Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Fifteen

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Chapter Fifteen
Book Wing Commander
Parts 3
Previous Chapter Fourteen
Next Chapter Sixteen

Dramatis Personae





MARCH 17, 2654

0400 HOURS





"Go on," Deveraux whispered to herself. "There's nothing in this mouse hole. Beat it."

The Kilrathi ship continued probing, its beam throwing a green halo over the asteroid.

A thump from the port side caught her attention. She shuddered as a figure dressed in Confederation Marine Corps armor floated near her wing. She looked away before the face rolled into view, but her stomach dropped anyway—and not from nausea. The Rapier had begun drifting. Unable to fire retros that would reveal her location, she watched as the starboard wing brushed against an uneven valley of ice and rock with a sickening creak. She shushed her fighter and looked up. "You didn't read that," she told the Kilrathi. "And if you did, it was just two rocks colliding."

She waited. Waited some more. Became an authority on waiting. Knew the details. The frustration. Could tell you all you wanted to know about it. Could tell you that in the end there was, of course, nothing to do but wait. And react. And sitting in the cramped cockpit felt very much like hiding in her old closet, back at the orphanage. Sister Fleurette would come with her red and swollen eyes, with her wooden paddle, and with her breath that reeked of alcohol. The door would swing open. The light would rush in. Squinting, Deveraux would watch the paddle eclipse the sun. She shook off the memory, seeing now that the Rapier floated away from the rock, widening the distance by a meter every two or three seconds.

The asteroid's halo grew brighter.

Far to port, past teeming knots of rubble, something glimmered. Was it just more durasteel from the Pegasus Station? A second look proved Blair's suspicions. The Kilrathi ConCom ship had paused near Deveraux's position. "What do they see, Merlin?"

"They don't see anything. Switch on your thermal scanner. They're out of range to detect it."

He slid the HUD viewer over his eye and tapped on the scanner. Not much of a view: the glimmer once more, the asteroids among twinkling shards of metal…

There. A fading red glow shone through the massive rock shielding Deveraux. "They've spotted Angel's heat corona."

"Two more Kilrathi closing fast," Merlin said anxiously. "Probably fighters."

Blair's gloved fingers traveled quickly over his instrument panels. Displays rose from darkness. Scanners flashed data to him. Engines hummed in their warming sequence. The communications system gave a readiness beep. "Angel. They've spotted us. Two more bogies coming in hot. Six o'clock." He stole a glance at his radar display. No, the Kilrathi weren't changing their minds.

Deveraux's wide eyes filled his display. "Can't spot them, Blair. Call it." The blips moved closer.

"Jack in the box," Blair instructed. "On three. One… two… three!"

The Rapier's engines ignited with a thundering roar. Jagged stone wiped past him as he skimmed along the asteroid's surface. Once clear of the rock, he corkscrewed straight up, out of the field and into a starry sky. "Form on my wing," Deveraux ordered.

"Yes, ma'am!" Wheeling around, Blair rocketed toward her fighter, strangling more thrust from his Rapier. As he neared her position, he spotted two Dralthi fighters escorting the ConCom ship.

Without giving the enemy pilots time to blink, he and Deveraux squeezed off Dumb-fire missiles. Her rocket tore past the left Dralthi's shields to swallow the fighter in a fireball. His missile caught the other Dralthi as it began veering off. The explosion tore away the ship's engine housing to send it spiraling out of control. It glanced off the asteroid Deveraux had used as cover, shedding plastisteel like a cybernetic snake, then splayed itself over a valley.

Charging through the still-lingering blast waves, he and Deveraux targeted the ConCom ship. Even as his sensors indicated that she had ignited her missile, Blair jammed down his trigger. Their projectiles trailed ribbons of exhaust as they traversed the thousand-meter gap. But they stopped short, detonating in useless ringlets of energy as the ConCom's powerful shields absorbed them.

"Well, they're awake now," Blair said. He checked his radar display.

"I've got two more bogies coming up from the brown dwarf. Engaging."

"Negative! I count fourteen unfriendlies inbound. Looks like two destroyers. We are out of here!" Her exhaust ports flared as afterburners engaged.

Blair lit his own burners and banked suddenly, following her back toward the Tiger Claw. He switched his left VDU to the rear turret display. A swarm of glowing specks descended upon the asteroid field.

* * *

Standing in the center of the Grist'Ar'roc's bridge, Captain Thiraka nar Kiranka reflected on the report from his tactical officer. Bad news regularly turned him inward, in search of a response. Oh, yes, he knew what he wanted to do now. But he also considered what the admiral would do—another response altogether. In the unlikely event that Thiraka and Bokoth agreed upon their next action, then Thiraka might honestly believe that he did have a future with the Kilrathi military. But as the past had already proven, he did not think like his superiors, and he suspected that recent events would not change that.

He moved cautiously toward the rear of the bridge, where Kalralahr Bokoth crouched on bent knee below a meter-high statue of Sivar, whose fearsome personage stood on a pedestal and loomed over the bridge like a brooding rain cloud. Banners of the Kiranka clan hung behind the candlelit effigy in testament to fallen and future glory. The banners' asymmetric symbols told stories of death, conquest, and domination; stories of sterilized worlds and territorial ambitions; stories of civil wars so heinous that humans could never comprehend them.

Waiting at the proper distance, Thiraka hoped the admiral would notice him soon. Bokoth could choose to meditate for another hour, and Thiraka would have to remain, neither able to interrupt Bokoth nor retreat. Death awaited any Kilrathi who violated that precept. But Bokoth had heard his approach. As though emerging dizzy from a vision, the admiral craned his pale, oblong head toward Thiraka. "Kal Shintahr?"

"Sir, our lead ConCom ship has engaged a Confederation reconnaissance flight in sector seven. Fighters from two of our destroyers were dispatched to intercept."

"And the reconnaissance patrol escaped."

Thiraka nodded and ground his long teeth. The admiral had not listened to Thiraka's wish and continued to have intelligence beamed directly to his quarters, overstepping his authority. Thiraka considered Bokoth's quick murder followed by his own suicide. He breathed deeply, trying to quell the thought.

With a slight growl, Bokoth forced himself to his feet. "So the Tiger Claw is here."

"Yes, sir. The merchantman we tracked earlier jumped into this sector by using a gravity well. And the carrier jumped here through a pulsar." "Do we have a fix on her signal?"

"Yes, sir."

The admiral turned to the command chair, where, cloaked in shadows and nutrient haze, a figure stirred. "Your friend is dedicated," Bokoth said, his words translated into the hoots and squeaks made by humans. Stepping forward, the hairless ape in the atmospheric suit raised one of its stubby, glove-covered fingers and replied, "My friend is a Pilgrim. This is what he trained for. Prepare the ambush."

"In time," Bokoth said, raising his own paw and withdrawing a nail.

"That ship is the only thing that stands between us and the success of this mission. It's yours for the taking."

Bokoth absently tugged on his whiskers, purring into a thought. Then he abruptly answered, "That ship is insignificant. That hate of your kind blinds you. All things pass. Let it go."

The ape took a step closer. "You're wrong, old man. Most things pass: love, passion, anger, life. One is eternal: hate."

* * *

"What's the matter?" Blair asked Deveraux as they walked swiftly down the corridor. "Are we in trouble?"

She wouldn't answer as she made an abrupt ninety-degree turn to march onto the bridge. She went to the viewports and came to attention as Gerald and Sansky left the radar station. Blair arrived at her side, held his shoulders high, and saluted his approaching superiors.

The captain and commander simply eyed them a moment, then Gerald, firing up his usual implacable glare, said, "We read your After Action Report. And I, for one, am unimpressed. You knew what the orders were. No contact with the enemy. Now you've compromised the mission and this ship."

"Sir. I had no choice. The enemy had spotted Lieutenant Commander Deveraux's heat signature, sir."

"Really," Gerald said, half-singing the word. His gaze shifted radically.

"Angel, how sure are you that the Kilrathi had you targeted? Given the lieutenant's background…"

"Excuse me?" Blair bristled.

Gerald's head slowly shifted like the turret-top cupola of a tank, bringing its weapon to bear. "It's well documented that Pilgrim saboteurs have been responsible for much of the Confed's problems in this war. I'll be sure to download that information to your account, Lieutenant."

"Did they have me targeted?" Deveraux demanded, turning to face Blair. "Or did you just get trigger-happy?"

"Trigger-happy? What kind of an operator do you—"

"Enough," Sansky said. "This is sterile conjecture. The Kilrathi are aware that Rapiers are short-range fighting craft assigned to cap ships. They know we're close by." He focused on Blair. "Tell me again about this communication you claim to have heard."

With a flagrant turn of his head, Blair flicked Gerald a look of raw repulsion. "It was a ULF signal emanating from the vicinity of the Tiger Claw, sir."

Sansky swung toward the navigation station, though the computer would detect his voice no matter where he projected it. "What about it, NAVCOM? Were any communications sent from this ship?"

"Negative, Captain. There were no communications sent by the Tiger Claw." Gerald smirked and gave a nod.

"Sir, I tell you—"

"You tell me nothing, Lieutenant," Sansky said. "Nor does your flight recorder. A Rapier's scanners are not equipped to detect ULF transmissions. Your reliance on your PPC—unauthorized equipment, I might add—does not convince me that the signal exists. PPCs are not standard military issue and are vulnerable to a number of viruses. What you thought you heard—"

"But sir—"

"—could've come from any number of natural sources."

"This was not a natural—"

"Dismissed, Lieutenant."

Blair saluted and rushed off the bridge before foul language landed him in the brig.

Granted, Sansky and Gerald didn't want to waste time chasing down false leads, but to ignore something of this importance seemed absolutely foolish. Then again, trusting in a half-breed and possible saboteur without proof of his loyalty would be equally so. Deadlock.

Captain Sansky took a moment to recover from his argument with the insistent boy. He admired Blair's courage in holding his ground, even on the bridge. Yet he also began to fear the boy, perhaps as much as Gerald. With little time to further speculate on Blair's potential damage, he glimpsed the distant asteroids through the viewport. "Your assessment, Mr. Gerald?"

"That ConCom's running point for the battle group. Their fleet won't be far behind. As you said, they know we're here, so I say we send them a message. I can have my fighters up in thirty minutes."

"Twenty," Deveraux corrected, her self-confidence revving even higher than Gerald's.

"That would be a mistake," Taggart said, lifting his head from the helmsman's screen. "Without her fighters, this ship's vulnerable." He stood, approached Sansky, and began shaking his head. Pursing his lips, Sansky contemplated the pros and cons of a first strike, the mental list beginning to blur as he tried in vain to spot the longer side.

"You're a civilian scout," Gerald reminded Taggart, "not a naval officer. Tactical operations are our concern."

Taggart's face grew rigid, and his tone plunged to warning depths.

"There's a great deal more at stake here than you seem to understand, Commander."

Sansky threw up a hand. "The XO is right. I'm sorry, Mr. Taggart. Destroying that ConCom and its escorts will slow the Kilrathi. Deveraux will lead a strike force. You will accompany her." He crossed back to Lieutenant Commander Obutu, who kept vigil over his screens. "Con, plot a course for the rings of Planet Four-fifteen. We'll find good cover there."