[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander December 18, 1996]
Zelda got me to sick bay in record time. Forceps, alerted by the techs, met usjust inside. Cheerful as ever, he helped Zelda take me into the surgery. Theyraised the grav stretcher and Forceps easily heaved me onto the table.
"Good thing yer such a shrimp, kid!" he said.
"Oof! Who are you calling a--ow!"
Forceps examined the flight suit readouts. "Yer lucky, kid. No vital areashit, but I'll bet yer ass--get it?--it's pretty painful."
"Brilliant deduction, Holmes. I had--ow!--one autodose of regen, and three ofCMD, but the pain just got worse. I--"
"Hell, kid, that wasn't cyclomorphedrine!" He turned on the table's sterilizerfield. "Damn bureaucrats at the dockyard only delivered two hundred doses ofthe stuff!" He reached for a laser scalpel. "I'm saving it for emergencies."
"WHAT? Well what's in the suit medkits?"
"Tylenol." He used the scalpel to cut away my suit and uniform, starting at myneck.
Tylenol? I buried my face in my hands. Why me, God?
When he had finished slitting my clothes, Forceps put away the scalpel andsprayed solvent on my hindquarters. As the sealant dissolved, the sting wasenough to bring tears to my eyes. Zelda knelt in front of me and took myhands. Boy, for once it was nice to have her--Zelda? Shit, Forceps wasexposing my, er, wounds in front of her!
"Um, Zelda," I said hastily. "If you d-don't mind, I'd rather you waitedoutside, OK?"
She shook her head vigorously. "I'm not leaving you, Blairbear!"
"Good!" said Forceps. "You can help me get his clothes off."
"Uh, no! Just wait out--" She ignored me. Shit! I blushed at the indignityof being undressed by my crew chief.
With the sealant dissolved, my clothes came off easily enough. Forceps washedme down with sterilizer fluid, which also cleaned off the dried blood. Zeldagasped, but whether it was my buns of steel or the steel in my buns thatimpressed her, I couldn't say. I only know the pain subsided somewhat when thesealant was gone. I nearly sobbed with relief.
"OK, kid," said Forceps. "Nearly done. Gonna yank out that shrapnel, patchyou up, 'n put you to bed."
Oh good, I could use some sl--er, yank?
"Yeeoowww!" The metal fragments were small and shallow, but they burned likered-hot coals on the way out. "Ow! Ow!" Zelda came back and held my handsagain. Desperately, I tried to distract myself by counting her pimples. One,two--"Ow!" One, two--"Ow!"--seven, three...
The door slid open and Panties stepped in.
Jesus Christ, God, what did I ever do to you? "Goddammit, Panties, can't yousee I'm--"
"Oh, that's OK, Colonel," she said cheerfully. "I don't mind a little rawman-meat."
"Panties, will you get the fuck out of--Ow!" Shit.
"Just wanted to report, Colonel. Moose ran into another wave of pirates."
"Oh?" That got my attention. "How did it--Ow!--go?"
"Well sir, it was--" She glanced at my butt. "--pretty HAIRY there for awhile. Hee hee! But he waxed two and didn't lose anybody. I don't thinkthey'll try again; Intrepid's too close."
Well at least that was--Ow!--good news.
Panties left to supervise the search for the pirate frigate. Wounds dressed,but weak as a kitten, I was helped into a gown and then into bed. Zelda stayedwith me, massaging muscles sore from hours tensed against the pain. Lulled byher soothing touch, I fell asleep in minutes.
I woke slowly, with a wonderful feeling of well-being. As my eyes graduallyfocused, I could make out Panties sitting next to the bed.
"Hi, Tamara," I said, smiling lazily.
"Hi, sleepyhead," she replied, matching my smile. Damn, she should smile moreoften. It lit up her whole face.
"Sorry I yelled at you earlier, Tamara. I was just--"
"It's OK, Chris. I've been there myself."
Her smile lasted another moment, and then she was all business. "Colonel, Ijust stopped by in case you were up. Turkey and Skunk Squadrons took out thatpursuing frigate; no losses. The cat convoy has joined with us, and theKilrathi commodore has just come aboard. He's with the Captain in CIC if youwant to talk with him." She indicated a fresh uniform hanging beside my bed.
I was fully awake in an instant. "Why didn't you say so, Panties?" I jumpedout of bed, ignoring my not-quite-healed wounds, and reached for the uniform.
"I, uh, have to get back, Colonel," said Panties. She hesitated a secondbefore heading for the door.
I stopped dressing to watch her as she left. Strange, for a minute there shehad seemed unusually...friendly.
I made my way to CIC as quickly as possible. SoSo was working at her console,surrounded by Eisen, Hulk, and...Melek!
Memories flooded through my mind. After Melek's surrender, I had remained onhis dreadnought for nearly two weeks. Since the Kilrathi Empire was nowleaderless, technically Melek could only surrender his own clan. His was nowthe largest surviving clan, however--the Emperor's was mostly wiped out onKilrah--so he was able to arrange an armistice. One by one, the other clanleaders returned to Kilrah's ruins to offer their own capitulation, but only tome, personally.
During my time aboard, I used all my powers of persuasion on the clan leaders,arguing against the policies that had led them to ruin, and touting Melek asthe one to lead them into the future. About half the clans agreed; the othersscattered into the galaxy or returned to the ways of war. Over the next fewmonths, Confed would hunt the latter down like vermin.
I took full advantage of this golden opportunity to observe the cats as neverbefore. To be sure, there was all of the savagery and stupidity that I hadexpected, but I also saw much of the compassion, altruism, and honor that I hadfound in Hobbes and his small band of defectors. That final night with theKilrathi, Melek and I talked of his plans for his people into the wee hours,and the next morning we parted as friends.
Back among my own kind, I interceded with Confed on behalf of the defeatedcats, much to the amazement of my shipmates on the Victory. Thank God I hadinsisted the cats be allowed to retain a few frigates and light fighters fordefense. Now these were all they had to oppose the surprisingly well-armedpirates.
I came back to the present as Melek advanced to meet me.
"Heart of the Tiger," he said, with a tremor in his voice. "Never did I expectour paths to cross again."
"Melek, my friend." We met halfway and began the ancient Kilrathi ritual ofthe Heroes' Greeting, as adapted for humans. Melek bent over to scratch myback, while I reached up to scratch behind his ears. His contented purring wassoon accompanied by my own cries of delight.
"Aaaahhhh, just a bit left, Melek...a bit more...ooooooh!"
Eisen, growing increasingly impatient, finally intervened. "AHEM! Gentlemen,if I may interrupt this little scratch-fest..."
Reluctantly, we parted. Melek flicked his ears and shook his head vigorously,scattering fur all over. I followed him into the comm alcove, feeling all warmand tingly. Damn, nobody could scratch a human back like a Kilrathi!
"Now, Colonel," said Captain Eisen, "if I have your FULL attention, I'll bringyou up to date. Melek here has been telling us of the increasing pirateactivity in this system. Recently, however, the Kilrathi have obtainedevidence that more than mere piracy is at work here." He nodded to SoSo, whoactivated the holodisplay.
The view was of space, with a scattering of stars. Suddenly a gray fighter--ofa type unfamiliar to me--appeared in the field of view. There was a blindingflash, and then the stars were tumbling rapidly off the display's upper bound.
SoSo paused the rec. "This was taken by a Dralthi guncam," she said. "Itmiraculously survived the destruction of its fighter and continued recording.Since it was tumbling, I've edited out everything but the frames when it waspointing at the convoy." She resumed playback.
The ships of the convoy were shown advancing--jerkily because of the editing--past the guncam. Another gray fighter zoomed into view and sent a round,flattish object tumbling toward one of the transports. The ship appeared atfirst to be unharmed. Then at least one airlock must have opened, becausedebris and bodies began spewing from amidships. The ship gradually lost powerand began tumbling end over end. A moment later, the ship passed out of view.SoSo paused again.
Melek continued the story. "The next day, a frigate arrived on the scene. Theships themselves were undamaged, but all aboard were dead from decompression orextreme exhaustion. Because of the ion trails the frigate found, we assumed acapship was involved, until we found the guncam."
I looked at the Captain. "That's probably the same weapon that was used on theAmadeus and the Annabel Lee. Remember the capship ion trails we found?"
He nodded. "Now watch this, Colonel."
As the playback resumed, another gray fighter flew into view. It stopped inrelation to the guncam, popped a mine, and surfed away on the blast wave. SoSoreversed and paused just before the fighter left the field of view.
"Shades of Orlando!" I exclaimed. "I've seen that before!"
"Hulk see too." We all looked at Hulk in surprise.
"Where?" I asked.
"Near end of war, Hulk command squadron. Rookie surf mine blast all the time,against Hulk's order. Hulk try to court-martial, but Covert Ops take rookieaway." He thought for a minute. "Call himself Theether. Never talk much, butalways carry G.E.D. certificate; very proud of it."
"Of his high school equivalency diploma?" asked SoSo incredulously.
Hulk shrugged. "He only pilot Hulk ever see, can surf mine shock wave."
"Then this is it!" I said excitedly. "This ties Covert Ops to three acts ofterrorism! We can--"
"Not so fast, Sherlock!" warned SoSo. "Watch!" She unpaused again.
A second gray fighter flew into view and performed the same stunt, this timewith a half twist.
"OK," I said hopefully, "if only two pilots can do it..."
Two more fighters showed up and surfed off a single mine blast, one with a fulltwist, the other with a backflip.
"You were saying, Colonel?" said SoSo dryly.
I looked accusingly at Hulk, who hung his head in shame.
"Hulk lie," he admitted. "Hulk only pilot in squadron, could not do trick."He lay his head on SoSo's shoulder and began sobbing.
The Captain looked like he was about to join him.
Hastily, I said, "Well, I've got to check on flight operations! Hulk, whydon't you give Melek a tour of the ship?"
Hulk raised his head and wiped his eyes. "No! Hulk not do! Hulk hate--"
"Rabbits!" I said desperately, "I'll tell you more about the rabbits! OK?"
Hulk brightened immediately. "Hulk do!" He started for the door. "Here,kitty!" he called to Melek.
As they left, two cleaning droids came in and went for the fur on the deck.
I met Panties in the Control Bay. Skunk and Turkey Squadrons were returning,to be met with the usual excitement and hoopla. I took Panties down to theflight deck to help me debrief the crews.
I found most of Turkey Squadron grouped around Tina and Archie, who were lockedin an embrace, as usual. I shook hands all around and took some preliminaryreports. The Turkeys had made one torpedo hit and accounted for two Razors.
Zelda intercepted me on the way to Skunk Squadron's bays. "Oh, Honeyblair,you're all right!" she cried, nearly squeezing the breath out of me. Out ofgratitude for all she'd done, I let her kiss me a couple of times before Ifended her off. I tasted blood from at least two cuts.
"Um, Chief, I want to thank you for--"
"It's OK, dear. I love taking care of you. But right now, I have to servicethese birds." She took a small box out of her hip pocket. "Could you givethis to Major Marshall for me?"
I accepted the box reluctantly. "Er, Chief, it's not, er..."
"Explosive?" She giggled. "No, sweetie, it's harmless. But it's something hereally needs!" She hopped on a nearby weapons loader and drove off. I went tofind Maniac.
Said pilot was, as usual, boasting of his exploits to any and all who wouldlisten. He leaned casually against his front landing gear and spun his tale.
"--so there I was, way ahead of my fighter cover, frigate in my sights, and twoRazors on my tail! I decided to--Hey, Ace! Come for your lesson? Haha ha!"
"No, Maniac," I replied calmly. "Just dropping off a present from ChiefMorgenstern." I held out the little box.
He was instantly on guard. "From 'beaver-bite?'" He backed away about half ameter. "Er, you open it, Ace," he said suspiciously.
I shrugged, pulled off the top, and looked inside. Without saying a word, Iheld out the box and turned it upside down.
Two small durasteel ball bearings fell out and bounced noisily on the deck.The onlookers burst into raucous laughter.
"Guess she knows what YOU need, Maniac! Hahahaha!"
"Bigger than yours, that's for sure! Heeheehee!"
"Hey, Maniac, can I polish your balls? Hawhawhaw!"
"Whatsamatter? Did yours RUST? Harharhar!"
Maniac looked around in bewilderment. "What?" he cried. "What the fuck areyou--" As realization hit, Maniac turned the color of a ripe tomato. "Thatdamned chipmunk BITCH!" he screamed, kicking his Avenger's landing gear. Thelaughter promptly redoubled.
Maniac stomped off amid taunts and catcalls. A deckhand had retrieved Zelda'sball bearings, and I held them up, calling after Maniac, "Hey, Major! Youforgot your balls!"
After debriefing the pilots--except Maniac--Panties and I adjourned to thegalley to plan our next move against the pirates. To spice up the tastelessfood, I brought along some of the soy sauce I had purchased at the Orestes IVKwik-E-Mart. We chose an out-of-the-way table and sat down--with considerablecare on my part, of course.
Catwalk showed up a few minutes after we began eating. He seemed to havesomething on his mind, so I invited him to sit with us. With the impatience ofthe young, he got right to the point.
"Look, don't take this the wrong way, sir, but when I was growing up, I dreamedof nothing but fighting the Kilrathi. How can I forget all that and help themout now?"
I considered my answer carefully. "Correction, Catwalk. Your dreams were offighting the ENEMY. That's EXACTLY what you did today, when your squadronnailed that pirate frigate. Even better, now you have the chance to win a newally for your race. What better way to fulfill your childhood dreams?"
Catwalk was taken aback. "I-I guess I never thought about it that way, sir."He poked aimlessly at his food, clearly confused.
"Well think about it, partner. And let me know what you decide, because I haveto know if I can count on you." To show there were no hard feelings, I loanedhim my precious bottle of soy sauce.
I noticed Panties was looking at me the same way she had in the infirmary."What about you, Panties? Do you think we should be helping the Kilrathi?"
"All those years," she said, a faraway look in her eyes. "All those missions.I devoted my life to knocking Kilrathi out of the sky." She looked me in theeyes. "But I never liked the killing, the way Hulk does. I did it because Ihad to. Yeah, I want to help the Kilrathi. Maybe...maybe we can buildsomething good out of that awful war."
It was only then that I realized what had changed between us. Despite myattempts to avert the impending war, she had still suspected the fierce Heartof the Tiger was, deep down, just another killer. Only when I risked myass--literally--for my former enemies could she finally believe in me.
Had I found a kindred spirit at long last? Well, whether I had or not, thepossibility was certainly worth pursuing.
"That's good, Tamara. Um, here, have some more soy sauce."
We were just finishing our meal when Hulk brought Melek into the galley. PoorHulk looked worn out, so I signaled for him to leave and get some sleep. Iexcused myself to my companions and headed over to where Melek was waiting.I had some very important news for him.
Maniac was making some selections from the food dispenser. Noticing Melek forthe first time, he set down his tray and immediately offered his hand to theastonished Kilrathi.
"Malloc, right? Hi, I'm the Maniac! No doubt you've heard of me." Hegrinned, took Melek's paw, and pumped it vigorously. "I'm sure TALES of myexploits have traveled far and wide. Get it? Tails? Haha ha! Remnants of myenemies LITTER the void, and I'm not LYIN'! Haha ha! Litter? Lion? Oh, Icrack myself up!" Just then he noticed Lt. Tennant, Tech Yokely, and Lt.Mourne at a nearby table. "Well, gotta go, Malloc old tomcat. I smell myfavorite PREY. Watch the mighty hunter bag a lovely gazelle!"
Fascinated, Melek watched Maniac as he set his tray down at the girls' table."Remarkable!" he said.
"What is, Melek?" I asked, coming up on his left.
"How closely your menial apes resemble your own species. If they had anyintelligence at all, they would be almost indistinguishable from humans."
"Uh, yeah, remarkable resemblance."
"Tell me," he said curiously. "Can they breed with humans?"
I watched as the girls hastily picked up their trays and left. Lt. Tennantdumped the remains of her meal on Maniac's head.
"No," I answered. "Fortunately not. With luck, in another generation they'llbe very, very extinct."
At the word 'extinct,' Melek slumped visibly. "That, I fear, will soon be thefate of my own race," he said sadly. He looked out the viewport, past thetranspex, past the stars themselves. "So few females left...so few. Alreadythe young males despair of ever mating, and fight... The old ways will return,and this time we'll be--" He stopped, suddenly aware he was saying too much.
This was exactly the subject I wanted to discuss. "Melek," I said gently, "Iknow about the five-to-one birth problem...and its consequences."
He was flabbergasted. "H-how do you-- That is our most closely guarded--"
"I also have the solution."
That one really floored him. He staggered, leaning on me for support."Wh-what? Impossible! Our scientists have been working for hundreds..."
When he had recovered somewhat, I invited the feline giant closer. As Melekbent down, I whispered into his ear.
This time he nearly fainted. Straining to support his bulk, I helped him to achair. "Can it be so simple?" he gasped. "The answer that has eluded us forgenerations?" He grabbed his head as if to keep it from exploding. "Could wetruly have been so stupid?"
Actually, I wouldn't put any stupidity past the dull-witted felines, but Ididn't say it. "Don't be too hard on yourself, Melek," I reassured him. "Youwere just too close to the problem, too set in your ways."
With an effort, Melek got hold of himself. "In my heart, I feel the truth ofwhat you say. But I beg you: how is it you know so much of Kilrathi biology?"
I dared not tell the truth. If other Kilrathi knew Zeke was alive, he'd behunted to the ends of the universe. Zeke's descendants would one day rejoinMelek's, but for now there was too much bad blood between them.
"Um, well, Melek, you have to know these things when you're a farmer."
He nodded sagely. "Of course, of course." He stood and placed his paws on myshoulders. "For this you will become our greatest hero, as you are alreadyhumanity's. The Kilrathi owe you a debt we can never repay."
Hmm, speaking of payment... "Actually, my friend, perhaps there is somethingyou can do for me."
"Name it!" he said excitedly. "My life? My brother-in-law? Anything!"
"No, no, nothing so drastic. Some of the ships attacking your convoy carriedcloaking devices. If we meet any more cloakers, we could lose a lot of pilots.Did your scientists have a way, even experimental, to detect cloaked ships?"
He thought for a moment. "I am aware of certain experiments in that direction,attempts to anticipate Terran countermeasures and defeat them in advance. Oneof the scientists from that project is aboard my transport. I shall have himcontact your technical staff."
"Thanks, Melek." This might go a long way toward convincing the cat-hatersaboard that the Kilrathi were useful allies.
I stole quietly among the sleeping crew in the storage hold. Knowing thesolution to Melek's problem was one thing, but putting it into practice wasanother. To have the best possible chance for success, he'd need one of themementos I had brought with me all the way from Nephritis 2.
As I approached the bunk I usually used, I noted two figures moving under theblanket. Though their cries were muffled, I could tell the voices belonged toTina and Archie. I hastily retrieved the memento from my kit without disturb-ing the amorous couple.
As I stood up to leave, I noticed a disconsolate Hulk sitting nearby. Worried,I went to see if I could cheer him up.
Hulk was holding a photon pistol next to his cheek. In one smooth motion, hetook a power cell and slammed it into the grip. "Oooo, yeah!" He closed hiseyes and smiled with a pleasure that was almost sexual.
Hearing me approach, he reluctantly put down the pistol. "Hulk not likeKilrathi, Colonel. Hulk fly for Kilrathi if Blair order, but Hulk much ratherkill cats. Kill! Hurt! Crush! Mutil--"
"OK, Hulk, I get the picture!" Sheesh. "Look, big guy, are you sure you'vethought this out? Maybe you have something in common with the cats. Forexample, do you know what Kilrathi like most?"
"Hulk know! Hulk know!" He was like an eager kid in school. "Killing! Catslike killing!"
"Right! Now what does Hulk like most?"
He thought hard. "Killing! Hulk like killing!"
"So Hulk and Kilrathi like the same things, right? How can you hate someonewho's just like you?"
This time he thought really hard. "Ooooh, Hulk head hurt...Blair right, Hulksame as Kilrathi! Hulk help Kilrathi after all. Colonel point Hulk, Hulkshoot! Bang! Kapow! Ratatatat--"
"Thanks, Hulk, I knew you'd see reason." I turned to go.
"Blair not tell Hulk more about rabbits?"
I sighed. A promise was a promise. I sat on the bunk next to Hulk, casuallytaking and unloading the pistol. "OK, last time we went over how you need atleast two, one male, one--"
"Kilrathi like bunnies, too?" asked Hulk curiously.
"Uh, yeah, I understand they do."
Hulk wriggled with pleasure, pleased to have found something else he and thecats had in common.
Yeah, Hobbes had once told me they preferred their rabbits in cream sauce,garnished with human testicles.
I arrived at the Control Bay just too late to catch Melek; his shuttle wasalready leaving for his transport. Pocketing my memento, I went to CIC tocheck in with the Captain. Panties and I were certain the pirates would soongraduate from commerce raiding to a major attack on one of the Kilrathi worlds,and I wanted to discuss strategy.
SoSo and Eisen were huddled together in the comm alcove. I hesitated, notwanting to interrupt, but Eisen waved me over. "Vice-Admiral Willful is inthis system--" He stopped and sniffed the air. "Colonel, is that soy sauce Ismell?" he asked hopefully.
"Er, no, sir. Cologne." Poor Captain Eisen had visibly lost weight on theship's bland diet, and I longed to share my stash with him. But I'd need allmy goodies if I hoped to court Panties, or any other woman on the ship forthat matter. Except Zelda, of course. For her I needed shark repellant.
Captain Eisen coughed to cover his disappointment. "Er, the Admiral is here inPasqual to assess the situation with the Kilrathi, Colonel. We could use yourexpertise."
I looked at the display. A husky, crew-cut man apparently in his sixties wassitting at a table playing cards with several other officers. Most were intheir underwear. They revealed their cards and one of the women removed herbra. Vice-Admiral Willful took a long drag on his cigar and pounded the tablein appreciation.
SoSo turned green and raced to the porta-potty. Judging by the sounds I heardinside, she'd be in there quite a while.
"Er, ahem," said Captain Eisen discreetly.
Willful threw in his cards. "Sorry for the interruption, Captain. What wereyou saying?" He reached for a shotglass of yellow-brown liquid and downed itin one gulp.
The Captain nudged me a little closer. "Admiral Willful, you know who this manis."
Willful squinted and leaned forward, searching. "Where? Behind the shrimp?"
Shrimp? "Er, I'm Colonel Christopher Blair, also known as the Heart of theTiger. Ah, no offense, sir, but what Border World moron made you an admiral?"
The Admiral looked at me in surprise for a moment, then burst out laughing."Haw haw haw! I like yer style, kid!" He pounded the table again. "I spentforty years as a cop--vice squad. Came out to the Border Worlds to retire.Thought I'd try out a few of those vices I'd been bustin' people for, heh heh.Well, then these--whoops!"
He leaned back in his chair and looked under the table. "Not so hard there,honey! That's a precision instrument! Har har! Ooooh, that's better!"
Willful looked at me again. "Then these troubles started, and they neededpeople to lead all the Militia they were mobilizing, so they dragged me out ofretirement. One look at my haircut and they were going to make me a captain,but I said, hell, I had to be a VICE-admiral, because I had the experience forit! Haw haw haw!"
Seeing my dismay, Captain Eisen hastened to reassure me. "He's quitecompetent, Colonel. One time I worked, ah, undercover with the Admiral in thered light district of Port Aphrodite, on Fornik VIII."
"Yeah, I remember, haw haw!" Willful picked up his cards, examined them amoment, and discarded two. "Took us two days to sober him up, Colonel, and aweek to get rid of the crabs! Hahahaha!"
I looked at Eisen with new respect. Modest as ever, he hastily changed thesubject. "Er, Admiral Willful, what happened to the Marines we were supposedto meet at Orestes?"
Willful looked up from his cards. "Eh? Marines?" A woman in heavy makeup anda decidedly non-reg uniform appeared and whispered in his ear. Willful smiledat Eisen. "Oh, Marines. Heh heh. Er, your bunch was sidetracked, but wegot--heehee--we got some real GOOD ones for you! Har har! They'll rendezvouswith your task force shortly."
The card players laid down their hands again. Willful cursed and removed hisT-shirt, revealing a thick mat of gray chest hair. SoSo, who had juststaggered out of the porta-potty, hastily covered her mouth and stumbled backin.
Eisen broke the connection and turned to me. "Colonel, the Admiral believesthe pirates will attempt an attack on Pasqual X, to take out the Union's supplyof specialized electronics at the source."
"Panties and I concur, sir."
"Very well. I want you to patrol the approaches to the planet. Intercept anyattacks, then find those pirates and wipe them out before we get there. Anddetail four fighters to escort these transports to planetary orbit."
I saluted. Yes, sir!"
SoSo climbed slowly out of the porta-potty, closed the door, and leaned heavilyagainst it. I took a step toward her, hoping she'd let me help, but when I sawher glare I hastily left CIC to brief my pilots.
The briefing was, well, brief. I handed out patrol assignments to the squadroncommanders and assigned our escort frigates to fly CAP for the task force andthe cat convoy. I then took Wombat Squadron in hand and laid out our missions.
"Who are you flying with, sir?" asked Moose. He seemed disappointed to beassigned an Orestes III rookie, a young guy whose callsign was Squirrel.
"I have a hunch this sector is the tough one, Moose. No reflection on yourskill, but I need a special kind of idiot with me on this one. Good luck!"
I watched the Wombats file out of the ready room, then went to pick up myidiot--er, wingman.
The storage hold was nearly deserted, which was good, because I was going towake up everyone in it. I stopped just under Primate's nest and yelled up atthe overhead.
"Primate! Mission! Come down! Now!"
Captain Dean McCall stuck his head over the edge of his nest. His shoulderswere bare. "Sorry, sir, I'm busy!"
Marsupial's head popped out next to Primate's. She was bleary-eyed, her hairwas tousled, and her shoulders were also bare. Between flying for Panties andsatisfying Primate's, er, urges, she was obviously getting little or no sleep.
I held up one of the bananas I'd bought on Orestes IV.
Primate exploded into action. "Illberightdownsir!" He disappeared, and Iheard a furious rustling of clothing. Marsupial mouthed a silent "Thank you"to me, and also disappeared--or maybe she just passed out.
By all accounts, Primate had taken to the Banshee like he'd taken to trees,before his short Union career had been interrupted by his wound and Intrepid'sbanana shortage. I prayed his layoff hadn't blunted his skills.
As we passed his Banshee, I tossed him his customary preflight banana, and heswarmed up into the cockpit to devour it. At my own fighter, I let Zelda getin a couple of good kisses before I tore myself out of her arms and climbedinto the ship.
As I completed preflight, I commed SoSo. "Ready to launch, Intrepid."
"One moment, Earthworm; one of the techs has slipped on a banana peel... OK,you're clear to launch, sir." She cut off with none of the customary "Goodluck" or "Good hunting" sendoffs. Damn, she was still pissed at me.
We were nearly two hours into the mission, patrolling near a Kilrathi orbitaldefense station, when we first made contact.
"We got company!" warned Primate. I checked my scope. Hmm, these guys lookedfriendly...
"Cancel that, sir," said Primate. "Union fighters, Union transponder codes."
"Yeah, but they're not from Intrepid. Is Admiral Willful sending us somereinforcements? Form on my wing, Primate. Let's check these guys out."
As we got closer, we could make out two Avengers and two Banshees. The leadAvenger commed me.
"Colonel Blair. Hyena here. Vice-Admiral Willful sends his greetings. We'rehere to reinforce the defense station. You can go now."
I was suspicious. Wouldn't Willful have notified us of reinforcements? On theother hand, he certainly had a lot of, er, distractions. Maybe he forgot. Idebated back and forth, as the strangers approached closer and closer.
Dammit, how could I be sure? There wasn't time to contact Intrepid. Theremust be some--of course!
I commed the lead Avenger. "Say, Hyena," I said casually. "Knock knock."
Hyena was annoyed. "This is no time for games, Earthworm."
SHIT! "Break, Primate!" I screamed. "They're Confeds!" Damn, where didCovert Ops get so many Union fighters?
No time to think! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Missiles headed for both Primate and me!Burner! Decoys! Turn, dammit! Oh shit, Primate's hit! WHAMMO! I'M hit!Ventral shields down, ventral armor gone! Turn! Burner off!
Get on that Confed Banshee's tail! Ploop ploop ploop! Hits!
"Aaaaah!" KABOOM! Oh God, Primate's dead! He didn't have a chance! Myfault, my fault! OK, Banshee, die! Ploop ploop ploop! Leech locked, butyou're dying with ions in your gut, asshole! Ploop ploop! KABOOM! That's foryou, Primate!
Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoys! Losing lock--whoopwhoopwhoop! More missiles! Usemore decoys! Bam! Bam! Taking laser hits! Turn, Blair! WHAMMO! Massivejolt, instruments going crazy, cracks in the canopy! Missiles unusable! Allweapons out! Autorepair down, burner and engine damaged!
Turn! Bam! Bam! I'm surrounded! Bam! Bam! My Banshee is disintegrating!Eject! WhoopwhoopWHAMMO! Blinding light! In slow motion I feel my body tornand shattered, air whooshing from my lungs a second before my chest isperforated by shrapnel.
Darkness envelops me, and slowly--too slowly--consciousness fades. I think,irrelevantly, that maybe farming wasn't such a bad choice, after all.
Just as thought and life itself fade, I hear a deep, massive voice--the voiceof God?--all around me, filling the universe...filling me.
"You're clear to launch, sir."
I shook my head, trying to focus. Had I been dozing, so close to launch time?But I had already launched, hadn't I? And flown the mission...or had I? Butit was so...real.
SoSo commed me again, impatiently. "You're clear to LAUNCH, sir, OK? OK?
Barely paying attention, I performed the familiar launch ritual. My thoughtswere in turmoil. I'd had these...these premonitions before, on other missions,going back as far as my first tour of duty. They invariably turned out to becorrect.
Grimly, I made my decision. Be it clairvoyance, or dream, or hallucination,I'd follow this vision, too, and pray it didn't lead me to Hell.
"We got company!" warned Primate. "Wait, cancel that, sir. Union fighters,Union transponder codes."
"Form on my wing, Primate. Let's check these guys out." So far everything wasjust as in my vision.
"Colonel Blair." Right on schedule; comm from the lead Avenger. "Hyena here.Vice-Admiral Willful..."
I ignored Hyena and commed Primate on scrambler. "Primate, these guys areConfeds. Arm your weapons."
"How do you know, sir?" asked Primate.
"Just trust me. Lock a leech on Avenger Two and launch on my command."
"Roger." Thank God I'd brought Primate along. A pilot who hadn't flown withme on the Victory might not trust me in this situation.
I called the Confeds. "Roger, Hyena. Our next nav point will take us rightpast you. Out." Now we were closing nearly head-on. Closer...closer...
"Launch, Primate!" I called. My own leech leaped after Hyena's machine."Break and attack!"
"Maybe I'll just negotiate--"
"Shut up, Primate!"
Now the shoe's on the other foot, you bastards! Splat! Splat! Two Avengersdown, and now we're among the confused Banshees. CHUG CHUG CHUG! My target isslowing already. Strange, he's not evading well--of course! These Confedsaren't familiar with their new ships! Without their little surprise, they'reno better than newbies!
I felt a surge of elation. Somehow I just knew: today I owned the sky, andeveryone else out in space was going to have a very bad day!
CHUG CHUG CHUG! Hah, he's helpless! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Missile? Noproblem! Decoy, turn, here it comes...pitch up...missed! Of course.
"Is that the best you can do, Confed? Hahahaha!" Oh boy, this is fun! Nextvictim!
We made short work of that bunch. Within a minute, both Banshees were leeched.
Primate was ecstatic. "Damn, that was great flying, sir! Er, I took a fewhits; I'm not perfect like I used to be. Do we go home?"
"No, Primate. There's another formation coming in."
"Huh? Where? I don't see any--"
"Trust me, Dean." I KNEW there were more Confeds out there. Don't ask me how.
"Well, if you say--there they are!"
"Break and attack, Primate!"
I was more than human; I was a perfect fighting machine. Methodically I tookmy opponents apart one by one. Periodically I'd extract Primate from a jam,then return to my relentless task. Dismayed at his ineffectiveness, the lastConfed ejected at my first hits.
Primate was practically in awe. "Jesus Christ, sir, I've never seen you likethis!"
Poor mortal. How could he be expected to understand? "I scan heavy damage onyour ship, Primate. Better stay out of the next scrap."
"M-more? But maybe I can draw some of their--Holy shit, here they come! Howdid you know?"
"Hey, I'm the Wing Commander!" I yawned. "Stay put, Primate, I'll take theseguys myself. They're the last ones."
I commed the oncoming fighters. "Hey, Confeds! You guys got any No-Doze? I'mfalling asleep here!"
For a few minutes, the four of them actually gave me a workout. But as I cutdown their numbers, they panicked and degenerated into mere targets. I stillhad one leech missile left when the last one gave up the ghost.
I reduced throttle and surveyed the situation. Twelve Confed fighters andejection pods were scattered within thirty thousand klicks of me. Primate hadcontacted the Kilrathi defense station, and already their shuttles wererecovering prisoners. By Kilrathi custom, they belonged to Primate and me, soI was certain the cats wouldn't harm them before Intrepid's shuttle picked themup. Otherwise the poor bastards would end up as slaves or die in the arena.
I was tired, but satisfied. "Good patrol, Primate. Let's go home...Primate?"
Primate was uncharacteristically quiet. "Sorry, sir. It's just that...well,there's something...supernatural about you today, sir. I just... Um, can wekeep comm silence, sir?"
"Suit yourself, Primate." Strange guy.
For the moment, SoSo seemed to have forgotten she was mad at me. "Sir! Sir,that was the most--"
"--amazing flying you've ever seen." Jeez, it was so dull knowing whateveryone was going to say!
She was taken aback. "Er, yes. Um, I hear the Kilrathi down on--"
"--Pasqual X have a new Terran hero, right, Lieutenant?" Just give me thedamn clearance, OK?
"Er, yes." She was uncertain, and much less chatty now. "You have clearance.Out."
Strange, Zelda usually met me at the ladder. Oh well. I pulled the banana outof my pocket and headed for Primate's beat-up fighter.
As I approached, I saw Primate talking excitedly to a group of techs andpointing back toward my Banshee. Then one of the techs spotted me and tappedhim on the shoulder.
"Yaaaaah!" Primate took one look at me and scurried up the bulkhead. Hedidn't stop until he was three decks up, where he cowered, trembling.
Now what was wrong with him? I turned to the techs for an explanation, butthey just backed away, slowly, never taking their eyes off me. Jesus, werethey FRIGHTENED?
Damn dumb Border Worlders! I tossed the banana to the closest tech. "Here.Maybe you can coax him down with this." I turned to go, and nearly bumped intoZelda.
Well, at least she'd be glad to have me b--
I staggered and put my hand to my cheek, dumbfounded.
Zelda looked at me for a long moment, anger on her face and tears in her eyes.Then she ran into her workshop and closed the hatch.
What the hell was the matter with everyone? Just because a guy does a littlesuperhuman flying...
Previews from Chapter 18:
"I hope you've already spent your thirty pieces of silver, Judas. Good-bye."
"Yes, Christopher. It seems I have stumbled upon the answer that has eluded myrace for generations!"
"Colonel, I know we don't look like much, but we're all veterans of the Battleof Repleetah."
"So, Heart of the Tiger, you have a new lair-mate?"