(Personal communique from Brigadier General Thomas Ethelridge to Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Davenport)

Chuck, I’m just about ready to give up on this one. Call it a gremlin and get you guys back in the air. Obviously the investigators are going to keep on beating the horse, but between you and me and these four walls, it isn’t going to help. There isn’t anything to go on here. This isn’t a mechanical failure as far as we can tell. It isn’t pilot error, either. Vasquez was a great driver, clean boy, highly motivated, no reason at all for him to wig out like that all of a sudden. The voice recordings tell us he was trying to fight the thing as hard as he could, and I believe it. He was that kind of boy. You know that better than me, I’m sure.

What we’re left with, unfortunately, is gremlins. And you know how well that’s going to go down with the desk jockeys in the big five-sided building. What can I tell you? Sometimes shit happens, and sometimes really weird shit happens. And sometimes the explanation is something you can’t understand and wouldn’t want to if you could. I call it gremlins. Anyway, as far as anybody can tell, this is a one in a million occurrence. The rest of your birds have all checked out clean, your drivers are all just as good as the birds, and as of Monday morning I’ll be putting you back in the air.

Do me a favor and act surprised, all right? And get rid of this letter. I don’t think we’re under investigation, but I’d rather not keep written evidence of my gremlin theory lying around. Just wanted to let you know.

But hey, I guess we proved our birds can take out the Gladiator, eh? One way or another.

She shone like a teardrop, and every ray of the sun was magnetically attracted to Her. They would sparkle on Her face, glimmer on Her pert rear end. When She wore guns, they were delicate things that looked like jewelry. She was a dancer, and She made combat look graceful and effortless.

He, by contrast, was as ugly as a toad. The scion of several generations of warriors, he was obviously bred for battle. His face was angular, pugnacious, his body stocky. Try as he could, he could never shed the weaponry he carried. War was in his blood. It was all he knew.

He could not impress Her with his flying, either. He was too heavy. The armor that was his inheritance kept him safe, but it made him lurch like a brainless thug. He had tried to slough off his armor, but it was like a part of him. When he took off, it was not an elegant skyward leap, but a staggering, hulking act of violence. He knew how boorish he looked, but he could not help himself.

His scars made little impression on Her. She never spared a second glance at his weapons, although they got bigger and better as he matured. He had a dozen kills to his name. She was unmoved. He had faced the worst enemies on the battlefield and lived, mute evidence of his prowess. She did not care.

His reputation grew, reaching far across their world. He knew that some day there would be new warriors better than him, young bloods that would eventually evict him from his crimson throne, but for the moment he was the undisputed king of the battlefield. He could vanquish any enemy, except for his love.

They were mute, and there was nothing he could do to show Her his love. He aged, and he mourned. And in time, his lament became frustrated rage. He seethed with anger. Day by day he became more vicious and powerful. Although he tried to hide his violent heart when he was in Her presence, when he flew alone he was an unstoppable avatar of fire. He accumulated kill records that had never been imagined before. No enemy could stand against him. With rockets and chain guns he wiped the smiles off their faces and their faces off the planet.

But when they happened to fly together, he heard reproof in Her silence, and he felt ashamed of himself. Yes, he was a warrior born and bred, but he did not need to revel in bloodshed as if he actually enjoyed it. He burned with shame as he realised how hideous She found his actions. Had he honestly thought that his vulgar displays of violence would impress Her? That he could make Her forget his ugly face by exposing his ugly heart?

No. He was not like that. He had a temper, but he was inherently good. Combat was his duty, not his passion. It did not excite him. Only She could do that. He would still these savage impulses, force himself to behave, win Her over with his self-control. Surely someday She would notice his love for Her. And when that happened, She could not help but return it. It was only a matter of time.

Time, however, was not on his side. One spring day as he sunned in front of his hangar, disaster struck, in the shape of a young warrior who dropped out of the sky with hardly a whisper, landing effortlessly next to the old one. The disaster was sleek, dark-skinned, fast, and twenty years younger. He looked like an assassin in his coat of black, a vile usurper sitting on the tarmac.

And She, the vision of perfection who had likewise been absorbing the sun’s rays not far away, was watching him.

The old one’s blood boiled. His newly cultivated self-control evaporated in a furious wave of jealousy. He felt for his weapons, but they had all been removed or disabled.

Humans surrounded them all, attaching diagnostic instruments to their skins, running checks on every system. Finally, they flew. The old one hurled himself into the sky to follow his lover, who led him on a chase over rolling hills and vales, skimming the treetops, rotors almost slicing the leaves off the vegetation. He felt a brief elation in the joy of the chase. He could feel the humans sharing his excitement. They were all enjoying this rare unfettered flight.

But the newcomer was right behind him, sticking to his seven o-clock only a few yards away, like some vile metallic leech. The old one twisted, dove, climbed and banked as steeply as he could, but he could not shake off his youthful competitor. And She was watching them! She was laughing! He had thought her merely happy to be flying so freely, but she was mocking him! Was she already succumbing to the newcomer’s charms?

The black usurper followed tightly, as the old one’s rage festered within him. He wanted to slice the newcomer in half, to unleash his battle-tested weaponry on him, to show this young upstart what war was like. He wanted to make the young one cry like the child he was, to show Her that he was not what She thought. But he had no weapons, and She was unquestionably enjoying his humiliation.

Was that how it was? Was She truly that scornful of him? Or was She teasing them both? What twisted impulses controlled that graceful metal body? Had he been wrong about Her all these years?

Then She would have neither of them. There was only one thing for him to do. One way to end Her mockery and the torment of his persistent, undeniable desire for Her. They were flying home already, the humans seemingly satisfied with their tests. The usurper was still frighteningly close to him. He did not have much time.

He twisted. He stretched and strained, groaning with exertion as well as his fury. He could feel bolts sliding out of their designated places, steel rods twisting beyond tolerance. He heard a rasping of metal on metal. With a final, savage scream, he pushed again, and heard a sudden vicious snap as a displaced control rod sheared through a safety bolt. His rotors veered wildly out of control, and his whole body hurled itself to the left like a fish on a hook.

He caught one last mischievous glint of sunlight on Her flank, as if She was winking at him. Machine Mother, was this what She had planned all along?

Then his rotors slammed against the cockpit of the young warrior, rebounding off struts to entangle the young one’s rotors. In less than a second, they were united in a hideous wreck of twisted metal. And flames engulfed them both, a lurid fireball dominating the sky, while She hovered nearby. A single piece of shrapnel whickered across the gap and sliced through Her tail, but She landed safely even before the sirens began to wail. The setting sun glimmered on her cockpit as She waited for her rescuers and watched the smoke billowing out of Her suitors’ carcasses. She waited, flaunting Her injury, and hating them all.

(Personal communique from Lieutenant Colonel Charles M. Davenport to Brigadier General Thomas Ethelridge)

Gremlins, eh? I’m glad you said that before I did. And thanks for the vote of confidence. Personally, I’m inclined to believe that something went horribly wrong with the Gladiator - but like you say, sometimes there just isn’t an explanation. I’m sure the usual revisions to the safety regs will soon be forthcoming. Meanwhile, I’ll make sure my boys keep clean.

Do me a favour and try to keep us out of any further Gladiator testing, would you? I’ve got a finely tuned machine here. The scout flyers annoy the shit out of the Apaches and vice versa, and we all conspire to maintain a healthy atmosphere of competitive cooperation. Throwing a new kind of bird into the mix just disrupts the whole thing. Thanks to these clowns and their testing, I’ve got two dead drivers and a dead Apache (which was one of our best, by the way, nearly perfect in every conceivable test). The damaged scout was another good one, too. But I think she’ll be fully operational within a day or two, and go right back to teasing my Apaches. Getting a new paint job, too. Got to keep my birds pretty.

Thanks for getting us back to work so quickly. Idle hands and all that. This message will self-destruct in five seconds, provided you set your Zippo to it properly.


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