PHASE I : PRELUDE - THE ENSURED PROPHECY ( 20 of 23 )
: “ Ashes to Ashes
Beneath the sulfur-saturated skies, Major Aaron Floky of the 95th Confederation Rifles stood hunched over, a solitary shadow on the hillside. In his right hand he clenched his standard-issue Gauss Rifle by the shaft. In his left hand was a small detonation device. He looked down at it. Then out at the burning valley below him.
The station had fallen quickly. It was no surprise to him now. Civilians, scientists, neutrals. Why? They were his orders. His own squadron. Why? They were his orders. They were Confederation orders. That was why. He could still hear them screaming...
"Where's the Major? Where's the Major?"
He could hear them over the comm. unit as he scaled the hill. Still in their dying moments they were all loyal to their commanding officer. It could have been him down there, and some Colonel stalking up the hills. He dropped the rifle and the detonator, threw down his helmet and fell to his knees. Slowly he began to cry. He looked up to the yellow and black heavens and saw the angels fly. The valley suddenly erupted in a conflagration of fire and steel. The angels gone, his friends gone, he knelt, burnt, bleeding and alone. He screamed, and the flames roared back at him.
Eighth Confederation Cruiser
TCS Cicada (Murphy-class destroyer)
Masa System, Union of Border Worlds
January 28, 2681
Aaron awoke in a cold sweat. The sheets in his bunk felt completely saturated. He lifted himself out of bed and dressed himself in casual fatigues. He took a walk to the Cicada's flight deck. There stood, in full uniform, Viktor Konstantin, the Cicada's Captain and commanding officer in charge of the Eighth. He stood almost at attention, staring blankly into the dark void in front of him, mesmerized by the tiny pin pricks of light. Aaron's presence did not go unnoticed by the Russian.
"I love the stars at night," he said as Aaron approached. "There's no right or wrong in them. They're just there."
Aaron seemed to remember hearing that once. He rubbed his thin brown moustache and cleared away the small traces of sweat. He could use a drink. "A nice way of putting it," he replied. "Such a shame everything can't be that way."
"Can't sleep, Colonel?" Viktor inquired. "Bad dreams?" The Captain turned his head toward Aaron. He wondered if Viktor shaved with a bad razor, or if his hair grew quickly, the stubble on his chin was clearly evident. Although his thin black hair was balding.
"How could you tell?"
"I could smell you coming down the flight deck, Colonel. Quite simply, attention to detail." He grinned. Aaron forced out a laugh, and Viktor turned his head back to the view outside. An Excalibur on patrol flew past the deck.
Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Stein
finished her run past the Cicada and banked her Excalibur
left, away from the Murphy-class destroyer. The image
of another pilot crackled into view on her HUD.
"Hellooo Becky! Zero-two-hundred and all is well."
Rebecca frowned into the screen. "Thanks for the report pilot. In future I suggest you use either Colonel Stein or Breaker unless you want me to report you, Russ."
Jeffrey Russ materialized onto the screen again. "Always a pleasure, ma'am." A brief pause. "Alright, this is Major Russ and the Roving Guns signing on for patrol. You can finish your sweep and be done for the night, Stein."
"Roger, that Russ. Finishing my sweep. Stormriders, complete your runs and return to the Cicada."
"Heh. Did anyone ever tell you that you're butch, Stein?"
Rebecca glared into screen. "Did you see their faces after I finished with them, Russ?" Russ' Excalibur streaked past mere meters from Stein's wing, her head jolted as he glided past. She turned back to his cackling image in the HUD. "And to people who start hot-dogging around me?"
Stein brought her Excalibur to a rest in the Cicada's hanger, and slid down the ladder. At the edge of the flight deck two of the other pilots were talking to the Captain and Colonel Floky. She ignored them and went to the Pilot's Lounge.
It was empty save for a few
pilots drinking silently at a table. Soft music hummed through
dull speakers. She ordered a strong bourbon. Three drinks
later she was hanging onto the glass to keep from falling off
the chair. It wasn't working. Although she wasn't drunk, she was
losing eye coordination. Rebecca whipped back the remainder of
the drink, stood up, turned and slammed face-first into the Colonel.
"Feeling a little tipsy, Miss Stein?" Aaron helped her back into the chair. She flipped the hair out of her frustrated face and forced a grin. He smiled back slightly.
"Uh, no, Colonel. I'm fine, really. I was just going... uh... get some sleep." Marines, she thought bitterly. Even former ones were pains.
"Looks as though you might have got some even if you didn't leave the lounge. Can I give you a hand?" He helped her up, much to her refusal.
"Thanks," she said hoarsely. "Don't know what I'd have done without you." She gave him a stiff glare as she stalked out of the lounge. Aaron laughed under his breath.
Russ pulled his Excalibur hard
to starboard as he spun around the back of a cruiser. He then
rested the stick to the center and glided down her length. Ahead
of him something ignited. His HUD buzzed into life and the face
of a young pilot appeared.
"Major Russ, my starboard engine just blew, I'm losing control, I can't hold her steady." Russ frowned.
"Son, you calm down and steady your grip on that flight stick. Now I want you to steer as best you can, and land her on the Cicada." The pilot's fighter broke left towards the destroyer. "TCS Cicada, this is Major Russ. Request authorization to land - my wingman's engine just ignited. Ready a medic and a repair crew."
"You're clear to land, Major. Crew is en route."
Russ brought his bird down onto the flight deck, and scrambled down the ladder. An officer barked orders over the intercom system. He ran to the Captain's side and waited for the flaming bird to come in.
Colonel Floky and an emergency
crew came rushing out onto the flight deck. The Excalibur started
to run off course. The officer could be heard over the intercom.
"Pick up your right wing! You're drifting right! Power, power! Wave off! Wave off!"
The Excalibur's right wing crashed into the Cicada. Shards of steel scattered in all directions as the ship tumbled across the flight deck, crumpling and buckling. She was then immolated in a sudden gush of hellfire. Emergency teams rushed to quell the burning hunk of molten metal. "Fire on the flight deck!" The radio barked.
Aaron skidded up next to the Captain, panting coarsely. "Hell of a night, Colonel," Viktor stated matter-of-factly. Aaron looked up at him perplexed. Viktor handed him a sheet of paper. "Read that."
Aaron began to read the paper aloud, "Incoming emergency action message. Proper format, recommend alert one. Confederation forces engaged on the Border Worlds Front. Fleet Act..." His voice trailed off. He looked at the Captain. "Sir, this message is incomplete."
"I know. It was intercepted by Captain Krugan of the Atlas, and although it is incomplete, we must assume the worst. We'll clear this mess up shall we?"
Aaron wiped his lips with the back of his hand. He could sure use a cold one. Outside in the cold void of space, a large hunk of metal spun wildly into the cruiser, and bounced harmlessly off.
Eighth Confederation Cruiser
TCS Atlas (Plunkett-class cruiser)
Captain James Krugan stared through the reflection of his scarred face on the communications screen on the bridge of the Atlas. From here he surveyed the action on the Cicada's flight deck. The crew where smothering the blazing wreck of the Excalibur. A couple of the officers seemed to be barking orders out amidst the confusion. He turned to his executive officer, "Did you send the message?"
"Aye, sir," the young man replied. "Incomplete, as you requested."
Krugan laughed beneath his breath. See how the old man handles this one, he thought. Something crashed into the front of the Atlas and screeched along her surface. Krugan's concentration broke and rushed over to the sensor console. "What the fuck was that?"
The operator tapped a few buttons, "Computers chewing on it, sir. Nothing appeared on sensors." She looked up at him. "Still no contacts."
"You find out who that is." Krugan's voice started to darken.
The young officer ran up to the Captain's side. "Sir, mess reports debris from the wrecked Excalibur drifting off to port side. It's the wing, sir."
Krugan frowned at the boy for a moment, then let out a sigh of relief. He looked around at the officers. Each one was staring at him like he was a fool. He felt like one. He composed himself. "Carry on," he said with a sweeping gesture of his arm. It was going to be difficult for them to forget the time the seasoned Captain panicked over a hunk of space debris. Time would tell.
Eighth Confederation Cruiser
TCS Awesome (Murphy-class destroyer)
Samantha Bethor, Captain of the interestingly-named TCS Awesome, tossed the transmission amidst the piles of paper on the desk in front of her. She leaned back into the chair and surveyed the mess. Oh what a mess. As far as the other captains were concerned, especially Davis, Krugan, and Konstantin, Bethor was a rookie.
She'd been a captain no more than a year. Their careers dated back to the Kilrathi Wars. Krugan had even fought a Kilrathi warrior. He never spoke of it, but speculation was that the Cat had struck him in the eye, the reason for the scar that sheared the right half of his face. Rumours persisted that he wasn't mentally stable. Who could blame him? Konstantin, even being the brilliant tactician he is, had often been considered a senile old fool.
She wondered why he had chosen her to command the Awesome. She would have been content with a corvette, but she was posted on a brand new destroyer with a bunch of veterans forming the rest of the wing. They would be observing her actions, too. The unofficial standard procedure, but there was no messing up now.
Something big was underway.
She felt that Krugan knew exactly what it was, he was pulling
Konstantin's strings. More than that, he was playing with the
whole fleet. What was he up to? What were his motives? Suddenly
a message buzzed into motion on her terminal screen.
"Incoming emergency action message. Proper format, recommend alert one. Confederation forces engaged on the Border Worlds Front. Fleet action to commence upon dispatch of this message based on confirmed skirmishes in Tartarus and Dakota. ConFleet in the Masa System is to proceed to the rendezvous point and converge with Border Worlds forces effective immediately. This is the Admiral."
Sam rushed to the window in her office. Outside the flagship TCS Atlas, followed by the other cruisers and destroyers began to come to life. In her mind she could hear Krugan cursing from the bridge of the Atlas.
She left her office and rushed
to the bridge where the other officers were making preparations
to start transit. She saluted the officer in command.
"I have the bridge."
"Captain has the bridge," the officer chorused, and returned to his station.
"Helmsman, come to port one hundred eighty five degrees, set speed for standard. We're heading for the rendezvous." She breathed out slowly, trying to relax herself. She stood looking out the viewports. Somewhere out there was the beast, and he was hungry tonight.