[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander October 7, 1996]
Debriefing was mercifully short. The Intel officers were hot to get their paws on the Marines and their "package," so I was dismissed after giving a cursory summary of the mission. Maniac, of course, attempted to describe his kills at great length, but Intel wasn't interested in his feats today. Not that they ever were.
Captain Eisen had ordered the wing to stand down while our task force raced for the nearest jump point. From our patrol reports, we probably outmatched the oncoming Border World task force, but a general engagement could easily trigger the full-scale war we were trying to avoid. So, except for a few pilots on routine CAP, my tired warriors could rest. And so could I.
Yet, exhausted as I was, sleep once again eluded me. I guess my nerves were still frazzled from the last two missions to Whitewall. On one, I had come within a whisker of getting killed; on the other, I had very nearly lost a platoon of Marines. I tossed and turned in an uneasy half-sleep filled with a cacaphony of missile alarms and screaming men.
As a last resort, I called up the latest Nightly News. The beautiful and talented Barbara Dahl never failed to soothe me to sleep.
"Good evening. This is the TCN Nightly News. I'm Barbara Dahl." Ahhhhh. I felt more relaxed already. Damn, she looked especially cute today.
As usual, I tried to adjust the 3-D view to see up her skirt, but, as usual, the holoview showed nothing below the desk. She could be completely bottomless for all I knew, a thought that I found absurdly amusing in my fatigued state.
"Our top story tonight: the macabre tale of the Confed transport Annabel Lee, attacked two days ago in the Hellespont system by unknown forces. The military has ordered a complete news blackout, but we at TCN have learned that all aboard were killed by some unknown weapon that left the ship itself completely unharmed. More than one hundred passengers and crew are known dead."
She set down her papers and looked earnestly into the holocams. "The Nightly News has just obtained a classified report about a similar tragedy over a month ago. According to informed sources, the transport Amadeus, bound for Megaron with hundreds of war refugees, suffered exactly the same fate."
What? Why hadn't Admiral Tolwyn mentioned that? Forewarned, we might have saved the Annabel Lee!
"We at the Nightly News can only speculate as to why such vital information was withheld from the public. The last time government censorship was imposed to such an extent was during the final months of the Kilrathi War, when mankind faced utter annihilation. Do we now face a threat of similar proportions?"
At first glance, that seemed a bit over-sensationalized. On the other hand, if the current problems degenerated into civil war, it would be nearly as bad as the Kilrathi War.
"Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn, the man charged with investigating these and other recent incidents of piracy and terrorism, has agreed to speak with us tonight. Admiral Tolwyn?"
A three-dimensional image of the Admiral materialized next to Barbara.
"Good evening, Barbie. It's a pleasure to see you again." It was vintage Tolwyn. He was charming, relaxed, and self-assured.
"Don't call me 'Barbie!'" Barbara, to her credit, was immune to his charm. "Admiral, why has the military covered up the two incidents I've described? How many other tragedies have been withheld from the public?"
Tolwyn kept his cool. "These incidents were not 'covered up' as you put it, Barbara. Given the current highly volatile relations between the Confederation and the Border Worlds, I deemed it inadvisable to release such potentially explosive news before a thorough investigation had been conducted. As you know, certain reckless elements--including some in the news media--would only exploit premature reports to fan hysteria against the Border Worlds."
She looked doubtful. "But Admiral Tolwyn, it's well known--despite military censorship--that numerous terrorist acts have been linked to Border Worlds personnel. In fact, dozens of Border World pirates were taken prisoner in the Hellespont system alone."
"You see, Barbara? Even a level-headed journalist such as yourself can't help jumping to conclusions. We have indeed captured Border Worlders--along with numerous prisoners of Confederation and other origins. But after exceptionally thorough investigation, we have found no hard evidence--let me repeat--NO hard evidence whatsoever that any of the Border World governments are involved in any way."
Barbara looked at him skeptically. "So you're saying, Admiral, that you believe the Border World governments are innocent?"
Tolwyn smiled indulgently. "I'm saying, Barbara, that the evidence so far is ambiguous. To draw conclusions now is dangerously premature."
"Thank you, Admiral Tolwyn."
"Catch you later, Barbie!" Tolwyn fired his imaginary gun at her and disappeared.
Barbara turned back to the holocams. "We can only wish the Admiral speedy success in finding these criminals and bringing them to justice. Coming up next: a special report on the upcoming primary elections."
I turned off the holovid. I felt a lot better about our mission after seeing Tolwyn's interview. He might be out for glory and publicity, but at least he refused to be stampeded into rash action. Maybe the old man really did know what he was doing.
Presently I fell into a peaceful sleep.
After a quick breakfast, I headed for the infirmary. Now that we were back in Confederation space, I had wing exercises to plan and supervise in preparation for our delayed mission to Minos. But I had to clear the air with Taysti first. Whether or not we continued our relationship, she had to understand that it couldn't affect flight operations again. I had used up my nine lives long ago.
As I rounded the last corner, the sick bay door suddenly slid open and Garr stepped out. I froze, hoping he would head the other way, toward the bridge. He adjusted the small regen pack over his ear, cursed, and turned...toward the bridge. Whew! I waited until he was out of sight before I went in myself.
Lt. Disch looked up from her ubiquitous clipboard as I entered the anteroom. "Colonel, what did you do to Lt. Garr? I have to regenerate a whole new eardrum for him."
"Er, it was an accident. Look, Taysti, we have to talk. Your office?"
She nodded. I followed her in and closed the door behind me. We were going to have this out, and I wanted no interruptions. Whether she believed me or not, I was determined to tell her the truth about Ensign Watt.
She was so beautiful, standing there defiantly with her hands on her hips and a slight blush of anger on her cheeks. I shook off an urge to embrace her, and instead waved my index finger angrily. "Now let's get one thing straight here, Lieutenant! You just can't--"
"Oh, Chris!" Suddenly she was on the verge of tears. "Chris, I've been an idiot! Can you forgive me?"
"O-oh yeah?" I couldn't shift gears that fast. "Forgive you for what?"
"Chris, I had a long talk with Ensign Watt. She told me everything. I'm so ashamed!"
"Watt? H-how did you...?"
"Lex suggested I talk to her. Afterward, Lex confirmed everything she said. Chris, you're such a good man, and I treated you like dirt."
Whoa. AIs weren't supposed to get involved in the crew's personal lives, and they were NOT supposed to disclose personal conversations to third parties. Of course, Lex had shown on numerous occasions that she--it--wasn't normal, but...
Well, forget about that. I had to reassure Taysti before she started bawling. "Taysti, I'm not angry. Come here, hon." She ran to me and I and took her in my arms. Oh, boy, she felt so right there.
She hugged me fiercely. "Oh, Chris, Chris..."
Taysti always dressed faster than I did. She looked at me thoughtfully as I finished my last zipper.
"You know, Chris, I did a lot of thinking after I talked to Kylla. I shouldn't have minded even if you two really did... After all, we made no commitments, and I staked no claim."
She came closer. "That's when I realized why I was so upset. You see, I'm falling for you, flyboy; and that wasn't supposed to happen."
I sandwiched her hands between mine and, for once, gave her a serious answer. "I'm...fond of you, too, Taysti. But before this goes any farther, you'd better ask yourself if you can love a farmer. Because that's what I was, and that's what I'll be again when this whole business is over."
"I-I don't know, Chris. But I'll think about it...real hard." Her frown turned into a mischievous smile. "In the meantime, I believe you still owe me a urine sample!" She reached down and unzipped me again. "Need some help?"
"Mmmm, that sounds--"
"Oh, give it a rest, you two!" Lex! Of course.
"Butt out, Lex." I was still in the mood. Her eyes were closed, her lips warm and moist and--
"The Captain wants his senior officers on the flight deck! Now! By some quirk of a perverse cosmos, that includes you, Old MacDonald! Now move it!"
OK, OK. I gave Taysti a quick peck on the lips and took off.
I dodged crew members, bounced off bulkheads, and slid down ladders. As I ran, Lex filled me in.
"Company's coming, Earthworm. You'd think they'd give us advance notice, but noooooo! The CAP nearly shot the shuttle out of space before it flashed the recognition codes."
I flung myself into the lift and paused for breath between decks. "Who is it, Lex?"
"Somebody big. That's all I know. I searched recent comm traffic, but this visit wasn't on the channels I'm authorized to monitor. Or the ones I'm not, either."
The lift stopped at my deck, but I blocked the door for a moment. "Look, Lex, thanks for squaring things with--"
"Don't mention it. You organic so-called 'intelligences' need all the help you can get from the real thing."
"Er, yeah." I let the door open and sprinted for Flight Control. I made a mental note to read up on computer viruses. Lex was overdue for a cold.
Maniac and I rushed onto the flight deck just as the shuttle touched down. The Captain was waiting for us with his two senior officers. Even in my haste, I took a moment to admire the ship's First Officer, who was looking especially pretty today.
I lined up on Eisen's right, with Maniac on mine. "Who is it, Captain?" I asked. Had Admiral Tolwyn decided to check up on us personally?
"'Straight' Aaro Gant?" exclaimed Maniac. "Hoo boy, are WE in trouble!"
I was inclined to agree. Gant had a reputation as the toughest disciplinarian in Confed. Despite his distinguished combat record, naval personnel fought tooth and nail to avoid being assigned to his ship.
The shuttle hatch opened and Captain Gant stepped onto the ramp. He was about my size--a point in his favor--with a trim, rock-solid body that belied his gray hair. His unsmiling face might have been chiseled out of granite. He paused for a moment, standing ramrod-straight, then strutted down the ramp.
Maniac whispered in my ear. "Jeez, who stuck the two-by-four up his ass?"
"Ain't he the cock-of-the-walk?" I agreed. He swaggered toward us with his nose in the air, as if he were looking at something above us. I had to fight an urge to look up also.
"What's he looking at?" asked Maniac, craning his neck.
"Will you two shut up!" hissed Captain Eisen. Gant had almost reached us.
He stopped in front of Captain Eisen, sprang to attention--clicking his boot heels together--and saluted. "Captain Aaro Gant, attached to the Third Fleet!"
Eisen returned the salute, then held out his hand. "Welcome to the Lexington, Captain Gant. May I introduce my senior officers? My First Officer, Commander Seccent..." They shook hands. "My Second Officer, Lt. Commander Furst. And these gentlemen lead the fighter wing: Colonel Blair and Major Marshall."
Gant turned his attention to us. "Yes, I've heard quite a bit about both-- Er, what the devil are you two looking at?"
Damn, I had looked up after all. "Uh, nothing, sir." I clasped Captain Gant's hand with my usual firm grip, and--eeewww, it was like holding limp spaghetti. As Gant shook hands with Maniac, I furtively glanced at Seccent and Furst, who were wiping their their hands on their uniforms. I fought down the temptation to do the same, at least in front of Gant.
Captain Gant scrutinized me closely. "Say, Colonel, aren't you the guy from--"
"Er, no, sir, I'm not." I prayed he wouldn't press the issue.
"Hmph. I could have sworn... Well, never mind." He turned back to Eisen.
"Captain, the Lexington task force is to move immediately to the Masa system, where we will join with the Third Fleet."
'We?' Was this pompous son-of-a-bitch coming with us? And why were we going back to BW territory? Why weren't we resuming our postponed anti-piracy sweep of Minos?
Captain Eisen was clearly as surprised as I. "Captain Gant, may I ask why we're going to Masa?"
"I'm carrying sealed orders which will explain everthing. I'd like to discuss them with you now, if I may." He looked around at the rest of us. "Privately, if you don't mind?" It wasn't a suggestion, it was an order.
I exchanged glances with Seccent and Furst. What the devil was going on here? It was Captain Eisen's habit to share all data with his senior officers.
My instant dislike for Gant led me into rashness. I gave Captain Eisen the agreeable smile he'd learned to fear during our tour on the old Victory. "That's OK, Captain. WE understand, DON'T WE?" I winked at the others.
Maniac, ever the cut-up, joined the fun. "We do? Ohhhh, SURE we do. Say no more, Captain Eisen, nudge nudge." He winked elaborately at Gant.
Seccent picked up the cue. She elbowed Captain Eisen. "Sure, you CAPTAINS need your PRIVACY. For, you know, CAPTAIN-type stuff." She winked at Furst.
"Yeah. We wouldn't want to INTRUDE while you two...well, YOU know." He winked at Captain Eisen, who by now was probably wishing he'd joined the Marines.
The four of us wandered off together, nudging and winking at each other, and directing occasional knowing looks back at Gant and Eisen. The two of them just stood there, staring at us. I was the last one up the stairs to Flight Control, so I caught the tail end of their conversation.
"Captain Eisen, how the hell did you wind up with those clowns?"
"I guess in a previous life, I must have done something really, really bad. Like acting in a sitcom. Er, perhaps we should adjourn to my cabin."
Seccent had the watch, so she headed directly back to the bridge. Furst, Maniac, and I headed for the Officers' Lounge. I often found it easier to instruct rookies in the relaxed atmosphere of the lounge, and I figured this was a good time to see if they had drawn the right lessons from our last excursion to Whitewall.
Unfortunately, it seemed most of the rookies were still sacked out. I spotted Catskill and Vagabond playing cards at the center table--Catskill was the only one dumb enough to come back for more--and Kylla at a corner table with an engineer I didn't know. Vero and Hazard were playing chess over by the window. Lieutenant Garr was by himself--of course--near the other exit. We glared briefly at each other.
Maniac, of course, insisted we hit the bar first. He ordered a Hell's Attic for himself and beers for Furst and me. I signed a "V" to Pilsner, and he brought me a Virgin Mary instead. The three of us wandered over to kibitz the card game.
Lt. Commander Furst seemed to have something on his mind. "You know, Colonel, I'm not really surprised Confed HQ sent somebody out here. Did you know the Captain has been bombarding HQ with questions about nearly every assignment they've given us?"
Uh-oh. Had the Captain been making a nuisance of himself? "I knew he had some doubts about our orders, Schaef. I didn't know he'd made a fuss with HQ."
Schaefer downed half his beer. "Oh, yeah. Big time. Seems he doesn't trust your pal Tolwyn."
"That's no surprise. Tolwyn took the Victory away from him once when it looked like the War was nearly over. But I think Tolwyn knows what he's doing. If our orders were botched, it probably happened in the chain of command."
"Maybe," replied Furst skeptically. "I just hope Tolwyn will stand up for the old man if he gets in trouble. You mark my words. Gant is bad news, or my name isn't Schaefer T. Furst." He finished his beer and checked his watch. "I'd better get some sack time before I go on watch. See you."
"Mm." I was too preoccupied to do more than mumble a farewell. Did HQ really need to send our new orders by courier, or was Gant here to spy on Eisen? Was Gant working for Tolwyn, or was somebody in Confed HQ working against--
"That guy worries too much." Maniac was ever the optimist. "He never takes the time to appreciate the finer things in life, like..."
"Like what, Maniac?"
"Like that bodacious bioconvergence chemist we picked up on Tyr VII. I was talking to my Marine pal, and he says she is one fine example of feminine pulchritude." For emphasis, his hands described an hourglass shape in the air.
"'Bioconvergence?' 'Pulchritude?' Since when did you start using words with more than two syllables, Maniac?"
"Hey! You want to impress an intellectual, you gotta BE an intellectual! And when it comes to impressing women, the Maniac always RISES to the occasion, if you know what I mean, heh heh."
Oh yeah, I knew all too well. "Maniac, you don't even know the meaning of the term 'bioconvergence.'"
"Oh, and I suppose you do, plowboy?"
"Sure I do." I crossed my fingers behind my back to alert Catskill and Vagabond. "It's a branch of evolutionary biology dealing with convergent evolution. You know, how unrelated species evolve into similar forms because of similar lifestyles."
Vagabond chimed in right on cue. "Oh, you mean like the Kilrathi evolving to look like Terran cats--lions and tigers--because of similar predatory habits?"
"Exactly. Good, Vagabond. Or how Terran sea mammals--dolphins--evolved a fish shape. Or how the ground borers on Nephritis 2 resemble earthworms."
"Wait a sec, Ace." Maniac was frantically scribbling notes. "Convergent evolution...Kilrathi...dolphins...borers..."
Catskill jumped in with both feet. "Or Terran cats and catfish! Right, sir?"
Oh, brother. "Er, yeah, sort of, Catskill."
"...catfish." Maniac was quivering with joy. "This is great stuff, Ace! Oh boy, am I gonna impress this egghead!" Suddenly he turned suspicious. "So how come you know so much about bioconvergence, Mr. Wizard?"
I acted surprised that he could even ask. "Well, you have to know these things when you're a farmer, Maniac."
"Yeah," he answered absently. "I suppose you do. Well, I'm gonna go do some cramming. See ya!"
We barely managed to contain ourselves until he was out the door.
"Woo hoo hoo!" Vagabond burst into laughter. "Colonel, do you think it's possible to strike out on one pitch? Heeheehee!"
"Hahahaha! Well, if anybody can do it, Maniac can! Hohohoho!" I nudged Catskill in the ribs, but he didn't respond. He was looking warily at the bar. I followed his gaze, and saw that Vero had gone up to freshen her drink. She flashed Catskill a sultry smile and blew him a kiss.
Catskill shuddered and buried his face in his cards. I noted that, contrary to his usual practice, he was drinking only seltzer today. I tried to imagine the kid, drunk and helpless in sick bay, in the clutches of two predatory females, and shuddered myself. He'd probably never submit to a physical again.
After long thought, Catskill took a card from his hand and laid it on the pile. Vagabond promptly picked it up and arrayed his own cards on the table.
"Aw, man! Well, I've had enough for today, Captain Chang." Catskill pushed his chair back and stood up. "I did do a little better today, didn't I?"
Vagabond nodded. "You have come a short way on the path to enlightenment, grasshopper." He gathered up the money on the table and put it in his pocket.
I waited for Catskill to leave, then turned to Vagabond. "I suppose he'll reach 'enlightenment' about the time--"
"--his money runs out. Heh heh. How about you, Colonel? You haven't tried your luck in quite a while..."
I threw ten credits on the table. "How about I just pay you now and save us both some time?"
He grinned. "I see, my friend, that you have already achieved enlightenment!"
We were eighteen hours from the Masa jump point when Gant came aboard. I used the time to drill my pilots some more and to get to know their flying styles a bit better. I wanted to work on plans for our upcoming missions in the Masa system, but Intel refused to release any recent data. I tried to get the Captain to override them, but Lex reported that he and Gant were "conferring," and not available.
Out of frustration, I tagged Vagabond for a combat air patrol, and we spent a couple of hours in leisurely flight, topped off with some vacubatics and mock dogfights. I reveled in the sheer pleasure of flight, and in the memories reawakened by having Vagabond on my wing.
We were an hour from the jump point when Lex called me to the briefing room. It was about time. I was making the usual preparations for jumping into an unknown situation, but I needed a better idea of what we'd be facing. Maybe Captain Eisen would finally fill me in.
I ran into Maniac just outside the briefing room. "What are you doing here, Maniac? You're supposed to be sacked out."
Maniac was in his usual cheery "morning" mood. "That damn AI bitch woke me up and sent me here. What's going on, Ace? I thought your pal Eisen always briefed you alone."
I shook my head in bafflement. "Beats me, Maniac. Maybe it has something to do with Captain Gant's visit." I activated the door and we stepped inside.
"That fucking little blowhard? Next time I see him I'm gonna give him a piece of--"
"A piece of what, Major?" Uh-oh, Captain Gant was waiting by the holotank! I looked around, but Captain Eisen was nowhere to be seen.
Maniac frantically tried to cover up. "Er...pie! A piece of ship's pie! It's very g--"
"Knock it off, Major! You two may have gotten away with that crap under Eisen, but I will not tolerate any of your antics! Do you read me, gentlemen?"
Maniac and I both sprang to attention and nodded vigorously. Holy shit, how come Gant was suddenly giving the orders?
"Er, no disrespect, Captain, but what--"
"Captain Eisen has been assigned to other duties, Colonel. Orders from Confed. I now command this vessel." He stood in front of me and stuck his face one centimeter from mine. "ANY PROBLEMS WITH THAT?"
"No, sir," I squeaked. It looked like Screw Blair Week had been extended indefinitely.
Gant looked at Maniac, who shook his head. "No, sir. In fact, sir, if I may say, sir, it's a definite improvement in--"
Gant cut him off. "Good. I think we understand each other. To business, then. If I may direct your attention-- Gentlemen, perhaps you see something interesting above us?"
Dammit, I'd done it again. "Er, nothing, sir. Please continue."
"Hmph." He leaned over the holotank. "Confed Intel believes it has identified the military research lab that developed the weapon used on the Amadeus and the Annabel Lee. It is located in the Masa system."
Huh? That didn't sound right. "Er, Captain Gant, isn't it pretty unlikely that the Border Worlders would carry out their most secret weapons research so close to Confed territory? Surely they'd find a safer--"
"No one ever accused the Border Worlders of being geniuses, Colonel. In any case, this is our first chance to gather some solid evidence, and we must take it. Now the Third Fleet has gone in ahead of us and closed off the jump points to isolate Masa from reinforcements. As soon as we jump in, we launch our strike."
Gant paused for emphasis. "Gentlemen, Intel believes the Border Worlders will destroy the lab rather than let it fall into our hands. It is imperative that you prevent that."
"Leeches," said Maniac. "Maybe six, eight tops. Their main systems will be fried, including self-destruct mechanisms. The problem is..." He looked over at me.
Maniac might be reluctant to cross Gant, but I wasn't, not when innocent lives were at stake. "The problem is, Captain, that life support will also go out. The people on that station will die if we don't get the Marines aboard in time to restore minimal functions."
Captain Gant was unmoved. "Regrettable, but necessary, Colonel. The lander must stand out of sensor range until the lab is disabled, otherwise it may spook the BWs into self-destruct. Gentlemen, I'm confident you won't let the Confederation down."
Maniac and I snapped to attention and saluted. Gant returned our salutes with parade-ground precision. "Dismissed."
As I turned to go, Gant stopped me. "Oh, Colonel, would you remain behind for a moment?" Uh-oh.
I stood at ease in front of the Captain. "Sir?"
His question was casual, but I sensed danger. "Have you been talking with the Second Officer, Colonel?"
"Furst, sir?" Now why would he care if I was talking to Lt. Cmdr. Furst?
"Not First, dammit! Second!"
Seccent? "The First Officer, sir?" Damn, I wished he'd make up his mind.
"COLONEL, ARE YOU MOCKING ME?"
Why was he so pissed off? "No, sir. I-I guess I don't understand what you're asking." Please, just get me out of this, God, and I'll be good for a week!
"Maybe I can help you understand! You're restricted to quarters, except for missions, for the next twenty-four hours, so you can think about it!"
Oh no! Disch! "Er, sir, I have an appointment at the, uh, infirmary."
"Cancel it! Dammit, I've never served on a ship that had so many men on sick call! Dismissed!"
I got out of there as quickly as I could. I still didn't understand what he was trying to-- Vinny! That bastard had reported my conversation with Furst! Now why the hell didn't Gant want me talking with bridge officers?
I asked Lex to break the bad news to Disch; I'd be violating the terms of my confinement if I went myself. Since I'd be better off flying than brooding in my cabin, I headed for First Squadron's ready room to plan the mission with Maniac and Lt. Hedd, the Marine platoon leader.
I was determined to make it a bloodless operation. After debating various options for nearly half an hour, we finally came up with a workable plan. First, Second, and Fifth Squadrons would fake a strike at the defenses of Mesa, the second planet in the Masa system. Immediately after the spacelab detected and reported the strike, Hippie and I would take out their sensor and comm antennas, as if trying to cover the strike. Then we'd stand off until the lander arrived--covered by Third Squadron--which would be our cue to leech the station.
The whole plan depended on convincing the Border Worlders that Mesa, not the lab, was the real target--at least until it was too late to blow the lab. It was a risk, but one I was willing to take to save lives.
I huddled with Lt. Hedd. "Djar, I want you to draw as much life support gear as you can fit in the lander. As soon as you secure the lab, try to restore life support before grabbing any evidence."
"You bet, Colonel." Lt. Hedd wanted a clean operation as much as I did. "We won't lose anybody, not if I can help it."
"Good man." I hesitated. This wasn't strictly business, but... "Say, Djar, about that 'package' you retrieved from Tyr VII--is she as pretty as I've heard?"
Hedd assumed the expression of one who had seen God. "Colonel, there are no words to describe her. You'll just have to see for yourself. Unfortunately, the Captain's ordered her kept under guard. Not even the Intel guys can see her."
Shit. "Thanks, Djar. Better round up your men and equipment."
We jumped into Masa without incident. As promised, the jump point was firmly in Confed hands. The CAP launched first, followed by the long-range patrols. Hippie and I walked onto the flight deck as the last Longbow cleared the deck.
"Hey, Blair-dude, are you, like, sure you want us to go in with just leechies, man?" Hippie, usually cool as a drugged cucumber, was uneasy about our missile loadouts. "What if we gotta, like, shoot from the hip?"
I put a hand on his shoulder. "This will be a milk run. Trust me, Hippie."
He squinted at me. "Yeah, but aren't you, like, over thirty?"
I shook my head.
"Cool!" Relieved, Hippie walked to his fighter with a spring in his step. I hated to lie to the guy, but what can you expect from someone pushing forty?
Chief Rench and his crew were huddled next to my Hellcat. They didn't look very happy.
I held up my hand in a placating gesture. "Look, Monk, I'll try to take care--"
"Oh, that's OK, sir. We're just...uneasy about this mission. You see, Stu here is from the Border Worlds originally. And my sister married a pilot in the Border Worlds Militia. They live here in Masa."
"Monk, I don't like going against these guys any more than you do. That's why we're loaded with leeches, so nobody gets hurt. Now my guess is that the Marines won't find a damn thing on that station. Maybe then Intel will realize they're barking up the wrong tree, and we can go back to pirate hunting."
Sockette interrupted. "I hope you're right, sir. But we're running low on leech missiles. If we do end up flying more missions in Border World areas..."
I hesitated. If Intel was part of the terrorist conspiracy, as I was beginning to suspect... "Better requisition more, Sockette, just in case." On that gloomy note, I climbed up into my fighter.
"Station detected, Hippie. Let's go to full speed." Right on schedule. We just had a few minutes before they would spot our "strike" on Masa II.
"Man, we got some heavy dudes coming at us now!" Shit! Hippie was right. Two Avengers had just launched from the station. I prayed that was all the fighter cover they had. We had to save our missiles for the station itself.
"Ready to rock these guys, sir!" At least they hadn't dampened Hippie's enthusiasm.
"Break and attack, Hippie!" I targeted the fighter closest to me.
"Sure thing, dude!" My wingman split to port to give us both some fighting room.
OK, Blair, you can outfly a heavy, just don't go head to head. Lower gun energy--you don't want to kill him--and direct it to shield regen. Closer... Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Missile! Decoy! Decoy! Fire a couple of shots to distract him! Bang! Bang! He's firing, corkscrew! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy! Pull up! Whoopwho-- Hah! Missed!
Whoosh! He passed me! Roll right and pull! Yeah, he's turning, but I'm more maneuverable! I'm on his tail! Leech locking! Bam! Bam! Shit, I'm getting nailed by that damn mass driver in the tail! Dance, Blair, dance! Keep him in view, locking, locking...locked! Close the range! Launch! Dance...Splat! He's helpless! Whew, that wasn't so hard. Where's Hippie?
"Low-life zapped, sir!" All right! Hippie had pulled off a nearly identical maneuver, except that he had taken some armor hits forward. Guess he'd learned about the Avenger's stinger the hard way.
We reformed and zoomed in on the station to knock out its defenses. There were only two laser turrets, a circumstance which further convinced me that Intel was barking up the wrong tree. Surely a military lab would be better defended!
By now they must have spotted our decoy force. I checked the comm...yup, a frantic stream of coded messages was leaving the station. Hippie and I knocked out the sensor arrays first, then the comm antennas. I called in the lander and its Hellcat escort, then we moved out of visual range of the station.
Just before the lander came into visual range, Hippie and I afterburned back to the lab. We strafed it just enough to weaken a shield quadrant, then launched our leeches. One, two, three each... Yes! Power was out all over the lab.
Lt. Hedd came on the comm. "Thanks for clearing us a path, Colonel. We're moving in." The lander came in dangerously fast, but managed to dock smoothly.
I tuned in to the Marine command channel.
"Corridor secured, sir."
"Command center secured. No resistance. Seven prisoners."
"Medic to hangar bay."
"Electrical generator to the main lab."
So far it was going like clockwork.
A couple of BW Avengers showed up on our scopes, followed by two more. But we had a full Hellcat squadron covering the lander, and there was no way the BWs could get by us to destroy the station, if that was indeed their mission.
Finally we heard from Lt. Hedd. "This tin can's all ours, Colonel. We got the computer records and some lab equipment. No casualties--on either side."
"Good work, Lieutenant. Let's head for home."
We were nearly to the Lexington when Lt. Hedd called me on a tight beam.
"Sir, I think you're right about that not being a military lab. We didn't find any self-destruct mechanism, or even any weapons. They had a lot of plants growing in the labs, but no animals. All the prisoners we interrogated said it's an agro lab."
Hah! I was right. "Any hypersonic generators? Any modulated sonic equipment of any kind?"
"No sir. I'm no expert, but it looks like the equipment we captured and the data we downloaded were all related to gene-splicing."
"Thanks, Djar. Uh, we never had this conversation, OK?" I hated to act so paranoid, but by now I didn't trust anybody in Intel or at command level.
"What conversation, sir? Out." I brought up my comm recs and erased all traces of our talk. I hoped Hedd remembered to do the same.
"Need clearance, Lexington." Please, please be nursing your ear in your cabin, Vinny.
"Ah, Colonel." Shit! It was him, regen pack and all.
Dammit, I didn't have time for this vendetta, what with all the intrigue going on. Better make peace with him, Blair.
"Uh, look, Vinny. I'm sorry about that comm business, heh heh. What say we start fresh from here? OK?"
For a moment it actually looked like he was smiling. "Apology accepted, Colonel Blair. Peace it is. You have clearance."
Whew! That was one thing off my mind. I settled down to concentrate on my landing approach.
I came out of the final turn on a perfect approach path. If I didn't blow it, this would be my best landing of the tour so f--
"Colonel, important message." Vinny? He shouldn't be interrupting me at this crucial stage. I glanced at the comm screen.
POOF! A brilliant flash of static blasted from the screen! I was all but blinded! Desperately I tried to control my approach as afterimages danced on my retinas. Too late to abort, too late for autopilot, I had to ride her in!
SCREEEEEECH! My landing gear collapsed and I slid along the deck in a shower of sparks! As my vision improved marginally, I saw a parked Hellcat right in my path! Instantly I applied retros, bringing my fighter to a halt scant centimeters from the other ship. Whew!
I didn't wait for the emergency crew. I popped my canopy, tossed my helmet on the deck, and jumped down after it. This time I was going to beat that damn Garr into a bloody--
Somebody grabbed my arm. I whirled, ready to do battle. Nobody better get in my--uh-oh! The Landing Officer! Nominally, I outranked him, but in the area of landing safety, he was the final authority.
"Well, well, Colonel. Where did you learn to land Hellcats? KAMIKAZE SCHOOL? As soon as you're out of cabin arrest, report to me for twenty-five simulator landings!"
Dammit, I wasn't going to take the rap for something Garr did! "It wasn't my fault! Lieutenant Garr--"
"SILENCE! One more word out of you, and you'll do twenty-five more! Do I make myself clear?"
Shit. I was stuck. I turned my back on the son-of-a-bitch and strode off to the locker room with murder fantasies running through my mind.
Previews from Chapter 9:
"You smug carbon-based bastard!"
"Hey, Huckleberries! Knock knock!"
"I'm told Captain Gant has new orders for you. Maybe it'll be something you can handle."