"Get up, you goddamned Pilgrim! Get the hell up!”
Blair had been thrown onto his back and his helmet had been torn off. His gruff-sounding assailant had kicked him in the ribs and now had a boot pressed squarely on his throat, yet the unfamiliar guy expected Blair to get up. Though he could feel and hear it all, the vision robbed Blair of seeing it, and he wondered why it hadn’t absorbed his physical pain, as it had once before.
Reaching up, he scratched at the blueness, and it tore away like a gossamer to expose a tall, dark figure looming over him, framed by the sim room’s blinding lights. Blair focused on the face and saw only the reflective slope of a class-two welder’s mask and the navy blue jumpsuit worn by those techs.
The guy leaned more on his boot. “Get up!”
Blair considered using his extrakinetic senses to free himself, but he had vowed never to use them in front of anyone other than Maniac and Angel. He did not care to emphasize how much different he was from the rest of the crew. So he seized the guy’s boot, twisted hard, then drove it to his right as he rolled free. Once on his hands and knees, he launched himself at the tech--
And got tripped by someone behind him. He slammed onto his chest. Another boot dropped onto the small of his back with a breath-robbing thud.
The first assailant closed in. Blair gasped and threw all of his strength into his arms and legs. He tried to roll once more, but the boot on his back held fast. Whomever held him had to be using a gravitic weapon akin to a Pilgrim’s extrakinetic strength, but there were no other Pilgrims on board the Claw, at least none that he knew of. And why would they attack one of their own?
“You’re just waiting, aren’t you, Pilgrim? Just biding your time until you can sabotage this ship,” said the first tech as he came alongside Blair to kick him in the head. A muscle pulled in Blair’s neck as his head snapped back. The pain came like a high-pitched tone that reverberated across his forehead.
“I’m Confed pilot,” Blair managed.
“No, you’re a mutation. We should have learned from your mistakes. But we forgave you, put you back in the mix. Now you’re rotting us from the core.”
The boot abruptly gave way, and Blair bolted to his feet. He leaned back on the smooth black surface of the SIRE’s exterior and eyed the two attackers. The second one also wore a welder’s mask. Both were about his height and build, and their jumpsuits made them appear like clones.
With his head now throbbing, Blair tensed and assumed his fighting stance.
The first tech burst into laughter.
Footsteps. From behind.
Even as Blair turned, a third welder brought down a short length of pipe across Blair’s forehead. He reeled back to crash against the SIRE and slump to the floor.
More laughter. Swearing. Dizziness. An incredible burning sensation across his head.
“Do you know why we’re doing this?” the one with the pipe asked.
Blair tried to nod. Tried. Because you hate Pilgrims, you ignorant bastards.
“We are here on behalf of our Lord and Savior to educate you. And when we are done, you will know beyond a shadow of a doubt that your presence in this universe is wrong. It is unnatural. You are an abomination. A violation.” He swung sideways with the pipe--
And Blair shrieked as he felt something crack in his head.
To hell with concealing his extrakinetic senses. He closed his eyes, ready to step outside himself--
When the tech batted him again.
And he tumbled down an ice-capped mountain of darkness.
Maniac slid his tongue out of Zarya’s mouth and caught his breath. A puddle of sweat had formed on her belly and now washed into his navel. They slid against each other, two parts of one writhing, purely instinctual animal. “Was that gratuitous enough for you?”
“No,” she said breathlessly, her reddish brown hair spread like wet feathers across the pillow. “It almost seemed justified. This time, I want it to really seem gratuitous.”
He took a deep breath and shrugged. “Okay.”
As he took Lieutenant Elise “Zarya” Rolitov back into his arms, Maniac repressed a sudden and agonizing memory of Rosie Forbes. He wanted to believe that Zarya represented a new and fresh force in his life. She wasn’t here to make him forget but to remind him of how good it was to be alive.
Or was he was just using her to get over Rosie’s death? Had his relationship with Zarya come too closely on the heels of that loss? Was he just staving off the guilt with sex and companionship?
You goaded Rosie into attacking those Dralthi. You played chicken with them. And she lost. Your fault. Period.
“What’s wrong?” Zarya asked, touching his cheek. “You just jumped out of here. Am I that forgettable?”
“Nah, it’s uh...” He glanced at his watchphone. “Holy shit. Blair will be here any minute.”
“Change the hatch code.”
He pulled himself from her clutches, climbed off the bunk, then shambled toward the latrine.
“You will tell me,” she called out.
“Oh, yeah?” he challenged, then found his target and relieved himself with a wince. He went to the sink, splashed water over his face, dried off, then turned to find her in the doorway. “You wanna shower?”
He thought a moment, then resigned himself to the suggestion. “All right.”
“If you have to think about it, forget it.” She pushed past him and padded into the stall.
By the time Maniac finished his own shower, Zarya had left. She could have at least talked to him. Maybe he would have explained how he felt.
Nah. That would never happen. She would have to figure it out alone. She already knows about me and Rosie. No secrets there.
He dressed quickly in off-duty utilities, then once more checked his watch. He had lied to Zarya about Blair’s return. Angel had Blair working in the SIRE all day. He decided to go down there and see how the ship’s second-best pilot fared against Angel’s sadistic programming.
Four decks and three voluptuous ensigns later, Maniac arrived at the SIRE control room, a cramped station with terminals for programming each of the simulators on board. The SIRE control officer spun in his chair, lowered his coffee cup, then stroked his moustache as though it were a faithful pet. “Marshall, isn’t it? I didn’t see your name on the list.” He gazed sidelong at a screen. “Nope. You’re not on it. Were you scheduled to--”
“I’m not here to practice, Chief. Which one’s Blair’s?”
“Blair?” He checked the screen once more. “Four. But I wouldn’t bother him. He’s been at it for a couple of hours now. You know what it’s like to break sim.”
Maniac advanced to a terminal marked four, took a seat, then brought up an image from the SIRE’s cockpit.
“Oh, shit! Haven’t you been monitoring?”
Springing from his chair, Maniac shoved the control officer out of his way and bounded out of the room. He turned left down a corridor and jogged past three hatches until he came to SIRE four. “Open this goddamned door!”
“Opening,” the SCO said over the intercom.
The hatch slid right, and Maniac charged into the oval-shaped sim room. The SIRE itself, a black contraption that always reminded him of an antique race car constructed of a preschooler’s building blocks, sat in the middle of the room, its gull-wing hatches sealed tight. Maniac triggered the port hatch, which lifted with a slight hiss, and only then did he notice the blood spattered on the floor and the SIRE itself. Not a whole lot of blood, but enough to steal his breath.
Blair lay unconscious in the seat, his head draped to one side, his mouth hanging open. Six, maybe seven purple welts had turned his face into a bloated Halloween mask, and blood had crusted under his nose, on his chin, and across his neck. Those were only the wounds Maniac could see. His eyes burned as leaned over and grabbed Blair’s wrists.
“Don’t move him,” cried the SCO, who leaned in from the hatch.
Maniac whirled, gritted his teeth, then took the man’s neck in his hand. He drove the officer out of the SIRE, across the room, then against the bulkhead. “The machine didn’t do that. Somebody beat him. Where the hell were you?”
“I’ve been in the control room since this morning,” the officer croaked as Maniac tightened his grip. “I didn’t see anybody come in.”
“You’re in on this, you--”
Maniac’s curse got lost as he struck a roundhouse to the officer’s cheek. He swore again, drew back, and delivered another vicious blow. Then he closed his eyes, pictured Blair lying in the cockpit, and lashed out again.
The SCO gurgled.
“All right,” came a soft, masculine voice. Arms slid under Maniac’s, caught him in a headlock, then ripped him away from the SCO. He felt cold armor pressing on his neck. “Lieutenant, you are now in the custody of a Confederation Marine. Resist, and I will hurt you. Do you understand?”
So the control officer had called security. Great. “I get it,” Maniac answered. “Just call the medics. We need ‘em in here now!”
“The SCO already called them. They’re on their way. Now why’d you go and hit him, Lieutenant?”
“For the same reason that I’m going to hit you.”
The Marine chuckled under his breath. “Is that your imagination you’re using? Pretty good.”
Two other Marines hulked around in their crimson armor, rifles trained casually on him, one speaking quietly into a headset. A fourth jarhead went immediately to the SCO to examine the guy’s face.
Three medics showed up a few seconds later and wasted no time lugging their gurney and trauma bags toward the SIRE.
“Can I let you go now?” the Marine asked.
And the second he was free, Maniac spun to face the Marine and drew back his fist.
But the pistol jabbed in his neck gave him a moment’s pause. He locked gazes with the Marine, who stared impassively, proving that he could kill and comment on the mess hall menu without missing a beat. Maniac huffed, then jerked away, heading for the SIRE.
“You’re not going anywhere, Lieutenant.”
“Shoot me.” He tipped his head toward the medics as they lowered Blair onto a gurney. “Otherwise, I’m not leaving him.”
News of the attack struck Angel into shocked silence. It took another few minutes for her to fully comprehend what had happened, and with the realization came a burst of tears. Trembling, she left her office and sprinted all the way down to sickbay.
She took one look at Blair lying in the ICU, then had to shield her face with a hand. The tears came again, warm and fast. Her throat had nearly closed up, and her stomach felt as though it had been pulled inside out. She stood immobile before the Plexi partition, unable to go inside, to query about his condition, to do anything. It had happened all over again. She had fallen in love with someone--only to lose him. How could this happen?
Captain Paul Gerald came up beside her, and she barely glanced at him. He lifted a hand, about to place it on her shoulder to comfort her, then withdrew. She and Gerald had a healthy respect for each other, but that hand would have taken their relationship to friendship, and friends they were not. He with his large pores and larger attitude and she with her overbearing commitment to duty... they sometimes complemented each other but remained divided on the issue of Pilgrims.
“I’ve already ordered a full investigation to be headed by Lieutenant Commander Jhinda, our liaison with the Judge Advocate General’s office.”
“I know who she is,” Angel said sharply. “And I know she has no particular love for Pilgrims. Didn’t she fight with you during the Pilgrim war before she got transferred?”
“Yes, she did, which is why I know that she’ll do a thorough job. I wouldn’t worry about her bias, Commander. She’s a professional.” He turned his gaze to Blair. “He’s still unconscious, but neuro signs are positive. They’ve already quickmended his skull fracture. He’ll be up and around in a couple of days. That pretty face will take a little longer to come back, though.”
She hid her sigh. “Guess they didn’t want to kill him. That’s too easy. They’re using him to send a message. And they’ll do it again.”
“Not on this ship. He’ll be under guard. And commander?” His much softer tone drew her attention. “I’m sorry.”
“Thank you, sir.” Her gaze lingered on Blair, then she double-timed off, propelled by the desire to do some investigating of her own.
Squadron Commander Gary “Gunner” Berkholtz cocked his head toward the door as Angel entered his office, unannounced. Gunner stood a full two meters, with the thick neck, rock-hard pectorals, and ballooning biceps of a Marine rather than a Confed pilot. The fact that his father and three brothers were Marines definitely had something to do with that. Though his gym fetish kept him amazingly fit, he ironically ignored his pug nose, bad skin, and scalp caked with dandruff. He regarded Angel with eyes like specks of coal encroached upon by a bushy brow, then tripped over one of a dozen or more shipping containers stacked all over the office. He laughed at himself, then extended his hand. “Ain’t I the asshole. Gary ‘Gunner’ Berkholtz, Squadron Commander, what is it, Second Squadron now, I guess? And you’re Lieutenant Commander Deveraux. Yeah, you really are.” He took a moment to swallow his drool as he ogled her. Then he realized the she was not accepting his hand, his lustful expression turned grave. “You got a problem, Commander?”NEXT
“As a matter of fact I do.”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa. Gunner doesn’t like that tone. And Gunner’s wondering what happened to our welcome party. Figured you’d be throwing us one today since we got in so late last night. Figured you’d be glad to see us. You ain’t had replacements for a long, long time. Me and my squadron? We figured we’d get a hero’s welcome. So I say again, even more incredulously, you got a problem, Commander?”
“One of my pilots was beaten in his SIRE room this afternoon.”
“Yeah, I read the datanet post. That’s a goddamned shame. And we saw a lot of that on the Mitchell Hammock. Nuggets get mixed up in a lot of dangerous shit if you don’t keep ‘em on a short leash. Black market shit. Gambling, loan-sharking, the whole nine. What was it with your kid?”
“How do you feel about Pilgrims?”
“Where does that come from?”
“Just answer the question.”
“Is this an interrogation? Because if it is--”
She took a step toward him. “How do you feel about Pilgrims?”
“How do I feel about ‘em? I don’t. I know my job, and I intend to do it. The Confed tells me that as of this calendar date Pilgrims should be kept out of our no-fly zones. Whether Pilgrims are the enemy or not is up to the politicians.”
“I see. My pilot who was beaten is half Pilgrim. Did you know that?”
“So she finally tips her hand,” he said, grinning in understanding. “My squadron comes aboard last night, your boy gets beaten. And you wanna know if we hate Pilgrims.” He shook his head in mock disappointment. “You gotta be a little more subtle than that if you wanna play detective, honey.” He closed the gap between them, forcing her to retreat a step, his hot breath blasting over her face. “Well this is some goddamned welcome. And I won’t even dignify your accusations with a defense. You think I give a rat’s ass if your boy’s half Pilgrim? That’s your baggage, not mine. He does his job, I don’t care.” Gunner came at her again, in all of his pock-marked skin and crooked tooth glory. “But you know what really bothers me? You getting in my goddamned face. Unless you intend to shove a tongue or a nipple in my mouth, I suggest you get out and stay out. Do you read me, Commander?”
“Oh, I read you,” Angel said, holding her ground but wondering if he might actually take a swing at her. “And I’ll quote you in my report.”
“You wanna make a report?” He jerked away and stormed back to the rear of the office, where he had been unpacking. He fished out a dataslate and threw it at her. “Use mine. And don’t forget to mention how you came in here unannounced and insinuated that me or a member of my squadron had something to do with your pilot’s beating.”
Angel had caught the dataslate and now let it fall to the deck. “I’ll find out what happened,” she said, forcing a calm into her voice. “And if I learn that you or one your people had something to do with this, I’ll shove something in your mouth--but I guarantee it won’t be a tongue or a nipple.” She glowered at him a second, then started for the hatch. “Welcome aboard, Commander.”