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Kriegspielen

By Neil Faulkner
Page 1 of 3

Twenty seven days now, and still no let up.

      "Are you sure you're all right, Cally?"

      I nod. Eyes pricking. Time to force down another popper of narcocide. No time to dwell on it, keep concentrating, watch the panels, keep track of the output, it all means something. Thing is, I can't seem to make too much sense of it all right now. There's a hiss of cross-band static blasting through my head, like my brain's being dug out by a pick-axe. No signals though, nothing out there, nothing and nobody. No excuse to stop looking.

      Then I see it, dancing right before my eyes, an echo on the passives. There's something out there after all, not too far. Can't have just crept on screen. Could have been there for...

      "Blake, I've got something."

      He stops pacing the flight deck, tenses like a worn out spring. Which might be what he is.

      "Three three zero by zero two nine. Range..." Pause to unblur. "Twenty two thousand."

      "WHAT?" Jenna snaps out of a half awake state and turns to her own readouts. "That's damn near right on top of us!" If she sounds accusing I can't say I blame her. Blake swings himself up to Avon's position, cursing, bringing to bear all the detectors we can afford to keep up. With Zen still offline he has to tune them in manually and it takes time. Precious time. We draw parallel in less than two hundred seconds.

      We're all eyes on him as he works. Stupid. We've each of us got enough to keep ourselves occupied. I force myself back to my own panels, the unknown's signature winking back, range diminishing by the second. We don't normally go this fast. Four weeks should have given us time to adjust, but it hasn't.

      Blake swings round on me, bloodshot eyes overshadowed as he slaps his hand down on the console. "This time we're lucky," he snarls, in the way only Blake can. "But we wouldn't have needed any luck if you'd been doing your fucking job properly."

      I bridle. I would at the best of times and this is not the best of times. "Oh yes? Well why don't you come up here and see if you can't do a better fucking job than me?" Shouldn't do that. It hurts to scream.

      There's something feral in Blake's eyes. That near-fatal wound he took from Travis on Star One is still hurting him and that can't help. He's really spoiling for it. Then Jenna breaks in.

      "What is it, Blake?" It takes his eyes off me for a second but they come straight back.

      She persists. "Blake, if I've got to deviate to intercept then I've got to do it now." She's trying so hard to stay collected, and compared to the rest of us she's doing very well. But there's a crack in her voice. She's ready to break.

      Blake is gripping the back of Avon's empty position, the fingertips pressing hard into the headrest, each vein on the back of his hand standing out like a mountain range. Then he lets go and punches it. "It's a Type 49c," he tells Jenna. Tells her, not me.

      "Oh, thank God!"

      "That's good is it?" Vila's been keeping quiet the past minute, as he always does when tensions run high. He's hardly spoken at all for days.

      Blake shoots him a withering look. "It means they're on our side," he says, each word dripping contempt. "They're Federation."

      

      

Avon's not long in appearing back on the flight deck. He wants to know why we've slowed and changed course. Blake tells him.

      "We're getting a distress signal from a Federation ship. It's not moving and most of its systems seem to be out. Cally," he adds, "was rather slow on picking up on it."

      "Was she now?" mutters Avon, walking past him, ignoring him, ignoring all of us. "She could have missed it completely for all I care. It's the Aliens I'm more concerned about, and the slower we go the more of an easy target we make, so why are you turning us into a sitting one?"

      Is that really the best name we can find for them? The Aliens? The best name they can find for the enemy? While they still think of me as an alien?

      Blake slaps a hand on Avon's shoulder and swings him around about face. "I was the one who decided to head back at maximum speed. Likewise I'll be the one to say if we stop."

      Avon's face is blank, his voice chillingly level. "And very nice it would be too, if we weren't surrounded by hostiles intent on entering the galaxy before we do. No matter what speed we go, we can't operate any detectors a damn. Or hold reserves for the blasters, or for the force wall - which we've been using rather a lot lately, or hadn't you noticed?" He lifts Blake's hand off his shoulder and throws it aside. "We also need power - and rather a lot of it - for the autorepair."

      "Which you're supposed to be bringing back up to full capacity."

      "Well now, I can do that, or I can bring Zen back online. You said Zen was more important. Sorry, no: you agreed with me, when I suggested Zen might be more important."

      It's been like that all the way back from Star One. There's something in Blake that won't let him admit he's broken. Something of it in all of us, even Avon, but only Avon really wants to find out. He's pushing Blake, stretching him to the limit, as if things weren't doing that to all of us anyway. I know I can't go on much longer, the constant knife-edge of waiting, waiting for another contact, another skirmish, another life-or-death duel with the enemy. Jenna's just about had enough of it too. She can't have had any more sleep than I have the past few days, probably less and it's showing. There's that hysterical edge to everything she says and she's more or less given up hiding it. I doubt if I come across any better, but then I'm hardly one to judge, am I?

      Vila's the one that's surprised me, probably the others too. He's lived so long in the shadow of fears, real or otherwise. Mostly otherwise. He's endured all this amazingly well so far. Constantly whining, of course, and there's been times we'd all have cheerfully killed him for it, but he's the only one left with anything remotely resembling a sense of humour. His jokes may be a shade blacker, but they're still coming. Less often now, though. I think he's reaching his limit. I dread to think what'll happen to him when he does.

      

      


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