Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 18

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to December 25, 1996]

Chapter 18

Lt. Cmdr. Queue received my report with more than a little skepticism. When hedownloaded my mission log, however, he hit the ceiling.

"Jesus Christ, Colonel! Are you so tired of living? You should have died halfa dozen times on that mission!"

I didn't answer. As the memory of my vision faded, it was replaced by agrowing horror at the reckless chances I had taken. I had broken every combatrule I'd learned in a lifetime of flying. I had senselessly risked my life--and Primate's--on a wild leap of faith. I had--Oh, God, I HAD FLOWN LIKEMANIAC!

I buried my head in my hands.

Ike patted me on the back and spoke sympathetically. "Look, Colonel, I've seenpeople go berserk out there before; the smart ones don't repeat. OK? Now whydon't you get some rest?"

With an effort, I pulled myself together. "OK, Ike. Thanks. Um, one thing,though. Do you have any idea where Confed--Covert Ops--could have gotten thoseUnion fighters?"

He shrugged. "Anything's possible, but I'd lay odds they're from Orestes III.Who was in charge of destroying surplus fighters before we bugged out?"

"I assigned Hulk and--" Son of a bitch!


I strode along the corridors of the ship with murder in my heart. Perhaps itwas the look on my face, or perhaps it was the photon pistol I carried openlyat my side, but everyone I met either ran, or pressed back against a bulkheadas I passed. I ignored everyone; my business was not with them.

I opened the hatch to the storage hold and paused for a moment. Except for myquarry, the compartment was deserted. Good. I wasn't worried about witnesses,but I didn't want some misguided hero trying to stop me.

Calmly, I walked to my target's bunk. Maniac was lying on his back, perusing athick issue of Playboy. He smiled when he saw me. "Hey, Ace! I hear you'vebeen emulating the Maniac! Haha ha! Well, I guess imitation is the sincerestform of--yikes!"

I sat on his bunk and placed the muzzle of the pistol a centimeter from hisnose. Wanting to enjoy every moment of Maniac's ignominious end, I spokeslowly and deliberately. "How much did Covert Ops pay you for those fighters,Maniac?"

He was sweating now, on the verge of panic. "She told me she was a junkdealer, Ace!" he wailed. "Honest! They were old--early models! Intrepid hadno more room! Why blow them up when I could sell them for scrap?"

So Maniac hadn't been disloyal after all, just stupid. Again. I should haveknown. Well, it was the last time. I smiled as my finger slowly tightened onthe trigger. This would feel sooooo good! "I hope you've already spent yourthirty pieces of silver, Judas. Good-bye."

"It wasn't silver!" he screamed desperately. "It was BARBECUE!" He squeezedhis eyes shut.


Involuntarily, my trigger finger relaxed. "Uh, you got any left?"

He nodded frantically, eyes still tightly closed, and pointed under his bunk.Warily, I knelt beside the bunk and looked. He wasn't lying. I found nearly adozen "Ribs-R-Us" self-heating takeout BBQ-PAKs, along with a pile of vintagePlayboys still in their wrappers. Maniac was a nincompoop, but he drove ahard bargain when it came to food and Playboys.

I pulled out a BBQ-PAK and turned to Maniac--shit, the big doofus had fainted.Just as well, I thought, as I pointed the pistol at him again. He wouldn'tmake such a fuss when I shot him. A quick pull on the trigger, and then Icould dig into--


I recognized the voice even before I turned around. "Hello, Yanni," I saidcalmly. Hiding the BBQ-PAK and pistol behind my back, I continued smoothly,"What brings you here?"

She was blushing, and shifting her feet nervously. "Um, Louise said you had,uh, business here, so I came to find you. I, uh..." Unable to continue, sheshyly extended a hand.

In her hand was her cabin lottery chit.

Oh man, could this possibly get any better? Her cabin time began in less thanfifteen minutes.

I stood and gently touched her fingertips. "I accept," I said, smiling. Ishowed her the BBQ-PAK. "Hungry, Yanni?"


I drifted contentedly in the twilight between sleep and awareness. Yanni,still discovering her sexuality, was an eager student whose lust for, er,knowledge was exceeded only by her appetite for barbecue. Now, sated in everysense of the word, she slept quietly in my arms as I savored her warmth.

Momentarily more awake than asleep, I brushed back Yanni's hair and kissed herforehead. For a few precious hours I could pretend I had a woman who wouldraise kids and crops with me, and the war was merely a bad dream from which Ihad just awakened. It was a gift I could never repay.

Presently I slipped back into slumber, taking thoughts of farm and family withme. Not surprisingly, I was soon dreaming about the day I had learned of the"final solution" to the Kilrathi Problem.


It was four days before I would get the call from Maniac. I was out in thefields near the boundary between my farm and Zeke's. One of my agrodroidshad broken down, and I was trying to get it back on the job before lunch. Iworked with a will, inspired by a bright spring day that seemed to holdboundless promise.

I looked up from my work, listening. I had heard a faint cry, unintelligible,but definitely not sectoid or aviate. Surely not megamole either, though Imade certain my photon rifle was close at hand, just in case.

There it was again! It was coming from Zeke's side of the boundary marker.I stood up to get a better look...

There! In the distance I could see Zeke running toward me like a bat out ofHell, waving and shouting. Once he fell to the ground, but he just rolled, ranfor a moment on all fours like one of his ancestors, then jumped up andcontinued his mad dash. His straw hat remained behind, but he paid noattention to it.

Thoroughly alarmed, I grabbed my rifle and ran to meet him. Zeke and his haremhad three kittens now, and I had a terrible feeling that they were in danger.I could think of no other reason for his frantic behavior.

As we approached each other, Zeke, nearly out of breath, shouted a single wordthat stopped me in my tracks. "Eureka!" he yelled.

'Eureka?' That didn't sound like trouble. Shit, was he making all this fussover another new eggplant recipe?

I had no time to speculate, because Zeke kept coming, and he wasn't slowingdown! "Wait, Zeke!" I yelled. "Whoa, big guy--oof!"

The collision knocked the breath out of me. I would have fallen, except Zekegrabbed me like a rag doll, hugged me to his chest, and whirled around andaround.

"Heeheehee!" he yelled giddily. "Eureka! Hahahaha! Eureka! Heeheehee!"

Finally, out of breath, he collapsed to the ground. I rolled free and sat up,trying to stop the world from spinning around me. Damn, Zeke's enthusiasm wasso annoying sometimes!

"OK, Zeke," I said, seeing he was beginning to calm down. "What's the big dealthis time?" I started brushing the dirt off my clothes. "You discover anothernew sex position?"

"Heehee! No, Christopher. I am a father again! A beautiful little she-kit!"

My reaction was mixed. Though genuinely happy for Zeke, I couldn't helpfeeling a bit sad and more than a little jealous. My friend had fouryoungsters now, yet I couldn't even find myself a wife! Thoughts of thekittens, however, quickly pushed the regrets out of my mind. I loved therambunctious little tykes, who had taken to me as readily as my girls had takento Zeke.

"Congratulations, Zeke! That gives you three g--" Only then did it hit me."Jesus Christ, three GIRLS? But you said--"

He nodded. "Yes, Christopher. I thought the first two were just coincidence,but this last one has convinced me. It seems I have stumbled upon the answerthat has eluded my race for generations! Yet their mothers and I did nothingunusual, except--"

"--that you're VEGETARIANS! Damn, you're right, that has to be it!" No wonderhe'd been so giddy. Zeke had just found the key to the long-term survival ofhis race. I rejoiced as I had when my own race had been spared more than twoyears before.

Zeke was nodding again. "We have too few data points to be precise, of course,but I suspect that strict abstinence from flesh reverses the birth ratio. Imust do more experiments." He stared off into space and sighed. "Yes, I'mafraid I must redouble my mating efforts. Oh, the sacrifices I make forscience!"

I snorted. "Gimme a break! With twenty-seven wives, your pencil's alreadyworn to a nub! You used to spend half your time at my place hiding from yourhorny honeys! Remember the time Thelma and Louise were after you, and you hidin my root cellar?" I certainly remembered. Unable to find Zeke, thefrustrated she-cats had gone for me instead. It had been the most intensesexual experience of my life, and one of the most satisfying, except that ittook me nearly a week to recover. From then on, Zeke was on his own.

Zeke sighed again. "You're right, Christopher. And within two generations,all Kilrathi males will be in the same fix: slaves to our females again!"

I laughed. "Don't look to me for sympathy, Zeke. Human males don't have itthat much better."

We sat in silence, contemplating our respective fates. Then Zeke turned to meagain.

"Still, ya gotta love 'em," he said wistfully.

"That's a roger, good buddy!"


I woke to the alarm, which I had set to give us plenty of time before the nextcabin occupants were due. The cleaning droids were programmed to a preciseschedule; more than one tardy couple had already been dragged naked from theircabin by the relentless machines.

Yanni awoke with her hair over her eyes and a smile on her lips. We bothsqueezed into the tiny sonic shower--er, to save time--and began thecontortions required to expose bodily nooks and crannies to the vibro-mist.Yanni insisted on rubbing the Depil-8 gel on my one-day beard herself, so Ioccupied my hands with other activities.

"You know, Chris--Ooohhh!--last night, when we talked, I realized--Mmmmmm!--forthe first time how much you love--Oh, right there!--er, love your farm. I-Itruly hope you find--Oh, don't stop!--someone t-to share it with you--Oh! Uh!Oh! Ooooohhhhhh...."

I held her as she slumped against me. Amazing what a little skilled back-scratching could do!

"You know, Yanni, I envy the lucky stiff who ends up with you." That wouldn'tbe me, of course. Whatever my fantasies of the night before, Yanni would neverfollow me back to Nephritis 2. Still, despite the familiar bittersweet feelingof dead-end romance, I had no regrets.

I kissed her wet hair. "Thank you, dear Yanni, for a magical night."


We kissed good-bye in the companionway while the cleaning droids bustled aboutinside the cabin. As I headed toward the Control Bay, I passed Valentina andArchie going the other way. I smiled as they entered the cabin Yanni and I hadjust vacated. The two droids were unceremoniously shoved out the hatch, whichwas then slammed shut.

Hulk had the duty in the Control Bay. I approved his patrol plans and added acouple of suggestions. Though it seemed the pirates had given up, I had afeeling they were just laying low.

After bantering with the duty crew for a few minutes, I had to give in to mystomach, which was insisting on more galley food, despite an unbroken string ofdisappointments. Fortunately I still had one small squeeze pack of barbecuesauce with me.


Upon entering the galley, I spotted SoSo alone at one of the tables. I wastempted to try a reconciliation, but for the life of me I couldn't think of agood way to go about it. Oops, too late anyway. Catalyst was sitting downnext to her with a tray of food.

"Oh, goody!" SoSo gushed. "You brought, uh, stuff. Veggies?"Warily, she transferred the bowl to her own tray. "Thanks. I think." Shetook a bite and bravely forced it down.

Catalyst looked around furtively, then stealthily took something out of hispocket and placed it on the table between them. SoSo's eyes lit up. It was asnack-size can of Tingles potato chips! Contraband from Orestes III, no doubt.

"Oh God, Catscratch, you're a lifesaver!" Quickly she popped the top. Hercompanion took a chip and, despite her protestations that he should have thefirst one, placed it daintily in her eager mouth.

SoSo closed her eyes and savored the snack. "Oh God, nacho cheese flavor!"She cried out with every delightful chew. "Yes! Ohhhh! Yes! Yessss!"

I felt myself getting aroused, and from the looks on the faces of the other men--and women--in the galley, I wasn't the only one. I had to put a lid on thisbefore it got out of hand.

I quickly strode over to their table. Catalyst immediately leaped toattention, while SoSo guiltily tried to hide the can of chips. Seeing it washopeless, however, she reluctantly held it out to me.

"Have a potato chip, Colonel?"

"No thanks, Lieutenant. Uh, at ease there, Catalyst."

Catalyst sat down with relief. "Um, I've been thinking about what you said,Colonel, and I'm with you. I want to help the Kilrathi, too."

SoSo, delighted to have the chips back, piped up, "I, uh, helped straightenhim out, Colonel." She grinned and gave Catalyst a conspiratorial nudge.

"Yes, sir, we had a long talk." His eyes grew dreamy. "A long, long talk."

"It was long, all right," agreed SoSo, gazing at Catalyst with adoration."He's a hard man, Colonel, but I kept working on him. I softened him up, and Ilicked him in the end." She abruptly realized what she was saying. "Er, Iconvinced him, I mean! Heh heh." SoSo and Catalyst were both blushing.

I just stood there, enjoying their discomfiture. The silence grew longer andlonger.

Finally, SoSo blurted, "By the way, Colonel, have you met our new guests downin the hold?"

Guests? What now? "No, I haven't. Guess I'll get some eats and then check'em out. Carry on, you two." I had teased them enough. Ah, young love!

I whistled as I made my food selections. SoSo had seemed much friendlier thistime. Perhaps she was over her pique.

In the mood for company, I picked up my tray and looked for a familiar face.Lt. Mourne saw me and waved for me to join her and Lou Tennant. More thanhappy to oblige, I sat down just as SoSo started moaning over another potatochip.

"Um, September," I said, to distract myself from SoSo, "I went over your lastmission log. You did a good job covering Maniac on his torpedo run."

"Thank you, sir," she said, smiling. "It wasn't easy." Her smile faded."Sir, he keeps putting me on his wing. Can you do something about it?" Sheleaned closer. "I'd be ever so grateful..."

I glanced uncomfortably at Louise. "Um, September, that won't be nec--"

"It's OK, Colonel," said Louise, grinning. "We tossed for you, and I lost.This time." She stood up and took her tray to the recycler.

Well! I turned to September. "My cabin time comes up in three watches. Ifyou can talk Tex into flying with Maniac..." I pointed to the table where Texand Moose were sitting. "...I'll order Major Marshall to pair you with anotherpilot. Um, regardless of whether you and I..." But she was already gone.

I busied myself with my serving of ship's lasagna, an offering I hadn't triedyet. Damn, it was harder than armor plate! I bent a fork and a knife, bothmade of durasteel, before giving up and moving on to the vegetable surprise.

As a diversion from the unappetizing food, I tuned in on Catalyst and SoSo twotables over. Their conversation had turned to lottery chits.

"Sorry, Velina," said Catalyst. "My cabin time isn't for another two days."

"Damn!" she answered. "Three days for me. And I-I can't do it in the holdagain, Catscratch. I just can't!"

"It's OK, honey," said Catalyst. "Look, they've set up some exercise equipmentin Bay 17. Next off-watch, why don't we go down and work out, or do someaerobics--"

SoSo gagged on her veggies. "No! No fucking aerobics!"

When I turned to see if she was OK, I saw her glaring back at me, unconsciouslypulling her uniform closer around her. If looks could kill, I would have beena bubbling, formless mass of protoplasm on the deck.

Shit, I had to do something. The two lovebirds were arguing now, and the fightwas escalating rapidly. Their row wasn't exactly my fault, but I'd had a handin provoking it.

SoSo had already dumped her tray and was storming out. I intercepted her nearthe hatch.

"Lieutenant, I just want--"

She brushed me aside. "SorrysirbutIhavealotofworktodo--"

Exasperated, I blocked the hatch with my arm. "Look, you little nitwit, I'mtrying to apologize for Orestes IV! I want to make it up to you! Here."

"Wha--Ohmygod, your lottery chit! Sir, I can't..."

I shook my head. "Yes you can. Now give me yours before I change my mind."

She took out her own chit and handed it to me. "Thank you, sir. I-I'm sorryI was angry with you. It... It wasn't your..." She hesitated, then shylykissed me on the cheek. I watched as she ran off to tell her sweetie.

Lt. Mourne was back. "Tex agreed, sir."

I didn't have to ask how she'd persuaded him. "OK, September, I'll talk toManiac. Um, but there's been a change in our, er, plans." I explained aboutmy goodwill gesture.

She glanced at the loving couple, who were already reconciled and happilyadmiring my--their--chit. Then she smiled and kissed me on my other cheek. "Ithink that's sweet, Chris. You're a helluva guy."

I felt three meters tall. "Um, September, perhaps we can make other..." Butshe was on her way to Tex's table again.

"Moose!" she called. "I'm free after all..."



I was in an evil mood when I reached the storage hold. Whoever our "guests"were, they were going to get a rough time from me.

The guests turned out to be Union Marines. The tallest one noticed me firstand yelled "Ten-hut!" All six leaped to their feet, lined up, and stiffenedto attention.

I walked up to the sergeant, who was standing in front of his team and staringrigidly ahead in the best Marine tradition. Looking at their crisp, cleanuniforms, I forgot about my bad mood. It seemed Willful had sent us an eliteteam; we could make good use of them.

I put out my hand. "At ease, Sergeant. I'm Christopher Blair."

He grasped my hand with an iron grip. "Blair? Say, aren't you the guy from--"

"No, I'm not! Er, why don't you introduce your team, Sergeant?"

"Aye aye, sir! I'm Fry McLean. They call me 'Mean Green McLean!'"

'Mean Green?' What kind of a battle nickname--

He presented the first Marine in line. "This is PFC Northan West."

West was tall, thin, and awfully young. He saluted crisply and sang out,"Semper Fi, SIR!"

Uh, yeah. Whatever.

"Private Stupor Awks."

Awks was sturdier, more hard-bitten. He stuck up his middle finger and didn'tsay anything.

"PFC Pull Wang."

In contrast to Awks, Wang was short and baby-faced. He grinned and reached outto pump my hand. "Hiya, Colonel, sir. How's it hangin'?"

I looked at Sgt. McLean, but he just continued down the line.

"PFC Vendetta Damppuss."

Damppuss was a wisp of a girl who didn't look big enough to carry a purse, letalone a photon rifle. She shyly held out her hand. "Colonel."

I was starting to have my doubts about these guys. Could they really be--Whoa! Get a load of the last one!

"This is Corporal Shame Vanish."

Cpl. Vanish gave me a sultry smile, but said nothing. When she offered herhand, I had to resist an impulse to kiss it. When we clasped hands and shecaressed mine with her free hand, I had to resist an impulse to jump her.

Shaking, I backed away and surveyed the whole bunch. Now that I'd seen them upclose, they didn't look like much. Except Cpl. Vanish, of course.

As if reading my mind, Sgt. McLean said, "Colonel, I know we don't look likemuch, but we're all veterans of the Battle of Repleetah."

Uh-oh. "Sergeant, there were no survivors of the Battle of Repleetah."

He hastily tried to cover up. "Er, did I say 'Repleetah?' I meant, er...theAlamo! Yeah, that's it, the Alamo. Heh heh."

Why me, God? "I don't think so, Sergeant. So who are you, really?"

He slumped in resignation. "OK, OK, we're thespians."

Now I was getting mad again. "Look, asshole, I don't care about your sexhabits! I want to know who you are!"

It was McLean's turn to get mad. "I just told you, dummy! We're actors!We're between holovid seasons, and we're moonlighting to pick up a few bucks."He managed to calm down a little. "Look, we'd just finished shooting the lastshow of the season, we were still in our costumes, and these Militia typesasked if we needed some extra cash. We said OK, and here we are."

Oh, shit. No wonder Willful had been so amused by our request. Still, evenactors were better than nothing, right? If they played soldiers, they musthave learned something, right? Right?

"What's the name of your show, McLean?" Damn, I'd probably have to censor thecrew's holovid programs.

"It's called 'Space: Under the Helmet.' It's a dramatic examination of human psychology under the strain of combat. Airs on the Sox Network. Um, look, canyou give us a break, Colonel? We really need the money. Sox doesn't pay verymuch."

I thought about it. At least there was no need for censorship. Nobody watchedSox.

"OK, OK, Sergeant, you and your, er, troops can stay. But don't let on you'renot real Marines, or I'll have your asses!"

McLean practically fainted with relief. "Whew! Thanks for your confidence,Colonel. We won't let you down. Er, one question: When do our stand-insarrive?"


"You know, our stuntmen. We don't want to get hurt with the new season comingup. The recruiters said we'd have the best."

It was all I could do to keep a straight face. "Well, I hate to break it toyou, McLean, but on this gig, you do your own stunts."

The look on his face was priceless. I put my hands in my pockets and ambledoff toward the Control Bay, whistling.


Despite our intensive searches, we found no trace of the pirate ships that hadlaunched the strikes on the Kilrathi defense stations. Whether they had takentoo many losses, or merely had other fish to fry, it looked like they weregoing to leave the cats alone.

I flew one uneventful patrol with Yaeger and came back to find that Melek hadreturned to the Intrepid. At the time, however, I was more concerned aboutZelda. Tech Barr had told me she was locked away in her workshop, slaving awayon something the Kilrathi scientists had sent her. I tried the hatch myself,but it was locked and there was no answer.

I would have persisted, except that Captain Eisen wanted me in CIC for abriefing. As luck would have it, I ran into Maniac just outside the hatch.

Upon seeing me, he turned pale and promptly raised his hands. "Take it easy,Ace," he pleaded. "Don't hurt me, OK?"

"Calm down, Maniac. I'm not mad any more. I realized you just can't blame acockroach for being a cockroach."

He relaxed and flashed his familiar grin. "Yeah, you're right, Ace, you can'tblame me for being a--Hey! Who are you calling--"

"But you might think about how close you came to cashing in your chips, pal.If it hadn't been for Yanni..."

"'Jailbait' Yokely saved my life? Say, maybe I better get up to A Turret andexpress my, uh, 'gratitude!' Hubba hubba!"



Melek and Captain Eisen were waiting for me in CIC. The Captain was justwiping away the last of his overnight beard. He picked up his swagger stickand began the briefing with the gel still on his face.

"Ah, Colonel. For a change, this mission should be a milk run." Eisen pointedto the main display, which showed the Pasqual system. He zoomed in on thePeleus jump point.

"As you know, Colonel, we're headed for the Peleus jump point to ensure thatnone of the pirates escape that way. The Union can't afford to have piratesloose in its most strategic star system."

He pointed out an object near the path to the jump point.

"In a few more days, when this new surveillance array is online, the Kilrathiwill have the means to defeat the remaining pirates in this system. Melek hasasked us to escort him there for the opening ceremony. Melek?"

Melek took over smoothly. "I could arrange escort by our own craft, of course.However, many of my followers are still opposed to any cooperation with humans.By demonstrating my complete confidence in our former enemies, I hope to weakenthe isolationists and open the way to closer ties with Union worlds. Theeffect will be even greater if the Heart of the Tiger consents to lead the escort."

I smiled. Melek had come a long way since his days as Thrakhath's toady. "Iunderstand, Melek. It'll be my honor."

"Very well," said Eisen. "I'm also sending our newly arrived Marines. Theywill act as honor guard for Melek's arrival."

That suited me fine. Our "Marines" shouldn't need stunt men for this task."I'll pass the word, Captain," I said. Seeing the troubled look on his face,I added, "Something wrong, Captain?"

He waited a long moment before replying. "Er, Colonel, how sure are you ofthose people? I saw them debarking from their shuttle, and frankly, theydidn't seem to know their rifle muzzles from their assholes! Are they reallythe elite Marines Willful says they are?"

"Well, they're not thespians, sir. Heh heh."

Eisen frowned. "What do their sex lives have to do with anything?"

I tried not to laugh. Jeez, sometimes the Captain could be so dumb!


I briefed my squadron commanders and assigned patrol sectors for the run tothe jump point. With our escorts and their fighters joining the effort, we hadenough searchers to keep a strong strike force in reserve.

Primate refused to fly with me, even when I offered him extra bananas. Thisseemed like a good time to get closer to Tamara--nothing like a long missionfor getting to know someone--but she was still whipping her rookies into shape.

I finally picked Lt. Frank "Turbo" Roan, a steady veteran respected by hisfellow Wombats. He was happy enough with the assignment, especially when Itold him that Melek's arrival would probably be covered by news crews. Heexcused himself to spruce up and put on a dress uniform.

I had better things to do than primp for the cams: it was time to confrontZelda. I'd been tolerant of her romantic antics, but I couldn't have my chieftech decking me after every mission.

I found Zelda loading my Banshee with decoys. She saw me coming, but she keptworking, ignoring me completely. I waited patiently at the bottom of theladder until she finished and climbed down.

It wasn't until she was standing in front of me that she acknowledged mypresence. "Colonel?" she said evenly, wiping her hands on a rag.

"Tell me the truth, Chief. Do I need to find a new crew chief?"

"That depends, sir," she replied calmly. "Are you going to fly like the man Ilove, or like that bozo, Maniac?" Her voice started to crack. "Y-you see,sir, I have to know, b-because I refuse to help you c-commit suicide!"

So that was it. She'd just been worried about me. "You can rest easy, Chief.That last mission put the fear of God into me. No more glory stunts, Ipromise." She brightened, until I poked my finger at her as a warning. "Butget this straight, OK? You and me? It's not gonna happen, Chief."

She was still smiling, her tears forgotten. "That's what you think, Blairbear.But I can wait." I submitted to a couple of her kisses, wincing as her teethinflicted new wounds. Damn, it was either bruised cheeks or cut lips; therewas no in-between with Zelda!


Lt. Homes and the "Marines" started boarding their shuttle while Zelda wasexplaining her new anti-cloaking measures to Turbo and me. Melek and his partywere heading for their own shuttle. I excused myself to say good-bye to him.

Melek was in high spirits. "So, Heart of the Tiger, you have a new lair-mate?"He gestured toward Zelda and Turbo.

"Huh? You mean Zelda? Er, no, she's my crew chief. Why?"

"It's just that, by Kilrathi standards, she is quite attractive. She would bea worthy lair-mate for the Heart of the Tiger."

"Oh." I barely choked back laughter. Melek was pretty smart for a cat, buthis taste in human women was pathetic.

"By the way, Melek, I have something for you." I took out the data cartridgeI'd kept as a memento. "I learned nearly everything I know about farming fromthis. Now I want you to have it."

Melek took it and read the title. "'Agriculture for Dummies.' My profoundestgratitude, Heart of the Tiger. Thanks to you, the Kilrathi have a futureagain. You know, of course, you will always have a place among us, should thishuman conflict turn out badly for you."

I was touched. "Thanks, friend Melek. I'll remember that. Good-bye and goodluck."

Rejoining Zelda and Turbo, I noticed Zelda staring at the huge feline as hewaved and led his retinue up the ramp.

"Um, Chris," she said. "Is every part of the Kilrathi, er, anatomy so, so..."

"Big?" I said, completing her thought. "Bigger, actually. Er, so I've heard."

"Ooooooh," she moaned, almost inaudibly. She shivered a bit as she continuedgazing at the spot where Melek had stood.

Hmm, this was a side of Zelda I hadn't seen before. Maybe that mysteriouscylinder in her cloaking device had once been an oversized dildo after all.


The unfinished surveillance array was about two hours' flight from the Uniontask force. I passed the time immersed in memories of my time with Yanni.After my encounter with Robin and Rachel, it was unlikely I'd go back to my oldlife on the farm, but a guy could dream--

"Heart of the Tiger! Danger!"

Shit! Always when I'm thinking! I activated the comm. "What is it, Melek?

"The array reports an attack by pirates! Fighters and landing craft-- Thetransmission has ceased!"

Shit! How had a pirate ship evaded our patrols? We had to intervene, but thetwo shuttles still needed our protection.

"Melek! Homes! Full speed! Homes, contact Intrepid and have them vectorthe nearest patrol to the array! And get the other patrols to this area.There's a capship out there somewhere!"

"Roger, Earthworm."

The array came up on our detectors a few minutes later. There was no sign ofpirate fighters. Had they pulled back already?

We closed the distance as rapidly as the slow shuttles permitted, and I frettedall the way. After the failure of their main attack on the cat planet, thepirates had to take out the array to have any hope of continuing operations inthe Pasqual system. Yet here it was, still intact. Wait, Melek had saidsomething about landing craft--Shit! They were trying to ambush Melek!

I commed the Kilrathi shuttle. "Melek! Pull back! Ambush!" Damn, thepirates could uncloak at any time!

Melek himself appeared on the comm. "No, Heart of the Tiger. I have eightveteran infantry in my bodyguard. We must help the defenders of the array!"The shuttle continued on course.

Goddamn fucking cats! It was like dealing with an entire race of Maniacs!I switched to the wingman channel. "Turbo! Watch for cloaked--"

Pirate Arrows began appearing on my scope! Full speed, Blair!

"Turbo! Break and attack!"

"Absolutely, Earthworm!"

"Homes! Stick with Melek! Get the Marines on that station!" No time formore. An Arrow was on my tail, and I had a surprise ready for him.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Decoy! Decoy! Now evade, Blair, because these areZelda's special decoys, and they don't work on missiles!

Whoopwhoopwhoop! Turn, Blair! Hah, missed! There he is! Close in! Shit,he's cloaking...Hah! It worked! You're a jewel, Zelda!

The pirate Arrow had indeed cloaked, but I could still see him! And he didn'tknow it! Heehee, you're mine, motherfucker! Another Arrow was on my tail, soI dropped a couple more decoys. I closed rapidly with my first target.

Leech locking...locked! Point blank range! Launch! Splat! Yahoo! Evade!

Splat! "One more for the kill board, sir!" Hah! Turbo got one, too!

OK, the guy on my tail realizes what's going on, he's running for his life!Burner! Leech is locking...Launch! He's evading... Shit! OK, but I cut thecorner while he maneuvered! Ploop! Ploop! Ploop! He's damaged and slowing.Ho ho, the idiot is cloaking! Leech locking...Launch! Splat! What a dope!

Back to the array. The last Arrow is on Turbo's tail! He's marked, but he haslock...He's launching! Turbo's evading...Shit, he's hit!

"Meeting heavy resistance, Earthworm! Need help!"

"I'm coming, Turbo!" We have three disabled Arrows, so I don't need anotherprisoner. This guy's going straight to hell! He wants to finish off Turbo,but now I'm on his tail! Ploop! Ploop! Ploop! Automatch speed! Ploop!Ploop! Eject, stupid! Ploop! KABOOM! Good-bye, asshole! Give my regards toLucifer!

Turbo had lost most of his aft armor, but otherwise he was OK. It looked likeall the pirate fighters were accounted for. My thoughts turned to the fightingthat must be going on inside the array. Both our shuttles had docked anddisgorged their troops into the meat grinder.

"Homes! Status?" I saw two pirate landers attached to the array. As many asfifty enemy infantry could be loose in there. Melek's Kilrathi were probablygood soldiers, but I expected nothing from our Hollyworld "Marines." At best,they could draw some of the enemy's fire. Damn, damn! Why had I let them talkme into letting them--

"Homes here, sir!" I heard screams and small-arms fire in the background. "Wehave one hell of a fight here, Earthworm! My God, look at those Marines!Damn, I gotta be part of this! Homes out!"

"Homes! Stay put! Don't--" Too late. I could still hear the sounds ofcombat and...laughter? Gradually the noise faded, until I could hear onlystatic.

I was frantic with worry. Melek was going to be killed, and it was my fault!For one desperate moment, I considered joining the fight myself--no, that wouldbe a useless gesture. Better to wait for reinforcements and blast the damnpirates when they--

The comm came to life. It was Melek! There was blood trickling from his earand his muzzle was bloody, but he was jubilant.

"Heart of the Tiger! The array is ours! My deepest thanks for your help.Your Marines are truly fierce warriors!"

"Uh, they are? I mean, of course they are." Had blood lust driven him mad?

"Under the circumstances," he continued, "we will forgo the ceremony. We havereinforcements inbound, so your people can leave directly. Farewell, myfriend."

"Uh, yeah, good hunting, friend Melek." I shook my head. Maybe the pirateshad attacked with Cub Scouts or something. I couldn't see our "Marines"beating anyone tougher.

The Marine shuttle joined us shortly, and we set course for Intrepid. I wantedto ask Homes about the fight, but right about then one of our patrols found thepirate frigate that had launched the attack. I vectored in reinforcements andfollowed the action on the comm until the enemy was space dust. That stilldidn't explain how it had slipped by our patrols earlier, but at least thethreat was over.


"Great work, Colonel!"

Damn, I hated to admit it, but I had missed SoSo's welcoming smile.

"Thanks, Lieutenant. Uh, everything OK there?" I winked at her.

Her smile grew wider. "Oh, YES, sir!" she gushed. Evidently she and Catalysthad made good use of my cabin chit. "You have clearance, sir."

As I switched off, I felt a momentary twinge of jealousy. Damn, did I havefeelings for that annoying little stick woman? Naaah, couldn't be.

Could it?


Zelda, too, was her old self. Bubbling with exuberance, she pinned me to theladder and covered me with kisses. "Four-oh flying, honeybunch! Four-oh!"

"Whoa, Zelda! Heehee! Cut it out! No, I mean it! Heehee, that tickles!Ouch! Watch the teeth! Down, girl! Heehee! Down! Heel!"

I managed to fend her off at arm's length for a moment. Desperately, I triedto think of something to distract her.

"Zelda! One thing: what did you put in those decoys?" That got her. Shequit struggling and grinned back at me.

"Look, Chief, I know the paint-bomb-in-the-decoy trick has been tried before,but it always failed. So did the giant-paint-sprayer and all the rest, becausethe paint would just cloak with the fighter. So what did you use?"

She took my hand and led me into her workshop. "The Kilrathi scientists sentme the formula for a special paint they discovered that wouldn't cloak.Unfortunately, we couldn't duplicate it with the resources we have here, so Ihad to improvise, using their formula as a guide."

She stopped at the bench and pulled out one of her modified decoys. Openingthe central chamber, she invited me to look inside. All I could see was anunremarkable white, creamy substance.

"Taste it," she invited.

"Taste it? Uh, OK." I smeared some on my finger and tentatively touched itto my tongue. Then, smiling, I stuck the whole finger in my mouth.v"Recognize it?" she asked, grinning.

"Jesus, Chief! It's lemon meringue!"

End of Chapter 18

Previews from Chapter 19:

"Sounds to me like your actions were in accordance with the finest traditionsof the Union Militia, Sergeant."

"Covert Ops has raised the ante on us. They're using the most terrible, themost reprehensible weapon known to modern man."

"Uh, by the way, Earthworm, did you know your bird looks like--"