The newest batch of pattern matches came up on the screen and Metzger again scanned through them. Nothing greater than twenty percent. Nothing more promising than the previous run. He shook his head and flagged the more promising items for visual inspection.
While waiting for them to pull up, his mind drifted back to the mädchen in the bed. She was about the same age as Margrit was when I saw her last, he told himself. She even looks a bit like her. That’s why it bothers me.
That wasn’t the reason. He knew better. When this funk first gripped him, he’d had no idea what she looked like. Only what color her bars were. The girl could have been darker than the captain, could have looked like anyone of any nationality at all, and it would have hit him just as hard. A child is a child.
There is a madness to war, he lectured himself. A logic that offends the civilized mind. You knew that, going in. And it was for the sake of the children and all who were defenseless that you took this job.
Until now, however, he had not encountered evidence of the fact that some of the children didn’t stay home. Some had to march off to fight this war alongside him and his fellow adults. Until he’d held those purple bars in his hand…
We don’t have a choice. Nerve-ware is the only way we can control the alien technology. It’s this, or surrender and become an Enemy Slave race. Then the Enemy would force our children to fight on the other side of the same battles anyway.
“You’re staring at your screen again, sir,” came CPO Ludow’s voice. He could tell she was trying not to laugh at him, but it would have been a kind laugh anyway. Like a grandmother. “Perhaps it’s time for you to call it a night.”
He pushed himself away from the computer. “Not just yet. But perhaps I could use some coffee.”
A little while later, while staring at his cup, he realized for the first time how tired he was. It was local evening, but his own waking had been on ship’s time, well over twenty hours before. He tried to recall how long Tor-Emmi’s day was, but couldn’t.
“You can bunk down in the storage room if you need to,” Ludow let him know. “We keep a couple cots in there for when the hours get long.”
“Ah… no. if I were to sleep now, I would sleep until morning, and the ship should be about provisioned by then.”
“So, what does that mean?”
“The commodore has ordered the captain to break orbit as soon as his ship is able. We are to follow Wilkins out into the search area. If I am to help here, I must do it now.”
Ludow looked at him and shook her head. “Commander, I do appreciate and value your help here, but it is not indispensable. I will continue the work after you sail.”
He stared at her, uncomprehending, then realized that she had misunderstood. “No, Chief, it isn’t like that. Of course I’m just an extra pair of eyes for you here. I know that you don’t need me here, to do this work. But, you see, I need me to be here.”
Ludow looked at him, contemplating something. He continued. “I have to find her squadron.”
“Yes, Commander,” she replied with care, “that is the goal.”
He shook his head. “You don’t understand. This situation is… intolerable for me. That child has done too many things, gone through far too much.”
When Ludow said nothing to stop him, all the frustrations that had been twisting inside his gut began spilling out. “She left out of Earth, and must have been flying non-stop for well over a day to get this far. She had just battled the Slave cruiser that her squadron was pursuing, when the biggest ring I’ve ever heard of jumped them. Somehow she got through that too, only to find herself the only one still able to fly. All the adults in the squadron were either dead, or trapped. Any fellow youth officers that were present as well. She was all alone and light years from home.”
He was shaking, he realized. “But that wasn’t bad enough. She had taken serious injuries. Her craft was almost unspaceworthy. She had a dead compatriot to pull out of his ship and bring home. The fight had taken out her computer and almost used up her reaction mass. She had to sail on manual and navigate on manual, somehow remembering where the nearest base was without her nav! She probably had nothing more to work with than the force of the local star’s hyperlight wind! Finally, after she had almost reached it despite every bomb Fate had thrown at her, her craft gave out on her. For us to force to a child go through all of that!…”
He took a breath, and stared down at the table. “It makes me feel worthless. It makes me see just how much we adults all have failed her.”
“Commander,” Ludow reminded him in gentle tones, “she is a Naval officer.”
“She is a child!” The force with which he answered shocked him. He controlled his voice, and continued. “She should be on Earth with her friends, enjoying her youth, going to school, shopping, going on dates…. I know what I’m saying makes little sense, but…”
He hung his head and finished the thought. “I feel guilty that my younger sister was allowed to do all of those things while this girl at the same age has been out here, fighting a war.”
“God allots us each a different life, Commander,” Ludow noted.
“That’s no excuse!” he snapped. “What if that were your daughter in that Banshee, Chief?”
“It could have been my son, Commander, ” she replied. “He was ‘wared when he was fifteen years old.”
Metzger stared at her in shock. She met his eyes and continued. “He’s master of a mail packet now, but he flew first generation Banshees out of Earth at her age. He was flying Luna Moths out of Chicago until four years ago.”
She set her coffee cup down, and gazed into it. “We all have roles to play, sir. Some of us are out here fighting so that others can live normal lives. You’ve missed the whole point, Commander. If your sister and others weren’t back home living those normal lives, our fight would have no purpose. The struggle Ms. Lee put herself through would have no meaning. In your self-righteous anger, you are taking her accomplishments away from her, sir. She doesn’t deserve that.”
After a long silence, she stood. “Let’s go find that squadron, sir. We can sleep in shifts, and keep the machines cranking all night.”
# # #
No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t remember her name.
Mako had been her call sign. Call signs were often born out of humor, and hers had come from her radiant, toothy smile. In any other setting her grin would earn praise, so it was almost inevitable that her squadron-mates named her after a toothy shark instead.
The Flying Cadet had flown her first sortie only the previous month. She had been earning incredible grades in sim, but had yet to meet an actual enemy. Four training missions, two lost bogies. It wasn’t even close to enough preparation for what would be her last mission.
‘Gorgon’ was Lt. William Jeffryes. Tough and strong, massive dreads, the only male adult other than their commander. He was a long serving veteran, with dozens of scores and a long list of injuries. He’d been the sort to keep getting up no matter how many times the opponent knocked him down.
Ross could picture both of them. He had trouble remembering his long-dead older brother’s face, but he could clearly picture both the pilots who they lost that day. He could even remember Mako’s voice, on her last transmission.
“Gorgon’s****! He’s crashing out! I’m following…”
Their squadron had fought a running battle against a Slave cruiser and a half-dozen escorts. Every Earth-based pursuit squadron found itself in a marathon chase down the Centauri current like that once in a while.
They had pursued a commerce-raiding party out of the Solar System, and caught them less than a light year out of Tor-Emmi.
The Slave commander attempted a ruse. They never figured out what the full plan had been, only that it had failed. But the Slave succeeded in crippling Gorgon’s Erinye before it failed.
Why couldn’t the commanders have sent a Unicorn squadron after them instead? He always found himself asking that same futile question. Unicorns would have run the bandits down before the first light year. But the Brass had been getting scared of sending out Unicorns. Scared enough to avoid deploying them except in the direst need. Scared enough to pull half of them out of service and force “Ernies” to replace them, doing Pursuit work they were never designed to do.
Gorgon and Mako had disappeared. Searches turned up no sign of their craft or wreckage from them. Perhaps they collided during her attempt to follow him out. Perhaps one or both survived, but neither craft functioned, stranding them somewhere between stars. Perhaps Mako had rescued an incapacitated Gorgon, only to make some fatal rookie mistake while trying to get home on her own.
The only certainty was that they were not anywhere near where the battle records insisted they should have been. They were somewhere else, entombed in their flying coffins forever.
Ross forced himself back into his work. He couldn’t find Mako, but he could find her kindred spirits, the squadron stranded out there in the capture field. Reaching into the base datanet with his ‘ware, he called up another series of hyperlight charts.
Marissa must have been flying the Centauri, because no pursuit squadron flying from Earth could reach Tor-Emmi by any other route. Where did they leave it, though? How far off it had they strayed before exiting Meta-Space?