Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 16

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to December 9, 1996]

Chapter 16

Though I was dead tired, Vagabond's funeral couldn't wait. We were only a few hours out of Orestes III, where dockyards were waiting for Intrepid and our damaged escorts. BWS Friggit, the badly wounded escort from the Sappho's convoy, would also make repairs at Orestes III.

While the crew was assembling, I stopped at sick bay to pay my last respects to Vagabond privately. By now most of the wounded had been returned to duty and the extra beds in the corridors removed.

I found Vagabond's coffin on the deck in the surgery. Seeing no one around, I knelt and lay my hand on top of it. Vagabond had been a skillful pilot, a courageous warrior, and a loyal friend. He was a hero in the truest sense of the word, and I owed him my life many times over.

Indeed, thanks to Vagabond, the Heart of the Tiger would live on to earn even greater glory. As my legend grew, so would the mountain of corpses it was built upon. Enemies dropped like flies, friends fell all around me, but I would go on and on, and the body count would grow and...

I caught myself. This was no time for self-pity. Vagabond had known the risks and accepted them. He had done his duty, not for me, but for all mankind. I had to respect the choice as I respected the man.

Rest in peace, old friend.

I stood up to leave, only to find Forceps standing in the doorway. He was casually stuffing a pinch of tobacco into his mouth.

"Sorry 'bout yer friend, kid. I can tell he meant a lot to ya." He put his tobacco can into a back pocket and reached for a clipboard hanging on the bulkhead. "But I got my job ta do, and I gotta ask ya some awkward questions." He produced his ubiquitous cup and spat into it.

Uh-oh. Warily, I said, "Ask away, Forceps."

"Well, kid, I read your debrief 'bout how he got overexcited playin' cards with the Marines and keeled over in the shuttle. But when I was preparin' him fer the coffin, I noticed he was wearin' some mighty strange under-duds fer an hombre, if ya take my meanin'."

Shit, we must have put a Marine's panties on him by mistake. We were in such a hurry, and the clothes were scattered all over--

"Another thing, Blair: He had a buncha scratches all over his back--just like Kilrathi claw marks, only a lot smaller and shallower. And he lost nearly four kilos on that mission. Ya ask me, he died from overexertion of the bedroom variety, if ya take my meanin'. So, kid, you wanna tell me what REALLY happened on that planet?"

I thought for a moment, then shook my head. "Man to man, Forceps: Vagabond died while performing above and beyond the call of duty. I don't think anyone needs to know any more than that, if you take MY meaning." Forceps still looked skeptical, so I threw in the kicker. "How about I bring a six-pack by sick bay after the funeral and help you rewrite your report?"

Forceps tore the report from the clipboard and tossed it in the disposal. "You got it, kid!"


"Colonel Blair will now add a few personal remarks," said Captain Eisen. He stepped away from the podium, and I took his place.

"Thank you, Captain." I surveyed the ship's company for a moment before speaking. Everyone who could be spared from watch was gathered on the flight deck. SoSo, however, was missing. Forceps said she had left sick bay as soon as she'd recovered from her shock, but no one had seen her since.

I cleared my throat and began. "My friend Vagabond was a wanderer, partly by nature, and partly because of a past he couldn't leave behind. The tragedy of his life is that he was cut down at the very moment he'd found the home and the bride he'd sought all his life." I signaled to Maniac, who stepped forward to push the launch button. For once, the irrepressible pilot was solemn and subdued.

"Vagabond spent his life roaming the cosmos," I went on. "His body will continue to do so for eternity." I paused as the coffin floated off into space. "But in a sense, Vagabond has found a home at last, for his memory will live in our hearts." I signaled again, and the company began singing the special hymn I had chosen.

"You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em, know when to..."


I stumbled into the hold, thoroughly exhausted. Forceps had insisted I share the six-pack with him, and--no longer used to alcohol--I was now half drunk as well as worn out. When I noticed the flicker of candlelight, however, I felt I should say something to Lieutenant SoSo. I continued unsteadily toward her little shrine.

That was a mistake. As soon as she heard me coming, she blew out the candle and jumped up. Wiping her tear-stained cheeks as she brushed past me, SoSo made a beeline for the hatch and slipped through. I dimly recognized that she was still sore at me for that damned card game.

Bitch. I fell on the nearest empty bunk and was asleep almost instantly.


"Wake up, sir! We're in trouble! Again! Sir? SIR?"

"I'm awake, I'm awake!" It was a lie, but at least I got Catspaw to stop shaking me. I propped myself up on the bunk, taking as long as I could and savoring the last lingering moments of sleep. "What is it?"

"Confed's coming for Orestes III! The Captain wants you in CIC. NOW, sir!"

Oh, shit, would we never have any peace? "Lead the way, Catspaw."

"Yes sir! And it's CatSCRATCH, sir."

I yawned as I followed him through the hatch. "Whatever."


Eisen was in the comm alcove, leaning over SoSo, who was working her magic on the keyboard. Lt. Pilotte was at the helm. She smiled at me, and I replied with the Official Battlecruiser 4000 AD Secret Hand Signal.

Captain Eisen saw us and motioned us over. "Ah, Colonel. It seems we owe Vagabond more than we imagined. Lieutenant Sosa here has discovered something disturbing." He nodded toward her.

If SoSo had seemed tired before the mission, now she looked like death warmed over. Her voice was weak, and she spoke at what was, for her, a halting pace.

"While we were in the computer room," she said dully, "I downloaded recent comm traffic as well as the archived data Captain Eisen requested. I decoded the new stuff first, and that's when I discovered Confed's plans for Orestes." She put up a display of the Orestes system. "In 48 hours, the Third Fleet jumps in through these points." Task force markers appeared at most of the Orestes jump points. "They plan to take over Orestes III and trap our task force at the same time."

"That's it then!" exclaimed Catspaw. "It's war!"

"No, not necessarily," said Eisen thoughtfully. "Remember, this system's loyalties are divided. The fourth planet voted Confed, and there's a large Confed minority on Orestes III. No, the warships are for us, not the planet. Confed will just waltz in and take over without firing a shot. Hmmm."

He pondered a moment, then came to a decision. "All right, then. We absolutely have to get these ships into dock, but with the invasion coming, we can't afford more than a day. We'll need top priority in the yards and round-the-clock shifts. Engines first, then weaponry, then anything else we have time for."

He pointed at the display. "With our engines repaired, all four ships--five, counting the BWS Friggit--can just make it to the Pasqual jump point. Colonel, while we're in dockyard, I want you and your pilots to scour the planet for every pilot, every fighter, every spacehand you can lay your hands on. They're about to join the Militia! Meanwhile--"

Without warning, SoSo collapsed, falling out of her chair. She revived as I caught her, however, and finding herself in my arms, she pounded me with her fists and shouted, "No! No!" Catspaw knelt on her other side, and she clung to him fiercely.

Eisen was all concern. "Here, Catscratch, put her in my rack." He followed as Catspaw carried SoSo to the sleeping bag. "Poor kid," he said. "It's my fault. I pushed her too hard."

Catspaw tucked her in gently. He tried to stand up, but SoSo refused to let go of his hand. The Captain put a hand on his shoulder, and Catspaw sat down next to her.

Eisen turned to me. "You have your orders, Colonel. If we can't get this can shipshape in twenty-four hours, we're lost!"


Our task force arrived at Orestes III less than an hour later. The planet had three orbiting dockyards, only one of which was large enough--barely--for the Intrepid. As the carrier eased into the dock, BWS Tie and BWS THX headed for the yards on the opposite side of the planet. BWS Ewok took station near Intrepid, where she could make minor repairs on her own.

Technically, the Union High Command had given us the power to draft anyone we needed at Orestes III, but I rejected that approach out of hand. In the difficult days to come, it would be hard enough to hold on to volunteers, let alone unwilling conscripts. I gave my people strict instructions to use persuasion only, but to be VERY persuasive.

Tactless pilots, like Hulk and Maniac, I assigned to scavenging fighters. Pilots with more advanced social skills went to Militia stations or Reserve armories. I saved the tough jobs, such as the Merchant Marine union halls, civilian flying clubs, and spaceport bars, to the more, er, charismatic flyers. For example, I took Catspaw and Lt. Mourne to the planetside taverns. Patrons who weren't thrilled at the prospect of serving with the Heart of the Tiger might still succumb to September's charms or Catspaw's boyish good looks. As it turned out, my team reeled in the second highest number of volunteers: sixteen mechanics, spacehands, engineers, and pilots.

Top honors, however, went to Lt. Tennant. She persuaded an Orestes III news crew to come up and shoot her as she performed routine service on hundreds of arriving missiles. I caught part of it in a spaceport bar. Fascinated, I watched as Lou's beautiful hands softly caressed a blunt leech warhead, or deftly thrust into an IR combustion chamber, or languidly smeared protective sealant over an FF guidance module. She took a break once, wiping her sweat-beaded face with the back of her hand before slowly drinking a glass of water. Excess liquid ran from her lips, down her neck, and soaked into her non-reg cut-off tank top, as the holocam practically slavered.

Over ten thousand would-be recruits called during that show, ranging in age from ten to ninety-five, all male. After separating the wheat from the chaff, we wound up with twenty-two veteran volunteers, including one of the news crew.


Returning to Intrepid's dockyard with the new recruits (and another stash of goodies), I had to fly a holding pattern for about fifteen minutes before getting clearance. The whole area was a beehive of activity, with shuttles constantly coming and going. I noted that BWS Ewok had been joined by BWS Tie, which had ceded its dock to BWS Friggit.

While we orbited, I watched the Union repair crews replace Intrepid's entire starboard engine assembly--in keeping with the Border Worlds' modular design philosophy, the whole thing was one unit. It occurred to me that if we had made it to a Militia fleet base, they might have simply replaced the entire starboard hull, a full one-third of the ship.

Once aboard, I parked in one of the few available spaces on the flight deck. Supply shuttles were unloading all around us. I wondered why they hadn't been dragged out of the way, until I noticed the bays were all occupied by fighters. It seemed our scavengers had scrounged a full complement of fighting craft, from battered old veterans to shiny new models.

Harried representatives of the ship's departments met us as we debarked, and took charge of the new recruits. An Orestes III pilot brushed past me on his way up the ramp into my shuttle; he took off just as I cleared the safety area. Already, an incoming shuttle was making for the spot he had just vacated.

I headed for Wombat Squadron's ready room, where Panties was conducting orientation for our new pilots. As Wing Commander, I wanted to get acquainted with them and begin planning their train--

"'Scuse me, feller, kin yew direct me to the wormbat ready room?"

Startled, I spun around. The voice was familiar, yet I couldn't quite place it. It belonged to a guy about my height, with short-cropped dark hair, a prominent nose, and a hang-dog look. Maybe if I pictured him in a flight helm--No! It couldn't be!


His expression changed to astonishment and then to joy. "Chris! Is thet really yew?"

I pumped his hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "Clem! You're alive! I thought you were history!"

He shook his head. "Nope. Ah accidenticly rejected mahself jest as yore missul hit. Ah felt purty stoopid, but then the damn ship blew, 'n then ah felt purty durn smart! Still, it nearly kilt me. Ah jest got outter the hopsitul yesterday."

"Well, you look great! I bet Bobbie Jo can't wait to make some more kids with you, you lucky devil!"

His face fell. "Bobbie Jo 'n I won't be havin' no more yung 'uns," he said sadly.

Oh no! Modern medical science could work miracles, but sometimes regeneration therapy still failed, even after repeated attempts. Sweet Jesus, I had turned poor Clem into a eunuch!

"No, Clem! You don't mean--"

He nodded. "Yup, she left me. Took up with a travelin' holographer."

"Left you? Oh, thank God! I-I mean, that's terrible!"

He didn't seem to hear me. His tone turned contemptuous. "Shootin' the local bridges, he said! Bridges mah ass! He was jest lookin' fer poor innocent wimmin t' seducify! An' him a Kilrathi, no less!"

Kilrathi? After their defeat, the Kilrathi had scattered to the four winds, making a living any way they could, but this was bizarre even for a cat. "Did you catch his name?" I asked curiously. A cat from an architect clan, maybe?

Clem nodded again. "Yeah, it was 'Halgha rar Nolles' or some such." He all but spat out the name.

My heart skipped a beat. Dare I hope? Trembling, I grabbed Clem's shoulders and demanded, "Clem, could it have been 'Ralgha nar Hholles?'"

He thought a second. "Yeah, thet's it! Yew know thet dood?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, I met him once," I replied absently. Hobbes was alive? How was it possible? After he'd killed Cobra and Vaquero, I had blasted his ship without mercy. Maybe I missed his escape pod because of my sensor damage. But then who picked him up?

Clem was still talking. "Anyhoo, Chris, mah kids are with mah folks, so ah kin keep on fahtin' fer the Union! It's good t' be fahtin' t'gither now!"

What? Clem? Fighting on MY side? I shuddered. The only humans stupider than Clem were the ones willing to fly with him.

I put a hand on his shoulder. "Clem," I said earnestly, "with their mom gone, your kids need you more than ever. Go home. I'll handle things here."

He looked doubtful. "Are yew sure yew kin handle it alone, Chris?"

"You have the word of the Heart of the Tiger."


Two hours after I got back, and twenty-five hours after arrival at Orestes III, the task force got under way again. Now back to full speed, all five ships raced for the Pasqual jump point. Behind us, the dockyards went up in a series of spectacular explosions as the Unionists blew up anything that could be of military use to the Confederation. Fast courier ships, including Clem's, blazed for the system's few safe jump points with key Militia personnel. Most of the Militia, however, stayed behind with their families.

Although our repairs were far from complete, we had full weapons stores, full fighter and pilot complements for all five ships, and crews at about ninety percent strength. Unfortunately, we were still critically short of experienced officers, and many of our recruits were badly in need of training.

Worst of all, our food dispensers had stubbornly resisted all efforts to repair them. Fresh food and even preserved goods had been in short supply in orbit, and shipments from the surface had been pre-empted by higher-priority cargo. In desperation, Eisen had ordered a new set of food dispensers, but through some bureaucratic cock-up we had instead been sent two thousand assorted durasteel pots and pans. Fortunately, a number of the crew--including me-- managed to scrounge supplies, and gradually food supplanted money as ship's currency.

On the bright side, the yard crews had restored life support in part of the crew quarters and refurbished several of the double cabins. Captain Eisen held a lottery in which eight-hour shifts were randomly assigned to individual crew members. A lucky winner could take a cabin alone and get a good night's sleep, or invite a companion of the appropriate sex and get a good night's, er, whatever. We had enough berths for each of us to get a cabin at least once a week, not counting invitations. Cabin shifts soon rivaled food as legal tender aboard ship.


Having squared away our new pilots, arranged training schedules, and set up the CAP, I headed for the galley. I wanted to sleep for a few hours before Confed showed up, and I had noticed that I seemed to sleep better with some of the ship's unappetizing fare in my stomach.

Most of the crew was sacked out, leaving the galley nearly deserted. Among the few present was Maniac, who was sitting alone and forlornly drawing cards from a deck. I made my selections and took my "food" to his table.

Maniac drew a card and contemplated it thoughtfully. "It's my fault, you know," he said.

"Fault? Dammit, Maniac, what have you done this time?"

He looked at me with sadness in his eyes. "Vagabond. My fault. If I hadn't lost that hand, he wouldn't have gone."

"What in heaven's name are you talking about?"

"I heard him talking in the locker room. He thought it was his lucky day, that nothing could happen to him. I shouldn't have let him win. I should have played better."

I had to laugh; I couldn't help it. "Maniac, you dope, as if you could ever hope to beat Vagabond! Besides, he was the only one who could have pulled off that mission. He would have gone anyway, lucky day or not."

He was obviously unconvinced, so I took a different approach. "Look, Maniac, if you want to do something for Vagabond, why don't you send that money you owe him to his fiancee? They were never married, so she doesn't get his death benefits, or sweepstakes, or anything. And add a few words about how much you admired him. I'm sure it would be a comfort to her."

Maniac perked up immediately. "Good idea, Ace! I'll send a trans that'll make him look like a saint! Er, but I can't send the money. I already paid up."

What? Had Maniac turned over a new leaf? Usually getting money out of him was like dragging a medal out of Admiral Tolwyn. "Already?"

"Yeah. I wrote him a check and stuck it in the coffin."

"Well, good for y--Maniac!"


Confed's Third Fleet jumped into Orestes about two hours ahead of schedule. No doubt they had moved up their timetable when Orestes IV reported our early departure. I prayed that Confed Intel wouldn't suspect their codes and communications had been compromised.

It would be a near thing, but none of the incoming ships were close enough to catch us before the jump point. Nevertheless, we kept up our CAP and scout activity, just in case. Meanwhile, my senior pilots and I mercilessly drilled our new fighter jocks.

During one of the breaks, I took my Wombats--both newbies and vets--to the galley for chow and drill debriefing. As it turned out, however, we didn't do much debriefing; the holovid was working again, and Lt. SoSo had piped in a recent broadcast of the TCN Nightly News.

Barbara Dahl, beautiful as ever, was anchoring. "In other news, the Terran Confederation has lost one of its greatest heroes. Captain Aaro Gant, holder of the Dissembly Medal of Honor, was killed in combat with Border Worlds forces." A 3-D still image of Gant appeared behind Barbara. "When told of Gant's death, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn said, 'He was a man I always had faith in. He was a man who defined honor and dedication. He was a man who will be deeply missed.'"

So I had killed that bastard Gant in my raid on Lexington. Surprisingly, I had mixed feelings about it. Personality aside, for most of his life he had lived up to the finest ideals of the Confederation. Yet, at the end, he became a traitor to all he had believed in. What could have twisted him so?

Barbara continued, "Captain Gant's ship, the TCS Lexington, has just arrived at Confederation Starbase Halcyon after suffering heavy damage in combat with the Union Militia. We now go live to correspondent Dam Blather. Dam?"

I smiled, noting the subtle way she twisted Blather's name into an epithet. Apparently the rivalry between those two was worse than ever.

A section of the starbase interior appeared next to Barbara's desk. Blather was standing in the foreground, near one of the base's main locks. He took over from Barbara with practiced smoothness.

"Barbie, any moment now, Starbase Halcyon will welcome the first of the wounded from the TCS Lexington. Naval spokespersons have informed us that the carrier was ambushed by overwhelming forces under the infamous turncoat Christopher Blair. The Lexington was assisting Union forces against local pirates when-- Wait! I think they're coming now!"

The holocams zoomed in on the lock, where injured crewmen were now entering the station. It was a terrible sight. Some were able to walk--or hobble--but most were being pushed on grav stretchers, swathed in blood-stained dressings. Many were moaning in pain, or worse, lying ominously still.

I was horrified. Despite my efforts to minimize casualties, I had killed or wounded many of my old shipmates! As I stared, heartsick, at the display, a few of Intrepid's crew turned and looked at me accusingly; they knew what it was like on the wrong end of a torpedo attack.

Blather lowered his voice and continued gravely, "The Lexington suffered over two hundred casualties in the ambush. We haven't been allowed to shoot aboard ship, but the damage is said to be exten--" He paused as a naval officer whispered in his ear.

"Barbie," he said excitedly, "I've just learned from the base PR Officer that we'll be allowed to interview--exclusively--members of the crew!" When he thought the cam was off him, he stuck out his tongue at the other media types pressing against the cordon of Marines around the lock area. Too late, the holocam switched to the Lexington crewmen approaching the press. They were escorted by two beefy, grim-faced Marines, photon rifles at the ready.

I recognized the Lex people immediately. Leading the way was Lt. Disch, bloodstained regen dressing draped over the left side of her face. Behind her limped Croissant, right arm in a sling, right leg trailing stiffly. Lt. Auer lay on a stretcher, chest wrapped in a bloody dressing. Ensign Watt, seemingly unhurt, pushed the stretcher. I noted with alarm that their guards were cookie-cutter Covert Ops "Marines."

Blather, practically drooling, pushed through the Marine cordon and pounced on Lt. Disch. "Doctor, what was it like during the attack?"

She raised the back of her hand to her forehead, and choked out her story between sobs. "Oh, it was horrible! One moment everything was fine, and the next there were explosions, and the ship was shaking, and there was fire everywhere! The wounded started pouring into sick bay, and I had to treat them, but I was hurt myself, and...and..." With a tiny moan, she collapsed into the arms of the guard behind her. The second guard quickly moved to help her.

The instant the guards were distracted, Croissant removed his sling and waved his arm vigorously at the holocam. He danced a quick little jig, showing his leg injury to be a sham also. At the same time, Lt. Auer whipped out a hand- lettered sign, which read "COVERT OPS!!!," and pointed at the "Marines." Ensign Watt was holding her own sign: "6 dead, 22 wounded." Below the message was a large stylized red heart with a beautifully drawn tiger bursting through the center. She kissed her finger and pressed it to the tiger.

Intrepid's crew leaped to their feet and cheered. After weeks of discouraging news, the Unionists finally saw concrete proof that they had allies in Confed; allies willing to risk their lives to stop the war.

Dressings replaced and signs stashed, my friends assumed their former positions just as Disch theatrically struggled back to her feet. The guards suspected nothing. If the journalists were smart enough to play along, they just might get away with--

"What the devil is going on here!" exclaimed Blather. Shit, that idiot would ruin everything! I watched in horror as he tore away Disch's dressing, revealing the rest of her beautiful--and uninjured--face.

Reacting instantly, the first "Marine" jammed his rifle butt in Blather's gut. As the correspondent doubled over, the guard tried to grab the holocam. The second guard shoved Disch to the deck and pointed his rifle at her.

That was a mistake.

With howls of fury, Lexington's "wounded" shed their fake dressings, leaped off their stretchers, and tackled every guard in sight! Disch was worshipped by every heterosexual male on the Lexington, and they weren't going to stand by while she was manhandled! The guards fought back fiercely, but Lex's "wounded" were reinforced by waves of "dead" crewmen from the ship.

Croissant took down two Marines going for Blather, while the smaller Lt. Auer slammed his stretcher into the one struggling for the holocam. Ensign Watt jumped Disch's tormentor, a trained killer three times her size. For all his combat training, however, he couldn't free himself of the screaming wildcat before Disch went for his groin. As every man in Intrepid's galley winced, he crumpled to the deck in agony.

Blather, somewhat recovered, was yelling hysterically at the cameraman. "Are you getting this? Are you g--Yikes!" He yelped in fear as Disch grabbed him by his lapel.

"Get THIS, moron!" she yelled.

"AAAUUUGGGHHH!" howled Blather. Someone on the base must have cut off the feed at that moment, because the scene froze on a closeup of Dam Blather, face contorted in anguish.

The view switched to Barbara Dahl, who was still watching the frozen frame and trying not to smirk. "Oooo, I'll bet that hurt, Dam!" she said cheerfully.


That broadcast gave us a real morale boost, which was good, because we still had a monumental task ahead of us. Despite vigorous training efforts, only half our pilots could be considered combat-ready. Even when the pursuing Confed ships turned back, the pressure was still on. Militia HQ had plans for us as soon as we cleared the Pasqual system, and those plans would undoubtedly involve fighting.

I pushed my pilots relentlessly. When they weren't flying the simulators, they were flying in dogfights against our escorts' fighters. I followed Zelda's lead and hounded them even in the head. Training was halted briefly for the jump to Pasqual, then immediately resumed at an accelerated pace.

I pushed myself as hard as anyone, if only to avoid thinking about my friends from the Lexington. Covert Ops did not take kindly to people who thwarted its plans. On the other hand, with the press now tipped to the charade, I told myself Covert Ops wouldn't dare kill them. When I tried to grab some sleep, however, I had a terrifying dream of Disch being carved up by that knife psycho from the Lexington. It was a relief when Catspaw woke me up with the news that we'd received an SOS.


I arrived at CIC out of breath. To my surprise, Maniac was waiting with the Captain. I had no time for questions, however, because Captain Eisen immediately began the briefing.

"Colonel, we've received an SOS from this convoy." He indicated a group of ships nearly four million klicks distant. "They're being pursued by pirates, a Bingo-class frigate apparently modified--"

"--into a hemi-carrier!" I finished. Damn! Shades of the Hellespont system! Where were those damn pirates getting their ships?

"Correct. The convoy's only escort is a frigate and four Dralthi VI fighters."

"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Maniac. "They're CATS?"

Dumb-ass. "Watch the news once in a while, Maniac!" I admonished. "Melek's faction of Kilrathi survivors moved to Pasqual. I hear more are coming all the time." In fact, Zeke and I had followed the career of his former toady with great interest.

Eisen continued, "With Confed's trade embargo, the Kilrathi are the Union's only source of certain key electronic components. Union HQ has ordered us to get those shipments through."

I looked at the display again. "Then we have to go now with whatever we have. Those pirates may already be launching. Who's available to come with me?" I looked at Eisen, but he refused to meet my eyes. Maniac was grinning from ear to ear. Oh no! No! NO!

"Maniac, you're not Banshee-qualified!"

He looked smug as he pointed to the Banshee badge on his chest. "Au contraire, Miami! Flew my solo while you were flat on your back. Come on! Last one there's a Kilrathi!" He dashed out of CIC. I heard a crash out in the companionway, followed by cursing.

I turned to the Captain, pleading, but he just shrugged.



As I climbed into the cockpit, I noticed something on the seat. It was a paper bag, with holes cut out for eyes and mouth. Zelda's name was written across the top.

I stood on the seat, paralyzed with rage. God DAMN that Maniac! Then I remembered that I had considered the same solution to Zelda's, er, "problem," and my face burned with shame.

"Whatcha got, sweetie?" asked Zelda innocently. She had, as usual, followed me up the ladder.

Quickly I hid the bag behind my back. "Er, nothing, Chief," I said.

"Lemme see! Lemme see!" she cried playfully, grabbing at my arm. Then she saw the bag and froze. Trying to sound casual, she asked, "Major Marshall?"

"Look, Zelda," I said hurriedly, "This was directed at me, not you. Maniac and I have been at each other's throats for--"

She shook her head. "It's all right, dear. Give it to me. I'll add it to my collection." She wore the same neutral expression as in the simulator room, when Maniac insulted her before.

She took the bag and gave me her usual good-bye kiss. I knew Maniac was watching from his cockpit, so this time I kissed her back. It cost me another cut lip, but it was worth it.

I looked over at Maniac. Not to be outdone, he jumped up onto his seat, grabbed Lt. Tennant--who had just handed him his helmet--and held her in a long kiss despite her struggles. When he released her, she aimed a roundhouse right at his nose, but Maniac had already jumped down into the cockpit. Louise missed her target, overbalanced, and fell off the ladder.


When we were about halfway to the Kilrathi convoy, Lt. SoSo called us with the Kilrathi comm codes and transponder settings. She added the welcome news that Moose was about fifteen minutes behind us with four more Banshees.

Flying flat-out all the way, we barely arrived in time. As we came into sensor range of the convoy, two groups of incoming fighters showed up on our scopes. The four defending Dralthi were already moving to intercept.

A Kilrathi--a female!--appeared on the comm screen. Even my AI's flat trans- lation couldn't mask the fear in her voice. "Heart of the Tiger! Once again we are in your hands!"

I designated the first group of two Razors and two Arrows. "Direct your Dralthi against this group! We'll take the second!" Less chance of friendly fire if we fought separate actions.

"Hey, Ace!" yelled Maniac. "You're taking us up against two T-bolts and two Arrows!"

"I'll try to cut down the odds, Maniac!" I switched to the general channel. "Hey, Gomers! Knock knock!"

The reply came immediately, but it wasn't what I expected.

"Fuck you!"

Shit! They were Confeds! We'd have to do this the hard way!

"Break and attack, Maniac! Keep those Arrows off my back!"

"Watch and learn, Colonel!" Maniac hit burner and pulled off at an angle to draw the Arrows off.

I stayed at full speed, but kept off burner; my leech needed time to lock. I had to take the leader out with the first shot, or the two of them would wear me down.

Closing fast! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! I swear I'm going strangle that damned missile alarm! Stay on the leader! Gotta launch at close range, don't dare miss! Oh God, those missiles are getting closer! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Steady... Five thousand klicks! Launch! Bam! Shield hit! Roll and pull! Decoys, Blair, decoys! Burner! Miss me, please miss...Hah! Lock broken! Burner off!

Splat! Yeah! The leader's history! Damn, that was easy! Now for his buddy! Turn and-- Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Turn, Blair! Decoy, Blair! Pray, Blair!

OK, missed! Come on, Banshee, let's get on his tail! Haha, he's on a torpedo run against the frigate! He's not afraid of my lasers! OK, asshole, try THIS on for size!

CHUG CHUG CHUG! Damn, I love those leech cannons! I'm taking hits, but he's wallowing like a drunken pig! CHUG CHUG CHUG! Heehee, ignore my Banshee, will you! CHUG CHUG CHUG! Just a couple more--

WhoopwhoopwhoopWHAMMO! My Banshee staggers as if it's been hit by a planet! Momentarily dazed, I yank the controls by sheer instinct. I'm dimly aware of a proximity explosion from a second warhead as I turn. Who the hell--

Ohmygod! It's an Arrow! They must have gotten Maniac! This guy sneaked up without firing his guns, caught me napping! Turn, Blair! Turn, turn, OK, I'm out of his missile envelope, keep going...Hah! He's turning the wrong way! Get on his tail, hit the burner...OK, match speeds and shoot! CHUG CHUG! CHUG CHUG! Hah, he's slowing! CHUG CHUG!

He's limping at a hundred kps, easy target! Now, motherfucker, eat ions! Ploop ploop ploop! Chunks fly off his ship; his starboard wingtip is glowing red hot! Ploop ploop ploop! Ambush me, will you! Ploop ploop! You're gonna die slow, you--shit, he ejected! Get a grip, Blair, pods are off limits. Relax.

I checked readouts and sensors. My aft armor was nearly gone, but all systems were go. The wounded T-bolt was limping off, accompanied by a Razor. Two Dralthi were milling around near the convoy. Maniac was about ten thousand kl--Maniac? MANIAC WAS OK???

I was barely coherent as I screamed, "Maniac, you motherfucker, where the hell were you?"

"Hi, Ace!" he called nonchalantly. "Just chasing down that Arrow. Had to get my kill, ya know! Boy, you wouldn't believe what a hard time I had with HIM! I--"

"You idiot, his pal nearly nailed me!"

Maniac was indignant. "What, that's MY fault? Hey, you took that wimp out, didn't you? Now MY guy, he was really tough! I had to--"

WhoopwhoopwhoopWHAMMOWHAMMO! Blinding light, tremendous double jolt, red lights all over the instrument panel, searing pain in my butt! Again, I react on instinct! Full speed, shift gun power to autorepair, drop decoys, turn like hell!

Check sensors--Where did those two Arrows come fr-- Thank God, Maniac and the Kilrathi are coming--Jesus Christ, THE ARROWS ARE CLOAKING!

Desperately, I drag my Strakha drill out of dusty memory bins. Keep up speed, watch the scope, arm FFs--too bad I don't have any!--and turn, always turn, always a different way!

I alternate between readouts and sensors. I took two FF blasts on my ventral shields and armor. Fragments pierced the floor of the cockpit and the armor of my seat. Both suit and cockpit self-sealed, though; I still have air. The suit should have auto-injected anesthetic and regen drugs, but the pain is growing, not diminishing.

Burner, missiles, decoys, and leech guns are out. Shields and comm are being autorepaired. I love you, you beautiful tough little Banshee!

Arrows on scope! Lock and turn into 'em! Power to guns! Lasers and particle gun barrages bracket the Arrows! Two missiles head for the Dralthis! They must be Kilrah's best, however, because they slip missile lock and return to the fray. The Arrows retreat into cloak again.

Except that I score an ion hit just as one of them disappears. As his shields flash momentarily, I spray the area with scattergun fire. More sparkles! Keep firing, Blair! Flash! Flash! He's pitching up! Flash! Now right! Flash! Flash! His pal uncloaks on my tail, but the Kilrathi pounce on him instantly. Maniac, the jerk, is trying to hit my quarry, and only gets in the way!

Flash! Flash! How long can I keep hitting him? During the War, my best string on a Strakha was three. Power fading, switch shields to guns. Flash! Glowing debris appears out of nowhere! Flash! Hah! He's reappearing! Must have damaged the cloaking gear!

"Maniac, switch to leech guns, we need--


"--him intact...Damn you, Maniac!"

"Hey, just doing my job, Ace. Let's see, that's TWO kills for me, ONE for you. Any time you want lessons..."

"Fuck you, Maniac!" I checked sensors again. The second Arrow took damage from the Dralthi and re-cloaked. He probably headed for home, too.

The Kilrathi comm officer called me. "Thank you, Heart of the Tiger. We owe you our lives. Again."

I grimaced, fighting down the pain. "You're welcome. S-stay on course for our task force. We're g-going back to our ship, but m-more of our fighters will be here any minute." I signed off.

Maniac commed me again. "Gee, Ace, you look pretty shot-up. But don't worry, Mama Maniac will nursemaid you home. Haha ha!"

"I'm OK, Maniac, it's not as bad as it looks. You go on ahead and prep Skunk Squadron for a strike on that pirate frigate."

"OK, Ace, it's your coffin. Last one back's a rotten Colonel!" He lit burner and took off.

Good riddance. According to regs, I should have kept him with me, but right now I just didn't need another pain in the ass!


An hour later, I was sorry I'd let him go. My wounds were minor and blood loss minimal, but suit sealant had gotten into them and they hurt like hell. Two manual doses of cyclomorphedrine barely took the edge off the pain; I dared not try more. I longed for the anesthetic effects of Maniac's "Yo' Mama" jokes.

I couldn't rest, even though the constant pain was wearing me down; autopilot was flaky and autorepair couldn't fix it. Finally, as I had so done many times before, I called up my memories of Jeanette. Like a guardian angel, she soothed my pain and led me home.


"Nice work, Colonel."

SoSo's voice was so cold that I shivered involuntarily--just like in that damn computer room. Would she never forgive me for that mission?

"You have cl--"

"Lieutenant," I gasped. "Call the m-medics. I'm hurt--"

She regarded me with disgust. "Yeah, right! Whatever!"

Shit, she didn't believe me. "Check the readouts, d-dammit! I'm really--"

She shook her head in amazement. "You are some piece of work, Colonel! Do you really think it's funny to hurt people who care about you? Well you can go to hell!" She switched off.

Damn damn damn!


I managed a creditable landing; I even managed to nurse my crippled bird into the correct maintenance bay. After popping the canopy, however, I was just too damn worn out to do more. I sat motionless, trying not to provoke more pain.

Zelda's head popped up beside the cockpit. "Great flying, stud! Come on down and take a bow!" Then she saw the blood on the seat.

"Medic!" she screamed. "Get a stretcher!" She carefully removed my helmet, then gently cuddled my head to her--well, technically it was her bosom, but it felt more like a washboard. Her murmured endearments, however, were surprisingly soothing.

I must have passed out for a minute, because the next thing I heard was Hulk's voice. "Move, Zelda. Hulk get Colonel." As if in a dream, I felt myself floating effortlessly out of the cockpit.

Unfortunately, blood clots, sweat, and sealant had effectively glued my butt to the seat. As Hulk ripped me loose, I came wide awake.

"Yeeooowww! Ow! Ow! Ow!"

Hulk slid down the ladder smoothly and set me on the grav stretcher.

"No, Hulk, not on my back! Not on my--yeeooowww!"

"Oops. Hulk sorry." He flipped me over.


Zelda knelt beside me. "Courage, my love. You'll be in sick bay in no time. Forceps will take care of you."

Yes, I thought hopefully. Forceps will take--Forceps? FORCEPS?


End of Chapter 16

Previews from Chapter 17:

"Oh, that's OK, Colonel. I don't mind a little raw man-meat."

"Can it be so simple? The answer that has eluded us for generations?"