” Hunter replied, trying very hard not to sound as sour as he felt. He started off in the indicated direction.

     “And Kep-tain?” called the Firekkan.

     He turned to look back over his shoulder. The bird had its beak gaped in what looked an awful lot like a grin.

     “Try drink called ‘Firekka’s Finest.’ Miss your bottles, you will not”

Part Four

     Species didn’t seem to matter; wherever there were fliers, there seemed to be a bar. This bar was certainly different from any he’d seen before, though. For one thing, it didn’t have much of a floor, or chairs. Firekkans were perched every few feet on branches woven into the tower, extending up into the shadows a hundred feet above him. Only the bartenders were on the ground level, flying up to carry drinks to the customers. They had made some concessions for the human guests, though . . . there were several dozen hammocklike seats slung at various intervals up the tower, where humans were drinking and chatting with the Firekkans.

     He craned his neck a little, wondering how he was going to recognize K’Kai; he’d never seen any more of her than rather blurry face-shots on the vid, and had heard her voice only via comlink. And at the moment, every Firekkan looked like every other Firekkan to him. With a sigh, he walked to the closest ladder—doubtless also installed for the convenience of the humans—and began climbing.

     Though they’d never actually been physically present in the same place, he’d “met” the Captain on patrol; she was flying a freighter. That had been something of a surprise. He’d been assigned as her fighter escort, and over the course of the trip, he’d found out quite a bit about her and her “flock.” And though they’d never met face-to-face . . . or face-to-beak, in this situation, they’d talked for hours over the comlink.

     Firekkan social groups were fairly large as a rule, consisting of a matriarch and all her immediate relatives. But K’Kai was something of a maverick—which so far as Hunter was concerned, gave her a lot in common with him. She’d no sooner been introduced to the concept of spaceflight than she had broken away from her own family flock—much to their horror, he had no doubt—and presented herself at the spaceport, demanding to be trained.

     She’d proven to be quite a pilot; she’d made that old freighter move in ways he’d never suspected it could—and in ways that would have had a human pilot looking for the air-sick bag. Hunter suspected that being a flyer by birth probably helped her there, since she’d been born with a natural aptitude for it. Before very long, she’d been joined by other misfit, oddball Firekkans, all of them looking for a way off-planet and out into space. Pretty soon she had her “flock”—and she was a matriarch of a freighter crew. She trained them herself, and Hunter knew for a fact that the other birds were just as good as she was, if a little on the strange side.

     But that still wasn’t going to help him pick her out of this crowd—

     A piercing whistle made him grab his ears, and then grab again for the safety of the ladder—and a whirlwind of feathers and clattering beaks descended on him as he dropped his haversack.

     Not that it mattered—one of the birds grabbed it before it hit the ground; the rest started pawing him—roughing him up—

     No, he realized, after a moment of panic. No, it’s okay. I remember now—He tried to relax under their questing claw-tips, running through his hair, poking into crevices in his clothing—

     This was the Firekkan greeting of affection—like getting hugged by a bunch of friends, or so he’d been told. It was really ritualized grooming—a search for bugs and lice so that an honored friend would not be plagued by pests during a visit.

     Oh yeah? What about the feathered pests? He tried not to wince as those sharp claws poked his scalp, and came awfully close to his eyes—

     One of them was starting to groom his eyelashes when another sharp whistle, this one not nearly so loud, made them finally break it off. Another Firekkan pushed her way into the flock—she was clearly female, both by virtue of her drab coloring and her larger size. And he realized then that he could never have mistaken this bird for any other; by the grin-gape on her beak, and a certain rakish good humor in her eyes, this could only be K’Kai herself.

     “G’day, K’Kai,” Hunter said, holding onto the ladder with one hand and reaching out to ruffle her feathers in what he hoped was a similar greeting to what he’d just endured.

     “Kep-tain Sain’ Dzon! Hun-ter!” She leaned in very close to study his face from three inches away. Hunter fought the impulse to pull away, remembering that he was hanging off a ladder roughly twenty feet in the air, and fast movement was definitely not a good idea. I wouldn’t wager that one of these bird-beasties could catch me if I took a nose dive off this ladder . . . 

     “Come, come, sit with me!” K’Kai pulled one of the hanging hammock-seats closer to the ladder for him. Hunter grabbed it and hauled himself into it. K’Kai let go of the chair and it swung out over the open floor, nearly slamming into a Firekkan carrying several drinks. The Firekkan shrieked something shrilly in their own language and neatly ducked out of the way, continuing to fly toward the top of the tower. K’Kai shrieked something right back, and the Firekkans nearest them bent over backwards, beaks clattering. At first, Hunter thought they had been hit with some kind of fit . . . then he realized they were laughing.

     Hunter held onto the chair with both hands until it slowed to a stop, hanging out over the floor twenty feet below. He hoped that she couldn’t see his whitened knuckles. Hell, she saw you take on four Jalthi single handedly, he thought. Don’t let her think that you’re afraid of heights now!

     It’s not the heights I’m afraid of or even falling. It’s just that sudden slop at the bottom . . .

     K’Kai opened her wings and soared to the closest perch, several other Firekkans following her a moment later, all taking perches slightly lower than hers. She canted her head, looking at him closely. “So, Hunter, you are very diff’rent than I expected. Not so tall.”

     No great surprise, that . . . every Firekkan in the bar was at least a foot taller than himself. Seven-foot parakeets, not six-foot like Shotglass had said. “You’re not quite what I expected, either. But it’s good to be here, to meet you. I was wondering if I’d ever see you again, after we left Vega.”

     “It is . . . it is . . .” K’Kai struggled for a word. “I do not know how to say it in your language. Something that was meant to happen?”

     “Fate,” Hunter said, searching his jacket pocket for a cigar. “Destiny, maybe. You believe in destiny?”

     K’Kai ducked her head down between her shoulders in something that looked like embarrassment. “I should, but I am not very religious.”

     Hunter nodded. “Yeah, me either. The only thing I really believe in is my own flying skills, and my ship, and the fact that the Kilrathi will always try to shoot it out from under me. Speaking of combat flying . . . have you ever thought about training to be a combat pilot?” It was something he’d been thinking about since they’d met back in the Vega Sector, after he’d seen her fly that damned freighter in a series of tighter turns than he’d ever thought was possible, boxing in the Jalthi to force it directly in front of Hunter’s guns. With a wingman like this lady, I could take on the entire Kilrathi fleet, he thought “You ever think of going for Confed pilot training?”

     K’Kai tilted her head, as if considering it for the first time. “I have never thought of it, no. But the idea is pleasing. Do you think I could be good at it, Hun-ter?”

     He laughed, a short, sharp bark. “You’d be amazing at it, lady. I’d take you as my wingman any day of the week.” He fished in his pocket for his lighter, and lit the cigar.

     “What is that thing in your mouth?” K’Kai was staring at it with unfeigned curiosity. Some of the other Firekkans also leaned in close to look, as Hunter exhaled a large cloud of aromatic smoke.

     “A cigar,” he explained. “Uh . . . dried tobacco leaves. You burn it and inhale the smoke. It’s relaxing, like drinking alcoholic beverages. It isn’t good for you, though . . . I’d say that smoking will kill me eventually, but I’m sure the Kilrathi will get me first.”

     “Al-co-hol does not affect us,” K’Kai said. “We drink kika’li. It is made from the kika seeds, mixed with al-co-hol to bring out the natural flavor of the seeds. Firekkans like to eat kika seeds, which are very tasty and draw away any stresses or pain from us. And the human diplomats like kika’li too, because of the al-co-hol in it. So now the Red Flower serves it to the humans. They call it Firekka’s Finest. Would you like some?”

     “Sure,” Hunter said. Anything would be better than drinking water . . . considering what fish do in it.

     K’Kai whistled again, sharp and loud. There was an answering whistle from below. She gave Hunter another curious look, and scratched herself on the back of her neck with an extended claw. “How long will you be on Firekka, Hunter?”

     “I have leave for the next three days,” he said. “Then I’m back on patrol duty.”

     “Good. So I can show you my home. This is the first time I have been home in several rotations. My crew and I . . .” She gestured at the hovering flock of wide-eyed Firekkans. “We have been too busy to travel home, too many important cargoes to deliver for the Confederation. But for the treaty signing, I knew I had to be here. I saw the first Terran ship land on our planet many rotations ago, and now I will see our planet join the Confederation. It is a great moment for us, a good time to be alive.”

     “Your family is important in local politics, aren’t they?” Hunter asked. “I remember you mentioning something about that back in Vega, and later I saw a newsvid about Firekka on the Tiger’s Claw. They talked about you and your crew, and that your family are major local honchos.”

     K’Kai blinked. “Hon-chos?”

     “VIPs. Politicos. Ah . . .” He searched for the right word. “Flock-leaders?”

     K’Kai’s beak opened wide, the same gesture that Hunter recognized from the customs officer. “Yes. My sister leads the largest flock on Firekka. She is the Teehyn Ree, the leader of flock-leaders. It is she, with the other flock-leaders, who agreed to the treaty with the Confederation diplomats. She will sign it tomorrow for all of Firekka.”

     “Your sister, eh? Does this mean that you’ll inherit the family flock someday?” Hunter asked.

     The Firekkan was silent for a moment before answering. “No, her daughter Rikik will claim the flock. I am too . . . too different for them to choose me as flock-leader. Better for me to pilot a freighter for the humans than try to lead a flock here.”

     There’s more to this than she’s willing to talk about, Hunter guessed. I’d wager that K’Kai’s leave taking of her home planet was a little more spectacular than what she’s said so far. She was one of the first of her people to leave her planet, she and Larrhi . . . the newsvid people always talk about them as great heroes, as brave adventurers, but no one ever asks the question, “Why?”

     And something else occurred to him. How would a species whose entire culture was based on flock behavior regard someone who left the flock? As a kind of trail-blazer—or a traitor?

     Another Firekkan with a brightly coloured headcrest flew close to them, slowing enough that K’Kai could take the tall tubes from his hands. She handed one to Hunter, who looked at it curiously. The tube was made of a plant of some kind, hollowed out to hold liquid. Whatever was inside the tube smelled spicy, a little like jalapeno peppers.

     K’Kai raised her “glass” in a silent toast to him, and drank.

     He took a careful swallow, and gasped for breath as the fiery liquid burned a path down his throat and into his gut. It was hotter than hell, like drinking the juice of a cayenne pepper. A moment later, the alcohol hit his system like a brick.

     “I can . . . I can see why humans like this stuff,” Hunter said, trying to remember how to breathe. The stuff is at least a hundred proof. And I think it just burned out my taste buds, he thought wryly. But good, damn good. He drained the last of the drink, feeling like he’d drunk several stiff shots of whiskey mixed with a gallon of Tabasco sauce.

     K’Kai had already finished her drink, and was now chewing on the empty tube. Her beak was open in what he now knew had to be a Firekkan grin.

     “Another round of drinks for K’Kai and her crew!” Hunter called down to the Firekkans below, following it with a shrill wolf whistle.

     K’Kai’s eyes widened. “That whistle-sound . . . do you know what it means in Firekkan?”

     “Probably the same thing it means back on Earth. More drinks, mates! This round’s on me!”

     Hunter vaguely remembered ordering more drinks after that, as the rest of the evening blurred into too many sights and sounds and rounds of Firekka’s Finest. K’Kai’s flock helped them down from their perches in the bar so they could continue the evening elsewhere, watching the midnight ceremonies in the Fire-Temple as Firekkans flew in intricate patterns around the roiling flames, graceful and delicate as any Earth ballet

     Then back to the Red Flower for refills. “Another round of drinks for my mates, bartender!”

     Over more tubes of Firekka’s Finest . . . Hunter had lost count of how many drinks at this point . . . K’Kai told him about the night races through the nearby canyons. They had to see it, of course. The intricate obstacle course was lit by spluttering torches, and the racers had to touch the wooden poles of the course with a dab of paint as they passed. Occasionally they’d miss the mark and paint would fly up onto the ledge where the spectators watched.

     Speckled with bright blue and red paint, K’Kai finally gave in to the urgings of her crew and flew down to the beginning of the course. Hunter cheered with the rest as K’Kai flew a perfect race, easily beating the rest of the competitors. She accepted a leather thong with some kind of winner’s token with an embarrassed ducking of her head, her victory marred only by the feet that she was wobbling on her feet from too much Firekka’s Finest.

     The only solution to that, Hunter said, was to drink more!

     The sun was rising over the Firekkan towers by the time he and K’Kai staggered out of the Red Flower again. Her crew had long since wandered off, flying unsteadily to their nests. Hunter blinked at the bright sunlight. “Is it always so bright here in the morning?” he grumbled.

     K’Kai leaned against the tower wall for support. “Time for sleep, Hun-ter. I will take you to the Visitor’s Nest, where there is a hammock-bed waiting for you, and a solid perch for me.”

     “Sounds great. Heavenly. Do we have to walk far to get there?”

     There was no answer from K’Kai. He turned to look for her, and realized that she’d vanished. No, not vanished . . . only slid down to a sitting position against the wall.

     “Come on, my feathered friend,” he said, hauling her up to stand wobbly on her clawed feet. “Let’s find a place to crash.”

     Somehow they managed to walk to the Visitor’s Nest, and Hunter fell through the large doorway with a sigh of relief. Some thoughtful individual had set out dozens of large pillows for the humans on the floor, with a few perches for Firekkans above. With another sigh, Hunter stretched out on a couple of pillows, and was asleep . . . or unconscious . . . a few seconds later.

Part Five

     There was a pair of boots in front of him. With a woman’s body above the boots, neatly garbed in a uniform. A hand shook his shoulder—gently—but the room tumbled around him as if he was going through a stress test. “Captain St. John?”

     He blinked, trying to focus on the young woman’s insignia. For some reason, his eyes weren’t quite working right. The insignia came into focus after another moment of staring at it. Military Police, Shore Patrol. Oh, hell. Now what’ve I done?

     “Captain St. John?” the woman asked again.

     “Thas—that’s me,” he said. “Wha’ is it?” He tried to get up on one elbow, felt his stomach heave, and gave it up as a bad idea.

     “Your leave has been revoked by Colonel Halcyon,” she said, slapping a piece of paper into his hand. “You are to report to the planetary shuttle immediately and return to the Tiger’s Claw for further instructions.” She surveyed him, not bothering to hide her amusement. “Do you need assistance in walking to the shuttlecraft, sir?”

     “No, I can walk . . . I think.” He managed to get up into a sitting position as the room decided to do a spin; he waited for it to steady, then looked around the nest for K’Kai, and spotted her perched on a branch a few feet away. The Firekkan was listing slightly to starboard on her perch, he saw, but otherwise she looked in better shape than he was. “K’Kai, it’s—it’s been great,” he said. “Sorry about this, but duty calls. I’ll try to come back downside, though.”

     “We will meet again, Hunter,” K’Kai said gravely, looking down at him from her unsteady perch. “I know we will.”

     “The shuttle, sir,” the MP said impatiently.

     “Later, K’Kai,” he said, waving at her. His stomach lurched; he closed his eyes and concentrated on controlling it.

     Her Highness is just gonna have to wait. Can’t rush these things . . .

     With his eyes still closed, he felt his way up the wall, pulling himself slowly to his feet. Every time he moved his stomach lurched again, but finally he stood erect and opened his eyes triumphantly.

     The MP caught him as he overbalanced and started to fall.

     He clutched his stomach as it heaved again, and felt the blood draining out of his face. The MP sighed, picked up his haversack, and slung his arm around her shoulder, half-carrying him in the direction of the shuttlecraft.