PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 12 of 62 )
End of the Spiral
Three hours later...
TCS Shrak’har; Warriors Hall
15 Feb 2681/2681.046; 1920 Hours (CST)
Commodore Garrison Murdoch was the last to enter the Hall of Warriors on Catharx’s Shrak’har. He stopped to look around. Rather dark in here, the Commodore made the mental note. Then again so was the rest of that damn Cat’s ship.
Murdoch sniffed noisily. It almost smelt like fresh air in here. That was different from the usual -- Murdoch found -- musty smell that would come from the nutrient gas rich air the Cats preferred. The hall, lit only by torches, had an asymmetric, angular shape and architecture. Its walls were hung with tapestries with murals in-between and on its ceiling. All illustrated Kilrathi warriors and historical dynastic battles. At one end, overlooking the hall was an especially sophisticated tapestry depicting the warrior-poet Xag, though Murdoch didn’t recognize that offhand.
Not that he would give a shit, as he would have put it. On another wall alongside the hall in the background a makeshift bar had been rigged, but the bar was closed. Everyone else already sat at the large triangular table in the part of the hall that was next to the door in which’s framework Murdoch was still standing. All people present gazed upon him. All, except the one whose large and stocky frame stood before the large viewport at the opposite end. Then eyes turned again to study the stocky frame, a Kilrathi. Deliberately slowly, Murdoch made his way towards the last remaining seat other than the Cat’s own.
The Kilrathi looking out of the viewport, his back turned towards the table was savouring the thought of the battle group’s senior officers all anxiously waiting for him. Power that meant. He could feel it running through his veins. In reaction to it his fur raised and when it came back full circle he could not help a flashing of teeth. The Kilrathi sign of victory. Power at last. He had noticed Murdoch’s resistance by purposely coming late, standing in the door frame and then moving deliberately slowly. Catharx would make sure that Murdoch… Glory is the outward measure of the Warrior’s worth, but the knowledge of a duty fulfilled is the one true inward measure. Catharx suddenly remembered. There was just not honor and glory but duty, too. Catharx had a duty. A heritage to fulfill. Times were different, the imperial family was gone, there were not longer in war with the apes, but with an enemy ruthless beyond what they had yet encountered. The humans were allies in that war.
Eventually Catharx turned from the window and slowly walked towards the table. He stopped in front of his chair and scanned the present officers. There were his fleet captains. Closest to him sat his ever-loyal Kal Shintahr Vhrahnek nar Vukar Tag, the proud captain of the Shrak’har. Followed by Commander Andovar Podovsk. The captain of the Murphy-class destroyer TCS Ohlander looked very kil-like, except he was dark haired with a full beard, hairy hands and neck with hair even sticking out from underneath his uniform. Next to him was Commander Tomoyasha Hotei, captain of the cruiser Nagato. Captain Abraham Watterson of the Caernaven patrol frigate, the former BWS Condor, as whose captain Watterson had become quite a notorious and by Catharx’s race a much wanted Border Worlds skipper during the last war with the humans. To Catharx he did not quite seem to be the man of whom he’d been told he was and of what records told. He may have lost his kaga, Catharx understood, as Watterson appeared somewhat shrunk in and remote all the time, a shell of the man he had been told of. His last captain was the equally infamous Commodore Garrison Murdoch, whose ill-famed reputation apparently not only among the Kilrathi preceded him. Murdoch’s shown contempt and disrespect suddenly entertained Catharx. Nourished his enhanced senses. My unworthy inferior, I will teach you, he thought, amused. After the ship captains came the other senior officers. Lt. Commander Susan Anderson as acting head of his BG staff, Shintahr Jak’ra nar Sho’lar, his XO, Lt. Commander Ethan Coliver, member of staff and Senior Intelligence Officer, Colonel Samuel “Sirdar” Richard, Wing Commander of the 71st Tactical Flight Wing and Kal Shintahr Jhathar nar Vukar Tag, Flight Commander of the Shrak’har’s Dakhath and Krahnakh squadrons and CO of Dakhath Squadron.
“Today we will begin to put into motion our new tactic against the Nephilim,” Catharx began with a show of teeth.
“The cruisers Nagato and Hades form the core of battle group Auriga because of their immense firepower. Furthermore they are to act where brute force is needed. Moreover the Hades will have the honorable role of Jak-tu.”
“Schto? What iis dat?” Podovsk spoke up from across the table.
“It will be our…” Catharx thought hard for the way to end the sentence, “our joker. The group’s ace-up-the-sleeve, as you might say, because of her design and features. The Shrak’har, on Echelon Left formation, and the Condor and Ohlander on Echelon Right formation, will be acting on the flanks of the group providing general back-up for any kind of emergency compensation and be acting wherever additional fighter coverage is needed. The flight wing will be organised and grouped as follows. The 71st FW is to be disbanded, its remaining squadrons are absolved into the 188th FW based on board the Hades. The wing commander is going to be Colonel Samuel ‘Sirdar’ Richard.”
Sirdar noticed that he unexpectedly had just been promoted. The 188th’s current WC, Evan “Chaos” Kaiser, had stepped down as a courtesy to him. The handicapped and presently wheelchair-bound ex-Steel Gunner CO and 71st’s current WC. Richard, awaiting stem-cell treatment for his serious spinal injury, knew that. But now his new command was officially announced, together with a promotion. That surgery though would have to wait until CVBG-A pulled into station in the days to come.
Eventually. Hopefully. Whatever. He would fight CVBG-A’s battles as best he could in whatever condition he might happen to find himself in.
“The majority of the squadrons will move aboard the Hades. Its hangar will be modified to harbor the extra fighters; storage areas will be emptied and tailored to accommodate additional pilots. The stock will be transferred to other ships. Stationed on the Hades will be the resident 352nd ‘Dark Brood,’ 109th ‘Steel Gunners,’ 397th ‘Aztecs,’ including one Wasp fighter, 402nd ‘Lancers’ and the VF-14 ‘Talons’ with a total of 34 fighter crafts.
“Unless more hangar space can be allocated on the Hades the 722nd ‘Mosquitoes’ will fly off the destroyer Ohlander. The 114th ‘White Hope,’ currently based on the Condor with their Tigersharks, will remain there instead of the larger Vindicator and B-7 Dauntless bombers of ‘Talons’ squadron, formerly stationed there.” Catharx had been advised of this change by Richard. The B-7s were simply too large to fly practically, but more importantly safely, from the Condor’s rather confined hangar.
“Flagship of Battle Group Auriga... will be the quick-strike cruiser Hades.”
A muttering sprang up around the table as Catharx’s words sank in. Murdoch thought he had misheard -- surely he must have.
This Cat... this bloody Cat... he dares to make my ship his flagship!
Murdoch’s ship, of which and with which he had risked his career and had wanted to necessarily risk so much more. Murdoch was barely able to control himself.
His strike had scored, Catharx could see clearly. Now he would blow his challenger away.
“Executive Officer of Battle Group Auriga will be Commodore Garrison Murdoch.”
A second bewildered murmur arose. A man stirred in his seat on the opposite end of the table. Murdoch. He flushed. He had everyone’s stares fixed upon him. Catharx rejoiced in his triumph. While kili and humans were allies at he moment, his instincts needed to be honed and Murdoch was to be his victim.
Catharx was, after all, just a beast of prey... was he not?
TCS Hades; Flight Wing Rec Room
1932 Hours (CST)
The six survivors amongst what had been an original squadron of sixteen men and women in the 397th SFS “Aztecs,” engaged in a heated poker game, threw down their chips and cards with an intensity that reflected the air hanging above all of the men and women within CVBG-A.
Captain Roger “Chatterbox” Elliot’s gaze danced over the five other surviving Aztecs before finally settling on his squadron commander. “So tell us again, Hishori...” he began, “... because frankly, man, it impresses the holy hell out of all of us.”
A sweat-ridden Major Hishori “Ronin” Nawazaki didn’t even meet his subordinate’s gaze. “What... do you mean?”
Captain Bob “Fatboy” Little grimaced. “C’mon, Major... you know what ’Box is talking about. Y’know... your little adventure to Nephele II about a week ago... how are you dealing with that, man? It sounded like a lot, everything you must have dealt with... we just want to know that... well, you’re dealing with it okay.”
Ronin offered no response, instead choosing to glare at the cards held in a firm death grip in his hands.
“What’s the matter, Hishori,” 1st Lieutenant Torr “Ice” Grael teased his CO, “you feeling a bit squeamish today?”
Ronin very abruptly threw his cards down on the table. Regarding his comrades with only a fleeting glance, he stood and prepared to leave. “I fold!” he declared, storming off.
Major K’tik “Firedrake,” the Firekkan pilot transferred from the now-defunct “Fire Balls” (now XO of the Aztecs), cocked her head to one side in a curious, bird-like manner at the departing Ronin. “Hu-mans and their games...” she spoke, dropping her cards as well. “I am af-raid I will never understand...”
1938 Hours (CST)
“Heh, wonder what the hell crawled up his ass and died? Ha-hah!” a thoroughly intoxicated Major Dan “Bugfix” Burdock remarked with a laugh as he saw Ronin storming away from the Aztecs table. He waved his fifth tall glass of Guinness for emphasis as he spoke, only adding to his unabashed display of inebriation.
“Who can say, really?” 1st Lieutenant Kyra “Moonlight” van de Frost asked, frowning at Burdock’s disrespect for a man that had been through hell in recent times. “He’s been through a lot, you know.”
“And that! Mary Mother and Joseph... what in the fuck is that?” Burdock exclaimed, jabbing a finger at the Talons’ table. There, Major Frederick “Doppler” von Richthofen and the other former Border Worlders amongst the Talons seemed to be engaging in something of a cultural exchange with their Kilrathi counterparts within the Dakhath and Krahnakh squadrons, complete with handshakes, laughter, and friendly shots of Sckviska. Burdock stood up for a moment, shouting to the masses in the rec room, “Would somebody please tell Mr. Doppler over there to get his dick out of the Cats’ asses for like one second? Please! Gods, it’s fucking ridiculous! Am I alone on this?”
With that comment the last of the White Hope Squadron that remained at the table, Moonlight, stood up from the table and walked away in disgust, shaking her head as she went.
Burdock couldn’t be bothered by his sudden solitude at the moment. “Fuck all y’all... I don’t need none of you ingrates... ’prolly none of your asses would even be sucking air if I didn’t pull your asses through everything we been through...”
Burdock was wildly lashing about at everyone and everything that came in front of him. It was only verbal slander for now, but he was prepared to get physical as well. He had...
Now he was there. At the very bottom. He had reached his breaking point. Nothing of what he said he really meant. He just could not help it and help himself. He was not entirely aware of it in his state of drunkenness, but he intentionally felt it. He had been close to where he was now before. Many times. Burdock was about to drown and the phase he was in now was that shortly before one went under water. The phase of raving madness, in which you knew or felt you would drown and where you panicked -- attacking and gripping everything that was in reach. Beyond acting logical you would even clutch at a straw. As if it could somehow -- through a miracle -- pull you up. All sanity and mercy put aside it was the ultimate fight for survival.
On the verge of losing that internal struggle -- Burdock more and more engrossed with wide and panicked eyes -- an unexpected visitor decided to pull up a chair at the White Hopes’ table.
With some effort, Burdock lifted his head to acknowledge Major Paul “Kraut” Hartmann, former White Hope and current XO of the “Steel Gunners” Squadron. The man brought a beer of his own with him.
“Hey, partner... you got another beef with me, fuckwit?” Burdock demanded.
Paul only laughed at his former comrade. “Hello to you, too, buddy. How’re you holding up?” And he pulled him up.
Burdock gave a burp and he clutched at the straw. The miracle happened. His depression and cynicism returning with him. “Just fine. What with the Nephilim hovering around us, Hanton’s genius strategizing she don’t privy us to ’till the last minute, and all these fucking changes goin’ on... it’s a small wonder I’m still sane. You?”
“Not too bad.”
Burdock gulped down half his glass. “How’s our old WC holding up as your CO? ’Ole Natasha cracking the whip on you and your boys’n girls or what...?”
Paul only smiled at his friend and former rival, taking a sip from his own beer. “Hmm...” he began, “remember how you and I always called her a bitch? Well, boy, let me tell you, you and I didn’t even know the half of it...”
1939 Hours (CST)
Major Kurt “Coroner” Powell of the “Mosquitoes” leaned against the bar with an expression that would have made small children soil themselves and turned milk sour instantly. His eyes shifted regularly from aiming stares of seething hatred at the Kilrathi at the Talons’ table and others to jealous glances as Captain Lisa “Nitefall” Alkofer chatted with ’Box over at the Aztecs’ table. He definitely had a crush on her. He could admit that. After his display the other day… he didn’t see how she could be attracted to him. His violent loss of control had scared her. There’d been concern in her eyes, too, but how could they be lovers if she thought of herself as his sister or mother or something?
“Fuck it!” he cursed, suddenly.
“You okay, pal?” The bartender, a rather sultry-dressed lady with multi-colored hair who went by the nickname of “Faith,” looked at him with an expression ranging between wariness and concern. No doubt she was worried that Coroner was about to become… rowdy.
“Give me another, ma’am. And… send a drink to Major Adrian over there, too.” Kurt indicated with a nod the table of the “Lancers” Squadron.
Faith cocked an interested eyebrow. “Anything in particular?”
“Just another of whatever she’s drinking.”
“Right away, sir.”
Kurt watched Major Andressa “Alba” Adrian’s reactions with interest as the drink was taken to her table where she sat with the rest of her squadron. She went from surprise, through annoyance, puzzlement, understanding and then to… was that gratitude or amusement? It didn’t matter either way - she gestured for him to join her.
“Hell, sit down, Kurt,” Andressa ordered as he strolled over, “you don’t buy a girl a drink just for the pleasure of watching her imbibe. What’s on your mind?”
“Just wanted to cheer you up before your scowl broke all the glasses in the room,” Coroner quipped.
“Oh, thank you ever so much! You’re one to talk, anyway. That expression of yours would have given small children and old ladies heart attacks!”
“Can’t help it, it’s those bloody Cats sitting there looking so damn smug…”
“Mmmm… can’t help noticing Nitefall’s getting quite friendly with that Bunker Hill guy, too.”
“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Powell growled.
“Don’t lie to me, Kurt - you’re actually blushing. Aw… still got that crush on her?” Alba teased remorselessly.
“Well!” Coroner pouted petulantly, and Andressa was quite taken by the almost boyish looks with the change of expression from his usual surly moodiness. “Look at her throwing herself at that guy! He’s not even one of us!”
“I know what you mean,” she agreed, “I don’t think I’ve even spoken to those two Bunker Hill pilots yet.”
“Bunker Hill” pilots. “That guy.” They were still outsiders. Despite Coroner’s grudging acceptance when they’d first come on board they hadn’t really been accepted as Valley Forge pilots before the carrier’s untimely demise. Except by Ronin and their surviving squadronmates, to whom they were now firmly “Aztecs.” Coroner and Alba, though, along with the vast majority of other Forge survivors, still hadn’t accepted them. Coroner backing down and accepting Fatboy’s hand when he stood up to him hadn’t been acceptance, it had been Coroner giving him the chance to gain acceptance.
Still, at least as humans, Coroner had given them that chance. The other outsiders in their midst, the Kilrathi, would never be offered that chance. Could not be. Kurt’s brain just wouldn’t work that way. Neural pathways had been hardwired over a lifetime to hate the entire Kilrathi race, and the scars on his chest were an indelible stamp proving it.
And now he hated them more than ever. Not because they had treated the Forge refugees badly -- quite the reverse. Coroner hated them because one had saved his life, and how they were forced to accept the Cats’ hospitality on board their cruiser after the loss of the Valley Forge. Humiliation those “Bloody Cats” seemed to enjoy in rubbing in by being so damn polite all the time. Never said anything you could take as an outright insult, but still left you feeling slighted.
He’d gone out of his way to “make nice” with Jhathar nar Vukar Tag -- but he’d never call a Cat a friend. It made him want to vomit to say the word “ally” in the same breath. Still, what did they say, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer”? Well, he’d keep the bastard close, all right. Close enough to watch him like a hawk, close enough to stick a knife in his back given half a chance. Yes, he’d keep him close -- but he didn’t have to like it.
“Fucking Jhathar!” Coroner cursed out loud. “Fucking Cat. Look at the bastard, laughing at us -- laid low and at their mercy. God, I bet he’s waited a long time hoping he’d see this day.”
“Didn’t he save your life?” she asked, knowing full well the answer.
“Yes, and the bastard won’t let me forget it. He knows I owe him one, and that I resent it, and he enjoys that, which makes me hate him more, which he seems to find amusing. And the way he’s always so damn polite when he’s insulting you, it really gets my fucking goat when he’s laughing because he can insult someone more eloquently! Insults aren’t meant to be eloquent, they’re supposed to be crude and brutal. I’d like to rip his furry fucking face off!”
“I thought you two were getting pally these days?” Alba said with a bit of genuine surprise. The story of the two most unlikely allies working together to try and save the Forge was all over the battle group.
“Hardly!” Coroner retorted caustically, “It’s just a truce. A… a strategic alliance. I hate him and he hates me, but for the moment, ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’.”
“Ah,” Alba nodded, “a marriage of convenience.”
“You could say that. Don’t worry, I’m not sleeping with the enemy though!” Coroner laughed.
“I expect the divorce is going to be messy.”
“The messier the better,” Powell agreed venomously, “A nice 50/50 split -- right down the middle.” And with this he mimed a chopping motion toward the Kilrathi, top to bottom.
“Right down the middle…” Alba looked on as Coroner seemed to drift into his own private world, probably imagining the things he’d like to do to the Kilrathi.
“Sound fair to me,” she agreed.
“I thought so!” He grinned wickedly. “We had an agreement, a truce. But that was to save the Forge. The Valley Forge is gone now, along with most of my squadron and friends.”
“Tell me about it!” Alba cut in, “I’m so sick and tired of seeing my friends, my wingmates, my COs, all dying around me and wondering who the fuck’s next. Feeling so damn helpless to stop it!”
“Exactly.” He paused as they both remembered people they’d never see again. Shaking himself out of his reverie, he remembered the thread of his speech and continued, “So… the reason for the deal is gone. Vaporized along with most of the people we called friends. I reckon that changes things. I still have unfinished business with the Cats. Next time I have the bastard in my sights…”
“Deadly friggin’ serious,” Coroner told her, looking into her eyes as he did so. She shivered involuntarily.
“And why not?” Kurt mused, “Might be the best chance I get. Might be the last chance I get. What are they going to do, court-martial me? We’ll all be dead before that can happen.”
“That’s bloody morbid. Don’t be so fatalistic. We’ve survived this far.”
“It’s not fatalism, it’s realism. Look around you, Andressa. How many of us are left? How long are we going to last? Death comes to us all, sooner or later. I don’t want to die knowing I’d had an opportunity for revenge and passed it up. I mean, come on!” Kurt put his empty glass in front of her, “you can’t tell me the thought of taking this glass and shoving it right into his furry face isn’t appealing?!”
“Well, yes, but - ”
“Go on then! May as well enjoy life while you can. Have some fun!”
“Glassing someone is fun? Jesus, Kurt! Did the Kilrathi take out your heart when they left those scars? You think you’re going to die, and maybe you’re right. You’re probably right, but you want to spend the last free minutes of your life in an act of hatred and violence? That’s your idea of fun?!”
“Got a better idea?” Coroner asked.
“I might have. Maybe we could discuss it over a few quiet drinks in my quarters…”
“Sounds… fun.” Kurt smiled at her. Then she did something she hadn’t done in a long while -- she smiled back.
1955 Hours (CST)
At the far side of the rec room resided the only -- originally -- native squadron of the TCS Hades. The various squadrons of the 188th Flight Wing, many of which officially posted on the variety of warships in CVBG-A from the Shrak’har, Condor, Ohlander, and Nagato (following the recent reorganization), had somehow designated the Hades’ flight wing rec room the main concourse in which they would all collectively gather to mingle and consume absurd amounts of alcohol.
Lt. Colonel Even “Chaos” Kaiser, former WC of the 188th FW and current CO of the 352nd SFS “Dark Brood” Squadron, fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat. Save for Captain Katie “Rancid” Zimmerman and 1st Lieutenant Nikki “Hellbent” Velenis, all of the pilots in his twelve-fighter squad seemed more than content talking about little more than yesterday’s Tri-D episode of GWE Hardcore. He hadn't seen his pilots this worked up since Superbowl DCCXV last month, but the build up to next month’s Galactic Wrestling Entertainment (GWE) WrestleMania DCXCVII was quite another story entirely.
A full twelve pilots, the hardest core flyboys trained and crack-hardened to fly F-109A SFS Vampires, the most advanced starfighters in the entirety of the 188th FW just beside TB-80 Devastators... and in their personal lives the vast lot of them were hardcore professional wrestling fanatics.
“Yeah, that was really fucking something,” Captain “Stone Cold” Patrick Matthews piped from his seat, juggling an ice-cold beer in one hand and a pair of stress balls in the other, “y’know, how Manticore pinned friggin’ Hellbrook... where the fucking bloody hell was the referee? I mean, c’mon, fer christ’s sakes...”
“Fuckin’ A, man!” Captain Dwayne “The Rock” DeVille jeered from his corner of the table. “The way Bryan McMahon came out and gave Manticore the chair... what the hell was that?”
“Exactly,” Captain Andrew “Neo” Modeen, former CO but present XO of the “Dark Brood” said, quietly observing the commotion so far behind his fifth frothy mug of Miller Genuine Draft. “I mean, shit, we’re all grown men and women. We know it’s fake and whatnot, but do they need to go fucking rubbing that shit in our face every fucking match? At least let us have the friggin’ illusion... fuck.”
“Secure that shit, Modeen...” warned Captain Leland “Ironclaw” Dentman, a pilot originally hailing from the infamous TCS Frontrunner, “... ain’t nothing about today’s wrestling is fake... you think these motherfuckers are breaking their necks and backs and shit and disappearing for years because they had family histories of frail bones and not drinking milk?”
Captain Modeen gave a grunt. “I’m not saying that at all, all I’m saying is -- ”
“Look, Modeen, can you remember the last time you saw the Showster?”
“Last week, man.”
Dentman crossed his arms challengingly. “Yes, and until last month, how long had it been?”
Modeen grimaced, insulted that his GWE knowledge would be tested in such a way. “Something like a year and a half, Ironclaw, but I -- ”
“Well, I got news for you, Modeen, The Platinum Man’s lasersaw in the ’79 ‘Hell in a Cell’ match was as real as your goofy-ass face... Showster spent a year and a half in physical therapy after they had to clone his ass a new leg.”
Lt. Colonel Kaiser gave a laugh from the end of the table, taking a sip of his beer. “Look, gentlemen... ladies... please...” Chaos gestured around the expanse of the rec room with a hand. “I know right now we’re all having us some good fun and all, but realize... just look around us. We’re not alone anymore, we’re one squadron among an entire fighter wing’s worth now. We’re not the top of the shit anymore, and even as just your squadron commander now I expect your attitudes to be promptly adjusted as such. If you boys and girls want to isolate yourself from the bunch, that’s all good and fine as your decision... all I want to let you know is that we’ve all got an enemy out there like nothing we’ve ever faced before... and a pilot from the ‘White Hopes’ or ‘Aztecs’ or even the Cats’ ‘Krahnakhs’ bleeds just the same damned color as you do.”
A most uncomfortable silence hung in the air between those amongst the “Dark Brood” Squadron for a few moments.
“Y’know, folks, I think I can sum it up by saying as my callsign’s namesake always used to say in Old Terra’s twenty-first century...” 1st Lieutenant William “Goldberg” Cameron gave his two $.02 from his side of the table as “Rancid” Zimmerman rolled her eyes beside him, “... ‘who’s next???’”
That question, of course, had quite the easy enough answer.
TCS Hades; Bridge
CVBG-A on entry of Loki-Nifelheim Jump Point
2320 Hours (CST)
Commodore Murdoch stood facing the fore viewports of the Hades’ bridge, his gaze piercing through the black blanket of space as the jump node ripped itself open before the collective ships of CVBG-A. Already Battle Group Rapier and the TCS Yorktown had made their jumps ahead of them. Some distance behind Auriga on the aft viewers the 8th Cruiser Squadron could barely be seen, those ships comprising the Combined Fleet’s rearguard.
Wincing under the slight jumpshock, Garrison Murdoch’s thoughts drifted a bit as they tended to often these days, his expectations and fears for what awaited them in this next star system, the system where the Combined Fleet and its allies were set to make their last stand against the Alien invaders.
Nifelheim... I vow to make sure the line is held here, in this next system, no matter what it takes... even if it means taking orders from a Cat, Murdoch thought to himself, looking around at the faces of the men and women on the bridge, his gaze settling on the ones that had come from the Forge. These people... they’ve had enough; seen death and violence firsthand in just a few days the likes of which most men and women would never even see in their entire lifetimes.
As quickly as it had filled the viewports, the blue pseudomotion-mottling of the jumpspace outside eased itself back into its normal black.
“Jump completed,” Lt. Jed Wright announced from the conn.
Murdoch shook his head, thinking only a single word: Goodie.
The next day...
Planet Torgo III; Warburgh (capital city)
The Torgo System, Deneb Quadrant, Epsilon Sector
16th FEB 2681/2681.047; 0730 Hours (CST)
The two men in uniform had met in a public place as arranged, on the 132nd floor of one the megalopolis’ abundant skyscrapers which housed a service station directly adjacent to skyway hook #46. It was well away from the Third Fleet HQ’s planetary compound, where both frequented on routine occasion.
“All right, lay it on me, Artie,” demanded Thomas Robert Weller, Director & CICINTEL of the Terran Intelligence Bureau (TCIB), the younger of the two men who had just arrived by air taxi from Washington. “It better be as important as you indicated. I don’t like surprises and the unnecessity of meeting in public and out of schedule all the more,” he added, ill temperedly.
The elder Arthur Hwang winced, as if surprised his visitor would not be already aware of the circumstances under which their meeting was called for. The bars on his uniform indicated his TCMC rank of major general. “It’s about Operation BTL. Agents N.E. Five and N.E. Six failed to achieve their designated objectives.”
Slight wrinkles grew on the forehead of the younger Weller. “Could you possibly make yourself clear using... I don’t know, maybe a less cryptic form of communication...? Otherwise... tell me, why are we meeting personally? Let’s not mince words, General -- you and I have too much of a history for that... and I give you my personal assurance we are not being monitored at present.”
“The Breaking The Line op, the TCS Valley Forge. Vandermann and Schaefer. To put it bluntly, they fucked up.”
“Oh? By what means?” Weller asked.
“Something went wrong. They lost control. Quite obviously there had been an argument between the two men. In the end they only managed to destroy the carrier. The rest of the battle group remains operational. Sure it is still a blow to them, yet so much more could and should have been achieved. Needless to say, N.E. Zero is, needless to say, quite the unhappy character as a result.”
“What is their excuse?”
“None!” There was a short, uneasy pause after Hwang spoke. “Both are dead!”
“Yes, yes, I have seen the reports, the official and the ‘official’ ones.” Weller made it clear how to understand the Marine general. “Are we sure that they are dead? Have they not just withdrawn and simply haven’t surfaced yet?”
“You should know then that Schaefer was reported to have been shot... by one of the crew, even. Nonetheless, I checked all of our posts nearby their last position. Nowhere did they come back in. Since days they are overdue. The man we had sent to survey firsthand and to cover up where necessary," the General spoke, of course, referring to one JAG DuMonte, "checked the system for any additional emissions or transmissions, any signal of or from them. There was none. Yet he did not find their corpses either. The bridge of the Forge is nothing more but a twisted and molten piece of durasteel.”
There was, only for an instant, a twitch, barely notable, going over the younger man’s ever-stoic face. “Did our man in the field come up with any thread or sort of that could have someone getting… curious about Schaefer and Vandermann or the incident?”
“Nothing more than the usual grapevine bullshit.”
Weller did not look very convinced.
Hwang went on, “Rest assured, our man is sure that nobody really is having a clue. And he made sure that this case was freed from its mysteries, closed and locked. All electronic data from the Forge’s databanks were lost in the destruction respectively by the electro-magnetic impulse of the erupting fusion core. The organization of CVBG-A has furthermore secured the Forge’s last logs and comm back-up protocol from ConFleet’s respective Fourth Fleet comm array at Dakota. That altogether makes it impossible to follow up on any link that might have existed.”
“Well, then. Though... nothing is impossible, I would suppose. As for Vandermann and Schaefer... those are men who knew their duty and have at least put enough doubt on their links to the Movement, it seems. Their purpose is fulfilled, if only to a degree. At any rate… they were never more than pawns in the grand scheme of things.” Weller smiled for a moment. “I think our boy Vandermann figured that much out, didn’t he?”
“Irrelevant -- the Plan continues nonetheless. N.E. Zero ordains it. The Fleet takes a beating, strives for victory, for survival. Things are moving favorably for us. Then one day, maybe soon, they will ask for us again.”
“But what if we win? What will N.E. Zero say, then?”
“Even if they do, it won’t be for long. I know that. We would not even have to interfere at all. Things will eventually come our way... they have to. Logic dictates that. It is inevitable. Completely without our ‘help’.”
“Are you suggesting taking a backseat? Surely we shouldn’t go as far as to say that, should we?”
“Of course not. We are not taking chances. Never again we must allow mankind to go back to the decadence it has enjoyed for too many centuries since the beginning of manned space travel. It would ultimately be put out of existence by just about any other halfway intelligent alien race that will come along.
“We continue to spin the wheel. Another ACCD deep space probe will be launched shortly, I just learned. That will set up a sign and ensures the Movement’s Plan remains persistent.”
The younger man knew only little about the organization’s deep space program. And that was exactly how it had to be. The organization’s completely revised doctrines called for one expert only at any time for any strategic or top-priority operative task. Only that person was on a need to know basis for information pertaining to his objective and restricted to it alone. A brilliant and sophisticated computer-assisted scheme, unmatched yet in the design history of modern organization and planning systems, guaranteed a gathering and distribution of information that was wholly split and widely spread over a network that was imbalanced. Furthermore no one could access any information without the appropriate codes. These codes he would have to earn over a period of time through a catalogue of transactions carried out “in-system.” Even key persons and persons on the top of said organization did not have access to all information. Though they could log on to a larger portion they could not retrieve the information without permanently passing access barriers via alpha-numeric sixteen digit codes.
Because Weller was the one on a need-to-know basis -- plausible deniability for the Director was a necessity if the chips were ever thrown down -- he was not wholly familiar with the purpose and designs of the aforementioned program. Much in the way the Belisarius Group was used as a patsy for Black Lance operations of a decade previous, it was conducted in secret under the cover of the CIAI, the Committee for Interaction with Alien Intelligences, which regularly launched unmanned probes to uncharted jump nodes. These probes contained most sophisticated translation and interpretation equipment. He did know though that ACCD was the organizations abbreviation for Advanced Cyborg Combat Drone. Contrary to the CIAI drones the ACCD’s ones were not unmanned.
If the Major General had known, maybe even he, whose conscience was yet untroubled by the numerous death he could been held responsible for, would have pitied those poor Second Gen -- or “G2”… the second generation of G.E. (also called "N.E." by those deep within the Project) -- primarily idealists who volunteered for the most pervert experiments to implant and/or supplement them various, most of the times not even fully tested, machinery. Most no longer “qualified” afterwards to be “assembled” into the drone. Who ever made it that far, was sure to definitely never make it back once launched into space. Their’s was a one-way trip and they knew that. All they could only hope for was to be the first man to see a new alien species first hand and to do his best to upset it. To intentionally stir a hornet’s nest, so to speak, was what all of those ill-fated, engineered creatures served for.
The Movement, the Plan, the Project -- yes, the Nazareth Project -- once delayed, was now, at long last, to be brought to full fruition. Nothing could stop it now.