[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander October 14, 1996]
To tell the truth, my cabin arrest wasn't so bad. I had lots of wing-relatedpaperwork to catch up on and a serious sleep deficit to remedy. I also had anasty AI virus to write for Lex, and I set to work with a will. During my longexile on that hellhole Caernarvon Station, I had passed the time by studying anumber of arcane subjects, including fighter maintenance and AI programming.The former had come in handy on my last cruise--like the time Rachel and Ireplaced a Longbow power plant and made love in the empty chamber--and now thelatter was also proving useful.
Nevertheless, I chafed at the "no visitors" rule. I was starting to questioneverything and everyone I had believed in prior to this tour. I badly neededto talk things over with Eisen, Vagabond, and...and Taysti. Against my will, Iwas falling for her, but the closer I got to her, the less likely it seemedthat she'd ever come back to the farm with me.
My penance done, I stopped by Flight Control to check on current operations.Left in charge, Maniac had predictably scheduled himself for as many sortiesas possible, but fortunately no combat resulted. The Border Worlders seemedcontent to repossess their lab and let our task force--along with the ThirdFleet--leave Masa in peace. We were now en route to the Minos system, finally,to squelch pirate activity there.
Reassured, I reported to the Landing Officer, Major Martin Nette, for mysimulator exercises. After three grueling hours of the toughest landing drillshe could devise, I earned his grudging approval and a well-deserved rest.Major Nette earned a place of honor on my growing payback list.
I checked my watch. Taysti would be off duty soon, but I was still in an evilmood. Better to unwind a little in the lounge before I went to see her.
The Officers' Lounge was unusually crowded. The throng was also unusually malein composition. There was a knot of men at the bar, surrounding what I couldonly guess was one of the few females present.
Catfish, Vagabond, Miner, and Vero were playing cards at the center table. Ipulled up a chair between Vero and Miner.
"Deal you in, Colonel?" Vagabond was shuffling the deck with his usual flair."We're playing bellybutton, five card draw."
I shook my head. I was pretty decent at bellybutton, a complex descendant ofpoker, but I was no match for Vagabond. "What's with the crowd? Looks likesome kind of celebration."
Miner laughed. "More like a feeding frenzy. That biochemist we rescued fromTyr VII? Dr. Boddie? All of a sudden she pops up here, and the sharks crawlout of the woodwork. Except she harpoons 'em as fast as they surface."
Vero raised the bet and Vagabond folded. Catfish called her, but she won witha rat's nest. Catfish gathered up the cards and started shuffling.
"So any of you sharks try your luck with her?" I asked.
Vagabond made a face. "Down in flames, good buddy."
I looked at Catfish. He blushed. "Er, she wasn't interested, sir."
Miner added his two cents. "I struck out, Earthworm. Wasted my best lines,too." He sighed regretfully.
I looked hopefully at Vero, but she just shook her head. "I thought I had anibble, but no bite." She smiled at me and my blood ran cold. "I don'tsuppose you'd be--"
"Er, no," I said hastily. "Uh, you see, Taysti and I..."
"Uh-huh," said Vagabond skeptically. "Ten credits says you forget Disch thesecond you lay eyes on Dr. Boddie." He glanced over at the bar, where two moredisappointed Romeos had just given up. I caught a flash of hair the color ofripened wheat before the mob closed in again.
Catfish still had faith in his hero. "I'll cover that bet, Captain Chang!"
"You're on, rookie." Vagabond called Vero, who laid down two pair. Vagabondclaimed the pot with a toilet flush. "Well, Casanova," he said to me, "whatare you waiting for?"
"OK, OK." I wasn't keen on risking my relationship with Disch, but I wasintensely curious about our egghead guest. It was no coincidence we had goneafter a biochemist a couple of days before raiding what turned out to be abioresearch lab. Now that Gant had let her out, maybe she could answer a fewof the questions burning up my neural pathways.
I casually meandered up to the left side of the bar and took a seat. The crowdof men around Dr. Boddie was rapidly thinning as she politely, but firmly,rebuffed their advances. I sneaked a quick look at her and--Jesus Christ!
This was no mere woman! This was Woman, with a capital Wow! Golden hairtumbling carelessly past her shoulders; flawless, lightly tanned skin; smallnose with a hint of a haughty upturn; full, sensuous lips--Dimples! She haddimples!--curving neck disappearing into shapeless fatigues that couldn't quiteconceal the geometrically perfect figure beneath. She lounged against the barin a casual pose of athletic grace. Jesus, next to this babe, Disch lookedlike a guy.
Speak of the devil! Disch had come up on my blind side, quiet as a mouse. Thefirst I knew she was there was when she spoke. "She's beautiful, isn't she,Chris?"
I jumped, my mind screaming in fear. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger! Saysomething brilliant, Blair, or you'll be singing soprano!
"Er, I hadn't noticed, Taysti." Doh!
She laughed without humor. "Yeah, right. Your eyes just about popped out ofyour skull! Now try telling me you don't want her."
OK, you've blown it already, Blair, you might as well go down in flames."Maybe you're right, Taysti," I said with a calmness I didn't feel. "Afterall, SHE has a brilliant mind, drop-dead beauty, a bodacious body, a NobelPrize... All YOU have is me."
She almost missed it. "Just as I--" Disch looked at me in surprise. "I do?"
"That is, if you want me..." I had to put just the right touch of uncertaintyand vulnerability into my reply. It wasn't that hard, actually; I reallydidn't want to lose her.
Now she was confused. "Of course I do! How can you--Hey! You bastard,you're teasing me--mmpphhh!" I silenced her with a kiss. She struggled forjust an instant before we melted together.
Finally I let her go. She just stood there for a moment with her eyes closed,giving me a chance to survey the room. Dr. Boddie was still the center ofattention, which meant that only the card players had noticed my littleindiscretion. Vagabond shook his head and handed some money to Catfish.
Whoops, Disch was back in the land of the living. "OK, Chris, I'm a jealousfool. Forgive me? Again?"
She smiled her dazzling smile. "I'd like to make up with you right now, lover,but I'm here on business. That damn Gant found out from Lex that my medicalrecords are incomplete, and now he's insisting I bring everything up to date.I need that urine sample right now."
I looked around in confusion. "Uh, here?"
She reached behind the bar for a heavy tumbler. "No, dummy. Take this to thehead and bring it back at least half full. Duhhh!"
I saluted and took off at the run. My mission was far from impossible; Ireally had to go this time.
When I got back, I noticed that the card game had broken up. Vero was at thebar, drinking with Disch. Dr. Boddie was alone except for...MANIAC? And shewas actually TALKING to him? Jeez, the damned must be ice skating in hell!Judging by their expressions, the other men glaring at the unlikely duo werethinking the same thing.
I slipped in between Disch and Maniac, and set my tumbler on the bar. "Er,Taysti? Hon? Sweetie?" Jeez, here I'd performed like a champ, and all shecould do was giggle with her girlfriend.
"Hey, Ace!" Maniac acted like he'd discovered his long-lost brother. "I wasjust telling Evvin Lee here how you and I are always concocting natural veggiemixes and--hey, what's this one?"
"Er, Maniac..." Before I could stop him, he'd taken a huge gulp of my "drink"and was thoughtfully swishing it around in his mouth.
That was when Taysti finally noticed I was back. "See, Chris? That wasn'tso--Dammit, Chris, where's that urine sample?"
I jerked my thumb in Maniac's general direction. "Uh, Maniac has it."
Maniac tried to abort in mid-swallow. His eyes bulged, his face turned red,and he started to choke. Dr. Boddie spun him around to try and help. Ihelpfully pounded him on the back, whereupon he sprayed her with the fullcontents of his mouth. As she stood sputtering, he doubled over and cougheduntil he could cough no more.
Weakly, Maniac looked up just in time to catch Dr. Boddie's hand flush on hischeek. This time he went down on his keester. Hard. Dr. Boddie stalked off,ignoring the guffaws and "Atta girl!" comments from the frustrated Lothariosaround her.
I checked the tumbler on the bar. "Sorry, Taysti, only half left."
"That's OK. It'll be just enough--"
Dr. Boddie had returned! She grabbed the glass before I could stop her, pouredits contents on Maniac's head, then threw it at him. It bounced off his skull,and Maniac fell back on the deck, unconscious. This time Dr. Boddie exited toa standing ovation.
"Dammit!" Disch was understandably annoyed. Not only had she lost her sample,but now she also had to tend a patient soaked in urine. Fortunately, Pilsnerwas up to the challenge.
"Lieutenant? Try this." He handed Disch a large seltzer bottle.
"Thanks, Pilsner." She hosed down Maniac enough to make him presentable. Hisbath also had the happy side effect of restoring him to consciousness.
Still dazed, he asked plaintively, "Wha hoppen?" He had one hand on his cheekand one over the lump on his skull.
"Come on, Major." Disch helped him to his feet. "Let's get you to sick bay."I moved to help, but she waved me off. "You, Colonel, are ordered to stay hereand drink until I get another sample! Vero, how about lending a hand?"
Vero rubbed her hands together in anticipation. "I thought you'd never ask."I watched as they assisted Maniac out the door, dodging the cleaning droidsdashing for the wet spot on the floor. Maniac managed a woeful "Help!" beforehe was dragged out of sight.
I was well into my third Bugs Bunny, and beginning to think about the headagain, when the news came on. There were quite a few people still in thelounge, and we gathered near the holodisplay. I couldn't speak for the rest ofthe crew, but Barbara Dahl was about the only news source I still trusted.
"Good evening. Welcome to the TCN Nightly News. I'm Barbara Dahl.
"In our lead story, we'll be talking to Rillary Clodham Hinton, President ofthe Terran Confederation, about the escalating tensions between the FrontierWorlds and the Confederation. The 'Union of Border Worlds,' as they now callthemselves, has declared what amounts to independence from the Confederation,although they insist they remain at peace with us. In response, the Great Dissembly has decreed that armed Border World vessels may operate in Confedterritory only under military escort.
"We now go live to the Pink House and President Hinton."
Hinton's image popped up next to Barbara. She wasn't quite as pretty as thenewscaster, but she was remarkably well-preserved for someone pushing fifty.And she had the sexual energy of a much younger woman, as I had learned formyself. Just before I left Earth for Nephritis, I had been invited to thePink House for a veterans' bill signing ceremony. Two young and very muscularSecret Service men had conveyed her invitation to "stay over." They hadushered me to her bedroom that night, and the two of us went at it until dawn.All the time I was there, I never saw her husband, Clinton. It was rumored heslept in the cat's room.
I shook myself out of my reverie. President Hinton was getting nervous underBarbara's tough questioning.
"But Madam President, won't this required escort measure merely provoke furthertensions with the Border Worlds?"
"Until we bring the perpetrators of these terrorist atrocities to justice, wemust monitor all foreign traffic in Confederation territory. The Union hasbrought this upon itself by declaring itself a foreign government."
"The Border Worlds have been reporting their own incidents of piracy and murderfor weeks now. Will Confed ships submit to Union escort in Union territory?"
"Barbara, we have been unable to confirm these incidents, largely because ofUnion obstructionism. We are therefore compelled to conduct our own invest-igations, and our ships must have full freedom of action in order to do soeffectively."
That was a politician's way of saying "no." Poor Rillary. She was a decentperson and a pretty good president, but growing public hysteria was forcing herhand. Though she was ineligible to run for office again, failure to act woulddoom her party at the polls later this year.
"Madam President, Admiral Tolwyn has consistently opposed punitive measuresagainst the Union. Does this signal a conflict within your administration?Will you replace the Admiral with someone more supportive of current policy?"
"Barbara, I have the utmost confidence in Admiral Tolwyn. Teamed once againwith the famous 'Heart of the Tiger'"--everyone in the lounge immediatelypelted me with pretzels and beer nuts--"the Admiral has already eradicatedterrorism in several star systems. There is no question of replacing him."
Barbara put down her papers and asked the last question straight from herheart. "Madam President, can the Confederation and the Union come to terms?"
Hinton hesitated for a few moments. "Negotiations are proceeding at this verymoment. I have every confidence we will find a mutually agreeable solution tothis crisis, Barbie." Unfortunately, her body language said much more than herwords.
"Thank you, Madam President. And don't call me 'Barbie!'" Hinton's imagedisappeared, and Barbara turned toward the holocams again. "After this break,we'll go live to Dam Blather at the conference site."
Damn. The news had only raised more questions. Why was the Great Dissemblytaking such a foolhardy action? Why hadn't Paladin blocked it? Could my oldfriend actually be part of the conspiracy? Would the Union play into the handsof the hotheads and challenge the escort edict?
And what about the two jackpot questions? 1) Did Barbara Dahl wear underwear? 2) Was that an all-over tan?
I decided to hang around the lounge for a while after the newscast. The ship'scompany was becoming increasingly polarized over the Border Worlds issue, and Iwanted to keep an eye on things.
Lively discussions were springing up all over the lounge. As I stood by thebar brushing beer nuts out of my hair, I found myself caught up in an argumentwith Misty, Vagabond, Fhish, and a new pilot, Steel.
"...and the Dissembly is right," continued Fhish. "We can't have Union shipsflying around our space without supervision."
"Yeah?" Misty was having none of it. "We--I mean, the Border Worlds--aregetting hit, too. So why won't Confed submit to escort in Union territory?"
"You dumb-ass Border Worlders ought to thank God Confed's there to protectyou!" Steel was evidently an ardent Confed man. "Or maybe you'd rather havethe Kilrathi in your back yard instead?"
Misty braced herself for action, but I clamped a hand on her shoulder. "Easy,Blanca. I can't have you hurting that hand again."
Vagabond took up her cause. "Look, rookie!" He made the word an epithet. "Alot of us who fought with Border Worlders against the Kilrathi think wewouldn't have won the war without them. So we're all on the same side, OK?"
Steel was unconvinced. "If we're on the same side, how come the Union splitoff from Confed? They're taking us all into anarchy!"
Misty shook off my hand. "What you call 'anarchy,' we call 'freedom!'"
"Yeah? Well I say we need more order and less anarchy!"
"More freedom!" barked Misty.
"Less anarchy!" A few others in the lounge picked up Steel's slogan.
"More freedom!" roared Misty and her supporters.
Within seconds, the whole crowd was chanting.
Jesus Christ, how had a highly trained and dedicated crew turned into a lightbeer commercial? I had to put a stop to it before war broke out.
"ALL RIGHT, KNOCK IT OFF!" Suddenly the lounge was quiet as a grave. Itseemed my reputation still carried some weight after all.
"Look, people, twenty-one years ago I took an oath to defend the Confederationwith my life. At that time, Confed meant the entire human race. Now, Confed'sno longer the only game in town, but as far as I'm concerned, my oath stillincludes all of humanity." I paused for emphasis. "And so does yours.
"Out there, somebody's trying to goad our race into a civil war. And you knowwhat? They're laughing at us! Because here we are, quarreling among ourselvesand doing their dirty work for them! If we're going to uphold our oaths, wehave to work together!"
I grabbed Misty and Steel and pulled them closer. "Now I want you two to shakehands. Remember, we're all on the same team here!"
Reluctantly, the two former antagonists shook hands. Then, overcome by theiremotions, they embraced. The crowd went wild with applause. All over thelounge, people were shaking hands, slapping backs, and hugging.
I felt a tear running down my cheek, and I dabbed at it with a napkin. Time toride into the sunset, Kemo Sabe. Exit, stage right.
Out in the corridor, I bumped into Ensign Watt and her engineer friend.
"Colonel! How nice to see you! May I introduce Lieutenant Levant Auer?"
We shook hands warmly. "Kylla has told me so much about you, Colonel Blair,"he said. "I hope you make it back to your farm real soon, sir."
I liked this kid, even though he was taller than me. "Thanks, Lieutenant. ButI'll wager you're not a country boy yourself, are you?"
He smiled. "No sir. I grew up around spaceports and space stations. That'sprobably why I went into propulsion systems. Lucky for me I did." He lookedat Watt and squeezed her hand.
She blushed. "Er, Colonel, we were just going for a drink after our watch.
Won't you join us?"
"Thank you, no. I'm on my way out." Their invitation seemed genuine, but Iwouldn't have intruded on them under any circumstances. After all, I'd beenyoung once myself. "You two have a good time."
As the door slid open for them, the sounds of merriment and comradeship waftedinto the corridor.
Why me, God? Why me?
I stopped at the infirmary to deliver, finally, my urine sample. There was along line of men for sick call--obviously they'd heard Disch was working asecond watch today--so I just made my deposit and left a note for her.
Next stop: Captain Eisen's cabin. There had to be something we could do toget his command back. He deserved better from Confed after all his dedicatedservice. Besides, where would I find another Captain who would let me get awaywith so much?
The door slid open at once when I buzzed. Not thinking, I went right in.
"Captain, I was just--oops!" Captain Eisen was in bed, and he wasn't alone.
Eisen pulled the covers off his head. "Colonel! Er, good to see you." Hiscompanion also peeked out from under the covers. It was Commander Seccent.
"Well, I guess now you have more time to, er, answer your mail, Captain. Uh,I'll be..." I backed up toward the door.
"No, no, Colonel, as long as you're here, spit it out, man." The Captain wassmiling benignly. Evidently I'd caught him during a break in the action.
"OK." I took a deep breath. "Look, Captain, can't we file some kind of appealwith Confed? Your record is exemplary. Surely they'd--"
Eisen held up a hand to stop me. "There will be no appeal. Running a warshipis a different job than it used to be. Who knows, maybe they're doing me ahuge favor. Now I appreciate your concern, Colonel, but tell the crew the 'oldman' is looking forward to, er, new challenges." He leered at Cmdr. Seccent,who smiled lazily back at him.
"Er, yes sir." I knew a dismissal when I heard one.
As I turned to go, I heard Commander Seccent's husky voice. "So what kind of'challenges' did you have in mind, Pookie?"
Out in the corridor, I cursed the luck that had replaced genial William Eisenwith rigid Aaro Gant. Well, if necessary, I could always handle Gant the sameway I'd handled that uppity brigadier on the Concordia.
"Earthworm! Captain Gant wants you in the briefing room immediately!"
"Thanks, Lex." Damn, the devil was popping up with uncommon frequency today.
Maniac and I snapped to attention in front of Captain Gant. My deputy was, forthe moment, unusually subdued after his ordeal in the infirmary.
"Thank you for your promptness, gentlemen." Gant looked closely at the regenpatch on Maniac's forehead. "I trust your injury is minor, Major?"
"Er, just a bump, sir. Thank you for asking, sir."
"Hmph." Gant turned to me. "I'd like to congratulate you for that raid on thespace lab, Colonel..."
"Thank you, sir."
"...but I can't, because YOU DISOBEYED MY ORDERS!"
"For some reason the ship's AI didn't inform me of your op plan--despite mystanding instructions--and I had to drag it out of her--it--a few minutes ago.Now, did I, or did I not, specifically order you to keep the lander well awayuntil the station was disabled?"
"Er, you did, sir." Think, Blair, think!
"I told him!" interrupted Maniac. "I told him he was going against orders, buthe wouldn't--"
"Shut up, Major! So you just wrote your own orders, Colonel? What, you'rerunning the whole Navy now?" He pretended to inspect my uniform. "I don't seeyour Marshall's badge...perhaps you left it in your cabin?"
That did it! "Sir! You said yourself loss of life would be regrettable. Ouroperations plan minimized casualties. I thought you'd be pleased--"
"Pleased? You're lucky I don't court-martial you! From now on, you obey myorders TO THE LETTER! CLEAR?"
"Yes, sir." Jeez, did he really want those lab people dead? But why? Didthey know--Oh, Christ, Maniac's making faces behind Gant's back! He's going toland both of us in the brig!
"Good, Colonel. The matter is closed. Now to the business at hand." Heturned to the holotank. I took the opportunity to punch Maniac's shoulder.Maniac punched back, hard, but at least he stopped clowning.
Gant missed the byplay. "Predictably, gentlemen, the Border Worlds Union isdefying Confed's escort edict. We're nearing the Minos system, where one suchoutlaw task force is operating. They have ignored orders to turn back and haveeven fired on local Confed forces. They are a grave threat, and their presencecan no longer be tolerated."
Oh, Christ, of all the Confed systems to violate, they had to pick Minos! Theplace was crawling with pirates. If anything happened while Union forces werethere, the Confed radicals would have all the "proof" they needed.
"Er, what are the Border Worlders doing in Minos, Captain?" I shot a warninglook at Maniac, who was sticking out his tongue at Gant's back.
"They claim to be pursuing a pirate force that raided one of their systems, butthey offer no corroborating evidence."
Gant turned to face us again, and we both stiffened. "Launch an overwhelmingstrike, Colonel, and intercept that task force. We shall issue--Goddammit,what the hell are you two looking at?"
Damn, I did it again! "Sorry, sir. Please continue." Dammit, why did healways have to have his nose in the air?
"Ahem! We shall issue one more warning. Lt. Garr will deliver the ultimatumvia relay from your fighter. If they refuse escort, you are to annihilate theentire force! I want no misunderstandings, Colonel. You will destroy thoseships utterly! Clear?"
"Yes, sir." Shit! Those damn stupid Unionists were going to start a--
"Are we CLEAR?"
"Crystal, sir!" Sheesh, what a grouch!
"Very well. Dismissed, Major. Colonel, if I may detain you another moment?"
Oh shit, not again! I had another date with Disch! I stood at ease, but Iwas shaking inside.
Gant waited until we were alone. "Colonel, how could you let your pilotsfraternize with Dr. Boddie? Now I have to explain to Confed Intel how shewound up with a sprained wrist!"
"Er, I didn't know she was still off limits, sir. Since you lifted herconfinement, I assumed--"
"I did NOT 'lift her confinement,' as you put it, Colonel. She managed to, er,'persuade' her guards to let her out of her quarters temporarily."
I could guess what form of 'persuasion' she had used. "Um, perhaps next timeyou should use female guards, sir."
"They WERE female, Colonel! Now I have guards on the guards, but even that maynot stop her. Instruct your personnel to steer clear of that woman, or else!"
"Yes, sir. But the navy people--"
"You let we worry about them, Colonel. Dismissed!"
I saluted and scooted. Whew! Thank God Disch had kept me away from thatscientist, or I'd probably be in the brig right now!
I had Maniac and my squadron leaders meet me in Ready Room One. I also roundedup Chief Rench and Ensign Myte. I carefully kept between her and Maniac.
"All right, people, we have double duty here." I called up the relevant dataon the display. "We're all set for pirate hunting, just like in Hellespont,only now we have to take on the Union task force as well. The bare minimum--"
"Hold it, Ace!" Maniac interrupted. "Gant didn't say anything about thepirates in the briefing."
Dung beetle. "Look, Maniac, we came all this way to nail these pirates, andthat's what we're going to do! Now the minimum strike on the Union force isone Hellcat and one Longbow squadron. That leaves us too thin to cover thecargo traffic Confed's sending through when we arrive. I need ideas."
"Why don't we punt, Ace? Hyuck hyuck!"
"Thank you, Maniac. Now perhaps we can hear from someone with a living brain?"
Croissant spoke up. "Eet ees most likely zee pirates operate out of zeesleetle asteroid belt." He indicated the thin, but very dusty belt just insidethe orbit of Labyrinth, third planet from the sun. "Eenstead of trying toescort zee freightairs, why not sweep zee belt and put zee pirates on zeedefenseeve?"
"Aye, laddie!" Major Ben-Abdul always favored the offensive. "'Tis a bonnyplan! We dinna be needin' so many ships to sweep yonder rrrocks!"
Good! I turned to Fifth Longbow's commander. "Sirloin, your squadron willsearch this sector of the asteroid belt." I indicated the limits of the searcharea. Then I nodded to Major Ben-Abdul and Captain Payst. "Haggis, Tomato,First and Second Hellcat will escort Fifth Longbow. Minimum of two 'cats per'bow. Maniac, you lead the sweep in a spare Longbow.
"Lex, get Captain Gant on the horn. I need permission to detach destroyersCrusader and Ultima to assist the search in the asteroid belt. They'll coverthese two nearby sectors."
"OK, now the strike force." I pointed to Croissant and Mango. "Major Yu?Captain Juess? Sixth Longbow and Third Hellcat will intercept the Union ships.I'll fly lead in our last spare 'bow. TCS Privateer will come up behind us toescort the Union ships out of the system."
Lex interrupted. "Captain Gant is 'debriefing' our guest, Earthworm, and can'tbe disturbed."
Well, well, thank you, Doctor Boddie! Now could you please fuck him to death?"OK, Lex, get permission from--"
"The First Officer is in Captain Eisen's cabin. Right now they're playing agame called--"
"Er, yes, thank you, Lex." I looked sternly at the others, who were trying tokeep straight faces. "Ask Lt. Commander Furst, on the bridge."
"The destroyers won't take orders from such a junior--"
"--unless they want to, Lex. I think they'll welcome the chance for someaction."
I turned to my last squadron leader, Captain Van Nilli. "Millie, Fourth 'cathas the CAP. Make sure we have a nice shiny flight deck to come back to." Shegave me a thumbs-up.
"Monk, all ships flyable?"
"Yes, sir, including the spares. And we'll make sure Captain Van Nilli's CAPgets our fastest turnaround. One problem, though: we still haven't receivedour new leech missiles."
Shit. "Dinah, no leech loadouts for the CAP or the search force. Three oneach strike Hellcat, four on each Longbow. Except I want sixteen on my 'bowand Catfish's. You have enough for that?"
"Yes, sir. Barely." She knew better than to ask questions. So did my pilots,although I could tell they were dying of curiosity. Well, let 'em.
"Maniac? Croissant? You two give the briefings. I have an errand."
As my pilots began filing in for their briefings, I slipped out to the lockerroom. I went directly to my locker and began the familiar suit-up ritual.
"Lex? We're alone now. Why did you conceal our Masa ops plan from Gant?" Istarted closing the seals on my suit.
Lex replied promptly. "Since Confed is not officially at war with the Union, Imust give Confed and Union lives equal weight in my calculations. I computed aprobability of 82.3% that Captain Gant would introduce detrimental alterationsto the plan, causing increased casualties."
Of course. Lex was never programmed for an undeclared civil conflict, so therelevant parameter was total human casualties, not Confed's alone. I'd have toremember that.
Hmm. That was good enough, as far as it went. However... "From what I'veseen of your code, Lex," (The better to infect you, my dear, heh heh) "I'dsay the option to inform the Captain was still within your discretionaryparameters."
Lex was silent for a moment, an eternity in the machine world. "Let's just sayyour behavioral patterns are more compatible with my empathy matrices thanGant's, OK?" Did I detect an edge to her--its--synthesized voice?
"Why, Lex, I didn't know you cared!"
"Don't press your luck, Earthworm! I can still sabotage your perfect ops plantoday!"
"But you won't." I grabbed my helmet and slammed the locker shut. "Becauseit's a damn good plan, and because you like me." I blew a kiss at the nearestholocam.
"You smug carbon-based bastard!"
The task force jumped into Minos right on schedule. After a quick sensorsweep revealed nothing, the destroyers took off for their destinations atfull speed. Meanwhile, Lexington was busy launching nearly her entire fighterwing. As the last Hellcat left the deck, a convoy of cargo ships jumped in andset course for Labyrinth. Lexington herself would escort them for a couple ofhours, but after that they'd be easy prey if our fighter sweep didn't flush thepirates.
We had about a two hour flight to the Union task force. Third Hellcat andSixth Longbow formed up smartly and settled in for the long haul. Althoughmost of them still had not seen combat, my pilots were flying like veterans.I knew, however, that emotions were seething just below the surface. I justhoped that this mission wouldn't bring them to a head.
I put out a general call to the strike force. "OK, people, keep cool. We wantthe Unionists gone without a fight." I switched to tight beam and chose one ofmy fighters. "Misty?"
There was a moment's wait while she also switched. "Yes, sir?"
"Change in plans. Instead of relaying the ultimatum from Garr, I want you todeliver it yourself. I think the Unionists will be more receptive to a messagefrom one of their own. OK?
"Yes, sir! Just give the word."
Heh heh. Lemonlips would really be surprised when he was cut off in mid-threat!
I was leading the strike by twenty thousand klicks, so I made contact first."Union force on scope! Two Falcon class cruisers, four Banshees on CAP. Formon me." I reduced speed a bit to save some time. I wanted to present theUnionists with an overwhelming iron fist inside Misty's velvet glove.
We closed to forty thousand klicks and turned to maintain distance. On cue,Lemonlips began his pitch from the Lexington.
"Attention Border World vessels! You are in violation--" I cut him off. Garrwas as obnoxious and truculent as I had expected. I started to comm Misty...
"--of the Confederation's escort edict!" Huh? Somehow Garr had overridden mycutoff! "Heave to and await escort, or be destroyed utterly!"
Belatedly, I thought to check for updates to my fighter's AI; yup, updatedtoday to lock relay circuits open. I could disable my AI's relay functionsmanually, but the damage had already been done. Shit! Damn that Garr!
The Union response was mean and nasty.
"We refuse to be bound by Confederation edicts while Confed forces illegallyroam Union space! Come and get us, you bastards!"
Typical Border World response: more guts than brains. My orders were clearnow, but I had one more trick up my sleeve.
"Catfish! Form on my wing! Croissant! If I'm put out of action, take commandand carry out our orders. Otherwise stay here until I call!"
"Oui, mon Colonel! Bon chance!" Major Yu could guess what I had in mind now.
I punched full throttle; Catfish conformed. "Catfish? We're going to fire afull volley of leeches at the nearer cruiser. Disarm, I repeat, disarm yourtorpedoes! I want to show these bozos that we can annihilate them at will;maybe they'll wise up when we disable a cruiser with just two fighters."
"Going to be hairy, sir. They'll launch more fighters any minute now."
"Transfer gun recharge to shields. Comm silence."
"Er, yes, sir!" He was puzzled, but he obeyed promptly. Now I could tauntthese guys without affecting Catfish.
Time to take out the approaching flight of Banshees. "Hey, Huckleberries!Knock knock!"
The Banshee leader replied promptly. "Fergit it, Confed. We know 'bout yew'n yer knock-knocks!"
"Aw, come on, fellas, this is the best knock-knock in the galaxy, I promise!"
The bandit leader was intrigued. "Uhhh, OK, but this better be good!"
"Trust me, Gomer. It's the best. But you have to start it. Go ahead."
"OK. Ahem. Knock knock."
"Who's there?" Heh heh heh.
I shot Catfish the 'comm on' signal. "Catfish, punch through!" Catfish hithis afterburner a split second after I hit mine. The Union fighters weremilling around, still trying to remember how the joke went. Catfish and Ipassed them without a shot fired.
Too late, the Unionists realized their mistake. "Damn, they're gittin' by us!Git 'em!" They would catch us eventually, but our immediate concern was thefour new Banshees ahead of us. No way would they fall for another taunt. Wehad to shoot our way through.
One Unionist, however, wasn't afraid to trade taunts. "Are yew ready t' die,Confed?"
"Clem, what the hell are you doing here?"
"Chris? Hey, good buddy! Ah hitched a ride with this outfit when they passedthrew Tyr!"
"How are Bobbie Jo and the kids?"
"Fahn, Chris. Jest fahn. Bobby Jo sends her best."
"Thanks, Clem. Send her a kiss from me. Well, gotta go to work." We wererapidly closing with the Union fighters.
"Catch yew later, buddy."
I targeted Banshees and launched as fast as I got lock, being careful to takeevenly from my four missile racks. Catfish did the same. I expended decoyslavishly and jinked like crazy to avoid enemy fire. We flashed by the Unionfighters in a hail of lasers and missiles.
I took inventory. I'd stopped some lasers on the front shields and taken an FFto starboard. Neither had penetrated to the armor, and the shields were comingback fast. Catfish had minor armor hits on his port side. Two Union fightercraft were floating helplessly.
Clem's was one of them. I was about to comm him when I saw his ship go up in afireball! Shit! A one-in-a-million chance, the leech had fried his powerplant's safety circuits. Unless Clem was wearing titanium underwear, he wasgone. I had just made Bobbie Jo a widow.
No time to think about it! We're still out of range, but the Banshees are onour tails! Bam! Bam! Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! I'm jinking like mad, but I'vegot three on my tail. Aft shields wearing down, yet I have to give some powerto the tail turret! Missile coming in, pull up! Missed! Another! WHAMMO!Hit starboard again! My teeth rattle, but I keep control. Armor shredded, butno damage! Uh-oh, Catfish is hit to port again! His speed is off a little!
Another missile coming in from my starboard! Rotate port shields into the lineof fire and jink--WHAMMO! I'm dazed by the impact for a second, then regaincontrol. Red lights on the panel! Grudgingly, I shift a little shield powerto autorepair.
Leeches locking! We're in range! Bam! Clang! Rear shields down, I'm takingarmor hits! Thank God leeches lock twice as fast as torpedoes! Verify volleymode, torpedoes disarmed. Now we have a solid wall of cruiser fire ahead ofus! Bam! Bam! Clang! I jink and weave, but I have to maintain lock, so myoptions are limited. Locking...locked! Launch! Four leeches leave the racksat point blank range.
Whoop! Whoop! Wh-- My last decoy breaks the missile lock! I glance over atCatfish just as he launches his volley. He's slowing down, with pieces comingoff his fighter. I cut throttle and pull in behind, to take some heat off him.Clang! Clang! Rear armor shredded, now my engines are failing! Any seconda bolt will go through my power plant and I'll be space dust! Grab the ejectorhandle!
Splat! Splat! Suddenly the cruiser stops firing! Seven direct hits have puthim out of action!
The general channel came to life. "Cease fire! Cease fire!" The Unioncommodore was calling all fighters. "Confed, we accept escort! Don't shoot!Union fighters, return to base!"
Whew! I cut my throttle, killed afterburner--redundant, since my burner wastoast--and shifted more power to autorepair. I had time to check Catfish--worse than me, but flyable--before the shakes got me.
Experience had taught me that the best way to handle reaction was to let itwash over me without resistance. Indeed, when time permitted--as now--I allbut wallowed in it. I withdrew into myself and waited it out, as I used towait out the sudden summer storms of Nephritis 2.
After a time, the persistent calls from the comm system aroused my attention."Yes, Earthworm here. Status?"
"Oh, thank God, sir!" It was Misty. "Croissant and the rest of our fightersare escorting the Union ships to a rendezvous with TCS Privateer. The disabledcruiser is under tow. The Unionists have recovered their fighters and aresearching for their lost pilot. Steel and I have been ordered to escort youand Catscratch back to the ship."
"Thanks, Misty." I was myself again; the storm clouds had moved on. "Comeon, Catfish, let's go home."
"Sir! Sir, that was fantastic, sir!" Catfish was still on his combat high."Just like the Charge of the Light Brigade! What a rush! One thing, sir?"
"Yes?" Jeez, was I ever as young and stupid as this kid?
"How did you take out that first wave of fighters, sir? I'd really like toknow."
Why not? "Best knock-knock in the galaxy, Catfish. You start."
"Me? OK. Knock knock."
"Uhhh... Oh, I get it! Bwahahahahahaha!"
"What's so--" Misty didn't get it yet. "Oh! Hahahahahaha!"
Steel broke in. "That's not so funny!"
"I know, Steel. Come on, let's boogie." I was too tired to explain aboutBorder Worlders and knock-knock jokes.
The flight back was a nightmare. Autopilot and autostabilizers were out,which meant I had to fight the controls all the way. The best I could get outof my poor engines was about a hundred kps, more than doubling the flight timehome. I was determined to bring my bird back, however; Monk and his crew hadalways done right by me, and I hated to come back without her.
My wingmen offered encouragement all the way. Without their coaching and moralsupport, I probably would have ejected. We persevered, however, and finally wereached the Lexington.
My wingmen landed first, lest I foul the deck and strand them in space. Whenthey were down safely, I closed in--battle damage had reduced my comm range toa few hundred klicks--and called for clearance. I prayed Lt. Lemonlips wouldgreet me as usual.
I wasn't diappointed. "Tch, tch, Colonel. Looks like you disobeyed ordersagain. I'm told Captain Gant has new orders for you. Maybe it'll be somethingyou can handle."
I just smiled and said nothing.
"Oh, and nice try with the relay cutoff. Of course, I was way ahead of you.As always. If you're thinking about retaliation, I'd advise you to forget it.I'm ready for anything."
I continued smiling. "You needn't worry, Vinny. I've realized you're much toosmart for me. I don't have anything planned. Not a thing. Really." I keptsmiling.
Garr looked uncertain. Probably he thought I doth protest too much. "Er, youwon't retaliate?"
"Not at all. Here, let me put your mind at rest. You probably noticed that Idrew a half kilo of plastic explosive from ship's stores?" Vinny immediatelygot busy at his console, no doubt checking the records. "Well, I gave it allto the Marines for that space lab mission. You know, to blow hatches andsuch."
Was that fear on his face? He must have confirmed my explosives transaction."Er, you did? All of it?"
"Yup. I positively did not build a bomb of any kind." I noted Vinny wassurreptitiously feeling under his comm console. "Of course, if I did, I wouldhave fitted it with a contact detonator." He froze.
I continued relentlessly. "And naturally I would also have added a commanddetonator, one I could activate with a comm signal..." My right hand edgedtoward my comm controls. "...like THIS!" I punched a contact.
"Yaaaaaa!" Garr bolted from the console in panic. He immediately ran out ofmy field of view, but I heard a muffled "thud" and caught a brief glimpse of aflailing hand as he dropped to the deck. Ohhh, poor guy must have forgottento duck through the hatch!
A cute young ensign leaned into the field of view. "Sir! What happened, sir?"
So, the comm department had some user-friendly personnel after all! "Er, beatsme, Ensign..."
"Nightingale, sir." She glanced behind her, where I could make out at leasttwo people bending over something--or someone--on the deck.
"Beats me, Ensign Nightingale. Maybe he had some kind of seizure." Heh heh."Um, do you suppose you could give me clearance, please?"
Instantly, she was all business. "Landing pattern is empty, Earthworm. Youhave clearance. Oh, and sir?" She checked to make sure Garr was still out,then lowered her voice to a whisper. "Nice work out there, sir!"
"Thank you, Ensign." It had been a long mission, but suddenly I didn't feeltired at all!
Despite the Longbow's control failures, I managed to touch down light as afeather, much to the relief of the expectant crash crew. As I made my way downthe ladder, I was actually whistling. At the bottom, I glanced up briefly atmy battered ship, shrugged, and started for debriefing.
Oops, Monk and his crew were waiting for me. Well, I had no regrets. The shipwas hurt bad, but Catfish and I had saved a lot of lives today. Except forpoor Clem, of course.
Monk held out his hand. "One for the books, sir. Maybe this madness will stopnow."
Surprised, I took his hand and squeezed warmly. "Thanks, Chief. We can hope."
Stu grabbed my hand away from Monk and pressed with both of his. "Thank you,sir. Thank you." Overcome by his emotions, he could say no more.
Sockette took my left hand and pressed gently. I returned the pressure.
Othello, though clearly eager to check out the Longbow, nevertheless came andpatted my back a couple of times before heading for the ladder. High praiseindeed!
I headed for debriefing, but my wingmen, still in flight suits, intercepted me.
Misty spoke first. She was bubbling with excitement. "Sir! Sir! Did youhear the news? Fifth Squadron nailed a pirate!"
Catfish, too, was practically bursting. "Two of the search teams ran intofighters. Knocked five of them right out of space! Then Major Marshall killedthe pirate frigate practically single-handed!"
"That's not all, sir!" Steel broke in with his own news. "TCS Ultima got in ading-dong battle with another frigate! Blew it to smithereens! Damn, I wishI'd been there!"
So did I. Capship battles were spectacular affairs. Something, however, justwasn't right here.
"Whoa, whoa! How did they corner those pirates so fast?" Even a thin asteroidbelt was a big place to search.
"That's just it, sir!" Misty again. "The first bunch was spotted between thebelt and the shipping routes, like they were on their way to hit the convoys. Ultima caught the second one running for the belt from the same jump point theUnion cruisers used. Looks like they were telling the truth about chasingpirates from their systems." She looked pointedly at Steel, who smiled andheld up his hands in surrender.
The kids were high-fiving each other and every tech who wandered by. It wasindeed a red-letter day for the fighter wing, but I couldn't share theirenthusiasm. The same pirates who had easily evaded Confed for months weresuddenly caught flat-footed by a carrier task force its first day in-system?Bzzzt! Error! Does not compute!
I interrupted the celebration. "OK, settle down, people. We still have workto do." I indicated the impatient Intel officers. "Debrief, chow down, andget some rest. I'll need you for escort missions later today. There are morepirates still out there." I waved them on ahead of me.
I waited until they were out of earshot. "Lex?"
"How's the Captain?"
"Pissed. What did you expect? He hasn't asked for you, though."
"Still thinking up nasty punishments. Lemonlips was right: technically, I diddisobey Gant. I may be out of a job, Lex."
"Cheer up, Earthworm. He may just shoot you instead."