Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Thirteen
- Christopher Blair
- Jeanette Devereaux
- Rosalind Forbes
- Ashley Galaway
- Justin Jones
- Joseph Khumalo
- Todd Marshall
- Corey Obutu
- David Olivia
- Adam Polanski
- Miguel Rodriguez
- Jay Sansky
- Ian St. John
- James Taggart
- Tanaka Mariko
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Crews
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Department Heads
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Engineer
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Helmsman
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Pilots
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Radar Man
CARRIER TIGER CLAW
MARCH 16, 2654
CLASS 2 PULSAR
Spacecraft Ordnance Specialist Justin Jones jogged across the carrier's shaking flight hangar toward a long, high row of missile racks, where Specialist David Olivia slammed down pairs of bracing arms, locking the projectiles into place. "Where the hell have you been?" Olivia asked, then grunted as he slammed down another set of arms. "Do you wanna be on or off this arming crew?"
"C'mon," Jones said, then ran ahead of Olivia to reach another brace. "You know I've still got my problem."
"Well, you'd better do something before it winds up in my report."
Jones's mouth fell open. "So how are you gonna write that up, anyway?"
Olivia paused, holding a brace, his face glistening with sweat. "Easy. I'll just tell them the truth."
He wiped sweat from his mouth. "Oh yeah, I would."
"I thought we were friends."
"We are. But now you're screwing with my career. I'm not covering for you anymore."
"Just give me some more time," Jones pleaded, dashing ahead to seize another brace. "I think I'll have it solved in a couple of days."
"That's what you said last week. I don't got any more time. You either get to a doctor, or I'm getting you off this crew."
"All right. All right. But do you think they can do anything for me?" "For God's sake, man. It's just diarrhea."
"Not this. No way. This is a curse. I wouldn't wish this on my worst enemy." With that, Jones sprinted off.
"Where are you…" Olivia began.
Then it was obvious.
In the flight control room, Boss Raznick buckled himself into his seat, took a sip of his coffee, then placed the mug on the vibrating work surface of his console. He stared down through the Plexi at his flight hangar. His department heads seemed to have everything under control. Their crews battened down ordnance, tools, rolling carts, moorings, and scores of fighters and bombers.
The readiness reports came funneling back to him, and, as usual, the arming crew was last to check in. "Specialist Olivia here, sir. My weapons are tucked in."
"Then move your ass, Spaceman. You've got all of eight seconds to get to your jump station."
Raznick dialed up the two pilots who would fly the first security patrol once the Tiger Claw made the jump. They sat strapped in their idling fighters. "Knight? Spirit? Report?"
"Systems nominal here," Spirit said, then she muttered something in Japanese that Raznick couldn't decipher.
"What was that, Lieutenant?"
"Oh, nothing sir. It's just a little prayer."
"We're good to go, Boss. That is, if this old lady survives the jump."
Raznick nodded grimly. "I hear that."
Spaceman 2nd Class Miguel Rodriguez checked for the third and final time that the missiles in his section of the Claw's secondary ordnance room were locked and that all laser batteries held steady at full charge. With that done, he hurried to his seat and belted in next to Spaceman Ashley Galaway, her smile as transparent as his. She let out a tiny cry as the carrier shifted suddenly, and the conduits rattled like metal tubes striking a tiled floor.
"Don't worry, mi amiga," Rodriguez said, summoning up a false bravado perfected by neighborhood skirmishes in his youth. "When God created Senor Miguel Rodriguez, he thought, Damn! Now that is a good-looking hombre. So there's no way he'll tamper with perfection."
"Or when he created you, he thought, Hmmm. This young man loves himself too much. When I have the time, I'll stomp him out of existence. So I guess God's got some time on Her hands…"
Rodriguez looked at her and tsked.
The ship suddenly rolled a few degrees, shoving them against their seats.
Galaway began whispering to God, making her peace. Rodriguez blessed himself, closed his eyes, and joined her.
"You know, somebody told me about a time when government didn't control your personal life, when you could, say, get into a ground vehicle and drive as fast as you want without wearing a seatbelt. You didn't have some government regulating your personal freedom, defining for you what's safe and what isn't. When it came to stuff that you wanted to do, good old-fashioned common sense was the law. What ever happened to that?" Maniac searched the faces in the mess hall, but most of the pilots were too busy adjusting their jumpseat harnesses to listen. "Hey, I asked you people a question."
Polanski rose and paraded up to Maniac, using his index finger to poke Maniac's chest. "You wanna know what happened to our personal freedom? Idiots like you ruined it. You abuse every bit of freedom you get. And so to control you idiots, the Confederation steps in. So, I'm you, I plant my ass on a jumpseat and buckle it down. You wanna live to abuse more of your freedom, doncha?"
Maniac eyed Forbes. She shook her head. No, both of them would ride this out naturally, unfettered by the convention and cowardice that ruled the others.
Staring up some twenty meters at the overhead, Engineer Davies swallowed as a quake passed through the durasteel, making the engine room's ceiling look like gray waves fanned by a north wind. He slapped his palms on a handhold, then leaned out to look at his crewmates, wondering if the other eighteen-year-olds felt as scared as he did. One new recruit, Engineer Oxendine, a tall blond boy with big arms but a bag of gelatin for a gut, crinkled his nose and said, "You smell that? Hey, everybody? You smell that?"
Murmurs erupted, and Davies said, "What? What is it? Fire?"
Oxendine took a few exaggerated whiffs of the air. "No. I think it's you, Davies."
"What do you mean?" he asked, lowering his nose to his armpit. "I don't smell."
"Are you kidding? Your fear is stinkin' up the place."
"Shuddup, Oxy," someone ordered.
"Five seconds to jump," the captain said on the intercom.
Davies leered at Oxendine, then tightened his grip on the handhold.
With the vibrations increasing by what felt like a factor of ten, Blair envisioned his arms as sticks of durasteel and hung on to the bridge railing, his feet occasionally leaving the floor. Deveraux, too, struggled to keep standing, her poker face faltering as the pulsar tightened its grip.
Taggart, whose cool remained unruffled, clung to the helmsman's chair and shifted behind the officer, alternating his gaze between screens and viewports. "Steady now. Steady…"
Apparently bored with simply tugging on the carrier, the pulsar decided to jerk the Tiger Claw in as though she were a sail-fish on a line. The force sent Deveraux crashing into Blair. They fell away from the railing and rose to grab the bulkhead.
"What the hell was that?" Deveraux asked.
"The ship's trying to tear itself free of the space-time fabric," Blair said, his stomach acting out a similar battle.
Growing in pitch, the vibrations continued until Blair's ears filled with a single, deafening hum. The pulsar coruscated again, momentarily blinding him. As his vision cleared, he looked down to see Deveraux's hand reaching toward his shoulder—
And at that moment, the Tiger Claw plunged into the pulsar, into the gap in the space-time continuum calculated by Taggart.
The hum, the vibrations, and the taste of bile at the back of Blair's throat fell off into nothingness. He should feel more comfortable in the moment, knowing what to expect. But the feeling had returned, and like a siren, it sang a bewitching song, trying to lure him out to explore the universe, to move beyond the corporeal, to comprehend eternity in a billion-year second, to live an entirely different life in which he knew his parents, really knew them.
Then you'll fall. Like the others.
Such power. And only a thought away. How could he control it? How could anyone control it? The only thing that kept him in place, bound to a minute portion of the universe, was the fear evoked by his mother. Yes, he could refine the feeling, hone himself into a true Pilgrim, he sensed that. But even with a perfect sense of direction and the power to achieve infinite mass and infinite awareness, he would still struggle to find happiness, love, friendship, hope, wisdom, all of the things that defined being human. Or he could choose to abandon them.
Christopher Blair stood at a cosmic crossroads, and he refused to make a decision, refused to surrender to the intoxication of the feeling. If he did that, he felt it would forever control him. There had to be a way to achieve balance, to preserve his humanity while sharing a relationship with the universe more intimate than he had ever known.
He searched his thoughts for a way to contend with the feeling, but a powerful shudder passed through his body, wrenching him from his introspection. His senses returned with an electrifying vengeance. He gagged as the atonal roar of the carrier's passage echoed through the bridge. Sansky, Gerald, Taggart, and the helmsman, once pillars of salt, now fought to maintain balance.
Deveraux's hand finally settled on Blair's shoulder, and as he turned to look at her, the deck buckled and tossed her into him. They fell back toward the bulkhead, and Deveraux's forehead struck the merciless durasteel with a thud that made Blair grimace. She dropped to her knees, and he grabbed her shoulders, shifting her back to observe a bleeding laceration on her forehead. "Are you all right?"
Her eyes seemed vague, her head swaying. "We make it?"
A glance to the bank of forward viewports gave Blair his reply. The pulsar had slid back into her gloomy cavern of gravity that lay four days and three jump points away. In the distance loomed a massive planet, a gas giant banded in mauve, yellow, and orange. Several large spots blemished its surface, and tiny points of light hovered about it, moons gliding peacefully in their orbits. Beyond the Jovian-like system lay the quiet and dark vacuum, bejeweled by ancient starlight. "We're through the jump point."
Even as Blair finished telling her, the carrier's alarms clicked off, and the rumbling deck and bulkheads grew still, giving way to the routine din of the bridge's instrumentation.
Taggart considered the helmsman's screen, then glanced through the viewport. "Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Ulysses Corridor." Lieutenant Commander Obutu craned his head toward Captain Sansky, one hand on his headset. "Launching Rapiers. Now."
After a few seconds, two fighters shot by the viewport, their afterburners aglow. Blair followed their path until they ascended out of view.
"Shields up," Sansky ordered, getting to his feet. "Mr. Obutu, stealth mode, please."
Obutu threw a toggle. Every console grew dim. "Going to stealth. Seven percent electronic emissions, zero communications."
Arriving at the radar station, Sansky leaned over the beanpole of a boy seated there. "Status?"
"Scanners picking up strong electromagnetic signature at one-eleven mark four-three. An asteroid field. I'd say she's a Kilrathi, sir." Sansky nodded, then brought himself to full height to consult with a dour-looking Gerald.
Meanwhile, Blair struggled to his feet. "Don't move," he told Deveraux.
"I'll be right back." He hustled to the rear of the bridge and unclipped a first aid kit from the wall. He returned with the kit and removed a laser pen from its holder. "Don't move," he said, then lifted the pen to her forehead.
"You already said that."
"This time I really mean it." He thumbed on the power and began sealing the laceration. "You're a good patient," he said softly, then his aim shifted.
"Sorry." He finished the seal, lowered the pen, and edged closer to her, studying his handiwork.
"It's all right," she assured him, drawing back. She lifted her brow, breaking the seal.
He quickly shook his head and brought the laser pen toward her. "It's still bleeding. If I—"
"It's all right," she insisted, then grabbed his wrist, forcing the pen away.
"Yes, ma'am." He stood and proffered his hand.
She dismissed the offer. Using the bulkhead for support, she clambered to her feet, wavered a moment, then found her balance.
Blair opened his mouth, wanting to tell her he was sorry, that he didn't mean to move so close to her, that all he had wanted to do was help. He also wanted to say that her perfume made him lightheaded, that her skin seemed like the smooth surface of some ripe, exotic fruit, and that he would like to explore the secrets in her hair. He wanted to tell her most of that, well, some of that, but Captain Sansky suddenly came between them. "That head all right?" he asked Deveraux.
"Little scratch. I'm fine."
"Good. Security patrol's been launched, but I'm keeping them in tight. I want you to prepare a recon. I want to know what's out there."
"Yes, sir." She started for the corridor.
"And Deveraux," Sansky called after her. "No contact with the enemy. Not yet."
She looked over her shoulder and nodded, then faced Blair. "Let's go, Lieutenant."
Twenty decks below the bridge, in a dank, cramped latrine, Specialist Justin Jones struggled up, gripped his stomach, then released a moan. He was, he suspected, the only man alive who had jumped a pulsar while seated on a toilet.
Then again, some feats were better left unreported.
Flight Boss Raznick swore as he removed the coffee mug from his lap. A large stain darkened the front of his uniform. He vowed to find the idiot responsible for convincing the captain to jump a pulsar. And when he did, he would have that idiot busted down to spacehand. The laundry detail repeatedly did a poor job of cleaning his uniforms; they could never remove a stain of this magnitude. He looked up to the heavens and demanded a refund for the day.
He thought he heard God laugh.
Miguel Rodriguez reached into his shirt and withdrew the St. Christopher medallion hanging from his neck. He kissed the patron saint of travelers and whispered a thank you.
"I think we made it," Ashley Galaway said, removing her seat straps.
"We did, mi amiga," Rodriguez said. "Come. Give me a hug."
"No, really. On my world it's customary to hug the nearest person after a dangerous situation."
"On my world, the men don't lie to get close to their women."
"Oh, come now, mi amiga. Do you see a lie in this face?" He mustered his most sincere look.
"No. I see lust." She stood and abruptly kissed him on the cheek. "Don't try so hard. If we're going to violate regs, let's make it worth it." She strutted off, leaving him to contend with his runaway pulse.
"That'll be a nice bruise, mate," Hunter told Maniac as the older pilot inspected Maniac's forearm. "Have you found your manhood yet? Or does the quest continue?"
Rubbing his swelling arm, Maniac smirked and left Hunter, weaving his way through the mess to join Forbes, who had gone to fetch a drink. As she spotted him, her eyes lit over the rim of her glass. "That was good. Very, very good," she cooed.
"Some men know how to show a lady a good time"—he scowled at Hunter—"and some don't."
"And speaking of time, have you noticed the shift?"
"What time is it?"
"It's nearly oh-three-hundred Zulu."
He checked his watch; it read 1434. "It only took a few minutes to make that jump."
"But we still lost over half a standard day."
He lifted his brow. "Then we have some time to make up."
She began to answer, but the intercom speaker emitted a short beep.
"This is the captain. As most of you have guessed, we just made one hell of a jump."
"Is that what that was?" Polanski groaned.
"Actually, we've just taken a little short cut into the Ulysses Corridor, where, as I told you, the Pegasus Station was attacked and destroyed. The main Kilrathi battle group is in the quadrant and headed for the Charybdis Quasar. In just over ten hours it'll be in position to jump into Earth space. Our mission is to find the Kilrathi, assess their capacities and plan of action, and if necessary, stop them."
Maniac exchanged a look with Forbes: Action! Yes!
"We're the only Confed ship within range, people," Sansky continued.
"We'll have no help and no rescue. We can only count on each other. That is all."