[Posted to alt.games.wing-commander August 29, 1997]
"Could you hurry it up, Corporal?" I asked impatiently, checking my watch for the tenth time. Damn, I shouldn't have spent so long at that barbecue place this morning! And I definitely shouldn't have gone back for takeout.
The young Marine guard looked up from his console. "Sorry, sir, but with the execution and all, security is extra-tight today, even for you. Just hang on another minute, sir." He went back to verifying my credentials.
I looked at my watch again. Damn. Tolwyn was due to be executed right now! No great loss, of course, but he had kept his part of the bargain. Using his information, the cops and Paladin's agents were picking up conspirators all over the Sol System. Paladin had done his part by getting me an evening appointment with President Hinton, and I had used all my powers of persuasion on her.
I grimaced. That was where it all started to go wrong. Rillary had needed a lot more "persuading" than I had anticipated. In fact, it had taken all night to wangle a pardon out of her. Damn. After three games of "Sorority Pledge Night," I wouldn't be able to sit down for a week. Of course, after that last game of "Secret Service Interrogation," neither would Rillary, heh heh.
The Corporal interrupted my musings. "Here you go, sir," he said, smiling and handing back my ID. "Down the hall, hang a left." He looked closer at me, clearly concerned. "Better take care of that black eye afterward, sir."
Black eye? I rubbed my eye, then examined my fingers. Oops. Black eye, my ass! That was eye shadow!
"ThanksCorporalCatchyoulater!" I raced down the corridor, takeout bag bouncing annoyingly against my leg with every stride. I shouldn't have gone back...I shouldn't have gone back...but it was such GOOD barbecue!
Wait! At the guard station up ahead: the firing squad! Hallelujah!
"Hang on!" I shouted, waving my document at them. "I have a Presidential Pardon!" I skidded to a stop in front of the Marines. "President Hinton has [puff] pardoned the prisoner! Stop the [gasp] execution!"
Impassively, the sergeant in charge of the firing squad took the paper and scrutinized it while I tried to catch my breath. Then he handed it back to me.
"It seems to be in order, Colonel," he said evenly. "Unfortunately, you're too late. We just shot him."
"WHAT? Sergeant, do you know what I went through for that--"
He broke into a grin. "Just kidding, sir! Hahaha! Man, you space jocks sure are gullible!" He motioned to his chortling squad. "OK, men, back to the barracks! Hang loose, Colonel."
I glared at them as they marched off. I'd like to hang that sergeant by his--
"Hang it all, sir!" exclaimed the guard at the console. "I was looking forward to seeing that bastard shot!"
"Hmm? Oh. Er, I don't blame you, Corporal. But don't forget, he's lost it all. He's ruined, humiliated, and universally despised. I'm not sure I've done him a favor..." I shook myself out of my gloomy mood. Where there was life, there was hope. "Anyway, I can't hang around here all day. How's he doing?"
"Not too happy, of course, but he's hanging in there. I checked him myself, not ten minutes ago."
"Yourself? Don't you have cell cams?"
He shook his head. "Cutbacks. Probably embezzled the money himself, heh heh." The Corporal touched his keyboard and the armored door behind him swung open. "Last cell on the right, Colonel."
I gathered up my takeout bag and headed down the corridor at a more leisurely pace. Whew! Thank God I was in time!
As I neared the last cell, I heard the electronic lock click open.
"It's me, Admiral!" I called. "How's it hang-- Oops!"
Inside the cell, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn was standing on his bunk, a sheet tied around his neck. The other end was secured to the cell's unused holocam mount.
"Don't try to stop me, Blair!" he growled. "I'd rather kill myself than give them the satisfaction of shooting me!" With that, he closed his eyes and leaped off the bunk...
And landed on his feet.
After a moment he opened his eyes. Looking up in frustration at the slack sheet, he said simply, "Oh, damn."
"Admiral, I don't think--"
"Quiet, Blair! Will you at least allow me a dignified death?" He closed his eyes again, relaxed his leg muscles and slumped...
To his knees. The sheet still hung limply.
"Damn, damn!" He climbed back up on the bunk, leaned precariously to reach the cam mount, and retied the sheet.
Sheesh. "Admiral!" I took out the pardon and waved it at him. "Hell-O! You've been pardoned, dammit!"
"What?" Startled, he flailed his arms for balance. "B-Blair! Help m--urk!"
I lunged for his legs and strained to support him while he struggled out of his improvised noose. Free at last, he slumped onto the bunk, coughing and rubbing his sore neck. When he had recovered somewhat, he took my document. He read it twice before asking hoarsely, "It's true? I'm a free man?"
I nodded. "Stripped of rank, dishonorably discharged, exiled for life. All you get is a long-range shuttle and supplies. It may still be a death sent--"
"Lost colonies," he breathed, his eyes gazing into the distance. "Cut off during the War...we know they're out there." He squared his shoulders and smiled at me. "Thank you, my boy. Even at my age perhaps it is possible to start over again."
Neither of us said anything more for a time; we were lost in our own thoughts. For nearly two decades, our destinies had been inextricably linked; now we'd come to the end of it. I couldn't imagine life without Geoffrey Tolwyn hovering over me like a vulture. Not that I would miss him, exactly, but...
"Er, ahem," he said, finally breaking the uncomfortable silence. "I guess it's back to your farm for you, eh, Blair?"
I shook my head. "No. I'm tired of being pushed around, Admiral. It's about time I did some pushing of my own."
He gave me a knowing smile. "Ah. You see? I told you we're alike, Colonel." Tolwyn closed his eyes, reminiscing. "Wait until you attain real power! It's exhilarating...intoxicating...there's nothing like it." He opened his eyes. "But with power comes responsibility...the obligation to mold the world to your own vision."
"I couldn't agree more, Adm--er, Geoff." Ostentatiously, I looked at my watch. "And it's past time I started." I handed him the bag of barbecue. "The damn bureaucracy will take a few hours to process your release, so I brought you something to tide you over. Catch you later!"
I leaned wearily against the bar of the Sheraton luxury suite, sipping my Bugs Bunny and nibbling absently on a juicy rib. It had been a long day...a long two months...a long fucking lifetime.
Over in the plush armchair, Paladin was chuckling. "Admiral of the Fleet! You've come far, laddie! How the devil did you wangle the appointment from the Dragon Lady?"
I ambled over to the chair opposite my friend and leaned on it. I didn't try to sit down--still too sore. "Hey! I'm the Wing Commander, remember? Heh heh. But what about you, you old dog? I hear you've resigned from your seat in the Dissembly. Are you giving up politics?"
He took a swig of his drink--scotch, of course--and shook his head. "Just the opposite, laddie. I had to step down, of course, and tell the truth about rigging my election. But when I run for my old seat again this fall, I run clean. I'll let the voters decide if the end justified my means. And I'll wager a case of Scotland's finest that I win! Hohoho!"
"No bet, pal!"
Paladin drained his glass and heaved himself out of the chair. "But win or lose, I'll make it my life's work to keep people like Tolwyn out of power." Only half-jokingly, he added, "And that includes you, ADMIRAL."
Heh heh. If he only knew how close he was to the truth, he'd gun me down right here and now.
"Vigilance 'R' us, eh? Don't worry, I'll keep my nose clean, Paladin."
"See that you do. Good night, laddie. Have a good trip to HQ."
When he had gone, I wandered over to the huge window and peered out into the darkness. The lights of the city stretched into the distance like a miniature galaxy, complete with star clusters, dark nebulas, and a rainbow of suns. I smiled at my reflection in the transpex. The analogy was apt. If all went as planned, soon the entire galaxy, like the city below, would be at my feet.
I took another rib from the open BBQ pak and gnawed on it. The first day of The Plan had gone well. Put in charge of the campaign to eradicate the Black Lance and their pirate cohorts, I had first call on Confed resources. I'd transferred most of the new people brought in by Tolwyn and replaced them with veterans loyal to the Heart of the Tiger. SRA agents were fanning out across the Confederation, combing the bars and alleys for discarded vets like Justin Thyme. Ostensibly they were bringing back experienced men for the Black Lance campaign, but in reality they were recruiting for me. Dear Jeanette had shown me my path, but I couldn't traverse it alone.
"Incoming call, sir."
"Accepted," I told the suite AI. I'd ordered it to block all calls except from Barbara Dahl or the President. Since Rillary was "negotiating" tonight with the Kilrathi ambassador--where did that woman get the energy?--it must be...
"Hello, Chr--er, Admiral," said Barbara. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."
Damn, she was pretty. Once again I found myself wondering: 1) Did Barbara Dahl wear underwear? 2) Was that an all-over tan?
"Not at all, Barbara. Business or pleasure?"
"Business, I'm afraid. I called to get your reaction to the news. After all, in some ways you were closer to him than anyone."
"News? Him? Him who?"
Her brisk newshound expression was replaced by one of deep sympathy. "You haven't heard? I'm sorry, sir, Geoffrey Tolwyn is dead. They found him in his cell this morning."
"What?" Oh, shit. The old man did it after all. So how did I feel about it? Numb? Stunned? Relieved? All of the above? No, the Admiral of the Fleet had to be more profound than that.
"Uh, I guess I'd say Admiral Tolwyn reminded us yet again that a lifetime of good can be undone in a moment of weakness, and that our best defense against tyranny is still eternal vigilance. In the end, he was consumed by his own evil, which finally drove him to suicide."
"Thank you, Admiral. Er, but it wasn't suicide; he choked on a sparerib."
"He choked on...?" Oops. "Uh, scratch that suicide remark, OK?"
"Of course. Good night, sir."
"Catch you later, Barbi--Barbara."
I stared at the blank display long after she had disconnected. Damn, life was such a crapshoot! One minute you had your whole future ahead of you, and the next... I suddenly noticed the rib in my hand. Very very carefully, I put it back in the takeout pak.
Another window, another view. This time I stood in my lavish office--formerly occupied by the late Geoffrey Tolwyn--gazing out at the TCS Vesuvius and the breathtaking spectacle of Saturn and its rings. I was well aware of the irony of my position, but too tired to care. I served The Plan now, and it was a demanding master.
"Sir, Major Thyme is here."
With a sigh, I abandoned the beauty of nature, returned to my desk, and touched the comm control. "Send him in, Chastity."
Justin Thyme, now a Major in the new Confederation Special Services, stepped jauntily down the stairs in his stylish black uniform. Too familiar with my lair to be impressed by his luxurious surroundings, he crossed over to my desk and plopped a data cartridge in front of me.
"Recruiting for your Special Services is going better than I expected, Chris. You were right: I wasn't the only lost soul out there."
I inserted the data cartridge into my console and skimmed the reports. Not surprisingly, most of the recuited gutter rats were from colonies overrun by the Kilrathi or ravaged by fighting during the War. There was a large contingent from Locanda IV...
I forced Robin's image out of my mind and tried to concentrate. So many of the men who had fought the Kilrathi War had fallen into depression, addiction, and crime when postwar military cutbacks threw them out on the streets. Having lost too much, or seen too much, they'd abandoned hope; their very souls were up for grabs. I wasn't worried, though; neither God nor Lucifer could match what the Heart of the Tiger was offering.
"Thanks, Justin. You've made a good start." I handed him a data cartridge. "Here's the next batch of candidates: mostly pilots, but also a few engineers and techs...and there's a bioconvergence chemist in there who gets special treatment. Dry him out and bring him directly here. He talks to no one but me, OK?"
He scratched his head. "OK. Uh, you won't tell me why he's so important?"
"A promise I made. I'll tell you more in due time. Now, what about the Blair Youth?"
Uneasily, he replied, "Are you sure you know what you're doing, Chris? With all they've been through, and the shortage of foster homes, these war orphans have emotional problems you wouldn't believe. Nobody wants them now."
I dismissed his objection with a wave of my hand. "All the better. We're going to give those boys just what they need: attention, discipline, faith in their future, and a stern but loving father figure: me--er, I."
He shrugged. "OK. Um, I know you want just the boys, Chris, but some of them have sisters. Should we...?"
I hesitated. Boys were easier to instill with the fanatical loyalty I needed. On the other hand, having lost everyone else, they'd be fiercely attached to their siblings, resenting anyone who tried to separate them--and worshipping anyone who kept them together.
"OK, but just for our best prospects. The girls get the same treatment as their brothers, for now. We'll develop a girls' curriculum later." Not. "Justin, I can't overemphasize the importance of these boys; they're my--er, our--future."
He sighed. "OK, Chris. Anything else?"
"Yes, something Tolwyn mentioned to me. Have one of our friends over at BuCol make discreet inquiries about distant colonies we lost contact with during the War. Send some of our Special Servicemen to check out any leads. If you do find anything, keep it secret until we can negotiate their return to Confed." Actually, I planned to "misplace" the records of any colonies he discovered; if The Plan blew up in my face, I'd need a bolthole.
Though obviously dying of curiosity, Justin refrained from asking any more questions. He just gave me the Special Services salute--clenched fist thumped against his chest--and strode purposefully out of my office.
I sat at my desk a while longer, brooding. I was playing a dangerous game, wagering life itself on the outcome. Not just my own life, either. Though ignorant of my true purpose, my loyal followers were inextricably caught up in my conspiracy. If I went down, I'd take a lot of good men--and boys--with me.
The sun was setting again; the vast disk of Saturn was dark except for a thin crescent that quickly vanished as HQ passed behind the planet. Lights appeared in the darkness where Vesuvius was loading four squadrons of Dragons. Soon her first batch of Special Servicemen would arrive, and then I'd begin their training and indoctrination in earnest.
I lingered a moment longer at the window. There were still over a thousand personnel files to examine--each Special Serviceman had to be hand-picked by the Heart of the Tiger himself--but Saturn's rings were so lovely...
Speaking of lovely... I turned, smiling, at the sound of the soft, husky voice behind me. Chastity always put me in a good mood.
"About this trans, Chris-Chris," she continued hesitantly. "'Robin, Rachel: Sorry, can't accept your offer. Name your price for the ship. -- Chris.'"
"What about it, hon?"
"Well, you owe them MORE, Chris-Chris! I talked with Rachel Coriolis once-- you know, to prepare for my role in 'Return of the Tiger?' Um, she didn't come RIGHT out and say it, but I could tell there was something between you two! I'm VERY sensitive about such--"
I put my finger to her lips. "You can cut the act, Chastity."
A newborn babe couldn't have looked more innocent. "Act? Why, Chris-Chris, what could you POSSIBLY mean?"
"Since Paladin wasn't arrested for consorting with traitors--me--you obviously lied to Tolwyn when you got back from Peleus. What did you tell him?"
In the blink of an eye, Chastity was transformed. Her wide, innocent eyes narrowed, the pouty smile all but disappeared, and her perkiness dissolved into calm self-assurance. When she spoke, her voice was sharper and less husky.
"I told the Admiral that we'd been delayed by a slight misalignment in the shuttle's hyperjump unit. We arrived in Peleus after the 'mysterious' jamming had ended. It was too late to learn anything, so we returned to Sol."
I nodded thoughtfully. If she hadn't lied--convincingly--Paladin wouldn't have been in the Dissembly to back me up, and Tolwyn would have won.
She shrugged. "I didn't trust the Admiral; he kept too many secrets from me. After I saw you and your motley crew in Peleus, and you still let us go, I knew you were innocent. Besides, I knew Tolwyn wouldn't hurt me if he found out. But I didn't know what he was really up to, Chris. You have to believe me."
"I do. I'm just surprised Paladin took the chance of letting you report to--"
She looked at me as if my IQ had just dropped a hundred points.
"Oh. Well anyway, thanks, Chastity; you helped save--"
The old Chastity was suddenly back. Pinching my cheek affectionately, she gushed, "Thank YOU, Chris-Chris, for getting me the female lead in 'Blair Wars IV!' I've always wanted to play a scientist! Heehee!"
"You're, uh, welcome. So, you're off to Hollyworld in..."
"...three days, six hours, and fifteen minutes! I'll miss you, Chris-Chris!"
"I'll miss you, too, hon." Not. Too many secrets of my own to risk having her around. I made a mental note, however, to see "Return of the Tiger" some time; she was a better actress than I'd thought. "Uh, send that trans as is, hon, and let Major Marshall in; he's waited long enough."
"OK, Chr--er, ADMIRAL Chris-Chris!" She bounced up the stairs and blew me a kiss on her way out.
I reached under my desk and brought out Maniac's box of presents. I'd gone to a lot of trouble for him, but he'd earned it. His Playboy collection had bought us crucial repairs, his Miss July Inflatable log had turned the tide in the Dissembly debate, and he'd saved Tamara's life--and mine, for that matter.
Ah, Mr. Personality was coming down the stairs right now.
"About fucking time, Ace! Do you know how long you kept me--" He stopped and took in the expensive decor. "Holy shit! Nice digs, Ace! Who's your decorator? Emperor Nero? Haha ha! Hey, is this a Ming Vas--"
I waited patiently for him to find his way to my desk. Another five minutes, and he'd be out of my life forever. Five minutes...five fucking minutes.
Finally, he stopped before me, came to an approximation of attention, and sketched a lazy salute. "Major Todd Marshall reporting, Ace--er, ADMIRAL Ace! Haha ha!"
"Hello, Maniac," I replied evenly. "Are you ready to collect?"
"You bet I am!" he replied enthusiastically. Retrieving a slip of paper from his pocket, he continued, "You said anything I want, right? OK, the first thing on the list is a--"
"--Playmate of the Year Inflatable. The Deluxe Educational Edition, complete with toys and 'Hoyle's Sex Games' on data cartridge." I took the kit out of the box of goodies and handed it to him. "Next?"
"Uh, good. Thanks. Ahem. Next is a lifetime--"
"--subscription to Playboy." I handed him the certificate. "Platinum Key Membership, signed by Tawny Hefner herself. It includes the right to purchase one vintage issue per month at one credit each."
"Wow, Ace, that's-- Er, thanks. Next I want--"
"--another autographed copy of Chastity's centerfold." I gave him the gift- wrapped package. "Complete with lipstick print and tastefully framed in pink velvet. Take better care of this one, pal."
Gaping at the booty in his arms, Maniac was, for once, at a loss for words. "Uh...uh...wow! How did you know what I--"
"Hey! I'm the Admiral, remember?" I took the list from his limp fingers and ticked off the remaining items. "Yes...yes...Maniac, are you sure you want a lifetime supply of barbecue? Yes? OK. Yes...yes...no. Sorry, pal, even I can't screw a Space Marshal's appointment out of Rillary." Marshal Marshall? I shuddered at the very thought.
Retrieving a trans slip from my desk, I added, "I do have the next best thing, though. Promotion to Colonel and a staff appointment at the Academy. General Storr specifically asked for you."
He ripped the slip out of my hands and scanned it. "He asked for me? Not you? Well! Ya see, Ace? Raw talent beats luck every time! Haha ha!"
Maniac had indeed earned his appointment. The General figured there was no better example of a BAD officer in all of Confed. He had a whole curriculum planned around Maniac.
Maniac looked up from the slip. "Ya know, Ace, this still doesn't make up for humiliating me in front of fifty billion-- What's this?"
I handed him a data cartridge. "Messages. Thousands of them. From females begging to help rehabilitate the pitiful sitcom warfare victim. As a depraved pervert, you repel women; as a depraved casualty of war, I guess you appeal to their motherly instincts. By the way, did you know the incoming class at the Academy is nearly half female? With an average age of seventeen years, eight months?"
His jaw dropped. "H-h-half...? S-s-seven-t-t...?"
I turned him around and quickly propelled him out of my office, adding, "Solongpalstayintouch!"
I was examining another promising Special Services candidate's folder when the comm buzzed at me.
"Captain Eisen is here, sir."
"Send him in, Ensign."
We met at the foot of the stairs and shook hands warmly. I patted his tummy, noting that he hadn't gained a gram since the Dissembly vote. "Laying off the barbecue, Captain?" I teased.
"Er, yes, Admiral, ever since Tolwyn...silly of me, I guess. Anyway, I'm glad you sent for me. Gives me a chance to say good-bye properly."
"Good-bye?" I offered him one of the sumptuous Fit-2-U's arranged around the mahogany coffee table.
"Ahhh," he sighed, easing into his chair. "Yes, I'm retiring. I figure I've had just about enough of this man's navy. Besides, I'm getting married again."
"Married? Who...of course! Captain Apton! Congratulations, Cap--er, Will!"
"Thank you, Admiral. It's not often a man gets a second chance at love."
The ache in my heart was proof of that.
"We're going to follow your example," he went on. "Buy some land, settle down, and live the quiet life. I've had enough excitement for two lifetimes."
Damn, this could put a crimp in my whole scheme. I drummed my fingers on the arm of my chair, trying to find the right approach. "Will, I'll have to ask you to postpone your plans, just for a bit."
He was suddenly wary. "Oh?"
"Yes. As you know, the Black Lance and their pirate cronies are going all-out for a military victory, now that their plan to subvert the Confederation has failed. So far we're holding our own, but I need a good man to lead our reserves in a counter-offensive."
I could tell he was tempted; the warrior in him wasn't quite retired. "That's very flattering, Admiral, but aren't you perfectly--"
I threw up my hands. "I'm up to my ears already, Will! Reunification talks with the Border Worlds, rooting out Tolwyn's cronies, procurement, caring for our neglected orphans, building the elite core of Confed's future military... I need YOU, Will. Your government needs you. Your race needs you. Your--"
He held up his hand, grinning. "Enough, already! I never could say no to you. When do I start?"
"Today." I touched the hidden holodisplay control. "The Union has grudgingly put its Militia under MY command--not Confed's--for the duration. That's why I need you in tactical command; you're the only other Confed officer the Union trusts. I'm giving you our reserves: four Confed and two Union carriers, operating in three groups; all our Bearcats, retrofitted with Dragon optics; at least one P-PNG-DOMM-equipped ship in each task force. The Lexington has just finished her repairs; I suggest you make her your flagship. The crew's itching to get back at the Black Lance after their internment at Starbase Halcyon. Oh, by the way, Will, could you, uh, look in on..."
"Lt. Disch? Don't worry, Admiral, I'll make sure she's OK."
"Thanks, Will. Ahem. Lexington will be joined shortly by the new BWS Willful. By the way, I hear the old boy's coffin is stashed under the bar in her officers' lounge!"
Eisen chuckled. "Very appropriate. OK, let's see..." He reached into the image poised over the table, pointing to a cluster of three systems on the far side of the Black Lance's conquered territory. "We'll strike here, behind their offensive, and surprise the bejeesus out of 'em. They'll have to cover their rear, and that will ease the pressure on our front lines."
"Excellent, Will. I approve. Now you should know that Sox crews will be coming along with you to shoot combat sequences and background material for 'Blair Wars V.' They're paying me--er, Confed--a bundle, so extend them every reasonable courtesy."
He sighed in resignation. "Was there ever a time when a war was a just a war, and not a media event?"
I grinned. "I doubt it. I understand Homer's 'Iliad' was known at the time as 'Troy Wars VII!' Heh heh. Seriously, Will, I want this this to be a different kind of war. You will expose your assets to a minimum of risk. If the enemy stands, smash him. If he runs, cut up his stragglers, nip at his heels, but leave him a path to his rear. We've wasted enough of our best and brightest on these scum."
He regarded me skeptically. "Admiral, the more we squeeze them, the more they concentrate. Sooner or later, we'll have a bloodbath--on both sides. Better to nail 'em while they're still spread--"
I shook my head. "No, for two reasons. First, they're getting nothing more from the SRA. No frigates, no fighters, no spares. The more they maneuver, the more they'll lose to wear and tear. Time is on our side, for a change. Second, I have--"
"I know, I know! You have a plan!" He sighed. "OK, Admiral, we'll do it your way, God help us!"
"Good." The third, and most important reason, I kept to myself.
"I'm bumping you to Rear Admiral. You'll have your choice of personnel, of course. The only exception is Lexington's wing commander; I have someone in mind for that spot." Seeing my old friend's sudden look of apprehension, I hastened to add, "No, I've put Maniac out to stud, and Hulk has gone off to raise rabbits on Pasqual X."
I killed the display. "My farm on Nephritis II is for sale, Will. If you want to buy it when you retire, I'll give you a good price. I'd like to keep it in the family, so to speak." Aware that I was becoming dangerously sentimental, I added, "Besides, the school district is one of the best on the planet! Heh heh."
We stood up and shook hands. "I just might take your offer, Admiral," he said, a twinkle in his eye. "Afton's been looking for a place with good schools."
"All my best to her, Will. Ensign Behlte is at your disposal for the rest of the day; she'll show you your office and introduce you to your staff." That killed two birds with one stone. Chastity's presence would only complicate my next appointments.
I was at the window again, watching the sun dance on Saturn's rings, when the reception AI buzzed.
"Sir, your 15:30 appointment is here."
"Send her in, please."
Colonel Tamara Farnsworth, temporarily assigned to the Terran Confederation Space Force, strode into my office in her crisp new Confed dress uniform. Her wounds healed, and fresh from the two weeks' leave I'd granted the survivors of the Noxzema battle, she radiated vitality. She wore no makeup, and her hair was up in its severe regulation bun, but she took my breath away.
Not one to waste time on preliminaries, she walked right up to me and put her arms around my neck. "OK, flyboy, no more games. Are you my knight in shining saucepan? Do I form on your wing...forever?"
In the back of my mind, a tiny voice was screaming at me: Oh boy, kiss her!
Instead, I gently disentangled myself and handed her the envelope with her orders.
Curious, she slipped the sheets out and began reading. "Colonel Farnsworth... blah blah blah...Wing Commander, TCS Lexington! Oh, Chris! So we fight the Black Lance together?" For a moment, she glowed with delight. Then she noticed my blank expression, and her face fell. "You're not coming," she said flatly. "You're kissing me off, aren't you?"
"Am I that obvious?"
She smiled, a transparent mask over her pain. "Hey, I'm the Wing Commander, remember?" She turned her back, so I couldn't see her wrestling with her emotions. "Why, Chris?"
I reached for her, then thought better of it. Fighting to control my voice, I said, "My flying days are over, Tamara. The hero you fell for did his own dirty work; now he's sending good people out to die for him. The hero I fell for couldn't love a guy like that, now could she?"
She sniffled a couple of times, then squared her shoulders and turned to face me again. "You know, Chris, I'd understand if you went back to your farm; I'd even understand if you chose another woman over me. But this..." She waved her hand around the opulent office. "You're right, I don't understand this and I never will." She snapped to attention and saluted. "G-good-bye...Admiral."
I returned her salute crisply. "Dismissed...Wing Commander."
Funny how the storms on Saturn reminded me of Tamara. That swirl down there, the one with a tail the size of the Earth, looked just like the delicate brown curl that always seemed to escape her bun...
"Your 16:00 is here, sir. Room temperature is up two degrees, as ordered."
"Thank you. Send her in."
First Lieutenant Velina Sosa, temporarily assigned to the Terran Confederation Navy, strode into my office in her crisp new Confed dress uniform. The scar on her forehead was gone, there was more color in her cheeks, and she had filled out ever so slightly while on leave. I even noted two tantalizing curves where there had been none before.
We clung to each other in wordless greeting; we'd been too long apart. When we let go, I smiled and turned her around slowly to get a better view.
"Looking good, Vee. Been on a beach somewhere?" I caressed her hand. "Mmm, not cold at all."
She smiled back at me. "Yes, it's warm and cozy in here. Thanks. Gee, it's good to see you smile again, Chris. In all those news interviews lately, all you do is scowl."
My smile faded. "I guess I'm just preoccupied. I have more responsibility now, you know."
Her smile vanished, too. "That's what worries me. Chris, I'm a comm expert, remember? I've stayed plugged in, even on leave. You're following in Tolwyn's footsteps: taking over the SRA, doing secret research, building your own army --yes, they're supposed to be Confed's new elite force, but I know better. And now you're going the old man one better with this Blair Youth cult!"
She took my hand and squeezed earnestly. "Chris, I've always known you have a dark side--every warrior does--but now it's growing stronger. Those last days on the Intrepid...here in this awful place...I see it, and it scares me. Don't give in to the dark side, Chris! Let me bring you back into the light. I can banish your darkness forever."
There was that voice again, calling to me from the back of my mind: For God's sake, kiss her!
But it was no match for the power of the dark side. Gently, but firmly, I peeled her hand off mine.
"The man you loved was a puppet, Velina. He's gone. From now on, I pull the strings. I'm going straight to the top, and to get there, I'll have to...do things. If I take you along, I'll just turn you against me, or worse, corrupt you, too. No, Vee, where I'm going, you can't follow."
The tears started to flow, then, and they were more than a match for the power of darkness. To keep myself from sweeping her into my arms, I hastily grabbed for the WipeX I'd prudently stashed in my pocket. Then, while she was drying her eyes, I retrieved the envelope from my back pocket.
"You've..." Dammit, Blair, spit it out! "You've earned your choice of assignments, Vee, but I'd consider it a favor if you...if you took this one."
Sniffling, she took the envelope, opened it, and read the first page. "Chief Comm Officer, TCS St. M-Melons? Don't they already...?"
"Captain Rollins has all he can handle, getting his ship repaired and into the Black Lance campaign. He has a scratch crew, and his people skills are, shall we say, still emerging. Your talents, both technical and otherwise, could make all the difference."
"And you kill two birds with one stone," she said bitterly. "Get rid of me and help rebuild your damn fleet at the same time."
Three birds, actually, if it worked out between Sosa and Rollins as I hoped. That still left a fourth bird unstoned: that empty place in my heart where Velina had been.
"You're right, though," she added. "I couldn't stay and watch you lose what little humanity you have left." Sosa took a deep breath, wiped her eyes one last time, and savagely stuffed the crumpled tissue into my breast pocket. "Here! A little memento from the Chief Comm Officer of the TCS St. Melons!" She spun on her heel and left my office without a backward glance.
I watched her all the way.
When she was gone, I went back to the window to observe the slow gravitational dance of the Saturn planetary system. Funny how it mimicked my own plight: attracted to each other by an irresistible and unknowable force, the orbiting moons were nevertheless kept forever apart by circumstances beyond their control. Just like Blair and Tamara, Blair and Velina, Blair and--
Zelda Morgenstern paused at the top of the steps in her faded jeans and "Heart of the Tiger" T-shirt (I got 10% of each sale), her duffel bag carelessly dropped at her feet. With a whoop, she launched herself down the stairs, pony- tail flying behind her. Giddy as a schoolgirl, and looking very much the part in her casual civilian clothes, she leaped into my arms.
"I'm back!" she announced, somewhat redundantly. Her arms held me in a death grip.
I'm sorry to say I weakened then, and fervently embraced her: my ugly duckling who was, in her own way, more beautiful than my lovely Angel. All the time, that voice in the back of my mind was screaming: Kiss her, you fucking idiot! Carefully!
Instead, recovering from my lapse, I coaxed her down off me. Noting a streak of grease on her cheek, I held her at arm's length and looked her up and down. "Zelda, hon, your clothes are filthy. Where's your uniform? And why are you late?"
She was still bubbling with enthusiasm. "I got off the shuttle, and there was this new Dragon variant a few bays down. I wandered over to check it out, and watched them pull the cloaker for calibration. Guess what! It had some of my own mods! Well, I got to talking with the techs and eggheads, and pretty soon I was showing them my tweaks, and they showed me theirs, and we all got dirty, and there was no time to change, and--
"Uh, yeah. I had Intrepid's salvage crew send your cloaker to the SRA. The brainy types there used some of your ideas to improve the Dragon cloaker so it spoofs Dragon optics and even the new P-PNG-DOMM sensors. If it passes the field tests, it'll be the core of the Dragon II. By the way, I registered two patents in your name. At the rate we're building Dragons, you'll soon be a rich woman."
"I'm already rich, Blairbear! I have bad guys to fight, fighters to fix, and a man to love! What more could I want? So when do we start, Admiral Snookums?" If only it were that simple. I handed Zelda her orders and waited while she read through them.
"'Pasqual X?'" she quoted, puzzled. "'Official SRA Technical Liaison' to President Melek?" Uncertainly, she looked up from the papers, searching my eyes. "We're not serving together?"
"Well, in a way we are. I'm head of the SRA, and the Agency needs the new electronics the Kilrathi are developing. With your expertise, we'll get the exact stuff we need. Uh, there's really no one else I could send, hon."
Uh-oh, she wasn't fooled for a second. "You never could lie to me, hero," she said sadly. "It says here this is just for three months, but we both know it might as well be three centuries. You're dumping me. Why? Is it because I'm so--"
"You know better than that. I love you, and I always will, but I've learned the hard way that's not enough. I can't live in your world any more, and I know you can't live in the one I'm making for myself. You'll only get hurt if you try."
She was fighting tears now, and barely holding her own. When she spoke, her lovely voice was harsh with sarcasm. "In other words, you're b-breaking my heart b-because you love me? Gee, thanks a b-bunch!" She ignored my offer of tissue and wiped her eyes on her T-shirt. "Y'know, Chris? That last mission, when you thought you wouldn't come back? You were right: you didn't. Not to me, anyway."
She wiped her eyes again, then faced me squarely. "Well, congratulations, Admiral. Once again you got the job done. And so efficiently!" She jerked her thumb back at her duffel bag. "I don't even have to pack! So if you'll excuse me, I'll go have a g-good cry before my shuttle leaves."
She started away at a dignified pace, but she was practically running by the time she reached her bag. With a final glance that stabbed right through my heart, she was gone.
I stared numbly at the door long after Zelda was out of sight. I owed that woman everything, and the best way I had to repay her was to break both our hearts.
I had to do it, I told myself again and again. They loved the Heart of the Tiger, and I just couldn't be that guy any more. Nor could I ask any of them to be a farmer's woman--or a starlord's. The surest way to kill love is to demand that your lover be something he or she is not. Though I would miss them terribly, I'd done the right thing.
But I think I'll miss you most of all, scarecrow.
With my emotional decks cleared, so to speak, I threw myself heart and soul into The Plan. To group after group of Special Services candidates, I promised the same thing I had promised Justin: blood, sweat, tears, and toil--and the guarantee that one day they could look themselves in the mirror again. And they believed me. Not because the Heart of the Tiger promised it--although that was a major factor--but because they WANTED to believe. Just as I had wanted to believe Zelda over a decade ago, in my own hell on Caernarvon.
We trained day and night, seven days a week. With first call on Confed's resources, I had the best instructors and the best equipment. Once they were dried out, detoxed, and deloused, my gutter dogs proved eager students. In a few weeks they were performing like combat veterans again; in a few more they surpassed Confed's best units. With each new success, their loyalty to me grew. Fate had toyed with me unmercifully, but it had also made me a leader of men. Though discipline was rigorous, dropouts were few.
Despite the demands of my Special Services, I didn't neglect the Blair Youth. Again, I had the best psychologists and educators at my disposal, ample funds from Sox, and a heartbreakingly large pool of war orphans to choose from. The first group consisted of the three hundred boys--and a few of their sisters-- judged most likely to benefit from the paramilitary environment I demanded.
The moment they arrived at "Camp Blair," they began a disciplined program of athletics, academics, and military studies, with an emphasis on team effort and group achievement. Their induction into the cult of Blair was more subtle, but my loyalists on the staff never let the kids forget who had given them this second chance. Occasional visits by my fanatically loyal Special Servicemen reinforced the message: everyone else had written them off; the Heart of the Tiger had not. Exemplary performance, especially in helping other Youth, earned a personal trans from me; outstanding achievers were brought to HQ to meet the Heart of the Tiger in person. Blooming under the lavish attention of the staff, my kids quickly left their early disciplinary problems behind and developed into a team of overachievers fiercely loyal to each other--and to Christopher Blair.
Not before time. Despite what I'd told Admiral Eisen, time was still my enemy. I had a very narrow window of opportunity in which to shape my destiny, and that window shrank with each passing day. I drove my Special Servicemen, I drove the Blair Youth, and I drove myself, lest The Plan be outpaced by events.
Admiral Eisen's campaign against the Black Lance and its allies was progressing well, almost too well. As he had forseen, his initial attack threw the enemy into disarray, forcing them to break off their own offensive and react to his moves. In firm possession of the initiative, Eisen then ran them ragged in a series of swift thrusts. Halting his spearheads whenever they met determined resistance, he would quickly probe for new weak spots and attack again.
It was too much. With their forces weakening, their front riddled like Swiss cheese, and Eisen's strength growing every day, the Black Lance pulled back to the Pythagoran Cluster. In a last desperate bid to negotiate a favorable surrender, they fortified the Theorem System, threatening to inflict fearful losses on any attacking force.
Some four months after my last meeting with Admiral Eisen, the time had come. I ordered my Special Servicemen into action.
I seemed to spend my life gazing out windows. This particular one was in the flag quarters of the TCS Vesuvius. Outside, the ships of my great armada effortlessly kept pace with their speeding flagship. From time to time, new stars blazed briefly in the void: Special Servicemen putting their new Dragon II fighters through their paces. I'd just returned from a practice dogfight, and soon I would return to the fray. Just now, however, I had another duty.
Absently, I caressed my parrot's tummy feathers. In the last difficult months, she'd been my only companion. "You know, birdie," I said for the thousandth time, "we really should find you a name."
"Rawwk! Promises, promises!" She hopped from my shoulder onto my head and back again. "Awwk! Just call me Tolwyn! Pretty Chastity!"
"Ouch! Watch those claws, you bir--"
The comm lit up, interrupting my retort. It was the ship's Chief Comm Officer.
"Sir," he said, "I have the link, but we're moving out of range quickly. That hick planet's equipment is pretty ancient."
"Patch it through, please." With some trepidation, I sat down at the console. It had taken my agents nearly four months to track my quarry to this backwater region. When I learned that we would transit the system on our way to Theorem, I had resolved to contact him personally.
The display image dissolved into a view of a human female seated at an outdated comm console. She'd been almost pretty once, but toil and worry had taken their toll. In her eyes, however, I saw something akin to the spark I'd been noticing lately in my reformed gutter dogs.
"Admiral Blair," she said. "This is an unexpected...honor."
"Thank you. May I speak with Hobbes--er, Ralgha nar Hholles, please?"
"Who?" she asked quickly--too quickly.
"It's no good, Bobbie Jo. Clem told me about you and Hobbes. My agents filled in the gaps."
She slumped in resignation. "Well, we both knew this day was coming. My husband is at work. It's late here, you know...night shift was all he could get."
"Yes." As a traitor to two races, and a despicable villain in "Return of the Tiger," Hobbes was lucky to get anything.
"Admiral," she said, pleading. "You were friends, once. Must you...?"
I held up my hand to stop her. "Tomorrow a man will call on Hobbes. He'll have with him an honorable discharge from the Confederation Space Force, and a personal letter from the President, explaining his defection as a top secret covert op. It won't completely erase his reputation, of course, but it should help."
She was dumbfounded. "I-I don't understand. After he betrayed..."
"He betrayed no one, Bobbie Jo. He was always very clear about his loyalties. He joined Confed to turn his people away from war and inevitable destruction. When he left Confed, he was just trying to save them again. I should have transferred him when I learned what Tolwyn was up to, but in my vanity, I assumed our friendship outweighed loyalty to his race. For that, I'm sorry."
Bobbie Jo was smiling now, tears of joy welling up in her eyes. "T-thank you, Admiral. My husband was right: you are a man of honor."
Not for much longer, heh heh.
"Thank you. We'll be out of range in a minute, so I guess this is-- What was that?"
A ball of orange-brown fur had suddenly streaked across the room behind her. Instantly she was off in pursuit. "Laurel!" she called. "Bad kitty! You're supposed to be in bed!" After a few moments, she returned to the console, clutching a wriggling Kilrathi youngster in her arms.
I was immediately reminded of Zeke's kids, although this one was at least two years older than his firstborn. "I see you've adopted. A relative of Hobbes?"
Bobbie Jo was soothing the she-kit with slow caresses of her tummy fur. "No. He found Laurel on his...travels, just before the end of the War. She's the last survivor of a colony destroyed by Confed." She gazed lovingly at her daughter for a moment before continuing. "Admiral? Have you heard anything from...Clem?"
"I, uh, got a trans just the other day. He's remarried, his farm is doing better, and the kids seem to like their new mom. They miss you, though."
She hugged her precious bundle a little closer. "I-I miss them, too. I guess that's the price of my freedom: eternal...regret."
Tell me about it, lady. "Good-bye, Bobbie Jo."
"Good-bye, Admiral Blair."
My armada arrived in the Axiom system the next day. Admiral Eisen's fleet was split between Axiom and Lemma, blockading the only two exits from Theorem. According to my plan, his forces would remain there, guarding the jump points, while I took my three Vesuvius class carriers and their escorts into Theorem. It was unfair of me to relegate Eisen to a secondary role at the moment of glory, but The Plan had no room for extra heroes. After transferring the Sox holocam crews to my ships, we jumped to Theorem for our showdown with the Black Lance.
Taking personal command of the battle, I donned a black uniform, hopped into a Dragon II, and led my Special Servicemen into the most lopsided victory in Confederation history. Outnumbering the remnants of the Black Lance, and flying machines of superior performance, we cut them to pieces. It wasn't just numbers, either. My superbly trained Special Servicemen were fighting for more than just their lives; they were fighting for self-respect. Even on those rare occasions when they fought outnumbered, my men still flew rings around the Black Lance.
After three days of slugging through the Theorem defense planes, we fought a ten-hour running battle with the motley fleet of Black Lance frigates, and destroyed them utterly. After that, the demoralized supermen surrendered their HQ intact. We added about a thousand more prisoners to the total we'd taken in the previous six months, including several hundred "mongrel" pirates and most of the Black Lancettes. I was saddened to learn that the real "Heather" wasn't among them; I never did find out what happened to her.
The Heart of the Tiger was magnanimous in victory. Certain the Dissembly would back me up, I offered the prisoners a choice: trial and almost certain execution, or the chance to atone for their crimes on the Locanda IV Decon Project. Not surprisingly, they opted for the dangerous and arduous task of reclaiming the dead planet; better to live in hope than die with none. Killing two birds with one stone again, I assigned a certain three Marines from Orestes IV as permanent guards for Prisoner 4123106, one Vinson Garr. Heh heh.
As I had known when I gave Will Eisen his orders, the decisive Theorem victory was a glorious climax to his superb, but unglamorous campaign of maneuver. Post-battle publicity lionized the Special Servicemen and their leader, the Heart of the Tiger, while all but ignoring the workmanlike Eisen. I made sure, of course, that he and his people received the medals and promotions they had earned, but I kept the publicity low-key. Admiral Eisen's subsequent wedding and retirement were all but ignored by the press.
Two weeks after the Battle of Theorem, I was back at Camp Blair, surrounded by adoring Blair Youth and fawning media types. With superb timing--Rillary was a consummate politician--her summons to the Pink House arrived in the middle of my outdoor press conference. Justin quickly selected the youngest and most hologenic of our few girls to deliver the trans slip to me. As I held her up so she could see over the podium, she solemnly announced that Admiral Blair would receive the Dissembly Medal of Honor (again) and a promotion to Space Marshal. Then she gave me a big hug.
The news broadcasts that evening led with that scene: the mighty Heart of the Tiger, fiercest warrior of his era, shedding tears over a hug from an adorable little orphan girl. Had the presidential election been held the next day, I would have won in a landslide.
The next morning, reading the Insta-Poll results over my coffee, I smiled in satisfaction. The Plan was coming together with dizzying speed. President Hinton's party was in disarray, as none of the presidential candidates had received a majority in the primaries. The nominating convention, just a week away, promised to be a political bloodbath. Desperate to avoid an electoral debacle, some of the party leaders were already begging the Heart of the Tiger to take the convention by storm. According to the polls, a majority of the voters also wanted me to run.
Coincidentally--or seemingly so, heh heh--Confed and the Union were about to sign the Reunification Pact; analysts pontificated endlessly on the pivotal role of the Heart of the Tiger, the only negotiator both sides would accept. Even better, the pre-release publicity for the epic "Blair Wars IV" was at its peak; critics predicted a mega-blockbuster. By the time the convention opened, God Himself wouldn't have the name recognition of Christopher Blair--er, no offense, big guy.
And now the final piece of The Plan had fallen into place. I opened the ultra- secret message capsule from my bioconvergence expert and quickly scanned the note:
Working from Dr. Boddie's files, I was able to create both PAL bioagent and a vaccine. Tests on four prisoners taken in the current campaign confirm all predictions: 1) PAL is 100% effective on both male and female subjects; 2) the contagious form is extremely infectious; 3) PAL effects are irreversible; 4) the vaccine is 100% effective; it is incorporated into the human genome, hence immunity is passed on to offspring; 5) in the field, PAL has a half-life of six to eight years.
According to computer models, an entire planet can be infected in a matter of hours; given the longevity of the bioagent, the recommended quarantine period is as much as 150 years. It is indeed fortunate that this agent was never used on a planetary scale, as its psychological effects would undoubtedly be horrific.
Since PAL-treated subjects are all but irresistible to normal humans of both sexes, the potential for abuse is incalculable. If you don't immediately order the destruction of PAL and all information related to it, I shall have to do it myself.
Albert Beerstein, Ph.D.
As the message self-destructed, I thoughtfully broke off a small piece of toast and held it up for my parrot. "What do you say, birdie? Should I put this guy on ice? We'll need that vaccine for my Special Servicemen."
She grabbed the morsel and downed it without dropping a single crumb on my shoulder. "Rawwk! Keel-haul the beggar! Heehee!"
I snorted. "No, bird-brain! We'll just keep him quiet until I've done what I have to do. After that, I'll make him an offer he can't refuse. I just hope Justin can get everything ready by tomorrow."
The moment of my triumph was at hand.
I sat quietly on the dais with the other VIPs, trying my best to look heroic, yet humble, while President Hinton droned on at the podium. Fifty billion people would see this ceremony in the next few days, so I was careful not to scratch myself in any undignified places. I inhaled deeply, savoring the fragrances wafting across the lawn from the Pink House Rose Garden. At this supreme moment, I had never felt more alive, more attuned to my surroundings. Tolwyn was wrong: it wasn't power that was intoxicating; it was freedom.
Of all my regrets, one was particularly prominent at the moment. I pulled out the transgram from Melek and read it for the umpteenth time.
Congratulations, Heart of the Tiger, on your momentous victory. You are truly a living legend. I pray our two races will thrive under your protection for many years to come.
Please, no apologies for missing our Joining ceremony. After all, you made our happiness possible; my new lair-mate and I offer you our joyful thanks.
Inspired by your Blair Youth, we have decided to adopt two war orphans ourselves: one Kilrathi, one human. Though it is unseemly for a Kilrathi to admit weakness, I must confess my anxiety at the prospect of parenthood. My lair-mate of course has no such reservations. She is only the second human I have met who has a Kilrathi heart.
I look forward to our next meeting, Christopher, as do my people. Whether you come as president, warrior, or farmer, the Kilrathi are eager to honor their greatest hero.
Good old Melek. I was sure his love was genuine, but the Joining and the adoptions were also convenient symbols of the new unity between Kilrathi and human. Should a threat to both races arise in the future--the almost mythical Mantu, for instance--such symbols could spell the difference between extinction and survival.
The private addendum from Zelda mas shorter.
Once I got over my hurt and thought it over, I realized what you're really up to, and why. You see, Blairbear, I still know you better than you think. I can't approve, but I understand the compulsion that drives you. My heart goes with you always.
Damn, Melek was one lucky cat! PS Chris, you never told me Melek is such a great back-scratcher!
With a start, I realized that Rillary had just called my name. To thunderous applause from the guests standing on the lawn, I rose and joined her at the podium. In contrast to her long-winded speech, the regulation ceremony would be short and sweet.
"Christopher Blair," she intoned solemnly. "For meritorious service above and beyond the call of duty, the Great Dissembly awards you the Confederation's highest honor." She reached into the box held by her aide and took out the medal. I removed my uniform cap and inclined my head so Rillary could drape the Confed blue ribbon about my neck. Then she kissed me on both cheeks, French style, and smacked me flush on the lips, Russian style--with more French thrown in for good measure.
Down at the foot of the dais, the news crews were suddenly abuzz; Rillary's husband, Clinton, had disappeared a week ago under mysterious circumstances, and speculation was rampant as to which of her paramours would replace him. Curiously, Barbara Dahl didn't seem to share her colleagues' interest; the look on her face was more like...jealousy? Hmmm...
The President held up her hands to quell the enthusiastic applause. "We're not done yet!" she declared, smiling. Turning to me again, she said, "It is my honor AND my pleasure to promote the Confederation's greatest hero to the rank of Space Marshal, and to place command of all Confederation military forces in his capable hands."
Rillary took the silver Marshal's star from her aide and likewise hung it around my neck. She tossed my uniform cap aside, replacing it with the regulation ten gallon Marshal's hat (white, of course). While other aides attached the spurs to my boots, Rillary herself buckled the gunbelt (complete with silver bullets) around my waist. I reverently accepted the twin ivory-handled Colt .45s, spun them neatly by the trigger guards, tossed them in the air and caught them behind my back, and deftly twirled them into their holsters.
While tying the uniform bandanna around my neck, Rillary brought her lips close to my ear. "Come to me tonight, buckaroo," she whispered, "and we'll 'discuss' my endorsement of your candidacy. Bring your spurs." Then she stepped back and led the crowd in a deafening ovation. As prescribed in the regs, I yelled "Yippee-ki-yay!" and fired two blank rounds into the air.
That ended the formal part of the ceremony. After the approbation had died down somewhat, Rillary urged me forward for an impromptu press conference. Happy to oblige, I moseyed on up to the edge of the platform and smiled down on the reporters and news crews. They jostled against each other, vying for my attention and shouting questions, but I ignored all of them. Reaching down, I took Barbara Dahl's hands and easily lifted her up onto the platform.
Flustered, but clearly pleased at being so singled out, she took a moment to smooth her dress before raising her microphone and assuming her professional smile. Making sure the TCN newscams had an unobstructed view (and the com- petition didn't), she turned to me and voiced the question on everyone's lips.
"Christopher Blair, you've just defeated the Black Lance, reunited the Confederation, and received humanity's highest decoration. What are you going to do next?"
An expectant hush fell over the crowd. I knew exactly what I was going to do, of course, but I deliberately let the tension build; now that The Plan had come to fruition at last, I wanted to prolong the moment as long as possible.
Out in the crowd, a representative from Dizzy World held up a huge check; in the "Amount" space was a "one" followed by so many zeroes that they ran off the edge. Behind him, a dozen different ad agency reps waved contracts at me.
To their left stood the famous Spieven Steelburg, with Chastity on his arm. Smiling her megawatt smile, Chastity held up a publicity holoposter for "Blair Wars IV: The Wrath of the Tiger," which was already shattering revenue records a week before its release. On it was holovid superstar Donald Hasenpfeffer, reprising his Oscar-winning role as the Heart of the Tiger. Tall and muscular, he stood bare-chested, cigar clenched in his teeth, blazing photon rifle in one hand and half-naked Chastity in the other.
Steelburg himself held up another poster, blank except for the words
The implication was clear: the media megastardom that had eluded me in my youth was now within my grasp.
The chairman of Rillary's party waved at me from the front of the crowd. He, too, had a holoposter, only this one bore my likeness, retouched to look more visionary, and the words
I winced. That campaign slogan would have to go, but otherwise I practically had a lock on the office.
Taking my time, I surveyed the adoring crowd. I had achieved the pinnacle of human ambition. Wealth, fame, adulation, and power were mine for the asking. Everything that Tolwyn had failed to obtain by conspiracy, murder, and force of arms was about to be handed to me on a plate.
My time had come. Turning to my companion, I smiled engagingly and began, "Barbara, I'm going to..."
There was a sharp intake of breath from the crowd on the lawn. A wave of applause was already starting...
"...SCREW YOUR SOCKS OFF!!!"
Then I wrestled a horrified Barbara Dahl to the deck and tore at her clothes in a mad sexual frenzy.
Well, that was the end of the "Blair for President" movement; after disgracing myself in front of fifty billion people, I couldn't be elected village idiot. That was it for "Marshal Blair," too. Minutes after the Secret Service had dragged me off the dais and into the Ovaltine Office, a trembling Rillary had stormed in and demanded my badge, spurs, medals, library card, and her panties. Then she offered me a "choice:" a public trial for assault that could destroy the Confederation--and me along with it--or honorable discharge and permanent retirement. Knowing that a trial would also expose the evidence of treason in my files, I readily assented. I already had what I wanted. Better yet, I had even answered my old questions about Barbara Dahl: 1) No, 2) Yes.
Afterward, in the unmarked vehicle that whisked me away from the Pink House, my two grim-faced Secret Service "escorts" must have wondered why I was smiling; after all, I had just thrown away everything a man could want.
Except that I DIDN'T want it--any of it. I knew what neither Tolwyn, nor Theether, nor even President Hinton would ever know: power is a trap--sweet, cloying, mesmerizing, but a trap nonetheless. To gain and maintain her power, Rillary had compromised her principles and sold her soul a thousand times over; yet still she lived in terror of the latest Insta-Poll. Tolwyn, had his plot succeeded, would have looked uneasily over his shoulder for the rest of his life, awaiting the inevitable photon blast from the next guy who wanted it all; if not Theether, then the next guy, or the next.
You see, when you give yourself up to ambition, there's no end to your greed, or what you'll do to satisfy it. If I wasn't happy with a good woman and a piece of land, then the entire galaxy wouldn't be enough for me. No, I had vowed never again to be anyone's pawn--not even my own.
So why the elaborate charade of the past few months? Why the private army, the false plans to dissolve the Dissembly after the election? Sure, I could have returned to my farm, or fled to some backwater world and tried to live in obscurity, but as soon as the next crisis threatened, Confed would have spared no expense to root out its greatest hero and drag him back to the rescue. To be truly free, it wasn't enough to hide where no one could find me; I had to ensure that no one WANTED to find me.
Yeah, freedom always had its price. It was just too bad that for Christopher Blair, the price of freedom was eternal disgrace.
After the Secret Service dropped me at the spaceport, I took my private shuttle up to the orbiting Sappho. Justin had already embarked my Special Servicemen and Blair Youth, so we immediately lit out for the frontier. Our only stop was at Nephritis II, where I stopped by Zeke's place to pick up my girls.
Zeke had two new youngsters, now, a boy and a girl. As I held young Jedediah in my arms, hissing and snarling at him in the Kilrathi manner, Zeke stood nearby, shaking his massive head in bewilderment.
"Christopher, what have you done? With the Heart of the Tiger disgraced, the Border Worlds have withdrawn from the Reunification Pact. Other worlds on both sides of the border threaten further secessions. I warn you, my foolish friend, the Mantu are NOT a myth! If they find humans divided and squabbling, they will easily conquer you--and us."
I handed the purring kitten back to Thelma and gave her a big Kilrathi-style lick on her furry cheek. Though she could hardly have felt it--I lacked the large, raspy tongue of the Kilrathi--she purred briefly in appreciation before taking her youngster into the house for his afternoon nap. I pulled a few hairs off my tongue, and considered my answer carefully.
"Zeke, human history is basically one long struggle between freedom and tyranny. Again and again, though tyranny might gain the upper hand, it could never completely conquer the hodgepodge of competing cultures that make up humanity. Will Eisen was right: Confed is an accident of history, a temporary conglomeration born of fear and doomed to inevitable breakup. Some of the fragments may fall into despotism, but as long as some humans, somewhere, remain free, liberty remains within the reach of all."
"Fine words won't defeat the Mantu, Christopher! Only unity--"
"If we can't put aside our differences in the face of a common threat, then we don't deserve to survive! Besides, which has a better chance of defeating your imaginary friends? A monolithic--and therefore stagnant--empire, or a dozen or a hundred competing cultures cross-pollinating one another on their paths into the future? No, Zeke. Like it or not, for humanity the price of freedom is eternal diversity."
He sighed. "Perhaps you are right, Christopher. Kilrathi have always been a single culture, and look where it got us. Melek may be correct in his alliance with humans, and his adoption of their ways."
The thought of Melek--and Zelda--brought with it pangs of jealousy and regret. Hastily, I changed the subject.
"Anyway, Zeke old friend, you seem much less frazzled than when I left." I gave him a sly wink. "Have your harem honeys found a new playmate?"
He looked at me strangely. "Actually, Christopher, they have--in a way. About a month ago, while cleaning your closet, Chloe discovered a set of very cunning vibratory devices. Since then, my lair-mates have thankfully been much less, er, amorous. But I am puzzled, Christopher. What possible use could humans have for these objects?"
"Humans? Uh, we use them for, er...stirring! Yeah, that's it! Coffee and soup and such. Heh heh. Uh, please keep them as my farewell gift to you."
"Thank you, Christopher. Now that I have regained my vitality, I would hate to lose it again; I might have to resign from the Parent-Teacher Association."
"You joined the local PTA? But Zeke, your oldest won't start school for at least--"
"Christopher!" he rebuked. "It is never too early to get involved in the education of one's offspring! And a good thing I am, too! Would you believe, my friend, that Kilrathi history is barely mentioned in the local curriculum? Scandalous!"
"Uh, yeah, hard to believe. But with your, er, political experience, I'm sure you'll have considerable influence--"
"Hah! How little you know! Christopher, the human PTA makes Kilrathi politics look like kitten's play! I swear, I see more petty infighting and backstabbing in one PTA meeting than I did in a year in my grandfather's Throne Chamber! Your 'diversity' may be the price of freedom, Christopher, but the price of diversity is eternal bickering!"
"Heh heh. You'll get the hang of it, old friend. And now, I'm afraid I must take my leave. Thanks for taking care of my place, Zeke. I'm sure Will Eisen will be pleased when he moves in."
"Eisen?" There was alarm in Zeke's eyes now. "Eisen of the TCS Victory? Of the brilliant Black Lance Campaign? But Christopher, what will he do when he finds out who I--"
I shook my head. "Don't worry, Zeke. He wants to put the past behind him as much as I did. You'll find him and his new wife most congenial. In fact," I said, giving Zeke a little nudge, "why don't you drop in and surprise him? With a jug."
Zeke stared at me for a moment, then burst into laughter. "Hohoho! Excellent suggestion, Christopher! I shall give him a welcome he will never forget!"
I had no doubt of that, heh heh. I picked up my bag and inhaled deeply, taking in the rich farm odors and admiring for the last time the pastoral scene around me: rolling fields as far as the eye could see; youngsters playing with Robin and Rachel, or just running wild; Zeke's lair-mates engaged in their afternoon chores; Zeke himself standing there in his dirty overalls and straw hat, power pitchfork in his paw.
I held out my hand. "Good-bye and good luck, Zeke. We won't meet again."
He carefully clasped my hand in his huge paw. "I shall miss you, Heart of the Tiger. But where will you go, now that you are outcast, as I am? One of the legendary lost Terran colonies?"
"There's only one place I can go, Zeke: the Last Jump Point."
"The Last Jump Point? But Christopher, no probe or manned expedition has ever returned through it! There are easier ways to find eternity, my friend."
"Maybe not eternity. Maybe they found something so good they didn't WANT to return." I winked at him. "Who knows? Maybe I'll find Paradise."