Once they had received permission to return to the Tiger Claw, Blair and Obutu had taken one look at their Rapiers and had sworn that no way in hell would they spend another four days in those cockpits. With the admiral’s help, they had arranged for the fighters to be hauled back to the Claw via a CF-229d spacecraft ferry, while they would catch a lift back to Netheryana on the admiral’s transport. The trip had still taken four days, but at the least the accommodations had been decent. Blair and Obutu had discussed how they would handle the case of Blair’s beating, now that Blair had identified at least one of the perpetrators. Trouble was, it would still be Blair’s word against Mango’s, assuming that the Mango had made it out of the Pilgrim battle. Given the jock’s extrakinetic abilities, Blair had to expect that he had--meaning that once Blair returned to the Claw, he would need to watch his back.
Now, as he dragged himself down the corridor toward his quarters, with just ten minutes to clean up before Gerald wanted to see him in the wardroom, Blair couldn’t help but to scrutinize every corner, every shadow. He pulled a muscle in his neck from glancing over his shoulder so many times.
He paused at his hatch panel, drawing a blank over the code. Finally, the numbers came back to him. The hatch slid aside.
Angel looked up from her seat on his rack.
“Thought you might be on the flight deck,” he said matter-of-factly, then crossed to his locker.
He only made it half way there before she came up behind him, swung him around, and dove for the kiss. He felt her tremble as she wrapped her arms around him.
After a few seconds of lightheaded bliss, she broke the kiss. “AWOL? You stupid bastard.”
“I know. Didn’t change a damned thing. Couldn’t have known that going in.”
“At least they let us live,” she said, drawing in a long breath before she pulled away to glance out the viewport. Dozens of Pilgrim warships, fighters, bombers, and troop carriers unfurled from the Tiger Claw in a floating parade of power. “Maniac and I were taken aboard one of their ships. So was everyone else.”
“What about one of Gunner’s people, guy named Mango? He come back?”
“Funny you should ask,” she said, facing him. “He’s the only one who didn’t. He’s still MIA. The Pilgrims think he was shot down, but we can’t confirm that. You know something about him?”
“He’s the guy who beat me.”
“Positive. He admitted it.”
“Something to be said for Karma. One down, two to go. We’ll interrogate Gunner until we get an answer.”
“Don’t bother.” Blair opened his locker, dropped his rucksack, then removed his tags and watchphone. “I think it’s over.”
“What do you mean? We have to find the others. Jhinda hasn’t closed her investigation.”
“I’ll tell her that she should.”
“You think you’ll be safe after these Pilgrims go? You think this has made it better? It’s going to get worse, much worse, even with the threat of these Pilgrims coming back.”
“That might be true. But not on this ship. Mango was the only one who beat me.”
“I thought you said there were three.”
“I did. But I had a lot of time to think on the way back and a lot of time to practice something. Watch...”
As Karista had taught him, Blair reached outside of himself and stepped into his quarters as an extrakinetic entity. Then he stepped out of that entity to produce another. He tensed and forced all that he was into making those entities come alive before Angel’s eyes.
Her reaction told him enough.
“I used to step outside of myself, but no one else could see me except for other extrakinetics. Now I’ve done it twice, and what do you see?”
“My god, I see three of you, but only one is talking.”
“I can make us talk in unison,” he and the other Blairs said. “Or I can talk alone. I can make each of us do different things. And this is exactly how Mango attacked me. But he was much stronger than me. I can only do this for...”
The deck came up hard and fast.
He felt her grab his wrists and haul him back to his feet. He stood there a second, blinking hard and realizing that he had stepped back into himself. He gasped and looked to his rack. “I have to sit down.”
She helped him there, then held herself, looking chilled over what she had seen. “Maybe that’s what really happened, but it’s still just a theory. And you’ll have to do that again for Jhinda--if you expect her to listen to you.”
“I know. I will. I’m supposed to see Gerald now. But I’m so tired. I have to sleep.”
“I’ll call him and say you’re still lagging from the trip.”
“Thanks. And hey, where’s Maniac?”
“Rumor has it that Zarya dumped him. He’s been following her around like a stray dog. They’re on patrol.”
“I’m amazed. Sounds like the old Maniac is growing up.”
“Wouldn’t take that bet.”
He lay back on the rack and stretched out. “So, are you back on suspension?”
“Nope. First Squadron is back at it, though all we can do is monitor a force that can kick our asses from here to the end of Vega.”
“I got a feeling that pretty soon, it’ll all be back to normal. The Kilrathi will try to expand their empire and we’ll force them back... the Border Worlds will hassle us... a few more traitors will pop up and have to be dealt with... just business as usual.”
“But not for us.”
“What do you mean?”
She tipped her head toward the viewport. “You still have a chance to go with them.”
He laughed. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“She’s leaving.” He scrutinized her for a second. “Was that a sigh you just made?”
She recoiled. “Absolutely not.”
“That was a sigh.” He pulled her on top of him, their faces just inches apart.
She furrowed her brow. “That was not a sigh.”
“Whatever. Come here.”
As he took her into his arms, the last of his doubts evaporated. The decision he had made was the right one, the only one, the one that gave definition to his life. He imagined himself years from the moment, approached by a naïve nugget who asked who he was. Without hesitation he answered:
“I’m Lieutenant Christopher Blair. Your Wing Commander.”