: Swan Song



TCS Valley Forge; Flight Deck
One hour from Nephele-Tyr jump point
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 7 2681/2681.038; 1100 Hours (CST)

Major Alan "The Orchin Man" Cardoso, CO of the 397th SFS "Aztecs" Space Superiority Squadron took his place at the temporary podium that had been set up when the 402nd "Lancers" Torpedo Bomber Squadron were done remembering their own losses. He found himself encircled by a Marine detail from the ship’s 50-man platoon detachment and pilots from the other five squadrons of the 71st Tactical Fighter Wing. Even old Captain Vandermann was in attendance, standing beside the Valley Forge’s chaplain and looking as rigid and distant as ever. 

Cardoso composed himself at the makeshift podium and cleared his throat. He was ready now to begin his speech before his friends, colleagues, and the five empty black caskets that rested on the end of the flight deck beside the open expanse of space.

"United we stand this February the 7th to mourn our losses; five brave pilots that have sacrificed themselves in name of others," Alan began the eulogy. "They died protecting not just this battle group but Terra itself from all kinds of conquerors, invaders, and oppressors... an ideal all of us swear and live by when we took our Confederation Oath of Service... but only a few of us die for.

"I still remember when I first met Captain Paul ‘Recon’ Masterson." Cardoso sighed, trying to retain his composure. Always the stoic one was he; rigid and neutral in the face of every wrong he had witnessed and everything he had lost -- he was strong, because that was what was expected of him as a leader. That didn’t mean it was easy. "It was just a few years after the Battle of Terra when he graduated from the Academy and Flight School...

"Determined, fearless, and eager to fight the Kilrathi, Recon played a key role in my recovery, helping me put aside the horrors of that battle that had come to haunt me. His childish way would, in the following years, be replaced by that of a true warrior; a hard-bitten killer, but one that was proud to serve the Terran Confederation. He was my exec, but a damn fine leader is what Paul would eventually have made as a squadron commander... and achieve so much more. Goodbye, my friend... you will surely be missed...

"Seemingly always happy, Captain Pierre ‘Spectrum’ Bene was more comedian than fighter pilot, always ready to pull a practical joke or two, as the Aztecs found out. Those that knew him better knew of his past... that his family was killed in Paris when the Cats dropped their antimatter warheads on Earth thirteen years ago. His charisma touched everyone around him and now, with his death, there is no doubt this group will be all the more sad.

"Having recently joined the squadron, there was precious little time for me to get acquainted with 1st Lieutenant Michael ‘Raptor’ Anderson, 1st Lieutenant Rodolph ‘Baron’ Schindler, or 2nd Lieutenant Alfredo ‘Skipper’ Manchini. I blame myself, and this is a thing I regret deeply. Nevertheless, these were individuals that proved themselves fighting side by side with the Aztecs. They did not die in vain. 

"My friends, let us now pray for their souls."

The armed seven-Marine honor guard’s CO, Lt. Colonel Vance Trelane, took Cardoso’s place as he stood down. The ex-Navy SEAL was a gruff, chiseled-looking man distinguished in his own right, one whose very posture seemed to command respect. "Ten-hut!" he barked. "Present... arms!"

"Sir!" the Marines shouted back in response, coming to attention, shifting their rifles, and saluting with their free hands.

"Marines -- Aim, Fire!" ordered the Marines’ CO. They raised their standard-issue M-58 Laser Assault Rifles at the end of the flight deck and did as they were told.

"Fire!" the Colonel repeated. He would do so twice more.

Meanwhile, up in the Flight Control, an overlooking technician activated the launch sequence on cue. The five caskets’ attached repulsors lifted them a meter off the deck and pushed them forward, passing through the electromagnetic shields of the flight deck and hovering into the vacuum of space on fiery JATO boosters. One after another they went, until the grim muster came to an end.


TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Barracks
2300 Hours (CST)

He broke off his chase of a Ray interceptor cluster, his afterburners locked when he saw the second capship missile streaking toward a damaged Confed carrier. The Forge? He knew one more capship blow would do the carrier in. He couldn’t allow that. He wouldn’t.

His Spiculum IR and Javelin heat-seeker reserves were gone, giving him no hope of destroying the capship missile through his fighter’s ordnance. There was only one way he could do what had to be done... something he had known he had it in him to do the day he graduated the TCNSF Academy on Hilthros but never thought he’d have to follow through with.

"Hold the line..." he rasped, holding his course. "Protect the Forge..." He knew his duty, a duty he had once pledged to serve with his dying breath. A duty which he now intended to perform. He pressed on intently, the capship missile impacting against his fighter’s side. 


Pressed on... pressed on...

"Hey, Alan!"

Wait, that voice... who...?

"Alan! Have you been drinking again? Come on, my friend, wake up. We have a briefing to attend," explained Captain Hishori "Dragoon" Nawazaki, his voice jarring him from his sleep. The man picked up an empty bottle of vodka by Cardoso’s bed, shook his head, then tossed the bottle aside. An also empty 1/5 of Gold Schläger could be found amidst all the others, right beside a flask of Firekkan "Fire" and the Ace of Aces medal laid thoughtlessly about. From a first glance at the Major’s personal quarters, one would almost expect to find a keg stowed in the back.

"AHHH!!" shouted Major Cardoso. The full gravity of his awakening to reality suddenly hit all at once. "A dream..." he rasped. It was a recurring dream he had dreamt twice before since his arrival on the Forge. 

The dream of his fate.

"Hey, what’s wrong, Orchin Man?" asked his surprised XO.

"Shit! You do that again, Hishori, and I’m gonna space your ass—YOU GET THAT?" blustered a very pissed-off Major. He remained quiet for a moment, his common sense snapping back into place as he realized he was overreacting. He snatched a cigarette out of his nearly-depleted pack of Marlboro 100s and lit up, trying to soothe his wracked nerves. "Okay. I’m all right now."

"You sure? You really should drop that drinking habit of yours, Major. Nasty. What would your wife say?"

Cardoso grunted, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes and running a hand through his ruffled hair. "You my executive officer or my mother?"

Dragoon shook his head again, clearly in disapproval. "Then at least take a piece of friendly advice -- don’t let the WC find out. I hear the shots of anti-intoxicant ‘green goop’ to the buttocks are rather... unpleasant."

"I know," Cardoso spoke from experience. "So just what the fuck do you want, anyway? And don’t tell me it’s a social call."

"Disturbing your beauty sleep, Alan? Erm... it is like I said -- Colonel Trebek has summoned us to the briefing room."

"She has?" 

"Uh-huh. It was on the shift schedule." He got a blank look from the Major. "Only... you didn’t check the shift schedule, did you?"

Cardoso cocked an eyebrow as he finished dressing. "Just us?"

"Uh-huh. That’s right, Alan."

"Huh." Cardoso shrugged, mashed his half-smoked cigarette into an ashtray, and started for the door. He was unshaven and unshowered but time was not a luxury he had at the moment. "Well, all right. We’d better go."


"Follow me, then."


TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Briefing Room
2330 Hours (CST)

"Okay, Aztecs, this ought to be a simple one for you," Colonel Natasha Trebek, the Valley Forge’s Wing Commander, briefed after the squadron was done examining their ICIS computers. "You’ll be responsible for tonight’s FORCAP in Nephele, reconnoitering ahead of the Forge just beyond the system’s Oort Cloud. You’ll be traveling on a nav route that should take you immediately behind the Yorktown’s battle group."

"SWACS?" Major Cardoso asked.

Trebek gave a nod. "Yes, you’ll be escorting a pair of SWACS on your patrol... but you’re making me get ahead of myself. I don’t want you to let your guard down, but your squadron shouldn’t run into anything serious -- whatever alien resistance may or may not have been out here has likely already been taken care of by the Yorktown’s flight wing."

Yesterday the Aztecs had been asked to rendezvous with some of the Yorktown’s fighters to assist the Border Worlder Valkyries and Tanfenners in holding some 200 Nephilim fighters at bay while transports ferried Tyr’s evacuees to the Masa System; today they were being asked to simply... patrol? 

Forward Combat Air Patrol? Cardoso thought. Seems more like a job for the Piranhas in the "Mosquitoes" or one of the two ’Shark squadrons. Unless they already had their shift... damn, can’t remember worth a damn. Barely recall the jump from Tyr and that was just hours ago. No matter, this should be a cakewalk -- no problemo...

"Your first objective is Nav Epsilon at 50,000 klicks ahead of the Forge’s current position -- where you’ll pass by the Orlando Shuttle Depot and rendezvous with the returning Dulos One and Two SWACS -- then Nav Gamma at 100,000 klicks and, to conclude, Nav Beta at 130,000 klicks. That’s all. Very well, Cardoso, you may take as many fighters as you wish."

The Orchin Man stood and faced his squadron. "All right, pilots, we’ll launch at 2400," he ordered. "On this flight... everyone will be out there. Is that understood?" No one said anything. "Gettit, gottit, good. Let’s go."

A cakewalk, yes... but his dream was making him paranoid. Even an ordinary FORCAP could easily turn into the ambush depicted in his dream... 

"Ah, Major Cardoso, could I have a private talk with you?" politely asked Trebek while the pilots of Aztecs began heading to the flight deck.

"Yes, Colonel?" replied Alan, approaching her.

The Russian woman stepped down as he did, adjusting the bun she always wore her light blond hair in. The WC couldn’t have been older than thirty-five, Alan judged. "Major," she began, "don’t you think eleven fighters are a lot to assign for such a routine mission? As squadron commander, it’s your call and at your discretion, of course, but as you know, the Admiralty and ConFleet High Command does not take lightly unnecessary wasting of supplies and fuel... and guess who has to do the paperwork?"

"Yes, ma’am. I understand that completely -- simply put, I believe that these fighters are needed. This is Nephele, after all, and we know for a fact those critters are on the war path."

"All right, Major." Trebek sighed, ceding the argument. "I trust your judgment."

"I wouldn’t be where I am if you didn’t, right?"

Colonel Trebek smiled, a rare occurrence at best. "I will see you when you arrive back, Major."

How could she know? She couldn’t. He’d have asked her to allow the Aztecs the escort of one of the two Plunkett-class artillery cruisers in the Forge Battle Group -- either the Nagato or the Hood -- but knew that even if she approved the request, which was unlikely, he wouldn’t have the group’s safety jeopardized. Not simply because The Orchin Man had a vague gut feeling about a forthcoming bug ambush he may or may not be flying into.

Still... the dream, it had alerted him. Countless bugs would strike soon and the cost of their assault might be his life. He wouldn’t -- no, he couldn’t fail. The Valley Forge would have to be protected when the enemy struck.



F-108A Panther 001 (Alpha Lead)
Between Nav Gamma and Nav Beta
2681.039; 0400 Hours (CST)

"Compadres, multiple radar contacts!" warned 1st Lieutenant Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues. "Nephilim."

Major Cardoso startled to awareness, only fleetingly realizing his Panther’s autopilot had been disengaged. He’d dozed off on their trip from the last nav point and found he felt his hangover only magnified upon his awakening. Alan had long since learned to cope with the familiar "morning after" headache and nausea, but the disconcerting feeling was never one he could train himself to shake off easily.

A cursory glance at Cardoso’s Heads Up Display confirmed Burrito’s warning. Probably leftover fighters from a passing Nephilim capship group, he reckoned -- the Aztecs had already passed and bore witness to the decimated remains of the Orlando Shuttle Depot at Nav Epsilon it had left in its wake. The leftover fighters weren’t many at the current count but were still more than enough of a threat to bring his dream from dreamland to reality.

"Aztecs, arm your weapons," instructed Cardoso over his headset comm, already closing his fighter’s bussard ramscoops. "Dragoon, you and DDT Wing are taking the second bug group -- we’ll get those those Morays. Got it?"

"Copy," Captain Nawazaki responded tersely. In the cockpit Dragoon was cool under fire, with letter-perfect flying technique and deadly marksmanship to match. It was normal that he would seldom say more than necessary over the vidcomm. Dragoon would never admit it, but he seemed to fancy himself -- consciously or not -- a modern-day samurai. Though probably not considering himself a feudal retainer, Nawazaki would still try to adhere to the best elements of bushido, the Japanese way of the warrior. The man seemed akin to the samurai of the ancient Tokagawa Shogunate. Ninja-esque trained killers by trade, but killers well educated in the arts, music, and poetry. A good pilot and deputy to the Major, but moreover a good friend.

"Alpha Wing," Cardoso now spoke to his element, "inverted V formation. Follow me."

"This was supposed to be a milk run... a milk run!" 2nd Lt. Jethrow "Riceburner" Beacon sighed, ever the doomsayer.

"Cry me a fuckin’ river, Riceburner. Let’s rock," said 2nd Lt. Ray "Reaper" Hunter, ever the eager combatant. In years past Cardoso would chew the kid out on protocol, but he’d come to let such trivial youthful enthusiasm go. At the same time, something nagged him. It was unlikely these fighters could have gotten past the Yorktown’s fighters, DSSS, and SWACS undetected. So if they weren’t coming from ahead...

Yes, better to let them have their fun, he’d decided, before the wages of war catch up to them like so many of the others I’ve known...

"Time to represent, home-skillets!" 2nd Lt. Hugo "Cesar" van Binsbergen chimed in.

"Yeah, what he said..." grumbled 2nd Lt. Torr "Ice" Grael.

Six F-108A Panthers broke hard to starboard, lighting their afterburners. Each sped at 1,300 KPS, with Alan’s fighter leading the first element, Alpha Wing. Dragoon’s DDT Wing and its respective five Panthers peeled off to port, trying to disorient the bugs or at least keep them on their toes. The pair of SR-51 Seahawk-class SEA/Spaceborne Warning And Control Ships they’d begun escorting at Nav Epsilon lagged twenty-five thousand klicks behind the Aztecs, safe for the time being.

On his HUD, The Orchin Man had identified some six Stingray interceptor/capship interdictors and three Skate-T interceptor clusters heading straight to the Valley Forge’s position, extrapolating their heading from his object VDU and navmap MFD.

So they know where our battle group is, thought Cardoso. Well, fuck. This is bad, very bad...

"Alpha Wing, our job is to distract these Stingrays and Skates while DDT Wing gets behind and takes out those Morays," The Orchin Man spoke. "You know the drill—break and attack!"

Bug squashing time.

"Fox one!" shouted all six of the pilots.

12 Image-Recognition missiles, 2 from each fighter, lanced forth at the enemy fighters upon every subsequent missile lock, one after the other finding their mark until piercing through all of the fighters. Green debris sprayed from the explosions, green shockwaves haloing out from some.

Distraction completed.

A cheap way to dogfight, perhaps, but as Cardoso had painfully learned thirteen years ago when he’d witnessed Crown Prince Thrakhath’s Hakagas delivering their Strontium-90 payloads to Earth’s surface, "war is no place for manners."

"Too easy!" one of the Aztecs cheered. By the light Chinese accent, it sounded like 2nd Lt. Chang "Lizard" Lao. "Yeah! Hey, Dragoon, looks like we won’t need you after all." 

Cardoso’s HUD begged the differ. "Saddle up, people. SWACS data sweeps Dulos Two relayed from the Mosquitoes’ shift is picking up nine inbound Manta fighters," he informed, "Dragoon, we need you over here ASAP."

"Then again..." Lizard changed his mind.


F-108A Panther 001 (Alpha Lead)
0422 Hours (CST)

"Dammit, these uglies’ masers are chewing me up over here. Need some assistance, Alpha Lead," Captain Angela "Draft" Rai requested. 

"Copy. I’m on my way, Angela," he assured his wingman. The Major knew she could handle things until he arrived on the scene—she was a very capable pilot. A native of Greece, the only child of one of Earth’s wealthiest families, the generally soft-spoken woman signed up for the TCNSF Academy against her parents’ wishes in early ’69, just after the armistice was called off and the Battle of Terra was waged. She’d led an exemplary Space Force career ever since. Not that Captain Nawazaki wasn’t as superb of an XO as a squadron commander could hope for, but he would never understand why she’d voluntarily allowed Dragoon to become his exec over her... she had the dedication, the spirit, and the seniority. Or maybe he did understand. Perhaps she didn’t want the responsibility? Alan couldn’t bring himself to blame her. "Hold on."

The Orchin Man’s Panther broke right and opened up with full-guns on the trio of Manta heavy fighters coming into his targeting reticule, splashing concentrated bursts of tachyon and ion cannon fire across the Nephilim fighters’ shields before afterburning away. His cockpit became filled with flickering red light, a high pitched tone starting to sound that warned him that his aft shields were down and the Nephilim fighters were locking missiles.

Damn it, Alan! he mentally reprimanded himself, you were careless and now you’ve got a Manta riding your ass...

There were two choices. The first one would be just to abandon Angela and try to escape the alien shots, but only a coward would take such action, and Alan "The Orchin Man" Cardoso, veteran of the Third Enigma Campaign, Battle of Terra, the Secession War, and Cynium Campaign would be damned before he would do such a thing. The second choice, to save her and quite possibly die in battle, would be the path taken if that was truly to be his fate -- he’d have no regrets.

Letting off the ’burners and making a tight 180 degree turn to face the Mantas in a perfect textbook execution of an Academy "Burnout," Cardoso first went into a barrel roll. He banked sharply to port while pulling up on his Panther’s nose slightly, his fighter corkscrewing to effectively avoid the majority of the incoming light plasma and heavy gorgon bolts. The maneuver didn’t stop their missile lock, however...

Cardoso dumped a few chaff pod countermeasures and banked sharply, feeling the familiar rush of adrenaline in his blood. One of the enemy missiles picked up on one of the decoys and homed in on it, but the second wasn’t fooled by the electronic signatures and continued to hurtle after his Panther. Cardoso altered course sharply again, veering back toward the decoy’s flight path. The timing would have to be damned tight...

His fighter flashed past two ImRec-equivalent missiles from the three Mantas just seconds before the Nephilim warhead detonated. The blast that erupted behind him was like a false dawn. His shield indicators registered a noticeable power loss, but nothing close to what he would have suffered if the full force of the blast had been absorbed by the shields themselves. After a moment he checked his MFDs, then let out a sigh. The explosion had caught the second missile.

"My turn, fuckers."

Allowed to make a run of his own now, he continued firing with full-guns on the Manta trio until one after the other they each broke apart. Methodically looking down at the display, he could see that his aft armor was gone. Immediately and unexpectedly his dream came to his mind. This time, however, there were no capital ships, but if it played out the way it had he would still die exactly as he had foreseen. Not wanting to be captured by the aliens -- last he heard, they tore apart their captives not for any scientific study but just for the hell of it -- Cardoso disengaged the auto ejection system and prepared himself for oblivion.

"Greetings, Major. We have arrived," spoke Dragoon. "And now I see one of our Stingrays has taken an interest in you."

A quick keyup revealed his XO was right -- the Stingray in question was a ways off, but onto him. The Major resisted the juvenile urge to taunt the alien pilot on the comm... this time.

DDT Wing’s five Panthers launched a combination of ImRec and Pilum IFF missiles at the remaining Stingrays, taking the whole lot of them out. Luckily, the one that had targeted Alan was one of the first to go.

"Yeah!" Cardoso whooped. "Thanks, Dragoon! Hey, what took you so long?"

"Sorry, sir, but we encountered a few Skate interceptor clusters that needed taking care of. Got a little cooked back there."

"Don’t sweat it, Captain," he coaxed. "Nice work."

"Thank you... sir."

The Major leaned back in his cockpit, a smile stretching from cheek to cheek as he prepared to bring his squadron back home -- in one piece this time. A moment ago he had been so tense; nervous of the Nephilim fighter threat. For the first time since his squadron had been posted aboard the Forge, he realized something that at last gave him the peace of mind he sought.

He trusted his squadron.

"DDT Wing, form up," he spoke to his XO’s element. "Aztecs, when we get back, the brew’s on me."


(Dozens of beer cans later)

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Rec Room
0800 Hours (CST)

"Where was I? Oh, yeah. So, anyways, that Moray was about to hit Shiva when I went around and got it by surprise. Bum, badda, bum! Bum! Bug spray. Isn’t that right, Miani? Eh...?"

2nd Lt. Miani "Shiva" Tnisu only rolled her eyes at her thoroughly plastered wingmate, 2nd Lt. Bruno "Nitro" Dias. "Yeah, Nitro. That’s right."

"Ah-hah!" Nitro stood from his stool and flailed his arms about, then took a bow, as if just having received a resounding round of applause from a live audience. "Thank you, thank you!"

"Now, look, don’t you think you’ve gloated enough? Believe me, I’m thankful. Now let’s change the subject, okay?"

"Awww... be like that, then. I see how it is." The 2nd Lt. slumped his shoulders, Shiva having rained on his parade. "Cold-hearted bitch..."

"What’d you say?"

The Aztecs, now most in a state of drunken stupor in the flight wing rec room, were starting to get looks from the lounging pilots of the other squadrons in the 71st FW—the 722nd "Mosquitoes," 109th "Steel Gunners," 114th "White Hopes," 323rd "Fire Balls," and 402nd "Lancers." Some made in amusement; some made in annoyance.

"Pilots, stand up, there’s something I’d like to say," Major Cardoso announced to his squadron. Standing up himself, he felt the initial signs of intoxication coming on strong but knew he wasn’t quite drunk just yet. His steely-toned squadron commander’s voice lightened as he began, "First... I would like to tell you how I, well... how I doubted this squadron would become as strong as it has. To tell the truth, I was sure that more than a few of you would screw up big time -- I’m used to flying with vets; most of you are just about young enough to be my kids." A few chuckles were heard. "Now, after all these sorties, the Aztecs as a unit have grown, becoming more responsible and coming to a point where I believe I can say we truly trust each other with our lives. All bullshit aside, I want you to know I’m proud to fly alongside any one of you. Damn proud. Cheers to the Aztecs, the baddest buncha sons’a bitches this side of Vega!"

"Cheers," responded the other pilots, hoisting up their glasses, ice mugs, and beer cans. 

"Hai! I am the pupae... the pupae..." one of the drunken Aztecs mumbled moments later as he comically flopped along the floor, almost incoherently, "... soon I will emerge a beautiful butterfly! Komatta na!"

Was that Dragoon? Hypocrite.

When he’d come back aboard after the morning’s mission, following his squadron’s debriefing and submitting of After Action Reports to the Colonel, something had dawned on Major Alan Cardoso. He realized he wasn’t worried about his dream anymore -- albeit, disturbing though it was. 

After all, Alan had decided, when it’s all said and done in the end, what was life itself... but a dream?