Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Fourteen

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Chapter Fourteen
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 2
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Dramatis Personae

Text

CONCORDIA BATTLE

GROUP

MARCH 17, 2654

0300 HOURS

ZULU TIME

12 HOURS FROM EARTH


The stars, once distinct points of light, had shifted into a swirling eddy of glistening claw marks. Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn sat at an observation console, pondering those marks and what lay beyond them. He imagined the future, imagined his battle group arriving in Earth space two hours too late. The once-blue planet had grown dark. Kilrathi bio-missiles exploding in her atmosphere had whipped up thick clouds of a toxin that would descend upon her citizenry for several months, killing the millions who couldn't make it to shelters and decimating all flora and fauna. It would take several millennia for the planet to recover. Tolwyn smote a fist on the console. Two hours. One hundred and twenty minutes. The irony had worn into a deep-rooted sense of helplessness and frustration that had turned his dreams to nightmares.

Someone approached from behind, and Tolwyn considered turning around, but he recognized the tentative footsteps. "What is it, Commodore?"

"Message from Earth Command, sir. Their defenses are on line, but—"

"They don't believe they can withstand a Kilrathi battle group without fleet support."

"No, sir. But they will fight. Earth will never surrender."

"Surrender? That's not an option with the Kilrathi. They believe they're the supreme race. The rest of us are just here to do one thing."

"What's that?"

Tolwyn snickered. "To die." He swiveled his chair to take in Bellegarde's somber countenance. "Our status?"

"We're still running at one hundred and ten percent. But we've already lost three ships, two at jump points, one from a reactor meltdown."

"Run at one-twenty."

"We'll lose more of the battle group."

"One-twenty, Commodore."

"One-twenty. Aye-aye, sir."

Tolwyn leaned back and folded his hands behind his head. "Before you go, Richard, have you had time to consider, well, how should I put this… your past?"

The commodore thought a moment, then said, "As you know, sir, I've been busy."

"Do you feel somehow put out because we're rushing to save a planet that doesn't concern you?"

"Earth represents a valuable commodity to the Confederation, sir. Its strategic importance—"

"But as you said, you have no ties to the planet, no desire to recognize your ancestry. I thought we came from the same generation. I thought we placed some value on our history, -our heritage."

"We do, sir. We just go about it differently. If that makes you feel uncomfortable—"

"I don't question your loyalty. I question your identity. Who are you?"

"Sir?"

"Tell me who you are."

"Bellegarde, Richard. Commodore. Terran Confederation—"

"No, Richard. That's all grandeur and bullshit. You were born in the Eddings system, Vega sector. But you can trace your ancestry back to Earth, to Scotland."

"I can do that, sir. But I'd rather not."

"Why?"

"I'd just rather not."

"I'm sorry, Richard. But I order you to tell me why you would rather not."

The commodore set his jaw, turned away, about to leave, then stopped. "My ancestors were thieves, murderers, and rapists. We took the name Bellegarde after systematically exterminating an entire family in order to gain their power and wealth. We assumed their identities through surgery and legal maneuvering, and continue to live a centuries-old lie. It was an amazing feat. And a tragic one." He gathered the courage to face Tolwyn.

"Do you have any idea how many people died because of my family? Some of us were assassins who went off-world, found more of the original Bellegardes, and killed them, too. We didn't stop until every last one was dead."

That gave Tolwyn pause. He appreciated Bellegarde's forthrightness and now felt guilty over ordering the man to confess. "You had no control over what happened. We deal with the past we've been handed. It's in the dealing that our true identities are born."

"Or we bury the past, sir. Bury it very deeply. If Earth burns, maybe that's not such a bad thing. Terrible people have come from that place." Tolwyn unclasped his hands and stretched. "Well, Richard. This has been a very enlightening conversation."

"If I'm nothing else, sir, I'm honest."

"I appreciate that. Now I'd like you to return to your quarters, flush your liquor, and send mail to your mistress, breaking it off. Then you'll be honest. Dismissed."

Utter shock gripped Bellegarde's face. Then he shook it off and saluted. "Yes, sir." He fled the bridge.

Shifting his chair back toward the viewport, Tolwyn wondered whether he had crossed the line with Bellegarde. Of course he had. But no simple tongue-lashing from him would solve Bellegarde's problems. In a few weeks, Richard would return to his mistress and his bottle. Despite that, Tolwyn sensed that within the commodore lay one of the Confederation's greatest officers.

Or one of its greatest traitors.

* * *

With a drumming heart and shaky hands, Blair zipped up his scarlet flight suit, concealing his cross. He removed the helmet from his locker, tucked it under his arm, and bolted out of his quarters.

Lieutenant Commander Deveraux had chosen him to be on her wing for the recon, and the surprise of her decision wouldn't leave Blair any time soon. She could have chosen a far more experienced pilot like St. John or Khumalo, but she had opted for him. Blair doubted that she actually trusted him, so her choice posed a mystery that he decided to solve by going to the source. When he got the hangar, he would simply ask her. He elbowed his way into the crowded lift and waited impatiently for the doors to close.

"Hey, Blair. Where are you going?" Maniac stood at the back of the lift, his face a red globe of sweat.

"Better question. Where have you been?"

"They're testing out a new Zero-G wataerobics pool. Thought I'd kill time and volunteer as guinea pig."

"So how was it?"

"It's still got problems. Threw me around pretty hard, but as you know, I'm the master of recoveries. Rosie got pretty sick, though."

"Who?"

"Rosie. Forbes."

"Oh, Rosie. Just be careful."

Maniac chuckled. "Can't help you there, Ace."

When he arrived on the flight deck, Blair found Deveraux standing near the lift doors, waiting for him. She gave a curt nod and turned toward the Rapiers. Blair crossed in front of her to check her wound.

"Would you cut that out?" she said, flustered by his concern.

"Sorry. I think it'll heal okay. I don't want you to have a scar."

"Too late. I've cornered the market on those. C'mon."

They walked down the flight line, past a row of Broadsword bombers.

Scores of techs stood atop, below, or beside the bombers, some in the blue glow of torches, some on rolling ladders, all wreathed in the fumes of fuel and heated metal. The flight crews would never run out of work because every time they fixed a fighter, some pilot would take it out and get shot up again. Were Blair among them, he would find the job exceedingly aggravating and probably voice that feeling to the pilot who had ruined his work. Consequently, Blair wholeheartedly respected these people who pushed the rock of their repairs up an endless mountain.

"Any standard operating procedure I should know about?" Blair asked as they neared the first line of Rapiers.

"No SOP out here," Deveraux said. "There's only one rule."

"Don't get killed?"

"Don't get me killed." She broke off toward one of two fully armed Rapiers, their short wings slightly bowing under the weight of Dumb-fire, Spiculum IR, and Pilum Friend or Foe missiles locked to over- or underwing hardpoints.

Blair followed her, taking a closer look at her fighter. He noted her call sign: "Angel."

But that hardly surprised him.

The many rows of kill marks shortened his breath. He counted them.

"Twenty-six. Jesus."

"That puts me ahead of the law of averages," she said, mounting her cockpit ladder. "Well ahead. The curve'll catch up to me sooner or later."

She tipped her head toward the Rapier next to hers. "Your bird, Blair. Treat her well."

Only then did Blair recognize the Rapier's number: thirty-five. They had given him Bossman's old fighter. Chen's name had been removed, along with his kill marks. The yellow paint used to stencil LT. CHRISTOPHER BLAIR below the cockpit seemed too new, too perfect against the Rapier's battered armor.

Although he had never known Vince Chen, he felt a tinge of guilt over taking the man's fighter, as though he were desecrating Chen's memory. But he shouldn't feel that way. Taking the fighter out again would be in tribute to Bossman's life, to what he held most dear. If Chen were like most pilots, he would want it that way.

Blair gently touched the mighty nose cannon. "She's all mine," he told Deveraux, beaming.

"And she'll probably be someone else's. Mount up. The clock is ticking."

"One more question. Why me for this recon?"

"Why not?"

"Yeah," he said, only half-buying her reply. "Why not." He jogged up the ladder and lowered himself into the pit.

Once tight in his harness, he ran though the preflight check.

Meanwhile, ground crews below made their final walkarounds of both fighters, running scanners and their own gazes over every seal and double-checking the loadout. Blair threw a pair of toggles, powering up the thrusters, as Deveraux did the same. The engines purred and made Blair feel as though he were flexing his muscles. He slipped on his headset, helmet, and O2 mask, then dialed up Deveraux's comm channel. "Maverick to Angel. Comm check. Roger."

"Comm established," she replied, flashing him a thumbs-up on the left VDU. "Lieutenant, your call sign is Maverick? Where'd you get that? From some old movie?"

"Actually, ma'am, it's been a standing joke for a while now. Back at the academy, I had a rep for being a by-the-book flyer. So, of course, they called me Maverick. And yeah, I did see that old movie. They flew those big, heavy atmospheric fighters. Must've been fun back then."

"We'll never know," she said curtly. "All moorings are clear. External power disengaged. Internal systems nominal, roger."

"Roger. I'm fully detached and ninety-five into the sequence," Blair said, reading his panels.

The deckmaster waved Deveraux toward her launch position.

Her Rapier ascended several meters, then floated forward as the landing skids folded into the fighter's belly. She lined up with the runway and the shining energy field beyond.

"Lieutenant Commander, you are cleared to launch," Blair heard the flight boss tell Deveraux.

"Roger, Boss. See you on the flip." She punctuated her sentence with a blast of thrusters that cast Blair's Rapier in a tawny sheen. Like a finned bullet, she blew out of the hangar.

"All right, Lieutenant. Let's see if you remember how to do this," the flight boss said tiredly.

Without a word, Blair took his Rapier into a hover and, following the deckmaster's signals, lined up for launch. He would perform a textbook takeoff that would shut the boss's mouth.

"That looks good, young man," the boss said, as though inspecting Blair's coloring book. "You're all clear."

Throttling up to exactly eighty percent thruster power (the textbook's suggestion), Blair tore off toward the energy field, bulkheads whirring by, the stars clouded by what looked like a wall of water. The Rapier shimmied as he passed through the field and burst into open space. He climbed away from the Tiger Claw, accelerating to full throttle, then flicked his gaze to the radar display, finding the blue blip of Deveraux's fighter. He banked sharply to form on her wing. With his free hand, he unzipped his flight suit, dug out his Pilgrim cross, and gave it a squeeze for luck. A signal from Deveraux lit up his right display: KEEP RADIO SILENCE.

Ahead lay a small, rocky world, draped in shadow and orbiting a distant and dimly burning brown dwarf star. Blair targeted the planet, and data spilled across his right display. Officially catalogued as Planetoid SX34B5, it bore an uncanny similarity in both appearance and composition to Earth's moon. Blair targeted the brown dwarf and quickly scanned the information on the star's size, age, and something about it not having enough mass to convert hydrogen into helium via nuclear fusion. He stopped reading when the data became too technical but still felt satisfied with his cursory inspection. Some pilots like Maniac flew into the unknown relying only on their eyes. Blair had been taught that a physical understanding of his combat environment would allow him to use it as an ally, not an obstacle.

He switched his targeting cross-hairs to a field of asteroids encircling the brown dwarf. Jagged chunks of ice-covered rock tumbled slowly and occasionally collided with others to emit spates of smaller rubble. Deveraux's Rapier jumped a little ahead of his, and Blair noted the cue. They would move into and sweep the field. He slid over the Heads Up Display viewer on his helmet, then, with one eye, studied the digitized tactical schematic. Dozens of reticles singled out targets, outlined them, and flashed, then sensors gave him an instant report of their position. Green lines formed into a glide path through the thousands of spinning rocks.

But not all of the debris appeared natural. Shiny objects began peeking out from behind the rocks, objects that became more distinct—pieces of dürasteel shredded like paper.

A particularly huge plate, twisted and scorched, spun by his canopy. He recoiled a little as he spotted the letters ASUS painted near its edge. "Angel? Did you catch that? That's from Pegasus."

She appeared on his left display. "You just broke radio silence, Lieutenant."

"I'm sorry. I just—"

"Forget it." She shook her head, then looked up, taking in more of the asteroid field. "Concussion must've blown pieces of the station all over the sector." Her tactical computer chirped.

Blair's computer answered with a chirp of its own. A blip flashed across his radar, then another, then both disappeared. "I just picked up multiple contacts, bearing—"

"Pipe down. I'm getting something…"

And Blair spotted them, too: six blips burning brightly in his radar, headed directly for their position.

"Angel—"

"Radio silence. And let's get deeper into this field. Low power. We'll see if we can wait 'em out."

"Roger."

She dove ahead, following the digitized glide path through the asteroids. Blair kept tight on her six o'clock until she veered sixty degrees to port and settled in the lee of an oblong-shaped rock nearly one hundred meters long. Blair raced by her, finding cover of his own below a similar rock about five hundred meters away. He frantically switched off everything save for life support and sat there a moment, the oxygen whistling softly into his mask, the sweat beading on his brow. His gaze traced the thick veins of ice that fanned out across the stone. He tried to concentrate on something as mundane as the rock, but the suspense had his skin crawling.

"My scanners are blind, Merlin. Talk to me."

The little man knew better than to appear in Blair's cockpit, perhaps creating a detectable energy source. Instead, he transferred himself into the Rapier's main computer, where he could speak sans his holographic form. A dim light flashed in the right display as he replied, "Crosstalk between a large Kilrathi vessel and the brown dwarf down there. I can't decipher the code."

"They know we're here?"

"Possibly. From the sophistication of the equipment on board, I'd say the vessel is a Command and Communications module, probably a Thrakhra-class transport retrofitted for the job."

'"So what's it commanding?"

"At least six other ships near the brown dwarf are communicating with it. Interesting. I'm picking up an Ultra Low Frequency signal. The Rapier's scanners aren't equipped to receive or detect ULF."

"But you are?"

"Don't tell me you've downloaded my sarcasm program?"

Blair waved his hand. "Forget that. What's it mean? This frequency?"

"It's a primitive pulse technology, Ultra Low Frequency. Very slow, but it carries over extreme distances, not unlike tom-toms. Pilgrims used ULF during the war."

"So why would the Kilrathi—" Blair caught himself. "Did you say Pilgrims?"

"Yes. I believe I did."

"Then you know more about the Pilgrims? You told me my father wiped your flash memory."

"I… I don't know how I know about the ULF signals," Merlin stammered. "I just do. Perhaps that data is buried in my suboperating memory, left over from the war. Maybe it's intuition."

"Intuition?" Blair fought off a chill. He could deal with Merlin's sarcasm. But a PPC with intuition? The prospect unnerved him. "Well, do you have signal source?"

"It appears to be coming from quadrant thirty."

"Thirty. That puts it near the Tiger Claw. Can you translate it?"

"The code isn't in my…" Merlin broke off.

"What?"

"They're scanning the rocks."

"Merlin off."

Emerald light flickered above, and Blair could almost feel the scanning beam as it passed over the rock.