The CF-105 Scimitar medium fighter looked like one of the starfighters crushed under the foot of a giant robot in the old Star Wars movies. Its shields and armor were being shot away, every missile had been either used or destroyed, and the computer was displaying all different dates.
2654.339, the pilot thought. Last sortie before leave... do the Cats know this? Lieutenant Mariko "Spirit" Tanaka had no idea what possessed her to wonder whether or not the Kilrathi on her tail had targeted her specifically because she was about to go on leave. All she knew was that she had to fight, or die. Spirit and Captain Chen "Bossman" Kien were on a simple patrol in the Gimle System, her tenth sortie as a pilot aboard the renowned TCS Tiger's Claw, and had just come out of jump at Nav Two when they were jumped themselves. A wing of Jalthi and a Lumbari had set up what looked to be an ambush. If they were flying Hornets, they'd be dead. As it happened, Bossman's Scimitar had virtually no shields and was now trying to evade, while Spirit's had one of its two guns, a Mass Driver, blown off. Spirit was now trying to contact the Claw.
"... need assistance. Unsure we'll survive on our own." Spirit fired a volley at a closing Jalthi, trying not to panic. Then she saw Bossman fly towards the Lumbari, and knew she had to help him. Without a word, she tried to match the flight path of one of the Jalthi after Bossman and fired, the shots nothing like the slow and steady ones she normally used. Her breathing had increased noticeably, and she tried to think of the training that had got her here and, she hoped, out of this conflict, rather than the fear of dieing that despite her best efforts could not be suppressed.
"Spirit, pull out," ordered Bossman. "You're heading towards the Lumbari, its firing."
"No time." But she tried anyway, trying to do a tight turn left and down to go under the thing. The Scimitar was not nimble under the best of circumstances; this was going to be close. The Lumbari shot at Spirit. Spirit knew better than to try and fight back. Instead, she kept trying to evade. In desperation, she hit the brakes. This action have her a small gap that she could squeeze through. Ignoring the Lumbari's fire, Spirit was able to avoid crashing. She felt the jolts of the enemy fire and hit the afterburners, planning to try and wear the Lumbari down. A quick glance at the computer, however, told her that the other Mass Driver had been shot off, and she was now defenseless. Bossman noticed this.
"Spirit, return to the Claw. I'll try and hold them off." Spirit didn't want to leave the fight to Bossman alone, but under these circumstances she was willing to take "yes" for an answer.
"I will report your bravery," she said. "Good luck."
"Roger." Spirit then tried contacting the Tiger's Claw again.
"This is Spirit. Returning to base." This time she was able to get through, and a blinking, fuzzy image of Colonel Halcyon was on screen.
"Roger Lieutenant. I'm sending out three other fighters to bring you and Bossman home."
Spirit was the first to land, her badly damaged Scimitar not impressing the flight crews one bit. Colonel Halcyon was waiting for her on the Flight Deck.
"Welcome back, Lieutenant. I'll hear from the others, but since they'll be a little delayed as they fight off the Kilrathi, I'll hear your report."
"Yes sir. Nav One was clear. At Nav Two, five Jalthi and a Lumbari ambushed us. I was able to destroy one before... well, before Bossman ordered me back to base. He chose to stay and help me escape."
"Okay, then. This ambush has us concerned. We'll be stepping up security in this sector. You will still be able to get leave, however. Except in the case of an emergency Captain Sansky has approved two weeks leave."
"Yessir, thank you, sir."
"That's all, Lieutenant. Dismissed." Spirit headed straight for the Berths, where her locker was, and opened it. It was neat and tidy inside, fairly sparse. There was a wallet with money inside, which she grabbed, and a photo album. She took the album out, closed the door, and sat on her bed to look through it. The first photo was of her with her father and one of his wingmen, Steve "Hollywood" Barkley. Spirit felt the pain of seeing her dead father and turned the page. The photos here were more uplifting, of her at the Academy with friends and instructors. Spirit smiled and turned the page, where the photos here had her shaking her head. She was here with her boyfriend, Philip, and his brothers Paul, Sean, Jessie and Billy, before she went on the Tiger's Claw. They had chosen to go to the place known as Hell's Kitchen in New York. She watched, and smiled a lot, as she watched Philip and his brothers make utter fools of them having fun. Still, she enjoyed herself. She just went shopping whenever they got a bit much for her. One photo had, of all things, Paul holding a cat by the scruff of the neck. Philip was with him, and the caption read 'In New York City with the Kilrathi Emperor.' She'd missed him terribly after he took his healing hands and left to work for the Medical Corps in Epsilon, and was excited about seeing him again. Having to buy Christmas presents for family was the perfect excuse to get leave, and if only for a little while, the two of them would be together.
Lieutenant Philip "Hiro" Chambers seemed, in every sense of the word, normal. Apart from the military guile in his face and the gift to heal almost anything he touches, there was nothing that set him apart from everyone else. He worked with a gentle manner, but he had a shorter fuse than once might expect when it came to politics or the military. Today he felt tired, the long period of quiet eating at him and making him rub at his dark blue jumpsuit.
Still, he thought, ninety nine percent of war is waiting. He excused himself to step out into the hall, where it was cool and he could get a drink, when he noticed a shuttle arriving.
"Humph, wonder who that could be?" he asked aloud. No medical emergency had been called, and as far as he knew no one had anyone booked in. He paid it little heed and went to get a drink. On his way back, he heard someone come through the front doors of the medical center. Cold air came through, and Philip decided to go and see if they needed help. He went to the front to find that nobody was there. Just space and the dark rock that the space station and medical center were built on.
"Bang," a female voice called out. "You're dead." Philip turned around, recognizing the voice.
"Mariko? Geez, don't scare me like that."
"It's good to see you, too, Philip." Spirit came out from behind one of the cabinets.
"Sorry. It is good to see you again." Philip walked over to her. "You seem...different somehow."
"I have leave," she explained. "Since we don't have to be concerned with the war at the moment, I thought you might like to come with me to Epsilon Prima."
"Yeah, it'd be great to forget about the war and spend some time with you. How come you're going?"
"Christmas. I hadn't even started shopping yet. I've been... a little busy."
"Haven't we all?" Philip led Spirit the way out, and put an arm around her shoulders. He wasn't altogether much taller than her, and they could possibly look like brother and sister. Then again, he thought, maybe not. Spirit was Japanese, with shoulder length black hair. Philip, on the other hand, had short light brown hair and was an American descendant from the Peron System.
"Is something on your mind?" Spirit asked. "You seem... tense." Philip thought about it. He did feel strained, and what he'd been hearing didn't help at all. But he didn't want to worry Spirit at all.
"Probably just work."
The shuttle ride to Epsilon Prima didn't seem to take that long to Philip. He'd fallen asleep, Spirit leaning on him and snuggling up against him. He woke up as they flew over Chimaya Contal, the city Spirit had chosen to go to. Philip didn't argue. It was a nice, smallish city unlike New York on Earth, but big enough for there to be a large hustle and bustle. There was a Christmas Parade on today, and Spirit intended to see it. Philip decided to pretend that he was still asleep so as not to disturb Spirit at all, and looked outside at Chimaya Contal, thinking. The shuttle landed soon enough, and Spirit and Philip walked out.
"How about we go and watch the parade over there, when it starts?" Spirit pointed to a spot across the road from where the shuttle had landed.
"Sure, it doesn't bother me. It's not for a while yet though so maybe you want to get some shopping done first."
"Sure, okay." Philip smiled. Spirit was much more lively than before. He supposed it was because they weren't fighting the Kilrathi. They went, literally arm in arm, to see what they could see. As they walked down the street, Philip saw something he did not particularly want to see. On a pole holding up a street sign was a small poster someone had put up, protesting the war against the Kilrathi. Sure, Philip would have wanted peace with the cat like race, or at least not to be at war with them, but he knew that was not possible. He shook his head in disgust.
"What's wrong?" Spirit asked, before seeing the poster. She paid it no heed and hurried Philip along.
"Sure, let the Kilrathi run roughshod," Philip was saying. "Let yourself be captured and taken to a slave mine."
"Don't worry about it," said Spirit. Philip knew she was right, and said as much. Still, he growled and glowered at the poster as they walked away.
"Now, let's see..." Philip looked on, thinking how typical, as Spirit went through a department store dealing in ladies fashions like a bull in a china shop. He wasn't about to deny her her fun, but he knew Spirit had female weaknesses, and he was right.
"Anything in particular you're looking for, Mariko?" he asked.
"Not really, I'm just looking." Philip nodded in understanding and looked at his watch. There were still a couple of hours before the parade. It might have been afternoon or evening on the space station but it was early morning in Chimaya Contal. People milled about feverishly in the Christmas rush, leaving Philip trying to keep up. Spirit, on the other hand, never seemed to lose her stride.
Well, he thought, wait until things get busy. Spirit had spent the last quarter of an hour trying to decide what she should buy for one of her sisters before she asked Philip.
"Um... well, either one, I guess." Before him were two different types of kimono, traditional Japanese clothing Spirit had picked out. One was very traditional and formal, white with a red bow at the back. The other was more stylish and was short sleeved with colorful patterns.
"I'm not sure whether she'd like this one or not."
"Mariko, I'm sure whatever you get her she'll be happy with."
"Well, maybe she'd like something else. Do you think we should try another store...?"
"No, I'm sure there'll be something here."
"Don't you want to do the shopping?" Spirit asked.
"It's not that, Mariko. I just think that Christmas can get to one's head, you know what I mean?"
"I'm okay. I just want my sister and my family to be happy with what I get them."
"I can understand that. I want my family to be happy, too." Philip placed a hand on Spirit's shoulder. "I want us to have our time as well."
"I can understand. I want us to do the things that each of us would like to do as well. And I want to shop for presents. Now, I'm trying to think what I could get you for Christmas, Philip." Philip just shook his head as Spirit led him to show him some ideas she had.
After Spirit had gone to a few shops, Philip admitted that he had some Christmas shopping to do as well. They went to another department store, where Philip was noticeable quicker and not as picky as Spirit was. She watched as Philip grabbed presents for his family with barely a second thought, and wondered why he hardly concerned about what he got. She decided to ask.
"Philip," she asked when he had slowed down, "how come Christmas isn't all that important to you?"
"What?" Philip stopped in his tracks. He turned around to face Spirit. "Why isn't Christmas important to me, you ask?"
Spirit felt as if she'd said something wrong. "Gomen, Philip. It's just that, I feel that you're not enjoying Christmas. Christmas shopping doesn't seem to appeal to you, for example."
"Oh, believe me Christmas is very important to me. And family is very important to me. But...I just haven't fallen into the marketing blitz it is."
"Yes. But it's Christmas."
"What's your point? Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Jesus, those who believe in him. Not how much people can make ripping off Christmas shoppers."
"Philip, what's wrong with you?" Spirit wondered. "There's obviously something bothering you." Philip gave a sigh.
"Would you mind if we discuss this where there isn't so many people?" Spirit nodded, and allowed herself to be guided upstairs, where it was far less busy. "The truth is, there is something troubling me."
"Does it have anything to do with that poster we saw before?" Spirit asked.
"Yes," Philip said after a pause. "These protesters are making Confed out to be the enemy. They're making a bunch of groundless claims in an attempt to stop this war. I'm all for stopping this war, but I don't want the Confederation to be slaughtered doing it."
"If what these people say are not true, then why should it matter?"
"Because it matters, Mariko. Look, I want to be a hero the same as you. I want to save as many lives as I can, and see an end to this war. And I fear that the Confederation will tear itself apart if people believe these accusations."
"Philip," Spirit said, "this is the time of year you're meant to forget about these things." Spirit was about to say something else when Philip interrupted.
"I suppose whatever happens is God's will." Technically, that wasn't correct. God, Spirit believed, was about free will. But she was willing to let Philip think that if he was going to stop thinking about war. He smiled. "C'mon, the parade starts in a few minutes. Let's go." Spirit followed as Philip paid for his purchases and stepped back out onto the street. As they left, Spirit saw someone across the street, protesting the Kilrathi War. It hadn't looked like Philip noticed yet. Thinking quickly, she grabbed his arm and led him away.
"We'll go down here further, where we landed," she said.
The parade so far had been a big success, as Spirit and Philip, snuggling next to each other, sat watching the various floats go past. Philip was particularly impressed that there were a number of school children in nativity scenes and other Christmas-related participation in the parade, as well as the inclusion of various worthwhile causes and messages.
"This is nice," Philip said. "This is just lovely."
"It is." Spirit snuggled closer to Philip. The two of them were falling asleep on each other's shoulders when Philip noticed a number of people standing up.
"Hey, Mariko. Looks like Santa's here."
"Don't tell me..." Spirit began, humor in her voice, "that you still..." she stopped as Philip pulled away from her and stood up. She did the same.
"Philip?" she asked. He didn't answer; he just looked to the left. Spirit did the same, and saw a float in the parade. It declared to make peace with the Kilrathi and not to wage war on them. Spirit saw, to her relief, that many of the people looked disgusted. Something brushed past her, and she noticed that Philip intended to do something about the float. Spirit placed a hand on his chest, trying to hold him back. The action was enough to make Philip stop and think. He then turned around and began to leave.
"Mariko, we're going."
"No, please stay," she pleaded. "It was not right for them to do that, I agree, but please don't let it spoil things." Philip saw the pleading in her face, took her hands and sat down with her.
"Are they nuts?" Philip wondered loud enough for people around him to hear. "Are they nuts?"
"Yes," Spirit said, looking around at several families who chose to leave. "They are nuts. But it's not long to go now, try and forget about it."
"You don't do that," Philip was saying. The parade was over, and he and Spirit were walking through Chimaya Contal. Philip was still very upset over the anti war protesters. "You don't have that message shoved down people's throats. At Christmas. With children."
"Would you please settle down?"
"Mariko, you're right. Christmas shouldn't be a time to think about the war with the Kilrathi. Whether we're in the right or in the wrong." They walked past a hotel, where Spirit stopped, grabbed Philip by the arm and turned back.
"Maybe we should stay here tonight," Spirit said.
"Yeah, if that's what you want." They went in and booked a room, then headed upstairs. As they went up, Philip realized how tired he was. He stumbled, and Spirit caught him and helped him up the stairs to their room.
"Are you tired, Philip?" Spirit only got another moan in reply. "Here, we're here. Just lie down now, okay?" She led Philip to a bed and laid him down, before ruffling and playing with his hair.
"You're so good to me, Mariko," Philip said. "About the war protesters..."
"Hush now. Get some sleep, my love." Spirit ran a hand over his face. Philip was speechless. He didn't know how to react. Sure, they were boyfriend and girlfriend, and they had professed their love for each other before. But Philip always got chills when Spirit talked like this. He couldn't look away; for fear that he might lose her if he did. And the emotion he did feel when looking at her was too strong. Instead, he closed his eyes, feeling all too vulnerable with her.
"Mariko... I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to be sorry for, my love." If Philip heard, he didn't reply. Thinking that he had fallen asleep, she just sat there, playing with his hair and enjoying his company.
Spirit was watching a Christmas movie when Philip woke up. She was quite enthralled by it, and Philip wondered what it was.
"It's about Santa being disillusioned by how commercial Christmas had gotten, and him searching for a way to reaffirm his belief in Christmas."
"Oh... any good?"
"It's interesting how they portray Santa. He's not magical at all. Just a kind, gentle old man who gives gifts."
"So there's a happy ending?"
"I don't know."
"There'd have to be." Philip watched the movie for a moment before losing interest. "Come here for a moment." Spirit got up and sat by the bed Philip was still in. "I think we need to talk."
Spirit didn't say anything, she just listened. "For a while now I've been hearing about little else but war. It... well it scares me. I don't want there to be a war." Spirit considered this. "And the protest against the war. That scares me even more than the war itself. It's like, we're virtually being told to surrender to the Kilrathi, or at least let them get away with the people they've killed... they've enslaved." Spirit still kept quiet, thinking. Finally, she thought she had the right words to say.
"Philip... as a member of Confed, you believe that you are just in helping those who have been hurt in combat, warriors and innocent people alike. Don't you?"
"Well, yeah of course I do. I can't see how anyone can argue that I'm not."
"As part of Confed, do you think we're justified to fight and defend ourselves and the innocent worlds the Kilrathi attack?" Spirit asked.
"Yes, Mariko, I do. But, as long as the war wages, and as long as there is protest over the war, there'll always be conflict. I don't want there to be conflict." Spirit thought for a moment, before she climbed into bed with him.
"Then," she said, snuggling up to him, "we can run away. Let's leave Confed and go someplace far away where there is no war, and we can be together." Philip looked deeply into Spirit's eyes.
"That would be great," he said. He sounded like he was going to say more, but he kept quiet for a long time.
"What?" Spirit asked.
"That would be great," Philip said finally, "and I would love to do that. But..." he clearly struggled to say the words. "But... it's a sin."
"I would go anywhere and do anything with you in a heartbeat. But I couldn't walk away. As much as I want to, and as much as I love you and want to be with you, I am bound by my duty to Confed, and as long as there is war, we have to fight."
"If we get married," Spirit said, "then this war would never separate us."
"Marriage? Mariko, you're not..."
"I believe you are right. There's so much importance this war has." Spirit snuggled closer and kissed Philip, passionately, the type of kiss that only one truly in love with someone could give. Philip returned the kiss, his heart racing, his mind buzzing, consumed in the love he had for the woman in his arms. Spirit finally pulled away, holding his gaze, watching him simply melt and feeling exactly the same as him. "But just for now, let's... let's try and forget about them."
For hours, they had lied there, simply content to be with one another in the silence. Spirit was happy to be held and to be with a man like Philip. Truly alive and full of life, having the fire to keep doing what he had to do. Sincere to a fault, and truly caring, Philip felt truly at peace with Spirit, enjoying her closeness, her warmth. How good she is to him, how much that care makes him strive to be as good to her and to other people as he could possibly be. How at ease and restful she made him feel. And to do this while having the utmost respect for each other, while nothing in the least bit illicit having to come into their relationship, it was almost too good to be true.
"I had a dream," Philip said after the hours of silence. "About us."
"Hmmm...?" Spirit was barely awake. "What was it about?"
"It was how far we would go for each other."
"How far? In the dream, how far did we go for each other?"
"Mmm, who should go first?"
"You should." Philip thought for a moment, as if trying to remember the dream.
"Well...I..." there was a beeping noise. "Huh?"
"It must be for me," Spirit said. She climbed out of the bed and went to see what was going on.
"Spirit. This is Commander Devereaux. You are ordered back on the Tiger's Claw right away. We have sent a shuttle for you to Chimaya Contal." Spirit just stared for a moment. "Lieutenant, do you copy?"
"Please wait a minute, Commander."
"What was that?" Philip asked.
"I'm sorry," Spirit said. "I have to go."
"What? But I thought you had two weeks."
"I did. But... Philip, I'm truly sorry. I don't want to do this to you..."
"Mariko." Philip climbed out of bed. "Hush. This is what you have to do."
"Are you sure that you are okay?"
"You have given me something that no one else could. You've taught me that Christmas is about those I love. Being with them, loving them..." Philip closed the gap between them and took Spirit's hands in his. "That is the true spirit of Christmas." For a moment, the thought hung in the air. Then the penny dropped for both of them. Philip smiled at the irony of what he said. Spirit smiled back. She turned away from him to talk to Devereaux.
"I'm on my way." She cut communications, and turned back to Philip. "I have to know something. In your dream, how far did you go for me?" Philip raised his eyes, thinking, then recomposed himself.
"You have to go, Mariko."
"I know. But how far did you go?" Instead of answering, Philip inched closer to Spirit and kissed her, his motivation being pure love and caring.
"About what you said before. I will marry you." Spirit fell into his arms, tearing up. "But," he said, his voice breaking, "we have to win this war first."
"I love you, too. And I understand. But, how far did you go?" Philip let Spirit go and stepped back.
"As far as you have done for me," he said, his face and voice stronger, with great conviction. "Now go."
"But, this is war," Spirit said. "What if something happens to us? Will we see each other again?"
"Count on it. We'll see each other again. That's a promise."
The shuttle was nearing the Tiger's Claw. Its lone passenger, Lieutenant Mariko "Spirit" Tanaka, solemnly gazed out the viewport in deep thought.
"Let the Kilrathi run roughshod. Let yourself be captured and taken to a slave mine." Philip's words haunted her. "I'm all for stopping this war, but I don't want the Confederation to be slaughtered doing it. I want to be a hero the same as you. I want to save as many lives as I can, and see an end to this war." Spirit didn't know if she could take much more of this, but she knew it was better to let it all out now. This war had to end. Above all else, they had to be victorious. "I don't want there to be conflict. But I couldn't walk away. As much as I want to, and as much as I love you and want to be with you, I am bound by my duty to Confed, and as long as there is war, we have to fight." Philip's words, Spirit thought, had done as much for her as she did for him. She had something to fight for. And Philip had only reaffirmed that belief. "We'll see each other again. That's a promise." The Tiger's Claw was now clearly in sight, and Spirit had left Philip far behind. But she couldn't stop thinking about him. As much as she had to keep her composure when she arrived, she still thought of him.
"Please, Philip. Please keep your promise... keep your promise so that we may see each other again."