Just prior to the Treaty of McAuliffe
The rays of light from a noon sun flashed overhead in a perfectly lavender sky. Smoke curled up and dulled the intensity of it, reaching up and spiraling towards the heavens.
With the incense clasped between his hands, Yu Fei Leung, callsign "Phalanx," knelt down and stuck it into a pot sitting in front of a tombstone. He reached out and touched a finger to the photograph, then traced it down along the cool, smooth rock, to the name.
And though tears began to well up within his eyes, Phalanx held them in. He'd seen enough death that he was just about cried out of tears. He heaved a heavy sigh, and then stood, staring hard at the Chinese characters inscribed on the stone. He tried to read it, tried to understand what it said, but he couldn't. He'd long since forgotten the language, and now he wished he hadn't. He could only make out a few characters, not enough to comprehend.
It didn't matter though. Mage was still dead, and ten thousand poems wouldn't bring him back now. Another car passed by the area and Phalanx jerked his head around. He didn't want to deal with Mage's family right now. It was somebody else. But he knew they'd probably be coming anytime now, it was a Chinese tradition to visit the graves of family members today.
Phalanx burned the rest of the money he'd brought for his friend, and then washed out the steel pail he'd used to light up the fire. He turned and faced Mage one last time, wished him well in his mind, and then walked over to his own car and tossed the pail into the trunk. He got in, punched in the destination, and lost himself in his own thoughts as the car navigated the roads on its own.
After the campaign against the Kilrathi in the Bush was over, Phalanx had returned home to live with his parents, scarred by the battles he'd survived... the battles that left him standing to bury the ones it had killed. Tired, weary of fighting, it'd been nice to relax and catch up on things with his parents again. But the ghosts... even if he couldn't see them, he could feel their presence within himself. His parents had tried to understand, they knew he'd been through hell, but... Phalanx wasn't even sure he understood it all himself. Sometimes he'd just be sitting in a chair, watching the Tri-D holovid, and suddenly he'd be on the verge of tears, his face buried in his hands.
He felt certain that this time, he was through with all the wars, all the fighting, all the dying. No more for me, he had thought to himself on many occasions. But Phalanx had always had a strong sense of duty, and he knew no matter how tired he was, he'd find himself in a fighter again, proudly defending the Union of Border Worlds along with countless other soldiers, each one ready to give his or her life without any hesitation.
But the dangerous thing was that, now... Phalanx actually welcomed death. Death would be a release. And even more dangerous was that he could not admit it to himself.
Later on, he arrived at one of the planet's main transfer points, and rode a shuttle up to the main space station, where he boarded a transport bound for Circe, and home.
Three days later...
After landing on his homeworld, Phalanx had decided to walk to his parents' house instead of taking a vehicle. Lately he'd found it very comfortable to walk by himself for long stretches, where the time would seem to stand still and he could examine his thoughts and feelings about the galaxy alone.
About two hours later, he strolled right up to the front door, unlocked it and let himself into the house. It was still morning, but Phalanx was exhausted from the time difference. His mother and father were there to greet him.
"So how was it?" his father asked. "Visiting your old friend, I mean."
He dodged the question, "I don't know. How is it supposed to be?"
"Well... it's supposed to make you feel better."
"I-I... I guess so."
"You're still blaming yourself," his mother concluded.
"No. I never did. But... I never had the chance to make things right between us before he died. And now I never will."
"He never hated you, you know."
"No, he just pretended like he'd never known me before."
"That's not true."
"How would you know? You weren't there."
"Look - "
"Look what? At first he was just being cold towards me, but then after Cub got killed, he thought I was some uncaring monster for sending him back out there into combat, that I knew he was looking for redemption and suicidal and I was taking advantage of it!! I don't know, maybe he was right. I should've died instead, I should've been the one to take that capship CSM missile to the grave with me!! I'm supposed to protect my troops, I'm their leader, I'm the one who's supposed to meet things first, and goddamn it, if there's any dying to be done, I should be the first to die!"
"See?! See what I'm talking about?" his mom yelled back. "You can't keep carrying this guilt around like some damn medal!!"
"You think I'm proud of what happened?"
"What? That's not what your mother said."
"Shit, it doesn't matter what anybody says, it doesn't make any fucking difference in the whole fucking galaxy. Now could you just... just leave me alone? Damn it."
Tired of talking, Phalanx half-dragged the rest of his luggage back into his room, slammed the door shut, and collapsed onto the bed.
He wasn't really aware of how long he'd slept, but Phalanx was gently roused from sleep by his dad.
"C'mon, dinner's ready."
Phalanx mumbled a reply and got up. He washed up and then sat down at the table, fumbling around with the chopsticks. He still hadn't gotten comfortable with them yet, having used a fork and knife for so many years in the military.
They all ate quietly, and when they were done and carrying the plates into the kitchen to be washed, Phalanx apologized.
"That's all right. We know you've been through a lot," his stoic father said.
"Oh yeah, have you heard about the recent peace treaties?"
"What peace treaties?"
"Christ, didn't you get any news while you were over there?"
"Not even while on the transport?"
He shrugged, offering only, "I don't know."
The truth was that, well, he'd been drinking.
His father looked carefully at him. He knew, but he didn't say anything. "Well, Mom and I watched the whole thing through. The ceremonies and all that. Of course, it took awhile for the news to get here. It all happened two days ago. Anyway, it was pretty exciting, I've got it recorded on DCD - you want to see it?"
Phalanx followed his dad to the holovid, where he grabbed the disk from a shelf and inserted it.
"So what exactly is this peace treaty all about? Who's it between? Us and Confed?"
"I won't spoil it for you, just watch."
It started out ordinarily. A TNC reporter, Barbara Miles, flashed onto the screen, a large crowd gathered around her. Everyone seemed to be in a good mood. After that, there was a parade of dignitaries and V.I.P.s making long winded speeches, all basically saying the same thing in different ways. And then there it was, a historic treaty signing, signaling peace between the Union of Border Worlds, the Confederation, and both the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans and its unrelated Ninth (or was it Tenth now?) Kilrathi Empire.
For some reason, Phalanx watched it with little interest. He knew he should've been overjoyed, excited. But what good was peace anyways? A lull between times of great violence. He used to believe in this kind of shit, with those damn politicians flashing their white smiles... what did they know? This treaty only made them look good, maybe winning them a few more votes. Did they really care? No, they had no idea what war was like. They had never gone to the frontlines, never fought and killed and watched friends burn in space. They squabbled over taxes and insignificant issues, and complained constantly about the military not doing its job while at the same time cutting and slashing more funding away from it, and not doing the least bit to help out. The bastards.
Now Phalanx knew better. He'd seen treaties of peace like this before... they came and went like the tides. Nothing ever lasts forever.
A few months
The comm unit chirped. He turned to see his mother answering it, and ignored it, turning to stare at the holovid again.
"Yu Fei... it's for you," his mother called.
"Who is it?"
"Rear Admiral Hanton."
Phalanx got up out of his chair and walked over to the comm unit, "Thanks."
"Uh-huh." With that, his mother went back to the dinner table to read a novel.
"Ah, Lt. Colonel Leung," came an authoritative woman's voice. The Tri-D-projected of Admiral Erin Hanton could be seen then nodding respectfully in greeting.
"Admiral Hanton. So what's up?"
"I'm letting you know that you're being reassigned to active duty."
Phalanx gave a snort. "Jeeze, I knew after Cynium that peace treaty wouldn't last long," he rolled his eyes. "But who knew that it'd die so quickly? So... Cats? Or Confed?"
The Admiral allowed herself a slight chuckle before speaking, "The Yan are on the move again."
"No kidding? I thought we buried 'em a couple hundred years ago."
"Well, apparently, not quite deep enough."
Phalanx decided to stop playing. "No, really - who is it this time?"
"I don't want to be talking about this over an open channel. It's nothing very serious, but serious enough... that you'll be taking command of a carrier's wing, flying the Bearcat." Admiral Hanton paused for a moment to let that sink in. "You're going to be stationed on the BWS Freedom, one of our Ranger-class light carriers. Congratulations."
Phalanx just stared back. He really didn't feel like flying unless it was to fight. But the Admiral hadn't let him in on any details about what was happening. Covert Ops? Unlikely, since Phalanx had always been just a regular pilot, and there must've been dozens of other people who had experience with that sort of thing, people who'd certainly do better than him. And no one in their right mind would send a Ranger-class carrier on a raid. Something internal? If so, it could make sense as to why the Admiral didn't want to tell him anything, not wanting to let it be known to the enemy that some were on to them. But who was the "enemy"? Fellow Border Worlders? Was the military being used as some sort of pawn in political maneuvers and back-stabbing? Internal... civil war?
"Huh? Oh ,yeah, yeah. Thanks."
"Report to Zulu Station in the Landreich ASAP, okay?"
"Yes, sir... ah, sir? We aren't having any trouble with the government, are we?"
Admiral Hanton laughed. "No, certainly not! All of our politicians are getting along just fine. Look, don't let your imagination run wild. No conspiracy theories, all right?"
Phalanx felt slightly relieved, "Okay, sir."
"Then good. Bye."
The monitor flickered, and then went black.
One week later...
After riding in one shuttle after another, stopping off at Border World military bases, he'd finally arrived at Landreich System's Zulu Station. And compared to all of the others he'd seen and rested in the past few days, it was incredible. That the previous space stations had been easily over two kilometers in diameter only made the fact that the station he was now looking at even more impressive.
Then, through the multitude of ships, he managed to spot the BWS Freedom. Straining his eyes for a better look, he saw spotted several maintenance and service bots drifting about her hull. As they got closer, the age of the carrier's design was evident. Despite a few modern touches, and and sparkling paint of a freshly-launched ship, you could sense how old the design was by the way her parts seemed not to come together perfectly.
But the fact that these ships were still being built was only proof of the design's toughness and grit. And Phalanx saw in her things he felt in himself. There was the grim determination... and also exhaustion, fatigue, not wanting to fight anymore... but ready to do it all over again because it was the right thing to do.
In his early days (he admitted that he was getting old now) he usually cherished this kind of moment, tried to slow it down in his mind. The ship looming larger and larger, his eyes and mind taking in every detail and savoring it. The anticipation of being a part of something and making a difference.
But seeing the carrier brought back visions of missions he'd flown. And watching her grow bigger in front of him made him somehow instinctively afraid now. It was like watching the same movie over and over again, and you always knew what was coming next, but you didn't have the remote control to rewind it or pause it or something. Another carrier, another tour of duty. Was this tour to be the same as all the others? Would he be watching friends die again?
Part of his mind reassured him that nothing was wrong. There was the peace treaty now, wasn't there? Then why the hell am I being dragged across eighty light years of space to serve on a carrier flying one of the Union's best fighters when I'm supposed to be on extended leave at this time? he replied to himself, the other half struggling with a response, Because... because... shit...
I knew it - I knew it!