Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter Two

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Chapter Two
Book Wing Commander
Parts 1
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Dramatis Personae




MARCH 15, 2654

2130 HOURS





After graduating from the Terran Confederation Space Naval Academy on Hilthros just a month earlier, First Lieutenant Christopher Blair had entertained a number of fantasies concerning his first non-training assignment. He, like many of the other fledgling pilots, had put himself on great carriers like the Concordia or cruisers like the Waterloo. Some of Blair's classmates had actually been awarded those prestigious assignments, much to his jealousy and chagrin, because for a month he had been shuffled around, leading him to believe that his superiors could not find him a home. He had served a brief, thirty-hour stint on the destroyer Gilgamesh before being ferried back to the academy. The commandant had asked him to give several testimonial speeches to the new classes. But Blair felt that his wisdom had fallen on the deaf ears of bright-eyed baby birds too excited to listen, their hearts pounding at the thought of strapping on starfighters and hauling their particular asses across the cosmos. But Blair couldn't blame them. He had behaved the same way when graduates had come to speak to his freshman class.

Christopher Blair needed a home. And at last they had given him one: the TCS Tiger Claw, the largest carrier in her class, with a crew of over 750. Less than two minutes after receiving word of the assignment, Bla,?ir had voice-activated his Portable Personal Computer, a fingernail-sized device embedded in his wrist, to learn more about the carrier's service record.

In 2642 the Confederation military command had authorized the design of the Bengal-class carrier line, and by 2644 the Tiger Claw launched for her shakedown cruise with a minimal space crew and inexperienced command. She ran headlong into a Kilrathi invasion force. With clever tactics her crew managed to suppress the superior force. Shortly thereafter, Vega sector became the carrier's permanent assignment.

During 2649, the Claw performed a delaying action to allow Confed transports to retreat out of Kilrathi-occupied space. The engagement, subsequently known as Custer's Carnival, concluded with the ship badly damaged but able to return home. She lay in spacedock undergoing repairs and refitting until early 2050. Veteran crewers swore the old girl never fully recovered from that mission, that battle damage still haunted the deepest regions of her hull.

Besides hearing about the Tiger Claw's history, Blair had wanted to review the personnel roster, but that access had been denied, since his computer account had not yet existed. No matter. He would meet his fellow officers soon enough.

Now he lay sprawled out and bare-chested on his rickety bunk in one of the Diligent's tiny cabins. Exposed conduits spanned the ceiling like rubber and durasteel cobwebs. Even the standard cot-and-locker arrangements aboard carriers afforded more living space. And their crews actually kept the floors clean and addressed problems such as foul-smelling mattresses, two items clearly overlooked on the Diligent.

Trying to ignore the uncomfortable surroundings, Blair fixed his gaze on a hard copy of Claw Marks, the onboard magazine of the TCS Tiger Claw, a gift from one of his flight instructors. As he read the latest news from the Terran Confederation Armed Forces CommNet, he absently touched the four-inch-long silver cross hanging around his neck. He let his fingers play over the strange symbol carved into its center. Resembling the old Earth scales of justice, the symbol stood on a circular gold background with three points of silver radiating from it to support a semicircle also trimmed in gold. That semicircle ran the width of the cross and served as its glimmering top. From a distance, the object appeared like a cruciform set against a rising sun.

Out of the corner of his eye, Blair saw a magnesium-bright flash appear on the shelf above his head. Merlin had decided to show himself. A half-meter tall and generated by Blair's PPC, the holographic old man/interface tossed his waist-length ponytail over his shoulder, then smoothed out his black tunic and breeches, as though he had been somewhere to wrinkle them.

"I know there's a war going on—but a requisitioned merchantman? What are we on, a garbage run? Delivering groceries?" Merlin's clean-shaven face tightened like a piece of stretched leather.

Blair ignored him, having learned since age five that Merlin's ranting would soon evaporate were he denied an audience.

"The Diligent?" Merlin continued. "Please—the Dilapidated is more like it. The Deluded. The Dilatory."

Frowning, Blair glanced at the disgusted little man. "Dilatory!"

Merlin snorted. "Of course. Inclined to delay, tardy, slow. From the Latin dilator." He smirked. "I'm not keeping you up, am I?"

For a moment, Blair felt taken aback. Had he heard right? True, the program knew quite well how to complain over every situation, but cutting remarks of this kind should not have been at its disposal. "Where did you pick up that sarcasm? My father didn't put that in your program. And I know I didn't."

"Well, I don't just sit around waiting for you to power me up. I have my own life, too, you know. I have aspirations. I dream that one day you'll finally come to your senses and adjust my program so that I am the proper size."

Blair rolled his eyes. "I'm not changing my mind."

"What's the point of my being scaled down?"

"My father wanted you this way. Besides, you're less obtrusive."

"Obtrusive? I am not—"

"Run a diagnostic. You are. And while you're at it, tell me where you picked up that sarcasm."

"I downloaded it from the mainframe at the academy while you were in—" Merlin looked up.

"What is it?"

"Lieutenant Marshall is approaching the hatch."

Slapping the magazine over his chest to conceal his cross, Blair flinched a little as the hatch opened and Todd Marshall stepped into the cabin, his regulation blue uniform hanging loosely from his lanky frame, his closely cropped blond hair grazing a sweaty pipe. He raked fingers through his hair, scowled a moment at the conduit, and muttered, "What a bucket."

Then that slightly crazed gleam returned to his eyes, and his oversized Adam's apple worked overtime. "I was going to come down here and get you." He smiled devilishly, raising his brow. "I found some holos in the rec that I know you'll wanna see."

Blair drew in a deep breath and nodded his understanding. "Don't you get tired of that stuff? I don't think those women exist."

"Of course they don't. It's all part of the fantasy. But like I said, I was going to come down here and get you so we could watch them. But the captain stopped me on the way. Up and at 'em. He wants you on the bridge. Top priority."

"Really? For what?"

Marshall shrugged, moving around the bunk to stare at Merlin. "He didn't sound thrilled."

Merlin, now in standby mode and immobile for the most part, continued to stare around the room, as though his face had become a mask for another entity behind it. Blair had seen the effect many times, and it didn't bother or fascinate him anymore.

But Marshall still found it spooky, intriguing. "What are you looking at?" he asked Merlin, then regarded Blair. "What a waste of artificial intelligence."

"Funny, Lieutenant. I was thinking the same about you." The holograph glowered at Marshall.

"Merlin, off," Blair ordered.

"Of course I have no difficulty obeying your command, but if I may—" "Merlin, off!"

With a huff, the little man vanished.

"Sorry about that," Blair said. "He's been hacking where he shouldn't."

"I'll hack him," Marshall said, shaking his head. "There weren't enough know-it-alls in the universe… your father had to program another one."

Blair chuckled. "What? You don't want any more competition?"

"Now I know where the little man gets it," Marshall said, nodding. "Did I tell you about the time I reprogrammed Marty Pinshaw's PPC so that it would automatically read aloud his diary every time he said the word waxed? Remember that guy back at the academy? That's all he ever said. I waxed his ass. I waxed her ass. You get tired of listening to a guy talk about how great he is, you know?"

"I totally agree."

"Hey, now. Come on. We'd better get upstairs." Marshall started for the door.

"I'll meet you," Blair said, reluctant to rise and reveal his cross. Marshall began to mouth something, then simply shrugged and left.

Lowering the magazine, Blair sat up and took in a long breath. A chill needled up his spine as he whispered the words, "Top priority." He reached for his shirt beside him and bolted from the bunk.

On a day when you're feeling generous, Blair thought, you could call the Diligent's bridge a bridge. But were you to be accurate, you might call it a machine room like the ones used a half-dozen centuries ago to house the huge, noisy compressors of large refrigeration units. Low-hanging conduits, exposed circuit panels, torn crew seats, and poor lighting completed the unglamorous effect. Blair got the feeling that he now stepped into the bowels of a cyborg with a strong inclination for spicy food. He ducked as he shifted by a small hatchway and moved farther onto the bridge, careful to duck once more to avoid a major contusion from a low-hanging hydraulic line. He found Marshall seated to starboard in the co-pilot's chair, studying a navigation screen mounted on a swivel arm.

Glancing to port, he saw the captain stepping out from the adjoining galley, blowing on a steaming mug of coffee.

Captain James Taggart hadn't said much during the voyage. His reticence, Blair figured, stemmed from the embarrassment of commanding a tape-and-coat-hanger transport like the Diligent. Funny, though. Taggart didn't look the part of a gypsy cabby contracted by the military. Dark, neatly groomed hair. A face that barely betrayed his middle years. And there seemed something rugged, something handsome, something pirate-like about the guy that made you just know he had seen a lot more in the universe than would ever escape his lips. Marshall could take a few lessons from the man.

Blair found the captain's gaze. "Sir?"

But the man's stare lowered to Blair's chest, and a strange look washed over his face.

A quick glance down revealed that Blair's cross had slipped out from behind his V-neck shirt. He quickly tucked it behind the fabric and stiffened nervously to attention, waiting for a severe interrogation.

"I don't know who you know, Lieutenant, but you just received a Confed One Secure Communication." Taggart gestured with his coffee mug toward the bridge's center console.

Releasing a long mental sigh over the captain's decision to ignore the cross, Blair hurried to the console, slid over to the comm screen, and keyed an activation code on the touchpad.

"Identify," a computer voice said.

"Blair, Christopher. Lieutenant."

"Voice print recognized. Communication establishing…"

The screen filled with the god-like face of a man for whom the phrase "living legend" remained as inadequate as it was trite. "Admiral Tolwyn."

"At ease, Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir."

"I need a favor," Tolwyn said matter-of-factly, his gray eyes flashing.

Blair swallowed. "Anything, sir."

"You're currently outbound for Vega sector and the Tiger Claw. I need you to hand-deliver an encrypted communications disc to Captain Sansky. Message is incoming."

As he waited for the download to complete, Blair grew more confused. The comm recorder beeped. He removed the minidisc and held it up.

"Begging the admiral's pardon, sir, but why not send it via drone to Pegasus? It would be quicker…"

Slowly, Tolwyn shook his head, driving Blair into sudden silence. "The Pegasus is gone, destroyed by a Kilrathi battle group twelve and a half hours ago."

Blair's mouth fell open. Two of his classmates, Trish Melize and Sandra Sotovsky, had been assigned to the Pegasus. He thought suddenly of their parents, mothers and fathers he had met at the graduation ball, at the barbecue, at the ceremony.

The war had snapped its fingers.

And two daughters were no more.

"See that Captain Sansky gets that disc," Tolwyn added.

"With all due respect, sir. Why me?"

Tolwyn's lips curled in a remote smile. "Right now you're all I've got." His gaze averted a moment as he seemed to consider something. "I fought with your father in the Pilgrim Wars. He was a good man—you look like him."

Without trying to offend the admiral, Blair pointed out a fact that had shadowed him all of his life. "People say I have my mother's looks, sir."

At the mention of Blair's mother, the admiral's eyes narrowed, as though he remembered something. "Yes, it must've been hard. They were both good people. Godspeed. Tolwyn out."

Blair stared at the empty screen a moment before Marshall's voice ruined the silence. "Can you believe he fought with your father? Man… you got an in now. I'm you, I don't even worry about promotions."

Turning to Marshall, Blair closed his eyes. "Just shuddup."

On the Concordia's bridge, Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn read the obvious look of displeasure on Commodore Bellegarde's boyish face. The commodore rarely wore that look, and Tolwyn found it impossible not to address. He cocked a brow. "You don't approve, Richard?"

"Of using Blair's kid? No, sir. I do not."


Bellegarde stepped forward. "I think we both know why."

The Diligent's navigation screens woke from their powerless slumber to create 3-D grids as Captain James Taggart began tapping in coordinates. Blair stood behind him, watching. "This milk run just got a little more interesting," the captain said. "Set a course for Beacon One-forty-seven, one-quarter impulse."

Marshall nodded and worked his touchpad. "Course for One-forty-seven. One-quarter impulse." He frowned at a flashing red warning that appeared at the top of his screen. "One-forty-seven , is off-limits, sir. There's a one-hundred-thousand-kilometer no-fly zone around it."

Taggart puffed air. "I said Beacon One-forty-seven. It's a short cut. Lose the sir."

With an exaggerated shrug, Marshall regarded his screen, banged in the course, then booted the engage pedal.

As Taggart fell back into his chair and yawned, Blair noticed a small, dark tattoo emerge from beneath his collar. Blair recognized the writing: a set of four vertical lines that comprised the Kilrathi language. Taggart caught him staring, and Blair flinched toward the forward screen.

The Diligent streaked by the mottled red orb of Pluto, its tenuous atmosphere escaping in tendrils toward its gray moon, Charon.

Taggart got abruptly to his feet. "I'll be in my quarters. Call me when we come within a hundred klicks of the beacon."

"You got it," Marshall said. He waited for the captain to leave, then stage-whispered, "I don't trust this guy. What does he mean by a 'short cut'?"

"Got me," Blair said. "Did you see his neck?"

"What about it?"

"He's got a tattoo. Kilrathi writing. Wish I got a better look at it. Maybe I can get something on it from Merlin."

"Tell you what I think. I think he's intentionally delaying us. One-quarter impulse? Why don't we get out and push? And now you're telling me he's got a Kilrathi tattoo? Hello. I can't find anything right with this picture."

"Stay cool. Let me talk to him. We just don't know what he's about."

Blair stood and turned toward the hatchway.

"Hey," Marshall called out.

Blair faced the pilot, who now waved a small sidearm he had withdrawn from a hidden calf holster. "I know what I'm about."