Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 6

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to September 23, 1996]

Chapter 6

There was nothing more we could do for the passengers and crew of the Annabel Lee. Hellespont IV sent a tug and salvage crew to retrieve her. Captain Eisen gathered our task force together and we resumed our course for the Minos system. They were also experiencing pirate activity, and it was growing more serious than Hellespont's.

Of the transport's attackers, we heard nothing. TCS Privateer caught a distant burst of activity at the Rhodes jump point, but could detect no ships or fighters. I thought that might have been our quarry, but a hasty calculation gave them an average speed of over 1,000 kps. Even Excaliburs couldn't sustain that. I gave up and concentrated on training my pilots.

Over the next day and a half, we ran a series of simulator and live action problems designed to test and instruct the new pilots in advanced tactics. The whole sequence culminated in a mock battle between TCS Lexington and her escorts, with the task force's fighters divided between the two teams. My senior commanders and I acted as referees. Against my better judgment, I let Maniac lead the Lex fighters.

Their inexperience showed, but my rookies turned in a good performance. They were in high spirits as they brought their birds in, swapping jokes and stories over the comm channels. I rounded them up as they hit the deck and sent them off to debrief with their veteran squadron mates. When the whole wing was back, I held a final critique, giving praise where it was due, and criticism where warranted. Finally, twelve hours from the Minos system, I turned them loose for a little time off before we went into action again.

Just before the exercise, a Confed shuttle had come to take charge of all the evidence we had gathered from the Annabel Lee. I had hoped that Disch would bounce back when she gave up custody of her corpses, but when I stopped in to see her, she was still subdued. I decided it was time for Cataract's physical. If anything would cheer her up, that would. In fact, she perked up considerably when I suggested it.

I rounded up Vagabond, Maniac, and some of Cataract's fellow rookies. Our pretext for getting him drunk would be to celebrate his top honors in the mock battle and his performance on the pirate mission. I had to summarize the drill results for Captain Eisen, so I sent the others ahead to nab Cataract and get the bash started.


By the time I made it to the lounge, the party was in full swing. Cataract, the guest of honor, sat at the center table with a boisterous group of rookies in attendance. He held a half-empty glass unsteadily in one hand. Maniac and Vagabond were at the bar, nursing their own drinks as they monitored the proceedings, although Maniac seemed to be mostly monitoring a cute Hellcat rookie whose callsign was "Misty." Vagabond saw me and nodded toward Cataract, making a circle of his thumb and forefinger. Good.

I approached the party table and found a place among the other standees. Our hero was loudly telling the story--again--of his torpedo run against TCS Ultima in the mock battle.

"...and they locked just in time, too, 'cause right after I launched the last two"--he paused to belch--"Pachyderm over there blew me to shmith-- smother-- to pieces! Hee hee hee!" He took another gulp of his drink. "Oh, hiya there, C-Colonel Blair!" He tried to snap to attention, but lost his balance and wound up back in the chair. He looked around, bewildered.

"At ease." I put a hand on his shoulder. "No protocol in the lounge, Cataract."

"CatSNATCH, shir--I mean, CatSCRATCH...yeah, that's it." He raised his glass again, and his buddies roared their approval.

I pulled up a spare chair and straddled it, leaning over the back. "So how do you like being the hero, Cataract?" He had scored the Lex team's only torpedo hits, against formidable odds.

"Maniac's the real hero, Colonel B-B--" He hiccuped. "Did you shee how many k-kills he got?"

I sighed in frustration. "Didn't you hear me in the debriefing? While Maniac and his wingmen were off chasing kills, the Longbows they were supposed to cover were getting slaughtered. You barely got your shots off before you were toasted!" Dammit, how could I get through to these kids?

Cataract was undaunted. He patted my hand reassuringly. "Thash OK, shir. You're shtill my h-hero. My pal. My bosom-- Where's your drink? Innkeeper!" He pounded the table. "Refleshment for my c-comrade, here!"

I caught Pilsner's eye and held up my fingers in a "T." He nodded and brought over a Shirley Temple.

One of the new Hellcat pilots spoke up over the din. "A lot of us feel like Catscratch, sir." Several others at the table nodded in agreement. "Our team didn't get nearly as many kills as Major Marshall's. Vero kept us tied to the stupid Longbows!"

Not another one! "Let's try to focus, here, Miner. Vero nailed the Lexington and brought back half her 'bows. Your team won the drill, for God's sake!"

Miner was unconvinced. "It sure didn't feel like it," he said sullenly. He looked enviously over at Maniac, who was regaling a small group of pilots, including Misty, with his exploits in the exercise.

Damn, there was just no talking sense into these kids. Time to fight dirty. I pretended to think it over, and even took a long sip of my drink.

"Well, maybe you're right, Miner. After all, Major Todd Marshall does have one of Confed's highest kill scores." I casually took another sip.

Every head at the table turned toward me. "His name is 'TODD?'" exclaimed Miner. He hastily gulped at his drink, as if trying to wash a bad taste out of his mouth. The other rookies looked over at Maniac with distate, probably wondering how they could have been so blind. All except Cataract, who was grinning like an idiot.

"Hey, Catscratch, what's so funny, man?" Miner wanted in on the joke.

"His name is Todd! Heeheehee! And I thought I had a stupid name! Hoo boy!"

Cataract looked like he was just about pickled, so I sent a rookie to fetch Lt. Disch. While we were waiting, I went to freshen my drink.

The topic at the bar had switched to current events. Maniac, ever the pundit, was explaining his brilliant political deductions to Misty and her friends, while Vagabond looked on with amusement.

"It's Border World radicals, no question about it!" Maniac took a sip of his Hell's Bathroom. "That's who's causing all this trouble. They nailed Orlando, they attacked the surveillance array, and they killed everybody on the Annabel Lee!" A few members of his audience nodded their heads in agreement, which didn't sit well with Vagabond.

"That's where you're wrong, old buddy. There's no proof these pirates are Border Worlders! Besides, they don't have the technology for that sonic thing that was used on the transport."

"Oooo, Vagabond the weapons scientist!" Maniac looked from Vagabond to me. "I suppose you agree with Vagabond, right, Ace?" His voice was contemptuous.

"Actually, Maniac, I'm pretty sure the pirates, at least, are from the Border Worlds."

"Huh?" said Vagabond.

"Huh?" said Maniac.

"Did you guys read my report on the frigate mission?" They both nodded. Hmm, Maniac's Playboy must be late this month. "Remember that knock-knock joke I used on them? Now just how funny do YOU think it was?"

For emphasis, I nodded toward Cataract, who was eagerly retelling the story of our frigate mission. "Gesundheit!" he finished, and laughed so hard he fell out of his chair. The pilots at his table merely stared blankly. I looked back at Vagabond, who reluctantly conceded my point.

"OK, OK, so they're Border Worlders. But the Border Worlds have always been Confed's stepchild. They supported Confed during the war, and in return they got convicts and toxic waste dumps. A lot of their people have grudges against Confed, and some of them probably joined pirate groups to get revenge."

"Oh yeah?" Maniac was on a roll and couldn't keep his mouth shut. "Then what dockyard refitted that Bingo frigate? Gotta be Border World governments behind this! Right, Ace?"

As if I'd agree with him twice in a single day! "Maniac, did you ever ask yourself why the Border Worlds would try to provoke Confed into a war they couldn't possibly win? Or why they'd waste their first strikes on non-military targets? You think maybe they're suicidal?"

"Hey, whose side are you on, dwarf? No, not suicidal, just terminally stupid! Why, those inbred morons are so dumb--"

Misty interrupted him. "Just how dumb are they, Major?" she asked with deceptive sweetness.


Maniac turned to her eagerly, oblivious to his danger. "Lemme tell ya, sweetcakes. Border Worlders are so dumb, they use condoms for sausage skins!" He held up his forefinger. "You know what they call this? Toilet--"


Maniac outweighed Misty two to one, but her hand nearly took his head off. She stormed out of the lounge, narrowly missing Lt. Disch, who had just arrived.

Whoa! The left side of Maniac's face was already swelling up. His legs had given out on him, and he leaned unsteadily against the bar. "Wha-wha-wha hoppen?" He tried to touch his cheek, but it was too tender. "Yeowch!"

"Disch!" I called, pointing to Maniac. "Can you...?"

"No thanks, Colonel," she said brightly. "Looks like someone's already hit him!" She turned to Cataract and put her hands on her hips. "So, Lieutenant, are you ready for that physical now?"

Cataract was well and truly plowed. He grinned broadly, nodded, and started unzipping his uniform. The other pilots, of course, immediately shouted encouragement.

"Take it off, Catscratch!"

"Bend over, kid! She wants your temperature!"

"Don't show too much on the first date, rookie!"

"Turn your head and cough!"

"Hey, how long is your 'thermometer,' Catscratch!"

Disch caught Cataract's hand in mid-zip. "Not here, Lieutenant," she said with a smile. His companions groaned in disappointment. She tried to help him to his feet, and failed. Other pilots moved to her aid, but Vero pushed them aside.

"I better help you, Taysti. Gotta make sure you save some for me." She winked at Cataract, who leered drunkenly back at her. Together, the two women heaved the kid to his feet.

"Thanks, Madeleine. See you, Colonel." Disch mouthed a silent "thank you" to me, and I nodded back. I considered going with them, then thought better of it; with both Vero and Disch "examining" Cataract, sick bay would be like a feeding frenzy. Besides, Maniac still needed first aid.

They half-herded, half-carried Cataract toward the exit, accompanied by hoots and catcalls from the crowd. The kid got one hand on Vero's behind, looked back at his mates, and winked elaborately as he stumbled out the door.

Pilsner handed me an icepack, which I carefully applied to Maniac's cheek. "Look, big guy, if you'd read the pilot files like you were supposed to, you'd know Lieutenant Miasma is from one of the Border Worlds." I helped him put his own hand on the ice pack before I removed my own.

"I did, Ace!" he protested. "But all I remembered were her measurements!"


I buzzed Ensign Watt's door impatiently. Her hero-worship was becoming a real annoyance, and it was past time I did something about it. In my experience, the best cure for infatuation was familiarity. No living, breathing human being could possibly live up to her manufactured fantasy; once she knew the all-too-human pilot behind the facade, we could relate normally.

Watt must have been getting ready for bed, because she came to the door dressed only in a flimsy wrapper. Her long black hair was unbound, and fell down past her shoulders. I watched her eyes widen with surprise and delight.

"Sir! H-how nice to see you, sir!" She looked at my breast pocket. "Oooo, you brought my panties!"

"Er, yes. Um, Ensign, I wonder if we could talk. I understand your cabinmate is on duty for another two hours?" Thanks, Lex.

"Oh, yes, sir! Come in! And, please, call me 'Kylla?'" I walked in and took the fold-down chair. Kylla sat on the bed, suggestively loosening her wrapper.

For the next hour, I futilely attempted to paint a realistic portrait of her hero. I told her how scared I was every time I went into combat, but she just took it as a sign of greater courage. I confessed to insubordination, drunkeness, and seducing women; she forgave me. Desperate, I told her I was a poor dirt farmer unsuitable for a high-flying spacer like her; she begged me to take her back to the farm and let her bear my children.

Finally, I was forced to use my secret weapon. Hating myself for doing it, I let her have it right between the eyes. "Tell me, Kylla, how much do you know about earthworms?"

"Uh, earthworms, sir?" She uneasily pulled the wrapper a bit closer around herself.

Fifteen minutes later, she was sound asleep. I gently lifted her legs onto the bed and arranged the covers over her. The wrapper would twist and pinch as she slept, so I carefully slipped it off her. I tried not to peek too much.

As I was closing the door behind me, I stopped and blew her a kiss. Watt was a nice kid; maybe we could develop a genuine friendship now that this hero crap was out of the way. I turned to go and ran right into Lt. Disch.

Shit! How much had she seen?

"I just wanted to tell you, COLONEL, that Second Lieutenant Carter is fit to fly." Her voice was as cold as liquid oxygen. "Lex told me you were here."

Help! Mommy! "Uh, yes, I was just, ah, talking to one of the screw--crew!"

"I see. Do you normally converse with crew while they're in bed? Nude?" She reached into my pocket and took out Watt's panties--oh, Christ, I had forgotten to return them! "Mmm, silk. Yours, Colonel?" Her tone was casual, but her eyes were hard as diamonds.

My life flashed before my eyes.

"Sorry to interrupt, Colonel." Lex! Saved by the bell! "Captain Eisen wants you in the briefing room right away, sir. We have new orders."

"Uh, gotta go, Taysti! Talk to you later!" I ducked into the nearby lift and punched the command deck. I was shivering so hard it took me three tries to get the right button. Damn, who turned down the life support?


Captain Eisen was impatiently pacing the briefing room when I arrived. His aide was sulking in the corner, nursing a fresh welt on his forehead. I cursed myself for neglecting to pick up a clipboard along the way.

"Ah, Colonel." He looked at me with concern. "Are you all right, Colonel?"

No, sir. "Ah, it's just a chill, sir. No problem." Like hell. My life expectancy on this tub was now measured in hours.

"OK, then. Change of orders, Colonel. Confed has ordered us to the Tyr system immediately. We've changed course and will be jumping within the hour."

Oh, shit! Border World territory! And my pilots had just stood down from a long day of drills.

"Intel says they've taken an important Confederation hostage. Our job is to find the hostage and then stage a rescue." He brought up a display of the Tyr system, and pointed out the main planets.

"Now Tyr has three inhabited planets: Whitewall, Radial, and Bias-Ply. Tyr VII, Whitewall, is the most densely populated. The hostage is supposed to be on this planet, somewhere in this area." He zoomed the map to a large plain on the northern continent. I looked at it closely. I saw a medium-sized city, a number of towns and villages, farms, grazing land, a nature club, and three small military bases.

"As soon as we enter the system, send out a recon Hellcat to scout these three bases. Hopefully we can gather enough information to pinpoint the hostage for the extraction team."

One ship? "What about escorts, sir? What kind of opposition do we expect?"

Captain Eisen looked uncomfortable. "I wish I had a little more faith in the data I'm getting from Confed Intel. Supposedly opposition at the planet is negligible. The real problem is a Border World task force that's due to pick up the hostage in twelve hours. They have carrier support."

Great! Just fucking great! I remembered the "Border World expedition" Intel had warned us about in the Hellespont system. This Border World task force could be another phantom, or it could be real and already waiting for us.

"Try to make it a clean operation, Colonel. We're supposed to be at peace with the Border Worlds; we don't want anybody hurt if we can avoid it."

Yeah, especially me.

"All set, Colonel?"

I didn't answer. I was still staring at the map, wondering if I could trust Intel's assessment.

Whack! Eisen swatted my butt with that damn swagger stick. "I SAID, all set, Colonel?"

"You bet, Captain!" I saluted and ran out without waiting for him to return it. Ai-ya, that stung!


I ordered Monk and his crew to prep a recon Hellcat for me. We only had a few atmosphere-qualified Hellcat pilots, and Guess Who was the most experienced.

I briefed my squadron commanders, and we hastily modified our previous patrol and CAP plans for a possible encounter with a Border World carrier task force. I had Second and Third Squadrons stand down; I needed a rested reserve in case we fought a prolonged action. That left no one to escort my recon mission, but I reluctantly decided to trust Intel's assessments this time. They were more than overdue for a correct guess.

We jumped to Tyr on schedule, and found no one waiting for us. I launched the CAP first, followed by the first patrols. Then I sent out a pair of ECM birds to jam Whitewall's communication and detection gear. So far, so good. Time for a little sightseeing.


Monk and his crew were just finishing with my bird as I arrived. I signed for the ship hurriedly and headed for the ladder. Othello was just climbing down from the cockpit. As I started up the ladder, he stopped me with a hand on my chest.

"Sir, you have to understand, the Hellcat-R is a delicate masterpiece of advanced technology."

"I understand, Scopes." I tried to get by him, but he blocked my way.

"Sir, she's packed with extra sensor equipment, but performance and weaponry are nearly identical to the standard model."

"Yes, yes, Scopes, I'm familiar--"

"Obviously something else had to be sacrificed. They used special lightweight materials wherever possible, but the main difference is that the Hellcat-R has about half the standard armor."

"Get to the point, Othello!" Dammit, I had no time for this crap.

"Er, well, I would just like you to be extra, extra careful on this one, sir."

I knew better than to assume his concern was for me. "Why, Othello, I didn't know you cared," I said sarcastically.

It was lost on him. "Oh, I do, sir! We only have one other Hellcat-R!"


Our patrols had detected picket activity around planet Whitewall, so I armed my weapons while I was still well away from the planet. I had three leech and three IR missiles. Captain Eisen had said to go easy on them, but if the fit hit the shan, I wanted some fast-lockers on my racks.

About 75,000 klicks from atmosphere, I spotted a Border World patrol. They must have picked me up at about the same time, because they immediately changed course to intercept. My AI identified them as Banshees, a wicked new light fighter with blinding speed, four lasers, and unknown secondary weapons.

Damn! So much for Confed Intel. And I was driving an obsolescent fighter against new high-tech birds! Somehow I had to split my two opponents and take them one at a time.

As we closed, I decided to open with a weak, throwaway taunt to lull the enemy. I targeted the leader and screamed, "You're going home in a box!" Yecchh, what a stupid taunt!

It was good enough, however, as the leader responded, "You ready to meet your maker, city boy?" Uh-oh, another female! Well, this time I was ready.

"Hey, Daisy Mae! Who's doin' your brother while you're gone? Your sister?"

"If thet whore even touches him--Hey! Taste hot lead, urban scum!" She punched burner and left her wingman in the dust.

Whoa, a hot-tempered bitch! What a break! She came at me with lasers blazing, but I sidestepped easily. At the last second, I angled off, then pulled hard to get on her ass. I had to lose sight of her for a precious second, but I came out right on her tail at point-blank range. She had cut burner to try and maneuver, and now I was sticking like glue. My leech was locking, locking, locked! Launch! Too late, she hit burner. Splat! Her bird was helpless. Yesss!

No time to gloat, that wingman was coming up. He wasn't very good, luckily. He launched one missile, but it was a bad angle and I ditched it easily. He failed to use his speed and maneuverability advantage, which allowed me to work behind him and start hammering.

"You're finished, Gomer! Eject! Eject!"

"Never, Confed! Clemson Neal Tyne ain't no quitter!" He dodged and twisted, making himself a very difficult target. He still didn't hit his burner.

I closed in and hammered him again. I powered down shields to feed the guns, so I could fire continuously and make up for my numerous misses.

"Dammit, I don't want to kill you, Clem! Punch out!" His aft shield was down and his rear armor was shredding.

"Ah have not yet begun to--Yikes!" Kaboom! An ion bolt detonated his power plant. Did he eject?

"Clem? Clem! You OK, man?"

I got a weak signal on the comm unit. "Uh, yeah, Confed. Ah guess ah made it." Yeah, I had his pod on sensors. Whew! This guy was stupid, but he was brave.

"Stay cool, Clem. I'll drop a beacon to guide your search and rescue teams." My exit vector was on the other side of the planet anyway.

"Guess ah'll live t' see Bobbie Jo 'n the yung 'uns after all. Thanks, uh..."

"Blair. Chris Blair."

"Blair? Hey, ain't yew the guy from--"

"No, I'm not!" I resumed my course for the planet. It felt good to spare those pilots' lives. I prayed there was no more opposition ahead of me.


I transitioned to atmospheric flight easily enough, although my skin temp got a bit high at one point. I leveled out a hundred meters over the surface and headed east. With luck, the jammers would keep the first base from detecting me more than a few thousand meters out.

Ah, the base was just coming up on the scope. Yeah, there was the village to the south, the nature club to the north. Standard sensor emissions, nothing else. Woohoo! Score one for Confed Intel! Another milk run for Mrs. Blair's fair-haired boy!

I switched to the sensor package and activated its AI. All I had to do was fly near the target and the AI would examine it on every frequency of the EM spectrum. I went to full speed and commenced my run.

Hah! Not even laser fire! The AI activated sensors at about 10,000 meters while I stuck my thumb in my nose and wiggled my fingers at the base. Boy, those stupid gomers couldn't even--

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! A hidden turret had activated sensors and launched a missile! Shiiiiit!

Decoy! Switch to weapons! IR autolocked on turret, launch! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy! Pull up! Whoopwh-- Missed! Kerblam! Scratch one turret! OK, relax, no more--

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! What the fuck? Oh no, two medium fighters lifting off! Decoy! Burner! Too close! Too-- WHAMMO! I'm hit aft! Red lights flashing all over the cockpit! Shield down, armor gone, burner out, half my decoys vaporized! Eject, Blair! Eject!

Never! I'm the Heart of the Tiger! Turn, Blair, turn! Blaster fire misses to port. Whoosh! They pass me. Turn, turn! Gun power to shields! No time to peck away at their tough armor! IRs are too weak! Switch to leech! They're ahead of me! They split! Take the leader! Lock, leechie, please, please lock! Bam! Shit, watch that rear turret!

He's trying to drag me in front of his pal! Close in faster, leave the wingman behind! Burner! Burner! Shit, I forgot! Bam! Shit! Wait, I have lock! Yes, thank you, you big beautiful missile! He's turning, check fire! You have one chance, Blair, don't blow it! Bam! Turn... He's swinging back! Launch!

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Watch that wingman! Decoy! Whoop! Decoy! Whoop! Decoy! Decoy! Decoy! Missed! Bam! Bam! Rear shields down again! Turn, Blair, you can outturn him! Where's his pal?

"Yaaaaaaah!" Wow, he ejected from his crippled fighter, but the pod's 'chute malfunctioned! Serves you right, motherfucker! I wrenched my attention back to his wingman.

Shit, he's on burner. Way out of range. Turning, turning, here we go, head on! Keep those shields up, Blair, your leech is your only hope! Locked, but head on I need to fire at close range. Wait, wait... Whoop! Whoop! Decoy! Pull up! Not too much! Bam! Bam! Bam! Right into his blasters! Damage forward! Now or never! Launch! Turn like hell!

Splat! Hallelujah! He ejects! Parachute deployed! You bastard, I ought to-- no, that's inhuman.

I headed away from the base and tried to swallow my heart back down into my chest.

I took inventory. Burner unrepairable, gun system, comm system, and shield generators damaged. Aft armor gone, forward and starboard armor holed. I switched power to autorepair and considered my options.

I could recon this base, but I'd have to do it fast. Possibly the other bases were undefended, in which case I could complete my mission. If there was any opposition at all, however, I'd have to abort. Even if by some miracle I could defeat the base defenders, I'd have nothing left for possible pickets on the way back.

OK. I made a quick recon run over the first base and set an indirect flight plan to the second. I switched on the autopilot long enough to use my relief bag. The convenience pack was jammed, but I had been smart enough to bring along a jimmy. Heh heh.


Even at extreme visual range, I could tell Base 2 was defended. I actually saw one Vindicator aloft, and my passive sensors detected search emissions from one missile turret. OK, Blair, time to get out of Dodge. If you can.


I nursed my aerodynamically impaired bird out of the atmosphere and onto the first leg of the return trip. I tried to stay alert, but my mind insisted on fantasizing about Intel personnel strapped to various medieval torture devices. Absorbed as I was in my daydreams, I nearly missed the Border World patrol burning up on my six.

Shit! Where did these guys keep coming from? I turned into them and con- figured for combat. I had precious little left to throw at these two Banshees. Maybe I could taunt my way out. Wait for their move, Blair, then hit 'em with a devastating counter-taunt.

Almost in comm it comes, "I'm..." "...barb..." "...kens!" Shit! Comm system's on the fritz! I'm doomed!

Head on! Gotta nail these guys fast, can't last in a long firefight! OK, corkscrew! Hah, missed! Zero in, fire, corkscrew... Bam! Bam! Clang! I'm hit! Guns damaged! Launch IR! Why don't they launch at me? Kablam! Yaay, a hit! Gun him while his shields are down...deflection shot! Bang bang bang! KABOOM! One down! Turn, Blair, t-- Controls sluggish! Shit, his pal is coming onto my tail! Dodge! Weave!

I pulled every trick I knew, but this guy was a pro. He stuck to my ass like wet underwear and methodically battered down my shields with his puny lasers. At point blank range, he hit my engines, and I started losing speed.

Ironically, that was what saved me. In desperation, I chopped power and he zoomed right past. Then he made his fatal mistake. He also cut his power in an attempt to stay with me and finish me off fast. I pivoted on thrusters and launched my last IR at close range. He had time to pop one decoy, and then he was hit. I fired desperately until he was a cloud of space debris.

I collapsed in my seat. That had been much too close. One more hit would have finished me. Autorepair was out, gun recharge was out, target system was out, shields were out, burner was out, and engines were under 50%. Comm system was only intermittent. The windscreen had a crack and two stars in it. I couldn't get a status on the recon pack. I could only pray the precious data were intact.

Wearily, I headed for home. It would be touch and go just making it back to the Lexington.


"Request clearance, Lexington." I was shaking like a leaf from reaction. The engines had deteriorated steadily on the way back, and for a time I thought I was a goner. Fortunately, the comm system had improved somewhat--thanks to a good swift kick from a pilot too frustrated to be prudent--and I was able to call in an escort for the last 500,000 klicks.

Lt. Garr came on the comm. Dammit, did they go and wake this guy up every time I came back?

"Your mission was a failure, sir?" he asked acidly. "Excuse me, but you did say you were THE Christopher Blair, didn't you?" His voice grated on my raw nerves. "The pattern is full, SIR, stand by for auto orbit vector."

You bastard! Of course you know this means war! I fiddled with my comm controls to simulate a fault, then turned off the visual transmit.

"Oops, comm trouble, Vinny. Working on it." I couldn't take my revenge right now, but I could at least deal with my rage. With the visual off, I gave Garr the finger, the double finger, the quadruple finger, and a prolonged buttfuck. I stuck out my tongue, thumbed my nose, crossed my eyes, and stuck my thumbs in my ears and wiggled my fingers. I would have mooned him, but the flight suit was too damned hard to get on and off.

All the while, Vinny sat impassively, offering me helpful suggestions, like "Try the upper-band gain, sir," or "Reset the magnetic modulus, Colonel." Hah! What a moron!

Finally, after working the anger out of my system, I reactivated visual trans- mission. "Hey, thanks, Vinny. That worked!" I was almost smiling.

"Of course it did. Downloading holding pattern now, sir."

I routed the data into the nav computer and activated the autopilot. OK, now what practical joke would I pull on this character to get even? Killing him was a bit extreme, but temporary mutilation was very--

Ah-oo-gah! Ah-oo-gah! Collision alarm! Jesus Christ! I was on a collision course with an inbound shuttle! I disabled the autopilot and pulled on the stick with the strength of a madman! Missed! God almighty, how--Vinny!

Furious, I activated the comm. "Vinny, you lemon-faced son-of-a--"

"Bad luck, Colonel," he said calmly. "Must be a fault in your computer. I'd better arrange priority clearance for you." He busied himself at his console. "Oh, by the way, sir, did you know that the Hellcat-R is equipped with a backup cockpit holocam?"

Backup? I hadn't turned off any-- Uh-oh.

Lieutenant Garr looked up from his console and smiled wickedly. "You have clearance, Fart of the Tiger."


The hangar bay looked like a funeral parlor. Sockette and Stu were wailing away on each other's shoulders, Othello had his face buried in his hands, and Monk looked like his father had just died. I stumbled away from the ladder, and turned to look back at my poor bird. Holy shit!

It was barely recognizable as a Hellcat, barely recognizable as anything made by man. Enemy fire had twisted and melted nearly every part of her scorched skin into a demented, abstract sculpture. As I looked at her, a piece fell off the port wing flap and clanged onto the deck. I glanced over at Monk, and his face was a wordless accusation.

I couldn't face him. I turned and shuffled off to debriefing, ignoring the two Intel officers who ran up to retrieve my recon pack. As I walked, pilots and deck crew silently drew back to give me room. A few offered half-hearted thumbs-up, but most just stared at me with shock or dismay. So much for the legend of the Heart of the Tiger!

Well, fuck 'em! I was still alive, and in my book, that counted as a success! I couldn't help thinking, however, that my earlier visit with Ensign Watt had been wasted. After this fiasco, I'd be lucky if she'd let me kiss her feet.

End of Chapter 6

Previews from Chapter 7:

"Colonel, I have been begging HQ for more modern equipment ever since I took this command."

"Colonel, Intel has pulled out all the stops to identify the most likely location of the hostage."

"You mess with the best, you die like the rest!"