Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Four
MARCH 15, 2654
Taggart's hatch stood ajar, and Blair peeked through the crack. If a man's quarters say a lot about the man, then this place isn't talking. Taggart kept only the bare essentials: cot, night-stand, and wide, battered desk. Even the old gray walls were bare, sans the pinups or family photos that hung in the majority of pilot berths. Taggart sat at the desk, poring over a collection of ancient star charts printed on real paper. A half-dozen of them lay rolled up and bound by rubber bands at his elbow. Still more of the scrolls sat in a pile on the floor. Amid the charts lay an unwrapped and half-eaten sandwich and Taggart's coffee mug. Lifting a knuckle, Blair prepared to knock. "Come in," Taggart said.
Grinning slightly over the man's keen senses, Blair entered and suddenly felt awkward at standing in this most personal of places. He blurted out, "We're holding steady on the beacon. Marshall has the helm." He neared the desk and ran his finger over one of the charts. "These must be antiques."
"Yeah," Taggart said. "They were made by the first explorers in the sector. Pilgrims."
"How did you get them?"
Taggart rolled up one of the maps. "Now that's a story too long to hear."
"I, uh, before… I couldn't help noticing the tattoo on your neck."
Smiling wanly, Taggart looked to an empty wall. Blair could only imagine what ghosts the captain saw there. "What about the Pilgrim cross you hide under your shirt?"
Retreating a step, Blair's hand went instinctively for the cross. Then, realizing he had betrayed himself, he thrust the hand to his side and waited for the inevitable.
"Don't worry. We all have pasts. And secrets."
Blair gave a slight sigh. "It was my mother's."
"May I see it?"
After hesitating, Blair lifted the chain over his head and withdrew the cross. He handed it to Taggart, who ran his fingers slowly, reverently over the semicircle. The glimmer in his eyes grew brighter, and his face tightened into the countenance of a priest staring at a recovered relic. He pressed the center symbol. A seven-inch blade telescoped from the cross's bottom.
As he traced the blade with his index finger, he smiled wanly again and said, "There was a time long ago when people looked up to the Pilgrims.
They were at the forefront of space exploration. When I was a boy, I knew there was some kind of connection between God and the stars. I think the Pilgrims found that connection." He touched the plate again, retracting the blade, then returned it to Blair.
"You know," Taggart continued, "since the Pilgrims were defeated, not a single new quasar has been charted."
"It's so strange hearing someone talk like this. The word Pilgrim has always been… I don't know… a curse."
Without warning, a sudden surge of acceleration sent Blair reaching for the desk. He caught the edge and balanced himself as Taggart's coffee mug fell and broke.
"That idiot!" Taggart screamed. He shot to his feet and stormed out of the cabin.
Blair followed close behind, only then realizing what Marshall had done. As Taggart entered the bridge, he shouted, "Get up!"
Marshall's face grew thin and pale as he quickly vacated the captain's chair and moved to the co-pilot's seat. "That caffeine's killing your attitude, man."
"Shut up. Did you change course?"
"You told me to shut up."
"Answer the question!"
"No. Just boosted the power. Why dog it when we can be at the beacon in an hour? Unless, of course, you want us to be delayed."
Blair watched Marshall's hand drift toward the sidearm concealed at his calf.
"That beacon is marking a gravity well," Taggart said through clenched teeth.
Marshall gave Blair a nervous look and mouthed, "Holy shit."
Swinging the navigation computer in front of him, Taggart's fingers danced over the touchpad until a Heads Up Display lit before them. A green, flat grid rotated and glowed as data bars on each side filled with coordinates. The grid began folding inward, creating a strange, swirling, elliptical spike in the concave surface.
Blair stood transfixed, knowing all too well what a gravity well could do to a Confed capital ship, let alone a rusty old transport.
Something sparkled near the floor, and Blair turned as Merlin self-activated and began pacing. "I told you this ship wasn't up to the job. My sensors indicate that there are a number of structural flaws—"
"What the hell is that?" Taggart asked with a lopsided grin.
"That's Merlin," Blair answered. "He's the interface for my PPC."
Taggart resumed his gaze on the HUD. "Well, get into his face and tell him to shut up."
Blair cocked his head to give the order, but Merlin had already switched to standby mode.
Shoving the navigation computer back on its swingarm, Taggart slid another display forward, one that offered multiple views of space via the Diligent's external cameras. He chose the image from the centerline unit and adjusted the telescopic lens to bring a dim object, the gravity well, into focus. Blair spotted asteroids and space debris being sucked into the well, as though into a whirlpool, and disappearing. The Diligent screamed toward the same future.
Taggart beat his knuckle upon a thruster control button, throwing Blair and Marshall forward as retros violently kicked in. "One cubic inch of that well exerts more gravitational force than Earth's sun," he barked at Marshall.
"I screwed up. I get that. Stow the physics lesson," Marshall answered, his eyes not leaving the external camera display.
Taggart pushed that display aside and slid back the navigation computer. He frowned at the coordinates and tapped in new ones. "Come on, come on," he said, driving himself harder. "If I don't realign our entry vector, we won't make the jump."
"And if we don't make the jump…" Marshall began.
"We die," Taggart finished.
"Have we reached the entry vector's point of no return yet?" Blair asked. Once they hit the PNR, course adjustment would be a fond memory.
"Not yet," Taggart said, throwing a toggle to automatically stabilize the now-groaning transport. "She's reaching out for us. Hear that?"
The Diligent's hull protested much louder now, and through the viewport, the gravity well appeared in all of its gluttonous furor. The ship's thrusters whined as they fought to obey Taggart's course corrections. Still, the well grew larger, more ominous, and the space distortions now seemed more like gelatinous hands reaching incessantly into the cosmos. Blair repressed a shiver.
Taggart took one look at the viewport and raised a hand. "Well, ladies, meet Scylla, bane to sailors and monster of myth."
Marshall frowned at Blair, then regarded Taggart, his frown deepening. "What's a Scylla?"
But Blair answered for Taggart. "Ulysses sailed between the whirlpool Charybdis and the island monster Scylla. She snatched six of his men and ate them."
"I didn't need to know that," Marshall moaned.
Shaking a finger at Scylla, Taggart said, "This beauty's got an even bigger appetite. Hold on."
Blair got to the navigator's seat behind Taggart and Marshall. The captain threw a pair of toggles, and a bank of afterburners kicked the Diligent onto her side. Blair clung to the arms of his seat as the ship continued to yaw and tremble like a piece of Los Angeles real estate. Every seam and conduit in the old transport begged for relief. Within a few seconds the tremors became so violent that Blair fell from his chair and crashed to the wall that now served as the deck. He rolled over and spotted Merlin, whose image shook so hard that it blurred. Marshall lost his grip as well, and thumped to the floor beside Blair.
Still glued to his seat, Taggart continued adjusting the Diligent's course. The transport slowly rolled upright, sending Blair and Marshall sliding toward the true deck. As the ship finally balanced and artificial gravity readjusted, Blair looked over Taggart's shoulder at the Heads Up Display, which now showed a digital glide path that took them along Scylla's perimeter, the course steady and true.
"Broken your grip, old girl," Taggart said, regarding an external camera display that tracked the gravity well. "Better luck next time."
Blair stood and watched Taggart steer the ship along the glide path. The Diligent now skipped closer to Scylla, avoiding her maw, but nonetheless doing some serious flirting. Space wavered along the starboard quarter.
Clearly, Marshall had a rough time comprehending the gravity well. He stared at the external camera image, at the space distortion through the viewport, at the glide path. And he began shaking his head. "This isn't a normal gravity well. What the hell is this thing?"
"This thing is a distortion in space-time," Taggart explained. "Pilgrims were the first to chart it."
"So why is it off-limits?" Marshall asked.
"Because it's unstable."
"And we're going to jump it?" Marshall mouthed to Blair, having a hard time keeping his jaw closed.
A warning light flashed on the navigation computer, accompanied by a rapid beeping. The HUD winked out. The Diligent suddenly listed to starboard.
"Nav computer's off-line," Blair observed.
"It's the magnetic fields," Taggart said. "Blair. Take the helm."
Normal functions like breathing suddenly escaped Blair. "I've never made a jump before."
Taggart cocked a brow. "Now would be a good time to learn." He rushed toward the hatchway.
"Guess we both know what he's about," Marshall said softly. "He's about getting us killed."
Blair ignored that, focusing instead on the vortex as it now shifted to the center viewport. Without the nav computer's assistance, the Diligent would return to the previous course, and Blair, Marshall, and Taggart would learn the mysteries of the afterlife, free of charge.
Near the hatchway, Taggart had pulled off a maintenance panel and now considered the exposed intricacy of wires. He pulled out a pair of protein processing chips, studied them a moment, then tossed them over his shoulder. He opened another panel and withdrew fresh chips.
The gravity well now dominated all viewports, a malevolent queen at her banquet table. A pair of discarded O2 canisters collided and exploded on their way into her stomach. Asteroids spun and broke apart, leaving trails of themselves across the whirlpool. Even a comet had strayed too close to Scylla's amorous arms and now painted an even streak across the watery blur of her physique.
A proximity alarm blared, and a digital countdown at Marshall's station read 9, 8, 7—
"Uh, Captain?" Marshall called out.
"Five seconds to jump."
"So if you don't get the nav computer back on line, this unstable gravity well is going to pull us in—one molecule at a time.