"Three days in the brig and a fine isn’t so bad,” Zarya told Maniac. “Gerald could’ve given you a week in solitary.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re standing on that side of the bars.” Maniac turned away and lifted his arms as he took in the durasteel splendor of his new home. At two meters wide and four meters long, he could easily move a grand piano into his cell, divide the place up so that the servants would have their own quarters, and set aside some room from his private starfighter and antique motorcycle collections. And look at that, the place even came equipped with a fully functional toilet. He would have send grandma a postcard and tell her all about it.
Maniac’s arms fell to his sides, and he leaned on the wall, then let himself slide to the deck. “When Blair and I were on the Olympus, we spent most of our time in the brig. You have no idea how hard this is.”
“Could be worse. The SCO could’ve pressed the matter, and Blair could’ve been killed. As terrible as this all is, there’s still hope. And something good will come out of it. If we have people on board who would do something like this, then we need to get rid of them. And now we will.”
“Maybe.” He closed his eyes, and the image of Blair’s battered face returned. “You know, I’ve sometimes been his friend, but mostly I’ve hated him because the son of bitch is so good. When I saw him in there all... I don’t know... it’s like I felt selfish or something. I didn’t want to lose him because he makes me a better pilot. It was about me. And now I feel... ah, it’s all bullshit anyway.”
“We don’t cry for the dead. We cry for ourselves, for our loss. I took class called Death and--”
“I’m not in the mood for this philosowhatever conversation. And he ain’t dead. Why don’t you go check on him?”
“Okay. Then after that, I’m on patrol.”
“Come back and visit the old Maniac. And Zarya? Thanks for talking. Before, when we were--”
“Don’t worry about it. Not now, at least.”
Angel stood at parade rest in front of Captain Gerald’s command chair on the bridge. The captain sat coolly as he made a spectacle of her before a bridge crew who shrank in their seats. “I’ve never done this before or served for a commanding officer who has, but I’m suspending one of my squadron commanders for a period no less than three days. If you interfere with Lieutenant Commander Jhinda’s investigation again, I’ll have you brigged for a month. I’m sure that would displease you, Commander.”
“Yes, it would, sir. I won’t interfere again, sir.”
“Very good. Dismissed.”
She bounded away, heading toward the lift. Once inside, she closed her eyes, and the trembling overcame her.
“Easy there, Angel.”
Commander Obutu’s reassuring smile and warm gaze calmed her a little. Tall, black, muscular, and reticent, Obutu was a walking grocery list of admirable qualities, and he had the cleanest record on board, which made promoting him to ship’s executive officer a mere formality. He seemed perfectly at home in his new duties and had already shown his mettle, though he never boasted and would rarely comment on anything but business. The mystery of his personal life often intrigued Angel.
“I didn’t see you there,” she said apologetically.
“After that, it’s a wonder you found your way to the lift.”
“Yeah.” She mustered a wan smile. “He chewed off my ass, then did my legs like pork ribs. You like pork ribs, Commander?”
“No, ma’am. I’m a vegetarian.” A secret revealed. “But I, uh, I wanted to say that I’m willing to help. I know Gunner Berkholtz. Served with him on the Palestine. I’d be surprised if he wasn’t responsible for Blair’s beating. I’ll keep my eyes open and do what I can.”
“Thank you. And I’m curious, Commander. Why the sudden offer?”
“Well, ma’am, I understand what Lieutenant Blair is going through.”
“Because you’re a black man?”
“No, ma’am. Because I’m a Pilgrim.”
The bridge of the Olympus resembled a forlorn desert of gray steel and cold instrumentation, and Commodore James “Paladin” Taggart wandered through it, in search of an oasis where he would find some meaning in his actions. But, as he always did, he asked too much of himself.
Paladin had asked too much of himself when he had fallen in love with Amity Aristee the first time, so many years ago. Or maybe he had asked too much of her--and that was why she had given him her Pilgrim cross and had let him go. Then, after she had made her rebellion clear at Mylon Three, he had caught up with her, but she would not abandon her attempt to start a new war. Once again, he had asked too much.
And now, with the ship just moments away from a rendezvous with the Kilrathi emperor himself, Paladin went to Amity and prepared to once more ask too much. “There’s still time.”
“That’s very persuasive, James. You’ve convinced me. I’m going to turn the ship around right now.” She stared intently at the viewport, denying him even a smirk.
“What if the protur is wrong?”
“Then we’re all dead. But he doesn’t strike me as suicidal.” She smiled confidently. “Arguing till the end, eh? Of course, you are. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
He snatched her wrist. “You can’t give them the hopper drive. Do you really believe a race of pack hunters can act responsibly with this kind of power? They don’t see a difference between humans and Pilgrims. They’ll use the drive against us.”
She cocked a brow. “You don’t think the protur has considered that?”
“I don’t think you have.”
“The protur knows what he’s doing. We’ll reach an agreement with the Kilrathi. And you forget that we’re dealing with a desperate emperor. But don’t worry. Once we reach the rendezvous, the ship will be ready to jump.” She looked to the executive officer, who stood behind the helm, blond hair perfectly combed, gaze riveted to the viewport. “Brotur Vyson?”
The XO glanced to the helm display. “Nearing coordinates now, ma’am. ETA: thirty seconds. Shields are up. Scopes are clear. Guess we’re early.”
“Brotur?” called Sostur Charity from her radar station. “Kavaka-class scout coming through the jump point behind us. Accelerating on our heading.”
“Target that ship,” Aristee ordered Vyson.
“Aye, ma’am. Cannons coming to bear.”
“If he’s sent out a scout, then we’ll be here a while,” Paladin said. “They’ll have to jump back and issue their report.”
“No, they won’t,” Protur Carver Tsu III said as he exited the lift, his gold-trimmed robe fluttering so much that it threatened to carry him aloft. “That’s not a scout. That’s the emperor’s ship.”
“How do you know?” Paladin challenged.
“Because the extrakinetics we have on board are more efficient than all of this machinery,” the protur said, gesticulating wildly. “They’ve been monitoring the emperor from the other side of the jump point.”
“Be nice if you let us know beforehand,” Paladin mumbled as he advanced to the telescopic imaging screen that showed the approaching scout. From the corner of his eye, he spotted the protur following.
“Now that we’re bringing the Kilrathi into our little war, I’ll be taking a much more active role than I have since coming up from McDaniel.” The protur dropped a hand on Paladin’s shoulder and squeezed. “I’m very aware of your concerns. But trust me. This is a small moment in the grand scheme. Find your patience and hang on to it. It’s all a matter of patience.”
Paladin did not answer the man, nor did he look up from the screen as the protur headed back to Amity’s chair. He did, however, exchange a glance with Brotur Vyson, who flushed with fear. The rest of the bridge crew appeared equally nervous.
As the scout drew within a thousand kilometers of the Olympus, its pilot hailed them through the use of a tinny sounding translator. In a few moments, Aristee’s personal comm screen lit with the emperor’s face: an alarming collection of grooves; wrinkles; tufts of white hair; long, limp whiskers; and eyes like tawny stones on the bottom of a shallow pond. He had donned the ceremonial armor of the Kiranka clan, and his bronze-colored shoulder plates fired dazzles of reflected light. When he opened his mouth, strings of saliva snapped away from his worn, yellow teeth, and his voice came through the translator with a terrific hiss. “There are human cultures where being on time is not very important, or so I’ve read. I’m pleased that you Pilgrims regard time as seriously as we do. There is a word in the Kilrathi language for being late, va’ti’kah, but there is little toleration for the act or the utterance of that word. I have seen more than my share of clan elders who have been put to death for such disrespect, and I am impressed that you show me this much.”
“He’s a talker,” Paladin muttered to no one in particular.
“And an eccentric, as he should be,” the protur said. “We shall get along famously.”
Aristee cleared her throat. “You have permission to land, Emperor. We’ll meet you on the flight deck.”
“Our scans indicate that you are prepared to jump, and while your promptness is admirable, your threat of taking me hostage is not.”
“I assure you, Emperor. We won’t jump with you on board.”
“I would prefer to remain on my ship. But there will be no bargain without our breath mingling.”
“Standby.” Aristee turned to the protur. “I don’t want to go over there. He could take us hostage.”
“And he feels the same, though our threat is much larger than his. I suggest you disengage the hopper drive. He has given by coming in a scout. So must you. And he had a battle group waiting for him on the other side of the jump point.”
“And if they come through, we won’t escape in time.”
“He has planted the seeds. Water them. You’ll like what grows.”
Aristee looked to Paladin. He shook his head. Then her gaze favored Brotur Vyson. “XO? Contact Brotur Hawthorne. Disengage the hopper drive. Power down all systems.”
“Aye, ma’am.” Vyson repeated the command into his headset, then gave Paladin the slightest of nods.
“Emperor, we have shut down our hopper drive as a sign of good faith.”
“I understand,” the emperor replied. “We will land. I look forward to our discussion.”
Aristee assembled a small but impressive showing of Pilgrim Marines who had exchanged their robes for standard issue Confederation combat suits. A platoon of about forty stood in a formation that led to the hatch on the emperor’s scout, a hatch that clearly illustrated the meter difference in height between the average Kilrathi and the average human. Two Kilrathi Royal Marines exited first, their dor-chak laser rifles held tightly to their chests in ready position. When set for wide beam, the claw-like weapons could take down every assembled Marine in a few seconds. In fact, the word dor-chak had been loosely translated to mean “striking bird, ” but despite the weapons’ formidable name, the cats using them would have to be faster than the Pilgrim Marines, which they weren’t. Four more Kilrathi Marines filed out of the scout, then the emperor emerged, his full three meters cut short by a slightly hunched back. He still looked imposing in his armor, and the clan and battle plumes clipped to his shoulders afforded him a bewinged and strangely angelic presence--if you could get past the huge snout, flared nostrils, and brow as thick as Paladin’s thumb. The emperor’s suit allowed him to breathe comfortably without the use of the standard tube worn by the Marines, and Paladin could already detect the sickly sweet, burning aroma of nutrient gas that occasionally leaked from his mouth and nose. A few of the assembled Marines closest the emperor fell victim to fits of gagging.
The obligatory greeting commenced, with the Paladin standing there, a brooding a fifth wheel. He cursed inwardly as Aristee actually shook the hulking thing’s paw and the protur looked on, beaming.
As they headed back to the wardroom, where the actual negotiations would take place, Paladin drew himself into knots over Aristee’s foolishness. Yes, the enemy of her enemy should be her friend, but Pilgrims and cats would never trust each other. Both parties now operated in a fog of denial.
But that no longer mattered. Paladin had already taken measures to ensure that a deal would never be reached.
Once in the wardroom, the emperor glared at a seat that would not support his weight. Aristee called down to the supply room and ordered a shipping container sent up, while the Kilrathi guards pounded in and formed a semicircle behind the emperor.
It was remarkable to see the cats on board a Confederation vessel, even one controlled by Pilgrims. The last time Paladin had been so close to so many Kilrathi, it had been as their prisoner. No doubt they would happily see to his confinement or execution again.
The container finally arrived, and Aristee offered it the emperor with an awkward apology.
Negotiations were ready to begin.
“Captain,” Brotur Vyson called over the intercom. “Snakeir-class superdreadnought and Fralthi-class cruiser have just come through the jump point. We’ve IDed the dreadnought as the Shak’Ar’Roc. She’s from the same battle group we fought at Aloysius, and she’s launching fighters, ma’am.”
“Son of a bitch,” Aristee cried. In one deft motion, she yanked her Pilgrim cross from its chain, pressed the center symbol to activate the blade, then held the sharp steel to the emperor’s throat.
A half dozen dor-chaks hummed to full power, and she stared into their muzzles.
“Contacts, designated Alpha Kilo nine five, Alpha Kilo nine six,” shouted Brotur Vyson. “Inbound missiles, targeting starboard ion engine. They take it out and we’ll lose all propulsion, ma’am.”
Paladin bolted from his chair and raced for the hatch. “I’ll leave you to kill each other. I’ve a ship to save.”
CODE ACCEPTED. POWER UP IN PROGRESS.NEXT
William Santyana nearly shed a tear as the CF-337d Marine Corps troopship’s cockpit instrumentation thrummed and flashed to full power. “We got it!” he called back to Pris and Lacey, both strapped tightly to their seats in the hold.
“Told you I’m the codeman. You doubted the codeman. Spoke badly about him. But now you know who he is. The codeman is your friend.”
Santyana nodded at the codeman, who sat in the co-pilot’s seat and brimmed with pride. The codeman had once been a third-class AI systems specialist named Roberto Umberto, a lanky, insecure twenty-year-old Pilgrim who had joined Aristee’s rebellion because he was pissed at his Confed superiors for overlooking him for promotion. Once Aristee killed six million on Mylon Three, Umberto realized the magnitude of his commitment and mistake.
But those were the old days, the pre-codeman days. Although Umberto had not openly expressed his renewed loyalty to the Confederation, he had clearly and magnificently illustrated his desire to defect.
“Codeman got you in, does all kinds of tech--I mean anything you can give him--but he can’t fly.”
“Got it covered,” Santyana said, bringing the maneuvering thrusters on line. He turned down the volume on his headset so the shouting deck and flight control officers wouldn’t distract him. He steered the great wedge of the troopship over the runway, held his breath, then hit the throttles.
They hit the energy curtain five heartbeats later, streaked through the launch tube, then rumbled into space.
“False signatures are up,” Umberto reported, staring at a radar screen that showed multiple images of the troopship arrowing away from the Olympus’s bow. “Codeman does it again. AG and laser targeting systems cannot find a target.”
“But the Kilrathi can,” Santyana said grimly.
Four squadrons of Dralthi fighters cut toward the Olympus, and a half-dozen of the metallic claws broke formation to vector toward them. Trouble was, the entire attacking force stood between Santyana and the jump point. Although most of the fighters would concentrate on the supercruiser, it would only take a few Dralthi to thwart his exit.
“Kilrathi don’t care about false signatures,” Umberto said. “They’ll come close. Ever see how big their eyes are?”
“Yup. And I don’t plan on taking another look today. But what sucks is we can’t outrun them.”
As if to emphasize the point, laser fire struck in triplets along the aft quarter. Damage control reports showed a forty percent drop in shields as another salvo found them.
Wheeling around, Santyana flew headlong at the fighters and opened the gate on a pair of Friend or Foe missiles that made beelines for the lead Dralthi.
“Nice rockets,” Umberto said, jaw agape. “Cats aren’t broadcasting the code, so the missiles assume them for enemies.”
Santyana did not need a lesson. He needed the two lead fighters to get intimate with his ordnance. The Dralthi to port turned on a wing to evade, but one of it talons gave Santyana’s missile a love tap, triggering an all out, fiery display of affection. The Dralthi to starboard dove under the second missile, and for a second, it appeared as though it had escaped. But the missile’s infatuation remained strong, and it curved back to plant a hot, wet kiss of death squarely on the Dralthi’s canopy.
The troopship’s afterburners thundered through the bulkheads as Santyana pried as much as she would give and held tight on a heading that would take them between the last two pairs of Dralthi. Dozens of bolts from wing-mounted laser cannons struck the forward shields and dissipated in overlapping rings of crimson. Santyana snap-triggered a pair of Dumb-fire missiles, then set both of the ship’s rotary-barrel neutron guns to autofire.
He came at the fighters like a snarling mad dog, superheated projectiles crossing paths with incoming bolts, missiles charging forward with fateful tidings. It all slowed down for a second, or at least his brain took it in more slowly. The pair of fighters off his starboard bow wagged drunkenly as neutron fire feasted on their fuselages. One cat suddenly pulled up, directly into the other, and the banquet came to a rude halt. Just fifty meters to port, both Dralthi peeled away from each other like the petals of a blooming metal rose, and the dumb-fire missiles streaked through their residuum, tracing the rose’s stem in a point-blank miss. But Santyana’s neutron cannons had little trouble finding the Dralthi, and even as the troopship swept well ahead of them, the cannons rolled back to continue fire. Shields finally succumbed, and the fighters blasted into pieces small enough to press in a book.
“Codeman is the codeman,” Umberto said. “But you are The Man of men. Six for six.”
“Yeah, my crack shooting’s really gained their attention now.” Santyana lifted his chin at the radar scope, where a fourteen Dralthi branched off from the main force and were just now establishing visual contact.
In the meantime, the Olympus’s four primary antimatter guns had already begun to hurtle an extraordinary firestorm at the encroaching fighters. Even Santyana, a hardened veteran, found himself awed as the troopship came within a half klick of the supercruiser’s ferocious defense. Dozens of Dralthi fell under wave after wave of antimatter fire, while others collided with each other as the few remaining extrakinetic Pilgrims on board reached out and killed those pilots.
As he stole a final glance, Santyana wasn’t sure which side he wanted to win the engagement. But then the Olympus’s starboard ion engine emitted clouds of gray fumes and jets of glittering debris. With propulsion gone, Aristee couldn’t maneuver into a gravity well.
“And thus she goes,” he muttered, realizing the ante had just been upped. Jump or die. No prison ship left. He thought of Pris and Lacey back in the hold, then turned his attention to the fighters--
When a stray round of the Olympus’s antimatter fire ripped through the aft shields and chewed into the troopship’s engines. The sudden deceleration nearly sent Umberto through the viewport since his harness had been fastened too loosely.
Pris cried out from the hold, but her voice barely carried over the shrieking engines.
More laser fire pinged off the shields as Santyana tried to evade on only maneuvering jets.
A glance to the radar scope doused any hopes of escape. The Dralthi had strung themselves out and now stitched up the gap--ten seconds until feeding frenzy.
Santyana threw off his straps and jogged back to the hold, where Pris and Lacey huddled beside each other.
“What’s happening?” Pris asked, her gaze darting frantically between the aft and the overhead.
He crouched beside them. “Just close your eyes.”
“Oh god,” Pris gasped.
Umberto stumbled into the hold. “Something’s happening.” He pointed toward the viewport.
And there, where the void had once been, hung a whirlpool ringed in a thousand shades of blue.