e mërkurë, 13 qershor 2007

The Divine War, Part I

Author's Note: This was written in 2002 as part of a series that never got past the first two parts. Anyway, it was an attempt to do a space opera-type thing like the "First Contact" and "Rebirth" series but on perhaps a smaller scale. This focuses on a system at war and how this divides a pair of lovers and so forth. It's here in the fanfic section because I didn't really want it in the short story section. It's not a fanfic really.

The Divine War

Part I: Peacekeeper

War is thus divine in itself, since it is a law of the world. War is divine through its consequences of a supernatural nature, which are as much general as particular.... War is divine in the mysterious glory that surrounds it and in the no less inexplicable attraction that draws us to it.... War is divine by the manner in which it breaks out.
--Joseph De Maistre (1753–1821)

Prologue

He sat on the cold stone bench, staring down from the gallery at the assembled governors below. There was a time when he would have been among them, sitting on the raised dais next to the council president, but it had been made clear to him a month ago that he was no longer welcome on the debate floor. It was just as well, since most of the governors had lost interest in listening to pleas for reconciliation.

A short, pudgy man with a perpetually red face stood before the desks of the sixteen governors. He raised his arms, holding them aloft until all attention was focused on him. “My friends, we have received copies of the latest Lingaar ploy to destroy Tehuzaar business interests. They are raising taxes on all Tehuzaar imports by fifty percent and establishing mandatory security inspections of any Tehuzaar vessel to enter a Lingaar port.” The announcement was met with scattered boos and hisses.

“Their aim is clear: to make the cost of doing business so high for Tehuzaar manufacturers they will never be able to penetrate Lingaar markets. Our businesses will be smothered by taxes and regulations, forced to sell out to the Lingaar conglomerates. Once they have gained control of our businesses, they will next try to influence this very council to pass laws in their favor. They will quietly take over all that we have built over the last two centuries, until we are finally forced to bow before their shrines.”

“This is not just any trade bill, this is the opening salvo of a war to deny sovereignty to the Tehuzaar people! This is the first step on the road to damnation! We must take action, now, to stop this beast before it swallows us whole!”

In the gallery, he had seen enough. He rose to his feet, stepping to the polished while railing, allowing all the governors to see the ceremonial green cloak of the Chief Minister. He cleared his throat, his voice booming, “You condemn the Lingaar, Vaa Nolii, but only two months ago you spoke in favor of raising tariffs on all Lingaar imports. Now that our Lingaar cousins have responded in kind, you accuse them of making war on us? Remember what the Tehuu taught us, ‘Vengeance is the spark which sets the whole world ablaze.’ All of you would do well to remember that lesson.”

Vaa Nolii smiled, “You honor us with your presence, Chief Minister, but once again your words condone a course of inaction that will only lead us to ruin. We must stop the Lingaar before their corruption has spread too deeply.”

The Chief Minister shook his head, “How would you stop them? Through war?” Before Nolii could answer, the Chief Minister continued, “Two hundred years ago Jee Jolaa led his people from Lingaar to establish a home for all who worshipped the Tehuu. He did so peacefully, without a single drop of blood being shed between Lingaar and Tehuzaar. Since then there has always been peace between the two worlds. Any who call for war with our Lingaar cousins desecrate the memory of our founder and commit blasphemy against the peaceful teachings of the Tehuu!”

With a snap of his cloak, the Chief Minister strode out of the gallery, not bothering to see the reaction to his comments. He knew Nolii did not yet have the support of all sixteen governors, but he was gaining momentum. Each Tehuzaar job lost meant more voices crying out for action, a war if that was what it would take to put the Lingaar in their place. He found a sledge waiting for him outside, the passenger door popping open at his approach.

His aide was behind the steering yoke, a worried expression on the younger man’s face. “Is something troubling you?” The Chief Minister asked.

“There’s trouble at the temple, sir. Demonstrators, thousands of them, are in the plaza.”

“Is it a peaceful protest?”

“So far, but they seem far more…agitated than the last group.”

The Chief Minister sighed, suddenly feeling far older than his sixty-seven years. “Take me to the back entrance, I need to rest before I can speak to another angry mob.”

The sledge lifted a few inches off the ground, skimming over the old paved streets of Ginluu. The Chief Minister stared at the gleaming towers of polished glass and metal receding to older buildings made of rust-colored yawee stone. The Old City, as it was now called, was where the original settlers had first landed. Many of the homes constructed almost two centuries ago were in terrible disrepair, their owners too poor to pay for repairs. It was tragic to think so much history was simply being allowed to wither and die.

The magnificent Temple of Transference now came into view. The temple, like the other buildings in the Old City, was constructed of yawee, with windows made of polished black havee stone. The temple was meant to be a shining beacon of God’s glory, the center of a new town on a new planet. The building was crescent-shaped, the horns of the crescents folding around a massive tree-lined plaza, which had been the site of the first Tehuzaar marketplace.

The marketplace today was filled with thousands of angry men and women peddling hot words. The Chief Minister could see them only from a distance, but he had seen enough of similar demonstrations in the past months to know what was happening. Much like Vaa Nolii, there would be people screaming for action against the Lingaar. He was growing so weary of the bickering, the fighting against men like Nolii, who so readily yearned for war.

The sledge turned down an alley, the protestors fading from view. The vehicle stopped at the little-used rear entrance to the temple. The Chief Minister did not wait for his aide to open the door, as was customary, but simple climbed out of the sledge and heaved open the rear door to the temple. He went through the kitchen, which was empty, all the cooks having already left for the day, and down a corridor to a wooden door similar to the rear entrance of the temple.

He closed the heavy wooden door behind him, his nose assaulted at once by the musty odor that always hung over his private rooms. His aide compared the smell to that of decaying flesh, but to him it was a constant reminder of those who had served as Chief Minister before him. The corridor not only bore the scents of those long-dead individuals, but also their portraits along the grimy red stone walls. As he strode down the corridor, the presence of the familiar aromas and portraits gave him strength.

He heard the familiar creak as he opened his bedroom door, grateful for the chance to be alone with his thoughts. He straddled his favorite meditation cushion, the purple one his mother had given him almost sixty years ago for passing the Test of Wisdom to become a member of the church. Other cushions were more comfortable and fit his body better, but the purple cushion was familiar, like an old friend. Even through his leggings he could feel the grooves worn into the soft fabric of the saddle-shaped cushion.

His eyes came to rest on a painting hanging on the wall in front of him. The painting was as old as the Temple of Transference itself, created by an unknown artist to dedicate the moment when God revealed Himself to Jee Jolaa on Mount Tolii. In the painting, a pillar of light split the gray, predawn sky, flooding over the tall silhouette of Jee Jolaa. It was the moment of Transference, when the One and Only God, the Tehuu, had given His wisdom to His servants.

That revelation was the beginning of a perilous journey for Jolaa and his followers to what was now known as Tehuzaa. The image never failed to steady his nerves, reminding him of what he stood for, and the trials his people endured.

Over the last thirty years he thought those trials were nearing an end. The Chief Ministers before him, to limit corruption by the Lingaar, had worked to keep Tehuzaa an agrarian society, but he knew it was a policy, which would always keep the Tehuzaar as second-class citizens to the Lingaar. The only way his people could become equals was to encourage manufacturing, trade, and banking. He had established entrepreneurship grants with Ministry funds, and almost immediately the program was successful. Trade routes were established, factories built, and financial markets created. As a result, his people became more prosperous and relations between Tehuzaar and Lingaar became friendlier. Over time, a standard of shipping regulations were set up, a united military force was created to keep the peace, a treaty was signed so each government officially recognized the other. For a time it seemed his dream of a system-wide society working for the greater good would be realized, but now it was all starting to fall apart.

He turned away from the painting of the moment of Transference, closing his eyes. The events of the day came back to him once again. How much longer before mobs like that one outside turn violent? How much longer until the threats made by Nolii become real? The unsettling thoughts kept him from achieving his usual harmony. At the time he most needed to feel the presence of God, to hear His wisdom, he could not. Perhaps we have all lost our way to God, he thought.

A tremor in the meditation cushion caused him to open his eyes and look around in surprise. The entire room was shaking, the painting of Jee Jolaa crashing to the floor, its ancient wooden frame cracking when it struck the stone floor. There had never been a quake in the area, nor were any storms predicted for the night. The room continued to shake, but now he could hear a distant rumbling like thunder.

He hurried to the door to see what was happening. He saw a wave of hungry orange flames devouring the entrance to his private rooms and all of the portraits on the walls. Before he could react, he was thrown a dozen meters by an invisible shockwave. His head struck the stone hard, reaching back he could feel blood oozing from the back of his skull. He tried to sit up, but found his body would not respond. The air around him became hotter and hotter, until he could feel his skin blistering from the heat. The pain mounted, becoming unbearable. God help us all, he thought before he passed into oblivion.


Chapter One

Mount Tolii’s blue-gray surface soared into the pale blue sky, shafts of sunlight striking the brilliant white snow at the peak to complete an image more beautiful than any painting. Kee Henlaa was moved by the view of Lingaa’s most famous mountain, but his fiancée continued her stony silence. The irony in Kee’s mind was Taa Colee, a Tehuzaar, viewed the mountain as sacred ground. If even this sight cannot move her, then there must be something seriously wrong. “What’s wrong, dear? I can’t remember the last time when this view didn’t bring tears to your eyes,” Kee tried to keep his tone light, but Taa grimaced anyway.

She took his hand, but her expression remained tight. “I’m sorry, but all those protests in Brenfaa, and the news of similar ones back home have me worried. What if something happens and violence breaks out? What if someone starts a war over these trade disputes?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it. We’ve made too much progress to go back to the bad old days over a few tariffs.”

He felt her squeeze his hand, could see that her mood was starting to soften. “You’re probably right. It's just a bunch of saber rattling. You want to go sledding?”

“You know, bodysledding is illegal on these hills,” Kee pointed out with a grin.

“Why do you think I like it?” Taa winked and led him to the closet. She pulled out the two black jumpsuits, keeping one for herself and tossing the other to Kee. The front of each suit reflected the light, coated with a nonstick substance which would let the two of them coast down the hills as easily as any sled. Taa fished out two matching black helmets made of a tough plastic to protect their skulls during a collision. Kee would have preferred his flight helmet, but it couldn’t leave the base. He slipped on the jumpsuit over his clothes and put the helmet snugly on his skull, flipping down the tinted visor to keep snow out of his eyes.

They walked out to the lobby, careful to slip past the man working the front desk of the lodge. The lodge prided itself on its wealthy clientele, usually allowing them to do most anything they wanted, but so many people had been killed or paralyzed from bodysledding accidents, the lodge had been forced to ban it for liability reasons. Kee could understand and knew his parents would not approve of him taking up such a dangerous sport, especially since if he were caught his family would lose the room they rented year-round, but he also knew how much Taa enjoyed it. After the funk she’d been in for most of their two days of leave, he would risk a fatal injury if a bodysledding run down the hill would make her happy.

Once they made it out the door, walked out to the sled hill, where it became obvious they were not the only ones ignoring the ban on bodysledding. Kee couldn’t help but notice some of the couples getting ready to launch themselves down the hill gave he and Taa a strange glance. It was not unheard of to see a Tehuzaar-Lingaar couple, but such unions were generally between lower-income people than the lodge’s wealthy patrons. Even without speaking, Taa’s black hair, tan skin, and tall frame stood out in sharp contrast to Kee’s stocky frame, red-blond hair, and pale skin. Like the rest of her family, Taa had spent most of her time working in the hot sun while Kee was cooped up in classrooms. It was a difference, which drew curious glances no matter where they went. Kee returned the scornful glances with a hard stare hidden by his tinted visor.

If Taa noticed any change in the atmosphere around her, she gave no sign, leading Kee by the hand to the crest of the hill. He watched her survey the slope, squatting down to determine where any rough patches in the snow may lie. Once she was satisfied, they took a few steps back to give themselves room to build up speed for a launch. The trick to any successful bodysled launch was to get a good running start, then to hit the ground with as little force as possible. Most amateurs would wind up flopping into the snow, killing their momentum, but after some practice it was possible to hit the slope at the right angle to go careening down the hill. Taa and Kee were both experienced; they sailed down the hill side-by-side, clutching hands. Professional pairs could trade positions or perform spins, but Taa and Kee were not that experienced yet.

Kee let out a whoop as he raced down the hill, regretting it when his mouth filled with snow. The speed, the wind whipping against his face, the knowledge that only a jumpsuit and his clothes separated him from the snow made the experience exhilarating. About three-quarters down the slope, he shifted his body to the left, dragging he and Taa off the track. They shot over a snow bank, coming to a stop less than a meter from a thick tree trunk. “What are you do…” Taa couldn’t finish the sentence, Kee rolling over on top of her, his lips pressing against hers.

“I couldn’t wait another minute to do that,” Kee replied with a wink.

Taa slapped him hard on the shoulder, which nearly made Kee cry out in pain, but her laughter eased his suffering. “You always were too impulsive.”

He planted another kiss before replying, “Come on, that’s what you love about me.”

“Oh really?” She hit him point-blank with a snowball, silencing any response he might have made.

Kee made a big show of scraping up a huge handful of snow, packing it into a snowball the size of his head. “Now you’re going to get it!” He hefted the huge snowball over his head, but before he could bring it down, she hit him in the face with a glob of powder, toppling him. They frolicked in the snow like little children until the sun started to go down, only then did they make their way back up the hill to watch the sunset.

The sled hill was empty now, allowing them to sit at the summit to watch as the sun began to dip over the horizon. Mount Tolii was already plunged in darkness, but Kee could see Taa’s eyes searching for its snowy summit, the sadness returning to her face. “Sometimes I wished it never happened,” she whispered.

“What?”

“Sometimes I wish Jee Jolaa had never heard the word of God on Mount Tolii. If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t have all these problems right now.”

“Come on, don’t talk like that.”

“Don’t you ever wish there were no religions? Don’t you ever wish you and I could go somewhere without people staring?”

Kee took her hand, “None of that stuff matters. All that matters is how much you and I love each other.”

She smiled, giving him a quick kiss before saying, “There you go again. I’m trying to feel sorry for myself and you have to go and make me feel better.”

“Just doing my job.”

“Hmmmm, you’re very good at it.”

He took her hand, helping her to her feet. “Why don’t we go inside and I’ll show you something else I’m good at.”

She wrapped her arms around his neck, pressing her body close to his. He closed his eyes, feeling the warmth of her body, the softness of her hair, the sweetness of her lips. It was a moment he wished would never end, a moment he could savor forever, but after a minute he felt her pull away. “Thank-you,” she whispered. He was speechless as she led him back to their room, locking the door behind them.

***

Kee woke up to the sound of someone pounding on the door and shouting something. He checked next to him to see Taa still asleep, looking like a goddess. He made sure not to wake her as he stumbled from the bed, grabbing a robe from the back of the bathroom door. The pounding and shouting were becoming louder and more insistent; Kee recognized the voice of the lodge manager. He threw the door open, putting a finger to his lips to call for quiet. “Is something wrong?”

“I have an urgent message for you and…your guest.” The manager handed Kee a folded piece of paper. He gave the manager a substantial tip before disappearing back inside his room, his heart pounding.

“What’s that?” Taa asked, wiping the sleep from her eyes.

“It’s a coded message from the base,” Kee answered, sitting down at the antique writing desk in the living room. He activated his minicomp, feeling the familiar sting as the computer scanned his retina. Once his identity was confirmed, he slid his security card into the minicomp. The encryption chip in the card would only work on a machine with his identity. If he tried to put his security card into a minicomp that he was not logged into, or tried to tamper with the chip in any way, the entire card would turn to slag.

Kee took the piece of paper from the lodge manager and held it to the screen. The text was scanned, the characters running through the encryption chip, which translated it into actual words. “They’ve canceled all leaves, we have to get back to the base immediately,” Kee announced, though he suspected Taa had already read the message on the screen.

“Why?”

“I don’t know. Something must have happened,” Kee reached over for the remote to the vidscreen, flipping to a news channel. He heard a gasp from Taa and read the headline, “Tehuzaar landmark bombed” below an image of a smoldering stone building. He turned the sound up so they could hear the reporter at the scene.

“Last evening, Tehuzaar time, an explosive device destroyed most of the Temple of Transference in Ginluu. At the time, thousands of Tehuzaar protesting the latest trade dispute were in the plaza just outside the temple. Hundreds were killed by the blast, many more wounded. The Chief Minister of the Tehuzaar was in the temple at the time of the attack, but his body has yet to be located. We will provide more details as they become available.”

Kee looked up at Taa, could see the tears running down her cheeks. “How could someone do such a terrible thing?”

He stood up, letting her fall into his arms. “I don’t know. I’ll pack up our stuff and get a sledge to take us to the base.

“All right,” she replied, her voice faint.

He didn’t want to leave her standing there, watching the news coverage, but at the same time, if they didn’t return to the base soon, it would be considered desertion. He could hear her soft sobs as he rifled through the closets, throwing clothes into cases with reckless abandon. Once he did a final check to make sure nothing was being left behind, he hauled the cases out to the living room, where Taa was still rooted in the same place.

When she heard him, she raced into his arms. One look at the vidscreen told him why: the body of the Chief Minister had been found. “He was a man of peace, he wanted to bring us together, why would anyone kill him?” Taa whispered.

“I don’t know,” Kee replied, suddenly feeling like an idiot for not being able to comfort her, to be able to provide answers in a world that in an instant seemed to have gone mad.

***

It took a considerable amount of cajoling and bribery to convince the sledge driver to take them to the base. Everyone was scared about the bombing, and the possibility of another, this time on Lingaar. The entire hundred-kilometer-trip, the withered old driver complained about risking his neck. Kee found out the hard way that not even money could stop the man’s incessant whining.

The sledge skimmed over the rough mountain roads, onto the highway leading to the base, the driver’s yapping the only sound in the vehicle. Taa looked out the window, her mind seeming to be a million miles away, and perhaps it was. Kee knew what the temple meant to Taa, to Tehuzaar all through the system. Jee Jolaa and his followers had built it after landing on Tehuzaa, it was where Jolaa himself had lived until his death. Kee could only imagine the furor that would erupt if any of the Lingaar shrines on Lingaa were bombed. While he was not devoutly religious, he understood the temples and shrines were symbols of pride, of respect, to the gods or God, whatever the case may be.

He looked over at his stricken fiancée, concerned if she would be able to fly when they got to the base. It’s like she lost a family member, he thought. He squeezed her hand, but she still refused to look at him. In their room at the lodge she had run into his arms, but now there seemed to be a wall between them. He decided to let it go, to allow her to come around at her own pace.

“Hey, flyboy, we’re here. I hope you’re happy,” the grizzled driver snarled.

“Yes, thank-you. Here’s for your trouble,” Kee handed the man a few more bills, hauling the luggage from the seat across from him. Taa opened the door, walked towards the gate as though in a trance. Kee followed a few steps behind, fishing for his identification card, hearing the driver mutter a few curses as the sledge turned and darted away.

He showed his card to the guard at the gate, the woman smiling as he struggled with the cases. “I’ll have a sledge take you to your barracks.”

“Thank-you,” Kee replied, hearing the woman giggling while she ducked inside the gatehouse to call for a base sledge. While he and Taa waited, he could see a pair of Spidlaa fighters roaring off the runways. He was surprised to see rows of light attack missiles beneath the thin blue and white delta wings of the arrowhead-shaped planes. Someone must be spooked to scramble fighters with live ordinance, he thought.

Kee heard a loud screeching sound, turned to see a gunmetal gray sledge barreling towards the gate. The bulbous vehicle nearly flipped over as it made a hard turn and came to a stop only a meter from where Kee stood. A hairless dark brown head emerged from the driver’s side window, the man’s face splitting with a wide grin. “I heard you two lovebirds were called back here. So how did it go?” Kee’s roommate, Bii Honuu, teased.

“I’ll tell you later,” Kee winked at Taa, but she was in no mood to take the bait. Kee set the cases in the back before dropping into the front seat next to Bii. Taa was already in the back seat, staring out the window as she had during the drive back from the lodge. As Bii sent the sledge careening towards the barracks, Kee asked, “So what’s going on around here?”

“Absolutely nothing until about twelve hours ago. Then they sounded the alert siren and assembled everyone in the briefing room to explain what happened. So far we’re just stepping up readiness drills and flying a few show-me drills,” Bii jerked the steering yoke just in time to avoid running over a flight mechanic crossing the street.

“So those two I just saw going up were going to put on a little show for the home crowd?”

Bii snorted, “You know how it is when people get scared. Maybe a few fly-bys will make them feel safer. It’s about the only thing we can do right now.”

“Come on, Bii, you’ve got to know more than that. What’s the unofficial word going around?”

Bii smiled, taking his eyes off the road to look around the passenger compartment. “The word is that a task force will be sent to Tehuzaa to make sure everyone plays nice.”

“So we’re on the docket to be shipped out?”

The sledge came to an abrupt halt in front of the barracks, the vehicle’s occupants thrown hard against their restraints. Bii laughed, “Hey, you didn’t hear that from me, all right?”

Kee clapped his roommate on the shoulder, “Of course not. Wouldn’t want people to think you’re a gossipmonger.” He unsnapped his restraint harness and helped a dazed Taa out of the sledge before unloading the luggage. “I’ll see you later,” he called before the sledge shot away.

“For a pilot, he is a very bad driver,” Taa remarked. Kee laughed harder than necessary, hoping his fiancée’s mood was starting to shift. She took her bags from him, leading the way into her quarters. Once the door was closed, she kissed him on the cheek. “I’m sorry I haven’t been very good company.”

“No, it’s all right. What happened was terrible, you have a right to feel the way you do.”

They put the luggage down and she kissed him again, this time on the lips. “Thanks,” she whispered.

“For what?”

“Just being here.”

Kee tried to say something in reply, but the alert siren drowned out his words. All he managed to get out was, “We’d better go.”


Chapter Two

It was just as Bii said; the entire 31st Fighter Wing was to be sent to Tehuzaa to ensure peace in the wake of the bombing. “Attention all units, disengage booster units,” Wing Commander Phoquu commanded. Taa, pressed hard into the seat of her Spidlaa fighter by the g-forces of the nearly straight vertical climb from the runway to the atmosphere, fought to move her right arm the necessary six centimeters to trigger the release for the boosters. She heard a pair of thuds, the long booster rockets required to propel the fighters into the atmosphere, falling away. The Spidlaa gained speed from the loss of so much weight; Taa lowered the throttle to make sure she kept enough distance between her fighter and Bii’s ahead of her.

Craning her head to the left, she could see Kee on her wing, he had drifted a little too far from her, but they would tighten up formations once they exited the atmosphere. His face was invisible behind his helmet’s visor, but he waved a gloved hand at her. She ignored the gesture, and reminded herself to chide him again for his lack of discipline. This was a very serious, very dangerous maneuver, no time to be careless.

Ahead of her, she could see Bii’s fighter start to buck and glow red from heat as it entered the Lingaa’s atmosphere. She found herself fighting the same rough winds and heat only moments later, her mind no longer thinking of Kee or Bii, but only of keeping her Spidlaa from spinning out of control. It took a full minute to break through, sweat drenching her entire body, but now the Spidlaa was in open space. She listened closely for any sound of air leaking through the cockpit seals, but everything appeared normal. Bii’s fighter was still ahead of her, she moved into position off his right wing, Kee forming up to the left.

Their destination, the massive carrier Inrii, came into view. Only three of the three-mile long, two-mile wide starships had been built by the Unified Defense Command since its inception. The huge ships, despite their size and prestige as flagships, were not much to look at. The Inrii’s surface was almost entirely flat, except for a slight curve at the bow to aid planes taking off. The spherical shape of the bridge bulged out against the ship’s rear port quarter like some kind of tremendous boil.

“Everyone form up for landing. Many of you have not had the opportunity to land on a carrier, just remember your training and try not to run into anyone,” Wing Commander Phoquu said.

Taa had never flown her Spidlaa in space before, neither had Kee. She looked over to him with concern, but he only waved, oblivious to the danger. They both followed Bii, the squadron forming a single line. Each of the four squadrons would switch over to vertical maneuvering jets, “verts” as they were known, set down on the Inrii’s deck, and taxi to the nearest elevator.

Bii’s flight circled aimlessly over the carrier, waiting for their turn. Finally it was time for Taa’s first carrier landing. She followed Bii’s lead, cutting to her verts, coasting down to the deck. She throttled back just a little late, her landing hitting the deck hard, the Spidlaa bouncing like a spring before it settled on the carrier’s surface. She missed seeing Kee land, but his fighter was next to hers, looking none the worse for wear. Feeling embarrassed over her rough landing, she made sure to ease the Spidlaa onto the elevator without incident.

The three fighters were immersed in darkness as the elevator ground down to the storage hangar. Taa could see the hangar was already filled with other planes, but Bii seemed to know where he was going. He led his flight to the left, all the way to the wall, where the 19th Fighter Squadron was gathered. Someone in a green-helmeted spacesuit used a lighted wand to guide her Spidlaa to its spot. The fighter came close to hitting the wall, but Taa managed to park the plane without incident. She shut down the engines and heaved a sigh of relief. A mechanic tapped on the canopy, she popped it open, worried something was wrong with her plane.

The mechanic extended his hand, smiling from inside his helmet. She shook the proffered hand as he said, “Welcome aboard, sir. I’m Mechanic Caa Yinloo, I’ve been assigned to your squadron during this mission. I’ll take good care of your baby.”

“Thank you, Mechanic Yinloo. I hope she doesn’t give you any trouble,” Taa patted her fighter affectionately.

“I’m sure it won’t,” Caa replied, climbing down the ladder against the side of the fighter and moving to the next in line. Taa found Kee waiting for her at the base of the ladder, she was glad that he at least had the discretion not to try kissing her.

“That was great,” he said, with his usual enthusiasm. “A little scary, though.”

“I know, but at least we made it.”

“I hate to interrupt, but we have to get to the ready room,” Bii announced.

“You know where that is, right?” Kee teased.

“Of course I do, I’m not some rookie like you.”

Kee smiled, “Well lead on, then.”

It became clear after floating through the same corridor three times that Bii did not know where he was going. Taa could understand why, each hallway was the same gunmetal gray, only a colored stripe about halfway down the walls marking any difference. Bii shook his head, “The directions said red to teal to brown to gold.”

“This looks more like maroon to me,” Kee joked.

“Thanks a lot.” Bii looked down the corridor, stopping at a computer terminal built into one side of the wall. After a few keystrokes he heaved a sigh of relief. “It says here that we need to take green to silver to brown, and that should lead us to gold.”

“How do people find their way around in a maze like this?” Taa asked.

“Practice,” Kee answered to a chorus of groans.

“Come on, we’re late enough as it is.” They followed the directions from the computer, finding the ready room without further trouble. Someone had scribbled ‘19th Fighter Squadron’ on the door to the ready room. The room was a cramped space with handles along the walls and ceiling for pilots to anchor themselves to during a briefing, with a projection table located in the middle of the floor, so everyone could have a good view. The only sound in the empty room came from the low hum of the projection table in stand-by mode.

Bii led his two charges through a door off to the side. A short corridor, identical to all the others in the ship, led them to a red-and-white striped door. A square black box next to the door had a sign overhead reading, “All personnel entering the locker room must have proper footwear.” Bii lifted the lid of the box, pulling out three pairs of thin gray slippers.

Taa replaced her boots with the slippers and found herself falling flat on her face. She picked herself off of the deck, realizing too late the slippers were magnetized on the soles. She heard Kee snickering, reminding herself she would have to find some way to get back at him later. For now, she contented herself with giving him a dirty look while she snatched her boots floating over her head.

“What am I ever going to do with you two?” Bii sighed and opened the door.

The other pilots of the squadron were in the locker room, some stowing gear, others showering, and the rest changing into a fresh flight suit after the long trip from Lingaa. Squadron Commander Nuu Rinwaa was zipping up a clean black jumpsuit, spotting Bii, he growled, “Flight Leader Honuu, your flight missed the briefing.”

“I’m sorry sir, but we made a wrong turn,” Bii replied.

Taa could see the others in the squadron stifling laughs, could see them hiding grins behind their hands, but she tried to stand at attention and ignore the humiliation. Rinwaa asked, “Can I expect this kind of sloppiness when we are engaged in battle?”

“No, sir.”

“Good.” The matter settled, Rinwaa’s tone softened. “You didn’t miss much. Just stow your equipment and get cleaned up. We’ll go over lodging arrangements once everyone is finished.”

There were plenty of extra lockers available, enough so that Bii, Kee, and Taa could make sure theirs were next to each other. Taa knew it was not just because they were friends, but that it would help them stay together should they suddenly have to don their flight gear. The black locker Taa chose had an adjustable shelf for her helmet with hooks for her anti-gravity harness and flight suit. She stuffed her parachute on the floor before slamming the door shut. She keyed in a password on the locker’s keypad, hearing the click of a lock.

“Ready to hit the showers?” Kee asked with an irritating grin.

“Yes,” she replied, trying to sound as cold as possible, but he didn’t seem to notice, handing her a generic black jumpsuit. Their own clothes would arrive on a transport later; in the meantime they would have to use the standard-issue naval jumpsuits provided for them. She could see his mischievous expression disintegrate when he saw the rows of separate shower pods. Each silver tube was just big enough for one person, ruining any romantic notions Kee might have had.

Taa slipped into her shower pod, stripping off her flight suit and hanging the black jumpsuit on a hook. Unlike terrestrial showers that relied upon water, the Inrii’s “dry” showers used a combination of sound pulses and suction to clean her body. She ran a long beige wand with a pale green tip through her hair, the wand oozing a gel, which would clean her hair without needing water to rinse out. The goop would take about three hours before it fully evaporated, in the meantime it made her scalp tingle, but she resisted the urge to scratch it.

She slipped into the jumpsuit, feeling glad to be in something not smelling like her own sweat. She found Kee waiting for her, “You know, we aren’t joined at the hip.”

“I know, but I just don’t like letting you out of my sight,” he leaned forward to try sneaking a kiss, but she ducked out of the way.

“You are really hopeless, you know that?”

“It’s what you love about me,” he replied with a wink. She sighed, following him into the locker room. As much as Kee’s lack of discipline annoyed her when they were on duty, his inexhaustible energy and optimism was something she admired. Growing up the daughter of farmers on Tehuzaa, Taa had always been taught the virtues of hard work, attention to detail, and discipline. Kee was a different story altogether. The youngest of three children in a wealthy family, he had been spoiled rotten. She had joined the Unified Defense Command to serve her people, to help bridge the gap between Lingaar and Tehuzaar. Kee admitted to her once that the only reason he signed up for military service was to avoid working for his father. Their differences were what made their relationship so exciting and rewarding to her. Her only worry, though, was Kee would do something stupid during a battle and get himself killed. Even if they weren’t joined at the hip, she couldn’t imagine life without him at her side.

***

A junior bridge officer of the Inrii handed out living arrangements. As was standard procedure, Taa was assigned to the same quarters as the squadron’s only other female pilot, to limit instances of sexual misconduct. Kee and Bii were roommates, just like back on the base, but their room was down the hall, which would make it difficult for even chance encounters.

Luu Mercaa was Taa’s roommate back on the base, and by now had grown used to Kee making lame excuses to see his fiancée. Taa’s relationship with Kee was the only thing Luu held her tongue about. Before the roommates had even started unpacking, Luu was already chirping about the flight, about the ship, about nothing at all. After two years of the constant chatter, Taa had learned to tune Luu out, busying herself instead with unpacking the footlocker, which was waiting for her in her room.

Taa could see the only writing desk in the room was already cluttered with figurines of the sixteen principal Lingaar gods. It always amazed Taa how the Lingaar could keep track of so many deities, could know which one to pray to for each situation. She also wondered how so many gods could restrain from warring with each other over dominance. She had asked Kee about it once, but not being a devout Lingaar, his only answer was the gods had too many other things to worry about to fret over popularity. It seemed next to impossible for so many entities, controlling so many day-to-day affairs, to keep the universe functioning smoothly.

She found her vorlee at the bottom of her footlocker, carefully packed in its wooden box so the crystal at its center would not scratch or shatter. The vorlee was two spheres, an orange crystal sphere set in a casing of blue-gray stone. The object was fastened to a long chain so it could be hung in a window, where sunlight would refract through the crystal to form an intricate pattern of light on a wall. The streaks of light created were symbolic of the Transference, but also served as a focal point to aid meditation. Many Tehuzaar no longer used vorlees, but Taa’s was a gift of her father after she graduated the Test of Faith. The vorlee had been in the family for five generations, the stone and crystal believed to be from Mount Tolii itself. For that reason alone, she made sure to keep the vorlee safe. She gently placed the wooden box on top of her meditation cushion in a transparent mesh bag in the corner of the room, where she could keep an eye on them, but also where any visitors might see them, in order to counterbalance the presence of the Lingaar gods in the room. She heard a snort from Luu, but she had grown accustomed to her roommate’s subtle protests.

Her unpacking finished, Taa floated up to her sleeping sack, zipping it shut. She shifted her body several times, searching for a comfortable way to sleep in zero-G. She settled on sleeping on her back, the back of her head resting against the sack’s padded headrest. Her eyelids were just starting to droop, when predictably enough, the door chime sounded. She muttered a curse, knowing it would be Kee with some story to create an opportunity to say good night to her. Luu was already snoring in her sack, oblivious to the chime’s insistent beep, forcing Taa to unzip and float over to the door. As expected, Kee waited in the corridor, but there was no smile on his face.

“Is there something wrong?” She asked.

“I think you better see this,” he replied gravely.

***

They made their way to a wide, circular pit at the end of the purple-striped corridor. A cube made up of vidscreens sat in the middle of the pit, with handholds spaced around the padded black walls of what Taa assumed to be a lounge. The room was filled with pilots and mechanics of various squadrons, as well as some off-duty Inrii crewmembers. The only empty space was at the very top of the room, where Taa and Kee were able to look down at a news broadcast coming from Lingaar.

The news anchor reported tonelessly, “Following stalled trade negotiations and the bombing of the Tehuzaar Temple of Transference, the Tehuzaar Council of Governors voted unanimously to begin deporting Lingaar religious leaders and to create an embargo on all goods to and from Lingaar.”

The view switched to the pudgy red face of new Tehuzaar Chief Minister Vaa Nolii. “This is the first important step in getting justice for all those killed by the cowardly attack on our holy temple. We will not rest until the Lingaar deliver us those who were responsible for the bombing.”

The tired-looking face of the Lingaar Dominion’s president appeared in place of the Chief Minister now. “We will not admit wrongdoing in this matter, but we will continue to investigate the matter and negotiate with the Tehuzaar for a peaceful resolution.”

The anchor’s deadpan voice returned over a stock image of Tehuzaar troops drilling. “In a related story, Tehuzaar militia has begun maneuvers in the Yinlaa Desert. The Tehuzaar government refused comment about the maneuvers, but an unnamed source said the exercises were planned before the bombing. We will report further details as they become available.”

Taa felt her pulse racing, her entire body feeling faint. Whether or not the military maneuvers had been planned in advance, the significance was clear: the Tehuzaar were preparing for war. By the time the Inrii task force reached the planet, it might already be too late to simply wave the flag and return everything to normal. She squeezed Kee’s hand, grateful for the feel of his body next to hers.

“I can’t believe it,” she finally rasped. “There’s no proof that Lingaar bombed the temple, how can they jump to such a conclusion?”

“I don’t know,” Kee replied. “All I do know is it won’t end here.”

Taa squeezed his hand again, knowing he was right. There were bound to be more rallies, more protests, more cries for action on both planets. She knew neither government would want to back down, to lose face. The embargo and deportations would only be the first step in a political showdown which, unless a diplomatic solution was found, could force Taa to fight a war against her own people.


Chapter Three

The line of freighters and personal craft stretched as far as the eye could see, all the way back to the spaceports in orbit of Tehuzaar. It was a solid wave of misery bound for Lingaar, or to some of the mining outposts in the system; anywhere the people aboard the ships could find work and a roof over their head. From the cockpit of his Spidlaa, Kee could not help but shake his head at the latest escalation of the madness.

In the three months since the Inrii left Lingaar, the bomber of the Temple of Transcendence had yet to be identified. The Tehuzaar government insisted the Lingaar were at fault, bombing the temple in an attempt to destabilize Tehuzaa. The Lingaar in turn accused the Tehuzaar of violating the established trade agreements by raising tariffs and bombing the temple themselves to obtain reparations from the Lingaar. The tensions were mounting on both planets, with more and more people on each side calling for war.

The tension was not contained on the planets, though. Fights between Lingaar and Tehuzaar were almost a daily occurrence on the Inrii now. Even Taa’s roommate was becoming more outspoken in denouncing the Tehuzaar religion. Kee looked over across the black depths of space to see Taa calmly guiding her fighter, making him think of the threatening notes he was starting to receive. The notes, all typed on naval stationery and unsigned, demanded Kee stop seeing “the Tehuzaar whore” before she met with an accident.

It was obvious even to a mere pilot like himself people were choosing sides now. The Unified Defense Command was no longer unified, although neither the Tehuzaar nor Lingaar government had officially called for its dissolution. It made Kee nervous to think of what would happen should such a break-up occur. Each soldier, each pilot, each ship would have to choose a side. He looked over at Taa once again and couldn’t help but wonder which side she would choose.

“Attention all units,” Squadron Commander Rinwaa’s voice cut into Kee’s thoughts. “Militia vessels approaching. I want all flights to form up for combat, but do not engage unless fired upon. I repeat, do not engage unless you come under fire.”

Kee could see the militia ships coming into view now. A pair of spade-shaped Torgaa-class frigates led the way, followed by a saucer-shaped Monloo-class heavy cruiser and the massive cigar-shaped form of a Jolaa-class dreadnaught. Thinking back to his training, he knew the ships carried seven squadrons of fighters all together, while only the 19th Squadron was deployed to fly cover for the Inrii. If things turned ugly, Kee and his squadronmates could expect to be outnumbered very quickly.

“Attention Unified Defense Command task force, this is Fleet Commander Hii Wertaa of the Tehuzaar Republic Militia. You are not cleared to enter Tehuzaar space. Turn back immediately, or you will be treated as hostile targets.”

Kee could not believe what he was hearing, an actual threat against Unified forces. He looked down at his instrument panels, going over the status of his weapons. He had a dozen Bavroo light attack missiles and three hundred rounds of armor-piercing pellets, not much to use against a dreadnaught. He could feel his palms starting to sweat, he turned to look over at Taa, but she was looking straight ahead through her canopy. He yearned to reach out across space and gather her up in his arms, not for her sake, but for his own.

There was no doubt in Kee’s mind his fiancée was in complete control of her emotions at the moment. She was more of a soldier than he could ever hope for, a cold-eyed warrior with ice in her veins while he was on the verge of wetting himself in terror. He could see it in the way her body remained in perfect control, without shifting, slouching, or jerking like he was doing.

“Twelve, you’re out of position,” Bii warned.

“Sorry,” Kee replied, feeling like an idiot. He lifted his visor, wiping away the gathered sweat with the back of his glove.

The Tehuzaar flotilla continued to approach, growing larger and larger before him. Kee could see the gun barrels protruding from the ships, noting they were all aimed towards the Unified task force. Fleet Commander Hii Wertaa’s voice was harsher this time around, “Unified Defense Command ships, you are ordered to leave this restricted zone at once. This is your final warning.”

There was silence on the open frequencies, but Kee knew Squadron Commander Rinwaa was talking over the situation with his superiors. If the task force continued, it would risk starting a war, but if it retreated, the Tehuzaar government would claim victory and become even more belligerent. Caught up in the middle were the twelve little Spidlaa fighters of the 19th Squadron, insignificant compared to the huge warships on either side. But we’re the ones who will die first, Kee thought to himself.

Kee thought he saw a flash from the corner of his eye. He turned to see a tiny puff of flame, some debris scattering, and then one of the Spidlaas was gone. “Four’s been hit! Four’s been hit!” Someone cried out over the open channel.

“Did anyone see the shooter?” Rinwaa demanded, but by then Kee could see missiles flying from the other Spidlaas, the projectiles streaking towards the Tehuzaar ships. “Hold your fire!”

The missiles impacted against the hulls of the Tehuzaar vessels, but Kee knew they would do little damage. A warning tone sounded in his helmet, dozens of missiles streaming from the Tehuzaar flotilla. Rinwaa’s voice came over the squadron channel, “Break formation and retreat towards the Inrii. All flights stay together, and remember your training.”

“Eleven, Twelve, just follow my lead,” Bii called out, his fighter banking hard left. Kee followed, trying to ignore the insistent warning tone in his helmet indicating missiles were locked on. He concentrated on following the intricate pattern Bii’s fighter was weaving through space to fool the incoming missiles. “Twelve, drop a countermeasure.”

Kee triggered a stud just above his thumb on the control stick. A pear-shaped object shot from the rear of his Spidlaa, back through the space his fighter had just occupied. Most missiles were programmed to search and destroy a particular heat signature, corresponding to the size and engine output of a fighter or ship, but the countermeasure would produce a heat signature mimicking that of a Spidlaa. The missile, not smart enough to know the difference between real and fake aircraft, would destroy the countermeasure instead of Kee’s fighter, or at least that was how it was supposed to work.

He didn’t bother to see if any missiles took the bait, he was too busy chasing Bii’s Spidlaa. The Inrii was becoming larger in his canopy, close enough to where he could see fighters being shot from the deck. Behind those, using their verts to get aloft, was a squadron of wedge-shaped Quhii attack planes. It didn’t take much imagination to know what was happening.

“All right, Nineteenth, we’re going to cover the bombers while they get within firing range. Form up over the Inrii,” Rinwaa commanded. Kee traced Bii’s lazy circle to wind up hovering over the Quhiis lifting off from the carrier. He looked over at Taa, and to his surprise she was looking back at him. Her visor was up revealing a pained expression on her face. Their eyes met, and he could sense right away something was wrong. She turned away, lowering her visor to cover her face once more.

Kee turned his attention back to more pressing matters. He could see missiles still coming from the Tehuzaar ships, but the Unified task force’s defenses were knocking them down easily. The entire squadron was assembled and all the Quhiis in attack formation. The 19th Squadron started forward, spread out to form a screen in front of the attack planes. No fighters had been launched from the Tehuzaar ships yet, which meant Kee’s squadron would be used as a shield to keep missiles from hitting the Quhiis.

Fighters from other squadrons being launched were staying close to the Inrii, serving as reserves in case the Tehuzaar launched their own aircraft. Kee tightened his grip on his control stick, feeling helpless and conspicuous in his cockpit. A flash of light caught his attention as missiles from the task force streaked towards the Tehuzaar flotilla. His wandering gaze saw the bow of one task force cruiser swinging towards the Inrii.

Before he could shout a warning, the cruiser opened fire at point-blank range. Anti-ship missiles, electromagnetic shells, and explosive shells pounded the carrier with savage fury. Explosions wracked the port side of the Inrii, the big ship shuddering from the impacts. “All units, focus fire on the Cantee. Bring it down, now!” A voice Kee didn’t recognize shouted.

The Quhiis wheeled about, the anti-ship missiles destined for the Tehuzaar fleet were fired at the rogue cruiser instead. Kee added his own missiles to the fray, feeling anger at the betrayal welling up inside him. How could they attack another Unified ship? The Cantee paid for its treachery, the barrage from the attack planes, fighters, and other task force ships pounding it until the ship was crippled.

One of the Quhiis exploded, Kee looked about to see if more missiles were coming from the Tehuzaar ships, but then he saw a Spidlaa swoop down on another of the attack planes, blasting it to pieces with a burst of armor-piercing pellets. The fighter flew over the disabled Cantee, and then turned sharply, driving straight towards the Tehuzaar flotilla. Feeling a sense of dread, Kee looked over at his right wing, but Taa was nowhere to be seen.

“Taa, no!” Kee screamed over the open channel, but there was no reply. He watched her fighter’s tiny silhouette fade from view, disappearing into the midst of the Tehuzaar ships. The militia vessels were no longer firing or moving, but simply staying in place. It was almost as if they were daring the Unified task force, bloodied by its own forces, to continue the fight.

“All units, return to base. Return to base,” Rinwaa ordered. Kee could detect the weariness in the squadron commander’s voice, a weariness he felt in his heart.

***

Another fourteen aircraft never returned to the Inrii. A frigate of the task force was also seen heading for Tehuzaar, presumably to defect. Every hour more of the task force’s crew would wind up missing, including one of the mechanics for Kee’s flight, Caa Yinloo. The defectors were seen sneaking off in escape pods or aircraft while the damaged carrier started the long trek back to Lingaa for repairs. Not counting the Cantee’s crew, the number of dead, wounded, or defected neared one thousand while the Tehuzaar took no damage at all. The battle was a complete rout for the Tehuzaar, the first victory of the war belonging to them.

Kee went through the motions of putting away his gear, all the while thinking of the last time he saw Taa. She wanted one last look, he thought while he showered. She wanted to see me one last time before she went away. He pounded the wall of the shower pod in anger. How could she? How could she leave me behind?

He changed his clothes, following Bii to the ready room for debriefing. A total of five fighters had been lost, two to enemy fire and three more to defections. Reports on the battle were being sent to Unified Defense Command headquarters on Lingaa to be analyzed. New orders would be coming in a few days, until then the squadron would be on high alert. Combat air patrols would be stepped up to protect the damaged Inrii from any follow-up attacks. Since there were no replacements for the lost pilots, the 19th would consist of two flights. Squadron Commander Rinwaa would lead a flight of four, while his second-in-command, Bii, and Kee formed the other flight.

Kee listened to all the details, but he did not care. The most important person in the universe to him was lost, and he had no idea when he would see her again, or if he would see her again. In an instant, the love of his life had left him behind without even saying good-bye. The pain gnawed at him throughout the debriefing, but only when he was alone in his quarters did he let the tears come.


Epilogue

Kee managed to persuade the Inrii’s security personnel to allow him to clean out Taa’s quarters. As though she sensed something was wrong, Taa’s former roommate allowed Kee to be alone while he stuffed his fiancée’s clothes into a bag. He couldn’t stop himself from breaking down into tears while he packed. Each article of clothing he touched reminded him of her soft skin rubbing against him, and in turn reminded him of what he had lost.

Once the clothes were all packed, he sorted through her personal effects. He stuffed a picture of Taa with her family into one of his pockets, cherishing her warm smile in the photograph. When he reached the vorlee case, he opened it and saw a piece of paper slip out to hover before his face. Snatching the paper from the air, he unfolded it and felt his heart pound. It was a letter addressed to him, written just before the battle.

My Dearest Kee:

If you’ve found this letter, then I am either dead, or have returned to Tehuzaar to stand with my people in their hour of need. Either way, it means that we will be apart for a long time, but rest assured we will see each other again, either now or in the afterlife. I know you do not believe in the Tehuu or his teachings, but there can be no paradise for me without you, so surely we will meet again after death has taken us both.

I wanted to tell you so many things, but I could never find the courage. In the end, I must hope this letter reaches you, so you can know what I could never find the right words to say until now. Let me begin by saying that I love you more than anyone in this universe. I never wanted to do anything to hurt you, but I have a duty to my people.

It is hard for someone from Lingaa to understand the pride of the Tehuzaar people. My ancestors made a dangerous voyage so all Tehuzaar could be free of persecution. They built a civilization with their own blood and sweat. They created a haven in a barren wasteland. We, their descendants, must honor their sacrifice by preserving their work. Even thought I believe in unification, I must defend my family, my home.

I hope you can understand in time it was not an easy decision for me to make. Before I met you, there would have been no hesitation at all, but loving a Lingaar makes me uneasy about fighting a war against them. I do not want to fight you or your people, but I must. I must in order to protect my family, their way of life, so future generations of Tehuzaar can live free of Lingaar domination. Perhaps someday there will be peace, perhaps unification will become reality, but not yet.

I do not know what will happen, but you should know I will always love you. Even thought our people may be at war, my soul will always belong to you. No matter how horrible the war, it can never make me stop treasuring those precious moments we spent together.

Forever Yours,

Taa

Nuk ka komente: