Warbird Pilot Caleb Leaping Trout is in trouble. He reported for duty with a staggering hangover. Unfortunately the expected readiness exercises turned into something much deadlier, and he wasn’t ready. Now, he must face the consequences in this moving sequel to “The Warbirds of Absaroka.”
“Awakening the Warrior,” by Amazon bestselling author Debbie Mumford, is free on this website for one week only. The story is also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.
AWAKENING THE WARRIOR
Warbird Pilot Caleb Leaping Trout stood at attention, gaze fixed on the corridor’s opposite wall. The Bug-Eye crisis had passed, no thanks to him, and the time had come for him to answer for his foolishness. He longed to loosen the stranglehold of his dress uniform’s collar, but knew better than to relax his formal stance. He was in enough trouble without giving his superior officers additional evidence of his unsuitability to remain a pilot in Absaroka’s defense fleet.
Warchief Brenna Standing Bear was dead because of him, and her people, his people, mourned her loss, while thanking the Great Spirit for her courage.
He swallowed, tasting bile. He knew he wasn’t actually responsible for the warchief’s death, but he also knew that if he’d been at the controls of his warbird … if he’d been sober and flying the Falcon in battle as he should have been, she wouldn’t have been able to commandeer his ship and sacrifice herself for the defense of Absaroka.
It should have been him.
Warchief Standing Bear should have ordered him to test her theory. She should never have been in the Falcon. Caleb Leaping Trout should have died, not his warchief.
* * *
“Come on, Caleb,” wheedled Jeremy Wolfclaw. “You know you could fly those stupid readiness exercises with one hand tied behind your back.”
“Sorry, Jer. My duty…”
“Your duty is to your best friend! Bro, I’m getting married tomorrow. I need you at my side tonight. You’re my, what do you call it? Oh, yeah. You’re my wingman! You gotta come, Caleb. Tomorrow’s too late. Tomorrow night I’ll be busy making little Wolfclaws with Simone.” Jeremy wiggled his eyebrows suggestively and clapped Caleb on the back. “Come on, man. You can’t let a brother down in his hour of need.”
Caleb shook his head, then grinned at his best friend. “I don’t know how you managed to get a beauty like Simone to agree to marry you, but yeah, I’ll celebrate with you tonight.” He paused for a moment, studying his friend’s honest, but somewhat homely face. Jeremy was a good man, but he didn’t understand Caleb’s responsibility to the fleet, or the command structure he answered to. Jeremy was a code-cruncher. He sat in a cubicle all day. The worst thing he ever wrestled with was a snarly tangle of bits and bytes.
The two guys might have grown up together, but their adult lives were worlds apart.
But Jeremy was right about one thing: Caleb could fly readiness exercises blindfolded. He could afford to go out drinking with his best friend tonight. After all, the exercises would force him to miss Jeremy’s wedding, so this was his only chance to toast his friend’s happiness.
Besides, the Bug-Eyes had turned tail and run before either of them had been born. The readiness exercises, hell, the whole planetary defense fleet, was a product of Warchief Standing Bear’s family paranoia. Not that he minded. If there wasn’t a defense fleet, he wouldn’t be a pilot, and the one thing Caleb Leaping Trout knew for sure was that he’d been born to fly a warbird.
* * *
Caleb woke to a shrill sound drilling a hole in his head. He yanked a pillow over his ears and applied pressure, trying to make sure his skull didn’t explode.
“Alarm off!” he yelled into his bedroom’s dim light. The noise ceased and he released the pillow and flopped onto his back. Great Spirit! His head throbbed, his eyes were gritty, and his stomach churned. What had happened to him last night?
He lay still, hoping his body would settle, and his bedroom would stop shimmying and shaking. Closing his eyes, he tried to think. Tried to remember what he’d done last night. Flying lugnuts, dredging up memories hurt! He pressed his hands to his eyes to hold his brain in place while he searched for answers.
Jeremy. Drinking. Celebrating. More drinking.
Right. He’d gone out with Jeremy and the two of them had experimented with every intoxicant they could find in Tahlequah’s club district. And Absaroka’s capital city had a lot of clubs and a galaxy’s worth of liquor.
Caleb smiled ruefully. He hoped Jeremy was in better shape than he was. After all, Jer was getting married this morning, and Simone wouldn’t be impressed if her groom couldn’t stand up for the ceremony.
Awareness came flooding back, and Caleb jerked to sitting. His head swam and his stomach lurched, but he didn’t have time to acknowledge the pain. He had readiness exercises this morning. He had to get dressed and get to his warbird. If his failed to show, he’d be in the brig before Jeremy managed to mutter “I do.”
Two hours later, Caleb sat strapped into the pilot’s seat in the Falcon. He’d launched from the Thunderbird’s flight deck in formation with the rest of his shroud of five warbirds, and now struggled to maintain his position in the intricate drills his shroud leader commanded.
Sweat dripped from the end of his nose, fogging the faceplate of his helmet. This should’ve been easy. His shroud had practiced these maneuvers until he could manipulate the controls in his sleep. But today his head throbbed, his muscles ached, and he knew his responses were sluggish. He gritted his teeth and wished he could yank off his helmet and wipe the damn faceplate. He had enough trouble focusing his bloodshot eyes without trying to peer through his own sweat condensation.
Static crackled over his communication array. “Pilot Leaping Trout,” a voice said. Caleb frowned. A man’s voice. Not his shroud leader Jenny Lightfoot’s clear tones. “This is Chief of the Deck Black Bear. Return to the Thunderbird. Now.”
“Aye, shir,” Caleb said, his words slurring as his stomach gave a queasy roll. “Jush le’ me inform…”
“Now, Pilot Leaping Trout,” the COD said sharply. “Your shroud leader has already been informed.”
“Aye, shir. Returnin’ now.”
One less than perfect landing later, Caleb climbed unsteadily from the Falcon and swayed to attention on the flight deck as the COD approached.
“Just what do you think you were doing out there, Pilot Leaping Trout?” the COD growled.
“Followin’ orders, shir,” Caleb answered, his words slurring even more now that he was face to face with his stern-faced superior.
“I don’t think so, mister,” barked the COD. “You’ve been sluggish answering your hails and sloppy with the formations.” He stopped, leaned toward the young pilot and then backed away quickly. “And you stink of whiskey. That’s it. You’re grounded, and confined to quarters until Chief Whitehorse has time to deal with you. Dismissed.”
“Bu…but…” Caleb sputtered.
“I said, ‘Dismissed,’ Pilot Leaping Trout. Do you need me to draw you a picture?” The COD leaned close and glared at the younger man.
“No shir … I mean, yesh shir,” he said, confused. Not sure what response was required, Caleb saluted, or tried to, and stumbled away from the COD and back to his shipboard quarters.
Great Spirit! What had he done? Why had he allowed himself to drink so much last night? Why hadn’t he accompanied Jeremy on his night out, but limited himself to a single toast? Why in the name of all his revered ancestors had he matched Jeremy drink for drink?
If he lost the Falcon … if he was dishonorably discharged …. It didn’t bear thinking about.
He reached his quarters and shut himself in, only vaguely aware of the airmen who’d followed him and now stood guard at his door. He was in deep shit. But his head throbbed and every muscle in his body ached. Chief Whitehorse wouldn’t have time to discipline him until after the exercises, so he might as well try to sleep it off.
He shrugged out of his boots and flight suit and collapsed on his bunk. Maybe when he woke up he’d discover this was all a bad dream.
* * *
But it wasn’t a dream. It was a nightmare.
Caleb woke to a clear head, calm stomach, and muscle aches that he knew would succumb to a couple of pain tablets, but his world was in turmoil. Code Red lights flashed and shrill sirens drilled into his ears. He raced barefoot to the door, yanked it open and met an armed guard.
“Remain in your quarters, Pilot Leaping Trout,” the man said, eyeing him with disgust.
Caleb raised his hands and took a step away from the door. “What’s happening? Is this a drill?”
“It is not. We’re under attack,” the man growled. “Bug-Eyes.” His eyes flicked over Caleb. “And I’m stuck guarding a pilot who’s too drunk to be of use.”
“Bug-Eyes?” Caleb asked in disbelief. “But that can’t be right. They disappeared decades ago!”
“They’re back,” the guard said, and closed the door in Caleb’s face.
Stunned, Caleb stood rooted to the deck of Thunderbird, marooned in his quarters. Barefoot, wearing only a tee-shirt and shorts. The siren and flashing lights faded from his awareness, his thoughts spiraling. He should be out there. He should be in the cockpit of the Falcon, fighting Bug-Eyes with his shroud.
Great Spirit! His shroud! Jenny and John and Anna and David were out there deploying the maneuvers they’d practiced, but they were a man short … a warbird short. He’d left a hole in their formations. He’d left his shroud at a disadvantage, weakened. He’d failed his people in their hour of need.
And for what? To celebrate with Jeremy?
Jeremy and Simone might not even survive if the Bug-Eyes broke through the fleet’s defenses … and Caleb had weakened those defenses.
He’d failed. He wasn’t a warrior. He was a spoiled child who put his own wants above his responsibilities to his shroud … to his fleet … to his people.
Caleb Leaping Trout sank onto his bunk, his head in his hands. If he made it off the Thunderbird, if the Thunderbird survived the battle, his military career was over, and he’d richly deserve whatever punishment Chief Whitehorse and Warchief Standing Bear doled out.
* * *
The crisis passed. The Thunderbird, the fleet’s flagship, survived. Two of the fleet’s five destroyers, the Choctaw and the Seminole, did not. The fleet also lost three cruisers, the Kiowa, the Lakota, and the Ute. But most devastating to Caleb was the loss his warbird, the Falcon.
His shroud leader, Jenny Lightfoot, took pity on him and visited him in his quarters to bring him up to date. Jenny and Caleb were the only remaining members of their shroud of five warbirds, and his fighter craft was destroyed as well.
“From what I understand,” Jenny said, sitting crossed legged on the floor beside him, “Warchief Standing Bear commandeered the Falcon to test a theory. Whatever that weapon was that they were using against us, it simply disintegrated our ships. The Choctaw and the Seminole didn’t stand a chance against it. The beam touched them, and they imploded.”
She shook her head. “It was horrible. The Bug-Eye fighters were bad enough, but that weapon … it was unbeatable.”
“But what happened to the warchief?” Caleb asked, when what he really meant was, what happened to the Falcon?
“Right. Well, the story that’s making the rounds is that she noticed that the ship seemed vulnerable while it was recharging, and rather than ordering one of us, one of the remaining warbirds, to ram the ship, she commandeered the Falcon and did it herself.”
Jenny shook her head. “She timed it perfectly. No pilot could’ve done better. She waited until the ship was just about to deploy that terrifying energy and then rammed the Falcon right down the maw of that weapon. The thing backfired and the Bug-Eye ship and the Falcon imploded together.”
The two pilots sat in silence, pondering the courage and quick thinking of their warchief. After a moment, Jenny shook herself and continued. “Once the big ship was gone, the rest was just a mop-up exercise. The Bug-Eye fighters had nowhere to go. Our remaining warbirds and cruisers picked them off easily.”
She sighed. “We won. Absaroka is safe and the USL has been warned, but…”
“But the cost was high,” Caleb said, finishing her thought. “I’m sorry, Jenny. I know that’s not enough. Nothing I do will be enough. But I am sorry. I let you and the others down.” He drew a shuddering breath. “And John and Anna and David paid with their lives.”
Jenny touched his knee. “I’m not condoning what you did,” she said quietly, “but don’t beat yourself up. Yes, you were wrong and you’ll deserve whatever punishment the chief decides is warranted, but you couldn’t have known … none of us could … it was just supposed to be an exercise. No one was supposed to die.”
Caleb swallowed past the lump in this throat and averted his eyes. She was right. He knew she was right. But how was he supposed to live with the guilt?
* * *
Warbird Pilot Caleb Leaping Trout stood at attention outside Warchief Whitehorse’s private office. The moment of truth had arrived. He raised his chin, ignoring the itch of the rarely worn dress uniform, the stiffness of the collar that tried to choke him. Whatever came, he deserved. His failure was unforgivable.
The office door opened with a soft “whoosh” and the Warchief’s first officer stepped out. His gaze raked Caleb from head to toe before he spoke. “Warchief Whitehorse will see you now.”
Caleb saluted crisply. “Aye, sir.” He strode into the office to meet his fate, back straight, shoulders square. The door whooshed closed behind him as he saluted his newly appointed warchief.
Alex Whitehorse looked up from the tactical display covering the surface of his desk and said, “At ease, Pilot Leaping Trout.”
Caleb released his salute and assumed a parade rest stance, gaze fastened on the wall behind the warchief’s head. Though he maintained a stoic facial expression, Caleb was shocked by Whitehorse’s appearance. The man looked like he had aged decades in the week since Caleb had last seen him.
“Caleb Leaping Trout, you have been charged with incapacitation of duty due to indulgence. What do you have to say for yourself?”
“Sir. I have no defense. I overindulged the night before our readiness exercises, being fully aware of the importance of the next day’s events. Despite a severe hangover, I reported for duty and took my warbird out. The COD was forced to call me in due to my poor performance, leaving my shroud at a disadvantage.”
Caleb paused. He closed his eyes and his shoulders slumped. After a moment, he opened his eyes again and met his warchief’s gaze. “When I came to in my quarters and realized we were under attack….” He licked his lips. “Sir, I’m deeply ashamed. I don’t deserve to be called a warrior. I left my shroud in a weakened state and contributed to the deaths of my fellow pilots. I acknowledge my guilt and accept any consequences you see fit to impose, though nothing will erase my culpability.”
Warchief Whitehorse studied Caleb, his gaze seeming to penetrate to the pilot’s soul. After a long moment, he spoke.
“I believe you speak honestly, Pilot Leaping Trout. You had no way of knowing that a scheduled exercise would turn into a full-scale battle, though that is exactly what readiness exercises are designed to do: prepare us for battle. Ensure that we’re ready for the real thing.”
Whitehorse sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face. “We lost a lot of good men and women in that battle,” he said wearily. “And frankly, I can’t afford to lose an able pilot over what should have been a simple case of drunkenness.”
He stood, leaned across his desk, hands splayed on the tactical display. “I want to believe that this experience has awakened you to the importance of your duty, son. Has it?”
Caleb nodded, his jaw tight. With a conscious effort he relaxed enough to answer. “It has, sir. I am awake and aware of my duty to my people. My warbird carried Brenna Standing Bear to her death … and to the salvation of Absaroka. I will do everything in my power to be worthy of her sacrifice.”
Whitehorse nodded. “Very well. You are grounded until the COD releases you for flight. Until that time you will work with the ground crew assuring that all warbirds are fully functional and ready for battle. Are your orders clear?”
Caleb snapped to attention and saluted. “Aye, sir. Thank you, sir.”
“You are dismissed, pilot.”
Caleb executed a precise military turn and exited the warchief’s office. Once he rounded a corner and was out of sight of the door, he slumped against the wall. Closing his eyes, he pictured his fallen friends, and apologizing inwardly, bade each farewell. When he opened his eyes, he shook himself, straightened his shoulders, and went to find the COD and report for ground duty, determined to be the best warrior in the fleet. To be worthy of his warchief’s leniency … and his faith.
AWAKENING THE WARRIOR
Copyright © 2020 by Debbie Mumford
Published by WDM Publishing
Cover and Layout copyright © 2020 by WDM Publishing
Cover design by WDM Publishing
Cover art copyright © innovari | Depositphotos.com