Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twelve
- Christopher Blair
- Jeanette Devereaux
- Rosalind Forbes
- Paul Gerald
- Joseph Khumalo
- Todd Marshall
- Adam Polanski
- Jay Sansky
- Devi Soulsong
- James Taggart
- Corey Obutu
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Helmsman
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Noncoms
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Officers
CARRIER TIGER CLAW
MARCH 16, 2654
ETA TO CLASS 2
Captain Jay Sansky sat at his desk in the welcome solitude of his quarters. The antique clock hanging on the bulkhead above him ticked nearly in sync with the drums and violins of a contemporary classical theme resonating from his minidisc player. He had come here to meditate before the jump, to gather some thoughts while pushing others away.
In truth, he had come to bury the past.
He turned once more to the holopic sitting on his desk, a framed, three-dimensional doorway leading him through twenty-five years of memories. He smiled wanly at the group of young men and women posed in crisp Naval Academy uniforms, their eyes full of hope, their expressions hard and brimming with courage. Sansky had been with them that day, a brash officer with a thin face and full head of hair. Beside him, looking for all the world like an accomplice in rashness, stood Bill Wilson, former commander of Pegasus Station, now assumed dead. Bill wore his twisted grin proudly, and he had never betrayed his rebel's heart.
Every officer in the Confederation Navy played a role. Some played theirs better than others. But no one played his role more passionately, more honestly than Bill Wilson. Despite navigating through years of military corruption, Wilson had never lost sight of who he was. And he had tried for many years to make Sansky realize the same. One day, it simply dawned on Sansky that, like Wilson, he could reconcile with the universe, that he could correct years of wrongdoing. A military officer could do such a thing. A military officer wielded such power.
But Sansky still felt uncertain of his role, unsure of his future, and guilt-stricken by his past. So many people had helped him over the years. So many souls had given. Had he returned their generosity? Could he ever? Was it even right to believe that he owed them? Or was that the guilt again?
He closed his eyes tightly. "Oh, God," he whispered. "Oh, God. If I'm right, forgive me. And if I'm wrong, forgive me even more."
"This terminal has been idle for five minutes. Do you wish to continue?" came a computer voice.
Sansky looked at the small monitor, at the green navigation lines superimposed on the Ulysses Corridor. He had thoroughly studied the map, knew the region, and knew the odds of getting there. If he just had more time to better weigh his options, but was there ever enough time? Some said war represented the true enemy; Sansky knew otherwise.
"Computer. Shut down."
He glanced at the hard-copy map he had printed out, took up his pen, and noted the coordinates where the Tiger Claw should appear after the jump.
Lieutenant Commander Obutu's voice boomed over the intercom.
"Sorry to bother you, sir. You're needed in the chart room."
"On my way."
Sansky set down his pen and picked up the holopic. He stared fondly at the two young men with their whole lives ahead of them, two young men naive of the fire that lay in their hearts. He replaced the holopic, opened a drawer, and lifted his hip flask. With an unsteady hand, he brought the flask to his lips and took several swigs before stowing the whiskey. He started for the hatch, then hurried back to the desk, where he scooped up Tolwyn's ring.
Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn had an unspoken agreement with the universe that allowed him to take tremendous risks while managing to emerge triumphant and unscathed. Perhaps carrying a piece of the admiral would allow Sansky to do the same.
As Blair stepped into the carrier's chart room, a huge holographic display swept up his attention. Stretching from deck to overhead, the semitransparent images drew long shadows across the walls and over the navigation subterminal where Taggart sat, keying in numbers and gazing trancelike at his screen.
A red blip designated by tiny letters as the Tiger Claw lay at the holograph's center. The blip flashed as it moved toward a pulsating, constantly moving series of circles: a mathematical representation of the Class 2 pulsar. The data bar beside the pulsar showed thousands of scrolling coordinates in space-time, coordinates being fed into the carrier's NAVCOM AI by Taggart.
"They told me you were here, sir," Blair said.
"Look at it, Lieutenant," Taggart suggested, still intent on his screen.
"What do you see?"
Blair shrugged; wasn't it obvious? "That's a Class Two pulsar."
"Well, unlike a black hole, which is a discrete singularity, or a quasar, which has the potential of containing thousands of discrete singularities, this pulsar is a discrete singularity with an infinite number of constantly changing permutations."
"Great. You remember that academy crap. Now just look at it and read the map."
"I don't know what to say. Those permutations, they, uh, each one is capable of taking us to another part of the galaxy. The problem is, most of them are dead ends."
"With an emphasis on dead." Taggart swung around and cocked a brow.
The grid surrounding the Tiger Claw began to deform as a long spike impaled it, then gradually pulled itself inside out to form a stalagmite with a thick, wide hole at its neck. Blair watched, fascinated, as the carrier came to a halt, poised before the gap.
"Now, Lieutenant Christopher Blair. You've told me what the pulsar is. Tell me how it feels."
"I don't feel anything yet."
He gave a slight nod, then resumed his work.
With a low hiss, the chart room's hatch abruptly opened. Gerald and Lieutenant Commander Deveraux passed into the holograph's eerie glow. Blair craned his head, wanting to dema-terialize into the shadows. Then he cringed as he heard Deveraux's voice. "Why aren't you at your station, Lieutenant?"
Blair faced them, their eyes like two pairs of muzzles, locked on target.
"I asked Lieutenant Blair to be here," Taggart interjected.
The hatch opened again.
"Why?" Gerald asked.
"I authorized it," Captain Sansky said, entering the room and double-timing toward Taggart. "Status?"
"Coordinates are laid in," Taggart said. "One keystroke, and the upload will be finished." He went to holograph and pointed to the tip of the stalagmite, letting his finger follow a trajectory across the wide gap in the quadrant. "The Ulysses Corridor. Four days' hard travel using three known jump points. By using the pulsar, we'll be there in"—he glanced to a digital clock above his station—"less than three minutes."
"If your calculations are correct," Gerald said, grinding out the words. Back at his console, Taggart touched the final key, finishing the upload.
Gerald steered himself toward Taggart. "NAVCOM and the finest minds in the Confederation couldn't plot this jump. What makes you so sure you're right?"
A flicker of a grin wiped across Taggart's lips. "Because they're Pilgrim coordinates, Mr. Gerald."
"What?" Gerald's gaze swept back to the databar.
Taggart crossed into the big commander's line of sight. "We'll have a lovely view from the bridge." Then he hurried toward the hatch.
Deveraux gave Blair a frosty look before following Taggart. Gerald and Sansky left together, their voices low and tense.
Alone in the chart room, Blair stepped into the holograph and ran his finger along the same path that Taggart had marked. He strayed toward the data bar, his entire body now illuminated by millions of scrolling calculations.
Merlin sparked to life and paced along the top of Taggart's console. "If the entry trajectory is wrong, we'll be trapped in a moment outside of time and space. That is, until the ship plummets into the pulsar and we become an infinitely small part of a special singularity. My guess is there's a fifty-seven-point-one percent chance that we're doomed."
Blair looked down at his chest, now scintillating with numbers. "The coordinates are right."
"Maniac" Marshall jockeyed for a look through one of the huge portholes outside the pilots' mess. The once black and distant mass of the pulsar now dominated the view, its edges streaked by dying stars. The pulsar reminded Maniac of Scylla, though it flashed brilliantly at three-second intervals, living up to its name. The other pilots took no pleasure in the carrier's present position. Maniac would educate them. He drew back from the porthole, about to say something.
"This thing is eating suns for breakfast," Polanski interrupted. Khumalo, who Maniac had learned went by the moniker of "Knight," turned from a porthole, a look of deep puzzlement knitting his brow. The stocky black man had Hunter's attention. "What the hell are we doing here?"
Hunter chewed on his cigar. "You know what we're not doing?"
"Turning around," Forbes answered.
Maniac regarded the pulsar with exaggerated awe, then addressed his audience. "Do you know what you people are staring at? Do you have any idea?"
With a sigh, Hunter replied, "A Class Two pulsar, mate. I've seen a lot of 'em."
"No." He cocked his thumb toward the porthole. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is the ultimate rush."
Sure, the others gaped at him as though he had gone off the deep end and had returned with gray hair and strange prophecies. He could live with that.
As long as he had Forbes smiling.
Which he did.
Blair took up a position near the back of the bridge, beside Deveraux.
She noticed him and edged away. He gave a slight snort and held his ground.
An unsettling air pervaded the bridge, evidenced in the ashen faces of the officers and noncoms who dutifully and nervously ran through their prejump checklists. The casual murmuring Blair had heard during his first visit here had shifted to terse orders and even more terse acknowledgments.
An inverted triangle of consoles divided the forward bridge, with the helmsman seated at the triangle's top and gripping his wheel. Sansky and Gerald manned observation consoles at the base angles, near the bank of viewports. Taggart stood at the helmsman's shoulder, having carefully chosen his position.
Sansky touched a key on the shipwide intercom panel. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is the captain. I'll put an end to the scuttlebutt by informing you that in sixty seconds we're going to jump the Class Two pulsar directly ahead. We've been ordered to the Ulysses Corridor, and we need to get there quickly." Sansky went on to give a capsule summary of the events surrounding the destruction of the Pegasus Station. When he finished, he looked over his shoulder at everyone on the bridge, and Blair found his own trepidation mirrored in the captain's face. "May God be with us all." Then Sansky favored the helmsman with a nod. "Take us in." The carrier lurched for a moment, then started for the pulsar. Anything that wasn't battened down—and even a few things that were—began to tremble in a cacophony that reminded Blair of the earthquakes on Nephele. He found a nearby railing and gripped it for support. Deveraux folded her arms over her chest and wouldn't join him.
As they glided closer to the pulsar, it better resembled Scylla, but this Scylla, perhaps a distant cousin, had only one head and the brilliantly flashing eye of a Cyclops. As she gobbled up stars, planets, planetoids, and smaller debris, she forged the thunderbolts of her namesake that now struck the Claw with massive tremors. And in her work, Blair sensed a perfect balance, a simplicity that tingled at the base of his spine. He felt her magnetic fields.
And, in his mind's eye, he saw an avenue through space-time itself, a shiny black funnel of infinite mass that he sensed promised infinite awareness.
With a shiver, he looked askance at Deveraux. "Yes, ma'am?"
"For a second there I thought—"
"Attention! Attention! Course error. Adjust course immediately," came the NAVCOM's automated voice. An alarm squawked.
"Ignore that," Taggart said confidently. "Helm. Hold steady as she goes."
"Captain," the NAVCOM began, its tone waxing persuasive. "The ship is headed into the PNR zone of an uncharted Class Two pulsar. One minute before gravitational pull is one hundred percent."
Sansky spun toward the helm, his voice freighted with tension. "What about it, Taggart?"
"The readings are wrong. Your AI's sensors are not calibrated to the pulsar. They've already been warped by the gravitational field."
"I must insist that we change course immediately," the NAV-COM said. "Initiating AI override."
"No!" Taggart screamed.
The Tiger Claw suddenly bucked, and Deveraux came crashing forward into the railing, near Blair. She found her grip as the ship began pulling to port, throwing them parallel to the rail.
Taggart, who now held fast to the helmsman's console, shouldered his way to a touchpad. "Manual override! Now! Disregard your artificial intelligence—or we're all dead."
"Captain," Gerald said through clenched teeth. "I believe you should reconsider."
Sansky cocked a brow. "I already have. Steady as she goes, helm."
Like a cosmic predator with talons of gravitational force, the pulsar reached out and clutched the carrier. Fighting to stabilize the ship's pitch and yaw, the helmsman's face locked in a grimace as the Tiger Claw convulsed, her bulkheads writhed, and her overhead threatened to cave in.
"This is the captain," Sansky said over the intercom. "Brace for jump point interphase. Fifteen seconds to jump point."
"Jesus…" Deveraux said as the ship released a ghoulish bellow.
But Blair scarcely heard Deveraux, scarcely saw the bridge or felt the rail. His senses began shutting down as they had when nearing Scylla.
And the feeling, the awe-inspiring feeling, lived in him, a vital, unstoppable force that placed the moment inside a subatomic particle, in a universe whose boundaries he longed to explore. He glimpsed the entire Ulysses Corridor and beyond, saw Nephele, the Sol system, whatever he wanted to see because distances no longer held meaning. Time no longer held meaning. He thought of his mother. And there, before him, she gave a mild frown, her hair and complexion as smooth and dark as he remembered. "You shouldn't do this to yourself, Christopher. You weren't meant to see me. This is not your continuum."
"It is mine. I chose it."
"You don't have the right to choose. Only one does."
"What do you mean? There aren't any rules. I feel this. I can do what I feel."
"Then you'll fall. Like the others."
"You're not my mother, are you?"
"I'm everything your mother was, is, and will be. I'm in every part of the universe at once, as you are now, as you shouldn't be."
"I wish you could understand. I wish that more than anything. But I've seen your path. And there's nothing I can do to change it." Her features grew younger, more narrow, until Blair stared at Lieutenant Commander Deveraux, who said, "Didn't you hear him, Lieutenant? Fifteen seconds to jump. Better hang on."
He reached with trembling hands for the rail and blinked as a burst of light shot from the pulsar.
Then he found a bewildered Taggart staring at him. Blair could only imagine how strange he looked. He had not just seen a ghost. He had seen the universe itself.
And the experience had left him frightened of who he was and might become.
No warning had stunned him more.