Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty

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Chapter Twenty
Book Wing Commander
Parts 2
Previous Chapter Nineteen
Next Chapter Twenty-One

Dramatis Personae




MARCH 17, 2654

0700 HOURS





Thrown forward by a sudden, brutal jerk, Taggart grimaced, but that expression turned to surprise as he realized that the ejection pod no longer plunged toward the moon.

Or had he already struck the moon, died, and been sent to some purgatorial state wherein he would repeatedly relive his own death? Relive his own death. There was an oxymoron…

He touched his cheek. No, he felt real. The rest of his senses concurred. He spotted the faint illumination of a tractor beam hugging the pod's hull. Then a Rapier descended beside the pod, and Taggart read the pilot's name along the cockpit's edge: Lt. Christopher Blair. The young man held his hand in a salute, which Taggart returned. "You're bleeding, sir," Blair said.

Taggart touched the gash in his forehead. "And you had an order to retreat."

"Which I obeyed."

"Then why are you here?"

"Uh, I got lost, sir. Came looking for directions."

"Mr. Blair. Pilgrims never get lost."

* * *

Maniac's smile withered as the remaining Kilrathi fighters regrouped and began retreating behind the planet's moons. All but one of those pilots needed to die. The cat left alive would warn every clan of Maniac's fury.

Maniac would become a legend among the Kilrathi, his picture posted in pilots' berths: Have you fought against this hairless ape? This foul-smelling being is the empire's most wanted pilot.

But none of that would happen unless Maniac went after the fleeing cats. "Hey, Rosie? You want some more?"

The VDU flickered, and she appeared, lifting her brow. "Like you have to ask?"

They gunned their Rapiers in a sudden U-turn, chasing after the Krant, Salthi, and Dralthi fighters still in the open.

"ETA to catville: five seconds," Maniac said through a returning grin.

"Baker One to all Baker pilots. Return to base. Repeat. Return to base."

Maniac fired a look of disgust at Lieutenant Commander Deveraux before her image went dark in his VDU. Luckily for him, his mask concealed the look. He eased on his throttle and held course.

"Maniac?" Forbes called in a warning tone.

"Hey. What about my needs?"

"Your needs? We just received—" She never finished.

Two Dralthi fighters that had been trailing the pack pulled up and away from their wing. Like mechanized manta rays, they swung around to target Maniac and Forbes.

"They'll try to ram," Forbes said, one Dralthi rushing straight for her.

"Guess they don't wanna play nice." She opened up with everything she had, tearing the fighter into scraps of superheated plastisteel.

The second Dralthi aimed for Maniac, and the enemy pilot's disgusting mug suddenly spoiled Maniac's display. If that weren't enough, the computer translated its taunt. "You will bleed for Sivar, you ignorant descendant of monkeys!" The cat widened its urine-colored eyes.

Maniac let out a snort. "Tell Sivar he can kiss my ass." Then he switched to Forbes's channel. "Watch this, Rosie."

Putting the proverbial pedal to the metal, Maniac howled as the afterburners threw him back. He centered his targeting reticle over the Dralthi—but he had no intention of firing. A collision alarm blared.

Distance: 1,000 meters.

"Shoot him, Maniac!" Forbes hollered. "Open fire!"

700 meters.

"Warning. If you do not alter your present course—" Maniac switched off the computer warning.

500 meters.

He brought up the aft turret view and saw Forbes trailing at his five o'clock high.

"What are you waiting for, Maniac?"

"For him."

300 meters.

"Shoot him. Or I will!"

"It's all in the timing…"

100 meters.

Forbes fired over Maniac's shoulder, but the bolts fell wide.

50 meters.

"Pull out!"

"Not yet."

30 meters.

Realizing that the Kilrathi pilot had no intention of changing course and every intention of dying, Maniac rolled the Rapier to starboard. He express-delivered a volley of laser fire that stitched its way across the fighter's cockpit, mortally wounding the cat inside.

With only centimeters between them, the two fighters passed, the Dralthi now trailing nutrient gas and tumbling toward—

"Rosie!" Maniac cried. "Shit. Pull up!"

Her Rapier's nose lifted a few degrees.

Not enough.

The Dralthi's wings acted like the blades of a fan to tear spark-lit gashes in her fighter's starboard side and belly. Forbes jerked the Rapier in an attempt to pull away, but the impact forced her into a roll that suddenly evolved into a flat spin. She throttled up to recover, flying straight but bobbing on invisible waves. One of her thrusters had been sheared away, and escaping fluids streaked her fuselage.

Maniac descended to form on her wing. "Rosie. Can you hold her?"

"I could fly this thing and cook you breakfast." Interference crept into her signal as her malfunctioning comm system promised to shut down. She had some control, but the Rapier wobbled and veered dangerously close to Maniac.

"Hey, quit showing off," he said, then widened the distance between them.

"Impressive, huh?"

"Eject. I'll tractor you in."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? The ejection system is fried."

He took in a deep breath. "Just stay with me, Rosie. We'll do it together."

Ten minutes later, they neared the carrier's scorched flight deck.

"Oh, man," Maniac said, responding to the devastation.

"The ship looks worse than I do after a three-day shore pass," she said. Maniac struggled to find just one section of the Tiger Claw that did not bear the wounds of combat. A gaping hole had been torn in her engineering deck. Her superstructure bore the jagged scars of hundreds of laser bolts and debris pitched off from explosions. Most of her dishes and antennae had been hacked away. Wrecked fighters from both sides floated near her upper decks, turning them into a labyrinth of graveyards. She limped through space, barely lit, her intimidating presence now tucked into her damaged recesses.

"Say, honey?" Maniac said. "Let's find another hotel. This place is a dive."

"Yeah, but she's the only dive in town."

He sighed. "Baker Three and Four to Flight Control. We're coming in for a side-by-sider. Clear away everything that ain't bolted down."

Boss Raznick, his beefy face hanging tiredly, replied, "Roger that, Baker Three and Four. Clear to land, SBS."

He and Forbes now flew level with the flight deck, bound for the translucent energy field and the flight hangar beyond. He tossed a look to Forbes. Bad idea. The sight of her bobbing Rapier turned his blood icy. He checked their speed and approach vector. "We're coming in too hot."

"Sorry, but my brakes are in the shop."

"Line it up," he said, unable to smile, his gaze riveted on her fighter.

"That's it."

"Piece of cake. Just like before."

"Except that you're right-side up." Now he managed a fleeting grin.

"I knew something was wrong."

Through his HUD viewer, Maniac watched the deck rush toward them.

"Almost there."

Her wingtip tapped a wall abutting the deck, but she wrestled the fighter straight as tiny groans escaped her lips.

"Okay. Easy. Just ease it in," he said. "Thirty meters."

"I… I love it when you… talk dirty." She could barely speak through her exertion. Her fighter lost power and fell behind his.

"Ten meters," he said as his own landing skids lowered and he glided over the flight deck, the energy curtain widening to fill his display. "Just five…" He trailed off as he realized her approach had gone awry. "Pull up! Pull up!"

But she didn't. She couldn't. Her port wing got caught on the flight deck's lip, and she started to flip over as the wing tore off and boomeranged away. The Rapier struck the deck with a gut-wrenching thunderclap, crushing her canopy. Shards of Plexi floated away as the fighter scraped along the runway, then spun out to a halt, snapping off the remaining engine, which rolled ahead of it.

Maniac frantically guided his Rapier through the energy field, then released his canopy before even landing. He could care less where he put down the fighter and wound up narrowly missing a wall of storage containers dead ahead because his hands weren't on the steering yoke; they were on his harness, throwing off buckles. He climbed onto the Rapier's wing, then leapt off, bolting toward the hangar entrance, toward Rosie.

Someone familiar shouted his name. Shouted again. Loud footsteps. Then someone collided with him, arms wrapping around his chest, forcing him to the deck. He fell forward, bracing his fall, not bothering to look up at his assailant, his gaze consumed by the wreckage just behind the force field.

"She's outside the airlock!" Blair screamed. "You go through the force field and you're Jell-O."

Maniac sprang to his feet. "Get me a suit! Get me a suit!" He started for the field as Blair seized his collar, holding him just a meter away. With the energy curtain so close that he could hear its hum, Maniac shivered as he realized that were it not for Blair, his panic would have driven him through it. He winced, staring at the twisted Rapier, then hollered, "Rosie! Rosie!" He could see her helmet, partially obscured by the shattered canopy. She did not move.

Sharp-angled shadows began wiping over the wreckage, cast by the half-dozen Rapiers circling overhead, waiting to land.

"Forbes? Rosie?" Deveraux called, her voice piped through the deck wide intercom. "Can you hear me? Rosie? Answer. Just key your mike, if you can. Come on, girl. Just one little click."

Maniac looked to the overhead speakers, waiting, waiting.

"I've got approximately ninety seconds of fuel left, Commander," Hunter said.

"Ditto for me," Polanski added.

"Rosie?" Deveraux's voice echoed hollowly through the hangar. Still no response. "Baker Leader to Flight Control. Clear that wreckage."

A sudden tightness gripped Maniac's throat, and he found it hard to breathe. "What?"

The roar of an engine startled him. He turned back to see a huge yellow deckdozer with a wide blade affixed to its nose come rumbling toward them. Its operator, seated behind a polarized windshield, blew a horn, and they dodged out of its way.

Maniac ran across the deck and looked up to the Flight Control windows. "Hey! What are you doing? Hey!" He spotted the grim-faced Raznick and began waving his arms. "Hey! You can't do this! You can't do this. Please! Stop! She's alive!"

The deckdozer neared the energy curtain and lowered its blade. Maniac abandoned his pleas and sprinted after the truck, determined to rip its driver from the cab. He came up hard on the driver's side, launched himself toward the cab door—

But Blair tackled him from behind, and they both rolled to the deck as the dozer disappeared with a ripple of energy.

Blair pinned Maniac and shouted, "There's nothing you can do."

"Get off of me, you Pilgrim son of a bitch!" Maniac struck a roundhouse to Blair's mouth. As Blair reached for the wound, he broke his grip, and Maniac squirmed away, heading back to the curtain.

"Are you going to kill yourself, too?" Blair asked, then dove for Maniac's legs, bringing him down.

Unable to break Blair's hold, Maniac lay there, panting and horrified as the deckdozer plowed Rosie's starfighter to the edge of the runway. The vehicle slowed, inching Rosie toward oblivion. Finally, the Rapier tipped over the side and tumbled slowly away, into space.

Maniac lowered his head, eyes tightly closed. His insides turned to vacuum.

"Baker Leader to Flight Control," Deveraux called solemnly. "Request permission to land."

Still in a haze of disbelief, Maniac sat on the deck, back to a bulkhead, legs pulled into his chest. He watched the Rapiers land, and with each touchdown, he thought he saw Rosie flashing him a thumbs-up.

He studied the others, hoping he would spot her just behind them.

Polanski climbed out of his cockpit. Hunter tore off his helmet and brushed the sweat from his forehead. Taggart sat on the nose of his Broadsword's ejection pod, a medic attending to his forehead. Deveraux trudged down her cockpit ladder and turned back to face everyone.

"Come on," Blair said, kicking his boot. Maniac's friend had not left his side.

"What's there to debrief?" Maniac asked. "We went out, and two good pilots got killed. Not that these people know how to grieve." Then he tensed, stood, and joined Blair.

He would make them remember Rosie. Even if it killed him.

"Lieutenant Marshall," Deveraux began. And she could stop there.

Maniac knew where this was going. "You disobeyed a direct order to return to base."

"I was—"

"Which, during wartime, is considered treason and punishable by death. Hunter? Give me your sidearm."

Hunter exchanged a worried glance with Polanski as he withdrew his pistol.

Blair took a step toward them. "Hunter, put the gun away."

"She's the CO, nugget."

After a nod, Blair lunged toward Hunter, but Polanski intervened, driving his shoulder into Blair's chest. Much larger than Blair, Polanski had little trouble sliding behind his opponent. He locked Blair's arms to his sides.

Deveraux accepted the gun and raised it to Maniac's head.

Part of Maniac wanted to shout "Do it!" but another part believed she would.

"What's with you?" Blair cried. "It was a stupid accident. He has to live with it."

"Or maybe I don't," Maniac said with a solid note of resignation. He stared into the cold wasteland of Deveraux's eyes. Rosie had been her friend, too. How could she remove herself so thoroughly from what had just happened? His gaze drifted to the gun's shaking muzzle.

"If you endanger another pilot, I will kill you." She lowered the gun, turned abruptly to Hunter, and handed it to him. Then she strode away. Polanski and Hunter turned their viperous stares on Maniac. He cursed them and jogged off.