PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 15 of 44 )

: Der Entrichete Preis Ist Loyalitaet ("LOYALTY IS THE PRICE PAID")
PART 1 OF 2

 

The Gan Estates
New Maynah, Union of Border Worlds
0800 Hours, 08 Feb 2681 (2681.039)

Elsewhere, a woman gazed at a massive mountebank of candles; the original type, not with micro optic glow rods that simulated flame, but with real candle and wax. The candles were not arranged in any particular order, but burned with different colored flames. They formed a galaxy of lights, almost as if indicating the many and varied colors of the inner soul of man. Some burned with the gray of indifference, the red of anger, others with the carmine flame of determination. Many burned with self interest, some with greed, envy; the full panoply of human emotion. Of the thousands of candles that were had been consecrated by her, and placed in this sanctum, thousands were extinguished when a massive gust of the Darkness blew. Some fell without a whisper. Some raged defiantly before falling going out before it, cut down like wheat by Fate's merciless hand.

She had received confirmation only several hours ago, from Sue herself. The TCS Bunker Hill, with thousands of souls on board, had fallen in battle against the Darkness. So many lives had been vanquished; so many of humanity's warriors had fallen, sacrificing themselves in a last act of defiance against the inhuman enemy. Reports were sketchy, but from what TISD had intercepted from transmissions, and gleaned from Alpha agents high in the Union command hierarchy, there were few, if indeed any, survivors.

She shook her head grimly, disliking this task. Soul divination sapped her strength, and her lack of sleep made things only worse. Distance was not the problem, that was not a major factor in such an Art, but the sheer amount of will power involved. She had considered taking a stimulant, but decided against it.

Among them, two candles, larger and taller than the rest stood out; the one with half moons and another gray one that was scrawled with the Family symbol of Tan that burned with the aura of power, strength and responsibility. Two day ago, another gust had seemed to breeze through the sealed sanctum from nowhere. This one had been less powerful, but no less vicious. It had brought with it the stench of death, corruption, and absolute evil. Something so evil, so malefic that it had gone far beyond what mortal man could ever devise. She had watched, and prayed, but to no avail. Dozens of candles had guttered and flared, before they crumbled into ash and disappeared with the wind. More candles kept fading and crumbling before the dark wind, until it had seemed that it would extinguish everything in the room. The flames of the remaining candles wavered, as if bordering on darkness. However, several candles had burned brighter and brighter in the darkness; bastions of light against the dark wind. The gray candle had not flinched in the cold wind, but seemed to burn even brighter; it had blazed like a beacon in the night, before it gave a wail of defiance, extinguished by the onslaught of darkness with a hiss that was almost human in its mindless fury.

Before her eyes, the candle now seemed to turn a lighter shade of gray, before fine veins appeared in its wax body. Then, as if undermined from the inside out, it crumbled into a pile of ash. Whoever the candle represented had now passed on to meet Yen Lo Wang, the Lord of the Dead in the Afterlife. Whatever unfinished business it had in the land of the living was complete. She had already made her report to the Board, but as always, required confirmation.

The woman tossed back a lock of her hair covering her eyes and murmured to herself. "So has passed the lion of Ishkawael, Semnahilion, Hacurutu and Cathay." The sacrifice was not in vain, as the rest of the candles, including the one with the half moon, seemed to grow stronger. She could only hope it was strong enough to withstand the typhoon of evil sweeping upon humanity. The Darkness had not shown its full strength yet, and this was but a taste of the rising tide of corruption.

Schala gave a sigh of grim resignation. The three Families were now embroiled in some of the worst fighting that the Blood Feud had ever conceived. Every weapon, both overt and covert, that the Families could get their hands on was being brought into play. Unlike other foes both corporate and not, the Noble Houses of Porhen did not warrant any holding back for any such reasons such as common decency or pity. The fact that the end of humanity was possibly in sight took a backseat, even when the Nephilim were about to knock humanity, and Tanfen itself, wholesale into the afterlife. Though she had advised the Lord Commanders of the Honour Guards, the Cousins Major and all the members of the Families, not to forget the Patriarchs of Families Tan and Gan, even the Matriarch of Family Lai of the threat, all consuming hatred, and centuries of honor, duty and tradition, dictated their course. She sometimes wondered whether it would ever end, but it was not her Place to discuss that with the others. They would not understand; they could not understand the burden she was carrying.

Schala turned, and then poured water from a carafe. The water, drawn from springs far away, in the undeveloped parts of New Maynah, still free from the growth of urban expansion, seemed to taste clear, sweet and fresh to her parched throat. She had much to do tonight, so much more if the avalanche of fate was to be turned the other way from disaster. She gazed at her equipment throughout the sanctum. It was in its proper place. Excellent. Time to begin.

Another candle, not as tall as the fallen gray one, but no less brighter now seemed to blaze even stronger against the guttering wind. This one burned slightly blue with honor and loyalty, and no small amount of grim determination. Perhaps he had more of his mother's blood than had been thought possible by anybody. She singled it out from the constellation of lights and concentrated on it.

 

Bridge, Union Assault Shuttle "A15"
Masa System, Union of Border Worlds
About The Same Time

Maximilian stared at the monitor, his brown eyes resembling nothing more than deep, dark pits of tiredness. Bags under his eyes, and the greyish pallor of his skin, told of his lack of sleep. Nevertheless, his uniform was still in proper order.

He absently cracked his knuckles, stopping only when his signet ring, bearing the rampant horse and burning sword of the Family Tan, cut into his palm. He gazed down at it, his eyes suddenly glittering with a spark of light that no observer could have interpreted. It was the ring that pronounced him lord over the Sutari Sector, making him master of all those who answered to the Family. It was different from rank insignia, for it did not indicate merely rank, but also his standing in the family. It seemed to burn on his third finger, as if it was ice cold, recovered as it was only mere minutes after its previous owner fell in glorious battle, removed from amidst frozen crystals of crimson blood, flesh and durasteel.

Within the ring, coiled in its platinum and platolum core, were the hardwired command codes to access Tanfennet - the private network the Corp used to transfer information between its members. Isolated from commercial and military networks, Tanfennet could only be accessed in limited areas, notably wherever Tanfen bore its flag. However, the importance of the ducal ring went beyond that, for it could provide the authorized user with codes to access the Sector datacore, containing years worth of research, marketing data and a whole host of knowledge that a business could not do without. Much of the data gained that way was usually processed first by the main network before being made available, but some was considered important enough to warrant analysis by EVE, back on the Homeworlds.

He rubbed it absently, desperately eager to take it off, yet he could not. Duty prevented that. Max squared his shoulders, and turned his face into an impenetrable mask, the very ideal of his mother's lineage. Off to one side, Celes, as TISD Advisor, hung over the technician to ensure that the Lucifer encryption protocols were in place. Marle and Richard stood next to the door in silent vigil, weapons at the ready. Celes gave everybody a slight nod, thus indicating that everything was ready for transmission.

Max shook his head fractionally. By all rights, Caruno should be here to advise him, but he too had been badly wounded in the battle. Forced into the battle in order to to defend the convoy, the Command Galaxy he was on, the Kaikuhur, had taken a missile hit to the Command Deck, causing grievous casualties before sealants in the hull and engineers in EVA suits sealed the gap. Caruno had barely escaped with his life. The hull breach took the lives of almost all of the bridge crew and C3 staff stationed there. The Starry Memory itself had escaped with ruined shields and light hull damage from shrapnel; even so, it was still undergoing repairs. The third command ship, the Undine, had not been so lucky. An alien warhead had slammed right into the engine, and though it had been heavily reinforced against attack, it had proven not to be sufficient in the face of the weapons technology fielded by the aliens; the engine had gone nova, killing all aboard in a riotous blazing white outpour of energy, flame, flesh and durasteel. The Kaikuhur, at least, was salvageable, albeit barely.

Kyra had been kind enough to loan the Union assault shuttle as a temporary command ship for the time being. He and a part of his command staff had taken to dubbing the shuttle the Sue Surree, in dubious honor of TISD Division Chief Sue Yen Ng Lai who seemed virtually unkillable, if not immortal. For a fact, not many TISD Division Chiefs lived beyond a half a decade before premature death due to extraordinary circumstances. The name had come about after the shuttle had survived, with barely more than a scratch, no less than three major fire fights with the enemy - and that in a war zone, where shuttle craft were not statistically known for surviving for very long.

Max took in a deep breath, and then gestured to a technician to begin recording. He tried steadying his voice as he begun -

"Milord President, Members of the Board, Lords and Ladies of the Families, I am Captain Maximilian Gan of the Walking Steel Regiment. I am now currently the highest-ranking and eldest living Family member with combat experience leading Sutari Branch, as per Executive Order A-190." Max took in a deep breath as he tackled the next part. "At 1735 hours on the 6th, Sutari Sector fleet was attacked by the aliens, codenamed by TISD and the governments as the Nephilim. Union Navy units, aided by Tanfen TASC units, held off the assault. Everyone else senior to me was killed when the Command Galaxies Undine and Kaikuhur were lost through hull breach. At 1750 hours, Lord John Tan, CEO of Tanfen Sutari branch fell in glorious battle defending the convoy, along with several Lesser Cousins of the Families Lai and Tan. Though he has fallen, his legacy lives on. His wife, the Lady Elayne has borne a daughter to continue the Legacy - Nina Tan."

He felt a slight twinge as his brain tried to urge him to sleep with something more forceful-pain. It began as a slight pain behind his eyeballs, and it began spreading to his cranium. It felt like a bunch of Corp steelworkers intent on field-testing their latest jackhammer designs on his brain, with results TAARD would have been proud of. He had to finish the report, either way. It was his duty.

"We are now currently en-route to Tanfen Kohlingen, and have been released from the Union Navy's jurisdiction. Even so, they have left the better part of a Marine company to oversee our progress and the well being of the refugees. Personnel casualties amongst ground defensive assets are minimal, mostly sustained among my personal Guard and Lord John's own; however, TASC forces have suffered heavy casualties. We have lost a total of 45 star-fighters over the course of the last two weeks, which means that three complete squadrons have been lost - including the pilots. We currently only have six Arrows, three Hellcats, and four Thunderbolts remaining to defend the fleet. Those are suffering from lack of spares and ammunition and require reinforcements."

"Support units have also reported heavy losses; we have only one functional Command Galaxy remaining, plus six Orion picket ships and assorted fighter support transports. Losses among the Sector Merchant Fleet are minimal, with the loss of only two light freighters that did not arrive at the evacuation point over Tyr VII. As of now, the Fleet is holding orbit above Masa, unloading our cargo of refugees before moving onto Tanfen Kohlingen. Additional detailed reports are appended for your review. I will await further orders. Your will be done."

Max then gestured off-camera with a chopping motion of his right hand to cut the transmission. The technician nodded before ejecting a data ROM, burned with his report to him. Max stood up from the chair, feeling the pain in his back. He had not slept since he had returned from the depot raid. Everything had gone to shambles, and he had been expected to keep an eye on things. He had returned to find the fleet ready in Tyr orbit, with the fuel and oxy transfer making steady progress. Everyone had been jubilant and in a high mood, and as soon as he had joined the fleet, Tanfen loadmasters had begun organizing and using their logistics skills to attempt to refuel the gathered Fleet in as efficient a manner as possible. Relatively easy, considering the fact that each of them were trained to save every single credit, even down to ensuring that ships maneuvered in a certain way to save on fuel. That made every one of them such a skinflint that Family Lai should have been giving out Surnames to each of them in honor of their efforts.

Then, all of a sudden, all hell had broken loose when the aliens had attacked one last time, coming for them in a massive swarm. His only concern back then had been to defend the Fleet with everything at his disposal. Lord John himself had done his utmost, to the point of pulling pulling the 'Memory into the battle line as a flak defender to hold off the alien tide. Everything that had a gun, and could fly was desperately pressed into battle in a desperate attempt to blunt the assault; even the Orion picket ships, light escort units meant for flak defense and anti-missile work against pirates, had been sent out as gunboats and moving shields to defend the vulnerable transports. Reserves were called in, nothing had been held back; everybody, even the wounded, had been called upon to defend the convoy. With the situation being as it was, and due to the heavy casualties inflicted on munitions transports, some Homeguard fighters had been launched into combat with half or no ordnance load, thus reducing them to their energy weapons within minutes after the engagement had started.

The fighting itself had been short, cruel and brutal. This foe did not understand fear, as man knew it. Did not feel pain as man perceived it. Was as relentless as the elements? Like the elements, one either fled, or faced its wrath. Fear had filled every man's guts with its icy tendrils, from Lord John up to the most humble civilian in the choked freighter holds, filled with oxy and holding far more than what regulations would have allowed.

That battle had brought out the best in the warriors facing the enemy. Some had kneaded their fear, making it palpable like clay, massaging it with the light of reason until facing the enemy seemed no worse than meeting the childhood bogeymen they had been taught to be afraid of. Those who had not been involved in the battle had fared worse; especially the foot soldiers, the Loyalists and their Union brethren, for there had been no way for them to meet their foes head on. Entombed in the dark, smelly, crypt like cargo holds of their transports, they had never felt more helpless, more dependent on those of their companions who were giving their lives to ensure the safety of thousands of others. All of it had depended on the skills of the fighter pilots and ship crews. Max himself had manned a turret, fighting alongside of those Loyalists and Union Marines who could still stand.

It had been a fight to the finish. No quarter had been asked, none given. Neither side had attempted to withdraw; the aliens, convinced that their superior numbers would ensure their victory, had pressed forward, not minding their losses. TASC pilots had given their lives willingly, fully aware that they could only walk away from the battlefield after having reduced their enemies to free-floating atoms. Hardened by centuries of covert wars fought against rivals, they did not budge. The Union pilots had not turned tail, either. Toughened by battles against numerous foes, and outraged by the losses their numbers had suffered, they were tired of getting the wrong end of the stick. They had fought with cunning and skill, shooting with guns when their last missiles had been spent, ramming the enemy if their weapons had been destroyed, knowing that many civilians and Tanfen personnel were out there, helpless in the face of the inhuman onslaught. Had it not been for the heroism of the Border Worlders, those insanely courageous pilots who, displaying courage that would have impressed the ancient knights that had waged war in the Medieval Ages, had made the enemy pay in blood for every ship they had taken down, the battle would have been lost. As it was, the convoy had been defended, but at a great cost.

The ring felt as if it was still a part of Lord John, his presence like a platinum band on his fingers that felt freezing cold and seemed to constrict, as if telling him he was not worthy of command, of the privilege to rule in his stead. Executive Order A-190 of the Corporate Code gave command precedence in the chain to someone in a serving command in the Corp, which was a failsafe guaranteeing that a paper pusher wouldn't be in charge in case there was a military crisis. His first instinct after the battle had been to immediately dock with the Melissa to check on his aunt; the first clue he had received had been the way Lord John's own Loyalist Marines had stared at him, only to drop their gazes in respect. Max glanced up from the ring and looked at the comm tech, who shook his head silently. The comm channels were all jammed with chatter; there was no way they would receive an answer.

He remembered calling out to one of the Loyalist guards, enquiring after his uncle. He only had to close his eyes to remember...

 

"Where is Lord John?" Max almost panicked when he caught sight of the armed guard's face. The man's eyes were grim, despite their being rimmed with tears. The soldier's head dropped slightly, and that gesture of defeat sent a sharp spike of panic through Max. The realization that something terrible had happened to his uncle reached his brain, though it took him a few seconds to digest it, as the strain of combat had left its mark on him. John was hurt, perhaps badly. He shouldered past the guard and hurried up to the emergency medical wards. If his uncle was still alive, then he would most probably be with his wife now.

As he passed, those he met bowed lower than usual. In fact, everyone between him and the main medical ward knelt in respect. His heart dropped into his stomach even as his spirits soared. The two Loyalist Marines guarding the medical ward saw him, bent their heads respectfully and stepped aside. Inside, he heard a piercing cry. That of lungs breathing their first taste of air. That made his spirits soar. Lord John had an heir! Her first cries were lusty and defiant, like those of her ancestors before her, and more recently, her father, Lord John.

His aunt was crying, from the pain, or from joy, he could not tell. Lord John should have been here. He must be here! He turned to the Loyalists at the ward, as they stepped in to behold the sight. "Loyalist, where is Lord John?" The shorter one, a female with a pageboy cut, and an ion rifle answered him only by addressing him. "Lord Gan." At that, his heart froze. There was only ever one Lord on any ship, or any Family property. If he was ever on the same ship as Lord John, he would be referred to as Young Master, not as Lord. The woman continued, "He has fallen in glorious battle, defending the fleet."

Elayne seemed to pay attention at the statement, before her heart crumbled and she gave out a tear choked grieving cry while hugging her new born child back and forth. She sobbed in anger at the cruel world that took her husband away at the same time that it gave her Family a heir. Her cry of despair and loss seemed to ring out through every floor of the frigate, silencing everyone, even those who bore grievous, painful wounds to silence. Like a dark clarion call, her wail of despair seemed to carry throughout the fleet, causing them all to fall silent, in a moment of respect for his passing, though many, many others had fallen with him.

Max paused and held his head down. He had only known him for but a few days. He did not know him well, if at all. His uncle had always shown the proud face that was the mask of superiority and command, always calm and in control. Yet, as his aunt told him, Lord John had had a gentler side. A side he would never see. The young lord straightened his shoulders, reminding himself that there were still thousands of people depending on him. Regardless of his faults, he was still CEO, and Lord of all Family assets. Long minutes passed before he uttered the next question, the only noise in the room the silent sobs of John's widow. Even her child had gone quiet, as if understanding the import of what happened now. The medical techs worked silently, continuing to administer to Elayne, as other medics hurried to other parts of the frigate to assist with the incoming tide of wounded from the battle.

"Then who is in charge now?" Heads turned, a head count was made of the surviving Cousins Major and Minor in the Fleet as a runner went to each ship. In minutes, Mei Yin answered him.

"You are now Chief Executive Officer of Sutari, milord." Mei Yin, her eyes glistening with unshed tears, held out something in a velvet case, passed to her by a salvage officer from TMMN.

He opened it carefully, as if handling a live grenade. His heart skipped a beat when he saw its content. Lord John's ducal ring, with the Family symbol on it; the ultimate symbol of Family authority; only one existed for each Sector Branch. As symbolic as it was practical, in it were held the pass commands that only a Sector CEO would have; administrator access to local nodes of TanfenNet, and according to rumor, access to EVE and her extensive database.

 

"Milord, the disc is ready."

Max shook his head as he broke out of his reverie, all the while his gaze remaining on the cold ducal ring on his hand. Richard shook his shoulder. "You should better get some rest, milord."

Max smiled tiredly before nodding at a courier pilot that stood waiting. The pilot genuflected before receiving the disk. Max patted her shoulder, though she was elder than him by several years. "See that it gets back to the Board as soon as possible, pilot. I am counting on you."

The woman gave a grim nod and saluted. "Aye Lord Maximilian. Your will be done." At that, the courier pilot left, to carry the message home to the Homeworlds. Kyra had raised a bit of indignation that one of the few corvettes Tanfen had to safeguard the refugees was to be stripped from the depleted forces to serve as a courier, but he was adamant about that: duty indicated that word concerning the status of the fleet should reach the Board.

Kyra was elsewhere, seeing to her wounded on board the Jasmine (he had given them permission earlier to use the Corp's advanced medical facilities onboard the frigate. Though there had been adamant refusal from some of the medtechs to treat such "barbarians," they had acquiesced quickly after he had pointed out that they, along with the Family's Loyalist Marines, were responsible for securing the fuel that saved their sorry behinds). However, the ever-present Union Marines, now with newfound respect for their compatriots, maintained vigil on the ship, ensuring "Command Integrity," as it was referred to by professional soldiers. He knew, of course, that this was nothing but a measure meant to ensure that the Corp simply didn't wander off; however, he was fully aware that the best course of action would have been holding those in charge in protective custody, and he respected the Union Marines for showing a bit of faith in their grudging allies.

Max didn't feel like talking, or even walking. The cold deck floor looked decidedly as tempting as a four poster down filled bed back on New Maynah. He steadied himself as he tried to rise from the command chair. Celes grabbed him as he stumbled, and it seemed she tried her best to put emotion in her voice. "Milord, please, rest."

Richard nodded and gestured to Celes. "Celes, go take Lord Max to the captain's bunk." He gave a grin. "I don't think he'll mind." The shuttle captain in question was busy down below decks attempting to repair the shuttles power plant.

She nodded, and put his arm over her shoulder, hefting him and his body armor like a sack of potatoes as she half walked, half lifted him to the decidedly Spartan captain's quarters on the shuttle. Max didn't complain, nor did he even change or remove his armor. He simply slumped into the cot, his head awash with the messengers of what would surely become a murderous headache, and fell asleep.

The three Loyalists gave each other bemused look, but any comments they might have made were nipped in the bud by Richard, who gestured to Marle. "Go get Akiko and Mai, they can stand watch outside. I'll stay here, as inner guard." This ship wasn't absolutely secure, and though it infringed on his Lord's privacy, the boy's safety was paramount. Modesty meant nothing when the alternative was being six feet under, or, in this case, breathing vacuum. He turned to Celes. "Go get some Rest." Having said that, he turned and then sat in the chair next to the cot, his reg blade and Archer held within easy reach. Marle nodded, and went to fetch her brethren, the door hissing shut at her departure.

The room became silent. Celes was still standing there. "Lieutenant? Aren't you supposed to be getting some rest?" He raised an eyebrow.

"May I stand watch as inner guard?"

Richard opened his mouth to ask why, but a hunch made him shut up immediately. He simply gave her a tired grin. "Fine by me." He took his Archer off the table, while checking and checked the safety once again before scabbarding his blade. Only then did he leave.

The small door hissed shut, leaving Celes alone with her Lord. She sat down on the simple chair bolted to the deck, next to the cot, and regarded him, drinking in his features. She knew she was not supposed to feel such a thing, but she felt something strange, a sensation she had never experienced before as she took in his features. Perhaps it was something as mundane as comradely concern; that would make perfect sense, after all. She remembered falling over him, her only concern his safety in the battle to secure the fuel and oxy supplies for the Fleet. Remembered feeling his firm flesh as she slammed herself into him to protect him from the assassin's bullet. Felt his warmth. She shook her head, attempting to clear it of such thoughts and proceeded to run through her mind the Eight hundred stances of the Path of Blades in her mind.

 

Max felt himself float off. The aching pains in his head, and all over his body seemed to grow numb, and gradually fade. He felt darkness, warm enveloping darkness wash over him. Strangely enough, before he slept, he saw glimpses of a beautiful angel, her face framed by pale white hair, her face a study in concern, and anguish watch over him before darkness overcame his vision. And then, oblivion.

It felt like minutes. Hours. Years. Centuries. Max seemed to shake his head as he woke up, groggily. However, the place did not look nor feel familiar. There seemed to be a clock on the wall opposite him, but his vision was murky, as if gazing through a rippled reflection in the water. Things around him seemed vague and indistinct. He felt like reaching for the wash basin, but in a dim way, realized he could not. He could feel… nothing. He tried twisting his head, but he could not. He tried moving, but he could not. His gaze seemed to be firmly anchored to… something. Things felt strange. Whatever it was, that he was anchored to seemed to shift its perspective. No, he felt it raised its hand. It's right hand. There, on a callused and worn finger lay something he felt, rather than recognized, its aura seemingly glowing a dim blue in his strange sight now. John? Lord John? In the weird logic of the dream world, he knew at once, and he did not know, or rather, he felt it to be right that this was, and was not Lord John. In an eerie way, he was, for all intents and purposes now Lord John Tan. "But he is dead," he said to himself. But again, in an eerie dream logic that swept aside reality, that minor controversy was swept aside. Max tried to move, to concentrate, to do something. Nothing.

Max/John seemed to walk out of the room. It was not familiar, but then again, nothing was here. He asked himself, 'where is this?', and again, in that weird logic of the dream world, he knew. He felt it. "The Kaikuhur." He walked along its corridors, as if swimming. He passed by several people. People seemed murky and out of place at times, and at others, came into incredibly sharp focus. Like an old celluloid film tape, he sometimes felt as if time slowed down to a crawl, and at others, it sped up. Things out of their perception seemed gray and smudged, like maudlin pale shades of reality.

A person paused to stop John/Max in the corridor. He "knew" the man was Caruno. His/John's vision seemed to zoom in, in this strange reality, highlighting Caruno. His ice cold eyes. The razor cut and drab fatigues. And then, the excitement in his eyes, his smile. Crystal clear, as if each word came through an optical ROM, "Milord, the Lady Elayne is in labor!" It was getting both confusing and uncomfortable. At times, he felt he was John, at other's he felt like he was looking through his eye's at his perspective,
like a voyeur or silent spectator.

Excitement. Pride. Anticipation. All these feelings Max/John felt run through themselves. A daughter! A heir to the Families! Oh, Elayne must be so proud! Then, things turned murky again. As seconds passed by, Max felt, rather than understood that whenever his vision sharpened, it was when his/John's vision touched a significant event of some sort. He also felt and knew, that these events seemed to have happened. Or could have happened, he was not sure. Events blurred and flashed and winded forward as it seemed before him.

Then, all of a sudden, without intervening the spaces in between, he was in the labour room, next to his aunt/wife? Aunt/ Lady Elayne came into sharp focus, her delicate face and long tresses matted in sweat as she gritted her teeth and was stifling the urge to scream. Her swollen belly was the next focus of attention, as well as her raised legs. Medics around her seemed dim and dark around the brightness that encompassed Elayne from the overhead operation theatre lights; like a halo of some sort. Max/John heard a noise. "It's coming! It's coming. Push, milady, push!"

Then a pause. A scream of intense agony. Then, he felt something ice cold rush through John's veins, like ice. One of John's aides seemed to float into view, like a weird wraith. The next words, unlike Elayne's or Caruno's seemed like stone monoliths being dropped from a great height. Each with a resounding finality to it.

"Milord, the aliens are attacking the fleet!"

Anger, consternation, concern and then, strangest of all to Max, love. Anger that the alien scum would dare attack. Consternation at their timing, at the Union for placing them into this situation. Concern for Elayne and the rest of his personnel. And then, like pure diamonds in a sea of darkness, shining bright, his love for his soon to be born daughter and wife. It felt… strange.

Like a death knell. Max seemed to have a weird feeling that this was the final hours of Lord John. How he knew, he had no idea. It was felt. A voice, strong, and authoritative. "All units, prepare to defend the fleet. Prepare my personal fighter."

The scene seemed to shift again. Max saw one of John's hands come into view, this time gloved in a flight suit. Like an old hand, John's hands floated over the controls, bringing the fighter to life with a practiced hand from its docked position. John was in his personal Longbow, a custom made fighter that belonged to him, and to him alone. He had seen it before, and seen the kill scores notched on its crimson trimmed sides. His uncle was more than competent. Like tolling bells, each of the four docking locks released themselves from the fighter. Then, he felt freedom. Weightlessness, until the inertial compensators and the engine cut in, bringing the multi ton behemoth forward into the darkness like a leviathan.

Behind him, Max/John knew that his own personal pair of close escorts-Arrow fighters, piloted by Loyalist Marine pilots formed up behind him. Max gazed through Lord John's eyes, seeing the battle form up around him. They came out of nowhere, swarming, and raging like a flock of PSC, except thrice as hideous, and thrice times more malefic; constructs only hell itself could conceive in its twisted glory. Not even Porhen could have thought of this, even in their evil and twisted minds.

Like massive island leviathans, the Union warships swerved to meet the threat, as their smaller and lighter fighter brethren, no less deadly, streaked ahead into the darkness like shooting stars to engage the enemy.

Lances of light pierced the darkness, coming forth from cruiser turrets and fighter guns as an inhuman enemy begun to lay siege to the small bastion of safety in space. Anti-matter and plasma turrets from the huge capital ships seemed to pause for scant precious seconds as furious energy discharges gathered in their exposed barrels before loosing in godlike bursts of brilliant crimson and argent light at the inhuman enemy. It was a symphony of the gods of battle. Lighter gatling lasers and rapid fire point defense batteries joined in the display of righteous fury by letting forth constant streams of stinging lasers like a continuous fire hose of light.

Pinpoint bursts of brilliant light and missile contrails burst forth from missile turrets and fighter launch pylons contributed to the titanic battle that raged in the darkness. Fighter after fighter from both Union and Tanfen, unheeding of danger rushed to fill gaps in the massive line as wave after wave of alien fighters and deadly bomber craft probed that line.

Lord John kept on sending his diminishing reserves to fill up gaps in the line, until the only reserves he had left were his personal guard. He heard the echo of his words. "Fill the gap!" Then the reply. "But, milord? Your safety!" Then, a final reply, steeled with iron will. "Go. It is my will." First one, and then the other Arrow sped off into the cauldron of battle, leaving John alone to coordinate his forces

Then, there was an actinic glare from the left. A massive heavy cruiser, its super structure aflame with oxygen boiling out of massive rents in its hull seemed to keel over on its side before going nova, the demonic chorus of a thousand souls dying in unison a harsh contrast to the silence of space. And through it all, came the cruiser's murderers, a swarm of the alien enemy.

John gave a curse. There were no reserves left, and directly to John's right was the medical frigate itself. There was nothing between the Melissa, and the alien horde. Max felt John's bitter despair. And then, a grim will as he made up his mind. It was then he felt the Longbow beneath him roar as its owner brought it into the battle, like a massive charger, its afterburners blazing like shooting stars. Max felt and heard John roar. A battle cry of anger and defiance at the enemy. Though a Longbow was slow, it was no pushover in sheer firepower. Like a sledgehammer, a massive volley from the Longbow's copious racks spat forth ballistic annihilation, sending several lesser alien fighters skeeting and then exploding. But more kept coming.

'There was no coming back from this one' Max heard in a voice echo. John did not seem to feel fear. Only regret that he did not have the chance to meet his child, and then, strangely enough, a sense of pride that his nephew, him, had shown enough that the branch would be safe in his hands. That echoed in his dream mind like a thousand bells in unison. And then, first one salvo, then another, then another slammed against the Longbow as the alien host retaliated as one. John gave a warrior's laugh, firing all his weapons, his instrument panels exploding around him as his massive Longbow, like a wounded lion began to tear itself apart. There was no fear. This was death in glorious battle. The Tan way. The Loyalist way. Max's vision turned white, as a final energy bolt slammed into the fighter. Oblivion again.

He gave a curse as his head felt like a watermelon about to explode. If pain were to be measured, his would probably exceed any known scale. The pain almost made him black out. He tried to get up to a sitting position, and find his bearings, but all he could see around him was darkness, except the small patch of ground he sat on, which, of all things seemed to look like, and feel painfully like stone cobbles. Strangely, he felt as if he was in his own body now, not someone else's. As his vision cleared slightly, he tried gazing into the darkness. Roiling coils of mist swirled around him. He tried remembering how he got here. The attack by the aliens. Then suddenly darkness. This must be the afterlife, he thought. Even before it all began, he had suddenly bought it. The big one. The last jump. A small voice in his mind told him that he was still alive. Yet? This place felt so cold, so final. Like a final resting place. He began to wonder what to do in such a tediously boring environment. Suddenly, a familiar voice rang out of the darkness.

"Far from it, young nephew." That voice, it was so familiar.

"Aunt Schala?"

Then, a spotlight seemed to come out of nowhere to illuminate a once bare patch of cobble. His aunt was dressed in a long prismatic dress, her locks of hair flowing slightly in an unfelt wind. She had that knowing smile of hers as she regarded her nephew.

"Where am I? Is this heaven…? Or hell?"

Schala laughed. That light hearted laugh that made everything seem right. "No, Maxim. This place is known by many names."

Schala paused and pursed her lips thoughtfully, "But the easiest for you to understand now is that this place is the beginning, and the end of all things. This is the End of Time."

"End of Time?"

"Yes… this is where it all begins, and where it all ends. But that is not why you are here."

He found enough strength to stand up, groggily, like a foal taking its first steps.

"You must make a choice."

"Choice?"

Then, she faded from view and everything turned to darkness, before three patches in the darkness, shaped in the points of a triangle lit up. In the middle of the triangle, it seemed stood himself. Around it, arrayed at each point seemed to be three people. He could not make out who they were, but he could feel their aura, and their personification of themselves.

One point seemed to bear the image of a falcon. A young one to be sure. But proud and powerful, yet desperately lonely and seeking solace. The falcon cawed with the pride of youth and skill. Another was a white lioness with piercing red eyes, eyes that saw truth, but returned an illusion of self. It seemed that there were multiple images of the lioness that overlaid one another. The lioness had never felt emotion, nor love. But it was strong in a way, it was a whirling dervish of destruction. The last had the aura of quiet pride. Like a female wolf, this aura seemed to have the feeling of unity, and family to it. A sense of togetherness and camaraderie. Yet, it felt strangely empty, as if it was a jigsaw puzzle missing half a dozen vital pieces. It did not feel… complete.

"You must choose one to be by your side, ever after. And in your choice, shall one die, and another be forced down the road to loneliness. In your choice also, is the determination of the outcome against the Darkness."

Max shook his head. What was she talking about? "Can it be otherwise, Aunt Schala?"

"No. That is the way it is to be." Schala appeared again, and waved her hand. "Enough Maximilian. There is much for you to do in the world of the living. Awaken."

Darkness again.

He felt someone shaking his shoulder. The pain was back, not so much, but bearable. He opened his eyes just a bit. The light here was glaring. A voice was shouting through his ear. "Milord?! Milord?! Wake up? Are you all right?"

He opened his eyes groggily. Like a sudden flash of insight, he seemed to realize just who Celes was "supposed" to be in his dream, but then as fast as it came, it left his mind. Celes kept shaking him until his teeth felt loose.

"I'm all right, Celes."

As soon as he opened his eyes, Celes held hands back, as if singed from shaking his shoulder. "Forgive me, milord."

She then leaned back on the chair, crossing her hands on her knees, looking strangely primp and proper. The thought vaguely amused Max. A walking death machine, trained in nearly a hundred ways to cause terminal injury looking primp and proper? Celes spoke, her eyes averted, her voice neutral, the concern evaporating like water in a desert, "You seemed to be hallucinating, milord. You were saying strange things and moving your arms."

"What did I say?"

"It was in Cantonese, milord. I think. I am not fluent in that dialect."

Max shook his head and leaned up from the cot. The whole dream, it was so real. So amazing. Yet, it echoed in his soul. It seemed important. Details seemed to evaporate from his mind. He could scarcely remember half of it now. Except bits of it. "Probably nothing. It doesn't matter. What is the situation now?"

Celes regarded him, "The Kaikuhur is still undergoing repairs, milord, but the Starry Memory is repaired and ready for use. The transfer of the refugees to groundside is still on schedule."

Max rubbed his head and stood up. "Great. Where is Caruno?"

"Still in the infirmary on the Melissa under sedation, milord. His wounds are grave."

"I should see him now. I don't know what to do, after giving the report." He made to reach for the door switch, before her voice quietly stopped him.

"Milord, there is one more thing."

He turned around. "Yes?"

"You are now Lord of Sutari Branch. In addition to the ducal ring you now hold, often a predecessor often keeps a message of some sort for his successor, as well as additional documents and files relating to your position stored in the datacore we carry with us. I advise that you should see these at your earliest convenience."

Max nodded. "I understand. I still need to see Caruno first. He knows how things work here. Shall we?"

Celes stood up, and retrieved her handgun. The room was silent once more.

Far away, another woman leaned back, sweat matting her locks, her adamant concentration and will beginning to fray. Her task was done. The warning was given. It was up to him now to choose the right path.

 

FIN