Too Many Long Boxes!

End of Summer

By the Dawn's Early Light

by Sandra Miller

Author's Notes:Thanks to my beta readers, GenX, Rose, Charlene, and Chris. Also thanks to Charity, Syl, Kerrie, Smitty, Ed Van Cise, and Sarah for technical assistance. Additional disclaimer in footnotes.

This story (even though he'll never see it) is dedicated to my father: LCDR Elton E. Dorsey, USN (retired), who joined the Navy to fight in WWII when he was 17, and my mother, who was seven months pregnant with me while my father was aboard ship during the Cuban missile crisis.

Written from 3/28/01 to 9/20/01

Chapter 1

O say, can you see, by the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hail'd at the twilight's last gleaming?
-- Francis Scott Key, 1814

He'd been in the middle of a simple robbery bust when Oracle's tense voice had called to him.

"Nightwing! The JLA needs the Titans' help immediately! Contact me as soon as you've got your team together." She broke contact before he could reply, but the urgency of her message overrode any sarcastic thoughts he might have had.

Once they had gathered at the Tower, Oracle broke the bad news: Aliens had swept in to the solar system and launched attacks on Shanghai in China, Calcutta in India, and Mexico City. The JLA had detected the incoming bombs, and had managed to save Shanghai and Calcutta, but ...

"Mexico City's gone," Oracle's electronically-disguised voice said starkly. "It appears to have been a kinetic strike, so there's no danger of nuclear fallout, but the entire city is now a crater."

Nightwing was the first to recover from the shock. "And the aliens?"

"When we backtracked the bombs, we detected a large number of ships near Mars that are headed our way. The League is preparing to go out to meet them; that's why we called you -- we need you to join with us."

The Titans needed no discussion to make this decision. Dick looked around the room at his friends and saw the same look of determination on each face.

"Count us in."

It was not the first space battle in which the Titans had fought, but it was probably the largest. The combined forces of the JLA, the Titans, and other assorted heroes were sufficient to turn back the aliens' armada. Barely. Afterwards, at the insistence of both Batman and Nightwing, the exhausted men and women gathered at the Watchtower for an after-action debriefing.

"All right. Where do we go from here?" Superman asked. While not as physically exhausted as the others, he was spiritually worn-out. He had done everything he could to avoid killing any of the attackers, but he had soon discovered that the aliens preferred suicide to capture.

"We have to assume that they will be back," Batman stated flatly. When heated disagreements broke out among the League at his statement, surprisingly, it was Aquaman who added his voice to Batman's.

"That was no raiding force. Once they have reported back to their people, they'll be back. But this time, they'll be ready for us. We need to be ready for them."

"I agree. That's why we need to get the military involved in this. We can't carry the load alone." At Nightwing's statement, and the Titans' obvious agreement, the League members (including Batman) just stared at the younger team in shock. Taking advantage of the quiet, Nightwing continued his argument. "While we were out there, I had Oracle send everything we knew about these aliens to Princess Koriand'r of Tamaran. Oracle, could you play back the reply she sent, please?"

On the JLA's main screen, the former Titan appeared and said gravely, "Nightwing, I am sending you all that my people know about the race that attacked you. First off, they call themselves the Ch'ton." The screen split, showing the princess on one side and an image of an upright, vaguely-insectoid-looking alien on the other. "We've never had much contact with them, but what little we had was rather unpleasant. They have a very rigid social system and consider any non-Ch'ton to be fit only as slaves or ... food. If they've decided to colonize your planet, they will only be dissuaded by force. I'm sorry; I wish I had better news for you. Attached to this message is a data-dump with all of the technical information we have. If you need anything else, please let me know. Take care."

Nightwing spoke into the continued silence, "I haven't had a chance to look through everything Kory sent, but what I saw convinced me we can't win by fighting a purely defensive war. I also know from what happened out there today that we don't have the personnel to maintain an effective defense of Earth and go on the offensive against these Ch'ton. If we gave the U.S. military access to some of the technologies available to us, they could be of tremendous help." Nightwing paused for a moment, and then continued in a lower tone, "And in the end, I think we owe it to them -- it's their planet as well."

Before anyone else could speak, Oracle said, "I think you should see something." President Pete Ross appeared on the main screen. In the background, they could see the vice-president and the speaker of the House at what was obviously a hastily-called combined session of the House and Sentate. Oracle's voice continued, "This occurred about forty-five minutes ago."

President Ross began his speech. "Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, members of Congress, distinguished guests, and my fellow Americans. Mere hours ago, our world was suddenly and deliberately attacked by forces from beyond our solar system. While the Justice League of America was able to thwart the attacks over Shanghai, China and Calcutta, India, the aliens utterly destroyed Mexico City. We, along with people of every nation, offer our prayers and condolences to the people of Mexico. Moreover, we join with them in their desire for justice on those who performed this reprehensible and villainous attack. We also understand that all of us must stand together in this time of global peril.

"While we remain grateful and appreciative of the efforts of heroes from both this nation and around the world who are even now engaging the enemy in deep space, we owe it to those who died, and those yet to be born, to help shoulder the burden. As Commander-in-Chief, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. Always will we remember the character of the onslaught against us. No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated attack, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. I believe I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost but will make very certain that this form of treachery shall never endanger us again.

"Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger. With confidence in our armed forces -- with the unbounded determination of our people -- we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God.

"I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack on a valued and friendly ally of this country, that a state of war now exists between the United States and these unknown forces." 1

Oracle's voice returned. "They voted for war. I also have reports that the U.N. General Assembly is meeting to vote on the same thing -- I expect it to be pretty much a formality. The Earth is now at war."

The arguments and discussion continued, but in the end, everyone accepted Nightwing's proposal. Arranging the transfer of potentially dangerous technology set off another round of discord until the Titans' Cyborg spoke up.

"Let S.T.A.R. Labs handle it," he said in exasperation. "They're already familiar with a lot of this stuff anyway; let them work up the basic specs in conjunction with the military, and they can farm it out for bids from there."

The group agreed on this plan and chose Superman, Batman, Nightwing, and Cyborg to see President Ross to brief him on their plans. Superman decided to end the meeting on this note of congenial agreement.

Six weeks later, the aliens came back. This time, the heroes were able to defeat the aliens without any further loss of civilian life. By the third attack, the United States had begun building warships in space. When the fourth attack happened, seven months after the initial surprise attack, the League and the Titans were no longer fighting alone.

The Navy had won the inter-service shouldering match over who would control the new ships. According to rumor, the Chief of Naval Operations asked the Air Force Chief of Staff what title the Air Force proposed for the person in charge on the new spacecraft. The General supposedly said, "The Cap..." and then became quiet. The Navy then successfully campaigned to have the ships designed around the aircraft carrier model, arguing that it was similar to what the heroes were already doing, and it was a strategy its personnel was already familiar with. When it came to the new fighter craft though, the Joint Chiefs decided to throw the floor open to all the services. Any pilot from any branch of service could try out for the new positions.

Nightwing had worked closely with Cyborg to develop a fighter jet for space. Much of their design was based on the existing fighters used by the JLA and the Titans, but both men felt some modifications were needed for fighting the Ch'ton. During this process, Dick also worked closely with the military's test pilots who were being asked for their input. It took the fighter jocks awhile to accept him into their "club," but that changed once they saw the tapes of his and Cyborg's work in the third space battle.

The aliens' tactics were to use their small fighters to engage the heroes while the large ships tried to attack Earth itself. In response, the heroes used their fighters against the large ships, forcing the aliens to break off their attacks or else shoot their own ships. Superman and Green Lantern were responsible for making sure no one broke through to attack Earth. In the third battle, not only were Dick and Victor able to take out a large number of alien fighters, but they managed to take out one of the large ships as well.

As the war pervaded more and more of society, Dick started to wonder if he was really doing the most good as a crimefighter on Earth or even as one of the defenders in space. The JLA/Titans team was still needed as a defense of Earth, but on a much smaller scale now that the military was in a position to take the fight out of the solar system and towards the aliens' home planet. Just after the anniversary of the bombing of Mexico City, a solely military force engaged the aliens before they entered the solar system. Dick was not egotistical enough to think that his joining the military could win the war, but he began to think that he could do more good there. When he saw that the Navy was recruiting pilots, especially those with jet experience, he applied. Then he had to tell Bruce...

Bruce didn't shout at him. Or rail at him. Or try to persuade him not to do it. Bruce simply stood there and looked at him. Said, "I see." And then turned away. Said, "Well, good luck, then. I'm sure you'll do well." And that was it.

Dick did do well in flight school. He knew he could say that without boasting. For the first time since his parents were killed, Dick threw himself into performing his best as Dick Grayson. Or rather Richard Grayson. When he had joined the Navy, he decided to go by Richard to lessen the possibility that someone would connect him with his wealthy former guardian and try to keep him out of combat.

And he had made it. He had the wings and the ensign's rank to prove it. He had just received orders to ship out for the carrier Texas in four days' time. He had just one thing to do before he left, and that was why he was sitting in a car gathering his courage.

Taking a deep breath, he got out of the car, walked into the building, and rode the elevator up to his destination. Before he rang the doorbell, he quickly ran a comb through his hair and checked to see that his wing insignia and ensign's bar were straight. When the door opened though, he suddenly forgot his planned speech, his reasoned arguments, and fell back on an old, old dream.

Going down on one knee in his dress whites, he took a small box out of his pocket and offered it to the startled woman in front of him.

"Barbara Gordon, will you marry me?"

Chapter 2

Love letters straight from your heart,
Keep us so near while we're apart,
I'm not alone in the night,
When I can have all the love you write.
-- Victor Young and Edward Heyman, 1945

The late-afternoon sun shone throught the windows of Gotham's clocktower. The old-fashioned service flag2 in one of the windows cast a shadow on the room's sole occupant. Barbara Grayson looked at the envelope in her hand, a rueful smile on her face. Dick had insisted the letters, like the heavy gold ring on her left hand, were traditional. He sent her emails fairly often, but once a month or so, he would send a letter instead. She had teased him about writing real pen-and-ink letters to Oracle, the uber-hacker, but he only responded that letters had more personality. And they were traditional.

Her smile became a smirk as she thought back to Dick's proposal two years ago. She had known he was coming by that evening; he was shipping out soon and wanted to see her before he left. She just hadn't expected to see him outside her door wearing dress whites. When he actually proposed, she just sat there in shock. It must have completely unnerved Dick, because he began babbling something about wills and inheritances and powers of attorney, until she had finally hushed him by pulling him into her arms and kissing him.

As Dick later explained, he had proposed for three reasons. The practical reason was that he had written his will so that she would inherit almost everything if he should be killed, and the whole process would be so much simpler if she were married to him. The emotional reason was that he loved her and wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. The third reason was the one that made her cry: Dick's maternal grandfather had proposed to his grandmother just before leaving to fight in World War II. Dick had very little knowledge of his mother's family; she had practically gone into exile by marrying his father and joining the circus. This was one story she had told her young son many times.

Of course, Alfred was able to pull together a truly amazing ceremony in the short time he was given. Wally was Dick's best man, Dinah was her maid of honor, and almost all the other Titans managed to gather at Wayne Manor to celebrate with them. Even Bruce managed to unbend enough to converse with Dick and the others.

Jim Gordon had said he was not pleased at the speed with which the wedding occurred. Barbara rather suspected that he was not pleased that the wedding was occurring period. She knew he liked Dick, and he even approved of the idea of their getting married ... eventually. He just wasn't ready to lose his "little girl," and he was genuinely worried about her marrying someone who was going off to war. She thought she heard a few sniffles from his direction as he escorted her down the short aisle Alfred had arranged in one of the smaller ballrooms, but she wasn't sure. He smiled at her as he placed her hand in Dick's, but his voice was huskier than usual as he answered the minister's traditional question of "Who gives this woman?"

Dick had given her a simple diamond solitaire ring when he proposed, but when she asked about wedding bands, he had gotten that twinkle in his eye that said he was up to something. He wouldn't even let her see his ring, instead giving it to Dinah with strict instructions to keep it hidden. When it was time for them to exchange rings, he finally gave her the explanation.

"Sweetheart," he said, taking the ring from Wally, "this was my mother's wedding band. Before that, it was my father's mother's wedding band. Inside is engraved 'Sutho' which means 'Forever.'" He held it so she could see the engraving on the ring, before he slid the simple, heavy gold band on her finger. "It represents my past, and I give it to the woman who represents my future."

She still sighed when she thought of that moment. With one short sentence, he had humbled her, thrilled her, and made her fall in love with him all over again.

When Dinah handed her Dick's ring, she saw that his ring also had the same word engraved on the inside. She raised her eyebrows to him in question, and he nodded.

"My father's ring," he murmured before she began reciting her vows.

The crackling of paper brought her out of her reverie. She looked down at Dick's letter again. He was right -- she had come to cherish these simple pieces of paper and ink. Although Dick would usually go into more detail about his activities in his newsy emails, he used the letters for sharing his innermost thoughts and feelings. Before the war, she had never really faced how intertwined her life was with Dick's, and now that he was so far away, she felt as if a part of her were missing. The idea that she was touching paper that he had touched comforted her in a way she hadn't thought possible. She never admitted to him that she looked forward to his letters, but she always took the time to write him letters in reply.

She began reading Dick's letter, smiling at one of the pranks his wingman had pulled, and then crying as Dick wrote that one of the pilots had been killed the previous day. From the water marks on the paper, she could see that he had wept as well.

God, Babs, she was only 22 years old! We used to joke together because we were married on the same day -- we were going to try to get you and her husband to meet on our anniversary, so we could all celebrate together. And now she's gone. And the Skipper wants me to write the letter to her husband, because she was in my division. I don't know how I can do that, but I know I owe it to Jennie and to her husband.

Barbara knew he would do it and do it well. As anyone who knew him might have anticipated, Dick had become a leader among the pilots in his squadron. He had quickly jumped from ensign to lieutenant junior grade to full lieutenant. He was the leader of the first division on the Texas, and executive officer to the CAG3.

I'm so tired of this stalemate! I think I told you about the "space mines" we've been up against? That's what killed Bobcat (Jennie). We can't detect them, so we can't destroy them -- the only way we know they're there is when someone gets killed! I got an email from Roy last night though, and it got me thinking. Not the email itself (you know Roy J), but his note reminded me I have friends who might be able to figure this out.

Earth's forces had set up a defensive perimeter around the solar system that was gradually widening. They had already taken over several worlds that had previously been colonized by the Ch'ton. In each case, the Ch'ton remaining on the planet chose suicide rather than surrender. Using translation programs borrowed from the Tamaraneans, the Earth forces tried to explain that the Ch'ton would merely be taken prisoner, to no avail. The best explanation the scientists and behaviorists had come up with was that once the queen in command of that colony left, the rest of the colony had no reason to live.

As the Earth offensive got closer to the actual Ch'ton homeworld though, progress slowed to a crawl. Dick had written of a vast minefield that the Ch'ton ships were able to navigate, but the Earth ships could not. They had already lost an entire carrier, the Challenger, to the minefield, as well as dozens of fighters. Perhaps it was selfish of her, but Barbara remembered weeping in relief that it wasn't Dick or his ship which had died.

Could you contact Vic for me? Ask if he and Toni can come out here to study these things. I think, between the three of us, we could lick this!

Even though Dick and Barbara were fairly certain that their letters weren't being read by anyone else, they used caution when they referred to any aspect of their "other jobs." So, Vic was obviously Victor Stone, who was now working at S.T.A.R. Labs, but Toni? Babs had to think a minute before the connection hit her: Toni Monetti, or Argent, could manipulate plasma energy and perhaps create an effective shield for whatever Dick had in mind.

Oops! Jake just yelled that the supply ship is about to leave, so I need to hurry up and get this posted. Thanks for the goodies you and Alfred sent -- I'm always a very popular guy when your packages come. My favorite thing, though, was the new picture of you. Please thank Dinah for taking it. It's going straight to my cockpit to remind me why I'm out here fighting, and what I'm going home to. As promised, I'm enclosing a picture HD took of me so you won't forget what I look like.

Barbara looked in the envelope again, and sure enough, there was a small photograph she had overlooked in her haste to read Dick's letter. She quietly smiled as she looked at the handsome young man in the picture. Dick was in his flight suit, and it looked as if he was laughing at one of the other pilots. She knew he'd chosen such a cheerful picture on purpose, but it still comforted her to know that he could laugh in the midst of war. She put the picture aside to make copies for Alfred (i.e. Bruce) and Tim, and picked up the letter again.

Be careful, sweetheart. Don't let Bruce give you too hard a time. Tell everyone I said, "Hi!"

I love you.


Barbara gave a little sigh as she finished the letter. She put it back in its envelope and slipped it into the pocket of her jacket, where it would be handy for re-reading. Pulling up her phone directory, she selected an entry.

"S.T.A.R. Labs"

"This is Barbara Grayson. May I speak with Victor Stone, please?"

Chapter 3

Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
-- Walter C. Kittredge, 1863

"I'm sorry folks, but it looks like there's going to be a delay," the tinny-sounding voice said through the loudspeaker. Victor Stone and Toni Monetti exchanged rueful glances. So far, their trip had been one delay after another. They were finally on the last leg -- the transport ship to the Texas -- so now what?

The tinny voice continued, "We've just received word that the Texas' carrier group is under attack. We're not in any danger currently, but the flight leader has asked us to hold our position until the sortie is over. We'll keep you posted."

Vic and Toni now looked at each other in alarm. Neither of them really liked the idea of being stuck on a mostly unarmed and unarmored transport while there was fighting nearby. Their instincts pushed them to help in the battle, while their minds realized there was nothing they could do. It was one thing to worry about Dick Grayson's being an active duty fighter pilot when they were back on Earth; it was another to realize he could be out there right now, fighting for his life perhaps, while they sat doing nothing.

After a tense hour's wait, the ship's captain announced over the loudspeaker that the attack was over, and the Texas fighters had beaten back the enemy fighters. They could now proceed with the remainder of their flight. Ninety minutes later, the transport docked with the Texas.

Vic looked around with interest as he stepped through the entrance hatch. He managed to catch himself just before he ran into the back of Petty Officer Truman, their guide from the supply ship.

The petty officer drew herself to attention and saluted the ensign waiting for them. "Permission to come aboard, sir?"

"Granted, petty officer," replied the ensign, returning her salute. He then turned to Vic and Toni with a welcoming smile. "Sir, ma'am, welcome aboard the Texas! I'm Ensign Metcalf, the Public Information Officer. The CAG has asked if you could meet him in his office, so if you'll follow me ..."

"What about our luggage?" Toni asked plaintively.

"And my equipment," added Vic.

"That's all being taken care of. Please, follow me," Metcalf said as he walked through another hatch and into a main corridor.

Several twists and turns and an elevator ride later, the two civilians were escorted into a small office where two men were waiting for them. Dick Grayson was a welcome sight, although it was rather disconcerting to see him in a flightsuit and ball cap. The other man who rose to greet them was older and dressed in khakis. He was a tall, lean man in his mid-to-late forties with sharp green eyes and dark brown hair that was going gray at the temples; he shook their hands as the PIO introduced them.

"Welcome aboard. I'm Captain Tremaine, the commander of the Texas' fighters. This is Lieutenant Grayson, my senior squadron leader. I've asked him to be your escort and liaison while you're on board. I want you to know that you have my complete support -- if you need anything at all, you just ask."

"Thank you, sir," Vic replied as they shook hands with Dick. Dick nodded in greeting, winking at Vic as he did so.

"No, thank you young man," the CAG responded. "These mines have been giving us fits, but Washington didn't seem to grasp the severity of our problem. I'm just glad someone's gotten off his six and decided to study the situation."

"You realize, sir, that we're not making any guarantees?" Toni interjected. "I mean, I can't say for sure that I can protect Vic's probe against whatever that mine is."

The CAG was quick to reassure them. "I understand, ma'am. At least you're out here though. That's a big step." He turned to Dick. "Grayson, I'll let you take over now. Except for the mission briefing at 0900 tomorrow, you are at their disposal."

Dick came to attention and then followed Vic and Toni out of the CAG's office. He obtained the locations of Vic's and Toni's quarters and dismissed the PIO. The three Titans acted quite normally until they were safely out of sight in the elevator, whereupon Toni flung herself at Dick in a bear hug while Vic grabbed Dick's raised hand in a much more enthusiastic handshake than the formal one they had exchanged earlier.

"Okay, you got us out here, and managed to get yourself put in charge of us, which I admit was a good trick. So now what?" Vic asked as the three sat in his quarters.

"Do you think my idea's doable?" Dick asked anxiously.

"It makes sense to me," Vic replied. "We know from the earlier fighting that Toni's shields can take anything the Bugs dish out. Once we can get some data on these things, we have a better shot at shuttin' them down."

"That was my thought, too. Why don't we grab my wingman and find out for sure?"

"You mean, right now?" Vic asked.

"No time like the present," Dick replied cheerfully.

"Uh ... okay. Didn't you just get back from flying a mission?"

"Yeah, but this should just be a milk run. You and Toni are going to be doing the real work."

Dick helped Vic gather his equipment. The probes that Vic had brought were surprisingly small for the job they were being asked to do. Each one was a small rocket, less than a yard long and only six inches or so in diameter.

"You're sure these are going to be powerful enough?"

"You just handle the driving, Dickie-boy; I'll take care of the hardware," Vic replied with a mock glare. "These babies are packed to the gills with every sensor device known to man or alien. They'll find your bogey."

"I hope so," Dick said grimly. "I've lost too many friends to those things."

Dick led them through the corridors to his quarters. As they walked, they became more aware of the changes that had occurred over the two years of separation. Vic was probably the least changed -- his face was becoming a little weathered-looking, with a couple of lines now showing on his forehead, but that was about it. Toni had matured into a truly beautiful young woman; she also seemed quieter and less frenetic than in the past.

Dick's changes were both more obvious and yet more subtle. Both Toni and Vic were still getting used to the sight of the wedding ring on his left hand. On a more serious note, he also looked thinner; his features, especially around his cheekbones and jaw appeared sharper. Although he had smiled and joked with them earlier, it seemed that his normal expression was much graver than they were used to. Vic had always been of the private opinion that anyone who grew up with Batman for a father and could still laugh had tremendous strength of character. Now, it looked as if the grinding responsibility of leading his squadron and seeing men and women he cared about die was wearing away even Dick's normally cheerful disposition. Knowing Dick, he probably also blamed himself for those deaths.

When they reached Dick's quarters, the tiny compartment made Toni and Vic realize how relatively spacious their quarters were -- especially because Dick shared it with his wingman who was currently reading in the top bunk. Dick whacked the wall with the flat of his hand, startling the other man so much he almost fell.

"Hey! What's the big idea, Rich? Who's gonna watch your six if you make me break my neck?!" Dick's wingman was tall and lanky with reddish-blond hair and blue eyes and a pronounced southern accent.

"We've got company, HD," Dick said, ignoring the complaint. "Victor Stone, Toni Monetti, meet Lieutenant JG Harrison Delacroix, also known as HD or Hound Dog, take your pick."

"'Hound Dog?'" Toni asked with a smile.

HD blushed under the pretty young woman's gaze and tried to stammer a reply. Dick took pity on him and came to his rescue.

"HD has a favorite saying that struck his fellow pilots as amusing." Dick pointed to HD and waited.

"Uh ... That dog won't hunt," HD said on cue, blushing even darker.

"They combined that, his being from Memphis, and his initials, and came up with 'Hound Dog' as his callsign." Dick shrugged.

"So what's your callsign, D..Richard?" Vic asked, remembering Dick's name change at the last minute.

Picking up some papers which were lying scattered about, Dick tried to ignore the question, which also brought HD out of his trance.

"His callsign's 'Knight,'" HD replied helpfully.

"'Night?'" Toni asked wonderingly.

"'Knight.' With a 'K,'" Dick said in resignation.

"How did that happen?" Mindful of the wingman's presence, Vic managed to keep his tone fairly normal, but his eyebrows spoke volumes.

Now it was Dick's turn to blush. "When I was in flight school, I had a run-in with one of my instructors. He assigned me some scutwork as punishment. I wasn't a happy camper, so I was cussing the guy out, but I was doing it in Romany so no one would know."

"Romany?" Vic asked for the benefit of their audience.

"The language of the gypsies -- my dad was a gypsy."

"So what does that have to do with your callsign?"

"Well, some Air Force pilot geeks were walking by, and they asked me what language I was speaking."

"I didn't think you were supposed to talk about your fellow pilots that way," Vic said smilingly.

"Their geekiness is essential to the story. Where was I? Oh yeah, I told them it was the language of the gypsies. They asked if I was a gypsy, and I said, 'Yeah, I'm Rom.'" Dick then closed his eyes in pained remembrance. "One of the Air Force guys then giggled and said, 'Oh, you mean like Rom, Spaceknight4?'"

Toni started giggling. Vic struggled, but managed to restrain his laughter.

"At first, I didn't know what they were talking about, but then the geeks started telling me all about this comic book about some alien robot-guy who comes to Earth. The rest of my squadron picked up on the name, but eventually shortened it to 'Knight.' Anyway," he turned back to glare at HD, "we're ready to give this idea of Vic's a shot. Grab your gear, and let's go."

"What kind of ships are we going to be using?" Vic finally thought to ask as they entered the flight deck.

"I figured we'd use a couple of Tweedles," Dick replied absently as he looked for his plane captain. He had already made arrangements for the ships to be ready, but Sam wanted to look them over personally.

"Tweedles?" Vic questioned.

"Oh, sorry. You know, ... Deuces."

Vic's eyebrows lowered, and he said threateningly, "Do you mean to tell me that Deuces, ... my Deuces, ... have been nicknamed Tweedles?!?"

"Your Deuces, sir?" HD asked.

"I designed those birds, Lieutenant Delacroix! They're good machines -- they don't deserve to be labeled something as ... as disrespectful as 'Tweedle!'" By this time, Vic was almost shouting.

"It's not disrespectful, Vic," Dick answered soothingly. "I'm afraid it's just that you did your job a little too well." At Vic's look of confusion, he continued, "Look, the Navy asked you to design a two-man all-purpose craft, right? It's got good speed, good armor, good weapons, and even some cargo space. But you see, when the birds went into use, all the co-pilots complained of feeling superfluous -- the ship barely needed one pilot, let alone two. That's where the nickname came from -- one of the guys said he felt like they were Tweedledum and Tweedledee in the cockpit."

Vic stared at Dick measuringly. Finally, he nodded his head. "All right. I guess I can live with that. But could you at least try to call them Deuces while I'm here?" he asked almost plaintively.

Dick and HD exchanged glances. Dick answered, "I guess we can try."

Further discussion was prevented by the appearance of Petty Officer Klaus "Sam" Hauptmann, Dick's plane captain.

"Lieutenant, your Tweedles are all ready to go!"

Vic sighed.

Chapter 4

Praise the Lord, we're on a mighty mission.
All aboard, boys, we ain't a-goin' fishin'!
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition,
And we'll all stay free!
-- Frank Loesser, 1942

When the Navy asked the engineers to design a carrier-type of spaceship, one of their more perplexing problems was how to launch numerous small craft into space. In order to launch or land a ship, they had to figure out a way to transition from the pressurized atmosphere of the carrier into the airless vacuum of space and then back again. It had already been decided that the combined hanger/flight deck would run along the entire "bottom" length of the ship. One suggestion was to depressurize the entire flight deck before launch. That was still the backup plan in case of an emergency scramble, but the final solution was to build large airlocks on either end of the ship.

Toni and HD had been talking steadily since they left the ready room. While HD couldn't talk as fast as Toni (who could still rival any of the speedsters with her mouth), the things he did say made her laugh so much she stopped talking. The two of them continued to walk together toward HD's Deuce, but Dick called them back.

"Uh, Toni? I think you'd better ride with me. HD gets distracted easily enough as it is -- I don't need to add a pretty woman to the mix," he said, mostly in jest.

HD accepted the change without comment. When Toni looked at Dick in protest, he gave her a stern glance that reminded her HD wasn't the only one who needed to be free of distractions. She sighed and followed Dick to their Deuce which sat next to HD's on the flight deck. Once the pilots and passengers were in place, the flight crew maneuvered the ships into position in the airlock.

There were several sets of airlocks at each end of the ship. One set handled the launches from the bow of the ship; another set was put into the stern to handle landings. Fighters were usually launched in pairs -- they would be positioned on the launch pad (the old carrier hands still called it the 'catapult'); the hatch would close on the flight deck; the atmosphere would be removed from the airlock; and the outer hatch in the hull would open. Likewise, on landings, the outer hatch would be opened; the incoming ships would enter; the hatch would close; and atmosphere would be pumped into the airlock. When the lock's air pressure had been equalized with the flight deck's, the inner hatch would open.

Takeoffs and landings were staggered so one airlock could be launching or landing while another was cycling air in or out. The Texas could get a division of twelve fighters into space in under two minutes -- the entire squadron could mobilize in less than fifteen minutes.

While they were moving their birds into launch position and waiting for the outer hatch to open, Dick went over final instructions. "I want to maintain comm silence as much as possible. I don't think we're likely to run into an enemy patrol, but I don't want to take any chances. Keep an eye on your scope, Hound Dog -- we're heading back to where Jennie bought it, and I don't want the same thing happening to either of us."

"Roger that," HD replied rather fervently.

The outer hatch opened, revealing the sparkling black velvet of space outside. After receiving clearance, the two Deuces took off . With the smooth coordination of hundreds of hours flying together, the two pilots banked away from the carrier and took up their normal patrol positions -- Dick in the lead, HD slightly below and to Dick's right. When they reached their destination, several hundred feet away from point at which their fellow pilot's fighter had exploded, the two ships stopped.

Dick broke the comm silence. "All right, Vic -- here we are. Go ahead and launch one of your probes. Toni, be ready to get your shielding in place around it."

Toni thought it was typical that even on a mission supposedly being led by Victor, Dick still took charge. She saw the other ship's airlock open, and one of Vic's small probes emerge. Time to get to work. Using her powers in space was a little different from using them back on Earth: she had more raw material, i.e. plasma, to work with, but by the same token, control became more difficult as well. Very gently, she wrapped a thin shield around the missile-shaped object. She had to make the shield strong enough so that it could resist whatever the mine did, but thin enough for Vic to communicate with the probe and for it to do its job.

Now came the tricky part. When Dick had first proposed this idea, they all knew the biggest problem was going to be for Toni to maintain a shield on the object after it left her line of sight. She and Vic had experimented at the JLA satellite for several frustrating days until they hit upon a solution. While the probe was still in her sight, Toni transferred her focus to the graphical representation of the probe on the JLA's tactical monitor. It required intense concentration (she told Vic it was like trying to write while looking in a mirror), but she was able to maintain the shield no matter where the probe went.

Once Toni felt comfortable with her shield, Dick signaled Victor to send the probe to the exact position where Jennie's fighter had exploded. When it got there, Toni's head jerked in surprise.


"What's wrong?" Dick asked.

"It felt like someone shoved me!"

"That must be what got your friend," Vic said. "Do you still have the shield, Toni?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. It was just weird."

"I'm piggy-backing our sensors onto the probe's," Vic said, "and ... I think I've found our mine!"

"Really?" Dick asked.

"At least, I've found something artificial. Let's just go see what that is."

The two ships sat quietly in space for several more minutes. Vic was concentrating on piloting the distant probe, and Toni on maintaining her shield without squishing the probe. Toni suddenly felt something that made the earlier push seem like a love tap. She would have fallen from her seat had she not been strapped in.

"Whoa! That was no shove!"

Dick asked in concern, "You okay, Toni?"

"Felt like someone just kicked me in the chest!" she replied, rubbing her lower ribs. "I'm okay, though."

"Got it!" Vic called out. "That thing's our mine, all right! I'm not sure what it did, but I detected something when Toni felt that last blow."

"Great, Vic!" Dick replied. "How much longer do you need to study it?"

"I'm going to maneuver the probe as close as I can, just in case it has any more surprises. Not too much longer, though."

Vic was as good as his word. When he began to bring the probe back, though, Dick had a request.

"Toni, if you were to drop the shield on the probe, would you be able to put it back up again?"

"You mean, assuming it didn't explode?" she asked in amusement. Then her expression turned thoughtful. "I don't know. I think so. It's all kind of a mental exercise anyway."

"Okay. Vic? I've got a hunch that this mine's effects aren't continuous."

"You're thinking of those two shoves Toni felt?"

"Yeah. It would make sense. You wouldn't need a solid sphere of coverage, just layers. If an enemy somehow survived the first layer, you try it again with the second."

"And in between, everything's normal," Vic said, thoughtfully. "Yeah, that might just work. So we have Toni pull the shield off until the probe gets to the point at which she got 'kicked' earlier, and then put the shield back on. Okay, let's do it."

"All right. Toni, drop the shield."

She did so, and the team waited.

"I think it's gonna work!" Vic said exultantly. "I'm still gettin' readings from the probe!"

Vic steered the probe until he was almost at the point of the "inner layer," as he thought of it.

"Okay, Toni. I'll hold the probe stationary while you put the shield back on."

Toni frowned in concentration at the scope in front of her. They had never practiced this before, but she didn't want to let the others down. Finally, she felt a sort of mental "click" that told her it was in place.

"I've got it back up. Do you still have a probe?"

"Everything's green from here. I'm bringing it home."

Toni was "kicked" again as the probed passed through the layer, so Dick decided not to ask her to drop and resume the shield any more. Soon, the probe was back aboard the Deuce with Vic, and the two ships flew back to the Texas.

Once their ships had landed, Toni unbelted her shoulder and lap restraints. When she tried to climb out of the cockpit though, she discovered just how wobbly her legs were. It took the help of Vic on the outside and Dick on the inside before she was finally able to get out of the Deuce.

"We need to get you to the infirmary, Toni," Dick insisted, as he had done the entire time he was helping her out of the small craft.

"I'm okay, Richard!" she exclaimed. "I just overdid it a little out there. I'm sure I'll be perfectly fine once I get some rest."

"Oh, all right," Dick gave in. "Umm, HD? Do you think you could 'escort' Toni back to her quarters?"

HD grinned at Toni. "I'd be honored to. Ma'am, if you'd allow me ..." He stood in front of her as she leaned against the Deuce's landing gear and formally offered her his arm. Toni shot an amused glare in Dick's direction as she grabbed on to HD's arm and tried to stand up straight. When her legs started to buckle, HD swiftly caught her and lifted her up to carry in his arms.

"It's a shame you're not wearing dress whites," Toni said flirtatiously. HD blushed.

"Behave, you two!" Dick admonished. He watched his wingman carry his former teammate off the flight deck and shook his head. "Okay, Vic. Let's get to the machine shop and see what this bird of yours has to say."

Once they had changed out of their flight gear, Dick helped Vic set up his equipment on a spare worktable in the machine shop. Soon, they had the probe hooked up to a computer to disgorge its contents.

About an hour later, Dick was studying the initial sensor readings when a tech came over to them.

"Lieutenant Grayson?"


"Call for you sir. You can take it over there," he said, pointing to the nearby phone.

"Thank you." Dick walked over and picked up the phone. "Grayson."

Dick didn't say much after that, but from the expression on his face, Vic could tell whatever he was hearing wasn't good news. Dick hung up the phone with the deliberate care of someone who really wanted to rip it out of the wall. He then turned to Vic, an apologetic expression on his face.

"I'm afraid I'm going to have to abandon you for a bit. Some ... business has come up that I need to attend to."

"Anything I can do to help?"

"Nah. Thanks, though. Seems two of my pilots were fighting each other over a girl, and now I have to go sort it out. Hopefully before the CAG gets official wind of it."


"Especially since the girl they're fighting over is also one of my pilots," Dick sighed. "Look, this is going to take an hour or two to straighten out. If you need anything, just collar one of the techs or have them page me."

Vic nodded, and Dick walked out of the machine shop muttering vile-sounding Romany imprecations under his breath. Vic smiled to himself and went back to work analyzing the probe's information.

Chapter 5

Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Anyone else but me, anyone else but me
No! No! No!
Don't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me
Till I come marchin' home
-- Lew Brown, Charles Tobias, and Sam H. Stept, 1942

When Dick walked up to the squadron's ready room, he found HD waiting for him as he had requested.

"I told 'em to wait for you in there," HD said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder. "They've been pretty quiet since we got 'em separated."

"Does the CAG know about this yet?"

"Nope. That's one reason I hustled them out of the gym. I don't think any of the other guys who were there will say anything."

"I guess we'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Dick sighed. "Okay, now I need you to fetch Lt. Young."

"Figgered you'd want to see her, too, so I had Murph track her down. She should be here shortly."

Dick clapped HD on the shoulder. "Thanks, man! When she gets here, knock, and don't let her in until I say so."

HD nodded. Dick opened the door to the ready room, walked through, and then closed it behind him. His expression was severe enough that the two waiting pilots snapped to attention even though Dick was barely senior to them and wasn't normally one to insist on the formalities. He stalked toward them, unconsciously using the tricks he had developed as Nightwing to seem even more threatening.

"Let me see if I understand things properly," he stated coldly. "Lt. Cardones, you discovered that your girlfriend, Lt. Young, has been screwing Lt. Webster."

Lieutenant JG Rafael Cardones, a 23-year-old rangy Hispanic, flinched at Dick's harsh tone.

"Lt. Webster, you discovered that Lt. Young never broke things off with Lt. Cardones and was still screwing him."

Lieutenant Samuel Houston Webster was 29 years old, of medium height, with brown hair and hazel eyes. He didn't quite flinch, but his eyes flickered briefly over to Cardones and then back to a point somewhere over Dick's left shoulder.

"Now for some unfathomable reason, the two of you got mad enough to start throwing punches at each other over this." He paused and looked at each man. Neither would meet his eyes. He continued, asking sardonically, "Does that about sum things up?"

"Yes, sir," said Cardones.

"Yessir," echoed Webster.

"I'm glad we're all in agreement. Now perhaps one of you can tell me why I had to be pulled away from an important assignment because two of my pilots were fighting each other over a girl who obviously doesn't care very much for either one of you."

Dick mentally snickered over the nearly identical expressions of protest that appeared on each pilot's face. Before he could continue his lecture, though, he heard a knock on the ready room door.

"All right, we'll continue this in a minute. I want you two to conceal yourselves behind those lockers." When they didn't move, he frowned at them. "I'm not in the mood to repeat myself, gentlemen. Move it!"

Once they were safely out of sight, he yelled, "Come in!"

Lt. JG Paula Young walked in and closed the door; for once, Dick didn't insist that she open it again. She sauntered up to Dick and stood at attention just a little closer to him than was proper.

"You wanted to see me, Richard?" she said in what she must have imagined was a sexy voice.

Lt. Young was an attractive woman -- tall and willowy with almost natural curves to go with her almost natural blonde hair. She was almost as attractive as she thought she was. She had also been trying to get into Lt. Grayson's bed from the first time she saw him. She didn't care that he was married; she didn't care that he didn't seem to be interested. Other people just weren't real to her, somehow. She was a darn good pilot, though, so Dick just made sure to avoid compromising situations, and he kept an eye on her relationships with the other pilots.

"Yes, I did, Lieutenant," he replied formally. He stepped away from her to lean a hip against one of the tables in the room. "In case you haven't heard yet, Zorro and Bowie just got into a fist fight."

"Really, sir? How ... impulsive of them."

"Yes. The witnesses said they were fighting over you."

"I can't imagine why they would do that, sir."

"Neither can I, Lieutenant." He knew it was petty, but he rather enjoyed seeing her face flush at his mocking tone. "Nevertheless, I think we both know why they were fighting."

Young said nothing.

"Perhaps I should refresh your memory, Lieutenant. Two weeks ago, you and I had an interesting conversation. Do you remember?"

"Yes, sir," she said reluctantly.

"And do you remember what I told you?"

She just stared straight ahead.

"Maybe this will sound familiar: I told you to resolve your relationships with Zorro and Bowie, one way or another; otherwise, if anything happened that might cause a problem within the division, you were history. Now do you remember?"

Young still said nothing.

"I didn't hear you, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir," she said sullenly.

"Good, I'm glad we understand each other. I'll be sure to let you know later this evening what your new assignment will be."

"No way!" she said, angrily.

"I'm afraid I must not have heard you correctly, Lieutenant."

"I won't go!"

"You don't have a choice."

Young became enraged. Her anger made her reckless. "It would be a shame if you were accused of attempted rape, wouldn't it, Lieutenant," she snarled. She was disconcerted to see that her threat had no effect. Instead of giving in, or even gettng angry, her intended victim started laughing!

"You have got to be kidding me!"

"I'm not joking! It'll be just your word against mine! I belong in this division -- you have no right to make me leave!"

Dick stopped laughing and turned serious again. "There is no place in my division for a pilot who completely disregards the effect her actions have on the pilots around her. There is no place in my division for a pilot who deceives her fellow pilots, and there is certainly no place for a pilot who tries to use extortion to get what she wants."

His tone became mocking again. "I also don't want pilots who pay no attention to their surroundings. Didn't it occur to you to wonder why I didn't ask you to keep the hatch open as I usually do? You know it's supposed to be open if a man and a woman are in a room alone. Of course, alone is the operative word." He turned his head to call to the men in hiding, "Cardones, Webster -- front and center."

When the two pilots came out from behind the lockers, all of the color drained from Young's face, and she had a stricken, almost embarrassed expression as she faced her lovers. For their parts, Cardones had a stony, closed look on his face, while Webster was clearly angry.

Dick continued his talk, "Lieutenant Young, I think we can all agree that you don't want to be in my division anymore." He paused and his voice took on a grimmer cast, "I won't bring charges against you, but I can assure you that your future flight leader will be informed about your little extortion attempt here. And you can also be assured that I will be very interested in any future sexual harassment or rape charges you ever bring against anyone else." He let that sink in for a few moments. "As I said earlier, I will let you know later this evening what your new assignment will be. In fact, I think it would be best if you waited in your quarters."

When she still made no move to leave the room, he said pointedly, "Dismissed, Lieutenant."

She jerked to attention and walked rather dazedly out of the room. Once the door was closed again, Dick turned back to the other pilots.

"Now, gentlemen. Where were we? Oh yes, we were discussing why either of you felt it necessary to fight over someone like that."

" did you know -- I mean about the both of us and that she'd actually try blackmail to stay?" Webster asked, still in shock over the revelations he had heard today.

"Bowie, she's been trying to ambush me since she joined the division, so I certainly didn't believe that she'd found 'true love' with either one of you. Under the circumstances, it wasn't hard to figure out that she had neglected the little niceties like informing Zorro that his ... services were no longer required. When I confronted her about it, she basically said that she was holding Zorro in reserve in case things didn't work out with you." Dick gave the unfortunate Cardones a small smile of sympathy. "I wanted the two of you here when I confronted her so that you would hear just what kind of person she is, and you would be my witnesses in case she tried anything."

"She didn't fool you for a minute, did she, Lieutenant?" asked the chagrinned Cardones.

"No, she didn't. And if either of you had been thinking with your brains instead of what's between your legs, she wouldn't have fooled you either!" Dick's expression became stern again. "Now back to the matter of the fight. While I'm not going to kick either of you out like I did Young, I also can't leave this situation unresolved. The two of you are wingmen, for Pete's sake! You have to be able to count on each other ... to trust each other."

Dick held their gazes with his own as he spoke, "I want the two of you to talk things over tonight. If you honestly think you can no longer fly together, I'll flip a coin and assign one of you somewhere else. I really don't want to do that, though -- you're good pilots, and I'd hate to lose either of you. I believe the two of you can work this out, especially now that you know what Young is really like."

Dick let them stare at each other for a few moments while he walked over to the handset on the wall. He then asked to be connected to Lt. Commander Theisman in Environmental Systems and smiled as he saw identical expressions of dread on the two men in front of him.

"Commander Theisman? This is Lt. Grayson, Division One. ... Yessir. ... The CAG showed me your recent memo about needing volunteers for scrubbing. Is that still the case? ... Yes sir, I have two volunteers who would be more than willing to help you out: Lt. JG Cardones and Lt. Webster. ... Well sir, I'm afraid they can only spare, say, two hours a day for the next four days. ... Yes sir, they'll be right down. ... No, thank you, sir."

"Filter scrubbing, Lieutenant?" Webster confirmed plaintively. Most routine maintenance work on the Texas was carried out by machines, but humans were still needed for some tasks. Cleaning out the tanks and filters used by the environmental system to recycle the water used aboard the ship was one of those things. A prevailing theory held that the Navy refused to mechanize these tasks in order to have them available to assign as punishment detail.

"It's gotta be done, Bowie, you know that," Dick replied cheerfully. "Just think of it as one of those bonding exercises -- you know, working together through adversity, etc. Although, if you'd prefer, I could turn this whole matter over to the CAG ..." He smiled again as identical expressions of fear swept over the two men. "I didn't think so. Now, I told Commander Theisman you'd be right down, so you better get going." As the two men started to leave, Dick remembered one more thing, "Oh, I would recommend that you take a change of clothes with you so you can shower down there. Believe me, you don't want to bring that smell into your quarters."

They turned to him with pitiful looks on their faces, but he just smiled and shooed them out the door.

By the time Dick took care of all of the details arising from the fist fight, it was practically time for dinner, so he told Vic to meet him at the officers' mess. Toni had recovered as well, so the three of them found a table in the back of the room where they could converse fairly privately. Dick sat down with a heavy sigh and stared at his food dispiritedly.

"Rough duty?" Vic asked sympathetically. He had filled Toni in on Dick's problems on their way to meet him.

Dick shrugged and began poking at his food with his fork. "I guess it wasn't all that bad. I mean, I'd been expecting trouble for a couple of weeks -- I'd already made arrangements with Jake Mallory over in Division Two to trade pilots. He has an ensign who's a good pilot but lazy; he felt by moving her to One, she'd be pushed into being a better pilot. I wasn't all that fond of the idea, but it made a good excuse for a trade without having to mention the fight."

"So why the long face?" asked Toni.

"I just ... feel I should've handled it better. Maybe there was some way I could have resolved it without the fight or the transfer. I think I finally convinced Young that I wasn't transferring her just because she was a woman." He snorted in bleak laughter. "I told her that I didn't really care that she was screwing two guys. If she had turned it into a ménage à trois, I would've raised my eyebrows a bit but figured it was none of my business. It became my business when she started playing them off against each other."

He shook his head in resignation and began to do more than poke at his food. "Well, enough about my personnel problems! Have you made any progress with the probe?"

A hint of a smile lurked about Vic's face as he said, "I guess you could call it that. I think I've developed the key that will let any ship get past that blockade." The smile became a full-fledged laugh at the identical dumbfounded expressions on Dick's and Toni's faces.

Chapter 6

Lord, guard and guide the men who fly
Through the great spaces in the sky.
Be with them always in the air,
In darkening storms or sunlight fair;
Oh, hear us when we lift our prayer,
For those in peril in the air!
-- Mary C. D. Hamilton, 1915

One of Vic's projects at S.T.A.R. Labs was studying the one Ch'ton ship that had been captured intact. During the testing, the technicians had noticed that the ship had vibrated slightly whenever they would communicate using cell phones. That led to several tests in which they projected high-frequency tones at the ship. At one particular frequency, the bow of the ship began noticeably vibrating; what was even more odd was that the vibrations continued at the same rate for more than a minute after the test was over. They had never been able to figure out a reason for the vibration. Until now.

The data from the probe revealed to Vic that in addition to the destructive "layers" of the mine, there were also layers of super-high-frequency sound. The frequency tugged at his memory until he recalled the earlier S.T.A.R. Lab tests. He checked his notes, and the frequencies matched! He was then able to construct a transponder that mimicked the Ch'ton ship's behavior. They had put the transponder in the tip of one of Vic's largest probes, and the probe was able to penetrate all the way to the mine without any shielding by Toni.

Then, Dick made his proposal.

"You've got to be crazy, Dick!" Vic yelled.

"Why?" Dick had asked in surprise. "The test probe with your new transponder worked just fine. Why shouldn't the next step be to put it in an actual ship?"

"Dick, just because it worked on a small probe, doesn't necessarily mean it will work on a larger ship!"

"That was a pretty big probe, and my Barracuda's a pretty small ship," Dick answered calmly.

"We still don't know for sure how large of an area needs to be covered by the transponder!"

"Look, the Ch'ton ship only vibrated the bow, right?"

Vic nodded.

"That means that we don't have to make the whole ship vibrate to make this work. In fact, you set the transponder on the probe to vibrate the same percentage of the hull that the Ch'ton ship's did, right? So just do the same with my fighter."

"Dick, why can't you just wait while we build a bigger probe?"

"Because eventually, you're going to have to test this with someone on board. Now, I've seen the specs, and I trust your work. Let me ask you something: Would you be this opposed if I wasn't a friend of yours?"

Vic opened his mouth to deny Dick's suggestion and then stopped. Dick could see that he was forcing himself to consider the probe's data and the test results objectively. Reluctantly, Vic shook his head.

"Maybe you're right; it's hard to say. I would just feel better if we could try it with a Barracuda-sized probe first."

"But then what would we do about the carriers? We can't really build a carrier-sized probe," Dick replied, smiling. "At some point, we have to take a chance. I think this is that point."

"Do you think your Captain Tremaine would agree?" Vic asked teasingly.

"The CAG's a busy man, Vic. Let's not bother him with petty details like this," Dick responded in the same fashion. For a moment, it was as if they were no longer in the Texas' machine shop, but back in the Titans Tower on Earth. In their memories, Dick wasn't wearing a flight suit, but the vivid yellow, red, and green of his Robin costume, and Vic was again a half-man, half-machine Cyborg.

Dick said quietlly, "Vic, we've been friends a long time. In all that time, you have never let me down, and I know you won't now. I trust you."

Dick sat in his Barracuda in the launch airlock going over his final preflight checklist. Toni had looked inside the cockpit and pronounced it more crowded than her makeup bag; however, with more than two years' experience flying the Navy's premiere fighter, he accepted the confining space without a second thought. The small, lethal ship had become a part of him, and its complexities were as familiar to him as his Nightwing gear. The fittings were ruthlessly compact and utilitarian, with one small exception: a small photo mounted just below eye level on one of the canopy's support braces. He looked at the photo and smiled.

When he had asked Babs to send him a picture to keep in his cockpit, he expected her to send him a simple portrait shot, or maybe one from their wedding. What Barbara had done was to have Dinah take a picture of a beach (Aruba, if he wasn't mistaken), and then a picture of Barbara on a neutral background. After some photo manipulation, what he got was a glamorous shot of his wife on a beach in a tiny swimsuit, lying on her right side, her head resting on her right hand staring sexily into the camera.

With a shake of his head, he got back to work. The sooner he launched, the sooner he could test Vic's "key." Dick saw the outer airlock door open and looked over at the Deuce sitting next to him on the launch pad. He could see HD and Vic in the drivers' seats up front, and he knew Toni was in the back somewhere.

They had originally planned to leave her behind since Dick had refused to risk anyone else during this test, but after much discussion (i.e. whining and pleading by Toni) they agreed to take her if she could fit herself into the Deuce's small cargo compartment. She made a valid point that her powers would allow the Deuce to follow Dick's Barracuda, but Dick and Victor both knew her main reason was that she would go crazy waiting for word of what happened.

He gave a "thumbs-up" to HD, who returned it, as did Vic. This time no words were needed as the Barracuda and the Deuce took off from the Texas and again flew in tandem to the Ch'ton mine. When they arrived, Dick broke comm silence to give Vic and HD his final instructions.

"All right. Toni, go ahead and put up your shield around the Deuce. I'm going in. And Vic ..."

"Yeah, Dick?"

"Tell Babs I love her."

"Tell her yourself, man. I'm not goin' anywhere near that woman when she finds out what a stupid stunt you're pullin' here!"

"Vic ..."

Vic finally replied softly, "You got it, Dick. I'll tell her."

"Thanks, man. I'll see you in a bit."

Accompanied by the shielded Deuce, Dick's Barracuda approached the mine field.

Barbara Grayson was so deep in thought as she traced a convoluted path through the Penguin's latest money-laundering scheme that she actually jumped when the phone rang. Wondering who could be calling on her "civilian" line at 2:30 in the morning, she activated her headset and answered the phone.


"Mrs. Grayson?" asked an impersonal-sounding female voice.


"You have a call from the Heinlein space station. Please stand by."

The voice cut off abruptly, and Barbara was left to sit and wonder who could be calling her from the Navy's main orbital station. The only possibilities she could think of were not good ones, so she was shocked to hear a cheerful voice replace the tinny Muzak.

"Heya, gorgeous!"


"Yep, it's me!"

"Oh my God! How... what..." she sputtered, unable to complete a question.

"I've been asked to report to the Pentagon on Monday at 0900. Which means, if I've got my time zones figured right, we can have almost a whole weekend together."

"Umm, yeah, it's 2:30 Saturday morning," Babs replied absently, still trying to accept that her husband whom she had thought was light-years away was now practically next door. "But you're okay, right? There's nothing wrong?"

"I'm fine, sweetheart. Apparently they just have some questions about Vic's and my report and wanted to ask them in person."

Oh. That report. She understood that Dick wouldn't discuss military secrets over an open channel. "Are you in trouble?" Dick had written her that the CAG had not been happy that his Division 1 flight leader had decided to play test pilot.

"The CAG didn't seem to think so. He did warn me to bring all my gear with me, but that's as much precaution as anything else."

Barbara concentrated on Dick's voice and realized that he honestly didn't sound worried. Maybe everything would be all right. "So when can I see you?" she asked eagerly.

"Well, I should be arriving at Norfolk on the shuttle around 1100 local time, if you want to meet me there. Otherwise, I can grab a flight into Gotham."

"Oh, I think I can meet you at Norfolk," she grinned. "Just me, or is it okay if I bring the rest of the 'family' along?"

"Well, ... sure -- as long as I can get you to myself at least some time this weekend," he replied, and she could almost see the leer directed her way.

"Count on it, sailor!"

After getting the details of his shuttle flight, she finally had to hang up when the operator broke in to warn them that their time was up. Barbara sat back in her chair with a sigh, a contented little smile on her face. In a little less than nine hours, she would get to see her husband ... get to kiss her husband ... get to ... Okay, don't go there, she chastised herself briefly. She didn't have time to daydream; she had to get moving!

Knowing he would still be up, Barbara placed a call to the Batcave. "Alfred?"

The old gentleman's image came up on her screen. "Yes, Miss Barbara?"

"I've got some great news! Dick's going to be landing at Norfolk at 11:00 this morning!"

"That's wonderful! I shall tell Master Bruce immediately!"

"I'm planning on going out there to meet him. You want to tag along?"

"I would love to, Miss Barbara, but wouldn't you prefer to be ... alone with him?" he asked delicately.

"Oh, we'll definitely have some time alone! I just thought you ... and Bruce ... would like to see him before I carry him off to have my way with him," she replied with a chuckle.

"Oh, certainly, Miss Barbara!" Alfred chuckled in return. "I shall inform the master right away. Would you like me to make the arrangements?"

"If you'll arrange for the flight down to Washington, I'll arrange the rental car to Norfolk."

Alfred looked surprised. "Madam?"

"I want to keep things as low-key as possible, Alfred. It won't arouse too much notice for Bruce Wayne to fly to DC, and a rental car under my name should lessen the chances of anyone ... bothering us when we meet Dick."

"I see. Yes, that makes sense, Miss Barbara. I will call you back when I have all the details."

"Thanks, Alfred."

Seven-and-a-half hours later, Barbara, Bruce, and Alfred were entering Naval Station Norfolk. She made Bruce and Alfred wait in the van while she filled out the paperwork that would let her on base with a temporary pass. The (very) young petty officer seemed rather flustered -- by her or her wheelchair, she wasn't sure which -- but he checked her ID thoroughly and then handed her the permit with a smile.

"Welcome to Norfolk, Mrs. Grayson. I hope you enjoy your stay here."

"I will as soon as I see my husband, Petty Officer! Thanks for your help."

Once the permit was in place, they were on their way again, and soon they were in the shuttle terminal. After a seemingly interminable wait, Barbara caught a glimpse of a familiar figure walking down the ramp wearing khakis and carrying a seabag slung over his shoulder. She maneuvered her chair so that Dick could see her; when he did, his face lit up, and he started jogging toward her. As soon as he reached her, he dropped the seabag to the ground and picked her up out of her wheelchair. She vaguely noticed that he was holding her so tightly she couldn't breathe, but all she cared about was that her husband was holding her and kissing her.

He was home.

Chapter 7

He's home for a little while,
He's mine once again,
No need to tell but it feels simply swell
With him close to me,
Where he's supposed to be.
-- Dinah Shore, 1945

Bruce Wayne was accustomed to being the center of attention, even when he didn't want to be. He was used to seeing people pointing at him and whispering to their companions. He was not used to being ignored, yet that was the circumstance in which he found himself as he walked with Dick, Alfred, and Barbara. It wasn't too noticeable when they were walking through the small shuttle terminal, but on the numerous sidewalks back to the visitors' parking lot where Alfred had parked the van, it became obvious that Dick, or rather Lt. Grayson, was the focus. Bruce soon stopped counting number of salutes Dick had returned, but by the time they got to the van, Bruce was becoming a bit exasperated.

"I wasn't sure we were going to make it back here before your right arm fell off," he said dryly.

Dick stared at Bruce in surprise. "Huh?"

"All that saluting," Bruce replied. "It just seemed rather ... excessive to me."

"I don't make the rules, Bruce," Dick replied defensively. "They saluted me; I returned salute. That's the way it works." At Barbara's light touch on his arm, he explained in a calmer tone, "Regs require that junior officers and enlisted personnel salute senior officers when they see them. Even though I'm only a lieutenant, I'm still senior to most of the people we met since most of the personnel in Norfolk are either enlisted men and women handling logistics and supply work or new recruits and trainees." He grinned at Bruce and said teasingly, "You mean there's a subject you haven't studied to death? Heaven forbid!"

An answering half-smile appeared on Bruce's face. "I'm afraid I never had any need to study military protocol. Brat."

"That's Lt. Brat, Bruce!"

Once they had stowed Dick's bag and settled themselves in the van, Barbara asked, "Okay, folks -- what's our plan? Where do we go from here? Dick?"

"Since I have to report in at the Pentagon at 0900 on Monday, I think I'd rather just stay in Washington instead of going all the way back to Gotham and then have to trek back. Will that work for you, Babs?"

"I already told J'onn that Oracle was going to be offline this weekend unless it was an absolute emergency," she replied with a smile.

Bruce suggested that they stay at Wayne Enterprises' Alexandria, Virginia townhouse instead of a Washington, DC hotel, and Dick and Barbara agreed. During the three-plus hour drive from Norfolk to Alexandria, Bruce noticed that Dick managed to maneuver the other three into doing most of the talking. He wasn't exactly quiet, but he managed to direct the conversation away from himself. It was so unusual for Dick to be talking less than Alfred that it began to worry Bruce. As they pulled into the garage of the townhouse, he resolved to get to the bottom of the situation as soon as he could.

Because Wayne Enterprises was a major contractor in the huge military buildup, Bruce had been spending more and more time in Washington. Alfred and Lucius Fox had decided that if Bruce was going to be spending so much time in Washington, it made sense to have a residence there. After much discussion ("But Alfred, I like having a ready-made reason why I can't throw parties!"), Wayne Enterprises leased an elegant townhouse in nearby Alexandria. It came fully furnished, and the only "special" modification Bruce made was an improved security system. He noticed that after Dick and Barbara were married, Alfred had a chair lift system installed on the stairs so that a person in a wheelchair could access the bedrooms on the second and third floors, but Bruce declined to comment on the matter.

One of Bruce's favorite features of the townhouse was the backyard. It was small, especially when compared to the huge grounds of Wayne Manor, but the original landscaper had taken great care that the area not feel small or confined. After changing into clothes more in keeping with the warm May weather, Bruce walked out onto the covered deck. He could see that Alfred had already been at work -- the small fountain had been turned on and the deck furniture had been dusted off and made ready for use.

Bruce sat in his favorite chair with a sigh. When he had gone upstairs to change, he couldn't help listening to the laughter coming from Dick and Barbara's room. He also couldn't help hearing as the voices grew quieter and then stopped completely. He was happy for them, truly he was, it was just ... He heard the door behind him open, and he turned around to see Dick, now in shorts and a t-shirt, walking toward him carrying a pitcher of iced tea and two glasses.

"I didn't expect to see you for a while," Bruce said as he pulled one of the small tables over for the pitcher.

Blushing slightly, Dick replied, "We were ... changing clothes when Kyle called with a hostage situation. Then I remembered I needed to press my dress whites for dinner tonight, so I went to Alfred to scrounge an iron. He insisted on pressing them himself and sent me out here with the iced tea to get me out of his way."

The two men sat in silence for a while, drinking their tea and enjoying the late afternoon sun and the quiet sounds of the small rock fountain. Bruce glanced over from time to time, pleased to see some of the tenseness leave Dick's expression and posture. Finally, Bruce felt comfortable enough to say what he had wanted to say since Dick had left over two years ago.

"I'm sorry, Dick."

Dick jerked a bit in surprise and looked over at Bruce. "Huh? What are you talking about?"

"I'm sorry I wasn't more ... supportive when you joined up. And that I didn't stay in touch while you were gone." Bruce looked at Dick, expecting to see resentment, anger, anything but what he did see -- Dick started laughing. Not a mocking laugh, but the delighted laugh that Bruce remembered from the first time Dick had swung across Gotham on a jumpline (or the first time Bruce tried the quadruple somersault); the laugh Dick used when something truly amused or delighted him.

"Oh, man!" Dick said, calming down finally. "I didn't mean to laugh at you, but I was just sitting here thinking, 'Any minute now, Bruce is going to apologize for not staying in touch,' and you did."

"I didn't know I was so predictable," Bruce replied, not sure if he should be offended.

"I was going into space -- strike one; I was joining the military, which I'm sure ranked right up there with joining the police force -- strike two; and I was doing all of this as 'Dick Grayson' -- strike three. Of course I expected you to react the way you did!" Dick's voice became quieter, but no less sincere as he continued, "I never thought it meant you didn't care." His tone turned impish again. "Bruce, on some things, you are incredibly predictable!"

Bruce grumbled under his breath.

"Would it make you feel better if I said I 'anticipated your reaction' instead?" Dick asked in amusement. "That's how that whole 'well-oiled machine' stuff works you know -- I wouldn't have been any good to you as a partner if I couldn't anticipate your movements."

Bruce's expression turned thoughtful. "I guess I never thought of it that way."

"I could've predicted that's what you'd say."


"I knew you'd say that, too."

The two men sat in companionable silence for several minutes. Then Dick proved he really could predict Bruce's behavior when he answered the question he knew Bruce wanted to ask.

"I'm tired, Bruce; that's all. Just tired."

Bruce gave Dick a searching stare, trying to see if that was really all that was bothering Dick. He finally realized that Dick, as usual, was telling him the truth, but the simple statement almost raised more questions than it answered. Before he could probe any further, he heard the door open again.

"There you two are!" exclaimed Barbara as she wheeled onto the deck. Dick's face immediately brightened to see her, and she rolled over next to him.

"Everything okay?" Dick asked.

"Yep. All's well." She reached over and swiped Dick's glass of tea and took a large swallow. "Alfred brought your dress whites up a few minutes ago. He wanted me to remind both of you that if we're going to make that 7:00 reservation, we need to start getting ready."

Bruce and Dick nodded and followed Barbara back inside the house.

Barbara was startled awake by Dick's arm tightening around her waist as she lay against him. From the small amount of light in the room, she could tell it wasn't long after dawn. Her lips curved in a satisfied smile as she remembered the previous evening. She had had fun at dinner with Dick and Bruce; Dick was his usual charming and funny self, and even Bruce allowed himself to have a good time.

Bruce and Alfred left for Gotham City after dinner, and she and Dick had definitely enjoyed the rest of the evening's activities. Her reminiscences were cut short as Dick's arm jerked against her body, squeezing her uncomfortably. Then, the pressure was gone, and she could tell he was awake. She rolled over to face him.

"Hey. Bad dream?"

"Yeah," he replied, hoarsely.

"Wanna tell me about it?"

His arm tightened about her slightly, and she could see the indecision on his face. She moved closer and wrapped her arms around Dick's neck, drawing him into a passionate kiss. Afterwards, Dick sighed and rested his forehead against Barbara's.

"I'm afraid your interrogation techniques are too much for me, Mrs. Grayson." He sighed again and continued more seriously, "My subconscious likes to show replays of the pilots in my division who've been killed. Except it replaces each pilot with people like Roy, Wally, Donna, and Tim. The grand finale is when I watch the ship carrying you explode. Then this snotty voice (which sounds a lot like Roy, now that I think about it) asks me why I wasn't just as upset when my pilots died. Then I wake up."

"How often have you had this dream?"

"Oh, it usually occurs about once every couple of weeks. Sometimes the voice tells me I would've tried harder to save my pilots if they'd been the Titans. I know it's all crap, but the dreams keep coming." He pulled her more closely against him and smiled. "You think you could give me something else to think about?"

She ran her hands down his back. "I think that could be arranged," she replied huskily as their lips met.

At 8:45 on Monday morning, dressed in his summer white uniform, Dick stepped off the elevator and looked around the corridor. His orders had said he was to report to Captain Benjamin Mayhew of Weapons Research, and his office should be right over ... there. Dick walked over to the office's reception area, but before he could give his name to the petty officer, he was startled to see a familiar figure already waiting there.

"Vic! Did they want to see you too?"

"Hey man! Yeah, I'm in on this, too. Listen, there's something I need to tell you before we go in," Vic said, pulling Dick out of the office as he spoke.

"What's up?" Dick asked, becoming uneasy.

"I told them it was your idea for Toni and me to go out there."

"You what!?!"

"The Navy brass and the S.T.A.R. brass were making such a big deal over everything, and I just didn't feel right taking all the credit -- it was your idea, after all! Plus, it was your idea to outfit the other fighters with mine detectors!"

"But Vic ..." Dick took a deep breath. "Okay, how did you explain it?"


"Oh. Okay ... so you and I still keep in touch after Kory and I broke up?"

"Sure! At least enough for you to have kept up with who's on the team, and since your wife also does some work for S.T.A.R. Labs ..."

"All right," Dick sighed. "I guess that'll work. Thanks for the heads-up. Now we'd better get back." He smiled. "You may not care, but I certainly don't want to keep a captain waiting!"

The two men walked back into the office and gave their names to the patient petty officer. After only a few more minutes' wait, they were summoned inside.

Captain Mayhew was a black, barrel-chested giant of a man. As Dick stood at attention in front of his desk, he was surprised to see that in addition to the expected scientists and engineers, there was also a tall, thin, gray-haired vice admiral.

"At ease, Grayson. Mr. Stone, we want to thank you for coming as well. Lieutenant, as you may have realized, this is Admiral Harkness of CINCSOL5. Before we get started with your report, the admiral has some business he needs to attend to." The captain pressed the intercom, "Tiner, you may bring in our visitor now."

The office's other door opened, and Dick was astonished to see Barbara follow the petty officer into the office. She was dressed much more formally than when he had left her in Alexandria earlier that morning. She smiled at him -- her "I've got a secret!" smile.

"Attention to orders!" Admiral Harkness barked out.

The naval personnel in the room, including Dick, stood at attention. The admiral opened up a folder and began to read. Almost in a daze, Dick heard the admiral describe his initial idea and later test flight into the mine field.

"... Lt. Grayson's gallantry was in the finest tradition of the Naval Services and reflects great credit upon himself, naval aviation, and the United States Navy. He is hereby awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross." The admiral closed the folder, handed it to the captain, and pinned the medal on Dick.

Dick relaxed minutely thinking they were done, when the admiral picked up another folder from the captain's desk.

With just a hint of a twinkle in his eyes, the admiral said, "I'm afraid we're not quite done yet, Mr. Grayson. Captain, if you'll do the honors please." With a smile, Captain Mayhew took a pair of shoulder boards with two-and-a-half stripes on them over to Dick. While Dick stood at attention, the captain removed Dick's old shoulder boards and replaced them with the new ones. Admiral Harkness nodded and continued, "Please raise your right hand and repeat after me."

In shock once again, Dick complied and recited the oath of office. "I, Richard John Grayson, having been appointed a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy, do accept such appointment and do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Consititution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter, so help me God."6

"Congratulations, Commander Grayson," Admiral Harkness said, shaking Dick's hand firmly and handing him the two folders and the medal box. "Mrs. Grayson, would you care to do the honors?" He motioned Barbara to come over to Dick, who figuring out what was going on, leaned down so Barbara could kiss him.

"Congratulations, Commander Grayson," she whispered, tears of pride in her eyes.

Chapter 8

But should I ne'er return again
Still with thy love I'll bind me
Dishonor's breath shall never stain
The name I leave behind me
-- U.S. 7th Cavalry, c. 1870s

Tuesday morning, Dick leaned against the wall outside Bruce's office at Wayne Enterprises, trying to see how long he could spin his brimmed cap on his finger like a basketball. He was handicapped by the cap's less-than-perfect aerodynamics, but that just made the whole thing more challenging. Bruce had asked him to wear his uniform today, but he hadn't said why. The sound of approaching footsteps put a stop to his game, and he looked up to see an old familiar face.

"Hi, Lucius!"

"Dick! It's good to see you -- you certainly look sharp! Bruce mentioned you would be by today." Lucius Fox smiled at Dick, but there was a shadow in his eyes that hadn't been there when Dick left.

"Lucius, I'm ... sorry about Sarah. I wish I could've been here for the service."

Sarah Fox, Lucius's daughter, had been a fire control officer aboard the Manilla Bay when it was attacked by the Ch'ton. The ship had sustained heavy damage but had still managed to take out the attacker's ship. Sarah was injured at the beginning of the attack, but she felt she was still able to do her job, so she stayed at her post. The captain's after-action report made it clear that the survival of the Manilla Bay was due in no small part to Lt. Fox's steadfastness. Unfortunately, by the time the attack was over, Sarah had lost too much blood.

"Thank you, Dick. Nancy and I really appreciated the letter you sent." He closed his eyes in pain for a moment; then he opened them and continued on a purposefully lighter note. "Bruce told me about your medal and your promotion. Congratulations!"


"We were interrupted before he could tell me much, but I thought he said something about your being transferred to Houston?"

"Actually, I'm on leave this week, then next Monday, I'm to report at Johnson Space Center in Houston for a temporary job as a flight instructor." Dick took a deep breath, as he still couldn't believe his next assignment. "Then, I'm headed to a brand-new ship, the Roger Chaffee7. When she commissions, I'll be in charge of the air wing."

"Wow. Definitely congratulations, Dick!"

"I still can't believe they're making me the CAG," he said in wonder.

Dick had actually protested a bit when Admiral Harkness told him of his assignment. Harkness had responded that the Chaffee was a small carrier, a new design that would be used primarily for reconnaissance and support work. In an ideal world, this carrier class would have at least a commander in charge of its fighters, but the Navy was definitely feeling a personnel crunch. Matters weren't so bad with technical personnel, support personnel, and even pilots. The crunch came in command personnel -- the new technologies had forced a steep learning curve on everyone involved, and the older commissioned and non-commissioned officers were having some troubles adjusting. The Navy also didn't want to strip its "wet navy" ships of all top-quality personnel. A war going on in outer space did not mean everything ground to a halt on Earth.

So, the Roger Chaffee would be skippered by a commander instead of a captain, and a brand new lieutenant commander would be in charge of the air wing.

Dick was telling Lucius a story about his wingman when Bruce walked through his office door to join them.

"Dick! I'm sorry, have you been waiting long?"

"Nah. Traffic's a lot lighter than I was expecting."

After exchanging further pleasantries with Lucius, Bruce led Dick away from his office to the elevator.

"So, what's up, Bruce?" Dick asked.

"I thought you might be interested in seeing some new ... toys R&D has come up with for the fighters," Bruce replied tentatively. Seeing Dick's immediate interest, he relaxed and explained further. "The main thing we've been working on is a new shielding system."


Before Bruce could elaborate further, the elevator had reached the ground floor. Both men exited, and Bruce looked around until he saw a slightly-built man with thinning gray hair in the uniform of a rear admiral. Bruce raised his hand in greeting and walked over to him. Dick, mystified, followed and stood at attention at Bruce's right.

"Admiral! Good to see you!" Bruce exclaimed. "I assumed it would be easier to meet down here instead of having you traipse up to my office and then have to come back down again."

The admiral nodded to Bruce and to Dick. "Good to see you also, Bruce. At ease, son. You are ...?"

"Oh, my apologies, Admiral! This is my foster-son, Richard Grayson. Dick, this is Admiral Warner Caslet of Weapons Research."

Caslet held out his hand, and Dick shook it politely.

"All right, gentlemen," Bruce said, motioning for them to follow him through the connecting corridors to Wayne Enterprises' R&D Division. "Let's get started on our tour."

Admiral Caslet halted in surprise. "Your son is coming with us? Does he have sufficient security clearance for this?"

Bruce drew himself up to his full height and let a little bit of Batman's growl creep into his tone as he replied, "His security clearance is irrelevant."

Dick tried to head off the train wreck he saw approaching. "Look, Bruce, you go on with Admiral Caslet -- I can come back tomorrow."

Bruce waved his hand, dismissing Dick's offer. "Admiral, perhaps you don't realize that in addition to being my foster-son, Dick is also the heir to Wayne Enterprises and a major stockholder. He has as much right to be here as I do!" Taking a deep breath, he brought himself back into "character." "You might even say he has more right -- he actually knows what these machines do!" He laughed, and to anyone who didn't know him well, the laugh almost sounded genuine.

Caslet glared at Bruce, then at Dick, and then motioned for Bruce to continue leading them. After a few moments walking in silence, the admiral unbent enough to ask, "So, Commander -- I assume you are here on leave?"

"Yes sir, for about a week. I've been deployed on the Texas for the last two years."

Realizing Dick had actually served on the "front lines" and noticing Dick's Distinguished Flying Cross ribbon, the admiral unbent a little further. "Are you going back to the Texas?" his voice now warmer in tone.

"No sir, I'll be TDY8 at Johnson until the Roger Chaffee commissions."

"Flight instructor?"

"Yessir. Then, I'll be the Chaffee's new CAG."

"Good, good."

Bruce interjected, "Dick, I don't think I ever got a chance to ask you why they were making you a flight instructor?"

Dick replied, "The Navy found out pretty quickly that the tried-and-true methods of training fighter pilots still worked out in space, but only up to a point. Remember, we're dealing with new ships, new weapons, and a new enemy that doesn't always respond the way we would expect them to. So the brass," he nodded his head to Caslet with a smile, "decided we needed to spread what new combat experience we accumulated as quickly as possible."

Caslet acknowledged the nod, and continued Dick's explanation. "BuPers, that is, the Bureau of Personnel, decided to rotate particularly gifted pilots home when they could be spared, so that they could teach the new pilots and share their techniques and innovations with our more experienced instructors."

"I see. That's quite a compliment, Dick," Bruce said with pride.

"All right, gentlemen," Bruce said as they approached a large concrete bunker on one side of the huge warehouse-like testing facility. "This is where we are putting our new shielding system through its paces."

One of the engineers, a slender, middle-aged woman with dark brown hair, looked up as the visitors approached. When she saw who it was, she beamed and walked quickly over to greet them.

"Hello, Mr. Wayne. Dick! I hadn't heard you were home!" She gave Dick a quick hug, which he returned smiling broadly.

"Hi, Dr. Andy! Yeah, I just got into Gotham last night."

Bruce then made the introductions, "Admiral, this is Dr. Andrea Venizelos. Andy, this is Admiral Caslet."

Andy shook the admiral's hand and led them inside the bunker. At one end of the space was an odd contraption about the size of large watermelon; at the other end was a cannon-like device which Dick recognized as being similar to the guns on his fighter.

"Admiral Caslet, Dick -- what you're looking at is a shielding device that can take whatever the enemy can dish out for a short period of time. We're still working on the endurance factor, but right now, it can take a concentrated energy bolt for more that two minutes before it burns out."

Both Dick and the Admiral were impressed. Dick asked, "What about cumulative fire -- say, over the course of a five- or ten-minute firefight?"

"The shield spreads the impact, so no one particular spot is vulnerable; unfortunately, it also means if you receive more than two minutes of fire, it's gonna go. Like I said, we're still working on endurance."

"Still," commented the admiral, "that is a great improvement over what we currently have available."

Dick nodded. "What kind of power will it take to run that thing, though?"

"No free lunch, I'm afraid. Right now, we're looking at a six percent power drop on the Deuces and five percent on the Barracudas."

The admiral said, "That will still put us ahead of the Ch'ton, though. Right?"

"Right," replied Andy. "Although it will cut the Barracuda's margin to only 22 percent."

"Huh?!? What are you guys talking about?" exclaimed Dick. "There's no way, I can afford to give up five percent of my power, and my Barracuda's nowhere near 22 percent more powerful than the Ch'ton fighters!"

Bruce, Andy, and Caslet stared at Dick as if he had just grown two heads. All three then started talking at once until Bruce raised his hands for quiet.

"Dick, according to our figures, your Barracuda should be around 30 percent faster than the Ch'ton with 26 percent more firepower. Are you saying this isn't the case?"

"Darn right, that's what I'm saying!"

"Why haven't we been told that the Ch'ton ships have gotten more powerful?" asked the admiral.

"They haven't, sir," replied Dick. "The Bugs aren't exactly known for innovations. We're fighting the same type of ships we've always fought using the same type of ships we've always used."

The admiral and Bruce exchanged puzzled looks. Bruce asked, "You're not using any of the upgraded Barracudas?"

Now it was Dick's turn to look puzzled. "What upgraded Barracudas? While I was Capt. Tremaine's XO, we got ten new Barracudas straight from the factory, and they were exactly the same as the ones we already had."

Caslet said, "That's crazy! The new design has been in effect for over a year now. Surely you must have seen them?"

"No sir! I know what I've been flying for the last two years!"

"Luthor!" muttered Bruce. When everyone stared at him, he elaborated. "LexCorp was the primary contractor for the first Barracudas. LexCorp was also the low bidder on the more expensive upgrade specification. At the time, we just assumed he was able to do that because he already had the systems in place. But what if ..."

"He just kept building the original designs and pocketed the difference in costs," Dick finished.

"But how? Even assuming a former president of the United States would do something like that, how could he carry something like that out?" asked the admiral in disbelief.

Dick and Bruce exchanged knowing looks. Dick replied, "It really wouldn't be that difficult. All he has to do is 'persuade' the Navy's representative at LexCorp to look the other way, and build a few birds to specifications to show the brass. We never heard anything about an upgrade on the Texas, but even if we had, I can still think of several ways Luthor could have finessed it. It would take quite a while before a CAG got suspicious enough to check with fleet headquarters or Washington."

Admiral Caslet sighed and then said in a resigned voice, "I guess I'm going to have to take this to the Inspector General's office then. I hope we're wrong, but we need to find out if President Luthor or his company really is doing something this reprehensible."

The three men said goodbye to Dr. Venizelos and walked back to the main lobby. The admiral turned to Bruce and holding out his hand, he said "I need to get back to Washington immediately. Thank you for the tour." He then shook Dick's hand. "Good luck, son. I may contact you down in Houston if the IG has any questions."

"Aye, sir. Thank you sir."

Once the admiral had left, Dick turned to Bruce. "Now what, kemosabe?"

With a half-smile, which Dick recognized as belonging more to Batman than Bruce Wayne, Bruce replied, "I wonder if Superman's eaten lunch yet?"

Chapter 9

Well, come on Wall Street, don't move slow,
Why man, this is war au-go-go.
There's plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade.
-- Country Joe McDonald, 1965

Dick persuaded Bruce to change lunch with Superman to dinner at Wayne Manor with Clark Kent and Lois Lane. He wanted to have Barbara look into LexCorp's aerospace division before they met with Superman, and he had also already made plans to meet Tim after school. So, Bruce finished giving Dick a tour of Wayne Enterprises' newest gadgets, and then the two men had lunch in the cafeteria.

After lunch, Dick stopped back by the clocktower to tell Barbara about the fighter discrepancy and Bruce's belief that Lex Luthor was behind it. She immediately began attacking the problem, muttering under her breath about nasty people trying to get her husband killed. Dick told her about dinner that night, and she nodded her head absently. Amused, he scooped her out of her chair, held her in his arms, and kissed her until they were both breathless.

"What was that about?" Babs asked, smiling.

"Just wanted to get your attention. Remember, we are having dinner at the Manor tonight with Clark and Lois."

"Maybe you need to 'get' my attention again," she murmured, linking her arms around his neck.

Dick obliged his lady by kissing her again, but finally he drew back, planting one more kiss on the tip of her nose. "I'm sorry, but I've got to go if I'm going to meet Tim when school lets out." He gently put her back in her wheelchair and kissed her lightly on the lips. "I'm not sure how long I'll be, but I'll be back before it's time to leave for the Manor."

As Dick pulled up in front of Gotham Heights High School, he recalled Tim's excited email after Jack Drake had finally agreed that Tim could go back to Gotham Heights for his senior year. Subsequent emails had revealed that it had taken Tim a little while to fit back in with his old friends, but he had adjusted. Now, Tim had just a few weeks to go before graduation.

The school bell and the mass exodus of students from the building cut off Dick's musings. He stood by his car, figuring it would be easier for Tim to find him since he was still wearing his uniform. Suddenly, he heard a loud whoop nearby. He located the source of the sound and smiled as Tim Drake came rushing toward him.

"Dick! Hey, man, it's great to see you!"

"Babs tells me you're thinking of joining the Navy after graduation," Dick said, as the two young men sat at a booth in O'Shaunghnessy's slurping milk shakes.

"Is that what this whole meeting is about?" Tim asked suspiciously. He was still adjusting to the fact that he was now slightly taller than Dick. It just didn't seem ... proper, somehow. It had been amusing when he realized he was taller than his stepmother, Dana. It had been a little weird, but still fun, when he discovered he didn't have to tilt his head so much to look up at Alfred and Bruce. But somehow, he had just assumed that Dick would always be taller than he.

"I certainly wasn't going to come all this way and not see you, bro!" Dick replied, smiling. "So tell me, are you joining up?"

"Um ... yeah, I was planning on it."


"Huh? Why what?" Tim asked in confusion.

"Why are you planning on joining up? What do you want to do?" Dick asked matter-of-factly.

"I want to be a fighter pilot. Like you." Tim studied Dick's face, trying to read what he was thinking. He saw a flash of some sort of pain in Dick's eyes, but mostly the older man's face was unreadable.

"A fighter pilot, huh? Are you sure that's the best job for you?"

"Are you saying I couldn't hack it?" he asked, hurt by Dick's lack of confidence.

Dick smiled reassuringly. "No, of course that's not what I'm saying! I know you, Tim. If you decided you wanted to be a fighter pilot, then I'm sure you would make a very good one. That's not my point. Do you honestly think being a fighter pilot is the best use of your abilities? I mean, you don't even have a pilot's license!"

"Well, I figured my dad would freak."

"Tim, your dad has freaked before and that hasn't stopped you. Look, you yourself once told me that you weren't a pilot; why this sudden desire to be one now?"

Tim tried to keep his tone even instead of petulant as he replied, "I thought it was important for each of us to do his best to help win this war."

"Yes it is. That's why I'm asking. In my opinion, you're too good at computer and other tech stuff just to be a fighter jock like me."

"So you think I should be doing geek work," Tim said in disgust.

"Hey! Some of my best friends are 'geeks'!" Dick responded, not entirely in jest.

"I know, I know. I'm sorry. It's just ..."

"... You want to do something more active than sit at a computer terminal. I know, man. Look, we each have to decide where and how our skills would be best utilized." Dick paused and smiled. "In my case, I realized that I could be more useful as a fighter pilot than stopping muggers in Bludhaven, and it was a pretty simple decision. In your case, you've got some different options to choose between."

"You mean college," Tim said disgustedly. He and his father had argued themselves hoarse about his desire to join the Navy, and his father's desire for him to attend some big prestigious university and major in business.

"It's not a dirty word," Dick replied with a smile. "One thing you might want to think about -- I checked with Vic, and S.T.A.R. Labs has an internship program for college students. For that matter, I think Wayne Enterprises does too. You could go to school and still be helping the war effort."

"S.T.A.R. Labs?" Tim asked incredulously, startled out of his funk. To work with some of the people and equipment they had would be incredibly cool!

"Yeah. In my opinion, people like Vic are worth at least fifty fighter jocks like me -- they're the ones who make it possible for us to fight this war at all."

"You think I could get into their program?"

"With your smarts, it should be a piece of cake! If you want, I'll talk to Vic and arrange for you to meet with him. He'll have to know who you are, though."

"That's okay," Tim said absently, thinking of the scenario Dick had raised. Finally, he realized Dick was watching him, an amused smile on his face. "Sorry. Zoned out for a minute there."

"I noticed."

"Okay, enough about me! So you're flying down to Houston next week?"

"Actually, I'm trying to get Babs to agree to a little mini-vacation on Padre Island this weekend. Then we could drive up to Houston, and she could fly back from there."

"Hey, that sounds fun! What's the holdup?"

"I think she wants to, it's just she's not sure she should take the time off. I'm about ready to indulge in a little kidnapping," Dick said in exasperation.

"I'll help! She needs the break. When were you planning on leaving?"

"Well, we've got dinner at the Manor tonight, then tomorrow's shindig with the Titans; so right now, I'm thinking of leaving on Thursday."

"How about if I volunteer to pinch-hit for her while she's gone?"

"That'd be a big help! I'll mention it to her." Dick looked at his watch. "And speaking of Babs, I need to get home to get ready for dinner, tonight."

On the drive back to the high school so that Tim could pick up his car, they discussed Dick's assignment as a flight instructor. Once in the parking lot, each was reluctant to have the time together end.

"Listen," offered Dick, "I can't make any promises yet, but I should think you'd be able to come down and visit me this summer. I'll let you know, okay?"

"Okay," Tim replied huskily. He clasped Dick's hand briefly, and then got out of the car. He walked over to his car, but before getting in, he turned around to wave at Dick. "See you later!" he said, attempting to sound cheerful. Dick waved in return and drove off.

Tim sighed. Sarah Fox's death had brought home to him that this war was real. That people he knew could be killed. He couldn't help but wonder if he would see Dick again.

"It's Luthor, all right," Barbara said confidently as they sat around the table at Wayne Manor.

"Are you sure, Barbara?" asked Clark. "I know Luthor's done some pretty despicable things, but surely even he doesn't want us to lose this war!"

"I know it seems a little odd, but everything points to him. There's definitely some 'creative' accounting going on there. The good news is that I don't think the government will have any problems holding LexCorp responsible for the fraud; the bad news is that I don't think there's any way they can tie it directly to Luthor." She grimaced slightly in exasperation. "He's covered his tracks really well, and while I've found some links, there's no way they'd be admissible in court."

"So you don't think it's possible someone else in LexCorp is setting Luthor up?" asked Lois.

"If someone else was trying to set him up, I'd think they'd do a better job of it," Barbara replied, smiling. "There're definite discrepancies between the manufacturing cost of the new Barracudas as reported to the Navy, and the manufacturing cost in LexCorp's internal files, but I'm still trying to find where the extra money ends up." She frowned in thought. "I'll keep looking. There're some coded files I'm still trying to figure out; I'm hoping there's something useful in them -- there's certainly enough security around them."

"So, in any event," summarized Bruce, "you expect the government has a good case to bring some sort of charges against LexCorp. Good."

"I'm sure they'll also be hit up with civil suits from the families of pilots who died after the new model was supposed to be introduced," mused Lois.

"That, of course, assumes the Navy will make any of this public," Dick commented dryly. When everyone else looked at him in shock, he continued, "Well, think about it -- we're in the middle of a war, and now the public finds out that the Navy didn't realize it was being defrauded of millions of dollars. Doesn't exactly build public confidence."

Lois asked indignantly, "How can they hide something as major as this?"

"Simple," Dick replied cynically. They don't charge LexCorp with anything, but instead claim LexCorp has broken a contract clause and must now pay a penalty. Or they use the 'broken clause' as an excuse to throw the project open for bids again. The words 'defraud' or 'embezzlement' are never mentioned."

"Are you saying Luthor and LexCorp could walk on this?" Barbara asked.

"I'm saying that it's possible. And, to be quite honest, I don't really care." Again, everyone looked shocked. The anger that Dick had felt that morning slipped into his voice as he continued. "What I'm most concerned about, and what I think the Navy will be most concerned about, is that in all likelihood, the Navy's representative at LexCorp was going along with this. That's the person I want to nail."

Clark and Bruce exchanged glances. Clark then said, almost tentatively, "But Dick, Luthor's the big fish, here. It's possible they could finally make a case against him, if the officer agreed to cooperate in exchange ..."

"No!" Dick sliced his hand sideways through the air in negation. "There is no way in hell they'll let him or her walk on this!"

"Dick, we have to think of the big picture," tried Bruce.

"No, Bruce! You need to think of the big picture!" Dick took a deep breath and tried to speak calmly. "I don't think you understand -- so Luthor stole some money, big deal; whoever this officer is, if he is guilty, he's betrayed his oath, and he's betrayed his fellow pilots. I wouldn't be surprised if they tried to work a treason charge in there somewhere."

He looked at the people at the table around him. He almost smiled in amusement at the identical dumbfounded looks on everyone's faces, although he was pleased to see a thoughtful expression begin to appear on Barbara's face as she considered what he said.

"Look, folks," he continued, "in my current line of work, we call your behavior, 'target fixated.' Even if you could get the officer's testimony, you'd be asking a jury to choose between a former United States president and a suborned naval officer. Who would you believe? Not to mention, even if Luthor were found guilty, I doubt he'd ever serve any prison time." Dick sighed. "I expect Luthor to act like the slime that he is. That's why the Navy has representatives at its contractors. What I don't expect is for officers charged with protecting the Navy's and their fellow pilots' interests to betray them. It comes down to the difference between a contract and an oath."

Chapter 10

Kiss me once, then kiss me twice
Then kiss me once again
It's been a long, long time
-- Sammy Cahn, 1945

Dick's internal clock was still skewed from having been on a different schedule in space, so for once, he was the early riser on Thursday morning. After getting dressed and starting breakfast, he allowed himself one brief moment of satisfaction -- or more correctly, revenge -- when he opened the blinds wide, pulled the covers off Barbara, and told her she had ninety minutes to get packed before their flight left.

"I told you, Dick! I can't possibly take off for a whole weekend again!" she grumbled, trying to grab the sheet back.

"Look, you'll have your laptop if anything really bad develops, and Tim volunteered to cover the regular stuff." Dick sighed in exasperation and decided if reasonable wasn't going to work, he would have to bring out the big guns. "Don't you want to spend a weekend with me before I go off to Houston?" he asked plaintively, trying to look as pitiful as he could. He must not have been too successful because Babs just started giggling. He was about to try stomping out of the room when she took advantage of his inattention to pull on the sheet he was still holding. The jolt knocked him off balance, and he fell on top of her.

For the next few moments, Barbara managed to make him forget all about plane flights and vacations. Finally though, he pulled away to look down into her green eyes.

"Y'know, sweetheart, unless you want Tim to see what you don't wear to bed, you really need to get moving."

"I thought you said we had ninety minutes," she replied huskily.

"That's until our flight leaves. Tim's going to be here in around," Dick brought his arm from underneath her back to look at his watch, "thirteen minutes. We figured you'd want some time to bring him up to speed on your current projects."

Barbara let out a small "eep" of dismay and then pushed Dick aside while she maneuvered into her chair. She raced to the bathroom muttering things under her breath that he figured he was better off not hearing. While she was taking her shower, he found her suitcase and began rummaging around in her dresser looking for appropriate clothing, whistling contentedly to himself.

Barbara was blowdrying her hair when Tim got there, but at least she had clothes on. It took about twenty minutes to bring Tim up to speed on the two missions that were about to go active and the five others that were pending. While they were talking, Dick brought in eggs, toast, and coffee, in between trips back and forth to load their luggage in the car. When he took away her coffee cup, Barbara knew it was time to leave. The traffic signal gods must have been smiling on them, because they made their flight to Corpus Christi, Texas with whole minutes to spare.

"Aren't we going the wrong way?" Babs asked in confusion as Dick drove north from the airport in their rental car, while all the signs for Padre Island pointed in the opposite direction.

"Actually, we're going to Port Aransas on Mustang Island. I went there once with some guys when I was at flight school in Houston. The guy who suggested it said it was a lot nicer than Padre Island and not as built up."

"So where are we staying?"

"At a hotel right on the beach. I called them up on Tuesday, and they were able to fit us in this weekend since the summer crowd hasn't really started yet."

"Dick ..." Barbara said hesitantly.

He glanced over at her. She had a tense, uncomfortable expression on her face. "Yes, Babs?"

"I'm ... just not sure about this whole beach thing. I mean ... I'm not going to be able to get around and ..."

Dick interrupted her. "Don't worry about it, sweetheart. I think I've got everything figured out. Trust me?" He glanced over at her again long enough to catch her gaze. Her face relaxed a bit, and she flashed him a brief smile. He looked back at the highway and decided to risk teasing her. "Besides, it's all your fault we're here, anyway! I mean, if you hadn't sent me that picture of you on a beach in such a skimpy swimsuit ..." He stopped when she whapped him on the arm.

He turned to try to make puppy-dog eyes at her, but his attempt quickly became a concerned frown as he saw the sunlight streaming in the window upon her arms. "Babs, if you'll reach into your carryon bag, that's where I packed the suntan lotion. I think you should put some on."

Startled, Barbara looked down at her exposed skin and then back up at Dick. "We're not even on the beach yet, Former Boy Wonder."

"Trust me -- that sun's a lot more intense than what you're used to. We've still got a bit of a drive ahead of us, and I don't know how much of a wait there'll be at the ferry." At her continued skepticism, he continued insistently. "Look, one of the guys I was with got sunburned his first thirty minutes here! And he wasn't a redhead! Please, Babs?"

"All right, all right! I just hate the sticky feeling." Babs brought out the suntan lotion and liberally applied it to her arms, neck, and nose.

"Thank you, sweetheart."

For the next several miles, their conversation consisted mainly of pointing out the various sights to each other. Finally, they started seeing the "Port Aransas Ferry" signs. A mile or so later, they saw the ferries themselves.

Dick smiled. "Looks like we're early for the weekend crowd. When I was here before, we had to wait almost an hour for the ferry." He laughed. "Actually, 'ferry' sure seems like a grandiose term for it. I mean, it does 'ferry' cars back and forth, but still ..."

As the ferryboat crewman waved him forward, Dick steered the rental car onto the ferry. He put the car in park and cut off the engine. In just a few minutes, the boat was full, and it began to pull away from the pier.

"Where are we being ferried to?" asked Babs.

"See that dock over there?" Dick pointed ahead of them about two hundred feet.

"That's it?! You could practically jump that far!"


"You're right -- 'ferry' does seem a little too grand! Sheesh!"

Dick made one wrong turn trying to find their hotel, but in a town as small as Port Aransas, he quickly discovered his error. After several miles of coastline interrupted by hotels and condominiums, he found their destination, Casa del Cortes. He asked Barbara to wait outside while he checked with the manager to see if his surprise was ready. It was! The manager told Dick to park by the large RV garage near the swimming pool. The manager met him there and opened up the garage. Dick got out of the car and helped Barbara into her wheelchair.

Dick could see the confusion on Barbara's face as the manager rolled out the surprise. "It's basically a miniature dune buggy with hand controls," Dick explained. He then thanked the manager for his help, and the manager gave him a guest key to the garage.

Barbara rolled over to small vehicle, as the confused expression was gradually replaced by astonishment. "How ... when ..." she stuttered.

"As I said, this was all your fault for sending me that picture," he said grinning. "A couple of months ago, I asked Tim to ask Harold if he could dream up some way for you to maneuver on a beach. We did some brainstorming by email, and this is what we came up with. After I saw the finished product, I was almost tempted to have Harold make one up for me."

It really was a cool-looking vehicle, Dick thought (if he did say so himself). Harold had taken the basic dune buggy design, reduced it in scale for a single driver, and then added the hand controls and other gizmos.

"When I made our reservations, I asked if I could ship this down ahead of time, and they agreed. Do you like it?" he asked, suddenly nervous.

"No, I love it! And look," she exclaimed as she rolled up to examine it more closely, "I can use the roll bar to move from my chair to the driver's seat! This is so cool!"

"Why don't we go change into our swimsuits, and you can take it for a spin?"

Barbara agreed enthusiastically, so Dick parked their rental car and grabbed their bags while she locked the dune buggy back in the garage just to be on the safe side. They found their room and quickly changed. Barbara did not give Dick any time to examine their room more closely.

"Come on, Grayson! We're burning daylight here, and I want to try out my new wheels!"

Mustang Island had a beautiful, quiet beach. The sand was a light gold color that was very soft underfoot, and the ocean was deep blue with whitecaps for accents. The sound of the ocean made a soothing backdrop, interspersed with the cries of the seagulls and the occasional crane. Every once in a while, a car or pickup would drive by, but overall their section of beach seemed almost deserted.

The dune buggy was everything Dick had hoped it would be. It ran on batteries that were replenished by discreetly placed solar panels, so it was very quiet. The little buggy had no trouble at all climbing over the dunes from the hotel down to the beach. The fat tires tossed up some loose sand, but not enough to bother him as he walked or jogged next to her. The really fun part came when they finally picked a nice spot for some serious sunbathing.

"Okay, sweetheart, after you turn off the engine, push the button that says, 'Braces.'" She did, and slim bracing poles protruded from the four corners of the buggy into the sand. Barbara raised her eyebrows at him. He smirked back. "Now, unbuckle your seatbelt and press the button that says, 'Ground.'"

Barbara couldn't help being startled when her seat started moving. It rose about twelve inches in the air and then began extending out the open driver's side. Once her seat was outside the buggy, it began lowering her until it was resting on the ground. She tentatively pushed herself off the seat and onto the waiting beach towel. She stared at Dick again who was currently involved trying to raise the large umbrella to give them some shade.

"Okay, now reach inside the rear wheel well -- man, that's hard to say quickly! -- and press the button you find there." When she did, the seat once more retracted itself into the dune buggy, as did the supports.

"I take it I just press the button again to have it fetch me?" she asked.

"Yep. That was all Harold's idea," he said, wanting to give credit where it was due. "My ideas kept overturning the buggy. He thought of the support beams."

"Well, I'm just going to have to figure out something especially nice to do for him when we ... I get back," she replied, her expression suddenly turning melancholy.

Dick's smile dimmed as well, thinking of the separation to come. He reached over to hug her, pulling her close. He tried to kiss her, but he forgot they were both wearing caps as protection from the sun. The brim of his cap collided with her forehead, startling both of them. Barbara started giggling. Dick tried glaring at her, but he couldn't keep a straight face either and began laughing himself. Finally, their laughter quieted, and Dick held her close again. Slowly and deliberately, Dick removed the cap from his head and then from Barbara's. Tipping her face back with a finger underneath her chin, he gave her a hard, very thorough, very intense kiss.

"That will teach you to laugh at your husband, Mrs. Grayson!"

Dick then lay down and held out his arm so that Barbara could lie down and rest her head on his shoulder. For a time, they just lay there, listening to the waves and enjoying the steady, cooling breeze coming off the ocean. Dick was so relaxed, he almost didn't hear Barbara's question.

"Did you have another nightmare last night?"

"Umm, yeah, I did. Sorry -- I didn't think I woke you."

She shrugged and placed a soft kiss on his chest. "I've become a pretty light sleeper since I started this whole Oracle gig. It's okay. Was it the same as the one you told me about before?"

"Actually, it was a new one. Let's just chalk it up to nerves over being an instructor," he replied, trying to close the discussion.

"You're worried about your students going off and getting killed," she said, in such matter-of-fact tones that he just stared down at her.

"Umm, yeah. How ... ?"

She raised her head to look at him. "I know you, Grayson," she said simply. "You're approaching teaching these pilots in the same way you lead a team: you hold yourself ultimately responsible for anything that goes wrong."

"Yeah, I guess so."

Barbara snuggled a little closer to him. "I thought of an analogy that I think might help you. It isn't perfect, but I think it fits. Tim came to you pretty early on for some special training, didn't he?"

"Uh huh. Bruce sent him to me when I was living in New York. Wanted me to teach Tim how to be his partner."9

"Okay, so did you angst like this over teaching him?"

"Not really. My main concern was to make sure he learned some of the things that Jason never did."

"So why didn't you worry about it?"

"'Cause I knew he was going back to Bruce, who would take care of him." He paused, starting to understand what Babs was getting at. "So you're saying, I'm not the only one responsible for these pilots -- they've got their flight leaders, their wingmen, their CAGs, etc."

"Exactly. Sure, you're going to do your best to teach them what they need to know to stay alive and do the job, but that's where your responsibility ends."

Dick mulled over what she said. "I think that makes sense. I need to stop thinking of them as team members and remember that they're students." He bent his head down and kissed her. "Thank you for the pep talk, Babs! I knew there was a reason I kept hanging around with you."

Barbara laughed and settled back against his shoulder. Together they watched as the sky above them slowly darkened as the sun set behind them.

No matter how much they might have wished otherwise, Sunday morning came at last. Solemnly, they packed their things, and Dick made arrangements for the manager to ship the dune buggy back to Gotham City. They had talked about driving to Houston together, and Barbara's flying from there back to Gotham. When they realized it was over a three-hour drive, they finally decided to fly out from Corpus -- Babs to Gotham and Dick to Houston.

Just before the initial boarding call was made for Barbara's flight, Dick managed to charm the (female) ticket agent into letting him accompany Babs down the ramp to the plane. Once there, he persuaded the (female) attendant to allow him to make sure Babs was settled comfortably.

"I'm certainly glad you use your powers for good and not for evil!" Babs said, trying to keep the conversation light.

"Hey! They just saw how much I'm in love with you and were suckers for romance," he replied, trying (and failing) to wear his usual devil-may-care grin. He gently lifted her from her wheelchair and held her in his arms. Realizing that their time was growing short, he kissed her passionately and tenderly, trying to convey just how much he loved her, and how much he was going to miss her. Finally though, he heard the sounds of other people entering the plane. He kissed her gently on her forehead and then on the end of her nose, which made her smile. He carefully placed her in her first-class seat.

"I love you sweetheart! I'll call you tonight, okay?"

"I love you, too."

He folded up her chair and gave it to the waiting attendant, and then hurried up the ramp and back into the terminal. Twenty-five minutes later, he watched as her plane took off, taking her away from him. He sighed and went to look for his own flight.

About seven weeks later, Barbara sat staring in disbelief. She had felt silly enough just buying the darn thing. She had run through every logical explanation for what was happening and had finally resorted to the (in her mind) illogical ones. Just to be on the safe side, since she didn't want to risk anyone's recognizing her, she had driven to the very outskirts of Gotham City to buy what she needed. She closed her eyes tightly, waited a few seconds, and then opened them again. Nope, it was still there. Sighing in resignation, she picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.

"Hello, Dr. Leslie? Could I come see you right away? I think I'm pregnant."

Chapter 11

Bless 'em all! Bless 'em all!
The long and the short and the tall!
Bless the instructors who teach us to dive,
Bless all our stars that we still are alive,
For if ever the engine should stall,
We're in for one hell of a fall;
No champagne or vi'lets for dead fighter pilots
So cheer up, my lads, Bless 'em all!
-- unknown, 1940s

Barbara sat in her leather seat, staring at the magazine in front of her without seeing it. The butterflies in her stomach had nothing to do with the slight turbulence the airplane was experiencing. Fortunately, for the sake of her nerves, Dick was back in Houston after having been at the Heinlein station on a training detachment. He had told her that except for a simulator duel he was competing in Friday evening, they would be able to spend the entire weekend together. She tried to collect her thoughts, but she kept going back to the conversation in Dr. Leslie Thompkins' office yesterday morning.

"You're definitely pregnant, Barbara! Congratulations! Although I am a little curious ... I thought I gave you a prescription for birth-control pills?"

"You did," she replied, her face reddening slightly in embarrassment. "But while Dick was on the Texas, I got out of the habit of taking them -- it just seemed silly under the circumstances. Then when he came back so unexpectedly, I just ... forgot about them altogether. Until this problem came up."

"Barbara," Dr. Leslie asked in some surprise, "you do want this baby, don't you?"

Barbara sat facing her friend. The shock was wearing off, and the amazing new reality was beginning to sink in. "Yes. Yes, I do want this baby," she decided. "It's just ... what's Dick going to think?" she asked plaintively.

"Dick is going to be over-the-moon about this, young lady! At least, until he starts going into overprotective-expectant-father-mode -- then he's going to drive you crazy."

Barbara smiled, feeling a little calmer. Yes, she was confident Dick would be happy to learn they were expecting a child. The problem was how to tell him.


Barbara looked around the busy terminal at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, trying to spot something resembling a taxi stand. Suddenly, she caught a glimpse of a familiar-looking man in a khaki uniform jogging and dodging through the concourse to meet her. She soon found herself lifted into a pair of strong arms as her husband tried to show her just how much he had missed her. Of course, she then felt obliged to reciprocate, to their mutual delight. Finally, they came up for air.

"Oh, Babs! I am so glad to see you!"

"I missed you so much! I didn't think you were going to be able to pick me up, though."

"The captain took pity on me and took over the end of my class." Dick tenderly put her back in her wheelchair. Pointing at the duffel bag next to it, he asked, "Do you have any more luggage, or is this it?"

"That's it."

Dick picked it up and helped "break trail" for her as they negotiated their way through the busy airport. He led her to the vehicle he was leasing while he was in Houston, a black, full-size Chevy pickup with an extended cab. Barbara laughed when she saw it.

"A pickup truck, Dick?!"

"Hey! I figured as long as I was in Texas, I might as well drive the same thing the natives do!" He lifted her up onto the seat and then stashed her chair in the back of the cab. They left the airport and started the drive down to the Johnson Space Center. Since it was an early Friday afternoon, even though Dick took the tollway that looped around the city, it still took quite a while to get from the airport in north Houston to their destination in far south Houston because of the traffic.

Since Dick was currently living in very spartan quarters at nearby Ellington Field, he had suggested that they stay in the Hilton that was right across from NASA. He quickly got them checked in at the hotel, and soon they were getting settled into their room. He certainly didn't let her spend much time looking around though -- after changing into his flight suit, Dick quickly hustled Barbara back down to the pickup. She knew the competition didn't begin for another two hours, but when she asked where they were going, he grinned at her.

"It's a surprise, Red."

"Dick ..." she said, warningly.

"You liked my last surprise, didn't you?"

She knew he meant the dune buggy, but she realized it could also apply to the results of her pregnancy test. Yes, she did like his surprises. Thinking of her little surprise inspired her to taunt him just a bit.

"Y'know, Grayson, you're not the only one who can surprise people." She gave him a mysterious little smile of her own but refused to answer any of his questions.

He had to stop his interrogation when they entered the grounds of the Space Center, so he could get a visitor's pass for Barbara. Once he got back in the truck, he apparently decided not to let her secret interfere with his secret because he didn't resume the questioning. Instead, he pointed out several of the sights as they slowly drove through the installation. After a few minutes, they pulled into a parking lot near a tall, blocky-looking building.

Dick transferred Barbara back into her chair and led her into the building. There was a pair of armed guards with metal detectors in the atrium, but Dick must have been known to them since they greeted him by name and let him pass. After a short ride on the elevator to the third floor, Barbara followed Dick down an ordinary-looking hallway until he stopped in front of a large open door. He managed to position himself so that he was standing in front of the room's sign.

"Here we are!" He gestured for her to go ahead of him into the room.

As soon as she entered, she knew where she was -- she'd certainly seen it often enough on the news and in the movies. "D..Dick?" she stuttered. "Is this really ...?"

"Yep! You are in the original Mission Control room. This is where they heard, 'The Eagle has landed' and 'Houston, we've had a problem,'" Dick was grinning broadly now. "I figured this room -- and the people who worked here -- might be called the 'ancestor' of a certain Oracle I know."

Barbara rolled around the room in a bit of a daze. She and Dick had entered on the lowest level. As she looked up, she saw the stair-stepped rows of flight-controller consoles and the glass-enclosed visitor areas. The room didn't feel abandoned, though; it seemed almost ... asleep, somehow. There were institutional-gray metal shelves against one wall that still contained manuals and clutter. It was as if everyone had only just left, and at any moment, the room would come alive again with people and the sound of voices from thousands of miles away in space. As she sat there, she could almost feel the adrenaline from the launches and splashdowns and crises this room had witnessed.

Without speaking, Dick gave her wheelchair a boost up the first step so that she could look at the actual consoles. Here, the true state of the room became more evident as the old CRT monitors had been removed as had most of the electronic "guts." It was still fascinating to see the cryptically-labeled buttons and the rotary-style phone dials at each station. She was slightly baffled, though, by the pneumatic tube canisters that she saw scattered about. She pointed to one as she looked at Dick with her eyebrows raised.

"As I understand it, those were for sending papers back and forth between the data rooms and here." He smiled. "One of the guys also told me that they were sometimes used to send sandwiches and stuff as well, since these guys were on duty for twelve hours at a stretch."

They explored the room some more, and Dick told her stories he had heard from the old Mission Control hands who still worked at JSC. He took her over to the shelves where he pointed out mission logs still there from the Apollo era. Eventually though, he told her they needed to be going, or he would be late.

As they left the room, Barbara grabbed his hand and pulled him around to her side. Giving him a kiss, she said, "Thank you, Dick! You were right, I do like your surprises!"

Dick next drove them over to a large, warehouse-sized building. This was where most of the fighter training went on. It had been built soon after war had been declared, as had similar facilities at other NASA centers. While regular military bases were adequate for basic training, the military and the space agency agreed that NASA, especially the Johnson Space Center, was the logical choice for training the new forces for space. As they walked inside the cavernous space, Dick smiled as a tall, thin man with salt-and-pepper hair came walking toward them. Dick stiffened to attention as the older man stopped in front of them. The flight-suited man shook his head in amused exasperation.

"As you were, Grayson!"

"Aye, sir," Dick grinned. "As you've probably assumed, this is my wife, Barbara. Sweetheart, this is my CO, Captain Wanderman."

Barbara held out her hand to the captain, who clasped it gently, but firmly.

"Welcome to Houston and JSC, Mrs. Grayson! It's a pleasure to meet the woman brave enough to take on this yahoo," he said, jerking his thumb at Dick.

"Thank you for letting me watch the competition, Captain," she replied as they made their way to the simulators. "Richard's told me about them, but I never thought I'd be able to watch!"

Soon after Dick had arrived in Houston, he and several of the other instructors had decided they needed to keep up their skills (i.e. they were bored), so in the evenings, they used the simulators to engage in mock duels against each other. When the captain had heard about it, he gave them his official blessing. After a couple of weeks, he started "encouraging" the other instructors to take part as well as "suggesting" that the trainees watch. In return, the instructors asked him to act as referee and "mission planner," and the informal duels became a tournament of sorts, with sessions once a week or so, as their schedules permitted.

Dick led Barbara past the simulators themselves and into the small auditorium that connected to the simulator area. It was a small room that didn't look as if it would hold more than sixty people, and it was already filling up. Dick looked around for a few seconds and then led Barbara near one of the clusters of pilots.

"Hibson! I need to speak with you!"

A blonde, slightly-built young woman, presumably Hibson, nodded and walked over to Dick and Barbara. Dick introduced the two women.

"Babs, this is Lt. Susan Hibson, one of my trainees. Suze, this is my wife, Barbara." The two women shook hands and murmured greetings. Dick continued, "I've got to go get ready. Babs, if you need anything, just ask Susan. Lieutenant, if you can possibly keep Timmons and Bergren from either bothering Barbara or embarrassing themselves more than usual, I will be in your debt." He grinned at her reluctant nod and turned to Barbara. He gave her a quick, thorough kiss and then walked out of the room.

"Timmons and Bergren?" Barbara asked with a grin.

Hibson sighed. "'God's Gift to Women' -- in their own minds, anyway. Oh, they're nice enough guys, I guess. And at least they do take 'No' for an answer ... eventually. But they can be rather obnoxious, especially when they're together."

"Ah," Babs replied, understanding. "I've generally found that most guys are more obnoxious in a group than individually," she said, thinking of a number of choice Dick/Tim exchanges.

Susan smiled and led Barbara to what she claimed was the "best spot in the house" for watching the simulator battles and then sat down next to her. She explained that once the duels started, a holographic projector would show them a representation of what the instructors were doing. By this time they had been joined by four other pilots, and Susan introduced each one to Barbara as they were also trainees of Dick. None of them were the notorious Timmons or Bergren, though.

A few minutes before the session was scheduled to begin, Barbara heard two men enter the room laughing and talking loudly. From the resigned expression on Susan's face, these must be the two problem children. Barbara's red hair proved to be a veritable magnet, as she soon found herself being rather blatantly stared at by two average-looking brown-haired young men.

Before they could say anything to Barbara, Susan began the introductions, "Ma'am, this is Lt. Timmons and Lt. Bergren. Guys, this is Commander Grayson's wife."

As she must have hoped, Hibson's firmly-delivered introduction short-circuited whatever comments they had originally intended to say, and the two men stammered out a general greeting. Flustered, they then slunk off to sit at the other end of the row. Susan heaved a small sigh of relief. Barbara managed not to burst out laughing.

The lights in the room dimmed, and the holo projector displayed two sets of star fields. Captain Wanderman's voice came through the speakers, explaining that the first contest would be a two-on-two battle. The holo projector showed the four teams: Blue versus Yellow, and Red versus Green; Dick was Blue 1. Wanderman informed the instructors and the audience that each pilot who succeeded in taking out another pilot would receive one point. The pilot who was taken out and his wingman (if he still had one) would each lose a point.

After a lot of jockeying for position, Barbara was happy to see that Dick's team won, and Dick and his teammate earned one point apiece. After a short break, the teams were switched, and the sorties began again. This time, Dick's wingman made a misjudgment and was eliminated by Red 1. Dick, though, was able to "kill" both Red 2 and then Red 1, so he ended up with one point for the match.

Wanderman explained the rules for the final sortie. "Now we'll go one-on-one -- Blue against Green, Yellow against Red, odds against odds, evens against evens. This one's going to be a little different, though. Blues and Yellows, you'll be the Defenders; Greens and Reds are the Aggressors." The holo projector now shifted to four separate star fields. A small purple sphere, about the same size as the Barracuda icons, appeared in the center of each field. "This is what you're defending; we'll call it Alpha. Here're the rules: Aggressors must take out Alpha; it doesn't matter whether you eliminate the Defender first or not. Defenders, you must eliminate the Aggressors. This is a zero-sum game, people -- winners get one point; losers lose one point. Also, to make things a little more realistic, you are all starting out with fifty percent power and oxygen."

Barbara watched as Dick's small blue icon faced off with the little Green 1 icon. After several minutes of jockeying went by, she suddenly realized why the scene looked so familiar to her. Dick was using a strategy she had often seen him use as Nightwing -- staying close to the opponent but using the opponent's aggressiveness to lead him away from the vulnerable Alpha. Every maneuver Dick made took them slightly farther from the sphere in the center of the field. Unfortunately, he was also starting to get dangerously low on power. As his power levels got closer and closer to zero, Dick set up what Barbara recognized would be his final maneuver -- he left himself wide open, knowing Green 1 wouldn't be able to resist taking the shot. He used that moment to fire off a shot of his own, and because the two ships were so close together, Green 1 was not able to evade the shot. Both ships "exploded." The holo projector then put a little flashing "Winner" banner next to Dick's name.

"Well, that's certainly a comfort!" Barbara muttered darkly to herself. She knew that Dick had done everything he could to win the battle and stay alive. She wasn't an expert, but she guessed if he'd had his normal levels of power and oxygen, he might have succeeded. In the end, though, Dick won the only way he could. She just wished he could have won and not given her more fuel for her nightmares.

Chapter 12

There'll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow, when the world is free.
-- Nat Burton and Walter Kent, 1941

After changing out of his flight suit, Dick took Barbara to the nearby Olive Garden for dinner. Barbara noticed he looked at her a little strangely when she joined him in ordering iced tea with her dinner instead of wine, but her mentioning how hot it was outside seemed to satisfy him. When their tea arrived, she caught him smiling at her.

"What's that smirk for, Grayson?"

"Just remembering the last time I saw you order tea," he replied.

Suddenly, she remembered and started giggling. He laughed along with her. Their first morning on Mustang Island, they had ordered breakfast at the hotel, and Barbara had ordered tea. She was astonished when the waitress brought her a tall glass of iced tea. When she asked the waitress about it, the young girl blushed and confessed that she was new at her job -- she kept forgetting to ask customers if they wanted hot or iced tea, since she'd previously never known anyone who drank hot tea.

"Yeah, that was pretty funny. I guess we both learned something."

Barbara considered telling Dick her news during dinner but eventually decided she wanted someplace more private. After leaving the restaurant, he drove them back to the hotel, and the two of them went for a stroll along the marina. When they stopped to look across the water, Barbara thought the time was right.

"I'm not sure if my surprise will please you as much as yours has pleased me, but I certainly hope so."

Sitting on a bench beside her, Dick turned to her expectantly, his eyebrows creeping up his forehead.

"I'll just tell it to you straight -- I'm going to have a baby." She wished she could have managed to take a picture of Dick's face, but perhaps she could find some old footage of him being cold-cocked -- the expressions were almost identical.

"You're pregnant?!"


"How ... uh ... I mean, I didn't think you could! I mean, I thought you were on the pill," he stuttered.

"I was. I stopped taking them while you were gone 'cause I didn't need them, and then when you came back so suddenly, ..." She shrugged nervously.

"Wow. You and I are going to have a baby." His face lost its shocked expression as his eyes lit up, and a smile started to appear on his face. The smile became a mega-watt grin as he lifted her out of her chair and began to "dance" with her around the boardwalk. "We're going to have a baby!" he excitedly told a security guard who had walked over to see what the ruckus was about. The guard smiled at them indulgently and waved.

Dick sat back down on the bench, this time with Barbara in his lap. She leaned her head against his cheek and listened as his breathing gradually returned to normal. She was listening so hard, that she almost missed his next question.

"I guess I should've asked this first, but how do you feel about this, sweetheart?"

She sat up enough to look at him, and the tender look on his face nearly brought tears to her eyes. She glanced away. "I'll be honest, Dick -- I'm thrilled, but I'm also scared." When she looked back at him, she saw his eyebrows lift in a silent question. "I mean, the whole idea of our actually having a baby is just incredible, but then there's that thing," she said, pointing to her wheelchair. "How can I be any kind of ... of mother while I'm stuck in that contraption?" she exclaimed in disgust. "How am I supposed to look after a child like this? It'll never work, mmrff ..."

Dick's finger across her lips put a stop to her rant. He smiled at her -- but not mockingly. It was the smile that always made her feel loved and cherished.

He said softly, "I know this won't be easy for you, and you don't know how much I wish I could lighten your load. But I know you, sweetheart. You are so strong, Babs -- sometimes, I don't think you realize just how strong you are. You can do this. We can do this."

"You think so?"

"Yes, I do. I just wish ..." Dick's voice faded out for a second. He continued a little unevenly, "I just wish I could be there with you through this. Damnit!" He took a deep breath, let it out, and went on, "It just doesn't seem right that I get you pregnant, and then I have to leave you to bear all this alone!" He hugged her fiercely.

"'Bear' this alone?" she asked, trying to lighten the mood. "I thought you'd given up the puns, Robbie."

"I'm not sure I'd call it a pun." Dick managed a laugh. "But, I guess, some things just never go away."

"I just hope our child doesn't inherit your sense of humor!"

He kissed the tip of her nose. "A true genius is never appreciated in his own household." He looked into her eyes and asked in a serious tone, "Now, what did Dr. Leslie have to say about all this? Does she think you'll have any problems?"

Barbara smiled. "Leslie said everything looked fine. She wants me to see an obstetrician friend of hers just to be on the safe side, but she said I should have a fairly normal pregnancy." Her smile turned into a rueful frown as she continued, "She really doesn't want me living by myself for much longer, though."

Dick's head jerked up at this. "What's the problem?" he asked in a worried tone. "Is she expecting trouble?"

"She's just concerned that as I get ... heavier, it will take more and more effort for me to get around." Barbara smiled. "She asked me to imagine a very pregnant me transferring from the bed to the chair. I told her she'd made her point."

"So what do you want to do?"

"I'm thinking of asking Dinah if she could move in with me for a while," she said tentatively. Barbara considered the woman known as Black Canary to be one of her best friends -- certainly her best female friend, but this request definitely seemed above and beyond the call of friendship.

"I think that's a great idea!" Dick said emphatically. "I'm sure you'd be much more comfortable with her than with Alfred or your dad. I think you should also talk to Harold," he continued. "Maybe he could design something like the dune buggy for your chair."

She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "I don't like powered chairs!"

"Just for the duration, Babs," he replied soothingly and kissed her nose again. "If it could keep you from having to rely so much on someone else to get around, wouldn't that be worth it?"

She grumbled to herself, but she realized he was right. She would certainly feel less guilty about asking Dinah to stay with her if she could still maintain most of her independence.

"So, Babs -- maybe we should go back to the room now. I know it's been a long day for you." Holding her in his arms, he stood up, walked over to her wheelchair, and put her down.

She looked up at him and gave him a quelling glare. "I know what you're getting at, Former Boy Wonder. I'm not tired, and I'm not an invalid." She did, however, allow him to lead her back to the hotel. She figured they could compromise -- they would go to bed but hold off on the actual 'resting' part for a while. She ducked her head to hide her anticipatory smile.

"Speaking of overprotective fathers, ... have you told Bruce yet?" Dick asked her with a grin.

"Nope. Just you and Leslie know so far."

"Oooh! Can we tell Bruce and Alfred tonight?" he asked as they entered the hotel lobby.

"Dick ..." she groaned, not trusting the wicked-looking smile on his face.

"Hey!" he replied, trying to look innocent, "Can't a guy just want to share some great news with his dad?" At her disbelieving glare, he grinned. They were alone in the elevator, but even so, he leaned down and said softly, "You gotta admit -- it's not every day we can tell the Bat we know something he doesn't!"

"Hi, Alfred! Is Bruce around, or has he already gone out?" Barbara asked. She and Dick were cuddled together on the bed holding the laptop between them so that they could both be seen.

"Hello, Miss Barbara. And Master Dick -- how wonderful to see you, sir!" Alfred exclaimed in delight. "Yes, Master Bruce is still here; he's been waiting on some test results, I believe. Just a moment."

He disappeared from the screen, but they could hear him calling to Bruce in the background. A few moments later, they saw Bruce's taciturn face appear on the monitor. A small, but real smile of pleasure brightened his face.

"Hello, Barbara. Dick! It's good to see you, chum! How are you doing?"

"Hi, Bruce!" Dick replied. "Since Babs was down here, I figured I'd take advantage of her special equipment and give you guys a call." Dick told Bruce about the joys of trying to train young men and women who already thought they knew everything, and Bruce managed not to smirk too much. Dick had done some fast thinking on the best way to break the news, so he made sure to keep the conversation steered in the direction he wanted. Finally, the moment came.

"Hey, I can tell you're laughing up there! I was a model student!"

That was too much for Bruce; he actually started laughing out loud. "Sure, you were, Dick. You just keep telling yourself that."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Listen, there was one other reason I called." Dick forced himself to assume a serious expression. "I just learned of a new threat that you need to be aware of, since it's headed in your direction. From what I've seen, I think it's going to require some new skills on your part, and even Alfred may need to brush up on some things, I don't know." It was hard, but Dick thought he managed to keep his excitement out of his voice and his face. From the intent look on Bruce's face, it appeared as if he succeeded.

"What is it, Dick? What's wrong?"

"I'm afraid Babs has told me that the world will soon be facing the arrival of ... our child. How are you at changing diapers?"

As he and Barbara laughed delightedly at the stunned expression on Bruce's face, Dick was glad he'd had the idea of recording the whole conversation. The picture of a completely boggled Batman was one that would stay with him for a long time, but a physical reminder would be fun, too.

Dick closed the laptop and reached over Barbara to put it on the nightstand on her side of the bed. Of course, the maneuver left him lying on top of her, which was also part of his plan. As they smiled at each other, he gently brushed back a lock of hair from her face.

"In all of the excitement, I think I forgot to mention just how much I love you, Mrs. Grayson." He kissed her, slowly and thoroughly and then pressing kisses along her cheekbones and down to her neck. He could feel her hands reaching under his t-shirt to caress the long muscles of his back, and he groaned, trying to get even closer to her.

"I love you too, Mr. Grayson," she replied throatily. "But I think we're entirely too overdressed for this occasion."

He let her pull his t-shirt over his head while he concentrated on unbuttoning the sleeveless cotton top she had been wearing. Moments later, they were lying skin against skin, and Dick began exploring her body with his kisses. He was slightly disappointed (although he had known it intellectually) to find that there were no changes in Barbara's body to reflect the life growing inside of her.

"You can't tell anything yet," she said.

He smiled at her apparent mind-reading abilities. This woman knew him better than anyone else ever had. He made his way slowly back up her body until he was looking into her eyes once more.

"So how did you know? I mean, what made you suspect you were pregnant?"

"It wasn't like those women who are violently ill every morning for a month, but can't figure out why! It was just I didn't feel quite right. And then I started noticing the slight nausea in the morning and that I just seemed to be tired more than usual. That's when I realized I was ... 'late,' as they say." An embarrassed smile stole over her face. "Once the idea occurred to me, I must have argued with myself for a week before I finally bought a pregnancy test."

He smiled at her teasingly, "I have to admit, I do think it's kinda funny that this all happened because the 'all-knowing Oracle' forgot to take her pills." He broke off as she jabbed him in the side. "Hey! That's the father of your child you're poking!" In retaliation he started tickling her. Of course, since neither of them had any clothes on, the tickling soon became another form of touching, and the laughter became moans of pleasure of another sort.

Much later, Dick lay on his back while Barbara rested her head on his shoulder and lay against his side. In the quiet darkness, he finally felt able to ask the question he had had since she first told him. "Sweetheart? Are you glad or sorry that you forgot to take your pills?"

"I have to confess I'm kinda glad to have had my hand forced. Having your baby has certainly crossed my mind over the years, but now I have a hunch I would have chickened out of any sort of discussion with you."

He felt her long fingers caress his face as she continued, "I know you would never have brought it up unless I did first. You've always seemed to know just when to push me about my ... handicaps and when to back away. But I think having children would be one area that you would have had to push me towards, and I know you never would for fear of hurting me."

She drew his head around for a tender kiss. "The idea that I have a part of you growing inside me, that I can be a mother to your child, is so wonderful, I'm amazed that I don't spend all my time either laughing or crying. Thank you for such an incredible gift -- one that's even better for having arrived so unexpectedly."

He knew she felt the tears running down his cheeks as he rolled over to hold her tightly in his arms. "I'm the one who's been given the gift, Barbara," he said huskily. "Over the years we've know each other, I would often think it was impossible for me to love you more than I did, but the love kept growing. When you married me, I knew I was the luckiest guy in the world, and I was so afraid that one day you would wake up and come to your senses. Now, I know what it truly is -- I've been blessed. And our child will be a tangible and physical symbol of that blessing. Thank you, sweetheart!"

Chapter 13

When we went to the field of war and tae the weapon shaw,
Wi' true design to tae serve our king and chase our faes awa'
Lords and lairds came there bedeen and wow gin they were sma'
While pipers played fae right to left, fy, furich whigs awa'.
-- traditional, 1788

Dick sat in his cramped office looking down at the paper in front of him. This was one of his favorite times of the day, when he could imagine himself sitting and talking with Barbara. The Chaffee was so far away from Earth, that letters and emails took about the same time to reach their destination, so ever since they had deployed three months ago, Dick had gotten in the habit of writing a little something to his wife most evenings. When the supply ship docked, he would bundle the whole thing together and send it. One was expected to dock in less than an hour, so Dick was putting the finishing touches on his current letter.

I promise you sweetheart, that I had nothing to do with Bruce's hovering. I mean, remember who we're talking about here! Personally, I lean toward the theory that Dinah's presence might have something to do with his constant visits. The man does believe in multi-tasking, after all.

When you asked about the Skipper and the crew, I finally remembered that I'd never told you about them. Sorry about that! Here's a brief description:

As you know, the captain is Commander Honor Harrington10. I really think you'd like her, she reminds me a little of our "wonder-ful" Princess Diana (personality-wise, anyway) -- no-nonsense, a little stern, and a natural leader. She does have a sense of humor, but she doesn't show it much. We've got a lot of what I call, "nuggets and knotheads" on this ship: crew that have either never been in space before or who were not really wanted on their last ships. She and the XO are doing a fantastic job of turning them into a unified team. And since I know you're curious about what she looks like (especially after my comment about Diana J), she's very tall, with short dark hair and brown eyes. She's not pretty, but she's certainly not ugly either -- I heard McKeon say she had "a kind of spare elegance," and I think that fits.

Next, we have the Executive Officer, Lt. Commander Alistair McKeon. He's senior to me (well, just about every LCDR in the Navy is senior to me, after all), but he's a very friendly, very approachable guy -- as long as you do your job and don't make trouble for the captain. He complements the Skipper very well that way. They make a good team. He's also tall, about the same height as Harrington, with dark brown hair and gray eyes. He's a little on the stocky side, or maybe it's just that he's heavily-built.

I think I already told you about Andy, but in case I haven't, my XO is Lt. Andrew LaFollett. He certainly doesn't fit the typical fighter pilot mold since he's tall, black, and has a long knife scar going down the right side of his face. He actually used to be in an LA gang until his mother persuaded him to join the Navy. Once he got in, he ended up going to college and majoring in philosophy, of all things. He then applied for the fighter pilot program and turned out to be a natural pilot. He also has an evil sense of humor.


Startled, Dick looked up to see his CO standing in the doorway of his office, almost as if his writing had summoned her. He started to stand up. "Hi, Skipper! What can I do for you?"

She waved him to sit down. "It's okay, Dick. The supply ship just got in, and Alistair's handling the loading and unloading. He was passing out some of the mail, and I offered to bring yours by on the way to my quarters." She looked at him impishly as she put a large package on his desk.

Dick grinned back. "Oh, yes, I am so on the way to your office from the boat bay!" Actually, they were in opposite directions. "And I'm sure the fact that this looks like one of my wife's care packages has nothing to do with it!" One thing about Honor that Dick had left out of his description was that she had a monumental sweet tooth. He had courteously offered her one of Barbara's brownies once, and ever since then, Honor had managed to be on hand whenever Dick got a package from Gotham City.

Honor winked at him. "Just wanted you to know who your friends were, Dick! Alistair said the boat should be ready to leave in about thirty minutes." She smiled and walked out the door, back the way she had come.

Dick smiled to himself as he opened the package. Yes, Honor was interested in the brownies, but she also knew that he liked to read any letters from Barbara before he mailed his current one. By bringing him his mail, she had given him a few extra minutes to do so.

He saw that the box contained the usual goodies -- cookies, books, CDs, and the aforementioned brownies. Ah! There they were! Letters! Dick pulled the bundle from the box and quickly flipped through the envelopes. One from Bruce, one from Alfred, two from Tim (one of them on official S.T.A.R. Labs stationery, no less), ... there! A nice, fat letter from Babs!

Dick sat back in his chair and hurriedly opened the envelope. He skimmed over it, looking for anything that needed immediate comment. Later, he would settle in for a nice thorough read. His eyes and his thoughts skittered to a stop as they got near the end.

I went in for a checkup today. They ran some tests -- everything's fine, don't worry -- and did a sonogram. The last two times we've done this, the technician wasn't able to tell whether I'm carrying a girl or a boy. This time, your child cooperated, and she was able to tell. Brace yourself, Dad, we're going to have a girl! I'm enclosing the relevant sonogram picture but don't feel bad if you can't make everything out; I can't either. I just nod and smile as the technician points out this and that feature. The main thing is we're going to have a daughter, and she's healthy!

Dick stopped reading and just sat for a moment. He and Babs were going to have a little girl! Wow.

Suddenly remembering that time was slipping away, he read the rest of the letter. There wasn't much, just that since they now knew it was a girl, Dinah wanted to go ahead and plan for a baby shower next month to which Babs had reluctantly agreed. Dick smiled and returned to his own unfinished letter.

I just got your letter. A girl!! I wish I could tell you just how excited I am by this. I know I've always said the usual, "As long as it's healthy" stuff, but I'll confess that I've been secretly hoping for a little girl. I don't know whether it's because of Roy's daughter, Lian, or what, but I can't wait! I have a sneaking suspicion that I'm going to be one of those fathers who is completely wrapped around his little girl's finger.

Speaking of wrapping, I need to wrap this up -- the supply ship is going to leave in ten minutes, and I want this letter on board. I know you get tired of hearing this, but please be careful, honey! Do what Doc Leslie tells you to do. I wish I could hold you and tell you how much I love you, but I hope you can read that in this letter.



He quickly folded the papers and tucked them inside a pre-addressed envelope. Dashing out the doorway, he ran full-tilt to the boat bay. Lt. Commander McKeon, a bachelor, laughed at him, but he good-naturedly helped Dick get his letter included in the outgoing mail bag.

"Whew! That was cutting it close! Thanks, Al," Dick said gratefully, as they watched the supply ship being tractored to the bow airlock for launching.

"You're welcome, Richard. But it was really just enlightened self-interest," the older man replied.

"Oh, really?"

"Sure! If your wife got mad at you, she might stop sending the brownies. If she stopped sending brownies, the Skipper would be impossible to live with, especially since the supply ship was my responsibility. Thus, her wrath would fall on me. So, it's in my best interest to make sure your wife stays happy!"

Dick, who was laughing heartily by this point, managed to sputter out, "Oh, I see! I'll be sure to keep that in mind when I'm passing out brownies, then."

As the two men walked together down the passageway, Dick managed to get his laughter under control. When they stopped in front of the elevator, he turned to McKeon. "The reason I was late was because Barbara found out something about the baby. We're going to have a girl!" he beamed.

McKeon shook Dick's hand. "Congratulations, man! That's certainly great news to hear!"

The elevator doors opened, and McKeon stepped inside. Dick walked back to his office. He planned to put his feet up on his desk, eat some of Alfred's chocolate chip cookies, and thoroughly read the letter from his wife. After delivering some brownies to the Skipper's steward, of course.

"Attention on deck!" McKeon called out as Honor entered the briefing room.

"As you were, people," Honor replied and waited for them to be seated around the table. She looked at the officers assembled there, and a fierce smile broke out on her face. "Well, according to our new orders, ladies and gentlemen, the stalemate is over!"

As the dozen or so officers in the room sat in stunned amazement, she instructed the table to display a holographic representation of their section of space. The vast Ch'ton minefield was lit up in yellow, and small red icons denoted known Ch'ton colony worlds and bases that it protected.

"We've been recalled from patrol duties to rejoin Admiral Cortez's task force." A small blob of blue icons appeared on the projection. "Once we're all assembled, we will go through the mine field and launch an attack on Ophidia, one of the Ch'ton's oldest colony worlds." Her smile dissolved into a look of grim determination.

"To be more precise, we will launch an attack at the military forces based near Ophidia. We are not, repeat not to attack the planet directly. To put it bluntly, people, we are going to be bait."

"For whom, ma'am?" Dick asked.

A large, red blob, representing the Ch'ton fleet, appeared on the holo projection. "For that, Mr. Grayson. We have to present a threat serious enough for the Ophidian base to call in for reinforcements from the Ch'ton Home Fleet, which is their closest source of aid."

"And once they do?" McKeon asked in turn.

A large, blue blob appeared on the other side of the mine field. As they watched, it split into two pieces: one section moved to join up with the existing blue icons at Ophidia; the other, larger piece moved "behind" the Ch'ton force. "Our job is to keep the main fleet occupied while the bulk of our force works to catch them in a pincer maneuver."

She looked directly at each person seated around the table and continued, "I want to repeat again, just so everyone understands: we will not launch any attacks directly against Ophidia itself. In fact, my orders are clear -- should the base be more lightly guarded than we think, we are to scrub the mission."

"If it's more lightly guarded, ma'am?" asked Lt. Stromboli in confusion.

"CAG, you were there when we captured Boondock, correct?" Honor asked Dick.

"Yes, ma'am," he replied solemnly. "Midway, too."

"Would you explain the reasoning behind our orders to Lt. Stromboli, please?"

"Yes, ma'am," Dick said in resignation. He turned to face the lieutenant. "Max, perhaps you're aware that when we attacked Boondock, the queen Ch'ton was killed?"

"I thought it was an accident?" Stromboli replied.

"It was. What we discovered later was that the entire population committed suicide after she died. When it was time to attack Midway, we were told to be really careful about attacking the government buildings. We were being so careful, the queen and her ... council, advisors, what-have-you, were able to escape in a fast ship. Their leaving somehow triggered another mass suicide."

"But isn't it our job to destroy the enemy?" asked Lt. Commander Santos, the Chaffee's engineer.

"Dom, I didn't sign up to load children into mass graves, no matter whose children they were. That's what we all ended up doing on Midway, and I hope to God I never have to do something like that again." Dick looked around the table. "Last I heard, the psych guys thought it was some sort of cultural conditioning, but they didn't know how to stop it. From these orders, I'd say they still don't know."

McKeon turned to Honor. "So as I understand it, Skipper, we have to be strong enough to cause them to holler for help, but not so strong that they just give up and run. Then we have to hang on once their cavalry gets there until our guys show up."

"That's it in a nutshell, XO." She gave them another of her fierce smiles. "We're going to be in the hotseat, people, I won't deny it. But I have every faith that you and the rest of our crew will do your jobs to the best of your ability and beyond. Now let's be about it."

Chapter 14

It's of an American frigate the "Richard" by name
Mounted forty-four guns, and from New York she came.
A-cruising down the channel of Old England's fame
With a noble commander, Paul Jones was his name.
-- traditional, 1779

"Okay, people -- listen up!"

In the Chaffee's gym, Dick stood looking out over the assembled pilots. The group was too large to fit into the pilots' regular briefing room, and a make-shift area had been created in the gym. It had none of the fancy imaging equipment of the other room, so Dick turned on the overhead projector.

"As you can see from this chart, they've divided up the space around the enemy station into quadrants. The McCain has this one," he said, pointing to one quarter slice. "Lady Lex has these two, and this one's ours."

Like the Chaffee, the John S. McCain was a "jeep" or escort carrier; the Lexington was a full-size fleet carrier with more than twice the fighter strength of the smaller ships.

"We'll be going in two waves," Dick continued. "I'll be leading Divisions One and Four; Andy will have Two and Three. We will keep rotating until the Ch'ton's Home Fleet shows up, at which point we will break off to form an apparent retreat back to the ship. In case you haven't figured it out by now, it's gonna be a long day."

Dick put on a transparency showing a close-up of their quadrant. The planet Ophidia was at one corner; the military station was at the other. Around the planet, he had drawn two wide rings, one red and one yellow.

"I want to remind you again, we are not attacking the planet itself. Accordingly, Waterloo Yellow," he pointed to the yellow, outer circle on the overhead, "has been set at 30,000 miles from Ophidia; Waterloo Red is 20K. If you get inside 10K, the Bugs will be the least of your worries -- just go ahead and let the enemy kill you and save me the trouble." He stared down the few pilots who laughed because they thought he was joking.

He turned off the projector and held up a piece of paper. "I have a memo here from Admiral Cortez's staff. They want me to tell you to avoid being too aggressive because they are," he continued in a slightly sing-song tone, "'concerned that such action might cause a premature state of panic among the enemy and precipitate an early retreat.' Okay, I've told you."

Dick took the paper in both hands and ripped it in two. "Now my instructions to you are to fly the same way you always do. Except for Rabbit -- you should fly better." While the rest of the room laughed, he winked at Lt. JG Wesley "Rabbit" Matthews, who was one of the best pilots in the squadron and was Dick's own wingman.

"You let Andy and me worry about this," Dick said, holding up the torn memo. "If you hear one of us order you to pull back, you are to disengage from the enemy as safely and as quickly as you can. And don't give me any crap about 'Just a few more minutes.'" He leveled a mock glare around the room. "Your mother didn't buy that excuse, and neither will I."

He gave them a few moments to absorb everything while he looked around the room, trying to catch each man's or woman's eye to gauge how he or she would respond to the coming fight. "When you get right down to it, this is a simple mission: take on the enemy, look out for your wingman, and don't go into Waterloo Red. So don't do anything stupid, all right, people? When this is over, the only letter I want to write is a nice, long, steamy one to my wife."

Dick and his Barracuda sat poised on the launch deck, waiting for Commander Harrington to give the word that the ship was in position. He looked at his picture of Barbara in her bikini and grinned. She had utterly refused to send him a new picture now that she was starting to "show." When he had told her that he wanted the picture to make the whole baby thing seem more real to him, she had written that she was enduring enough reality for both of them. He had briefly entertained the notion of enlisting either Dinah's or Tim's help in getting a picture taken anyway, but he decided the potential fallout of Barbara's wrath wasn't worth it.

He sighed. Wasn't the Skipper ever going to give them the signal? He hated waiting. As if his thoughts had conjured her, he heard her soprano voice in his ear.


"Yes, Skipper?"

"We're in position. You may launch when ready. Godspeed, Commander."

"Thank you, ma'am!"

Unlike pilots flying off surface ships, fighter pilots in space had neither gravity nor oceans to worry about, so there was no need for a steam catapult to send them flying off the deck, going from zero to one hundred sixty miles per hour in less than three seconds. Under normal, non-combat conditions, space fighters could leave the ship at a leisurely pace and accelerate once they were clear of the airlock. In combat conditions, however, it was vital that ships be launched as quickly as possible, so fighters left the space carriers at something approaching the speeds used by their seagoing brethren.

Dick signaled Rabbit and brought the power levels on his fighter up to launch levels. After a few moments, he double-checked his instruments and saluted the airlock officer -- the signal that he was ready to fly. The outer airlock doors sprang open, and Dick and his wingman bolted out of the ship with enough acceleration to push them deep into the seats of their cockpits.

Once the entire wave had launched, the twenty-four ships streamed off toward the large Ch'ton military installation. According to reconnaissance information acquired for the attack, the sprawling complex was a loose conglomeration of colonial defense forces, fleet repair and refit facilities, and a large-capacity shipyard, all approximately the same distance from Ophidia as Mars was from Earth. The Chaffee had been given the quadrant that included the repair and refit yards. No matter what else happened, Dick had his eye on destroying that facility.

"CAG, I've got lots of bandits on my scope already!" called out Lt. JG Carson "Hogan" Clinkscales, one of the pilots out on point.

"Dodger didn't exactly sneak into the system, Hogan," responded Lt. Thomas "Christmas" Greentree, referring to the Chaffee by her nickname now that they were safely out of the captain's hearing.

"Yeah, but I didn't think they'd send this many," retorted Hogan.

"How many bandits, Hogan?" interrupted Dick.

"I'm counting ten, ... twenty, ... thirty, ... almost forty fighters, Skipper!"

Since the Chaffee had made no attempt to disguise her entry into the system, Dick wasn't surprised when they met the first wave of the Ch'ton defense forces while still several hundred thousand miles away from the base. The number of fighters seemed rather odd, though. It was very unusual for the enemy to send their entire fighter complement against only one section of the attacking force.

"Okay, people, looks like we're going to have more of a fight than we thought," Dick said calmly. "Just keep a cool head, and take it by the numbers. Stay with your wingman and lead your targets away from the main force."

In the dark cockpit, where none of the other pilots could see, Dick grinned to himself. Now came the fun part! He felt the exhilaration and anticipation he always felt as he entered a battle. It was as if the rest of the universe slowed down, and he was capable of any feat, no matter how impossible. The only restraints on his exuberance were the twenty-three little icons on his scope that represented the men and women under his command. For all his talk of keeping cool and fighting methodically, he knew he operated best flying on an almost instinctive level. It let him engage his own opponent, keep track of his wingman, and monitor the activities of the rest of his pilots.

As he led an enemy fighter into position for Rabbit to take out, he saw that Lt. Jamie "Birthday" Candless was in trouble.

"Plug, Birthday's got someone locked on his six!" Dick called out to Birthday's wingman, Lt. JG Michael "Plug" Vorland. "Can you handle it, or do you need help?"

"I got it, Skipper," Plug said sheepishly as he pulled back from chasing down a bandit.

Dick spent the rest of the engagement, trading off decoying and killing enemy fighters with Rabbit and babysitting his sometimes wayward charges. When he saw that they were beginning to get low on power but not on opponents, he called back to the Chaffee.

"Andy, this is Grayson."

"Yo, boss!"

"It's time to get your birds in the air. Also, have Chief Killian send one of the stealth probes toward the station."

"Skipper?" questioned Andy.

"There're more fighters here than there should be. I'd like a look at a real-time picture of the base."

"Aye, sir! We should be on station to relieve you in about five minutes."

"Thanks, Andy. Grayson out."

"That's our problem, ma'am!" Dick exclaimed in disgust as he pointed at the unmistakable image of a Ch'ton heavy carrier that had been detected by the probe. "She must have shown up after the reconnaissance for the attack was done."

By this time, Dick had already flown two sorties against the base, but the enemy's supply of fighters seemed inexhaustible. Now he knew why. So far, they'd only lost three fighters -- one from his wave, and two from Andy's -- but after flying and fighting constantly for almost four hours, he knew fatigue would soon become a factor.

Honor nodded sympathetically. "I also received word from Admiral Cortez. The Home Fleet hasn't moved yet."

"Why should they?" McKeon asked sardonically. "Under the current circumstances, we're certainly no great threat to their colony!"

The three officers stood looking at the updated tactical display of the engagement. Lady Lex's pilots had done their best, but unlike the Chaffee and the McCain, they were still flying the older, non-upgraded Barracudas and were unable to gain much of an advantage over their opponents. They were killing the enemy fighters at about a 2:1 ratio, which still meant an awful lot of naval aviators were being lost. The McCain's pilots were faring somewhat better, but they had still lost over twenty percent of their entire wing.

"What if Cortez brought in the forward section of the strike force?" considered McKeon, thinking out loud.

Honor answered immediately, "That would certainly bring in the Home Fleet, but we'd lose the element of surprise. The Ch'ton also might suspect a trap which would put the rear strike force section in jeopardy. It would probably work, but it would be very ... messy. We would be going up against them with almost no numerical advantage."

"What if we loaded some ship-killers on the Barracudas and went after the carrier?" asked Dick.

"You'd have to go through that whole gauntlet of fighters you're dancing with now!" McKeon retorted.

"Not if we took it over the elliptic," Dick replied. Most stars and planets orbited around the Milky Way galaxy on the same plane -- almost as if the galaxy were flat. This plane was referred to as "the elliptic." Most spacecraft conformed to this, rarely flying above or below this imaginary line. What Dick proposed to do was to take a longer route to the Ch'ton ship by arcing over the current battle, where the Ch'ton fighters would not be looking.

"I don't know, Dick," Honor said, musingly. "It's still pretty risky. You'd have a nasty return flight."

"I think if we attacked quickly enough, we could take out the carrier and be back over the elliptic before the Ch'ton fighters could figure out where we came from."

A squawk coming from Dick's handheld communicator interrupted further discussion.

"Yo, boss!"

"Yes, Andy?"

"You guys about ready to come out and play? I think our current partners are getting bored with us."

"Roger that. Figure our ETA at about eight minutes."

"Thanks, boss!"

Dick turned back to Honor and McKeon. "Looks like I need to leave. I really think this could work, Skipper," he said earnestly. "If we knock off that ship, that should get the Home Fleet moving."

"All right, Dick. I'll talk to Admiral Cortez about it during your sortie and let you know."

"Thanks, boss!" he said, grinning, echoing Andy's phrase.

Honor smiled at him and shooed him out the door.

Admiral Cortez had immediately approved Dick's idea -- now, to make it work. As soon as he was back in the ship after his sortie, Dick had Division One's fighters refueled as quickly as possible and had Nova missiles, nicknamed "ship-killers" loaded. While this was happening, he called a brief meeting of the pilots.

"All right, boys and girls, we're going after that blasted carrier! Division One, we're going to go up over the elliptic and attack from 'above' with some ship killers. Once we're done, we'll come back going under the elliptic, to avoid the fighters as much as possible. My goal is to get back here before Andy's group needs to be relieved, but in case we don't, Greentree, I will want you to take Division Four out and relieve the pilots that are in the worst shape. Once they're back in service, the rest of the wave can be refueled. At that point, head back to the ship, refuel, and go out along our return path to provide cover if we need it. Once we're all back aboard, we'll start the rotation with Andy once again. Questions?"

Rabbit asked, "What if we don't knock out the ship?"

"If our missiles don't do the job, we'll come back, grab some more, and try again. If we want to get the Bugs' Home Fleet moving in our direction, we've got to get that carrier and her fighters off our backs."

Dick saw his plane captain waving at him that his bird was ready to go. "All right, people. As our esteemed captain is fond of saying, 'Let's be about it.'"

After launching, he and Rabbit led the other ten fighters in Division One away from the ship at a gentle twenty-degree angle. This would create a long arching parabola above the plane of the elliptic and, more importantly, above the numerous fighters swirling around "below" them. After almost twenty minutes of flight time, their target came into view. Dick was pleased to see the ship was actually docked to the refit station. Maybe they could take out the ship and the station!

Don't get greedy, he told himself. Just focus on the mission at hand.

To avoid any chance of the carrier's detecting them, Dick had imposed a gag order: no communications use unless it was an emergency, and even then, keep it short. As they approached the point at which they would break off to begin their attack, Dick flashed his running lights once to make sure he had their attention. One by one, they flashed theirs in reply. When he and Rabbit reached the attack point, he flashed his lights twice, and they began their run.

In almost classic dive-bombing formation, each pair of Barracudas went screaming "down" at the huge Ch'ton carrier. At the last second, each pilot would pull up the nose of his ship and launch his missile. The speed and the head-on profile made the Barracudas almost impossible for the startled Ch'ton gunners to hit. By the time the sixth and last pair flew down to attack the carrier, it was belching atmosphere. Hogan's missile delivered the coup de grâce, and dozens of explosions rocked the ship.

As the pilots started the looping journey back to the Chaffee, they felt the shock waves as the huge ship finally exploded. Dick was delighted to see that it took the refit station along with it. Mission accomplished!

Now, with a long trip back to their ship, and limited reserves of power and oxygen, they just had to hope none of the carrier's surviving fighters detected them sneaking along below the dogfights.

Chapter 15

When God inspir'd us for the fight,
Their ranks were broke, their lines were forc'd,
Their ships were shatter'd in our sight,
Or swiftly driven from our coast.
-- William Billings, 1770

Three hours after the destruction of the Ch'ton heavy carrier, Alistair McKeon looked up to see Richard Grayson walk onto the Chaffee's bridge. For the first time in their acquaintance, Richard actually looked tired. And no wonder, Alistair thought to himself. The battle had been going on for more than eight hours! Richard walked over to where Honor was standing.

"Any change, ma'am?" he asked, tiredly hopeful.

"I'm sorry, Dick -- our reports still have the Home Fleet holding on the outskirts of the system."

As Alistair watched Honor watch Richard, he saw her come to some sort of decision. She called out across the bridge, "Mr. McKeon, would you join the CAG and me in the forward briefing room? Mr. Panowski, you have the watch."

"Yes, Skipper."

"Aye, ma'am."

She led the two men into the small room. "Alistair, please bring up the tactical display -- including the Home Fleet and Admiral Cortez's forces."

Alistair did so, and the three of them studied the situation. Destroying the Ch'ton heavy carrier and the refit station had induced the Home Fleet to move toward Ophidia, but so far they had made no move to join in the fighting.

"Why don't they move in!" Alistair asked in consternation.

"It's simple, Al," Richard said wearily. "They don't care whether their own people live or die. They must figure if they wait long enough, either we'll give up and leave the system, or the base will wear us down enough to make it a cinch to finish us off."

"That's my thought as well," concurred Honor. "Dick, since you're more familiar with the situation, is there any way we can take out that base quickly? What if we brought the carriers into the attack as well?"

Richard sat in one of the chairs and tipped it back so he could rest his head against the wall. Alistair could see him trying to concentrate through his exhaustion. Leaning forward again, he shook his head.

"At this juncture, I don't think we can do it. Since the Bugs have fewer fighters now, they've retreated to the defense base so they can take advantage of its guns. Between those guns and our own fatigue factor, we're really starting to get mauled. If we brought in the big ships, I'm worried the enemy fighters would start making kamikaze runs, and we don't have enought fighters to protect you against that."

"That's what I was afraid of," said Honor quietly. Alistair watched her stare at the display as if she could force it to give her a solution. Suddenly, her face cleared, and a fierce light appeared in her eyes.

"Alistair, check me on this -- if we moved to attack the planet, could the Home Fleet intercept us before we reached it?"

Alistair plotted out the courses on the display. "Yes, ma'am. Assuming they detected our course change, the two vectors would intersect around 135,000 miles from Ophidia."

"Good! We can gather up all our fighters, and ..."

"I'm not sure we should do that, Skipper," Richard interrupted. He continued before she could say anything, "I think you should let us stay here and run interference against the station forces."

Looking at the display, Alistair realized Richard was right. The enemy fighters would immediately go after the threat to Ophidia, which might make the Home Fleet delay an interception attempt. But if the Earth fighters stayed to keep the station forces occupied, once the Home Fleet began pursuing the carriers, the Earth ships would not be in a position to pick up their fighters and still "retreat" in the direction of Admiral Cortez. Which meant leaving the fighters behind ...

"I don't want to leave any of my people behind, Mr. Grayson," stated Honor, echoing Alistair's thoughts.

"It's not as bad as it sounds, Skipper," said Richard, with surprising cheer. "I think the Chaffee and the McCain would be a credible enough attack force. If the Lexington stays here, she is more than capable of transporting all of the fighters."

"And then we all bug out together when we 'discover' the Home Fleet racing in to protect Ophidia," continued Alistair with a grin of his own.

"Whereupon Admiral Cortez's pincers close," smiled Honor.

It took a little while, but Honor was eventually able to get Admiral Cortez to agree to the revised plan. From what Alistair could gather, the Lexington's captain was not too thrilled with his role in the plan, but he couldn't argue against the logic of it.

When the video conference briefing was over, Alistair turned to Honor. "Why is it, that with all these high-ranking officers and planning staff personnel running around, the only ideas that seem to accomplish anything are the ones you and Richard come up with?"

She tried to bat away the implied compliment. "I don't think it's like that at all, and I'm not sure the Admiral would appreciate you talking about his officers that way." She then tried to steer the conversation back to business. "Is Dick aboard ship?"

Alistair let her off the hook. "Yes, Skipper. Actually, I signaled him as soon as the Admiral'd given the go-ahead, and he brought everybody back in and ordered them to get some sack time while they could." He grinned, "I don't think he got too many arguments. He also wanted to give the maintenance crews time to give the birds a thorough going-over."

"All right then, I'll let them rest as long as possible. What about the McCain's fighters?"

"Richard told me he'd suggested the same thing to the McCain's CAG, so right now, the Lexington's fighters are just flying a few sorties to keep up appearances."

"Excellent. I had planned to pull out immediately, but I'll talk to Captain D'Orville over on the McCain. I think we can delay things for a bit."

"Chief Killian said he could have all the fighters ready to go in about an hour."

"That will be fine, Alistair."

An hour later, the thirty-four remaining pilots' Barracudas filled the space in front of the Chaffee. They assembled into formation and flew off toward the Ch'ton base one last time. On the bridge, Honor and Alistair stood watching them on the ship's viewscreen. Alistair was not really surprised when one of the rear fighters waggled its wings at them, and the CAG's cheerful voice came over the ship's intercom.

"Catch you on the flip side, Skipper! Don't be late!"

The base forces tried to go after the Chaffee and the McCain but were unable to break through the wall of Navy fighters. As a result, the Ch'ton Home Fleet finally began to move into the system. When Honor judged she'd had sufficient time to "detect" the enemy forces, she stopped their advance toward Ophidia and began "retreating" toward Admiral Cortez's forces. As they had hoped, the Home Fleet wasn't willing just to keep them from attacking; after having gone to all this trouble, the Ch'ton were out for blood.

The enemy followed the two ships, not even pausing when the Lexington gathered up all the remaining fighters and headed to the same point in space that the Chaffee and the McCain were. Just in front of the minefield, Admiral Cortez's forces came blasting through, taking the Ch'ton completely by surprise. Before the Ch'ton even had time to decide whether to fight or retreat, the rear section of Cortez's task force closed distances and began firing on them. The Ch'ton still fought doggedly, but the eventual end was no longer in doubt.

Following standard rules of engagement, Admiral Cortez made multiple broadcasts asking the Ch'ton ships to surrender, assuring them they would only be taken prisoner and would not be harmed. However, following standard Ch'ton battle procedures, each ship suicided before it could be taken. A pair of Ch'ton fighters managed to take the destroyer Ardennes with them when they blew, but that was the only ship lost from the task force.

Once the battle was over, the Chaffee and McCain could at last retrieve their pilots from the Lexington. Admiral Cortez had shuttled over to the Chaffee to await their arrival. He had also requested that the other ships in the task force form a gauntlet on either side of an imaginary aisle between the huge Lexington and the two smaller carriers. As the fighters left the Lexington, the other ships flashed their running lights in continuous salute to the people who had made their victory possible.

Although he was moved by the other ships' tribute, Alistair still couldn't help the sick feeling in his stomach as he watched the Chaffee's returning fighters. Forty-eight pilots had started the battle with the Ch'ton; he now counted twenty-six. Looking closely, he finally located Richard's fighter. And yes, there was Andy LaFollett. He kept watching the fighters, trying to remember which ship number belonged to which pilot. He needed to blink because the images kept blurring.

"XO, would you care to join the Admiral and me on the flight deck?" asked Honor, a slight tremor in her normally calm voice.

"Yes, ma'am," he managed to get out.

"Very well. Mr. Stromboli, you have the watch."

"Aye, ma'am."

Normally, after a patrol or even a battle, the pilots tended to leave the flight deck in small groups as they arrived in the two landing airlocks aboard the Chaffee. This time, they waited and gathered as each group of four climbed out of their ships. Admiral Cortez had wanted to go and greet them immediately, but Honor had persuaded him to wait on the sidelines until all the fighters were aboard.

LaFollett and Grayson were the last to come aboard. When their fighters were towed from the airlock into the flight deck, the other pilots stood in formation alongside. As the CAG and his XO climbed down from their ships, Alistair heard one of the assembled pilots -- Clinkscales, he thought -- call the formation to attention. With parade-ground precision, the pilots drew themselves up to attention and saluted.

Alistair saw the surprise on Andy's face, but Richard's remained expressionless. The two men stood in front of their command and returned salute just as precisely. Richard called out, "At ease," and walked down the row. He and Andy solemnly shook each pilot's hand, exchanged murmured comments, and shooed them over to see the captain and Admiral Cortez.

As each pilot walked up to them, Alistair would introduce him or her to the Admiral. Cortez gravely shook hands with each one, telling them what a fine job they had done and how proud he was to have them in his command.

"Finally, sir," said Alistair, "this is Lt. Commander Richard Grayson."

The admiral's face brightened even more, and he shook Richard's hand enthusiastically. "Commander Grayson! I am very pleased to meet you, young man! It's my belief that you and Captain Harrington saved this entire operation. You have my deepest thanks, and you may be sure that my final report will mention the two of you very favorably indeed!"

Richard smiled at Cortez and thanked him and said all the right things one is supposed to say to an admiral. It was fairly obvious to Alistair, though, that Richard was just going through the motions. After Honor escorted Cortez to his shuttle to return to his flagship, Alistair saw Richard's face fall back into the expressionless state it had been in when he landed.

"What is it, Rich?" Alistair asked quietly. He saw the younger man take a deep breath and motion with his head for Alistair to follow him. In silence, he followed Richard to his cramped little office. Once inside, the pilot sank into his desk chair and motioned for Alistair to have a seat.

"Rabbit's dead," Richard said flatly.

"That was what I had assumed," Alistair replied quietly.

"He died saving my life. Andy had lost his wingman, and I was pulling a bandit off his six, when I realized I had looped right into another bandit's crosshairs. Right as the bandit took his shot, Rabbit came screaming in to take him out. I guess he was coming so fast, he didn't notice the shot, and it hit him instead of me."

"Did you get the guy who shot him?"

"Oh yeah. Didn't help though. Rabbit's still dead."

Still the same flat tone. Alistair was starting to get worried. Then he jumped, as the sound of Richard's palm striking the top of the desk echoed like a gunshot in the small room.

"People are not supposed to die saving me!" Richard shouted. "I'm supposed to protect them! They're not the ones who are supposed to get hurt! Why do they always keep getting hurt?" he asked Alistair plaintively, tears starting to run down his cheeks. "Why can't I keep them safe? I couldn't keep Barbara safe. I couldn't save Jason or my mom or my dad. Not even Bruce. Why does it always happen to them and not me?"

Okay. Alistair knew Richard's wife, Barbara, was in a wheelchair. But he had no clue what happened to those other people. While he was still trying to decide if he should call Lt. Montoya, the ship's doctor, Honor walked into the office.

"Dick, I'm sorry about Rabbit and the other pilots," she said, her soprano voice soft with compassion.

Alistair watched Richard scrub at his eyes and try to gather himself in front of his CO.

She continued, "You and I are a lot alike, Dick. It's always hard when we lose people in our command. Especially because they are people in our command. We are responsible for them, and each death feels like a failure on our part." She pulled a chair next to his and sat down. Grasping his shoulder firmly, she continued, "I wish I could tell you it gets easier, or it doesn't hurt as much, but you and I both know that would be a lie." Her eyes glistened with unshed tears.

She reached over and gently turned his face toward hers. "You are an excellent leader, Richard Grayson. Your people think you are too, as you should know from that little demonstration back on the flight deck. I think they know you would give your life for theirs, so it's not too surprising to me that one of them would do so for you."

"I know it hurts," she continued as he remained silent. "But I also know that Rabbit would not have wanted to live knowing he could have saved your life and didn't."

"How do you know?" Richard asked in a harsh tone.

"I know my people, Dick," she replied emphatically. "I know Lieutenant Junior Grade Wesley 'Rabbit' Matthews had no family that cared about him -- until he joined the Navy. Even then, he was still something of a loner. When he joined this ship, you made him a part of this strange 'family' you've created out of the fighter wing. Now he had brothers and sisters; something he'd never had before. Today, he was out there protecting his family."

Honor sighed. "In the end, all I can tell you is what others have told me -- you do your job the best you can; you trust your people to give you the best that they can; and sometimes, that best is their life."

She suddenly glanced toward the door, so Alistair did too. Andy LaFollett was standing just outside the door, and Alistair could see several other pilots crowded around him. Honor nodded to Andy, squeezed Richard's shoulder one more time, and stood up. She and Alistair left the cramped little office, hoping that the other members of the "family" would be able to comfort each other as they grieved for the comrades they had lost.

As he and Honor walked back toward the bridge, Alistair couldn't help thinking of a line from an old poem he'd learned in high school. "To the gallows-foot and after, Rabbit," he murmured.

The Thousandth Man
by Rudyard Kipling

One man in a thousand, Solomon says,
Will stick more close than a brother.
And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days
If you find him before the other.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine depend
On what the world sees in you,
But the Thousandth Man will stand your friend
With the whole round world agin you.

'Tis neither promise nor prayer nor show
Will settle the finding for 'ee.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em go
By your looks, or your acts, or your glory.
But if he finds you and you find him,
The rest of the world don't matter;
For the Thousandth Man will sink or swim
With you in any water.

You can use his purse with no more talk
Than he uses yours for his spendings,
And laugh and meet in your daily walk
As though there had been no lendings.
Nine hundred and ninety-nine of 'em call
For silver and gold in their dealings;
But the Thousandth Man he's worth 'em all,
Because you can show him your feelings.

His wrong's your wrong, and his right's your right,
In season or out of season.
Stand up and back it in all men's sight--
With that for your only reason!
Nine hundred and ninety-nine can't bide
The shame or mocking or laughter,
But the Thousandth Man will stand by your side
To the gallows-foot--and after!

Chapter 16

Forward, the Light Brigade!
Was there a man dismay'd?
No tho' the soldier knew,
Some one had blunder'd:
Theirs not to make reply,
Theirs but to do or die;
Into the Valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
-- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, 1853

After the deaths of almost half the people in his fighter wing, Dick retreated to an old coping mechanism to deal with the pain -- work out until he was absolutely exhausted. He could take his pain and frustration out on an inanimate punching bag or push himself to one more rotation on the high bar in the ship's gym. It allowed him to behave almost normally (he thought) around other people.

This behavior might have continued indefinitely (or until the Chaffee ran out of punching bags) if it hadn't been for Hogan. Hogan had walked into the gym just as Dick was performing one of his usual better-than-Olympic-caliber routines on the high bar. After a quadruple-somersault dismount, Dick was startled to hear applause coming from behind him. He turned around to see Hogan whose eyes had grown to almost saucer-like proportions.

"Wow!! That was somethin' else, Skipper! I didn't know you could do stuff like that!"

Until Ophidia, Dick had always stuck with simple, basic stuff when he used the high bar where other people could see him. Lessons about not drawing attention to himself had been drilled into him by Batman and weren't lightly discarded. It was only in his current ... perturbed state of mind that he had allowed his true abilities to be seen.

Bruce would throw a fit, Dick thought to himself. Oh, well. Walking up to Hogan, he smiled an almost-genuine smile. "Thanks, Hogan. I've always been something of a gymnast."

Hogan was still flabbergasted. "None of the guys are going to believe me when I tell them. Do you do stuff like that often?"

In for a penny; in for a pound, thought Dick. "Well, this is my usual workout time."

"I know, Skipper, but I've never seen you do that stuff before!"

"I guess I didn't want you guys to think I was showing off," Dick said, figuring it sounded plausible.

"Is it okay if me and some of the other guys come by tomorrow and watch?" Hogan asked hopefully.

The performer in Dick suddenly perked up. His smile became genuine as he said, "Sure! I certainly don't mind an audience."

Hogan showed up the next day with most of the off-duty pilots in tow. Dick was slightly startled by the size of his audience, but he decided to give them a good show. They had walked in just as he was starting his rings workout, so he added a few extra flourishes to his standard routine. The Flying Graysons never disappointed an audience! As he smoothly moved from position to position, holding each one for an impossibly long time, the gasps he heard were very gratifying. When he stuck the landing, the assembled pilots burst out into applause and whistles. Dick made a solemn, elaborate bow in their direction and then burst out laughing.

Then he moved to the high bar. Somersaults above the bar, impossible-looking release moves, changing directions at will, Dick made everything look easy, including the show-stopper, a double-somersault that ended with an absolutely motionless one-handed handstand. That move almost made the pike two-and-a-half-somersault he used to dismount seem anti-climactic.

During his routine, more people had come into the gym, drawn by the pilots' commotion. By the time Dick's feet landed on the gym floor, there were almost fifty people crowded into the small gym, and all of them were applauding and shouting and whistling.

That evening, for the first time since the battle, Dick thought about something other than Rabbit and the other dead pilots as he drifted off to sleep. After his "performance," he had talked to his pilots and some of the other people in the audience and had learned that most of them had never been to a real live circus. As someone from a long line of circus performers, and as a circus owner himself, Dick found that rather appalling. He decided Something Needed To Be Done. The next day, after receiving permission from Honor, Dick began recruiting for a ship-wide circus. Or at least a facsimile of one. Of course, he had to eliminate the animal acts, but that didn't mean he couldn't have the clowns imitate animal acts!

The "circus" had its first performance on Thanksgiving, just before the big meal. The meal had required Dick to shuffle some acts around because their participants were also involved in preparing the dinner. The ship had resumed patrolling the mine field, so Honor had set a skeleton watch because of the holiday and the circus. Thus, of the 225 members of the Chaffee's crew, 148 were on the flight deck as audience, and 57 were there as members of "Her Royal Majesty's Most Excellent Bandersnatches," as the circus had decided to call itself.

Great feats of mirth and derring-do were performed that day. Or at least adequate ones, Dick thought to himself with a smile. In addition to being the manager and featured acrobat, he had been able to teach some basic trapeze skills to a few of the pilots. Dick wasn't trusting enough to work without a net or to try the quad, but it did feel good to be "home" again. All-in-all, both the performers and the audience seemed to enjoy the show. After the performance, large tables were set up, and the mess stewards began serving the Thanksgiving dinner.

As he sat eating the Chaffee's best attempt at turkey and dressing, Dick realized that he had "gone on" -- that somewhere in all this he had accepted Rabbit's death, and the manner of his dying, and all the other deaths that had happened at Ophidia. It wasn't that he didn't still miss the men and women who had died, but he had remembered the duty and commitment he owed to the living.

A few days after Thanksgiving, Dick was walking back to his quarters from his workout when he saw Alistair striding toward him.

"Richard! I'm glad I found you! The Skipper wants to see us in her office."

"Do I have time to shower first?" Dick asked pulling at his sweaty tank top.

"She didn't say it was urgent, and since I've got to be there too, I'd say you definitely have time to shower," Alistair said with a smile.

Dick returned a rather sardonic smile of his own and continued walking towards his quarters, pulling his shirt off as he went.

A short time later, Dick and Alistair sat on the small couch that, along with the desk, comprised most of the furniture in Honor's cramped office. They drank Steward MacGuiness' excellent coffee while Honor sat across from them in her chair sipping her preferred hot chocolate. Dick could feel a small trickle of water run down his neck from his still-damp hair.

"I called you in because we're going to have some visitors on the COD11 tomorrow," announced Honor. "Rear Admiral Samuel Mueller of Naval Intelligence, a Lt. Colonel Edmond Marchant from the Joint Chiefs, and twelve Force Recon marines."

"And a partridge in a pear tree," muttered Dick.

Alistair let out an involuntary snort and almost spilled his coffee. Dick caught Honor's eye, and then all three started laughing.

"Do we know why all these people are coming here?" Dick asked, a few minutes later when he could talk without snickering.

"And where we're supposed to put them?" chimed in Alistair.

"No and no," answered Honor, still smiling. "This sounds like some sort of covert op brewing, but no one's deigned to tell me anything about it. As for where to put them ..." She shrugged. "We've got the one VIP cabin, so Admiral Mueller can go there, I hope along with Colonel Marchant. As far as the marines, though, I have no idea."

"How much space is currently available in Marine Country?" asked Alistair, referring to the section of the ship where their 28 marines were quartered.

"Not enough for twelve more bodies, I can tell you that!" stated Honor, sounding rather annoyed. Escort carriers were small ships, more like submarines than aircraft carriers when it came to ship size and number of personnel. The ship's designers certainly hadn't considered making allowances for fourteen additional people.

"I can fit them in, Skipper," Dick volunteered quietly. He realized this was partly why Honor had called him into this private meeting. "I'm still sixteen pilots under complement. If the enlisted men don't mind sharing quarters with officers, they'll all fit."

"Thank you, Dick," replied Honor.

When their guests arrived the next morning, Dick decided they were certainly an odd lot. The Force Recon squad looked like the battle-ready elite fighting machine that it was supposed to be. Rear Admiral Mueller was obviously a staff officer, or at least Dick hoped he was a staff officer. He was almost too, uh, portly to fit through the ship's narrow passageways. Lt. Colonel Marchant was the anomaly -- he seemed fit and athletic; in fact, he cut quite a dashing figure in his tailored camouflage gear. But when Marchant stood next to the other marines, Dick had the impression of someone playing "dress up."

Admiral Mueller had requested the use of Honor's briefing room, and furthermore, that she, her XO, and the CAG join him, Col. Marchant, and Capt. Eddie Howard of the Force Recon team in a briefing. That's when the Chaffee's officers found out what their guests were planning to do.

"You're going to kidnap the Ch'ton Queen?!?" Honor asked incredulously. "Sir," she added as an afterthought.

"Yes, Captain," replied Mueller. "Our analysts and xenopsychologists believe that capturing their queen will force the Ch'ton to sue for peace rather than lose her."

"I can believe that, sir," replied Alistair, "but what I don't understand is how the ... how you hope to pull something like that off?"

Marchant responded, "We believe that a small force can sneak in and accomplish this, and this is just the kind of operation that Force Recon marines have been trained to do."

Honor cleared her throat. "What do you need from me and my officers, Admiral?"

"Well, obviously we need to be much closer to the Ch'ton homeworld, so you will need to take your ship to the outer edge of their home star system. After that, I'll want one of your best pilots to fly an assault shuttle that will take Col. Marchant and his team down to the planet and then extract them and the queen."

The three Chaffee officers exchanged dumbfounded glances. Dick noticed that Captain Howard didn't seem quite as enthusiastic as his two senior officers.

Honor gave the only answer she was allowed to give and still keep her commission: "Of course, sir. You will have our full cooperation."

The six days' journey to the outskirts of the Ch'ton system was extremely tense, both from their external circumstances (traveling unescorted through enemy territory) and internal ones. The Admiral was not accustomed to the more spartan lifestyle of a warship and often complained about his accommodations and having to share them with Col. Marchant. Thanks to Steward MacGuiness, Mueller did not complain about the quantity or quality of the food; although rumors started to float that it was going to be a race whether the Chaffee ran out of food before the Admiral would no longer fit through his cabin door.

Dick had arranged things so that Capt. Howard bunked with Andy LaFollett, knowing that his personable XO would soon find out all the gossip worth knowing. The third day into the trip, Andy brought him some disturbing information.

"Sir, Eddie told me that Col. Marchant isn't their regular CO."

"He's not?"

"No, sir. They met him for the first time when they were picked for this assignment. That's when Marchant told them he was going to be leading the mission. But that's not the worst part," Andy said, frowning. "Eddie managed to do some digging before they shipped out and discovered that Marchant has no combat experience -- had never even been assigned to a combat unit of any kind before this."

"You've got to be kidding me!" Dick exclaimed.

"Nope. Last night, Eddie told me Marchant thinks of himself as some kind of John Wayne, and this is his shot at being a war hero."

"Well, that's just great," muttered Dick in disgust. "I'm taking one of my birds out there filled with a bunch of 'My Ass Rides In Navy Equipment'-types led by an idiot with delusions of grandeur."

"You're taking them out? Sir?"

"Yes, Andy. I'm flying this mission."

"But, boss ..."

"No buts, Lt. LaFollett. I had already decided this thing had enough potential for disaster even before I learned about the 'Duke.' This one's mine."

Assault shuttles normally carried both a pilot and a co-pilot, but Dick had refused to take a co-pilot along unless Honor wanted to make it a direct order.

"Skipper, I've got a bad feeling about this mission, and I'd rather just risk my own neck. I can handle the bird without a co-pilot."

"I'm nervous about it too, Dick, but don't you want someone along to watch your back?"

"Nah, I'd just end up worrying about him in addition to everyone else. I'll be okay."

He suited up with unusual care. In addition to his service-issue Beretta, he carried extra ammunition, and two knives, as well as some goodies completely unknown to the U.S. Navy. After his plane captain went over the shuttle, Dick made his own inspection. On his orders, none of the marines had been allowed near the craft until it was time to board. Without being obvious, Dick watched each marine as he boarded, making sure no one did anything suspicious.

When everyone was aboard, Dick boarded as well and commenced pre-flight. Finally, he informed the bridge that he was ready and requested permission to launch.

"We read you, CAG. Godspeed and good hunting!" said Alistair.

Dick saluted the airlock officer, the launch airlock doors opened, and the heavy assault shuttle took off for the Ch'ton's home planet.

When the doorbell rang, Dinah was making a mess in Barbara's kitchen, "experimenting" with one of Alfred's recipes for Christmas cookies. "You expecting anyone, Barb?" she called out.

"Nope," came a distracted-sounding reply from the other room. "See who it is, and unless it's my dad, I'm not at home."

"No prob!" Dinah replied cheerfully. On her way to the door, she glanced out the window and saw a large, dark blue car parked somewhat haphazardly on the street. As she checked the doorway monitor, her breath caught in her throat when she saw two men dressed in dark blue naval uniforms.

"Uh, Barbara?" she tried calling out. Clearing her throat, she tried again. "Barbara! You need to get in here!"

Barbara came rolling into the room as Dinah opened the door. Dinah heard Barbara's gasp as she saw the men.

"Ms. Barbara Grayson?" one of the officers, a captain, asked Barbara solemnly.

Barbara nodded her head, unable to say anything.

"Ma'am, I'm Captain Lester Tourville. This is Chaplain Jeremiah Sullivan," he said, indicating the other officer. "It is my sad duty to inform you that your husband, Lt. Commander Richard Grayson, has been reported missing and presumed killed in action." The captain sighed and looked at the blank faces of the two women with compassion. "I wish I had more information for you, but because of the nature of the mission, that's all I know. His personal effects should be returned to you in a few days. Is there anything I or Chaplain Sullivan can do for you, ma'am?"

Barbara shook her head jerkily, still trying to come to grips with what she had heard.

The captain handed his and Chaplain Sullivan's cards to Dinah. "I know this has been a shock for you, ma'am. If you think of any questions later or have any problems, please feel free to call me."

He turned, and the two men walked back toward the open door. Just before leaving, the chaplain murmured to Dinah. "Perhaps, ma'am, you should call your friend's doctor. This kind of a shock can't be good for a woman so far along in her pregnancy."

Concern for Barbara shook Dinah out of her stupor. "Yes, I suppose you're right."

After the men had left, Dinah looked at the phone as if it were a poisonous snake. Yes, Dr. Leslie should be called, but that would entail having to explain why Dinah was calling, which would lead to other calls, ...

Dinah shifted her gaze to her friend. Barbara still hadn't made a sound, but tears were spilling from her eyes and running down her cheeks. Dinah knelt next to Barbara, held her in a fierce hug, and shed her own tears of grief for a life cut cruelly short.

Chapter 17

Oh my baby, oh my love,
Gone the rainbow, gone the dove,
Your father was my only love,
Johnny's gone for a soldier.
-- traditional, c. 1770s

Dinah still hadn't decided which had been the harder call to make -- telling Alfred or telling Tim. Bruce, Alfred, Jim Gordon, and Dr. Leslie Thompkins all showed up at about the same time. Leslie then whisked Barbara off to her bedroom to give her a quick checkup, which left Dinah in a room with three grieving men who wanted answers she didn't have.

"So you don't know anything about what Dick was doing when he went missing?" Bruce asked harshly.

"I just told you everything the Navy told Barb," Dinah repeated. "He was reported missing and presumed killed in action. Period. That's all we know."

Soon, Leslie walked out of Barbara's bedroom. At the expectant looks from everyone, she sighed. "Barbara and the baby are in good shape, considering the circumstances. The thing that concerns me right now is making sure she doesn't neglect her health through all this," Leslie's voice wavered and trailed off as she finally allowed herself to think about the "circumstances." She started crying, and Alfred walked over and took her in his arms.

Tim walked in as Barbara rolled out of her bedroom. Dinah could tell he'd been crying, but as soon as he saw Barbara, he rushed over and wrapped her in a fierce hug.

"I'm so sorry, Barbara! I'm so sorry," he repeated over and over. After a few minutes, he stood up and walked tentatively over to where Bruce was standing.

"Bruce? I'm ..." his voice broke. To everyone's amazement (except Alfred's, perhaps), Bruce's face seemed to crumple a bit, and tears fell slowly down his face as well. Dick had always been a link between these two -- and now that link was gone. Tim and Bruce walked over to a corner and talked quietly for a while. Under other circumstances, Dinah would have been extremely interested in listening to a private conversation between Batman and Robin, but right now she couldn't get Bruce's lost-looking expression out of her mind. An expression that was mirrored on Tim's face as well.

Word of Dick's death trickled out, and the clocktower soon saw a barrage of people coming by to offer what comfort they could. The Titans, or at least those currently on Earth, were the next to arrive. Tim had told Victor Stone at S.T.A.R. Labs before he bolted back to Gotham City, so Vic called Jesse at the Tower. He also called Wally West, who showed up with his former teammates.

Dinah wasn't sure whether Wally called Superman or Alfred had, but Clark Kent and Lois Lane arrived right after the Titans. Clark had brought one of his mother's casseroles as well as his parents' condolences. Quite a few other past and present Justice Leaguers came by, either because they knew Dick or because they knew Bruce. Dinah found it almost amusing that most of them didn't know they were also visiting their fellow Leaguer, Oracle. Jim stayed by his daughter's side and left it up to her as to how much he was told about each visitor.

That evening, through the combined efforts of Dinah, Bruce, Alfred, and Jim, Barbara was persuaded to eat some dinner. They then put her to bed with a very mild sedative that Leslie had left.

The next day, the callers continued. As the day wore on, there were fewer friends of Nightwing and more friends of Dick Grayson. Somehow (Dinah suspected Alfred), his Bludhaven friends heard the news because Dick's former sergeant, Amy Rohrbach, and several others from the Bludhaven police department came by, followed by Bridget Clancy, John Law, and Hank Hogan and his family.

Barbara was polite to each visitor and managed to murmur something appropriate, but Dinah knew her friend enough that what she really wanted was to yell at them all to go away and leave her in peace. Each person was a reminder that Dick was gone.

The last batch of visitors probably qualified as the oddest lot, even by Dinah's standards. A slightly stooped man in his late fifties limped in using a cane, followed by a large, middle-aged man with the look of a bodybuilder, an older skinny man with a droopy face, and about ten other very assorted men and women.

For a moment, Barbara looked at the group in puzzlement, until she seemed to recognize the leader. "Mr. Haley?" she questioned.

The old man smiled sadly. "Yes, ma'am. Harry Haley. I ... never could get Dick to call me 'Harry,' even after he bought my circus," he said, his voice breaking. He cleared his throat and continued. "I don't think you've met any of the others, but this is Jacques Carberry," he pointed to the bodybuilder, "and Harry Windrow,"12 pointing to the skinny man, "and some of the others from the circus. Jacques and Harry ... knew Dick even longer than I did. Known him since he was born, actually. We just wanted to tell you how sorry we were to hear that Dick was ... gone. He was a good man and a great flyer."

Harry Windrow spoke up in a tear-filled voice, "I told Elinore about Dick. I think she understood me, 'cause she kinda moaned and wrapped her trunk around my arm."

Seeing their puzzled looks, Haley explained, "Elinore's an elephant who also knew Dick since he was born. Kid used to ride her in the opening parades. Even after more than ten years, she still remembered him when Dick came back and bought the circus. She's a grand old gal."

Barbara bit her lip and then burst out, "Mr. Haley, could you do something for me?"

"Certainly, ma'am. Anything I can."

"When my little girl is ... old enough," she said, forcing her voice through the tears that had started, "I want you to make sure she learns the trapeze just like Dick ... did. I want her to know that part of her father."

Tears slid down Haley's face as he and the others silently nodded agreement. After a few more minutes, the circus group filed out. Barbara wheeled off to her bedroom and shut the door.

The late-afternoon sun shone weakly through the windows of the clocktower. The service flag in one of the windows now had a gold star laid over the blue one, courtesy of Alfred. Dinah and Jim sat in the darkening room watching a silent, unmoving Barbara. Once in a while, Barbara would clutch at one of Dick's last letters that she carried around in her jacket, but that was the only movement the watchers saw. The room was so quiet they could hear the bell being rung by the Salvation Army's kettle tender across the street.

"Barbara! There's something you need to see!" called out Tim from Oracle's workroom. Earlier, he had decided the best way to help was by keeping Oracle online. He came dashing into the room and handed Barbara one of her laptops.

"You got an email from Dick! It was pretty heavily encrypted, but I decoded it. He must have sent it through one of their system back doors instead of the regular military email servers. It was on a time-delay -- he'd instructed the Chaffee's computer to send it unless he got back and countermanded the command." Tim suddenly seemed to realize he was babbling and shut up.

Barbara opened up the email as if it might bite. As she read, a bit of light seemed to come back into her eyes. She looked up at her father and friends and said, "He might still be alive!" She routed the email to her big-screen TV so they could see.

Dear Babs,

I'm hoping you don't see this, but I've got a bad feeling about this mission. The idea itself is a good one, but I'm suspicious about the two officers in charge. Essentially, I'm ferrying some marines to the Ch'ton home world. I'm just the driver -- they don't want some navy flyer horning in on their mission, and I certainly don't intend to. At least not where they can catch me anyway! ;-)

If you've received this email, the operation has gone south, just as I expected. I want you to contact Vic and ask him to gather a team to take over the mission. I'm attaching our original mission profile as well as my proposed Titans profile. In it, I've told Vic, and I want to tell you, this is *not* to be a rescue mission. I can't even say whether I'm alive or not, although I'll certainly try my best to keep on breathing, but the main goal of the Titans should be to carry out this mission, since I believe it could effect a quick end to this war.

The second thing I would ask you, sweetheart, is if it's possible, that Bruce *not* be informed of my whereabouts or the Titans' mission. You and I both know Bruce would try to take over, and Vic doesn't need that kind of pressure. The Titans are perfectly capable of managing this on their own, and this really isn't Bruce's kind of fight anyway. If he's reading this with you right now, or he starts giving you trouble, there's a letter for him in my personal effects that I hope he will listen to.

Don't worry, sweetheart -- there's a letter for you too. And one for our baby girl. I will make every effort to come back to you, Barbara, but just in case I can't, know that I've loved you from the first moment I saw you, and that I still count myself blessed to have known you and known your love.

Take care, my darling wife. Tell my daughter I love her.

Love always,


"They were going to kidnap the Ch'ton Queen?!?" exclaimed Dinah as she looked at the paper in front of her. Barbara had decided it would be easier for everyone to see what Dick had sent if she printed out copies of everything. Jim had been drafted into collating all the stacks of paper together for them to take to the Titans Tower where Vic had agreed to meet them.

"Yep. I can see why he'd want to continue the mission, though," Barbara mused. "If the behavior of the colonies is any indication, the Ch'ton can't afford to risk their queen."

Dinah was amazed at the rapid change that Dick's email had caused in Barbara's demeanor. It was still possible, even probable, that Dick was dead, but now she had something to do, something to work on.

Barbara frowned. "Mueller, Mueller, where have I seen that name before?" She tapped a pencil against her forehead in annoyance. Suddenly, all the color left her face, and Dinah was afraid she was going to faint.

"What is it, Barb?"

"I remember where I've seen Samuel Mueller's name -- it was in some of those files of Luthor's that I went through trying to find a smoking gun for the Barracuda upgrade scam. Luthor owns that man!"

Jim just looked puzzled, while Dinah felt a cold knot forming in her stomach.

"Oh my God!" Dinah whispered. "You've got Luthor's stooge showing up on a ship which 'just happens' to have the officer responsible for Luthor's losing an incredibly lucrative government contract. That officer 'just happens' to end up on the stooge's mission which is then lost."

"That's what it looks like to me," replied Barbara quietly.

"Wait a minute!" Jim exclaimed. "Ladies, I'm certainly not one of Lex Luthor's biggest fans, but surely even he wouldn't kill thirteen marines just to get one man!"

"Luthor would," said Barbara positively. Dinah nodded.

"Okay, but then how could he do it? It's one thing to put a staff puke like this Marchant in charge, it's another to assume that he'll get everyone killed, including the pilot. Also, according to these notes, Dick volunteered."

"I dunno, Dad. Maybe, Mueller would've requested Dick if he hadn't already volunteered. This whole thing just feels weird."

Dinah had a flash of inspiration. "Why don't you turn this over to Bruce?" she asked. "Let him focus on the domestic side of things, while the Titans take care of the Ch'ton side."

"Yeah," chimed in Tim, who had walked in earlier with the last of the printouts. "It would give him something to do, and he might be able to find a connection we can't."

Barbara considered the idea. "Are we sure we want to let Bruce think Dick might have been murdered?" she asked gently. "Tim, you remember how he was after Jason died. How do you think he'll act if he finds out Luthor ... killed Dick?"

"How will he feel if he finds out we've withheld information about his son's death?" countered Tim. "I think Bruce is our best bet right now."

"All right," conceded Barbara. "Why don't you present it to him as your having found the Navy's files on the mission, and you cross-referenced Mueller with my files." She stopped speaking as an idea struck her. "Tim? Did I ever show you those coded files of Luthor's I hadn't been able to figure out?"

"No, I don't think so," replied Tim, puzzled.

"I've got them filed under that whole Barracuda scam. Pull them out and take a look, would you? Maybe a fresh pair of eyes might find something."

"Sure thing, Babs."

Dinah saw Barbara wince slightly at the nickname. Dick, and thus Tim who learned it from Dick, were the only ones Dinah knew who called her "Babs." No matter how slim the chances might be, Dinah couldn't help hoping that Dick would be back to call her that sometime soon.

"They were going to kidnap the Ch'ton Queen?!?" exclaimed Vic in astonishment.

Dinah snickered at his echo of her earlier statement. She and Barbara had driven from Gotham to the Titans Tower in New York City. As much as the two women had been involved with the team over the years -- Barbara with Dick, Dinah as a kind of big sister/foster mother to Roy Harper -- neither had ever been on the island before. They had known the huge "T" that stood on the island was only a hologram now, but it certainly looked solid. Vic met them as their skiff docked and led them into the complex. The three of them were soon sitting around a table in the Titans' library while Barbara explained about Dick's email and showed him the information Dick had sent her.

"Ohhh-kay. Yeah. He want to use a slight variation on scenario HR-704b -- makes sense," Vic muttered as he looked through the papers.

"I saw that -- what's he mean?" Dinah asked.

Vic looked up. "Oh, sorry. That's Hostage Rescue 704b. The '7' refers to the number of team members, and the '04b' refers to that particular seven-member hostage rescue scenario. The particular variation he wants is for me to include Raven in the team."

"But this isn't a hostage rescue," Dinah pointed out.

"704b is designed for a ... reluctant hostage. Basically, we go in and assume the person doesn't want to be rescued, whether because of mind control, drugs, whatever. We never really talked about it, but I think we all realized it could also work as a kidnapping scenario."

"That makes sense," Barbara said briskly. "Who are the other members supposed to be?"

"Me, Flash, Argent, Troia, Tempest, Arsenal, and of course, Dick," Vic replied. "That's one reason for Raven to be on the team -- once we're on site, she can find Dick and pull him out. Dick says this isn't solely a rescue op, but he's also not denying himself an opportunity to survive."

"So you think you can do this?" Barbara asked the deciding question, a slightly pleading tone entering her voice.

Vic looked at her steadily. "We not only can do this, we are going to do this. One way or another, we're bringing Dick home."

Chapter 18

Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!
The boys are marching
Cheer up comrades,
They will come.
And beneath the starry flag
We shall breathe the air again
Of the free land in our own beloved home.
-- George F. Root, 186213

Vic and Toni had been dating since they had returned to Earth after working together on the minefield project. To the amazement of themselves and their friends, the relationship seemed to work. They complemented each other very well: Toni reminded Vic that life didn't have to be such a serious thing all the time, and Vic gave Toni some stability and an outlet for the serious aspects of her nature she usually kept hidden. Vic knew Dick's death had hit Toni hard, so after Barbara and Dinah left the Tower, Vic's first stop was Toni's apartment. When he told her that it was possible Dick was alive, but they needed to go rescue him, she jumped up and immediately began throwing clothes into a suitcase.

"Of course, I'll come, idiot! You go fetch the others. I'll meet you at the Tower in thirty minutes!"

Vic was a little concerned that Jesse Quick, the Titans' current speedster, would be resentful that Dick's plan had specifically called for the Flash instead of her. When he got back to the Tower and called her to tell her what was going on, though, she seemed sincere when she offered them her best wishes.

"Look, Vic," she said, "Wally's five times faster than I am, plus he's had a lot more experience at working in outer space. D...Dick's inclusion of him makes perfect sense." Her voice hitched up a bit, but she managed to continue, "Just promise me you'll do everything you can to bring him back!"

Wally, though technically a member of the Justice League and not the Titans, immediately agreed to come when Vic called him next. Tempest, otherwise known as Garth, Atlantis' Ambassador to the UN, told his staff that he had to leave on Titans' business and to refer any emergencies to his wife or Arthur.

Vic hadn't been sure how he was going to contact Raven, but as it turned out, he need not have worried. Raven, or rather her translucent, glowing "soul self," appeared at the Tower as the others began arriving. She wouldn't explain how she knew they needed her, but Vic wasn't really surprised to see her there. Raven had always been closer to Dick than she was to any of the others.

The last two Titans on Dick's list weren't on Earth: Troia and Arsenal. Troia was Captain Donna Troy, USMC, a fighter pilot aboard the carrier Iwo Jima; while Petty Officer Roy Harper was chief gunner aboard the carrier escort Benjamin Franklin. By the time Vic had contacted and made arrangements with the other Titans, Barbara had "obtained" the locations of the two ships.

The Titans' starship, Jericho, was modeled upon the Vegan starship they had brought home the first time they had fought on Tamaran14. The original ship had served them well whenever they had journeyed into space, but when war was declared, Dick and Victor decided they needed to upgrade. WayneTech had constructed the basic ship, and then Vic had added all the extras. The ship represented an amalgamation of the best of Earth, Atlantean, Kryptonian, New Genesis, and Vegan technologies. And it even worked!

"Well, at least they aren't in completely opposite directions," said Vic, ruefully, as he sat down to chart their course. They would go to Iwo Jima first, then Franklin, then Ch'ton. Donna had informed the Marine Corps of her identity when she joined up, and Roy's identity as a Titan had already been public for years. Vic hoped that he wouldn't have any problems pulling them away from their current assignments.

"Okay, Garth -- prepare for takeoff!"

"Ready, Vic," Tempest replied.

"Let's go!"

Two days later, Vic was being challenged by a very skeptical captain aboard Iwo Jima.

"You mean you can just come aboard my ship and spirit away one of my officers without so much as a 'by your leave'?" huffed Captain Howard Latham. The captain, the executive officer, and Donna had shown up on the flight deck right as Vic and the others came aboard the carrier.

"Only those officers who are members of the Justice League or the Titans, sir," replied Vic calmly, trying to hold onto his temper. "Such as Capt. Troy."

"Sir, that was one of the conditions under which I joined the Marines," added Donna. She was still in her flight suit, having just come back from a patrol.

"Conditions?" asked the captain querulously.

"Yes, sir," replied Donna. "In a sense, I've been serving in the Marines on 'detached duty' from the Titans. Now I'm being recalled."

"XO?" Latham glanced over at the other officer.

"I just checked her personnel file, sir," replied Commander Marcia McGinley, who wore an Australian naval uniform. "That's the way I read it as well. There's a note that Capt. Troy's primary duty area is the Titans. We are also requested and required to assist them or the Justice League in any way possible, sir."

"I know that, Marcia!" snorted the captain. "All right. Troy -- get your gear together. You've been a good officer. I hate to lose you, but I suppose it can't be helped."

After Donna had left, Latham turned back to Vic. "Is there any chance I'll get her back when you all get done with whatever it is you're doing?"

"It's not completely up to me, sir," Vic replied. "But I don't see why not. I'm not sure how long it'll be, though."

"I would appreciate anything you could do in that regard, Mr. Stone."

Less than ten minutes later, Donna came back, a large duffel bag slung over her shoulder. She exchanged snappy salutes with the captain and the XO, and then she boarded the Jericho with the other Titans.

"So what's the deal, guys?" Donna asked, as the ship got under way.

"We're going to pick up Harper in a few hours. I'd rather wait until then so I don't have to say everything twice, okay?"

Donna shrugged her shoulders. "Okay, I guess."

Pulling Roy Harper off the Franklin was considerably easier, once Vic convinced Roy's captain that the archer wasn't in any kind of trouble.

Roy and Donna stared at the other Titans in shock. Vic had gathered them all in the Jericho's tiny briefing room before they started the final leg of their journey. Unfortunately, the first step in that briefing was informing the new arrivals of Dick's status.

"Dick's MIA? And presumed ..." Roy repeated blankly. Donna was speechless.

"Yeah," replied Vic. "I know we all want to hope he's alive, but I gotta level with you guys -- it doesn't look good. It's been almost two weeks since he landed on Ch'ton, and that's the last the Chaffee heard from him. On the other hand," he continued, trying to inject an optimistic note into his voice, "we know that Dick was suspicious of this mission -- with good reason -- so he would've been sure to take precautions."

"I'm still not sure I'm comfortable with this whole kidnapping scheme, though," said Wally. "It just doesn't seem ... right, somehow."

"I know what you mean, man," Vic replied earnestly. "But if you look at the headshrinkers' notes on the mission, they make some good points. Nobody knows exactly how their society works, but we know how important the colonial queens are, so it makes sense the head honcho queen would be even more important."

"How effective is a peace gained at gunpoint, though?" asked Raven quietly. While she didn't have a body as such, she had "seated" her soul self around the table with the rest of the Titans.

"More effective than our efforts at getting them just to talk to us so far, I would imagine!" exclaimed Garth. As a Titan, the de facto Crown Prince of Atlantis, and the Atlantean ambassador, he had been a key member of the various unsuccessful attempts to enter into some kind of dialogue with the Ch'ton.

"So, Donna, Roy - you guys in or out?" Vic asked intently.

"I'm in!" both said almost simultaneously and then smiled.

"All right! Next stop -- Ch'ton!" exclaimed Vic. As he walked out the door, Vic turned back for a moment and saw Donna hugging Wally, while Roy must have said something to Garth because the Atlantean had Roy in a headlock. Donna casually released Wally and then knocked Roy's legs out from under him, which then pulled Garth to the ground on top of Roy. As he fell, Roy had snaked out an arm to grab Donna, and she fell as well. Wally stood there laughing. Toni and Raven just stood off to one side, looking on in resignation.

"Those Bugs aren't gonna know what hit 'em!" Vic said, smiling.

After a tense three days' journey, Vic and Donna carefully put the Jericho into orbit around Ch'ton. The ship's shields were supposed to keep it from being detected by the Ch'ton, but they had never been put to this major a test.

Everyone tried to avoid staring at Raven as she slipped into a trancelike state. On the one hand, she was trying to find one person out of billions on the planet below them; on the other hand, she was trying to find a person she knew very well.

Suddenly, the ghostly outlines of her soul self flared, and her "eyes" opened wide. Then she vanished.

Vic and the others exchanged glances. None of them knew how they should respond to Raven's behavior -- was her disappearance a good thing? Had she found Dick? Was he still alive?

After several tense minutes had passed, Raven returned as abruptly as she had disappeared. The "folds" of her cloak opened, and a grubby Dick Grayson half-stumbled, half-fell out onto the floor. Wally and Roy picked him up and put him on top of the briefing table. Raven floated over to rest beside Dick. Her "hands" rested gently on his face and then moved down his body.

"I found him in a ventilation shaft in the queen's palace," she explained. "He was barely conscious. I sense ... anger, despair, burns, dehydration, cracked ribs, hunger, ..." As her hands moved, the others saw a burn mark disappear from his forehead, another from one of his arms. He had been breathing in shallow little gasps; now he was breathing normally. Finally, she removed her hands. Dick's eyes fluttered open. He looked at the familiar faces around him and smiled.

"Hi, guys," he said in a raspy voice. "Babs hasn't had the baby yet, has she?"

Donna then laid down the law that Dick wasn't to do any more talking until he had something to eat. After several more glasses of water and some soup, Dick declared that he was fine and in desperate need of a shower and a shave. In his room, he discovered that Babs had been thoughtful (and hopeful) enough to send along several changes of clothes for both LCDR Richard Grayson and Nightwing. After a few moments' thought, he chose a flightsuit and got dressed. He found everyone still hanging around the briefing room, so he motioned for them to sit down around the table.

"I take it you all understand what our basic mission was?" he asked, a slight rasp still present in his voice.

Everyone nodded, and then Roy asked the question they were all wondering. "So what happened?"

"We were sold out, that's what!" Dick fumed. He looked around the table for their reactions. "And why doesn't that surprise you, I wonder?"

Vic answered, "'Cause Barbara found out that among Lex Luthor's many other possessions is included one Rear Admiral Samuel Mueller. When we were studying the plans you sent us, Barbara also realized that the palace layout didn't match the one Kory had sent."

"Ah, it fits. How nice," Dick replied sarcastically. "I thought that layout looked different, but I wasn't sure. I warned Capt. Howard not to accept the plans as gospel, but as it turned out, my warning didn't make any difference. The Bugs were waiting for them!" He paused for a few moments to gather his thoughts as he remembered.

The area around the queen's residence was pretty heavily forested and gave them a good choice of landing sites. All the stealth technology in the world wouldn't disguise the physical bulk of an assault shuttle if any of the enemy chanced upon it.

"Keep the motor running, Grayson," ordered Col. Marchant as they watched the marines leave the shuttle.

"Aye sir." Of course, Dick had no intention of actually staying with the shuttle. He had heard the discussion between Marchant and Capt. Howard and knew Marchant had insisted on taking point. Howard seemed like a good officer, but Dick didn't trust Marchant to lead them out of a paper sack. After a few minutes had passed, Dick left the shuttle to keep an eye on their back trail. They had landed less than two kilometers from the palace, so it shouldn't take very long for the marines to get into position.

Dick was only a few hundred feet from the shuttle when he felt the vibration caused by a very powerful ship operating very close to the ground. He looked up to see a Ch'ton assault craft hovering over his shuttle. Realizing what was about to happen, Dick ran to try to warn the others. Even as far away as he was, the blast from the explosion was still able to pick him up and throw him against a tree, stunning him.

By the time he was able to get his bearings and go after the marines, Dick arrived just in time to see the end of their firefight as the surviving marines were led away as prisoners. Instead of taking the enemy by surprise, a force of Ch'ton soldiers had obviously been waiting for the marines.

The next few days passed in a blur as Dick tried to find out what happened to the other men while still remaining hidden. These efforts were complicated by the headaches caused by the slight concussion he'd sustained and the pain from his injured ribs. He finally decided there was too much security in the section of the palace where the marines had been taken. That job would have to wait until the Titans arrived.

"So you managed to stay hidden for two weeks?" exclaimed Donna, when Dick paused in his account.

"Has it only been two weeks?" Dick asked wistfully. "It seemed longer, somehow." He continued in a more normal tone, "Using their ventilation system to maneuver throughout the palace, I did manage to plant some listening devices and do some spying on the queen and her court. I learned some very interesting things."

"You can understand what they're saying?" asked Toni in astonishment.

"Yeah. Back when the Titans first went to Tamaran, the Vegans gave each of us what they called an Instantaneous Language Translator15. I found out a little while back that it also works with the Ch'ton language."

Dick continued, "In her ... throne room, for lack of a better description, the queen is very authoritative, and everyone bows to her wishes. In her private chambers, though, one of her maids tells her what to do. I'm not sure whether the maid is in charge, or if she's just working for someone else."

"Are you sure it's not something like Bruce and Alfred?" asked Wally. "I mean, we all know who's really in charge at the Manor."

Dick laughed along with everyone else. "No, it's not like that, believe me. For one thing, Alfred usually maintains the illusion that Bruce is in charge. Everyone in the throne room acted as if the queen was the queen, but in private, the maid was the one making policy decisions."

"But what does all this have to do with our plan to kidnap the queen?" Donna asked.

"It means, I think we need to capture both of them," replied Dick.

Chapter 19

Come tighten your girth and slacken your rein;
Come buckle your blanket and holster again;
Try the click of your trigger and balance your blade,
For he must ride sure that goes riding a raid.
-- Anonymous, 1861

"So why do I always have to stay behind?" huffed Garth, as they were going over the final plans for the abduction.

"You want a little cheese with that whine?" Dick replied without much humor. "Think it through, Garth! You're staying with the ship because you're best suited for the job."

Garth leaned back in his chair with his arms crossed, a look of frustrated anger on his face. "What's to think through? Why did I come all this way just to drive the getaway car?"

"Well, I'm sorry you feel the job is beneath you, Your Highness!" Dick replied sarcastically. "Since you seem to have missed the point of some important parts of the briefing, let me explain. Did you read the Ch'ton physiological data I highlighted?" He took a deep breath and continued more calmly. "The Ch'ton may be humanoid, but they are two to three times stronger than we are. That means those two women are stronger than any of us except for Donna, Vic, Toni, and you. When Raven brings them up here, until we rejoin the ship, it'll be just her, the pilot, and two extremely pissed-off Ch'ton women. Since Toni isn't a pilot, that means either Donna, Vic, or you need to stay here, in case they start causing problems."

During Dick's explanation, Garth's expression had cleared, and now he nodded. "Okay, I think I understand. Donna and Toni are the only ones who can fly, so we don't want to give up that advantage. You also want Vic to hack into their computer net and grab any information he can, so that leaves me. Sorry, Dick -- you're right. I wasn't thinking it through. Knee-jerk reaction, I'm afraid."

"S'okay," Dick replied, smiling. "It wouldn't be the Titans if we didn't have at least some kind of internal conflict before a mission!"

After the laughter had died down, Roy spoke up. "Fearless leader, I'll admit I'm still a little confused as to why a Bat-boy like yourself would want to attack during the day. Aren't you nervous about all that unhealthy sunlight?"

Dick grinned again at the comment. "I'll admit, it does feel a little weird to push for a daylight raid, but again, it goes back to that physiological report. Their eyesight's much better than ours -- especially compared to our night vision. If we'd had time to run sims on this, I might go for a night mission, but we haven't worked together for a long time, so we have to depend on habit. I'm worried that if we attacked at night, we would forget to allow for the Ch'ton's better night vision. Which reminds me -- Wally!"


"This is why I wanted you on this job instead of Jesse. These reports don't say anything for certain, but don't rely on your normal rate of speed to keep you from being seen or hit. I think it's possible these guys could still track you, so move it as fast as you can, okay?

"Gotcha," Wally nodded.

"Okay, one last item -- costumes. It's up to you guys whether you wear 'em or not, but I have to go on this mission as Richard Grayson, USN. You can probably get away with calling me 'Robbie' when we're actually on the planet, but once we're back aboard ship, be sure to call me either 'Dick' or 'Richard.'"

"How come?" asked Toni, in confusion.

"Secret ID stuff," replied Roy before Dick could say anything. "While we could finesse not having Nightwing with us when we left, we have to return with formerly-MIA Dick Grayson. I don't think we can convince Queenie that Dick is really two separate people, and I'm sure the brass we turn her over to won't buy it either."

"Right," Dick confirmed. "Any questions?"

No one said anything.

In a softer, more serious tone, Dick continued, "I just want to thank you guys for coming out here. That kept me going, when things would get a little ... rough. I knew you'd come." He stood up from the table. "Okay, let's go!"

Unlike the military's ships, the Jericho had a transporter, but it could only handle two people at a time. Dick and Wally were the first to arrive on the secluded section of the palace roof Dick had selected as their landing zone. Wally made a fast recon of the area while Dick used his monitoring devices to look for the queen. Wally returned in a few seconds.

"All clear, Dick."

"Thanks!" Dick told Garth to send down the rest of the team.

"We're in luck," Dick said when they were all assembled. "As I had hoped, the queen and her maid are in the throne room along with a whole bunch of soldiers and civilians, so we'll go with Plan A. Donna, I'll signal you when we're in place."

"Got it," replied Donna. She, Roy, Wally, and Toni took up their positions on the side of the roof nearest the throne room.

Raven enfolded Dick and Vic in her "cloak" and transported them to the queen's bolthole behind the throne room. Dick had originally planned to sneak the three of them in, but Raven had pointed out that she could get them there faster and, more importantly, undetected.

He tapped his communicator twice -- the signal to Donna -- and waited. Less than a minute later, they heard shouts and screams filter through the thick walls to where they were waiting. Dick was so focused on the sounds of the fighting that he almost missed the telltale click of the bolthole's door opening. He quickly motioned for Vic and Raven to take cover as he did so himself.

As the door opened, he once again wanted to thank the idiot who had furnished the queen's retreat. It appeared obvious that fashion had held sway over security -- the room was filled with hiding places. It was a security guard's nightmare. The queen's two bodyguards were obviously aware of their problem as they nervously entered the room ahead of their charge. Because of the strength of the attack in the throne room, they only had time for a cursory glance before motioning the queen and her maid through the door.

When the door shut behind the two bodyguards, the queen, and her maid, Dick and Victor struck. Vic attacked the bodyguards while Dick shoved both women toward Raven and then joined Vic against the guards. Raven gathered the two women into her cloak and vanished. When the guards saw that their charges were gone, they fought with increased ferocity. The close quarters definitely made things difficult for Dick's normal acrobatic fighting style, but he finally managed to get a chokehold on his guard and hang on. Regardless of their superior strength, the Ch'ton still needed to breathe, and the guard gradually slipped into unconsciousness. Dick looked up to see that Vic had finished off his own opponent and was now studying the room's communication console. Dick quickly tied the two guards up and joined Vic at the console.

"What'cha think?" he asked, wincing as he heard an especially loud crash coming from the battle still going on in the throne room.

"I got it," Vic replied absently, as he used his morphing abilities to send a small tendril from his finger into the console. He stiffened slightly, and his eyes went blank as he insinuated himself into the network.

"Dick?" Donna's voice sounded rather tense through the communicator.

"Yeah, Donna?" replied Dick.

"How much longer?"

"Just a few more minutes. Raven's already left with the queen and the maid; Vic's getting the data right now."

"Tell him to get a move on -- the situation's starting to get nasty."

"Vic?" Dick asked.

The other Titan nodded and held up two fingers.

"Okay, Donna. Prepare to rendezvous in two minutes."

"You got it!"

Ninety seconds later, Vic absorbed the little tendril back into his finger. He nodded to Dick, and the two men went through the bolthole door back into the throne room. They were able to fight their way through the remaining guards, soldiers, and civilians to join up with their fellow Titans. The whole group then began a gradual retreat out of the room. Once they were out, Toni sealed up the entrance to the throne room. Dick had hoped that the initial attack would draw all the reinforcements into the room so there would be less risk of being caught between two groups of defenders. That proved to be the case, at least until they reached the roof where the rest of the queen's defenders finally caught up with them and opened fire.

"Toni -- get a shield up around us! Garth!" Dick yelled into his communicator to be heard over the Ch'ton's guns. "Start the pick up! Wally, do your search, but make it fast."

Donna and Vic were the first to transport up, while Wally searched for any sign of the captured marines. Although it was unlikely any of the marines had survived their captivity, Dick didn't want to leave without making sure. The tiny hope he had nursed while hiding and waiting was dashed when Wally reappeared moments later, a grim look on his face. He shook his head in answer to Dick's unspoken question.

"Okay!" Dick called out hoarsely, swallowing past the unexpected lump in his throat. "Wally and Roy -- you're next!"

The two men disappeared, and Toni and Dick anxiously waited for their turn. Toni's barriers were able to hold up against anything the soldiers could send against them, but even she had her limits. Dick was fairly certain the Ch'ton wouldn't bomb their own palace, but he would rather not take that chance. Finally, Garth signaled that he was ready, and Dick felt the slight queasiness he always associated with the transporter as the world dissolved around him.

Dick sat back in his chair drinking coffee while he listened to Roy and Wally argue about who had knocked out the most soldiers. Compared to running a fighter squadron, leading the Titans had been like changing from a business suit into an old, worn pair of jeans. In spite of the years they had been apart, they had all fit together almost seamlessly. He smiled as he watched Donna being called over to confirm Roy's account of something. His smile widened as Vic and Toni walked through the door.

"Are we clear?" he asked Vic.

"As crystal. I'm not sayin' they can't find us, but they're gonna have an awful hard time, and we'll certainly hear 'em comin'." On Dick's instructions, Vic had piloted the Jericho to the outskirts of the Ch'ton system. With the shields in place, the small ship would be invisible to any Ch'ton search ships.

"Okay. Donna and Toni, please escort our 'guests' to the briefing room," Dick said, motioning for the others to take their seats around the table.

Shortly, the two Titans returned leading the two Ch'ton women, each wearing "handcuffs" constructed by Toni. Leaving the prisoners standing facing Dick, Donna and Toni took their seats around the table.

Despite the "Bug" nickname, the Ch'ton were humanoid. Kory's data indicated that there were three different races or castes: the queens, the warriors, and the workers. All three shared the basic Ch'ton characteristics of reddish-brown skin, black hair, a large upper torso, almost fragile-looking arms and legs, and large, wide-set, faceted eyes. Workers, both male and female, were distinguished by their thicker lower torso, and plainer-looking eyes and were shorter than an average human. Warriors were always male and were much taller, with thicker arms and legs. The exclusively female queen caste (a Ch'ton female could be of the queen caste without actually ruling anything) was taller than the workers, but more slender.

The Ch'ton queen standing rigidly in front of them seemed fairly typical of her caste. She was about Dick's height with long black hair. When she had been captured, she had been wearing a large ornate headpiece through which her hair had been woven, but she had taken that off. Her simple one-shoulder gown was dark green and cinched at the waist with an elaborately woven golden girdle. Her worker-caste maid, who had much shorter hair, wore a similarly styled gown, although hers was in a mahogany color and her girdle was a simple cord tie.

Garth had told Dick that the two women, especially the maid, had been extremely upset when they first came aboard, but Raven had been able to calm them down.

"Your Majesty, I am Lt. Commander Richard Grayson. We have taken you and your maid prisoner, but let me assure you we do not intend to harm you. Let me also assure you that it is impossible for you to escape us and return to your home. If you will accept that, I will remove your restraints."

The queen looked around the room at the men and women assembled there. She turned to look at her companion, and then her shoulders appeared to slump slightly, and she nodded her head.

"Very well, Lt. Commander Richard Grayson. We are your prisoners," she replied in a husky voice.

Dick glanced at Toni, who nodded and made the handcuffs disappear. Vic then brought over two more chairs and motioned for them to sit down.

"Ma'am, as I said, we don't intend to harm you. What we want to do is put an end to this war. We hope that by having you as our 'guest,' your people will finally respond to the attempts we've made to talk to them about ending these hostilities." He stopped as he saw the queen's mouth twist in a humorless smile. "Ma'am?"

"I'm afraid you will not find me to be a very valuable prisoner, Lt. Commander Richard Grayson."

"Please, you can just call me 'Richard.' Don't you think your people will want you back?"

"Oh, I'm sure they would want me back, if they knew that was an option. Unfortunately, the ones who want me back aren't the ones who are in a position to make that happen." She and her maid exchanged rueful looks.

Dick decided to get to the bottom line. "Who exactly is in charge of your planet, ma'am? It's obviously not you."

"You are correct, Richard," the queen replied bitterly. "Until a short time ago, I thought I was the ruler of the Ch'ton. I thought I was leading my people through a time of great crisis. Then I discovered I was only a pawn. The power that I thought I had was merely an illusion, fostered by those who knew who held the real power, my uncle Tongear, the Warlord."

"Warlord?" inquired Wally.

"Yes, the leader of the warriors. I had always known him to be an ambitious man, but I never dreamed his ambitions included usurping the rule of the queen." She turned back to Dick. "My uncle will make a token effort to find me. He will probably even assign a phalanx of hand-picked warriors to look for me. He will then announce, regretfully, that all efforts to find me have failed." She continued sardonically, "His next announcement will be that for the good of our people and the success of the war effort, he will take over the reins of government. Just until they find me, or they find out I've been killed, of course. Naturally, then he would turn the government back over to me or my successor."

"Naturally," echoed Dick. He looked around the table at the other Titans. Vic had given Toni, Roy, and Garth headsets that translated the Ch'ton speech, so they had been able to follow the explanation along with the others.

"But won't they know where you are when we tell them you're our prisoner?" asked Donna in confusion.

"In wartime, the Warlord controls all communications. Whatever attempts you might make to communicate with my people, he will be able to intercept. Moreover, I've also learned that he has suborned my council. They will support him in suppressing the information."

"You said you learned all this fairly recently," said Dick. "What happened to make you realize what was going on?"

"When I first became queen, my uncle kept me busy with all the ceremonial duties involved in my cousin's funeral and the visits and oaths of fealty from the leaders of the different provinces. After that was over, he 'allowed' me to sit in on my own council, but he politely frustrated all of my efforts at taking on any kind of a leadership role. His reasons always seemed to make perfect sense, but I began to be suspicious. I also realized that my oh-so-helpful maid Terga," she nodded at the maid who dipped her head in an ironic bow, "was actually a spy and a mouthpiece for my uncle."

Terga spoke up, "My husband is a soldier. The Warlord told me that if I didn't spy for him, he would ensure that my husband would die. I did as he instructed. I also wasn't naive enough to think I was the only spy he had in place, so I was careful to follow orders when we were around other people." She smiled fiercely. "I'm afraid I paid much less attention to Her Majesty's words and actions when we were alone, so I didn't report her growing suspicions to the Warlord. Especially her suspicions about me and her research into Queen Chalanda's death."

The queen smiled, this time almost naturally. "Before I became queen, I was a historian. Research, especially record searching, was one of my specialties. I suppose Tongear either forgot this, or thought of historical research as confined to the distant past. It must not have occurred to him that I could use my security codes as queen to access any of his files, even his personal ones." Her expression grew solemn again. "That's when I discovered he had had my cousin murdered."

"Murdered?" squeaked Toni. The queen looked at Toni in confusion at the English word, so Dick translated.

The queen nodded. "Yes. It was all laid out quite plainly. She was taking a long-overdue trip to visit one of our colony worlds. Tongear blew up her ship while she was en route." The queen looked around the table as she continued. "He then placed the blame on a race of aliens whom we had heard almost nothing of -- some people living on a planet called Urth," she said, saying the name phonetically instead of the Ch'ton word. "We were outraged, of course. This horrible act could not be allowed to go unpunished." She sighed. "And so, here we are."

The Titans looked at each other in shock. Predictably, Roy found his voice first.

"You mean you guys attacked us because you thought we killed your queen?!? Some guy tells you, 'Hey, I know who did it! Let's go bomb them into oblivion.' That's crazy!"

"My uncle is nothing if not thorough. Admittedly, we were shocked and in mourning, but his 'evidence' was compelling. He had scanner data, supposedly showing some ships of yours, and even some recorded communiqués between those ships. We were convinced. If I hadn't found his original plans for the bomb he planted, I would probably still be convinced."

"How would he know enough about us to fake evidence like that?" asked Dick, trying to ignore the sinking feeling in his stomach.

"Oh, he had help from one of your people. Someone named Luthor gave him all the information he needed."

Chapter 20

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has wash'd out their foul footsteps' pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.
-- Francis Scott Key, 1814

"Luthor?!" exclaimed several of the Titans at once.

"But how? Why?" continued Donna in consternation. "I mean, we all know how rotten the guy is, but even assuming he'd want to pull a stunt like this off, how would Luthor and this Tongear connect with each other?"

"That's my thought as well. Ma'am?" Dick asked, turning to the queen.

The queen replied, "From what I've read in his notes, my uncle first heard of your people at a diplomatic summit. The Gordanian ambassador was answering questions about a recent settlement between his people and their former enemies, the Tamaranians." She broke off in puzzlement as Wally slapped Garth on the back while Donna snickered and Roy leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms and looked slightly disgusted. "Excuse me?" she asked.

Dick felt she deserved some explanation. "Garth over there was the one who negotiated the settlement."16

"Yes!" she exclaimed. "That's the name the Gordanian ambassador said. When my uncle questioned him further, he explained that the Gordanians had encountered your people before. They had even considered attacking your planet but finally decided against it."

"They did?" asked Dick, intrigued in spite of his natural skepticism. He had occasionally wondered why a race of slavers like the Gordanians had never come against the Earth in force. They didn't seem the type to back away from a fight.

"Yes. My uncle's notes are fairly detailed. While the Gordanians felt confident of their ability to eliminate your military defenses, the unknown capabilities of your planetary defenders -- what my uncle labeled as your 'warrior caste' -- made them decide that your planet was, if you'll forgive me, not worth the trouble."

The Titans stared at each other. Dick was pleased to see them maintain their composure in front of the Ch'ton queen, although Donna's eyes looked suspiciously bright, and Wally's jaw was clenched in an effort not to burst out laughing.

"Um, yes, that's quite all right," Dick managed to say in a normal tone. "But what does all this have to do with your uncle, uh, Tongear?"

"My uncle needed someone to blame in order to carry out his plot against my cousin. He needed a race of people who were technologically advanced enough to make a believable enemy, but who were not so advanced that it would be impractical for the Ch'ton to attack in retaliation. Based on the Gordanian's information, he thought your planet might make a good candidate. He sent a scout ship with several of our best intelligence officers aboard to gather some preliminary information."

She took a sip from the glass of water Donna had given her earlier. "The intelligence officers were able to put together a geopolitical survey fairly quickly and then settled in to flesh out the data. It soon turned out they had arrived just as the leader of one of your wealthiest nations resigned because of some sort of scandal. This naturally intrigued our people, so they focused on that country and that leader in particular."

The queen grinned. Her smile lit up her face and made her look like a mischievous girl instead of the ruler of a planet. "Intelligence officers and historians actually have a lot in common. I must confess that I found their reports to be the most interesting part of reading my uncle's files. Anyway, they finally came back to Ch'ton and gave my uncle everything they had learned on President Lex Luthor and the United States of America." She stumbled a bit over the English words that had no Ch'ton equivalent, but her listeners had no doubt about what she meant.

"So then your uncle contacted Luthor?" asked Dick.

"Yes. I think Tongear viewed him as a kindred spirit. He proposed a deal: help assassinate my cousin, and my uncle would help Luthor regain his rule. Luthor agreed.

"So this whole war, all the millions of people who died in the initial attack and all the battles since then, were just window-dressing for a power grab?" Wally asked in horror.

The queen nodded, her face solemn once more.

Donna spoke up. "There's one thing I don't get, though," she said. "You said you were just a pawn, that your uncle wouldn't really try to find you. If that's the case, why did he bother to sabotage the other kidnapping mission?"

This time, Terga answered, "The kidnapping idea was the Warlord's. The plan for the ambush was Luthor's. Tongear didn't really care whether the mission worked or not. He planned to use the failed attempt as an excuse to move the queen to 'more secure quarters for her own safety.' That was actually going to be his proposal at court today."

"So he could hold me prisoner until he felt secure enough to kill me," interpreted the queen bitterly. "I suppose I should thank you for saving me from that fate."

Dick looked around the room as Donna took her seat at the table. She had escorted the two Ch'ton women back to their quarters after dinner so the Titans could discuss these new developments. He sighed and leaned back in his chair. He wished he had a wall to lean against.

"I'll admit, this was certainly not what I had in mind when I invited you guys to join me on this little excursion. Ideas? Comments?"

Vic said, "I can't say I've been able to verify everything she said, but nothing I've found in their files contradicts anything."

"What about the previous queen's death?" asked Roy.

"I haven't found the bomb plans the queen -- her name is Chandria, by the way -- talked about, but I did find the investigators' report she mentioned. They've got some scan data from ships that were supposedly 'in the area' when the queen's ship exploded. The interesting part is that there are definitely traces of Brainiac and S.T.A.R. technology, as well as pretty clear Earth-human physiological readings."

Wally asked, "Could someone from Earth have blown up the other queen's ship?"

"Not with that supposed 'ship,'" Vic replied confidently. "I'm familiar with those specs -- it always looked good on paper, and we even built a couple of prototypes, but the Brainiac technology was completely impractical for any form of space travel. It was something that Luthor had complete access to, however."

"So someone had to fake the data for the investigators," concluded Dick. "What about the ship that supposedly recorded the data?"

Vic smiled. "It was a Ch'ton military ship on patrol."

"The Warlord again," sighed Toni.

"Also, the Warlord assigned the investigators and signed off on their final report," added Vic.

"Was Queen Chandria connected with the investigation in any way?" asked Dick.

"She's listed as sitting on the panel that heard the investigators' reports, but that's it."

"Okay, I'm inclined to believe her story. How about you guys?" asked Dick, looking around the room.

Raven spoke up. "I did not sense any deceit in either her or her maid."

"And she couldn't have known that Vic would be able to check her story," concurred Donna. "I believe her."

"But what about Luthor?" asked Wally. "How does helping the Warlord help him?"

Everyone sat in silence for a few moments. Finally, Dick said, "We know about Luthor's efforts to delay the improved Barracuda. We know Mueller, someone with known ties to Luthor, deliberately sabotaged the original mission both by giving us faulty intel and by letting the Ch'ton know we were coming. The evidence in the previous queen's murder points pretty clearly at Luthor. I think it's undeniable that Luthor is in some sort of collusion with the Ch'ton military, presumably the Warlord himself. We also know that Lex is a very smart, very devious man. Just because we can't see a purpose right now, doesn't mean it's not there."

"Yeah," chimed Roy. "I can think of several ways Luthor could benefit from having an 'in' with the enemy, and I'm not even a devious kinda guy!"

"Yeah?" Wally challenged.

"Sure!" replied Roy. "For example -- the Warlord could give Luthor some of those space mines, but keyed to a different frequency. Luthor puts 'em in Earth orbit, and presto! Nobody can get in or out without Luthor's okay."

"Or puts them between the JLA Watchtower and the Earth," wondered Wally. He looked at the red-haired archer in slight amazement. "I thought you said you weren't devious?"

"I'm not -- that seemed pretty straightforward to me."

"In any event," continued Dick, "we're here, and Luthor's back on Earth. Let's deal with the Warlord first. Can I assume then that everyone thinks the queen is telling the truth?"

Heads nodded around the table as Dick looked at each person in turn. He leaned forward and rested his forearms on the table.

"My original orders called for my team to capture the queen and take her back to headquarters. I felt I could justify asking you to come out here because that fit in with my original mission. We have succeeded in the first part of that mission. Based on what Queen Chandria told us, I think I would be violating the spirit of the original orders if we just took her and her maid back to Earth. The question now becomes how do we carry out the spirit of those original orders? What can we use as a lever to bring the Ch'ton to the peace table if it's not the queen?"

"Why don't we just go back and kidnap the Warlord, too?" asked Donna.

Roy piped up, "'Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is surprise ... surprise and fear .... Our two weapons are fear and surprise .... and ruthless efficiency ...'"

Dick jumped in before Roy could recite the whole Monty Python skit, "Roy's weird, but he's right. The main reason our raid worked this time is because they didn't know we were coming. Assuming we could find the Warlord, they would be on guard against us now." He pushed back his chair and stood up.

"I'm going to go talk to the queen."

Dick knocked on the door and then unlocked it, allowing Terga to open it from the other side.

"May I come in, ma'am?" he asked the queen who was standing behind her maid.

"What if I said, 'No'?" said Chandria idly.

Dick gave her his most charming smile. "Then I would ask if you would join me out here. But your quarters would be much more comfortable."

Chandria nodded, and she and Terga backed away from the door, allowing Dick to enter. The two women sat down on the small couch. Dick grabbed the desk chair, turned it around and sat on it, leaning his arms on the back.

"Ma'am, we've decided we believe your information, at least for the time being. Unfortunately, that information almost creates more problems than it solves. I was sent here to capture you and take you back to Earth to try to force your people to stop this war. From what you've said, my taking you back home won't do either of our people any good. What would you suggest I do?"

"Can't you just capture the Warlord the way you took the queen?" asked Terga.

"One of my friends also suggested that, but I don't think that will work. For one thing, assuming Tongear's in the military section of the palace, he'd be a lot harder to get out. Also, they're going to be on their guard just in case we try something like that. Finally, even if we did grab him, there's nothing to prevent some ambitious underling from taking his place and putting us right back where we started."

"I agree," Chandria replied. She sighed. "Unfortunately, my cousin's most trusted warriors were killed with her when her ship exploded. My bodyguards were nice enough, but I was never completely sure of them. I'm almost surprised they tried to defend me."

Dick felt the stirrings of an idea. "Are there any warriors you trust, ma'am? Any at all?" he asked, trying to keep his voice neutral.

She looked at him, not completely buying his attempt at nonchalance, "There are some, yes. And please, call me Chandria. I think I've had quite enough of 'ma'am' for a while."

"Thank you. I think you see where I'm heading with this. Are there any warriors you would trust to be Warlord instead of your uncle?"

"Gareth is the captain of one of their destroyer-type ships, currently stationed near the minefield on patrol duty," said Vic as he pulled up the translated personnel data on the large computer screen in the briefing room. "He was captain of one of their carrier ships but was transferred when war was declared."

"That's practically a demotion. Any reasons?" asked Dick.

"None given. If I'm readin' this thing right, ol' Gareth was on the fast track with commendations and high performance marks out the wazzoo until the war started."

"Or rather, until the queen was killed," inserted Dick sardonically.

"Yeah, I guess you could put it that way," Vic agreed with a smile.

"Any connection between Chandria and Gareth?" asked Roy.

"At first, I couldn't find any, but then I discovered that before she became queen, Chandria's name was actually 'Alandria.' Turns out she went to school with our boy, Gareth."

"You do know this is crazy, don't you, Robbie?" asked Wally plaintively.

Dick turned to his best friend, a resigned smile on his face. "Yes, I know it's crazy, but none of us have been able to come up with a better plan. You heard Chandria agree to sue for peace if we helped her take back her throne. She can't get her throne back if we don't do something about the Warlord, and this Gareth was the best bet of the names she gave us." He sighed. "I'll admit, I'm nervous about this. I don't really like trying to play kingmaker, or queenmaker, as the case may be. I just know two things: my gut says she's on the level, and I don't want to think those marines died for nothing."

Rear Admiral Samuel Mueller awoke with a start. For a moment or so, he lay in the dark, fuzzily trying to figure out what could have wakened him. Suddenly, he began to get a sense that he wasn't alone in his room. Telling himself he was only imagining things, he cautiously glanced around the dark bedroom.

Now that was odd! It was almost as if the shadows were more ... concentrated in one corner of the room. He stared harder, trying to convince himself it was only a trick of the moonlight peeking through the gaps in the drapes. He couldn't help gasping when two glowing, almond-shaped lights appeared near the ceiling. His breath then caught in his throat as the glowing lights and the shadows condensed into the form of a very large man.

The man stepped out of the shadows, but the shadows were reluctant to let him go as they clung and flowed around him as he moved. When the man drew closer to Mueller's bed, he could see the faint outlines of a bat symbol on the man's chest. Mueller's breath came back in his lungs with a rush, and he almost began hyperventilating. Batman stood beside his bed and looked down on him.

"Samuel Mueller!" growled the dark figure in a deep, raspy voice. "You will tell me everything -- and I do mean everything -- about the sabotaged mission to kidnap the Ch'ton queen and anything else you know about Lex Luthor."

The corpulent figure lying in the bed whimpered and began to talk.

Chapter 21

Keep the home fires burning,
While your hearts are yearning,
Though your lads are far away they dream of home.
There's a silver lining, through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out, 'til the boys come home.
-- Lena Guilbert Ford, 1915

Batman crouched on his favorite gargoyle, watching the (relatively) peaceful Gotham streets below. Snow had been falling heavily for most of the day, discouraging all but the most desperate of last-minute Christmas shoppers. It had also discouraged all but the most desperate of criminals, as well, much to Batman's disappointment. Ever since he had spoken with Admiral Mueller last night, he had felt the overwhelming desire to beat something -- or someone -- to a pulp.

Mueller had admitted that the mission to kidnap the queen was a smokescreen. It was designed to be Luthor's revenge against one Lt. Commander Richard Grayson and one Lt. Colonel Edmond Marchant. Mueller hadn't known about Dick's role in the Barracuda scam, so he didn't know why Luthor had a grudge against Richard Grayson, but he knew that Marchant had had a part in the scandal that had caused Luthor to resign from office. Luthor had designed the mission profile and selected the team members. Mueller was ordered to sell the mission to the Joint Chiefs. Once he had done so, Luthor ordered him to go along and make sure that neither Grayson nor Marchant returned.

It wasn't enough that Mueller gave the team deliberately altered building schematics, Batman thought savagely. The terrified admiral eventually revealed that before he boarded the Chaffee, he had sent a translated message to Ch'ton, giving the enemy the team's attack plans. And Dick had flown right into the trap!

The feel of a not-quite-natural breeze behind him interrupted Batman's musings.

"You'd think, by now, you'd realize you can't sneak up on me," he growled to the red-and-blue-clad figure he knew was behind him.

"Hope springs eternal," replied the deep voice of Superman, good-humoredly.

Batman turned his head to see his friend hovering above the roof, a few feet from his gargoyle.

"Not anymore, it doesn't," he replied flatly.

A beat of silence, then Superman said, "I heard about Mueller. I think Luthor's actually getting nervous. There were certainly enough naval investigators poking around LexCorp earlier this afternoon, even it if is two days before Christmas." When Batman didn't respond, he continued, "Oracle said you wanted to see me?"

Batman nodded and stepped from his gargoyle back onto the roof. Reaching into one of his belt pouches, he drew out a folded envelope addressed simply "Clark." He handed it to Superman.

"Dick's ... effects arrived today," he ground out. "There were several letters that he'd left behind in case ... anything happened."

"Have you read yours yet?" Superman asked gently.

Batman shook his head. In a hoarse voice he whispered, "I can almost pretend sometimes that he's still out there, and I'm just waiting for him to come home. To read his last letter would ..." His voice trailed off.

"You owe it to him, you know."

"I know."

"I've got an idea. Why don't we go up to the observation room on the satellite and read them there?"


"Now. Waiting won't make it any easier."

"All right," Batman sighed.

The "observation room" on the JLA's satellite was a transparent bubble that made the occupant feel as if he were really standing out in the vastness of space. Before the war, or rather, before Dick joined the Navy, Batman had never really spent much time up there. His concerns were Gotham City and Earth, not space. That had changed when Dick left. Now one of his most important concerns was out there in space, beyond his reach. The observation room was as close as Batman could get to his son, and it had become something of a habit of his to take Dick's letters up there to read. Somehow, he wasn't surprised that Superman knew about that.

The two men stood in the chamber looking out at the serene and colorful lights of the distant stars. Even now, Batman felt the calm of the room start to seep into his soul. In the midst of the stillness, Superman began speaking, and Batman let the words flow into him.

"In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light'; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, 'Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.' And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

"Genesis?" asked Batman.

"And Apollo 8. It seemed appropriate on what's now the day before Christmas."17

Eventually, Batman realized he couldn't put off the inevitable any longer. Reaching into his belt pouch, he drew out another folded envelope. It had been hard enough maintaining his composure when Barbara had told him about the letters. But when he saw the envelope, it had taken every ounce of self-control to keep from weeping. It was addressed, "Dad."

Bruce pulled the cowl back from his head and opened the envelope. Inside were two separately folded sheets of paper. On one was written in large letters, "READ THIS FIRST." The letter started abruptly, with no date or salutation:

If you're reading this letter, that means the mission we were on went south just as I expected it to. I've had a hinky feeling about this operation from the beginning, so I'm going in expecting more than the usual amount of trouble. I've also made what preparations I could beforehand.

Babs should have already received a message giving her the details of the mission and asking her to pass this information along to some of our mutual friends. I also asked her not to tell you. Now, before you crumple this letter up in disgust

A crinkling of the paper prompted Bruce to look at his hand, which was already trying to "crumple this letter up in disgust." He felt genuinely amused for the first time since Dinah's phone call. Anticipating my reaction again, chum? He continued reading.

and go badger my wife, I want to explain why I asked her not to tell you. First and foremost, Vic and his team have experience at this sort of recovery mission; you don't. Vic doesn't need you looking over his shoulder. Second, although I certainly have hopes that I am still alive and that Vic and his team will be able to bring me home, I want you to understand that it is still likely that I am dead. We both know that going in expecting a trap doesn't always keep the trap from closing.

I need you to stay behind, Bruce. You are the only person I know who can possibly out-stubborn Babs, should it be necessary. If you truly care about me, take care of my wife and my daughter and let someone else do the rescuing. That's my final request of you.

Enclosed with this is my standard, "in case I don't make it home" letter. You can read it now, or you can wait until Vic confirms whether I'm really dead. Either way, the letter just states things we've always known but never put into words.

Latcho Drom, Dat


The Romany phrase caught Bruce by surprise, and he had to think for a moment to translate what it meant. He remembered "Latcho Drom" meant "Good Journey" and that it was a traditional farewell phrase. "Dat" puzzled him for a little longer until he remembered. It meant "Father."

"I need to speak to Barbara," Batman ordered sternly. He had called Oracle expecting Barbara to answer; instead, Tim's face appeared on the monitor in the satellite's communications room.

"Sorry, boss. No can do. She's asleep."

"I need to speak to Barbara," Batman repeated.

"Bruce, you know as well as I do that Dr. Leslie wants her to rest. She's asleep, and the doc would have my hide if I woke her. Besides, I can answer your questions as well as she can."

"Not in this."

"Wanna bet? I was the one who found the email message from Dick to send the Titans out."

"And you didn't tell me, Robin?" Batman thundered.

"That's the way Dick wanted it," Tim replied calmly. "I happened to agree with his reasons, but that's beside the point. Dick wanted to tell you himself." Tim glanced around the room checking out something. "Look, everything's pretty quiet here. Why don't I come up to the satellite and fill you in?"

"All right," he growled.

A few minutes later, Tim, now dressed in his Robin costume, followed Batman into one of the JLA's briefing rooms. Superman had had to leave to take care of some sort of emergency. Tim laid out the papers he had brought with him.

"Okay, first of all, here's Dick's message to Barbara. Then, we've got the original mission plans, which I gave you to use to investigate Mueller." Tim handed the papers to Bruce as he spoke. "Now here is Dick's plan for the Titans. He wants them to use one of their existing scenarios -- uh, HR-704b -- with a couple of variations. From what Babs told me, Raven will be going along in order to locate and extract Dick and aid in the kidnapping attempt. After that, the plan is to bring her straight back to Fleet Headquarters up at Heinlein Station."

After studying the documents for several minutes, Batman had to acknowledge that Dick's plan made sense. However comforting it would have been for Bruce to tag along on the mission, he really wasn't needed. He also realized that underneath his bravado, Tim was slightly apprehensive about having kept this information a secret. Bruce sighed. He squeezed the younger man's shoulder reassuringly.

"Thank you, Tim. I think I want to study these a little longer. You should probably head back to the clocktower now."

"Okay. I'll see you tonight at the manor." Tim walked out of the room.

Bruce sighed again. Although none of them had felt like celebrating Christmas this year, Dinah and Tim had decided there should be some acknowledgement of the season. They had persuaded Alfred to put together a small dinner party of just "family": Bruce, Barbara, Tim, Leslie, Jim Gordon, Dinah, and Cassandra Cain, the current Batgirl. They would attend a candlelight service and then go back to the manor for a late dinner.

Bruce went back to the observation room to spend some time with his son.

That evening, when Bruce came downstairs after having changed into a suit, he found Alfred just walking out of the study.

"Ah, Master Bruce! Master Tim and Miss Barbara wish you to call them as soon as possible, sir."

Bruce nodded and walked into the study and down into the Batcave. He activated the video monitor and called the clocktower. An excited-looking Tim answered the call.

"Bruce! We got it! We figured out those files of Luthor's!"

At the mention of Luthor's name, a scowl appeared on Bruce's face. "What do they say?" he asked harshly.

"I'm routing them over to you right now. It's some really nasty stuff, Bruce," said Tim, his excitement draining away as the meaning of what he was reading took over.

"What kind of stuff?"

"I know it's gonna sound hard to believe, but ... Luthor helped instigate the whole war."

That was too much, even for Batman's legendary control. Bruce could feel his jaw drop and his eyebrows try to climb off his forehead.

"Um, where's Barbara? And how did you end up cracking his code?" he thought to ask finally.

"She's getting ready for tonight. Did Babs ever show you what the two files looked like?" Bruce barely had time to shake his head before Tim continued. "It was just a whole jumble of letters strung together. No spaces, no punctuation, nothin'. I think Babs and I must have run them through every ciphering and code breaking scheme known to man and then some. This afternoon, I had pulled them up again, and for some reason, I just started 'reading' it aloud; you know, just nonsense sounds. Babs said it sounded oddly familiar and asked me to have her speech synthesizer program read it aloud as best it could. It sounded even more familiar to her, and then she remembered some translation work she had done for S.T.A.R. Labs on Ch'ton technical data."

Tim took a deep breath. "So we ran the synthesizer reading through her Ch'ton translation program. It came out in English!"

"Good job, son! Both of you!" said Bruce. He read the messages between Luthor and the Ch'ton Warlord. His expression grew grimmer and grimmer as he realized what Luthor had intended.

The first message contained Luthor and the Ch'ton Warlord's plan to assassinate the Ch'ton queen and place the blame on Earth. The second message ...

"As soon as this Warlord character signaled that he was in power, Luthor was going to get himself named to the peace talks committee," Bruce summarized to Superman, whom he had called as soon as he finished talking to Tim.

"Which he could have done, in the tradition of ex-U.S. presidents before him," interjected Clark.

"Right. Once Luthor was on the committee, the Ch'ton would suddenly be amenable to peace. After some token negotiating, a peace treaty would be signed, and Luthor would be declared the Great Peacemaker," Bruce said sarcastically. "Here's where the plan starts to get a little strange. Luthor would then push for the U.S. to colonize the worlds we took from the Ch'ton, with him as the leader. The Warlord has left a large cache of weapons behind and gave Luthor the location. All of a sudden, Luthor's got his very own planet, with his very own army to back him up." Bruce shook his head in disgust.

"But why did Luthor save the files? Even encrypted, he had to realize how incriminating they were," wondered Clark.

"You know the man better than I do," Bruce replied, "but my guess is that he kept them as insurance against the Warlord. I doubt either of them completely trusts the other. And for all we know, one or the other may have been planning a double-cross anyway. I'm not completely convinced Luthor would settle for ruling his own planet instead of Earth."

"Neither am I. I assume you would like for me to bring these files to the Navy's attention?"

"Yes. Oracle has confirmed that the files still exist on Luthor's system."

"I'll try this evening, but it may have to wait until after Christmas. I'll keep you posted."

"Thank you." Bruce hung up before Clark could be tempted to wish him a "Merry Christmas." The possibility that Dick might still be alive was hovering at the back of his mind, but Bruce had purposefully not let himself hope too much. He didn't want to go through that pain again. He now understood why Barbara's expression recently had seemed to be a mixture of despair, hope, and fear.

The snow had finally let up outside when Bruce and Alfred left the manor. They would pick up Barbara, Dinah, and Tim from the clocktower and then meet the others at the church. Bruce knocked on the door and was surprised at how long it took for Dinah to answer. When she did, the first thing he noticed was that she was crying.

"Dinah?! Is Barbara all right?"

Dinah just stood there crying and waving her arms and making incoherent noises.

"Alfred!" Bruce yelled. "See if you can reach Leslie and get her here, and then I need you up here on the double!" He gently steered Dinah back into the room, steeling himself against every catastrophe he could think of. Barbara and Tim were huddled in front of one of her monitoring stations, staring intently at the screen. Tears were streaming down both of their faces, but they were oblivious. They certainly seemed unhurt.

"Tim! What's going on?"

Tim jerked, turned around, and looked at Bruce. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. Finally, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and tried again.

"Dick's alive!" he said hoarsely. "We just got a message from him and the Titans. There are some complications, but essentially they've got the queen, and Dick's all right."

Bruce tried to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat, but he didn't have much luck. He walked over to Barbara, who absently rubbed her hand over her stomach as she watched her husband speak. Bruce rested his hands on her shoulders and pressed a feather-light kiss on top of her head.

"Merry Christmas, Barbara," he whispered.

Chapter 22

Mine eyes have seen the glory
Of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage
Where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning
Of His terrible swift sword;
His truth is marching on.
-- Julia Ward Howe, 1861

When Richard, or "Dick" as his friends kept calling him, told Chandria he had a plan for them to contact Gareth, at first she couldn't understand why it had to be so elaborate. Surely Dick didn't think Gareth would betray her? Or was it that he still didn't trust her?

When she voiced these concerns, Dick had said, "Chandria, if I didn't trust you and Terga, I wouldn't even be trying to contact your friend Gareth! I'm not even that distrustful of him, but if your uncle felt the need to exile him way out here, I doubt he sent Gareth out here alone."

"You think Gareth has someone spying on him?"

"I certainly have to allow for that. Vic can jam any transmissions from Gareth's ship, but it would be even better not to arouse any suspicions until you've had a chance to speak with him. And while I'm hoping we can contain Gareth and however many people he brings down with him, I don't want to risk having you down there if it turns into a firefight."

"That's why the ruse with the lifeboat," she replied, beginning to understand.

Dick's plan called for Terga to occupy Jericho's lifeboat, which Garth or Donna would land on a small planet near the current position of Gareth's ship. Chandria would remain aboard Jericho along with Vic and Raven while the rest of the Titans waited on the planet surface. Vic would beam a Ch'ton distress signal at the other ship, making it appear to have come from the lifeboat. He had to aim the signal carefully because they certainly didn't want anyone else showing up.

Assuming the ship took the bait, Gareth and his people would see the lifeboat with a Ch'ton female on board. Jericho would be shielded, and Vic would ensure that Chandria's conversations with the other Ch'ton appeared to come from the lifeboat. Chandria knew that her presence would insure that Gareth personally accompanied the "rescue" team. The Titans would ambush the Ch'ton team on the planet and bring Gareth up to the Jericho to talk to her.

The preparations for Dick's plan found Chandria exploring the tiny lifeboat while it was still docked to the ship. Chandria looked up at the expectant faces around her. Dick and Donna were in the small space with her, while the others hovered in the ship's corridor around the lifeboat's open entrance hatch.

"I'm sorry, Dick," Chandria sighed. "I might be able to figure out how to send one of your emergency signals, but I certainly don't know how to use your equipment to send a message that my people would pay any attention to."

Dick sighed as well and nodded. "That's what I thought. Okay, we'll use Plan B -- Donna will be in the lifeboat with Terga. Supposedly you will have overpowered Donna and forced her to send a signal on a Ch'ton wavelength."

Roy spoke up, asking the question Chandria had privately wondered, "Why does it matter whether Chandria can actually send the message? They certainly don't know what the controls on our lifeboat look like!"

Dick replied, "You've done undercover work before Roy, so you know as well as I do that the best deceptions are the ones that have some truth behind them. Sure, the Ch'ton don't know what we've got, but they're also going to have a preconceived idea of Chandria's technical ability. I don't want to raise any questions in their minds if I can help it."

Hours later, Chandria watched Gareth's ship, Moravi, on Jericho's monitors, and she couldn't help but be impressed by how well Dick's plan was working. Gareth had responded to her distress call, and he had appeared truly thankful that she was alive. As she saw a shuttle leave the Ch'ton ship, she could only hope that he would forgive her for deceiving him. She sighed.

Vic smiled, "Not too much longer now, Chandria." He pressed some buttons, and the monitor shifted from showing the tactical positions of the Ch'ton ships to a bird's-eye view of the waiting lifeboat. At her gasp of surprise, he chuckled and explained.

"Roy took along a video transmitter and placed it next to his position so we could watch what happens." He pressed a button on the instrument panel. "Yo, Dick!"

"Yeah, Vic?" came the reply, sounding slightly tinny through the ship's speakers, but cheerful.

"The Ch'ton just launched a shuttle. ETA your position eighteen minutes."

"Thanks, Vic."

Even though Chandria had been at the briefing when Dick had laid out each team member's position, she could still see no trace of them on the screen. Dick had selected a medium-sized clearing between a forest and the beginning of a large rock formation for their ambush. Roy was in a cave near the top of the rocks. Wally was in another cave closer to the ground. Dick and Toni were hiding in the trees in the forest, and Garth, to Chandria's astonishment, was concealed in a nearby river.

When the shuttle landed, Chandria unconsciously held her breath as she watched Gareth descend the steps from the main entrance and look around the clearing. Four additional warriors followed him, each with his weapon drawn and ready. She was so entranced by watching Gareth that she started when Victor quietly spoke.

"Dick, I show two more Ch'ton still aboard the shuttle; probably the pilot and copilot."

"Copy that, Vic. Wally, those two are yours. Don't let them get that shuttle back in the air!"

"Got it!"

"Vic, can you ask Chandria to give me a positive ID on which one's our boy Gareth?"

Chandria pointed to the lead warrior.

"Sure thing, Dick. Chandria says it's the guy in front."

"Copy that. Thanks, guys!"

Chandria bit her lip as the group of warriors got closer and closer to the lifeboat, but still Dick didn't give the signal. She glanced over at Vic who was watching her sympathetically.

"I know," he said, "I hate waiting too. But Dick knows what he's doin'."

Suddenly, she heard Dick's command of "Now!" and the clearing erupted into action. A strange projectile, that she realized must have been fired by Roy, struck Gareth in the chest and almost magically turned into bands that held him captive. Meanwhile, Toni and Garth subdued the other warriors, enclosing them in translucent blocks up to their necks. Donna had rushed out of the lifeboat to help Wally secure the shuttle, and they soon came out leading the pilots. Dick escorted Terga from the lifeboat and stood in front of Gareth.

"If you'll tell your men to stand down and come along with me, I promise none of you will be hurt," declared Dick.

Vic had instructed the camera to zoom in on the two men, so Chandria could see the confusion on Gareth's face.

" speak our language? Wait, that's not Queen Chandria!"

Terga bowed slightly. "No, my lord, I am but a servant of the queen. She is waiting to talk to you."

"What is this?" Gareth exclaimed.

Dick replied, "I'll give you an explanation, but not here. Please, stand down your men."

Gareth waved his hand, and the imprisoned warriors stopped struggling. Toni then erected a shoulder-high fence around the four warriors and two pilots, and she and Garth removed the blocks that had imprisoned the warriors. In a matter of seconds, Wally had gathered their weapons and stacked them outside the "corral."

"Okay, Donna, Roy, keep an eye on things. Vic, pull us up," Dick ordered as he released the bonds that held Gareth.

Chandria watched in wonder as Dick and Gareth disappeared from the planet surface. She had first seen the transporter in action when the team had gone down to the planet, but it still amazed her. She looked up as Vic touched her shoulder.

"Chandria, I assume you'll want to welcome Gareth?"

"Oh! Of course," she replied, following Vic to the transporter. Both Raven and Vic flanked her as she watched the two figures rematerialize on the receiving station. Dick had told her he believed this would be one of the riskiest parts of the mission. He was fairly certain he and Vic could handle Gareth should the warrior become violent, but Chandria heard what he wasn't saying -- fighting in the confined space of the ship could cause damage that would be hard to repair while they were right on top of a Ch'ton warship.

When Gareth had completely materialized, Chandria rushed over to him and clasped both of his hands in hers. "Gareth! My dear friend, I'm so glad to see you!"

"Alani! I ... mean, Your Majesty!" he stuttered. "You really are here, and it wasn't just a ruse that they captured you?"

Chandria smiled at the old nickname. "Yes, they captured me, but they saved my life in the process. Come with me, and Dick will explain." Chandria led him to the briefing room while Dick followed behind. She gently pushed Gareth down into one of the chairs at the table and walked around to sit across from him.

Dick took a position in between and said, "Gareth, I am Lt. Commander Richard Grayson of the United States Navy of Earth, although my friends," he nodded to Chandria, "call me Dick. How my friends and I came to be here with your queen is a long story, so I'll just give you a synopsis of the situation. Your Warlord, along with a powerful man on my planet, instigated this war as a means of taking power away from their leaders and grabbing it for themselves. Not knowing this, my team abducted Chandria, hoping to use her to persuade your people to begin peace talks. Instead, we learned that the Warlord would just use her absence as a way of furthering his hold on your government. With me so far?"

Gareth looked at Chandria almost helplessly. She smiled at him and nodded in encouragement. "Everything he's saying is true, Gareth. I found the evidence in Tongear's files myself. These people should not be our enemies. My uncle is the true enemy of our people."

Gareth glanced back at Dick and nodded slightly in acknowledgement. Dick smiled and continued.

"Okay, I don't like carrying out missions whose objectives help my opponents! So Chandria and I have made a deal -- my friends and I will help her get her throne back, and she will then sue for peace and end this war. Now in order to make that happen, she's going to need someone she can trust to replace her uncle as Warlord. You're the guy she picked. Now I'll leave you two alone to talk it over." Dick got up and walked toward the door. He then turned around and said with a smirk, "And at least try to talk about the topic at hand before I come back!"

Chandria made a face at him, and he laughed and walked out the door, closing it behind him. She turned and looked at Gareth, but she suddenly couldn't think of anything to say. She let her gaze rest on his face. He had always been one of the handsomest men she had ever known -- was he thinner now than he had been? His face seemed drawn as if in weariness or pain. With a start, she realized he had been studying her as well. What did he see, she wondered.

"So the queen has decided she still has need for the tool she so casually discarded," he said in a mocking, bitter tone. "Should I be thankful you remembered me at all?"

Chandria felt as if he had slapped her. Her mouth opened, but nothing came out. Finally, she looked away from Gareth to stare at the far wall. Swallowing hard, she managed to whisper, "I looked for you at my coronation ceremony. The Archpriest even had to prompt me once because I was so focused on locating your face in the crowd. I kept telling myself that you wouldn't have missed it, that you must have been there somewhere, but I never could find you. I finally asked one of my councilors if he had seen you."

She turned back to look at Gareth, where shock had taken the place of anger. She continued, "He told me 'Lord Gareth had requested an assignment at the front lines as he felt his continued presence at my side might cause comment.' What sort of 'comment' you might have meant, he didn't say, and I didn't care. All I knew was that you had left me."

"What?! I never ... you were the one who sent me away!"

She shook her head. "That was Tongear's doing. When I realized that he was isolating me and that he wanted the power for himself, I looked up your personnel records and saw his authorization on your new assignment."

"But why?" he asked plaintively.

"Because you were a threat to him," she said simply. "In order for his plan to work, he had to keep me from forming my own power base. By removing you from the picture, especially the way he did it, he kept me from having any contact with the military except on his terms. I also found hints that he was planning to sell his support of any potential candidate for prince consort to the highest bidder. Obviously, if you had still been there, he wouldn't ..." she broke off, blushing, as she realized what she was implying.

A hint of a smile on his face, Gareth rose from his seat and stood in front of her. He then gracefully knelt on both knees before her, his head bowed in the traditional form of a warrior's oathtaking.

"I am your servant, my lady and my queen. I pledge you my life and my honor. Command me and use me as you will."

Chandria placed her hands on either side of the bent head and tilted it back until she could see Gareth's eyes while she gave him the traditional reply.

"You are not my servant, but my trusty and well-beloved warrior. I pledge to hold your honor as my own." She stopped and took a deep breath.

Thinking the small ceremony was over, Gareth gathered himself to stand. He stopped when she didn't let go of his face. Obviously puzzled, he waited for her to continue.

"And if my warrior should someday wish to be ... more than my warrior, I would pledge my heart to him as well."

He smiled and took her hands in his and kissed them. Standing again, he drew her up from her chair and into his arms. "My heart has always been yours, my lady. Even when my mind said I was crazy for continuing to love someone who wanted nothing to do with me."

"Then, I'll be blunt," Chandria said with a smile of her own. "Will you be my prince consort?"

He laughed. "First, dear heart, we have this small matter of getting your throne back. But yes, I would be proud and honored to be your consort."

He leaned down to kiss her. Just then, Dick came back in the room, and they drew back from each other, slightly embarrassed.

"Sorry for the interruption, guys, but we're on a short clock here," he said, smiling. "Gareth, I'm going to assume that you've agreed to help us on this, so first off, I need to know how trustworthy your people are."

One of the traits Chandria most admired about Gareth (aside from his body) was his quick intelligence. Even though he was still holding her in his arms, he immediately began thinking about Dick's question, and the reasoning behind it. Chandria slipped out of his arms and lightly pushed him back into his seat at the table. He grinned at her and then turned to Dick.

"I take it you're asking if any of my crew could be spying for Tongear?"


"Maybe. Recently, I've become suspicious that my chief communications officer was trying to advance himself by threatening to inform on any crew members who didn't seem sufficiently zealous towards the war effort. I have complete faith in the rest of my officers, though. There are certainly some malcontents among the workers in my crew, but I doubt Tongear would make use of any of them as spies."

"Maybe, maybe not. I think I'd rather err on the side of caution."

"I'll take care of them. What exactly did you have in mind for taking down Tongear?"

"First, I need you to let your ship know you're all right, without giving away just what you're up to."

Dick led them from the briefing room to the ship's bridge, where Vic was waiting. He turned to Gareth. "All right, Vic here will make it seem as if you're broadcasting from your shuttle on the planet. Remember, say nothing about us!"

Gareth complied, assuring his somewhat anxious first officer that everything was fine, but there were a few matters they had to straighten out before they could return to the ship. When he had finished, Dick led them back to the briefing room.

"Now then -- Chandria, I remember you said that you doubted your uncle would try very hard to find you. Do you think he would still inform everyone you were missing?" Dick asked after they had taken their seats.

"Oh, yes. In order for the deception to work, he has to at least appear anxious to find me."

"All right. Gareth, if you were to take your ship back to Ch'ton, I'm sure you'd be challenged along the way, correct?"

"Yes, several times, as a matter of fact."

"Would they believe that you had been recalled to help in the search efforts?"

Gareth thought for a few moments. "Probably. I might even be able to persuade my commander to detach my ship to join the search effort. Either way, it should work, at least until we get to the home system."

"And I have some ideas about that, but they can wait. Just a couple more things," Dick said, his cheerful expression growing serious as he spoke directly to Gareth. "Until Tongear is overthrown, my team and I still consider Chandria our prisoner. I don't really have a problem with her and Terga going back on your ship, but four of us will be accompanying them, and our ship will be flying escort. Should you or one of your crew threaten us or attempt to keep us from carrying out our mission, Raven will remove Chandria from your ship." He pointed to the translucent woman who had slipped into the room undetected.

He continued, "It was due to Raven's abilities that we were able to kidnap Chandria and Terga in the first place. There's nowhere you could hide Chandria that she couldn't follow. Furthermore, once she's brought Chandria aboard, my crew has orders to take her straight back to Earth. And seeing as your people couldn't find this ship when it was parked in orbit around your planet, I seriously doubt you'd be able to find it out here."

Dick smiled again, "Now I'd like to think that all these precautions are unnecessary, but I figured it was best if you knew about them ahead of time so you could inform your crew."

Gareth, who had grown dangerously quiet, gradually relaxed after he considered what Dick had said. "It's a fair warning," he replied. "Our peoples are still at war, and emotions can run high. You have your duty to perform, just as we do. I understand and accept your terms."

Dick's smile became a grin. "You just don't want to run the risk of losing her before you get to kiss her!" He ducked just in time to avoid the playful smack Chandria tried to level against his head. "Well, let's get this show on the road!"

Chapter 23

Avenging and bright fall the swift sword of Erin,
On him who the brave sons of Usna betray'd!
For ev'ry fond eye he hath waken'd a tear in,
A drop from his heart-wounds shall weep o'er her blade!
-- Thomas Moore, 1811

"Have I mentioned what a supremely stupid idea this is, Robbie?" Roy asked as the two men walked to the edge of the forest where the rest of their teammates were gathered.

"Have I mentioned that I'm waiting for someone to come up with a better one?" returned Dick with a sardonic smile. "I'm not particularly all that eager to go aboard an enemy ship where we'll be outnumbered several hundred to four, but them's the breaks."

Garth had flown the lifeboat back to the Jericho to take Vic's place as pilot, so it was the seven of them who stood in a rough circle to say goodbye. Dick, Donna, Raven, and Vic would be going with Chandria aboard the Ch'ton ship; Roy, Wally, and Toni would join Garth aboard the Jericho. As Dick looked around at his friends, he saw matching worried faces (except on Raven -- it was always hard interpreting her expressions). His smile turned into a grin.

"It's gonna be okay, guys! Don't worry so much." Their expressions didn't change. "Look, for one thing, she doesn't have red hair, and for another, I'm now very much married -- Babs would kill me!"

Wally broke up first. Once he started laughing, it became contagious, and soon all of them -- even Raven -- had to work to remain standing because they were laughing so hard.

Roy finally sputtered out, "You've gotta admit, Robbie, you've certainly established a precedent of you getting involved with royal alien chicks who've been booted off their thrones."

"Well, it all worked out in the end, didn't it?" asked Dick, trying to sound innocent.

Donna sighed. "Yeah, I guess it did."

After exchanging hugs and handshakes, the two teams split up to go their separate ways.

Gareth made no secret of the nature of the guests he brought aboard. He showed the queen, her maid, and the four humans to two of his spare cabins -- Donna (and Raven, sort of) joined Chandria and Terga in one, Dick and Victor took the other. Subsequently, Vic soon detected an attempt by the communications officer to send out a message to the Warlord warning him of the presence of the queen and the Titans on board. Vic told Gareth, who then ordered that the officer be imprisoned and left to question him.

Dick lightly drummed his fingers on the table as he waited for Gareth to join them in the Moravi's version of a briefing room. It seemed as if all he did lately was sit around a table talking! He looked up as Gareth walked into the room. Ch'ton expressions were still a little hard for him to read, but he thought Gareth looked pretty satisfied with himself.

"Your Majesty, Dick, I think Orloff was the only spy on board with access to any type of communication equipment. He gave me the names of three others who reported to him, but he was positive he was the only spy of any rank aboard. While I was at it, I also explained to my other officers that the Warlord was trying to take over the throne, and you and your people were here to help the queen regain it. If any of them give you any problems, please let me know."

Dick nodded and smiled, but he was still glad that Vic would continue to monitor the Ch'ton ship's communications. Another Ch'ton walked in the room -- he was a warrior, like Gareth, but much younger and somewhat slighter-looking. Gareth introduced him as Arvon, his first officer. The two warriors sat down at the table with the others.

"All right, Gareth, Arvon," Dick nodded to each one. "I only gave you a brief synopsis before; now that we have time, we'll explain how we came to be here." It took a while for Dick and Chandria, with comments from Vic and Donna, to lay out the whole tale, but eventually they reached the point at which they had lured Gareth to the lifeboat. Gareth and Arvon just stared at the group in dazed shock.

"So here we are," finished Dick. "Now, Vic and I have done some research, and I think we can make a pretty good case that the Warlord is the main military conspirator, at least as far as regicide and usurpation are concerned."

That seemed to shake Gareth from his befuddlement. "But surely one man could not murder a queen, start a war, and take over a government!"

Remembering the history of men such as Hitler, Stalin, or Robespierre, Dick said simply, "It can be done, if you have the right people around you and have no regard for anyone's life but your own."

Vic took up the explanation. "The way we figure it, all the Warlord needed to carry out the murder of the previous queen was the help of the intelligence unit that observed Luthor and one ship's command crew -- the ship that supposedly detected the Earth ship readings when the queen's ship exploded. After doing some digging, we discovered that same ship, with the same command crew, was destroyed during one of the early battles. The intelligence unit just happened to be stationed on one of the colony worlds that suicided when we took it over."

"No loose ends," sighed Donna.

"Nope," Dick replied. "Now his current bid to usurp power seems to be a purely political process. The military isn't really needed at all."

"But what about his spies?" asked Chandria.

Surprisingly, Gareth was the one who answered this. "When you think about it, there's nothing inherently wrong with a commander's wanting to know what's really going on in his command. I know that even your cousin the queen had her informants. If Terga and my comm officer are any example, I doubt we have much to worry about from Tongear's spy network once he's no longer in a position to threaten them."

The warrior sat back in his chair, a thoughtful look on his face. "If all we have to be concerned about is taking out Tongear, I think it's important that we make no mention of his part in the death of the Queen Chalanda."

"What! Why?" exclaimed Dick, with the others chiming in as well. Arvon, though, nodded in agreement.

"A warrior shouldn't even be able to think about murdering his queen," Arvon said emphatically. "It's bad enough that one actually did, but we certainly don't want to give any others the idea that it is possible."

"Exactly," said Gareth. "So, I think the best way to deal with Tongear is for me to challenge him."

"Challenge?" inquired Dick even as Chandria and Arvon gasped in shock -- Chandria in fright, Arvon in excitement.

Gareth reached over to squeeze Chandria's hand reassuringly. "Any warrior with the rank of captain or above may challenge the Warlord for his position. If the challenger wins, he is the new Warlord."

"Even in wartime?" asked Donna, astonished.

"Yes. It doesn't happen as often as you might think, though."

Dick nodded in understanding. "What's the catch?" At their puzzled expressions, he realized the idiom hadn't translated properly. "I mean, what protections does the Warlord have?"

"Ah, I understand," Gareth replied. "First, the loser of the challenge dies or is killed. Second, the Warlord sets the conditions and terms of the challenge." He smiled grimly. "He can set any sort of contest he pleases as long as it can be conducted by two people, and a clear winner can be determined."

"Anything?" asked Vic.

"Anything. One Warlord actually dueled his opponent in a spelling contest. He won, although it didn't do him much good because those who felt he had made a mockery of his office and the challenge later assassinated him. Another Warlord proposed that ..." he trailed off and glanced sideways at Chandria.

"Yes, my lord Gareth?" she asked, gently mocking.

Gareth took a deep breath, as his dark complexion grew even darker. "Well, that ... the winner would be whoever could, uh, service the greater number of, uh, women of a certain type," he said in a rush.

"Oh, you mean Warlord Tonmeath!" said Chandria brightly as the others snickered. The snickers turned to outright laughter at the shocked expression on Gareth's face. Chandria patted his arm gently. "I'm a historian, love - a historian whose uncle was the Warlord. I made something of a study of the quirks of the office."

"So who won?" asked Dick, irrepressibly.

"The opponent, actually," replied Gareth absently. "Seems the Warlord underestimated the ... stamina of his opponent."

"So you think you can beat Tongear on whatever he dishes out?" inquired Vic, trying to bring the discussion back on topic.

"Yes. Tongear has been challenged three times before. Each time, he picked swords."

"Excuse me, swords?" Donna said, puzzled. "I want to make sure our translators are working right. Could I see a picture?"

Arvon muttered to himself for a moment and punched keys on the console built in to the table. In a few moments, the star field picture on the wall blanked out, and a scene of two warriors battling each other with swords took its place. Dick could see that the swords looked very similar to old-fashioned sabers, although they were somewhat longer and heavier. Donna turned back to Gareth and nodded her head.

"Yep, those are swords, all right. Thanks, Arvon." She smiled at him.

The younger warrior nodded and ducked his head a bit in embarrassment. He did everything but mumble, "Aw shucks, ma'am, 'tweren't nothin'." Dick and Vic exchanged grins, and even Raven looked amused.

Gareth continued, "His opponents weren't incompetent swordsmen; it was just that Tongear was much better. I've never fought him, but I have fought warriors who have. They each told me that I could take him."

"Y'know, that puts a whole new spin on Tongear's move to separate you from Chandria and transfer you out here," Dick said thoughtfully. "Maybe it wasn't just to isolate Chandria; maybe he was worried you would challenge him."

Gareth looked thoughtful in turn. "You could be right. It would certainly make a lot of sense."

Although there were many differences between Ch'ton ships and Earth ships, Dick was pleased that one of the similarities was a large gymnasium. It certainly felt good to push himself physically, and while some of the Ch'ton exercise machines were unfamiliar to him, there were others that were virtually identical. Dick had just finished a demanding routine on the Ch'ton equivalent of the rings, so he decided to take a break and watch Donna and Gareth spar.

Already an excellent swordswoman by Amazonian standards, it hadn't taken Donna long to become accustomed to the Ch'ton sword and style of fighting. Since then, she had sparred with Gareth, who had grown somewhat rusty since the war had started. Like Donna, he hadn't taken long to regain his form, and the two regularly fought to a draw most days.

All activity stopped as a young warrior dashed into the gym. "Sir! Sir! We've finally received word from Command that the queen's missing!"

The resounding cheer at this news was such a contrast to the content of the message that Dick and Gareth and eventually everyone else began laughing. Finally, Gareth clapped his hands to get everyone's attention.

"All right, warriors! It's time to put our plans into action! Let us hope that the commander responds favorably to my request."

Gareth and Donna put up their swords and left the gym along with Dick. Back in Gareth's office, Dick and Donna joined Arvon and Chandria out of range of the video pickup as Gareth called his commanding officer, whose rank translated into English as "Leader." Vic and Arvon had set up another monitor so that they could watch without being seen.

"Gareth! I'm assuming you've called about that bit of news we passed along," the older Ch'ton said gruffly.

"Yes, sir. Leader, I was wondering, ..."

"Yes, Captain?"

"Sir, since things have been pretty quiet here lately, I would like to volunteer my ship for the queen's search and rescue mission."

Watching Gareth, Dick admired the other man's ability to sell a performance. If he didn't know better, he would have assumed Gareth was distraught but trying desperately to hide it. Now, would the Leader buy it?

"Well, son, I haven't received any instructions that would permit me to detach anyone for that purpose." He held up a hand to forestall Gareth's immediate protest. "On the other hand, I haven't received any instructions that say I can't." He nodded to someone out of camera range. "Prepare to receive my authorization codes. You may leave your station whenever you are ready."

Gareth stared at the monitor. "Thank you, sir! I really appreciate this!"

"Just bring her back, son. That's all I ask."

"Yes, sir!" Within minutes, the ship was underway.

Later that evening (ship's time), Dick walked into Gareth's office and was pleased to see that the warrior was alone. Gareth looked up and smiled, and Dick took a seat.

"Even in the midst of a political crisis, a captain's work is never done," Gareth complained cheerfully.

"I know the feeling," commiserated Dick, thinking of the hours he had spent doing reports, both as a CAG's executive officer and then as a CAG himself.

"So, what can I do for you?" asked Gareth.

"I was just wondering ... what if he doesn't pick swords?"

Gareth stared at him in shock. "What? Why wouldn't he? All three previous challenges were swords."

"Which I'm sure he knows you know. Look, I think he'll choose swords, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't make contingency plans." At Gareth's continued puzzlement, Dick explained. "It's never a good idea to depend on your opponent to do exactly what you expect him to do. Enemies have a nasty habit of refusing to go along with our plots and plans. So we have to have backup measures in place. It's not enough that one path leads to the conclusion we want; all paths should lead there."

"I see ... so you're concerned that if Tongear knows I'm expecting him to choose swords, he might choose something else just to cross me up."

"Exactly. Now, granted, as I read his file, I think he has too much pride -- and ego -- to select anything else. He would undoubtedly view that as being weak. However, he's also ruthless enough that he might not care how it looks as long as he wins. So let me ask it this way: What would be the worst challenge scenario you could imagine? You don't even have to tell me if you don't want to. I just want you to think about it."

Gareth absently rubbed his forehead as he thought. Dick smiled slightly, got to his feet, and then walked out the door.

Several days later, the Titans, Chandria, Terga, Gareth, and Arvon were gathered once more in the briefing room. They had just passed the final checkpoint and were now headed to Ch'ton. On the wall monitor, Dick could see the Titans aboard the Jericho as they also gathered in their briefing room.

"We're heading into the final phase," Dick said, without preamble. "We have to assume that Tongear knows Gareth is coming but not the reason why. From the information we got at the last checkpoint, we're going to have a problem keeping up the appearance of joining the search and rescue mission. Ships involved in the search mission are forming up on the edge of the Ch'ton system, while we need to be on Ch'ton itself. Gareth and I have discussed this, and we both feel Moravi should join the search, but Gareth will turn command over to Arvon and come over to Jericho with us."

Gareth spoke up. "It would have been nice to arrive at Ch'ton with my ship at my back, but there's no good reason for it to be there, and by staying here, everyone, meaning Tongear, will think I'm here as well."

"Exactly. Now the next problem we have is the challenge. I'm assuming it should be done as publicly as possible?" Dick asked, looking at the warriors for confirmation. They nodded.

"So we can't just transport him into the Warlord's office or something," sighed Wally.

"Right. We need to draw the Warlord out into a public setting. It would also be nice if we could avoid having Gareth charged with treason for consorting with the enemy or however they word it here, so we don't want to be too obvious or visible in our assistance."

"Your presence would tend to ... complicate matters," said Chandria, dryly.

"So here's my plan ..." began Dick, outlining the idea that had come to him a few nights ago. He took some secret pleasure at the looks of horror that appeared on the faces of not just his teammates, but the Ch'ton as well. A loud silence filled the room when he finished speaking.

Roy said finally, "I have to apologize to you, Dick. I shouldn't have said your last idea was a supremely stupid one, since this new one leaves it completely in the dust!"

"Hey, this wasn't entirely all my idea, you know. You and Donna had a part in it." At their identical expressions of astonishment and disbelief, he smiled. "You said it yourself, Roy, 'Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!'"

Chapter 24

Stand, Navy, out to sea, "Fight!" our battle cry;
We'll never change our course, So vicious foe steer shy-y-y-y.
Roll out the TNT, Anchors Aweigh. Sail on to victory
And sink their bones to Davy Jones, hooray!
-- George D. Lottman, 1930

Once again, Chandria found herself stuck in the control room of the Jericho watching others work to secure her throne. This time, however, the action wasn't taking place on a remote, isolated planet, but in the Warriors' Stronghold on Ch'ton itself. The holo projector displayed a detailed schematic of the building, and Chandria could make out the others' progress represented by little green dots as they moved towards the Warlord's office.

She heard Vic mutter to himself as he worked to keep the team clear of obstacles, living or otherwise. Chandria had noticed that Vic's translator had refused to translate some of the words he was saying, but based on his expression, she thought that was probably for the best. Vic had not been happy with Dick's plan or his part in it. The two men had argued most of the trip back to Ch'ton. Finally, though, Vic had to acknowledge Dick's basic point -- this plan had the best chance of achieving all of their objectives. It was risky, but Dick felt (and Chandria agreed) that the risks were not insurmountable.

"Jericho, this is Cardinal Ximinez18," Dick's cheerful whisper announced through the speakers. "We are in position."

Chandria involuntarily smiled at Dick's choice of codenames. When Dick had first suggested them, she thought Roy was going to die from lack of oxygen because he was laughing so hard. At least she had finally seen what they called "The Spanish Inquisition Sketch," which was odd since it wasn't a drawing at all but a sort of play. Once they explained some of the history behind the real Spanish Inquisition, it made a little more sense, but she still couldn't say she understood it.

"I read you, Ximinez. I show ten hostiles between you and the package," replied Vic.

"Roger, Jericho. We're goin' in."

Through Dick's open channel, Chandria could hear the sounds of fighting, punctuated by soft grunts by Dick, as he must have taken some blows and some yelling by the Ch'ton guards. After several minutes, the background sounds died down.

"Jericho, Ximinez." Dick's voice was still cheerful, if slightly winded. "We have the package. Was he able to trigger any alarms?"

"Ximinez, affirmative on the alarms. I show three groups of hostiles converging on your position. Principle escape route is still open at this time, though."

"Roger, Jericho. Okay group, let's move it. Remember, we need to get outside."

Chandria watched the little green dots, plus a blue dot representing the Warlord, begin their descent through the building.

"Jericho, Ximinez. How's it look outside?"

"Still clear, Ximinez," Vic replied.

After a few more minutes, Vic contacted Dick. "Ximinez, Jericho. A group of hostiles has appeared on the perimeter outside the building."

"Roger. What about our playmates inside?"

"They're about five minutes behind you."

"Roger that."

A few minutes later, the green and blue dots were at the building's entrance.

"Jericho, Ximinez. I think we're set here. Keep your fingers crossed."

"Roger, Ximinez," muttered Vic darkly.

Vic pressed some buttons on his console, and the schematic disappeared and was replaced with a bird's-eye view of the outside courtyard of the Stronghold. Chandria could see that two phalanx of warriors were assembled there already and were cautiously approaching the building.

Out of the building walked seven figures. At the front was a group of three that she assumed were Dick, Garth, and Tongear. Since she could only see the tops of their heads, it was difficult to tell which one was which, as all three had black hair. They were followed by two groups of two, each consisting of a red-haired man and a black-haired woman. She thought she could make out Roy's bow in the middle group, so that made the woman with him Donna, which meant the last group was Toni and Wally.

"Put down your weapons and surrender!" she heard through Dick's comm unit.

"No, you stay back, or your precious Warlord dies!" Dick announced. Then, in a softer voice, "All right, Jericho, pull us up -- Cardinal Biggles first."

"Roger, Ximinez," Vic said.

As Chandria watched, Toni and Wally disappeared from sight. In a few seconds, she heard someone behind her, and the two Titans walked in to join her, Raven, and Vic. Vic nodded in greeting.

"Ximinez, Jericho. Biggles is aboard."

"Roger, Jericho. Cardinal Fang is next." Donna and Roy were the next to disappear from the screen. They soon entered the control room as well.

"Ximinez, Jericho. Fang is aboard. Your turn."

"Roger, Jericho." Dick then said in a louder voice. "I'm sorry we've had to cut our visit so short, but maybe there'll be another time. Okay, Jericho." Dick and Garth disappeared from the screen, leaving the Warlord to stand there as his warriors hurriedly joined him.

In a few moments, Dick poked his head through the open control room door. "Vic, pipe this through to the briefing room. Let's move this meeting there, folks, and give him some elbow room. Also, Vic, let me know if anything burps in our direction."

Vic nodded, and everyone else but Toni left the control room. Chandria saw the other woman squeeze Vic's arm gently as she sat in the chair Chandria had just vacated. Vic's mouth turned up in a smile, and he said something Chandria didn't quite catch. Toni laughed.

When Chandria joined the others in the briefing room, she could see that Vic had managed to include audio as well as visual on the scene outside of the Stronghold. The Warlord was doing a great deal of shouting, but no one seemed able to give him any answers.

"... What do you mean they just disappeared?! Six enemy soldiers penetrate our security and then just disappear without a trace? FIND THEM!"

While the Warlord was shouting, a figure had separated from the pack of warriors and positioned himself in front of the Warlord. When the Warlord paused, he spoke.

"Warlord Tongear," said Gareth, "I hereby challenge your fitness to continue to hold the office of Warlord!"

"Now it's really gonna hit the fan," Roy muttered as they watched. "Anybody for popcorn?"

"How dare you!" screamed Tongear.

"Sir, I dare! During your tenure, we have lost colony worlds and a large portion of the Home Fleet! More heinously, we have had one queen murdered and another kidnapped! How can you stand there, sir, after having nearly been kidnapped yourself, and claim to deserve your office?"

"Oooh, good one!" muttered Donna. The other Titans nodded in agreement.

The Warlord's mouth moved, but nothing seemed to be coming out of it. Finally, he said, "Very well, I accept your challenge."

"Your terms, sir?"

"Swords," Tongear stated flatly. Then he paused. Chandria wished she could see his face.

Before he could say anything else, Gareth replied, "Swords, it is. I assume it will be here in the courtyard at the traditional time of dawn?"

The Warlord nodded jerkily. Gareth bowed slightly and then walked away.

The next morning, Dick watched Gareth as he warmed up in the Jericho's tiny gym. Dick knew they had caught Tongear off-guard and off-balance, but once the older warrior had a chance to think about what had happened, he would be dangerous. So Dick had persuaded Gareth to spend the night aboard the Jericho just in case the older warrior decided his opponent should meet with an "unfortunate accident."

When Gareth finished his initial stretching exercises, he nodded to Chandria who brought him his armor and helped him don it. She had insisted, pointing out that he had none of his warrior-brothers to help him, and that since he was fighting her fight, she wanted some part in it. Obviously recognizing a losing argument when he saw one, Gareth agreed; although, Dick thought he was secretly pleased. There certainly did seem to be a special, different kind of intimacy between them as she helped him strap on the somewhat-bulky breastplate. It wasn't the intimacy of lovers; rather it was a bond between two soldiers who knew they might never see each other alive.

The Ch'ton swordfighter's traditional armor consisted of lightweight plating covering the chest, loins, upper arms, and thighs. Its purpose was not to protect the fighter completely -- the swords could still penetrate -- it was to protect the fighter from being incapacitated by glancing blows from the wickedly sharp sword. The fighters wore no protection on their heads, as blows to the head were generally fatal anyway.

Once Gareth donned his armor, he continued his warm-up drills, accustoming his body to the additional weight of the armor. Dick thought he looked good; he glanced over at Donna, and she nodded her head at him. Finally, Gareth finished. He wiped his face with the towel Wally handed to him and walked over to Chandria. Dick and the others stepped away to give them some privacy. Gareth knelt in front of his queen. He said something to her, and she laughed. She then bent down and kissed him gently on his forehead and on either cheek.

When he stood up again, she held onto his arm, and standing up on tiptoes, she kissed him full on the lips. He stared at her for a moment, and she said loudly enough for all of them to hear, "And that's to remind you not to get yourself killed down there!"

Raven then stepped forward, and Gareth approached her somewhat tentatively. He had looked at Dick in disbelief when Dick explained how they were going to get him back on the planet. One of the objectives of their mission the previous day had been to find a small, unused room that Raven could transport Gareth into. Dick was reluctant to use the Jericho's transporters, because materializing inside a building was a tricky business without some kind of targeting device. Targeting devices could be detected. All Raven needed was the location.

Gareth was still nervous about suddenly appearing in the Stronghold from out of nowhere. For some reason, Dick's point that it really didn't matter because Gareth would either be dead or Warlord before anyone got around to noticing didn't comfort him.

As Raven approached Gareth, she said with one of her rare smiles, "As Chandria has told you, this may be a little disconcerting, but I won't hurt you. If you like, you can close your eyes." She wrapped her "cloak" around him, and the two disappeared from sight.

The Titans hurried into the briefing room just in time to hear Gareth's voice come through the speakers.

"Jericho, looks like I got here in one piece. Thanks, Raven."

"Understood," Dick replied.

A few moments later, Raven's glowing soul self reappeared aboard the Jericho.

Vic had managed to tap into one of the Stronghold's security monitors, so they had a much better view of the courtyard as Gareth walked out of the building. It was still rather dark, but a fairly large crowd had already gathered near a clearly defined circle in the courtyard. When they caught sight of him, the murmuring of the crowd grew in volume. Gareth had said he expected to have quite a few supporters in the audience, but none of them would endanger their lives or their futures by openly cheering him since Tongear was known to have a long memory and little tolerance of any who slighted him.

Gareth took up his position on the east side of the circle, just inside the line. A few moments later, Tongear walked out of the Stronghold and stood on the west side. An elderly worker-caste man, dressed in glittering robes, broke away from the crowd and stood at the north, a foot or so outside the circle. The Titans looked at Chandria for an explanation.

"That's the Archpriest. He is there to make sure that both parties obey the rules of the challenge and to certify the winner."

"What are the rules?" asked Wally.

"In a swordfight, there are only two -- stay inside the circle and no blows to the back."

At a gesture from the Archpriest, Gareth and Tongear met at the center of the circle, their swords held out in front of them. In a loud voice, at odds with his slight stature, he shouted, "Begin!"

The two men stood silently, blades almost touching as they studied each other. Almost a minute went by while the fighters stood locked in some kind of psychological battle. Finally, almost too quickly to make out, Tongear brought his sword down in a crashing blow that would have taken Gareth's hand off had he been where Tongear expected him to be. Gareth danced back out of the way and aimed his own sword at Tongear's unprotected side while the older man was off-balance. Tongear was able to bring his sword back in time to prevent a killing blow, but everyone heard the scrape of sword against armor.

Gareth had Tongear on the defensive, and he kept him there, never allowing the older man to regroup to initiate another attack. Tongear was able to keep Gareth from striking his armor again, but he was beginning to wear down. The older man was obviously in good shape, but Gareth was in better shape and was faster as well.

Finally, it happened. Tongear had blocked one of Gareth's feints but was too slow coming off the block to deflect the real blow. Gareth plunged his sword through the armor into Tongear's chest for a perfect heart-shot. The older warrior's mouth opened in pain and shock; he looked down at his chest and then fell to his knees. Gareth pulled out his sword, and Tongear toppled over on his back. A slight bubble of blood trickled out of his mouth, and he stopped breathing.

The Archpriest walked over to Tongear and felt his neck for a pulse. He then bowed his head, murmured something, and then passed his hand over Tongear's face, closing the man's eyelids. He then walked over to Gareth who stood with his still-bloody sword tip down in the sand. Gareth knelt. The Archpriest then laid his hand on the new Warlord and said something that the monitor didn't quite catch. Gareth then stood, turned to the crowd, and raised his arms in triumph. The crowd cheered.

"... And that's the way it ended up, sir," Dick said to the astonished admiral in front of him. "I think Gareth had Tongear so off-balance, the Warlord picked swords without really thinking about it. Gareth took Tongear out in less than thirty minutes."

Admiral Hamish Alexander had been startled enough when the Jericho had suddenly arrived at Midway. The former Ch'ton colony turned Naval base and supply station had almost scrambled fighters to intercept the mysterious ship until Vic was able to give the base the proper recognition codes. Dick, Vic, and Garth then walked into headquarters, and Dick requested a meeting with the admiral and his most trusted aides. Vic and Dick then gave a moderately complete summary of all their activities from the point at which Dick had been declared MIA.

Garth then stepped forward holding two large pieces of paper. "Admiral, we would request that, wherever feasible, you suspend all current attack operations while we are on our way back to Earth to have this peace treaty signed and ratified." He gave one of the pages to the admiral.

"Peace treaty?" Alexander squawked. "But how ...? On whose authority...?"

"Mine, admiral," stated Garth, calmly. "I am a member of the peace talks committee, after all. I am completely familiar with the terms we were going to propose. I think you'll find everything in order."

Alexander quickly skimmed the treaty. He then looked back up at the Atlantean. "This certainly seems complete -- except for one thing. I know the Mexican government has been particularly insistent that some sort of reparation must be made. They were putting a great deal of pressure on Washington not to agree to any terms that left that out. I see no mention of reparations of any sort in here."

Garth and the others exchanged wry glances. "The queen and the new Warlord are determined that none of their people find out that the previous queen was murdered by the former Warlord," Garth said. "They are willing to characterize the queen's death as an 'accident,' but they feel it would be unwise to admit to any kind of wrong in the bombing, including the payment of reparations." He held up his hand as Alexander attempted to speak. "However, the queen, in celebration of the peace between our two worlds, is offering a gift," he handed the second piece of paper to Alexander, "As best we can calculate, it comes to the same amount as the committee was seeking in reparations."

"A gift," Alexander said in bemusement.

"In celebration of peace," Garth replied mock-solemnly. He continued, more seriously, "As you can see, the queen has already signed the treaty. The Ch'ton have pledged to maintain a cease-fire until the United Nations ratifies the treaty also, but it would certainly be easier if we weren't attacking them."

"What kind of guarantees do we have that they'll abide by a cease-fire?" asked Alexander, not unreasonably.

Vic said under his breath, "Now, Donna." A form began materializing in the admiral's office.

Garth said in counterpoint, "Their new Warlord will be coming with us to present the treaty."

When Gareth had materialized, he looked around alertly and then walked toward the others. Dick made the introductions.

"Gareth, ... excuse me, Tonreth, this is Admiral Hamish Alexander, commander-in-chief of the Navy's Second Space Fleet. Admiral this is Warlord Tonreth, Prince-Consort of the Ch'ton." The former Gareth bowed slightly; the admiral nodded his head in greeting.

"Admiral, I am pledging my life and my safety that we will instigate no new attacks on your people. I have given my commanders permission to defend themselves, however. In my opinion, it would be best if no need for defense arose." Vic had been able to rig a small translator unit for Tonreth, so that he would be able to communicate independently of the Titans. It was a little confusing having two voices come from Tonreth's body simultaneously, but the English words were understandable.

The admiral nodded. "Very well. I will notify my captains that operations are suspended indefinitely. I'll await word of your trip from Washington." He handed the treaty back to Garth.

Dick said, "Thank you, sir! Admiral, about my status ..."

Alexander smiled. "Well, Grayson, since you're still officially MIA, I certainly can't order you to stay here. In fact, I'm sure it would be in the best interests of efficiency for you to get your status worked out in Washington in person."

Dick grinned in response. "And the Chaffee?"

"I'll let them know, unofficially of course, that you turned up alive."

"Thank you, sir!" Dick drew himself to attention and, with the others, walked out of the room.

The closer they got to the solar system, the more often Dick found himself looking at the Jericho's communications equipment. Finally, when they were passing Jupiter, Donna grabbed his shoulder in an iron grip and plopped him down in a seat in front of the comm unit.

"Would you call home already?! You're going to drive us all crazy!" she exclaimed.

Dick smiled up at her ruefully and made the familiar connections necessary to contact Oracle's equipment. According to the display on the console, it was around 3:00 a.m. in Gotham on February 14, so he wasn't too surprised when Tim answered the call.

"Tim ..." he started until Tim's yell interrupted him.

"Dick! Oh my God! Where are you?"

"We just passed Jupiter's orbit, and we're on our way insystem. We'll have to stop at Heinlein Station, first, though. Um ... how's Babs?"

Tim's eyes started shifting back and forth. "Well, you see, it's like this ..."

Chapter 25

Yes, beloved ones at home we remember,
And how can the soldier forget?
All the vows that were said when we parted
Are sacred and dear to him yet.
-- Charles Boynton, 1864

Bruce stared at the large, institutional-model clock on the wall and tried to will it to move faster. Perhaps it had been a mistake to arrive so early. Alfred certainly seemed to think so. Of course, Alfred thought he shouldn't be here in Terre Haute at all, but Bruce felt it was something he should see through for Dick.

10:25 p.m. Only thirty-five more minutes. Soon they would lead Luthor through that door and strap him down to that table. At 11:00, Luthor would be given a lethal injection -- the first American to be executed for treason since the Rosenbergs. Bruce actually wasn't sure which had been the worse blow to Luthor -- the guilty verdict or the loss of control of his company, LexCorp. The guilty verdict had been handed down a week after the LexCorp stockholder meeting that kicked him out.

Thirty minutes left, now. Bruce allowed himself a tiny smirk. Barbara Grayson was now CEO of LexCorp. In January, she had snuck under everyone's radar to pull off an incredible corporate raiding coup that still had analysts shaking their heads. When she took over, she set up a tap on LexCorp's boardroom's security cameras so Bruce and the rest of the family could watch. Using the powered chair that Leslie had insisted on during her seventh month of pregnancy, Barbara rolled into the room, somehow managing to give the impression of a queen on her throne about to review her subjects. It was such a powerful impression that the men seated around the table actually stood to acknowledge her arrival.

Bruce shook his own head in bemusement. Barbara had hidden herself behind masks so long -- both as Batgirl and now as Oracle -- that it was easy to dismiss Barbara Grayson as a quiet, behind-the-scenes-type of person. Her former occupation as librarian certainly fostered that idea as well. It was easy to forget that she was also Jim Gordon's daughter, and the woman who had enough strength of will first to force herself into Batman's all-boys' club, and then to make a new life for herself as Oracle. Barbara Grayson was not a woman to trifle with, and she made the LexCorp board members take her seriously.

Twenty-five minutes. Bruce could see some movement through one of the door windows. He thought back to the trial and the sentencing. Both the appellate and Supreme Courts had declined to review the case, and Bruce and Clark had been worried what Luthor might do even without the resources of LexCorp behind him. So, they paid Luthor a secret little visit in his cell in Indiana. Not surprisingly, Superman played "good cop" while Batman was the "bad cop." It really wasn't that much of an act.

"Come to gloat, alien?" asked Luthor bitterly when they appeared in his six-foot by eight-foot cell.

"Not really," Superman said sadly, but calmly. "We just want to be sure you aren't planning to do anything foolish."

Luthor quirked an eyebrow. "Not that I'd tell you one way or another, but why shouldn't I? It's not like I have anything to lose."

"Sure you do, Luthor," growled Batman, coming out of the shadows slightly to stand next to Superman. "You can die quietly, with whatever you use that passes for dignity, or you can die in pain, ripped limb from limb."

Luthor snorted. "Get real, Bats. You and the boy scout don't do things that way."

"I didn't say I would, Luthor. But I'm sure we can all predict with some level of certainty what would happen if I were to drop you off in, say, Guadalajara or Monterrey, or near the crater that used to be Mexico City. There are many people there who would be very happy to see you."

"You can't be serious!" Luthor's face paled. There had already been one attempt on Luthor's life from a Hispanic inmate whose family had lived in Mexico City.

"As Superman said, it's up to you. If, by some small chance, you do escape from this prison, I will find you. And I will take you to Mexico and leave you there. Penniless."

Luthor bowed his head in a defeat that was unfeigned. That had been almost two weeks ago, and Luthor had kept to himself and been a model prisoner.

Eighteen minutes. Bruce felt a vibration against his waist as his cell phone rang. Pulling it out, he saw that it was Alfred calling him. That was certainly odd. He found a corner away from the other witnesses and flipped it open.


"Master Bruce!" Alfred exclaimed excitedly. "It's Miss Barbara! She's gone into labor!"

"Now?!?" Bruce's normal bass voice almost squeaked. He saw several heads turn to look at him in surprise. "But ... but ... she wasn't scheduled until next week!"

"I'm afraid the young miss has her father's lack of patience," Alfred replied, his usual calm returning to his voice. "Master Timothy is driving Miss Barbara to the hospital. I took the liberty of telling your pilot to prepare for an immediate takeoff. Do you wish to leave now or wait until after ... the procedure?"

Bruce smiled. It wasn't that Alfred was necessarily against Luthor's execution; he just didn't think it was good for Bruce to be a witness to it. Bruce looked at the clock. Sixteen minutes. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass observation window. That smiling man didn't belong at an execution.

"I'll be right down, Alfred."

By the time Bruce and Alfred got back to Gotham, Barbara had been whisked into surgery. The two men joined Tim, Dinah, and Jim Gordon as they waited for news. Tim told the late arrivals that Leslie had been very upbeat about everything, pointing out that Barbara had been scheduled for a Caesarian next week anyway -- they had just forgotten to tell the baby.

As Bruce waited, a little voice in his head kept pointing out that since he was waiting anyway, he could've stayed in Indiana and watched Luthor take his last breaths. A louder little voice finally shushed the other one with the question of where would Dick want him to be? That was easy -- with Barbara.

Finally, Leslie walked through the door. Everyone stood silently. She smiled.

"It's a beautiful, healthy baby girl! Mother and child are quite well."

Bruce clamped a hand over Tim's mouth before the expected yell could awaken everyone in the hospital. It was almost 2:00 in the morning, after all. Tim glared up at him slightly, but his expression soon changed to one of surprise. Bruce felt something wet on his face and realized he was crying. He let go of Tim and wiped at his eyes and laughed softly at himself. He managed to reach Leslie before she left the room and wrapped her in a hug which she returned fiercely.

Thirty minutes later, they were allowed to visit Barbara and the baby. The baby girl's head was already covered with fine black hair, and everyone in the room was immediately captivated when she opened her blue-green eyes and stared at them.

Tim asked, "So what are you going to name her? Did you and Dick ever decide anything before he ... left?"

"Yes," replied Barbara softly, her joy in her new daughter dimmed just slightly by the reminder of the lack of news about her husband since his message at Christmas. "We finally decided on Teresa Michelle. Dick wants to call her Terri, for short."

Bruce admired the way the newly-named Teresa Michelle tried to grasp his large finger. He was startled by a loud snort from Tim's direction. He looked up to see his partner almost doubled over in laughter. Tim finally brought himself under control enough to explain.

"Just when I thought Dick was through with puns, he decides to name his daughter with one." When everyone looked at him in amazement, he continued. "Think about it. When Alfred talks to her, what's he going to call her? Miss Terri -- mystery!"

Everyone joined him in laughter until Babs groaned. "Ooooh! Don't make me laugh, guys! My stitches don't like that!"

Leslie soon came back in and herded everyone out so that mother and child could rest. Tim decided to drive back to the clocktower, and Bruce surprised himself by asking Dinah if she would care to join him for a late-night snack in celebration. She surprised him further by agreeing.

"Dick! Oh my God! Where are you?" Tim yelled.

"We just passed Jupiter's orbit, and we're on our way insystem. We'll have to stop at Heinlein Station, first, though. Um ... how's Babs?"

Tim's eyes started shifting back and forth. "Well, you see, it's like this ..."

"Tim?!?" asked Dick, beginning to panic.

Suddenly, a huge smile broke out on Tim's face. "Gotcha! Babs is fine. So's Miss Teresa Michelle Grayson."

Dick let out a whoop of his own. "Oh my God!! When? And Babs is really okay?" He twitched in his seat, suddenly longing for a rooftop to swing from.

"About two hours ago and just fine," Tim said. "In fact, hang on a sec ..." He looked off at another screen and muttered to himself. A few moments later, Tim's face was replaced with two pictures -- one of Barbara holding the baby, the other of the baby herself. Tim's voice continued, "Dr. Leslie said Miss Terri -- and Babs is gonna get you for that, by the way -- is 21 inches long and 8 pounds exactly."

Dick saved the image and replied huskily, "I've got it, Tim. She's beautiful. Both of them are beautiful."

Tim's face reappeared. "Yep. They certainly are."

Dick cleared his throat. "Listen, bro, I need you to do me a favor. I want you to send Babs some flowers from me, uh, say eleven red roses and one pink rose."

"Flowers? Roses?!" the younger man made squeaking noises, "Dick, it's Valentine's Day! How the heck am I supposed to get flowers, especially roses, delivered on Valentine's Day?"

"Look, explain the situation to the florist shop, and I bet they'll find some way to work it out; although you may have to deliver them yourself. Worst case scenario, beg some from Alfred."

"All right. But you are so going to owe me for this."

"I know. Listen, I gotta go. Like I said, we have to report to Heinlein first, but I'll call as soon as I can. Tell Babs I'm fine, and I can't wait to see her and our daughter."

Tim nodded, and Dick ended the call. He then recalled the image of Babs and Terri. "Okay, you guys can come in now," he called out.

The others, presumably drawn by his yell earlier, crowded into the control room behind him.

"Guy, meet Miss Teresa Michelle Grayson!" he said proudly. Roy echoed Dick's earlier whoop, and the Titans carried him off to the briefing room to celebrate.

The debriefing on Heinlein Station went much the same as the meeting on Midway -- disbelief, followed by indignation, followed by acceptance. The admirals agreed to the cease-fire pending the review of the treaty by the U.N.'s Security Council and the U.S. Senate. Nobody really wanted to think about what might happen should one body ratify the treaty but not the other, but Dick figured that wasn't too likely to happen.

Finally, though, he was able to board a shuttle for Norfolk for a much-anticipated 72-hour liberty. He placed a collect call to the manor, keeping his fingers crossed that Alfred was at home. He was in luck, as the bored operator's voice was replaced by cultured British tones sounding as excited as Dick had ever heard them.

"Master Dick! It is wonderful to hear your voice, young man!"

"Hi, Alfred! I'm sorry about the collect call, ..."

Alfred immediately interrupted him. "Nonsense, sir. I'm just glad I was at home. Where are you, if I may ask?"

"I'm at Norfolk, but I'm planning on heading home as soon as I can. I'm still in the middle of convincing the Navy I'm alive, so my money situation is a little ... odd right now. Could you ...?"

"I'll arrange a flight immediately, sir. Can you get to the Norfolk airport?"

"Yeah, there's a van that makes the trip pretty regularly. I've got some money, just not enough to buy a plane ticket."

"May I call you back at this number when I have the arrangements?"

"That'd be great! Um, is everyone all right?"

"I'm afraid everyone is quite smitten with your daughter, sir -- myself included. Other than that, we are all in excellent health."

"Great! I'll wait for your call, then." Dick hung up and waited. He had originally thought to hitch a ride home with the Titans, but realizing that clearing up his status with the Navy would take a while, he told them to go on without him. As it turned out, Lt. Shannon Foraker, the liaison Admiral Harkness had assigned him, had been a wonder at expediting the process. She had convinced BuPers to outfit him with some uniforms, a new ID card, and even some back pay. Once she had all the information she knew they would need, he was able to leave everything in her hands. Shannon was confident that by the time he returned to the station, Lt. Commander Richard J. Grayson would exist and officially be a part of the Navy once more. The phone rang.

"Commander Grayson," he said as he answered.

"Master Dick, I've arranged an ... alternative sort of transportation for you."


"Based on the flights available, the soonest you would be able to arrive here by commercial flight would be over six hours from now. I made some rough calculations, and then called Mr. Perkins. He agreed that he could fly down and bring you back much quicker."

"I should say so! Bruce was telling me that that new Citation of his goes at almost Mach 2! So Terry's coming down to pick me up?"

"If that is acceptable?"

"You bet! I'll head over to the civilian airport. Tell Terry I'll be in the main terminal."

"I certainly will. Good-bye, Master Dick."

Dick managed to restrain the wild whoop of joy that threatened to break forth. This would be so cool! Terry Perkins, Bruce's (and Wayne Enterprises') chief pilot was an old friend. It would be great to see him again. Plus, a private plane meant he didn't have to worry about making conversation with strange seatmates or dealing with the crowds at Gotham's main airport. And he got to ride in a cool, fast jet instead of a pokey sardine can disguised as a commercial jet.

Sure enough, after a wait of less than two hours, Dick saw his old friend approach. Terry was still somewhat stocky; although the sandy hair was a bit more silver than it had been. Only someone who had known him as long as Dick had would even notice the slight limp caused by the knee injury that had forced him to stop flying F-14s for the Navy.

"Dick! Man, it's good to see you! I thought for sure you were a goner this time!" The older man embraced Dick in a fierce hug which Dick returned.

"I'm the proverbial bad penny, Ter. It's good to see you too!"

Dick grabbed his meager luggage and followed Terry out to where the private jet was parked. He walked around the plane while Terry completed his preflight checks. After a few minutes, Dick rejoined him. Dick whistled admiringly.

"She's a beautiful bird, Ter."

"You bet she is!" Terry studied Dick for a moment. "Want to drive on the way home?"

Dick's eyebrows rose in astonishment. "You mean it?!?"

"Well," Terry drawled, "I reckon as the Navy has entrusted you with its multi-million-dollar, state-of-the-art spaceships, I guess I could let you fly this one time. With me as co-pilot, to keep you out of trouble."

The two men grinned at each other in understanding. Terry finished his checks and then familiarized Dick with the plane's controls. They received clearance from the tower, and Dick taxied the plane down the runway and took off.

Once the flight was well under way, Terry turned to Dick with a grin. "So I hear you named your daughter after me. Thanks, man!"

"I didn't know your name was Teresa," kidded Dick in return.

The two men laughed, and Terry asked Dick about flying Barracudas off spaceships. And Dick was able to share the pain of losing fellow pilots with someone who could truly sympathize with him.

A couple of hours later, the familiar sights of Gotham City came into view, and Terry requested landing instructions from the Municipal Airport. Fifteen minutes later, Dick brought the plane to a stop in front of the Wayne hanger. He saw the familiar Bentley limousine and three very familiar figures standing beside it. He quickly shook Terry's hand and bounded out of the cockpit, out the plane's opened door, and onto the tarmac. In the excitement of the moment, even Bruce was caught up in the group hug that ensued. Soon though, they all piled back in the car, and Alfred began driving them to the hospital for Dick to see Babs and Terri.

Tim and Bruce filled Dick on everything that had happened with Luthor and Barbara. Dick, in turn, explained about how he had ended up taking part in a sort of coup d'etat of Ch'ton.

"... and that led Admiral Harkness to decide that as long as Tonreth's with us, I'm to be his naval liaison. Once the Navy believes I'm alive again, that is," Dick finished. "So for the time being, I'm assigned to Admiral Harkness' office, and I'll be quartered up on Heinlein Station."

"So what's next for Tonreth?" Bruce asked.

"I think we'll be meeting with President Ross when I get back from liberty. After that, I have no idea."

"How were you able to explain your translator?" wondered Tim.

Dick smiled almost grimly. "Chalk another one up for my old relationship with Kory. I told the admiral, when he asked, that once we started talking about getting married, Kory wanted me to be able to talk to her people in their language, so I had the translator implanted." He laughed, some genuine humor returning to his expression. "I just never thought that a relationship that ended so badly could turn out to be so useful."

Bruce's mouth lifted in a half-smile of amused agreement.

The limousine drew to a stop as they arrived at the hospital. Dick held up his hand when the others started to get out of the car.

"If you don't mind guys, I'd like to go by myself. You did say she doesn't know I'm coming, right?" he asked Alfred.

Alfred nodded, smiling.

"Great. If I'm not back down in thirty minutes, just go on home, and I'll call a cab when I'm ready to go. Thanks, guys!" He waved to them and walked into the building.

Alfred had told him her room number, so a few minutes later he found himself in front of the door to her room. He suddenly felt as nervous as he had when he proposed! Taking a deep breath, he pushed open the door. The sight that greeted him stopped his breath. Babs was holding their daughter in her arms and nursing her.

She looked up when she heard the door open and gasped when she saw who her visitor was. "Dick?" she said wonderingly.

"Is this a private party, or can anyone join in?" he asked in a husky voice that kept skittering in and out. He walked toward the bed.

"It's a rather exclusive club, I'm afraid," she whispered.

"How about this for an entrance fee?" he asked, bending down to kiss her. He had meant to kiss her gently. But as soon as their lips met, he instinctively gathered her close in his arms, and she raised her arm around his neck to hold him close. A complaining wail from Terri caused them to break apart in surprise. Apparently, she didn't care for being squished between the two of them.

Their laughter was mixed with tears as Babs introduced Dick to his daughter. In amazement, he gently ran his finger along the baby's soft cheek as she went back to the more important work of nursing.

"If you can scoot over a bit, I'd like to join you up there," he said, wanting to hold his two ladies close.

Barbara smiled and managed to wiggle over without dislodging Terri. Dick took off his shoes and got up on the bed next to Barbara. She leaned into his shoulder, and he put his arms around them.

He sighed contentedly. "Now I'm home."

Chapter 26

Life, for my Country and the Cause of Freedom,
Is but a Trifle for a Worm to part with;
And if preserved, and if preserved
In so great a Contest, Life is redoubled.
-- Nathaniel Niles, 1775

As the shuttle touched down at Andrews Air Force Base, Dick looked over at his two companions. Tonreth was dressed in his most formal uniform, a glittery dark green with silver trim. The Ch'ton warrior with him, Tonreth's bodyguard/aide Drewsen was also attired in dark green and silver, although not as glittery. Dick felt almost somber in the dark blue and gold trim of his service dress uniform. He leaned forward to talk to the young State Department official who would be their escort to the White House.

"My itinerary wasn't very precise, Mr. Jourdain. What's the plan once we touch down?"

"We'll transfer to an Osprey for the trip from Andrews to the White House, Commander. Your party will then be taken in to meet with the president. That's all they told me."

"Wonderful. Thanks." Dick sighed. Jourdain sounded as clueless as Dick felt. He hated not knowing what was going to happen.

"Problems, Dick?" Tonreth asked quietly as Dick sat back in his seat.

Dick realized the background noise of the shuttle probably made it difficult for Tonreth's translator to catch the low-voiced conversation.

"I don't think so," he answered. "Our escort doesn't know any more about our schedule than we do, but I think it's more for internal security than anything else. I just don't like not knowing."

Tonreth nodded. Moments later, the shuttle pilot instructed them to prepare for landing.

After a short flight by Osprey, they landed on the White House lawn. A civilian who appeared to be in his late fifties awaited them. He walked straight up to Tonreth and introduced himself.

"Warlord Tonreth, I am Everard Honeker, Special Assistant to the Undersecretary of State. If you and your party will follow me, I'll take you in to the president."

Tonreth nodded and followed Honeker, Dick and Drewsen a step behind him. Dick studied their guide; if Honeker was a Special Assistant etc., Dick was Bob Hope. Secret Service, perhaps? More likely, CIA. After they entered the White House, Dick decided it was time for some answers.

"Mr. Honeker!" Dick stopped walking, and at his signal, Tonreth and Drewsen stopped as well. Of necessity, Honeker halted and turned around to face them.

"You want to explain what's going on, Mr. Special Assistant?" Dick asked sardonically. "Why all the secrecy?"

Honeker sighed. "We just want to keep everything as quiet as possible with both the Warlord and President Iglesias here. And the reason I can't tell you what happens later is because it all depends on them and President Ross."

"Wait a minute! President Iglesias is here? The President of Mexico, Jose Iglesias?" Dick exclaimed.

"Yes," replied Honeker matter-of-factly. "He's with President Ross. Waiting."

"Oh, Lord. Okay, hang on a minute, I need to talk to Tonreth." Dick turned and began speaking quickly in Ch'ton. "This could be either very good or very bad. It's definitely going to be awkward."

"I recognized President Ross' name. Who is this other person?" asked Tonreth, puzzled.

"You remember my explanation about our different countries and governments? Jose Iglesias is the president of the country just to the south of us. The country whose capital used to be Mexico City." He looked to Tonreth to see if he made the connection.

Tonreth winced. "Reparations and apologies."

"Or lack thereof. That's why I said this would be awkward. However, if Iglesias okays the treaty, I can't see anyone else daring to object to it."

"Any advice?"

"Play it straight. No prevarications." Dick drew a deep breath. "Bear in mind that when he looks at you he sees a representative of a military that was responsible for almost nine million of his countrymen's deaths."

Tonreth choked. "Nine million!?!"

"I don't have the exact figures, but I seem to recall the population of Mexico City proper was around 8.5 million, and your blast took out some of the surrounding towns as well." Dick saw Honeker pointing at his watch fervently, a pleading look on his face. "We need to get moving."

Tonreth nodded absently and began following their guide once more. Soon they walked into the Treaty Room where Dick saw tall, blond President Pete Ross and a shorter, rounder man with iron gray hair and a gray bristling mustache. Ross stood and came forward to greet them.

"Good morning, Warlord Tonreth. I'm Pete Ross." He held out his hand. Tonreth hesitated for just a second, but then apparently remembered Dick's lessons on handshakes. He took the president's hand just the way they had rehearsed. Ross turned to his companion. "And this is my friend, President Jose Iglesias of Mexico."

The older man and the Ch'ton Warlord stood staring at each other for a long moment. Then Tonreth astonished Dick and presumably everyone else in the room when he went to one knee and bowed his head.

"I am too ashamed of my people to stand before you, sir," he said, just barely loud enough to hear. "I am a warrior. Our actions in destroying your city were not the actions of a warrior. I apologize for my people, President Iglesias."

Iglesias stared at Tonreth for almost a minute. Finally he spoke. "I believe you, young man. I also understand that we have both been victims of evil men. Please stand." Tonreth rose, and Iglesias continued, "I am slightly confused though. You say you are sorry, but there is no mention of apology in this treaty." He pointed to the copy of the treaty lying on the desk.

"Sir, I also have a duty to my people and my queen. For Warlord Tongear to be capable of even thinking of killing his queen violates every rule and principle our people have lived by for thousands of years. I feel I would be delinquent in my duty to protect Queen Chandria if other warriors found out that such a deed was possible. Thus, I requested that all language be removed from the treaty that dealt with what I now know was an unprovoked attack on your people. And the queen insisted on paying the reparations from her own purse."

"So you think you can buy our approval?" Iglesias asked scornfully.

"No sir," Tonreth replied. "It was more from a desire to do all that we could short of admitting what really happened."

Iglesias sighed. Abruptly, he turned to Dick. "Commander, you have been with the Warlord through all of this, yes?"

Dick nodded, "Yes, sir."

"What is your opinion of the Ch'ton and this situation?"

"Sir, I realize that the reparations aren't just about money, but I also realize that this was the only point that the Ch'ton refused. Nothing else was altered from the initial draft. Ambassador Garth told me that the terms in that treaty were based on the committee's initial bargaining positions, so we 'won' every other point. Tonreth's main focus is to protect his queen, who is also his wife. I can't exactly fault him for that." Dick smiled. "He's a good man caught between conflicting duties."

The Mexican president thought for a minute or so. Finally, Iglesias answered with a small smile of his own. "Very well, I will accept the terms of the treaty. And the 'gift' from Queen Chandria."

Tonreth bowed his head in acknowledgement. "Thank you sir."

Both presidents signed the treaty, and then it was time to take the treaty before the Senate. Ross explained that he had kept Tonreth in the dark about the rest of the schedule because he didn't want to commit to bringing the treaty before the Senate until he discussed it with both Tonreth and Iglesias.

Not unexpectedly, the Senate focused much of its discussion of the treaty on the issue of reparations and apologies, led by those senators from the southwestern states. After an hour and a half of discussion, debate, and polite name-calling, one of the senators from Texas asked to be recognized. She then declared that while it had been a good and neighborly thing for the United States to declare war on Ch'ton because of the attack on Mexico, it seemed presumptuous, even for a neighbor, to tell Mexico whether they should or should not accept the terms of a treaty as it applied to them. President Iglesias had accepted those terms for his country. It was the job of the Senate to evaluate the treaty as it applied to the United States.

The treaty was ratified.

Tonreth looked down in horror.

He, Drewsen, and thus Dick, had been at loose ends for the last ten days while they waited on the United Nations to ratify the treaty. He and President Ross had presented the treaty to the General Assembly. He had been allowed a brief statement, and that was it. Dick explained cynically that since the U.S. hadn't allowed the U.N. much say in how the war was fought, the U.N. was trying to take its revenge in delaying the ending of that war. The U.N.'s ratification was just a formality, though, and everyone knew it.

Still they had to wait. Dick offered to take the two Ch'ton sightseeing around Washington. After seeing all of the memorials and monuments and having Dick explain their significance, Tonreth finally asked, "Is there a monument to what happened at Mexico City?"

"Not an official one. Not here, anyway," Dick replied solemnly. "I think my wife mentioned that people have made a sort of unofficial memorial near the crater."

"I think I'd like to see the crater," stated Tonreth cautiously.

"You haven't seen it before?"

"No. I wasn't in any of the Earth system attack fleets. Do you think you can arrange something?" By now, Tonreth had a healthy respect for Dick's ability to get things done -- one way or another.

Dick thought for a few moments and then nodded. "It'll have to be on a Deuce, though. Sorry, Drew; it's a two-man ship."

About an hour later, Dick and Tonreth took off from Patuxent River Naval Air Warfare Center in one of the versatile little ships. Forty-five minutes later, Tonreth could see a dark spot through the cloud cover. As Dick slowed the small ship and descended, the dark spot became bigger and bigger. Soon he was staring at a large gaping wound in the earth's surface.

"This ... this is obscene!" Tonreth whispered, as they descended even further.

Dick didn't say anything, letting the crater and surrounding wreckage speak for itself. He flew the ship slowly along the perimeter, which was dotted here and there with rubble from buildings that had not been damaged by the initial bomb but had been destroyed by the shockwave of the blast. At last, on the southwestern edge of the crater, Tonreth saw a structure. Dick appeared to be intending to land there.

"What is that building?" he asked Dick.

"That building survived the blast. Nothing else within thirty miles of the bomb did. Just that building."

"Did it have some sort of special protection?"

Dick landed the Deuce a short distance away from the structure. "You might say that. It's a church. My wife told me she heard that just before the attack, one of the priests had felt compelled to pray that they might withstand a 'rain of fire.' He gathered a group together, and they began to pray. Shortly afterward, the building shook and a loud roar surrounded the building, but they kept praying. When it became quiet again, they stopped and went outside and saw what you see now. And before you ask, I have no idea why they were spared when so many were not." He shut down the engines and motioned for Tonreth to open the hatch.

The two men got out of the Deuce. Tonreth stared at the church. For such a remarkable building, it certainly looked ... unremarkable. It had a plain, unadorned facade with a bell tower on top. It didn't seem capable of holding more than, say, one hundred people at the most. How had this smallish building survived forces that had crushed other buildings to rubble?

"Here," said Dick, handing a small bouquet of flowers to Tonreth and keeping one for himself.

"Where did these come from?"

"I brought them with me," Dick replied with a small smile. "I believe in being prepared." He led Tonreth to one side of the church where a rough-hewn cross slightly taller than Tonreth looked out over the crater. Bunches of flowers covered the ground around it. Tonreth saw Dick close his eyes briefly and then bend down to place his flowers gently on top of the pile. Tonreth wasn't sure of the meaning of the gestures, but he did the same. He then followed Dick back to the Deuce.

"All right, Dick. You win. My people, not just Chandria and I, will apologize to the Mexican people for this. Allowing my people to continue to believe that we were somehow justified in causing this ... horror in the name of security isn't worth the cost." He turned to Dick with a wry grin. "And you knew I would decide that, you sneak! You managed to maneuver me into this trip by showing me all those memorials, and I didn't even realize it!"

Dick smirked. "Let's just say I played a hunch." He started the engines and lifted off, sending the Deuce back across the crater and towards the U.S. Suddenly, Dick smacked himself on the forehead. "I almost forgot! Since we've got a clear schedule tonight, Babs wanted to know if you'd be interested in joining us for dinner?"

"At your home?" Tonreth asked, slightly astonished.

"Sure! She really wants to meet you."

"I would be delighted! As long as you're sure it wouldn't be too much of an imposition."

"One way to find out," Dick said with a grin. He fiddled with the communications gear for a moment until he was able to contact his wife. Tonreth saw the lovely red-haired woman from Dick's pictures appear on the small screen.

"Dick!" she greeted him happily.

"Hi, sweetheart! You still feel up to having Tonreth come home with me for dinner tonight?"

"Of course. It's not like I've been doing anything strenuous today," she said in a tone even Tonreth could recognize as mock-complaining.

"Babs, you know why Alfred is there," Dick replied soothingly. "You just had major surgery, and the only reason Leslie let you out of bed is because she knew Alfred was there to keep an eye on you."

"But he won't even let me do much with the baby," she replied, an edge of real complaint creeping into her voice.

Dick must have heard it too because he grinned at her. "Then you shouldn't have produced such an adorable little girl who puts everyone she meets under a spell. Alfred can't help it. I'm already trying to figure out ways to keep her from dating until she's thirty!"

Barbara laughed, her expression clearing. "In any event, as I said, Tonreth is definitely welcome for dinner. I invited my dad over as well; is that okay?"

"Sure! We should be in Gotham in less than an hour."

"Just how are you expecting to get from the airport to here, Clueless Wonder?" she asked mockingly.

"I should still have my bike parked in the hanger from one of these jaunts. We'll be fine."

"All right. See you soon."


Dick managed to arrive at the clocktower in time to "help" put Terri to bed. He placed the baby girl in her crib and spun the small mobile of circus animals that hung above her. He eyed the animals semi-critically -- he had carved each figure in his spare time aboard the Chaffee, and one of the other pilots had painted them. The mobile had been shipped home with the rest of his effects, so it had been on hand for his daughter's arrival, even if he hadn't.

Dinner passed quickly as Dick and Tonreth shared their experience at the crater. Tonreth repeated his intention of asking Chandria to issue an official apology to Mexico.

"I just wish I knew how the warriors will take the news that one of our own killed a queen," he concluded quietly.

"Why do they have to know?" asked Jim Gordon.

Tonreth stared at him. "We cannot tell our people that it was wrong for us to bomb Mexico City and not tell them who killed the queen -- the two events are linked together!"

"You look like a man with an idea," said Barbara to her father.

"I was just thinking," he replied. "Why couldn't you tell them that it was Luthor who killed your queen? He's already dead, so that's taken care of. And he did help the queen's murderer conceal his crime."

Tonreth still looked puzzled, but Dick had a flash of inspiration. "That would work perfectly, Tonreth!" he said excitedly. "You could say that Luthor knew your people would retaliate, and that he hoped to use the resulting war for his own ends." His expression became more serious. "I think it would still be a good idea to put the true story in your archives somewhere. You owe it to your future queens to let them know what really happened."

Tonreth slowly nodded. "Dick, Mr. Gordon, I believe you are right. I will contact Chandria tomorrow."

After dinner, Jim and Alfred left, and the others settled in the living room. Tonreth and Dick told Barbara about their nightmarish experiences in the Ch'ton court trying to get Tonreth installed as Warlord as well as married to the queen.

"It was certainly crazy. I don't think I ever want to go through that again!" sighed Tonreth. He turned to Dick, "That reminds me -- do you remember that conversation we had the night before the wedding? The one that got interrupted?"

"When we found out your escort had just gotten themselves thrown in jail for disturbing the peace, or whatever you call it? Yeah, I guess so," Dick replied, puzzled.

"You never did answer my question -- what are your plans for after the war?"

Dick stiffened. This wasn't a question he was quite ready to answer. "I ... I'm not completely sure yet." He felt Barbara turn to look at him, and he saw the surprise in her eyes. "I'm just not sure I can go back to being a cop," he said, speaking mainly to Barbara. "I've thought about it, and the idea of going back out on those streets," he knew she'd understand he meant both as Officer Grayson and as Nightwing, "just doesn't sound all that attractive. I don't think that's who I am any more. Besides," he continued with a smirk, "I doubt it's a proper occupation for the husband of the CEO of LexCorp."

Barbara swatted him on the arm. "Silly!"

"Have you ever thought about taking over Luthor's idea of colonization?" Tonreth asked.

Dick stiffened and looked away from Barbara, but he thought she still must have seen the flare of excitement in his eyes. "Colonization?" he asked, trying to speak calmly. "Why ask me?"

"I've now met many of your leaders, Dick, and I honestly believe you would be the ideal man to lead a colonization effort. It would certainly be a challenge for you, but it's a challenge I think you would welcome."

Dick shook his head silently.

Tonreth soon pronounced himself ready to go to sleep, so Dick showed him to the guest bedroom. When Dick rejoined his wife, he found her already in bed. In silence, Dick got ready for bed, turned out the lights, and joined her. She snuggled up against him, her head resting on his shoulder. Dick wrapped his arms around her and held her close against him.

"So why don't you think I'd want to go off into space with you?" she asked quietly. "Do you think I couldn't hack it?"

Dick sighed. "I've always maintained that you can do anything you set out to do, sweetheart. That's not it. It just seemed ... selfish of me to ask. I mean, you've got LexCorp, your work as Oracle, plus Gotham is your home."

"Taking over LexCorp was just a tool to bring down Luthor. I certainly have no interest in being a CEO. I've already chosen a new chairman, and J'onn assures me she's an honest woman. Lucius has also pledged to keep an eye on things. As far as Oracle is concerned, I think Tim would prefer doing that to his Robin work -- he's certainly proved he can handle the job, and it still keeps him close to Bruce. As far as Gotham's being my home -- you are my home, Dickie-boy. You and our daughter. As much as I love this city, I'm not all that sure I want our daughter growing up here."

"You want to give up being Oracle?"

"Yes," she replied, and he could hear the smile in her voice. "I've enjoyed my work, and I'm certainly proud of what I've accomplished, but like you, it just doesn't sound all that attractive any more."

"What does sound attractive?"

"Y'know, one of the times I felt most ... alive was when the earthquake hit Gotham -- when I worked in police headquarters coordinating the rescue efforts. Apart from the fear and the adrenaline, I felt this sense of ... rightness, as if this was what I was supposed to be doing."

Dick lay silently for a few moments. Finally, he said, "Any colonization effort is going to take an awful lot of organization -- not just people, but matériel. The amount of coordination necessary to make it work would be tremendous. To me, it sounds like an incredibly complicated, tedious job. What do you think?"

Another few moments of silence. She replied, "Yes, it sounds complicated, but to me it honestly sounds like fun. You know where I could get a job like that?"

"It's just possible that someone might start mobilizing an effort to plant a colony. I've heard that the guy has a known weakness for redheads. You might give him a call."

He stopped talking as Barbara pulled him into a passionate, somewhat punishing kiss. When she released his head, he continued, "I misspoke -- he has a weakness for one particular redhead." She laughed softly and kissed him again. After a few minutes, he cuddled her against his side once more.

"You realize we're going to have to find some way of convincing Alfred to come along -- how would we be sure that we were doing things 'properly' without him?" Barbara asked.

"Oh, that's easy -- just remind him Terri's going with us," Dick snickered. "The real question is, which of us is going to tell Bruce?"


O, thus be it ever when freemen shall stand,
Between their lov'd homes and the war's desolation;
Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land
Praise the Pow'r that hath made and preserv'd us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust!"
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
-- Francis Scott Key, 1814

In the administrator's stateroom aboard the colony ship, SS Esperanza, Dick and Barbara had finally settled in after a long day. The ship was now two days out from Earth, and things were finally beginning to settle into a routine. Dick sighed. Maybe, just maybe he might get through tomorrow without any "world-coming-to-an-end" crises. Barbara snuggled up more closely against him, and he tightened his arm around her.

"Hey, I almost forgot," Dick said, "What did the doc want to see you about?"

Barbara yawned and dropped a sleepy kiss on his shoulder. "Oh. Remember that stomach flu I thought I had? Turns out I'm pregnant again." She smiled lazily up at him. "Think Terri might like a baby brother to play with?"

Dick stared at her in shock. "You're kidding, right?" he sputtered.

Babs simply smiled and turned off the light.

~~~ The End ~~~

1 A good chunk of President Ross's speech has been lifted from FDR's "Pearl Harbor" speech. If you're going to swipe, swipe the good stuff. J (c.f. for the full text of his speech -- well worth reading) Back

2 Service flags were flown by households in WWI and WWII that had family members in service. The banners were usually rectangular in shape and hung length-wise in the window. They were white with a red border, and each family member in service was represented by a blue star. If a member was killed, his star was covered by a gold (or yellow) star. Back

3 CAG stands for "Carrier Air Group Commander." It is actually a throwback to the early days of naval aviation. The official title of the officer in charge of a ship's fighters is "Commander, Air Wing," but the old acronym lives on. Back

4 For you non-Marvel-zombies out there, Rom, Spaceknight was a comic book series from back in the early eighties. Last year's mini-series, Spaceknights, is actually a sequel to the title. I've never read any of the them, but I figured if I thought of the joke, another comic geek might also. Back

5 The Navy is very fond of long acronyms, so it seemed logical to me that they would a) create a new area of operation for the space fleet and b) coin a new acronym for it. Just as CINCPACFLT stands for Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, my CINCSOLFLT stands for Commander-in-Chief, Solar System Fleet. The acronyms are usually pronounced just the way they're spelled, although they may be shortened: CINCPACFLT is usually spoken of as CINCPAC ("sink pack"). Back

6 I realize I'm really stretching things for Dick to be promoted to LCDR after only two years, even under wartime conditions. But we all know how exceptional Dick is, right? Right? Work with me here, people. Back

7 Roger Chaffee (1935-1967): Navy pilot and U.S. astronaut who was a member of the three-man Apollo 1 crew killed when a flash fire swept their space capsule during a simulation of a launching scheduled for Feb. 21, 1967. Chaffee died along with the veteran space travellers Virgil I. Grissom and Edward H. White II. They were the first casualties of the U.S. space program. Back

8 TDY - Temporary Duty Back

9 The New Titans #65 (1990) Back

10 Confession time: Except for four characters, every non-DC character name in my story has come from David Weber's wonderful Honor Harrington novels. In most cases, I only used the name; the rank and description (and sometimes the gender) were quite different. Here, though, I decided to pull Honor and McKeon pretty much straight out of On Basilisk Station since I thought Dick deserved an extra-special CO. Thus, the additional disclaimer: Honor Harrington and related characters belong to David Weber, not me.
Also, I know it can be confusing, but it's naval tradition to refer to the officer in charge of the ship as the "Captain" even though the officer in question may not actually hold that rank. Back

11 Carrier Onboard Delivery -- a supply ship Back

12 The New Titans #60 mentions a weightlifter named Jacques and a clown named Harry (who's also in Batman #436). They aren't given last names. Nightwing Secret Files #1 lists a weightlifter named Irving Carberry and a clown named Sammy Windrow. I split the difference and gave Jacques and Harry the others' last names. Back

13 Although these are Root's original lyrics, I, as a native Texan, feel I should point out these were not the lyrics I learned as a kid. The southern version ends, "And beneath the stars and bars We shall breathe the air again As free men in our own beloved home." J Back

14 New Teen Titans Annual #1 Back

15 New Teen Titans #24. Changeling, Cyborg (Vic), Kid Flash (now Flash), Raven, Robin, and Wonder Girl (now Troia) each received this implant from the Omega Men. Back

16 See Titans #19. Short synopsis: The Gordanians, a race of slavers, had been involved in an on-again, off-again war with the Tamaranians for years. Princess Koriand'r of Tamaran, a.k.a. Starfire of the Titans, had involved the Titans in an attempt by her people to take over a colony world of the Gordanians. Garth, who had been captured by the Gordanians, convinced his captors that this was all merely a ruse to persuade the Gordanians to allow the Tamaranians to live on the Gordanian world. Roy, who was not on the mission at the time, resented Garth's taking on the role of team spokesman. Back

17 The crew of Apollo 8, which was the first mission to orbit the moon, read the first ten verses of Genesis as part of their television broadcast to Earth on December 24, 1968. After William Anders and Jim Lovell said the verses listed above, mission commander Frank Borman said, "And God said, 'Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear'; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas; and saw that it was good." Borman then added, "And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you -- all of you on the good Earth." Back

18 In the Monty Python Spanish Inquisition sketch, there are three cardinals: Cardinal Ximinez of Spain played by Michael Palin, Cardinal Biggles played by Terry Jones, and Cardinal Fang played by Terry Gilliam. There are several sites that list a complete transcript of the sketch, but one of my favorites is Back

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