Indiw paused in the door of the humans’ briefing room, combat pilot's helmet tucked under one arm. He wore the special goggles that transformed the light the humans preferred into something that didn't give him a headache, but they made everything seem unreal.
Half of the fighter pilots turned in their chairs to look at him, nudging their neighbors. He wondered what they saw.
Indiw's flight suit was tailored to make him appear as one of them, complete with rank insignia and squadron patch. When the quartermaster had handed it to him, Indiw had groped deep into his memory for the text on human customs he had once been required to study. At least he'd remembered enough of it to know when to keep silent.
Their uniforms concealed a myriad of subtle differences so they seemed almost like normal Ardr. He knew the proportions of human limbs were different, their necks were improbably skinny, and their muscle contours all wrong——he refused to think about their soft moist skin——and of course they had no horns or claws, but they were still people, even though you could hardly tell which ones were female. They all stank, which was something the textbooks didn't emphasize. He supposed he'd get used to it.
If he wanted to fly with this fighter wing, even just this once, he'd have to adjust. And with the Hyos still swarming, there was no way he was going to be left aboard when the squadrons went out to combat. Someday, somehow, he'd get back to an Ardr ship, but meanwhile, he was going to fly no matter what it cost him.
Aware of the eyes still on him, he edged through the door and scanned the room. There were no vacant chairs. No one offered the least hint of what he should do. They were waiting to judge him on his knowledge of their protocol. That was, after all, reasonable. If he was going to take a place among them, their lives would depend on his ability to fill that place seamlessly.
He could easily imagine his own horror if their positions had been reversed and he were being asked to welcome a human pilot into his own wing. He had to reassure them.
Adopting their stiff, crisp walk as best he could, he strode down the center aisle and stood at the end of the table on the little dais. It was the obvious thing to do. Soon, someone would come to instruct them in the details of this mission, and that person should know where Indiw fit into the pattern.
He focused his eyes on the empty top of the table and relaxed into complete stillness, a battle-ready stance his martial arts instructors would have lauded. He did not even startle when a figure appeared in the doorway and simultaneously someone barked, "Ten-hut!"
Every seated human snapped to his or her feet braced into identical stances. Then there was absolute silence as the man in a shipboard uniform strode up the aisle between the chairs, his steps all the same size, his arms moving with his stride. He was one of the dark brown ones with glittering black eyes. His nose was broad, his lips sculpted. He looked far more trustworthy than the other humans in the room.
He reached the front, stepped up beside Indiw, turned, surveyed them as if memorizing their faces, then snapped, "Officers, be seated."
Everyone sat, in almost exact unison. And none of the chatter resumed. They all sat with their hands on their knees, shoulders squared to the front of the room. It was eerie. But Indiw wasn't going to let himself be spooked. He knew that unison movement was just one of the rituals humans used to create a hunting pack out of individuals who were strangers to one another. At least he knew it intellectually. His heart was racing.
He turned to the human beside him and said with utmost politeness, "You may suggest what position I might fill best." He was even willing to accept, without the obligatory polite discussions, whatever suggestion was made.
The room stirred. It was a soft susurrus of caught breathing, swallowed comments. Indiw knew instantly he'd done the wrong thing. But how? What?
The human nodded, swallowing in such a way that the bulge in his throat bobbed. "I am Captain Harsher Glass, and I command all four of the wings based on the carrier Tacoma. You may address me as Captain, Captain Glass, or sir."
"Thank you." Only now did he note the name badge pinned among the complex code markings on the man's uniform.
With a deep sigh, Glass paced to the edge of the platform to stand before the squadron that had the front center seats.
Indiw's helmet and flight suit bore the same emblem those four pilots wore, though the smaller one on the end had emblems that looked brighter, newer than the others'. But their squadron was complete. He didn't belong with them.
"Pit Bull, attention."
The four pilots leapt to their feet, braced in that unnatural position, eyes focused somewhere beyond the man who was talking to them.
He looked them over. Even their breathing stopped. "Commander Grummon, your squadron has the honor of welcoming Commander Indiyou to the Hundred Twentieth Fighter Wing. We are all very pleased to have a pilot of his accomplishments among us."
Indiw got no indication that this pleasure was either real or shared. It was another liturgy, the pack leader trying to force his followers to accept a new one among them.
Well, Indiw could use all the help he could get. He made a polite bow toward Grummon, hoping it would be taken for respect. "I am most pleased to be here."
There was a general stir of laughter at that. Turning to Indiw, Glass chuckled, then said so softly Indiw thought it unlikely the other humans in the room could hear him, "Well done! A sense of humor is what it takes around here. And after all you've lost, if you can joke about it, you're okay."
Then Glass produced a data nodule from his inner pocket and held it between his fingers as he turned back to the squadron. "Commander Chancy."
The small one on the end near Indiw took one measured step forward. "Sir!"
"You will return to Search and Rescue until there's another fighter pilot opening. It's not that we don't appreciate your already proven abilities, but Indiw here will be taking the Pit Bull Four slot. Here are your orders." He handed over the data nodule.
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." It was a high, light voice, but the tone didn't sound at all grateful. Indiw looked hard at the human. The top front of the uniform bulged hugely. There were tiny gold devices strung through both earlobes. Though it was not definitive, men generally wore larger decorations, and then in only one ear. Her eyebrows were artistically arched, her lashes dark, perhaps artificially enhanced. Human males didn't do that. And they didn't color their lips, either. And now that he was looking for it, he noticed how her hips flared, requiring extra pleats in her flight suit that the males didn't need. Her chest and her hips seemed to have the same dimensions, while all the males boasted flat, narrow flanks much smaller than their shoulders.
This one had to be a female. Her eyes flicked once to the data nodule as she plucked it from Glass's hand, then resumed the unfocused stare over Glass's shoulder.
She snapped one hand up in the salute to a superior, retrieved her helmet from under her chair, then met Indiw's gaze straight on. "Welcome to Pit Bull Squadron, Commander Indiyou." Without waiting for an answer, she tucked her helmet under her arm and walked up the center aisle to the door. The hips were definitely a secondary sex characteristic. Very distinctive.
Indiw had heard her utter barely two formalized sentences, yet he was uncannily certain that she was furious. It was understandable. She had been displaced through no incompetence or lack, and obviously not by her own choice. If somebody tried that on him, he'd gut them on sheer reflex. And he was just a male. Imagine what a female might do. In that moment, he knew he'd made a serious mistake choosing to fly this mission.
Glass gestured Indiw to take the vacated place, then said, "Pit Bull, be seated!"
The three humans sat, and Indiw followed suit. He ended up with his flight helmet awkwardly in his lap, which forced his elbows to stick into the people crushed up close on either side of him. Human pack behavior would be irritating.
The two humans on either side of him inched away as Glass said, "Today, the final flight briefing will be provided by Captain Sutcliff since it involves matters of higher level policy." With that, Glass strode up the aisle and out the door.
The moment he crossed the threshold, the room erupted in movement and sound. People twisted around to talk to their neighbors, or even got out of their seats to speak to someone farther away. Others turned on the units built into the folding arm of their chairs to view the briefing data.
Indiw took that opportunity to stow his helmet under his seat. He'd already wrung everything he could out of the ship's data systems on the upcoming mission.
The man next to him——the hair over his mouth signified male ——leaned over and said, "You'll be my wingman, then. I'm Falstaff. Walter G. Walt for short." He stuck out his right hand.
Indiw took the hand in his own right, trying not to flinch at the touch of moist skin. This one was pale colored with brown hair and eyes and sharp features. "You are the one whose partner died yesterday?"
The human let go of Indiw's hand. His mouth tightened, and one hand made a fighting fist on the chair arm between them as if restraining the urge to hit Indiw.
I've done it again. "I shouldn't have said that. I apologize. There is emotional bonding between human flying partners. I will learn to think of these things before I speak." For the thousandth time in the last day, Indiw wished he'd paid better attention to the texts on human nature. But who could have predicted he'd need them?
"It's okay," grunted Falstaff, waving a hand.
"No, it is not." The carrier Tacoma had picked Indiw up in his one-seat fighter after the same battle in which Falstaff had lost his partner, the battle in which Indiw's carrier Katukin——manned exclusively by Ardr——had been destroyed. Indiw and three other Ardr——now in the humans' sickbay——had been the only survivors. "I have chosen to fight with you. This is your unit. Your rules apply. Insults, even unintentional ones, are not acceptable. I apologize."
Falstaff cocked his head to one side. "All right. Apology accepted. You any good as a pilot?"
"The best." He added modestly, "Among Ardr, that is."
"What should I call you?"
Indiw's hand flew to his vest where his name and rank were stitched in the symbols common to the three species of the First Tier, the alliance that had kept the peace in this part of the galaxy for nearly a century. "Indiw. Is it not clearly written?"
"Is that all? Just Indoo?"
"Indiyou," he tried more clearly. He wasn't about to explain it was an acrostic derived from some of the names he had earned through his short life. "Indiw is all you need to find my records."
"I just wanted to know what to call you——other than Pit Bull Four."
"Pit Bull Four?"
"Your call. We're Pit Bull. Grummon is our flight leader, so he's Pit Bull One. I'm Three. You're Four."
"Oh, code identification." He studied the stylized image on Falstaff's squadron patch. A bull? He was taken with a panicky revulsion he was hard put to mask. "Isn't a bull a male herd beast used to breed domesticated eating flesh?"
The human mouth opened, framed by the strip of hair and displaying perfect white teeth, good biting and tearing teeth——in front anyway. "Uh-yeeaahh," drawled Falstaff, "but a pit bull is a small, ferocious, sometimes vicious defender of its territory. A dog. They're so vicious it took two hundred years to breed judgment into the pit bull, but now they're the best security money and love can buy."
Falstaff sat back, nodding and smiling.
Dogs hunted in packs under a pack leader. In the early decades of the alliance with the humans, Ardr had made a detailed study of evolution on the humans' homeworld, searching for the basic essence of human nature in order to understand what they'd evolved into. Today, every Ardr learned how all the successful species on Earth ran in packs or herds or tribes ruled by a pack leader of some sort. Humans considered themselves The Human Family, and some of their cultures thought of themselves as their brothers' keepers and kept meddling in the affairs of other packs or groups of humans.
Species of lone hunters who held their territory singly had been exterminated by humans. The pack and herd creatures had been domesticated. And what was worse, the humans knew that Ardr had evolved from lone hunters forced to develop intelligence and civilization by the rise of pack hunters not too different from humans, though lacking intelligence.
It was oversimplified, perhaps, but too chillingly true, Indiw saw now. Pit Bull Four. What a symbol. He wanted to run from the room and never see another human again as long as he lived. But he had announced his choice.
"Commander Falstaff, before I make another grave error, may I ask you a delicate question?"
"Sure. Fire away."
Pleased that he knew the idiom, Indiw asked, "Pilot Commander Chancy——will she try to kill me today? Or will she wait until——"
"Pilot Commander Chancy——" Indiw started to repeat.
"No, I heard you. That's very perceptive actually. If I didn't know Marla so well, I wouldn't have known she was steamed about the deal. Look, Indiw, she's been bucking for a slot with Pit Bull ever since we won our third Flying Ace. We're the best squadron on Tacoma, and she's without doubt one of the top ten pilots aboard.
"If I know her——and I do——she's out in the hall right now scheming about ways to replace you. But she's not allowed to lay a finger on you——physically. It's a court-martial offense to attack a fellow officer——except on the sparring mats, properly clothed and under supervision. Do you understand? She's probably figuring out ways to get you back to your own people because that's the fastest way to get your slot."
"I——see." He digested that, grateful to the man for the frank explanation. "And you. Would you not prefer such a proven flyer off your wing?"
Falstaff's face changed in an intriguing way. Indiw wished mightily he'd worked with the videos on human expressions more. "Actually, Indiw, I'm not really sure that I would. Oh, she's good, all right. But——well——it's personal."
"Apologies." He sketched a conciliatory gesture, not at all sure the human could read it. But he knew no standard phrase to convey what he meant. Sexual innuendo couldn't be translated, and he was certain he'd trespassed in that delicate area.
"TEN——hut!" All the clamoring humans leapt to their feet, braced in that unnatural posture again, utterly silent, facing front.
Falstaff reached back and grabbed a handful of Indiw's flight suit, forcing him to his feet. "Tacoma's Captain!"
The human hand was gone as quickly as it had fastened on him or the man might have lost it to Ardr teeth and claws. Quelling that instinctive reaction, Indiw pulled his feet together and tried to imitate the others. He felt ridiculous.
A man in a white shipboard uniform strode up the center aisle, his steps all the same size, his arms moving with his stride. He reached the front, turned, surveyed them as if memorizing their faces, then snapped, "Officers, be seated."
He was clean-shaven, and had even cleaned most of the hair off the top of his head. Even without horns, it was an improvement.
While Indiw was studying the ship's Captain, everyone around him bent down to sit leaving Indiw towering alone among them. Falstaff pulled him backward and he fell into his chair. There wasn't a sound in the room except the little catches in the breathing of the humans nearest Indiw.
The Captain paced the length of the platform to stand in front of the Pit Bull group. He looked them over. Even the breathing stopped. "Commander Indiyou. Welcome to the Tacoma and to Hundred Twentieth Fighter Wing. If you should experience any difficulties, be sure to call on me."
This, too, had to be part of their pack-forming liturgy, but he couldn't make out what it might really mean.
Indiw barely followed the introduction of the briefing, puzzling over Captain Sutcliff's words. But then the Captain brought up a familiar star map of the area on the big screen, a view of the border between the Tier worlds and the Hyos Empire.
"Here, here, and here, the Hyos have warned us——a day and a half late——of impending swarms. The Fornak are taking care of this region, and the Ardr have this under control. The first breakout occurred yesterday in the region Tacoma is supposed to keep clean. We lost the Katukin yesterday because we couldn't get here in time. Now the Ardr carrier Katular will have to cover its own and half of Katukin's territory. So we must make short work of this job and move here to cover the other half of Katukin's assigned area. Between the two carriers, we can hold all three territories until the Fornak can get their carrier into position to replace Katukin——at least until the Ardr can bring up another of theirs.
"I don't have to tell you what a politically ticklish situation this could become. The First Tier alliance is based on the principle that each of the three species will defend the territory of the others from aggressors——in this case the Hyos swarms. It is imperative that we not allow any Ardr world to be reached by a Hyos swarm, and this entire ship is committed to that objective. Is that understood? Any questions?"
Indiw wondered if Tacoma's Captain was performing specifically for his benefit, but since the humans seemed to ignore the call for questions, Indiw decided to keep silent as well. He obviously had a lot to learn about briefing liturgies.
Sutcliff clicked the viewscreen to a close-up of the Hyos border showing the segment the Tacoma usually patrolled with the additional part of Katukin's territory Tacoma must now cover clearly marked.
The Hyos, having evolved from hive dwellers, had peculiar notions about territory. They didn't consider the taking of an inhabited world an invasion——or even an act of war. It was an act of reproduction to which no sane group could possibly object. With affable good humor, the Hyos warned the Tier when one of the Hyos worlds was about to send out a swarm. They were perfectly pleased to have the Tier destroy those swarms and thus maintain the current border. No Hyos world would, however, make any effort to restrain the swarms or direct them elsewhere.
" . . . so your job is to blast this swarm before it gets off the ground. The Hyos have given us the ground targeting data. If you hit anything outside that target area, it could lead to real war with the Hyos, so I want every one of you to triple check every bit of equipment and programming in your targeting systems. We can't afford trouble with the Hyos while our picket line is spread so thin. So there will be no errors——understood?"
"Yes, sir!" the humans chorused in one voice.
A human voice, higher pitched like Chancy's, asked, "Sir. Have the Hyos also warned the swarm that we're coming? And what our strike zone must be?"
"As always, we must assume so. It is the usual pattern along this stretch of border. You must be prepared for surprises."
Heads turned as glances were exchanged, but there were no other questions or comments as the computer fed each chair-arm desk station the data the pilots would need.
The Captain finished, "Keep in mind that this is not a unique situation. The Hyos have given us onworld targets before. Sometimes we obliterate the target and that's the end of it. But sometimes we don't get it all and they still swarm later. We can't afford that here. Because we've lost the Katukin, we have to get all of this swarm on first strike. There are three other swarms expected to try soon either for the Ardr world Sinaha or perhaps for our own Aberdeen.
"We've been given worlds of origin of those three swarms, two very crowded Hyos worlds. We haven't yet been invited to strike there on the ground. If there's any collateral damage from our strikes today, you can be sure we won't be given a chance at those nests situated in heavily populated areas. We'll have to fight those swarms here in Tier space, and it will be vicious. So we can't afford to lose anyone on this strike, and we can't afford any mistakes. Questions?"
Silence. It hadn't sounded like any sort of normal invitation to debate tactics, so Indiw kept silent, too. He hadn't learned anything. Except for the human liturgies, the entire "briefing" was an exercise in wasting time.
Everyone scrambled to their feet, grabbing the data cartridges out of their desk displays, and came to attention. Indiw clumsily followed suit. But before he achieved the braced stance, they broke ranks and human throats opened emitting a wash of sound that may have formed words but carried an undertow of cheerful threat couched in vaguely sexual terms. Some made mock aggressive moves at their compatriots as they retrieved their helmets.
The sight made Indiw's skin tighten and his gorge rise. How could he fly with undisciplined children? But of course, these weren't Ardr children mocking adult combat. These were humans performing some arcane public ritual for bonding themselves into a hunting pack. It would have been mildly interesting if he hadn't committed himself to become a part of it, if only for a while.
He secured his helmet and tucked his briefing cartridge into his belt.
A heavy hand clapped down on his shoulder and he spun, dropping away from the touch into fighting stance, claws out, teeth bared. He was facing Falstaff.
The human froze, eyes wide enough to expose white above the colored area. He backed off, clumsily imitating the proper placating move.
Barely in time, Indiw aborted the trained move and straightened, forcibly quelling the rush. Noticing their flight leader was watching, he said softly, "Don't ever do that, Falstaff. Never."
"Sorry. I forgot."
Indiw answered by imitating Falstaff's own hand-waving gesture. "It's okay. You startled me, that's all."
"It is not all right," said Falstaff in a chiding imitation of Indiw's own words as he began to move toward the door. "They make us take classes in alien customs all the time, to be sure we don't do something dumb like that. I only meant to be friendly."
"So I gathered. After I almost killed you."
Falstaff paused, pulling Indiw aside with a gesture carefully made in midair. "Listen. I'll give you the best advice I got when I reported for pilot's training. It's the one clue you need in order to fit in around here, and with that, you'll be okay."
"Don't volunteer. Never——ever——volunteer. Just fade back into the crowd and be as inconspicuous as you can."
Nothing Falstaff could have said would have made Indiw feel more alien among these people. The best advice they had for a new pilot was to become one of the pack. He shuddered.
Falstaff nodded happily and headed for the door again, shuffling behind the crowd. The Pit Bull flight leader, Grummon, caught up with them. "Case of nerves, Indoo?"
Indiw tensed against the insult. He'd promised himself he'd do all the proper respect formulas. He'd refreshed his memory on the sigils that indicated rank, and he'd memorized where they'd placed him in their hierarchy, so he'd get the formulas correct. His mind was so stuffed with alien trivia crammed in during the last few hours that he barely knew what he knew. He'd gone to so much trouble to be allowed to fly, he mustn't gut his flight leader before they'd even made greeting. He looked at the man. Maybe afterward, though.
"That was my fault, sir," Falstaff interrupted. "I forgot you're not supposed to touch an Ardr from behind. Indiyou's not nervous. He's ready to get the bastards that got his buddies. Right?"
Indiw dredged a memory from his studies and made reverence to the flight leader with the hand salute to superiors, trying to copy Chancy's crisp execution of it. "Sir, Pilot Commander Indiw reporting for duty. Sir!"
"At ease, Commander. We're an informal squadron. You keep your place and do what you're told, we'll be back in time for dinner. You can fly formation, can't you? I mean even though the Ardr don't fight in formation?"
"Yes, sir." This morning he'd also reviewed the fighting formations used by the humans. They were easy enough to fly. It just seemed like such a tactically stupid thing to do. Nevertheless, humans who'd perfected it were deadly adversaries. The trick was to make sure every single craft was in its correct spot in their rigid pattern. "No problem, sir."
"Then just be sure that no matter what, you stay with Falstaff here. You guard his back, let him take the target out. Got that?"
Grummon nodded, then marched out and disappeared into the sea of identical backs in the hall. Falstaff said, "Don't let him get to you. He didn't mean to treat you like a rookie. . . ."
Falstaff went on while Indiw groped for the idiom, found it, and decided that that was exactly what Grummon had meant to do. A man that offensive wouldn't have lived ten minutes on Katukin. By the time Indiw picked up the thread of Falstaff's comments, they were out in the passage, following the crowd to the launch bay.
". . . so this squadron has an ancient and honored history. Just remember you're Pit Bull Four, and your job is to get my ordnance load to target. Got that?"
"Got it," he said, forcing himself to add, "Pit Bull Three."
"Good. See you out there——Pit Bull Four." The human fist didn't quite make contact with Indiw's shoulder. Maybe he could get to like this Falstaff.
Falstaff's head snapped aside and he peeled off to work his way to the edge of the moving stream of people. Indiw hung back to see what the problem was, and only then realized that "Walt" was another of Falstaff's names—called in Chancy's voice.
Without Falstaff by his side, the crowd closed in about him and jostled and crushed him. He staggered to the bulkhead and clung there, letting the pilots stream by as he fought down the urge to attack. Loathsome creatures!
By the time he'd got hold of himself again and rejoined the press, it was less crushing. He found himself just a step behind Falstaff and Chancy, close enough to hear them when nobody else could.
"Listen, Marla, it's not the end of the world. He won't be here long. He doesn't like it here any better than you'd like it on an Ardr ship."
"That's part of what worries me. He's going to screw you and leave you high and dry with enemy coming from every direction. An Ardr just isn't a team player, Walt."
Falstaff's arm snaked around her very small waist and he snugged her close to him. Their steps matched perfectly even though she was shorter. "You wouldn't trust my back to anyone but you."
She squirmed away. "Not in the hall! If word gets around that we're sleeping together, we'll never get to fly together. You know policy!"
Now that's one strange policy! And then Indiw thought again, and remembered that "sleeping together" didn't mean sleeping at all. It was an idiom like "going for a walk." But that made it an even stranger policy. How could the one thing interfere with the other?
Indiw preferred to attract the females in his own wing. It provided a deeper understanding of a person's temperament, and that always helped—or maybe it wouldn't if you had to fly in a rigid formation? And then he remembered humans often used sexual behaviors as another pack or even exclusive pair bonding ritual. Now that could cause problems in combat if two females broke formation to fight each other over a male.
"You," said Falstaff, picking up the pace, "are the one who has to be careful. S&R's not the safest assignment in the fleet either, you know. I'll be back for dinner, and we'll crack a magnum together, okay?"
She shook her head in the negation gesture. "On S&R, I'll hardly ever be here when you're here! Besides, tonight I have to sit on the Croninwet Committee. We need to get the recommendations to Aberdeen in a few days where the awards decisions will be made."
"Well, maybe we'll meet in the big Out There!"
She punched his arm. "Don't even say things like that!"
"You know I'm invincible!"
"The hell you are! You're just the luckiest pilot in the wing!"
"Lucky! My lady, that is not luck, that is skill!"
"Skill my big toe! You fly like a fat lizard! If I were on your wing, I'd have to spend all my time nursemaiding you! The Hyos would laugh themselves helpless!"
"Marla!" he reproached her. "We're the two best pilots in the wing. Less than a tenth of a point separates us in the ratings, and I'll beat you next time!"
"How much would you bet?"
"A month's pay!"
She pulled away as they reached the entrance to the flight deck. "Walt—shit, man, despite your insane reliance on luck, you are the only real pilot among these amateurs. I want to fly with you—for the sheer sensuous joy of it, if nothing else!"
"Don't worry. Now I have to come back. Gotta collect on that bet."
"We'll just see who's doing the collecting." She turned away, then checked, grabbing Falstaff's arm. "Don't be a hero. Just do your job and come back." She hit him on the arm again in a way that solidly confirmed their thwarted sexual arousal, and then she was gone.
Don't be a hero? What a very odd thing for a human to say in a parting admonition. Surely it had to be an idiom.
Indiw followed Falstaff onto the flight deck and on into the echoing launch bay with the weird feeling he'd just barged in on somebody else's walk. He kept expecting Falstaff to turn and try to gut him, which was irrational. Falstaff had done and said those things in full public view. The texts all warned there was no limit to what some humans would do in public, while others were more reticent.
Without the least hint of disturbance at what Indiw might have overheard, Falstaff fell back beside Indiw and pointed out the Ardr fighter on the line. Perhaps he was the unlimited type. In that case, it was a very, very good thing Falstaff wasn't trapped on an Ardr ship with a human female companion.
Engineers were still working on some of the battle-scarred craft. It was obvious how much it had cost Tacoma to try to save Katukin. It was impressive, but the motive behind their all out effort was a mystery to Indiw. In like circumstance, Katukin would have withdrawn to waylay the enemy while they celebrated their victory over Tacoma, and he was sure Tacoma's Captain Sutcliff knew that.
As it was, the effort to save Katukin had allowed several swarm ships to get past them. It was still an open question whether the swarm's Breeder had been on one of those ships and whether other ships would be able to intercept before they reached the planet they'd been heading toward. He thought that might well be Aberdeen.
He found his own craft unrecognizable under a coat of paint, sporting the Pit Bull Squadron's symbols and a large 4 under the insignia of Tacoma. At least they'd left the original First Tier chevrons in place.
He climbed into the familiar cockpit, trying not to notice the exterior. At least the worn seat still conformed to his back, and the controls adjusted readily to comfort level. All the damage had been competently repaired.
At a touch, the displays came up bright and clear, and when he inserted the briefing cartridge, the data came up in the format he was used to. He set the fighter's own diagnostic routines to running, and then concentrated on absorbing an overview of the tactical situation.
He found the nearest Ardr carrier, Katular, moving in to cover part of Katukin's territory, while Tacoma covered the rest. He charted their relative positions by time, and then expanded the view to show the border and the Hyos worlds beyond.
But when he asked for the global tactical situation, his map became overlaid with just a few lines and symbols.
He'd expected that, but he still had to choke back indignation. He was only a pilot. Here he wasn't entitled to all the information the carrier's top decision makers had. Here, only a few people knew enough about what was happening to make decisions, and everyone else just carried out those decisions, having no way to decide for themselves whether they wanted to do what was suggested or not. Even though the very idea turned his bone marrow to water, he had to accept that if he wanted to fly.
And I do want to fly.
On Sinaha, one of the Ardr worlds behind the line they were defending, there was a nice wooded range that would be his own someday—if the Hyos didn't get it first.
He pulled his light translating goggles down around his neck and brought up a picture of it, so he could retune his display to the correct colors from his real memory of the place.
The screen showed a clear stream burbling over glistening white rocks, green shrubbery, tall trees arching over the stream. Where one had fallen, a shaft of misty sunlight illuminated a flower-strewn clearing where, one day, he'd build his dwelling. His service as a pilot had already earned him forty percent of the monetary price and was well on the way to satisfying the other requirements.
He could smell the tree sap, hear the wildlife, feel the silken wind. Suddenly he ached to hunt.
"Home?" A human voice. Falstaff's voice.
The human was standing on the scaffold looking into the cockpit over Indiw's shoulder. Reorienting with an effort, Indiw translated the question. "Yes, I guess you'd say so." Smoothly he replaced the image with the tactical diagrams that now showed up in perfect color ratios.
"Looks really nice."
"Yes, your engineers did a fine job on the burned circuits, and now the color's tuned, the data display is perfect." He wondered what the color looked like to the human eye. He replaced his goggles and could barely make out the display lines.
Falstaff said, "I just wanted to make sure you'd understood all the targeting specifics and had done your triple checks on your systems. Your fighter was pretty badly torn up when we got you aboard yesterday."
"Diagnostics check out perfectly," Indiw answered stiffly, remembering Chancy's opinion of him as a flying partner. Falstaff, no doubt, agreed, no matter what he'd told her. But the man had chosen to come in person rather than use the com and let everyone know that he didn't trust his new wingman. "Now that I've got the displays tuned, I was going to check the mechanics directly. Want to help? Then I'll help you."
"Well, we don't usually—is that an Ardr procedure?"
"No—it's a Katukin custom. Four eyes may see what two eyes miss. We had a well earned reputation."
"Okay." He grinned. "Let's do it Katukin style."
Indiw grabbed a probe, and climbed out of the cockpit. He thought he sensed a strain in Falstaff, as if he was trying hard to overcome his distrust, or perhaps just trying to establish a bond that Indiw kept unconsciously rejecting. Considering that his former wingman had let him down, and he'd just been robbed of the one pilot in the wing who could out-fly him, the human was being very brave.
As they opened hatches, attached leads, and squinted at readouts, and did it all over again on Falstaff's fighter, Indiw made a conscious effort to communicate his trustworthiness to the human. Even when their hands accidentally knocked into each other, he didn't let his claws extend. Much.
If the human's nerve failed because he didn't trust Indiw, they could both be killed, and that could leave a hole in the formation that might cause the whole attack to fail. It might be a stupid way to conduct a combat mission, but it was the way they did things here. And when they did it right, they were at least as good as any Ardr battle group.
So as they worked, Indiw discussed every detail of the briefing data they'd allowed him to see, all the targeting data, and every possible variation of the action he could envision. About halfway through his recital, Falstaff began to open up, and they exchanged anecdotes of other onworld targets they'd attacked.
They finished checking the heavy missiles slung under Falstaff's fighter where Indiw carried smaller, lighter ordnance destined for moving targets. Falstaff gave one of the weapons an affectionate pat. "If it comes to a dogfight, just remember, you stick right there"—he pointed to a spot behind and above one wing—"and watch out behind us. Until I get rid of this stuff, I'll wallow like a pregnant cow."
So, the human hadn't understood a word Indiw had said.
Stiffly Indiw replied, "I understand my duties. I understand that if we each do our job, the entire operation will succeed. I will do my job."
"Of—" started Falstaff. He sighed, rubbed the back of his neck, then looked Indiw in the eyes. "I'll be counting on you. Let's go!"
Moments later Falstaff climbed into his cockpit, closed his canopy over his head, and brought his fighter up to readiness for launch.
Indiw scrambled to his own cockpit and secured for launch. His com had been retuned to get the humans on his primary channel, Ardr on two, with the Fornak frequency on three. He could monitor all three simultaneously if he needed to. Now, Pit Bull One was chanting them through another liturgy, this one disguised as a preflight check and countdown.
Indiw answered with the prescribed monosyllables and shunted his opinion of it all to one side. Now he had a mission to fly. Later, he could think.
Tacoma’s launch process was nearly identical to Katukin's, as all Tier engineering was fully compatible. Here the lighting was a little different, but the com chatter still had the feel of a group of people familiar with each other going out to do a routine job. When the objective is to live through it all, it can't really be so different. Can it?
Tacoma Launch Control pulled his fighter into the launch tube, lined it up, then turned the controls over to him. Indiw shot himself out of the launch tube right behind Pit Bull Three, and in one neat move fell into the position Falstaff had specified.
He got the acknowledgment from Falstaff he wanted and quietly made a rude gesture toward Pit Bull One. Nerves! Ha!
The squadron pulled together and waited as the wing's formation assembled around them. Pit Bull was in the middle of the pack with three other squadrons carrying heavy ordnance. The rest were there to protect them and deliver them to target——and maybe home again, too. Maybe.
"Pit Bull Four, this is Red Leader. Acknowledge." It was a deep, resonant voice that came across very clearly.
"Pit Bull Four acknowledging Red Leader," said Indiw.
"Pit Bull Four, you do know my commands override even Pit Bull One's?"
"Yes, sir, Red Leader."
There was a very faint chorus of laughter, hardly more than a few grunts and chuckles.
"Pit Bull Four, that's yes, ma'am, Red Leader," corrected the voice that was in command of the entire pack.
"Sorry. Yes, ma'am, Red Leader." Red was the name of the color of human blood. An appropriate squadron name.
"You will recognize my voice now?"
"Yes, ma'am, Red Leader."
Red Leader issued terse instructions, and the pack—wing, he corrected himself—settled down for the four hour run to target. Even at two lights, it would take that long.
Indiw spent the time studying the targeting data and attack plan. But there was so little available to him that it made him feel like a helpless victim not a fighter pilot protecting his territory. In desperation, he focused his attention on the humans doing their bonding liturgies in profane and sexual tones. He couldn't imagine what it must be like to have one's sexuality all bound up in one's aggressive/defensive instincts. Talk about evolution handing out a raw deal!
When they were in range of the border with Hyos territory, they dropped below lightspeed to take their bearings. These small craft couldn't carry the gear for long range astrogation.
With course corrections laid in, they went silent, engaged their stealth shielding, and separated to scatter any leakage they might be trailing. Red Leader's last order was "Pit Bull Four, you be sure to stick with Pit Bull Three."
"Yes, ma'am, Red Leader." How many times were they going to tell him? He had chosen this after all. But then every instructor on alien behavior warned not to expect decency from other species. He supposed the humans had been similarly warned and didn't expect him to display ordinary human decency. That was probably wise advice.
Before they'd penetrated far beyond the border zone, a few Hyos tracings flared across the scopes, distant ships going about their business. The established Hyos rarely helped a swarm by warning of incoming attacks, though they would let the swarm know they'd been targeted. But by the same token, they wouldn't help the attackers, either, except to locate the swarm's nest and grant permission to pulverize it. After it declared itself, the swarm's fate was no longer a matter of interest to the Hyos establishment.
But a swarm wasn't an unintelligent foe. The swarm consisted of young Hyos, well educated, well trained, talented in every way Hyos could be, easily the equal of any species of the First Tier. They had spaceships, and colonizing equipment, offensive and defensive armament, and all the training and—unlike their settled relatives—the will to use their training to take territory.
The target world loomed in the scopes, showing swirling clouds, sparkling oceans, and teaming cities sprawling across the land masses. While they were still far out in space, Indiw's targeting systems pinpointed the swarm's installation in a high mountain valley far from anything else.
He studied the energy use patterns, life signs, metallic masses that had to be ships. Much of the complex might be underground, but still—there wasn't enough metal there. But there was no time to think. They were already skimming the outermost radiation belts just above the atmosphere.
"This is Red Leader. Deploy for atmosphere. Orbiters, take position."
The fighters deployed their stubby wings for the steep glide in. Pit Bull came down in formation, Indiw right where Falstaff wanted him to be, already watching their rear habitually.
It was a textbook perfect attack run. Despite the clouds, the missiles slid neatly into their trajectories, acquired their targets, and began evasive maneuvers before any return fire came up from the ground. Falstaff's missiles burrowed deep into the underground complex in concert with those laid by the other squadrons, and on cue, the surface heaved and fell in, forming a deep pit.
Still, return fire came up at them, hot and heavy. It hit when the attackers were at the bottom of their descent, fighting gravity and air, craft straining and shaking to pull up. Just the sound wave they were leaving behind them was enough to destroy buildings.
The squadrons carrying lighter ordnance dove deeper, strafing the surface complex and its low altitude defenses. Even so, Pit Bull fighters were buffeted by wild energies from the densely placed surface weapons. Explosions kicked him out of his slot and he had to fight his computer, overriding the safeties to keep him in position. He hated atmosphere flying.
Then Pit Bull One called orders and the squadron recovered, and swept around back into the formation and returned on target. This time, it was Indiw's turn to ride down in front with Falstaff behind him, for Indiw was carrying the slender pinpoint-accurate missiles to take out ground weaponry.
Pit Bull One assigned him the installation atop a stone outcropping, above the swarm's hangars. Rows of big transports sat on the field before the hangars, but there were few fighters down there. No tankers. That was all he had time to note.
He found his target, a defensive gun that threw a spinning shaft of energy that could slice up a fighter. Suddenly things seemed familiar. This he'd done dozens of times before, and he knew just how to go about it.
He brought up the standard subroutines he needed, input the data, set up the attack run, and rode the ship down in its steepest power dive, ten percent beyond specs but still safer than getting sliced up. The program released his preprimed missile when he was so close, going so fast, that the slicer couldn't respond. Then he penetrated the slicer's cone of effectiveness and right over the center of his target installation, his program pulled him up from the dive, mashing him helplessly into his seat.
He was gone before the stationary installations defending his target could track, lock on, and destroy him.
When the explosion bloomed behind him, kicking him hard, he was lying on his back, his fighter in a vertical climb, taking advantage of the extra push from the explosion to pile on the gravities. Four agonizing breaths later, the force let up enough for him to report, "Pit Bull One, I got the slicer."
"Pit Bull Four, what the hell kinda damnfool stunt was that? This is a squadron not a circus! And prepriming is against regs! G'dammit, where's Falstaff?"
Indiw had forgotten all about the human. He suddenly remembered that most humans couldn't make the stress tolerances that some Ardr could, and he was top in stress tolerance among Ardr. Had Falstaff tried that climb and blacked out? But no, there he was in the scope, approaching from the rear, closing back into position.
"I'm here, Grummon. Helluva ride, but I killed a fighter that came within a hair of getting Pit Bull Four."
"But—!" Indiw cut off his objection. He had seen nothing. He said, "Pit Bull Three, thank you."
"Day's work," replied Falstaff. "And it's not over yet. Just don't pull any more shit, okay?"
The flight leader had marshaled the squadron into formation with the other squadrons that had gone down. Before Indiw had a chance to verify for himself that they'd cleared the entire target area, they were driving for orbit, exchanging routine commentary on the swarm's response. Though the ground-based fire had been heavier than anyone had ever seen before, there had been few fighters rising to greet them. They had lost no craft, though some were damaged.
Indiw cut across the self-congratulatory chatter to say, "Check out the metallic mass readings down there, then the ratio of transports to fighters. There are lots of fighters missing."
Red Leader and the flight leaders conferred while the attackers rejoined the orbiters and took turns refueling for the trip home, which would take longer. Tacoma was already far from where they had left it, and would be farther still by the time they rendezvoused.
Orbital observations showed no activity around the swarm's installation. The humans in authority concluded the missing fighters just hadn't been built yet. They'd killed the target. When Indiw objected, Grummon cut off his com link to the rest of the wing and told him in a growling tone, "We got the Breeder. Couple dozen fighters don't matter. The swarm is killed. I don't want to hear your voice again!"
The com clicked and chuckled, and the chatter resumed. Then Indiw was too busy to pay attention as he nuzzled up to the tanker and refueled. His steep vertical climb had used up a prodigious amount of fuel, and so when they pulled the plug on him, his gauges showed not quite full. Still, it should get him back to Tacoma.
While his fighter was drinking the hyperpressed matter/antimatter powder from the tanker, and afterward, as he stood off to guard during Falstaff's refueling, he scanned for Hyos craft. There was a lot of traffic in orbit, but no formations of tiny masses bristling with energy. As the pack re-formed for the jump past light speed, Indiw engaged one of his own surveillance programs. Instead of focusing on the rear, as Falstaff had instructed him, he let the program scan globally with maximum sensitivity forward along their course home.
That sensitivity caused every little blip to set off his alarms, which made him flex his claws. He knew there had to be swarm fighters hunting them but the humans didn't believe in them because their leaders told them not to. He wanted to set his own course back to Tacoma, not sit here as part of a huge, obvious target.
If they really had gotten the Breeder, those fighters had nothing to live for. If they hadn't, the swarm fighters would be determined to open a hole in the Tier defense line. Either way, those missing Hyos fighters were a menace it was pointless to face with such reduced ammunition.
Nearing the border with Tier space, Red Leader gave the order to drop below lightspeed for course correction. And it was a good thing, too, because they were much farther from the border than their instruments had indicated. In fact, they were still deep in enemy territory.
Indiw tensed, eyes flicking over his displays. He was the first to spot them.
"Incoming, dead astern!" he warned, despite Pit Bull One's injunction against his voice being heard on the com again. "Fifteen blips." There had to be more somewhere.
Another voice reported thirty more sightings, but cut off in midword. "This is Silver Wolf Two. Silver Wolf One's gone. Form on me, Silver Wolves." Another voice cut in reporting an uncounted number of Hyos closing fast.
Red Leader murmured orders in cold, cool tones. Grummon's voice blurred across her words. Falstaff answered for Pit Bull Three and Four, and suddenly they were very busy. Indiw had thought he understood human space battle formations from reading and simulator practice, and perhaps he did in theory, but the reality was something else.
The next long minutes were a blur of stretching tension followed by blazing action. Indiw never did gain a grasp of the battle as a whole, never did reach the point of confidence he was accustomed to in the heat of combat. He followed Falstaff through the maneuvers, half his mind concentrating on understanding what the human was doing, trying to anticipate his next move. The other half tracked the Hyos by sheer habit.
Three times, Hyos craft vanished in the blaze of his weapons, and two more times he sliced pieces off enemies. Neutralized, the humans would say. Once Grummon took out a Hyos missile Indiw had been unable to shake. Falstaff killed two enemy craft, but he missed one that went on to collide with Red Leader. Bits of debris pinged against Indiw's craft, penetrating his now tattered energy shields.
In panic, he wondered what the humans would do now their leader was slain, but another voice took over command of the battle as smoothly and coolly as the woman's had. Of course, chain of command. They never ran out of leaders until the last human was dead. Why had he forgotten that?
Falstaff dove into the thick of the swarm fighters, and Indiw was too busy to think. His job was to stay with Falstaff and guard his back. And he did his job. He lost count of how many times flame blossomed at the far reach of his weapons. Once, he flew directly at a Hyos bearing down on Falstaff, and forced the other to change course. Then he got him on a softened rear shield. The Hyos vaporized, and Indiw circled back to chase Falstaff into another knot of Hyos.
Somewhere on the periphery of his awareness, the rest of Pit Bull harried the same group of fighters he and Falstaff were nibbling on. It was like a tightly choreographed mating dance, but he had to keep looking at everyone else's feet to see what he was supposed to be doing.
He took some more impact damage from debris, but it was minor. The sleeting radiation was worse. Where a shield had softened for a moment, radiation seared one of his weapons' control circuits. He went to backup, but it was sluggish. Nobody else was unscathed. Even Grummon's craft showed scorch marks.
A nearby blast whited out all his screens, and for three heart-stopping seconds, he flew blind, fighting to align his shields against the barrage. He came out the other side, and his canopy, momentarily robbed of its energy sheath, was suddenly coated with the infinitely dangerous granules of fighter fuel. His scope showed him Falstaff's craft, just ahead of him, holed and leaking. "Pit Bull Three, you're spewing fuel. Shut down!"
"Can't. Stay with me, Indiw." And they were around and driving toward a Hyos that was chasing Grummon. Grummon's wingman was engaged with two other Hyos while Grummon dodged a missile and tried to fry its brain with a scramble beam.
Indiw had no time to vibrate his shields and carefully shake that stuff off his canopy. Jaw clenched, eyes closed, he just rammed the shield back to full power. When he knew he'd survived, he looked, and sure enough, the granules were gone.
But there was a Hyos on his tail. He fired just as the Hyos entered the cloud of fuel Indiw had shed.
The Hyos and the fuel went up in a spectacular ball of fire. Hard radiation sleeted through everything.
Falstaff went for the Hyos on Grummon's tail. That Hyos broke off, turned, and came after Indiw. Indiw twisted, dove, and climbed in the maneuver prescribed for giving Falstaff a clean shot at the Hyos. His craft screamed its protest, circuits crackled, and the fire controls triggered behind his cockpit somewhere. Everything on his boards was redlined. He shut off the audio alarms.
To Indiw's utter surprise, the maneuver worked. Falstaff whooped his triumph a split instant before the Hyos blew apart, but the whoop turned to a roar of surprise. When his screens cleared, Indiw saw the gaping hole in the starboard side of Falstaff's craft.
But his scanners were clear. There were no more Hyos. The only blips with Tier colors were the four of Pit Bull Squadron. Everything else was lifeless debris. Everything.
There was a silent interval of collecting their wits, and Indiw felt his own sense of completion. He'd done what he'd set out to do. He'd fought with the humans. They'd won. And he'd lived through it. Then Grummon's voice asked, "Any of you see any survivors?"
"Nothing here," reported Grummon's wingman grimly.
"My scans are a little hazy, but I don't see anything. Unless some of them took off, we're the only survivors."
"That's how I make it," agreed Grummon. "What about you, Pit Bull Four?"
"I show only debris and us four."
"Three," corrected Falstaff. "I'm totaled. I'm never going to make it back to Tacoma."
Indiw's first thought was of Falstaff's cocky promise to Marla Chancy, but he couldn't remind Falstaff of that over the open circuit. Grummon solved the problem human style. He ordered Falstaff into place in the formation and pointed them toward the border.
Limping along at Falstaff's best pace, they compared damage reports and exchanged astrogation data, checking each other's figures for radiation-induced errors. Nobody was getting really reliable answers, so they took an average. Then they estimated how close to Tacoma Falstaff might possibly get before he became inert debris. They chose a point where Falstaff could cut his drive and coast from there, conserving life support until his oxygen ran out.
"All right, that's it," said Grummon at last. "Falstaff, you stay on this course and conserve oxygen. Go sub-light just where we calculated. We'll send S&R to pick you up."
"Make sure it's not Chancy. I don't like to be crowed over."
"My sympathies, but it'd be better than suffocating."
"Not by much."
As Indiw had suspected, human females could be as difficult to deal with as Ardr women.
"Come on, guys," said Pit Bull One, "we're still in Hyos space, and we've got a report to file." Grummon led off, increasing his speed as his wingman fell in beside him without comment.
Indiw didn't move from Falstaff's flank.
Grummon snapped, "Pit Bull Four, move it!"
"No, sir, I'm with Pit Bull Three, sir."
"Commander Indoo, get your ass up here. Now! That is an order."
Indiw didn't answer. He couldn't argue within their warped reasoning, but he knew what he had chosen to do, and he was going to do it.
Falstaff said, "Indiw, he has the right to give that order. You have to go."
"I'm staying." He'd heard Falstaff's voice in many tones now. He knew Falstaff was as astounded and outraged at Grummon's order as he himself felt.
"Look," said Falstaff, "there's no sense putting both of us at risk. They'll send S&R for me as soon as you get into com range of Tacoma. They'll be here before you've even finished debriefing."
"Indiw, there's nothing you can do for me—"
"I am staying."
Indiw himself wasn't sure why he was so firmly committed. But he had made his choice, and the more they tried to chivvy him out of it, the more offended he became. Could no one here respect the concept of choice?
Up ahead, Pit Bull One and his wingman were comparing notes on fuel and distance. Grummon said, "We've got to go or we'll never make it ourselves. Sit tight, Falstaff. Indiw, you are on report."
A flash of color, and the two fighters were gone, driving toward home at two lights.
"Falstaff? Is it very serious to be on report?"
"It can be. But in your case, somehow I don't think so."
"Because I was right?"
"God, no! Because you're Ardr. You fought so well, I think Grummon was just surprised you suddenly defied him."
"I wasn't defying him!"
"No? That should be an interesting one to hear. But we're not supposed to be talking. We're supposed to be conserving oxygen."
They fell silent and engaged the brain wave stimulator that would slow their metabolisms, keeping them alert to the alarms, yet relaxed. But Indiw's mind gnawed at his vitals. Staying had been a really stupid thing to do by anybody's measure. He couldn't explain it to the humans, and he'd never be able to explain it to his own people. Of course, they would just accept it as his choice. He hoped. But he did have to explain it to himself, and he didn't know how.
To stop his fruitless fretting, Indiw reconfigured his boards and recharted their course progress toward their rendezvous point using a different mathematics than the humans had used to strike their average. Then he added Tacoma's ever shifting position.
It would be moving away from the rendezvous at considerable speed. Like all Ardr carriers, the human carrier Tacoma was the base for four complete fighter wings with all support vessels. The other wings would be flying other missions. Tacoma had to be in position to pick them up, too, or to support them if they came home trailing a swarm of Hyos fighters.
He tried to figure how soon Grummon would be in com range, and how soon Tacoma could dispatch a rescue, exactly when it could reach the rendezvous point where Falstaff would go inert. He checked his figures, then checked them again. The humans' average figures had been way off. No way could the pickup reach that rendezvous before Falstaff—and Indiw—ran out of air. Using Grummon's figures, they wouldn't even try.
He checked the calculations again, then checked his circuits. The formulas he was now using accessed a different processor than the one he'd used to help Grummon's calculations. This processor wasn't balky and weak. It hadn't been scrambled so badly by radiation. And even when he checked the math mentally, it came out the same. They weren't going to make it.
Falstaff was leaking fuel, and had almost lost superlight capability, probably from that second rent in his starboard side. Indiw's own craft was damaged as well, though he had fuel and power. Under strain, he might spring some seals or blow some circuits. No telling which ones. If he accelerated hard now to try to reach Tacoma and get help for Falstaff—he could very well find himself entombed in a helpless ship with no one knowing where to look for him.
He was pondering the options when a new cloud of vapor puffed out of the hole in Falstaff's craft. Simultaneously the com crackled with a loud noise, and the craft went sublight. Indiw tracked him down only because his instrument lock on Falstaff kicked him sublight, too. Even so, Indiw had to reduce his acceleration by half to stay with Falstaff.
"Pit Bull Three, what happened?" asked Indiw.
"Dunno. Wait—wait—ah, shit! The seal on my number two thruster went. That's it, Indiw. You better get out of here. I've been checking the calculations for hours, and there's still a chance you might make it."
So the human had been running the same calculations he had—and had been getting the same answer.
"Go on. What are you waiting for? You can still make it to Tacoma, but in a few minutes, that won't be possible. Tell the-“
"No!" He had an idea. He worked his screens as fast as he could, searching for the data he needed.
"Indiw, this is no time for—"
"No, listen! I've been running the calculation, too, assuming we had to make it back to Tacoma. But you see, Tacoma is moving away from us because Katular is moving toward us! Katular is moving into position to pick up one of its own battle groups that attacked another planet bound swarm, don't you remember, it was in the morning briefing—"
"What are you talking about?"
He couldn't believe the humans didn't even read their own briefing materials. Maybe they only remembered what pertained to their own missions. But this was no time to—aha! "I've got it! Katular's inside our range. If it's kept to its plan, it should be heading directly toward us now. But to make contact, we've got to turn. Here, look at this plot." He sent his map and tactical overlays to the human.
"Lord, I'd never make the turn. Indiw, I've only got one wheezing engine!"
"If we don't try it, we'll both die before Tacoma can find us. When they don't find us at rendezvous, they'll look along our plotted line of approach, but they'll expect we'll be traveling at the calculated velocity Grummon gave them. It'll be days, maybe weeks, till they find us—if they even keep looking after they know we're dead."
Falstaff thought about it for a while, and Indiw could hear the bleeps as he calculated. "In about two days, they'll turn the search over to Katular. You're right. They're much closer. But physics is the same in any culture. I still can't make the turn."
"Yes, you can!" As he said it, he knew how it could be done. "Your screens are intact. Mine are in bad shape, but my impulse cannon is functioning." After a fashion. He hadn't mentioned the sluggish response his backup circuits had been giving him at the end of the battle.
"What good is that?" asked the human.
But Indiw's hands were racing over his controls, modeling his idea and running simulations as he made adjustments. "We can do it. I know we can. We have to."
"G'dammit, man, what are you talking about!"
"All right, look at this!" He sent the simulation display over, and explained, "You turn off propulsion and power up your shields on just one side, and I power down my cannon. I come around to here, into just the right position, and I hit your shields with little punches, little taps, not too much in any one place to break through the shield. See, it will transfer momentum! You feel it when something hits your shields in battle. You'll feel it now. Only without propulsion to correct for it, you'll go where I send you.
After he got over the shock of it, Falstaff argued. It was an insane plan. It couldn't be done.
Indiw, at his wit's end as the clock ate up the time, finally countered, "Well, if you don't try it, you'll surely never collect on that bet with Commander Chancy!"
There was a long, profound silence. Then Falstaff said, "That's a point." And after that he listened to Indiw's plans, at first leery, then awed, then enthusiastic.
Within fifteen minutes they had the thing set up. At first, Indiw had his cannon powered down too far. But little by little, they made the tricky adjustments. He was afraid he might miss the one stiffened shield and hit Falstaff. He was afraid his circuitry would malfunction and make the cannon emit a blast that would pulverize anything, shields or no. He was afraid the whole idea was as idiotic as it sounded. Mostly, he was just afraid.
But his hands were steady as he worked with his controls, and Falstaff's voice coached him in a low, calm tone that made the whole thing seem like a simulator exercise. After a while, he simply concentrated on perfecting the program he taught his system for the maneuver.
And then, unbelievably, they were around and onto the course they needed. Falstaff stiffened his rear shield instead of the flank, and Indiw repositioned. This time, Falstaff engaged his propulsion system at the same time. When Indiw was in position and matching his acceleration, they had to recompute the cannon shots and the shield power.
Falstaff, using most of his limited resources for his remaining engine, couldn't shield his rear as strongly as he'd shielded his flank.
Several times they had to stop when shielding wavered and let a blast through. Falstaff's craft couldn't take any more. Then they'd compute their E.T.A. against the remaining oxygen supply, and realize they had to keep at it. So once more they'd estimate how much the remaining shield could take and Indiw calibrated his cannon very carefully.
They worked up to a good clip, but it just wasn't enough. Perhaps if they'd started earlier, they might have made it. But as it was they'd be dead two hours before they reached Katular.
When Falstaff's shield finally did fail completely from the cannon barrage, Katular was still so far outside their com range that it was pointless to try, but Indiw set up the automatic distress call anyway.
"What are you doing?" asked Falstaff.
"Well, maybe someone will pick it up and relay it."
"We're pretty far inside Tier territory now. I don't think we'll run into any Hyos unless they're swarming, in which case they won't stop to investigate a distress call."
"No shit," Falstaff conceded.
"Besides, there might be a Katular fighter about."
"Not according to the briefing you so carefully pointed out to me. They should all be picked up by now."
"Well, someone might have chosen to go home by a different route. Besides, even though you can't spare an erg, I've still got the energy to burn, so why not signal?"
"True. But we're so far off the shipping lanes, Katular's got to be the only thing around to hear us, and it's much too far away."
"You should go on ahead and try to reach it by yourself."
"If you saw my board, you wouldn't say that." There was more red and more FAIL indicators than Indiw had ever seen before. "This craft isn't going anywhere."
"You took more damage than you reported?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. But failures have been progressive. I still think we have a chance, though. Just go to sleep to conserve oxygen. They'll find us."
They exchanged a few more comments, then set their brain wave stimulators to induce deep coma. Indiw's last thought was of the land on Sinaha that might yet be his.
Only when, after a long, lazy return to consciousness, he opened his eyes on normal light did Indiw realize he hadn't seriously expected to live.
He was in the hospital aboard an Ardr ship.
The sounds were normal, the air pressure was normal, the symphony of smells was wholly reassuring, and the breeze was cool, unlike the still, stuffy heat of the human ship. A thousand cues he'd never been aware of before told his body he was safe.
The tree branches arching over his bed rustled——albeit in the artificial breeze——and rained aromatic pollen onto his skin that had been tortured by that awful uniform. It was bliss. A tiny fountain beside his bed trickled effervescent water. His bed was made of the finest white sand cupped in a pink granite bowl——so it was fake granite, it was still pure heaven after waking in that human hospital, coughing and vomiting from sheer subliminal terror, sicker from that than from ramming his fighter into the crash fields on Tacoma's flight deck.
The healing tree had done its work well. He stretched, took a deep breath, and sat up, scrubbing the sand over his skin to cleanse away the last of the odor of illness. He could buff the scratches off later. Right now he wanted to feel clean. Then he plunged his head, horns first, into the depths of the fountain. He drank deeply, letting the bubbles stimulate his horns and cool the stiff crest between them until it resumed its brilliant whiteness. He even sucked some of the frothy stuff deep into his lungs. Ah, wonderful!
"Falstaff!" he whispered as he suddenly realized what this luxury must seem like to the human. And then he knew he really had expected to die out in space. When he'd proposed his scheme, he'd never given one thought to the consequences of success.
The human had tried to welcome Indiw to Tacoma. He had to make a similar effort for him, now. After all, it was his decision that had brought them both here. And he had to protect Katular from Falstaff——if he could.
He glanced at the hedges isolating him from the other patients in this public area. When he concentrated, he could make out the human scent, and that together with a trace of sound gave him the direction. The human issue uniform and flight suit he had worn had been taken away, but they'd left pilot's straps for him. He donned them hastily, buffed his hide to an even ruddy glow to be sure he was decent, fluffed his crest dry, then sidled through the hedge into the trail between treatment areas.
"How do you feel now?" a soft voice asked in the common language of the First Tier.
"Lousy. Don't you have something——anything——for a headache? Where are my clothes? And where's Indiw? You did pick him up, too, didn't you?"
Someone sighed, eloquently conveying relief and bafflement together.
Homing on the sound, Indiw plunged through the hedgerow and spoke before Falstaff could even see him. "Commander, I am here, and well, and pleased you have survived, too."
The staff people surrounding the bed at a proper reassuring distance turned on Indiw, crouched in defensive posture. Indiw apologized with a hasty gesture. They straightened, embarrassed at overreacting. Indiw slipped between them into Falstaff's personal space, knowing the staff's polite distance had only increased his tension and thus his pain.
They had stretched a piece of white material over the sand to try to give the human something familiar to lie on, and they'd turned off the wind so it was hot and stuffy. The healing tree's pollen was making a sticky mess out of the material.
The human's bare skin was covered with a sparse coat of short hair matted now by the pollen. His head hair was even worse. Falstaff was curled on one side, one knee raised, back twisted to expose only his bare flank and ribs to the pollen fall. It must feel like hell. He wondered if the strip of skin that was a lighter color was more sensitive. Though the pollen would do a human no biochemical harm, it surely wouldn't do any good either.
The tactile memory of the warm water shower the humans had made Indiw use in their hospital flattened his crest and told him instantly what to do for this man. "Sarlkin," he addressed the nearest specialist by title, "I am Indiw. This one needs warm water falling from above his height to cleanse himself, and his clothing must be cleaned and presented to him immediately. Then he must have food suitable for humans after a long fast, preferably warm food with hot drink. With this treatment and some conversation, his pain should subside."
"We are endeavoring to provide conversation, but I had forgotten about the water requirements of humans. Food is on the way to his quarters, and I will see that his clothing is readied. Tijutin, find a way to provide for his watering needs." The Sarlkin gestured his thanks to Indiw with a whole body move, and left, followed by the other technicians.
"Boy, am I glad to see you!" The human sank back in what appeared to be relief. One hand tried, in an apparently habitual but frustrated gesture, to flip the cloth around himself. It was, however, anchored firmly. He rested his head on the crook of one elbow and commented, "I wouldn't have recognized you out of uniform. Do you remember anything that happened?" He felt his head again, and muttered, "I'm not used to waking up in a ship's hospital, hurting."
"I remember nothing after we engaged the brain wave regulators until I woke up here a few minutes ago. If the pain is great, perhaps there is more wrong than simple oxygen deprivation?"
"Not that bad, really. How long were we out? There isn't even a clock in here."
With his back to the fountain, the human was looking right at the instrument panel and didn't even recognize it. Indiw stepped closer into the human's space, wondering why he was still just lying there. Perhaps he was more ill than he sounded? He knelt to open the instrument panel and expose the bedside services monitor and the clock. "About, hmmm, twelve hours since we started to coast toward Katular. So we must have been here, oh, maybe four hours."
"So by now somebody must have told Tacoma we're here. Who would be in charge of that? How can we verify that the message was sent?"
A few days ago Indiw would never have been able to understand the helplessness the human had to be feeling. But his own experiences had given him a new perspective. Indiw punched up the Communications Roster to see who had volunteered to handle traffic today. He got the name of the responsible party, entered the query, and got a negative even before Falstaff became impatient for an answer.
"No message about us has been sent to Tacoma. Would you like to word that message yourself?"
"Nobody told them we'd been picked up? How could that be?"
"I don't know. Is it important? I could find out."
"Don't bother. Just have somebody tell Tacoma we're all right—can we get a status report on our fighters to send with the message? Are they repairable? How long until we can get out of here?"
Indiw concluded the human was actually in better shape than he himself was, for Indiw's own brain was not yet functioning on that level. He was still in shock from finding himself alive—and with the responsibility for a very lost human trying to survive in an Ardr environment.
But even as Falstaff spoke, he was entering the queries and getting what answers Katular had on file. "Minimum repair time on yours, six days. Mine may be ready before that. Since we were hospitalized, our fighters weren't put on priority. I'll append that to the message to Tacoma."
He reduced the information to the telegraphic syntax used by the Tier fleets and put it in the com hopper. "The message will go out in, oh, approximately three hours."
"Ha. Meanwhile, we're AWOL. I wonder how Chancy's taking it?"
The drop in the human's tone of voice alerted Indiw to the possibility of a slide into depression. "I will apply for a priority status on our repairs since we're uninjured," he said, doing it, "and then I'll go and see about expediting that shower for you—and your clothing."
While he was about it, he called up the space allocation listing and found that the medical department had subject-to-approval holds on two places for them on the pilot's deck. "Look, they've gotten us quarters next to each other. Here's a visual of your place. See if it suits you. You can always choose any other vacant place, but all the ones on the pilot's deck are apt to be similar. Order any special equipment you'd like while I go get things moving."
"Hey, you're a patient here, too. You can't just wander out."
"Why not? I'm fine." He was all the way out in the public corridor before he recalled how upset the human medics had been when he'd gone looking for work. Left to himself, the human would remain in the hospital until people thought him not quite sane. There were a lot of things not in the cross-species manuals!
He found the Sarlkin supervising the setup of a freestanding shower stall in the quarters they'd claimed for the human. A small heating unit was being spliced into the water lines to provide warmed water. The techs argued about what temperature to set it for, with the Sarlkin insisting it shouldn't be more than the temperature of human blood.
Indiw described the shower in the human hospital, and the engineer went in search of a water mixing valve and some more pipe. Falstaff's flight suit, cleaned but looking rather odd, was folded over a seating unit beside his fountain. It was damp from the spray. Indiw moved it close to an air vent to dry. A large cloth had been provided to cover the sand bed. When he checked, Indiw found that Falstaff had rapidly conquered the ship's system and ordered several more cloths and some soft padding for his quarters.
Exploring his own quarters, Indiw found a basic issue wardrobe and grooming kit. He snatched up the large, shapeless drape ordinarily worn to contain one's scent during sexual arousal and went back to the hospital.
Very carefully not mentioning what the garment was usually for, he said, "Here, put this on. By the time we get to your quarters, the shower should be ready, and by then your clothing will be dry."
That trip with Falstaff through ordinary ship's corridors was the most memorable of his life. He recalled the wide, brightly lit, often jam-packed halls of Tacoma and saw the narrow, dark, deserted spaces through human eyes. Tacoma and Katular were identical in hull manufacture, but the humans carved their interiors into tiny sleeping compartments and huge, open gathering spots. Ardr put most of their space into individual living units, and very little into public space—except necessary working areas and the mating area that on a carrier like this would be lavish. Don't even think about that! Not now.
He got his charge installed in quarters duly equipped and supplied with several shipping crates of emergency rations rated for humans. Of course, Tacoma had not offered him anything better. But the medics had managed to provide heating equipment for the part of the human’s food that wouldn’t heat itself.
The engineers, medics, and service crew were all clearing out of the human's place as Indiw and Falstaff arrived. With apologetic gestures for having intruded, which Indiw accepted gracefully on Falstaff's behalf, the crew hurried away.
"Well, come on in, close the door," said Falstaff as he advanced on the pile of clothing. "Lord, what a mess." He picked up his uniform and shook it. "These uniforms don't need pressing! Well, I'll manage." Then he turned and saw Indiw still politely beyond the threshold. "Don't just stand there. It's drafty. Come in."
"Uh, one doesn't intrude into the private space of another. And, hmmm, I—uh—" His eyes flicked in the direction of his own place.
"Ah, it's been a while since you've been alone," said Falstaff with a nod. "Sorry, you've been through worse than I have the last couple of days. Go on. I'll get this all figured out. Just—ah—where do you suppose they've put the services monitor in here?"
"Right by your left hand. There's a plant tendril that needs trimming growing down over it."
"In here?" He fumbled the panel open. "Fine. I'm set. Go get some rest. If nothing else, I can do some gardening!"
Indiw hoped that was a joke signaling the lifting of the impending depression. "I'll call you to be sure you know how to call me. Just a minute."
He went into his own quarters and closed the door, putting his privacy lock code into it. Then he went to his own panel, dropped into the seat with an astonishing sense of relief washing through his knees, and entered Falstaff's room designation. "Pilot Commander Falstaff?"
"Walt," the human corrected, his viewer shimmering on and finally focusing. "After all this, surely you can call me Walt?"
"If that would please you, Walt." Indiw gave him the code designation for his own quarters, then waited while the human ran the connection for himself. "Good. Now I will get some rest. But don't—whatever you do—don't go wandering off through the ship by yourself. When you're ready to go out, call me." He could imagine what would happen if Falstaff drifted into some private worship service or worse yet the mating area.
Indiw tamed his imagination and devoted himself to an evening of creature comforts, of food that nourished spirit as well as body, of space that didn't echo with the scents of others, space he could make his own. It was emotionally overwhelming, and the sheer magnitude of the physical reaction and the severe fatigue that followed told him how close to the edge he had come. What must Falstaff be going through?
Indiw woke groggily to the com signal, dunked his head in his bedside fountain, shook, and rolled to his feet. It was twelve hours since he'd fallen asleep. He knew who it had to be on the com. And sure enough, it was Falstaff.
"Good morning, Walt," he said in the exact tone he'd learned from a language drill.
"How can you tell it's morning? The clock goes around three times for every day."
That's not why he's calling. "See where the little red dot is displayed? First position is morning, the second afternoon, the third night. But I know it's morning because I just woke up."
The human laughed. That's a good sign.
"Sorry I woke you, but listen, Indiw, I've been playing with this monitor for hours. Every time I think I've got it whipped, I discover I was all wrong. So I need some help. Can you come over here?"
"I'd rather not," he said without thinking, then regretted it. The human needed his space invaded, though Indiw needed his solitude. "But if you really want me to-"
"Oh, well, I wouldn't want to—"
Indiw felt ashamed. It was bad enough forcing the human to ask for help, then on top of that, he refused to give it. "I'm starved, and I need some time to wake up. Give me an hour or so, and I'll come see what your problem is."
"Fair enough. See you then. Now, how do you shut this down?" He fumbled and the screen went blank.
Actually, that was encouraging. If Falstaff had been playing with the services access, he hadn't gone wandering. Maybe they could get him back to Tacoma without a major interstellar incident.
It took Indiw twice as long as he'd estimated to get ready to take on the challenges his imagination served up based on his own adventures, but finally he presented himself at Falstaff's door. Glancing up and down the corridor to make sure nobody was around to observe, he slipped in as soon as the human opened it.
He showed him how to personalize his lock code, then Falstaff led him to the monitor. "Look what I found. It's some kind of note about your shipmates in sickbay on Tacoma, but I couldn't make out what it—"
Indiw reached across and tapped in a code, holding his breath. Then he swore blisteringly as he stifled a raw emotional surge. He lunged to his feet and retreated as far from the human as he could, struggling to master his shock.
While Indiw struggled Falstaff waited, patiently at first and then with growing concern. Indiw pulled himself together and explained, "They're dead. I'm the only survivor of Katukin."
The human made an inarticulate sound and whipped around to stare at the display. Obviously, he could read some Ardr words when spelled out, but symbols and abbreviations no doubt were a mystery to him. He hadn't realized the posting had been a death notice.
Indiw forced his paralyzing shock aside, and walked back to sit by the human, pointing out the revealing symbols. "The others died in the hospital aboard Tacoma. Your Captain has signaled that Katular should send a party to pick up the bodies."
"Shit. They were friends of yours? I'm sorry, Indiw."
Indiw summoned patience. "I knew them, yes. But—"
"Look, we'll light a fire under the engineers to get our fighters ready. Somehow we'll wangle our way into the pickup party. They deserve to have a friend among their pallbearers. That way, I can get back to Tacoma, and you can return with your own people. Now, who do we talk to in order to get ourselves assigned to this mission?"
As he spoke, Falstaff had pulled up the roster, but obviously didn't know what to do with it. Indiw took the controls, pretending his fingers weren't shaking. He'd never be able to explain that his reaction wasn't grief but shock at finding himself the only survivor, and what that portended for his future if and when anyone noticed.
Being a lone survivor could make his career provided it didn't seem he'd been deranged by it.
He told the human, "You don't 'get assigned.' And you don't need anyone's permission. Attitudes like that will make everyone uncomfortable with you."
Falstaff nodded, as if suddenly understanding.
Indiw called up the progress records on the repairs to their fighters. He looked over what the engineers had done, and what remained to be done, then he found the priority assignment list and saw what jobs the engineers had on their lists ahead of their craft.
Using the ship's repair estimating program, he figured how soon their fighters could be ready if they were on the list for the mission to Tacoma. With the upped priority, they could gain maybe a day. "So. If the mission flies two days from now, we can be on it. And it makes sense that you should go with this group, to return you to your base ship. See, there are still swarms active in the area—will be for weeks yet. Nobody should fly alone."
Even as he spoke, the ship vibrated with the rhythmic thump-whoosh of fighters launching. A crawl across the bottom of the monitor silently announced their mission.
"Can we use that as an argument?"
Against whom? Indiw despaired of explaining. "Watch." He called up the missions listing, found that the one to Tacoma hadn't even been entered yet, and made the entry using the departure time when they could be ready, then cross-referenced it to Engineering so they'd get their priority raised. He put their names on top of the list, then flagged the listing so Tacoma would be notified when the appropriate number of pilots had volunteered. Fighters couldn't bring back cargo so someone had to volunteer to nurse a cargo transport through the combat zone.
"If too many people want to go, we may get bumped off by those with more weight. Those with outstanding records in their jobs get first choice on anything they want to do. I have no standing on this ship; neither do you. And someone with more weight might want to go sooner than we can."
Indiw showed the human how to call up the mission listing to check on it. "If the mission list locks in with you still on it, your monitor will automatically show it flashing on the screen even if the screen is off. Then you have to respond like this. See?"
Falstaff sat nodding silently at the monitor, lips pressed hard together. After a while, Indiw asked, "What are you thinking?"
"That Captain Sutcliff must be sitting on Tacoma's bridge, gnashing his teeth in frustration at having to deal with an Ardr ship that won't even answer a summons to pick up deceased crew. I'll bet Tacoma asked for someone to come get them while they were still alive."
"Possibly. But they were Katukin crew so probably no one on Katular was responsible."
"Do you suppose the message just sat here in the computer and nobody even put it on the missions listing?"
"God, Indiw! How can you be so cold! They were your own wing's last survivors! They might have lived if anyone here had gotten off their butt to come get them!"
It was a thought that had preyed on Indiw's mind every moment since they'd been picked up by the humans. The first thing he'd done when he woke on Tacoma was to send his own messages to Katular to ask for a medevac for his fellows, but no one on Katular was obligated to him personally, and being unlanded, he had no neighbors, thus no power.
What could he possibly say? Could he put the human's mind at rest by pointing out that his fellows, like himself, were not yet landed and so their deaths didn't count for much? He knew enough about humans to know that the explanation would just revolt Falstaff. "I know, Walt. It could easily have been me lying there in Tacoma's sickbay subjected to all that meticulous care. Dying."
"Oh, shit. I didn't mean—look, forget I mentioned it. Humans and Ardr are always going to be frustrated with each other's ways of doing things. And Lord knows, I can't complain at how you've all treated me."
"Speaking of treating you," Indiw said, pushing his seat back from the monitor display, "it's time to take you on a tour of the ship, show you where not to go so you can wander around by yourself. I had nightmares last night figuring you'd go exploring out of restlessness."
"Don't ask." He led the way to the door, saying, "Check the corridor. I don't want anyone to see me coming out of your place. I've got enough trouble already."
I've got to learn to watch my mouth! He grabbed a ship's map from the rack by the door, and ducked out when Falstaff gave the all clear. He lit the map screen and began marking in the common Tier symbols. "Here we are, see? Now I want you to mark each of the places I point out to you." He handed the human the device, and led off. "You do understand why I couldn't do this for you in your room?"
"Sort of. I remember that Ardr use scent markings instead of printed signs. So you have to go find the signs to tell me about them. But they change all the time, so—"
"Well, I'm just going to warn you off all the tricky spots, even the public toilets, leaving nothing to your judgment. If you're smart enough to follow my advice, it'll keep you out of trouble." He noticed the human's expression shift. "Is something wrong?"
"I'm lecturing myself on how Ardr aren't really arrogant and uncaring, but just tend to hit the wrong cues in humans—like when I clapped you on the shoulder to say I was glad to have you flying with me, and you about ripped my guts out."
Indiw searched for a proper expression of chagrin and found one of Falstaff's favorites. "Shit! I'm sorry, I don't even know what I said wrong. I just know that you'd hate to stay inside for two or three more days."
"And you'd like to do just that."
"With one or two possible exceptions, yes." Before the human could ask about that, Indiw pointed out a room that was used as a place of worship by several of the religions aboard Katular. "And before you ask, no, I don't know anything about their practices or beliefs. My tradition is very different. That corridor goes to the hospital, if you need anything from the medics. They can expedite all kinds of things for you. Mark it."
Indiw tried to keep the human busy and focused on learning the ship rather than on asking for a complete explication of Ardr customs. An hour later they arrived at the main bridge. The female running the ship today—whom those on Tacoma would have called Captain—welcomed the pilots on tour, but since she was new to the job, it took her several minutes to adjust the Winslow Security screens to pass a human through.
While she was struggling with it, Falstaff said, "Look, I've seen enough bridges. I was a carrier pilot once. We don't have to-"
Indiw whispered, "It would be rude not to visit the bridge. It's a public area. Neither one of us has ever been on this ship before."
"Oh. Well. In that case. Sure."
Triumphant over the security system, the Captain of Katular graciously showed them around, making certain that Falstaff touched each of the consoles. She discoursed at length on the intricacies of the ten stations that combined to command the carrier, then said, pointing out the informational displays, "We're still heading toward Tacoma, which is headed away from us. We're expecting heavy action soon, so all our reconnaissance equipment is deployed."
They discussed the tactical situation until management details distracted her. Exiting the bridge on the other side of the ship, they headed back toward the pilot's deck. "Gymnastic equipment is through that door. You're welcome to use what you can of it, but ask before you touch anything. Some things might have reserve flashings you wouldn't notice until you had someone angry at you—who'd then be very embarrassed at having been angry."
"Do you suppose there's a pool?"
"Pool of what?"
"Water. A swimming pool? Good aerobic exercise."
"Oh. No." There weren't even any human women on this ship and he was asking such a question! "Come on, there's something else I have to show you here." He pushed the gym door open.
It was a typical ship's gym, with areas marked off by lush greenery. "Only one person at a time in each of the marked areas. Except to be sure that you aren't taking someone's reserved place—don't talk in here at all."
They crossed through on the central path to the door on the other side, the inconspicuous, carefully unmarked door. He explained it was an automated door that would open when someone stepped up to it, so it would never be touched, never gain anyone's scent markings. "And you must not either touch it or trigger it open."
Falstaff made a mark on his map as Indiw steered him away from the door so it wouldn't appear they were discussing it—and they wouldn't be blocking the way for anyone who needed access.
"Indiw, the map says there's a big area between this door and the other longitudinal corridor we used to go forward—almost the entire central core of the ship is a single, long open space, and it's not marked Engineering."
"Will your curiosity make you investigate despite my warning?" He kept his voice low, hoping nobody would hear.
Falstaff considered that for an extended moment. "You don't want to discuss it. All right, maybe some other time. Meanwhile, I'll stay clear."
"Good, because if you don't, you could get yourself disemboweled." He flexed his claws in emphasis. Not to mention causing endless interstellar legal complications for the disemboweler and possibly all Katular. No, not even a human could be that stupid. Then Indiw remembered Chancy. "Walt, can I really trust you on this? It's very important."
Casting one last thoughtful glance at the inconspicuous door, Falstaff nodded. "My word on it. Good enough?"
They continued their tour in Engineering where they watched the repairs on the fighters and talked with those managing the work today.
Indiw found his own fighter up on supports, belly plate panels removed, and almost all the weapons control circuitry gone. An engineer came over to him carrying a charred circuit board. "I'd sure like to know what did this. I didn't think it was possible to back overloads through here."
Indiw wasn't about to advertise his problematic conduct while bringing Falstaff in. He agreed, "It was a terrific battle."
The engineer said mournfully, "It's going to take me all day just to assemble the replacement parts."
Indiw commiserated, then said, "I wonder if you could remove that paint the humans used."
"I was planning to. It is ghastly, especially streaked and blistered like that. You'll be gleaming when you leave."
"That's a relief." They traded names and Indiw promised to register an approval for the engineer's work. It would put him just a little closer to becoming landed, but maybe the engineer would become a neighbor, not a rival. He had to start thinking about finding new neighbors who'd accept him. Everyone he knew was dead. He knew he should be thinking about reorganizing his affairs, but he just couldn't.
Falstaff approached as he spoke to the engineer. The human looked over the scarring on Indiw's fighter. The engineer asked Indiw affably, "Should I put Katular's insignia on for you?"
"I'll let you know when I decide."
With Falstaff, he walked back to the human's craft, which had been entirely disassembled and strewn over a work surface. The human asked with intense curiosity, "I keep forgetting you won't simply be assigned a new post. How do you make up your mind? How do you arrange to join a wing?"
"By reviewing their battles, checking to see if they think the same way I do. I might take a current briefing dump, figure what I would do if I were flying the mission, and then watch to see how they deploy themselves—then review the records afterward to see what they did. If I decide I fit in, then I have to convince them to give me a chance. They might let me fly a training sortie with them, and if I weave pattern with them comfortably—I'll go into combat with them."
"You mean you guys don't just fly around in random circles until you've killed all the enemy?"
"Is that what it looks like to you?" Amazing. "No, it isn't random. But to know what to do and when to do it, you have to think exactly the same as everyone else in your wing, getting the same answers to every problem you work. A really perfect match is very, very rare—" He broke off, suddenly overcome with loss.
Quietly Falstaff said, "And that's what you had on Katukin." He chewed on his lower lip. "I'm sorry for reminding you again." With a cryptic gesture, he turned to one of the engineers working on the pieces of his fighter and launched into a technical discussion. Indiw could well imagine the sudden sense of urgency the human felt to get home where people reacted normally and things could be accomplished without thinking much about them.
He left Falstaff in Engineering, happily discovering that here engineers delighted in having the pilots oversee the work on their own fighters.
Indiw made his way back to his own place thinking about that anonymous door on the inner wall of the gym and the receptive females who would be prowling beyond it. Could he possibly slip away while Falstaff was busy? But he should be digging into the records to find himself a new position. And he had to check on the Tacoma mission listing. He thought about all the things he should be doing, and decided to go walking first. With Falstaff on his hands, he might not get another chance.
But no, it was not to be. His monitor was blinking when he came in. Now that everyone doing Mission Review had seen his flight recordings, three Reviewers had called for a public Interview. Three! He'd known he'd be in trouble. He hadn't thought it would be this bad, though.
He'd done nothing to attract such attention. He should have been absorbed onto Katular routinely, coming to notice only when they found out how good a pilot he was. Something really unusual was up. It wasn't just his being the lone survivor of Katukin. That would have warranted one Interviewer, maybe two, not three. Three was trouble. Three was Trouble.
He groomed more meticulously than he had since he'd first presented himself for Pilot's Training. He polished his hide to a ruddy glow, not showing a scratch. He whitened his crest, and honed his hand and toe claws. He scrubbed off every bit of stray scent and used inhibitors to be sure he didn't offend anyone especially females. He even dosed the scent glands between his toes so he could wear sandals, exposing his claws as befitted someone ready to be landed.
He polished his pilot's straps and inspected his appearance. His fatigue and tension still showed around the eyes, but he couldn't do anything about that now. This Interview would go on record for anyone to call up—for the rest of his life and maybe beyond. He'd done his best; it would just have to be good enough.
Courage in hand, he took himself to the Interview room, one of those places he'd put on Falstaff's restricted list.
The three Interviewers waited for him, poised and ready to begin. At least his timing was impeccable. The female was the most junior among them, young—beautiful. It was a good thing he'd poured on the scent inhibitor. The other two were males older than Indiw, polished and perfectly groomed.
Silently promising himself they wouldn't see him so much as twitch under the female's gaze, Indiw took his seat. The two people running the recorders laid identifying plaques before the Interviewers, then settled at their monitoring stations. The female Interviewer was Shusdim, an exercise trainer. The older male was Amscill, a xenologist. And the other male was Fikkhor, a medic. Both males were landed.
Shusdim faced the recorder in front of her and recited the names and accreditations of the three Interviewers. Since this was also available live to any monitor on the ship, she asked the distant audience if anyone would care to replace one of them.
There were a few bids, but after some discussion the job still fell to the three in the room. Indiw concentrated as he usually did only in battle, knowing that his whole future revolved around this. Still, when the first question came, he was at a loss.
"Why did you elect to fly with the humans?" asked one of the males—the older one whose crest had begun to darken.
But that's perfectly obvious.
"Do you choose not to answer?" asked the female.
"I will answer." He told them of waking in the Tacoma sickbay, of his frustration as everything he did rammed him into one obtuse human custom or another, and how he'd won through to the information that Tacoma was about to mount the ground strike that had been Katukin's responsibility.
"I could not let the humans alone defend the planet on which I hope to settle."
"But you knew you would have to take oath to fly with them according to their customs. What made you think that you could keep that oath, once taken?" Amscill's shrewd, dark suspicion was reflected in the others' eyes.
Outraged, Indiw glared at Amscill. "I have never broken an oath!" Their eyes locked in combat for one powerful moment.
Most of Indiw's career records, except the most recent, had survived Katukin because they'd been routinely filed at planetary bases, but the Interviewers had no way to verify his words now. With no other survivor available to vouch for him, he had to convince them of his character on his bare word. Later, when his records arrived, it might go a little better with him, but this impression of him would dominate.
Indiw transferred his gaze to his hands, carefully, formally flexed his claws and retracted them. "I chose to keep that oath. It was the price I had to pay to defend what will one day be my land. Is there any price too great for that?" His voice shook with passion, and he let it show for they would think he meant the terrible price of conforming to human custom, fighting pack style, but in fact the greater price had been the loss of his wing.
He raised his eyes. The unlanded female nodded first, but the males also remembered all too well how it had been for them, and soon agreed. Land was priceless.
They went on to examine Indiw's flight recordings, those made during his last mission out of Katukin, those of the battle for Katukin in progress when he returned, and lastly those made during his flight with Pit Bull Squadron. Each image, each exchange with the human pilots, and each maneuver were minutely questioned.
And their specific fear became evident. Any Ardr who was capable of allying with humans, partaking of the pack mentality in battle no less, could be the first traitor, the one who revealed to the humans how to subjugate Ardr. No one doubted that whether the humans themselves knew it or not, subjugation or eradication of all Ardr was indeed the humans' goal.
Every Ardr who studied humans even in passing knew that eventually it would come to an all out human/Ardr war, perhaps a genocidal war of extinction in which no one could predict what the Fornak would do.
No one wanted such a war, but no one had yet come up with any way of avoiding it. Only facing the Hyos as a common enemy had postponed it this long.
They probed Indiw's reasons for staying with Falstaff's crippled vessel. They dug at his motives for originating and implementing an utterly foolhardy method of propelling the disabled human craft toward Katular. He inferred that Shusdim had certainly been a combat pilot herself. And she was the most suspicious.
They had nothing but the usual unalloyed praise for his performance both in the attack on the swarm and his later defense of Katukin. It was easy to turn their questions back on them. He had fit into his wing so well, combat had become a sweetness most people never experienced and could never comprehend. His loss was irreplaceable, and very few, not even Shusdim, could even perceive that it was a loss. He knew it would be a very private ache that would live in him for the rest of his life.
When the Interviewers got into his flight with Pit Bull, he had to explain decisions that had come from he-knew-not-where inside himself. Often he had to say, "I chose," in a tone that truncated the discussion with a privacy barrier.
They made him relive the entire experience. And it was far more disturbing in retrospect than it had been to race through it, putting each moment behind as it passed and mentally grabbing at the next moment, hoping only to survive.
When no one could think of any more questions, the elder male, Amscill, asked, as if musing aloud, "Indiw, have you ever heard the human term, hero?"
"Yes, though I can't claim to understand it."
"They believe it is a good thing to be," said Fikkhor.
"But they also say it is better to be a live coward than a dead hero, and coward isn't a good thing to be," said Indiw. "So maybe hero isn't, either." He remembered Chancy's parting admonition to Falstaff, "Don't be a hero."
Shusdim added with feminine distaste, "Both terms are derived from their pack mentality. What Ardr could ever understand that?"
Amscill observed, "The hero manifestation of the pack mentality makes humans the most formidable threat Ardr have ever faced. It's not nearly so common among the Fornak."
Indiw commented, "I don't think we can ever understand humans. They're not at all like the pack hunters we conquered on our own world who had no concept of territory. Humans understand territory and the defense of it. One gains access to a human's territory only by invitation, while at the same time they enjoy 'entertaining'—that is, inviting others into their territory—and 'visiting'—invading another's territory." He gestured bewilderment. "It twists your brains to try to imagine human motives. They're unpredictable, savage, unprincipled, and devoid of all sense of decency." But they make hellishly good pilots!
"That's another reason they're potentially the most dangerous threat Ardr have ever faced," said Shusdim. "If we understood them, we might have a chance against them."
Fikkhor mused, "I have observed three kinds of hero: the one who deliberately does something suicidal that buys life for others, the one who risks his life and pays dearly but survives to see what his suffering has bought for others, and the one who does something utterly stupid yet survives unscathed to watch others benefit from his action. No hero was ever proclaimed for acting to gain land for his own personal, exclusive, and private use.
"This Interview was deemed necessary because Tacoma's Captain has informed us that you are to be awarded one of their decorations for heroism. Though it is their way of expressing approval, you can well understand why any sane person might be hesitant about serving with you after this—escapade—coming right on the heels of your being the sole survivor of Katukin.
"Anyone might suspect that your survival, unwounded, of two winning battles in which your side was nearly wiped out had wakened in you—goralchor."
The medic delivered the last word in the hushed tone of one diagnosing a fatal disease. And indeed it could be, for goralchor was the survivor's complex, the sense of absolute invincibility that inevitably led to disaster.
Indiw remembered Falstaff's flippant "Don't you know I'm invincible?" Suppose Falstaff was overheard saying that here? He dared not let his claws flex, but his whole body was throbbing with fear-fight-flight responses, all mixed and colliding with each other. He'd never in his worst nightmares believed he could be in this much trouble. He schooled his voice, and tried to sound sane as he asked, "Would it be possible to refuse the . . . honor the humans are offering?"
"Is that what you choose to do?"
Would it cause political problems between Ardr and humans? No, it had to be just a minor honor in a minor battle awarded to a person of no consequence. Who would even notice? "Yes. I am here to defend the land I can only hope one day to occupy myself." He emphasized the words to indicate he felt no invincible certainty of surviving to become landed. "May I point out that when I chose to fly with the humans, I knew only that my fellow pilots were wounded. I did not expect to become the sole survivor."
Indiw sat outwardly composed as they called for questions from the listeners—and there were a few, most notably from the engineer who'd been working on Indiw's craft and who wanted a reprise of the sequence where Indiw had nudged Falstaff's fighter into a vector change.
When they'd gone through it in minute detail, the engineer concluded, "It was the proximity of the other shields that caused the backflow into the control circuits. I couldn't have predicted that. I don't think a pilot would have, not while intent on accomplishing the maneuver. The only way he could have made it work was to get that close and use such low power that the weapons systems would take that kind of backflow. I want this maneuver listed as suicidal so no one else will make the same mistake Indiw did."
Mistake! Relief swept through Indiw at the exoneration.
After a short discussion, the engineer won his point.
It didn't affect the heroism accusation, since he'd stood accused of stupidity, not suicide, or greed. But they proceeded on the assumption that if he had known what the maneuver would do to his craft, he wouldn't have tried to save Falstaff. Indiw was not so sure.
He kept thinking about Falstaff popping the Hyos that was after him, the one he'd never even seen. It was very clear on the recordings they'd just watched, though no one remarked on it. Maybe they didn't know the human formation patterns well enough to discern the risk Falstaff had taken to protect his—alien—wingman.
The three times they'd played it back, Indiw had watched the sequence transfixed by a growing certainty that Falstaff had known that Indiw, irrevocably committed to his dive-and-climb maneuver, had been unaware of the threat on his tail. Falstaff moved his fighter around Indiw's with deft confidence, as if he'd written the program for the maneuver.
Later, there had been the times Indiw had taken out Hyos who attacked Falstaff. In the growing heat of battle, Indiw had forgotten everything he'd memorized about fighting formations. Yet he had known what Falstaff was about to do.
Eventually, the Interviewers decided they had everything on record, and Indiw was free to go. With an effort, he pulled out of the shivering realization that a human could fly like an Ardr while thinking Ardr flew at random. Then he presented his leave-taking with all proper formalities, communicating an appropriate sense of vulnerability with every subtle trick of body language he knew. But if they understood how vulnerable he really felt, they might disqualify him as a pilot.
He went back to his place to do some research and plan how to salvage the rest of his life.
So far, the Tacoma mission had attracted three volunteers, but even as Indiw watched the screen, the names were withdrawn. However, he had noted them. He looked them up. They were all pilots who flew with Katular's First Wing.
He began his research with the Second Wing, which was in space right now. Almost immediately, he knew he could never fly with them—too much temperament. So he tried the Third. They were mostly female pilots, and a goodly number of them senior enough to be near retirement. There would be opportunity for advancement with the Third Wing. For a few years, he might accommodate himself to their conservative tactics. The first wing he'd chosen had flown like that. He knew he could do it, and he could even excel.
The Fourth Wing was composed exclusively of two related religious groups, neither of which attracted Indiw. They would not be interested in him.
He focused his efforts on the Third, assessing their prior battles, studying their style. If they'd consider him despite the stigma the humans had laid on him, he might just have found a new home.
But even at that discovery, his spirits didn't recover.
He looked in a mirror and the tension lines around his eyes told him what he needed, a little therapeutic exercise followed by a walk. He certainly couldn't present himself to the Third Wing in such volatile condition.
He took a good sand-scrubbing, oiled away the scent inhibitor from all strategic locations, donned his loose walking robe, and opened his door.
As he stepped out, Falstaff was coming out of his own door. The human hailed him with a nerve-shattering whistle. "Wait up!" The human closed the distance between them pushing his light-altering goggles into place. "Where you going all dressed up?"
"For a walk. I'll see you when I get back." The human reeked of mixed human odors.
"Did anyone sign up to go to Tacoma yet?"
"There was no one else on the list a few moments ago."
"Mind if I tag along?"
"Yes." He turned away and moved off at a good stride flexing his claws to relieve tension.
The human took one step after him, and checked, hand out, a bewildered "Hey—" dying on his lips.
Indiw, realizing the human hadn't understood, went back. "I'm not angry with you. I just need a couple of hours. I'll come to your place and we'll work on getting some pilots to go to Tacoma."
"I'm sorry if I've been a burden. . . ."
"Not that." The image of that Hyos exploding behind him, unseen, was too vivid in memory. "Never that. I just need to take a walk."
"Okay. See you later." The human went back to his own door, and Indiw, relieved that he'd finally communicated, went on up the passageway to the cross-corridor that led to a side door of the gym.
He claimed an area, set up music for rhythm, focused the speakers so no one else would be bothered, kicked off his sandals, and put everything he had into a stretching and bending drill that segued into his combat moves. Spinning, kicking, rolling, gutting imaginary enemies with feet and hands, he finished with a good run on a high gravity treadmill to dispel the ache in his claws for warm entrails and blood.
When he felt in control, he dismounted, triggered the timer to cleanse the area of his scent, and made his way to the unmarked door. After the Interview this afternoon, he had little chance of succeeding on a walk, and he wasn't used to that anymore. Rejection could be agonizing, embarrassing, and he could end up more tense than he was now. He'd been an adult too long to have much tolerance for that state.
But if he was going to try to live on this ship, he had to prove to at least one female that he wasn't goralchor. And he didn't know any other way to do that.
As he paused letting the door open in front of him, he nervously scanned behind him. Over a nearby hedge, a pale oval rose into sight followed by a dark-clad body. A human body. Falstaff. The human stopped with his weight supported on straightened arms, his legs pointing to either side of his body. He must have swung up on a crossbar not meant to be climbed on, but there wasn't any harm in it. He just looked silly.
In the instant Indiw's eyes focused on him, Falstaff swung his torso up and back, legs following, and held himself upside down on his fully extended arms, the back of his head to Indiw, balanced only on his hands. It looked dangerous and sickening, but he seemed to be enjoying it. It was probably some sort of mating display. Fortunately, there were no humans around.
At least Falstaff hadn't dislocated his shoulders, for even as Indiw stepped through the open door, the human reversed position so his face was toward Indiw, braced the bottoms of his feet on the bar beside his hands and swung out of sight, rear end leading.
The door closed, cutting off Indiw's view before he was sure whether the human had seen him. But then the sensory riot of the inner walkway claimed him: the vocalizations of females announcing his arrival in guarded tones, the odor of fresh water, huge trees with sap-soaked bark, fragrant flowers, rich loam, the delightful sound of songbirds, an entire homeworld ecology—or at least the impression of one.
Forgetting Falstaff, Indiw stuffed his robe into the receptacle by the door. He felt his crest spreading, his spine straightening. He followed the males' path onto the main concourse and turned to walk the length of the mating area.
He had thought it would be lavish. It exceeded his expectations. The rooms dotted along both sides of the long walkway were large, well spaced, very private. He paused to look through one open door and eyed the deep pond, the perfect fine white sand, the dual private toilet facilities, and the decorations illustrating fascinating embellishments two young enthusiasts might try.
He strolled on, imagination fired by the scent of eager females in the concealing shrubbery. But none chose him. After the initial announcement of his coming, none so much as breathed as he passed.
Distantly he heard the entry door open and close, and tensed for the commotion that would erupt if Falstaff had followed him. But the silence proclaimed it to be another female——one who might be interested? He thought about his pride, and then about his need, and decided that if no one chose him by the time he reached the exit, he'd walk back, give them all another good look. After all, he was new and had a reputation to overcome and one to build.
Yes, one more pass. But just one. He dared not assert his own choice until he had been chosen by at least three different females and satisfied them fully. Otherwise, he might find himself in one of those rooms, disemboweled. If he lingered here too long unchosen, he knew his resolve would waver. One more pass. No more. He'd been an adult long enough to know his limits.
He came to the end where the exit was ringed by artificial stone providing many comfortable ledges. He claimed one and stretched out casually, as if his mind were more on exploring than mating. If he was only going to allow himself one more pass up the walk, he should wait awhile so there might be more new females to see him.
He lay in a worn niche just above floor level, and drank in the ambience of the place.
He had drowsed into a lovely fantasy when a warm body intruded into his space, a female body. He looked up, hardly daring to move as her scent swirled around him making his horns tingle, and a rumble ignite deep in his chest.
She was lean, voluptuous, filling the senses. She was wanting ferociously, but gazed down at him with hard eyes. She hadn't chosen yet.
She studied him. He moved to expose himself fully to her view, bidding with all the subtle power of maleness.
She studied every inch of him, her body saying she was only looking while her scent told him she was frantic.
When he trembled on the brink of choosing her and losing all hope of gaining respect on this ship forever, she gestured briskly and turned to lead him into the nearest vacant room.
He surrendered to his glands. It was glorious. It was everything he needed it to be. They finished, splashing in the pond, exulting in the silky warmth of the water, wholly satisfied.
Resting on the bottom, with the water up around his neck, and the female straddling him, toying with his hypersensitized horns, he asked languorously, "Why? Why did you choose me? Hadn't you heard?"
"I saw the Interview. Considering how you fly, I did not think you would live long enough for me to have another chance—maybe for anyone to have another chance." She rose, levered herself out of the pond, and rolled into the sand to cleanse and dry. "I like unique experiences. And this one was—singular indeed. But you didn't turn out to be quite what I expected. So maybe I will see you again."
If she thought she'd have a chance to choose him again, had he convinced her of his mettle? He sat up.
She rose, and grabbed a robe from the dispenser by the door.
"Wait! You know who I am. Is it given me to know who you are?"
She thought that over, then conceded. "I am Rkizzhi. Pilot. Third Wing." She slithered into the robe and edged carefully out the door without exposing him to public view. It was an act that spoke eloquently.
She had given him her name! She'd not gut him if he tried to choose her! She'd guarded his privacy. She might even fly with him! Hope exploded into blinding light, a raging warmth. It was several minutes before he had the strength to roll out of the water into the sand. He took his time, then used the facilities for a slow methodical toilet, thinking at warp speed.
He presented himself at Falstaff's door, glanced both ways, then gave the signal an imperious jab. The door slid open to reveal Falstaff, bare to the waist, a towel around his neck, head hair dripping water onto his chest hair. At least he wasn't reeking now, or, Indiw thought, his own senses had mellowed as his tension had drained away.
At Falstaff's gestured invitation, he sidled past and strode to the human's monitor to punch up the record on the Tacoma mission. There were still no more volunteers. "Here's how we're going to do this," Indiw said, working the controls. "This is a kind of—oh—bulletin board—just for the business of Katular's Third Wing. Since I'm not Third Wing, I can't cruise the entries to see what they're discussing, but this I can do."
With the human leaning over his shoulder, he explained each move as he spoke the commands to copy the entry from the mission listing. He let the deleted entries show on the screen in the symbols that indicated they had been deleted. "These pilots are First Wing." And then he had to explain that they had backed out earlier that day.
"Why would they do that—volunteer and then back out?"
Indiw had forgotten that Falstaff didn't know about the Interview. "Essentially, it's because they didn't want to fly with me."
"I don't understand. Why did they volunteer in the first place, if they didn't want to fly with you? Your name is first on the list."
"After they volunteered, they found out I'd flown with Pit Bull. But for that very reason, Third Wing just may produce the volunteers we need."
"So, because First Wing doesn't want to fly with someone who's flown with humans, Third Wing will volunteer to fly with you?"
"No! They'll volunteer to fly with you!"
"What makes you think that?"
"Call it a hunch." Indiw had heard that phrase in a human entertainment video he'd been required to study. He hadn't understood the story at all, but he'd become enchanted with the concept of the hunch.
He was astonished though, when Falstaff accepted the phrase as an explanation. The human pulled a seat up beside him and sat studying the screen.
Indiw set up a blank space, invoked the common Tier script, then shoved the control board toward the human. "Put there in your own words why we—you and I—should fly this mission."
"I wouldn't know what to say."
He couldn't tell him that it didn't matter. Whatever he put it would sound alien, bizarre, intriguing, a "unique" experience. He chuckled mischievously. "Say something about why I should be an escort for the bodies. Then sign it."
The human favored him with a wary alertness. "I guess your walk did you some good."
He doesn't know he's being rude. Indiw gestured at the monitor encouragingly. With luck, he wouldn't have to teach Falstaff what the word walk meant. He'd be off this ship before he needed to know. On the other hand, maybe he's figured it out.
Falstaff addressed the screen. In short order he'd produced five lovely alien sentences that were bound to do the job. "Three brave pilots of your sister ship Katukin gave their lives in the battle against the swarm that destroyed her. Their bodies lie aboard Tacoma given all possible respect, awaiting a party from Katular. As the last survivor of Katukin, Indiw has fittingly volunteered for this somber mission. I have elected to fly with him because it is only right that one of their own should escort the dead home. If necessary, the two of us will go alone."
"Perfect!" exclaimed Indiw. "I couldn't have thought of that to save my life! Sign it."
"Pilot Commander Walter G. Falstaff, Pit Bull Squadron, Hundred Twentieth Fighter Wing, assigned to the Carrier F. T. Tacoma." He followed it with some serial numbers that were part of every human's identification code.
It was awesome.
As bait, it was perfect.
Indiw took the control board and brought up Rkizzhi's records, scanning quickly for the data he needed. But even on that first cursory inspection, he was impressed.
"Just someone I met." He ditched the screen. Then he made up a set of specifications for pilot experience needed for this sortie. "All the pilots with these qualifications will have this message flashing on their monitors the next time they check in."
"Ah. And you wanted to be sure to include your new friend. You think she'll tell all her friends?"
The man was sharp. This could get uncomfortable. "That's the general idea. Put it to them right, they might be interested."
"In flying with me?"
"Certainly not with me!" He got up and made for the door, very aware of the human's scrutiny.
"Indiw. Don't underestimate yourself."
"Walt. Don't use the word friend when you don't know what it means." When the door closed behind him, he experienced an incredible sense of relief. Only then did he think to look both ways to see if anyone had observed him emerging from the human's place.
But there was no one in sight.
Suddenly aware of growing hunger, he took to his own place and hoped nothing more would disturb him today.
That night Indiw slept with a profound depth he rarely experienced, and woke to discover the Tacoma mission roster filled. He knew now that he could work his way into the Third Wing. He understood them.
He didn't even take time to eat, but went immediately to Engineering to help with the work on his fighter. He started to mitigate his reputation by apologizing to the helpful engineer for what he'd done to the fighter. Then he pitched in to help finish the repairs. After seeing what Indiw could do with circuitry, the engineer offered renewed respect and confidence. Indiw basked in acceptance.
Falstaff found him there some hours later as they were just finishing up. "My God, man, I'd no idea where you'd gotten to! Do you realize we've got twelve volunteers to make this trip?"
"Yes, so we'd better be ready." Indiw stood wiping circuit-packing gel from his hands, wondering where else the human had thought he might be. "Come on, I'll give you a hand with your work."
Falstaff was shocked to discover that he was expected to work on his craft himself. Indiw was shocked to find he was so inexperienced despite his theoretical knowledge. But the engineers had been working constantly on the human's fighter, and there wasn't too much left to do. All Tier ships used interchangeable parts and common designs, so the rebuilding of whole systems in the human's fighter was just routine. Between the two of them and the experts, the job was done ahead of schedule.
The only insurmountable problem was Falstaff's paint job. Ardr craft showed polished metal and a few discreet identification markings as adjunct to the automatic transponders they carried. But the human fighters decorated their craft all over. Humans were very visually oriented, especially the males.
Several of the skin panels of Falstaff's craft had been replaced with shiny new ones. On the adjacent plates, the paint was scorched and blurred. Falstaff tilted back the spectrum goggles he wore under ship's lighting and surveyed the patchy effect, face working through several expressions and settling into amusement. "Well, it'll do. Everything else is top notch." He consulted a clock display at the center of the repair hangar. "Besides, it must be about time for the mission briefing. Who's giving it? Where do we go? I want to get a shower—"
"Uh, there isn't going to be a briefing. Each flyer is responsible for learning the parameters of the job and deciding how to approach the problems—independently. Come on, I'll show you how it's done."
With a gesture of gratitude to the engineers, Indiw led off toward the pilot's residence deck. Falstaff caught up with him, again chewing his lower lip but not commenting. Indiw well remembered his own distaste at attending a human mission briefing. He asked, "What are you thinking?"
"It seems like a very wasteful procedure, and what if you all come up with different ideas?"
"I thought I explained. We only fly with people who can look at the same data and come up with the same solutions, all at the same time." Ideally. He didn't point out how rarely that happened with a large group like a whole wing.
"But you don't even know these people—I certainly won't think like them."
"I've gained a pretty good notion of how they do things. I think I can explain it to you."
And he tried. He did try. But it was hopeless. When Indiw brought up the Intelligence reports of swarm movements and began reasoning out their course between here and Tacoma, Falstaff got lost. It wasn't that he didn't know how to digest such data, it was that whatever his mind did with it, Indiw couldn't follow. The course Falstaff would have set would have left him out in space all alone. None of the Third Wing would go that way.
When they just had minutes to get ready to leave, Indiw said, "All right, forget all that. Do you think you can stick with me? Whatever I do, you stay right on my tail, just beyond shield overlap, as if tied there by a cord?"
They were in Falstaff's place, using his monitor. Everything had been cleaned up and small bags packed. Falstaff was dressed in his own flight suit, and Indiw had requisitioned a new one for himself. He'd chosen a dim green, the color of ocean coral, with metallic threads gleaming at knees and elbows. It had the extra pockets he'd always wanted. Better yet, it fit like crazy, and he knew the females flying with them would notice.
He watched Falstaff mulling over his question. He liked how Falstaff always thought hard before giving his word on anything.
Eventually, Falstaff nodded cautiously. "I think so."
"I'll stay on your channel and give you plenty of warning on each turn until you get the hang of it. You do understand that we're not going to stay in the same relative position to other craft for more than a few moments at a time? We're not going to present a predictable target to any incoming enemy."
"I understand the theory, I'm just not sure of the practice. Every time I've tried it on the simulator, I've crashed into some Ardr craft. Eventually, I decided you fly at random, and gave up."
Indiw was glad he hadn't eaten recently. He tried not to look as horrified as he felt. At least Falstaff had tried to fly Ardr style on simulator. "If you can stick with me, you won't have a problem."
"But you've never flown with these people before."
"They know that. They'll give me a chance to pick up their style. It's not a difficult one."
Falstaff grinned. "You mean this is a tryout? You're going to join the Third Wing here?"
"I haven't decided yet. We'd better go."
End Sample Chapters of Hero
3 Sample Chapters
Pilot Commander Indiw, First Tier Defense Force Space Service, Retired, searched the canopy of stars arching over his land.
To his battle trained perceptions, the star pattern revealed the nearby border between Hyos space and First Tier territories. Most suns of habitable planets were too dim to be perceptible to the naked eye, but he knew where they were. Mentally, he connected them with imaginary lines representing the well traveled spacelanes, a random cross-hatched pattern.
He strained to imagine how such a random spattering of stars might look to a human. The latest text he'd smuggled onto Sinaha had shown a sketch of Earth's sky with lines connecting some brighter stars into figures of mythical gods, heroes, and animals, the symbolic components of the ferocious human psyche.
Each human culture had star pictures, and stories made from those pictures. The cultures that had won the most wars, exterminated the most lone hunter animal species, had carried their myths into space, into Ardr territory.
Indiw let his eyes unfocus. Suddenly the stars outlined the figure of an Ardr gutting a human with his toe claws. He blinked and the image dissolved.
He suppressed a shudder of revulsion that his mind had played such a trick — even though he'd invited the perception. He knew the image was inside him, not in the sky. The ancient humans had not known any such thing. They had created images that just weren't there, and then believed the images were real. But those images were the key to the real nature of the human threat for they came from deep inside the human psyche.
How could nature produce a species that appeared so very much like Ardr, yet functioned so very differently?
True, humans lacked horns on their heads, and some older males cleaned the hair off as if to emphasize their deformity. Their skin was soft, moist, and no amount of polishing could make it shine. Human skin came in the most alarming array of colors. They could hardly smell, though their eyesight was keen enough in their own lighting. They had no real claws, either on hands or feet. But other than such minor differences, they were enough like Ardr to wear the same clothes if not sit comfortably in the same chairs.
Individually, they seemed puny, defenseless. Yet collectively, they were the most formidable threat Ardr had ever faced. Four years ago, Indiw himself had convinced a vast number of Ardr that humans were, in fact, no threat. Yet now that he understood more of the humans, he suspected he'd been wrong. He vanquished the disturbing thoughts, and stood up.
If his neighbors had any notion of what he was thinking, it could precipitate the last war humans or maybe Ardr might fight. Or, it might simply get him ostracized. He'd had enough of that four years ago when he'd flown combat missions with the humans. Even now, he hadn't lived the stigma down.
He stood atop the tumble of artfully piled boulders overlooking his favorite waterfall and surveyed his land. It was a large tract, fully two days hike across, and four days hike long. At one point, he had his own private gate into the Walkway, open land where the females waited to choose partners for this balmy spring evening. And he had become a very popular partner among them.
As the wind shifted, his horns tingled with the faint female scent wafting across the lush greenery. Indiw's heart raced. For the twentieth time in four years, he vowed never again to risk smuggling human writings onto Sinaha. But this time, he meant it. Life was just too good to risk.
Now he planned to take full advantage of that goodness. From horn tips to claw tips, his whole body knew how to get the most out of the high regard of his female neighbors.
Awash in anticipation, he knelt, eased over the edge of the boulder to hang-drop down to the next ledge.
The night sky flashed dazzling white, then iridescent.
Indiw dropped and rolled under an overhang. He hunkered in the meager shelter, eyes closed against the lethal glare. His heart pounded again, but with a different excitement.
The light had been from a Hyos sonic bomb detonated in close orbit by hitting a First Tier single-seat fighter. The smeared iridescence was an unmistakable signature of Hyos ordnance.
Screening his eyes with both hands, Indiw dared survey the darkening sky for fast moving sparks among the stars and planets. Infinitesimal specks of light flashed and died against the pristine dark. Fighters, Hyos and Tier, dying in a desperate fight for possession of the planet.
It had been two years since battle had come this close to Sinaha. Back then he had not been a land holder.
He half stood, peering up over the ledge above him, back toward the saw-toothed horizon where the new, experimental cannon had been installed on Tantigre Peak, the highest mountain in this hemisphere. It was just a prototype, but it was online and ready for testing. Why wasn't it firing?
A green streak arced from horizon to horizon, an empty Hyos tanker hitting the outer planetary defenses. Before the light died, the entire bowl of sky turned bright red. Indiw had only seen that before in drills. It was the close-in defense shield. The new cannon couldn't fire through that.
But he was a fighter pilot. He knew how little the shield would be worth in the end. He also knew better than to look directly at it with the naked eye.
Head down, he scrambled to the ground and ran for his house. He had to find out what was going on.
Three times he flung himself prone, burrowing with hand and toe claws for cover against the bursts of ultraviolet from destroyed craft. As he reached his front door, the sky brightened unbearably into a scintillating daytime blue as if a new sun had been born in close orbit.
And for just that one moment, it had.
Worse, the defense shield had failed, or the color would have been purple, not blue. Indiw plunged inside and barked orders to the house system, bringing up every information service he had. Half of them responded.
He found the strategic tracking data he needed on the tactical databoard. It had cost him a fortune to subscribe, but now it took only moments to gain the whole picture.
The small sun that had burst and died in close orbit had been Katular, the Ardr carrier posted to protect this border from Hyos incursion. With it gone, there was nothing between Sinaha and the encroaching Hyos swarm except the few deployed Katular fighters and the tattered planetary defenses.
Already he could feel the deep vibration of the planet-based launchers flinging out scatter shot of orbital mines designed to make descent lethal. It would do little good. The Hyos had sweepers to clear their way, as did the Ardr fighters remaining in orbit.
And there was no sign of the new weapon.
So, this is how it will end. After two years of being landed, he would die in defense of his land. There was no better way to die, but it was too soon. After all the years of striving, he'd only just tasted the good life.
Most of his neighbors would feel the same way, for they, too, had just retired from combat posts. The Hyos wouldn't take this valley without destroying its fertility and beauty first. The battle of Sinaha wouldn't end when the First Tier government declared Sinaha lost. The treaty with the Hyos stipulated that every landed Ardr would defend the land to the death. It was pure instinct. Hyos understood instinct.
Unaware of the snarl on his lips, Indiw hit the control plate at the rear edge of his desk. All around his land, defenses rose, subtle traps for the unwary. Most were designed to trick an Ardr invader intent on gaining land by personal combat. But he'd also invested heavily in items geared to Hyos invaders, even Hyos in battle armor.
Once, on Tacoma, he'd faced a phalanx of armored Hyos intent on taking the ship. Here, he had no chance against such a force, but his strip of land wouldn't attract so much attention. He could do serious damage before they got him.
He grabbed a few essentials, set everything on automatic or remote control, and locked his boards down with his personal security code — Pit Bull — a code no Ardr, and certainly no Hyos, would ever guess. Even a direct hit on this control center would not disarm his defense system now.
He paused at the hidden door to his basement, hand hovering over one last control plate. Teeth clenched over wrenching emotion, he struck the switch.
All over the house, scent eradicator sprayed from hidden atomizers, the mist settling over every surface. With that one act, he had ceded his very home to the hands of invaders. He knew it wasn't necessary. Hyos would never notice scent markings. But he also knew he'd never be able to blow the place up, even to kill the Hyos inside, if he still regarded it as home. Now it was just a building.
In the basement, he approached the camouflaged door down into the cave system underlying his land, spraying eradicator behind him until he sneezed. He sealed the door behind himself. Now no invader could find this access point.
Fifteen minutes later, panting with exertion, Indiw emerged at the top of a rise that commanded the more fertile half of his land. Here, he had built a redoubt over a natural water supply and stocked it with food and every weapon legal on planetary surfaces.
It was energy shielded to be undetectable from space. Visually it blended into the hilltop. Any attacker would go first to the house, thinking to claim the nerve center of the defenses. But from this hilltop retreat, Indiw could monitor his house and dispose of the intruder or the whole house.
He had had plans to add two more such command centers at the farthest points of his land. He had had so many plans.
He sat at the control console and summoned his master defense systems. Everything responded except his taps into the public systems. Even the tactical databoard was black.
His own meager instruments showed the new cannon on Tantigre Peak fire a white ball of energy that expanded as it rose through the atmosphere. Moments later six helpless fighters descended leaving meteoric streaks behind them.
Then all planetary power grids went down. Something major had been hit. The cannon didn't have an independent power feed yet. Without the grids, the cannon was gone.
All of his viewscreens now showed black sky. An eerie silence spread over the land. He waited, but nothing happened. He didn't have enough sensors around his perimeter to get an accurate picture. Eventually, he climbed out of his uppermost turret to search the sky with his own eyes.
There was nothing. Just stars.
So it's over and we lost. Now it begins.
The moment the thought formed, a solitary yellow streak arced across his vision, a fighter burning up in atmosphere. It came down steeply, checked, redirected, faltered as if the pilot fought a monumental battle against failing systems, and then plunged to the ground sending up an immense fireball. Immediately, the thunder deafened him.
That was close! It must have come down in his swamp where he usually hunted. What if the pilot had survived? It didn't matter if it were Hyos or Ardr, there was no way the intruder would walk Indiw's land. No way.
He sealed the redoubt, taking only his weapons and his remotes. He had to dodge his own traps, so it took nearly twenty minutes to get to the crest of the ridge overlooking the swamp. A charred furrow arrowed across the low shrubs. At its far end, the soft trunked trees of the swamp lay like kindling sticks, all pointed away from the metallic lump that was the pilot's ejection capsule, still sealed.
The brittle winter grasses had gone up in flame, and now they were nothing but ash. Everything else was too wet to burn, except one lone tree that stood like a torch, flames shooting to the sky. Way off to his right, Indiw could see the spot where the fuselage of the fighter had crashed and exploded. Around it, heavy vegetation burned sullenly, thick smoke blowing away from him.
He scrambled down into the swamp and waded across, zigzagging to follow the ridges where the water was shallow. He had to travel by smell, for the night had turned pitch dark. Beyond the light of the burning tree, he couldn't see well enough to identify the vegetation. But he didn't slacken pace. He would not allow the intruder out of that capsule.
His toe claws ached with anticipation. The last time he'd disemboweled a Hyos, he'd been fighting beside Walter Falstaff, defending the carrier Tacoma. He hadn't gutted another Ardr since he'd been a child, but he well remembered the intense satisfaction of it. And, since he was now landed, it was once again legal for him to kill.
He approached the capsule with his long knife glowing in one hand and his electronic lock pick in the other. Hyos or Ardr, he'd have that capsule open in just. . . .
By the light of the burning tree, the symbol etched into the skin of the bullet shaped capsule was clear even though all the paint had been scorched off. Tacoma.
The pilot was human.
If the pilot was also female. . . . Indiw refused to think about that. In his experience, human females were the worst enemies. It would have to be a quick, clean kill.
He reset his lock pick for human protocols and the canopy slid back with a screech of buckled metal.
Choking, acrid smoke billowed out. Indiw holstered his knife and scooped fetid water into the cockpit to kill the fire. Then, claws ready, he leaned across the cowling to do what had to be done. The instrument panel gave one last sparkling flash. By that light, he saw the helmet roll toward him and he struck reflexively at the intruder.
It was a stupid reflex. His claws slashed toward the pilot's throat and snagged in the tough flight suit.
With two claws caught in the neck seal, he saw the name blazoned across the front of the helmet. Raymond G. Falstaff, Jr., Pilot Lieutenant, Tacoma.
His claws bit into the fabric, and he pulled the head around, but the visor was opaque with soot and the darkness within. The head lolled to one side. Dead?
With a savage twist, Indiw yanked the helmet off.
The naked face was pale except where blood crusted below the nose and still flowed freely. But there was no mistaking it. It was Walter G. Falstaff's face. Falstaff had been the best pilot Indiw had ever known.
Raymond Falstaff was his nephew, the son of his brother. But he didn't look like another person. He looked like the same person, only younger.
With a sudden, inexplicable horror, Indiw dropped the limp form back into the cockpit and pushed away from the capsule. The burning tree cast a flickering, eerie light that made it seem his friend, his drinking buddy, his flying partner, was lying there bleeding.
But he'd died four years ago. He'd died when a Hyos had sliced his torso across. He'd died defending this —child — and the planet Aberdeen from the Hyos. He was dead. He was gone. Yet here he was—dying again.
Indiw twisted away, torn by instinct in conflict with memories. Emotions washed through him in riptides stirring things best left alone by the civilized.
When it was over, he was limp, shaking, and sick with the knowledge that, no matter what, he couldn't gut this intruder. He could not.
So what could he do? Leave him here to die? The night wind and plummeting temperature would produce a frozen corpse soon enough. Then the neighbors wouldn't discover his aberration. If any of his neighbors survived the Hyos invasion.
He turned to go, hacking at charred brush with his knife to make way.
The human moaned.
It was Walter Falstaff's voice.
Indiw froze. The sound didn't come again, but his feet would not carry him away.
Afterward, he had no idea how long he'd stood, muscle locked against muscle, instinct short circuited in painful sparks that seared his innermost psyche.
Then he turned back to the capsule and took the first small step that would lock him into the fate he'd avoided when he'd survived the battle of Aberdeen, where the earlier Tacoma had taken so much damage it had to be scrapped.
Head down, body tense, jaws locked, he heaved the limp form out of the capsule, slung it over his shoulders, and slogged back toward his house.
He couldn't take an intruder to his redoubt. The house would have to do. After all, he'd ceded it to invaders. He could only hope that Tacoma had arrived in time, that Tacoma had won, and no Hyos would come to destroy the house and this special young human.
Then all coherent thought was set aside. It took all his energy to cut trail through the active defenses, in the dark, the cold, carrying a burden massing as much as he did. Twice, he fell, once dumping the human into the thick ooze of a gully cut by the last rain. That made it much harder to grip the mud slicked flight suit. He was tempted to stop and peel it off, but exposure to these temperatures would surely kill an unconscious human.
By the time he reached the house, he had it all planned. As soon as the human was conscious, he'd swear him to secrecy and let him steal the aircar. Falstaff could say he'd crashed, hiked toward some lights, and had stolen the car knowing the owner of the land would kill him if he could. It was perfectly logical. Doubtless, it was what the human would have done. No pilot flew Ardr skies without knowing the penalty for an injudicious landing.
On the back porch, Indiw laid his burden down and extracted the soft fleshed human, sweating and stinking, from his flight suit. The discarded casing smelled even worse than the human.
He wrapped him in a ground tarp from the garden and left him there. He went around to the exterior control box, disarmed the house defenses, entered by the front door, carefully leaving the scent post untouched, and went through to the back sleeping quarters that opened onto the porch.
The body was just as he'd left it. He hefted the limp form, staggered into the house, turned up the heat, and rolled the damp, reeking human into his nice, clean sand bed.
The fine white sand stuck to the human's skin. He should have spread fabric over the sand. He'd been studying the human mind so minutely, he'd forgotten about the body.
Amid his camping supplies, he found ground cloths and spread one under the body, another over it to protect the human skin from the sap. It was an expensive variety of healing tree, but would do the human no good.
He brought basins of warm water, stripped the human bare, and washed him down, searching for injuries. The nose stopped bleeding as he cleaned the blood away.
The upper lip was distorted, swollen, but not broken, and the formidable front teeth seemed undamaged. Once the blood matting the hair was removed, he saw the skull had not taken any serious damage, though there was a nasty bruise over one eye. At least the boy kept his head hair almost as short as he kept the hair patches on the rest of his body.
Indiw found some mild redness on the soft skin as if from burns, but no serious radiation damage. By the time he finished, the human still had not regained consciousness. Why? Then he remembered to check the eyes. It seemed that one pupil just might be slightly less light sensitive than the other.
In a human, that could be serious. But maybe not.
To his chagrin, a part of him yearned for the invader to die and leave him in peace.
Then he wondered if this Falstaff had reproduced yet. Was he too young? Or was there another copy of Walter Falstaff in pilot's training somewhere? Would he be haunted by Falstaffs all his life if he didn't save this one?
If this young Falstaff did not regain consciousness soon, he would have to fly him to the public field himself so Tacoma's medics could pick him up — and everyone would know what he'd done. Even if he said he'd found the human on public land, they would know. Ardr could smell a lie.
He brought layers of warm, dry coverings and turned the heat in the room up. Then he went to improvise something hot he could feed the boy. As he worked through the labels on everything in his larder, he monitored the one information net that had come back online.
Tacoma had arrived just in time to vanquish the Hyos swarm, but Sinaha had taken major damage to power services and defense installations, including the new cannon. Three permanent satellites had been hit. One public training center for young, unlanded Ardr was nothing but a five mile wide smoking hole in the ground. The Hyos always went for population concentrations, thinking they'd be more important than the scattered holdings. Strange prejudice.
For the moment, the immediate threat had abated and nothing had been lost that couldn't easily be replaced.
Relieved, yet still tense, Indiw carried a bowl of hot soup made from an odd concatenation of vegetables to his patient. It was almost dawn. The wind had picked up, rushing through the surrounding forest, rolling banks of clouds up from the horizon. His weather display showed a pelting rain would fall all day, an icy rain. It would have been a lovely day for a run, if only he'd spent the evening as he'd planned.
He settled beside the sand bed, bleakly contemplating his future. If ever it became known what he'd done, he'd never again be chosen by any female. And he was much too young to regard that with equanimity.
He reached out a hand, claws hard retracted, and tilted the human face toward him. "Well, Raymond G. Falstaff, Jr., don't you think it's about time you woke up?"
A split instant later he faced a bristling human crouched to spring at him with lethal intent.
Indiw kicked his chair back and, claws out, braced to meet that spring.
But it never came.
The mobile human countenance flickered through several expressions. Indiw knew the human could barely see in the normal indoor lighting, and even pure sunlight would not help much, especially on a dark day like this.
Squinting, the human straightened and assumed the best human imitation of a nonthreatening stance. "Indiw? Are you Pilot Commander Indiw?"
Indiw recoiled. Most humans had a very hard time telling Ardr apart, and Indiw bore no distinguishing scars. In this light, the human should not be able to identify him.
"I'm Walter Falstaff's nephew," offered the human.
"I know," said Indiw. "I saw you on a news clip four years ago, claiming you wanted to be a hero like your uncle."
"You saw that? Oh, shit. I was such a stupid kid."
"Are you an adult now?"
The stance stiffened to an offended dignity. "Yes."
"Are you still stupid?" What if he has reproduced?
"What!?" As if the starch had all suddenly washed out of him, the naked human sank to his knees on the cloth covered sand. One hand went to his head and he doubled over. "Well, I guess so. I got burned by the clumsiest Hyos in creation. But I nailed him before I hit atmosphere."
"And came down on private land."
The human face raised, a pale oval backlit by the hazy dawn. "But you are Indiw, aren't you?"
"And how would you know?"
"This's your land, isn't it? That's what the map said."
"You chose to come down on my land!"
"We lost Katular to the Hyos. I lost my wingman today, and I'll bet it's not over yet. The swarms are cooperating with each other, more now than four years ago. It has to be the first move in a new assault on the border. I didn't know any other way to convince you to come back and fly with Pit Bull — than face to face. And I knew you'd never let me come talk to you! So when I got hit, I nursed my engines along so I'd land here. I knew you wouldn't kill me, not if you knew who I was. I didn't plan on getting knocked out."
He knew?! No. The human simply didn't understand. If it hadn't been for the flight suit protecting against Indiw's claws, he'd have been dead.
"And you didn't kill me!" Falstaff said brightly. "You saved my life."
Dumbfounded, Indiw gaped at the confused child.
"So what do you say? Re-up and fly with Pit Bull. Give the Hyos hell! Come on, I gotta call in and you can tell Captain—"
Abruptly Indiw turned away, and the human fell silent.
The boy had sounded just like Walter Falstaff. It was more than having the same brown eyes, and brown hair, or the same pale skin and sharp features. It was the way he held himself, the way he ignited at the prospect of action.
But Indiw also had noted how the eyes glittered feverishly, how the skin around the cracked lips was too pale in contrast to the bruises and pink swellings. And the voice strained with suppressed pain. This was not a well human.
He turned back. "You're in no condition to give anyone hell but yourself. I'll get you a robe and food. When you are rested, I'll give you my car. You can go to the public field where Tacoma can pick you up. Nothing need be said to anyone about this. You understand?"
"Oh, Commander Indiw, I wouldn't embarrass you in front of your neighbors! My uncle wouldn't have, would he?"
Indiw made him pull the robe on, a simple broadly cut garment designed to confine the body's scents when it would be impolite to broadcast one's arousal. Falstaff had worn one like it aboard Katular. It emphasized the resemblance.
He didn't want to think about this Falstaff's words. "Here," he said, proffering the soup. "This is all I have fit for human nourishment. Then you must sleep before you can leave." And then I will cleanse your scent out of my house!
The human took the bowl. It was still warm, and he inhaled the aroma. It seemed acceptable, though Indiw wouldn't have touched the concoction. Eagerly, he tilted the bowl up to sip at the warm liquid.
His enthusiasm for the soup waned abruptly. He shoved the bowl at Indiw, dropping it in midair before Ardr claws could close around it. One hand over his mouth, he muttered, "I think I'm going to — I'm going to — be sick." Then he was jackknifed over the edge of the sand bed heaving his insides out. Fortunately, he'd drunk very little of the soup and produced barely a trickle of bile.
Weak and drained, he flopped back onto the sand panting. "I'm sorry! I'll clean it up — just a mo-"
"No! Don't move. Such things happen after head injuries. It is of no consequence. You must remain still and without moving. You must sleep." But what if it is serious? What if it gets worse?
Yet the human's eyes seemed to be the same size now. Or was that wishful thinking? The disparity had never been very great. And after all, the boy was conscious now.
Even as Indiw pondered this, the human's head lolled to one side as if much too heavy for him to manage. He muttered, ". . . contact Tacoma . . . tell them I'm on my . . ." Before he could finish the utterance, he fell asleep with his mouth open. It seemed a natural sleep.
Indiw remembered how Falstaff's first concern when he'd wakened on Katular had been to report to his unit so he wouldn't be penalized. Indiw hadn't understood then, but now he knew how a human joining a pack bound himself to obey nonsensical strictures — which they nevertheless took very seriously.
Then he savagely squelched the thought. He didn't want to know, he didn't want to understand. He only wanted to get rid of the human as quickly and quietly as possible.
He cleaned up the room with liberal amounts of scent eradicator. Then he tended to the ravages the night's activities had taken on his own hide. He was covered with layers of mud, soot, and pond scum laced with the sticky sap of various night bloomers. He reeked worse than the human.
Once clean, he buffed his torso until it gleamed, sharpened his horns, and donned his best sandals and insignia straps tinted the exact shade of the two small but perfectly curved horns that graced his skull, the best straps his newly landed status allowed. He cut an imposing figure.
He completed his grooming just in time. Around noon, the message service came back online, dropping five messages into his buffer.
Three were from neighbors who'd noticed the fireball come down on his land — checking up, no doubt, to see if he'd survived or if they had a chance to annex his property. He dropped terse notes just to indicate his land was still held. Firmly held. Then he tended to the official queries.
In the aftermath of battle, tracking stations strove to locate the crashed fighters, hostiles as well as defenders. Those who had managed to crash on public lands or waters had already been picked up by Search and Rescue from Tacoma, but by treaty, the humans could not chase their lost fighters onto held land.
As Indiw pondered what to say about the fighter they probably knew had crashed in his swamp, the comweb burped, flashed, and produced a distraught human's face over a bit of uniform with a fighter wing captain's insignia.
" -don't care if you have to — oh! Excuse me, do I have the honor of addressing the land holder Indiw? Pilot Commander Indiw, Retired?"
The connection should not have been made without his activating his own board. He had a bad circuit. Indiw aborted his impulse to slam down the disconnect.
"Honored Land Holder, I am Wing Captain Jules Lorton. I do apologize for the intrusion. We've lost a fighter on your land and would appreciate the return of his recorder — and whatever may remain of the pilot, Lieutenant Raymond G. Falstaff, Jr." The human swallowed hugely, causing the bump in his neck to bob up and down.
He has made this request several times already, to other land holders who have dispatched their trespassers and returned the gutted corpses. "I will keep your preference in mind," Indiw answered and moved to cut the connection.
"Please, wait! Falstaff was the last survivor of Pit Bull Squadron. We could surely use your help. We've lost a lot-" Something offscreen attracted his attention. The human turned away, and Indiw caught a distant voice.
" -another wave of Hyos incoming, thirty degrees above the ecliptic. We've too many fighters down now. Get the Ardr to scramble anything that can make it into space and defend their own bloody planet."
A faint odor reached Indiw's nostrils, too faint to register on his horns. Human. He turned aghast as Falstaff reeled right into Captain Lorton's line of sight. "Pilot Falstaff reporting for duty, sir! I'll be at the public field in twenty minutes for pickup. But my fighter's totaled, and my wingman here hasn't got a rivet to his name!"
Rivet? What could that be? The inane question filled the void left in Indiw's mind by shock.
Lorton's gaze flicked from Falstaff to Indiw and back, then his tired face lit with a grin, fierce teeth hanging out in challenge. Indiw recoiled involuntarily, but Lorton didn't notice. "Report to Hangar C in one hour, Lieutenant. Commander Indiw, welcome aboard and welcome to Delta Wing. Your commission reactivation will be waiting. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to marshal our forces."
The screen went black.
Indiw, paralyzed by shock, barely heard Falstaff's hearty, "Congratulations, Commander, and welcome aboard. And thank you for calling in before they socked me with a fine. I was real worried how I was going to explain surviving on private land without giving you away! Let's go!"
Indiw, numbed to his very core by the bizarre twist his fate had taken, nevertheless knew he'd had no choice but to fly. Any land holder would use any skill he had to defend his land. Indiw was a fighter pilot, one of the very best. When Lorton had broadcast his appeal across Sinaha for every available Ardr pilot, Indiw would have responded as all others did, would have flown whatever would make orbit, and would have joined with any flight grouping to fight Hyos.
And that is exactly what the other retired pilots on Sinaha had done. En masse, they had reported to Tacoma's landing bay to take anything they knew how to fly in combat.
However, Indiw, arriving in orbit in a commercial shuttle along with Falstaff, two other human pilots, and twenty-six Ardr combat pilots, had been greeted by the humans of Tacoma not as an Ardr but as one of their own. They had presented him with a flight suit complete with Commander insignia and swept him into a fighter displaying the Pit Bull logo.
Before he knew what was happening, he was lined up in the launch chute behind Falstaff and a Squadron Commander Witter of the Hawk Squadron whose wingman was the last of Wild Blue Squadron.
Indiw had no choice but to fly the formation — in full view of three hundred Ardr pilots grouping to attack the incoming Hyos. If, at that point, he'd gone to weave pattern with the Ardr, the Ardr would have excluded him.
There was no doubt in his mind that by the time he returned to the ground, word would be out that he'd failed to kill the human intruder on his land. He no longer had any future on Sinaha. But done was done.
However it had happened, done was done. He had been too shocked to speak in the aircar. He hadn't dared to exchange even one word with Falstaff on the shuttle — not in full view of so many Ardr. But by then it was too late. It had been too late from the moment Lorton had spotted Raymond G. Falstaff, Jr., in Indiw's house. On Tacoma, anything he said to Lorton would have been in full hearing of a dozen Ardr who were already shrinking from him.
The boy had made a natural mistake — for a human. It was a mistake that had probably shortened Indiw’s life expectancy, but Tacoma and this Falstaff had bought him a few more hours of life. Now he would die defending his land.
He could not afford to think about it now. There was a mission to fly. He squirmed uncomfortably in his human tailored flight suit, then ran his instrument checks. At least his throttled kill instinct would soon be assuaged. There would be Hyos to kill.
He was expert with every design quirk of the new instrumentation. He had, after all, been the designer. It had earned him his land. He'd figured a way to circuit the boards so the instrument readings weren't as vulnerable to radiation. That incidentally increased their sensitivity, range, speed, and accuracy by reducing circuit path.
He grinned ferociously when the vivid new tactical display lit to show some five hundred Hyos fighters approaching Sinaha — not a full swarm.
They were probably the survivors of some defeated swarm with nowhere to go and no hope left. That would make them a formidable threat. The advance edge of Tacoma's tattered fighter wings engaged the enemy while Indiw waited launch.
The Hyos fought like demons, ramming their craft into the defenders when they were out of fuel or ammunition. Falstaff had been right, Hyos tactics had changed over the last couple of years, after decades of unvarying behavior.
As he studied the Hyos movements looking for other innovations, Witter's voice — which had been droning in the background — penetrated. "Okay, Pit Bull Three and Pit Bull Four, it's agreed. We are now Splinter Squadron. And you know where that splinter's gonna go — the one place on a Hyos where the sun don't shine! Let's stick it to 'em, guys."
A ragged cheer went up as the launchers spewed them out into space. "Close up, Splinter Four! That's you, Commander Indiw! Get right up close to Falstaff there. Good! Let's go get 'em."
Indiw didn't have his own subroutines programmed into this fighter's memory. He hadn't thought to grab his modules at home — they were installed in his simulator, the only way he'd flown in the last two years. Now, as he watched the glittering wall of battle approach, his guilty sessions with the human-style squadron simulation came back full force. He had told himself he flew human style to try to get into their minds enough to understand their books. But the real reason, he could admit now, was that he liked it.
"Splinter Four, this is Splinter Three," came Falstaff's voice on their private band. "Stick on my tail now 'cause here we go. And, Commander, whatever they say, you and I are Pit Bull! We're just flying with Splinter right now. So let's show them what we can do." Falstaff didn't sound weak or sick now.
Indiw stole a moment from programming his fighter's memory to return a terse "Acknowledged, Lieutenant Falstaff." It never occurred to him that using Falstaff's rank in that context had been a subtle put down that erroneously led the young human to assume Indiw had a firm grasp of human command protocols.
He was too busy noting how the Ardr contingent had taken responsibility for the enemy's left hand flank. They had already carved a chunk out of the main Hyos body and were isolating it to be devoured piecemeal.
Then Splinter was chasing a Hyos. Witter got that one. A Hyos missile hit Witter and his shields whited out, but when the dazzle cleared, he was in one piece. His wingman got the culprit with a slicer, and Falstaff took off after a Hyos who nearly drilled Witter's wingman.
Indiw stuck with Falstaff, watching his tail. A Hyos spun toward them fleeing the Ardr pattern that was englobing their prey. The singleton leveled off heading for Falstaff. Indiw broke formation and loosed two rapid cannon shots, missed with the first and nailed the Hyos with the second. The Hyos broke apart. As Indiw streaked through the spot where the Hyos had been, his shields repelled debris.
"Great flying, Indiw——shit, man, dive!"
Indiw nosed below the plane of reference and a red beam flashed through the space he'd occupied. He did a one-eighty, looping above the plane of reference, and found Falstaff screaming for help as he pounded away at a Hyos craft that was larger than the others.
At first, Indiw didn't understand what he was seeing. This larger craft fired energy beams simultaneously in four directions. It must have four autonomous targeting computers. How could a pilot handle four — no! There were four Hyos on that one craft — a pilot and three gunners.
Now that was a change.
Indiw loosed a barrage of missiles at the monstrous thing, following them in to pound away with his cannon. He took two direct hits — the craft had no blind spot — and streaked past. By the time he circled back, Witter and his wingman had joined Falstaff, firing their cannons.
But they were making no progress. Indiw stood back from the fight and ran a quick digital image of the monster, looking for a weak spot.
"Splinter One, this is Splinter Four. The only vulnerable spot in this thing's shield is the cannon ports. The shields fade right over the port before it fires."
"We know," answered Witter. "We can kill these only by overwhelming their shields with cannon fire."
"I can hit the port, sir."
"Nobody can shoot that well. We'll get some help here in a couple of minutes."
With his right hand, Indiw taught his computer a timed sequence he'd often used with the simulator. With his left hand he maneuvered away for a long run at the monster. His innovations had increased the computer's speed but he hadn't been able to convince anybody to take full advantage of that yet. Now he'd show them.
"Cover me," he suggested, "and we'll see if we really need help. Here I come. Port side cannon."
He began his run before the others agreed. But Falstaff fell in before him as if they'd practiced this a dozen times. Falstaff set his shields to overlap Indiw's, his slicers raking the target to confuse their sensors. At the last moment, Falstaff peeled off to the right, drawing fire, and Indiw bored in on his target.
His instruments pegged the instant the Hyos cannon port opened as the weapon targeted Falstaff. Indiw held his course, and his little program did the rest.
His cannon delivered a glowing ball of energy, then he sheared away into a steep climb. Behind him, a blue ball of light expanded. The energy wave bounced off his shields.
"Got him! Hot damn, Indiw, you're one helluva pilot!" That was Witter's wingman. Indiw didn't know his name.
Falstaff yelled, "Watch your tail, Indiw."
Something hit Indiw and spun him out of control. Then everything whited out. When it cleared and he regained control, the battle was over and Falstaff was pleading, "You okay, man? Splinter Four, come on, talk to me!"
"This is Splinter Four. All systems functional, but guidance is on backup."
"You had me worried! Splinter One, this is Splinter Three. Four and I are okay, but Indiw's on backup guidance."
"Good work, guys. Form on me. Tacoma says it's all over and we're to come home. We've taken the least damage, so we'll bring up the rear. Falstaff, the two of you fly like you've been together for years. Never seen anything like it."
"We're Pit Bull Squadron," answered Falstaff smugly.
As they formed for the flight back to Tacoma, Indiw noted the holes in the other squadrons. Even in this brief fight, they'd taken heavy damage. And, as they approached their landing bay, he noted several new scars on Tacoma's gleaming hide. With the fighting wings below full strength, several of those monstrous gunships had gotten through. That was probably how Katular had been destroyed. He wondered if any of the monsters had made it into atmosphere and what kind of planetary weapons such a ship might carry.
In the landing bay, as soon as the mechanics pried open his canopy, Indiw fumbled his light translating visor into place and levered himself out of the cockpit. Not looking right or left, he made for the nearest lift.
Unlike his first time among humans, he knew if he could contact the Quartermaster's office, he would find out where they'd assigned him quarters. Once he had his Orders nodule, he knew he could get everything he needed on the ship. There was a chance he could do all that before they called their Interview. A dim memory reminded him they called that process debriefing. Idiot word — as if the pilots unlearned everything that happened by telling about it!
Walking in a fog, he found himself at the lift at which Falstaff waited, helmet tucked under one arm, a cockeyed grin on his face. But he covered his teeth as Indiw approached.
Indiw shied away from the human, expecting exuberance expressed the same way as the elder Falstaff's, with a blow of the open hand. Such a blow from an Ardr would rake killing claws through flesh to the bone. But this Falstaff tucked his free hand behind him and tilted forward in friendly salutation.
The human's brown eyes glowed with overflowing good spirits. "We really did give 'em hell! You're better than any of the records of your battles showed! You gotta teach me how you did that trick with the fire control computer. You've got to teach me everything!"
"I don't know if I'll be around that long." He stepped into the lift and to his discomfort Falstaff followed.
"Don't say that. Hyos'll never get you, Commander."
"I meant that I intend to resign and go home." There was nothing to be gained by avoiding the consequences of his decision to spare this young human's life. "I never intended to rejoin Pit Bull Squadron."
Falstaff's face fell into tense, vertical lines.
"You misunderstood, Lieutenant. Captain Lorton called me, not I him. I had not told him that you had survived. I had not intended to. I flew this mission only to protect my land. It's over. As soon as I inform the Records Officer of my resignation, I will be gone."
The pale human turned paler. "You mean I — I blew it for you! Oh, God, Indiw — Commander — I didn't mean — I'd never have — you have to believe me — "
"It was an honest mistake such as any human might make. I will accept your mistakes if you will accept mine. This should be my deck. Excuse me."
The doors flicked open revealing a long, gleaming corridor lined with open hatches and permeated with the muted sounds of office equipment. Throngs of humans flowed to and fro. Dressed in all varieties of ship's uniform save that of pilot, they were all intent on their own business.
Indiw stepped into the press, thinking to escape Falstaff once and for all. But the human followed him. He danced along in an awkward sideways gait as Indiw strode toward the larger offices at the end of the corridor where the Quartermaster and the Records Officer were located.
"Commander Indiw, don't cut me off. Please. Give me a chance. Let me make it right. I never meant to get you into any trouble. You have to believe that."
Indiw stopped and traffic continued to stream around them, faces turning as they noticed his Ardr features. Some frowned, but most smiled their best (and most ferocious) welcoming smiles. "Lieutenant Falstaff, I do believe your innocent intent. And that is why I wish to place myself as far away from you as possible."
Indiw had had no idea that the human countenance could express such thunderstruck devastation. He was so enthralled by the unexpected silent eloquence — possibly a compensation for the human olfactory impairment — that he almost missed its significance. Excruciating pain.
As Falstaff began to turn away, shoulders slumped, Indiw snapped, "I apologize! Now I have made one of those mistakes that any Ardr might make. I did not intend to express any opinion of you, personally. I intended only to express my choice clearly. It has nothing to do with you, your actions, or your ability to fly, but only with my personal choice."
"Choice? Oh. I see. I understand. My mistake. I thought you'd chosen to fly with Pit Bull again. I thought I'd have a chance to learn — well . . . Thank you, Commander. Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for flying with me. Thank you for nailing that Hyos that almost got me. I'll remember every moment of it for the rest of my life. Every moment. Goodbye."
Falstaff saluted, then executed a formal pivot and walked stiffly back to the lift. Indiw watched him go, wondering why he sensed the human emitting throbbing waves of grief even through the melange of odors in the corridor.
He throttled his curiosity and renewed his resolve to drop the study of humanity. Just look where it had gotten him. Resolute, he took himself into the Records Office, surveying the array of functionaries behind a counter. To one side, there was a short alley made by low partitions that surrounded desks. Each emplacement was identified by a small brass sign bearing cryptic abbreviations. He would have to ask for assistance.
Suddenly, there was an immense wall of uniform in front of his nose and a voice boomed, "Commander Indiw, welcome to Tacoma's Delta Wing."
He retreated and tilted his head back. Atop the huge expanse of uniform was the face of Captain Lorton. The human stood with his open hand extended, exuding joy and goodwill.
Retracting his claws tightly, Indiw took the proffered hand, returning the pressure firmly, then releasing it. To his relief, Lorton let go immediately. Then the human stepped back and gave a little bow, perhaps meant as a polite greeting though the posture was all wrong.
"Thank you, Captain Lorton. I must speak to you-"
They were interrupted by a yeoman who handed Lorton a flat case. "Here they are, Captain, everything you requested." He stepped aside, staring covertly at Indiw.
"Thank you, Yeoman. You may go."
"Sir!" The man retreated behind his counter.
Lorton passed the case to Indiw. "There you go, Commander. I think you'll find everything you need inside. With your Orders nodule, the Quartermaster can issue you all the gear you'll need. We'll be taking on Ardr supplies before we leave Sinaha, so I think you'll be- "
"Captain, I wanted to speak to you about- "
"Don't worry about a thing. I came down here personally to walk your orders through because I know how difficult this must be for you and because we need you. That youngster – Falstaff? — I had no idea how right he was when he insisted we had to have you back flying again if we were to deal with those new porkies the Hyos have. But you proved him right today. You're the only one who really understands that new circuitry of yours and what it can do."
"Don't be modest. In my wing, a man gets the credit he deserves and the promotions with pay to match. Now, we have to master that innovation you showed us today. And fast. Check with my office in the morning. I'll have your teaching schedule set and a simulator cleared for your class. Your work will be recorded, of course, and sent to all the other carriers flying the new fighters. And I'll personally see that your three best students are sent to other carriers to teach. It might just turn the tide for us."
He started to move past Indiw.
Indiw tried again, "Captain Lorton, it won't work. I've been trying to tell-"
Lorton checked and held up both hands, palm out. "Falstaff told me how little luck you've had getting Ardr pilots to use the new instruments, but I couldn't believe Ardr pilots were so conservative until I saw your system in action. Like I said before, welcome aboard. And you can virtually write your own ticket here. We need everything you can tell us about that new system of yours! But you're off duty for the next sixteen hours. Get a good rest because we're going to work you hard. Debriefing at oh-eight-hundred, and your classes will start at ten-hundred sharp. It's all in your orders."
Lorton turned away again and then added, "Oh, and tell Falstaff he's going to get a commendation for this if I have anything to say about it. Everyone ought to learn to read at least one of the languages of another species."
Falstaff had been reading the Ardr journals? Before he could digest that, Lorton was gone.
Indiw had published a number of articles about his circuitry design, trying to get pilots to experiment with it, but his suggestions had been greeted with indifference.
Obviously, Lorton and maybe Falstaff thought that was because Ardr pilots didn't want to change their methods. But Ardr were still leery of the human taint they suspected Indiw carried. They accepted the hardware eagerly, but would not touch any tactical byproduct of his design innovations.
If Indiw used this opportunity to teach humans the limits of the new equipment and they based new tactics on the new capabilities, it would confirm every Ardr's worst fear about him. But if he didn't teach them, and the Hyos overran the border, the entire defeat would be his fault.
And what awaited him at home? How long would it be before someone figured out that he hadn't killed the human who'd crashed in his swamp? What did he have to offer in counterbalance to that atrocity?
If, by the time anyone found out he'd spared an intruder, he had already taught the humans how a single pilot could deal with a four-seater Hyos gunship, well, who could argue with any land holder doing what was necessary to defend his land, even sparing an intruder?
Maybe something of his life could still be salvaged.
The circulating mass of humanity in the area before the Records counter had somehow jockeyed Indiw into a line before a single clerk's station. He stared at the people working behind the Records counter, only vaguely aware that the hubbub dealt with the impending arrival of a resupply freighter with replacement personnel aboard. He definitely did not belong in this line.
He had no choice but to accept Lorton's suggestion and teach the humans. It would be the easiest way out. But he wanted to go home. Yet he shrank from what would happen if he did. Maybe if he stayed, just for a while. . . .
Chasing "maybes" was what had gotten him in such deep trouble last time. "Maybes," Falstaffs, and human females. That was the deadly mix. But so far there were no females involved in this. And it was a chance. Maybe his only chance to recoup his certain loss.
"Can I help you, sir?"
"Uh." He'd reached the head of the line. Indiw focused on the yeoman before him. "No, thank you. I've got everything I need."
Orders under one arm, he went to the Quartermaster.
They assigned him a cabin next to Falstaff. Naturally.
He didn't fight it. He had nothing against the boy, except that his very presence was terrifying.
Things went quickly after that. Apparently, orders had been passed concerning him. Nothing — absolutely nothing — could be done on a human ship without orders. Nobody was allowed to think for themselves. But somehow that wasn't as disturbing as it had been the first time he'd encountered it.
When he arrived at his cabin, humans were bustling in and out delivering equipment and supplies. Within two hours of his arrival, they'd brought in everything needed to make the tiny compartment into a comfortable habitat. Then he took possession with strategically placed scent markings.
There was a nice sand bed with an artificial sprinkler over it in place of a living tree. But the sap it delivered was real, and wondrously soothing to the hide. It made him realize how tired he was. He hadn't slept the previous night and he was close to collapse.
They'd brought him Ardr rations, and the means to store and thaw them. He even got to choose the cuisine. The uniforms all came with Pit Bull Squadron patches and rank insignia in little bags ready to be attached. Toiletries, softly lined uniforms that wouldn't dull his hide, scent controlling devices, modified lighting fixtures, and a complete library that contained everything on all four of Sinaha's reading services made the cramped space into a home.
They expected him to stay a lot longer than he did.
The debriefing was one of those formalized rituals used by humans for pack bonding. It began with the humans taking places around a long oval table and then rising to assume identical postures as Lorton walked into the room flanked by two women of lesser rank. Indiw rose but made no effort to imitate the humans until he saw the women.
Then Indiw's claws twitched in response to the clear and obvious threat. Though some of the other pilots were female, they had paid him no attention. And there was a Wing Commander female named Tagawa down the table from him, but she was Alpha Wing. Lorton's two females had more power over him since they obviously controlled Lorton. Indiw strove to become inconspicuous, telling himself that his uniform, identical to the other pilots', would help.
Falstaff arrived, late and panting, to slip into the chair beside Indiw's. Lorton pretended not to notice. The women did eye the latecomer penetratingly, though. Falstaff pretended not to notice. Indiw held his breath.
The proceedings began with bits of recordings lifted from the fighters, and questions directed to the partners of pilots who had died in the action. But very quickly it centered on how Splinter Squadron had dealt with the porky.
Porky, thought Indiw morosely. Since a Pit Bull isn't a bovine, I'll bet a porky isn't a swine. So what could it be? Something blasphemous?
" . . . as Commander Indiw will be telling you soon. Isn't that right, Commander?"
"Sir?" Indiw had lost the thread of the discussion.
"In Simulator C at ten-hundred today," prompted Lorton.
Lorton waved his hand around the table. There were over twenty-five pilots at the table, and more on chairs around the edges of the room. "Your first students are ready."
Suddenly it was all horribly real. Humans.
Falstaff leaned close and muttered, "All you have to do is walk them through the logic steps that led you to develop that little program you zapped the porky with!"
Lorton smiled, nodded, and said happily, "That will be all." And he started out of the room.
The coherence of the rigid grouping dissolved suddenly and re-formed as something else, just like a group of Ardr pilots breaking pattern to reweave into an offensive stance.
"Come on, Commander," urged Falstaff, "relax. It won't be hard. I'll help." He urged Indiw toward the door but politely refrained from physical contact. "I just wish you'd told me last night that you were staying. I'd have helped you work out a lesson plan — not that you don't know what you're doing, but I doubt you've ever taught humans before."
"No, I haven't."
"Don't worry about a thing. Everyone here's eager to learn your tricks. We've seen too many of our buddies killed by those porkies."
"What, exactly, does 'porky' mean? Why call a four-seat gunship such a thing?"
"Well, who could say 'four-seat gunship' while trying to shoot one down? So we call it what it looks like — a porcupine, bristling guns in every direction."
"Porkupine," said Indiw, resolving to look that one up.
"Yeah, but that's too long to say, too, so we just call it a porky. Simple, no?"
The human led the way into a lift filled with pilots from the debriefing. Indiw fell silent as he realized they were more nervous than he was. The lift stopped in an area of the ship Indiw had never explored on the old Tacoma. Classrooms lined the hall, which ended in huge double doors labeled SIMULATOR C, AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.
Falstaff led the mob of humans down that long corridor. Unobtrusively, he kept his body between Indiw and the others as he bragged over his shoulder about his new wingman's prowess at killing porkies.
The simulator room was gigantic. It consisted of eighty carrels facing a larger demonstrator's cockpit display set up on a stage so everyone could see it.
There were three men already in the room working at control panels in the walls near the door. As Indiw came in, one of them approached him, saluted, and presented a flight helmet labeled INSTRUCTOR. "Everything's ready for you, sir! We've got the memory from your fighter installed up front so you can run your demo anytime. If you need help with the controls, we'll be right here." He tapped the helmet phones.
Falstaff returned the salute, and dismissed the man.
Five minutes later, half the room was filled. Indiw donned the helmet and climbed onto the stage with the huge model of cockpit instrumentation behind him. Looking down at the audience, he could barely make out the tops of his students' heads over their carrel walls.
The room was cooler than the rest of the ship's norm. His position put him in a nice breeze. His horns had become used to the dense effluvium of human. He was almost comfortable, but not enough to think how to go about this.
His helmet earphones came to life with Falstaff's voice. "Pit Bull Three to Pit Bull Four. Let's show 'em how we did it."
As good a place to start as any. Indiw sat and swiveled to face the array of controls behind him. They were normal size models slaved to the huge replica the others could see. But there were two banks of controls he didn't recognize.
"Here," said one of the technicians, adjusting switches. "Now it'll run yesterday's battle. Use this to pause the action, and this to talk to all the carrels at once, or with this you can single out a pilot." He stepped back, and Indiw's board flashed into the configuration showing what it had when they had encountered that porky.
With a little experimentation he began to see the arrangement made sense — if you insisted on trying to teach eighty pilots at once. Humans. Pack hunters.
He and Falstaff flew the final attack on the porky with Indiw pausing the action to explain each stage of his thinking as he analyzed the digital image of the monster and then as he applied his knowledge of his system's limits to the problem of that tiny vulnerability in the porky's defense.
Afterward, Indiw answered questions until he sounded hoarse and then the pilots left pounding each other on the shoulders, punching each other with closed fists, and laughing incongruously all the while.
From his seat on the stage, Indiw watched this form of pack-bonding ritual with icy fingers of terror gripping his vitals. Why did it make him feel so helpless?
One of the pilots lingered until Falstaff was alone, and then approached the young human. Indiw could hear clearly, though the humans probably didn't realize it.
"Ray, how in hell did you know what Commander Indiw wanted you to do on that last attack run? You hadn't discussed it. He admitted he'd never even heard of the porkies since they're so new on this part of the border. How did you know what to do?"
"Don, we're Pit Bull Squadron. It's that simple."
"But you'd never so much as flown together before."
"He flew with my uncle, and he was Pit Bull. I studied all the records. My uncle taught me everything he could as I was growing up. So I just knew what Commander Indiw had in mind, and I knew how to help."
The human, Don, nodded as if that explained it. Then he said a peculiar thing. "Do you think I could get a posting to Pit Bull?" No, not peculiar. Humans had to be assigned to squadrons. They needed orders. What was peculiar was Don's shy diffidence in asking.
"I don't know, Don. We are the best. Tina and Greg are a hard act to follow."
"So are you and Indiw, but I know I can do it. Put in a good word for me, will you?"
"Why don't you turn out and fly simulator with me tomorrow, say, oh-seven-hundred? Let's see what you can do."
Now that made sense to Indiw.
Somewhat relieved, Indiw left the two human pilots talking in the darkened simulator room. His orders said that his scheduled duties for the day were completed, except for reports on the class he'd just conducted and his plan for tomorrow's lesson, which should be filed with Captain Lorton before the hour of twenty. But before he could outline a lesson sequence, he had to have his program modules.
He went to the hangar deck where the engineers were supposed to be repairing his craft. He remembered that he as a pilot, wasn't expected or allowed to work on his own machine, but he had to see what condition it was in. He had a flight to make.
When he got to the hangar, though, it was in an uproar. Stripped down skeletons and heaps of parts had been shoved to one side to make room for rows of cargotainers lined up in the work space. The engineers were cracking open the containers and carting off packages.
The resupply ship must have arrived. So where was his fighter? How could he find it? Get it launched? Once again, as so often among the humans, he felt helpless.
Then his eye fell on an oblate spheroid tucked into one corner of the deck. It took a few moments to recognize it out of context. A porky. More or less intact.
He looked it over, ran a hand across the scorched and burned areas. It was hardly damaged. This was a real treasure. Circling, he found an open hatch and climbed inside. Hyos odor filled the cramped compartment. He had to worm his way through to what had to be the pilot's seat.
He folded himself gingerly into the awkwardly shaped rack — Hyos had more joints in their limbs than humans and Ardr, and their arms were longer, their hands different.
Indiw had studied diagrams of the other Hyos craft. He played with the controls, discovering this craft was drained of power. He saw the control board links to the three other gunners stationed above him and to either side.
"Excuse me, Commander, but you're not allowed in here. Security, you know. Sensitive information."
Indiw turned. An armed woman wearing the braid that designated those who forced order on the unruly was leaning into the hatch, smiling. Indiw swallowed his terror. In his experience, the smiling human female was the most dangerous creature in the galaxy. All he needed was to be nominated for another award for heroism! He answered evenly, "Why would I not be allowed in here? There might be something of interest to learn."
"You have to have authorization. You're not on my list of those who have access."
On Sinaha, if someone had tried to block him from information, he'd simply have gutted the miscreant and had done with it. It took a few moments to stifle the impulse and think of an answer a human could accept. "Perhaps Captain Lorton would provide you with a solution to your problem if you asked him?" He tried to sound sympathetic.
"He doesn't have clearance. I'm sorry, Commander, but you'll have to leave. Regulations."
While he thought about that, Indiw asked, "How did this craft arrive here virtually undamaged?"
"Search and Rescue picked it up derelict after the battle. They say it just ran out of power."
Indiw swung back to inspect the power indicators. They were all dark. But there sure were a lot of them. No wonder the porky sported such robust shielding and such powerful weapons. He counted the power banks, trying to recall how much each one would store. He commented, "It would take all the housekeeping power that Tacoma uses in an hour to resupply this porky. How could they have run out of power?"
"How would you know that?" asked a deeper voice.
Indiw turned and found a white-clad technician leaning over the woman's shoulder. Indiw told him where he'd gotten his estimate. The woman complained that she hadn't been able to get the Pilot Commander to leave and would have to get her supervisor to issue the order and put Indiw on report.
The technician said, "Oh, don't bother. That's our new hardware expert. Go on back to work, Shirl. I'll get his clearances straightened out. He just didn't realize he needed to file the forms first. I'll stay with him. I want to hear more about this."
She shrugged and left. The man said, "I'm Captain Misholu. I run Flight Engineering Services for Delta Wing. Call me Sergei." He squeezed into the tiny compartment blocking Indiw's exit.
Every combative instinct triggered, Indiw replied with his own name, rank, and assignment.
"Don't worry about the clearances." Misholu waved a hand. Indiw aborted the urge to sever the member from the human's arm. "You're always welcome in my department, Commander. Your reputation has preceded you!"
"That's nice." And then his numb mind finally rendered up the proper formal phrase. "Captain, if you'll excuse me, I must go now. I've duties to perform."
Miraculously, it worked. Misholu backed out of the cramped space and left the exit clear for Indiw. "Well, I do hope you'll feel free to spend as much time on this craft as you like. I can get you released from other duties,uh, if that's what you'd prefer."
Relieved by the open space around them, Indiw realized the man was actually trying to be friendly, offering him a preference instead of an order. Some humans paid attention to the interspecies briefings. He got his heart rate under control and answered as graciously as he could, "My curiosity may overcome my good sense at the oddest hours. I would truly appreciate being allowed to study this craft in my own way. I'm interested in what your experts discover."
"I'll see you get all the reports. I hope we'll be seeing a lot of you around here."
Indiw cast a glance over the porky. "That is certainly an inducement. Thank you, Captain-"
"Sergei. Thank you." He retreated in good order, congratulating himself on sparing two more human lives. Their loss would have been more embarrassing than young Falstaff's survival. The hangar deck was, after all, more theirs than his. And for all he knew, they were landed.
Then he remembered that they might not have known that he was landed, nor what that meant in terms of his right to kill. Humans. If his neighbors knew just how confused humans made him, they'd never accuse him of being tainted.
After an hour's search, he found his craft. It had been preflighted and set up in the launch bay. As he was checking it over, a squadron composed entirely of the new pilots who had arrived with the cargotainers came into the bay and took possession of four of the fighters. After some discussion among themselves and with launch control, they climbed into their machines and lined up for portage into the launch tube.
Indiw tagged along. Only after launch control queried him did he remember he was supposed to get orders before he could take a fighter out. In fact, he wasn't supposed to leave the ship without orders. Four years ago, Falstaff had made him spend an entire evening reading regulations, none of which had made sense. It was amazing he remembered as much as he did.
Vaguely, he wondered why Captain Lorton hadn't cleared the trip, and then he remembered how swamped Records had been what with the resupply arriving. Well with such a ponderous system, of course things didn't work right.
So when launch control assumed he was with the squadron just going out, he let them continue on that assumption.
In farewell, the man who cleared him for launch confirmed Indiw's assumption about Records, "Don't worry about the clearances, Commander. Records is swamped right now. Small wonder they're losing things. I'll have everything ready for you to sign when you get back."
"Thank you." Indiw hit his lock toggles and departed.
Once clear, he took orbit, contacted Sinaha ground control, and brought up a display of the local traffic between him and home. He chose a descent path, and in less than two hours was safely aground in his own backyard.
He had to get a considerable distance away from the craft before he could trust his nose, but a cursory inspection indicated that no one else had been here since he'd left. Good, maybe the dread news about his aberration wasn't common knowledge yet. People would be busy in the aftermath of the two battles and the renewed certainty that there were worse challenges yet to face.
He went in, packed the personal items he needed to take, then made a small bundle of things he couldn't justify taking into space but which he'd prefer to be able to repossess at some future time, whether he lost this land or not.
He took that bundle to the Walkway — public land he could access from a public gate, at peril to life and limb to be sure, but still possible. It was midday here, and the Walkway was deserted. He buried his belongings, carefully sprayed eradicator, and left.
Then he returned to the house, changed into a flight suit in a more reasonable color with a more comfortable cut, and extracted all his computer memory cores and programming reference texts. With his pack slung over his shoulder, he climbed back into his fighter.
Two hours later he'd installed his flight programs, triple-backing everything then testing, testing, testing. In the process, he outlined what to teach his eager humans over the next few weeks — if the Hyos granted them that much time. This evening all he'd have to do to finish his day's assigned tasks would be to write his report on today's class.
Feeling bright, eager, and very satisfied, he returned to orbit, locked on to Tacoma, and rode into the landing bay.
He was totally unprepared for the reception committee.
All the gracious, helpful, accommodating people who'd welcomed him had suddenly turned stone cold and rigid with offense, and even anger.
Falstaff was there, standing in that awkward ceremonial posture, his eyes focused somewhere beyond Indiw as if embarrassed to know him. Captain Lorton was there as were his two women. A Records Officer stood behind them beside a Launch Control engineer and two humans with Delta Wing arm patches.
It was exactly what he'd have expected had he gutted the armed woman and taken Captain Misholu's hand off in the porky.
Lorton's eyes traveled from Indiw's Ardr helmet —cut to accommodate his horns where the human uniform was not — down Indiw's Ardr flight suit to his broad toed boots. Then he searched Indiw's face.
Indiw waited politely for an explanation.
At last Lorton asked, "Commander Indiw, had it occurred to you that it was improper to take a fighter and leave the ship without authorization?"
"Yes." Is that what this was all about?
"Commander, did you understand that you violated regulations?"
Lorton shook his head. "I don't believe this."
Falstaff said, "Captain, let me try. Please?"
"Indiw, why did you take the fighter and leave the ship?"
"Because I had something important to do."
Lorton's eyes became wider and rounder.
"Mind telling us what that was?" asked Falstaff, leaving Indiw the choice.
"I had to go home for a few minutes. After all, yesterday Captain Lorton told me Tacoma would be leaving the vicinity soon. When was I supposed to go home?"
The huge lump in Lorton's throat went up and down.
Falstaff said softly, "Commander Indiw, when you agreed yesterday to come back to work on Tacoma, we assumed you had agreed to abide by the rules and regulations that govern the behavior of everyone else aboard this ship. We all feel that our lives depend on the absolute commitment we all share to those rules and regulations. When one of us violates a rule, we all get very upset. We feel personally threatened."
Now that was what this was really about! "I see, Lieutenant Falstaff. Thank you for explaining the problem."
Lorton's crazed look vanished. "Good. Then I take it you won't do anything like this again in the future. It was all a simple intercultural misunderstanding?"
"But, Captain, I was only following your orders," protested Indiw, confused again. "If your orders were against regulations, I suggest you take it up with your superiors."
Lorton turned several shades paler. Falstaff said, "Captain Lorton, perhaps we could make more headway with this matter in a private discussion."
Indiw nodded in relief. "Good. You two discuss it. I have work to do." And he started around the group.
Falstaff cut him off by stepping in front of him and moving backward so as not to force a combat contact. Indiw stopped, waiting. Humans didn't usually settle their feelings of being threatened by killing one another, but if this was one of those occasions that warranted combat — well, it had been a long day. Even a mock combat would be nice after exposure to the pheromones on the Walkway.
"Commander Indiw, I meant that you, me, and Captain Lorton need to discuss this among the three of us."
From his tone, Indiw deduced that it must be a matter of some considerable urgency. "All right. I agree."
When the door to a small briefing room off the flight deck closed behind them, Lorton opened with a burst of words. "All right, Commander, suppose you explain to me where and when I ordered you to take a fighter down to Sinaha's surface. Don't you know that's against the treaty?"
"I'd never have taken an armed vehicle onto public lands!" Indiw struggled not to show offense. This was a misunderstanding. They'd get it straightened out. "I only went home. How else was I supposed to get there?"
"I never ordered you to go home."
Falstaff murmured, "Captain, I doubt you specifically ordered him not to."
"A good thing, too," said Indiw, temper winning out. "Human blood makes a terrible mess."
Falstaff said, "Let's leave aside the question of your destination and talk about why you went there. What did you go to do, if it's not too personal, that was so important?"
"To get the materials for the course I agreed to teach. I have it all right here." Indiw slid his pack onto the table and pulled out the case of computer memory. "While I was reprogramming my fighter's memory, I blocked out all the lessons for the course. I think it's really going to work!"
Falstaff's face underwent a transformation. "So that's it! You see, Captain, you did order Indiw to take a fighter and go home! You just didn't know it. You have to remember an Ardr thinks like a commander-in-chief. When he's accepted the responsibility for a task, he just does it whatever way he believes would be best. Indiw agreed to teach the course, so he assumed he was authorized to do whatever was needed to achieve that end."
"Indiw, is that true? Did you assume you had authorization for that little trip?"
"To be perfectly candid?"
"I didn't make any assumptions. I didn't think about it at all. I realized there were authorizations missing only when I was already in the launch tube. And then I just assumed that by some — process I have never understood, someone would take care of it. Eventually. After all, I had to go and how else could I get there and back in time to teach tomorrow's course?"
"Oh, Commander," groaned Lorton. "I think I've done you an injustice."
"Really? I hadn't noticed."
Lorton shook his head as if he were dizzy. "Falstaff?"
"Take your new wingman back to pilot's country and keep him out of trouble 'til he learns to go through channels."
"Sir! Let's go, Commander."
Indiw felt the human's touch whisper across the elbow of his flight suit. The human's other hand grabbed Indiw's pack. He must be frantic with some mysterious urgency to risk that touch. Indiw still held the case of computer cores but he could have beheaded the boy with a negligent swipe of his claws. He throttled the reflex, and a moment later he was in the corridor and approaching the lift at flank speed.
"My God, that was close!" gasped Falstaff in the lift. "Do you know that would have been the first time in recorded history a member of Pit Bull Squadron was court-martialed!?"
Indiw felt as if the gravity had failed. His memory served up the list of horrible penalties the courts-martial were authorized to hand out. He had no idea, which one applied to his crime, and no clear idea of what his crime was supposed to have been. "But the problem is cleared up now?"
"Yes. Captain Lorton won't press charges. He'll take care of everyone else. And if Sinaha doesn't come after us for an unauthorized landing, you're free."
"But I didn't make an unauthorized landing!"
"If you say so."
There was no way to get an authorization for anything on Sinaha. The very concept was so alien most people wouldn't know what you were talking about.
"This is our deck. Now, Lorton has made me responsible for you, so do I have your word that you'll go to your quarters and stay there until I come for you in the morning?"
"I hadn't planned to go anywhere else today."
"That isn't exactly what I asked. Do you agree to stay put until I come for you, or at least call me if you decide to go out? If you want to go work out, or maybe go for a swim, I'll be right next door. We can go together to make sure you don't get into trouble."
Indiw was absolutely certain the young human was not making any sort of sexual advance. He'd learned recently that large groups of humans often shared immersion facilities without sexual activity, though in some cultures the sexes did not mix in the water.
As they reached their doors, Indiw turned to the human. "All right, I'll agree, if you'll promise me one thing."
"Don't ever mention swimming to me again — and don't mention it to any other Ardr. Okay? Taboo topic."
"Ah. I didn't know. Amazing what xenologists can miss. Sorry. It's a deal." Uncertainly, he offered his open hand.
Indiw retracted his claws and took the hand briefly.
When his door closed behind him he felt a twinge of déjà vu. He dismissed it, thawed some rations, and set to work.
He couldn't spend his life comparing one Falstaff to the next. There would probably be an unending parade of Falstaffs, and unending troubles following in their wakes. He had to concentrate on the trouble of the moment and let the future, and the past, take care of themselves.
The trouble of the moment, however, kept escalating. On his third day of classes, Indiw finished by having the whole group fly a simulated mission. He, Falstaff, and two others flew as Pit Bull. The enemy was a swarm composed of twenty porkies and a hundred standard Hyos fighters.
They took fifty percent casualties, but they vanquished the swarm. "Tomorrow," Indiw announced, "I'll show you a new way to evade the porky’s cannon shots. They're so powerful, even a near miss can total you."
Falstaff had told him to snap out the word "Dismissed!" to end the class, but however ceremonial the utterance it still sounded like an order. When he turned and walked toward the door, they generally all got the idea.
He saw Falstaff lower his head into his hands in despair, but he kept on walking. He didn't make it though. One of Lorton's women accosted him. This one was ranked Lieutenant Commander, a rank below Indiw's courtesy title.
She was of the darker skinned variety of human with softly rounded features that looked more like a work of art than a face. But it didn't fool Indiw. A human female in any guise was potential disaster.
He stopped far enough from her to give a polite bow of greeting and stood with his hands carefully behind his back, claws tightly sheathed. "Lt. Commander Vistula."
Her mouth tightened. "Pilot Commander Indeeyou," she said, mispronouncing his name. He'd given up correcting people. She handed him a data nodule color coded as Orders. "You're to fly in the memorial ceremony. It'll be tight formation flying." She gestured to the room full of empty simulators. "You had better practice."
She saluted crisply and left him breathless.
Falstaff came up behind him, saw the Orders nodule in his open palm, and boomed joyfully, "Oh, you got tapped! What an honor! They passed me over this time. Well, anyway Pit Bull will be represented and that's what's important."
Honor! Another female enemy. Dread washed through Indiw. All he needed to totally ruin his entire strategy for rescuing his life was another human female handing out human honors! But he had to ask. "What is a memorial ceremony? What kind of ceremony involves flying?"
An hour later Indiw knew more than he ever wanted to know about human military tradition and ceremony. He didn't understand it, but as he read through the material Falstaff drew from the databanks for him, vaguely remembering the couple of ceremonies he’d been involved in or read about, and trying to memorize the parts that pertained to honoring the dead, he had random flashes of insight. There had to be some oblique connection between military ceremony, the way humans made pictures in the sky by connecting stars with lines, and whatever it was that motivated humans to contend and compete.
But it all went by him in a confusing whirl. For the next six days Indiw taught for two hours each morning, flew simulator with Falstaff and the candidates for Pit Bull, spent time with the derelict porky and got it repowered, then worked evenings under Falstaff's guidance on procedures and ceremonies. He also flew the simulator's special tight formation drill that his part in the ceremony would require.
Until the last moment, he hadn't tried to get out of it. After all, who would ever know? Now, he regretted that.
Head crammed with the stringent rules governing the day's events, Indiw drew his freshly painted fighter into the launch tube behind three other pilots. Though they were flying with Pit Bull's insignia, he had no idea who they were. No one ever explained how these decisions were made or asked his opinion or his agreement.
Falstaff would watch from the hangar deck with all the other people on Tacoma. He was involved in preparing for another ceremony to follow this one. Indiw didn't envy him. While Indiw flew, the human would stand or sit in that absurd tense posture for hours while various people talked.
The speeches would be made available to everyone on Sinaha, not that anyone would listen. He hoped. Tacoma had left to patrol a day's radius from Sinaha but had returned for this ceremony to honor the dead of both human and Ardr. Normally, Ardr just ignored the bizarre human antics such occasions precipitated. They seemed harmless, if wasteful.
The humans always invited Ardr pilots to fly in these tributes, but nobody ever did. Indiw had ignored those invitations himself for so long, he'd forgotten about them until he'd studied the memorial from the human point of view. But this time some Ardr might notice because in the speeches humans would point out that for the first time an Ardr pilot would fly the missing man formation.
Not only that, but they had arranged to fly the formation not only over Tacoma, but down into atmosphere, over one of the large population centers. Thank goodness it was on an island far from any held land. Nobody important would be likely to notice. He hoped.
He had learned of the speeches mentioning him and of the dip into atmosphere just before he hoisted himself into his craft. He'd had no chance to protest, not that it would have done any good. He sensed a female's hand behind it all. The last time he'd tried to thwart a human female's intentions, he'd almost lost everything that made life worth living. He had no choice but to go through with this.
In rapid order, his squadron launched. They flew to the rendezvous, the three humans flying as Pit Bull exchanging personal comments, leaving him alone except for routine.
There had been so much damage to Tacoma fighters that only fifty were both fit to perform these close order drills and good looking enough for the ceremony. Still they made an impressive display as they grouped into a formation of formations, keeping station until Tacoma signaled.
Then they made their atmosphere dip, arrowing across the open sea. Buffeted by each other's wakes, they held their tight formation until they crossed the perimeter of the island, then, over the town, one fighter from each squadron rose up and arced away from the formation. The formation flew on, steady and straight, skimming near the tops of the trees that sheltered the population of unlanded Ardr.
Indiw was the one who left his squadron. He watched from far above as the formation, complete with ridiculous looking holes, moved in stately procession in full view of nobody in particular. Most of the Ardr dead who were presumably being honored had likewise been unlanded, neither their lives nor their deaths of consequence.
Even when a landed Ardr died, the only consequence of note was that some youth might become landed. It was beyond Indiw why anyone but those whose status changed would care.
Still, it was quite a spectacular piece of flying. From his vantage high above it, Indiw imprinted the image on his memory. It was one thing to read about it, practice it in simulation, but something else to watch the solemn execution.
He met the formation in orbit, and they repeated the stunt on cue from Tacoma, this time in the tighter formation permitted in vacuum. On cue, Indiw peeled off and circled above the carrier, close to the open door of the hangar deck, which was shielded now only by a force screen.
Just for a moment, as the rest of the formation moved in stately procession past the opening, Indiw glimpsed the ranks of identically clad humans all raising their hands in salute, all in perfect unison. That was another image engraved on his memory with a shiver of real terror.
Humans were descended from pack hunters. Ardr were descended from lone hunters. On their native world, humans had exterminated all the lone-hunter species and domesticated most of the pack hunters.
Four years ago, Walter Falstaff had convinced Indiw that the human threat was not imminent because humans were evolving toward individualism, so humans would not have to kill or dominate Ardr. But all he'd learned since, including this military ceremony, indicated otherwise. Or seemed to. He had thought his understanding of humans had improved, but his every experience this time indicated his grasp of their motives was dangerously incomplete.
Indiw had been excused from attending the dining-in at which the memorial services would be concluded. Someone who issued orders must have remembered that Ardr do not eat in public. But Falstaff was responsible for setting up the large dining room for the occasion, and at the last minute one of his helpers fell ill. Indiw found himself placing awkward cutlery along the edge of a table facing a room full of tables while other humans ran around shouting.
He tried not to flinch and crouch at each loud voice.
He jumped and a handful of cutlery clattered to the table knocking over a crystal glass, which shattered.
"Shit!" said Falstaff, coming up to survey the damage. "I'll clean that up. Here, you take this rose and put it on that table in the back, the little one with the black cloth."
Indiw took the bud vase, inured to the human custom of destroying shrubbery to use as decoration, and searched for the designated table. The table set along one side of the hall with a large bowl and matching cups was draped in white like all the other tables. His eye scanned to the back of the hall. "Where? There?"
"Yes," said Falstaff, brushing broken glass into a heap.
It was a very small table, with one chair.
"I don't understand. I thought all the important people were supposed to sit up here."
"Indiw, the most important people of all sit at that table back there. Tonight, they are our honored guests."
"But there's only one place set."
"You just don't get it, do you? That's the missing man in the missing man formation. That's the symbolic place set for all those who can't be here tonight — because they've served their time, or because they gave their lives that others might survive. Even though they're not here, they're with us always. Everyone who's ever been with us is with us tonight. This afternoon, I answered muster for my buddies who died in that last battle. They're gone, but they're still with us. If I have to, someday I'll answer for you. And I hope you'd answer for me, if it comes to that.
"There's been a Pit Bull Squadron flying since before humans first made it into space — and there always will be one. There are hundreds of us, Indiw, thousands, serving in an unbroken tradition of excellence, Pit Bull Squadron."
Indiw suppressed a shudder.
"There's no way you can grasp that, is there? And yet you're a part of it. You have the tradition from my uncle, whether you know it or not. All I've asked is that you pass it on to me." Falstaff took the bud vase. "Never mind. I'll do this. You can go now. And thanks for your help."
Indiw never remembered the long walk back to his place. His mind was filled with hordes of humans stretching back to the dawn of time, all saluting in unison, eyes glittering like Falstaff's had — both Falstaffs. Humans weren't pack hunters. They were something totally different. They hunted with their dead.
What a concept. It was eerie. Walter Falstaff would be in that room tonight feasting with his squadron, with his nephew. Indiw shut his door behind him and shut his mind to the whole subject. He didn't want to understand. He just wanted to rest. No, he wanted to go home.
He thought about it. He'd done what he'd stayed to do — started the pilots exploring the new limits of the fighter's systems. Some of them were already coming up with ideas he'd never thought of. They didn't need him anymore.
On an Ardr ship, having completed the responsibilities he'd taken on, he could have entered his resignation in the computer, and then just left. He could have landed a disarmed Ardr fighter on public land, set the beacon, and someone would have come to pick it up.
Here, he'd have to settle matters with the Records Officer who would create tedious regulations to delay him. If he just took a fighter again, there'd be reprisals. He was trapped until the Records Office opened again tomorrow.
With every fiber of his being yearning to sever all ties with humans, Indiw curled up on his sand bed to wait.
Inevitably, he fell asleep.
He woke to a nerve shattering racket. It took several moments before he remembered he wasn't home. The ship lurched and began vibrating rhythmically. Weapons deploying. Fighters launching. The screeching din was the alert scrambling all pilots. They were under attack.
Falstaff's words formed on his lips. "Oh, shit."
In his mind, Indiw had resigned last night.
But Tacoma didn't know that. His fighter would be slotted for launch as if he were on his way at a full run. And, remembering how few craft were in tip-top condition, Indiw knew they couldn't afford not to have every one of them out there. They'd almost lost the last two battles. If this was another full strength Hyos swarm . . .
He was halfway into his flight suit before he realized he'd decided to fly. He got what briefing he could from the screen in his quarters, and was out the door still stomping one foot into his boot, sealing up as he ran.
Falstaff came tearing along the corridor behind him, pulling his flight suit closed over a fragment of his formal wear. "It's a big one, Indiw," he called as he drew abreast. "It's as if they knew we'd be standing down. We're going to need everything you've taught us to save Sinaha this time."
"That's why I taught you."
"Oh," answered the youth, sidling through the big doors onto the hangar deck. "Here I thought you just liked standing up on the stage!"
He's teasing. He must be nervous.
Many other pilots dashing for their craft had also discarded various bits of formal wear as they sealed up their flight suits. So the ceremony hadn't concluded yet.
But there had been pilots on duty. Already several squadrons had launched, and the whump-chump of launches continued rhythmically. Indiw found his fighter, altogether too close to the front of the line. He had no time to make his usual last minute checks. But he had checked everything out when he landed after flying the formations.
His gauges showed he'd been refueled. He jammed his helmet on, sealed his cockpit, and reported in as he brought his systems online.
A vaguely familiar female voice identified itself as Pit Bull One. She dictated the countdown and, after launch, pulled them together. Tacoma assigned them a target and they were off, streaking through space beside six other squadrons.
Indiw had no time to assess the entire battle, but he saw immediately what his end of it was all about. An entire phalanx of porkies was escorting a large cargo carrier, and boring directly for Sinaha, ignoring Tacoma.
That wasn't typical of a swarm escorting a Breeder to ground. It took only a few moments to calculate what the Hyos were after. They resisted being shoved into orbits that would put them to ground near arable land, or within striking distance of a population center. They were targeted on Tantigre Peak, and the experimental cannon emplacement.
Indiw was with those deployed to prevent that landing.
"Pit Bull One, this is Pit Bull Four. Have you been briefed on the Hyos's objective?"
"No, except that Intelligence got no warning they were coming. Our job is to keep them off the planet's surface. You got a problem with that?"
"No. But there's something I think you-"
Abruptly, Indiw was in the dogfight of his life.
They'd faced down three porkies by the time he realized these pilots were his top students. But it didn't take the Hyos long to figure out that the porkies had lost their edge against the human fighters. They regrouped and began slicing the attacking human force into bite sized chunks.
The humans responded by eating holes in the Hyos defensive lines and rejoining into a single formation. Before long, Pit Bull had a porky surrounded and cut off, but they were skimming Sinaha's atmosphere. "This is Pit Bull One. Pit Bull Four, it's your turn. We'll cover you."
Indiw faded back behind Falstaff and they began their run, just as they'd done it the first time.
But by now, this porky's crew had seen this maneuver succeed against their compatriots. Still, they tried what had always failed. They focused fire on the two attackers who were standing off to the other side and pounding them, ignoring the approaching pair.
Pit Bull One took a direct hit from their porky and then a Hyos fighter's missile slammed into her. The orange fireball lit up the sparse atmosphere, and when it cleared Pit Bull One was gone.
Pit Bull Two went for the Hyos fighter. Their target porky slammed three high powered cannon blasts into Two's shields. The Hyos fighter scattered blob-shot in his wake.
Indiw had no idea why the humans called it blob-shot. It was a small deformable magnetic bottle almost like a soap bubble, though not round. Blob-shot deformed into many colors and shapes, but if it hit a defensive shield, it erupted into wild, searing energy. Most of it was too small to be more than a nuisance, but in battle even a small nuisance could destroy a fighter.
Firing missiles, Pit Bull Two flew into the curtain of blob-shot. His shields danced with blob splatter. Falstaff and Indiw held their approach vector steady on the target porky waiting for the cannon to fire. But from the porky's other side, its slicer flared and Two's shields erupted in sizzling green sparks.
Careening wildly, Two veered toward the planet in an uncontrolled power dive. Belatedly, Two's missiles connected, and the Hyos fighter spun out of control.
The target porky finally cleared its nearby cannon port. Falstaff went in hammering the porky's shields, then peeled off, leaving Indiw a clean target. Indiw fired.
The target porky made an audible explosion. They were much too low in atmosphere. Indiw climbed. Pit Bull Two's transponder wasn't registering at all.
Falstaff circled back and clung just off Indiw's wing as they climbed out of atmosphere, straining every seam against gravity and atmospheric turbulence.
"Oh, God!" groaned Falstaff.
Indiw spotted the Hyos cargo vessel and its escort, heavily beset by humans. As he watched, four porkies detached from that elite escort and converged on Pit Bull, leaving a hole in the cargo vessel's defense. Pit Bull had been targeted as that serious a threat.
Even as he watched, two other porkies detached from the escort and joined the pursuit of the remnants of Pit Bull.
"Come on, let's get out of here!" suggested Indiw. "Draw them away so the others can get that cargo hauler."
"Doesn't look like a Breeder ship!"
"Isn't." The other pilots didn't know the cargo vessel was the only important target in this battle because of "security"—i.e. nobody knew everything necessary to make intelligent choices.
Pack hunters! he swore, even as he noted how Falstaff swooped in close behind him and stuck as Indiw climbed high above the atmosphere, above the battle, above the sleeting rain of particles from the battle.
"Indiw, behind us!"
"I see them," he said, driving away from the fight. One of the pursuers gave up, leaving only five. Or maybe he hadn't given up. Maybe he was going for reinforcements, not liking the odds. Or maybe he was low on fuel.
"What are you doing?" asked Falstaff.
"Thinking. What are you doing?"
"Not yet, young one. You wanted to learn about Pit Bull traditions? Well, then, stick with me."
He broke into the dodging, swooping flight pattern of a novice weave, just to see what Falstaff would do.
To Indiw's surprise, the boy stuck with him, weaving the second craft's part of the pattern without a mistake.
"I didn't know you could do that," said Indiw.
"I got pretty good with the simulator, but I never had anyone to do it with for real."
"What level can you fly?"
They were arrowing away from the battle at top speed. They weren't outpacing their pursuers. But they weren't losing the race either. The object was to get as many Hyos as possible to chase them, leaving the escorted ship unprotected.
"I can fly second level both offense and defense. I lose it at third level."
"Hmm. If you crash into me, there goes Pit Bull Squadron. But I think it's worth a try."
"What's worth a try?"
"Normally it takes a fourth or fifth level offensive weave to confuse Hyos, but they'll never expect human craft to weave pattern around them."
There was a silence. Indiw could almost see the young Falstaff tuck one lip between his white teeth. Then the boy said, "You're on. Lead the way, Pit Bull Four."
"All right. This one is called Inturirr. It's the lowest level offensive weave. The object is to get your opponents to crash into each other—but not while you're between them." It was a child's game called Five-to-Two, but Indiw didn't mention that.
"Sounds simple enough. I'm ready when you are."
Indiw executed a long loop, then led the way back toward the pursuers, laying a straight course directly for the one in the lead. "When I say break, weave left, then do thinsor turns to your right, five, ten, then fifteen degrees, but increase your speed ten percent every fourth turn. Keep it up until I say break again. Then go straight up out of our reference plane, maximum speed. Can you do that?"
If the Hyos hadn't been listening, and if they hadn't understood what he'd just said, it might work. But then Hyos had never yet been known to crack the electronic coding systems the Tier forces used. It's got to work.
They closed on their pursuers. Indiw held the straight course to the very last second, then told Falstaff, "Break!" and peeled off to the right as the human went left.
The porkies fired, but neither Pit Bull craft was hit.
Indiw wove the complement to Falstaff's pattern.
Two porkies fired on him simultaneously and hit each other. He was not between them. Neither was Falstaff.
In the moment the Hyos’s targeting systems broke down, Indiw placed a lucky shot and nailed one of the Hyos. The fireball engulfed a nearby porky. He'd lost sight of Falstaff in the particle soup. Ticking off Falstaff's position with the trained clock inside his head, Indiw unloaded three missiles into the engulfed ship, hoping to keep its screens whited out a few seconds longer. Tick. Tick. Come on, Falstaff!
And the whited out porky crashed splendidly into its neighbor, which had been forced to dodge Falstaff, thus putting itself right on target.
The shock wave of the dual explosion sent Falstaff tumbling out of his weave spot. He hadn't anticipated what was about to happen. Indiw compensated by breaking pattern and weaving a fourth level offensive maneuver around the two remaining porkies until Falstaff yelled, "What the hell are you doing!?" and fell in on his tail.
"Trying to stay alive," answered Indiw as he dropped out of the pattern to weave at the human's level again. "Can you weave inverted firsul?"
"I don't remember what that is!"
The two surviving Hyos had recovered. They spewed dense fire all around themselves, apparently hoping to hit the elusive enemy by sheer chance. There was no time to explain. "Do the opposite of what I do! Break."
Indiw sent his fighter into a full power run directly at the two remaining porkies. They separated, dodging.
Falstaff shouted, "Chicken porkies! I love it."
Indiw murmurred, "Break," and sheared off to the left, hoping Falstaff would go right. He did.
"Now, break again, toward me."
They approached each other, passed, looped, and circled one of the porkies. It got off one lucky shot and grazed Indiw's shields, knocking him out of the pattern.
Indiw danced back into place, holding his breath, hoping Falstaff would have moved. He had. They didn't collide.
This young Falstaff was good. Confidently, Indiw began the next firsul weave, inverting the pattern around the center between the two Hyos craft. "On break, go straight up at max."
The pattern brought them to the outside, with both Hyos between them. Indiw pounded his Hyos, driving it back and back toward its partner. Just as the Hyos cannon port opened for fire, Indiw acquired it and fired. Missed.
The Hyos finally got a lock on him with its slicer, and his shields screamed under the strain.
But he held on. The clock in Indiw's head that kept track of Falstaff's position ticked steadily, but his instruments had lost the human again.
The two porkies edged toward each other. Indiw had another clean shot at a cannon portal open for firing. He missed. The Hyos cannon shot grazed his shields, already sizzling from the slicer's nibbles.
At last, Indiw's pattern took him below his porky. He hoped Falstaff wouldn't be in the way. He wasn't. Indiw goosed his porky's underside, slipped between the two porkies, then up and around the outside of Falstaff's porky.
As it was designed to do, that thread of the weave broke the slicer out of its lock. The slicer almost cut through the other porky's field before the Hyos’s targeting system doused his beam.
"Falstaff, watch out for that one's slicer," warned Indiw, unsure the human could hear him through the tightly overlapping battle shields and weapons noise. With one hand, he brought up one of his prize programs. He had to get back to the real battle. If the Hyos got Sinaha’s ground based cannon . . .
But his plan was working. Just a couple more seconds. If he had the nerve, and if Falstaff had grasped the pattern, there was even a slim chance they might both survive this.
When the mental clock ticked over, and he knew Falstaff ought to be clear, he wove back over the top, slid between the two porkies, delivered a resounding farewell slap with his cannon, and wove around his own porky again, keeping it busy with a barrage of small missiles.
The two porkies edged closer together. Their defensive shields were almost overlapping. They didn't want either human craft between them. That was how they'd lost their compatriots.
Finally, the weave took him close enough to Falstaff to acquire the audio link. "All right, Falstaff, break."
Falstaff went straight up. Indiw slid between the two porkies, engaged his little program, and waited. His craft stopped as if looking for Falstaff, accidentally presenting a perfect target. Both porkies cleared cannon ports for fire. Indiw's program fired on both of them, slammed his shields to max, and simultaneously threw him down and clear.
Not quite clear.
The stupendous explosive power in two porkies smashed into his shields like a fist. He lost attitude control.
He fought, almost had it, lost it. Something was wrong. He killed all his power, went ballistic. Then he brought up his attitude computer. Scrambled.
Dizzy with Coriolis forces spinning his balance centers, which shouldn’t be happening, Indiw fumbled into the compartment behind his seat, found the catches on the access port, and in the dark, by touch alone, clumsy in his gloves, he pulled the board from the attitude computer and substituted his fire control board.
Sparks erupted through the cockpit. He completely wrecked his environmental instrument display, but the attitude display straightened out.
Little by little, he nursed the fighter back to stability and brought his communications online again.
He was alone in space.
He had never expected that.
Falstaff, the original Falstaff, would never have abandoned him.
Maybe the young Falstaff had been killed while Indiw was out of touch? He searched. But there was no derelict around, no Tacoma transponder signal nearby.
He extended his sensors back toward Tacoma and Sinaha. The rest of the battle had ended, too. At least the carrier was still alive and calling its fighters home. He wondered if that meant they'd won. What had happened to that cargo ship all those Hyos fighters were escorting?
He set course for Tacoma, not sure if he wanted to find Falstaff back there alive or not. He'd thought he understood the boy.
But then, if he'd learned to weave pattern like an Ardr, maybe he'd begun to think like an Ardr. Maybe he just chose to leave. Now there was a chilling thought.
Nursing his crippled fighter along, Indiw didn't even try to report in to Tacoma. His communications panel was half dark. Substituting that board hadn't been such a wonderful idea. Maybe some redesigning was in order.
Out of the hazy, sparkling distance came four bright white shapes. Their transponder symbols were red plus signs.
End Sample Chapters
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