Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Thirty
- Richard Bellegarde
- Christopher Blair
- Harrison Falk
- Bokoth nar Kiranka
- Thiraka nar Kiranka
- Corey Obutu
- James Taggart
- Geoffrey Tolwyn
MARCH 17, 2654
1303 HOURS ZULU TIME
ENROUTE TO SOL
Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn had pushed his battle group to one hundred and twenty percent, having lost a total of five ships en route to Sol. But he had reduced the Kilrathi's two-hour lead down to a mere three minutes, much to the dismay of his engineering crew and the crews aboard his escorts. No battle group in the history of the Confederation had made better time. Commodore Bellegarde had said they would have to break every jump record to reach Sol within forty-two hours. Tolwyn had embraced the challenge.
The Concordia would soon reach Pluto, then bound toward the bluish, ringed dot of Neptune. "Are you all right, sir?"
Tolwyn did not look back at Bellegarde. The man's concern, while sincere, had become vexing. "Have you come again to suggest I sleep, Commodore? Because—"
"No, sir. Comm reports a faint message from Lieutenant Christopher Blair. He's in the system and broadcasting the Kilrathi jump coordinates."
That sent Tolwyn spinning around. "Blair?" Was it a coincidence? Hardly. "Like father, like son."
"Should we respond, sir?"
"Identifying Confed Rapier," Radar Officer Abrams called out. "He's heading toward Earth at LSM point nine."
"What is it, Mr. Abrams?" Tolwyn asked, reacting to the man's troubled voice.
"He's being followed by something massive, Admiral. I've analyzed its signature. Looks like a Snakeir."
Bellegarde tensed. "Permission to intercept it, Admiral?"
"No," Tolwyn said, stroking his two-day-old beard in thought.
"But the Snakeir will overtake Blair's fighter."
Tolwyn only nodded.
"Sir, if we don't intercept, that ship will reach Earth orbit before us. The casualties could be significant."
"I'm bloody well aware of that, Richard." Tolwyn bolted from his chair and spoke through gritted teeth. "All ships are to hold their positions and target those jump coordinates."
"But…" Bellegarde trailed off. He thought a moment, then his mouth opened in realization. "Ah, if we jump him, we'd be out of position when the Kilrathi fleet comes through."
"We're after bigger game than that Snakeir. We need a resounding victory—or this war is over." Tolwyn faced the stars, their age-old light seeming to shine on his own past. "For that victory, I have to risk the lives of innocent civilians and one very brave young lieutenant."
Blair ran the diagnostic twice, and twice he cursed the damage to his engines. Yes, the Rapier had survived the jump, but now he could only pry eighty-seven percent thrust from the machine.
And the massive blip on his radar screen inched closer.
"Blair to Confed fleet," he said shakily. "Do you read me? Kilrathi capital ship has penetrated the quasar jump point and is in Earth space. Copy?"
Static upon static.
"Confed fleet, do you copy?" He threw back his head. "If they're here, they're out of range. Earth will never see the Kilrathi coming."
"Ironic that we made it this far," Merlin said. "Of course, irony is an essential ingredient in every tragedy."
"Shuddup. Or at least help us out."
"I knew this was all going to end horribly. Did I mention that we'll be in range of the Snakeir's guns in ten minutes?"
"At least they can't launch torpedoes at this speed."
"I'm sorry, Christopher. But they won't have to."
A radar alarm beeped rhythmically, and Blair stared through his HUD viewer. "There! Got a contact dead ahead. It's the fleet signaling. They've heard us!" He opened the channel. "Blair to Confed fleet. Kilrathi capital ship on my course, aft of my position. Confed fleet, do you read me?"
The alarm drummed louder. Blair checked his scope and saw the blip. "Only one ship. But it's huge."
"It isn't a ship," Merlin said in a dire tone. "Check your scanners."
Blair engaged his telescopic scanner, its readout now rippling across his HUD. Space shimmered for a moment, then unveiled a lonely beacon signaling in the night. He glimpsed a data bar for identification.
And wished he hadn't.
"All we need," Merlin grumbled. "Scylla. Bane to sailors and monster of myth."
"We're hove to for repair inspection, sir," Lieutenant Commander Obutu said.
Taggart smiled wistfully. In the days of ancient sailing, hove to meant that a ship would turn its bow into the wind and drift, in order to meet a storm. Thankfully, Taggart's storm had already passed. "Report on Lieutenant Blair?"
"We're not sure, sir, but we think one of the Rapiers jumped." He looked past Obutu at Falk, ever standing behind his large radar screen. "What about the locator beacon from that Rapier pod?"
"Nothing, sir. Lost contact during the battle."
Taggart shook his head at the news. "We've sacrificed too many good pilots already. Have the Diligent prepared for launch. I'm going after that pod."
Taggart double-timed off the bridge, growing more anxious as he imagined Deveraux or Blair slowly suffocating in that cramped durasteel box.
"Christopher? Why haven't you changed course?"
He sweated over the controls and had trouble listening to Merlin over the incessant proximity alarm. He would shut it down, and a moment later it would return. "Merlin, can you turn this damned thing off?"
"I will, but in case the alarm hasn't cued you, you'll be past Scylla's Point of No Return in ninety seconds. Its gravitational pull will tear us to pieces. More precisely, to minute, highly dense particles."
"Solutions, Merlin! No more problems." Blair glimpsed the stars as they contorted into the gravity well's whirlpool of space-time.
Solutions. The word rang in his head and ironically sparked something. Blair had a Snakeir behind him, a gravity well ahead. Solution? In his mind's eye he saw one, but he balked at the notion. Still, it was the only one he had. "How much does a Snakeir weigh?"
"Accessing specs. About two hundred thousand tons, give or take a few thousand."
A smile passed over his lips. One throw of a switch, and the afterburners slammed him into his seat. Space seemed to open up around him as he bulleted toward Scylla, the well fringed by silvery ribbons of stars. Warning lights now dotted Blair's HUD, but at least Merlin had successfully turned off the proximity alarm.
"What are you doing?" the little man cried. "The afterburners will use all our fuel."
"I know, but I need more thrust. Eighty-seven percent won't cut it." Excitement tingled along his spine.
Merlin's voice quavered. "But we're still headed for that thing…"
Captain Thiraka took in a long breath of nutrient gas, then went to Bokoth, who reposed in the command chair and looked for all the Empire like the vandalized statue of a war hero.
"Kalralahr, planetary torpedoes online. We are almost in range. There is no response to the Rapier's transmissions. Sivar smiles on us. The surprise is total."
Bokoth's lips flared. "Yes," he said slowly, "it is." Something punched into Thiraka's back, found a seam in his armor, and penetrated flesh. The sudden agony felt so severe that he shamed himself by screaming. Rigid in shock, he turned.
Commander Ke'Soick held a bloody vorshooka blade, the ritual instrument for cub-bearing and murder. "Forgive me, Kal Shintahr."
"He's a skilled warrior," Bokoth rasped through a sinister grin. "You won't die quickly, Thiraka. I wanted you to see our victory and know, really know… regret. How dare you plot my murder. Did you really believe that Ke'Soick's loyalty could not be turned?"
"My father will have your life," Thiraka said, collapsing to his knees.
"I kill you with your father's consent. The Kiranka clan will soon be clean."
Thiraka's shoulders grew numb, and he realized he could no longer lift his arms. His thoughts were swept into a gale of panic. He thought of calling for help, but who would listen? Who would dare defy Bokoth?
Second Fang Norsh'kal suddenly rang the ancient tocsin to alert the bridge crew.
"What is it?" Bokoth demanded.
Hissing nervously, Norsh'kal delivered his report. "The Rapier is homing in on a beacon signal. It could be a Confederation guidance buoy."
"Or a capital ship," Bokoth amended, then winced as he forced his wizened frame toward the infrared monitor in front of him. "Identify and report. Full battle stations."
On the admiral's screen, Thiraka saw a red speck heading toward the beacon.
And he suddenly realized where they were and what that beacon marked. He opened his mouth to warn Bokoth, then smiled wanly. The Rapier pilot had become an ally in revenge.
Deveraux had thought she could die peacefully. She had thought she might experience a warm state of bliss before the cold draped her in an eternal sleep.
She had been idealistic about death.
Now reality had stolen most of her air. Reality had iced up her canopy so that even the pleasure she took from the stars was gone. I did all right, she thought. It wasn't such a bad life. I helped some people. I wasn't as selfish as I could've been, I guess. If only I could take this cold. But I can't. I'm a fighter, but I can't take this. Call me weak. I don't care anymore.
She reached for the pod's main panel, her hand shaking so badly that she could barely bring her finger down on the correct button. The panel lit.
"Self-destruct system armed. T minus thirty seconds until self-destruct," the computer said. "System will lock out override at T minus five seconds."
A song came to Deveraux, a song from her youth. "And as the moon rose high and high, and the twilight fled the sky, we saw the night was really here, and listened for the owl's cheer. Soon the stars began to shine, and we heard music in our minds, we heard music in our minds…"
Blair gazed at his HUD, never more determined. A half-dozen warnings kept lighting his screens, as though the ship's systems now conspired against him. A thousand meters to starboard, an asteroid plummeted toward the raging well. He blinked sweat out of his eyes and checked the VDU. "They're still back there," he told Merlin. "Good."
"If you say so. Kilrathi radar locked on. Ten seconds to the Point of No Return… and you're almost out of fuel. You won't be able to turn."
"Give me a count."
He jerked the stick hard to starboard, but the engines coughed before responding. Numbers clicked backward on his velocity gauge. Five and a half Gs pinned him to the seat. "We're not going to break free," he cried, eyeing another gauge. "We don't have enough fuel."
"You've got ten more seconds of thrust."
"Then find a weakness in the gravity field. Feel it."
Every rivet, plate, wire, and switch seemed to cry in protest as the Rapier grappled with Scylla. Blair projected himself into her swelling arms and felt for a way out.
He pulled the stick back, climbed a moment—
Then abruptly dove while slaloming away.
"Five seconds of thrust."
"Sorry, old girl," he whispered, feeling a fluctuation in her pull.
With a last jerk, the Rapier tore from Scylla's clutches, rocketing away at a ninety-degree angle.
"We're free," Blair said, only half-believing it.
Thiraka had lost the use of his legs. He poured all of his energy into breathing. He could no longer smile as he watched Bokoth foolishly chase after the Rapier.
Second Fang Norsh'kal's voice spilt open the tense silence that had fallen upon the bridge. "Kalralahr, the Rapier has veered away. Confederation ship, dead ahead."
Bokoth nodded and took a second glance at his screen. The horror that befell his face thrilled Thiraka. "That isn't a ship! Hard to port! Reverse all thrusters!"
Blair's engines whined a decrescendo and died. The Rapier glided via inertia through space, and the cockpit's eerie silence unnerved him.
"We're out of fuel," Merlin said. "And battery power's nearly exhausted."
But Merlin's report seemed distant, blighted by a beautiful sight that took form in the distance. The huge Kilrathi cap ship sailed straight for Scylla's undulating throat, its retros and reverse thrusters firing futilely against the laws of physics. "The Kilrathi's too heavy," Blair confirmed. "Scylla's got her."
Thiraka battled to lift his chin as the gravity well bloomed across the starboard viewport. Its glistening, inescapable maw turned the bridge crew into babbling cowards, including Bokoth.
"All engines full!" the admiral shrieked, his face draining of color.
The deck under Thiraka quaked as the gravity well leapt on its prey.
Norsh'kal jolted from his sparking console. "Engines overheating!"
Bokoth shrank to his chair. "But Sivar chose us." He looked down at Thiraka—
Who mustered his remaining strength to scowl at the admiral.
Behind them, a bulkhead burst open. Nutrient gas rushed toward the gaping seam and jetted into space.
Ke'Soick and Norsh'kal screeched and pounded past Thiraka, their bodies stretching unnaturally toward the viewport and the singularity beyond.
The chaos darkened into silhouette, and the cries diminished.
Thiraka wondered if he had died, then, through the numbness, he sensed himself being pulled apart.
"Record this, Merlin," Blair said, marveling at the Snakeir as it turned sharply to port in a final effort to dodge Scylla.
The well flung the ship around and drew it in, stern-first. Fissures opened across the Snakeir's hull, met other cracks, then released colossal sections that formed a parade of flotsam stretching toward the vortex.
Blair could not see Scylla's mythical six heads as they devoured the ship, but their effect humbled him. In less than ten seconds the last pieces of the Snakeir's bow spun into the well, leaving a fleeting band of distortion in their wake.
"Can I stop recording?" Merlin asked.
"What's wrong? We got them."
"I know. I just can't imagine dying that way."
"Then how does freezing to death sound? You've got four minutes of battery power."
"Send an automatic distress, along with the jump coordinates."
"I already have. No ships in range."
"Then I guess you'll have your tragedy."
"Christopher, if you die, I cease to function. Your father made me that way."
Blair unclipped his mask and palmed sweat from his face.
"When people know they're going to die, they confess things to each other, say things they—"
"What is it?"
"You don't know much about how I was designed. Your father wanted it that way. But I don't believe he wanted you to die without knowing. My chips were manufactured with protein from your father. It was his way of never saying good-bye."
"But he left."
"In the physical sense, yes. He knew he would. He loved you, Christopher. More than anything. And he wanted me to show you how much. I hope I didn't let you down."
"First sarcasm and now melodrama," Blair said with a half-grin. "How could you ever let me down?"