PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 11 of 62 )
End of the Spiral
"We shall defend our island,
Whatever the cost may be,
We shall fight on the beaches,
We shall fight on the landing grounds,
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
We shall fight in the hills;
We shall never surrender."
- Winston Churchill
Vakuf Psychiatric Center Hospital
The Sol System, Terra Quadrant, Sol Sector
NOV 20 2755/2755.324; 1845 Hours (CST)
"Right this way, Mr. Wright..."
"Please, I told you, son... call me Jed."
The 101 year-old Vice-Admiral (Ret.) Jediah Wright, escorted by an orderly young enough to be his great-great grandson, made his way down an unremarkable enough hospital corridor. Moans and the sounds of men and women talking to themselves could be heard as they continued to their destination.
"Don't pay our more... outspoken patients any mind, Mr. Wr.... Jed."
"I won't, son, don't you worry."
They continued walking for what seemed like half an hour. Eventually they would come to a stop at the room Jed was to visit, Room #5049, and Jed let go of the orderly's arm. A particularly venomous meow echoed into the corridor from within its walls.
Jed smiled at the orderly, his elderly face wrinkling pleasantly. "You allow the patients to have... pets?"
The orderly smiled back. "We really try not to look at them as pets... we call them therapy."
The orderly gave off a little chuckle. "You ready?"
"Ready as I'm gonna be, son."
"All right, then." With that, the orderly dug into his pocket for the keycard. Sliding it into the door, the young man only waited for the green light to come on before ducking around the corner. "Just holler if she gives you any trouble."
Jed laughed good-naturedly. "Oh, I'm sure I will. Thank you."
Opening the door with a shaky hand, Jed peeked his head meekly into the room. A fat calico cat, startled, retreated onto the bed at the far corner of the room... and to the lap of the very familiar-looking elderly woman laying upon it.
"C'mere, Sascha," cooed the woman on the bed, stroking and petting the frightened cat. "There, there, girl... s'all right."
Jed licked his lips, finding his mouth suddenly going dry on him. There she was, right in front of him, he realized... the penultimate love of his younger years. The old man summoning up the courage to do so, he broke the ensuing silence, "Amy... its good to see you."
Former Captain Amy St. Germain-Wright, honorably discharged from the Space Navy decades ago into psychiatric care, regarded her long lost comrade, friend, and lover with a weak smile that seemingly took nearly all of her strength to muster up. With a hand, in a movement she often did in her younger years, she brushed her waist-length white hair behind her ears as she looked Jed in the eye. "Jed... you came."
"That's right, Amy," Jed said warmly. "Doctors be damned, my heart is still kicking so I thought I might pay you a visit. You... you don't mind, do you?"
"Hi, Jed," she spoke, Amy's gaze suddenly went distant... distant and cold. She seemed to be staring at Jed's hand. "I see you kept the ring."
Jed cleared his throat, uncomfortably putting his hands in his pockets. "Well, I just... I... He decided to change the subject. Do the children still visit you? I do get E-mails every once and again and..."
Amy furrowed her brow, abruptly turning away. She was somewhere else then, in another time and place. W-why... why didn't we stay married, Jed?
Jed's smile all but dissolved as he found himself caught off-guard for the second time already. The short version or the long version? The short of it is... well, you were... dealing with issues I couldn't help you with... and... and it turns out I wanted to become a recluse.
"I remember," Amy remarked, continuing to pet her nervous cat.
"Truth be told... I've been thinking. You know... about... things."
"Me and you, mostly... how things could have gone so wrong. Partly... where things all started to go wrong."
Amy remained quiet for a long moment, her brow furrowing as unpleasant memories seemed to begin stirring in her mind. "And just where did it go wrong, Jed?"
Jed gave a sigh, shifting his gaze for a moment as he searched for the right words. He knew what he wanted to say, what he wanted to ask... just not how he wanted to word it to a woman who had been such a large part of his life for so very long. "Do you remember the Valley Forge?"
Amy winced, hurt, her gaze shifting to the floor. "You think I forgot?"
"I'ts... the days after I find myself thinking about lately. Do you remember the days after the Forge was lost?"
"Yes, you fucking son of a bitch... yes, I remember."
Jed frowned, sighing. About the last thing in the world he wanted to do at this point was get Amy angry. He pressed on nonetheless, "The days... after the Forge. CVBG-A... the Hades... Commodore Murdoch... Catharx.... the days just before Nifelheim... the Movement... you do remember those days, don't you?"
Amy hesitated before responding, burying her face under hands and hair. "How could I forget? The time before the tide... the days of judgment..."
"Yes, Amy. The days of judgment. Holding The Line. You remember now?"
In a slow, sorrowed motion, Amy lifted her head from her hands. Her eyes, as they locked with Jed's, appeared red, tears streaking down her cheeks and trickling onto the cat on her lap. "All of it, Jed. Every fucking minute."
A century before...
Carrier Battle Group Auriga (CVBG-A)
TCS Shrakhar; Engineering
The Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
15th FEB 2681/2681.046; 1329 Hours (CST)
"What's wrong, Jed?"
The soft voice of Lt. Amy St. Germain in his ear startled Lt. Jed Wright awake. Jed found himself suddenly awake, naked with Amy in a tumble of a sweat-soaked sheet that had been haphazardly cast over the floor of the Kilrathi cruisers engineering section. On a Kilrathi warship, after all, places for romantic picnics were few and far between... if not nonexistent. To say nothing of the time.
"Nothing," Jed stammered out. "Nothing at all. Just thinking... you know, dreaming, really."
"Care to let me in on it?"
"Just dreaming... well, come to think of it I guess it would really fall more under the category of nightmare..."
Amy harrumphed in what, to Jed, was just another of her cute, unique little mannerisms. "Oh, spit it out, cowboy."
"Naw, it's okay." Jed tossed off the one blanket haphazardly covering the two off-duty bridge staff officers on the cold engineering floor. He proceeded to search out his Naval uniform. "It's nothing. Really."
"I'm sure it wasn't," Amy said behind a grimace. Taking Jed's lead, she rooted out her own clothing.
The only thing was, Jed knew, it wasn't nothing. It was death... as if Nephilim and Loki and the loss of a flagship thus far hadn't been enough, his nightmare had spoken even more grim tidings for what lay ahead for CVBG-A.
Death and destruction... was there no end to it?
Approaching CVBG-A rendezvous point
1330 Hours (CST)
Murdoch was brooding. The weight of his funk drove him down into his command chair, made the air seem even more leaden and stifling than the recirculated reality of it. His arms had left perfect imprints in the padded armrests. His bridge crew darted worried glances at their captain, so dynamic in the decision to go against orders, now utterly impassive. Murdoch determinedly ignored them.
Is there any point to this? Are doing any damn good? Is this even any kind of real act of rebellion, or am I just playing with myself, an draggin' these kids along for the ride?
Maybe it was the fact that ConFleet hadn't reacted in any way yet to the Hades departure from program (were they war-shorthanded, or did they just not give a shit?); Maybe it was the ease with which all the pieces had fallen into place so far; maybe it was his continuing feelings of guilt and inadequacy stemming from the Orion affair and the resolve he had lacked there (too little too late, eh, Gary? Cant close the barn door after the horses have run out...); maybe it was simply that, at leisure to seriously consider the resources his puny cruiser and fractional fighter wing would be bringing to the Line, Murdoch couldn't conceive of his actions having any real impact at all. Guilt, impotence, mute frustration. His companions for so long now, even the joy of standing bridge-center and throwing off his fetters couldn't, it seemed, dismiss them for good. He still felt impassive, trapped, ineffectual. As he had so often in the past, Gary Murdoch imagined that the cigar in his mouth tasted of ashes and dust. He couldn't even muster the will to spit it out...
The bridge doors hissed open. He didn't bother to turn to see who had arrived.
"I am going to give you one chance to turn this ship around." The innate oiliness and arrogance of the voice were familiar; the urgency in it was new, and therefore interesting. Murdoch stirred slightly.
"Well? Nothing to say for yourself? I -- get your hands off of me, lout! Ill have your job!"
The Commodore glanced up to see the Second Watch's XO, Emiko Tamlyn, escorting someone by the arm around his command chair. Murdoch recognized him as Pryce, the Corporate vice president of Bartok Enterprises, one of the Hades' two contractors. One of the bastards ConFleet sent along to hold my leash...
The man, chest puffed out, leaned aggressively over the hunched Commodore. Murdoch, ignoring the man in favor of his subordinate, raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Tamlyn, I thought we offloaded these jokers back in Torgo..."
"Must've missed this one, Captain, he was hiding -- "
"Resting, Lieutenant, in the head in my quarters, and I assure you, unaware of the subterfuge this... this..." fluttering his hand at Murdoch, "... miscreant... was pulling in my absence. How the rest of you seemingly-sane-looking officers, good careers ahead of you, could be party to this insane bout of childish insubordination and petty vandalism..." Pryce paused to take a breath, looked back up to find a finger pointing squarely between his eyes, connected by an outstretched arm to a suddenly very upright and very attentive looking Murdoch.
Inside, Murdoch was feeling a spreading warmth. The ice clogging his veins was being melted away by a resurgent inner fire. S'one thing for me to question the meaning'n reality of this little mutiny; S' another for this... small civvie to do the same. We'll showim' just how much business we mean...
"Tell you what, son... you get your ass the hell off my bridge and down to the hangar, and I won't even begrudge ya the fighter flight it'll take to get you dropped off back at Third Fleet HQ..."
"Surely you must be joking, Captain. Kindly turn the ship around before I have you clapped in irons."
Belligerent and brainless. Little bastard means to actually stand in my way! This is just what I needed...
Murdoch shrugged, removed the cigar from his mouth, exhaled a Vesuvius-sized cloud of smoke into the Suit's livid face. The fellow was too pissed even to choke or sputter. Instead, he puffed himself up even more. Either he had decided that the Commodore was all bluster and hot air, to be deflated with a pin-prick, or he was just plain stupid. Either way, he wasn't cowed:
"Right, you had your chance, Murdoch -- now you're over. You can kiss whatever was left of your career goodbye." Pryce glanced at the staring bridge techs. "Now is the time for one of you parties-to-treason-to-be who would prefer to avoid a court-martial to step forward and relieve your ex-captain of duty. Once he's in the brig, we shall return Hades to her proper course and purpose and, if you are very nice to me, perhaps even overlook your collective complicity in this little farce..."
Nobody moved. The growled retort that everyone expected would be forthcoming from the Commodore just... never came.
"Well? I'm waiting..."
Only a close observer could have noted the change in Murdoch. He was no longer still due to leaden paralysis; rather he was serene, Zen-infused. All the tension had drained out of him. This twerps intrusion and challenge had made the action real, had snapped Gary out of his glum reverie and into the man of action mode that was far and away his preferred condition. This wasn't a cake walk, some pro forma kiddie version of a mutiny serving no real purpose save as distraction. There was a real obstacle here. And Garrison Murdoch knew how to deal with obstacles, hell he lived for it.
"Somebody had better move in the next five seconds, or you're all going to be exchanging this test flight for a place on the Vega Four Gulags tritanium mining belt..." The Suit's nostrils were flaring, his eyes bulging.
Gary eyed those bulging eyes right back, his own gaze cool, abstracted. He glanced down at his cigar, still cherried where it dangled from his right hand.
You don't waste breath talking to an obstacle -- you batter through the fucker.
Do the boy the favor of waitin' till one for drama's sake?
Two, I'm warning you...
Naaah, screw the pissant.
Calmly, with a philosophic shrug, Murdoch darted his hand forward and ground the cigars glowing tip into Mr. Conamalgamated's right eye.
Murdoch waited a decent, respectful interval, allowing Pryce his allotted bout of squealing, cursing, "OH GOD"ing and clawing at both his face and the pant leg of Murdoch's most reachable from his newly adopted writhing-on-the-floor position. It was only fair. He whiled away the time meeting the gazes of each member of his bridge crew, conveying (he hoped) a satisfactory mixture of sanity, resolve, and command. Then, tired of waiting, he spoke up, time being at a premium:
"Right. Change of plans, boys -- we are going to be carrying on with some testing after all. Seems our benefactor here has volunteered for a field test of the new MedBay. Smygel, Tamlyn, help him down there, would you?"
Even as the crewmen dragged the feebly twitching corporate rep into the lift, and his moans of "... oh Jesus... oh God... oh Jesus..." faded behind the closing bulkhead, Murdoch was settling serenely back into his seat. He gazed curiously at his cigar, placed it experimentally against his lips, took a nice, long draw.
A smile slowly grew.
Smoke tastes GREAT.
Captains Day Cabin
1455 Hours (CST)
"Sir, we are closing in on the point of rendezvous. ETA seven minutes and counting," the familiar friendly voice of Commander Kenyan Tromba cackled over the P.A. system from the bridge. How he wished he would have learned by now that, after everything they had been through together, the man had long ago earned the right to call him "Gary."
"Very good. I-I'm... I'm on my way."
Commodore Murdoch gave off a dismal grunt, coming back to something resembling a state of consciousness with his face in the pile of papers on his desk, his drool on much of them. His brief rest had been an uneasy one but if it was time to get on with things then that was it.
For a fleeting moment -- not the first time in recent history -- Garrison Murdoch found himself confronting unwelcome memoirs. Perhaps his recent encounter with Pryce had a hand in stirring it, a million cascading images and memories flooded over his minds eye... he recalled his past of a year ago, the massive fleet actions, the men and women he'd ordered to their deaths, the engagements he'd partaken against the Kilrathi's monstrous Black Fleet that had arrived out of seemingly nowhere, that damned Nythlar, the warlords, the sacrifices, the destruction of the New Constantinople-Aldebran jump point, the narrow, harrowing escape...
No, he decided resolutely, no! The hell with it. The hell with it all. Not the time; not the place. If I start down that road I've already fucked myself...
The commotion a little over an hour ago now, he had come to his day cabin to drift asleep while studying over endless reports of current and past fleet action provided to him by Rear Admiral Hanton. The paperwork -- figures, statistics, manpower reports - bored him to no end. A sure way to make him nod off, even during this time of Nephilim invasion.
His snooze had indeed been an uneasy one. To think that the battle group's CO he had been assigned to was a Kilrathi was a thing that simply left him... unsettled.
1459 Hours (CST)
A hiss from the turbolift followed by the closing of their doors signaled the arrival of the Commodore.
"So where are they? Do we have anything on our scanners?" Murdoch asked impatiently as he made his way to the command chair.
"Nope. Well, wait I got something just coming into range of our sensors. It's broadcasting a Confed IFF signal."
"So...?" Murdoch interrupted.
"It's the classification of a Kilrathi Fralthi II cruiser?" the young officer announced. One could see the question mark all over his face. He double-checked it. "A Cat cruiser! There is no doubt," he confirmed, yet still did not appear to believe what he saw.
Shortly thereafter he could see that there were more objects that followed. Confed IDs. And Confed classifications this time, too. Three more ships, four including the Kilrathi.
"That's them!" Murdoch confirmed after a short look onto the radar/DSSS6 console.
"Sir, we are receiving a communiqué from the Fralthi," the Comm Officer announced, one Lt. JG Charles Grennan.
Murdoch's face twisted upon this. It could only be his new boss, a Cat. "On the screen, Lieutenant Grennan!" Murdoch was prompt and short to speak.
On the large vidscreen appeared the massive head of a bulky and stern, yet somehow regal Kilrathi. "This is Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak, commanding officer of Battle Group Auriga. Commodore Garrison Murdoch, I assume...?"
"So it is," Murdoch said.
"You and your ship were assigned to the battle group by Rear Admiral Hanton. The battle group does have a great need for that and accepts any reinforcement it can get."
"I should think so, Murdoch replied with a measure of reluctance."
"I take it your vessel must be a new class. We did not find a match in our database. With your permission I will come on board on or around 1600 to inspect your ship and to lay before you the current status of our battle group. For now, keep on hold and once you are alongside the group coordinate your course direct for the Loki-Nifelheim jump point. Our group and the rest of the Combined Fleet should be making the jump at roughly 2330."
Catharx's visage seemed about to turn away before stopping short. "One more thing, Commodore," he added. "Welcome to Battle Group Auriga, Commodore!"
"Your ship must be a new class," Murdoch repeated the Kilrathi's words in a snide mutter to himself a few moments later. Yeah, its state-of-the-art, you furry bastard, and not some piece of junk like what you are sitting your ass on, you bloody Cat. Gods, how I am going to bear this? he groaned, but not too loudly. I wish things were black and white... like they were in the Wars. Us versus Them. Could I just not kill him right away? I just bloody want revenge. Is that so wrong? I need to get rid of him, of those Cats, if I don't want to find myself with a dakar stuck in my back.
Murdoch bore such a strong grudge against the Kilrathi -- a grudge stemming from the atrocities he'd seen committed by the Cat's Black Fleet and back even further than that -- that he found it difficult for him to control his instincts. The idea of serving under a Kilrathi was unthinkable to Murdoch, a man who almost single-handedly spearheaded the resistance against the renegade Black Fleet during the height of the Second Kilrathi War.
Murdoch realized he might have had things he needed to tend to at the moment, perhaps very pressing matters of preparation for the reorganization that awaited he and his crew. At the moment, however, all he wanted was a stiff drink and a fresh cigar.
Shrakhar; Flight Wing
1515 Hours (CST)
"Whatever happens, Hishori, stay within the sign," Voodoo repeated for the 999th time (or so it must have seemed then to Major Nawazaki).
Ronin would heed the warning, referring to the circular sign Mo Voodoo Ayibobo had drawn in the sands of Neph II with his ancestral tachi sword.
The bugs slowly moved in for the kill, seemingly unaffected by Voodoo's address.
"Have you lost your mind? What is to happen? We're going to die, you poor, crazy bastard!" Ronin shrieked. On the edge of it he began to make a mistake. Major Nawazaki accidentally only half-crossed the outer line of the sign with his one foot. Almost immediately he was snatched away by the closest Nephilim, enfolded in its wiry, praying mantis-esque arms.
YOU ARE OURS NOW... YOU BELONG TO US... FEEL US... BECOME US... EMBRACE US... SERVE US... THE ALIGNED PEOPLES... THE MOTHER CREATURE... WE WELCOME YOU...
Major Hishori Ronin Nawazaki awakened in his bunk with a ear-splitting gasp, as if he'd been deprived of air for half an hour.
That dream, he realized, had been a flashback of the last few moments he could consciously remember of what (according to Coliver) Intell was now calling The Nephele II Incident some seven days previously. His... Warrior's Journey, it had been, immediately after Vandermann had greenlit Operation Scour that had authorized the deployment of tactical M/AM warheads on Neph II. He and Voodoo from the White Hopes had been shot down and had been forced to crashland on the surface... where they'd found a pocket of Nephilim activity very much unphased by Op Scour.
As Ronin took a second to wipe the sweat streaking from his brow with his forearm, he realized his hand was clenching something. Opening his shaking fist, he recognized the item he'd been clenching as Voodoo's necklace.
Letting himself fall back down on his mattress for a moment, Ronin's fingers felt at the gap in the necklace where Voodoos thunder stone had been set.
"Rest easy, friend," Ronin spoke, no one human or kil in the barracks at the moment to overhear him. "The battle is not over yet... but the way out of this is through. Orchin Man... Voodoo, all of you... you shall be avenged."
Shrakhar; Kalahn's Private Quarters
1545 Hours (CST)
Catharx sat in front of a screen in his ill-lit private quarters pondering over the situation he found himself in now. I bring to you a new arm to which you may thrash at the enemy, Eldon, he still heard himself saying. Now his takhar was dead and he commanded freely again over this - his - arm he had lend to his only human friend. More so he had his dead brothers arm to apply as well. This arm was hurt and bleeding, yet it was still strong. With both arms together he possessed a mighty force to thrash at the enemy. All it needed was a will.
By the blood oath he had sworn to his son, his hrai and to his human takhar Catharx was committed to give those arms the willpower they needed. With fierce determination, focused on the enemy, Catharx would command all his arms and all his force to strike at the Nephilim. Remorseless. Regardless. Wherever. Whenever.
He turned his attention to the screen again. Lt. Anderson and her staff had done a most difficult job with typical Terran accuracy, as Catharx would regard it, to sort out the mess in the aftermath of the Forges destruction and reorganize the battle group. Her suggestion of its new structure had met his complete approval. Catharx scanned over the recent reports and statistics of CVBG-Auriga. His battle group. So many space fighters lost, so much damage on the capships, so many casualties. Yet there was no time for him to waste on mourning and self-pity. He had to face the reality and how to deal with it and its consequences. Catharx focused on the current passage of the report he had opened.
TCS Shrakhar, Fralthi II-class cruiser
Dakhath ( Deathstroke ) Paktahn / Bloodfang B Mk2 Squadron (6 A/C)
Krahnakh ( Unseen ) Paktahn / Bloodfang B Mk2 Squadron (6 A/C)
397th Aztecs F-108 Panther Squadron (4 A/C)
109th Steel Gunners F/A-105 Tigershark Squadron (6 A/C)
VF-14 Talons Vindicator / B-7 Dauntless Squadron (7 A/C)
+1 F-110 Wasp
Total : 30 A/C
TCS Ohlander, Murphy-class destroyer
402nd Lancers TB-81B Shrike Squadron (4 A/C)
120th Grey F/A-105A Tigershark Squadron (4 A/C)
722nd Mosquitoes F-106 Piranha Squadron (4 A/C)
Total : 12 A/C
TCS Nagato, Plunkett-class heavy artillery cruiser
125th Slayerz F/A-105A Tigershark Squadron (3 A/C)
Total : 3 A/C
TCS Condor, Caernaven-class patrol frigate
114th White Hope F/A-105A Tigershark Squadron (6 A/C)
Total: 6 A/C
That made a total of 51 space fighters. He did not know exactly with how
many fighter crafts altogether BG Auriga started with. Yet it must have
been well more than twelve-eights of it. Having read the Flight Wing
Status Report Catharx knew that he could no longer rely predominately on
the air wing. As the capships had fared far better, the ones that he was
left with, he had to come up with a tactic which would bring out the
latter. Hence his tour of the battle group to thoroughly inspect each
ship and his crew, especially the bridge staff. Most of all he had to
get to know his commanding officers and what to make of them.
His tour of the TCS Nagato had been his most impressive so far. Not only that he was a mighty ship, equipped with twenty-two Dual Laser Turrets, three Triple Heavy Particle Cannons, and his one Triple Heavy Plasma Cannon, bolstered with a general thick armor, state-of-the-art Phase Shields and with a maximum speed of -- for his size -- remarkable 240 KPS; the quiet and somewhat pale looking Commander Tomoyasha Hotei also ran a tight regime. Much to his liking. Of all ships he had visited it also had the highest score of combat strength. A remarkable 63%, given to what this ships went through and without ship dock repairs. All because Hotei did not allow her crew nor herself any rest before the maximum possible that could be done about her ship was carried out. Eight turreted lasers were gone for good. Freshly promoted Lt. JG Fukikoshi, of defense, who also supervised the repair troops had ensured Catharx that three other would be operational in less than two days. Also that one Triple Heavy Particle Cannons that was taken off the defense grid because of a malfunction to the guns AI aim-point module due to heavy bombardment from their last engagement would be on-line again within two-eights of hours.
Catharx went on to analyze the status of the battle group.
Naktarg-class Shuttle, on course to the TCS
1555 Hours (CST)
Catharx brooded, an almost palpable aura of dark anger seething around him. In the cockpit of the Naktarg-class shuttle the two kil pilots were silent but for essential communications, conversing in hushed growls, fearful of disturbing him.
Who was this man that had been thrust upon him by Erin Hanton? Was he sent to spy on him? Didn't she trust a Kilrathi to command one of her battle groups? No, it didn't seem to fit her style, and besides, she had more pressing concerns. She wouldn't send a powerful warship like the Hades to nursemaid him if it was needed elsewhere.
It seemed such an incredible coincidence though that this warship had arrived exactly when needed most. He, they, needed the Hades, certainly, but what about the man that commanded him? The man who had brought this good fortune to him?
What did the humans say? Never look a gift horse in the mouth? (Why, would it bite?) Or maybe, Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. That proverb also alluded to a gift horse as well, didn't it? His takhar Eldon had told him that story. A wooden horse as a gift to worthy foes. Perhaps if the Trojans had looked that gift horse in the mouth they would have seen the Greek commandos waiting to kill them in their sleep!
So who was this Garrison Murdoch? A man of many inner contradictions, Catharx mused. A warrior (previously) of great stature among his own people, and of notorious renown even among the Kilrathi, he should be expected to abide by the rules of honor and obligation. Yet here he was insulting the authority and flouting the orders of those people (rightly or wrongly) who were lawfully appointed above him.
Murdoch had sworn an oath when he entered Confederation military service. Sworn, upon his honor and his life, to obey those men and orders. By ignoring orders he had forfeited both.
Or at least, he would have, had he served in the Kilrathi Navy, not the Confederation one. Summary execution should have been his lot. Why bother with a court-martial when the man was obviously guilty? The human was an oathbreaker, worse than a coward (that, Catharx admitted, he certainly was not), yet he walked free and demanded to be treated as an equal! More than an equal in fact; Catharx's aides informed him that Murdoch had demanded Hanton turn command of Carrier Battle Group Auriga over to him. Turn over command because, and Catharx bristled, growling aloud at this, causing the co-pilot to peer nervously over his shoulder at him, because Those damn Cats cannot be trusted!
Could not be trusted? How dare that hairless monkey oathbreaker accuse a Kilrathi warrior of untrustworthiness? He was the betrayer of trust, not Catharx!
Well, like it or not, rightly or wrongly, Catharx was now the officer lawfully placed above Murdoch in the chain of command. He would learn to obey orders, or answer to the contrary at his peril.
The shuttle turned onto its final approach and touched down on the Hades flight deck. The airlock opened with a hiss to reveal a Marine honor guard. Catharx was piped aboard with the traditional tin whistles. All seemed in order, except for one glaring omission: Commodore Garrison Murdoch himself was absent. It was common courtesy to meet another ships commanding officer or anyone of equal rank, but to refuse to meet your new commanding officer coming aboard was tantamount to a slap in the face.
Without waiting for the Marine officer to welcome him aboard Catharx sharply commanded, "Take me to Murdoch!"
Theirs would not be a friendly meeting.
TCS Hades; Bridge
1604 Hours (CST)
The door opened and Catharx burst forth onto the Hades bridge, his long, purposeful strides covering the gap to Murdoch uncomfortably quickly for the Terran's liking. Trailing in the wake of the Kilrathi's swishing cloak was 1st Lieutenant Nancy Haddaway, her quick march struggling to keep up with the Cat's swift pace.
Coming to attention as she caught up, she broke the tense silence that had descended on the bridge as they stared at each other. "Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag, Commodore," she announced slightly breathlessly, tactfully ignoring Catharx's breach of protocol.
Murdoch broke eye contact first to acknowledge the Marine. "Thank you, Lieutenant. Dis-missed!"
Sir! Haddaway executed a snappy salute which Murdoch casually returned, followed it with a sharp about face, and marched from the bridge. Murdoch continued to watch her receding form, and without looking back at the Kilrathi said, "A fine body of men, wouldn't you say?"
This remark caused Catharx a brief moment of confusion before he realized the Commodore was not making a grammatically incorrect reference to the curvaceous body of the retreating Lt. (though Murdoch did seem to be paying rather more attention to her taut buttocks than seemed strictly necessary) but to the Marines aboard the vessel in general.
Catharx had spoken standard Terran for many years and considered himself fluent, but was still occasionally caught out by such illogical phrases. Catharx was still contemplating a suitable reply when Garrison pre-empted him. Murdoch seemed to have taken the Kilrathis silence for hostility -- which wasn't far from the truth.
"You don't agree? The 117th is a very well turned-out unit, I feel. Was your honor guard not satisfactory?"
Catharx growled, his coarse voice thick with disapproval, "It seemed more like a prisoner escort detail than a guard of honor! I had expected you would be there to welcome me aboard personally."
"I do apologize... I'm afraid I was unavoidably detained."
Oh? How so? demanded the Cat.
"Lets just say I've been rather busy going over the details of those hulks in your flotilla."
"Hulks...?" Catharx bristled.
"The ships you have left have been rather badly banged about, haven't they? And that Fralthi of yours... well, suffice to say it has seen better days. Hanton wasn't kidding when she said the Hades was badly needed here, frankly."
"Shrakhar bears his battle scars with pride! Those hulks have not been sat idle whilst others fought and died protecting them! They have fought honorably in hard battles."
"The Hades has hardly sat idle -- we have been preparing for war."
"Preparing. Yes, so I see. Catharx cast his slit-eyed gaze over the bridge. Very commendable. Everything squared away, ship-shape, shiny and Bristol Fashion, being in all respects ready for Space."
Murdoch squared his shoulders and looked Catharx in his felinoid eyes. "The newest and one of the most capable ships in the fleet."
"This ship isnt in the Fleet, though, is it? You weren't preparing for war at all, were you? Did you receive orders to come here?"
"No, but a warrior has a duty to fight -- "
Catharx angrily cut him off, "A warrior has a duty to follow orders!" The Kilrathi snarled, drawing looks of surprise, fear, anger and hatred from the Hades bridge crew. Much as he would have liked to give Murdoch the public dressing-down Catharx felt he deserved, the Kilrathi realized it would be counter productive. It would only draw resentment and animosity from the ships crew who were loyal to this man Murdoch. That could only impair their efficiency and the efficiency of the battle group.
"Would you like to show me the rest of the ship, Commodore, or are you too busy?" Phrased as a polite suggestion, there could be no mistaking it was an order.
Murdoch regarded his Kilrathi commander with a bittersweet grin ever so briefly. "Yes, I think that's a good idea. Mr. Tromba, you have the conn."
As soon as the door to the bridge had closed behind them Catharx turned savagely on Murdoch. In Kilrathi society, Terran, he rasped, failure to show the proper respect to one's superiors would result in a swift deat. Failure to follow orders would result in a slow and painful one.
"Since you are only a human, I will allow you the luxury of this mistake and the benefit of the doubt due to your undoubted ignorance, but I warn you: Do not let it happen again!"
Now Murdoch was amused. "Or what? Are you threatening me?"
"Kili do not make threats. We make oaths. And we keep them."
"I've heard that before... and from far better men than you!"
Catharx raised his powerful paw-like hand, claws extended, "Do not push me, hairless ape!"
"Don't you push me!" At that, Murdoch jabbed his finger hard into the Kilrathi's furry chest, undaunted and furthermore unimpressed by Catharx's bravado. "You don't scare me, furry. You need this ship, which means you need me, because without me you don't have the Hades or the men and women in uniform I bring with me aboard it. They put their lives and their careers on the line for me. Not for the opportunity of a glorious death in battle, or to defeat an implacable foe, or even to defend their homes and their families -- they came because of loyalty.
"Let's be serious here," he told the Cat, "you aren't going to kill me. Not even a damn Cat would be stupid enough to think he could get away with that, so how are you going to threaten me with what I have waiting for me when we get back?"
Catharx's claws retracted into their sheaths silently and he slowly lowered his massive hand, clenching it slowly into a fist. "What will they do to you when you return to Terra?"
"Should we survive, you mean?" Murdoch shrugged, not with his shoulders, but with his expressive mouth. "If you must know, they'll court-martial me."
"And then?" Catharx persisted.
"I'm guilty as hell! It will depend on how the war goes. It looks bad when you execute your triumphant war-heroes. If we lose, they'll hang me. If we win - I don't really know."
"Do not concern yourself with the possibility of failure, Murdoch. We dare not return except in triumph."
"Victory or Death?"
Catharx twinged, perhaps offended. "Of course! Is there any other way?"
Objectively, Murdoch considered what they were up against and couldn't help but agree. "I suppose not."
"We are going to have to work together, Catharx," he announced after a short, tense silence. He took in a deep breath, a great deal of tension almost visibly being lifted from the room as he exhaled. "It will be to everyone's benefit if we can do this without killing each other or quarrelling. At least... not in public."
Murdoch had no problem with that. "Agreed."
"Good. Then perhaps we can embark on the promised tour of this vessel now."
"Why not? If you'd like to follow me, sir..."
"I'd be only too happy," Catharx replied. So, the first battle is over. But who was the victor? Running the conversation through in his mind again, Catharx was no surer. Perhaps I have underestimated this man. I will not make the same mistake again.