Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty-Nine

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Chapter Twenty-Nine
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 9
Previous Chapter Twenty-Eight
Next Chapter Thirty


Dramatis Personae

Text

KILRATHI BATTLE GROUP

SNAKEIR-CLASS

CRUISER KIS GRIST'AR'ROC

ULYSSES CORRIDOR

MARCH 17, 2654

1259 HOURS

ZULU TIME

1 MINUTE FROM

CHARYBOIS QUASAR

JUMP POINT


Admiral Bokoth's plans, based on an unholy pact between himself and a now-dead Pilgrim, were falling apart before him.

But Captain Thiraka would not wave his prior reservations in the admiral's face. He delivered his report meekly, comfortable with the knowledge that the admiral's next error would be his last. Commander Ke'Soick's fingers itched with the desire to murder Bokoth, and Thiraka would permit his shintahr that honor now. Thiraka would sacrifice the life of a dear friend for the preservation of the Empire. As agonizing as it was to lose Ke'Soick—who would be executed for the admiral's murder—Thiraka had come to see the truth and the honor in disposing of Bokoth. He bowed before the old one. "Kalralahr. A manned Confederation fighter is approaching the quasar with its jump drive engaged. We're not in position to intercept."

"A fighter?" Bokoth asked, turning in the command chair.

"Using what coordinates?"

"Apparently the right ones, sir. The ship is on course."

Bokoth's good eye bulged. "He's going to warn the Confed fleet of our jump coordinates. Follow him. Instruct all ships to mark our course but follow original coordinates through.

Sixty-second intervals."

"As you wish. But I should remind you that our enemy is capable of jumping gravity wells, pulsars, and now a quasar. They must have Pilgrims among them. If the Tiger Claw is not destroyed, I believe she will jump behind our fleet."

"If she does, then I'll have three destroyers from the fleet waiting for her. Satisfied?"

"Only with victory, Kalralahr. Only with victory." Thiraka nodded and stepped away. He gave the new orders to the helm, then stood beside Ke'Soick.

"Now?" the commander asked.

"I agree with his orders," Thiraka said. "We'll wait until after the jump. But don't worry, my friend. You'll have your chance."

* * *

Gerald did a double-take as he watched the Kilrathi cruiser turn hard to port, away from the Tiger Claw. "Mr. Falk?"

"She's changing course, sir."

"Why?"

"Frankly, sir, I'm not sure."

"Mr. Gerald," Taggart said. "Prepare to lower our shield.

Starboard missile battery prepare to fire."

After setting the shield to perform a flash shutdown, Gerald discovered an error in Taggart's order. "Sir, missile guidance systems won't activate at this range."

"They won't need to. Arm warheads."

* * *

In the Secondary Ordnance room, Spaceman Ashley Galaway rushed down her line of torpedoes, typing in arming codes on each missile's control panel.

When she finished, she looked across the room at a cocky, good-looking ghost who smiled back.

* * *

Boss Raznick slammed down his computer slate and opened up the deck wide intercom. "Peterson? Why has my flight deck not been policed? Why am I looking at tools all over my runway? Why is my flight deck not one hundred percent battle-ready?"

"I don't know, sir. But I'm on it, sir. Flight crews? Get your unprofessional butts over here. Now!"

* * *

So many concussions rumbled through Blair's Rapier that he swore he now plunged into an atmosphere, a degree shy of burning up. To call the vibration infernal was to appreciate it only as a spectator.

"Merlin?" he shouted, warping the computer's name.

"Velocity?"

"Light speed mach-point-eight-two," the little man responded, his voice as shaky as Blair's. "Twenty seconds to jump. Can you do it?"

"Only one way to find out."

When Blair had plotted the course through Scylla, he had closed his eyes, fingered the touchpad, and played a song of coordinates written at the subatomic level. He had obeyed the feeling and felt the need to surrender to it now. "Computer. Switch to voice recognition and prepare to plot course."

"Acknowledged. System ready."

He reached out with his mind, with his body, into the quasar, feeling his way through a transparent maze of gravity and magnetic fields. Then he pictured the correct trajectory, a star-rich vortex yawning open. "Coordinates: one-seven-two-nine-four mark three-three-four-eight. Vector: four-four-two-seven-one. Angle of attack: six-three-nine-five-six-one by three-two-four-nine."

"First set of coordinates plotted. Warning. Deviation in jump course found. Do you wish to adjust course?"

"Ignore deviation. Maintain speed and heading."

* * *

The Tiger Claw convulsed as the Kilrathi cruiser came abreast, its cannons spewing thousands of bolts that struck and irresistibly weakened her shields. The two great ships would soon pass each other, headed in opposite directions.

Gerald buckled into his seat, seeking assurance in his torpedo status display. "Commodore. Four tubes loaded and online. Warheads armed. Range of target: four hundred and six meters and closing."

Taggart sat in the command chair, his expression of quiet intensity reminiscent of Captain Sansky during battle. He clutched his armrests and leaned toward the Kilrathi cruiser, as though he would leap at it himself. "Lower shields. Give 'em a broadside, Mr. Gerald."

"Fire all batteries!" Gerald cried.

"Aye-aye. Fire all batteries," came the reply from the starboard ordnance room.

Kilrathi cannon fire hammered the unshielded cruiser in rumbling waves, but Gerald ignored it, focusing on the four torpedoes. Three lanced through the cruiser's shield to impact on its hull, ravaging portside batteries and a launch bay in an impressive conflagration. The fourth torpedo found the ship's bridge and severed the entire superstructure from the hull in a cascade of detonations.

As the cruiser yawed, a dozen of the Claw's guided missiles burrowed into her hull, stopped short somewhere inside the ship, then exploded. Fiery light filtered through the ruptures.

"Commodore," Falk said. "Two fighters have broken through our wing. One has targeted ion engine control. If he scores a direct hit, we'll lose all propulsion."

"Where are our fighters?" Taggart demanded.

Falk grimaced. "They're being swarmed."

* * *

"Hey, Maniac? Where the hell are you going? Don't leave my wing!" Polanski shouted.

Maniac continued in his eighty-degree dive to escape the raging furball over the cap ships. "Two Krants broke loose. They're after the Claw. Now don't leave my wing!"

"I'm with you, buddy."

The blue blip that was Polanski's Rapier slid onto Maniac's radar display. "Take the one going for the bridge. I'll get the other."

"Dammit, he's really moving," Polanski said.

"Get him, man! Get him!"

Jamming the stick back, Maniac pulled out of his dive and streaked toward the carrier's stern. He targeted the Krant swooping down on the Claw, and his VDU showed that the bastard had missile lock. Maniac hollered his war cry and issued last rites to the cat with Neutron guns. Once a fighter, the Krant blew into a flaming trail that cut through Maniac's path. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," he muttered, going inverted.

Showers of burning fuel doused the Rapier's belly. He angled away, and the last of the fuel burned off.

From his new vantage point, Maniac saw that the Tiger Claw glided alongside the cruiser at point-blank range. "And they say I'm crazy."

A flash at his port quarter gained his attention. Polanski's Rapier cut a jagged line across the heavens. "That's six kills today, Maniac. You won't top me."

"Oh, no?" Maniac pinned the throttle and went ballistic. The horde of fighters rushed toward him.

"Hey, don't do anything reckless," Polanski warned. "Not without me."

* * *

Obutu actually grinned as he looked up from his console. "Commander. The cruiser has lost guidance and propulsion. Life support failing. We got her, sir."

As the bridge crew whooped and cheered, Gerald unbuckled and went to the viewport. The cruiser's stern floated ahead, fires still flashing behind breaches and portholes. Were she a seafaring vessel, she would be capsized and ringed in foam. As it was, she plunged into the void, expelling gas and fluids and sloughing off scorched and twisted plates of plastisteel.

"Clearing the cruiser," Obutu said. "The destroyer has moved out of range."

Taggart left his command chair. "Not bad for a rogue, eh?" he asked, coming toward Gerald.

"Sir, you have to understand that I was putting the safety of this ship and her crew—"

"Relax," Taggart said, backhanding sweat from his brow.

"You don't surrender your trust to just anyone. Know what? Neither do I."

* * *

The jump drive shrieked, and the rattle had become an indistinct noise that made it nearly impossible to concentrate.

"Second set of coordinates at four-seven-five-five-three-nine-nine," Blair shouted.

"Warning. Course deviation. Do you wish to—"

"Hell, no. Stay on course."

"Five seconds," Merlin reported. "Four, three, two—"

The striped vortex winked out of existence.

"Mother?"

"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."

"Why?"

"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."

"Wait. We've had this conversation before. This has already happened."

"No, it hasn't. But it will."

"I don't understand."

"You don't need to."

"Where are you going? We have to talk! I need to know—"

Thunder overpowered his words, and the harness dug into his shoulders. His head fell forward, then ripped back. Star lines whirled, grew shorter, coalesced into points as the jump drive disengaged with a whine. The faint stench of heated metal permeated his O2 flow. He shook his head to clear the mental gossamers of the gravity field, then squinted at the stars and knew, knew with his eyes and with his blood, that he was on the perimeter of the Sol system. "We did it," he muttered. "We did it!" He patted the canopy. "I love this baby. She held together."

"I'm not sure I did," Merlin moaned.

Blair quickly dialed up a secure Confederation channel on his comm system. "This is Lieutenant Christopher Blair of the TCS Tiger Claw calling any Confed ship. A Kilrathi battle group has the Chary bdis jump coordinates. They'll breech at one-six-seven mark eight-eight-nine, Sol system. Do you read?" Only static replied.

"Merlin. Check your frequencies for signs of the fleet."

"Nothing… Wait a minute. Check behind us."

"Behind us?"

The still and silent void exploded in a terrific white orb spanned by phosphorescent webs of energy. Out of the orb surfaced a colossal vessel whose copper-colored hull and sharp angles betrayed it as a—

"Kilrathi capital ship," Merlin said gravely. "Snakeir-class."

Blair pounded the instrument panel. "Shit! We're too late."