Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 3

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to September 1, 1996]

Chapter 3

From Confed HQ, it was just a short hop to my new assignment, the carrier Lexington. She and her escorts were surrounded by a bustling horde of supply craft and shuttles. The task force was apparently making final preparations for departure.

We finally got clearance and carefully eased our way onto the crowded deck. I debarked from the shuttle and headed across the Lexington's flight deck. At the foot of the stairs leading to Flight Control, a group of rookie pilots was gathered around Maniac, who was regaling them with stories about his favorite pilot.

"... and then there was the time I took on three Darkets in an Arrow. I came up on the trailing--"

"Look!" cried one of the rookies. "It's the Heart of the Tiger!" Immediately they swarmed around me, all talking at once.

"Let me take your bag, sir!"

"Wow, THE Colonel Blair."

"It's an honor to meet you, sir."

"Tell us a story, sir!"

I tried to be polite to them. "Thank you, but-- Please, we're all just pilot-- No, I can't think of any stories right--" Whoops! Distracted as I was by my admirers, I nearly collided with a woman waiting at the foot of the stairs.

"Sorry, I guess I wasn't..." Whoa. She was a comely lass; soft brown hair, hazel eyes, dressed all in white, and built like a brick--

"Hi, I'm the Assistant Medical Officer, Lieutenant Disch." She held out her hand.

I took it in mine, and squeezed warmly. "You certainly are, Lieutenant." She smiled at my little witticism. Yes, this one definitely had possibilities.

I turned to address my brood of fans. "Um, why don't you people go on ahead and get settled? I'll be up in the lounge presently. I want to discuss, er, recent medical developments with the di--ah, Lieutenant Disch, here."

"See you, Colonel."

"I'll drop your stuff at your quarters, sir."

"Bye, Colonel."

"Later, sir."

A couple of them gave me knowing winks as they passed. Maniac tried to engage their attention again as they went by, but he was having no luck.

The medic was blushing as I continued to hold her hand. "Er, Colonel Blair, since you've been off flight duty for so long, I need to give you a complete, um, physical before I can re-certify you." She tried--not very hard--to retrieve her hand.

Hmm, a physical, eh? I could probably wangle my way out of it, but I had a feeling this was one doctor's visit I would enjoy.

"I have to put on a little show for the rookies, Lieutenant--it's expected--but I'll get away as soon as I can. About an hour from now?"

"That will be fine." Her smile was dazzling. I finally let her have her hand back so she could write on her clipboard. She shot a glance at Maniac, who was still harrassing the last of the rookies, and leaned close to whisper in my ear.

"Is that hunk over there really the famous Maniac?" she asked. Say, was there a slight tremor of excitement in her voice?

I whispered back, "Yes, but his real name is 'Todd.'"

She giggled. "Really?" I nodded. "Forget it." She made another note on the clipboard.

Whoops, speak of the devil. Maniac sneaked up behind Disch and pinched her derriere. "Hey, when's MY appointment, Doc?"

"Eek!" She jumped and spun around, one hand covering her wounded dignity. Her frown, however, quickly turned into a smile, and she stepped very, very close to the amorous pilot. When she spoke, her tone was inviting.

"Mmmmm, maybe we can start right here. Let's just test your 'reflexes' first, big boy." Her hand slid down to his crotch, which she began rubbing gently.

Maniac couldn't believe his luck. His eyes glazed over and he leaned closer to Disch, his lips searching for hers. "Oh, baby, my 'reflexes' are doing just-- AAUUUGGGHHH!" Maniac doubled over in agony, falling on one of his duffel bags and spilling magazines all over the deck. He writhed in the middle of his precious collection, moaning and clutching his injured ego.

Briskly, Lieutenant Disch made a final note on her clipboard. "You pass. Todd." She reached into her breast pocket for a small bottle, shook a pill out of it, and handed the pill to me. "Allow the patient another minute to absorb the full benefit of the treatment, then give him this. See you in an hour, Colonel."


I left poor Maniac in the care of a bemused deckhand before heading up to Flight Control. I knew the Lexington's commander, and I was anxious to renew our friendship. With any luck he'd be overseeing operations in Flight Control.

Bingo. Captain Eisen was standing at the window, watching the activity on the vast flight deck below. He stood tall and proud, occasionally tapping that stupid swagger stick of his against his leg.

As I approached, he turned to greet me with his familiar paternal smile. His handshake was warm and welcome.

"Colonel, do you remember our bet?" He was chuckling with amusement.

Bet? Which one? "Um, you mean the one about who'd be first to nail that cute little--"

"Er, no, no, not that one." He glanced uneasily at his subordinates, who were studiously concentrating on their tasks. OK, another bet, then.

"Well, Captain, was it the one about whose is longer, yours or--"

"No! I mean, no, heh heh, quit kidding around, Colonel." The ensign at the loadout console was struggling to stifle her amusement, to little avail. The deck operations officer had a sudden coughing fit before regaining control under Eisen's glare.

"Ah-ahem! So, what do you think of the ship, Colonel?" Eisen asked, switching to a safer subject.

"She's certainly more impressive than the old Victory. Looks like they've been taking good care of you, Captain."

A shadow came over his face. "Yes, they've been... taking care of me."

I sensed his uneasiness. "Trouble, Captain?"

"Well, it's just that..." Clearly reluctant to burden me, he finally blurted it out. "It's just that the barbecue menu on this tub sucks, compared to the Victory. I haven't had a decent meal in months."

Poor Captain Eisen. Now that he mentioned it, he was looking thinner than the last time I'd seen him. "Well, Captain, I guess the price of command is--"

"--eternal hunger. But that's my problem. You look around, get settled, get your fighter wing organized. I want everything shipshape by the time we reach the Hellespont system tomorrow."

"Aye aye, Captain." We saluted, and he left for the bridge. I wanted to ask him again which bet he'd had in mind, but he didn't seem comfortable with the topic. I couldn't really blame him; at fifty credits a centimeter, that last bet had cost him quite a bit of money. Er, I had cheated, of course.


Before heading for the lounge, I logged myself into the ship's computer. To my surprise, the Lexington's AI had a very pleasant female voice. It reminded me of Barbara.

"Stand by for retina scan, please... searching... Colonel Blair! It's an honor, sir. You have a long and distinguished... Just a minute... Just a minute... Hey! You're the guy from--"

"No, I'm not! Now proceed!" Damn computers thought they knew everything.

"Oh, very well." If I didn't know better, I'd say the AI was sulking. "Same callsign for this tour? Sir? Or will you apply some of that uniquely human originality I keep hearing about but can never, ever hope to match?"

Damned uppity AI. But, sarcasm aside, it was right; I was a farmer now, and my old callsign was no longer appropriate. Let's see... Aha! Out of the mouths of idiots... "Lex, my callsign for this tour will be 'Earthworm.'"

"'Earthworm?' 'Earthworm?' My, how very...creative of you." Did I detect a hint of mockery? "Privileges activated, Colonel. Welcome aboard. Earthworm."

"Thanks. I think." Since when did Confed's AIs come with built-in sass?


There were quite a few people waiting for me in the officer's lounge. Most were kids fresh out of the Academy or advanced training schools, but I spotted a few veterans as well. In fact, that guy sitting alone in the middle of the lounge had shot two cats off my tail in the Kilrah system. Well, the others could wait. This pilot was family.

"Hoho, look what the solar winds blew in! Got you, too, did they, Colonel?"

"Vagabond." I sat down and shook his hand warmly. "I thought you'd given up the nomad life."

"So did I, Colonel. You remember I was going to make the Victory my home? Got a cushy job as assistant curator of the Victory Museum. They even let me sleep on board--kind of a living exhibit, I guess." We both smiled at that one.

"But they played me for a sucker. I didn't read the fine print on the con- tract. Like for instance, the 'reserve activation' clause."

I chuckled in sympathy. "Tolwyn strikes again. We've been here before, my friend."

"Ain't it the truth?" He laughed ruefully. "You know the funny part? I actually liked museum work. Me, the mad bomber and flying assassin! A student of history!"

He picked up his drink and contemplated it thoughtfully. "Maybe telling the tourists about the war was my way of making peace with my past. I don't know. I do know I liked showing the kids why their parents had to go off to war, and why the ones who came back were never the same afterward." He flashed me a mischievous smile. "I even liked polishing that plaque over your bunk."

Hmm, I definitely had to take Maniac to that museum some day.

He took a sip of his drink. "It wasn't all fun, though. Sometimes I'd be setting up an exhibit and then I'd remember how one of my buddies had died in that very compartment. Sometimes I had to sort through forty years of trash, looking for 'historically significant artifacts.' And, speaking of trash, you'll never believe what I found behind the main console in gun--"

"Whoa, is that the time?" I pushed my chair back hastily. "Sorry, Vagabond, I gotta put on a show for the newbies before I see the medics. Talk to you later." Much later.


As I approached, the youngsters gathered around expectantly. I leaned against the bar with an air of sophisticated disinterest. The bartender noticed me and came over to take my order.

"Welcome to the Lexington, Colonel...?"

OK, be nonchalant. "Blair. Chris Blair." I heard a few sighs at the back of the crowd.

"Oh, wow, it's really you! Your money's no good here, sir! My name's Pilsner. What can I get for you?"

I gave my order with the assurance of a man who always expects--and gets--the best of everything. "Bugs Bunny. Very dry. Shaken, not stirred." Oh's and ah's from the peanut gallery. The people in back jockeyed around for a better view.

The bartender quickly returned with my drink, and deferentially placed it in front of me. A hush fell over the onlookers as I reached for the glass. The air was thick with tension. Pilsner looked like he was about to have a heart attack.

I sniffed cautiously. Ahhh, robust veggy bouquet. Carefully, I took a sip and swished it over my tongue. Yes, first-class carrot juice, fresh and lively. The grapefruit juice was a bit tart for my taste, but I had to admit it added an amusing impertinence. I nodded to the bartender and took another sip.

There were sighs of relief all around. Over to my right, a pretty young engineering ensign actually fainted. I thought for a second the barkeep would join her on the floor, but he pulled himself together admirably. He had no time to savor his success, however, as he was immediately deluged with orders for carrot juice cocktails.

I held court at the bar until it was time for my appointment at the infirmary. I enjoyed telling stories, and the kids were a wonderful audience. I noticed, however, a somewhat disturbing tendency toward hero worship among them, and an underlying respect for authority that was unusual in cocky new pilots. Was the Academy now demanding blind obedience in place of initiative?

Oops, time to go. "Sorry, people, but I have an appointment." I drained my glass and set it back on the bar. "We'll do this again, I promise."


"Do you have to go, Colonel?"

"It was fun, sir."

"A genuine privilege, sir."

"See you in the ready room, sir."

As I started for the door, a girl--the engineer who had fainted earlier--ran up and pressed a pair of panties into my hand. She held on with a death grip and gazed at me with worship in her eyes.

Shit, a pilot groupie. Nevertheless, I gently coaxed my hand out of hers and gallantly stuffed her garment under my uniform next to my heart. I took her hand again, bowed, and kissed it. A smile, a gentle press, and I was gone.

Her girlfriends gathered round her, enviously staring at her hand. As I left the lounge, I heard her declare, "I'll never wash that hand again!" She burst into tears.



Lt. Disch was still a bit out of breath as she zipped up her uniform. "Well, Colonel, you passed your physical with flying colors."

"So did you, Taysti." I finished zipping up my own uniform. "Several times."

She blushed, but I could tell she was greatly pleased. She tried to cover up by consulting her checklist.

"Let's see now: physical workup, semen sample..." Another blush. "...rectal probe, blood sample... Hmm, I guess all that's left is the urine specimen."

Oops. I'd only had the one drink at the bar. Ever since the Orlando episode, I'd been careful not to overstrain my poor aging bladder. "I'm sorry, Taysti, but I'm afraid I'm not, er, up to it right now."

"That's OK." She smiled her dazzling smile. "You can come in and leave it any time. And I do mean any time." She set down her clipboard and walked over to me. She tenderly took my face in her hands and pressed her lips to mine.

Uh-oh! That other girl's panties were lying on the instrument tray behind Lt. Disch! Thinking fast, I swept her up in a passionate embrace and bent her over backward until I could just reach the panties with my free hand. I stuffed them in a back pocket as we came up for air.

"Oh, my! You are a frisky one, aren't you, Colonel?" Still a bit dazed, she tried to fix her disarrayed hair. "We'll have to put all that energy to good use, won't we, sir?"

"My thoughts exactly, Lieutenant." I fingered the panties in my pocket. It occurred to me that the ship's engineers routinely handled energy on a cosmic scale.


Organizing the new wing proved to be an easier task than I had anticipated. My department heads and squadron leaders were all long-service professionals, and they had completed most of the work before my belated arrival. Our meetings went smoothly; their organization needed only minor fine-tuning. Although we had a large contingent of rookies, Confed Personnel had ensured, for once, that we had enough vets to provide the needed guidance.

There was Primate, for example, a seasoned pilot with whom I had flown before. He was expert and fearless, although out of the cockpit he was a notorious eccentric. Rodent and Marsupial I knew by reputation. Pachyderm and Ungulate were new to me, but their files were full of citations from their previous commanding officers. Quality, Hippie, Vero... All names I knew well. The Lexington was already beginning to feel like home.

The TCS Lexington was considerably bigger than the Victory, carrying about 70 fighters plus specialized craft such as shuttles and jammers. Currently we were equipped with four Hellcat and two Longbow squadrons. Again, I was fortunate to have enough senior officers that I wasn't forced to give Maniac a squadron command. Instead, I made him deputy wing commander, where I could keep an eye on him. More important, I could bury him in paperwork and thus minimize the time he spent flying.

I was confident the wing would perform well. I was determined, however, to ease the rookies in slowly. After all, this was more or less peacetime; we needn't throw new pilots in over their heads as we had against the Kilrathi.

We would hit the jump point to Hellespont early the next morning. I sent my people to bed and tried to set a good example by hitting the sack myself. Sleep, however, eluded me. A couple of things I'd noticed that day just didn't fit. For instance, why was Confed recruiting so many rookies when experienced pilots roamed the streets back home? And what were we doing with obsolescent fighters when Confed's factories had been turning out advanced models for over two years?

I wrestled with these questions, but I got nowhere. Finally I got out my palmtop computer and logged in to the Galaxy-Girding Gargantuweb. I hadn't surfed the GGG in quite a long time, and I had much to catch up on. I spent a short time at the ship's home G-spot, then zipped right to the agricultural commodities exchange. As usual, the steady stream of prices put me to sleep in minutes.


I had the whole wing on alert for the final jump. Since we were aiming to emerge in Hellespont about 100,000 klicks from the jump buoy, an ambush was unlikely, but I wanted to impress on my new pilots that we were now in a combat zone. First Squadron (Hellcats) was ready for immediate launch; the others could be spotted and launched quickly. Maniac was monitoring operations from Flight Control. Given the presence of two female ensigns, I spent most of my time monitoring Maniac.

As it turned out, the jump was routine. Lexington and her escorts synchronized jump engines and popped through on schedule. With such a large mass of ships going through, the transition was smooth as silk. Once in the Hellespont system, I supervised launching of the CAP and the first routine patrols. Just as the last Longbow cleared the deck, Lex called me to the briefing room.


I arrived just in time to see Captain Eisen swat his aide on the top of the head with his swagger stick. "This is the brain case, man!" he yelled. "Use it!"

Lt. Naismith saluted, said "Yes, sir!" and left, rubbing his head.

Same old Eisen. I met him at the holotank, being careful to stay out of range of that damn swagger stick. The Captain, however, seemed to have calmed down.

"Shall we cut to the chase, Colonel? For over a year now, Hellespont has had a low level of pirate activity: charging tribute, occasional raids for supplies, and ransoming captured prisoners and ships. Lately, however, a new bunch has moved in. Since then, there's been a sharp increase in terrorism, murder, and just plain destruction."

I shot a surprised look at Captain Eisen. He nodded grimly.

"Yes, Colonel, that's unusual for pirates: no profit in it. In any case, commerce in this system is nearly at a standstill. Our job here is to ensure the safety of civilian traffic and installations, then seek out and destroy the pirates."

The Captain brought up a holoview of the Hellespont system. He highlighted the populated planets and several jump points.

"I want your wing to cover the routes between these jump points and the main planets. Meanwhile, our escorts, destroyers Ultima, Privateer, and Crusader--"

"Excuse me, sir?"

The Captain smiled at my bewilderment. "Yes, of course, you've been out of the picture, haven't you, Colonel? With all the defense cutbacks, and so much of the remaining budget going to Tolwyn's Strategic Readiness Agency, naval procurement has been cut to the bone. To get any new ships at all, we've had to turn to some, er, patriotic civilian sponsors. For example, our escort group was partly funded by Origami Systems, Inc. You know, 'We create--'"

"'--official guides.' Yes, I'm familiar with Origami, Captain." Hmm, that probably explained our equipment shortage. The Hellcat, most vanilla of Confed's fighters, was also the cheapest to build and operate. The Longbow, a solid but basic design, was our least expensive strike fighter.

"As I was saying, our escorts will cover these sectors." He highlighted three areas in the system display.

"That leaves Lexington with a vast area to cover, sir. My fighters will be spread awfully thin."

The Captain looked at me intently. "That's what I want the pirates to think. Your escorts should be weak enough to draw them out, but strong enough to fry their asses when they attack. Can you walk that tightrope, Colonel?"

Oh, just fucking brilliant, Captain. Now we're live bait. "Yes, sir."

He smiled. "Then hop to it, Colonel." I flinched when he raised his swagger stick, but he was just using it to salute. I returned the salute and got out of there. Damn, I wished he wouldn't do that.


Confed HQ wasn't wasting any time. Immediately after our arrival in the Hellespont system, they started sending the backlogged cargo ships through. Within hours, all my Hellcat pilots not on CAP were committed to convoy duty.

Maniac and I were juggling escort schedules in Flight Control when we received the order to ferry a single fast transport inbound from the Gallipoli system. It was carrying medical supplies urgently needed on Bosporus III.

Damn. Now that our escort operations had settled into a routine, I could be spared for flight duty, but the transport needed a two-fighter escort, minimum. I looked over at Maniac, who was leaning on the loadout console, flirting with Ensign Myte again. No way. Fortunately, Primate was available, having been scrubbed from the sensor array CAP mission due to a mechanical fault in his fighter.

"Ensign Myte!"

She must have jumped a half-meter. "Yes sir!"

"Pull Maniac's tongue out of your ear and get me the status of Captain McCall's Hellcat! Maniac!"

"What? What?" He was nursing his nose, which Ensign Myte had banged with her head.

"Go get Primate and have him meet me in the ready room in his flight gear. And stop by the galley and get me two bananas."

"What? So now I'm your errand boy? Jeez, for this I went to the Academy?" His grumbling faded as he disappeared down the corridor.

Ensign Myte reported back. "Sir, Primate's fighter is ready to go! I've got the techs working on a spare for you. Loadout is six IR each."

"Good work, Dinah. Download the nav data to both fighters. I gotta go get into my zoot suit." And visit the head.


The deck crews had just finished prepping our Hellcats when Primate and I stepped out onto the flight deck. I tossed Primate his customary preflight banana and walked over to my bird. The crew chief came to attention and saluted crisply.

"Chief Tech Rench, Monk E.! Honored to have you aboard, sir!"

"Relax, Chief." I shook his hand. "Why don't you introduce me to the rest of your team, here?" I had gone over their files the day before, but I wanted to associate warm bodies with the cold facts.

"Yes, sir. This is my wife, Sockette, our ordnance tech. She knows every fighter weapon in Confed's arsenal." We shook hands. The streak of grease on her chin reminded me of Rachel. Wow, so did her smile.

"This handsome fellow is our mechanical tech, Phillip Driver. We all call him 'Stu.' He still holds the fleet record for a Hellcat power plant replacement." Whoa, big guy, strong grip.

"Our electrical tech, Scopes. Othello here is the best troubleshooter on board. Hell of a card player, too." Hmm, I'd have to introduce this guy to Vagabond.

My personal impressions reinforced the opinion I'd formed from their file data: this was a good team.

"Well, Chief, looks like I'm in good hands. Thanks." I took his clipboard and signed for the ship.

"Take care of yourself, sir. Broken Hellcats are a lot easier to fix than broken Colonels."

Not exactly Rachel's usual "Come back to me, stallion," but it would do. I climbed into the cockpit and started pre-flight.


Primate and I reached the jump point just as the transport popped in. If their comm officer was disappointed by the size of his escort, he didn't show it.

"This is the Amontillado. Nav computers sync'd, Earthworm. Let's head for the Bosporus jump point."

This was going to be a long trip. Primate and I would have to refuel at the new surveillance array near our destination. Well, I was ready: I had checked my convenience pack twice before departure.


We were about half an hour from the jump point, and at our closest approach to the system's second asteroid belt. So far the flight had been routine. I began to wonder if we had scared the pirates out of the system.

Suddenly the flight wasn't routine any more.

"We got company! Multiple contacts to port!" Primate was alert, as always. I was 5,000 klicks farther away, but I got 'em a second later.

"Roger, Primate, I see. Stay put for now."

At this distance, our sensors couldn't make out much against the asteroids. The range was closing rapidly, however, and soon we knew what we were up against.

"Amontillado, make tracks for the jump point. We got four Razors inbound." Captain Eisen's "tightrope" was about to be put to the test.

"Roger, Earthworm. Good luck." He sounded calm, but he wasn't fooling me. If we screwed up, his ship was dead meat, and he knew it.

"Let's take 'em, Primate. Form on my wing."

We turned into the pirates and went to full speed. Out of long habit, I began steeling myself mentally against the expected enemy taunts. The Kilrathi had perfected the taunt into a deadly weapon of war, and only the strongest self-discipline could defeat it. Any second now... any second...

"Hoooeeeey! Die, pig!"

"Hoo hoo, give it some juice, grandma!"

Uh, excuse me?

Is that the best these guys can do? These barbaric denizens of the void? The merciless scourge of the space lanes? Why, they couldn't out-taunt a Kilrathi kitten!

Despite the disparity in numbers, I felt a surge of confidence. I had learned my art from a Ninth Degree Master of the Taunt, Ralgha nar Hhallas himself! I had reduced Kilrah's best warriors to tears with a single zinger! Time to send these rubes to school.

"Hey, Gomer, you got any naked pictures of your mother?"

"Huh? 'Course not!" Hah! To my expert ear, the pirate leader's weakness was ludicrously obvious.

"You want to buy some?" I asked innocently.

"Aaaaarrrrgggghhh! I'll git yew, Confed prevert!" Blinded by rage, he punched afterburner and came straight at me.

"Launch, Primate!" I yelled. I began firing at the edge of effective blaster range. Between his fury and the distraction of my gunfire, the pirate missed his missile warning and blew into space dust.


Damn, Primate's victory yodel was hard on the ears! "Cover me, Primate!" As wingman, Primate's duty was to cover my tail. " And turn down your volume!"

"Yes, sir!"

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Fuck! Missiles! Head into 'em! I danced through a barrage of blaster fire, trying to track the missiles on my HUD. My heart was in my throat. Wait, wait, NOW! Decoy! Roll port and pull for your life!

Whoopwhoopwhoop--silence! Missed me, cocksuckers! The pirates had rushed past and now the trailer was in my sights. For just a second, he hesitated, and that was all it took. Burner! Closing! Shield power down! Bang bang bang bang bang KABOOM! Burner off.

Shit! They were headed for the transport! Evidently they had decided to shoot and scoot. The transport's shields were highly resistant to most fighter weapons, but a missile barrage could crack them, especially astern.

Primate had damaged one, but the other was after the Amontillado on full burner. I'd never catch him. Frantically, I wracked my brain for some useful tidbit of Border World culture. Aha!

"Hey, Goober! I'm thinking of fucking your mother! Is she any good?"

"Leave Maw outta this, or I'll rip yer friggin' face off!" Hallelujah, he's coming back! Uh, tell me again why this is a good idea?

Whoop! Whoop! A missile! Whoop! Whoop! Two missiles! Blaster fire! Corkscrew! Launch! Wait... Decoy! Hard right! Lock broken! Hah! He evaded my way! Deflection shot! Bang bang bang! Hits! Settle on his tail! He's not burning, he wants to maneuver. Close in! Goose my burner, point blank range, bang bang bang! He's out-turned me, but his ship's falling apart--he ejects! Where's Primate?


Ow! "Dammit, Primate, you turned the volume UP!"

"Sorry, sir. Uh, I've got minor damage here. You OK, Earthworm?"

"Yeah," I lied. I had the shakes again, and I was having trouble connecting the relief bag to my flight suit. Come on, come on...ahhhhhhh.

*Woohoo, jump point at last!

"Appreciate your assistance, Earthworm. Jumping now." The transport's comm officer was just as relieved as I was.

"Good luck, Amontillado." A brilliant blue flash and transport was gone.Now to get some gas. Hmm, better get a fresh relief bag, too.


"Wow, look at the size of that array, Earthworm!" Now that the danger waspast, it seemed Primate was ready for some sightseeing. "Can we take a tourwhile our birds are being serviced, sir?"

I was more interested in the array's CAP. Vero was somewhere around here,shepherding two rookies by herself--this was the patrol that Primate hadmissed--and she was overdue for relief. I prayed that Maniac hadn't screwedup the schedules in my absence. Fortunately, the pirates had so far been moreinterested in commercial traffic than in static installations.

Vero came on the comm. "Bandits! Four T-bolts! Array under attack! Time forsome fun!"

Shit! Shades of Orlando! "Dance with 'em, Vero, we're coming! Burn,Primate!" I had a nightmare vison of the array in flaming ruins, men andwomen screaming soundlessly as the air was ripped from their lungs.

Vero's patrol hit the pirates about 25,000 klicks from the array. They werebadly outmatched by the heavy fighters. The Hellcat's best chance against aheavy was to dance and slash, but the rookies were too green and too keen. Afierce exchange of blaster fire, a volley of missiles, and three fireballsbloomed in quick succession. Vero emerged from the furball with a pirate onher tail; two more pirates made a beeline for the array.

We angled to intercept. Thanks to the rookies' sacrifice, the pirates werestill out of torpedo range, so they turned into us.

"Break and attack, Primate!"

"Maybe I'll just negotiate with--"

"Shut the fuck up, Primate!" I had to concentrate. Against T-bolts, I neededsome good taunting to even the odds.

"Hey, Cracker, I'm thinking of fucking your sister! How is she?" Heh heh.

"How the fuck would I know?" Shit, a female! I'm doomed! To do "man's work"among the Border Worlds, a woman had to be twice as good as a man.

Launch! Incoming! Don't go head-on with a heavy, dance! Whoop! Whoop!Goddamn alarm! She's evading to starboard! Oh, God, just get me past thismissile and she's mine! Steady...decoy! Roll right and pull! Whoopwhoopwho--Yes! There she is! Come on, you stupid missile, bust her ass, bust h--fuck!OK, we'll do it the hard way.

Cut the corner. Deflection shot, bang bang--a hit! Keep up shield power, thattail has a nasty sting. Auto-match her speed. Bang! Hit! Dance! Missed me!Twist and turn, you stupid bitch! Fly straight and that damn turret cuts meup, but try to turn and I'll dance around it all day! Bang! Hit! Bam! Oops,careful. Bangbang! Hithit! Dance!

Her armor's shredding, don't hit the frags! Bangbang! Hithit! She's losingspeed, OK, bore in! Bangbang! Bam! Bangbangbang--KABOOM! No pod. I'll sendyour sister a sympathy card, bitch!

Vero's voice came on the comm. "Ooooh, I get such a rush from takin' out badboys!" Hah! She nailed her target! Good work, Vero. Now where's-- Damn,Primate's in trouble! Sneak up on his opponent and--Whoa, I got a better idea!

"I'm coming for you, Gomer!" I yelled. I launched an IR at extreme range toemphasize the threat. He evaded easily, but that took him off Primate's tail.Vero had disposed of her man, Primate was turning for him, and I was undamaged.The pirate chose the better part of valor and split.

"Earthworm, why'd you scare him off?" Primate understandably wanted revenge onhis tormentor.

"I want to track this guy. How are you two fixed for fuel?"

"About 10 percent, Earthworm. Let's chase 'im!" Good ol' Primate. Low ongas, half shot up, and he was ready for more.

Vero had another concern. "I think one of my rookies ejected, Earthworm, but Iget no beacon. Request permission to search."

"Granted." Good for you, Vero. "Have the station assist with a shuttle."

Now to business. "Form on my wing, Primate. We'll pull behind the array likewe're landing, then kill our active sensors and track him passively." One,maybe two of my pilots were dead, and I wanted more payback.


We could track the Thunderbolt's emissions at nearly twice the range that hisactive sensors could pick us up, but it was difficult to estimate distance onpassive data only. Primate and I split up to triangulate from a long baseline,with our AIs communicating on a tight beam.

As expected, our quarry changed course when he was well away from the station.No way would he head directly home from the scene of battle. We hung on longenough to detect him entering the asteroid belt, when his emissions ceased.We turned back, our fuel dangerously low.

Primate and I collected Vero at the array, refueled, and then headed for theLexington. Vero had found her lost sheep, drifting in a damaged pod, andvectored the shuttle to it just before its life support ran out. That stillleft us with one funeral; the first of the tour and probably not the last.


I perked up considerably when we reached the Lexington; a "Welcome back, sir!" was always like a tonic to me after a hard mission.

I had the least damage, so I'd be first one in the barn. I hadn't had a chanceto meet or talk with anyone on the comm staff; maybe the one on watch now was acute number with a golden voice like Barbara's. Time to find out.

"Request clearance, Lexington."

A face popped up on the comm screen. A male face. Shit! A haughty, lemon-sour male face. Shit, shit!

The face said, "I'm Lt. Vinson Garr, Chief Communications Officer. Congrat-ulations, Colonel." A haughty, lemon-sour male face with an arrogant,irritating voice. Shit, shit, shit!

OK, OK, cut the guy some slack. At least he's polite. "Thanks, Vinny, it'sgood--"

"You have clearance. Out."

"--to be back with..." Son of a bitch! That arrogant lemon-sucking bastardcut me off! This jerk even made Rollins look good.


I pulled my Hellcat up to its service bay and cut the power. A deckhand wasready with a ladder, and I climbed down wearily. I reached the deck just asChief Rench and his crew swarmed out of the service bay.

Sockette saw me and started running. "Oh, my poor baby!"

Well, that's more like it! I'd have to be circumspect with her husband around,but I wouldn't mind a little feminine TLC.

She ran right past me and hugged the front landing gear. "Oooh, did that nastyman hurt you, baby?"

Stu and Othello climbed up on my bird and frantically started opening theinspection panels. What, did they think I had taken something?

I felt a tap on my shoulder. "Colonel?"

It was Monk. Well, at least he was glad to see me.

"Boy, Monk, it was a tough--"

"Could you move, Colonel? I need to get up into the cockpit." His smile waspolite, but he was insistent. I stepped back and watched the techs working onmy bird as if their lives, not mine, depended on it. I shook my head. Techs!

Primate pulled up to the next bay, and I walked over to give him his banana.Behind me, Sockette was complaining again.

"Oh look, that beast got a SCRATCH on you!"

Damn, I sure missed Rachel.

End of Chapter 3

Previews from Chapter 4:

"I have come for you, Heart of the Tiger!"

"Ohmygod! You're him."