PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 35 of 66 )

: “ Further Down the Spiral ”
PART 3 OF 3 : DRAWING THE LINE ( 3 / 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."

TS-10 Hercules Marine LC Scythe Two
The Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 14 2681/2681.045; 1255 Hours (CST)

Marine rifles all had names. Girls’ names. Young Lance Corporal Aaron Guthrie’s M-58A1 Laser Assault Rifle was named "Ellie" after his big sister. She’d be going to Uni this year. She always was smarter than him, and could beat him in a fight until he was 14. Then Jimmy Johnson came back from his first tour and showed him some moves he’d learned in basic. Aaron had wanted to be a leatherneck from then on. He’d gone through hell to become a Marine and somehow loved every minute of it. This was still his first tour. He only had two months of the thirteen month tour left. Then he’d been going to reenlist.

He loved the Corps. He’d found what he wanted to do. But first he’d wanted to see his sister again, have her see how much he’d grown, see the gleam in his eye that told her he’d got laid on his first R&R (he’d had to pay for it, of course) and see her, matured into a young woman. The last letter he got from her told him she was getting pretty serious with Rick, her boyfriend. He’d wanted to be there at her wedding. He’d wanted... so many things. But he’d wanted also to do his duty, and serve the Terran Confederation even if it meant holding the line in this troubles time of undeclared war. But that wasn’t why he was here now, waiting to die. It was because the other sixteen men and women beside him here were Marines, too, the last of what had originally been a platoon worth in the Forge’s sorely-dwindled detachment. The Corps was family. They were closer than brothers and sisters. They’d die for each other. He’d die for them.

He figured that was what it had come to. In carrying out Omega Strike the Forge’s flight wing had already made a big sacrifice to get them here, and now it was their turn. His head snapped forward against the safety straps as the Hercules crashed against and locked itself into the Alien ship’s hull. In seconds the universal docking clamps had burnt a large hole. Sealed from the hard vacuum of space outside by only a few millimeters of rubber. A few millimeters from death. A horrible, painful death. But to where were they heading? A similar fate, no doubt.

"Come on! Get your asses into gear! Spread out! Move up by teams!" a rather authoritative -- perhaps even vengeful, those that knew her better might note -- Captain Temuulan Dshugder-Warmuth barked out the necessary deployment orders. There was a woman that knew about big sacrifices -- after Lt. Colonel Trelane’s death, Captain Dshugder-Warmuth had proved herself as worthy of stepping into his boots as 97th Assault Detachment CO during the bloodbath on Neph II known as Operation Scour.

The Marines followed their orders, storming into the Tiamat-class dreadnought with purpose and a burning need to spill some xeno blood. Seventeen total, they represented the Forge’s totality of TCMC personnel. The Marines here were perhaps less in number (though by only 3) from the twenty-Marine boarding operation that had taken out the Hydra-class cruiser on 2681.040 and cost those twenty Marines their lives, but their resolve could only be greater. The Powers That Be having a better understanding of what to expect upon boarding of a Nephilim ship with enough operations done and documented and Dshugder herself knowing how hard it was to crack down the Aliens on their own terms, Dshugder had brought the Forge’s three Berserker IXc-class Cybernetic Armament Systems/CAS suits out of mothballs, suiting up three Marines to comprise a fire team led by Master Gunnery Sergeant Gene Halverson. It wasn’t often the dermatrode-interfaced CAS were utilized by the TCMC, as since their incorporation into the Armed Forces CAS suits were often made the laughing stock of any Marine suggesting its use in battle, the suits perceived as cowardly and not "Marine-like" by most. What kind of Marine, after all, had to put on a high-tech suit of armor in order to be the best? Against the Nephilim, however, the CAS suits were hoped to prove to be something of an equalizer, at the very least, and were accepted as such by their wearers here.

Guthrie got his ass in gear, almost tumbling out into the Alien ship. Rather than hard metal, the ground beneath his boots was soft and squelched. He couldn’t quite see what he was treading on because it was obscured by some sort of vapor, but he wouldn’t let it worry him. There was a breathable atmosphere -- which allowed the Marines the luxury of strutting around in their standard combat gear rather than the full space armor regalia required in vacuum or unbreathable atmosphere -- but it had a stale, rotten tang to it that Guthrie couldn’t put his finger on. He wasn’t sure what it was, but it wasn’t very pleasant, and probably not worth thinking about. Pushing it out of his mind, Guthrie tried to just concentrate on his own fire corridor.

The desolate alien environment within the dreadnought was off-putting. Even in enemy territory, on a planet, everything seemed, well... real, as opposed to something from one of the acid-trips, methamphetamine paranoia rushes, or other drug-induced nightmares as he’d known during a few of his more juvenile fellow jarheads’ recreational activities back in boot camp. The sound of his own breathing sounded like a hurricane, every footfall an earthquake. Ellie twitched of her own accord at a hint of movement in the darkness. Nothing. He tried IR, and switched it off again quickly -- something seemed to pulse within the walls. It was eerie and disconcerting. On a more practical level, it stopped the human eye’s main target acquisition system, seeing movement, from working. Having sat in the red light (red light does not effect human night vision) of the Hercules troop compartment all the way over his eyes were fairly well dark adapted, but it could take half an hour or more for them to become fully dark adapted. They might not live that long.

"Cantieri! Take Smith, Garcia, Brown, and Chan and start laying the damn charges! Put the first ones here. Halverson, you and your CAS boys are going to take point and cover their asses -- go!"

"Aye, sir!"

"Sir, how long do we have before they get here?"

"Don’t know, don’t need to be getting antsy -- just work as fast as you can!"

Their best -- that was all the Marines could do.



F-108A Panther 001 [ DDT Lead ]
1305 Hours (CST)

"Shiva, break left! Break left now!"

The Panther in question sheered off to port, energy blasts just barely scraping its shields. Captain Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues could be seen by his squadron and Ronin pushing the throttle outboard of his fighter into reheat, burning precious fuel to try and get into killing range. He might need it later, but Shiva needed it now. No way was he going to lose another wingman and spacecraft through carelessness. He should have paid more attention to what Ice was doing yesterday. It didn’t matter to Burrito that the man had been "hotdogging," looking for kills and glory on his own, Burrito thought he should have saved his butt and then torn a strip off it when they were safely back on deck. Instead, 1st Lieutenant Torr "Ice" Grael was standing at a porthole watching his squadronmates get shot to pieces instead of up here in his spacecraft with them.

Burrito got so angry at times (as anyone in the squad could attest to), so angry he felt he would explode. But not angry at other people, at himself. From his subordinates he demanded professionalism, but from himself he demanded perfection. He knew it wasn’t his fault he was no longer the squadron Executive Officer, with Ronin returning from the dead, but some part of him still told him that he obviously hadn’t been good enough. A little voice told him that he would never be good enough. He believed it, but still. He tried, tried very hard. But no matter how hard he tried, it was impossible to live up to his own standards. How could you be perfect?

"He’s still on me," Miani "Shiva" Tnisu said, the young woman sounding remarkably calm on the comm.

"Nearly there -- missile away!" Already in a tight turn behind Shiva, the Alien fighter couldn’t break into the missile. It dumped countermeasure decoys instead. The Image Recognition broke lock and went ballistic, plunging through the cloud of chaff and flares and on into the interplanetary void.

"Damn it, don’t reverse!" Burrito shouted frantically, "you’ll just give him an easy shot!"

Shiva had panicked. The bug was working its way further and further into her rear quarter and she just wanted to put off his aim. She slammed the stick over to the right-hand side of the cockpit. The Alien fighter easily dropped into her six at half the range he had been. The only good thing was that Burrito did the same to the bug. He started to fire, not really trying to do anything but distract it. Nothing for it, he fired his second and last ImRec. As he did so his entire instrument panel turned red. Every warning light came on and his ears were assaulted by warning klaxons. The stick was mushy in his hand. He vaguely noticed tracer streaming past the cockpit. His head and arms felt heavy and his vision was fading. He knew he had lost control of the tumbling fighter. The controls weren’t responding. Maybe if that damn warning klaxon would shut up and let him concentrate. He couldn’t think straight, like he was drunk or just very tired. What had happened? He couldn’t work it out. He couldn’t even remember why he was trying to. Why bother? Everything seemed to be too much effort, but something nagged at him as he sat in his disintegrating fighter. There was something he should remember, something he had to do. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. Nothing did. He was too tired to care. 

"Burrito! No! No, damn it, no!" Major Angela "Draft" Rai had watched the whole thing in horror, too far away to help. Burrito had dropped in behind Shiva and her pursuer and in turn the Alien’s wingman had dropped in behind him. Burrito had got target fixated, too busy trying to save Shiva’s life to remember to save his own. He never checked his six. The scene replayed itself in front of her eyes, in black and white slow motion. Why hadn’t she called out to warn him? It had happened so fast, but she should have warned him. Why hadn’t she? She closed her eyes, trying to get rid of the images. They only burned brighter. Over and over all she saw was Burrito’s death.

"Draft, break right!" Major Hishori "Ronin" Nawazaki shouted for the fourth or fifth time. Rai either couldn’t hear him or didn’t want to hear him.

"Draft! Angela, break right! Break right now or you’re dead!"

"What?" Draft suddenly snapped out of her trance but it was too late. Her scream ended in a squeal of static.

Ronin could hardly believe it. Two of his best pilots dead in under two minutes. The first had screwed up, the second froze at a critical moment. He’d heard of it happening, just hadn’t expected to see it happen in front of his own eyes. Men and women pushed to breaking point and beyond. He just hoped the result was worth it.

Forget it. He had to push it out of his mind and keep going. He had a job to do. They had a job to do.

"Let’s see if we can kill a few turrets on those Orcas, Aztecs," Ronin reminded them of their primary mission, "Chatterbox, your flight can give us cover. Here we go, running in -- now!"

F-106A Piranha 001 [ Squito Lead ]
1309 Hours (CST)

Coroner was furious. The red mist had descended. Nothing he saw, no matter how large or dangerous a target, survived his rage. 1st Lt Anthony "Redman" Batchelor was dead. So was Norbert "Blitz" Bauer. And probably Edwin "Daz" Dauzz, although Coroner thought Daz had managed to eject. Blitz had saved Redman, for all of ten seconds. Another cursed Devil Ray had slipped past the Kilrathi Heavy Fighters and blown them both away in the space of a few heartbeats. They never stood a chance. They didn’t even have time to eject.

They had been avenged. He and Jhathar nar Vukar Tag had seen to that, relentlessly pursuing it until they had destroyed the Alien fighter.

Coroner had a list of people he wanted to kill. A mental list of those people he hated. The Kilrathi were still on it, but so were the bugs. And the Nephilim were at the top of the list. His hatred of the Cats was still strong, too strong to let go yet. Probably too strong to ever let go, but at the moment his hatred of the bugs was even stronger.

His scar still throbbed, burning with the fires of the hate that burned within him. Those fires burned as hot as the sun, driving him on. The only difference was where that hate was directed.



F-110A Wasp 004 [ Theta Four ]
1313 Hours (CST)

"Fuck this."

The remaining three F-110 Wasp interceptors, all that remained from the 323rd "Fireballs" Fighter Squadron, flew in a loose "vic" formation. Not tactically sound, but the best they could do under the circumstances. They all had damage of varying degrees and at any other time Captain Luke "Kamikaze" Causey would never have taken his battered fighter up again after landing a few minutes before. Instead, he and the others had done a "hot" turnaround. They needed every fighter they could get and Causey had decided that if he was going to die he would rather it be with his friends trying to protect the Valley Forge and her battle group, rather than watching other people try to from a porthole.


TCS Valley Forge; Wardroom
1315 Hours (CST)

1st Lieutenant Torr "Ice" Grael was standing at the viewports of the Forge’s officer observation "O"-Lounge, feeling well the cold of interplanetary nothing on face and fingertips alike where they pressed against the plastiglass as he strained for a better view. Ice wasn’t allowed into the Ops room and had just been in the way on the damage control party earlier assigned to. Ice thought about going down to sick bay or joining one of the medical parties since he had basic First Aid training but instead he’d come here to watch the battle and wishing desperately that he could be out there in it.

A Wasp screamed past the viewport, only yards away. A Skate tore after it spraying energy projectiles ahead of itself. One or two of the blasts caught the Wasp and it vaporized as he watched.

"Shit!" Ice groaned. "But, hmmm... I wonder who that was?"  



F-110A Wasp 001 [ Theta Lead ]
1316 Hours (CST)

Lt. Colonel Avery "Virus" Hale knew who that was. It was Causey. By rights, he should have bought it sooner. Yet why not himself? Why hadn’t he been killed yet in this or earlier battles? Was someone or something watching and laughing, planning all this, making him watch every single member of his squadron die one after another before his very eyes?

Was it fate, his curse, or God Himself? The middle-aged Hale was tired of being one of the "lucky ones."

Perhaps none of the three: the missile warning sounded. He broke hard and punched off some decoys but it continued insistently. Tightening his turn still further, he looked for the missile. He couldn’t see it and that was a bad sign: It meant it was somewhere behind him meaning in all probability he couldn’t tighten his turn enough to force it to overshoot.

The two missiles slammed into the already-damaged Wasp, totally destroying it. Virus would not have to watch his entire squadron die -- Major "Firedrake" K’tik, his loyal friend and wingman, still lived.



F/A-105A Tigershark 101 [ Sky Raider Lead ]
1318 Hours (CST)

"Achtung! Feindliche Jaeger! Sechs Uhr unterhalb!" Major Paul "Kraut" Hartmann warned Major Dan "Bugfix" Burdock he had a bandit on his six. The only thing was, he warned him in German.

"Damnit!" Burdock snarled in exasperation, "Speak English!"

Scheiße! I am doing it again, Hartmann realized with surprise, "Enemy fighter -- "

"I know what it means, you -- ugh! Sonnova...!" Burdock grunted and swore as he tried to escape his adversary, flinging his Tigershark all over the sky in a vain effort to try and force the bug to overshoot or lose him in the turn. Shots were impacting his shields intermittently but luckily nothing too serious had hit him. Yet! -- Still, try as he might, he couldn’t shake his attacker.

"I need some help here!" Bugfix shouted desperately.

"Victor, victor! I am on my way!" With customary Teutonic precision and efficiency, Hartmann rapidly dispatched the Nephilim fighter.

"Thanks for the save," Burdock growled, gratefully but reluctantly, "but hell, I really could do with a drink!"

"Hardly the place or the time, Major."

"No, perhaps not." But he’d had one when he strapped in -- a damn stupid thing to do, as dehydrated as he was. Rather than settle his nerves it had gone straight to his head. Stupid, stupid bastard! Bugfix cursed himself as he tried to concentrate.

Maybe my judgment is going, Dan realized with alarm. Exhaustion, stress, "twitch," combat fatigue -- call it what you like, but it happened, even to the best. Sailor Malan: over the hill, an old man at thirty. 35 kills in the Battle of Britain, but he never got any more. He never came back after being "tour expired" from 15 months hard fighting. And not to mention Erich Hartmann, Kraut’s illustrious ancestor, having a nervous breakdown after his fifth shootdown. But he came back from the breakdown to rack up the highest total of WWII.

Am I past it? Am I a washed up, drunken old has-been? Or can I come back? Get my command back? Or is my career over? He snorted. He was in the middle of the worst dogfight he had ever known, and he was worrying about his career! He should worry about whether his life would be over, not his career.

At any rate, the present situation demanded both of their focuses be directed elsewhere -- the Forge was in bad shape. Bad shape indeed.



Vindicator 001 [ Talon Lead ]
1320 Hours (CST)

Major Frederick "Doppler" von Richthofen flinched as the Moray attacking him head-on shattered under the force of his lasers and tachyon cannons, showering his weakened shields with glowing, steaming debris and greenish-yellow fluids similar to what you get from stepping on a Grasshopper or Praying Mantis. He activated his com. "Hold tight, everyone. Our target’s coming up. 82 seconds and counting until we start our bombing run."

Talon Squadron swung away from the Confed carrier group towards one of two Orca-class destroyers slated for annihilation. The bulbous warship was dangerously close to the looming Tiamat, and the sheer density of Nephilim fighter coverage bore strong testament to the desperation of the mission as a whole. Already, the squadron of Kilrathi covering their attack were caught up in a series of endless dogfights (or would that be catfights? Richthofen mused), leaving his torpedo bomber squadron to fend for themselves. "At least all their good fighters are caught up in fights with the Confed and Cat superiority and support squadrons,” he mumbled to himself.

A moment later, a Manta missiled one of his bombers and attempted to strafe another. Its attack was cut short as over a dozen turreted particle cannons locked on and swatted it from the void. "I go into the bla -- " the bug pilot’s last words were cut off by its fighter’s explosion.

"You okay, Merry?" he asked the stricken bomber’s pilot.

"Yes, sir," she replied. "Lost a little armor, that’s all."

"Okay, hold in there. Just thirty seconds to our run."

Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds is a small eternity on the battlefield. A sky can be swept of fighters in thirty seconds, a warship destroyed, a battle forfeited, or a war lost... The battle continued to rage on around them. Pilots shouted in triumph and screamed in the final moments before a fiery death. The sky was littered with the strobing flicker of weapons fire, detonating missiles, and exploding fighters; an orgy of battle, death, and hopeless misery worthy of Aries himself. And through it, an almost surrealistically clear run to their target.

"Begin your runs. Four torps each. I want that thing dead on the first pass," the Major ordered. "Anubis, Torch -- let’s nail those auxiliary shield generators. Go!” he shouted, punching his throttle to full power and triggering his afterburners. The little Vindicator leapt ahead of the bomber group towards the massive organic destroyer, its companions close behind.

The Orca lashed out with its weapons as the fighters closed on their attack run, filling the empty vacuum between the Talons and itself with massive capital maser pulses, their proximity to the jinking fighters bathing their cockpits and hulls in an eerie pulsing green hue. Its missile launchers then joined the assault, sending out dark deadly darts upon emerald flames, forcing the fighters to evade and drop decoys. But again, these were no ordinary Vindicators, and their enhanced maneuverability caused errors as the Orca tried to predict their performance outside of the normal Vindicator performance the Nephilim were used to.

They finally scored some Maser hits, but it was too late for their shields. Hundreds of Stormfire Mk1 rounds pelted the bulb-tipped stalks, shattering the dark green carapace and tearing the organs inside apart.

"Shields are down, Python. Now pop this pimple!" Captain Stefani "Torch" Kozlowski shouted as adrenaline momentarily surpassed common sense as she jinked her fighter, firing her tail-laser to kill a missile that had acquired a lock on her.

“Hold on. I’ve got it," Captain Seth "Anubis" Milhalik announced calmly. He lined up the missile and triggered a short Stormfire burst, perforating the projectile, causing it to explode harmlessly.

"Thanks, Seth," Stephani said with a sigh of relief.

"No problem," Anubis replied. "You’d do the same for -- ungh!" Anubis’ fighter was jolted by a second heavy plasma shot from behind, knocking down his shields and tearing into his armor. A third blast struck home, punching through the aft turret and blowing up through the fighter. "Damn it," Anubis cursed as the plasma curled around him, vaporizing him as it blew out the canopy of his fighter. The Vindicator’s engines failed, and it tumbled away into the darkness.

The Stingray cluster darted away, back into the battle, denying the last two original Talons their revenge. The nine cries of "Fox Two!" did little to lift their spirits as they rejoined the bombers. Neither did the massive explosion as the destroyer died.

"This is Talon Lead. Target is destroyed. One fatality. Request new target," Richthofen reported almost mechanically. In the distance, he could see the fireball as the other Orca died.

"Talons, assist in defense of the carrier. The Lampreys are tearing our shields apart, and the Steel Gunners and White Hopes are getting overwhelmed," came back the reply.

What the hell? "Say again, Valley Forge. You want us to take up... interception duty?" Richthofen asked in disbelief.

"Affirmative, Talon Lead."

"We’re a bomber squadron. Shouldn’t we attack the Tiamat or something? We have seventy-eight torpedoes left between us. Hell, we might be able to -- "

A new voice thundered over the comm channel, "This is Captain Schaefer, and I am giving you a direct order. Cover the Valley Forge. Now." The channel closed.

"Dumb fucking… You heard the man. To the Forge. We’re to intercept strafing runs against the carrier,” Richthofen relayed. The response was a series of irate responses. “Hey! Cut the chatter, Talons. I know it sounds like we’ve exchanged a murderer for an idiot, but we’ve gotta save the carrier, and the B-7 Dauntlesses’ turrets will go a long way towards relieving them. Once the battle eases up a little, then we’re gonna hit that dreadnought with everything we’ve got. Orders or not.”

"That was such a load of steaming bullshit," Stephani all-but shouted, anger and hatred seething in her voice. Thankfully, the anger wasn’t towards him.

Richthofen sighed. "I know it was, but the others are following now. I know our fellow militiamen, and I know that they were about half a hair from charging after that dreadnought. This’ll allow us have a carrier to land on afterwards."

"Bullshit," Torch snorted.

"Maybe it is. But something odd’s going on, and I want to be in a position to interfere when it…" he was interrupted by a shout of one of his pilots.

"Capship Missile -- heading towards the carrier!" shouted one of the pilots.

Eleven pairs of eyes watched in horror as the green plasma-missile streaked across into the Valley Forge...


TCS Valley Forge; Brig
1323 Hours (CST)

A dull shudder that fast became a violent quake with tremors throughout the deck stirred Captain Vandermann from his private reverie and back to reality.

"My word... what the hell’s happening out there?"

A shake-job like that was no shield-grazing maser barrage from Nephilim fighters, Vandermann knew. It had to have been a torpedo impact, or worse yet a CSM blast -- he’d been on the bridge of the Forge during that first leg of the campaign at Nephele that had cost them the TCS Forstchen and TCS Hood when she’d taken that first CSM blast... the feeling was identical, and now seemed unmistakable.

A brief loss of gravity followed by a sudden electrical flickering in the air immediately in front of him told Vandermann whatever blast the Forge had just taken deactivated the forcefields, perhaps the power loss causing a momentary fluctuation of the rudimentary life support functions. Acting quickly, noticing the Marine guard outside had not taken notice of this as he had, the Captain threw off his complacent motif and launched himself into motion in a way that one might not expect he would be able to by the look of his age. His hands clamping down as vice-grips on the unsuspecting Marine’s arms, he was quick to subdue his captor and appropriate his firearm.

Straightening the wrinkles and creases in his uniform a bit as he went, Vandermann quickly made his way to the lift a free man again, new security-issue MP-80 rifle calmly brandished in-hand.


Nephilim Tiamat-class Dreadnought; Main Concourse
1325 Hours (CST)

"Jesus! They’re everywhere! Die, motherfucks! Arrhh!!! DIE! DIE! DIE!"

"Marines -- short, controlled bursts! Don’t waste your powerpacks!"

Lance Corporal Guthrie squeezed the trigger and grimaced as chunks of chitin and unidentifiable neon-yellow goo sprayed from the wounds his M-58 Laser Assault Rifle opened in the tough Alien carapace. Some parts of the monsters would stand up to laser fire, others opened like water balloons. Some pieces one could shoot off and they just kept coming, crawling on shattered stumps, trailing ichor behind them as their fellows scrambled over them. He hit another with two or three bursts and it dropped. There were piles of them building up, restricting fire arcs. The bugs were getting closer and closer before he had a clear shot. Something hot and wet sprayed across his face. Then there was the scream. Henry McIntyre had screamed like that the day he lost his arm in the thresher.

Guthrie turned to his left. He pulled the trigger; held it down. He wasn’t aiming so much at the bug, but at what was left of Antonio Medici. My God, Guthrie thought, No fucking way any proud Marine should have to go like that, his mission and dedication to becoming the best of the best in the Corps ending dangled on a spike like a side of beef.

He turned back to his front. There was too many, and he’d given them an opening. The rifle beeped. Out of charge. Dropping the rifle his hand automatically went for his pistol, but only for a split second. He was pulling out a flak grenade when the first blow hit him. He felt the shock but no pain for a moment. Then the numbing pain hit and washed over him, and it was all he could do to pull the pin before the grenade fell from his fingers.

Guthrie opened his mouth to shout "Fire in the hole!" but all that came out was blood -- pints of it, it seemed. His world was an agonized gray tunnel, shrinking rapidly to black. He never felt the grenade go off.

Captain Dshugder-Warmuth was staggered by the blast, and shrapnel pinged off her body armor and BDUs. A burning sensation on her right cheek told her one of the red-hot pieces of metal had just narrowly missed her eye. She surveyed the carnage: her people were being overwhelmed. The numbers and ferocity of the enemy were simply too great, and even her CAS-equipped fire team wouldn’t be able to turn the odds in their favor.

"Lieutenant, the Forge can’t hold out much longer," a disembodied voice in her ear told her, "we need you to blow the charges!"

"Sir, we need more time!"

"Look, Captain, there is no time. If you need time to get back to your TS-10 to escape, there will be no carrier to escape to! Blow those charges now, soldier!"

"Aye, sir!" Dshugder-Warmuth snapped bitterly. She wanted more time to set more charges and make sure, not time to escape. She turned to her ExO, First Lt. Escobar Cantieri, and snapped, "How long for that charge?"

"Nearly got it, sir, but we haven’t placed enough!"

"Doesn’t matter -- we’ve just been ordered to blow them!"

"Aye sirrraaarrrgghh!!!"

The detonator flew from Cantieri’s limp hand, skittering across the floor toward the advancing bug hordes. What followed was a cascade of death, narrated by screams that told the grim tale succinctly enough.

"Cantieri -- no!"

"They got Brenneman! Shi -- "

"Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!"

"Eat this, you faggot-fucking sack of -- "

"This is fuckin’ hamburger hill!"

"Give me covering fire, Marines! Covering fire, god damn it!" Captain Dshugder shouted to anyone still alive to hear her, her shouting grasping at reason in the face of death and in the midst of insanity and chaos.

The story of the final sacrifice of Lt. Colonel Vance Trelane, the 97th’s late commanding officer that had also become her lover, danced through Dshugder’s head almost deliriously. Spraying fire from the hip, she dived headlong toward the detonator. Her fingers closed around it. She flicked the safety off and, hoping her Marines had done their part in placing enough charges, pressed the button. The detonator dropped to the deck, still enclosed by her hand.

Unthinking then, Dshugder stooped to pick it up, then realized something had taken her arm off at the elbow. Suddenly she was eight feet in the air, defenselessly peering down at the chitinous spike that protruded from her armored chest. It was the last thing she ever saw.

"Captain? Captain?" the voice crackled from the comset in her fallen combat helmet, "Captain Dshugder-Warmuth, what’s happening in there? Why haven’t your Marines blown the ship?" There would be no answer, for there was no Marine left standing amongst the last of the 97th Assault Detachment to give one.


TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
1330 Hours (CST)

Captain Nathan Schaefer stood for a moment in his version of quiet reflection, trying to make sense of what was going on amidst the chaos on the bridge. A crazed motif came about him, a side none of his fellow officers had seen before.

The recent failure of the Marines effort had been a calculated one. One that had been expected, planned for, even. Sacrificial lambs for the furthering of The Purpose; The Plan; The Movement. They should thank him... martyrdom awaited CVBG-A and all of her members in the Terran history books of the next generation.

"Beautiful," Schaefer said, observing the grim battle playing out with a smile, "Beautiful."

"Sir..." Lt. Commander Erin Ishii timidly began, clearing her throat upon standing from her station and console. The XO had just emerged from frantic communication with engineering and other stations, gathering damage reports and the like. At the moment she didn’t seem sure how best to convey herself before her Captain, but it was clear by her posture that she had something important to say. "Sir... to put it plainly -- "

"Out with it, Ishii. What is it?"

Ishii cleared her throat again. Eyes began turning to her on the bridge, as if all among the bridge staff knew what she was going to say. "Sir, that CSM blast banged us up pretty bad. If we were anywhere near being within range of a station or a depot or... well, anything for repairs there might be a chance... but, Captain," she adjusted herself again, meeting his gaze toe-to-toe, "to be frank, the Valley Forge is living on borrowed time. Sir."

"Duly noted, Lt. Commander Ishii, thank you. You should note for the record that I do share quite the very same evaluation of the situation. Now if you’d be seated again, please." Captain Schaefer turned then, his fanatically-focused gaze sweeping and raking across the faces of the bridge staff. No one could have predicted the order he would next give. "Under careful examination and scrutiny of the predicament this battle group, this mission, and most specifically this carrier are in, I feel it is not only my choice, but my duty to order the immediate self-destruct of the Forge."

It was all part of his plan... The Plan; The Movement. With the lonely stars of Loki as his witnesses and the peace of mind of knowing his actions would finally pave the final piece of The Plan’s foundation that would become its own springboard, oh, Schaefer would be damned sure he’d see it through. If not for his own sake, for the sake of the Others that would respect and honor his sacrifice for the betterment of The Movement -- their day was nearing, marching closer simultaneously with mankind’s day of reckoning. 

Silence fell over the bridge like a thick, suffocating blanket. Comm Officer Lt. JG Amy St. Germain managed to utter a plea of sound mind and judgment from her comm station, "W-what about evacuation, sir? Shouldn’t we order an e -- "

"Evacuation? Oh, no, my young Lieutenant, I’m afraid there will be none of that going on. We’ve played our part in The Plan, my loyal crew," Schaefer said, still smiling. "Now it’s time for our endgame; our curtain call, if you will. Just as you did Vandermann proud, you have done me doubly proud, and each of you have served the Terran Confederation well -- now carry out my orders."

No sooner did he say this than the lift doors opened and none other than Captain Vandermann stepped onto the bridge, MP-80 Rifle in hand.

"Hello, Nathan."

Vandermann calmly admitted to being part of the Black Lance. He was a troubled soul after the loss of the TCS Odessa, spending the rest of his time up until and beyond the death of his father trying to make amends. At last he found his way, just after his involvement in Project Goliath: the SRA. Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn came to him with a promise of bettering humanity, of making it vigilant enough to stand up to the next hostile race and guaranteeing the true second generation of mankind. By the time the scapegoat Trojan horse that had been the Y-12 Belisarius Group was shed off, he was already having misgivings about his decision about what he had gotten himself into. He didn’t agree with the deployment of Bio-Convergence nanobots on Telamon IV that resulted in the deaths of millions, but he was in too deep by that point. When he was ordered to kill his own wife upon her learning of his involvement in what was going on in the Axius System, there was simply no turning back.

He then pointed incriminatingly to Schaefer, explaining that he undermined him. While Vandermann had been on the "Unit 212" (i.e. Paulson, Petranova, etc.) side of the Black Lance Incident under the banner of the long-disbanded SRA, Schaefer had been one of the "Overmen," one of the first to be spawned from the G.E. Program. During the Hunt-Down, while the last few of the Overmen had been (for the most part) hunted down like a pack of wolves, Schaefer had used what little influence remained of Unit 212 in the Admiralty Court to give him a new identity in ConFleet. Vandermann had gone through the same avenue, though only to safe keep his involvement throughout the Black Lance Incident from inappropriate prying eyes. In time Schaefer had sought Vandermann out, and together the two had plotted a new stratagem that would, while not resurrecting the Black Lance, manifest their ideals in guaranteeing Confed’s continued vigilance.

Then, as he went on, something had gone awry... Vandermann began to question his involvement. Yet while making sure to note his questioning of it, he neither offered or expected any excuses for it -- if it had not been him that had filled that role in the "SRA," it would have been another man, and why not him if some good had actually come of the Old Man’s plan? He believed in The Plan, as he told his bridge crew, and still did, if now only in principle alone.

The needs of the many...

As he explained to the bridge crew -- and Schaefer did not deny -- it was Schaefer that murdered Turner and Modeen, framing him with evidence even the most amateur assassin wouldn’t leave around. When Vandermann had shown signs of turning his back on The Plan, Schaefer decided to replace him in completing the last leg of their mission -- the sacrifice of the Forge, both in making a statement to ConFleet to heighten their realization of the Alien threat and so that the Nephilim presence continues unfazed, still keeping the Confederation at a state of war and, as such, vigilant; at its best.

"In a pair of traitors, who is the true traitor, Vandermann?" Schaefer posed the question to Vandermann and those who were listening. "The traitor... or the traitor that betrays him?"

"We’re both traitors, Schaefer," Vandermann said, unabashed. "Whatever ways I’ve agreed with The Plan and however I may have aided its efforts, while ways no less treasonous than Tolwyn’s, they are left in the past. My dedication to The Plan in the present has been one of a principle nature until I renounced them today, but my loyalty has always been to this ship; her crew... you want to make yourself a martyr along with every man and woman aboard."

"Sacrifices... ones that m -- "

The ship shook from another pounding outside. Everything happened quickly -- Schaefer drew the small Hecker & Koch LPP from his side and shot Vandermann in the side. Vandermann dropped, his MP-80 quickly scooped up and confiscated by a confused but still dutiful Marine security guard that trained his own weapon on his former captain.

"Oh, what a disappointment... but what does it really matter now, Vandermann?" Captain Schaefer spoke down to the fallen figure of Vandermann. He grinned sardonically, almost comic-diabolically so. "‘There’ll come a day when we’ll come back. If it takes a hundred years, we’ll come back...’ -- the Old Man once said. Are you so blind to the big picture that is so plain for so many others to be seen? Our brothers and sisters are depending on us; our fate is sealed, and my orders are being carried out."

Lt. Commander Ishii glowered at Schaefer. "Not yet they haven’t, sir."


Greeted by the shocked faces of her fellow bridge staff, Ishii pulled a pistol of her own, a Brauer Stiletto P8 Gauss-style handgun she brandished with an expert’s handling. The Asian woman stood and, to no challenge, messily unloaded a single flechette directly into Schaefer’s face.

Captain Schaefer teetered, a genuine look of horrified shock frozen on what was left (and recognizable) of the dead man’s face as he collapsed on the deck.

"That’s for Turner, you sick son of a bitch." Ishii looked around as a puzzled Vandermann staggered to his feet. "I don’t know about the rest of you," she announced, "but I’m with Vandermann until we see this thing through. The Admiralty Court can do what they will with him when we’re done... if we live."

Vandermann nodded meagerly. The bridge staff, and even the Marine security detail, offer no protest to the abrupt change in command. At the very least, they thought Vandermann the lesser of two evils.

No sooner was this change made than the Forge reeled from another blast -- a torpedo?

Captain Vandermann had no choice. His crew knew it. "Crew of the proud Valley Forge," he spoke into the PA system. "This is your former Captain speaking. Many of you may not trust me due to events that have transpired of late... but given my predecessor’s last order, I have a feeling you might feel obligated to follow this one regardless of who gives it -- I give the order for the immediate evacuation of all-hands."

"Except me, sir," spoke the meek, yet determined voice of Lt. Commander Erin Ishii. "With all due respect, sir, I want to see this through." The Captain shot the young woman a blank stare. "You’ll need me, too, sir. Am I right?"

Vandermann opened his mouth to protest... before he truly caught the depth to the look in the young woman’s eye. There was no changing her mind, and her determination to stand by her Captain to the last touched him sincerely.

"Erin? Are you..." Ensign Jed Wright started, but trailed off upon seeing the stone-set expression on his friend and fellow officer’s face.

That one woman, one officer amongst his crew was willing to stand with him to the bitter end that both knew awaited them... after all the loyalty-testing trials of their missions since joining Rear Admiral Hanton’s Combined Fleet effort, all the night-and-day sides of him that his crew had seen right up to the present, when they’d been told their Captain was not only a madman but possibly a traitor to the Confederation...

That this one woman, or even any officer at all after of the aforementioned, would not be willing to stand with her Captain now but volunteer herself; her life... Captain Vandermann felt that he’d done good by the Valley Forge’s crew.

"You’re a good soldier, Ishii. Thank you."

After the two shepherded the bridge staff on their way to the nearest lifeboats and/or shuttles, Vandermann and Ishii set themselves to work. A rather steadfast Ishii paused only to say a final affectionate goodbye to her nearly lifelong friend, Lt. JG Amy St. Germain, kissing the shaken young woman on the mouth before parting.

The Forge’s weapons systems damaged, inoperative, and otherwise insufficient, both knew they had only one chance at taking out the Tiamat dreadnought. Vandermann didn’t need to give the grim order to ram the Tiamat -- Ishii brought the Forge to ramming speed.

Taking the helm, Ishii began to carry out his unspoken (yet understood nonetheless) orders when another blast caused a series of explosions on the bridge. Shrapnel rending her flesh and tearing through her skull, she lay sprawled out across the nav console.

"Ishii -- damn it, no!"

Good Lord in Heaven! he cursed silently to himself. Is this what happens to anyone that dares follow me, dares call me leader? This one woman, this one officer that stood by me willing to face the end beside her captain... and fate strikes her down right in front of me, not even permitting me the tiny comfort of believing I maybe had even some tiny, miniscule speckle of business to begin with in ever working up the gall to call myself "captain" again after what happened with the Odessa...

Making himself spring into action before any further emotion could consume his better judgment, Vandermann vaulted forward and tried to take the helm himself. As he took the fallen Ishii’s place at the console, he was aghast to find the helm no longer to be responding. With engineering abandoned, he seemed to be up a creek without a paddle, the Forge, too.

Wasn’t he?