The wedge-shaped bombers arced out from behind the star, soaring in towards the
carrier with deadly purpose. Explosions rocked the Saratoga as the huge vehicle sustained enemy fire and struggled to return it.
Controlled chaos reigned within as the carrier's personnel scrambled for their battlestations. The 58th Squadron ran towards the fighter deck, dodging people and bouncing against the corridor walls with each successful enemy hit. Lights flickered and the general quarters siren undercut the urgent announcements over the ship's comm.
Outside, the Saratoga's gunners began to get some of their own back. One bomber, struck by laser fire, tilted out of control, explosions tearing it apart.
Colonel McQueen struggled down a gangway thronged with people hurrying in both directions. The slight man in the dark blue jumpsuit was headed for the bridge, but as he passed one crewman he paused and turned back. The young man was not moving; he clung to the wall, huddled in his flak jacket and trembling. McQueen braced himself against a bulkhead.
"Do you have a battlestation, son?" he shouted over the noise.
The crewman's eyes were glazed with fear, and McQueen could barely hear his stuttered affirmative. His own voice was imperative.
"Then they need you there!"
The crewman didn't move. Ignoring the people pushing past, McQueen reached out and grabbed the boy's jaw in one hand, pulling him away from the wall.
"Now!" he shouted.
The crewman's eyes widened, and he bolted off towards his station. McQueen smiled in satisfaction and resumed his journey.
Outside, another bomber was cut in half by two separate laser blasts--but the missile it had launched bloomed fire on the Saratoga's hull.
The 58th made it to the fighter deck. Stumbling, slipping, and ducking dangling cables, they split up and headed for their cockpits. Cooper Hawkes reached his and a technician grabbed him by the arm, speaking urgently over the hooting siren.
"Short-range kinetic pods are loaded, laser cannon is charged!" As she handed Cooper his helmet, the ship lurched violently and the big man grabbed her arm to keep her upright. They both looked around at the shuddering carrier, alarmed.
As McQueen reached the bridge, he could hear that it was no quieter than the rest of the ship, and just as frantic. Sparks flew from one damaged console as people struggled to extinguish a small fire at another. Beeps and smoke filled the air and the lights kept cutting in and out. In the midst of all the chaos, Commodore Ross stood like an icon of calm and directed the firefight.
"I want that reactor report, Mr. Connor."
Connor had one hand to his headset and was shouting into it. "Reactor One One, this is the bridge! Over!"
Getting no response, he repeated himself. McQueen made his way to his station, donning his own headset; behind him, Ross leaned on the railing and issued instructions. "Come starboard twenty-four degrees, thirty degrees low."
"Twenty-four degrees starboard, thirty degrees low," acknowledged the helmsman.
McQueen adjusted his headset. "Five-eight! this is Queen Six. I want you ready to fire in five mikes."
On the fighter deck, Nathan West settled into his cockpit and began booting up his equipment. "Roger that, Queen Six." He glanced over at the rest of the squadron to make certain they had heard. "Let's get geequed!"
All over the deck the cockpits began to close as the techs finished their final adjustments and scrambled for the exits.
In space, the Saratoga's gunners brought their heavy weaponry to bear and began firing missiles. Cheers rang out on the bridge as another bomber exploded, but the celebration was cut short by a wild beeping. "Got a bandit over the bow!" someone shouted.
The bomber spiraled, locking onto the bridge. Ross looked over his shoulder.
Gates shouted into her headset. "Torch it, Delta Niner!"
The laser fired once, hitting the bomber a glancing blow. The enemy ship jolted, but sparks arced across the Saratoga's hull. A decreasing hum filled the bridge.
On the fighter deck, the descending cockpits jerked to a sudden halt, halfway through the floor. Nathan slapped uselessly at his cockpit's window. "We're jammed!"
The bridge was lit only by the harsh red glow of the emergency lights. All the electronic noises had ceased.
"Backup systems?" demanded Ross, tightlipped.
"Thirty seconds to kick in, sir," said the crewman to his right.
On Ross' other side, Gates dropped her hand from her headset and stared at the tactical screen. "Son of a..."
Everyone nearby fell silent, focusing on the image of the bomber damaged by their last blast. It hovered directly in front of the bridge, perfectly placed for a killing shot.
"Is that thing dead?" asked someone softly.
McQueen's face was bleak. "If it's not, we are."
The bomber floated unmoving. Was it damaged, or just taking careful aim? All eyes were on the screen in dreadful fascination, until Ross' voice broke the spell.
"Hand-crank the forward batteries," he instructed quietly.
"Targeting computer is still down," answered Gates.
Ross turned to glare at her. "Then sight down the barrels!"
Chastened, Gates hurriedly complied. "Fire Mission, Fire Mission! Forward ancon battery, Tango One Niner!"
"How long until backup is on line, Mr. Klein?" Ross asked.
Klein did not answer, still enthralled by the hovering bomber.
"Mr. Klein?!" demanded the commodore.
Klein jumped. "Ten seconds, sir!" He and Connor looked over their shoulders at the flight clock. "Four...three...two..."
McQueen frowned and licked his lips, watching the bomber and thinking.
A click, a hum, and the lights came back up. Ross leaned back, pleased. "Weapons systems functional, sir," reported Klein.
The commodore's face hardened and he nodded at the screen. "Take that out of my sky."
"Yes sir," said Gates.
McQueen held up a hand. "No!"
Ross frowned at him, annoyed. "Colonel?"
"It's harmless. They would have killed us by now." McQueen looked up at Ross. "This has never happened in this war, sir. A wounded enemy bird." His face was intense. "We shouldn't waste the opportunity."
"Opportunity?" asked Ross, puzzled.
A hint of a smile touched McQueen's mouth. "To have a look."
Ross turned back to the silent ship, eyes narrowing.
Nathan slid his knife into its shoulder sheath and turned towards the three flak-jacketed technicians. Around him the Wild Cards continued their preparations quietly as the techs tried to brief them.
"Here's what we know," said the short tech. "The hull is a ceramite composite impregnated with graphite, titanium, aluminum trihydrate and molybdenum."
Across the room, Shane Vansen finished with her locker and frowned in puzzlement, watching Vanessa. Lieutenant Damphousse was opening and closing her mouth like a goldfish, rubbing at her jaw.
The blonde tech spoke next. "And the spectroscope indicates..." She trailed off as her face wrinkled in disgust. "What in hell smells so rank?"
Paul Wang, seated on his bunk, looked down, pulled open his flight suit, and sniffed at the Chicago Bears shirt beneath. "Rank, ma'am?" He turned up his hands in innocence. "It's the aroma of good luck!"
Shane nodded wearily. "We always come back when he wears it." The other members of the squadron did not disagree, though their expressions indicated that they too found Paul's lucky shirt less than pleasant.
The blond tech raised her brows at Wang. "I could see if it was a Detroit Lions shirt."
Paul glanced up from adjusting his armor; but before he could answer her Nathan spoke. "How do we get in?"
The short tech answered. "MR scope indicates a chamber located just behind the two vents on her forestructure."
Shane shook her head. "What do you mean by 'chamber'?"
"Don't know. Three meters behind it is another area."
"For what?" asked Cooper.
The techs glanced uncomfortably at one another. "Don't know," the short one continued. "Biosensors indicate a slight reading in the second area."
Vanessa frowned. "What do you mean by 'slight'?"
The techs were silent. "You don't know," said Paul sarcastically.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Colonel McQueen swung through the door and cut in front of the techs, effectively dismissing them.
"Sir, we haven't finished with our briefing..." said the blond tech.
McQueen glanced over his shoulder at them. "Yes, you have."
She was not cowed. "Sir, they need all available data."
McQueen's expression hardened. "No. They don't."
The blond tech gave up; the three exchanged glances and filed out of the room. McQueen turned his attention to the Wild Cards, gathering them in with his eyes. They focused all their attention on the slight, intense man with the silver hair.
"There's only one thing you need to know." His voice was deadly serious. "Anything that's ever been learned or discovered in all the centuries of life on Earth means nothing right now."
His gaze moved from face to face, sending his message home: Shane, the natural leader, short and dark-haired; Paul, whose usual humor was now shut away; Vanessa, the squadron's technical expert; Nathan, thin and serious; and lastly Cooper, the rebel, looming over the others.
"No one can tell you what to be prepared for. Your enemy has a dark, bloodthirsty heart. Assume everything is dangerous; if in doubt, kill." He paused, his gaze turning inward. "I wish I was going with you."
Then his attention fixed on them again. "Let's make it happen!"
The Wild Cards filed through the carrier, bulky in their space armor. As they entered the flight deck to board their ISSCV, various support personnel watched them pass. One man in a cap and orange safety vest chose to comment. "Ahh, guess they're going to check out that Chig ship so we can see why we're getting our butts kicked so bad!"
Unexpected fury swept over Nathan. "What?" he snarled, backing the crewman into a bulkhead with a hand at the man's throat. Oddly enough, it was Cooper who stepped in to separate them; but Nathan ignored him, eyes locked on the defiant crewman. "This war ain't lost," he said, low and angry.
"Yet!" snapped the crewman, staring back. Nathan lunged, but Cooper managed to heave him back. Shane grabbed hold of him to calm him; meanwhile Cooper had his own staring match with the crewman as he pulled his arm from the man's grasp. Nathan swallowed his fury as they boarded their ship.
The Chig bomber was still drifting near the Saratoga, close enough to make the trip a brief one. Cooper hunched over the control console as the others waited to arrive, fully armored but with their helmets still open. Shane, staring idly around the cabin, frowned as she noticed Vanessa going through her goldfish routine again.
"Enemy craft two hundred meters and closing," said their pilot over the comm. The others made last-minute adjustments to their equipment as Cooper watched the bomber on his screen. He inhaled, getting ready, as the countdown continued.
"Forty...thirty...twenty...ten. Play your hand, Wild Cards!"
"Magnos on their way," called Cooper. Behind him the others hurried to the circular hatch set in the floor of the ISSCV. Cooper paid them no attention, concentrating instead on his delicate maneuvering. "Easy, baby...easy," he muttered, edging the small ship in towards the bomber. Firing the thrusters, he landed the ISSCV neatly on top of the alien craft and shot the magnos home.
"Alien ship secured," he announced, and joined the others.
Paul was honcho for this mission. Moving quickly, he and Shane opened the hatch. "Clear for charge!" he shouted, as he and Nathan set the ring of explosives into the grooves in the hatch shaft. He thumbed the switch and rose. "Stand clear!"
Everyone backed away as the ring sank towards the bomber. A moment later white light flared up the shaft as the explosives went off. Vanessa pulled the pin on the stun grenade she held and dropped it in. "Calling card," she said, with some satisfaction.
Another flash, and then everyone peered down, their flashlight beams cloudy with smoke.
"We're through the hull!" reported Cooper.
Paul slapped Cooper and Nathan on their chests. "Go! Go!"
Grabbing the lid of the hatch, Nathan swung into the shaft; after a meter he ran out of rungs, and dropped through the bomber's hull. Shane's dry voice followed him down. "At least Armstrong had an idea of what he'd find on the Moon..."
Nathan landed in a rounded corridor, at first glance empty. "Watch out, Hawkes," he called up. "It's slippery down here."
Cooper, in his usual blunt fashion, disdained the rungs and dropped straight down. But the slick corridor gave him no purchase on landing, and he slid with a grunt into Nathan, knocking him down. They slithered along the floor for a meter or so before stopping.
"You guys okay in there?" Paul shouted anxiously.
Nathan sat up. "Yeah, yeah, we're all right."
Looking around, he could see that the corridor was lined in tannish hexagonal tiles, and seemed to open up into a chamber a little ways beyond. Above him he heard Paul again. "Go, Shane!"
She too dropped and slid; getting back to her feet, she joined Nathan and Cooper as they began to reconnoiter. "Are you all right?" called Paul again, looking down at them. His voice echoed oddly in the alien corridor.
"We're okay," answered Nathan, shining his light around the chamber. In front of them a huge bag-like structure hung from the ceiling, looking organic. Possibly damaged, it was smeared with substances of various colors, mostly red or sickly yellow; as they watched, it dripped goo on the floor.
"What is that stuff?" asked Cooper in revolted fascination.
Nathan grimaced. "I don't know...I think they served it in my high school cafeteria."
Shane sighed. "Let's move out."
Cooper in the lead, they paced cautiously around the dangling structure. Cooper played his light over the ceiling, then brought it down to the floor. His eyes widened. Two Chigs lay there, half-propped against the wall; as he watched, one of them began to slide downwards. Cooper yelled and began shooting.
"Nooo! Cease fire, cease fire!" howled Nathan. Cooper finally quit; in the resultant quiet they could hear their own harsh breathing.
Paul's voice echoed down to them. "Are you all right?"
Nathan approached the Chigs carefully, gun aimed at their heads. "We got two Chigs down here," he called back. Prodding warily with one boot, he heard the squelch of alien body fluids. "They're dead."
Shane shrieked. Nathan and Cooper whirled; a third Chig had an arm around her neck and was clawing at her armor. Nathan drew his knife and yanked the Chig away, knocking it onto its back. Shane fell to the floor. Nathan stepped over the Chig and punched it twice with his knife, grunting with effort. It collapsed, dead.
He turned back to help Cooper lift Shane to her feet. She was panting, but not bleeding; the Chig had not penetrated her armor.
"You okay?" asked Nathan.
She nodded, one hand on her helmet. Cooper looked her up and down to make sure, then turned away to the Chig Nathan had just killed.
Nathan sheathed his knife and looked up to see Cooper bending over the corpse. "What are you doing?" he asked impatiently.
Cooper glanced up at him. "This is a fact-finding mission, right?" Crouching, he began to lift away the alien's helmet.
Suddenly he jumped back with an exclamation of disgust, and stared down at the corpse, lips drawn back in horror. "Damn!"
Only the Chig's throat was exposed; but as they watched, it reacted with the mixed atmosphere and began to dissolve, bubbling and vaporizing away.
"God," breathed Shane, staring down.
Cooper glanced at Nathan. "You think I'm going to get busted for doing that?..."
Colonel McQueen led the 58th to the flight deck. They halted near the "Access Restricted" sign, surveying the result of their mission. Technicians swarmed over the bomber, plying equipment and scanners. Sparks flew and the air was filled with shouted instructions.
"My God, we finally brought one back," said the colonel softly. "Good job."
Nathan peered out at the busy technicians and frowned. "Those people are Aerotech!"
Cooper's eyes narrowed. "What are they doing here?"
Nathan pointed to the small balding civilian supervising the chaos. "Sewell."
"The guy who had our Tellus mission classified 'compartmentalized,'" said Paul grimly.
"These guys knew things about this craft before we even engaged it in battle." Nathan glanced at his friends. "I'll bet on it."
McQueen stepped forward. Immediately a gun-toting guard intercepted him. "Sir, this is restricted--"
McQueen shoved him out of the way.
"Stand down," he growled, and strode on.
The hapless guard, unwilling to shoot him, trailed behind. "Sir! This area's restricted! Sir!"
McQueen ignored him, heading across the deck towards Commodore Ross, who was keeping an eye on the proceedings. The guard continued to shout, sounding mildly panicked. "Sir! This area's restricted, sir!"
Sewell looked up.
As McQueen reached Ross, another guard brought his weapon to bear on the colonel, but a nod from Ross made him stand down.
McQueen was annoyed. "Sir. What's with the civvies?"
Ross gestured at the technicians. "Breaking down the ship. Studying it, as you suggested."
The 58th was watching McQueen.
Cooper decided that the colonel could probably use a little help, and he tapped Paul on the shoulder. "C'mon."
McQueen was arguing with Ross. "That was for us. The military. We're the ones who'll use the information!"
"Aerotech can break down the ship and analyze--"
"You can't let them break it down!"
Ross glared. "At ease, Colonel."
Cooper came up behind one of the Aerotech people and peered over the man's shoulder at the console he was working at. Eyes glinting, the InVitro reached down and started pushing buttons. "Hey, what does this do?"
"Hey, don't touch that!" The startled technician tried to push Cooper's hand away. "What are you doing?!"
"What about when you do this? What are all these?" Cooper was using both hands now. As the tech was distracted, Paul quietly removed the portable part of the console and ducked away.
The technician was getting angry. "Hey, c'mon, get away from here! Guard? Guard!"
Cooper desisted, and the 58th melted away as the tech continued to shout for a guard.
Ross had fixed McQueen with a sharp stare. "McQueen...you've had an ulterior motive since the moment you said go get it." The 58th joined McQueen. "What are you thinking?" Ross asked the colonel.
"Sir!" Paul handed McQueen the computer he'd snitched. "They've reversed the ship's navigational computers. It came from a planetary body in the Ceres region."
McQueen turned back to the commodore. "That is what I was thinking." His voice grew passionate. "For six months we've been on the defensive. We haven't even been able to mount an offensive because until this moment we had no idea where they were based. Now we know where they're from!" He tilted his head. "Let's pay 'em a hostile visit."
Before Ross could respond, Sewell joined them "That information is not for public knowledge," he said calmly.
Nathan glared at him. "With you it never will be!"
Sewell glanced at him, then back to Ross. "Our planes don't have the range to reach the Ceres region," Ross said, shaking his head.
McQueen looked smug. "This one does." Ross frowned in thought; McQueen spoke intently. "It'll be our Trojan Horse."
"You don't know how to operate it," Sewell challenged.
McQueen barely turned his head. "We'll learn."
Sewell didn't flinch at his chilly tone. "You'd risk the destruction of this invaluable piece of technology?"
The colonel swung round and stepped up to Sewell. His voice was contemptuous. "I would risk the lives of invaluable men and women--if it meant I could finally put it down their throats!"
He turned back to Ross without waiting for an answer. "Look around you, sir. Defeat is on every face. Fear and surrender is on everyone's mind at home! The Secretary General is ready to give in." He took a breath. "I'm not."
"It's a suicide mission, Commodore," said Sewell quietly.
Ross' gaze moved over the 58th. They said nothing, but their faces showed their support for their commander.
"It's mass suicide if we don't do it," said McQueen fiercely.
The commodore's quarters were spartan, as was to be expected, but they were not uncomfortable. Ross had summoned McQueen for a private conference. Now the colonel, feeling somewhat out of place, picked up a framed photograph and looked at it. Some of Ross' family, he guessed.
Off-duty, the commodore had stripped down to his undershirt and uniform slacks. He relaxed in a chair as soft blues piano filled the air. Lifting a flask and a glass, Ross glanced towards McQueen.
"Some rum, Colonel?"
McQueen, already uncomfortable, shook his head. His black flight suit was as crisp as when he'd put it on, a sharp contrast to the commodore's informality. He set the photo down.
Ross poured, then contemplated his glass. "Romantically, it connects me with the sailors of old, who drank grog."
McQueen, waiting, said nothing.
Ross hesitated, then sat back in his chair. "I don't want to send young lives to their deaths," he said finally.
McQueen stared at the photo. "Most InVitros have a hard time--" he swallowed--"with love." He faced Ross. "We don't get many opportunities to feel it...or give it..." It was Ross' turn to wait as the colonel paused.
"But I know I love those kids." McQueen frowned, as if in pain. "I don't want them to lose their young lives. But I know the value of this mission. When Jimmy Dolittle bombed Tokyo in World War Two, in thirty seconds he gave every man, woman and child in the country hope. Without hope, we can't win. And if we lose, millions of people will lose their lives."
Ross stood, and sighed. "Pilots for morale." He leaned on the counter near McQueen. "That's how it breaks down."
McQueen tilted his head. "This mission could turn the war around."
Ross sighed again. "All right." He straightened and stepped past McQueen, gripping his shoulder in passing. "But it's not up to you, Ty. It's in your pilots' hands." He sat down tiredly.
McQueen drew himself up. "I'd like to go along on this one." Hope flared in his eyes, as he prayed the commodore would ignore his disqualifying inner-ear implant.
Ross frowned. "You're grounded, Ty! No way."
McQueen gave him a betrayed look and left quickly. Ross sipped at his drink, troubled.
The recreation area was neat and quiet. Only McQueen's voice broke the silence, as he read to the five pilots watching him.
"'With my mission now at hand--my dear old town, my dear old people--I now abandon everything and leave to protect this country. To preserve our eternal and just cause, I now go forth.'"
The 58th sat silent, listening: Nathan, Vanessa, Paul and Shane, all keeping their thoughts private; off to one side slumped Cooper, whose expression was sardonic and doubtful. But he too kept quiet.
"'My body will collapse like a falling cherry blossom; but my soul will live and protect this land forever. Farewell.
"'I am a glorious wild cherry blossom; I shall return to my mother's place and bloom.'"
McQueen folded up the paper. "These are the words of a man--your age, your rank, a hundred and eighteen years ago." The colonel searched their faces.
"He was a kamikaze pilot. He died, foolishly, the next day. He flew his Okah plane into an American destroyer--gave his life for a lost cause." He tucked the paper into his breast pocket. "I keep this in my flight suit at all times."
There was a pause. Cooper wrinkled his brow, puzzled; but before he could frame a question, Nathan stood.
"Sir. I'll volunteer," he said quietly.
McQueen rose to his feet as well. "West, if you had proof that Kylen Celina was still alive, would you give your life?"
"I know she's alive." Nathan was certain. "And I'll go--" he turned to his friends--"because this is not a lost cause."
Shane stood. "I'll go."
Paul rose, and after him Vanessa. "Me too, sir."
There was a little silence, and everyone's eyes turned to Cooper.
He looked at them as though they were crazy. "Well, I ain't no kamikaze!"
Their faces fell in disappointment. The glint appeared in Cooper's eyes. "'Cause I'm coming back!" Slowly, the corner of his mouth curved up.
The others began to laugh.
Sewell was puzzling over the latest information from the alien bomber when the Wild Cards entered the flight deck. Quickly he removed a data card from his computer and slipped it into his pocket, then turned to the approaching colonel.
"Mr. Sewell," McQueen announced with satisfaction, "this craft is now under military supervision." His squadron ranged behind him, underscoring the point.
Sewell shook his head and tapped a last instruction into his computer. "Well, no matter what you think, Colonel, we're after the same things."
McQueen looked skeptical. "Oh, we are," insisted Sewell, smiling. "I have to admit, your idea's brilliant. The Trojan Horse--the greatest military maneuver in human history. And our enemy has no knowledge of its precedence." His voice grew persuasive. "But that's why we should be studying this technology, so we can build our own Trojan Horse, instead of wasting it on a foolish act of bravado."
Nathan shouldered his way to the front. "You lost two colonies in a foolish act of cowardice!"
Sewell barely spared him a glance. "Act with your head, Colonel...not your heart?"
McQueen didn't waver. "That's why you'll never understand, Mr. Sewell."
Sewell glanced away and rose, then returned McQueen's stare as he fastened his jacket. "One thing I do understand, Colonel, is you won't be going along for this one. Is that a decision made from the heart, or the head?"
McQueen stepped forward; but a hand landed on his shoulder and a stern voice spoke his name. Commodore Ross slipped in front of the colonel, glaring. "This is my ship, Mr. Sewell."
Sewell's gaze dropped. "As long as I command her," Ross continued, "no one will insult the men and women who serve aboard her. Get your staff and get off my ship, sir. Now."
Sewell's smile was slick, but he walked away without a further word. Ross watched him go, then turned to the silent soldiers behind him. McQueen's eyes held a certain astonishment, but Ross gave them all the glare of a misanthropist caught doing a good deed. "What t'hell are you staring at?" he growled. "You got a mission to fly!"
The Wild Cards filed away obediently; McQueen hesitated briefly, then gave up and followed them.
The computer room was filled with frustrated Wild Cards and technicians. None of the information about the alien bomber seemed to connect or make sense. Finally Cooper growled and pushed to his feet. "I haven't had to read this much since Bougus made us read that nude deadpeople book." He hunched over the console, irritated.
The blond tech looked over at him. "You wouldn't mean by any stretch of the imagination 'The Naked and the Dead'?"
Paul glanced up at her in surprise. Nathan sighed and leaned forward. "Hawkes is right. Enough reading."
Cooper straightened and spoke to Paul. "You never did tell me what 'frug' meant."
Paul ignored him. "Did you like that book?" he asked the tech.
She smiled shyly. "Yes and no. John Fonte's my favorite twentieth-century author."
Paul grinned back. "'Ask the Dust' is one of my favorites! No one's ever heard of him."
They smiled ate each other until Nathan spoke. "I hate to break up the book sale, but can we get to flying this thing?"
"How?" complained Shane, frowning at her computer.
"No wonder," Vanessa exclaimed, as her own computer began beeping. "This--it's missing."
McQueen focused on her. "Mass ratio equals empty ship plus fuel mass over ship mass, right? Okay," she continued, punching buttons. Her computer emitted a different beep. "But then it jumps to this equation, which determines velocity increments." She glanced over to Cooper as if for confirmation, but he only gave a sarcastic "Ah!" and turned away, shaking his head.
"Points B and C are missing." Vanessa handed the computer to McQueen. It blinked "deleted" at him. "Something's been omitted."
McQueen was furious. "I want that little geek," he told her.
Vanessa shook her head. "Sir, those Aerotech guys are taking off right about now."
He handed back the computer. "I'll get him myself."
Sewell paced slowly past the airlock to his ship, speaking quietly into his phone. "No, it's all right, sir... Military types like to do that sort of thing." He glanced over at the crewman near the hatch, who looked hastily away. "Yes sir...no, it doesn't matter, I got everything we need...yes sir, that--yes, sir, that's correct...I'm on my way."
He snapped the phone shut and boarded his ship. Behind him, the crewman sealed the hatch.
McQueen hurried through the Saratoga, trusting in his rank and reputation to clear his path. He made it to the airlock just as the crewman ordered "Stand clear."
Shoving the man aside, McQueen peered through the airlock's window. On the other side the shuttle was lifting away. "Shuttle Four Three Seven, you are cleared for departure," the Saratoga's traffic control confirmed.
"Shuttle Four Three Seven, roger, thank you," responded the pilot. The shuttle picked up speed.
The blond tech met McQueen as he returned to the computer room. "Colonel--look at this." She handed him a computer.
McQueen removed the data card, then slid it back in. The computer beeped at him. He pulled the card out again, lips tightening in frustration.
"Sewell wiped the numbers we need to fly the bomber." The others reacted with varying degrees of annoyance, but McQueen wasn't finished. "We'll have to get 'em ourselves."
The bomber's atmosphere was now a human-friendly oxygen-nitrogen mix, but the lighting was dim enough to require flashlights, and the organic-seeming machinery was giving everyone the creeps. Two flashlight beams played over the dangling structure that had been the first thing they'd found. "This vehicle appears to operate on several advanced propulsion concepts," lectured McQueen.
Paul rolled his eyes at Nathan. "I feel like I'm being digested."
"Looks more to me like a...bladder," Vanessa said wryly. "A full bladder." Paul snickered.
"It's launched by an electromagnetic accelerator," McQueen continued. "To travel long distances, the craft appears to fly by helistream propulsion. It's amazingly fuel-efficient."
Looking around, Cooper had his attention caught by another device nearby and ducked past a scaffolding to have a closer look. Reaching out, he dabbed a finger along the machine's surface.
McQueen's lecture continued behind him. "What we will hopefully use to launch this vehicle are electromagnetic ram-scoop engines--Hawkes, work with us here!"
"Aw man, it spooged me!" Cooper grimaced in disgust at his beslimed finger, then straightened. "'Phousse, hand me that flashlight."
"My battery's dead," she said, but gave it to him anyway.
As Cooper's hand closed on the handle, the light came on. He stared down at it in surprise. "Batteries are dead...switch is off." He looked up, bewildered.
But McQueen was thinking quickly. "West, take the light."
Cooper handed the flashlight to Nathan. "It turned off!" exclaimed Vanessa.
McQueen reached over and smeared his own hand with the goo. "Now give it to me."
The light turned on. "It must be a bio-electric conducting gel," said Vanessa thoughtfully.
They all contemplated the structure in front of them. It looked vaguely coral-like, with tubes stacked in haphazard horizontal clumps. Shane played her light over the cylinders. "Those holes are filled with it. Think a body part goes in there?"
"Pray it's only the arms," said Paul dryly.
Nathan rolled up his sleeve and edged closer to the structure. "Feel anything that might be a prostate, I'm outta here," he said, and gingerly slid his hand into a tube.
As he moved his hand, a rhythmic rumbling filled the chamber, then died away when he pulled out.
Intrigued, Cooper pulled up his own sleeve and tried two different cylinders at once. The rumbling returned, to be joined by a faint hissing sound. "Oh, man, I could get into this," Cooper muttered, moving his fingers. "I wonder how you start it?"
Clanging noises joined the other sounds as the ship seemed to come awake around them. "I think you just found the ignition," said McQueen.
The days stretched out as they struggled to learn about the bomber. "It appears the enemy worked together like an orchestra, to pilot the craft."
They grew weary. "For example, the bladder, as we call it. Two people work in unison to control thrust..."
McQueen urged them on. "We've been here five days and we're nowhere. Launch window is in ten days. You people have got to work together! Ten days!"
They all took turns experimenting with the various equipment, trying to figure out who was best with what. Late one night they were still awake, going over their data in their quarters.
"The craft partially operates on our bio-electrical systems," mused Paul, sitting on his bunk. "Which means, kinda, that when we're in there the machine and the operator become one being."
The others looked up. "We're like parasites," Paul continued brightly. "You know, like how we all have these parasites in our large intestines, which allow us to process--"
"Uh, Paul--" Shane held up one hand to halt his lecture.
"Whatever." Nathan put down his computer and settled back against his pillows, smiling a little. "I think, in a week...we'll be flying this thing." He raised his hands and practiced the moves they had worked out for the "bladder." The others nodded.
"Starting to feel less and less like a suicide mission," Nathan murmured, watching his own hands as he continued practicing.
McQueen sipped at his coffee and paged through the latest data on the Chig bomber. Things were progressing, but in his opinion the 58th had not yet learned enough.
"Colonel McQueen?" someone said.
He looked up. The blond tech's expression boded no good.
"I've just received an update from Trajectory and Orbital," she said. "In regard to the alien ship's point of origin--launch window closes much sooner than projected."
A chill ran through him. "How soon?"
"Tomorrow morning, 0700 hours."
It was too soon. McQueen began to worry.
Too tired to be noisy, the Wild Cards sprawled on their bunks that evening, still puzzling idly over the bomber. Nathan's thoughts drifted from the mechanics to the purpose behind them. "This mission means more to McQueen than morale," he said thoughtfully.
Vanessa shrugged. "He knows the precedents in military history."
Shane slumped in her chair and grinned. "McQueen was born with a K-bar and a Corps tattoo."
"Can you imagine if he was anything else?" Paul's eyebrows rose in mischief. "Like a plumber?" He stood and went to the middle of the room, folding his arms and raising his chin.
"Okay...listen up." His voice was startlingly similar to McQueen's. "This one's in the kitchen. I'm here to fix your faucet, so check your six."
The others began to grin. "I'm gonna replace the strainer part, and I'm gonna replace the washer," Paul went on. "It's going to be a real knife fight. Now I'm going to utilize a monkey wrench, and perhaps even a plunger."
Shane and Nathan were giggling. Paul eyed them sternly. "And when I'm done, you'll have water. It'll be hot--"
Behind him, Cooper glanced over at the door and immediately became expressionless. McQueen entered and stood quietly behind Paul. Oblivious to the others' suddenly sober faces, Paul continued. "--and it'll be cold. And one more thing--" He bent and pushed over a chair, giggling himself. "It's okay to be scared!"
He straightened, looking for answering grins, and found none. His smile faded as the others wouldn't meet his eyes. Finally it occurred to him to turn around.
McQueen was silent. Paul stammered. "Sir--sir--" He searched for words, and found nothing helpful. "It--it's the greatest form of flattery," he managed weakly, and fled to his bunk.
McQueen pursed his lips and lifted the chair back onto its legs. "It's tough to follow a dog act," he said, eyeing Paul, who looked down.
McQueen let it go and looked around. "Mission's been changed. Launch window closes at 0700." He licked his lips. "Tomorrow."
Everyone straightened, alarmed. "Tomorrow?" Cooper protested. "But--we--"
McQueen turned. "I know, we're not ready, but it's on." He sighed, looking back to the others. "As Marines, we pride ourselves on training and preparation. I know this mission has had very little of both." He hesitated.
"I, uh...I know this isn't exactly the mission you signed on for. So anyone who does not show on the flight deck at 0615...will not be held accountable."
He let that sink in, then checked the time on his watch. "Time will be 21:25. Ready...ready...hack." They set their watches; without another word the colonel left.
Their new problem hung in the air, too thorny to be touched just yet. Cooper watched the door swing shut, then turned to Paul. "Wang...you ever surfed before?"
Paul shook his head. "I'm from Chicago, Coop'," he said gently, remembering Cooper's InVitro ignorance. "There aren't a lot of tasty waves on Lake Michigan."
"I'd like to try surfing when we get back home," Cooper said quietly. The unspoken thought was on everyone's mind. If we do get back home...if we survive...if we go...
Vanessa, staring into space, rubbed at her jaw and opened her mouth. Shane's attention fixed on Vanessa, and all of a sudden her temper snapped. "Damphousse--you do it one more time, I swear--I am going to stick my flight helmet in it."
Vanessa looked up, affronted. "What?"
Shane imitated Vanessa's goldfish routine. "Y'know--it's driving me crazy, okay?"
Vanessa was annoyed. "Look. I have a temporal-mandibular joint disorder, okay? From battle stress."
On the opposite bunk, Nathan intervened. "Shane--relax! Her doctor told her to do that."
Frustrated, Shane sprang to her feet. "She looks like--Jerry Lewis!"
Paul began to laugh. Vanessa glared at him. "Shut up, Wang! And if you don't like it--" she turned to Shane-- "leave!"
Vanessa flipped a hand at her. "Get out."
"I'm stuck with you!" flared Shane, and stamped out the door. Vanessa made a face at her back.
"'Phousse--" Vanessa glanced up at Nathan.
"She didn't mean that," he tried to explain. "It's just the moment."
Vanessa shook her head. "Whatever," she muttered.
Nathan jumped off his bunk, took some objects from his locker, and sat down. The others watched in some puzzlement as he began clipping his fingernails.
"Kind of an odd time to feel the need to be well-groomed," Vanessa observed. "Don't you think?"
Nathan didn't stop. "McQueen gave me that book on kamikazes...the one with the poem?"
"Yeah?" Vanessa prompted.
"They used to clip their nails and put 'em in undecorated wooden boxes, for burial back home...because there wouldn't be anything left."
He didn't answer her, only placing another nail fragment in the tiny cardboard box on the table.
She smiled a little. "Before now I used to think there was a chance we could come back." Her smile faded. "Before now..."
"We can win this war." Nathan looked from one friend to another. "A successful strike would make everyone believe. Again. If that's what it takes..." His gaze sharpened. "If not us...who?"
No one chose to reply. He closed the box and the clippers, feeling alone. Then Vanessa reached down from her bunk, holding out her hand.
They exchanged a long look; then he placed the clippers in her palm, and left.
Ross' guitar practice was interrupted by a knock. "Who's there?" he called, irritated.
"McQueen, sir," the answer came back.
"Come in," said the commodore. McQueen entered to find Ross leaning back in his chair, feet up on the table and a guitar across his lap. The commodore fingered the strings as McQueen crossed the room and halted in front of him.
"Anyone who shows up in the morning is dead," Ross said quietly. "You know that."
McQueen took a breath. "If one doesn't show..." He looked away, setting his pride aside. "Hell, sir, even if they all do, please--I have to go."
Ross squinted at him. "After all we did to your people...why would you give your life?"
McQueen's reply was serious. "I would consider it my gift to you, sir, to have you wonder why I did."
Ross looked away, rubbing his face. "Who am I to tell any man what he should give his life for?"
McQueen stepped closer. "You're the commander of this ship."
Ross patted his guitar. "I play this one to forget just that." He thought a moment, then met McQueen's gaze. "Colonel, I pray your gift is one I never actually have to receive."
McQueen's mouth worked; failing words, he held out a hand. Unexpectedly, Ross handed him his guitar pick. "It's like taking me with you," he said severely.
The colonel took it and left. Behind him he could hear Ross playing something slow and bluesy. The door shut on the tune.
Shane left the 58th's quarters angry and frightened, but as she wandered through the ship her anger faded and she began to feel ashamed of snapping at Vanessa. But that left the fear to face, and the decision.
At last she found herself on the flight deck. The bomber was still strewn with tubes and wires and was guarded by armed crewpeople, who ignored her. She walked slowly along the deck until she found a place she liked, and sat down. But before she got settled, the door opened and Cooper came in.
She didn't really want to talk to anyone, but he approached with that uncertain look on his face, and she didn't have the heart to send him away. He halted next to her and she gave him half a welcoming smile. "It's November 19th," she said quietly. Cooper looked puzzled.
"Sunday back home." She looked into memory. "On Sundays this time of year I used to lay in bed and watch the morning football game." She sighed. "And then I'd go out, when the light was just right." She tilted her head at him in invitation. "Golden."
Cooper sat, silent, and Shane went on. "Autumn...I grew up in San Diego, and people say that there are no change of seasons in California; but there are." She smiled a little. "I could always feel it, always. There is just this cold, inevitable edge in the air, the light, the colors..."
Cooper frowned, as though he didn't quite understand, but he didn't interrupt.
"It's as if the Earth were letting you know that summer is gone, there's no getting it back; winter's coming and there's nothing you can do to escape it." Shane looked inward. "A lot of people say that they fall in love with the spring. Not me. I always fell in love with autumn."
She hunted for words. "It is just the most--romantic, sexy, desperate..." And between one word and the next she found her answer. "And I'll never see it again."
Cooper looked away, then back again, and swallowed. He was looking more and more upset, but Shane went on, offering him her reasons. "This enemy could kill every last person on Earth, and there would still be autumn." She took a deep breath. "But I'm going tomorrow morning to make sure that there is always someone there to feel it." She settled into her new certainty.
Cooper was shaking his head, tiny little shakes, as though a larger movement would overwhelm him. "What?" asked Shane softly.
Cooper, throat tight, searched for a way to express what he was feeling. It was new, and strong, and it frightened him. "I--I--I don't get it. It's--it's like--y'know when I think about not goin', and I see in my mind all you guys dead...it's like I miss you." He paused. "What's all that about?"
Shane didn't answer, so he tried again. "It's like, what's the point of sitting around here feeling that way?"
For perhaps the first time, Shane realized a little of what Cooper's life had been like. He didn't understand the fear of loss because he had never had anyone to lose. She swallowed against a rush of sorrow and gave him the only reply that seemed to make sense.
Cooper didn't know how she might answer him, but he did not at all expect her to reach out and hug him. He returned the embrace awkwardly; no one had ever hugged him before. But it felt so good.
Paul's wanderings took him back to the computer room where they had first discovered Aerotech's treachery. To his surprise the blond tech, Lieutenant Stroud, was there, sitting at a console with her head in her hand. Paul stepped quietly into the room, and she looked up. "Lieutenant."
"Lieutenant," he responded. "I was just thinking about, uh..." He trailed off awkwardly.
Lieutenant Stroud straightened. "Yes?"
"Well, if the alien craft is essentially a cognizant being, what would be your hypothesis regarding the..." He hesitated, then tried again. "Well, would it allow us, as intruders, to attack its point of origin, its home?"
She shook her head, smiling ruefully. "I don't know, Lieutenant." She hesitated, then offered him the chair next to hers. Paul took it.
"I'll tell you what's bothering me." She looked out the window at the bomber beyond. "The controls operate via bioelectrics. I suppose electrical current is electrical current, but..." She eyed him with a small grin. "You're not wearing that shirt again, are you?"
Paul smiled and shook his head. After a moment she continued. "Isn't it incredible that our bioelectrical makeup could operate a lifeform which evolved in such a distant and so different an environment as Earth's?"
Paul looked down. "I, uh..." He swallowed. "...didn't come here to talk about this." He waited for Lieutenant Stroud's reaction.
She nodded slowly, and turned to face him. "Do you want my hypothesis on why you did come here?"
Paul's smile was wry. "It's, uh...kind of the going rate for me, to finally meet someone who...interests me," and they exchanged a nod at the neutral word, "the night before I leave on a suicide mission."
She regarded him, still smiling a little, and reached out to cover his hand with hers. "I heard you didn't have to go."
And he couldn't make up his mind.
On Earth, somewhere, the sun would just be rising; on board the Saratoga, only the clocks knew it was morning. They lined up in the computer room, facing out towards the bomber. McQueen stood in front of them, focusing their attention. "It's 0615. We launch in 45 mikes.
"Heroes or fools--that's a determination others will make in hindsight. But by being here now, we make that determination for ourselves; and it's neither. Time to go." He straightened, and blinked, and looked at each one of them: Vanessa, Cooper, Nathan, Shane.
"Wang?" he asked.
Cooper shook his head, just a little.
"That's all right," McQueen said softly, and tuned to look out the window at the busy technicians. "It's a good day to die."
They filed silently onto the flight deck. The bomber was still guarded by armed people, who stood alone; but clumps of crewpeople and technicians stood to watch them go. As they passed, a few solemnly wished them good luck. There were no taunts this time.
They stood at ease near the bomber as McQueen spoke. "The dim glow falling on the dried blood of Union brothers in the Manassas eve still guides our path. Constellations hidden by fierce Pacific storms in the Bataan sky remain obscured by rain. The stars, a billion for every life laid down in Vietnam, still shine on us. And will guide those who follow."
Cooper turned to look at him. "What dead guy wrote that?"
McQueen did not smile. "I wrote it."
Cooper was taken aback; but approaching footsteps caught their ears. "Ten-hut!" snapped McQueen.
Commodore Ross halted near McQueen, glower firmly in place. "Stand at ease," he ordered, and the Wild Cards relaxed.
Nathan stepped forward. "Sir." He held out the tiny box. "Should we not return, may we ask that you attend to these remains."
Ross reached for the box; but before he took it, another hand pulled it away. Paul emptied it into a wooden one that held his own nail clippings. Lidding the box, he looked at his friends. "This is how we go; live or die." He handed the box to Ross.
"Let's make it happen," ordered McQueen.
Paul was first to the ladder down the hatch, but Shane stopped him. "Wang! Did you wear the shirt?" she asked softly.
"No, I..." His expression was mixed surprise and shy pleasure. "I kinda got lucky without it."
He set his foot on the first rung, but Stroud's voice made him look up. "Lieutenant."
She held a small package. "I got you a present." Her gaze was calm. "It's yours, when you get back."
He looked at her a moment, accepting her confidence in him, then climbed down into the bomber.
The Saratoga's landing bay doors slid aside to release the Chig craft. Within, the 58th settled themselves to their tasks: Shane and Nathan on either side of the "bladder," Cooper and Vanessa up to their shoulders in the engine controls.
"Home Base, Home Base, this is King of Hearts," Nathan said into his headset. "We're in the slot."
Aboard the Saratoga, Ross answered him. "You are good to go, King of Hearts. Expect vector two three five, five mikes after departure."
"Roger that. Two niner six, niner seven zero, in five mikes."
Despite their lack of practice, the bomber slid smoothly from the Saratoga's belly and arced away. Ross watched it go. "Switch frequency to three two three point one. Squawk is five one five four."
"Roger, five one five four," Nathan responded. "See you in a few hours."
Ross took off his headset. "Godspeed, Wild Cards," he said softly.
The bomber streaked towards enemy territory. The light within was still dim, but the clanging hum of the engines told the 58th that for the moment they were running well. "Wang, man the bombardier's station," McQueen ordered.
Paul lay face down on a bench-like protrusion and donned VR goggles as McQueen strapped him on. Beneath Paul's face was a huge roundish screen, ringed with motion-sensitive panels labeled in alien characters. He passed his hands over some of these, checking his readiness. McQueen took a seat opposite him and spoke over the chimes of Paul's equipment. "All right, look alive. We're across the von Braun line. This is behind enemy lines." He fastened his own restraints.
Paul spotted three shapes on the screen below him. "We got bandits!" he reported.
"They've spiked us," warned McQueen. "We are a target!"
"Rock 'em!" shouted Shane, panicked.
"No!" McQueen watched as several of the alien characters flashed in sequence. "It's a recognition code. Send it back."
"Roger that, sending it back." Carefully, Paul repeated the sequence.
The three ships streaked past without slowing. "It worked, sir," Paul reported gleefully. "They think we're one of them."
There was a collective sigh of relief, but McQueen's face did not lighten. "We got a long way to fly," he reminded them.
Some hours passed; it was draining work, to concentrate on the unfamiliar technology while trying not to worry about the task looming ever closer. But eventually their target came into view; a yellowish world swirling with a poisonous atmosphere. "I'm reading a satellite, in our ballpark," said Paul.
It looked like nothing so much as a stylized flower spinning against the curve of the planet.
"It's a sentry," McQueen identified.
"If we take this ship much closer we might as well just ring the Chigs' doorbell," complained Nathan.
"It'll let us pass," Paul insisted. "It worked before. I'm sending it the recognition code."
He waved in the code sequence as they sped past the satellite; but twin weapons swiveled to follow their course, thorns to the flower.
"It's locked on," reported Shane.
"Return the favor," McQueen ordered.
"Locked!" answered Paul.
"Should we send them another recognition code?" Shane asked.
"The hell with it! They're going to find out we're here sooner or later!" shouted Nathan. "This is Lieutenant Nathan West, 58th Squadron, United States Marine Corps, Planet Earth! Open wide, you Chig bastards!"
The missile was a direct hit; the satellite blossomed into fire. The bomber rang with shouts of jubilation as they headed for the planet's atmosphere.
"Get that cluster missile ready, Weapons," ordered Nathan.
"Find us a target, pilots," McQueen snapped, irritated.
"We're entering their atmosphere," warned Paul. His voice rose to a shout. "We're spiked! We've got missiles off the rails--six o'clock, eight o'clock, five o'clock--"
They had come in just ahead of the terminator. The planet's star shone right above the mountainous horizon, and the missiles came arrowing out of the fading light, skimming the cloud cover.
The bomber tilted and rocked, shaken violently by the exploding missiles as the pilots tried to stay out of the path of the unexploded ones. Paul and McQueen struggled to find a target lock.
"Lock on! Lock on! Hold it steady!" demanded McQueen. "Steady, dammit!"
"What, you want steady, you want a missile up our pipes?" Cooper shot back, fighting with the engine controls. The bomber swung over almost onto its side, then back again. The explosions and the engine roar were deafening.
"We can't lock on! Steady out!" McQueen squinted into the screen in front of him.
"We're losing her!" Shane shouted.
Paul peered down through the thinning cloud cover. "I got us a target!"
"Lock on, lock on!" yelled Nathan.
"Target is locked!" Paul reported.
Cooper looked over from the engine controls. "Then smoke their Chig asses!"
"Remember the Tellus colony!" Nathan shouted.
"Fire!" called Paul, and the missile was away. He watched it streak down towards the spatter of lights below, waiting for them to bloom into greater light. And he watched in horror as it fell far short, impacting in the darkness away from the city.
"Missed," muttered McQueen in disbelief, then more strongly, "We missed!"
Paul shook his head. "How could we miss?" Another explosion outside jolted the ship.
"Break right, break right! Missiles on our six, break right!" shouted McQueen. The ship shuddered as they struggled to lift it out of the atmosphere.
"Eight Fox Threes on our six, closing fast," reported Cooper.
"Juke, dammit, juke!" McQueen ordered.
"We are juking!" bellowed Cooper.
The bomber tilted forward violently, its structure groaning in stress. Vanessa looked around. "This ship...it's dying."
Their control was gone. The bomber was doomed; in another few seconds a missile would find its target. Nathan, hunting frantically for solutions, saw an irregular patch glowing on the chamber wall. "That tile--Shane! Hit it! Hit it!" He struggled out of his safety straps. "Colonel! Wang! Get up here! We found an escape pod!"
Between the slick surfaces and the bomber's shaking it was almost impossible to move, but the Wild Cards managed. Stumbling and sliding, they piled into the odd-shaped chamber. McQueen, the last in, looked back to see smoke filling the bomber as it failed. Then the pod sealed and popped away.
A few seconds later, the bomber exploded as a missile hit home.
On board the Saratoga, a shuttle was landing on one of the exterior pads. "Four three seven, starboard landing port, cleared for arrival," said Traffic Control.
"Roger, thank you," the pilot acknowledged.
On the bridge, Commodore Ross was not a happy man. "Report, Connor."
Connor adjusted his receiver. "No radio contact since transmission was broken off, at eleven hundred twenty-three hours."
Ross leaned on the bridge railing. "I want to see a bomber on that LIDAR screen, Mr. Klein." Behind him the bridge door opened, and a short, balding man stepped through.
"I'd like nothing better, sir," answered Klein glumly.
Ross swung around and spotted Sewell. "Mr. Connor, remove Mr. Sewell from the command center."
Sewell reached into his breast pocket and handed the approaching Connor a document. "I'm here not only on behalf of Aerotech but at the behest of the Joint Chiefs--sir." Apprehensive, Connor held out the document to Ross.
"Commodore," said Gates. "We have the results of the long-range scan of the Ceres system."
Lieutenant Stroud looked up from her station.
"Any traces of that bomber debris?" asked Ross.
"Can't tell at this distance," Gates admitted. "The signal's corrupt."
"How near do you need to be to get a clear signal, Gates?" Ross' expression was dangerous.
"Well, with the interference from the Butterfly Nebula, we need to be within...half a million MSKs." She looked apologetic.
"That'll place our aircraft within range of Ceres," reported a crewman.
"Sir...Intelligence reports that the Chigs have an entire division in the Ceres system," said Gates uneasily.
Ross nodded, his face bitter. "I can't risk fifteen thousand lives on the chance that six Marines may still be alive."
Behind him, Stroud turned slowly back to her station.
"Set a course for the Jacona system," ordered Ross.
"Set a course for Ceres, sir," Sewell said quietly. Ross turned to glare at him, but Sewell didn't flinch. "Set a course for Ceres. You won't be disappointed."
Ross said nothing, anger becoming mixed with puzzlement. Sewell stepped closer. "Sir. I know that you are aware...that I know. Set a course for Ceres."
Ross held his gaze. "Mr. Dunn," he said finally, "I may be signing a pact with the Devil. But set a course for the Ceres system."
In the Ceres system, the alien lifepod tumbled past the curve of the Chig homeworld. Its momentum, aided by the blast of the exploding bomber, carried it towards a nearby moon.
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