[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander December 4, 1996]
Zelda helped me off with my flight suit. Her help wasn't strictly necessary,of course, and it definitely wasn't part of a crew chief's official duties, butafter a long hard mission, it was much appreciated. Zelda was, in fact, anideal crew chief in almost every way. My fighter was always configuredproperly, and I had yet to find even the slightest fault in any of the systems.If only she weren't so... Maybe if she were a little more, er, like Rachel.
"Thanks, Chief. Uh, I'd better check if SoSo has found--"
Zelda grabbed my arm. "Whoa, Honeyblair, I have something to show you." Ifollowed her to her workshop, a place I was beginning to think of in terms ofthe legendary Lockheed "Skunk Works" from the Twentieth Century.
We stopped in front of one of the porta-potties I'd first seen when Zeldashowed me her cloaker. "Here it is, sweetie!" proclaimed Zelda, beaming withpride. "What do you think of it?"
Well, what COULD one think of a porta-potty? "Uh, nice john," I said lamely.
She laughed. "No, silly! Not john; JON. J-O-N. Stands for 'JettisonableOperations Navpod.' I modified it from a standard porta-potty."
That's it, I thought. She's round the bend. "Er, so you invented a navigabletoilet, Chief? Very, er, resourceful."
Zelda just shook her head. "Blairbear, sometimes you can be SO dense! Look,sometimes you want to insert an operative into an area that's too hot for ashuttle or even a Marine lander. The JON fits on a torpedo hardpoint; thatway, it's protected by the fighter's shields until launch."
"Launches like a torpedo, then? Same lock time?"
"No, less. The JON travels so slowly, you don't have to worry about shieldpenetration."
"And at the target?"
"In space, the JON grapples to the target; on the ground, it soft-lands. Theoccupant jumps out the door and sneaks in to his objective, or blows his way inwith shaped charges."
Zelda opened the tiny hatch to show me the interior. I saw an accelerationchair with restraints surrounded by controls, life support equipment, powersupply, and racks for weapons and gear. A light enviro suit was hanginginside, ready for use in airless or toxic surroundings.
"Watch, honeybunch," said Zelda. She reached in and flipped up the seat, thenpushed a button on the control panel. I heard a flushing sound.
"It still works?" I asked incredulously.
Zelda smiled proudly. "Uh-huh. That was the hardest part: retaining theoriginal function while adding the new capabilities. Of course the capacity ismuch smaller now, and there's only room for one roll of paper. Now, lookhere." She pointed to a rack beside the seat.
"Cosmo, GQ, Reader's Digest? You provided reading material, too?"
She nodded happily.
I regarded Zelda and her creation with undisguised admiration. "Chief, you areundoubtedly the most deranged individual I have ever met!"
"Why, thank you, Honeyblair," she said demurely.
After Zelda's demo, we hustled to CIC. Our closest approach to Orestes IV wasin about eight hours, so we had to have a target and a mission plan long beforethen. I prayed SoSo had found something suitable.
As we entered CIC, I noticed a sleeping bag and mold-o-matt on the floorbehind the briefing table. The Captain was tucked cozily into the bag, snoringaway through all the activity in the compartment. An empty can of synthobeansstood on the table next to a nanowave heater. On call at all times, theCaptain had done his best to make a home in CIC. Except, of course, for--no,he had that covered, too. A porta-potty--a real one, not one of Zelda's--waslocated just outside the comm alcove.
Speaking of Zelda, she was staring at the empty can and licking her lips. Toolate, it occurred to me that some tasty Sappho takeout would have been muchappreciated by certain nubile females on the BWS Intrepid. Damn!
We found SoSo in the comm alcove, working away on her Mc. As we entered thehypermedia field, I discovered that she had replaced my pastoral backgroundwith a glitzy bar. Two muscular male strippers were grinding away on the stageto a sensuous popular tune. Scattered everywhere were translucent verticalprojections of Orestes IV detail maps, building diagrams, communications codes,and Confed patrol patterns.
Just as one of the dancers was undoing his G-string, SoSo noticed us andquickly shut down the computer. I blinked at the sudden brightness. SoSo, whohad been in darkness longer, took off her glasses and rubbed her eyes. Shelooked tired.
"I've checked every comm center on the planet," she said, replacing herglasses. "You're not going to like this." SoSo brought up a display of thefourth planet, then zoomed in on an isolated building several klicks from amedium-sized city.
"All but one of them are located in populated areas, or in highly secure bases,or inside orbital forts. The only one we have a chance of getting into is thiscommunications research center. Unfortunately, what with the tensions of adivided star system, it's fenced and heavily guarded by Marines stationed atthese posts here, here, here, and here."
It looked bad, but I wasn't ready to give up. "How about one of the orbitingstations, SoSo? With a cloaker, I can get close enough to dash in, knock outthe local defenses, and fire in a couple of JONs--"
"JONs?" asked SoSo.
"Infiltration capsules," explained Zelda. She shook her head. "Won't work,snookums. They'd spot the JONs on their sensors. If you knock out sensors,then they'll know someone's inbound. Either way, the Confeds will know they'vebeen robbed. At the very least, they'll change their codes; they may evencheck their archived comm data."
"OK, the research site, then. The sensor post would spot the JONs there, too,so JONs are out. Maybe we can just walk in openly. SoSo, can you work up somefake IDs, card keys, and so on?"
She shook her head. "Once inside, I can get all kinds of codes along with thecomm data. But not before."
"Then we take out a guard post quietly and steal their keys." We were supposedto meet a detachment of Marines at Orestes III, but that would be too late.We'd have to go in ourselves, with silenced weapons...
SoSo shook her head again. "The whole place is ringed with combat sensors."She displayed the defense plan and pointed out some of the units. "Unlessyou're incredibly lucky, any attempt to take out the guards by force will alertthe whole place."
Shit. "OK, good work, Lieutenant. Chief, go install your cloaker on ashuttle. We'll just have to think of some way to neutralize those guards."
Zelda gave me a peck on the cheek. "You'll think of something, dear."
I watched gloomily as she left the compartment. I didn't share her confidencein me.
On my way out of CIC, I stopped at the armament station to check on our fighterweapons stores. Despite the crew's strenuous firefighting efforts, manymissiles had either cooked off in the fires, or were rendered useless by foam.We would need major replenishment from the Orestes III depots.
As I turned to leave, I noticed Hulk napping at the engineering station, hisfeet propped up on the console. His posture looked extremely uncomfortable, soI strolled over to see if I could rearrange him a bit. On other occasions,Hulk had proved all but impervious to stimulation, so I was surprised when hestirred at my first touch.
"What? Who? Hulk awake! Hulk hurt somebody! Hulk-- Oh. Blair."
"Sorry, Hulk, I was just trying to make you more comfortable."
He smiled at me. "Hulk thank Blair."
"Look, Hulk, why don't you sack out in one of the hold--er, dormitories?"
He shook his head. "Hulk come here to think. Hulk have problem. Ask Blair.Yes. Blair wise."
"What is it, Hulk? Trouble with your shoelaces again?"
"Ask Blair, how he like being back in combat?"
Good question. "Well, for one thing, my life is a lot simpler. On the farm,I had a thousand things to worry about. Here, I just worry about life anddeath, victory and defeat."
Hulk nodded sagely. "Hulk understand. Hulk like simple life. Peace not goodfor Hulk. Confusing. Hulk miss Kilrathi war, happy for trouble now. Hulkwonder: Blair liked killing Kilrathi?"
I pondered for a minute. Hulk had asked a simple question--of course--butthere was nothing simple about the answer.
"I guess I've always liked being good at what I do. In the Academy, it wasscholarship and flying. In the war, it was accomplishing the mission, not thekilling--which incidentally is the difference between me and Maniac. Over theyears, I've tried to be a good act--er, flyer, diplomat, farmer, and now...Now I just want to prevent a war."
Hulk looked disappointed. Either that, or he hadn't understood a bloody wordI'd said.
"Uh, how about you, Hulk?"
He replied sadly, "Killing all Hulk can do. No good in peace, out to pasture.To live, Hulk must kill. Kill! Hurt! Maim! Mangle! Burn--"
"Hulk! Easy there, big guy! Whoa!" Poor Hulk was, in his way, as rigid asthe Kilrathi had been, and he would inevitably follow the same road to ruin.How could I get around this obsession with fighting? Maybe...
"Look, Hulk, do you have any hobbies?"
He scratched his head a moment, then brightened. "Hulk used to stuff Kilrathicorpses. Then beat stuffing out of them! Much fun! Huh-huh huh-huh huh-huh!"
I winced. Taxidermy was out. Think, Blair!
"Uh, Hulk, did you ever think about raising livestock? Like rabbits, maybe?"
"Rabbits?" For once, it seemed I had Hulk's full attention. "Cute littlebunny rabbits? Hulk like bunny rabbits. Soft, warm, furry. Hmmm. Blair havegood idea. Hmmm..."
"You should think about it. I can give you advice...Hulk? Hulk?" I shookhim, but there was no response. He just sat there with a smile on his face,occasionally muttering, "Bunnies!"
I left Hulk to whatever passed for his thoughts. I had a problem of my own tosolve. Maybe some so-called food would help.
With Intrepid's crew quarters and recreation facilities unusable, the crew hadmoved most of their leisure activities to the galley. Several card games werein progress when I entered, but one in particular had drawn a large crowd.Curious, I joined the kibitzers.
I wasn't surprised to see Vagabond playing; no doubt he was taking advantageof the Unionists' supposed incompetence at cards. I was surprised, however, tofind Maniac at the same table, since Vagabond had badly beaten him many times,both on the Victory and on the Lexington. And I was positively floored to seeLt. Mourne standing behind Maniac, with her hands caressing his shoulders.
I turned to the woman next to me, a Gopher Squadron pilot whom I knew only byher callsign.
"What's the game, Excell?"
"Bellybutton. Five card stud. Kid Shark is--."
"Yeah, that's what Maniac calls himself when he plays cards. Anyway, he'swinning."
Huh? Vagabond should be wiping the floor with these guys! I craned my neckfor a better view. This could be a historic match.
The pot already held over a hundred credits. Panties was dealing the fourthcard. Turbo had already folded. Maniac had a pair showing; as I watched, hegot the King of Marvin Gardens.
Tex had two watermelons up. His fourth card, a baker's dozen, was no help.
Vagabond got the loin of pork. His hand was not promising.
Panties dealt herself the cadet of space. That neutralized her ace of spaceand Kimberly cards, and made her visible cards worthless.
Maniac had high hand. Obviously savoring the moment, he cockily picked up somebills from his pile. "Kid Shark isn't greedy. He'll just bet one, two, three,four, FIVE big ones! Fifty credits to you, Tex m'boy!"
Tex folded without a word, disgust written all over his face.
Vagabond, despite his dubious hand, reached for his money. "Your fifty, Kid,and fifty more." There was a sharp intake of breath in the crowd. What was heup to? Maniac's pair couldn't be neutralized by another card.
Panties threw in her hand. "Fifty to you, Kid."
Maniac had been surprised when Vagabond bumped the pot, but his confidence wasunshaken. "You're bluffing, old man. Here's your fifty. Deal, sweet buns."
"Last card," said Panties. The onlookers leaned closer. A couple of the othercard games had broken up as the players joined the spectators.
Maniac got another king. Now he had two pair showing. He tried to conceal hisjoy behind a poker face, but his leg was jumping and he was humming "God Savethe King." His hole card must be a doozy.
Vagabond's last card didn't help him at all. No, on second thought... Belly-button was extremely complex, with wild, semi-wild, and tame cards, and somethat changed value depending on the presence or stacking order of others. Yes,Vagabond had a chance after all, but there was only one card in the deck hecould use. Did he have it, or was he bluffing? I tried to read Vagabond'sface, but, as always, I failed.
"Two pair bets, Kid," said Panties. She was trying to remain calm, but hervoice betrayed her excitement.
Maniac counted his bills, then put them all into the pot. "Let's get this overwith, old-timer. Kid Shark bets three hundred twenty credits."
Murmurs erupted from the crowd. More crewmen crowded around the table. I feltsomeone shoving in next to me, and made room for Yanni. She took my hand, butshe was watching the card players. No, she was watching Maniac!
After a moment of thought, Vagabond started counting his money into the pot.He didn't have enough in front of him, but he pulled a wad of cash out of hiship pocket and laid it on the table. "Here's your money, Kid, and five hundredmore!"
More excitement among the onlookers. Vagabond was trying to buy the hand! Hemust have garbage! Kibitzers, especially the females, were shifting slightlytoward Maniac's side of the table.
Maniac didn't hesitate. "Nice try, Vag, but Lady Luck is my bride! Will youtake my marker, or you gonna make me go through the motions of raising thedough?" He tore a page out of his little address book and wrote on it.
Vagabond thought for a long minute. If he tried to make Maniac put up cash,everyone would know he was bluffing. I noticed Yanni was holding her breath.Her grip on my hand was becoming painful.
Barr leaned over and whispered in my ear. "The Kid's got him, Bearkiss!"
I shook my head and whispered back. "Twenty-five on Vagabond."
Finally, Vagabond said, "OK, Kid, I know you're good for it." Yanni exhaledloudly. So did a number of others. Lt. Mourne rubbed Maniac's shoulders inencouragement. I glanced at Panties. Even she was caught up in Maniac'simpending triumph.
Maniac gleefully threw in his marker. "OK, the Kid calls!" Not waiting forVagabond, he eagerly turned over his hole card. It was the Elvis of Presley!
"Read 'em and weep, Vag! Three kings and two garbage cans! Haha ha!" Hereached for the pot.
I closed my eyes. I usually enjoyed seeing Maniac humiliated, but sometimes itwas just too gruesome to watch.
"Not so fast, Kid," said Vagabond calmly. There was a pause, during which hemust have turned over his hole card. Then I heard Barr exclaim, "Jesus Christ!A royal salami!"
Stunned silence. I opened my eyes.
Maniac was staring blankly at Vagabond's hole card. A slight twitch at theside of his mouth was the only sign of life.
"That's five hundred you owe me, Kid," said Vagabond, deadpan. He didn'tbother to rake in the pot.
Vagabond leaned back in his chair, took out a cigar, and lit it. "You're good,Kid," he said. He took a puff on his cigar. "But as long as I'm around,you're second best. You might as well learn to live with it."
The crowd started breaking up, the spectators muttering in disgust. Lt. Mournegave Maniac a contemptuous shove and headed for the exit. Barr smiled at me,shook his head, and handed me twenty-five credits. Then he went over to Maniacand gently shook him. "Hey. Game's over. Come on, Kid."
Maniac allowed himself to be led away. As he passed me, I heard him muttering,"Nobody's invincible to Maniac moves. What the hell happened?"
Yanni was looking at me in awe. "H-how did you know, Colonel?"
"I'm the Wing Commander, remember?" I answered absently. I'd just had an idea,and I was trying to work it through.
Yanni moved closer and lowered her voice. "I-I have the duty in 'A' turret ina few minutes. Alone. If you want to have that...inspection now?"
"Can't," I answered shortly, still absorbed in my thoughts. Noting the hurt inher eyes, however, I snapped out of it. "Sorry, Yanni, I was a million klicksaway." I smiled and kissed her forehead. "Take a raincheck? I have a missionto fly!"
She smiled with relief. "I'll be waiting for you to cash it, sir." She headedfor the exit.
I walked over to Vagabond, who was stuffing his pockets with cash. "Congrats,Vagabond. That was a masterpiece."
Vagabond gathered the last of his winnings and stood up. He flung the cigarinto the disposal and looked warily around the galley, which was now deserted.Without warning, he suddenly shouted, "YIPPEE, I WON! WAHOO!" Vagabond danceda little jig in front of me. He chickenwalked a few steps away and moonwalkedback. We high-fived, low-fived, and mid-tenned. He raised one arm straightup and shouted, "OWOOOO, I'M BAAAD!"
I laughed at the antics of the usually cool card player. "Hey, Vagabond, takeit easy, buddy!"
He grinned back at me. "You don't understand! Today's my lucky day! Look!"Vagabond pulled a trans slip out of his breast pocket and handed it to me.
I read it out loud. "Congratulations! You have won the Publisher'sClearinghouse Sweepstakes Grand Prize of TEN MILLION--"
"Here!" he said, handing me another slip.
"The Militia of the Union of Border Worlds hereby grants an Honorable Dischargeto Captain Winston--"
"And this!" Another trans slip.
"My darling Winnie, of course I'll marry you! Rich or poor, you're the onlyman for me! I can't wait to feel your strong arms around me, to take yourlong, hard--"
Vagabond snatched the sheets back. "You see? I'm on a roll! Everything is--What's wrong, partner?"
My face must have betrayed my disappointment. "Well, I'm happy for you,Vagabond, really I am. It's just that I needed you on the next mission. Butnow, with your discharge and all..."
"Hey!" he exclaimed, putting his arm around my shoulders. "You think I'd passup my last mission with my best buddy? Besides, it's my lucky day! I'llprobably find a gold asteroid or something!"
I had to swallow a lump in my throat. "Thanks, pal," was all I could say.
"You're welcome. One thing, though. If you can possibly make the wedding, yougotta be my best man, OK?"
I took his hand and squeezed warmly. "Deal!"
SoSo, Zelda, Vagabond, and I gathered in front of the briefing table. CaptainEisen stood bleary-eyed and stubble-faced on the other side. SoSo had awakenedhim from a sound sleep and explained the situation to him, but she had no moreknowledge of my plan than he did.
"All right, Colonel," said Eisen in resignation. "There's supposed to be adetachment of Marines waiting for us on Orestes III, but Lieutenant Sosa heretells me we can't use them anyway. So what hare-brained scheme have youhatched this time?"
I smiled confidently. "OK, this site is guarded by Confed Marines, right? Sowhat is it that Marines care most about, Captain? What occupies all theirwaking hours to the exclusion of all else?"
"That's easy. Combat, sex, and--" Understanding dawned on him. He lookedsharply at Vagabond, then back at me. "Why, that's brilliant, Colonel!"
"Of course it is," I said modestly.
"What is?" asked SoSo. She still didn't get it.
I ignored her. "We'll cloak the shuttle at launch and stay cloaked most of theway, there and back."
"Meanwhile," said Eisen, "we'll stay on course. We won't do a thing to makeOrestes IV suspicious. That means you'll be on your own if there's trouble."
"Captain, this whole mission depends on Confed not even knowing it's beenrobbed. If we're spotted, the mission's a failure, regardless of what happensto us."
SoSo spoke up again. "Colonel, aren't you forgetting the guards at--"
"Leave that to me," said Vagabond, cracking his knuckles. "They won't feel athing!"
Reluctantly, I stood stiffly at the shuttle hatch and let Zelda kiss megood-bye. At the last second, I presented my cheek instead of my lips, but Istill got nicked.
"Be careful out there, Chris." She backed down the ramp and waved.
I gave her a perfunctory wave and headed for the cockpit, checking to see thatSoSo was secured in one of the passenger seats.
I strapped myself into the pilot's seat and started pre-flight. Vagabond, inthe co-pilot's position, reached over and dabbed at my wound with a tissue.
"Well," he said, smiling. "A few more of those and we'll have to start callingyou the Purple Heart of the--"
I glared at him and he shut up.
Zelda's cloaker worked like a charm. We were well past Orestes IV's outerdefense sphere before Confed sensor emanations approached the detectionthreshold. We held our breaths when I switched off, but no one challenged us.There was too much shuttle traffic, and no one was very alert that far insidethe outer zone.
We set down in the rear parking lot of the research building at about 0100local time, perhaps ten meters from the guard post. Taking our time, wedebarked and wandered casually toward the guards, laughing and joking as if wehadn't a care in the world. We were all wearing Confed uniforms.
One of the guards, a female, shouted at us. "Halt! State your business!"
I smiled at her. "We're picking up a friend here. She's getting off work in afew minutes. We're going on a double date!" I indicated Vagabond and SoSo,who laughed and waved.
The guards relaxed and let us approach. At close range, I could see all threewere female, tall and attractive, if a bit beefy. They were wearing combatfatigues and gear, including helmets. I indulged myself in a brief bondagefantasy--oh, to be tied up and abused by these Amazons!--before returning tobusiness.
"Mind if we wait inside?" I asked innocently, feigning a chill. The firstMarine, a blonde, shrugged and waved us in. The guardhouse was quite homey,with mini-fridge, a cot, chairs, and more than enough room for all six of us.
Inside, I tried to make small talk. "So, Corporal..." I checked her name tag."...Orney, you from Orestes IV?" She didn't bother to answer. I noticed thatshe and her companions--Privates Ott and Evvey--were making eyes at Vagabond.So much the better.
I nodded slightly at Vagabond. He took my cue and reached into his pocket fora deck of cards. "Say, how about a little bellybutton while we wait? I coulduse some extra cash for the bars tonight!" He pretended to leer at SoSo.
I knew it! The Marines' eyes lit up like sparklers! This would be easy as--
"Can't," said Cpl. Orney. "No cash. Blew it at the strip club last night."She and her companions desperately searched through their pockets, but foundno money.
"Er, then for matches...or something," said Vagabond. It was no good. Thegame had to be exciting enough for SoSo to grab the cardkey on the rack by thedoor and sneak into the building unnoticed.
The Marines just shook their heads dejectedly. I had to come up with somethingbrilliant, or the mission was doomed! Think, Blair! Combat, sex, and cards.Combat, sex, and...SEX!
"How about strip bellybutton?" I suggested, with forced calmness. Jesus, whatwas I saying?
SoSo and Vagabond looked at me as if I'd just gone stark raving mad. TheMarines, in contrast, practically jumped up and down with excitement. "Now yertalkin'!" exclaimed Private Ott. She eyed Vagabond as a starving man eyes asteak.
"NOT ME!" yelled SoSo. "No fucking--"
Pvt. Evvey lifted little SoSo by her collar and sat her on the floor with onehand. "Shaddap and play, beanpole!" Evvey was grinning with anticipation.
Vagabond directed one last, pleading look at me before reluctantly sitting onthe floor with the Marines and SoSo. I joined the circle, and the game began.
Under the rules of strip bellybutton, when a player lost the last article ofclothing, he or she could force another player--of either sex--to strip also.The two would then generally go off for a little private fun and games. I didmy best to build losing hands without being too obvious about it. SoSo, to hercredit, put the mission above her personal scruples and did the same. Vagabondhelped us out when it was his deal.
I came in for considerable ridicule when my Official Battlecruiser 4000 ADUnderwear was revealed; SoSo drew a number of disparaging comments when her bracame off. I had in fact been overly generous in judging her so-so; no-no wasmore like it.
Finally, SoSo and I were down to one item each. Vagabond had dealt me a decenthand, which meant that SoSo would lose first. When we laid down our cards,however, I was low. I glared at Vagabond, who merely grinned and shrugged.
Amid calls of "Take it off!" and "Let's see it, shorty!" I reluctantly stoodup. I dropped my drawers with as much dignity as I could muster, despiteguffaws and catcalls from the Marines.
Though shriveled with embarrassment, I tried to leer convincingly at SoSo."OK, uh, honey, let's, er, play some 'pattycake' out back."
Forcing a smile, SoSo also stood. Her hands, however, remained over her chest.
"Here, let me!" said Cpl. Orney helpfully. She reached for SoSo's panties, andin an instant, SoSo was as bare as the day she was born. Reflexively, SoSoadjusted her hands. That drew more laughter from the Marines.
"Come on, uh, honey," I said, moving toward the door. SoSo, gritting herteeth, followed.
"Here, Romeo!" called Cpl. Orney, throwing a condom assortment pack at me."Should be one SHORT enough in there for you, shrimp! Haw haw!" She turnedback to the game.
Short? Enraged, I started for her, but SoSo grabbed my hand. Right. Missionfirst. Next time, bitch!
We both grabbed for the cardkey, but SoSo got it first. Holding it over astrategic spot, she led the way toward the back entrance of the institute.
SoSo was muttering bitterly to herself. "'Vagabond will play cards with them,'he said! 'You can sneak out while they're playing,' he said! Did he say I'dend up stark naked? Nooooo!"
In contrast, I found myself relaxing as we ran across the darkened lawn. Thefeel of grass on my bare feet reminded me of the night Angel and I had playedmoonlight golf on Vespus. On the seventh green, we'd made passionate love.And on the eighth. And the ninth.
I was well into the back nine when we reached the door. Watching me warily,SoSo unlocked the door as quickly as she could and immediately returned thecard key to its former duty.
As expected, the building was all but deserted at such a late hour. SoSo ledthe way down the hallway toward the computer room. Both of us were hugging thewall.
What was that? Somebody behind us? No, false alarm. While my head wasturned, however, I bumped into SoSo, who had stopped at an intersection.
She whirled on me. "Hey!" she hissed, "Watch where you point that thing!"
After checking both directions, we hurried across. SoSo was as keyed up as Iwas. Discovery meant certain capture and--worse--exposure.
We came to a long window set in the wall. Cautiously peering in, we saw alarge electronics lab. Two bored-looking technicians were repairing a smallholovid unit. We pulled back, and SoSo looked at me inquiringly. I madecrawling motions. We'd have to negotiate this section on hands and knees.
Creeping behind SoSo, I noticed a tattoo on her, uh, stern transom. Curious,I got closer and tried to decipher it. Property...of...Hell's--
"Ouch!" Again, SoSo had stopped without warning. Tentatively, I touched mynose. Was it broken?
"NOW what the hell are you doing?" whispered SoSo.
"Reading your bumper sticker. I couldn't make out the last--"
SoSo turned white. Fast as a cat, she sat straight up against the wall, buttflat on the floor, hands concealing as much as possible. "That's it, buster!YOU go first!"
We made a right at the next intersection and found the computer room two doorsdown. I held my breath as SoSo inserted the card key, but the door openedsmoothly. Hah! Our problems were over. Quickly, we sneaked inside.
I had forgotten that the fastest computers, even in the 27th Century, requiredcold operating environments.
I bit my lip to keep from yelling as my feet touched the floor. Aiyaa! Likeice! SoSo clapped both hands to her mouth, but a muffled scream still slippedthrough. She looked at me, her eyes pleading. I could only shrug. We had tocomplete the mission at all costs.
Already shivering, SoSo ran over to the main console. Wincing, she gingerlysat her bare bottom in the cold operator's chair and went to work.
As the minutes passed, I hovered nearby, hopping from foot to foot and blowingon my hands. I glanced at SoSo's chest, noticing that--thanks to the cold--shewas finally developing a hint of a figure. Seeing me staring, she ventured alook just south of my navel base, but it did her no good. I now had the cardkey, which was--again thanks to the cold--perfectly adequate concealment.
SoSo tapped the keyboard decisively, then wrapped her arms around herself."D-download in progress. Fifteen m-m-minutes." By now, our teeth werechattering, and both of us were shivering uncontrollably.
I knew neither of us could stand another fifteen minutes of, er, exposure.There was just one chance. "S-S-SoSo, you know what we have to d-d-do."
The very thought made her sick. "You m-m-mean..." She couldn't say it.
I nodded, reluctantly. I didn't like it any more than she did. "We haven-n-no choice. It's the only w-w-way to k-k-keep warm!"
She was desperately trying to think of an alternative, but there was none.Finally, she resigned herself to it. "OK, let's g-g-get it over with," shechattered. I took her hand and led her to an open area of the floor...
The data came through on schedule, which was good, because SoSo and I were tooexhausted to continue. We were warm, finally, but I didn't think I'd ever feelclean again. SoSo must have felt the same way. She shoved a stick of gum inher mouth--now where the hell had she gotten that?--and chewed furiously as sheretrieved the loaded terabyte data cartridge.
I stared at the cartridge with envy as SoSo immediately put it to use as a figleaf. I had the card key, of course, but hers was bigger than mine.
We returned the way we had come, stopping to check at crossways, and crawlingunder the lab window. At the last intersection, I caught the sound of distantvoices and froze. As I crouched, straining my ears, SoSo touched the back ofmy shoulder.
"Aiyee!" I hissed. "Dammit, SoSo, your hands are still cold!"
"Sorry," she whispered. "Um, Colonel?"
"What?" Shit, were those Marines down there?
"You won't tell anyone what we, uh, did, will you, sir?"
Huh? I turned to face her, fighting down my anger. "Oh, right, Lieutenant!I'm going to report how we scampered around this installation buck naked anddid calisthenics in our birthday suits, just like one of Maniac's idiot Playboy'aerobics' vids! Oh, yeah, I'm just dying for us to become the laughingstocksof the ship!" I paused for breath. "Velina, I don't think so!"
She shrank under my wrath, but her relief was obvious. In a very small voice,she said, "Thank you, sir."
I cautiously stuck my head around the corner. The coast was clear. We dashedthrough the intersection, back to the exit, and out into the night.
As we approached the guardhouse, I prayed that Vagabond had managed to keep theguards busy, despite our lengthy absence. I listened for voices, or perhapsthe sounds of card play, but I heard nothing. Thoroughly alarmed, I carefullysneaked into the guardhouse, expecting the Marines to pounce at any second. Ineedn't have worried, however; Vagabond had done his duty well--too well.
The Marines were sprawled on the floor, naked, asleep, and snoring lustily.Scattered all around were used condoms--I lost count at eleven. In the middleof it all was Vagabond, or rather, what was left of him. He lay on his back,naked, unseeing eyes staring up at the ceiling. His hair had turned white andstood straight up. An idiot grin was frozen on his face.
Fighting tears, I knelt and gently closed Vagabond's eyes. Then I reached forhis last hand of cards, knowing what I would find. Yup, it was the Dead Man'sHand: aces 'n apes; the same hand Spirit had drawn before her last mission.
SoSo was nearly dressed. Sadly, I put my own clothes on, then both of ushurriedly dressed Vagabond. We carried him out to the shuttle and took offbefore the guards came to. The mission was a success, but at what a cost!
SoSo had said nothing since we left the institute. She could only huddle inthe co-pilot's seat, arms wrapped tightly around herself. Once, when I triedto reach over to her, she slapped my hand away and went back to sit withVagabond.
Though we were behind schedule, I still had to complete Phase II of themission. After a brief flight, I set the shuttle down in the parking lot ofthe local Kwik-E-Mart convenience store. SoSo wouldn't leave Vagabond, so Idashed inside alone and loaded up with six-packs, bananas, and other essentialfood items.
The trip back to Intrepid was uneventful. I cloaked as we approached theplanet's perimeter defenses, and once again no alarm was raised. On the longflight home, I went over and over the mission in my mind, trying to find someway I could have saved Vagabond. I came up with nothing, but that didn'tremove the weight of guilt from my shoulders.
Captain Eisen himself greeted us on final approach. "How did it go, Colonel?"he asked anxiously.
I tried to maintain a professional calm, but my voice refused to obey."M-mission accomplished, sir."
His relief was profound. "Whew! You don't know how happy that makes me,Colonel. I don't mind saying, your plan sounded a bit half-baked--" Seeingmy expression, Eisen suddenly stopped. "Any complications?" he asked sharply.
I nodded. "V-Vagabond, sir."
The Captain's face fell. "I'm truly sorry, Colonel. I know he was a closefriend. Um, you have clearance. Report to me as soon as you land."
"Aye aye, sir." I broke the connection.
In his short time aboard, Vagabond had made a lot of friends among Intrepid'screw. A large crowd was silently gathering around the shuttle as I cracked thehatch. Zelda was waiting, and immediately ran up the ramp to embrace me. Thistime, I hugged her back.
Forceps and an orderly hustled inside with a blanket and a grav stretcher. Afew minutes later, they emerged, Forceps gently guiding an unresponsive SoSo,the orderly pushing the blanket-draped stretcher. The crowd parted forthem, then closed in behind as they passed.
I gave Zelda a final squeeze and headed for CIC. Still second-guessing, Icursed myself for taking the mission so lightly. Yet Vagabond had been so surehe was coming back, so convinced he was on a lucky streak! His confidence hadbeen infectious. Then I realized that, ironically, Vagabond had been right ina way: he had indeed gotten "lucky" with those three guards.
A little too lucky.
Previews from Chapter 16:
"Wake up, sir! We're in trouble! Again!"
"'Scuse me, feller, kin yew direct me to the wormbat ready room?"
"In other news, the Terran Confederation has lost one of its greatest heroes."
"Hey, Gomers! Knock knock!"