Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 4

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to September 8, 1996]

Chapter 4

With all the flight activity going on, the ship's intelligence officers hadfallen behind in their debriefings. Our information was hot, however, so Vero,Primate, and I were called in to see them right away. On the basis of ourreports, Captain Eisen redeployed his destroyers and steered the Lexingtontoward the sector of the asteroid belt where the pirate Thunderbolt haddisappeared.

Meanwhile, I sent Vero and Primate to get some rest. I headed for sick bay tosee if the injured rookie was back yet. He wasn't there, but Lt. Disch was.Damn, didn't that woman ever sleep?

She greeted me cheerfully. "Don't worry about your lamb, Colonel. I consultedwith the medics at the station, and it looks like 2nd Lt. Giunta is in goodhands. Some frostbite, oxygen deprivation, and a few bruises, but he'll makea full recovery."

Whew. "Thanks, Lieutenant." I already had to compose one trans to a bereavedfamily. I didn't need to do another one.

I must have been more tired than I thought, because Disch's tone turnedserious. "Now go get some rest, Chris. I'll call you if Fhish's conditionchanges. Go on, go. Doctor's orders." She sent me on my way with a pat onthe butt.

What a medic. Beautiful, efficient, dedicated, and a GREAT bedside manner.


Disch was right; I was exhausted after the long mission and two dogfights. Butas I lay down on my bunk, my eye was caught by the vial on the fold-down nighttable. Zeke had given me that the day I left Nephritis 2. When he handed itto me, he'd said, "Keep this with you, Christopher, and home will never be faraway."

He was right. I picked up the tiny container of soil from my beloved farm,and the memories washed over me. I could see home as clearly as if I werethere: the rolling fields, the fruit blossoms, the river that ran through it.I remembered that golden day late last summer, when the calls of the sectoidsand aviates had magically merged with the whine of agrodroids into a symphonyof joy and beauty. I remembered the storm that wrecked the old chicken house,the rich smells of harvest time, the megamole that nearly killed Robin and me,the time--

Yes. I remembered the visit, nearly a year ago, from an old acquaintance...

I had been in the front parlor, looking through my newest mail-order catalog.My new life on Nephritis 2 was still incomplete in one crucial aspect, and Ihad decided it was time to remedy the situation. So far my search had beenfruitless, but this new catalog was very promising.

I was interrupted by the front doorbell. "Candygram!" yelled the fellow on theother side of the door.

Flint! It had to be from her. She had sent a candygram with her last message,as her way of apologizing for communicating so seldom. Eagerly, I rushed tothe door and flung it open. "It's about time--"

I froze in horror. Looming over me was my worst nightmare come true: PrinceThrakhath himself, eyes blazing with fury, ears pinned back, a growl in histhroat, and hatred in his heart!

Nooooo! I screamed soundlessly. You're dead! I killed you and then I killedyour planet! Oh, God, this can't be real!

But this was no nightmare! It was really happening! In a deafening voice ofdoom, the demonic prince snarled, "I have come for you, Heart of the Tiger!"He raised his huge paw with its long razor-sharp talons, until it was poised toslash my life into twitching ribbons of bloody flesh.

Panic consumed my mind. I was frozen in abject terror. I couldn't run,couldn't move, couldn't even utter a sound. I could only watch helplessly asmy old nemesis closed in, bared his terrible fangs, and opened his jaws--

"Gotcha!!" he crowed. "Bwahahahahaha!"


"Hahahahaha! Ohohoheeheeheeheehawhawhaw!" Helpless in his glee, Thrakhathcollapsed first to his knees, then to the floor, his huge frame convulsed withlaughter. I could only stare in astonishment as my deadliest enemy rolledaround on my porch, laughing his damn head off.

Out of breath, he paused for a moment, wiped the tears from his eyes, andlooked up at me. "Oh, Sivar, if you could only see your face! Priceless!Oh, oh no, I can't--bwahahahahaha! I can't stand it!"

I rolled my eyes. This was getting old, fast. I kicked him, not gently, toget his attention. "Hey! Laughing boy! Knock it off already!"

"Hahahahaha! I-I'm trying, Heart of the...Kitten! Bwahahahaha! Sorry, sorry! I can't help it! Heeheeheehee! No, no, I'm stopping now. No, no, really this time... Whew! That was a real knee slapper!"

With an effort, Thrakhath heaved himself to his feet, wiping his eyes with onepaw and dusting himself off with the other. For the first time, I noticed hewas no longer wearing his customary princely robes. He was, in fact, wearinga straw hat, checked flannel shirt, denim overalls, and sturdy lace-up workboots. He had set a mysterious paper bag on the porch.

What the blazes was he doing here, dressed like that? Better yet, why was heeven alive in the first place?

By now, Thrakhath had regained his composure. In fact, he had become downrightsolemn--except for a lingering twinkle in his eye--as he stood before me in aposture of respectful attention. He had evidently prepared a speech to goalong with his damned prank.

"I have come to make peace with you, Heart of the Tiger. Once our races wereat war. Once we were sworn enemies, and did unspeakable things in the name ofour hatred. Now our races are at peace, and I am ashamed of all I did to youand your kind. May I enter your home in peace, Christopher, and remember oldtimes with you?"

What? This mangy furball had the chutzpah to preach peace to me? I staredin astonishment at Prince Thrakhath as he waited expectantly for my answer.Here was the killer responsible for millions of human deaths! The war criminalwho had committed genocide on Locanda IV! Who condemned prisoners to livingdeath as slaves! The prankster who had ruined my clean underwear! The fuckingscumbag who had mercilessly BUTCHERED AND EATEN my beloved Angel, then taunted me with the images of her death!! The--

Thrakhath opened the paper bag he had brought with him and held its contentsout to me in his massive paw. "I brought a jug..."

A jug? "Come in, old buddy!"


"Earthworm? Oh, Earthworm? Yoo-hoo?"

Wha? Oh, the ship's AI was calling me. "What is it, Lex?" I yawned. GuessI fell asleep after all.

"Time to crawl out of your burrow, Earthworm. The Captain wants you in thebriefing room in ten minutes."

"Thanks, Lex." I jumped off the bunk and folded it up into the wall. Whilecleaning myself up, I checked the chrono. Two hours of sleep. I felt like anew man.


Captain Eisen and his aide had their backs to me when I entered the briefingroom. As I stood waiting for Eisen to notice me, he whacked his aide on therump with his swagger stick.

"Naismith! Where is Colonel Blair?"

"Ouch! Er, he's not due for another two--"

"Ahem. I'm here, Captain." I didn't want poor Naismith to suffer any morebecause of me.

"Ah, Colonel. Time to earn your pay." He took his accustomed place at theholotank.

I picked a spare clipboard off the bulkhead on my right and carefully put itover my butt as I joined the Captain.

"Now we still don't know if we're dealing with pirates, Border World forces,or hired mercenaries. Nevertheless, we're here to put them out of business.Thanks to your excellent recon, we've tracked them down to this section of thesecond asteroid belt." He brought up his swagger stick and I cringed reflex-ively, but he was just using it to point.

"They may have an asteroid base, or they may be flying off a ship. I wantyour wing to search this part of the belt and nail it. Cut your escort teamsto the bone, and put up a maximum effort. I've sent TCS Privateer to cover thenearest jump point, so don't be afraid to use active sensors and flush thesescum out from cover. Any questions, Colonel?"

The mission seemed simple enough, although even one section of an asteroid beltwas a pretty big place to search with just one wing. "One question, sir. DidIntel get anything out of that pirate who ejected last time?"

Eisen carefully made his face a blank. "HQ has ordered us not to interrogateprisoners taken in this system." From his tone, it was clear that followupquestions would not be welcome.

"Very well, sir." Jesus, either HQ had flipped, or this thing was much biggerthan we thought. Prisoner interrogation was the cornerstone of intel work.

"Then hop to it, Colonel." He emphasized his order with a swat to my rear,but I managed to catch it on the clipboard. Hah!

I was already planning the search on my way to the ready room. "Lex! Round upall squadron leaders not on patrol and have them meet me in the Third Squadronready room. And my deputy, too. We got some bad guys to nail."

"Oh, goody! May I say, sir, that your species' true brilliance is most evidentin the inventive methods you devise to kill each other? I look forward to youringenious plan of--"

"Shut up, Lex!" Dammit, AIs weren't supposed to mouth off to their superiors.


Half my squadron leaders were out on patrol, but I had enough senior officersleft to sketch out a search and destroy plan. We would send out search teamsconsisting of two Longbows and two covering Hellcats each. If the pirates wereweak, then one such team could probably take them out; if too strong, the teamcould defend itself long enough to yell for help. As fighters reported backfrom their escort missions, they would be reassigned to fill in the gaps inthe initial pattern.

Just as Vagabond's team launched, two Longbows reported back from long-rangepatrol. I had two unassigned Hellcat pilots left, but the returning Longbowpilots needed a rest. OK, I was qualified on strike fighters. We'd have to gowith a three-man team, but I didn't see any way around it. No way was I flyingwith Maniac again.


While I was going over the mission with Miner and Quality in the ready room, acourier shuttle was announced on final approach. I didn't pay much attentionuntil I walked into Flight Control and spotted a rookie pilot on the stairs.He was swiveling his head like a kid seeing the big city for the first time.

Please, God, let him be a Longbow pilot. "Ahem. Can I direct you somewhere,Lieutenant?"

Startled, he scrambled to the top of the stairs, snapped to attention, andbarked his response.

"Just shipped in, sir! Second Lieutenant Troy Carter! Callsign: Catscratch!"He threw me a parade-ground salute.

I was more impressed by the Longbow badge on his chest. Yes! Thank you, God!OK, give him a mild hazing and stuff him into a flight suit.

"Now you didn't just graduate from the Academy, did you, Catsnatch?"

"First in my class, sir! And it's 'CatSCRATCH,' sir."

"Whatever. Get down to--"

Just then Maniac stormed up the stairs. He had obviously heard about the nextpatrol.

"Hey, Blair, you're SHORT one pilot! How come I'm not on--"

"Ohmygod! You're him!" exclaimed Catsnatch. He stared at me as Moses musthave stared at the burning bush.

Not again! "No, I'm not!"

Catsnatch was momentarily taken aback, but then he grinned. "Aw, you're justribbing me, sir. Everyone knows Colonel Blair is the Heart of the Tiger."

Tiger? "Oh. Oh, sure, that's me. Heh heh." Whew, that was a close one.

He snapped to attention again. "It would be the privilege of my life to fly onyour wing, sir!"

"Not so fast, flyboy."

Whoops, Lt. Disch had just walked in. Catsnatch turned at the sound of hervoice and did a double-take. For a moment, I thought his eyes were going topop out onto the floor. Evidently hero worship came second when a beautifulwoman was around. Sigh.

Maniac was also greatly impressed by Disch's entrance. He took one look ather, squeaked "Uh, gotta go!" and streaked down the steps. I thought I heard adistant crash somewhere down on the flight deck.

Lt. Disch strolled over to Catsnatch, thumping her pencil on her ever-presentclipboard. "You've been a naughty, naughty boy, Lieutenant Carter."

The rookie tore his eyes away from her chest and stammered, "Uh, m-m-me?"

"Yes, you, you bad boy." She winked at me. "According to your file, youhaven't had a physical in over a year! I'll have to certify you before youcan fly off this ship."

Now he was really nervous. "I-I-I can't right now! I, uh, I gotta stow mybust--er, bag! Yeah, that's it! Um, so if you'll excuse me, Lieutenant Kiss--er, Disch! Which way to the lips--hips--lift! Lift! Which way to the--"

Oh, this was getting good. I decided to play along with Disch. "Relax there,Catsnatch. Lt. Disch doesn't bite...well, actually, she does." Hee hee.

He backed away as Disch approached, looking desperately from her to me and backagain. "B-b-but she'll see me stark n-n-n-- I'll have to take off all myc-c-clo--"

Disch nodded. "Right down to your epidermis!" She flashed a predatory smile.

The kid fainted dead away. Luckily I managed to catch him before his head hit the deck. I cradled his head and looked up at Lieutenant Disch. She sighed with exasperation and knelt to revive the unconscious flier.

Shit, I guess we went too far. "Taysti, could you certify him for one flight?Afterward we can get him drunk and then he won't mind so much when you, uh,examine him. OK? I really need a warm body on my wing right now."

She looked up from her patient, who was starting to come around. "If I thoughthe was normally subject to fainting spells, I'd ground him right now. Butyou're right, he'll probably be OK in the cockpit."

Meanwhile, Catsnatch had revived somewhat. "Wha... How..." Unfortunately,Disch was holding his head about three centimeters from her right breast, andas soon as he opened his eyes, he took one look at it and passed out again.Disch rolled her eyes and went back to work on him.

Jeez, I hadn't seen such a rube come out of the Academy since that Wesley kid afew years ago.


Chief Rench had two of his tech crews turn our Longbows around in record time.As Catsnatch and I hit the flight deck, Sockette was just driving the auto-loader away from my ship. She shouted to us over the din of flight operationsas she passed. "Sixteen FFs and four torpedoes each, sir! You're loaded forbear!"

We waved our thanks. Catsnatch seemed to have fully recovered from his ordealin Flight Control. He was eager, yet he had himself well under control. Igave him a thumbs-up and yelled to him over the thruster roar of a two-ship CAPlaunch. "Follow my lead, kid, and you'll do fine. Good luck!"

"Thank you, sir! I won't let you down!" He ran off to his own ship.

I took the clipboard from Monk and signed for my bird. "I'll try to take goodcare of her, Monk, but you realize, I am taking her into combat..."

"Um, I'm sorry about the fuss we made last time, Colonel. Sometimes we get abit carried away, worrying about our babies." Well, that was encouraging. Iwould have been more inclined to believe him, however, if I hadn't seen Othellocrying on Stu's shoulder as I climbed up into my Longbow.

Quality and Miner launched just as I was settling into the cockpit. Preflightwas routine, and soon the kid and I were on our way. I watched him warily, buthe formed on my wing like he was born there. Quality and Miner formed upafterward without a hitch. Despite having two rookies in my flight, I wasbeginning to get a good feeling about this mission.


After several hours of fruitless searching, we were nearing the Hellcats' rangelimit and were about to turn back. Vagabond the oddsmaker had given us only amoderate chance of finding something in this sector, and he was seldom wrong.The flight had been good training for Miner and Catsnatch, however, and I waspleased by their performance so far.

I was just finishing my tomato soup when I got a twitch on my scope. The AIclassified it as a "probable glitch," but I didn't think one of Chief Rench'sbirds would have many glitches in it. I passed the contact to the rest of theflight and we turned to investigate.

"Enemies coming our way, sir!" Quality was the first to spot them.

Two Arrows and two T-bolts showed on my scope. And at the edge of detectionrange was a blip the AI identified as a frigate. "Bingo!" I gloated.

Miner chimed in. "I concur, Earthworm. Bingo class frigate, all right!"

That meant these fighters coming at us were the last ones aboard. Take themout and the mother ship would be easy meat. "Turn into 'em! Quality, splitelements!"

"I'm gonna get me some quality time!" Quality and Miner began separating fromour Longbows.

I had time to taunt, or time to coach Catsnatch, but not both. "Catsnatch!Arm FFs in volley mode! We'll take these guys as missile barges. Fire to makeyour man break in front of you. Channel gun power to shields!"

"Roger that, sir." Good man. His voice was steady, his response crisp.

As expected, the pirates split; the T-bolts would try to take us out while theArrows kept Quality and Miner off their buddies. Catsnatch fired a four-FFvolley at medium range, forcing his man to take a poor missile shot and evade.I wanted a quick kill, however, so I held on. Closer...this guy's good, he'lllaunch a double shot at optimum range, which is just about... NOW!

Whoosh! Four FFs took off for the pirate a split second before two IRs came myway. Whoopwhoopwhoop! Damn, they're close! Decoy now, hit burner, jink overthem...missed! No lock! Burner off. KABOOM! Hah, must've hit him with two!

T-bolt Two had worked around Catsnatch's flank and was trying hard to get agood missile shot. Catsnatch was flying brilliantly, however, and the piratewas making little progress.

"Save your missiles, Catsnatch. Keep evading." I hit burner and came upbehind the pirate. I could gun him, but he'd have time to evade my slow 'bow,so I launched a single FF at short range and fired a burst to weaken his rearshield. WHAM! Solid missile hit. I scanned him: engine hit, burner out,aft armor in shreds. I had taken a couple of hits from his rear turret.

I was faster than him now, but I took my time because of the rear turret; the'bow wasn't as nimble as a 'cat. Catsnatch came up on my starboard side, andfor a second I thought he was going to commit a serious breach of flyingdiscipline and take my kill. He kept steady, however, so I gave him the greenlight.

"OK, Catsnatch, take him!"

"I'm goin' for it, Earthworm!"

I had to hand it to the kid; he danced that Longbow like I had never seen. Hisgunnery needed some work, but he didn't take a single hit. The pirate dodgedand weaved to no avail; Catsnatch wore him down and tore him to shreds.

"Chalk one up for me, Earthworm!" Good work, kid. Now where were our wingies?

"Bon appetit, scumbag!" Ah, Quality was still alive. I checked my scope. Sowas Miner, but both ships had taken damage. Well, no problem. The frigate'scover was gone, so our Hellcats could head home.

Miner was apologetic. "I nailed one, sir, but I stayed on his tail too long.His buddy hit me with a missile before Quality could take him out. But heignored a pirate FF to save me, and he was hit, too."

"Never mind, kid. You did good. Return to the Lexington, you two. We'll takeout the frigate and catch up with you. Catsnatch, form on my wing."

We approached the frigate at full speed. Heh heh, I loved big, fat, helplesstargets with no fight--

Jesus Christ! Four new blips popped up near the frigate! I checked the AIreadout and froze. At this range, I could see that the frigate had beenrefitted into a hemi-carrier! It was probably carrying another four fighters!Where the hell had pirates found a dockyard to convert their frigate?

No time to speculate. We were in deep shit. We had pirates inbound and fourmore being spotted for launch. We had to take out that frigate pronto, or wewere dead. But there was no way we'd make it through those fighters, and ourLongbows were too slow to run.

The pirates were cocky. They had us, and they knew it.

"Hey, how can you fly for Confed pay?"

"My grandma flies better'n that!"

We had one chance. I sent out a general hail.

"Hey, Gomers! Knock knock!"

"Uhh, who's there?"


"Oooo, a dirty one! Snatch who?"


"Huh? 'Snatch who'... 'Gesundheit'? Ohhh, I get it! Hahahahahohohoheehee!"

"Woohoo, that's funny! Hawhawhaw!"

"Dang, that's a good one! Heeheeheehee!"

In seconds, all four bandits had broken off their attack and were millingaround helplessly. Jeez, what a bunch of morons!

"Arm torpedoes, Catsnatch! Let's--"

"Yeeheehee! Oh, you crack me up, Colonel, sir! You really are a livinglegend! Hahahaha!"

Oh great. OK, I'll do it myself. I burned for the frigate, which was in themiddle of a turn away from me. I was still out of range, so I fired off two FFvolleys at the jolly rogers before arming torps. OK, torps locking, slow down,dodge the return fire, but don't lose lock. Bam! Bam! Taking hits, startingto penetrate shields! Lock, you mother-- Oh no! Activity on the aft flightdeck! They're launching! We're locked! Launch! Bam! Evade! Check aftsensors! Torps running hot, short run... KABLAMMO! KABLAMMO!

I got two solid hits. An Arrow was caught in the fireball just as it clearedthe deck. The aft section of the frigate crumpled like cardboard. Antimatterplasma spewed from the engine section, searing an incandescant path througheverything it touched. Any second now, the core would blow.

Scratch one frigate! Damn, I'm good!

A massive object flew out of the aft section. It was the core, spraying moreand more plasma as its containment field decayed. Someone in the engine spaceshad lasted long enough to eject the core in a desperate bid to save hiscomrades.

Suddenly I wasn't so proud of myself. Men and women were dying a few hundredklicks away, and I was the cause. Yes, they were murderers, and yes, I'd do itagain because it had to be done, but I didn't have to like it. I disarmed mylast two torps and headed back to collect my wingman. Enough killing today.

The core blew at a safe distance from the wreck. The survivors would needantiradiation treatment, but they'd live to face a judge. Their pals slowlyorbiting the hulk would answer to a higher court.

Catsnatch had recovered his composure and gone after the two surviving piratefighters. With their mother ship gone, they didn't have much fight left inthem. When Catsnatch toasted the first one, his wingman surrendered andejected. The kid had two life pods on his racks by the time I joined him.

"You OK, Catsnatch?"

"Never better, sir! Does a surrendered fighter count as a kill, sir? Thatwould give me three on my first mission!"

Sheesh. "Form on my wing. Let's go home." I reported the encounter to theLexington and requested shuttles to take off survivors before the hulk hit anasteroid. With any luck, a salvage crew from one of the main worlds might evenmake a little money off our day's work.


"Request clearance, Lexington." At this point, I'd be happy to get clearancefrom anyone, even Lt. Lemonlips. Too many long missions these past few days.

Lt. Garr appeared on my comm screen. "Colonel, I hear you left a number ofthose pirate scum alive. I must say, I expected better from the famous 'Heartof the Tigger.'"

"That's 'TIGER!'" Smug bastard. I was in no mood for a ribbing.

"Whatever. You are cleared to land. Earthworm."

Jeez, I hated that guy!


I pulled up to the maintenance bay and debarked. Chief Rench and his crewwere lined up at the foot of the ladder. Gee, maybe they really were glad tosee me back.

As I reached the deck, I doffed my helmet and shook hands with Monk. Wow, hewas even smiling. I looked at the others. Yeah, they were smiling, too.

"Uh, welcome, uh, back, sir," said Monk. "Um, how was the, uh, mission?"

Now that's more like it! "Pretty hairy there for awhile, Chief, but we hadsome good luck..." I stopped when I noticed he wasn't paying attention. Why,he was looking at my fighter! I glanced at his crew. Oh yeah, they were stillat attention, but their smiles were obviously strained. Othello was evensweating with the effort. They didn't care about me at all! They couldn'twait to get their hands on "their" fighter again!

I gave up. "Nice try, Chief. Go on, she's all y--" I was nearly trampled asthey stampeded up the ladder. Shaking my head, I strolled over to the nexthangar bay, where Catsnatch was entertaining his fellow rookies with his exploits.

As I approached, he snapped to attention and saluted. "Colonel, it was anhonor and a privilege to fly with you today, sir! And that was a really,really funny knock-knock, sir! Heeheehee!"

Uh, yeah, right. "Say, Lieutenant, are you by any chance from one of theBorder Worlds?"

His eyes widened in astonishment. "Why, yessir! Third generation. How didyou know?"

"Er, you still have a slight accent? Yeah, that's it. Your accent."

"Gosh, you sure are smart, Colonel, sir! You're my hero!" His face glowedwith adoration.

Border Worlder, eh? That explained a lot.

From behind me, I heard a muffled scream. Sockette must have found my spilledrelief bag.

End of Chapter 4

Previews from Chapter 5:

"A-amazing grace, ho-ow sweet the sound, tha-at saved a-a wretch li-ike me..."

"The Kilrathi became the scourge of the galaxy all because they were..."

"I suppose you want to know the cause of death, Colonel."