PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 40 of 44 )

: Hades Rising

“... As I light the righteous fire of justice
I shall hold life sacred
For it is my duty to rise against evil.”

- Confederation Oath of Service


(Long draw on a cigar.)

Certainly not in the mundane, inflexible units of days, weeks, years.

(Smooth exhale.)

Whatever candyass primordial civvie had set down that system of measure hadn’t been a spacer, that’s for damned sure. Not only were the archaic units inadequate for the measuring of relative time at speeds that were a hefty chunk of lightspeed, as every jump scout knew, but they also did a piss poor job measuring out the beats of a man’s life as well.

(Draw again. Hold.)

Measured in weeks, days, hours, it had scarcely been two months since the Commodore had been sent out by a traitorous HQ in command of the ill-starred bloodbath that the nets had dubbed the "Hell in a Handbasket" campaign. Two capital ships, hundreds of fighters, thousands of lives, a solar system in flames.

(Puff.)

Only a few weeks more recently, he had shipped out in command of the hastily reconditioned carrier Frontrunner, intent on the glowing green orb that was Cynium. En route, his ship had been waylaid and his command usurped by a damnable and mysterious woman, one whose demeanor had been high-handed and her government backing even higher; his protests and objections notwithstanding, the Commodore had followed her down into disaster. Dragged away from the front lines, the Frontrunner had instead been used as a damned police ship. A gulag. A prison barge for heroes. The mystery objective that overrode his mission, superceded his promised support of his boys on the front, had turned out to be a broken ship. Once proud -- hell, once a legend -- the ex-TCS Orion he had come upon had been a torn, blasted hulk. The "Black Ship" burned nearly to ash. The survivors within clinging desperately to life. And had they been saved, had they been celebrated? Had the Commodore been any kind of man worth the name, they damn well would have been! Instead, he had acceded to the dictates of his mysterious passenger. Instead, the Orion warriors had been hauled off in irons to face some inscrutable Confed kangaroo-court "justice." And, by God, his manhood had been dragged right off into the night with’em. That bitch had cost him his ship, his crew, and worst of all, his self-confidence! And, for what little damn he gave, his career as well.

(Deep inhale. Taste the smoke.)

What she and Cynium had left him with. Smoke and ashes. He had wanted desperately to turn over command to his second, there on the bridge of the Frontrunner as Earth filled the viewscreen, to acknowledge his unworthiness to continued command in the only way he could. But he was equally unwilling -- unwilling -- to force anyone else to stain their hands with this, to take on this final unforgivable stigma. His attempt at resignation, tendered just days later, had been brusquely turned aside by a Command desperate for ranking officers in a tumultuous time. The bastards had left him to rot. Days spent futilely waiting for a decision -- a new command, a court-martial for cowardice, either would be a reprieve or at least a distraction. Nights spent dream-drifting the grim wastes of past battlefields. The whole time wondering, through the pain, if the presence of the Frontrunner in Cynium might have averted or mitigated the disaster there. If sooner recognition on his part of that bastard vice-admiral’s final treachery might have spared the thousand lost lives of the Handbasket dead. If some unexpected display of conscience or backbone on his part could have bought a future for the heroic survivors of the Orion. Like worrying a damn rotten tooth, he just couldn’t resist.

(Exhale.)

Was this the kind of time you could measure conventionally, in minutes and seconds? Sure as hell didn’t feel like it! the sense of discontinuity with his prior life as a Confed officer was near complete, the time infinite and interminable. No units available to measure the depths of his personal hell.

So with nothing better to work with, Garrison Murdoch measured time in cigars.

 

TERRAN CONFEDERATION HEADQUARTERS

Jupiter-1 Confederate HQ Starbase; Operations Planning Center
In orbit over planet Jupiter (Sol V)
The Sol System, Terra Quadrant, Sol Sector
FEB 10 2681/2681.041; 1940 Hours (CST)

Space Marshal Johan Voight waded and shoved his way past the busy gathering of comtechs in the ill-lit comm wing of the OPC, then waited patiently in front of the main door. He met Fleet Admiral Leonard as soon as he entered under Marine security detail guard that the man quickly dismissed, shaking his hand before lapsing into the typical rounds of pleasantries.

Leonard was the CINC of ConFleet at large; Voight was Chief of Fleet operations in Sol Sector -- the sector’s native First and Fourteenth Fleets primarily -- and all respective homeguard militia and ISS units. While Voight held the higher rank, Leonard still took on more responsibility, particularly in the state of undeclared war the Terran Confederation had found itself in. 

Lately, however, Leonard had been feeling out of the loop, the movements of the allied fleet along the Kilrathi border being compartmentalized chiefly under a particular Union of Border Worlds Navy rear admiral. Though the ships of the UBW Navy’s First Fleet were technically Confederation reserve units after the Treaty of McAuliffe, the Border Worlders still had their own chain of command, one not unlike the infamous Free Republic of Landreich’s. It was a devil-may-care chain of command, but one nonetheless and ConFleet, and especially Leonard, had no choice but to respect that. Anyone who had assumed that the Border Worlders would simply fall into line had been in for a big surprise. In fact, with a Border Worlder running the operation to hold the line, and a Border Worlds officer commanding the Midway, there were a lot of people who were ruefully wondering just who was running this alliance.

"Ah, Admiral Leonard."

Clad and resplendent in full dress uniform, his entire chest filled with various medals, ribbons, and other regalia -- the Navy Cross among them -- fifty-nine year-old Admiral Wellington "Duke" Leonard regarded the slightly older man with a nod. The Admiral’s very posture emanated a distinct "been there, done that" attitude, an attitude there for a reason. Again, despite Voight’s superior rank, there was an unspoken understanding between the two flag officers that Leonard should take the lead.

While Voight had fought the battles of Confed behind a desk for much of the last two decades, Leonard had been on the front lines or at least wherever the action was in virtually every aspect of combat, most recently championing the signing of the Treaty of McAuliffe that had brought to a close the Second Kilrathi War in the aftermath of the Battle of Cynium. Ex-Special Forces commando operative, ex-fighter pilot, ex-ship driver, and now Fleet Admiral... the Admiral’s attitude was there for a reason indeed.

Duke was a warrior; a lead-from-the-front warrior... and that was just all there was to it. Whatever need there may have once been within him to prove it had been surpassed years ago.

"Anything new, Voight?" the Admiral asked, his face neutral. Hiding his helplessness, perhaps?

"Still no word from the Midway if that’s what you’re asking... could be as far as G’mar by now if she hasn’t gone down."

"God help us all if she has. The Aliens’ gate has to be shut down, and shut down soon." 

Voight nodded grimly. "Nothing but pirate trouble in Gemini, smugglers already trying to barter debris from Alien vessels; the First and Fourteenth Fleets are sitting on their butts here in Sol, the Fourth and Seventh are doing the same in Vega, the Third and the Border Worlders are getting slaughtered out on the Frontier." The Space Marshal’s shoulders suddenly sagged and he let out a short sigh. "Christ! Forget about what’s going on out there, Duke. What the hell is going on here?"

The steel-faced Admiral’s composure wavered, his gaze slowly but surely drifting to the deck tiles. "I... I was hoping you could tell me, Johan."

"High Command’s hands are tied -- the Senate hasn’t budged at all on releasing the Inner Worlds Fleets. You know, it’s times like this that I think Tolwyn was right. Government is far too important to be left in the hands of civilians."

"Don’t ever say that, even as a joke," Leonard warned sternly. "That madman would have sacrificed ninety percent of humanity to achieve his Nazi Utopia."

"Yes. And the Confederation would have died with them," Voight agreed somberly. "Oh, something that called itself the Confederation might have survived. But everything that Confed stands for... justice and freedom and the sanctity of life... all that would have died."

"Exactly. Civilian government might be mediocre at times, but I’ll take mediocrity over monstrosity any day of the week. Now, what’s happening on the frontier?"

"Space Marshal Brenner sent a FLASH report of the main situation in the Border Worlds today, but it does leave much to the imagination," Voight explained bitterly. "William Kennedy of the Yorktown’s battle group has been handed command of our Third Fleet in wake of Rayak’s death, with Hanton retaining overall command. Her Combined Fleet is now withdrawing to Loki." The Third Fleet was easily the most renown in the Armada. The most controversial, yes, but without doubt the most renown, having been graced by COs from the legendary Admiral Banbridge to the more shadowy Tolwyn and Petranova. "The Kilrathi scuffles with the Aliens notwithstanding, the battle’s still being waged in the Border Worlds."

"Our Etruria Flank?"

"That’s right. Not sure what she’s trying to do with this fighting retreat of hers, but she’s clearly got something up her sleeve."

"Hanton’s a good officer," Leonard offered stoically. "Still don’t know what I think about her actions in the Battle of Circe, but during the First Kilrathi War she was always one who could be depended on to do what... few others could. And the Battle of the Bush proves she hasn’t lost her touch." He then gave a sigh, any optimism he had within him dwindling visibly. "Without support, though, it might not matter how good she is. What are we going to do, Voight? Time is... critical."

"For now? We’ve got to count on Hanton." 

What was the alternative?

"And later?"

"Later? Well, whether or not the Aliens’ gateway gets shut down... steps are... already being taken."

Leonard cocked an eyebrow curiously. "Oh?"

 

TAMAYO HOME DEFENSE AIRSPACE COMMAND
H-19 ASTEROID BELT

TCS Hades; Combat Information Center
The Tamayo System, Day Quadrant, Vega Sector
2319 Hours (CST)

“Yeah!" the voice of the young Fire Control Officer came over the intercom, shouted from gunnery for no particular reason other than exhilaration. "Now that’s what I call a successful firing!" 

The incandescent blast sixty thousand klicks off the starboard bow dissipated almost as quickly as the thick spread of energy bolts fired from the weapons array had initially struck. Thin, mist-like wisps of colorful energies could still be seen tapering off the few unremarkable shattered rock fragments visible, the only remnants of Asteroid H-249C.

"Marvelous," came the fawning voice of Dr. Jacob Hildreth. The TCIA scientist, actually the project director and Senior Operational Consultant of the TCN R&D venture that had initially spawned the Hades line, seldom spoke up before the Navy personnel. When he did one could usually expect short, terse statements like that one. He wore horn-rimmed glasses to supplement the TCIA uniform he sported even off-hours just to be eccentric, assumedly full aware that myopia was as curable as a mild case of heartburn in the 27th century. The middle-aged man appeared to be something of a recluse, speaking little in the past weeks, staying to his paperwork. A parting "Simply marvelous," could be heard as the scientist made his way to the turbolift at the end of the CIC, arms folded behind his back as he exited. 

Commodore Garrison Murdoch shifted in his seat while his bridge staff busily checked and double-checked their instruments. He seemed completely unaffected and unimpressed by the expected performance of the Hades’ primary weapon -- an underside-mounted Mark IV Heavy Plasma Cannon. Appropriately enough, already it had been nicknamed similar to a Plunkett artillery cruiser’s Triply Heavy Plasma Cannon as the resident "BFG." The cannon supplemented the four standard turreted laser cannons and ten Dual Tachyon Cannon Turrets that made up the ship’s point defenses.

Boring. Repetitive. Superfluous.

At 777 meters, just about the equivalent in length to the older fleet carriers that had been the backbone of ConFleet for decades, the Hades class was what was being classified as a "quick strike cruiser." The Hades would have been dubbed the similarly designed "strike carrier" like the long retired Bengal line if not for the fact that it traded the benefits of a full flight wing for firepower. Essentially, while the Hades had more firepower (retired PTC I and IIs aside) than a Confederation-class dreadnought, Fenris, Rigel, Vesuvius, or even a Midway, it paid for it by its lacking fighter complement... though what pilots there were aboard more or less made up for their low numbers. Combat vets, Special Operations. Each now held non-descript ranks in Home Defense units, which were, by default, automatically granted in the Confed Regulars upon activation of the unit in the Space Navy’s Flight Branch. Even with the flight deck maxed at its paltry thirty fighter capacity, it was a caveat the Commodore wouldn’t lose any sleep over."

Sleep... that’s what he might as well be catching up on with as frivolous a duty as he had been assigned to on the Hades. Come to think of it, sleep was sounding pretty good about now.

"Gary," Admiral Victor Rayak, the then-commander of the Third Fleet had told him at the Torgo Superbase over Torgo III almost a month ago, "I know you probably came here expecting I’d be giving you a job among the rest of the armchair warriors here at Third Fleet HQ. Am I right? Well, sorry to disappoint -- I’ve got something better for you, old friend."

"Oh?"

"First and foremost, I need you to babysit some of Bartok Enterprises and Hurston Dynamics’ execs over in Tamayo -- oh, you know how what to do... play along with their concerns, make them feel like they’re still in the game. From what I’ve heard of those smug bastards, that’s going to be your real mission." He gave something of a hoarse chuckle. "You’re familiar with the Hades Project, yes?"

"Of course, sir," Murdoch had replied. "A ‘quick response heavy strike cruiser,’ as I recall...? R&D’s been working at it for ten years, just about the same time they picked up the megacarrier idea..." he frowned then, a little confused, "... but that’s all under TCIS’ jurisdiction, isn’t it?"

A glint of a condescending smile. "That’s right, my friend. Only now you are, too."

"Ah, I see." Just like that: Welcome to the Terran Confederation Intelligence Services! Murdoch had been less than enthused then, and he was less than enthused now.

"You’ll be overseeing the final leg of the shakedown phase for the prototype ship, the TCS Hades, on BuShips’ behalf," Rayak had gone on to explain. "Weapons systems checks, calibrations, yadda, yadda... just jumping through the proverbial hoops -- you know how R&D works."

"I do, but... is the Hades to be pressed into service?" Murdoch had waited for a response. Not receiving one, he started to add, "What with the tensions on the frontier and the Kilrathi going ballistic about that damn prophecy of theirs..."

"I’m afraid TCIS has other plans, Commodore. What we learn from trial and error with the TCS Hades we’re putting to use as a testbed to make the launch of the next as-yet unnamed Hades cruiser as smooth as possible."

"But, sir, you must understand..."

"Relax, Commodore," Admiral Rayak tried to coax. "You’ll be well out of harm’s way in Tamayo. Even if you do encounter any trouble -- and you won’t -- you’ve got a thirty-pilot flight wing from Special Operations aboard with our latest fighters... state of the art planes flown by the best of the best flyers."

In the heyday of light carriers like the TCS Victory, thirty pilots had been basically standard. In an age of modern heavy carriers ferrying entire air groups with multiple flight wings, the Vesuvius line of which in particular totaling some 400 in four flight wings standard... thirty left something to be desired. "You’ll be fine." Rayak sighed, his condescending smile back. "Consider it a vacation, and try to stop worrying so much... old timers like us deserve a little R&R, eh?"

"I never asked for a vacation."

"Your shrink would beg the differ." Rayak shook his head, his gaze remaining on Murdoch as he paced behind his office’s desk. "Honestly, Gary... you’re a bonafide Confederation hero; the bold captain of the TCS Frontrunner that survived the Hell In A Handbasket campaign in New Constantinople alone to triumph against the Kilrathi’s fanatical Black Fleet. If that wasn’t enough -- and it is -- you went on to bring the renegade Black Warship to justice during the Cynium conflict. This shouldn’t be news to you."

Murdoch had winced reflexively at the memory. It had been a task he was far from proud of despite the media hooplah he had been given back in April of last year. The Orion and her crew were not traitors -- he’d had the proof right there in his own hands on the Data CD handed to him by the ship’s Major Kirk "Warlord" Picht. Then he’d seen it with his own eyes.

When Murdoch had decided to actually look at the information on the DCD it was, in fact, all the missing information the Frontrunner had downloaded from the Orion in the first place. It was kept well, right up to the date of their renegade status five years previous, kept up until the day before they had captured them. It was all right there, every bit of it! It said some nasty stuff about what Confed did to those people, leaving Murdoch to find it very difficult to believe. He studied that DCD; he went over and over it repeatedly. Murdoch figured, it had to be a mistake of some kind, this couldn’t have possibly happened in their Confederation, not his Confederation! It had to have been a crock, a crock manufactured by traitors... right?

It wasn’t. And guess who was heralded as a "Confederation hero" for bringing those "traitors to humanity" aboard the Orion for justice? If there had been a traitor back then it could only have been Murdoch himself... a traitor for jumping through the High Command’s hoops in bringing them to "justice." He’d never forgiven himself for that. He wouldn’t let himself.

"Don’t remind me," Murdoch had finally responded.

"Well, my point is... you deserve this. Maybe you can even gain a little additional notoriety by attaching your name to the Hades Project while you’re at it. Either way, all this stress you have is bad for your health, and you’ve got an abundance right now."

"Erm, yes, sir."

Rayak. A quirky man, but one that still commanded a certain amount of respect among his subordinates -- he had his 4-star rank to show for that. Seemingly ages ago Murdoch had attended the Service Academy in Houston with him during the man’s senior year. But now... now Rayak was dead, the entire battle group of the TCS Bunker Hill with him in Nephele following in the footsteps of the Saratoga.

It had been just earlier in the day that the Hades’ Intell Office had received the FLASH/burst transmission from the Combined Fleet. Playing back the grim message, a young woman’s face had appeared on the main viewscreen, looking desperate and terrified. "Mayday, mayday, this is TCS Bunker Hill ------ to any friendly craft," the patchy, static-ridden transmission began, "we have been --- ushed by ---- Nephilim ----- and figh ---- forces. We have ------ ers. Don’t forget us. We to --- of the bastards down. Bunker Hill out."

That had been last the transmission the Hill would ever get out.

The loss of the carrier behind them, Admiral Hanton’s Combined Fleet of Union of Border Worlds and Confed Third Fleet battle groups had cut their losses and were already in the process of falling back to Loki, where they’d likely still be subsequently forced back into Nifelheim. 

The line was being held... but for how much longer?

"Damn this... damn this all..."

The momentary display of the Hades’ firepower over with and the memory of his meeting with the late Rayak shaken off, the Commodore fixed his weary gaze back on the floating array of HUD displays projected by his armrest’s Tri-D projector. Everything read in the green, as it always did.

Boring. Repetitive. Superfluous.

The Hades wasn’t the Frontrunner, but she was a good ship with a good crew. And there were familiar faces among her -- there was Lt. Commander Kenyan Tromba, the Hades’ Chief Tactical Officer, Comm Officer Lieutenant JG Charles Grennan, and MCPO Matthew Casper. As far as her Special Ops flyers, there was Captain Leland "Ironclaw" Dentman, Major Katie "Rancid" Zimmerman, and even Colonel Evan "Chaos" Kaiser, the Hades’ wing commander (188th FW). All had requested transfer off the Frontrunner to follow their captain aboard his new command -- High Command hadn’t argued a single one, perhaps wanting the Commodore to feel more at home on his new command.

Missing from the pilot roster were vets Alex "Greco" Talarides, Kyle "Darkstar" Santamauro, and Peter "Guru" Birdsall, each of whom had found homes elsewhere within the shrouded Special Ops machine and had fallen out of contact with Murdoch. A part of Murdoch believed they held him responsible for what had happened to the Orion, but he tried not to dwell on it.

"Power down the weapons systems, Ensign," he spoke at last. "Drop to Code Green."

The Helmsman, a female Lieutenant JG sitting amongst the 1st and 2nd class ensigns manning the conn, shot a questioning glance to the Commodore. "Sir? But the day’s tests haven’t been ful -- "

"Those are my orders, Ensign." Murdoch’s voice’s didn’t waver a decibel. Still, he wouldn’t chastise the young woman any more than necessary -- she was just trying to follow standard operating procedure and he knew it. "Carry them out."

"Yessir."

A glance over his shoulder revealed Pryce, the pouty-faced vice president of Bartok Enterprises, standing beside the equally pouty-faced Finch, an administrator aboard on behalf of Hurston Dynamics. Both men radiated an almost tangible sense of self-importance and arrogance. 

The thin, balding Bartok exec shook his head, curling his lower lip up a notch so as to make clear his distaste for the Commodore’s fervor. "I’d like to remind you we’re behind schedule, Commodore," Pryce spoke, stepping up beside Murdoch’s command chair and scowling. Even his voice was an annoyance, more a squawk than anything else. "We will see this through until the day’s work is completed... one hundred percent."

Finch tipped his head forward and crossed his arms at Murdoch. "My associates and I would concur."

"Understood?"

"Sorry, Mr. Pryce. Mr. Finch." The Commodore nodded respectively at both of the weasely men. "We’re calling it a night."

"Oh really? A delay?" Pryce laid a hand on his hip. "The CEO is expecting me to contact him within the hour. Just what would you have me explain?"

"Yes, do tell," Finch added.

Tamayo Home Defense also incorporated the Vega TCN R&D, the HD banner acting more as a flimsy front for what really went on within the system. Douglas Aerospace, Camelot Industries, Verier Underground, Murphy Labs, McCall Industries, Psaab Engineering... Bartok Enterprises was only the latest in a long line of third parties hired on by Confed’s Armed Forces Committee in the years since the apex of the First Kilrathi War. While it had been their engineers and their engineers only that had built the Hades in drydock at the Krieger Research Facility Starbase, the continued presence of the Bartok and Hurston execs on the cruiser’s shakedown phase was only an allowed courtesy by TCIS -- a courtesy Pryce and Finch had been overstaying for some time now.

"Whatever you damned well please, gentlemen," Murdoch replied. Heads began to turn on the bridge, the senior and junior staff sensing the tension that had been boiling between the Commodore and the Bartok/Hurston execs was at last coming to a head.

Pryce grabbed an armrest of Murdoch’s chair and angrily yanked it around so that the Commodore faced him. He narrowed his eyes, again doing his scowling act. "What did you say, Commodore?"

Murdoch rose from his chair at that point, taking two steps toward Pryce until his face was only inches from the frail man’s. Pryce’s menacing facade visibly dissolved before all who were watching including Finch, the man literally backing away from Murdoch. "Let’s get something straight here and now, Mr. Pryce," the Commodore snarled, his spittle hitting the man. "There’s a chain of command here... a chain of command you’re not and never will be a part of. If you have a concern with my ability to oversee this candy ass operation, then you file it through the proper channels -- I’ve got a ship to run the best way I know how... and that calls for a crew that’s gotten their eight hours in the sack. The next time you question my orders in front of my crew you won’t have to worry about what you’re going to explain to your CEO... you’ll have plenty of time to come up with something on the one-way shuttle ride back." He shifted his glare to Finch. "That goes for you, too."

"Threats." Pryce gave a sniffle, raising his nose. "You threaten me. I was told my execs and I would have the full cooperation of y -- "

"My god, open your eyes -- while we’re moping around blasting asteroids like it’s some kind of video game there’s men and women dying out there, Pryce! Good men and women. Right here, right now we’ve got the ship, the manpower, and the fighters that just might make a difference in the fight... You self-righteous son of a bitch... forgive me if I’m not hopping up and down to play your damned wargames because High Command isn’t letting me or this ship do their part." His stoic-set gaze faltered, and so did his voice. "I hopped through hoops once..." His last days on the Frontrunner, bringing in the Orion... condemning a crew of "traitors" he knew damn well were otherwise... all the guilt and regret dormant in the furthest recesses of his mind broiled up fresh to the surface. "I’ll be god damned before I do it again. Not for you."

Genuinely taken aback by the Commodore’s words, Pryce stood silent for a few moments then, clearly trying to think of something witty to say in response to restore to himself even a portion of his dignity. "Well, then..." Coming up empty, he gave a dismissive grunt, then stalked off to the lift. Finch, equally finding himself at a loss for any kind of comeback, followed suit. 

Commodore Murdoch straightened his Naval uniform with a tug, then settled and slouched back into his chair. 

"Sir?" The voice of the Lieutenant, the Helmsman. 

"Yes, Ensign?" 

"I... I couldn’t agree more with you, sir." The Lieutenant displayed a timid smile at her CO. "I just wanted you to know that, sir."

As the others around her either nodded in agreement or smiled in affirmation of the Lieutenant’s sentiment, Commodore Murdoch returned the grin. "Thank you, Lieutenant Armani," he said. He then leaned back in his chair, releasing a heavy sigh. "And now... for god’s sake, get Third Shift in here and get some sleep. All of you. That’s an order."

"Yessir!" was the general response as the non-essential crewmen began filing toward the lift one by one.

Were he alone, Murdoch would surely be lighting up one of his trademark cigars about now. "After all..." under his breath, his voice hushed to be inaudible to no one but himself, the Commodore whispered bitterly, "Got to get up bright and early to blast those damned asteroids some more... right?"

 

Sol-Central Space Station; Communications Auditorium
In orbit over planet Earth (Sol III)
The Sol System, Terra Quadrant, Sol Sector
2319 Hours (CST)

Terran Confederation President David Quinson watched out of the corner of his eye as the decorated Fleet Admiral Leonard entered from the adjacent corridor, the double doors hissing shut behind him. The man’s movements were quick, as he must have been in a hurry to reach the Assembly Hall the very instant his Type-R shuttle docked in the primary shuttle bay. The dignified man offered only a nod of acknowledgment as he approached the already assembled flag officers of the Admiralty Court and the respective CICINTELs of the TCIS, TCIA, TCIB, and CIAI agencies, immediately asking, "Any word?"

Vice-Admiral Harrison was the one to nod. "You’re just in time, Duke." 

President Quinson waited until Foreign Minister Ford and the last of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were seated in the auditorium-like chamber to give the appropriate nod to his nearby aide. The young woman went to the far wall and activated the holoprojector’s live-feed from planetside in the Hall of the Great Assembly in Washington, D.C.. As Assembly and Armed Forces Committee chairman Senator Taggart, leader of the Federalist majority, Senator Diego, leader of the Populist Party, and the rest of the Senate winked into floating existence above the projector’s dais, the meeting commenced.

"Mr. President," Senator Taggart greeted, nodding his head over the transmission in respect. His Scottish brogue came on conspicuously light for occasions like these.

"Senator. You know, this is arguably the greatest test of my presidency," Quinson began. He came off as informally as he always did, but that was why the citizens of the Confederation seemed to look up to him -- he was a people’s person, an everyman. "Harold Rodham faced his during the Battle of Terra, and was found wanting. He had sorely and irreparably underestimated the enemy. His resignation was the equivalent of self-exile for his action -- or rather inaction -- during the initial armistice and False Peace during the First Kilrathi War. He failed his people; that was his way of atoning for it." The President straightened his dress shirt and tie. "Well, I’d like to see that that’s a mistake never to be made again."

No one missed that shot. The President had bitterly opposed the Senate’s decision to withhold the Inner Worlds Fleets, but he just didn’t have the numbers in the Senate. Senator Gaston Diego’s faction drew its support almost entirely from the Inner Worlds, and too many other Senators had been supporting him, adamant that not even one of the Fleets would be released. Even a compromise plan put forward by Senator Taggart to split off the individual carrier groups from each of the four fleets, had been rejected.

"There is no use going over that ground again, Mr. President," Senator Taggart said quietly. "We have more urgent matters to discuss."

"You refer to the Hades Project?" one of the other senators asked. Their tone of voice indicated they already knew the answer.

Taggart nodded. "Our best short-term hope at this point. Assuming the worst, which is that the Midway doesn’t succeed in shutting the gate and the Aliens break through our line in the Border Worlds, the continuing Hades line and second of the other ten planned megacarriers should serve to bolster our fleets for the time being."

"The Hades line you say... ludicrous," chided Senator Diego. "The funds we’ve sacrificed on your Armed Forces Committee’s Midway Project alone nearly has us bankrupt in the Fiscal Year 2682 budget... and now we’re to bend over backwards for another multi-trillion credit gem for the good of the Armada?"

"With all due respect the matter is moot, Senator," one of the members of the Admiralty Court noted. "The project was approved ten years ago and the funding has already been allocated. This discussion is to make clear the modus operandi of ConFleet in dealing with the Alien threat on the frontier, not debate moneys."

Admiral Leonard cleared his throat. "If I may, I agree with Senator Taggart. We’ve got to think short-term -- the Midway may or may not succeed and the Mistral Sea won’t launch until late March at earliest."

"And what of our normal fleet carriers?" Diego protested. "They’ve always proved reliable in the past -- what’s wrong with them?"

Leonard wasn’t in disagreement -- the Concordia class had been the standard fleet carrier for almost fifty years. "No one doubts the battle worthiness of the Concordia class, Senator. But the simple fact is that these ships are reaching the end of their service lives. Replacing our frontline ships with more Concordia-class ships would cost more than twice as much as building the Midway and Hades vessels." 

"I’m curious, what of the TCS Hades herself?" inquired Senator Taggart of anyone who had the answer.

"The prototype cruiser?" the Admiral tried to clarify.

"Ah, yessir."

"It’s a testbed R&D vessel with a washed up captain as its caretaker," was Admiral Leonard’s concise summation. "What of it?" 

"Well, as you know, Admiral, she’s got a full and able crew at her disposal, a formidable -- if small -- flight wing, two on board Marine companies, and as far as our best indications from TCIS in the Committee say, a fully operational weapons system."

"All the more reason to proceed ahead with and launch the second one for active duty," Leonard affirmed. "As planned."

"But, Admiral..." Taggart spoke, "if we bloody well have a ready and equipped Hades in our ranks right now -- the first -- why no -- "

"We’re working in the interest of the second, Senator," Admiral Leonard cut in insistently. "Forget about the prototype."

The bickering in the room over the matter relented at that point. Soon the conversation drifted into other, less immediate matters, and the topic of the Hades Project was forgotten in the mire of it all.

 

FIN