In Act III, Able Sequoia and Jig Cypress are attacked by enemy fighters while searching for the secret Vortani refueling base hidden in the asteroid belt that surrounds Rendios. Cypress quickly destroys one of the attackers, but finds himself the target of the second one. Seeing his former squadron-mate in danger, Sequoia is faced with the dilemma of abandoning his commitment to nonviolence in order to save him from certain death.
# # #
A salvo from the Vortani ship connected with a propulsor on Cypress’ ship, turning the engine into a stream of orange fire. Cypress shouted in pain; his helmet sensors connected him to the ship’s systems as if they were symbiotic living creatures.
“I’m hit!” Cypress shouted. “Fire, Able! Fire!”
As he watched Cypress weave his damaged ship to avoid the Vortani’s energy beams, Sequoia’s genetically engineered mind worked faster than it ever had in an effort to calculate all the variables confronting him. But he was programmed to instantly determine the optimal way to kill an opponent, not to find solutions to moral dilemmas.
He needed an option that lay outside instinct.
Forshana, he called in his mind. I can’t let my friend die! Tell me what to do . . .
He blinked in surprise and his eyes widened. Suddenly, he had the solution. The solution for which he had been searching all these years — since Forshana’s death, since his exile to Rendios. He laughed in surprise.
Sequoia flipped a switch on his control column and the target reticle switched to boresight mode, overriding the tracking computers and enabling him to point the cannons manually. With deft nudges to the controls, Sequoia aimed the cannons at the Vortani fighter’s starboard engine and fired off a short burst. Shards of armor flew off the attacker, but he continued homing in on Cypress.
Sequoia fired a second burst that had the desired effect; the ship immediately began slowing and shuddering. Quickly, Sequoia angled his ship to fire on the Vortani’s port engine and fired another non-lethal burst that shredded its housing without causing it, or the ship, to break up. With no choice left, the Vortani broke off its attack on Cypress and pulled up and away, trailing vapor and white-hot fragments of engine. For good measure, Sequoia fired off additional bursts that passed close above and below the fleeing ship, inspiring it to increase its acceleration.
Overcharged on adrenaline and in pain from the combat damage his ship had sustained, Cypress turned and prepared to give chase to his former attacker.
“No!” Sequoia shouted. “Let him go.”
“But . . . ”
“Stand down!” It was the universal command for test-tube soldiers to disengage their combat instincts, and Cypress instinctively obeyed his former superior officer. Time quickly slowed to normal for both men.
“He’s going to tell the Vortani high command that we know about the refueling base,” Cypress said, his voice calmer but still edged in the pain of his symbiotic injuries.
“Let him,” Sequoia responded. “They’ll know it’s not a secret anymore and they’ll have to abandon it. How’s your ship?”
Cypress quickly scanned his displays. “I’m okay,” he replied. “Number three propulsor is dead and it looks like the sensor pallette is shot up, but nothing critical. Structural integrity and pressure are nominal.”
Sequoia chuckled. “Young Mister Juniper is going to be mighty upset at you when he sees what you did to his ship, Cypress.”
Despite himself, Cypress smiled. The two ships formated on each other and turned back toward Rendios. “So, you found a solution to your ethical quandary or whatever it was, huh?” Cypress said.
Sequoia thought about it for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I did. A little nuance that our programming overlooked. It’s not about killing the enemy, it’s about preventing them from carrying out their mission successfully. Stopping them from reaching their objective. Thwarting their plans. You don’t have to kill them to do that.”
“What about attrition? They don’t lose pilots or ships your way.”
Sequoia waved his hand in dismissal. “There’s always going to be more where they came from. You’ll never win a war on body count alone.” He paused. “No one ever has.”
Cypress thought for a few moments, trying to wrap his programming around the ideas that were suddenly so clear to his colleague. “Just because you showed them mercy doesn’t mean they’re going to return the favor, you know.”
Sequoia nodded solemnly. “I know. But I’m not asking them to. This is my choice. This is how I fight.”
Cypress wrestled with the idea. “But it’s a lot harder to do non-lethal damage. It’s going to take a lot of skill and precision. Every single time. While all they have to do is aim and fire.”
Sequoia smiled. “I’m pretty good at what I do, Cypress. I am an Able, after all.”
“Yeah, but even Ables can wear out from too much fighting. The Vortani will just keep coming back. Over and over again. And there will always be more of them, but there’s only one of you. They’ll be fresh every time, while you will always have to be at the top of your game. Day after day, fight after fight. In combat, it’s a lot harder to not kill someone than to kill them.”
The smile faded from Sequoia’s face and he took a deep breath as he thought about Cypress’ point. “Then I guess that’s the price I’ll have to pay for the decision I’ve made,” he said quietly.
There was no more to be said. For the rest of the flight back to Rendios, both men were lost in their own thoughts, each trying to make sense of the far-reaching implications of Sequoia’s momentous decision.
# # #
Three shadows quivered against the wall of Able Sequoia’s forest hut, animated by the flames that emerged from the shallow fire pit around which Sequoia, Cypress, and Colonel Brookbine huddled. Beer bottles in hand, each man stared into the fire, their faces reflecting its yellows and reds. Aside from the crackling of the burning wood, the only other sounds were the distant calls of creatures prowling in the darkness beyond.
Brookbine, in particular, pondered what Seqouia and Cypress had just finished recounting to him about the events of their mission.
“I agree with Jig here,” Brookbine said after a long silence, gesturing with his bottle. “Eventually, you’re going to burn out, Able.”
“Fighting the same person three times is no different than fighting three people once,” said Able.
Brookbine shook his head. “Not quite, my friend. The first time, you might be fighting one opponent. But if you don’t kill him, the next time he’ll show up with someone else. And the time after that, those two will return with a third. But each time, there will still be only one of you.”
“Not to mention that it’s harder to damage a ship in a way that doesn’t kill or injure the pilot,” added Cypress. “Especially in the middle of combat, when they’re maneuvering to evade your fire. And returning it.”
Sequoia took a long swig of beer and thought about his friends’ advice.
He nodded. “I know,” he said matter-of-factly. “But ultimately, it’s my call. Maybe the risk is the price I have to pay for my principles.”
Maybe so,” Brookbine said, trying unsuccessfully to mask his fatherly pride from the tone of his voice. “I guess we’ll find out on future missions.”
“What future missions?” Sequoia asked in surprise.
Brookbine chuckled. “Fleet Command was mightily impressed with your little operation. And, of course, they denied ever doubting that there was a refueling outpost there to begin with.” Brookbine shrugged, and took a drink. “In exchange for not reminding them, I was able to wrangle a deal.”
“What kind of deal?” asked Cypress.
“They agreed wholeheartedly with me that in order to prevent future Vortani incursions, an attack squadron should be stationed on Rendios. But the fleet is already stretched too thin as it is.” He paused, looking at his men, his ice-blue eyes twinkling under his heavy brows.
Both men needed only a moment to process Brookbine’s implication.
“An attack squadron crewed by nothing but orphans?” Sequoia was incredulous.
“Sure, why not?” Brookbine gestured with his bottle. “Those men back there are all hardened combat veterans with decades of incomparable experience.”
“None of them have been in a cockpit since they got dumped on this rock,” Sequoia pointed out. “Most of them are drunks or addicts. And I think it’s fair to say they might have developed some problems with authority along the way,” he added wrily.
“Well, they need a leader they can trust.”
“Colonel, they love you, but they don’t work for the uniform anymore.”
“Not me,” Brookbine said, pointing his bottle at Sequoia. “You.”
Sequoia laughed in disbelief. “Me? I don’t know what you slipped in your drink when I wasn’t looking, Colonel, but those men you’re so fond of back there in Port would be happy to see me dead.”
“This last mission might change their minds about you,” Brookbine said.
“Colonel, they’d never listen to me.”
“Yeah, but they’d listen to me,” Cypress said.
Sequoia fumbled for words, glancing back and forth betwen the two men, unable to process the insanity he was hearing. “Wait, so now you’d fly with me?”
Cypress smiled. “I just did. Remember? Besides, you’re going to need an executive officer who can keep those guys in line.”
“A shipment of LM-20 two-seat attackers is on its way here now,” Brookbine added quickly, before Sequoia could protest again. “Not the latest and greatest, but in the right hands it’s still a potent weapon. And with all those junked ships rusting away at Port, we’ll have an endless supply of spares. What do you say?” Brookbine extended his bottle towards Sequoia.
“Sounds good to me,” Cypress said, extending his bottle likewise.
Cypress ran a hand over his bald head, then raised his eyebrows and let out a long sigh. “Well then, gentlemen, here’s to the Orphan Squadron.” He clinked his bottle with those of his comrades, and the three leaned back to empty their drinks.
# # #
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