The Long Way Home – Chapter 1


Moire jigged hard and fast to avoid a spinning chunk of wreckage, hoping the crab fighter chasing her would not dodge in time. Judging from the debris floating about, Fleet was losing the battle–too much of the wreckage was theirs.

She stared as some of that wreckage went by her ship, feeling suddenly cold. It was a piece of fuselage covered with garish abstract swirls of pink, yellow, and electric blue. The colors were still visible under patches and streaks of black from a direct, full-power enemy hit. Jorge’s ship. This was not a good day to be a merc. “Dammit, I told you to wait for me!” she whispered, fighting back tears. Jorge was always impatient to get to the fight.

Moire glanced at the communication panel. It showed only one message, the same message for the last fifteen-minutes-going-on-eternity. SAYRES GO WIDE, HUNT/KILL. She never had liked that name; she had to keep reminding herself it was hers. That’s what happens when you need a new identity in a hurry. With Jorge dead, she realized with guilty relief, nobody else in the unit would know about it.
The crabs must have killed the wing commander too. The comms went on the blink all the time, but they’d never been out this long before. If the wing commander was down, she was on her own. Wasn’t likely the crewcuts would bother contacting her–a merc was just supposed to go get killed instead of one of the crewcuts, they didn’t care how.
The crab fighter was still on her tail, and it was beginning to annoy her. Stupid crab. Why don’t you just go home so I don’t have to kill you? It flew close enough for her to see it without the scope. She knew some of the spines on its spiky black surface were guns, but where were the viewports? Might explain why its targeting was so terrible. Fleet should tell them these things. Maybe Fleet didn’t know either. They knew surprisingly little about an enemy they’d been fighting for so long. Including why the crabs had attacked humans in the first place.
The crab fighter pulled a sharp turn, flipping in the process. Now it was behind her, to one side. That was one of their favorite maneuvers, and an effective one. The crab fighter fired, the far edge of the spread catching the engine casing. A red pinlight flickered on her display but went out almost immediately. Engine self-repair was one thing about the future she really liked. Too bad Bon Accord hadn’t…no. She wasn’t going to think about that now.
The fighter was following her in an outside circle now. The crabs were good at high-g turns, but she’d noticed they didn’t do too many of them together. Moire pulled a sudden curve down and reversed direction. Darkness started to crowd the edges of her vision, but she caught her breath and held it. The trick worked–the darkness receded, and she flipped into another sharp, crazy turn, as hard as she could stand. The other mercs thought she just had a natural talent for high-g maneuvers. She’d never mentioned being a test pilot, and wasn’t planning to. It would just raise awkward questions.
Sure enough, the crab fighter didn’t follow as cleanly this time. Without any delay Moire flipped up and over, her hand on the firing controls. The fighter sped past her and into a shell round before it could recover. Small fragments of wreckage from the explosion pinged her viewport and fuselage.
More wreckage flew by, some heavy and fast enough to damage her ship, and she pulled away. She remembered the fighter’s fin-notch pattern from the beginning of the fight, so they were still working on the first wave. The crab carrier would be disgorging the second wave soon, and there was no way in hell they could withstand it. Canaveral was already in bad shape. One of the mercenaries’ keel launch bays had been hit, and she’d seen enough damage when she left to tell her Fleet was getting a thorough shellacking.
Someone had to get the carrier. That wouldn’t be easy; nobody had made a confirmed hit on a crab carrier although plenty had tried. Even if she went banzai, the carrier’s guns were quite accurate. It also had some kind of whacko ship-specific shielding that let the crab fighters go right through, but batted away Fleet ships as if by a giant invisible hand that then held them immobile as they were blasted. She hadn’t believed it herself until she saw it in action; it sounded too much like a force field. Which, she had on the best authority, was impossible. Of course her information was eighty years out of date, and she remembered when they thought faster-than-light was impossible too. They were lucky only the carriers seemed to have the shielding.
A large, jagged mass drifted by–enemy wreckage, but too big to be from the fighter she’d just hit. No other hostiles were in the immediate area, so she cruised around it to check it out. It looked like one of the remote-control gun platforms Fleet fighters called dumbos.
The crabs liked to fight defensively. When they showed up, the dumbos were detached from their carriers and deployed around them. Their formidable guns fired almost as quickly as those on the main ship, and if the crabs were forced to leave in a hurry the dumbos were abandoned–and detonated. The few unexploded ones that had been investigated showed no indication of ever being manned.
Something must have triggered the core by accident this time. The dumbo was little more than a gutted shell. A big gutted shell. Big enough for an antique Fleet fighter to fit into, if the pilot was skilled. Moire grinned. A trace of the old what-the-hell feeling returned–what Etienne had called “the mischief.” She hadn’t felt that for a long time.
It was risky, but safe was for people who had a chance of living to retire. Slow and gentle, she nudged her ship into the dumbo. It took longer than she liked to get in position without damaging it. There was a small hole forward that she considered enlarging, but decided against. She could see enough as it was and the risk of the crabs detecting her alien self inside the dumbo shell was too high. She gave the engines a hefty kick, wincing at the sound of straining metal but not letting up. If this stunt was going to work, it would have to be soon or it was wasted effort.
The Trojan Dumbo drifted toward the carrier. It was hard to judge her position. Was she inside the shield now? Moire bit her lip, frowning. No, she had to be sure. A little bit more. The comm display suddenly flashed random visual junk, then went blank again. She felt a surge of excitement and wrapped her hand around the throttle. Time to find out if she was right.
Reversed engines at full power vibrated through the frame of her fighter. As she cleared the hulk of the dumbo she armed all three remaining missiles. There was no point in being conservative now. She flipped the ship up and around, checking for trouble and targets. The open maw of the fighter sortie port was not far away. That would do for a start. Maybe it would hamper the crabs as much as Canaveral had been when its bay got hit. “See how you like it,” she muttered, and fired.
She didn’t wait to see if the missile had any effect. If she was going to get all three launched she would have to keep going. Number two went amidships, on the general principle that it had to damage something, and by then she knew she had their attention. According to her scope, every remaining alien fighter was headed back toward the carrier. And her.
Moire cast about for the last target. By now she was near what seemed to be the bow of the ship. Like most of the alien carriers, the ship had a bulbous protrusion from the main body there: a long, narrow strut with a blob sticking out on the end. It looked like a swizzle stick. It was different enough from the usual spikiness of the crab ships that it must have a purpose. She fired the last missile. It wasn’t a clean hit, but the swizzle stick was definitely damaged.
A storm of angry crab fighters suddenly engulfed her. They were doing damage to each other in their eagerness to destroy her, firing without making any effort to avoid their comrades. She spun and turned desperately, using her greater maneuverability as best she could, but she knew she wouldn’t last. There were too many of them. She could just give up–but the more crabs she destroyed now, the fewer Fleet would have to deal with later.
A hit, and another. Damage was occurring faster than the self-repair could fix it. Now an engine wasn’t responding. At least she hadn’t run out of ammo yet. Any second now. This was it, she was going to die. Finally.
A blinding flash of light seared her eyes, and her fighter bucked and tossed like it was in a gale force wind. Something slammed into her fighter from behind with a tearing crunch and her tell-board went crimson, but whatever had hit her was hitting the enemy as well. She saw Fleet fighters streaking by, attacking the dazed enemy with ruthless efficiency. There was no sign of the crab carrier.
Soon the only thing moving was drifting wreckage. Lots of wreckage, which she could be considered part of since she had lost engine power. If her tell-board was to be believed the only working system was the running lights. It wasn’t fair. She’d done her best to get killed and she couldn’t even do that right. Fighting a crushing wave of disappointment, Moire started to flip off nonessentials. She was going to have to keep on living a little while longer.
“…hired gun, looks like…merc ship, do you read? Come in, merc!”
She glanced at the console, puzzled. She’d never shut down the comms…and someone was hailing her. “People are trying to sleep around here, flyboy,” she responded. “I’ve had a busy day.”
A muffled snort came over the comm. They must be getting close if the signal was that good. She looked about and saw them. Three Fleet directs flew by, then around.
“You look like hell,” said the first pilot. “Can you maneuver?”
Moire grimaced and looked at her board. A pinlight flickered red, then stayed yellow. “I’ve got half of one engine, now. Maybe. Don’t wait up.”
“We will escort you,” said a woman’s voice, cool and measured. “After what you did, we will get you back whatever it takes. We owe you.”
“Cosign that,” the third pilot chimed in. “Yer pretty damn sneaky, merc.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Moire said under her breath, and she urged her wounded ship into motion.
It took forever to return to Canaveral. Moire’s fighter could barely move, and there were too many other craft that couldn’t move at all. She watched the rescue scows move out and return as her ship crept closer. Damage and destruction everywhere she looked, and frantic calls for assistance on all channels.
Moire slapped the comm switch silent, angry and ashamed for feeling that way. Those people wanted to live. It was easy to develop a reputation for fearlessness if you didn’t. They didn’t know she was really just trying to run away. Run away from the ghosts, and the guilt of still being alive.
One of the Fleet fighters escorting her was flashing its running lights. Moire blinked, then realized she was close enough to Canaveral to see the bay doors. Close enough for the override, but she didn’t see the indicator on her board. That’s probably why they were signaling her.
She sighed and flipped on the comm again. A barrage of voices greeted her.
“Sorry about that. Comms are intermittent,” Moire lied, when she could work a word in edgewise. Flight control sounded frantic.
“Sayres, you trying to give us heart attacks? For all we knew you were dead in there. Your ship isn’t even broadcasting its ID, never mind life support status. Remote isn’t working and you are still moving in under power, if you can call it that. Think you can get yourself in?”
“Bad idea, Control,” Moire answered. “I’m lucky to be moving at all.” The remote override would have brought the ship in and docked it, if it were working. They didn’t like pilots coming in under power on their own. That they had even offered showed how desperate they were.
Mumbled consultations on the other side of the comm. “How’s your air?”
Moire squinted at the panel. It was, of course, flashing red. “No atmosphere recycle. I got thirty minutes on this, then I’ll have to go to my shipsuit emergency backup.”
A curse, then a sigh. “Sayres, hold your position. We have to figure out a way to get you in. Are you loaded still?”
“Half a belt of cannon shells. No missiles,” Moire said, going on memory. That console was completely dead. She slowed her fighter to a standstill.
“Right, that makes it easier. Look, Sayres, we’ll get you in as soon as we can. I’m keeping this channel open. Give a yell the instant anything changes in there, got that?”
“Got it, Control.” Trapped in her own cockpit. Not roomy at the best of times, and she was wearing combat protective gear over her shipsuit.
She watched the cleanup, and the damage control, and her gauges. Just before she was about to switch to the emergency oxygen she heard a metallic clunk on the underside of her fighter, then another. A powered EVA suit rose up in front of her viewport, and the operator raised the center waldo arm. Moire returned the A-OK signal, wondering why they hadn’t contacted her. Maybe they had, and the comms were out for real this time.
Her ship started to move forward again. They had attached a line, and she could see other powered EVAs nudging the ship into position. Then she was in the carrier, and then her cockpit was open and many hands were unfastening her harness and pulling her free.
“I’m all right, I’m fine…,” Moire snapped. The bay was complete chaos. Mobile robotic cranes were moving craft out of the way so others could be brought in. Where was her unit chief? She had to report in. Moire shook her head, trying to focus. This wasn’t the launch bay. She stepped aside to let a woman in a rugged, dented exoskeleton get past. She was carrying a tool with hydraulic fittings big enough to have their own valves.
What did they call those again? Heavy mechanics. She must be in Maintenance, then.
A voice shouted a wordless warning, and she ducked as a thick metal cable went swinging by. The voice added a profane suggestion of where she could go and what she could do when she got there. Leaving would probably be a good idea. They had enough to worry about here without gawking pilots.
Somehow she stumbled out of Maintenance. Mercs weren’t supposed to be in that section of the ship, so of course a harassed marine started giving her grief about it. Moire took advantage of the distraction caused by a convoy of wounded to dodge down a side corridor and escape.
Sheesh. You’d think there’s a war on.
Emergency lighting only on the lower levels, and smoke obscuring things even more. Closed bulkhead pressure doors more than once made her retrace her route. Some had the “low pressure” warning lights flashing.
Finally she made it to the one still-functioning mercenary launch bay, all the way at the bottom of the ship. It was easy to find a unit chief–they were surrounded by five or more people, all shouting. She found one with only three and reported to him. She wasn’t even sure if her unit chief was still alive. Somebody would get it all sorted out.
She made sure she accounted for all of her expended missiles. They were expensive, and Fleet didn’t like mercs wasting them. Dimly she noted nobody else seemed to be talking. Maybe she was the last to report. It had taken long enough to get back, and she’d gone all the way out to the crab carrier.
Oh yeah. The crab carrier. Hard to cover that up.
“Saw a piece of Jorge’s fighter,” Moire forced herself to say. “Looks like he got nominated.” The chief nodded, respectfully silent. Moire stumbled away, finding a crate against a wall to sit on just before her legs gave out.
She’d blown up a crab carrier, but not quick enough for Jorge.
Suddenly the memories were vivid, strong enough to touch. Standing on a street of what she’d later learned was Brisbane, staring at the security fence, the guard, the no-frills architecture of the facility inside. Military, her instincts said. Something wasn’t right, though, and the mind-fogging drugs Toren had used on her hadn’t completely worn off or she would have found a less public place to stare and figure it out.
“You want in, si?
Moire spun, almost losing her balance. The man standing in front of her flashed a smile, enhanced by gold filigree tooth covers.
“Uh, yeah,” Moire stammered. Her heart was pounding, and lightheadedness made it hard to concentrate. When had she last eaten? If she could get inside, Toren couldn’t get her. “Yes, I want in.”
The man gave her an appraising look. “Maybe if you want support crew slot, but definitely if pilot.”
Huh? “I’m a pilot,” Moire said. That much she was sure of. The rest was hazy.
Buena Fortuna!” This made gold-tooth man very happy. “We go inside and talk to Chopper.”
Inside. Where it was warm. Moire nodded.
They went past the guard. Her new best friend just said, “New recruit,” and the guard waved them by. No salute?
Chopper turned out to be a tall, muscular black woman with fine colored wire braided into her hair, so it stood out in amazing corkscrew shapes. Moire tried not to stare. There were other, even stranger-looking people in the halls. Only a few were wearing uniforms, and nobody saluted anybody. Had the military changed that much while she was gone?
“Pilot, huh?” Chopper gave her a look. “Where’d ya find her, Jorge? So let’s see your license. Or chop sheet, we don’t care.” Moire froze. Jorge started on an involved tale, eventually wheedling Chopper into running a simulator evaluation instead.
The simulator smelled funny, like rancid lemon. It also didn’t have the controls she expected. No landing gear. Extra trim jets. One part of her brain woke up as she left the simulator. Vacuum fighters. They weren’t testing for atmospheric flight, but for space.
“Seventy-six percent,” Chopper said. “Work on your response time and you could get prime rate. Clients pay extra for target efficiency too.”
Mercenaries? Space-fighting mercenaries? What the hell was going on?
“Getcher ID and stuff together and be back tonight,” Chopper added. “Tabriz got final say, but we ship out in two days so I don’t think he’s gonna get all picky.” She added a comment that Moire didn’t understand, even though a few words were in Russian. Jorge responded with something similar, grinning.
This wasn’t going to work. A mercenary unit shipping out–to space–in two days. Time to fade out and not come back.
“My lucky day today,” Jorge said. “You come back soon? Get you signed up, I get my bonus! Need to get it quick, not much time to spend it.” They passed a room with a huge display on one wall. A crowd of mercenaries were watching it intently, faces serious. It looked like a newscast.
Jorge made a rude noise. “Like those ground-pounders know anything about the war. Don’t know why they bother watching, old news by the time it gets here.”
War? Who was fighting whom?
“You just ask for me, they let you in,” Jorge said. He grinned again. “I gonna wait for you. Get your things quickly, please.”
Front door. Armored, she noticed now. And outside it was cold. Outside…outside there were people talking to the guard. She didn’t recognize them, but she did recognize the badges they were showing.
“Um, Jorge. Look, I have a…problem.” He looked at her, some of the cheerfulness in his face replaced by a calculating wariness. “I don’t have any belongings. In fact,” she swallowed, “I don’t have ID. I mean, I don’t want to use the ID I–”
“Comprende, amiga. You do not say, I do not hear.” Jorge scratched his chin. Moire peered out the door, breathing quickly. The Toren people had cleared the guard.
“Can we figure this out somewhere else?” Moire said, hoping her panic did not show in her voice. Hoping Jorge wouldn’t give her up as too much effort.
His eyes narrowed. “You don’ mind we go off-planet, eh?”
At this point, anything was better than staying and getting caught, so she nodded.
He turned quickly and motioned her to follow. Moire heard the big main door open behind her, and she hurried to keep up.
“I get you fixed up. Gonna cost, too.” He must have seen her expression. “When you get paid, hancha. You hire in I know I get my money back somehow. But maybe you stay here until I get back, hah?”
“Sure, no problem.” Relief made her weak at the knees.
Jorge appeared to have decided the best way to protect his investment was by sticking her in the big room with the display wall, which seemed to be the main off-duty room for the mercenaries. More conversations in the strange, mixed-up language that she couldn’t follow completely. She picked up enough Russian to guess Jorge was asking his buddies to keep her there. It became apparent they were also to keep her out of sight of the officers, because whenever one came in sight she was discreetly shifted out of view.
It worked out fine by her, especially when one heavily tattooed mercenary gave her something to eat. She couldn’t tell what it was supposed to be, but she was too hungry to care. She saw the Toren people go by, too, sometimes together, sometimes alone. They would peer in the common room, but didn’t come in. The mercenaries seemed to treat them with distant civility, but weren’t welcoming either. Moire stayed out of sight.
At least she hoped she had. Too many shocks, too close together, made her forget to be careful sometimes. The newscast had mentioned the year: 2115. Eighty years and change since Bon Accord had left Beta Centauri.
She’d known that was a risk when the drive went bad. But so long? Anybody who had known her, or of the ship’s mission, would be dead by now.
The common room had what passed for a phone directory these days. That was when she figured out she was in Australia. Then, when she did a bit more searching, that Houston no longer seemed to exist in any practical sense.
NASA itself simply wasn’t there.
What was she going to do? Even if Etienne hadn’t given her that order, she knew she had to report back on Sequoyah. He’d named their ship Bon Accord for a reason. They were a good team. Some things didn’t need to be said. Sequoyah was too important, and they were willing to die to get that information back.
Jorge finally came back with the fake ID and a story to go with it. It worked enough to get her hired, and that was all she cared about. The mercenary commander, Tabriz, filled her in a little more and confirmed her decision to stay. They were being hired by Norstar Fleet, which seemed to be the main combatant in the war. More importantly, she’d picked up from the newscasts that Fleet was real military. Maybe she could find a way to report through them.
The next few months were tough. The training was easy, at least for her. The difficult part was the mercenaries themselves. She stuck by Jorge, and he always had a story for awkward questions. Mostly she kept her mouth shut and tried to figure out what was going on.
Now Jorge was gone, and she had nobody to hide behind. This was going to be bad.
Moire slumped against the wall of the fighter bay, too tired even to think about heading for her bunk. She wouldn’t be able to sleep with all the noise going on anyway, and she had to think about what she was going to do. The first mistake she made that got back to Earth would bring Toren down on her.
They must have found Bon Accord somehow. They’d put her back together and then they had tried, gently at first, to convince her to tell them what she knew. She wasn’t sure what had triggered her suspicions, but when she’d refused, the tactics changed. She’d learned what Toren was, and she was even more determined they would never have Sequoyah.
Toren was, among other things, the main military supplier. She’d thought she would be able to find someone in Fleet to report to, not realizing the mercenaries would be kept so isolated on the ship. Now she wasn’t sure she could count on Fleet, if Toren was so heavily involved. They’d find out, they’d find her, and….
No. That was not going to happen. She’d join the crew of Bon Accord in oblivion if they did, and take her secrets with her.


Commander Byron Ennis wondered if his commanding officer was deliberately being obtuse. “Yes, but how did she do it?” he asked with determined patience. “She was flying a Vought 6500, hardly top of the line. No special equipment. She still managed to place three missiles and nobody else has managed one!”
“An interesting question,” agreed Shabata. “Go find out.” She smiled with cool amusement.
Ennis winced. He’d walked right into that one. “Yes, sir. Does the colonel have any other questions she would like me to ask the mercenaries while I’m there?”
“Look, ‘Ron, they may not like you much, but they really don’t like the rest of us. You deal with them more often, that should take some of the edge off. We need that information.” Her dark face was serious and implacable.
She was right, of course, and if he was able to figure out how Sayres had done it, the information would help Fleet and his career. He thought for a moment. “Any chance of the captain authorizing a suitable reward? They take their liquor seriously. It might make them less hostile and more talkative.”
Shabata nodded, tapping her chin with one finger. “I think that could be arranged.” She paused, and said softly, “A whole damn carrier! You’ll probably have difficulty shutting them up about it.”
Ennis left her office and headed for the mercenary area, surprised that he was able to find an elevator that wasn’t on override. Much of the frantic damage assessment and repair had already taken place, but there was still a lot of equipment being moved.
As he descended to the mercenary area, he could feel his tension increasing. Shabata had told him the decision to make him the liaison to the mercenaries had not been hers, and had nothing to do with his background. Even if that was true, he felt the unspoken connection was being made every time he made a report or acted in his official capacity. She understood his situation, but the rest of the command did not–and they considered the mercenaries little better than criminals.
If he were promoted, it would be less of a problem. Promotion was unlikely as long as his superiors were constantly reminded of his origins by his responsibilities, however, and he did not have much time left. If you stayed in the same rank for too long they moved you out of the combat posts and into support.
He found Tabriz in the mercenaries’ mess, just above the launch bay level. The room was cramped and awkward, with a cluster of pipes and conduit snaking down from ceiling to floor. He had to climb over it to get to Tabriz in the back of the room. The mercenary commander had a datapad with a remote link and two comms on the scarred plastic table in front of him, and was talking into a third comm to Medical. The bay the crabs hit had been full of fighters ready to take off and casualties were high. That Tabriz was in the mess indicated that his office, near the keel bay, had not been spared either.
Tabriz was not happy to see him, but his frosty expression thawed with the offer of alcoholic refreshment for the mercenaries–and he seemed almost genial when a marine brought down a bottle of real Earth scotch from the captain’s personal supply. When Ennis mentioned the other reason he had ventured into merc territory, Tabriz made no objection.
“Ann Sayres, is it?” He turned to a passing mercenary and gave a command. Ennis had learned a little of the mercenary patois, a horrendous mishmash of Russian, Arabic, and a few other languages he couldn’t identify. The instructions were to go fetch someone called “Soldier-lass.” It wasn’t necessarily a compliment.
“That’s an unusual name,” said Ennis in an offhand manner. He’d learned to be careful about asking questions. The mercenaries did not welcome personal inquiries. “I thought you people didn’t care much for Fleet soldiers.”
Tabriz gave him a measuring look. “The others in the unit–they call her this. For the way she carries herself, how she keeps her gear. Like a soldier.” There was a glimmer of something that might have been amusement in his dark eyes. “You got a name like that too. I hear some crewcuts say you are a…wild horse? They don’ seem to like that.”
“Mustang. That means I was enlisted before becoming an officer.” Yet another reason he was an outsider, and he sometimes wondered if it had been worth it. He’d wanted to prove himself, and thought an officer’s rank would stop the whispers. It hadn’t.
When Sayres showed up Ennis could see how she had gotten her nickname. Unlike the other mercenaries, she wore no colorful gear or jewelry, no face markings or bodymods. She wore a military-issue shipsuit and plain overgear. Her only concession to merc standards was a red metalmesh flash-scarf–the unit’s color–tied to one forearm. Her straight brown hair was cut helmet-seal spec, well above shoulder length. Except for the lack of unit markings, she could have been a Fleet pilot.
“He’s come to find out how you did it,” said Tabriz when she arrived, jerking his head in Ennis’s direction. “Tell him if you want to.”
Sayres glanced at him, and Ennis was surprised at the complete lack of elation, of pride, in her expression. She looked sad and bone-tired.
“The others said you want me to do the Black Cup,” she said to Tabriz, ignoring Ennis. “They want to do it now, for Kurt.”
Tabriz nodded sharply. “Yes, you do it now. Use this,” he said, and handed her the bottle of scotch. She took it and left the messroom. A group of mercenaries standing by the entrance, watching the exchange, fell in behind her.
Ennis opened his mouth to object, to delay, but the commander interrupted. “This needs to be done immediately. Kurt Ullman, he might not last very long.” The intense black gaze turned to him. “Those mizake directs don’ like you, but we don’ like them so much either. You ain’t so bad for a crewcut. You stay for the tattoo, you can talk to her then.”
Ennis blinked and nodded, masking his shock with an effort. It was meant as a compliment, but he wasn’t sure he was pleased Tabriz considered him non-Fleet enough to be welcome at a mercenary tattoo. It didn’t matter. He had work to do, and this would let him do it.
Tabriz got up from the table, snatching one of the comms and clipping it to his belt. He headed for the same door Sayres had used, negotiating the tangle of pipe and conduit with impatient haste. Ennis hesitated. Nobody seemed to be objecting to his presence, so he followed Tabriz.
He threaded his way through the crowded, narrow corridors and down an accessway ladder, ending up at the entrance to the aft keel launch bay. The doors opened as Tabriz strode forward, recognizing his badge ID, and Ennis hurried to enter with him. Technically he should have access, but he didn’t remember if he’d pestered the security officer into actually changing the code to include him.
It was like walking into a wall of noise. It took a moment for him to sort out the pandemonium in the launch bay, full of ships and people. At first he thought the mercenaries had not stowed their fighters, then he realized any ships launched from the forward bay had returned here instead. The fighters had a castoff look to them–a mixture of makes and models with traces of the original group markings still visible under the colorful scrawls inflicted on them by the mercenaries.
A group of people wedged its way through the crowd, and he saw in the middle a pneumatic float-pallet with a heavily bandaged man on it. He was attended by two medical orderlies and several mercs, some of whom were also injured. The orderlies were having difficulty maneuvering the float-pallet. One edge was not level with the deck, and it caught on any unevenness in the decking. This close to the hull at the keel the gravitic field was uneven anyway, and this area had not originally been intended for continuous use so it didn’t have trim nodes.
The pallet hit another snag, and the orderlies gave it a hard shove. The wounded man–Kurt?–groaned. His face was streaked with soot and blood and blue patches of bloodglue.
“Why isn’t he in Medical already?” Ennis asked, unpleasant memories flickering through his mind.
“Medical said they treat him here. They say not much chance they can fix him.” Tabriz looked like he was carved out of stone, his face rigid.
“I’ll get him up there if I have to carry him myself,” Ennis snapped. If Kurt Ullman was going to fight and die like a soldier, he should be given the same medical treatment as one.
Tabriz held up a hand. “A moment. He wishes this.” He didn’t look quite so angry anymore.
Ann Sayres was standing in the crowd nearby, still holding the bottle of scotch. Another merc came up to her, holding a strange black object, apparently the Black Cup. It looked like a lumpy, short staff with a broad, hollowed-out end. Sayres opened the bottle by the simple expedient of smashing the neck against a nearby elevator housing, and poured some scotch into the hollow.
The mercenaries went completely silent and still. The change was eerie. Sayres took the Black Cup in both hands and went to the launch bay doors, then carefully poured a splash of scotch on the deck before them.
Ennis gasped, astounded that anyone, even…especially a mercenary would waste something that valuable and rare.
“For the ones who did not come back today,” Tabriz said in a quiet voice.
She went to the pallet, and the wounded man was raised with great care. A blackened hand with only charred stumps remaining where fingers had been reached for the Cup, and Sayres carefully lowered it until it touched his lips. His hand dropped, and then his whole body seemed to collapse in on itself. A shrill alarm started from the pallet, and the orderlies quickly moved it out of the bay, the crowd of mercenaries parting silently before it.
Sayres moved to the clear area in the center, and the other wounded came forward.
“She shares her luck,” Tabriz said in answer to his questioning look. “Those who need it most, they go first.” When the wounded had all had their sip, the rest formed up in what looked like reverse rank order. When the Cup was emptied, another merc following with the bottle filled it again.
Finally, Sayres worked her way to where they were standing. She looked at Tabriz, but he pointed to Ennis, and she offered the Black Cup to him. He knew it was an honor, knew he could not refuse. He let the tiny dribble of scotch just touch his lips. He’d never tasted the real stuff, just synthetic. Once.
His eyes met hers over the Cup. She seemed quite ordinary to have done such extraordinary things. She was of medium height and medium build, trim and balanced. A few strands of brown hair escaped across her forehead, tangling with straight black eyebrows set over hazel eyes. He saw something in those eyes that bothered him, but she turned away before he figured out what it was.
Tabriz took the Black Cup from Sayres when he was finished. He raised it over his head and stomped his foot. The mercenaries took it up, creating a driving rhythm Ennis could feel in his bones. The beat went on for a moment, then a woman stepped out into the clear center of the launch bay, tall and bronze-skinned with tiger-stripe tattooing framing her face.
She started to dance to the rhythm, a confident, athletic dance, and the others started to clap to the beat and call out. A man joined her after a while, and then Ennis heard the sound of a guitar stick. This was more what he had been expecting, but it didn’t seem to mesh with the solemn beginning.
The tiger-stripe woman twirled and dropped, springing up with proud, defiant energy, and then he understood. I am alive…and while I live, I will fight.
Ennis finally pulled his mind free of the mesmerizing beat, wondering how long he had been distracted, and feeling guilty. The dancing was becoming more general and less intense, and a crowd of people was clustered around an alcohol tap that had been brought in. It had a flavor dispenser, and it looked like the full-range model: ouzo and sake as well as beer and wine. The captain was definitely pleased.
It took him a while to find Ann Sayres. She was seated on a crate, sipping a drink, in the shadow cast by one of the on-deck fighter craft. None of the other mercenaries were nearby.
“Which one is yours?” he asked, looking at the other ships. There were a few Voughts on deck, but he didn’t see any 6500s.
Sayres blinked, coming back to the here-and-now, and gave him a disbelieving look. “My ship is a pile of smoking scrap in Maintenance. If they have any sense they’ll just melt it down instead of trying to fix it.”
“You flew it back.”
“I can fly anything with an engine.” She sipped her drink moodily, not looking at him, gazing off into the distance again.
Damn arrogant pilot. He tried again. “Was the brain still working when you came in? I want to tap the visual data. This bay isn’t linked to the central system, so I can’t get it from the general download when you docked.”
“Wouldn’t have gotten it anyway; they had to tow me in to Maintenance. I don’t know about the brain. There were green pinlights last time I looked. Ask them.”
“I will.” He had known this wouldn’t be an easy task, but Sayres was being especially unhelpful. Once again he resolved to bring up the issue of a regular debriefing system for the mercenaries. Command liked to pretend they weren’t there, but this was beyond a joke. He’d never been convinced using mercenaries was a good idea to begin with, but Fleet had needed fighter pilots in a hurry and Earth was still resisting the idea of a draft.
“We need to know how you did it,” he persisted, suppressing his annoyance. “This is the first real break we’ve had in the war. What gave you the idea to try the dumbo shell? You could have been trapped in there.”
Sayres sighed, and rubbed her face with one hand. She looked exhausted. “There was a lot of debris floating around. I saw this gutted dumbo go by, and thought maybe if I looked like one of them I could get close enough to score a hit. I wasn’t sure I could get through the shields that way, it just worked. Must be some kind of passive-active system–there wasn’t anything left in the dumbo but the hull. Maybe they key on the profile. Anyway, I had three spears left so I just tossed them anywhere that looked good. Got the sortie bay and the swizzle stick–that thing in the front–for sure. Don’t know where the other one went. Then I just hung around waiting for the fighters to come back.”
Ennis digested this, nodding, then gave himself a mental shake. Sayres had a real talent for making the impossible seem dull. She blew up a crab carrier all by herself. Remember that.
He’d have to hope there was more information in the vid dump from her ship. “We got some information from the carrier wreck,” he said. “What was left of it, anyway. We think the…thing you hit was the signal antenna for the dumbos and the other remotes.” What was a ‘swizzle stick’? Some mercenary slang? “The instant it was disabled they all went dead.” There’d been a lot of arguments about that since the start of the war. All the crab carriers made a lot of signal noise, but he hadn’t heard of anyone decoding any of it.
“Makes sense,” Sayres nodded, beginning to look interested in spite of herself. “I wonder what made it blow up, though. Now that I think about it, I didn’t come under fire until the fighters came back. I don’t think the carrier has any short-range defense other than the shield.”
By now the party was in full swing, and he could barely make out what she was saying. Loud music and voices filled the room; he could even feel the vibrations in the deck plates. “If I get the visuals, I’d like you to take a look and see if there’s anything else you notice. Give us a briefing, show us your target points.”
“Sure thing.” She didn’t sound enthusiastic.
He made his way slowly through the chaos filling the launch bay, stopping only to watch a knife dancer with fascinated horror. The man had missed a few times, but he didn’t seem to notice the pain or the blood. Ennis was glad Security had insisted on a lockdown for the mercenary levels. The alcohol fumes were rather strong, and he wondered if that had been a good idea.
A niggling feeling that he was missing something crossed his mind. Leaving the launch bay, he hesitated at the elevator station and took the stairs instead. He had some thinking to do, and he was always restless when there was something bothering him.
The alcohol had been his idea–was he worried he’d get blamed if something went wrong? No, he’d only suggested it, others had the approval and the responsibility. The battering of the bottle of scotch? Barbaric, but from a mercenary point of view understandable. They didn’t have much use for an empty bottle.
He puzzled his way up to the twelfth level. It was something to do with Sayres–and alcohol. The noise, he had leaned nearer to hear what she was saying, sipping her drink…. On the tenth level, he stopped in his tracks. He’d smelled it when he left, but not when he was talking to her. Sayres had not been drinking alcohol.
Three enlisted came down the stairs, starting at the sight of an officer but recovering quickly and assuming an air of nonchalance after saluting. They presumably had some unsanctioned activity in mind; the stairs were rarely used in this section of the ship. Ennis contented himself with a steely glance and hoped they would think twice about whatever they were planning.
He started up the stairs again. He still had a ways to go to get to officer country. Why wasn’t she drinking? She’d looked like she wanted a drink badly. It was available, and she wasn’t on duty. She knew he was going to question her. She was extremely careful with her answers, and she volunteered little. What was she afraid of giving away?
By the time he reached his quarters he had reluctantly concluded he didn’t have enough information. If it was important, he’d figure it out eventually. He remembered what Penderhest had taught him, all those years ago. Notice everything, forget nothing. You never know when it might be useful. He wondered what the old man would have thought of how he was putting his advice to use on the other side of the law.
He keyed the door to his quarters and wedged himself in with the ease of long practice. It was tiny, cramped, and annoying but it was all his, and privacy was at a premium on Canaveral. If it had been any more comfortable, someone with seniority would have claimed it. Most of the officers at his rank were still sharing cabins.
It was tiny, but it was home. The only home he had. He liked the odd shape of it, the strange nooks created by the intersection of bulkhead and beam. Sitting on the bed with a weary sigh, he pulled down the desk and stared at the screen. He checked the status of his repair requests, then got to work. He had to get the report on Sayres done now–Shabata would want it when he went back on duty in a mere six hours.
He finished the report at last, authenticated it, folded the desk against the wall, and pulled himself upright using the overhead latch. Bracing himself in the proper position, he pulled out the sink and wearily brushed his teeth. The face in the mirror looked like it was looking forward to a visit to the morgue.
He paused, the sono-cleaner industriously polishing a molar. Seeing people who looked like that…long ago. Never long enough. On Fimbul. Why was he thinking about Fimbul? He’d pay money to have that part of his brain removed. Was it remembering Penderhest? Seeing the burned mercenary?
The mystery clicked into place. That look that had bothered him, the expression of weary resignation. Waiting for death. He’d seen it in Sayres’s eyes.