PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 17 of 66 )
“ The Tiger Hunt ”
"Fang and claw, sharp eyes and alert
ears and the nose of a hunter,
these are the tools of the Ideal Warrior, but they are nothing without the
spirit and heart of a fighter."
- Kilrathi Proverb (from the Fifth Codex)
BWS Freedom; Flight Deck
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
0200 Hours, 13 Feb 2681 (2681.044)
God... we had every advantage, and it still cost us this much, Thrush thought. The Harbingers returned with a quartet of flyers and fighters missing. Thrush's feet dropped to the deck first as the others were still just now dismounting.
They walked like zombies, eyes unseeing, as they gathered round Breach's bird, huddling up as they always did after a flight. Doing something routine and clinging to it to keep their minds from the reality of what had happened.
This time, the circle they formed was smaller than it had been the last time. Heavens, Phalanx thought, he was so tired, so drained.
"Is everyone okay?"
A few nodded, some remained motionless with cold stares, but all of them clung to the hollow masks they had put on in place of their faces. What could he say? What could he possibly say that would make it better? Tell them they did a good job? They were all experienced flyers, they'd seen combat and seen death before... the shock of the last battle came from the losses they never expected to take. They had expected to own the fight right from the moment the Reapers got the drop on the Nephilim. Everyone on the squad was going over the battle again and again in their minds, wondering where they went wrong, where they might've gotten careless when they thought an easy victory was assured.
"We all went at it as hard as we could... don't blame yourselves. Whoever those Nephilim pilots were, they were very damned good, the best I've seen yet. We had them, but they fought hard," He sighed and screwed his eyes shut painfully, "and... we lost people out there. Still... together with the Reapers, we took them out, and they aren't gonna be gunning for anybody else now."
"We've never seen those motherfuckers use team tactics before," Thrush reminded everybody. "That last batch did. We all saw how they fought. What if they weren't an exception, but the beginning of a trend? What if all the Nephilim are starting to adopt tactics?"
Everybody was quiet for a long, long time. No one liked that possibility.
"Well, let's just hope those Nephilim were special somehow," Breach offered. "If they start fighting on a tactical level equal with us, we're fucked."
Owl shook his head furiously, "Damn it, no. We can't start thinking like that. We just have to hope that isn't going to happen."
There was general agreement to that. They were silent again, and then, Jolt unexpectedly asked if anyone would join her in prayer for the fallen. Phalanx looked down at his feet.
"What's the use?" It escaped Phalanx as barely a whisper, but they could all hear it. It was neither vehement nor hostile, spoken in a tone of resignation, but they took offense anyway.
Jolt glared at him, and then proceeded to kneel. He and the others joined hands in a circle, praying in their own ways. Phalanx removed himself, moving backward slowly. Pain racked at him and tears came to his eyes as he watched them.
They hadn't seen as much as he had. He knew the universe didn't make sense... virtue will not save you. Good people die, too. He thought back to all the people he'd ever known, how so many of them had so much to live for... it had never seemed as though they were people that fate hung a sense of doom over. His old squadron, his friends, his shipmates, and his ground crew... he'd seen too much, and his faith in justice was all but gone. He believed in doing the right thing, but he no longer had any illusions about the universe reciprocating in kind... no matter how noble your deeds or compassionate your actions, when your time is up, it's up. The pilots praying in front of him had not yet had their faith extinguished yet... they could still believe.
He'd done his share of praying and hoping. Lighting candles and burning incense. It didn't work. What was the use? Couldn't they see that?
Phalanx never stopped feeling the pain. But he had long since stopped believing that there were really any solid rules or logic that the world followed. No matter how shrieking or sincere the plea, heaven would not answer it. Heaven was deaf, blind, and mute.
BWS Valeria; Wing Commander's office
55 minutes later
"I already heard," Raptor replied, setting
aside a heap of paperwork he'd been working on. "How are you?"
"I'm fine," Phalanx lied across the ship-to-ship link from the Freedom to the Valeria. "I'm an old soldier, not a nugget. I can handle it."
The Valeria's Wing Commander didn't try to hide his concern. "Are you sure?"
"How are your pilots handling it?"
Phalanx hesitated. "They're.... they're handling it."
Raptor was about to say more, but Phalanx didn't give him the chance and changed the subject.
"Mirage did a hell of a job, taking down 3 of the enemy. And that last Nephilim pilot she fought was as good as any I'd ever seen. If she hadn't tied their leader up, he would've torn through us. He took out Stalker... and he would've taken me out, too. I was no match for him."
"Yeah, I know. She told me. Everybody's surprised, but there have been rumors about an elite group of Nephilim flyers for a while. Now we know who they were, and thanks to you guys, they're dust."
Phalanx looked away and blinked rapidly. "I'll send you a written report and copies of the flight records for review as soon as the techs are done transferring the data. We can check the markings of the Nephilim fighters for similarities to markings on other enemies that our forces have encountered."
Raptor nodded, "All right."
He shut off the link right away, just a tad bit hasty. Phalanx was tired of talking about the battle... he needed to be alone. With no one else around, he slumped in his chair. But his eyes took on a kind of manic frenzy as his mind rewound and replayed the day all over again. His hands twisted and adrenaline flowed back into his blood stream as if he was there again, in the midst of the fight.
He had let them down. Surely there was more he could've done. Something he could've done to save Stalker. He should've been able to take on the enemy leader. He should've done more.
His breathing quickened right along with the beating of his heart. Now the tears that had been held back came out... but rather than flowing freely, it gushed out violently as his face took on a gruesome look of pain and regret.
Run away... to run away from it all and escape. To have his friends return from the grave, to have it all back the way that it was. To be a child again flying fast through the air on a swing up into the sun, to be lifted by both parents on either side, hand in hand. To be anywhere else.
Anywhere but where he was now. He felt lonelier than ever. Most people he'd gotten to know were dead, and every one of the people he'd considered true friends were gone. What did he live for anymore? His parents still awaited him at home. He still had relatives elsewhere. But they were far away and they couldn't help right now.
No one to share the pain with, was there?
In a flash of anger and self pity, he decided to share his pain with the wall. He leapt out of his seat and pounded it with both fists until they were bloodied. He screamed in fury at the wall... even more frustrated because the wall didn't howl back in pain. He hit it several more times, then tore away from it, eyes tightly shut, stood stiff and screamed again... arms upraised to heaven.
He knew what it was to be alone. No one left to call friend, no one left to truly share feelings with. Acquaintances, but nothing more. Comrades at arms, brothers and sisters ready to fight beside him, but no one who understood.
BWS Freedom; Dining Hall
About the same time
"To Stalker, Scrambled, Apples, and Ripper." Owl downed his cup before the others followed suit.
Straggler smashed her glass into the table, cheap liquor coursing down into her uniform, and looked disgusted. It felt like a dream and a nightmare. A recurring one. It didn't matter that she'd fought and killed and seen death before.
Everyone wanted a way to break out of that cycle of horror. But there was no way out. No physical way out, save death. So they did the next best thing. All of them were a bit drunk. Thrush had already passed out.
"I don't understand it." Jolt whispered slowly. She set her drink down and spun the cup around in place.
"What don't you understand?" Breach muttered through clenched teeth. "It's war, and we're getting killed."
"Damn it, I'm not talking about that!" She snapped back. "I have been out there covering your ass! I know all about that, I was there, too!"
Jolt stood straight up, shoving her chair back, yelling down at Breach. He stayed in his seat, his shoulders sagging as he nodded in apology.
"Then what are you talking about?"
She sat back down. "Our CO."
"Phalanx?" Breach snorted derisively. "He's useless. I don't see what entitles him to be our squadron leader. What's he done that's been so special?"
"Exactly," Breach continued, leaning forward in his seat, "He's claimed what, a single kill against the Nephilim? Every single one of us has taken down more than that. And his skills as a leader? A joke. What actual leading has he done? Oh, he's been there at every fight, but that's it. He's just been there. Useless."
The rest of the pilots stirred in agreement.
"Yeah, but there's more." Jolt slid her drink from side to side. "I'd checked his record before, and I just don't get it. Even though he doesn't wear his ribbons, if he did, you'd know he's shot down over a score of enemy fighters."
"It's called age." Fortune pulled a hand up to cover a yawn.
Jolt looked around at the others, as if gathering a survey on their opinions. "I guess that might be it."
Breach shook his head, "It doesn't matter. Even if he was some hot shit top ace back then, it doesn't change what he is now. He stinks."
"Shit, if you check the rest of his record, you actually find that the last three squadrons he's had command of were just about destroyed. The Savage Dentists wiped out except for him, to say nothing of the royal fucking up received by 17th in the Incident and the 33rd in the Bush. Every squad he's led, he's led almost all of them to their doom."
Mouse picked himself up from the table. "Remember that first time we fought the Nephilim? I had to pick off two of the bugs that were on him. And just in that last battle, you guys - " He indicated Owl and Ghoul with a wave of his hand, "had to pull his fat from the fire. He's a liability. He's not pulling his own weight. I'm sick of it."
"Yeah... me, too."
Mouse went on, "Today, we should've won hands down. Hell, we should've beaten them in our sleep. But what happened? Phalanx blew it. If he'd managed to bring down his target, and do his part, that could've made the difference. You know what they say about chains only being as strong as the weakest link."
Backwash grunted, leaned back, and sloshed her drink around in its glass. "Well, what can we do about it?"
The implications made them pause, but it was apparent that they were seriously considering it. Border Worlders could be fiercely loyal, but reserved that stubborn loyalty for someone that they felt deserved it.
"We could leave him hanging on the next sortie." Gorge breathed, her expression flat as she said it. She kept her eyes fixed on the center of the table. "When we fight the next time, we follow some one else. Stalker was second in command, but she's gone. Owl, you're flight leader for Beta Flight. You're the most senior. We could follow your orders, fight together around you, and just ignore Phalanx and let him fly solo."
"We can't do that to him," Owl said quietly in a disbelieving tone. "It's wrong."
"Damn it, we can't be looking after him all the time. He's only good at getting himself in the enemy's gun sights. I'm sick of covering him, because he hasn't done the same for any of us." Gorge gripped the seat of her chair, glowering. "Stalker died because she thought Phalanx had her back, but he let her down! She had him covered, but he left her with no support. I say we let him down, too."
Backwash nodded in agreement. "I'm up for it. Owl, we'd follow you. Just accept it, and the next time we're in a fight, we'll be behind you all the way, and we'll do things your way. Screw Phalanx."
"Yeah," Gorge spoke with feeling. She nodded towards Owl. "Take over, man."
Backwash set her drink down and waved her hands at the rest of the pilots. "Well? You with us?"
Grizzly sucked down the last of his drink and wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve. He tilted the glass over and let the few remaining drops fall to the ground.
The others looked up at him. He nodded encouragement at them.
"I'm with you, Owl."
"Let's do this."
"Hell, the next time out, if the Nephilim don't get him, maybe something else will..." A flash of violence flicked through Straggler's eyes, her "speculation" actually half-serious.
Breach reached over and squeezed Owl's shoulder. "Accept it."
Owl looked at every single one of them. What they were asking him to do... felt wrong. Or was it? Was it really wrong? Or was this the best thing for the squadron? They were right. Phalanx had become a liability. Good pilots were dying, and it may not have been directly Phalanx's fault, but he was responsible for his pilots and he could've done better. Surely, he could do better than their current CO, right?
"I don't know."
Breach persisted, "Don't you agree with us?"
"I... agree with what you say, that Phalanx has not been an effective leader. But how does that give us the right... I mean, how does that justify mutiny? And how can you be sure that I'll do better than him?"
"His ineffectiveness justifies it! I trust you more than I trust him."
Owl was unconvinced, "Just because he maybe hasn't done the greatest job doesn't mean he's done the worst job."
"He's done a shitty job! Just accept it, Owl. We'll follow you instead. Just accept it."
"No." Owl shook his head. "No, he still doesn't deserve to be betrayed."
"And he doesn't deserve to be our commander!" Breach exploded.
It was quiet. The entire dining hall was quiet. Ventilation systems hummed on as the Harbinger pilots looked around. Others had fixed their attention on them. It was some time before Breach lowered his voice and leaned forward. "What would you do it for? What would it take for you to do it?"
Owl shifted uncomfortably to the other side of his seat, "If I knew for sure I could do better. If Phalanx admits he's not fit and steps down."
"And you'll do it?"
"I'll do it. I'll take over."
About the same time...
He tried to will himself to cry. He wanted to make sure he was still human. But no matter what, no tears would come. It was as if he'd cried himself dry, and he'd run out. Despite the pain in his chest, he just couldn't do it. And sleep would still not come.
Phalanx threw off the covers and sat up. He rubbed his face, and then planted his hands on his knees.
He looked across to the nightstand, to a picture encased in a silver frame. It was the only picture he had left of his buddies. The last picture of them all together at once. Omega, Orion, Sting, Halo... and him. He reached out and picked it up, and covered up the others one by one with his fingers until only he was visible. The last one.
They'd all sworn to live together. To make lives and spend their days together like brothers. What life was there left for him when the rest were gone? What did he have to look forward to? He peeled his fingers off of the others and looked them each in the eyes. They were all smiles, all confident of the future. If only they'd known their fate. He looked himself in the eyes.
If only you'd known, he thought to his image in the picture. If only you'd known what would happen, you wouldn't have been smiling. You'd have been weeping. He felt a sudden irrational flash of jealousy towards his past self and had to actively resist the urge to fling the picture to the floor. He succeeded, but just barely. The picture was lofted above his head, and he slowly lowered his arms and brought it down.
"Talk to me, guys. Tell me what to do. Tell me what I can do to... to end this all. How can I destroy them? How can I destroy every last... enemy?" He sniffed and half laughed, half whimpered. "How can I even know who the enemy is? We fought the Kilrathi... and then I had to fight Confed. Now I'm fighting alongside them both to try and survive against the Nephilim."
"How can I end it? I'm tired." Phalanx's chest spasmed in pain. "Talk to me, guys. Please. I miss you. Please."
All he got were the smiling faces. "I miss you guys."
That night, unaware of how or when sleep came, but falling asleep nonetheless, a murky nightmare brought him screaming awake. He'd been flying in formation, holding the center in a wedge of Arrows. Suddenly, fighters left and right started exploding one by one, killed by an unseen enemy. Straight down the line, they died, until the Arrows right beside him went up in flames. He ejected frantically, knowing he was next, and was rocketed to safety, but... the images still burned in his retinas, images of corpses of slain pilots... except the pilots weren't dead. Their grotesque forms had reached out towards him as he floated in an ejection pod. They swam up to him and pounded at the pod, pointing accusing fingers at him.
BWS Freedom; Flight Wing Briefing Room
0730 Hours, the next morning
Gorge moved to sit down as the meeting began,
but kept her glare fixed on Phalanx. She sneered contemptuously, feeling
confirmation about what she'd thought about him. He looked utterly pathetic.
Phalanx waited patiently at the podium as his pilots sat down. He rubbed his eyes and coughed. He kept his face down, towards the floor. He didn't have the energy to look them in the eyes, and instead kept his focus on the list he'd made.
"I've called this meeting to deal with a few things. First, because of the... losses... we took last time, I'm reassigning the flights. Flight leaders will be me, Owl, and Jolt. That's Alpha, Beta, and Delta flights. Alpha Flight will have Mouse, Ghoul, and Thrush. Locust, Whip, Breach, and Straggler in Beta flight. Fortune, Backwash, Gorge, and Grizzly are in Delta Flight. Second, I was thinking we could review what happened out there. Now I know every one of our fighters recorded the fight, but I want what's important, so each of you should have a report ready. At our next meeting, you'll go and present the reports to each other... maybe we can glean some insights from one another."
"How about we glean some insights from you?"
Phalanx looked up. "Breach?"
To his surprise, the pilot stood up threateningly. "How about you share some of your wisdom, eh? We'd all like to hear just how you think the rest of us could've done better."
He thought about it. Maybe they thought he was accusing them of not having done their best. Maybe they thought he was saying, in an underhanded way, that there was more they could've done.
Phalanx regarded him wearily. "Maybe we couldn't have... done any better than our best. Sometimes your life is in your own hands, and sometimes it's not entirely in your control."
"You mean like how Stalker's life was yours to save?"
"What's that supposed to mean?" He spoke quietly, but there was no mistaking that he'd been put on edge by that remark.
"You know what I mean." Breach went offensive.
Phalanx still had no idea what game he was up to. "No I don't."
"Humph. You're telling us that maybe we could've done more... what about you? I say you could've done a helluva lot better."
Like embers blown upon, his eyes flickered with anger, but his voice was resigned. "You are out of line, Captain."
"Oh really? Or maybe I'm just saying something you don't like to hear." Breach folded his arms across his chest. "The truth."
Mouse joined the assault. "Yeah. He's not the only one, sir. You think you're doing the best possible job? Have you ever considered that maybe you aren't qualified?"
Barely realizing it, Phalanx brought his hand over his heart, his face in a terrible grimace. Memories of the past returned. His squadron wiped out one by one, each pilot gone down in fire to the Kilrathi. The loss of half his squadron to Confed forces in the incident, and the near annihilation of his squadron in the Bush.
"Well, have you? Have you ever considered that?"
Mouse was taken aback slightly by that... some of his fire quenched. But not all of it, and not enough to stop him, "Every squadron you've been in charge of - "
"Has been destroyed." Phalanx looked away. "I know."
"And you're doing the same thing to us." Breach stepped around the chair in front of him and moved forward. "It is our opinion that you are not fit to command this squadron. If we can prove to you that one of us can do it better, will you step down?"
Phalanx dropped a step back away from the podium. But where his squadron had expected him to gape in shock, he merely looked as if he'd considered this before.
The current squadron leader of the Harbingers and the contender for the position locked eyes. Owl gave a confrontational, piercing look, but the force of his stare was not met by equal force. Instead, he peered right into and through Phalanx's gaze, into an abyss deeper and hollower than he could've imagined.
Phalanx stepped around the podium and moved towards Owl. Owl stood up stiffly with his hands balled up at his sides.
"You want it?" Phalanx tapped his rank bar. Then he turned around and struck an exaggerated pose, gesturing mockingly with both hands at the podium. "You want it?"
He looked around and over his shoulder at Owl, his hands still indicating the podium. Then he turned again, slowly. Reached up to his rank bar, and removed it. He held it up, looking at it with a parody of a smile, hard bitterness written all over his eyes.
"You can have it." He flicked the bar across to Owl, who caught it. "Command ain't all it's cracked up to be. I've hated carrying the responsibility for a long... long time now. There. You can have it now. Good riddance."
He walked out, marking the immense silence with just one sound, the sound of his footsteps.