[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander September 30, 1996]
After debriefing, I headed for the galley to grab a quick bite before the next mission. Despite the lack of recon data, I knew we'd have to at least attempt an extraction before the Border World task force intervened. I just prayed HQ wouldn't order us to engage and destroy them.
I found an empty corner table and set my tray down. Lex had updated me on the wing's flight operations, which seemed well in hand. I had other things on my mind, however, and I barely picked at my salad.
Having analyzed the mission in the debriefing, I was no longer bothered by my failure. Retreat in the face of overwhelming odds was a legitimate maneuver of war, and one I had used many times before. No, the real problem was that I had foolishly insisted on checking the second base before aborting. I had risked a valuable pilot and expensive hardware in a pathetic attempt to save face. If one of my pilots had pulled such a stunt, I would have reamed him out.
Was I starting to believe my own legend? Did I now feel obligated to live up to my image as an invincible hero? If so, I had no business flying. That kind of attitude could get me--and those who flew with me--very dead, very fast.
Damn! I wished Robin were here. I needed somebody to talk to.
"Excuse me, sir, is this seat taken?"
Robin? How did she-- Oh, it was Ensign Watt.
I tried to force a smile, without much success. "I'm afraid I'm not very good company right now, Kylla."
After a moment's hesitation, she set down her tray and pulled up a chair. "I'll take my chances, sir," she said firmly. I noted yogurt, croissant, and orange juice on the tray. I remembered she had the graveyard watch, which meant her "day" was just beginning. Her uniform was crisp, her hair up in a neat bun.
She took a deep breath before going ahead with what was apparently a prepared speech. "Sir, I want to apologize for acting so...inconsiderate before. I treated you like...a fantasy object, not a...a human being, with your own feelings, your own..." She glanced at my picked-over food. "...your own doubts."
"Kylla, you don't have to--"
She held up her hand to stop me. "No, let me finish. You see, sir, everyone's talking about that last mission, and your reputation, and how you're washed up, or you're still a hero, or, or... But all they care about is the image, not the man. Just like I did."
Leaning closer, she continued earnestly, "Then I met the guy behind the head- lines. The one who cared enough about a mixed-up kid to try and teach her a lesson. And you know what? I liked him more than I liked the plastic hero."
She looked down at her hands, and her voice grew softer. "I guess what I'm saying, sir, is that--for what it's worth--I don't care about the mission, or your reputation, or whatever. I'm just...glad you made it back."
I didn't say anything for some time. Frankly, I was stunned. Was this woman sitting across from me the same kid I had so casually dismissed as a ditzy groupie? Maybe she wasn't the only one who had learned a lesson here.
"Does this mean you want your panties back?" I asked, with mock disappointment.
She smiled back. "You can keep them, sir, as a memento."
We were interrupted by the ship's AI. "Colonel? Sorry to intrude on this touching scene, but the Captain requests your presence in his cabin at your earliest convenience."
Kylla glanced at the overhead speaker. "As I recall from the Academy, sir, that translates as 'Right now, or else!'"
"Indeed it does, Ensign." I stood and picked up my tray. As I passed Watt's chair, I patted her shoulder. "Thanks, Kylla."
She positively beamed. "My pleasure, sir."
I stopped at the Captain's door and focused my thoughts. He probably wanted to see me about the upcoming extraction, which was fine, but I also had an agenda of my own. This was as good a time as any to get it out in the open.
Captain Eisen responded as soon as I buzzed. "Ahahaha! Enter! Wohoho!"
Now what was so damned funny? At least he was in a good mood.
Inside, I found the Captain seated at his console, intent on the holodisplay in front of him. He waved me over jovially.
"Have you seen this yet, Colonel?" He pointed to the display.
Eisen was connected to the Lexington's home G-Spot, replaying a comm recording. The guy in the display was...me! Dammit, that bastard Garr must have uploaded the recording from my backup cockpit cam!
"Colonel, I called you in here to advise you--Hahahaha! That's a good one!-- uh, to advise you to be more careful in the--Oh, this next face is my favorite! Heehee!--er, to be more careful in the future. I know Lieutenant Garr isn't popular with the pilots, but it's bad for morale to have a senior officer encouraging disrespect--Mother Mary, where did you come up with THAT one? Bwahahahaha!"
I was mortified. Already some of the pilots were questioning my judgment, and now I'd gone and made a fool of myself. Dammit, after this I'd be the laughingstock of the ship! Quick, Blair, change the subject.
"Um, yes sir, I'll be more respectful. Uh, sir, about the recon mission..."
Reluctantly, Captain Eisen turned his attention from the display. He shook his head. "Don't worry about the mission, Colonel. I don't know anyone else in Confed who could have scanned even one target against that kind of opposition. In fact, I'm recommending you for another decoration."
Captain Eisen's respect was worth more to me than the whole chest of medals under my bed at home. "Thank you, sir. Uh, what about the next mission, sir?"
"We have a landing craft inbound with a Marine platoon to pull off the actual extraction. Intel should have your recon data digested any time now, and then we can get together and plan the mission."
He turned back to his computer. When he noticed that I still wasn't leaving, however, he looked up at me again. "Something else on your mind, Colonel?"
"Yes, sir. The Border Worlds are obviously mobilizing, and they have at least two new advanced fighter types. If we keep going up against them in these obsolescent ships, I'm going to start losing a lot of pilots."
Eisen's look of concern told me more than his words. "Colonel, I have been begging HQ for more modern equipment ever since I took this command. You'd almost think--" He caught himself, as if he were about reveal too much. I knew better than to pursue the question.
"You'll just have to do the best you can with what you have. Dismissed, Colonel."
I stepped into the corridor and the door slid shut behind me. As I headed for Flight Control, I reflected on our conversation. The Captain obviously had doubts about HQ and our assignment in Border Territory, which only reinforced my own misgivings. I wondered if Admiral Tolwyn had considered the possibility that conspirators had infiltrated Confed HQ.
Lost in thought, I didn't notice Lt. Homes until we nearly collided. His face lit up when he saw me.
"Oh, Colonel Blair! You know, sir, I never knew you were such a funny guy!" He crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. "Heeheeheehee! Oh, you made my day, sir!"
I watched him until he disappeared into the lift, my anger rising with each step. Damn that Garr! Damn, damn, DAMN!
I arrived in Flight Control just as Maniac finished briefing Croissant on his squadron's patrol plan. Maniac watched him disappear down the stairs, then turned to greet me. He obviously relished the opportunity to goad me again.
"Well, well, if it isn't Captain Polaroid! Hey, Ace, nice recon mission! Except, of course, you, ah, came up two bases SHORT. Heeheehee! Next time, please, send a professional. OK?"
Slime mold. "OK, Maniac." I looked around the compartment. "You know where I can find one?"
He glared at me. "Look, leprechaun, I've got more professionalism in my little finger--"
"--than in your whole brain! Now cut the clowning and fill me in!"
Maniac grumbled, but he briefed me on the patrol dispositions he'd made during my recon mission. We needed at least one Longbow and two Hellcat squadrons in reserve in case the Border World task force showed up, which left us with the bare minimum for CAP and scouting. Nevertheless, Maniac had done an excellent job with the available resources.
In fact, the only quibble I had was that most of our atmosphere-qualified pilots were off on patrol. If--when--I flew Marine escort, I'd only have Maniac, Misty, or Vagabond available as wingmen.
Lex called us. "I hate to interrupt your games, boys, but Captain Eisen has ordered Colonel Blair to the briefing room."
"Games!" Maniac was offended. "Do you know how hard I worked on that patrol plan, you stupid byte bitch?"
"Not nearly as hard as you worked on Ensign Myte, lover boy."
"Oh yeah? What does a dumb AI know about..."
I got out of there as quickly as I could. In a battle of wits, Maniac was firing blanks, even against an AI. This would not be pretty.
I remembered to grab a clipboard as soon as I walked through the door. As I approached the Captain, I placed it firmly over my butt. Good thing, too, because something seemed to be eating Captain Eisen.
"Ah, Colonel. Confed has deemed this an especially critical mission."
"Why is that, sir?" Actually, I could guess the answer. Back on Earth it was probably Screw Blair Week.
"How the hell would I know?" complained the Captain. "HQ tells me jack shit! Now let's get down to business, shall we?"
Careful, Blair, I thought. He's touchier than you thought.
Captain Eisen activated the holotank. "Intel is more convinced than ever that the hostage is being held in one of these three bases. Now as you know, we didn't get all the recon data we needed. That means you'll have to cover the Marines while they check out all three."
"Two, sir." I corrected. It had nearly cost my life, but at least we had complete data from one--
"Er, no, Colonel, it's three. I'm afraid the, ah, recon AI malfunctioned on your run."
He handed me a folder. It was marked "Visible/Infrared", and it was stuffed with holopics. I leafed through them, hoping against hope that the AI had snooped at least a few of the base installations. Hmm, that missile silo looked suspiciously like...a swimming pool. Jeez, the Border World Militia must be a pretty laid-back outfit. Over here was...a volleyball court? Hiking trails? What kind of a base was this? I looked closer at the figures on the volleyball court. Hey! They weren't wearing any--
I looked at Captain Eisen in bewilderment. He avoided my eyes.
"Ah, it seems, Colonel, that the AI decided, for unknown reasons, to recon the naturist club to the north of the real target. It's probably a, uh, bug in the AI, I'm told."
Bug, my ass! I had risked my butt to bring back jack-off material for some adolescent--Whoa! Look at these young women sunning themselves by the pool! Holy holography, Batman, I had no idea remote sensing was so advanced! Why, you could even see individual p--
"If I may have your attention, Colonel?" Eisen was tapping the swagger stick on his palm, ready to strike again, if necessary. I rubbed at the sore spot on my scalp, and hastily turned to the holotank.
"Colonel, Intel has pulled out all the stops to identify the most likely location of the hostage. They recommend you check the bases in the same order you were supposed to recon them, until you find our target. They're optimistic you'll hit paydirt at the first one."
He looked up at me. "One more thing. That Border World task force is only a few hours away. Grab that hostage and get back here pronto."
Shit. That meant no detours to avoid opposition. If we ran into fighters, we'd have to blast our way straight through.
"Yes, sir!" I saluted and hurried toward the exit.
Damn! "Yes sir?"
"Leave the folder, please." Annoyance was evident in his tone.
"Yes, sir." I sheepishly handed the folder to his aide. Damn. Maniac would have paid a bundle for those pics.
I walked out the door and headed for Flight Control. "Lex!"
"Status of the Marines?"
"Landing craft refueling now. The Marines are standing by in the service bay. Their platoon leader, Lieutenant Hedd, is waiting for you in Ready Room 1."
"Thanks, Lex. Have Captain Chang suit up and meet me there. I want to--"
"Vagabond is in sick bay, Earthworm. The Assistant Medical Officer has him under observation."
"What?" Dammit, what was he doing in sick bay? "Lex, have Major Marshall meet me at the infirmary!" If Maniac had gotten Vagabond hurt, against my explicit orders, I would personally rearrange his vital organs.
"Where's Lt. Disch?" I demanded of the pharmacist's mate on duty in sick bay. He pointed to the officer's ward, but before I could move, the door slid open and Disch stepped out. She was flushed, and her hair was tousled.
"Why, Colonel. How nice of you to visit us." Disch's tone, however, said just the opposite. "May I be of assistance?" she asked coldly.
I was in no mood for games. "Where's Vagabond?"
"Captain Chang is suffering from exhaustion. I've admitted him for observation and...treatment."
"I'll bet. I want to see him." I started for the door.
Disch tried to block me, but I forced my way past her and through the doorway. Vagabond was in bed, lying back against his pillows, covers drawn up past his waist. I noted that his hospital gown was carelessly thrown on the deck.
He was obviously not expecting me. "Er, hey there, old buddy." He quickly put his hand over his stomach and moaned--rather unconvincingly.
Disch hurried to his side. "You must conserve your strength, Captain Chang." She put her hand on his forehead, pretending to check for fever. Vagabond closed his eyes and sighed with contentment.
Enough! "Vagabond!" I barked. "Get out of bed and into your flight suit!" "That's an order!"
Disch turned on me angrily. "Let me remind you, COLONEL, that in all medical matters I have final authority! If you need a wingman, why don't you take that little engineer tramp of yours?"
Maniac stuck his head through the doorway. "Trouble in paradise, Romeo?"
As always, Maniac's timing was impeccable. "Er, am I interrupting something?" he asked hopefully as he walked in.
I directed a pleading look at Vagabond, but he just glanced at Disch and shrugged. "Sorry, old buddy. Doctor's orders." He didn't look sorry at all.
I gave up. "All right, Taysti, you win." I turned to Maniac. "Get Misty and have her meet--"
Disch interrupted me. "Lieutenant Miasma has two fractured fingers on her right hand, Colonel. She's off the flight roster for at least two days." Disch glared at Maniac, who suddenly took an intense interest in his boots.
I looked upward. Thanks, God. Thanks a lot. Got any more good news for me?
Lex spoke up. "Earthworm! Long range patrols have detected an incoming task force! One carrier and three frigates or destroyers! You have fifteen minutes to launch!"
Will you cut it out, God?
Reluctantly, I turned to Maniac again. He was rocking casually on his heels, hands clasped behind his back, whistling away and seemingly paying no attention at all to his surroundings.
"You can cut the act, Maniac," I said. Suit up and meet me on the flight deck."
He feigned surprise. "Moi?" he asked, pointing to himself. "The mighty Heart of the Tiger wants little ol' moi on his wing? Gee, I dunno, Ace, I'd better check my appointments." He actually plucked a little notebook out of his back pocket and pretended to consult it.
There was no time to brief the Marines; we'd just have to do it in flight. The crew at my Hellcat was new, but I was too rushed for introductions. If Monk and his people hadn't forgiven me by the next mission, I'd get to know the new bunch soon enough.
After an abbreviated pre-flight, Maniac and I launched, followed closely by the lander. We set autopilots for the first leg and I briefed my team. I had no information about our target, but it seemed Confed Intel had provided the Marines with all they needed to find, identify, and snatch the hostage.
When everyone was up to speed on the plan, I began to relax a little. I'd already flown one harrowing mission, and I knew I'd have to conserve my energy to make it through another. Besides, I had some pretty complex navigation to do before we hit atmosphere, so I needed to be alert when we arrived.
Maniac commed me. "We got a long haul ahead of us, Ace. What say we pass the time with a few jokes? What do you call six blondes standing ear to ear?"
"...and a few minutes later, they were both run over by a train! Wahahahaha!"
"Maniac, will you PLEASE shut up? I'm trying to navigate here!" Once again I tried to ascertain our exact position and compute an atmospheric entry path. Maniac was really getting on my nerves.
"Hey, Ace, lookie wh..."
"Shut up, Maniac!" Too late. I'd already made a mistake. Another calculation ruined by that loon!
Maniac pretended to be hurt. "Well, OK, Ace, if that's what you want. I'll just take those two Border World fighters by myself." He went to full speed and angled off to port.
Fighters? I checked my scope. Yeah, I had two active sensor emissions with a Banshee signature. But I had another relay of jammers covering us, and there was no way they could detect us at this range. Except that Maniac was now closing the range rapidly.
I called him on a tight beam. "Maniac! Break off! They can't--" Too late.
Maniac switched to active sensors. Instantly, the Border Worlders changed course to intercept. Shit! We were spotted. Unless our jamming was unusually effective, they were also warning Whitewall of inbound Confed fighters.
I warned the lander. "Marines, continue on course! We'll try to keep 'em off you!" I considered ordering them to turn around, but that would only buy them a few extra seconds. Maniac and I would have to protect them.
"Roger, Earthworm. Good hunting!" Damn, Lt. Hedd was cool. I punched my afterburner and chased after Maniac, but I was much too far behind him. As I watched helplessly, the BWs closed to taunting range.
"You're dead now, slime!" I cringed. Typical pathetic BW taunt.
"You mess with the best, you die like the rest!" Maniac's rhyming taunt was equally idiotic.
Idiot or not, Maniac at times could be an incredible flyer. Dodging laser fire and two incoming missiles, he managed to punch through the leader's fore and starboard shields, while suffering only minor shield hits himself. His IR missile failed to score, however, and now the BWs were past him and burning for the lander.
Shit! Why couldn't he let us take them together? Maniac was out of position now, and there was no way I could stop more than one of them alone. Tough though the lander was, a couple of missiles and four lasers would make short work of it. Nevertheless, I had to try. I angled to intercept.
It was a bad aspect, but I launched an IR at the trailer to try and distract him. Then I locked on the damaged leader. He ignored me, knowing a missile shot was useless, and gambling that I couldn't gun him as he streaked past.
Unfortunately for him, I pulled off the best high-angle deflection shot of my career, rapidly firing my guns until their cells were drained. He didn't explode, but he was out of the fight. Trailing debris, he limped back toward the planet. His partner, however, merely detoured around my missile and continued after the lander. He signaled his determination with a devastating taunt.
"Nyah nyah, Confed, yew ca-an't catch me!"
Wait a sec, I knew that voice.
"Clem? Clem, is that you?"
"Chris? Hey, boy, howya been? Pullin' tew missions in a row, eh? Uh, sorry, buddy, but ah gots ta cook yer lander. Yew unnerstand, don't yuh?"
I did. I also understood that I now had an almost miraculous chance to save the Marines. "It's OK, Clem, I under--Clem! Watch out! Speed trap ahead! Smokies, Clem, Smokies!"
"Shit! Thanks, Chris!" Clem immediately cut his afterburner and dropped to about 80% throttle. "Sweet Jesus, thet were close! One more tickut 'n ah'll lose mah-- Hey! There ain't no--"
In the time it took Clem to realize he'd been tricked, I had closed the range and nailed him with a leech. Militarily speaking, I should have saved the missile and taken him with guns, but I couldn't risk killing Clem. Call me sentimental, but I just liked the poor dumb bastard too much.
"Chalk up another one for the Maniac!" Oh, great, Dudley Do-Wrong had just made another useless kill, and had wasted a precious IR missile doing it. I ignored Maniac and tried to contact Clem's disabled fighter.
"Clem? Switch to emergency comm, Clem." Every circuit in the Banshee was probably fried, but the E-COMM system, like the pod and ejector, should be electrically isolated from the main systems. "Clem?"
"Ah'm here, Chris. Damn, ah never shoulda left the farm." Clem understandably sounded more than a bit discouraged.
"You're a farmer?" Now I was really glad I had spared him. I couldn't live with myself if I had killed a fellow tiller of the soil. "I'm a farmer, too, good buddy!"
"No kiddin'? Yeah, ah got a right good place, but after ah come back from the war, me 'n Bobbie Jo couldn't make a go of 'er. Bad weather, hah costs, 'n low grain prahces. When the Militia marbilized, ah jumped at the chance t' earn some extry cash."
His story was all too familiar. The Border Worlds had been hit as hard by the recession as the other human worlds. That would be as good a reason as any to provoke a war, except that the Border World economies were mostly based on agriculture, tourism, and light industry, not munitions and heavy manufactures. So why would they--
"Hey, Ace, you gonna flap your gums all day?" Shit, Maniac was back. "We got a mission to fly and kills to chalk up!" Maniac was exuberant after his first kill of the tour.
He was right, though. The lander was getting pretty far ahead of us. I said goodbye to Clem and dropped a beacon before rejoining the other two ships. As I pulled even with Maniac, I went back to my nav calculations.
"Boy, Ace, I was un-fucking-believable! You ever seen a smoother missile evasion than--"
"Shut up, Maniac!"
What with flying, fatigue, and Maniac's endless chatter, I barely finished the nav calcs in time. We hit atmosphere right on target, however, and leveled out only a klick or two from the first planetary nav point.
We were approaching "Base 1" from the south this time. I anticipated an easy run, since I had nailed its missile turret and--hopefully--its air cover on my recon run. On the other hand, a pilot who wanted to die in bed never under- estimated the enemy.
"OK, Maniac, coming up on the base. Let's park the lander here and sniff around--"
"You can play hound if you want, Captain Cautious, but the Maniac is going to blaze a trail of glory!" Maniac's Hellcat leapt ahead. I followed at a more leisurely pace. I watched as he neared the base, daring them to shoot.
"Aw, nobody's home, mother hen. Send in the--Yikes!" I caught it on my scope at the same moment: a missile fired from a turret that had just activated sensors.
Maniac was really pissed. "You bastard, Blair, you lied about nailing that turret!" He spewed both decoys and venom in generous proportions.
Damn, they must have repaired it! "I'll get it, Maniac! Evade! Evade!" Oh no, two more Vindicators lifting off! They were chasing Maniac! I punched afterburner. I locked an IR on the turret and let fly.
Maniac had evaded the first missile, but another left the ground just before the turret blew. One of the fighters also launched. Maniac twisted and turned, and popped decoys as fast as he could.
I had a leech for the nearer fighter, but it was taking forever to lock. He broke off Maniac's tail and I followed him, just as Maniac took a missile in the ass.
"I'm hit, Ace! Aft shields down, aft armor gone! Help!"
"Evade, Maniac!" I had my hands full with this one. I exchanged fire with his rear turret, but I was counting on the leech. Lock...yes! Locked! I'm close, very close...launch! Splat! Yes! He's disabled! Now to save--
Bam! Bam! Oh, fuck! He's left Maniac and now he's on my tail! Outrun him! Burner! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Too close! Decoydecoydecoy! Pull up! Missed!
Shit, can't shake him! Bam! Bam! Rear shield down! Armor weakened! One missile and I'm history!
"Nobody messes with the Maniac! Take that!" I looked back. The BW Vindicator was disintegrating under Maniac's blasters! As I watched, the pilot ejected.
Hooray for Maniac!
"Well, well, well! Looks like the Maniac saved your ass again, Colonel. No, don't thank me. You never do, anyway!"
"Just shut the fuck up and watch for fighters, glory boy! We have to protect that lander!" The Marines were already inbound, having seen the end of the dogfight. As I watched, they alighted on the roof of the main installation and swarmed out of the lander.
I started orbiting the base while I tried to get my nerves under control. That damn Maniac had nearly gotten us both killed. Again. I needed the relief bag, but my hands were shaking too hard for now.
I was interrupted by--you guessed it--Maniac. "Hey, Ace? Where's that nature camp I saw on the map? I'm up for a little sight-seeing. Hubba hubba!"
Yeah, with Maniac the mission always came first. On the other hand, maybe it would keep him out of my hair for a while.
"It's just north of the base, moron. See? It's right--" Hmmm, that's funny, the terrain looks different from this angle. Say, where's the village? Did they pack up the whole thing and move in six hours? And where's the-- Oh no! THIS IS THE WRONG BASE!
The cockpit reeled around me. No, no, no! I had been so distracted by Maniac on the inbound leg that I had brought us to Base 3 by mistake! No wonder the missile turret was still intact! Oh, Christ, that meant the hostage wasn't here!
"Hey, uh, Ace?" Uh-oh, Maniac was starting to catch on. "Are you sure this is--"
"Lander to Earthworm. We have the package. Let's go home."
For once, Maniac was too dumbfounded to be nasty. "Jesus Christ, you're a fucking genius, Ace! How did you know the hostage would be at Base 3?"
Though my relief was such that I was inclined to be forgiving, I couldn't pass up an opportunity like this. "That's why I'm the Wing Commander, moron! Now let's head for vacuum!" Damn, somebody up there must really like me.
On the way up, I celebrated my good luck with a long, leisurely piss.
As we cleared the planet's EM shadow, our threat receivers came alive. I could identify active emissions from at least two cap ships and fifteen fighters. It seemed the BW task force was within extreme fighter range of the planet. Our jammers still had them confused, but it was just a matter of time before their own ECM craft would find us.
A short time, as it turned out. First we picked up a strong signal from an ECM ship, and then four of the fighter emissions steadied on us. Busted!
I broke comm silence and ordered our unarmed jammers and all patrol craft back to the ship. I called for fighter cover, but the nearest good guys had gone chasing a BW ECM decoy, and they were half an hour away. We were on our own.
Maniac and I went active. Damn, they were close! Four Banshees "above" us and closing fast. We peeled off and headed for them.
"What are you, my mother? I'm fine! Let's take these backwoods baboons!"
"Stay with me, Maniac! And stay off the comm. I have an idea." I had, in fact, been saving a particularly nasty taunt for just such an occasion.
As usual, the BWs squandered their gibes prematurely.
"I'm gonna barbecue you chickens!"
"Any last requests?"
"Fly or die, losers!"
Good, all males. I selected general broadcast. "Hey, butt--"
"You're up against the Maniac, bozos!" Shit! Maniac was hogging the channel! "Now why don't you make like a tree, and get out of town!"
Too late. The moment had passed. I upped shield power and headed straight for the trailer on my side. I had to take one out fast, and he seemed the best prospect. I launched my IR at about ten thousand klicks and tried to gun down his shields. His leader, however, took me under fire, and I sustained a number of shield hits forward. As I pulled up hard, I prayed the leader would stick around and fight.
No such luck. He and a wingman were blazing for the lander. I fired a couple of shots, but they were quickly out of range.
Maniac had nailed his man, and mine was severely damaged. "Maniac, follow me! Maybe we can still save the--"
"With you in a minute, Ace! Got some housekeeping to do first." Oh, shit, Maniac was going after my cripple! Damn! Damn! Damn!
My mind raced as fast as the fighter I flew. With only two targets, the odds of success were poorer, but maybe my taunt could still save the day. I fought down my despair and addressed the leader calmly.
"Hey, butt-breath! What do you call a Border Worlder who gets lots of sex?"
"No! A sheep herder! Bwahahaha!"
With the lander nearly in his sights, he was so confident of victory that I caught him off guard. "Why, you damn city slicker, my father was a sheep herder!"
"Then I guess your mother is a ewe! Hahahaha!"
"Aaarrggghh! I'll get you, you--"
I cut him off. No time to gloat. My plan had two parts, and both had to work. Quickly I commed his wingman, and jeered, "Hey, buttmunch! Your leader tells you two do threesomes with sheep!"
"That bastard! I never touched that little ewe--" Click. Now sit back, Blair, and watch the fireworks.
It was beautiful. The leader, in his vengeful wrath, never noticed his "buddy" coming up behind him. He was a better flier, but his pal got in a free tail shot for openers. I reduced power and watched in satisfaction as they dueled to the death. Yes, I would definitely have to send this one to the Guinness Book of Taunts. My Tauntmaster would have been so proud of me!
The duel climaxed in a desperate head-on pass that left both Banshees crippled. I was tempted to finish them off, but I decided it was more artistic to let them reflect on their own gullibility. I basked for a moment in the afterglow of pure creation. Maybe I should have been a holopainter...
I shook myself out of my fantasy. Time to collect Maniac and make tracks. The other BW fighters would be here pretty--
"Well, lookie here! More Maniac munchies!"
Oh, shit, that uncultured boob was going to ruin my masterpiece! I fingered my weapon systems... No. Getting angry at Maniac would spoil my mood, and even the satisfaction of toasting his short hairs might not bring it back. I could, however, salvage some of my work.
"Watch it, Gomers! Shore patrol! Eject! Eject! Ej--" Wow, they must have punched out within a microsecond of each other! Just in time, too. Maniac nailed both fighters with a couple of blaster shots. I made sure their beacons were operating before I formed with Maniac and set course for home.
"Woohoo! Six kills in one mission, Ace! Am I great, or what? Hey, how did you do? Let's see, I count...one...two...two... Gee, looks like you came up four SHORT! Hahaha!"
I permitted myself an indulgent smile. Babble on, peasant. I am serene in my muse.
"Y'know," continued Maniac. 'Great' doesn't really cover it. 'Stupendous,' maybe? Am I--dare I say it?--'magnificent?' Yes, I think that just about..."
For once, I was glad to see Lt. Garr on my comm. And he was just as sour and nasty as ever. Good.
"Well! A successful mission, Colonel. Why, that's...one in a row! My congratulations, sir. You have clearance."
I smiled pleasantly and mouthed my reply, but actually pronounced only an occasional syllable as softly as I could. "...you...ready...land." Now if only...
"You're breaking up, Colonel. Boosting the gain." Garr reached for his comm controls. "Say again, sir. I repeat, say again."
Now! I turned my own transmit volume to full and yelled at the top of my lungs! "HOW'S THIS!!"
Garr screamed shrilly and clawed frantically at his earpiece. Mercilessly, I fiddled with my controls to produce screeching static. Take that! And that! Hahahaha!
Finally, Garr managed to wrench away his earpiece. He sat, whimpering, with both hands over his ear.
I reset the controls. "Er, sorry, Vinny. Must be a malfunction in my comm system. Battle damage, don't ya know." Heh heh heh.
I was completely unprepared for the crowd awaiting us as Maniac and I pulled up to our maintenance bays. Maniac, of course, was always prepared. He quickly popped his canopy, climbed up on his seat, and doffed his helmet.
"Thank you! Thank you!" He waved his hand. "In all modesty, I must say that six kills in one mission is not my all-time record, but..." He stopped when he noticed that nobody was listening.
When I popped my own canopy, the crowd went wild. Cheers, applause, and congratulations reverberated from one end of the flight deck to the other. Someone clambered up the ladder to take my helmet and clap me on the back.
"Stu!" I cried in surprise. "Does this mean I'm forgiven?"
"After what you just did? Oh yes, sir!"
With one huge arm, he plucked me out of my seat and set me on the ladder. Wobbling with exhaustion, I made my way to the bottom, where I was immediately mobbed by screaming crewmen. Othello pounded my back in joyous celebration. Sockette gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. I managed to shake hands briefly with an approving Monk before my hand was torn away and pressed by other eager well-wishers.
There was a momentary break in the crowd, and then I was engulfed by Kylla's girlfriends. Amid hugs and kisses, I looked in vain for Ensign Watt herself... there! She was clapping enthusiastically, lovely lips drawn into a beautiful smile. I looked at the groupies around me, then back at her, and winked. She nodded and gave me a thumbs-up.
Suddenly the crowd quieted. I looked around for the reason, and spotted Captain Eisen approaching. Uh-oh, from the scowl on his face, it looked like he didn't appreciate our impromptu celebration.
I was unkempt, unshaven, and quivering with fatigue, but I stiffened to an approximation of attention and saluted as best I could. He returned my salute without batting an eye. He stopped less than a meter away and looked me up and down contemptuously, tapping that damn swagger stick against his leg. Then his face broke into a huge grin, and he offered me his hand.
"Congratulations, Colonel! Excellent work!"
If anything, the crowd's response was louder than before. Amid cheers and acclaim, I grasped the Captain's hand warmly. I shouted to make myself heard over the din. "Thank you, Captain! But all this for one hostage?"
He stared at me blankly. "Hostage?" he shouted. "Ohhhh, the hostage! No! This is for nailing that twerp, Lemonlips!"
Previews from Chapter 8:
"Our top story tonight: the macabre tale of the Confed transport Annabel Lee..."
"You see, I'm falling for you, flyboy; and that wasn't supposed to happen."
"Captain, the Lexington task force is to move immediately to the Masa system, where we will join with the Third Fleet."