“They’re all over me!” Bruiser screamed as his fighter took a salvo of fire from his pursuers and he fell out of formation with Mask and Wheezy. “I can’t shake ‘em!”
“I’m on your six,” Jack transmitted back and blew one of the raiders into dust bunnies with a double-tap of graviton cannons.
Jack’s mind was a blur of memories as the freighter, damaged hull plating running down its flank, crept by the massive asteroidal fortress orbiting Pryde Rock. Memories of weeks of runs back and forth between Pryde Rock and New Mars as his scratch-built squadron came back again and again with the least amount of damage of any Barlon Security Squadron on the run. Memories of battle after battle and hour after hour of different variations of poker and other games of chance.
It had been a very long month, capped by a long trip.
Jack winced as another salvo brought his shields down to critical and tried to get out of his tormentor’s fire.
“There’s just too many of them,” he muttered and returned fire with his turret as he tried to maneuver away again.
“I’ve got you covered,” Cat’s voice shot over the comm. channel and he heard her weapons firing in the background.
“Thanks,” he muttered, looking out on space through the observation blister as he sat on the single hard bench in the room.
“Anytime,” Cat whispered back and put a hand on his. “You’ve saved us all enough times to earn some payback.”
“There were just too many of them.”
“I’m losing it!” Bruiser’s voice came over the comm. channel as Jack smashed another raider with his graviton cannons.
“Turn hard to port and I’ll take ‘em,” he returned as he brought his fighter around to intercept Bruiser and his buddies.
“I can’t! Engine Two’s gone!” Bruiser shouted back and Jack winced as his two tormentors lit his fighter up again with laser fire.
“If only…” Jack’s voice trailed off slowly and then he shook his head.
“Yeah, I actually miss him too.” She whispered. “He was a real dumb ox but I almost wish he was still here.”
“It was my fault he died,” Jack muttered sadly. “My responsibility.”
“There was nothing you could do,” Cat responded, shaking her head. “He just wasn’t good enough for this.”
“I knew that!” Jack snarled angrily. “I should have grounded him and I didn’t and now he’s dead!”
“And how many of us would have died if you’d done that?” Cat asked pointedly. “Bruiser shot down one of them in that fight, and badly damaged another. And he took a lot of punishment before going down. Which of our fighters could have survived having that damage and more added on?”
“None,” Jack growled out.
“Exactly. I guess your luck has limits then,” Cat whispered.
“I don’t believe in luck,” Jack muttered. “Never have. Never will. We’re all living on borrowed time. And some of us are too far in debt to see our way out.”
“You sound like you’re speaking from experience.”
“Just like Bruiser, I paid off my debts long ago,” Jack muttered casually, relaxing into the wall behind his bench. “But my body didn’t realize it and look at me now. In debt again,” he finished as an image of Andrea flashed through his mind. His face softened at that and he looked down towards Pryde Rock. There was the eastern seaboard right below them.
He glanced down to where New Portland was and sighed, completely forgetting about Cat for a moment as his mind flashed back to his times with Andrea. What she’d looked like the first time he’d seen her on Arnami. The things they’d talked about on the trip back to Pryde Rock in his hyperboat. Surfing. Parties. His mind shot through dozens of memories in a heartbeat.
“So who is she?”
“Wha?” Jack asked in confusion, suddenly coming back to the present. That was sloppy. Very sloppy. He’d die if he let that happen again. He tore his gaze away from the planet and looked at Cat as he fought his face back into its usual casual exterior.
“The girl you’re sighing for, silly,” she scolded and he jerked.
“Va...Vanessa of course,” he stammered out, knowing instantly how bad that sounded. Might as well admit to having an affair right there.
“Not a chance,” Cat came back firmly. “You might be able to fool those lug nuts in there,” she continued with a derisive wave of her hand behind them. “But you don’t fool me. You’re working together, but you aren’t married. I can tell the difference.”
“So why would we want to lie about something that simple?” Jack asked casually, his mask of aloofness back.
“I don’t know,” Cat whispered as she looked at him for a good long second and then shrugged. “But you don’t belong here. Not working for Barlon.”
“And what makes you think I haven’t done this before?” Jack asked casually.
“Nothing,” Cat whispered and stood up to walk towards the door. “You know what you’re doing too well for that. But we’ve fought together for a month now. And you care too much about us to be working for Barlon. You know this squadron has the highest success rate of any Level One Security Squadron out there. The least casualties. Most commanders don’t think of Level Oners as anything more than shields to protect them in battle. Or as…” She trailed off, hugging herself tightly while her eyes closed for a few seconds. When they opened, it was like Jack was looking into hell. “Mask isn’t that way because she likes playing poker,” Cat finally jerked away angrily and Jack averted his eyes to look at the floor.
“I’m…I’m sorry,” he finally whispered, failing to keep his own mask of aloofness up. “I…I didn’t know.”
“Well that’s the difference between you and most of the higher-ups in Barlon,” Cat snarled. “They know but don’t care. You can’t hide the fact that you care. You have the mask up of not caring, good enough to fool Barlon reps.. But in battle, you let it slip enough that we’ve noticed. No squadron commander I’ve worked under in three years would risk his life to save one of us. But every time one of us is in trouble, you bail us out. You never leave anyone to die. You made us work together instead of fight each other. For the fist time I remember, I’m a part of a team.
“Bruiser died protecting that. The team. But without the team he would have died a long time ago.” She paused for a moment, taking a deep breath to steel herself before finishing. “I don’t know why you’re here, Lucky, but you aren’t working for Barlon. I can tell that.” Then she smiled softly in his direction. “And every single one of us will do whatever you want us to do, follow whatever orders you give us. Trust me.”
“I lost this a long time ago,” Jack muttered and patted his right arm. “It took Peloran bioscience to regrow it but I’ll never forget that feeling. I should have died. Maybe I did. Either way, I don’t ever plan on going through that again. I’m just fighting for money here. I’m not some damned idealistic crusader bringing the light to a foreign land,” he spat out angrily.
“I never said you were,” Cat smiled back and opened the door to walk out, leaving Jack alone with his thoughts as the freighter’s heat shields began to glow. His hand came down on the bench hard enough to crack it as the atmosphere burned around the freighter as its maneuvering jets flared, keeping it on course for its reentry route.
He took a deep breath, trying to calm himself back down, and then stood up quickly before dropping into a combat stance. Flames poured over the ship as he ran through all of the most energy draining and potentially lethal katas he could think of. Memories of death and blood filled his mind as he lashed out at unseen foes with all his might. Finally, panting heavily with sweat dripping off him, he collapsed back down on the bench and looked out of the observation blister.
He blinked the sweat out of his eyes and looked again. “Wow,” he muttered and stood up weakly to walk out, turning his back on the spaceport-landing bay surrounding the ship. Time really flew when you were trying to kill your memories.