[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander July 16, 1997]
Leaving the techs to retrieve my Dragon--and Maniac--from the roof, I made a quick inspection of the flight deck and service bays. I was relieved to find that, despite the flames I'd seen from space, the damage was relatively minor. There was a huge amount of debris scattered all over, however; it looked like every loose item on the ship had been dumped here. Flight ops would be impossible until it was all cleaned up. Barr already had a crew of deckhands on the job.
I headed for CIC to coordinate the repair efforts. When our frigates ran into Tolwyn's destroyers, they'd need all the fighter support Intrepid could deliver.
Commander Ander was there to welcome me. "Thank God you're back, sir!" he said. "Can you take over here? I gotta go help with the engines. In a few hours I think I can give you--"
"Forget the engines, Com," I interrupted. "Put your engineers to work on the flight deck and the weaponry. Intrepid's job now is to support the frigates. Oh, by the way, congratulations on fixing the firefighting system. There's hardly any fire damage at all to the service bays."
He looked at me strangely. "Er, the firefighting system is still jury-rigged, sir. When the fires started, somebody cut the gravgens and snuffed most of the flames. That's why we have so much stuff scattered all over: zero-G."
I looked at the mess on the deck. Gravgens? Who could-- Louise! So she'd taken my advice to heart after all!
"Well, good work, anyway, Commander. Now, I hear 'A' turret's batteries are dead? Can you get more?"
He shook his head. "That last torpedo sent a firestorm through the starboard electronics stores. It incinerated half our spares and all our batteries."
Damn! Think, Blair! "OK. Check the crew's personal electronics, appliances, and, er, sex toys. If you can't find any more AAAs, send a couple of your best engineers up to 'A' turret. See if they can adapt the, uh, weapons to some other battery size."
"Aye aye, sir."
"And get some Playboys from Major Marshall's kit. I promised Chief Morgenstern some for her fighter re-- What's wrong?"
Ander had a pained look on his face. "Er, we already checked the Major's kit, sir. The magazines are gone."
"What? Damn that Maniac! OK, OK, get going. I'll find out what he did with them myself."
"Aye aye, sir." He left the compartment at the run.
I headed over to the helm, where Lt. Pilotte was still faithfully on watch. I just had to smile. Stars could explode, empires might fall, the ship itself could disintegrate around her, but Skye would still be at her helm!
Though tired, she was in good spirits. "Welcome back, sir," she said. "That was an amazing victory you pulled off out there."
"Thanks, Lieutenant. You made some pretty nifty moves yourself. I don't know another helmsman in the galaxy who could have come through an attack like that. I'll see you get a commendation."
There was sadness on her face now. "Thank you," she whispered. "But the crew of the Ewok deserve it more."
"They'll get a unit citation, at the very least." I put my hand on her shoulder. "Our job now is to make sure their sacrifice wasn't in vain. Are you OK until your relief?" She nodded. "Then carry on." I had business with Sosa.
Lt. Sosa was lying on her back under the comm console, an electronics tool kit at her side. An occasional curse told me her repairs were not going well.
I slid under the console beside her. "Can I give you a hand, Lieutenant?"
"Yeah, thanks," she answered gratefully. "Hold this cable out of the way while I patch these guides to the junction." With the cable held aside, she deftly made one connection after another. "When the second torpedo hit, I lost my link to the main sensors...Hah! There! Now would you scope that module over there? Yeah, that one."
I plugged the scope into the test socket and began running diagnostics. "Say, Velina? If we're in communication with Vesuvius, can you take control of their comm equipment, just for a few seconds?"
"Hand me that sonic screwdriver? Thanks. What makes you think Vesuvius will talk to us, Chris? Standard combat procedure is--"
"Here, hold this light a sec? I have a feeling they'll call us, hon. Tolwyn won't miss--a bit to the right--won't miss the chance to gloat before what he thinks is his final victory over me. Thanks, I'll take it now. But if you can bypass their safeties, I can address his crew directly, maybe turn some of them against him. Hmmm, this module's green."
"OK, Chris, I'll pull out the Vesuvius comm specs and get to work. But if your Lt. Garr's on board, and if he's as competent as you say, he'll put a stop to it in a second. Now check out that other one over there, please?"
"My pleasure. It's OK if he stops us. I just want Lemonlips diverted from our REAL purpose, which is to upload a computer virus--one that'll disable the shields on our command."
She stopped and looked at me in admiration. "Chris, dear, you are diabolical!"
"Thank you, Vee," I replied smugly. "Here, you were right: this module is fried. Got a spare?"
"Right here." She handed me the unit and crawled out to check the console.
I snapped in the spare and connected the cables. "Try it now."
"OK...yeah, it works, Chris. Thanks."
"No problemo." I replaced the inspection cover, crawled out, and watched as Sosa ran a full sensor sweep. Seeing all was A-OK, I started to leave. Sosa stopped me with a hand on my arm.
"Chris, I know we're in the middle of a battle, but...ever since you told me about...your feminine side, I can't stop thinking about it. If we get out of this mess... Well, there's this game called...Naughty Teenage Sisters. Ever hear of it?"
Not again! "Er, no," I lied. "Too bad, I guess we can't--"
"That's OK, I can teach you." She giggled. "I just know you'll like it... Heather!"
Sheesh. "Uh... OK, OK, Vee, but it'll cost you. I'll do it if you tell me about that tattoo on your--"
"I have a better idea," she said playfully. Running one hand up the inside of my leg, she cooed, "Why don't we play Lesbian Nazi Interrogator instead? You can...DRAG it out of me. Get it? Drag? Heeheehee!"
Oh, jeez, she'd been around Maniac too long! "Uh, OK, Vee, if you insist. But there better be a good story BEHIND that tattoo. Get it? Behind?" Shit, Maniac was getting to me, too!
On the way to sick bay, my thoughts returned to the few minutes I'd spent under the console with Sosa. Making those repairs together, I'd felt closer to her than ever before, even when we shared the same bunk. That was really all I'd wanted ever since the War: to work side by side with the woman I loved; to build a life together. Of course, none of the current candidates wanted a life on my farm, but I could live in their world, couldn't I? Togetherness was the important thing, wasn't it? Wasn't it?
Sick bay was a busy place, though not nearly as busy as the first time I'd visited, nearly six weeks ago. I waited patiently in reception until a pharmacist's mate came out for the next patient.
"Oh, Colonel Vertig--er, Blair! Are you hurt, sir? I heard you had--Heehee! I heard there was a landing accident."
"Er, no, I'm fine. I'm looking for Major Marshall. He was brought in a little while ago."
"Oh, him." The mate grinned from ear to ear. "Forceps has him in the surgery. He'll be out shortly. Say, is it true he ran right into a reverse grav--"
"Uh, yeah. OK if I visit the wards while I wait?"
"Sure. Just don't excite the patients. Or get footprints on the overhead! Heehee!"
I started with the officers' ward, where my injured pilots were being tended. The wing had won an amazing victory, all right, but now I was looking at the bill. Nearly half my people were either dead or wounded, a few so badly it was a miracle they were still alive. Among them were several injured Confed fliers our shuttles had picked up after the dogfight. Looking at my wounded friends, I remembered again what Zelda had said before the Papillon 5 mission. Yeah, I'd gotten the job done, all right, and this time these people and their dead comrades had paid the price.
As I had so many times before, I went slowly down the rows of beds, giving what comfort I could. Meanwhile, the Wing Commander part of me--the bastard-- was coldly deciding which ones could return to duty in time for the next round. Lovey and Dovey, for instance, holding hands and smiling across the space between their beds, should be fit to fly in a couple of hours.
When I got to the last patient, I noted the curly dark hair, lovely hands, and familiar smile. "Well, if it isn't the human fly," she said, her eyes twinkling. "I knew you flyboys were crazy, Chris, but I didn't think you were suicidal!"
"Very funny, Louise." I grabbed a chair and sat down. "I hear someone shut down the gravgens during the attack and snuffed the fires." I winked at her. "Anybody I know?"
"Uh, I'll admit, sir, that I was wrong, before. And I WAS on my way to shut down the gravgens. But somebody else beat me to it." She gingerly moved her arm--the elbow was in a regen cast--and pointed to a shoebox on the table next to her bed.
I looked inside. There, on a bed of synthocotton, lay my parrot! She was covered up to her breast with WipeX, and a tiny regen pack was stuck to her head, from which most of the feathers had been removed. For once, my flighty friend had nothing to say.
Lou propped herself up on her good elbow and gazed admiringly at the bird. "She flew right by me, Colonel. Smacked into the gravgen control headfirst. Zero-G snuffed out most of the fires in few seconds. She's a hero!"
I noted the Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Joystick pinned to the box. Reaching in to caress my pet's tummy feathers, I cooed, "That's my brave little girl!"
She opened her eyes and painfully croaked, "Rawwk, wotta hangover! Damn rotgut! Awwk!"
"Rest, honey," I soothed. I touched my lips to her beak and pulled the WipeX up a little further. She closed her eyes again.
Lou was smiling. "Your little friend saved the ship, Chris. When most of the fires were out, I switched the grav back on. Broke an elbow and an ankle in the fall, but I managed to get her to sick bay. Would you believe that old curmudgeon, Forceps, took care of her himself, like she was his own kid?"
I shook my head. "I'd have expected him to barbecue..." Just then I spotted Maniac hobbling in, assisted by an orderly. "Er, excuse me, Lieutenant, I have business with the Major."
Maniac held his hand to the regen pack on his head while he was being tucked in. His injury hadn't improved his temper any.
"Ow, careful there, kid! That old fart didn't give me enough painkiller! I demand--Hey, where are you goin'? I need-- Oh, Ace! Hey, I want that bitch, Farnsworth, arrested! Did you see her push me into that grav field? Lucky I'm so athletic, or I might have been k--"
"Shut up, Maniac!" I sat on his bed, causing him to moan again. "I'll make this short. Where--"
"Heehee!" chortled Maniac. "You said SHORT! But then, what ELSE could you make it, Ace? Hawhawhaw! Ow, my head."
"Maniac!" I grabbed the front of his hospital gown. "Where the hell did you stash your Playboys?"
Maniac immediately assumed an innocent look. "Playboys? Why, they're right under my bu--"
I shook him as hard as I could.
"Ow! Ow! My head! OK, OK! I hid them in the starboard electronics stores! I couldn't let you break up my collection! So sue me!"
"Look, pal, we just need a few-- Wait a sec! The electronics stores? You idiot, that whole area was burned out in the attack!"
"WHAT?" he squeaked. "NOOOOO! My whole collection? My 'Playmates of the 25th Century?' My-- Ohmygod! CHASTITY'S AUTOGRAPHED CENTERFOLD! Ohhhh...." He fainted dead away.
Leaving Maniac in the care of the exasperated medics, I returned to the flight deck to give Zelda the bad news. I found her under my Dragon, working deep inside the belly compartment.
"Zelda?" I called.
"Blairbear?" Her voice echoed faintly in the fighter. "Hi! Come on in here and give me a hand."
I stuck my head and shoulders up into the compartment and looked curiously at the unfamiliar rig. "Hi, hon," I said. "Whatcha working on?"
"I'm rigging a T-pak launcher," she said proudly. "My own design." At my sudden scowl, she hurriedly added, "Now, Blairbear, I know you don't like T-paks, but I want you to have the option. The wing's pretty shot up, and you may need it to stop Tolwyn."
She was right. I'd vetoed T-paks in Ellie Mae because we had an alternative. Against Vesuvius and her escorts, we might not.
I pulled off her dirty cap and kissed her grease-streaked forehead. "OK, hon. You always take good care of me, don't you?"
"And I always will, if you let me." She reached for my cheek, then hesitated.
I knew what had stopped her. "It's OK, hon," I said. "The T-pak symptoms are nearly gone." When she touched me, I felt a tingle, but that was all.
"I'm glad." She caressed me another moment, then got back to business. "Did you bring my Playboys, dear? We have five more Dragons to fit, and my techs are busy fixing the other--"
"Uh, the magazines are toast, hon. Burned up in the attack. We'll have to do it without the faeries."
"Rats. OK, help me finish this one, then we can do the rest together. Beats me what alien critters want with human girlie mags anyway."
I put on goggles, picked up a laser welder, and got to work. "Zelda, did it ever occur to you that our guests might be human?"
She stopped work and stared at me. "Human?"
"Yeah." I finished the starboard aft coupling and started welding the one to port. "Stowaways, maybe. Techs and engineers from the Orestes III dockyards. Human males. Hungry human males. Hungry, horny, human males."
Zelda went back to patching the launcher electronics into the Dragon system bus. "But if they're human, why hide? Why stow away at all? And how could humans be so damn efficient?"
I shrugged. "Beats me." I finished the last weld and took off my goggles. "But they're Border Worlders, right? And who can figure Border Worlders?"
Zelda avoided my eyes. "Er, you've got a point. Heh heh. Now, uh, get up in the cockpit and run a diag on this sucker."
For the next two hours, Zelda and I labored to install T-pak launchers on all six of Intrepid's Dragons. Lt. Homes' Dragon, of course, was on BWS THX, where he'd been forced to land when Intrepid's landing field failed.
Working next to Zelda, I was reminded again of my dreams of home and family. Could I forget my love of the soil and live again in a high-tech world? In the close quarters of the Dragon belly compartments, it almost seemed I could. Despite the pressure we were under, I think Zelda felt it, too; more than once I caught her looking at me and smiling.
Meanwhile, Intrepid's techs, pilots, and deckhands slaved away on our fighters, working desperately to get them ready for the second and decisive round of our battle with Tolwyn. Battle damage was patched, failed equipment replaced or jury-rigged, and deadly weapons of war loaded once again. At the same time, the ship's engineers continued repairs to Intrepid's landing field and weapons systems. They knew this one was for all the marbles.
I was up in the cockpit of the last Dragon, simulating a T-pak launch, when I got the comm from Sosa.
"Sir!" she called. "Vesuvius is requesting commlink!"
Hot damn! Good old Tolwyn! "Stall them, Lieutenant! Get the you-know-what ready. Oh, and be ready for them to try something similar on us! Tolwyn's a sneaky bastard!"
She smiled at me. "Roger! Sosa out!"
I vaulted from the cockpit and sprinted for the lift. So the old goat wanted to gloat, eh? Well, let him. If this worked, it would be the last time!
I burst into CIC and skidded to a stop in front of the briefing table. Sosa waved to me from behind the porta-potty, and I nodded back. I had a moment to catch my breath, and then the display came to life.
Hey, it wasn't Tolwyn! It was Lemonlips!
Lt. Vinson Garr gazed at me with undisguised hatred. "Well, the Fart of the Tiger at last! What kept you? Porking one of your Border World sows? Haha!"
Bastard. "Where's your master, Vinny? I don't have time to waste on lackeys."
"That's right," he snarled. "Your time is running out fast, renegade!" He touched a control.
The view changed to the inside of a luxurious cabin. Sitting at the console was Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn himself, his tailored uniform crisp and spotless as always.
"Ah, Colonel Blair," he said, smiling. "Punctual as ever. You know, my boy, I had hoped our second meeting would be under more auspicious circumstances."
"No, no, really, Colonel," continued Tolwyn, still smiling. "To be sure, your assignment to the frontier was mostly for show; your reputation would lend credence to the reports of Border World atrocities and fan the flames of war. But I had an ulterior motive, as well. You see, I admire you, Colonel, despite the disrespect you've shown me over the years. You and I are more alike than you care to admit: tenacious, dedicated, and we both get the job done, whatever the cost. Had you passed the test and remained loyal to Confed, I was prepared to offer you a place with the Black Lance."
He was? I could have been a holovid star after all?
"Alas, you chose to throw in with the subhumans..."
Damn, why did I--Whoops! Bite your tongue, Blair! "Happy to disappoint you, Admiral!" I said harshly, all the more so after my brief lapse. I glanced furtively toward the comm alcove, where Sosa was working furiously at her console.
The Admiral went on as if he hadn't heard me. "Regretable though it was, your defection was of course a godsend to my plan. Overnight the pipsqueak Border Worlds became a menace worthy of our heroic saga! My boy, with that one move, you more than doubled our future earnings! Many thanks."
That bastard! Unconsciously, I clenched and unclenched my fists, as if I had them around Tolwyn's throat.
The Admiral could barely contain his triumph. "And now, this epic race to Sol! Magnificant! Unparalleled drama! I fear the actual war will be an anticlimax after this episode! Ah, well, I'll leave that problem to the script writers." He permitted himself a little chuckle. "Anyhow, after I dispose of you and your brain-dead pets, I'll give a speech to the Dissembly that'll have them howling for war! It was a nice touch, don't you think, my earlier pose of scrupulous neutrality? My 'reluctant' accusations now will be all the more credible."
I glanced at Sosa again; she grinned and gave me a thumbs-up. Hah! She'd done it! I tried to simulate impotent fury while mentally rehearsing my speech to Tolwyn's crew.
The Admiral looked at his watch. "You'll pardon me if I end this now, Colonel. I have much to do. We won't meet a third time." He made a gun of his thumb and forefinger and fired it at me. "Catch you later! NOT!" He reached for his comm controls.
Suddenly I was looking at the bridge of the TCS Vesuvius! Yes! Good old Sosa! Quick, Blair! "Attention, Vesuvius! This is the Heart of the Tiger! Admiral Tolwyn is..." Hey! Nobody was paying any attention! What was going--
Lt. Garr appeared again, grinning triumphantly. "Well, well! The Snot of the Tiger again! Did you really think that flat-chested dyke of yours could outsmart ME? Tsk, tsk, Colonel, I expected better, even from you!"
Damn, how I hated that guy! Noting that Sosa was still busy at her console, however, I quickly got my emotions under control. Keep him talking, Blair!
"OK, Vinny, you won this one. But your boss will never make it to Sol. And even if he does, Papillon 5 knows the truth about him and his Black Lance. Right now the word is spreading at light speed. You've lost."
"Hahahaha! Oh, please! Once our Leader addresses the Dissembly, it's all over. Papillon 5 will be just one more nest of traitors to root out. You poor fool, all you did was hand us another great subplot! Heeheehee!"
Grrrr! If Sosa didn't hurry up, I'd smash the display with my bare hands! Goaded into rashness, I yelled, "Yeah? If you're counting on your boyfriend Theether to save your asses, then forget it! We waxed him and his pals back in Ellie Mae! Hah!"
He feigned sympathy. "Oh, I'm sorry, Blair. Didn't I tell you? Theether wasn't in Ellie Mae. Oh no, he's gone ahead to Sol to stage another infamous atrocity for the evil Union of Border Worlds! Oh, and speaking of boyfriends, does your little dyke know about Black Lance Prime...HEATHER? Hawhawhaw! I can see the ads now! 'Blair Wars IV: The Heart of the Drag Queen!' Heehee! Whahahaha!"
He leaned closer, grinning lasciviously. "And don't worry about your medic fuck-bitch at Halcyon Station, sweetie. I'll take good care of her! She'll be glad to have a REAL man for a change! Harharhar!"
That's when I lost it. "Aaauuuggghhh! Vinny, you bastard, you touch her and I'll cut your fucking heart out with a--"
"Temper, temper!" he chided. "Not very lady-like, Heather. But enough girl talk, blondie. Must dash. Good-bye forever...Tart of the Tiger! Heeheehee!"
Insane with rage, I pounded futilely on the briefing table, Garr's last mocking laugh echoing in my ears. I hated that guy with a passion I hadn't felt since Thrakhath had butchered my beloved Angel. I'd finally made peace with him, but there could be none with Garr. If I ever got my hands on him, I'd rip out his lungs, tear off his--
At the tug on my sleeve, I whirled angrily. When I saw the sudden fear in Sosa's eyes, however, my rage dissipated in an instant. "Oh. Sorry, hon," I said. "He and I have a long history..."
"Yeah." She glanced at the blank display. "So I'm a flat-chested dyke, am I? Wait'll I drop his shields! We'll see if he laughs with a torpedo up his ass!"
Now THAT was a pleasant image!
I knelt by my bunk, pulled out my footlocker, and rummaged through the contents. This next fight could very well be my last, so I wanted my most precious keepsakes with me. I first took the vial of dirt from my farm, fingering it lovingly. My girls were safe with Zeke, but I missed them as badly as they must be missing me.
Next were the doll and teddy I'd salvaged from the Annabel Lee. Touching them reverently, I felt once again the cold rage that had possessed me when I came across them. If I had anything to say about it, Tolwyn and his accomplices would pay dearly for all the evil they'd done.
I chuckled over Heather's panties, but decided not to bring them; Ensign Watt's undergarment I likewise left behind, fretting that she and Disch were now in Tolwyn's clutches. Not that he'd kill them or my other friends from the Lexington; more likely he'd infect them with PAL, which was worse.
Speaking of PAL, should I bring Dr. Boddie's data cartridge? I'd promised to keep the secret of Planet 36-24-36, but what if my other evidence wasn't enough to convict Tolwyn? Did I have the right to inflict further suffering on those poor colonists? Yet how could I not, if the only alternative was freeing Tolwyn? I finally decided on a compromise: I'd keep it with me, but I'd make no copies, and use it only as a last resort.
I did, however, make six copies of the rest of our evidence, including my rec of Tolwyn's speech. If I didn't survive the next fight, someone had to get a copy to Earth.
Last, and definitely least, I took my holorec of Maniac's Miss July Inflatable session and put it in my pocket with the other cartridges. Then I deactivated the auto-post order on my Mc. If I lived, I'd hand the rec over to Maniac; if I died, it would die with me. Maniac had suffered enough.
I closed the footlocker and slid it back under the bunk. Before leaving, I pulled the draped blankets aside and gazed longingly at the snug love nest Panties had made for us. If only we'd had more time...
With a sigh, I turned and headed for the hatch. All my life, time had been my worst enemy.
I held the briefing in my service bay; with so few pilots left, there was no point in going through the squadron commanders. My people gathered around me, battered, weary, but unbeaten. Maniac, for example, though still limping and nursing his head wound, was full of fight.
"Come on, Ace!" he growled. "Let's get this show on the road! I want some payback for my Playboys!"
I barely kept a straight face. "Patience, Major. I want everyone on the same wavelength first." I waited until Barr signalled that the comm link to the frigates was up, then began.
"OK, here's the situation: Now that Tolwyn has sent his destroyers ahead, our positions are reversed. To get through the jump point, we have to come to him. That means we have to fight in the new Confed sensor fields, and our Dragon cloaks will be useless."
I paused a moment to let that sink in. "We wiped out their Longbows in the last fight, but the Confeds still have over forty Hellcats. We'll have to fight our way through them to get at the destroyers. We won't make the same mistake the Confeds made; we'll stick together and cover one torpedo run at a time. Tex? Your Avengers will make the first run. How many ships available?"
Tex stepped forward. "Just four, sir. I'll lead the first section; September has the second. We'll single out one destroyer and fire all our torpedoes, then we help cover the next run."
I nodded. "Thanks, Tex. OK, Hulk has the next wave: our four patched-up Vindicators. Hulk?"
All eyes turned to Hulk. "Vindicators help cover Avengers first. Then we torpedo second destroyer. But Blair know, Hulk wingmen leftover Avenger pilots? Blair not expect too much."
I smiled. "Just do your best, Hulk. I'm sure your pilots will be fine." I didn't mention that I would consider their run a success if they just dragged a goodly number of Confeds under our Banshee and Dragon guns. Knowing they were Hellcat bait would not be good for their morale.
"OK. That leaves the Dragons for the third and last run. We have seven left, counting Lt. Homes--but only six with torpedoes and T-paks. Rubberhose?"
"You take Hulk's Dragon. Try to take better care of this one." I smiled at him, and he grinned back sheepishly. "That should be enough to finish off the third destroyer and any survivors from the first two attacks. Just to make sure, the frigates will try and close with the Confeds during our attack, when the destroyers will be too busy maneuvering to lock on their capmis launchers. Questions?"
There were none. "Good. Primate, you launch first and join up with the other seven Banshees from the frigates." He caught his can of banana nectar and clutched it to his chest joyfully. I didn't tell him it was my last; the bulge in my hip pocket was actually a can of mango juice. It was a dirty trick, but with Excell in sick bay, I had no one else to lead our surviving Banshees.
I glanced at Panties. "Ahem. Before we go, I'd like to say something to all of you." Remembering the Border World tradition of pre-battle speeches, I had come prepared this time with a few inspirational remarks. "This action we're about to fight will be the most important in history. Before, against the Kilrathi, we fought only for humanity's survival. Today, we're fighting for its very soul. If we lose, our children are condemned to war without end."
I paused for effect. "But we WON'T lose! We're going to WIN! So, everybody, gimme a 'V'!"
My pilots stared at me blankly.
Why me, God? I struggled to keep my temper. "Look, people, when I ask you for a letter, you just yell it out, OK? Now, let's try it again. Gimme a 'V'!"
This time most of them answered, a bit uncertainly, "V."
"Good. Now gimme--"
"Uh, Earthworm," interrupted Panties. "I don't think this is a good--"
"Shut up, Panties!" I was on a roll. I knew these simpletons pretty well by now, and this was just the sort of mindless exercise they loved. "Now gimme an 'I'!"
As I expected, their response was louder and more enthusiastic. "I!"
"Gimme a 'C'!"
"C!" This time they roared it.
"Hulk like this game! Huh-huh. Huh-huh."
"Gimme a 'T'!"
"Gimme an 'O'!"
"Gimme an 'R'!"
"Gimme a 'Y'!"
Now for the big finish. "What's that spell?"
"Nah, it's 'vindicator!'"
"I thought it was 'vicarious!'"
"No, stupid, 'viking' has a 'K', not a 'C'!"
"Hey, 'C' can sound like 'K'!"
"Wait, I know! It's 'visionary!'"
"That's not it..."
"Colonel, could you repeat the question?"
Aaaargh! Leave it to the damn stupid Border Worlders to spoil a perfect pep talk! Panties was no help; she was slumped against the bulkhead, laughing her fool head off. I'd have to turn this fiasco around myself.
Clenching my teeth to keep from screaming, I said, "Look, never mind what it spells, OK? Let's just go out there and kick Tolwyn's butt!"
That, at least, was a concept they could understand. "Yeah! Kick butt! Kick butt! Kick butt!"
Better. Next time I used a spelling cheer--if there was a next time--I'd pick one with four letters or less. "OK, dismissed! And good luck! Puff Squadron, let's huddle!"
I waited while the other five Dragon pilots gathered around me. I noted that Maniac was careful to keep me between him and Panties.
"Great pep talk, Ace!" he said sarcastically. "So what were you trying to spell, anyway?"
"Er, it was 'virginity,' Maniac."
"Hah! I knew it! As in what Vesuvius is going to lose when we get in torpedo range, right, Ace? Haha ha! Did I tell you I was on my high school spelling team?"
"Ah, no. Must have been quite a team."
With everyone present, I shifted gears. "OK, boys and girls, it's a new game here. Do not cloak under any circumstances unless all the capships are dead or disabled; their sensors can paint you for the Hellcats, so there's no point. When targeted by a missile, use decoys and evade. Our job is to kill Hellcats, period, so use everything you have." Maniac brightened considerably on hearing that; he loved the Dragon fusion guns.
I distributed the data cartridges. "Take good care of these, people. If I don't make it, hop into Eczema on a frigate, and then take your Dragon to Earth. Whether or not we stop Tolwyn, one of these cartridges has to get to the Dissembly. Clear?"
"Don't worry, Ace! Neither snow nor sleet nor asteroids nor comets--"
"Shut up, Maniac! Now, wing assignments: Lovey and Dovey, of course. Homes, you listening?"
Homes replied over the commlink, "Yes, sir!"
"After launch, you join up with Rubberyucky."
"Whatever." I turned to Panties. "Colonel, care to fly my wing?"
She grinned back. "Try and stop me, hotshot!"
In spite of myself, I felt a little thrill at her words. "Er, good. Maniac, that leaves you odd man out--in more ways than one, heh heh. So I'm turning you loose. You're on your own, pal."
Maniac gaped at me. "No kidding? Jeez, it's about time you recognized my talent, Ace! Man, am I going to rack up the kills today! Just make sure none of you losers get in my way! Haha ha!"
"Don't worry, Major," replied Panties. "I think I speak for all of us when I say I'm going to stay as far away from you as possible."
Zelda was waiting for me at my Dragon, worry written all over her face. She kissed my flight helmet and handed it to me. "Come back to me, Chris," she whispered.
I tried to be cheerful, for her sake. "Hey, don't I always? Besides, this time you're in as much danger as I am. If I know Tolwyn, he'll try to decoy us with a missile attack on Intrepid. We can't spare any fighters to defend you, so promise me you'll find a safe place to ride out the attack. OK?"
"OK, Honeyblair, if you'll promise ME something." She leaned closer, until her lips were mere centimeters from my ear. "Sosa told me about your...feminine side, and I...well, I'd like to get to know that side, myself...Heather."
Oh, Christ. "Let me guess, Zelda: you want to play games, right? Hon, you hadn't even been with anyone until a few days ago! What do you know about--"
"Hey!" she said indignantly. "I've fantasized about you day and night ever since I hit puberty, studmuffin! Besides, you can find anything on the GGG..."
She had me there. "Uh, OK. So what did you have in mind?"
After a moment's hesitation, she shyly whispered, "Sorority Pledge Night," and giggled nervously.
"Ah, gee, Zelda, that sounds like, er, fun. Well, gotta go. Heh heh." I quickly climbed up into the cockpit before she could realize I hadn't actually agreed to her request.
As I ran through pre-flight, I reflected on my prospective companions and their kinky tastes. Shit, was I doomed to spend the rest of my sex life in drag? Jeez, God, why didn't you just infect me with PAL and get it over with?
Once in space, we formed up and flew ahead to join the frigates. We had a few minutes before I had to be the Wing Commander again, so I commed Panties on a tight beam.
"Comm check, Panties. It's...good to have you on my wing again."
Her reply was prompt. "Me, too. I missed you, Chris. I feel like this is where I belong."
I had to swallow a lump in my throat before I could reply. "Maybe this is where I belong, too, Tamara. Anyway, stick to me like glue. I don't want to lose you now."
"Roger, Earthworm. And you watch your pretty little ass, too."
I checked the threat indicator. Yeah, as I had feared, we were already in the advanced sensor fields of the approaching Confed destroyers. As an experiment, I had Panties cloak; the Confed sensors painted her as if nothing had changed. We'd just have to do this the hard way.
BWS THX and Tie had already altered course toward the Confeds when we joined up with their Banshees. The Confeds, too, though only minutes away from the jump point, had changed course to close with our frigates. Now in a triangular formation, surrounded by their Hellcat escort, they were an imposing force.
I led our fighters around their flank, approaching the corner position held by TCS Aladdin. In response, the Confed fighters swarmed out to meet us while the other two destroyers moved closer to the Aladdin to lend support. Our two frigates, still out of capmis range, countered by moving toward the other Confed flank. The TCS Lion King and Pocahontas were forced to turn toward them and away from the Aladdin.
Perfect. Time to start our run.
"Go, Tex! Everyone else cover Skunk Squadron!"
"Fuck you, Ace!"
A lone Dragon left our formation and blazed at the oncoming Hellcats. I tuned to the general channel and got an earful.
"Hello, losers! Maniac's my name, death is my game! Take THIS!" Whoom! Two incandescent fireballs screamed from his fighter. Kaboom! A ball of flame marked his first victim. "Woohoo! Down in flames! I'm HOT today! Get it? Hot? Haha--YIKES!"
Maniac broke off his taunting to evade a swarm of missiles. Surrounded by pissed-off Confeds, he was immediately caught up in the fight of his life.
Well, good riddance. Maniac had done his job and drawn off several Hellcats. The rest of us plunged into the oncoming formation. Hulk's Vindicators, a few thousand klicks behind the Avengers and feigning a torpedo run, suddenly pounced on a squadron of Hellcats angling for Skunk Squadron. The surprised Confeds, though outnumbering Hulk three to one, broke off their attack and became entangled with the Vindicators.
Panties and I tackled a flight of four Hellcats coming head-on at Tex. I lined up one at zero deflection--the most reliable angle for the fusion guns--and nailed him with a double overcharge. His guns took down my forward shields, and I had to squander two decoys to lose his missiles. I lined up behind a second Hellcat and started locking a leech, dimly aware that Panties had broken away to keep two more off my tail. I took an IR that rattled my teeth--fired from some anonymous Confed--but I managed to stay lined up until final lock. Launch! Splat! Scratch another Confed!
I took stock. Both sides had suffered heavy losses in the initial flurry. Far ahead of me, Tex and September were approaching the firing point under withering laser fire from the Aladdin. Tex acquired lock first, but held his fire until September was ready. They launched together, then pulled hard to evade a gaggle of missiles on their tails. Tex slipped missile lock, but flew right into a pair of laser bolts; in the glare of the explosion, I couldn't see a pod. September took two IRs on her damaged rear armor. Her escape pod was caught in the blast and sent tumbling.
KER-BLAM! KER-BLAM-BLAM-BLAM! The TCS Aladdin staggered under a series of torpedo impacts. When the glare of the blasts had faded, I could see gaping holes in her side armor and the flicker of internal explosions deep in her guts. Yeah, the Terminator class was big and tough, but Tex and September had cut TCS Aladdin down to size. This Terminator would definitely NOT be back!
No time to gloat! The other two Confed destroyers were closing in on our frigates! Time for Hulk to strut his stuff!
"Hulk! Target the Pocahontas! Banshees and Dragons, cover--"
"Can not do! Hulk in bad shape! Wingmen gone!" Screech! Screech! Kaboom! "Yes! Look at Hellcat burn! Huh-huh! Huh-huh!" Bam! Bam! "Hulk done for! Ejecting!" Kaboom!
Shit. We'd have to do it ourselves. "Puff Squadron! Follow me!"
"Lovey and Dovey aye!"
"Hey, don't forget the Maniac!" Whoom! Kaboom! "Haha ha! Chalk up another for the Maniac!"
Jesus, the big jerk was still alive! He must have 99 lives! Ominously, there was no response from Lt. Homes.
We lit afterburners and streaked toward TCS Pocahontas. Archie and Valentina had to peel off to deal with several intercepting Hellcats, but the rest of us made a beeline for the Poca-- Oh shit! The Confeds were in capmis range! They were launching at our frigates!
I punched the comm. "Rubberband!"
"Take the closer capmis! Panties, Maniac, NAIL THAT DESTROYER!" I changed course to intercept the missile fired from the TCS Lion King.
Come on, come on... I fingered my plasma guns. Steady...Fire! KABOOM! Gotcha! Oh hell, the Lion King was launching again! Damn, those Terminators reloaded fast!
"Quack quack! Scratch one cap--Yikes, another one!" No shit, Rubber!
Executing a tight turn to engage the Lion King's second missile, I noted two torpedo blasts on the Pocahontas and a triumphant yell from Maniac.
"Yeehaa! Two hits for the Maniac! Haha ha!"
Panties wasn't buying it. "They were MY hits, Major! Yours missed by a good two klicks!"
"Oh yeah? Who says, bitch? I laid 'em in sweet and--"
"Will you two SHUT UP?" I screamed. "They're barely scratched! Get in there and follow up with missiles!"
Too late! They were engulfed by Hellcats and forced to fight for their lives. I closed in on the second capmis and nailed it a scant two thousand klicks from BWS Tie. Already, a third was on its way.
Captain Mai appeared on my comm screen. "Earthworm!" he screamed. "Activity at the jump point! Looks like another destroyer coming through! Reading power signature...Terminator class...It's the TCS St. Melons!"
St. Melons? Oh yeah, the first of the new ships funded by the religious revivalists. She was named after a reformed stripper, Honey Dew Melons, who had founded an order of nuns in Port Aphrodite. Her sister ships, St. Tushy and St. Booty, were still fitting out.
I detonated the third capmis head-on, then pulled hard to escape the debris. A quick check of my instruments showed the new Confed destroyer approaching at full speed, fighters launching from her aft flight deck.
My heart sank. We were screwed! We still had the T-paks, of course, but against another destroyer and fresh fighters, they'd be all but impossible to deliver. Maybe a strategic re-- Wait! The TCS Lion King was turning away from our frigates! She was moving to engage the St. Melons!
Captain Mai commed me again. "Earthworm, Union comm codes! It must be--"
"--Captain Eisen!" I exulted. "Hot damn! He made it!" I switched to the St. Melons. "Earthworm here! Good to have you back, Captain Eisen!"
Wait a sec! The face on my screen wasn't Captain Eisen's! "St. Melons here!" said the face. "HiyaColonelhowyabeen?"
My God! It was-- "Rollins? ROLLINS? What the hell are YOU doing here?" His insignia showed him to be a Lieutenant Commander, but he was sitting in the command seat on the St. Melons' bridge!
He grinned back at me. "That's CAPTAIN Rollins to you, Colonel! I was Second Officer of a naval transport. We were docked at Starbase Thorn when Captain Eisen dropped in. When he showed us his evidence, a bunch of us hijacked the St. Melons and took off to nail Tolwyn."
"But where did you learn to command a--"
"--a starship? Remember back on the old Victory? I was taking correspondence courses! And you thought I spent all my time spreading rumors! Heh heh." He held up a data cartridge so I could read the title:
God help us. "Uh, so where's Captain Eisen?"
"He went on to Earth. Er, look, Colonel, I'd love to chat, but we have kind of a situation..."
"Right! You take the Lion King! We'll take the Pocahontas!" No time to worry about that idiot Rollins in command of a warship! The Pocahontas was already exchanging gunfire with our frigates.
A new pilot appeared on my comm. "Barfly here with four Bearcats. How can we assist, Earthworm?"
I zoomed off in pursuit of another capmis aimed at BWS Tie. "Get those 'cats off our fighters, Barfly! We can't hit the Pocahontas with them all over us!"
"Roger! Melon Collies, follow me!" I watched them plunge into the fray, then turned my attention back to the capmis. Shoot, Blair! A miss! Another! Oh, God, it was getting close...
I was now in the line of fire between the Pocahontas and the Tie. The Confed was concentrating on BWS Tie, trying to take out one of its opponents before their combined firepower could tell. With titanic energies flaring all around me, I bit my lip and tried to concentrate on my target. Last chance, Blair! Line up...shoot! KERBLAM!
Too late! The capmis detonated a mere hundred meters from the frigate! Her shields, already weakened by the destroyer's main batteries, couldn't hold back the blast. Badly wounded, the BWS Tie slowed and turned aside, her main guns silenced.
The Pocahontas began swinging toward the BWS THX. Despite the help from the St. Melon's fighters, our Dragons were still tangled up with the Hellcats. Off in the distance, the St. Melons and the Lion King were beating each other into scrap metal. The Pocahontas had lost half her main battery to the frigates' fire, but one capmis could turn the tide decisively in Tolwyn's favor.
Well, it had been my plan that failed, so it was up to me to retrieve the situation. I armed my two torpedoes and afterburned head-on at the TCS Pocahontas. Her forward shields were down; if I could just plant my warheads near the capmis launcher...
Bam! Bam! Shit, Hellcat on my tail! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoydecoydecoy! Hah! Lost the-- WhoopwhoopWHAMMO! Aft shields down! Bam! Clang! Losing armor! I wiggled the stick as much as I dared, but my options were limited if I wanted to maintain torpedo lock. Bam! Clang! I was getting it from the Hellcat behind and the destroyer in front! Not enough time! I had to--
"I'll get him, Earthworm!" It was Barfly! Whoosh! Blam! Screech! Screech! Screech! Kaboom! "You're clear, Colonel!"
Locked! I launched my two torpedoes and pulled as hard as I could. KERBLAM! KERBLAM! The bow of the Pocahontas was a mass of twisted metal.
I was still trembling after my close call. "Whew!" I sighed. "Just in time, Barfly! Just in time!"
"How did you know, Earthworm?" asked Barfly. I couldn't see his expression behind his faceplate, but he sounded puzzled. "I didn't think you recognized me!"
"Huh? Recognized you?"
He opened his faceplate. "Captain Justin Thyme, at your service, sir!"
I squinted my eyes, peering closer at the screen... "Hey, you're the bum from that bar in Port Glomerulus!"
"Bum no longer, Colonel, thanks to you!" He flashed a grin. "But I'll save that story for another time. Right now we got--"
"--a destroyer to nail. Come on, help me cover our torpedo attack." Woohoo! St. Melons and Lion King had fought each other to a standstill; they were licking their wounds just out of gunfire range. The Aladdin was out of action, and the Pocahontas soon would be. None of the Confeds were in any shape to jump, but Intrepid--damaged though she was--could still make the hop. Hot diggity, we'd won!
Sosa suddenly appeared on the comm, her eyes wide with fear. "Earthworm!" she screamed. "Vesuvius is closing!"
Aarrgghh! How could I have forgotten Tolwyn's flagship? I checked my scope. The TCS Vesuvius was gaining rapidly on Intrepid, which in her damaged state was too slow to escape. Vesuvius carried no heavy guns or capship missiles, but with all our main batteries out of action, her two hundred lasers held the balance of power. She could pick off our wounded ships at her leisure and then take Tolwyn to Sol. He'd won after all!
No! "Barfly! Take your Bearcats and use the rest of your missiles on the Pocahontas! Make sure she's put out of action! Puffs, let's go get Tolwyn!"
Barfly acknowledged immediately. "Roger, Earthworm! Er, 'Puffs?'"
I had no time to explain to him. As we blazed for Vesuvius, the few remaining Hellcats broke away from the St. Melons' fighters to pursue us.
I counted noses, and came up one short. Shit, Rubbersole was missing. So how many torpedoes did we have left?
"OK, Puff Squadron, who's packing?"
Archie appeared on my comm screen. "Just Lovey and Dovey, sir! Dovey's got armor damage and I'm out of missiles."
Shit, even if we disabled her shields, four torps would do little damage to the Vesuvius. We had to attack a vulnerable area. "Lovey! Dovey! Take her up the ass! We'll cover! Panties, form on my wing!"
"You got it, Earthworm! Ready to dance!"
Good girl, Panties. We screamed past the Vesuvius, laser bolts blazing past us on all sides. Twenty thousand klicks behind her, we executed a U-turn. Archie and Valentina killed afterburner to leave themselves enough room to acquire torpedo lock. Panties and I went head-on at the last six Hellcats.
With only two missiles left, I had to make them count. Bobbing and weaving, I dodged concentrated particle and ion gun fire to close in. Locking...launch! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoydecoydecoy! Missed! Splat! One down!
Splat! "Score one for the good guys!" God, I loved that woman!
Bam! Bam! Shit, one on my tail! And my aft armor is scrap! Evade!
"I'll get him, Chris!" Screech! Screech! Kaboom! "Score one for the--" Bam! Bam! "Uh-oh! I need some help, Earthworm!"
Two on her tail! I turned to take one head-on. Switch to fusion guns, build up a charge...whoom! BAM! He's limping off, but the other one is tearing Panties apart! And I'm way out of position!
Wait, a Dragon was coming to her rescue!
"Hey, bitch! Want some help?"
Maniac! Please, God, don't let Panties--
"Go fuck youself, pinhead!" screamed Panties. Careening on the verge of losing control, her fighter falling apart around her, she would still rather die than accept Maniac's help.
I wasn't so damn proud. "Maniac! Anything you want! OK?"
"Deal!" he replied smugly. Swooping in on afterburner, he nailed Panties' tormentor with a masterpiece of a fusion blast.
It was too late for Panties, however. Her Dragon lasted long enough for her to eject safely, and then it blew.
No time to worry about her! Lovey and Dovey were in launch range! Not surprisingly, Vesuvius was taking no evasive action. Normally her shields would be proof against a mere four torpedoes, but they didn't know--Yes! Sosa had sent the code to disable her shields! Vesuvius was bare-ass! Hah! I'd give anything to see the expression on Tolwyn's face right now!
The two Dragons launched at close range and tried to pull out. They had suffered heavily on the way in, however, and their performance was sluggish. Lovey and Dovey ejected within seconds of each other, barely escaping the double explosion of their fighters.
Gloating, I watched the torpedoes all the way in. It was a perfect four- warhead pattern. Without her engines, Vesuvius would be easy--Hey! Her shields were back up! BLAM-M-M-M! The torpedoes detonated harmlessly against the energy screens.
Lt. Garr appeared on my comm screen. ""Hahaha! You poor schmuck, Blair! I spotted that virus the second your beanpole bitch tried to plant it! Give it up, loser! Hahaha!"
Damn, I hated that guy!
Wait, Intrepid was turning to unmask "A" turret! Had they found batteries for their faerie weapons? But the range--
SCREEE! Ear-piercing comm static! Forgetting my helmet, I tried to cover my ears. A brilliant violet beam lanced out toward the Vesuvius! BLAM! Jesus, the bolt pierced her port bow like it was paper!
Sosa popped up on the comm and screamed, "ThatsforCatnipyoumotherfuckers!"
Nearly deaf from two major assaults on my eardrums, I reached for the volume control. I froze, however, when my telemetry showed an explosion on Intrepid's starboard bow. Oh shit, "A" turret was gone! Not Yanni, too!
Trembling, I hit the comm. "Maniac! It's up to us! Arm T-pak and form on my wing!" Time for some payback.
Maniac had chased the last two Hellcats out of the fight, and consequently was closer to Vesuvius than I was. "That's a negatory, Ace!" he replied cockily. "No way you're stealing my glory this time! I'm taking that bastard Tolwyn out myself!" He lit burner and zeroed in on Vesuvius.
The supercarrier had momentarily turned aside when she was hit by Intrepid's secret weapon, but resumed the chase when there was no followup. Already, her lasers were firing ranging shots.
Cursing Maniac all the way, I armed my T-pak and went to afterburner. Dammit, we should be going in together to split her fire!
Jinking desperately, Maniac closed on his target. Predictably, his shields were quickly battered down by Vesuvius' concentrated fire. "Hey, Blair, you chickenshit!" he yelled, his fighter staggering from repeated hits. "Where the hell are you? You order me in and then you hold back? Try backing me up, old-timer!"
I bit back my retort and concentrated on my target. I tried not to think of the men and women I was condemning to horrible death. Vesuvius was just a thing, a horrible, undead engine of destruction.
"Take THAT, losers!" Maniac had loosed his T-pak and was clawing his way out of Vesuvius' laser fire. "Sorry, Ace, but the best man won! Haha ha! I'm the hero, you're the goat!"
The T-pak impacted dead amidships and activated. I had to admit, the big goof had pulled off an incredible feat. I broke off my run and waited for the weapon to take effect. Any second now, Vesuvius would begin to falter as her crew laughed themselves to death... Any second... Any time...
My comm screen lit up again. Oh, shit! It was Lt. Garr again! He was lounging back in his seat, inspecting his nails with elaborate nonchalance. "Oh, you again, Blair," he said casually. "Say, did I ever tell you about the spaced armor on this ship? It was designed to give improved protection against torpedo impacts, but coincidentally it makes us invulnerable to tickle weapons as well." He dropped all pretense of indifference and laughed maniacally. "Hoohoowhahahaha! You're tenacious, Phlegm of the Tiger, I'll give you that, but we're invincible! Hahahahaha!"
Angrily I cut him off, too enraged to listen any more. Tolwyn had won! Worse, Lemonlips had won! My face burned with the shame of failure.
Maniac faced the situation with his usual optimism. "Shit, Ace! That damn buck-toothed bitch of yours fucked up my T-pak! We're screwed! I told you not to mess with Tolwyn, but ooooh nooooo, you wouldn't listen!"
Damn that Maniac! I'd like to shove my T-pak right up his-- Hey, that's it!
"Maniac, you're a genius! Come on, cover me!" I lit burner and turned to get behind Vesuvius.
Maniac, for once, followed my orders and limped after me at the best speed his crippled Dragon could make. "You got an idea, Ace? What is it? Oh God, please make it a GOOD idea for once!"
Oh yeah, this was one of my best. "Vesuvius' armor is on the OUTSIDE, right, Maniac? I'm gonna stick my T-pak right up her tail! Now get in there and draw some of her fire!" I lined up straight behind Vesuvius at fifteen thousand klicks and killed my afterburner.
"That's your brilliant idea?" wailed Maniac. "Zigzag at five hundred kps and thread a needle a few thousand klicks away? You're crazier than I thought!" Nevertheless, he turned his fighter and lit burner to lead me in.
Far ahead, Intrepid's shields were flashing with hits from Tolwyn's lasers. Her feeble return fire was totally ineffective. Grimly, I concentrated on my flying. Don't think about your friends on the Intrepid, Blair. Don't think about the millions who'll die if you fail. Just think about that damn flight deck entrance. It's big and easy, Blair, big as the Grand Canyon and just begging for your load.
But the closer I got, the smaller it looked. This was crazy! Nobody could hit anything that tiny! Frantically, I weaved between laser bolts and cranked up my optical magnification until it would go no further. My target continued to shrink until it seemed a mere postage stamp.
"We can't win this one, Ace!" screamed Maniac. "I'm poppin' the top!" Maniac ejected a moment before a laser bolt detonated his Dragon's power plant.
The laser fire around me redoubled. Unconsciously I hunched down in a futile attempt to take shelter.
And then, just when I needed all my powers of concentration, I was distracted by a strange, distant voice in the back of my mind. Its soothing, cultured English accent tugged at memories just beyond retrieval.
"Chris," it said. "trust your feelings. Let go. Use the--"
"Shut up!" I screamed at myself. "I'm trying to concentrate!" Bam! Bam! Shit! Distracted, I'd flown right into a double laser blast!
The haunting voice persisted. "But aren't you the guy from--"
"No! I'm not! Now piss off!" My concentration in tatters, I waggled the stick desperately. Even with all gun power routed to the shields, I was getting chopped to pieces. Red lights appeared on my instrument panel.
The launch point was rapidly approaching! Hands shaking, I poised my thumb over the launch button. OK, Blair, it's a forlorn hope, but aim right down the--
The voice was back! "Are you SURE you're not--"
Startled, I nearly jumped out of my seat. "Will you shut the FUCK up?" Too late! I had inadvertently launched the T-pak! Oh no, no, NO! Our last hope was gone!
Despairing, I peeled off and hit burner. Limping away at a bare eight hundred kps, I turned to watch Intrepid's final moments. Shields down, she was being methodically picked apart by Vesuvius' lasers.
My comm lit up again, revealing the leering face of Lt. Lemonlips. "You watching, Blair?" he gloated. "Your friends don't have much--" His triumphant expression was suddenly replaced by one of stark terror. "What the hell? OH NO! EEEYAHAHAHAHA!"
Holy shit! By some miracle, I'd managed to plant my T-pak right on target! As Vesuvius' guns fell silent, debris and bodies began spewing from one of her starboard airlocks. Over the comm I heard a chorus of hysterical laughter. Vinny had collapsed out of view, but in the background a female comm officer was convulsing helplessly in her seat.
Frantic with worry, I broke the connection and commed Intrepid. After what seemed like an eternity, Sosa answered. The picture was fuzzy, but I could make out a nasty cut on her forehead and smoke in the background.
"Intrepid!" I called. "Vesuvius is neutralized. What's your status?"
"Intrepid aye," she croaked. "W-we're in bad shape here, Chris. [cough cough] Life support failing. Emergency power only. Losing...air." She paused to wipe some of the blood out of her eyes with her sleeve.
Shit! I frantically checked my scope. None of our other ships were in any shape to lend assistance. Even the St. Melons was barely making headway. The hostile environment of space would soon kill my shipmates unless--
Of course! "Sosa!" I yelled. "Abandon ship! Get everyone to Vesuvius! Send the engineers first to make repairs!"
I cut her off before she could reply. More airlocks had opened on Vesuvius, her shields were down, and her engines were faltering. I had to destroy that T-pak before the agonized thrashings of her crew sent her tumbling.
I cautiously approached Vesuvius from the rear, optic assists on max. Where was that damn--There! A third of the way into her cavernous flight deck, the T-pak was stuck to a vertical bulkhead, still vibrating furiously.
I had one tachyon cannon still functional. Cursing my wounded and shuddering Dragon, I carefully lined up my shot. Steady...screech! BLAM! Woohoo! Got it in one! What a shot! Am I the Heart of the Tiger, or what!
Checking Vesuvius' landing field, I found that, miraculously, it was still functional. It took me but a minute to land and taxi into an empty service bay. I took a few moments to use the relief kit--thankfully, the Dragon was equipped with an extra large one--before I popped the canopy. The flight deck still had air, but I was taking no chances. Leaving my helmet on, I slid down to the deck.
All around me, techs and deckhands were lying motionless. Were they dead? I knelt next to a tech, removed my gauntlet, and felt for his pulse. It was rapid and irregular, but he was alive. Good. Too many people had already died from this insanity.
Grinning wickedly, I stood up and drew my photon pistol. Now to find that bastard Tolwyn and blow his fucking brains out!
Previews from Chapter 31:
"I believe in you, Chris Blair."
"You're beaten, Heart of the Chump! Beaten by the ultimate warrior!"
"Seize that man!"