Wing Commander 4.123106 Chapter 29

By Gary Hladik

[Posted to June 16, 1997]

Chapter 29

Awareness returned with the suddenness of a lightning bolt. Disoriented, I took in the fog-shrouded, blurry landscape around me and wondered if this was Death at last. I searched my surroundings, looking for some sign of...what? Life? Not-life?

"Welcome back, Chris boy! Great t' see yuh, good buddy."

At the sound of the familiar voice, I broke into a smile. So I wasn't dead after all, just in a strange version of what I'd dubbed "mission limbo." As my old friend emerged from the fog, I extended my hand in greeting.

"Elvis!" I took his hand and squeezed. "Caught you between gigs?"

My friend, clad as always in dazzling white, removed his shades and grinned. "Yup. Jest got back from th' Third Circle of Hades. Did six thousand encores of 'Jailhouse Rock!' Man, they jest love-- Chris?"

I suddenly felt myself uplifted; Elvis shrank into invisibility before I could even wave good-bye. Much as I wanted to stay a spell, I was powerless against the summons from the world of the living.

Up, up I flew, toward a rapidly brightening light. Any second now, Sosa would give me clearance again, and I'd repeat my mission to Papillon 5. This time, I vowed, the outcome would be different...


Sosa's voice was soft and gentle, its joy tempered with concern. "Welcome back, Chris. I thought for a while there that I--that we'd lost you."

Welcome back? No, no, that was all wrong! "Sosa," I complained groggily, "you're supposed to give me launch clearance..."

"Launch? Chris, you're in sick bay." I felt a gentle pressure on my hand. "Wake up, dear."

Sick bay? My eyelids flew open. Shit, she was right! I tried to sit up, but succeeded only in raising my head off the pillow. Jeez, I was as feeble as a newborn.

Sosa put her hand on my forehead. "Shhh, Chris. You have a concussion as well as tickle pak exposure. Rest. Let the regens do their work."

I gave up, accepting the wisdom of her advice. My questions, however, couldn't wait. "OK, Vee. But what happened?"

She smiled. "We survived, thanks to you. We're off to intercept Tolwyn."

"We did? We are? But--Heeheehee!" My reply was interrupted by a sudden tickle spasm. Clenching my teeth, I fought it down. "Uh, how?"

"Your warning came just in time. We had half our birds up when a squadron of Black Lancers hit us, probably from a modified frigate. We intercepted with Banshees, just like in your drills, except that the Confeds joined us; about fifty Hellcats. Chris, did you...?"

"Yeah. I convinced Sheraton to help. Or rather, the Black Lance did."

"I see. Good thing, because even then, they made several T-pak hits. Our ships had Chief Morgenstern's cancelpaks, but two of the Confeds..."

I could easily--too easily--imagine the hellish scene on the defenseless Confed ships. Occasional giggling from nearby beds told me that even the C-paks hadn't provided 100% protection. "Go--Heeheehee!--go on, Vee."

"One destroyer lost nearly its whole crew before Colonel Manley shot off its T-pak."

"Hulk? Hulk thought of that?" Oh, great. My own tactic. Now I was thinking like a guy with the IQ of a sledgehammer. "Er, good for him. Was that it?"

"Nope. When their T-paks failed, they followed up with torps and missiles." Sosa shivered, no doubt recalling that nightmare battle in Thera, when Intrepid was nearly done in by four torpedo hits. "The Confeds lost another destroyer; Intrepid took a torpedo to starboard. It didn't penetrate the shields, but we have a lot of shock damage. 'A' Turret is out again."

I went rigid, trying and failing to suppress another tickle fit. "Heeheehee! Shit! What about--Heehee!--about the base?"

"The base was hit bad, especially near the command center, but the emergency force fields held. When the Confeds finally nailed their attacker, the lead Dragon peeled off from us and went for the station; we think it was that Theether guy. Lucky for you, one of our Puff pilots caught him before he could hit the base again."

"Puff Squadron? Dammit, Velina, I said--"

She shook her head. "We launched ONE Dragon. They already know we have one, right?"

Oops. "Uh, sorry, hon. So--Heeheehee!--so who saved my butt this time? Rubberneck? Panties?" Sosa looked away. "Oh no, don't tell me it was..."

She nodded. "Major Marshall. Chris, I know how that burns you, but would you rather be tickled to death?" I didn't respond. "Chris? Chris!"

"I'm thinking!" Damn, damn, damn! I'd never hear the end of this! On the other hand, Maniac was probably the only pilot we had who was good enough--and stupid enough--to nail that bastard Theether.

"Well, I'M glad!" declared Sosa. "Anyway, we docked with the base a few hours ago and helped with their casualties...and recovered you and your fighter. The base is back in business--barely. Chief Morgenstern gave them the Dragon optical specs, and now they're retrofitting all their Hellcats, in case the Black Lance returns. All four of our ships are operational and en route to the next jump point."

"Only four? Damn, I was hoping Sheraton would lend us a few of his!"

Sosa looked puzzled. "Colonel Farnsworth thought so, too. But when she asked Sheraton, he just said something about 'P-10' needing the rest of his ships to shoot a big battle sequence. Do you know what he was talking about?"

I just sighed. "It's a long--Heehee!--a long story, hon." Well, at least we'd survived the Ellie Mae gauntlet. There was, however, one more loose end...

"Velina? Uh, am I still in the doghouse?"

She smiled. "For not trusting us? No. It's obvious now that we could never have beaten both the Black Lance AND Confed, even if we used Puff Squadron and T-paks. Yours was the only way. Everyone has forgiven you...even Hulk."

Whew! "I'm glad." I took her hand and squeezed. "But I was wrong: I should have trusted my friends in the first place. I'll never shut you out again, Vee."

She squeezed back. "That's good, Chris..." Suddenly brisk and businesslike, Sosa took a trans slip out of her pocket and handed it to me. "...because now maybe you can explain this."

The trans was from Papillon 5. It read:


"Who's Marcie?" asked Sosa. "And what's that big red 'M' on your uniform? And the lipstick you had on your face?"

Oh, shit. "Uh..."

"Before you answer," continued Sosa, "there's more. After you left, I went to pack up your kit. I found these." She reached into her hip pocket and pulled out a pair of panties.

Yikes! My keepsake from Ensign Watt!

"And these, Chris." Sosa pulled out more panties, this time sheer and black. Reading the tag inside the tiny garment, she asked, "Who's Heather?"

I closed my eyes and prayed. Just strike me down now, God. OK? Please?

When it was clear no thunderbolt would be forthcoming, I reluctantly opened my eyes again. A promise was a promise. Taking a deep breath, I admitted, "I'm Heather."


I told her everything: the lovestruck Confed rookie; the Little John wannabe and his Avon quarterstaff; the Black Lance groupie and my impersonation of her. With each new revelation, Sosa found it harder and harder to stifle her amusement. Finally, when I described my encounter with Lt. Lemonlips, she could contain herself no longer.

"Whahahaha! He tried to KISS you? Heehee! Oh, Chris, that's priceless! OK, enough. I--Heehee!--I believe you." She took a WipeX from beside my bed and dabbed at her eyes. "And your secret's safe with me...Heather! Wheeheehee!"

"Go ahead, yuck it up!" I snarled. "That's the last time I ever tell you-- Hey, wait a sec! Honesty's a two-way street, right? You ready to hold up your end?"

She gave me a carefree smile. "Ask away. Unlike you, HEATHER--Heeheehee!--I have nothing to hide!"

"Oh yeah? OK, smartass, try this one: Why do you wear glasses instead of getting your eyes fixed? Are they regen-resistant? Is it a cult thing?"

Sosa bit her lip and looked away, clearly debating. Then, still avoiding my eyes, she confessed, "There's nothing wrong with my eyes, Chris."

"Then why...?"

"See for yourself." She took her glasses out of her breast pocket and put them on me as I lay back on the pillow. Squinting at the pipes and fittings above us, I could discern no refractive effects whatsoever.

I looked inquiringly at Sosa. "Velina, I don't under--" What the hell? Her uniform had vanished! She was sitting there stark naked in front of everyone! Hey, wait a sec, everybody else in the ward was naked, too...

Then I realized: It was the glasses! Stunned, I stared at Sosa. Damn, she'd been seeing me--SEEING me--since day one!

She endured my gaze for a few seconds, then shyly put one hand over the region where her bosom would have been, if she'd had one. With the other, she retrieved her glasses and returned them to her pocket.

"I'd better take these, lover," she said with a little giggle, "before you get a look at Forceps. In your condition, it might be fatal."


Weak though I was, I couldn't just lie around when there was so much to do. After much persuasion--and a two-can lemonade bribe--Forceps let me out of sick bay, though he insisted Sosa accompany me. We set off to inspect "A" turret, where the engineers were still making repairs. I had to lean heavily on Sosa at first, but as we slowly made our way toward the starboard bow, I gradually regained my strength.

We finally made it to the turret, where we found Panties talking with Commander Ander. With them were Maniac, Excell, and "Jailbait" Yokely, whose station was in the laser turret; Maniac was of course all over the cute young gunner.

Ander was shaking his head. "Sorry, Colonel Farnsworth," he said regretfully. "It'll take us two days just to fabricate the parts."

Panties kicked the bulkhead in frustration. "Shit! Without those lasers, we might as well paint a bullseye on our starboard bow! Oh hell, Ander, take your people and put 'em on something they CAN fix!"

Ander didn't need any coaxing. He recalled his engineers from the turret and got out of her sight as quickly as he could.

"Can I help, Colonel?" I inquired.

Deep in thought, she barely acknowledged my presence. "Hmm? Oh. No, not unless you have a fifty-megawatt flux damper and a dozen other assorted components on you." She kicked the bulkhead again, and then once more for good measure.

Maniac, in contrast, was ecstatic. "Hey, it's Captain Giggles!" Taking his paw off Yanni's bottom, he grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. "Always a pleasure saving your ass, Ace! I--"

"EEYAHAHAHA!" In my weakened state, Maniac's enthusiastic handshake literally rattled my teeth. I tore myself free, trying to overcome the T-spasm he'd provoked.

Maniac regarded me with mock concern. "Oh, I'm sorry, Ace! Still feeling the effects of the T-pak? Gee, I thought you just got a SHORT exposure! Get it? Short? Haha ha! Oh, I kill myself!"

"Good idea!" snapped Excell. "Colonel Blair, I'm glad to see you up and around, sir."

"Er, thanks, Captain." As the spasm passed, I managed to regain my composure.

"Me too!" piped up Yanni, a bright smile on her face. "We can't lose, now that the Heart of the Tiger is back!"

"Yes we can," said Panties gloomily. "if we don't get this turret fixed."

Basking in Yanni's worshipful gaze, I felt omnipotent. "Hey, no problem, Panties," I replied confidently. "We'll just have the faeries fix it."

She threw up her hands. "Oh, Christ! Not you, too, Earthworm!" Speaking slowly and deliberately, as one would to a particularly backward child--or to Maniac--she said, "Look! Morgenstern's 'faeries' ARE NOT REAL. There are NO 'faeries,' OK? Besides, even if they existed, we have no more food to trade!"

I wasn't so sure. In Maniac, for instance, we had a hundred kilos of fresh meat on the hoof, so to speak. Barbecued, one of his legs would feed a whole flock of faeries, and it could be regenerated in a few w-- Wait a sec! Maybe they had other needs...

"Say, Maniac?" I asked casually. "Hand me your Playboy, would you?"

"Playboy? What Playboy?" He spread his empty hands for everyone to see. "Do you see a Playboy, Ace?"

"Quit stalling, Maniac!" I growled. "You always have one on you, so hand it over!"

Grumbling, Maniac turned his back to us. I heard a long ziiiiiiip, a rustling of clothing, and a short zip! Maniac turned around and handed me a thick magazine. "Here, Ace! I hope your 'faeries' appreciate good literature!"

"Er, thanks, M--" Eeewwwww, it was still warm! Holding it at arm's length between thumb and forefinger, I started for the hatch.

"Hold it, Colonel!" called Excell. "How do you know these 'faeries' of yours are male?"

Oops. "Good point, Captain. Uh, anybody got a Plowboy?"

Panties, Excell, and Sosa quickly turned their backs. Ziiiiip! Ziiiiip! Ziiiiip! Rustle. Rustle. Rustle. Zip! Zip! Zip! In moments, I had three more warm magazines in my hands.

Shaking my head, I climbed into the battered laser turret. I laid out the four mags in conspicuous spots, being careful not to look at the three cover boys, lest I develop an inferiority complex. My task complete, I left the turret and sealed the hatch behind me.

A few meters down the corridor, Sosa and Panties were jabbering and giggling excitedly. Now what could they be... Ah, probably it was about something they'd both read in Plowboy. Yeah, that must be it.


I made it on my own to CIC, where Lt. Cmdr. Queue was preparing a status update. The Union task force, though shaken, was still combat effective. Engines and power plants were in good shape, shields were back up, hulls and armor had been patched, and weaponry--except for Intrepid's "A" turret--was online. We had nineteen serviceable Banshees on Intrepid, another seven on the three frigates, ten Avengers, and of course the ten captured Dragons of Puff Squadron. There were also the four battered Vindicators from the disbanded Turkey Squadron, but we had no pilots to spare for them.

Queue handed me a clipboard. "Here's our latest intelligence on the Vesuvius group, Colonel," he said. "It's not good. Her escorts are three brand new destroyers, Terminator class: TCS Pocahontas, Lion King, and Aladdin."

"Let me guess, Ike. They were funded by--"

"Uh-huh. Twice the size of our frigates, twice the armament, nearly three times the shields and armor, and each one with a capmis launcher that can take out a frigate with one shot."

"And six to eight Hellcats each. But the real threat is Vesuvius and her fighters. What do we have on them?"

"Near as we can tell, Colonel, she's carrying four Longbow squadrons and seven Hellcat. She was built to carry a lot more, but this is supposed to be just a training cruise."

Even so, our fighters were outnumbered better than three to one. During fleet exercises, a force that badly outclassed would be automatically eliminated by the umpires. Well, this wasn't an exercise.

"One more thing, Colonel," continued Ike. "Vesuvius and her destroyers are the first ships to be equipped with the new P-PNG-DOMM advanced sensor array. I can't be sure, but from the intelligence we've collected, I'll lay odds it can detect cloaked birds."

Oh, shit. There went my plan for a covert Dragon strike on Vesuvius. "Still, Ike," I replied hopefully, "it takes more than technology to win a battle. What about the ships' crews?"

"Confed. There may be a few conspirators and Black Lancers among them, but Tolwyn's whole plan is to have Confed do most of his dirty work."

"And the--Heeheeheehee!" Damn, would the T-spasms never subside? "Uh, sorry, Ike. The pilots?"

"Very few veterans. The rookies are highly trained, but most have never seen combat."

Yeah, it was obvious now that Tolwyn had been systematically purging Confed's vets, preferring instead younger, more easily influenced minds. I'd seen that scheme at work on the Lexington. No doubt the defections from Lex had only confirmed his fears.

"You know," I remarked thoughtfully, "Tolwyn may have outsmarted himself. He diverted fighter procurement funds to the Black Lance and their pirate pals, so now he's stuck with obsolescent birds at the critical moment. And he may have loyal pilots, but there's no substitute for experience. I think we have a good chance here, Ike."

"Er, yes, sir," he replied doubtfully. "I'm sure Tolwyn's quaking in his boots right now."


I found Zelda in her workshop, making adjustments to an open ticklepak. Though tempted to sneak up on her, I resisted the urge. I'd surprised Rachel once during a repair job, and put us both in sick bay with plasma burns. I had no desire to repeat the experience with an armed T-pak.

"Er, Zelda?" I said, careful not to raise my voice. "Got a minute?"

"BLAIRBEAR!" She took off her goggles, set down her tools, and hugged me fiercely. "Oh, darling, you're all r--"

"EEYAHAHAHA! Zelda, let me go! Woohoohoo! I'm still--Heeheehee!--I'm still sensitive! Hyahyahya!"

Startled, Zelda pulled back. "Oh, I'm so sorry, Chris! Does it hurt?"

Damn, every place she'd touched me was still tingling. "Heeheehee! O-only when I l-laugh! Heeheehee!" Finally, the seizure passed. "Whew! I take it I'm forgiven, then?"

She gave me a wry smile. "Let's say you're on probation, OK?"

"OK. So, what are you up to, hon?"

She smiled that proud smile I'd come to know and love. "Rigging more C-paks. We used up my first batch in the Black Lance attack." Her smile vanished. "I-I saw some of our people who were...caught in unprotected zones. And I felt a few tingles myself. I can only imagine what y-you went through, Blairbear." Tears welled up in her eyes. "When I h-heard the base was hit, I thought you w-were d-d-d..."

Gingerly, I took her in my arms, gritting my teeth against the resulting T-tingles. "It's OK, hon. Remember what you--Heehee!--what you said? We're all in this together? I'll never forget that. In fact, that's what I came here to tell you: I'll never shut any of you out again."

She looked up at me, smiling through her tears. "Even muh-muh-Maniac?"

Oops. "Well, maybe not... Oh, hell. Yes, even Maniac."


I made it back to CIC just in time for the jump to the Noxzema System. We expected no Confed activity in the sparsely populated system, and there was none. After launching the usual CAP and short-range patrols, I dispatched Lovey and Dovey to find Vesuvius. If Tolwyn was on schedule, he should emerge from the Edema jump point within the hour. Meanwhile, the Union task force raced for the Eczema jump point at full speed. It was a long shot, but if we could beat Tolwyn through, one of our Dragons could easily complete the jumps to Proxima and Sol, and we could avoid battle entirely.

It would take over an hour for the two cloaked Dragons to get within passive sensor range of Vesuvius, and nearly two before they could report back safely. That gave me more than enough time to visit the galley for what could well be my last meal.


I heard the boisterous crowd long before I reached the galley; puzzled, I wondered what they could possibly be celebrating, with a desperate battle only hours away. I got my answer as soon as I went inside.

On the holovid, Sosa was showing "Horace Plump," the classic story of a Border Worlder's struggle against both physical and mental handicaps. The fictional Plump was something of a folk hero to the Border Worlders; he was widely viewed as a metaphor for all Border Worlders, who were generally--and not entirely unjustly--considered inferior by the rest of humanity.

Audience participation was traditional, so I joined in the fun. When Horace dieted off his poundage and won the Olympic Marathon, I yelled "Run, Horace, run!" along with the rest of the crowd. When he saved the drowning heiress, we cried, "Swim, Horace, swim!" During the love scenes, we encouraged him with "Fuck, Horace, fuck!" And at the end, through the tedious death scene, we screamed, "Die, Horace, die!"

As we headed for our stations, joking and laughing, I decided to give Sosa a commendation; her show had been the perfect morale booster for the coming struggle.


Approaching the hatch to "A" Turret, I tried to suppress my misgivings. The faeries had had a scant few hours to work on the turret, but we were out of time; our CAP had spotted Confed scouts near our task force, and a strike was probably inbound at this very moment.

At the hatch, I gestured for Panties to do the honors. Yokely and the other two turret gunners anxiously waited behind her; Excell and Maniac joined me on the other side of the hatch.

Panties opened the hatch, grumbling, "This is the most ridiculous thing I ever..." With a contemptuous glance at me, she entered the turret. I waited outside, fretting, as the seconds passed.

I was about to go in after her when Panties slowly emerged from the turret. Her face was white as a sheet, her gaze fixed and unblinking.

"Panties?" I prompted. "Hey, girl?" I grasped her shoulder and shook gently.

Momentarily emerging from her trance, she looked at me, then back at the hatch. Then her eyes glazed over again.

Forgetting Panties, I quickly climbed into the turret, followed closely by the rest of my party. Now what could have shocked her so--JESUS H. CHRIST!

The turret had been completely transformed. Where pipes, dials, displays, and controls had cluttered the bulkheads, tasteful abstract paintings hung on bare jet-black metal. The three jury-rigged crew stations had been replaced by ergonomically designed state-of-the-art holodisplay consoles with bio-neural interfaces and THX sound. Peering down through the deck hatch to the projector compartment, I saw that in place of the plasma excitation chamber at each laser breech was a bulbous black-enameled excrescence. The stencil on one read:

(AAA batteries not included)


The silence was shattered by an anguished scream. I whirled. Excell was on her knees in front of a pile of torn paper. Clutching to her bosom what was obviously a fragment of a male centerfold, she was weeping as if her heart would break. Yanni knelt and hugged her in a vain attempt to give comfort.

Well, at least now we knew the gender of our unseen guests. I made a mental note to impound Maniac's Playboy collection for future repair jobs.

Leaving the gunners to figure out their new equipment--if they could--I gently collected Panties and headed for CIC. Along the way, she gradually regained her wits, though she remained subdued for some time. In the lift, however, she finally found her tongue.

"Chris?" she said diffidently. "About the faeries? I'm sorry I doubted you. Forgive me?"

I punched our deck and smiled magnanimously. "Forget it. Can you forgive ME for Ellie Mae?"

"Welllll," she said mischievously. "OK, on one condition. You're quite a man, Chris Blair, but now that I know you have a feminine side, too..."


"You see, Sosa told me about Heather--one big happy family, remember?--and now I can't get that image of you out of my mind." She reached out and slowly ran her index finger down my chest. With uncharacteristic shyness, she continued, "There's this game I read about in I've always wanted to try... with a guy who's man enough to be...a girl. Next time we're together, can we play...Cheerleader Sleepover?"

Cheerleader Sleepover? Hmmm. Angel and I never tried that one...


Tex and Primate were already waiting for us in CIC; Hulk and Maniac showed up less than a minute later. Excell came in soon after, her eyes red but dry; I noted a corner of the torn centerfold sticking out of her breast pocket.

Sosa secured her console and joined us. Noting her stare at Tex and Primate, I casually reached over, removed her glasses, and stuck them in her pocket. She glared at me a moment before putting up a display of the Noxzema System with the latest recon data from our two Dragon scouts. She slapped the remote into my hand--ouch--and I began the briefing.

"Ahem. To begin, I'd like to welcome our new squadron commanders to their first briefing--and possibly their last."

Tex, Excell, and Primate greeted my pathetic little joke with nervous chuckles.

I highlighted the jump point and the two task forces racing toward it. "As you can see, Vesuvius and Intrepid are converging at an angle of about thirty degrees. Although Vesuvius is faster than we are, she's much farther from the jump point; if nothing changes, we'll reach jump range about half an hour ahead of her."

"Wait a minute, Ace!" Maniac was frantically waving his hand for attention. "That means we're within striking distance already! We should be launching--"

"No!" I said decisively. "If we jump first, Tolwyn loses, so he has to come to us." Using the remote, I highlighted the incoming strike detected by Lovey and Dovey. "And that's the key to my plan. We're going to--"

"Plan? Oh, shit, not another one, Ace!"

Excell assumed a pained expression. "Er, I've heard about your plans, sir..."

Hulk was more direct. "Hulk not like Blair plans!"

I sighed with exasperation. Damn Border Worlders! Well, I'd learned my lesson; this time I would persuade them, no matter how long it took. I began by attacking their weakest link.

"You'll like this plan, Hulk," I said slyly. "I call it...The Rabbit Punch."

He was immediately alert. "'Rabbit Punch?'"

"Yeah. And you get to be one of the rabbits!"

He quivered with excitement. "Hulk like plan already! Tell Hulk more!"

"OK. Here's how it goes..."

I quickly outlined my plan. Then I went over it again for Hulk, who had missed a few of the subtler points, like the beginning, middle, and end. It wasn't until the third presentation, complete with hypermedia effects and laser lightshow, that he finally grasped it in its entirety.

"Oooohhhhh," moaned the amazed Hulk. "Blair make GOOD plans!"

Panties was less enthusiastic, but agreeable. "OK, Earthworm, I don't have any better ideas, so I concur." The others, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, also indicated their agreement.

"Thanks, people," I said, grateful I hadn't had to pull rank this time. "See you on the flight deck. Oh, anybody know where we can get some AAA batteries?"

Excell raised her hand. "I have some in my flight suit." She fingered the corner of her torn centerfold and made a face. "I won't be needing them."

"Er, thanks, Jen. Send them up to "A" Turret, will you? Dismissed, everyone."

I watched as my pilots filed past, praying I hadn't just signed their death warrants. Except maybe Maniac's...


Primate and I emerged from the Wombat locker room into a maelstrom of taxiing fighters, running crewmen, and careening vehicles. Momentarily stunned by the din, I donned my flight helmet to mute the noise somewhat. Tossing Primate his preflight can of banana nectar, I headed for my Dragon's service bay, dodging men and machines alike.

Panties was waiting for me at the bay entrance, next to a weapons loader. "Hi, Colonel!" she said cheerily. "It's sort of a Border Worlds tradition for the leader to give an inspirational speech before a crucial bring us luck. Can you say a few words to the crew?"

Now she tells me! "Er, do I have to, Panties?"

She grabbed me and shoved me toward the loader. "Yes, you do! Now get your ass up there!"

Damn, what should I say? Maybe something from history? Let's see... No bastard ever won a war by dying for-- Uh-uh. England expects every man-- Nope. Crush your enemies, drive them before you, and hear the lament-- No, no, no! Wait! I got it!

Hurriedly I pulled out my Mc and searched for significant events in Border World history. Please, please...Yes! Perfect! Exactly twenty-five years ago today, the enslaved planet Dewerdye had declared its independence from the Kilrathi Empire. The pathetic rebellion had quickly been crushed, of course, but the incident had become enshrined as an inspirational example of Border World courage. And I knew the perfect speech to weave around it.

Now sure of myself, I climbed onto the weapons loader. All across the flight deck, men and women stopped what they were doing and looked up expectantly. I just prayed I wouldn't disappoint them.

"Colonel?" Sosa's voice echoed faintly in my receiver. "Your helmet mike is piped into the PA and every ship in the task force. Knock 'em dead, sir."

"Thanks, Lieutenant." I paused a moment to survey my audience, and to let them take in my calm, confident demeanor. Then, satisfied that I'd made the right impression, I began my fateful speech.

"Good morning. In less than an hour, we'll be fighting yet another battle in the Border Worlds' long struggle against tyranny, oppression, persecution...and annihilation. Perhaps it's Fate that today is Thursday, the Fourth of--"

"Pssst!" hissed Panties. "Today's the FIFTH, Chris!"

What? Oh, shit! I never switched my Mc from Confed Standard Interstellar Time to Border World Leisure Savings! Damn, damn! There goes my speech! Quick, Blair, improvise!

"--er, the fifth, an ordinary, humdrum, really not-at-all-unusual date. But should we win the day, that will change! Today will no longer be remembered as, um, the fifth, but as the day when the Border Worlds declared in one voice: We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We're going to strive with all our might, in the cause we know is right, 'til the stars in our skies shine bright...with freedom's wondrous light!


"YAAAAY!!!" The crowd's answering roar nearly blew me off my perch. Screaming their defiance, my comrades pumped their fists in the air, high-fived, and pounded each other's backs. Others jumped to attention and saluted smartly, their eyes suddenly moist with emotion.


Deafening cheers echoed from one end of the flight deck to the other. Helmets, caps, papers, wrenches, hammers, and other items of every description flew in all directions as the euphoric Border Worlders grabbed everything not nailed down and flung it into the air.

"T-G-I-F! T-G-I-F! T-G-I-F!"

Panties vaulted onto a tool chest and screamed, "LET'S GO GET 'EM! GO! GO! GO!"

"YAHOOOOO!" Yelling like idiots, the pilots stampeded for their birds.

I climbed down from the weapons loader, shaking my head ruefully. When would I learn? With Border Worlders, it wasn't what you said, but how you said it. I could have yelled out the damn dictionary and gotten the same effect!


Zelda was waiting by my Dragon with tears in her eyes and a brave smile on her face. "Blairbear," she said, a catch in her voice, "th-that was just...just so inspirational!"

Not her, too! "Er, thanks, hon," I replied. "Uh, I just thought of you, and it sort of came out by itself."

"Liar," she chided, but her smile betrayed her pleasure at my little fib.

I began our sendoff ritual by handing her my flight helmet, which she dutifully kissed and returned. Instead of a hug--I was still too sensitive--I got a gentle press of my hand. "There's a surprise for you in the cockpit, dearest," she said. "Run a diagnostic before pre-flight."

"Diagnostic? Uh, OK." I climbed up the ladder, wondering what my ingenious crew chief had come up with this time.

Up in the cockpit, I settled into my seat, flicked Zelda's fuzzy dice affectionately, and initiated a quick level 1 sensor check. I cringed reflexively, expecting the AI to reply in Lemonlips' grating voice again.

"Sensors at 100%, Blairbear!"

Zelda's voice! She had replaced the AI's harsh speech with her own angelic tones! Wow, what a wonderful gift!

Eagerly, I punched up a full series of system checks. I ran through pre-flight with Zelda's soothing voice filling the cockpit.


Launch was delayed a few minutes while the deckhands cleared away personnel injured by flying objects--none of them pilots, fortunately. Once in space, Wombat and Gopher Squadrons split up, the Wombats climbing "above" the incoming strike, the Gophers "below." Skunk Squadron formed up with our escorts' Banshees and started for the Vesuvius group on a course that would just skirt Confed's strike formation on our "left." Puff Squadron, cloaked all the way, raced to join Archie and Valentina behind the Confeds.

I stayed with the Wombats, my Dragon fully visible. My presence was good for morale, of course, but I also didn't want the Confeds wondering where our lone Dragon was lurking. Our "Rabbit Punch" had to be a complete surprise.

Tolwyn, a brilliant tactician, might have split his strike and tried to confuse us with attacks from multiple directions. With a largely rookie strike force, however, he had opted instead for a single force of over a hundred fighters, where his newbies could be kept under the watchful eyes of their wing and squadron commanders. Four Hellcat squadrons led the formation, their job to hit our interceptors first and blunt their attack. Behind them, a fifth squadron was in reserve to catch any leakers. Bringing up the rear was Tolwyn's main punch: four squadrons of ponderous, but deadly Longbows.

No doubt Tolwyn expected to annihilate our tiny task force with one blow, and so he might--if his fighters stuck together. The whole purpose of my "Rabbit Punch," however, was to break his strike up into bite-size chunks of Dragon chow. For example, as Wombat and Gopher Squadrons approached from "above" and "below," the lead Hellcats had to split into two forces to intercept. When they had been lured out far enough, our Avengers abandoned all pretense of attacking Vesuvius and angled for the Longbows from the "left." The reserve Hellcats predictably moved out to meet them. The enemy formation was now split into four elements. Had all our cards been on the table, it would have been an excellent deployment, but we still had an ace--er, rabbit--in the hole.

At about two hundred thousand klicks from Intrepid, we went to full speed and bored in. The Confed Hellcats raced to meet us. As we closed to taunting range, the comm channels fairly sizzled with invective.

"Prepare to die, Union slime!"

"Any last requests, Confed?"

"You're nothing but gutter dogs, Border Worlders!"

"Hey, Confed! Seen the latest Playboy?"

"Yo' mama's so ugly, her face looks like her neck threw up!"

"Eat my shorts!"

Just beyond missile range, I sprung the trap. Switching to the wing channel, I called, "Wombats! Gophers! Tag, you're it! Repeat: Tag, you're it!" Our Banshees reversed course and retreated into autoslide, blazing away at the pursuing Hellcats. Meanwhile, I cloaked, switched to the Puff channel, and fired off the second code phrase.

"Wascally wabbit! Wepeat, er, repeat: Wascally wabbit!"

Immediately, Puff Squadron decloaked behind the Longbows. At point blank range, they launched their leech missiles and slipped into cloak again. Splat! Splatsplatsplat! In seconds, nine Longbows were drifting helplessly while the Puffs gloated.

"Score one for the good guys!"


"Quack quack!"

"Chalk another up for the Maniac!"

"Happy FRIDAY, Confed!"

Reacting in panic, the Longbows fired a flock of FFs and scattered. Someone must have kept a cool head, however, because they quickly swarmed together again like a school of oversized sardines and headed for the nearest Hellcats, which happened to be the ones chasing Wombat Squadron. Half the 'cats broke off pursuit and rushed back to the rescue.

In all the confusion, however, they failed to notice that our Dragons were no longer attacking the Longbows. The Puffs had in fact afterburned right past the torpedo craft and now uncloaked in the midst of the would-be rescue party.

Coming up behind the Hellcats myself, I locked a leech on one and blazed up on another's tail. Uncloak! Fusion blast! Whoom! Kaboom! Launch! Whoosh! Splat! Two down! Whoopwhoopwhoop! FF locked on me! Cloak! Hurry, hurry... missed! I was after a third victim when I was suddenly seized by another tickle spasm. Fortunately, Castor took down my target while I recovered.

Splat! Whoom! Kaboom! Splat! Splat! Scratch twelve Hellcats! Now for the Longbows! The Rabbit Punch was working! For one intoxicating moment, it looked like the whole Confed strike would disintegrate.

Unfortunately, whoever their wing commander was, he knew his business. Finally recognizing the folly of his deployment, he must have ordered the entire strike to reform--at all costs. While the 'bows zeroed in on Intrepid, the 'cats gave up their pursuits and rushed back to join them. In doing so, however, they presented their vulnerable rear aspects to our faster Banshees, and our pilots had a field day.

Puff Squadron rampaged unchecked through the Longbow formation until the returning Hellcats forced them back into cloak. Still cloaked myself, I surveyed the situation for a moment. Confed had suffered over forty percent casualties--mostly from our Dragons--but now they were together again in one somewhat disorganized swarm.

With the Longbows less than sixty seconds from firing range, I had no choice. "Puff Squadron, follow me in, decloak and attack on my signal! Wombat, Gopher, and Skunk Squadrons, mix it up!" I hit burner and prepared to re-engage. Now it was a fight to the death at close quarters.

"Go!" I decloaked and fired a fusion overcharge at a Hellcat less than two hundred klicks distant. Whoom! Kaboom! Even as he disintegrated, missiles and blaster fire converged on me from all directions. Bam! Bam! Cringing as my bird shuddered with hits, I dumped decoys and turned for all I was worth, keeping the Confeds distracted. Splat! Kaboom! Yeah, our Banshees and Avengers were getting into the fight! I cloaked and upped shield recharge.

My Rabbit Punch had degenerated into a wild furball of twisting birds, sizzling blaster fire, and streaking missiles, in which a pilot needed all his skills just to survive, let alone kill. Our Dragons were in their element, sowing confusion and destruction with each appearance. Yet even they were vulnerable in this confusing melee, where Death struck at random from all directions.

Locked in my own little universe of searing flame, heedless of anything but the enemies in my immediate vicinity, I fought like an automaton. Target! Fusion charge! Uncloak! Whoom! Got him! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Missile lock! Bam! Bam! Blaster fire! Turn like a maniac, Blair! Cloak! Cloak, dammit! Whoop! Whoop! Whoo-- Whew! Safe in cloak! Shields weakening! Screw it! Target...

Heavy laser fire! My God, we're in range of the task force already! Two more Longbows fall to fire from BWS Tie and THX, but the rest zoom past, ignoring the small fry for the main prize: Intrepid herself.

Heedless of the Hellcats all around me, I hit burner, uncloaked, and took out another Longbow with a leech. I angled for another, accumulating a massive fusion charge. Even if my target evaded, he'd lose lock on--Heeheehee! Shit, another t-spas--WhoopwhoopWHAMMO! An IR to port staggered my bird and forced me to cloak. Seventeen thousand klicks away, Intrepid, with BWS Ewok close aboard, was rotating to unmask "A" turret. Er, "A" turret? What were those idiots--

SCREEEE! Shrill static from my comm! A bright violet beam leaped from the carrier to the nearest Longbow, which went up in a brilliant flare! Sosa appeared on the comm, screaming, "Target demolished!"

SCREEEE! "Target demolished!" SCREEEE! "Target demolished!" Damn, what had the faeries done to those lasers? Whatever it was, we should have put Playboys in ALL the turrets!

At ten thousand klicks, the Longbows loosed a ragged salvo of torpedoes, then broke off. Some were poorly aimed--our "secret weapon" must have unnerved the rookies--but the rest had textbook locks. As the heavy fighters pulled out, the battle seemed to pause while pilots on both sides watched the torps home in on their target.

Intrepid raced at full speed across the paths of the incoming torps. Lt. Pilotte was making all the right moves, but there were still far too-- What the hell? BWS Ewok was pulling abreast of Intrepid! The carrier nuzzled suicidally close to the intervening frigate, until their blips merged on my scope. Having lost their original target, most of the torpedoes locked onto the closer BWS Ewok, converging on it like moths to a flame.

KERBLAM-BLAM-BLAM! The frigate disappeared in a blinding fireball! My God, was Intrepid caught--No! She burst through the edge of the holocaust, her shields sparkling with debris impacts. Three torpedoes sped off into the void behind her.

No time to mourn the crew of the Ewok! With a tenacity that belied their inexperience, the Confeds were renewing their attack, despite fearful losses. It made me sick to kill such brave men and women, but with millions of lives at stake, I couldn't stop. I punched up the Union fighter channel and overrode the frantic chatter.

"Banshees and Avengers, take the 'cats! Dragons! Nail those fucking 'bows!"

"Moving in, Earthworm!"

"These guys history! Huh-huh! Huh-huh!"

"They're gonna wish they were never born, Ace!"

Barely a third of the wing acknowledged. So few left... No, don't think about the dead, Blair. Fight for the living.

I uncloaked behind a limping Longbow and fired a double fusion charge. Whoom! Kaboom! No pod. Oh shit, he got off a torp! Bam! Bam! Hellcat on my tail! Turn! Cloak! Bam! Kaboom! Yaay! Primate got him!


We hit burner and aimed for the last Longbow formation, which was drawing Union and Confed fighters from all sides. They were nearly locked...Shit! Too late! Seven more torpedoes were already in pursuit of Intrepid. Having expended all torps, the Confeds were now in full retreat.

No need now to sacrifice any more of my comrades. I punched the comm. "Banshees! Avengers! Break off! Dragons, cloak and stand by!" No doubt the Confeds would be overjoyed, if puzzled, to be left unmolested on their return.

I couldn't care less. With a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, I watched the torpedoes and prayed for a miracle. This second attack was much less organized than the first, the torpedo pattern looser. Intrepid had a chance...

Lt. Pilotte easily avoided the first torpedo, then turned to deal with the rest. She had set Intrepid rotating about its axis, and I marveled that she could still control the ship so precisely under those conditions. Intrepid neatly slipped the next two torps, which took her right into the last four. KERBLAM! The first one hit the port bow, but didn't penetrate the shields. KERBLAM! KERBLAM! Numbers Two and Three impacted amidships on the dorsal shields, rattling the ship from bow to stern. The top was unprotected now, but it was rotating out of the line of fire. KERBLAM! The last torp hit the starboard side aft. Intrepid slowed noticeably, but she was intact.

My elation was short-lived. As Intrepid turned back toward the jump point, I caught a flicker of light from the flight deck. Fire! And the firefighting system was still damaged from the battle in Thera! Oh, God! Zelda!

With an effort of will, I got hold of myself. I was the Wing Commander, and I had to keep a cool head. The Confed attack had cost us at least ten minutes of our lead over Vesuvius. With her speed reduced, Intrepid could no longer beat Tolwyn to the jump point. The frigates could make it, however; slightly faster than Intrepid, they might even make up a few minutes. It would only take one ship to ferry a Dragon into the Eczema system.

I had to act fast. Our frigates were already moving to assist Intrepid. I raised them on the comm.

"BWS Tie! BWS THX! Make for the jump point at best speed! Now!"

The Tie's captain appeared on the comm, his expression elaborately neutral. "Colonel, request permission to detach BWS THX to assist damaged fighters and collect survivors."

I might have expected back talk from a Border Worlder! I was about to yell at him when I thought better of it; these people could listen to reason if they were approached properly.

"Captain Mai, your sentiments do you credit, but if Tolwyn beats us to the jump point, the crew of the Ewok died for nothing. If I know the Admiral, you'll need both frigates to fight your way through. Take our Banshees aboard, leave your shuttles to assist here, and GET MOVING!"

He hesitated, then fired off an "Aye aye!" and broke off. The two frigates changed course and put on speed. Intrepid would just have to fend for-- Hey! The fires were out! Now how did they--

"Hey, Ace!" Maniac. Of course. "Why are we twiddling our thumbs here when we still have kills to score? You running SHORT of courage again? Haha ha!"

Bellybutton lint. "Because I don't want any mistakes when we go after the Confeds, Maniac. You're gonna be VERY clear on what I want!"

Panties came up on the comm. "Earthworm, you're not going after those Confeds? We've lost enough people today. Besides, our Banshees are getting low on gas."

"I know, Panties. Tolwyn's put Intrepid out of the race, but he still has to stop the frigates. We can't let him use those fighters against us again. But we're just taking the Dragons. We'll play it cool, take our time, and chop 'em down one at a time with minimal risk. One more thing: no fusion guns! We cut 'em up with our tachyons, give 'em every chance to eject. We've killed enough for one day."

"Aw, Ace," complained Maniac. "That's no fun. We owe these guys some payback. I'm gonna take my fusion guns and--"

"Maniac," I warned, "follow orders or I'll make you and Miss July Inflatable famous throughout the galaxy."

"--and deactivate 'em, just like you said, Ace! Heh heh. Hey, I LIKE being a nice guy. They won't feel a thing! I'll sneak up on 'em nice and--"

"Shut up, Maniac! Puff Squadron, uncloak and form on me!"


The path back to Vesuvius was soon littered with fighter parts, ejection pods, and Hellcat and Longbow wrecks. We took our time, singling out victims for attack by two or three Dragons. A quick fade-in, a few short tachyon bursts, and the hapless target was crippled, too slow to stay in formation, and easy meat for a subsequent attack. Thankfully, most of the rookies chose to eject at that point.

I sent Homes on ahead to watch for a relief force, leaving us just four Dragons to continue the grim work of chopping up the fleeing Confeds. Half an hour later, just as we were closing on the last six, he reported back.

"Earthworm! Two Hellcat squadrons headed for you!"

Uh-oh. Fresh fighters fat with missiles. That would more than even up the odds. "Roger, Homes. Track 'em and--"

"There's more, sir! The Confed task force has split up! The destroyers have gone on ahead! Sir, they're in a dead heat with our frigates!"

Oh, shit! How could I have been so stupid? We'd sent our frigates ahead of Intrepid; Tolwyn could do the same with his destroyers! Damn, now we were in for it! Our frigates couldn't stand up alone against Tolwyn's destroyers!

"Uh, roger, Homes. Puff Squadron, back to Intrepid, now! We gotta load up on torps and missiles! Homes, follow us back!" Damn, damn, damn!


As we neared Intrepid, I got a comm from Sosa.

"Welcome back, Earthworm. We have one badly damaged Banshee in the landing pattern. You're cleared as soon as it's aboard."

Thank God Sosa was all right. And if Intrepid was recovering fighters, her damage couldn't be too bad. Gratefully, I acknowledged her transmission.

"Thanks, Lieutenant. What's your status?"

"Minor damage all over the ship. We're down to half speed. Fire damage to flight deck and service bays. 'E' and 'F' turrets are out; 'A' turret's batteries are dead. Fourteen casualties. Earthworm, the landing field is fluctuating; do you want to land on the frigates?"

"No, Lieutenant. The frigates don't carry torpedo reloads. Earthworm out."

The four of us lined up behind Intrepid and watched Excell's approach. Wounded and nursing a barely flyable bird, she nevertheless managed a decent landing. Whew! Now we could get down and rearm for--

Sosa appeared on the comm again, looking agitated. "Puff Squadron!" she yelled. "Generatorjustwentoutlandingfieldfailing!"

"What did she say, Ace?"

"Hulk not understand."

"Did you get that, Earthworm?"

"Er, no, Panties. Intrepid, say again, please."

Sosa popped up on the comm again. "Hurryupnlandyouguysitsfailingfast!"

"What? We're handy guys sailing last?"

"No, Panties, she say guyser wailing blast."

"Yer both wrong, dummies! She said furry hand buys scaling mast!"


Nearly hysterical, Sosa tried again. "LandnowyoudipsticksnownowNOW!!!"

Whoa! That sounded urgent! We must be losing the landing field! Hurriedly, I commed my wingmen.

"Panties! Hulk! Maniac! Land now, wing abreast! I'll follow you in!" We were taking a desperate chance, landing three Dragons at once, but we were dead if we couldn't get torpedo reloads. I just prayed the landing field would still be functional when it was my turn to land.

I punched the throttle to stay close to my wingmen, monitoring landing field telemetry all the way. Meanwhile, they jockeyed for their simultaneous landing with consummate skill and teamwork.

"Maniac, you idiot, give me some room!"

"Panties too close to Hulk wing!"

"Fuck you, bitch, shove over!"

"Kiss my ass, moron!"

"Anytime, anywhere, sweet buns!"

Somehow, they made it down safely, using full reverse thrust at the last second to kill the velocity the landing field couldn't bleed off. After its triple jolt, however, the landing field began fluctuating more wildly than ever, twice going completely dead. Under those circumstances, I had no hope of making a conventional landing.

I fingered the throttle. The better part of valor... No! Instead, I lined up carefully on Intrepid, dropped my landing gear, punched autoslide, and did a 180. Watching my rear view, I frantically racked my brain, trying to remember if anyone had ever tested autoslide in a landing field. To the best of my knowledge, no one had. Wonderful! I tried to visualize "autosliding" with Rachel in a variable landing field and nearly threw up.

Sosa appeared on my comm, eyes wide with terror. "Earthwormwhatthefuckare--"

I cut her off. Intrepid drew closer with terrifying speed. They must be shitting their pants on board about now. I was feeling a bit loose mysel-- Oh no! Another tickle spasm! No, not now, not-- "EHEEHEEHEE!"

Blindly, I fumbled for the throttle and autoslide controls. My stomach did a flipflop when I hit the landing field, and then I felt a tremendous jolt as my bird touched down. My instruments showed engine shutdown and zero velocity. Hot damn, I made it! Woohoo, the Heart of the Tiger had done it again!

Then I closed my eyes and gave myself over completely to the shakes.


When I had calmed down a little, I popped the canopy and climbed out of the cockpit. Feeling more than a bit cocky after my daredevil landing, I did a showoff slide down the ladder, spun in midair, and landed lightly in a gymnast pose. Ta-dah!

Hey, where'd everybody go? Puzzled, I removed my helmet and looked around, shielding my eyes from an annoying glare. No Zelda, no techs, no nobody! And where were all the fighters? The deck was empty for as far as I could-- Hey! Most of the deck plates were missing, exposing cables and pipes and conduits and...and lights! Now who had stuck all those lights in the deck, where they glared in my eyes and--


With a feeling of dread, I directed my gaze upward. Higher, higher...yikes! Three decks above me, the overhead was covered with fighters, deckhands, techs, and miscellaneous equipment, all upside down. Some of the people were looking down at me curiously, but the rest were going about their business; Maniac and Panties, for instance, seemed to be playing tag, totally unconcerned about running around on the ceiling.

Of course, that was because they WEREN'T on the ceiling; I WAS!

Suddenly the ship was spinning around me! Overcome by vertigo, I plummeted "down" to the overhead, where I desperately tried to claw a handhold in the durasteel plating above, er, below me. I tried to tell myself that I was in no danger of falling--obviously someone had reversed the local grav generator-- but in my terror it made no difference. Whimpering, I cowered on the deck, er, overhead, trying desperately to become part of the plating.

I don't know how long I cowered there before I became aware of a voice calling to me.

"Colonel? Sir?"


"Colonel, crawl this way, sir. I'll get you down."

I forced my eyes open and spotted him clinging to the bulkhead a few meters to my left. Oh, shit! He was upside down! No, I was! No, HE was! I quickly hid my eyes again, my stomach heaving.

"It's all right, sir," he said soothingly. "I'm over the adjacent gravgen here. Keep your eyes closed and just crawl toward the sound of my voice."

Tentatively, I stretched out my right arm and heaved myself forward a few centimeters. After fighting off a wave of nausea, I did it again. And again.

Somehow I managed to crawl close enough for Primate to put a safety line around me. As he guided my fingers to handholds in the next gravgen field, I was dimly aware that the "up" field around me had been turned down to about ten percent of Earth norm; that made it a lot easier to swing into the "down" field and accompany Primate back to the flight deck.

I was nearly myself by the time we got down. Sheepishly, I reached for Primate's outstretched hand.

"Uh, heh heh, guess I lost it up there, Dean. Thanks for getting me--"

He shook his head in annoyance. "Er, you're welcome, sir, but, ah, could I just have the, um..."

Oh, shit! Of course! I took the can of banana nectar out of my hip pocket and held it out. Fast as lightning, he snatched it out of my hand and scuttled off to drain it in private.

"Blairbear! Are you hurt?"

Zelda! "Uh, no, Zelda, just my pride. I'm afraid Maniac will never let me live this one down."

She smiled wryly. "Oh, I think the Major has other things on his so-called mind right now." Right on cue, Maniac sprinted past me as if pursued by the Grim Reaper himself. I wasn't far off; Panties was right behind him.

"I see," I replied. Maybe I should stop... Ah, fuck 'em. Besides, I was consumed by curiosity. "So, Zelda, how did I wind up, er, down on the roof?" I started to look up at my Dragon, still happily ensconced on the overhead, but quickly thought better of it.

Zelda regarded me sternly. "Chris, only an idiot like you would think of autosliding into a malfunctioning landing field! Do you have the faintest idea of the forces you're dealing with? That lamebrain maneuver killed your velocity, all right, but the field interaction rolled your ship. If I hadn't reversed the gravgen..."

"I might have known. Thanks, hon, for saving my life. Again."

"Well, you're welcome, hotshot," she said, grinning. "But your ignorance about autoslide is going to get you killed someday." She moved closer and put her arms around my neck. "I think you need some private tutor--"

Maniac ran by again, trying desperately to stay ahead of his pursuer. "Major," I warned absently, "Watch out for the--"


"--reverse grav field."


Panties skidded to stop just short of the field boundary. Exhausted from her long chase, she dropped to her knees and tried to catch her breath.

"Colonel Farnsworth," I scolded, "We can't afford to lose any more pilots right now."

Panties craned her neck upward, trying to see where Maniac had landed. "Don't worry, Earthworm," she replied, between gasps. "It's only a tenth of a G. Besides, looks like he landed on his head!"

End of Chapter 29

Previews from Chapter 30:

"That's my brave little girl!"

"Ahem. Before we go, I'd like to say something to all of you."

"Maniac! Anything you want! OK?"

"Hahaha! You poor schmuck, Blair!"