PHASE II : THE TYR ARC ( 27 of 28 )

: Bugbusters

"Lay down the axe; fling by the spade;
Leave in its track the toiling plough;
The rifle and the bayonet-blade
For arms like yours were fitter now;
And let the hands that ply the pen
Quit the light task, and learn to wield
The horseman’s crooked brand, and rein
The charger on the battle-field."

- Bryant

Who ya gonna call?
 

VALLEY FORGE BATTLE GROUP

114TH WHITE HOPES (SKY RAIDER WING)

F/A-105A Tigershark 104 (Sky Raider 2)
Patrol inbound leg, Nav 4
The Tyr System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 6 2681/2681.037; 0044 Hours (CST)

“Skies are reading clear. Return to Falcon Crest via Nav Five. Kraut out."

Lieutenant Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto was preparing to switch to her F/A-105A Tigershark’s autopilot as the voice of the 1st Lt. came over the command channel of the Sky Raider element of the 114th "White Hope" squadron.

"Dead wrong!" "Django" cut in sharply, startling Lt. Pinto.

Lollapalooza winced automatically. 2nd Lieutenant Fernando Garcia Casagrande, callsign "Django," was an unpleasant guy. To her he had the characteristics, if not the charisma, of a dark, ruthless killer. She was not alone with her opinion. Very little was known about his background, but he was certainly someone a pilot wouldn’t wish to have as an opponent. Whenever he said something, no matter what he said, it always ended up sounding impolite, if not contemptuous. He was a wingman one would hardly trust, though he had never been reported to have let anyone down. Funny thing was, if anyone did get help from him they would tend to be afraid of thanking him because of his blunt nature.

"Bandits. I count one... two... four, six bogies inbound," "Django" reported icily. "Great, man. That’s just great."

"Roger," "Kraut" Hartmann replied. "I’m getting within range of targets. Computer lists them as Morays and... Mantas. Kraut to Sky Raiders. Break and attack!"

Sky Raider Wing split into smaller two two-ship elements which dove toward the intruders. The Manta heavy fighters—"Lollapalooza" counted three—immediately broke away. She stayed tight to Kraut’s left who picked up one of the Mantas. A Moray medium fighter would have been an easier target, but that was Kraut. Instead of pursuing an easy kill he had chosen the Manta, for it possessed massive firepower which usually made it more dangerous than a Moray. The Manta opened up fire and Kraut followed with lasers shortly after. On his mark Lollapalooza sheered off and did a 180 degree spin back. As her Tigershark came around she noted the Manta, which had overshot them, was next to her in an upper-left position. She closed in on it. Parallel to her, Kraut who had done an up-right turn, was closing in from above. Both cut loose with full guns virtually at the same time. The Manta’s rear shield began flickering wildly until it overloaded and the cannon fire ate itself into the fighter’s armor. In her aft camera VDU, Lollapalooza could see the enemy’s aft section glowing brightly, changing from a translucent orange into a red haze.

"The heat is on, mother bitch!" she shouted while arming a heat-seeker. The Manta tried to shake off its two pursuers. Too late. The heat-seeker locked on and went off.

"Fox one!" Kraut, too, had fired a missile.

The first missile smashed right into the debris-loosing rear of the Manta. The fighter began to spin in space on an erratic axis, shattered by a chain of secondary explosions.

"I go into the blackness!" rasped the insectoid-toned voice of the ill-fated Nephilim inside the Manta.

The second missile bored into the top of the fighter. This second hit caused the fighter’s hull to collapse completely. Accompanied with a gleeful "Boom!" shouted by Lollapalooza, the Manta finally exploded in an incandescent, great ball of fire.

Both Tigersharks passed the quickly vanishing fireball, each doing a victory roll as they dove outward.

"Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Don’t want you in my room. Let’s keep killing bugs together from now until for-ev-er..." "2Pack" was singing melodically. "Whoohjuuu! Cool! That’s almost like in the motherfuckin’ sim! Boom! Boom! Boom! I want a double boom! Burn, ya wee bastiches! Be-atch!" He had taken out two of the Morays in minimum time. Had been after them. While they both were flying zig-zag in front of him he had needed just a couple of seconds to figure out their pattern. He then had shot them down with full guns like two little rabbits. "2Pack" rarely used missiles. He was a brilliant marksman and when everyone was blank on missiles he had not even fired one. "2Pack," in fact, had a keen eye for the deflection angle of a shot.

"No, that’s better than the sim. This shit is real!" Django cued in. "And it’s getting even better. There are more cucaracha-lookin’ insectos coming in!"

"Fuckin’ A, man." 2Pack grinned in his cockpit. "Let’s just keep it cool, Garcia. Okay?"

"Si."

Just like one of those insane, fanatic buffalo hunters during Earth’s ancient Wild West times who would shoot buffaloes and every now and then an Indian just for fun, 2Pack thought instantly. He had seen an old, so-called "Western" movie about two friends, buffalo hunters. One had fallen into a real blood rush when killing the animals. Sick, really sick. 2Pack shivered intuitively. Django would say things like that without any apparent emotion at all. 2Pack was not sure how this "getting better" was meant. Was it for real or just said sarcastically? Despite his own euphoric claim, he knew that what they were doing here was not a pastime. He had serious doubts whether Django was of the same opinion.

"Reinforcements are on their way. ETA in another five minutes. Everyone stays on top of the situation. Do not let yourself get dragged into something." Kraut was trying to cool off some heads. He for one was perfectly mastering the situation. One could tell from his behavior in combat as in the way he would act on the comm -- calm and superior. Furthermore, Kraut, being German by ancestry, was not someone who would allow himself to get very emotional at all. He embodied the stereotyped idea of a "typical German": punctual, disciplined, self-controlled, intelligent, but somewhat dull, hard-working, ambitious and very efficient. And so he really was. No wonder that this stereotype had survived all the centuries in the peoples’ heads. 

Kraut was also a specially gifted fighter pilot. He had picked up the lost family tradition of being a fighter pilot. Erich Hartmann, one of his ancestors in the early 20th century with 352 confirmed kills on 800 sorties, had been one of the best fighter aces ever before the Yan, Pilgrim, and Kilrathi wars. 1st Lieutenant Paul "Kraut" Hartmann, being a pilot with an excellent record, just wanted to follow his famous forefather. To his regret he had not seen any real war yet, just three pirate clashes in which he gained a comparatively paltry nine kills. Though his "by-the-book" flying was not as inspiring as, for example, 2Pack, he reached performance and efficiency only barely matched by others of his rank.

 

109TH STEEL GUNNERS (Backup Force Wing)

F/A-105A Tigershark 001 (Backup Force Lead)
ETA to Nav 4: 5 minutes
0054 Hours (CST)

"Stay close, folks. Maximum burn. Get every ounce of juice out of it or the White Hopes will have the party all alone. Sure, we don’t want that happen," Lt. Colonel Samuel "Sirdar" Richard urged his pilots.

"Uh, yeah. I feel my maternal instinct rising as we speak. Hope my babies are still well and playing with those precious little bugs," Christia "Feuerhexe" Weidlich joked, high-spirited.

"Only time will tell as we cannot do anything else for them right now," "Wise Guy" added dryly.

"But we shall have no mercy on them and a storm of fire will consume forthwith and from that moment on any of them for they have dared to put a hand on a man of the glorious carrier that the TCS Valley Forge is!"

"Amen on that one!" Feuerhexe completed what sounded like a mock-prayer to her.

The four Tigersharks from the 109th "Steel Gunners" squadron then fell into silence again. 

3 minutes before estimated arrival...

 

F/A-105A Tigershark 103 (Sky Raider Lead)
Nav 4
0056 Hours (CST)

"Where’ve you gone, Lollapalooza?" Lt. Paul Hartmann asked, cueing the wing’s tactical main frequency. He had been distracted momentarily by a Moray that had stuck on his six. He only got rid of it through a series of evasive maneuvers.

"Could use a hand," Lollapalooza answered tersely.

What? Lollapalooza asking for help? Hartmann had never known the rather reserved woman to ask anyone for help. She was, for the most part, an angel, but she had too much pride, one of the many things he’d come to admire about her since they met upon joining "White Hope" Squadron.

Yes, she has too much pride, he thought to himself. That meant she must really be in trouble.

"I got two on my tail that I can’t... quite... seem to shake off."

"I see it," Hartmann replied. "Hold on, girl, I’m coming!"

The three fighters passed his lower sight. Kraut dived in, trying to maneuver himself into a good position for firing at Lollapalooza’s followers. It was quite a tricky thing as the Nephilim fighters, two Morays, followed "Lollapalooza" Pinto’s zig-zag movements. Even more critical was shooting, as he did not want to hit Pinto’s ship.

I hate this rock’n roll shit, he thought. He meant the varying between shake and roll tactics while closing on a target which is normally termed "shake, rattle and roll."

"Shall I play the bait for your hook?" Lollapalooza asked.

"I was just about to ask you that, Isabella," Hartmann replied, a tight grin on his face.

Lollapalooza gave a laugh, and Hartmann could imagine her giving her usual grimace. "You crafty bastard. Always could read your mind."

"That’s right."

Without question, Lollapalooza knew what to do before he spoke again.

"On my mark you will hold course," Kraut explained. "On my second you will do an upward kickstop and light the ’burners." This way he sought to benefit from the 15 rad/sec higher pitch rate the ’Shark got compared to the Morays. Given that the values of the Morays as they knew them were correct.

"Anything you say, Kraut."

Hartmann hit the ’burners and closed on the target bringing his fighter roughly in line with it. When he was still at an angle about 30 degrees off the line, as he did not want to make it too obvious for the Nephilim that he was after, he gave Lieutenant Pinto the mark to hold course. Kraut switched through his weapon ordnance selecting a Javelin heat-seeker again. It was the fastest intelligent missile the Tigershark got with a short lock time and it dealt a pretty decent amount of damage. Moreover, the heat-seeker was the most agile of all Confed missiles with a max yaw of 160 DPS, max pitch of 140 DPS, and acceleration of 3,200 KPS. An oldie but a goody.

Yeah, Kraut really loved it.

"That should do." He smiled. Almost affectionately, he gently touched the fire button when the heat-seeker locked. 3,250 klicks behind the Nephilim fighter. In a little more than a second it would be no more. Gone. Vaporized. But it did not matter. He was told they were facing presumably up to 3,000... and that was just the number of their fighters.

"Fox one!"

This was the cue for Lollapalooza to pull the stick had toward her lap. Looking over her head out of the cockpit she saw one of her pursuers being torn apart, the second coming under fire soon after.

Too late. The second Moray got off an ImRec missile.

"Oh god..." Lt. Pinto’s voice was faint. "Kraut!"

"Isabella, eject!"

Even as she dropped chaff and began to pull up, 1st Lieutenant Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto felt the impact of the projectile slam through her weakened aft shields and into her already-damaged hull, then the searing shockwave of the exploding second Moray sweep over her fighter.

"Eject!"

1st Lieutenant Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto’s fighter went up in a blast not too unlike the Moray’s.

"Isabella... for God’s sake..."

1st Lieutenant Hartmann reached a hand futilely at the explosion of Pinto’s fighter after finishing off her killer. He let his fighter coast for a while, clenching his jaw and gritting his teeth as he tried to tell himself it was not the time to mourn.

Not the time to mourn...

"Tattaaa! The cavalry is here!" Lt. Col. "Sirdar," CO of the "Steel Gunners," announced the arrival of his wing of Tigersharks on the comm. "Miss anything?"

Hartmann said nothing.

"Have you tried to mess with your toys, kiddies?" Feuerhexe joined in. "But... hey, where are all your toys? I’m only seein’ four Morays and... hey, what’re these...?"

"As I see it our young fellows have already just about cleaned up here." To Feuerhexe, "Wise Guy" continued, "As for your question, I suppose you wanted to form one, my computer identifies them as Skates. As I furthermore recall, three of them can somehow link up to form a swarm. Whatever this will mean... I think we are going to find out now."

"Anyway, folks, this all looks pretty damned suspicious to me. Like they try to keep us away from something. As we cannot wander around freely right now to explore this sector I call for SWACS," Sirdar addressed all fighters via the major tactical channel, speaking of the Spaceborne Warning And Control Ships. Of its ten shuttles, utility craft, and Marine LCs, the Forge had three of the small Seahawk-class craft.

"Ah, one more thing: I will assume command. The Sky Raider Wing will protect the SWACS. Kraut, I think you should follow this nav route here." With that, Sirdar transferred the route he had just plotted to Hartmann. "Feel free to tailor it as the tactical situation may advise. You meet the SWACS at Nav 1; we will clean up the rest here. So get busy."

"You heard the man, ladies!" came the voice of Captain Burdock, the CO of Hartmann’s squadron. "Now!"

Lieutenant Hartmann received the orders and nodded solemnly, ready but far from eager to return to the fighting.

The fighting... the killing... the death.

"Isabella..." Hartmann felt himself choke up in his cockpit, lowering his head in sorrow. "Damn it..."

Not the time, he reminded himself. Not the time.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
0120 Hours (CST)

Captain Vandermann looked around the bridge.

The crew was working like a well-tuned machine now. With all the incoming data from the hit and run attacks by the corvette and destroyer squadrons, the bridge crew had its hands full of information to sort through and take out what would be information needed for the Forge’s operations. He looked at each of them at their stations, knowing all of their names by heart now, and also a good portion of the crew’s. On the run over from Canewdon, he had become much more open with the crew. He had accepted them, and in return they now accepted him. After the Forge’s opening action in Tyr two days ago, he had granted more liberties to the pilots and crew. They had accepted his loosening of the rules with open arms. He had found that in his few short weeks on board that he had gotten back that old feeling, the feeling of commanding a ship, where any single member of the crew would lay down their life for any other member. He knew he would die for any one of them, and they knew that. It filled him with a certain pride, knowing that he had made it through the first few weeks of his command, and not turned into a captain on a high horse. He felt that he could safely call the Forge his "home" now.

As he sat in the command chair, he thought back ten years to Project Goliath, the FRLN’s (Free Republic of the Landreich Navy) operation to refit the kilometer-long KIS Karga, one of the newest Kilrathi supercarriers, Bhantkara-class, heavily damaged in a meager raiding attempt on the Landreich. On board the KIS Karga (later renamed by Admiral Tolwyn the FRLS Mjollnir) he felt that he was at home, in the Landreich Navy, no one cared if one was an admiral or a cadet, all they cared about was if you could be relied upon or not. Eldon had grown very attached to several members of the Mjollnir’s crew before he left to join the now-defunct Strategic Readiness Agency, including his trusted friend Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak. A member of the Karga’s Cadre, he had been evacuated before the ship’s shields failed in the Vaku System when confronting the TCS Juneau and Dover on 2669.315, fatal doses of radiation from Vaku’s anomalous brown dwarf threatening to kill everyone inside before Kalralahr Largka Cakg dai Nokhtak called for the joint Zu’kara.

Catharx had warned him about the coming of the Nephilim. It seemed they had made strikes into the Vukar Tag Sector even before they had made their incursion into Confederation space.

Eldon’s train of thought was quickly broken by the voice of the pilot of one of the two SWACS, Dulos One, coming in over the bridge’s comm.

"I repeat, we have six large contacts," the pilot reported, "Looks like five Barracuda-class corvettes and one Orca-class destroyer. We can count about eight fighters... the Tigersharks appear to have diverted most of its CAP."

"Very well -- Lt. St. Germain, alert the command and flight ops crew to report to the conference room ASAP," the Captain said as he got out of the command chair and started for the lift.

"Lt. Anderson, transfer all the data on this enemy contact to the conference room as it comes in, and alert our escorts of the situation," he finished. He then stepped into the lift, heading to the conference room.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Conference Room
0132 Hours (CST)

"Ladies and gentlemen, our SWACS has picked up a small corvette squadron 930,000 klicks away," Colonel Natasha Trebek, the 71st FW’s wing commander, began, her sharp Russian accent lighter than usual. "They appear to be sweeping the area, as if they are looking for another one of our hit and run strike groups. They seem unaware of the Forge’s presence, and are heading towards the main fleet staging area. According to the latest reports, the Valkyries are just getting the transports ready to move out, and these capships could -- literally -- torpedo the whole evacuation.

"Therefore, I calculated a strike plan. In one hour the Shrikes, under Major Bittencourt, will take off with coverage from Major Cardoso and his F-108A Panthers. They will fly to Nav Anton 400,000 klicks from the enemy group, then do a 600,000 klick run to Nav Bruno behind the group where they will attempt to destroy as many of those ’vettes and damage the destroyer as much as possible. Our priority, however, is to nail the ’vettes first before we go after that Orca. While the strike is going on, the two Tigershark squads will engage the CAP of the Orca from the front, thereby leaving the rear totally open to our strike." Colonel Trebek then sat down at her place around the table.

"Excellent, Colonel," Vandermann spoke. "I’m ordering two of our three Murphy-class destroyers, the Forstchen and Stasheff, to move up 350,000 klicks so that, if necessary, we can send them in to help finish off the Orca or any remaining corvettes." He stood up and signaled that the briefing was now over and they were to report back to their stations where section briefings would take place. He looked around the room at the officers, all looking ready. Again Vandermann prepared to lead the Forge’s battle group into battle, but now he was sure of his people’s capabilities and was proud to let them known it.

They were a good bunch. A pleasure to serve with and command. Vandermann walked out of the room last falling in next to Lt. Commander Schaefer of Tactical, his executive officer. A quick exchange of words between the two resulted in Nate breaking out laughing and patting the Captain on the back. Such an event three weeks ago would have been denied as every happening, as the crew thought Vandermann to be an uptight prick, but now he was their leader... and lead them he would.

Sure, Vandermann was, of all on the Valley Forge but one. Himself.

The Captain’s hand went to his breast pocket soon after, where he felt the vial of pills tucked away for the moment. He shook it. Vandermann winced and sighed as his fear was confirmed... there were no more pills left.

"You, um, okay, Captain?" Lt. Amy St. Germain asked from her communications console.

Captain Vandermann turned slowly, then forced a smile for the perky young lieutenant and the others on the bridge that were doubtless wondering the same thing. He scorned himself for letting the crew see any flaw in their captain. For all of them he had to be strong, he had to be flawless, indomitable; he had to be the very icon of vigor and...

"I’m fine, Lieutenant," he answered, throwing as much authority into his voice as possible. "Thank you for asking."

Lieutenants Erin Ishii and Amy St. Germain exchanged quizzical looks as the Captain took his seat.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Deck
0240 Hours (CST)

"All right, boys and girls, get to your ships," Major Marcia "Madonna" Bittencourt spoke to her "Lancers" TB-81B Shrike Torpedo Bomber squadron as she began to walk towards her fighter. "Time to go exterminating." She routinely climbed up the ladder, then gave a nod of thanks to her crew chief as she strapped her into her fighter.

"Requesting clearance for take-off," Marcia squawked into her headset.

"You are cleared to launch, Bittencourt. Good hunting and God Speed," came back over the comm. With a quick smile, Major Bittencourt felt the catapult lock onto the front wheel of her fighter. She gave the thumbs up to the MCPO Deck Boss, and in under 3 seconds she was out into space. She waited for the rest of her squadron to launch before joining up with Cardoso’s Panthers, circling 30,000 klicks off the bow of the Forge.

"Madonna to The Orchin Man. Ready to spray?"

"Roger that, Bittencourt." Major Cardoso chuckled a little. "DDT Wing taking up escort positions... ready to do some bugbusting."

 

402ND LANCERS (PYRETHRINS WING)

TB-81B Shrike 001 (Pyrethrins Lead)
Nav Bruno; 70,000 klicks from Nephilim Corvette squadron
0355 Hours (CST)

"Pyrethrins Wing to DDT. Preparing to start Bug Spray run." Major Bittencourt grimly looked down to her weapons display VDU and activated her torpedo arming sequence.

It was time.

"Madonna to Pyrethrins, arm bug bombs. Repeat, arm bug bombs."

"Roger that, Madonna. DDT Wing forming up ahead of your wing."

Major Cardoso pulled half his wing ahead of the Shrikes to form a forward wedge, the other 8 Panthers holding back with the Shrikes -- they were to engage the ’vettes with the Shrikes to try and maximize damage to them. Alan was leading the anti-fighter wing, but according to the latest SWACS sweep, the skies were clear, only 6 fighters guarding the squadron. The rest were engaged with Lt. Col. Richard’s "Steel Gunners" Tigershark squadron 65,000 klicks ahead of the lead corvette.

Just then, close to two dozen more fighters hurtled off the Orca’s flight deck. The Confed strike was caught in the open without enough fighter cover.

 

TB-81B Shrike 001 (Pyrethrins Lead)
0417 Hours (CST)

"Be advised, Lancers and Aztecs... we’re scrambling a wing of Wasps out there on the double," informed Comm Officer Lt. St. Germain on the Forge. "Just hold it together, people."

F-110A Wasps. Interceptors. Lt. Col. "Virus" Hale’s 323rd "Fire Balls" squadron. Major Bittencourt knew they wouldn’t get there in time to be of any real help, even with SRB boosters engaged.

"Pyrethrins, pick your targets and launch on in timed sequence," Major Bittencourt said as she turned the safety off on her torpedo warheads. She chose a corvette on the port flank of the squadron and armed her "Lancer" light torpedoes, 2 for her first run in. She began the torpedo locking sequence, and in 6 seconds the torpedo had gained ITTS lock and broken through the 2,000 cm shielding of the corvette.

"Pyrethrins Wing, release bug bombs in three... two... one. Launch!" Major Bittencourt pulled hard over as her 2 torpedoes bored in. In all, 32 torpedoes charged out but right as the release came, the turrets on all the Nephilim capships opened up, destroying 20 of them before they could impact against the ships. One of Bittencourt’s managed to score a hit on the corvette, causing the ships’ engines to fail. Several other of her wings’ torpedoes scored direct hits on three of the other corvettes, destroying two of them. A third was heavily damaged.

"Incoming missiles! Repeat, incoming missiles from destroyer!" called out one of Madonna’s Shrike pilots, probably Captain Andressa "Alba" Adrian, her XO. In the mêlée that ensued, Bittencourt lost three of her Shrikes to missile and turret fire, and suffered considerable damage herself.

2nd Lt. John "Breakdown" Tedeschi. 1st Lt. Baton "Anchor" Haxhiu. 1st Lt. Pamela "Cassiopeia" Lickey.

Those were the names. Marcia held her feelings at bay, but knew they would catch up with her eventually... they always did.

The 402nd "Lancers" was her squadron, a squadron she had worked her ass off her whole life to receive, and those were her pilots dying out there.

The Panthers lost 4 of their own as they engaged the Nephilim fighters 5,000 klicks out from the Lancers squadron. One after the other they were shot down while Marcia was busy holding her own.

"Fuck!" exclaimed Lt. Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues of the Aztecs over the comm as the explosion that had been the fourth Panther died down. "Thuh-they got Skipper... and Raptor... and Spectrum... and Baron... Christos, for fuck’s sake, we’re dying out here..."

"There will be time to grieve later, Lieutenant," spoke Captain Hishori "Dragoon" Nawazaki, the Aztecs’ XO. The voice of reason at a time of chaos. It sickened her to think that one could brush off the death of one’s comrades in arms, even in a combat situation where a split second could make the difference between life and death or victory and defeat, but something sickened her even more.

He was right.

Bittencourt forced her feelings aside, blocking out all the hurt she knew she felt within and ordered her wing to form back up for another run. On the way out to strafe the damaged corvette, the Major could only watch as another Shrike fell to turreted maser fire from the dying Orca.

1st Lt. Luca "Local" RhÈe-Trebing... one more name.

Marcia led the way for her wing and squadron as she prepared to do her duty one more time.

 

(Nearly two hours later)

TCS Valley Forge; Captain’s Cabin
0559 Hours (CST)

Alone in his spartan quarters, Captain Eldon Vandermann contemplated the events of late.

The engagements of the morning against the Nephilim were a rousing success. Five Nephilim Barracuda-class corvettes and an Orca-class destroyer had been laid to waste under the teamwork of the Forge’s squadrons and the Forge’s battle group. Just as importantly, the strike kept the Nephilim well away from the gathering transports.

It was a victory, however, that came with the loss of a considerable number of pilots, including one Major Marcia "Madonna" Bittencourt, the squadron commander of the Shrikes. The Forstchen and Stasheff hadn’t gotten there in time. SAR had been working double-time, their Condor-class shuttles combing the area for any trace of ejected pilots in the grim aftermath. Aside from one 1st Lt. Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto, who was currently being resuscitated in sickbay after being pulled from her badly damaged pod, none of the pilots had been recovered.

The losses had hit the group hard. The high spirits the pilots had displayed earlier were gone, replaced by a grim realization of what combat was all about. It wasn’t a game. It wasn’t fun. It was deadly serious. The people who had died had been good pilots. Pilots that could be replaced, but never forgotten. Not by their wingmen and not by their friends. Certainly never by their families.

But also not by their captain.

Captain Vandermann knew all too well the pain of loss, a pain he found himself feeling now a hundredfold. Sitting on his bed in only a soaked T-shirt and his Naval uniform slacks, a cold sweat permeating his back and face, Vandermann stared at a picture stand of his late wife, then at the empty vial of pills he held. A twitch coming across his face, he swept the picture off his nightstand with a forearm and hurled his empty vial across the room. It cracked as it struck the wall, the plastic splintering before raining across the floor. Vandermann held his hand in front of him, as if studying it while it quivered.

The pills that had given him his absolution the past month were gone. Without that crutch he could no longer forget the failures of his past, and he could no longer ignore the liability he feared with his soul he would become to the crew and pilots, to say nothing of the Valley Forge itself.

"You’re fooling yourself again, Eldon." The voice in his head again. The voice of his father, thirty years dead. "You’ll fail everyone that looks up to you. You’ve done it before and you’ll do it again."

"No... never..."

"You know I’m right, Eldon. But then I’ve always been right about you, haven’t I?"

"No..."

"There’s blood on your hands, boy, and by God there’ll be more yet."

"The Odessa... it wasn’t my fault... there was nothing I could have -- "

"You think I’m just talking about your first ship, boy?" the voice snapped. Vandermann stared meekly at the floor. "Yes, I thought you’d know what I’m talking about... only, your crew doesn’t know, do they? There’s no going back for you."

"I’d... I’d..."

"You’d what?"

"I-I’d kill myself first... I’d rather die..."

"Then maybe that’s the only way out for you, Eldon. Join those that you’ve failed... God knows there’s a lot of them."

Vandermann reached into his nightstand, withdrawing a standard-issue C-244 pistol, the very same one his father had carried to his untimely death in the Confed Marine Corps during the Battle of Repleetah. In a nervous, shaking motion, he raised the nozzle to his temple.

"Do it, boy. You’ll be doing everyone on this ghost ship of yours a favor."

Beads of sweat rolling down his cheeks, Vandermann held it there for what seemed like an eternity. His father was right. He had no choice but to --

"N-no..." Vandermann rasped, hesitation in his voice. Then he spoke again, this time focused, backed by determination, "No!" He threw the gun aside, hearing it hit the door.

Nearly as much as the Valley Forge needed him, he needed the Valley Forge. He would not give up on his carrier now, not with all the progress he had made since coming aboard.

Fate had dealt him a second chance, one he would use to right the many wrongs of his life. Captain Vandermann would play his hand to the best of his abilities... for as long as he could.

 

FIN