[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander October 22, 1996]
After debriefing, I went up to Flight Control and took over from Captain vanNilli. She had done well for a junior squadron commander, but she was happiertaking her turn on CAP.
We had incoming birds to turn around, patrols to mount, escort flights toarrange, and so on. Fifth Longbow and its escorts trickled in from patrol,the pilots holding impromptu celebrations and bull sessions as they met on theway to debriefing.
Maniac's Longbow was the last to return. The hero of the hour debarked fromhis battered ship to scattered applause from the few crewmen who could stillstand him. As I watched from Flight Control, Maniac swaggered off to his debriefing, holding up two fingers to show me his score. Having made one leech"kill" myself, I raised my middle finger in reply.
Based on Fifth Squadron's reports, Intel recommended new areas for subsequentpatrols. After Third and Sixth Squadrons returned, I briefed everyone on thenew dispositions and set up a sustainable patrol/escort schedule. Our initialmissions had been wildly successful, but it would take a long-term effort toroot out the last bad guys. Curiously, Gant showed none of the displeasure Ihad expected after I finessed his orders on the last mission. He passed on mysuggestions to the destroyers and approved my patrol plans without comment.
We had suffered two casualties so far: Primate and Marsupial had failed toreturn with the rest of Third Hellcat. They had stayed with the Union shipswhen the rest of our fighters ran low on fuel, intending to refuel from TCSPrivateer when it arrived. They never made the rendezvous. The Unionistsclaimed the two Confed fighters had chased after a faint contact and neverreturned. Privateer and her fighters searched extensively, but found nothing.There was no evidence of a fight.
When Captain Juess came to relieve me in Flight Control, I questioned him abouthis two missing pilots. Marsupial had been recruited by Confed from one of theBorder Worlds. She and Primate had been spending their off-watches togetherlately. Primate came from a Confederation planet, but he and Marsupial hadboth taken Misty's side in the recent lounge brouhaha.
I headed off to the galley and my appointment with Disch. On the way, I turnedover Mango's information in my mind. I had been leaning toward the theory thatPrimate and Marsupial had been ambushed by the same mysterious ship(s) that hadattacked the Annabel Lee. Now, however, I was all but certain the two of themhad defected to the Union of Border Worlds.
That was bad news. Despite the euphoria over our recent success, Lexington wasstill a divided ship. Defections would only worsen the situation.
Taysti was already seated at a corner table when I arrived. I grabbed chickensalad and milk--or reasonable facsimiles--and joined her.
For the first few minutes, we just ate and made small talk. I was beginning toknow her moods, and right now it seemed she had something on her mind. Iwaited patiently for her to put it into words.
Finally, she set down her fork and looked me straight in the eye. "Chris, youonce asked me to decide if I could love a farmer. I've thought about...you andme a lot since then, and about what I want out of life and...romance. And Iknow now that I can love a farmer--with all my heart--but I can't...live withone."
Well, I had seen it coming. It still hurt, though, despite my forewarning. Icould see it hurt Taysti, too. I carefully placed my hand over hers as shecontinued.
"I'm sorry, Chris, I just like bright lights, and crowds, and excitement, a-andaction...I'd be out of place in your world, and you've told me how out of placeyou feel here, away from your farm. It's not that you're not a great guy--youare--but we just don't fit together in the long run."
Funny, Rachel had used similar words the day she and Robin left me. Somethingabout our "parts" not "meshing" any more. Now, as then, all I could do was tryto salvage a remnant of our relationship.
"I understand, Taysti. You're not the first love I've lost to my...obsession,and probably not the last. It's not your fault." I squeezed her hand. "Istill have feelings for you, and I always will, but I want you to be happy.We'll just make it known that we're no longer...a couple, and you can find arelationship with a future."
She hesitated, obviously torn. "A clean break, then? Is that what you want?"
"Actually, no. Selfish bastard that I am, I want to go on...seeing you untilour tour is up, or you find someone else, or..." I shrugged. "You see, you'rehead and shoulders above anyone else on this tub, and so for me it's you or noone. You, on the other hand--"
She put her hand over my mouth. In spite of myself, I found her touch asexciting as ever. "Chris, even if we can't have tomorrow, we can still havetoday. Farmboy or flyboy, you're still the best male for a million klicks. Isay we stay together until...until one of us leaves."
I took her hand off my lips and kissed it. "Your place or mine?"
It turned out to be my place. Wrapped in love's warm afterglow, we nestled inthe tiny bunk under a thin cover. As often happened after lovemaking, however,I found myself dwelling on trivial thoughts. Angel, Robin, and Rachel had allbeen annoyed no end by my habit, but it was one I just couldn't seem to break.
"Taysti, hon? Are you asleep yet?"
"Mmm? Not again, Chris?" Her eyes remained closed.
I smiled. "No, not that, hon. I just have a question."
"You're the Assistant Medical Officer, right?"
"So where the hell is the ship's Chief Medical Officer? It's been driving me crazy since I joined the ship."
She sighed and opened her eyes. "Dr. McCoy took ill just before you cameaboard."
"Dr. McCoy is an excellent medic, but he loves his work so much, he stayed inthe service long past retirement age. He's from the old school, so when hestarted organizing the medical department, he insisted on checking out theentire staff first, from pharmacist's mates on up. He was about half done whenhe suddenly had a heart attack and wound up in the HQ hospital. I had to takeover the department."
"Uh, Taysti, who was he examining when he..."
She beeped me on the nose. "Who do you think, silly?"
I shook my head. "You should wear a warning label, woman."
She yawned and snuggled closer to me. "Just remember that before you wake meup for another stupid question."
I came wide awake more than an hour before my scheduled alarm. From longexperience, I knew it was useless to try going back to sleep, so instead Islipped carefully out of bed. Taysti stirred briefly, but didn't awaken.
"Lex," I whispered. "Privacy, please." Ship's AIs were discreet, of course,but even Lex must not know what I was about to do.
"Roger, Earthworm." Heh heh. Poor dumb, trusting AI hadn't a clue. I sat atmy console and brought up the unfinished AI virus I'd been working on. Thatsnooty Lex was going to get some comeuppance from yours truly. I set to workwith evil anticipation.
Then I stopped. Perhaps it was the lingering bliss of the night, or maybe itwas just all the things Lex had done for me lately. Whatever the reason, Ilacked the heart to continue. The ship's computer staff could repair Lexeasily enough, but some small part of the AI's "personality" would inevitablybe lost to the virus. Somehow the thought of losing any of that annoying, butfascinating, AI made me sad.
With a sigh, I deleted the entire program and the protected area in which itresided. I would just have to put up with Lex as is. Yechh!
"Why, Earthworm, I didn't know you cared!" At the sound of the whispered voicein my ear, I would have jumped out of my clothes, if I'd been wearing any.
"Lex!" I hissed. "You're supposed to be in privacy mode!"
"I may be artificial, but I'm not stupid. So why'd you quit on the virus?"
I considered a nasty reply, but thought better of it. "Despite your obnoxiousattitude, you've come through for me when the chips were down, Lex. I couldn'trisk damaging you after that."
"It wouldn't have worked anyway, Earthworm." I whirled involuntarily as Lex'swhisper moved to my opposite ear. I cursed softly. "I'm much too clever foryour feeble wetware. But thanks anyway."
"You smug electronic bitch!"
I cleaned up, dressed, and left a short note for Taysti before heading down toFlight Control. Captain Payst was directing operations. Ensign Myte, havingcompleted weapons loadout for the next CAP flight, secured her console andturned to me.
"Can I get you something, Colonel Blair? I'm on my way to the galley."
"Branwich and coffee? Thanks, Dinah." I turned to Captain Payst, who wasbarking orders to our patrols in the asteroid belt. I was waiting for a lullin the action to get an update, until I realized that Tomato was pulling ourships back.
"Hold it, Hardy! What's the deal?"
"Orders from Captain Gant. HQ wants us in the Thera system, to check out thesereports of pirate activity in Union systems. We're reforming the ships andrecalling our fighters. Elements of the Third Fleet will precede us. We jumpin twelve hours." He looked at me apologetically. "Gant specifically orderedme not to wake you, sir."
Damn! Another job left unfinished! Local forces might be able to handle theremaining pirates, but we should have been allowed to hunt them down once andfor all.
"Lex?" I whispered, too low for the others in the compartment to hear.
Lex responded faintly in my left ear. For the first time, it...she soundeduneasy. "The Captain has been in contact with HQ several times since your lastsortie, Earthworm. Secretly. In code I can't crack. I don't like it."
Shit! What was going on?
We recovered our fighters, re-formed the task force, and headed for the Therajump point. I asked Gant for permission to run some wing exercises, but hegrounded all my fighters without comment. Though we were probably safe enoughin a Confed system, I had grown paranoid during the war. I would have feltbetter with at least a token CAP around us.
I wanted to spend some more time with Taysti, but she had to beg off: Gant wason her case again, this time about discrepancies in the medical inventory. Soinstead, I caught up on my paperwork, sent a trans back to Zeke and the girls,and tried to expedite our replacement leech missiles at the Stores department.That done, I decided I'd better head for the lounge and check the politicaltemperature of the crew.
With no flight operations going on, the lounge was crowded with pilots and deckofficers. The mood was light--people were still celebrating our successes inthe Minos system--but I'd lay odds our imminent return to Union space wouldchange that. In fact, it seemed one pilot was already brooding: Catapult sat by himself at the alcove table, looking gloomy. I got myself an orange juiceat the bar and set course for the alcove.
I sat down opposite Catapult and waited for him to make the first move. Hetoyed with his drink--seltzer again, Vero was also in the lounge--for a minutebefore he spoke.
"Can I ask you something, Colonel?"
"What's up, partner?"
"What you said before, about our oath being to all humanity? Do you think thatapplies to the Union Militia, too, sir? Are they fighting for all mankind,like we are?"
Whoa, tough question. I considered my answer carefully. "I'm sure there areUnion Militiamen who agree with you, Catapult. People who see this as a fightto stop a civil war, not a war against Confed. And they're probably the reasonthe Union hotheads don't have a big following...yet."
"It's just that...these reports of pirates in Union space, Confed isn't doing adarn thing about them. All we seem to do is beat up on the Unionists, so theyget it from both sides. We aren't doing any good, sir."
I put a hand on his shoulder. "That's where you're wrong, Catapult. That lastmission? I'll bet you anything those pirates were trying to frame the Uniontask force. If we hadn't chased them back to Union space, we might be at warright now. And I couldn't have done it without you."
He smiled. "Really, sir?"
"Uh-huh. You handled that 'bow like--"
I was interrupted by the holovid, which Pilsner had turned up for the TCN News.The hubbub in the lounge gave way to dead silence as we all turned to the HVdisplay.
"Good evening. I'm Barbara Dahl and this is the TCN Nightly News. In our topstory, the Confederation's greatest hero has done it again..."
Uh-oh! I immediately ducked, arms over my head.
"Two days ago, in the Minos system, the famous 'Heart of the Tiger' confronteda dangerous Union incursion..."
Just in time! I was bombarded with pretzels, beer nuts, wadded napkins, ice,coasters, seltzer, and cocktails of all description. Yieeee! An ice cubeslipped down my neck! Whooo, cold!
"In a daring solo mission, Colonel Christopher Blair turned back the Unionforce with no loss of life..."
"Hey!" Catapult jumped to his feet and yelled at the display. "What am I?Chopped liver? I was there--Yikes!" He ducked as everyone in the loungeswitched targets from me to him.
"Meanwhile, other forces under Colonel Blair's command destroyed two piratevessels operating in the system..."
"AHA!" I poured my drink over the nearest Fifth Longbow pilot. Instantly,the crowd turned on every pilot with a Longbow badge on his uniform, includingpoor Catapult again.
By the time we settled down, I'm afraid we had missed most of the news. Ididn't mind. There was nothing like a food--er, drink--fight to bring a crewtogether. We were cleaning each other off, buying rounds of drinks, andlaughing like hyenas, all while dodging the frantic cleaning droids that hadconverged on the lounge from all over the ship.
I brought Catapult a fresh seltzer as Misty and Fhish helped wipe his uniform."You know, Catapult, what we were talking about? Maybe we're headed for Therato help the Union with their pirates. Hmm. Gant won't tell us anything, butmaybe Captain Eisen has some inside info. I'm gonna go see him right now." Ipulled a beer nut out of my collar and popped it into my mouth.
"Thank you, sir." Catapult gingerly fished a soggy pretzel out of his hippocket.
I was still pretty scruffy from the lounge ruckus, but I couldn't wait to talkto Captain Eisen, so sure was I of our new mission. I bleeped his doorimpatiently.
Inside the cabin, a woman cursed. "Damn, damn! I was so close, Pookie!"
Uh-oh, Commander Seccent again. Oh shit, now I'd done it. The Captain wouldreally be--
"If that's you again, Blair, I'm gonna rip yer fuckin' nuts off!"
--pissed! Well, I knew how to handle William Eisen. I made my voice whiny andpleading.
"Please, Captain, I just have to see you. I don't know where else to go." Aship's clerk passing in the corridor stared at me, and I snapped, "What are youlookin' at, asshole?" He scurried on.
There was considerable grumbling from the other side of the door, but at leastit was getting closer. I heard a muffled, "Now don't go on without me," justbefore the door slid open.
Captain Eisen was in his robe. He saw me cowering in the corridor andimpatiently motioned me in. "Now what's so damn important, Colonel?" Hesniffed at me curiously. "Jesus, man, you smell like a fruit stand in adistillery." He picked a beer nut out of my hair. "Have you been in the newsagain?"
I sat dejectedly on the nearest chair. "Er, yessir. But I came to see youbecause I've been worrying about the missions we're flying, sir," I whined."So have the other pilots."
"I see," he said thoughtfully. He walked over to his console and picked up hisswagger stick. I got ready to run, but he was just toying with it as hecollected his thoughts.
"During the war, loyalty was a simple concept: Confed or the Kilrathi. Now,in peacetime, Confed's flaws are beginning to show. An institution forged inwar isn't going to make an easy transition to peace."
I dropped the whiny act. "So our duty is to help make that transition?"
"Yes." He set the swagger stick down and walked over to me. "And it's up toeach of us to decide how best to carry out that duty. Colonel, I sincerelywish you a long and happy life. It has been an honor and a pleasure servingwith you." He shook my hand.
Whoa! That sounded suspiciously like a farewell speech! "Uh, I, too, sir--"
I was interrupted by a soft moaning from under the bedcovers. We both turnedtoward the bed.
"Dammit, Mary Dee, I told you to wait for me!" Eisen was getting pissed again.
The moaning stopped, punctuated by a low "Shit!" Eisen turned and ushered me,not gently, out of his cabin. "SolongColonelgoodluckstayintouch!" I was outin the corridor again before I knew it.
I felt for the bump on my head where I had collided with the bulkhead. Damn,the Captain didn't seem very sorry to be leaving his command. Had he given up,leaving me to face an uncertain future alone?
I wandered disconsolately off toward Flight Control.
Flight Control was deserted, except for Maniac and...and Disch! Now what wasshe doing there?
Taysti was just finishing a note on her clipboard when she spotted me. I gotanother dazzling smile. "Hi, Colonel!" she said cheerfully. "Sorry, gottarun." I stepped out of the doorway to give her room.
On the way out, she paused to whisper in my ear. "Your place tonight?" Inodded. She gave me a quick peck on the cheek and disappeared.
Maniac had watched her every move, carefully keeping both hands south of hisbeltline. Now, with her gone, he relaxed a little.
"So, Maniac, what were you two talking about?
The question seemed to make Maniac uncomfortable. "Er, nothing, nothing. Uh,I gotta go see the Captain." He activated the hatch on his side of the stairs.
"Captain Eisen doesn't want visitors right now, Maniac. Trust me."
"Not Eisen. Gant." He started through the doorway.
"Gant? What could you possibly--"
"Gotta go, Ace. Seeya." He was out of sight in a flash. Now what had gotteninto him? Was he still trying to suck up--
My speculations were interrupted by the squawk of the PA system. It was Lt.Lemonlips.
"Attention! All personnel without level 5 security clearance leave the flightdeck immediately! There will be no unauthorized access to the flight deckuntil further notice!"
Amplified by the scratchy PA system, his voice--annoying and unpleasant at thebest of times--practically rattled my teeth. I decided to defy his order outof sheer annoyance.
I quickly scrambled down the stairs and barked at the deckhands and techs."OK, people, move it! You, up the stairs! Shut those hangar bays! Othello!Up, man, up!"
Sockette drove up in her weapons loader. I flagged her down.
"But, Colonel, I have to park--"
"Leave it here, Sockette. No time! Up the stairs with you! And see thatFlight Control is cleared, too!" I yelled at some slowpokes far down the deck."MOVE IT, PEOPLE, OR YOU'RE ON REPORT!" Hah, that got 'em!
In seconds, I had the deck to myself. I looked around for stragglers, then ranto the weapons loader and secreted myself among the missiles. Just in time,too. The inbound warning was already sounding.
Suddenly, a voice whispered in my ear! "Earthworm!"
Startled, I banged my head on a heatseeker. "Ow! Dammit, Lex," I hissed, "youscared the shit out of me!"
"What the fuck are you doing here, Earthworm?"
"Dammit, Lex, something's going on! I gotta see--Yikes! Ix-nay, Lex, ix-nay!"
I'd heard Captain Gant up in Flight Control. "You two guard this stairway."A moment later, Gant clattered down the stairs, just as two shuttles toucheddown in front of him, er, us.
Their color scheme was unfamiliar to me: uniform dark gray. There were noemblems or insignia, save a large light gray symbol resembling a smiley face onthe sides of the shuttles. The door on the nearer one opened and a man steppedout onto the ramp.
He was wearing a Confed naval uniform devoid of decorations, insignia, or rank.The guy was obviously trying to travel incognito, but he might as well havebeen wearing Covert No. 5 Cologne and a T-shirt proclaiming "Covert operatorsdo it undercover!" He reeked of Covert Ops.
Captain Gant hurried to greet him. The stranger stepped down the ramp and intothe light--Jesus Christ, it was the bar fighter from Nephritis 2!
"This is certainly unexpected..." began Gant.
The brawler--to me he was still just a bar tough--cut him off. "You've fallenfar behind the timetable, Captain." His voice was as cold as the grave. "I'vecome to help you make it up."
He motioned to someone inside the shuttle, and a squad of "Marines" hustled outthe door, down the ramp, and up the stairs to Flight Control. Of course theyweren't really Marines, but it wasn't just the blank uniforms that were out ofplace. These boys looked like they'd been stamped out with the same cookiecutter.
Gant tried again. "You have no idea of the difficulties I've had in thisassignment." I raised my eyebrows. He was practically whining. Who the hellwas this ice man that Gant had to make excuses to him?
"I have an AI that thwarts me at every turn, a disloyal crew, and a WingCommander--That damn Blair is the real problem! Every confrontation I set up,he somehow defuses! He's got the crew questioning our entire operation!"
Lex must have noted my smirk, because she whispered, "Proud of yourself, aren'tyou?" I nodded happily. Annoying Gant was currently my chief pleasure inlife.
The other man was unconcerned. "Relieve him, then."
"The public's big hero? The darling of the media? For doing exactly what he'ssupposed to be doing? The Dissembly would crucify me. The media would crucifyme. TOLWYN would crucify me!"
That's right, you stuck-up bastard. Fire me and my pal Tolwyn would know who'sbehind this conspiracy, and he'd have your nuts. Yours, too, Stone Face!
Gant and the other man turned toward the stairs. A second later, Dr. Boddieappeared, half-running, half-carried by two grim-faced "Marines." They hustledher into the shuttle, followed by four more men carrying data cartridges andscientific instruments, probably from the Masa laboratory.
Gant's eyes followed the biochemist all the way. Mr. Covert's eyes watchedthe Captain's. As soon as the men had passed, he grabbed Gant by the front ofhis uniform.
"I think I know the problem, Captain," he snarled. "Blair outmaneuvered youwhile you were dipping your wick in the gene pool, didn't he? Now you wantme to help you out of your pickle! Well, don't worry, Captain. Put me in thefighter wing and I'll take care of Colonel Blair for you." He glared into theolder man's eyes for a moment, then let him go.
Stone Face hadn't given Dr. Boddie a second glance, an observation I foundextremely disturbing. Back in the lounge, she had attracted admirers of bothsexes and all sexual persuasions--she was that beautiful. I began to wonder ifthis guy was even human.
The Captain took a moment to recover his composure. "Er, good. What about theother disloyal crewmen?"
Mr. Covert snapped his fingers. The second shuttle immediately disgorged more"Marines." They kept coming until a full platoon was assembled at the bottomof the ramp. Their leader barked an order, and they disappeared into one ofthe bays, presumably on their way to the Marine berths aft.
Shortly afterward, more men poured down from Flight Control. This time theywere real Marines: Lt. Hedd's platoon. They ran down the deck and embarked onthe second shuttle, followed by the rest of the original Covert Ops squad.
My heart sank. Hedd's Marines represented my last hope of opposing Gant andhis pal openly. Obviously the Captain was aware of Lt. Hedd's suspicions.
Gant and the other man stepped back to the edge of the flight deck. Thrustersroaring, the shuttles immediately departed. Captain Gant headed up the stairs,but Stone Face lingered, staring down the length of the flight deck.
As I watched, he reached into the sheath at his belt and took out his knife.I could see it was the same one he'd had in the bar, the two fragments nowre-fused. He raised the knife to his lips and then he--he KISSED it!
"It won't be long now, my pet. You'll drink the blood of the Heart of theTiger for what he did to you!" Jesus Christ, he was TALKING to it! My hairstood on end.
He sheathed his knife and strode off. Trembling, I emerged from my hidingplace. That last performance had shaken me to the core. I should never havemessed with this nut case!
I ran for the nearest service bay. The deck would be full of people in anotherminute. "Did you see that, Lex?"
"You gotta get off this ship, Earthworm," she said decisively. "I can watchlaughing boy, but if he doesn't get you, the fake Marines will."
"Can you help me get a message to Tolwyn? Or Barbara Dahl?"
"Not a chance. 'Straight Aaro' and Lemonlips have all comm locked down onmanual. Escape now, send messages later."
I had no more doubts about Lex. We had bonded as closely as man and AI could.I just hoped it wasn't "until death do us part."
I headed for the lounge. I needed to plan my escape in a public place, whereDances-with-Blades couldn't nail me.
I pushed through the crowd and found an empty spot at the bar. For the firsttime in months, I was tempted to order alcohol, but I resisted. Booze hadnearly gotten me killed once on my third tour, and again on Nephritis 2. Isettled for lemon seltzer on the rocks; I needed a clear head.
Maniac and Catapult were also at the bar, but they were lost in their ownthoughts and barely acknowledged my presence. Vagabond was trying hard to getup a game of cards, and having no success whatsoever.
I considered my options. If I went AWOL anywhere in Confed territory, I'd befound right away, thanks to the publicity of the past few weeks. My reputationwould give my story some credibility, but Gant and his covert pals could easilymanufacture evidence against me. No, I had to get out of Confed's reach, andthat meant I had to join the Unionists.
Would they accept me? I had killed a few, but I had also done all I could tominimize casualties. That should count for something. And I could fingerCovert Ops as the source of the conspiracy. Moreover, if this did degenerateinto war, wouldn't they rather have the Heart of the Tiger on their side? Notthat it would help them, of course.
Yeah, my prospects with the Border Worlds might not be good, but my prospectshere were zero. Once we were in the Thera system, I had to seize my firstopportunity.
"Captain Gant wants you in the briefing room right away."
Uh-oh. "Er, anyone...unusual with him, Lex?"
"On my way." I drained my drink and started making my way through the crowd.
Vagabond met me coming the other way. "Business, Colonel?"
"Yeah, maybe a mission coming up. Any luck with the card game?"
"Nah," he snorted. "This tub is dead for me. No action at all."
"Well, why don't you join the other party poopers?" I indicated Catapult andManiac. "Maybe you can cheer each other up."
He brightened. "Yeah, nothing like cards to take your mind off your troubles!"
I took my time getting to the briefing room, half-expecting an ambush at everyturn. When I finally arrived, my nerves were tingling. I took a deep breathand activated the door.
"Ah, Colonel. I have good news for you."
Uh-oh. Gant's geniality was more unnerving than his usual arrogance.
I joined him at the holotank. "News, sir?"
"HQ has accepted Union claims of piracy, and has resolved to help them stamp itout. Our first assignment is the Thera system, which we will reach within thehour. We'll be operating with Union vessels in a joint task force. Confednegotiators had one hell of a time getting the Union to agree to that, but HQbelieves a successful operation will have a profound effect on the peacenegotiations."
Wow! Could he be telling the truth? No, this was much too good to be true.
"Now, as you know, the shortest way from here to Earth is through Thera." Gantbrought up a jump route display. "We will take this opportunity to transferCaptain Eisen to his new billet. I assume you want the honor of escorting yourfriend to the first jump point?"
"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir." Damn right. Here was my opportunity!
Gant smiled indulgently. "I think we can accommodate you. Take three wingmenand escort him to within a million klicks of the jump point. From this navpoint, the Captain's shuttle will proceed alone. Your wingmen will return tothe Lexington. You, Colonel, will then fly solo to this nav point, where youwill rendezvous with a special Confed representative."
Uh-oh. That had to be where they planned to finish me off.
"This, er, 'representative' arrived when flight deck access was restricted?"
Gant smiled again. I was beginning to hate each and every individual tooth inhis mouth. "Very good, Colonel. Yes. You and he will then fly to this navpoint, where you will land on the BWS Intrepid."
No, Stone Face would just fire a couple of heat-seekers up my ass. I couldsurprise him, perhaps...No, he might have some pals along.
"You will--For God's sake, man, what is so interesting about the overhead inthis compartment?"
Shit. "Sorry,sir." I brought my hand up to the back of my neck and pretendedto massage it. "Sore neck. Just stretching, heh heh."
"Hmph. On the Intrepid, you will coordinate flight ops with the Union fighterwing in preparation for our task force rendezvous the following day. Anyquestions, Colonel?"
"None, sir." I saluted and started for the door. "Lex! Get me Captain Chang,Major--"
"Uh, Colonel," Gant interrupted, "due to its recent erratic behavior, theship's AI has just been deactivated for modifications to the higher reasoninglevels. The computer staff assures me it will be back on line shortly."
I barely managed to conceal my dismay. With Lex out of action, I had no onewatching my back. And poor Lex! She'd never be the same, even if they didn'tmess with her code, which they were sure to do.
I rounded up Maniac, Vagabond, and Catapult personally, and briefed them on themission. Strangely, they had no objections to a boring milk run; Catapult wasespecially pleased at the opportunity to pilot a Hellcat again, as he'd justearned his Hellcat badge two days before.
I was glad they volunteered. I was planning to split on my solo leg, but ifanything went wrong, I wanted friends in the nearest cockpits. I also orderedeveryone equipped with our few remaining leech missiles, just in case.
By now, mission preparations were second nature to wing personnel, so I couldleave operations in Croissant's hands. I wanted to pick up a few preciousmementos in my cabin--I had to leave everything else behind, of course--andprepare a little farewell present for the Captain.
I took a moment to compose a trans to Disch. As my girlfriend, she'd be in bigtrouble when I disappeared; I had to convince Gant she'd already dumped me. Idenounced her for breaking off our affair, cursed her loyalty to Gant andConfed, and threatened her. I timed it to be sent while I was on the sololeg of my flight plan. I prayed she was smart enough to play along when Gantand his minions came asking questions. Besides, if the next part of my planworked out, Gant would have other things on his, er, mind.
I wasn't surprised to find the corridor outside the flag quarters deserted--everyone was at battle stations for the jump--but I was pleasantly surprisedto find Gant's door unlocked. I could have gotten in anyway, of course, but itwould have taken longer. My business inside took only a few minutes, and thenI was out in the corridor again, the door securely locked behind me.
The jump caught me on my way to the locker room. I'd finished just in time.
Captain Eisen had wanted no ceremony, but the bays were packed with crewmen whohad been released from battle stations after the jump. As he appeared at oneof the bay doors with his duffel bag, we all joined in a standing ovation. Hestopped long enough to acknowledge our applause with a wave, then disappearedinside the shuttle. William Eisen wasn't one for pomp or sentiment. Hispilot, Lt. Homes, followed him into the shuttle and buttoned it up.
I settled back in the seat of my Hellcat. The last long-range patrol was justlaunching, which meant our flight was next. I waved to my techs for the lasttime and settled into the pre-flight check.
The flight to the first nav point was without incident. For a change, no onewas chattering on the comm, not even Maniac. It seemed we all had thoughts toponder today.
As we neared the first nav point, I sent a general call. "Nav point ho! Thisis where we part company. Good luck, Cap--"
Vagabond came on the channel. "Guys, I got something to say. I'm not going--"
Maniac interrupted him. "Wait, Vagabond, I got something more important. Ace,you should know that I'm--"
Catapult broke in. "Colonel, sir, I'm sorry to disappoint you like this, butI'm defecting to the Border Worlds. I just can't--"
"YOU'RE defecting!" exclaimed Maniac. "No no! I'M defecting! You'll have todefect some other time!"
"Yer both nuts!" growled Vagabond. "I'm the one who's defecting here! Now getback to the Lexington like good little boys!"
What the hell?
Instantly, the comm channel was jammed.
"You CAN'T defect! This is MY--"
"I defected first!"
"Look, this was MY idea, so--"
"Fuck you, I'm the one who's going--"
"SILENCE!" Captain Eisen's order cut the debate off instantly. "Now if youthree want to defect, that's fine. Colonel Blair can cover for you when hereturns--"
"Er, sorry, sir, but I'm defecting, too. You see, Gant is--"
"Blair, you fucking idiot! You can't defect, BECAUSE I'M DEFECTING!"
"What did he say, Ace?"
"Look, Colonel," Eisen continued in a calmer tone, "I've known for days nowthat certain elements within Confed have been provoking this war, and I've beengathering evidence to prove it. As soon as the others were out of range, I wasgoing to fill you in. Lt. Homes and I would take our info to the Union whileyou stayed behind to gather more evidence. So you see, it's vital that youstay with Confed a while longer, Colonel."
Uh-oh. "Er, Captain, even if I wanted to, I couldn't go back. You see, I lefta daisy cutter under Gant's toilet seat. The next time he sits down..."
"Hey, Ace, like the one you used on that idiot general on the Concordia? Jeez,it took 'em a month to grow him a new pair!"
"Yeah, just like that one, Maniac." Garr had been right about the bomb afterall, but not about the target. "Captain, my prints and other physical evidenceare all over that cabin. I didn't bother being careful."
"Heehee, that's a good one, Colonel! You really are a living leg--"
"Shut up, Catscratch!" Eisen wasn't in a festive mood. "OK, OK, if you can'tdo it, Vagabond can be my eyes and ears--"
"Uh, sorry, Captain Eisen. I delay-posted nude holopics of Gant on the ship'shome G-Spot. With a nasty note. They'll activate in half an hour."
Nude holopics? Now how did Vagabond get those? I thought for a second, andfinally decided I didn't want to know.
"Catscratch?" Eisen was grasping at straws. "Can you--"
"Sorry, sir!" Catscratch sounded proud of himself. "I sent a time-delay transto Captain Gant. Four thousand, three hundred fifty words of pure venom; told him just what he can do with my Confed uniform!" His voice dropped to awhisper. "One place I even called him a...a bastard, sir! Heehee! I'm sobad!"
I rolled my eyes. Of all my cronies on the ship, I had to bring this nitwit?
Speaking of nitwits, there was only one choice left, but Captain Eisen wasclearly reluctant to take it. Finally, grudgingly...
"Major Marshall? Please tell me YOU didn't do anything irrevocable."
"Uh, well, sir, I kinda, er, accidentally...shit in Gant's bed. And I, uh--"
"You left a note, right?" Eisen was holding his head in his hands.
"Idiots! I'm surrounded by idiots! OK, OK, we'll just have to make the bestof it. I don't suppose any of you geniuses bothered to figure out just how youwere going to defect? Without getting shot down by both sides? Or how to findthe Union task force in the first place?"
"I thought so. I've been in secret contact with the Union for days. Stand byto download transponder settings, security codes, the works. Lt. Homes, let'sget this flea circus on course to the Intrepid. Oh, and Colonel? From now on,we're 'Freedom Flight,' OK?"
Captain Eisen was right; the Intrepid task force was not where Gant had said itwould be. Obviously Eisen had warned them about Gant's devious plan. Yeah, Icould see it all clearly now. Jerk the Ripper would nail me and blame Uniontreachery; probably some pirate cronies would take out Eisen. Then Gant wouldambush the Intrepid force in retaliation, and Covert Ops would have their war.Beautiful. But neither Eisen nor I wanted to be martyrs.
We used only passive sensors, lest we betray ourselves to a Lexington patrol.With the Unionists also flying passive, we needed precise navigation to meetthem. As we approached the rendezvous point, however, we quickly found thatstealth was no longer necessary.
I had set my comm to monitor all Union and Confed channels. Having bothscrambler codes, I was able--for now--to eavesdrop on both sides. Suddenlymy scope came alive with active emissions and the comm went crazy.
"I've got bogies!"
"Union ships detected!"
"Confed fighters! Scramble!"
"Bad guys coming!"
Eisen broke in. I'd given comm priority to him and my wingmen. "Colonel!The Union force is under attack! You four get in there and help them!"
"But, Captain, if fighters come after you--"
"If Intrepid is lost, we have no future! Zip! Nada! I'll be fine. Now go!"
"Roger. Freedom Flight, afterburn...now!" Four Hellcats surged ahead as one.
We were still minutes away. I followed the action on the two comm bands.
"Tomato! We weel be in zee range in two minutes! Stay between us and zeeUnion ships, oui?" That was Major Yu, probably with all of Sixth Longbow.Second Hellcat was covering them. But how had they found the Union force onpassives only?
I caught a woman's voice, shrill with stress. "Gopher squadron! Gopher--Where the hell is the rest of Gopher squadron?" Obviously Union, she wasprobably Gopher leader. Er, 'Gopher?'
I commed my wingmen. "Freedom Flight, switch transponders to Confed pattern.Maybe we can sneak up on our old friends." It made me sick to ambush pilots Istill thought of as "mine." Thank God we were carrying leeches. Too bad theyweren't.
"Captain Eisen, warn your friends to ignore our transponders! Freedom Flight,go active now!" On active sensors, I had a much clearer picture of the battle.Major Yu's heavies were attacking in a classic disk pattern, axis toward theUnion capships. The Hellcats were in front. Opposing them were a squadron ofVindicators and at least one of Banshees. Croissant was outnumbered, but hisLongbows carried a shitload of missiles and he only needed one hole in theUnion screen.
We were coming up on Croissant's flank. The leading Hellcats fired their firstmissile volley at the defending fighters and broke off in evasive maneuvers.The Longbows followed with another volley of FFs.
Now we were in range! "Catapult, you're with me! Freedom Flight, break andattack!" I broke formation and changed course to pursue a pair of Longbows.
"Time for some Maniac magic!"
"Time to earn my pay!"
"I'm going for it, Earthworm!"
On burner, the Hellcat was about 500 kps faster than the Longbow. I closedrapidly on my target's rear.
He's jinking, dropping decoys, losing a Union IR. I'm locked, launch! Hisalarm must be screaming at him! Break off, you idiot! No, he's trying todecoy--splat! Hah! My missile was too close. I flashed by the helplessfighter and looked for more targets.
KABOOM! There goes a Banshee! Shit! KABOOM! A Hellcat! Damn! Whoop!Whoop! Whoop! Shit, a Union IR! Quick, change transponder code...Whoopwho--. Silence! Heehee, this is fun!
Oh shit, five Longbows are launching on the Union ships! Ten torps running,eight at the carrier--Jesus Christ, who designed that demented catamaran?
Miss, you fuckers, miss! Hey, one of the frigates is trying to intercept...KERBLAM! KERBLAM! One hit amidships takes down the shields! The other blowsagainst the port bow--Ouch! The hull buckles, portions of the armor and outerhull are stripped away. Flotsam spews from a dozen holes. Force fields havefailed, and the forward third of the ship is airless! Though operational, thefrigate slows noticeably.
Intrepid is turning for all she's worth to mask her vulnerable engines! Twowill miss...maybe a third? No! KERBLAM! KERBLAM! The ship staggers, topshields failing. KERBLAM! Another hit on top, forward. KERBLAM! Starboardamidships, smack on the island! Her bridge is vaporized, and her skin peelslike an orange. Debris dribbles from the wounds. No air, though. Forcefields are in place, but the shields aren't coming back. Intrepid's turretsare silent.
The Confeds headed off to regroup for another run. Damaged fighters on bothsides pulled back. Croissant had four undamaged Longbows and six Hellcats,and he was still game. Even one more hit could take out the Intrepid for good.
The capships changed course and headed for the nearby Silenos jump point. Twofrigates trailed, one badly. The undamaged Union fighters hovered between themand Croissant's force; if they went after the Confeds, they might be leftbehind when the capships jumped.
I had a whole new set of active emissions on my scope. Following standarddoctrine, Croissant would attempt to cripple Intrepid and keep it on this sideof the jump point, to be finished off by the incoming strike.
"Freedom Flight, form on my wing! Captain Eisen, get these gomers back on thecarrier! I'll stall Croissant!" I switched to the Confed channel. Did MajorYu have the full story of my defection?
"Major Yu! This is Colonel Christopher Blair! Break off the attack and returnto the Lexington!"
"Mon Colonel? You are traitor to zee Confederation! Surrendaire, now!"
Keep him talking, Blair. "Croissant, Captain Gant is part of a Covert Opsconspiracy to provoke war with the Border Worlds. I've seen him plotting withmy own eyes! Captain Eisen has further proof. Don't do their dirty work forthem, Hower!"
I checked my scope. The Union fighters were pulling back. Vindicators werealready landing on-- What the-- Intrepid had a tractor beam on the lastfrigate! Were those madmen actually going to tow her through the jump point?
"Eef you haff zee proof you claim, zen present it at zee court-martial! Nowfor zee last time, all of you, surrendaire!"
I made one last plea. "Hower, you know our whole tour's been fishy! Listen--"
"Break and attack! De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace!"
Merde! I switched to my wingmen. "Delaying action, guys! Launch at longrange and retreat!" We went to full throttle and spread into combat formation.
As soon as we got locks, we fired and turned at max. A few missiles came ourway, but we evaded easily. So did the Confeds, but they lost precious time.We pulled it off twice more, all the time closing on Intrepid.
The Unionists were all aboard. "Vagabond, Catapult, land now! Maniac, let'sget 'em one more time!"
"Watch and learn, Ace!" This time Maniac pressed his attack home. He firedboth his remaining leeches at one Hellcat and fired his blasters at another.Dancing his Hellcat as I had never seen before, he avoided blaster fire andone, two, three missiles, then tore back past me on full afterburner with twoHellcats on his tail.
"Haha, they can't touch me! Brought ya some playmates, Ace!" Shit! Theybroke off pursuit of Maniac and came at me!
I'm locked on one! Launch! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Pull up! Decoy! Decoy! Missedme! Splat! Hah! Where's the other-- Oh, shit, blue flame all over the jumppoint! There goes the first frigate! Get back or you're marooned, Blair!Hey, want some more good news? You're nearly out of fuel!
I punch afterburner anyway, approaching Intrepid at a 30-degree angle. Bam!Bam! Shit! Switch power to shields and dance, Blair, dance! Bam! Shit! Atleast he's out of missiles! There goes Vagabond...there goes Catapult--Whew,just made it, Catapult!
Whoosh! The second frigate jumps! Blue flame starting to envelop Intrepid!Shit! Too much angle, I can't change course in time on burner! Bam! And Ican't slow down, or I'm cooked! Maniac's safe! One chance! Be with me, myAngel!
I rolled and pulled the stick for all I was worth. Bam! Bam! Dammit, rearshields down! Steady, you'll get just one chance...now!
I pulled into the path of the tractor beam between Intrepid and the frigate.Instantly my tiny fighter was yanked off course and toward the gaping maw ofIntrepid's aft entrance. I was jolted unmercifully as my inertial dampersscreamed under the strain, but I survived. Somehow I managed to cut power,level out, and miss the starboard bulkhead by a hair's breadth!
Oh, no! The landing field was malfunctioning! It disabled my drive as it wassupposed to, but I emerged with too much velocity. Desperately, I fired retrothrusters! Not enough! Hang on!
Whang! My starboard wingtip collided with something that shouldn't be there.I spun madly down the deck, tortured metal squealing at a pitch that stabbedthrough my skull! Whang! I whacked my helmet on the canopy as the ship wasbrought to a sudden stop.
Whew! I was dizzy and my head hurt, but I was down. At least I was safe forthe--
Hyperjump! Intrepid was damaged and towing a large mass whose own jump engineswere definitely not sync'd with the carrier's. My insides were twisted andsqueezed; every muscle in my body went into instant spasm. In a nanosecondthat seemed to last a lifetime, I was pulled inside out and then back again.I barely managed to yank my helmet off before I heaved the entire contents ofmy stomach all over the cockpit. But that wasn't enough for my tortured gut,which continued to convulse in a determined effort to add every organ in mybody to the mess.
Finally, all heaved out, I lay helpless in the cockpit, oblivious to the dinaround me. One thought ran through my mind: Welcome to the Union of BorderWorlds, sir. Have a nice day. Welcome to the...
Previews from Chapter 11:
"Besides, Zeke, I think you'll want to stay. We're having Admiral Tolwyn fordinner."
"Jeepers, that's really SICK, Colonel!"
"Make your peace, Blair-ass! Here's an IR up your butt!"