Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Seven
- Christopher Blair
- Rosalind Forbes
- Paul Gerald
- Todd Marshall
- Ian St. John
- Adam Polanski
- Jay Sansky
- Geoffrey Tolwyn
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Pilots (5)
CARRIER TIGER CLAW
MARCH 16, 2654
During Blair's senior year at the academy, he had flown training missions off the TCS Formidable, an Exeter-class destroyer assigned to the Vega sector. He had been on the Formidable's bridge only a few times but had seen enough to fill his heart with awe. Now, as he stepped onto the bridge of the Tiger Claw, a carrier nearly twice as large as the destroyer, he could barely contain his excitement. Viewports wrapped around the bridge, the synthoglass so clear it seemed that nothing stood between people and the vacuum. Dozens of officers and noncoms sat murmuring at dozens of consoles. Instrument panels at the radar, navigation, communications, tactical, and flight deck stations radiated a calming glow. Six holographic projectors shaped like inverted domes hung from the overhead, and one of them at the tactical radar board to Blair's left displayed a real-time, grid-enhanced image of six Hornets launching for patrol to replace the Rapiers now returning.
Captain Jay Sansky stood below the hologram, conferring with a radar officer and pointing to coordinates marking the fighter patrol's flight. The stress of command had robbed Sansky of his hair and the rest of his youth. Pride obviously stood between him and the partial recovery of that loss through surgery. Appearances aside, the way he talked with the radar officer suggested an avuncular quality, a benevolence that the XO, Commander Gerald, sorely lacked.
With few words, Gerald had escorted Blair and Marshall to the bridge. Yes, the commander had identified himself, but Blair didn't even know Gerald's first name, and the man obviously preferred it that way. He had looked annoyed over having to meet them on the flight deck. XOs typically didn't greet new pilots or give them the welcome-aboard orientation tour.
That was the wing commander's job. But according to Gerald, Captain Taggart had called ahead, unbeknownst to Blair and Marshall, to make sure that the XO served as escort. In an attempt to quell Gerald's temper, Blair had explained the importance of the minidisc he now carried. Gerald had seemed unimpressed. And he had even forced Marshall to wait in the corridor, since Marshall had "no business on the bridge."
Not waiting for the commander to do an uninspired job of introducing him, Blair crossed to Captain Sansky, stood at attention, and gave a crisp salute that the captain returned. "First Lieutenant Christopher Blair reporting for duty, sir."
"At ease, Lieutenant." Sansky scrutinized Blair for a moment, then said, "I understand you have something for me."
"Yes, sir." He withdrew the minidisc from an inner breast pocket and handed it to Sansky. "An encrypted communique—from Admiral Tolwyn." Sansky scratched his forehead and stared nonplused at the disc. "Why didn't the admiral send a drone from Pegasus?"
Blair's tone grew somber. "Sir. Pegasus was destroyed by a Kilrathi battle group seventeen hours ago. I'm sorry, sir."
The captain looked gravely at Gerald, then crossed toward a wall of consoles, holding up the disc and shouting, "Communications. I want this decrypted ASAP."
"Aye-aye, sir," a young comm officer said, pivoting in his chair to accept the disc.
"If there's nothing else, sir?" Blair asked as Sansky returned.
"We don't kill the messenger anymore, Lieutenant. Instead, I'll just say welcome aboard. And dismissed."
Drawing up his shoulders, Blair saluted and turned to go.
"Hey, Lieutenant," Gerald called. "You wouldn't be related to Arnold Blair, would you?"
Steeling himself, Blair looked back and answered, "He was my father, sir."
Gerald nodded, his lips rising in a self-satisfied grin that suddenly evaporated. "He married a Pilgrim woman, didn't he?"
"You don't have to answer that," Captain Sansky said.
After a moment's hesitation, Blair finally confirmed, "Yes, sir. My father married a Pilgrim, sir."
"Mixed marriages seldom work out." The commander shifted in front of Blair, his face a cold, dark knot. "Pilgrims don't think like us."
Blair returned the icy look. "You won't have to worry, sir. They're both dead."
Sansky placed a hand on the commander's shoulder. "I'm sure the lieutenant's heredity will have no bearing on his performance, Mr. Gerald."
"No, sir. I'm sure it won't."
"That's all, Lieutenant," Sansky said, obviously growing weary of his refereeing. "I suggest you stow your gear and take the virtual tour. Your onboard accounts have already been set up. You'll find hard copies of everything in the personnel department."
Blair nodded. "Thank you, sir."
Captain Sansky watched his new pilot exit, growing more and more troubled over Gerald's reaction to the boy. "You don't trust him?"
Instead of answering, Gerald turned to the tactical computer console.
"Computer. What are the odds that a Kilrathi battle group could infiltrate Confederation space undetected and destroy Pegasus Station?"
"Calculating," the computer responded. "One chance in one-point-twenty-one million. To the tenth power."
Gerald's eyes grew wide as he lifted his gaze from the terminal. "Trust him, Captain? No, sir. I do not."
In the corridor outside, Blair stormed silently past Marshall, damning to hell both the recent and distant past. He suddenly felt trapped in who he was, cheated out of a fair life. All of the hard work, the training, the studying, the suffering—all of it—for nothing. I'm a Pilgrim half-breed. That's all I am. None of you can see past that, you bastards.
"Hey, hey, hey," Marshall said. He ran up behind Blair and yanked him around. "What? Are you having a moment?"
Blair mouthed a curse, stared teary-eyed at the deck, then said, "It never changes."
"Look. I overheard a little of that. So Gerald's another hardass XO, so what. Let it go. Because right now, we're about to meet our fellow pilots. The men and women we're going to fight with, perhaps even die with, and perhaps"
"Don't worry, Marshall. I won't let the fact that I'm pissed keep you from getting laid."
"Me? I'm worried about it keeping you from getting laid. You watch the old Marshall man in action. I'll teach you how to make friends." Marshall threw his arm over Blair's shoulder and led him down the corridor.
By the time they reached the pilots' mess, Blair's rage had cooled to a simmer. Marshall pushed open the hatch, and Blair followed him inside. Considering the large number of pilots stationed aboard the Tiger Claw, Blair had assumed that the mess would be spacious, well-equipped, and at least somewhat orderly. But Captain Sansky obviously kept a long leash on his fighter jocks, perhaps in compensation for the dingy, cramped, and stale-smelling mess assigned to them.
Uncomfortable-looking gray metal chairs lay scattered around chipped tables whose legs bore the tape of numerous makeshift repair jobs. Fading pinups of men and woman hung from every wall, flapping in the breeze of the air recyclers. A Confederation Navy recruiting poster had been affixed to the rear hatch and depicted a cruiser with a jump point exit beaming behind it. Beneath the ship stood a challenge in bold letters: THE NAVY WAY. IS THERE ANY OTHER? Someone had taken the challenge and had written a number of answers in indelible black marker that included combinations of epithets even Blair had never seen nor heard.
Two pilots played chess on a scratched-up old board. One of them, a tall, sturdy man with a high-and-tight crew cut and Roman nose, smiled to make the long scar on his face twist a little. He took the other pilot's pawn and laughed. "You're going down, Forbes."
"Mr. Polanski. It's good to know you still dream." Forbes, a beautiful, dark-skinned woman who had cut her hair short and dyed it blonde, stared determinedly at the board for a moment, then quickly made a move, took Polanski's bishop, and grinned. Something about her smile bothered Blair, as though the gloss on her lips were a poison only he could recognize.
The chess players noticed their entrance, as did the half-dozen other pilots seated at tables, eating and sipping drinks. Blair gave a quick nod hello.
But Marshall marched into the room with the joviality of a grand marshal at a Confederation victory parade. "Hey! How's everybody doing? Lieutenant Todd Marshall."
Silence. Dead silence. Blair swore he could hear molecules bumping against each other. He scanned the blank faces of the pilots and felt his breath shorten. A few returned to their conversations.
Undaunted by his audience's initial reaction, Marshall continued, "I'd like you all to meet a close personal friend, Lieutenant Christopher Blair—who just happens to be the second-best pilot on this hunk of junk."
Several of the pilots now looked up. One with reddish-brown hair and long sideburns that defied regulations removed the cigar stub from his mouth and spoke in an Australian accent. "Who you calling the best, nugget?"
Blair leaned toward Marshall. "So this is the secret to your overwhelming popularity?"
Still not fazed, Marshall took a step toward the cigar-wielding pilot, who quickly stood. "There's two ways to figure out who's the best," he said as he read the pilot's nametag. "One way, Captain St. John, involves you trying to kick the shit out of me—"
St. John frowned, having no idea what to make of Marshall. Blair knew the feeling all too well.
"What's the other way?" St. John asked.
Marshall smiled—a very dangerous look now. "The other way? Why, that involves my other close personal friend. Mr. Johnnie Walker Black."
After quickly unzipping a pouch on his duffel, Marshall produced a bottle of Scotch, very good Scotch, the rare, real stuff. Now Marshall commanded the room.
Turning toward Forbes, St. John spoke her name as a question, as though she were the group's unofficial leader.
Keeping her gaze trained on the bottle, Forbes said, "We're on stand-down. One won't hurt."
Marshall moved quickly to a shelf, fetched a plastic glass, and poured one for Forbes. "This might even help."
The other pilots flocked around Marshall, who looked at Blair with an I-told-you-so expression plastered on his face.
Forbes tanked down her drink, exhaled loudly as the burn set in, then faced Marshall. "You got balls."
"You should see them."
"Mine are bigger," she said.
"I've been told that size doesn't matter."
"She lied." The other pilots chuckled loudly. Forbes eyed St. John and addressed him by his call sign. "Personally, Hunter, I'd have taken the third option: kick his ass first, then drink his Scotch."
That drew more laughter. For the moment, Blair felt accepted.
Standing in the chart room with the hatch sealed, Captain Sansky and Commander Gerald waited as the computer booted up and prepared to play the decoded message delivered by Lieutenant Blair. Sansky had already guessed what Admiral Tolwyn would ask of him, and he knew that he could not disobey orders at this juncture. He had, on more than one occasion, disagreed with the admiral, but too much was at stake now. Responsibility would rest upon the admiral's shoulders, and it felt liberating to be someone else's instrument.
Finally, the monitor showed Admiral Tolwyn standing on the Concordia's bridge. "Jay, I'll be brief. The Kilrathi took Pegasus. They have her NAVCOM AI. By the time this communication reaches you, they will be approximately thirty-five hours from the Charybdis jump point and Earth. Confed capital ships are headed home now. The Concordia battle group will be there in approximately thirty-seven hours. I'm ordering the Tiger Claw to the Charybdis Quasar. You are to use any means necessary to gather information as to the Kilrathi whereabouts, capacity, and plan of attack. I need intelligence, old friend. Use Taggart. He knows Vega sector better than any man alive. He can get you to Charybdis quickly. Good luck. Tolwyn out."
Sansky looked to his second-in-command. Gerald had begun shaking his head halfway through the message. He caught Sansky's gaze and said,
"I don't like it."
"No one asked for your opinion, Paul."
"Sir. The disc came to us on the Diligent, entrusted to a Pilgrim half-breed."
"I'm aware of how easy it is to fake communiques, Commander. But if it's real and we ignore it, then we seal Earth's fate. Is that how you'd like to be remembered?"
"No, sir. But you're putting trust where it doesn't belong."
"Your reservations have been duly noted. Now then. Send for Taggart." Gerald bit back a response and quickly exited.
Turning to the monitor, Sansky thumbed on the replay, switched off the volume, and stared at Geoffrey Tolwyn's face. "Oh God, Geoff. You've always known the right thing to do. I've always trusted you, and you me.
It's been a long haul. A very long haul. I wish all of this could be easier. But it never is, is it? Good luck to you, old friend."