Current Track: Blabb

As the situation on Pike deteriorates, Kalija finds herself in actual danger for the first time and the Trailblazers get a taste of what they're really up against...

Things have to get worse before they get better — right? Kalija sees combat for the first time, figures out her relationship with her fellow soldiers, and gets a bit closer to civilian moreau Taru Ikaja, the chipper collie. Serious thanks to :iconSpudz: for editing this, especially after he made it clear that it was necessary to destroy the chapter in order to save it ... and then helped me do so!

Released under the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license. Share, modify, and redistribute -- as long as it's attributed and noncommercial, anything goes.

The Mighty Wind Arisesby Rob Baird — Ch. 3, "On golden chariots"


But terrible Orc, when he beheld the morning in the East,
Shot from the heights of Enitharmon,
And in the vineyard of red France appear'd the light of his fury,

The Sun glow'd fiery red!
The furious Terrors flew around
On golden chariots, raging with red wheels, dropping with blood!
The Lions lash their wrathful tails!
The Tigers couch upon the prey and suck the ruddy tide;
And Enitharmon groans and cries in anguish and dismay

Then Los arose: his head he rear'd, in snaky thunders clad;
And with a cry that shook all Nature to the utmost pole,
Call'd all his sons to the strife of blood.

– William Blake, “Europe a Prophecy"

Two weeks of sorties, and now it was always the same thing. Providing a sense of reassurance — allowing the separatists who swore allegiance to the independent government in Aurora to believe that they were being watched, and protected. Nobody had told them that the ROE remained the same: Kalija was not even allowed to turn her targeting scanners on until they'd been fired upon. So far, that hadn't happened.

It had become routine.

“Tracker One, this is Nazca, report status and fuel state."

The lead Intruder of the two-ship flight was being flown by Lieutenant Commander Jovanovic. “One-One, south of point Norfolk thirty k at two-zero, fuel state... one point six."

Kalija checked her own, quickly. “One-Two, fuel state is two dot five." She had more fuel than Zippo did; the lead ship had needed to do more maneuvering, checking out sensor ghosts detected by the convoy they were babysitting. Not that it mattered: the patrol was coming to an end, anyway, as dusk crept guiltily towards full, dark night.

“Tracker, Nazca. Stand by for new tasking."

Kalija perked her ears up, and glanced over at her bombardier. “Alamo?" 

“Hell if I know." Glenn sat forward, cycling quickly through his sensors. “Nothing on the net. Comms are quiet." 

“Just asked for a secure channel..." Kalija quirked an eyebrow, and authenticated into the low-bandwidth, highly encrypted link they'd never had to use before. “That's a weird sign..."

“Tracker, this is Commander Damon, on the Margay. We have a priority assignment and you're the closest available ships that can take it on." 

As maps began to filter onto her computer screen, and the mission data transferred over the Uniform Datalink, Damon did his best to explain briefly the context of the request. The city of Firo, near the far eastern coast, was under a total blockade by the Pike Territorial Guard on account of suspected sympathies to the Aurora movement. 

Damon confirmed that the second in command of the Aurora rebellion, Katie Peck, had indeed been visiting Firo in secret negotiations. Now the city — and its surrounding province — was ready to pledge allegiance to the separatist cause, if they could manage to lift the blockade.

Commander Damon seemed to think that this was a possibility, if an unproven one. In any case, the first step was getting Peck out of the city, which was surrounded by government checkpoints. “You'll need to find a path out of the city with no anti-air coverage, all the way west to point Silmaril. Tag everything you see. If it can't be jammed, find a way around it."

“And the ROE?"

“Hasn't changed. You cannot engage first. If you're fired on, contact us for explicit permission on a track-by-track basis. Otherwise, keep them quiet or distracted. Put on a show if you have to. We can't start a war on this." 

Are they serious? “A show?" she asked Alamo, quietly.

“Maybe you can tap-dance," he grunted.

Zippo would've been just as incredulous, surely, but was too professional to show it to Damon. She confined herself to the briefing, and in particular its tricky final step. The markpoint named 'Silmaril' lay in the foothills of the mountain range that divided the separatist highlands from the mostly loyal plains to the east. “What happens at Silmaril?" 

It was a good question; Kalija, too, wanted to know the answer. Every briefing in the last two weeks had stressed the existence of a sensor and anti-aircraft picket that Korablin had established, turning the foothills into a veritable fortress in an attempt to isolate Aurora and protect his own territory.

Damon's answer also hinted at why CODA was sending only a pair of Intruders, instead of bringing fresh starships down from orbit — they wanted to keep things quiet and low-key. “We've liaised with a group of partisans sympathetic to the Aurorist cause. They're going to knock out a section of the sensor picket, and if you guys can stay inconspicuous they shouldn't have anything up to replace it. In the confusion, Peck's ship will be able to slip through, and you'll be able to escape. It's a tight window — about forty kilometers and maybe five minutes until they can compensate."

“Copy that..." Zippo did not sound especially convinced.

“That makes time of the essence."

“Understood," Zippo said. “But we have a problem here, sir. I'm short fuel to get there and back to this inclination. We'll hit bingo at Firo."

“Wait out, Tracker One." The line went dead.

“Don't like the sound of this," Alamo muttered — so quietly it was almost to himself. 


He flipped his visor up; the dim cockpit lightning softened the lines on his face, but not by much. “Last-minute change? Can't make orbit? After an existing mission, when we're already tired?"

“If they need us..."

“What'd I say about caring when it ain't on you to care?" After a moment he sighed, sliding his visor into place and turning back to the computer to return to his work. “I shoulda learned a trade..."

“Tracker One-Two, Nazca. What about you? Can you make it from Firo to point Silmaril and back into orbit with delta-v to adjust your inclination for rendezvous?"

Now Kalija herself was concerned about the sound of this. But it wasn't like she could lie. “Nazca, affirmative. We can make that with a bit to spare, presuming no loitering."

“Why'd you go and say that?" Alamo asked over the intercom, with an ugly chuckle.

Commander Damon seemed to have made a quick decision. “Change of mission. Tracker flight, push Norfolk to the area exit, then head north to Firo. At that point, Tracker One-One, you'll return to orbit. Tracker One-Two, proceed with the rest of the mission. Our analysis says one Intruder should be able to handle the reconnaissance within acceptable risk tolerances."

“Uh. Roger, Nazca," Zippo said. Firo was three hundred kilometers away.

Hesitantly, Kalija banked the Intruder over and onto its new course. “This isn't by the books, is it Alamo?" the dog asked.

He turned, and stared at her from behind his helmet. Then he kept staring, wordlessly, for ten seconds, before silently going back to his computer.

“Yeah, fine. Twenty minutes to Firo. You at least going to tell me if you think Pinball was on board?" Grace Putnam, their commander, did not seem the sort to be given to rash decisions.

Barton declined to speculate, but in any case Pinball radioed them directly five minutes later. “Status, Elvis?" 

Commander Putnam was back on the Bellau Wood, in low orbit over Pike and galloping along at more than seven kilometers a second. From such a position, Putnam would have a very different perspective on 'status,' indeed — but Kalija was phlegmatic. “Systems are green. Fuel state's still two point five. Everything's good, ma'am." 

“You're okay with the mission?"

Does it matter one way or the other? the dog couldn't help thinking, knowing that of course it did not. Once again, she tried to be diplomatic. “The threat picture seems to be fairly minimal, from the download we were given."

“Look. I'm not all that happy with it, Elvis. But I wouldn't have let them do it if I didn't trust you two. Lieutenant Glenn is sharp and he has a lot of experience. And you may be new, but you'll do fine. Just stay alert."

“Understood, ma'am."

A hundred thousand people lived in Firo, which lay to one side of a broad river that snaked in a dark stain like spilled blood, glimmering with the reflection of faint stars. The only streetlights were also dim, and designed mostly for orientation; the town clearly wished to preserve its night sky.

If it was indeed under blockade, the effort seemed mostly focused on preventing anyone from escaping by land. “Quiet, Alamo?"

“Quiet," he confirmed. “Threat receiver's naked. EM picture is mixed; mostly light comms."

The quickest path between the town and the rendezvous point marked 'Silmaril' on her map entailed following the river. While Zippo still had fuel remaining, they flew one quick patrol up twenty kilometers of its winding track. Nothing.

But the river, being a major transit thoroughfare for Firo and the continent's inland, would not be entirely free of obstacles. Kalija and her bombardier had been going over the limited intelligence available to them: they knew of four government checkpoints along the river, at roughly fifty kilometer intervals.

“First one's going to be easy," Kalija reckoned aloud. “Hopefully we can take them by surprise."

“Ought to. They're not actively searching the sky right now. If we're real lucky..." Barton rolled his shoulders, thinking, and spent a bit going through his threat database. “If we're real lucky, they won't be talking to each other, either."

“Can we jam them?"

“Not by ourselves, no."

Great. The dog flexed her fingers, and took up the control stick again. Alamo slipped a bottle of pills from his jacket, and popped one into his mouth before tilting it in her direction. “No."

“You sure?"

“Can't," she said. “Dog thing." It wasn't, actually, a dog thing; her doctor had cleared her to take the stimulants, same as every other naval aviator. It was a point of pride, instead: pilots often felt that the primary effect of the medication was a false sense of confidence.

Bombardiers — more logical types, in other words — were not so encumbered. “Suit yourself."

“One, bingo." Zippo was at the limits of her fuel reserves if she intended to make orbit. Intruders could land on the surface, but unlike the lighter Kestrels they needed a sturdy runway with a surface willing to forgive the heat of her engines. Kestrels, Kalija recalled, could land anywhere — could even take off vertically, if they were loaded gently enough.

They could not, however, carry anywhere near the payload of her A-17E, nor do anywhere near so much damage with it. “Understood, One." She took a few deep breaths, and keyed her mic. “Firebird, this is Tracker One-Two. What's your status?"

“Hey, Tracker. We're ready for takeoff. Squawking two-zero-one-one."

“Got it, Elvis." Alamo tagged the civilian ship, which appeared as a pale blue marker in her helmet display. “It's an unimproved field, just outside the town center. Also, I'm not getting a UDL handshake, so we've got no datalink. Have to trust SADIE to keep an eye on him..." 

Things just kept getting better and better. She pulled around, and settled into a slow, shallow descent over the airstrip. 'Firebird' was a Convair Armstrong — a small suborbital airliner, in other words. Despite sharply raked wings and weighty engine nacelles she was slow, unmaneuverable... and, naturally, completely unarmed.

Kalija switched her lights on and began a slow circle. “Firebird, I'm lit up and circling above you at about six hundred meters. You see me?"

“Yeah. Uh. Got it. Visual, Tracker." His voice sounded nervous. Probably just some airline pilot, she realized. In over his head

Weren't they all, though? “Good. When you take off, turn left, heading three-zero-zero, and follow the course of the river up to the third bend. At DDB marker 'Connery'; it's a category two eff-ma beacon."

“Uh. They, ah... checking, but I think they shut that down a decade ago."

The EHF/MA directional beacon was still marked as active in her own charts. That didn't bode well for their intelligence, did it? “Is the tower still there?"

“Er. Yeah."

“Then we can use it for a visual reference."

“What about radar?"

“No radar. You need to shut down all your electronics, and your running lights. One comm channel only, and don't break radio silence unless it's an emergency. Don't emit any radiation, and don't go above two hundred meters."

Firebird's pilot was not enthusiastic about the prospect, and her explanation of its necessity proved to be trying. The sortie was only her eighth “combat" mission, if she counted the patrols. Now she had to pretend to be the voice of authority, because the civilian sounded absolutely petrified.

“It's going to be easy," she finally said, hoping her voice came off as reassuring. Humans were difficult to understand — she assumed she also missed no small amount of nuance in her communication with them. “We'll take it slow."

“Ah. Ah... roger."

At least he'd taken that last command to heart, because the Armstrong lifted off with absolutely glacial reluctance. “How clean are they?" she asked over the intercom.

“Pretty clean. Passenger ships ain't loud."

“How are we looking?"

“Naked," he answered. The threat picture was clean — for now. Kalija put the Intruder on course, leading her vulnerable friend by few kilometers. Close enough that she could keep an eye on them, making sure they didn't drop too low or too high.

Together they crossed the first picket that ringed the city with no fanfare: two dark shadows, gliding below the sound barrier and with hushed engines over the still river. The Territorial Guard would, in any case, have seen the two A-17Es of Tracker flight heading into Firo; she hoped any sleepy night watch would assume the passing aircraft were simply the same Intruders, departing.

“First checkpoint coming up. Thirty seconds." Kalija kept her voice hushed, focused on searching the river valley. “Visual on the tower."

“Same. I've got some thermal signatures. Can't quite resolve them."

Kalija thought she could, if she squinted. “They're under camo nets."

“Good sign." 

“Oh, yeah." Whoever they were, though, they weren't doing anything. “Firebird, Tracker. We're turning left now. Follow the left fork of the river for seven-zero kilometers to where it makes a sharp northern turn."

“Firebird, copy."

According to their intelligence officer, the Aurorist rebels controlled most of the highlands in the north of the continent; Korablin's government in New Sydney held all of the south and an enveloping ring along the coast. Firo in the east, separated by mountains from Aurora, was an exception. If the city and its surrounding province joined the rebellion, it would both give them a deepwater port suitable for landing large starships and isolate the loyalists of the far northeastern cape.

Thus the blockade. Between Firo and the mountains lay the front lines of an undeclared war: numerous full divisions of the Territorial Guard, and their Sanganese advisors. And all their fucking radars, Kalija swore internally. 

She'd planned the most cautious, careful course with the information they had. Seventy kilometers upriver, they'd change course again, to the sloping plains for a dash over farmland that she hoped was unguarded.

Then the foothills. The blind spot between two major Guard outposts was protected only by a small checkpoint, near the mouth of a steep valley. Another watched over the valley's western heights. One final mountaintop fortress — then a mad sprint to the marked point Silmaril, where she had to pray that the promised 'partisans' would do their job.

Four checkpoints in total, and they'd passed one without incident. So far, so good

Firebird's pilot sounded no less nervous at the next checkin. Alamo was sympathetic: “poor guy..."

“It's a different life," she agreed. They had a few minutes' peace before hitting the valley — enough time to reflect. “Bet he's used to flying the same routes all the time. Daylight, full sensors and computer control; high altitude..."

“Nobody trying to kill him."


“Sounds kinda nice."

“When we're old and grey, Alamo."

At least it got a chuckle. “Aren't you kinda grey already? Your paws are white..."

“But not old."

“How old are you?"

“Eleven." Kalija's kind matured quickly; she'd joined up right out of primary school in the Dawa Free Colony, at the age of seven.

“Huh." A beat. “What's that in dog years?"

Kalija rolled her eyes. “Eleven," she repeated. “Two ones."

“Two ones?" 

“These," she clarified to him, and when he looked over she flipped him off with both paws.

But he'd seen her grinning, and his laugh warmed up, too. “You know, I kinda like you. Ain't bad, for a lefty."

“Suppose I've had worse bombardiers." She was willing to grant it for pragmatism's sake — Barton well knew that all her previous bombardiers would've been simulated. “You never did tell me where your name came from. For real, I mean."

“Later." He lifted his hand, and pointed ahead of them, into the darkness.

The slope was fairly gentle, to the start of the hills — one kilometer rise over thirty of open plains. Shallow enough that she didn't bother to touch the throttle. “Think I have a visual on the checkpoint," she told him. Nobody expected traffic through the valley: the checkpoint, which was little more than a barricade and a half-dozen trucks, guarded a smooth cement highway that linked the foothill towns together. It was nearly two kilometers from the valley's opening, and upslope.

“That's the one," Alamo confirmed. “Sleeping."

“Cross your fingers," she muttered. The A-17E crossed the highway at barely a hundred meters up, doing five hundred kilometers an hour. Three seconds later, Firebird followed. Kalija held her breath.

“Mud, left seven," her bombardier growled. “IRON PENNY just went active."

Kalija growled, too, and put some feeling into it. “Fuck." Mostly, she swore in dogspeak. Occasionally, though, it was nice to talk in a way that Alamo understood.

“Naked." The hills shielded both aircraft from any further tracking — but it was too late. The Guard knew they were out there, and if Korablin's men had any sense at all they'd know which way they were going.

Forty kilometers of valley lay ahead, and they'd need to slow down because the airliner's pilot was in unfamiliar territory, flying without assistance in the dead of night. “In five minutes..." 

“Call it ten."

“Ten," she agreed. “In ten minutes, how ready do you think those guys can be?"

Alamo didn't answer immediately. Even with his visor down, she could tell by the hunch of his shoulders that he was deep in thought. “Ready. They probably don't know what we are..."

“And we're downhill from them..."

“Right." The two ships would be hard to detect in the background noise, with the steep, rocky valley below and to either side. “They won't pick us up until we're on top of them."


The man's fingers drummed heavily over the edge of his computer. “Maybe. Music on, full power to the jammers... wait out, Elvis." He settled in to run some quick simulations while Kalija looked over a topographic map and considered a possible exit strategy.

On a whim, she checked the orbital map too, to see where the task force was. “Can't help but notice that the Margay is over the horizon."


“So if we need to ask somebody for permission to shoot — on a 'track by track' basis, and all that..."

Barton's laugh, guttural and sharp, sounded unintentionally like a passable impression of a canine bark. “Right. Clever of 'em."

“We'll think of something."

“Sure thing, lefty."

It wouldn't be easy, but finally they settled on a plan. “Firebird, listen up..."

He listened, although it seemed to Kalija that he did so only with increasing apprehension.

Not that the plan didn't deserve it. She would let the airliner take the lead, and settle her Intruder immediately below the Armstrong's starboard wing. With luck, at only a few tens of meters separation, the Territorial Guard wouldn't be able to separate out the contacts — particularly with Alamo jamming them.

As soon as they'd passed the checkpoint and could drop to low altitude on the downslope to its west, Firebird would go to full power for a desperate sprint around the mountaintop fortress that was their last hurdle to clear. Those men would be on full alert... 

But Kalija saw no other choice. Detouring south or north exposed them to even more Guard outposts, with less friendly terrain to hide in. The longer they waited, too, the likelihood grew that some base commander would scramble a few of the Guard's fighters to investigate. That was guaranteed to be game over for everyone.

“Two minutes," she warned Alamo.

“Standing by..."

The dog backed off her throttles and gave up altitude until the sleek Convair airliner had passed them by. It looked almost like a classic rocketship, a throwback of sorts. Its sharp, tapered nose swelled through a curving fuselage to delta wings that promised speed the Armstrong patently could not deliver.

But at least the aesthetic was nice. She was close enough to see inside, had the windows not been closed. It must've been even more nerve-racking for the passengers than the pilot: they knew of the danger, surely, but there was nothing they could even possibly do to avoid it.

“Sixty seconds."

“Mud. Twelve and level. IRON PENNY. Wait. Two IRON PENNY radars, in search mode. Tagging, Delta Alpha one-four and one-five."

Thirty seconds.

“Mud spike. Twelve low. IRON PENNY. DA fourteen's going for a lock."

Fifteen. Ten. “Music." 

Alamo kept his eyes on the readouts while he reached out and flipped the power switches for their jamming pods. “Music on. Full program. DA fourteen broke lock."

Together, the two ships raced directly over the checkpoint — a strange, lightless silhouette against cold stars. They had only a few seconds until the Guard began to compensate for their jamming — tiny window of opportunity.

“Mud, six. Another IRON PENNY. Elvis..."

The terrain started to drop away again from the valley rim. The dog kicked in a burst of reverse thrust to clear the airliner, and pulled back on the stick so he had plenty of room. “Firebird, punch it!" To his credit the response was almost instantaneous: the Armstrong's nose dipped, and with its fusion rockets starting to glow it raced for the shelter of the valley floor.

“Mud spike, six." The radars were locking on again. They were out of time.

Kalija followed the airliner down, until the checkpoint could no longer see them. “Music."

“Music off. Naked," Alamo sighed. “But they'll have us profiled up ahead."

“I know." 

“Good god," Firebird shouted breathlessly. “That worked. Tracker, that worked!"

“Not out of the woods yet."

He was still high on the exhilaration of the maneuver — presumably because he didn't know what they still faced. “Y-yeah — but! Oh, you wonderful — you wonderful CODA guys, we — man — that was..."

“Radio silence," she reminded him. His excitement was extremely unnerving.

The last fortress was two thousand meters higher still, cresting a peak that surveyed much of the foothills. It was mostly artillery batteries and listening posts, but Fleet Intelligence predicted a full air defense brigade had been tasked to its protection.

“And we can't jam them." She didn't phrase it as a question, although she still harbored some hope that Alamo might've come up with some way to do so.

“Not a chance."

“Threat picture?"

“Type 44s and Type 93s. Fixed SM-9 and SM-14 batteries. Plus whatever the locals have, right?"

“Well. They said that before Korablin came to power they didn't really have a Guard. No beams or anything like that?"

“Ain't like I can be sure, Elvis."

The way she saw it, they still had at least two things going for them. One was that, in both her and Alamo's opinions, the odds were good that they didn't yet know there were two aircraft instead of just the Intruder. The other was that the air defense network had not been properly designed. There were no visual or infra-red homing missiles; no cannons or point-defense lasers to worry about. For intercepting civilian traffic, it was fine — but, she hoped, it would make it easier for a dedicated attack aircraft to overcome.

“I'm going to tell Firebird to hook to the east," she decided, reviewing the plan for Alamo's benefit. “They'll stay below the horizon until they have basically clear line of sight to Silmaril, and then keep the throttle on."

For her benefit, Alamo added a new layer of colors to the map in her display. “This is radar visibility from that outpost. Even from the east, the Guard'll have plenty of time to get a solution locked in."

“I know," she said. “But they'll be distracted."



“'Puttin' on a show,' Elvis?"

She didn't take the bait. “We'll come in from the west, strobe them... buy Firebird time to get to Silmaril, and then run like hell south where they can't see us. Think that'll work?" 

“Might could try it..."

“Better idea?" 


Firebird liked it because it was simple, and just to make certain she had everything set up properly she checked in with their contact in the partisan saboteurs. 'Wrench,' according to their callsign, spoke with a computer-synthesized voice whose androgynous modulation changed randomly every few syllables. It was painful to try and understand — but they, too, were in position.

The Armstrong banked off to their right, and disappeared. Kalija turned her Intruder left, and added in a burst of throttle so they could get into place with plenty of time to spare. The radar horizon drew ever-nearer. “Standby music."

“Standing by..."

There! She caught sight of the tall radio masts and antennas before anything else. Flashing anticollision lights helped: unlike the attack plane, the soldiers at the outpost had no reason to hide. “Popping up in five. Four. Three. Two. Music."

“Music on," Alamo answered, as the dog tossed their A-17E into an arcing climb that revealed the full extent of the mountain fortress. It was already lit up, and on full alert, waiting for them. “Mud, twelve. IRON ARC. Mixed-mode search radar," he added, in case she hadn't known.

“You're jamming them?"

“Ah, they're already burnin' through it." She had to smirk at his laconic, fatalistic reassurance. “Mud, right one. IRON PENNY radars. Multiple contacts; I can't sort 'em, Elvis."

“It's okay..." In another minute, Firebird would be forced to rise into view; from that point, Kalija calculated another two minutes would be needed until the airliner could extend enough to be considered 'safe.' Three minutes. That's not so long...

“Mud spike, right two. IRON PENNY in acquisition mode."

Her threat receiver was no longer even readable. It seemed that everyone from the base commander down to the janitors had grabbed a launcher and was watching them. But that implied that they had the base's undivided attention. She crossed over it and turned south, putting herself between the outpost and the Armstrong just as the civilian airliner lifted over the horizon.

As she'd hoped, it was good enough to buy them a few more seconds of distraction, with the new signal lost in the confusion as everyone continued tracking the A-17E. “Doesn't seem to be anything on Firebird yet," Alamo confirmed. “But I've got at least twenty discrete contacts."

So what? Now the clock was ticking down. The projection in her helmet showed a timer that monitored how long they had until Firebird was in range of the last picket and Wrench could do their job. It stood at only a hundred and thirty seconds. “Just tracking?"

“We're locked by four of them. I think."

“Well. Their ROE has to be pretty restrictive..." Humans had a term for what Kalija was doing — 'whistling past the graveyard.' “Shouldn't do anything too —"

“SAM launch! Right two!"


“Notch left, one-six-zero!" She jerked the A-17E over quickly, putting the missile directly on their beam so that it was harder for the missile's guidance radar to detect them. She could see it, though — rocket motor burning brightly, climbing to meet them and still on track.

Just like in the sims, Kara, she told herself. Counted down two seconds more, and snapped over in a break turn towards the missile. It overshot, and ran out of fuel immediately afterwards before it could even bother to correct its course.

“Trashed. Spike, right four."

Hundred seconds. “Music?"

“Useless. Spike, right three. IRON — SAM launch! Shit — two. Three."

Ninety seconds. Kalija pushed the Intruder into a dive, and the missiles went wild. The operators were novices, clearly. That, or they hadn't expected to shoot down anything more troublesome than an airliner. Below the horizon, things were quiet — but they couldn't stay, lest the base turn its attention to Firebird.

As soon as she pulled up her threat receiver yelped into startled life. “SAM launch. SAM launch. SAM —"

“Just tell me how many," she demanded, swerving to grab a brief few seconds of cover behind a rocky outcropping. Seventy seconds. Still no sign that they had even noticed the lumbering Armstrong.

“Seven. Eight."

“Notching right. Can you burn them?"

“Hold still?"

“Fuck you." But the dog gritted her teeth and steadied her course so Alamo could aim the anti-missile laser on their starboard wingtip. With any luck...

“Trashed four. Five. Three left. Break right."

The turn took her straight over the base — she had a brief glimpse of her threat receiver as an angry ring that completely surrounded their hapless Intruder. Sixty seconds remained until Firebird could get to safety. “They need to move faster."

“So do we. SAM launch, left seven. No. Wait, it's unguided."

True to form, they were using the underperforming Type 44s simply to harass the plane — flinging missiles at it aimlessly, like so many spitballs. “Think they're wondering why we're not shooting back?"


The countdown timer hit forty-five seconds, and started to flash. “Because I do. This is..." She swerved sharply, and for a half-second the alarms dimmed. “Not good for our health..."



“Little less conversation." Alamo tapped angrily at the jamming console, and then gave up. “Music off. It's just distracting me. Mud spike, left ten. Hold on. I think they noticed Firebird."

“Thirty seconds?"

“Less than." But it would only take one good shot. “SAM launch. Left nine. Two. Five. Six. All of them on us. For now. Elvis, notch right. One niner five."

Kalija obeyed, but only with an irritated grunt. “Want to shoot back, Alamo," she complained, diving for the deck again to lose the radar track in the clutter of the mountainside.

“Too bad. Altitude."

The alarm in her helmet was saying the same thing. Too low — below thirty meters over the slope, with the treeline just ahead. One of the finest warplanes ever built, and here she was fleeing like a startled rabbit. “Alamo?"

Altitude," he warned again. “What?"

“They have no IR trackers, do they?"


She growled, and pulled back as hard as she could on the stick — hard enough that the airframe creaked with the strain of it, and her g-meter chattered in panicked concern. “Then fuck. This." Goddamned ROE. The A-17E rose in a steep loop until they were inverted — ahead of them and well below, the base sparkled; men and equipment moved like so many toys.

“What are you doing?"

“Putting on a goddamned show." She reached out, and switched both engines into 'orbital' mode. Now, when she slid the throttles forward, more than five meganewtons of fusion-powered thrust answered the call. She was neither angry nor reckless enough to push them to the stops, but even still the acceleration was terrifying. She pointed them towards the valley floor.

Alamo was unfazed. “Mud spike, twelve and level. Watch your altitude..."

At the last moment she pulled up. Picking up speed — faster and faster, climbing for the mountaintop. None of it was conscious, for her — just a hunter's instinct, anticipating every gentle nudge of the controls a fraction of a second before she made them. 

They crossed over the outpost with thirty meters of clearance, traveling at three times the speed of sound. A shockwave followed close behind, wrung from the air trying desperately to get out of the way. Deafening — and, though not enough to cause injury, it was more than enough to upset the calibration of sensitive electronics. 

In the corner of her vision, the timer ticked down to zero, and halted. “Wrench, this is Tracker. Ready?"


“Do it."

Half of the signals on her threat receiver had winked out in the shock of the Intruder's passing. A moment later, the rest of them vanished. “Alamo?" 

“Naked," her bombardier confirmed — sounding rather surprised at the sudden turn of events. “I've got no signals anywhere on the scope. Whatever those guys did, they shut the picket down hard."

“Good for them," the dog muttered. “Firebird, you're clear to push Silmaril. Good luck."

“Thanks. Tracker — hey. Whoever you are... we owe you, ma'am."

It was an unusual and not entirely comfortable position for the dog to be in — although, climbing back from the planet's surface towards the waiting task force, she had to admit that it had been kind of fun.

“Because you're crazy," her bombardier offered.

“Different from any other pilot?"

He lifted his visor, like the computer-augmented vision obscured his ability to observe her. His eyes narrowed, searching: the same intensity, she had no doubt, that he directed at their targets. “Sharper teeth," he said, finally.

When they trapped, she sat through a perfunctory debrief from Jovanovic and made her way to her stateroom while Alamo went to find something to eat. She wasn't hungry — was still meditating on the mission, which left no other room in her thoughts.

The mutt did love to fly, more than anything — more than music; more than good food. More than sex, in her admittedly limited experience. Those were the opiates of the commoner, not living superheroes like the men and women of the Fleet Air Arm. 

She did not ever wish that she had been born a human being; occasionally, she considered what it might have been like to be born as an Intruder.

All the same, it was refreshing indeed to strip out of her flight suit. The clinging nanofibers peeled away smoothly, and she emerged as if from a cocoon. She was still naked, flat on her back, when Alamo finally returned. Twisting onto her side, she gave him a light wave, and then settled onto her back again where she was most comfortable. “How was dinner? What was dinner?"

“Steak. Melt-in-your-mouth sirloin." He landed in his chair with a pronounced thud. “Literally. Dissolved."

“Is it supposed to do that?"

“Well, it's reconstituted slurry."

The dog made a face, although Alamo couldn't see it from his position. “Ugh," she added for his benefit. “Maybe it was a cow once."

“Maybe. You gonna eat?" 


“You gonna shower?"

The showers seemed a very, very long way away. “No."

“Get dressed?"

“Probably not."

“Where's your sense of modesty?"

She rolled over to the edge of the bunk, looking thoughtfully towards the floor and betraying a complete lack of concern. None of the pilots felt any such shame over their bodies, and in any case Kalija's was nondescript. The dog thought of herself as clearly feminine — and to another nakath, everything from her scent to her gait to the graceful lightness of her frame made things obvious.

To a human, the only clues were her voice and a thick mane of hair. The mutt's body was lean and without curves to speak of, she stuck to a unisex jumpsuit for clothing, and even naked her coarse black and tan pelt hid everything from view. Not that she had ever really had cause to desire hiding it, and not that her bombardier would've had any interest.

That seemed a safe assumption, at least. “I'm pretty comfortable here."

Barton harrumphed. “Comfortable. On those bunks..."

“How was the mission?" she asked him — abruptly; she knew it was abrupt. “We did okay?"

“Made it back."


“OK two."

Kalija smiled — it had been a fairly nice way to end things. “Yeah. But the mission? Kinda hairy."

“You'd know."

She rolled her eyes, and didn't reply to the teasing. “But what about us? We're getting on?"

It was important — perhaps the most important challenge she faced. The relationship between a pilot and her bombardier was far more intimate than marriage; nearly as intimate as the relationship between a pilot and her craft.

She respected Barton Glenn, whose dry sense of humor and taciturn bearing masked what appeared to be an expert's grasp of the A-17E and her capabilities. If he trusted her as she trusted him, then everything was fine; if he did not, the dog knew, it was her responsibility to find out why — and to fix it.

“Gettin' on," he said.

“You'd fly with me on purpose?"

He pursed his lips, and his eyes flicked upwards, first to the left and then to the right. “Hmm." He took a few deep breaths. “Hmm, hmm, hmm." A lengthy sigh ended thirty full seconds of silence, before he spoke again: “Hey, so, this Sonoran freighter guy goes into bar. And the bartender says: 'what are you having?' And the guy goes: 'same thing I tell my' —"



Kalija narrowed her eyes. “I asked you a question." 

“'Course I'd fly with you. Jesus. I do, don't I?"

The mutt grinned. “On purpose?"

“Well I — what was that? Was that — is your tail hitting the bed? Are you wagging your tail, Elvis?"

“Maybe." 'Yes,' was the answer: she was, and couldn't help it.

“See, I try to be honest and then you gotta go make things awkward. Dumb question like that — hmph. Me, I had some important questions."

“You have important questions?"

“Got watch in four hours. Trying to decide if I want to get a couple hours of sleep or if I want to play a holo."

“Which one?"

He shrugged, and spun his chair lazily to look at the holographic screen. “Maybe Over the Mountains of the Moon — won at Cannes last year in the special category. It's a holo, but the projector angles are all fixed like in old 2D stuff. It's the newest LJ Riggs — Claude what's-his-name's in it, too. Heard good things. Anyway, that or Prison Sluts 15." 

Her ear lifted slightly, while she considered the circumstances in which the two might have found themselves in the same conversation. “Were those part of some kind of... package deal?"

“Well, Over the Mountains of the Moon is about the UMM strikes back in the '20s. You know, the sacrifices the miners had to make before Rodriguez caved, and the way UMM treated their families? And Prison Sluts 15: That Hole's for my Parole! kind of touches on the same themes, I feel."

“I see."

“But reckon, like, if I do that... an' you're still up there naked and your tail's still wagging, might could take that awkward-like."

Kalija nodded slowly. “So the long and short of it is that you don't have any problems with my piloting, but also, you want to slot some masturbation into your busy schedule."

“Pretty much."

“And that would be awkward. You don't get off on being watched."


“But I'm an okay pilot."


She nodded again. “You know, I think I might get some dinner, and then go study in the library for a bit? If I don't see you before your watch..."

“Thanks, Elvis."

It was nice to know where she stood with him. 

The next few sorties went back to the same ordinary routine, during which she made a point of trying to adapt to the bombardier's own habits. They were, it seemed, to become a team; that was fine by her way of thinking.

In some ways, there could be no better alternative. He was remarkably indifferent to her species, for one. This made it easier for her to be comfortable around him — comfortable enough to wag her tail more often, or to spend less effort policing her tendency to pant in the hot cockpit when they flew in broad daylight.

And she didn't mind him bothering her when she was at work in the budgetary office; he was one of the only people whose presence could be called a welcome distraction. A week after rescuing Firebird, she was reviewing the squadron's numbers when he poked his head in. “Hey, Elvis."

She glanced up at him without moving her head from the computer. “Yeah?"

“How's it going?"

Kalija swept one of the spreadsheets aside with her paw, and called up another one for a quick comparison. “I think I'm the most powerful person on the ship. Do you know that?"

“That seems..." He was looking for the right word. “Implausible?"

“Nobody has ever looked at these. I'm serious." She spun the document around so he could examine it, although he displayed no actual interest in doing so. “The Bellau Wood adds about five thousand separate line items a day. Everything gets tracked."


So," she said, watching from the corner of her eye as he walked over to the refrigerator to fetch a can of Salta. “Last week we bought another case of coolant canisters for the sensor pods. Right? Fetch me one, by the way. Please?"

He tossed the can over, and got a second one out for himself. “So what?"

“Well, Fleet approved that. They automatically approve everything under a hundred. But if you look in the records, we already ordered a case three months ago and never took delivery of it. It's down in the hold. So we can return the new one. Or barter the old one."


Finally, she leaned back from the desk. “You know we've been wanting to get Five-Oh-Seven upgraded with the Block Eight sensors but the maintenance crews haven't had time? Well. One of the Kestrel jockeys had a bay reserved but they weren't using it. Talked to the squadron commander, who was looking for somebody who could spare some targeting drones — which we don't use, but one of the Undertakers had two extra. And I happened to learn that they were waiting on a shipment of some sensor coolant — imagine that." 

Barton's eyebrows lifted. “Imagine that, indeed."

“Upgrade should be done tomorrow." VA-226 had only recently gotten the money for the upgrades; the other Intruder squadron, VA-171, was very nearly finished converting their own planes. Kalija recalled Barton chiding her over the assumption that 510 would have the latest equipment, on their first hop together.

That was all in the past. “You know," her bombardier mused. “Might could say it sounds like you're enjoying this."

“I wouldn't go that far. I just enjoy being thorough. Did you come down here to tell me we were flying?"

“I wish. You can't make that happen?" 

“That's not within my power, no." The dog grinned, and opened the can of Salta to take a rather deserved drink. “Yet."

“Get on it. Twice a week ain't enough. But maybe we'll get lucky anyway..."

She didn't like the way he'd said it, nor the teeth that filled the human's grin. “What's going on?"

“Piss-off called a meeting. All-hands with the squadron at 1500. And they're prepping for flight ops. Think this ought to be fun..."

He didn't mean 'fun' in the conventional sense any more than he'd meant 'lucky' in the conventional sense. By the time they were gathered in the squadron ready room, two hours later, the rumor mill had already filled in most of the details.

They stood, anyway, when someone called the deck to attention and Dr. Müller entered, looking rather more weary than the last time Kalija had seen him. “At ease, guys. I don't expect I'm going to be surprising you, by this point. Governor Korablin has declared the northern provinces to be in open rebellion. That means shooting is liable to break out at any minute. The Aurora government is calling together their militia, although they're scattered and undersupplied. Any questions?"

The statement had been so simple that it took them by surprise; it took a few seconds for the room to erupt. Woody raised his hand: “So, if the government in New Sydney thinks that they're rebels, and we're protecting them… what does that mean about our government's official position?"

“It's complicated." Müller shuffled his feet, and fidgeted with the computer on which he kept his notes. “If we pick a side, it might put us on a collision course with the Sanganese. For the moment, the Kingdom is remaining neutral. At the same time, as I said, the rebel militia is not a very effective fighting force. Policemen, security guards; private citizens with a patriotic death-wish. They don't amount to all that much. So clearly, if we want to protect our allies, we may be forced to take a more… active role."

A lot could be read into the phrase 'active role.' “What does that mean for the RRTF?" Red asked. “Are we being recalled? Is our mission changing?"

“Not unless Congress votes for a change in posture, as well. At that point, the mission will need to be reanalyzed by CODA's board."

Commander Putnam stepped forward. “If I may add, Dr. Müller? Officially, our mission hasn't changed — we're just here to keep the peace. But we can expect an amendment to the ROE — which is what I assume you were asking."

“We'll finally be able to shoot the bastards?" Laughter — none of them would've admitted that it was ever so slightly nervous, but all could tell from the way it faded so quickly.

Their commander erred on the side of diplomacy: “Officially, we don't want to escalate things if we don't have to. The Alliance is still committed to a political solution."

“Governor Korablin has called up the entirety of the Territorial Reserve and added to the Guard's existing strength," Müller pointed out, which served to undermine the idea of any political answers to the planet's crisis. “Fleet Intelligence will schedule a more thorough brief before the next sortie, but suffice it to say we expect a more high-threat environment. Particularly given their recent strengthening of ties with certain... other parties."

“Meaning?" Barton didn't stand up to ask the question, and his tone carried the man's typical bluntness.

“The Department of Political and Strategic Affairs is not yet committing to an official position on Governor Korablin's external relationships," Müller said. Kalija heard a warning grumble building in the room, and presently he gave a curt sigh. “But they may be exploring a strategic alliance with the Kingdom. That would explain the number of Sanganese advisors present on the southern coast, and the shipments orbital intelligence has been tracking."

“New equipment," Putnam clarified, in case any of them might've assumed it was something mundane or innocent. “Supplementing those Type 44s we've all been getting so familiar with. As I said, we'll draw up a new ROE and a new ingress-egress protocol. Before your next sortie. Remember what close air support means, guys. The precise application of overwhelming force."

Kalija made a clear point of remembering it, indeed, when the two of them were sitting in the cockpit early the next day. The marines had been deployed, and VA-226 was providing cover over what was supposed to be extremely straightforward. Another evacuation, although in this case they were protecting other soldiers. More than a thousand men and women of the Aurorist militia were attempting to escape impending encirclement — outnumbered and outgunned by the Territorial Guard opposing them.

It was to CODA's benefit that they be kept in the fight, if fighting occurred. The Colonial Defense Authority lacked both the resources and the desire for a drawn-out campaign. Native troops had the advantage of knowing the terrain, and of being dedicated to a cause for more than purely mercenary reasons. Also — Kalija knew this, though nobody had been so blunt — if the rebels bore the brunt of the fighting it reinforced the narrative that the task force was only lending a bit of aid.

Such was the mission, in brief: protecting two lighters that had been hired to carry the soldiers to safety. Accomplishing this had fallen to the marines, who were agile enough to carry it out swiftly. The other option, sending in the heavy equipment of an armored division, was unacceptably time-consuming. Too much careful planning was involved: the assault walkers needed to be loaded into dedicated landing ships, whose vulnerability to ground fire meant calling in pathfinders to prepare and secure a landing zone.

By contrast, CODA's elite espatier could be anywhere on a planet's surface in under two hours whether the area was prepared or not. Light and mobile, wearing only their powered armor, they relied on dropships to reach the surface — plunging straight down through the atmosphere, ignoring concerns of friction or good sense. When the mission was over, no more than a few orbits later, they could just board the Strixes for the return journey. 

The deployment tactic was one that Alamo had never come around to, Kalija recalled; he reminded her again that he'd ridden in a CLS-37 Strix once. “And they're crazy, of course. Steady one-gee all the way to the surface; then they flip around and brake to just toss those poor bastards out..."

They did it because it was effective — it minimized the amount of time that anyone could be targeting the dropships, and it put the marines right in the mission area and ready to fight, skipping the formality of enemy lines. “Sounds fun. I've never done it."

“Yeah, count yourself lucky."

“Falling-star lucky, right? Don't humans wish on those?"

“Sure. Of course, re-entry don't work out well for meteors either, does it?" He held up his computer, so she could review the checklist. “I'm good here."

Kalija toyed with the controls experimentally. “Same. Launch control, Wagon Five-One-Oh, launch check complete."

“Five-One-Oh, control. Go for start sequence. You're second for launch. Set signal kilo on your final integrity check and wait for direction."

It was easy not to think too hard about the mission itself if she focused on the checklists, instead. Everything worked; every system brought online was one more step to that final, ominous destination. But if she took it that way — without thinking more than a minute ahead — there was no chance to back out before she found herself giving the final signal.

“Wagon Five-One-Oh, you're clear. Check ACS." 

One final time she moved every control to its limits. 

Outside, the white-jacketed crewman overseeing their launch held up his computer: green. His voice filtered into her helmet: “Good. Go for throttle up."

Kalija pushed the throttles to the stops, feeling the familiar lurch of the bound Intruder beneath her. When the power output stabilized, she raised her paw in salute to the inspector, who nodded and stepped away. Ten seconds now. Five. Four.

Barton Glenn counted it out loud. “Three. Two. One."

And like that they were away; a solid kick flung them into deep space, and as she had dozens of times before Kalija operated on pure rote instinct. Pulled the throttle into reverse thrust to ease off the energy of the launch, and looked around for Bucky.

“Left thirty, up ten," her bombardier told her. “Forty klicks, our delta-v minus point two and decreasing."

She took two quick, deep breaths and then banked to form up on him. “Sooner One, Sooner Four. Clear." 

“Copy. Form up and let's do this."

As they began their inexorable descent, she returned again to the mission threat cards. She herself was programmed, of course, just like a computer. If they were fired on, the dog trusted that she would react on instinct and reflex.

But it was unnerving to head for the planet expecting to encounter them. “You really think it'd be worse to be a marine?"

“Just hate Strixes," Alamo said. “Whole thing's perverse."

The Landing Carrier Ship Reuben James had broken from the task force, slowing, sinking with the Intruders towards Pike's surface. The LCS was still ahead of them by several hundred kilometers. Strix dropships angled more or less straight down, rather than the ballistic reentry of a starfighter like the A-17E. 

It was brutal — 'perverse,' even — but magnificent to watch. Reuben James' two massive engines were on swiveling pods, like those on the Saint Elias. These, though, were far more powerful: a wide-eyed sailor had once told Kalija that a carrier ship wasn't allowed to burn the engines below two hundred kilometers lest they set fire to the atmosphere itself. If they dipped too low, he'd confided, the ship was legally obliged to simply crash.

This was probably an urban legend. But when both engines fired, it was with a white-hot jet that stretched for a thousand kilometers and overwhelmed the compensators in her visor. 

Even the laconic Barton was impressed. “Sweet Jesus, will you look at that..."

“I can't." Alamo was examining it through his sensor pod, which was not an option for the dog. “Talk to me?"

“Burn's done. They'll kick the dropships out at about three hundred."

The engine pods rotated back into place, as if nothing had happened — as if four hundred giganewtons of raw thrust had not simply been employed at some captain's whim. “They must like it, you know? They keep doing it."

“They're crazy," Alamo suggested once again. “You have to be crazy to do that."

“Crazier than us?"

Probably. The CLS-37 dropship was a fairly unassuming, squat thing — a fat egg with stubby wings that looked to have been added on as an afterthought. The Reuben James kicked them away unceremoniously, and immediately the dropships' thrusters fired, shoving them at a steady one gee towards the planet's surface no matter who cared or objected.

The atmosphere, for instance, had plenty of objections. Thirty seconds after launch friction began to make itself known — well behind them in orbit, Kalija had a perfect view of the dropships as they took on the blazing, terrifying appearance of falling angels. For the marines, survival depended on being able to land quickly, not subtly.

It meant that they beat the Intruders to the surface. By the time Kalija and Barton had cleared the atmosphere and brought their systems back online, the local commander was announcing that the mission was already underway. The two marine units — callsigns 'Arrow' and 'Batman,' for reasons of Terran historical significance that were lost on the dog — had wasted no time.

“Orion to all units. We have confirmation that we have both companies on the ground. You're clear to proceed as briefed. Out."

“Sooner One, pushing Rainier. Fence check." The westernmost waypoint of the squadron's missions, where they began to head towards hostile territory, was always named after a mountain on the planet CODA loved so much — Rainier, in this case, up by the corporate campuses in Old Seattle.

Kalija checked her switches; glanced over at Alamo, who nodded curtly. “Four, fence in," she called over the radio, and turned their Intruder to follow the lead ship. “Alamo, anything I should be worried about?"

“Blood pressure. Other than that, we look good for now. I've got no indications of hostile activity." 

It held all the way to their station at anchor point Decatur. Bucky paired the Intruders into three groups, stacked with three kilometers of vertical separation. Zippo and Elvis took the middle group, five kilometers up; Bucky and his wingman, Woody Price, stayed higher still with a commanding view of the continent. Fifteen minutes became half an hour, and still there was nothing on their displays but the marines and the C3 Strix circling slowly over the Indigo Hills.

But they still had three full orbits left for unpleasant surprises. At least Kalija trusted the marines — they were the ultimate professionals, she'd been told; they wouldn't let anything slip by them. Indeed, they had a perimeter established and a landing zone cleared well before the task force was dawning again. Then they set about organizing the militia, and separating them from the several hundred civilians who had followed the soldiers retreat, fleeing increasingly depopulated towns.

This was unlikely to cause too much trouble; the Territorial Guard had cause to quarrel with the rebels but not with any noncombatants; Kalija expected they'd be left alone once the evacuation was complete. Still, she looked forward to finishing up before they had a chance to find out. The two lighters landed without ceremony — big, imposing things, with glowing heat signatures in the augmented vision of her helmet. It would take them a few minutes to cool; with luck, though, the first could be off in time to rendezvous with the fleet at the next orbital cycle.

“Orion. Orbital imagery from the last pass shows signs of movement to the west. Sooner, can you investigate? Over."

“Sooner One, copy." There wasn't much that could be done from their anchor point, well to the south of the area of operations. Fuller switched to the flight's secure network. “Noodle, Hobo; they're reporting a possible contact, bullseye two-four-zero, forty kilometers. Check it out."

Kalija felt curiously grateful for the distraction. Despite the implications of a 'possible contact,' looking for it gave her something to do. From high above, she watched the two Intruders bank and change course, trying on her own to pick up any hint of something out of the ordinary.

“Six, Five's dazzled. Three-four-zero tack, uh, three-five-five. Working on clearing it up."

“Six, copy. I see it, too."

When she looked to Alamo for guidance, the Texan shrugged. “Could be. If they're gettin' anomalous readings, could also just be interference from the ground cover."

The bombardiers in the other two Intruders hit the area with a sensor pulse, though, and quickly decided that they were looking at the Territorial Guard. “Well, so much for quiet..." The dog thought she could see at least a dozen vehicles shrouded by the cloaking device. “Figure they'll go after the Strixes?"

“Reckon so." Alamo drew her a map of the areas that would provide the best angle to shoot down anything coming from the improvised landing strip, and the areas where it would be hardest to hit back at the Guard's tanks. 

“There's a lot of overlap," Kalija pointed out.

“Reckon so," he said again.

The armor column gave up trying to hide a few minutes later. “Eighteen separate tracks..." The dog puffed her muzzle out in a sigh. “Don't all look like missile trucks, either. Type 44s, Type 93s... looks like three or four Type 55s... one I don't even recognize..."

“New Type 7. They're based on the 105s all those Sanganese families use as a main battle tank." 

“They're bringing a lot of friends..."

“Gotta secure that base, you know?"

“This is Two. Tally inbound armor, bullseye three-three-zero, thirty kilometers. Group is tagged, uniform, Alpha-Alpha Two-Five."

Looking at UDL markpoint AA-25, Kalija saw another eighteen hoverdynes — a column with the same composition as the first. They, also, were no longer bothering to cloak themselves. “Encircling maneuver?"

“Maybe. Depends on who's calling the shots."

“How's that?"

“CODA doctrine calls for precision strikes and high mobility to outflank fixed positions. They could be moving to intercept any possible escape routes. On the other hand, Kingdom doctrine calls for saturation bombardment and massed assaults. Might could be planning that, too."

They stopped, ten kilometers short of the landing zone — and with plenty of room to have a perfect angle on anything taking off from it. Their task force completed another orbit, with another flash of orbital imagery. No signs of reinforcements... but Kalija knew that this, by itself, didn't matter. From orbit, it would be almost impossible to find a cloaked group of vehicles.

“Threat picture?" 

“Naked, Elvis. You worry too much."

“Another thirty minutes and the lighters are gonna start launch prep," the dog countered. “This is a good time to be paranoid." 

“Fair." Her bombardier toyed with the computer, and clucked his tongue. “So far, just light comms. No active sensors."

“But if you were them, you'd be pre-calculating your firing solutions."


“Like we've done?" she asked.

He laughed so quietly the intercom almost didn't pick it up. “Yeah."

And the marines were growing increasingly cautious as the deadline drew nearer. “Sooner, this is Orion. Both company commanders are getting nervous. Can you give me some planes? Over."

“Copy. Five, Six, take station at orbital Charleston. Three, four, take station at orbital Dover. Check in with your prebriefed contacts on arrival." For them, that would be the controller assigned to B Company, callsign 'Royal.'

Waypoint Dover positioned the Intruders to cover the area south of the landing zone; it was also nearly a kilometer closer to the ground. From four thousand meters, she fancied she could almost see activity with her naked eye. An illusion, and best not to trust it. “We're good, Alamo?"


Kalija forced herself to believe it, and switched her radio over to monitor the controller's network. Zippo was busy checking in. “Royal Two-One, this is Sooner Three. Sooner Three and Sooner Four is a two-ship flight of Intruders. Unguided rockets, times twelve missiles each. Anchored at Dover."

“Mud, right two," Alamo muttered. “Type 55s. Radar in search mode."

Unlike the Type 44 IFVs, that was a dedicated anti-aircraft vehicle — shorter-ranged than the Type 93, but just as potent. Kalija didn't like the idea that they were searching. “What do you want me to do?"


“Done. Strobe 'em?" 

“Happy to."

“Zippo, this is Elvis. We're getting picked up by a Type 55. Can we jam them?"

“Elvis, go ahead. Getting tired of this myself."

“Strobing," Alamo told her. “But they'll probably burn through it soon enough. Just warning."

“Always an optimist."

With ten minutes to go until liftoff, most of the militia's heavy equipment was loaded aboard the lighters — they were packed to the very limit of their capacity, and even so the rebels had to leave some of it behind. Orion reported that the marines had started to pull back. Once the lighters lifted off, the marines were to wait by themselves for the next orbit. “Call 'em like I see 'em, Elvis. We ain't gettin' outta here with as many Kraits as we brought down, neither."

The dog might've protested that this, too, was a pessimistic outlook were she not inclined to agree with him. Their full combat load of the Krait missiles had not, after all, been accidental. If CODA declined to help rescue Pike civilians, as they had back at the corporate campus, the only consequence was bad publicity. That, they could deal with — but a threat to the marines? The loss of a Strix to hostile fire would provoke calls for immediate reprisal.

And there were too many of the Territorial Guard for their presence to be an innocent one.

“Sooner, this is Orion. Batman has targeting lasers and radar picking up the lighters. Can you confirm, over?" 

“Orion, this is Sooner One. Copy that. I confirm."

They were playing a dangerous game. Perhaps they hadn't anticipated a changing ROE; perhaps they were expecting that the Intruders would continue to remain passive and disengaged. From the LCS Margay all the way on down, though, the situation was far too tense for that.

“Sooner, this is Royal Two-One. Type one in effect; call when ready for nine-line."

Kalija perked her ears up, and looked to her bombardier. He, too, was alert.

“Royal Two-One, this is Sooner Three. Ready to copy."

The download process for the brief was automatic, but Royal Two-One read it anyway. “Sapphire. Three-four-four. Seven kilometers. Six zero zero meters. Two mobile SAM launchers, Type 93. Mike oscar four-four-two, niner-two-seven. Marked as uniform spot. Friendlies north-east, ten kilometers. Egress east to Cinnamon. Advise when ready for remarks."

“Ready to copy."

“Type 93s are marked as UDL Delta-Two-Echo and Delta-Two-Foxtrot. Final attack heading three-one-zero to three-four-zero. To the north are four additional Type 55 SAM batteries which Batman cannot suppress for you. Over."

“Six zero zero, mike oscar four-two-two, niner-two-seven. Final heading three-one-zero, three-four-zero."

“Readback correct. Time to target: four minutes. Stand by. Ready. Ready. Hack."

“Copy," Zippo said. If Kalija switched her helmet into 'attack' mode, she could see the timer counting down.

As she turned with Zippo towards the initial point marked 'Sapphire,' Alamo spoke up in her ear. “Must be planning to hit the other column at the same time?"


That made sense. The Type 93s had powerful, long-range missiles. They could threaten the lighters virtually at will, even near orbit. As such, they would all have to be taken out at once — a synchronized attack, designed to cripple the Guard's anti-aircraft capabilities just as CODA began its evacuation.

It looked very, very simple. But her paw fidgeted on the joystick, for the stakes were high and no amount of reassurance would change that.

“You've done this before?"

The dog swallowed. “No."

“First time for everything. We're gonna be just fine. A warning, though?"


“When we make our pass, be ready to break hard left. We're egressing right, I know, but they're going to start shooting pretty much immediately and I don't want to get killed on principle. We can come around when we've trashed the missiles."

She swallowed again. The countdown timer stood at three minutes. “You really think they're going to shoot at us?"

“We'll just have taken out their trump cards. They'll be pissed."

Kalija reviewed the Guard's disposition as she understood it. Four Type 55 hoverdynes, plus the light missiles from the Type 44s. The situation could become quite serious indeed, and very quickly. “Alright. So break west, get low, burn anything left..."

“That's right." 

“Break west. Get low. Burn," she repeated. It needed to be unconscious; rote. She made another check of the switches. Exactly like in training. Just pretend you're in training. But again, the stakes were higher — and there was no restarting a simulation if she failed. “Break west. Low."

Alamo switched on power to his targeting and guidance sensors. SADIE, the Surface Attack Data Integration Electronics package, was now awake and glaring at their prey — feeding information from a dozen sensors into a sophisticated computer with its own artificial intelligence. “Master arm? Ready?" 

This was what they were meant to do, man and machine. “No," she admitted. But even as she said it her paw was reaching out, flipping the heavy toggle for the Intruder's offensive systems. A new screen became available in her helmet, flashing red. When she called it up, it told her only: READY.

6.1: Weapons. In Terra's Second World War, the first time extensive bombing campaigns were employed, the Eighth Air Force flew 440,000 sorties over four years, dropping 640,000 tons of bombs with a total destructive yield of 800 TJ. A single A-17E Intruder III, carrying a full combat payload of 16,000 kg in LONG RIFLE configuration, can direct its 12 AGM-752G rockets to employ 1,200 TJ of destructive yield. Pilots should exercise caution before engaging the MASTER ARM switch (see 6.1.3).

“Armed," she told Alamo, who confirmed to her that his computers were ready to give them orders as needed. They were not carrying Long Rifles — else the dog could've set the whole of the Indigo Hills ablaze on a mere whim. Even still, the complement of light AVM-20 missiles was nothing to scoff at.

“Orion to all units. We're starting final takeoff prep. Launch authorization from Royal is Eleanor." 

“Sooner Three, IP inbound." One minute.

“Sooner Three, continue."

Zippo turned right from the initial point at Sapphire, towards their targets. Kalija saw them as abstractions — colored icons in her helmet. Zippo would be seeing the exact same thing. “Sooner Three, in from the south."

“Sooner Three. Spot active."

“Tally spot. Seven echo."

“Spot, check. Cleared hot."

“Sooner Three. Rifle. Rifle." From a few kilometers behind Zippo she couldn't see the Kraits' launch, but she watched their path track a colorful line through her HUD. “Three's off. Splash." 

Subconsciously, she logged the knowledge of their impacts. At the same time, she adjusted her helmet display into 'launch' mode and nosed the Intruder into a shallow dive. “Sooner Four, in from the southwest." 

“Sooner Four," Royal called back. Following a script. Just like the sims. “Spot on."

“Got it." Alamo was seeing it at the same time as she was — a floating blue marker, 'D2-F,' highlighting the dark shape of the hoverdyne. As soon as Alamo highlighted it as their target, two more letters appeared beneath. 6C.

“Tally spot," Kalija told their controller. “Six charlie."

The marker turned green. “Spot, check. Cleared hot."

“Kraits," she told Alamo, and thumbed the weapons selector on her joystick. “Two, sequential firing solutions."

“Locked. Ready." The marker had turned red, and the letters 'LA' flashed in her peripheral vision.

To fire, depress and hold the trigger for one second. “Sooner Four, rifle." The Intruder jolted, and the missile tore away with a blinding glare that her helmet couldn't completely dampen. She squeezed the trigger again. “Rifle."

With the missiles gone, she added on more throttle by instinct to begin their escape. “Good hits. One-point eight, one-one." Alamo's voice seemed to come from somewhere much further than her headset. 

That's it?  The thought was startling to her. That was all I needed to do? “Splash. Sooner Four off." More throttle. According to the brief, they were egressing eastwards.

She was turning west even before Alamo jerked. “Mud spike, right five. Type 55 in target-acquire mode." Her nose pointed further down. Pale green grass filled her vision. “SAM launch. Left eight."

“Four's defending SAM at Cinnamon," she told her wingman, to explain her absence, although the dog's Intruder had quickly sunk under the horizon, beyond the Type 55's reach. It was over. She'd done it — whatever 'it' was.

“Royal Two-One, Eleanor." 

“Royal One-One, Eleanor," his counterpart to the north echoed.

“Orion to all units. Takeoff clearance has now been given for two lighters Churchill One and Churchill Two. Stand clear of the PTC up to twenty kilometers. Sooner, you're cleared to engage hostile anti-aircraft units at your discretion." 

She climbed to rejoin Zippo, putting the Guard armor column off her right wing. After popping a single missile at Elvis they'd shut down their radars prophylactically and started broadcasting jamming signals to make identification harder.

“Three, tally armor, right two. Two Type 55s, uniform, Alpha-Charlie One and Two." 

“Four, tally," she answered, as soon as she could see the two hoverdynes.

“Three, committing."

“Four, visual. Press." Kalija glanced around quickly for the other two Type 55s that were supposed to be in the area. Nothing. Come on... come on, where are you? “Alamo, you know where those other two 55s went?"

“No. I'm lookin'." 

“Three, rifle. Rifle."

Alamo was watching. “Second one missed. Got your —"

“Three, mud spike, right four."

“There. That's one of them." Alamo tagged the missile-carrying hoverdyne for the dog's benefit.

She made a mental note, already seeing the attack plan unfolding. “Four, tally. Type 55."

“Four, engage."

Banking their Intruder over, she lined up, putting it right in her sights. “Alamo, Kraits."

“Wait one... computer's being a — goddamn it," he swore, and hit it with the flat of his palm. This did nothing; a system designed to handle the stress of reentry was not about to suffer the slings and arrows of a single human. But it helped to calm him down. “Locked. Ready."

Finally. “Four, rifle." Another squeeze of the trigger.

“Good hit," Alamo said, in her right ear. “One-one." A hundred percent chance it had been disabled; a hundred percent chance it had been destroyed.

“Splash," she finished, and banked away from the column again.

“Type 44s are starting to wake up," Alamo said. “The two lighters are already well out of range, though."

“And the 55s?"

“AC-1 is dead. AC-2 powered down their radar after our last pass but I'm pretty sure I can still see them. There's the one we got, and then one more. Wait. Mud spike, left eight. AC-2 again."

Zippo had seen it, too. “Three. Four, you have a solution?"

“Four, negative."

“Four, come off, east, and let's try again."

Even as the dog complied, another alarm went off. She looked for its source, and started. “Three, SAM launch! Multiple signals — notch, left, two-four-five." They were all Type 44s, firing their little mixed-purpose rockets to no great effect. Wasn't even worth worrying about... but when Zippo started the turn, Kalija's keen brain tracked it just like it had been on the holomap.

The Type 44s were there for harassment. They worked best when a target was moving towards or away from them, and their software could analyze the doppler shift caused by that relative motion. So Zippo was turning left: a “notch" maneuver that put the radar directly off her side, where there was no relative movement. And where she was moving straight into the logical path of the silent Type 55s.

“Zippo, break right, now!"

“Radars in active tracking mode," Barton cut in swiftly. “Left ten, ten kilometers."

“Firing solutions." She threw on the speedbrakes and yanked her Intruder around sharply, in time for the targeting cues to appear in her vision. “Zippo, tally both of those SAMs." 

“Engage." Lieutenant Commander Jovanovic's order was immediate, and rather terse. “Three's defensive."

“Locked. Ready."

“Four, rifle. Rifle. Rifle," she fired a third missile just in case, right before they crossed under the minimum range of the nimble Krait.

“Splash. One-one, one-point two? Mobility kill, at least."

“Thanks, Elvis," Zippo told her. “Nicely done."

“The precise application of overwhelming force," her bombardier commented.

Without the support of their big brothers, the Type 44s went quiet again. A minute passed... two... three. Soon she could almost, almost feel the adrenaline beginning to ebb. The two lighters had reached orbit, to sync up with the rest of the task force, and were beyond the reach of anything on the ground. The rebels, despite the Guard's best efforts, would live to fight another day.

Mission accomplished, for all intents and purposes.

Orion announced incoming aircraft, which turned out to be four small aerodynes with Guard IFF codes. They kept their distance, watching from high altitude, and Orion made it clear that the Intruders were not to provoke them. It was difficult to tell what they even were — not dedicated fighters, by their outsized radar signature that made no attempt at stealth. “Converted, maybe," Alamo suggested. “Guard has a bunch of converted COIN stuff."

'COIN' meant 'counter-insurgency.' Were they really supporting insurgents? Kalija guessed that they probably were, depending on how you looked at it, although at the moment the only ones left at the outpost were civilians and CODA's marines. Like the bigger ships and, indeed, like Kalija's Intruder, the CLS-37 could recover directly to orbit. Now that the task force had passed by them again, the clock was ticking — they would return to space far more slowly than they had left it, and needed the protection of the Intruders to cover their ascent.

“Call it forty-five minutes," Alamo agreed. “If they're not ready to launch in forty-five, we'll have to hold here until the next orbital cycle."

“What about the civilians?"

As noncombatants, she'd assumed they would be allowed free transit out of the combat area. To where, she had no idea — they'd been fleeing the decaying situation for weeks, at least. “You think they'll take them prisoner, then?"

“Maybe." Alamo fiddled with his computer, and didn't seem encouraged by the results. “Ain't many places for them to go."

Kalija cocked her head, and checked the map herself. Towns on the plains were sparse — the nearest settlement was almost a hundred kilometers away. “Hey, Alamo."


“If they plan on moving those civilians... how are they gonna do it?"


“Well, obviously the Guard can't fit them in those little planes. But their IFVs don't have space either, do they?"

She saw Barton's hand freeze, resting on the controls for his sensor set. “Oh. Fuck, Elvis."

“They have line of sight over that compound, right?"


“But they're not targeting the Strixes? Are they targeting anything?"

Barton shook his head. “But they wouldn't have to. You could precompute that. An' actually, hell, our threat receiver might not see anything anyway."

They knew the ROE after all, then. As long as the Territorial Guard avoided targeting the marines or the Intruders keeping watch, CODA was not allowed to do anything about them. So they avoided causing trouble — for that matter, avoided taking any sort of revenge for the hoverdynes that the Intruders had already destroyed.

Phrased that way, Kalija had to pause; her left ear flattened out slightly in her helmet. It couldn't have been easy for the Guard, either — facing their own rebellious kin, backed by interlopers who swept down from the sky in their invulnerable mounts. By design, it was not especially... fair.

At least it would be over soon. “Orion to all units. Final launch checks are good. Arrow actual and Batman actual have both checked in as ready to depart. T-minus twenty minutes for the orbital rendezvous."

Out of curiosity, she turned her radio to monitor the ground channel. The marines had come to the same conclusion as Kalija and her bombardier: “— Six actual. That's correct, we're not being targeted." “Arrow Six, then you're directed to depart immediately." “Orion, I want to make it clear: this area is not secure for these guys. They've got a few light weapons the partisans couldn't take with them, but nothing strong enough to deal with those tanks. Or those planes, whatever the hell they are."

Barton looked over at her. “Trouble in paradise?"

“Worried about the civvies. Think they've seen the same thing we're seeing..."

So, apparently, had Bucky. “Orion, Sooner One. We're getting indications up here that those tanks have the whole LZ targeted. If we leave, there could be trouble. This flight has enough fuel to orbit until we can figure something out."

“Orion. Wait out."

Kalija listened in on a series of conversations that followed — mostly on the ground network, where the unit commanders were trying to determine whether or not safe passage had been obtained for the three hundred people left on the ground. It had not, and the Territorial Guard was not interested in negotiating with the Colonial Defense Authority — unauthorized defenders of an illegitimate insurrection.

“Hey, Orion. This is Kim Carmona. I'm with the refugees from Fleming Township and Montgomery. We need any protection you can give us. The Guard... the Governor has been so... I don't know what they'll do when you leave."

They were, as the dog had suspected, angry. Anger would breed unpredictability. Looking at them from so far up, it was impossible to avoid thinking about how easy it might be to end the argument before it began. A French ruler, centuries before, had ordered his artillery to be inscribed with a moniker: the final argument of kings. If so, the Intruder still made one hell of a riposte.

The local commander reappeared to muzzle any form of argument preemptively, despite Carmona's request. “Orion to all units. If we're not being directly attacked, we can't take the first shot. I've also just been informed that the two lighters have docked successfully. This mission is finished."

“Orion. Kim again. Look, if you can —"

“Ma'am, get off this net. You're not authorized to transmit here."

The commander of A Company took up her case immediately. “Arrow Six actual. Orion, we're requesting permission to stay behind, then. We have an unambiguous case being made by a civilian on the ground."

“Negative, Arrow. I understand your concern, but we're done here. I've appealed directly to LOC and Nazca has confirmed the same thing. You're directed to embark and exfiltrate immediately. Understood?"

A long, uncomfortable silence held on the network.

“Arrow, Batman — I say again, you're directed to proceed as ordered and exit the AO. Do you read me?"

“Arrow Six. Roger." B Company's commander said the same thing a few seconds later.

“Good. Now, clarify with your civilian contacts that they need to stay civilian. Confiscate those weapons if you have to." Further discussion suggested that the marines didn't have room to carry anything with them; they had to trust that the nervous refugees would not do anything rash or foolish.

Bucky wasn't inclined to leave anything to chance. “Sooner flight, this is Sooner One. We're going to escort the Strixes back to orbit, as briefed. I want all of you to pay extra close attention to those damned hoverdynes, though. If they try anything, you let us all know immediately so we can deal with it."

There was a cold, sinking feeling in Kalija's stomach. The dog suspected that there would be nothing of the sort — nothing that would bring down the wrath of the Intruders. It didn't surprise her that Alamo reported no radar activity when the Strixes began to power up and lift off. Even at their most vulnerable, hovering just above the ground as their engines came to full power, the fat dropships were left unmolested.

They had to pass close to the Guard aircraft on their ascent, and the shared datalink gave Kalija her first look. Tiny — half the size of her Intruder. Suborbital; probably they'd started out as agricultural planes. She couldn't see anything under their wings.

“Elvis, check left. Picking up some signals, your eight o'clock." 


“Wait one." His fingers swept briskly over the computer — if she craned her head, she could see glimpses of filters and processing routines being run. “No. Comms traffic. In the clear, if you're interested. I can patch it in through one of the orbital relays if they drop out of line of sight."

The Strixes were already three kilometers up, and climbing; soon they would be turning, racing towards the horizon to catch up with Task Force Kilo 6-0. For now, though, she could still see the landing zone directly. “— Down at once and we can end this peacefully."

“That's from the Guard," Alamo clarified.

“Got it. So they are planning on taking them prisoner?" So much for safe passage...

“Might could figure that. Check your temps on the —"

Woody's voice broke in on the radio. “Sooner Two, signals, six. Lasers."

Kalija switched her helmet back into combat mode and swiveled her head to take a look. It was coming from the civilians at the landing zone — a light rocket launcher, she thought, with its targeting lasers active.

“Orion. Hey. Hey, Orion." Kim Carmona's voice was growing more frantic. “You can't leave us here. We're going to have to defend ourselves. We need help. If you don't help us..." 

There was no answer from the command and control Strix.

“CODA. Anyone. Can anyone hear me?"

“Oh, Christ. Elvis..." Alamo trailed off. “Guard radars just woke up. Multiple discrete sources. Targeting radars. Terminal-guidance laser spots..."

“Three, this is Four. Those hoverdynes are going active. Situation might be —"

“Orion, this Sooner One." Bucky's voice in her helmet brought the dog to a halt. “Targeting radars active on the ground in both prebriefed killboxes. Request permission to engage."

“Orion. Negative. Sooner, you are to stay on course."

Alarms painted the inside of her visor a garish, ugly crimson. “Elvis, weapons fire. Multiple tracks. Multiple sources."


Her bombardier sounded thin. “The LZ. It's all inbound on the LZ."

More than she could count. Two at a time, the four Guard aircraft were pouncing — signals from hundreds of rockets overwhelmed her visor's ability to separate them all. It looked... it looked, she did not want to admit, exactly as their own attacks had. The precise application of overwhelming force.

Now the hoverdynes had joined in as well — firing in a high ballistic arc at every avenue of escape. Her computer took it all in; dispassionately Kalija realized the sheer precision of it all. Everything would hit within a matter of seconds. Her radio had gone crazy. Bucky was demanding authorization to fire. The marines were demanding to be returned to the surface. Orion had the thankless job of trying to calm them.

A final voice on the radio. Panicked. “CODA! Where are you going? Orion — please! We need — damn it, they're going to — damn you, you fucking cowards! Help us. Damn —"

Abruptly, nothing.

A fragmentary burst of a signal. Static. She told herself it was static, and not screaming.


She no longer needed the augments in her vision. Even without it she could see the landing zone, and the second volley of rockets. And the third. And the prairie, afire, burning white-hot like a newborn star. It hurt her eyes, but she watched it anyway — unable to tear herself from the arc-lamp glare until their eastward track as they fled pulled it below the horizon in one last, unbearable sunset.

Kalija did not remember going through the fence check and powering down their weapons, although they clearly had. She did not remember recovering to the task force, although they clearly did. She did not remember trapping, although a voice in her helmet had graded it a “Fair Two."

Commander Fuller's debriefing was quiet, and subdued. She heard her name being credited with four ground kills, second to Noodle's five. Noodle had also trapped an OK Two. Nobody offered congratulations or any remarks; Fuller and Putnam declined, too, to offer any commentary on the fate of the civilians.

Afterwards most of the airmen filed out. Elvis and Hobo remained, for a time. The young human pilot was still staring at the space where the debriefing hologram had been playing. Kalija remembered the first time they'd met — his insistence that there wouldn't be any conflict on Pike; that the Kingdom wouldn't want to get involved. Alamo hadn't been the only one to call Hobo naive.

“You okay?" she asked him. She knew the answer. Wanted the answer. Need to know that she wasn't the only one.

“No," he said.

Kalija was quiet. Not to prompt him to continue, but because it was difficult to find the right words — to find any words. She knew only that she needed something like companionship.


“No." Since she'd started associating with humans the dog had always felt slightly silly about her right ear, which stayed perpetually folded at the halfway mark. Now it didn't matter; now both were pinned, and the image she presented was one of horror just as muted as her quiet voice.

“I don't even know..." Hobo looked at her, completely ignoring her ear; he turned back to the empty pit of the dead hologram. “I don't know what happened."

“We... we couldn't have known, right?"

“I don't know. I didn't sign up for this. I — if I'd known that — if I'd..." The deep black of the briefing board, looming in the quiet room, seemed to judge them both. “We... we abandoned them..."

“You were listening too, weren't you?"


“Could we have..."

Have what? She didn't know the answer. Hobo didn't either. “I was born in space. I know they make fun of me, for... for being Starlight, and all." The Starlight Faction agitated, mostly legally, for representation on behalf of Confederates on stations and starships — without planetbound homes to claim as citizens. 

It wasn't something beyond the dog's ability to sympathize with. “I never did that."

“Of course not. Like... all the dogs I've met have been Starlight. Zderunlehunsar nakathja, right?"

Her muzzle dropped, and she just barely closed it before he looked up to see her reaction. “I — ah. Your pronunciation isn't half-bad."

“Yeah, great. At least I can do something right." His sigh made for a bitter apology at the outburst. “I was going to say that we... I mean, I guess it's bullshit. It's all fucking bullshit, but we... we say that we look out for each other."


“Spacers. If we hear a distress call, we answer it. Because if you're out there, you need to know that somebody'll do the same for you. Right, Elvis?"

The dog nodded her understanding, if not agreement. They'd talked about that on the Dawa Free Colony, too. She'd never exactly believed it, the way Mayor Iskoshunja had talked about the importance of the pack, and of nakath solidarity. It had seemed rather clannish, at the time. But Justin Gomes seemed to be a believer, so she played along: “And you did?"

“Of course. We'd come in late, sometimes, on a shipment, and the captain would show the logs to the big boss and that was that. What's thirty hours on a rescue operation if you save somebody's fucking ass? None of this... none of this ROE bu... complications." 

“Muzzled. They want us to do something — and don't let us do it. And then..." She could almost hear the human woman's final, begging cries in the silence that followed.

Both of them wanted something to fill it, and neither was up to the task. Finally the human lieutenant stood. “I, um. I'm gonna go... I'm gonna get a drink. Uh. Coffee, I mean. Of course. Coffee."

“You don't have to lie to me," she gently assured him. “It's okay." 

“You, uh. You want any?" 

“I shouldn't." Moreaus and alcohol were, by a reputation, a poor combination and she felt it was not the proper time to risk it. Kalija got up as well — though she didn't intend to join him, the alternative was staying to face the oppressive judgment of an empty room. “I'll... see you tomorrow?"

“Yeah." Almost a whisper. “See you."

Barton Glenn was in his bunk when she returned to their quarters. He was wearing headphones, but with her sensitive ears she could tell that nothing was playing on them.

“Hey." She looked at the ladder for her own bed, and decided the effort was not at first worth it. The chair for their desk was closer, at least. “Alamo?"

He looked over.

“What've you got on?"

“Nothing," he admitted freely. “Ain't listenin' to nothin'." 

Kalija nodded, and took a careful seat in the worn chair. “Makes sense?"

“Nah. Nothing really makes sense, Elvis."

“So what's the answer?"

Barton looked at her sideways, as though his earlier reply should've been clear enough. “What happens, happens. Ain't the nicest way to put it, I know, but you can't let it get to you." 

The dog frowned slightly. “But you're alone in the room, with your headphones on and no music..."

They were cheap things, designed to stick directly to his skin; his ear stretched when he tugged the left headphone off. “Maybe I don't like the sound." 


“Look, just... ain't the kind of thing I want to dwell on either, Elvis, okay? Maybe should do it, but..." 

But what? What could they do? The conversation fell into silence. An hour later he moved to turn out the lights, and she did nothing to stop him. Flat on her back, she looked up at the ceiling. Her vision, even at night, was keen enough that she could pick out the patterns there — little cracks and imperfections that were too well suited for seeing random images in them.

Closing her eyes was no better; with her eyes shut she saw the cockpit lights of an A-17E burned into her vision, cast in strange light as if catching the reflection of a ghastly fire. Twice she managed to sleep — just. And twice she startled herself awake, imagining that she heard the sound of tortured screaming.

Finally she got up, pulled on her uniform, and went for a stroll. The corridors were mostly deserted: the ready rooms were empty, the mess was quiet, and the lights were off even in the game room.

She settled on the observation deck — one of the only places with real windows instead of holograms — which was also darkened. The stars, at least, were not inclined to judge. Kalija took a seat at one of the windows, and felt herself surrounded by those tiny, sharp-edged points of light.

A surprised voice caught her ear: “Shadla?"

Kalija turned, and — abandoning her natural inclinations — switched into dogspeak, Nakath-rukhat, for her reply. “Hi, Taru."

The Border collie padded over; despite her smile her ears were back, and her muzzle dipped deferentially. “Hello, sister. I'm glad to see you! I... I heard it wasn't pleasant... the mission."


“I spoke to my supervisor, aboard the Margay. She said that some of the marines were trying to organize a... charity, of sorts? With their money from the mission. To help some of the families."

Humans were strange creatures. Individual nakath might've fought one another, it was true — but almost never to the death, and certainly not for reasons of pack or pride. The clash of empires, like their building, was a human conceit. 

At the same time, their fierce tribalism seemed to make it easy to do whatever was needed for the tribe: thus, though they shared no blood of kinship with the Pike separatists, CODA's marines were willing to do what they could to help. 

For what it was worth. “I don't know that charity really helps most of them, now..."

Taru sat, and folded herself compactly next to the other dog. “Perhaps not. What about you, Shadla?"

“What do you mean?"

“What would help you?"

Kalija frowned. “Nothing. A time machine."

The collie stayed quiet. It was an expectant silence.

“It wasn't supposed to be like that. They never make it like that in the sims. They never, ever make it like that. It's never like you have to just... to just let that happen. I don't — I don't mean that it's simple," she corrected herself; she was starting to speak faster and faster. “It's not simple. But it was never a no-win scenario like that, and I was listening in on the radio when it happened — we all were — and they — and I mean — they knew what was — everybody knew what was going to happen. And we just... we just watched." 

“There wasn't anything you could do. Not from up there."

“We could've hit them first." She'd been playing that over, and over, and over again. There'd been too many Guard vehicles for one or two Intruders to disable, certainly — but not all six of them. It might not've been easy, but... “We could've done something."

“You were told not to."


Taru splayed her ears, and softened her voice. Even in the guttural Nakath-rukhat, it sounded gentle. “There is no 'and.' You can't have a pack where the members decide to do what they want. That's anarchy, jankito."

“Isn't that better than what happened anyway?"

The Border collie found one of Kalija's paws, and rested both of her own on it. “I know it isn't easy for you."

She flinched at the touch, until the warmth began to soak in to fingers that she found were trembling. “How? Yassuja. How do you know?"

“Thousands of meters above everything you saw? Unable to do anything despite all your training? Shadla," Taru murmured, and gave the other dog's paw a firm squeeze. “Do know what they tell us? It must be the same thing that they tell you. They say that you're the fiercest warriors in all of history, anywhere in the galaxy. You have weapons more powerful than any one person has ever had before. You're invincible. To the rest of us, you're like... superheroes. Or gods. Defending the innocent. And yet, from a god's eye view..."

“I couldn't help them." I chose not to, she added, mentally. “We let them die. Some defenders we are."

“You couldn't have stopped it before it happened anyway. And what if you'd started attacking, jankito? What would they have done to the dropships that were taking off if you decided to start a war on your own terms?"

All of this was terribly easy to say, for someone who had not been there to see the results. “I don't think you understand."

But Kalija stopped, before she said anything more; years of growing up with other dogs had honed her sensitivity to body language. Taru had tensed — flinched, for the briefest of moments. In the dim room, and the ghostly glint of starlight, her soft eyes darkened.


“I write up the wing's ATAQs," the collie reminded her. “I say what you can do. How much you can take on without support. What if I'm wrong?" 

“Have you been?"

Taru rubbed a finger over Kalija's palm, fidgeting; trying to keep herself level. “Back on Yalikunga. The brief they gave me was based on... slightly outdated information. I should've guessed that there would be heavier fighter cover than they said, but I didn't want to push it. So I signed off that the Undertakers had a high enough quotient for the operation."

The mutt was not familiar with Yalikunga on an operation-by-operation basis. Like most points of contention, it was a mining planet; a rebellious corporation had hired their own PMC to chase some of the Confederacy's loyal citizens off. And Yalikunga was rich enough that such a corporation could buy a lot of hardware: “They didn't?"

“They lost five airframes, plus one more unsalvageable when it landed. Nine dead."

Kalija nodded, and returned a squeeze to Taru's paw. “I'm sorry."

“They didn't blame me. Officially. I'm sure they cursed at us in private. Um. Me. Cursed at me in private... there've been other times, but that's the one I can't get over. You at least... at least maybe you will be able to do something. I have an office. I just stare at numbers... when those nine people died, the only thing I had to do was lower the squadron's readiness rating..."

She nodded again.

“I'm not saying it's the same. Just saying I understand. A little."

“I'm sorry for suggesting otherwise," Kalija murmured.

“No, no. No, Shadla. You know what else I understand?"

When Kalija didn't answer, Taru slipped her paws free and turned, wrapping the mutt up in a gentle hug. Her slim body was warm, and the movement buried Kalija's muzzle in the other dog's neck. The collie's comforting scent flooded her; soothed her. 

Taru nuzzled softly. “You know what's right. In your heart. Listen to that."