Author's note: This story is set shortly after the events detailed in the novel Pilgrim Stars, and the unpublished Pilgrim Truths (a synopsis of which I found online years ago and have a copy of) by Peter Telep. Those two novels are sequels to the novelization of the Wing Commander movie, and this story is therefore set in what I call the Movieverse.
Right of Passage
First Lieutenant Christopher Blair sat in a jumpseat aboard the Confederation carrier Tiger Claw. Though young, Blair, dark-haired and dark-eyed, was one of the better fighter pilots in the Confederation. What that meant, mostly, was that he simply hadn't died yet. Many had. For the Confederation was at war with a ferocious enemy, the vaguely felinoid Kilrathi, whose goal was to exterminate the inferior "hairless apes". So far, they'd failed, though not for lack of trying. Fortunately, at the moment - in this sector, at least - Kilrathi activity was nil. Which was almost more worrisome than relief. Everyone kept wondering when the other shoe - or paw - would fall.
At the moment, the Tiger Claw was bound for the Ulysses Corridor, where they would engage in some routine patrol activity until they were relieved in a couple of days. Then they would head for SECBASE - Sector Base - for some much needed repair and re-supply - and her crew would get some much needed R & R. That was the plan, anyway. In war, however, little went according to plan.
Blair was already sitting in his jump seat and ready for the jump - they would "jump" the gravity well of a small quasar - when Todd "Maniac" Marshall, Blair's brash room-mate, scuttled in the door at the last minute, threw himself into the jumpseat next to Blair, and quickly strapped himself in. He was still rubbing the sleep from his eyes. Blair just shook his head, resigned. Maniac hadn't even come back to their quarters last night. Which wasn't unusual for the blond pilot. Where he'd been - and with whom and what they'd been doing there - probably was highly unusual, however. Maniac had a reputation for playing as fiercely as he fought. But as long as he got the job done and didn't cause too much trouble, not much was said. The more straight-laced Blair disapproved, but had no cause to talk, for he wasn't exactly the innocent, what with his relationship with Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux, the flight commander. So Blair simply left well enough alone. There were much worse habits he could be forced to contend with in a roommate, after all.
"Thirty seconds to jump." The speaker blared. Everyone braced themselves for the jump; jumping gravity wells was not exactly anyone's most pleasurable sensation.
Suddenly, as they hit the PNR - Point of No Return - of the quasar, Blair felt the jump start to go wrong, although he knew that if the jump really did go wrong, none of them - even him - would ever feel it. They'd never know. They'd just - die, as the ship was torn apart, molecule by molecule.
So, when Blair felt the wrongness, he knew he had to do something, immediately. No one else could. For Chris Blair was half-Pilgrim. More than that, he was a Navigator. What that meant was that Blair was born of a race of humans mutated by the environment of space. In him, the mutation manifested as an innate ability to feel magnetic fields, and see the safe passages in the space/time continuum that existed in the gravity wells of singularities such as black holes, pulsars, and the like. Blair could navigate those "corridors" by feel. And he could feel if they were not properly aligned with those "corridors".
The corridors through this particular quasar were unusually small, and Blair could tell they were not going to make it.
"Oh, my God!" Blair breathed. "We're off course!" He spoke so quietly that Maniac was the only one to hear him. Before Marshall could say anything, however, Blair closed his eyes and applied his other major Pilgrim talent - and one far more rare. Blair's other talent was "hyperkinetics", a kind of telekinesis combined with a sort of astral projection that allowed Blair to not only touch and move things using only the power of his mind, but to feel the sensation as with his physical body. The big limitation to this talent, however, was that he could only touch living objects with it. To touch an inanimate object, or to kill, did damage to the physical body of those with the talent. They experienced it as a coldness whose intensity and duration was in direct proportion to the seriousness of the act performed.
In this case, however, Blair had no choice. It was either that, or they all died.
Blair flung his mind outward, envisioning the bridge of the Tiger Claw. There is no distance, Blair's teacher had said. Therefore, Blair's mind was instantly on the bridge. He reached outward toward the quasar, saw the path they needed to take - as opposed to the path they were on - and quickly punched the proper coordinates into the keypad at the navigator's console. The pain was incredible; no less so for being expected, but Blair managed to get the job done before the agony flung him back into his body - which shivered uncontrollably for a moment, then slumped over in the jumpseat as the reaction became too much and his body shut down. Startled, Maniac started to reach for him -but stopped. In fact, the whole universe stopped - or so it seemed. At least, that's what a jump felt like as the Tiger Claw flung itself out of the normal universe and into the one where the regular laws stopped, and a ship could travel a thousand light-years in a single heart-beat.
Then the white light of that other universe faded, and time began again. Maniac resumed his action, reaching out to Blair with a startled "What the hell?". Then chaos broke loose, both there, and on the bridge as Paul Gerald, Commander of the Tiger Claw, and his officers wondered at the unusually rough ride, and the navigator discovered the altered coordinates.
"Why aren't we dead?" The tall red-head asked plaintively. "You said the plan was fool-proof!"
"Shut up, you idiot!" The shorter brunette snapped. Then sighed. "I don't know what happened. Everything was perfect. We should have been sucked right into the gravity well. Unless...dammit, could that Lieutenant Blair have done something? Shit, he shouldn't have been able to but..."
"Can you do it again?" The red-head said meekly.
"It's not that easy." The brunette replied gruffly. Then got up to pace their small shared quarters. "But I guess I'll have to, if I hope to have my revenge." A glance at the tractable red-head. "And you your release from the hell you call your life."
The red-head nodded submissively.
Blair spent the rest of the day in bed with his body temperature two degrees low. Maniac had explained to the doctor what this meant - he'd been through it before, on the supercruiser Olympus when, in dire straits, Blair and fifteen rogue Pilgrims with the hyperkinetic talent had killed most of a fleet of Kilrathi. Then, Blair had nearly died. This time, he was in even more trouble - for Mr. Gerald was convinced that Blair had altered the coordinates out of proper alignment, thereby nearly getting them all killed.
"What?" Maniac had exclaimed, so startled and outraged that he'd completely dispensed with proper protocol. "No way! Chris Blair's as loyal as a Labrador Retriever! No way he'd ever do anything like that! Uh, sir." He'd added belatedly. But Mr. Gerald had merely crossed his arms over his chest, and said,
"Well then, Mr. Marshall, what do you think happened?" He was baiting Maniac, but Marshall didn't care. Everyone knew of Gerald's prejudice against Pilgrims because of the war twenty years ago, when the Pilgrims had tried to claim the stars as their own. He also knew that an awful lot of people owed their lives to Blair's Pilgrim talents. Like, all of Earth, for instance...That wasn't Maniac's current concern, however.
"Sir, I don't know what happened. All I know is, just before we jumped, Blair suddenly said, 'Oh, my God, we're off course.' Then he closed his eyes and - I don't know, did something. Some Pilgrim thing, I guess. Anyway, after the jump, he got the shakes real bad, then passed out." Maniac made an uncharacteristic gesture of helplessness. He knew Christopher Blair, knew where Chris' loyalties lay. And he knew Blair would never endanger the lives of the people aboard the Tiger Claw. But how to convince a man whom everyone knew was biased against Blair? Maniac knew Gerald had already tried and convicted Chris in his own mind. All that was necessary now was the execution.
"Look, sir, with all due respect," Maniac said with a trace of desperation. "Can't there be some other explanation? Maybe there really was something wrong with the jump. Isn't there some way to find out? Compare Chris's coordinates with the charts! Maybe you'll find something." Maniac finished. Gerald's expression was closed and immovable. Maniac's heart sank. No, Gerald would never give a Pilgrim the benefit of the doubt. Not even one that had proven himself loyal time and again. Maniac thought about it. Maybe he could enlist the aid of other pilots in the squadron. He had saved their lives over the planet Lethe by jumping an artificially created gravity well. He'd even risked his own life unnecessarily to do it, too - for Blair had been out of range and safe when the rest of the squadron had been trapped by the gravimetric forces. Blair had deliberately placed himself in danger by coming in after them, then linking them by tractor beam to jump the well. Maniac knew they'd return the favor, if necessary. "Angel" Deveraux, Chris' lover, for sure. Then there was Bishop and Cheddarboy, Gangsta, maybe even Hunter, Blair's sometime nemesis, could be prevailed upon...
"I will...consider the options, Mr. Marshall." Gerald said. "You are dismissed." And as Maniac saluted and exited, Paul Gerald thought about it. It was true that Lieutenant Blair had gained a certain amount of trust by his past actions. It was also true that Blair's talent as a Navigator seemed to be unusually strong; he'd not only accomplished difficult jumps such as the unstable Scylla, he'd even managed to jump the artificial gravity well created over Lethe by the Olympus supercruiser. Blair had described it as being able to see a safe corridor through space. And he had said, according to Maniac, that they were off course. Had Blair really seen that? And then, apparently, he'd "adjusted" the coordinates in the computer to get them back where they needed to be. Just. By all reports, touching an inanimate object had a detrimental effect. So, Blair had managed to get them enough on course that all they had was a rough ride, as opposed to a fatal one.
Or maybe, he'd tried to kill them all by going off course, and had failed to get them enough off course. But why the comment to Maniac about being off course to start with? A ruse in case he failed? Gerald shook his head, not wanting to admit the possibility that Blair might have saved them all. Because if there was one thing Gerald knew about jumping gravity wells, it's that it's much easier to go off course than it is to be properly aligned. If Blair had wanted to kill them, he probably would have succeeded. All it would have taken was a couple of wrong digits. Gerald didn't like it, but, despite his prejudice, he was not dumb enough to judge without evidence. The betrayal of Captain Jay Sansky had proven that.
Gerald sighed, and went to question the navigator and NAVCOM technician about the possibility that something had - almost - gone wrong with the jump.
Blonde, blue-eyed First Lieutenant Cathy Mitchell agreed with Mr. Gerald's assessment: It would be easier to kill them than to save them. Mitchell was relief navigator for the Tiger Claw, and she got the job of finding out just what had happened.
Mitchell first pulled the log records of the jump. This log contained several records, among which were the coordinates as recommended by the NAVCOM, and those that were actually inputted to the navigational computer. Unless you were a Pilgrim Navigator, and could safely plot the course yourself, most of the time, the numbers were the same. Typos and other variables might occur while inputting the numbers, but if the NAVCOM AI judged that the coordinates typed in were close enough to get the ship safely through, no alarm would sound. If the numbers weren't close enough, the computer would alert the navigator. And this was one of the reasons, Mitchell knew, that Gerald was suspicious of Blair - the computer hadn't notified them that they were off course. And it should have. But, Mitchell knew better than to stake her life on it, and so did Gerald. That's why he was also having the hardware and the software checked. It was remotely possible that for some reason, the alarm hadn't sounded - whether from a glitch or a breakdown.
Mitchell compared the records. The coordinates recommended had matched perfectly with the ones actually entered. 'Ok,' Mitchell thought, 'One strike against Blair.' But not the end of the game.
Next, Mitchell pulled Blair's alternate coordinates, and compared them with the NAVCOM's. They were several digits off, of course, but they knew that. This was just for the record. 'To submit at Blair's court-martial.' Cathy thought.
Then Mitchell got on the Navy's datanet and pulled the charts for this area. The NAVCOM, unlike a Pilgrim Explorer, didn't actually calculate each jump completely from scratch. Instead, it accessed coordinates previously charted, then scanned for current variables and anomalies - such as debris in the way, or other nearby spacial bodies that might influence the configuration of the "safe passage", - calculated coordinates to compensate for these variables, then plotted the recommended course and fed these numbers to the navigator's console.
Mitchell took a look at these numbers. Then she checked them again. Then she notified Gerald.
"How far off are the coordinates?" Gerald asked.
"Far enough off to get us killed, sir." Mitchell replied. Gerald grunted, and took a look for himself. There it was, plain as day. The numbers the NAVCOM had fed them were wrong, off by several digits from the ones charted for this quasar. And Mitchell had even checked to make sure they'd requested coordinates for the right quasar, and correct destination, too. There was no mistake, the NAVCOM's coordinates had been wrong and no alarm had sounded. Only Blair had seen it.
"By God, I want to know how this happened, and I want it fixed immediately." Gerald said. Then he turned to Communications. "Notify SECCOM," - Sector Command - "that we can't make any jumps, and why."
"Aye, aye, sir."
Cathy Mitchell's job was finished as far as this incident was concerned; now it was up to the NAVCOM software and hardware technicians to get to the bottom of the problem. Mitchell went off duty, and walked to the mess hall for dinner. As she exited the food line, Mitchell heard someone call her name. It was Karen Simons, Gunner's Mate First Class. Cathy moved to the seat across from the short, dark-haired woman as Karen's roommate, red-haired Computer Technician Gemma Grant, got up to leave, and set her tray on the table. As she sat down, Karen leaned conspiratorially over and said quietly,
"So what the hell happened up top?" Mitchell looked puzzled.
"You know, the rough jump. I hear it was sabotage." Mitchell was startled, although she realized she probably shouldn't be. Nothing traveled faster than rumor aboard a navy vessel.
"There was a problem with the NAVCOM," Mitchell replied judiciously, "but I haven't heard anything about sabotage. Just a glitch in the system. It'll be fixed pretty soon." She added. But Simons shook her head.
"You know what I think? I think that Pilgrim -," Simons pronounced the word as though it was an epithet - "tried to kill us all."
Mitchell swallowed hard.
"You mean Blair?"
Karen nodded. Mitchell sighed. Rumors really did travel fast...
"Actually," Mitchell told her friend, "as far as we can tell, Blair saved all our lives. It looks like he managed to get us back on course just in time." Simons shook her head in distaste.
"Fucking Pilgrim traitors! They should all be spaced in their underwear!" Simons said darkly. Mitchell blinked in astonishment. She'd had no idea Simons felt this way.
"Geez," Cathy said, "What'd they ever do to you?"
"They were born!" Simons said, as she took her tray and left.
The next day, the Tiger Claw received an emergency communique. Not a minute later, Lieutenant Commander George Alvarez, the ship's chief programmer, called Mr. Gerald to the NAVCOM's secure chamber. He entered to find Lieutenant Commander Martin Core, the chief computer technician, also present. The excitable Alvarez was practically jumping up and down in his agitation.
"Sir," Core, the red-haired and green-eyed hardware tech, began. "We've found the problem. It's not a hardware problem-"
"No, it isn't a hardware problem!" The short, dark-haired programmer interrupted. "It's a software problem, and I found it! Someone somehow reprogrammed the system! They changed the designators on the starcharts!" Gerald looked startled.
"They what?" Alvarez nodded emphatically.
"They changed the charts! Mitchell checked to make sure we'd requested coordinates for the right quasar, but she couldn't know that the quasar the computer accessed wasn't the one we were jumping. The designators were changed."
"So the quasar the computer accessed wasn't the one it thought it was?" Gerald paraphrased.
"Exactly!" Alvarez replied.
"How was that done?" Gerald asked, startled. "That shouldn't be possible!"
"I know it shouldn't!" Alvarez told him, frustrated. "It requires a major security clearance to access the programming, and the NAVCOM hasn't been hacked since the legal ones that helped uncover holes in the system so they could be plugged. I've no idea how this happened." He finished.
"Well you'd better find out, fast." Gerald said. "And in the meantime, what about the spare? Has it's programming been changed, or can we replace the bad one?" Alvarez shook his head.
"I checked the spare myself. It's programming is intact. I'll replace the bad one immediately."
"And you'd better put it under guard," Gerald said. "until you find out how the first one got reprogrammed."
Gerald next summoned Blair to the chart room. When the young pilot arrived, Gerald explained the circumstances.
"Sir," Blair said after a moment. "Could Captain Sansky have done something? He'd have had the right security clearance." But Gerald was already shaking his head.
"We thought of that right after Sansky's death." Gerald told him. "We checked both NAVCOM's circuitry one by one, and their programming line by line. It took forever, but they both checked out clean. No, Lieutenant, evidently this was done more recently. Good thought, though." Gerald conceded, to Blair's surprise. The admission encouraged Blair to think it through further.
"How about another Pilgrim, then? I understand there are some - Chipheads, I think they're called - that are whizzes at hardware design. Is there a kind of programming equivalent?" Gerald thought a second, then replied,
"As far as we know, you're the only Pilgrim aboard the Tiger Claw."
"As far as we know." Blair stressed. Gerald agreed.
"Our chief programmer is already trying to find out what happened and how. But this kind of speculation isn't why I wanted you here." Gerald said. He controlled an expression of distaste. "You've proven to me that you are, to a certain extent, trustworthy." Blair's jaw clenched, but he knew better than to comment on the 'certain extent' part. "We've reached the jump point for the second leg of the trip to the Ulysses Corridor, and we haven't had time to replace the NAVCOM. However, we just intercepted a communications drone. We've got a patrol boat in trouble and we have to jump now."
"And you want me to monitor the jump, to make sure the coordinates are right?" Blair hazarded a guess.
"Correct." Gerald affirmed. Blair nodded.
"Of course, sir."
The jump went off without a hitch. So did rescuing the patrol boat. The two Kilrathi corvettes were no match for the squadrons from the Tiger Claw, and ended the day a debris field.
"Geez," Maniac had complained. "That wasn't even a challenge!"
"Better luck next time, mate." Hunter had replied.
Blair, who'd missed the fight because of his temporary bridge duty, was assigned a routine patrol after the "great battle". Several hours later, Blair, now off duty, wandered to his cabin. There, to his surprise, he found Maniac.
"Shouldn't you be off having sex in a sim, or something?" Blair said as he began to undress.
"Well, Zarya's on patrol right now, and I decided to wait and find out what's going on with the NAVCOM." The blond pilot replied. "Should I dust off my 'Let's have sex now for tomorrow we may die' speech?" Maniac grinned. Blair sighed. He finally got a chance to repeat what Gerald had told him, and gave Maniac a summary.
Maniac thought about it a few moments, then said,
"Well, the NAVCOM's security's so tight you wouldn't think a dust mite could get to it. So you think maybe there is some Pilgrim super-hacker aboard who got into the system?" Blair climbed into his bunk, and put his hands behind his head.
"I don't know." He said. "But Gerald said he's got the Chief Programmer on it."
"And what if the Chief Programmer's the one who did it?" Maniac asked. Blair looked startled.
"But - he's the Chief Programmer! He'd have to have background checks up the ass!"
"So'd Sansky." Maniac pointed out. Blair stared at him. Maniac grinned. "And you thought I was just another pretty face." He said.
"So what the hell do we do, Mr. Smarty?" Blair asked sarcastically. Maniac shrugged.
"Can you do your Pilgrim thing and send your mind or whatever to the Bridge to keep watch on the NAVCOM?"
Blair frowned, thinking about it.
"It's kind of tiring doing stuff like that."
"But you won't be doing much of anything. Just watching."
"But I can't do it twenty-four hours a day til something happens." Blair pointed out.
"You won't have to." Maniac replied. "Supposedly we're going to be relieved tomorrow, then we're scheduled to go in for repair and re-supply. If they're gonna kill us, they have to do it tomorrow when we jump to SECBASE, or they're gonna have to wait thirty whole days til we go back out. And I don't think they're gonna wait that long, or why'd they try now in the first place." Blair thought about it. Much as he hated to admit it, Maniac could be right. The saboteur had tried to kill them now. He - or she - might not want to wait another thirty days to try it again. And if they could get to the NAVCOM before, they could do it again. Blair sighed.
Blair stood beside the NAVCOM. He was bored. He'd always wanted to be a fighter pilot - a man of action. Sure, routine patrols were boring, too, but Blair thought of that as nothing but an occupational hazard, rather than the whole of his job, like guard duty was. So he passed the time tracing pipes around the room, counting buttons on consoles - anything to occupy him while waiting for something to happen. He watched that tall computer tech - what was her name? Oh, yea, Grant. - pick up the tools she'd been using to repair a communications console, and unobtrusively leave the bridge as Alvarez, the dark-haired Chief Programmer, came in. Alvarez reported briefly to Gerald, then saluted and left again. Blair was getting tired. He was also worried. He had no idea how long he could remain "out" like this. Was it dangerous? If he got too tired, would he have a problem getting "back"? Damn, but he needed to do more research on this! Maybe during shore leave...
Blair started. He thought he'd seen something out of the corner of his eye. He whirled, and saw a shape in the shadows. It passed right behind the regular guard, who somehow didn't see it. Blair followed cautiously.
He entered the actual chamber where the NAVCOM sat amidst it's wires and hook-ups. Physically, he could not have entered. As with the NAVCOM on the Pegasus, it was in a room guarded by heavy security measures, including smart-locks which required pass-codes and retina scans. But in his current state, Blair required no such things to enter this room. To his shock, neither did the person he followed.
'So,' Blair thought, 'It's a Pilgrim with hyperkinetic ability!' Blair came up behind the figure, in it's androgynous dark cover-all, who crouched now in front of the NAVCOM. He couldn't see what the person was doing, but just being in the room without authorization - or even the guard's knowledge - was criminal enough. Blair silently glided up behind.
"Hey!" He called.
The figure whirled. Blair finally got a good look - it was Karen Simons! Her eyes blazed with hate.
"Traitor!" She hissed. Then she took a swing at him. Blair jumped out of the way.
"Why are you doing this?" Blair asked.
"Because I'm a faithful Pilgrim, unlike you!" She said contemptuously. 'Oh, god, another fanatic...' Blair thought. She leapt at him again. Blair was prepared, this time, and met the leap with a right to the solar plexus. Her momentum increased the effectiveness of the blow, and she doubled over. He tried to swing again, but she managed to stagger back out of the way. Then she leaped again, and Blair dodged again, but, to his surprise, it wasn't him she was going for. Instead, she reached the NAVCOM and gave it a mighty shove. It came free of it's mountings and fell to the floor, slid across it, and slammed into a wall. Blair, startled, heard something shatter. The NAVCOM sparked and flared, and Blair realized it might be damaged beyond repair. As Blair whirled, searching for the woman, he heard shouts outside. The guard had heard the crash, and was unlocking the door. Knowing he could do no more here, Blair left.
He came back to himself with a gasp and a jolt. He'd been gone a long time, and was exhausted. But he realized the saboteur would be in worse shape. She'd used the hyperkinetic ability to move an inanimate object, and might now be incapacitated, wherever she was.
"Simons!" Blair gasped to Maniac, who hovered beside him. "Karen Simons is the saboteur!" Blair struggled to a sitting position. "She's a Pilgrim fanatic. She just wrecked the NAVCOM."
"She what? Oh, shit!" Maniac said.
"Come on, help me up!" Blair said, as he rolled off the bed and immediately nearly collapsed back onto the bunk.
"What are you doing?" Maniac asked.
"Simons should be incapacitated. We can take her." Blair explained.
"Man, you are not up to this. Why not let the marines get her?"
"Because she's a Pilgrim. I said she's probably incapacitated. In case she's not, those marines may need me to stop her."
Maniac and Blair made their way down the corridor as quickly as Blair could move. Both had their sidearms - just in case. A combination of adrenaline and tough Pilgrim physiognomy helped Blair get some energy back as they approached Simons' quarters. By the time they got there, Blair was able to back up Maniac as the latter slammed open the unlocked door.
But they found nothing.
"So where is she?" Maniac asked. "Does she think she can get off the ship? She's got nowhere to go!"
"No." Blair said thoughtfully. "She stayed on the ship even after she sabotaged it. She doesn't care if she lives or dies. She'd be a martyr to the cause." He added bitterly. The more he learned about Pilgrims, the less he liked being one..."No, I know exactly where she's gone..."
As they pounded up the corridor, Blair called Gerald, who called the marines and Chief Alvarez. They all met at the secure room where the 1st NAVCOM - the reprogrammed one - was being kept pending correction of it's programming. In his anxiety, Alvarez fumbled with his cardkey, but finally managed to let them into the room. One of the marines shoved him ungently aside as he and Blair went low into the room. One of the other marines and Maniac went in high, while the third marine crouched beside the door with Alvarez.
Blair had called it. Simons was leaning weakly against a work-bench, a blaster in her hand, while her roommate, Grant, stood beside her - holding the NAVCOM under her arm, and a blaster in her other hand.
"Hold it!" One of the marines said to them both. Instead, both Simons and Grant fired immediately, then ducked down between work-benches. Blair, Maniac, and the marines dived for cover. Gerald arrived to see smoke wafting out of the room. The third marine refused to allow him or Alvarez entrance, however, until the others had declared the room secure.
Alvarez and Gerald barged in. The first thing Gerald saw was the two young women - one was Gemma Grant, a computer tech he remembered seeing up on the bridge just a little while ago - the other was a short brunette he'd never seen before - crumpled lifelessly on the floor. Grant lay face-down. The brunette was on her back, her eyes staring glassily toward the ceiling. The front of her uniform was burned and still slightly smoking.
"Oh, my god." Alvarez's moan tore Gerald's gaze from the dead women, and directed it at the NAVCOM. Or what was left of it. It lay on the floor, a smoking heap even worse off than the current state of the women who'd engineered it.
"I'm sorry, sir." One of the marines told Gerald. "We tried to stop them, but..." Gerald sighed.
"What about the other NAVCOM." Gerald asked Alvarez. "Mr. Alvarez!" Gerald said more forcefully. Alvarez turned away from the wrecked NAVCOM.
"What?" Alvarez said.
"The other NAVCOM." Gerald asked impatiently. "Can either one of them be repaired?"
"No, sir." Alvarez replied glumly. "This one's so much slag. And the other one's little better. Replacing 'em's all we can do now."
"You mean we're trapped here, hundreds of light-years from Base?" One of the marines asked. But Gerald shook his head. He looked to Blair. The young pilot looked like he was ready to drop. 'Even a Pilgrim has limits,' Gerald thought. It was the only reason why they kept losing battles.
"Mr. Blair, you've been busy tonight. Once you've gotten some sleep, do you think you can jump us to SECBASE?"
Blair thought about it a moment. Acting as a living NAVCOM seemed to be rapidly becoming a second job for him. The alternative at this point, however, was for the Tiger Claw to become a multi-generational sloship. Not a pleasant prospect. Blair sighed and nodded.
The next day, their relief arrived, and Blair jumped a small black hole to SECBASE. This jump - unlike his previous ones, which were always made under dire circumstances - was so routine as to be anti-climactic. Even Hunter commented on it.
"Wasn't sure you could do it. Not enough pressure, mate." The Aussie told him, grinning surprisingly good-naturedly. Blair had grinned back.
Later, he'd run into Gerald in the station on the way to some much-deserved shore leave.
"Sir," Blair dared to ask. "Has anyone figured out why Grant did it?" Gerald pursed his lips. He really had no obligation to tell Blair anything, but, just this once, he thought the young man deserved to know.
"She was Simons' roommate, kind of...Maniac to Simons' Blair.." Blair chuckled dryly at the comparison.
"But why did she do it? I mean, I know why Simons did: she was another Pilgrim fanatic, trying to kill off humans to reclaim the stars. But why did Grant do it, Sir?"
"She was - unstable." Gerald told him. "We found her journal, and it told us a few things. Not so much about her motives, but about her personality. She'd evidently been abused as a child, told she was worthless and taught to be submissive. She was a very dependent person, and Simons took advantage of that. Grant was completely under her thumb, and evidently simply did everything Simons ordered her to do." Blair nodded grimly, and said nothing more. Gerald, however, did.
"Mr. Blair, I still don't like Pilgrims. If anything, I like them less the more I deal with them. I've also learned that anyone can be a traitor. Not that I've ever trusted easily to begin with. I will say this much, however. I am...pleased to serve with you."
Blair's jaw dropped, but before he could say anything, they reached Gerald's destination - the office of the station commander. Gerald went quickly through the door, leaving Blair gape-mouthed in the hallway.
Suddenly, a hand grabbed his shoulder. Blair whirled to find Maniac standing behind him.
"Hey, buddy," Maniac said, much too cheerfully, "You got any plans right now?"
"No, why?" Blair asked cautiously.
"Because," Maniac replied, "I think them murdering bitches got off way too easy, and I thought we could go take out our frustration of it by waxing some Kilrathi ass in the sim. How about it, man?" Maniac was already pulling Blair in the direction of the sim.
Blair thought about it. Then he decided to quit thinking and just have a good time on his first shore leave.
"Sure. What the hell." Maniac threw his arm around Blair's shoulders, and they walked away from responsibility.