Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 26

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to April 1, 1997]

Chapter 26

"Paw? Paw? Wake up, Paw!"

Huh? Wha? Oh, it was just little Billy Joe Bob. I smiled and reached out ofbed to tousle his sandy hair. "OK, son, I'm up. Git t'other young 'uns up.Maw an' I'll be along directly. Lotta work t' do t'day."

He grinned and ran out of our bedroom yelling, "Bobbie Sue! Jasper Ray! MaryLou! Time t' git uuuuuup!"

I rolled over and shook Zelda gently. "Maw?" I coaxed. "Time t' git up, Maw.Let's git some breakfust afore the young 'uns git it all. Yer eatin' fer twoagin, y'know."

She opened her eyes and smiled at me. God, how I loved the way her teeth stuckout between her lovely lips!

"Don't worry, Paw. I programmed the droids fer extry helpin's t'day." Shelicked her lips and pulled me to her. "Unless, of course, yuh want yerbreakfust in bed..."

Oh boy, did I! I reached under her nightshirt...



Wha? Oh, somebody was banging on the hatch. Bleary-eyed, I glanced at mywatch. Uh-oh, Zelda and I had been in her workshop for hours! Well, toughshit. The damn Border Worlders had already made it clear they didn't reallyneed a ship's captain. I snuggled closer to Zelda. Mmmm, that dream had beensoooo good--

BAM! BAM! BAM! "Hey, Ace! Put it back in your pants and get out here!"

Oh, shit, now Maniac had wakened Zelda, too. "Major!" I yelled. "If you bangon that hatch one more time, 'Confed's Funniest Home Vids' will have a newgrand prize winner!"

That shut him up. I slid out from under the blanket and started to dress.

Zelda sat up and stretched languidly. "Mmmmm. I don't suppose the war canspare us another hour or two...?"

"Sorry, hon. It's a miracle we had this long." I knelt and kissed her cheek;too many welts on my lips to go near her teeth for a while. "Zelda, you sweetthing, why didn't you tell me it was your first time? I'd have been more, er,gentle."

"Actually, Blairbear," she said dreamily, counting on her fingers, "it was myfirst time, my second time, my th--"

"Uh, yeah. Can I help it if you're addictive?" In truth, it was more thanthat. Telefon had torn a void in my soul big enough to hold a dreadnought.Zelda had filled it neatly with a mere fraction of the love within her.

I cracked the hatch and slipped out, closing it behind me. Maniac was waitingimpatiently outside, still wearing his biohaz suit--er, suits; the idiot hadsomehow stuffed himself into a double layer of bioprotection.

"About time, Romeo!" he said. "Jeez, I risk my life to quarantine that planetand you-- Say, what happened to your lips? Yer little chipmunk? Hyuck hyuck!Jeez, Ace, I hope ya didn't let her give you h--"

"Just give me your report, Maniac!" In fact I had, and it was beginning tosmart.

"OK, OK," he replied, still smiling. "That place is quarantined tighter thanLocanda IV. Double shell of laser mines, plenty of warning beacons in orbit,beacons at each jump point." He handed me a data cartridge. "It's all inhere. Deactivation code is Wing Commander's eyes only, per standard procedure.Now if you'll excuse me, Don Juan, I have a date with my bunk."

Good riddance. Tentatively touching my tender lips, I decided I had a date,too--in sick bay.


Forceps examined my lips and gave me a tube of regen cream, thankfully withoutcomment. When I asked for an extra tube, however, he couldn't resist.

"Better tell Chief Morgenstern to let me fix her teeth, kid," he advised,"before ya end up singin' soprano, if ya take my meanin'." I took his meaning,all right, but I had no intention of changing anything about Zelda.

SoSo wasn't in CIC, even though it was her watch. Lt. G'Neer was covering herstation again, but since he was fast asleep, I went up to Lt. Pilotte instead.

"Hi, Skye," I said. We exchanged the BattleCruiser 4000 AD Official SecretHandshake. "What's our status?"

"A courier ship from the Admiral followed us here to Telefon, sir. Lt. Sosagave them a full report. We're on our way to join the Union fleet in theMarathon System; intelligence reports a major Confed buildup in the sector.Our first jump is coming up in less than an hour."

I was sorry I'd asked. It was obvious now that the Telefon strike had had twoobjectives: playmates for the Black Lance, and a massive provocation aimed atthe Union government. With the two fleets facing each other on a hair trigger,war could break out at any time. We needed to know Confed's plans, and forthat we needed SoSo.

"Where's Lt. SoSo, Skye?" I asked.

"Uh, sir, the Telefon thing hit her pretty hard. She was crying on and offthrough the last watch, and finally she just left CIC. Sir, I'm worried abouther; she's done four watches in a row."

"Thanks, Skye. Carry on." I knew where to find Lt. SoSo.


I crept through the crowded storage hold as quietly as I could, carefullyavoiding arms and legs protruding from crowded bunks. What with our increasingcasualties and the deteriorating political situation, the crew had taken moreand more to sleeping in pairs; the news of the Telefon tragedy had onlyaccelerated the trend. Here and there I saw figures moving under blankets, butfor the most part people were too exhausted to do more than sleep.

Intrepid was disintegrating in front of my eyes. My people were falling asleepat their stations; I'd finally had to curtail our patrol schedules to maintaincombat efficiency, accepting the increased risk of a surprise attack. Despiteequipment and manpower shortages, we'd pulled off one miracle after another,but any idiot could see we were at the end our rope--well, almost any idiot;over in that lower bunk, Maniac was chuckling over the latest Playboy as if hehadn't a care in the world.

I made my way to the back of the hold. SoSo was at her shrine, all right, onlythis time she'd lit half a dozen candles. As I drew near, she looked up at mewith tear-stained cheeks.

Her voice was soft and mournful. "I wish I c-could light a candle for everyoneon that planet, Chris."

Poor kid. First Circe, then Catnip, and now Telefon. Should I tell her thetruth, that no one had actually died on 36-24-36? No, probably not. She wassmart enough to see that the truth was worse than the lie. Let her think thecolonists had died quick and clean.

I sat on the empty bunk next to her. "Maybe it's enough that you've lit these,hon. I'm sure they're grate--er, they WOULD be grateful--that someone cares."

My words were small comfort. She wiped her nose with the back of her hand andasked, "How could they do it, Chris? At least when the Kilrathi committedgenocide, it was war--against another race. But these fiends did to their own,for no reason other than evil--pure evil!"

I thought back to my military history classes at the Academy, and the morepersonal history lessons I'd learned from Flint--both in and out of bed. "Notevil, Velina, just human. We have a history of savagery unparalleled in theknown galaxy." I laughed without humor. "The Kilrathi thought they were sofierce? The poor bastards never had a chance against us!" I paused a moment,hearing once again a billion throats screaming in terror as I fled a blazingworld. "That's why we won, Velina--because we're worse than the cats." Iturned and looked straight at her. "And better."

She returned my gaze unflinchingly. "Better? Because I light a few candles?Dead is dead, Chris. The colonists, those brave Marines...good or bad, they'reall dead now. And if I'd gone down with the Marines, I'd be dead, too. Wouldanyone be lighting a candle for me?"

"I would." Surprisingly, I meant it. On 36-24-36, she'd be alive andbreathtakingly beautiful, but the old SoSo--skinny, flat-chested, annoying--would be gone forever. "I'd miss you terribly, Velina."

Her eyes dropped and the tears began to flow again. "Thanks," she whispered."Look, Chris, I-I'm sorry for what I s-said. You were right, we have a duty...t-to the living..." I took her in my arms and held her as she sobbed. PoorSoSo had never learned to numb her feelings, as I and the other vets--the saneones--had. It occurred to me that maybe she was just braver than we were.

Still sniffling, she pulled herself loose and stood up. "Responsibility's ab-bitch, isn't it, sir? I g-g-guess I'd better report for muh-muh-my watch."

I watched her for a second as she staggered away. Damn, this kid was wrappedway too tight. I lunged for her wrist and steered her back to the bunk. Shedidn't resist when I laid her down on her side and removed her shoes.

"Get some rest, Sosa," I said softly. "That's an order." I pulled the blanketup to her shoulders and tucked it around her. "I'll take your watch in CIC."I found some WipeX under the bunk and dried her tears.

I thought she was out already, until she opened her eyes and looked up at me.In a little-girl voice she said, "Chris, you called me Sosa..."

Huh? Why, so I had. I smiled and kissed her on the cheek. "Well, that's yourname, isn't it?"

Smiling, she closed her eyes and nodded. "Mmm-hmm." In less than a minute,her face was relaxed and child-like, her breathing deep and even. With a sigh,I got up and crept away, trying to convince myself that I hadn't just fallenfor yet another of my crewmates.

Maniac was still happily perusing his magazine. He was so happy, in fact, thathe broke into song. "Hey hey, we're the Monkees--"

"Shut up, you moron!" A shoe came sailing from an upper bunk three rows downand bounced off the bunk frame two centimeters from Maniac's head. He lookedup in annoyance.

"Hey, who's the wise--Oh, hi, Ace! Hey, Captain Polaroid, why didn't you tellme what you were really doing on that Tyr recon mission? Hyuck hyuck!" Heheld up the magazine to show me an overhead shot of some nude sunbathers by apool. Hmm, that holopic looked awfully familiar... I checked the facing pagefor the pictorial's title: "Photo Recon Special: The Girls of Tyr VII."Under it, the holography was credited to "Colonel Christopher Blair."

Oh, shit! My AI on that mission had of course been sabotaged by someout-for-a-buck techie, but naturally everyone would think I was the culprit.And if I'd sold out to Playboy, then why not to the Union? Any credibility I'dhad with Confed was down the tubes now.

"Pretty slick, Ace!" said Maniac admiringly. "Bet ya got a bundle for thosepics! Say, you still got the rest of 'em?" he asked eagerly.

That did it! Sosa had worked herself into a nervous breakdown, and here thisclown was lazing around soliciting jerk-off fantasies from me! Time he pulledhis weight for a change.

"Maniac," I declared sternly, "you have too much time on your hands. Get offyour ass and help me in CIC."

He reacted with his usual good humor. "Fuck you, Ace! This is my off-watch!"Maniac leaned back and flipped to the next page of his magazine.

In no mood for nonsense, I grabbed him in a Zelda-lock and forced him to hisfeet.

"Ow! Leggo my ear! Ow! Easy, Ace! Ow! OK! OK! Just let me pick up myPlayboy!" He retrieved his precious magazine and reluctantly followed me toCIC, bitching all the way.


I relieved Lt. G'Neer at the comm console, then spent half an hour showingManiac--repeatedly--how to handle routine comm traffic. Hesitant at first, hewas soon like a kid with a new toy. He started calling the frigates every fiveminutes for "comm checks" during which he'd recite from his collection of dirtylimericks.

On my way to the nav console, I checked the helm display. Panties and Hulkwere out instructing some of our pilots on the new Dragons, and Skye wastrying to keep Intrepid especially steady for the practice landings. I pattedher back in silent acknowledgement of her long watches at the helm; my rewardwas a bright smile.

At the nav console, I retrieved all our prisoner interrogations. If we weregoing to foil the Black Lance, we had to cease our futile firefighting andstrike at the heart of their plot. Surely there must be a clue hiddensomewhere in the gigabytes of intelligence we'd already gathered.

I worked with a will, spurred by the memories of what I'd seen on 36-24-36. Iabsently noted our first hyperjump, but otherwise I was too deeply engrossed tonotice my surroundings. Ike had already started to cross-correlate our moundsof data; after two hours of intense work, I was beginning to make progress. Itwas becoming more and more apparent that the Dragons were the key to the mys--

"Rawwk! Hard to starboard!"

"Yikes!" I sprang from my seat, certain we'd been ambushed. How had theyfound-- Oh, shit! My parrot had somehow found its way into CIC! Perched onSkye's shoulder, she was playing captain, much to the amusement of Maniac andLt. Pilotte.

"Hey, Ace!" quipped Maniac. "I think you're out of a job! Haha ha!"

"Awwk! Damn the torpedoes! Full speed--"

"Shut up, bird!" I yelled. "And quit bothering Lt. Pilotte!"

"Awwk! Killjoy!" grumbled the parrot. Skye hastily caressed her tummyfeathers, gradually calming the agitated bird.

Trembling with reaction, I resumed my seat. Goddamned bird! OK, where was I?Yeah, those fabulous new Dragons could only have come from Confed's huge R&Dorganization, and that was controlled by Tolwyn's Strategic Readiness Agency.Then somebody high in the SRA hierarchy had to be involved; someone who couldchannel the latest weapons to his pals in the Black Lance; someone with ties toCovert Ops; probably the big cheese of the whole conspiracy. But who?

The parrot fluttered onto my shoulder. "Rawwk! Tolwyn is a jerk! Tolwyn--"

"Quiet, bird!" I said in annoyance. Now, what else did I know? Mr. or Ms. Xwas cruel and ruthless, of course; was he/she a maniac? I glanced at Maniac,who was busily mining his nose for new exhibits in his booger collection. No,not a maniac--a megalomaniac! Yeah! Someone with an ego that could justifythe most heinous atrocities in the pursuit of ambition. Wait a sec! Telefon!Mr. X was a male, and he had a taste for centerfolds! OK, Blair, who's high upin the SRA, has a monstrous ego, and likes buxom blondes? Think! Think!Augh, it's on the tip of my tongue!

"Rawwk! Pretty Chastity! Tolwyn and Chastity, up in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N--"

"Will you shut up, bird!" I rummaged through my pockets and found a fragmentof cracker. The parrot took my offering in one claw and began to eat. I triedto resume my deliberations, but it was too late; the answer had receded beyondretrieval. That damn dumb bird!

Now I really had to warn Tolwyn. With the situation coming to a head, Mr. Xmight decide at any moment to knock off his boss and take over. But how topass the information--

Maniac suddenly began fumbling with the comm controls. "Whoops! Where's the--Shit! Hey, Ace, priority message coming in, but there's some kind of static!I-I can't filter it out!"

I was there in two jumps. Damn, was it more sitcom jam-- Oh, hell! "Maniac,you dope, it's just a different scrambler code! Here, see?"

"Er, I knew that! Just testin' ya, Ace! Haha ha! The Maniac always--"

"Shh!" Admiral Willful's aide was on the comm. Now what was the flagshipdoing in this system? Had war broken out already?

"--message for Intrepid. Dammit, where are you, Intrepid? Admiral Willfulcalling with--"

"Intrepid here." I replied. "Go ahead."

The view switched to the flagship's sick bay. Admiral Willful was still inbed, only now he looked much worse. His eyeballs protruded from sunken cheeks;his skin had a yellowish tinge to it. His eyebrows had been singed off, andthe hair above his forehead was scorched. The Admiral's breathing was laboredand hoarse, despite the oxygen mask. Ominously, his nurse was middle-aged andmale.

"Breath of the Tiger!" he croaked. He gestured weakly to his nurse, who raisedthe bed enough for the Admiral to talk to us. Willful clawed his mask off andcoughed feebly a few times.

"Time is running out, son. Your Telefon report has stirred up ahornet's nest. If Confed doesn't declare war, the Union will." The Admiralwas seized by a prolonged coughing fit. His nurse gave him a hypospray andWillful's breathing eased somewhat.

"Whew, son, I thought that was it! We have one chance, Blair. You've got toexpose the conspiracy now...get evidence that no one can cover up...stop thiswar once and for all."

"I've come to the same conclusion, Admiral," I replied, "but I need a target.I have scads of data, but I just haven't been able to put the clues together."

Willful smiled weakly. "Blair, over the last few weeks, you've sent us anincredible number of prisoners. All this time, I've been going over theirstories with a fine-tooth comb."

"I don't know, Admiral," I replied skeptically. "Enemy security has been sotight that our prisoners know next to nothing."

"You forget, Blair: I was a cop for forty years. I know how to put puzzlestogether even when most of the pieces are missing." Another coughing spellthreatened, but he fought it down by sheer willpower. "I looked for littlethings: where they were recruited, when they joined their ships, low-levelconspirators they knew, common acquaintances from their pasts, names and datesup the ass. I added them all up, and I got one answer: the PythagoranCluster."

Maniac couldn't resist showing off his knowledge. "Been there, done that," hesaid in a bored tone. "Ain't nothing in the Pygath--er, Thypag--er, thatcluster."

"Shut up, Maniac!" I hissed. Pythagoras? Of course! Zeke had sold hiscloaker to "traders" coming from the Theorem System!

The Admiral's strength was nearly spent. "I wish...I could pin it down more, time to search...the whole cluster..."

"It's all right, Admiral," I said grimly. "I know exactly where to look. Thistime it's the Black Lance's turn to be surprised!"

He smiled again, and for a moment the old fire blazed in his eyes. "I knew Icould count on you, son! By God, I wish I could be there with you!" Then thefire went out, and he sagged against the pillow.

"The Admiral needs to rest now," said his nurse. The display blanked.

"I wish you were here, too, sir," I whispered. The old lush had really comethrough for us this time.

"Hey, Ace!" said Maniac curiously. "How come you always know where to look fortrouble?"

I reagarded him with undisguised contempt. "Because I'm the Wing Commander andyou're just the comic relief, Maniac. Helm! I need a destination one jumpfrom the Theorem System!"

Skye set the autopilot and sat down at the nav console. "That would be Axiomor Lemma, sir. Axiom is closer, about six hours. Two jumps from here, butthe jump point lineup is extremely favorable."

Yes! What a piece of luck! "Very well, make it so."

She looked at me blankly. "What?"

"Are you deaf, woman? Make it so!" I repeated.

She looked around in confusion. "Make what sew, sir?"

I threw up my hands in exasperation. "The ship! The course! Our destination!Dammit, just get us to Axiom!"

"Ohhhhh," she replied. "Axiom! Jeez, why didn't you say so, sir? Sheesh!"

I did, you stupid bitch. I turned to my ersatz comm officer. "Maniac, signalour escorts to conform to our maneuvers."

He just stared. "Conform?"

Why me, God?


The word spread like wildfire through the task force. At last we were takingthe fight to the enemy! Everywhere I went on Intrepid, I was greeted withear-to-ear grins and raised fists. The crew's depression was replaced by grimdetermination. Whether officially on watch or not, everyone pitched in to getthe ships into top fighting trim. No matter that this was just a recon; wewere going into the lion's den, and we were going loaded for bear.

Under the circumstances, I hated to take time for a funeral, but I owed it tothe memory of our absent Marines. Besides, it wouldn't hurt to remind the crewof the sacrifices it had taken to get us this far.

When I got to the part where I usually made some personal remarks, I insteadinvited the crew to gather round the six empty coffins and say good-bye intheir own way. For my own part, I'd miss McLean the most; he was the closestto my age, and he'd had modest success in a career that had eluded me. Thecrew's sympathies lay elsewhere, however; by far the largest crowd was gatheredaround Corporal Vanish's coffin.

Farewells said, I launched the coffins and led the crew in song.

"Six bottles of beer in the wall, six bottles of beer..."

Technically, of course, civilians weren't entitled to military honors, butMcLean's thespians had faithfully served humanity in space, above and beyondtheir nominal duty as civilians. They deserved to go out as Marines.


I was late for my own briefing; it had taken longer than expected to selectthe recording and surveillance equipment I wanted to bring along. When I gotto CIC, everyone was already there.

Sosa and Panties were standing with their heads together, giggling like school-girls. When I came through the doors, they suddenly stopped talking and wavedinnocently at me. While that was disturbing, to say the least, it was good tosee Sosa smiling again.

I took my place behind the briefing table and began. "Ahem! OK, people,here's the scoop. The task force will wait here in the Axiom System, half anhour from the escape jump point. So far the scopes are clear, but don't relax.I want half the Dragons on CAP at all times. They have a limited ability todetect cloaked ships; I don't want the Black Lance sneaking up on us. Be sureto keep our own Dragons cloaked."

I brought up a display of the Axiom System. "A major Black Lance base--maybeeven their HQ--is operating in the Theorem System, accessible through this jumppoint here. It's too risky to bring the whole task force, so I'm going inalone to suss--er, recon the system. Sosa, I'm counting on you to get me pasttheir security."

Sosa handed me a data cartridge. "Transponder settings, comm codes, passwords,all from the Black Lance transport. You're Dragonfly One, only survivor of thetransport's escort fighters. No one outside this task force knows that we'vecaptured the transport or the Dragons it was carrying."

"Thanks, Sosa," I replied gratefully. "Panties, if I'm not back in twelvehours, you'll know Theorem is the right target. Get the Union fleet here andhit Theorem with everything you've got. OK, any questions?"

"Yeah, Chris!"

"Hulk have question."

"Me, Ace! Me!"

So much for a nice quiet briefing. "Maniac?"

Maniac eyed his companions warily. "Uh, Ace, this is a tough mission. If, uh,you don't come back, what happens to the you-know-what?"

I smiled. I had already disabled my auto-blackmail software in anticipation ofManiac's "concern" for me. "You're already off the hook, Maniac. Hulk?"

"Uh, Hulk ask if he come, too. Blair friend. Hulk help friend."

I was touched. "Thanks, Hulk, but our cover story is thin enough for one; itwould never work for two. Panties?"

"What makes you so sure Theorem is the right target, Earthworm? The PythagoranCluster has dozens of star systems."

"Good question. Theorem is possibly the least interesting system in the wholecluster: no habitable planets, few natural resources, and lots of dust andrubble to hinder navigation. That makes it perfect cover for a large-scalemilitary operation. Also, I have an eyewitness account of a Black Lance shipjumping from Theorem to Lemma." I didn't tell them that the eyewitness wasPrince Thrakhath himself, former heir to the throne of Kilrah.

Panties wasn't through. "If it is their main base, you shouldn't be going inalone. Dammit, Chris, do you know the wartime protocol for captured spies?"

As if I weren't scared enough already! "Gee, let me guess, Colonel! "Fivestar resort? Dancing girls? Waited on hand and foot by DUMB-ASS BORDERWORLDERS?"

Seeing Panties shrink from my anger, I was instantly contrite. She was onlyworried about me, after all. "Sorry, Tamara. Look, I appreciate your concern,but there are good military reasons why I have to go solo, OK? Dismissed,everyone."


I stopped by the galley to pick up a thermos of--ugh--tomato soup beforeheading down to the flight deck. I'd need something to tide me over on my longmission, of course, but more important, it was an excuse to put it off a littlelonger.

Despite my bravado, I was scared, really scared this time. I was going upagainst a horde of purebred supermen who hated my guts all the way down to theDNA--and I was going alone. One little slip, and death was the best I couldhope for. The worst? Well, I didn't fancy the idea of using "feminineprotection" the rest of my life.

At the hatch to the Wombat locker room, I paused for a moment and raised myeyes to Heaven. OK, God, I know I haven't been very respectful lately, but ifyou could, you know, make it so I don't have to do this alone...please?

Sighing in resignation, I stepped through the hatch--and stopped short. Myprayer had been answered!

Little Sosa, wearing an undershirt and Marine combat trousers, was buckling ona huge ammo belt stuffed with rifle grenades and mini-flares. From a nearbylocker she retrieved a flamethrower, a photon rifle, and duct tape. Settingthem on the bench, she began taping the flame unit to the rifle.

She looked up and grinned at me. "I'm not gonna leave you, Chris. I meanthat."

Three lockers down, Hulk was also preparing. He was wearing only trousers,combat boots, a bandanna headband, and a necklace with a single jade stone.Muscles rippling, he jammed a sawtoothed knife into his belt sheath, slung ahuge bow and a quiver of explosive durasteel arrows over his shoulder, andpicked up a two-man automegablaster.

His steely eyes locked with mine. "To survive war, Hulk become war!"

Panties stood next to him in olive drab: cap, sleeveless shirt, camouflagepants, and combat boots. She buckled on first a pistol belt, then a suspenderbelt loaded with power paks. Her photon rifle was equipped with silencer andtelescopic sight. Her hair was in a ponytail.

Biceps bulging, she hefted the rifle and grinned wickedly at me. "Any BlackLancer not wearin' two million sunblock is gonna have a REAL BAD DAY!"

Sosa finished her taping and carefully picked up the hybrid weapons system.Precariously balancing her heavy load, she slung the strap over her shoulderand struggled to hold her weapons at the ready.

I stared at my would-be army for a few moments, then once again reverentlyraised my eyes.

OK, God, very funny! Ha ha! You're a real comedian aren't you? Next time Iask for help, just strike me down with lightning and get it over with, OK?

My three friends were still looking at me expectantly. I tried to let themdown gently. "Uh, sorry, people. I wish you could come along,"--NOT--"butthis is strictly a space recon--no leg work. I appreciate the offer, really."

Panties wasn't giving up. "At least let me fly your wing as far as the jumppoint, OK, Chris?"

Shit, she was practically begging. How could I refuse? "OK, Tamara, but nofurther. You're needed here, too."

"I'm coming, too!" said Sosa stubbornly. Still topheavy, she reached into thelocker on tiptoe, brought out a combat helmet, and gingerly set it on her head.It stayed for a moment, then slipped down over her eyes. Sosa fell backwardsonto her butt. She peeked out from under the helmet and said sheepishly, "Er,maybe not..."

Zelda was putting up a brave front, but I could sense the tears just beneaththe surface. She caressed my cheek and forced a little smile. "I'm sorry toact like such a baby, Blairbear. After all, you've always come back to me..."

I took her hand and squeezed it. "That's because you're my good luck charm,hon. Now here, kiss my helmet like a good little girl."

She did so and stepped back from the ladder. "I left a special present in yourcockpit, dearest. Good luck!"

Up in the cockpit I found a pair of fuzzy dice hanging from the windscreen. Igrinned to myself. Damn, Zelda thought of everything! I turned to wave ather, only to find her deeply engrossed in a conversation with Panties. Fromtime to time they'd look up at me and giggle.

I began to wonder why Panties was so insistent on accompanying me. Just to besafe, I decided not to let her on my six.


Panties commed me on a tight beam about halfway to the Theorem jump point."Comm check, Earthworm."

I consulted my instruments. "Optimal, Panties." I looked for her on my wingbefore remembering she was cloaked, as was I. Even in the Dragon's advancedoptics, her fighter was just a ghostly outline.

She wasn't done. "Reality check, Earthworm."

Huh? "Uh, reality check?"

"Yeah." I could hear the laughter in her voice. "I had a long talk with Zeldaafter your little sleepover, Chris. Then I got together with Sosa in CIC."

Sweet Jesus, I was a dead man! "Uh, yeah, I saw..."

"Anyway, much as we tried to hate you, we couldn't. Except for your allergy tocommitment, you're a helluva decent guy. You're Sosa's emotional crutch,Zelda's dream lover, and my...well, you're my hero." She paused a moment.

"Uh, it's a two-way street, Tamara. Each of you has saved my life at leastonce on this tour, if not physically, then emotionally."

She considered. "A bit melodramatic, but essentially accurate. Since we're inbasic agreement, here's our proposal: For now, no promises, no rules, norivalry. We're one big happy family, and we let nature take its course. Butwhen this crisis is over--and if we're still alive--we settle things...once andfor all. Deal?"

"Deal. Believe it or not, Tamara, I want commitment in my life as much as youdo--maybe more." Now that that was settled, I couldn't resist teasing her."But how would you feel if I end up committing to Robin and Rachel?"

"No problem," she said breezily. "I just hope they like a lover who singssoprano. Heh heh."

Heh heh. Panties was only kidding--I hoped.


At long last the jump buoy appeared in my optics.

"Jump buoy ho, Panties," I called. "Look sharp. This side may be guarded."

"Getting passive sensor fluctuations, Earthworm. Looks like cloaked--"

Two Dragons suddenly appeared behind us. "You! Uncloak for security check!"

We uncloaked as ordered. "Dragonfly One and Two returning from Circe," Ibluffed. "Sorry about the visuals, we, er, have comm damage." BOTH of us?Pretty lame, Blair.

The guy on the comm screen was checking his instruments. "Transponder codescheck... OK. You're way overdue, Dragonfly Flight. Two, why are you late?"

Oh shit, I shouldn't have brought Panties. Even with visual off, her voicewould give her away.

"Two, answer or be blown out of space!"

Panties tried to deepen her voice to a male timbre. "Uh, we stopped for apiece of subhuman tail, hyuck hyuck!" I winced. Her masquerade wouldn't foola grade schooler.

The Black Lancer must have been in kindergarten. "Har har! Slumming, eh? So,Two, how do you like the Border World cows?"

Uh-oh! Panties wouldn't like--

"COWS?" she screamed. "Who are you calling a cow, NEEDLE DICK?"

Oh, shit! I frantically powered up my weapons systems.

"Jiggers, it's a bitch!" The Black Lancer's voice was shrill with alarm."They're Border Worlders! GET 'EM!"

I hit autoslide and spun to face my pursuer. Two IRs leaped off my racks theinstant I got lock. Still recovering from his surprise, the Black Lance pilotwas slow to react. Two hits took down his shields, and I finished him withtachyons before he could punch through my forward shields.

Oh no! Two more Dragons had uncloaked and were racing toward the jump buoy!I hit burner and aimed for the buoy myself.

Panties was on the other sentry's tail. He'd cloaked, but her Dragon gave herenough of an image for manual gunnery. Screech! Screech! "Take that!" sheyelled. Screech! Screech! "Hey, why are you running? I'm just a COW,remember?" Screech! Screech! "Moo!"

I armed two leeches and waited an eternity for lock. Though jump-capable, theDragon couldn't jump while cloaked. If my two opponents were smart, they'dcloak to avoid my missiles, then deal with Panties and me before reconfiguringfor jump. I had to force them to cloak, then pray Panties could finish off herman in time to help me. Steady...steady...launch!

Those two must have been under orders to jump without delay, because theydidn't cloak. Instead, decoys popped from their tails, and they began jinkingand weaving. One missile lost lock, but the other... Splat! One down!

Two more leeches took off after the remaining Dragon. More decoys, more hardmaneuvering...he was starting to cloak after all... Splat! Hah! Take that,super-morons!

I took a moment to check on Panties. Her target was visible and slowing--Kaboom!

"Score one for the cow--er good guys, Earthworm!" Good work, Panties!

I closed in and finished off my two leeched targets before they could repair.Panties came up on my wing just as I finished configuring for the jump.

"Sorry, Earthworm," she said contritely. "You were right: I shouldn't havecome with you."

"Are you kidding, Panties?" I gushed. "You were magnificent! Er, for a BorderWorld cow, I mean. Wahahahaha!"

"You bastard! If you breathe a word of this..."

"'Bye, Tamara. Take care." I blew her a kiss and jumped.


The Axiom system had been devoid of electromagnetic activity; Theorem wascrawling with signals. I had no time to investigate them, however, becausefour picket Dragons immediately challenged me. I used the same cover story,praying these guys were as dumb as their brethren in Axiom.

They were. "Roger, Dragonfly One, IFF code checks. You mind explaining howthose Border World boobs could defeat four of the master race?"

OK, you asked for it, you arrogant twerp. "Well, we were outnumbered, and theyhad these new paint bombs--the stuff won't cloak. But that wasn't the worst!Their leader was...the Heart of the Tiger!" Hee hee! That oughta give 'emsomething to think about!

I heard a sharp intake of breath on the other end. "The Heart of the Tiger!"

"Yeah!" I said, simulating abject fear. "I swear, that guy's supernatural!Took out two of us while we were cloaked, and then he smoked the transport! Iwas lucky to get out alive. Damn, it beats me how a genetic mongrel can be sofast, so smart, so good-looking, so--"

"Er, yeah." The Dragon leader was sounding much less cocky. "Better reportthis to HQ personally. While you're there, you might as well stick around forthe ceremony. Our Leader will be arriving in a few hours."

"Er, roger." Shit, where was HQ? I quickly scanned the incoming signals.Crossing my fingers, I locked onto the strongest one and took off. It musthave been the right one, because nobody took a potshot at me.

Wait a sec! Did he say their leader was coming? This must be Mr. X from theSRA. Hmmm. I'd concluded that infiltrating their base itself was too risky,but now maybe the risk was justified! Only, could Sosa's stolen codes get mepast their landing security?

I skirted around a large and incredibly dense asteroid field before switchingto autopilot. During my detour I activated my recon gear and tried to classifythe wide variety of signals I was receiving. That ultra-band signal had to bea surveillance array; surely this narrow-band signal was an asteroid base. Iintercepted calls from a dockyard, a Dragon training squadron, several Bingoclass frigates, transports...

My God! This place was a beehive! How long had the Black Lance beenpreparing? Since the end of the Kilrathi War? Or even before that?

After more than two hours of flight, the Black Lance starbase came up on mydetectors. Whoa, this one was nearly as big as Confed HQ! Nothing short of afleet could take it down. Where had the Black Lance gotten the resources tobuild it? Jeez, no wonder Confed was still flying obsolete Hellcats! Mr. Xmust have embezzled more than just weapons.

For a moment, I considered changing course and making a run for the Axiom jumppoint. No, the opportunity to identify Mr. X was simply too good to miss.

Five thousand klicks out, I received a comm. To my complete surprise, thecaller was blonde and female. The tag on her uniform bore only the name"Candi". What kind of a name was that for an officer?

Candi or no Candi, she meant business. "HQ to Dragonfly One! Halt for finalsecurity check!"

I complied, all the time staring in wonder at the comm officer. Was I wrongabout the Black Lance being all male? Was she G.E.D.? She was wearing a BlackLance, her eyebrows were dark, and she lacked the generic look ofthe G.E.D. products. Scrutinizing her closely, I could see her blonde "hair"was actually a wig. Was she just a mercenary? Holy smoke, was she a GROUPIE?

Not now, Blair. You have other problems. I pulled out Sosa's decryption ofthe Black Lance's main, or "A" code.

"Roger, HQ," I replied. "Sorry about the visual, I have comm d--"

"Visual not required, One. Beginning recognition sequence, Code B."

"CODE B??" Too late, I clapped my hand over my mouth. Code B?

"Candi" regarded me sternly. "Get your head out of your ass, Dragonfly One!You know the Union has cracked Code A! Now proceed with Code B! One falseanswer and we open fire!" My instruments showed overwhelming firepower lockedon me.

"OK, HQ. Just kidding, heh heh." Why, oh why hadn't I joined the Marines?

She ignored me. "Sequence One: In the Garden of Eden, what was the firstthing Eve said to Adam?"

I groaned to myself. The Black Lance was using what my Academy cryptographyinstructor had called a "QA," or "question/answer" code. It was impossibleto break because the desired answer could be the "right" one, or any of aninfinite number of "wrong" ones. I was doomed.

Damn, where was Sosa when I needed her? What would I say if I were Eve? Hi,sailor, looking for a date? Feeling panic rising, I tried to play for time."Gee," I said. "That's a hard one." How the hell could I guess--

"Correct, Dragonfly One."

I was caught off guard. "It is? I mean, of course it is." Whew!

Ignoring me again, Candi continued the recognition procedure. "Sequence two:What did Napoleon's Old Guard reply when ordered to surrender at Waterloo?"

Oh, Christ! Why wasn't Angel here? She was the expert on Napoleon! I cursedout loud, unconsciously slipping into Angel's native tongue. "Merde!" Oops.

"Correct, Dragonfly One."

Jesus, another miracle! My heart was pounding like it would burst from mychest. Hands trembling, I downed the last of my tomato soup to steady mynerves. I couldn't take much more of Code B.

Implacably, the comm officer continued. "Dragonfly, final sequence: What doyou get when you multiply six by nine?"

Oh no! The required answer could be anything from zero to infinity! Myinstructor had said to just give the "right" answer in a case like this, but Iwas too frazzled to do the math. Let's see, put down the five and carry thethree--

Ominously, Candi's finger crept toward a button on her console. "DragonflyOne! Immediate answer required!"

Panic held my mind in a death grip. "Uh, uh..." Put down two and carry--"Uh, forty-two?" The computer! I could get it from the--

Candi's finger retreated from the button. "Correct, Dragonfly One. You'recleared, but that was a miserable performance. Jeez, you guys' brains aresmaller than your dicks! Study your codes before you request clearance hereagain! Autolander engaged. Out."

"Uh, yeah, whatever." So they had wanted the mathematically correct answerafter all. I was too drained to care. As I was tractored toward the base, Inoted idly that my computer had calculated the wrong answer--must have one ofthose damn Centium chips in it.

Well, no matter. I had passed the last test, and now I was about to learn allthe answers. Somewhere within that sinister structure was the key to themystery that had dragged me away from my home and made me a traitor to Confed.All I had to do was find it.

And get out alive.

End of Chapter 26

Previews from Chapter 27:

"Today, finally, you will meet the man behind the Great Plan..."

"Now, my brothers, now do you see why we provoke war with the Border Worlds?"

"That's when I learned the truth. Beauty isn't a blessing, it's a curse!"

"Hahaha! Missed me, mutants! Niener niener niener!"