PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 2 of 66 )

: Puppeteer
PART 2 OF 2 : THE ENCOUNTER ( or : INTO THE MAELSTROM )

“My God… it’s full of stars!”
- Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey


CARRIER BATTLE GROUP AURIGA (CVBG-A)

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Rec Room
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 11 2681/2681.042; 0823 Hours (CST)

In the expanse of the pilot country’s rec room, there was a long, uneasy moment of silence between those at the 397th Aztecs’ table.

It was easier when one of their own simply crashed and burned before their eyes; no ejecting, no being captured by the enemy, and certainly no crash-landing on planets. Yes, so much easier when there was no question, no lingering doubt about the fate of their comrades.

Major Angela “Draft” Rai -- her promotion confirmed and made wholly official by the Colonel an hour ago, the current Squadron Commander of the 397th SFS Aztecs with Ronin just-as-officially being declared MIA -- tried to maintain some sense of order among her fliers. It was her duty. She didn’t ask for the responsibility of being the CO, but then neither had Ronin when The Orchin Man bit it. 

The Aztecs went on to wonder about Ronin, both out loud and to themselves, while Draft continued to indulge her private reverie.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Captain’s Cabin
0834 Hours (CST)

He had been part of it. He still is. The Plan. Yes, it was still there, if thrown back a great deal in the present day. Divided more than ever it was now, divided into a mottling of splinter groups -- leftovers from the Hunt-Down, those who wasted much time debating with one another who had the right to lead while at the same time agreeing to disagree enough to still continue The Plan. It was missing the central figurehead that Tolwyn had been, to be sure. Additionally, as of late they had to take another setback.

Admiral Victor Rayak was no more.

Rayak had joint late. It was during the Hunt-Down. He had joined from the hunters just to become hunted, too. In the meantime, Victor Rayak had become somewhat of a key figure for The Movement, if a stilted one… though no more than Admiral Petranova had been a decade before. The Plan remained unchanged while the interim objective -- to reach a level similar to what they had in 2672 -- had now been labeled The Movement. Rayak had been just about to become that leader Tolwyn had been. Now he was dead. Just when they had risen a bit stronger again and they were beginning to push back -- they had been pushed around for too long -- Rayak went down on the Bunker Hill. Damn, Rayak was not supposed to be on the ’Hill. Why had he changed the plan? Does it start all over again? Was there yet another shift in the emphasis of The Project; of The Plan? It was a tragedy. Who could you still trust? Vandermann wondered idly whether or not Rayak’s twin sister that also served in the Vega Sector had ever been introduced/indoctrinated to The Plan.

On the spur of the moment Captain Eldon Vandermann swung over as he began to question his involvement in The Plan still. But can The Plan still be achieved? First of all, could The Movement succeed? Is it still right, Eldon, to serve The Plan? he asked himself.

“I cannot let go... either,” he spoke aloud.

Let’s just face it, Eldon, the Captain thought to himself. The human race is an endangered species in this galaxy. And we do not seem to be destined to survive among the stars. The Plan has every right of existence, even more with the emergence of the Nephilim.

The Plan is right. The way we went it last time may have been wrong. The methods chosen were definitely wrong. Chosen by even Tolwyn. But what is the right way? Where is the right way? I know there is another one. There must be one. I need to find it.

And I must find my way. I need to resume the initiative again. Cannot allow it to be directed. Manipulated... controlled like a puppet. I am the one in control. I need to be the one in control. It all needs to get back on track. I must have it my way or I go down. We all go down then. There is no point in dying, in all of us dying. Yet some might need to have. But not Turner. His death... damn, why must he have sneaked around...

Gaining control... got to be the man pulling the strings. My way -- I will have it.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Rec Room
1254 Hours (CST)

R&R wasn’t all it was cracked up to be for the pilots of the Forge's 71st FW. Still recovering from Nephele’s vicious Operation Scour, many had been tested to the breaking point and being forced to turn to their fellow pilots the answers known to none.

“Hey, Klepth, what’s buggin’ you, man? Ha-hah!” 1st Lt. Ken “Yeti” Ridegly teased and slapped Lt. Bousdoukos on his shoulder as he sat down at the table in the rec room that had become recognized as the White Hopes’.

“Leave him alone!“ 1st Lt. Sophie “Mystique” Eloui attacked Yeti rather curtly. “They examined Voodoo’s bunk and locker this morning.”

“Okay, okay!” Yeti defended himself, slamming his empty mug down. “But what’s so special about that inspection?” 

Mystique stared ferociously at Ridgely, acting as if Yeti did not know that Klepth and Voodoo had been some of the closest friends on board. 1st Lieutenant Kenneth J. Ridgely once more behaved like a bull in a china shop. This guy has no sensitiveness and tact at all... a pity, Mystique thought to herself.

“Major Nawazaki’s quarters were inspected in the barracks, too. They rooted his shit up pretty good in there, by the look of it,” Ridgely continued, evidently not noticing Mystique’s look. “That’s just normal. Ahm, I mean that’s the usual procedure when someone is killed. Ahm, sorry, ahm, I meant… oh, think I better bite my loose tongue and drink my Fosters, y’know?” Yeti silenced himself, probably wisely.

“Who examined it?” 1st Lt. Mark T. “2Pack” Dukovski, expecting yet another conspiracy theory from Mystique, asked bothered.

“Colonel Trebek and Major Holmes,” Mystique answered.

“Major Holmes?” 2nd Lt. Ted “Buffer” Snugbelly inquired curiously. “What’s the shrink got to do with it?”

“Wow, good! Now, that’s interesting. What a good question, everybody!” Mystique agreed. She had not been suspicious this time.... no, that was before Buffer had raised his question. 

Oh, Buffer, you big blockhead, 2Pack mentally grunted.

“He knew it,” Klepth spoke up, shaking his head, hung low at the moment.

“What?”

Klepth raised his head and looking through them he repeated. “He knew it.” 

“What? Knew what? Shit, who are you talking ’bout?” Yeti asked anew, totally perplexed.

2Pack pulled him back into his seat, knowing the answer and subtly signaling to Yeti that he should keep it cool and let Mystique do the questioning.

“You’re talking about Voodoo, right, Greg?”

Klepth, absent-minded, reviewed yesterday’s morning in the Command Ready Room.

“Well, we met in the Briefing Theatre. As usual, we sat together. Mo was strange this morning. Nervous. Restless.” He winced at the raised eyebrows. “No, no, more than usual. Not a bit the devil-may-care attitude he normally displayed. Further into the briefing he grew more and more tense. When I finally asked him about it in the Ready Room he was putting it down; telling me that he was feeling just a little unwell. I though knew that there was more. So I did not let up until he told me at last. Loads of weird stuff, I can tell. Spontaneously everyone at the table was staring at Lt. Eloui. Mystique made big eyes and slowly jiggled with her head, not comprehending. Klepth, who did not notice what was going on around him,” he carried on. “Well, you know how he is.”

Captain Isabella “Lollapalooza” Pinto shook her head in solace as she stopped running her hand so feverishly through her hair. She had been trying not to think of Voodoo -- the White Hope their squadron had left for dead -- knowing well how close she herself had come to suffering a similar fate as his not too long before. SAR had saved her... Mo wasn’t so lucky. “What exactly did he say?” she asked.

“Not much, but he said he had a strange feeling,” Klepth replied. “That... something was going to happen to him. With him, actually.”

“With him?” Yeti was interested. He could not hold back any longer. He was given yet another vicious look from Mystique.

“He spoke of destiny. His destiny. He mentioned some final confrontation that time had come. Despite his outer tension there was a great peace about him as well. The way he spoke was calm. He was somewhat detached… spoke as if reviewing something that laid irretrievably behind him now, as of this morning. He told of his preparations. He was even melancholic. He spoke about his life as if he had lived through it entirely. Like we use to speak about our childhood or even the Academy. About something that’s over. Gone. That only lives in our memories.”

“You mentioned some preparations, Gregory. What preparations?” 2nd Lt. Kyra “Moonlight” van de Frost asked.

“I don’t know. I think for this final confrontation.” He could not tell them what Voodoo had really said. They would not understand it anyway. They would only laugh at it -- at him -- just as they had smiled so condescendingly at Voodoo’s peculiar voodoo customs.

Everyone was stunned and looked around the table, each one seeking their own explanation. 2Pack was the first to pick up. He threw back his head and ran his fingers nervously through his curly dark-blond hair, scratching his scalp.

“Oh well. Great, Greg! Let me get this straight. You’re saying Voodoo knew what would happen to him?”

“Yeah, in a way…”

“No, no. Hold it, man. Hold it. Hmmm, let’s take it that he knew that something would happen to him.”

“Lieutenant Bousdoukos, please proceed to the MedBay on Deck 4, Section 10. Lieutenant Bousdoukos, please proceed to the MedBay on Deck 4, Section 10,” the PA on the ceiling annoyingly close to the White Hopes’ table crackled to life.

“Huh, uh-huh, now they got you. You should have kept your mouth shut as well, Klepth!” Ridgely poked fun at Bousdouskos. As some more White Hopes joined in -- namely Kingmaker, Django, and Buffer -- Klepth left the table while the cheering continued on unabated.

They do not comprehend it. They would never get it. Honestly he, Klepth, was not fully sure he understood it himself. 

No, I can not tell them, he thought. I couldn't if I wanted to, and there's no sense in it. It regarded spheres that were literally beyond him. 

Beyond him, yes, just as much as it would be beyond them, too. Beyond them all.

 

TCS Valley Forge; MedBay
1307 Hours (CST)

“Ah, Lieutenant, please come in and have a seat,” Major Holmes invited the White Hope pilot. “Well, the reason for our talk here is… hrm, you know Lt. Ayibobo was… shot down over Nephele II.” She cleared her throat, likely for effect. “There is the matter of the Aztecs’ Major Nawazaki as well, but right now there is… little evidence that either men… ahm… moreover the current situation there suggests that they may… likewise that he is… Well, Lieutenant, it is rather safe to assume that they…”

“Yes...?”

The Major regained her all-business composure, trying to recover from a bad start. “Forgive me -- it is most likely that neither men made it, nor that your own Lieutenant Ayibobo did not survive. In all probability, that is.”

“Major Holmes?” Bousdoukos posed, not knowing what the med officer was aiming at. “I don’t understand.”

“See, I was asked do begin some investigations in my spare time, as Lieutenant Ayibobo had a… somewhat, shall we say… extraordinary… urm… hobby? Yes, hobby.”

“You were asked, Major Holmes? By whom, if I may inquire?” Lieutenant Bousdoukos maintained a watchful distance of suspicion.

The Major shrugged. “Fair enough. It was Lt. Commander Coliver.”

“The spook?”

“One and the same.” She smiled timidly. “And, please, while we’re here... call me Celeste. I prefer to work on a first name basis. Think that comes along with my primary job as psychoanalyst. It usually helps in getting familiar with the patient quicker, you know. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself... I apologize.” She smiled slightly discomfited, but still very charming.

“Am I your patient now, Celeste?” Bousdouskos asked, bewildered.

“Oh, no, of course not.” She laughed and threw back her long blond hair. What a laugh she had. It made his heart stand still.

“May I call you Gregory, Lt. Bousdoukos?” she continued, her pleasant voice very down-to-business at the moment.

“Greg,” he corrected her quickly. He also found himself surprised at having offered “Greg” instead of “Gregory.” Only his closest friends had ever called him that.

“Very well, Greg. Might you recognize any of these items here, by any chance?” She pointed to a couple of various objects that were arranged in a row on the table in front of him in no particular order.

He gave them a cursory glance, then gave the woman a somewhat curt nod. “Some of them, yeah. Aren't those Mo’s belongings?”

“Yes, we found them in Lt. Ayibobo’s locker and under his bunk. I think I know what this is.” She pointed to a voodoo doll. “But what’s that?” She indicated a small keg atop a pile of parchment paper.

“They are called 'Gads,' I think. Don't quote me on that.”

“How do they work and what are they good for?”

“They are a kind of spirited talisman. The Vèvès…” he noted Celeste’s quizzical look as he spoke, “… the information, a wish for instance, you know, written with authentic Saffron-Sang ink on the parchment, is carried on your naked skin for several days. Afterward it is burned on glowing coal accompanied with a certain ritual. The message of the Vèvès is transferred through the skin. It fills your body, your soul and acts a primary impulse for your subconscious.”

The shrink looked utterly perplexed, something seldom seen by the Major’s patients. “You’re thinking of Black Magic, right?”

“Not that Satan-worshipping, all-black-wearing kinda shit, but y --

“No, but certainly of those weird sacrifices of animals, of needle pierced puppets, of zombies, of sinister Houangas and Mambos -- the voodoo priest and priestess, if I recall -- of rites with dance and music lasting for days and ending in absolute ecstasy, yes? Is, ah, that what you have in mind?”

“Yeah... yeah, I honestly thought so.”

“Then you know nothing.”

“In fact, that’s true. Perhaps it is unprofessional of me, but I had always tended to think of voodoo as a sort of an outdated pseudo-religion.”

“No, it is a religion. And it’s not dead and it’s not pseudo. Not for the ones who believe in it,” Bousdouskos corrected her.

“Do you believe in it, Greg?”

“Of course not. But I know that there is truth in it and that it’s not merely bullshit as you may think,” he firmly defended.

“No, I didn’t mean that. I’m sorry if it sounded as such, Greg.” The Major took a breath, trying to retain her professional composure as best suited to a ship shrink. “Please... tell me a bit about it, would you?”

“Ahm, sir…”

“Please, it’s Celeste, remember? And yes, I really would like to know about it.” A hint of a smile then, perhaps a patronizing one. Never could tell with shrinks. “Or at least your take on it.”

Okay, I'm really not seeing the point here, but I've got better things to do than sit here and try to play hardball with the ship shrink, Bousdouskos thought to himself in annoyance. “All right, if you insist. Say, is there any coffee up in this place? I could sure go for a cup about now."

Holmes smiled, more than a hint this time but less than an all-out smile. "Ah, one step ahead of you, Greg -- I've already got some on the pot. It'll just be a minute, just go ahead and begin if you would and I'll bring you out a fresh cup when it's ready."

"Deal, Celeste." Bousdouskos sighed, then began, "As already said, Voodoo is a religion and it's been around for many hundreds of years now. Voodoo; vodun; vodou... not sure what the true pronunciation or spelling is, but I'm pretty sure you've got some multiple choice in that. Although its essential wisdom originated in different parts of the continent of Africa on Earth long before the Europeans started the slave trade with native Africans around the 15 and 16th centuries, the structure of voodoo was born in Haiti during the European colonization of Hispaniola, better known as Latin America."

"That I do know."

"Sure you do. Anyway, ironically, it was the enforced immigration of African slaves from different tribes that provided the circumstances for the development of voodoo. European colonists thought that by desolating the tribes, these could not come together as a community. However, in the misery of slavery, the transplanted Africans found in their faith a common thread.

“They began to invoke not only their own gods, but to practice rites other than their own. In this process, they commingled and modified rituals of various tribes. The result of such fusion was that the different religious groups integrated their beliefs, thereby creating a new religion: voodoo, an Afro-Caribbean religion that mixed practices from the Fon, the Nago, the Ibos, Dahomeans, Congos, Senegalese, Haussars, Caplaous, Mondungues, Mandinge, Angolese, Libyans, Ethiopians, and the Malgaches, I believe.

“The strength that the Africans in Haiti gained from their religion was so strong and powerful, that they were able to survive the cruel persecution of the French rulers at the time against voodoo. When the French realized that the religion of the Africans was a threat to the colonial system, they prohibited all African religion practices and severely punished the practitioners of voodoo with imprisonment, lashings, and hangings. This religious struggle continued for three centuries, but none of the punishments could extinguish the faith of the Africans, who did well in keeping their religion under a shroud of secrecy.

“From what I understand it was in the midst of this struggle sorta situation that the revolution was conspired. The voodoo priests consulted their oracle and learned how the political battle would have to be fought in order for them to be victorious. The revolution exploited with a Petr-ritual and continued until the Haitians finally won independence.”

“Hmm, it all sounds very rational to me. Why is it that people associate something mystifying and supernatural with voodoo? Is it because of the mental strength the oppressed Africans gained from it or that it had to be practiced in secret or simply that most people don’t know much about it?”

“All the reasons you just stated together provide a logical explanation as to why. Yet they don’t tell us the whole truth about the mystery of voodoo.”

“And the whole truth would be...?” Celeste prompted, impatiently.

“To tell the truth, I don’t know what the truth is. We had the logical explanation... I do know of things that cannot be explained logically.”

“Listen, Greg, everything can be explained rationally to at least some degree or another.”

“I’m afraid I can’t agree there, Doc. I suppose the magic of voodoo can be compared to the mysteries of Chinese mythology and the martial arts. Look into just about any religion and you can find accounts of long and thoroughly practiced religious beliefs that can’t be explained just like that.” He snapped his fingers to emphasize his last sentence.

“Hey, Greg, you’re an intelligent man -- ” the Major started, but was interrupted.

“No, babe, you listen to me and you listen good,” Bousdoukos called out loud, somewhat passionately. “Look, you’re a smart woman. Obviously. Haven’t you ever come across a position in your work where you’ve found there are virtually no boundaries for the human spirit? I ask because by the conclusion of the 20th Century all the latest, great philosophers and thinkers came to just that conclusion. They were and are convinced that from man to superman it is nothing but a little step. And that very deep inside, locked and inaccessible for the most, lies the divine spark in every human to raise beyond. I’ve come to the point at which I understand that long and devoted practice of a religion can get you access to that godly source.”

He broke off suddenly and shook his head bitterly. “But then I... I really understand only so much of it I don't want to sit here like some kind of Mr. Voodoo Expert -- I'm not, okay? Naw, I just talked to Mo a few times, enough to know at least enough about his practices or whatever you want to call them that I could respect them and understand a piece of a squadronmate's culture.”

“Understandable, of course, and that's a big part of why you're here. Now, Greg, was there anything strange you noticed the last time you saw him, Greg?” Celeste tactfully changed the subject, careful to keep the ball in her court.

“Why do you ask?” he hastily inquired, intuitively suspicious of the woman's motives.

“Oh, for no special reason. I just thought there might have been something unusual... something maybe worth bringing up and out in the open.”

The way Lt. Bousdoukos had reacted to her last question told her that she had found what she was looking for. “Well? Had there been something, Greg? Hmm?”

Lt. Bousdoukos looked ambivalent.

“There had been something, right? I know it. Come now, tell me. Greg...?”

Slowly, Greg started saying what he really knew. As he continued he became fidgety, falling into a broken and discontinuous way of speaking, “Mo is a nice, very upstanding guy, you know. Oh, man, I really like the guy. Shit, I love that jittery bastard, all of our squadron does.” He looked up at Major Holmes with tear-strewn eyes. “Ah, don’t go getting me wrong here, or anything. You know?” He fumbled abound both eyes. “I mean, he’s my friend. The best I ever had, I’d wager. Now, Mo is a bit freaky -- he’s crazy about his damned Reggae and Salsa music, about his herbs and the strange stuff he brews of it, about his omnium gatherum of weird utilities, like his almost Indian-like little decorations, his little bottles and kegs, his amulets and his relics of allsorts of animals. I don’t know where he got all this from nor from where he gets his supplies -- don't ask. You know, come to think of it he even had one of those shrink heads.”

“Hmmm...” The Major stifled a grimace. She didn’t seem to know what to make of it all, which was understandable.

“Yeah! Here in Vega, in the interim between the two Kilrathi Wars -- the planet and its system still the site of strategic importance during the Cold War-esque setting while the Cats wanted to weasel their way into Cynium -- he spent a number of years on Rostov System’s third planet among the Mopokes. Primitives, godless savages at a first glance. Years he told me their people had affected his life deeply. Parts of the early Mopoke religion, if it could be even called a religion at all at that time, were not wholly dissimilar from elements of the old voodoo cult. It was there that his inner faith was manifested... and it had been the place where he had learned of his destiny.”

“Of his destiny?” the Major asked, curiously.

“One day, a fierce looking god he had never seen or heard of before appeared. The god spoke to him, telling that his fate would it be to face the great-great gods, the ultimate god, the god of gods. He should look out for signs of it. It will start when the sons of God come. Mighty men which were of old, men of renown. The day of his final encounter with destiny he would feel both restless and calm. That day he would depart this life. Reallocated he would be. The blazes of God would strike high that day. He would be consumed the flames. The divine fire would enlighten him at last.”

“Was that all? What does it mean? Do you know, Greg?”

“No. That was not everything he had said, but I could not follow him any longer. It did not seem to make any sense to me. If I would not know better I’d say he was on drugs. He definitely had not been himself. I had never seen him like this before.”

“What’s that with the gods... men of renown, god of gods, you mentioned? Do these gods have any names?”

“Hey, to be absolutely frank with you this was as new to me as it is to you now. He never had told me it this way before. All I know is that ever since he learned about his fate, he's been preparing himself for it. He is convinced of his death in it... and strangely that's never really seemed to bother him all that much. But he's never wanted to just wait around, doing nothing waiting for this fate to hit him in the face, naw. So, you know, figure he’s been practicing his voodoo and that was why he joined the Space Force and why the Marines did not take him. I don’t know anything about these gods he was mentioning in this prophecy outside of what little he told me over some beers or that bitter shit he likes to bring to the rec room. Hell, I don’t even know who these gods are in the first place. As for names of gods he prays to in his voodoo... well, I remember only two. Eleggua and Oya.”

“What kind of gods are they? Do you know anything about them, or maybe Ronin's first...?”

“Ronin? As far as Ronin, you're talking to the wrong guy from the wrong squadron... but, well, I do know that Mr. Nawazaki had his own -- Shiva, Asura, Raiden... others, I’m sure -- but I’m probably just as well versed in all that Japanese mythology as you seem to be in voodoo. Not that I blame you or anything.” Klepth took a heavy, sorrow-laden breath. “But now back to Mo, as far as his deity-types, all I recall is Oya, the goddess of the wind, fire, and the thunderbolt. Wife of Shangó, once the fourth king of... Yoruba, was it? Not sure. She’s supposed to be strong, assertive, courageous, and independent, as well as is always willing to take risks. When she is enraged, she can create tornadoes and hurricanes, but these also happened when she is ready to make changes. Oya is a great witch and the guardian of the gates of death. She is invoked when there are serious illness or when transformation is necessary."

"Fascinating, Greg. Please continue."

“Okay, then there's Eleggua, and if I'm remembering right he's the owner of the roads and opportunities or something pretty much along those lines. He is the messenger between human beings and the other orishas -- gods. He is always the first one to be honored during any ceremony because without his approval, nothing can be accomplished. Also a healer and master magician, he can be extremely generous as well as cruel. He is the trickster. Eleggua is the one who protects the home against dangers, hence he is often kept close to the front door. His favorite gifts are candies, candles, toys, rum and cigars.”

“Oh, maybe then this puppet here could be him...? We found it at the bottom of the door of his locker.”

The puppet the Major showed him was smeared with the remnants of one of the pro-vitamin muesli chocolate bars they got regularly and that fatso “Buffer” loved so much. The Major lifted the little puppet with revulsion and sniffed at its rustic scent very carefully. “Pooh, that’s indeed rum, I suppose.”

The Major appeared to mentally recapitulate the interview and apparently came to the conclusion that she had heard enough as she addressed Lt. Bousdoukos. “I think that will be all for now. Thank you very much, Greg. You helped me a lot.”

“May I shoot one last question at you then, Celeste?" Not waiting for a nod or any "Yes," he fired away: "Just what’s this little conversation really all about?”

“Well, I tried to assess the chances…”

“That Mo is still alive?”

“Well, no… yes, to be honest. I sort of tried to figure it out, and you are helping me get a little better perspective on things.”

“And what do you think, Doc?”

“Don’t know,” the Major replied. “Question is... what do you think?”

“Ahm…” Bousdoukos started, but only to shrug his shoulders and to exhale heavily. Shrinks...

The psychoanalyst joined him, both of them heaving in a deep, mutual sigh.

Something else that she and Coliver had found later in Ayibobo’s shared barracks would leave her confused. It was the remains of some of the earlier spoken of “Gads,” the odd voodoo articles grinded into the side of his sink, she would discover. All was burnt, wet clumps of ash abound, but what could be contrived were the letters S U R V I. The next letter could not be identified and the last was anticipated by the Major to be an E.

If they read “SURVIVE,” what could it mean?

 

Elsewhere...

The Nephele System
Planet Nephele II; near Hightower Flats
1726 Hours (CST)

After yesterday’s airburst by the Lancers, the bugs left standing when the flash cleared were all dead or dying -- this unfortunately true of themselves as well -- though Voodoo, Ronin, and Stetson would have to maintain their vigilance just the same. 

In a moment of casual banter toward the end of the day, Lance Corporal Stetson scooted a little closer to Lt. Ayibobo.

“What’s that thing you wear, anyway?” Corporal Stetson pointed to the amulet Voodoo carried around his neck that was peeping out of his flightsuit’s collar.

During their time together they had been able to light a small fire. It had, in fact, been the Marine who had done it, using what Ronin had been able to salvage from the area around the perimeter of the decimated LC.

The fire would produce enough heat to keep them from getting cold -- the low humidity of Neph II made for freezing nights, no matter how hot it was during the day -- and enough light to see any Nephilim coming... in theory, anyway. Naturally the fire would only attract the bugs, but the encounter seemed inevitable and none of the three seemed the type to run from confrontation. 

Their fate was sealed the moment their respective crafts had crashed. They lived on only borrowed time, time they had actually stolen through bold determination. Time they had stolen from death with the fierce determination to live. Time that was eventually just time to slow the unavoidable.

Lt. Ayibobo took off the amulet and handed it over to Stetson. “This is my talisman. It’s a thunder stone. According to the legend,” he intentionally made it sound like a tale, “thunder stones are blasted off the rock by the voodoo gods Sobo and Shangó, the gods of thunder and lightning, with a lot of noise, smoke and fire. Therefore god is manifested in the thunder stone with all his might.” In the White Magic Manger-Loa rites, these stones were prerequisite to get a direct contact with the gods of voodoo and access to other levels of existence. To not confuse them any further, he did not explain to them the latter.

“Voodoo, hmm? Now I understand where you got your callsign from,” Stetson replied and motioned to give the thunder stone amulet back to Lt. Ayibobo. The Lieutenant first took it but then considered otherwise. "I love that voodoo that you do so well, honey! Hah!"

“You,” he began with a shaking voice, “can keep it.” He cleared his throat. “It’s of no use to me any longer.” He cleared his throat yet again. “My luck has run out,” he added bitterly. Lieutenant Mo “Voodoo” Ayibobo felt totally shattered -- both physically and mentally. He was so weary, disillusioned and drained. Had he not tried it all? Most of his adult life he had devoted to his preparations; his rites of passage. What was left of it? He had thought he was ready. He had not been ready yet. How naïve of him to expect fate to knock on his door when it would have been pleasing to him. How inane of him to believe he would meet it in the cockpit with the complete weapon’s array full loadout at his disposal. How idiotic of him to even think to be able to meet in on the carrier with all of his magicks at hand. Never he had thought to meet it on a planet like Neph II. He had lost his equipment when he had lost his fighter. The amulet was all that was left. With it alone, as powerful as it was, he feared to stand up against his fate.

It was as Ronin would say... he was trapped in his own personal “rondo of blood.” The only way out was through. 

“While we're just milling about, you might get a kick out of this tattoo I have,” Stetson sort of chimed in conversationally. “It’s sort of my lucky charm.” Without shame, with a girlish smile crossing her lips, Kimberly lay bare the top of her breast. On the upper half of her left breast she had a fancy and respectably-sized black tattoo depicting a mystical circular sign. 

Ronin whistled in reserved admiration. He was just about to comment on it when Voodoo darted up without warning, grabbing the closest gun and rushing off to a point a little off which was still meagerly lit by the fire, then crouched.

“Hey, what’s gotten into you? Don’t you like my tits? Or is it the tattoo?” Stetson called, perplexed but still smiling mischievously. Usually no man ran away when she showed her tattoo. “Is he gay or frigid or what -- toss me a fucking line, would you?” she asked Major Nawazaki, then added upon his shrug, “What’s up with you, flyboys?”

“Sugoi na!” Ronin affirmed. “Oh, I like your tattoo, particularly the location of it.” He smiled, a little wickedly. The Major was only human, after all, and only male.

“The tattoo. Of course. Why haven’t I thought of it before?” Voodoo asked himself. “Surely it is very archaic. Have not used it very often... and certainly not for a long time. The Mopokes. Gods, the last time I’d used it was when I was still on Rostov.” With the outstretched bayonet of the M-48 he drew the appropriate sign into the sand.

Kimberly approached Voodoo. “Hey, pilot! Man, what the fuck’re you doing?”

“I’m trying to build us an exit,” he informed. “Damn, if I only could remember the ceremony… we need fire and… ah, most important, when the bugs come… we all must stay within the sign.”

“Why?” Corporal Stetson inquired, curiously. She didn’t comprehend why she even bothered to ask, as she had not been able to follow any of what Voodoo had said before.

“It’s very simple, really -- we must stay inside of it. Stay inside if you want to live. We must stay inside.”

“And then… How is this going to save us? Sorry, but I ain’t seein’ it, flyboy.” She rubbed at her itchy nose, watching Voodoo, in deep concentration at the moment. “Say, you’re not trying to cook up some kinda voodoo hex or something, are you?”

Voodoo shook his head, mostly in annoyance. “If I could only remember the ceremony. If I could only… rememb… damn it! Oh, they cannot get us if we’re inside.” Voodoo was nervously walking up and down, continuously babbling into his nonexistent beard. 

Stetson stared helplessly to Nawazaki, who could do naught but his shoulders. “Yes... I remember now,” Voodoo spoke again, a firmer, more decisive note to his voice this time. “The Voodoo Garde... the gri-gri protection charm...”

With that, Ayibobo began his chanting...

“... Mu prale mare loa petro
Hi Hi
Ja-Petro, chen ki chen
Li kase li
Ki dire kod, hi hi
Kya rele, dy dya kekekeke
Dya dya rele dya
Gede-Nibo, dya ke ke ke
Ke ke dya
Baro-Samdi, dya ke ke day
Radegnoe Baron-Samedi
Engarde cemetiere U
L’uvri baye dyok, wange
Kulev, kulev-o
Dabala-Wedo, Papa
U Kulev-O
Kulev, Kulev-O
M’ape rele Kulev-O
Kulev pa sa pale
Dabala Papa U Se Kulev
U we Aido-Wedo
Si nu we Kulev
Si U we Kulev
U we Dabala
Aida-Wedo se nu Kulev-O
Kulev, Kulev-O...”

Subsequently as Voodoo trailed off and his “garde” was complete, there was no more time. They were coming.

No, not coming, the trio suddenly understood. They were already here.

At first the three could only hear them. It sounded like a huge swarm of the hundreds of thousands of locusts that had been falling upon the family’s plantations back home in Kyoto, Japan on Earth, Major Nawazaki felt. It was the sound of insects. Quickly after -- out of the dark -- the Nephilim made their appearance, scuttling over the ground like some horde of oversized insects, indeed, Nawazaki realized. Before any of them could react, these giant insects had formed a looming gathering around their veritable fireplace.

To the pilots and Marine’s gratitude, none of the Aliens were going inside.

“Look! The fire keeps them away. They’re afraid of it -- they’re fucking afraid!” Corporal Stetson cheered. That cheerfulness vanished an instant later as one of the bugs -- out of nothing, seemingly -- shot straight after them. In the present state of mind she was in, the Marine tracked it down with her M-42 machine pistol, emptying the gun’s whole clip. Her first rounds just did not want to penetrate as they ricocheted off the Nephilim’s thoracic shell. The bastard literally dropped dead when it made its final leap by jumping over the fire. It fell right into the fire and killed itself in doing so.

Stetson’s last projectile was gone. The fire was gone. The time was gone. “Game over!” Stetson declared dryly.

“Not quite yet!” Voodoo replied and pulled both Stetson and Nawazaki onto the sign he had drawn into the desert sand. Time was gone. True. Time to think that was. Time to act though still was. It ain’t over ’till it’s over.

Stetson had no more than her C-288 pistol and her utility knife left. Nawazaki, “Ronin,” had the ancestral Tachi sword he had carried with him every time in the cockpit for only sentimental purposes... until now. Voodoo had nothing, but a plan. No. He had not even that.

“So what? Are we just going to wait here ’till they rip us to pieces one by one like animals? Sorry, don’t want to offend you, Voodoo, but are you actually buying this yourself… that they won’t do us no harm just because you painted the tattoo I’ve got on my tit into the fucking sand? Sorry again, but that’s not me. I rather go down fighting and bring honor to the Corps as it would suit a Confederation Marine,” TCMC Lance Corporal Kimberly Stetson of the Forge’s 97th Assault Detachment decided. She handed Voodoo’s amulet back over to him and gave Ronin her pistol. She herself pulled her K-Bar knife and gave each man, both absolutely disorientated, a passionate kiss on the lips. Then she threw herself at the very next bug and rammed her knife into one of its eerily dragonfly-like eyes.

“Oo-rah! Semper Fi, Do or Die, you ugly mother fucks!” Stetson barked, something like a battle-cry.

“En gardé...” Voodoo rasped, pistol in-hand. He looked focused, perhaps summoning the power of the ancients he worshipped to aid him in his hour of need.

“Come, wretched gaijin... cursed baka!” Ronin spat in challenge, pistol in one hand and Tachi brandished low in the other as he took a fighting stance. “Hut... hai!”  Nawazaki had a focus all his own, drawing his chi energies from within to surface for the conflict at hand. More so than ever before in the cockpit, he was the shogun now, the lone samurai -- the ronin -- defending honor and life alike, the odds stacked against him.

In short order, the conflict was on. Ronin was the second to dive into it, unloading his pistol at nearly point blank into a bug’s leering face while he skillfully impaled his Tachi under its tender lower mandible.

While Voodoo and Ronin waged their battle back-to-back, Stetson didn’t get very far with her own tactic. While the vigilant Marine somehow managed to drop her first bug, she turned to face her next opponent a split second too late. The woman was brutally pierced up in the thorax by the second Nephilim’s outstretched taloned fist. A third bug took notice of her, seeing her in her weakened condition, skittering over, and then ripped off her left arm -- the arm still carrying the knife. Another virtually impaled Corporal Stetson all the way up until its pointed tendril wrenched itself free through her skull.

The two men watched in apathy and agony as the young woman was slaughtered; was butchered. No time to think; only time to act.

“You are not the masters of yourself!” Voodoo addressed no individual Alien but the whole mob of Nephilim.

“Jes…” Ronin did a double-take at this strange White Hope guy. “What are you doing? My word, you’re not actually trying to speak to them, are you?” he shouted.

“I demand to speak to the true master, the one of which you are but the pawns of,” Lt. Ayibobo carried on regardless.

“What’s that kind of take-me-to-your-leader bullshit you’re doing?” Major Nawazaki blared, quickly losing his ever-collected calm. Face to face with death, this man was actually trying to drag death itself into some kind of afternoon tea talk.

“Whatever happens, Hishori, stay within the sign,” Voodoo repeated for the 999th time (or so it must have seemed then to Major Nawazaki). He would heed the warning.

The bugs slowly moved in for the kill, seemingly unaffected by Voodoo’s address.

“Have you lost your mind? What is to happen? We’re going to die, you poor, crazy bastard!” Ronin shrieked. On the edge of it he began to make a mistake. Major Nawazaki accidentally only half-crossed the outer line of the sign with his one foot. Almost immediately he was snatched away by the closest Nephilim, enfolded in its wiry, praying mantis-esque arms.

It is false, Voodoo contemplated. This is not the way it was meant to end. Where is the key? There must be one. “Take me to your leader!” rang in his head again.

“You are the stock. You’re subordinates... puppets of that which you serve. I demand to meet the puppeteer... your Mother Creature,” Voodoo prodded, guessing wildly, gave it one last try.

Ronin winced at the White Hope pilot, shooting him a horrified, helpless glance. “What in the hell are you doing, Voodoo?”

The bugs carried on, immune to the man’s words. As the first Nephilim entered the sign he froze in his movement. All the others instantly froze in their tracks as well They spoke as one: “The Mother Creature will meet with you, fleshling.” Everything outside the sign began to turn. Turning around the circle the sign described, this formed a column in the middle of which Voodoo was standing. Or am I the one spinning ’round? he asked himself.

The one bug that had half-entered the sign was being cut apart at the edge of the column with what was outside. Its thoracic corpse inside the sign was set alight and silently burned to ash and cinder, which fell down. The outside world dissolved into a blurry cascading crescendo of lines displaying dark colors.

When this spiral that had initially built itself up began to sink again until it vanished entirely, Voodoo found himself in what seemed to be another plane of existence. Or so he assumed. It was a vast plain. Smooth as glass. Shiny as steel, with no clearly identifiable horizon. The gray of the plane melted with the gray of the sky (or whatever this thing above him was). It did have a certain similarity to a cloudy sky on a rainy day when the real sky could not be seen. Under the cloud cover were flashes of light crisscrossing the firmament. They seemed to carry an arc on the cover along them, like a mouse sprinting under a carpet.

Where he had painted the sign flickered little flames, all following the lines of the symbol. Lieutenant Ayibobo was still standing firmly, undaunted in its center.

“Who are you?” he shouted into nowhere. Shortly after he heard his words resounding back at him from everywhere, yet nowhere at all. He was left unsure whether he heard the echoes of his own voice or whether his question was being answered by the Nephilim asking the same back. “What do you want?” he screamed. Again his question reverberated continuously with a quickly declining volume. “Where are you?” he cried and turned around at the same time as there was nothing that could be addressed directly. 

“Who are you?” It echoed back and forth. This was not the reverberation of his last question, but his first. Was it a response? “The one who shall challenge you,” he decided to answer anyway.

“You dare?” was the deep and hollow retort, seemingly coming from the icy vacuum abyss that was outer space. After a long pause in which Voodoo did not dare to speak nor move, the voice went on, “The transference -- the ancient way you used.”

He remembered one of his teachings as a child... A “zombi astral,” created when a black magician captures the ti-bon-ange of a person during that period when the soul hovers over the body after death. In contrast to a zombie, which is a body without a soul, a zombi astral is a soul without a body. The zombi astral is confined to a glass jar or bottle and performs deeds at the command of the bokor, never allowed to join the land of the dead or achieve a final rest...

Is that where he was? Limbo? No, there had to be more to it... so much more...

Voodoo’s heart went fast and hard. All different thoughts raced through his head, confusing him. Contrary there was a clearness and cool detachment on the other hand. He was sweating, yet he felt cold as ice. Then again at the same time he was hot. His whole body was trembling under the internal strive of those opposing powers.

“I know no other!” he spoke, wondering why he was not able to catch sight of his counterpart. Either I’m dead or I must be on some different level, he mentally guessed. The Astral Plane? Ethereal, perhaps? “Where are you?” he addressed his opposite number.

There was no answer.

Suddenly a long, thin and sharp tendril entered the room. The insectoid appendix, not being attached to anything apparent, hung in the air next to Voodoo. Its end could not be seen, as it must have been in another dimension. Or so his best guess was.

And the deep, throaty insectoid voice spoke up in a startling, thundering tone, “Here!”

The tendril began to go after Lieutenant Ayibobo. It was very fast and agile and apparently aiming at the back of his head. He was able to parry its first attack with his left underarm. The tendril went through the flesh of his arm and subsequently -- using the leverage -- quickly whirled him around. It freed itself and shot behind his head where it drove itself into his neck up his head.

“The Mother Creature offers you now the answers you seek. Ascend now, man-child... shed your mortal coils, for they will provide you no use from this point...”

What followed was totally beyond him. Not comprehending he did. Pain washed over everything. All was erased. He blanked out…

 

Nephilim Hivemind
[ Time Unknown ]

First there was the growing sense of solitude; the increasing cold. The cold remained in the moments thereafter, but that sense of solitude was short-lived.

A blanket of unforgiving darkness enfolded Lt. Ayibobo, a darkness from which the only escape seemed to be by surrendering his psyche to the collective consciousness -- the maddening collage of millions of melodic voices speaking over each other in a tongue he could not begin to fathom.

“Welcome, fleshling,” thundered the voice from before. Its speaker was nowhere in sight... but then not a whole lot of anything was in sight. He wasn’t even sure he still had any “eyes” to speak of.

“W-where am I?” he questioned his host. His speech sounded wet and broken in his head, though he couldn’t exactly hear himself speak.

“I can smell your fear... your uncertainty,” the voice carried on. “All of it... misplaced, man-child. Do you believe this to be your fate? You shall have it then!”

“Who are you? Where are we? Where do you come from? What do you want? What... what are you going to do with me?”

“I can see questions. Some of them might be answered; some of them already have.” After a short pause it continued, “Your all fate is sealed, man-child. You must not escape your destiny. It is inevitable… and you see this. We painted it among the stars when they were born. When you ridiculous infinitesimals were but dust. Dust is what you are to return to again. We are the great Destroyers; the Ravagers who continue the Harvest, yet we are the Progenitors and the Preservers of the universe. I am the benevolent Mother to it all; the Progenitor; the beginning and the end and everything in between your mundane Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory; I am God.”

“God...?”

“Yes, your God, the one true God and Savior, the center point from which all of Creation stems into the vast infinity of what you call the universe. You doubt me... is this so hard to fathom, man-child? Yes... perhaps it is for you.”

"But you speak to me in... in riddles!"

“Do I?”

Voodoo felt as if his life force had been drawn out from every pore his body and that what was left after the sapping -- what was mundane -- was only a husk. He was consumed by something new, something all-encompassing; something more than he was and yet ever so oddly... warm.

How inverse it was.

“The Star Gods”… if Voodoo could have picked any name for the Nephilim, now absolved, transcended, and integrated both physically and mentally into their collective hivemind himself as a kindred presence amidst billions, he could have chosen no more accurate of a name. How could his own people and the Kilrathi have been so blind, when all the answers they sought were right beneath their noses?

Suddenly, all of it made sense. The “Nephilim”’s true identity, their origin, the truth of their “Mother Creature,” the reason behind their entrance into Confed/Kilrah space. Ultimately, he found he even understood the futility of material existence.

Finally, Mo Ayibobo was flying free. He had been waiting his whole life for this moment, his manifest destiny at last wholly realized and embraced.

 

TCS Valley Forge; MedBay
1850 Hours (CST)

The questioning dragged on into the night between the psychoanalyst and Klepth, the discussion reaching a philosophical level while the reaching of answers was no closer than hours before.

1st Lieutenant Gregory “Klepth” Bousdoukos shrugged emphatically. They’d come full circle. “The Mother Creature... yeah, that's right. Mo was always saying he had to confront that thing, Doc, whatever it is... but what did he mean?

The name "Nephilim" itself was easy enough to research (while merely a TCIS codename for the Aliens; whatever the Aliens' true name was, that name that remained unknown), as it was becoming widely known courtesy of popular media, refers to the Hebrew word nfl, "to fall." They are literally "the fallen ones," angels that fell to Earth from the stars, slept with the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the sons of God, the Giants of the Earth, the heroes of old, and all of this happening supposedly before the flood [c. 6,000-8,000 B.C., i.e. the end of the last Ice Age] -- good reading and even research material, but that told a person nothing about the Aliens themselves. But now the Nephilim’s “Mother Creature”... she/it was an enigma to Confed and Kilrathi alike, as well as any branch of Intell. Literally nothing was known concretely about her/it, aside from the well-known fact that “The Mother Creature shall avenge me!” was and remained to be a popular death scream among bug pilots.

The Mother Creature gives birth to the bugs... that seemed a reasonable conjecture (they had to come from somewhere), but that still left questions. Clearly the bugs had an insectoid enough nature, a traditional enough ant/bee type chain of command and way of life, with a queen, an unspoken “hivemind,” drones, and warriors, but was the Mother Creature the mother of all Nephilim? Was there more than one, perhaps even a Queen Mother or Mother Queen of Mother Creatures (or was the Mother Creature the matriarch of all queens?)? Was it only the bug equivalent to a God/Goddess that -- mythical or otherwise -- they prayed to?

Questions without answers.

“You know neither of us can answer that question, Lt. Bousdoukos,” Major Celeste Holmes spoke, letting a heavy sigh. Klepth noted she wasn’t calling him “Greg” anymore... probably not a good sign. “Perhaps it is time to stop troubling yourself with it.”

“But --

Major Celeste Holmes stood, growing look of impatience plain on her face. “Lt. Ayibobo is dead, Lt. Bousdoukos. So is Major Nawazaki.”

With that, the matter was dropped and shortly thereafter, Major Bousdoukos was abruptly dismissed.

An open and shut case… wasn’t it?

 

One hour later, on approach to Carrier Battle Group Auriga (CVBG-A)…

F-108A Panther 001
1955 Hours (CST)

A very solemn, very alone, but still very alive Major Hishori “Ronin” Nawazaki piloted his jury-rigged & makeshift-repaired -- but still thoroughly battered -- F-108A Panther. On a vector toward CVBG-A’s rear flank near the jump point into Loki the group was making a B-line toward, the hours all blended into a singular present. At last reached his destination, a flight of Piranhas from the 722nd “Mosquitoes” recognizing his IFF signal immediately and escorting him back home.

The ramscoops operating at far from peak efficiency, the Space Superiority fighter was drawing only enough hydrogen particles from the open void of vacuum to maintain its velocity and shift course as it sputtered along its way. The makeshift repairs were similarly substandard, but still did the job. Still, were a stray bug CAP decided to wander his way it would be all but over for him.

When the Comm Officer’s voice burst over his fighter’s comm asking how he was able to return from Neph II he muttered only a cryptic, “I persevered.” What else could he say? 

After all, he thought to himself, I have.

When asked as he knew he would be if 2nd Lt. Ayibobo was with him, Ronin replied grimly, after some silence, “No. No, he’s not.”

Letting the matter go for now and telling him he has a very relieved squadron waiting for him on the Forge -- though that would have to wait until he was cleared from decontamination and his radiation sickness was treated (assuming there was still time) -- Ronin was soon cleared for roundabout landing approach to the flight deck and landing by the LSO.

Nephele II could be easily and understandably classified and written off as little more than a backwater fringe world, a desolate Border World on the brink of nowhere no one would give a second look at on a starchart and any tourist with a right mind would otherwise probably avoid when looking for planets to “see the sights” on.

“Ronin,” formerly “Dragoon,” born Nawazaki Ishikawa Hishori to Nawazaki Orokai and Heitchi Miko, had completed a journey of self-discovery on this world of Nephele II. Truly, Ronin could only describe it as “a warrior’s journey” worthy of rank next to the tales of his samurai ancestors’ exploits in Feudal Japan, and that knowledge did give him some infinitesimal glimmer of pride. 

There was much he had learned and come away with, but he would dedicate the rest of his life to regaining the honor he had lost on that cursed world... and the friends he had let down.

Nawazaki settled back uneasily into his seat, feeling the mild jerk of the ALS tractor beams locking onto his fighter and reeling it onto the flight deck. Slowly, his glance traveled down to his sheathed dirk, just as ancestral as the Tachi... yet so much more poignant. He knew that, by his honor and all rights in his mind, he should still perform the seppuku. In the code of bushido -- the “Way of the Warrior” -- he had sorely failed, and the cost had been two comrades.

Wincing, Ronin instead opened a gloved, tightly clenched fist, staring solemnly at the necklace he’s been holding. It was Voodoo’s.

The thunder stone, however, was missing.

 

“We say of Muab’dib that he has gone on a journey into that land where
we walk without footprints.”
- Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah


FIN