The Saratoga was doomed.
Commodore Ross didn’t need anyone to tell him that. His ship’s defenses were already severely decriminated with gaping holes in her starboard side. Missile launchers were down, a landing bay completely destroyed, the engines barely working. A couple more well-aimed missiles would do it, destroying the ship and leaving what fighter ships remained outside the ship to be picked off at the enemies leisure. And three alien destroyers had a lot of leisure time.
Off to one side, he could hear Lt. Colonel Henry Jenkins talking tersely to someone, checking the status of his squad. Fourteen months ago, that would have been Ty McQueen but McQueen was gone. . .missing in action on some obscure planet with a truly hideous though fully accurate name of Hellesgate. Well, if he hadn’t died then he certainly would have today, along with the rest of the Saratoga’s crew. Even now he found himself staring at a Chig Destroyer close enough to see with the naked eye if you happen to be looking out the right way.
Which he was.
The alien vessel was turning, no doubt to bring the weapons to bear while the Saratoga’s few remaining weapons barely made flashes against its hide. It was turning, ever so slowly turning. . .and then a great gout of flame erupted in the center, splitting the vessel in half. Each half flew apart then exploded again as a half-a-hundred missiles struck each half.
"What the hell. . ? Where did those missiles come from?" Ross demanded.
"Sir! Four bogies just appeared on-line." Lt. Hennings glanced at her screen with a harried air. "Each the size of the Saratoga. . .three massed on the opposite side of the Chigs, one. . .one slipping in on our starboard side!" Her voice rose slightly at this last
A fizzle of sound and then Lt. Vansen’s surprisingly calm voice came over the intercom. "Saratoga, three bogies just a. . ."
A voice cut in suddenly, a voice so unexpectedly familiar that both Ross and Vansen fell silent. "Belay that, Queen of Diamonds! Wildcards, back to the Saratoga! Now!"
"Yes, sir!. . .Colonel McQueen??? But. . ."
"Go!" McQueen’s voice was sharply clear. A chorus of other voices could be heard in the background, some speaking English, most not. "Those three Rathorn ships are going to saturate the area with missiles and a hammerhead won’t of a chance of surviving. As for you three. . .Godstalk, Dark of the Moon, Seeker’s Mask. . .not a Chig gets away. Whatever the cost! Blood and Ivory, stay tight against the Saratoga’s starboard side. After all this, we don’t want her getting blown up by a stray missile."
"How about a not-so-stray?" Boomed a deep voice.
"Shut up, Skrathe. Commander Ross, what’s going on is very hard to explain and all I can do for now is ask you to trust me." There was a plea in McQueen’s voice that Ross had rarely heard before. "Call in the squads and take heading. . ." He said something away from the communicator and another voice, lighter then the other, spoke a swift series of numbers.
Ross stared at the new ship flanking his own, doubt gnawing at him. McQueen had vanished over a year again. Could he trust the man on the other end of the communicator?
"Commander, every time I’d entered your quarters and you were playing your guitar, for some damn reason you’d start playing ‘Amazing Grace’. Someday you’re going to have to explain to me why. And then there was the time you conned me into taking care of the ship’s cat. . .something I still haven’t gotten you back for. And that damn tattoo. . ."
Ross didn’t let him finish. "All squads, return to the Saratoga. Helm, take the heading indicated."
Jenkins threw him a horrified look but Ross ignored him as the fighter ships sped back to the Saratoga. With lumbering grace, the huge ship reversed its course, the alien vessel sticking to her wounded side like a lamprey.
"All the squads are aboard, sir." Lt. Hennings appeared at Ross’s shoulder and the commander nodded absently, one ear still on the conversation taking place on the vessel hugging their starboard side.
Over the speaker, the deep voice was speaking again. "Tattoo? What tattoo? What is a tattoo? And as for a cat. . ."
"I’ll explain the tattoo later. And introduce you to the ship cat if you promise not to eat it. Helm, pace the Saratoga. Now where to, Skrathe?"
"We’ll head for the repair station off Rathorn." The deep voice, obviously Skrathe, came again.
There was a pause. "I didn’t know there was a repair station off Rathorn." Another pause. "Stop grinning at me! All those teeth make me nervous."
A sharp bark of laughter came over the speaker then a "thump" followed by a "oof!" from McQueen and a thunk.. "Sorry. Keep forgetting how spindly you humans are. On your feet, silverhair. Skyrr has the shuttle ready. Let’s get over there and explain to your friend face-to-face what’s going on. "
"I think I’d rather stay here and explain it from a distance. Safer. But if we must, we must."
"We must. So stop making faces at me, silverhair, and come on!"
McQueen’s voice faded, leaving only the babble of alien voices behind.
Ross stared at the speaker for a long moment then spun on his heel, signaling Jenkins to follow him as he left the bridge.
Once outside the bridge and walking down the corridor, Jenkins hurried to catch up with his commanding officer.
"Commander, are you sure this wise? If that is McQueen, he’s been in alien hands for over a year now. . ."
"Alien hands, yes. But apparently not Chig hands. And besides," Ross fixed the man with a piercing look. "We didn’t have much choice. Two more minutes and we all would have been dead."
Jenkins hesitated then nodded. It was obvious he didn’t care for the idea but then, neither did Ross. McQueen had vanished over a year ago. Where had he been? Then the duo were turning a corner and directly in front of them was the main core of the Wildcards.
Ross didn’t even pause. "Fall in!" He barked and the Wildcards obeyed, Captain Vansen falling in on the commander’s free side. "Commander, that voice. . ."
"It was McQueen." Ross confirmed. "He’s coming over in a shuttle." Hawkes beat him to the indicated hatch, un-togging it and swinging it open for his commanding officer. Ross took a step within and ran a frosty eye over the crew-members within. Rumor had undoubtedly already reached them but he had no time to ease whatever fears they may have. "Everyone, out! Now!"
The crew looked startled but obeyed, dropping what they were doing and leaving. Hawkes swung the door shut just as the alien shuttle was raised into the bay. Ross turned to face it, running an eye over a ship with the sleek and graceful lines of a thoroughbred. It was taller in height than the average Earth shuttle with the door higher in proportion. As he watched, the door slid to one side and a ramp unfolded. A figure appeared in the opening, a silhouette in the darkness then T.C. McQueen walked onto the ramp and down with an easy stride.
His silver hair was much longer then it had ever been in the Corp, pulled back into a pony tail that fell to mid-back. He wore no shirt, just a sleeveless black tunic with an emblem on the left breast. The loincloth drawn through the black belt was silver in color, the leggings as black as the calf-high boots. The McQueen Ross knew never wore jewelry but this man did, an amulet of some sort hung on a short chain around his neck and an ornate silver armlet was clasped around his left bicep.
McQueen paused at the bottom of the ramp, glancing over his shoulder. As if on cue, another figure appeared, gliding down the ramp with a predator’s grace, stopping next to McQueen to look over the clustered group and giving them an equal chance to do some heavy looking.
The alien was humanoid, seven-feet tall and slender, most of the height in the leg. He wore only a loincloth and was covered with a layer of fine black fur that thickened around the forearms, lower legs, head and formed a thick ruff around the neck. The facial features were oddly lupine with canted, golden eyes and pointed ears. Like McQueen, he, too, wore a silver armlet that showed up strikingly against the jet-black fur.
"All your people are too short, silverhair." The deep voice was decidedly masculine. He ruffled McQueen’s hair with an obvious affection. "Let’s get this started, eh?"
McQueen nodded, looking over the group facing them before walking forward. "Commander Ross, may I present Skrathe, Captain of the Blood and Ivory, Flag Ship of the Kencyr Rage."
"Captain Skrathe." Ross automatically held out his hand, only partially surprised when the alien across from him took it in a firm, furry grip.
"Commander Ross." The alien grinned, revealing an alarming array of sharp teeth. "Undoubtedly you are wondering where McQueen had been the past....errrrr..."
"Year." McQueen supplied.
"Plus." Ross added.
"Whatever." Skrathe waved a slender-fingered hand.
"As a matter of fact, yes." Ross gave his friend a piercing look.
Skrathe made a low, guttural sound that Ross finally realized was a chuckle. "He has been on our home world, teaching English to a number of very thick-skulled Timnors in preparation for an alliance proposal to Earth."
"Alliance. . ." Ross glanced at McQueen, who nodded.
"It’s a long, complicated story, Commander. To make it short, the Chigs made the mistake of attacking both Earth and Timnor colonies at approximately the same time. It’s possible that the Chigs didn’t even realize that the planets were colonized by separate races. Whatever the reason, they ended up at war with both Earth and Timnor and, frankly, that's the only reason they haven't overrun one or the other.
end beginning one