Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Twenty-Three

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Chapter Twenty-Three
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Book Wing Commander
Parts 3
Previous Chapter Twenty-Two
Next Chapter Twenty-Four


Dramatis Personae

Text

KILRATHI BATTLE GROUP

SNAKEIR-CLASS

CRUISER KIS

GRIST'AR'ROC

ULYSSES CORRIDOR

MARCH 17, 2654

1000 HOURS

ZULU TIME

3 HOURS FROM

CHARYBOIS QUASAR

JUMP POINT


Commander Ke'Soick looked toward the lift doors at the back of the bridge. Thiraka took the suggestion and moved cautiously away from his captain's station, eyes trained on Admiral Bokoth. The kalralahr stood at the forward viewport, contemplating the swirls and hues of the quasar. No one dared interrupt him. "Kal Shintahr," Ke'Soick whispered, standing near the doors and well out of Bokoth's earshot. "I want to kill him. Permit me the honor."

"No."

Ke'Soick's lips curled back. "Then his trust in the Pilgrim will kill us all."

"Easy, my friend. It won't come to that."

"You've let it come this far, haven't you? He's of your clan. You have much more to lose. I understand, Thiraka. So permit me the honor."

"I won't sacrifice you."

"There's no other way. We must be aggressive, decisive, and above all, ruthless. You should lead this battle group."

"But I won't lead it without you."

"Kal Shintahr?"

Thiraka glanced across the bridge. The admiral had turned from the viewport, his one eye panning the room. "Here, Kalralahr," Thiraka said. He hastened away from Ke'Soick and tensed as he arrived at the admiral's side.

"The whispering of young warriors troubles me," Bokoth said, resuming his study of the quasar. "As we grow older, our power shifts from muscle to mind. Does that shift weaken us? Hardly. But you don't believe that. You'd like to be rid of this old one who has taken over your ship and your battle group. Am I correct?"

Thiraka hesitated. "If I answer yes, I admit to treason. If I answer no, I call you a liar."

"And if you don't answer honestly, you will die where you stand."

Retreating a step, Thiraka said, "Your presence here undermines my authority. It reminds my crew that my own father doesn't trust me. And the loss of two destroyers and a dreadnought does little to—"

"I alone accept responsibility for those losses."

"You should have sent more ships," came a tinny voice from the shadows. The Pilgrim neared them, his face pale, his small lips quivering. "The Tiger Claw is alive and still a threat."

Bokoth flared at the traitor. "Go to the ConCom. Prepare the jump coordinates and transmit them to the fleet."

The human held his scowl a moment, the stormed off.

"What about the Tiger Claw?" Thiraka asked.

"We'll place the ConCom within range to find her." The admiral glanced at Thiraka. "You don't agree?"

"You serve the Emperor, Kalralahr. And I serve you." Thiraka bowed before his superior.

"That is no answer."

"For the moment, it is the only one I have."

* * *

The doctors in sickbay had done an excellent job of sealing Maniac's wounds, and they had instructed him to stay off his feet for forty-eight hours. Blair had guessed that Maniac would not last more than forty-eight minutes lying in bed. But once he had helped his friend back to their quarters, Maniac had fallen into a deep sleep, his body jerking as though the day's painful events were replaying in his subconscious.

Blair could have used some sleep himself, but too much had to be done. He returned to the flight deck, where he found pilots heading up their own maintenance teams. Three techs had already cleared the rubble from his Rapier, and while one sat in the cockpit, running diagnostics, the other two waved x-ray scanners over the fuselage, checking hull integrity.

Although Blair's Rapier had not sustained major damage, many of the other fighters and bombers, nearly one hundred in all, had fared far worse. Wings had been crushed, cockpits shattered, landing gear snapped off. Blair stared across the great sea of mangled metal and still had difficulty believing what had happened.

To his right, a dozen techs led by Deckmaster Peterson hung from four rolling cranes near the hangar doors. Bulkhead panels running parallel with the doors had been removed, exposing a complex network of hydraulic lines and electronic pumps. Peterson barked commands, demanded reports, and challenged his people with time limits.

After catching the attention of his crew chief, Blair started toward the woman. Then he shifted course as he spied Deveraux. She squatted near her fighter's portside landing skid and stared up into the runner's compartment.

"Angel?"

She emerged from under her fighter, eyes swollen, hair disheveled. "What is it, Lieutenant?"

"Can we stop the bullshit, please?" He had her attention. "I'm sorry about Forbes."

"Who?"

"Don't." He shook his head. "It's a shitty game, Angel. I tried to play it with Maniac, and you know what? It hurt. It's supposed to."

"You're the authority?"

"You don't forget the people you loved. They deserve more than that."

She closed her eyes. "What do you want?"

"Maybe I can help. Maybe we can help each other."

"I'm all out." She turned away.

"He was crazy about her."

"He was crazy about her?" She spun to face him, all woman, all fire. "She was my best friend. I loved her."

"You weren't alone. You know he blames himself for what happened."

"And so he should."

"His confidence is shot. He's questioning every move he made. He can't go back up in that condition. And right now, we need every pilot we have."

"That's right. But you expect me to put him back on the duty roster?"

"Just do the right thing."

"I'll think about it."

"Maybe you can talk to the others. Maniac's a good guy. And he's sorry, really sorry. There's no reason for anyone to hate him."

She drew in a long breath and seemed to consider that. With nothing left to say, Blair started for his fighter.

"Blair?"

He glanced back. "Yeah?"

"Thanks."

* * *

Commander Gerald sat in one of the carrier's conference rooms with Lieutenant Commander Obutu and Lieutenants Falk and Sasaki. Lieutenant Commander Deveraux blew into the room, the sleeves of her flight suit rolled up, her forearms stained. "Sorry I'm late, sir," she told Gerald, then plopped into a chair.

Gerald stood. "I'll get right to the point. Captain Sansky, despite being incapacitated, has resumed command of this ship. Confederation naval regulations permit him to do so as long as he remains conscious and rational. The captain is conscious, but he continues to trust Mr. Taggart."

"What the hell are you saying?" Deveraux asked.

"I specifically asked you to be here, Commander, so that I'd have a witness. This isn't a conspiracy to commit mutiny. All I'm asking is that you keep your eyes open. We didn't get our asses whacked because we're stupid. Someone's been feeding the Kilrathi our location. Maybe it's Taggart and the half-breed and maybe it isn't. I just need to know that when the shit goes down, you'll be there."

Falk and Sasaki nodded their compliance.

"Sir, I can alert Security," Obutu said. "They'll work quietly." "Very well. Monitor all communications. And we have a detail outside the ship doing hull repairs. I'd like surveillance there and at all other major repair sites."

Obutu tapped a command into the computer slate in front of him. "Done."

"Commander, if you think there's a saboteur on board and you'd like to react to that suspicion, then I'm all for a quiet little shakedown," Deveraux said. "But don't point fingers at Taggart, Blair, or Marshall. For God's sake, Paladin single-handedly took out that dreadnought. And Blair pulled him out of there. I'm not worried about Marshall. I'll bring him around myself."

"Yes, they're all great officers—or they're simply keeping their enemies close." A tone came from the messenger clipped onto Gerald's waist. He checked the note. "Well, our friends are back. Thank you for coming. Dismissed. And Deveraux? Your friend Mr. Taggart would like to see you on the bridge." She made a face and hurried out.

They took the lift together. Neither spoke. The lift hummed. Finally, Gerald broke down. "So how are you doing, Commander?"

"Sir?"

"How are you?"

She gave him an odd look. "I'm fine. And you?"

"Never mind."

Thankfully, the ride did not last long, and they stepped onto the bridge to find Taggart at the radar station, staring into noth-ingness as the telltale beep of an incoming ship grew louder.

Deveraux headed for the transparent wall of the radar screen. "What's out there? Another destroyer?"

"It doesn't matter," Gerald called after her. "We can't take another round of bombardment."

Her expression grew hard, meant for him and Taggart. "I have four Rapiers ready to go. We'll go down kicking and screaming."

"We'll do better than that, Angel," Taggart said. "That ship up there is going to save our assess."