Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 22

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to February 15, 1997]

Chapter 22

"Colonel? Wake up, sir. They're back."

Hmm? Oh, it was Barr. When I had sacked out in Zelda's workshop, I'd leftinstructions to wake me when the Marines returned. Call it a hunch, but I hada feeling I'd better see them before Ike did.

I yawned. "Thanks, Fern. Here, why don't you take my mat?" Several techs,including Zelda, were scattered on mats around the workshop. Our latest reconreports showed the rebel task force pulling back toward Circe IV; this was agood time to grab some Z's before we engaged again.

The Marines were just coming down the shuttle ramp when I left the workshop.They looked pretty banged up--not surprising, considering that they'd totaledtwo tanks. Awks was limping, Wang wore a regen cast, and West was missing acouple of teeth. Cpl. Vanish had broken a nail. Pvt. Damppuss was prettyshaky, able to walk only with West's assistance.

Sgt. McLean was last. I intercepted him at the top of the ramp and sat himdown inside the shuttle. He had no obvious injuries, but I noticed he wasfavoring his left arm.

"First of all, Sergeant," I began, "congratulations on your mission. I thinkit's pretty clear you saved the spaceport from capture. So how did you pullit off?"

"Er, fire and maneuver. Strategic deployment. Judicious use of the element ofsurpr--"

"No, no, I mean really."

"Oh." He sighed wearily. "When HQ heard that the rebels were advancing on thespaceport, our team was sent to recon the south approaches. But we, er, gotlost. Heh heh. After driving around for a couple of hours, we finally spottedthe base about four klicks away, but then Pvt. Damppuss drove our vehicle intoa ditch. We had to get out and walk."

McLean winced as he shifted his left arm to a more comfortable position."Well, before we knew it, we had rebel tanks all around us. We tried stayingin cover, but then some idiot flyboy came zooming over, tearing up the wholelandscape with his stupid particle guns! Nearly killed us!"

Oops. "Er, must have been a rookie from Circe V," I lied. "Heh heh. So, youwere flushed into the open..."

"Yes, sir. It looked like curtains for us until Cpl. Vanish got an idea. Shedecoyed the crew out of the nearest tank and the rest of us ambushed--"

"Whoa, wait a sec, McLean! Decoyed? What could possibly lure a crew out ofa nice heavily armored tank in the middle of a battle?"

"She, er, took off all her--"

"Never mind. Uh, so you put the crew on ice and took over the tank..."

"Right. West and Wang tried to figure out the main laser while I took overthe commander's position. Awks was busy with the manuals, Vanish was stillputting on her--"

"Don't tell me that munchkin Damppuss was driving!"

"Er, yes, sir. Flyers, shuttles, trucks--she always drives. Why?"

I shook my head in disbelief. "Sergeant, tanks have come a long way in thelast few hundred years, but they're still a bitch to drive. My baby sister's aMarine, and she says they always pick their drivers from the biggest, hairiestrecruits."

He pondered that one for a moment. "You know, I THOUGHT her driving was a bitreckless. With all the bouncing around, we couldn't hit a damn thing. On theother hand, even when they figured out we were Union, the rebels couldn't hitus, either. They wound up shooting each other. Then that other tank came outof nowhere and smashed into us--"

I patted him on the shoulder. "That will be sufficient, Sergeant. Now go getsome medical attention and some rest. You've earned it." I walked him downthe ramp, then watched him trudge wearily after his team. Our ersatz Marineswere complete fuckups, but they had saved the day twice in a row. If Vice-Admiral Willful offered us some real Marines tomorrow, I'd probably turn himdown.


Though disappointed to get the account second-hand from me, Lt. Cmdr. Queuewas more than pleased with my version of the Marines' ground action. It wasfortunate that I had the background to recite the most absurd dialogue with astraight face.

"You see, sir?" he said, practically jumping up and down with excitement."Training! Good training will triumph every time! I'm recommending our teamfor a unit citation. We're damn lucky to have them!"

"Uh, yeah, Ike," I replied. "Maybe the Admiral can find us some more likethem." Hollyworld must be crawling with unemployed actors.


I headed for the galley, hungry enough at long last to risk the food again.Having used up my entire stash in one way or another, and having squanderedmy next two cabin periods, I was now a pauper in the ship's barter economy.I'd better get used to ship's food.

As luck would have it, I ran into Maniac just outside the galley. He was inhis usual good humor.

"Hey, Ace!" he said, blocking my way with a hand on my chest. "When are yourprima donna techs gonna get around to Skunk Squadron? I'm tired of doin' myown maintenance!"

I sighed with exasperation. "Hello, Maniac? Anybody home? In case youhaven't noticed, the techs have been working their asses off on our Bansheesand Vindicators so we could save Circe V!" I took in his dirty uniform, filthyhands, and grease-streaked face. "And what are you doing coming into thegalley like that? Go change your uniform and wash up, Major!"

He sprang to attention and threw me a mocking salute. "Aye aye, Mommy! Gee,I thought farmers liked dirt! I bet you never make your little grease monkeywash up before ya do her! Haha ha!"

Flatworm. I struggled to control my temper. Anger never worked on Maniacanyway. "Look, Maniac, we're bound to run into that rebel carrier again. WithTurkey Squadron just about wasted, your Avengers are the only striking force wehave left. So be patient, OK?"

He brightened. "Well why didn't you say so, Ace? I'll be back in a flash!"Maniac took off at the run.

I shook my head. I knew a dozen ways to sabotage his fighter without anythingshowing up on his instruments. Maybe on his next patrol...Naah, we couldn'tspare an Avenger. Shit.

I went into the galley and picked up a tray. Now, was there anything I hadn'ttried yet? Dammit, there had to be SOMETHING edible in that damn dispens--

My search was interrupted when Tex and Blade ran up to me. "Colonel! Colonel,is it true?"

"Is what true, Tex?"

"About Corporal Vanish!" exclaimed Blade.

I was instantly on guard. Had they discovered her true identity? An actressso striking must have made at least a few magazine covers. "Er, what aboutCorporal Vanish, George?" I asked warily.

"I heard she fucked a whole enemy squad to death, sir! It's all over theship!"

Huh? What kind of stories had those damn Marines been spreading?

"Er, no, George, she just helped capture a rebel t--"

"I heard it was a platoon, Blade!" interrupted Tex.

"My God! A whole platoon? Wow..." George just stood there, imagining thescene.

"Yeah," added Tex, lost in his own thoughts. "What a way to go." He sighed.

Blade suddenly dropped to his knees. "Earthworm, you gotta trade lottery chitswith me! I'll give you my whole stash! Please? Pretty please?"

I was tempted, but he'd probably kill me when he found out. "Blade, I'vealready traded away my next two cabin shifts. Sorry."

Lt. Tennant walked by, headed for the recycler with her leftovers. She stoppedand tapped Blade on the shoulder. "If you boys want to make a date with thatMarine Corporal, you'd better hurry. Last I looked, the line was already outthe hatch."

Tex and Blade glanced at each other, then made a mad dash for the exit. Theynearly collided with Maniac, who was just coming in.

Maniac sauntered over toward me. He was clean and fresh-scrubbed, and he worea fresh uniform. He'd also changed moods, no doubt anticipating a stellar rolewhen we caught up with the rebel carrier.

"Hey, Ace! Where were they going in such a hurry?" He jerked a thumb back atthe hatch.

Oh, shit. The big lummox had forgotten to zip up his fly! "Uh, they, uh, havea date, Maniac."

He picked up a tray and began making his selections, blissfully unaware of hisomission. "Yeah? Gee, I always figured those two for hetero. Oh well." Hebegan singing to himself. "...and then one day he was shootin' at some food,and up from the ground come a bubblin' crude..."

Damn, now that he was in a good mood, I didn't want to spoil it by embarrassinghim in front of the galley crowd. Unobtrusively, I moved next to Maniac. Outof the side of my mouth I muttered, "Major, the price of zippers is eternalvigilance." I met his eyes and looked significantly down at his uniform.

"Huh? Oh, shit. Thanks, Ace." He set down his tray, reached for his zipper,and turned his back to me. That brought him face to face with Panties, who hadjust come into the galley.

Surprised, Panties stared at Maniac.

Maniac stared back.

Panties looked down at Maniac's hands, which had frozen on his open zipper.

Maniac followed her gaze downward.

Panties looked up again with anger blazing in her eyes.

Maniac looked at her with panic glazing his eyes.


Maniac staggered against the food dispenser and fell to the deck. Sitting upagainst the food dispenser, he dazedly raised a hand to his burning cheek.

Panties drew back her foot, obviously aiming for a vital area. I hastily gotbetween her and Maniac.

For a moment, I thought she was going to kick me. Instead, she poked herfinger into my chest, hard. "Storage hold three, Colonel! Five minutes!"Then she stormed out of the galley.


I helped Maniac to sick bay and handed him over to Forceps ("Who hit him thistime, kid?") Then I hastened down to the storage hold. I didn't think itwould be wise to keep Panties waiting.

The hold was deserted, except for Panties. She was sitting on her bunk,cleaning a photon pistol. I stood, waiting for her to acknowledge my presence,while she reassembled the weapon. When she spoke, her voice was deceptivelycalm.

"Just the man I wanted to see."

Uh-oh. I'd known too many fiery women to be fooled by her manner. Warningsirens went off in my head. "Uh, what's on your mind, Panties?"

She took a cloth and carefully wiped the pistol's exposed surfaces. "Yourfriend, the one with the overactive glands. He seems to have a problem under-standing the words 'no,' 'not interested,' and 'GET YOUR HAIRY PAWS OFF MYASS!'"

I jumped at her sudden vehemence. Careful, Blair, she's on a hair trigger."Uh, Panties, just now? He wasn't actually flashing--

She ignored me. "Today was just the last straw. Ever since that big ape cameaboard, he's been hitting on me, or boasting about us together, or..." Sheslammed a power cell into the pistol grip and smiled wickedly.

Yikes. "Uh, whoa, Panties! I, er, made up the boasting bit. Myself. Alone."

Panties looked up sharply at me. "What?"

I backed away slightly. "Uh, yeah, to keep up, you know, your spirits on thatlast sitcom mission." Throw yourself on her mercy, Blair. "Uh, I'm sorry."

"Well I'll be damned! And just now?"

"Er, an accident. The kind only Maniac has, but still an accident."

She chuckled. "I believe you." With a sigh, she unloaded her weapon. "OK, hegets off this time." She put the pistol away and bent down to take off herboots. "It's just that I seem to attract his type wherever I go. I ran awayfrom home when I was just a kid--fell in with some privateers. They taught meto fly, but they also taught me to watch out for hotshot flyboys like MajorMarshall." She looked right at me. "And you."

Oops. "Uh, Tamara, if I've given you reason..."

She shook her head. "Just the opposite." Barefoot, she stood up and movedvery, very close to me. "You know, Chris," she said invitingly, "I neverthanked you properly for bringing me back from that sitcom sortie. In fact, Iwas in the galley to invite you to my bunk..." She began playing with thefront zipper of my coveralls.

My heart started pounding. "Uh, Tamara, you know how, uh, Zelda feels..."

"I know you want to, Chris. I couldn't have misread you that badly. Did youand Zelda make any...promises?" She took her hand away from my zipper andreached for her own.

My heart went into hyperdrive. I felt myself begin to sweat. "N-n-no, we'restill unzipped--er, uncommitted! B-but I wouldn't feel right..."

Panties unzipped her fatigues and stepped out of them, keeping her eyes fixedon mine. She stood in front of me wearing only her GI bra and panties. "Well,if you change your mind, Chris..." She turned away and walked slowly towardher bunk, reaching behind her to undo the bra. " know where to find me,"she said over her shoulder.

Holding her bra in place with one hand, Panties lay down on the bed and pulledup the covers. After a some wriggling around, she pulled her bra and pantiesout from under the covers and held them out to me. "Be a dear, Chris, and putthese in my footlocker, please?"

Oh. My. God. About face, Blair. Now walk. Left foot. Right foot. Left.Right... I didn't stop until I was on the other side of the hatch. Then Islumped against the bulkhead, too weak to stand unaided. My mind a blank, Iwaited for my pulse to return to normal.

Finally I managed to calm down physically, but that was small comfort; mentallyI was still a basket case. I'd done it again! I was now emotionally involvedwith two of my shipmates. Only this time it was worse, because I was stillhead-over-heels for Robin and Rachel. Judas Priest, what was wrong with me?

I looked both ways along the companionway...good, nobody around. I faced thebulkhead and slowly, rythmically, began banging my head against it.


I stopped by the Control Bay to check our patrol reports. After their defeatin the asteroid belt, the rebel ships were pulling back to Circe IV indisarray, pursued by Vice-Admiral Willful's fleet. Presumably the Victoryclass carrier we'd fought at Circe V would be doing the same, so we wereconcentrating our searches in that direction. With most of my Vindicators outof action, and my Banshee pilots still recovering from the Circe V campaign, Ihad assigned our escort frigates' fighters to the search. Skunk Squadron'sAvengers were in reserve, ready to deliver the main blow when the carrier wasfound.

So far no luck, but we were bound to spot her sooner or later. Satisfied withthe progress of the search, I headed back to the galley. Thanks to that idiotManiac, I still hadn't eaten. Besides, I had a lot of thinking to do.


To my surprise, Maniac was also back in the galley. The right side of his facewas slightly red and swollen, but otherwise he showed no ill effects from hisconfrontation with Panties. He was sitting with Sgt. McLean, and the two ofthem were bantering cheerfully. I got my "food" and joined them.

"Hey there, Colonel," greeted Sgt. McLean. "Major Marshall and I were justswapping combat yarns. Say, that's a nasty bump there on your forehead."

"Uh, yeah. I, er, forgot to duck through a hatch. Heh heh."

"You should get a stuntman for that sort of thing," suggested McLean seriously.

Maniac stared at him for second, then burst out laughing. "Haha ha! Stuntman!Oh, you kill me, Fry! Heehee! So anyway, you were telling me how you guyscaptured that tank..."

McLean looked uneasily at me before continuing. "Uh, yeah. Well, a couple ofmy people pretended they wanted to surrender. The tank crew got out to take'em prisoner, and the rest of us ambushed 'em."

"Jeez, what a bunch of morons! Only Border Worlders could fall for such a lametrick, right, Ace?"

"Uh, Maniac--"

McLean was insulted. "Wait a second, Major! Are you saying we couldn't put ona convincing act?"

"Hey, no offense, pal, but everybody knows Marines can't act. Acting takesbrains, not muscles! Haha ha!"

"Oh yeah? For ten years I've--" I shot McLean a warning look. "Er, I haveplenty of experience! Besides, what does a vacuum-headed space jock know aboutacting?"

Now Maniac was insulted. "Hey, doughboy! High school drama club! Academytheater group! Tiger's Claw Shakespeare company! Concordia--"

McLean snorted. "Kid stuff! Amateurs! Marines play in the big leagues!"

Uh-oh, this was getting out of hand. Heads were turning at all the nearbytables. "Hey, guys, no need to--"

Maniac jumped to his feet. "OK, that does it! Let's settle this man to man,groundhog! Right here! Right now!"

McLean was also on his feet. "You're on, flyboy! Colonel, will you referee?"

I looked uneasily at the gathering crowd. Neither one would back down now, notin front of so many witnesses. I sighed in frustration. "OK, OK! Maniac,assume the position."

Maniac took up a picture-perfect boxing stance. I set myself up in front ofhim, carefully measuring the distance with an extended arm. "Ready, Maniac?"

"Just a sec, Ace. I want to show my good side...OK. Go."

I drew back my fist and threw a devastating punch right at his mouth. Though Iwas tempted to tag him for real, I did as my stunt coach had taught me so manyyears ago and missed his face by a hair's breadth. Maniac grunted a convincing"Unh!" and flung himself backwards. He bounced off the food dispenser andcollapsed to the deck, ending up on his back. He kicked his legs a couple oftimes, then lay deathly still.

The onlookers applauded enthusiastically. A few crewmen at the nearest tablegot into the spirit and scribbled on their napkins. The applause increased asthey held up their marks for all to see: 5.7, 5.6, 5.8, 5.7. Personally, Iwould have deducted a tenth of a point for Maniac's gratuitous convulsions, butI had to admit he knew how to please a crowd.

Maniac jumped up and took a bow. Turning confidently to McLean, he saidmockingly, "Your turn, Sergeant Rockhead!"

I gestured for McLean to assume Maniac's starting position, but he demurred."I'll do it here, Colonel." He eyed the table behind him for a moment, thenturned back to me. "Go ahead." He struck a fighting pose.

I measured the distance and let fly. McLean went "Ugh!", spun completelyaround, and fell onto the table behind him. Amid clattering trays and dishes,he rolled over the table, bounced off a chair, landed on his head, did abackflip, and landed face down on the deck. A very realistic trickle of fakeblood ran from the corner of his mouth.

The crowd greeted McLean's performance with a roar of applause. The judgesquickly scribbled on their napkins and held them up: 5.9, 5.8, 5.9, 5.9.McLean was the clear winner.

Maniac glared at the onlookers. "Oh, thanks! Thanks a bunch! See if I everdo Hamlet for YOU morons!" He turned and strode out of the galley in disgust.

Good riddance. I went to congratulate McLean--wow, he was still on the deck!What a showman! "Hey, Sergeant! Congratulations on your performance." Iknelt and tapped him on the shoulder. "Stand up and take a bow, Sergeant.Sergeant McLean? Shit! Medic! Get a med--"

"Sir!" Catscradle? Now what? "Sir, Captain Eisen wants to see you. He'sexpecting a message from the Admiral."

"Oh. OK, wait here for the medics, Catscradle."

"Yes, sir. And it's CatSCRATCH, sir."


I left McLean with Catscradle and a couple of crewmen. On my way to CIC, Idecided that I'd better find some stuntmen for our "Marines" after all--beforethey killed themselves.


Captain Eisen wasn't at his usual spot behind the briefing table, nor was he inhis sleeping bag. Looking around, I found him at the engineering station,berating the lieutenant on duty there.

"--and I want to be informed of ALL repairs, no matter how small, LieutenantG'Neer!"

"But sir," he protested, "I didn't even know about it until LieutenantCommander Ander reported it! And even HE didn't know--"

"Well SOMEBODY must know who fixed that generator!" The Captain would havegone on, but just then Skye entered CIC, carrying a tray in one hand.

"Lieutenant Pilotte!" he called. "What do you have there?"

She stopped and looked at the Captain in confusion. "Sir? Uh, I brought alonga snack for my watch--"

"What's on the tray?"

"Er, fruit juice and a bagel."

"Cream cheese on the bagel?"

"Uh, no. Lox."

"Good report, Lieutenant! Keep me informed!" Captain Eisen smiled benignlyand motioned for Lt. Pilotte to carry on. Shaking her head, she did so.

With the Captain still occupied at the engineering station, I wandered over toSoSo's alcove. She was busily downloading and decrypting Union, rebel, andConfed communications, and feeding the data to Admiral Willful's flagship. Wewere still reaping the benefits of our clandestine mission to Orestes IV, theone that had cost Vagabond his life.

Taking advantage of a short break in the action, SoSo leaned back in her chairand stretched. Noticing me, she smiled and said, "Hi, Colonel. The Admiralshould be contacting us in a few minutes."

"I can wait, Lieutenant." That damned Admiral always had bad news, anyway. Ilowered my voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Did you get it, Velina?"

She giggled. "Oh boy, did I! Major Marshall is gonna wish he'd never beenborn! Just give me few hours to--" She was interrupted by a priority textmessage appearing in her holodisplay. "It won't be long, Colonel. TheAdmiral's aide says to stand by."

It was only then that I realized she wasn't using my--her Mc any more. "Say,SoSo, when did you get your console repaired? I thought we didn't have theparts."

She gave me a strange look. "I-I don't know. I came on watch a few hours agoand it was just...working. Funny thing, I had a can of chips stashed here--you know, the one you traded me for the candle?--and it was gone." She lookedover her shoulder at the engineering station, where the Captain was still onLt. G'Neer's case. "It's strange, we've been getting reports from all overthe ship..."

Something nagged at the back of my mind. I'd heard a story in one of thespacer bars on Orestes III...about some kind of gremlin-like creatures...whoshouldn't be fed after midnight? Or was that another story?

"SoSo, check with some of the people we picked up from Orestes III. I have ahunch they might know what's going on. I'll see if any of my pilots--Captain!Good day, sir."

Captain Eisen gave me a perfunctory nod. "Colonel, what are you and Lt. Sosatalking about that you don't want to share with your Captain?"

Jeez, he must really be feeling out of the loop. "Er, nothing, sir. Justtalking about the weather, heh heh." Even if there really was a problem onboard, it was much too soon to voice my suspicions. And our plans for Maniacwere none of his business.

"You're not fooling me, Blair," he replied sternly. "You've been going behindmy back ever since you were first assigned to me three years ago. You thinkI'm stupid or something? You think I don't know about your little smugglingoperation on the Victory, for instance?"

Oh shit, how did he find out about the T-bombs? "Er, smuggling, sir? Me?"

He shook his head. "Don't worry, Colonel, I won't make a fuss over a singledroid...IF you come clean with me from now on."

Droid? Oh, the cleaning droid I'd taken and modified for kitchen work. Whew!I'd thought for a moment he was on to me.

"So, Colonel," continued Eisen relentlessly. "What are you hiding from me THIStime?"

I thought about the actors Eisen thought were elite Marines, and the times I'dcovered for them; about Paladin, whom I'd met and released unbeknownst to theCaptain; about my neighbor, Zeke, who was really a wanted war criminal; andabout the terrible secret of the Kilrathi. I remembered the time I'd concealedmy shoulder injury so I could fly the Lexington mission; our little strip partyon Orestes IV; the freak accident with the IR missile and the rebel tank thatI'd passed off as brilliant flying; the time I'd nailed the jammer frigate bychance; Maniac's inadvertent sale of Union fighters to Confed...

I hung my head. "Sorry, sir. I was just talking to Lieutenant SoSo about...promoting Catscradle."

SoSo had a sudden coughing fit.

Ignoring her, Eisen smiled at me. "That's more like it, Colonel. It just sohappens that I've already decided to promote Catscratch to First Lieutenant.So all your secrecy was wasted. Remember that, next time you're tempted tohide something from your Captain."

Nodding vigorously, I replied, "Yes, sir! I've certainly learned my lesson!"

I was finding it hard to keep a straight face. Fortunately, Hulk, Panties, andManiac walked into CIC just then. The Captain waved them over to the commalcove. "I see your squadron commanders are here, Colonel." He lowered hisvoice. "Lieutenant Sosa, please keep this promotion under your hat for now,OK?"

SoSo was looking at me as she replied solemnly, "Oh, I can keep a secret,Captain."

We gathered around the holodisplay. Panties smiled at me, and we clasped handsmomentarily. Then the Admiral came on, and she moved just behind me and to myleft.

Vice-Admiral Willful was fully dressed this time, slumped on a bench seatbehind a table, probably in his cruiser's lounge. Other officers were sittingwith him. The one on his left passed him a handmade cigarette. Willful took adrag, coughed a couple of times, and passed it on. Visibly ravaged by hisdebaucheries, the Admiral's body had deteriorated alarmingly. When he spoke,however, his voice was still strong and youthful.

"Billy! And Detroit Tiger! Congratulations on saving Circe V!"

"Dammit, that's HEART of the--EEP!" Panties had just pinched my bottom, hard.

"Billy," continued the Admiral, "I got a big problem." He paused to puff onthe joint as it passed by again. "Thanks to your litle code-breaker there--Hi,honey!--we know Confed is sending a weapons convoy through the Speradon System.We have a one-time opportunity to capture some desperately needed armaments:Bearcat fighters, Excaliburs, and some new missile types."

It was hard to pay attention to the Admiral with Panties running her hand upthe inside of my leg. I tried to push her hand away without drawing anyone'sattention, lest they notice my state of arousal.

Willful took another drag. "You're closest to the Speradon jump point. Thetrouble is, I also need you to finish off that rebel carrier you're chasing.Otherwise I'll have to delay my landing on Circe IV until you get back. Whatdo you think, Billy?"

Captain Eisen pondered for a moment before answering. "Admiral, let me consultwith my squadron leaders before I answer." The Admiral, inhaling deeply onthe joint, merely nodded.

Maniac, of course, had to get his two cents in first. "Let's get the weapons,Captain! Hoo boy, with those new Bearcats, we could beat Confed with one handbehind our backs!"

Panties would have none of it. "Wrong, bozo! The longer this war goes on inCirce, the more people are going to get killed--on both sides! Captain, theseare our people!"

Hulk turned on her. "Union need weapons for war with Confed! Already runningshort of fighters! Panties beat Bearcats flown by stupid pirates. ThinkPanties beat Bearcats flown by Confeds?"

Panties poked Hulk in the chest. "Suppose Confed reinforces the rebels whilewe're off on our treasure hunt! Then we're right back where we started,stupid!"

That made Hulk mad. "Hulk not stupid! Panties stupid! Panties have PMS!"

"WHAT?" Enraged, Panties jumped him. Hulk pried her off and hurled heragainst the porta-potty, but she just picked herself up and came running backfor more.

"ENOUGH!" roared the Captain. The two antagonists immediately snapped toattention and faced him. He produced his swagger stick. "Extend your righthands, palms up! NOW!"

Reluctantly, Panties and Hulk held out their hands.

Swat! Panties flinched when the stick hit her, but she managed to say, "Thankyou, Sister--er, Captain!" in a nearly normal voice.

Swat! Hulk didn't bat an eye. "Hulk thank Captain."

Eisen put down the swagger stick. "And thank you for your opinions. I think.Lieutenant Sosa?"

SoSo kept her eyes on the deck. In a small voice she said, "Please, Captain,let's just put an end to the killing here."

Captain Eisen put a hand on her shoulder. "I understand. Colonel?"

There was no question in my mind. "Even if we capture some advanced weapons,they would only postpone the inevitable. The Union can't win a war withConfed, period. Our only chance is to prevent war. That means minimizing thedamage and putting a damper on the war fever--on both sides."

Eisen nodded. "I concur. Admiral?"

Willful, his eyes closed, was enjoying his buzz. "Eh? What? Oh. Well,Billy, what have you decided?"

"We'll stay in Circe, Admiral. We can do more good here."

"Willful nodded groggily. "OK, Billy. We'll get ready what? Ohyeah, to take Circe IV! You just eliminate their fighter cover. Willful out."

Hulk suddenly yelped with pain. He held up his right hand and looked at it inconfusion.


"Colonel, we have to talk."

I paused my patrol simulation. As the symbols froze in mid-air, I pointed myfinger at the floating Mc hypermedia field controls and turned down the music.I scooted over slightly, giving Panties room to sit down next to me on thesimulated turf. A strand of her hair floated delicately on the light breeze.It occurred to me that I had never seen Tamara's hair down.

"What's on your mind, Panties?"

She leaned back against the virtual oak--it was really the bulkhead of thestorage hold--and gazed at the sky. "Us. Time. This not-quite war." Sheturned her head to look at me. "Chris, we may not have much time left. We'dbe fools to waste it."

I longed to take her in my arms. But would that be fair to her? "Tamara, I'mnot exactly free. It isn't just Zelda. There are two--"

She smiled. "I know. I talked with Rachel Coriolis, remember? You've managedto avoid commitment with quite a few of us, haven't you, Chris Blair?"

Ouch. She was right, of course. "All the more reason to steer clear of me,girl."

She shook her head. "Wrong, flyboy. That last sitcom mission? When I thoughtI was dying, all I remember feeling was...regret. I was sorry that we hadn'tused the precious time we'd been given. Now we have a second chance. I'm notpassing it up."

I hesitated a moment, but I was already lost. Our lips met, and we shared asoft, lingering kiss.

When we parted, Tamara's eyes were sparkling. "Mmmm, that's better. But it'sjust a down payment. When our work is done here in Circe..."

"That's a date, Tamara. Meanwhile..." I unpaused the simulation andhighlighted various patrol sectors in turn. "So far that rebel carrier hasavoided our patrols. However, with every negative report, we've narrowed therange of possibilities, until..." I highlighted two zones. "I want you andGarter to take this sector. I'll cover the other with Excell. Maniac willfollow us with his Skunks under Wombat escort. When we spot the rebels, Maniacwill lower the boom."

Panties nodded. "Looks good, Colonel." Wistfully, she added, "I miss you onmy wing, Chris. Can't we...?"

I squeezed her hand. "We will, Tamara. I promise."


Zelda planted her ritual kiss on my helmet's tiger emblem before handing it tome. I lingered at the bottom of the ladder for a moment more, caressing herfreckled cheek. With a sigh, I climbed up to the Banshee's cockpit, leavingthe confusing realm of human relationships for the unambiguous domain ofmachinery and murder.

SoSo came on the comm. "You're cleared to launch, Earthworm. Good hunting."

"Thanks, Lieutenant. Earthworm launching now." With the confidence of longexperience in the Banshee, I hit full thrusters. The launch field ignited myengines, and I transitioned smoothly to cruise.

Excell came up on my wing. "Nice launch, Earthworm. We got some time; whoseturn is it?"

Good old Excell. "I believe it's yours, Jen. Last time I told you about thatcute little ensign on the Tiger's Claw."

"Heh heh. That was a good one. OK, did I ever tell you about the time thesetwo Marines mistook me for a hooker? I was on leave in Port Aphrodite..."


"...and I came so hard I fell off the ladder! Heehee! Nearly broke my ankle!"

"Hahaha! Great story, Excell! OK, my turn. On the Victory, there was thisfluffy-haired blonde on the bridge--"

"Earthworm! Bandits in sight." Excell's voice was loud, but calm.

"Roger, I got 'em. Two Hellcats. Must be a patrol from that carrier."

"You gonna taunt 'em, Earthworm?" Excell had something of a reputation inGopher Squadron for her taunting talents. Border Worlders in general were poortaunters, however, so I wasn't impressed.

"Not exactly. Stay on my wing, Captain."

"OK, but turn me loose soon; I ain't gettin' any younger!"

As we approached the rebel Hellcats, I switched to the general channel. Ineeded a male for this trick to work properly.

Obligingly, the rebel flight leader hurled his taunt at long range. "Fly ordie, loser!" Yesss! A male! Now if only he's hetero...

I activated the transmitter. "Hey, Gomer! You seen the latest Playboy yet?The centerfold is Barbara Dahl!"

"From the Nightly News? Damn! We get our mags about a month late out here!"

"Tell you what: I have a scan, how about I transmit it to you?"

"Oh, wow! Thanks, Union scum! Just a sec here, gotta disable the safetycode...OK! Let me have it!"

Man, this was too easy. My upload wasn't a holopic, of course; it was mylatest and meanest computer virus. With its safeties disabled, his fighter'sAI was helpless against my onslaught by proxy.

It didn't take my opponent long to discover his mistake. "Oh shit! What didyou do, you bas--aaaargh!" As his fighter shut down on him, I could hear therebel leader pounding his controls in frustration.

"Break and attack, Excell!"

“Gonna kick me some rebel butt, Earthworm!" She hit burner and angled for thesecond Hellcat.

I switched to leech cannon and zeroed in on my helpless target. When he waspowerless, I punched the comm again. "You OK, Gomer?"

"Yeah." Not surprisingly, he sounded thoroughly disgusted. "Hey, Union. DidBarbara Dahl really pose for Playboy?"

"Sorry." I dropped a beacon for the Intrepid's shuttle and went to back upExcell. As I expected, however, she took her opponent handily, despite takingan FF on her starboard shields.

"Choke on that, bastard!" she yelled. Now two Hellcats drifted helplessly inspace.

We formed up and continued our patrol. My instruments indicated armor hitson Excell's Banshee, so I called her.

"Excell, what's your status?"


"Heh heh." What a kidder! "I meant your fighter."

"It's horny, too."

"Hahaha. Seriously, Excell, my scan shows--"

"Sir! A little privacy, please?" She turned down her volume, but not so farthat I couldn't hear a faint "Oooooh..."

I chuckled to myself as I broke the connection. Good old Excell. What a senseof humor!

On a whim, I reconnected. Jen's eyes were closed and she was moaning softly.I hurriedly broke off again. Maybe she wasn't kidding? But how could she, er,do anything in the bulky flight suit? She'd have had to pre-insert... Naaah.Of course, that might explain why she was always so relaxed after a mission...

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. Damn, now I was getting horny, too. Andunlike Excell, I couldn't do a damn thing about it.


I was still trying to find a way to relieve my frustration when Excell brokecomm silence. She sounded much more mellow after her...interlude.

"Say, Earthworm," she said languidly. "If we meet a female flight leader nexttime, why don't I use your transmit trick on her?"

"Good idea, Excell. Stand by to receive my virus file." Anything to get mymind off sex.

"No, actually, I...OK, receiving. Hey, Earthworm, did I ever tell you aboutthe time I did it with my high school spaceball team?"

Oh, shit.


We were nearing the limit of our outbound leg, and I was thinking seriously ofasking Excell for comm silence; I couldn't take many more of her storieswithout exploding. When Panties called in with the position of the enemy taskforce, however, I forgot my plight. Excell and I immediately set out for thescene of the impending battle; Maniac and his Skunks would need us.

As we neared the rebel ships, friendlies and bandits began popping up on ourscopes. Fighters on both sides were converging on the battle like moths to aflame. Off to our starboard, a four-Hellcat rebel patrol was returning todefend the carrier. We changed course to intercept.

The Hellcats spotted us and angled in for the attack. They had to take us outbefore they could go for our incoming Avengers.

The Circe V rebels had a habit of taunting at long range; this patrol was noexception.

"Are you ready to die, Union slime?"

Hah, a female! I kept silent, letting Excell take up the challenge.

"Hey, Daisy Mae!" she called. "Seen the latest issue of Plowboy?" Heh heh,that's how to bait the hook, Excell.

"No, dammit. We get our stuff about a month late out here."

"Well, the centerfold this month is awesome! Twenty-five centimeters at least!Here, I'll send you a scan."

"Hey, thanks. Disabling safety code...OK, shoot!" The rebel flight leaderwas all but drooling.

I could barely contain my laughter as I waited for her Hellcat to lose power.Any time now...any second...any time...Damn, what was taking--

The rebel leader came on the comm again. "Oh wow! You weren't kidding! Lookat the size of--"

What the hell? I switched to the wingman channel. "Excell, what the hell didyou do?"

"I sent the centerfold, of course. Just like I promised. Now watch."

"But--" I switched to the general channel again. The rebel flight leader wasstill on, only her eyes were closed and she was moaning. What the-- Jeez, didall the Border Worlds issue their female fliers with...special equipment?

No time to speculate. I locked a leech on the nearest Hellcat. Getting close,closer...launch! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Missile closing...ready...decoy!Veer right! Hah! Lost lock! Shit, my leech missed! Turn, Blair!

"Choke on that, bitch!"

Good, Excell took out the flight leader. "Status, Excell?"

"Those fools can't touch MY ass!"

That's my Excell! Except that two Hellcats are after her now. I gotta finishmy guy quick. He's turning, but my Banshee is nimbler! Check six, Blair!Clear! This guy is mine! Closing...CHUG! CHUG! CHUG! His shields aredown. He jinks and turns, but I'm right on his ass. CHUG! CHUG! Adjustspeed, Blair, don't overshoot. CHUG! CHUG! Yesss! Leeched!

I yanked my Banshee around and headed for Excell. She was chasing one Hellcat,but the other was right on her tail, blasting away with particle and ion guns.As I watched, an IR exploded against her rear shields.

"They're buzzin' me bad, Earthworm! Where the hell are you?"

"Coming, girl!" Burner, Blair!

I fired at Excell's trailer as soon as my leech locked. The range was long,but at least it peeled him off her ass. He successfully evaded my missile,only to find me close on his tail when my leech lost lock. This guy used everytrick in the book, succumbing only after a prolonged barrage from my leechcannon.

Excell had engine damage, which allowed her man to outdistance her. Shelaunched one last leech at him as he fled, however, and that did the trick."Your hairy ass is MINE, bastard!" she screamed.

Explosions flared in the distance. If we were going to help Skunk Squadron, wehad to get going. "Status, Excell?"

"They're gonna have to hit me a lot more than this! Autorepair is on, I'll beback to full speed in a minute."

"Then let's go! We got a carrier to nail!"


By the time we arrived, Maniac's carefully coordinated attack had fallen apartin the face of the rebel fighter defense. Several Avengers had broken offtheir runs and were fighting for their lives in the midst of Union and Rebelfighters. One group of three, however, was boring in on the carrier at fullspeed. Their Banshee cover was rapidly being stripped off by rebel Hellcats,so Excell and I burned in to help.

Excell immediately got tangled up with a rebel. I stuck with the Avengers,which my AI identified as Maniac, September, and Catscradle. Our run took ustoward one of the two frigates, and we came under murderous fire from itsturrets. Maniac, of course, wouldn't give up his primary target for a merefrigate, so September peeled off to tackle it. The frigate immediatelyswitched its fire to her. I zoomed in ahead to take some of the heat myself.

Bobbing and weaving my nimble Banshee, I burned in on the frigate. At maxrange, I fired my scattergun until my gun cells were exhausted. With all extraenergy diverted to the shields, I could do no more. I turned my fresh rearshields to the frigate and retreated, wishing for the umpteenth time that I hada pair of tachyon guns to take out a laser turret or two.

Front shields partially restored, I looped back into the fight, leveling outabout a thousand klicks behind September. She had launched three of her fourtorps when a pair of laser bolts slammed into her nose. The fighter veered tostarboard and exploded a split second after September ejected.

The frigate was turning desperately to evade the torpedoes. With only threerunning, the pattern was incomplete, allowing the frigate to avoid all but one.That one took down its shields, however, and I bored in to complete the job.At five thousand klicks, I launched four leeches toward the stern. On myrollout, the laser fire suddenly ceased, and I knew the leeches had done theirjob.

No rest for the weary. Heedless of my fuel supply, I burned toward the rebelcarrier. Judging by the fireworks, it was still under--KABOOM! Wow, fourbeautiful torpedo hits! That could only be Maniac's work. The ship staggeredand slowed, flaring with secondary explosions, its turrets silent. It wasstill spaceworthy, however, so we had to hit--yes, Catscradle was going in now,accompanied by Panties and Garter.

I switched to the general channel and heard Panties screaming at the rebels."Strike your flag, you morons! You want to die for fucking CONFED? You thinkHinton will come to your funerals? For God's sake, strike!"

Maniac interrupted her tirade. "Launch, Catscratch! What the hell are youwaiting for? Nail those bastards, you backwoods boob! Think of the glory!Think of the WOMEN!"

"Earthworm!" wailed Catscradle. "What should I do?" He was rapidly nearingminimum firing distance.

The rebel captain came on the comm before I could reply. Her image was fuzzy,partly from interference, and partly from the smoke on her bridge. "This isCaptain Apton! Cease fire!" she yelled. "We surrender! All Circe units,cease fire! Union, hold your fire!"

I sighed with relief. "Catscradle! Take up station behind the carrier. Lockyour torps and fire if any rebels come near. Tex! Take station behind thesecond frigate. Same orders. Captain Apton! You have my gratitude and myrespect. Please set course for these coordinates, where you'll rendezvouswith our task force. Our medical staff will assist with your wounded."

She was proud, that rebel captain, but she was also smart enough to know whenthe game was up. "Thank you, Colonel Blair. It's fortunate for us that theHeart of the Tiger has a human heart as well."

I opened my mouth to reply, then thought better of it. This was probably thewrong time to tell her that I'd been about to order Catscradle to destroy hership.


On the way back to Intrepid, I ordered the few remaining Vindicators of TurkeySquadron to relieve the Avengers guarding the rebels. Captain Eisen detachedBWS Friggit to put prize crews aboard the ships and tow the disabled frigate.

Panties and Garter had landing priority, being the shortest of fuel. When theywere down safely, SoSo commed me.

"The Captain sends his congratulations, Earthworm. Good work." Then, for justa moment, SoSo dropped the professionalism. "And thank you, Chris, for sparingthe lives of those Border Worlders."

"Uh, actually, SoSo, I was all set to--"


Dammit! Even as the Wing Commander, I couldn't get a word in edgewise!


My parrot flew onto my shoulder as I climbed out of the cockpit. I hadn't seenit in some time, as lately it had been nesting in the service bays and flyingfreely around the flight deck. Someday the little birdbrain would fly throughone of the end force fields and freeze its giblets.

"Rawwk! Welcome back, stud! Welcome back!"

I stroked its feathers. "Thanks, birdie. Good to be back."

Zelda was waiting for me at the bottom of the ladder with her arms out-stretched. However, I cut our hug short this time; I had some chewing out todo. I hustled over to Excell's service bay, arriving just as she climbed downfrom her Banshee.

I tapped her on the shoulder. "Captain Ayers! You mind telling me why yousent that rebel bitch a centerfold instead of my AI virus?"

"Rawwk! Stupid bitch!"

Calmly and deliberately, Excell handed her helmet to her chief tech. Then shesighed in exasperation. "You men!" she declared. "Always going for thehardware!" Excell ran her finger slowly down my cheek, across my lips, anddown my neck. Seductively, she continued, "Don't you understand? Targetingthe wetware is much more...effective..."

Then she turned and walked briskly away, leaving me with a gaping mouth and abulge in my flight suit.

"Can I help you with that, Blairbear?"

Dimly, I realized that Zelda had followed me. "Help me?"

"Getting off...your flight suit. Can I help you take it off?"

I snapped out of it. "Uh, no!" I said hurriedly, holding my helmet in front ofme. "Thanks, but I'll, uh, take it off in the locker room."

"Rawwk! Jerk off, jerk! Beat your m--"

"Shut up, bird!" I chased it away. After I got out of my flight suit, I'dhave to visit the head. Then I'd better make some, er, modifications to thesuit before the next mission!

End of Chapter 22

Previews from Chapter 23:

"You're the problem, dwarf! You know why?"

"Earthworm! Catscratch is in big trouble!"

"You're nothing but gutter dogs, Border Worlders!"

"Hey, Blair! Proud of yourself, Mr. big-shot WING Commander?"