A wolf light fighter, Fang class, drifts slowly over the battle-scarred valley, searching for something. Then it suddenly changes course and moves towards a heap of rusting metal on the ground. Right above the heap, the ship halts its progress and a lance of energy strikes its target, scattering debris in a wide circle.
No sooner has the ship discharged its weapon than a sharp crack can be heard and the ship tilts to one side, smoke billowing out of a nacelle. The ship angles lazily to port, then plummets towards the ground, plowing nose-first into the loose soil and burying the ship's cowl in dirt and rubble.
For a long while nothing happens, then movement can be seen through the canopy. The pilot stirs in the seat, shakes a heavily helmeted head, then reaches up to eject the canopy and crawl out of the destroyed fighter craft.
The lone, suited figure slowly circles the downed ship a few times, surveying the damage, realizing that it's beyond repair. The engine nacelles are ruptured, the hull's cracked and bent, the life support system's leaking. The pilot opens a compartment behind the cockpit and removes a large backpack that is quickly settled between narrow shoulders, then reaches back in and lifts out a rifle.
Another sharp crack, and a small hole appears in the hull's outer ceramic skin. The pilot quickly drops the rifle.
"This is an AG-3 military rifle," a bodiless voice is heard stating. "It fires a 7.62 millimeter copper covered lead slug at twice the speed of sound. It was enough to down your craft, it was enough to make that nice little hole you see in front of you and it's enough to make a very ugly hole through at least four or five of your people at one time. I suggest that you move away from that rifle and sit down by that tree to your left."
The pilot walks the fifty meters to a lone tree, removes the heavy pack and leans it against the rough bark before sitting down.
A short distance away a small bush, too small to hide anyone, starts moving, rising up into the air, revealing a tall, thin human with brown hair and glasses. The man puts the bush down then walks over to the downed craft and picks up the discarded rifle. With a practiced movement he removes the accumulator and checks it. Then he inspects the rifle before he casually tosses it into the cockpit. He takes out a set of binoculars and scans the horizon. Satisfied that there are no other craft, he approaches the pilot. Stopping a few meters away from the pilot. He tosses the accumulator over to the seated figure, which catches it in both hands and seems to peer intently at it. "Who sent you out to die?" he asks, puzzled. "As you can see, that accumulator is broken. You only have enough power for one very low-powered shot, yet your rifle was rigged to show a full charge. Besides, I thought that your people had learned not to use those old Fang fighters for recon missions." The human unslings his rifle, then sits down on a nearby rock. "You can consider yourself my prisoner for the time being." Upon hearing those words, the pilot nods. "I'm Anthony. May I ask who you are? And please remove that helmet. There's nothing wrong with the air here."
The pilot slowly reaches up to grasp two clamps and twist them. A small pop can be heard as the helmets seal breaks, then the helmet lifts, revealing a face covered in white fur with red and brown splotches, a broad muzzle and tufted ears on top of its head. "I'm Rrsh'Dhana of clan Rrn'Sshah," the alien says in a quiet, resigned voice.
"You're not a wolf," the human says, puzzled. "So why are you flying a wolf fighter?"
"It's customary for our people to go out and prove ourselves when we come of age," the pilot explains. "I joined up to fight here."
"I see. Young and foolish," the human states. "Well, we better get going. It probably won't be healthy to stay here tonight. Bring your pack and follow me."
The pilot shoulders the pack and follows the human. The man stops by the bush that he hid under earlier and brings up another, somewhat larger pack from the hole. He shoulders it and starts trudging along a narrow trail without bothering to look behind himself, certain that his prisoner is following.
They walk in that manner, the human leading and the alien pilot following a few meters behind, for almost an hour, until they reach a wide, slow-moving river.
The human points to a log. "You can sit over there." Then, as the pilot sheds the heavy pack and sits down, the man, still without looking at the alien, starts removing branches from a large heap, eventually revealing a small boat. The man grabs his pack and stows it in the bow of the boat, then walks over to the pilot and grabs the pilot's pack and stows that, too. Then he pushes the small boat into the water. "Have you ever been in a boat before?" he asks the suited alien.
The pilot gives a headshake and mumbles, "No."
"Well, there's a first time for everything. Climb aboard and sit down on the packs," the human commands, gesturing. The pilot gingerly climbs on board and makes an unsteady way forward, obviously not used to a boat's movements in the water. As soon as the pilot is seated, the human jumps aboard and pushes off with an oar, moving the boat into the faster water in the middle of the river. Then he settles himself on the seat, the tiller held loosely in his left hand.
After a few minutes of drifting silently down the river, the human opens a case in the middle ofthe boat and take out a cup and a Thermos bottle. He opens the bottle and fills the cup with a hot brew before placing the bottle back in the case, not bothering to close the lid. Taking a sip of the brew, he notices the pilot staring at the cup. "There's another cup in the case if you want some tea," he offers. The pilot carefully moves towards the case, then goes down on one knees in front of the case to lift out the bottle. "There's a box of sugar beside the bottle. You may want to add some," the human adds as he notices the alien's grimace upon tasting the brew. As the pilot settles down in the bow again the human breaks down his rifle and starts cleaning it.
"Are you certain that is wise, disarming yourself like that?" the pilot asks, pointing to the dismantled rifle.
"There are only two things in life that you can be certain about," the man replies. "Death and taxes. Since there haven't been any taxes since the war started, who knows about death?" Then he continues in a more serious voice, "That suit you're wearing slows you down, there's a seat between us, the boat isn't stable enough for you to jump, and, anyhow, I'm betting that you can't swim this river. And even if you did, where would you go? Besides, if you were planning to run, you would have done so much earlier."
"Someone will come and rescue me," the pilot says, trying to sound confident but failing.
"By now, you know as well as I that you were sent down to die. And that is another reason why you haven't tried to escape," the human states. "You probably weren't warned not to fly low enough for us to get a clear shot at you. Your rifle wasn't properly charged, and I'm quite certain that the rescue beacon in your suit isn't any better off, either."
At that the pilot gasps. "How did you know? There's no external indicator for it on my suit."
"I didn't know, but thank you for confirming it," the human replies casually. "I assume that it failed just after you activated it?"
"Yes," the pilot replies, dejected. "But why would they do this?"
"The wolves care only about themselves. They probably just wanted to know if there was any activity in this area, and they just happened to have an old fighter that none of their own pilots would use. They probably thought it would be a nice joke to send a non-wolf to die."
"What happens now?"
"Well, tonight a group of upgraded Fang fighters will attack the valley we just left, and fire upon any heat source that they find. You should consider yourself lucky that I brought you with me. As for what we'll do with you, well, that remains to be seen."
"Would they really fire upon me?"
"Why do you think that your beacon doesn't work?"
A few hours pass while the boat drifts on a slowly widening river, the boat slowly gaining speed as it heads for the ocean. The alien, after having finished another cup of tea, curls up in the bow and is soon asleep, lulled by the gentle rocking of the boat.
"Wake up!" The sharp voice and the shaking as the boat runs aground wakes the pilot from a deep sleep. Looking around, the groggy alien sees that it's almost dark, and that they have beached near another strange looking boat.
"Wha... Where are we?"
"The ocean. Here we change transport," the human says as he jumps into the water and drags the small boat ashore. "Pick up your pack." The pilot stoically obeys and climbs out of the boat, then stands there watching as the human first lift out his own pack and the case, then drags the boat a good distance up to some trees before upending it. Then he shoulders his pack and rifle and gathers the case in his arms.
As they climb onto the deck of the other, larger boat, the pilot notices that a layer of wet sand covers the deck. "What's the sand for?"
"Thermal insulation. It's kept wet by a small pump. It's crude, but it's enough to hide this boat if they don't know that it's here," the human explains. Then he lifts a hatch and lowers first his pack, then himself down. A moment later a weak light is visible. "Hand down your pack, then come down yourself."
As soon as the pilot is down in the cabin, the human rushes to close the hatch. Then he lights an oil-filled lamp and switches off the dim electric light. As the warm glow of the oil lamp fills the boat, the pilot starts to look around. Near the hatch there are a lot of ropes going up through holes in the deck. There are cabinets on every wall, a table with benches at the rear, cooking implements hanging on the wall above some sort of stove, and a door leading forward.
The human notices the pilot's furtive glances and says with a slight flourish, "Welcome to my humble home." Then he opens the door, revealing a narrow corridor. "The first door to the right is a toilet. The one directly opposite is a shower. You can use it if you want to, but the water supply is limited and the water isn't very hot. The door at the end of the corridor is my sleeping quarters and is of-course off-limits. The door to its left is to an unused cabin. You can use that. Why don't you go there and get out of that heavy suit." The alien looks towards the pack. "If you have any clothes in your pack, then you can take them with you, but leave the rest here for now."
The pilot quickly digs out a bundle from the top of the pack and then hurries down the narrow corridor, stopping only to peek into the bath and shower before entering the cabin at the lefthand side.
After freshening up and a change of clothes, the pilot returns to find the pack in the place it was left and the human busily cutting up meat and vegetables. "Sit down at the table," the human says, while tossing the food into a pot of hot water steaming on the stove. "Dinner will be ready in a few minutes." The man turns around and stares at the pilot who's now wearing only a simple coverall. Then he takes off his glasses and wipes them with a towel before putting them back on the nose. Noting the pilots slim, feminine build, wide hips, a pair of small human-style breasts, digitigrade feet and fluffy, spotted tail, he finally ventures, "You're female, aren't you?
"Yes," the pilot admits. "You didn't notice before?"
"No. That bulky flight-suit that you were wearing hid such details very well. Besides, I've never seen any of your people before. It's also well known that the wolves don't have female fighters," he replies. "That's most likely another reason they sent you. They probably figured that, being both non-wolf and female, you weren't any use, anyhow."
As soon as the water in the stew pot starts boiling, the human turns down the heat to let it simmer, puts a kettle with water on the other burner and start taking out dishes and spoons. "Can you use spoons like these," he asks, "or do you have a better one in your pack?"
She picks up one of the spoons and look at it. "This should be fine," she replies, putting it back down.
The water in the kettle boils, the human puts it aside and dumps a few leaves into it, then he resumes stirring the contents of the stew pot. A few minutes later he turns off the stove and lifts the pot on to a bracket mounted in the table, then sit down opposite the pilot. "Do you have any device to test whether our food is safe for you to eat?"
She looks over to her pack, and when he nods, walks over and starts rifling through the contents. She opens a box marked with a green circle only to find that it contains a lump of melted plastic and a few broken circuit boards.
"I see," the human says dryly. "Another of the wolf jokes. Do you tolerate the same food as they?"
"Yes, mostly," she replies. "How so?"
"I had the pleasure of transporting a rather obnoxious wolf pilot a while ago. His pack didn't survive the crash, so I had to experiment a little bit. I may have tested a few of the items that he reacted to a few times more than necessary, but I did manage to bring him back alive." A shadow of a smile touched his face for a short moment. "There's nothing in this stew that he reacted to, so it should be safe," he states and starts ladling it out, a large portion to himself and a small portion to her. "Eat. If it stays down, then you can have more."
They began eating, she taking small careful bites and he quickly taking large spoonfuls. She hasn't more than half finished her first small portion when he's finished with his. He walks over to the stove where he takes the Thermos bottle and empties the now cold contents into the sink. Then he rinses the bottle and puts a sieve over the opening and pours the contents of the small kettle into it. "How's the food tasting?" he asks as he turns his attention back to the pilot.
"Strange, but I think that I can get used to it," she replies, then takes the ladle and helps herself to a slightly larger portion.
"Fine," he says. "You eat all you want. I need to get the ship under way." Then he climbs up the ladder and out the hatch. She's finishing her second portion when he comes back down. Instead of just closing the hatch, he grabs the sidewalls beneath it and lifts the whole section up. Then he starts pulling on a rope and a shudder can be felt in the ship. He grabs a panel on the side and swings it out, revealing a steering wheel with ropes going from it and into the wall. "Nice, eh?" he says. "A stealth sailboat. The ropes here control the sails. No need to go up and be visible to a thermal scan. Most of the metal in the boat is placed below the waterline so it's not visible on radar, and since the boat doesn't need an engine it's almost silent, too." He takes out a set of night vision binoculars and stands up on the ladder to peek out through a small window.
"Just because it doesn't have any metal above the waterline doesn't mean that it can't be detected on radar," the pilot states.
"You're right," he replies, "but only if there's no other distortion of the signal. You probably only used your radar to track craft in the air." She nods so he continues, "But you see, on the ocean even a wave can reflect a signal, so they must use a filter to clean it. That filter removes the weakest reflections. And since I also prefer not to cross large open stretches, staying instead close to islands, that makes it almost impossible to track me." He makes a few adjustments to some of the ropes, resulting in a creaking sound and then the sound of the ocean rushing by slightly faster. Satisfied, he brings the bottle over to the table and sits down. "So tell me. Why exactly did you join up with the wolves in this little war?"
"We usually try not to get involved in wars," she began coolly, "but since they claimed that your people had massacred their ambassadors upon landing, most felt that your people needed to be taught a lesson."
"It figures that they would claim something like that," he says, scowling. "There are just a few things you should know. One, those so called ambassadors were shot down while they were busy blasting their way into a fortified building that holds most of this planet's gold reserves. Had they managed to steal that they would have destroyed the basis of our economy. And second, they started their 'lesson' by destroying most of the world's political centers from orbital bombardment, killing more than a hundred million people in a few hours." And when he sees her shocked expression, he continues, "Yes, it's true. Your people should check the facts before you decide to join a fight. But tell me, are there any more of your people up in orbit?"
"No. Just the wolves, as you call them," she replies, somewhat confused. "Why do you ask?"
He goes back to check the course and make adjustments on the ropes, then picks up her pack and places it on the table before sitting down on the bench again. "We better check your pack for other surprises," he says. "Start unpacking it."
She starts unpacking, placing first a few bottles, then packs of dried food on the table. He picks them up and feels them, and noting that one is heavier than the others breaks it open. Seeing that it only contains food, he break open the next, revealing that the package had been opened and hollowed out, leaving just the shell. "Seems like someone likes this stuff," he comments dryly, pushing the other light food-packages aside, not even bothering to examine them. The next item appears to be a shelter made of a semitransparent fabric, which when unrolled reveals that the bottom has been ruined with long gashes. The small stove has a broken valve, and the sleeping bag contains fungus. "Didn't you check your survival equipment?" he asks the increasingly enraged pilot.
"Yes! I checked it every day. They must have switched it during the briefing right before I launched," she replies, embarrassed.
Going through the rest of the equipment reveals that only some clothing and the first-aid kit, in a transparent box, are undamaged. Those are put aside and the rest is put back into the pack. Then he takes the pack up the steps and out onto deck where he throws it into the ocean.
After that they settle down, she on the bench, he alternating between the bench opposite and the stairwell to check the progress. "You can go and get some sleep in the cabin," he tells her.
"No need," she replies. "I slept on the small boat, so I can't sleep now."
"You should try anyhow," he suggests. "The first rule of a soldier is to get as much sleep as possible, because you never know when you'll next get a chance."
"Maybe. But I know where I will get to sleep next," she says, her voice heavy with resignation. "One of your horrible prison camps."
"Another wolf lie," he quickly counters. "Yes, we have prison camps, but we do not torture prisoners. All get enough food, and they get the opportunity to exercise and talk freely with other prisoners. We do set out guards, but they are there mostly for the wolves own safety."
"Yes. The camps are picketed by people who lost their families in the bombardment. The last wolf who tried to escape didn't last more than a couple of minutes. And I think the rest of the prisoners heard what happened to him. After that incident there haven't been any more attempts from that camp. But I'm not certain that I should send you to one of them. I don't think that you would be safe in a camp filled with frustrated, bloodthirsty males."
She just shudders at the thought.
The rest of the night goes without incident, and when the sky begins to brighten to a new day, the man moves the ship close to a cliff overhang and drops the anchors. Then he goes topside to furl the sail. "You can come up for a few minutes if you want to," he calls down the hatch, and soon she comes topside to get some fresh air. As he works with the sails, she walks around on the deck, looking here and there, the claws on her bare feet making little clicking sounds when she steps on one of the few exposed pieces of wood.
"Aren't you worried that I'm going to jump over board and swim ashore?" she finally asks.
"No," he says. Then he pickes up a small scrap of wood and throws it into the water. The wood is quickly whisked away by the strong current. "I can't swim in that water. Can you?" She just shakes her head. "I thought not. It's time to go below," he directs, holding the hatch open for her, then climb down after her.
"What are you going to do now?" she asks.
"Sleep," he replies. "You can sleep if you want to, or stay up. Just follow two simple rules: One, be quiet, and two, stay below decks. Other than that, I don't care."
"Aren't you afraid that I'm going to do something to you or the ship?"
"No," he replies. " You need me more than I need you. Without me, you probably won't last long on this world." Then he heads for his cabin to sleep.
Sometime during his sleep, a sound disturbs him. When he surreptitiously glances towards the door, he sees a figure standing in the doorway. He pretends to sleep, and soon he hears the door close again and then the door to the other cabin open and close.
The next night, it's nearing midnight when he suddenly lowers the sails and drop anchors. Then he starts unpacking a strange tube.
"What's that?" she asks.
"This---" he replies, brandishing the long tube. "This is a lamp. Nothing more." Then he opens the hatch and climbs out onto the deck. The next few minutes she can hear a low, rapid clicking sound interspersed with periods of silence. Then he climbs down the ladder, closes the hatch and stows the lamp.
"Can I ask what that was all about?"
"You can ask, but I'm afraid that I can't answer. Military secrets and all that, you know," he replies, then pours himself a cup of tea before he gets the ship under way again. "You're getting bored, aren't you?" he suddenly asks, noticing how she looks around in the small room. She just nods. "Well, I guess this is as good a time as any to start the dreaded interrogation," he says with a shadow of a smile on his face, then opens a cabinet drawer and take out a small cassette recorder. "Why don't you just start at the beginning, with who you are, where you came from, a little bit of species background and how you got here. Anything that you don't think would be considered secret, that is. Or anything that you think is secret if you feel like it." The last is said with the same shadow of a smile again flickering across his face.
She starts speaking, hesitantly at first, about her home, about her family, then about traveling out to prove herself, joining up as a fighter pilot and finally about her first and only mission. She speaks all through the night, only pausing for a sip of tea now and then, or when he changes cassettes or batteries in the recorder.
A few nights later he again stops the ship close to midnight and takes out the strange lamp. This time he stays up on deck for a long while, the mysterious low clicking again sounding in periods interspersed with periods of silence. When he comes back down, he carries a notepad filled with symbols. After stowing the lamp, he disappears into his cabin, staying there for a long while. When he returns, he hoists the sails and gets the ship moving again.
"What was all that about?" she asks, "or is it still a secret?"
"I just received a message about you, or rather, your species," he replies. "A few nights ago, I asked for some background information on your people, and I just received it. I haven't studied it all yet, but so far your story fits. Honourable, good fighters but knows when to stop, a little bit about your customs. Oh yeah, there was also a warning about claws."
"What? These?" she asks, holding up her hands and expressing a wicked-looking set of claws.
"Yes, those," he states. "I guess that message verifies your story."
"But how?" she asks, plainly confused. "How can you get a message when all long range radio is jammed?"
"Remember the lamp?" he asks. "It is very directional. I just point it at a place where another person with a similar lamp is hiding, and then use a set of codes based on long and short flashes of light. He reads the message and repeats it back to me to make certain that there are no errors, then he flashes it onwards to the next person, until it reaches its destination or to a person connected to what's left of our ground-based telephone system. Simple, really."
"But won't the wolves try to intercept the system?"
"They have tried a couple of times. For that reason the bases are moved every few days, and the locations are only known to those who need to know. I only know of a few of them, and only where they will be for the next few weeks. Not that the wolves can break the encryption of the coded messages even if they managed to intercept them."
"They can't? But they're just sequences of short and long flashes. They can't be that difficult to decode."
"The flashes aren't really the code; just the carrier, something like the carrier wave of a radio transmission. But we scramble the contents of the important messages. We may not have real space flight yet, but there is one area that we are better at than the wolves, and that is computers. We can build computers that fit in a pocket and still have more capacity than the navigational computers of one of their fast attack ships. And when we use computers, we can use new codes for every message, and even scramble the message with two or more systems if we need to. No, there's no way they can break our codes."
"But if you have such powerful computers, how come you don't have craft capable of winning this war?"
"We weren't building military spacecraft when the wolves came. And it's very difficult to retool factories to build them when everything is being bombarded."
"But they stopped the bombardment a long time ago. That should be enough time to do something."
"No. Even under good conditions it takes time, and we first need to develop the technology. We have some wrecks of downed craft, but even then it takes time to study and adapt the technology to our use."
"And now you have yet another ship to examine."
"If you mean your fighter, then no," he states. "There was no way for us to send a recovery team before the wolves sent a group to raze the area. Not that it matters; we have more than enough of the old Fang-type fighters. Why do you think that they have upgraded models?"
"Yeah. We shoot them down faster than they can launch them. That's why it's become a stalemate," he explains. "We can't reach them up there, and they get shot to very small pieces if they try to come down."
A few nights later the ship is anchored in a small bay.
"Shall we go up and take a look at the skies?" he suddenly asks, then heads up the ladder. She follows, wondering what's going on. When they look at the stars they can see the slowly moving light of the large ships in orbit.
"What is happening?" she asks, then she sees it: A brightly glowing light rising on a pillar of smoke on the horizon. "What is that?"
"That?" he asks, then states, "That is the beginning of the end." Then he goes below decks. She follows him down.
"The end of what?"
"The end of the war, and quite possibly the end of a civilisation," he explains, his voice even more emotionless than usual. "That plume was an intercontinental ballistic missile carrying several nuclear warheads into orbit."
"Yes. Just that. This war will now end, one way or another," he says, sitting down heavily, placing his elbows on the table and supporting his head in his hands. "Tomorrow night we'll know which way it ends. Now, I'm tired." Then he rises heavily and walks forward to his cabin.
Night again, neither says anything. In time they climbs up to stand on the deck and look at the stars. At first nothing unusual can be seen, then they realize that that's just it. No ships can be seen maneuvering up in orbit. Nothing. Then, something like a shooting star appears overhead, sweeping across the sky, moving impossibly fast, suddenly splitting up into smaller fragments.
"It's beautiful," she says. "What is it?"
"That was a spaceship breaking apart and burning up as it entered the atmosphere," he replies. "I really hope that none of your people were up there last night."
"Why? What happened?"
"We know from our analysis that the wolf ships have a critical flaw. Last night more than a hundred missiles from around the globe simultaneously boosted nuclear warheads into orbit. Then they all exploded. The electromagnetic pulses from the blasts destroyed the ships' electronics. Without their computers, those ships are now dead hulks drifting in slowly decaying orbits, their crews doomed to die a slow death of asphyxiation, exposure, or if the ship wasn't in a stable orbit, a quick and fiery death like we just saw," he explains, then he goes below decks.
She quickly follows, demanding an answer, "How do you know all that?"
"When I shot down your ship, I was on my way back from dropping off the crew that was to check and reprogram the missile we saw lift off. In a way I helped kill all those thousands of beings up there. Now there are no ships up there that can carry you back to your world."
"You said that it might be the end of the civilisation, too, but how?"
"No," he replies. "I said that it might be the end of 'A' civilisation. I never said which one." Then he walks heavily towards his cabin, walking as if the weight of a world is on his shoulders. When he gets to his cabin, he just slumps down on the bed and falls asleep without even removing his glasses or covering himself with the blanket.
He wakes to find something weighing him down. Carefully opening his eyes, he finds the female draped across his chest and on top of a blanket he can't remember covering himself with the night before. Reaching out an arm he gently touches her face, letting his fingers run along her broad muzzle, caressing her cheeks, touching the tufts on her ears, marveling at the feel of her soft fur and muted, feline scent. Then, as he hears her breathing change, he pulls his hand back, ashamed of his actions, of touching her without asking. Seeing that she is waking up, he shifts his body, casually nudging her, but pretending to be asleep. With slitted eyes he watches as she gets up, stretches, then smooths down the blanket before quietly leaving the cabin and closing the door.
After he has showered, he enters the main cabin where he finds the Thermos bottle filled with freshly brewed tea, food already on the table and Rrsh'Dhana, as he recalls her name to be, sitting by the table and pretending that nothing has happened.
That day is spent in silence; he walking about and doing his tasks almost in a daze, and she watching, worried.
During the next two weeks he grows ever more withdrawn and silent. And each morning he wakes to find her sleeping either on top of him or next to him, and each morning he gently caresses her until she begins to wake up, only to pretend that he is still asleep while she sneaks out of the room.
Then, on the third week, he switches on an until-then unused radio to listen for messages. The pattern now changes to him sitting in front of the radio all day, while she takes over the cooking and other day-to-day chores, but still no one mentions what happens every morning.
On the fourth week a message suddenly comes through the radio: "The Phoenix has risen."
He turns off the radio, then mumbles, his face ashen, "My God, they did it. They did it." Then he sits down on the bench next to Rrsh'Dhana.
"What did they do, and what is the Phoenix?" she asks, puzzled.
"The Phoenix is the end of the wolf civilisation," he replies. Then, as he notices her puzzled expression, he continues. "The Phoenix is an ancient myth; A bird that built a nest, and then burned itself in it only to be reborn out of its own ashes. It is also Earths' first real spaceship, cobbled together from parts scavenged from ships we shot down early in the war. It has just returned from the wolves' home planet, where it delivered a barrage of nuclear warheads that exploded above their homeworld, blasting every single piece of electronics with deadly electromagnetic pulses. For all intents and purposes the wolves no longer have any working technology."
"They did that without any warning?" she asks, horrified.
"No. They sent one message when they entered their system, identifying themselves as the United Earth battle cruiser Phoenix, and that they had one-half a planetary rotation to surrender unconditionally. Then, if the wolves didn't surrender, they were to send another message just before detonating the bombs. Quite a simple message, too," he says, taking a short pause before continuing, "Those that sow the wind will reap the storm. You sowed war, now reap destruction." Then he added in a quiet voice, "Since it's back so soon, I assume that the wolves didn't surrender."
"When did the ship leave Earth, and how did it get past the blockade?"
"There was no longer any blockade. It took off as soon as we were certain that the ships in orbit were destroyed."
"Impossible!" she exclaims. "It's impossible to travel that fast. No computer can interpret hyperspace with the accuracy needed to travel at such a speed."
"If we can build a pocketsize computer with the same capacity of the computers used on a fast warship, imagine what we can do if we build a computer the size of a small room," he states. "And God forgive me, I helped design that ship's computer. I helped them blast an entire civilisation back to the Stone age." Then he gets up and walks back to his cabin where he falls into a troubled sleep, dreaming of a world in flames, a world where aircraft suddenly drop from the sky and transport tubes jam, trapping their hapless passengers inside. A world where medical and emergency equipment all fail, a world where the last broadcast ever heard is an alien voice condemning them all to a life of misery. Then in the middle of the dream, a voice, then a soft touch intrudes, and he calms down, drifting into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
This time, when he awakes he finds her, seemingly asleep, beside him, her head resting on his shoulder. As he reaches out to caress her, as he has done so many mornings, his hand is suddenly caught in hers. She holds his hand up against her muzzle and her tongue flicks out, gently licking his fingers. Then she leans over and her surprisingly rough tongue licks his cheek.
He rolls onto his side, grabs her around her waist and rests his head against her chest, then he start shaking and soon he's crying, releasing all the pent-up emotions. Sorrow from losing friends and family, anger at the wolves for killing them, frustration and helplessness for not being able to stop it, shame for what he has done towards a whole world---all of it pours forth. He lies like that for one hour, two hours, all the while she strokes his head and shoulders, caressing him and whispering encouraging words until his weeping stops.
When he next awakes he finds himself alone. Looking about and feeling like he just found something precious only to lose it again, he rises up from the bed and opens the door, and meets her in the doorway. She pushes him back and down on the bed, then climbs in beside him and throws her arms around his neck, holding his head against her soft chest. His arms embrace her, then slowly begin to stroke the fur on her back, slowly increasing in speed and intensity until his arms roam her back almost feverishly fast. She pushes him on to his back, then leans over and start licking him from his cheeks and downwards, while his hands shift to caress her head and shoulders, desperately seeking the warmth and closeness that he has denied himself since the war began.
The next morning, she awakens to find herself alone in his cabin, and a new sound in the ship. Curious and somewhat apprehensive she pulls on her jumpsuit and makes her way aft. There she finds the table set for breakfast, but no sign of the man. More disturbingly, the hatch is open and she can see sails billowing in the wind overhead. When she climbs out onto the deck, she finds that all the sand has been removed and plates the sand must have been layered on stacked to one side. The ship is moving quite fast through the water, almost dancing in the waves now that it no longer carries the heavy sand, leaving a wide trail of foam and bubbles. She finally notices him, standing in the bow of the ship, now and then getting sprayed with seawater as the ship hits a larger wave. She walks up behind him, her toe claws clicking quietly on the wooden decking. Caught in his own thoughts, the first he notices of her are two furry arms around his waist, then a snouted head resting on his shoulder, her hot breath caressing his throat. They stand like that for a long while, neither wanting to break the silence.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" he finally says.
"Yes," she mumbles, a soft purr in her voice.