[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander August 19, 1997]
I paused just outside the hatch to the Vesuvius' bridge. So far I had seen nothing but unconscious crewmen, but I was taking no chances. Tolwyn was a sneaky bastard, and I wouldn't put it past him to have some kind of defense against even the T-pak.
Taking a deep breath, I activated the door and plunged through. Diving to one side, I came up in a kneeling position behind a console, tensely waving my weapon in search of targets.
There were none. Everyone on the bridge was unconscious.
Cautiously, I rose to my feet and approached the command seat from behind. As the white hair of my victim came into view, I smiled grimly and raised my photon pistol. Tolwyn's mad dream was about to end with a bang, not a whimper, as a photon charge flash-boiled his brain and splattered it all over--
Except that the hair was too long; it wasn't Tolwyn!
Disappointed, I spun the seat around. The white-haired occupant was a captain, not an admiral, and his name tag read "Blyght," not "Tolwyn." Yeah, I had heard of Captain Blyght, an officer with a good record and a reputation as a disciplinarian. Was he a conspirator, too, or was he just another innocent victim, like the rest of the crew?
No time for speculation. I hurriedly pulled the comatose helmswoman away from the controls and checked the autopilot. I made a few minor adjustments to keep the ship stable, reduced speed to dead slow, then moved to the sensor station. There I noted shuttles in the landing pattern; a glance at the flight ops station showed the landing field still steady. The autoland system had engaged itself when the first shuttle entered the pattern and received no answer to its clearance request.
I transferred comm control to the bridge--Vinny certainly wouldn't object, heh heh--and raised Intrepid again. Though somewhat less fuzzy than before, Sosa's image still flickered and cut out occasionally, testimony to the pounding the ship had taken.
"Hi, Chris," she said, managing to muster a wan smile. There was a regen patch over her cut, and she'd cleaned most of the blood off her face. "Good work on Vesuvius. Our first shuttle should be there now." She hesitated a moment before going on. "Chris, the crew of Vesuvius...are they...?"
"Alive," I answered. "Most of them, anyway. Listen, I want you to contact the other ships and call a truce. There's nothing to gain from further fighting, and we have a lot of wounded to tend. Vesuvius has the best facilities, so the ones we can move should be sent here. I want healthy Union survivors armed, and a guard on Vesuvius' armory. Disarm the incoming Confeds, but don't treat 'em like prisoners. When they see our evidence, they'll be on our side anyway. Got it?"
"Right, sir. Unionists armed, Confeds disarmed, but not prisoners."
"Good. Have Barfly and his Bearcats escort the surviving Hellcats to Vesuvius. I want all remaining fighters rearmed and manned by Union pilots to enforce the truce and watch for Confed reinforcements. Vesuvius out." OK, that should take care of the Confeds for a while. Now to resume my interrupted search for Admiral--
I heard the hatch opening behind me! Heart in my mouth, I whirled, my finger already squeezing the trigger of my photon pistol. That bastard Tolwyn was trying to ambush--
It was Lt. Pilotte! At the last instant, I'd managed to divert my aim; the blast scorched the bulkhead half a meter from her pretty face.
"Eeeeek! Oh, it's you, sir!" She slumped against the bulkhead, hand over her heart. "Jesus, sir!" she gasped. "You nearly scared my hair straight!"
I shakily lowered my weapon. "S-sorry, Skye, but you gave me quite a turn, too. What are you doing here?"
Stepping over prostrate bodies, Skye somewhat unsteadily made her way toward the helm. "Intrepid's dead in space, sir, so I was out of a job. Commander Ander brought me over on the first shuttle, to take over--Oooooooo!" Squealing with delight, she grasped Vesuvius' spiffy new helm control. "Look, sir! It's the new BattleCruiser 4040 AD joystick! Confed must have adopted it for their new ships! Oh, this is a real treat!" She caressed it with a loving, almost sexual fervor.
I swallowed hard, my eyes riveted by the sensuous motion of her hand. "Uh, I'm glad you like-- Er, forty-FORTY? There's a sequel already? When did they release the first--"
"They didn't," she replied absently, investigating the numerous buttons and switches on her new toy. "All the hype for the 4000 AD add-ons generated so much interest that they decided to do the sequel before the orig-- Oh, look, sir! A pushbutton link to the Official BattleCruiser 4040 AD G-Spot!"
"Mmm." Watching her, I realized that Tolwyn wasn't as smart as he thought he was. He could have made a lot more money with a lot less effort by marketing vaporware. I found that thought profoundly depressing.
"Uh, carry on, Lieutenant." I headed for the exit, gloomily wondering if stopping Tolwyn today would make any real difference to humanity in the long run.
Tolwyn wasn't in the flag quarters, nor was he in any of the other officers' cabins I searched. I gave up and headed for the flight deck. Tolwyn would keep; alive or dead, he couldn't hide forever. In the meantime, I had to check on Intrepid's incoming survivors.
On the flight deck, I found two shuttles unloading wounded, and a third just departing. Peering aft, I could make out the lights of other birds in the landing pattern, many more than Intrepid carried. Apparently the Confeds had agreed to the truce and were taking advantage of the haven offered by the Vesuvius.
In a nearby bay, Zelda and two of her techs were servicing a Bearcat. The pilot was nowhere in sight, but he had to be from the St. Melons; none of the other ships carried Bearcats. Wearily, I plodded over to the bay. My blood lust had worn off, and now the strain of the last few days was catching up to me.
Zelda was seated in an autoloader, efficiently hanging shiny new missiles on the Bearcat's racks. When she saw me, she gave a joyous whoop and vaulted off the vehicle; pouncing with her usual enthusiasm, she nearly knocked me over.
"Oof! Zelda, how many times have I--mmpphh!" My objections were smothered by her hungry lips. Too tired to fight her off, I put up with her kisses until she'd had her fill and let me loose. One of Zelda's techs casually handed me a WipeX; dabbing it on my new wounds, I glared at him, daring him to smile. He didn't.
Zelda was looking at my unclipped holster. "Did you find him?" she asked.
I shook my head. "He's either hiding or lying unconscious somewhere; or blown out into space. But never mind him. You OK?"
She nodded. "Most of Intrepid's damage is on the port side. I was in a starboard service bay, working on a shuttle. We took a lot of casualties." She glanced out at the flight deck, where an incoming shuttle from the TCS Pocahontas was being met by armed Union crewmen. "Looks like we weren't the only ones."
"Yeah. Thank God it's over. Listen, hon, I know you're tired, but we need our fighters turned around as soon as possible. I don't want the Confeds thinking they can break the truce and get away with it."
She grinned at me. "No problem, Blairbear!" she said, sweeping her hand around the bay. "With all this shiny new equipment, it'll be a pleasure!" Giving me a farewell peck on the cheek--and a new nick--she strode back to the autoloader and resumed her tasks.
"Colonel, do you know that, er, person?"
I recognized the voice even before I turned around. Yeah, it was Barfly, coming in from the flight deck with his flight suit over his arm. He was looking in Zelda's direction and frowning.
Grinning, I reached out to clasp his hand. "Yeah, I know her. Don't judge her by her looks, OK?"
"If you say so, sir," he replied, looking skeptically at the new wounds on my lips. He let go of my hand and started struggling into his flight suit. "Mmpphh. Damn, I hate putting this on."
"Then why'd you take it off?" I reached down to help him with his left leg.
"Damn Bearcat. Mmpphh. She's a sweet ship, Colonel, but in all the times I've flown her, not once has the damn relief kit worked right! Can you help me with the...yeah, that's it. So as soon as I landed, I had to get out of my monkey suit and hit the head. Ah, that did it. Thanks, sir."
I took an instant liking to this guy; we had a lot in common. "My pleasure, Captain Thyme. After all, you saved my life."
"Justin, OK? And you saved mine first." He looked at me earnestly. "Remember that bar on Nephritis 2? You gave me cash to get laid? I went to the local cathouse, only when I got there, it turned out my old squadron leader was, er, an employee. We started talking over old times, and pretty soon we were both feeling pretty ashamed of ourselves; finally we just walked out. At the spaceport, she talked us into a job flying escort for a two-bit freight outfit. The pay was lousy, and our Hellcats were deathtraps, but it was honest work."
He shuddered, obviously reliving those terrible weeks. It couldn't have been easy for him, kicking the bottle while under constant threat of pirate attack.
"Anyway," he continued, "our last run was to Starbase Thorn. Your Captain Eisen arrived about the same time and raised quite a ruckus. Not everybody believed his story--my friend didn't--but when we heard the Heart of the Tiger was fighting for him, a bunch of us signed on. We commandeered the St. Melons and four new Bearcats and took off to intercept Tolwyn. Got the shock of our lives when we found you guys already here slugging it out."
I looked at him with new respect. This clean-cut, rangy professional was a sharp contrast to the bleary-eyed, slack-jawed derelict I'd met in the bar two long months before. It was, I realized, the difference between a man with hope and one without.
"Er, ahem. Sounds like you saved your own life, Cap--er, Justin. In any case, I'm glad to have you here. How many of your Bearcats left?"
He snapped to attention. "Two, sir. Ah, three, but the third's in no shape to fly. Your orders?"
"Patrol the jump point. Nobody, and I mean NOBODY, goes through. I don't want Tolwyn stealing a shuttle somehow and escaping. If a Confed vessel tries anything funny, shoot without warning. Got it?"
He saluted. "Yessir." He looked inquiringly at Zelda, who gave him a thumbs-up. Donning his flight helmet, he climbed up into the cockpit.
As the whine of thrusters built up behind me, I left in search of a spare shuttle. With my Dragon shot up, I was out of a job as a combat pilot. As a rescue pilot, however, I could still make myself useful.
I made two round trips to Intrepid, transferring both wounded and able-bodied survivors to their warm and cozy refuge on Vesuvius. Fatigue was setting in, but when we were down to the final load, I waved the other shuttles off. I was Intrepid's acting Captain, and it was my duty to be on the last rescue flight. With Tolwyn neutralized, I could sleep later.
Along the way, I reduced the cabin pressure to match Intrepid's dwindling atmosphere, swallowing again and again to pop my ears. The carrier was losing air more slowly now, but she was already down to 60% of normal pressure, about the least an unacclimated human could tolerate. Soon the emergency force fields would fail, and the rest of Intrepid's air would puff out into space.
Despite her damage, Intrepid's landing field was still operational; the ship's engineers had channeled most of her remaining power to the flight deck. I set the shuttle down just outside Bay 15, where the last survivors were huddled in a dim pool of light. I lowered the ramp and went back to help with the loading.
Despite the insulation of my flight suit, I shivered as a draft of cold air came through the cockpit hatch. The Eczema jump point was located in the far reaches of the Noxzema System; the sun's feeble light carried precious little warmth at this distance.
Forceps was already aboard, kneeling over a still figure on a grav stretcher while a deckhand secured it for flight. I walked over and looked down at the patient. I could identify her as female, but that was about it; she was bundled in a thermoblanket, and an oxygen mask obscured most of her face. Her forehead bore the characteristic red splotches of extended decompression.
"Hi, Forceps," I said. "I thought the wounded were already aboard Vesuvius."
He glanced up at me for a second, then turned his attention back to his charge. "Couldn't move her," he said curtly. "Had ta stabilize her first." He spat into his cup and peered intently at his medkit readouts. "She'll make it now."
"Who is it?"
Behind me, a new voice spoke up. "It's Jailbait--er, Yanni--sir."
I turned and found Ensign Swenson standing in his space suit, minus helmet. I hadn't seen much of him since that first funeral ceremony on Intrepid, nearly six weeks ago.
"Yokely? Shit, Swenson, I thought everyone in 'A' turret was a goner."
"No, sir. They knew it was dangerous to use D batteries in that faerie weapon, so they rigged a safety delay. Yanni was the last one out; when the turret fired and blew, she was caught on the wrong side of a hatch. Sucked vac for nearly two minutes before I found her an' stuffed her in a rescue bag."
I shuddered, imagining her terror: suffocating, tugging futilely at an immovable hatch in the icy silence...until unconsciousness mercifully put an end to her ordeal... Ugh. I had a morbid fascination with death by decompression.
Swenson tapped my arm to get my attention again. "Sir? Request permission to stay with the dea--er, my shipmates--until they're...evacuated. I have my suit, plenty of air tanks--"
"Denied." After a few hours in the dark, surrounded by the frozen stares of his former pals, he'd probably pop his own suit. "The living need you more, Swenson." I searched the line of crewmen shuffling up the ramp. "No Sosa. Why am I not surprised? Swenson, you're in charge here. Get everyone aboard and button up." I pulled a spare oxytank and flash off the bulkhead rack and started down the ramp.
"Er, aye aye, sir." He sketched a salute and reluctantly turned to his new task.
I trudged wearily along Intrepid's dark and frozen passageways, using my flash to pick my way over debris and bodies. The grav generators were gradually winding down as their power supply dwindled, which helped somewhat, but I was still panting heavily in the thin atmosphere. Finally I gave up and put on my flight helmet, stopping momentarily to savor the oxygen-rich canned air.
As I walked, crawled, and climbed, the dancing shadows around me revived childhood fears of ghosts and monsters and other denizens of the dark. I saw shapes moving in my peripheral vision; I heard sounds where there was no one to make them. In such a situation, rational thinking was no match for fear; I had more success imagining the shadows as Zelda's benign "faeries." I hoped they were on their way to my shuttle; neither ET nor human could survive much longer on this hulk.
The doors to CIC were stuck half open; I pried them apart a little more to accommodate my flight suit. Once inside, I removed my helmet and headed for the light in the comm alcove.
Sosa was still at her console, chattering into the comm. Despite her bulky coat and a blanket over her legs, she was shivering in the sub-zero air. Nevertheless, she seemed determined to do her duty to the bitter end.
Sosa must have heard me behind her, but she gave no sign. Switching channels, she barked out another message.
Rollins was apparently St. Melons' comm officer as well as her captain. His reply followed on the heels of Sosa's transmission.
The rest of their exchange was much too fast for me to follow; it seemed Sosa had finally found someone who could keep up with her.
I put my hand on her shoulder. "Time to go, Lieutenant," I said softly.
She shook her head. "N-not yet, sir. We still have m-missing pilots, both Union and C-C-Con--"
I lifted her out of her seat--a simple feat in the fading gravity--and set her down in front of me.
"Here," I said, handing her the oxytank. "Put on the mask." Taking her place at the console, I switched to the general channel and sent out a priority call.
"Intrepid closing down. Coordinate rescue ops through TCS St. Melons." Not waiting for acknowledgements, I secured the comm and activated the navhaz beacons. Noting the exact time--Border World time--of shutdown, I made the final log entry and downloaded the log to a data cartridge.
Sosa was standing near the porta-potty, staring into the frosty darkness. She jumped when I touched her arm.
"Wha? Oh. S-sorry, Chris." Her voice was muffled by the mask, and her teeth were chattering, but I could still detect a wistful note. "I was j-just wondering: will we ever b-b-be together in a p-place that's wuh-wuh-warm?"
I chuckled; I, too, had been remembering that frigid computer room on Orestes IV. Putting my arm around her, I replied, "Patience, Vee. The Dissembly won't declare war without Tolwyn's report. All we have to do is present our own data, and then we can start sorting out our personal lives."
She gripped my hand and said, "Promise?"
"Promise." I took a last look around the darkened CIC and sighed. "Come on, hon, let's get to the shuttle."
My fourth landing on Vesuvius was a marked contrast to my first, when the ship had been a near-derelict. Now the flight deck was bustling with activity, as shuttles landed, disgorged their refugees, and took off again at minimum intervals. I noted with satisfaction that makeshift field hospitals had been set up in the portside service bays; casualties from seven ships were being tended by medics wearing two different uniforms.
A deckhand in Confed uniform directed me to an empty service bay. I set the shuttle down gently and lowered the ramp, then roused Sosa from the copilot's seat. The strain of the last few days had finally caught up to her; she was out on her feet. Her hand was still cold to the touch, despite her coat and the balmy temperature I'd set in the cockpit.
After handing Sosa over to a female deckhand, I paused at the top of the ramp, raised my eyes, and offered a prayer of thanksgiving.
Thanks, God, for bringing me through. You could have made the way a little easier, of course, and you could have brought a few more of my friends through alive, but overall it wasn't a bad job. Eight out of ten, big guy.
I noticed a delegation waiting for me at the bottom of the ramp. With a little sigh, I started down to meet them. No rest for the weary, it seemed.
Zelda spoke up first. "Flight status, Colonel: two Hellcats, three Banshees, and two Bearcats operational. You'll need your Dragon to get to Earth, so I've got my techs working on it now in bay 51. We have three more birds aboard, but they'll take days to repair."
"Thanks, Chief. Help me out of my flight suit?" I nodded to Commander Ander.
"Vesuvius is fully operational, sir," he said. "Damage to the bow is being repaired. Intrepid and Aladdin have been abandoned; we have skeleton crews on the other ships. None of them will be ready to jump for a couple of days at least."
Stepping out of the flight suit, I shook my head impatiently. "Forget jump status, Ander! Are the food synthesizers working here?"
He licked his lips and grinned. "Oh, yessir! That was the first thing I checked!"
"They're working, all right!" snapped Forceps. "I've had to pump out three stomachs already! [spit] How that idiot Primate managed to scarf down thirty bananas... [spit] Anyway, I had Ander put guards in the galley to keep the Intrepid people from eatin' too much. Now, as for the wounded... Kid? Kid!"
"Wha?" I awakened from a daydream filled with barbecue, pizza, lobster... "Oh. Er, yeah, the wounded?"
Forceps spat in disgust. "As I was sayin', I don't think we'll lose any more, now that we got 'em proper medical care--not even the laughers. [spit] If no one EATS themselves ta death, that is! Heh heh!" He casually raised a beer to his lips and sucked it dry. Seeing my frown, he guiltily hid the empty behind his back. "Er, don't worry, kid, this is just my--hic!--my fourth!"
Lt. Cmdr. Queue discreetly cleared his throat. "Er, ahem. Good news, sir. We've been showing Tolwyn's speech to the Confeds; most of them are coming over to our side."
"Yes? So?" I was impatient to visit the galley. Mmm, pumpkin pie, corn smothered in synthobutter...
"Er, the bad news is...Tolwyn's not aboard Vesuvius." He cringed.
"That's nice, Ike." Fried rice, prawns, taco-- "WHAT?" I grabbed the front of his uniform with both hands and dragged his face to within a centimeter of mine. "WHERE IS HE?"
Ike struggled in my grasp. "We searched the ship!" he gasped. "Nothing! He's not on a destroyer, either. I interrogated the crew, the ones who could talk! They thought he was just sticking to his cabin, but when I questioned them closely, no one had seen him since the Edema System. Shall I lean on 'em a little, maybe get some more--"
"Don't bother." Disgusted, I released him. "There's only one man who knows the truth; I'll deal with him myself."
Angrily striding toward the nearest hospital bay, I raised my eyes again.
Way to go, God! When you screw up, you REALLY screw up! Zero out of ten, pal! Zero out of ten!
The Vesuvius casualties were easy to spot; every few minutes they would burst into hysterical laughter. I found my quarry in the third bay I checked, an aid station with so many T-pak victims that it sounded like a den of hyenas.
I knelt next to the mat occupied by Lt. Vinson Garr, Chief Communications Officer, TCS Vesuvius. He glared up at me, eyes smoldering with hate.
"Where's Tolwyn?" I asked, deliberately keeping my tone even.
"Why, Blair," he replied innocently, "isn't he on board? Heeheehee!" His grating giggle could have been a T-pak symptom, but I knew he was laughing at me. Again.
"Where's Tolwyn?" I repeated, casually placing my hand on his stomach. I could feel his hypersensitized muscles tense up under the blanket.
"Yiee!" He tried feebly to dislodge my hand, and failed. "Eeheehee! I don't know! I swear!"
"Where's Tolwyn?" I asked for the third time, wiggling my fingers.
"EEYAHAHAHA! Stop! Heeheehee! I can't stand-- Ohohohoho! OK, I'll talk! I'll talk!" He paused, gasping for air. "The Edema System! [pant, pant] Took a shuttle...met a courier ship! [gasp] Even Captain Blyght didn't know! The Admiral...took another jump route. He'll address the Dissembly...tonight!"
His face twisted with pain and hatred, and he grabbed my sleeve in a death grip. "He recorded that holovid...taunting you...knew you'd fight to the death ...if you thought he was [cough cough] aboard. And you fell for it, you sorry sap! You've lost...Ass of the Tiger!" Vinny's lips were starting to turn blue, but he refused to let go. "Urk! You...you've lost. Ungh! Lost..." His hand fell off my sleeve, and he went limp.
My face burned with shame. Damn, outsmarted by Tolwyn again! Fighting despair, I forced myself to my feet and started out of the bay. Behind me, medics frantically swarmed around Lt. Garr, but I was too deep in thought to pay much attention. Our only hope was to get to Earth before the final vote. But with our last Dragon in the shop, how in God's name was I going to get there in time?
I found Zelda outside one of the hospital bays; she and Maniac were helping a limping pilot off a St. Melons shuttle. It took a moment before I recognized the pilot as Panties; the left side of her face was obscured by a regen dressing. I got there in time to help them set Panties down against a bulkhead.
She looked up at me with her good eye. "Chris! Oh, thank God you're all right! We've lost so many..." She turned to my tireless techie. "Sorry, Zelda, I lost another one of your birds."
Zelda squeezed her hand. "No apologies for coming back alive, Tamara. Right, Chris?"
I knelt next to her, crowding Maniac aside, and took her other hand. "Right. We're alive, and that's all--"
Maniac tapped my shoulder. "Hell-O! I'M alive, too, Ace! No thanks to that damn shuttle pilot! Picked me up last of--"
"Maniac, will you shut--" Uh-oh. I'd just spotted two deckhands carrying a body bag off the shuttle. From the frost on the bag, and the stiff position of the body inside, I could guess it was a pilot retrieved from space. I started to get up to see who it was. Several pilots were still missing...
Panties put a hand on my arm. "Don't, Chris," she said quietly.
I stared down at her. Oh, no. "September?" I guessed, hoping I was wrong.
She nodded. "We found her pod just before Maniac's. Piece of shrapnel went right through it...and her. We found M-O-O-S scrawled on the inside of--"
"'Mouse?'" Maniac scratched his head. "Why would she write--"
"Shut up, Maniac!" I snarled, grief gnawing at my guts. It wasn't fair! Lt. Mourne had beaten her inner demons, only to fall victim to Tolwyn's ambition. Vagabond, Catnip, Dr. Boddie, September... With the Admiral still loose, where would it end?
Then I saw another body bag coming down the ramp, and I felt even sicker.
Panties confirmed my worst fears. "Homes," she said. "Sorry, Chris, I know you two go back to the Lexington."
"Poor Lou," sighed Zelda. "It's OK, Blairbear; I'll break the news to her."
The last man off the shuttle wasn't carrying a body bag. All he had was a scorched yellow rubber duck.
Surprisingly, it was Maniac who spoke up this time. "Sorry, Ace," he said. "He was a good man. That convoy you two took down? Bee-you-tee-ful." He shrugged his shoulders. "Well, at least he's the last."
"He's not, Maniac," I said, nearly choking on my words. Panties and Zelda looked at me sharply.
"Tolwyn's escaped. He's on a courier ship right now, probably already in Proxima. Zelda, how soon will my Dragon be ready?"
"Twelve hours, minimum. The hyperjump unit was hit pretty bad, and without it you're not going anywhere."
Shit. I turned to Maniac and held out my hand, palm up.
He immediately covered his thigh pocket with his hands. "Nooooo!" he screamed. "She's all I have left! If I hadn't had her with me, she would have burned up with the rest! Pleeeeease?"
I reached into my pocket, sorted through the data cartridges, and pulled out Maniac's. "Trade, Maniac? Your Miss July log here for what's in your pocket." I didn't mention that I was going to give it to him anyway, heh heh.
He thought it over for a minute before reluctantly taking a small plastic box out of his pocket. Handing it to me, he snatched the cartridge out of my hand and hurled it to the deck. Cursing a blue streak, he began jumping up and down on it.
I held up the box he'd given me. It was Miss July Inflatable herself!
Zelda looked at me skeptically. "Blairbear, what makes you think there are faeries aboard? For all we know, they're still on Intrepid."
I handed her the box. "I have a feeling they sneaked aboard our shuttles, hon. In any case, it's our only hope." She nodded, gave me a peck on the cheek, and scooted off to bay 51.
"One more mission, Chris?" asked Panties, a not-quite-smile on her face.
"Always one more damn mission, Panties," I replied wearily. "Story of my life." I kissed her and stood up. "Get some rest, hon. I gotta find Ander and get this bucket through the jump point."
I had failed.
Sitting in my cell, staring blankly at the opposite wall, I wrestled with my guilt. Tolwyn was too smart, I told myself. He was too strong; he'd prepared too well. We never had a chance.
Comforting thoughts, but I knew they were lies. We'd come within an ace of winning; Tolwyn had escaped in the end because of my mistake. I knew Tolwyn's tricks better than anyone, yet I'd fallen for his Vesuvius ploy like a dumb rookie. I'd fought with my heart, not my head, and out on the frontier the Border Worlds were paying the price.
There was a click from the cell door, as the electronic lock was released from the guard station down the hall. Two guards trained their weapons on me as the jailer swung the bars open.
"It's time, renegade!" he said gruffly.
Slowly, calmly, I did up my tattered Border World uniform and rose from my bunk. I could still play the Heart of the Tiger one last time.
They herded me around the corner of the cell block, down a short corridor, and into a small alcove. Taking in the stains on the wall and floor, I wondered idly which one was Captain Eisen...and Tamara...and--
The jailer held out a black cloth. "Blindfold?" he offered.
I looked at it closely. "Yes, it is." Heh heh. The Heart of the Tiger goes out with a smile, a jaunty laugh, a defiant toss of the--
"Oh, a wise guy, eh?" The jailer dropped the cloth and shoved his hand, now somehow transformed into a furry and savage claw, deep into my belly.
I screamed in pain and fear. No, not again!
The jailer was Tolwyn! He lifted me up, fixed on impossibly long, sharp talons. "Caught you later, Blair!" he said cheerily. "One, two! One, two! Hahahaha!"
"Colonel? Colonel, wake up." Lt. Cmdr. Queue was shaking me urgently.
I sat up slowly, trying to jumpstart my brain. We'd hopped into Eczema and set out for the Proxima jump point, while Zelda's faeries (hopefully) repaired my Dragon. Too tired to eat, I'd collapsed onto a convenient mat. Ike wouldn't wake me unless...
I came full awake. "Shit, Ike! Confeds?"
He nodded. "Fighters inbound now, a dreadnought and several escorts behind them. You have about twenty minutes."
I struggled to my feet, wiping the sleep out of my eyes. "Tell Zel--er, Chief Morgenstern--to meet me at bay 51. I gotta get into a Confed uniform and flight suit." And visit the head, probably for the last time.
In retrospect, I should have expected the crowd waiting for me outside the locker room. With the future of humanity riding on this mission, everyone on board had a stake in its success. Like Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea, I strode through a multitude, accepting their good wishes with an occasional nod or a wave of my gloved hand.
Zelda was waiting for me at the bay entrance. At my unspoken question, she just shrugged. "I don't know if it's faeries or humans," she said, "but something has been making an unholy racket in there for the last two hours." She pressed the button to open the bay doors. "I guess your Miss July is a real party girl! Heehee!"
Har har. Like the others, I waited impatiently for the massive doors to slide apart. If the "faeries" hadn't done their work, this would be the shortest mission on record.
The doors reached their limit and stopped with a muffled clunk. There in the bay sat my Dragon...good as new!
Better than new, in fact. As I walked into the bay, I noted new Border World insignia and a snarling tiger emblem under the cockpit. The Black Lance smiley faces on the wings had been replaced by larger versions of the boxing tiger on my flight helmet. The rest of my Dragon wore the same smooth, jet-black finish the faeries had used on Intrepid's "A" turret.
Zelda plugged a diagnostic computer into the fighter and checked her readouts. "All parameters match the specs, Colonel," she said. "EXACTLY. This Dragon is as perfect as it can be."
"No batteries-not-included mods?"
She smiled and shook her head.
I shrugged. "Well, that's it, then. Time to go." I headed for the ladder, which Barr was just moving into place. Next to it stood Lt. Cmdr. Queue and a Confed officer I didn't recognize.
"Colonel," said Queue, indicating his companion, "this is Commander Flusher Quistian, First Officer of the Vesuvius. He's come over to our side."
To forestall his salute, I reached out my hand. "Blair. Chris B--"
"Yikes!" Quistian recoiled from my touch. "S-sorry, Blair. I still have a touch--Heehee!--a touch of the giggles." He shivered, fighting down a T-spasm. "I've put Captain Blyght under arrest. We've set charges to disable Vesuvius' engines as soon as you're clear. It'll be months before she can be used against the Border--"
"No, Quistian. You will do NOTHING to provoke the Confeds; no resistance, no sabotage. We've lost enough people already, Commander."
"Aye aye, sir." He stepped back and saluted smartly.
Maniac sauntered over and sneered, "So, another do-or-die mission, big hero? Well, don't forget, you promised me anything I want, so watch yer chickenshit ass until I can collect!"
I was touched. Maniac had never shown concern for me before. "Eat shit and die, peabrain!" I replied affectionately.
Hulk shoved Maniac aside and stuck out his paw. "Blair promise come back, tell Hulk more about rabbits?"
"That's a deal--unggg!--big guy," I said, grimacing in Hulk's iron grip.
Lt. Tennant hobbled out of the crowd, leaning heavily on Barr, who also carried my parrot on his shoulder.
Louise pulled me down so she could whisper in my ear. "Don't blame yourself for Churlokk, Chris. He said he was the luckiest man in the universe, flying with you." She gave me a quick peck on the cheek. "Take care of yourself... Colonel Gravgen."
Barr held out his hand. "Good luck, Bearkiss. If the flying thing doesn't work out, you can always be my assistant. Heh heh."
"Thanks, Fern." I reached out to ruffle my parrot's tummy feathers. "Well, bird, I guess I'll see you when I see you."
"Rawwk! Not if I see you first, sport! Awwk! Heehee!"
Archie and Valentina were next. They clung to each other, barely keeping their emotions under control. "Colonel," said Arch diffidently, "Tina's pregnant, and we were wondering, er..."
"...if you'd stand g-godfather to our baby, sir." Tina tightened her grip on Archie's hand. "Promise, sir?" she asked, blinking back tears. "Whatever happens?"
I had to swallow hard before I could reply. "I-I guess I'd like that more than anything, Tina. You have my word." Not that that would make any difference, of course. Tolwyn was almost certain to beat me to Earth.
Tina was weeping openly now, and it looked like Archie would join her any second. I smiled and took both their hands. "Don't cry for me, Arch and Tina. I'll keep my promise."
"Don't forget your promise to us, flyboy."
I knew that voice. Still smiling, I turned and found Panties standing unsteadily behind me, supported by Sosa, who was still wearing her coat.
"Yeah," said Sosa, trying to look cheerful. "And don't try to wiggle out of it by d-dying or anything. It won't w-w-w..." She stopped, choking back sobs.
I smothered them in a group hug. "Don't worry, you two. I have too much to live for." I clung to them for a moment more, then planted kisses on their foreheads and let go.
Feeling a bit like Dorothy leaving Oz, and on the verge of bawling myself, I turned to Zelda for my last good-bye. "Here, hon," I said, taking comfort in the old ritual of handing her my flight helmet. She kissed the tiger emblem and gave it back, along with a thermos bottle.
"Chicken soup, Blairbear. My own recipe. Your kit is in the cockpit." Her brave smile began to waver. "D-do you really have to go? M-maybe Captain Eisen..."
I caressed her freckled cheek. "If he'd made it, we would have heard by now, hon. Don't worry, I'll be--"
She put her finger over my lips. "You can't lie to me, Blairbear. I know you don't expect to come back." She took my head in both hands. "But I know better. I've seen you at work these last few weeks, and you ARE the Heart of the Tiger." Eyes probing into my very soul, she whispered, "I believe in you, Chris Blair."
Vesuvius shut down her sensors long enough for me to cloak, launch, and clear the area. Fortunately, none of the approaching Confeds mounted P-PNG-DOMM sensor arrays; I passed within fifteen thousand klicks of the dreadnought without being detected.
I listened to the chatter between Vesuvius and the Confed task force until I was out of comm range. To my relief, the Confeds seemed content to take the supercarrier without bloodshed. That might change when they discovered my escape, of course...
I took my kit out of the cockpit stowage and focused on my mementos from the Annabel Lee. Yeah, I had only one job now: beating Tolwyn to Earth. I tried to push my friends out of my mind.
The Dragon didn't really have infinite afterburner, but it could burn for long periods without recharging. I programmed a burn sequence into the AI to give an average velocity near a thousand kps, while reserving a few extra minutes of burner at all times for emergencies. That gave me an ETA at Earth of about... shit, NINE hours, plus two hyperjumps.
Damn. The last thing I needed now was more time to fret.
On and on I flew. Whoever or whatever had repaired my Dragon, they had done a superb job. Hour after hour, the power curve held steady and the engine readouts remained optimal. The faint, cheerful hum of the gyros and muffled roar of the burners were as reassuring as Zelda's voice in the AI. I began to believe that, against all the odds, my mission could actually succeed.
The hyperjump to Proxima was quick and smooth. I slipped out of cloak, through the jump point, and back into cloak before any of the Confed picket fighters could intervene. To celebrate, I got out Zelda's thermos of chicken soup and opened it up.
Oh, God, the aroma was intoxicating! I poured myself a generous helping and raised it to my lips. After weeks of straining to extract some flavor from Intrepid's swill, my taste buds suddenly exploded into sensory overload. The rush cascaded from my tongue into every part of my body, bringing with it a profound sense of contentment and well-being.
Before I knew it, I'd gulped down more than half of Zelda's ambrosia. It took all the willpower I could muster to close my thermos and stash it out of sight. Forceps was right; after prolonged culinary deprivation, real synthetics could be downright dangerous.
Papillon 1, the base guarding the Sol jump point, had been alerted by the pickets I'd eluded on the inbound jump. Nevertheless, I made it through her fighter patrols OK, minus a bit of my starboard armor. On the Sol side, I set my initial heading for Confed HQ before cloaking and resuming my race to Earth. It was a feeble ploy, but I needed every advantage I could get.
I was an hour from Earth, and starting to think about the rest of Zelda's soup ("Eeeeaat me, Blair"), when I got a twitch on my passives. Instantly I hit active sensors. Vinny had mentioned something about Theether going ahead to stage another "Border World" attack--
There! A Dragon uncloaking sixty thousand klicks ahead of me! My comm screen lit up with Theether's sneering visage.
"Time to end your meddling, Blair. You've been a worthy opponent, but in the end, you're merely the final twitch of a dying breed. Fight hard, old man. I hunger for a true challenge."
I uncloaked, armed a leech, and squeezed the fusion gun trigger. "Happy to oblige, mutant!" OK, Blair, you've seen this guy in action before; dance with him and--
Two more Dragons were uncloaking to my port and starboard! Damn, I'd been decoyed again! How could I have been so stupid as to assume he was alone?
Luckily, the Heart of the Tiger's reflexes immediately kicked in. I launched my leech to keep Theether busy, then turned hard into my port target and loosed a fusion blast just as he finished uncloaking. Whoom! Blam! Switch to IRs, lock, launch! Whoosh! He's hurt, turning, dropping decoys...Kaboom! One down!
Bam! Bam! The other one's lashing my rear armor! Whoopwhoopwhoop! Decoy! Decoy! Turn and--Whammo! One hit aft, minor damage. Autoslide, Blair! About face! Now my fresh fore shield is taking his fire! He looses a fusion blast, but his aim is off. Now, while he's recharging his guns, a double fusion charge! Whoom! Blam! He turns away, loosing two IRs.
Kill autoslide! The sudden change in direction fakes out the missiles. Stick to his ass, Blair! He's damaged, slowing...screechscreechscreech! Pieces flying off his fighter! Get him now, Blair, before Theether slips his missile! Screech! Screech! Kaboom! Woohoo! Now for that bastard--
My power readings dropped to zero. Reflexively, I yanked the stick and goosed the throttle: no response. I activated autorepair, but I knew it was useless. Theether's leech had turned me into a sitting duck. The Heart of the Tiger had failed after all!
"Hahaha! Oh, you poor fool, Blair!" In his triumph, the cold bastard came as close as I had ever seen to showing genuine emotion. "You're beaten, Heart of the Chump! Beaten by the ultimate warrior!"
I reached for the ejection control, then thought better of it. No, I didn't want to be Tolwyn's prisoner. Better to die clean with my fighter. Soon I'd be with my Angel again. Now, at the moment of death, I could see her face so clearly...
"Not ejecting, primitive? Very well, die under my tach-- What the-- NOOO!"
I checked my sensors. Theether's Dragon was drifting powerless some twenty thousand klicks away. But how? My leech should have self-destructed--
A new voice came through the comm, a voice which, despite its haunting, almost ethereal quality, was as familiar to me as my own; a voice that made my heart skip a beat.
"Est-ce que tu veut vivre toujours, mon amour?"
"ANGEL!" I screamed. "Angel, where are you?" Nothing on sensors. A quick visual scan... There! Out of the corner of my eye, blinding halo surrounding a shimmering, silvery vessel of unfamiliar design! I blinked, trying to focus, and it was gone.
"Noooo!" I wailed. "Angel? Angel!" Oh, God, I couldn't lose her again!
Theether appeared on the comm. "I don't know how you did it, Blair," he snarled, "but not even the angelth will thave you when I finith autorepairing!"
"Angelth?" I was so shocked that I forgot about Angel for a moment. Why had I not noticed Theether's lisp before? Wait. Come to think of it, he did tend to avoid sibilants in his speech. Jeez, first moronic Black Lancers, and now a speech defect! Hadn't those G.E.D. scientists done anything right?
No time to lose. Despite my miraculous rescue, I was in the fight of my life. I had to probe my opponent's weak spots.
I punched the comm. "Don't make me laugh, THEETHER. I don't need angels to beat a defective lab specimen. THEETHER!"
He practically beat on the comm screen in his frustration. "Not Theether!" he screamed. "THEETHER! Juliuth Thee Theether! The Thecond!"
"Er, what does the 'C' stand for? Caius?"
Sheesh. "Well, CECIL, if three of you couldn't beat me, what makes you think you can do it alone?"
I could see him struggling to control his temper. "You know, Blair, I'm glad you didn't die quick. I've waited a long time for thith. I wanted to do you when I did Orlando Thtathion, but Tolwyn wanted you alive. I begged permithion to kill you in Thera, when I led the Lekthington to Intrepid. Tho when I thlit Gant'th throat, I pretended it wath you!"
"You killed Gant?" Shit, I thought I'd done it when I disabled the Lexington. "My, you've been a busy mutant."
"Yeah. I nailed that cat convoy in Pathqual, and I dropped the PAL viruth on that hick colony. I wanted to kill you when I hit the Annabel Lee, but Tolwyn thaid--"
"YOU DID THE ANNABEL LEE?" I couldn't help it. All the rage I'd felt then came flooding back. I fought to keep control.
"Yeah! Whatth it to you?"
I reached into my kit for my keepsakes. "My mail order brides were on that ship, Frankenstein!" I held up the red silk teddy and "Wedding Day Barbie" doll I'd sent my betrothed as a token of our engagement. "Twins, Cecil! Seventeen years old!" I remembered long evenings fruitlessly searching the mail order catalogs, my mounting frustration and despair, and my elation when I finally found the ad for two young refugees from Locanda IV. "Do you know how hard it is to find a farmer's wife, Cecil? Let alone TWO of them? Do you know how many fucking cold showers I took on that damn farm?"
Theether was suddenly pale. He hadn't bargained for this.
I checked my instruments. Autorepair was just about done. "Prepare to die, you dickless lab rat!" I configured for combat and hit the throttle. He hit his at the same time.
Theether was the best pilot I'd ever fought. Unable to get on his tail, I was forced to make one head-on pass after another. Again and again we came at each other, guns blazing, missiles flying, and decoys popping. We were shooting each other to pieces, but neither of us wavered for an instant. This was a duel to the death, with no quarter asked or given on either side.
Finally, I nailed him with a fusion blast that staggered his ship. Whipping around, I got on his six at last and started ripping him apart with my tachyon cannon. Screech! Screech! This is for you, Mindy and Cindy!
Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! In desperation, Theether had loosed his last FF. Out of decoys, I was forced to break off and evade. By the time I broke lock, my opponent was stopped about seven thousand klicks away.
He commed me again. "It'th been fun, thubhuman," he taunted. "but he who fightth and runth away..."
Oh, shit, he was going to mine-surf! Desperately, I locked my last IR on his ship. Please, God, don't let him get away...
"Now if you'll ekthcuthe me, Blair, I have a frigate waiting. Good-bye!"
I launched my missile an instant before Theether popped his mine. Shit, too late! Next he'd fire up his afterb--
BLAM! The mine exploded prematurely! Rear shields down, armor shattered, Theether's ship spun out of control. A moment later, my missile arrived and finished the job.
KABOOM! Theether and his Dragon vanished in a massive fireball.
"Wipeout!" I exulted.
Whew! Funny how things worked out. At the Black Lance HQ, while waiting by the space mine bin for a victim my size, I had whiled away the time disabling the mines' safety interlocks. I'd had nothing more than mischief in mind, of course, but by good luck, Theether had armed his ship with one of my presents.
I took deep, soothing breaths and let my emotions subside, remembering Spirit's quiet wisdom: "Grasshopper-san, revenge is dish best served with soy sauce." I didn't have any soy sauce, but I did have Zelda's chicken soup. Downing the last of her luscious concoction, I closed the book on the Annabel Lee. My mail order brides had been avenged. Nothing could make their tragedy right, of course, but at least I had made it a little less wrong.
I routed shields and weapons to autorepair and resumed my journey to Earth.
With Earth still half an hour away, my thoughts returned to Angel. Had she really saved me? Or did Theether fall victim to my first leech? There was no record of her on my comm log, no trace of a ship on the sensor playback. Was it all a dream? A fatigue-induced hallucination?
But what if it really was her? Had she been granted dispensation to leave Valhalla and rescue her love? I smiled. No, more likely, my wrong-way Angel was still trying to find the afterlife.
What about her question? Did I want to live forever? Sure, didn't everyone? But that was too easy. Like most women, my Angel never came right out and said what was on her mind. Her words usually had a deeper, hidden meaning, and if I knew what was good for me, I wouldn't rest until I'd found it. So what was her unspoken message this time?
Hmmm. Did I want to "live" forever with her in the afterlife? In Valhalla, or wherever? Well, yes, but I wanted to live a full life on this plane first. Actually, what I really wanted was to snatch my Angel from Death and take her back to my farm and the happy ending that we were meant to--
Ohmygod! Now that I thought about it, I realized that my Angel, had she lived, would never have followed me into pastoral bliss. She was a creature of the stars, a passionate crusader who lived to fight the good fight. I was, deep down, a reluctant warrior at best, a creature of the earth from which I had sprung. Our love, forged in the white-hot crucible of war, would have melted in the mild sunshine of peace. Angel was the love of my life, but she wasn't my soulmate.
Yet I had thought of her as such. So much so, that I had sought her in all the women I'd loved since. In Robin, I saw Angel's passion for life; in Rachel, her passion for love. I admired Tamara's courage and determination as I had admired Angel's. From Velina, I drew the empathy and emotion I'd lost in war, and found in Angel. And Zelda, dear Zelda, had given the same fierce devotion Angel had lavished on me. I could give and receive a measure of happiness with any of them, but I was soulmate to none.
And Angel must have known that. She had loved me enough to return from the grave, ease me away from her and her surrogates, and set me on another path. First she had saved my life, and now she was trying to save my LIFE!
Unfortunately for Angel's good intentions, even if I succeeded today, I probably wouldn't survive my next tour in the service of humanity. As the Confederation's greatest hero, there was no way I'd be left in peace and--
Of course! That was what she'd been asking! Did I want my LEGEND to live forever? If I insisted on playing the hero, the Heart of the Tiger would indeed live forever, but Christopher Blair wouldn't live to see his grandkids.
In fact it was worse than that. A champion of freedom, I'd had precious little in my own life. Raised in the shadow of war, I'd had no say in my destiny. The man I might have been was submerged and lost in the warrior I'd had to become. And the warrior had been tossed and buffeted by the fortunes of war, used up and discarded by his own side, then dragged back into the fray on a whim, a mere pawn in a cosmic chess game. Tolwyn was neither the first nor the last to use me for his own ends.
No! Tolwyn WAS the last! My guardian Angel had shown me the way. From now on, I would be the chessplayer, and to Hell with my reputation!
I raised my fist and shook it at the uncaring stars. "As God is my witness!" I vowed. "As God is my witness, I'LL NEVER BE A PAWN AGAIN!"
Nearing Earth at last, I anxiously scanned my passive sensors and weighed my re-entry options. If I hit atmosphere at any appreciable speed, turbulence would give away my position, cloak or no cloak. With capships and fighters swarming around the planet, that would be suicidal. No, urgent though my mission was, I had to get to the Dissembly in one piece. Gritting my teeth, I reduced the throttle to nearly zero and gingerly slipped into Earth's outer atmosphere.
By the time I arrived over the Dissembly, I was down to a pitiful three hundred kph and nearly frantic. Dodging airborne patrols, I anxiously orbited the grounds, searching for a parking space. Outside the barricades, spectators and cops alike looked up curiously at the sound of my thrusters. If I could land inside the barriers, there would just be the guards at the doors...hah! A space! Thank you, God! I reduced thrust and set down light as a feather in the middle of...oh, shit, a handicap zone! Dammit, God, you just won't quit, will you?
I buried my face in my hands. It figured. When I emigrated to Nephritis 2, I'd left behind a shitload of unpaid parking tickets. Now, if Tolwyn didn't get me, the traffic cops would.
With gloomy visions of prison life filling my mind, I uncloaked and opened the canopy. That seemed to trigger the glove box, which suddenly popped open and disgorged an official handicap placard! Surprised, I took it and read the note on the back:
Damn, she really DID think of everything!
I put the placard on the dash, along with another sign I'd found:
Then I slid down to the pavement and wriggled out of my flight suit. Now if I could bluff my way past the guards at the--
"What the hell are YOU doing here?"
I whirled, reaching for my photon pistol. Damn, the cops were on to-- Wait, it was Paladin's man, Igor!
Ignoring my drawn weapon, Igor grabbed my lapel and and fastened an official pass to it. "Dammit, Blair, where's Captain Eisen? Starbase Thorn said he'd be here two days ago!"
Confused, I lowered my weapon. "He didn't make it?" Shit, Covert Ops must have--
Igor unbuckled my gunbelt and stuffed the weapon under his jacket. "You can't go in there with this! Damned amateurs!" He stepped back, looked me over, and made a face. "You'll have to do. Well, come on, man! Tolwyn's already giving his report!"
I followed Igor up the steps and inside the building, trying not to think about what Covert Ops was doing to Captain Eisen. The guards at the security station evidently knew Paladin's man well; they barely glanced at my pass. With my gun under his jacket, Igor couldn't get through the weapon detectors, so I was on my own from there.
There was a flock of reporters outside the Dissembly Hall, but they were too mesmerized by Tolwyn's image on the holovids to pay any attention to me. I paused for a moment at the back of the crowd to watch his performance. Yeah, the old man was in top form today. If I wanted to be heard, I'd have to make a dramatic entrance. So be it. It would be a pleasure upstaging the vain bastard. Heh heh.
The two guards outside the Hall's VIP entrance were relaxed and friendly. I was still nervous; my counterfeit pass bore Captain Eisen's likeness.
"OK, Captain...Nemo," said one, casually scanning my pass. "You can-- Say, you look a lot paler than your pic, sir."
"Uh, yeah. I've been, uh, sick. Heh heh."
"If you're a naval captain," said the other, "how come you're wearing a Space Force colonel's uniform?"
Think, Blair! "Er, my other uniform's in the wash? I borrowed this one?"
The first guard smiled sympathetically. "Don't ya just hate that? OK, you can go in, Captain Nemo, but keep it quiet, OK?"
"Yeah," said the second. "You don't want to interrupt the big--" He looked closer at me. "Wait a second! You're the guy from--"
Now, Blair! Shoving the guards aside, I flung open the double doors and burst into the Dissembly Hall. "STOP THE VOTE!" I yelled.
A sudden silence enveloped the Hall, broken only by the reverberating echoes of my shout. Next to me, an astonished peanut vendor gaped at me. To my right, tier upon tier of Senators and spectators stared down. On my left, the Dissembly Officers up on the dais turned as one, seeking the source of the interruption. At the podium, Tolwyn stood frozen, looking as if he'd just seen a ghost. In front of the dais, the holovid crews swiveled their cams to cover this unexpected development. Standing with the TCN crew was Barbara Dahl herself, lovely as ever in her blue TCN blazer and tight white microskirt.
"The Heart of the Tiger!" she exclaimed.
I had to hand it to Tolwyn: he was quick on his feet. Recovering from his shock, he leveled his finger at me and commanded, "Seize that man!"
The two guards grabbed the peanut vendor and hustled him forward.
"No, no, you morons!" screamed Tolwyn. "Not that man! THAT man!"
I pulled out my data cartridge and waved it at the cams. "Admiral Tolwyn is a traitor! He engineered this war!" I struggled with the guards, trying to get to the news crews. "I have proof!"
Tolwyn sneered at me from the podium. "We're not interested in your lies, reneg--"
"Let's see his proof!" Paladin's booming voice silenced the growing tumult in the Hall. "Release him!" He ignored the death-dealing glare Tolwyn was directing at him.
I shook off the guards and walked up to Barbara Dahl. "Hi, Barbara. Good to see you again."
Her smile was as dazzling as Disch's. "I'm glad we finally meet in person, Colonel. You have something for me?"
I handed her the cartridge. "Can you put this on the main display?"
"You bet, Chr--er, Colonel!" She and her crew immediately huddled around their holovid equipment.
I climbed up to the podium, gleefully elbowed Tolwyn aside--say your prayers, you rat fink--and addressed the Dissembly.
"For years now, Admiral Tolwyn has been diverting Confederation funds to build a secret army of artificially bred supermen. They have staged a series of provocations to goad the Confederation and its Border Worlds into civil war. Their goal: use the story of that war to amass enough wealth and power to take over the Confederation themselves!"
Barbara signalled that the rec was ready to go. I nodded my assent. Tolwyn, I noticed, was now darting glances like a cornered rat seeking escape.
"But don't take my word for it," I continued confidently. "Hear it from the Admiral himself." Everyone in the Hall, including Tolwyn, directed their attention toward the huge display up behind the dais.
Everyone but me. I wanted to see Tolwyn's face when his elaborate conspiracy came crashing down around him. Stepping back from the podium to get a better view, I fixed my eyes on the Admiral.
A collective gasp went up from the audience as the playback began. I smiled, waiting for Tolwyn to dissolve into despair.
Except that Tolwyn wasn't despairing. He was smiling! No, he was laughing! They were ALL laughing! With a sudden feeling of dread, I looked up at the holodisplay. What the hell was going--
It was Maniac and Miss July Inflatable.
The room began to spin around me. God in Heaven, how could I have been so careless? I'd given Maniac my copy of the evidence against Tolwyn, and he'd STOMPED on it! I'd come so close, but I'd failed! My fault...
I sank into a whirling black morass of despair. All the people who had died for nothing...all the people who would soon die because of me...I'd let them all down. Vagabond. Tamara. Captain Eisen. Angel. Zelda...
Zelda! She still believed in me! I couldn't let her down! But how could the Heart of the Tiger get out of THIS mess?
Tolwyn, his arms crossed, was smiling triumphantly. "Well, so much for your proof," he said. "Guards, take this poor lunatic to the nearest asylum."
'Poor lunatic?' Hey, that was it!
I lunged for the podium. "How DARE you laugh at that poor wretch!" I yelled at the chortling audience.
Taken by surprise, the Senators quit laughing and stared at me.
I pointed up at the display, where Maniac was still going strong. "That pathetic remnant of a human being is a VICTIM! A victim of Tolwyn's...sitcom warfare!"
Horrified gasps from the audience. Cries of shock and outrage.
Tolwyn was unfazed. "Come, come, Colonel," he sneered. "This is pure fantasy on your--"
"Oh yeah?" I challenged. "How do YOU explain such inhuman depravity?"
Suddenly at a loss, he fumbled for words. "Er, but it's Major Marsh-- I mean, he's always been-- Uh..." I had him. It was humanly impossible to explain Maniac to someone who didn't already know him.
Sneaking a glance at the audience, I could tell I'd made an impression. I had to follow up quickly. But without hard evidence, my only chance was to trip Tolwyn up somehow. Unfortunately, my rhetorical skills were no match for his. I had to catch him off guard.
Leveling my finger at him, I shouted, "Geoffrey Tolwyn, you have committed treason, murder, embezzlement, and crimes against humanity! What do you say to that, Admiral? Did you do it?"
Indignantly, he responded, "I most certainly did NOT!"
I crossed my fingers and plunged ahead. "Ooohhh yes, you did!"
Aroused and angry, he flung back, "Ooohhh no, I didn't!"
Hah! He took the bait! "Yes, you did!"
"No, I didn't!"
"You're Goddamn right I did!" In his righteous anger he was all but screaming. "I rescued the master race from the scrap heap! I planned the secret campaign to provoke war! It was MY scheme to take over the Confederation! And when I overthrow that tramp, Hinton, humanity will see REAL entertainment for a change! Mortal conflict! Glorious destruction! War upon war! The price of entertainment is eternal--"
Suddenly realizing what he was saying, Tolwyn stopped and looked around him. Everywhere, he found only horrified and hostile faces.
Grimacing, he smacked his hand to his forehead. "Doh!"
Paladin wasted no time. "Guards, seize that man! Yes, yes, THAT man!"
Grinning, the guards each grabbed one of Tolwyn's arms. "So we're morons, are we, Admiral?" gloated one. "I can't wait to interrogate this guy, Chauncey."
"Neither can I, Edgar," replied his companion.
Paladin waved for the guards to haul Tolwyn off to one side, then took his place at the podium. "We've heard enough! The Dissembly will now vote."
Cries of "Vote! Vote!" greeted his proposal.
I wandered off to the side of the dais and wearily sat down on the steps. Too exhausted to enjoy my triumph, I slumped against the wall and waited for the last act to play itself out. I had survived, and for today that was enough. Tomorrow I could begin clawing my way up the ladder to power.
I must have dozed, because the next thing I knew, the Dissembly session was over and Paladin was helping me to my feet. Reporters thronged around the dais, but so far the guards were managing to keep them back. Barbara Dahl saw me and waved excitedly from the crowd. I yawned and waved back.
"Congratulations, laddie," said Paladin, pointing up at the display. I was still groggy; it took me a moment to realize that the vote was unanimous for peace.
Paladin chuckled. "Not even the conspirators among us dared vote for war after your little performance. Well done, laddie! Well done indeed!"
I shook my head. "I nearly blew it, Paladin. Tolwyn almost won."
"No, he didn't," my old friend replied quietly. He patted a gun-shaped bulge under his vest, where his cape helped conceal it.
I stared at his hidden weapon. "You would have died for nothing, Paladin. Tolwyn's death wouldn't have stopped the war."
He smiled. "No, but it would have made ME feel a lot better!"
Speak of the devil. Tolwyn, accompanied by his two guards, approached us. Despite the shackles on his wrists, he was composed, almost cheerful.
"Well, Colonel," he said matter-of-factly, "once again I've underestimated you. I daresay it's the last time." He paused a moment. "Tell Rillary it was only business, not personal. I always liked her."
He started to go, then stopped and looked me in the eyes. The arrogance was gone now, and all that remained was a pitiful old man. "Christopher," he pleaded, "can you get me off the hook? For old times' sake?"
I was torn. This man had perpetrated unspeakable atrocities on his fellow humans. He'd killed thousands, including my mail order brides. But at several crucial points in the Kilrathi War, his skills and tenacity had saved those same people, and more, from annihilation. Didn't that service outweigh his crimes?
I didn't realize I'd made my decision until I heard myself say, "OK, Admiral. I'll see what I can do."
Paladin was appalled. "Are you mad, laddie?" he thundered.
"On two conditions," I continued. "One: you finger every member of your conspiracy; names, dates, places. You spill your fucking guts! Today!"
"Colonel, I won't betray--"
"Don't make us hunt them down, Admiral. If we can take them now, unprepared, they may live."
He nodded reluctantly. "Very well. And your second condition?"
Warily eyeing Paladin, I leaned close to whisper in Tolwyn's ear. "Theether is dead. Evvin Lee is dead. Does anyone else know about the PAL bioagent?" He shook his head slightly. "Good. You say NOTHING about PAL to ANYONE. Ever. You tell them planet 36-24-36 was wiped out by a defective bioselect virus."
He stared at me curiously. "Why do you...?"
"A promise I made, Admiral."
"Very well. Agreed."
As the guards yanked him away, I made a gun of my thumb and forefinger and called out cheerily, "Catch you later, Admiral!"
I turned to my friend. "Better get me an appointment with Rillary, Paladin. She's the only one who can help him now." We didn't have much time; Confed military justice was notoriously swift. More than one hapless serviceman had been executed BEFORE being formally accused. As soon as Tolwyn was debriefed, he was a dead man.
"I'll do me best, laddie," said Paladin reluctantly. "But if Eisen were here, I dinna think he'd be so quick to forgive-- Eh? What the devil is that?"
There was an uproar outside the VIP entrance. Suddenly, a man burst into the Hall, dragging three guards with him. "Stop the vote!" he cried. "Stop the vote!"
It was Captain Eisen!
He stood there, gasping for breath, with guards hanging from him. He'd put on weight in the short time he'd been gone; his uniform now bulged at the waist, and the snaps threatened to give way at any second. In one hand, he carried his briefcase; in the other he held a large takeout bag full of food.
"I have proof!" he cried. "Conspiracy! [puff puff] Treason!" He glanced up at the vote tally.
At Paladin's command, the guards released their not-quite-prisoner. Overjoyed, I bounded down the steps and embraced him.
"Captain Eisen! Thank God you're alive!"
The look of surprise on his face was comical. "Blair! [puff puff] How did you get here?"
"Dragon express. Captain, where the hell have you been?"
"Well, there was no time to [gasp] eat at Starbase Thorn. So I stopped at this [wheeze] little barbecue place down by the [puff] maglev line."
"For TWO DAYS?"
"Hey! It's VERY good barbecue! Try some, Colonel."
I took a takeout box from his bag, opened it, and gingerly bit into a sauce- smeared rib. Ohhh, wow! Pure pleasure enveloped me. It was Zelda's chicken soup all over again, only better; better than money, better than drugs, better than sex. I nearly fainted with ecstasy.
"Damn, that's good barbecue!" I polished off the rib in ten seconds flat and tossed the bare bone over my shoulder. I grabbed two more and attacked them with gusto. Tolwyn could wait. Confed justice wasn't THAT swift.
"Say, Captain," I remarked, trying to eat and talk at the same time. "I don't suppose you got any fried green--"
"Right here," he said, beaming. He pulled another box out of his bag.
Damn, Captain Eisen was the best commanding officer in Confed!
Previews from the final chapter of Wing Commander 4.123106:
"It's me, Admiral! How's it hang-- Oops!"
"Don't give in to the dark side, Chris!"
"Christopher Blair, you've just defeated the Black Lance, reunited the Confederation, and earned humanity's highest decoration. What are you going to do next?"