Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Nine
CARRIER TIGER CLAW
MARCH 16, 2654
ETA TO CLASS 2
PULSAR FIVE HOURS
With the lights off and his eyes closed, Blair lay on his cot in the quarters he now shared with Marshall. He needed to sleep. Needed to dream. Dream about anyplace but the carrier. He thought of dreams he would like to have, dreams of home, of Nephele, of his aunt and uncle who had worked so hard to raise him after his parents had died. He thought of old girlfriends, of old summer jobs, of a particular July 17 birthday party that had marked the end of his teenage years. He considered his time at the academy on Hilthros, days that felt like several millennia ago. His life had become a streak of indistinct memories. Nothing stood out anymore.
All of it seemed blighted by his depression. The only thing tangible was the Pilgrim cross around his neck. A blessing. A curse.
How did I get here? I was just a kid who liked to wrestle and was raised on a farm. I joined up to get flying experience, not to become another Confederation statistic. I remember my uncle telling me never to join the service. What has it done for me? What has it really done for me?
The lights snapped on. Covering his eyes, Blair sat up. He heard a shuffling of boots, a zipper being pulled up, and the rat-tie of metal on metal. He squinted and saw Marshall standing in a crimson flight suit, his battered helmet tucked in the crook of his arm.
"We going out?" Blair asked.
"No. Just me. I pulled security with Lieutenant Forbes."
"So why did you wake me up?"
Marshall shook his index finger at Blair's cross and opened his mouth.
But Blair beat him to the punch. "So I changed my mind. But I can't change who I am."
"No, you can't. But you made a promise back at the academy that you wouldn't wear that anymore. I'm not saying to throw it away. I think you know what I'm saying."
"It brings me luck, Todd."
"It's going to get you killed—Chris."
Blair took the cross in hand, as though to protect it. "I was wearing this when I made the jump. You heard Taggart. A NAV-COM can't do what I did."
"That had nothing to do with luck. It was about training and desire." Marshall reached toward Blair. "Take it off."
Drawing back, Blair held the cross tightly against his chest. "It's who I am. Or who I should be."
Marshall snorted loudly. "You don't even know what it means. They lost the war. Winners write the history books and make the rules. You want to play on a team that doesn't exist anymore? Think about it."
He recognized the truth in Marshall's words. But he still felt powerfully intrigued by his heritage, by the feeling, and by what the cross truly represented. He couldn't abandon the past just to make things right with the other pilots.
"This is the big show," Marshall went on. "It's either kill or be killed."
"Man, that's profound. Did it come to you in a vision?"
"Shuddup. You know what I mean. And you really messed up this time."
"I didn't do anything."
"Yeah, you did. And now you need someone watching your back. Let me tell you something, buddy. I can't always be there."
"I don't expect that from anyone—especially you."
"Oh man," Marshall said, turning away. "You're going to get whacked. If not by the Kilrathi, then—"
"This is getting old."
Marshall collapsed on his cot, smoothed back his hair, then kneaded his bloodshot eyes. "I'm trying to have a sensitive moment. I don't know why I bother." He sprang from the cot. "Wish me luck."
"Luck? What about desire?"
With a wink, Marshall said, "You've seen Lieutenant Forbes. You know I got the desire." He headed for the hatch.
The trademark grin came and went, along with its owner.
Blair fell back on his cot, pillowing his head in his hands. He gazed up at the lovely overhead, bedecked by flexible tubes and ductwork. He shouldn't complain. Having to share a cabin with just one other pilot might be the last luxury available to first lieutenants aboard the Tiger Claw. During training on the TCS Formidable, he had been assigned to a berth with seventeen other pilots and had slept on a lower bunk above a two-hundred-and-ten-pound Neanderthal with a hearty appetite for fried onions, cabbage, and broccoli.
What was it that Marshall had said that now troubled him so much? Something about the cross. That he didn't even know what it meant. That he didn't really know who he was and where he had come from. Without that knowledge, how could he forge a clear path for himself? How could he could keep the memory of his parents vivid? How could he stop wondering?
The little man walked along the edge of a storage locker on the opposite side of the room. "My God. What time is it?"
"The Pilgrims. What can you tell me about them?" Blair sat up and crawled to the edge of the cot.
"Pilgrims. Yes. Earth history. They were English Separatists who founded the colony of Plymouth in New England, circa 1620."
The hologram shrugged, his tone soft and sympathetic. "I'm afraid I have very little on the Pilgrims of this millennium. Your father wiped my flash memory."
"I don't know."
"Don't you have anything? A temp file you forgot to erase?"
"I'm sorry, Christopher."
"That's all right."
Brightening, Merlin added, "I do know that since the Pilgrims were defeated, not a single new quasar has been charted."
"You heard that from Taggart."
"Did I? Oh yes. I must've been monitoring. Sorry again."
Blair stood and crossed to the latrine. He leaned over the sink for a few minutes, splashing warm water on his face. He eventually looked to the mirror, but his dark hair and dusky skin remained blurred by condensation. After drying off, he opened his locker door and withdrew a clean uniform.
"Where are you going?" Merlin asked.
"To talk to someone who may know more about the Pilgrims."
Once dressed, Blair accessed the Shipboard Information Datanet and found Taggart's cabin assignment. He printed out a map that would take him there. With over twenty corridors and thirteen levels between him and the man, a map remained more than a good idea if he planned on talking to Taggart during this decade.
As he walked through the ship, taking a lift here, a stairwell there, his gaze buried in the map, he felt like a cadet on the first day of his academy training. No less than three times, crew members accosted him to see if they could help. Though grateful, Blair declined their offers. He would have to learn the ship's layout one way or another, and he welcomed the practice.
After twenty minutes of travel, he found the hatch and touched the bell key.
"Come," Taggart said through the intercom.
The door automatically opened, and Blair entered to admire the captain's spacious accommodations and bunk with thick mattress and comforter.
He found Taggart staring through a great bay window. The vacuum appeared especially dark, and for some reason the captain felt compelled to note that. "Except for a few specs of light, it's all emptiness. If it were up to me, I'd let the Kilrathi have it all—just leave Earth alone." Blair hemmed. "We need to talk."
"I've been in a thousand different solar systems, and I've never seen anything in the void as beautiful as our own sun breaking through the clouds after a rainstorm. I'm a native of Ares, Lieutenant. But my parents were terraforming engineers from Scotland. They taught me that my home wasn't a space station in orbit around Venus. They told me the truth. Did yours?" He craned his head.
"You mean my real home is Earth?"
"The only home I've ever known is Nephele. I was on Peron when I was little, but I don't remember anything. You know if I went to Earth now, they'd call me an alien."
"If you went to Earth now, you'd really know why we fight. The Kilrathi see us as decadent and weak. They won't stop until we're all dead. If they let us exist, that would be admitting that another race deserves the stars. In truth, none of us does. But I suspect you haven't come here for a philosophy lesson."
"No, sir. Talk to me."
Blair crossed to a well-padded chair and took a seat. "All my life I've taken shit about being part-Pilgrim. And I barely know why. Most people don't want to talk about it or don't really know why humans and Pilgrims hated each other so much."
"That's right. Most people don't like to talk about it."
"C'mon. You know about them. Tell me the long story about how you got the star charts. Have you ever met a real Pilgrim—not a half-breed like me? What are they like? What about the war? What do you know?" "I knew a boy about your age who asked the same questions. Do you know what happened to him?"
"I don't care."
Seeing the conversational dead end rushing toward him, Blair stood and started for the hatch. "I'm sorry to have bothered you."
"You are who you choose to be, Lieutenant."
The hatch opened.
"You're one of the last descendants of a dying race," Taggart added quickly.
Blair turned back, and the hatch sealed after him.
"Pilgrims were the first human space explorers and settlers. For five centuries they defied the odds. They embraced space and were rewarded with a gift: a flawless sense of direction. No computers, Blair. No compasses. No charts. They just knew. Then, in a small number, about one in a million, a change started to occur."
"What kind of change?"
A hidden importance now resided in Taggart's expression, something Blair could sense but not fully describe. "They learned to feel the magnetic fields created by black holes and quasars—to negotiate singularities. They learned to navigate not just the stars but space-time itself."
Blair shook as a powerful chill fanned across his shoulders.
To feel the magnetic fields created by black holes and quasars.
To navigate space-time itself.
It seemed impossible. And possible. And in his blood.
"So the Pilgrims could perform like a NAVCOM AI," Blair said.
"You've got it backwards. The billions of calculations necessary to lead us through a black hole or quasar are the NAVCOM's recreation of the mind of a single Pilgrim."
He nodded in wonder. How could one mind be so powerful? He most definitely lacked that kind of power. "How did the war start?"
Taggart moved back to the window, and as he did so, Blair saw his lips come together and his eyes well up. "You spend so much time out here alone, you end up losing your humanity. The Pilgrims began to lose touch with their heritage. They saw themselves as superior to humans. And in their arrogance, they chose to abandon all things human in order to follow their destiny. Some say they believed they were gods, others that they were angels."
"You believe they were gods?"
"No. But I do believe they were touched by God." He looked back, his eyes still glassy. "And like it or not, you've got some of that inside you."
Blair's people had done great things. And terrible things. Had they been gods? Demons? Where was the line? And now that he knew his heritage, where did he go from here? For every question answered, it seemed that Taggart had raised three more. Blair simply wanted to ask, "So how do I live like this? What kind of life should I expect?" But the captain did not have the answers. No one did. Except Blair.
Taggart sighed and said, "I have to get to the bridge. We'll be jumping in a few hours. I'd like you to be there."
"I will." He ambled toward the window. "You mind if I stay here a while?"
"No. Just don't drink my coffee."
Blair grinned, then listened to him leave.
Something flashed at the corner of his eye. Two patrolling Rapiers in tight formation pierced the night. Behind them, far in the distance, lay an enormous, flashing gulf that Blair recognized as a pulsar, a spinning, superdense mass of neutrons. Only high-energy photons, neutrinos, and Confed ships carrying Pilgrims or a NAVCOM could escape the pulsar's gravitational pull. Blair wondered how many of his forefathers had jumped here.
And he wondered how many other Pilgrims were still out there, contemplating their future among the stars.