It was beautiful.
Well, okay, so its head was missing. And yes, its left torso had been holed several times, melting down internal structure and mangling some jump jet ports.
Even so, the Phoenix Hawk was STILL beautiful, and it was MINE.
Grex would be proud. WILL be proud. He sort of got on my case after Proserpina. I can still see him, leaning back in his chair, puffing on a big ugly cigar. "Gotta leave us some SALVAGE, gal, 'er else we don't make no money. You keep blowin' up these heavy mechs with mag shots, an' well, it's jus' not good business!"
Well, Grex, THIS mech's nearly intact!
Too bad about the pilot, though. He was a great pilot. No, not like Larkin. He really WAS a great pilot, and a good commander, too. Gave us quite a fight. Well, he's atoms now. No chance to punch out, even. Wonder if he felt any pain? No, he didn't. It was too fast. I mean, he didn't even scream, right?
Hmmmph! Why should I worry? He would have done the same to me, and bragged about it later. Bragged to all his friends.
Slimeball! He DESERVED to die!
The elevator doors opened behind me at the other end of the huge bay. I was startled for a moment.
If I didn't look back, maybe he would go.
Hmmmph! No such luck, for I next heard the clunks of mag sandals echoing through the bay, approaching me. I sighed. I really wished Gunther would leave me alone!
A hand lightly touched my shoulder. I jerked away and spun around.
"Dammit, Gunther! How many times do I have to tell...."
It was Lieutenant Ken.
He still looked like hell. His face was all cut up like he'd been in a brawl or something, with the deep gash over his eye covered by a bandage. His sprained right arm was still bound to his chest. Yet he was smiling at me. His good spirits remained unshakable as ever.
I remember him smiling just like that on Butte Hold when we pulled him out of what was left of Perfect Ending. SMILING. "We won," he said. Then he passed out.
He's crazy, but it's a better crazy than Quinn, that's for sure.
"What's up, Ken?" I asked him nervously. I knew why he was here.
"It's about to start," he replied.
I turned around to study the Phoenix Hawk again. "It's a Vega thing."
His reply carried the slightest edge to it. "No, it's a HARRIER thing. True, they served with the Legion of Vega, but they're Harriers now, and this day celebrates their entry into the Harriers. I think you should be there."
"They wouldn't want me."
"Ha! Karl was the one who asked me to bring you updecks."
It was quiet for a moment as I continued to stare away from him at the Phoenix Hawk. Hilnder told him that just to be polite.
"I could order you to come," he whispered.
I turned. "No SIR! I'm off duty, Sir!" Then the wide grin on his face told me that he had not the slightest intention of doing so.
He extended his good hand. "Come on, Missy. You'll enjoy it. And how ELSE are we going to finish off your birthday booze before we ground on Somerset? It would be a crime to dump it out an air lock! Come on. Please?"
I wish they'd all stop calling me "Missy". Makes me sound young. Cute.
I stared up at him, into his eyes. Slightly slanted eyes. Made him look a lot like his dad.
"Besides," he added softly, "Quinn thought it would be a good idea if all the mechwarriors were present."
I didn't take his hand but I did start toward the elevator. "Is SHE still there?" I asked.
Yes, I suppose she would be.
Hmmmph! Intruder. Didn't belong.
I cursed at the mag sandal straps as Ken punched up the crew level and nudged some velcro slippers my way. "If you take the time to know her, you may even like her," Ken smiled. "She's pleasant enough company at dinner."
Sometimes I just want to punch that stupid grin right down his throat!
When we entered the lounge Hilnder was floating upright near a table, bulb raised. His three fellow Vegans aboard were near him. "To Slick Corazon, the lad who convinced us to off those Kurita bastards an' make a break fer freedom!" He then mumbled something in Japanese, a translation for Wiener, I guess.
"Not to mention him convincing those Steiner bastards to let us keep our mechs!" tall, blonde Anna added as she snuggled up to an astech. "Yeah! To Slick!" What an odd look in her eyes as she said it....
"And a right good gift o' gab it is!" agreed Hilnder. "He must have some Irish under all that Pino!"
"Slick," Alex muttered without enthusiasm at Hilnder's side.
"Srrrick..." Wiener slurred from over on the wall. Someone had velcroed him there for safe keeping. Apparently he had broken into the refreshments some time earlier.
Ken and I wormed our way into the crowd, and he pushed a bulb in my hand. Just about everyone was there. The Carters were MOSTLY there, being engrossed in their null-gee water pipe. Cassie was there with a big grin on her face. Unusual. Must have taken some of that inhalant she uses in combat. "Sharpens the eyes," she says. Hmmmph! Gunther was there, with Zimmer and Hennesey. Lieutenant Piotr Werzen... aza... zanski was there with a couple of windrider grunts.
And Quinn was there.
With his floater bimbo.
"To First Leutnant Vincent Steiner," Hilnder continued, "who accepted the defection o' all eight o' us in the name o' the Steiner government." Vinnie smiled and waved back like an idiot. He'd gotten here early too. Didn't even blink at Anna's crack about "Steiner bastards".
I took a pull from the bulb. Hmmmm. It seemed stronger stuff than last time.
So at least SHE explains why Quinn spent so much outbound time on the jumpship! A FLOATER for goodness sake, why did he go after a FLOATER?
At least he could have picked a Harrier floater.
Oh, I guess some might find her attractive. Tall, thin, compactly built but with long, long legs. And graceful, too. She was a born floater, no doubt about it. Moved through zero gee like a true acrobat, like a fish in water.
Like a piranha.
Her name was something romantic sounding, like "Juliet" or something. Give me a break! Wonder what it REALLY was. She had towed Quinn into a corner in the ceiling. Hmmmph! Too good to hang around US, I guess.
"To Alister Jeremy Haldane," Hilnder spoke, words filled with the deep rolling r's of his Scottish accent, "who one year ago today accepted us into his unit, who gave us a home... and who knows a good bargain when he sees one!"
Yes, yes, to Alister. Any time for Alister. I took another sip.
She had these high cheekbones, and a pointy chin with this delicate little nose. And these large brown eyes that she would bat at Quinn. Only they weren't batting now. They were sort of squinting. And that little nose was slightly wrinkled. Can't take the military life, sweetie? I don't wonder why with that beautiful raven hair of yours worn out in... what would you call those? Braids? Spikes? Hardly regulation. Or did you simply forget to comb it this morning?
Neurohelmet wouldn't seat properly on that mess.
"To Grimjack and Akton," Hilnder continued, "who're probably right now gettin' drunk wi' Slick in some Somerset bar... gettin' drunk with REAL booze!"
So soft-looking. Bet she's had an easy life. Bet she'd fold up in a combat situation.
"And finally, to the first o' us to be lost in combat." Alex looked up as Hilnder continued. "To David Larkin. Th' lad may have been a jerk. May have been an ass. But he was also a...."
Wiener perked up on the wall and declared loudly, "Grrreat pirate!" Then he muttered something gutteral.
"Pi-lot," Hilnder corrected, adding Dickhead's sweeping hand gesture to emphasize his point. "He was a great pi-lot."
"Pi... rot," Wiener repeated, brow furrowing in concentration. Things got real quiet and still as we watched him. "Dickhead. Great pilot." When he tried to copy the gesture he swung forward and stopped short at the end of the give in his jumpsuit. When the fabric pulled him back, he banged his skull on the hard bulkhead. "OUCH!" he grimaced. "Dickhead! Banzai?"
"Banzai!" agreed Hilnder.
Alex studied the table silently and shook his head.
"Ban-ZAI!" Wiener screamed, flailing about with his arms. "Ban-ZAI!"
"Banzai!" replied Anna with an evil smile.
"Ban-ZAI! Ban-ZAI!" Wiener was in a state of near frenzy.
"Banzai!" Hilnder tried again.
That was when Wiener threw up.
In zero gee.
I mean, at least with gravity the stuff stays on the floor. As it was we had to dodge these million little putrid orange....
Well, you get the idea.
The room started clearing immediately. It got very crowded at the single doorway, with people around me shoving and yelling at those ahead to hurry through. I started to get nervous. Too many people.
But then there was a disturbance near the ceiling. We all turned and looked when the bimbo's voice rose above the chaos, complete with that cutesy affected little accent (as if anyone believes it's real!).
"...bunch of tin soldiers in a stinking rusty can that should be beached as a rock-bound GARAGE!"
Without another word she brought her feet up to the nearest wall, jack-knifed like a diver and shot toward the exit. She passed above the crowd at the door and flew down the corridor, gliding expertly from handhold to handhold.
Quinn stared after her with his mouth hanging open.
When Quinn finally realized that he was the focus of our attention, he quickly regained his composure. Got cold. Stiff. His eyes searched for Hilnder and stabbed through him.
"Hilnder! YOU will see to the cleanup of this mess!"
Hilnder muttered softly under his breath in German. He had almost gotten away.
"Start with this!" Quinn added, flinging his bulb from a white-knuckled hand.
Quinn joined the rest of us in the squeeze at the door. Quiet. Stern.
Hmmmph! His own fault! Shouldn't have picked that bimbo! Should have known that she would never understand military life!
Finally free of the press of bodies, I found a place in the corridor where I could just drift and relax. My heart was racing, and I was trembling slightly.
Too many people.
Most headed off to the showers, to form a brand new line. Quinn pulled himself hand over hand toward his quarters, ignoring everything and everybody.
I headed toward the mech bay, the lower one this time.
I needed to talk to Tailbiter.