Wing Commander: Fleet Action, by William R. Forstchen, is the third spin-off novel published for Chris Roberts' Wing Commander science fiction flight simulator franchise of computer games, produced by Origin Systems.
Published in 1994 and set after the events of Stasheff's previous novel, End Run, Fleet Action concerns a false armistice offered by the Kilrathi Empire, and the efforts of a few Terran Confederation soldiers to circumvent it.
Because of the novel's popularity, a fan-made project, Wing Commander: Standoff, has brought the novel into gameplay using Wing Commander Prophecy's "Vision" engine. As of April 10, 2009, the project has been completed.
In 2668, the Kilrathi find themselves in a logistical emergency. Though their military outnumbers the Terran Confederation's on a two-to-one basis, the humans' percentage of trained personnel (100%) far outstrips that of the Cats', and the Kilrathi hardware is worn and undermaintained. This is attributable directly to two factors: 1) a successful raid on the Kilrathi home planet by the TCS Tarawa, which destroyed a number of dry docks and the nearly-finished carriers within them (see End Run), as well as similar raids in other locations; and 2) a sudden shortage of transports, forcing Kilrathi carriers to return to base for supplies and putting further light-years on already-overworked spaceframes. Between the two, the Kilrathi military, and thus the Empire itself, is on the verge of defeat.
Crown Prince Thrakhath nar Kiranka, and his grandfather the Kilrathi Emperor, reveal to the leaders of the eight Kilrathi hrai (clans) the reason behind the transport shortage: a sizable percentage of the transport fleet, several sixty-fours, has been assigned to transporting raw materials to the former territory of the Hari Empire, a race the Kilrathi had already extinguished and who had lived on the other side of the Kilrathi in relation to the Terrans. There, a new breed of carrier, the Hakaga-class heavy carrier, is under construction. Encased in incredibly thick armor, with six redundant launch-and-recovery bays and space and armaments for almost three hundred fighters, these eight-and-four ships will win the war when they come online within the year... But only if material attrition doesn't lose it first. With this in mind, Baron Jukaga nar Ki'ra presents an anathematic solution to the warrior Kilrathi: present an armistice and sue for peace.
The Emperor, to the surprise of all present, accepts Jukaga's terms, and appoints him the primary Kilrathi ambassador to the "hairless apes" of the Confederation. The Emperor will have to play a delicate balancing act: the Kilrathi are extremely prone to violence, and with nowhere else to vent their frustrations, they might rebel against the Kiranka dynasty—especially since Jukaga is known to have imperial aspirations (his clan, the Ki'ra, once almost asserted dominion over the Kilrathi, and regard it as a historical accident that they failed) and is adept at sowing discontent. Conversely, however, a long armistice will only weaken the Confederation, and a glorious victory over them would put to rest any support for the Ki'ra. The Emperor's only choice is to finish their new fleet as quickly as possible.
On Earth, the situation is just as dire; the Terran-Kilrathi War has been raging for over forty years, and the human population is weary. The Terran Confederation accepts peace terms. Both fleets are demobilized and many assets secured for cold storage, despite fervent protests from the military that the armistice must be a ruse. The Tarawa is one of the deactivated ships, and Jason "Bear" Bondarevsky, Ian "Hunter" St. John and Etienne "Doomsday" Montclair, among hundreds of thousands of others, find themselves jobless and destitute. Rear Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn has it worse: despite receiving news of the armistice and orders to stand down from hostilities, he launched an attack on a Kilrathi carrier in the Munro System, successfully destroying it at the loss of only two Broadsword bombers and a "Strike Sabre" from the Tarawa. For this action he is stripped of rank and dishonorably discharged from the fleet that has been his only family for over two decades.
Bondarevsky and his friends make do as they could on Luna, trying to find jobs, griping about the stupidity of the civilian government, and drinking at the Vacuum Breathers' Club, a Fleet-centric bar. The proceedings are interrupted by a surprise visitor: released POW Kirha, once Ralgha nar Hhallas's retainer, but sworn to serve Ian St. John in the events of the novel Wing Commander: Freedom Flight. Many of the bar's patrons are initially hostile to him, but when Ian and his friends make it clear that Kirha is their friend, they come to accept him. Kirha confirms their doubts: the Kilrathi armistice must be a sham, because there is no such thing as "peace" in Kilrathi ideology, only total victory against a weaker foe or honorable defeat against a stronger one. In response, a stranger—a non-soldier—stands up and denounces both Terran and Kilrathi militaries for conspiring to keep the war going and retain power. His name is David Torg, a PhD in sociology, and the ex-Fleet patrons of the bar, both Terran and Kilrathi, unite in defense against a common enemy: snobbish extremists who have lost sight of the us-or-them realities of a fight to the death. "We want it to end too," says Jason, "But we want it to stop after we know it's really over, and that we or our kids after us don't have to go back out and fight it all over again." The chapter also serves to underline the bonds of war: Bear, Hunter, Doomsday and even total strangers step up to defend and befriend Kirha, acknowledging that, on the front lines, they would have tried to kill each other without a second thought—a fact that makes them, not enemies, but brothers.
Finally, Kevin "Lone Wolf" Tolwyn arrives on a recruiting mission. Admiral Tolwyn, in his disgraced and impoverished position, has struck a deal, selling five Wake-class escort carriers (including the Tarawa) to the Free Republic of the Landreich on the Human-Kilrathi frontier, where the war is still very much going. This commercial venture is simply a cover story, though; Tolwyn's real objective is to confirm the construction of the Hakaga carriers, whose existence the Confederation have suspected for some time. Under the supervision of Landreich president Hans Maximillian Kruger, they launch a reconnaissance mission into the depths of Kilrathi territory. The Tarawa is equipped with a new deep-space radio surveillance system and outfitted with some of the Confederation's best signal analysts and cryptologists. James "Paladin" Taggart, in the meanwhile, with Hunter as his co-pilot, is sent out as point man in the Bannockburn, a light freighter equipped with a captured Kilrathi cloaking device. The Tarawa successfully penetrates and then crosses the entirety of Kilrathi-controlled space, positioning itself to receive signals from Hari territory.
Paladin and Hunter succeed in penetrating the system where the Hakaga carriers are being built. Their frantic retreat to the Tarawa is complicated when the carrier is forced to hide from a Kilrathi surveillance force, preventing them from sending assistance. Finally the Bannockburn is able to rendezvous with the Tarawa, but not before Hunter is killed in action, sacrificing himself to save Bannockburn from a missile attack.
Geoffrey and Kevin Tolwyn, in the meanwhile, return to Earth, and broadcast a phony radio signal, announcing that a key missile plant on Luna has been destroyed in an accident. Soon, Kilrathi transmissions begin to fly that an installation on the moon of their next target, nak'tara, is no more. (Tolwyn admits to stealing this trick from the Battle of Midway.) This, combined with Tarawa's sensor data of the new Kilrathi Hakaga fleet—active, not secured for cold storage, and ready to attack—sends humanity into a panic. Complicating the matters, a Kilrathi ambassador smuggles in, and detonates, a bomb at a meeting with much of the Confederation's top brass, wiping them out. Finally, Tolwyn's actions in the Munro System are revealed to have been a direct order from ConFleet's Chief of Staff, to allow him his reconnaissance mission into Hari space; by dishonorably discharging him, ConFleet could claim plausible deniability if he was caught. Tolwyn is reinstated and placed in command of the Third Fleet, with orders to stop Kilrathi incursions in any way possible. Human carriers and fleets are hastily mobilized, but to get most of them up to full speed will take over a month, and to get their crews back will take twice that. The Kilrathi fleet is due in less than thirty days.
Jason, aboard the Tarawa in the Landreich system, is itching to return to Confed space, but Kruger forbids him. The Landreich President was convicted of desertion after he mutinied and ran off with the destroyer he was commanding, to defend Landreich territory, which was being abandoned by Confederation forces "of strategic necessity." Described by Ian St. John as "either a genius improviser of irregular small-unit tactics or a barbarian" Kruger proves both by using his remaining four escort carriers (which are little more than transports with guns and a flight deck glued on) and several other capital ships to savage three Kilrathi fleet carriers. He refuses to join the main battle against the Hakaga carriers, however—a fact that might doom humanity to extinction.
The Battle of Sirius
Prince Thrakhath attacks on with five new Hakaga carriers and nineteen "old" ones, plus over seventy support ships (heavy cruisers, destroyers, etc.) and over three thousand fighters. Against this, Geoffrey Tolwyn's Third Fleet consists of four "old" carriers, an unknown number of lesser capital ships, and four hundred eighty strike craft. The advantage in training still lies with the humans; Thrakhath's Hakagas are staffed by his best flyers, but his older ships have not fared so well. But this was the Terrans' only advantage. The human edge in maneuverability and shielding will probably not be enough to counter Thrakhath's numbers; and with the bulk of his best flyers concentrated in the formidable Hakagas, Thrakhath can afford to deploy his old carriers to the rear, where their weakness could not be exploited. And finally, Tolwyn is forced to play defensively; with such a tiny fleet, he cannot afford to absorb losses, and he retreats from a number of smaller colony worlds. At this point, the Kilrathi deploy their trump card: thermonuclear missiles loaded with strontium-90, set for airborne explosion. The resulting radiation sterilizes the entire planet, rendering it uninhabitable to all life—even the Kilrathi, who (theoretically at least) want humanity's planets for themselves. Baron Jukaga, aboard one of the Hakagas, argues with Thrakhath against this step, claiming (rightly) that it will only incite the Terrans into a frenzy, but Thrakhath has lost all respect for the humans by now. To him, victory is inevitable.
At Sirius Prime, the first of the Confederation's inner colony worlds, Tolwyn makes his stand. He loses. One Hakaga carrier is crippled by four torpedo strikes (enough to kill a conventional carrier twice), and another significantly damaged, but none are destroyed; in return, Tolwyn loses most of his Broadsword bombers and Sabre fighter-bombers, two of his carriers, and almost his flagship, the TCS Concordia. Worse, he fails to save Sirius; both inhabited planets in the system are sterilized, a loss of almost two billion lives. The Kilrathi lose an old-style carrier and an appalling number of fighters (nearly 600), but that will probably not make a difference. The Third Fleet retreats to Earth, ready to save it... Or die trying.
The Battle of Earth
Thrakhath, always a warrior, does not bother to consolidate his holdings before plunging straight in on Terra. The humans have managed to get three more carriers online—or, at least, to push them out of the docks and let them float in towards the Kilrathi—and have arranged a number of other distractions as well. Thousands of civilian pilots, flying unarmed and often unshielded craft from single-seat trainers to enormous spacegoing liners, volunteer to go up as chaff. Trainee pilots, some not yet out of flight academy, are rushed into combat wings to do whatever they can. Hidden behind this insanity are over two hundred Marine landing craft, packed with men, demolition equipment and Brigadier General "Big" Duke Grecko, who leads the attack on the Kilrathi head-on: by boarding them.
While Geoff's navy fights and dies, the Marines do their thing; none of the Kilrathi pilots, and in fact none of the Kilrathi at all except for Thrakhath's on-board tactical analysts, ever catches on to their intent. Those Marines that infiltrate the new Hakaga carriers discover, much to their delight, that the redundant armor is designed only to resist exterior attacks; explosions from the inside will be much, much worse. All but one Hakaga are destroyed in the resulting chaos, as well as a large number of smaller ships, and Thrakhath is forced to retreat. A single wing of Kilrathi cruisers, nominally commanded by Baron Jukaga, are able to break through to Earth itself, wrecking a number of heavy Earth factories and cities (a fitting revenge for the raid on Kilrah), but do not launch their thermonuclear warheads because Jukaga, in an incomprehensible betrayal, prevents them from firing; a moment later, the Tarawa arrives, Kruger having finally decided to join the party, and destroys the remaining cruisers. Humanity, against all odds, has won through.
After the battle, the utter depletion of material and hardware combined with new revolutions in material sciences to usher in a new generation of fighters; all previous designs were retired and new ones (the ships of Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger) entered service.
- Captain Jason "Bear" Bondarevsky: captain of the Tarawa, a proud and noble ship. Tolwyn's protege in many ways.
- Captain Etienne "Doomsday" Montclair: a little less glum now, he leads a number of missions from the cockpit, flying his trusty Sabre into battle.
- Captain Ian "Hunter" St. John: the loose cannon on deck, he feels much at home in the Landreich, where shooting first and asking questions later is the order of the day. Killed in action in Hari space.
- Lieutenant Kevin "Lone Wolf" Tolwyn: still flying aboard the Tarawa and a double ace (at least) by the end of the novel, he returns with his uncle and flies in defense of Earth. Escorting Duke Grecko's boarding craft, he is forced to eject in the vicinity of a Hakaga-class carrier (coincidentally Thrakhath's command ship) and, though he takes a dangerous dose of radiation during the carrier's destruction, is saved by medics in time.
- Colonel James "Paladin" Taggart: this canny old Scotsman makes a vow never to leave Earth again if he lives through the adventure. He flies as Doomsday's co-pilot on a number of missions.
- Rear Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn: one of the Confederation's most respected admirals, in whose hands rests the fate of humanity.
- Lieutenant Janet "Sparks" McCullough: another Concordia veteran, she is the Tarawa's master crew chief, in charge of maintaining, preparing and repairing the ship's fighters. She was promoted to Lieutenant after the Kilrah raid.
- Admiral Banbridge: commander of the Third Fleet, who is killed in the Confed HQ bombing. It is known that he wanted Tolwyn to inherit the position when he retired.
- Brigadier General "Big" Duke Grecko: a man named for his attitude (pugilistic), not his stature (5 feet 1 inch). The only survivor of the Confed HQ bombing, he becomes Chief of Staff of the Confederation's military; unusually for the position, he then leads the boarding offensive of the Hakaga carriers. He is killed during this action.
- Admiral Vance Richards: head of ConFleet signal intelligence, he is the ranking officer aboard the Tarawa after Tolwyn's departure and helps to supervise their intelligence-gathering mission.
- President Hans Kruger: elected government officials are immune to arrest and trial, making it problematic that Kruger, a deserter, is a convicted felon. Holds a healthy disdain for the Confederation after their "strategic withdrawal."
- President Harold Rodham: the president of the Terran Confederation at the signing of the armistice. Resigns after the discovery of the Hakaga fleet, with Vice President Dave Quinson replacing him.
- Foreign Minister Jamison: first name unknown. Her son was lost in a Tarawa-style raid, but not killed—the Kilrathi allowed her to discover that he was being held hostage. From then on she is their willing agent, and does her best to foment political chaos and slow down the Terran remobilization.
- The Emperor: true name unknown. The leader of the Kilrathi Empire, a place far less unified than it appears on the surface. He has long nurtured the clans' mutual hatred, a brake on Jukaga's ambitions, which involve uniting the clans under him and deposing the Kiranka.
- Crown Prince Thrakhath nar Kiranka: heir-apparent to the Kilrathi throne and only remaining blood relative of the Emperor; his uncle and older brother were both killed in the war, and his father executed by the Emperor for drastic failure. He personally leads the attack on Earth, but fails to heed Baron Jukaga's expert advice, pushing humanity into suicidal fanaticism in defense of their homeworld.
- Baron Jukaga nar Ki'ra: the head of the Ki'ra clan, which considers itself more noble than the Emperor's Kiranka line. Jukaga, as master of spies, is one of the very few, perhaps the only, living Kilrathi to have studied Homo sapiens with any level of intensity, and he comes to respect them greatly; his unprecedented betrayal at Earth is the only thing that saves the planet's biosphere from total destruction.
- Hakaga-class carrier: six times as dangerous as a conventional carrier, but only twice as armored and seven times more expensive. What becomes of the unfinished seven is unknown.
- IFF Missile: not an Image-Recognition warhead, and not a Friend-or-Foe warhead, but... Both. This Kilrathi round, first used on Hunter by a Strakha stealth fighter spying in Landreich territory, is fire and forget, but cannot be spoofed using any sort of traditional electronic countermeasures decoy. Paladin later reprograms a chaff decoy to put out the transponder signal of a capital ship, which does distract IFF rounds. What becomes of these missiles after the Battle of Earth is not known.
Forstchen, William R. Fleet Action. New York: Baen, 1994. ISBN 0-671-72211-5.