Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 14

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to November 24, 1996]

Chapter 14

We were relatively safe in the Orestes system. The Union maintained a modernsurveillance array there, which meant we could suspend flight operationsentirely. That gave us a chance to hold our long-delayed memorial service.

Captain Eisen himself presided. The religious revival that had swept most ofthe Confederation had not fared well among the rugged Border Worlders, so theMilitia still conducted the less emotional traditional rites. Nevertheless, Iwas deeply moved by the ceremony, perhaps because we were saying good-bye to somany.

Maintenance had forged some of Intrepid's debris into a crude mass sarcophaguspropelled by a Hellcat engine and thrusters. When the Captain had solemnlyintoned the names of the dead, Ensign Swensen, their faithful guardian, per-formed his final service for them. With the press of a button, he sent thesarcophagus on its infinite journey through interstellar space. As it shrankto a dot in the distance, the honor guard fired its salutes, and Captain Eisenled the company in a traditional Border World hymn.

"Ninety-three bottles of beer in the wall, ninety-three bottles of beer..."

I approved of the hymn's symbolism: We, the survivors, figuratively downed abrew for each of our fallen comrades. Early in the Kilrathi War, the BorderWorlders had matched the word with the deed, but ever-lengthening casualtylists had quickly made that impractical.

The Union task force headed for Orestes III, where we could put into an orbitaldockyard for repairs. In addition, we badly needed replacement pilots andfighters, crew replacements, and supplies. Most important, we needed repairsto the food dispensers; our bland diet was beginning to affect morale.

My shoulder was acting up again--Forceps was right, I shouldn't have flown sosoon--so I headed for the storage hold to get some rest. I should have knownothers would have the same idea. My search for an empty bunk took me all theway to the back of the hold. That was where I found Lt. SoSo.

She was kneeling in front of a box on which a single candle was burning. Itstood in a multicolored pool of frozen wax, which told me this wasn't the firsttime she'd come here. SoSo was staring at the flame, seemingly mesmerized, orperhaps just lost in thought.

I hesitated, reluctant to disturb her, but I had already made too much noise.She turned with a start. "Oh, it's you," she said coldly. "Have you come formore jokes, Colonel?"

Whoops. Border Worlders generally admired a good practical joke, but SoSo wasapparently more sensitive than the others. Having long ago learned that thebest response to an emotional female was abject capitulation, I attempted tosmooth things over.

"Lieutenant SoSo, I am so sorry for hurting you like that." My head hung insimulated shame. "I was thoughtless and insensitive, and I'll never doanything like that to you again." I turned to go.

"Wait, Colonel."

Yes! She bought it!

"It was a good joke, sir, it just...came at the wrong time. Please don't go."

I returned and sat down next to her. "Holding your own service, Lieutenant?" Iinquired.

SoSo turned back to her candle. "I joined Intrepid near the end of the War,Colonel, when we were fighting to keep the cats out of the Styx Cluster." Hervoice reflected the strain of that time. "We lost people nearly every day.The wing had fifty percent c-casualties in t-two weeks. Three planets fell tothe c-cats, and there wasn't time to evacuate... I was just out of school.I started coming here, remember the dead in peace."

"Then you haven't been here in over two years?"

She nodded. "I'd hoped that was all over with. But now--" She smiled withouthumor. "You know, this box was still here. Nothing had changed... and I guessn-nothing has changed out there, either..." She put one hand over her eyes.

"Tell me about them, Velina."

She wiped her eyes and looked at me blankly. "Wh-who?"

"Your friends. You want to remember them? Remember them to me."

SoSo swallowed. "Well, I guess the one I miss most is Audrey--Lt. Ames--mycabinmate. We came aboard at the same time..."

For nearly an hour, SoSo talked about her departed comrades. Though I had seenfar more death than she, I was touched by her accounts. She painted such vividpictures of her absent friends that I could almost see their faces. Moreover,in telling her stories, SoSo was revealing more of herself than she realized.Open, trusting, vulnerable, she readily formed emotional bonds--too readily forwartime, when they could be ripped asunder in an instant. Yet she took herlicks and still hung on to her fragile emotions--emotions that war had burnedout of me a long time ago.

Finally, she ran down. "Sorry to bend your ear for so long, Colonel. Um, I'mdue on watch. Thank you for listening, sir." SoSo leaned over to blow out thecandle stub.

I stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. "Leave it, please? I'd like towatch it for a time." SoSo looked at me for a second, then nodded. She stoodup and left without another word.

I climbed into the adjacent bunk. Staring at the candle, I began my own rollcall. So many. So many. Spirit, Iceman,, better to think aboutthe living, the lucky ones who had survived the war. Robin, of course, andRachel. Vababond, Eisen. Melek and Thrakhath, or rather, Zeke. Yes, Zeke...


After our first meal together, Zeke and I had adjourned to the front porch,where we could watch the suns go down. I had given him a small plate with thechicken leftovers, and now he was feeding tidbits to my girls.

"Christopher!" His voice was filled with delight. "I believe your caninetrusts me at last!" Robin was resting her forepaws on his leg as she reachedup for a dangling morsel.

I was happy Zeke had finally made friends with Robin, but I was also impatientto hear the rest of his story. "So anyway, Zeke, you were picked up beforeKilrah..."

Reluctantly, he turned his attention from my pets to me. "Yes. A corvettetook me aboard. And that was when I realized that a special destiny awaitedme. All twenty-seven aboard were females! In their prime!"

Huh? "Whoa, Zeke! We never encountered Kilrathi females--"

He held up a paw. "I was surprised myself, Christopher! It turned out thatamong our females, a kind of 'feminist' movement was growing toward the end ofthe War--one with certain similarities to your own of several centuries ago.Too proud to exploit males for support, enough of them enlisted in the Navy--against the opposition of the other females--to crew a new corvette. As soonas I was brought aboard, I ordered the ship to the nearest jump point. Just intime, too! Even with our head start, we were damaged by fragments of our...ourhome."

Zeke paused for a moment, overcome by grief. "No, save your sympathy, friendChristopher. Retribution for our crimes was inevitable." He wiped a tear fromhis eye before continuing. "Having led my race to ruin, I was a dead cat inKilrathi territory. We proceeded into human space, to the uninhabitedPythagoran cluster. There, Destiny intervened again."

My droid came onto the porch with an assortment of fruits and nuts from myorchards. Zeke selected a juicy peach and savored the taste for a time beforecontinuing.

"We were in the Lemma system, making repairs, when a Terran transport poppedthrough the Theorem jump point. We prepared for battle, but it turned out theywere just traders. Our corvette was equipped with experimental cloaking gear--with our old equipment, of course, we could only cloak light fighters--and theywere interested in buying it."

Zeke finished his peach and neatly spat the pit onto his plate. He next triedan almond. "I had told my companions of my old dream for Kilrah--agricultural,egalitarian--and they were captivated by it. So we exchanged our corvette forthe transport and enough cash to establish ourselves on a farming world. Ittook nearly a year of wandering to find a suitable place--Kilrathi are notwelcome in much of the galaxy--but here we are!"

I shook my head. "Neighbors! A year ago, who would have thought it!"

Zeke lovingly stroked my two pets. "Incredible, is it not? That is why, whenI learned we were neighbors, I knew I was fated to offer you the olive branch."He looked at me expectantly.

I thought for a long time. I didn't believe in fate, but I did believe inseizing whatever opportunities chance threw my way. Here was my opportunity tomake peace with my own past, to banish my own demons forever.

I extended my hand. "I'm glad you came, Thrak--er, Zeke."

Zeke grasped my hand in his paw and squeezed, gently so as not to crush me."Thank you, Christopher." His voice betrayed the profound emotion he must befeeling.

I only nodded. Not trusting myself to say more, I went back to watching thesunsets.

Presently, with the second sun half below the horizon, Zeke turned to me againand sighed.

"You know, Christopher? It just doesn't get any better than this!"


I awoke to find SoSo's candle burned out. Feeling more refreshed than I had ina long time, I yawned and stretched. To my surprise, my shoulder felt fine.Perhaps Forceps really did know what he was doing.

I was hungry, but first I had to consult with the Captain about replenishingthe wing at Orestes III. Since Eisen practically lived in CIC, I checked therefirst, and found him in the comm alcove with Lt. SoSo.

SoSo was impatient with her jury-rigged equipment. "Come on!" She pounded onthe console's keyboard in frustration. "Hah! You see, sir, there it is, rightthere!"

I peered over Captain Eisen's shoulder at the images and text flashing in thedisplay. "Yes, Lieutenant, I see it," he admitted reluctantly.

I was baffled. "What are you guys doing with all those porno images andonline comic books and--"

SoSo stared at me as if I needed remedial classes. "Colonel, that's supposedto be eighteen hours of secret Confed transmissions."


Captain Eisen cleared his throat. "It's my fault, Lieutenant. To cover mytracks, I broke into several personal computer systems on the Lexington andused--" Seeing my dismay, he hastened to reassure me. "No, Colonel, I hadn'tyet gotten around to yours."

Whew! Just in case, though, I'd better erase those retouched holopics ofBarbara Dahl. Too bad. A couple of them were quite spectacular.

Eisen continued. "Anyway, these records are from when I used Major Marshall'sPZ to take over one of the official comm channels. Unfortunately, it seems theMajor had also broken into the same channel for his own purposes. Probablywanted higher download bandwidth than he could get over the GGG."

"FOR EIGHTEEN SOLID HOURS?" I knew about Maniac's "hobby"--everyone did--but Ididn't know he was such an enthusiast.

The Captain was deep in thought. "The missing transmissions seem to relate tothat biochemist and the Masa spacelab. They're crucial to our case againstCovert Ops."

SoSo snapped her fingers. "I got it! When Orestes III voted to join theUnion, her sister planet voted to remain with Confed. I'll bet just about anysizable Confed installation on Orestes IV will have the comm recs we need!"

Eisen was elated. "Good work, Lieutenant Sosa! Our course to Orestes IIItakes us within three million klicks of Orestes IV. Find a suitable target onthe planet, then see if Chief Morgenstern can get a ground team in and out."

"Aye aye, sir!"


It looked like I had a mission to plan. Before that, however, I had to getsomething into my stomach, even from the malfunctioning food dispensers.

I made it to the galley with my appetite intact, but I was sidetracked onarrival. Panties was standing by the galley window, gazing out at the stars.I had a momentary vision of my lovely Flint, standing in the Victory'scathedral-like main gun control, lost in the beauty of the cosmos. Perhaps itwas just the ache in my heart for my lost love, but I felt a sudden attractionto this stranger who was my second in command.

She must have heard me walk up next to her, but she said nothing. Her prettyface bore a look of profound sadness. The funeral must have hit her hard.For a time we just stood side by side, silently sharing the view. Finally,Panties broke her silence.

"It's never going to end, is it?" There were no tears, just sad resignation.

I shook my head. "Wars always end, one way or another, Colonel."

She went on, as if she hadn't heard. "I spent seven years fighting theKilrathi. And then I thought it was over, and humanity was united, right?But now we're on the edge of a new war! And after this one, what? Another?And another, and another..." She turned at looked right at me. "We are smartpeople," she said earnestly. "We should be able to think of something betterto do than all this killing."

She was right. I could think of a number of better things to do, most of theminvolving Tamara, a bed, and half a dozen common household items.

Then I remembered the story Flint had told me one time in the Victory's lounge."Did you ever hear of the ancient Trojan war, Tamara? For ten long years, thecity of, uh, Troje was besieged by, the Geeks. I bet the Trojansthought their war would never end, either."

I had piqued her curiosity. "What happened, Chris?" she asked.

"Well, according to legend, the Geeks finally got into the city in a giantTrojan condom...or something. They--" Oops.

"Go on, Colonel."

Damn. "The Geeks, uh, sacked the city, killed the men, and enslaved the womenand children," I finished lamely.

Panties frowned. "Let me get this straight, Colonel. The Trojans fought, andsacrificed, and bled, and died for ten heartbreaking years, and then at the endthey were all killed or chained? Way to cheer me up there, Earthworm!" Sheturned and stalked out of the galley.



I tried to put Panties out of my mind by concentrating on my food selections.Over the last few days I had discovered the least unappetizing offerings, andI loaded up my tray with those. I wasn't in the mood for company, but when twoof my pilots waved me over to their table, I pretty much had to join them.

I recognized the one called "Archie," remembering him from that first time inthe chaos of the flight deck. Next to him was the one I assumed was his wife.Opposite was...uh-oh, it was the young lady from Forceps' examination table!As I neared the group, she turned beet red and avoided my eyes. Well, I hadfailed with Panties; perhaps I could do my good deed here.

"Archie" stood up and shook my hand. "Hi, Colonel. I'm Lieutenant ArchibaldArdent. This is my wife, Valentina, and this is Tech Yokely." Valentinasmiled brightly, but Yokely only mumbled "Hello."

OK, Blair, time for an Academy Award performance. "Say, Yokely, have we metbefore?" I stared at her in mock puzzlement.

The tech flushed again, and muttered, "In the, uh, infirmary."

"Was that you?" I hoped I wasn't overdoing the surprise. "I was hurting somuch I couldn't see straight." Actually, that wasn't far from the truth.

She finally looked straight at me. "You couldn't? I could tell you were, uh,in pain, but..."

I shook my head. "If I hadn't heard your voice, I wouldn't even have knownanyone was there. What were you in for, Yokely?"

Yokely was smiling with relief. "Please, call me Yanni, Colonel. I had twobroken arms and shrapnel up my--er, shrapnel wounds."

"Ouch! You must have been in agony yourself. And yet you still worried aboutme! I'm impressed, Yok--er, Yanni." This was going well. Yanni was a sweetkid. The situation had possibilities...

I glanced at Valentina and Archie, who were watching my performance with barelyconcealed amusement. Obviously I wasn't fooling them one bit.

Yanni was embarrassed by my praise. "Er, no sir, Forceps gave me a painkiller.But I've always been, well, a bit empathic. All my friends thought I'd be amedic, but I didn't have the grades, so I went into the Militia as a--"

"--a gunner, right?"

Astonished, she could only stammer "H-how d-did you know, sir?"

I gestured vaguely. "Well, you have to know these things when you're a WingCommander. So anyway, Yanni, where's your station?"

"'A' Turret. Starboard bow, dorsal side. We're still making repairs."

I leaned closer to her. "Suppose I stop in some time to inspect your equipment--the turret equipment, I mean."

"W-why that would be wonderful, Colonel! I--we would be happy to have you."She was obviously flustered at all the attention from the famous Heart of theTiger. "Um, I'm due back, sir. It was, er, good to talk with you."

Archie and I both stood to see her off. "See you soon, Yanni." I shook herhand, holding on just a fraction of a second longer than necessary. She smiledand headed for the hatch, glancing back occasionally and colliding with twochairs and an ensign on her way out.

Archie watched Yanni leave, then grinned at me as we resumed our seats."Smooth, Colonel. Very smooth." He put his arm around Valentina.

"Thank you, Lieutenant," I replied, smiling modestly. Noting the flight badgeson my companions' uniforms, I ventured, "So you two fly Vindicators?"

Valentina nodded. "Uh-huh. Archiekins and I always fly wing." She and herArchiekins exchanged a quick kiss.

"Newlyweds?" I hazarded.

Archie lifted his eyebrows in surprise. "Why, yes. Four months. How did youknow, Colonel?"

"Hey, I'm the Wing Commander, remember?"

He nodded wisely. "Of course. Well, Tina and I met in flight school. Onething led to another, and at graduation, we requested matching assignments.Here on the Intrepid, we just grew closer." He looked at his wife, whosmoothly picked up the narrative.

"We were married here, on board, by Captain...uh, Captain D-Dominguez." Shelooked at Archie and reached for his hand, seeking comfort.

I imagined how I'd feel if I ever lost Captain Eisen. "Your captain was quitea leader, I hear, Lieutenant."

Archie hugged his love and gently kissed the top of her head. "He was,Colonel. And from what I've seen of Captain Eisen, he's from the same mold."

Valentina checked her watch. "Oh, Archie, honey, it's time for you to seeForceps. Do you mind if I stay and talk to the Colonel?"

"Of course not. You can tell me all about him later." The two lovebirdskissed passionately while I pretended to be interested in my tasteless food.

Archie offered me his hand again. "See you later, Colonel. Good to meet you."He stood and headed for the exit. At the hatch, he blew Valentina a kissbefore disappearing.

"He's a good man, Valentina. You two are very lucky."

"Call me Tina. Yes, we are lucky. So how come you're not married, Colonel?Or do you prefer seducing schoolgirl gunners?" She smiled impishly.

"Chris, OK? Actually, I was almost married once, but, well, she didn't...makeit through the War." I thought of Robin and Rachel. "Actually more than once,but I screwed up royally, I'm afraid."

Tina reached over to touch my hand. "I'm sorry, Chris. I guess I'm just sohappy with Archie that I...I want everyone else to be happy, too. So you haveno one special waiting for you, back home?"

"Well, Robin's pretty special to me." I was grateful to Tina for reminding meof my beloved golden retriever. "She's beautiful, smart, and affectionate.Fearless, too. One time she and I were out in the fields, looking for anArcturan megamole my neighbor had seen. I'd been sampling my own moonshine alittle too much, and I was slow to react when I was jumped." I shivered at howclose I had come to a horrible death.

"And Robin...?"

"Didn't hesitate a second," I declared proudly. "She went for that beast likea shot. Kept him busy long enough for me to pick myself up and blast him withmy photon rifle! Robin was pretty torn up, though, and I was afraid I'd haveto shoot her--"


"--but old Doc Witherspoon fixed her up, almost as good as new. She stilllimps a little, but she's just as beautiful as ever. And just as cuddly, andsoft, and--"

"Um, yes, that's, er, good, Chris."

"Then there's Rachel."

"You have TWO?" Tina's eyes were wide as saucers.

What was eating her? "Sure. You know how, after the War, the economy was downthe tubes and refugees and homeless were wandering the streets? Well, I foundRachel in an alley in Port Glomerulus, filthy, starving, and injured. But Icould see she was a fighter. I took her in, and she's filled out nicely. Shestill remembers, though; won't sleep anywhere but my bed."

"Oh, my! Uh, what does Robin think about..."

"Oh, at first they fought like cats and dogs." I chuckled at my little joke,but Tina didn't seem to get it. "Then, as they got used to each other, theybecame inseparable. Now they even sleep together."

Tina choked on a bite of "vegetable surprise." After a short coughing fit, sheasked incredulously, "They, er, SLEEP together?"

"Yeah. I'm glad Rachel turned out to be so friendly." Tina coughed again andreached for her coffee. "Of course, Rachel still has a lot of the alley cat inher. I finally had to have her fixed."

Tina sprayed a mouthful of coffee all over her tray. "Fixed? FIXED?"

"Well, yes!" What was with this silly woman? "Look, if it was good enough forRobin--"

Tina jumped to her feet, knocking her chair over in the process. "You fuckingSICKO! No wonder no one will marry you! Keep away from me!" She threw hercoffee in my face--thank God it was only warm--and ran from the galley callingplaintively, "Archie! Archieeee!"

I just sat there, wiping my face with my napkin, completely bewildered.

Moose and Lt. Mourne brought their trays over from the food dispenser and satdown across from me. "What was that all about, Earthworm?"

I shook my head. "Beats me, Moose. I was just telling her about my girls." Isat down and started poking at my food.

"Girls?" asked September.

"Yeah. Back home. You see, there's Robin..."



"Hold still, kid!" Forceps carefully, but not gently, rubbed more regen cremeon my black eye. "Jesus Christ, first a dislocated shoulder, now a beaut of ashiner! How'd you get this one, Blair? And why do you smell like coffee?"

"Ouch! Um, a misunderstanding with Lt. Mourne. I cleared it up and she, um,apologized. So did Tina."

Forceps reached for a small bottle and put a few drops into my eye. My visionimproved almost immediately. "Ya shoulda decked 'em, kid. Somebody whacks ya,ya gotta show ya can't be intimidated!"

Remembering the tender "I'm sorry" kiss September had planted on my eye, I hadto disagree. Man, things were certainly looking up. First Yanni, then--

The speaker overhead squawked to life, startling the tech who was working onit. Flailing his arms, he fell off the grav ladder onto the deck. "Aarrgghh!My wrist!" he howled.

Forceps spit into his cup. "Dammit! Can't I get any peace in this playpen?"He hauled the moaning tech over to the next examination table.

The speaker squawked again, but this time SoSo spoke slowly enough that I couldunderstand most of it. "Colonel Blair to CIC! Emergency!"

Uh-oh. Trouble.


I skidded to a stop in front of Captain Eisen's briefing table. The bulkheaddisplay showed our task force and two other groups of ships about two millionklicks distant from us. One was Confed!

"Oh, shit!"

Eisen turned away from the display. "Yes, Colonel. A Macedon-bound Unionconvoy was caught defying Confed's interdiction order in the Thessaly system.They escaped here, to Orestes, but a Confed destroyer and a frigate followedthem. The convoy's only escort is an old frigate with four fighters."

I jumped as he swatted the table with his swagger stick. Damn, I thought he'dleft that on the Lexington!

"According to the distress call, they'll be under fire in an hour. Proceedwith all due haste, Colonel. That convoy needs our help!"

I jumped to attention and saluted. "Right away, sir!" I turned to go.

Panties rushed in, out of breath. "What's all the--Whoops!"

I grabbed her hand and dragged her along. "Come on, Panties, we've got to seeif anything's ready to fly!"


"Two Banshees, Chief? Is that all?"

Zelda didn't budge a millimeter. "You ordered flight operations suspended,remember, SIR? Catch up on our maintenance, you said, SIR! You're lucky Icheated a little and prepped even two!" For the moment, at least, there was notrace of her infatuation with me.

She was right, of course. "OK, OK, I'm sorry I yelled at you, Chief." And I'msorry I have to fly another suicide mission now! Shit!

Panties glanced at the second Banshee, where Lt. Tennant was just fitting thelast leech missile. "How long to prep a couple of heavies, Chief?"

Zelda shook her head. "At least an hour." No longer angry, to me she said,"Sorry, Blairbear."

Panties wasn't one for regrets. "That's it, then. Zelda, prep four moreBanshees and two Avengers. Colonel, let's get into our suits. Maybe we canhold 'em off long enough for the cavalry to arrive."

I shook my head. "No, Panties, I want you to lead the second wave. I'll getanother Wombat pilot to--"

"How about me?" I turned, to find Blade leaning casually against a workbench."After all," he went on, "why should Moose have all the fun of flying withthe Heart of the Tiger?" He grinned.

I had to hand it to these Border Worlders: they certainly were brave. Stupid,but brave.

"Say, Earthworm," he said curiously. "Where'd you get the shiner?"

"It's a long story, George. Better go suit up!" And make out your will.


We pre-flighted and launched immediately. Time was critical, so we used ourafterburners lavishly. Even so, we nearly arrived too late.

The battle was joined while we were still a hundred thousand klicks out. Fromthe confused montage coming over our comm systems, we gathered that the UnionBanshees were outnumbered two to one. They fought superbly, barely keeping theConfed fighters off the transports, but they couldn't last long. Meanwhile,though badly outgunned, the Union frigate interposed itself between the Confedcapships and the convoy. The Confeds met it with an avalanche of gunfire.

As Blade and I approached, four Hellcats broke off and came after us. TheUnion frigate, trailing debris and flaring with secondary explosions, slowlypulled out of the line of fire. Its guns were silent. The Confeds ignored it,instead boring in on the convoy. It looked like the destroyer was lining upfor a capmis shot.

Our mission seemed hopeless, yet Blade was undaunted. "Victims in sight,Earthworm," he called calmly. I took heart. Maybe the Heart of the Tigercould pull off another miracle!

"Blade! Arm leeches, volley mode! We gotta take out that destroyer! Ready onburner again?"



"Taking it to them, Earthworm!"

My Banshee leaped ahead. As we streaked at them, the four Hellcats launched avolley of missiles and plastered us with gunfire. Our nimble Banshees weredifficult targets, however, and a swarm of decoys kept the missiles off us.Then we were through, at the cost of a few minor hits.

"Status, Blade?" I called.

"I'm fine...and ready to do THEM damage!" God, I loved this idiot!

The Hellcats were falling behind, though not too far behind for missile shots.Ahead, the Confed capships were putting up a wall of fire. Blade and I triedto concentrate on our missile run while evading laser fire and decoying themissiles behind us.

Bam! Bam! Taking hits! Leeches locking...Whoop! Whoop! Decoy! Whoop!Decoy! Silence. Bam! Damn, corkscrew! OH SHIT, CAPMIS LAUNCH! Whoop!Whoop! Decoy! Locked at last! Range eight thousand! Launch!

"Launch, Blade! Cover me, I'm going for the capmis!" I wrenched the Bansheeinto a tight afterburner turn, with the inertial dampers screaming at me allthe way! The capmis was streaking off into the distance. Could I still catchit?

Splatsplatsplat! Hah! At least six leech hits had completely disabled thedestroyer. No more capmis launches!

Splat! What the--

"Next victim!" Jesus, Blade had leeched a Hellcat! What a flyer!

"Status, Blade?"

"Nothing that'll stop me from getting my quota of bad--" BLAM! "--Earthworm!I got enemy up the ass, sir! I could use some help!"

I made a split-second decision. There could be dozens, even hundreds of peopleon that transport ahead.

"Evade! I gotta get that capmis!" I switched to scattergun and upped my gunenergy. Come on, come on... Ploop ploop ploop! KABOOM!

"Hang on, Blade, I'm coming!" I switched back to leech cannon.

"It's getting too hot, Earthworm! I need to pull ou--" KABOOM! "--she'sbreaking up! Ejecting!" Fire blossomed ahead.

Damn! Alone, I was too vulnerable. There was only one Union Banshee on thescope. I changed course to join up, but I had little hope. Most Union pilotsweren't that--Whoa! He just smoked a Hellcat!

In an achingly familiar voice, the Banshee pilot proclaimed her victory.

"Woo! One less Confed!"

Ohmygod! Flint?

"Flint! Form on my wing!"

"Maverick? MAVERICK? Roger that, Maverick!"

We shot toward each other, using our speed advantage to outdistance our twogroups of pursuers. We turned at precisely the same instant, and Flint settledon my wing as if she'd been born there. I felt a surge of elation. Those poorConfed bastards didn't have a prayer now!

We turned into the five remaining Hellcats and tore them to shreds. Flint tookout two with IRs and I disabled two with leech cannon and missiles. The lastone limped off in panic, trailing debris behind him.

Now for the frigate. It was already within extreme range of the convoy, andstarting to fire. Flint was down to her last IR. I had two leeches left.

We caught up on burner, approaching from the vulnerable stern. "Flint! Go inand weaken those shields for me!"

"Taking it to 'em!" She pulled ahead.

I came in a few hundred klicks behind. Dancing like a ballerina around thefrigate's return fire, Flint blasted away with lasers and fired her IR at pointblank range. With Flint drawing most of their fire, I raised gun power andrapid-fired the leech cannon. I launched my missiles and pulled out with halfmy front armor vaporized. Splat! Splat! Just as the BW freighter's shieldscollapsed, the frigate lost all power.

Whew! Just in time. My fuel was all but gone.

Flint commed me. "You really nailed him, Maverick!"

"WE nailed him. Uh, Flint, I gotta pop the top here. I'm out of gas."

"Wait, Chris! Follow me. I have a surprise for you." She headed for theclosest of the four transports.

Curious, I followed. Did she want me to eject nearer their ship?

The comm activated again. Oh God, it was Rachel, radiant as ever!

"Hi, Stallion! Excuse me, I mean, COLONEL Stallion! Download this andactivate autopilot, please."

"Uh, OK, Rachel." What the--Holy smoke, they had adapted their aft dorsalcargo module into a fighter hangar! As I watched, Flint was tractored neatlyinside. A minute later, so was I. The landing field deactivated my engines,already on minimum, and I settled to the deck with a minor jolt.

I popped the canopy and scrambled down the side of my fighter. I threw down myhelmet and ran toward Flint's fighter, parked less than a meter ahead in thecramped hangar. Flint collided with me, and I hung on for dear life as shesobbed with joy.

"Chris! Oh, Chris!"

"Robin! Dear, dear Robin..."

Rachel must have already been on her way from the flight deck, because she raninto the hangar less than a minute later. As Robin grudgingly let go, Rachelslammed me against the Banshee, stuck her tongue down my throat, and grabbed atmy crotch. Fortunately, the flight suit protected me from major damage.

As we probed each other's tonsils, I noted that my dear, sweet, gentle Rachelhadn't changed a bit!


"So why'd you name your ship 'Sappho,' Robin?"

Robin was standing at the food dispenser in the transport's tiny galley."Sappho was a Greek poetess, Sixth Century BC, from the island of Lesbos." Shepunched in an order for mushroom soup. "It seemed appropriate."

She took a steaming bowl from the dispenser. "More soup, Chris?"

My mouth was full, so I just nodded. Robin smiled, and punched up anotherportion. Setting one in front of me, she settled with her own into the seatacross the diminutive table.

I pushed my empty bowl aside and dug into the new one. Oh, God, I'd forgottenhow good real synthetics could taste!

Robin regarded me with amusement. "My God, Chris, don't they feed you boys inthe Militia? No wonder you're so thin!"

"Robin, you wouldn't believe the crap we're subsisting--"

The door slid open and Rachel slipped in. She kissed me on the forehead andsqueezed in next to her partner. "Fattening him up, Robin? Good! He lookslike a refugee from a death camp!"

Good old Rachel. "Har har, very funny. What's the situation outside?"

"Well, partner, the gig from BWS Friggit picked up a bunch of Union and Confedpilots, including your wingman. He's fine, and chowing down like there's notomorrow! They're heading for Orestes III and a dockyard."

"Their status?"

Rachel's tone grew solemn. "Chris, they took nearly forty percent casualties.They wanted to toast those two Confed ships." She shifted uncomfortably in herseat. "I was tempted to cheer them on--Chris, they were firing at US!--but Iknew you wouldn't approve. So I convinced them not to. I think."

Robin and I exchanged glances. On our last tour, vengeance was all I had livedfor. If she hadn't talked me out of that deathmatch with Thrakhath in the Lokisystem, I wouldn't be here.

"Blood begets blood," I said at last. "If they lose their heads, their ownfamilies will pay the price."

Rachel knew I was right, but it didn't make her any happier.

"How about the Confeds, Rachel?"

"Life support is functioning." Unlike civilian craft, most warships were builtwith electrically isolated life support systems. "Orestes IV is sending tugs,but those two won't be bothering the Union for a few months."

"And the cavalry?"

She nudged Robin and smiled. "I commed your girlfriend and explained thesituation. She's taking her fighters home. So, Chris, you boinked her yet?"

"Wouldn't you like to know, Rachel!" My smile faded, and I fidgeted with myspoon. There seemed to be nothing more for us to say. Or maybe too much."Well, I guess it's time to go. I'll see that you're paid for my fuel."

Robin looked at Rachel, who nodded almost imperceptibly. Taking a deep breath,she squeezed Rachel's hand and looked me right in the eye.

"Chris, were you really happy on your farm?"

There it was: the question I'd been asking myself ever since I came aboard."I thought I was, Robin, but even then I knew my life was incomplete. Now,seeing you two again, I don't think I could go back there without...someone."

Rachel spoke up. "Robin and I feel the same way, Chris. We have each other,of course, but without you, we're still...incomplete."

Robin put her free hand on mine. "Chris, we want you back. Both of us. Noconditions this time."

"No rules," said Rachel, taking my other hand. "We'll make them up as we goalong."

"It could be so good, Chris," said Robin earnestly. Her eyes held the promiseof all that was to come.

In the back of my mind, a little voice was screaming at me. Oh boy, kiss them!

Instead of kissing, however, I temporized. "Your business barely makes aliving for two. Could it support three...or more?"

Robin was ready for that one. "OK, we had a hard time at first, what with theeconomy and all..."

I could see that for myself. They were both thinner, and new worry lines wereetched on their lovely faces. Yet there was a sparkle in their eyes that I hadnever seen on the Victory.

"...but with war in the air, customers are so desperate they're paying double.A couple more runs, and we'll have enough to go into privateering."

"Chris," said Rachel, "however this insane Border World secession turns out,interstellar space will be topsy-turvy for years. A good privateer team couldclean up!"

I smiled. "The Three Privateers?" I was only half joking; this was the bestoffer I'd had in ages.

"Yes, Chris," said Robin seriously. "One for all and all for one."

Well how about it, Blair? You've been a pilot, a mechanic, a programmer, adiplomat, a farmer... You can be a privateer, too.

Then I remembered my keepsakes from the Annabel Lee. They were back on theIntrepid, in my footlocker in the storage hold.

I sighed. "Robin, Rachel...I can't answer now, because I still have a job todo. But if I survive this business, I promise I'll give you a straight answerthis time. How's that?"

Robin looked at Rachel before nodding decisively. "OK, Chris. That's all weask."


In the hangar, we shared tender farewell kisses. Robin's took me back to thatlong-ago parting in the Kilrah system, when I had to leave her and her damagedfighter at the last depot before flying off to blow Zeke's homeworld to hell.Now, as then, I wondered if I'd be coming back to her.

I climbed into my Banshee and did a quick preflight. As I lowered the canopy,Robin and Rachel joined hands and waved. I tried to burn their images into mymemory: Robin Peters, who flew with her head and lived with her heart; RachelCoriolis, healer of fighter engines and human souls.

A touch of reverse thrusters sent me into space. The exit field ignited myengines, and I steered clear of the ship before throttling up for the long tripback to Intrepid.

I kept the cockpit view centered on the Sappho long after it had shrunk to apinpoint and disappeared.


"Great mission, sir!" For a change, I could actually understand SoSo. "All Ican say is, we're lucky to have you on our side, Colonel! You have clearance,sir. Sir? Colonel, are you all right?"

"Uh, yeah, Lieutenant. Just...thinking."


Zelda met me at the bottom of the ladder. Taking my helmet, she said, "Pantiestells me you ran into some old...friends." She looked at me keenly, perhapstrying to divine from my expression what had transpired on the Sappho.

"Yes," I replied absently. "Very dear old--" No, that's no good, Blair.You'll never make it back to them if you don't concentrate on the here and now.

"But I'm back, now, Chief," I continued briskly, "and we have work to do."

End of Chapter 14

Previews from Chapter 15:

"Uh, nice john."

"Nice try, Vag, but Lady Luck is my bride!"

"Hey! Watch where you point that thing!"