“Aviator, can you hear me?”
Her eyes struggled open. They didn’t focus, only stared at the ceiling, but she spoke again. “First star…”
He wondered if she had lost her place in the rhyme. “Yes?”
“Second star… third star.” She seemed to run out of energy. He heard the nurse and Metzger coming in behind him, and held up his hand for silence.
He waited for a bit, then prompted. “Marissa? I need to ask you some questions.”
Her eyes intensified as they locked on to him. Angry? No, earnest. He was interrupting her.
“Sirius.. Canopus… Sol…” she recited, then faded away again.
Metzger wondered from behind him, “She’s reciting star names?”
Ross scowled in confusion. “That was the stars of the sextant.”
Why did she say that?
“Of the… what?” Metzger frowned. “Sextant… that’s an old instrument for stellar navigation, right?”
“Sorry. Aviator’s term. We borrowed the word from the old days. I meant that it’s the stars Earth squadrons always use for mid-range navigation.”
Metzger would know the method for getting the position of a big ship, but he would know different equipment. Aviators didn’t have a suite of calibrated scopes to take angles between stars. There just wasn’t room for such bulky equipment inside their cockpits.
Instead, they used one fixed scope that they called the sextant, aligned on the axis of the craft. They would line up their craft on a star, zero out the attitude, then rotate to the next two stars, taking attitude readings on each. Computer took the three attitudes and computed the position.
The girl made an indefinite noise. He leaned forward again.
“Marissa, please tell me. You ran into a big ring out there, didn’t you?”
He thought she was coughing, then realized it was a laugh. This girl had some serious steel in her. “Big ring? Whoa, yeah. Real big. Huge. A whopper.”
“What happened to the rest of the 77th? Are you the only one to make it out?”
“N… no. They are… still… alive…” Her breath was becoming labored as she fought against the pain raging in her limbs. He hated what they were doing to her, but he had to continue.
“We need to know anything you can tell us about the ring. How far out were you? Where was it headed? What shape was it in?”
“Splash,” she answered. And, despite the obvious pain, smiled with relish.
“What?” Metzger sounded puzzled. “What does she mean?”
“I think she means they killed it,” he answered with wonder.
“Mein gott, so that last shot of hers was a killer after all?”
“What do you mean?”
“The last gun camera shot… rather, the last one with an actual target in it, she had launched her second missile. It landed square, no deflection. That’s what had the Sesseem excited about her.”
“Sir,” the nurse with impatience, “the anesthesiologist is here. The patient needs painkiller.”
“Lieutenant, I am ordering you to wait.”
The nurse bristled. “Sir! This is a hospital, not a ship…”
He ignored her and turned back to the girl. “Aviator, please tell me, where is your squadron? Why aren’t you together with them?”
“Flypaper, ” she gasped. The single word filled in the rest of the story for him, as his blood turned cold.
The anesthesiologist came around to the other side of the bed and made some adjustments to the dose meter. “Wait a moment!” he snapped, but the man ignored him. “Doctor, she needs to be awake! We have to talk to her!”
The man turned to face him. He could see the fellow had no intention of complying.
He heard the girl reciting again, as she faded away, “Sirius, Canopus, Sol…”
From behind him, he heard a second voice. He recognized it as Lt. Commander Hacek, her doctor. “You needed her to tell you about the ring.”
Ross turned to face him, fuming.
The doctor continued. “We heard. She told you it was dead. No ring is lurking about out there, about to attack the system. That’s what the commodore ordered us to let her become conscious to tell you. Now, for her to have any hope of recovering from the damage she has taken, we cannot keep awake any longer. She must go into surgery to begin nerve-ware repair and replacement procedures immediately. You can have her again in about a week.”
Ross finally boiled over. “Doctor, they may not have a week!”
The man remained unmoved. “Who may not have a week, sir?”
He raged at him, even though he had already recognized the losing battle. “The rest of her squadron!”
“You must find them without her, ” the man stated. Ross watched, raging and helpless, as the medical personnel filed back out.
Metzger looked at him, puzzled. “What is ‘flypaper’?”
His gut was still twisting. “Aviator slang for an Enemy capture field.”
He turned to look at the girl, who had slipped back into sleep. “Her comrades are still out there. They’re not dead, they’re trapped. And Freeze-up isn’t reliable in a capture field. They could be non-revivable in less than a week!”
“But if the Enemy took them prisoner…”
“The Enemy is dead, Metzger! The squadron is stuck in a capture field somewhere out in the Big Empty, and the Enemy which trapped them will never turn it off!”
# # #
Metzger entered the conference room for another ad hoc meeting. This time it was with the captain, an unfamiliar Aviation officer and someone on teleconference. The captain looked down at the console on the table. “Okay, the XO’s here now. Metzger, this is Commander Wilkins. Ms. Takahashi, I understand your crew turned up something new on that Banshee?”
The teleconferencing console hissed a bit as it went live. Orion’s chief engineer replied, “Yes, sir. Two things. First, we have recovered a body from the craft.”
Metzger stammered, “A… what?“
“A body, wrapped in a vac-bag and loaded into the empty missile bay. It appears to be another pilot. Sick bay says they are pretty sure we have a corpse here, not a successful Freeze-Up. In the Surgeon’s Mate’s words, he died of ‘severe trauma’. From what the crewman who found him told me, I think that is something of an understatement, sir. We’re arranging to transfer the deceased down to Abernathy now.”
The captain considered the news out loud. “She must have pulled one of her comrades out of his craft and loaded him up, to bring him home. That had to happen after the battle was over. So, that confirms that Hacek’s assessment of her condition at the time is at least a little off.”
Metzger thought about what that entailed. She had gone outside by herself. Tethered, he hoped. Departed her spacecraft in interstellar space, entered his. Pulled his mangled, dead corpse out of its craft. The body of a comrade. The body of one of her friends…
He couldn’t imagine it. He couldn’t imagine the petite girl in the hospital bed managing such things.
The captain looked back down at the console again. “Chief, what is your second item?”
“Well, sir, as you know, the computer was dead when we got the power back up. We have finished with data recovery, and it looks like we don’t have much we can recover. All we have is flight data that was in the write cache from just before the computer sustained damage. Battle damage took out all permanent storage, along with the flight data recorder.”
She paused for a moment. The sound of rustling paper came through the speaker. “The date stamps in the write cache were at around twenty three hundred Zulu on the day before the Sesseem spotted her crashing out.”
“Which we have worked out to being at around oh-five hundred Zulu yesterday. Six hours earlier, then,” the captain supplied. “And what was she doing?”
“There is flight control data showing high-gee maneuvers, firing reports, and mass expenditure readings. And one remaining mass reading. A low one, sir. She was close to running dry. Judging from the kind of data in the cache, she was in the middle of a dogfight when her computer died.”
The truth behind what she just said struck Metzger and sank in at the same moment the captain put it to words. “Ms. Takahashi, are you telling me that she lost her computer during the firefight?”
They had assumed it had died on the flight to Tor-Emmi. Its death might even have been the trigger for her early crash-out.
“Yes, sir.” From Takahashi’s matter-of-fact tone, Metzger knew she didn’t grasp the significance of this news.
Metzger looked at his captain in disbelief. The other was staring likewise back.
“Captain,” he finally put it to words, “could that girl have transited to Meta and navigated all the way here on manual control?”
The captain gave a slow shake of his head. Not in negation, but in wonder. “And near bingo mass. She would have saved what she had for planetary approach.” He glanced over to the meeting’s other attendee. “Which means she used only sail power for the entire way.”
It isn’t possible! Metzger’s thoughts hissed. This is not the work of a teenager!
In the same moment, he remembered that the teenagers in his own life had been his schoolmates. Civilians. Children of the world’s peaceful public veneer. Oblivious to the interstellar war happening beyond their atmosphere.
None of them had received nerve-ware at twelve and flew combat missions at thirteen. The girl in the bed had nearly as little in common with the world of his youth as did a Sesseem.