Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 5

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to September 16, 1996]

Chapter 5

Our work was done in the Hellespont system. TCS Privateer stayed behind togather up the pirate survivors and deliver them to the main planets for trial.One of our shuttles delivered our prisoners to the Privateer while anotherfetched Lt. Giunta from the surveillance array. Since Maniac had been bitchingabout lack of flying time, I assigned him to escort the array flight. Heh heh.

The rest of the task force assembled and set course for the first jump point enroute to our next assignment, the Minos system. Meanwhile, Captain Eisen hadscheduled a memorial service for the rookie, Tuna, our first casualty on thiscruise.

As Tuna's commanding officer, I would preside over the service. After all thecomrades I had lost, I thought I knew more about conducting funeral rites thanany other officer in Confed. I was wrong. To my dismay, I discovered thatConfed had completely revised the procedure.

Late in the Kilrathi War, when it had seemed humanity was doomed, a religiousrevival had swept the worlds of the Terran Confederation. Our sudden andseemingly miraculous deliverance had only enhanced the movement's credibility,and thereafter it spread like wildfire. The Confederation Navy, always in tunewith the times, had recently modified its memorial services in accordance withrevival practices.

As I strode to the podium, I tried to fight down my anxiety. I had studied thenew manual for hours, but it was still my first time conducting the unfamiliarceremony. If I blew my lines, the ship's morale could suffer seriously.

I set My Big Book of Regulations on the podium and surveyed the flight deckbefore beginning. Most of the ship's company was assembled; those on dutycould follow on holovid. All present were wearing the regulation MemorialService Dress Uniform: plain, black suits, white linen shirts, and wide-brimhats for the men; floor-length black hoop dresses and tie-on bonnets for thewomen. Insignia and decorations were cut to the bare minimum.

Nervously, I tried to loosen my starched collar and string tie. I adjusted myceremonial wire-rim spectacles and opened the book to the appropriate page. Raising my arms like Charlton Heston in "The Ten Commandments," I cast my gazetoward the overhead--er, Heaven. I paused momentarily for effect, and a hushfell over the crowd.

"Hallelujah!" I thundered.

"Hallelujah!" echoed the ship's company, loud and strong.

"Brothers and sisters! We are gathered here to bid farewell to our brother,Charles Starckist, a brave and virtuous man who died in the service of theTerran Confederation."


"You tell it, brother!"

The regulation responses were crisp and enthusiastic. I felt my confidencebuilding.

"Let us honor this faithful warrior, who hath smitten the evil sinner in thecause of righteousness!" It was impossible to tell whose missile had finishedthat first pirate, but Vero and Fhish both insisted it was Tuna's. So be it.


"Praise the righteous!"

"I hear you, brother!"

I pointed at Fhish. "Lo! Tuna's cabinmate and wingman bestows the emblem ofhonor!"

Fhish wept unashamedly as he attached the Distinguished Flying Joystick toTuna's casket. More than a few of the assemblage, men and women, joined him inshedding tears. Fhish stepped back and stiffened.

I led the company in the ritual final salute. "Farewell, noble warrior, untilwe meet again on that shining flight deck in the sky!"

"Until then, brother!"



"Drift in peace, soldier of virtue!"

I pushed the button to propel the coffin on its way. "Brothers and sisters,let us raise our voices in song!" And so, as Tuna began his endless journeythrough the void, the ship echoed with the melodious sound of human voicessinging in glorious chorus.

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

As the coffin disappeared from sight and the hymn reached its end, I surveyedmy flock... Wow, not a dry eye in the place! Maybe Confed was on to somethingwith this new ceremony. Of all the seemingly numberless funerals I hadattended, none had brought forth such an outpouring of emotion.


I tried to make my way to one of the stairways, but a number of people came upto shake my hand.

"Inspiring ceremony, sir."

"Never seen better."

"A great comfort, sir."

"Thank you-- No, you're too kind-- Er, it's just the regulation-- No, Idon't do bar mitzvahs--"

Ensign Watt, the pantyless engineer, ran up to me and gushed, "Oh, SIR, thatwas just the MOST beautiful service, sir! It was...I...Ooooh..." She suddenlyswooned into my arms. As gently as I could, I lay her on the deck (making sureher hoop skirt didn't fly up) and looked frantically for Lt. Disch. Luckily,

Watt's girlfriends rushed up and knelt around her, waving fresh air at her withtheir ceremonial fans. I turned to leave, and nearly collided with 2nd Lt.Giunta.

Poor Fhish. Tuna had been his closest friend from the Academy. Fhish wasmanfully suppressing his tears, but his profound grief was obvious. "Wonderfulservice, Parson," he said, choking.

Strictly speaking, of course, he should have addressed me as "Colonel," as therank of Parson was only temporary, assigned for the duration of the ceremony.I sensed, however, that he needed me more as a counselor than an officer.

"I just wish Tuna could have--" Fhish buried his face in his hands, tooovercome to continue. "Sorry, Charlie!" he sobbed.

I grasped him firmly by the shoulder. "Weep not, my brother. For the goodBook of Regs doth state, 'Subsequent to the ceremony shalt thou return to thyduties with thy burdens eased, thy heart uplifted, and thy soul rededicatedto the service of the taxpayers. Rejoice! For verily, thy (brother/sister)has gone to (his/her) reward!'"

My words, and the conviction with which I spoke them, were like a tonic. Fhishstraightened his body and wiped his tears with the regulation handkerchief Ihad offered him. His composure regained, he gave me a brave smile and a stronghandshake. He strode off, hope rekindled in his breast.

Damn, I really had a talent for this stuff. I fingered the silver wings pinnedto my shirt, then looked at the Book of Regulations in my left hand. Maybe Ishould quit flying and become a... Naaah.


Back in my cabin, I flopped out on my bunk for some shuteye. I had arranged anumber of drills for my rookies the next day, and I had to be fresh and keen.Against my will, I had been forced to throw them prematurely into actionagainst the pirates, and Tuna had paid the price. Next time, I wanted themready.

Thinking about the rookies brought back memories of the war, and thinking ofthe war inevitably brought back memories of my former archenemy. I fingeredmy vial of dirt, and my thoughts drifted back again to his first visit...


We had settled in the front parlor, where Thrakhath sat comfortably in my bigeasy chair--the only furniture I had that would accommodate his bulk. Afterexcusing myself to change my underwear, I had moved the big rocking chair closeenough that we could pass the jug back and forth. Robin, still uneasy aboutour huge feline guest, lay next to me. Rachel, in contrast, had readily takento him, and now lay in his lap, purring happily as Trakhath expertly strokedher calico fur.

I took a short pull on the jug and handed it over to my visitor. With theusual pleasantries taken care of, and a couple of slugs of homemade hooch ineach of us, it was time to get some answers.

"So what are you doing here on Nephritis 2, Thrakhath? This is the last placein the universe I'd expect to find you."

"I am your new neighbor, Christopher. I bought the old Douglas place just downthe road. Thre thousand hectares of prime farmland at a bargain price. Adream come true." He raised the jug to his lips.

"You? A farmer?" I fought hard to keep from laughing out loud. "That justdoesn't fit my image of the imperious Prince Thrakhath, heir to the throne ofKilrah!"

"Mock me not, Christopher," he answered seriously. He handed me the jug."I have been reborn. You now see before you the aristocat formerly known asPrince...Thrakhath. I have taken a name more in keeping with my new life.Please call me...'Zeke.'"

Huh? "Well, er, Zeke, I still don't understand how a ruthless predator withgalactic ambition could be happy as a mere farmer." I took another pull on thejug and passed it back to Thrak--er, Zeke.

"To understand, Christopher, you must learn the shameful secrets that so faronly Kilrathi have ever known. I share them with you as partial atonement forall I have done to you." He fortified himself with another slug of booze.

"I understand your Confed Intelligence believes the Kilrathi took to space andconquest because of all the seismic activity on our home planet?" I nodded."Well, they couldn't be more wrong. Nothing is so pleasant to us as curling upnext to a warm volcanic vent. We went out of our way to build in seismicallyunstable areas, routinely incorporating hot springs, vents, and warm mud bathsinto our structures."

I accepted the jug, but didn't drink immediately. "Then why...?"

He held up his paw to stop me. "There are two more things you must know.

First, by some quirk of evolution, the ratio of male to female Kilrathi birthsis normally about five to one. Our scientists have speculated that such aproportion of fighters was necessary to protect our females in a primitiveworld overrun by predators far fiercer than us. In any case, it is sofundamental to our biology that our finest genetic engineers have failed toalter it."

Oh. My. God. I took a quick pull on the jug and handed it back to Zeke. Iwas beginning to see what a terrible trick nature had played on the Kilrathi."And second?"

"Second: Are you aware, Christopher, that male Terran lions are compelled bytheir instinctive drives to mate as many as fifty times a day?"

"I seem to recall seeing that on PBS; some nature show." What was he gettingat?

"Well, my friend, among Kilrathi, Terran lions are revered as models ofself-control!"

Mama mia! That would at least explain the legendary ferocity of Kilrathiwarriors. I imagined hordes of horny males fighting tooth and claw over a fewprized females. Daily. Hourly. Every damn minute of every damn day.

As realization dawned, it must have shown in my face. "Yes," said Zeke. "Yousee our problem, Christopher. When our species won the battle for dominationof our planet, we had no outside curbs on the growth of our male population.As our females were presented with more and more potential mates, they becamemore demanding of their suitors. Interstellar travel was a godsend to us.With a galaxy to loot, we hoped we could at last satisfy our females' appetitesfor plunder and luxury. But, alas."

Oh yeah, I could visualize it all too well: "You lazy, good-for-nothing fleabag! You never bring me anything! Fluffy's lair-mate brought her two humanslaves, and all you bring me is a miserable Firekkan! And you call yourself awarrior!" I was starting to feel pretty superior, until it occurred to me thatmuch of human achievement had sprung from similar roots.

"But, Zeke," I protested, "a Kilrathi female is no match for a male. Couldn'tyou just, er, take what you wanted, whenever you wanted?"

He shook his head in disappointment at my stupidity. "Christopher, at theslightest provocation, a female need merely snap her claws to be surrounded bya hundred males ready to fight to the death for her favor. From kittenhood,our females are schooled by their mothers in the politics of superiority!"

Thrakhath took a mournful pull on the jug and handed it to me. "As a cub, Idreamed of becoming an agricultural specialist, of replacing our fat-laden meatdishes with a healthful diet of vegetables and fruit; of turning our planetinto a garden of delight instead of a monument to greed. But first my mother,and then my lair-mate, drove me to seek conquest, loot, and finally the throneitself." He shook his head. "What could I do? I was horny as hell!"

Wow. This picture of henpecked, sex-starved overachievers was nothing at alllike the image I had held of a noble warrior race. Even Hobbes had never letme in on the truth. "Sounds like your wif--lair-mate--was a real shrew."

"Don't get me started!"

I offered the jug and he took another swig. "I see now that this conflictbetween my true and my imposed goals was what drove my terrible anger. Didyou know, Christopher, that I had ulcers? That I saw a psycatatrist threetimes a week?"

This was all so incredible, yet it certainly explained a lot. "So let me getthis straight, Thrak--er, Zeke. The Kilrathi became the scourge of the galaxyall because they were..." I dared not say it.

"Yes, Christopher." He hung his head in shame. "We were pussy-whipped!"


I awoke to the general alarm. Lex was yelling at me.

"Earthworm! Scramble! We've just received an SOS!"

I wrenched myself away from my pleasant recollections and into the brutal hereand now. Half dressed, I ran out the door and down the companionway, dodgingcrew members scrambling to their battle stations.

"Wing status, Lex!" I knew what my squadrons were supposed to be doing now,but as Wing Commander, I had to verify status before giving new orders.

"Fourth Hellcat has the CAP. Four out now, four spotted for launch, and fouron standby. Fifth Longbow is on long-range patrol ahead, most inbound. TwoLongbows of Sixth Squadron spotted for launch. The SOS is just out of Longbowrange, in the direction of the Aegean jump point."

Shit! "Replay the SOS!"

By now I was in the lift, surrounded by bleary-eyed pilots. A frightenedfemale voice filled the confined space.

"Mayday! Transport Annabel Lee! Cargo and passengers bound for Nephritis 2!"

Lt. Garr acknowledged the transmission with his usual tact. "Calm down, bitch.State nature of--"

"Under attack by unknown fighters! Our escorts have been destroyed! Requestimmediate-- Oh no! Eeeheeheehee! Eyahahaha--" The recording ended abruptly.

Lex came back on. "The ship was escorted by two Hellcats out of HellespontFour. Lieutenant Garr is unable to raise any of them."

Damn! No idea what we were up against. The lift opened and we rushed to ourlockers. I made my plans while I suited up. "Have the techs prep Longbowsfirst, Lex! I'll brief from Sixth Squadron's ready room."

Within seconds, Sixth Squadron's pilots were assembled in their ready room. Iwas patched into the other ready rooms, the spotted fighters, and--over ascrambled channel--into most of the fighters in flight. Captain Eisen was onthe line from the bridge.

"OK, we have to get help to the transport ASAP. Ham! Eggs! Vacate your twoready Longbows. Catscan and I will take the first mission. We'll head for theSOS and hope we can handle anything still in the vicinity."

I looked at Catscan, who was beaming at this second opportunity to fly on mywing. He'd change his tune soon enough if we ran into trouble.

"Captain Eisen! I assume the task force will close the range so we won't runout of gas?"

"Way ahead of you, Colonel. We've already changed course."

"Thank you, sir. Croissant!" Croissant was my senior squadron commander."You take charge here and send the rest of Sixth Squadron on a search patternaround the transport. Follow up with Hellcats as soon as Lexington is closeenough. And send a shuttle with medics and medical supplies."

Croissant sprang to attention. "Oui, mon Colonel!"

"OK, dismissed, people. And hey! Let's be careful out there!"


Catscan and I burst out of the ready room and ran for our fighters at topspeed. I stopped at the bottom of the ladder and scrawled my signature onMonk's clipboard, then raced up to the entry hatch. I caught a glimpse of Stubiting his hand to keep from screaming as I scuffed the shiny skin of his shipwith my boot.

Sockette had thoughtfully left a note on the back of the pilot's seat:


PS. Spill your bag again, motherfucker, and I'll--

Er, thanks, Sockette.


We were going into a potential hornet's nest without fighter cover. I kept myfear in check by inventing new and deadlier taunts to use against the unknownenemy. If we ran into medium fighters, taunting was our only hope of survival.I contacted Catscan on tight beam to reassure him, but he was absorbed in aliterature recitation.

"Yea, though I walk through the v-valley of the Shadow of D-Death..."

I broke contact. He seemed OK.

About halfway to the transport's last location, Captain Eisen called. "Wejust got word from Confed Intel that a Border World expedition may be in thissystem. They may be responsible for the attack."

Border World Militia? Here? They were at least two jumps from their ownterritory.

"Captain, what does our ship's AI think of that report?" Lex was snooty, butshe--it--had displayed uncommon insight for an AI.

Captain Eisen looked uncomfortable. "Lex is skeptical. The surveillance arrayisn't fully on line yet, but it should have detected any warships in the area.It has the Annabel Lee and no other ships around her."

I was getting damn suspicious of Confed Intel. In my mind, they were just onestep removed from Covert Ops, a section of the military I had learned to hateand distrust. I returned to my taunt compositions.


We were on a hair trigger as we approached the battle area. My own fear hadvanished, replaced by the usual heightened senses and reflexes in preparationfor combat. It turned out, however, that we had missed this particular fight.

The Annabel Lee had been on our screens for some time. Except for the lack ofpower, she seemed normal. I dared to hope that she had been attacked by atraditional pirate force interested only in loot, not murder. As we came intovisual range, however, my hopes died. The transport was intact, but itsengines were dead, several airlocks were open, and the ship was surrounded by aslowly expanding cloud of debris.

There were no signs of life. I dropped a beacon to guide the shuttle, andturned my attention to tracking down the perpetrators of this latest atrocity.I advised Lexington that we were beginning our search.

"Earthworm!" Catscan had something already. "Faint ion trail leading directlyaway from Lexington toward the Rhodes jump point! Possible capship signature."

"Lexington! Request TCS Privateer be vectored to Rhodes jump point. The enemymay be headed that way."

Captain Eisen himself came on the comm. "Will do, Colonel. But you're stillour best hope of contacting these guys. Good hunting!"

"Let's follow that trail, Catscan. If it is a capship, we may have the gas tocatch it. Form on my wing!"

"Right away, sir!"


Surprisingly, we found nothing. Even with Lexington approaching, our fuel wascritical, and I finally had to break off the search. The ion trail was gettingfainter, which indicated that whatever made it was substantially faster than wewere. Which meant that it wasn't a capship, whatever the ion signature. Whichwas at least consistent with the surveillance array data, but made no senseotherwise.

I checked with Lexington, but the additional search fighters she had launchedhad also come up empty.

On the way back, I stopped by the derelict Annabel Lee again, sending mywingman on home ahead of me. The shuttle was just finishing its inspection ofthe area. Lt. Homes contacted me from the cockpit.

"We're done here, Earthworm. No sign of life, no survivors. We inspected theship, took some samples, bagged a few bodies. Some obviously died in thedecompression, but we found sections of the ship still pressurized, and thepeople in there were just as dead. No sign of trauma. I don't know whatkilled them, sir, but..." There was a look of fear on his face.

"Spit it out, Lieutenant."

"Sir, they all had smiles on their faces! It was...ghoulish."

Huh? What in the world could... Better get his mind off it, pronto.

"Good work, Churlokk. Is Disch with you?"

"Yes, sir, she's busy with one of the bodies. She's taking this hard, sir.So am I."

"Understand, Homes. Return to base. I want to look around a bit." I'd had aparticular interest in this transport ever since I'd heard it was bound for mynew home planet.

Carefully, at minimum speed, I closed in on the ship. I scanned the debrisfield, looking for...well, anything interesting. Decompression had swept amyriad of miscellaneous items into the void, including a number of bodies. Itried to ignore those, without much success. I saw paper, pens, clothing, alarge round takeout pizza pak--now what was that doing on a transport?--cups,food trays--

Then I spotted it. A "Barbie's Wedding Day" doll floated into my forward view.Nearby, I saw a teddy drifting in company with an open suitcase.

I slumped in my seat. My worst fears were confirmed.

Numbly, I waited until I had passed the objects. I took manual control of therear turret, activated the tractor beam, and carefully brought the two itemsaboard before they were out of range. Then I set course for the Lexington.

I tried to concentrate on flying, but my thoughts inexorably returned to thepassengers and crew of the Annabel Lee. Again and again I found myselfdwelling on the scenes of horror that must have played out on board. Screamsof terror. Cries of agony. Passengers blown out into the terrible cold ofspace. If hyperventilated, an unprotected human could remain conscious fornearly a minute--

Shuddering, I reached for my thermos of fruit juice. Between draining thethermos and draining my bladder, I managed to occupy myself for severalminutes. But at my slow, fuel-stingy pace, I had hours of solitude ahead ofme...


"Request clearance, Lexington." Thank God I was home. It would be good to seeanother human... Oh, shit.

Lt. Garr's unwelcome face appeared on my comm screen. "Ah, Earthworm. A pitythere was nothing the mighty Heart of the Tiger could do to help those poorpeople." His voice fairly dripped with sarcasm.

Fortunately, Vinny's acid tongue was just the medicine I needed right then.There was indeed nothing I could do to help the dead, but that left me an evengreater obligation to the living. I came out of my funk instantly, keen withthe "thrill of battle" old man Tolwyn had spoken of so casually.

"Well, you win some, you lose some, Vinny. But I found out what killed them."Heh heh.

That caught him by surprise. "Er, you did? Well, what was it?"

"When you acknowledged their SOS, they saw your face and died laughing!Hahahaha!" OK, it was lame, but I had a feeling about this guy...

Vinny froze for a second, then exploded with anger. "Why you half-pintflying--" I cut him off, smiling. The landing pattern was empty. I'd landwithout clearance this time.


For once, Monk and his colleagues seemed more interested in me than in theirfighter. They gathered around me at the bottom of the ladder.

"I hear it was rough out there, sir," ventured Monk.

I held up my trophies from the derelict. Monk took one look and cursed.

I said nothing. I had been a reluctant warrior, drafted against my will, butnow things were different. Now I'd see this thing through, regardless of thecost. Now it was personal.

Sockette put her hand to my forehead. "Are you OK, sir? You look flushed."

I responded with what I thought was a smile, but she recoiled, as if from someHell-spawned demon. "I'm fine, Sockette. Never better, in fact. If you'llexcuse me..." I walked right by the Intel officers and up the stairway. I hadone visit to make before debriefing.


The pharmacist's mate on duty in the infirmary pointed toward the open door tothe surgery. Disch was inside, just finishing an autopsy. When she saw me,she considerately covered the body, then removed her protective clothing andstarted to wash up. She looked tired.

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

"Were you able to make a determination?" I had seen the hideous grin on thecorpse--an adult female--before she covered it.

"Yes and no. This one died of what a layman would call 'heart failure.' Itjust gave out on her. Problem is, she was young and healthy with no sign ofheart trouble. The only explanation I can come up with is that she was engagedin some incredibly strenuous and prolonged physical activity that put too muchof a strain on her heart." She leaned wearily back against the lab sink andstarted drying her hands.

What could cause that? "A hyperstimulant in the air supply?" That mightexplain the decompression: a desperate attempt to clear out the drug.

Disch shook her head and pointed to the cold room. "One of the corpses inthere is wearing a space suit. And the toxicology report is negative." Shetook the lab computer's printout and handed it to me.

I perused the report. Slight ionic imbalance, unusually high muscle lacticacid, dehydration, profuse accumulation of sweat ingredients on the skin. Allconsistent with exertion to the point of death. No drugs whatsoever.

"Do you have any theories?" I was baffled myself.

Disch nodded her head wearily. "Hold me, Chris?"

I came closer and took her gently in my arms. What could be so chilling thatshe needed the warmth of my embrace before she could disclose it?

She lay her head against my shoulder. "That SOS was my first clue. Rememberthe hysterical laughter at the end?"

"Uh-huh." I had ascribed that to sheer terror. Or Vinny's face, heh heh.

"Last month I read a research report on the GGG about sonic stimulation ofsensitive human tissues using precision applied harmonics. It was suggestedthat such stimulation c-could be used to treat the humor-im-im-impaired." Shewas having trouble controlling her voice. I held her tighter and stroked herhair.

"So you're saying, Taysti, that if such a sonic device were introduced into avessel, or maybe attached to the hull, the harmonics would propagate throughthe ship and into the deepest, most sensitive parts of the human body, and thecrew--" Oh my God!

I took Taysti's head in my hands and looked straight into her tear-filled eyes."Then those people were--" Oh no, it was just too horrible to contemplate!

"Yes, Chris!" she sobbed. "They were tickled to death!"

End of Chapter 5

Previews from Chapter 6:

"Maniac, did you ever ask yourself why the Border Worlds would try to provokeConfed into a war they couldn't possibly win?"

"Sir! H-how nice to see you, sir! Oooo, you brought my panties!"

"Excuse me, but you did say you were THE Christopher Blair, didn't you?