Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty-Seven

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Chapter Twenty-Seven
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 2
Previous Chapter Twenty-Six
Next Chapter Twenty-Eight


Dramatis Personae

Text

UNITED

CONFEDERATION

CARRIER TIGER CLAW

ULYSSES CORRIDOR

MARCH 17, 2654

1200 HOURS

ZULU TIME

1 HOURS FROM

CHARYBOIS QUASAR

JUMP POINT


"Hey, Blair. What happened to you out there? One minute you're manning the Ion cannon, the next you're gone. Not that Polanski and I needed your help, but it's nice to know your ass'll be covered in a clutch."

Blair sat on his bunk, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands.

"I didn't mean to make you cry…"

He made a face at Maniac, who lay bare-chested on his bunk, scratching at his bandages. "C'mon, Chris. What's up?"

"In a couple of minutes, Gerald's going to announce that Captain Sansky is dead. He might even mention how Sansky betrayed the Confederation. Hell, he betrayed humanity."

"You're shitting."

"Wish I were. I think Sansky was a Pilgrim. At the least, a Pilgrim sympathizer."

"So that's why you're bummed. Well, you've been wanting to find out more about the Pilgrims. Satisfied?"

Blair shot to his feet and unzipped his flight suit. Leaving a trail of clothes, he headed into the shower. As the hot spray warmed and loosened his aching muscles, he closed his eyes and wondered if his mother had engaged in anything as terrible as Sansky and Wilson.

"Hey, Chris?" Maniac called. "I'm sorry, man. Really."

Without answering, Blair grabbed a bar of soap and a washcloth.

He needed to get clean.

* * *

By the time Blair finished his shower, Maniac had already changed and left. He had probably headed down to the rec to get that drink Polanski owed him. Thankful for the solitude, Blair stood in his towel and reached instinctively for his cross, feeling only the chain. He panicked for a moment, then slumped in resignation as he remembered where he had left it.

Was its loss another omen that he should not explore his roots? Maybe. But he knew he would never abandon that goal no matter how much pain it caused. Not knowing hurt more.

He padded to where he had dropped his clothes and dug out Admiral Tolwyn's ring from a pocket. He needed to give it to Taggart, who could return it to the admiral.

After donning a new flight suit, he made sure to place the ring in his breast pocket. He wished now he could keep it, a new symbol of who he might become.

But the ring had to go back.

Blair felt a distinct jolt as he stepped onto the bridge. The Tiger Claw ascended, and the shadows folded back to expose the pockmarked and grooved surface of the crater's wall.

Lieutenant Commander Obutu lay on his back, assisting a tech with repairs on the portside observation station. The other officers stared determinedly at their screens, uttering reports into headsets.

"I heard about your business," Deveraux said, meeting him at the rail. "Gerald's not going to inform the crew until we're dead or out of this. He's breaking regs, but he's right. We have to keep morale high, speaking of which, how's yours?"

"I'm all right."

"Wow. Very convincing."

"I'll be all right. Soon. Maybe."

"At least now you're honest."

He gestured toward Taggart, who stood behind Gerald's command chair. "I need to speak with him." Deveraux released him with a nod, and he crossed to stand at attention beside Taggart. "Sir, I have something for you." He fished out Tolwyn's ring.

Taggart grinned at the sight, then shook his head as Blair offered it to him. "Keep it for now. We get out of this, you can return it yourself."

"Thank you, sir."

"Have you ever met the admiral?"

"No, I haven't."

"I'm sure you'll find the experience… memorable."

"Yes, sir."

"We're clear of the crater," the helmsman abruptly reported.

"Very well," Gerald said. "Mr. Obutu. Prepare a drone. Input the Kilrathi jump coordinates. Send it through the Charybdis Quasar to Admiral Tolwyn."

"Aye-aye, sir." Obutu slid out from beneath the observation station.

Gerald glanced back to Taggart. "They should be able to target the exact location of the Kilrathi jump entry. It'll be over before they can get their weapons online."

"If Tolwyn's there, Mr. Gerald. If he's there."

Out of the corner of his eye, Blair saw Mr. Obutu smite his fist on a touchpad. The radar and comm officers gathered around him, and all three murmured excitedly.

Finally, Obutu spun to face Gerald. "Sir, we have a problem. All communications and decoy drones are off-line. Executive override."

"Sansky," Gerald said as though swearing. "Without those coordinates, Tolwyn doesn't have a chance—and we're too big to slip past the Kilrathi and warn the fleet."

Taggart gave Blair an appraising glance, then said, "We'll have to send a fighter through."

"Impossible," Gerald argued. "There are over a thousand singularities in that quasar. To jump it would be suicide without NAVCOM coordinates."

"We don't need a NAVCOM, Mr. Gerald." Taggart placed a hand on Blair's shoulder. "Lieutenant, you will navigate the quasar. Lieutenant Commander Deveraux will follow your lead."

Stunned by the order, Blair's voice cracked. "It's statistically impossible, sir."

The commodore tightened his grip. "We don't have another option." His voice lowered to a near whisper. "You have the gift."

Blair slid out of Taggart's hold and looked to the deck, reaching for his phantom cross. "I don't have the faith."

"It's not faith," Taggart said, coming up behind him. "It's genetics. It's the capacity to feel magnetic fields. But if you believe you need faith—* He circled in front, reached into his tunic, and withdrew a Pilgrim cross. "Here. Take mine."

Awestruck, Blair took the cross, then gazed curiously at its owner. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Taggart cocked a brow. "You didn't ask."

The reverence in Taggart's eyes when he had examined Blair's cross and the pain he suffered when speaking of the Pilgrims were now clear. But how had he come to fight for the Confederation? Blair hoped he lived long enough to find out. He attached the cross to his own chain, then thought better of tucking it under his flight suit. People should see it. People needed to see it.

"Long-range scanners are picking up Kilrathi ships, sir," Obutu told Gerald. "Looks like a destroyer and a cruiser."

"Mr. Blair. Can you do it?" Gerald asked.

"I think so, sir."

"Not good enough, Lieutenant!"

"Sir, I can do it, sir!"

"Very well. I'll have the Kilrathi jump coordinates transferred to your Rapier and copied to Deveraux's. We'll create the diversion. Just get those coordinates to Tolwyn." "Aye-aye, sir." Blair quickly exited the bridge, and Deveraux joined him in the lift.

"I guess we're in for a wild ride," she said.

"You don't have to come. I can get Maniac to fly my wing. He's brave and stupid enough."

"And I'm not?

"You're smart, Angel. Very smart. That's why everyone respects you."

"I'd like to believe that."

"You should."

"Well, in any event, I'm coming along. Commodore's orders.

And you can't change my mind."

"Then I'm honored to fly with you, ma'am." He eyed her sternly. "Just don't get me killed."

Men sacrificed themselves over a smile like hers. Blair would be no exception.

As Deveraux hurried off toward her fighter, Blair continued along the flight line. The order had come down from the bridge to prep two Rapiers, followed by a second order for battle stations. Flight crews jogged to Rapiers and Broadswords, finished hasty repairs, and criss-crossed the hangar in ordnance carts. The energy created by them struck and excited Blair. He saw Polanski, Hunter, and Maniac in the throes of preflighting their fighters. He thought of saying good-bye to Maniac, but his friend seemed too busy for the interruption. Ahead, his own flight crew swarmed his Rapier, and he quickened his pace, wanting to lend them a hand.

"Pilgrim," a familiar man called out.

Blair craned his head as Hunter came toward him. I don't need this now, he thought. Why can't this bastard just let it go?

Blair held his ground, muscles growing tighter with Hunter's every step.

"I heard what you did on that Kilrathi ship," the big Aussie said. "We all heard. I was wrong." He extended a hand.

Trying to hide his feeling of relief, Blair took the hand and give the pilot his firmest shake.

"Good luck." Hunter ambled back to his Rapier.

As Blair turned, he found Maniac standing in his path. "You trying to sneak out and die without me knowing?"

"I—"

"Unh-uh, don't say anything. I want to remember your pretty face just like this. See you on the other side, bro." He banged fists with Blair, then winked and dashed off.

The bellow of firing turbines seized the flight deck as he reached his fighter. She had waited faithfully for him, and Blair ran fingers along her fuselage. One last hurrah, old lady. That's all I ask. With the crew already finished, he settled into the cockpit as the commotion outside came to a crescendo.

"Somebody said you're going to navigate the quasar, sir," his crew chief shouted, her short blond hair tossed by thruster wash. "Is that true?"

"How did you hear?"

"I just did. Is it true?"

He nodded. "Wanna come?"

"Sure. But I got nothing to wear." She slipped under the Rapier and emerged on the starboard side to lift a thumbs-up.

"That's a nice loadout." Then she stared wistfully at him, as though he were already dead.

Blair returned a tight smile and a thumbs-up, then tapped a switch, lowering the canopy. He broke external moorings and routinely performed the rest of his preparations, despite the growing lump in his throat.

Within sixty seconds the deckmaster waved him into position for launch. He saluted, got clearance from Raznick, and for the first time in his military career felt uneasy about punching his thrusters. The Rapier accelerated through the energy curtain and over the runway. He flipped on his VDU and watched the Tiger Claw shrink into the vast tableau. Deveraux formed on his wing and sent him the order to maintain radio silence as they entered the asteroid belt.

He glanced down at Taggart's cross, which had turned onto its back. He noticed an inscription and lifted the cross to read it:

TO JAMES

REMEMBER LOVE ACROSS THE DISTANCE

REMEMBER ME

AMITY

He turned over the cross and whispered, "Well, Amity, I think he does."