Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Thirty-One
- Richard Bellegarde
- Christopher Blair
- Jeanette Devereaux
- Paul Gerald
- Todd Marshall
- C. W. McCubbin
- Adam Polanski
- James Taggart
- Geoffrey Tolwyn
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Medics
MARCH 17, 2654
Admiral Tolwyn held his breath as the Concordia decreased thrust and the battle group dispersed into attack formation.
"What do you think, sir?" Bellegarde asked as they stared ahead. "Are we too early or too late for the party?" Tolwyn squinted at a flickering gleam in the distance, a gleam that quickly burst into a ringlet of light. "We're right on time." He favored the radar officer. "Identify that ship."
"She's a Fralthi-class cruiser," Abrams said. "Fire all batteries."
Laser bolts and guided missile exhausts sewed a hundred translucent trails into the gap between the Fralthi and the battle group. Tight-lipped, Tolwyn observed the bombardment and noted another ship flashing through the jump point.
Even as he faced Abrams, the young man shouted,
"Ralari-class destroyer in our sights, sir."
"Take her out."
Pummeled by a surprise attack, the Fralthi got off only a half-dozen salvos of return fire, then emitted a spectacular light show as it broke apart. The destroyer plowed into the Fralthi's wreckage, then took a score of torpedo strikes to her stern.
"They're coming through one ship at time," Bellegarde said.
"They have no chance to defend themselves or warn the ships behind."
Tolwyn nodded. "But where's that Snakeir?"
"She's disappeared from our scanners."
"Launch two Rapier wings and a squadron of Broadswords. We have to find her."
The status light on Blair's life support panel faded. He probably had a couple, maybe three more minutes of oxygen left if the cold didn't kill him first. The shivering had come, grown worse, and now he sat with chattering teeth, rocking himself toward death.
His Rapier had glided well past Pluto. Far beyond the gas giants and beyond Mars lay that precious planet, homeworld of humans, the only home, some said. He wanted to go there and see the legendary beauty that everyone fought so fiercely to preserve. Too late now.
"Hey, Merlin. You there?"
With the fighter's systems down, the little man took holographic form, his image flickering on Blair's knee. "Here, Christopher."
"You were right all along."
Merlin folded his arms over his chest and glared like a drill sergeant. "Don't say that. You're a fighter. So fight. We're going to make it."
"Cold got to you, Merlin? You sound downright optimistic."
"Let's just call it intuition—"
Blair fell forward as the Rapier lurched.
"—or a working array of scanners."
"What the hell…" A powerful spotlight shone on the cockpit.
The light panned away, and behind it floated a Broadsword bomber that literally brought tears to Blair's eyes. The pilot snapped off a salute, and Blair managed a shaky reply.
A tube extended from the bomber's belly and locked onto the Rapier's primary external coupling. Blair threw back a row of toggles, and systems blinked on. One screen showed his Rapier firmly locked in the Broadsword's tractor beam.
"Good afternoon," the pilot said, his masked face now on Blair's VDU. "I'm Lieutenant C. W. McCubbin of the TCS Concordia. Who's Saranya Carr?"
"She's the star of Luna Jones, Jumpscout."
"That's good. But even the cats know that."
"C'mon, buddy. Do I look like a Kilrathi to you?"
"Well, Lieutenant, you're pretty damned ugly." The pilot chuckled, then fired thrusters, towing Blair off.
"TCS Tiger Claw entering low Earth orbit," Abrams said.
"Jesus," Tolwyn muttered as he surveyed the old carrier's shattered and blackened hull. When Gerald had made his report, he had obviously understated the ship's condition. As expected, the commander had spent more time discussing his disappointment and disbelief over Captain Sansky's actions.
Tolwyn had taken the news with only mild astonishment.
Sansky wasn't the first or last traitor to wear a Confederation uniform.
The lift doors opened, and a familiar young man hurried onto the bridge, looking about as tattered and battle-weary as the admiral himself. Lieutenant Blair brightened as he met gazes with Tolwyn, then steered himself to the viewport.
Tolwyn returned the boy's salute, then proffered his hand.
"Your father would've been proud."
"Thank you, sir. And it's an honor to finally meet you." He stood starry-eyed a moment, then jolted. "Oh, I almost forgot. I have something for you." He removed a ring from his breast pocket. "Captain Sansky asked me to return it."
Tolwyn took the ring, eyed it with a deep affection, then slipped it on. He tried to mask his sorrow over Sansky's betrayal, but Blair's reaction said he had failed. "The wounds of civil war run deep. He was a good captain, despite everything."
"Yes, sir. And sir? Did anyone locate Lieutenant Commander Deveraux?"
"Paladin went after her. No word yet."
Bellegarde, who had been sitting at an observation station, went to the comm console. He conferred a moment with the officer there, then slipped on a headset. "We're monitoring the Tiger Claw's transmissions. She's been in contact with the Diligent. Commodore Taggart's requesting clearance to land." The young lieutenant hastened toward Bellegarde. "Is she with him?"
"Lieutenant Commander Deveraux is on board," Bellegarde said, concentrating on the signals.
"I knew she'd make it," Blair said with a hearty nod. "Taggart is requesting an emergency medical team to meet him on the flight deck immediately."
Blair froze. "What's wrong?"
"I'm sorry." Bellegarde pursed his lips and removed his headset. "The rest of the transmission got cut off as they entered the Tiger Claw's airlock."
The lieutenant's expression harbored more than simple worry over a comrade. Tolwyn smiled inwardly. "Mr. Blair? I think you're on the wrong ship."
"Sir, if I can borrow—"
"Get down to the flight deck. I'll have a fighter waiting for you."
He raced toward the exit, remembered his salute, then knifed through the lift doors before they had fully opened.
"Well," Tolwyn said, hearing the melancholy in his voice, "there we go, just yesterday, his age."
Bellegarde's face reflected his own yearning. Then his gaze settled upon Earth, and he studied the planet with an odd intent. "Sir? I've a leave coming up. Maybe it's time I go to Scotland. Have a look around, as it were. With your permission—"
"Granted, Richard," Tolwyn blurted out in surprise. "I think you'll find a lot more there than you've expected."
"I hope so, sir."
Blair switched off the comm in his borrowed Rapier, silencing Boss Raznick's tirade. The boss would have to forgive Blair's reckless approach. He plowed through the energy curtain and blew the canopy as the Rapier came to a wailing hover and abruptly descended. Landing skids slapped hard on the deck.
Standing in his cockpit, Blair spotted the Diligent across the hangar. A crowd had gathered near her loading ramp. He jumped from the fighter, then sprinted toward the commotion.
Taggart, Gerald, and Maniac stared over the shoulders of two medics as they struggled to revive Deveraux. She lay on a lowered gurney, and her back arched as one medic waved a pen-shaped defibrillator over her heart.
Maniac broke away from the group. "Son of a bitch, you made it."
Blair's gaze returned to Deveraux. "What about her?"
"Pure luck that I found her at all," Taggart said. "She must've turned off her beacon so as not to tip off the Kilrathi. She had eight seconds left on her self-destruct when I nudged the pod, woke her up, and got her to deactivate. She passed out before I got her moored. Brave girl."
He slipped past Taggart and dropped to his knees beside Deveraux. Her ashen face made him tremble. "Come on, Angel. Come back. Don't you die on me." He took her cold, limp hand in his own. "Come on, Angel."
Maniac hunkered down and placed a comforting hand on his shoulder.
The grim-faced medics continued waving their instruments over Deveraux. One placed a small disc on the base of her neck and studied readings on a palmtop scanner. "Hold on now. Wait. Yeah, there it is. I got a pulse."
"That's right, Angel," Blair said, squeezing her hand. "Don't you die on me."
Her eyelids fluttered and finally opened. She coughed a little, then turned her head and smiled through her grogginess.
"What did you say?"
"I said don't you die on me."
She licked her parched lips. "Is that a suggestion or an order?"
"That's a definite order," he said with a stifled laugh.
Their gazes locked, and she did not look away. Her lips welcomed him. He learned toward her, going in for the kiss.
"We have to get her down to sickbay," one of the medics said, blocking Deveraux's face with his arm. He winked. "Don't worry. She'll be fine."
Blair stood as the medics raised the gurney and wheeled Deveraux toward the lift doors. He kept his eyes on her until she rounded a cargo container, out of sight.
"So, Mr. Blair," Gerald began. "I heard you single-handedly took out a Snakeir. Lured the ship into that gravity well at One-four-seven."
"That's correct, sir."
"Well, despite that, despite everything, I still don't like you."
The commander flicked an ugly stare at Taggart's cross.
"However, you've earned a little of my trust. In all likelihood, I'll be assuming command of the Tiger Claw, and I want only the best wing commanders I can find."
Taggart rolled his eyes. "The commander's trying to promote you, Lieutenant. I understand he's got a short list of command-approved wing commanders. You want the job or what?"
Blair grinned at the joke. "Wing commander? Me?"
"I can use you, Lieutenant," Gerald said. "We stopped the Kilrathi—"
"They'll be back," Taggart cut in. "The only question is when."
"We'll be ready for them this time," Blair said. "No more surprises."
"He'll take the job," Taggart told Gerald with a wink.
"I don't know," Maniac said, having been remarkably silent until now. "Maybe it's just me, but I didn't think they were all that tough."
Gerald and Taggart looked at Maniac as though he had finally lost his mind. Even Blair could not repress his frown.
"What?" Maniac asked, feeling the heat. "I mean it."
That drew hoots and guffaws from everyone, then Polanski pulled Maniac away while the deckmaster flagged down Gerald. Taggart gestured toward the lift. "C'mon. I owe you a drink."
"And I owe you this." Blair tugged the cross from his chain.
After withdrawing his own chain from beneath his vest, Taggart clipped on the cross. "I assume the admiral has his ring?"
"He does. Can I ask you something, sir?"
Taggart smiled. "You'd like to know about Amity."
"How did you know?"
"The way you just looked at the cross."
"I'm sorry if I—"
"No, it's okay," Taggart said. "Let's get that drink. I'll need it to tell that story."