Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 28

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to May 19, 1997]

Chapter 28

In the locker room, I hastily doffed my flight suit and cleaned the makeup offmy face. Then I slipped into the Wombat ready room and uploaded my microcamrec of Tolwyn's speech. I omitted the rest; my disguise, for example, wasn't,er, relevant, heh heh. Queue, Maniac, Hulk, and Panties came in just as I wasfinishing my upload.

Queue wasted no time. "What did you find, Colonel?" he asked.

"All the answers, Ike," I replied. "Remember the G.E.D. program I told youabout? Well, guess who's behind it." I activated the holodisplay. Theywatched, fascinated, as Tolwyn proudly exposed his diabolical plan.

When it was over, Queue slapped his forehead. "So it was Tolwyn all along.Damn! Why didn't we see it?"

I shrugged. "Their security was so tight, even the Black Lancers didn't knowwho their leader was. Except for that thug, Theether. You were right abouthim, Hulk."

Hulk stared at me. "Hulk do something right? Hulk celebrate! Er, how Hulkcelebrate? Hmm..." The giant was soon lost in, er, not exactly thought...

Maniac piped up, "Well, I knew it was Tolwyn all along! I always said therewas something fishy about that guy, Ace, but you were always too busy suckingup to him to listen!"

Flea excrement. "Maniac, you dunce, you kissed his ass every chance you got!On the Victory, you even shined his shoes, for Christ's sake!"

"Hey!" he retorted. "I was just tryin' to get close enough to expose him,Ace!"

"Maniac, the only thing you ever exposed was your ignor--"

"The question," interrupted Panties, "is what do we do now? Tolwyn's on hisway to Earth to report to the Dissembly, and I don't think he'll recommend weall get together and have tea. Once the Dissembly votes for war, nobody willlisten to us, no matter what evidence we present."

Hulk's eyes lit up. "Hulk know! Hulk celebrate by leading Union fleet toTheorem! Smash Black Lance! Huh-huh! Huh-huh!"

Yikes! "Down, Hulk!" I said hastily. "They're too strong! We'll need a jointUnion-Confed force and lots more of our own Dragons! No, we'll just have toget our data to Earth ahead of Tolwyn. Unfortunately, Vesuvius is faster thanwe are. I need ideas, people."

Ike reached for the remote and brought up a display of the star systems betweenthe Pythagoran Cluster and Sol. In one corner, he added the specs of the TCSVesuvius. The computer then projected a jump route leading from Lemma to Sol.

"Hah!" exclaimed Panties. She grabbed the remote, added the specs for Intrepidand her escorts to the display, and projected a second jump route, this timefrom Axiom. "See?" she said triumphantly. "Vesuvius is too big for the EllieMae jump. She'll have to go the long way 'round!"

I was confused. "Too big? What, jump points come in sizes now?"

Panties rolled her eyes. "No, dummy! Ellie Mae is only zoned for ships underten million tons, and the cops there are the toughest in Confed. Admiralsqueaky-clean Tolwyn won't tarnish his image with a traffic ticket on the eveof his big speech."

"So we can beat Vesuvius to Sol," I said. "Brilliant!"

"Not so fast, Colonel," cautioned Ike. "I see two itsy bitsy problems withthis little scheme. One: There's a Confed fleet base in the Ellie Mae System;that place has enough warships and fighters to annihilate a fleet ten times oursize. Two: Even if we get through Ellie Mae, if Vesuvius gets close enough tolaunch a strike, we've had it! We're no match for its fighter wings!"

I waved my hand impatiently. "Details, details! Maniac, go tell Lt. Pilotteto make it so--er, to get us to the Ellie Mae System. Oh, and warn Sosa NOT toinform Union HQ. I don't want this to leak out."

As Maniac left the ready room, he passed Zelda coming in. He gave her thefinger, and she retaliated by sticking out her tongue at him.

"And keep your hands off Lt. Pilotte!" I added, as he disappeared. "Hi, Zelda.What's up?"

Zelda loaded a data cartridge into the holo, took the remote, and brought up adiagram in the display. I instantly recognized the Black Lance terror weapon.

"We put one of your little 'pizzapaks' under our scanners, Colonel," shebegan. "It's a beautiful design. Some genius took an ordinary self-heatingsonic pizzapak, replaced the payload with tuner, amplifiers, and souped-uppower source, and came up with the perfect terror weapon: minimal development,negligible production costs, effective against the largest ship or base,horrific effects, and adjustable to any target life form."

"ANY life form?" asked Hulk in dismay. "Even rabbits?"

"Er, yes," replied Zelda. "Even, uh, rabbits."

"Black Lance evil!" exclaimed Hulk. "Hulk hurt Black Lance! Maim! Mutilate!Destroy! Mang--"

"Easy, Hulk, easy," soothed Ike. "Colonel, what about bioweapons? Was theBlack Lance behind the genocide in Telefon?"

Careful, Blair. Remember your promise to the colonists. "Uh, yeah. Thatbiochemist I told you about? She was forced to develop a...a bioselect agentto, uh, weed out all but the genetically fit. Planet 36-24-36 was a test, butit, ah, failed--killed the whole population, including the 'fit.'"

Panties was indignant. "So that's what Tolwyn meant by 'companions!' Womenwho survived that scientist's unnatural selection! That bitch!"

I shook my head. "No, Panties, a hero. She destroyed her work, and then shesaved my life when a guard had me cornered. She died helping me escape." Iunconsciously touched my lips. "She kissed me...good-bye..."

"Must have been some kiss," observed Zelda dryly. "You smeared her lipstickall over me!"

"Er, yeah. Sorry. Heh heh."


As I left the ready room, my parrot fluttered onto my shoulder.

"Rawwk! Welcome back, sweetie! Awwk!"

I ruffled her feathers affectionately. Since my winged friend had taken toroosting on the hangar deck, I had seen far too little of her.

"Hi yourself, sweetie." I nuzzled her beak with my nose. "Hon, I'm sorry Ididn't listen to you. You were right: it was Tolwyn all the time."

"Toldya! Toldya! Heehee! Rawwk! Blair is an asshole!"

"Er, yeah. But hey, how did you know about Tolwyn and Chastity?"

"Amnesty! Rawwk! I'll be good! Awwk! Pretty Chastity!"

Aha! Her master had been in Tolwyn's Amnesty Program! Pirates recruited forthe Kilrathi War, granted amnesty afterward. Over the last two years, Tolwynmust have discretely steered many of his "reformed" wards into new pirate bandscontrolled by the Black Lance.

"You know, kiddo," I said admiringly, "for a birdbrain, you're pretty smart."

"Rawwk! You, too! Heehee!"


I was trembling with fatigue after my long mission to Theorem, but I had anobligation to stop by sick bay before hitting the sack. I had nearly killedtwo of my own people--inadvertently, of course--and I owed them an apology.

Fortunately, they were well on the road to recovery. Forceps had been treatingthem with muscle relaxants, which seemed to alleviate the lingering ticklesymptoms. I found Lt. Homes and his copilot, Lt. Gardens, in good spirits. Igrabbed a chair and sat down between their beds. Patting Homes on theshoulder, I said cheerfully, "So, Churlokk, how does it feel to be the onlyknown survivors of a ticklepak attack?"

Homes grinned at me. "Pretty good, sir. Except for the--" He shiveredvisibly. "--Hee hee!--except for the residual spasms. Forceps says they'llpass in a few more hours. Damn, sir, that's a diabolical weapon! I think I'drather go any other way than that."

Gardens agreed heartily. "Homes is right, sir. If I hadn't managed to releasemy grapples--Hee hee!--I'd have popped my suit for sure!"

Homes reached out and grabbed my arm. "Sir," he said earnestly. "When werecovered the bodies from the Annabel Lee... Well, that was bad enough, butnow that I know exactly what they went through... Sir, we can't let this thingbe used again! We just can't!"

I patted his hand. "I'm sorry I put you through it, Churlokk. Nobody willever have to suffer a tickle-tack again, not if I have anything to say aboutit."

Forceps stuck his head through the hatch. "Time's up, kid. These two needtheir rest." He disappeared again.

I said my good-byes and joined Forceps outside the ward. He waved his clip-board at me. "Just goin' over that report again, kid, the Eisen brought fromyer medic friend on the Lex. Her analysis of the ticklepak effects wasright on the mark. Good thing, too; saved me some time findin' the propertreatment fer yer pals in there."

Yeah, Disch was one smart cookie, all right. I'd always regret losing her,though, to be honest, I'd never really had--Ohmygod! She'd been in Tolwyn'sclutches for weeks now! She and the rest of my friends on the Lex! Jesus,what had be been doing to them? What HADN'T he been doing to them?

Forceps suddenly looked at me with concern. "Hey, kid, you all right? Ya looklike ya just saw a ghost."

I yanked myself back to reality. The best way to help my friends was to nailTolwyn. "Uh, I'm OK, Forceps. This T-pak thingie, any way to neutralize it?If the Black Lance ambushes us on the way to Sol, you can bet they'll use it."

Forceps shook his head. "Medically, no. It exploits a fundamental biologicalweakness. I suggest ya ask yer grease monkey pal; this is a job fortechs, not medics. But never mind that now, kid. Yer out on yer feet. Get some rest, or I'll have to sedate ya. Doctor's orders!"

I yawned involuntarily. "OK, Mommy." Mmmm, I could just feel myself curlingup in my bunk...


I made my way to the storage hold in a half-trance, bouncing off bulkheads andbunks and getting myself tangled up with protruding arms and legs. Ah, myfavorite bed was just ahead...

Fudge, it was occupied! Somebody had draped a couple of blankets from theupper bunk to make a kind of privacy curtain around the lower one. A uniformwas folded neatly under the bunk. Disappointed, I turned to look for anotherspot.

"And just where do you think you're going, Chris?"


I turned around. Panties was lying in "my" bunk, holding the "curtain" asidewith one hand. With the other, she held the bedclothes over her chest; it wasobvious she had nothing on underneath. Her hair was down, and although itcovered her cute elfin ears, she was just as lovely as I had dreamed in CIC.

I swallowed hard. "Er, I saw the, uh, bunk was occupied, Tamara."

She grinned at me. "It's only half-occupied, hero. Now get in here. I wentto a lot of trouble making this little love nest!"

After making sure the coast was clear, I undressed, stowed my clothes, andslipped into Panties' hidden retreat. To tell the truth, I was somewhatapprehensive; exhausted as I was, I was certain to disappoint her.

It turned out, however, that Tamara was as tired as I. We kissed and caresseda little, and then with a sigh, she snuggled up to me with her head on my armand closed her eyes. I gently ran my hand up and down her back until herbreathing grew deep and even. Then I settled down to sleep myself, enjoyingthe faint scent of jasmine from her hair.

Oddly, sleep wouldn't come at first. My thoughts kept returning to the BlackLance, and the alarming discoveries I had made at their base. Knowing what Iknew, I could never rest easy again until Tolwyn and his minions were safelybehind bars. On the other hand, I finally had enough evidence to put themthere, and that knowledge eased my mind enough for me to fall asleep at last.

Still, even as I drifted off, I couldn't shake the disturbing feeling thatwhile I slept, they'd be waiting.


"Wake up, sir! Trouble! Again!"

I moaned softly. Goddammit, why did Eisen always send Catnip to wake me up?Why not Sosa or Panties or Zelda? At least they'd be more considerate--

I awoke with a start and looked around in confusion. All was quiet. So wherewas Catnip? Wait, wasn't he dead? Oh, shit, it was another bad dream.

I lay back in the darkness of our secluded love nest. I could feel Pantiesbehind me, back against mine, breathing softly. Thank goodness my nightmarehadn't disturbed her. I relaxed, feeling her tiny movements as she breathed,savoring the delicate fragrance of roses wafting from her. Er, roses? Funny,I could swear I'd smelled jasmine when I fell asleep.

What time was it? Rats, my watch was under the bunk. I reached down and feltaround on the deck. Hmm, I thought I left it right about--

Yikes! I recoiled as my fingers touched something cold, wet, and slimy! Whatcould-- Then I grinned to myself. Reaching back down, I found it again...Yeah, just a condom. I tried to think back... Hmm, I vaguely recalled adream in which I'd been making love to Angel...except it must have been Pantiesin real life. Rats, what if she brought it up later? She'd sure be pissed ifI couldn't remember the details. Think, Blair!

Meanwhile, I continued searching for my elusive watch. When I felt somethinghard and round, I thought at first I'd found it. Then I realized it wasplastic, not metal. Curious, I fingered the strange object, trying to figureout--Uh-oh! Glasses!

With a feeling of dread, I reached behind me and explored my bunkmate, softlyso as not to disturb her. Back, bottom, and hips could belong to Tamara, butwhen I was unable to find her breasts, I knew for sure it was Sosa. Some timeduring the "night," Tamara and Velina must have switched places. But I'd foundonly one condom. So which woman had I...?

I cursed myself silently. Some lover I was! Too tired to keep my womenstraight! I should stick to something easy, like fighting supermen!


I checked on operations in CIC and the Control Bay, then headed for the galley.By good luck, I ran into Lt. Pilotte on her way to CIC for her watch. Istopped her with the Official Battlecruiser 4000 AD Secret Wink and took heraside.

"Say, Skye," I said casually, "I understand you have just about every BC 4Kaccessory there is. Is that right?"

"Right, sir!" she declared proudly. "Er, except the game itself. The releasedate has been pushed back ag--"

"That's OK. I was just wondering if you had..." I leaned closer to whisperin her ear.

She broke into a grin. "Oh yes, sir! I have two! I'd be honored if you'daccept one as a gift, sir! You've done so much for us all, er, Chris."

I smiled back. "Thanks, Skye. Um, carry on." Whistling to myself, Icontinued on my way. The next time Panties and Hulk got into an argument...Heh heh heh.

In the galley, I got some tasteless breakfast and found a seat by myself. Theholovid was showing a repeat of the latest Nightly News, which recently hadbeen devoting more and more coverage to the imminent Dissembly debate over thedeclaration of war with the Union. I was mildly interested to learn thatBarbara Dahl herself would be reporting from the Dissembly floor. She hadinterviewed me once by commlink when I joined the Victory, but now I had achance to meet her in person--if I survived the voyage to Earth, that is.

Our chances would be greatly improved if we could find a defense against theBlack Lance ticklepak. I decided to stop by Zelda's workshop and see if she--Whoops! Speak of the devil!

"Hi, Blairbear!" Zelda set her tray down and sat down opposite me. I waspleased to find two cans of fruit juice--real juice that I'd "liberated" inTheorem--on the tray.

"Here, honeybunch," said Zelda, handing me a can of grapefruit juice. "I putthe rest in a safe place." She shook her head in amazement. "You know,Blairbear, I think you found storage space on that fighter that even thedesigners don't know about. Took me an hour to find the whole stash." Shepointed to the can of juice still on her tray. "Er, may I?"

"What's mine is yours, hon," I replied. "Just save the banana nectars forPrimate; I'm out of fruit. Cheers." I popped my own can and drained half inone gulp. Ah, what a great way to wash down the last of that awful breakfast!

Zelda reluctantly began attacking her food. "By the way, Chris," she said,eyeing an unpromising spoonfull of "yogurt delight." "While you were on yourmission to Theorem, I checked out the optics on our Dragons." She stuck thespoon in her mouth, made a face, and swallowed. "Ugh. Er, my techs aremodifying our Banshee optics to the same specs. They'll still be outclassed,of course, but at least they won't be blind against the Dragons."

"Wonderful, Zelda! What would we do without you?" I'd been wanting to formour Dragons into a squadron for the last two days, but I'd been forced to keepthem on CAP, lest we fall prey to cloaked Black Lancers. Now I could replacethem with Banshees. "Hon, you've worked miracles for us, and I hate to ask foranother one..."

She smiled. "But..."

"But our lives may depend on it," I continued. "Zelda, do you have any ideahow we can defeat the Black Lance ticklepaks? If they catch us, and even onegets through our defenses, we've had it."

"Actually, Honeyblair," she said thoughtfully, "I've been considering thatproblem ever since you brought those things back from Theorem. I think I mayhave a solution." She set down her spoon--gratefully--and started drawing onher napkin. "OK, here's a T-pak stuck to a ship's hull, and these wiggly linesare the killer sonic vibrations." She then drew a second ticklepak at anotherlocation on the hull, its sonic waves colliding with the first one's. "Now intheory, if a second pak is tuned so its vibes are exactly out of phase..."

"Then they'll interfere and cancel each other out!" I concluded. "Why, that'sbrilliant, Zelda!"

"Whoa, Chris!" she cautioned. "It's not that simple in practice. The secondpak is sending the same harmonics, so it has to monitor the primary's outputclosely and adjust accordingly, or it'll just make things worse. Even then,the 3D geometry of the target will leave danger zones."

I dismissed her objections with a shake of my head. "It's still better thannothing. Can you start right away?"

"Um, sure." She made no move to leave, however. It took me a moment torealize that she probably had something else on her mind. Something personal.

"Was there something else, hon?" I prompted.

She took a deep breath. "I talked to Colonel Farnsworth a little while ago.Now that she and Lieutenant Sosa have had, er, their turns, I was wondering ifwe could spend some time together. We could discuss...autoslide..."

I shuddered. "Er, autoslide may be a bit, ah, intense, hon. In fact, I haveto warn you, the way things are going, you might not get much, um, action atall." Hey, if Panties had talked to Zelda, maybe she could help me with myproblem! "Say, Zelda, did Panties go into, um, details?"

"No." Zelda leaned closer to me. "Why, Blairbear?" she asked eagerly. "Didyou two do something really kink--er, special? Tell me, tell me!"

"Uh, heh heh, wouldn't you like to know, Zelda!" So would I! "Heavens, isthat the time? I gotta go talk to my pilots! SeeyoulaterZelda!"

I dumped my tray and hurriedly left the galley. Good grief, how did I getmyself into these messes?


I ran into Lt. Mourne on my way to the Control Bay, and had her pass the wordfor a full wing assembly in one hour. That gave me enough time to peruse therecords of our Dragon flight training and pick out the best candidates for thenew Dragon squadron.

We met in service bay ten. As my people assembled, I walked among them, makingjokes, shaking hands, or just sharing small talk. After all our ordealstogether, now, on the eve of our greatest test, we were like family--a smallfamily, unfortunately, and getting smaller all the time. I tried not to thinkabout the missing faces.

When everyone was present, I took my place in front of them. I nodded to Barr,who was setting up a two-way holovid to the CAP and our escorts. While he gotready, I took a moment to look over my command. Some were sitting on the deckor on toolboxes, others were kneeling or standing. Techs and pilots alike weredirty and tired, but whether rookie or veteran, they all had the hard edge ofmen and women tempered by combat. Good.

When Barr signaled that the commlink was working, I addressed the wing.

"Good day, everyone. By now you all know what we're up against, and what wehave to do next. If Tolwyn makes it to Earth ahead of us, full-scale civil waris inevitable."

I paused a moment to let that sink in. "Fortunately," I continued, "I believewe have an excellent chance of getting our evidence to the Dissembly in time.This will most likely involve the heaviest fighting we've seen yet, so we haveto prepare. Now Zel--er, Chief Morgenstern--tells me we're down to only fourflyable Vindicators, and they're held together with Krazy Glue and lasagna.Since we won't be flying any more planet missions, I'm going to disband TurkeySquadron. In its place, we'll have a new squadron of Dragons."

I waited for the buzz of excitement to die down. "I'll be the C.O. of DragonSquadron. Primate will take over Wombat--"

"Excuse me, sir!" Panties was waving her hand. "'Dragon' Squadron? In theMilitia, it's traditional for personnel to name their own units."

Oh, Christ, here we go again. That explained the idiot names of Intrepid'sconventional squadrons. Border Worlders! "Uh, well, Panties, did you haveanother name in mind?"

"Uh-huh!" she replied. "How about 'Puff' Squadron--for Puff the Magic Dragon.Get it? Dragon?"

"Yeah!" agreed Hulk. "Hulk like Puff Squadron!" Several other pilots shoutedtheir approval.

Gimme a break. "Puff Squadron?" I scoffed. "Shit, Panties, that makes ussound like a bunch of silly gir--" Noting the sudden scowl on her face, Ihastily corrected myself. "--er, wimps! No, we'll just stick with--"

"I like PUFF squadron!" yelled Louise. Others came to her support.

"Yeah! Puff squadron! We hit and disappear in a puff of smoke! Poof!"

"Hey, watch 'em run when we roar our name! PUFF! PUFF!"

"We'll flame 'em with a PUFF of our mighty breath! We BAD!"

Panties raised her hand. "All in favor of PUFF Squadron!"

"AYE!" chorused the wing, with one deafening voice.


"Me, dammit!" I yelled. "And I'm the Wing Com--"

"The ayes have it!" shouted Panties. She folded her arms and regarded mesmugly. "Please, do carry on, Colonel."

Bitch. "All right, all right!" I conceded. "Puff Squadron--ugh--it is."I consulted my clipboard, to which I'd attached my pilots' qualifying scores."OK, the following pilots are assigned to Dra--er, Puff--Squadron: Hulk,Lovey, Dovey, Rubberpucky--"


"--Panties... Um, Excell, you're qualified for Puff Squadron, but with Pantiesgone, I need you to lead the Gophers."

"No problem, sir!" said Excell cheerfully. "The Banshee's more my styleanyway. I like my fighters the way I like my men: fast and loo--"

"Er, yes, thank you, Excell. OK, next is Lt. Homes. Congratulations,Churlokk. Not bad for a former shuttle pilot."

Homes beamed back at me. "Thank you, sir." Lt. Tennant gave him a big hug.

"Ahem. Next: Castor, Pollux, front and center!"

Second Lieutenants "Castor" Hoyle and "Pollux" Bollocks scrambled out of theassembly and snapped to attention in front of me.

"You two are both promoted to First Lieutenant and assigned to Puff Squadron.Congratulations, gentlemen."

"Thank you, sir!" they chorused. They saluted me and hustled back into thecrowd, where their friends thronged around them.

"OK!" I said, when the activity died down. "Wing exercises in one--"

Maniac flung his hand into the air. "Hey, Ace!" he exclaimed. "You're SHORTone pilot in Puff Squadron!"

I leafed through the papers on my clipboard, feigning confusion. "Er, no,Maniac, I don't think--"

"Well, you are!" he declared. "Hey, who the hell do you think had the highestqualifying score, anyway?"

"Um, I don't have that, er, information, Major Mar--"

"Oh yes you do! I'M top scorer, Mr. WING Commander, sir! I belong in PuffSquadron!"

I was trapped. Besides, Maniac had actually been behaving himself since I'dstarted blackmailing him. "OK, OK! You're in Puff Squadron. Tex, you takeManiac's place as Skunk C.O."

The Skunks exchanged grins and high fives. In contrast, the new members ofPuff Squadron looked at each other in dismay.

Maniac wasn't finished. "That's not all, Ace. I should be the Puff C.O.because--"

"Don't push your luck, Maniac!" I growled. "OK! Wing exercises in one hour.Squadron commanders report to me for instructions! Dismissed!"


"Earthworm, you are cleared to land." Sosa was smiling, something she hadn'tdone much since we'd lost Catnip. "And that was some pretty nifty flying outthere, Chris!"

I searched her face, but I could discern no clues about our last sleepover.Damn. I forced a smile. "Thanks, Velina. Earthworm out." With a sigh, Igave up. If Tamara or Velina brought up the subject, I'd just have to beg formercy.

At least the drills had gone well. We'd started with a series of mock torpedoattacks on the task force, with Wombat, Gopher, and Skunk Squadrons on offense,Puff Squadron on defense. Simulating Confed fighters, our Banshees used theirstandard optics. At first our outnumbered Dragons had been overwhelmed, but astheir pilots learned to make the best use of their cloaks, they quickly gainedthe upper hand. Puff Squadron handily repulsed the last torpedo attack, evenwith our escorts' fighters joining the attackers. In fact, it was downrightscary to see how badly the Black Lance's birds outclassed our own.

In the second series of exercises, we had tried to protect the task force froman assault by Puff Squadron, which was armed with dummy ticklepaks. Using thenew optics, our Banshees inflicted severe losses on the attackers, but theDragons always managed to launch at least one or two of their deadly weapons.When Intrepid had been "killed" for the fourth time in a row, I gave up andordered everyone home. If the Black Lance caught us, Zelda's "cancelpaks"would have to be our last line of defense.

I'd been trying all along to find a way to Earth that wouldn't imperil mycomrades; the drill results only reinforced my resolve. I had come up with aworkable plan, except that the impetuous Border Worlders would never go alongwith it if they knew what it involved. That meant I had to keep them in thedark until the last minute. Or, to put it another way, I was going to repaytheir trust and loyalty with deceit and betrayal.



Climbing down the ladder from the cockpit, I found myself wishing Zelda wasn'tso busy; by now I was so used to her warm welcomes that I wanted her there evenafter routine flights. This time, my wish came true; as soon as I touched thedeck, I felt hands covering my eyes and heard a familiar voice in my ear.

"Guess who, Blairbear!"

I smiled, rejoicing in her touch. "Uh, Mary? Diana? Susie? Deb--"

I felt a sharp swat on the behind. I turned and found Zelda nursing her hand.Gallantly, I took it and pressed my lips to it. "Oh, sorry, Zelda. And afteryou did such a good job adapting those Banshee optics, too."

"I'll live," she said, her hand squeezing mine. "As for the optics, I didn'texactly do all the work myself..."

"Oh, sure, you've got a great crew of techs, too!"

"Er, yeah, but they didn't do all the work, either."

"Oh? Oh! Your 'faeries' again?"

"Uh-huh. I knew we'd never have all our Banshees converted before the EllieMae jump, snookums. So while you were, er, sleeping, I had my techs 'donate'the last of their stashes, put some food in each bird, and sealed the servicebays. A few hours later, the job was done. I'm afraid it's the last time,though. I don't think there's another stash of real food anywhere on the ship.Except your fruit juice, of course, and the, uh, faeries have never beeninterested in drinks."

"OUR fruit juice," I corrected. I scratched my head. "Well, maybe we canthink of something else they want. Anyway, thanks for meeting me after thedrills, hon, it was--"

"Hey, Ace! Quit fraternizing with the hired help and do your job!"

Oh, hell. Mr. Perfect Timing again. This time he had Hulk and Panties withhim. All three were still in their flight suits.

Ignoring Maniac's mocking tone, I tried to keep my voice even. "What's up,people?"

"Our curiosity, Colonel," answered Panties. "You see, we're less than an hourfrom the Ellie Mae jump point. Confed's spread pretty thin here in Jethro, butSosa's been intercepting a lot of comm traffic; they've sent couriers ahead towarn Ellie Mae of our approach. So don't you think it's about time we figuredout what we're going to do after the jump? Hmm?"

OK, Blair, look confident. "I already know, Panties. You see, I have a plan."

Panties groaned. Maniac put his hand to his forehead and moaned, "Oh shit!Not another one!" Even Hulk winced.

Doubters! Sternly, I retorted, "I find your lack of faith...disturbing! Justfor that, I'm not calling the briefing until AFTER the jump! Now, dismissed!"

They grumbled, but they left without objection. Zelda, however, wasn't buyingit. When the others were out of earshot, she spun me around to face her.

"All right, Blair! You may fool them, but you can't fool me! You're planninganother solo mission, aren't you? And this time you're not coming back!Dammit, Chris, can't you see? We're all in this together!"

Oh, shit, how did she know me so well? Damn, she'd spoil everything!

"Zelda," I said hastily, "you once said you believed in me. Believe in me now,and keep your damn mouth shut! OK?" Then I walked away, cursing myself forwishing her there in the first place.


I was in CIC for the jump to the Ellie Mae System. Our Banshees and Dragonswere ready for immediate launch, but I had no intention of using them. If myplan worked, the Intrepid task force had fought its last battle. My onlyproblem would be breaking the news to my subordinates. Well, for that I hadSkye's present, currently hidden under a towel on the briefing table.

I sat at the nav console, absorbing some last-minute information about theEllie Mae fleet base. Near the end of the Kilrathi War, when it looked likemankind would be making a last stand at Earth, the President of the Dissembly,Senator Papillon, had rammed through an emergency appropriations bill; itspurpose was to build an impregnable fortress in the Proxima System, the gatewayto Sol. Unfortunately, it wasn't completed until after the War had alreadybeen won. However, Senator Papillon, capitalizing on the anxiety provoked bythe War, had turned the "Papillon Project" into the most immense pork barrelprogram in history. Four more bases were built in quick succession before theSenator, implicated in ever-widening financial scandals, resigned in disgrace.The last of the bases, Papillon 5, was waiting for us in Ellie Mae, four jumpsfrom Sol.

I pulled the service record of the station's current commander, Captain DonSheraton. He was a good man: during the War, his destroyer had single-handedly taken out one of the cats' Byeerbelli class cruisers. Yes, finding afighting man in charge of the base was good omen. Smiling, I secured theconsole and turned my attention to our jump preparations.

The hyperjump was a bit bumpy; our jump engines had never quite recovered fromthe extended jumps to and from Telefon. Nevertheless, we made it through OK.On the other side, I launched a four-ship Banshee CAP and ordered the rest ofthe wing to stand down.

Lt. Sosa relayed the order, then looked at me quizzically. "Er, Colonel?" sheventured. "Comm intercepts show a Confed fleet two hours ahead of us at thisspeed, and another closing in behind us. They'll be launching fighters soon.Shouldn't we keep the wing on alert?"

I smiled at her confidently. "Don't worry, Lieutenant. I know what I'mdoing." Her answering smile was so full of trust that I had to turn away,guilt eating away at my guts.


Nearly half an hour into the Ellie Mae system, I finally called the briefing.I waited patiently while Hulk, Panties, and Maniac filed into CIC. Sosa wasthe last to join us at the briefing table.

Panties couldn't wait for me to begin. "OK, Colonel, no more delays! We havea Confed fleet ahead of us, one behind, and a third en route from the base. Sowhat's this brilliant plan of yours?"

"Hulk know! Hulk know!" Hulk was eagerly waving his hand in the air. "Blairuse T-paks on Confed! Easy victory! Tickle Confed fancy! Huh-huh!"

Panties stomped on Hulk's right foot. "No, Hulk! We can't use terror weapons!Thousands of innocents would die horribly! That would be inhuman!"

She turned from Hulk and appealed to me. "You're going to backhand them,aren't you, Colonel? Ambush the fighters with Puff Squadron, then take outtheir cap ship fleets one at a time! They've split their forces, which givesus--"

"NO!" roared Hulk. "Lose too many fighters! Must conserve strength forVesuvius and escorts! Thousands die from ticklepaks, but millions die if warcomes!"

Panties whirled on him again, all her anxieties and frustrations coming to ahead. "You bloodthirsty imbecile! You'd gut your own mother for kicks!"

I had never seen Hulk so angry, not even when Maniac had insulted his friendMelek. "Panties leave Mommy out of this!" He grabbed her by the throat anddrew back his immense fist.

Damn those two! Fast as lightning, I whipped my weapon out from under thetowel, leveled it at the two antagonists, and barked, "All right, freeze!"

Panties ceased her fruitless struggles and looked at me. Then she looked atmy weapon. Then she burst out laughing.

"Whahahaha! You think a squirt gun is gonna stop us, Colonel? Heeheehee!"

Hulk relaxed his grip and also started laughing. "Hohohoho! Hulk not fearwater! Hulk know dog-paddle!"

I casually pumped a little more air into my Official Battlecruiser 4000 ADSuper-Soaker Water Megarifle (some assembly required) and smiled wickedly."Water? Who says I filled it with water?"

Panties took one look at the yellow liquid in the transparent reservoir andturned white. Hulk dropped her and hurriedly covered his mouth, his face alovely pastel green. Neither was in any mood for further arguments.

"That's better," I said cheerfully. "Now, you'll all be relieved to hear thatwe're adopting neither alternative. If we fight, T-paks or not, thousands willdie just for doing their duty. I won't allow that. So when the Confed birdsget here, we're going to be good little girls and boys and accept escortaccording to Confed's edict."

Gasps of disbelief from my companions.

I forged on. "Confed will escort us to Papillon 5, where our four ships willbe interned for the duration. If the Black Lance is really after us, they'llabort when they see we're not going anywhere."

Maniac could contain himself no longer. "I always knew you were a chickenshit,Blair! Whatsamatter, crybaby? Afraid to face the Black Lance again? Or maybeyou made a deal with your old pal, Tolwyn, back at the Black Lance base!"

Knuckle walker. Refusing to be baited, I replied evenly, "On the contrary,Maniac, this is our best chance to deliver our evidence and hang him."

"With our ships interned?" he scoffed. "What are you gonna do, Ace--waltz intothe station and ask 'em politely for a ride to Sol?"

I smiled. "That's exactly what I'm going to do, Maniac!"




"Hulk hear right?"

Heehee, I really had 'em going! "Look," I explained, "who's the most wantedman in human space, hmm? Me--er, I--the infamous Heart of the Tiger, Confed'sgreatest traitor! When I show up at Papillon 5, they'll clap me in irons andship me off to Sol so fast I'll leave skid marks in space! When I get to HQ,I'll show 'em Tolwyn's little speech. Our friend the Admiral will walk intothe Dissembly and find himself in front of a firing squad! Heh heh."

I waited while they mulled that one over. I was right, but more important, itwas too late for alternatives; Confed was too near. Nonetheless, I could seethat all their fighting instincts were screaming in protest against surrender.

Finally, Panties broke the silence. "OK," she said bitterly. "Looks like youdidn't leave us a choice. I guess betrayal has become a habit with you, hasn'tit...renegade?"

I swallowed my hurt and looked her straight in the eye. "Would you have agreedif I'd asked you beforehand, Tamara?"

"Fuck you," she declared icily. She turned on her heel and strode out thedoors.

Hulk, looking at his feet, said sadly, "Hulk think Blair friend. Hulk trustBlair, think Blair trust Hulk. But Hulk just big dumb ox." Eyes stilldowncast, he hopped out on his left foot.

I turned to Maniac, expecting a withering tirade. Instead, he just looked atme wistfully. "Y'know, Ace?" he said. "I used to think you were somebodyworth hating...somebody worth humiliating with my superior skills. But I waswrong. You're nothing...just a big zero." Pointedly avoiding my eyes, hestrode out of CIC.

Sosa didn't say anything, and for once she managed to fight back her tears...barely. She jumped to attention and snapped defiantly, "Y-your orders? SIR?"

Damn, I'd hurt her again. "Contact Confed, Sosa, and tell them we acceptescort. Pass the orders to our frigates. Then get Lt. Cmdr. Ander in here.Tell him he's promoted to full commander and he's acting captain. Have ChiefMorgenstern get my Dragon ready; I'm going on ahead."

"Yes, sir, Colonel, SIR!" Sosa spun on her heel and headed for the commalcove.

Damn Border Worlders! I was right, dammit! So why did I feel so guilty? Andthirsty? Was the price of guilt eternal thirst? I put the muzzle of thesquirt gun in my mouth and took a generous drink of the amber liquid.


Startled, I whirled and saw Sosa standing in the comm alcove, looking at me inhorror. Then she covered her mouth and dashed for the porta-potty.

That's funny, I thought to myself as I took another swig. I thought Sosa LIKEDapricot juice.


Zelda was unusually quiet as she saw me off, and she refused to kiss the tigeremblem on my flight helmet. As I started up the ladder, however, she stoppedme with a tug on my sleeve.

"Blairbear? Is this really the only way? Do you really have to shut us--shutME out like this?"

I sighed in frustration. "Zelda, don't make this any harder for me. This isthe fastest, surest way to get our evidence to Earth, OK? A courier ship willget me there a full day ahead of Vesuvius, with NO more loss of life."

"What if the Black Lance is out there? Our sensors caught a burst from theJethro jump point a while ago. Maybe it was Confeds, but maybe it was theBlack Lance..."

"I'll cloak all the way to the base; even with their Dragon optics, the BlackLance is unlikely to spot me." I hesitated, afraid of being rebuffed. "Look,Zelda, I'm sorry I lied to--"

She put a finger over my lips. "No, you're not. You always get the job done,no matter what the yourself, or to those around you!" She turned andwalked away without a backward glance.



I cloaked as soon as I received Sosa's perfunctory "Cleared, Earthworm."Launch was smooth and easy, except that once I was in space, I had to avoidcollision with our CAP and the escorting Confed Hellcats. I threaded my wayamong the fighters and Confed capships, then went to afterburner.

As I watched Intrepid recede, I was momentarily tempted to chuck the wholeelaborate plan and simply blaze off toward Earth. No, I'd discarded thatoption a dozen times. Hyperjump was hard on fighter jump units, even advancedmodels like the Dragon's. Two jumps without re-tuning was about the limit.Three, and I might end up in interstellar space; four would probably land me inthe Twilight Zone.

I shrugged and pushed all doubts out of my mind. Win or lose, this was my lastmission; I might as well enjoy the ride.


I arrived at Papillon 5 undetected. Noting that the station was recoveringfighters, I quickly entered the landing pattern and sneaked up behind the lastHellcat. Coming in only seconds behind him, I caught the landing field justbefore it was deactivated.

Still cloaked, I drove past the taxiing Hellcat and toward a deserted servicebay. A few techs swiveled their heads, puzzled by the stereo thruster soundeffects, but even at close range the Dragon was invisible to the naked eye.It wasn't until I was safely in the bay that I dropped cloak, shut down, andclimbed down from the cockpit.

I doffed my flight suit and wandered casually into the next bay. Coming upbehind one of the techs, I tapped him on the shoulder. His annoyance at beinginterrupted quickly turned to astonishment as he took in my Border Worlduniform and insignia.

"Hi," I said brightly. "I'm Colonel Christopher Blair of the Union Militia.Er, take me to your leader." Heehee, I always wanted to say that!

"The Heart of the Tiger!" he exclaimed. "How the fuck did you get here?"

"Er, I walked," I replied, puzzled. What, did he think I flew over from theother bay?

The tech's eyes grew wider. "Security!" he yelled. "SECURITY! We got a nutcase here!"


Two guards soon showed up and ushered me to a conference room on one of thecommand levels. Waiting inside were three officers: two men and a woman, alldressed in black.

At the sight of their uniforms, I nearly had a heart attack. Jesus, they wereBlack Lance! Then, to my relief, I realized that the design was different.OK, so they weren't G.E.D., but they weren't Confed, either. What the heck wasgoing on?

Although I couldn't tell their rank, the taller of the two men looked like theholopic in Sheraton's file. My guess was confirmed when he stepped forward andoffered his hand.

"Colonel Blair? I'm Captain Don Sheraton." Still antsy about their uniforms,I shook hands warily; Sheraton's grip was strong and warm. "Your reputationprecedes you, Colonel," he continued. "Under other circumstances this would bean honor."

"Er, yes," I replied cautiously. "For me, too. But under other circumstances,I wouldn't be here, would I?"

"Indeed." He indicated the woman at his right. "My exec, Commander SnuzinBossanova." Whoa, she was a winsome wench. Captain Sheraton sure could pick'em. Her manner was cool and professional, but there was warmth in her touchand a sensuous glint in her eye. Hmm, there was something else about her--andabout Sheraton, too. Had we met before?

Sheraton gestured toward the compact, bullet-headed man next to Bossanova. "Mysecurity chief, Nike Gullibaldi."

Despite the man's scowl, I extended my hand. He immediately jumped back andassumed a fearsome karate stance. "Heeyaah!" he cried. Startled, I quicklywithdrew my hand and gave him a little wave instead. "Er, hi," I said.

Sheraton was staring at me intently. "Say, Blair," he remarked. "Now that Isee you in person, you look awfully familiar. Aren't you the guy from--"

"No, I'm not!" I said quickly. "But now that you mention it, you're prettyfamiliar, too. Aren't you the guy from Tr--"

"No, I'm not!" Suddenly pale and sweating, Sheraton was looking arounduncomfortably, as if afraid of who would overhear.

Bossanova waved her hand. "Hey, can I play? After all, I AM the gal from TheH--"

"Shut up, Snuzin!" Sheraton and I snapped in unison.

She looked at her feet. "Sorry," she said meekly.

Sheraton still looked a bit pale to me. "Er, excuse me, Captain," I said withconcern. "Have you been ill, sir?"

His eyes seemed to see across light years. "Actually, I was dead," he said,deadpan.

"Er, what the Captain means," said Bossanova hastily, "is that we all THOUGHThe was dead! Heh heh. Oh, Colonel Blair! Would you like to see our new THXsound sys--"

"No, no, I really was dead," insisted Sheraton. "I'm better now."

I glanced at Bossanova, who was looking sideways at Sheraton and tapping herfinger against her skull. When Sheraton, too, looked her way, she quicklypretended to be scratching her head.

With me, however, there was no need for her to make excuses. After my ownbrushes with death, most recently on that mission in Pasqual, my mind was morethan open to such concepts.

"What a coincidence, Captain!" I exclaimed. "I've died a few times myself."

"Then perhaps we have a common acquaintance," he replied solemnly. "When Ipassed beyond, I met a mystical being, garbed in white raiment--"

"You saw Elvis, too?"

Sheraton shot me a strange look. "Er, no. No, he called himself Jay Emmess.He said he was one of the Last Ones."

"The last ones to do what?"

"To make any bread off hopelessly trite pseudo-spiritual sci fi. I mustconfess, I have not yet fully grasped the meaning of his words."

"Yes," I said gravely, remembering my own struggles with the autoslide concept."True understanding is often elusive. But tell me, Captain, how did you, er,'pass beyond?'"

"Ah." Sheraton was obviously recalling pleasant memories. "It was my weddingn--"

"Er, excuse me, Captain!" Bossanova, who had been growing increasinglyfidgety, finally interrupted us. "Hello? If the afterlife can spare you, SIR,we have to figure out what to do with Colonel Houdini, here."

Sheraton quickly shifted gears. "Uh, thank you, Snuzin. Ahem. Colonel Blair,although you are a most congenial guest, your presence here puts me in a veryawkward position. I hate to arrest the Confederation's greatest hero, but myduty--"

"--is clear, Captain," I finished. "It's OK. I know I have to go to HQ forcourt-martial. If it's all right with you, sir, I'd like to get it over withas soon as possible."

"Then it's settled," said Sheraton, obviously relieved. "We'll have a couriership ready in an hour. Meanwhile, Snuzin and Nike will show you to yourquarters, where you can refresh yourself."

"Thank you, Captain." I hesitated, then took out my data cartridge and handedit to him. "You'd better check this out; I think you'll find it interesting.Oh, and down in your hangar is some equipment that'll corroborate my story."

Sheraton accepted the cartridge and nodded.

"One more thing, sir," I continued. "Intrepid's synthesizers have been on thefritz for weeks. Can you send some food over when the ship arrives?"

Sheraton grinned. "Our chefs here are the envy of the Confederation. Yourshipmates will have the very best."

"Thank you, sir." Maybe my friends would forgive my deception when they'ddiscovered the fringe benefits of internment.


"Wow, Commander!" I marveled. "This is quite a place you have here!" Thejourney to my "quarters" had already taken us past malls, factories, labs, andvast parklands. "I had no idea the Papillon bases were so elaborate!"

Bossanova grinned. "All part of the vision, Colonel," she said proudly. "ThePapillon Project was our last, best hope for victory. It failed. But in theyears after the Kilrathi War, it became something more: our last, best hopefor a piece of Confed's budget!"

God help Confed. "I see," I said noncommitally. "But why so much civilianactivity on a military installation?"

"Well, with all the budget cuts, we had to lease out most of the base tocommercial outfits to make ends meet. We even contracted with PTEN for part ofour salaries."


"Prime Tripe Entertainment Network." She plucked at her non-reg uniform andmade a face. "They insist we wear these lame-o costumes on duty, and they comehere occasionally to shoot on location for some stupid holovid series. I neverwatch it."

Jeez, Tolwyn was right: the entertainment industry was taking over the wholedamn galaxy.


Still gawking like a rube at all the sights, I soon found myself in a huge,lavishly decorated hotel lobby. While Snuzin checked me in at the front desk,Gullibaldi slipped a confinement ring on my little finger.

"Don't try to take this off, renegade," he warned, "and don't leave the hotel!If you do--" He made a slicing motion across his neck. "--scrrrrrk! Heh hehheh."

Heh heh. Go twiddle your prehensile toes, banana-breath.

I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder. "Good day, sir!"

I turned to see who-- "YIKES!"

It was an ALIEN! He was humanoid, but pale and completely hairless, withlow-set misshapen ears, a bony crest forming a sort of bowl around the back andsides of his bald skull, and a beatific expression on his face. He seemed tohave only two arms; his legs were concealed by his robes.

He flashed a professionally insipid smile. "My apologies for startling you,sir. I'm afraid our makeup can be quite...intimidating at first sight."

"Makeup? Then you're, uh, human?"

He looked puzzled. "Of course, sir. What else-- Oh, you thought-- Heh heh.Oh, yes, sir. Quite human. It's for the tourists, you see. As part of thehotel's exotic decor, the entire staff is costumed as various alien characters,both real and fictional. I am called Leer, and it is my honor to be yourpersonal valet during your stay at the Papillon Sheraton. Welcome."

"Thank you, L-- Sheraton? Don't tell me Captain Sheraton is--"

"Yes, sir! THAT Sheraton. The One. The Donald. The last of the family.We're lucky to have him, sir; it's no exaggeration to say that his businessexpertise saved Papillon 5 from the scrap heap. Now, sir, if you'll followme..." He dismissed my two escorts with a wave of his hand and headed for thelift.


Leer wasn't kidding about the staff. On the way to my suite we passed at leasta dozen different "aliens," all as convincingly made up and costumed as Leer.Consummate professionals, they didn't seem to mind the constant interruption oftheir duties to pose for holopics with the tourists.

"Here we are, sir," said Leer, inserting the card key in the door.

"Say, Leer," I remarked, craning my neck. "Is that a Klingon down the hallthere?"

"Quite possibly, sir. We have several Klingons here."

"Gee, that's funny," I said, grinning. "I thought Klingons always stuck aroundUran--"

"Ah, heh heh." Leer's answering chuckle was obviously forced. "Very droll,sir. Er, if I may presume to offer advice, sir..."


"Leave the jokes to us, sir, OK?"

"Uh, sorry." Too bad. That was one of Maniac's favorites.


Once inside my sumptuous suite, I made a beeline for the bathroom. I took mytime showering and depilating, luxuriating in the unlimited water supply. WhenI finally emerged, I found my uniform had already been cleaned and pressed.My Official Battlecruiser 4000 AD Underwear had been replaced; the new stuffbore the PTEN logo and pictures of various Papillon Sheraton "aliens." Leerwas nowhere in sight, but I had a feeling that he'd pop up instantly if I somuch as whistled.

Well, I didn't feel like whistling. Urged on by my long-suffering stomach, Iquickly commed Room Service and ordered a deluxe "Deep Space Nine-Topping"pizza. I'd been obsessed with the thought of pizza ever since my visit toBlack Lance Prime, and I could wait no longer.

After dressing, I paced impatiently back and forth, impatient to appease mydeprived taste buds. When the knock finally came, I dashed to the door andeagerly flung it open. "Well it's about t-- Who the hell are you?"

Whoever he was, he wasn't Room Service. In front of me stood a short, slightlybuilt man dressed in brown, with a green brooch pinned to his chest. His dark,shoulder-length hair, manicured fingernails, and neatly trimmed beard gave aslightly effeminate cast to his rugged good looks.

"I am Marcie," he replied calmly, "Chief Warder of the Strangers." I noted acultured English accent, which only reinforced his foppish image.

"Strangers? Stranger than what?" I asked in confusion.

"Stranger than you want to know," he replied, a sudden glint of madness in hiseye. It vanished as quickly as it had appeared. "But come, Captain Sheratonrequests your presence in CCCC, Colonel."


"Command, Control, Communication, and Corporate. Please come at once, sir," hesaid pleasantly. "I wouldn't want to get nasty with you." He pronounced it"nahsty."

As if this little twerp could push around the Heart of the Tiger! Besides, Ihad no intention of going anywhere until I'd had my pizza. "Look, Darcy, Ihaven't--"


"Whatever. I haven't eaten for twenty light-years, so you'll just have to--"

With a flick of his wrist, Marcie suddenly produced a gleaming quarterstaff,seemingly out of thin air. In a blur of motion, he whipped the tip across mychest before I could move a muscle.

"Touche'!" he said, smiling, his quarterstaff balanced easily in one hand.

I looked down at the big red "M" now emblazoned on my uniform. "Er, ink?" Iasked shakily.

"Not exactly." Marcie collapsed his staff to finger length and began applyingit to his lips.


Having lost my appetite, I allowed Marcie to deactivate my confinement ring andescort me to CCCC. Along the way, we engaged in a spirited discussion on thesubtle interactions between skin complexion and lipstick. Outside the hatch toCCCC, he gave me a couple of lipsticks that he insisted were right for mycoloring. I noted with pride that one was the same shade I had chosen for my"Heather" disguise. Marcie then grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks,French style, before taking his leave.

CCCC turned out to be a large circular chamber jam-packed with electronics,comm consoles, and stock tickers. It was bustling with activity. I foundSheraton and his officers on the mezzanine, absorbed in watching a holoviddisplay. I looked was Tolwyn's speech!

As I approached, Sheraton turned away from the display. Noting the scarlet "M"on my chest, he said, "I see you've met Marcie."

"Uh, yeah. And his Swiss Army quarterstaff. So, Captain, what do you think ofmy evidence?"

He sighed. "Colonel, I've seen this thing twice, and I still can't believe it.But my techs swear up and down that the rec hasn't been doctored in any way.And that 'Dragon' you brought in is certainly no gimmick. So I guess I HAVE tobelieve you."

Gullibaldi was livid. "Captain! How can you trust this man? Hell, he soldout to Playboy, he sold out to the Union, and now he's selling out to us!" Heconfronted me angrily. "Whatsamatter, renegade? Those Border World boobs notpaying you enough? How much do you want for this so-called 'evidence?' Amillion? Two million? Well, you can take your bogus data and stuff it up--"

"Nike!" declared Sheraton. "Nike, this evidence is damning, but it's onlypart of the story. Now that I've seen this, all the crazy events of the lastfew months suddenly make sense! The sudden upsurge in piracy; Confed's curiousinability to suppress it; senseless 'atrocities' supposedly perpetrated by theBorder Worlds; diversion of funds from procurement--and from the PapillonProject. I tell you, Nike, it all fits!" Sheraton ejected my data cartridgeand handed it to me. "I've added my own endorsement of your findings, Blair."

I was elated. What a piece of luck, finding a decent, honest fighting man incharge of the station! HQ might take a little longer to convince, but in theend, Tolwyn would be toast! Heehee, the Heart of the Tiger had won again!

Suppressing a satisfied smirk, I stuck the cartridge in my pocket. "Then I'moff to HQ, Captain?"

He nodded. "Our fastest courier ship is standing by. You leave right afterthe press conference."

Press conference? Uh-oh.

I cleared my throat to cover my dismay. "Ahem. Captain Sheraton, under Confedregs, the accusations against both Tolwyn and myself are confiden--"

"Yes, I know." He avoided my eyes. "Normally, of course, this would be topsecret. But tourism's way down this fiscal quarter, and we need the publicity.Don't worry, Colonel, the reporters from Ellie Mae IV will be here any minute,and then we--"

"You sent this by comm? ON A CIVILIAN CHANNEL?"

My vehemence took him by surprise. "Uh, yeah. Why?"

I struggled for control. "You MORON! If the Black Lance is in this system,then now they know everything! Jesus, they could attack any second!" Fightingmy sudden despair, I tried to think. The Black Lance would have to eliminateboth Papillon 5 and the Intrepid task force to suppress my evidence.

"Captain, I need to contact Intrepid! And scramble your Hellcats now!" As ifthat would help.

Sheraton hesitated a moment, then made up his mind. He directed me to a commconsole and began barking orders to Bossanova and Gullibaldi.

Hurriedly I made my call, then waited an eternity for a response.

Sosa finally appeared in the display, her eyes half-closed and her hair indisarray. "Intrepid here," she said sleepily. "Oh! Colonel! Er, what areyou doing on an open channel?" She took in the frantic activity behind me andcame fully awake. "Hey, what's going on there?"

"Sosa! The Black Lance is on to us! Go to general quarters and scramble allBanshees! Do NOT use the you-know-whats!" I'd debated launching our ownDragons and decided against it. Now that Plan A was blown, Intrepid might haveto confront Vesuvius, and for that it needed an ace in the hole. I wouldn'tsee the battle, of course; like everyone else on Papillon 5 I was as good asdead.

As Sosa cut me off to alert the task force, Commander Bossanova reported to me."Any further orders, Colonel? Blue Squadron is up now, and the rest arelaunching. I notified the ships escorting your task force, and they're puttingup more fighters. The ships around our base are on alert. All laser batteriesare manned and ready." She looked me straight in the eye. "But it won't doany good, will it, Colonel?"

I shrugged. "Probably not. One Dragon can take this base without eventrying."

"So this is it," she said in resignation. "We're going to d--"

A sensor tech suddenly screamed, "Captain, we're under attack!" All eyesshifted to the main combat display, in which a Dragon fighter had suddenlyappeared less than a thousand klicks away. Before the base's lasers could zeroin, it had disappeared again, leaving only a small, disk-shaped object tumblingtoward the base.

I was unnaturally calm. Horrible death was mere seconds away, but to me itmeant only that all my responsibilities were over. I'd soon be with my Angelaga-- Hey! Maybe not!

"Captain Sheraton!" I yelled. "Drop the shields!"

He stared at me in surprise. "What?"

"DO IT!" I punched what I hoped was the fighter channel on my console. "BlueSquadron!" I screamed. "Shoot that disk off the hull!" With the shields down,they just might be able to destroy the ticklepak in time! "Blue Leader, doyou cop--EEEYAHAHAHAHA!"

Suddenly every nerve in my body hit instant overload! My hyperstimulatedmuscles responded with massive spasms! Tickled by a million tiny fingers, Isquealed reflexively.


All around me, people were rolling on the deck and almost literally laughingtheir heads off. I writhed with the rest, still in hysterics despite mygrowing agony. Curiously, some hidden part of my mind noted with scientificdetachment that even my ears were wiggling--vestiges of our animal ancestry,perhaps.


With a supreme effort, I opened my eyes and peered through my tears at thecombat display just as a Hellcat disintegrated under the Dragon's guns. OhGod, they wouldn't get the pak in, another Hellcat was zooming in,covered by two more... He was firing...

I heard a distant explosion and my muscles went lax. Totally spent, I couldonly lie where I was, whimpering with pain and gasping desperately for air, myheart pounding like a trip-hammer. Jesus, that had been much too close! But Iwas alive!

My joy was short-lived. With its weapons silent, shields down, and nobody toraise them again, Papillon 5 was a sitting duck. Still watching the display, Isaw the Dragon uncloak again and launch two torps. Unable to move, I couldonly watch helplessly as Death had a second go at me.

WHOOOOM! This time the explosion was deafening! I was flung off the mezzanineand into a hurricane of escaping air and flying bodies. Something hard crashedinto my head, and I knew no more.

End of Chapter 28

Previews from Chapter 29:

"Who's Heather?"

"You know, Tolwyn may have outsmarted himself."

"Oh, anybody know where we can get some AAA batteries?"

"Tag, you're it!"