[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander August 25, 1996]
Next morning, Zeke drove me to the spaceport. He was shy around most humans, so I had him drop me at a distance from the military entrance; I hiked the rest of the way to the guardpost. I was expected, and had no trouble getting in. The guard noticed my out-of-date uniform, but made no comment.
After drawing new uniforms and a flight suit, I headed for the main hangar. Once inside, I followed the sound of Maniac's voice to the maintenance office. He was inside, arguing with the pretty hangar boss.
His finger stabbed the air furiously, pointing at the nearest row of hard- stands just outside the window. "Those are old Hellcats, Chief! Last night in the motel you promised me two Excaliburs!"
"Last night your name wasn't 'Todd,' Major!" She clearly didn't like being associated with a Todd and a motel in front of her colleagues, which didn't improve her temper any.
Maniac whirled at the sound of my voice. "Ace, did you--"
"Guilty." I couldn't hide my self-satisfied smile. "I called last night to ask about the assignment. You weren't in the officers' quarters, so I left a message at dispatch."
"Swell. Look, I'll fill you in when I'm damn good and ready, got it, midget?"
I bristled. I was as sensitive to the difference in our heights as Maniac was to the difference in our ranks, and unfortunately, he knew it. Now he was looking me over intently. "Did you bring that triple-damned lightsaber?"
The chief tech had been ignoring our byplay, but now she perked up and looked at me more closely. "Lightsaber?" she asked. "Say, Colonel, aren't you--"
"No, I'm not." I hurried out of the office. Maniac helped cover my exit by resuming his futile argument.
I listened outside the door for a moment, then wandered out onto the tarmac. The ground crew was just finishing flight prep on our birds. I chose one and walked over for a closer look. This one had seen its share of action. I noted scorches around the engine exhausts and weaponry, and a couple of dents were still visible where old damage had been repaired. She was a working girl, all right, but she had the clean lines of a thoroughbred. Her crew had cared for her with a pride that was rare on the frontier, and I was careful to compliment the crew chief as I signed for her. He acknowledged with a crisp salute, which I returned.
As the crew hauled their equipment off, I did a slow walkaround, savoring my new baby in all her aspects. She was my first in over two years, and I was in no hurry. I took off my glove and slowly, softly, caressed her silky smooth skin. I spoke to her, gently, to win her trust. She must have no doubts about the man who would guide her through the night's embrace.
"Hello, baby," I whispered. "Daddy's home." Faintly, she purred in reply. To the uninitiated, it might have been just the slight whine of her gyros as they spun up, but I knew better. She was--
"Ya gonna fly that thing, Ace, or ya gonna make love to it? Hahahahaha!"
Damn! Trust Maniac to ruin a tender moment between a man and his machine!
"Better use protection, there, Romeo! Ya don't know who's flown her before! Hahahahaha! Oh, I kill myself."
Barbarian. "You know your problem, Maniac?"
He regarded me contemptuously, helmet carelessly slung in his hand. "No, Sigmund Fraud. No, I don't know my problem!"
"That's your problem." While he was still trying to figure that one out, I climbed into the cockpit and stowed my bag. My thermos of hearty beef broth went into the handy drink holder. I smiled, remembering that the drink holder had been the most popular new feature on the Hellcat V.
We completed preflight, got clearance, and took off for Orlando Depot. Once in space, my anger evaporated. I was thrilled to be in the cockpit again, and pleased to find that I had lost none of my skill. We were also considerably ahead of schedule.
I commed my wingman. "So, Maniac, we'll be patrolling out of Orlando for awhile?" Endless routine patrols with Maniac. What a prospect!
"Hah! You think you were recalled to patrol the boondocks? Oh no, hero, Orlando's just a transfer point. We're headed all the way to Sol and the head honcho himself!"
"Tolwyn?" Damn. If Tolwyn was involved, it was more serious than I thought. The girls would really be pissed at me.
"Hey, Ace, I heard a lot of new jokes while you were down there shoveling fertilizer. Wanna hear some?" Without waiting, he plunged right in. "Why do elephants paint their toes red?"
I rechecked the flight plan. Still three hours to Orlando. Oh, Christ.
After two hours of Maniac's non-stop chatter, I was practically in a stupor. In fact, it took me a minute to realize that he had asked me a question.
"Sorry, Maniac. What was that?"
"Clean the shit out of your ears, dirtboy! I said, before I deliver you to the Admiral, I gotta make sure you're still fit to fly. You up for a little tag, hero?" There was an edge to his tone. Obviously he had planned this little "test" and was looking forward to evening up the ego score a bit. If I refused, I'd never hear the end of it.
"You're on!" I replied confidently. "Reconfiguring to virtual mode." Anything was better than listening to his endless repertoire of moron jokes. Besides, if I had lost my edge during the years on the ground, I'd better find out now.
We separated by about 30,000 klicks, then turned head-on. Maniac, of course, instantly went to afterburner. As we hurtled toward each other, I bided my time, then made my move.
"Maniac, what's that on your six?"
"Huh? Where? I don't see anything..." Bzzzt! Bzzzt! "Hey! You dirty--"
Too late. While he was distracted, I blasted him up to 100% virtual damage in no time. "You're a dead duck, eagle!" I crowed. No doubt he'd demand an instant rematch, but in his current emotional state, he'd be easy meat.
"Oh, so you think that's funny, do you? Don't mess with the Maniac!" He flung his fighter back at me.
OK, choose the moment, then dance around--What's that? Uh-oh!
"Maniac! Maniac! Check six! Pirates! Pirates!" I frantically started the reconfigure sequence.
"Ah, you can't fool me with that old trick again, farmboy. I'm gonna kick your--" Bam! Bam! "Yikes! Pirates! Why didn't you warn me, Ace?" He instantly went evasive, but he'd lost half his rear armor already. Though the pirate Razors were low on firepower, there were two of them on Maniac's butt.
Damn, my guns were still arming! I had to get the bandits off his tail somehow or he was space dust! I settled on a collision course with the pirate leader. He turned his guns on me, but we were too close for more than a couple of shots before he pitched up at max rate. I wrenched my ship into a hard turn and headed for his wingman.
Maniac was an idiot, but he could fly. He pulled hard right and dragged the bandit across my sights. Good work, except that my weapons were still cold.
"Shoot, Ace! Shoot!" screamed Maniac. "I'm too young to die! Oh, God, please make him shoot! Oh, no!" A missile was blazing toward him. Decoys sprouted from his ship, and he pulled a panic split-S. The missile broke lock.
Unfortunately, Maniac's maneuver had enabled the nimbler pirate to cut the corner and close in. The Hellcat's shields were sparkling with hits. Any second now the last of the armor would go.
But I had also cut the corner, and now I was hot! I knew the bandit leader was zeroing in on me, but I had this sucker cold. Bang bang bang bang bang! Rapid fire emptied my gun cells and left my target a flying wreck. Just one more--
Whoop! Whoop! Jesus Christ! Missile alarm! Launch IR missile! Burner! Decoy! Pitch up! Still locked! Decoy! Locked! Decoy! Decoy!! Decoy, dammit!!! Max turn! Alarm pitch rising--hit imminent! MOMMY! Reverse turn! Alarm's off! Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Burner off. Now where is that--
Bam! Bam! Right on my six, that's where! Corkscrew! Raise shield power! Still holding! Drag him to Maniac! Maniac should be--Jesus Christ, HE'S STOPPED FOR REPAIRS! "Maniac, you pus-licking motherfucker! Get in here!"
"Say again, Ace?" His image was breaking up. "Bad connection." Damn! Damn!
Pirate closing! Bam! Chop throttle! He overshoots! Burn, pirate, burn-- Yes! Burner on! Missile lock! Full throttle! Launch! He's evading, decoys popping! A miss! Cut the corner! Closing! Too fast! Launch! Guns! Bang bang! Hits! Zoom past! Pitch u--KABOOM! Burner off. Chop throttle. Scope is clear. Oh yeah: breathe.
Whew, that was close! My stomach was knotted and I was shaking like a leaf. Damn, I was definitely too old for this shit. The worst part was that I had to pee like crazy. Now where was the--
"Hang on, Ace, I'm coming!"
My hero. "Relax, Maniac, I nailed 'em both." Shit, why wouldn't it open?
"Well, accidents will happen. Haha ha! Hey, did you see those maneuvers I pulled? I was fucking unbelievable! But next time, Ace, don't expect me to be so generous with my kills."
Yeah, right. I was still trying to open the--wait a minute! "Maniac, your comm system is working!"
"Uh, yeah, so it is. I, uh, guess autorepair took care of it."
I scanned his craft. Burn-throughs aft, decoys toasted, burner unrepairable, engines and power plant hit, but no damage forward, where most comm components were installed. Lying bastard. Well, I had more important problems. The buffeting I had taken from the pirate blasters had jammed the convenience pack. My, er, relief bag was unreachable. Damn! Too many water-sensitive components in the cockpit (and in my flight suit) to just let go. I'd have to hold it. Damn, why did I drink all that broth?
"Hey, Ace, my engines are acting up. We'll have to cut our cruise speed to Orlando."
Wonderful. I tried crossing my legs, but it didn't help. Just fucking great!
"Orlando just came up on my scope, Ace. What say we extend our layover a bit and hop over to Dizzy World?"
"Maniac!" I was desperately in need of a bathroom, and in no mood for levity.
"OK, OK, it was just a thought... Hey, what's going on?"
Oh no! The station was under attack! I punched afterburner, but we were hopelessly far from the scene. Already, torpedoes were impacting on the station. Three bandits were zooming away from the site. My AI identified them as Avenger heavy fighters, a type used mainly by the Border Worlds Militia.
Successive torpedo impacts had fractured the station into several sections. Outgassing and secondary explosions in the semi-intact fragments left little hope for survivors.
"Son of a bitch!" exclaimed Maniac. "There were three thousand people on that crate!" I, too, mourned the loss of the station; it had the only bathroom for millions of klicks.
The bandit leader was hailing us. "Welcome, Colonel Blair." His voice was strangely familiar, but I couldn't place it. "Welcome to yet another Border World victory. Hahahaha!" He stopped, practically inviting me to attack.
You're on, asshole! My fuel was nearly gone, but I stayed on burner. At medium range, I launched an IR and cut burner to gain maneuverability. If he evaded the missile, I'd turn inside and nail him all the faster.
Instead, the bandit popped a mine, waited an instant, then hit his burner. The mine exploded a second later and he caught the blast wave on his rear shields, using the impact to boost his speed far beyond his craft's design max. In seconds, he had surfed out of detector range. My missile, of course, was left in the dust.
It took me several seconds to remember to close my mouth, and even longer to remember to breathe. That was the most astonishing feat of flying I had ever seen! It required split-second timing, perfect rear shield aspect, and-- even more impressive--suspension of the physical laws that prevented shock wave propagation in a vacuum. That was one impressive stunt, all right!
Maniac had a more immediate concern. "We're fucked, Ace. Nearly out of fuel and nowhere to go." Being Maniac, he couldn't resist one last dig, even in the face of death. "But then you always knew you'd have a SHORT life, right? Haha ha!"
Pond scum. "We'll be all right, Maniac. Dizzy World is nearby."
"You think I didn't check that, weed-eater? Our gas still won't take us into comm range."
"Just once, Maniac, use that sponge you call a brain! A tourist mecca always has tourist traps. Orlando's not the only one around here." I checked my Ayn Rand McNally Atlas, shrugged, and said, "See? Blueprint Station is just a few hundred thousand klicks over that way. Form on my wing."
For once, Maniac obeyed.
"Welcome to Blueprint, gentlemen. You have clearance."
Thank God. My right leg was jumping like a jackhammer, trying to convince my bladder it wasn't filled to bursting. My bladder wasn't fooled for a second.
I staggered a little as I came out of the men's room. I had just barely held out, but it had taken the last of my strength. I had to sit down for a few minutes before I rejoined Maniac. We had left our fighters in the care of the only Confed mechanic on the station, and now Maniac was presumably trying to rent a civilian shuttle on a military priority.
The station was bustling. With Orlando gone, all the tourists going to or coming from Dizzy World had been re-routed here. Naturally, the hotels, eateries, and vehicle renters were making the most of their temporary good fortune. At one tour counter there was a hand-lettered sign proclaiming
SEE THE SPECTACULAR
The line of tourists was already well down the corridor.
I shook my head sadly. This was the kind of crap I had tried to get away from on Nephritis 2. Of course, I had cashed in on my celebrity after the war ("Blair knows spaceball!") but I had quit as soon as I had enough to buy my spread.
Well, enough reminiscing. I had to find Maniac before he got into trouble.
I found him at the Mertz Rent-A-Shuttle, predictably mired in another useless dispute. The clerk was trying to be polite, but he was clearly nearing the end of his patience.
"Look, I told you, Major," he said with forced courtesy. "With all the extra tourists coming through here, we just don't have any more vehicles, even for the military."
I interrupted before Maniac could jam his foot any further into his mouth. "I'm Colonel Christopher Blair. What's the problem here, young man?"
"Ohmygod! The Heart of the Tiger!" The clerk hastily consulted his console. "Er, no problem, sir. I see we do have one available after all." I looked smugly at Maniac. His answering scowl would have curdled milk.
Maniac and I took turns flying the shuttle. From Nephritis it was several jumps to Sol, with long hauls between jump points. Fortunately, under this arrangement we spent very little time together, which gave me a welcome respite from Maniac's witty repartee. After the jump from Proxima, however, we were on the last leg, so I felt it was safe to join Maniac at the controls.
For a change, Maniac was in a thoughtful mood.
"Who was that surfer guy? How did he know your name? Did you see that stunt he pulled? And you call ME a hotdog!"
No, Maniac, I call you a halfwit. "He was doing more than just showing off, Maniac. That was both his signature and a challenge. This guy's tired of hiding; he wants to take on Confed openly now."
"Maybe that explains the pirate attack, Ace. No way they could hope to kill us, two-on-two. But they delayed us enough that we were still in space instead of on the station like sitting ducks. Looks like they wanted witnesses this time."
I stared back at Maniac in astonishment. Was he finally growing a brain at the top of his spinal cord? I wasn't so sure the pirates couldn't have taken us, but otherwise he seemed right on target. Two trained pilots and certified heroes would now report that four Border World-manufactured vessels, openly proclaiming Border World allegiance, had destroyed the station.
But why so blatant? Was it a too-obvious attempt by some other party to blame the Border Worlds? Or was that what the BWs wanted us to think? Did they get our flight plan from moles within Confed, and if so, were renegade Confeds behind the whole terror campaign? And why were pirates aiding the terrorists? I had far too many questions, and no answers.
We debated the issue fruitlessly until we were on final approach to Confed HQ. Maniac was still handling the controls, so I had a rare opportunity to do some sightseeing.
"Hey, is that the Victory?" I picked out her familiar silhouette against Saturn's disk. Our old ship appeared to be in the same orbit as HQ, about a hundred thousand klicks ahead of it. She was surrounded by civilian shuttles and runabouts.
"Yeah, it's an orbital museum now. A relic of the war, like some farmers I know." He looked at me mockingly. "I'll bet they have a plaque right over your bunk."
Ha ha, very funny. Actually, I was wondering if they ever found that pile of used condoms behind the gunnery console, where Flint and I had most of our trysts. I didn't want some kid in a school tour group to run across them.
"That reminds, me, Maniac. What did you ever do with that huge Playboy collection of yours?" Maniac just smiled and pointed to the aft compartment. Next to my duffel bag were four more with magazine-shaped bulges.
"Travel light, don't you?" I asked sarcastically. He nodded, grinning proudly.
There was no one at the console outside Admiral Tolwyn's office, but its AI recognized me and sent me right in. I entered with some trepidation. My wing had won the Kilrathi War after Tolwyn's brainchild had failed miserably. He had been gracious enough at the time, but I suspected the egotistical Admiral secretly resented the fact that I--not he--was the war's biggest hero.
I was immediately dazzled by the spectacle of Tolwyn's huge, lavishly decorated office, which was unfortunate, because I failed to notice the stairs. Flailing desperately to keep my balance, I stumbled down the steps and bumped into a side table on which an expensive oriental vase was displayed. I juggled it for a second before tactfully announcing myself by dropping it--and me--on the deck. Loudly.
Tolwyn was standing in front of the large window, dictating to someone I couldn't see. At the sound of the shattering vase, he turned and looked at me curiously. I jumped up and hastened toward him, apologizing as best I could. "Sorry, sir, I guess I wasn't--"
"Still the same old Blair," he said, smiling. He met me halfway and shook my hand enthusiastically. "How are you, my boy?"
The Admiral patted my tummy paternally. "I see the pastoral life agrees with you." He smiled again at my obvious bemusement. "I'm envious."
"Who are you, and what have you done with Admiral Tolwyn?" I blurted. I couldn't help it. What had gotten into the old goat?
Instead of getting annoyed, he chuckled indulgently. "And the same droll sense of humor, I see."
By then, though, I wasn't listening to him. From my new vantage point, I had spotted a voluptuous blonde ensign by the near edge of the huge window. She bore an uncanny resemblance to--Yes! She was the former Playmate who played Rachel in the recent "Return of the Tiger" holovid--the one about our last tour on the TCS Victory. I had been hired as technical advisor, but I quit when I learned they were portraying Hobbes as a dishonorable alley cat. Her part, unfortunately, had been cast after I left.
The Admiral misinterpreted my fascinated gaze. He waved his arm toward the huge new carriers framed in the window.
"Magnificent, aren't they?"
"Yessir." Oh God, yes. Round, firm, yet soft and delicate to the t--
"I'll bet you wish you'd had one of those during the war, eh, Colonel?"
"Indeed I do, sir." Ohmygod! She was bending over to pick up her pencil! She looked back at me, parted her lips, and slowly stood back up. Her non-reg microskirt rose tantalizingly, then slid back. God in Heaven, I don't think she's wearing any--
"They would have put the fear of God into the Kilrathi," continued the Admiral.
"They certainly put the fear of God into me, sir." Please, please, God, don't let me die before I touch them, just once. She shifted her weight to the other foot, subtly altering the angle of her cleavage. Suddenly I had a terrific craving for warm milk.
With a start, I realized the admiral was looking at me expectantly. I quickly improvised. "But without a man, they just go to waste, sir."
He seemed pleased by my response. "Quite. Quite right, Colonel. It is the men, isn't it?" The ensign seemed to agree. She was slowly licking her lips, never taking her eyes off me.
Tolwyn suddenly grew serious. Turning to the ensign, he said, "You may go now, Chastity." The Admiral walked over toward his desk. Chastity quickly blew me a kiss while her boss's back was turned, then bounced up the stairs and out the door.
"Huh?" I was still staring at the door. Reluctantly, I turned my attention to the Admiral. "I'm sorry, sir, what was that?"
"I said, reports are that you ran into some trouble on your way here."
"Yes, sir." I sketched out our encounter with the pirates and the Surfer.
"Unfortunately, Colonel, your experience is typical of the war of piracy, sabotage, and terror that has been waged against us these past months."
"You suspect an organized campaign, then, Admiral?"
"Whether this is--as I suspect--a well-planned, coordinated conspiracy, or merely a symptom of the transitional times we live in, we cannot afford to ignore it. The price of our freedom is eternal vigilance."
"If you want me to gather evidence to confirm or refute your conspiracy theory, I have to warn you, sir: I'm no detective."
"No, you're much more use to me as Confed's best Wing Commander. I'm putting you back in the cockpit, where you'll be reunited with an old friend: the thrill of battle."
Unfortunately, the only "old friend" I cared about at the moment was screaming at me to go find that ensign.
"Colonel," the Admiral went on, unaware of my misgivings. "I want you to seek out and destroy these vermin wherever they operate. In the bright flame of combat, the true enemy--if he exists--will be revealed. Then we'll concentrate our might and destroy him." He pointed to the new carriers outside the window.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Bottom line: once again Blair carries Tolwyn's spear and writes his headlines. Damn!
"Ensign Behlte has your orders, Colonel." Tolwyn made his thumb and forefinger into a gun, pointed it at me, and said cheerily, "Catch you later!"
Jeez, I thought on the way out, the old man has really gone off the deep end this time.
I found the Admiral's aide sitting behind her console. Something seemed to be troubling her.
"Um, Colonel, do you think they might make another holovid based on your ex- ploits in this campaign? You know, like 'A New Tiger', 'The Tiger Strikes Back' and 'Return of the Tiger?'"
"And do you think you might be hired as technical advisor again?"
I saw where this was going. "I'll fight tooth and nail for the job."
That seemed to please her. "And you'll have some say in casting the roles?"
"I will this time."
She smiled and stood up. "Here are your orders, Colonel," she said, handing me a sealed envelope. "But it's very important you understand your assignment thoroughly, so I'm going to explain the orders in detail. Orally. Follow me, please."
"Anywhere, Ensign." Thank you, God! Thank you, thank you...
Previews from Chapter 3:
"Oh my! You are a frisky one, aren't you, Colonel?"
"Our job here is to ensure the safety of civilian traffic and installations, then seek out and destroy the pirates."
"Hoooeeeey! Die, pig!"