Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter 19

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Chapter 19
Book Wing Commander
Parts 5
Previous Chapter 18
Next Chapter 20
Pages 142-151

Dramatis Personae

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

Jay Sansky

Christopher Blair


Jay Sansky

Christopher Blair

James "Paladin" Taggart


Paul Gerald
Corey Obutu

Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux
Rosalid "Sassy" Forbes
Todd "Maniac" Marshall
James "Paladin" Taggart

Paul Gerald
Corey Obutu

Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux
Joseph "Knight" Khumelo
Todd "Maniac" Marshall
James "Paladin" Taggart




Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux
Manual Rodriguez

Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux


MARCH 17, 2654
0630 HOURS

Part One

"Mr. Obutu? Prepare to power down the entire ship," Gerald said, sliding back into his command chair.

     "Power down the ship. Aye-aye, sir." A layer of sweat dappled Obutu's face, but his voice did not waver.

     Sansky, noting the renewed hope in his crew, rose to pace the bridge. He did not share their faith in the plan, despite having suggested it. Powerless and adrift, the Tiger Claw would become an object of curiosity to the Kilrathi. The dreadnought's captain might bring his ship in close enough for the Claw to launch a sudden, point-blank torpedo--providing that Mr. Rodriguez and the DCC got a tube back online.

     Or, as Sansky more likely figured, the big cat would note the power-down, bare his fangs, and, without a second thought, blow the Tiger Claw into a memorial.

     "Captain," Sasaki called excitedly. "I'm getting a friend or foe acknowledge from the new starfighters. They're ours, sir."

     "It's Deveraux's strike force," Sansky said, guarding his emotions. The tide had still not turned.

     But Gerald smiled back at the opportunity. "Mr. Obutu. Belay that power-down. And find out how that DCC is doing in Secondary Ordnance."

     "Aye, sir."

     Flying in wedge formation, Deveraux's fighters, still just pinpricks of light, soared in behind the Kilrathi dreadnought and destroyer. For a moment, Sansky wished he were in one of those cockpits, responsible only for himself and his wingman, able to sit straight and tall, the crosses of command gone forever.

Part Two

As a half-dozen targets presented themselves in Blair's HUD, instinct drove his gloved finger over the primary weapons trigger. He listened intently for the order to break and attack.

     Deveraux hadn't said much since giving in to Taggart's pleas. They had returned to the Claw at full throttle, and when Forbes had sighted the destroyer and dreadnought, an odd mixture of relief, regret, and anticipation had filtered into the voices of Blair's comrades. Taggart had been right, but being right meant that the Tiger Claw had already faced a more powerful force sans some of her best fighter pilots. Although Blair and company would now join the party, the Claw hardly stood a chance.

     "All right, ladies. All Rapiers except Maniac and Blair engage those Dralthi."

     Blair bit back a curse. "Commander, I didn't come out here as an observer."

     "Relax, Lieutenant. Drama equals danger plus desire, and it's about to become dramatic."

     "See you later, nugget," Forbes told Maniac.

     "Watch your ass, Rosie."

     "Thought you had that covered," Blair said, unable to resist the barb yet wincing just the same.

     The rest of the strike force peeled off in pairs to confront the Dralthi fighters streaking in at the wing's one o'clock low. Spiraling missiles and criss-crossing laser bolts produced a dense, expanding web that promised to snag any pilot who broke rhythm or got cocky. One look at the gauntlet instantly humbled Blair, and he grew fascinated by the sight of so many fighters dogging each other, grazing each other, navigating through a tangled mess of technology splayed across the otherwise simple, unassuming vacuum.

     The furball had been born.

     "Broadswords, follow me in," Deveraux said, her stony gaze infectious.

     "Roger that," Taggart responded. "Beginning the bomb run."

     "Maniac? Blair?" she called. "Cover us."

     Wrenching her Rapier into a forty-five-degree turn, Deveraux raced under and ahead of the Broadswords. The bombers throttled up and swept in behind her. She rolled to level off, spearheading the quintet.

     Blair had difficulty judging his distance. He yo-yoed to Taggart's seven o'clock after accidentally riding the crest of his wash. Recovered, he guided his targeting reticle over a distant fighter launching from the destroyer's forward flight deck. A beep told him he had the lock, and his thumb slammed down the secondary weapons button. Rays of simulated sunlight passed over his canopy as an Image Recognition missile let loose from his wing. Two more missiles joined his as Maniac fired upon another Dralthi rising from the dreadnought.

     "And here comes the flak barrage," Deveraux said.

     The capital ships' big turrets spat and coughed up triple-A fire that hung like handfuls of cotton balls tossed in zero G. And worse, the dreadnought's torpedo tubes opened to fire a salvo at the Tiger Claw, whose deck shields already cushioned rounds from dozens of strafing Dralthis.

     Blair flipped his gaze to the image coming in from his missile. It finally reached, identified, and sliced the enemy fighter in two. Semicircular wings spun away to collide with the destroyer in a copper-colored shimmer.

     Concurrently, Maniac's missiles kicked over a trio of Dralthis, two striking directly, a third falling prey to his wingman's fireball. Maniac's face popped up on Blair's left VDU. "Three more kills for the Maniac, folks." Then he turned his head and sobered. "Hey, man. Look!" A mere kilometer stood between the Tiger Claw and the four Kilrathi torpedoes.

     From his position, Blair could do no more than watch.

Part Three

Weakening phase shields, twenty-one centimeters of armor plating, and three meter-wide hull compartments stood between Engineer Davies and the void.

     He never saw the torpedo coming.

     It burrowed through the shields, impaled the twenty-one centimeters of armor, then exploded with a force that hammered through the hull compartments, bending durasteel like taffy.

     Thrown a half-dozen meters across the engineering deck, Davies landed with a sharp thud and heard his arm crack. Broken. Then a whoosh filled his ears, rising into a wolf's howl as recycled air fled through a tremendous breach in the hull. A hand slapped his back, gripped his uniform. He craned his head to see big Oxendine, the engineer who could smell fear. He clutched a turbine ladder and began wresting Davies toward it. Davies looked at the man, wondering why he bothered.

     But Oxendine's determination trivialized the animosity between them.

     In his gaze Davies saw no more than a man trying to save him. And for a second he felt good, really good about the company he had kept, about his faith in others, about his significance. Some people never knew that much.

     A long tongue of fire licked across Oxendine's arm. His grip on the ladder faltered, fingers straining against searing heat until-- Davies thought he heard Oxendine shout, but he couldn't be sure. He tumbled several meters across the deck, then felt his arms and legs dangle in midair. A blunt object struck his back, another his leg. He tried to breathe. Tried. After a quick glance to the still and distant stars, he shut his eyes and waited for it to happen.

Part Four

Sansky's command console tore apart, and a jagged section flew up at him before he could block it. His head snapped back as the bulky panel struck his forehead so hard that he swore it had torn a chunk out of his skull. His face, once sticky with sweat, now felt warm and slippery. He lay back on his chair, his neck growing numb, his breath ragged. He fought to lift a hand to his face, but the effort felt too great. He took in a bit of smoky air, coughed, then felt as though he were spinning through the chair.

     Behind him, Obutu's voice penetrated the bass-drum booming of lower-deck explosions. "The hull has been breached at level three. Steering loss: eighty percent. Drone repair crew activated. Estimated recovery time: six minutes."

     "Sir?" Gerald asked, standing somewhere nearby. "Sir? Medic! Medic to the bridge."

     "Gerald," Sansky managed, gurgling blood. "What's Deveraux doing?"

Part Five

"Blair? How's our six?" Deveraux asked.

     "Clear for the moment," he replied, not that his report really mattered. The radar display--a living, breathing thing--could change in a heartbeat.

     The proof lay in front of him as four Salthi light fighters broke from their box formation to intercept the bombers. Blair tracked their velocity at nearly one thousand KPS, their afterburners stoked. Forward-swept wings fixed to their broad, flat fuselages in an inverted V pattern gave the fighters a low profile while maintaining a respectable level of intimidation through design. One Salthi didn't pose a huge threat to a Rapier. But like killer bees, if you faced enough of them, they would drop you through attrition.

     A Dumb-fire missile flared below Deveraux's starboard wing, then went from zero to 850 KPS in three seconds--enough time for the Salthi pilot she had targeted to curse her, beg for Sivar's forgiveness, then experience a more corporeal wrath.

     As Deveraux's Salthi vanished in a short-lived conflagration, the fighter nearest it scissored across Blair's field of view. He dove after the Salthi, lined up on its six o'clock, then fixed his cross-hairs on the green circle leading the fighter. Target locked! He dished out a flurry of bolts from his rotating nose cannon. The first salvo struck the Salthi's shields, crooked fingers of energy scattering across a light blue hemisphere. Another volley stitched a pattern across the Salthi's cockpit, and the ship flipped into a barrel roll before bursting apart.

     "Hey! Save some for me," Maniac said.

     Pulling up from the Salthi's still-flashing rubble, Blair saw Maniac shoot off the third Salthi's wing. The cat inside fought for control but couldn't help spinning into the fourth Salthi flying toward it. A white-hot fireball enveloped both fighters.

     Maniac howled with glee. "Buy one, get one free!"

     Cannon fire from the cap ships scoured Blair's path as he strained to regroup with the bombers. He jammed the stick forward, plunging in a sixty-degree dive to evade.

     But the autotracking systems aboard the cap ships refused to abandon their quarry. The thick, deadly bolts returned, raking space along his Rapier's portside.

     "It's getting too hot," Deveraux said. "It's up to the bombers. Let's get back out there."

     Blair pulled up, flying below the bombers, then banked hard on a new heading for Deveraux's six. He switched to his aft turret camera and watched the bombers zero in on the destroyer's starboard bow.

     "Thanks for the escort," Taggart said, then addressed Knight, who had assumed point for the run. "Steady on course. Wait for them to drop shields and open tubes."

     Triple-A and tachyon fire clogged the space around the bombers as their defense computers automatically released clouds of chaff and decoy missiles. Three of the destroyer's tur-reted cannons went after the countermeasures, but the others spat their venom at Taggart and Knight.

     The lightning of reflected rounds writhed across their shields. Blair couldn't believe that they held course. The wall of Triple-A began terrifying him, and he wasn't alone in that feeling.

     "They're throwing up too much flak!" Knight screamed. His Broadsword's starboard wing grazed the expanding edge of a Triple-A cloud. Rivets popped as the wingtip tore off, violently rocking the bomber. "I'm hit!"

     "Almost there," Taggart said, trying to calm the man. "Steady now. Steady."

     Tachyon fire chewed into Knight's Broadsword, tearing open its belly to expose its synthetic bowels. Knight released a strangled cry as the bomber, now engulfed in flames, shattered across the destroyer's bow.

     Taggart veered away from the flickering aftermath and vanished from Blair's screen.

     In the meantime, Deveraux had engaged a pair of Krant fighters, who braked hard to get on her six. Blair guided his Rapier about 800 meters above the destroyer, then circled back to assist her. She wove left and right, dodging pairs of laser bolts, her tactics tight, efficient, practiced--but not enough against two Kilrathi pilots. The cats struck direct hits, and her shields glittered as bolts dissipated over them. A few more strikes and they would have her.

     On full afterburners, Blair roared up behind the two Krants. Before he could lock a target, Deveraux pulled into a six-G loop parallel to his position. She leveled off and liberated a pair of IR missiles. One Krant swallowed a projectile, but the other blew chaff and pulled into a loop of his own. Deveraux's missile took the bait, detonating harmlessly.

     Blair craned his neck to spot the Krant, now on Deveraux's tail, cutting loose a dense storm of fire. Her shields absorbed a half-dozen rounds before dying. Bolts passed over her canopy, each one tightening the gap as the cat adjusted its bead.

     Narrowing his gaze, Blair locked on to the Krant, then lost the lock as Deveraux banked sharply. He considered firing but without a lock, friendly fire might do her in. Instead, he dove beneath them, his glance shifting between the radar display and the cap ship fire that seemed to lace up the space below. He yanked the stick back, thundering into a hard climb.

     Directly ahead stood the Krant, with Deveraux just off its starboard quarter. The targeting brackets in his HUD found the Krant, as did the smart targeting reticle.

     Envisioning himself as a durasteel dragon, Blair incinerated the enemy fighter with a combination of laser and neutron fire. He spiraled up through the rubble to emerge just as Deveraux doubled back.

     "What took you so long?" she asked.

     "I took the scenic route," he said, glancing down at the dreadnought.

     "Where's Taggart?"

     Maniac broke into the channel. "No visual contact. The son of a bitch booked."

     "And that dreadnought's opening her tubes," Deveraux said.

     Indeed, the huge vessel's tubes dilated open, and Blair beat a fist on his canopy. "Their shields are going down. We could've had them now."

     The dreadnought's bow, shaped like two pairs of clamps forming a cross, raised as she passed over the first destroyer's wreckage. From one hundred meters below, the destroyer's tattered hull still glimmered, conduits jutting out like jagged teeth amid coils of lingering gas.

     And from within that gas and those teeth, a ship appeared, a Broadsword, maneuvering thrusters firing to turn it up toward the dreadnought. "Baker leader. Get your fighters clear of the pulse wave," Taggart said.

     "Roger that. Maniac? Blair? Break contact. Return to ship," Deveraux ordered.

     Unsure of how Taggart would get himself clear of the pulse wave himself, Blair obeyed orders, lined his navigational crosshairs on the distant dot of the Tiger Claw, and started toward it, though only at half-speed. He focused his attention on Taggart, who flew bravely toward the dreadnought.

Part Six

James "Paladin" Taggart lifted a shaky hand to fire the Broadsword's two piggyback torpedoes. Then he touched another button, releasing the other two bombs from their belly racks. HUD reports indicted that all four of the mighty rockets had targeted the unshielded dreadnought.

     Holding his breath, he lit the afterburners and climbed away from the cap ship, Triple-A and cannon fire punching holes in his vaporous wake, his gaze locked on the scrolling numbers showing his distance relative to the target. He began to shake his head. Then a proximity alarm beeped. He looked up to spot the Jovian-like planet's third moon, its heavily cratered surface lowering into view.

     The torpedoes struck the dreadnought.

     A nanosecond later, the entire Area of Operations stood under a tarp of intense white light for one, two, three seconds ...

     The light dimmed to unveil a huge explosion tearing through the dreadnought, its hull breaking up as the widening rings of the blast wave stretched into space.

     Caught unaware, the Kilrathi aboard the destroyer attempted to maneuver their vessel away from the wave, but the ship tacked only a few degrees before the inevitable force hit. The destroyer listed badly to port, then collided with the first destroyer's hull, producing fires amidships that began cooking off its ammunition. An internal blast erupted through its hull, breaking off the bow in a fountain of sparks and jetting gas.

     Taggart's grin didn't last long as he tracked the wave encroaching on his airspace. It swallowed his exhaust, seemed to gain momentum, then struck his engines.

     Displays crackled, fried, and went dead as the Broadsword groaned and took its beating. The bomber rolled onto its side, driving Taggart's head into the console. He felt the sting of a gash, and blood trickled into his eye. Blinking, he saw that the ship now barreled uncontrollably toward the moon. He seized the manual eject lever and jerked it down.

     After a double click and a faint blast of air, the cockpit ejection pod shot free, slowly rotating away from the doomed bomber, ushered to the fringes of the weakening shock wave by sputtering retros.

     The Broadsword impacted with the moon's surface in a cloud of ancient dust that would take days to settle.

     Before Taggart could regain full control of the pod, he found himself caught in the third moon's gravitational pull. Rocking to and fro, he increased retros and tried to pull up from the cratered uplands. The retros teased him for a moment, then whooped and fell silent. He threw a toggle several times, trying to reactivate them. "Well, it was fun while it lasted."

     As the gray-and-white surface hurtled toward him, he told himself that he had lived a glorious life, that while he had never been an Arthur or a Roland, he rested assured that he had inspired a young heart or two. And, he reasoned, by influencing just one soul, he had, in effect, changed the course of history. James Taggart had accomplished what he had set out to do. He had lived the warrior's life and would die the warrior's death.

     Nothing could be more fitting.

     He grinned, remembering a few lines from his schooldays: "My mind misgives some consequence, yet hanging in the stars, shall bitterly begin his fearful date with this night's revels ..."