Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty-Four
- Christopher Blair
- Jeanette Devereaux
- Paul Gerald
- Todd Marshall
- Adam Polanski
- James Taggart
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Crew Chief
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Marine Sargeant
- Unnamed Terran Confederation Marines
CARRIER TIGER CLAW
MARCH 17, 2654
2.5 HOURS FROM
Maniac had tried to sleep, but Rosie's death played itself out in his dreams like a holo trapped in a loop. His chest felt heavy, and the thought of food made him sick. He had risen from bed and had accessed the ship's datanet to lose himself in video recorded during the attack. But he found it difficult to concentrate and twice thought he sensed Rosie staring over his shoulder. In short, living hurt.
Now he rolled onto his stomach, his bandages tugging painfully on his waist. His pillow smelled like her perfume, and he took a deep breath, his eyes rimmed by tears.
Then he suddenly felt angry for what had happened. It wasn't my fault! Do you think I wanted to get her killed?
He wasn't sure who he had asked. God, maybe. The lack of a reply drove him farther inward, where he found his guilt waiting for him. He had not known Rosie Forbes for very long, but war affected time as efficiently as a gravity well. Two days or twenty years… it didn't matter. Life grew more intense when you lived on the border of death. You met someone, and in your minds you got married, had kids, retired, and died—all in the span of a one- or two-day stand-down. So Maniac had shared a lifetime with Rosie during their two days. Then he had thrown it all away by believing that he had ultimate power and control over his life. The safe world, the just world, had died with her.
He no longer trusted anyone or anything. And he believed in nothing.
An alert call echoed from the intercom, but it seemed distant and unreal. He buried his head deeper in the pillow and stared across a black void until he saw two Dralthi detach themselves from their wing and fly toward him. He fired all guns and launched all missiles, but every round missed. To starboard, Rosie's bright eyes flashed a second before both Dralthi slammed into her fighter. He jerked up from the pillow, his body rocked by chills.
"Lieutenant? C'mon. Open the goddamned door. Lieutenant?"
Someone had been calling him. "Come," he said, and the hatch slid aside.
Deveraux wore a new flight suit and had a computer slate tucked under her arm. "I just came from a conversation with your doctor. He wants you off your feet. I think you can handle that—seated in a cockpit. Let's go. Time to suit up."
He pulled the blanket over his boxers. "Ma'am?"
"I need my best pilots out there."
"I don't know if I'm one of your best pilots."
Her face drew up in mild disgust. "Does everyone here think I go around making suggestions?"
"Then I guess I gave you an order. Be on the flight deck in five minutes." She turned to the hatch. "And do it for Rosie."
Deveraux left him floored. She had returned him to the duty roster, but more importantly, she had acknowledged the existence of a dead pilot. And that made Maniac suddenly want to live. To fight. He sprang from his bed, grimacing as the needles of pain dug in. He snatched up his flight suit and fumbled with the zipper. Now it seemed okay to smile through his tears.
From a position just inside the Diligent's loading hatch, Blair watched Commander Paul Gerald lead a squad of Marines up the ramp. Dressed in gray-and-red armored space suits and packing toy chests of anti-cat weaponry, the cocky jarheads appeared to have just blasted their way out of Hell's prison.
Scarred faces and hardened expressions testified that they had made the escape more than once.
The commander also wore armor, and his presence had Blair frowning. During the briefing, there had been no mention of his accompaniment. "What the hell is he doing here?"
"Let's find out," Taggart said.
As he reached the hatchway, Gerald eyed them contemptuously.
Mirroring the look, Taggart said, "I think you're on the wrong ship, Commander."
Gerald lifted a gloved index finger and aimed it at Taggart's nose. "I still have a responsibility to this crew, Commodore. And, excuse my bluntness, but if you think I'm going to let my men be flown into combat by a rogue and a half-breed, you're sadly mistaken." He pushed past them.
Taggart winked at Blair. "He's really a great guy once you get to know him."
Blair smiled tightly, then started toward the ramp. "I'll be right back."
"Two minutes, Lieutenant."
He jogged across the hangar, where he found Maniac in a Rapier, going over the loadout with his crew chief. "Hey."
"I wanted to talk to you after the briefing."
"Yeah, I had to get down here."
"How's the…" Blair rubbed his own waist.
"Good." He stared at his friend, and Maniac suddenly looked away.
"I'm all right, Chris. Really."
"I know you are."
"Then get out of here."
Blair smiled. "I'm gone." He dashed back toward the Diligent, circling around a fast-moving ordnance cart headed in Maniac's direction.
Inside the merchantman's hold, Blair found the Marines seated on both sides of the bulkhead, their rifles standing upright at their sides.
"Hey, Lieutenant?" a grunt seated near the back called. "Tell the commodore to hurry up. We're so wired we're gonna start shooting each other."
Blair cocked a brow. "I'll let him know."
He made it to the bridge and saluted Deveraux as she noticed him. He took a position behind Taggart, who manned the helm. Gerald sat beside the commodore in the co-pilot's chair, looking as thrilled as ever.
"That's a little big on you, Lieutenant," Deveraux said, studying his atmospheric suit. "Or you're a little too small for it." Though she still sounded glum, her teasing was a good sign. "If you'd like, I can take it off, ma'am." Blair wanted to pull back the words; his suggestion drew Taggart's stare, followed up quickly by Gerald's.
"Diligent. You're cleared to launch," Boss Raznick said through the comm.
Taggart looked back to his console. "Roger, control. External moorings and power detached. Internals powering."
Blair made a mental note to thank Raznick for his timing. He edged away from Deveraux to stand beside Taggart. The commodore took the merchantman past the now-open and repaired hangar doors. The ship rocked a little as it parted the energy curtain and skimmed over the dark runway. The crater's deep shadows fell off as they neared a trio of colossal asteroids. Taggart rotated ninety degrees to port so the Diligent's lines now formed with one asteroid's ragged ridgeline. The two Rapiers that ran escort hovered just below. Only a careful-eyed Kilrathi could spot them now.
"Passive radar engaged," Gerald said, his announcement punctuated by a faint beeping.
Taggart looked up, eyes distant as he interpreted the sound.
"We have the target."
"There she is," Blair said, pointing to the forward viewports.
A large ship glided overhead, her thrusters filling the bridge with a bright orange glow. As the glare abated, Blair thought he recognized her configuration. Two Dralthis flew at her sides.
"That's no destroyer," Deveraux said.
Blair went to the window for a closer look. "It's the ConCom ship we came up against."
"They'll spot our heat corona soon," Gerald said.
"They won't have the chance," Taggart corrected. "Blair. Man the Ion gun." He opened a channel to the Rapiers. "Marshall? Polanski? Hit it."
As Blair hurried off the bridge, he heard Gerald moaning about the Diligent not being a bomber, that they should not have come out flying only what was available. The techs had promised Gerald a Broadsword but had failed to deliver. For once, Blair agreed with the commander; however, the Diligent did boast a formidable weapons package, if not quad torpedoes. He climbed up into the gunner's domed nest, then buckled into his seat. The system automatically powered up, and he booted a pedal, swiveling 360 degrees in one fluid rotation. He took hold of the firing grips and got a feel for the ion cannon's range of motion, its barrel protruding about three meters from the transparent hemisphere. The asteroids and stars began wheeling around as the merchantman broke cover.
The ConCom ship veered away as the Rapiers chased after on full afterburners. Blair had flown enough missions with Maniac to recognize his friend's, well, maniacal flying style. Maniac performed a corkscrewing dive through a sleetstorm of fire, juked right, then hit one of the Dralthis with a rapid succession of expertly directed bolts that drummed shields to zero and quartered the fighter into sizzling sections.
"Yeah," Maniac shouted.
Polanski's Rapier overshot the second Dralthi, and his swearing crackled over the comm. The Dralthi tore after him, and Polanski led the enemy pilot on a torturous, laser-lit course through the rubble.
With reflexes hotwired to the battle, Maniac pulled into an eighty-degree climb, aiming for the Dralthi on Polanski's tail.
A radar screen superimposed on the Plexi bubble caught Blair's eye. He whirled to discover a pair of Dralthis rising from behind the moon. "Two more bogies at six o'clock." He squinted and opened up on one of the fighters. Charged atomic particles magnetically accelerated at high speeds pulsed from the gun.
The Dralthi swerved out of Blair's glowing bead and answered with a volley that thundered across the Diligent's shields. Blair cursed his unfamiliarity with the weapon. He should have had that bastard.
The ship jolted suddenly as Taggart increased throttle, bringing them up toward the larger ConCom ship. "Marines, to your stations," he ordered.
From below, Blair heard the Marines putting on their helmets, locking and loading their rifles, and gathering around the bay door. A sergeant's voice carried above the racket. "All right, sweethearts. If this dispersion doesn't go by the numbers, each of you will sacrifice a limb. Got it?"
"We got it, sir!"
"Hey, Sarge. Montauk says he'll sacrifice his—"
"As soon as you get in, go straight for the bridge," Taggart said. "We have to get control of that ship before they scuttle her."
Another Dralthi zoomed across Blair's sights. He pivoted to track the fighter and, grating his teeth, unloosed a barrage. The agile little ship darted to port, but Blair found it once more, this time locking on. An intense multicolored flash ended the cat's mission. "Yes!"
Now alongside the ConCom, the Diligent's docking umbilical began to extend. Blair watched it for a second, then swung around, wary of more contacts.
On the Diligent's bridge, Deveraux repressed a chill as the ship inched closer to the ConCom's wide upper deck.
"Their missiles are hot," Gerald said, reading his screen.
The news did not move her. "They can't use 'em now. We're too close."
"They're Kilrathi, Commander. They can do whatever the hell they want."
Before she could retort, a fighter dove into view, headed straight for the bridge.
"He's going to ram," Gerald cried.
From a twelve o'clock bird's-eye view, Maniac looked down on the Dralthi making a kamikaze run for the Diligent. A long-range image from his forward camera showed the pilot wearing an opaque helmet, the ship's bow reflected across its face. Too bad, Maniac thought. He wanted to glimpse the terror in the cat's eyes as he parted the starry heavens like Sivar incarnate. "Heads up, asshole."
Turbines wailed as Maniac bore down on the Dralthi in his own kamikaze run. He saw the pilot's head snap back and did the only natural thing: He flipped him the bird. Then the big barrel of his Rapier's nose sheared off the enemy fighter's cockpit as Maniac pulled four Gs to recover from the dive. He shot a look over his shoulder as the Dralthi did a pilotless jig cut short by the ConCom's stern.
Damage reports flashed in Maniac's VDUs. The Rapier handled sluggishly, but Maniac didn't care. "That's for you, Rosie."
He arced back toward the Diligent, whose umbilical now latched onto the ConCom. A few seconds later, the Kilrathi ship's hull turned pink as the umbilical's lasers began to cut through.
"Hey, Maniac? Form on my wing," Polanski ordered.
"And thanks for the assist."
"You're buying when we get back."
"You kidding? I already owe Shotglass a week's pay. I've run out of credit with him."
"Let me do the talking. I'm sure we can work out a mutually beneficial deal."
"I don't like the sound of that."
"You're a wise man, Polanski."
They drew close to the two ships and circled overhead.
Maniac fixed his gaze on his radar display. He did not trust the calm.