Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 21

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to January 25, 1997]

Chapter 21

Fortunately, I had plenty of work to keep my mind off my impending date withZelda. The returning pilots had to be debriefed immediately to determine ifwe'd neutralized all the pirates. Lt. Cmdr. Queue was overwhelmed, so I wasforced to put off the other problems clamoring for my attention and help himout.

My pilots were in bad shape. Our numerical advantage had been more than offsetby the pirates' superior fighters and immunity to zone effects. Again andagain, my people described how they'd been ambushed and damaged or forced toeject by an enemy they never even saw. They'd exacted a measure of revengeafter the jamming ended, but now, shaky and exhausted, they hardly felt likevictors.

Lieutenants Mourne, Nune, and Knight were the last Skunks to return. Nune'sAvenger was badly shot up; Mourne and Knight had suffered light damage. Ihustled them into the Skunk ready room and poured three cups of coffee--realcoffee from my own stash.

"T-thank you, sir," said September, as she gulped her brew. "Oh, God, this isgood!" I loaded the three flight logs and waited for her to begin.

"I was flying on Jekkyl's wing, sir. Wikkit and Hite from BWS Ewok werecovering us in their Banshees. We were j-jumped by two Bearcats about an hourafter launch. The Banshees got one, b-but we lost Jekkyl and Hite." Shegripped her cup hard in both hands to keep them from shaking.

I checked her flight log. September had kept her cool and dragged her unseenattacker across Wikkit's sights. Wikkit's log confirmed the kill.

"Wikkit and I went on. When the jamming ended, we spotted a pirate frigate andtwo fighters. We stayed at max range and I called for help."

Lt. Nune took over. "Knight and I were having ourselves a nice quiet missionuntil we got September's call. Turned out we were on the other side of thefrigate. When we came in, both pirate fighters went for us. The Banshees fromBWS Friggit took 'em out, but not until I was hit bad." He took another gulpof java.

"It was textbook, sir!" exclaimed Lt. Knight, nearly spilling his coffee in hisexcitement. "September on one side, me on the other! We launched a perfectpattern, no loopholes. They never knew what hit 'em!"

Their flight logs confirmed the kill. That was good news. Hulk and two of hisTurkeys had taken out the third and last mothership. Any pirates who hadescaped us would die cold, lonely deaths when their gas ran out.

I was proud of my pilots, and I let them see it. "Four-oh job, people.Thanks. Now get some food and hit the sack; you can give Ike a more detailedaccount later. Lt. Mourne, may I detain you another moment?"

I sat down next to September. "I know how hard it was to wait for help,Lieutenant, but you kept your head and went by the book. I think it's time youwere bumped up to section leader."

She just stared at her cup. "Thank you, sir," she said quietly. "Um, sir,when you...when you destroyed Kilrah, did that...make it right about ColonelDevereaux?"

I felt the familiar pain again. "No. I killed a billion cats, and it wasn'tenough. I didn't find peace until I made peace with Melek." And Zeke.

She nodded. "That frigate wasn't enough for Moose, either." She sighed andstood up. "Thank you, sir, for all your advice."

I watched her leave the ready room, knowing only too well the conflict withinher: life on one path, bitterness and self-destruction on the other. Well,I'd done all I could; I just hoped she'd make a better choice than Spirit had.


I was comparing notes with Ike when Catcall burst into the Skunk ready room."Sir!" he gasped. "Sir! Major Marshall just landed! And he's captured apirate shuttle!"

Ike and I looked at each other. He rolled his eyes. It figured.

I hurried over to Maniac's service bay. The hero of the hour was leaningcasually against his Avenger, recounting his exploits to Catcall and a fewfascinated deckhands. His face was lined with fatigue, but his talent forboasting was undiminished.

"...and when Tex wandered off, I just kept searching. When wormboy and undieslucked out and nailed the jammer, I spotted this shuttle making a run for it.I gave chase, even though my fuel was critical. A lesser pilot would've turnedback when his gas ran SHORT..." He looked pointedly at me. "...but not theManiac! I fired a shot across her bow and forced her back here. I had about aminute's fuel left, but hey, I thrive on danger!" He flipped his saucepan inthe air and caught it neatly by the handle.

Translation: Maniac had succumbed early to the jamming, drifted away in asitcom stupor, and stumbled across the shuttle when the zone collapsed.

"Hey! Here she comes now!" exclaimed Maniac, pointing. Escorted by two CAPfighters, the shuttle was on final approach.

I joined the crowd gathering around the pirate as it touched down. It wascleverly disguised as a Confed command shuttle. The insignia, the fittings,even the inspection hatch logos were almost perfect. I looked closer. Hmm,they WERE perfect...

With a clatter of equipment, Sgt. McLean and his Marines scrambled down thestairs from the Control Bay in full combat gear. They formed up smartly nextto me, weapons at the ready. There was a scatter of applause from thedeckhands in appreciation of the Marines' precision deployment.

McLean looked over at me, smiling with pride. I nodded slightly toward theshuttle's rear exit, which he'd left uncovered. He hastily detailed PrivatesAwks and Wang. I glanced at Cpl. Vanish next to me, and discreetly took thesafety off her weapon. Sheesh.

Maniac ran up to the main hatch and pounded on it. "Hey, open up, you scum-suckers! This is the Maniac!"

I put Cpl. Vanish's safety back on and joined Maniac just as the hatch beganopening. Maniac stuck his head through the widening gap. "About time, youbas--Huh?" His jaw dropped and his face went all goofy--well, goofier thanusual. Awestruck, all he could say was "Hubba hubba!"

Someone--a woman--was emerging from the shadowy interior. The light fell firston the stylish Confed-blue pumps on her feet; then on shapely, tanned legsreaching all the way up into a blue microskirt; uniform blouse, low-cut andpractically bursting with promise; lovely green eyes, blonde hair, and afamiliar smile...


She giggled. "Hi, Chris-Chris! Oops!" A pencil slipped out of her fingers.

I hastened up the ramp to retrieve it, lest she bend over and reveal whatwasn't under her uniform. My reward was a hug and an enthusiastic kiss. "Oh,Chris-Chris," she gushed, "I missed you!"

I fended her off as gently as I could. "Chastity, what are you doing here,honey?"

"She's with me, Colonel!"

I whirled. I knew that voice.

"A better question, Blair, is what are YOU doing here?" The questioner movedinto the light from the open hatch.

"Paladin!" I felt as if I'd been stabbed through the heart. My oldest anddearest friend was working with the pirates!

Paladin patted Chastity on her bottom. "Run along, lassie. I want to talkwith the Colonel."

Bouncing down the ramp, Chastity was greeted by a roar of cheers and applause.She waved cheerily and blew a few kisses before she was engulfed by the crowd.

Paladin pulled me deeper into the dimly-lit shuttle and sat us down on a coupleof cargo containers. Still stunned, I didn't resist.

"Now, laddie," thundered Paladin, "have you taken leave of your senses? Whatpossessed you to defect to the Union?"

I awoke from my trance. "Wait a second, you bastard! I catch you consortingwith pirates, and you accuse ME? What possessed YOU to betray all you stoodfor?" Oh, it was all clear to me now. "What an idiot I am! Covert Ops' pawprints are all over this business, and I overlook their greatest agent! Nowonder you made President of the Dissembly in just two years, you snake!"

He tried to interrupt, but I shouted him down. "You rammed that escort edictthrough, didn't you? Oh, you're so fucking clever! My friends on the Lex blowthe whistle on your little scheme, so you play the man of reason, and delay thevote to come out here and stir up more mischief!"

Taken aback by my passion, Paladin just sat there. When he replied, his tonewas thoughtful. "I see. Then you've cast me as the criminal mastermind ofyour little drama? Well, I'll try not to disappoint you!"

He leaned forward and spoke earnestly. "You're right, laddie. This war isindeed being provoked by elements within the Confederation, within Covert Ops."

"So you admit you're in on it?" I asked in surprise. Half of me still didn'twant to believe it.

He nodded. "I am indeed 'in on it,' as you put it, except that I lead thefaction trying to STOP this war!"

"Factions? In Covert Ops?"

He shook his head at my naivete. "Laddie, we're up to our hindquarters infactions! The SRA, the military, the Dissembly...even the Union is riddledwith traitors. Look, two years ago, shortly after the War, I came acrossevidence of a plot to divide the Border Worlds from the rest of Confed. Butmy friends and I had to move carefully, because we didn't know who we couldtrust. I got myself elected to the Dissembly--you're right, my whole politicalcareer was rigged--and since then I've tried to keep a lid on the war fever."

"Yeah, right," I said sarcastically. "Like with that escort edict?"

He bristled. "What do you know about politics, farmer? I did everythingpolitically possible to soften that edict! And I squashed even worse billsbefore they hit the floor!"

Shit, that almost sounded plausible. "So what are you doing out here, meetingwith pirates?"

He sighed. "The Dissembly is recessed for one week. I asked Admiral Tolwyn tolet me help with his investigation. He had indications of impending troublein Peleus, and with so few of his own people he could trust, he sent me. Heeven sent his 'aide' to assist."

I glanced out the hatch at Chastity, who was posing for holopics with crewmembers. "No, Paladin, it won't wash. You weren't affected by the sitcomzone!"

"Of course we weren't, you dunce! Do you think I trust Tolwyn? My own sourceswarned of possible sitcom warfare, and furnished the appropriate counter-measures! Perhaps Tolwyn set me up, and perhaps he didn't. Perhaps thatlittle minx out there is his spy! I notice YOU'RE pretty chummy with her! Areyou working for Tolwyn? Or worse?"


"All right, maybe you really defected out of misplaced idealism. But do youknow the harm you've done? Before, I could always point out what a minisculedanger we faced from the Border Worlds. But then the mighty Heart of the Tigerjoins them, and suddenly the Union is a credible threat! And then you go andprove it by taking out the only Confed fleet unit that's actually doing somegood!"

"Fuck you, old man! Gant was trying to start a war! He and that knife thug!I heard them, dammit! Then there's this hotshot pilot called Theether, the onewith the G.E.D.! He's killed--"

Paladin suddenly went pale. "The G.E.D.," he whispered. "God help us."

"What? What?" Dammit, did he know something?

"Genetically Enhanced Development. Covert Ops' greatest mistake, laddie. Amisguided attempt to breed the perfect warrior against the Kilrathi. Only theywere TOO perfect. Too perfect to have any loyalty to the imperfect race thatbred them. It was shut down, but now the conspirators have obviously revivedit. My God, how could I have underestimated them so badly?" Paladin buriedhis head in his hands.

Conspiracies. Factions. Betrayal all around. Mistrust and accusationsbetween me and the man who'd taught me most of what I knew about combat. Mymind was in a turmoil.

Paladin sat up and squared his shoulders. "That settles it, laddie. I have toget back with this information. And you'd best give me everything you have,too. Perhaps there's still time--"

"Are you mad? I'm not even sure I won't shoot you here and now!"

My old friend put his hand on my shoulder. "Chris, when we flew wing on theold Tiger's Claw, you trusted me with your life, and I, you. We were as closeas father and son. You know me too well to believe I've turned traitor."

I sat there for a long time, thinking furiously. Could Paladin be telling thetruth? Was Tolwyn in on the conspiracy, or was he the hero and Paladin thetraitor? Were they BOTH traitors? Both heroes? I just didn't have enoughevidence either way; in the end, it came down to trust--and Paladin had beenmy wingman.

I sighed in resignation. "You're not getting our evidence, Paladin. Too manypeople will die if it gets into the wrong hands." I glanced out at Chastity,who was now signing autographs. "But the two of you can go."

He sighed with relief. "It's all right, Igor," he said to someone behind me.

I spun, grabbing for the pistol I wasn't wearing. A grim-faced man stood inthe hatch to the cockpit, lowering a photon pistol. He turned and disappeared.

I looked at Paladin in disgust. "'Father and son?'" He just shrugged.

I composed myself and started down the ramp to collect Chastity. Maniac hadfound her issue in his Playboy collection, and now she was signing thecenterfold.

"Chastity?" I called. "Time to go, hon."

She kissed the centerfold, leaving a prominent lipstick print. Then she stucka signed holopic in my breast pocket, gave me a quick kiss, and bounced back upthe ramp. She was still waving when the hatch closed.

"Hey, Ace," said Maniac. "Who were you talking to in there?"

"Hmm?" I signaled the Control Bay to clear the shuttle. "Oh, it was nobody,Maniac."

Maniac waved at the departing shuttle. "That's nice," he said absently.


Fortunately, I had too much work to brood over releasing Paladin. Cargotraffic resumed as soon as the jamming zone disappeared, and we had to provideescorts for the convoys in our area. I was juggling demands for CAP, patrols,search-and-rescue, and escorts from a weary wing with half its birds out ofaction and a third of its pilots dead, missing, or wounded.

The fighter techs were swamped with repair work. Zelda was already overduefor a rest, but she simply couldn't be spared. As Admiral Willful's firebrigade, we were in great demand on the Union's frontiers. Our fighters wouldbe needed again, and soon.

Eventually I had the organizational problems sorted out well enough for Maniacto handle the details. Though desperately tired myself, I took a patrolmission to spare one of my exhausted fliers, tagging Excell as my wingman. Iwas pleasantly surprised to find her a most congenial wingie, with a repertoireof ribald stories that matched my own.

When I returned, SoSo was waiting at the bottom of the ladder. "Welcome back,sir. Here are the debriefings from the frigate pilots." She handed me a datacartridge. "Also, the Captain has set up a rendezvous with an outbound cargotransport. They have fighter parts, flight helmets, and medical supplies.Sorry, no spare food."

"Thanks, SoSo. You're a peach." I took off my saucepan and looked at it withregret. Gee, I'd sure miss my trusty cookware...not.

SoSo's voice took on a note of concern. "You should get some rest, sir. Youlook beat."

"It's OK, I have cabin time in a few--" Boing! Oh man, this was one of mybest ideas yet! "Um, SoSo?" I asked casually. "Has Maniac been bothering youlately, by any chance?"

"Are you kidding? That over-sexed gorilla hits on me every chance he gets!And he KNOWS Catscratch and I--"

"How would you like some payback?"

She smiled impishly. "What do I have to do, sir?"

Oh, Maniac, you are going to be SO sorry you ever messed with the Heart of theKitchen! "OK, now here's my plan..."


I had my date with Zelda to prepare for, but I wanted to stop by sick bay firstto see my wounded pilots. Thanks to modern medical science, they were alreadywell on the road to recovery, especially now that Forceps had released hisreserve of painkillers in anticipation of fresh deliveries.

I went from bed to bed, taking my time. By now I knew most of them well enoughto say the right things, usually a joke or two for the vets, encouragement orpraise for the rookies. Primate, of course, got a banana.

Panties was last. I pulled a chair close to her bed and sat down. Her leftside was still covered with regen dressings where she'd taken the shrapnel, butshe'd regained most of her color, and she was smiling.

"Hi, Tamara," I said.

"Hi, Chris," she answered. "Thank you for bringing me home."

"Thank yourself, young lady. I don't think I've ever seen anyone so damndetermined to live. Your courage is an inspiration to us all."

She chuckled. "Tell that to my hand." She held up her right hand. It wasstill trembling.

I held mine up next to hers. It, too, was still shaking from the strain of twositcom missions.

Tamara grasped my hand with hers. Together, they were rock-solid.

That was when I knew I'd made the right choice with Paladin. He could still beone of the bad guys, of course, but when the chips were down, you simply had totrust your wingman. I returned the pressure of Tamara's hand, reassured by hertouch. Yeah, this I could trust.

I pressed my lips to the back of her hand and placed it gently on her chest."Get well, Tamara. I need you on my wing." And in my life?


I felt a lot better after my visit with Panties. Whatever the negative effectsof my defection, I had no regrets about joining these exasperating BorderWorlders. For all their faults, they had one overwhelmingly redeeming trait:they were incapable of betrayal. The fact that they were damn near incapableof anything requiring conscious thought was beside the point.

My long-dreaded date with Zelda was imminent, but now I faced it with a newattitude. She was the very embodiment of Border Worlder loyalty, and shedeserved my best. First, I spruced myself up, prudently putting on my mostpresentable underwear. Then I brought most of what remained of my stash intothe manual kitchen and prepared the best dinner I could, given the materials athand. After transferring the feast to a grav sled, I changed into my dressuniform and took the whole production to our assigned cabin, arriving only afew minutes late.

Tactfully, I buzzed the door, praying she wasn't waiting for me in her birthdaysuit. I needn't have worried. When she called, "Come in, Blairbear," and Ientered the cabin, I found her fully dressed--and then some.

My God! Despite her evident fatigue, Zelda had pulled out all the stops forour date. No longer in its usual ponytail, her dark blonde hair fell in gentlewaves to her shoulders. Her squeaky-clean face was lightly made up, dimmingbut not obscuring her freckles; the faintest hint of lavender graced her lips.I counted only one pimple. Her dress uniform was a marked improvement over herusual dirty fatigues. A maddeningly elusive fragrance of lilac was in the air.

I sucked in my breath. Could this vision be the same homely mechanic who haddriven a man to attempt suicide? Why, she looked almost...almost...PLAIN!

Noting Zelda's embarrassed blush and shy smile, I hastened to put her at ease.Playing the part of the efficient maitre d', I sat her down on one of the beds,lowered the sled to eating level, and laid out the meal on top of it. Zeldasquealed with delight as each dish was revealed. As the final touch, I lit oneof SoSo's candles--it had cost me my last can of potato chips--and set it inthe center of the eating surface.

My efforts hadn't been in vain. "Oh, Blairbear," sighed Zelda. "It's justlike I dreamed it would be! I'm so happy, I c-could just c-c-cry!" Tearsbegan welling up in her eyes.

"Here, hon!" I said hastily. "Try the cashew chicken." I speared a morselwith my fork and carefully placed it in her mouth. That did the trick. Sheforgot her tears and chewed away lustily.

For the next few minutes, we gave ourselves over entirely to the pleasure ofdining on food we could actually taste. It was so good, in fact, that it tookall my willpower to leave Zelda her fair share; I could have eaten the wholeshebang twice over.

"Mmmm, Blairbear, this is exquisite," she said between mouthfuls. "But nexttime, it's my turn, OK? I'm no slouch in the kitchen myself." She reached foranother piece of my sushi substitute.

I refilled her glass with sparkling water. I'd brought along my best, the DomPerrier '57. "I didn't know, Zelda. You know so much about me, but I knownothing about you. Like, where are you from?"

It turned out she was from Hades IV, in the Styx Cluster. It was a farmingworld, but she'd grown up in the spaceport, where her father was a fighter techand her mother flew for the Home Defense Force. After her mother was killed ina Kilrathi raid, she'd grown closer to her father, helping him in his work. Atfourteen, she'd built a working Hellcat II out of spare parts.

Impatient to leave her backwater home, she'd joined the Navy at the minimum ageand was immediately sent to tech school. Having skipped college, she washandicapped by her lack of math, but her extensive practical experience morethan made up for it. After a year of distinguished service with Confed, she'dtransferred to the Militia in the last days of the War, joining Intrepid justin time to see her homeworld overrun by the Kilrathi.

Pushing the sled and its empty plates out of the way, I sat down beside her andtook her hand. "No, it's OK, Chris," she said. "I miss my father, but notthat hick planet. Looking like I do, can't you imagine what a living hell mychildhood was?"

I could. I'd grown up on a "civilized" world, but in school the misfits hadstill been unmercifully ostracized.

She took a deep breath, as if afraid to take the next step. "You know what gotme through those awful years?" I shook my head. "You did," she said.

"Me? But I didn't even know--"

"I knew you. From the news. Confed's newest and brightest star--handsome,daring, popular--everything I'd never be. In school, when I was teased, orignored--which was worse--I'd think of you, and it was all right. Even afteryour bogus court-martial, whenever I was discouraged, I'd remind myself thatChris Blair hadn't given up, and neither would I."

Jesus. Ensign Watt's crush was nothing next to this! "Um, Zelda, if you onlyknew how close I came to resigning... In fact, if it hadn't been for a transfrom some anonymous hero-worshipping kid--" Ohmygod!

Zelda's eyes had a faraway look. "'Dear Captain Blair: That awful AdmiralTolwyn says you're a coward, but I know he's wrong. Soon everyone else willknow, too. Until then, my Dad always says to take pride in each day's work,and the future will take care of itself.'"

She put her hand on my cheek. "I closed with, 'I believe in you.' I was tenyears old."

It took me a moment to find my voice. "Uh, that was you?"

She moved her hand to my lips. "Instead of resigning, you started writingyour revolutionary papers on fighter tactics. I downloaded all twenty-onefrom the GGG, and I read each one a dozen times. Confed wouldn't touch them,of course, but then you put your theories into practice on the Concordia, andnow they're standard doctrine.

"I followed your every move, Chris Blair. When you and Colonel Devereaux...Well, my heart nearly broke, but I was happy for you. And when you lost her,my heart really did break...for you. I never dared hope that you and I...until you flew out of my dreams and landed on Intrepid. Then I knew we weremeant to be."

I was speechless. All this time our lives had been linked, and I hadn'trealized. Suddenly I felt a kinship unlike any I'd ever known before.

"Zelda, I-I don't know what to say."

"Don't say anything, my wonderful Christopher. Just hold me."

Gladly. I hugged her fiercely, my emotions raging inside me. Could it betrue? Was she the one I'd been search--

"Ow! Easy, Honeyblair, I'm stiff all over. No, don't let go--"

I released her instantly, cursing myself. "I'm so sorry, hon. All thoserepairs without a break; your muscles must be sore as hell. Here, lie down."

I removed her uniform jacket and blouse, and slipped off her shoes and pants.Technically, she'd been out of uniform already, because her bra and pantieswere decidedly non-reg. Not that she really needed a bra, of course.

"Mmm, don't stop there, snookums," she said dreamily.

"Patience, pet." I left her underwear on and started kneading her shoulders.

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

I worked my way down her back, massaging her tight muscles with my fingers andusing my thumbs on the double muscle band along her spine. "You know, Zelda, Iwish I'd known someone was actually reading those papers." I started in on herfeet, working my way gradually up her legs. "I would have spiced them up alittle." I finished with a gentle butt-rub, the kind Angel had always liked,though of course Angel had been much less bony. "I guess that explains how youknow my flying so well, doesn't it?" Zelda seemed to like it, too; she wastotally limp.

"Doesn't it, Zelda?" No answer. "Zelda? Hon?" I looked closer. The poorexhausted kid was fast asleep.

Leaving her underwear on--I still wasn't prepared to see her naked, despite thechange in our relationship--I tucked her under the covers and kissed her softlyon the cheek. Then I undressed and fell gratefully into the other bunk. For along time I watched over my companion, pondering mightily upon the mysteries oflife.


I awoke to my alarm, which I had set an hour early. After a quick shower, Iscribbled a note for Zelda and ran off to intercept Louise and Churlokk, thenext occupants of our cabin. It cost me two cabin sessions and the rest of mystash, but they agreed to give up their time so Zelda could sleep undisturbed.Then I hustled back up to the cabin and reprogrammed the cleaning droids beforethey broke in on her.

After last night's sumptuous repast, the very thought of galley food turned mystomach, so I changed out of my dress uniform and headed straight to CIC. Thewar had been kind enough to wait while Zelda's surprising role in my career wasrevealed, but now it was time to get back to work.


I walked into CIC and stopped short. Captain Eisen, his back to me, waschewing out Lt. Cmdr. Queue.

"--and did it ever occur to you, Commander, that your CAPTAIN might like to seethe debriefing reports?"

"Uh, sir, I guess I expected Colonel Blair to inform you."

Oh, thanks a lot, Ike! I tried to tiptoe unnoticed out of CIC...

"BLAIR! Get your ass back here!"

Oops. I jumped to attention and saluted. "Sir!"

Eisen turned on Queue. "You! Get out of my sight!" He emphasized the orderwith a swat from his swagger stick.

"Now, Colonel, where the hell have YOU been? And where are those debriefingreports?"

"Cabin time, SIR!" I barked my response as if on parade. "Reports showedno enemy activity, so the Colonel chose not to bother his Captain, SIR!"

Eisen advanced on me, his jaw set in anger. He thumped me on the head severaltimes with his swagger stick. "HELLO! Am I suddenly invisible? Is that whynobody tells me ANYTHING around here?"

I spoke soothingly. "Sir, no one is trying to hide--"

"Like that pirate shuttle you sent on its merry way, COLONEL?"

Uh-oh. "Uh, but sir, it was a trivial matter, just, er, a USO troupe that gotlost in space, yeah, that's it! Look, I even got you an autograph!" I handedhim Chastity's holopic.

Suddenly mellow, Eisen turned the pic from side to side, to get the full 3-Dview. "Miss April, 2669? Oh, that was a VERY good month... Er, ahem!" Hestuck the pic in his pocket. "Thank you, Colonel, but you should still--"

SoSo materialized behind the Captain. "Sir!"

"Yikes!" He must have jumped half a meter. "Jesus, Lieutenant! You nearlygave me a heart--"


"Oh, OK. When do we meet the transp--"


"What? Well, notify Vice-Admiral--"

"--Willfulhasbeennotifiedsir! Heleftthismessageforyou!" She activated thedisplay.

This time the Vice-Admiral was sitting in a frothing hot tub, possibly in hiscabin aboard his flagship. He took the cigar out of his mouth and coughed acouple of times before beginning.

"Billy! Excellent work there in Peleus! Congrats to Tiger Lily and hispilots! I know you've earned--"

A woman stuck her head out of the water in front of the Admiral, gasping forair. After taking several deep breaths, she submerged again.

Willful sighed and continued. "I know you've earned a rest, Billy, but I havea full-scale war on my hands in Circe. I'll have the data downloaded to you.Get your butts to Circe ASAP!" The Vice-Admiral took a small plastic tube fromthe edge of the tub and, breaking it under his nose, inhaled deeply. "Willfulou-OU-OUT! Oh God, whattarush!" The display went blank.

Eisen shook his head. "I never saw a man age so fast, even in combat. Er,Colonel, I can brief you as soon as I see--"

SoSo handed me a data cartridge and put a diagram of the Circe system on themain display. "Circe IV has broken away from the Union, Colonel, and is nowtrying to capture Circe V. They wouldn't have a prayer, except that Confed isshipping them huge amounts of naval and ground equipment. The Admiral needshis ships to counter the rebel fleet in the asteroid belt, which leaves nosupport for his ground troops. That will be our--"

Eisen tapped her shoulder. "Ahem, thank you, Lieutenant, I'll take it from--"

I ignored him. "What's our opposition, SoSo?"

She frowned. "It appears to be one Victory class carrier and two frigates.Three or four Hellcat squadrons. Transports and landers, five tank brigades,ten Circe IV Militia infantry brigades. Circe V is outnumbered about three toone on the ground. They have one squadron of atmospheric fighters and one ofVindicators."

Shit. "OK, SoSo, get this info to my squadron leaders."

"Yes, sir." She hurried out the door.

"Dismissed, Lieutenant!" said Eisen to her back. Then he called to thehelmsman, "Lt. Pilotte, set course for--"

"--Circe System, already on our way, sir!"

"Oh. Uh, carry on." Eisen turned to me. "Colonel, better--"

"I'd better alert the Marines, sir!" I sketched a hasty salute and took off.


I reclaimed my parrot from Barr and went looking for the Marines. I found themin an empty service bay, dressed in full combat gear. They were setting up ananti-tank laser mount. Pvt. Damppuss was drawing a surprisingly realistic tankoutline on the far bulkhead, the one that divided the bay from the midshipsmissile store. Pvts. Wang and West were trying to assemble the laser with theassistance of Pvt. Awks, who was consulting the user manual. Cpl. Vanish stoodnearby, applying camouflage polish to her nails.

I walked up to Awks. "Is Sgt. McLean around, Private?"

He just scowled and jerked his head toward the head.

Noting the cause of his frustration, I took the manual from him and returned itright side up. That probably also explained why Pvt. Wang was having such ahard time sighting the weapon. After making sure no power pack was loaded, Ispun it around until the other end was toward the target. He looked in thesight again, and gave me a thumbs up.

I spotted Sgt. McLean returning from the head, nose buried in another manual."Ah, Colonel!" he said. "I've been studying. You know, according to this,just about everything we do on the show is wrong!"

He showed me the title: INFANTRY TACTICS FOR DUMMIES

"You don't say!" I replied. "Well, it's a good thing you're boning up. Inabout twelve hours we're sending you to the Circe V spaceport. You should besafe enough in garrison, and you'll free up some real troops for duty at thefront."

He gave me a Hollyworld salute. "We'll be ready, sir!"

"Good. Oh, and Sergeant? I think Private Damppuss should draw her tank targeton this bulkhead over here, the one between this bay and the head."

He scratched his head. "Why, sir?"

Why me, God? "Er, the light's better over here."

"Damn, you're right! Thank you, sir." He went off to inform Pvt. Damppuss.

I watched Wang load a power pack into the anti-tank weapon while West knelt infront and squinted down the projector guide. "What do you think, bird?" Iasked, rubbing my parrot's tummy feathers.

"Rawwwk! Dead meat!"


We jumped to Circe and headed for the fifth planet at full speed. At maximumBanshee range, we prepared to launch.

Zelda was waiting for me at my bird, smiling brightly. She looked refreshedand perky, almost sparkling. Her hug, however, was gentle and warm. "Thankyou, Blairbear," she whispered in my ear. "For everything."

"Um, Zelda, I'll admit that things are...different between us now. But youknow I can't promise..."

"I know, dear. Take your time." She released me and reached into the dufflebag at her feet. "Meanwhile, I want you to have this."

I whistled in appreciation. It was just another new flight helmet like theone I was carrying, except that this one bore my name and a boxing tiger emblemlike the one Maniac had made. The artwork, however, put Maniac's to shame.

It fit like a glove. "Chief," I said in amazement, "you are just full ofsurprises, aren't you?"

"Play your cards right, flyboy," she replied, "and you'll have a lifetime ofsurprises."


Murphy's First Law of Combat: If the enemy is in range, so are you.

Well aware of the maxim, Captain Eisen refused to close with the enemy taskforce. Since the rebel captain had also read his Murphy, the two fighter wingsonly made contact in the vicinity of the planet itself.

Our top priority was to reopen the supply line to Circe V. Given the in-satiable materiel demands of modern ground warfare, the Unionists couldn't lastmuch longer with their own supplies cut off and the enemy resupplying at will.On our first mission, I took along all of Wombat Squadron to escort a transportconvoy carrying ammo and reinforcements. Hulk brought four Vindicators--theUnion's only atmosphere-capable birds--and our Marines came along in a shuttle.

We beat off one Hellcat attack on the way, and another in orbit as the shipswere transloading cargo. Meanwhile, Hulk's Turkeys tore into a major enemyground offensive and helped stop it cold, losing one ship. When we left,however, the rebels reclaimed fighter superiority and brought in their ownconvoy. Reinforcements and fighter support revived the stalled attack.

For two days, a seesaw battle raged on the ground and in the skies. As ourbattle-wise Captain had foreseen, we gradually gained the upper hand. TheBanshee's superiority and our own pilots' flying and taunting skills were majorfactors, but more important, the Union owned the only spaceport. We couldrefuel, rearm, and repair our birds close to the battle; the rebels' fightershad to come from a distant carrier. As the rebels' Hellcat support diminished,the Union defense stiffened and brought the ground offensives to a halt.


I completed the Vindicator's pre-flight, cursing my trembling hands. Aftertwo days of harrowing, round-the-clock missions, I was as tired as the rest ofmy pilots. The situation was critical, however, so somebody had to go. Withmost of Turkey Squadron dead, wounded, or down with the shakes, Mrs. Blair'sfair-haired boy was elected.

Zelda kissed the tiger emblem on my helmet--I had convinced her it was luckierthan kissing me directly--and disappeared down the ladder. I shut the canopyand waved at Hulk. The big lug had flown back-to-back missions for two soliddays, yet here he was again, flying my wing as fresh as a daisy.

I had last flown a Vindicator en route to Circe--my first and only solo. Icrossed my fingers and hit the thrusters.


The rebels had forced a convoy through our patrols--at a terrible cost--and nowthey had enough supplies for one last, desperate effort. They massed theirreserves on one front and scored a breakthrough. Tanks were approaching theUnion spaceport. If the rebels could capture it, or even damage it severely,they could reverse the tide of battle.

As we approached the planet, Hulk picked up a contact.

"Hulk sight enemy, Earthworm!"

Two rebel Hellcats had somehow evaded our Bashees. Shit! We had no time fordogfighting. We had to take these guys fast.

"Hulk, comm silence!" I switched to the general channel. "Hey, Gomers! Knockknock!"

A woman's face appeared on my comm. "Oh no, Union scum! This tahm ah do thetauntin'!"

I was intrigued. What sort of secret taunt had the goobers on Circe V come upwith? "Oh. OK, let's hear, rebel scum."

There was a rustling on the comm as my opponent held up a sheet of paper. "Er,damn, ah cain't make this out."

"Are you holding it right side up?" I suggested helpfully.

More rustling. "Er, ah knowed thet! Uh, ahem. Knock knock."

Hmm. Could it be one I hadn't heard? "Who's there?"


Oh, shit. Not this one. "Who who?"

She squinted at the paper. "Hey, yew sound lahk a...a owl! Ha. Ha. Ha."

Pretty lame. However, she'd gone to so much trouble, I hated to disappointher. "Bwahahahaha! Oh, that's a good one! Wohohohoho!" I started weavingerratically, as if helpless with laughter.

As I shot past her, the rebel pulled hard to get on my tail. Unfortunately,she had to lose sight of me for just a second, and that's when I chopped thethrottle. She came out of her turn on my tail, all right, but she shot rightby me.

"What the-- Where are yew, scum?"

I hit burner. No fucking around with leech cannon, I needed to finish thisquick. "Right here, Daisy Mae!" Screech! Screech! Screech! YES! Tachyonguns at last! Screech! Screech! Kaboom! Bye, Daisy Mae.

Kaboom! Hulk broke comm silence. "Yes! Look at fighter burn! Huh-huh!Huh-huh!"

"Good work, Hulk. Form on my wing."


The ground controller vectored us south of the port, where a new formation ofrebel tanks had just appeared. With reserves already committed elsewhere, theport's defenders had precious little to meet them.

The leading tanks were nearly in range of the outer installations! Heedlessof skin temperature, Hulk and I streaked in after them. According to thecontroller, atmospheric fighters had already taken out one missile tank, at thecost of one aircraft.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Shit, another missile tank! Decoys! Lock IR! Launch!Change targets! Launch! Jink away from missile! Lock IR! Launch!

I locked and fired all my IRs on the first pass and then cleared the range forHulk. He swooped down like a hawk, leveling out at the last second to walk hisstormfire bursts into tank after tank. Goddamn, that big goof was a veritableVindicator virtuoso!

The first wave was burning now, but more were advancing behind them. Oh shit,a tank was advancing on the left flank! No, it stopped! Broken down? Yikes!Hellcats!

"Hulk! Two Hellcats above! Break and attack!" Damn, down here in the soupwe had no Banshee cover!

"These guys history! Huh-huh! Huh-huh!" Hulk streaked into the stratosphere,firing two IR missiles.

I started up after him, but then the second tank wave opened fire on the port.Cursing, I armed my stormfires and tried to duplicate Hulk's strafing tactics.In atmosphere, the outer layers of the stormfire's hypersonic particles vapor-ized, reducing the gun's range and accuracy. The dense cores still packed onehell of a kinetic energy punch, however, quickly defeating tank shields andperforating durasteel armor as if it were tissue.


They were also pretty effective at plowing up the landscape, as I discovered onmy first pass. Shit! Only nailed one tank! Laser blasts from the third waveflew all around me, but only a few hit. Determined to do better this time, yetacutely aware of the closing Hellcats, I swooped down for another run. Thelead tank was stopped and firing at the port, so I pointed my bird directly atit. Steady...get real close...

Whoopwhoopwhoop! Fuck! Missile on my tail! Decoy! Pull up! KABOOM! Am Ihit? No, took out my tank instead! Woohoo! What incredible luck!

"Hey! How Earthworm do that?"

Good question, Hulk! A better question is how to kill these tanks with aHellcat on my--Wait a sec!

I punched the comm. "Hey, thanks, Goober! Let's go kill another one of yourtanks!" Heedless of the threat to my tail, I dove after another tank.

"Oh no yew don't, Union slahm! Yew ain't suckin' me in agin! Ah gots tewmuch smarts!" He followed me in, but he didn't fire a shot.

Heehee! What a dipstick! The odds against duplicating the accident wereastronomical, but once bitten, twice shy, I guess. I couldn't resist rubbingit in.

I waggled my tail invitingly. "Aw, come on, Goober! Shoot me! Please!"Wahahaha! Jeez, I hadn't had so much fun in ages! Ratatatatat! I whacked atank and pulled up for another pass.

The rebel pilot fired his blasters at me on the way up, but I was jinking likea madman and he was too pissed to aim straight. Down I went again.

"Shoot me, you fucking chickenshit! Heeheehee! Kill me, motherfucker! Takeme up the tail like you take yo' mama!" Heeheehee! I'm laughing so hard I canhardly fly! OK, one tank barbecue coming up! Rata--

Whoopwhoopwhoop! Shit, he fired after all! No! Two more Hellcats ahead!Decoy! Pull up, Blair! Miss me, miss me, missmemissmemissme--Hah! Missed!But now I have three on my--no, Hulk's on the dipstick, chasing him off, andnow the new guys are on Hulk!

Shit! We'd lost! No way to stop the tanks with the air full of Hellcats! Inatmosphere, the Hellcat was more maneuverable than the Vindicator. We'd belucky to protect ourselves, let alone the spaceport.

I switched to tachyons, which were immune to atmospheric effects, and swungonto the Hellcats' tails. Screech screech screech! Oh God, how I had missedmy tachyon guns! Screech screech screech! Maneuverability wouldn't matternow, not with my target's control surfaces shredded. He tried a hard turn andsmacked into the ground.

Now, two on two, we had a chance. In less than a minute, the two Hellcats wereburning for space, one trailing smoke.

I took a moment to vector a Banshee patrol onto them, then turned my attentionto the ground again. The port must be a burning shambles by now, but perhapswe could salvage--

What the hell? The port installations were only lightly damaged. The enemytanks were doing all the burning! The few survivors were firing wildly, someat each other, some at nothing. One crew must have gone insane; they weredriving their tank at breakneck speed between the second and third waves,flying over hillocks and firing in all directions. Hey, it was the tank I'dthought was broken down! As I watched, a third wave tank fired at it, butmissed and hit one in the second wave. Another second wave tank retaliated.

Hulk was fascinated. He'd taken an IR, but he was still game. "Hulk take outmad tank!" he called. "Fun target!" He swooped out of the sky.

"Heh heh. OK, big guy--No! Break off, Hulk! It's our guys! Break off!"Whew! Just in time. That wild machine could only be crewed by our idiotHollyworld Marines!

I watched as it went over a particularly large bump, became airborne, andplowed right into a rebel tank, totaling both. Yeah, it was them all right!As both crews baled out of their burning hulks, Hulk and I zoomed in to coverthem until the surviving tanks retreated.

The attack on the spaceport had been foiled. The rebels were in full retreat.Hulk's Vindicator could make it back to the Intrepid OK, so I decided to sparethe port's overtaxed facilities. I sent for a shuttle to bring our Marinesback, then we stood our ships on their tails and hit our throttles.

Leaving the atmosphere, I felt like a snorkeler surfacing after a long dive. Itook deep breaths of air and marveled at the clarity of the stars. Damn, Ihated planet missions!


SoSo appeared promptly on the comm when I called for clearance. She wassubdued, even somber.

"Is it finally over, Earthworm?" she asked.

Poor kid. This was just like the end of the Kilrathi War, when she had watchedher people dropping like flies.

"The worst is over, Velina, but there's still plenty of mopping up ahead. I'msorry."

She sighed. "Don't be sorry, sir. You helped put an end to it. Um, you haveclearance."


Zelda met me at the bottom of the ladder. She took my helmet and fingered thetiger emblem. "Did it bring you luck, Chris?"

I thought of that IR that missed me by a hair's breadth and nailed the tank."Zelda, you wouldn't believe how much--"


It was Captain Eisen. He walked up to us, eyeing me suspiciously.

"Colonel, did you just fly a mission?"

"Er, yes sir. Ground support. Looks like the rebels are re--"

He threw up his hands. "I knew it! I KNEW it!" He turned and stalked away,muttering, "Nobody tells me ANYTHING around here! Nobody!"

End of Chapter 21

Previews from Chapter 22:

"OK, that does it! Let's settle this man to man, groundhog! Right here!Right now!"

"Thanks to your litle code-breaker there--Hi,honey!--we know Confed is sendinga weapons convoy through the Speradon System."

"Chris, we may not have much time left. We'd be fools to waste it."

"Hey, Gomer! You seen the latest Playboy yet?"