e mërkurë, 13 qershor 2007

The Divine War, Part II

Author's Note: This is the second and what turned out to be final part of "The Divine War" series written in early 2002. After this I started getting involved in literary fiction, so this marks the end of an era really.


The Divine War

Part II: Warrior


O I know they make war because they want peace; they hate so that they may live; and they destroy the present to make the world safe for the future. When have they not done and said they did it for that?
-- Elizabeth Smart (1913–1986)


Prologue

My Beloved Taa:

It has been six months since you left me. I think of you and all the time we spent together every day. Each time I look where Tehuzaa should be in the sky, I wonder what you are doing at the moment. Are you thinking of me? Are you longing for me the same as I do for you?

In my nightmares I can see you in your Spidlaa coming towards me. You keep coming and even though I don’t want to, my hand goes to the trigger. Just as I see you mouth, “I love you”, I squeeze the trigger, a burst of pellets shattering your beautiful face. I wake up, realizing it is only a dream, yet I can’t help wondering if I will someday be forced into the position of having to kill you. I fear it more than losing my own life.

There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t yearn for your presence to help strengthen me. You always made me feel like the luckiest man in the universe, like I could throw down all sixteen gods without breaking a sweat. Since you left me, I can’t help but feel lost, like a piece of me is missing.

Over these last six months, I have watched our two worlds edge closer each day to a full-blown war. I know the time is drawing near when I will be forced to kill Tehuzaar and I wonder if I will be able to do it without your strength to steady me. As much as I worry about you, I also worry about what will happen to me when I enter my first real dogfight. Will I run from battle, or make a mistake that kills my comrades, or become a bloodthirsty monster?

I just hope my nightmares do not come true.

Love Always,

Kee

Chapter One

Kee floated into the Inrii’s ready room, positioning himself next to Bii in the back row. Over the last six months, the squadron had taken on Lingaar pilots to replace the Tehuzaar defectors, though Kee still had trouble remembering the names of the new pilots. The new member of he and Bii’s flight, Duu Roncaa, grabbed the hook next to Kee and asked, “Any idea what’s going to happen?”

Like all of the new pilots, Duu had just completed flight training and yearned for a fight. Kee wondered if their enthusiasm would fade after their first real battle, if they even survived. Bii shrugged in response to the younger pilot’s question. “Nobody’s been saying anything lately. I think Command is worried about moles leaking our plans to the Tehuzaar.”

“I suppose we’ll find out in just a second,” Kee added. The lights dimmed as Squadron Commander Rinwaa floated into the room. The projector came to life, displaying an image of Yortaa, the fourth planet in the system. The giant gray-white planet hung in the air, spinning lazily around its three thin rings.

Rinwaa waited for the room to quiet down before speaking. “This, as you know, is Yortaa, which up until forty years ago was just a barren rock. Since then it has become the leading supplier of raw minerals to Lingaa and Tehuzaa. Now, ladies and gentlemen, it is the focal point of the war.”

Rinwaa had to wait until another round of excited whispers died out. “Yortaa has thus far remained neutral in the conflict, but our intelligence indicates an increasing Tehuzaar presence on the colony. More important is what has been observed going on in orbit.”

The projector changed images, a close-up view of Yortaa’s rings rotating in the air. The rings were made of what looked like rocks of varying sizes, whether they were made from stone or some other material, Kee could not be sure. He noticed the innermost and outermost rings were more densely packed than the one in the middle and wondered if a scientific explanation for it existed. Rinwaa continued, “Tehuzaar freighters have been seen dropping off cargo in the ring system. From what our intelligence analysts have seen, they believe the Tehuzaar are building defenses in the rings to interdict our commercial shipping with Yortaa. Depending on what weapons they are constructing, they may also be able to strike any of our fleets bound for Tehuzaa.”

Rinwaa looked around the room, and in the dim light of the projector, Kee could see his commander’s pained expression. “Yortaa is a key strategic target for both sides, whoever controls it will have a stranglehold on mineral resources and shipping routes through the system. Having said that, I can tell you our orders are to seek and destroy any Tehuzaar weapons in the rings. The 23rd will be joining us, while the 21st flies cover and the 15th stays back to baby-sit the Inrii. This is not an easy mission. It will be tight flying, which is why I’ve scheduled simulator time for all of you over the next two days. We launch at 0600 in three days. That is all.”

The meeting broke up, the pilots talking amongst themselves about the upcoming mission. Kee kept silent, feeling a mix of emotions. On one hand, it felt good to have an actual combat mission after months of being idle, but at the same time he worried about losing friends or his own life. Duu, as expected, chattered nonstop about the prospect of combat all the way to the room he and Kee shared. Bii had come up with the idea of mixing the veteran pilots with the new recruits, a policy now being enforced throughout the task force. Living with Duu reminded Kee of the stories Taa would tell him about sharing a room with Luu Mercaa, a notorious talker.

Duu floated around the room, his whole body seeming to radiate nervous energy. “I can’t wait to pay those Tehuzaar cowards back for ambushing the Inrii at Tehuzaa.”

Kee shook his head, his eyes darting to the wooden box lying at the bottom of his storage bag. “That isn’t exactly what happened,” he said.

“Yeah, maybe, but they’re going to learn now what they’re in for.”

Kee knew he could do little to curb the younger pilot’s enthusiasm, so he grunted and floated up to his sleeping sack. He thought of writing another letter to Taa, even though he knew no mail was being sent to Tehuzaa, deciding instead to write his parents. He’d always been given anything he wanted by his parents, yet he did not feel a strong emotional bond with them. Staring at the blank screen of his minicomp, he found it difficult to tell them what he felt. In the end, he decided denial to be the best approach. He wrote of everything from the food to the books he’d read, making no mention of the potentially fatal mission.

He put his minicomp on the shelf overhead, reaching for his book. Although it may be dangerous if his superiors found out, Kee cracked open the copy of the Tehuu Testament given to him by Taa on his birthday last year. There were quite a few similarities between the Tehuzaar and Lingaar religions, though he found the relationship between the Tehuzaar and their God to be much different from the Lingaar and their gods. To Lingaar there was almost a mercenary relationship with the gods, offering prayers and the occasional sacrifice at a shrine in exchange for good fortune. The Tehuzaar, Kee began to understand, saw God as a father who loved and cared for them. While Lingaar would shift allegiances to whatever god they felt would help them, the Tehuzaar remained ever faithful to their one deity. Kee admired the Tehuzaar’s devotion to their God. Perhaps in better times I could have converted, he thought. He snapped the book shut, deciding to get some rest before the simulator session in the morning. As much as he admired the Tehuzaar, tomorrow he would be trained to kill them.

***

Kee had seen Yortaa many times before on his way to Tehuzaa, but he’d never come so close to the planet before now. He turned to his right to see Duu flying in perfect position. He wondered if Taa waited in the rings for him. Rinwaa’s voice broke up his dark thoughts. “All units proceed into the target area. Stay tight and keep your eyes peeled.”

Kee followed Bii’s sharp bank to the left, lining up for a run into the middle ring. Duu positioned himself behind Kee’s fighter, the tight confines of the rings making it necessary to fly in single file. The closer he came to the rings, the more they seemed like the Zeboo asteroid belt he’d flown through during flight school, chunks of ice-covered rock varying in size from tiny pebbles to kilometers across. He worried as much about one of the smaller pieces smashing through his cockpit as a Tehuzaar missile blowing his fighter to pieces.

He twisted his Spidlaa to the right to avoid smashing into a rock as big as his plane. He jerked his head from left to right, searching for any sign of enemy activity. Up ahead, he could see Bii pull up sharply over another rock. Kee followed his flight leader’s wild gyrations, all the while scanning for some trace of the Tehuzaar.

After twenty minutes of frenzied maneuvering, he suddenly heard Duu shout, “I’m hit!”

Kee looked back, watching in horror as Duu’s fighter corkscrewed into a chunk of icy debris. The Spidlaa exploded in a tiny fireball, a rust-colored fighter zipping through the smoke and launching a pair of missiles. Kee wasted no time in dropping a countermeasure and hauling back on his control stick. The enemy Spidlaa followed the maneuver, firing a burst of pellets that grazed Kee’s left wing. Much to his relief, his displays showed no damage.

He looked around for Bii while he jerked his fighter past another rock, but he did not see his flight leader anywhere. The enemy plane followed Kee’s defensive maneuvers, another volley of pellets chewing up the left wing. His helmet’s warning tone sounded in his ears, telling him the enemy aircraft had locked on with its missiles. Kee dropped another countermeasure, barrelrolling to the left just as the missile flashed from under the wing of the Tehuzaar fighter.

He knew he had to find a way to take the offensive or find help; otherwise he would be done for. The enemy pilot so far had followed his every move, it seemed unlikely Kee could coax him to collide with one of the rocks in the ring. He jinked right around another piece of debris, the answer coming to him. He lined up a rock straight ahead of him and armed one of his missiles. The heat-seeking Bavroo missiles couldn’t lock onto the icy rocks, but if he fired from close enough, the missile wouldn’t have enough time to make a course adjustment.

He pushed the throttle ahead, weaving right to avoid another stream of pellets. The rock, as big as a sledge, became larger in his canopy. He counted to three, then fired a missile and shoved the control stick forward. He didn’t see the missile’s impact, but when he had completed his loop, he saw the Tehuzaar fighter looming large in his sights. He let loose another Bavroo, the missile hitting the mark from pointblank range. Kee climbed over the debris cloud from the downed plane and shattered rock.

Safe for the moment, Kee looked around to see if he could spot Bii. All around him, blue-and-white Lingaar Spidlaas danced with rust-colored Tehuzaar fighters around the glittering ice rocks. It was strangely beautiful. He keyed his radio to the open frequency, ignoring the established protocol of observing radio silence during battle. “Bii, where are you?” he asked.

“I’m a little busy!” Bii grunted in reply.

Kee looked around the battlefield again, deciding to just help out the nearest Lingaar fighter. He swooped down past another rock, firing a burst of pellets. The shells missed the mark, but distracted the enemy long enough so the Lingaar fighter ahead of it could loop around and fire a missile. The Tehuzaar Spidlaa exploded, the two Lingaar planes forming up on each other. Fortune smiled on Kee as he heard Bii call out, “Thanks.”

“No problem,” Kee replied.

“All right, try to stay with me this time.”

The two Lingaar Spidlaas waded back into the fight, each launching a missile at a Tehuzaar fighter. The enemy pilot, bracketed by the Bavroos, ejected safely before his plane exploded. Kee felt his plane’s control stick vibrate his hand, he looked back to see another Tehuzaar Spidlaa on his tail. “Bii, I’ve got one on me!”

“I’ll get him.” Bii’s fighter shot upward in a tight loop while Kee swerved left to avoid another burst of pellets. He heard the missile lock tone in his helmet, but he held his fighter level while he knew Bii was lining up a shot of his own. The Tehuzaar plane fired a missile, Kee snapping his fighter to the right in a roll almost hard enough to make him pass out from the G-forces. The missile harmlessly struck a rock, while the Tehuzaar Spidlaa burst into flame. Kee pulled around to form up on Bii again, looking around for another target.

“All units, evacuate the target zone,” Rinwaa commanded. “Repeat, evacuate the target zone.”

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Kee said. He pulled up on his control stick, kicking in his afterburners. Once clear of the rings, he could see streaks of light crisscrossing the space around the Inrii. A swarm of enemy fighters buzzed around the Inrii task force, dogfighting with Lingaar planes while dodging streams of anti-aircraft pellets and heat-seeking missiles.

“Listen up everyone,” Rinwaa said sharply, “we’ve got a group of Quhiis coming from the surface. It’s up to us get them, don’t let them launch their payloads.”

Kee checked his radar, noting the dozen attack planes coming through the atmosphere. Doing the math in his head, he knew it would be a close race to get to the Quhiis and eliminate them before they launched their anti-ship missiles at the Inrii.

Kee checked his fuel gauge, grimacing at the number. There would be very little fuel left after even a short engagement, he would run out if he had to do many more fancy maneuvers. Despite the desperate fuel situation, he had to use his afterburners now to intercept the attack planes before they reached striking distance. Bii raced along beside him, the rest of the squadron spread out in a single line.

The 19th had lost four fighters in the ring ambush, yet they fared better than the 23rd, which could field only three Spidlaas. At least as many Tehuzaar fighters had been shot down, providing the only positive in the battle thus far. No matter which side won, it would be a costly victory, albeit an important one.

Kee tried not to focus on his fallen squadronmates, instead keeping an eye on his radar display. The enemy Quhiis had yet to rise above the atmosphere, though even when they did it would take almost a minute to get them in missile range. Kee watched the gap narrow on his instruments, resisting the urge to wipe the sweat building on his forehead. At a moment such as this, he yearned for Taa’s ever-present calm. He knew she would not be sweating, she would not be feeling afraid right now.

He shook away thoughts of his departed fiancée, his eyes returning to the radar screen. The last Quhii had just cleared the atmosphere, leaving only forty-five seconds at maximum to destroy them. Kee squinted, just able to make out the glow from the attack planes’s engines. He fiddled with the control stick, waiting for the missiles to lock on to a target. After what seemed like an eternity, his targeting crosshairs glowed red, a tone indicating he had locked on to one of the Quhiis.

Kee stabbed the fire button twice, watching a pair of Bavroos streak across the empty blackness. A swarm of missiles joined his, leaving him with nothing to do, except watch the drama unfold. He saw explosions in the distance, blips fading from his radar screen. Even so, half of the Quhiis remained functional, closing to launch range.

Kee knew he would have to make his last missile count. He could see the dun-colored attack planes in the distance, but he would not be able to get in range for a shot from his cannon before the Quhiis launched. Though not a religious man, he said a brief prayer before he let his final Bavroo fly. He lost track of the projectile as it mixed with another swarm from his squadron, noting four more blips wiped from his radar.

Two Quhiis remained, growing larger in his canopy. No more missiles came from Kee’s squadron, the fighters forced to charge along at full speed and hope to get within cannon range before the enemy planes launched. Kee watched the distance wind down in his head’s up display, his finger poised over the button to fire a stream of pellets.

The Quhiis seemed resigned to their fate, pressing straight ahead without any concern for the fighters bearing down on them. A quartet of flashes almost blinded Kee, the telltale sign of missiles being launched. Kee could only watch as the big anti-ship projectiles hurtled away from the Quhiis, towards the Inrii. He took little satisfaction in blasting one of the attack planes to pieces with a burst of pellets while Bii took out the other.

Kee looked towards the big carrier and the smaller ships spread out around it. He could still see tiny explosions marking the loss of a fighter, the flashes of a missile launching, and the streams of light coming from the task force’s anti-aircraft weapons. He could do nothing more than check his fuel gauge, its numbers only increasing the helplessness he felt. With only another burst or two of pellets left and just enough fuel to make it back to the Inrii, he could do nothing to help his comrades.

The 19th formed up, drifting in empty space until the Inrii gave them permission to land. Kee listened to the open frequency, hearing pilots scream, swear, shout warnings, and thank each other. His fists clenched of their own accord, his stomach churning with each call over the radio.

The battle ended three agonizing minutes later, the last Tehuzaar fighters retreating to bases on the surface of Yortaa. The enemy Spidlaas flew past in sight of Kee’s idling squadron, but apparently the Tehuzaar did not have the weapons or fuel for an engagement either. Rinwaa relayed instructions to land on the escort cruiser Zerlaa to rearm and refuel. As Kee passed by the Inrii, he could see three gaping holes in its starboard side from the anti-ship missiles launched by the Quhiis. He cursed under his breath, knowing his squadron had failed to protect the carrier. Kee followed Bii’s fighter to land in the cramped hangar bay of the squat, cylinder-shaped Zerlaa.

Before Kee even climbed from his cockpit, a team of mechanics had already started hooking up a fuel hose and bringing over a cart of Bavroos. He saw Squadron Commander Rinwaa motioning for the squadron to gather around his plane. Kee’s entire body felt like a lead weight as he hauled himself over to Rinwaa’s Spidlaa, a fatigue he could see the other pilots shared. Rinwaa’s face looked pained as he spoke. “There isn’t much time, but I have received word that an enemy task force will be here in less than one hour. Everyone is to shower, change, and drink a vitamin shake, then meet me back here for a quick briefing.” Rinwaa motioned to a junior officer from the Zerlaa. “She’ll show you where to go. Now I know some of you are disappointed about what happened out there, but we did everything we could. You all performed just as I expected, and I know I can count on all of you in this next battle. Go on and get out of here.”

Rinwaa’s pep talk did little to lift Kee’s spirits as he followed the other pilots to the showers. His commander could say they did everything they could, but it did not ease the weight Kee felt. He thought of the damaged Inrii, wondering how many men and women had died because four anti-ship missiles got through to the ship. Ultimately, no matter what Rinwaa said, Kee knew the blood was on his hands.


Chapter Two

“I don’t believe it. How could they get a whole task force here without our knowing about it?” Bii asked as he downed the last of his vitamin shake.

“It’s not going to make a difference, we’ll wipe them out anyway. This time they won’t be able to surprise us like in the rings,” Luu Mercaa said.

Kee held his tongue, gulping down his own can of tasteless goo. He couldn’t shake the dark thoughts out of his head. He hadn’t been able to stop the last two Quhiis, and now dozens of people were dead as a result. With a start, he realized Bii had a hand on his shoulder. “Kee, are you coming?”

“Sure thing.” Kee followed after Bii and Luu, floating down the corridor back to the hangar. The other pilots had already assembled around Rinwaa’s fighter, with Rinwaa himself hovering over the nose of the Spidlaa.

“I’m going to make this quick. We are going to launch an attack on the enemy task force. Each fighter will be outfitted with one Jeflii anti-ship missile and two Bavroos. The Inrii will be sending up a squadron of Quhiis escorted by the remnants of the 21st and 23rd. While the Quhiis are armed with anti-ship missiles, they will serve primarily as a decoy. The enemy should concentrate its firepower on the Quhiis and their escorts, allowing us to get into launch range. I know most of you do not have experience in attack operations, but firing a Jeflii missile is just the same as launching a Bavroo, you just have a bigger target to work with. Launch your missile, then help bail out the decoys, understood?”

“Yes, sir!” the squadron replied as one. Kee drifted to his plane, noticing the bulky Jeflii missile under the Spidlaa’s belly.

“Good luck!” Bii shouted, clapping Kee on the shoulder. Kee did not share Bii’s enthusiasm, but as he hauled himself into the cockpit of his fighter, he felt a rage burning inside of him. The Tehuzaar had killed Duu and so many others, now Kee would be able to pay them back. He had been friends with Tehuzaar, even loved one, but as he launched from the Zerlaa, he only wanted to kill them.

***

Kee could see the distant bulk of the Tehuzaar task force ahead of him. The Inrii reported three Monloo-class cruisers and two Torgaa-class frigates made up the task force, which gave the Tehuzaar a slight edge in firepower. Kee checked the status of his Jeflii missile for the hundredth time, determined not to make a mistake when the time came. The missile’s bulk meant the fighters could not go top speed, making for a longer wait to get revenge.

“We are engaging the enemy,” a voice came over the open frequency. The call meant the Tehuzaar had taken the bait, focusing their planes on the decoy group. Kee watched the numbers tick down in his head’s up display, only about a minute before he could launch his missile. He could see flashes off to his right as the Tehuzaar and Lingaar planes tangled and wished he could join the action.

Rinwaa’s voice suddenly came over the squadron channel. “Listen up, everyone. Fighters are approaching from the surface. Jettison your Jeflii if you have to, but no foolish heroics.”

Kee could see the newcomers on his radar, feeling a bitter taste in his mouth. The fighters coming for them now had to be the same ones the 19th had allowed to escape in the last battle. This time the tables had been turned, with the Tehuzaar fighters rushing to catch the Lingaar before they launched their anti-ship missiles. Well, at least the universe has a sense of humor, Kee thought.

Only thirty seconds remained before he could fire his missile. The enemy Spidlaas began to appear, warning tones sounding in Kee’s helmet. He ignored the warnings, his vision focused on the Monloo cruiser growing larger before him. Kee launched countermeasures to keep enemy missiles away while he kept driving towards the cruiser in his sights. He counted down the last ten seconds, the warnings in his helmet becoming shriller. The Tehuzaar Bavroos closed unabated on Kee’s fighter, ignoring the countermeasures.

His crosshairs turned red, the Jeflii locking onto the enemy cruiser. Kee stabbed the fire button, shoving his control stick forward once the missile cleared his Spidlaa’s nose. The fighter shot downward in a hard spiral, a pair of heat-seekers following the sudden maneuver. He released another countermeasure, while at the same time jerking his Spidlaa hard to the right. One of the missiles followed the decoy, the other followed Kee. He threw his fighter into a sharp barrelroll, an explosion blossoming behind him. The missile, having run out of fuel, exploded harmlessly.

Kee surveyed the area around him, finding himself alone while a fierce battle raged overhead. He searched for Bii’s plane, but he couldn’t distinguish one Spidlaa from another in the ratrace. In desperation, he called out, “Bii, where are you?”

“Four o’clock high! I got one on my tail…I can’t shake him!” Bii shouted back, his voice sounding more panicked than Kee had ever known. He pushed the throttle ahead, hoping he didn’t arrive too late to help his friend and wingman.

He could see a stream of pellets clip Bii’s wing, the enemy Spidlaa following each desperate maneuver Bii tried. Kee felt his own plane buck, pellets grazing his fighter’s belly, but he focused on the Spidlaa pursuing Bii. The two planes were too close for Kee to use one of his missiles, forcing him to rely on his cannon.

Bii’s fighter weaved back and forth, trying to keep the Tehuzaar plane from getting a clear shot, but at the same time it prevented Kee from being able to line up the enemy Spidlaa. “Bii, I’m behind you. Get out of the way and I’ll take this guy down,” Kee said with a calm he did not feel.

“All right, you nail this bastard.” Bii arced his fighter up, but instead of the enemy fighter trying to pursue, it broke off to the right and down. It became painfully clear why an instant later, when a Bavroo smashed into Bii’s cockpit at pointblank range. Kee watched in horror as the fighter sprayed a cloud of debris, then disappeared without any trace of Bii.

Kee wanted to scream, but no sound would come from his throat. Hot tears stained his cheeks, a paralysis seizing his entire body. The renewed screech of the warning tone in his helmet shook him from his stupor. He did not know which fighter had actually fired the shot that killed Bii, but he did spot the Spidlaa that had been pursuing his friend.

Kee’s eyes narrowed, he wanted nothing more than to destroy the Tehuzaar plane, to repay it for causing Bii’s death. He was not conscious of what he did next—an impossible series of maneuvers to wind his way through the heart of the dogfight—until he found himself on the tail of his quarry. He launched one of his Bavroos, the weapon just missing the enemy’s left wing. He triggered a burst of pellets, the Tehuzaar fighter standing on its right wing to dodge the shots.

Kee became oblivious to everything around him, his universe centering on the Spidlaa weaving ahead of him. He did not notice Yortaa growing larger before him, nor did he see the increasing gap between his plane and the rest of his squadron. He kept on the tail of his prey, being careful not to waste the rest of his ammunition. He waited for the perfect shot, a clean kill to avenge Bii’s memory.

“Henlaa, where are you going?” Rinwaa shouted in his helmet.

Kee switched the radio off to maintain his concentration. Once he reached the atmosphere, he would have no choice but to wait until he descended into Yortaa’s stratosphere to resume the fight. He tried every maneuver he could think of to line up a shot, yet each time the enemy pilot countered him. After a final failed burst of pellets, Kee followed his adversary into the atmosphere.

Heat built up in his cockpit, making him worry about his last Bavroo cooking off and taking him with it. The missile held together, the Spidlaa emerging in the cooler air of the stratosphere. Kee looked around to find his quarry, the other plane’s rust paint scheme contrasting markedly with the thick white clouds drifting close to the surface. Kee banked hard to the right, dropping back on the enemy fighter’s tail.

Once again Kee could not manage to get a good shot. He followed his opponent down lower, through the clouds, until he found himself surrounded by a vast range of gray-purple mountains. The aerial game of cat-and-mouse continued, yet as each second went by the real enemy became a shortage of fuel. By descending through the atmosphere, Kee had already known he would not be able to make it back to the Inrii, but before much longer he would have no choice about where to land his plane. Something had to be done.

Kee decided on a risky course of action. If he could not destroy the Tehuzaar Spidlaa, perhaps he could do the next best thing by forcing the enemy plane down. He waited until the enemy fighter weaved to the right, veering his own plane in the same direction. He fired a burst of pellets, but by then the Tehuzaar pilot had already taken advantage of Kee’s mistake.

Just as Kee predicted, the enemy Spidlaa did an inverted loop to get behind Kee and take the initiative in the battle. Instead of trying a maneuver to counter, Kee killed his throttle, throwing on his verts to hover in the air. He turned in his seat, watching the Tehuzaar fighter complete its loop only to find Kee’s plane directly in its path. With a grim smile, Kee jerked the ejection handle over his head, the enclosed cockpit blasting free from the rest of the plane.

He couldn’t see the collision from the escape module, but he felt his cockpit shake from the explosion. Once the rockets beneath Kee expended their fuel, a pair of verts activated to ease him to the ground. He let his autopilot find a suitable landing spot while he searched the sky for any sign of his foe. His fists clenched with murderous rage when he saw a rust-colored Spidlaa escape module lowering itself to the ground. He could only watch as Bii’s killer drifted to safety.

Kee’s escape module touched down on a piece of level ground in the shadow of the mountains he had seen from his fighter. His adversary’s cockpit came down a kilometer away, Kee wasting no time in bolting from his cockpit with pistol in hand. Yortaa’s gravity was higher than either Tehuzaa or Lingaa, yet Kee ran as though he had wings. His eyes focused on the Tehuzaar escape module ahead of him, his hands tightening around his pistol’s grip. All he could think about was getting his hands around the neck of the enemy pilot, squeezing the last ounce of strength from the Tehuzaar wretch. He hungered for the complete annihilation of the enemy pilot, to bring about some measure of justice for Bii. His feet thundered across the rough Yortaan ground, every footfall increasing his lust for blood.

He watched the canopy of the Tehuzaar Spidlaa open, its pilot stumbling out with arms raised. Kee gave no sign he understood the enemy’s signal of surrender, charging at breakneck speed with his weapon raised. As he closed the gap, Kee saw the blood staining the Tehuzaar’s flight suit and a gash along his bare forehead. “I surrender!” the other man shouted.

Kee skidded to a halt in front of the enemy pilot, his finger tightening around his pistol’s trigger. “Down on your knees!” With a nod, the Tehuzaar knelt down on the ground. Kee patted him down, searching for weapons, but he did not find any. He jammed the barrel of his weapon hard into the neck of his prisoner, his teeth grinding together.

“Please, I surrender, don’t kill me.”

“Don’t kill you?” Kee snorted, as though it were the most outrageous thing he had ever heard. “You killed my friend and now you want me to spare your life?”

”I’ll tell you anything you want to know, just don’t kill me,” the Tehuzaar pilot said.

“I don’t care what you know, all I care about is justice for my friend!”

“Then take me with you, I’ll stand trial.”

Kee jammed the gun barrel deeper into the man’s neck. “Where was Bii’s trial?” Kee demanded. “He never got a trial, the only justice he received is the same you will.”

“You can’t do this. I’m unarmed! This is murder!”

Kee pulled the trigger.

The back of the Tehuzaar’s head exploded like a ripe melon, showering Kee with blood, bone, and brain matter. The enemy pilot pitched forward into the dirt, his limbs twitching a few moments. An eerie silence hung in the air, Kee standing over the body, not quite comprehending what he had done. He watched blood pool around the man’s shattered skull, the pistol feeling cold and leaden in Kee’s hand. He dropped the gun, running away as fast as his legs would carry him.

***

Black smoke rose in the distance, thick columns of it making the sky on the horizon appear like nighttime. Kee stumbled forward towards the smoke, sweat and grime coating his entire body. He had no idea what city lay ahead, having left his survival kit in his cockpit. It mattered little what lay in his path, he could only think of what he had done. The scene played again and again before his eyes in slow motion, each time a new wave of guilt stabbing his soul.

He froze in his tracks, watching a pair of Tehuzaar Quhiis pass maybe a hundred meters overhead, their bellies laden with bulbous bombs. Scant seconds later, three Lingaar Spidlaas streaked past in pursuit of the Tehuzaar warplanes. The Quhiis managed to drop their bombs before a swarm of Bavroos brought them down, fresh columns of smoke adding to the pall already over the city. The Spidlaas shot up in the air, disappearing in the haze.

Kee remained rooted in place, only now becoming aware of the trouble he had gotten himself into. He could try to go back to his escape module, to find his survival radio and call for help, or he could go into the city, where he might find friendly forces. If he went back he could run into Tehuzaar patrols, if he went ahead he could get caught in a lethal crossfire. He decided to take his chances in the city, wishing he hadn’t left his pistol behind.

He walked down a deserted highway into the city, the sounds of machine-gun fire and explosions close by. The buildings around him, all squat structures made of polished metal and glass, bore the scars of bombs and artillery. It became almost impossible to avoid stepping on glass or other debris. Kee climbed over the twisted wreck of a sledge to find himself in the middle of an intersection, and a gunfight.

He threw himself to the ground, pellets whizzing just overhead. He looked up to see a group of men in Unified Army gray body armor firing from behind a tipped-over sledge. Kee swung himself around one hundred eighty degrees, seeing another group of men in blue armor returning fire from behind a sledge of their own. With the body armor and helmets, Kee could not tell which were Tehuzaar and which Lingaar, so he decided to just make a run for it. He pushed himself to his feet, sprinting across the street and ducking into the cover of a doorway.

The sidewalk beneath his feet started to tremble, the massive black shape of a Huldaa tank coming down the road. To his dismay, the tank bore Tehuzaar markings and had a column of infantry behind it. The Huldaa made a ponderous left turn, its body rocking as it launched a shell from its sleek turret. Kee heard the explosion followed by screams, terror running through his entire body. It would not be much longer before he would be discovered, then captured or executed by the Tehuzaar. He launched himself from the doorway, his legs pumping as fast as they could over the debris-strewn ground.

“You, stop!” someone behind him barked. Pellets struck the road surface behind him, footsteps crunching glass in pursuit. Kee turned a corner blindly, the footsteps sounding closer. He felt a sharp pain in his left leg, pitching him forward onto the ground. He struggled to his feet, noticing the blood oozing from his leg onto the pavement. The Tehuzaar soldiers shouted again as Kee limped forward, though he knew it wouldn’t be long before the enemy caught him. He ducked down an alley, searching for some way to elude his pursuers. He flattened himself against a scarred wooden door, hoping the Tehuzaar would not search the alley or somehow miss him so he could double back.

He heard heavy footsteps echoing down the alley, the enemy soldiers on alert for a trap. Kee held his breath, his heart sounding like a drum in his ears as he waited to be discovered. The door behind him suddenly opened, one hand hauling Kee backward by his left shoulder while another hand clamped over his mouth like a vise. “Quiet!” a stern voice hissed. Kee heard a creak then felt himself being pulled down a flight of stairs. The hand around his mouth relented, allowing him to take a deep breath. “Don’t worry, we’re safe now. Just be quiet,” the voice said.

“Who are you?” Kee asked, looking around in the dark, but he could not see anything.

“Never mind that, just be quiet.” Kee heard footsteps overhead, followed by muffled curses. It seemed like a lifetime in the darkness before the sounds faded, the Tehuzaar soldiers moving on. “Stay here. I’ll make sure they’re gone.”

Kee thought to acknowledge the command, but he felt woozy all of the sudden. He slumped against a wall, the darkness suffocating him like a wet blanket. He tried to get to his feet, couldn’t, and decided to take a nap while he waited for his savior to come back for him.


Chapter Three

Kee woke up to find himself in bed, with his left leg bandaged and propped up on a pillow. With a start, he realized he only had on a pair of underpants before he noticed a fresh shirt and pants on the back of a chair next to the bed. He sat up, taking a look around the room. The meditation cushion in the corner told him it belonged to a Tehuzaar, but the bedroom had few other distinguishing features. A battered set of wooden drawers, a cracked mirror, and a bare metal lamp were the only other objects in the room.

He swung his legs over the bed, testing his injured leg. Pain raced through his body as soon as the limb touched the wooden floor. He cried out and rested his left leg back on the pillows, cursing his stupidity. He took a deep breath then reached over to the chair, snagging the faded blue shirt on the second try. The shirt went down to his knees, meant for someone at least two sizes bigger.

The bedroom door opened, a tall man with the tanned skin of a Tehuzaar ducking inside. The man had a shock of white hair with a matching well-trimmed beard, his black eyebrows the only hint to what his original hair color might have been. A smile split the old man’s face as he looked Kee over. “Are the accommodations to your liking?” he asked.

“I can’t complain. I didn’t get a chance to thank you for saving my life.”

“Don’t thank me just yet, I still have to find a way to get you back to your people.”

“I don’t mean to sound selfish, but how is my leg?”

“I took the pellet out, cleaned the wound, and bandaged it up, you should be up and around in a few weeks.”

“Are you a doctor?”

“I was, a long time ago.”

“Then why are you still here?”

The man shrugged. “Where else would I go? Every city, town, and village is exactly like this, with Lingaar and Tehuzaar at each other’s throats. I may as well stay where I’m comfortable. Which brings me to the question of what are you doing here?”

“My plane went down, I walked into town looking for help.”

“A pilot, eh? What do you fly?”

“Spidlaas.”

“A fighter pilot, how remarkable. I flew Valnoos for the Tehuzaar Militia when I was about your age. I don’t imagine you’ve even seen a Valnoo other than in books.”

Kee shook his head. “Just once at a museum.”

“Well, thanks for making me feel my age.” The old man sat at the end of the bed, checking Kee’s bandages. “I’m sorry about the clothes, they belonged to my son…so did this room until he died.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be, you never knew him. He was a freighter captain, died when pirates raided his ship.” The old man paused, his eyes clouding up. “He’s been dead for twenty years now.”

“I…” Kee stopped, not knowing what to say. “I never asked for your name.”

“Saa Pidlii. It’s a pleasure to meet you…”

“Kee Henlaa.”

“Well, Kee, I don’t see any blood on your bandages, meaning the wound has stopped bleeding. I want you to get some rest, and if you have to use the bathroom, call for me or just go on the sheets if you can’t hold it.”

Kee smiled. “Thanks, Doctor.” Saa stood up, heading for the door. Kee finally worked up the courage to blurt out, “Why did you rescue me?”

A shadow crossed Saa’s face. “Because I could.” The door closed, Kee left alone to ponder Saa’s cryptic answer. He fell asleep to the rhythmic sound of thunder from the bombs and artillery shells hitting all around the city.

***

Kee woke to the sound of a string of explosions hitting nearby. He tried to get out of bed, only to be shoved back down by a large tan hand. He saw Saa sitting in the chair by the bed, looking down at him with concern. “What’s wrong?” Kee asked.

“You were crying out in your sleep. Something about a person named Taa. I got the impression someone tried to kill her.”

Kee sat up in bed, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He remembered a fragment of a nightmare, the horrible image of Taa kneeling down on the ground with his pistol at her neck. “It’s just a dream,” Kee replied.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened after your plane went down?”

Kee shook his head, feeling the cold lump of guilt in his gut. “Because you’ll hate me.”

“Try me.”

Kee looked Saa in the eye; the old man’s glare overwhelming him until he looked away. Kee took a deep breath and leaned back in bed, his words coming slowly. He explained about the battle in the rings, intercepting the Quhiis, and then the counterstrike against the Tehuzaar fleet. He paused, summoning his strength before he could describe Bii’s death and the dogfight between himself and the Tehuzaar pilot. “After our fighters went down, I went to finish what I started. I found him by his plane, wounded by either the collision or the ejection, I don’t know. He begged for me not to kill him, to take him captive, but I…I killed him.” Kee stopped, breaking down into violent sobs. He felt Saa’s arms around him, the old man holding him close.

He looked up, expecting to see hate or fear in Saa’s eyes, but instead he saw understanding. Saa held him out at arm’s length, whispering, “Kee, in a war, many things happen that we later regret.”

Saa stood up, pacing the room before looking back down at Kee. “I’ve never told this to anyone before, not even my wife or son. When I was only a little older than you, a group of pirates began attacking villages and farms on Tehuzaa. The government tasked the militia with bringing the pirates down. After they raided a village, my squadron tracked them back to their hidden base in the wastelands. They had constructed their lair into the side of a mountain so satellites couldn’t see them.

“Despite the small size of their targets, the pirates had a substantial amount of firepower. My squadron commander hadn’t called for support, mostly to reserve the credit for himself, but also because he thought we would be facing a handful of antiquated fighters. Instead, we found ourselves alone against two squadrons of Valnoos. You see, we later learned these pirates were after the militia, not the villages. They wanted to provoke us into a fight to capture equipment or to ransom prisoners to the government. Though we never proved it, everyone in the militia believed the Lingaar were sponsoring the pirates.

“As you can imagine, things turned quite ugly for my squadron. I found myself in combat for the first time, caught up in a swirling mass of fighters trying to destroy each other. I lost sight of my best friend, my wingman Yee Xolii, and fought alone until I spotted his plane with a pirate Valnoo right on his tail. I can see the missile leaping from the pirate fighter’s wing almost as if it were yesterday. Yee never had a chance.”

Saa stopped, tears welling up in his eyes. “When Yee’s plane exploded, something inside of me snapped. I fought like a man possessed, until the pirates began to retreat. I went after Yee’s killer, taking down his plane with a burst of pellets to the engine. The pilot ejected safely, I could only watch his parachute start drifting towards the ground and freedom. I watched him, the hate in my heart growing with every second until…”

Saa seemed unable to finish the thought, his mouth moving soundlessly. Kee asked, “You killed him?”

Saa nodded. “I circled around behind him and put a burst of pellets right into his chest. The shells were meant for tearing open the armor of aircraft, the pirate’s body just exploded in mid-air. When I returned to base, my mechanic found…fluids smeared all over my plane.”

Kee stared at the old man with shock. “How…how did you get over it?”

Saa shook his head. “I never got over it, just like you will never get over what you did. The reason I told you my story is because of what I learned afterward.” Saa seemed agitated, pacing around the room with his hands fluttering for a minute before he continued. “I realized I had been trained as a soldier to follow orders, to bomb targets, to shoot down enemy planes, but never how to deal with the loss of a comrade or the guilt of killing another man. I learned that the difference between a soldier and a warrior is learning to be a master of your emotions. Do you understand?”

“Not really,” Kee answered.

“Think about this way: a soldier has a set of rules to follow, a code of conduct established by commanders and taught through training. A warrior also has a code of conduct, taught only on the field of battle. A warrior learns to kill when he must, to fight with honor, and to give quarter. Every man or woman going into battle starts off as a soldier, but only a few ever become warriors. Most people become so riddled with guilt they can never fight again, some going so far as to commit suicide. Still others find carnage so intoxicating they become bloodthirsty maniacs. You, Kee, stand at the fork in road, you must choose your path.”

“You want me to love war, to love killing?”

“No, of course not,” Saa paused. “Why are you fighting this war, Kee?”

“To restore peaceful relations between Lingaa and Tehuzaa.”

“That is the reason the politicians use, the high-minded ideals they toss about to draw support for their cause. Why are you fighting this war, Kee?”

Kee thought about the question for a minute before answering, “To protect my home and family from the Tehuzaar.”

Saa nodded with approval. “Yes, you fight for your family, not because you want to kill people.”

“You’re saying it’s all right to kill, so long as I have a good reason,” Kee said sarcastically.

“In a perfect world, we would never be put in a position to kill another person. However, this is not a perfect world, so we are forced to participate in wars we may not approve of.” Saa sat down on the chair next to the bed. “We both know this war was started by the politicians on Lingaa and Tehuzaa. Their ridiculous tariffs, overblown rhetoric, and convoluted schemes roused the long-dormant fears of Lingaar and Tehuzaar. You, your fiancée, even the man you shot did not ask for this war, yet it came anyway, so now you must fight. Is this starting to make sense?”

“I think so. You’re saying that we all have to do things we don’t to do, but which me must do.”

“Yes. You are in a position where you must kill, but it does not have to destroy you. If you choose the path of the warrior, you will come out of this war with your spirit intact.”

“I will.”

A smile cracked Saa’s face. “I know you will, Kee. For now, get some rest. Even warriors need sleep.”

“Thanks, Saa…for everything.” Saa nodded, leaving Kee alone to think about everything the old man had said. For the first time, he felt calm as he drifted off into a deep sleep, the sounds of war outside seeming a million miles away.

***

He awoke to find Saa shaking him by the shoulders. “What’s going on?” Kee asked.

“The Tehuzaar have taken over the city. They’re rounding up any Lingaar left, I have to get you to safety.”

“Where?”

“I’ll take you down to the old storm shelter, they shouldn’t look down there.” Saa held out his hand. “Just try to stay off that leg.”

Kee nodded, taking the proffered hand. Pain flashed before his eyes as Saa hoisted him off the bed and into a roughly upright position. Kee leaned against the old man, keeping his left leg off the floor, but he still felt a sharp pain with each shuffling step.

For the first time, Kee saw more of Saa’s house than the bedroom. They walked down a short hallway, into a shabby living room packed with old books, dead plants, and frayed furniture. Thick brown curtains, which appeared to have been white at one time, covered two large windows, allowing only a thin shaft of light into the room. The kitchen, connected to the living room by a small dining area, was in a similar state of disrepair. “Nice place,” Kee teased.

“There is a war on, you know,” Saa shot back with mock-indignation. “No, my wife always did all the cleaning, I could never be counted on to pick up after myself. This way.” Saa steered Kee towards a wooden spiral staircase. Each halting step down the stairs brought on fresh waves of agony for Kee, though he managed to choke down the screams building inside of him. When they reached the end of the stairway, Kee found himself in a huge room paneled with rich dark wood, dilapidated leather chairs resting against one wall underneath a huge whitewashed window. An ancient desk guarded the passage to a door across the room.

“What is this place?” Kee asked.

“This is my old clinic. I closed my practice about five years ago…after my wife died.” Saa’s face looked pained as he looked around the room. “The building was originally a department store. After it went out of business I converted the lower floor into my clinic and the upper floor into an apartment for my family. Come on.”

They shambled past the reception desk, through the door, and down a long hallway. Kee saw examination rooms still stocked with medical equipment, an eerie chill running through him. Saa stopped at the end of the hall, looking for a long time to his left. Kee could tell by the shelves of reference books, the paper-laden desk, and degrees on the wall that Saa was looking at his old office. He left the old man to his own thoughts, until Saa’s head suddenly snapped around as though he had been struck. “Let’s go.”

Saa guided Kee across the hall into a supply room, the metal shelves still well-stocked. Kee recognized the door to the alley right away, knowing this is where Saa had found him and saved him from the Tehuzaar soldiers. Saa helped Kee stand against one of the shelves, where he clutched the shelf with both hands and kept his left leg elevated while Saa lifted up a part of the floor with a loud creak.

“What is that?” Kee asked.

“I don’t suppose on Lingaa you have much need for storm cellars. Here, though, the storms can get pretty fierce, so it’s best to have somewhere to hide.”

The stairway to the cellar would not accommodate two people, forcing Kee to hop down the stairs on his good leg. Saa flicked on a bare light bulb, which provided just enough light for Kee to see a wooden shelf crammed with rusting cans of food and discarded tools scattered on the floor. Saa helped Kee onto a rickety military-issue cot sitting next to an ancient, dormant furnace. “You just lie here and rest until I get back.”

“Where are you going?”

“To see a friend about getting a sledge to take you out of town. I shouldn’t be long. If anyone should barge in to have a look around, try to hide.”

“Right,” Kee replied without confidence.

“Don’t worry, I’ll try to be quick.” Saa turned off the light and disappeared up the stairs, the panel creaking over the cellar door, sealing Kee into the tomb. He sat up against the wall, listening to Saa’s footsteps fade into the alley, followed by an uncomfortable silence. Though he tried to fight it, tried to stay awake, Kee fell into a light doze.

When he woke, he heard gruff voices shouting above him.

***

Kee couldn’t make out the words, but he could hear the angry tones followed by objects crashing to the floor above his head. Tehuzaar soldiers had to be following up on his disappearance from the alley, ransacking Saa’s office for any trace of a Lingaar fugitive. How much longer before they discovered the storm cellar and found him?

He groped in the dark for some kind of weapon to use for a feeble last stand, settling on a slimy piece of pipe. He hefted the pipe, swinging it a few times to get used to its weight. The footsteps and voices above him started to fade, no doubt the searchers were moving along to other parts of the office. Maybe they won’t find the storm cellar, Kee thought. An instant later, he heard someone tapping on the supply room floor. Someone above him was looking for the cellar door, the taps coming ever closer to the stairway.

The pipe in his hand did little to reassure him as he thought of an armed group of soldiers coming down the stairs to flush him out. They could shoot him well out of the pipe’s range, and even if he could hide it to use in an ambush, he would probably be able to club one trooper over the head before he took a burst of pellets in the chest. Instead of trying to fight, he had to find somewhere to hide.

He scrambled to remember the layout of the storm cellar when Saa had led him down, his mind sticking on the furnace standing only a meter or so away. If he could manage to get behind the furnace, he might be able to stay out of sight, unless the Tehuzaar made a thorough search of cellar. He heard a shout come from near the cellar door and knew he didn’t have any more time for decisions.

Using the pipe as a makeshift crutch, Kee levered to his feet. He felt a sharp stab of pain radiating from his injured leg up to his clenched teeth. He shuffled forward, holding his crutch out to find the back of the furnace. The cellar door creaked open, shafts of light penetrating the darkness to reveal the narrow space between the furnace and the wall. Kee threw himself into the gap, biting down on his lip until he could feel blood in his mouth to keep from screaming. At least three pairs of heavy footsteps descended the stairs, followed by a long period of uncomfortable silence.

Sweat trickled into Kee’s eyes as he waited for some sign that he’d been discovered. The footsteps began to move around the room, objects smashing against the wall to his right and left. He clutched the pipe with both hands, the pain in his leg turning to a steady throbbing until he felt he would pass out. The footsteps came closer, a pair of boots visible next to the cot. It wouldn’t be long before the Tehuzaar saw the gap between the furnace and wall, probing the shadowy recess to find him cowering with only a moldy pipe for a weapon. In a moment of pain and panic-induced hysteria, he imagined the Tehuzaar soldiers so consumed with laughter at the pitiful sight that he could get the drop on them and escape.

Another set of footsteps began down the stairway, only these seemed much lighter. “What is going on here?” Saa demanded.

Much to his relief, Kee saw the boots by the cot move away towards the staircase. “Are you the owner of this building?” A gruff voice asked.

“I am, and I demand to know what you are doing.”

“We’re searching for a Lingaar fugitive, last spotted in this area. We believe he may have taken shelter in this building.”

“Nonsense! I’ve been here ever since the fighting started, I would have noticed an intruder by now.”

“I’m sorry sir, but we didn’t see you when we began our search. You mind telling us where you were?” the gruff voice demanded.

“I was out looking for some supplies. You know, food, water, and so forth. I’ll be damned if I could find anything, though. Maybe you boys could tell me where I could find some.”

“There are aid stations set up outside the city, we could arrange for you to be taken there if you like,” the soldier said sarcastically.

“And leave my home? You must be joking. Now, if you gentlemen could get on your way, I can start cleaning up this mess you made,” Saa scolded.

The footsteps started up the stairs, a voice growling, “If we find out he was here, old man, we’ll have you put before a firing squad for treason. Is that clear?”

“Perfectly, young man. Now, off you go.”

Kee waited long after the footsteps had retreated up the stairs before he let out the breath he’d been holding in. He still worried about the soldiers coming back, so he waited behind the furnace for Saa to tell him to come out. At some point he must have lost consciousness, because he found himself waking up in the bedroom once belonging to Saa’s son.

“What happened?” Kee asked.

“I found you behind the furnace, shaking and with a pretty high fever. You’ve been out like a light for three days now, but it looks like the fever is gone.”

“Have the soldiers come back?”

“No, no, it’s just been you and me.” The old man’s expression hardened, his voice turning cold. “Kee, we have to get you out of here. The Lingaar still hold Yurkii, if I can get you there, they should be able to arrange for your ship to pick you up. I won’t lie to you, there are roadblocks on every entrance to the city, it won’t be easy to sneak you past.”

“Saa, you’ve done so much for me already, I can’t ask you to take this kind of risk.”

“What risk? I’m an old man, my wife and son are both dead, all I have left is an empty office in a ruined city. If they shoot me for helping you, what will I miss?”

Kee smiled in spite of the pain he felt in his heart. “I don’t think I can ever repay you for all you’ve done for me.”

“It’s I who should repay you. The time we spent together brought back so many feelings I thought were lost forever after my son died.” Saa leaned down, wrapping his arms around Kee’s shoulders. Kee could feel the old man’s tears against his cheek, mingling with his own. “Thank-you for coming into my life.”

Saa straightened, silently backing out of the room. Kee wondered if the old man was embarrassed, but Saa returned a few minutes later with a fresh set of clothes. “Put those on and then I’ll help you down to the sledge in the alley. We haven’t much time to waste.”

***

Kee slouched in the passenger seat of the sledge, pulling a threadbare cap low on his forehead. He felt conspicuous riding next to a Tehuzaar, riding through the ruins of a city occupied only by enemy troops, despite Saa turning the window tint to almost opaque. He reviewed their skimpy plan again, his mind searching for some kind of alternative. Unfortunately, he couldn’t think of anything to do but try to bluff the guards to let them pass. They would have X-ray and infrared sensors at the roadblocks to search for anyone trying to stowaway, so if Kee hid in the trunk or under the backseat of the sledge he would only cast suspicion on himself. Seeing the roadblock ahead, he felt his stomach churn. He looked and talked too much like a Lingaar to pass for a Tehuzaar or even a native half-breed. Saa smiled over at him, but Kee did not feel reassured as they reached the barricade.

The roadblock looked imposing with a tank, a handful of troop transports, and at least a platoon of armed Tehuzaar soldiers arrayed around a hastily constructed gate stretching across three lanes of highway. The sledge stopped just in front of the barricade, one of the Tehuzaar militiamen motioning for Saa to lower the window. The soldier leaned down, asking, “Can I see your identification, gentlemen?”

Kee reached into the left pocket of his pants, pulling out the wallet he’d found there. He didn’t know how Saa had gotten a fake ID made, but he doubted the forgery would pass for real. Nevertheless, he handed his identification to the guard and prayed to all sixteen Lingaar gods for protection. The soldier scanned both IDs with a minicomp before returning them. “Might I ask where you are going, Doctor Pidlii?”

“To my wife’s sister’s house in Zarjuu. As you might expect, we really don’t feel comfortable here anymore.”

The guard did not seem convinced by Saa’s cover story. “Where is your wife, sir?”

“I’m afraid she passed on five years ago.”

“Was she a Lingaar?”

“It’s none of your business, but yes she was.”

The soldier nodded, his expression hardening. “Doctor, my orders are to take custody of any persons of Lingaar descent. I can let you pass, but your son here will have to come with me.”

“Now hold on, young man, where would you take my son?”

“I don’t have that information, Doctor Pidlii.”

Saa lowered his voice to a whisper Kee had to strain just to hear. “I’ll tell you where they’ll take him: to an internment camp where he will spend the rest of the war being tortured and used as slave labor, if he even survives that long! How can you ask me to do such a thing to my only child?”

“Sir, if you resist I will have to arrest you both.”

“Then that’s what you’ll have to do!” Saa shouted.

Kee touched the old man on the arm. “Dad, it’s all right. I’ll go with them.”

“No, if they take you, they have to take me too.”

“I’m sorry, Doctor Pidlii, but I have my orders,” the guard interjected.

“Your orders?” Saa sneered. “You would make my son suffer because of your orders?”

The guard started to look uncomfortable, Saa’s barbs getting through. “I’m sorry, sir, but if I let him go and he joins the Lingaar side, it would be my fault.”

“Let me explain something to you, young man. In medical school I was trained to help all people who need my help, not just those who are the same religion as I am. My son—studying to become a doctor before this war broke out—has seen me work on both Lingaar and Tehuzaar patients since he was a little boy. He knows not to discriminate. Now, let us go so we can go to Zarjuu to help people.”

The soldier looked about to speak, but he wordlessly backed away from the sledge and motioned for the gate to be moved aside. A pair of burly soldiers slid the gate back so the sledge could proceed down the highway, leaving the ruined city behind. Kee leaned back in his seat, his heart thumping like a drum. “Don’t you feel a little guilty for lying to the guard?” He asked.

“Why would I?”

“Because when I get back to my ship I’ll have to kill more Tehuzaar.”

“You don’t have to. You and I could go somewhere to lay low until the war is over.”

“I can’t, not as long as the Tehuzaar threaten my home.”

“I know, but it was worth a try. You’ve come to mean quite a lot to me, Kee, I’m not sure I can bear to see you go.”

Kee turned to look at Saa. He pleaded, “Then come with me. I’m sure my ship could use another doctor.”

“You think they would accept a Tehuzaar physician?”

“Why not? I did,” Kee replied with a nervous grin.

Saa laughed, “You didn’t have a choice.”

“Look, you can hide out somewhere or you can do something to help people. Like you said, it doesn’t matter if they’re Lingaar or Tehuzaar.”

Saa swerved the sledge off the highway towards Yurkii. He seemed to be considering Kee’s words, weighing the possibilities in his mind. He finally turned to Kee, asking, “Do you think we could convince your superiors to take me in?”

Kee laughed, “You convinced the soldiers searching your apartment to go away and that guard to let us pass, don’t worry about my superiors.”

“Well then, I guess it’s settled.”

They continued in silence for a long time, watching the sun dip below the distant gray horizon. Despite their levity, Kee could see Saa still wrestling with the decision. Maybe I’m being too selfish, asking him to come with me, Kee thought. “You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” he blurted out.

“No, I want to come. I was just thinking about when my son died, all the pain I still feel. If you’re killed, it will be like losing him all over again.”

Kee reached over to pat the old man on the shoulder. “Then I just won’t die.”

“I’ll hold you to it.” Kee could see the lights from the perimeter around Yurkii ahead. He realized his prayers at the roadblock had been answered, just not in the way he had thought. The gods hadn’t sent some divine messenger, they hadn’t sent bolts of lightning, nor had they even whispered commands into the ears of his enemies. No, they had sent him an old Tehuzaar doctor who loved him like a son, and who he in turn loved like a father.

“When this is all over, you’ll have to come back to Lingaa with me to meet my family and Taa…if she’s still alive.”

“Don’t worry, I’m sure she is and if your family is anything like you, I’d be delighted to meet them.”

“Well I guess we have a problem then.”

They laughed all the way to the checkpoint guarding the entrance to Yurkii.


Epilogue

Kee swam into Squadron Commander Rinwaa’s office, his leg still burning with pain even after two weeks aboard the Inrii. He’d seen Saa about it yesterday, but the doctor said everything was coming along nicely. He hovered in front of Rinwaa’s metal desk, which was bolted down and magnetized so nothing would float away from it. After exchanging salutes, Rinwaa got down to business. “Pilot Kee, your Tehuzaar friend tells me you’ll be ready for active duty in another week, is that correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good. Before I get to the reason I called you in here, I want you to know I do not approve of pilots who disobey my orders. I trust it will not happen again?”

“No, sir.”

Rinwaa nodded. “The reason I called you in here is because even after your unfortunate incident, I am promoting you to Flight Leader.”

“Thank-you, sir.”

“Don’t thank me, Flight Leader Henlaa, with our recent losses I have no choice. I expect you to take this new responsibility seriously. Command wants us to pin the Tehuzaar here as long as possible, which could be months or even years without reinforcement. I can’t afford to lose people foolishly, do you understand?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’m assigning you two junior pilots formerly of the 23rd and having you bunk with them. Have your personal items transferred by 0600 tomorrow. Dismissed.”

Kee threw Rinwaa a salute then swam out of the office and back to the quarters he had once shared with Duu Roncaa. Bii and Duu’s things were already packed up, moved to a storage locker somewhere until the ship returned to Lingaa, whenever that happened. He floated up to his sleeping sack, grabbing his minicomp off the overhead shelf. Thinking of Bii and Saa, he decided to write a letter to his parents, to put in words what he had never said to them.

***

Dear Mom and Dad:

Bii Honuu was killed just over a week ago. I never thought I would have to write those words. All this time I knew it could happen, but I never wanted to believe it. Maybe I’ve been too arrogant to believe Bii and I could die, that we were somehow immune to the death all around us.

In the past week, so many things have happened that I want to tell you about. The first, the most important, is saying I love you. I know I’ve never said it before, and a lot of times I never acted as though I did, but I have always loved both of you. Coming close to death on a daily basis has made me realize that I might not get another opportunity to express how I feel. I hope you can forgive me for being such a brat, especially during my teenage rebellion phase. I caused so much unneeded grief for both of you, it’s a wonder you didn’t disown me.

I also wanted to tell you about the man who saved me more times than I can count this past week. His name is Saa Pidlii and he took care of me after I was shot down during a mission. He bound up my wounds, hid me from Tehuzaar troops, and smuggled me back to Lingaar lines at great risk to his own life. He is also a Tehuzaar doctor. If not for him, I would be in a Tehuzaar prison or dead right now. I hope after this war is over you’ll be able to meet him and thank him for saving my life.

I don’t know when I’ll be able to see you again, though I pray it will be soon. Until that day, just know I am alive and well. I think of the two of you, as well as Mii and Vuu, everyday, and more than anything, I want to come home to all of you. Whenever I do see you again, you may not recognize me. As much as I wish it were not so, the boy who left you to fight this war is gone. I’m not sure what I have changed into, but I do know the man I want to become. You can rest assured, though, that no matter what else changes, there is always one thing that can never change.

I am your son.

Love,

Kee

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