Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 19

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to December 31, 1996]

Chapter 19

The Marine shuttle landed shortly after I did, so I didn't have time to sampleany more of Zelda's concoction. I reached the shuttle in time to see the"Marines" hustle young West down the ramp. As they set him on a stretcher, hewinced with pain and reached toward his left foot, which was wrapped with a bloody dressing. Pvt. Damppuss helped the pharmacist's mate with the gravstretcher, and the rest followed it to the lift.

Lt. Homes stood at the top of the ramp, leaning wearily against the side of the hatch. His face was dirty, there was blood on his fatigues, and he had a nasty photon burn across the back of his left hand, but he was smiling.

I climbed up the ramp and held out my hand. "Welcome back, Churlokk. What happened on that array?"

He clasped my hand enthusiastically. "You should have seen it, sir! When we landed in the docking bay, the Marines just piled right out! I tell you, sir, they were magnificent! They fell over each other, they stood out in the open and fired from the hip--you know, like all those stupid holovid shows?--firing like crazy, and didn't hit a blessed thing!"

"Uh, Churlokk, that sounds more like the Three Stooges than the MagnificentSeven..."

He laughed. "That was the beauty of their plan, sir! The pirates took one look and started laughing their heads off! When the Marines closed in to pointblank range--and still missed with every shot--those pirates were rolling onthe deck, completely helpless! Then the Marines took their rifles and clubbed 'em unconscious!"

He paused, choked with emotion. A tear rolled down his cheek. "I alwaysthought Marines were bloodthirsty killers, sir. But these guys, they risked their necks to save lives." He was weeping unashamedly now. "I tell you, sir,I'm just so proud to be on their side!"

Uh, yeah. Whatever. "OK, take it easy, Homes. What happened then?"

He wiped his eyes with his sleeve. "Well, I just couldn't sit around andwatch, so I grabbed a rifle and left the shuttle. Since the Marines didn'tneed any help, I ran up to the next deck, where the Kilrathi had gone. Thearray survivors were barricaded around the control room, surrounded bypirates. Melek deployed his bodyguards, and we took the enemy from the rear.Sir, it was incredible! We hit 'em with photon fire, then took 'em hand tohand--er, claw to hand! There was blood and body parts flying everywhere!Melek took two of 'em himself!"

I felt a touch of nausea, imagining the carnage. Kilrathi were probably thefiercest up-close-and-personal fighters in the known galaxy.

Homes continued his narrative. "After a few seconds of that, the piratespanicked and tried to surrender. The cats got some of them, but the othershuddled behind me, and Melek spared them. Um, that's unusual for Kilrathi,isn't it, sir?"

Not for vegetarian Kilrathi. "Er, Melek's an unusual cat, Homes. Or maybeit's just good public relations; Pasqual is surrounded by human star systems,you know, and a kinder, gentler image is good for business."

"Maybe that's it," agreed Homes. "Anyway, Melek is sending the prisoners toMilitia HQ on the next transport."

I was impressed. The hesitant sycophant I'd known two years ago had become aa fierce warrior, a charismatic leader, and a skilled diplomat. Melek hadcertainly earned his place as leader of the Kilrathi.

Churlokk was still waiting expectantly. "Sorry, I was just thinking, Homes.Thanks for your report. Now you'd better get Forceps to fix that hand."

Homes blanched. "Uh, if it's all right with you, sir, I'll just ask Lou tohave a look at it."

"Oh." I remembered Louise's deft fingers on the stubborn leech connectors andmy recalcitrant relief valve. "Come to think of it, that's probably a betteridea. She has a pretty delicate touch."

"Oh, indeed she does, sir!" he said happily. "Er, so I hear! Heh heh. Um, ifyou'll excuse me..."

I stared after him. Homes and Tennant? Jeez, people seemed to be pairing uppretty fast on this tub. I wondered if Tina and Archie were contagious.



Poor West, I thought as I entered sick bay. Forceps is in fine form today. Ofcourse, better West than me, heh heh.


West's companions cringed with each yell from the surgery. They weren't usedto the aftermath of real battle.

I tapped McLean on the shoulder. "Sergeant? Before your debriefing, I thoughtwe might go over the mission together?"

He shook his head sadly. "Yes, sir, but I don't see much point. After yourcaptain reads the report, we'll be lucky if he just kicks us off the ship.Damn, it's a lot harder to be Marines than I thought. For one thing, they uselive power packs!"

Welcome to the Militia, pal. "Uh, yeah, real Marines are funny that way, Fry.Anyway, back to the mission. From what Lt. Homes told me, I take it youdeployed by sections and laid down a heavy suppressing fire with your personal weapons?"

"We did? Uh, I guess so."

"And you advanced by bounding overwatch, using fire and maneuver to close withthe enemy?"

"Er, sort of."

"And you finished off the pirates by close assault from the flank?"

"Close assault? Flank? Well..."

"Sounds to me like your actions were in accordance with the finest traditions of the Union Militia, Sergeant. I wouldn't be surprised if your team gets aunit citation for today's mission."

He stared at me blankly.

I clapped him on the shoulder. "Just tell Ike that in the debriefing andyou'll do fine. Ah, here's our young hero now!

One of Forceps' assistants was taking West out of the surgery into the enlistedward. West smiled weakly as his co-stars gathered around his stretcher, all talking at once. McLean hesitated, then saluted me and followed his team intothe ward.

Forceps came out of the surgery, carrying a clipboard and his tin cup. "Ah,Blair! Just the guy I want to see!"

"How's West, Forceps?"

"No complications. He'll have his toes back in a few days. Aah, but Ithink you oughta know, from the blast angle and the tissue damage, he wasn'thit by no enemy. Stupid kid shot his own damn toes off!"

Shit. This was going to cost me again.

"Um, look, Forceps. West's courage today was undeniable." It was mainlystupidity of course, but he HAD risked his life. "I don't think a moment'scarelessness should detract from that, do you?" Forceps waited expectantly.I sighed. "OK, another six-pack?"

He tore his report off the clipboard and grinned. "You got it, kid!"


I was on my way to the galley when Hulk stopped me in the corridor. "Colonel,Captain tell Hulk, get Blair to CIC. Admiral call soon."

Uh-oh. Damn admiral was nothing but trouble. "OK, thanks, Hulk. Say, whythe long face, big guy?"

He sighed. "Hulk miss Kilrathi. Talk to Melek long time before he go. Muchin common."

Yeah, they were both big and dumb. "Well look, Hulk. When all this is over,why don't you visit your friend on Pasqual? Maybe you can talk about rabbits."

He perked up instantly. "Yes! Hulk visit Melek! Blair smart! Huh-huh!Huh-huh!" He lumbered off, his sadness forgotten.


"Ah, Colonel." Captain Eisen was in the comm alcove with SoSo. "Over here.Admiral Willful will contact us any second."

I arrived just as Vice Admiral Damyall Willful appeared in the display. He wasplaying pocket billiards with a cute but cross-eyed female ensign. As Iwatched, he made an easy shot and pounded the edge of the table in triumph.The ensign promptly removed her uniform blouse, revealing a stunning designerbra with a Victoria's Secret tag still on it.

SoSo put a hand over her mouth and ran past me to the porta-potty.

The Admiral, noticing he was on, turned to face us and took the cigar out ofhis mouth. He coughed several times. Damn, he seemed to have aged five yearssince his last call.

"Ah, Billy. And Tony the Tiger. How'd that last mission go?"

Tony the Tiger? "Er, fine, Admiral. But it's HEART of the--"

Eisen hastily interrupted me. "Er, Admiral, I want to thank you for sendingus the Marines. Their performance was exemplary."

Willful gave him a strange look. "Eh? It was? Er, we are talking about FryMcLean and his people, aren't we?"

Eisen looked puzzled. "Yes, sir. Who else would--"

Willful pounded the table again. "Well I'll be damned! Er, I mean, I expectedno less. Heh heh." He lined up a shot, missed, and cursed. He reached for abottle and poured himself a stiff drink. His hands were shaking.

"Reason I called, Billy, is we've been reading some of Confed's mail, thanks tothose codes that skinny little gal of yours gave us. Hey, where'd she go?Well, anyway, they're planning some kind of special action in Peleus, codename 'Operation Brady Bunch.' Name mean anything to you?"

Eisen shook his head. "Nothing. How about you, Colonel?"

'Brady Bunch?' I knew bananas and grapes came in bunches. Was a 'Brady' somekind of extraterrestrial fruit? "Something to do with supplies or logistics,maybe?"

Willful thought it over. "You know, Colonel, you may be right. Peleus is thenexus for many Union jump routes; almost all supplies to the front lines pass through that system. Damn! You're the closest reserves I have to Peleus, butI was planning to send you to Circe."

Willful's cross-eyed companion leaned over to line up her shot--revealing considerable cleavage in the process--and missed badly. The Admiral then madehis shot, and the ensign slipped her skirt off. Her panties bore no tag, butI recognized them from the Victoria's Secret catalog.

Perhaps emboldened by his success, the Admiral come to a decision. AddressingEisen again, he said, "Billy, if we lose Peleus, our cause cannot prevail.Get to Peleus ASAP, and you and Tony stop Operation Brady Bunch! Willful out!"

"It's BLAIR, not Tony--" Too late. The display was blank.


The Captain and I conferred for a while about our mission in Peleus, but therereally wasn't much to discuss until we knew more. We would go in with ourusual precautions and play it by ear from there.

The jump was about two hours away. The Captain was bushed, having gonepractically without sleep ever since we arrived in the Pasqual system, so Ipersuaded him to take a nap while I kept an eye on CIC. He crawled into hissleeping bag and fell asleep instantly.

When SoSo emerged from the porta-potty, I asked her to grab me a snack from thegalley. If Willful was right about "Operation Brady Bunch," we might not havemuch time for chow later.


I was still in charge of CIC for the jump to Peleus. None of us had the heartto wake Captain Eisen from his sound sleep. He'd given too much of himselfin the Pasqual operations, and now he deserved his rest.

We recovered fighters, sync'd jump units with our four escorts, and made asmooth transition to Peleus, emerging about 75,000 klicks from the buoy. Allseemed normal. Sensors were clear and comm traffic was routine.

Four Banshees from Gopher Squadron whooshed off the deck to establish ourcombat air patrol. They were followed by Turkey Squadron, on long-range recon,and Wombat Squadron, which I had assigned to shorter patrols in the generaldirection of the main planet Paleos, or Peleus V.

For about an hour, nothing happened. I paced the deck anxiously, not knowingwhat we'd be facing. Would Covert Ops deploy those strange fighters they'dused against the cats--and probably against the Annabel Lee? What were theircapabilities? Could our squadrons stand against them?

I was actually relieved when Maniac wandered in and started flirting with Lt.Pilotte. Now here was a concrete problem I could deal with! I was about toream him out good when I noticed SoSo was having a problem with her equipment.

"That's strange," she said, working furiously at her console. "Shields aredown...sensors down...comm breaking up! Sir, we've lost contact with ourpatrols!" Her voice was rising in alarm.

I was at SoSo's station in one jump, followed closely by Maniac. The others inCIC watched uneasily while SoSo tried to diagnose the problem.

"Shit!" exclaimed Maniac, examining the status display. "We're sitting ducks!"

SoSo was fighting down hysteria. "I-I don't know what's causing this, sir, I--What the..."

Something flashed onto SoSo's display. It looked a little like a holovid show,except it was two-dimensional and in grayscale. A skinny little guy in asailor hat was talking with a chubby older man wearing a captain's cap. Theywere both gesturing wildly and acting like morons. Still, the whole thing hada strange fascination. I glanced aside at SoSo and Maniac, who were alsogazing at the image, entranced. All over CIC, people were watching similarapparitions in their disp--


"Reverse course!" I screamed at the helmsman. "SoSo, signal our escorts!Secure electronics and reverse course! Then secure our gear!"

SoSo snapped out of her trance. "But sir, the Captain--"

"DO IT NOW, DAMMIT!" Oh God, please don't let us be too late!

The ship's inertial dampers whined in protest as Lt. Pilotte threw Intrepidinto an emergency turn. SoSo was yelling on the comm, apparently having sometrouble raising our escorts. I just gritted my teeth and prayed.

Captain Eisen staggered over, wiping the sleep from his eyes. "What is it,Colonel? Are we under attack?"

"Worse, sir," I replied, trying to keep my voice steady.

SoSo turned to the Captain. "All escorts, all CAP acknowledging, Captain.They're securing electronics and following us." She reached for her consoleand shut down all her gear.

"Wha? No, noooo!" wailed Maniac. "How will I find out if Gilligan ever getsoff that island?" He continued staring hopefully at the empty display, as ifit would somehow come to life again on its own.

Eisen stared blankly at Maniac before turning to me. "What the hell is goingon here? Do you know something, Blair? Spill it!"

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

Eisen looked from me to SoSo, who was still in shock, then to me again. "Youdon't mean..."

"Yes, sir. Sitcom warfare!"

An ominous silence fell over CIC, broken only by the sound of Maniac singingsoftly to himself.

"...the mate was a mighty sailin' man, the skipper brave and sure..."


I was late getting back to CIC for Captain Eisen's briefing. For almost twohours after we pulled out of the jamming zone, I had been trying to recall ourpatrols. Those who had reported back were exploring the limits of the zone.Four fighters were still missing.

Hulk, Panties, Maniac, and Catsup were already in CIC when I arrived. SoSo wasreporting to the Captain. "...and the Admiral is sending backup, sir, but theywon't arrive until tomorrow. He says to stop 'Operation Brady Bunch' at allcosts."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," said Eisen wearily. "Ah, Colonel. What kept you?We need to--" Eisen broke off as Maniac started singing again. "Will you cutthat out, Major! Lt. Sosa, can't you shut out that drivel?"

SoSo shook her head. "Sorry, sir. The HV--er, TV--visuals extend far beyondthe jamming effect. Whenever we use our electronics, some of the signal comesthrough. Um, other crew members are beginning to show the effects, sir." Sheglanced at Maniac.

Panties raised her hand. "Captain, I don't understand. I thought sitcomwarfare was banned by the Geneva Convention of '97. Even the Kilrathi wouldn'tdishonor themselves by using it."

Eisen nodded. "Obviously some sitcom stocks survived the treaty. And nowthey're in the hands of monsters far worse than the cats. Colonel, who are youmissing?"

"Moose and Squirrel, overdue. Lovey and Dovey--er, Archie and Valentina--outof communication, but not overdue yet."

Eisen nodded thoughtfully. "I hope they make it back, but you will NOT sendout search teams, understand? Now, what have you found out?"

I cleared my throat. "As Soso says, there's no definite boundary to the sitcomzone, but our patrols are giving us an approximate view." I used my McPuter toactivate the main display. "As you can see, the zone is roughly spherical,covering the most important jump points. Presumably there's a ship or shipsnear the center, generating the field. Probably fighters, too."

Eisen nodded. "Colonel, do you have any recommendations?"

My stomach knotted. I had a recommendation, all right, but I didn't like itone bit. Reluctantly, I nodded back.

"Well? Come on, man, out with it!"

I swallowed hard. "C-Captain, I have to lead a p-patrol into the zone. Findthe generating ship. K-kill it."

"Are you nuts, Ace?" exclaimed Maniac. "No sensors? No shields? No missilelocks? It's suicide!"

"No Maniac, it's worse than that!" I was afraid, more afraid than I'd everbeen in my life. "You fly into the sitcom zone, and your brain cells startdying by the millions. Every minute that passes, your mind deteriorates thatmuch more. The effects were well documented during the Dark Ages of the lateTwentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries. By the time they were outlawed in2058, it was estimated that TV situation comedies had set humanity back by twocenturies!"

I saw the horror on my companions' faces; horror and stark terror. We wereprepared to die--the risk was part of our profession--but it was somethingelse to risk your very sanity.

Even so, Hulk hesitantly raised his hand. "Uhhhh, Hulk have no brain cells tospare, but Hulk go with Colonel anyway."

Catsup, too, raised his hand. "I'll g-go, too, sir."

I looked expectantly at Maniac. He glared back. "Forget it, Ace! I'm notrisking MY sanity! You go. You're already SHORT of brain cells as it is!Haha ha!"

"Maniac, you are a never-ending source of inspiration."

I turned back to my volunteers. "Thanks, Hulk, Catsup. Your offer means a lotto me. But what we need in the zone is speed. Zelda--Chief Morgenstern--hashad all her people working for the last couple of hours, beefing up the armoron a pair of Banshees. As soon as they're ready, we go. Panties, who's ourbest Banshee pilot?"

I had never seen Panties afraid before, not until now. Despite her fear,however, she squared her shoulders and kept her voice even. "I am, sir! I-Ivolunteer."

I could have hugged her. "Thanks, Panties. Maniac, if we don't return, youlead the next attack. I want Hulk to stay out of the zone." I jabbed myfinger at Maniac. "If you fucking screw up, TODD, I'll have your fuckingballs! And I don't mean the ones Zelda gave you!"

Maniac acted hurt. "Moi? When have I ever screwed up, Ace?"


I took my time suiting up, glad no one else was in the Wombat locker room tosee how my hands were shaking. I tried to assuage my fear with thoughts ofTamara. Despite the desperate circumstances, who could tell what would comeof flying with her? Love had blossomed with Angel when we flew togeth--Hey, where'd my helmet go? Dammit, if Zelda was messing with it again...

Barr yelled at me from the hatch. "Hey, Bearki--er, Blair! Heehee! They'rerolling out--Hohoho!--they're rolling out your ship, man!

Now what? Was Barr suffering from sitcom overexposure? Annoyed, I headed forthe hatch to the flight deck. First a missing helmet, now a sitcom-happy tech.I was going to shape up these damn Border Worlders, or my name wasn't--JesusChrist!

I froze halfway through the hatch. Before me, the deckhands were spotting myBanshee for launch. At least, I thought it was my Banshee. The bird wasfestooned with pots, pans, gratings, and armor odds and ends; it looked morelike a junkpile than a fighter. All around me, deckhands, techs, and pilotswere pointing at the contraption and laughing their fool heads off.

My shock was replaced by anger. I strode over to Zelda, who was supervisingthe rollout. "Chief, what the HELL is that? I thought you were going to addanother layer of conventional armor!"

She was dirty and obviously very tired, but she smiled with pride. "We didbetter, love! I got the idea from all that extra kitchenware we picked up atOrestes III. Spaced armor. Twice the protection, with only half the extramass of armor plate. Not bad for two hours' work, if I do say so myself!"

I wasn't impressed. "Dammit, Chief, you've got everything here but thekitchen--"

Zelda pointed to the ventral auxiliary exhaust port. "Over there. The ceramicalso reduces your infrared signature. Neat, huh?"

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Panties emerging from the Gopher lockerroom. She froze in shock when she saw her Banshee, which was decorated muchlike mine. Seeing me with Zelda, she shot me a you-got-to-be-kidding look. Icould only shrug.

Noticing that Panties was also helmetless, I confronted Zelda again. "Chief,what the hell have you done with our helmets?"

Her smile disappeared. "Er, certain vulnerable points could only be protectedwith formed plasteel. Unfortunately, the only plasteel aboard is in the flight helmets." She looked away uncomfortably. "We, uh, melted down all the pilots'flight helmets and used the plasteel on your ships."


"Even that wasn't enough. Luckily, the ship's lasagna works almost as well."

"I'm armored with LASAGNA?"

She nodded. "Amazing stuff. Organic, yet nearly as hard as plasteel. I thinkour balky food synthesizers have just revolutionized chemical engineer--"

"Wait a minute!" I had more immediate concerns. "If you've melted down ourflight helmets, what are we going to wear?"

Without a word, Zelda knelt and picked up two deep saucepans from the deck.I saw durafoam inside, shaped to fit a human head. The flight deck crowd,which had quieted somewhat, now exploded again in laughter. Even Zeldacouldn't suppress a tiny giggle.

I stared at the pots in dismay, painfully aware of the laughter around me. "Noway! Not a chance, Chief!" Panties, who had joined us, also shook her headvigorously.

Whoops! Suddenly Zelda turned mean. She grabbed me by the ear and dragged mebehind her into her workshop.

"Ow! Ow! Cut it out, Chief! Ow! Ow!"

She stopped in front of her workbench and let go. I gingerly felt my ear.Damn, she was strong!

Zelda banged the saucepans on the bench. "OK, hotshot, back to school! Whathappens when a missile hits your ship? Even if the shields hold!"

I was still rubbing my ear. "Er, impact shock? Maybe?"

"Right!" She picked up a large wrench, then reached into a mini-fridge underthe bench and took out an egg. She held it up so I could see it.

"This is your brain." She set the egg on the bench.

"This is your brain with a helmet." She put a saucepan over the egg, thendropped the wrench. I flinched at the CLANG! of wrench on saucepan. Zeldalifted the saucepan, revealing the egg, which was of course unharmed.

"Now, flyboy, this is your brain without a helmet!" She dropped the wrenchright on the egg. I cringed. Ouch, that poor brain--er, egg!

Zelda folded her arms. "Any questions?"

Staring at the remnants of the egg, I said, "OK, you win." Reluctantly, Ipicked up a saucepan.

As I turned to go, my eye was caught by another object leaning against the endof the bench. "Uh, what's that for, Chief?" I asked, pointing.

"The wok? I installed one under your seat." She reached into the fridge againand grabbed two more eggs.

Suddenly my stomach felt queasy. "Er, ah, no demo necessary, Chief. I, uh,concur. Heh heh." I tried not think about the effect of a falling wrench ontwo unprotected, er, "eggs."

Back on the flight deck, the crowd of onlookers had grown again. It seemedeveryone not on duty was here, gathering on the catwalks, standing on loaders,and climbing on fighters for a better view. Most of them were still laughing.

The merriment rose when two of Zelda's techs strapped "helmets" on Panties andme. Several crewmen were snapping holopics. Someone aimed a holocam at us.Panties, red as a beet, was biting her lip, trying very hard not to scream.

I looked upward. Please, God, get us to our fighters without any moreridicule, OK? Please? I promise to be good for--Oh no! Maniac! Not HIM,God!

As Maniac sauntered over, the peanut gallery hushed in anticipation. "Gee,Ace," he said. "That looks uncomfortable. Here, let me help you." He rappedsharply on the top of my "helmet," which promptly slid down over my eyes andstuck fast.

The crowd burst into laughter again. As I struggled to free myself, Maniactook the handle and spun me to face the gallery. He reached over and grabbedPanties' handle with his free hand.

"Ladies and gentlemen! May I present the Heart of the Kitchen, and his trustysidekick Brillo!" Holding both Panties and myself by our headgear, he forcedus to bow. When I finally yanked my "helmet" from my eyes, I saw most of thecrew helpless with laughter. A couple of medics were trying to help the oneswho'd passed out, but handicapped as they were by their own mirth, theirefforts were ineffectual. As I watched, one of the medics keeled over as well.

I set my jaw and took Panties by the hand. Crying tears of humiliation, sheallowed herself to be led to her fighter. Then I strode to my own bird,stoically trying to ignore the rude jokes from the spectators. I failed.

As I settled into my seat, Zelda planted a farewell kiss on my cheek. "Comeback to me, Chris," she said.

I shoved her away. I was in no fucking mood for sentiment. I wanted to killsomething, anything, and I wanted to kill it fast!

Soso appeared on the comm. "Cleared for launch, Earthw--Ohmygod! Heeheehee!Nice, er, helmet, sir! I take it the military gourmet look is IN this year?Heeheehee!

Bitch! "How would you like this helmet up your--" Too late, she had alreadysigned off. Damn that woman!


Somehow Panties and I managed to complete preflight and launch, with laughterin our ears and rage in our hearts. I momentarily switched my view to the rearand stared back at Intrepid. If I'd been carrying torpedoes, the carrier wouldhave been space dust.

My mood wasn't improved when we entered the sitcom zone. Sensors were useless,shields non-functional, and the comm was intermittent. As I performed thefamiliar and comforting activities of flight, however, my normal good humorgradually reasserted itself. Presently, I decided to check on Panties.

"Panties? Comm check. Panties? Panties?"

When she finally answered, her voice was harsh. "Comm flaky. Now shut thefuck up!"

Whoa! "Uh, Panties, it's not really their fault. They're probably sufferingfrom sitcom exposure and--"

"Shut up!" she screamed. "Shut up! I just want to hear one thing from you,you bastard! Promise you'll never fucking put me on your fucking wing again!"She signed off.

So much for romance on the wing. Too bad Panties couldn't see the humor inour situation. You had to admit, we were a pretty funny--Hey! That gave mean idea! Hmmm. We could only carry dumbfires on this mission, but they woulddo just fine. I started fiddling with the fuse settings...


I checked the time. We were over two hours into the mission, and it wasstarting to wear me down. Panties and I were swiveling our necks furiously,trying to use our eyes to replace our useless sensors. The optical assistswere working, but given the ranges involved in space combat, we were stillessentially blind.

My neck and shoulders were aching, yet I dared not relax my vigilance. Evenworse, I was beginning to exhibit symptoms of sitcom overexposure: sluggishthinking, short attention span, and an overwhelming urge to buy mouthwash anddeodorant. If we didn't spot something soon, we'd have to turn--

"There's the bad guys, Earthworm!" yelled Panties. "Check your six!"

"Check yours, Panties! There's TWO of them!" Shit! The Excaliburs hadseemingly come out of nowhere! I punched afterburner, but I had little chancewith an Excalibur on my tail.

The enemy pilot knew he had me. "Your luck's running out, pilgrim!" he called.Bambambam! Tachyon blasts lashed my rear armor.

That's when I played my ace in the hole. I launched a dumbfire, fused for aone-second delay. The flash brilliantly lit up my fighter for the enemy pilotfollowing me.

"You Border Worlder low--What the hell? Bwahahaha! What a fuckin' pile ofjunk! Hahahaha! Hohohoho!" Helpless with laughter, my opponent lost lock andflew right by me. "Hahahaha! Where'd you get the jalopy, Captain Scrapyard!Heeheeheehee!"

I had the last laugh. I glued myself to his tail and let fly. Ploop! Ploop!Ploop! With no power going to the shields, I could fire as fast as the gunscould cycle! Ploop! Ploop! Even with the extra power to my engines, theExcalibur was faster than my overloaded Banshee, but I punched through hisshields before he could open the range. Relentlessly, I tore him to shreds.Ploop! Ploop! Ploop! KABOOM! Die, sitcom pimp!

I looked for Panties.

"I need some help, Earthworm!" Shit, she was in trouble!

I hit burner. No time to tail this bastard, it was a miracle Panties' armorhad lasted this long. I lined up a dumbfire and launched. No chance of a hit,but it might make him break off...Yes!

Recklessly, I approached from his flank. Ploop! Ploop! Ploop! Hah, hits!I flashed by. Not enough to penetrate his shields, but enough to piss him off.Yes, he was coming after me!

"Eat THIS, Gomer!" he yelled. Tachyon blasts bracketed my fighter. I jinkedmy Banshee desperately, but I was taking hits.

"Let's dance, you bastard!" Panties was screaming like her fighter's verynamesake! Ploop! Ploop! Ploop! I switched to aft view and watched her ripthe Excalibur apart. KABOOM!

Whew! Two down. Nobody in sight. Time to take stock.

"What's your status, Panties?"

"I took some hits, Earthworm. Burner is out, rear armor gone. You?"

"No systems damaged, but I'm bare-ass, too. We may not survive another scrap.Form on my wing, we're going home." Damn, we'd failed!


By the time we neared the edge of the sitcom zone, my mind was reeling on theverge of insanity. Although as a female, Panties had more resistance tositcoms, neither one of us would have made it alone. She and I had beenforced to rouse each other repeatedly from encroaching torpor, yet each commcheck only increased our exposure to the insidious jamming.

Again and again I found my fingers creeping toward the afterburner control.Each time, I managed to fight down the urge to abandon Panties, but it wasgetting harder and harder to keep control.

I shook my head to clear it. Damn, I'd been staring blankly at the starsagain, the "Brady Bunch" theme song running through my head. Time for anothercomm check.

"Panties? Yo, Panties." Oh shit, was she out again? "Panties!"

At length, she replied. "Uh, Earthworm? What's, uh, up?"

Damn, I couldn't remember why I'd called. "Uh...I forget. It'll come to mein a...Say, that's a really neat-looking fighter coming up on your six. Lookslike one of...Yeah, it's a Bearcat."

Panties seemed mildly pleased at the prospect of seeing the fabulous newfighter. "...Bearcat? That new Confed bird? That's nice..."

"Yeah, we sure are luck--SHIT! Break, Panties! Break! This way!" God, we'dnearly succumbed to the zone!

Panic was an effective short-term antidote to sitcom exposure. Panties threwher Banshee into a max turn just as the enemy opened fire on her. Though fragsflew off her bird, she escaped the worst of the barrage. A missile streakedtoward her, but lost lock when she dropped some decoys. It seemed the enemy'smissiles weren't entirely immune to the jamming.

I flung my fighter directly at the oncoming Bearcat, praying that Panties wouldtake the one I knew must be on my tail. I opened up at max range, firing thescattergun as fast as I could. His armament was heavier, but he'd expendedmost of his gun charge on Panties. After a few seconds of the one-sided duel,he broke off.

I activated sensors, recoiling momentarily from the barrage of sitcom imagesI'd unleashed. At this range, however, my sensors broke through the static,and I could see that I'd neutralized his shield generators. Sensors off again,I renewed my assault. He was opening the range, but I knew his shields wouldbuckle any second...Yes! A blizzard of armor fragments engulfed my ship. Asengine damage accumulated, he lost speed rapidly. A final blast and he wasfinished. KABOOM! An escape pod flew away from the wreckage.

WhoopwhoopWHAMMO! The impact threw me against the canopy, jamming my "helmet” over my eyes again. Damn, he must have launched an FF just before I got him!I struggled with the stubborn pot for several seconds before it popped off.Still dizzy from shock, I struggled to focus my eyes on the instruments. Shit,all weapons were out, sensors and shields down--like it mattered--and myautorepair was damaged. Fragments had penetrated the cockpit, which had self-sealed; fortunate, since my "helmet" was no protection at all against vacuum.

Groggily, I tried to collect my thoughts. What was I supposed to--Panties! OhGod, was she all--

"Score one for the good guys!"

A brilliant fireball blossomed to port. So Panties hadn't just been braggingabout her flying skills. I headed for the fireball. Panties had to besomewhere near it. Luckily my tough little Banshee's engines and flightcontrols were still undamaged.

I found Panties a few hundred klicks from the expanding cloud of Bearcatdebris. Her exo-armor was battered, melted, and burned through in a number ofplaces. The Banshee was sputtering along at less than a hundred kps.

"Panties, are you OK?"

Her voice was a bit unsteady, but still strong. "Sorry, Earthworm, I've abouthad it. But I nailed that son-of-a-bitch. Yours?"

"He ejected. If I can contact--"

"Then let's cook him now!" There was a rage in her voice I'd never heardbefore. "I wanna waste every one of those damn--"

"Easy, Panties!" I carefully maneuvered my ship between her and the floatingpod. "We need this guy alive! If I can just contact Intrepid to get a shuttleout here--"

"Can we be of assistance, Earthworm?"

Huh? Who was--Archie!

"Lovey! Is Dovey with you?" I searched the whole dorsal hemisphere, but myeyes still weren't focusing properly.

"Right here, Earthworm! Dovey is snug and warm!" Thank God Tina was OK, too!

I finally spotted them at five o'clock low. "What happened to you guys? Wethought you were history!"

Lovey laughed. "Sorry, Earthworm. When we found we could manage with thejamming, we decided to continue the recon mission."

"But our navcomps couldn't handle it," said Tina, "and we got lost. Now we'renearly out of gas, returning at minimum speed."

I was dying to ask how they'd managed to survive so many hours in the sitcomzone, but there was no time. If another patrol caught us, we'd be in deepdoo-doo.

"OK, listen up, everybody. Panties is crippled and my weapons are out. I'mgoing to burn out of the zone and send for help. Tractor in that pod andfollow at your best speed. See you soon."

"Roger," said Tina. "Uh, by the way, Earthworm, did you know your bird lookslike--"

"Yeah, yeah!" I was tired of people laughing at my flying junkyard. "Just getthe pod, OK? Earthworm out!" Sheesh.


Leaving the sitcom zone was like waking from a nightmare. The joy of clearthinking was tempered, however, by guilt about my comrades still back in thefog. Well, the best way to help them was to vector in some escorts.

Though still at the fringes of the zone, I was just able to make voice contactwith Intrepid. SoSo acknowledged my request and signed off. Shaking from thebrief exposure to the jamming, I decided to shut down my comm until finalapproach.


I nearly cried with joy when I saw SoSo's face on the comm. After the fear andoppression of the zone, everything around me seemed to sparkle, as if brandnew. I felt like I'd been reborn.

"Pleased to have you back out of the 'hole,' Earthworm!" Oh God, SoSo's voicewas like music! "And we can't wait to get our hands on your pris--What thehell? Bwahahahaha! Stop, stop, you're killing me! Hahahaha! Oh, Colonel, ifyou could only see--Heeheeheehee!"

Goddammit, now what? Was everyone aboard sitcom-happy?

"Oh Chris, this you've gotta see! Heeheehee! S-switching to external view."The comm screen changed to a relay from one of Intrepid's landing cams. Istared in dismay as it zoomed in on my battered fighter. Oh, shit!

Enemy fire had stripped off most of my add-on pots and pans, and melted therest in several places. In particular, the extra lasagna and plasteel on theventral boom had bubbled and flowed until the boom resembled--quite closely--a rather slender but anatomically correct, er, dildo. My Banshee looked likea legless hunchback with outstretched arms and an enormous hard-on.

I covered my face with my hands. I was never going to hear the end of this.


Trying to ignore the echoing laughter from the crowd around my bird, I climbeddown the ladder as calmly as I could. Seeing I was in no mood for affection,Zelda limited herself to a peck on the cheek before climbing up to the cockpit.Meanwhile, I steeled myself to receive the ribbing of my life.

Barr was first. Grasping my hand, he said, "Welcome back...C-C-Colonel Dildo!Wahahahaha!" He collapsed to the deck, doubled over with laughter.

"Hey, Colonel!" I turned to find Louise caressing my bird's, er, appendage."If I rub it, does it get BIGGER? Wheeheehee!"

Yanni was standing next to her. "You know, Chris, when I said size doesn'tmatter? Well...I LIED! Heeheeheehee!" She and Louise exchanged high fives.

Louise called over to Lt. Homes. "Hey, Churlokk? Know what? You've beenreplaced! Hahahaha!" She rubbed her fanny against the tip of the boom as thecrowd roared its approval.

Oh Christ, even Maniac was getting into the act. Shaking his head, he lookedat the fighter, then at me, as if sizing us up. "Y'know, Earthworm? Next tothis thing, you look more like an INCHworm! Haha ha! Oh, I kill myself!"The onlookers seemed to agree...loudly.

Damn. I had actually had a pistol pointed at his nose, and I hadn't pulled thetrigger! Damn! Damn!

I felt a tap on my shoulder. I whirled to find Zelda standing there, a smirkon her face.

Et tu, Brute? "OK, Chief, get it over with." I braced for a particularlynasty zinger.

She didn't say a word. Instead, she held up an object I recognized as the wokshe'd installed under my seat. Only now it was pitted and dented, with severalpieces of shrapnel deeply embedded in it just about where--

I had a vision of two eggs being crushed by a falling wrench. All of a sudden,the mission, the boisterous crowd, even Maniac, faded into the background.Zelda had saved my, er, eggs, and that was all that mattered. I owed thiskid big time.

I mustered a smile. "Do you still have those two eggs?" She nodded. Offeringmy hand, I said, "Come on, Chief, I'll make you an omelette a la Blair."

Her smirk grew into a grin. Carelessly tossing the wok over her shoulder, shetook my hand and squeezed affectionately.

Hand in hand, we strode through the parting crowd. With my free hand, Iunstrapped the saucepan from my head and hefted it experimentally. Yup, withthe durafoam removed, it would do.

I glanced back at the now-silent crowd. Let them have their petty littlejokes! I had something better: the best damn tech in the Union Militia!

And I still had both my "eggs," too!

End of Chapter 19

Previews from Chapter 20:

"He thinks he's a tough guy, Panties. Well, we'll see just how tough he is."

"But then, betrayal is always a mystery, isn't it?"

"Hey, Ace! I got somethin' for ya!"

"Mayday! Panties and Earthworm need help! Mayday!"