[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander November 4, 1996]
I awoke to a fierce pain in my left shoulder. I quickly rolled off my leftside, and the pain subsided to a dull ache. My watch said I'd been out fornearly four hours. In that time, the darkened bay had filled up considerably.I noticed that Panties had settled right next to me.
I tried to get back to sleep, but our precarious situation demanded my fullattention. Without fighter cover, flying blind through the nebula, the Uniontask force was acutely vulnerable to surprise attack. I decided to wanderforward and check on repairs to the launch field. First, though, I took a fewminutes to work the kinks out of my back. Next time I had to sleep on a deck,I vowed to turn off the local grav generator.
I walked out of the bay into the glare of lights and the clamor of men andwomen at work. My poor Hellcat had been bulldozed into one of the starboardjunk piles. Up forward, several Banshees had been spotted for launch, butsporadic flashes from welders and cutting torches further up told me the launchequipment was still under repair. I threaded my way between work parties andmachinery to get a closer look.
Along the way, I chanced upon the Gopher ready room and stashed my flight suitand helmet in the adjoining locker area. The way to the nearest head hadfinally been cleared, so I took the opportunity to clean up and de-beard.Refreshed and feeling human again, I made my way forward. I passed two moredormitory bays, but most forward bays contained fighters in various stages ofreadiness.
One of the ship's senior engineers was supervising repairs to the launch gear.He noticed my Confed uniform and rank, and stuck out his hand. "Welcomeaboard, Colonel. You're Blair, right? I'm Compton Ander, Assistant Engineer."
I shook his hand. "Lieutenant Commander. How are the repairs going?"
He shook his head. "Power surge from the starboard generator fried most of theelectronics. We have to cut into inaccessible areas to replace some wiring.The real bottleneck, though, is in the shops. We don't have enough spares forall the electronics modules, so we're having to make our own. It'll be atleast another sixteen hours."
Shit. "Look, if you just concentrate on the extreme port side, and only themanual controls, would that cut the repair time?"
He took off his cap and scratched his head. "It would, but you're already downto half flight ops already." He pointed to the piles of scrap along the starboard bulkhead. "This would cut you down by half again. I'd need to getauthorization from Colonel Manley or Colonel Farnsworth. They're our seniorsurviving officers."
It seemed the Unionists were much less hung up on inter-service boundaries thanConfed, but were no more willing to act without orders. "Com, a few hours agoI laid my life on the line for these people. You think maybe you can risk yourcareer for them? Without fighter cover, however thin, we're torpedo bait."
It seemed we spoke the same language after all, as a big grin spread over hisface. "Well, when you put it that way, sir...Come back in about ten hours."He waved one of his men over.
Better. I headed for the nearest starboard stairway. My stomach, convenientlyforgetting its rude treatment of its last meal, was now begging piteously formore. As I recalled from the directory, the ship's galley was two decks belowthe dorsal surface, under the island. With any luck, it had survived the torphit that took out the bridge.
Unfortunately, I had to detour around several wrecked sections. The lastbypass, marked by a hand-lettered sign, took me far to starboard. There Ifound a secured hatch guarded by a young but earnest ensign with a photonrifle. He snapped to attention as I approached.
"What's your name, son?"
"Swensen, sir! Benson J.!"
"At ease, Swensen. What's behind the hatch?"
He relaxed a little. "Bodies, sir. Life support is out beyond here, so we'reusing it as cold storage until we have time to hold services."
Jesus. "Uh, how many?"
He didn't flinch from the question. "Nearly a quarter of the crew, sir. Aboutas many more are down in sick bay. Or in the adjoining compartments." He musthave had friends among the casualties, but his voice remained steady.
So many. Compared to the last war, of course, this butcher's bill was nothing.But every one of the people behind that hatch had had dreams like mine, and nowthey would never come true.
Swensen had been looking at my Confed uniform. "Sir? Sir, is it true that theHeart of the Tiger defected with you?"
I smiled. After all, how could the unimpressive little "Earthworm" be thelegendary "Heart of the Tiger?"
"Yes, he did, Ensign. Why?"
"Well, sir, do you think he can stop this war? So that maybe my friends didn'tdie for nothing?"
Sorry, kid, it's not looking too good right now. "He might." I clapped him onthe shoulder. "With your help, and, er, mine, maybe he can pull it off, son.Um, carry on." I left him to his lonely vigil.
The galley had survived the recent attack, but not unscathed. The aft bulk-head was scorched and deformed, and just forward of it, severed structuralbeams hung from the next deck up. Damaged tables and chairs had been clearedfrom under the hole and piled next to the bulkhead. There were people eatingat other tables, however, so apparently the synthesizers were still working.I headed for the food dispenser.
That's when I noticed the petite dark-haired woman working intently at a nearbytable. She was wearing glasses, which meant that either there were two cultmembers aboard, or this was the comm officer who had cleared me for landing.What was her name again? Velveeta? I decided to talk with her before gettingmy grub; I wanted to be on good terms with this ship's comm officers.
She was so intent on her work--making pencil notations on a thick paper(!)printout--that she didn't look up, even when I was right behind her. I leanedover to read her name tag--Sosa--and peek down the front of her uniform--shit,only so-so, if that.
I noisily pulled out a chair and sat down facing her, but she only mutteredabsently, "Pullupachair," and kept on with her work.
Enough. I didn't like being ignored by junior officers. I took an empty foodbag from her tray, blew it up, and popped it nearly under her nose.
"Eek!" She nearly jumped out of her chair. "Oh! SorrysirbutIwasconcentrat--"
I put a finger over her lips. Then I pointed at her. "Sixty kps." I pointedat myself. "Thirty kps. Please adjust accordingly, Lieutenant SoSo."
"Yessir! I mean, yes, sir. And it's Sosa, Colonel Bearkiss. Velina."
"Whatever. And it's Blair, not Bearkiss. What are you doing?"
"Well, I'm trying to decrypt this data your captain brought us. But look atme, I-I'm stuck in the stone age. The ship's computers are all down, so I'vegotta resort to prehistoric tools!" She indicated the paper and her pencils.
"By hand?" I was incredulous. "You must be a very good cryptanalyst!"
"Um, I don't mean to brag, sir, but I'm...I'm definitely one of the best."
Oh, really? If you're so damned smart, SoSo, why are you working by hand?
"But it's still slow going, sir. And then I have to balance my checkbook, senda trans to Mom, pay some bills, and..." She blushed. "...and other stuff."
"Er, don't you have a portable computer?"
She reached into her hip pocket and brought out a palmtop computer bearing theDimtel logo. "I tried to do it on my Centium PZ, but the darn Dimensions 95operating system keeps crashing!" She dropped it on the paper in disgust.
I reached into my breast pocket. "Why don't you try my McPuter Hypermedia?" Iasked, placing said computer on the table in front of her.
She regarded it with a mixture of fascination and uncertainty. "Er, I've neverseen one before. I don't know what to do with it, Colonel."
"Trust me, Velina," I reassured her. "It's very...user friendly. Here, justinsert Captain Eisen's data cartridge and push the button."
"Button?" She found the button marked PUSH ME and tentatively touched it withher index finger. The McPuter responded with a single musical chord.
Suddenly we were sitting on a grassy hill, a light breeze blowing through ourhair. Beethoven's 6th Symphony was playing softly in the background, as lambsfrolicked in a meadow below us. In letters of fire against the deep blue sky,the computer displayed its results:
READING DATA CARTRIDGE
DECRYPTED DATA STORED
TRANS SENT TO MOM
CHECKBOOK BALANCED - MANUAL ERROR CORRECTED
PLOWBOY MAGAZINE SUBSCRIPTION RENEWED
Quickly she pushed the button marked END, and we were back in the galley. SoSowas blushing again, but she seemed impressed by the demonstration. She lookedat her PZ, then at my Mc, and tossed the PZ into the disposal. Holding the Mcout to me, she said, "Thank you, Colonel. May I borrow it again some time?"
"Keep it. They're so cheap, I bought two." I showed her the second one in mypocket.
"I owe you one, sir." She stood up and disposed of the printout, then gatheredthe rest of her stuff together. "ExcusemesirbutIhavetogetthisdatatoCIC!" SoSohurried off while I was still trying to figure out what she'd just said.
Half way through my meal, I lost my appetite. The food synthesizers might beworking, technically, but the "food" being dispensed was hardly appetizing. Ihad sampled small portions of several dishes, and they all tasted like moldycardboard. The barbecue selections were especially bad, which meant CaptainEisen would probably be taking in the waistline on his uniforms again.
I considered using the galley's manual cooking facilities, but others who hadtried were no happier with the results. Apparently the synthetic raw materialswere as bad as the synthetic finished products. The number of half-full traysbeing dumped in the recycler was mute evidence of the crew's dissatisfaction.
There were, however, two exceptions. At the next table, I spotted a couplegoing at their food, and each other, with unconcealed relish. I recognized thepilot, Archie, who had been trapped under the weapons loader. The woman wasobviously his wife or fiancee. They would feed tidbits of food to each other,then kiss messily and giggle. Others conspicuously avoided the pair, but Ifound them touching. They reminded me of Angel and me when we were firstfalling in love. I wondered if they played the same sex games.
I sighed. No time for nostalgia, Blair. You have work to do. I logged offthe GGG, where I'd been reading up on the Union Militia. As I stood up toleave, I noticed Maniac standing near the aft bulkhead. He seemed unusuallythoughtful, even somber.
He heard me coming, and pointed upward. "The bridge used to be up there, Ace.Most of the berths were farther forward."
I followed his gaze. Damage control parties had sealed off the hole two decksup; only the emergency force fields had saved the ship's atmosphere during thebattle. "Poor bastards." Ensign Swensen certainly wasn't guarding any bridgepersonnel. They'd either been vaporized or blown into space.
Maniac shook his head. "Right now this tub's being held together with scotchtape and glue. I dunno. This side we've picked to be on? It has a long hardroad ahead." He brightened a bit. "Or, in your case, maybe a SHORT road, eh?"
Tapeworm. Nevertheless, I tried to reassure him. "We'll make it, Maniac. Allwe have to do is escape this system and we can refit at a dockyard."
"Escape? Are you kidding? Nothing's working, Ace!" Maniac put both handsbehind his waist and tried to bend backwards a little. "Ow! We don't evenhave decent beds on this flying wreck! Mmph! Damn, I'm stiff all over."
"Well, Maniac, I guess the price of freedom is eternal backache. Heh heh."
"Ha ha, very funny." He continued to work the kinks out of his back.
"Say, Maniac, I was wondering: why did you defect in the first place?"
He hesitated a moment before replying. "I, uh, lost my head and made anotherpass at Doctor Crusher."
"Disch? Oh, that time in Flight Control, right? What did she do?"
"She put me down for a physical. Ace, I'd been in her clutches once already."He shuddered with the memory. "I didn't think I'd escape with all my bodyparts a second time. I went to Captain Gant, but he wouldn't countermand theorder. I had no choice. I had to split!"
I chuckled to myself. Yeah, Maniac probably made the right decision. Dischonce told me there were over fifty ways a medic could maim a patient and makeit look like an accident.
"How about you, Ace? Why'd you defect?"
"Oh, uh, I found out Gant was planning to kill me--you know, on that lastmission. I decided to get out while I still could."
Maniac had finished his impromptu contortions. "Whoa, no wonder you rigged hisjohn! Well, for better or worse, we made our choice. At least I'll move upthe promotion list faster. The Militia's a lot smaller than Confed."
"Oh, didn't I tell you, Maniac? Defectors' date-of-rank is reset to the daythey join the Militia. You and I are starting at the bottom of the list."
Maniac was incredulous. "You gotta be shittin' me! Jesus, I volunteer to helpthese losers out of the goodness of my heart, and this is the thanks I get?Shit! You got any more good news for me Ace?"
"Cheer up, Maniac. At least the food is better in the Militia. I recommendthe barbecue menu."
That did cheer him up. "Hey, thanks, Ace! I'll try it. I love barbecue."
All that talk about barbecue reminded me that I hadn't seen Captain Eisen sincehe'd disappeared with Hulk and Panties. After asking about a dozen crewmen--the ship's AI wasn't functioning, of course--I finally located him in theControl Bay. He was leaning wearily against a bulkhead, watching Panties andHulk arguing in front of the holodisplay.
Panties was trying to keep her cool, but the strain was obvious. "I say wejust cut our losses and pull back. This jump point is the quickest way out ofthis system."
Hulk was adamant. "Jump point too obvious. Hulk say, hurt Lexington. HurtConfed. Hurt! Hurt!"
The Captain saw me and jerked a thumb at the two fliers. In response, I justrolled my eyes. Eisen finally intervened.
"Look, you too, we don't have time--"
Panties interrupted him. Through clenched teeth, she said, "Captain Eisen,you've been a great help so far, but we're running this ship, OK?"
"Yeah," agreed Hulk. He turned back to Panties. "Panties not understandsituation--"
Eisen tried again. "I'm sorry, but--"
This time Panties lost it. "For the last time, butt out, renegade!"
"Yeah, butt out!"
"Shut up, Hulk! I'll tell him to butt out!"
"Panties not boss of Hulk!"
"That does it!" Panties swarmed all over poor Hulk, and they went down in atangle of flailing arms and legs. She grabbed him by the ears and startedpounding his head on the deck. Hulk got two hands on her throat and squeezed.
Captain Eisen looked at me and sighed.
I glanced around the compartment. Aha! "Er, Captain, with your permission?"He saw what I was looking at, and nodded.
With much of the automatic firefighting system out of commission, the crew hadplaced a number of water buckets in vulnerable locations. I took the nearestone and emptied it all over the two antagonists. I was just in time: Pantieswas starting to turn blue.
The two wet pilots came up sputtering and coughing. Hulk looked at himself andobserved, "Hulk wet. How Hulk get wet?" Panties, also sopping wet, merelygasped for breath and glared at me.
I tried to take a reasonable tone. "Look, you two, it's obvious this shipneeds a captain. I suggest Captain Eisen take over."
"WHAT?" screeched Panties. "Why the hell does this over-rated, overweight,over-the-hill DEFECTOR get to be captain?"
"Yeah!" agreed Hulk. "What she said!"
If I had ever had any doubts about Captain Eisen's qualifications for command,they would have been dispelled for good by what he did next. He drew himselfup to his full height and even managed to pull in his tummy a centimeter ortwo. In his most dignified tone, he replied, "Because, unlike some others inthis compartment, I have a military haircut!"
Well, there was no arguing with that. Panties and Hulk looked at each other,then nodded reluctantly.
"Thank you for your vote of confidence." Captain Eisen was always gracious invictory. "Now we also need a commander for the ship's fighter wing. I chooseColonel Blair, here."
Panties, who had been wringing out her hair, angrily responded, "WHAT? Whydoes Colonel Barfbag get to be--"
I looked significantly at the fire bucket hanging on the bulkhead next to her.
She saw where I was looking and stopped in mid-rant. "OK, OK!" She shovedpast me toward the exit, muttering all the way. "Damn, damn, damn!"
Hulk suddenly clapped a hand to the back of his head. "Ouch!"
Gee, only my second day with the Union, and already I was Wing Commander again.I had a vision of myself becoming a general in a week, space marshall inanother month. Eat your heart out, Maniac!
I came back to reality. Some Wing Commander! I didn't even have a fighter ofmy own! I could use another Hellcat temporarily, but they'd all be down forlack of spares after another mission or two. There was much commonality amonghumanity's fighter craft, of course, but sooner or later we'd need a part theIntrepid techs just didn't have and couldn't make.
No, there was no way around it. If I expected to keep my new job, I'd have toqualify on at least one Union fighter, preferably all three. I decided to gofind a good crew chief first. I had learned from Rachel that techs knew thingsnot found in any manual.
Down on the flight deck, I found Lt. Tennant and asked her about crew chiefavailability. She produced a smudged, handwritten list of pilot/tech/fighterassignments. Intrepid was short a number of fighters and pilots, so there werequite a few techs available.
Nearly half the names were female. Remembering that several of the techs onboard were quite attractive, I raised my eyes to Heaven. Oh, God, if you couldjust give me a crew chief who's brilliant and sweet and understanding, and...and REALLY cute, like Rachel, I'd be ever so grateful, really.
My prayer was answered by an incredibly sexy female voice behind me. "I knewyou'd need a crew chief, handsome, so I made myself...available."
THANK YOU, GOD! I assumed a slightly bored expression, turning with elaboratenonchalance to face her. "Blair. Chris B--Yikes!"
It was the scarecrow who'd been driving the weapons loader! In my state ofshock, I could only receive disjointed impressions: Buck teeth! Filthyfatigues! Scrawny figure! Freckles! Pimples, for God's sake! About the onlything this creature had in common with Rachel was the blonde hair and thefloppy cap. And that incredibly sexy voice.
Ignoring my discomfiture, she walked right up to me. "I'm Chief Tech ZeldaMorgenstern. I'll check you out on a simulator first, and then you can try thereal thing, studmuffin." She reached up to touch my cheek.
I hastily backed up a step. "Uh, look, Chief, there's some mistake here. Yousee, uh, I've already picked out another--"
The hurt in her eyes was more than I could bear. She was too proud to cry, butI knew this was merely the latest in a list of rejections as long as her life.Shit! Who was I to judge this tech by her looks, anyway? Wasn't she the onewho'd driven that missile loader and killed the service bay fire while we wereall standing around helplessly?
As she started to turn away, I grabbed her shoulder. "OK, OK, Chief! I justwant to know one thing. Are you good?"
Despite her pain, she stood proud. "I'm the best you'll ever see, Colonel!"
Shit again! Wrong answer! "OK, Chief. Will you...will you..." I couldn'tsay it. Come on, Blair, you're the Heart of the Tiger! Spit it out! "Zelda,will you be my crew chief?" I half hoped she was too offended to accept.
"Will I?" She leaped into my arms, slamming me back against the bulkhead."You won't regret this, snookums!"
Snookums? "I already regret it!"
As she dragged me to the simulator room, I turned my gaze upward. Thanks alot, God! You want to play games? OK, the next church I fly over is lasertoast!
The closest flight simulators were near Wombat Squadron's ready room. Severalpilots were engaged in exercises, but at least one of each type was still free.
I walked over to the Vindicator simulator. "What do you think, Chief? Nearthe end of the war, I mostly flew Thunderbolts for Confed. Maybe a Vindicatorwould be a good fighter to start on."
She shook her head vigorously. "Uh-uh. With your hell-for-leather style, youwant a Banshee, no question about it. You can wring more out of a ship thanany pilot I ever saw. You've earned the Union's best."
"How do you know--"
She looked disappointed. "You think I picked you at random? You think Ihaven't done my homework? Trust me, flyboy, I know your style better than youdo. Now get into that Banshee cockpit!"
For the next hour or so, Zelda went over the controls with me. I ran througha series of increasingly complex exercises to familiarize myself with eachinstrument. Fortunately, the Banshee had a lot in common with other fighters Ihad flown, except that it was considerably simpler.
"Say, Chief, how come this cockpit is missing so many backup system indicatorsand controls? Are they automated on the Banshee?"
She shook her head. "No, we just don't have 'em." Seeing my look of dismay,Zelda quickly explained. "Look, we're from frontier planets, city boy. Wehave no time for all the fancy training you get on the 'civilized' worlds. Wehave fewer advanced engineers, so they design fewer ship types and leave offthe bells and whistles. We don't have huge training facilities, so we buildsimple ships that take less know-how to fly and maintain. We save mass byeliminating redundant systems and apply it to engines, weapons, shields, andarmor. Credit for credit, in the last war we put up more fighters against theKilrathi than the rest of Confed."
"And suffered higher loss rates," I reminded her.
"OK, hotshot! But when the chips were down, our ships were always there! Toooften, Confed's weren't! Besides, when was the last time you qualified on anew fighter type in under a week? Hmm? You'll be flying the Banshee like anace by this time tomorrow!"
I was still skeptical, but Zelda's vehemence had half-convinced me. I waseager to try the flight simulations.
Zelda shut me up in the simulator and took a station in the control booth. Westarted out on elementary launches and landings. I botched the first few, ofcourse, but gradually I got used to the new feel of the controls. The Bansheewas indeed a lively ship, instantly responsive to my will. I scored my firstfour-oh on the sixth landing, and went on to vacubatics.
Oh, ow! This thing could fly rings around any other fighter in space! It waslike the ship was a part of me, an extension of my own body. I quickly ranthrough the simpler maneuvers and jumped right into complex evasive flying.Purposely I pushed the envelope, exploring the ship's performance limits. ThenI put on a vacubatic display that had even Zelda whistling with appreciation.Hah! On to the combat exercises!
That's when I suffered my first setback. Combat maneuvering was fine; I easilydodged simulated missile fire and got on the tail of the AI Thunderbolt. Zeldakept coaching me to fire an IR up his ass, but to me, there's no kill like aguns kill. I lined up my lasers and let 'er rip. And rip. And rip. I scoredhit after hit, but the target's shields stubbornly stayed up. After whatseemed like forever, it finally succumbed.
I called a time out. "Zelda, these popguns won't do. I need something withmore punch."
"Sorry, love, the Banshee's not designed for heavier main armament. Just useyour lasers on light fighters and take the heavies with missiles."
"No way." I expected we'd be badly outnumbered by Confed in nearly everyencounter of this undeclared conflict. My experience against the Kilrathi toldme that my missiles would run out all too quickly. "How about swapping in apair of tachyon guns, Chief?" I just LOVED tachyon guns!
She laughed. "Sorry, babe, but we can't switch guns without redesigning thefighter! One of the drawbacks of the simple approach, you know. But theBanshee can mount a leech cannon and a scattergun in the ventral boom. Let meadd them to your simulated bird."
We tried the first combat sim again with the secondary armament added. TheBanshee was noticeably sluggish from the extra mass, but still easily out-maneuvered the simulated target.
I tried the two weapons in turn. The scattergun was fabulous. It was likehaving five ion cannons, but it ate up little more power than one. At longrange the dispersal improved the chances of a hit; at short range multiple hitsdelivered devastating damage. Its only drawback was its wimpy Ploop! Ploop!sound.
The leech cannon was amazing. I had difficulty aiming at first, but when Iclosed in, it took my target down in just a few shots. Damn, leech technologyhad come a long way since the War! And I just LOVED the weapon's hearty CHUGCHUG CHUG!
"Chief, give me the scattergun, leech cannon, and eight leech missiles. Dumpthe lasers to offset the mass of the secondary weapons. Now let's go kick someass!"
Over the next six hours, I ran through every combat simulation in the memorybanks, and a few new ones Zelda made up on the spot. I flew alone and withsimulated wingmen, against Confed, pirate, and Union types, and on every kindof mission from recon to fleet attack. Twice we broke for food and, er, reliefexpeditions. During the breaks, Zelda critiqued earlier exercises and offeredhelpful tidbits of Banshee lore. She even accompanied me to the head andyelled her advice through the door!
In the final series of simulations, I flew with and against some of the otherlive pilots in the simulator room. They taught me things about the Bansheethat no non-flyer, not even Zelda, could teach, and I quickly matched, thensurpassed their skill level. After I defeated two of them single-handed,Zelda called a halt.
I popped the simulator and found Zelda standing next to it, beaming. "I thinkwe've created a monster here! Get out of there before you melt it, hotshot!"
I climbed wearily out of the simulator. My shoulder was acting up again, butit was a small price to pay for such thorough training. "Zelda, you areprobably the best flight instructor I've ever had. Thanks a--"
Without warning, she pounced on me again, and I nearly fell back into thesimulator. She gave me a big wet kiss on the lips. "You're welcome, honey!"
"Hey, Ace! Where'd you get the rag doll? Haw haw!"
Oh no, no! Maniac! Desperately, I pried Zelda off and pushed her behind me.I tasted blood where one of Zelda's buck teeth had nicked my upper lip, but Ididn't dare wipe it.
"Oops, my mistake, Ace! It's your...your flight instructor! No, no, let's geta good look at her!" He reached behind me and pulled Zelda out into the open.She made no effort to resist.
Maniac looked her up and down and shook his head. "Hmm, not up to your usualstandards, Ace." He made a face. "It so happens I've been practicing, too.Meet MY instructor, Lieutenant Mourne." He indicated a knockout auburn-hairedbeauty at his side. She had an Avenger badge on her uniform.
I was furious. Dammit, after all these years, why did this idiot still get mygoat? I wanted to defend Zelda, yet if I made a fuss, she might interpret itas requited love and take even greater liberties with me. Funny, though, shewas acting more like a detached observer than a wronged damsel.
Then I had an idea.
I smiled, which caught Maniac off guard. I strolled over and whispered intohis ear. "Apologize to the the nice lady, TODD, or you'll be on a first namebasis with your girlfriend, here."
He stepped back, aghast. "You wouldn't!" he exclaimed.
I just smiled back.
OK, OK!" He turned to Zelda, who waited impassively. "Chief, I am reallyFUCKING sorry I said anything to FUCKING offend you!" He glared at me."HAPPY, pygmy?"
Zelda winked at me. "Apology accepted, Major." Suddenly she grabbed Maniac bythe collar and dragged him down far enough to plant a wet kiss on his cheek.
As the onlookers applauded, Maniac recoiled and vigorously rubbed his cheekwith his sleeve. "Why you lousy b--"
Lt. Mourne took his arm. Eyes half closed, she cooed, "Mmm, I like a guy who'sman enough to admit when he's wrong, big boy."
"Uh, you do? Say, September, what do you say we find a quiet place and, uh,discuss torpedo tactics?" Lt. Mourne nodded, and they strolled off arm in arm.
One of the techs in the sim control booth opened the door and called to me."Colonel Blair, Captain Eisen wants you in CIC."
Uh-oh. Here we go. "Uh, Zelda, CIC is...?"
"Midships, centerline, two decks down. I have a feeling I'd better prep aBanshee for you, sweetie!"
"Uh, good idea." I still didn't like the 'sweetie' bit. "Scattergun, leech--"
"--cannon, and eight leeches. Got it." She headed for the maintenance bays.
I watched her leave. As a tech, Zelda was a treasure, but her lovestruckattitude really got on my nerves. If only she weren't so...so... Maybe if Igot a paper bag...
I found CIC without too much trouble. Captain Eisen was slumped in a chairin front of the main display. He was sound asleep. The only other occupantswere two male junior officers, both engrossed in their consoles. I decided notto bother them.
The Unionists had taken down the partition between CIC and the Chart Room tomake more space. I could see SoSo working over in the comm alcove. Nearby,facing another display, a young female second lieutenant stood at a makeshifthelm control.
Reluctant to disturb the Captain, I wandered over to the helm instead. Thedisplay showed the task force's current status: deep in the nebula and headedtoward the Corinth jump point at half speed. There was no sign of Confeds.
The lieutenant was standing stiffly erect, right hand on the helm control, lefthand behind her back, eyes locked on the display. I checked her name tag.
"At ease, Lieutenant Pilotte. What's your first name?"
She relaxed a bit. "Skye, sir." She had just the faintest French accent, andmy Angel's face flashed in front of me momentarily.
"Were you the one who evaded those two torpedoes in the last attack, Skye?"
"Yes sir! But, er, Captain Eisen had the conn." Aha. That turn was vintageEisen, all right.
"Say, that's an ingenious helm control, Skye. Where did you get it?"
"That's my 'Battlecruiser 4000 AD' joystick, sir!" She smiled proudly. "It'sstate-of-the-art, with multiple programmable buttons and sliders, which makesit perfect for--"
"Holy shit! That game's finally out? Hot damn, I've waited almost thirty--"
She shook her head. "No, sir, it's been delayed again, so they released thejoystick first. But I got an empty game box and another demo with it!"
"Er, yeah. Carry on, Lieutenant." Shit! Shit! Shit!
Now that I was feeling depressed, I had no compunctions about waking up theCaptain. After a few seconds of increasingly insistent shaking, he started tocome around. "Oh, not again, Mary D--Huh? Oh, Colonel! I was just, er,resting my eyes." He stood up and adjusted his uniform.
Ah, just like the good old days. "Happy to see you back where you belong,Captain," I said, smiling.
Confused, he looked at the chair before he realized what I meant. "Oh! Uh,thank you. It's good to be back, er, in the saddle... Ahem! To business,Colonel. We're in no shape for another fight, so we're getting out of thissystem as fast as we can, along with our escort frigates BWS Ewok, Tie, andTHX. Er, the Union financed their construction with funds from Lu--"
"I'm familiar with them, sir. I own some of their stock. They have anexcellent employee stock purchase plan."
Captain Eisen looked surprised. "You've worked for them?"
Oops! Think fast, Blair! "Er, no, I didn't. I, er, read that, er, on the GGGsomeplace. Yeah, that's it. The GGG." Whew!
"Oh. Well, anyway, we'll be capable of restricted flight operations in lessthan an hour. Now we have several ways out of this system..." He brought upthe Silenos system on the display and highlighted nearby jump points. "...butwe don't know which ones are being guarded by Confed. We'll have only one shotat it, because we can't make better than half speed. I want your fighters tocheck out these routes and report any Confed activity. Avoid a fight if youcan. Stealth is still our best hope."
I snapped to attention and saluted. "Yes, sir! Um, sir, now that you've gotthe ship in order, shouldn't you get some-- Sir? Sir?" The Captain's headhad sagged onto his chest and his eyes were closed. Quickly I ran around thetable and gently lowered him into the chair.
I yawned involuntarily. Damn, now I was getting sleepy!
I passed the word for Panties, Hulk, Freedom Flight, and all of Wombat Squadronto meet me in the Wombat ready room. Now that I could fly--theoretically--oneUnion fighter, I figured I finally had enough moral authority to take over mywing. From Zelda, I had learned that Intrepid had four squadrons aboard: twoBanshee (Gopher, Wombat), one Vindicator (Turkey), and one Avenger (Skunk).Both Wombat and Skunk Squadrons had lost their commanders, and all four hadsuffered heavy pilot and equipment losses.
Most of the ship's internal communications were still out, but word quicklyspread that combat ops were imminent. When everyone was assembled, I stood upand addressed the group.
"I'm Colonel Christopher Blair, the new Wing Commander. My callsign isEarthworm."
I saw dismay on some faces. A couple of pilots looked at each other andsilently mouthed "Earthworm?" Hulk sat impassively. Panties just glared.
"Hulk will keep Turkey Squadron. Panties will remain in command of GopherSquadron. In addition, she'll act as my deputy."
"Hey, Ace! I thought--"
"Major Marshall will command Skunk Squadron. Maniac, I expect you to earn yourAvenger badge as quickly as possible, OK? Panties, you'll assist Maniac withinitial flight operations." Maniac grinned and waved at her. Panties gave himthe finger.
"Vagabond? Catseye? How's your training coming?"
"Ready for my Banshee solo, good buddy."
"Ready on my Avenger solo, sir. And it's CatSCRATCH, sir."
"Whatever. Lt. Homes?"
"Ready to solo a Vindicator, sir. But my shuttle training didn't prepare mefor combat."
"I'll give you as much time as I can, Churlokk, but we need combat pilotsdesperately. Hulk, will you help him out?"
He nodded. "Hulk teach Homes to hurt! Hurt! Hur--"
"Yes, thank you, Hulk. OK, to operations. Gopher Squadron has the CAP."Panties groaned, but said nothing more. "Skunk Squadron will be in reserve.Hulk, Turkey Squadron will patrol these three routes." I indicated them on theready room display. "Wombat Squadron will take these three. Fly in pairs,stay passive, report any Confed activity, but do not, I repeat, DO NOT engageunless it's unavoidable." I ignored the moaning from my pilots.
Now the moment of truth. "I'll double as Wombat Leader, and I'll be patrollingthe Corinth route." Shocked silence. "Who wants to fly on my wing?"
The five healthy pilots of Wombat Squadron looked at each other uneasily.Finally, the tall one with the depilated head stood up.
I checked his name tag. "Yes, Moose? Say, weren't you in the sim room awhileago?"
He nodded. "Yes, sir. I was going over the flight recs from your last twomissions. That tractor beam stunt? Those three T-bolts?" He glanced at hiscolleagues. "I'd kinda like to see what you can do in a REAL fighter, sir."
"Bring it back in one piece, I hope." I smiled. "OK, any questions? No?Dismissed! Wombats, let's huddle."
Nervously, I ran through pre-flight on my new Banshee. I had done it severaltimes in the simulator, of course, but this time it was for real. Zelda wasstanding on the ladder, watching. To her credit, she offered no comments, evenwhen I seemed unsure of myself.
When I finished, I looked over at her. "Not bad," she answered. "You'll dobetter when you're not so self-conscious about it." She looked me right in theeye. "You're the best I've ever seen, Christopher Blair! You let thoseConfeds know it!" A quick kiss and she was gone.
As I lowered the canopy, I gingerly touched the new cut on my lip. Despite allher annoying traits, I wanted to make that woman proud of me. Then I laughed.Me, a grizzled veteran nearing forty, sucking up to a homely kid barely out ofher teens!
Flight operations proceeded at a snail's pace, but finally it was my turn tolaunch. I tried to take Zelda's advice and lose myself in the myriad detailsof flight. Despite a couple of hiccups from the jury-rigged field, my launchwas creditably smooth. Moose formed on my wing without comment, and we headedfor our first nav point.
So far, it was just like being in the simulator. The real Banshee was, ifanything, even more responsive. I wondered if Zelda had tweaked it for me.
We were flying passive. Since Confed was doing the searching, we counted onpicking up their active emissions before they could detect us. Unfortunately,the nebula was playing holy hell with our sensors. Our margin of safety wasconsiderably less than it would be in empty space.
"Earthworm, I'm getting a twitch to port. Looks like a couple of fighters."
"Got it. Keep steady, Moose. We need a definite make on these guys."
"Firming up. Classify as Arrows. Three...four of them. They'll have us in asecond, Earthworm!"
We turned away and went to full speed. Presently the signals began to fade.One thing was sure: the Corinth route was closed to our task f--
Shit! Active signals right on top of us! T-bolts! Those Arrows must havedetected us after all and vectored in the Thunderbolts! They went active whenwe'd be too close to escape!
"Go active, Moose!" Yeah, there they are, less than 10,000 klicks ahead.
"Enemy spotted, Colonel."
"Break and attack, Moose! Take Bandit 3!"
"Ahhh-ffirmative, Colonel." Moose was inhumanly calm.
Gotta wrap this up fast, Blair! Those Arrows will be back! No time to taunt,barely time to lock. Launch! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Two inbound! Burner!Wait...jink! Whoopwhoo-- Missed! What a thoroughbred my Banshee is! Burneroff! Turn! Bandit 1 slipped his missile, but I'm coming up on Bandit 2...toofast! Remember the Banshee's speed, Blair! Adjust, locking... Bam! Watchthe rear turret! Locked! Launch! He decoys...Splat!
Turn, Blair! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Burner! Decoy! Whoop! Decoy! Silence!Burner off! Turn! Shit, head on! No time for lock! Fire! CHUG CHUG CHUG!A hit! Now dance away from his return fire... He's past! Turn like hell,you beautiful Banshee!
I'm on his tail, matching speed! Save missiles. CHUG CHUG CHUG! More hits!Hurry, Blair, Arrows approaching! Damn, this guy's jinking too much and myleech cannon is eating up power! Shift power from shields! CHUG CHUG CHUG!
Break off! The T-Bolt's down to ninety kps; he's no threat, let him limp homeif he can! More power to shields. "Moose, break off, Arrow on your tail!"Shit, Moose is trying to finish off his man with lasers! He must have hit himwith at least one IR already, but the heavy fighter is still kicking!
Two Arrows coming at me! Leech locking on one! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Holdsteady, Blair, you gotta launch at close range...Launch! Decoy! Turn! Splat!Yahoo!
"Need assistance, sir!" Shit, Moose is in trouble! He's finally broken offfrom his cripple, but two missiles are chasing him! Decoys blossom from histail, one loses lock, the other might miss...BLAM! Shit!
"Status, Moose?" I fling my Banshee in his direction.
"Half the systems are out!" He's not calm any more.
"Drag 'em my way, Moose!" Bam! Bam! Shit, Arrow on my tail! His armamentisn't much stronger than mine, but it's nibbling away at my shields. "Moose,you take my guy, I'll take your two!"
Here he comes! Bam! Bam! Locking on the lead Arrow, pray Moose is locking mytormentor. Bam! Aft shield failing! Whoop! Whoop! Missiles from ahead andbehind! Drop decoys like there's no tomorrow! Launch! Turn! WHAMMO! A blinding light, violent jolt! Check systems! Front shields down, armor nearlygone, no damage! Tough bird, the Banshee!
BLAM! Moose's missile hits! The Arrow's limping away. My target dodged hismissile, but he doesn't realize how tight the Banshee can turn. I'm on histail, locking another leech. He's using his burner furiously, which restrictshis maneuverability. I can cut the corner and stay close, but he's making itvery hard for his pal to catch up.
I take my time, close in, and launch! Damn! The nimble Arrow slips lock yetagain! Still time and fuel enough, close in to point blank range... locked...launch! Splat! Hah!
I killed burner and took stock. The fourth Arrow, now facing two-to-one odds,was running. Moose was damaged, and autorepair could only handle part of it.I was OK, but my forward armor was nearly gone, I'd used up much of my fuel onburner, and I was low on missiles.
I lay in an indirect route back to the task force. We'd accomplished ourmission: this route was definitely too hot.
Whew, even the battered Intrepid looked good right now. Except that damnedSoSo was probably handling clearances. I closed my eyes to relax thoroughly,then steeled myself for a supreme effort.
Ready. Go, Blair! "NeedclearanceIntrepid!"
Yeah, it was SoSo all right. "WelcomebackColonel--"
"--landingnow!" Hah! I even signed off a microsecond before she did!
Whew! I had the adrenaline shakes again, just like after combat! Jeez, howdid that woman do it?
Zelda was waiting for me at the bottom of the ladder. She looked ecstatic.
"Four-oh flying, stud! You and that ship were made for each other!"
I braced myself, but she merely wanted to help me out of the flight suit. Imade no objection; I was tired, my shoulder hurt, and I welcomed her help.By the time Moose meandered over from his own battered fighter, Zelda waslaying my suit on her weapons loader.
Moose stuck out his hand. "You really are the Heart of the Tiger, aren't you,sir? You won't have any more trouble finding wingmen, I guarantee it!"
I took his hand. "Thanks, Moose. You're not so bad yourself. But Zelda hereshould get most of the credit. She's one great--oof!" Zelda had pounced onme and was smothering my face in kisses.
"I knew you loved me, Honeyblair!" she gushed.
Ow! Ow! I fought her off and dabbed at my lip. Shit, not again! Where wasthat first aid kit? Maybe in the bay--
Splash! Suddenly a torrent of water soaked me from head to toe! I spunaround, angrily searching-- There! Panties was grinning at me, empty firebucket in her hand.
"Border World tradition, Earthworm. You get a dunking on your first kill forthe Union!"
"Farnsworth, you moron! I made my 'first kill for the Union' on that scrambleyesterday!"
She clapped a hand to her forehead. "Doh! How silly of me! Boy, do I feelembarrassed! I'm sooo sorry, Colonel!"
Except she didn't look sorry at all. Panties had just moved up a few places onmy payback list.
Previews from Chapter 13:
"Maniac, how did you smuggle all this off the ship?"
"Say, kid, did you know that shoulder's dislocated? Here, let me fix it."
"Zeke, their ship was just packed with surveillance equipment. How is it youremained ignorant of Angel's true mission?"
"Blair! I know that's you, you filthy coward!"