Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Ten
CARRIER TIGER CLAW
MARCH 16, 2654
ETA TO CLASS 2
"See, when I'm not flying I'm like a pit bull pulling on his leash. You know he's going to break the leash any second, but you don't dare reach down to set him free—unless you're in the mood to sacrifice a few fingers. And you go ahead and do your homework on pit bulls. They were originally bred for dogfighting. Pun intended here, baby. Pun most definitely intended." First Lieutenant Todd Marshall grinned so hard that it hurt. Then he accelerated ahead of Lieutenant Forbes's Rapier, leaving her in the maelstrom of his wash.
Dialing up the rear turret view, Marshall watched as Forbes expertly recovered, kicked in her afterburners, and burst toward him like a rabid hawk. "This is a security patrol, nugget," she said sternly. "Unauthorized maneuvers will not be tolerated. You'd better get with—or out of—the program." Her Rapier settled in beside his, and he looked over, but too many dazzles of reflected light from the carrier obscured her canopy.
"Unauthorized maneuvers?" Marshall cried. "What the hell does that mean?"
"I don't know," she said, then rocketed ahead of him. As her thruster wash enveloped his fighter, the stick whipped out of his hand, triggering a beeping alarm and automated mes-sage: "Pilot control lost. Do you want to engage autopilot? If you do not respond in five seconds, autopilot will automatically engage. Five, four—"
Seizing the stick and cutting off the countdown, Marshall cursed, throttled up, and went hunting. He streaked after Forbes for thirty seconds, then got creative. He yanked the stick toward his chest, going ballistic for a handful of seconds before leveling off. Forbes now lay ahead, at his twelve o'clock low and in his cone of fire. He swooped down toward her, one eye shielded by the Heads Up Display viewer attached to his helmet. The smart targeting reticle superimposed on the HUD floated just ahead of her Rapier, a tiny green circle that said, "Shoot here, dummy."
"What the hell's the matter with you?" Forbes screamed. "You got missile lock on me?"
"I got you locked up so tight, Lieutenant, it's a miracle you can still breathe."
"Can't help you there, Ace." He leaned a little more on the throttle and considered her next move.
She could perform a burnout, hitting afterburners and leaping so far ahead of him that she could pull a tight one-eighty to open up on him. Or she could go for a fishhook: Make a ninety-degree right turn, then follow up immediately with a one-eighty that would put her on a starboard intercept course.
If she felt uninspired, she'd go for the old hard brake, in an attempt to make him overshoot her. But Marshall had responded to that textbook trick too many times. Once he overshot her, he would stall the thrusters and use retros to make the tightest one-eighty she would ever witness. While inverted, he'd lock on her nose. Ciao, baby.
She probably wouldn't attempt a kickstop or a turn 'n' spin, knowing all too well that making a simple ninety-degree turn would not cause him to fly by her, whether she killed her engines or not. Likewise for the shake, rattle, and roll. No combination of slaloming would lose him now.
"What are you going to do, Forbes? Tick. Tick. Tick. Doncha hear the ticking?"
Her answer came with a burst of afterburners. She tipped her nose up until inverted, then flew straight at him as his proximity alarm wailed.
Marshall had all of two seconds to comprehend the game of chicken.
Even as he shifted the stick to dive, their canopies came within a few centimeters. A howl rose from his throat as her tail wings grazed his fuselage with a horrible screech, then—
The fighters cleared each other. He held course, panting into his O2 mask, wondering what the hell had just happened.
"Are we ready to hit the first nav point?" Forbes asked. "Or do you still want to play?"
"You're the female version of me," Marshall said, dumbfounded.
"Correction, stud. You're the male version of me. With a lot of practice, you may one day fly in my shadow."
Marshall's left VDU switched to Commander Gerald's grim mug.
"Lieutenant Marshall. We've been unable to contact Lieutenant Forbes. What's going on out there?"
"Stand by, sir." Marshall dialed up Forbes on a secure channel. "Hey, Lieutenant. Gerald's flipping out."
"I know. Flight control's been hailing me, but I've blocked their signal. They probably handed the problem to Gerald. I'll take care of this."
"Roger." He toggled back to Gerald's channel. "She's replying now, sir."
Then Marshall listened in as Forbes lied about communication and maneuvering problems and that both had now been solved. "En route to first nav point, sir."
Five thousand kilometers ahead sat an indistinct pocket of space designated as nav point one, the first of three stops on their grand security tour of nothingness. Marshall activated navigation mode and glanced at the white cross-hairs on his radar scope and HUD. He adjusted course until the cross-hairs each floated in their centers. The rest of the radar display had been divided by quadrants and would flash in the appropriate quadrant when he took a missile or laser hit, not that he had seen that flash very often.
Sometimes he wished the Rapier's controls were more sophisticated, more challenging. The Rapier was, after all, a very real fighter, not some funzone simulator used to zap computer-generated targets. Yet her controls were just as simple to operate. Then again, that simplicity gave him a hell of a lot more time to concentrate on whacking Kilrathi.
"Delta Two? I'm lined up," Forbes reported.
"Roger. Good light over here," he said, glancing at the autopilot display, the AUTO button now illuminated.
"Engage autopilot on my mark. Mark."
Marshall tapped the key and felt the familiar and humbling force of the Rapier's twin thrusters as they propelled him toward the point. He yawned into his headset, not realizing how loud he'd been.
Forbes appeared in his left VDU. "I guess it's the same with all you men," she said. "Give you just a little bit of action, and you're spent. Completely spent."
"Blame it on the Scotch."
"You can't keep up with me. Scotch or otherwise."
Before he could offer his own cutting rejoinder, the Rapier abruptly decreased velocity. The nav point lay just a klick ahead. He checked the radar. A single blue blip that represented Forbes's Rapier stood off to port, otherwise the zone remained clear. "Looks like we got zip here, Lieutenant. How boring is this?"
"Sometimes boring is good," she said. "Especially when your wingman's green."
"Or a woman."
"Whoa, you are going to pay for that."
"My credit's good."
"You know, when I joined up, they told me I'd come across some male chauvinism. I couldn't believe it. I was like, what century are we living in? Female pilots have been flying combat missions for over six hundred years."
"And we men have been harassing you for just as long. It ain't going to change, Forbes. So long as there's a difference."
"You mean as long as assholes like you keep flying."
"Look. I didn't mean what I said. I mean the woman part. I mean, yeah, you're a woman. You really are. But you know what I mean. I just said that to rattle you."
"Maybe you're right. You're not a chauvinist. You're just prejudiced against all other pilots because you see them as competitors."
"They're not my competitors. They're my fans."
"Oh, God. Get me to the next nav point before I barf."
"I'm good to go," he said, waving.
She switched off the video. "Autopilot. Mark."
Nav point two, a sprawling vista of outer-space real estate that yielded lovely views of more nothingness, came and went without enemy contact, as did nav point three. With the sweep completed, they started back for the carrier, passing the next security patrol pilots as they took their Rapiers out to new nav points and new heights of boredom.
Once the autopilot had disengaged at 2,200 kilometers out from the Claw, Forbes queried the ship and requested clearance to land. They were put on standby. Marshall's eyelids grew heavy, and he longed for a shower, for his cot.
"Hey, Marshall. I've been thinking a lot about this male-female thing. Don't take it personally. It's just a question of estrogen. Women can outfly and outshoot men. We don't manhandle our instruments, and we do better at multitasking. We can keep track of four enemy fighters."
Marshall snapped from his doze. "Hey, it takes balls not ovaries—to handle four enemy fighters. Nothing personal." He glanced at the opening flight deck doors. "Watch this." Toggling to the flight boss's channel, he said, "This is Delta Two. Permission to land?"
The flight boss's beefy face clicked on the VDU. "Delta Two. You are cleared to land."
Tensing every muscle in his body, Marshall fired the afterburners and banked hard, lining up with the flight deck.
"Whoa, that must've been three Gs," Forbes said sarcastically.
Taking his cue, Marshall cut the stick hard left and rolled as he gunned the throttle. "Try this." Inverted, he raced down toward the runway.
"Delta Two. You're coming in too hot," the flight boss cried, his face a survey course in fear. "Abort. I repeat. Abort. Delta Two. Do you copy? Shit!"
But Marshall held course, gazing up at the runway, now his ceiling, as, in the distance, orange-suited insects made way. He approached the energy field between vacuum and atmosphere.
"Delta Two. YOU ARE INVERTED!"
"No. You are!" Marshall shouted back, then released a cackle. The Rapier vibrated sharply as it penetrated the energy barrier and roared into the hangar, a dampened echo in its wake.
"Dammit, man. You're inverted!"
"Not anymore," Marshall told the keen-eyed flight boss. He jammed the stick left and rolled upright.
But he had misjudged his speed. Even as he fired retros, he knew he would overshoot the runway by at least twenty, maybe thirty meters. And worse, dead ahead lay a fuel truck, strategically placed by God to punish one First Lieutenant Todd Marshall, the Confederation's egomaniac par excellence.
The deckmaster, a man named Peterson with a tax auditor's sense of humor, ran across the runway and toward the fuel truck. As he crossed in front of the vehicle, headed toward the driver's side to holler at the stunned driver, he froze, his arms extended across the truck's hood. Marshall blasted toward him, retros wailing to the heavens, wings and fuselage rattling so violently that he thought the fighter would simply shatter across the deck before ever stopping.
Peterson's mouth opened as he resigned himself to his fate. The Rapier slowed but kept moving.
Snap! Click! And Marshall got thrown forward, his harness digging into his shoulders. The retros dropped from their soprano into a comforting, easy baritone. The Rapier settled onto her landing skids to reveal Peterson, still clutching the truck. The deckmaster reached out with a shaky hand and touched the Rapier's nose cannon. "Ohmygod," he mouthed.
Marshall slid aside his HUD viewer, then unlatched his helmet and O2 mask. Sweat drenched his face, and he had apparently sublet his throat to a desert.
"I'll have your wings," the flight boss said, his eyes ablaze. "Wait until your wing leader…"
The flight boss regarded something off-camera, then shouted, "Delta One!"
Marshall's VDU switched to an image of Forbes in her cockpit. "Now what were you saying?"
He cocked his head to watch her sweep over the runway, her Rapier inverted and at full throttle. She plowed through the energy field, killed the engines, then ignited retros to roll a full 540 degrees, righting herself at the last possible moment before touchdown. And she had not overshot the runway.
"Now that's how you do it," she shouted.
Marshall rushed out of his cockpit and toward her fighter. The flight crews kept their distance, not wanting to catch the rare strain of insanity that had barnacled itself to his brain.
Forbes's canopy popped, and she removed her mask to flash him a perfect grin.
"You did that to impress me," he said, leaving no room for the question.
"Just trying to redirect some of that testosterone."
He stared at her, and in her eyes he found something they now shared, a sudden and very desirable intimacy that would last as long as they lived. Military critics might call it the ill-founded camaraderie of adrenaline junkies. Marshall just called it fun. And Forbes obviously felt the same. "You're a total maniac!" she said.
He saluted her. "Maniac Marshall at your service, ma'am."
They burst into laughter.
Then Forbes stiffened as she looked past him. "Oh, shit."
Lieutenant Commander Deveraux stood fuming on the opposite side of the flight deck, then spun and stomped out.
Deveraux's silence left Marshall even more worried. "What happens now?"
Forbes looked to where Deveraux had been standing. "I'm not sure. I'm really not sure."