The Reputation of the Wedge Warriors
by Jack Bragen
In my unfruitful travels, I had ended up at the same hotel at which several Wedge people stayed. It made my stomach churn, but I didn’t go elsewhere. It is bad form to unnecessarily avoid.
“Look at what the cat dragged in: my brightest and most appalling student!”
Damn. It was Sumuk.
The Master’s lips twisted to a scowl, and her eyes had a look of wished-for murder. I took this as a sign of the utmost hatred and, yet, respect. Few people could elicit the dislike of a Wedge Warrior, much less a Master.
“Where is the grand pile of wealth that you intended to make from these sacred skills? Where? Are you going to buy me a Rolls Royce out of gratitude?”
“I’m sorry to report that I’m close to being penniless,” I replied. “My plan was unsuccessful.”
“What will you do with your great fortune when you get it? Save humanity?”
“As for the disposition of my fortune, no one will ever find out.”
Sumuk was glaring, yet she had the smug satisfaction of knowing that, so far, I was an abject failure on multiple levels. She savored the moment. “Come see me after hours. My room number is 408.”
* * *
I had joined Wedge ten years previously, as an eighteen-year old. I’d been drawn to them because of fascination with the special abilities as well as the total absence of fear in situations that would inspire fear in any normal being. I’d worked hard to get my badge and, before that, I had taken The Oath. And I had excelled in my studies.
But later, I found the duties to be insufficiently glamorous and, at about the same time, I’d been bit by the monster called greed. The concept of using the imparted skills for personal gain was considered repugnant. I had tried to do this. And for this reason, I was ill-fated.
I had no concept of why the Master wanted to see me. Perhaps she would slit my throat; the thought had occurred to me. But some things even I, a very contemptible man, wouldn’t do, such as refuse to meet with a master.
The electricity had gone out due to high winds, and the elevator wasn’t working, but it wasn’t a problem to climb four flights of stairs. The southwest-facing hotel room was barely lit in shadowy pastels by the setting sun, to the extent that its light could get past the ever-present atmospheric haze and through a small, opened window. And the drapes periodically flapped from wind gusts.
Master Sumuk wore a formal, deep green outfit but had omitted the identifying collar pin of the Wedge Warriors. Also present were three of my peers, two of whom I’d heard of. They were close to my level of adeptness in a fight. Was I to be killed? I doubted that; it would be too kind, and it would not be sufficiently apropos. Was I to be punished? Archaic thinking; Wedge Warriors didn’t believe in punishing the errant. No, this was something else.
I stepped to within striking range of the Master. This was intended to show that I trusted her not to demolish me, which she could do. “I’m here. God knows why.”
“Would you like some Diet Coke, or maybe an unrefrigerated wine cooler?”
I replied, “The soda would be fine. As you know, I don’t tolerate alcohol well.”
I sat on a wooden chair. I crossed my legs at the calves. My hands were at my sides. “I’m listening.”
“People are not happy about the new trend.”
“And which trend is that?”
“People are assuming that the Wedge Warriors are a bunch of profiteers.”
The Master’s eyes drilled into me. I had to avert my eyes. “Profiting on what?”
“It doesn’t matter; it is a perception only. But it is a harmful perception. And it must be rectified.”
I wanted to leave. It sounded as though I was to be reprimanded, punished or killed so that the Wedge Warriors could have some semblance of their prior reputation.
The Master was aware that I was uneasy. “You could get out of this alive, and I could make it profitable.”
I replied, “We are on the same page.”
“You’d like to know what is expected of you.”
“It will be dangerous. But you may be able to survive it. And if you do...”
“What other choice do I have?” I asked.
“I’ve left you with none. You must restore our good name, and I have found a way for you to do so. If you don’t cooperate...”
* * *
The mission involved going into orbit. I was highly trained, had read the manuals about astronaut work, but had only gone into space once before. It would’ve been anxiety-producing, but a technique I’d learned in my training kept any fear shut down.
My flight was to coincide with a massive hack of all defense computers worldwide. Otherwise my vehicle would be shot down before it had any chance at intervening.
My “purpose” was to be present in case anything should go wrong. Yet I questioned that, as I was not an astronaut, and if something did go wrong, I would have to be babied through any corrective steps, assuming I was still alive and functional.
* * *
I was aboard a self-piloting spacecraft, and it was just as well, since I could not pilot a spacecraft. The only thing required of me was that I needed to hit a few buttons at the right moment, and hopefully live through this. I’d been tagged as doing a “suicide mission.”
The G-forces of the launch were not extreme, and the air mask on my face compensated for the pressure on my chest.
The spacecraft easily brought itself to a good orbit, and I didn’t have to do anything to bring this about. I was supposed to press a button that would cause my spacecraft to attack seven killer satellites, automated vehicles that were stalking each other in preparation for a battle.
My space vehicle was closing in on the first of the satellites. I got a look at it, and it had a massive thing on it that could probably produce a particle beam strong enough to destroy an armored vehicle standing on Earth.
The ground crew radioed me that it was time to press a button on my panel labeled “1.” I hit the button. I saw how my ship demolished the military satellite with great efficiency. My commissioned ship from a multibillionaire donor was better than what the world’s military were using.
The cabin of the spacecraft rattled, and this should not have been so. I radioed the ground crew.
They told me that my ship had encountered debris, and that I should hit a button for self-diagnostics. Yet, the ship was correcting course and was headed for the second object in the string. I decided not to interfere with that.
An alarm sounded indicating that the interior of my spacecraft was depressurizing...
* * *
I had a spacesuit on and fully closed, and for over an hour of space battle, had been breathing from an extra tank. Satellites one through six were successfully demolished. But now I had to resolve another problem that was affecting the ship, or it would not be able to destroy the seventh object.
I radioed the ground crew and informed them of this.
I overheard chuckles.
As a former Wedge Warrior, being the butt of jokes was the least of my worries. I informed mission control that the mission was in jeopardy.
I became pissed. But I realized that I needed these idiots if I wanted to be able to land, to disembark, and to move on with the pathetic remainder of my life.
“Can you do a spacewalk?”
“I barely know anything about this. How could I do a spacewalk?”
“We’ll guide you step-by-step. You need to reroute a fuel line so that an externally mounted engine can get power.”
“Why can’t the ship do that, with a robot or something?”
“Do what you’re told.”
During a spacewalk, I’d be a sitting duck if any weaponized vehicles came within striking range. I hoped that various enemies — such as everybody — hadn’t anticipated my spacewalk, and consequently hadn’t sent any attack vehicles after me.
I climbed out of my seat and pulled a lever to open the large hatch. There was no blast of escaping air, as the ship had been struck by debris that had ruined the seal of the internal atmosphere. I hoped my oxygen supply would hold out long enough for me to survive.
I connected a tether. I grabbed the first of the rungs adjacent to the outside of the airlock and made my way, rung by rung, to the spot that needed attention. I worked quickly and precisely. My skillset of being able to defuse bombs and do a bunch of other nifty things now served me well.
I saw where the original fuel line had been struck. I grabbed something from the toolbox that allowed me to seal off the jagged opening. Then, I twisted a couple of valves nearby so that the fuel supply could be rerouted. Other than that, I had to mess with the electronics so that the automatic fuel and oxygen cutoffs would be overridden. The engine was then usable.
At the same time, I noted a shattered glass window, a small one intended to give pilots a view of the underbelly of the ship. A small chunk of debris was lodged in one of the two tracks of an automatic shutter. I got a screwdriver and popped it free--it floated away. The titanium shutter slid closed. I hoped I could again have an oxygenated interior. Getting my air from the spacesuit supply was getting uncomfortable.
I got back to the cockpit. The seventh satellite had gained a lot of distance. I would have to direct the spacecraft to pursue the target.
As my ship pursued the satellite, I heard an alarm indicating that my orbit was compromised. Apparently, since the engines had been gunned a lot to approach the target, my trajectory was thrown off. Yet, I told the ship to continue pursuing the target.
The seventh satellite wasn’t happy and was firing projectiles at me. One of the projectiles did unspecified damage, indicated with an error code that, to me, was meaningless. I would find out later what it meant.
Finally, I got within range of the target, and the ship dispatched a rocket-powered grenade. The only thing left was to come back to the atmosphere, land somewhere, and resume my pathetic life.
However, my damaged ship, according to the AI unit that ran it, could not be landed safely.
I asked the ship what would prevent me from landing. I wasn’t happy with the reply.
“The landing sequence has been omitted from the software.”
I had never been intended to return to the Earth’s surface alive, I concluded. Trying to pilot this thing on manual would be futile. I’d piloted a Cessna airplane and that was all.
I thought of uploading the landing software from a computer on Earth. I sat at the computer console and got a link to one of the defense computers in the U.S., that my ground crew had hacked.
* * *
I was so tired from my space mission that I was vulnerable. As I parked my car and walked the five blocks from the garage to the master’s residence, several people appeared as though they wanted to attack me. They were surprised by my lack of readiness and probably believed it was a ruse.
The meeting with the Master was brief. I handed her the recording of my successful mission that by all rights should have killed me. The recording would be spread and would be a way for the Wedge Warriors to regain some of their reputation.
I gathered that she wanted to kill me where I stood. However, circumstances forced her to hand me the paycheck I’d asked for.
“If you ever want to return to the Wedge Warriors...” Her voice trailed off and I looked at her.
“You will never be allowed. Now get out of my sight.”
I left the residence of the Master, and it finally hit me: I was very sad that I was no longer a member of something profoundly great.
Copyright © 2020 by Jack Bragen