[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander November 11, 1996]
Lt. Cmdr. Ichabod Queue, Intrepid's only surviving intelligence officer, con-ducted the debriefings while I scrounged a dry uniform. I rejoined him for thelast few sessions.
The news was not good. Every patrol was reporting Confed activity; a few hadbeen forced into combat. One of our Vindicator pilots returned shot up afterlosing his wingman. Only Hulk's patrol had failed to make contact. They hadflown toward the Orestes jump point to the limit of their range without findingany evidence of Confed scouts.
As Hulk and his wingman left the ready room, my Mc finished correlating theirreport with the others and displayed its results. Queue and I carefullyexamined the projected Confed dispositions.
Presently, I turned to Queue. "What do you think, Ike? It doesn't look likewe have much of a choice."
He nodded reluctantly. "The Orestes route is suspiciously convenient, Colonel,but you're right: until Intrepid and THX are up to full speed, our options arelimited." He sighed. "I guess I'd better take this to Captain Eisen."
I checked the ready room display. The launch field was fully operational; withthe starboard flight deck finally being cleared, we'd have full launch capacityin a few hours. We had CAP, and additional patrols were being prepared. I wasdue to fly my next patrol in about ninety minutes. I debated whether to eat orsleep. Sleep won; I wasn't hungry enough to face the food dispensers yet.
Checking the "dormitory" bays' status on the display, I was surprised to findthey now contained fighter craft under repair. Looking further, I saw that theship's maintenance department had improvised some new sleeping quarters. Theother Confed pilots and I had been assigned to a former storage hold.
That was good news. My shoulder was aching again; it would feel good to sleepon a real mold-o-matt for a change.
The storage hold was on the starboard side, well forward of the galley, and onedeck down. The area had received no blast damage, but it had obviously taken aheavy shock: pipes, electronic gear, and other equipment had been shaken loosefrom their fittings. One of the airtight hatches I passed through had beensprung by the torpedo impact.
The hold itself was poorly lit and narrow. It held about a dozen double-deckbunks, placed wherever there was room. Most of them were already occupied; nowthat the worst of the damage had been dealt with, people were catching up ontheir sleep.
Cattail was trying to choose between two equally unpromising upper bunks.Vagabond had found a lower bunk and was sitting on it, looking disgusted."Nice. Very nice," he muttered.
"Gentlemen," I greeted them. I kept my voice low to avoid disturbing thesleepers.
"Welcome to our so-called sleeping quarters," said Vagabond.
I didn't answer. The lazy drip, drip, drip of a leaking pipe somewhere in thehold had transported me nearly seventeen years into the past, back to my firstbillet on the old Tiger's Claw. Back then I had bunked with seven otherpilots, in a cramped compartment like this one, with a slow drip from an airpurifier that maintenance just couldn't seem to fix. I closed my eyes. I hadcome full circle. Memories washed over me in a cascade of--
Cattail abruptly yanked me back. "You know, Colonel, I thought I'd finallyfeel useful, here with my own, but instead I just feel like a turncoat. Whatare we doing here, sir?"
Here? Here where? Oh, right. "Uh, we're doing the same thing, Cattail:trying to stop a war. We can do it just as well here as with Confed--better,maybe. Isn't that right, Vagabond?"
He snorted. "Beats me, good buddy. I was just looking for some action."
"Look, I need some cash, OK? Lexington was dead for me, and I figured theBorder Worlders are easy marks--er, no offense, Catscratch."
"None taken, Captain. I've, uh, sworn off cards."
Something wasn't right. "Wait a sec, Vagabond, you always spend every credityou earn--" Then it hit me. "Damn! You've found a woman, haven't you, youold tramp!"
He hesitated, then nodded sheepishly. "OK, OK. A couple of days ago I got atrans from an old...friend. It's a long story, Colonel, but the bottom lineis, I didn't marry her when I had the chance, and someone else got her."
"Let me guess: when you, er, changed careers, right?" I had to be circumspectabout Vagabond's past in front of Cattail.
He nodded. "Anyway, she's free now, and she's offering me a second chance.Colonel, I'm getting so fed up with war, and death, and wandering--I just wantto put down roots, like you. But I need a stake--I can't come back to herempty-handed."
Roots. Yeah, I could sympathize with Vagabond, all right. "I know exactly howyou feel, pal. So when the time comes, I'll use whatever influence I have, tohelp get you a Militia job planetside."
He smiled up at me. "Thanks, good buddy."
I patted Vagabond's shoulder. "I wish you both a--"
"Careful, Ace!" Oh, shit. Maniac! "Don't let your girlfriend catch you withVagabond, Romeo! Haha ha! She'll get jealous!"
Dung beetle. "Maniac, leave Zelda out of--What the hell is that?" I pointedat the footlocker in his hands.
Maniac pretended to notice it for the first time. "Er, this? Uh, just some ofmy stuff." As he knelt to shove it under one of the bunks, one end slipped outof his hand. It hit hard and burst open, scattering its contents on the deck.
It was full of Playboys.
Maniac quickly started gathering up his precious collection. Curious, I kneltand rummaged through the piles. "Hey, here's a thick one: 'Playmates of the25th Century.' Look, holovids! 'Playmate Aerobics.' 'Playmate Vid Calendar.'Whoa!" I held up a small box. "'Miss July Inflatable!' Wow, this I gotta--"
Maniac grabbed it out of my hand. "Gimme that!" He stuck everything back inthe footlocker and pushed it under the bunk. Two other lockers were alreadystashed there.
Vagabond was impressed. "Maniac, how did you smuggle all this off the ship?If anybody had caught you, you'd be in the Lexington's brig right now!"
"Hey, do I look stupid or something? I just took a few at a time, stuffedunder my uniform." He pulled his chest zipper down just enough to reveal thecorner of a magazine.
"But Major," asked Cattail, "didn't your techs wonder why you were making somany trips to your fighter, sir?"
"Those bozos? They ignored me every chance they got!"
One of the advantages of being an asshole, I guess. "Well, if you'll excuseme, gentlemen--and Maniac--I'm going to get some shut-eye." I headed for thenearest empty bunk.
"Sir!" called Cattail. "Watch out for that ba--"
"Eeyyooww!" Oh, shit, it felt like my left shoulder was fractured! Dazed,I tried vainly to scramble to my feet. With Vagabond and Cattail helping, Ifinally made it.
"Sorry, sir," apologized Cattail. "I should have warned you. Primate madehimself a nest up there." He pointed up to a rat's nest of blanket remnants,old cushions, wiring, and other stuff woven among the pipes and conduits.
Reeling with pain, I took a moment to focus. "Primate? Here?"
"Yes, sir. He and Marsupial transferred from that cruiser task force beforewe got here. Primate was wounded in the torpedo attack. The medics justkicked him out of sick bay and sent him here to recuperate."
Another banana peel fell to the deck, missing me by centimeters.
Vagabond picked it up. "Er, they gave him some bananas, too. Medication, hesays."
A new wave of pain hit me. I bit back a scream. "D-dammit, he's not supposedt-t-to get bananas between missions!" Damn, that hurts! "OK, OK, forget him!Which way is the infirmary? Ow! Damn!"
I threaded my way among the bunks and cots jamming the corridors around theinfirmary, clutching my shoulder in a death grip to avoid jolting it. A numberof pharmacist's mates and volunteers were tending the wounded, but when I triedto get them to help me, they just pointed toward the main sick bay.
Despite the increasing agony in my shoulder, I paused outside the door for amoment of heartfelt prayer.
OK, God, I know I shouldn't have asked you for a crew chief like Rachel, and Ipromise not to waste any of your churches, heh heh. I was just joking. But ifyou could maybe give me a medic just a little like Lt. Disch, I'd be ever sograteful, really.
I took a deep breath, crossed my (right hand) fingers and stepped inside.Finding no one in reception, I painfully made my way to the examination area.I was about to call out when one of the curtains was suddenly and forcefullypulled open.
"Eeeeek!" The young lady on the examination table screamed shrilly and triedvainly to pull her legs out of the stirrups. Failing that, she attemptedinstead to cover herself, but was hampered by regen casts on both arms.
I wasn't looking. Standing in front of me was The Medic From Hell.
"Now where the hell did I leave that speculum? Oh! Hi, kid!"
It was a male: fat, gray-haired, with mustache and a gravelly voice, and aboutas far from Disch as you could get. Already nearly in tears from the pain, Ifound the disappointment almost more than I could bear.
The medic spit tobacco juice--tobacco juice, for God's sake!--into a tin cup hewas carrying. He ignored his patient completely. "I'm Robert Sykes, MD, DDS,PhD. Folks call me 'Forceps.'"
"Blair." Despite the pain, I let go of my shoulder and extended my right hand.
"Pleased ta meetcha, kid." He grabbed my left hand and shook vigorously.
"AARRGGHH!" My vision went red for a second, and I nearly fainted.
Forceps was unfazed. "Say, kid, did you know that shoulder's dislocated?Here, let me fix it." He set his cup down. Taking hold of my left shoulder,Forceps put his right hand on my neck and braced himself.
I panicked. "Wait! Wait! How about a painkil--AARRGGHH!" Through a red veilof agony, I felt the shoulder pop back into place. The pain faded until it wasmerely unbearable. I noticed Forceps' patient wincing in sympathy, despite herown predicament. My 'treatment' did not bode well for hers.
Forceps was preparing an injection. "We lost a lot of supplies in the attack,Blair. Cyclomorphedrine's reserved for serious patients. Besides, if you feeltoo good, you'll use your shoulder too soon and aggravate the injury." He putthe hypogun to my shoulder and injected the regen cocktail. Then he quicklyprepared a sling for my left arm. "There you go, kid. Don't fly for at leasta day."
"But it HURTS, dammit!"
Forceps was unsympathetic. "Jesus Christ, kid, you some kinda pussy?" Heretrieved his cup and spat into it.
By now the woman had given up on covering herself, and was trying to willherself invisible. To my amazement, she actually seemed to fade out for asecond, but it was probably just a pain-induced hallucination.
Forceps snapped his fingers. "Now I remember!" He went to the fridge and tookout a durasteel speculum. He grinned at me. "Musta left it there when I gotthat beer out earlier!" He waved the speculum in the sterilizer field, thenwent back to his patient. I caught a glimpse of her staring at the speculumwith wide eyes before Forceps drew the curtain.
From behind the curtain, I heard another shriek.
"Ah, don't be such a baby!"
Outside sick bay, clutching my injured shoulder, I raised my eyes again.
Two churches, God! I owe you two fucking churches!
I went to the Control Bay and took myself off the flight roster. Despite thepain in my shoulder, I tried to help Panties direct flight operations for atime, but the medication was making me too drowsy to concentrate. Finally,Panties tactfully "suggested" I get some rest. I didn't protest.
After a brief detour to the galley for some more tasteless food, I went back tothe storage hold and found myself an empty bunk. Though old, the mold-o-mattconformed to my body reasonably well. With a sigh, I settled on my right sideand closed my eyes.
That was a mistake. All the uncertainties and reservations I'd suppressed nowreturned to torment me. As a presumed traitor, I had forfeited all the honorand respect I'd earned in a lifetime of faithful service. Tolwyn, Paladin,Flint, Rachel...what would they think of me? Worse, I had probably lost mygirls and my farm forever. Depression threatened to envelop me.
Then I remembered another time when all had seemed lost. Court-martialed anddisgraced, I had been exiled to a backwater post and left to rot. Determinedto vindicate myself, I had held on grimly, but the months of monotony finallyeroded my will. Then, just when I was ready to give up, I had received a transfrom some anonymous kid who still believed in me. My faith rekindled, I hadset about preparing for the moment of redemption.
I smiled. I wasn't likely to hear from any kids this time, but I had somethingelse. I fingered my vial of dirt, losing myself in my memories of Zeke's firstvisit...
I had a large kitchen, but with Zeke, the kitchen droid, and myself all workingat once, we barely kept out of each other's way. My droid plucked and cut thechicken, refrigerated part of it, and barbecued the rest using my own recipe.I prepared the onion-broccoli casserole and the corn, while Zeke whipped up asalad from greens he found in the fridge.
Zeke helped me set the dining room table, and then we laid out the feast.Since I wasn't a religious man, and none of Zeke's deities had jurisdictionover the dinner table, we skipped grace and dug in.
Zeke was especially fond of my casserole. "Remarkable, Christopher," hecommented. "Very tasty. You say none of this is from an animal source?"
"None. The cheese is from genetically engineered soybeans; the sauce comesmainly from descendants of Terran dandelions. I'll give you the recipe, if youlike."
"I would be grateful. I am still new at vegetarianism, and my companions havegrown tired of my uninspired menus."
I froze in mid-chew. "Companions?"
"Why, yes, Christopher. Did you think I escaped from Kilrah alone?"
"Actually, I'm amazed you got away at all, Thrak--er, Zeke. We've both hadmiracle escapes over the years, but I thought I had finally nailed you."
Zeke gave me the Kilrathi equivalent of a smile. "Then your Intel is stillignorant of our stealth escape pods? Yes, I had one installed on my personalfighter shortly before your last mission, never thinking I would need it. Ihadn't expected your fighter's cloaking capability!"
My droid brought out the bread, fresh from the oven. I offered it to Zeke.
"Thank you, Christopher. Mmm, the aroma is irresistible! Anyway, to continue:from my pod--which you obviously did not detect--I saw you defeat my wingcats,then descend toward the surface. I noted the bulge under your ship and deducedthat it was a planet-killer. After that, I thought only of escape."
Zeke passed me the salad and I took another generous helping. He had been toomodest about his culinary skills; his creation was delicious.
"Although there were hundreds of ships in orbit that day, it took a very longtime for a corvette to answer my distress beacon. Expecting to die at anysecond, I followed the frantic reports from our air defense command as theytried to to track you all over the planet--200,000 klicks at least! Tell me,Christopher, why such an intricate bomb run? Was it just evasive flying?"
The answer involved Angel, and I needed a moment to prepare myself. DespiteZeke's sincere wish for peace between us, I found it hard to discuss my belovedwith the creature responsible for her death.
"Angel worked out the flight path, taking into account the target location,ground defenses, terrain, and so on. It was, um, a tad indirect."
"Indirect! My friend, Kilrah was only 53,000 klicks in circumference!"
I was reluctant to speak ill of the dead, but Zeke deserved the truth. "Angelhad...a fault common among human females: she had no sense of direction."
Perhaps sensing my discomfort, Zeke was tactful. "Such a characteristic couldprove...inconvenient at times."
"Don't get me started!" I thought of that time on Vespus when I fell asleepwhile Angel was driving. I woke up to find us on the third moon! Angel juststared straight ahead and said, through clenched teeth, "Not one fuckeeng word,Chrees, or you weel be humpeeng your hand for ze rest of our leave!"
I noticed Zeke's glass was empty. "More orange juice, Zeke? Or would you liketo try prune juice? Some humans call it a true warrior's drink."
He made a face and put a paw on his stomach. "I have tried it before. It didnot agree with me." He looked thoughtful as he poured OJ. "Then Angel's, er,'gift' probably explains the mystery of her capture. The responsible officerswore that he had taken them when they stopped to ask directions. It was soimprobable that I always suspected he was lying, but now..."
I nodded. "Angel must have been driving. Male humans, of course, would ratherdie than ask." I finished my chicken--except for a few morsels for the girls--and licked my fingers. "Zeke, their ship was just packed with surveillanceequipment. How is it you remained ignorant of Angel's true mission?"
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "Er, they had an extremely elaboratecover story prepared, Christopher. We were unable to penetrate it." Zeke tookan ear of corn and pretended to be absorbed in devouring it.
"Uh, yes." He avoided my eyes. "They, er, said they were making a NationalGeographic documentary. Colonel Devereaux very nearly got away with a fine anda warning."
Yeah, that fit. Zeke's kind were brave and skillful warriors, but the dumbestrutabaga in my garden had more brains than the average Kilrathi. The wonderwasn't that Angel had deceived the cats, but that they had caught her in thefirst place...
I awoke with a start. What the--
"Ow! Goddamned banana peel!" I stared bleary-eyed at Lt. Homes, who wasrubbing his hindquarters and cursing in the direction of Primate's nest. Therewas no answer. Primate was either gone or keeping mum.
I checked my watch. Wow, I had slept almost six hours! Reluctantly, I swungmy feet down and lurched out of bed. My shoulder was feeling much better, andI had work to do.
I interrupted Churlokk's inspired ranting and offered him my bunk, which hegratefully accepted. He fell asleep almost instantly. Poor Homes had beenflying simulators and fighters almost non-stop, in a crash effort to earn thatnew Vindicator badge now displayed proudly on his uniform. He'd done well toqualify on fighters so quickly, but he was still far from being a combat pilot.
As I turned to go, I noticed my Confed uniform hanging neatly by my bunk. Ithad been cleaned and pressed. Someone had applied a Union Militia patch to theright shoulder, and a Banshee flight badge over the left breast pocket.
Damn, it had to be Zelda. That lovestruck kid just couldn't do enough for me.If only she weren't so...so... I sighed and put on the clean uniform. Not toplease Zelda, of course, but, er, because I had slept in the other one.
I checked in at the Control Bay, but there was no news. The task force wasstill heading for the Orestes jump point, and our patrols had lost contact withConfed forces. Hulk was directing flight ops while Panties got some rest. Heseemed to be doing all right, so I got some chow--ugh--and went looking forZelda. I couldn't fly yet, but I could at least start the simulator phase ofmy Avenger qualification program.
I discovered Zelda in "her" workshop in Bay 27. She was surrounded by theremnants of at least one Hellcat, probably two. As I watched curiously, Zeldacarefully removed the core from an inertial damper unit and placed it in amagnetically shielded spare part container. With a sigh of satisfaction, shestraightened up and stretched her cramped muscles.
She reminded me of Rachel, after polishing off a field mouse or two. "Well,Chief," I said. "You seem pretty proud of yourself."
Zelda turned her head and gave me a lazy smile. "I am, honeybunch. As spareparts, those Hellcats of yours will put six of our fighters back in space. AndI can use some of their armor on that Vindicator that came back with its assshot up. And this core here goes into one of my pet projects. Here, I'll showyou."
I followed Chief Morgenstern as she carried the part container to another benchbehind several porta-potties. Sitting on the bench was a...a contraption ofsome sort with a rounded cylinder sticking vertically out of it. With itsslight bulge at the tip, it resembled nothing so much as a nightmare electronicdildo, except that it was a bit too big.
"Uh, what is it, Chief? It looks like a--"
"No, silly! It's a cloaking device!"
Yeah, right. "Pull the other one, Chief. I saw the cloaker they installed inmy Excalibur for the Kilrah run, and this looks nothing like it. For onething, mine was much bigger. Uh, the cloaker, I mean."
"That's because those Confed eggheads were blindly copycatting the Kilrathinitwits who invented it. How close did you get to that fiend, Thrakhath,before you uncloaked and blasted him to hell?"
Hey, that 'fiend' is my neighbor! "Uh, about two hundred klicks."
"You see? To defeat sensors at that range, you need raw power! The cats alsodesigned their cloakers to ambush at close range, but given the power-to-massratio, they had to install them on those flimsy Strakha deathtraps. Confedused an improved design which could handle the mass of an Excalibur, but theunit was still huge and complex."
I began to see what she was driving at. "So you accepted a lower cloakingthreshold, hence a smaller, simpler, cheaper unit. But the inverse-square lawis in your favor. So what's the effective stealth range?"
"About ten to twenty thousand klicks, depending on the sensor and the mass ofthe fighter."
Shit. "Uh, don't call us, Chief, we'll call you."
She gave me a knowing smile. "Laugh away, skeptic. You'll come crawling toZelda soon enough."
"Actually, I'm crawling now, Chief. If you have time, I want you to help mestart my Avenger qualification."
She made a face. "Why do you want a pig like the Avenger, hot stuff? You wereborn to fly Banshees."
"In the long run, I can't command this wing unless I can fly every fighter init. Look, if you don't have time, I can always get Lt. Mourne..."
"No, no," she said hastily. "I'll help you. If your shoulder's OK, that is."
"It's fine," I lied. "The sling is just a precaution. Old Forceps is such amother hen."
She snorted. "It's a good thing you fly better than you bullshit, snugglebuns.OK, iron man, let's hit the simulator." She grabbed my hand before I couldhide it in my pocket, and refused to relinquish it until I climbed into thesimulator.
Zelda was right: compared to the Banshee, the Avenger was a real pig to fly.It was, however, a bit faster and more nimble than the Longbow, and its four-torp salvo was an improvement over the Longbow's two by two; I had seen toomany Longbows toasted while trying to make a second torpedo run. On the otherhand, the Avenger paid for its improvements with thinner armor, weaker shields,and half the Longbow's missile load.
Frankly, I was disappointed. A little extra speed and agility wouldn't turnthe Avenger into a dogfighter, but a bit more firepower and protection mightmake all the difference on a torpedo run. If I'd taken an Avenger against thepirate frigate or the cruiser task force, I probably wouldn't have survived.
With my left hand essentially immobilized, I concentrated on pure flying, whichI could do mostly with my right hand. When I could spare it, I used my righthand on left hand controls, such as throttle and weapons panel, but mostlyZelda ran them from the control booth. Progress was about as good as one couldexpect, given my temporary handicap. Zelda figured I'd be ready to solo assoon as we reached Orestes.
We were examining flight recordings of Avenger torpedo runs when Panties stuckher head in the sim compartment.
"Mav--Earthworm! Get your butt down to CIC! Patrol's just detected Confedfighters ahead of us." She popped out before I could reply.
Shit! Intrepid was in no shape for a fight. Our only hope had been to sneakaway to a dockyard, but now, with more patrols undoubtedly closing in behindus, we'd be detected and--Hmm. I had an idea.
"Zelda, how would you like to meet Captain Eisen?"
I caught her by surprise. "Uh, OK, sweetie. Are you sure this is, uh, theright time?"
I smiled at her. "Oh, yes!"
"Colonel Blair, are you out of your cotton-picking mind?"
I stood firm. "It's the only way, Captain. We know Lexington's fighter winghas been reinforced. We won't have a prayer in a stand-up fight."
I was right and Eisen knew it, but he didn't like it at all. "Colonel, can youreally fly an Avenger?"
Zelda and I exchanged glances.
"Like he was born in one, Captain," said Zelda decisively.
Eisen still wasn't convinced. "What about your shoulder?"
I slipped off the sling and wiggled my fingers. I hoped the pain didn't showon my face. "Nearly 100%, sir. The sling's just a precaution. Old Forceps--"
"--is such a mother hen, Captain!" continued Zelda smoothly.
"Very well." Captain Eisen knew when he was licked. "We'll do it your way,Colonel. Good luck."
Zelda and I saluted smartly and headed for the door. We were halfway throughwhen Eisen called out to us.
"Chief Morgenstern! Does that contraption of yours really work?"
She didn't blink an eye. "Like a charm, sir!" she said cheerily. Zelda keptsmiling until the door slid shut, then she turned to me and wiped her forehead.
"Whew! You sure like living dangerously, deadeye! We'll be lucky if we'renot court-martialed for that little performance."
"Cheer up, Chief. If we don't perform as advertised, we won't live to see theinside of a brig."
"Comforting thought. OK, I'm gonna prep your Avenger and install the cloaker.Maybe it'll actually work this time!"
Her grin was contagious. "Comforting thought." I turned serious. "Uh, Chief?Why'd you back me up in there?"
Her smile faded. "You know why," she said quietly.
Shit. "Look, Chief, there's no way you and I--"
She shook her head. "No use fighting it, Honeyblair. We were meant for eachother. You'll realize that, sooner or later." She turned and walked off.
Shit. She was a nice kid, and a top tech, but Chief Morgenstern was too...er, she wasn't very... Well, for one thing, she was too young!
My squadron leaders didn't like the plan either, but I outranked them. "Thetask force is taking a detour to the Orestes jump point," I said. "Just keepscouts ahead of you. If all goes well, the most you'll run into is a patrolsor two. If I fail..." We all knew what that meant. "Just don't wait for me.If I'm not back by the time you jump, it means I've been caught or killed."
Hulk held out his hand. "Hulk wish Earthworm good luck."
"Thanks, Hulk." My right hand practically disappeared in his huge paw. "Yeow!Easy, Hulk, I only have one left! Er, right."
Panties was still unhappy. "We have a dozen pilots on this ship more qualifiedfor this mission, Colonel. You're risking hundreds of lives just so you canfly it like a fucking Boy Scout!"
No, I just didn't want it flown by someone indifferent to the lives of myfriends on the Lexington. "I told you, Colonel Farnsworth: if we play toorough, this thing will get out of control. As for qualifications, I'm theHeart of the Tiger, remember? I eat missions like this for breakfast, girlie!"
Maniac pre-empted her retort. "Just don't be late to the jump point, hero!Can't keep your little grease monkey waiting! Haha ha!"
"Come back to me, my love."
Zelda handed me the thermos of tomato soup and gave me a quick peck on thecheek before scrambling back down the ladder. I checked my cheek for woundsbefore donning my helmet and closing the canopy. Pre-flight had gone well. Alittle flexing had loosened up my left arm, and now I placed the hand carefullyon the throttle. The fingers were still a bit stiff, but I could reach all thebuttons. Cleared to launch. OK, take it nice and easy...
Whoops! My stiff left hand overadjusted the thrusters, and the Avenger leapedforward! I caught the launch field and the Avenger vaulted into space. I wasstill fighting the thrusters when the engines ignited and sent me into a pairof CAP Banshees. Frantically, I pulled on the stick, missing them by a hair'sbreadth! Heart in my throat, I shakily settled into stable flight.
Five thousand klicks out, SoSo commed me on a tight beam. "Wow, spectacularlaunch, Colonel! How'd you get so good on the Avenger so fast?"
"Uhh... Hey, I'm the Wing Commander, remember? Um, I'm cloaking now." Zeldahad installed her device in the space normally occupied by the fighter'ssecondary weapons. I painfully set the cloaking controls with my left hand andengaged Zelda's device.
The effect was less pronounced than what I remembered from the Excalibur,though it was still unmistakable. A cloaking field absorbed little inbound EM,but almost all outbound. My sensors registered reduced input, and the star-light coming through my canopy dimmed.
"It's working, Colonel!" SoSo's signal had also faded. "Your return is muchfainter!"
We calibrated the effect using tight beam active sensors from the Intrepid,then corrected for nebula effects. In combat, detection range would depend onthe sensor types arrayed against me. Under those conditions, SoSo estimatedmaximum detection range at fifteen to twenty thousand klicks.
I set off at the Avenger's best cruise speed. From the pattern of activecontacts our patrols had encountered, we had a vague idea of Lexington'sposition, but I had to pinpoint her. I prayed that Gant was using his capshipactive sensors to augment the search for Intrepid. He had outsmarted us oncealready, of course, but I knew he was under intense pressure to deliverdecisive results.
For the next few hours, I carefully threaded my way between Lexington's far-flung patrols. I was beginning to despair of finding the carrier, when Icaught a faint echo of ship-to-ship comm chatter. Quickly, I turned in theindicated direction, and soon I was picking up more. I couldn't descramble it,of course, but it guided me like a beacon. Soon I left the nebula and itsdampening effects behind, and picked up Lexington's active sensor signature.
And more. The entire task force was present, disposed in a vast triangle withdestroyers at the points and Lexington in the center. The formation's face wastoward the nebula. Distance was hard to estimate from passive data, but as Icruised at a safe range, my AI could take parallax readings.
If the entire task force was here, roughly between my launch position and theOrestes jump point, the patrols behind Intrepid must be coming from units ofthe Third Fleet. Gant was apparently patrolling with no more than two fightersquadrons, leaving four to strike the Unionists when found; the task force CAPwas being provided by Hellcats from the three destroyers.
With firmer distance data from my AI, I took up a position between the twoleading destroyers, about 50,000 klicks from each and well ahead of Lexington.Keeping an eye out for stray CAP or returning patrols, I settled down to wait.Every hour Intrepid went undetected put her an hour closer to safety. I beganto hope we could escape without a fight.
My hopes were dashed within minutes. SoSo suddenly came on the comm.
"EarthwormConfedpatrolhasfoundus!" She caught herself and went on more calmly."Task force going active! Launching fighters and running for the jump point!"She gave a position just outside the nebula and only two million klicks away."Good luck, Colonel!" SoSo signed off.
Captain Gant would start launching within minutes, so I had to act fast. Iturned the Avenger toward Lexington, went to full speed, and armed torpedoes insalvo mode. Thirty thousand klicks...twenty-five...twenty...active emissionswere steadying on me...fifteen--shit! They had me!
Uncloak! Activate sensors! Gun power to shields! Torpedoes locking! CAPcoming after me, but they're way behind! Ten thousand! Lexington's firing allshe's got! Bam! Bam! Evade, Blair--No! Don't lose lock!
Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! Jesus, how'd they get close enough to--no, they're justtrying to distract me. Bam! Bam! Shit, they did! Corkscrew--oops, almostlost lock! Careful, Blair, you're not an ace with this bird yet!
Five thousand! Nearly locked! Steady up, Blair, you gotta hit this ship headon, and it's a damn small target from this angle! Bam! Bam! Clang! Shield'sfailing, transfer some engine power! Locked! Steady...launch! Clang! Clang!Crack in the canopy! Comm damage! Shit, guns damaged! Engines max, the restto shields! Turn, Blair, turn!
I switched views to keep Lexington in sight. Yeah, rows of fighters were linedup, ready for--shit, they're launching already! Here comes a Thunder--
KERBLAM-BLAM-BLAM-BLAM! Four warheads exploded simultaneously against the bow!Lexington seemed to slam into a neutronium wall. Pieces of Thunderbolt emergedfrom the near side of the fireball.
I steadied on a course for the Orestes jump point and lit the afterburner. Nopoint in setting an indirect course when Gant knew the Union ships' location.
I still had a few seconds before the CAP closed in on me. I stole a quick lookback at Lexington--yes! No explosive decompression, minimal debris, no bodies,and no secondary explosions. The bow was crumpled and twisted, but transverseforce fields further aft must still be intact. The launch gear, however, wouldneed a dockyard to restore. With only his few destroyer-based fighters stillavailable, Gant had lost fighter superiority at this end of Silenos.
I was content. Lexington was no further threat, my former comrades aboard werealmost certainly safe and sound--especially Disch!--and, whatever happened tome, Intrepid and her escorts should make their escape unmolested. All in all,a good day's--
"Blair! I know that's you, you filthy coward!" Lemonlips was calling me onthe general channel! Oh boy, could this possibly get any better?
"You can't escape, traitor! We'll nail you, and we'll get all your barbarianfriends!" I could see other comm personnel crowding behind him, eager for apeek at the notorious traitor.
OK, time to taunt the pants off--Wait a sec! This guy could be useful...
I activated the comm. "Vinny, honey! Thank God you're still alive!"
"Huh?" The shock on his face was comical.
"Oh, Vinny, when I think of those long, sultry nights we shared in your cabin,I miss you so much, darling!"
Garr's colleagues were starting to edge away from him, or shooting him strangelooks. In confusion, Garr turned from one to the other. "No! It's not true!He's lying! It was Gant, not Bl--Oops! I mean--"
I pretended to be hurt. "Oh, Vinny! And you said I was the only one! Youbitch!" I killed transmission. Four Hellcats were coming up on my six, and Iwanted to go out in a blaze of--Wait! They were falling behind...
"Hahaha! Hey, Vinny! I'd like to spend some 'long sultry nights' in yourcabin, sweetmeat!" My AI identified a lagging Hellcat as the source.
"No, Vinny!" broke in his buddy, in a convincing falsetto. "Choose me! I'llwear my new lace panties! Hahaha!"
Another Hellcat pilot, a female, came on the comm. "Oh, Lt. Garr, I had noidea you were so sensitive! How about a threesome with me and my wingman?Heeheehee!"
Now other pilots were joining the fun. Even the destroyer comm officers chimedin. Garr answered each taunt with a savage fury that only provoked hisantagonists to greater efforts. The CAP pilots had completely forgotten aboutme in their zeal to roast Garr.
I killed afterburner and sat back to enjoy the show. To suggest that theuniversally despised Garr could be attractive to anyone--of either sex--hadbeen an inspiration. The result was a masterpiece of irony, with my archenemycast as the very instrument of my escape. This was definitely one for theGuinness Book of Taunts!
Twenty thousand klicks from the nearest Confed sensor, I activated cloak andredirected power to autorepair. Reaction was setting in again, but I took itin stride. This latest miracle mission should convince the remaining skepticsin the wing, even Panties. My qualifications to be Wing Commander would beundisputed now.
Still, though, I was never one for half-measures. Was there something more Icould do to further cement my position? I considered all I had learned aboutBorder Worlders in the last few days, and decided there was. Thank goodness Ihad brought along tomato soup today--it was the only thing from the fooddispensers that didn't taste like liquefied cardboard.
I found the task force some distance from the jump point, but I didn't revealmyself right away. While shadowing the capships and accompanying fighters, Imade final preparations for the dramatic return of the Heart of the Tiger.
As it neared the jump point, Intrepid began taking its fighters back on board.That was my cue. I increased speed and decloaked. Flying erratically, I cameup on Intrepid from the rear. Intrepid immediately tried to contact me, but Ididn't answer, even as the attempts grew more and more insistent.
Finally, I could stand it no longer. I activated the comm and quickly assumedmy pose.
SoSo's face appeared on my screen. Obviously relieved to contact me at last,she bubbled over with emotion. "OhColonelthankGodwethoughtyouwere--" Shefroze in shock.
I was slumped in my seat, head lolling to the side, helmet off. Tomato soupran from my hair down my left forehead, over my closed left eye--which I hadblackened with grease--and down my left cheek. More soup covered the leftshoulder of my flight suit, and my hand, which I held out in supplication, wasslathered in simulated gore.
"EEEEEEEK!!!" SoSo burst into frenzied activity. "Medic! Medic! Flightdeck, incoming wounded! Hang on, Colonel, we're--"
Weakly, I parted my lips, and more soup trickled from the corner of my mouth.As SoSo watched in horror, I tried piteously to speak. "Urk...ung..." Icollapsed and made no further movement.
"NOOOOO!! Oh God, Chris, please don't die on me!" SoSo was almost in tears."We need you, Chris! We--What the hell?"
Grinning, I sat up and started wiping my face with with a handkerchief. "Why,SoSo! I didn't know you cared!"
For several seconds, SoSo didn't make a move, not even a twitch. Then, Iswear, the whole comm screen turned red to match her apoplectic complexion. Ina voice I hope I never again hear this side of Hell, she screamed,"GoddammitColonelIhavenotimeforthisshit!!" and broke the connection.
"Hey! Where's my clearance?"
Probably half of Intrepid's surviving crew was down on the flight deck towelcome me. When I popped the canopy, they broke into a deafening ovation,punctuated by cries of "Bravo!" and "Encore! Encore!" I waved from thecockpit, then quickly climbed down the ladder. I gratefully accepted a towelfrom a grinning Barr. Zelda pounced on me joyfully and hugged me so hard Icould hardly breathe. I high-fived deckhands and accepted a hug from Lt.Tennant. When Lt. Mourne tried to embrace me, however, Zelda quickly steppedbetween us.
The cheering crowd parted as Hulk cleared a path for Panties. Smiling, shewalked up to me and stuck out her hand. "Welcome back...Wing Commander!"
I took her hand gratefully. "Thank you...Tamara." At the mention of Panties'first name, Zelda shot me a warning look. I quickly let go of her hand.
"Excellent performance, Colonel," continued Panties. "I was nearly in tears.I assume your mission was just as successful?"
"Mission?" For a moment I was confused. "Oh, the mission!" I turned to lookat my battered Avenger. The leading surfaces were pocked and warped by laserfire, and the armor had burned through in several places. I turned back toPanties.
"Piece of cake..." I put my arm around Zelda. "...thanks to Chief Morgensternhere." Zelda smiled up at me with a look of gratitude on her face that I'llnever forget--though I'll certainly try.
Previews from Chapter 14:
"The missing transmissions seem to relate to that biochemist and the Masaspacelab."
"Suppose I stop in some time to inspect your equipment."
"Woo! One less Confed!"