Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty-One

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Chapter Twenty-One
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 4
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Dramatis Personae

Text

UNITED

CONFEDERATION

CARRIER TIGER CLAW

ULYSSES CORRIDOR

MARCH 17, 2654

0800 HOURS

ZULU TIME

5 HOURS FROM

CHARYBOIS QUASAR

JUMP POINT


Captain Sansky had sustained a concussion from the blow to his head. And worse, on his way to sickbay, he had suffered an acute myocardial infarction that had rendered him unconscious. Commander Gerald now assumed command of the Tiger Claw. No stranger to the job, Gerald threw himself wholeheartedly into the challenge. Without Sansky's interference, he felt certain he could save the carrier from another onslaught, one that would surely finish her.

During the attack, Sansky had seemed strangely remote and indecisive.

The Jay Sansky Gerald knew would have led them headfirst into the fray while barking orders and inspiring his officers to find an inner strength they never knew they possessed.

But the old man had shut down, and Gerald refused to believe that fear had caused that. In combat, fear could turn a man's mind to water that would pour out of his ears. No, something else troubled the captain, and the captain's preoccupation left Gerald uneasy.

As he focused on the images coming in from the Claw's tactical scanners that were being displayed on the helmsman's console, he cleared his mind of everything but the task at hand: finding cover from the Kilrathi battle group headed toward them.

Pictures from the Jovian-like planet's second moon revealed a string of deep craters, one of them large enough to conceal the carrier. "There," Gerald said, pointing at the screen. "Put her down there."

The helmsman touched a key, locked in the course, and the carrier lurched forward. For a moment, Gerald looked to Falk, Sasaki, and Obutu, seeking approval in their expressions. All were too busy with their jobs, performing them admirably despite their exhaustion.

Once the carrier had glided over the crater, the helmsman lowered her into the shadows of the north wall.

"I think it's time for that power-down, Mr. Obutu," Gerald said.

"No problem, sir. Most of our systems are down anyway."

Gerald spared a smile over that irony. "Is the decoy ready?"

"Yes, sir."

"Very well. Launch the decoy."

"Launch the decoy. Aye-aye, sir."

After a thump, the decoy blasted away from the carrier. Gerald tracked its progress on a monitor. Long antennae extended from its circular hull, while a pair of dishes began rotating. The drone slowed a moment to compute its bearings, then fired thrusters and aimed for the Jovian-like planet's ring system.

Gerald turned his head at the approach of Taggart and Deveraux. He noted a hint of surprise in their expressions as the bridge lights faded, then winked out.

"Decoy away, Commander," Obutu reported. "Systems nominal. She has a bigger electronic signature than the Concordia. I think she'll fool them, sir."

"I hope you're right. Secure all active scanners. Passive systems only."

He dropped into the captain's chair and looked up to a bank of scanners above the forward viewport.

The first moon hung in the right corner of one display, and as Gerald studied it, he noticed tiny fluctuations in its glow. Then part of that glow seemed to burn off and materialize into brilliant dots. One after another the moon shed those dots, and they spread into a triangular formation.

"There," Obutu said. "The Kilrathi battle group."

Rapt by the image, Gerald felt his mouth falling open. Never had he been so close to so many Kilrathi ships. They stood at the eye of a sleeping giant.

"They've missed us," Mr. Falk said anxiously from his radar screen. He smiled broadly. "They're following the decoy."

The crew cheered. Even Gerald mouthed a "Yes!"

"Quiet!" Taggart shouted, startling everyone back into silence.

From that silence rose a steady beeping from one of Falk's passive radar detectors.

"I know that signature," Taggart said, charging toward the radar station. "It's a destroyer… hunting for us."

As if on cue, the beeping increased in pitch and rhythm. Falk's eyes bugged out. "They've spotted us!"

"No," Taggart said, his gaze shifting from the radar screen to the bank of scanners behind it. "We're still close enough to the radiation belt. Gamma rays are clouding their screens. If they don't see us, they won't find us."

Gerald found cold comfort in Taggart's assurance as the beeping grew more insistent. Out of habit, he swung his chair toward Mr. Falk, about to demand the destroyer's position.

However, with the scanners down they were blind. He swung the chair back, then the deck lifted sharply.

"Did you feel that?" Deveraux asked, shifting to his side. His chair shook as another vibration passed under the ship. He gritted his teeth and puffed air. "Shit. They're nuking every crater. Methodical bastards."

As though they had heard the insult, the Kilrathi released another bomb, whose shock wave rumbled through the carrier like a thousand ancient cavalrymen.

"The next one will hit us," Deveraux said.

"Or it won't," he countered. "We're not moving."

Taggart placed his hand on Deveraux's shoulder and gently eased her back. "Mr. Gerald is right, Commander. We're not moving."

"They've launched again," Falk shouted. "Here it comes."

* * *

Although Boss Raznick's voice continued to blare over the intercom, Specialist Justin Jones ignored him. He knew his job, had assessed the situation, and didn't need the old man breathing down his neck. The Kilrathi were launching nukes nearby and everything in the flight hangar needed to be secure. Simple math. Rocket science not required.

Jones knew that Olivia felt the same and would back him up, so long as he didn't vanish on one of his treks to the latrine. But Jones could make no promises.

He double-checked the moorings on a Rapier with heavily damaged landing skids, got the signal from Olivia to move on— Then felt the deck drop away from his boots. He fell onto his side as a deafening screech resounded from the bulkheads. The dozens of bombers and fighters surrounding him convulsed as the tremor worked its way farther into the ship. A few taut cables securing fighters to the deck popped free and whipped over fuselages. The wire Jones had just checked snapped, as did the one near Olivia, who shouted something, but a creaking noise drowned him out.

Jones looked over his shoulder and saw the Rapier coming down on him. Astonished, he thought, I'm not gonna make it. He raised his hands in reflex, in a vain effort to stop the fighter, and in surrender to his fate.

* * *

Rodriguez clung to the bulkhead as the temblor paid an unwelcome visit to his Secondary Ordnance room. It seemed odd that alarms did not accompany the quake, but nearly all of his systems had been shut down. Were they online, he would have noticed that tube integrity had been compromised in station number four. The only notice he received came in the form of a sudden rush of air that dragged Spaceman Taesha Douglas across the room, up the bulkhead, and into the tube. She died without time to scream.

Ashley Galaway rushed toward the hatchway, and Rodriguez pounded his fist on the emergency hatch control, sealing himself inside the ordnance room. He could see Ashley's pleading eyes through the hatch's window. She pounded on the durasteel, pointed at the control, screamed for him to open the door.

But Rodriguez could no longer hear her. The lack of oxygen made him grow faint, and his fingers slipped free of the conduit he had been gripping. He felt his legs being forced into the tube. His vision grew dark around the edges.

Miguel Rodriguez knew he was going to die, and that was okay. He had saved the ship from a major breech. But he wished he could bargain for one more hour to spend with Ashley. He could already hear the melodies of salsa, carried on the wind.

* * *

After Maniac had fled the hangar, Blair had tried to smooth things over with Hunter and Polanski. But after being cursed at by a jock who called himself "Maniac," a jock who had disobeyed orders, and a jock who they deemed responsible for the death of their unofficial leader, the two had simply walked away. And Blair had known better than to press the issue. He had left them to go after Maniac and had returned to the hangar, where he had, ironically, found Maniac seated in his Rapier. Then the Kilrathi had begun nuking the moon, and more death had fallen upon the Tiger Claw.

Now, as Blair picked himself off the deck, a whistling sound had him eyeing the bulkhead, the overhead, and the fighters that had collapsed or collided with each other. He shot a look to Maniac, who had left his fighter to squat near the lift doors and stare blankly at the chaos. Even the sight of two men being crushed by a Rapier had not drawn a reaction from him.

Blair turned his attention to Deckmaster Peterson, who came sprinting by.

"What's that sound?"

Peterson froze, and his head slowly tilted back as he took in the massive hangar bay doors. "Oh my God," he mumbled. Then the electricity of the moment struck him. He whirled around and shouted to his crew. "The door seal is failing! Boss? Activate the energy curtain!"

"Can't do that," Raznick said over the intercom. "The cats are just outside. They'll pick up the surge."

"Damn it." Peterson looked very much alone, despite the three techs who now surrounded him. "All right, all right! Grab anything that will seal it. Now!"

As the techs scattered, Blair quickly scanned the deck and spotted a Rapier's detached wing laying amid several toppled tool carts. He bolted across the deck, rounded one of the hangar's columns, then kicked power tools off of the wing. Seizing one end, he tried to lift it. "Hey! Over here! Someone help me."

Peterson answered the call and grabbed the wing's opposite end as the whistling grew louder and lower in pitch. Styrofoam cups, paper, pens, and anything else lighter than a kilo or so flew toward the widening breech in the doors. Peterson lost his grip on the wing, and it dropped to his hip. He began shaking his head, ready to give up.

"Come on!" Blair urged him. "We can do it!"

With a guttural hiss, Peterson took up the wing once more. They hauled it closer to the doors, and Blair realized that the only thing keeping them anchored to the floor now was the wing's weight.

Out of nowhere, something struck his skull, knocking him off the wing. He fell onto his back and got caught in the gale of escaping atmosphere, dragged feet-first toward the buckling, yawning doors. He spread his arms and palmed the deck in a futile effort to slow himself.

Techs shouted, their voices whisked away by the tornado-like roar. More debris struck the doors with the rat-tat-tat of an automatic weapon.

Blair's hands stung from the building heat, and rubber burned off his heels as he dug them in for support.

He came up on a mooring rung that jutted from the deck. He reached for it. Missed. Another passed before he had time to react. A third rushed up and he reached for it, extending his arm until the pain brought tears and fingers touched, slid over, and clutched the metal. Jerked hard by the sudden stop and feeling as though his arm would rip from the socket, Blair rolled onto his stomach and gripped the rung with both hands. His cheeks rippled as the wind lifted him from the deck, and he began flapping like a flag in a hurricane.

He could see the others now, far ahead, watching in stunned fascination. Maniac stood. Hunter lingered behind. Peterson kept his grip on the wing as two techs joined him.

Then Maniac did something surprising. He turned to the others and shouted, "You sons of bitches just going to watch him die?" He raced to the bomber behind him, retrieved a broken piece of mooring cable, then fastened it around his waist. He jabbed the other end in Hunter's hand, saying, "Secure this."

And if Maniac were afraid, no evidence reached his face. He seemed angry, enraged even, as he started forward. The doors abruptly parted a quarter-meter, and the increased suction yanked him off his feet. He flew headlong at Blair, his crimson flight suit ruffling like fanned flames.

Then he jerked to a halt, dangling just a meter away, the cable cinching so tightly around his waist that Blair swore it would cut him in two. He swallowed a scream, turned back and seized the cable with one hand, then waved to the others for more slack. He rappelled down the deck like a rock climber until the cable stopped coming. He waved for more. Hunter shook his head. Maniac turned back, released the cable, then, hanging only by his waist, thrust out his hands. "Grab on!"

Blair took one hand off the rung and screamed as he tried to reach his friend. Maniac jerked himself a little closer, crying out as the cable dug deeper into his waist. He seized Blair's wrist with both hands, then looked back to Hunter and the others bracing the line. "Come on!"

Something wet spattered in Blair's eye as the cable jerked and he felt himself moving away from the doors. Another droplet struck his cheek. Then another. He spotted a dark stain forming around Maniac's waist. He called his friend's name to no response. He called again. And again.

Meanwhile, Peterson and the other techs hoisted the wing upright, and, anchoring themselves to the deck, eased it toward the doors. Blair caught sight of the wing suddenly flying through the air to slap across the gap with a terrific thud. The timpani roll of rushing air fell off into the soft simmer of a tea kettle.

And while that comforted him, he and Maniac suddenly found themselves gunned down and dropping to the deck. Blair belly-flopped and lost his breath. Maniac struck his shoulder and gave a half-strangled cry.

As Blair sat up, a service vehicle trundled by, a tech standing in its turret behind a sealant gun with a barrel nearly two meters long. The truck stopped short at the doors, and the tech sprayed his viscous containment foam over the wing and the gaps above and below it. The foam quickly hardened into a solid mass, sealing off the leak.

Blair gazed over at Maniac, who lay inert on his back. He crawled over and untied the cable from Maniac's waist, exposing torn fabric and bloody flesh.

Grabbing Blair's arm, Maniac lifted himself up, then rose shakily to his feet. "What are you going to do when I'm not around to watch your ass?"

"Save your energy."

Maniac's eyes rolled back for a second, and he dropped to his knees.

Blair rushed behind him, and Maniac fell into his lap. Blair's gaze swept over the hangar. "Medic!"

Then Maniac stirred. "It's my fault. She would've come back in, Blair."

"She knew what she was doing."

"I should have protected her."

"Forbes was a fighter pilot in a war zone," he said in a tone so cold that it shocked him. "She didn't need any protection from anybody. She's dead. And that's that."

"How can you be so—" Maniac's eyelids fluttered, and his head fell slack.

"Medic! Medic!"