PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 29 of 66 )

: “ Further Down the Spiral ”
PART 2 OF 3 : INTO THE VOID ( 1 / 3 )

"What though the field is lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what is else not to be overcome."
- Milton

Planet Earth; Colombo, Sri Lanka
“The Lakes” Retirement Community
The Sol System, Terra Quadrant, Sol Sector
MAY 9 2749/2749.129; 2105 Hours (CST)

Pain. Locked within its deepest bowels the past held more than its fair share, perhaps more so for some men than others.

Years ago -- no, it was decades ago -- Vice-Admiral (Ret.) Jediah Wright had thrown away the key... or so he had convinced himself. He found himself now no longer able to envelope himself in the comfort of solitude in the presence of the pretty, young journalist that could easily be one of the great-great-grandchildren he probably had but would never either hear from or about. The elderly man was given little option but to delve right back into the thick of it all. 2681: the year of Jed’s fall from grace, the year he found out that even at the bottom of the spiral, a human being could still go further down into the entropy; into the void that invariably lay beyond. Masochism, it had to be for him to so voluntarily invite the woman in front of him in and let her make him relive that cruel year now (in the privacy and comfort of his own home, no less), but why was he so willing to do it?

"You, ah..." started the politely impatient journalist before breaking off, probably worried she’d say the wrong thing and upset him. He had accepted the role of host for this journalist, Michele Chen her name was (he would forget it for certain if he didn’t keep reminding himself of her name, and how embarrassing would that be), and wasn’t about to be anything but gentleman-like toward the young lady now... especially since she hadn’t struck him at all as the typical media vulture from the time he’d let her in to the present moment. "You trailed off, Mr. Wright."

A light in the veteran’s wizened eyes went from dim to a brighter state that suggested at least semi-awareness. "I did, did I? Well, young lady... where was I then?" It was an instant before the journalist looked about to offer an answer when he continued, "Ah, yes... the Forge... CVBG-A..." An almost sardonic, yet without question greatly pained look crept over Jed’s sagely features. "The calm before the storm... the calm before the slaughter."


A century before...


F-108A Panther 001 [ Alpha Lead ]
Approaching Nav 2, somewhere in the Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 14 2681/2681.045; 0630 Hours (CST)

Major Hishori "Ronin" Nawazaki had elected to lead the Aztecs for this mission himself. The initial failures to pin down the Alien battle group had met with harsh criticism. In Ronin’s eyes it was unfair and unwarranted, caused only by command’s anxiety over the possibility of their ambitious plan failing. The trap needed to be shut, and time was running out, but how do you spring a trap if you don’t know if the prey is in the trap or not? And the bait? The bait was hidden from view, hiding in stealth mode. Hardly the most effective hunting method.

Ronin shook his head. He was beginning to have his doubts not only about the running of the Forge, but of the entirety of Admiral Hanton’s Combined Fleet. It was an enormous gamble that was being taken, with correspondingly large rewards, should it come off. But if it failed... there'd be hell to pay. The stakes were high, very high, life and death. Not of an individual. Not of the thousands aboard the Forge herself, or even of the ships that comprised Carrier Battle Group Auriga, or even collectively of the Fleet itself, but perhaps the entire human race. Ronin shuddered. That was such a huge weight to lay on anyone’s shoulders, he could not allow anyone else to bear the responsibility. He could let no one else take the blame or bear the consequences of any possible failure. No, failure was not an option he was prepared to consider.

Ronin himself commanded the Alpha Wing and Roger "Chatterbox" Elliot had Beta. Against advice, he had decided to risk eight of the Aztecs eleven remaining pilots and Panthers on the mission, although the Mosquitoes had only assigned four Piranhas. Now he pondered the wisdom (or lack thereof) of his decision. They were not aiming to go toe-to-toe with the Tiamat or even one of her escorts but simply to find them and report back. They couldn’t afford pursuit-if they were intercepted or shadowed they could not allow the Nephilim to follow them back to the Valley Forge. If a hit and run (or more appropriately "Slash’n Dash," as ’Box put it) attack did not rid them of the bugs, someone would have to fight a (probably suicidal) rear guard action to allow the others to disengage. Logically, this would mean some or all of his slower but more powerful Panthers while the faster Piranhas escaped.

In other words, even if the mission was a success he might have doomed the squadron. On the other hand, eight F-108s would stand a better chance than four. There were pros and cons to be considered, choices to be made, and upon each choice hung the lives of his pilots. Every decision weighed heavy on him. This was the strain of command, and people coped with the pressure in different ways. Some hit the bottle. Some couldn’t take it and chose death, either by killing themselves directly or by taking on suicide missions. Some lost their mind, some lost their humanity. Some lost both. Some simply salved their conscience with the knowledge that all they were doing was following orders from those higher up. How could you weigh the success of the mission against the lives of the men and women under your command? Was it worth one life? Two? All of their lives? And would those who died see it the same way? When faced with a choice between one’s own survival and the success of the mission, what would a person choose? Was it fair to put them in that position? Was it fair for him to make the choice for them?

Ronin pondered these questions that weighed so heavily on his soul. What right did he have to control other peoples life and death? "Right"? none whatsoever, but he had a duty. He was oath-bound and honor-bound to fulfill the duties and responsibilities placed on him to the best of his abilities, and if that meant sacrificing his own or another pilot’s life during the course of the mission, so be it. Perhaps it was their duty that allowed people like Vandermann and Tolwyn (to use a stretched comparison) to live with themselves as they sent men and women to their dooms day after day. Was that what drove them mad? Ronin had another revelation in that instant -- Captain Eldon Vandermann had descended into madness. Somewhere along the line, a great man (to give him that benefit of the doubt) had lost his sanity. He must have, if the things said about him were true. But weren’t all the truly great men from history insane, to some degree? Did they start that way, or end up mad? Perhaps, if he survived the conflict, he would also be driven mad by his burden. It was not an appealing prospect...

"Contact! Multiple bogeys One O’Clock low. Range 20."

"Morays. Let’s follow them, see where they’re going," Ronin suggested. Soon enough several Nephilim capital ships popped onto their scanners. The Morays still fled directly toward them. Surely within sight of reinforcements they’d put up some sort of a fight? Something was wrong. But they had no confirmation of the Tiamat yet. They had to press on.

"Engage, hit and run only. Don’t mix it, we can’t afford to get sucked into a turning fight," ordered Ronin. Where’s the damned dreadnought? Surely these are the escorts, so where the hell is it? He cycled madly through the capital ships trying to find it before locking up the closest Squid interceptor with barely enough time to avoid colliding with it. Fighting the urge to roll in behind it as it afterburned away, Ronin pulled up high and dry. Behind him was... nobody. They’d all ignored him and got into mad, confused dogfight with the Nephilim fighters.

"Disengage!" Ronin commanded, "I repeat, disengage!" Easier said than done. Once locked into a turning fight you needed to get the nearest thing to a head-on pass with your opponent whilst facing your own direction of egress and then fire-walling the throttle for as long as your afterburner fuel lasted. Your opponent then completes a 180 degree turn, hopefully putting him out of range behind you, because if not all you have done is presented a perfect heat-seeker shot for him. And of course, there is still the flak from the ships. Flying straight and level gives them a perfect tracking solution, but if you jink, your pursuer gains on you.

"Mosquitoes, we’re bugging out. Let’s go!" Kurt "Coroner" Powell’s far more agile Piranhas could more easily evade their adversaries. It’s what they were designed for. The worst-case scenario was coming true. Every second longer the Aztecs’ Panthers twisted and turned with the bugs, the more difficult it would be to extricate themselves. There was next to no chance of defeating all the enemy, there were just too many of them. Ronin took a deep breath with a short, sharp exhale, then hauled the stick hard back into his belly.

Moments of extreme danger, when death is mere instants away, cause strange effects in human beings. Some people say your life flashes before your eyes; this may or may not be true, but what is true is that your body responds to the danger by pumping chemicals, primarily adrenaline, into the bloodstream to help cope with the situation. This can have other effects, too. A commonly reported one is time seeming to slow down. Things happen around you in slow motion, except your own actions. This may simply be the way your mind races, desperately seeking a way out of the situation. A way to survive. Perhaps the "life flashing before your eyes" is part of this, seeking a memory, some past experience that may help you escape. But time does seem to slow down.

People will tell you of it: the rock climber who misses his hold. The pedestrian crossing the road and turns his head to see the truck coming. The fighter pilot who checks his six to see an enemy fighter about to open fire. Yet these people lived to tell the tale. The lightning reactions and clear-headedness they experienced saved them, unlike those who never saw it coming.

When Bob "Fatboy" Little remembered it afterwards he could only remember it in black and white, curiously enough, but he told of the strange slow-motion effect. Heightened senses-the stench of his cold sweat drenching his flightsuit, the rubber and plastics of the cockpit fittings. The dust on the floor. The taste of his dry mouth. The texture of the stick and throttle, even through his gloves. The hammering of his heart, even perhaps the individual valves. Utter clarity of thought, but all of his actions happened without thinking, or so it seemed.

Fear? Fear didn’t come into it-he hadn’t had time to be frightened. Not that fear was anything to be frightened of. Fear causes these things. Now terror, on the other hand... terror can give you the slow motion, mind racing but going nowhere, rabbit-in-the-headlamps effect. And the body does nothing but sit and watch it happen in slow motion. What is the difference between fear and terror? The difference between life and death.

In moments the Moray that had been behind him was now in front being demolished by his guns. It was a mess -- they’d found the dreadnought or rather it had found them, cutting off their escape route, and to coin a cliché, all hell had broken loose.

"Somebody get this guy off me! Get him off me now!"

"Hold on, I’ve got him. One sec..."

"Take your time, no rush. Any time in the next three seconds will do!"

Sarcastic bastard, thought Fatboy, I am saving his arse, after all. A short burst from out of effective range to get his attention. An old trick, but a useful one. An inexperienced pilot will usually break and allow you to close the range quickly, but even a veteran will check his six and be distracted for a moment, usually allowing his target to escape. This bug broke very hard left, so hard that Fatboy hard to pull hard himself to stay with it. The deflection was too much to get a decent firing solution, not enough shots were hitting to knock out its shields so he just grunted and stayed with it until he was pointing the direction he was wanting to go, unloaded and lit the ’burners.

He ignored the tracer as it went past. The blasts seemed so slow as they curved toward him before suddenly flashing past his canopy faster than his eyes could follow. A couple of bursts rocked him but his shields coped easily. Suddenly an insistent warning klaxon told him a missile had locked on. He dumped countermeasure chaff and flares and miraculously the warning stopped. Then he was clear.

Sometimes, miracles do happen. One by one, as opportunities presented themselves, the rest of the Aztecs all managed to disengage from the dogfight until Ronin found he alone was left, jousting with a Squid. Every time he thought he could disengage as it hurtled past head-on, he lit the 'burners only for the much faster bug interceptor to catch him again in seconds. Out of missiles he had only one option: as it looped around for another pass Ronin placed the pipper over the Squid. He pulled the trigger even before the ITTS started to illuminate and held it down. He could see the Squid’s own guns firing at him, feel the impacts on his ships shields but unflinchingly held his aim. The Squid loomed large in his HUD and Ronin awaited the inevitable collision. It never came; the Alien fighter suddenly vaporized.

The Panther howled through the explosion, blowing a smoke ring in the expanding cloud of hot gas. Ronin ignited the reheat, and fled.

He’d escaped. They’d escaped. Fought their way past overwhelming odds. Or had the Nephilim simply allowed them to escape?


TCS Valley Forge; Flight Deck
0649 Hours (CST)

The Aztecs had trickled back to the landing pattern in ones and twos. Again, non-ALS manual landings had only added to the tension. They’d escaped the Nephilim, and then came the hard part. Luckily, they all got down safely.

The pilot in front of Fatboy was too high and obviously didn’t want to go around again; ignoring the wave-off they bunted the stick quickly before flaring violently just before the inevitable impact. Called diving for the deck, it was a surefire way of getting aboard in a hurry but it elicited a shower of sparks and a squeal of protest from the fighter as it slammed into the deck, but it got down safely. Fatboy’s own landing wasn’t too pretty either, but he didn’t really care. He had unstrapped before he’d finished taxiing the Panther. As soon as he’d shut down the engine he stood up on the seat and clambered onto the ladder that had been pushed up. Zipping up his helmet bag he handed the seat pins to his crew chief and swung out onto the ladder. As he did so he noticed the new nose art. Somehow he’d missed it when he was getting into the fighter, but he studied it now.

"What’s up, sir?" the crew chief sounded a little concerned, "Don’t you like it? You asked for something grim."

Fatboy broke into a wide grin, "I love it. Exactly what I wanted." Upon a midnight blue background stood a hooded and cloaked figure with glowing red eyes in his death’s head skull face, but instead of the usual scythe he held a huge double-handed flyswatter. A dead fly dripped goo from this weapon and beneath the painting in perfect gothic script was the name: The Grim Swatter.

Somewhere along the line, his fear had turned to anger, and that anger to hatred. It was like a cheesy quote from one of ’Box’s collection of 20th Century films, Space Wars, Part One, or something like that. Some little green alien with strange syntax.

He just wanted revenge. He knew he was good. He’d survived the death of the Bunker Hill and survived two engagements after that. After the first, he’d had the shakes, far worse than his first combat hop. The steadying presence of the Boss had helped him far more than he had ever realized. How many times had he cursed him? Too many. Now he missed the sarcastic old bastard. Ronin was a cool one; calm, reserved, always in control, but with a warrior’s spirit. The Kilrathi would call it their Zaga; Ronin’s samurai ancestors would call it their Bushido... but the honor about it remained the same.

The man had the confident self assurance of someone who knew they could defend themselves with a fighter, a sword, bare hands or simply words, but even so, he could not have made his first encounter with an alien race seem matter-of-fact with a single word. The Boss had. Now he wanted to avenge him and all the others. He wanted to kill every bug in the system. Every bug in the whole galaxy. The Grim Swatter? That would do nicely.

They were after a Tiamat dreadnought. How many bugs were on that? A lot. The more the fucking merrier. It was payback time.

They’d lost only one pilot on the mission, though most of the other Panthers were fairly heavily shot up, some probably destined to join the handful of "hangar queens" the 71st had pushed to the side of its flight deck. One also had a bent starboard main gear oleo strut from a heavy landing, but there was nothing that could not be patched up in a few hours. Nothing except another gaping hole in the flight roster. 2nd Lt. Hugo "Cesar" van Binsbergen had not returned. No one had heard a Mayday or an ejection call. Nothing. Vanished without trace, as though he had never existed.

Ronin had expected far worse. He knew, statistically speaking, the probability of being shot down dropped almost vertically in your first few combat missions. Perhaps they were over the worst, and the catastrophic losses they’d suffered in the first few engagements were unlikely to recur. Perhaps, but they had no more reinforcements and they were up against a Tiamat dreadnought. Fatigue was starting to overcome them, and the intensity and ferocity of the battles could only get worse. They’d been lucky today, but luck wouldn’t last forever.


TCS Shrak’har; Flag Bridge
0655 Hours (CST)

The flag bridge of the TCS Shrak’har was a beehive of activity. Every kil in the room was busy at work, most were analyzing sensor data that was being collected by the passive sensors.

Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag sat in his command chair watching as his crew, both hrai, Cadre, and otherwise, worked as a finely-tuned machine. All were determined to defeat the Nephilim, even if it meant their own deaths as long as they entailed kabaka. This enemy was different than any other yet faced by the Kilrathi. It was ruthless, thoughtless, determined, methodical, and was only too willing to stop at nothing to accomplish its goals. Catharx sat in silence, knowing he could almost now compare this enigmatic new enemy to his good friend Eldon. So much had the man changed in the four years since their last encounter. He had become much colder and detached, to say the least. Catharx could sense that something was eating at the man’s very core-he had detected it in Eldon’s communiqué. Eldon was usually a calm and logical thinking Terran, but his letter had been jumbled, as if written by a lost soul. Was the Terran on the brink, as they put it, was the stress of the situation to much for the man? Catharx did not know, but he was loyal and would follow Eldon into the fire as his takhar.

"My lord, we are receiving a communiqué from the Valley Forge. They believe they have located the dreadnought," the Trathkhar, Second Fang Brahkka dai Bokhtak lak Sho’lar, reported from his communication station.

Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag stood up from his command chair and quickly caught the attention of every one of the kili on the bridge. With a strong, impassioned look on his face Catharx nodded to Brahkka.

The battle was about to begin...