Ludow shook her head. “I can glean nothing further from the subjects in the photos, but I’m turning to the stars in the background, now. In most of the pictures, they’re hard to see. Too many bright sources in the picture. We can sharpen the stars up a little by superimposing consecutive shots and adjusting for motion. Also, we have a few shots with nothing else in the picture, where we get good views of the sky seen from there. Since we assume she must have been within four light years, most of the stars are going to be roughly where you see them from here. If she was far enough away though, the closer stars will move a little.”
“What can you get from that?” Metzger puzzled. “You don’t have a way to take angles between stars in different shots.”
Ross remembered that his XO had been a sensory and navigation officer before reaching command rank. It occurred to him that he could harness that expertise by teaming him with Ludow.
“We’re not trying to do stellar navigation, sir. We’re just trying to pattern match. It’s slow work, but we may be able to match a particular pattern of stars to the sky as seen from a particular point. Or rather, from along a particular lay line. One pattern match won’t nail down a point.”
Ross nodded. “So, you can identify the patterns in different shots and figure their lay lines. She took them where the lines cross.”
“It will still be rough,” Metzger mused.
“How close?” Ross pressed Ludow. “Can you get me within a light day?”
“Perhaps. I am more confident in saying three light days.”
“Captain, the radius of Earth’s path around the Sun is less than 10 light minutes,” Metzger objected. “A light day would be a long search.”
But Ross had already understood where Ludow’s thoughts were headed. “By now, their beacon signals have been traveling for more than a day. Get me within a light day and our sensory equipment has a chance of picking them up!”
He turned back to the photo analyst. “Chief, please continue along your current lines. Mr. Metzger, when you finish researching the girl, I want you to team up with the Chief. Your sens-nav experience will be of value.”
# # #
The intense pain had returned, the nightmare of heat searing her leg and flaring up one side. Why isn’t the Freeze-up working? the child in the back of her mind was wailing. She drifted in a pool of agony, unable even to find her voice to cry out, Make it stop!
In the midst of the torment though, she began to feel as if something had changed. Something was very wrong here. Why was there light? Her light had broken. Had it started working again? No, her power bus had failed. There was no juice to power a light. Was a light shining in through the cabin? She wondered if she had crashed out yet… wait, hadn’t she already crashed out? Wasn’t she going to end up in deep space?
She remembered now, coming so close. But she had been light hours from Abernathy when her power finally failed… She’d crashed out, and no power for life support systems, so her CO2 scrub and her heat were both gone. All she could do was wish herself luck and hit the Freeze.
But I’ve already hit it! It isn’t working!
Well, I guess that about wraps it up for Rissa, then. Without Freeze-up, I’m a dead girl…
Yet, the mysterious light was still there, penetrating her eyelids. And she could feel herself moving. Breathing. She was lying down… she was in gravity? I’m not in my Banshee?
Somewhere within the fog of her pain, she began with great caution to conceive the idea that someone might have found her dead spacecraft and rescued her. She passed back into unconsciousness wondering if it could truly be possible.
# # #
Ross studied the girl in the bed and wondered if the doctor was right. She had shown signs earlier of coming awake, but had faded again.
Metzger had located her name patch. They now knew she was Senior Aviator Marissa Lee, ESDF 77th Pursuit Squadron. She was an atypical hero, a petite blonde whose greatest worry should have been passing her next high school exam. He hoped the Sesseem weren’t disappointed.
Although, he reflected, all humans were towering giants to the Sesseem. Besides, the girl was slight, but she was by no means fragile. Her exposed arm had a toned, athletic look.
But she still seemed so tiny.
“Marissa Lee, youth officer, Aviation Corps,” Metzger read off, from behind him. He had retrieved the service record from Abernathy’s database. “Current age is fifteen, but her birthday is next month. Drafted and ‘wared at age twelve. Flying Cadet at age thirteen. Aviator later at age thirteen. It does not mention a promotion to Senior Aviator, so that must have happened too recently to be in our database here. Thirty Four scores.”
Ross had turned toward Metzger in shock during his reading. He continued to stare.
Metzger raised his eyebrows. “Yes, sir?”
“Twelve.” he repeated, a sickened feeling gripping his stomach. “She was ‘wared at age twelve.”
Up until that moment, he had thought she must be some kind of a genius, having made Senior so quickly. But it hadn’t been quick at all…
“Yes, sir. That’s quite young, as I understand it.”
He exploded, frustrated at the XO’s lack of emotion. “It’s bloody inhuman, doing that to a twelve year old! It was hellfire on wheels for me, and I was fifteen!”
The XO nodded, remaining his unflappable self. “I understand it’s a painful procedure.”
“It’s legalized torture of minors, Metzger! It’s barbaric and sadistic. I don’t believe I would ever want to meet the doctor who was willing to do that to a twelve-year-old!”
He turned back to the girl and willed himself to calm down. He didn’t understand why Metzger was acting so cold, but he suspected he might not be in a good frame of mind to judge. And after all, the man didn’t have any of the personal experiences that Ross shared with the teenager in the bed.
Adults couldn’t accept nerve-ware implants because the body had to be still growing. It had something to do with the nature of the stem cells. The only reason they did it to teenagers was that it was just too brutal to do it to kids any younger. Metzger might know that fact in intellectual terms, but between the two of them, only Ross had lived it.
Calm again, he considered the rest of Metzger’s report. With some admiration, he realized. “Woy. Thirty Four scores. Quite a pilot.”
“What defines a score, exactly, sir?” Still the reserved, cold voice. Metzger could be stiff, but he was being extra stiff today.
At last Ross recognized that something was going on in the German’s head after all. This wasn’t coldness he was hearing. It was the suppression of something deep inside.
“Sum of kills on small craft and significant strikes on large craft.”
“Then she has at least four more now. Two outriders killed, a strike on the Slave cruiser and a missile into the ring. Quite a day.”
“A target-rich environment,” he replied, then wondered if the XO knew the gallows humor origin of that phrase. No good day included an opportunity to do so much in one flight. What Metzger had just described was a very bad day indeed.
They stayed in her hospital room to discuss the daily status from Bosun Harman. Orion’s second officer wasn’t above dropping hints throughout his report about his unhappiness. Ross didn’t blame him. The man had to run both the bridge and the deck while his division was handling a continuous stream of water tankers from the surface. But, he seemed to be handling it well.
Aviator Lee interrupted their discussion with a sudden, loud intake of breath. He looked down to see the pain that had been creasing her face all along intensify as her breath became labored. Awake or dreaming? Her eyelids stayed pressed closed, brow furrowed. Either way, she was suffering.
“Metzger, get the nurse,” he ordered, then stooped down closer to the girl. “Marissa?”
Her head rolled toward the sound of his voice slightly. She did not open her eyes, but she began speaking, not quite audible. He leaned in a bit more and recognized the wishing-star rhyme. “…wish I may… wish I might…”