Wing Commander (novelization) Chapter 6

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Chapter 6
Book Wing Commander
Parts 2
Previous Chapter 5
Next Chapter 7
Pages 39-47

Dramatis Personae

Part 1 Part 2

Christopher Blair

Christopher Blair


Arnold Blair
Todd "Maniac" Marshall
James "Paladin" Taggart
Tanaka "Spirit" Mariko

Jeanette "Angel" Deveraux
Todd "Maniac" Marshall
James "Paladin" Taggart
Unnamed Marine


Paul Gerald
Unnamed Blonde Tech
Unnamed Tech
Unnamed Marine


MARCH 16, 2654
0130 HOURS

Part One

"Where are you going, Daddy?"

     "I'm sorry, Christopher. Daddy has to go to work now. There's a war he has to fight."

     "What's a war?"

     "It's ... I don't know. It's just bad."

     "Then why do you go?"

     "It's my job."

     "Stay with me, Daddy. Don't go."

     "Bye, Christopher. Give me a hug."

     "Don't go, Daddy. Please don't go."

     "Hey, what the hell's the matter with you, Blair? Hello, Blair. Come back to us."

     After blinking hard, Blair looked at Marshall's angular face, then at his nav display. ETA to TCS Tiger Claw: three minutes. Marshall shoved his shoulder. "You all right, bro?"

     "Yeah. Just ... thinking."

     He gestured to the viewport. "Well, start thinking about those birds."

     Two Confederation Rapiers flew straight toward the Diligent, their rotating nose cannons and short forward wings lending to them a deadly visage that would awe even the most casual spectator. Bright running lights flashed on both craft, switched on only during routine escort missions. Observing the fighters made Blair itch with the desire to fly one of them instead of the clunky merchantman. He slid over the comm control. "They've queried us. Better get the captain up here."

     Marshall mocked a fit of vomiting. "Oh, that would be my pleasure."

     Blair punched in the senior officer's frequency. First Lieutenant Tanaka Mariko clicked into view on the left screen, her face hidden behind her headgear. "Merchantman Diligent. This is Black Lion One. Request authorization code for approach to TCS Tiger Claw, roger. Broadcasting sign now."

     "Affirmative, Black Lion One," Blair said. "Stand by."

     "Send the countersign," Taggart said, coming up behind Blair. "And thank you for waiting. I see you've read and understand the regs manual."

     Blair craned his head, even as Taggart stared unflinchingly at Marshall.

     The two held their gazes until Marshall broke the duel.

     After dialing up the signal, Blair threw a toggle. A coded burst of static crackled over the intercom, followed by another burst. Blair read the display. "Identification acknowledged. They'll escort us in."

     The Rapiers broke off and wheeled around to bracket the ship. A distant, shining fleck stood dead ahead.

     Marshall moved to the viewport to glance at the fighters. "I never get tired of looking at 'em."

     "You should get used to this view," Taggart said.

     Spinning on his heel, Marshall pursed his lips tightly and poured poison into his eyes. "Sir. May I speak freely?"

     "I suppose that's a threat. Go ahead."

     "What's your problem?"

     Blair shot to his feet and directed an index finger at Marshall. "Don't go there."

     "Mr. Blair. Fly my ship. I'll handle this." Taggart marched up to Marshall and circled him like a rabid drill sergeant. "My problem is that I care too much, Lieutenant. I care too much about idiots like you who sneer at protocol and fly like you own the war. You guys stand in line, waiting to get blown out of the sky. Yeah, I got your number, Lieutenant Marshall. I see you coming from a light-year away--and so will the Kilrathi."

     Although Marshall did not move, Blair guessed that he wanted very badly to smirk and roll his eyes.

     Taggart paused to get squarely in Marshall's face. "From here on out I suggest you get your priorities straight, understand the mission, your place in it, and stow that pathetic ego. No one ever flies alone. No one." After letting that sink in, Taggart plopped into his captain's chair. Slowly, Marshall shifted back toward the viewport, mumbling something.

     Blair sighed and regarded Taggart, filling his gaze with understanding, but the man would not look at him. Taggart studied the growing form of the Tiger Claw as her enormous flight deck doors rolled open.

     Burying the awkwardness of the moment in his job, Blair slipped the Diligent into her final approach vector, then engaged the autopilot. The Heads Up showed a green outline of the carrier and the vector's "red carpet" runway grid. Blair looked beyond the HUD to marvel at the carrier as they drew closer to her bow. She resembled a 700-meter-long gray cylinder tapered at the ends and split into port and starboard halves. A narrow rectangular structure joined the halves and served as a runway to stern and a colossal hangar bay amidships. Massive doors permitted access to the bay from the upper deck or the stern (the latter approach most used by starfighter pilots who would plunge into the Claw's innards to land). Far above the runway, past some of the hundreds of lights that dotted her hull, rose the carrier's bridge, a circular superstructure on the starboard side that stood in tribute to the ancient sea carriers that had clearly inspired the Trojan Four Spaceyards engineers who had designed her. Despite the tradition of her silhouette, she boasted state-of-the-art firepower. Eight dual laser turrets had been mounted equidistantly apart on her hull and covered the full sphere of vacuum. A main battery jutted out from each half of her bow, and triangular sleeves of battle-scarred armor shielded personnel operating the big cannons. The sealed hatches of missile tubes subtly reminded her enemies that even more death lay within her bowels.

     Indeed, the Tiger Claw, though patched up here and there, remained powerful. In fact, if you took her in with a quick glance, you would swear that she reached out in challenge to any cap ship that dared defy her perimeter. She had attitude in spades; few would deny that.

     As the escort fighters swerved away to continue their patrol, a broad tractor beam lanced out from a turret below the Claw's flight deck and seized the Diligent. Blair's autopilot automatically disengaged, and retros fired, helping the beam to ease the merchantman down and through the clear energy field that separated atmosphere from vacuum. The beam's force grew weaker, and Blair took over. The ship settled onto a dull, ocher-colored deck heavily stained by hydraulic fluid, its landing pads outlined in bright yellow. The huge doors closed slowly over them.

     "Switching systems to accept moorings," Blair announced, punching in the command.

     "Good work," Taggart said. "Auto power down in progress. Message from flight control. The XO will meet you on the deck. Go fetch your gear."

     "Thank God," Marshall muttered.

Part Two

Five minutes later, two Confed Marines in burnt sienna deck uniforms approached the Diligent's loading ramp. Blair and Marshall trudged down toward them, their shoulders already sore under the weight of their duffels.

     "IDs?" the male jarhead said curtly.

     Blair produced his identity badge, and the Marine waved a scanner over it. "Do you have your orders card, Lieutenant Blair? I'll need to see a hard copy as well."

     "Duh," Marshall said, shouldering his way toward the Marine. "You think we're here to gamble and eat too much?"

     "Don't mind him," Blair told the Marine. "He's having a little trouble with his bodily functions. I'll get him to sickbay right away."

     The Marine gave Marshall a stupid grin, then his eyes snapped wide open. "Officer or not, you will shut your hole and wait your turn."

     Marshall swore under his breath as Blair handed the Marine his orders card.

     Once they finished the interminably long check-in, Blair suggested that they wait for Taggart to at least say good-bye.

     "Now that," Marshall said, "is humorous."

     Blair dropped his duffel. "I'm waiting."

     With a hand on his brow, Marshall paced for a moment, then slipped off his own duffel. "You're right. We should wait. I'm not finished with him."

     Having quickly developed a numbness to Marshall's belligerent remarks, Blair moved off to survey the immense rectangular flight deck. A half-dozen or more columns on either side of the deck rose thirty meters, joined overhead by a latticework of durasteel. Behind the columns stood rows of Hornets, Rapiers, Scimitars, Broadswords, and Raptors, many being serviced by orange-suited flight crews who hung from open cockpits, scorched wings, and pockmarked fuselages. One tech attached multicolored fuel and hydraulic lines to a Raptor whose nose had been removed to repair her electrical system. A miasma of heated metal, jet fuel, hydraulic fluid, and burning rubber hung heavily in the air, despite the best efforts of the ship's recyclers. While civilians would crinkle their noses at the smell, Blair smiled. I'm home. As he touched a bulkhead adjacent to the lift doors and came upon a patch welded there, he noticed the carrier's age, evident in that patch and the hundreds of others that freckled her walls. "You've seen a lot of action," he whispered. "Guess you'll see a lot more."

     "Hey, what are you doing?" someone familiar asked.

     Blair turned in Taggart's direction. "Waiting for you. Just wanted to say thanks for the lift."

     The captain paused before them. "Well, gentlemen, don't think I haven't enjoyed your company."

     Marshall bore his teeth. "We won't. Sir."

     Not wasting a second on Marshall, the captain focused on Blair. "I'm headed for the lift over there," he said, tipping his head toward the doors fifty meters away. "See you. And good luck."

     Lifting his duffel, Blair said, "I'll walk with you."

     "I won't," Marshall said.

     Blair hurried after the captain. "Marshall? I'll meet you back here." He didn't wait for the expected reply and finally caught up with Taggart. "Before you go, tell me about your tattoo."

     "You know what it is?" Taggart asked, lifting his voice over the collective whine of power tools.

     "I think I got it figured out. It's a Kilrathi marker. You were a prisoner of war."

     "I was on the Iason when they took her."

     That caught Blair off guard. "The Iason? She was the first ship to have contact with the Kilrathi. You served under Commander Andropolos?"

     Taggart nodded. "We encountered a spacecraft of unknown origin, transmitted a wideband, nonverbal greeting, and waited. Four hours later she fired upon us with all batteries. But you know the story."

     "Yeah. And I know there weren't supposed to be any survivors from the Iason."

     "I guess not."

     They reached the lift doors, which slid apart. Taggart stepped inside and turned around.

     "Why don't you have it removed?" Blair asked, staring at the captain's neck, the tattoo partially exposed.

     "Let's just say it helps me remember."

     "Remember what?"

     "Why I fight."

     The doors began to close.

     Blair stepped forward. "Wait. I've seen photos and holos, but what do the Kilrathi look like? I mean, in the flesh?"

     "They're ugly. Good luck."

     The doors sealed.

     "Right," Blair muttered, then hurried back to the other lift, where he found Marshall ogling a blonde tech whose smooth skin and lithe figure seemed incongruous with her greasy coveralls. She stood beneath a Broadsword bomber, dismantling one of its mass driver cannons with a power wrench.

     "I don't see the XO," Marshall said, his gaze still riveted to the tech.

     "I can see why."

     "Maybe she can help." He strutted toward the woman, his boots barely touching the deck.

     Blair ambled toward a row of Rapiers, still searching the room for their welcoming party. He came to the first fighter, number thirty-five. Her heavily patched armor and carbon scoring bespoke numerous round trips to Hell. He felt like a kid as he pictured himself in the cockpit, diving onto a Dralthi's tail, locking target, and--

     He repressed a chill and lifted a computer slate from a rolling tool cart. The slate showed the fighter's mission status. She had come in less than eight hours earlier from a sortie on the fringe of the Enyo system. Her next pilot had yet to be assigned. Not bothering to read more, Blair replaced the slate and hurried up the cockpit ladder. He peered furtively around the deck for a second and, seeing that no one watched, climbed into the pit.

     Although the instrument panels remained dark, he could easily imagine the left Visual Display Unit reporting battle damage, the right VDU showing options for the vidcom system and the targeting screen. The circular radar display, just left of center, depicted a wave of red blips above him. "Break and attack," he told his ghostly wingman.

     "Two Dralthis on your tail--one above, one below."

     Blair felt a jolt in his gut, then looked down toward his inquisitor. In her late twenties, she stood nearly as tall as him, her shoulder-length hair a deep brown laced with gold curls. The shadows beneath her eyes and streak of lubricant on her cheek did little to mar her beauty. However, the oil-stained disposable plasticine coveralls she wore weren't exactly flattering on anyone. With a socket wrench in one hand, an x-ray scanner in the other, she raised a thin brow and continued: "You've got five, maybe ten seconds--the clock is ticking. What do you do?"

     "Simple. I go vertical and inverted, do a one-eighty at full throttle, apply the brakes, and drop in behind them."

     "Bang. You're dead. Not fast enough. Dralthis are too quick--particularly in a climb. You've just taken a missile up your tailpipe."

     No lower-ranked tech had ever spoken to Blair this way. What did she hope to prove? Was she bitter over not being a pilot? Why the callous shield?

     "Okay. Reverse the situation," she said. "You're locked on a Dralthi. It goes evasive, enters an asteroid belt. Clock is ticking."

     With a loud snort, Blair pointed ahead. "I'm locked on. There's no such thing as evasive because--"

     "Bang. Dead again. It's an ambush. Five or six fighters hide behind rocks the size of your swollen head and pounce--a Kilrathi gang-bang."

     An intense heat washed into Blair's face, and he balled his hands into fists.

     She set down her tools and began untying her coveralls. "What's the matter? Did I bruise your ego?"

     "No. I'm just not used to getting combat tips from a grease monkey." As the words left Blair's mouth, he saw her step out of the coveralls to reveal her blood-red flight suit. The insignia on that suit indicated the extent of Blair's foolishness.

     "I'm Lieutenant Commander Jeanette Deveraux--your wing commander. You have a name, nugget?"

     Blair straightened and saluted her, not that his after-the-fact respect would mean anything. "Lieutenant Christopher Blair, ma'am."

     "Well, Lieutenant. If you want to play at being a fighter pilot, I suggest you find a virtual fun zone. Meanwhile, step down from the Rapier."

     Feeling as though his face would burst into flames, Blair rose and set foot on the cockpit ladder. As he descended, he noticed the pilot's name in bright yellow letters along the pit's edge: Lt. Commander Vince "Bossman" Chen. Twenty-six Kilrathi paws representing kills had been set in neat rows beside the name, a scorch mark slashing through them. "Ma'am, the mission slate said this fighter was unassigned. I apologize. I didn't realize it was Bossman's."


     "Lieutenant Commander Chen. Bossman." Blair gazed back at the Rapier. Had he read the name correctly? Yes, he had.

     Deveraux's face creased even more.

     Puzzled, Blair crossed to the tool cart and lifted the computer slate. "If this fighter's not his, then who got these twenty-six kills?"

     She wrenched the slate from his hand. "What are you doing on the flight deck, anyway?"

     "Looking for the XO," Marshall said, arriving at Blair's side.

     Shifting her gaze to the far end of the flight deck, Deveraux nodded to a tall officer. "You found him." She turned on her heels and strode off.

     "I'm proud of you, Blair," Marshall said, patting his back. "Even from back there I could tell you were defying authority. Some day these hardasses will appreciate our creativity."

     "That hardass is our new wing commander. And I've made a wonderful first impression."

     "She'll get over it. They always do. Or she'll get whacked and you won't have to worry about it. Either way, you're in the clear, buddy. Now, c'mon. Smiley over there is waving us over."

     Blair looked to the XO, a man with a deeply grooved face who had once smiled back in 2649, though no hard evidence existed to prove that rumor.