: “ The Downward Spiral ”

“There will come a time when our silence will be more
powerful than the voices you are strangling today!”
- August Spies


Vindicator 001 [ Talon Lead ]
On approach vector to TCS Valley Forge
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 10 2681/2681.041; 1212 Hours (CST)

An uneasy silence dominated the forty minutes it took to catch up with the Forge Battle Group, aside from “Wise Guy”’s cracks about the Red Baron. Doppler gave up defending himself after the first thirty seconds.

“Richthofen, eh? Hey, you wouldn’t happen to be related to Manfred von Richthofen, WWI, would you?” came the voice of another one of the 114th “White Hopes.” “The name’s Captain Paul ‘Kraut’... Hartmann. Descendant of Erich Hartmann, WWII... funny, us winding up in this battle group together. Wouldn’t you say?”

“Yeah. Funny.” He played along, knowing the Confed pilots needed to blow off some steam. Besides, after thirty seconds, he was laughing too hard to reply anyway.

The four ’Sharks of the White Hopes and the eight Steel Gunners broke formation as the BWS Condor slid into the position of the late TCS Forstchen, putting it adjacent to the Murphy-class destroyers Ohlander, Stasheff, and directly in front of the the Plunkett-class artillery cruiser Nagato.

Richthofen opened a channel to his wingmen while the White Hopes began their landing approaches. “All right, Talons. We’ll be landing shortly. Keep it neat. Remember, Confed regs are a lot stricter than we’re use to. Also, the Valley Forge’s flight wing has taken nearly fifty percent casualties between Tyr and their last engagement here in Nephele, so morale’s in the toilet. Remember, they’re helping us out, so go easy on them. Okay?”

“Affirmative, Major.”

“And how about you, Torch?”

“Okay, boss. Easy on the Confees. You got it.”

The last White Hope completed his landing. The face of Lieutenant Amy St. Germain appeared on Richthofen’s vidcomm Visual Display Unit. “This is Valley Forge Control. Talon Flight, you are cleared to land.”

He switched over his comm to reply. “Affirmative, Control. Commencing landing. Thanks for the ride.” To his surprise, the pretty comm officer just nodded and killed the connection. Jeeze, morale must be worse than I thought if even the damn Comm Officer’s not feeling friendly. He switched back to the flight’s command channel. “Let’s do this by the regs, shall we? Three, two, one. Torch, you’re in first, then you, Anubis.”

Torch grinned. “Okay then, let’s see if I remember how ta do this.”

“Aw, we don’t need no ALS...”

The Vindicator slid out of formation and aligned with the flight deck, slowing to 30 KPS. Frederick watched Stefani’s approach carefully. Torch eased up, then cut her throttle as the tractor beam caught her fighter. She hit the switch to lower her landing gear, and grinned even wider at the light thump of the gears locking in place. The fighter eased through the atmospheric shield and touched down gently. Anubis’ landing was just as uneventful.

“Doppler” took a deep breath and let it out slowly. After both of his wingmen landing so well, it would make a bad first-impression if he botched his approach. The Vindicator handled smoothly as he lined up for his approach. He decelerated to 30 KPS as he approached the recovery bay under the LSO’s guidance. There was a slight tug as the tractor beams locked onto his Vin. He cut his throttle and lowered his gears. The fighter passed through the forcefield at the end of the flight deck and set down with a light thump. This is so much easier with that tractor beam, he thought, smiling. In the older Border Worlds’ carriers -- which were often little more than converted destroyers or frigates -- one often had to land manually, and a small few still even relied on old arrester-cables to catch landing fighters. Fortunately, those old carriers were going out with the retirement bunch, replaced by the newer and far more powerful Arcadia fleet carriers.

He opened his cockpit and climbed down the gantry that had been rolled up. He met Captains Kozlowski and Milhalik to the port side of the flight deck. “Come on, let’s check in with the WC before the Techs start yelling at us about how badly those Vins are butchered, shall we?” The others grinned and followed him to the lift. The white and blue Vindicators, odd bulges marking where extra size recored maneuvering thrusters had been installed, were quickly carted off to the hangar deck, which was by far too empty.


TCS Valley Forge; Wing Commander’s Office
1235 Hours (CST)

Ten minutes after their landing, Talon Flight was standing outside the office of Colonel Natasha Trebek, Wing Commander of the 71st Tactical Fighter Wing. Richthofen pressed the door chime firmly. A few seconds later, Trebek’s voice replied, “Enter.”

The three Border Worlds pilots looked around the office as they entered. The office was larger than they were used to on the Condor. Trebek was standing with her back to the trio, staring out the office viewport. There was rigidity to her stance, a tension slowly building. In the distance a pair of Tigersharks flew by, maintaining a constant vigil.

Frederick waited a few moments, finally breaking the heavy silence by clearing his throat. He stood at attention, pounded into him during his eighteen years of Prussian upbringing, and motioned for his wingmen to at least make an attempt of it. He then snapped off a textbook salute and said, “Talon Flight, of the Union of Border Worlds Space Force, reporting for duty, sir!”

Trebek turned slowly, expecting to see the stereotypical ramshackle appearance common to Border Worlds pilots. It wasn’t quite as bad as she’d feared. The center pilot bore the stern features of Prussian aristocracy, and was easily recognizable. Frederick was average height for a Terran, eyes a rich gray, like clouds before a storm, and hair so black it shimmered metallic blue when the light caught it right. He was standing with a posture that would make a colonel proud, but the other two left a lot to be desired. To Richthofen’s left, Captain Stephani “Torch” Kozlowski stood at nearly six feet tall, and her light blue eyes and long brown hair, dark enough to pass for black, only accentuated her distinct Slavic appearance. She stood loosely and had an easy-going, almost informal salute. On the Major’s right, Captain Seth Milhalik was the midground between the two contrasts. “Anubis,” as he was called, stood six feet even, and looked like the stereotypical Egyptian, despite the fact he’d probably never been there. But what made the Captain instantly stand out was the jagged scar running from ear to ear, a wound that probably should have killed him. He gave a passable salute, and, while not standing as rigid as Richthofen, still managed to look formal.

Trebek finally returned the salute, and nodded for them to be at ease. “I’m Colonel Natasha Trebek. Welcome aboard the Valley Forge. I’m afraid we don’t have your records on file, so if you could...” Richthofen held out a personal data pad. “Thank you,” she said, taken off guard by his preparedness. She knew she would have expected no less from a Confederation officer, and that she would need to push aside the popular stereotypes that came to mind when one mentioned “Border Worlders.” It was one of many that she’d had to discard over the past couple of weeks. Ramshackle appearance or not, loose regs or not, the Border Worlders in the fleet had racked up impressive combat records. Pilots off the two Border Worlds carriers had iced close to 500 enemy fighters in Tyr and Nephele as well as icing an enemy carrier group, while their small corvette squadron had knocked out over a half dozen enemy ships, including two heavy cruisers. The Border Worlders might not be everything she wanted in her allies, but she sure as hell wouldn’t want them as her enemies.

She scrolled down the PDP, quickly skimming over the data. She quietly read aloud, “Captain Seth ‘Anubis’ Milhalik. Born on a station in the Antares System, Epsilon Sector, on April Fourth, 2646. Joined the UBW upon its formation in late 2672. First served on the Durango-class heavy destroyer BWS Dauntless when the UBW Space Force and Navy was still the ‘Militia’ until transferred to the VF-14 ‘Talons’ during the Hunt-Down. All other assignments Classified until one month ago, when Talon Flight was assigned to the frigate BWS Condor.” She frowned as she scrolled on. Kozlowski’s record read much the same. Born in a small colony on Racene II in the Enigma Sector, on January 25th, 2647. Joined the then-Border Worlds Militia in 2669, and landed a position on the then-TCS Dauntless, where she saw limited action against the Kilrathi in the closing months of the first war. Transferred to Talon Squadron during the Hunt-Down, then everything else was classified until her assignment with Talon Flight to the Condor.

She reached Richthofen’s records. He was born in what used to be old Prussia, on Earth, August 23rd, 2643. Just before his 18th birthday, he was nearly killed in a civilian airliner crash. He spent a year in intensive care, and the next two years recovering in the hospital. In 2668, he applied to the Confederation Naval SF Academy on Hilthros, but was quickly rejected, as Confed was busy retiring or RIFing most of its military and didn’t need many new recruits. So, he signed up with the then Militia of the Outer Worlds in mid-2668, during the False Peace. Again, served on the Dauntless until late 2672, when he was promoted to First Lieutenant upon the Union’s formation and transferred to fighter garrison duty on Tela... She looked back up at him. “This can’t be right.”

“What?” he asked. The pain in the one word indicated he already knew what she was going to ask.

“It says that in 2673, during the Black Lance Incident, you were assigned to the Garrison at Telamon IV.” Something akin to grief touched his face, and for an instant, his deep gray eyes were a window to an even deeper pain, as he nodded in response, not trusting his voice for a moment. It was nearly a decade later, and the mere mention of the tragedy could rend open the emotional wound as if it happened yesterday. “All our records said that the whole garrison was wiped out in the attack.”

Frederick shook his head stiffly, the effort to suppress his emotions showing. He took a deep shuddering breath and let it out slowly. “Actually, there were two survivors,” he said once he trusted his voice again. “I was one. I didn’t know the other guy. He couldn’t take the guilt and finally committed suicide. I know that we couldn’t possibly have stopped them, but it still hurts like hell to have failed. All those people...” he trailed off.

Trebek nodded. “Many of us felt like that after the Battle of Terra. No matter how well we fought, the Kilrathi still broke through and killed hundreds of millions of people... Sirius, Gilead, Warsaw... all those cities on Earth...”

“I’d prefer not to talk about it,” he interrupted. She nodded and went back to reading his records. After the spoken incident, Richthofen spent three months in counseling and underwent a court-martial, in which he was exonerated. The conclusion was that there was no way that such a small garrison could have withstood an assault from the Black Lance. He was then assigned to Talon Squadron just in time for the Hunt-Down, after which his records were also classified until his assignment on the Condor.

Trebek didn’t particularly like the pattern of records. It suggested some sort of Black Ops-type unit in the UBW Space Force/Navy, and the Talons’ decrease from a twelve-member squadron to a three-member flight -- of senior officers no less -- indicated that they’d seen some heavy action against somebody. But that didn’t matter now. They were under her command, and she’d make the best use of them. One thing still nagged at her, though, “By the way, you’re not really related to the Red Baron, are you?”

Frederick managed to smile lightly. “Only indirectly. Manfred von Richthofen was killed during the war and never had a chance to have a family. My family is descended from his brother, Lothar, who survived.” Trebek nodded once, and dismissed them. She wanted to review the records more thoroughly before their next engagement.

As the Talons exited Trebek’s office, they nearly collided with a Petty Officer waiting outside. Frederick started to apologize, but the Petty Officer interrupted. “Excuse me, sir, but are you Major von Richthofen?” Frederick nodded and the nervous man continued, “The crew Chief wants to speak with you about the, uh... erm... unusual modifications to your fighters.”

The first mod had been to the missile and torp mounts. As during the Black Lance Incident and subsequent Hunt-Down, it hadn’t been uncommon for pilots with skilled techs to choose between firepower and the need for speed. It was possible for a fourth Lance torpedo to be wedged in. Talon Flight did so. The missile mounts themselves were “downgraded” from 2-by-3 medium points to 2-by-4 light hardpoints.

The next to have been modified had been the maneuvering thrusters. The thrusters had been recored to give them a larger efflux volume, which in turn generated greater thrust and much higher sustained turn rates, at the cost of increased structural fatigue and consequently a shorter airframe life.

[ HTL coordinator’s note - this is very similar to what Pliers did to Blair’s T-Bolt in the TPOF novel. ]

The Major smiled and nodded again. “Tell him I’ll be there in a few minutes,” he said, dismissing the young man. After he was out of earshot,
Richthofen turned back to his pilots and shook his head. “That poor lad’s going to have a heart attack before he’s thirty. Well, I have to go see about this ‘talk’ with the Chief. You two, go get some rest. And that’s an order. It was a long flight in here and I don’t want you nodding off in the middle of a dogfight.” The three parted ways. Two went to get some sleep after a couple of drinks, of course, the other to go face a pissed-off Flight Control Officer or ECC about a trio of mechanic’s nightmares.

Welcome to the Big Leagues.


TCS Valley Forge; Officer Quarters C-9
1730 Hours (CST)

"That was a good dinner. My compliments to the chef."

"Care for seconds?"

"Hey, don’t you ever rest?"

The dinner date had led to Ensign Turner walking Lt. Commander Ishii back to her quarters. The walk had led to an invitation inside for a cup of coffee. The cup of coffee had led to watching an afternoon Tri-D sitcom together over popcorn. The sitcom had led to an innocent-enough kiss. The innocent-enough kiss had led to...

Erin Ishii and Matt Turner lay in a tangle of arms and legs atop Ishii’s bed. Both were sweaty, their pulses having slowed some, but neither were tired. Just... fulfilled.

"God damn..." Erin said, planting her chin on Matt’s chest. "How’d you get to be so damn good?"

"Trial and error...?" Matt suggested, really not believing he was all that great.

"But... damn!"

"You weren’t so bad yourself, Erin."

"Hey..." Erin punched him softly in the shoulder. "You will address me as ‘sir,’ ‘ma’am,’ or ‘Lieutenant Commander’... last I checked I still outrank you."

Matt shot off a mock-salute, smiling. "Yes, ma’am."

"You know, Matt..." Erin began, sighing. Matt could tell right away she was about to say something serious. "I know about your fiancée."

"You do? But w—"

"Your friend, Ensign Wright told me."

Jed? "That son of a bitch... I’ll -- "

"Shhh." Erin gently put a finger across his lips, silencing him. "It’s okay, Matthew," she assured him. "It’s okay."

Matt eyed her suspiciously. "It... is?"

"I have a husband."

He did a double-take. "W-what?"

"A college professor in Yokohama," Erin explained. "Something you probably neglected to notice when you did your digging on me, eh?" She chuckled, holding up her hand. The platolum wedding ring on her ring finger was in plain sight. He hadn’t noticed it before... but then admittedly his attention hadn’t been directed much at her hands when he gave stares on the bridge. Her voice then took on an even more serious tone, "Look, let’s not kid ourselves, Matt. We’re a long way from home—a long way. The Bunker Hill Battle Group’s already bought it and this engagement’s only just begun... and yesterday we came damn near close to suffering the same fate. I talked to Amy... she’s been monitoring a lot of comm traffic lately... and talked to Lt. Commander Coliver in the Forge’s Intell Office."


"Matt, what ConFleet High Command doesn’t want us to know is that we’ve barely scratched the Neph fleet that followed all of us from Tyr... Battle Group Valkyrie, the DESRONs, the Forge, the other battle groups—all of us are forfeit by Confed to hold the damn line against the bugs." She sighed again, letting out some stress. "It’s still going to be a long, hard road out of hell... and we might not be making it home."

"You’re right..." Matt sighed, holding her unflinching gaze. She understood. He’d been trying to rationalize his feelings for her in light of the fiancée he had waiting for him on Earth for weeks—suddenly, though it still wasn’t necessarily right, it made sense. The odds were stacked. "I’m okay with this if you are."

"Then we’re okay with it." Their arms wrapping around each other, the two embraced under the soft covers tightly -- intimately, but not in passion; two kindred souls that longed for the comfort and closeness of their loved ones at home almost two sectors away. "Matt, I don’t want the last thing I remember to be sitting on a bridge taking orders from Vandermann... I don’t want the last things I feel to be concern about rules and regulations and system routines. And fear of what lies ahead of us..."

"Me neither, Erin... me neither." For now, for as long as the Forge’s fate permitted, Erin and Matt had each other.


TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Barracks
1824 Hours (CST)

He was chasing through space. His fighter was still accelerating. He was going faster and faster. He was frightened simply by the speed at which he was going. Approaching that mysterious spiral nebula... Starting to rotate on its horizontal axis. Over and over. And over again. Not stopping. He was spinning round and round. All of it was making him dizzy. The nose of his fighter—strange enough, he could not see it—lowered, cork-screwing towards the center of the nebula. The increasing thrust pressed him hard into the seat. The centrifugal forces now made it impossible for him to turn his head. He suddenly understood that he was not strapped into the seat. His heart beat faster. He had not seen straps previously... but now he also felt there were no straps, even if he was able to see anything at all. It could be compared to being in a cloaked fighter that even the person inside could not see.

Is it in fact a fighter I’m in? Am I even sitting in anything at all?

He was barely able to reach under his seat. The hand grabbed into emptiness.

The fighter drilled itself downwards; downwards into the heart of the spiral.

The sight grew foggy as it grew dark around him. Nothing. Clouds? Clouds! For some reason, the discovery got him absolutely calm and prepared, when the surrounding cleared slightly. There were milky, blurred contours. Shapeless silhouettes.

There she was. Blond hair, blue eyes, and white, vibrant skin. She -- perfect. He pondered, as of when angels were unshaven. The regular shaped triangle was blond-haired, too. Red like blood were her lips.

"Come to me, my weary warrior," she spoke very softly.

"Captain Pinto!" it slipped out his mouth spontaneously. "Eh, he... I... I mean... Isabella?!" he stumbled, perplexed.

"Follow me, soldier."

She stretched out a hand. A soft cold breeze he had not noticed before ran through her hair and washed around her supple breasts, causing her nipples to solidly stand upright. He instantly reached out for her, but could not get to her.

She vanished. It got nebulous again.

The mist cleared a bit, yet it remained hazy. He was laying next to her, face to face. Long and wide curtains of transparent silk were hanging down everywhere. Aromatic was the air. Smelling the fragrance of her hair—he took it deep. He touched her, his hand following the shape of the contour of hers laying on one side. The hair of her soft, peachy skin rose while his hand continued its way down to her waist. He felt his excitement rising as well. Right at the moment he was about to embrace her fully a voice spoke up and she eluded. That terribly squawking voice—he could not understand it. He looked for his angel.

"You need to go," she said sadly.

"No!" he cried out. "Not this time."

"You’re late... YOU ARE LATE!" The tone and accent of her voice had notably changed.


"No, no! Isabella!" He grasped the curtains, holding his head with both hands on his ears struggling to seal off that annoying voice. "I don’t want to go! Never again! I can’t do it any longer! You’re wrong; I’m not that strong!" He started to turn wildly left and right.

"Yes, you can. You can!" his angel said, fading away. He got up and fell hard on his knees pleading for her not to go away. He fell over, closed his eyes.

When he opened his eyes there it was anew -- that voice ordering him to "... THE BRIEFING ROOM..."

The briefing room?

He felt that slightly chilly breeze again. This time coming from the air conditioner integrated into the ceiling above him. There was a dimmed red light in the room. He looked down at himself—laying on the cold metal of the floor in front of his bunk—he was wrapped like a burrito in his bed sheets, his flight suit, his T-shirt, and the greasy overalls he wore when working with the techs on his fighter that had not seen the laundry in some time. Burdock pulled himself up to his feet, cursing. Both knees ached horribly.

As Major Burdock staggered out of his squadron commander’s quarters and into the hallway. He ran into the newly-promoted Captain Pinto.

"Good morning, boss. Did you ask for this wake-up call?"

"I must have forgotten it... the mission," he mumbled. Staring at Captain Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto it struck Burdock hard as he remembered his dream, still fresh in memory. He felt his face blushing. Ashamed, he looked down.

"You okay, Dan? Hurry up! We’re both late. C’mon, I’ll get you a cup of coffee along the way to the briefing room. See you there." She clapped him on the arm and left him standing; feeling like a teenage boy who feared for being caught when asked by his Mum in front of her afternoon hen-party where the couple of pages in the woman’s lingerie section of Mummy’s favorite, old-fashioned shopping catalogue disappeared to that he had to remove after he had shot in it the day before in his ever-unsatisfied adolescent lechery.

Burdock shook off the embarrassing memoir, shuffling off to catch up with Captain Pinto.


TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Briefing Room
1833 Hours (CST)

"... our latest long-range DSSS scans and SWACS sweeps show two Orca-class destroyers and three Triton-class transports in low orbit of Nephele II. As Lt. Commander Coliver just said, we don’t know exactly what this means. First analysis however indicates that the enemy possibly -- if not probably -- deployed troops on the planet, presumably in its capital city, Hightower Flats, which just happens to be where our monastic group of Zen Buddhist monks are shacking up. TCIS and the CICINTEL believe it to be a scout unit. Still, you Marines had better be prepared to fight the bugs one-on-one, as your pick-up target is just around the corner from them." The WC eyed TCMC Lieutenant Temuulan Dshugder-Warmuth. It was her that now commanded the remainder of the Forge’s Marine platoon following Lt. Colonel Trelane’s death aboard the Nephilim cruiser yesterday. "It may as well be that the enemy has spotted our target already. But we do not know that, as we don’t know the actual position of the monks should they have moved. Check your screens for mission details. Commander Schaefer?"

"Thank you, Colonel." Vandermann’s exec approached the podium as Trebek and the senior intelligence officer stepped aside, arms folded. "The Captain and I intend to see that all hostiles in orbit of Nephele II are taken out -- both destroyers must be taken out, the transports, too, along with every single fighter you run into," Schaefer began. "Comprehensive success is compulsory. Major Adrian’s Lancers will guarantee that victory -- Lancers, you will note Secondary Objective on your screens... remember to await the green light. They get assistance by the Aztecs and Fire Balls, who are to cover the squadron as needed and render SEAD. The fighters of our escorts will stay with the battle group doing CAP and Talon Flight stays in the tube, ready to act as our fire brigade and be on-hand to provide air cover for the Marines. Primarily, this is to be a Marine operation, as it is a rescue op. I know a lot of you may have reservations against us stopping to risk our lives for so few, but is that not human nature? The Geneva Accords bind us to evac those monks whether they want our help or not, but the Captain believes it is the right thing to do in any case and I tend to agree with him. Do any of you object?" Schaefer folded his hands in front of him upon no response from the pilots. "Well then, that’s the plan, Marines and pilots. An..."

The Commander broke off, sighing. "For all the late-comers, I think Colonel Trebek had better summarize the first part of our briefing that you missed." Schaefer looked censoriously to the rows in the back. Burdock and Pinto had not been the only ones late, but his gaze fixed on Burdock for a moment. Under his stern view Burdock unconsciously felt the need to have to justify himself. "Sorry, sir, but that patrol in the morning really knocked me out," was his unspoken sentiment.

"Perhaps I should recap, Commander," the WC spoke, nodding her head disapprovingly. "We’re running out of time before the Combined Fleet will pull back to Loki, but as of 0800 hours today ‘Operation Scour’ was given the full greenlight by Rear Admiral Hanton. The Mosquitoes will go in first as our vanguard, doing operative recon. The two Tigershark squads, the Steel Gunners and the White Hopes, will follow providing rotating close cover for the two LCs that carry our thirty Marines. Before Talon Flight will fly HAVCAP cover for the Marines, they will escort them down to the surface to these coordinates here." Trebek laserpointed to an already highlighted spot on the briefing room’s tactical 2D screen. "After the Marines’ successful landing, the Tigersharks and Piranhas will fall back to defend the Forge until the LCs have those monks and are ready to be escorted up to the East-West Trade transport Seven Seas for system evac—the Forge... she’s still badly damaged since yesterday’s engagement. The Ohlander, Stasheff, Nagato, and BWS Condor will be taking a backseat role in the operation... they are to flank the Forge and give her extra protection -- right now we’ve lost too much to be taking any chances we don’t need to." She clearly wanted to play it extra safe this time with all that repeating and pointing out, Isabella Pinto aptly judged.

But apparently the WC knew exactly what she was doing and why. Scanning the crammed room Pinto found nobody bored to death by Trebek’s repetitions. Instead she noticed exhausted men and women looking overworked around her. The look of it made all of Pinto’s hope and confidence wilt.

"This is a complex, two-track operation, but a simple mission for each individual of you." The WC went on, "I do not expect any additional difficulties. Due to the unknown motives of the enemy I advise you to be prepared for the unexpected!" About to conclude the briefing, the Wing Commander considered otherwise. "I know the losses of the Hood and the Forstchen with all hands have been... but one big blow for all of us. With them we’ve lost many friends and loved ones... a lot of them my own. I don’t need to tell you we also lost a great many officers, men and women, Marines, crew, and pilots in that battle. What I do need to tell you is we need to double our efforts here if we want to stop the Nephilim. We were able to pull a victory the last time and we will gain victory today. I have great confidence in every single one of you... you’re a damn fine bunch of soldiers. Now then, you will meet the external Mission Commander for Operation Scour on the flight deck. See that you report there immediately. Questions? No? Very well, dis -- "

"Eh, hmm, we have a -- what? -- external Mission Commander heading this operation? Where is he? I mean, where was he during the briefing -- doing it or being present at least?" Birger "Credit" Lassen raised something of a protest.

Natasha Trebek exhaled heavily. "You stop this instantly or you will be court-martialed for insubordination right away! If you had been on time you’d know, and also that he had been present."

Trebek knew the mood was way below zero, if such -- at all -- was possible. Nonetheless, she would not for a single minute tolerate any questioning of the given orders. She herself was worried by the latest developments, but mutiny was a decisive no. She knew she would fight any form of it. The 71st Tactical Fighter Wing’s Wing Commander was a stickler for discipline. What would the military be without it?

"Good hunting, everyone. Dismissed."