Off the Battlefield Part 3
An insistent beeping interrupted the
silence of the darkened stateroom. After a few moments, some fumbling and an
incoherent muttering that was probably a curse, the communicator was answered.
There was a pause, as if the potential consequences of having awakened Colonel Grey were being second-guessed. Finally, Jessica Roshak spoke firmly. "Colonel, I am sorry to wake you. But a priority message for you just arrived; as it was delivered in person, I thought it best to inform you immediately, quiaff?"
Priority message? In person? Michael shook his head and sat up on the edge of the bed. He took a deep breath as he rubbed his face, then spoke more coherently. "It's all right. Now that I'm awake, say that again. And who delivered the message?"
Jessica calmly repeated herself, and added to the end: "The message was delivered by...a representative from Clan Wolf." Michael didn't understand the discomfort in her statement. "He is still here, and would liek to speak with you."
Oh, BLOODY hell, Michael thought. The Shadows had enjoyed good relations with the Wolves for years, but for them to seek the Shadows out was unusual at best, and trouble at worst. Especially given the recent collapse of the Crusaders. "Have him wait in my office. I'm on my way."
Next to him, Elaine rolled over as he clicked on the bedside light. "What's going on?"
He leaned down and gave her a quick kiss on top of her red-haired head; he was already halfway into his Lyran-style coveralls. "I don't know yet," he said, "but it probably isn't good." She nodded, and rose to dress herself as he headed out the door.
Michael ducked right into the galley to grab a quick cup of coffee; he could have gone directly left into his office, as it adjoined his stateroom, but some things were necessary. And if his Wolf guest couldn't handle the informality at this time of the morning, then that was his problem. He saw Jessica waiting outside his office as he returned, and she nodded silently: the Wolf was waiting.
It didn't occur to Michael until after he turned the knob to his office, that Jessica wasn't supposed to be awake either.
Meanwhile, as the office door closed behind Michael, Jessica turned to leave...and saw Elaine come out of the Colonel's stateroom. There was an awkward pause as the two women looked at each other, the Clanner in shock, and the Spheroid...almost in pity, it seemed. Then Elaine simply turned and walked away, leaving Jessica in a confused jumble of mixed thoughts and emotions.
Back inside the office, Michael had gone directly around his desk before even looking at his guest, gulping down his coffee as he went. He sat, set his cup down, and looked up...straight into the eyes of Khan Phelan Kell.
It took a lot to shock Michael anymore, but Phelan did it without saying a word. It wasn't his presence, which was enough of a surprise, so much as his face. The man looked like he had aged ten years in the months since they had last seen each other. Dark stress marks showed beneath eyes that looked not only like they had seen Hell, but even worse, they had known the significance of the vision.
"Gott in Himmel. Phelan, what..."
A short chop of the hand cut Michael off. He was clearly in the midst of an internal struggle, caught between his Clan and Spheroid sides. Michael waited silently, not envying his friend one bit. Finally, Phelan spoke, his voice firm but tired. "I am sorry, Michael." He managed a smile. "I have been heavily involved with my Clan of late, and I forget to whom I am speaking." He took a deep breath. "You have heard of what happened to the Wolves, quiaff?"
Michael nodded. "I got a partial brief through intel. Vlad's Wolves got run over by the Star Adders and Hell's Horses, in a fast moving bloody mess." He paused. "I heard something about civilian atrocities, too, and refugees fleeing to join with you. Vlad is dead, I assume?"
Phelan nodded. "Yes, he is. And you have heard enough to understand why I am here. I...the Wolves...need your help." Michael's eyebrows went up, and Phelan continued. "No, I am not trying to enlist the Shadows in this war. I was a mercenary once too, and I know your circumstances."
He paused, as if uncertain about continuing. Michael leaned forward on his desk, his business face on, but his voice was that of a friend. "Phelan, you know that the Shadows would answer a call to action if you needed it. We would have to justify ourselves to the MLC probably, but..."
Phelan shook his head. "No," he said firmly, "I cannot ask you to do that."
Michael smiled. "Then what is it you need from the Shadows?"
Phelan sighed, and looked hard at Michael. "I know you have many Clan bondsmen in your unit. Some of them are former ristars, and after being with you, they would be the best..." He looked ashamed for a moment, then finally, the mask slipped. "Dammit Michael, you didn't see what the bastards did. They bombarded and burned their way through the occupation zone. The Wolves never had a chance. They rolled in with warships and galaxies of..."
Michael had come around the desk as Phelan spoke. He squatted in front of the Khan, who was shaking with something that wasn't sadness, wasn't anger. It was just something overwhelming, something that revealed just how human he really was. "Phelan," he said simply, as he lay a hand on his shoulder, "what do you need from the Shadows?"
Jessica looked around the room at all the assembled Shadows, all the Clan bondsmen that had joined over the years. Most were Jade Falcons; she noted the young Star Adder and First Leutnant Jacob Osis, the former Smoke Jaguar, standing off to the side by themselves. Even the Wolf technicians, including Chief Fetladral, were present. As the Colonel had ordered.
On schedule, Colonel Grey walked in, and the room instantly snapped to attention. He gestured, and everyone relaxed as he stood in front of the assembled bondsmen.
"I called you here today," Michael spoke with consideration, "to discuss three things. First is the past." He looked around the room. "Fate has placed you with the Shadows, by whatever means, and separated you from your Clans. Since that time, you have continued to live and serve with honor, and for that, I personally thank you." He paused, then continued. "What this separation has meant to you, I can't guess. I do know that at least to the Jade Falcons, you are effectively dead." He shook his head as Jessica shifted nervously. "Why they place so little value on good warriors, I don't know. I know I appreciate you, anyway." He smiled briefly, then casually leaned on the table at the front of the room. "Now," he said seriously, "let's talk about the present. I know you aren't used to getting asked your opinions, but I don't treat people as numbers like the Clans do. I want to see a show of hands: how many of you are truly satisfied with your place, here with the Shadows?"
Most of the room raised hands, including Jessica. She didn't understand what the Colonel was about. She glanced over at Jacob, who gave her a knowing grin; his hand was also in the air. So was Chief Fetladral's, who was wearing his look of perpetual patience.
At the front of the room, Michael stood smiling, his arms folded. The voice that came out of his mouth was like a cold wind, as he stared the whole room down. "Honestly."
There was a nervous pause, and slowly, awkwardly, hands came down among the Jade Falcons. Many hands. Jessica felt like the Colonel's eyes were burning PPC bolts through her; she had to lower her head...and her hand.
To the side, the Jaguar still had his hand in the air, as did his Adder companion. Neither was smiling any more. The Wolves also still mostly had their hands in the air, but there was clearly some debate among their ranks.
"That's what I thought," Michael said with satisfaction. "Now, another question: how many of you, if you were given the opportunity to return to the Clans, would take it?" He nodded as the hands effectively reversed themselves, including Jessica's. Somehow, he had expected that.
As he looked around, Michael noticed that the Jaguar and Adder had their hands down. He raised an eyebrow; the Jaguar smiled in response, but his voice was bitter. "I have no Clan anymore, Colonel, thanks in part to those who stood by and watched while my Clan was destroyed. My place is here now...making them pay." And many of the Jade Falcons shifted uncomfortably, as Jacob grinned with evil satisfaction around the room.
Michael nodded, and the Adder spoke up with a laugh. "Why should I want to leave? There is no point. I would just go back to being a stravag freeborn, barely worthy of a Mech. Here, at least, I am given a chance." There was another shuffle, this time one of agreement. Michael smiled at the young warrior, and then turned back to the group.
"I suppose you're wondering why I'm asking you all these questions." Michael looked around a moment for silent acknowledgement, and continued. "As you have heard, Clan Wolf has...suffered a setback." He looked at the Wolf techs, who looked back very soberly. Michael watched them as he spoke. "I have been approached by Khan Phelan Kell," he said evenly, "about repatriating bondsmen from the Shadows to the Wolves." The entire room seemed to start in surprise. "To be frank, I was challenged to a Trial of Possession for each and every one of you. But I was able to convince the Khan otherwise; it would be self-defeating for the Wolves to sacrifice warriors in such a manner."
Michael paused, feeling the tension in the room. He felt sorry for it being there; he wished that somehow, he could get past the masks that the Clanners wore so tightly. The Smoke Jaguar, at least, had learned to take his off. He would have to speak with him later. But now, it was time for the punchline.
"I am offering you my equivalent of safcon," Michael said calmly, as he looked around the room. "Any of you who wish to leave the Shadows to join the Wolves, to return to Clan society, are free to do so. You only need to say the word. Or actually," Michael corrected himself, "no you don't. Those who wish to stay with the Shadows, are dismissed. Those who wish to go, remain here."
There was a hesitation, and then slowly, the room began clearing. Many of the Falcons remained seated, as did some of the Wolf techs. Jacob Osis, the Smoke Jaguar, was very pointedly the first out the door. Chief Fetladral smiled at Michael as he walked out. "Well done." In a few minutes, all those who wished to leave were gone.
Except for Jessica, who stood awkwardly, looking out the door. She was shaking slightly, clearly torn by the decision. Michael looked at her as she struggled inside, and sighed. He glanced at the door, and then froze as he saw what...WHO...Jessica was looking at.
It was Elaine. She had just come around a corner, and was silently looking back.
Finally, Jessica nodded, and took her seat.
Michael waited a moment longer, looking at Jessica for a long time. She could not look back at him. Finally, he spoke to those who remained, those who wished to leave the Shadows. "Now, we will talk about the future."
The wind across Galatea's spaceport felt unseasonably cold, as the new Wolves boarded the Khan's ship. Phelan Kell watched with a slight smile, speaking quietly with Michael as the short line of former Shadows moved on to their chosen destiny.
To one side, Jessica stood in her new uniform, looking up at the great wolf head on the side of the dropship. The Khan had personally met her and welcomed her, pinning upon her the rank of Star Colonel. She had earned the rank, he said, and a command post awaited her as soon as they returned. All she had to do now, was walk on board.
But she couldn't.
And there the Lady Falcon, reborn a Wolf, stood looking around in turmoil. She looked at the Shadows' ships parked nearby, the dark Mechs and vehicles and troops she had helped to lead for the last decade, assembled to see their comrades off. She looked at the Khan, who seemed to have a strange pride as he looked back. And most of all, she looked at Michael.
Then her mask finally cracked, and she put her face in her hands.
There was a touch on her arm, and she looked up through the tears. It was Elaine. Nothing was said. Nothing needed to be said. Elaine simply gave her a long, strong hug, the first Jessica had ever received in her life.
"Make us proud," the tech whispered. "Make HIM proud."
Finally, the embrace broke. Jessica felt so strangely calm as Elaine smiled at her, and she couldn't help returning it. They exchanged a salute, and Elaine silently walked away.
Jessica watched her go for a moment, then turned and saluted the Colonel and Khan, before finally stepping aboard the ship to her future.