PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 33 of 66 )

: Further Down the Spiral
PART 3 OF 3 : DRAWING THE LINE ( 1 / 4 )

"Hand to hand, and foot to foot:
Nothing there, save death, was mute;
Stroke, and thrust, and flash, and cry,
For quarter or for victory,
Mingle there with the volleying thunder."
-
Byron
 


Planet Earth; Colombo, Sri Lanka
“The Lakes” Retirement Community
The Sol System, Terra Quadrant, Sol Sector
MAY 9 2749/2749.129; 2129 Hours (CST)

The elderly Vice-Admiral (Ret.) Jediah Wright, "Jed" to the friends that know -- or had known -- him best, exhaled sharply in his comforter. He flicked the last ashes of his thick, half-stubbed Cuban "Havana" cigar that he decided really had no noteworthy taste left to it anymore. The ashes made it into the hovering ashtray beside him just before their flicker made a labored effort to stand up, this one successfully. Brushing the side of the anxious journalist across from him, he seemed to be making his way to the bedroom of his modest home. 

"You’ll excuse me, Ms. Chen," the man murmured behind him, stopping a moment, "but the hour is getting a tad late and I’m growing more than a wee bit tired. For this old man, tonight’s discussions have proven a bit... exhausting, you understand. Something of a catnap is in order, I do believe -- old farts like myself have that prerogative, you understand. Yes, yes. Now if you don’t mind, young lady...?"

Budding, perhaps even celebrity-status journalist Michele Chen laid her holo-notepad/PPC on the designer transparisteel coffee table and stood, worried. "Ah, Mr. Wright, sir -- "

"Again with the ‘sirs,’" Jed admonished, shaking his head with a slight, "tsk, tsk, tsk."

"I apologize, Mr. Wright, but -- "

"Don’t." Jed gave a half-smile, a dull flicker that suggested some hidden flair of boyish youth beneath his aged, wrinkled body. "Apologize, I mean to say. I don’t take it as disrespect -- if anything, the opposite... I take it as you showing me an abundance of respect -- I just... I..." Just as easily as it had flashed across his features, that glimmer of a hidden flair of boyish youth vanished, replaced by the motif of a bitter, tired old man, perhaps one so tired of life that he was willing to welcome death with open arms, "... I was a different person when I was addressed as ‘sir.’ First it was ‘Ensign Wright,’ then later ‘Commander Wright,’ then eventually the proud ‘Captain Wright.’"

"Then ConFleet HQ shipped you off to... ‘fly a desk’ as they say? When they made you commodore, I mean. Out of curiosity only, how did you feel about that?"

"Best thing those narcissistic bastards ever did for me or anyone I’ve known in the service. I wasn’t any kind of troubled youth with imaginary mountains to scale and glory to be mine for the taking on the brain with the illusion that I’d actually be making a difference in things... no, ConFleet HQ got me out of the damned firing line and, if you pardon my language, for that I bid them a fond ‘thank you’ at just about the same time as an equally fond but unsaid ‘fuck you.’ I just wish they’d done that decades sooner than they did... might have saved me a best friend, at the very least, and only cost me a bit of machismo and bravado I’d just as soon do without once I would later become a man." Jed immediately noted Ms. Chen’s look -- she hadn’t expected him to respond that way. "You have to understand, Ms. Chen... the Jed Wright that continued his career in the Space Navy after the Forge... ‘Ensign Wright’... whoever that sorry soul was... he was a kid out of the Academy that died with his first ship."

"The Forge?"

"Can there be any greater loss than a full colors-graduating cadet’s first ship?" The elderly Jed’s non-answer answered her question more than sufficiently. "That ship was my life. Everything that made my life my life... it was there. I found one of the greatest loves of my life there, Amy... and my best friend, Matthew -- he’d been assigned there with me, too, both of us having grown up together in New York, going through everything from elementary school to high school to even the Academy together, then afterward not only winding up together on the same carrier by the luck of the post-Service Academy draw, but the same bridge, working the same shifts." His features grew more sunken, more sagely if that was possible. "During Hanton’s ‘Holding The Line Campaign’ as it came to be looked back as, ‘HTL,’ that first tour of duty -- that last tour of duty -- I had to hear the news on-duty that my friend, Matt, was murdered by someone on board for no particular reason at all. I guess I didn’t take it as seriously as I should have... I guess..."

A look of genuine concern and maybe even guilt at making the man before her bring up and start talking after untold years of such terrible things locked away (with good reason) in his past just for the sake of good journalism. If it was just about pure journalism, just about "getting the scoop" (or the actual story, in this case) she honestly wouldn’t care either way about the elderly veteran’s feelings towards her questions and would probably come off as more of an interrogator than a writer of any kind... but her curiosity in hearing his recounting of the tales he was telling was of a personal nature, and it was first-hand, no less... an avid student of military history, the ConFleet machine’s convoluted, twisted history of war (human or alien regardless) left anyone that studied it with endless questions. Rhetorical questions they were in most cases, as the only people in the known galaxy that could hope to answer them were the ones that had actually been there, that made that history in those school books, certainly not the teachers and professors throughout her Earth schooling that put on their best faux-omniscient facades while telling any inquiring students to "Refer to Page 2,494... it’s all there in the book." The book, yes. The man before Ms. Chen was no school teacher or professor, no self-proclaimed "historian buff" -- Jediah Wright, wrinkles of age or not, was the real deal; not a history teacher but a history maker, one who was right there on the front lines during the first, perhaps most brutal leg of one of ConFleet’s most bloody interstellar wars of the last century and easily such bar none of the present century.

"It’s okay, Mr. Wright," she said at last, trying to spare Jed from finishing his clearly unpleasant train of thought. "You don’t have to talk about anything you’re not comfortable discussing with me -- quite literally and with all due respect, I should be gracious enough as it is that you’d even let a story-snooping bitch like myself in the door and into your home. Thank you, again."

"You’re welcome, but please don’t be worried about me. I’m ninety-four years old, and at my age I’ve kind of come to accept I’m not the... what was it... oh, yes, ‘chick magnet’ I once was." A smile spread on Jed’s face. "It is not often I have company these days... hell, who am I kidding -- these years... perhaps in my senile old age I just want an open ear, you think? A particularly pretty young female face doesn’t hurt, either -- journalist or not, I may be getting close to celebrating my first centennial birthday if I live that long, but I’m still a guy; still... enjoy the company of a beautiful lady such as yourself, you know...?" Just worry about calling "sir" again and otherwise you dont have to be worrying about a thing, lady, Jed thought to himself as he caught a glimpse of the journalist blushing at his only-too-conspicuous display of flattery.

Ms. Chen quickly regained her lady-like posture and composure, giving her host a unabashed smile. "If I may be as frank as you, Mr. Wright, maybe I enjoy the company of a man with... I don’t know... something on his mind other than what’s between his legs." Like, oh, I dont know, every single fucking male back at the office thats either not an alien or a fruit, she thought to herself.

Ms. Chen chuckled somewhat mock-girlishly, to which Jed only smiled wistfully in response to. Thankfully their words were not foolishly taken by either as anything more than what they were -- a joke, a single spot of humor amidst such a dire conversation. "But as I was saying, my lady, I should have taken Matt’s death more seriously. This... this lifelong friend was just murdered... he’d just died, on this same ship both of us felt so lucky to have wound up together on. Only, it wasn’t luck, was it? A curse on both of us it must have been, if anything at all. Fate’s cruel hand finding another two victims. I don’t know... some men, in war particularly, they like to believe everything they do and everything that happens or they do happens for some reason... some purpose, be it destiny or fate or God’s will -- what they want to call it, it doesn’t matter -- these men find comfort in believing they can’t change their daily lives and everything that happens to them or around them in life are not terrible, horrible things they should let themselves fall into a slump over but take in stride, confident in their faith or whatever that there was nothing they could do about it... it’s just ‘fate,’ right? Can’t change your ‘destiny,’ yes? Can’t cheat ‘fate,’ right?" Jed shook his head. "I always found people that cling to these imaginary things were weak. Your life is what you bloody make it, stop pointing fingers elsewhere and making excuses about why it’s not your fault, I say -- Christ, be a man!" He took a deep, pained breath. Ms. Chen was not sure he actively practiced what he preached in this case. "I don’t know, Ms. Chen... I want to believe something... there was some purpose behind what I’ve been telling you... some master plan or grand scheme I was part of that will one day look back on those that were good men, lived good lives, and reward them for their sacrifices and hardships -- I don’t even care if it’s religion, and I haven’t been to church in seventy years!"

Better to get Jed off that train of thought... if it didn’t directly tie-in to anything relevant to her story and was just getting the man worked up, there was no sense in it continuing. "You said before for your friend, Matt... you felt nothing?"

"Oh, that loss hit me, be quite assured, my young lady. Subconsciously I suppose I shoved that loss aside... made myself ‘go with the flow’ so to speak until the expected loss of that first carrier came around and I had not only a lifelong, best friend to mourn now, but my ship, too. I let all that loss, all that pain, all that shock just build up... held it all in with all I had.... then..."

"And when it was all gone? -- both your friend, the Forge? Then what, if I may ask?" the journalist inquired, trying subtly-while-still-respectfully to put words in his mouth and find answers to questions he wouldn’t answer straight-out.

"I probably thought I was being logical, efficient, and strong all at the same time in some cold, machine-like manner, I suppose. Oh, yes... waiting to deal with all that pain and hurt and mourning in one big lump sum when it was all done hitting me and over with, then hopefully be over it for good... didn’t work that way, as you can imagine. Foolish idealism that often comes hand-in-hand with foolish youth -- I was no exception."

Ms. Chen smiled reassuringly at her host. Last thing she wanted him to feel was belittled, even if he was seeming to have a tendency to do that to himself. "I must apologize, Mr. Wright, but please correct me if I’m wrong now, but you still haven’t finished your story. You left off at... well, what my holo-zine studio might call a ‘cliffhanger.’"

Jed smiled back, more of a smile of patience than anything else apart from obvious amusement. "Is that anything like a commercial break? Bah, fair enough, my dear. How about this..." Jed turned, leaned forward a notch, and then held the journalist’s starry-eyed gaze for several moments, seemingly deep in thought. He finally cracked something close to a true grin. "I’ll make you a deal, Ms. Chen, if you’re willing."

Lowering her defenses, trusting within fairly good reason her elderly host didn’t seem to fit at all the "dirty old man" stereotype to even be thinking of suggesting anything sexual with her, she nodded eagerly. "I’m listening."

"You make me the best cup of java this side of Jupiter when I wake up from my nap... and you’ve got my word as a gentleman I’ll tell you what you want to know."

Ms. Chen smiled in relief. To leave the story Jediah had just recounted to her on the veritable cliffhanger he had left it at would be unthinkable, to say nothing of how it was already eating away at her. History revealed the conclusion, of course, but stated only the cold historical facts... the TCSN veteran before her spoke from experience -- he’d lived it. "You’ve got yourself a deal, Mr. Wright."

"Shake on it?" They did. "Make it truly the best cup of java your young hands can make, young lady..." Jed’s voice grew distant and his gaze grew solemn, "... and finish my story I will. I’ll tell you everything. From beginning, to middle... to the fateful ‘Omega Strike’ and the very last hours of the CVBG-A flagship; the very last hours of the TCS Valley Forge."

 

A century before...

CARRIER BATTLE GROUP AURIGA (CVBG-A), -0045 H Hour

TCS Valley Forge; Brig
In approach vector to Nephilim dreadnought battle group <ETA : 00:30>
FEB 14 2681/2681.045; 1150 Hours (CST)

Alone in his darkened cell with head-in-hands, still sitting in his half-unbuttoned, sweat-strewn uniform, Captain Eldon Vandermann had only his private thoughts to keep him company now.

No, that wasn’t entirely true. Today he had another keeping him company. An unwanted person, one he had spent his life from day one trying to block out, undermine, or at the very least outrun.

"Look at you, Son... pathetic. Simply pathetic."

Schaefer’s taunts earlier had hit him hard: his values, morals, and beliefs. His father, on the other hand, hit him somewhere much closer to home. Like some kind of parasitic leech that fed off a man’s soul, his father undermined the core of his very psyche.

"Is this what I raised? No wonder I gave up on you, boy... get your head on straight!"

Get my head on straight... Vandermann repeated mentally, ... yes, that’s right, Father...

He kept his face buried in his hands, knowing if he were to look up he wouldn’t see his father -- he was some odd number of decades dead, wasn’t he? -- but not risking the freak chance that he might nonetheless. Like every time he heard the voice of his cursed father, he felt himself regress to a defenseless, scared little twelve year-old boy.

Through the taunts, Vandermann gathered enough of himself to come to the self-realization of the things that needed to be done. He could only pray that he would be given a chance to act on them.

He had done wrong in his life, yes, and nothing would make right of it. Regardless of the fact, Eldon Vandermann would try. God willing, he would die a good man, not a martyr for The Plan -- or more appropriately The Movement -- as Schaefer and his life would have him, but a good man and good soldier who died for his ship and crew in the name of the Terran Confederation.

Vandermann could not turn to his pills for the final salvation he decided he now must attain. Redemption would come from a very different avenue -- it would come from his heart; from the strength of will he had been living in fear of for far too long.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Briefing Room
1200 Hours (CST)

As the last of the pilots filed in from the adjoining corridors to find their seats throughout the expanse of the briefing room’s auditorium, the solemn-faced WC of the 71st Tactical Fighter Wing made her way to the pulpit stand. Others, mostly those who’d been sitting too long in their cockpits, chose to stand instead to no reminder of briefing room protocol by the Colonel.

Not now... no, certainly not now.

They were tired -- each and every one of them. The earlier engagements had not hurt her flyers so much in numbers as it had in their states of mind -- they were fatigued and weary, bearing empty stomached, their nerves were wracked, and none had any illusion about the fact that they were only moments away from being asked to heed the trumpet call of battle to plunge once again headlong into the thick of battle against the Nephilim menace.

It was almost easier when having to deal with the deaths of her pilots. Death equated closure... after the mourning, the matter was over with. Having to see her pilots like this... and now having the unpleasant burden of throwing them back to the wolves...

"This is going to be quick, flyboys," she began, tersely, "so let’s get this show started..." Colonel Natasha Trebek adjusted her composure before beginning what was to be a short briefing. She exchanged a look with the senior officer of the Forge’s Intell office, Lt. Commander Ethan Coliver. "This is it, folks. The earlier sorties... the strikes... it’s all been leading up to this.

"It’s BARCAP duty... but it’s more than just that, isn’t it? The objective is simple: the elimination of the Tiamat-class dreadnought. In a nutshell, Kal Shintahr Jhathar nar Vukar Tag’s two Kilrathi squadrons, Major Richthofen’s Talon Squadron, and Major Nawazaki’s Aztecs are to fly SEAD against the dreadnought to allow the Forge’s last Marine LC to land, board, and deploy the last remaining contingent of Marines within the TCMC 97th Assault Detachment at our battle group’s disposal -- this in the hopes of blowing that bloated piece of shit from the inside out. Secondarily, and perhaps first, the aforementioned squadrons must also eliminate the Tiamat’s two Orca-class destroyer escorts.

"The rest of the 71st’s squadrons, both here, already in space, and amongst the Forge’s escort ships between the Murphy-class destroyer Ohlander and Plunkett Heavy Artillery Cruiser Nagato, are to fly cover for the aforementioned squadrons -- everything’s riding on them, pilots. No need to check your ICIS today, I’ve purposely left the mission specifics up to the squadron commanders. You’ll find this mission designated as ‘Omega Strike.’" Trebek gave a heavy, sorrow-filled sigh. Why was she having to do that so much lately? "You all know what’s at stake here... and I know I can count on each and every one of you." All pilots stood to attention, saluting the WC. Feeling an embarrassing wave of motherly concern wash over her, she returned the salute. "Godspeed, pilots. Now let’s get to it, shall we?"

Try as she might, Colonel Trebek could not brush aside the grim notion and feeling that the mission ahead would go differently than those before... the notion that the mission ahead was somehow doomed.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Corridor B-3, Deck 2
1215 Hours (CST)

Had it been wrong to let Hartmann have his squadron? No, Major Dan "Bugfix" Burdock told himself. At that point, after Hartmann have had lost it only temporarily it had been the best support Hartmann as a fresh, yet very potential commander could have got. Even more so as it was his former CO only hours ago who backed him up. A sign of confidence it was. Then again Hartmann’s self-confidence had amazingly quickly been restored. This fast in fact that Burdock had already been pissed off by getting ordered around from Hartmann only minutes later. Ah, what the fuck? he comforted himself. That was history. He would now retake the initiative, retake command of the White Hopes. Still, Burdock hoped Hartmann would not cause too much trouble about it. 

He had made his decision back on the bridge when there had been no time for big words. And he understood that Trebek had taken notice of his decision when had suggested that be might be better out there with his squadron. If not, Burdock was to make sure right away.

Suddenly it had been so easily. So very obviously. When he had watched his squadron, his men and women, people who he knew, from their files, knew personally, knew their character, of some even their hopes and fears; when he had seen them in battle, in a situation who neither of them had asked for, had volunteered for directly, but was placed in because every single one of them had once made a choice by swearing an oath, an oath he had sworn, too; when examining all this from a position somewhat a little off, somewhat outside -- he had spotted what he wanted to do. To just be there, right there with them, in the midst of it. Lending them a helping hand, pulling them up, leading them and knowing they would follow him everywhere, standing together with them as one, facing whatever odds had to be faced. It was faith, believe, comradeship, unity, and it was love -- it was because of all this. Because of all this he was here. And he would stay.

 

Major Paul "Kraut" Hartmann had been through his baptism of fire as a commanding officer. It had meant a new step and an exciting experience. He had not performed flawlessly as he usually did and as he is used to do it. His temporary loss of self-control had been a new experience for him, too. The young Major -- regardless of his youth -- had seen comrades die before, before this campaign had begun. Never before though he had lost his wingman. Never before. Now he had been the CO of the squadron. He had not only lost a wingman, his wingman, but a pilot under his command as well. He tried not to fool himself. Pilots die. It happened all the time, even without a war. Their job is dangerous. Flying is dangerous, despite all the so-called progress. Hartmann was sure that he had done everything to prevent Yeti’s death. Every thing has a first time. The loss of a wingman is no exception to that rule. Yet it weighted heavy on his shoulders. The Major was determined to not allow it to become a burden. He was still adrenaline pumped from the experience of his first command. He did not want it to just stop. Hartmann did not know about Burdock, or rather, tried to avoid to think of him. He was a good pilot and a good soldier -- no question. He would even say they were friends. He was no hardened ass CO and no Kilrathi War vet CO. He was Burdock, he was different. In a way he had been a lot like Ploughman. Though quite not as thoughtful, calm, thoroughly and reflective. Hartmann was sure Burdock would be the perfect XO a CO could ask for. Just like Ploughman. Hartmann did not expect Burdock to step down just like that. Who the commanding officer of the White Hopes would be... that remained to be seen. Major Paul "Kraut" Hartmann had tasted blood, as they say. He’d been "blooded."

When the lift doors opened it was Burdock who was walking by directly in front of Hartmann. Burdock took notice of him. Hartmann gave a little quiet sigh. For a split second both looked each other in the eye. Each one trying to figure what the other one was up too. They only saw what they both already knew.

To the office of Wing Commander Natasha Trebek they went. It was the very first door, right next to the lift. Only a few steps for each of the two opponents.

"You... please, after me," Major Burdock spoke up and made a move towards Trebek’s door.

"Vergiss es, ich werde nicht..." Major Hartmann started to mutter.

"Damn it, stop talking German!" Burdock interrupted him, trying to score some time by distressing Hartmann.

It worked for an instant, but no longer. Upon being notified of it Hartmann found himself taken aback. As of when did he speak in German with no apparent reason, he pondered. Sure, he liked to speak it every now and then when there was the chance to practice his native tongue. Oh, he’d had conversations in German with Burdock, for Burdock was of German descent, too, and able to speak at least somewhat fluently. Nonetheless, those occasions were set and agreed on beforehand, more for the sake of those around them unable to understand rather than any inhibitions they may have had. Only now he recalled to have spoken German, or rather to have cursed in, when he had been in the cockpit where he had momentarily lost his self-control. Apparently he tended to lapse into German when he was very tense and on the edge of it, he now deduced. That was certainly something to be observed further, he made a mental note.

"Okay! I am not stepping down again. Know it. I am..." Hartmann focused on the topic again.

"I’m sorry!"

"No, see... it’s nothing personal…"

"I know, Paul," Burdock tried to take the strength of it. "Yet you have me back! There is no…"

"This squadron…"

"Listen, Paul, we see this through and…"

"And? What? And what?" Hartmann was not the one to talk with today. "No, I say. This squadron…"
 
"Hey, what is it with you today? Can’t you…"

"This squadron…"

"Yeah, what is it? What’s with this squadron? It’s…?" Burdock bellowed back, annoyed that he could not get through to Hartmann.

"It’s too little…"

"For us? It’s too little for us? Is it that what you are saying? Seriously? Okay, man, I don’t believe this! Paul, you…" Major Burdock exhaled heavily and shook his head. "Be straight up with me -- is that really what you think?"

"Ah, well…" Major Hartmann now tried to soothe it a little bit, but did not get to.

"Then please know that I will be deeply sorry to lose a pilot and an XO as good as you." That made it clear and though Burdock hated to say it, it had to be said and he meant it just the way he had said it. If this was the only way it had better be now. Sooner or later, he knew, Hartmann would get his own command anyway. By the end of this campaign at the least that would have been. It was all too obvious, not only to him but Trebek, that Hartmann was the ideal candidate for a squadron CO and he was an urgent one. But he would not get his -- Burdock’s -- squadron, for Burdock was determined.

"I see." In a way Hartmann knew that Burdock was right, that this was the solution which made the most sense. Yet it was strange. He would have to leave his squadron, his first and only one so far. To him it felt like leaving his family, a family he had never left longer than a month before. It was like growing up. Again.

When the door to Trebek’s office hissed open both Majors squeezed themselves through it simultaneously. Trebek was sitting behind her desk in front of a transparent flat screen going over the mission ahead. Or so it looked at first sight. She looked up when both were about to say something. The look of her told them that she knew. They hesitated.

"Hel-looo, hotties!" She greeted them with a tired smile. Now this took the wind of their sails completely. Dumbfounded with a puzzled look on their faces both Major stared at each other as if the other one knew whether they were right here or whether the Colonel had gone mad or whether this answered their dispute.

"Is it that you, Burdock? Are you here to take the White Hopes again? And you, Hartmann, are here because of the same?" the Colonel went on. She did not have to wait for any answer to come. "Bad time you boys chose."

Her comm unit beeped at her side. She snatched it up and pressed the appropriate button. "Trebek here."

"Colonel, we need you on the bridge ASAP! The Fire Balls can’t hold it any longer," the rather urgent voice of Lt. JG St. Germain informed her.

"How bad is it?"

"An honest word, Colonel?" It was Lt. Commander Coliver. "They are dying out there."

"I’ll be there, Trebek out!

"Sorry, guys, time is up," she said then, turning to the men. "I will split the squadron. It doesn’t matter a lot at the moment, anyhow. It’ll be an all-out fight, nothing less than that for damned fucking sure. Burdock, you’re taking the Bandit element and put Mystique to it. Hartmann, you get the Sky Raider element plus Buffer and Django. And no discussions -- no hard feelings, guys. You know damned well what’s at stake here and I know I don’t need to remind either of you. Now go. Good hunting, gentlemen!"

Good hunting indeed.

 

CONT...