Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 25

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to March 17, 1997]

Chapter 25

I barged into CIC in a black mood. That damn Willful wouldn't rest until hegot us all killed. If this was another suicide mission...

Hulk and Maniac were already there; Maniac was singing to himself again. SoSowas standing in front of the briefing table, remote in hand. I turned to facethe main display, intending to give the Admiral a piece of my mind. I stoppedshort, however, when I saw the state he was in. Behind me, Panties gasped inshock.

The transmission was coming from the flagship's sick bay. Vice-Admiral Willfulwas lying in bed, tubes stuck in his arms, up his nose, and in unseen locationsunder the covers. I couldn't see his face very well behind the oxygen mask,but he was pale and noticeably thinner. A pretty nurse--not the one I'd seenlast time--was working at the med console on the far side of the bed.

When the Admiral saw me, he reached for the bed control and raised himself to athirty degree angle. He pulled the mask off his face and coughed a couple oftimes to clear his throat. When he spoke, his voice was weak and hoarse.

"Ah, the Eye of the Tiger. Excellent work with the hostages."

"Thank you, Admiral, but it's HEART of--"

The Admiral had a sudden coughing fit. He motioned to his nurse, who handedhim a small plastic cup containing a clear liquid. Willful downed it in onegulp and sighed in satisfaction. "Ahhhh. Vodka! Thanks, honey!"

Looking a bit more perky, the Admiral resumed our conversation. "I called you,Blair, because something terrible has apparently happened in the TelefonSystem. This distress signal was sent two days ago; it took that long to relayit here." He nodded to someone outside the holoview.

The Admiral's image was replaced by a view of a short-haired, somewhat frumpy-looking woman. She was extremely agitated, almost hysterical.

"Can anyone hear me?" she cried. "This is Planet 36-24-36 in the TelefonSystem! We're under attack by unknown forces--" The trans faded into staticfor a moment, then resumed as the woman fiddled frantically with the commcontrols. "I don't even know if I'm using this thing right... We're a smallagricultural colony; we have no defense against these things! Canisters arefalling...people dropping like flies..." Her face twisted with pain and shedoubled over out of view of the holocam.

Canisters? Dropping like flies? I thought of Locanda IV, where the Kilrathihad "demonstrated" their ultimate bioweapon, and my flesh crawled.

In the display, the Telefon woman was painfully pulling herself back up intoview, her sweating face contorted with the effort. "Help us!" she cried inanguish. "In the name of humanity, HELP us! We--" She suddenly looked to herright, terror on her face. I heard the unmistakable screech of tachyon fireand the rumble of explosions. The display went blank.

"Goddamn cats!" exclaimed Maniac. "Using their bioweapons again! That double-crossing Malloc--"

Fast as lightning, Hulk grabbed Maniac by the front of his uniform and liftedhim off the deck. "Melek Hulk friend!" he roared. "MELEK NOT DO THIS!"

Terrorstricken, Maniac could only whimper inarticulately as dampness began tospread across the front of his trousers. Satisfied that Maniac had gotten thepoint, Hulk set him down safely. Snickering, SoSo tossed Maniac a clipboard,which he immediately clasped in front of him.

The holodisplay cut back to the sick bay, where Admiral Willful was strugglingwith another of his nurses. He had his hand way up under her microskirt andrefused to let go, despite the blows she was raining on him.

"Ow! Sorry, honey," he protested, "but--Ow!--I'm stuck! Ow! Oh, Blair!" Hereleased the nurse and lay back in bed. He coughed a few times before he couldcontinue.

"I know you're all exhausted, Blair, so I'm leaving this up to you. Telefon ison the Union frontier, so remote that its planets are still known by theiroriginal discovery coordinates. It's part of the Union of Border Worlds,however, and the Union believes in equal protection for all member worlds, nomatter how fucking stupid the people are to live so far from civilization, orhow insignificant their petty little world, or how damn much it costs us todefend their hick asses, or--"

"Uh, I get the picture, Admiral!" Sheesh. "Let me check with my people." Iturned away from the holodisplay.

I looked first at SoSo, whose face was a wordless plea. I nodded, and turnednext to Hulk.

Hulk, not surprisingly, was another matter. "Hulk tell Blair, Telefon too far!Danger here. We stay, protect Union worlds from Confed."

"Hulk, you moron!" yelled Panties. "They're Border Worlders like us! Besides,we have to find out what hit them! It may be a new weapon!"

That got Hulk's dander up. "Hulk not moron! Maybe Telefon diversion, lure usfrom real target! Panties ignorant slut!"

"WHAT?" Enraged, Panties delivered a vicious kick to Hulk's groin.

Hulk didn't so much as bat an eye. Eyes smoldering, he advanced slowly onPanties, who backed away warily.

Damn those two! I got in front of Hulk and tried vainly to push him back."Hulk!" I said desperately. "Think for a second! If they used a bioweapon, itmight also affect other life rabbits!"

Thunderstruck, Hulk stopped in his tracks. "Rabbits? Bunnies? Blair, we goTelefon now! OK?"

I reached up and patted the now-docile giant on his shoulder. "OK, big guy!"Skipping over Maniac, I addressed the Admiral again. "Admiral, it's settled.We'll leave as soon as we load the new--" Oops, don't tell him about thefighters! "--er, our new THX sound system."

The Admiral stuck a cigar in his mouth and smiled. "OK. Good luck, Blair!Willful out!" Forgetting the oxygen mask still around his neck, he reached forhis lighter.

The nurse at the console screamed and lunged for the lighter. "NO, Admiral!Oxygen--"

There was a bright flash and the display blanked.

Oh, shit! "SoSo, try to contact the flag--"

Hulk suddenly moaned in pain. Clutching his crotch, he pitched forward ontothe deck. Wearing a satisfied smile, Panties made a gun of her thumb andforefinger, blew on the end of the "barrel," and stuck it in an imaginaryholster. Then she swaggered out of CIC.

I sighed in exasperation. "Never mind, SoSo. Get Forceps here, instead." Iknelt by the moaning Hulk, my own nether regions tingling in sympathy. Idefinitely had to put a stop to these shennanigans before somebody got hurt.

"Hey, Ace!" exclaimed Maniac. "I didn't know we were getting THX sound!"

Why me, God?


I stuck around CIC to plan for our expedition to Telefon. Under peacetimesafety regs, it was a three-jump, two-day trip. After consulting with ourengineers, I decided to take the alternate two-jump route, which entailed adangerously long second hop, but shaved a day off the voyage. The task force'sengineering departments immediately began re-tuning the ships' jump engines formaximum performance.

Meanwhile, I pondered the meaning of the mysterious attack on Planet 36-24-36.I had no doubt it was done by Covert Ops or their surrogates, the Black Lance,but what could they possibly gain by striking a worthless little colony on theedge of nowhere?

I pounded the nav console in frustration. Damn, if only I had more data!Once Zelda got back with the Marines and our Black Lance prisoners, by God, I'dinterrogate those S.O.B.s within a millimeter of their lives!


The next thing I knew, Lt. Pilotte was shaking me. "Sir? Wake up, sir."

I looked around blankly for a moment. Shit, I had fallen asleep at the navconsole again. Yet, as I stood up and stretched my cramped muscles, I had toadmit the nap had done me a world of good.

"Sir," she continued, "Chief Morgenstern is back. The new fighters have beentransferred. Our escorts are alerted. We can leave any time."

"Oh. OK." Now I knew why Captain Eisen was always complaining about beingleft out of the loop. "Very well. Lt. SoSo, notify our escorts: Conform toour movements." I adjusted my uniform and struck a dramatic pose, arm flungout toward the bow. "Helm, full speed to Telefon! Ready... En g--"

Noting Skye's smirk, I caught myself. Smiling ruefully, I relaxed and pattedher shoulder. "Just get us to Telefon, Skye. OK?"

She grinned back. "Aye aye...Captain!"


I was eager to see the mysterious Black Lance fighters close up, so I headedstraight for the flight deck. At the bottom of the stairs from the ControlBay, I ran into Sgt. McLean.

"McLean!" I hailed. "Hey, great work saving those hostages. Any trouble?"

He grinned. "No, sir! Corporal Vanish took out all the guards up top with herfirst burst. The ones on the sublevels weren't expecting trouble, so we got'em easily. Lieutenant Sosa was right, sir: the trash bins were stuffed withPizza Slut takeout paks and used condoms."

Yeah, SoSo had come through for us, all right. I'd left her an emotionalwreck, but the end justifed the means. Right? Right?

"No food, though," continued McLean sadly. "We had to leave, anyway, to getthat transport. Now that's where we ran into trouble! We blew the securitymodule on the aft airlock, got inside, and took off our enviro suits. But aswe made our way forward, we were pinned down in the crew's lounge. Man, thoseBlack Lancers can really shoot!"

No kidding. If I'd known he was up against supermen, I never would've let himattack the transport. "So how did you take 'em down, Fry? Corporal Vanishagain?" I nudged him and winked.

McLean was outraged. "Certainly not, sir! You see, I spotted all theseholovid mags and entertainment trade pubs in the lounge, and I figured at leastsome of these guys were aspiring actors. And I KNOW what that's like! So Iyelled out, 'I know Spieven Steelburg!' Well, those morons all jumped up andstarting begging for auditions--"

"Steelburg?" I grabbed McLean's lapels with the strength of a madman. "YOUKNOW SPIEVEN STEELBURG?" Damn, who could tell where my career would have goneif I'd had Steelburg instead of Lu--

"No, I don't!" cried McLean, desperately tugging at my arms. "It was just aruse! A ploy! A stratagem!"

My hopes dashed, I released McLean. Damn, I never got a break!

Watching me warily, McLean continued his story. "Uh, anyway, sir, we capturedthe crew and the four pilots you shot down. Where do you want them?" Hepointed to the line of prisoners, guarded by his vigilant Marines.

I walked up to the first one and brutally tore off his blindfold and the tapeover his mouth. Despite his predicament, the prisoner was unafraid.

"You primitive Border World scum!" he snarled. "We won't talk! We're mentallyand genetically conditioned to resist torture or drugs! Do your worst, youdiseased dwarf!

Dwarf? DWARF? "Sgt. McLean!" I barked. "Take our guests to the Skunk readyroom. Tie them to the seats and remove their blindfolds. We'll see just howtough they are!"

McLean looked at me and shivered. "Uh, aye aye, sir! OK, Marines, let's move'em out!"

I turned to go. I had a plan, of course, but first I had to find--

"Blairbear!" Zelda appeared out of nowhere and pounced on me joyously. Ibackpedaled, trying to balance her weight, as she covered me with kisses. Shefinished with a hug that squeezed the breath out of me and said, "Thank you,thank you for the wonderful presents, Chris!"

I set her down and pulled out a handkerchief to dab at my new wounds. "Whatpresents, hon?"

Zelda pointed to a row of ten huge cargo containers arranged along the portside of the flight deck. A number of techs were tearing down the first one,from which the outline of a sleek gray fighter was emerging. Plastic packingpeanuts were piled all over the place.

"Oh, you mean the Black Lance fighters. Well, you can thank our Marines forthose, Chief."

She frowned. "Speaking of the Marines, what were they doing in my JONs? Ifound used condoms in all three of them!"

All three? Then McLean and Awks... "Er, you know Marines, hon. Heh heh."

"Yeah? Well let 'em clean their own JONs next time! Anyway, come on, Chris,I want to show you my new toys!"

I allowed Zelda to drag me toward the first fighter, which was now fullyunpacked and swarming with techs. A close-range look at the strange machineonly reinforced my earlier impression of massive, menacing power. I shudderedinvoluntarily; only my spur-of-the-moment taunt had saved me from dying underthe guns of a fighter like this.

Tech Barr was exploring a compartment in the belly of the beast. "Hey!" heyelled excitedly. "Look what I found!" He dragged out a huge metallic diskwith a rounded top surface. It looked like a larger version of the pizzapaksZelda had prepared for our Circe IV mission.

Maniac, who had been standing nearby looking bored, suddenly sprang to life."Pizza!" he yelled. "Hot damn!" He joined the mob of starving techs, pilots,and deckhands descending on the tool chest where Barr had set the pizzapak.

Funny, there was something very familiar--and vaguely menacing--about that pak.Now where did I see...

"By the way, Chris," said Zelda casually, her eyes still on the fighter. "Isthere something between you and Colonel Farnsworth?"

Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Danger, Blair! I turned to my crew chief. "Why,Zelda! What ever gave you--" I stopped. No, she deserved the truth, whateverthe consequences for me. I had a sudden vision of a wrench crushing two eggs.

"Zelda, the truth is, I love both of you." I was distracted by activity aroundthe pizzapak. Unable to open it manually, the techs were now using a hammerand chisel on it. "Uh, I'm, uh, sorry, hon, you deserve better from me."Damn, something about that pizzapak was nagging at the back of my mind.

Though her eyes were brimming with tears, Zelda bravely forced a smile. "I do,Blairbear," she said. "But I understand. Tamara's q-quite a woman."

Barr was now attacking the pizzapak with a sledgehammer, to no avail. "Hangon," he said to the eager onlookers. "Let me get a laser torch."

I felt like I was trying to watch a three-ring circus. "Uh, you're quite awoman, too, Zelda." The Annabel Lee! A pizzapak just like this one wasdrifting near the lifeless hulk of the Annabel Lee! Well, so what? "You'revery, uh, precious to me, hon, but so is Tamara, in, uh, a different..."

"This oughta do it!" declared Barr, as he returned with the torch.

"She reminds you of Angel, d-doesn't she, Chris?" stammered Zelda.

"Angel who?" I tore my eyes away from the torch. "Oh, Angel! Um, so do you,Zelda, I mean, your loyalty and, uh, dedication." Zelda was so understanding!I reached for her...

Barr was just about to begin cutting when a deckhand stopped him. "Hey, Fern,"he said. "What's this little button here on top?"

I held Zelda close to me, but my mind was wandering. Wait! The Kilrathitransport! That tumbling object...round and flattish...of course! A pizzapak!Jesus Christ! This "pizzapak" was a tickle bomb!

Barr was reaching for the button...

I shoved Zelda behind me and screamed, "Fern, NOOOOO!"

TOO LATE! Barr had pressed the button!

Everything was happening in slow motion. The tickle bomb began to vibratefaster and faster, until it was just a blur. Suddenly wary, the hungry crowdbegan to edge back. I could only stand transfixed, praying that someone wouldpop an airlock and grant us a quick, easy death. My skin began to tingle--

POOF! The bomb popped open like a clamshell, releasing a cloud of steam!Inside I could just make out the sinister shape of...

A huge, mouth-watering Pizza Slut "Cosmic Combo" pizza!

"Yahoo! Pizza!" A feeding frenzy broke out as the ravenous mob pounced on thepizzapak.

As my panic receded, I suddenly realized that Zelda was cradling me in herarms like a baby. She stared at me as if I were insane.

Sheepishly, I climbed down. At least I hadn't wet myself this time.

Zelda put her hand on my forehead. "Are you all right, Blairbear?" she askedwith concern. "You look like someone just walked on your grave."

I had to concentrate to keep my wobbly knees from giving way. "Uh, yeah, hehheh. My grave. That's a good one. Heh heh." I used my handkerchief to wipemy moist forehead. "Er, sorry to run, Zelda, but I gotta go interrogate ourprisoners."

Zelda looked down at her feet. "Um, look, Chris," she said in a small voice."If you... If you need me to make them talk... I mean, it's OK. I don'tmind...really."

What a woman! I hugged her fiercely. "Zelda, I am so sorry for using you likethat! I'll never, ever put you through that again!" We pulled apart."Besides," I said mysteriously, "I have a plan."

She looked at me with adoration. "That's my Blairbear! OK, I gotta get towork on these babies." She handed me a data cartridge. "Here. They camecomplete with manuals. Study them before you even think about getting inone." Rubbing her hands with anticipation, she strode off toward the nearestfighter.

I sighed. It seemed I'd been replaced in her affections, at least temporarily.Hmph! Techs! I plunged into the crowd of pizza-munchers, looking for Maniac.

Maniac was standing a few meters from the now-empty pizzapak, a half-eatenslice of pizza in each hand. Melted cheese and toppings oozed over his wrists,and tomato sauce ran down his chin. Though his mouth was already overflowing,he nevertheless continued to stuff anchovy ambrosia into his face.

He grinned at me. "Fi, Afe! Mmmm! Mfth ith ood! Wan' thum?" He held outone of his prizes.

I had to pass; my stomach was still vigorously practicing Boy Scout knots. "Nothanks. I just thought you might want to talk to our Black Lance prisoners."

Maniac took another huge bite and nodded. Food usually put him in a good mood."Oh-ay! Wha' ood I thay?"

I assumed a serious tone. "Maniac, these 'supermen' think we're scum, subhumanscum. I want you to show them what we're REALLY made of! Tell 'em some ofyour stories--tell 'em ALL your stories! Major, I want you to put the fear ofMANIAC into 'em!"

Bursting with pride, Maniac jumped to attention and saluted me, forgetting thepizza in his hand. I barely managed to keep a straight face until I was out ofsight.


We had about two hours until the first jump. I spent the time in CIC, playingship's captain and examining the Black Lance fighter manuals. Fascinatingthough they were, I still found time to worry about SoSo. She was drivingherself relentlessly, probably trying to bury her grief in work. I finallyordered her to sick bay for a sedative and a rest; she was no good to me orherself in her present state.

The LV-426 System, our intermediate destination, had been uninhabited since thefirst colony was mysteriously wiped out fifty-six years ago. Nevertheless, Ihad the wing on fifty percent alert for the jump; for all we knew, Telefon'sattackers might be returning our way.

When our sensor scans came up negative, I set course for the next jump pointand turned the watch over to Lt. Cmdr. Ander. Now that I knew the Black Lancefighters on paper, I was anxious to make their acquaintance in person.


I checked in at the Control Bay first, then took the stairs down to the flightdeck. On the way to my usual service bay, I passed some off-duty techs playingfrisbee with the empty Black Lance pizzapak.

My trusty little Banshee was no longer in the bay; in its place was one of theBlack Lance fighters. Up close, it was breathtaking; the raised wings, angularfeatures, and jutting nose all contributed to the air of menace. The winkingsmiley face insignia on the wings seemed incongruous until I got closer andread the fine print: HAVE A NICE DEATH. Whoa!

I found Zelda on the other side of the fighter, working on a remote controlunit. She greeted me with a smile. "So, you do your homework, snookums?"

I took the data cartridge out of my pocket and handed it to her. "It's calleda Dragon. Max speed 500 kps, 1200 on burner. Power plant's matter-antimatter,giving it nearly unlimited range, long-duration afterburn, and a capship ionsignature. That explains the ion trails I found near the Annabel Lee, and whywe couldn't catch the perpetrators."

"Very good. What else?"

"Maneuverability about like the Excalibur. Armor rated at 300, shields at 500.Armament is two tachyons--Yes!--two plasmas, and two big fucking fusion guns,ten missiles, and two torpedoes. It has the latest electronics, an AI soadvanced that its controls are the simplest of any fighter, and leech-proofautorepair. It's jump-capable, cloak-capable, and one mean motherfucker!"

Zelda beamed. "A-plus, Honeyblair! Any questions?"

"Yeah. There's no mention of a tickle weapon. On Melek's guncam vid, it lookslike the bomb is launched from the ventral compartment, but on the specs thatspace is only for small cargo or extra decoys."

Zelda nodded. "Must be a retrofit. And that's not the only thing missing fromthe specs." She pointed her remote at the Dragon. "Now watch this,sweetness."

She clicked a button, causing the Dragon's landing gear to retract part way,and lowering the fuselage until the belly was barely five centimeters off thedeck. The sleek, low-slung bird looked like it was doing half lightspeed!

"Wow, a low-rider! Oh, Zelda, I just gotta drag this baby!"

Zelda moved her thumb to another button and clicked it repeatedly. The Dragonbegan hopping up and down on its front landing gear.

"Jesus, Chief! No wonder those Black Lancers like this fighter so much! Itis WAY cool!"

Zelda was beaming. "I can have this one ready for Telefon if you want, dear."

I grabbed her and hugged her. "I want!" I was like a kid with a new toy.


I rounded up Lt. Cmdr. Queue and brought him to the Skunk ready room. Afternearly three hours with Maniac, I figured the prisoners were just about welldone.

Maniac was finishing one of his stories when we came in. "...and that cat spunright into his wingman! Two kitties with one missile! Am I good or what!Haha ha! Oh, hi, Ace! You're early! I haven't even told 'em how I savedyour ass in the Kilrah System."

On the contrary, from the look of the prisoners, I was almost too late. Halfof them were unconscious, two were raving, and three were catatonic. Only onewas in any shape to talk, and he was weeping hysterically. I had seriouslyoverestimated our arrogant guests' resistance to drivel.

"That's OK, Maniac, I think you've made an impression. Why don't you take aPlayboy break?"

"Hey, good idea, Ace! See ya later!" Maniac sauntered off, whistling off key.

The last prisoner screamed as Ike pulled off his tape. "I'll talk! I'll talk!Just keep that moron away from me!"

I knelt in front of him. "Agreed, if you cooperate. You're G.E.D., right?"Ike looked at me in surprise, but I ignored him for the moment.

"Yes!" declared the prisoner, pride showing through his tears. "Bred pure!One of the master race! Destined for greatness!"


"Power! Fame! Fortune! We'll all have our roles in the New Order: tycoon,general, governor... I'm to be a star! Our Leader has promised it!"

"Who is this Leader?" I pressed.

"I don't know. Security. But he's a war hero and high in Confed, very high.All will be revealed when the time is right. Then my talent will shine! I'llplay all the great roles! Hamlet! Rhett Butler! Indiana--"

He was drifting into madness. I shook him back to reality. "What happened inthe Telefon System?"

"Telefon? I don't know! I swear it! But it must be part of the Plan! Warbetween Confed and the Union...then the Black Lance steps, women,power...I deserve it! I have more talent than all those so-called stars puttogether! To be, or not to be! Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn! Whydid it have to be snakes?"

Shit, he was off in a world of his own. I let him go and stood up. Ike facedme grimly.

"Colonel, don't you think you should tell me about this G.E.D.?"

"You're right, Ike. I can't reveal my source, but I can tell you what we're upagainst..."


I was in CIC for the second jump, the one to the Telefon system itself. Notknowing what we'd find, we had both Banshee squadrons ready for immediatelaunch. All hands were at general quarters in case anything went wrong duringour extended hyperjump.

As it turned out, the hop was routine. Thanks to their recent tune-ups, theships sailed through as smooth as silk. Four CAP Banshees immediately launchedfrom Intrepid, followed by Avengers on long-range patrol. We set our coursefor Planet 36-24-36 and then I called a briefing.


I stood at the briefing table and watched grimly as my squadron commandersfiled into CIC, followed closely by Sergeant McLean. Lieutenant SoSo securedher console and joined us.

"OK," I said. "The task force will hold at about a million klicks from theplanet. So far the system looks deserted, but keep alert. The Marines willtake a shuttle and recon the surface of the planet. I'll escort them in aDragon. McLean, Forceps wants us to report to sick bay for vaccinations."

McLean nodded. If he was concerned about flying into a hornet's nest with onlyone escort, he didn't show it.

Panties did. "Are you out of your mind, Colonel? There could be a hundredBlack Lancers cloaked around the planet! Let me go with you!"

"And Hulk! Hulk come, too!"

"Don't forget me, Ace!" Everyone turned and looked at Maniac. Under theiramazed stares, he added lamely, "Uh, I just don't want anything to happen to mycommanding officer, heh heh."

I knew why, of course. "Thank you, Maniac. I'm touched." Not. "But I wantto risk as few lives as possible. Besides, it's just a recon. We'll go in,suss out the situation, and get--"

"Go in and what?" interrupted Panties.

Not again. "Suss out the situation." Blank stares from everyone. "Suss.S-U-S-S." Still no response. "It means to examine, analyze, recon."

Panties shook her head. "Never heard of it. How about you, Sosa?"

"New to me. Hulk?"

"Hulk never hear before. Maniac?"

Maniac was in a scholarly mood. "Nope. Say, McLean, is that from a Latinroot?"

"Dunno. Sounds more Greek to me. Hulk?"

I tried to derail their linguistic discourse. "Guys, we don't have--"

"Hulk think word derived from Sanskrit. Huh-huh huh-huh. Panties?"

"People, we--"

"The predominance of sibilants argues against a Sanskrit root," said Pantiesthoughtfully, "although certain exceptions are known. For example--"

"WILL YOU KNOCK IT OFF!" I screamed. Jesus, did every captain have to put upwith this crap? I was beginning to have a lot more sympathy for Captain Eisen.

Grumbling, they quieted down and gave me their full attention.

"That's better!" I barked. "Now while I'm gone, I want squadron commanders toget familiar with the new fighters! Dismissed! Fry, let's go to sick bay."

As we headed for the exit, Panties said cheerfully, "Well, guys, let's go SUSSout those new fighters! Heehee!"

Maniac grumbled, "Shit, I'd rather SUSS out the new Playboy!"

SoSo called out, "Colonel, I'll go SUSS out some Black Lance IFF codes foryou!"

Hulk added, "Hulk tired. Hulk SUSS out bunk first!"

Why me, God?


Forceps lectured me as he rolled up my sleeve. "OK, kid, this cocktail willimmunize ya against all known biowarfare agents. Plus, the synthetic anti-bodies may give some protection against new bugs." He applied the hypospray tomy upper arm. Unlike other shots, this one stung like hell.

Forceps rolled down the sleeve again, ignoring my grunt of pain as he brushedagainst the tender injection site. "Get inta yer biohaz outfits well before yahit atmosphere, and DON'T TAKE 'EM OFF, even if everything susses OK. I hadChief Morgenstern install decon equipment in yer ships. USE IT!"

I staggered when I jumped off the exam table, suddenly feeling lightheaded.Forceps steadied me. "The shot may make ya a bit dizzy, kid. Stay inreception for about fifteen minutes. Next!"

I took Forceps' advice and sat outside, cradling my arm until the discomfortsubsided. One by one, the Marines emerged from the surgery, also rubbing theirarms. Corporal Vanish was last; she came out holding her bottom.


The Marine shuttle took off while I was in the Control Bay, checking the latestpatrol reports. I was in no hurry; my Dragon would catch the plodding shuttlelong before it left the protection of Intrepid's CAP.

Zelda was waiting for me beside my fighter, looking fretful. "Your biohaz suitis in the cockpit stowage, Blairbear. Um, look, Chris, do you really have togo down there yourself? Let the Marines do their job. They're trained..."

Not our "Marines." I couldn't let her know that, of course, but I tried toreassure her. "I'll be careful, hon. Believe me, I want to come back to you!"It was true, but I also wanted to come back to Panties. Damn.

Zelda bit her lip, as if undecided about something. Then she took my hand andled me into her workshop. She locked the hatch behind us and pulled me over towhere a mat lay on the deck.

I checked my watch. "Zelda, hon, what's going on? I have a mission..."

"I know," she said softly. "But I have a very bad feeling about this one, mydarling. I know I can't talk you out of going, but I do want to give yousomething to bring you luck." She stepped back. In one smooth motion, sheunzipped her coveralls and stepped out of them. She was wearing nothing else.Hesitantly, she reached for me.

"YAAAAAAAAH!" Did that awful scream really come from my throat, or was it justthe sonic boom I made as I dashed to my Dragon? I didn't remember opening thehatch, climbing the ladder, dropping the canopy, or launching; I only knew thatby my watch, I was out in space BEFORE Zelda took me into her workshop.

Nerves shattered, I tried to concentrate on my flying. Time... Yes, time hadthe power to heal. Sure, I'd be fine. Eventually. I tried not to think aboutthe straitjacketed pirate still raving in sick bay.

Jesus Christ, what a way to start a critical mission! I punched up an autodiagnostic, to reassure myself that all was well. God in Heaven, what elsecould go wrong?

I soon found out. The ship's AI said, "Diagnostic complete. Systems 100%."I stared at the instrument panel in dismay. My AI had the grating voice ofLieutenant Lemonlips! Oh no, no, no...


I joined up with the shuttle and we proceeded to Planet 36-24-36. We made nocontacts along the way, which only made me jumpier. The whole star systemseemed lifeless...cold...haunted. I shivered and turned up the heat.

As we neared the planet, I scanned for the automated orbital defense station,but found only floating debris. The electromag spectrum was dead--er,inactive. Perhaps the attackers had flattened every comm installation on theplanet. Yeah, that was it. I steadfastly refused to consider the alternative,that everyone down there was, er...

Now wearing our biohaz suits, we began atmospheric entry, our destination theplanet's only spaceport. It was set on a vast coastal plain, bordered by lowrolling hills to the west and ocean to the east. As we came in on finalapproach, I saw lights from a few small towns and numerous farms surroundingthe port.

I overflew the spaceport before letting the Marines anywhere near it. I sawno activity, but an army could have been hiding in the checkerboard of lightand shadow below. At least no one fired on me, although I would almost havepreferred a fight to the oppressive feeling of desolation.

We set down in a sheltered area on the edge of the tarmac, near the unfencedperimeter. It was full dark; the sun had set here about two hours ago. Exceptfor a downed comm antenna, the port installations seemed intact. Most of thelights were on, which was encouraging, except that the automated power plantscould go for months without maintenance.

The Marines burst out of the shuttle and formed a perimeter around our twoships. I noted that they were making excellent use of all available coverdespite their clumsy biohaz suits; our spooky surroundings had them acting likereal Marines at last. I jumped down from my fighter, drew my photon pistol,and joined McLean behind a crate. I nodded to him, and we moved out.

We advanced to the terminal in a skirmish line, flitting from shadow to shadow,jumping at each random sound. Ten meters from the main doors, McLean deployedhis troops behind vehicles and scattered piles of baggage. I crouched behind amobile loading ramp, uneasily surveying the scene. No damage, no people, andno bodies. All was still--deathly still. It was as if the whole populationhad suddenly disappeared into thin air.

"Hellooo!" I called. "Union Militia, responding to your distress call!" Shit,no answer. I commed McLean. "Cover me, Fry, but watch out for civvies." Iholstered my weapon, took out my flashlight, and slowly exposed myself--er,stood up. No response. My heart in my throat, I cautiously moved toward thecover of a grav truck parked just outside the double doors into the--

"Freeze, asshole!" Three photon rifles were suddenly pointing at me from thecab and rear door of the truck. I couldn't make out the figures holding them,though I knew from the shouted warning that the one in the cab was female.

I noted with relief that the rifles were civilian models, not military. "Fry,hold your fire! They're colonists!" Very slowly, I aimed the flash at myself."See my insignia? I'm telling the tru--"

The first colonist exclaimed, "Ohmygod! Don't shoot, it's the Heart of theTiger!" The rifles were withdrawn. I waved to the Marines, and they quicklyjoined me.

The first colonist climbed out of the cab and walked up to us. "Sorry," shesaid, fatigue in her voice. "Our attackers were flying the same type fight--"

I heard my companions gasp in surprise. The colonist had moved into the lightfrom a nearby floodlamp, revealing her to be blonde, really built, and utterlygorgeous. She was wearing dirty work clothes--farm clothes--and she'd beencrying, but neither that nor the dirt on her face could conceal her beauty.

"Oh God, I think I'm in love," sighed Awks. Judging by the other Marines'faces, he wasn't the only one.

A second colonist jumped out the back of the truck. This one was also female,blonde, and, if anything, even prettier than the first one.

Next to me, Pvt. Wang said in wonder, "Colonel, I'm getting a really GOODfeeling--er, about this planet..." He leered at the the women through histranspex helmet.

McLean punched him in the shoulder. "Forget your wang, Wang! Our job is to--Hubba hubba!"

The third colonist had jumped out of the truck. Also female. Also blonde.Also drop-dead beautiful. She was even more buxom than the first two, and sheobviously wasn't wearing a bra. Her smile would have melted granite.

"On second thought," said McLean eagerly, "All work and no play..." Hereached for the seals on his biohaz suit.

"No, Fry!" I grabbed at his hands, but he fought as one possessed. Lockedin my struggle with McLean, I could only watch helplessly as the other Marines--except Corporal Vanish--began removing their protective gear.

West stepped out of his suit and reached for the bemused colonist. "Baby, I'mgonna light your--urk!" Suddenly he doubled over and fell to the tarmac.

Awks looked at West in bewilderment. "Northan, what's--aarrgghh!" He keeledover and began jerking spasmodically.

Wang had just enough time to look at me in terror before he, too, collapsed.

Damppuss's suit was only halfway off. Desperately, she tried to get it backon, but it was too late. She grimaced in pain and dropped like a rubberchicken.

McLean watched, horrified, as his team was struck down. "On third thought..."He tore loose from my grip and sprinted for the shuttle. "GoodluckColonel!" heyelled. "Seeyoubackatthe--" Crash! McLean ran right into a cargo containerand rebounded onto his keester. Staring in panic at the crack in his helmet,he howled, "Colonel, help me! Oh God, help me, help me--aaaaahhhhh!"

I turned away from the terrible sight and grabbed Corporal Vanish in a bearhug, lest she, too, succumb to insanity. Oh God, five of my troops were dyinghorribly before my eyes, and I couldn't do a thing about--

"Don't worry, mister, they won't die!" A medic in a white coat had just comeout of the terminal, followed by a bevy of blonde beauties. I'd thought Lt.Disch was as pretty as a medic could get, but this newcomer made Disch looklike a guy. Hmmm, she reminded me of someone...

"None of us have died," continued the medic wearily, "although we may soon wishotherwise." She signaled to the other women, who retrieved grav stretchersfrom the truck and efficiently began gathering up my prostrate Marines. Theyseemed to have plenty of experience at their task.

I released Vanish and confronted the doctor. "All right, Doc, I need answers.Obviously a bioagent was used here, but you say it's non-lethal? And what'swith all the blondes? Is this a peroxide atmosphere or something?"

She smiled without humor. "I wish. It's one of the symptoms. This bioagent...rearranges the victim, right down to her DNA: it lightens hair color,rejuvenates the skin, stimulates breast growth, programs a narrow range ofweight and height, pegs the waist-to-hip ratio at exactly seventy percent..."

"Wait a sec!" I thought furiously. "Hair, breasts, waist... My God! Youmean the women here are all turning into..."

She nodded. "Yes. Centerfolds!"

I was stunned. This was barbarous! Innocent, ordinary women were beingtransformed into young, beautiful, shapely... Hey! What was wrong with that?

"Uh, Doctor, is that so bad? I mean, you'll have one hell of a bra shortage,or course, but don't all women want to look like Playboy models?"

Whoops! She grabbed my suit with both hands and shook me like a rag doll."You fucking caveman! You just don't get it, do you? Some of us don't WANT tobe sex objects! Besides, OUR MEN ARE CHANGING, TOO!"

"WHAT?" In a panic, I felt for the reassurance of my two best friends. Whew,still there! But Jesus, what an inhuman weapon!

I glanced at young West as he was brought past me on a stretcher. One hand wasdown his pants, exploring. "Colonel!" he sobbed as the doors swallowed him."I-I'm SHRIVELING!"

And I thought sitcom warfare was bad!

Her anger spent, the doctor released me. "They all follow the same pattern.Transformation is rapid in female victims, the elapsed time depending on howmuch she diverges from the target state. It's much slower and more traumaticin men; we're bringing them into makeshift clinics like this one to help easetheir symptoms. The few who have already completed the transition areindistinguishable from women--they ARE female."

Now her eyes had a faraway look. "An amazingly elegant bioagent...geneticengineering at the molecular level... It's funny, gender transition is muchcruder, almost an afterthought--destruction of the Y chromosome and duplicationof the X--but overall it's the most advanced bioconvergence process I ever--"

"Bioconvergence!" I exclaimed. That's who she reminded me of! Dr. Evvin LeeBoddie! God Almighty, was she part of this? But wait, she'd practically beenkidnapped... Yes! Gant and blade-boy had snatched her for THIS! And I'dHELPED them!

I spotted a half-meter green cylinder lying near the truck. A yellow logo read"PAL! EXTREME BIOHAZARD!" It also bore the lightning bolt insignia of theBlack Lance! My God, they'd been pushing my buttons since day one!

The doctor had slumped against the truck. "All our dreams, our new life here,all gone. My son..."

I tried to comfort her. "Uh, Doctor, at least they're still alive. And it'snot like they were turned into Scotsmen or anything like that..."

She looked up at me. "You still don't get it. We're cut off from the rest ofhumanity forever! This thing is airborne and incredibly infectious! If itspreads, it'll wipe out the human race--without killing a soul! No men, nobabies; humanity would just die we will."

"But maybe a vaccine..."

"So what? Half the human race would want to kill us out of jealousy; the otherhalf would just want to fuck us! We'd be gang-raped or nuked within weeks. Orboth! And--and the BLONDE jokes! I'd rather d-die!" Tears were running downher cheeks. "Colonel, if you really want to help us, you'll let everyone thinkwe're all dead! At least that way we can live out our lives--what's left ofthem--in peace!"

Judging by the faces of the other women around us--all stunningly beautiful--they were in agreement. Reluctantly, I nodded. "OK. We'll quarantine thissystem and keep people as far away as possible. As a precaution, however, youshould maintain comm silence and mask your power output as much as possible."I hesitated a moment. "Look, monitor the comm system on one of your shuttles,OK? If I think of something, I'll be back." Brave words, Blair. Can you backthem up?

Worthless or not, my promise seemed to encourage the doctor. She gave me a wansmile and offered her hand. Awkwardly, I took it and squeezed. "There'salways hope," I said lamely. Then I turned to go.

"Corporal Vanish?" I called. "Let's go home before we turn into-- Corporal?"Damn, where had she-- Oh, shit!

Corporal Vanish had discarded her biohaz suit and was holding hands with aparticularly stunning colonist. She flashed her usual sultry smile at mebefore walking off hand in hand with her new friend. Her hair was alreadychanging color.

Sadly, I reflected that secrecy wasn't just for the colonists' benefit. Thisplanet was an insatiable sex trap, growing ever more alluring with each newvictim! And I had already lost my entire command to it! If I failed to keepthe secret, millions more would fall victim to their own instincts.

Dejected, I trudged back to my Dragon. Before climbing in, I walked a meter orso into the lush perimeter grass. Kneeling, I scooped up a handful of dirt andvegetation. I didn't need instruments to tell me the soil was rich, richereven than the soil on Nephritis II.

I stood and inhaled deeply. My air was canned, of course, but I could almostsmell the fragrances on the wind. Back on my farm, it was early summer; hereit was still spring. Surrounded by the melodious songs of imported Terraninsects, I understood why the colonists had come so far and risked so much tosettle here: this planet was truly Paradise. Only now, the madness of man hadturned it into Hell.

I shivered inside my climate-controlled suit. If I was right, there was morehorror to come. So far all our Black Lance prisoners had been male. I had asneaking suspicion that what the supermen really wanted from this planet wasn'tterror, but rather companionship worthy of a master race. If they already hada vaccine, as I suspected, then they'd be rape what they had sown.

Somehow, I had to stop them.


High in the planet's atmosphere, I leveled out and advanced the throttle.Faster and faster I flew, until the Dragon's skin glowed cherry red and thecockpit temp rose dangerously high. Satisfied that the ship was sterile, Izoomed up into space. Then I popped the decon cylinder Zelda had installed inthe cockpit. After waiting double the recommended time for the gas to act, Ivented the atmosphere, replaced it with good air, and cracked my suit seals. Iheld my breath... Whew! Safe. I doffed the biohaz gear, put on my trustyflight helmet, and set course for Intrepid.

Along the way, I wiped the flight log and worked on my cover story. I hated tolie, but the Sirens of Telefon were damn near irresistible to men and womenalike. Why, I might have fallen to their charms myself...

Hey! Why hadn't I?

Funny, even before I knew the danger, I hadn't been all that attracted to thecolonists. Yet normally I was as horny as a brass band. What could have--


Of course! I had seen Zelda naked, and the trauma had protected me like aninvisible shield of virtue! My God, I owed her my, er, eggs! Again! Her"gift" had brought me luck after all!


Nearing Intrepid, I prepared for my big scene. I'd need all my dramatic skillsto bring this off.

SoSo appeared on the comm, looking more haggard than ever. If she had reallyslept as ordered, it hadn't done her much good. "Suss anything, Colonel?" sheasked wearily. "Er, where are the Marines?"

"They won't be c-coming back, Lieutenant," I replied, with a catch in my voice."There was a bioagent on the planet, all right, and it went right throughtheir suits." I paused, as if fighting to control my grief. "I'm only herebecause I was covering them from orbit. I-I heard them screaming...andscreaming!" That last bit was true enough.

SoSo recoiled in horror. "Then...they're all DEAD? The Marines? All thecolonists? Oh no!"

"I'm afraid so, SoSo. I want you to recall our Avengers and alert MajorMarshall. Tell him he has to surround the planet with quarantine beacons andlaser mines, just like we did at Locanda IV."

"Uh, roger, Earthworm. Oh God, those poor Marines... Earthworm, what shouldI do with this message that just came for them? It's plain language, but in acode I can't break."

Message? Code? "Read it to me."

"It reads, 'Show cancelled. Contracts terminated. Sorry.' It's signed,'Sox.' What does it mean, Colonel?"

I barely kept a straight face. That was no code. Think fast, Blair. "Uh,it sounds like some special op--a 'show'--has been scrubbed. Just as well theydon't need our Marines." I wouldn't miss their program, of course, except thatSox would probably put on something worse in its place, like "Alpha Centauri90210."


Wearily, I climbed down the ladder from the cockpit. One more fucking missiondown; how many more could I survive?

A number of crewmen were waiting in the bay. I must have looked even worsethan I felt, because, one by one, they came up and shook my hand, patted myshoulder, or just made sympathetic noises. I accepted their condolencesgracefully--even from people who weren't talking to me a day ago--but all thetime I was looking for Zelda.

There! She walked up to me diffidently, eyes on the deck. "Blairbear," shesaid quietly, "I'm sorry about...the planet. It must be so hard on you." Shefidgeted uncomfortably. "Look, Chris, about...before; I'm sorry, and I won'tbother you any-- Er, what's wrong?"

I was staring at her in wonder. My God, she was beautiful! I'd just come froma planet of women to die for, and all I could think of was how much I wantedplain old Zelda. She'd saved both my life and my manhood, of course, but rightnow my feelings ran deeper than mere gratitude or simple love. I wanted herout of the purest animal lust.

"Zelda, are you still wearing the same underwear?"

She took a step back and pulled her coveralls tighter. "Uh-huh," she repliedwarily.

Without a word, I scooped her up in my arms and carried her toward herworkshop. The crowd around us was galvanized into action, and in seconds wewere passing between two lines of cheering techs and deckhands. Zelda wasgiggling like a schoolgirl as she tried to duck the blizzard of condoms andsex toys bombarding us.

I slipped through the hatch and kicked it shut behind us. My ears ringing fromthe sudden silence, I knelt by the mat and gently set Zelda on it. She put herarms behind my neck and pulled me down to her. Our lips met...

Ouch! Damn buck teeth...

End of Chapter 25

Previews from Chapter 26:

"I wish I c-could light a candle for everyone on that planet, Chris."

"Rawwk! Tolwyn is a jerk!"

"I'm not gonna leave you, Chris. I mean that."

"HQ to Dragonfly One! Halt for final security check!"