Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 24

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to March 3, 1997]

Chapter 24

Zelda hustled me to the Wombat locker room before the angry crowd turned intoa lynch mob. Somehow we got my flight suit off and stowed, and then I clung toher for a long time. I'd lost pilots before, some even closer to me thanCatnip, but his death was somehow harder to take. Maybe it was because I hadseen a lot of myself in that brash young rookie. Or maybe I was just gettingsoft.

My dark thoughts were interrupted by the distinctive roar of Vindicatorthrusters. That would be Archie and Valentina, returning from their rescuemission. Zelda let me go with a kiss and a reassuring smile, and returned toher work.

I headed for Tina's service bay, ignoring the muttered curses of crewmen Ipassed along the way. Archie had arrived there before me; I found the two ofthem locked in an embrace under Tina's bird.

Archie saw me first. "Sorry, sir," he said, over Tina's shoulder. "We lookedas long as we could. We barely made it back before our fuel ran out."

Tina let go of Lovey and turned to me. I could see she'd been crying. "W-wefound some debris, b-but no pod, sir. He's gone." Archie put his arm aroundher shoulders.

So much for forlorn hopes. "Did you find out what he was doing so far offcourse, Lovey?"

Archie just shrugged. "My guess is, he spotted the destroyer at long range anddecided to go after it. Probably thought it was a stray from the rebel fleet,with no more fighters aboard. Turns out, though, it was Confed. It must havesplit off from that convoy you hit, maybe to assist the rebels' retreat toCirce IV. If so, Catscratch put an end to that; last we saw, it was runningfor the Corinth jump point at full speed."

I nodded. That squared with my what I knew. Catnip had tried to imitate hisidol, and had bitten off more than he could chew.

I patted Tina's shoulder. "Thanks for trying, Tina, Arch. I won't forget it.Get some chow and a rest." I glanced at the flight deck, where fighters fromour main strike were roaring in for a landing. "I have to debrief thosepilots."

I watched Tina and Archie trudging disconsolately toward the Turkey lockerroom. Damn that Maniac! Would he never grow up? How many more kids would heget killed before he was satisfied?

I turned to go and nearly collided with Maniac. Speak of the devil! SoForceps had finally let him out of sick bay.

"OK, munchkin, this time you've gone too far!" he growled. Wow, I had neverseen him so pissed off! Not even that time on Firekka when he'd discoveredthat his native date was really a male.

He poked his finger into my chest. "I'm gonna get you, runt, but you won'tknow where or when. Oh, no, I'm gonna take my time and enjoy every moment!From now on, PAL, you're gonna sleep with one eye open! You'll keep lookingover your shoulder, but it won't help! You're gonna--"

Enough of this crap! "Oooooo," I said, shuddering in simulated fear. "I'msooooo scared!" I batted his hand aside and did some poking myself. "I'lltell you what's really going to happen, you big oaf! From now on, you're goingto be a model pilot! You're going to obey orders and not go looking fortrouble every time you fly! You wanna know why, shit-for-brains?"

Maniac was livid. "Yeah! Yeah, inchworm, tell me why, and then I'll squashyou like a bug!"

Oh man, this felt soooo good! "Because if you don't," I said cheerfully, "I'lljust take that log of your 'Miss July' mission and upload it to the GGG!"

Maniac turned white. For a second I thought he was going to faint.

I continued relentlessly. "Furthermore, PAL, if anything happens to me or SoSo--if we so much as catch a cold--I've arranged for that log to be uploadedautomatically. So whenever we fly together, I suggest you take very, very goodcare of me!" I reached up and pinched his cheek affectionately. "Y'know, bigguy, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship!"

I turned and walked away as if I hadn't a care in the world. Behind me, Maniacrealized the hopelessness of his predicament and resigned himself to his fate.



I stood uncomfortably at the podium, four empty coffins arrayed in front of me.Of all my new duties as Intrepid's interim captain, conducting funeral serviceswas the one I liked least. Well, better get it over with, Blair.

"We're here to say good-bye to four of our gallant comrades..." As I spoke theall-too-familiar words, I surveyed the ship's company. They were tired andthey were discouraged. Our unremitting and seemingly endless campaign on thefrontier had worn down their morale as it had worn down mine.

SoSo in particular was taking this latest loss very hard. Standing stifflybetween Lou and Maniac, she was valiantly fighting her tears, to no avail.High-strung as she was, I figured she was dangerously close to the edge. Well,maybe a good eulogy would help ease the pain.

I had come to the part of the service where I customarily added my personalremarks. This was my chance.

"Er, ahem. Of these brave pilots, three--Litterbox, Fleabite, and Furball--were relative strangers to me. The fourth, however, was a good friend; a manwho personified the ideals they all held dear. In his tragically short career,Catnip lived up to the finest--"

SoSo immediately jumped out of line. "CatSCRATCH!" she shrieked. "It'sCatSCRATCH! Can't you at least get it right at his FUNERAL?" Sobbing, she rantoward the nearest exit.

I could only watch helplessly as she fled. Shit. She was right. OK, Blair,no more mistakes. I took a deep breath.

"Sorry, everyone. Er, as I was saying, Catscan lived up to the finesttraditions of the fighter pilot..."


Dead tired, I stumbled into the storage hold. That memorial service had beenthe hardest I'd ever attended. I desperately needed to put it behind me andcatch some rest before the hostage rescue mission. We only had a few hoursbefore Admiral Willful's fleet arrived to assist.

Damn, no empty bunks near the hatch. Maybe toward the back--Oh shit! I couldsee candlelight flickering against the rear bulkhead! Hurriedly, I retraced mysteps. No way did I want to confront SoSo so soon after the funeral fiasco.I'd had my head bitten off by that woman too many times before.

I checked my watch. It was about time for the Nightly News, anyway. By thetime I'd watched Barbara Dahl and had some--ugh--grub, SoSo would probably begone. Then I could sleep in peace.

The galley crowd was somewhat thinner than usual for a Nightly News broadcast.Perhaps some of the crew, their hopes of fresh food dashed by yours truly, justcouldn't face the prospect of the same old Intrepid menu for a while.

I made my usual selections and looked for a seat. Tex and Blade were sittingat a nearby table with Lt. Mourne. They didn't seem to see me when I waved, soI just walked over and sat down.

"Hi, guys," I said cheerfully. "Guess you didn't see me--"

"Er, sorry, sir," said Tex, hastily standing up. "I, uh, have to discusssomething with Excell over there." He took his tray to the next table andsqueezed in between Excell and Turbo.

Blade clapped his hand to his forehead. "Oh, darn! I just remembered my, er,violin lesson! Yeah, that's it, violin! Gottagosir!" He took his tray andpractically ran out of the galley, nearly tripping in his haste.


I turned to September. She squirmed uncomfortably under my gaze.

"Uh, sir, I..."

"It's OK," I said in resignation. "I'm sure you have important businesselsewhere. Right, Lieutenant?"

She brightened. "Er, yessir! Thank you, sir!" She quickly got up and movedto Turbo's table.

I looked around the galley. Everywhere, I met only hostile faces. Well, fuck'em! I bit savagely into my club sandwich and chewed away. If I had it to doover again, I'd do the same damn--Oh, Christ, what was in the damn sandwich?Horseshit?

Gagging, I spat it out onto my tray. I gulped desperately at my coffee tosettle my queasy stomach, barely avoiding an eruption. Guts churning, Idropped the sandwich and contemplated it in growing horror. What an idiot Iwas! Christ, why hadn't I rescued Catnip and the food? Sure, we'd now befacing two new fighter wings, but at least we'd die on full stomachs! Isurveyed the empty chairs at my table. Right about then, even I didn't want toeat with me.

I was spared further recriminations, at least temporarily, by the holovid.Barbara Dahl was on with the Nightly News.

"Good evening," she said in her melodious newsanchor cadence. "I'm BarbaraDahl, and this is the TCN Nightly News. Our top story: The Confederation andthe Union stand tonight on the brink of all-out war."

A colorful but nearly useless 3-D diagram of the Circe System appeared next toBarbara. "At the peace talks today, both delegations hurled accusations ofnaked aggression in Circe, where reports indicate a bloody civil war has brokenout. The Union accuses the Confederation of engineering a coup on Circe IV,and supporting the attempted capture of Circe V. Confed, on the other hand,says the Union is out to overthrow the legitimate government of Circe IV, whichhas requested humanitarian aid from the Confederation."

Barbara's voice took on a new note of concern. "The Nightly News has learnedthat, just moments ago, the Union delegates walked out of the peace talks,claiming that Confederation forces are now directly involved in the fighting.Official spokespersons at the Pink House deny this categorically. However,unnamed sources within the Confederation military say that a number of warshipsare now being marshalled to rescue Circe IV. If this is true, then the Unionand the Confederation could be at war within days."

The Circe diagram was replaced by a map of the region surrounding Circe, withthe Corinth System highlighted. "We now bring you a report from correspondentDam Blather in Corinth, recorded earlier today..."

Damn, damn, damn! Despite all our efforts, it looked like war was inevitable.I had failed...failed. Failed to save both Catnip and the goodies...failed toprevent war...failed to save Angel from a horrible death...

"Is this seat taken, Chris?"

Startled, I looked up. "Tamara! God, are you a sight for sore eyes!" For themoment my despair receded.

Grinning, she set her tray down and sat next to me. Very next to me.

She looked around at the empty chairs. "Gee, Chris, looks like the price ofcommand is eternal loneliness, eh? Heehee!"

I didn't answer. I was too busy enjoying the sensations of having Tamara at myside again. It was just like when she shared my bunk; her touch, her voice,her fragrance--

"Chris? Hello?" She waved her hand in front of my eyes.

"Oh. Sorry, Tamara, I was just, er, worrying about the political situation."

"Really," she said skeptically. "Funny, I was thinking about sharing your bedagain...and not just for sleeping this time..."

Something deep inside me responded to her. What had she said about not wastingthe time we'd been given? I glanced at the holovid, where Barbara was nowtalking about the imminent shakedown cruise of the TCS Vesuvius, first in thenew line of Confed super-carriers. When that juggernaut came after the UnionMilitia, time was going to run out very, very quickly.

I gripped Tamara's hand decisively. "Now, hon. Right now. I want you so badI can taste it."

Her face lit up with surprise and delight. "Well! So much for the politicalsituation!" Then she turned thoughtful. "You know, Chris, this isn't likeyou. Not that I'm complaining, mind you, but up until now your job has alwayscome first."

I stood up, still holding her hand. "This is my job now, hon. Come on." Ipulled her up into my arms.

"Are you going to finish that sandwich, Colonel Blair?"

Huh? I turned and found Sergeant McLean behind me. "Er, no, Sergeant. But Iwouldn't recommend--"

McLean reached down, scooped up the sandwich, and took a huge bite. Smiling,he tried to talk while chewing. "Mmmmph, thith ith good!"

Panties and I exchanged glances. She raised her hand and circled her fingeraround her ear.

McLean swallowed and prepared to take another mouthful. "Oh man, this is justgreat! Usually we have to eat in the Sox comiss--" He looked at Panties."Er, the Marine mess hall. The food's terrible!" He took another bite."Mmmm!"

Well, at least that explained why the Marines were among the very few aboardstill talking to me. Not that I really cared at the moment. "Uh, if you'llexcuse us, McLean, we have--"

He held up his hand while he choked down his food. "Just one more thing. I'msorry, Colonel, I've tried, but I can't think of a way to get into that basebefore they execute the hostages. Your chief's pods can get us down OK, butwhen we blow the entrance, that'll raise the alarm. The guards down in thesublevels will have plenty of time to shoot the prisoners. Sorry."

Shit. Well, I expected as much. All the more reason to forget the war, gowith Tamara, and fuck my brains ou--Wait a sec! As I watched McLean devour theremains of the sandwich, an idea grew in my mind. I checked my watch; yeah,SoSo came on duty in about an hour. Until then, I had work to do...

Smiling, I turned to Tamara.

Her face fell. "Uh-oh. Chris, something tells me our date is off."

"I'm afraid so, Tamara. Look, you two, I think I know how to pull off thisrescue mission. McLean, assuming you don't have to blow your way in, how manyof your people do you need? Can you do it with three?"

He shook his head. "No way. I'm not even sure we can pull it off with six.But, Colonel, how are we supposed to get in? You think they're just going toinvite us? Heh heh."

I clapped him on the shoulder. "That's exactly what they're going to do, Fry!Now here's my plan..."


I took Panties down to the Control Bay, to get the latest wing status. Evenwith our recent replacements, it turned out only six Vindicators were flyable.I ordered Panties to work with Hulk on an attack plan that would cover as manyrebel bases as possible in the southern hemisphere of Circe IV.

After she left, I contacted Admiral Willful's aide and explained the plan toher. I had to go over it twice, because she was somewhat distracted by theAdmiral nibbling on her edible underwear. Before she was dragged away from hercomm console, she promised to support our rescue operation with their fewremaining Vindicators.

I checked my watch. SoSo would come on duty any minute. Time to meet her inCIC.


To my surprise, Lt. G'Neer was still covering SoSo's comm station. SoSo wasnowhere to be found. Well, maybe she was just running late.

I tapped Lt. G'Neer on the shoulder. "Ed, while we're waiting for Lt. SoSo, Iwant to talk to Circe V's SIGINT chief." I knew Circe V had an extensivesignals intelligence network; maybe they'd have the data we needed.

A few minutes later I was talking with Brigadier Brigham Brigadoon, head ofCirce V Intel operations. "Colonel Blair," he said. "I can't tell you howmuch your efforts have meant to all of us here in Circe. Well done!"

"Thank you, General. No rest for the weary, I'm afraid. Our next operationdepends entirely upon comm traffic from rebel installations on Circe IV. Canyou send us all your intercepts for the last three days?"

"No problem, Colonel. Download will commence in a few minutes. I just hopeyou can separate the wheat from the chaff; it's a hefty chunk of data."

"No sweat, sir. We have a specialist here who can work magic." If she evershows up, that is. Dammit, where is that woman? "Blair out."

I turned to Lt. G'Neer. "I'm going to see if I can round up our missinglieutenant. As soon as the download is complete, start sorting through it formessages from the hostage base. We may have to do this without SoSo."

He didn't look happy at the prospect. "You'd better find her, sir. No oneelse on board is even in her league."


I finally found SoSo in the galley, standing at the window and staring out atthe stars. For one heart-stopping moment, she reminded me of Flint--how longago that was! But SoSo was not Flint. She was younger and more brittle, andright now she was hurting.

Unobtrusively, I moved next to her. For all her weeping, her cheeks were dry;she had run out of tears long before. My instinct was to comfort her, but, remembering my own pain when I lost Angel, I said nothing. If SoSo had something to say to me, she would say it in her own time.

We stood together in silence for a long time. When she finally spoke, hervoice was bitter. "He went the distance for you. But you wouldn't do thesame for him."

"Is that what you really wanted, Lieutenant?" I asked gently. "To sacrificewho-knows-how-many other lives for his? Is that what he would have wanted?"

She met my gaze defiantly. "I don't care about them! I just know he's gone,and it hurts! It hurts so b-bad!" She put one hand over her eyes and turnedaway.

Damn. She needed time to mourn, to heal, but I couldn't give it to her. Toomany lives were at stake. Hating myself for it, I pressed on.

"I lost my lair-mate in the War, Velina. I know how it hurts. But there justisn't time to grieve right now, because we need you in CIC. Desperately."

Eyes still covered, she shook her head. "No. I quit. I've had enough ofk-killing. F-find someone else."

As if. "Velina, no one else has your talent with codes. If you don't returnto duty, I'll--"

She whirled to confront me, eyes blazing with fury. "You'll what? You'llpunish me? What else can you really do to me, you bastard?" She pointed outthe window. "He's out there, along with my heart, both nothing more than spacedust! People fly through it every day and don't even know it."

I kept my voice even. "I won't have to punish you, Lieutenant. You'll do itfor me. As was saying, if you don't return to duty, I'll have to send a lotmore Catnips out to die." I swept my arm around the galley. "See thesepilots? Without your work so far, how many of us would still be here? Howmany will die if you quit now? Could you live with that on your conscience?"

My harsh words had wounded her even more deeply than Catnip's loss, if thatwere possible. Watching her stricken face, I longed to crush her in my armsand tell her everything would be all right.

She looked down at her feet and pleaded, "G-go away. Please."

Damn you, Blair. "I can't go away, SoSo; I'm the Wing Commander." I grabbedher chin and forced her to look at me. "And neither can you. Responsibility'sa bitch, isn't it? I'll see you in CIC in five minutes, Lieutenant!" I turnedand walked away, hating my job--and myself--a little more with every step.


Lt. G'Neer and I were still searching the comm intercepts when SoSo walked intoCIC. Without so much as a glance at me, she strode up to her comm console andmotioned for Lt. G'Neer to leave. Gratefully relinquishing his seat, he leftCIC for a well-earned rest.

With practiced ease, SoSo began categorizing the bewildering array of interceptdata. "Were you looking for anything in particular...SIR?" she asked coldly.

Brrrr. I shivered as I had in that computer deepfreeze on Orestes IV.

"Find the comm recs from the base where the hostages are held, SoSo. Look fororders from local food vendors--caterers, restaurants, takeout. The base can'tfeed all those extra mouths with existing facilities, so they must be gettingsupplies from outside."

"Aye aye, COLONEL! Now go away and let me work!"

OK, OK. Sheesh, what a grouch! I found a chair near the nav console, whereHulk and Panties were plotting attack routes to the numerous militia bases onCirce IV. I tried to follow their planning, but I was so tired that I caughtmyself nodding off again and again.

As I struggled to stay awake, my thoughts turned to Captain Eisen. How was hefaring on his dangerous quest? How long had he been gone? I checked my watch."Twenty-three hours," I muttered.

Hulk looked up from his work. "Poor Blair. Only ten for Hulk."

"Ten? What are you talking about, Hulk?"

He looked at me as if I were stupid or something. "Ten hours since Hulk havesex, of course."

"What?" I couldn't help myself. What woman would bed big dumb Hulk?

He gave me a knowing smile. "Colonel not believe Hulk? Hulk show." He stoodup and unzipped his fly. "Hulk hung like hor--"

"Er, not necessary, Hulk!" I said hastily. "I believe you." Whew! That wasclose.

More time passed. I was yawning constantly, fighting a losing battle to stayawake. I noticed that Panties, too, was showing signs of fatigue. She wasrubbing her eyes, yawning, and shifting uncomfortably in her seat. As Iwatched, half asleep, she sat up and slowly stretched her arms over her head,arching her back with the sinuous grace of a panther. I imagined the tensingand relaxing of muscles under her uniform...

What the-- She suddenly reached down and took off her footgear. Rising to her(bare) feet, she smiled at me invitingly and reached for her zipper. As herhips began to sway rhythmically, she slowly, slowly pulled the zipper down,never taking her eyes off me.

My heart began beating faster. Coveralls now off her shoulders, Pantiesbegan to dance around the confined area of the comm alcove, pausing only toslip her arms out of the sleeves. She stopped in front of me and swiveled herhips until the coveralls fell around her feet. She reached up, pulled thehairpin out of her bun, and shook her head; her chestnut hair tumbled downover her bare shoulders. Resting her hands on my chair, she leaned over meand brushed her hair across my face again and again. I inhaled deeply,intoxicated by the scent.

By now everyone in CIC was watching, entranced. Panties stepped out of hercoveralls and resumed her dance. SoSo had piped in a tune with a sensuous,primitive beat, and Panties moved to the music. Dancing over to Hulk, sheslipped off her bra and draped it over his grinning face. She dropped to thedeck and undulated enticingly, scissoring her legs. Crawling over to me, sheslowly stood up, grinding her hips, hands locked behind her neck. Her faceglistening, droplets of sweat running between her breasts, delicate body fuzzbacklit by the bright image of Circe IV in the nav display, she licked her lipsand reached down for her panties...

"Chris? Wake up, Chris."

I opened my eyes. Panties? How did she dress so fast? Oh, shit, it was justa dream!

Panties was leaning over me, grinning. "You should have seen the smile on yourface, Chris! What were you dreaming about?"

I had to improvise quickly. " farm! Yeah, that's it, I was dreamingabout harvest time. Heh heh."

She glanced down at the bulge in my uniform. "Miss your sheep, do you?"

Bitch. "That's not funny, Panties! So, er, how long was I out?"

She straightened up and let me out of the chair. "About an hour. Sosa hassome news for you." As I headed for the comm station, Panties pinched mybehind.

"Yipe! Er, what did you find, SoSo?" I asked, glaring back at Panties.

SoSo handed me a list. "For once you were right, SIR. Lots of calls tovarious vendors. However, nearly half went to just one takeout,this one."

Bingo! It was perfect. Thank you, God! "Good work, SoSo. Contact theAdmiral. Have him strike these bases in the northern hemisphere in exactly twohours, one fighter per base. I want as many Marines as he can spare standng byin landers, ready to take the hostage base on my signal."

I leaned closer to her and lowered my voice. "Thanks, SoSo. If we can pullthis off, we'll save many lives. We couldn't have done it without you."

Her expression didn't change. She just glared at me a few moments, then wentback to her work.


I found Zelda in one of the service bays, head and torso thrust deep into themain service panel on my Banshee's port engine. From time to time she wouldpop out to check the diagnostic computer, then plunge back in again to continueher tweaking. When she was finally satisfied, she dogged down the panel,unhooked the computer, and slid down the ladder.

"Oh hi, Blairbear!" she said, smiling. She jerked her thumb back at the ship."Just giving you another five kps. After my next shift, I think I can evenwring a few more out of--"

I wagged my finger at her. "Chief, this has got to stop. You have a fullworkload already; this moonlighting is coming out of sleep time. Now cut itout."

Zelda threw her arms around my neck playfully and grinned. "Oooo, I love itwhen you're masterful, grumpy Blair! So, you here for business or pleasure?"

Rats, what could I do? I pulled her cap down over her eyes and pecked her onthe cheek. "Business, you scamp. First of all, can we fit two Marines in oneof your JONs?"

Zelda let me go and readjusted her cap. "Why two? If you need more troops,just take another ship and more JONs."

"We barely have enough Vindicators to hit half the rebel bases with one each,hon. If we use extra fighters on the hostage base, they'll know something'sup."

"OK, dear, lend me your Mc for a minute." She busied herself with thecalculations while I enjoyed the pastoral atmosphere of my Mc's hypermediafield.

Zelda shut down the computer, abruptly yanking me back to reality. "Circe IVis about 95% Earth mass. Assuming two average Marines with full gear, a JONcan make one soft landing and one takeoff, with a minimal fuel reserve. Lifesupport is OK. It'll be a tight squeeze, though; your Marines better be very,very friendly with each other."

"Good. Now, the second thing I need..." I showed her a holopic of a takeoutpizzapak from a well-known fast food chain. "Can you whip up half a dozendummy pizzapaks for me? They have to be exact replicas."

Zelda's mouth watered. "Mmmm, pizza! You going on food patrol?" she askedhopefully. "I haven't had a decent meal in days!"

Neither had I. "What happened to your stash, hon? There was plenty left evenafter we raided it for our omelette."

She gave me a strange look. "I, uh, used it up...traded it...for some repairwork." I waited for more, but she seemed reluctant to add details.

"Traded to whom, Zelda?" I prompted. What was eating her?

She shuffled her feet, avoiding my eye. "The faeries," she mumbled.

I was shocked. "Dammit, Zelda, you know we don't use that epithet anymore! Wesay 'gays' or--"

She shook her head. "No, dummy! Not 'fairies.' F-A-E-R-I-E-S. REAL ones!"

"Real faeries?" Bemused, I took her gently by the shoulders. "Zelda, hon,you're not making sense. What faeries?"

She took a deep breath. "Look, Blairbear, I know it's hard to believe. Ididn't either, at first. But ever since we left Orestes III, my techs havebeen telling me about leaving food--good stuff, not ship's food--next to somebroken-down equipment, then coming back later and finding their gear fixed andthe food gone. It seemed crazy, but when the rumors persisted, I decided totry it myself. Remember what your Banshee looked like after that first sitcommission?"

I flushed, remembering the ribbing I'd taken over that. It was hard to believethat was the same bright shiny machine beside us. "Uh, yeah. I thought we'dhave to write it off."

She nodded. "So did I. But I left half my stash in it one night and sealedoff the service bay. Next morning, I opened the bay and found your ship asgood as new!"

I just stared at her.

"Then I cornered one of the new techs from Orestes III. He didn't want to talkat first, but I finally dragged it out of him. He told me stories from thedays of the first human colonists; stories about strange, unseen alien natives;about shadows that came alive when no one was around; not dangerous, but shyand curious. The early colonists would sometimes trade with them: food forservices..." She saw my blank expression. "You don't believe me," she said,disappointment evident on her face.

"Huh? Oh. No, Zelda, I do believe you. I was just thinking, this fits withwhat I've been hearing from SoSo and the ship's engineers. We'll definitelyhave to look into this 'faeries' business later. Right now, though, I have amission to prepare."

"OK, Honeyblair. I'll have your props ready in an hour."


I rounded up Sergeant McLean and brought him to CIC for the mission briefing.SoSo, Panties, Hulk, and Maniac were already waiting. Maniac was singing tohimself again.

"...when it hasn't been your day, your week, your month, or even your--"

"Knock it off, Maniac!" I nodded to SoSo.

SoSo was unusually subdued. Her eyes were red and she looked very tired. Herhand trembled a bit as she fumbled with the remote holodisplay contro

"Admiral Willful's fighters will hit these bases in the northern hemisphere ofCirce IV. Their strike is timed to coincide with our own attack on these basesin the south. Colonel Blair will attack the hostage base, suppress itsdefenses, and drop Sergeant McLean and his team. As soon as they've securedthe hostages, the Admiral's Marines will land to guard them from recaptureuntil they're evacuated. The Admiral will then broadcast an appeal for therebel Militia leaders to lay down their arms."

I reached for the remote. SoSo handed it over without looking at me. I zoomedin on the bunker with the entrance to the hostage quarters.

"Gopher and Skunk Squadrons will cover the operation from orbit. I'll dropthe Marines on my last pass over the base. They will then employ a ruse togain entrance--"

"A what?" interrupted Maniac.

"A ruse," I repeated. Maniac just looked at me blankly. "A stratagem." Noresponse. "A ploy...subterfuge...artifice." Maniac was looking more andmore bewildered. "A deception; a TRICK, dammit!"

The light dawned in Maniac's eyes. "Ohhhh, a trick! Why didn't you say so,Ace?"

Why me, God? "Ahem. After entering the--"

"You know," said Panties thoughtfully, "the word 'stratagem' really isn't agood synonym for 'ruse,' Colonel."

I stared at her blankly. "What?"

Hulk was nodding. "Panties right. 'Stratagem' used in context of maneuver inwar or gaming, not tricking opponent."

Maniac jumped in enthusiastically. "That's what I say! No wonder I wasconfused! Now if he had said--"

I threw up my hands. "Fuck the briefing!" I tossed SoSo the remote and tookMcLean's sleeve. "Come on, Sergeant, let's lock and load."

As we left CIC, Panties was still pontificating.

"Now 'subterfuge,' on the other hand, is a pretty good..."


Zelda kissed the tiger emblem on my flight helmet and handed it to me. "Goodluck, stud!" she said.

"Thanks, Zelda, but it won't do much good if those damn Marines don't show uppretty--"

A loud clatter behind me in the service bay announced the arrival of ourHollyworld Marines. Shouting "One two three four, I LOVE the Marine Corps!"they jogged over to the Vindicator in full combat gear and lined up in front ofthe three JONs.

Sergeant McLean stood ramrod-straight in front. "Marine contingent presentfor--" He paused as Corporal Vanish slithered into place at the end of theline. "--present for duty, sir!"

I wasn't listening. I was staring at Corporal Vanish with my mouth wide open.

Corporal Vanish was definitely NOT dressed for combat. Her hair was teasedand lightly sprinkled with glitter. She wore heavy makeup, glitzy earrings,and the longest false eyelashes I had ever seen. A thin black velvet bandcircled her throat. She was wearing a thin, extremely low-cut, midriff-baringwhite top, a skin-tight red microskirt, and NO bra. She balanced precariouslyon five-centimeter stiletto heels.

I don't know how long I would have stood there staring if Zelda hadn't put herfingers under my chin and gently closed my mouth. "Wha? Oh. Ahem! SergeantMcLean, better load your troops."

"Aye aye, sir!" He pivoted to face his five troopers. "At ease! OK, people,we gotta double up in these pods, so it's going to be tight. Corporal Vanishwill take the first pod. Now, who wants to go with Vanish?" Four hands shotup. McLean pointed. "OK, Private West."

West stuck out his tongue at his buddies, then leered at Cpl. Vanish. She gavehim the finger and continued chewing her bubble gum.

McLean pointed to Wang. "Private Wang, grab those pizzapaks and get into thesecond pod with Damppuss. Awks, you're with me." Pvt. Damppuss didn't seemvery happy with her partner, but she grudgingly climbed into the pod.

As the pods were being sealed and loaded on my ship, I felt a tap on myshoulder. I turned, and there was Panties in her flight suit.

"Panties, you should be out there with Gopher Squadron!"

She smiled. "Excell's taking the Gophers today so I can fly your wing. Don'tworry, Earthworm, I'm Vindicator-qualified."

I glanced nervously at Zelda. She, in turn, looked suspiciously at Panties.My legs suddenly felt weak.

"Well, let's go, then!" I said with false enthusiasm. Anything to get thosetwo away from each other.


As we neared the final off-planet nav point, I commed my pilots one last time."OK, everybody. We want the rebels to think we're just softening up theirbases for an invasion. Let's make it look good."

We split up and plunged into the atmosphere. I was carrying three leechmissiles in case we met fighter opposition, but I saw nothing on my scope. Itseemed Captain Apton's intelligence was correct. I concentrated on my run,balancing skin temperature against the need for haste.

I took an indirect route to my target, flying at high speed and extremely lowaltitude. When enemy sensor emissions neared detection threshhold, I popped upand armed my IRs.

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Missile turret! Lock IR! Launch! Bam! Bam! Laserfire! Jink! Decoy! Missile approaching...pull up! Hah! Missed! Kaboom!Missile turret gone! Yessss!

I zoomed over the base and turned for another run. Shields were holding. Nowfor the laser turrets!

I could have taken out a couple with my remaining IRs, but I just LOVED thesound of the Vindicator's tachyon guns! Besides, when I took out the base'ssensors, I had to make it look like accidental overshooting.

Screech! Screech! Screech! Eat tachyons, rebel scum! Laser turret and mainsensor array destroyed. Next pass. Screech! Screech! Another turret. Laserfire diminishing.

It took me two more passes to take out all the lasers and sensors. Smoke fromthe fires was billowing across the base, coaxed along by a gentle breeze. Iswitched to stormfires and started my final pass.

Over the base, I strafed installations and bare ground alike, throwing dirtand dust far up into the air. As I approached the target bunker, I slowedmomentarily and salvoed the three JONs before continuing on. With all the dustand smoke in the air, it was unlikely they'd be spotted.

I zoomed off as if heading for a secondary target. When I was out of visualrange, however, I slowed and orbited in place. I switched my comm system toSgt. McLean's helmet microcam. If something went wrong, I'd have to attempta rescue pronto.

I could hear McLean clearly. "Earthworm! Down safely, twenty meters frombunker. Approaching now." In the bouncing image from his cam, I could seethe Marines advancing in a creditable combat spread. I would have been moreimpressed, however, if Awks hadn't tripped over his feet and gone sprawling.

At the bunker, the armed Marines flattened against the wall. Carefullybalancing on her high heels, Cpl. Vanish minced past them, pushing a grav sledloaded with dummy pizzapaks. She paused a moment at the entrance to straightenher clothing and plump up her bosom before pushing the doorbell.

Seconds passed before a muffled voice answered from inside. "Who is it?"

"Pizza Slut!" replied Vanish.

There was a longer pause, during which the rebels must have been conferring.No doubt they were also examining her via hidden holocam. Finally, the muffledvoice said, "We didn't order anything!"

"Are you sure?" asked Vanish enticingly. She leaned over the pizzapaks--nodoubt revealing considerable cleavage--and sniffed. "Mmmm, it smells soooogood! It's nice and hot, boys!" She straightened up, licked her fingers, andthrust them under her top. Circling them languidly beneath the fabric, sheclosed her eyes and added breathlessly, "And so am I!"

The door began sliding open. Vanish quickly pushed the grav sled out of theway, raised her skirt, and snatched her hidden stun pistol. As the guardsemerged, she took them out with rapid fire. The other Marines rushed to heraid and piled in through the entrance. I lost the holocam signal when McLeanentered the bunker.

I quickly switched to the Marine lander channel. "Pepperoni to go!" I yelled."Repeat: Pepperoni to go!" I hit the throttle and burned for the base. I hadto keep rebel troops away from the bunker until the real Marines arrived.


As it turned out, I wasn't needed for several minutes. By the time the rebelsmade their first attempt to retake the bunker, Panties had arrived to help mebeat them off. For the second attack, they scraped up a number of portablemissile launchers, forcing us to keep our distance. A battalion of Willful'sUnion Marines had already landed, however, and they overran the rebels beforethey could reach the bunker. Now if only McLean had saved the hostages...

McLean's weary face appeared on my comm screen. "Mission accomplished, boss.No casualties. Uh, OK if we go back on the landers, sir? Those JONs are apretty tight fit."

Whew! Our thespians had pulled off another miracle. "Good work, Sergeant.See you back on the--"

I was interrupted by a top priority message from Intrepid. SoSo appeared onthe comm, looking agitated. "Sir! Sir! Therebelshavejustsurrendered!"

"Surrendered? Hey, that's good--"

SoSo cut me off impatiently. "There's more, sir! I just decrypted a signalfrom a cloaked Covert Ops transport. They were about to deliver some prototypefighters when they got the news. Now they're heading home. Sir, they're onlyhalf an hour from you!"

My mind raced. Maybe the "prototypes" were Bearcats, or even some of thosemysterious gray fighters I'd seen on the Kilrathi guncam rec! We couldn't passup a chance, however slim, to get our hands on some. Hmmm, if we did, it wouldbe best to keep it from Covert Ops.

"SoSo! Have you notified the flagship?"

"Hey, gimme a break! I just decoded--"

"Good! Don't! Don't tell ANYONE!" If Paladin was right, and there wereconspirators on Willful's staff, I didn't want them knowing we had their secretweapon.

I switched to my wingman channel. "McLean! Put on your enviro suits, get intothose JONs, and launch ASAP! Panties, form on my wing!" Our mission wasn'tover yet.


We were nearing the projected position of the Covert Ops transport when Pantiescommed me.

"Earthworm, I assume you have a plan, right? Or do you expect to stumble onthem by blind luck?"

I was insulted. "Hey! I ALWAYS have a plan, Panties! You'll see." Exceptthat my plan depended on rebel IFF codes I didn't have. I breathed a silentprayer. Please God, let SoSo find the codes. OK? Please?

"Intrepid to Earthworm! Colonel Blair?"

SoSo! "Go ahead, Lieutenant."

"I just decrypted some rebel IFF codes from Circe V's comm intercepts." Yesss!Thank you, God! "Shall I download them to you?"

Oh, Christ. "No, Lieutenant, I'd rather go in without 'em and get my ass shotoff! Just send us the damn codes, OK?" Sheesh. I admired Border Worlders fortheir ingenuity, their independence, and above all their loyalty, but sometimesthey could be SO dense!

"Well you don't have to bite my head off! Downloading now."

When Panties and I had switched our transponders to the new codes, I changed tothe general comm channel. "Circe IV flight to transport Raven. We've escapedwith three Directorate members. Request asylum. Calling transport Raven..."

Minutes passed without a response. Would they take the bait? Maybe they werepreparing an ambush--

"Raven here. IFF codes match. Stand by, Circe scum. Decloaking." Threecontacts appeared on my scope about a hundred thousand klicks ahead. The twofighter signatures were unfamiliar. Yeah, mystery fighters, all right. Fromthe Kilrathi guncam rec, I knew they were much faster than the Vindicator, andnow I'd seen that they could cloak, too. Damn, what else could they do?

"Panties, stand by to leech bandit 2 on my order. Marines, prepare for launch.Meanwhile, let's play friendly."

"Another ruse, eh?" Panties replied nervously. These fighters obviously had mywingman on edge, too.

As soon as I was in range, I acquired passive lock on bandit 1. I wanted toget closer before firing, however, lest my target cloak while the missile wasstill inbound.

I got a comm from the transport. The guy had the same cookie-cutter featuresas the fake Marines on the Lexington. He didn't bother hiding his contempt forwhat he thought were Circe IV rebel leaders.

"So, Circe subhumans. You fail miserably in your task, and now you beg forrescue. Well, I daresay our Leader can find some small use for--" His eyesnarrowed. "Wait a minute! You're the guy from--"

I cut him off. Damn damn! "SHOOT, Panties!" I yelled. I launched my ownleech at close range. Splat! Strange, my target should show zero power, butthe readings were fluctuating. No matter. I wrenched my Vindicator around atthe transport. I launched two IRs from the beam and blasted away with tachyonguns. Screech! Screech! Subhuman, am I?

Splat! Panties' target was out of action. "Score one for the good guys!Hang on, Earthworm!"

Just in time! I was bobbing and weaving, but my shields were weakening fromuncannily accurate laser fire. Screech! Screech! Would those shields neverdrop?

Wham! Screech! Screech! Yahoo, Panties was hitting, too! Oh, shit, thetransport was cloaking! "Leech cannon, Panties!"

The transport cloaked successfully, but Panties and I double-teamed it as if wewere telepathically linked. I illuminated the target with my lasers whilePanties chugged away with leech cannon. We followed it through two ninety-degree turns until it finally lost power and reappeared.

Recalling Zelda's warning that the JONs would be nearly out of fuel, I got asclose as I could before launching the Marines. It would take several minutesfor our thespians to take the ship--if they could even pull it off--so I tookthe opportunity to scan one of the leeched fighters.

Boy, this baby was a real beauty. Energy readings indicated a huge powerplantand--Energy readings? Jesus Christ, HE WAS AUTOREPAIRING!

In a panic, I blazed away with tachyon guns. Screech screech screech! Kaboom!Just in time! Damn, was there anything that fighter couldn't do?

"Panties! Watch out for--" Kaboom! Panties had discovered the danger at thesame time and dealt with it. God, I loved that woman!

"Score one--Shit! More bad guys, Earthworm!"

Uh-oh! Two mystery fighters at max sensor range. "Form on my wing, Panties!"As we turned to intercept, my stomach knotted with fear. Who was I kidding?We were no match for these super ships! They could fly rings around our clumsyVindicators. The enemy pilots were so confident, in fact, that they weren'tbothering to cloak. I couldn't blame them.

Panties knew the odds as well as I. "If you have another ruse up your sleeve,Earthworm, you'd better use it fast!"

I thought furiously. My repertoire of taunts would be useless against thesearrogant bas-- Arrogant! And they called us subhumans! These guys must beproducts of the G.E.D. Program! Hmmm...

"Panties! Keep mum, I got an idea." I switched to the general channel andwaited.

As I expected, my opponents couldn't wait to flaunt their superiority. Thelead fighter commed me at long range.

"Die, inferior, by the guns of the Black Lance!"

I stayed silent.

"Your pathetic efforts will avail you naught, mongrel!"

I said nothing.

"So, mental midget, you fear to trade taunts with your superiors?"

That was my cue. In my best Pat Morita accent I replied, "Moment, prease.Consulting dictionelly...Ah so. Ahem. You, Brack Rance-san, am intercoursingoffspling of sibrings, and have velly nallow clanium. Hah!"

"Huh?" He had to think that one over. "Ohhhhh, you're saying I'm a fuckinginbred pinhead, right?" No doubt the arrogant bastard was proud of himself fordecrypting my pidgin Terran.

OK, Blair, now play him. "Solly, what you say, honable Brack Rance?"

"You said, I'm a fucking inbred pinhead!"

"No savvy. You what, prease?"

"I'm a fucking inbred pinhead, you moron! I'M A FUCKING INBRED PINHEAD!!"

I couldn't stand it any more. "You sure are, mutant! Bwahahahaha!"

It took Einstein a few moments to realize he'd just taunted himself.


"Idiot!" screamed his wingman. "You're a disgrace to the master race! Die,you genetic jackass!"

Jesus Christ, the two of them were suddenly going at it like blood enemies! Asthey blasted each other with tachyon guns and missiles, I slowed and moved towithin a few meters of Panties' ship. Staring at me in disbelief, she jerkedher thumb in the general direction of the battling purebreds. I could onlyshrug in reply. A little ego was a dangerous thing.

After dishing out and absorbing an incredible amount of punishment, the twoBlack Lance fighters were little more than flying wrecks. Panties and I putthem out of their misery and tractored in the two escape pods. By then aflight of Intrepid's Banshees had arrived, and our Marines, thank God, hadtaken the transport. Panties and I set course for home.


On the comm, SoSo was still subdued. "Congratulations, Earthworm," she said ina monotone. "Chief Morgenstern and some of the engineers are shuttling out tobring back that transport's cargo. No indications of other ships in the area."

Hmmm. Then the transport was alone. Shit, those Black Lance fighters musthave come from millions of klicks away, perhaps even another star system.They must have incredible range! "SoSo, notify the flagship that we'vedestroyed an unidentified transport and several fighters of an unknown type.No survivors." That should preserve our little secret.

"Roger, Earthworm. You have clearance."

"Thanks, Lieutenant." The words were so inadequate. Despite her pain, she'dperformed brilliantly. "Look, SoSo, you saved thousands of lives today.Catnip would have been proud of you. I know I am."

For just a moment her eyes twinkled, but then they hardened again. "Would he,sir? How could you know? He's DEAD!" She broke the connection.



I made it down the ladder OK, but when I tried to walk to the ready room, Ihad to pause and hang on to the Vindicator's port landing gear. The euphoriaof our success had worn off, and now I just felt worn out. God, would thisnightmare never end?

My spirits revived somewhat when I spotted Panties on her way to my ship.She stopped beside me and put her hands on her hips. "Chris, I thought I'dseen it all, but today takes the cake. We should have died out there. I justwonder how much longer you're gonna get away with that shit."

She wasn't the only one. "Hey, I'm the Wing Commander," I boasted. "I do'that shit' every day." I tried to emphasize the point by standing up on mywobbly legs and nearly collapsed.

Panties steadied me and draped my arm over her shoulder. Tired though I was,her touch sent a tingle through me. "Easy, Chris. Let me help you to bed."She gave me a look that made me shiver. "I believe we have unfinished--"

Lt. G'Neer yelled at me from the service bay hatch. "Colonel! Urgentmessage from Admiral Willful, sir! Lieutenant Sosa sent me to fetch you."

Panties's stricken expression mirrored my own. Like automatons, we shuffledafter Lt. G'Neer.


End of Chapter 24

Previews from Chapter 25:

"Help us! In the name of humanity, HELP us!

"We're mentally and genetically conditioned to defeat torture or drugs! Doyour worst, you diseased dwarf!"

"I have a very bad feeling about this one, my darling."

"Colonel, help me! Oh God, help me, help me--aaaaahhhhh!"