I know more than you think I know, Lionus. My research has shown that you found something out there, something worth pouring fortunes into, something worth throwing away your reputation and possibly your life over.
My curiosity has gotten the best of me, Iím afraid. I just want to know what this project of yours is. I desire no specific location, just a simple answer to the question that everyone has been asking: What would drive one of the greatest minds of our generation to madness?
You were the richest man on Earth. Now youíre considered one of the most dangerous. What drives a man like you to kill so many?
Gunther stepped out of the shower into the cramped washroom. After wrapping a towel around his waist, he stopped to examine himself in the mirror. He felt whole now that the bruises from the Everett incursion had healed. Stretching, he waited for the dull pain that had riddled his shoulder for the past few weeks. Gone. Perhaps the bridge had added fewer years than he thought.
He pushed the door open, adding to the deep dent in the washroom counter. A wry grin crossed his face as he stepped through the doorway -- gently closing the door behind him.
A small blue bottle of anti-nausea pills, prescribed by the shipís doctor, stood on his stub of a bedside table. Today, he would not take them. He was well-adjusted to space flight, ready for his first mission command. Feeling his stomach churn at the thought, he glanced at the pills a second time.
He wondered how he would perform compared to his former subordinate, Nathan Stale, the man who had served on board the NTSS Everett as flight captain nearly to retirement. Gunther had worked with him on many missions, from the trivial to the vital, separated only by a wall of vacuum. Stale was a tough, stubborn old man, but fiercely loyal and dedicated. He never showed the slightest resentment that his commanding officer was three decades his junior.
Stale had died a month earlier, under Parksí command, not too long before Guntherís career met the same fate.
The Everett, now fully repaired, had spent two grueling weeks readying itself for an attack on a small installation near the planet York. In less than twelve hours, Gunther would again be engaged in combat.
After laying out his uniform, he ran the towel through his hair a few more times, sponging up the last bits of moisture. A quiet, electronic beep filled the room in three short intervals. Puzzled, Gunther looked for the source. A blue speck of a light beckoned from its place next to the doorís control panel.
"One moment," he called toward the door.
As he reached for his flight uniform, the door slid open. He scrambled to cover himself with a towel.
"Oh, Iím sorry," said Mari after turning around, not quite holding back a chuckle. Why did women always feel the need for nervous laughter in situations like this? Surely, they did not realize the implications it could have on a manís self-esteem.
Gunther sighed, slipping on his uniform pants and undershirt.
"Itís fine, really," he said. "You can look now."
She turned to face him, averting her eyes to the ground in embarrassment. A hint of red subsided from her face as she adjusted the clip which held back her long, dark hair.
"After the co-ed showers back at the academy, there shouldnít be any surprises, anyway," said Gunther with a flash of a smile.
"Of course, that was years ago," she said. "I guess time flies,"
"Speaking of time, I havenít seen you in -- two weeks? I almost thought you were transferred," said Gunther.
"Well, weíve been busy. I mean, the ship. Weíve all been going through a lot," she said.
"Of course I know what you mean. Getting our flight crew back on its feet has been a chore. Especially for me, since this is the first time Iíve had the privilege to serve as a flight captain."
Mari glanced around the room, fidgeting as she did so.
"New quarters, huh?" she asked, moving a strand of hair that had fallen before her eyes.
"Itís not much, but enough to entertain a guest," said Gunther. "Please, sit."
She sat at the small, round table against the wall.
"So this is it for you now?" she asked, leveling her focus on him.
Gunther fastened the last of the buttons on his flight jacket.
"Demotions are never pretty," he said.
"What happened to your library?"
"I had it shipped back to Hespera," he said.
"All of those books? I hope whatever shuttle theyíre aboard survives re-entry with such a load," she said.
Gunther grinned. "I just hope theyíre cared for in storage."
"Iím sure you could link to the New Terran Library and get copies. There must be digital versions."
"And of what worth is a library that can be destroyed with the press of a key?" he asked.
"Books can be burned, too, you know."
"Oh, I know," he said. "But it takes more than a mere vandal to burn a book."
She stood up, stretching. "At least youíre used to this amount of space. Just now instead of bookshelves, you have walls."
"Like I said, demotions are never pretty," he said.
She frowned. "Sure they are. When theyíre fair."
"Maybe mine was fair," he said.
"It strikes me as strange that they demote you, when you clearly showed more skill than Parks. Isnít that their definition of grounds for promotion?"
Gunther was slightly taken aback by her blunt dive into the conversation. She had given the statement thought. Of course he agreed, but the situation was delicate, thus requiring a delicate response.
"The court made its decision. Iím a soldier. I do as Iím told," said Gunther.
The inaccuracy of his statement only occurred to him as he said it. But a bureaucracy is served by statements, not actions.
"Will," she said, "You canít mean that."
"The UTF no longer follow those principles," he said, flustered. "Weíre a tangle of politics, favors and egos."
Her voice rose, "Youíre a fighter. Why donít you fight for whatís rightfully yours? Fight to change the system."
"I did fight," he shot back. "This is where fighting got me."
Mari retreated to silence, turning her head away. The words rightfully yours rang through Guntherís mind.
Softening his posture, he sat down at the table opposite Mari.
"Iím sorry. I didnít mean to snap. Itís just -- itís a tough question to answer," he said.
Still not facing him, she replied, "Iíve never heard that."
Turning and looking at him with a face of stone, she repeated: "Iíve never heard that."
"Heard what?" he demanded.
"That tone in your voice. Itís so different from the Will Gunther that graduated at the top of our class. The man who would one day shoot through the ranks of the UTF like a knife through warm butter -- and we all knew it. He never would have settled for this. He would have easily defused Parks, beating the old bastard at his own game. But you -- you just caved under the slightest pressure. And now, here you are, a mess of excuses and apologies."
Guntherís shock dammed his rage for only a second.
"Caved! Iíve never caved. And who are you to question my rank? Youíve been on this same damn ship as long as I have -- with a lesser rank!"
Mari stood up in cold indignation.
"Iím leaving," she said.
His chair falling hard against the floor, Gunther stood, meeting her stare.
"I was just about to ask you to do so," he said.
"I meant," she continued, glaring, "that I was leaving the service. My third term is up; I wonít be renewing. My shuttle leaves in a half hour."
Gunther studied her, leaning against the table. Neither of the officers said a word, each waiting for the other to break the cold silence.
Briefly, Gunther considered the time -- already, he was in danger of being late for his assigned post. He broke the silence.
"Are you going back home?" he asked. Mari, like Gunther, grew up on Hespera, the twilight core world. Her skin preserved the soft paleness for which Hesperans were known, but now it seemed unusually flushed, as though her bodyís energies pointed inward, filling a deep void.
"Thereís nothing for me there," she replied. "Nor a reason to go back. I donít think Iíll ever step foot on Hespera again -- or, for that matter, any core world."
A wave of anguish flooded through Gunther, washing away his anger. He struggled against the emotion, keeping a calm demeanor. Mari, his friend, his rival, his -- no, she had to stay.
"I just canít take it anymore," she continued. "This side of the war, itís gruesome. Cerbera was bad, but Aethra-"
She stopped, smearing a tear across her cheek; a dandelion growing through the concrete, Gunther thought, revealing the living earth underneath.
"Aethra was inexcusable. I canít support this," she said, swallowing against the tears. "I have to leave."
"Is there anything I can do to convince you to stay?" asked Gunther.
"Is there anything I can do to convince you to come with me?" she echoed, making her point clear.
He glanced at the clock on the small bedside table, and then turned to look back at Mari. His action registered, her face softening in resignation.
"Goodbye, William," she said, turning towards the door. For just a second, she hesitated. Gunther tried to muster a response, but found the words impossible to form.
The door silently slid shut.
This side of the war. Gunther realized just what Mari had intended to do.
* * *
"We have three hours until the attack. Every single one of you knows your part in the plan," said Gunther.
He walked down the single file line, making eye contact with each man and woman that made up the Everettís flight team -- his flight team.
"Use this time to prepare accordingly. Inspect your craft, eat, pray -- whatever you need to do to be ready. I expect all of you back here in two hours," he said. "Dismissed."
Gunther snapped out the motions of a salute. A line of arms followed suit in synchronized motion.
Their day had already been filled with plenty of drills. Some flight captains would use this time to squeeze in a few more exercises. Gunther figured they could use a break.
He adjusted the screen on his adaptive flight computer. A series of images representing his squadronís ships replayed all the maneuvers he had programmed. As he inserted the computer into the armrest of his ship, a young pilot approached.
"Sir," he said, waiting for Gunther to step back down to the hangar floor.
"At ease, pilot," said Gunther, stepping off the ladder and taking a seat on the second lowest rung. "Rogers, is it?"
"Is there a problem?"
"No, sir. Itís just that -- how can I put this?"
"Bluntly would be nice," said Gunther, rising and moving to the strike craft across from him.
"Yessir. You donít have a call sign."
Gunther stopped. "A call sign? I donít need one. Nobody calls on me."
The young man grew nervous. Gunther suddenly wondered if he was too tough on his flight crew.
"Y-yes, sir. I understand," he said, turning to walk away.
"Wait, wait. Come back," said Gunther, giving in. "I guess youíre right. So far Iíve just been barking out training orders. I guess ĎFlight Captain Guntherí wonít work too well in combat."
"Did you have something in mind?"
"No, sir, I didnít," said the blonde pilot, shrugging.
"Whatís your call sign?"
"Grizzly? Like the bear?" asked Gunther.
"Iíve always flown bombers, sir. Big and powerful."
Gunther held no particular interest in callsigns -- or anything about being a pilot, for that matter. Rogers seemed nervous, though, so he played along.
"Does it have to be an animal?"
"No, sir, but I guess most are," he said, finally looking Gunther in the eye. "Pilots usually pick animals or historical figures -- mostly from their home planet."
"And where are you from, Grizzly?"
"Neo Terra, sir."
"I donít recall seeing any grizzlies last time I was there," said Gunther.
Rogers belted out a quiet, nervous laugh. "Probably not, sir. I saw one when I was young, though, at the Veheran Interplanetary Zoo. It was the first time the zoo had come to us, so everyone got pretty excited about it."
Gunther remembered attending the zoo. Hespera had cleared it for business years before Neo Terra had. Of course, the fanfare accompanying the opening was always the same -- parties, parades, and endless news coverage. All for caged animals. His father had organized a large social gathering, even managing to convince a couple high-ranking generals to attend. It was the day before Gunther was to leave for the academy, a fact that earned him several drunken toasts from the UTF officials in attendance.
"I guess Neo Terra is always the last to adopt anything even slightly Veheran," said Gunther. "Still, though, I never saw what they had to fear from a few animals. After all, they handled the Renaissance well, didnít they?"
Guntherís secondary school concentration had been history. Sometimes he liked to poke and prod, finding out just how well others could discuss historical subjects.
"Yes, but we still saw the effect it had on other planets, with new animals and plants running wild. We werenít without our own infestations, of course. The worst were the rats," said Rogers, bowing his head in thought for a moment. "Hey, that gives me an idea."
"Rat?" asked Gunther, taken aback. "You think ĎRatí would make a good call-sign?"
"No, no, of course not," said Rogers. "The rats infested our cities and nibbled on all of our crops, making a complete menace of themselves. Even now, theyíre still a pretty big problem, especially in urban areas -- like where I lived."
"I see. So whatís your idea, then?" asked Gunther.
Rogersí face lit up. "The only way we could solve the problem of introduced species was by introducing more. Thatís when Neo Terra lifted the ban on household animals -- specifically cats."
"Fighting fire with fire," said Gunther.
"Exactly. Of course, a common housecat usually isnít even much help -- some see their own reflection and run the other way. Certain ones, however, had the killing instinct; we called them mousers. Soon enough, there were as many dead rats as there were live ones."
"Mouser," said Gunther. "I like the sound of it. Iíll go ahead and enter it into my flight computer."
"Iíll be sure to let everyone know, sir."
Gunther saluted. "Go enjoy the calm before the storm, pilot."
Rogers walked away. Once again, Gunther was alone with his thoughts. The Everett was preparing to strike at a small militia outpost, a target that held little to no tactical value. He wondered if Parksí new second-in-command would object to such an easy mission so void of danger.
Despite the ease, his stomach gathered an uncomfortable pressure. For years he had sat on the bridge, away from the worries and troubles of a common soldier. Shielded by the thick hull of a capital ship, he could focus on the overall battle -- commanding, organizing and rallying his troops.
He leaned against his strike fighter, caressing its smooth hull with his fingers. Now only these precious inches of armor separated him from the enemy and the empty vacuum of space -- which of the two would kill him faster, he didnít care to think about.
A rumbling murmur passed through the hangar. Disdained, he patiently looked up towards the ceiling. So much for the calm before the storm.
The warning alarm wailed. Gunther winced. For a second, he thought he could hear Parks barking at the poor officers on the bridge, demanding every last bit of information on just how badly the old man had messed things this time. Grudgingly, Gunther grabbed the rail of the step ladder, climbing into the cockpit. The hangar erupted with activity. Pilots and infantry rushed to their stations, paces quickening as a second shockwave rattled the ship.
Gunther pulled the throttle lever up and into active position. With a soft click, the anti-grav engines came to life, the ship mimicking his lifting action and raising away from its supports. His heads-up display flickered into existence, floating between his face and the glass of the cockpit. With a few quick keystrokes, he called up the available sensory information.
Damn. A militia battleship, tactical ships fully deployed, approached with solid determination. Gunther waited for Parksí command.
"All tactical ships, engage the enemy. Repeat, all tacticals engage the enemy," buzzed a voice over the comm. As usual, the order was too late and completely misguided.
Engines flared as ships rocketed from the hangar. Gunther eased forward on the throttle, causing his fighter to lurch slowly through the protective force field and into space. The field echoed a warping, electric hiss as his ship passed through. Once on the other side, all commotion from the hangar died instantly, replaced by the gentle hum of the engines.
As others shot by, Guntherís fighter drifted, passing slowly through space as he formulated a plan.
On his display, he saw his flight squadron forming behind him, the only display of discipline on his side of the battlefield. Red markers appeared on his radar -- his replacement had marked the enemy fighters and bombers as the primary target.
Excellent. The other squadrons would make for a perfect distraction as his crippled the enemy battleship.
Using his interface pen, Gunther marked the 3D representation of the enemy battleship. He knew the precise locations of all thrusters necessary for a turn to port, perfect targets to disable for the Everettís inevitable retreat. The militia battleship would turn in circles like a boat with no rudder, while Parks would hopefully realize how hopeless this confrontation was.
Linked up with his command computer, the rest of the squadron instantly knew his plan as he marked the targets. He pushed the throttle forward fully, his fighter rocketing forward. The back of his neck pressed into the seat as the gravitational dampeners struggled to overcome the force of the engine. His display showed the rest of his squadron keeping a perfect formation.
"Delta Squadron, report," said a raspy, old voice over the comm. Parksí new bridge monkey.
"Your flight heading indicates a direct path at the enemy capital ship. You are to engage the enemy tacticals before heading to that objective."
Gunther depressed the comm button once again. "Roger that, sir. We are performing a flanking maneuver."
The raspy voice became frantic. "A flanking maneuver! Youíre flying directly away from us! We are under attack and require immediate defensive support."
"No need to worry, sir, weíll be coming around behind them in a second," said Gunther, grinning as he disabled the command comm.
His squadron gained no attention from the massive swarm of attacking militia tactical ships they had bypassed. The battleship, however, would be ready for them.
"Delta Squadron, abandon formation at the first sign of AT fire. They know weíre coming. Grizzly, you stick with me and attack the primary objectives. Everyone else, try and draw AT fire."
"Roger that, Mouser," said Grizzly.
The first round of anti-tactical fire burst into a red cloud of hot plasma before them, shattering the formation. Gunther pulled away hard, his ship shaking from the gaseous impact. Every cloud transmitted a dull roar to the insides of his ship, indicating just how badly he had been hit. His shields held.
With a press of a button, he opened a private line to Rogers. "Grizzly, you with me?"
"This is about to get real hot. Iíll put in the initial burst to weaken the plating, then you finish the job."
Four thrusters stood between them and the Everettís safety. Guntherís fighter screamed past another plasma cloud, filling the cockpit with an awful sound. He noticed his shields were a bit lower than the others in his squadron and cursed his lack of flight hours.
Fizzling out in a fiery explosion, the first thruster went down with no problem. The enemy captain was clever, though, and caught on to their plan quickly. Anti-tactical fire suddenly filled the space in front of Guntherís cockpit, forcing him to careen wildly, nearly skidding against the hull of the battleship. A split-second barrel roll just barely saved his port wing.
"All units attack primary targets," Gunther said into the comm.
Delta Squadron swarmed around the NGM battleship, like a colony of frenzied ants bringing down their lumbering prey.
Gunther zipped along the surface of the battleship, struggling to stick to the intricate lines and contours of its hull. The challenge was greater than dodging the anti-tactical fire, but also less deadly. Grizzly had now pulled ahead of him. Somehow, the younger pilot had no trouble handling the rough flying, even though his ship was twice the size of Guntherís.
An indicator disappeared off of the display. Delta Squadron had destroyed a second thruster. A concentrated burst of energy from Guntherís fighter and two others left the third drifting into parts in space.
"Thatís three!" said Grizzly, as a chunk of the plasma turret shot past Guntherís cockpit.
"Alright, Delta," said Gunther. "That should give us enough time. Disengage and head home."
As they pulled away, Gunther noticed a cloud of red blips forming above his ship on the 3D display. The NGM tacticals were pulling back. The Everett would be fine now.
"Mouser, we have incoming," said a female Delta pilot.
"Roger that," said Gunther. "Keep heading towards the Everett."
He opened the command comm line. "Everett, this is Gunther reporting. Weíve disabled the rotational thrusters on the enemy capital ship. We need a concentrated volley on incoming bogeys."
The Everett was barely visible behind the oncoming wall of fighter ships, a wall which crept closer and closer.
Switching output channels, he said, "Delta, when our cover fire breaks up the incoming group, hit afterburners and weíre home free."
He awaited confirmation from Parks.
"Everett, we need that strike now!" ask Gunther, his voice loud and firm.
Individually, the enemy tactical ships started to become clear. Their massive formation was clearly intent upon Delta Squadron, the six lonely UTF tacticals which had crippled their mother ship.
"Delta squad, defensive formation A2," said Gunther. The heavy fighter and Grizzlyís bomber pulled to the front of the group. The tacticals with weaker shields, like Guntherís fighter, stayed behind them.
"Everett, come in! Parks, I know you can hear this. We need a volley!"
The Everett blinked out of sight. Only the foggy disruption from its hyperspace engines was left, a dim cloud which warped the starfield behind it. Guntherís mouth hung open in shock.
The militiaís wave of tacticals only intended to make one pass. It was all they needed.
Shots of energy surged forward, all focused on the small group of Terran ships. Grizzlyís bomber, flying directly in front of Gunther, took the first few hits well. A missile, energy round -- something hit it hard, directly in the port engine. It took a hard spin to starboard before exploding into a fiery mess.
The formationís forward velocity was too high to allow Gunther time to react, much less time for his ship to even physically turn to avoid the collision.
A shower of debris pelted his fighter, demolishing the shields, tearing away chunks of the hull, and ruining vital systems. Gunther felt the flight belts restrain him as he was pulled in every direction. An alarm indicating a failure of the gravitational dampeners sounded, signaling a sudden increase in turbulence. His head whipped hard into the cockpit glass, drawing blood.
He was spinning out of control now, with no sign of stopping. His ship retained its original trajectory, slightly deviated by Grizzlyís ship, flying through where the Everett had just jumped to hyperspace. A nauseating pattern emerged, showing Gunther the same series of images every several seconds. His view alternated between a starfield and a shrinking militia battleship, reeling around in a maddening spin. He caught a glimpse of a prominent star amongst the others. What star was it? He tried to concentrate, but no answer came.
The joystick was dead. No -- one directional thruster seemed to work. He pulled sharp in one direction, adding to the spin. Perfect timing and patience would slow the fighter down. Again, the bright star crossed his field of view. He tapped on the joystick as it crossed the center of his line of vision. Ever so slightly, he tamed the spinning beast.
On the thirtieth pass, the star crawled across the glass of the cockpit. One final tap and it slowed to a pace close to stillness.
Gunther reached down frantically to the side of the seat, pulling out a small paper bag. He cupped it over his mouth as his body sternly rejected his lunch. Sealing the top, he wedged it under his seat. Globules of blood floated in front of his face.
"Everett," he said, depressing the comm. "Everett, come in."
"Delta squadron, report."
The comm buzzed with a low static sound. Either it was broken or there was nobody around to answer.
His fighter still drifted sideways, or at least his sideways, at a fairly high speed, even though the nauseating rotation had stopped. He wondered what parts of the small craft were still intact.
None of the shipís systems seemed to react to anything he tried. The HUD refused to display, leaving him to work by starlight. Just barely, he thought, he could hear a low hissing sound. Passing his hands slowly around the walls and glass of the cockpit, he felt no odd currents or suction. Considering the damage his craft had taken, the cockpit glass remained in remarkable shape, with only a few small scratches. Somewhere, however, matter was escaping into space. He hoped it wasnít oxygen.
"Everett," he said, lazily depressing the comm switch. "This is Gunther. Come in."
He was still spinning, slowly but noticeably. His stomach contorted as he noticed the sensation. Ships like these only came with one bag, which he had already used. He spent half an hour, painstakingly tapping and twisting the joystick, making the smallest of corrections to finally right his craft. Finally, the starfield in front of him stood rigid. Surely, he was still moving laterally, but he couldnít feel it.
Resting his head, he thought of potential escapes from this situation. No amount of tinkering, he knew, would repair the ship. Or would it? If he could get on the outside, perhaps something could be arranged.
But then he would lose his air. His atmospheric unit only recycled air; it wouldnít create more if he opened the cockpit. Taking in a deep breath, he decided it was working fine. Exhaling, he noticed the air seemed warm. Body heat? Fuel leak? There were too many possibilities.
He pulled his helmet from a side compartment. Delta Squadron pilots generally considered it bad luck to wear the helmet in the cockpit. Rubbing his aching head, Gunther decided he could risk it.
Hours passed. The air thickened. He fell asleep gasping.