CHAPTER 18: EXTRAORDINARY HEROISM
“One collapsed lung, a fractured tibia, and compression injuries to the spinal cord,” Doctor Evans said as she circled Jaeger’s bed with a tablet computer in her hand. “All things considered, you’re lucky that you didn’t sustain more severe injuries, ejecting at the speed that you did.”
“Thought we lost you there for a while, buddy,” Baker said as he leaned against a nearby bulkhead. “I saw your Beewolf go down, but I didn’t see your chute pop.”
“Am I…on the Rorke?” Jaeger asked, blinking his eyes as they adjusted to the glare. He was in a whitewashed room, small and cramped, but by human standards rather than Valbaran.
“Yep,” his friend replied. “The Doc says you’re pretty much ready to be discharged, so stop being a little bitch and come celebrate with us.”
“That’s not what I said,” Evans complained as she shot Baker a stern glance. “It may take about a week for your lung to heal completely. We drained your chest cavity, and it appears to be inflating properly now, but you still need to take some precautions. No shouting or laughing, avoid exerting yourself, and absolutely no smoking. I’m also prescribing you a cough suppressant. Your fractures weren’t too severe, we’ve splinted your leg, and I’ll be giving you anti-inflammatory medication and pain killers for your back. You should make a full recovery in a month or so, and you should be able to leave the infirmary later today.”
“What happened?” Jaeger asked groggily, “how long have I been out?”
“Chill out, you haven’t been in a coma,” Baker laughed. “Couple of hours at the most. You missed a hell of a fight in orbit. Once we brought the hive ship down, the rest of their fleet went berserk, it was like they lost all ability to coordinate. It was like shooting giant, ugly fish in a barrel.”
“So the hive fleet is..?”
“Wiped out to the last fighter. There are still some Bugs down on the surface, barricaded in the cities, but it’s nothin’ that a few Borealan shock troopers can’t sort out. Valbara should be Bug-free by the end of the day. They’re callin’ you a hero, you know.”
“A hero?” Jaeger asked, surprised. “Me? Why?”
“Well, besides bringin’ down the hive ship, which I played equal part in might I remind you,” he added sarcastically. “The surveillance video of you facin’ off against the Queen after the crash has gone viral, so to speak. It was all over the Valbaran broadcast network, and now it’s found its way onto the Rorke’s intranet.”
Baker pulled out his phone and tapped on it for a few moments, then turned the screen towards Jaeger. He leaned forward, wincing as a stab of pain shot up his spine, watching as the video began to play. It was just like the footage that they had seen in the lookout post when Maza’s flock had first taken them up onto the wall, taken from a distance, the telescope zoomed in on the scene. He saw himself, a small speck at the bottom of the shot as the Queen advanced on him, he was firing his XMR at her. There was no sound, but the screeching noise that she had made was still fresh in his mind. From off-camera came the Teth’rek, barreling into her and knocking her to the ground. He remembered that part well enough, turning his attention back to Baker as it began to tear her apart.
“Now that’s somethin’ you don’t see every day,” Baker laughed as he pulled back his phone and watched the scene play out gleefully. “The locals are pretty pleased with you, to say the least. If you want my opinion, they’re probably going to start putting your face on T-shirts and coffee mugs, so be prepared for that. Oh, by the way, the Captain should be visitin’ soon to give you one of these,” he said as he tapped at a medal on his chest.
“A Navy Cross, yeah. For ‘extraordinary heroism in combat‘, so I’m told.”
Jaeger had to suppress a laugh, he had rarely seen Baker so pleased with himself.
“How many did we lose?” he asked, his tone becoming more serious. “What are our casualties?”
“Less, thanks to you,” Baker replied. “Don’t think about that right now, just focus on getting back on your feet.”
“What about Maza and the others? Did they make it out in one piece?” he asked, almost afraid to hear the answer.
“You can ask them yourself, they docked a few minutes ago and they should be on their way up here.”
Jaeger breathed a sigh of relief as he lay back in his bed. On top of the war being over, everyone that he was close to was safe. He couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome. Well, perhaps an outcome where he didn’t collapse his lung, but you couldn’t have everything. As if on cue, the door opened, and several camouflaged blurs flooded into the room. Maza’s arms were around him before he even had a chance to sit up, her face buried in his chest. It seemed that they had left their helmets on the lander.
“You’re alive!” she warbled, her feathers flashing in excited yellow. “There was so much chaos during the battle, nobody was able to tell us if you had survived or not, even Baker hadn’t seen your chute open. We saw the hive ship go down, we saw your Beewolf explode, none of us knew what to think. It was only when we saw the video of the Queen being killed by the Teth’rak that we knew you had ejected safely, and then Cuetz’xauh’qui sent us a message telling us that you had been handed over to the Earth’nay in Yilgarn.”
“Relatively safely,” he chuckled, wincing as her tight grip on him hurt his back.
She pulled away, looking apologetic.
“I knew that you would prevail,” Coza announced confidently.
“You cried,” Ayau teased, Coza’s feathers flashing in embarrassed purple.
“We waited twenty rotations for this day,” Xico mused. “And when it finally came, the war was over in a matter of hours. If it was not for the Earth’nay, the Bugs would have broken through our defenses and attacked the cities directly, the assessment that Campbell made was accurate. If it had not been for your actions, Jaeger, Baker, then that hive ship would have turned the tide of the battle in their favor.”
“Think nothing of it,” Baker replied, polishing his medal conspicuously with his sleeve. “It was just a little extraordinary heroism is all.”
“You were very brave,” Tacka said quietly, it was one of the rare times that Jaeger had ever heard her speak. Somehow, it made her compliment feel all the more sincere. He didn’t feel like a hero, however. He just felt tired, relieved. Before they could continue their reunion, Baker got a message on his phone, thumbing through it for a moment as Jaeger looked on.
“They want us in the briefing room,” he said, “the Valbarans too.”
Evans rolled her eyes, clearly annoyed by the Captain’s meddling in medical matters.
“Very well,” she conceded, “you can go. Just remember what I said, no laughing or coughing. Here, take these,” she added as she retrieved a baggy full of medication from a nearby table and thrust it into his hands. “No, I don’t mean take them with you, I mean take them now.” She handed him a glass of water and watched as he downed a handful of pills. “And come straight back here when you’re done, I want you under observation for a few more hours at least.”
“The damage to the Rorke could have been a lot worse,” Campbell said as he paced before a hologram of the vessel, the flickering display lighting up the briefing room in a ghostly glow. “The hive ship’s plasma cannons melted through all of the armor layers and several decks here…here…and most notably here. That’s not including all of the damage from the Bug torpedoes. One of our frigates is in need of some serious repairs, the same goes for several CWIS ships and many of our support craft. Losses were below my projections, thankfully, but the fleet isn’t in any position to continue along our patrol route. Nor can we head back to UNN territory.”
Captain Fielding examined the three-dimensional model, the rest of his staff looking on. Baker was stood nearby, and one of the attendants had relinquished his chair to Jaeger.
“And what about the Valbaran situation?” he asked, directing his question towards the flock.
“Better than we ever imagined, Captain,” Xico replied. “Civilian casualties were almost nonexistent, the underground shelters did their job admirably. We lost one defense station, along with all hands aboard, and there was significant damage to three more. Two of our carriers are dead in space, with four more taking enough structural damage to warrant urgent repairs. If you can provide any assistance on that front, we would be grateful. We lost a few fighters, and there were some casualties during the ground battles, but overall, we came out relatively unscathed.”
“You must understand, Captain,” Maza added. “We had been preparing for an apocalypse. The fact that our cities are not razed, and that our entire fleet isn’t burning in orbit is a miracle from our perspective.”
“We lost a lot of good men on that station too,” Fielding replied solemnly, “they were fighting on the hull when it was brought down.” He turned back to Campbell, his hands clasped behind his back. “As the chief engineer, what is your recommendation, Mister Campbell?”
“We’re in no state to make any long journeys,” he replied with a scowl as he leaned on the table and stared at the rotating display. “It will take weeks of repairs to get the fleet back into ship shape, and in the meantime, the Valbarans will be dealing with reduced defensive capabilities. We need repairs and resupply, they need help with relief efforts and something to plug the holes in their defense grid. I would recommend that we stay in Valbaran orbit for the time being. The Baskeyfield could make the trip back to UNN space on her own and make a report, maybe bring back reinforcements.”
“That would be a round trip of almost a year,” Fielding said.
“I don’t see that we have a choice, Captain. Valbara is the only safe harbor that we have right now. Worst case scenario, we can use that time to continue updating Valbaran technology and manufacturing techniques, get their ships and defense stations outfitted with railguns like we had initially planned. By the time we have to head back, even if UNN reinforcements aren’t available, we’ll be able to leave them in a much stronger position than we found them.”
“Agreed,” Fielding replied. “Lord knows that after that fight, our personnel could use some shore leave too. I doubt the Valbarans will have any objections.”
“Of course not, Captain,” Maza replied. “Your people are welcome on Valbara. We owe you a great debt.”
“You don’t owe us anything,” Fielding said. “We were just doing our job, and you happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
“The Val’ba’ra’nay will not see it that way,” Ayau chuckled.
“Lieutenants Baker, Jaeger, I’m assuming that you learned enough about the local culture during your time on the planet to advise our personnel on etiquette and proper behavior?”
“Yes, Sir,” Baker replied.
“Excellent, then we have a game plan. Mister Campbell, I want you to oversee repairs to the fleet, prioritize the Rorke. Once that’s done, you have my permission to return to the surface and do what you can to help the Valbarans. Repairs, upgrades, whatever they need. Let’s start cycling troops down to the planet for some R&R. Prioritize the walking wounded, some fresh air will do wonders for their recovery. Transport the more severely injured as soon as Doctor Evans clears them for travel. I need the people down at requisitions to start writing lists of the supplies that we’ll need. I’ll contact the Captain of the Baskeyfield and help him plot his course, we’ll need to make sure that they have enough food and fuel to make it back home. Dismissed.”
There was a chorus of ‘Yes Sir’s‘ from around the table as the various heads of their departments got up and began to file out of the room.
“Lieutenant Jaeger,” Fielding said, gesturing for him to come over. He got up out of his seat and stood to attention as best he could, the pain pills that Evans had given him hadn’t quite kicked in yet.
“At ease,” Fielding added with a wave of his hand. “Lieutenant Baker tells me that the stunt with the hive ship was your idea, is that correct?”
Jaeger looked back at Baker who was grinning widely.
“Yes, Sir,” he replied stiffly.
“How did you come up with that so quickly?”
“I just…had to, I suppose. It was the only course of action that made sense to me at the time.”
“Some people buckle under stress,” Fielding continued. “When put in a dire situation, their mind slows to a crawl, and they can’t do much more than react to what’s happening around them. It takes nerve to think with a clear head in that kind of situation, nerve befitting a Captain.”
“Sir?” Jaeger asked.
“I’ll be keeping an eye on you in the future, Lieutenant. If you wanted to graduate from flying fighters to commanding something a few thousand tons heavier, I’d be happy to write you a letter of recommendation.”
“Duly noted Sir, thank you,” Jaeger replied. “I’ll need some time to think about it, of course.”
“Of course. Oh, and before I forget…” Fielding reached into his pocket and withdrew a small, black container. He opened the lid, and sitting on a cushion of velvet was a medal, the same Navy Cross that Baker was sporting so proudly on his breast. “There’s usually a ceremony, but we’re a little understaffed right now. The Navy doesn’t give these out lightly, and I’ve personally only ever awarded three of them. Two of those were today. If we didn’t have footage of a pair of Beewolfs taking out a hive ship during reentry, I think we’d have a hard time convincing anybody that it had happened at all.”
Fielding handed the container to Jaeger, who didn’t really know what to say. Everyone was heaping praise on him, but he didn’t feel as if he had done anything too out of the ordinary. As Fielding had told the Valbarans, he had only been doing his job.
“Thank you, Sir.”
“If you’ll excuse me, I have to see a man about a torpedo frigate,” the Captain said as he made for the door and left Jaeger standing there with his medal.
“Well, don’t look too excited,” Baker joked. “By the way, you’re walkin’ wounded. I don’t think anyone would bat an eye if you took the next boat down to the surface.”
“Will it really be a whole year before your fleet can leave Val’ba’ra?” Maza asked, sidling up beside him and peering up at him expectantly as her companions looked on.
“It’s looking that way, yeah.”
The flock grinned at one another, flashing their feathers excitedly.
“We aren’t engineers or scientists,” Baker added, “there won’t be a lot for us to do in the coming months besides waste time and soak up the sun. Bug attacks don’t come in waves, it will be years before another fleet comes this way, if it happens at all. By that time, you might have a whole Coalition task force standing by rather than one patrol fleet.”
“The Ensi has requested your presence as soon as you return to Yilgarn,” Coza said, “she and her flock wish to meet with the two Earth’nay who crippled the Betelgeusian flagship. You especially, Jaeger. All of Val’ba’ra knows your face now, the lone Earth’nay who stood against the Queen.”
“Maybe they want to give us more medals,” Baker said with a grin.
An entire year stranded on Valbara with Maza and her flock? Hell, that was worth a collapsed lung and then some.
“The first thing we need to do is go find Scratcher,” Jaeger said, “he’s been missing out on all the fun. He must have been going stir crazy all this time with his busted arm.”
“You know, you can’t really keep callin’ him Scratcher after what you’ve been up to lately,” Baker said as he gestured to the Valbarans. “You’ve also proven that you can actually hit a target, so maybe we need to come up with a new callsign for you.”
As they made their way down the cramped hallway, Maza took his hand, and once again he noted that it was small enough that he could enclose it entirely in his fist. He felt Coza take the other. She was obviously overjoyed to see him again, but she was still putting on a stoic front, as if nobody would be able to tell. Ayau climbed up onto his back and crossed her arms around his neck, brushing her cheek against his as Xico and Tacka crowded him from behind. It was a good job that the fluffy alien was so light and that the painkillers were finally doing their job.
“I always thought that this would be a day of mourning,” Maza said. “But while we did lose some good people, all I feel is relieved that it’s over, I feel hopeful. My flock, my male, my friends…they’re all alive. You’ve been at war before Jaeger, is that selfish of me?”
“It’s not selfish,” he replied, “you’re just glad to be alive. I don’t think the dead would want you to be miserable on their behalf.”
“I suppose not,” she admitted. “In our distant past, back when we lived in tribes, the Val’ba’ra’nay were animists. We believed that when a person died, their soul, their essence migrated into the body of an animal. We know better now, of course, but there was comfort in the idea that a bird passing overhead might be a lost loved one watching over you. That amongst a flock of Gue’tra, there might be old friends or curious family members. When the Teth’rak attacked the Betelgeusian Queen…I know it’s just superstition, but I still felt as if it was protecting us. Protecting Yilgarn, protecting you.”
“It was simply defending its territory against what it perceived to be another large animal,” Xico said.
“I know,” Maza replied. “But if we still practiced animism, I might argue that the souls of the fallen had some part in it.”
“It is a comforting thought,” Coza mused, “revenge from beyond the grave.”
“I’d fly over its territory and drop a nice big juicy steak for it,” Baker said, “but it also tried to eat me. I’d say we’re even.”
“In any case, we can now enjoy your company for a whole extra year,” Maza said gleefully. “That’s close to a full Val’ba’ra rotation, I think. We have so much more to show you, you didn’t even travel to any other cities in the few days you spent on the surface. There’s so much more to see, so many more things to do. I doubt that we could cover everything even if we had ten rotations.”
“The first thing I want to do is relax in your lake and take a load off,” Jaeger said. “And you guys had better go easy on me for a few weeks until I’m all healed up, especially you, Tacka. I’ll get a note from my doctor if I have to.”
The little alien gave him a wry smile, Maza and Ayau snickering. Baker wasn’t in on the joke, but the implication was obvious enough.
“Don’t worry,” Ayau purred, “we’ll take good care of you. You’re a war hero, after all, you’ve earned a little pampering.”
“I never thought I’d say this,” he added, “but I think I’m going to enjoy being grounded for a little while.”