Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Three

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Chapter Three
Book Wing Commander
Parts 1
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Dramatis Personae







MARCH 15, 2654

2140 HOURS







For the fourth time in the past five standard minutes, Captain Thiraka nar Kiranka shuffled through the dense nutrient atmosphere that filled the Grist'Ar'roc's bridge to check the radar screen as the immense cruiser traveled at maximum drive toward the quasar. The attack on Pegasus Station had gone exactly as planned. The absence of difficulties had Thiraka wondering when those difficulties would arrive. His experience fighting Terrans told him they always did.

Born of the most powerful clan on Kilrah, Thiraka had a reputation to uphold, a fact that weighed upon him too heavily and preoccupied too much of his time. His father did not believe him worthy of the clan. His father did not believe he could present even a single Terran death as a gift to Sivar, war god of the Kilrathi people. And his father's beliefs had become public knowledge by way of servants' loose tongues. Thiraka suspected that most of his crew doubted his capabilities. The presence of Kalralahr Bokoth, the Kilrathi fleet's most revered admiral, underscored those doubts. Thiraka considered how his own intimidation had become heightened by the fact that he and Bokoth belonged to the same clan and that Bokoth would undoubtedly report Thiraka's every move back to his father. The emperor had not entrusted Thiraka with the mission and had turned his cruiser into the kalralahr's flagship, thus relieving him of battle group command. I am a lowborn peasant at the kalralahr's beck and call, he thought. Thus, Thiraka's intimidation remained fused with contempt.

Commander Ke'Soick rested a heavy paw on Thiraka's shoulder. "Kal Shintahr, our officers complain that you're oversupervising them. I've watched you check this screen four times now. Should the third fang here find a discrepancy, he'll report it directly to you."

Thiraka lowered his massive brow. "To me and not the kalralahr?"

"We've only served a short time together, but I already know your pain. You can rely on my loyalty, Kal Shintahr. I'm oathsworn to you and you alone."

Pursing his lips, Thiraka nodded. "A debt is owed. A debt shall be repaid."

"Have you forgotten how your family strengthened my clan by killing the weakest of us? Now we rise in power and serve aboard the empire's deadliest cruisers and dreadnoughts. But my clan also believes that those who bargain with the Terrans are the lowest of born, cowards despised and condemned by Sivar."

Thiraka moved closer to his Ke'Soick, and with eyes capable of seeing the infrared spectrum, he gazed through the green effluvium to see if others watched. "Those opinions are better kept silent. But, dear Ke'Soick, I agree."

Behind them, the lift doors parted to reveal Kalralahr Bokoth. Without a word, the admiral paraded across the bridge, his armor flexing, the colorful clan and battle plumes affixed to his shoulders fluttering behind him. He paused at the forward viewport to gaze at the quasar.

"And thoughts become flesh," Ke'Soick said, eyeing the kalralahr with unflappable contempt.

Second Fang Norsh'kal, tactical officer, approached them with a computer slate. "Kal Shintahr. Sector report of Confederation ship movements." He proffered the slate.

But Thiraka had grown weary of staring at holos and computer screens.

"Read them to me."

The Second Fang purred his acknowledgment. "One vessel remains in the sector, the TCS Tiger Claw. Intelligence reports that she is still out of communication range with her fleet and holding position."

"Very well," Thiraka said. "Your report tells me nothing new."

"But Kal Shintahr. One of our surveillance stations on the border of Sol sector intercepted and decoded part of a long-range communication from the Concordia to a merchantman bound for the Tiger Claw. An officer on board that merchantman is delivering an encoded message to the carrier's captain."

"ETA of merchantman to Tiger Claw?"

"We're not sure, Kal Shintahr. The merchantman is headed toward Beacon One-forty-seven, just outside the Sol system."

"They're not headed toward Vega?"

"No. And we don't know why."

Drawing in a long breath that made his throat grumble, Thiraka stepped away from his officers and crossed the bridge, heading toward the kalralahr.

As he neared the old one, Thiraka bowed his head and spoke in a low hiss of respect. "The Ulysses Corridor is clear. As you predicted, the door to Earth is open. But new difficulties have arisen."

Kalralahr Bokoth turned his long, pale head toward Thiraka. Bokoth's face bore the ravages of the battle at McAuliffe. He had lost an eye in that ambush, and deep scars radiated from the gloomy socket like an improbable form of black anti-lightning. "Difficulties, Thiraka?" "Yes. One of our surveillance stations—"

"I know." Bokoth stroked the long, fine hairs on his chin and bared his yellowed canines in a smile, as though over Thiraka's surprise. "I'm having all intelligence routed directly to my cabin."

"Kalralahr, this is my ship. I've paid you tribute enough in turning over command of the battle group. All intelligence will be routed to the bridge."

Bokoth's good eye widened. "I wondered how long I could push you before you would behave honorably and defend yourself. There's hope for you after all."

Thiraka frowned as he detected the musty stench emanating from Bokoth, from the kalralahr's ornamental plumes, which he apparently only donned on special days or missions. Repressing the desire to gag, Thiraka considered several responses to Bokoth's chide, but thought better of them. The wrong word might spark the killing-rage in both Kilrathi. That all-controlling feeling dwelled just beneath the skin of every warrior, and once ignited, the feeling would blaze until one or both Kilrathi lay dead in its embers.

"What is it, Thiraka?" Bokoth asked, his tone a notch less condescending.

"Nothing, Kalralahr. Nothing."

"Then let me address your supposed difficulties. Yes, it's unfortunate that the Terrans have learned so soon of our attack on Pegasus. But it's of no consequence. By the time that merchantman reaches the Tiger Claw, our lead will be too great for them to intercept. If by some small miracle they do reach us, we will finish them as efficiently as we destroyed Pegasus. That complication has already been addressed. And even without our contingency plans, one carrier is no match for this battle group. Even the lowest of born can recognize that."

"But answer this: why is the merchantman not headed to Vega sector? Doesn't that puzzle you?"

"It does. Which is why I've asked it to the bridge." Bokoth turned his head toward the lift doors as they closed behind a human wearing an atmospheric suit.

"Where's the celebration?" the hairless ape asked, its voice sounding tinny through the translator attached to its suit. "The door to Earth is open. And you have your prize."

As the human drew closer, Thiraka noticed a silver cross hanging around the man's neck. He recognized that cross from history holos he had been forced to watch during his training. It represented a clan of humans known as Pilgrims.

"The NAVCOM AI has been reconfigured to your jump drives," the ape continued.

"Excellent. Now answer me two questions," Bokoth said in his most demanding tone. "Why was the Concordia alerted of our attack so soon?"

"That, I'm afraid, was unavoidable. Next question?"

Bokoth growled. "Explain unavoidable."

"I think the word translates clearly."

Raising a paw and extending long, jagged nails, Bokoth said, "If I discover—"

"You're not in a position to threaten me—after what I've given you."

Slowly, Bokoth lowered his paw. "A merchantman has been ordered to alert the Tiger Claw. Why isn't it headed to Vega sector?"

"I don't know. I'd worry about that."

"If you're lying—"

"There you go again. Haven't I already expressed what I want?"

"Yes. Most clearly. You have betrayed your race on a scale unimaginable, Pilgrim."

The ape sniggered. "I've lived up to my part of our agreement. Live up to yours. Destroy Earth."

Bokoth stared long and hard at the traitor. At last, he nodded.