PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 56 of 66 )

: “ End of the Spiral ”
PART 1 OF 3 :
FULL CIRCLE ( 2 / 3 )

“Stand to your glasses ready,
This world is a world full of lies.
Here’s a health to the dead already
Hurrah for the next man to die!”
From "Stand to Your Glasses!" (WWI)


TCS Shrak’har; MedBay
The Loki System, Vega Sector, Downing Quadrant
14th FEB 2681/2681.045; 1742 Hours (CST)

“Bah, that’s not too bad. Nothing we couldn’t fix easily. Don’t you worry, Spaceman,” the Doctor spoke following quite the brief look at her patient lying on the stretcher. She was running the transit camp for now, a human amongst a ship chock-full of primarily the native Kilrathi. The officer refugees of the Forge quickly found this Fralthi II of Catharx’s to be lacking in the way of any kind of proficient medical staff or facilities -- for the Cats, they relished in their battle wounds, coping with their injuries independently and without complaint. "Nurse!" she then called, "Nurse!"

"Yes, ma’am?" A weary young dark-haired man with auburn skin appeared in the doorframe.

"Bring this patient here to Dr. Jones to have the shrapnel in his thigh removed. And see if Vince has finished operating -- then you could use his room. Otherwise the floor must do, once again."

The nurse disappeared with the patient faintly groaning. The Doctor turned to Richard. Upon noticing that it was his turn, he started: "Lt. Colonel Samuel Richard, squadron commander, 109th ’Steel Gunners,’ Confed ID 654…"

"Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel. No need for that. We lost all the files with the destruction. And HQ hasn’t sent us back-ups yet. Not that it would be terribly important. Those things can wait for now. There are matters more pressing, aren’t there?"

"Suppose so," was Richard’s sole response.

"For now it is quite a way back to the more archaic beginnings of modern medicine around here anyway, I am very much afraid. We are lacking almost everything and space is just our least problem. Additionally the Kilrathi do have a different approach to medicine indeed. But, sorry, sir! Back to you: If I remember right SAR brought you back in unconscious, wasn’t it?"

Lt. Colonel “Sirdar” Richard was impressed she still remembered that, with hundreds of patients coming through today. He told her of the terrible headaches he was having after he had woken up. Nothing he was very concerned about. All he wanted was some painkiller until they would be gone. The Doctor listened carefully. After he had finished she asked, "How old are you, sir?"

"46. Why? You don’t want to withdraw me from the action?"

"Certainly not, sir! But I like to do some tests with you."

After Richard had gone through some tests, check-ups and finally been in the MSXRT (Multi-Scan /X-Ray Tube), the doctor put him in the picture.

"The scans show some spinal damage. I want you to have a look at this." The doctor pointed to a part of the X-ray scan that could be seen on a screen. A part approximately in the middle of his backbone. You see these two bones here? Do you see the tiny cracks they have? Fractured vertebrae. At least this one here. Honestly, I am not sure about the other one after just one scan, which can very regarded as a very quick and preliminary diagnosis."

"So what does that mean?" Sirdar asked.

The Doctor looked at him for a long time.

"I see." Richard nodded. "Will I ever fly again?"

"I cannot tell right now. It needs some more and thorough checks. Frankly, I believe that there is quite a good chance that you will. These things are not necessarily irreparable any longer nowadays. However you need to have this treated properly which means good, very good, doctors and the appropriate equipment, both of which you won’t find around here."

That was grim news. Flying for Richard meant everything. He had never had any other obsession than it. Nothing was as important. Flying was his life. Without it he could not live. If his flying was over, so was life.

"But I can’t leave!" he protested desperately.

"With this now -- you can! You won’t be able to fly, anyhow. Unless you want to risk killing yourself," the Doctor informed him calmly.

Sirdar gave her a look that said, "As if that mattered. We will be dying at any rate, but without flying I’m already dead. I can’t leave, god damn it," he repeated. "They need me!"

"With a fighter that you don’t have?" she replied. She could not order him to stay out of the action, to get himself transferred away from the front, even. She would not. If he was to stay, wanted to fly regardless… the chances were he would get killed one way or the other. If he refused to be shipped homewards…?

The Doctor looked at him. Richard did not look that sort of man that would run away. All she could do was to appeal to his common sense.

That was a good point the doc had just made, Richard had to admit. Without a fighter - what could he possibly do? He did not expect they would get any new supplies, certainly not fighter craft. The way it looked to him right now, the battle group would probably be disbanded, the individual ships being assigned to other battle groups. That would make one independently operating group less for the UBW/Confed side on the battlefield, but without a carrier and a shattered air wing… Richard broke off. He could not bother to rack his brains about it. He was too weary and too confused by what he had just learned about his spine.

"Is there nothing I can do?" he spoke, but more to himself than the doctor. He looked deep in thoughts. "How much time have I got?" he asked the Doctor.

The doctor gave a tired sigh. She gave in; all her counsel had not helped. Apparently the Lieutenant Colonel had come to a decision, which she suspected was to stay either way. "Well, I’d say you must not under any circumstance wait longer than a month to get proper treatment for your back if you stay on board. And you must not fly, if you want to have a chance of ever flying again. Also I’d like to do a more thorough examination before then, even with what we’ve got here. Given I get a chance to do so. This is all I can do, I’m afraid."

"Don’t be. Nothing we couldn’t fix easily, could we, doc?" asked a very relieved and smiling Lt. Colonel Richard. "You helped me a great deal. Thank you, Doctor Jamieson." He had looked on her nametag.

Sirdar gave a sigh then, content in his fate if only for the time being. As if in answer to his not-so-silent prayer, moments later he would receive a most noteworthy page that stood to alter that fate. 


TCS Shrak’har; Flag Bridge
1950 Hours (CST)

"My liege," the P.A. system crackled into life in Catharx’s quarters. "There is an urgent transmission from Admiral Hanton."

"Put her through," Catharx growled. He figured he would have to speak to Erin Hanton sooner or later, and it was better sooner than later in his book if he wanted to continue to do the memory of his lost takhar proud. Just the same, however, he would want to make sure of the facts before saying anything that might impinge the honor or sully the memory of his takhar.

"What happened, Kalahn Catharx? This report tells me nothing."

"It was only intended as an interim report, Admiral," the Kilrathi noble explained, trying to appease the anger he saw in Hanton’s eyes. He had low tolerance for humans as it was -- Eldon Vandermann was the only human he’d looked upon truly as understanding the Kilrathi people enough to accept him as his friend and equal… it would be some time before he could readily accept more humans into that fold. "A sitrep, if you will. A full report will follow in due course."

"That hardly answers my question, Kalahn."

"I cannot answer your question, Admiral, because I do not know the answer myself. A full inquiry will be conducted, but at the present time more pressing matters take precedence."

"Of course, but surely you must have some more details…? Only hours ago I received a report that Vandermann had been indicted for murder! Now suddenly he’s the ’Hero of Loki’?"

"As I understand it and as it was recounted to me by Lt. JG St. Germain -- and this I do not doubt - Schaefer was the murderer and had framed Eldon to get him out of the way. For some reason he then decided to destroy the Valley Forge, giving the self-destruct order but refusing to allow anyone to abandon ship first."

"What?" Hanton almost screamed, incredulous.

"It is true, Admiral. I swear it on my hrai, my Cadre, and my honor as a Warrior of Kilrah."

"I don’t doubt you, Kalahn Catharx. It is simply... difficult to take in."

"Yes, for myself also." For I have lost a trusted takhar, Catharx finished silently.

"Go on. What happened?"

"During the confusion of the battle, Vandermann was somehow released from custody. He retook command of the Forge, though Schaefer resisted and in the ensuing conflict, was killed. By this time the destruction of the ship was inevitable, so Vandermann and Commander Ishii took the Valley Forge as close to the dreadnought as possible before destroying her themselves."

"So I have the loss of yet another much-needed carrier to blame not on the Nephilim or incompetence but instead on the insanity of a suicidal first officer with apparent ties to the long-gone Black Lance, Schaefer?"

"It would seem so, Admiral,” agreed Catharx. “The Valley Forge had taken extremely heavy damage by then, and could not have been saved. That damage was due mostly to Schaefer’s command: He seemed to want the Forge destroyed! That is all I know, and even that seems to make no sense.” The Kilrathi shrugged, his paws making an expansive gesture. “A full report will be prepared as expeditiously as possible."

"Good. For now then, you will have to assume command of Battle Group Auriga."

"It would seem I already have, Admiral."

"Fine, fine. You were already next in the chain of command, of course." Being incorporated into CVBG-A by Vandermann following Operation Scour on Nephele II he had paid his dues in blood. "Apart from the Valley Forge, what other losses have you taken?"

"It was detailed in the report, Admiral."

"Humor me, if you would. Put it in your own words."

"Light casualties throughout the group, except for the 71st Tactical Fighter Wing. We have lost some 40 spacecraft along with most of their pilots. Many surviving fighters are heavily damaged and the pilots are fatigued beyond breaking point. Our flight wing’s combat effectiveness currently is close to nil. We’ve still got the - “

"How long will it be before the situation is stabilized?" Hanton demanded impatiently.

"How long?" Catharx barely suppressed an angry shake of his mane. "It is not a question of time, Admiral. We have not enough spacecraft, pilots, munitions or spare parts and not enough hangar space to fly them from if we had! The pilots may be rested in a day or so, but their morale is non-existent."

"Your frankness paints a bleak picture, Catharx."

"Merely a life study, Admiral. I will not airbrush out what people do not wish to see."

"We have taken heavy casualties throughout the Combined Fleet, Catharx."

"How have did others fare in the battle elsewhere then?" Catharx asked, reminded of the larger picture.

"Quite well, overall, despite almost horrific casualties in some quarters. The Endeavour and Yorktown have killed their targets, but we’ve also the lost the Littenia."

Two fleet carriers lost in one day…

"Any sign that Confed is softening its position on releasing the Inner Fleets?"

"None, if anything, the reverse. ConFleet High Command is scared -- terrified -- by the scale of our losses, and even more determined to keep the Inner Fleets to protect Sol and themselves. We may have been written off and left for dead already, I fear."

"But our successes! Can they not see that with those reinforcements victory could be ours within days? We could crush these Nephilim like the insect traggil they are!"

"Apparently not." She frowned, her attention caught by something off-screen. "Keep me informed. Out."


TCS Shrak’har; Warriors Hall
2100 Hours (CST)

Fighter pilots don’t go to funerals. Very few go to hospitals either, unless on a stretcher. Individual pilots went to a particular friend’s funeral from time to time and almost all swore never again. Instead, they would hoist a jar to their fallen comrade in the "O" Club, say a quick toast, and not dwell on it. It’s war: People die, shit happens. Think about it for too long and you can’t do your job if you think yours may be the next funeral.

They’d all experienced people dying. Even in peacetime, military aviation is a hazardous occupation and there were always occasional fatalities. Many here had even seen combat, and heavy casualties before, but this? Very few had experienced a loss on this scale before.

The atmosphere was understandably subdued. Most of the humans felt rather out of place and overawed, uncomfortable in the dark, torch lit warriors’ hall with its asymmetric, angular architecture and alien designs. People clustered in small groups, talking in low voices. The Kilrathi congregated in another area, conversing in their own language.

Along one side of the hall a makeshift bar had been rigged -- liquor would flow freely tonight. The old clichés, drinking to forget, to dull the pain, would be very true.

People milled around aimlessly, unsure as to what exactly to say or do. Someone would have to make the toast to the dead but nobody seemed particularly enthusiastic for the task. Eventually Captain Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto, or "Lollypop" as she had recently been re-nicknamed, stepped forward.

She asked for attention but the hushed tones of her quiet voice did not carry over the general murmur of the crowd. She glanced about for something to tap her glass with, and pulled out her thin-bladed survival knife. The ringing of metal on glass quickly had everyone in the hall turning to face her.

"I-I’d like, I’d like to…" Pinto struggled to begin.

The silence and the stares were too much and her resolve crumbled. A sob, and a shake of the head, her eyes brimming with tears.

Captain Roger “Chatterbox” Elliot quickly stepped up to her side. He rubbed her gently on the shoulder before vaulting onto the top of the bar.

"Now some of you might not agree with me getting up here and saying this," ’Box began as he looked down from the bar at those staring up, "but I want to. I have as much, if not more reason than anyone here. I might not have known that many of those on the Forge that well or that long, but... for a brief time, far too brief a time, the Valley Forge was home. You had, have," he corrected himself, "become family. As were those friends I lost on the Bunker Hill." ’Box paused. Guilt clawed at him. Not only had he, for some unfathomable reason, survived the destruction of two carriers and the death of hundreds, no, thousands, of his comrades in arms, he realized he had not yet even drunk a toast to the dead of the ’Hill.

"So I ask you now, will you stand to your glasses and drink to our fallen friends and comrades, who died valiantly defending humanity from its enemies," ’Box paused again momentarily, thinking of Vandermann and Schaefer, "enemies both foreign and domestic. They will be remembered." Elliot gulped his Sckviska down and flung his glass at the wall. The sound of shattering glass reached an ear-splitting crescendo before finally fading away.


Major Kurt “Coroner” Powell’s glass slammed down as the others finished their toast to their comrades lost. The alcohol slid down his throat and left a warm sensation in his stomach. The lounge on the Kilrathi ship presented him with a unique situation. For all his life he had hated the Kilrathi, and wanted nothing more than to kill all of them. Yet, now he was onboard a Kilrathi cruiser, fighting an enemy with unbelievable resources. So many already dead, yet so many more to come. He knew they needed each other to hold the line against the Nephilim, but it was all too hard for Coroner to let go of his hatred for the Kilrathi. As he examined the room’s lines, Kal Shintahr Jhathar nar Vukar Tag approached his table.

"It would be my honor to share a drink with you in memory of our fallen comrades."

Looking directly into Jhathar’s coal black eyes, Coroner tried to forget his hatred for the Kilrathi and to simply mourn the loss of those now dying to fight an even stronger enemy than the one standing in front of him. Without answering Coroner refilled his glass. Slowly standing up and raising his glass to touch Jhathar’s the two cups made a distinct “ting” sound as they touched. Both leaned the glass back splashing the warm liquid down their throats. Coroner reached down to the bottle he had been drinking and refilled both his and Jhathar’s. The Kilrathi, obviously taken slightly aback by the Terran’s bold change of heart made the Kilrathi hand gesture for lack of understanding and asked, "I am surprised by your actions. I hope that we can work together to defeat these new aliens from the darkness, to the coming death of the Nephilim!

Coroner smiled at the Kilrathi’s statement, took up his glass to Jhathar’s and rather loudly announced, "To the Death of the Nephilim!" The rest of the lounge repeated his toast each taking their drinks down. Coroner and Jhathar sat at the table that Coroner had been sitting at and simply turned to stare out the viewports, the vastness of space engulfing them.


When Burdock entered the Warriors Hall he started looking for his squadron mates. He had summoned this meeting to… Well, to do what? He did not know why. He could not remember, with him being in doubt even if there had been a logical reason in the first place. This was no official briefing.

Chaos was still ruling. The new flag staff under the command of Lt. Anderson was trying to figure and sort things out. New command structures as well as re-organizing the battle group. They were compiling numerous lists and reports and the like. Catharx nar Vukar Tag had assumed overall command of Battle Group Auriga. Burdock had not learned much from Anderson’s preliminary new office other than Buffer and Moonlight were still on the Condor waiting for their transfers to the Shrak’har and that a big briefing would take place later that day.

There was not a lot to tell his pilots and where there was - that could already be out-dated and be announced to have changed during the briefing. He hesitated. Nobody from his squadron had noticed him yet when Hartmann looked around, spotting him. So Burdock approached the table where his men were sitting. Seeing Major Hartmann reminded him of one thing he wanted to do, something that needed to be done, to get over with. He felt he had thought about it. Yet it was just between the two.

Major Burdock was almost at the table when Major Hartmann stood up and in his way, starting to force him back away even. "We need to talk!" he spoke softly.

"Right, Kraut," Burdock replied. "I’ve thought about it. And here is what I’ll do…"

"No, let me speak first. My mind is made up!"

Burdock furrowed his brow.

"Well, you and me - we both know that we cannot continue in the same squadron. I want to get this clean here. Regardless whatever my motives were or are or what I think of your way of command,  I have realized that I myself am not the perfect model of a commander that I thought I was. Maybe that was something I just would have liked to believe." Hartmann did not like or condone Burdock’s alcoholism, but his own actions under stress helped him understand it. He took over the squadron because he thought he could be more professional, better under pressure, and now realized perhaps he could not. One must leave, and if Burdock were the one to go Hartmann knew, or suspected, the White Hopes would harbor resentment to him for it as long as he was squadron commander. By taking over the Steel Gunners, he would get a fresh start without Burdock’s shadow everywhere. "Nothing will be as before, therefore I request transfer to the Steel Gunners. I believe this to be the best solution."

Dan Burdock was surprised. Neither had he expected this nor had his own solution suggested this. But he said nothing. He simply nodded. Then said, "It was a pleasure to fly with you. I’ve learned a lesson or two from you. I am not referring to flying skills when saying this."

Hartmann smiled, "The pleasure was all mine. Serving under your command, sir. I, too, have learned my lessons."

"So we’re quits then?" Burdock offered.

"Not quite yet." Hartmann replied and moved in for a punch into Burdock’s stomach, which was promptly shielded by Burdock. Upon this both started laughing as they understand it as a friendly gesture. Burdock put his one arm around Hartmann’s broad shoulders and walked him back to the table where they were met by tense and curious faces of the other White Hopes. Faces that at once started to relaxed when they saw their two leading officers coming back -still chuckling.

The two men sat down at the dry table. No bottle, no glass and no cup were standing on it. Hartmann jumped up again, seeming to have noticed something. When he got back he slammed a big pitcher and plenty of cups on the table. Quickly he poured the content of that pitcher, which could -- by the smell of it -- only be the famously infamous Kilrathi sckviska.

Burdock could do nothing but wonder about Hartmann. He found himself even smiling slightly. Then he turned dead serious and as he stood up silently raising his glass, everyone on the table got up as well.

"Here’s to our fallen comrades. They will live on in our hearts -- in the spirit of the squadron -- and they will keep fighting our enemies through our will and our hands. Hope has a place. We are that place. Here everyone is to find strength, courage and passion. Strength to go on, courage to face the odds and passion to master the path to victory and peace."

"You’ve been through this before," Lollypop eventually said what she’d been wanting to ask the whole time, "what did it feel like?"

’Box paused for a few long moments before answering. "It’s hard to describe. When we got back to the Bunker Hill, she was right on the point of destruction, and I hadn’t been there, so there was guilt that I’d failed. And anger at the bugs, of course. Hatred also, and the sudden hollow feeling of emptiness. It was worse than with the Forge because everyone - except Bob, was dead." He took a deep breath and released it, almost a shuddering sigh. "This time," he continued after a pause, "we were there, and doing our bloody best to try and prevent it. I’ve no guilt. My anger is directed at Schaefer, and he’s dead, more’s the pity. I’d loved to have killed him with my bare hands."

"Wouldn’t we all," agreed Pinto.

"And as for the hollow feeling -- no, because a good chunk of my new wingmates are still here with me. And there’s you, of course." He realized he’d spoken a thought out loud, and tried to cover it, "How do you feel?"

"I-I feel… I don’t know. It’s kind of unreal. It hasn’t sunk in yet. Lonely, tired, scared. I wish my father was here to hug me."

Hell and Damnation! Chatterbox thought, she doesn’t fancy me - I’m just a father figure. Still, someone once said girls look for men who remind them of their father…

"Would you mind holding me?" Lollypop asked.

"Uh, sure," ’Box said, slipping his arm around her shoulder. Her head immediately sank onto his chest. The scent of her washed over him. Her hair brushed his face as she snuggled into him.

They held each other for a while. Elliot wasn’t sure whether it was hours, minutes or just seconds, but he felt her hands rubbing him, his back and then his neck.

Oh boy, he thought, what do I do now? She’s looking for comfort, and let’s face it, I don’t want to push her away, but what if she feels I’ve just used her when she wakes up in the morning? She’s so vulnerable now, I don’t want to take advantage, but…

He started to speak, but she put her finger to his lips, "Shhh. I know what you’re going to say. But we shouldn’t waste this time. We might not have much left." ’Box gave an inner shrug. That answers that question, then, he thought, and kissed her.


Lieutenant Robert "Fatboy" Little sipped his sckviska in miserable, solitary silence. You’re never so alone as in a crowded room, someone once said, and Robert knew few truer words had ever been spoken. ’Box would probably be able to tell him who first said them, but he had drifted to the corner of the hall, arm around Pinto. As he looked at them, ’Box leaned down and kissed her. Fatboy turned away, jealousy boiling up in him. A snarl on his face, his fist clenched and unclenched repeatedly, slapping against his thigh.

"What the hell are you looking at?" Fatboy demanded as he realized one of the Gunners was staring at him. The man turned away without replying, but said something to the man next to him, who tried a surreptitious glance as well. Seeing the look Little gave him he too looked away quickly.

Everywhere he looked, people seemed to be staring at him. A quick flick of the head or a gesture with a glass in his direction, and their friends also took a look. Every whisper was about him, every smile or giggle (not that there were many of those) at his expense. Wherever he walked, space seemed to open up around him. No one would come near the plague bearer. He could tell what they were thinking -- the carriers he ended up on were doomed. As long as he was near them, they weren’t safe. He could feel the stares. Stares he assumed were the hatred he thought they felt for him. That he felt for himself.

"What? What the fuck is up with you?" Little was already drunk, unused to the harsh liquor, and getting belligerent. "Afraid to come near in case my bad luck wears off on you? Yes, I’m a frigging jinx! Go on, say what you like -- it’ll be you that suffers, not me!"

"Look, mate, just calm down…"

"I won’t bloody calm down! Nobody wants me here, so I’ll do what you want: I’ll go. I’ll get out of your faces for good! Get out of my way." Little grabbed a bottle of booze from the bar, and stormed out of the hall.

Catharx nar Vukar Tag stared out the window of his ready room. Looking towards the blackness of space he could only see the faces of Eldon Vandermann and of his son. Both now taken from his life by the Nephilim. The Nephilim they were enemies below contempt. They fought without honor, throwing themselves away like stupid prey creatures.

They are an Alien that must be beaten, defeated, Catharx thought, and defeat at the hands of such a dishonorable foe is unimaginable. The sudden change of atmosphere since Eldon’s death had deeply scarred Catharx. Eldon had been a close friend, one of the only Terrans Catharx truly cared for and would have traded his life for Eldon’s if it were necessary. Now Catharx commanded the remains of Battle Group Auriga. He would now have to lead Eldon’s former forces to victory, nothing less than victory or death. The Nephilim would pay for their sins against Catharx, he would see to it. Turning to kneel in front of a small shrine he had erected for first his son, and now Eldon, Catharx recited the Kilrathi blood oath for vengeance, repeating it a second time for Eldon. He would destroy the Nephilim, destroy them he had to, otherwise he would see them both in the afterlife after destroying as many of the "bugs" as possible. Oh, yes there will be vengeance, Catharx thought, rising from his place on the floor and moving back to his desk. Turning on his holoscreen to look at the other after-action reports from the other attacks, Catharx glanced back out the window and smiled. He would have his vengeance the Nephilim, or die in the attempt.


TCS Shrak’har; temporary quarters
2247 Hours (CST)

The cold, hard metal pressed against the flesh of his temple. The pistol muzzle juddered with every shuddering, sobbing breath. So he held his breath, gritting his teeth and closing his eyes, his hand quivering as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Don’t fuck this up, you dickhead, he told himself. Don’t want to just blow half your face off. At least I’ll probably take out the optic nerve too, and never have to look at what’s left of my face in a mirror! Shit, how can I joke about it? Okay, under the chin? No, maybe just shoot my jaw off. In the mouth? No, the way my luck is I’d miss the brain stem and just shoot my sodding ear off. Fuck, this is stupid! I’m so hard to kill I’m bound to screw this up, especially the way my hands are shaking.

What the hell am I doing, anyway? he asked himself for the hundredth time. It’s a bit bloody stupid blowing your own brains out doing the bugs’ job for them, isn’t it? You survive two carriers going down and then commit suicide! That’s going to look really great on the news vids, eh?

Little tossed the gun to the floor, and wept.


TCS Hades; Bridge
2300 Hours (CST)

“Captain on the bridge!”

“At ease.”

Waving his staff aside as he came out of the CIC to take his command chair on the bridge, Commodore Garrison Murdoch settled in for the task at hand. He had officially announced the Hades’ presence to Hanton some twenty minutes previously. Murdoch had expected the worst, resigning himself to his fate, believing that no matter the outcome, he was doing the right thing disobeying orders to come here. He went to the gallows with his shoulders squared and his head held high.

Hanton started by informing Murdoch that Confed had demanded that the Hades return to Torgo Superbase immediately and he hand himself over for arrest. Murdoch began to protest and explain his actions but Hanton cut him off, instead demanding to know the status of the Hades, specifically combat readiness. Murdoch told her the ship was fully operational other than the gaps in the flight wing. Hanton ordered him to join Carrier Battle Group Auriga, perhaps doing something to fill the rather gaping hole left by the shocking loss of the Valley Forge.

Murdoch saluted, and waited for the vid-com to be shut off, but instead of simply returning the salute and switching off, Hanton added an off the record comment. "Glad to have you with us," she told the "Hell in a Handbasket" hero.

"I’m damned glad to be here, too, ma’am," Murdoch agreed.

Smiling and going for one of his trademark cigars and his prized Zippo lighter, he prepared to cap off the night and retire to ready himself for the mission that awaited him.

At long last, for the first time in the longest time, Murdoch was again going to make a difference. If he was a living legend, he was hellbent on seeing to it that he be one with some fight left in him.


TCS Shrak’har; Dakhath Squadron Ready Room
15th FEB 2681/2681.046; 0800 Hours (CST)

The first briefing of the Steel Gunners under their new commander, Major Paul "Kraut" Hartmann, was just finishing. All was said and settled. Hartmann had brought them up-to-date with the latest information regarding new organization of battle group Auriga, their new base, being the TCS Shrak’har, more on what was to come next. Everything. Most importantly for him. He was the new CO of the Steel Gunners. He had the whole situation pre-checked beforehand. And he had found in Captain Quintus “Wise Guy” Fabricius Domitianus a benevolent supporter and new mentor. With the very influential Domitianus on his side, who would have been by all means the true successor of Lt. Colonel Samuel “Sirdar” Richard, his ambitions no longer faced any severe obstacles. Any last disagreement was blown away through the general back-up he got from Lieutenant Colonel Richard himself, whose word was still unwritten law among the Steel Gunners. Captain Domitianus was nominated and re-instated as his XO with the only other candidate, Captain Weidlich, being publicly and quite notorious known for having refused the XO command once by saying something close to -- "having my vibrator and a fighter why should I ask for more?”

The new CO of the Steel Gunners, Major Paul "Kraut" Hartmann, was about to dismiss his men and women when the door opened and someone familiar stepped in.

Someone very familiar and very unexpected, too.

The whole squadron turned that person standing in the door. They could not believe their eyes. No one said anything.

It was the Wing Commander. No, wait. It was not the Wing Commander. Or rather, it was the former wing commander, now that Samuel “Sirdar” Richard had received a grade increase to colonel and taken over the reins so as to still have an active role in the 71st FW. Standing before them all was indeed Natasha Trebek, wearing three things: the jumpsuit of a Space Force flyer, the rank insignia of lieutenant colonel -- obviously indicating a necessary grade decrease, for whatever reason -- and an indomitable smile.

Trebek wore a thick white bandage around her head. She looked very strained. The white skin of her face seeming to shimmer somewhat gray. Her cheeks, hollow. Deep dark shades under her eyes. Yet she was alive. Hartmann was relieved. She was back. She’d been reported MIA, though that wasn’t surprising since many pilots and crew were turning up on the injured lists of the four capships now comprising CVBG-A.

Hartmann halted there. She was back, yes, but back as WC? Trusting his eyes and common sense, he knew that was unlikely. Why was she here then? He wanted to welcome her by saying, "Good to see you!" and "How are you?" Then he remembered the official protocol, his and her rank. So he snapped out of his thoughts and shouted: "Attention, everyone. Wing… ahm… senior officer present!" Then he flicked off a sharp salute as everyone stood stiff and meant to report the conclusion of the briefing. He did not get to do it.

"At ease, pilots!" Trebek opened. "How is the briefing going, Major Hartmann?" she asked.

"We’re finished. I was just about to release the pilots when you stepped in. It is a pleasure to see you, sir!"

"Well, let’s see," Trebek responded in some den-motherly way characteristic of only her. "I am afraid you’re not quite finished yet." She paused and Hartmann thought he could detect a very slight thin smile playing on Trebek’s lips. What is she up to? he thought, never expecting what he would hear next. "Slight change in plans. I’m going to be the Steel Gunners’ new commanding officer… callsign, ‘Elvira.’"

Yeah, right. Funny, very funny… deadly serious she seems suddenly… right. Damn. She is telling the truth. Bitch.


TCS Shrak’har; Dakhath Squadron Ready Room
0847 Hours (CST)

After everybody had left Hartmann charged around to the now former WC. Furiously. "With all due respect, sir! What did you think you were doing? You blew it. This could have been a new start, a second chance. And you ruined it. I mean you made me look like a fool. Damn, you made a fool out of me!"

"Sorry if I stepped on you poor little ego, Major." She sounded razor-sharp, even condescending. Then she took the strength out of it and continued in a colloquial way. "Honestly sorry, if my appearance did not fit in your plans and, yes, it may have been a little inappropriate. But no, I did not make a fool out of you. You did that." Trebek paused. "Hey, Kraut, wake up! What were you expecting? This is not only about you. Look around. See the other pilots who have more combat missions, more experience. All in the waiting line, and who qualify equally or better than you for a command.

"Then, my friend, look at you. You are so impatient, so fixed on having a command. A command in the military is not something you ask for, that you desperately seek for, not something you rush for. And if you do and you succeed in getting one - it will do no one any good. A command is something you are given, given to you when you are ready, it is something you grow into. I’m your wing commander -- I’m here to help you, and I’m going to be your teacher."

“Now you just w -- “ Hartmann tried to say something but Trebek cut him off, not allowing it.

"Yes, you might say that you don’t need a teacher. Yet I tell you that you do. Can’t you see that you are almost there? You are within reach of it. You’re so close. That is why you are so impatient probably, because you can feel it too. But don’t go and spoil it all by foolishly rushing into it. All it takes is but a little step for you still to do. A little yet vital lesson still to learn. Then you are ready. Yet even then when you are there you will see that you will have to continue to be willing to learn. To learn what is really means for you to have a command. No one can teach you that lesson. This process, this learning will last as long as you live with a command. It is a tough task at times and a burden very often. Something that tortures your soul, your very core. Something that can destroy you. As long as you can’t see this, you are not really ready. Be patient." And be grateful instead that you are being given that time and effort to get ready. Much too often young officers are not granted that chance. Those men and women are ultimately at high risk to be destroyed or failed by it. Men like Burdock. That all she only thought but did not say.

Hartmann grunted something. Maybe she was right, he thought. He did not want to think about it, to even admit it. He was defiant, rebellious. But it was more that foolish rebellion of a child. He had behaved like a little kid who did not get an ice cream despite the best of his effort. Hartmann noticed his behavior. It made it only worse and him even more furious. That again led to his suspicion that Trebek indeed was right.

Damn her. Damn me. We are damned -- fucking all of us. Damned and doomed alike, he realized. He sensed that things would fall into their very own place all be themselves, and as they damn well pleased. One way or the other. Sooner rather than later. So what did it all matter?


TCS Shrak’har; Warriors Hall
0853 Hours (CST)

A voice, dulled and synthesized to hide its origins, and with an audio-only transmission concluded a cryptic conversation minutes before the hearing. The JAG gave a grim nod, and then looked over at a set of DCD disks that were found by him personally in Vandermann’s personal notes, torn apart by milspec password crackers to reveal the contents within. He realized the fallout that would happen, and the unraveling of the foundations of civilization should whatever Vandermann wrote in the dark recesses of his mind and heart be revealed, and with one grim nod, swiped the disk on a magnet, before shredding it apart with his hands, obliterating the notes.