Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 11

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to October 29, 1996]

Chapter 11

Still nauseated, I barely managed to pop my canopy and clamber down the side ofmy ship into a bedlam of explosions and screams. Somehow I managed to hold onto my flight helmet.


An explosion in the next bay blew me up against the wrecked Vindicator myHellcat had hit on the way in. Stunned, I slumped to my knees. Severaldeckhands came running toward me with hoses and extinguishers. Groggily, Iheld out my hand.

"B-Blair. Chris--"

They brushed right by me and blasted away at at a torrent of flame pouring fromthe bay. A tech looked back at me in annoyance, and shouted, "Well don't justsit there, Bearkiss, get up and grab an extinguisher!"

Some welcome! I picked up one of the heavy cylinders and helped them beat theflames back. My wits were returning, but I was choking on the heavy smoke. Istopped for a second to put my helmet on again; the suit itself had about a 30minute air supply.

The tech--the tag on his fatigues read "Barr"--was trying to get his hosecloser to the flames, but the heat was too intense. The few crewmen in flamesuits were needed forward, where missiles were cooking off on a parked Banshee,so I grabbed the hose myself and pressed forward. Despite the flight suit'sinsulation, I wouldn't have lasted long so close to the heat if the othershadn't smothered me in foam. As it was, my point-blank chemical barragequickly subdued the fire.


An explosion two bays down flattened a fire-fighting party, burying at leasttwo of them in wreckage. My hose suddenly went slack. Barr signaled to me,and we both ran over with extinguishers, leaving the rest behind to mop up.

One man was crawling free, but another was still pinned by a steel beam. A 2ndlieutenant had two men lifting it while she tried to pull the victim out. Theygot nowhere. One of the techs collapsed in a coughing fit, a reaction to theincreasingly foul air.

Barr yelled over the roar of the flames. "Lieutenant Tennant! This is ColonelBearkiss! How can we help?" He coughed a couple of times himself.

I doffed my helmet. "Actually, my name is Bl--"

She ignored me. "Barr, help out with that fire before another one blows!" Shepointed to the bay, where several hands were making little progress against theinferno. She wiped the soot out of her eyes and turned to me. "Bearkiss, grabthat beam!"


Two men in flight suits were blown out of a bay across the flight deck. Theylanded hard and didn't move. I put them out of my mind and concentrated onlifting the beam.

Even with three of us, it didn't budge. It was just too damn heavy.

"Hold it!" I yelled. They stopped heaving and looked at me, breathing heavily."Look, why don't we just turn off the grav generator under this section? Thenwe can get him out easily."

The lieutenant stared at me blankly. "What?"

"In fact," I went on, "we should turn off all the gravgens! Without gravity,the fires will smother themselves!" Damn, I should have thought of it sooner!"No flames in zero--"

"Hahaha! Oh, that's just fucking brilliant!" Tennant turned to the peopleworking around us. "Attention! Attention, everyone!" They stopped what theywere doing and looked at her. She pointed to me. "The brilliant ColonelBearkiss here says we should turn off the grav generators!" She pretended tolose her balance, and careened all over the place with her arms flapping."Oops, somebody catch me, I'm floating away!"

"Bwahahahahaha!" The onlookers broke into laughter. A few wags joined in.

"Hey, let's reverse 'em! Then we can walk upside down! Hahahaha!"

"No, turn 'em sideways! Heehee!"

"Look! With my extinguisher, I could be a rocket plane! Wheee! Hahahaha!"

I just gaped in astonishment. Border Worlders weren't renowned for theirintelligence, of course, but I'd had no idea they were utter cretins.

Then I got mad. I had risked my life for these morons, and here they weremocking me while their ship burned around them? "You stupid bitch!" Iscreamed. "I was fighting Kilrathi when you were still in diapers! Where doyou get off--" I staggered as a torrent of foam hit me. Spitting foam, I spunaround to find the culprit.

A grinning tech waved his extinguisher at me. "You looked a bit hot, Bearkiss.Thought you might explode. Haw haw haw!"

I probably would have killed him right then and there, if I hadn't been stoppedby a small voice from the deck.

"Er, excuse me?" I looked down. It was the tech pinned under the beam. "Sosorry to interrupt," he said apologetically, "but I'm, you know, still pinnedhere, and, uh, that fire is getting closer."

Shit! We'd forgotten all about him! I looked around frantically. Where wouldthe grav controls be on this--


What the-- I jumped aside just in time to avoid a weapons loader coming atbreakneck speed. The driver screeched to a halt in front of the hole in thebay door and dropped a huge metal plate over it. With the flames mostlyblocked, the hands could close in and pour foam through the spaces around theplate.

I caught a glimpse of a short, skinny tech in the driver's seat before thevehicle backed around and brought a mechanical arm down on the beam. With ascreech of metal on metal, the beam lifted, and we were able to pull our manfree. The beam dropped again and the loader roared down the deck, dodgingequipment and crew with reckless abandon. A glimpse of stringy, dark blondehair under a floppy cap suggested the driver was actually a woman, but Icouldn't swear to it.

I surveyed the flight deck. It looked like the worst was over. There were nomore explosions, and the last of the fires were dying. Smoke was everywhere,but I felt fresh, cool air blowing on my face. The life support system wasstill in working order.

Captain Eisen and my wingmen were helping with casualties on the port side ofthe flight deck. I hurried to join them.

Oh no! The Captain had blood on his uniform! "Captain Eisen, are you allright?" I cried.

He looked up from the woman he was tending, then down at his uniform. "I'mfine, Colonel. It's, uh, not my blood." He gently closed his patient'sunseeing eyes and stood up. "Good Lord, man, you're covered in foam!" Hestarted brushing at my flight suit.

Catnap and Vagabond were easing a tech onto a grav stretcher. A deckhandpushed the floating stretcher toward an undamaged maintenance bay, wherepharmacist's mates were tending casualties. Lt. Homes was in there, justsetting down a patient he'd been carrying.

"Hey, Ace, I'M fine, thanks for asking!" Maniac was his usual cheerful self.He pulled out a pocket mirror and started wiping soot off his face.

I heard a voice behind me, and immediately recognized it as belonging to GopherLeader. "Are you Captain Eisen?"

Gopher Leader turned out to be a short, not unattractive woman with tousledbrown hair, wearing a scorched flight suit. She was dwarfed by her companion,a huge bear of a man with handsome features and a vacant look.

"Yes, I'm Eisen."

"This is Colonel Jacob Manley, and I'm Colonel Tamara Farnsworth."

Manley? Farnsworth? I turned to the Captain. "I know those names. They'reHulk and Panties!"

Vagabond spoke up. "Yeah, their ship was with the Victory in the Astoriacampaign."

Panties turned her attention to me. "And you're 'Maverick' Blair."

Actually, I hadn't used that callsign in years, but the tag on my suit wasobscured by foam.

"Er, my new callsign--"

Hulk broke in impatiently. "Hulk love get-to-know-you games, but Hulk andPanties very busy--"

"Hulk! Hulk!" A young female pilot was frantically calling to the big BorderWorlder. "Archie's trapped under here! Hurry!"

The giant lumbered over to where a man in a flight suit was pinned by a toppledloader. He reached down, got a good grip, and easily lifted the huge rig longenough for the pilot to scramble out. He let go and it crashed onto the deck.The man and woman embraced tightly.

Catnap whistled in amazement. "Wow, that's incredible, Hulk!"

"Ahem." Maniac stepped forward. "I'm the Maniac. No doubt you've heard ofme." He offered his hand to Panties. "Looks like you folks took some prettyheavy hits here, sweet buns."

Panties looked at his hand as if it had crawled out from under a rock. "Well,duuhhh!" she answered. Maniac had obviously made a good first impression.

Eisen spoke up. "If you could direct me to Captain Dominguez, he's expectingus, er, me, at least."

Hulk was back. "Bridge gone. Captain dead. First Officer dead. SecondOfficer dead. Comm officer--"

Panties broke in. "Er, thank you, Hulk. Captain Eisen, our captain filled usin on your defection. We weren't expecting the whole scout troop..." Sheindicated the six of us. "...but you saved our butts with that rearguardaction, and you're all welcome to stay."

Hulk continued reciting. "Wombat Leader dead. Chief Engineer--"

Panties kicked him in the shin. "Shut up, Hulk! Gentlemen, Confed will becoming after us. We have to get this task force shipshape pronto! Maverick,you take charge of the flight deck. Captain Eisen, we can use you in CIC."

Wow, what a take-charge woman! She reminded me of Angel.

"Ouch!" said Hulk. He reached down to massage his shin before following theCaptain and Panties.

I turned to my companions and the Border Worlders who had gathered around us."OK, most of the undamaged bays are on the port side. Let's clear all wreckageto the starboard side of the flight deck so we can resume flight operations athalf-capacity. Don't jettison anything; I have a feeling we'll need stuff forjury-rigs." I just hoped this tub had a good supply of chewing gum and balingwire.


"Ouch! Damn! Damn!" I stuck my injured finger in my mouth and sucked on it.For the second time, the old-fashioned manual screwdriver had slipped and I hadstabbed my left index finger. I was tempted to give up, but I'd be easy meatwithout a working stabilizer on my starboard wingtip.

Cursing, I resumed the task of fastening the new module into place. Profitingfrom my previous failures, I took my time, pressing hard and twisting slowly.Hah! Gotcha! With a sigh, I closed the battered cover as best I could,securing it with a generous strip of duct tape.

I stepped back and appraised the Hellcat. Despite the scorches and dents frommy crash landing, it was still combat worthy, in vacuum at least. As soon asBarr and his techs finished repairs to the collapsed landing gear, I'd be readyfor launch.

Lt. Tennant returned, dragging another leech missile on a manual loader. Itwas no easy task hauling the heavy missiles all the way from the midshipsmagazine, but she'd done it six times, without complaint. She was, in fact,downright cheerful.

"Last missile for Colonel Gravgen!" she announced, much to the amusement ofBarr and his techs. I winced. After three hours of non-stop needling, thatwoman had risen to the top of my payback list.

I helped her wrestle the loader into place and started jacking up the missilemanually. Tennant sat down and wiped her sweaty face with her sleeve. Shetried to stuff her dark, curly hair back into its bun, but it was hopeless.

Giving up on her hair, she watched me struggling with the loader. "Say,Bearkiss, why don't we reverse the grav generator and let the missile fall UPinto place! Heeheehee!"

Moron. "Die, please, Lieutenant," I suggested. "But first help me with thesesystem connectors. And I told you: it's Blair, not Bearkiss."

She stood up with a groan and started working on the aft connectors. "So,Bear--er, Blair, you got a first name?"

I was in no mood for chitchat. "Yeah: 'Colonel!'" Shit, did the BorderWorlders have an incompatible version of the leech? I couldn't mate the second connector with--

Tennant gently took the connectors from my hands and deftly plugged them in.She wiped her hand on her fatigues and held it out to me. "Mine's Louise. Myfriends call me Lou. I work in the missile stores."

I hesitated, then grasped her hand. I didn't like being hazed, but since theUnionists obviously considered it an important initiation ritual, I could playalong. "Christopher. Er, Chris." The Unionists weren't big on formality.

"Niceta meetya, Chris." She did a double-take. "Christopher Blair? Say,aren't you the guy from--"

"No! I'm not!" I quickly climbed into the cockpit for a full systems check.I'd gotten most of the vomit out, but a faint smell still lingered. I ignoredit and proceeded with pre-flight. Everything was OK. Even the landing gearcame up green. I signaled thumbs-up to Barr and his techs as they hauled theirgear over to the next bay.

I checked the comm channels for progress reports. The third frigate, BWS THX,was up to half speed at last and following us. Nearly a million klicks fromthe jump point, our task force would soon be enveloped in the relative safetyof the Silenos Nebula.

Just as well. We were in no shape to ride out an attack. Two of our escortswere barely able to move, let alone fight. Intrepid had resumed flight ops,but wreckage on the flight deck and damage to landing systems cut efficiency inhalf. Maintenance bay damage and massive casualties severely hampered fighterservicing; we had only two fighters on CAP and six ready to go. Only two ofIntrepid's laser turrets were back on line.

I climbed down to help Barr hook up his tractor to my bird. I watched him spotit for launch, then headed for Catnap's maintenance bay to help him re-arm.Along the way, I fingered the vial of dirt in my chest pocket. Suddenly thrustinto an unfamiliar environment, and facing a uncertain future, I needed thecomfort of old memories.

It worked. As I labored under Catnap's Hellcat, I found solace in myrecollections of familiar places and old friends. Inevitably, I drifted backto Zeke's first visit...


After Zeke's shocking revelations, neither of us had spoken for some time.Lost in his memories, Zeke continued stroking Rachel; I occupied myself withRobin. At last, I felt the time was right to end our reveries and move on.

"I thank you, my friend, for sharing the darkest of Kilrathi secrets with yourold enemy. They're safe with me. But come, we're here to share old times, notwallow in them. We still have much to discuss."

Zeke roused himself from his black mood. "You're right, Christopher. We havea long history, you and I." He looked at my old-fashioned digital clock on thewall. "But it grows late. I understand your species takes its third meal ofthe day at about this time, and I do not wish to intrude. Let us continue atanother--"

I held up my hand. "Nonsense. I insist you eat with us. Girls!" I snappedmy fingers. Robin jumped up and stood in front of me expectantly. Rachelleaped off Zeke's lap and took her place next to Robin. "Besides, Zeke, Ithink you'll want to stay. We're having Admiral Tolwyn for dinner." I winkedat the girls, who barked and meowed their appreciation for our old joke. Iwaved toward the kitchen and they took off.

Zeke and I followed. "Christopher, you would actually allow that man to attendyour food consumption ritual? Our intelligence indicated you and he had longbeen blood enemies."

I put food in the girls' bowls and set them down next to each other. Rachel,of course, was by nature an all-day nibbler, but she and Robin had grown sofond of each other that she insisted on being served a small portion at Robin'sfeeding time, so they could share.

"Tolwyn and I have had our differences," I admitted. "But more than anythingelse, it was his tenacity and sheer cussedness that kept us in the war. We'vedeveloped...a certain mutual respect."

I walked out the kitchen door, motioning for Zeke to follow. We trudged downthe path to the chicken house, where I stopped and pointed.

"Zeke, may I present Grand High Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn the Thirty-Seventh!"The "Admiral", a large Leghorn rooster, was busily scratching at the ground,pecking at seeds and insects, and bullying every hen within reach.

Zeke broke into laughter. "Hohohoho, Christopher! My compliments on yoursense of humor! How ironic that two such wild and crazy beings should wasteso much of their lives in the grim business of war! Heeheehee!"

I took my wire hook and soon captured the bad-tempered rooster. Even now, hewas more mad than afraid, trying to peck my leg as I held him upside down. No,I wouldn't miss this Tolwyn at all. I had already selected Admiral Tolwyn theThirty-Eighth, a nasty old hen that had scratched my hand two days ago.

I took my axe and headed for the chopping stump, but Zeke stopped me. "I nolonger eat flesh, Christopher, so it is unnecessary to end this one's lifetoday."

So he'd become a vegetarian after all. "Actually, I've been planning this along time, Zeke. So if you don't mind sitting at a table where, er, flesh isbeing consumed..."

He shook his head. "Then allow me, my friend. Your axe will not be required."Zeke carefully took "Tolwyn" from me and headed for the corner of the house.Curious, I followed. The rooster grew apprehensive when the menacing Kilrathitook possession of him, but slowly relaxed as Zeke cooed and hummed soothingly.

Once out of sight of the chicken house, Zeke held "Tolwyn" up in front of him.Without warning, he bared his fangs and loosed a blood-curdling roar right inthe face of the terrified rooster. "Tolwyn" went rigid with shock, thencollapsed completely. I had no doubt he was stone dead. I was nearly deadwith fright myself, and I was three meters away.

Zeke gleefully held out the dead bird. "Heeheehee! I just love doing that!"

"Er, yeah, Zeke. Thanks. Your method is certainly, er, more humane than mine.Um, could you give him to the kitchen droid while I, uh, get a few things readyinside?"

I hurried off to change my underwear. Again. Damn, having Zeke around wasgoing to take some getting used to.


Remembering how Lou had done it, I managed to fit the last missile connector toCatnap's Hellcat. "Try it now, Catnap!" I yelled.

Up in the cockpit, Catnap re-checked his missile status. "Yeah, that did it!Thanks, Colonel!" He signaled to Barr, who went to fetch his tractor.

Whew. Time for a break. Reminiscing about that dinner with Zeke had made mehungry. I headed for the workbench at the rear of the bay, where a deckhandhad left some sandwiches and coffee. Coffee! Shit, I hadn't been to the headsince I "landed!" Ohhhh, now I really had to go!

Where was the nearest can on this stupid tub? I saw a faded directory on thewall and quickly tracked down the nearest...shit, that area was blocked bywreckage. What about the next--damn, blown up! Keep looking...aaargh, it'sburned out!!

No good. I ran over to the spares lockers and ransacked them frantically for--Hah! A relief kit! With a sigh, I relaxed and started attaching it to thevalve in the flight suit's crotch area. Any second now...shit, it doesn't fit!Desperately, I strained to make the connection by sheer brute--

"If you're going to play with yourself, Colonel, you really should find a lesspublic area."

I spun around, trying to conceal the relief kit behind me. It was that damnTennant again, leaning against the bulkhead with an amused look on her face."Er, Lieutenant! Uh, I was just, uh..." Shit, give it up, Blair. I showedher the kit. "I was trying to connect the relief kit, Louise."

Her smile grew bigger. "Well, here in the Border Worlds, most of us use thehead. But, if ya gotta go, ya gotta go. Here, let me help you."

"Uh, no, that won't--"

"Oh, don't be such a baby!" She grabbed my, er, valve, and dragged me to theworkbench. She knelt and inspected the fitting. "Here's your problem, silly.Foam and soot in the threads. Wait a sec." She brought her lips up to thevalve and blew hard to clear it out. A few drops of white retardant foamspattered her face.

That, of course, was when Catnap decided to walk in. "Colonel, my 'cat isspotted for--Yikes! Uh, sorry! I didn't know you t-two were--" He started toturn away.

Shit! "Wait, Catnap, it's not that! Come and and see!"

I wouldn't have thought his eyes could get any wider, but they did. "Jeepers,that's really SICK, Colonel!" He shot out of the bay like a rocket.

Louise blew the valve out one more time, then wiped it with a rag. She reachedfor the relief kit, but I wrestled it out of her hands and turned away tofinish by myself. Unfortunately, my own hands were shaking too hard.Sheepishly, I turned around again; Louise was still waiting patiently. Shemade the connection in one smooth motion and stood up, smiling.

I turned away again, but she didn't take the hint. "Ahem! If you don't mind,Lieutenant?"

"Hmm? Oh." She turned her back. Not that there was anything to see, ofcourse, but... Shit, I'd been a civilian too long.

Finally! Here we go...ahhhhhh! My surroundings faded as I gave myself up tothe exquisite feeling of release.

Whew. I disconnected and looked for a place to dispose of the, er, contents.

Louise took it from me before I could react. She whistled at the weight."Wow, you really did have to go, didn't you? Colonel, next time you need help,just ask me, OK? I have the best hands on the ship. Ask anyone. In fact..."Her tone was inviting. "...I could arrange a private dem--"

The PA squawked to life. "General quarters! Inbound enemy fighters! This isa scramble! All pilots up! All pilots up!" The GQ alarm sounded and crewmenstarted running for their battle stations.

Thank God! I smiled at Louise. "Sorry! Gotta go!" I grabbed my gauntletsand helmet, and sprinted for my Hellcat.


Barr had spotted my Hellcat in the third row, right next to a Banshee. As Ileaped into the cockpit, I was buffeted by full thrusters from the Bansheeahead of me. The launch field caught it and instantly catapulted it far intospace. Its engines ignited and it disappeared.

I had the canopy secured and myself belted in when the Banshee next to me tookoff like a bat out of hell. Damn, these Union pilots were reckless! Well,when in Rome... As soon as Barr cleared my port wingtip with the ladder, Ifired full thrusters. The launch field activated my engines and flung me outahead of the ship.

My scope was alive with contacts. Intrepid and her escorts had gone active assoon as the alarm was sounded, and now I was getting feeds from four ships andhalf a dozen fighters. Automatically, I configured my ship for combat, as Itried to size up the situation.

Gant was no fool. He'd followed us through the jump point and immediatelylaunched strike/escort teams. Figuring, correctly, that we'd make directlyfor the nebula, he'd spread the teams in a disc pattern centered on a directcourse to it. They'd remained passive until they neared the nebula, then wentactive and nailed us. Now we had at least four Longbow/Hellcat strike teamsconverging on us from several directions.

Confusion reigned. Intrepid's fighter direction center was out of action, wehad fighters from three different ships out, and so far no squadron leader hadmade it off Intrepid. Fighters were picking targets and engaging solo. Thecomm was jammed with their calls.

"Excell, take the one to starboard!" Shit, which one's Excell?

"Get 'im off my tail! Get 'im off--aaah!" A fireball in the distance put anend to that call.

"Moose, where are you?" Better yet, Moose, WHO are you?

"Where's Bearkiss?"

"Who the hell is Bearkiss?" Obviously I wasn't the only one confused.

"Maverick!" It was Panties. "Take your defectors and hit this strike group!"Brackets appeared around one of my contacts as she designated my target.

"Roger, Panties! Earthworm to Freedom Flight, follow me in!"

"Who's Maverick? That sounded like Bearkiss!"

"Who the hell is Earthworm, Maverick?" Now Panties was confused.

"Hulk ask, who Freedom Flight?"

"WHO'S MAVERICK, GOSH DARN IT?" Oops, Catnap didn't know my old callsign.

"Hulk head hurt!"

There! Two Longbows burning for Intrepid! A Banshee had pulled off one escortalready, but the other three were sticking with the heavies. I changed course,hit burner, and armed my leeches. I boosted shield regen; blasters wouldn'ttake out a Longbow fast enough, and I'd have Confed fighters all over my ass inseconds.

"We'll take the 'cats, Earthworm!" Hallelujah, Vagabond and Maniac were justbehind me on burner. Er, thanks, Winston, leave me the two toughest targets,why don't you? How can I stop two Longbows this close to their targets?

"You suck lemons, Border World lowlife!" It was a Lexington rookie, 2nd Lt.Boone "Doc" Hicks, from Fifth Longbow. Boy, he never was any good at taunt--Hey! I got an idea! I killed burner and locked a leech on the other Longbow.

"Doc, this is Earthworm! What the hell kind of torpedo approach is that?You're way too sloppy! Where the hell did you learn to fly, KAMIKAZE SCHOOL?"

"Er, sorry, sir! I don't know what..." Doc was an excellent flyer, but he'dalways been eager to please in our wing exercises. It seemed old habits diedhard in Lt. Hicks.

"Don't bore me with your miserable excuses, Doc! Now pull out and try again,and I just MIGHT overlook this on your efficiency report!"

"Y-yessir! Thank you, Colonel Blair, sir!" One Longbow peeled off and headedaway from Intrepid.

"Doc, you stupid--Blair's on the OTHER side, nitwit!" Too late. Ungulate'spleadings couldn't bring Doc back in time.

Just you and me now, Ungulate! Closer...Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Jesus, twoFFs and two IRs! Start dumping decoys! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Still two locked attwelve o'clock, high and low...roll left and pull! Whoo-- Missed! Keeppulling! Longbow ho! Hit burner and close... Jesus, he's nearly in range ofIntrepid! Lock, leech! I flash back to my kindergarten days. See leech. Seeleech lock. Lock, leech, lock! Yes!

Bam! Bam! Shit, Hellcat on my tail! Bam! Shit, Longbow turret fire! Dance,but don't lose lock! OK, range is point blank, launch! Splat! Yaaaay!

Whoopwhoopwhoop! PULL, BLAIR! Decoy! Whoo-- Jesus, that was close! Ohshit, I can't shake the guy on my tail!

"Time to learn how cold steel is, traitor!" Steel, it's shit! I mean--

Bam! Bam! Shield failing! Dance! Dance, Blair! Shit, he'll get me sooneror lat-- Huh? Where'd he go?

"I got this one, Colonel!" Catnap! Steel saw him coming and pulled out!Catnap, I'm sorry for everything I ever said about you!

Now where's Doc?...There! Shit, I took too long with Ungulate! Burner!

Damn, Doc's nearly in range! Intrepid's shields are still down! No way inhell I can reach him, and nobody else is near enough, either!

"You won't fool me this time, B-Blair, you t-traitor! I'm gonna get you andall your t-traitor friends!" The poor kid was practically crying. It musthave broken his heart when his hero defected!

It killed me to do it, but I knew how to use his emotions against him. He wasscared, and angry, and hurt, and now he was alone. He was close to emotionaloverload, and I had to push him over the edge.

"Oh, yeah? I'm the Heart of the Tiger, kid, and you're tiger chow! RROOAARR!The Tiger is hungry! I'm coming for YOU, maggot!" Launch leech number two!No way it'll hit, but the alarm will add to his confusion. Overload him,Blair! "You're mine, sucker!" Yeah, he's jinking away from the missile, itjust lost lock... "Here comes another one, you poor bastard!" Hah! He'slaunching his two torps at max range! At least Intrepid has a chance!

He's pulling out! Don't let him set up for another run! Gun power up, saveyour leeches! Get on his tail, auto-match speed, dance around the tail gun,wait...Now! Bangbangbangbang! Rapid fire, multiple hits! Rear shield down, acouple of armor hits. Wait for recharge...continuous fire! Hit! Hit! Boy,am I good! His ship's disintegrating in front of me!

"Eject! Eject, you loser! You're mine! You feel your armor going, rookie?Controls sluggish? Losing power? You're history! You're done! Say good-byeto your mama, kid! Ready...HERE IT COMES!"

"Yaaaahhhhh!" The kid ejected in a panic. Whew! I had held fire there at theend, hoping he'd jump. Thank God. A final blast and his ship was scrap metal.

What about Intrepid? She was up to full speed and turning to starboard. Thetorpedoes flashed past one of the frigates, but it looked like they had lostlock and--WHAM! Proximity detonation a few hundred meters behind Intrepid.She must have taken some engine damage, because she slowed noticeably. Butthat torpedo evasion was beautiful, just like the old Victory in the Tamayosystem three long years ago.

The task force was coming my way, running from the dogfights still going onbehind it. Freedom Flight was pursuing two Hellcats out of the area. I setmy sensors to look for escape pods...yeah, I found Doc's a few hundred klicksoff. Readout was normal. Whew.

"Doc, you OK?"

"G-go away!"

Poor kid. He thought he'd failed. "Look, Boone, we're not enemies, OK? Youknow there's something fishy about these terrorist incidents, kid. I'm goingto get to the bottom of it, I promise."

"I-I wish I could believe that, sir."

"You will, in time." I hope. "Lexington will pick you up in a few hours,

Boone. Stay--" Shit! Bandits! All our fighters were on the other side ofthe task force!

I switched channels. "Bandits! Three T-bolts!" I designated the targets andtook off after them. "Earthworm needs help!"

"Who's Earthworm?" Oh shit, not again!

"Maverick, go help Earthworm!" I AM, Panties, you dumb bitch!

"Bearkiss, can you help Earthworm?" I AM, Gomer, I AM!

"Hulk head hurt worse now." That goes double for me, Brainiac.

Looks like you're on your own, Blair. Dammit, I beg for heavy fighters everyday for two weeks, and NOW Lexington gets Thunderbolts! Shit! How do I holdoff three heavies in a Hellcat? I might get one, but the other two will getpast me and nail Intrepid! Maybe I can give them a more tempting target.

"What, only three of you? Too easy for the Heart of the Tiger! Maybe I'll putone hand behind my back."

"It's him! The traitor!" Must be a new squadron, I don't recognize the voice.

"You were always overrated, shrimp! We'll take you down like that!" I heardthis guy snap his fingers.

It's working! Good! Er, I guess. "Talk is cheap, flatlander!" If I survivethe first pass, they'll be hooked. Set gun recharge way down. Wiggle yourfingers and get loose, Blair! Charge!

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Three IRs converging! Blaster fire! Bambambam! Jeez,forward shields down already! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy! Burner! Straightahead! Wham! I'm hit! No, just a proximity blast. When will those dummieslearn that one decoy can take out three missiles as easily as one?

Kill burner. Turn, Blair, turn! Taunt, Blair, taunt! "Haha! Missed me!Incompetents! Hey, who wipes yer asses when you shit? Yer mamas? Hahaha!"

"This time, motherfucker!" Hah, they're turning! But one guy's turning myway! Deflection shot! Bangbangbang! A couple of hits! I overshoot, thencome back on his tail. Lock, leech! Bang! Bang! Hit! Just another--

Bam! Bam! Whoopwhoopwhoop! TURN, BLAIR! Decoy! Missed! Whoopwhoopwhoop!

Starboard, too close! Remember that trick Rachel taught you? Rotate! WHAMMO!Shields down, armor vaporized, but no damage! The spin spread the explosionover two shield quadrants! Stop spinning and turn, Blair, turn!

Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy! Decoy! Turn into it! Missed! Whoopwhoopwhoop!Decoy! Turn! Missed! T-bolt crossing my path! Deflection shot and turn!Bang! Bang! Bang! I hit him! Now taunt!

"Take that, loser! Hey, I'm still here, you greenhorns! Nyaah nyaah!"

Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy! Another! Turn! Missed! Must be a new record!

"Make your peace, Blair-ass! Here's an IR up your butt!"

Damn, these guys are good! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy! Decoy! Turn! Missed!Jesus Christ, what have I done? These guys won't quit until I'm dead! Time tomake tracks! If Intrepid's fighters aren't back by now, it's just too damnbad!

Burner! Bam! Bam! Rear hits! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy--ALL GONE! Turn! Toosluggish on burner, WHAMMO! The instrument panel turns into a Christmas tree!Burner out! Guns damaged! Engines damaged! Bleed some power into autorepair!

Whoopwhoopwhoop! Turn, Blair, turn! Please, God, make it miss me! Whew!

"Yer not so cocky now, traitor! Hahaha!"

Damn right! I'm scared shitless! So this is how Blair gets it: "Friendly"fire, shot-up fighter, an obscure star system. Sic transit gloria Blair.

So be it! Head-on with this guy! Leech locks too slow, guns too weak, ram thebastard! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Avoid this missile and nail--WHAMMO! Blindinglight, monstrous jolt! My vision clears and I see cracks and stars in thecanopy. Engines at 25%, nearly everything else gone, autorepair out. Minimalresponse to the stick.

Punch out, Blair! Eject! Eject! Eject...Shit! No dice! I'm coming, Angel!

Splat! Splat! Splat!


Sensors were out, so I scanned visually. Whoa, three T-bolts were driftinghelplessly! What--

"Are you OK, sir?" The comm was breaking up, but I could just discern a fuzzyoutline. Catnap! Yaaay!

"How you doing, old buddy?" Vagabond! Yaaay!

"Saved your ass again, eh, Ace?" Maniac! Er, whoopee, whatever.

It took me a moment to find my voice. "Thanks, g-guys. I owe you big time.Uh, was that the last of them?"

Vagabond came on the comm. "Yeah. The rest are heading back. The capshipsare OK." He lowered his voice. "The Unionists lost about half their pilots,good buddy. This wasn't much of a victory."

Oh yeah? Well I was still alive. At the moment, that was all the victory Ineeded.


I was last into the barn. Since the frigates' servicing facilities werelimited at best, Intrepid was taking their fighters as well as her own. By thetime it was my turn, faint wisps of nebula were already enveloping the ship.I'd have to make it on the first pass, or I'd be landing nearly blind. Alreadyshaking badly, I didn't really need any more challenges.

I crossed my fingers and activated the comm. "Need clearance, Intrepid."

A woman's face appeared through the static on my comm display. Young, not badlooking, even cute. What the hell was she wearing on her face? GLASSES?What, she was in a religious cult or something?


What the hell did she say? "Say again, Intr--"


What the hell did she say? "Intrepid, say again, pl--" Shit, I was cut off!Well, presumably I'd been cleared. I just hoped she wasn't trying to warn meabout anything. The 'cat would barely make it even under the best conditions.

As I wobbled in on final approach, I couldn't help lamenting my recent bad luckwith comm officers. This one seemed nice enough, but jeez, what a motormouth!


Gingerly, I climbed down the ladder. That last missile hit had thrown meagainst the side of the cockpit, and now my left shoulder was starting to achesomething fierce.

I walked over to where Barr was standing, looking at my fighter and shaking hishead. "Y'know, Colonel, the book says a Hellcat won't even fly in thatcondition, let alone fight."

Jesus, he was right. My poor bird was in worse shape than the Hellcat-R I'dnursed back from Tyr VII. This one would never fly again. Barr looked at meand grinned. "But I guess you never read that book, eh, Bearkiss?"

"'Bearkiss?'" I jumped. Damn, why was Panties always sneaking up behind me?She had walked over from the next bay forward. "I thought your callsign was'Maverick!' Dammit, will you make up your mind? No wonder that last fight wassuch a fuck-up!"

She glanced at my Hellcat and stopped dead in her tracks. "Jesus! Now I seewhy they call you the Heart of the Tiger!" Panties reached up to touch themelted port wingtip, but quickly drew her hand back. Still too hot.

I didn't care. I was exhausted, my shoulder was getting worse, and I still hadthe shakes. But I wasn't so far gone that I'd forgotten our desperatesituation. "C-Colonel, we need some CAP around this t-task force. Lexingtonisn't d--"

She shook her head wearily. "Our launch field crapped out on us. We'll needat least a day to repair it. If they find us before then, we're cooked." Sheshrugged. "So I've ordered all flight personnel to sack out...those who areleft." She looked at my trembling hands, and the way I was favoring my leftshoulder. "That means you, bub."

OK by me. "W-where do I bunk?"

Barr spoke up. "Most of our living quarters were destroyed in the attack,Bearkiss. Until we can make other arrangements, most of us are bunking here."He pointed into the darkened bay. I could just make out several horizontalfigures under blankets.

"Super." I stumbled into the bay, grabbed a blanket off the pile, and foundmyself a spot on the deck. My flight suit, once I struggled out of it, made adecent mat. I went back to my bird and pulled the seat cushion for my head.I lay down carefully on my right side. In seconds, I was asleep and dreaming Iwas checking into a run-down hotel. The clerk looked like a re-animatedcorpse.

"Welcome to the Border Worlds Hotel, sir," he said menacingly. Pleasantdreams."

End of Chapter 11

Previews from Chapter 12:

"Er, I've never seen one before. I don't know what to do with it, Colonel."

"Trust me, Velina. It's very...user friendly."

"I knew you'd need a crew chief, handsome, so I made myself...available."

"You really are the Heart of the Tiger, aren't you, sir?"