Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 20

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to January 13, 199796]

Chapter 20

In Zelda's fridge we found cheese and green onions; from my stash we got bacon,mushrooms, and seasonings. We walked into Intrepid's manual kitchen with theingredients for a pretty decent omelette. Politely refusing her offered help,I set to work with a will. After two years of the single life, it was a joy tocook for two. It also turned out to be excellent therapy for the horrors ofthe sitcom zone; as I scooped out the final product, I was actually whistling.

When we carried our trays out, I noted with relief that the galley was nearlydeserted. I had to endure a few lame dildo jokes--one illustrated with a hotdog--but the taunting ended as soon as the jokers got a whiff of our food. Asthey skulked out of the galley, green with envy, I had the last laugh.

Despite her protests, I gave Zelda the lion's share of the omelette. She hadearned it, of course, and anyway they were her eggs. I waited expectantly asshe took her first bite; I wasn't disappointed. Zelda's reaction to Blaircuisine, after so many days of Intrepid's swill, was just short of orgasmic.

She savored that first taste for a long time before swallowing. "Oh God,Blairbear," she said, her eyes still closed. "You feed me like this, and I'lltake care of your eggs for the rest of your life."

I smiled. "Is that a proposal, Chief?"

She opened her eyes. "Not yet, sweetie," she said confidently. "When the timecomes, you'll be the one making the proposal." Zelda eagerly shoveled anotherforkful into her mouth.

I knew it was hopeless, but for just a moment I tried to picture Zelda back onmy farm, wife to me and mother to my kids. Ehhhhh, no; it just wouldn't comeinto focus.

"That time will never come, Chief. But for the rest of this tour, at least, Iwouldn't trust my, er, 'eggs' to anyone else."

Her mouth full, Zelda just smiled.


We barely had time to polish off the omelette before I was summoned to theflight deck to meet Panties and her wingmen, returning with our prisoner.Zelda went right back to work armoring another pair of Banshees while I, stilldabbing at the spot where Zelda had kissed me in the lift, went to interrogateour new guest.

I found him sitting on a toolchest under Archie's Vindicator, surrounded bygrim-faced deckhands, techs, and pilots. Hulk was holding him from behindwhile Panties, still in her flight suit, enthusiastically worked him over.Maniac stood to one side, singing to himself.

As Panties drew back her fist to hit the pirate again, I grabbed her arm andheld her back. "Enough, Panties," I said quietly.

Angrily, she shook me off. "Oh yeah? Thanks to him and his friends, I had tofly out there in THIS!" She kicked at the saucepan on the deck. "I owe thisguy some pain!"

I understood her anger all too well, but we needed persuasion here, not force.I signaled Hulk to let go of the prisoner. Reluctantly, he loosened his grip.

The pirate tore himself loose from Hulk's huge hands and wiped his bloody nosewith his sleeve. Never taking his eyes off me, he spat blood on the deck.Meanwhile, I regarded him with unconcealed curiosity.

The guy had long, dirty black hair drawn back into a pigtail, and at least athree-day beard. Over his left eye he wore a black eyepatch. Instead of aflight suit, he wore a long, wine-red coat with brass buttons, a ruffled whiteshirt, short tight pants, stockings, and buckle shoes. A feathered tricornerhat lay on the deck next to him.

A parrot, of all things, was standing on his shoulder. How it had kept itsperch during its master's pasting was a mystery to me. Obviously upset, ithopped from foot to foot, squawking "Rawwwk! Border World low-life!Barbarians! Rawwwk!"

The pirate reached one hand up to calm his pet. "Easy, me girl," he cooed.Then he turned his attention back to me. After looking me up and down, he spatagain. "Aye, ye be the Heart of the Tiger, all right. Shiver me timbers, Ididn't expect the bleedin' Spanish Inquisition from an hon'rable gentleman suchas yerself!"

As if on cue, Maniac awoke from his stupor. "NOBODY expects the Spanish--"

"Shut up, Maniac!" Dammit, what had set HIM off? I turned back to the pirate."I'm sorry about the rough stuff, but you must know the effect your jamming hason us. Look, you respect honor, right? How can you to be part of such a dirtybusiness?"

Yes! That hit him hard. He looked down at his shoes.

I had to follow up, fast. Looking around, I saw Catamaran approaching with athermos of coffee. Quickly, I signaled to him, and he handed me a freshlypoured cup. I walked back to the pirate and put my hand on his shoulder.

He looked up. "Aye, that be true, matey. 'Tis a dirty business indeed, and Ibe glad t' be arter it." Noticing the offered cup, he licked his parched lipsand said, "Thank ye kindly, squire." Smiling, I handed him the coffee.

I had forgotten how our foul grub would taste to strangers.

The pirate gulped his coffee eagerly, only to gag on the first swallow. Eyesbulging, cheeks bursting, he grabbed desperately at his throat before sprayinga mouthful of coffee all over Panties. His parrot squawked in indignation andflew up to land on Archie's Vindicator.

Holding his stomach, the pirate cursed at me between coughs. "Damn ye, Blair! Damn ye to hellfire 'n brimstone! Tryin' t' poisonme, eh?"

Mad as a wet hen, Panties went for the prisoner again. It was all Hulk coulddo to restrain my kicking and screaming wingman.

Angrily, the pirate taunted her. "Arrr, do yer worst, ye scurvy wench! I beentortured by the Kilrathi theyselves, aye, but I never sang fer 'em!" He toreopen his shirt, revealing his old scars. "Ye'll be gettin' nothin' arter me,lass! Arrr!"

Shit. We'd just have to do this the hard way. I put a hand on Panties' arm tocalm her down. "He thinks he's a tough guy, Panties. Well, we'll see just howtough he is." The guy just glared at me.

I looked two bays down, where Zelda was applying more lasagna to a Banshee. Ina voice dripping with honey, I called out, "Oh, Zeeeeelda! Come over here,sweetie!"

"Yes, Blairbear?" she called back. Zelda jumped down from the Banshee andbounded eagerly to me. Taking her by the shoulders, I turned her toward theprisoner, who eyed her warily.

I let him have it. "All right, you scum! Now talk, or Zelda here will makepassionate love to you!" I reached for Zelda's front zipper.

For one awful second, I watched the fear build in his eyes. "Aaaaa! No! No!Anything but that! I'll talk! I'll talk!" In a panic, he dropped to the deckand began scrawling a crude diagram, using his own blood.

"Here!" he cried desperately. "Here at the center of the zone! A Bingo-classfrigate! Cloaked, but it has to uncloak every six hours...too much mass...strain on the equipment! At least an hour before it can cloak again!" In apanic, he checked his watch. "Next uncloak in five hours!"

He shoved his finger up his nose to get more blood, then made two more dabsnear the one in the center. "Two more frigates patrol the zone, take out Unionships and scouts, protect the jammer. About a dozen Bearcats and Excaliburs oneach! Killed several cargo ships and two Banshees already!"

I heard a horrified gasp from Lt. Mourne. I remembered that she and Moose hadbeen seeing a lot of each other lately. Well, that explained why he andSquirrel were overdue.

The pirate looked up from his diagram, pleading. "That's everything. Now forpity's sake, take her away! Please! Oh, plee-hee-heese!" Quickly I pulledZelda aside, but it was too late. Out of his mind with terror, the piratelunged at Hulk, grabbed his sidearm, and put the muzzle to his own temple. Hishands were shaking so hard, however, that he missed completely, hitting insteada toolbox above him on the tool chest. The box was blown off the chest,landing squarely on the pirate's head. He slumped to the deck, unconscious.

Louise was at his side in an instant. Checking his pulse, she said, "He'sstill alive, Colonel. Shall we get a stretcher?"

Reluctantly, I nodded. I wasn't sure we were doing this guy a favor. Havinglooked into the Abyss, he'd never be a whole man again. It would have beenkinder to shoot him.

I turned to Zelda. "Sorry, Chief, but it was the only way--" I stopped. Herface bore a hurt worse than I had ever seen before, even under Maniac's meanesttaunting.

She replied in a monotone, eyes downcast. "That's OK, Colonel...You did whathad to be done...You always matter what the cost." She turned andshuffled disconsolately back toward the bay where she'd been working.

There was a moment of silence, and then, in unison, the people around me went"Awwwwwww." They all looked at me, accusation in their eyes.

Shit! I owed Zelda everything, and this was how I repaid her? I was lowerthan the creature I'd taken as my callsign. I was...Oh God, I was even lowerthan Maniac!

Barr was up on a ladder, trying to get the pirate's parrot. When he reachedfor it, it fluttered away and alighted on my shoulder. I looked at it sadly."Go away, bird," I said. "A classy girl like you shouldn't be seen with a heellike me."

"Rawwwk! Blair is a heel! Heehee!"


All I wanted was to crawl into a hole and die, but of course Wing Commandersdon't have the luxury of wallowing in guilt. Captain Eisen and Lt. Cmdr. Queuecornered me immediately, and I had to report on the mission.

Throughout the debriefing, my new pet kept interrupting with "Eisen is a jerk!"and "Queue is a moron!" Its antics were like a tonic for my depression. Bythe end of the session, I was smiling and Eisen and Queue were royally pissed.

I passed the word for the wing to prepare for a maximum launch in about twohours. Now that we had concrete information about our target's location andcloaking schedule, it was time to go all-out after it. I took a specialpleasure in ordering everyone to wear headgear on this mission; if Panties andI were going to be laughingstocks, so were the rest of my pilots!


I should have rested after my ordeal in the sitcom zone, but I was anxious tocatch the next Nightly News broadcast, which SoSo was now piping into thegalley on a regular basis. Besides, my new companion was probably gettinghungry, although I wasn't sure how she'd handle Intrepid's unique cuisine.

The galley was crowded; evidently others were anxious to see the news, too. Igot a few crackers and some water from the food dispenser and looked for atable. SoSo and Catamaran waved to me, but I just smiled and shook my head.Tina, Archie, Louise, and Churlokk were sitting with them; as a bachelor, I'dbe out of place at a pairs table. Instead, I went over to the table whereLt. Mourne was sitting alone, and sat down across from her.

Though she greeted me nonchalantly, I noticed she had barely touched her food.Remembering my own loss, so long ago, I struggled to find the right words.

"September, I'm sorry about Moose. When I joined Intrepid, he was the onlyBorder Worlder who'd fly with me. I'll miss him."

"Yeah," she said quietly. "He was a nice guy. I was just finding out how nicewhen..." She took a deep breath. "Anyway, I'm glad we're going after thosepirates again. I owe them some payback." She stood up to leave.

Damn, first Panties, now her. That kind of attitude would get them bothkilled.

I grabbed her wrist. "Lieutenant! You fly with your heart on this mission,and I'll ground your ass for the rest of your life! When you fly for me, youfly with your head! Got it?"

She hesitated, then nodded reluctantly. "Got it, sir." She took her tray tothe disposal and left the galley without another word.

Absently, I transferred the parrot from my shoulder to the table and offeredher a cracker. I hoped Lt. Mourne wouldn't have to learn her lesson the hardway, as Flint had. Then I smiled, remembering the fiery scene in the Victory'sGunnery Control, when Robin had demanded a return to flight status. We'd bothbeen so turned on that we did it right there, behind the main console. Afterthat I started grounding her for the most minor infractions--which she cheer-fully committed with increasing frequency--and reinstating her in Gunnery C--

My reverie was interrupted by the holovid. "Good evening. You're watching theTCN Nightly News. I'm Barbara Dahl."

"Rawwwk! Pretty baby!" I reached down to stroke my parrot's feathers. Thelittle birdbrain definitely had an eye for beauty.

"Our top story tonight: Repercussions continue from the so-called 'HalcyonIncident.' Today, two previously uncommitted frontier worlds voted decisivelyto join the Union of Border Worlds. Top officials from the governments ofplanets GOT/MLK and JST/DOIT denounced the staged event as proof of Confedduplicity. Other frontier worlds, even some in the Confederation, are said tobe wavering.

"In the Great Dissembly, the storm of protest over the incident helped themoderates delay once again the vote on a declaration of war with the Union.Senator Taggart, leader of the moderate faction, eloquently urged the Dissemblyto await Admiral Tolwyn's report, as originally agreed."

Thank God my comrades on the Lexington had acted when they did. I had nodoubts as to which way an immediate vote would have gone.

Barbara turned to her left. "Admiral Tolwyn is with us again tonight. Sir?"

I was startled by a squawk from my the parrot. "Rawwwk! Tolwyn is a jerk!Rawwwk!" Now how could this parrot know Tolwyn so well? Then I realized thatits previous owner must have flown for Confed during the war, probably underTolwyn's command.

In the HV display, the Admiral's holo-image appeared next to Barbara. He wassitting at a desk so much like hers that it was hard to distinguish theboundary between them. His uniform was, of course, crisp and immaculate.

"Good evening, Barbie--er, Barbara. How good to speak with you again."

As usual, Barbara went right to the tough questions. "Admiral Tolwyn, in the'Halcyon Incident,' the military was caught red-handed in a blatant attempt toarouse public opinion against the Border Worlds. Doesn't this lend credence torumors that Confed is trying to provoke war with the Union?"

If he was upset at the implied accusation, Tolwyn didn't show it. "Barbara, asa result of this incident, my investigation of the frontier troubles has beenbroadened to include provocations by Confed military. While the story is stillincomplete, we do know one thing already: examination of comm records provesconclusively that the conspiracy was hatched by a few zealots at the station,without the approval or the knowledge of their superiors at system HQ."

Of course Covert Ops would cover their tracks well. I just hoped Tolwyn knewmore than he was letting on.

"Admiral, what about the Lexington's crew, who so courageously exposed theconspiracy?"

"The SRA is preparing court-martial proceedings against the accused officers.The Lexington people have information vital to the prosecution, so they--alongwith the destroyer crews--have been detained at Halcyon Station. I regret thenecessity, for these patriots have performed above and beyond the call of duty.Of course, I have personally seen to their comfort, you can be sure of that!"

Whew! Under Tolwyn's personal protection, they'd be safe from Covert Ops.That was a load off my mind!

Barbara's inquisitorial tone softened somewhat. "My next question is morepersonal, Admiral. The Lexington is said to have been attacked by your oldfriend, the famous Colonel Christopher Blair, who recently defected to theUnion. What was your reaction when you heard the news?"

Tolwyn's face was grim, and just a little sad. "Barbara, I cannot begin todescribe how shocked I was. What could induce such a fine man to betrayeverything he held dear? But then, betrayal is always a mystery, isn't it?"

"Betrayal? Then you agree with those who are calling him a traitor?"

For a moment, his face showed the pain he must be feeling. "The question oftreason is for a court-martial to decide. Colonel Blair has always been abit...unorthodox, even eccentric. Oh hell, he's an arrogant, insubordinate,glory-stealing son of a--" He struggled for self-control. "Er, so some say.But because of his long and distinguished service to the Confederation, I'dnot condemn him so quickly."

Barbara nodded sympathetically. "I understand. Thank you, Admiral Tolwyn."

The Admiral nodded in acknowledgement and fired his imaginary gun at her."Catch you later, Barbi--Barbara!"

As the Admiral's image faded, Barbara faced front again.

"In these days of turmoil and confusion, one thing is certain: thanks to a fewcourageous warriors, the Confederation and the Union of Border Worlds havetaken one small step back from the brink. But will the situation deteriorateagain? Will the two antagonists resume their seemingly inexorable march towardArmageddon? The answer will come in three weeks, when the Admiral delivers hisreport, and the Great Dissembly votes for peace or war.

"In other news..."

I wasn't interested in "other news." Damn, damn, damn! If only I could get amessage to Tolwyn! He had conspicuously refused to brand me a traitor. If Icould get him the evidence we now had, I was sure he would listen to reason.But how to contact him?

Well, that would have to wait, because I had a more immediate problem. I'djust spotted Panties, who was heading for Catamaran's table. I waved at her,but she just scowled and ignored me. When I pointed angrily at the seatopposite, however, she grudgingly came over and sat down.

"If you want me on your wing again," she said coldly, "you can forget it. I'drather fly with that stupid bird!" She pointed to my parrot, which was busypreening its feathers.

"Rawwwk! Pretty Panties! Awwwk! Blair is a jerk!"

Startled, Panties forgot her anger for a moment and cracked a smile. "That'sclose, sweetie! Now, can you say, 'Blair is an asshole?'"

The bird just went back to preening. I had an inspiration. Pushing a crackertoward Panties, I indicated that she should offer it to the bird.

Panties held the cracker enticingly. "Come on, birdie. Blair is an asshole.Blair is an--"

"Rawwwk! Blair is an asshole!" The parrot took the cracker with one foot andstarted munching on it.

Panties looked at me in triumph. Then we both burst out laughing.

"OK, OK," she said finally. "I'll fly with you one more time. But if I hearone more pothead crack..."

I hastened to reassure her. "I think that particular line of humor is aboutplayed out, Tamara, especially with everyone wearing pots this time out."

"I suppose so," she agreed. "Besides, it's not like the whole galaxy saw us inthose awful--"

She was interrupted by the holovid, which someone had turned up for the finalsegment of the news.

"We close tonight with a look at the latest trend in military hardware. Inresponse to the growing threat of war, the Border Worlds Militia has come upwith an ingenious solution to its chronic equipment shortage."

Uh-oh. I had a bad feeling about this...

Barbara's image was replaced by a holocam recording, obviously made under fieldconditions. It showed--oh my God, it showed Panties and me on the flight deckin our cookware!

The galley exploded with derisive laughter. Cheeks burning, I raised my eyes.OK, God, what did I ever do to you? Huh? Just tell me, OK?

Barely controlling herself, Barbara went on, "Here we see the famous Heart ofthe Kitchen--er, Tiger--himself, and his wingman, Colonel Tamara Farnsworth,preparing for a mission in their--Heehee!--their stylish new flight helmets."

"Rawwwk! Heart of the Kitchen!" My bird's squawked commentary drew more hootsand rude remarks from the galley crowd.

I glanced at Panties, who was struggling to control her temper. Where the helldid the Nightly News get--Of course! I whipped out my McPuter and quicklylogged in to the ship's Home G-Spot. Yeah, some damn idiot had uploaded theholorecs of our mission prep to the GGG! Shit!

Barbara continued relentlessly. "As we follow our intrepid pilots to theirfighters, we see the true versatility of the Union's new gear." Now the camwas pointing at our pot-and-pan-armored Banshees. "Yes, c-cookware, headware,or hardware, the new Mark I multifunctional combat helmet does it all! D-don'tleave your carrier without it! Wheeheeheehee!"

Fighting for breath, Barbara tried to sign off. "T-this has been the N-NightlyN-News. I'm Barb-Barb-bwahahahaha!" As she collapsed helplessly in her chair,the cam cut to the Nightly News logo.

There was a crash as Panties knocked her chair over and dashed out of thegalley, pushing aside anyone in her way. I didn't blame her: a ribbing fromone's comrades, no matter how biting, was one thing; being mocked in front offifty billion people was something else entirely.

"Rawwwk! PMS! PMS!" I tried to stifle my parrot. If Panties heard that,she'd roast it over a slow fire.

"May I join you, Colonel Blair?"

Huh? Oh, it was Lt. Cmdr Queue.

He sat down next to me. Looking around at the boisterous crowd, he askedinnocently, "Say, did I miss something, sir?"

Like lightning, I grabbed Panties' plate, with its untouched mashed potatoes,and shoved it in his face. "No, Ike, you didn't miss a thing." I gathered upmy bird and left.


I spent the next two hours in the Control Bay, briefing my wing personnel andpreparing for the desperate mission to come. In no mood for any more nonsense,I carried a photon pistol conspicuously at my side. With my parrot squawking"Do you feel lucky, punk! Awwwk! Make my day!" I heard no more cookwarecracks.

When it was time for the final briefing, I left the parrot with Tech Barr,rounded up my squadron commanders, and accompanied them to CIC.


Captain Eisen and Lt. SoSo were waiting for us. In the main display behindthem, I could see Admiral Willful standing at a craps table, wearing a tuxedo.Two gorgeous women in evening gowns were at his side. The compartment was fullof smoke, but I could make out several other well-dressed people around him.The Admiral looked a lot better than he had last time, except that his handswere still shaking when he picked up the dice.

"Hello, Billy!" said the Admiral. "Oh, and the Flying Tiger! Congratulationson bagging that prisoner, Blair."

I bristled. "It's HEART of the Kitch--er, Tiger, Admiral."

"Whatever." He blew on his dice and tossed them. "Hah! Eight!"

Eisen cleared his throat. "Er, Admiral, we're just about ready for our attackon that jamming ship. Any intel updates?"

Willful held the dice up for his dark-haired companion to blow on. "Billy,with all Peleus traffic halted, our front-line units are already hurting badly.I'm afraid you must consider yourselves expendable. Don't wait for help, justgo all out and GET THAT JAMMER! If you don't, our endeavors are doomed!"

He was about to toss the dice when he thought of something else. "Oh, andBlair?"

What now? "Yes, sir?"

"What the HELL were you doing, clowning around in that damned kitchenware?It's already hard enough to recruit for the Militia, without the kids worryingabout becoming galactic laughingstocks! From now on, wear regulation gear!"

"But, sir--"

The Admiral tossed his dice again. "Woohoo! Eight the hard way! Come topapa!" He reached down to rake in his winnings. "Good luck, Billy! Willfulout!"

Eisen replaced the Admiral's image with a Peleus system diagram and turned tous. His face was grim. "OK, given the Admiral's orders, we have littlechoice. Intrepid and three frigates will launch a full strike in half an hour.The only fighter cover we're keeping is four Banshees from BWS Tie. As soon asthe first wave is off, the task force will follow you into the sitcom zone. Ifthe fighters fail, there's a faint chance the cap ships can find and destroythe jammer before everyone in the task force...goes insane. Colonel?"

I turned to my people. "There are three pirate ships and maybe three dozenadvanced fighters out there. Last time, Panties and I were jumped before wegot near the center of the zone. This time, we're sending fighters in aheadof us. Hulk?"

Hulk snapped to attention. "Colonel?"

I outlined a search pattern. "Turkey Squadron will cover this area in teamsof two. If you find a cap ship, attack at once. Lovey and Dovey will takethe sector closest to the center, since they seem especially resistant to zoneeffects. By the way, Hulk, any idea why?"

Hulk shrugged. "Newlyweds. Ignore sitcoms. Blair get picture?"

Oh yeah, I got the picture. "Er, ahem. Panties, you'll be with me again, sohave Excell lead the Gophers into this area here, OK? Panties! OK?"

"YES, SIR!" Still mad. Well, tough shit, I needed her on my wing. Damn, wasthere one minute on this tub when some female wasn't pissed off at me?

"Good. Primate's taking the Wombats into the last sector, here. Panties and Iwill be about fifteen minutes behind you in the two armored Banshees. The ideais for you to blast us a way through the pirate patrols. Now if we fail, Skunksquadron is our ace in the hole. Maniac? Maniac?" Damn, the nitwit wassinging to himself again.

"...they all had hair of gold, like their mother, the youngest one in..."


"Wha? Oh." He grinned at me. "I was with you all the time, Ace."

"Yeah, right. Look, the Avengers are useless against fighters, so I want yoursquadron to join up with the Banshees from the frigates and spread out wellbehind Panties and me. If we're nailed, you'll have to find and take out thejammer yourselves. Clear?"

"Huh? Er, yeah. I mean, no! Why do you get the glory mission, Ace? Send mein ahead, and I'll--"

Captain Eisen cut him off. "Major! Colonel Blair and Colonel Farnsworth havethe best chance of killing that jammer, so we must give them every advantage!The plan of operations stands! Questions, anyone? No? Dismissed!"


I watched from Flight Control as Gopher, Wombat, and Turkey Squadrons preparedto launch. The techs had worked overtime preparing "helmets," and there was alot of joking and laughter from the crew as the pilots tried on their newheadgear. I had prepared a long list of taunts myself, but now that revengewas within my grasp, I lacked the heart to use them. Flying blind againstsuperior fighters, my pilots would pay a terrible price to give me a shot atthe jammer.

With a sigh, I gave up and headed for my locker.

A number of techs and deckhands were waiting outside the Wombat locker room.They gave me a thumbs-up as I walked in, and I returned the gesture. I had theplace to myself, as the Wombats were already manning their fighters.

I stopped at my locker and opened the door. Without warning, an avalanche ofdildos and vibrators poured out, piling around me up to my knees. I heard achorus of laughter from the techs, who had followed me in.

Reflexively, I had grabbed one of the sex aids, a particularly large andanatomically detailed example. Now, irate, I squeezed it unconsciously withmaniacal strength, causing it to bulge dangerously. This, of course, onlyprovoked hysterical laughter from my audience. When I threw it at them,however, they left hastily, dragging one of their number who had collapsed tothe deck.

Despite my rage, as I struggled into my flight suit I couldn't help wonderingwhere the crew had gotten so many sex toys. Knowing the Border Worlders, theywere probably standard issue.


I joined Panties on the flight deck. She was already wearing her saucepan,trying to pretend it was nothing out of the ordinary. Unable to find my ownheadgear, I looked for Zelda, but she was nowhere to be seen. I was on my wayto her workshop when I was intercepted by Maniac. He was wearing his own shinysaucepan at a jaunty angle. On it the letters M-A-N-I-A-C were emblazoned, inblack paint, above a stylized skull and crossbones.

"Hey, Ace!" he called. "I got somethin' for ya!"

I groaned. This was the last thing I needed.

Seeing my expression, Maniac held up his hand in reassurance. "No, no, thistime I'm on the level, Ace. Here!" He took his hand from behind his back andrevealed his peace offering.

It was a new saucepan, lovingly polished to a mirror shine. On one side, myname was painted in metallic red on a black background. On the other was abeautifully detailed emblem depicting a grinning tiger in fighting stance,wearing boxing gloves. Both were upside down, as he was holding the pan openside up, but I could make them out clearly.

Under my amazed stare, Maniac looked at his boots and shifted uncomfortably."You see, Ace, when you flew into the zone, I...Well, I thought you might notbe coming back, and I was sorry for...for making fun of you. I passed thetime making this...I thought you'd come back for sure if you had somethingwaiting for you." Diffidently, he met my gaze. "Peace?"

I was touched. I had to admit, our vicious rivalry had always had an elementof mutual respect and, yes, even friendship. I had no illusions about alasting peace, of course, but for now we could certainly call a truce.

I glanced aside at Panties, who was frantically shaking her head in warning. Iignored her. She was just in a bitchy mood.

"OK, Maniac," I said, a lump in my throat. "Thanks, pal." I reached for thesaucepan.

Maniac grinned from ear to ear. "No, let me!" he said eagerly. He tookthe "helmet" in both hands and stood behind me. "Here goes, Ace!" In onequick motion, he set the cookware neatly on my head. It was a perfect--

Something warm, wet, and gooey was oozing down my head. I took a sniff...applesauce! Goddamn that Maniac! I tried to wipe it out of my eyes, butsucceeded only in smearing it all over my face. Just before Maniac pounded thepan down, blocking my vision, I caught a glimpse of Panties. She had one handover her eyes, shaking her head in despair.

Maniac was laughing his head off. "Owahoohoohoo! I can't believe you fell forit, Ace! Hahahahaha! What a moron! Wheeheehee!" All around, I could heardeckhands, techs, off-duty crew, even the pilots in their fighters, laughinglike hyenas. "Oh, Ace, this one's gotta go on the GGG, too! Hawhawhaw!"

The GGG! So Maniac was the culprit! In a blind rage, I leaped toward thesound of his voice. Of course I missed badly.

"Hah! Toro!" mocked Maniac. "Ole!" he cried, as I missed him again. Jeersand catcalls assailed my ears.

Suddenly, I was caught in a vicious earlock! Shit, it was Zelda! Where didshe come from?

"Ow! Ow! Lemme go!" I raged. No use. I had to follow her or lose myearlobe. I did manage to pop off the saucepan, just as she dragged me into thehead. She startled a male tech standing at one of the urinals, but seeing itwas only Zelda, he relaxed and went on with his business.

Zelda forced me to kneel at one of the sinks and started scrubbing the goo outof my hair. "God, you're pathetic, Blair," she said. "'Fly with your head,'"you say! 'Keep your cool!' Then you lose your temper and make an idiot out ofyourself!"

I burned with shame. She was right, of course... "But Zelda," I wailed, "itwas MANIAC!"

That earned me a hard swat on the behind. "He's an IDIOT! What do you carewhat he thinks?"

I was clean now. Zelda shoved me over toward the dryer while she cleaned outthe saucepan.

Under the warm air, I managed to calm down a bit. Dry and clean at last, Istood up and accepted the clean saucepan from Zelda. "Uh, thanks, Chief--er,Zelda. Especially after what I did..."

Her voice was softer now. "I know what it's like, Blairbear. Much as I wantedto, I couldn't let you go through it, too."

I put on the saucepan and buckled the strap. Taking her by both shoulders, Isaid, "Look, I want to make it up to you, Zelda. You name it. Your choice."I'd probably regret this, but I had to make things right between us.

She brightened. "Deal! But now you have a mission to fly. Remember,Blairbear, you're the Heart of the Tiger! Get out there and act like it!"

Icily calm now, I strode out of the head and straight toward Maniac. He'd beenentertaining his audience with jibes at Panties, but he stopped when he saw mecoming. So did the onlookers. The flight deck was awash with the roar oflaunching fighters, but to me it was as quiet as a grave.

As I approached, Maniac backed up warily, looking left and right like a trappedrat. I stopped half a meter away. I stood still for a moment, then thrust outa finger at him. He flinched.

"Major Marshall! Skunk Squadron will launch precisely twenty minutes after us!Form up with the escort Banshees from the frigates, assume a search spread,and proceed to the center of the zone! You will attack and destroy any piratecraft you encounter! Is that clear?"

Cowed, he nodded vigorously.

"I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" I bellowed.

Maniac sprang to attention and threw me a picture-perfect salute. "YES, SIR!"

Without bothering to return his salute, I turned and headed for my fighter.Panties stared at me as if I were from another dimension. When I impatientlymotioned for her to get going, however, she took off for her bird at the run.


"Comm check, Panties. You OK?" We were nearly one hour into the mission, andbeginning to suffer the effects of the sitcom zone again.

"OK, Earthworm. I was just wondering where Confed got a cloaker that wouldhandle a cap ship."

"Oh, I know where they got it, Panties. Kilrathi prototype." Yeah, the onethat financed Zeke's farm.

"What? How do you always know these things?"

"Hey, I'm the Wing C--Break, Panties! Bandits!" An Excalibur was sneaking upon her six.

By now Panties and I were experts at clearing each other's tails. We broketoward each other and took our opposite numbers head on. My target stayed oncourse for a couple of shots, then broke off too fast to follow. Damn, he wasgood! I searched frantically, trying to acquire him again.

He taunted me on the general channel. "Hey, Gomer, I see you! What's it likewithout sensors, you poor blind bastard? Hahahaha!"

That gave me an idea. Quickly, I activated the comm. "I don't need sensors,asshole! I can SMELL you!" I stopped weaving and assumed a steady course.

"Smell me? You bastard, smell THIS!"

I chopped the throttle and prepared to fire...Yes! A couple of minor armorhits and then he flashed right by me, firing at nothing. Blasting away with myscattergun, I hit burner and maxed the throttle to stay with him.

The pirate panicked at my apparent clairvoyance. "Watch yourself, Buzz!" hescreamed. Ploop! Ploop! "They can SMELL us! Let's get out--" Ploop!Ploop! KABOOM!

His wingman, taking hits from Panties behind him, was only too ready to believehim. "Smell us? Jesus Christ, no wonder!" Forgetting to change channels, hecalled to his mothership. "Bee 3 to hive! Bee 3 to hive! Warning! Gomershave a new sensor, uses smell, repeat, smell! Our jamming useless! Warning--"KABOOM!

"Score one for the good guys, Earthworm!"

I joined up with Panties. She'd lost some rear armor, and her engines weredamaged. I checked the time. Damn! With our speed reduced, we'd need ashitload of luck to find the jammer before it re-cloaked!


We searched fruitlessly for the jamming ship, our optic assists on max. Timewas running out. If it cloaked again, we'd never find it.

Finally, Panties sang out. "Earthworm! Flash at two o'clock!"

What the-- The flash was faint, and faded immediately.

"Panties, somebody just bought it! Maybe one of ours!" We were just insideGopher Squadron's sector.

"Then let's check it out, Earthworm. Maybe the jammer is nearby!"

We altered course and went to afterburner; fuel was the least of our concerns.I checked the time. Damn, the frigate would be cloaking any minute now!

This time we spotted them in front of us. "There's the bad guys, Earthworm!One, two, FOUR Bearcats! Ready to dance!"

"Panties! There, behind them! The frigate!"

At last! But those Bearcats would nail us before we could get close enough.With nothing to fear from our missiles, they could close in and overwhelm uswith point-blank missile fire. We were dead, unless--

"Panties, kill burner! Set up for missile shots."

"What? But all we're carrying are dumbf--"

"Trust me!" I switched to the general channel, so the bandits could hear, too."Panties! Bandits ahead! Set missiles for olfactory homing!" I managed tocut the comm before I burst out laughing. Now if only that last pirate'smessage had gotten through...

Yes! Ahead of us, the bandits suddenly veered off. I could just imagine theirleader calling, "Damn, it's true! They do have smell sensors! Stay out oftheir missile envelopes!" Heehee, what a bunch of cretins!

I maintained the bluff as long as I could, pointing my ship at enemy fightersin succession, as if acquiring missile lock. Panties followed suit. Thepirates, told to expect blind victims, were confused in the face of "targets"ready to fight back.

When we could no longer maintain the charade, I yelled to Panties, "Cover myrun!" I hit burner, armed dumbfires in salvo mode, and aimed right at thedistant frigate. Missiles and tachyon fire lashed out at me, but the angle wasbad and nothing came close. I tried to ignore the converging fighters andconcentrate on my target. I prayed it would stay visible just a few more...

OH NO! At about twenty-five thousand klicks, my target faded out. After allour efforts, we had failed. A black wave of despair washed over me.

Then I thought of Zelda. "Remember, Blairbear, you're the Heart of the Tiger!"She was right. I couldn't give up now, not while she believed in me!

As I neared the frigate's original location, I desperately peppered the areawith my scattergun. Shit, no dice. Obviously the nimble frigate had changedcourse. Thumb hovering over the missile launch button, I turned randomly andcontinued spraying the area.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Shit, Panties couldn't keep them off me any more--ifshe was even still alive! I pumped out decoys and continued my frantic game ofblind man's buff. No luck! We were doomed!

WhoopwhoopwhoopWHAMMO! The missile hit slammed my head against the canopy,jamming my "helmet" down over my eyes. Worse, I had inadvertently touched thelaunch button, and half my precious missile load took off after nothing.

Blindly, I took violent evasive action, frantically pushing at the saucepan. Imanaged to pop it off just in time to be dazzled by a brilliant flash at teno'clock high.

"Earthworm!" screamed Panties. "You did it!"

"What? Did what?" I rubbed my eyes, trying to erase the dancing afterimages.Oh my God, the frigate was visible again, and venting plasma! My blind salvohad damaged the engines, cutting power to the cloaking and jamming gear! "Er,I mean, of course I did, Panties! I'm the Heart of the Tiger!"

Stunned by their defeat, the pirates gave me a moment's respite. That was allI needed. I routed gun power to shield recharge and lined up on the slowingfrigate. A light touch on the launch button, and the aft third of my targetwent up in another brilliant flare.

I activated sensors and was overjoyed to find friendlies all around me. Thewing and squadron channels were jammed with calls, so I switched to Archie'schannel, praying he and Tina were where they were supposed to be.

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

"Lovey and Dovey here! On burner, three minutes out. Hang on, Earthworm!"

Yes! "Panties, form on my wing!" Dodging tachyon fire and missiles, I managedto rendezvous with Panties' battered ship. We headed for Lovey and Dovey onburner, hit autoslide, and turned to fight off our tormentors as best we could.

With our extra armor and Panties' damage, we were making barely a thousand kps,but since our pursuers were flying INTO our fire, we had a tremendous rangeadvantage. After we scored several unanswered ion hits, the pirates hung back.Their missiles, however, were another matter, since our maneuverability inautoslide was nil. Our decoys ran out before they ran out of missiles.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! "Panties, evade!" I killed burner and autoslide, andturned for all I was worth.

"You got it, Earthworm!" Panties' voice was strained. Crippled as she was,her life expectancy was now measured in seconds.

Whoopwhoopwhoo-- Missed! Hah! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Shit, turn, Blair!Oh no, Panties took an IR! Her shields are down...another hit! What's holdingher Banshee together?

I hit burner again and angled for her attacker, who was peppering Panties withtachyon fire. Heedless of the approaching missiles, I raised gun power andblasted away. Ploop! Ploop! Ploop! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Ploop! Whoop!

Ploop--KABOOM! Whoop--WHAMMO! I took an IR just as my target exploded. Minordamage, shields took most of the blast, but now I had three after me. Pantieswas no longer maneuvering and probably dead; I wouldn't outlive her by morethan a few seconds. Tachyon fire was taking out my rear armor, despite violentevasive maneuvers. Any second now...

CHUG CHUG CHUG! Hallelujah, two enemies leeched! The cavalry had arrived! Ileft the last Bearcat to Lovey and Dovey, and tried to raise Panties.

"Panties? Panties? Talk to me, girl!" Was she...

"Sorry...Earthworm, but I've...about had it." She was alive, but her voice wasweak. "Wounded...slow air leak...barely flyable."

I commed our rescuers. "Lovey, Dovey, stick with us. We gotta get Pantiesback to the ship." Privately, I doubted she could make it, but we had to try.


All through that long flight back, we took turns keeping Panties awake andflying. We cajoled and bullied her, and when that failed, I hit her with themost vicious insults I could devise. That revived her fighting spirit for atime, and when it flagged again, I switched to knock-knock jokes.

Finally, even Panties' iron will gave out. She commed me one last time."S-sorry, Earthworm...can't go on. Lost...too much air..."

No! "Come on, Panties, we're nearly there. Fight, baby, fight!"

"No...use. Bye...Chris...Wish we had...more time." Then there was onlysilence. Her ship began to drift out of formation.

No, God, not her, too! Fighting to control my voice, I played my last card."T-Tamara! Just one question: Do you really give great head, like Maniacsays?"


"Yeah, he says you just can't get enough. You want him day and night--"

"THAT BASTARD! When I get back, I'm gonna tear his fucking nuts off and eat'em for breakfast! I'll rip out his--" I sat back and enjoyed one of the mostferocious and detailed tirades I'd ever heard. I could hear Lovey and Dovey onthe comm, trying hard to stifle their laughter and failing miserably.


SoSo was practically bubbling over. "We're fully operational now, Colonel!Great work! You have--"

"Can it, SoSo! Clear Panties first! She's in bad shape." She wasn't the onlyone. While shepherding her home, I'd been listening to the comm off and on.We'd lost several pilots, and others were returning shot up. It had been acostly victory.


I was one of the last ones to land, having defied regulations and given up myslot twice to badly damaged ships. Wearily, I taxied my flying junkyard intoits bay and popped the canopy. Then I slowly climbed down the ladder.

Zelda skipped the kisses and just hugged me fiercely. I hugged back, revelingin her touch. That last fight had been much too close.

Finally we pulled apart. "Panties?" I asked.

"Forceps says she'll pull through. Don't worry, he's giving her plenty ofpainkiller." Seeing my expression, she added, "No, he's the same old Forceps.I just promised him another one of your six-packs."

"Heh heh. Good work, Chief."

"Oh, by the way," she said, a little too casually. "Major Marshall is overdue.Tex lost visual contact with him early on, and he hasn't called in."

For a moment I dared hope, but then I remembered who we were dealing with."He'll turn up," I said sadly. "Probably with half a dozen scalps. But enoughabout him. I believe I owe you a debt. You ready to collect?"

She nodded, and held out her hand. In it was her lottery chit. Her cabin timewas less than sixteen hours away.

I thought of our pirate prisoner, now drooling all over his straitjacket insick bay. I wondered how many six-packs Forceps would charge me for a cyanidepill...

End of Chapter 20

Previews from Chapter 21:

"Um, sir, when you...when you bombed Kilrah, did that...make it right aboutColonel Devereaux?"

"A better question, Blair, is what are YOU doing here?"

"Ohhhh. Oh, Blairbear, that's wonderful! Please, don't stop."

"Hey, thanks, Goober! Let's go kill another one of your tanks!"