Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty-Five

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Chapter Twenty-Five
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 4
Previous Chapter Twenty-Four
Next Chapter Twenty-Six


Dramatis Personae

Text

KILRATHI

CONCON SHIP

ULYSSES CORRIDOR

MARCH 17, 2654

1100 HOURS

ZULU TIME

2 HOURS FROM

CHARYBOIS QUASAR

JUMP POINT


Deveraux knew that Sergeant Cogan did not appreciate her leading his Marines into the ConCom ship. His jowly face screwed up into a knot when he first heard about the plan, and his expression had not changed. Deveraux was not a Confed Marine Corps lieutenant, nor did she have any special training in tactical boarding operations. For all intents and purposes, she should not be commanding the Marines.

However, she possessed one piece of knowledge that had convinced Commander Gerald to assign her the task. As part of her academy training she had spent two months flying a captured Dorkir-class freighter similar to the ConCom. She knew the layout of those vessels better than any grunt in Cogan's squad. Sure, Marines received intense training in enemy ship design, but no solider could memorize thousands of deck plans. Without her, the squad would rely on field slates and constantly have to pause to check their coordinates via computer. She could get them to the bridge far more swiftly—not that Cogan appreciated the advantage. Deveraux was not a Marine. Period.

And while she stood at the front of the squad, immersed in the sparks and shimmer of the superheated hull, Cogan reminded her of that fact. "When the door blows, hold back, Commander. Let my people do their jobs." His face shield barely hid his contempt.

"I'm leading this group, Sergeant. I recommend that you take that literally. Are we clear?"

"Yeah, we are. At least your corpse won't weigh very much in zero G." He marched back and began shouting at his troops. "Five seconds," a Marine reported, waving a small scanner near the cutting line.

Deveraux began a mental countdown, but the copper-colored section of plastisteel thudded to the deck before she reached one. She felt the umbilical's air tug on her shoulders as it fled into the Kilrathi ship. As suspected, the cats had turned off the artificial gravity in this section in order to slow the Marines' progress. In a surreal zero-G dance, she glided forward and turned into a triangular corridor clogged with a thick green gas and festooned with conduits. A silhouette stirred ahead, and she strained to see through the fog, her rifle stock already jammed into her shoulder.

A yellow bolt tore a jagged hole in the bulkhead just a half-meter away. She returned fire but couldn't pick out a target. She touched a button on her helmet, engaging her thermal scanner. Data bars beamed at the corners of her faceplate. Forms grew more defined, details less so. The torn-up bulkhead throbbed red.

The Marines charged in around her, cutting loose an incredible wave of suppressing fire that stirred the alien gas into hundreds of tiny whirlpools.

"Hold your fire," Cogan ordered.

She studied the corridor via the thermal scope. No movement or heat sources. "Tito! Marx! Take point. Second team. Watch our backs. Let's move."

* * *

Blair kept Polanski and Maniac in his sights as the two engaged another pair of Dralthis that had sprung from behind the asteroids. "They're coming up behind. Let's kickstop 'em," Polanski told Maniac.

"Affirmative."

"On my mark. Hold… hold… hold… mark!"

Maniac and Polanski broke into hard ninety-degree turns, holding their new courses for a moment. The Dralthis overshot them, and the Rapiers spun back 180 degrees to lock targets.

Missiles flew, and the cats paid with interest for their mistake. "Lieutenant, can I have a word with you?" Merlin asked, his voice coming abruptly from the intercom.

"Little busy right now."

The hologram flashed into view with his usual flourish and sat cross-legged on the Ion cannon's console. He thrust out his lower lip and blew a stray lock of hair from his eyes. "I'm picking up some strange electromagnetic emissions from the Kilrathi ship."

"So?"

He leaped onto the crossbar joining the firing grips and obscured Blair's view. "They're Pilgrim. The ULF frequency I picked up earlier. Do I have your attention?"

"Yeah. Can you pinpoint the signal?"

"Of course. I wouldn't have brought it up if I couldn't."

Blair gaped at the little man. "Well?"

"Deck two, aft section. The bridge."

Decision time. He glanced at the radar display: all clear. Maniac and Polanski could handle themselves for at least a little while, barring an onslaught. Man, that's weak justification, but it makes me feel a little less guilty. He lifted out his cross, kissed it, then climbed down from the gunner's dome. Moving gingerly away from the ladder, he stole a glance at the bridge.

Taggart and Gerald sat at their consoles, their backs to him. Good. He unlatched a rifle from its bulkhead mount, checked the charge, then fetched his helmet from the rack.

He winced as the airlock doors parted, and tossed another look back at the bridge. Taggart and Gerald had heard nothing.

He double-checked his helmet's binding, then ventured into the umbilical, feeling his weight decrease before the suit's gravity boots automatically kicked in.

Dense fog unfurled toward him, and once he reached the opening to the ConCom ship, visibility had been reduced to a meter. He turned into a corridor and something brushed his shoulder. He recoiled with a cry, lifting the rifle, finger tensing over the trigger.

An abomination floated next to him, a uniformed beast so hideous that nature had not yet forgiven herself for its creation.

The thing's pale, elongated head had been torn open by laser fire, and its huge paws were locked in a death clutch. The corpse rolled over, and the yellow eyes stared at Blair, convex irises now inert, lids twitching involuntarily.

Taggart had been right. The Kilrathi would not be entering beauty pageants anytime soon. And Blair felt fortunate that his first close encounter was with a dead one.

"Nice," Merlin said through the comm. "I believe there's another way. To the right."

His gravity boots peeled off the deck and made traveling furtively more than a little difficult, though the haze did help. He reached a door at the corridor's end and frowned at the control panel labeled in Kilrathi.

"Translating," Merlin said. "Hit the big button."

"Of course."

Green fumes poured through the doors as they slid apart. He tpuched a control on his helmet, bringing the thermal scanner online. Two pipes affixed to the bulkhead glowed red, otherwise the corridor appeared cool. With his rifle at the ready, he moved inside.

* * *

"Aw, hell," Deveraux moaned as a half-dozen Kilrathi troopers stamped up the corridor. The Marines traded a dozen bolts with the aliens, then fell back into an intersecting passage. "That the only way?" Cogan asked, popping out an energy magazine and popping in another.

"It is now," she answered grimly. "They've reported our position. They're already sealing us off back there."

"Grenade!" someone cried.

Deveraux looked down as the cylindrical concussion grenade rolled across the deck, just two meters away. Cogan seized her shoulders, driving her back as the bomb exploded. A bluish-red fireball swelled overhead. They collapsed, and Deveraux fought to recover her breath. Somehow, she managed to sit up.

Three Marines lay dead in the intersection, their arms and legs gone or twisted at unnatural angles, their space suits whistling as O2 units mindlessly pumped air.

A sweaty and scared-looking grunt rounded the corner, ducking from incoming fire. He took one look at his dismembered comrades, gagged, then forced himself toward Deveraux. "Ma'am? Got another squad moving in behind us. We are pinned down."

"Lieutenant Polanski? Report," Gerald ordered.

The young man's masked face shown on the comm screen.

"No contacts, sir."

"I concur," Marshall added. "We're jamming local transmissions, but that doesn't mean our buddies didn't get off a signal. Better set the table anyway."

"Understood," Gerald said. "How are we doing back there, Blair?"

No response.

"Lieutenant Blair? Answer your station." Gerald tapped on the ship's security cameras. He flipped through the images until he found the empty gunner's dome. "Look at this," he shouted at Taggart. "You should've never brought that half-breed on this mission. His orders were to remain on this ship." Gerald bolted up. "Stay here. I'll find him."

Picturing himself with a gun shoved into Blair's forehead, Gerald slapped on his helmet and tore a rifle from the rack. He glanced to Taggart. That's right, Commodore. You should look worried. Now your boy is going down.

* * *

"Which way, Merlin?"

Blair had reached the end of the corridor, where a more narrow passage ran through it at a seventy-five-degree angle. "Go left. Then down."

His elbow scraped along the wall of the tube, which quickly widened into a standard-size corridor with increasing gravity. Blair's stomach suddenly greeted his knees.

"There's a floor panel on the deck. Pull it up," Merlin instructed.

He found the handle and slowly lifted the panel while balancing his weapon. He peered into the hallway below, hoped to God that it would remain clear, then dropped to the deck.

"See that hatch up ahead?" Merlin asked. "That's the bridge. ULF signals are peaking the meter now."

After a second glance at the hatch, Blair dodged to the bulkhead. Large, cross-shaped windows built into the doors revealed two Kilrathi officers, their heads lowered to their consoles, their bodies outlined in the faint red of his thermal scanner. He cocked his rifle. Full charge. Keeping to the shadows and thicker fog near the wall, Blair advanced. He threw a look back, and when he faced forward, light flickered across his display.

Two towering Kilrathi skulked out of the gloom near the bridge door, and one of them took massive strides toward him, its booted feet rumbling the deck, its mouth opening to expose diseased gums and a grotesque set of gnarled, razor-sharp teeth. Blair stood immobilized in the image as the warrior launched itself toward him with improbable speed.

His finger found the trigger, and he blew open the alien's abdomen at point-blank range. The thing gurgled and bled over its legs, took a step back, and dropped.

In a blur, the second Kilrathi appeared behind the first. Blair lifted the rifle. The cat came at him, bulbous eyes widening, arms lifting, claws springing from its paw. A victory grin split open its horrid face.

Blair fired!

Pain rocked visibly through the alien, robbing its smile and narrowing its gaze. It released a spinetingling shriek and stumbled onto its back.

As Blair stepped around the cat, he exchanged a look with a Kilrathi officer behind the bridge's door, then stole his way to the windows.

On the other side, one alien stood fixated on a monitor while another, presumably the captain, turned to kneel before a copper-colored statue of Sivar. The captain's mouth moved.

"This is not good," Merlin said. "That Kilrathi in there just spoke a ritual phrase. He says that he's honored to die for the glory of Kilrah, the Emperor, and the Empire."

The captain rose and turned back to a center console, where Blair spotted a red button that needed no translation.

He fell back from the door, dropped an explosive round into his rifle's grenade launcher, aimed, and—

With a faint thump the bomb left his weapon, struck the door, and blew it off its tracks in a column of flames edged in black smoke. Exploiting the lingering cloud, Blair rushed toward the hatch, then crouched to pick a target.

Reaching for the red button, the Kilrathi captain jerked as Blair's first round tore a ragged hunk out of its shoulder. Two more bolts punched the now-howling captain to the deck.

Blair flinched as the remaining two bridge officers returned fire from the cover of consoles. He dodged through showers of sparks and flying debris, then dropped to his stomach behind a long row of stations. He inched forward, careful not to move the colossal swivel chairs beside him. From between the widely spaced console legs he saw armored feet closing in on him from flanking positions. In a half-dozen heartbeats, the cats would be standing over him.

He waited for four of those beats, then rolled under the stations and popped up behind a warrior, jabbed his rifle into the thing's long head, and squeezed off a bolt. The warrior dropped, most of its brain on the wall behind it.

But where was the other officer?

Pivoting frantically, Blair couldn't find him. Then, out of nowhere, the thing abandoned its rifle and sprang. An armored fist sent Blair's weapon tumbling, and an even faster paw across his face hurled him to the deck.

This Kilrathi did not smile as the earlier one had. The pure thought of killing narrowed its eyes to slits, kept its lip crimped in a sneer, and fueled a long, steady growl. It reached for Blair's chest, grabbing him by the fabric of his space suit. With little effort, the thing hoisted him high into the air as it extended the talons of its free paw. Then it lowered him a little, wanting to stare him down before the unceremonious gutting.

In a second of movement so well choreographed that it made Blair feel he had stepped outside himself, he jabbed his thumbs into the cat's large, yellow eyes. The paw gripping him relaxed, and he fell, palming a console for balance as the alien wailed in agony.

Blair bounded for his rifle, came up with it, and finished off the Kilrathi with a pair of bolts to the head. Flesh sizzled.

"Nicely done," Merlin said, seated on the forward edge of a nearby monitor.

"Thanks for the help."

"I'm just running my program. And by the way, don't touch the red button."

He looked at the self-destruct switch and sighed. Then his gaze wandered the rest of the bridge, and he noticed a black box partially hidden behind a piece of the exploded hatch, the letters N-A-V visible on one side. The box sat on the station he had hidden behind, and a score of cables emanated from it, some leading to a monitor that scrolled numbers and letters, some into a bank of consoles he guessed were part of the ConCom's communication system. "What the hell?"

After crossing to the device, he set down his rifle and lifted away the piece of plastisteel. His mind raced as he read the words PEGASUS NAVCOM AI. "They have the Charybdis jump coordinates, Merlin."

"They have more than that. I'm picking up strong electromagnetic emissions from the panel to your right. It's a ULF signal. I finished translating the code. They're relaying a ship's coordinates."

"What ship?"

"The Tiger Claw."

"Damn it. What's the source?"

"The original signal comes from the Tiger Claw herself."

Blair's jaw dropped. "A traitor on the Claw?"

"It gets worse. It's encrypted with an executive-level code, one I recognized immediately."

"Who has access to those codes?"

"Only Captain Sansky and Commander Gerald."

The monitor flashed, and the code numbers and letters scrolled by at an increasing rate.

"What's happening?" Blair huddled over the screen.

"The signal just went from ULF to Ultra High Frequency. The Tiger Claw just became a beacon."

"Every Kilrathi ship in the sector will be able to find her," Blair said, nearly losing his voice.

"Lieutenant, someone is—"

Reacting to the sound of footfalls, Blair whirled to lock gazes with Commander Gerald, who, with inflamed eyes and teeth flashing obscenely, raised his rifle and started onto the bridge.

"You'd like my ship to fall, wouldn't you, you treacherous piece of shit." He gestured with his weapon toward one of the dead Kilrathi. "I should feed you to these things."

"Looks like you'll get your chance," Blair said, then patted the NAVCOM. "They owe you a few favors, don't they, Mr. Gerald?"