73: Star Light 5 – Child Pilot

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Metzger considered the shapeless mass of wet cloth on the table before him with outright doubt. “This is her flight suit?”

The nurse shrugged. “Her clothing had frozen to her skin. We soaked her in a cold saltwater bath to remove it. She must have been sweating pretty hard before she went out. We had to cut it away in pieces, because her limbs weren’t flexible at the time. It wasn’t coming off any other way.”

She dried her hands with a disposable towel. “I’m sorry if it’s a mess, Commander, but we aren’t in the business of saving clothing, here.”

He picked at a few spots. “It’s going to take a while to get anywhere with this.”

The nurse voiced her curiosity. “So we don’t know who she is?”

He looked at her and thought about it. “We know what she is. With time, the administrators could work out who she is, without our help. But we have to know right now where she came from. Somewhere in this mess, ” he poked a finger into the mass “is her unit insignia. That should tell us where to start. I hope to find her name and rank while I’m at it.”

“Goodness.” The nurse shook her head as she left the room. She paused at the door. “Her helmet says ‘Cat Girl’. Does that help at all?”

“I saw that, yes. That’s her call sign. Not something they put in the official database.”

Metzger began separating strips and bits as they came available. It was slow work. The emergency thermo suit had frozen to the outside of her flight suit, itself frozen to her skin. The medics had cut the two layers away together. Every piece had thermo suit glued to the side of interest.

About halfway through the job he found a lump in one of the pieces. He peeled it apart and a small object tumbled into his hand. He froze when he recognized it, and what it represented.

An dull ache began in his heart. An anxiety for the children he usually tried never to think about.

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Metzger had only limited contact with the Aviation Corps. He had been in Battle Fleet since joining, and had never served on a carrier. But he was certain he was not mistaken about the object in his hands.

He was still sitting there staring at it when the captain came in to swap notes.

“You’re doing that by yourself, Mr. Metzger?” He asked in a way that suggested he was not surprised.

“I thought it would be best, sir,” he answered, still staring at the insignia in his hand. “Having ratings pawing through her clothing seemed… wrong, somehow.”

The captain only nodded without making a reply, so Metzger asked in a soft voice, “Captain, does a purple double bar mean what I believe it means?”

“If you believe it means she’s a minor, then yes, it does. If you had gone in to see her, that would have been pretty obvious. She’s sixteen years old, tops.”

His heart sank further on the confirmation. “A child.” A girl younger than my baby sister was piloting that craft when it took that horrible beating!

“With the rank of… Aviator?” Youth flying officers received special ranks, placed between warrant officers and commissioned officers. Their ranks converted to commissioned ranks once they reached eighteen.

The captain shook his head. “One purple bar is an Aviator. Two would be a Senior Aviator. Purple chevron for a Flying Cadet.”

After reflecting for a moment, Ross added, “A Senior Aviator. Maybe she’s older than she looks.”

Metzger unraveled another bit, and a cloth patch came free. “Her squadron patch. ’77th Pursuit Squadron’.”

“The ‘Lucky Double’,” the captain named it. “Well, I’ll be.”

“You know the squadron?”

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“My squadron pulled moon duty with them, once. Long before this girl’s time, of course.”

# # #

“Home base for the 77th is Earth. To be precise, Gulf Base Three. Texas. We’ll assume her flight started there. She showed up here,” Ross indicated a spot on the projection. He had assembled a team in the commodore’s briefing room, since she was out attending one of the endless parade of Sesseem formalities.

“I’ve set the plane of this projection to cut through us, Earth, and the spot the Banshee crashed out. We have sent a messenger drone to Earth, so that we can get some idea of what direction they headed out, but that’s a two day turn around. We aren’t going to hang around for the response. For now, we should assume it was at least somewhat along the line between Earth and her crash-out point. That suggests they were running the Centauri current.”

He touched a control and the projection now included the line he had just described, and a faint swath representing the current he had named. “The crash-out point is only off the line between Tor-Emmi and Earth by about five degrees. It would be an incredible coincidence if she came in from some other angle and just happened to crash out there.”

He touched the control again. Circles appeared around three other stars, each marked with a “z” value, giving their distance away from the plane. The projection only showed stars within ten light years of the plane, to keep down the clutter. “If she had been more than four light years from here, she would have headed to the Human bases at these stars, or headed back to Earth. Coming here only made sense if she were in this region.”

Another touch and a double cone, like a pair of misshapen ice-cream cones, appeared along the line. “Or, of course, across a fold interfacing this region. I have so far been unable to identify any navigable folds there. Metzger, ask the base personnel to do a navigation database search for us.”

“Aye, sir.” He replied, jotting it down.

“Doc, did you get the doctor’s estimate of the farthest she could navigate in her condition?”

Surgeon’s Mate Kuàng hesitated, then gave a careful response. “Sir, his answer was ‘nowhere’.”

Ross’s head jerked back slightly, and he blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

“In Doctor Hacek’s opinion, she crashed out at the point where she sustained her injuries. He insisted she would have been in too much pain, and her ‘ware was too damaged to interface the controls.”

“We have confirmed already that no hyperlight battle occurred on top of that location,” Metzger countered. “No debris is in the area, either Normal or Meta Space, at all. The Sesseem also reached this conclusion. And they say they would have seen such a battle so close to here.

“Yes, sir.” She didn’t look happy, trapped between the opinions of two officers. “I noted those things to the doctor. His response was ‘Tell them to look again’.”

Ross thought for a while. The ring could not have been closer than a hundred light-days to Tor-Emmi traveling in Meta space because the Sesseem would have seen it. No amount of stealth could hide something the size of what was in those gun photos as it moved through Meta. In theory, an Enemy with sufficient patience could move something that size in secret in Normal space, but….

“Metzger, did the Sesseem tell us how far out from the Banshee they scanned Normal space?”

“They claimed something that works out to about thirty light minutes.”

“Woy, that’s a huge area.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Several times what we could do.”

“Close to fifty times the volume, yes, sir.”

He looked at Abernathy’s photo analyst. “Chief Ludow, you determined that the fight occurred in deep interstellar, based on the gun photos. Can you explain?”

She pursed her lips, and then nodded. “Sesseem type gun cameras aren’t video shots. They take a series of extremely high resolution stills in three different spectral ranges. High visual plus UV spectrum, low visual plus near infrared and far infrared. The reflections of objects give us so much data that we can identify the presence of any star closer than a light day. At less than half a light day, we can get the actual distance.”

“And your conclusion, Chief?”

“The initial combat was in Meta, while she was chasing a Slave cruiser. One shot showed a fellow Banshee in the distance. She went to Normal space after following the cruiser out. Neither the Meta sequence nor the Normal sequence suggests the presence of a nearby star. She was in deep Interstellar at the end of combat for certain. Which means she re-entered Meta Space before crashing out again where the Sesseem found her.”

He let the meeting go quiet for a moment and considered. The doctor had to be wrong, but his opinion had to at least mean she did not sail a great distance. How far could she have flown if they assumed she lasted less than an hour? He made a note to check the hyperlight charts for that region.

“So is there more to learn from the gun photos, or is your work finished?”

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