"The colonists of New Riga have historically been neutral," Anderson said, as images of farms and fishing boats scrolled past on the screen behind him. "Now, however, it seems that Spectra is no longer prepared to ignore the potential strategic location of their planet."
"Not seeing how this involves us," Jason muttered.
Tiny shifted uncomfortably in his seat, silently agreeing. His strained stomach muscle wasn't healing nearly as fast as it should. He didn't want to go on a mission. He wanted to go and sleep. Probably after getting his implant retuned to do its job properly.
"Evacuation ships are on their way," Anderson continued. "So, we believe, is the Spectran invasion force. They can and will destroy the unarmed evacuation ships with very little difficulty. Or worse."
"Worse?" asked Keyop.
"Slavery." Princess raised appealing green eyes, a trick which worked on most men. Which she knew full well. "We have to help them, Chief."
Tiny had seen what Spectra did to their captive races. He looked again at the pictures. Kids playing by a lake.
He could fly the Phoenix with a pulled muscle.
He still hung back with Mark, grateful for the excuse to walk, as the other three sprinted for the elevator.
"Commander, there's something you need to know. I'm not a hundred percent right now."
"I tweaked a stomach muscle a couple of days ago. Aggravated it yesterday sparring with Keyop. I'm fit to fly. Probably not to go off-ship."
Mark grimaced. "Then that makes two of us. I'd still rather have you at the helm and it looks like this will be escort duty only. Your call."
"I'll be fine." He didn't feel that bad now. Sore and short on sleep, mostly. Last night he'd felt dreadful. No better this morning. Then he'd stood up incautiously and, after an initial sensation of being stabbed, he'd finally started to feel a lot better. Kicked the implant into doing its job, maybe. Hopefully this would be a nice quiet sit-down mission. Escort the evacuation ships from planet to jump point; be there, big, blue and scary; and any Spectran mecha captain with half an ounce of sense would keep his distance.
"Didn't think I hit you that hard," Keyop quipped as Tiny followed Mark onto the flight deck. It was only half a joke. He looked genuinely worried.
"Nah. Not your fault, kid. I should have told you to go spar with someone else."
"I'm sure Rick would have been happy to put you through your paces," said Jason, getting out of the pilot's seat and heading for his own. "Checks running."
"Thanks." Tiny ignored Keyop's insulted spluttering and Jason's chuckling and sat down cautiously, avoiding putting any strain on his stomach. Man, he was still sore when he tried to use those muscles. Maybe he'd torn something, not just strained it. Not that it made any difference to the treatment, which involved rest, and not implant-powered high speed martial arts. Twit.
As he finished the preflight checks, Mark glanced sideways at him. "I could use the launch practice, if you want to take it easy."
"It's not a problem." His seat was designed that way. Nobody could use muscular strength to sit forward through an orbital boost, so he didn't need to. Arm strength was required. Nothing else.
"If I thought you couldn't do it, you'd be staying home. I'll take her up. I'll expect a full critique after debrief."
Oh, good. My favourite: being honest and helpful about how Mark pilots the Phoenix, without completely trashing him. It was true, though. His commander did need the practice, even more so since he was now the one who stayed behind when G-Force had to go off-ship.
He nodded, reaching forward and flicking off the master control on his board. "Your ship."
Now that's one big change in attitude, he thought as he relaxed and watched Mark doing his job. His commander had always hated flying the Phoenix. Not a proper plane, he'd always complained, pointing to the lack of glide profile and completely nonstandard aerodynamics. The flying brick: everything controlled by raw power rather than finesse. He'd avoided it to the extent that Jason had been the backup Phoenix pilot and Mark hadn't even cared. These days, he logged almost as many hours in the Phoenix simulator as Tiny did.
He'd improved. A lot. Tiny made mental notes - he knew Mark hadn't been joking about expecting a full critique. Not quite the perfect speed and angle for the water exit, and a couple of times there was, not exactly a hesitation, but what Tiny suspected was Mark's fighter pilot instincts telling him the wrong thing. Just little things to work on.
Tiny swallowed uncomfortably. He really wasn't feeling too good. Had he eaten something dodgy, on top of everything else? Not that he'd felt much like eating for the past couple of days.
"I'll take her," he said as soon as they'd made the transfer to orbit. "Good launch."
"Thanks." Mark passed control back and pulled up what looked like a load of tactical briefing information on his screens, and Tiny ran the next set of standard checks before heading out towards the jump-point.
He'd wanted distraction from the growing nausea, but Keyop attempting to whistle so wasn't it, and Jason joining in was the last straw.
"Will you two shut up?" he snapped. "Some of us are working."
"Some of us can multi-task," was the Swallow's riposte.
"Enough." Mark didn't raise his voice. He'd never needed to. "If anyone's bored, there are plenty of systems tests you can run. Give us some peace and quiet here."
"Sorry," muttered Keyop, and fell silent. He'd got into the habit of whistling largely because it annoyed Rick, Tiny suspected. The rest of them had learned to ignore it. Not Mark, though, and if Mark stamped on it, transit flights going back to peace, quiet and the occasional dreadful joke would be much more to Tiny's taste.
They set up for the jump quietly, calmly, professionally. Tiny never worried about what it was Jason saw in the numbers - the maths involved was way beyond him - but whatever he saw this time, he clearly liked. There was a new confidence in his tone, and as the world went red around them and his controls died, Tiny realised that this was their first jump-flight with Mark back in command.
And, oh man, was he not enjoying it one bit.
He had no idea how long the jump lasted. Only, when they finally came out of it, that he was about to humiliate himself utterly.
"Take her," he snapped to Mark. He didn't wait for an answer. He pushed himself out of his seat - which hurt - and bolted for the back of the flight deck and the bathroom beyond.