Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Eight

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Chapter Eight
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 2
Previous Chapter Seven
Next Chapter Nine


Dramatis Personae

Text

UNITED

CONFEDERATION

CARRIER TIGER CLAW

MARCH 16, 2654

0330 HOURS

ZULU TIME

VEGA SECTOR

ENYO SYSTEM


Riding a warm wave of Scotch toward an imaginary shoreline, Blair settled down into a chair and watched Forbes and Polanski play another chess game. Marshall, the bottle still clutched in his hand, wandered over to observe the competition. The youngest of four sons, Marshall had grown up in a competitive household where his older siblings had constantly challenged him to meet their unrealistic standards—not that Marshall had ever volunteered this information. Blair had deduced this after meeting and spending time with Marshall's brothers. Never had he encountered a more demanding, ill-tempered, hard-core bunch of military brats. Two of them still flew for their father, Boomer Marshall, a retired Marine pilot who owned a charter service on Leto. Thanks to his father, Marshall had entered the academy with more logged flight hours than any other cadet, and he had made sure that no one ever forgot that fact. Despite his constant boasting, Marshall's experience had actually come to great use during a training exercise in which he and Blair had discovered a Kilrathi destroyer hidden in the Hilthros system's nebula. With Marshall's fearless flying to counterbalance Blair's by-the-book combat tactics, the two managed to destroy the ship, which had already penetrated Confederation counterintelligence measures and had nearly gained access to highly classified data regarding fleet positions and strength.

But to look at Marshall now, you'd never think he was capable of such a feat. He could barely stand as he drew closer to the chess game. "Take his pony with your castle," he told Forbes, then took a swig from the bottle. Polanski belched in Marshall's direction, then said, "We call them a knight and a rook."

"You're kidding me. That's what you call them?"

As she studied the board, a grin seized Forbes's face. She regarded Marshall, her eyes saying thanks.

Marshall winked.

She moved her "castle" and captured Polanski's "pony." Then she folded her arms over her chest. "Check."

Drawing back his head, Polanski stared incredulously at the board.

"Where?"

"Mate," Marshall said.

"Damn," Polanski said in realization. "That's cheatin'."

Forbes gave Marshall a penetrating stare. "So there's a brain behind that mouth?"

Marshall flashed one of his trademark smiles, the kind that sometimes made women swoon and always made men, especially pilots, ball their hands into fists. He poured her another drink, and she stood. For a second, her gaze met Blair's, and he turned away, unconsciously jamming his hands in his pockets.

"Your friend always this talkative?" she asked Marshall.

"He just made the fatal error of mistaking Commander Deveraux for your average grease monkey."

She circled to face Blair and bent down to his level. Then her hand shot out, and she grabbed his crotch. He went to push her away, but found his hands trapped in his pockets.

"Feels like they're still here," she said.

St. John, who had been sitting quietly beside Blair, chuckled with the other pilots.

Forbes squeezed a little harder. Blair squirmed and finally wrestled her off.

"If Commander Deveraux was really pissed," Forbes said with a knowing grin, "well, you'd be testicularly challenged, Lieutenant."

Bringing his legs together and silently swearing over the pain, Blair forced himself deeper into the seat as he realized that every gaze in the room had found him. "All I did was sit in Lieutenant Commander Chen's fighter."

Smiles faded. Polanski shifted away.

Captain St. John looked up from his Scotch. "Who?"

"Lieutenant Commander Chen. Bossman."

The cigar came out. "Bossman? Anybody here know a Bossman?"

"No," someone said.

"Never heard of him," someone else added.

Shooting to his feet so quickly that he knocked over his chair, Blair said, "What's with you people?" The indifference in their faces infuriated him. Was this how they regarded their fallen comrades?

A burly black man with a widow's peak and a nametag that read Khumalo moved to Blair, his expression calm, his voice nearly a whisper.

"Leave it alone, Blair."

"Leave what alone?"

St. John sniggered. "You're asking after a man who never existed, nugget."

"I'm pretty sure he did."

It all happened in a moment as blurry as Scylla. One nanosecond St. John sat before his drink, the next he stood and pushed Blair hard in the chest. "He never existed," St. John corrected. "Now, I suggest you change the subject. Or I'll change it for you."

Marshall threaded his way through the other pilots and came up behind St. John. "You have a problem with my friend, Hunter?"

"That's right. I do."

"Then you have a problem with me."

St. John whirled around. "Oh, yeah? You're going to love this—"

Expecting St. John to rush Marshall, Blair tensed, preparing to leap on the man's back.

But the pilot whirled back to him, grabbed his shirt, and drove him into the bulkhead.

Marshall employed Blair's original strategy and leapt on St. John's back, slinging an arm under the man's chin.

Likewise, Polanski slipped his arm around Marshall's neck and began prying Marshall away.

As St. John's hands got yanked back, Blair's shirt tore open to expose his cross.

"He's a Pilgrim!" St. John cried, then released Blair, who had suddenly become a live wire.

Everyone in the mess stared at the cross. Marshall cursed and pounded the bulkhead. The pilots closest to the hatch shifted back, blocking the exit.

Forbes elbowed her way through the others to get a closer look at the pariah named Christopher Blair. "Excuse me?"

"If you ladies don't stand down, you're going to have a problem with me." Blair knew who had said that, but he couldn't see her past the others.

Good. She also couldn't see him. Exploiting his temporary cover, he slid his cross beneath his shirt as the pilots snapped to attention.

"I want an explanation. Hunter?"

But before the man could answer, Blair hurried forward to address Lieutenant Commander Deveraux. "Hunter and the others were just making Lieutenant Marshall and me feel at home, ma'am."

She stared dubiously at him, then at St. John. "Lieutenant?"

The captain gave Blair a slight glance and said, "Uh, that's right, Lieutenant, ma'am."

Blair couldn't hide his contempt for her, for all of them. "There, you see, ma'am? I guess this conversation never existed." He bolted through the open hatch.

Out in the corridor, Blair charged toward a pair of green-suited munitions techs, who immediately shifted to the bulkhead, allowing him to pass. I hate this place.

"Lieutenant?" Deveraux called sternly.

He stopped but wouldn't turn around, listening to her approach.

"I need to know that you have your priorities straight. Who the hell do you think you are?"

"I'm a fighter pilot on a capital ship in a war zone, ma'am. Which part confuses you?"

"Oh, I'm clear on you now, Lieutenant. You're a pawn in somebody else's game. We get ten, twelve replacements a month—as fast as the academy can spit out spare parts."

"Well, that really instills confidence, Commander."

She crossed in front of him, her runaway temper darkening her cheeks.

"Let me give you a reality check. In all likelihood you're going to die out there—we all are. We don't need that reminder. So. You die, you never existed. Understood?"

Resigned to her illogic, Blair dropped his gaze. "Yes, ma'am. Understood."

"Good. 'Cause that's the only sensitivity training speech I can remember. Now. Carry on." She strode away.

Merlin abruptly activated to walk on air near Blair's shoulder. "She's kind of attractive when she's mad."

Blair made a face.

"Hey, I'm a hologram. I'm not blind."

* * *

In the dimly lit and silent chart room, Captain Sansky looked up to consider the group of red dots on the ghostly tactical schematic that Lieutenant Commander Obutu had pulled up for him. Those holographic dots moved toward the broad limbs of the Charybdis Quasar. Behind the quasar, a single yellow line unfurled toward a floating Earth. Sansky knew his orders, knew very well the role he would play, but a deep-rooted feeling of hesitancy returned. Commander Gerald doubted the authenticity of the message. And now he had little faith in Sansky's decision to feel out Taggart before committing to the mission. Gerald's second-guessing could become unmanageable if the crew got word of it. Though Gerald kept a tight rein on his people, they deeply respected his authority, evident in the many official and unofficial service awards they had given him. Sansky would simply have to wait and see. But the game turned his stomach sour.

The hatch opened, and Gerald stepped inside. Captain James Taggart followed, lifting a hand to cover a yawn. "Captain Sansky. From one captain to another—never wake up a tired sailor unless we're talking life-or-death situation."

"Then let's talk, Mr. Taggart."

Moving beneath the holograph, Taggart stared at the Kilrathi battle group arrowing toward the quasar. "They're in a hurry," he muttered.

"I know of you, Taggart, but I'm afraid I don't know you. You're a civilian captain flying a requisitioned transport, yet you come to me with classified orders from Admiral Tolwyn."

Taggart smirked. "And you don't trust me, Blair, or the disc."

"Would you?"

"No."

Sansky nodded to the holograph. "This tactical schematic outlines a nightmare, Mr. Taggart. It tells me that the Kilrathi have a NAVCOM, and with it, the capacity to jump into Earth space. Based on that nightmare, I must take radical action that, if it and you are a lie, could compromise this ship, her crew, and Earth—all of which are unacceptable. Before I put my command in harm's way, I must be certain that you and the orders you bear are legitimate." Sansky reached into his breast pocket and produced the decoded disc. "So, I ask you, Mr. Taggart, what proof do you have that this is authentic?"

Taggart reached into his inner vest pocket and withdrew a small, shiny object. He tossed it to Sansky, who caught and quickly examined it.

Between his fingers rested a gold class ring, its surfaces worn, its emerald dull. Sansky held it to the holograph's light and read the inscription: Annapolis Naval Academy, 1941. He closed his now-trembling hand over the ring and stared incredulously at Taggart. "How did you get this?" "Tolwyn gave it to me eight months ago. He thought it might be useful in situations like getting a captain to follow his orders."

Gerald crossed to Sansky and gestured to see the ring. Sansky handed it to him, then turned to the intercom. "Con. Plot a course for the Charybdis Quasar, full speed."

Lieutenant Commander Obutu shifted from the tactical schematic console to read the navigator's coordinates on another screen. Obutu, an earnest black man, tough as titanium, with a thick brow and a face that seemed regularly haunted by a past of which he would not speak, remained a comfort and a mystery to Sansky. As the lieutenant commander further surveyed the screen, a query creased his face. "Sir, the nearest jump point to Charybdis is four days hard travel from our present position. How are we supposed to get there in time?"

"There's a Class Two pulsar eleven hours from here," Taggart said. "We can jump there."

Obutu began a rapid-fire sequence of key commands, then looked to Sansky. "Not on the charts, sir. NAVCOM does not have those coordinates."

"I have them," Taggart said, stepping between Sansky and Obutu.

"No one's jumped a pulsar for forty years," Gerald pointed out, eyeing Taggart with disdain. "And even then, they were Pilgrims."

"I don't believe we have a great deal of choice, Mr. Gerald," Sansky fired back. "If the battle is to be decided at Charybdis, then we have to be there." He regarded Taggart. "Plot your course."

With a nod, Taggart headed for a navigation subterminal.

Swearing under his breath, Gerald watched Taggart plug numbers into the computer for a moment, then moved close to Sansky, out of Taggart's earshot. "Sir. This ring means nothing." He returned the antique to Sansky. "You shouldn't—"

"This ring has been in Tolwyn's family for sixteen generations. Any man who carries it has the admiral's full confidence." "If it's real—which it may not be—then I can't believe Tolwyn gave it to a civilian."

"Believe it. He's done it before. This is the ring. And you have your orders. Prepare for jump."

As Gerald saluted and left, Sansky watched Taggart, wishing he could see past the man's mysteries. Sansky kept his own secrets carefully stowed, but he guessed that Taggart's cache far exceeded his. So be it. Life had become far more interesting. And dangerous.