Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty-Eight

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Chapter Twenty-Eight
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 11
Previous Chapter Twenty-Seven
Next Chapter Twenty-Nine


Dramatis Personae

Text

UNITED

CONFEDERATION

CARRIER TIGER CLAW

ULYSSES CORRIDOR

MARCH 17, 2654

1245 HOURS

ZULU TIME

15 MINUTES FROM

CHARYBOIS QUASAR

JUMP POINT


"Report," Gerald yelled as a klaxon reverberated through the bridge.

"I have a bogie, vector one-nine-seven mark three," Mr. Obutu said, "approaching at a velocity of… now it's gone.

Attempting to reestablish contact, sir." Taggart studied Obutu's display, played back a recording of the contact, then breathed a curse. He moved to Mr. Falk's primary radar screen and squinted at the glowing numbers.

"You have something, Commodore?" Gerald asked. "It's a Skipper missile. Must be a prototype. We only pick it up when it decloaks to take a radar fix."

"That technology is years away from the Kilrathi—or at least Intelligence said so." Gerald fixed the commodore with a sharp look. "That's your department, Mr. Taggart. Do you have any intelligence on how to stop it?"

The commodore appeared at a loss, then quickly snapped toward Falk. "Estimated time until impact?"

Falk plugged the coordinates into his terminal, then waited for the results on his big screen. "Nine minutes, sir."

* * *

Blair peered at his radar scope. The contact had spirited itself away. Time to break radio silence. "I had a strong signal at ten o'clock, headed toward the Tiger Claw. Now it's vanished."

"Accessing intelligence database," Deveraux said. "Give me a sec. All right. Here we go. Contact is a Skipper missile. Shit."

"Can the Claw take it out?"

"The only thing that can kill it is a starfighter in visual contact." With that she banked hard right, breaking from his wing and climbing above the asteroid field.

"Hey, what are you doing?"

"Stay on course. Get through that jump point."

"What about our orders?"

"You mean the one I just gave you?"

"But you're flying my wing."

"I was."

"Angel? Angel? Don't do this."

* * *

On the Tiger Claw's bridge, Gerald felt his pulse surge as he faced Mr. Falk. "ETA on missile?"

"Six minutes, five seconds, four, three, two, one, mark. It should decloak in a minute or so."

Mr. Obutu spoke quietly into his headset, his expression holding little promise. "Sir, our shields are too weak to take a direct hit, DCCs are doing everything they can, but they can't restore full shield power without being spacedocked."

"Countermeasures?"

"Decoys remain down, but the standard array is back on line. Won't matter much. That missile has a smart recognition system against anything we throw at it."

Gerald nodded, then found Taggart's vacant gaze.

"Commodore, isn't there anything we can do?"

The man slumped in his chair. "It's in Blair's and Deveraux's hands now."

* * *

Blair jolted as the blip reappeared on his display. "It's back, Angel. Check your scope."

"I got jack," she said. "Come on… wait… got it!"

Deveraux's fighter, now a blue blip on his screen, chased after the red blip. "It's off to your starboard, bearing two-two-four by one-three-one."

She followed his coordinates, winding toward the contact.

"I'm coming back to assist."

"Negative."

He lit the burners and slammed the steering yoke right, riding the tube of an invisible breaker. Her thrusters gleamed ahead, and she fired lasers at the missile even as it cloaked. She continued to lead the Skipper, directing her bolts along its trajectory, shrinking the gap.

"Angel. You're too close," Blair said. "Back off." A sudden and harrowing inferno erupted ahead of her Rapier. The Skipper materialized and corkscrewed through space, shedding jagged hunks of red-hot plastisteel.

"Target destroyed," she reported tersely, then scaled a trail of vapor to evade.

But her report had been premature. The Skipper exploded with a burst like an antique flashbulb. The light gave way to a visible shock wave, concentric circles of force ripping through space and sweeping up Deveraux's Rapier as though it were a paper airplane in a typhoon.

Her scream shocked Blair. "Angel! Angel!"

The Rapier's wings tore off as it barrel-rolled through the wave. A faint burst of light came from her canopy as she ejected.

Tumbling like the Rapier, the escape pod rode the crest of the wave, then suddenly broke free as retros slowed its progress.

Blair held fast to the stick as the remnants of the explosion buffeted his fighter. He turned ninety degrees and flew parallel to the wave, nearing the pod and the meandering line of wreckage floating beside it. The pod's retros fired again, rolling it inverted relative to him. He flew under Deveraux, then slid up so that his cockpit stood within a meter of hers. "You okay?"

"Nothing broken," she said, staring down at him through the Plexi.

He glanced back to the Skipper missile's widespread debris and the speck beyond: the Tiger Claw. "You got it."

She shook her head. "It got me."

Blair regarded a panel at his elbow. He touched a button, bringing the system online. "Hang on. I'm going to tractor you back to the ship."

"No. Go on. We can't both disobey orders."

"I'm not leaving you here, Commander. You'll be out of air in an hour."

"An hour and four minutes."

"You're going back to the ship."

She raised a gloved finger. "You disobey my direct order, and I'll have you court-martialed."

"Like I care."

"Then care about the billions who will die if the fleet doesn't get those Kilrathi jump coordinates. You've been around long enough to know that in this war, some of us get a shitty deal. That's the way it is."

"It doesn't have to be."

"Fight in the war Blair—not against it. Go now. You have to. You know that."

Yes, he did. And choked by the thought, he punched the canopy. "You're all right, Angel."

She unclipped her mask and smiled ruefully, then pulled off her glove and placed her hand on the Plexi. "You too, Chris."

He could barely look at her as he touched his thruster control, sliding away from the pod, his wash gently rocking it.

That soft face. That hand pressed on the glass. Like Taggart, he would remember across the distance.

* * *

Gerald swiveled his command chair toward the radar station.

"Repeat?"

Falk gazed at his screen in wonder. "I said there's no sign of the Skipper missile, sir. One of the Rapiers must've shot it down."

"Where are they now?" Taggart asked, staring pensively through the viewport.

"One continuing on course, and one… picking up an auto beacon from an ejection pod." Falk jerked his head toward another quadrant on his display. "Got two Kilrathi ships at extreme range."

"Yes, that's about right," Taggart thought aloud. "Knowing our condition they would only send two, keeping the rest for an ambush at the jump point."

Rising, Gerald joined the commodore at the viewport. "So what now? We have just a half-dozen operational fighters and can barely maneuver."

The commodore faced him with a renewed zeal in his eyes.

"What now, Mr. Gerald? Now we make the Kilrathi on those ships sorry they were ever born." He regarded the bridge crew and roared, "Battle stations!"

Obutu punched a bank of controls. Alarms echoed along with automated warnings.

Gerald scrambled to his chair. "All right, ladies and gentleman," he barked over the shipwide comm. "Prepare to kick some ass!"

* * *

"Hello," Blair said, staring off to starboard. A Kilrathi cruiser and destroyer glided away from him as he held his position inside the shadowy crevice of an asteroid. He checked their course, saw they were headed for the Tiger Claw, and could do little more than hope that the ship's scanners had already detected them. Hearing the mental tick of the clock, he sped off, threading his way through the rocks, occasionally glimpsing the quasar's spectral arms.

* * *

Maniac sat in his Rapier with his eyes closed, listening to the drone of his breath. He hoped the launch order would come before he turned gray, lost his sex drive, and had to wear a truss.

Hunter had already fallen asleep and had accidentally left his comm open. The sound of his snoring seemed amusing at first, but the humor was short-lived. Polanski had shouted for the pilot to wake up, but old Hunter sat in mid-dream, tooting his horn at the sights and sounds of his subconscious. Even the flight boss could not wake him.

Finally, the penetrating buzz of the launch alarm jolted Maniac out of his doze. "Man, another two minutes and I would've been out."

"Hear that," Polanski said. "Hey, Hunter? You with us?"

"In spirit," he groaned.

"Don't worry about him," Polanski assured Maniac. "Now that he's pissed over losing his beauty sleep, he'll whack a couple extra cats for us."

"I'm not sure there'll be any left for you guys by the time I'm done."

"Listen to this guy."

"Mister, you fly straight and true. You do what I tell you," Hunter warned.

"Yes, sir," Maniac said. "When we get back, stogies on me." Hunter snickered. "You'll have to go Cuban if you want to impress us, Mr. Marshall."

"Cuban? All right. I'm there."

"Good. You're up."

Following the deckmaster's signals, Maniac positioned his Rapier for launch. He saluted, yawned into his mask, then the thundering turbines rocked him fully awake.

* * *

"All fighters away," Gerald told the commodore. The thought of going head-to-head with two Kilrathi cap ships brought on the gooseflesh and the cotton mouth, but Gerald wouldn't call them reactions to fear; they were simply reactions to respect for the enemy—an enemy who was about to die.

"Kilrathi cruiser and destroyer are in missile range," Falk said anxiously. "They're launching."

Taggart's eyes widened. "Open fire, Mr. Gerald."

"Aye-aye, sir." He switched on the shipwide comm. "All batteries, fire as she bears."

"Mr. Obutu?" Taggart said. "Report charge status."

"Batteries operating at forty percent and falling fast, sir. Those Kilrathi fuel cells don't hold a charge as well as ours."

"But our gunners know that. They'll make every shot count."

"That they will, sir."

Gerald suppressed his reaction as dozens of Kilrathi missiles flared and locked on.

Deveraux had powered down all but the most vital systems in the ejection pod—especially its auto beacon that would betray her location. She shivered as the pod grew colder than a Belgian winter. Out to port, missiles streaked across the blackness, creating rainbows of vapor. She strained for a better look, but her breath condensed on the Plexi. She wiped it away and took a tiny, rationed breath.

The end, she figured, wouldn't be all that painful. The cold would turn her numb, and perhaps she would experience that warm feeling she had heard about. She would eventually pass out from the lack of oxygen, but even then there would be no genuine suffering.

No, it wouldn't hurt much… physically. But the contemplation of dying tore up her soul. A thousand desires, a thousand regrets—and no power to act on them.

She took herself back to the fragmented memories of her parents, saw the images of her holo, then put herself back into the moment as a first-person participant, her senses fully alive. Her father, very tall, eyes very dark, lifted her into the air. Her head fit perfectly on his shoulder, and he smelled like the North Sea. Her mother came to them, stroked her hair, and sang to her about the cool green Ardennes, about picnicking under oak and beech trees, about the eternity of her love.

* * *

Blair reached the periphery of the asteroid field, then flipped over his HUD viewer. All right, all right, he thought, trying to calm himself as he took in Charybdis's kaleidoscopic fury. Her reds seemed like blood, her blues like veins. He maxed out the throttle and leaned over to power up the jump drive computer. A pair of screens showed multiple glide paths through the quasar, all of them wrong. Or at least they felt so. "Merlin? Check my coordinates."

The hologram directed his voice into the Rapier's comm.

"Coordinates a-okay, boss. Three minutes to jump."

"Firing jump drive." He touched the switch—

And an enormous six-G jolt struck the Rapier as the drive drop-kicked him forward. His lips flapped, and his cheeks flirted with his ears.

The quasar smeared into a striped tunnel, and thousands of ghostly claws tugged on the fighter. An atonal chorus of moaning fuselage and wings resounded over the beeping of instrumentation. The stick felt as though it were melting in his glove.

He no longer flew the Rapier; it flew him.

* * *

The Kilrathi cruiser lumbered into visual range, and Gerald shook his head at her menacing form as she came head-on.

"What tack, sir?"

"Steady on, Mr. Gerald," Taggart said. "Make them the first to blink."

"Aye, sir. Steady on."

"Report from our fighters?"

"Hunter's wing has already engaged, sir," Obutu told Taggart.

"But they're outnumbered about ten to one."

* * *

Blair's Rapier shimmied, and the jump drive made a noise akin to a mortally wounded animal. His breath came in rapid bursts as the thousands of singularities continued vying for the ship.

"Ninety seconds to jump point," Merlin said. "But you're drifting off course."

"The quasar's gravity is affecting you."

"Running diagnostic. All systems nominal. Christopher, you must change course. Patching new coordinates into the nav computer."

"Negative. Shut up, or I'll shut you off."

"So you've finally decided to kill yourself?"

"Merlin…"

The little man wisely fell silent. Blair skimmed the jump drive screens, then shut his eyes.

Mother, you don't want me to come here. But this time I have to. I hope you'll understand. I hope you won't try to stop me.

"Warning. Jump drive system reaching point five light speed, PNR velocity for this system," the ship's computer said. "Do you wish to continue?"

"Affirmative."

"PNR velocity achieved. System lock activated. Pilot, you are committed to the jump."