Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 23

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to February 25, 1997]

Chapter 23

I gave Ike an account of my mission with Excell, then I stuck around to helpdebrief Panties and Garter. After spotting the enemy task force, they hadmaintained contact at maximum sensor range, playing tag with the rebel CAPuntil our strike force arrived. They then accepted battle with the two nearestHellcats and leeched both of them. After disposing of the CAP, Panties andGarter afterburned into the melee around the rebel ships, arriving in time tocover Catnip's run.

It was an outstanding performance in any man's navy, let alone the Union's.As Ike pumped Panties for more details, I took Garter aside.

"Damn good work, Garter. I see a bright future for you in the Militia."

He beamed with pride. "Thank you, sir. But I just did what Colonel Farnsworthtold me. She's the best."

Indeed. Of the many pilots I'd known, only Angel had been better. And Angelwas dead.

"Um, sir?"

"Something on your mind, Garter?"

He nodded. "I was just, uh, wondering... Are you, uh, seeing anyone rightnow, sir?"

I considered for a moment. As a kid I had experimented, of course, but I'dlost interest in all that years ago. Besides, I was already up to my neck inromance. Of course, if I ever needed a way out...

"Yeah, I'm kind of...involved at the moment, Garter." I pretended to think fora moment. "You might try Major Marshall," I suggested helpfully.

He brightened. "Really? Gee, thanks, sir!"

As he left the ready room, I indulged myself in a brief vision of his upcomingconversation with Maniac. Smiling, I rejoined Ike and Panties.

"Fabulous!" declared Ike. "Just fabulous! Three more ships for the Union,courtesy of Confed! Of course they're a little banged up, but beggars can'tbe choosers. And the prisoners! We're sitting on a gold mine of intel--"

"Not prisoners!" interrupted Panties. "They're Border Worlders, like us!"

Ike didn't get it. "Brilliant, Colonel! Treat 'em like guests, they'll bemore likely to spill what they know! Great idea!" Ike grinned at me. "Thisis one special gal you got here, Colonel!"

I looked at Tamara. "I know, Ike," I said quietly.

He missed the byplay. "Excuse me, I gotta get this stuff to Captain Eisen.The Old Man's been on my case ever since we came to Circe."

Panties watched him leave. "You know, Chris, for an Intel expert, sometimesthat guy--"

"--doesn't have a clue. I know." I hesitated a moment. "Look, Tamara, maybehe's not the only one who's missing something. I admire your sense of...ofkinship with the folks from Circe IV, but the fact is, they don't seem to shareyour scruples about killing fellow Border Worlders."

Her eyes narrowed. "Are you telling me that Border Worlders may be in on theconspiracy? That they're ready to sacrifice their own people?" She searchedmy eyes. "Do you know something, Chris?"

I longed to tell her of Paladin's warning about traitors on both sides. He wasCovert Ops, however, and she probably wouldn't believe him. In fact, she mightsuspect me for letting him go. She didn't know him like I did. Hell, shebarely knew me.

"Uh, just a feeling, Tamara. Border Worlders are only human, and Covert Opscan be very, very persuasive." And their professional paranoia was very, veryinfectious, dammit.


I wanted to talk more with Panties, but Admiral Willful had sent us a fewreplacement fighters and pilots, and one of us had to take the Banshee pilotsin hand. Since I wanted to debrief the returning Skunks myself, Panties wasthe only choice.

I headed over to Maniac's service bay to await his return. I found Louise andBarr there, working on a circuit breaker panel. They were pretty engrossed intheir work, so I didn't disturb them.

Maniac landed with his usual flamboyance, nearly clipping one of our shuttleson his way in. I waited patiently for him to taxi into the bay and climbdown from the cockpit. No amount of fussing would have hurried him up, anyway.

"Hey, Ace!" he called, noticing me waiting. "Did you see my torpedo spread?Poetry in motion! Haha ha! I nailed that carrier like--"

"Maniac, you dunce! Why didn't you take out that frigate? You were closer toit than September was! She had to do a job that should have been yours, and itcost us a ship and nearly a pilot as well!"

"What, that's my fault? I was ordered to nail a carrier, and that's what Idid! Besides, that frigate wasn't the problem!" He pointed his finger at me."You're the problem, dwarf! You know why?"

"Maniac, I really don't care--"

"Because you've always been jealous, always putting me down! Why?" His voicetook on that nyah-nyah tone that always pissed me off. "Because I get all thebabes!"

He walked over to Lt. Tennant and put his arm around her. "Women of taste knowwhen a guy has what it takes to fulfill their--shall we say--needs. Right,sweet buns?"

I cringed, anticipating Lou's reaction. To my surprise, however, she smiledup at Maniac. "It just so happens I need you right now, big boy."

Maniac did a double-take. "You do? Well!" He reached for her eagerly.

She fended him off. "No, no, I need you to go to that inspection panel overthere and take up the slack on the cable." Seeing Maniac's disappointedexpression, she added, "We can discuss my other...needs...a little later."

Maniac brightened. He hurried over to the panel and reached in. "This cable?"he asked, pointing. When Lou nodded, he grabbed it and yanked.

BZZT! There was a bright blue flash, and Maniac was catapulted backward a goodtwo meters, landing on his rump. He sat there in a fog, his hair standing onend. "W-was it good for you, too, Lou?" he asked dazedly.

"Yes, thank you, Major!" she answered, smiling. She turned to Barr. "You see,Fern, it's THIS breaker, not that one."

I knelt beside Maniac. "My apologies, good buddy. You were right. When itcomes to women, you really make the sparks fly. I guess I'm just jealous ofyour electromagnetic personality." I patted his shoulder and left.


I found Hulk at the simulators with his new pilots, whom he was instructing onground support operations. It was a good bet the Admiral would want us tosupport his landing on Circe IV, so we had to be ready. Panties was also therewith our new Banshee pilots, trying to cram a month's worth of practice into afew hours. I joined the "fun," and together we gave those rookies a workoutthey'd never forget.

In the end, however, Panties and I gave out before the newbies; three days ofconstant operations had taken their toll on us. I assigned Primate to continuetheir instruction--a duty which required no banana incentive--and invitedPanties to the storage hold where I normally slept. I wanted her in my bed,even if it was just for sleeping. Evidently she felt the same way, becauseshe accepted readily. Perhaps the thought of Border Worlders collaboratingwith Covert Ops had her feeling a bit lost and lonely.

The hold was quiet. Operating short-handed as we were, our bunk time was tooprecious to waste on anything but sleep. "My" bunk, the one I usually used,was empty. Noticing the flickering light at the back of the hold, I excusedmyself for a moment to investigate. Yes, it was SoSo all right, but she wasn'talone; Catnip was with her, and they were holding hands as they knelt in frontof the candle.

Again, I felt a twinge of jealousy. The time SoSo and I were at her shrine, Ihad felt closer to her than before or since. Then I smiled. Even if I reallyhad feelings for her, a cynical old man like me wasn't right for our youngcryptanalyst. Catnip--young, naive, idealistic--was a far better choice.

Chuckling, I returned to my--our--bunk. Tamara was already under the covers,her outer clothing stowed neatly below the bed. I peeled to my skivvies andjoined her. Too tired to do anything but cuddle, we exchanged a few chastecaresses before settling down to sleep. I don't know who fell asleep first,but I do know I enjoyed the most pleasant dreams I'd had in a long time.


"Keelrathee een sight, Mavereeck!"

"Roger, Angel. Break and attack!" Oh, my Angel, you're here! I had the mostterrible nightmare that I'd lost you!

"Taking it to 'em!" Flint? Where did Angel go? But it was good to have Flintback on my wing.

"Let's dance, you bastards!" Panties? What happened to Flint? And Angel?What's going on?

"Sir?" Huh? Catnip? No, no, I don't want him on my wing--

"Wake up, sir. The Captain wants you." He shook me again.

"OK, OK, I'm awake!" Damn. When I die and go to Hell, Lucifer is going tomake this damn kid my alarm clock!

I slipped out of bed, trying not to disturb Panties. She opened her eyes for asecond, gave me the finger, and went back to sleep.

I was trying to dress, but I had somehow gotten two feet down the same pantleg."This better be good, Catnip."

"It is, sir. Captain Apton--the rebel commander--is coming aboard. She wantsto talk."

That brought me fully awake. "Well why didn't you say so, Catnip? Let's go."


Hulk was already in CIC, discussing the state of his squadron with CaptainEisen. Maniac was off to one side, singing to himself.

"...where everybody knows your na-ame, and they're always glad you ca-ame..."

Catnip excused himself to talk with SoSo over in the comm alcove; the two ofthem were soon in a world of their own.

A few minutes after Catnip and I arrived, Captain Apton limped into CIC. Shewas escorted by Privates Wang and Damppuss. The two Marines took up posts bythe door, their weapons at the ready. Eisen waved SoSo and Catnip over to thebriefing table; no doubt he wanted the soon-to-be First Lieutenant to get ataste of high-level negotiations.

Captain Apton stopped a meter or so in front of Captain Eisen. She was aboutas tall as I, but she was older, with streaks of gray in her dark hair. Heruniform--Confed blue, bearing a Circe IV patch--was rumpled and dirty. Despiteher fatigue and injuries, she stood straight and unbowed in front of the manwho had beaten her at Circe V.

For a long time, the two commanders regarded each other silently. Eisen spokefirst. "Hello, Afton," he said quietly.

"Hello, Will," she replied. "It's been a long time."

"Yes. I only wish our reunion could have been under happier circumstances."Eisen turned to the rest of us. "Captain Apton and I worked our way up on theold Victory together. She was my first officer until she got her own ship."

I held out my hand. "An honor, Captain. I'm Christopher Blair." I indicatedHulk and Maniac. "Squadron commanders Manley and Marshall."

She gripped my hand firmly. "Yes, the Heart of the Tiger." She frowned. "Butwait, aren't you the guy from--"

"No, he's not," interrupted Eisen. "Now, Afton, you said you had informationfor us..."

"Yes." She took a data cartridge out of her pocket and handed it to SoSo."I disagreed with my government's decision to secede from Confed, so when apro-Confed faction seized power, I went along. My reward was a Confed carrier--an old one, but with fight still in her--and command of a task force." Shelooked away from Eisen. "I was so full of myself that I didn't stop to ask whyConfed was supplying us with all this equipment, or what they'd want inreturn."

Eisen nodded grimly. "I remember when I assumed command of the Victory. Itcan be quite...intoxicating."

"Well, I learned the price of command soon enough. Our new Directorate was'persuaded' by Confed to bring Circe V back into the fold. Covert Ops sworethe planet's armed forces were riddled with dissent. We'd win a bloodlessvictory before the Union could intervene." Anger flashed in her eyes. "Hah!What fools we were!"

She took a moment to regain her composure before going on. "Our casualty listssoon taught us the value of Confed promises, but by then it was too late.While the Militia was off-planet, the Directorate arrested opposition figuresand took hostages to ensure the 'loyalty' of the Militia commanders. Mygrandchildren are among them!"

SoSo was outraged. "They'd actually kill children?"

Captain Apton shook her head. "Worse. They threaten to expose them to...tositcoms!" Her face twisted in anguish.

A horrified silence ensued. "Bastards!" whispered Catnip.

Maniac, however, wasn't impressed. "Hey, you guys really believe that sobstory? She's trying to set us up! You'll see!"

Captain Eisen was about to bite off Maniac's head, but Apton stopped him witha hand on his arm. "You're right, Major," she said evenly. "I do have anulterior motive. I'm here on my knees, begging you to save my family from myfoolishness."

Maniac crossed his arms triumphantly. "Hah! I knew it!"

Captain Eisen threw Maniac an I'll-deal-with-you-later look. To Apton hesaid, "I sympathize, Afton, but there may not be much we can do. If the othercommanders put their families first and choose to fight..."

"That's why I'm here, Will." She signaled to SoSo, who put a diagram of theCirce System up on the main display. Using Captain Apton's data, the computeradded several groups of ships. Eisen handed her his remote.

"You and your admiral have wiped out most of our fighters, Will." She high-lighted an outfit coming in from the Corinth jump point. "But this convoy wasalready on its way from Confed HQ with new fighters--two wings of Thunderbolts...and Confed pilots."

Eisen looked at her sharply. "Confed?"

"Yes, Will, Confed is getting directly involved. You'll have to take out thatconvoy before it unloads, or you can't save the hostages." She zoomed in onCirce IV, to a valley on a large island in the southern hemisphere. The viewsettled on a Militia base guarded by several prominent laser turrets.

"The hostages are being held here. I don't have the faintest idea how to doit, but if you can rescue them, I'm sure the other commanders will surrender.They've had enough of C-Confed."

Her voice broke, and tears began streaming down her cheeks. "P-please Will,help them! We m-meant something to each other...once..."

Eisen immediately took her in his arms. "It's all right, Afton. We'll do ourbest. Colonel Blair, I'll accompany Captain Apton to sick bay. I want you tocome up with a rescue plan. The rest of you, dismissed!"

I watched, fascinated, as he led his old flame out of CIC. He'd discussed hisex-wife and kids with me many times, but this was the first I'd heard of aformer girlfriend.

I followed SoSo over to her station. "SoSo, any chance of bluffing our wayinto the base with our stolen codes?" She didn't seem to hear me. "Hey, areyou OK?"

"Wha? Oh. Yes, sir. It's just that Major Marshall was so mean to that poorwoman! I'm so mad--"

I put a hand on her shoulder. "Maybe it's time to spring our surprise, Soso.Maniac and Catnip were headed for the galley; give me about fifteen minutes."

She grinned. "You got it, sir!"


The galley was fairly crowded, since this was close to the time SoSo alwaysreplayed the latest Nightly News. I waved at Zelda, who was sitting withseveral of her techs at the other end of the compartment. I found Maniac andCatnip at the table nearest the big galley window. Maniac was lecturing hiseager young student.

"...and another thing, Catscratch: Always volunteer for the solo missions."

Catnip looked doubtful. "Solos? Why, sir? They're usually milk runs."

Maniac smiled indulgently at his pupil's ignorance. Leaning closer foremphasis, he replied, "You don't get it, kid. You see, with no overbearingsenior officers around--Hi, Ace! Have a seat!--to make you fly like yourgrandma, you can take the scenic route, maybe stir up a little trouble. If youdo find some action, you get it all to yourself. No wingmen or glory boys--"He glared at me. "--to steal your kills!"

"And nobody to cover your ass, either," I said, sitting down next to Catnip.

Catnip looked from me to Maniac, and back again. "I don't know, sir," he saidskeptically. "Major Marshall does have quite a kill score." Maniac smiledsmugly at me.

"Yeah, Catnip, he does. He also has a long list of dead wingmen. You fly likehim, you'll die. Period."

Maniac was outraged. "Quit picking on the kid, Ace! He's just looking for away to break out of the pack." He turned to Catnip again. "One thing aboutemulating the Maniac, you'll have to put up with a lot of crap from lesserpilots." He jerked his thumb in my direction. "The price of excellence iseternal envy! Haha ha!"

Catnip turned to me. "You talk safe and sane, Colonel, but that's not how youflew that mission in Pasqual. I've tried your way, and look at me: still aSecond Lieutenant! No offense, sir, but I can do better."

Damn that Maniac! "Catnip, I screwed up big time on that Pasqual--"

Catnip stood up and took his tray. "Excuse me, sir, I need to practice somenew moves in the simulator." He strode out of the galley like a man with apurpose.

Maniac was grinning at me, knowing how it pissed me off. I jabbed my finger athim. "Maniac, if anything happens to him because of you--"

He snorted. "Don't worry, Mother Goose, the only thing that's gonna happen tohim is success. You'll see. And another thing, I don't like the way you--"Maniac suddenly looked at his watch. "Hold it, Ace, it's time for the news.Say, did I ever tell you about the time I scored with Barbara Dahl? You see,just before I joined the Victory--"

I shook my head in disbelief. "You really fancy yourself quite the ladies'man, don't you, Maniac?"

Indignantly, Maniac retorted, "'Fancy?' I AM, Ace! Take my last cabin shift,for instance." He looked around for eavesdroppers. "Now I'm too much of agentleman to name names, but I had one of the hottest babes on the ship, andshe was really INTO it, if you know what I--"

The Nightly News logo suddenly flashed on the holodisplay, and the crowd in thegalley immediately quieted. I thought at first that SoSo had made a mistakeand put on the real news, but then I realized that the blonde in the displaywas actually SoSo herself. She had somehow improvised a wig with color andhairstyle identical to Barbara Dahl's.

"Good evening," she said. "I'm Barbara Dahl, and this is the Nightly News."

Wow, her accent and mannerisms were perfect copies of Barbara's! I'd had noidea she was so talented. I looked around the galley. People were whisperingexcitedly and nudging each other, obviously aware something was up. The realSoSo was standing by the hatch, having come from CIC to watch her pre-recordedmasterpiece. I gave her an enthusiastic thumbs-up, and she smiled back.

On the holovid, SoSo/Barbara continued, "Tonight we return to the Union ofBorder Worlds, where another serious shortage has hit the Militia. The BorderWorlders, however, are handling the crisis with their customary ingenuity. Theshortage? Women! The solution..."

The scene changed to the inside of one of Intrepid's crew cabins, where anamorous couple was vigorously making love. Maniac, of course, was instantlyrecognizable, but it was his companion who drew the crowd's interest.

It was the "Miss July Inflatable" from his Playboy collection.

The audience exploded into hysterical laughter. In seconds, people wereliterally rolling on the floor. Others were convulsing helplessly in theirchairs, pointing to the spectacle on the holovid. The harder Maniac worked,the more they laughed.

I was laughing as hard as anyone. This exceeded my wildest dreams of revenge.Through my tears, I managed to steal a glance at Maniac--the real one--on theother side of the table. He was staring at the holovid in stunned silence,eyes and mouth wide open, face red as a tomato.

Lt. Homes staggered to our table, clutching his side and trying hard to controlhis merriment. "Hey, Maniac!" he gasped. "D-does she have a SISTER? Wahaha!"He fell to the deck, face twisted in hilarious agony.

From the next table, Louise called, "No, no, Major! Does she have a B-BROTHER?Ahahaha!" She, too, dropped to the deck, rolling around in fetal position.

Forceps was sitting at a table to my left. "Hey, Major!" he yelled sternly."That's not the correct instrument for a tonsilectomy! Har har har!"

I knew it might be fatal to provoke him myself, but I couldn't resist. "Gee,Maniac--Heehee!--I always knew you preferred airheads--Wahahaha!--but this isrid--"

With a cry of rage, Maniac leaped over the table, hands straining for mythroat. We went down hard, but I was laughing so much I didn't feel a thing.

His hands closed on my windpipe. "This was YOUR idea, WASN'T IT, RUNT?"

Though weak with laughter, I nevertheless managed to loosen his hands longenough to croak, "J-just a little payback from the Heart of the Kitchen!Hahahaha--urk!"

I might have checked out right then and there if Zelda hadn't come over andtapped him on the shoulder. "Quite a durable bedmate you have there, Major.She takes a thumping and keeps on humping! Wheeheeheehee!"

"AAARRRGGGHHH!" Maniac let me go and went for Zelda, pinning her to the tablewith his hands at her throat. Weakly, I struggled to my feet. Three of ustried to pull him off Zelda, but our humor-impaired efforts were too feeble.Zelda was turning blue--and still laughing--when Forceps stuck a hypo intoManiac's neck. He collapsed and slid down to the deck.

It looked like he'd be out for quite a while. "Thanks, Forceps," I said, stillchuckling. I gave Zelda a hand up. She was rubbing her throat, but she justcouldn't stop giggling.

Lt. Cmdr. Ander crawled by. With a supreme effort, he heaved himself up intoa chair. "Colonel," he gasped, "I must say, it certainly hasn't been dull onthis ship since you joined us, sir! Heh heh." He drew Forceps' attentionback to the holovid, where Maniac was still going strong. "So, Forceps, haveyou ever seen anything like that? Heehee!"

Forceps produced his cup and spat into it. "Kid," he said, unimpressed, "Ibeen a medic more 'n thirty years. I seen everythin'!" He knelt and heavedManiac over his shoulders. "C'mon, Cassanova, you can cool off in sick bay."


I ran into Hulk and Panties just outside CIC.

"What's up, Panties?" I asked. I'd been in the Control Bay with Primate,planning our strike on the Confed convoy, when Barr had brought the order toreport to CIC.

Panties shrugged. "Squadron commanders report to the Captain. That's all Iheard, Earthworm. He didn't tell you anything?"

"Nope. I hope he doesn't want another report on what I ate for breakfast."Captain Eisen had been demanding a lot of details lately.

The door slid open and we went inside. SoSo and Catnip were standing togetherby the briefing table. Eisen was pacing impatiently in front of the mainholodisplay. The bridge of Admiral Willful's flagship was visible in it, butthe seat at his console was empty.

"Where is Major Marshall?" Eisen asked me, irritation in his voice.

I tried to keep a straight face. "Er, the Major is--heh heh--indisposed, sir."

SoSo couldn't resist adding, "Yes, sir, he was, er, breaking in a new wingman--Heehee!--and he, er, overdid it." She stifled another giggle.

Catnip nudged her in annoyance. He didn't seem very amused by his hero'shumiliation.

Eisen looked at me sharply. "Colonel, what is going--" He stopped. "Nevermind; I don't want to know."

The Captain drew himself up to his full height. He'd lost a lot of weight onthe ship's insipid cuisine; he looked ten years younger. "Ahem. I have acouple of announcements to make. First: Catscratch, as of 1200 hours todayyou're FIRST Lieutenant Carter. Congratulations, son."

SoSo squealed and hugged her man. We all gathered around Catnip, pounding hisback and shaking his hand.

"So, Catnip," I said, hand on his shoulder. "You still think 'Maniac moves'are the only way to get ahead?"

"I don't know, sir," he said stubbornly. "Maybe this would have come sooner ifI'd followed Major Marshall's advice from the begin--ouch!" SoSo elbowed himin the ribs.

Captain Eisen indulged our horseplay a few moments longer before clearing histhroat. "Ahem! Second announcement: I've decided--Oh, Admiral Willful! Itrust you're feeling better, sir?"

I turned to the holodisplay. The Admiral was just sitting down in front of hisconsole. He was deathly pale, his face sagged, and he was sweating profusely.His nurse leaned into the field of view to wipe his forehead--Whoa! Look atthe pair on that--

"Much better, Billy!" Willful grinned and pinched his nurse's behind. Shepromptly slapped his face, which bothered him not one bit. "Ouch! Haw haw!Don't worry, Billy, it was just another coronary. I get one whenever I want alittle extra TLC!" He tried to peek down the front of his nurse's low-cutuniform.

Eisen studiously ignored the Admiral's antics. "Er, ahem. Admiral, with lessthan two weeks until the vote, I've decided we can't wait to gather any moreevidence. I'm taking what we have to Earth. I'll try to get it to PresidentHinton and certain members of the Great Dissembly. Oh, and on the way, I'lldrop Captain Apton with your flagship. She'll be invaluable if it actuallycomes to a landing on Circe IV."

We were thunderstruck. The Admiral, however, took it in stride. Slipping hiswords between gropes of his nurse, he said, "Good idea, Billy--Hah, gotcha!--Sowho'll be taking--Ouch!--who'll be taking over for you there?--Oooo, this one'sripe!--That strapping young Lunatic fellow?--Ow!"

"Major Marshall? Er, no, Admiral. I've chosen Colonel Blair." He pulled mecloser to the display, amidst moans and groans from everyone in CIC.

"Not the Tiger Moth!" Willful took his hand out from under his nurse's micro-skirt and stuck a cigar in his mouth. "Well, it's your call, Billy. Blair! Iknow you want to hit that transport convoy with all you've got, but I need yourfighters, too." The display switched to a diagram of the Circe System. "I'vechased this rebel fleet all the way from the asteroid belt. If they make it tothe safety of Circe IV's orbital defenses, they'll play holy hell with mylanding. I want you to hit them hard, slow them down. If you can destroy acouple, fine, but you must delay 'em so I can catch up and finish 'em."

Acutely aware that I was now in the hot seat, I carefully considered the timesand distances involved. "Admiral, we have two targets and time for one strike;if I try to hit both, I'll have to divide my forces. I don't think--"

"Good! Don't! Haw haw haw! Never liked thinkers anyway!" He lit his cigarand sucked on it gratefully. "Ahhhhh! Oh, one more thing, Tiger Moth: I knowyour food synthesizers have been acting up you. I've had a courier ship dropoff a cargo canister of fresh grub on its way to Union HQ. You can send out atractor-capable ship to pick it up." The canister's position appeared in thedisplay. "Willful ou--"

The Admiral was interrupted by his nurse, who reached down and slapped thecigar out of his mouth. Willful gleefully grabbed her and threw her across hisknee. Lifting her skirt with one hand, the Admiral prepared to strike. "Overand out, Blair. Now, honey, you need some discipline!"



The display went dark.

Captain Eisen stared wistfully at the blank display. "You know, I would havemade admiral if I hadn't crossed Tolwyn..." Sighing, he reached for his bag."I think I can trust my contacts in Confed, but if this is good-bye..." Heheld out his hand. "Well, good luck, Colonel."

I panicked. He was leaving already? I gripped his hand like a drowning man."B-but Captain, you can't go yet! We haven't...we haven't had your going-awaylunch! Yeah, that's it! And the ceremony! And I have to get you a present--"

Eisen wrenched his hand loose. "No ceremony! No presents! Now quit yourblubbering. After all the grief you've caused me, it's time you found out whatit's like in my shoes. Besides, you people are ALREADY running the ship behindmy back! Good riddance!" Eisen was out of CIC so fast the doors barely hadtime to slide open.

Just like that, I was in charge. Well, maybe I really could pull it off.After all, hadn't I seen every episode of "Bar Trek: The Mixed Generation?"

Assuming an air of confidence I didn't feel, I turned to my people. "OK, toppriority is getting that food. Volunteers?" Everyone's hand shot up. "SoSo,you twit, you're not a pilot! Catnip, the job is yours." Whew. Ever sincehe'd taken up with SoSo, I'd been looking for excuses to keep him out of harm'sway. I didn't think she could take losing him.

"Dismissed, people." Mmmm, I could taste that fresh food--

Panties put her hand up again. "Sir?" she said, trying to keep a straightface. "The convoy? The rebel fleet?"

Details, details! "SoSo, go notify our escorts we'll be going to full speedmomentarily. Panties, you'll lead the strike on the Circe IV fleet. Takeeveryone not on patrol. Primate will take the Wombats. Maniac's still out--heh heh--so Tex can take the Skunks. I'll need a Banshee pilot to hit thetransports with me. Who's the steadiest pilot among our replacements?"

Panties' eyes grew wider with each order. "Er, Rubberducky. He's had somecombat. But sir, with only two Banshees, how can you--"

Radiating self-assurance, I replied, "Hey, I'm the Tiger M--er, Heart of theTiger! Besides, I have a plan." Or rather, I'd have one by the time we hitthe convoy. I hoped.

"Sir?" It was SoSo. I hurried over to her station, followed by Panties, Hulk,and Catnip.

"Sir, the Captain's shuttle is clear. Our escorts are standing by."

"Thank you." I put my hands behind my back and turned to address my--MY--crew."Ahem. Now I know you people may have some misgivings about me subbing forCaptain Eisen. He's certainly left some big shoes to fill. I assure you,however, that I'm fully qualified to command this ship." I had to gain theirconfidence quickly. Standing tall--as tall as I could--and undaunted, Ipointed dramatically toward the bow.

"Helm, full sp--"

"Sir!" interrupted Lt. Pilotte. "Um, you're pointing aft, sir."

Oops. I turned 180 degrees and looked inquiringly at her.

"Starboard, sir." Panties and SoSo were snickering behind their hands. Hulkwas trying to point in two different directions at once, and failing miserably.

Shit! I adjusted direction once again. The helmsman nodded.

Finally! "Helm, full speed ahead! Ready...en garde!" I folded my arms insmug satisfaction. There, that ought to show them--Hey, why was everyonelaughing? Nobody ever laughed at Captain Petard...


The flight deck was a beehive of frenzied activity, as the techs readiedIntrepid's full complement of fighters for a magnum launch. The Avengers ofSkunk Squadron were already roaring off the deck; they'd soon be followed bythe Vindicators and their Banshee escorts.

Zelda greeted me at my fighter. She looked troubled.

"Blairbear, are you sure you know what you're doing? Just two of you againstthat reinforcement convoy and their fighters?"

I licked two fingers and used them to wipe a dirt spot off her cheek. "It'sOK, hon, I have a plan; but I'll need those panties you were wearing that timein our cabin. Can you get 'em for me, sweets?"

"Uh, sure." Good girl. She was curious, but didn't waste time on questions.In an instant, she was off on her errand.


I turned and found Catnip standing diffidently under my Banshee's port boom."What's up, Catnip?"

"Well, sir, I just asked Velina to marry me, and she said yes! I was, um, justwondering, sir, if you'd...perform the ceremony when we get back?"

Was that jealousy I was feeling again? Over that neurotic little stick woman?I shook it off. It was probably just the natural effect of the constant strainwe were all under.

"Of course, Catnip. I'd be honored. As soon as we finish up in Circe and havea little breather, we can do it on our way to the outbound jump point."

Catnip was elated. "Woohoo! Thank you, sir! Gee, first I get a promotion,then I pull a milk run, and now I'm gonna marry the woman I love! Today sureis my lucky day, isn't it, sir?"

I smiled. Yeah, Catnip was on a lucky streak, all right. Just like Vag--


"Er, Catnip, maybe I should assign one or two Banshees to cover you, uh, justin case."

He was indignant. "What are you, my mother? Besides, you know we can't sparethe ships." He patted my shoulder. "Don't worry, Ace, I'll be fine." Hestrolled off toward his Avenger, humming "God Save the King."

Zelda had returned from her errand. "Here you are, Chris, but I wish you'dtell me--Chris?"

Absently, I reached for the panties. "Uh, thanks, Zelda." I gave her a hugand started up the ladder, trying to shake off my misgivings. Dammit, Catnipwould be OK. Wouldn't he?


Rubberducky was a steady, quiet pilot. He'd flown for the Militia since thelast months of the Kilrathi War, so he knew the ropes. He settled on my wingand barely spoke a word thereafter.

As good a wingman as he was, I still missed Panties. I missed her confidenceand her courage. It looked like the Union would thwart Covert Ops' plans inCirce, but the long-term outlook was grim. The casualty lists--on both sides--were growing longer, and every day brought us closer to all-out war. I neededTamara to tell me everything would turn out OK.

We were nearing the projected position of the Confed convoy when my gloomymusings were interrupted by a frantic comm from SoSo.

"Earthworm! Catscratch is in big trouble! He ran across a destroyer, and nowhe's being chased by fighters. You're the only flight we have near him." SoSodownloaded his position to my nav computer.

I checked the figures and did a double-take. Dammit, what was Catnip doingthere? That was well off the track to the canister! I calculated time anddistance...Shit! Even if we got to him in time, the convoy would get away!Shit! Shit! But if we didn't rescue Catnip, we could kiss our fresh foodgood-bye! Shit! Shit! Shit! Er, and the kid, too.

SoSo remained on the comm, pleading. "P-please, sir, save him? Please?"

Rubberducky broke in. "Got a twitch on the passive sensors, Earthworm.Convoy's nearby. Do we abort?"

I had a vision of Intrepid and Willful's fleet fighting their way through twofresh wings of Confed fighters. Even if we succeeded, our casualties would behorrendous...

Shit. "Intrepid, our mission's too important to abort. Vector Lovey's patrolto Catnip's position." I cut SoSo off, lest she argue with me and waste time.

"Changing course for our passive contact, Ducky."v"RUBBERducky!"



I was still second-guessing my decision when Rubberducky sang out.

"Contact! Two...three...FOUR ships! frigate. Looks like wegot us a convoy!"

"Ten-four, Rubber."



"Smokies, Earthworm! Four T-bolts inbound! Must be from that frigate."

"Ten-four. Stay close. I'm ready for 'em." I pulled Zelda's panties out ofmy pocket and prepared to taunt.

The Confed flight leader pre-empted me. "You're nothing but gutter dogs,Border Worlders!"

I nearly gagged. What a pathetic taunt! Somebody better put this jerk out ofhis misery.

I punched the comm and held up Zelda's panties. "Hey, pencil-dick! Want theseback? Your wife sent me yours by mistake! Hahaha!"

Even over the comm, I could see he was livid. "You BASTARD! I'll get you!"He lit his burner and blazed in at me, screaming all the way.

"Break and take bandit 4, Rubberdicky!"


Aim for the leader's wingman, Blair. Leech armed and locking. Whoop! Whoop!Whoop! Two IRs inbound from the leader. Steady...Decoy! Pitch up! Hah!Missed! Back on his pal, locking. Jink away from leader's blaster fire...Whoosh! He overshot me by half a light year! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! AnotherIR coming...Leech locked, point blank range, launch! Decoy! Break right!Missed me!

Splat! One down! The leader's still out in left field, where's Ducky? There!He's tailing a T-bolt. Shit, the third one's on my tail! Whoop! Whoop!Whoop! Burner! Decoy! Still locked! It's closing...Burner off! Decoy!Hard right! Missed, you bastard!

Work around him, Blair. Turn, you beautiful little Banshee! Uh-oh, leader'scoming back in; looks like he's settled down.

I took a fraction of a second to check on Ducky; good, he'd disposed of hisman. I commed the leader again. I waved Zelda's panties at him and blew him akiss before switching off. Heehee! He'd never let me go now! I ignored thejerk and concentrated on my victim.

Save your missiles, Blair. Close in with the leech cannon. Watch the rearturret! CHUG CHUG! Jink away from the turret fire! CHUG CHUG! Jink! CHUGCHUG! Jink! Wow, I've got natural rhythm!

"Yer dead now, slime!" Whoops, the leader's on my tail! Come on, Rubber...

Splat! The Confed leader drifted aimlessly.

"Quack quack! Rubberducky rules!"

Quack quack? Sheesh.

My target was slowing. I automatched speeds and continued chugging away untilhe was helpless. Now for the frigate.

"Form on my wing, Rubbertire!"

"RubberDUCKY! Uh, are you sure we can take four ships ourselves, Earthworm?"

"Piece of cake. Just take your time. Fire and dance, wear 'em down. Let'sgo."

The frigate's captain interposed his ship between us and the convoy, which wasa mistake; we would have had a harder time against the massed laser fire of allfour ships. We made repeated runs from the stern, dancing between shots andswooping in and out of range. It was a nerve-wracking business, but my wingmanproved as steady as Panties had promised. We dropped the frigate's shieldswith laser and scattergun fire, then leeched it with missiles and leech cannon.

I led the way toward the transports. "You still game, Rubberballs?"

"RubberDUCK--Oh hell, who cares? Let's nail the bastards!" I took that as anaffirmative.

The transports, at least, were smart enough to stick together. Their combinedfire was only slightly more formidable than the frigate's, however, and afterthe first one was leeched, the other two succumbed quickly. Neither of us tookmore than a few minor armor hits; I even had one leech missile left.

We set course for Intrepid. I signalled BWS Ewok to come and take charge ofour prizes until Admiral Willful's fleet could blockade Circe IV. A few weeksin a dockyard, and these Confed ships would be ready to join the Union fleet.

Rubberducky was elated. "Hot damn, sir! Two Banshees taking down a wholeconvoy! That must be some kind of record!"

I had too much on my mind to answer. All our high-speed maneuvering had eateninto our fuel, and we had no margin for error on the way back. Worse, I wasstill fretting about Catnip, at least with my head. My stomach, of course, waslamenting the loss of a whole cargo canister full of fresh goodies.


All the way back to Intrepid, I listened to reports from Panties' strike force.Fighter opposition was minimal, which was fortunate, because our effectivenesswas limited by inexperience and fatigue. Panties got the job done, however.More than half the enemy fleet was left dead in space or proceeding at reducedspeed. If they were smart, they'd surrender when Admiral Willful caught up tothem.

After the battle, I tuned in on the search and rescue channels. We'd lostseveral birds to intense capship fire, and all our shuttles were pressed intothe recovery effort. About half the pilots were eventually recovered.

Ominously, there was nothing from Lovey. I tried to tell myself that Archieand Valentina were just keeping comm silence, but I knew it was a lie. Theywere obviously too late to help Catnip.


"Request clearance, Intrepid." Come on, SoSo. We gotta get in the barn beforeour strike returns. "Intrepid? Intrepid!"

SoSo finally appeared on the comm. Her voice was as lifeless as her eyes."Intrepid here," she said dully. "Lovey relayed a message from Catscratch,Earthworm. Let me play it for you."

Catnip appeared on my screen. The image was breaking up, probably because hisAvenger was falling apart around him. His voice, however, was all too clear.

"I didn't do anything, Confeds! I HATE the Union! I'm innocent! They made medo it! OK, I'll talk! I'll spill my guts! I'll sing like a canary! Wait!Do it to Velina! Do it to Velinaaaaahhhhh--" Transmission ceased.

SoSo reappeared. "He went up with his ship, sir. He g-gave everything...Y-you have..." She burst into tears just before my screen blanked.

I felt a lump in my throat. Using all the excuse and evasion techniques he'dlearned at the Academy, Catnip had tried until the very end to snatch life fromdeath. He'd failed, but even in failure he had upheld the finest traditions ofthe fighter pilot. I was so damned proud of him...


As I climbed down from my bird, I noted the silent and sullen crowd of techsand crewmen gathered in the bay. Shit, I'd had no idea Catnip was so popular.

Zelda hugged me tightly. "Don't blame yourself, Blairbear," she reassured me."You made the right call."

I pulled loose. "I know, hon. But that doesn't make me feel any b--"

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

"Yeah!" added Louise. "Gonna give yourself a medal for this one?" She spaton the deck.

I took a step toward her. "Look, Lou, I'm sorry about the kid, OK? But--"

"Kid? What kid? I'm talking about that canister full of real food! We'restarving here, and you ditch the eats to hit a stupid convoy!"

"Pizza!" wailed Barr. "I heard it was full of pizza! With anchovies!"

"And beer!" This from one of the deckhands.

"And BARBECUE!" chorused three others.

The fever spread like wildfire.


"No, sushi!"

"I heard it was fresh fruit!"


"Sausage and sauerkraut..."

I gazed upward in supplication. Why me, God? Why me?

End of Chapter 23

Previews from Chapter 24:

"Our top story: The Confederation and the Union stand tonight on the brink ofall-out war."

"Now here's my plan..."

"Who is it?"