PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 36 of 44 )
“ The Downward Spiral ”
no time to discriminate,
Hate every motherfucker in your way.”
- B. Warner
VALLEY FORGE BATTLE GROUP, 397TH SFS AZTECS
F-108A Panther 002 [ DDT Lead
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 10 2681/2681.041; 2150 Hours (CST)
A thin, barely visible trail of smoke from Major Nawazakis spinning Panther was left behind it before the fighters spasmodic fall carried it out of view. Just another casualty, another pilots life snuffed out like a candle in the wind. Captain Angel "Draft" Rai, the new Aztecs CO, averted her gaze and steeled her composure.
"We got incoming, Aztecs," she informed the squadron she now found herself in command of. "Alpha and DDT wings, lets take out those Cats."
"Draft, the Forge has identified those fighters are friendlies," informed Captain Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues -- now her XO.
"I dont care, Captain Rodrigues," Captain Rai spoke, stressing her rank; trying to show definitively who was the superior officer now. "Bugs and Cats are all alike. Kill them... all of them -- thats what Cardosod say if he were still alive." She paused. "But The Orchin Man is gone, and now so is Ronin..."
"Those Cats arent hostile, Captain," Burrito tried to explain. "Lets just play it cool an -- "
"And what?" Draft snapped. There was a clear note of instability to the womans shaking voice. "Try to make friends with them, so they can stab us in the back? We kill them, and we do it now!"
"Im with Draft all the way," 2nd Lt. Jethrow "Riceburner" Beacon said. "What are you, Burrito, some kind of fucking Cat lover?"
1st Lt. Miani "Shiva" Tnisu had already heard enough; it was time for her to act. "You go out after those Cats, sir," she addressed Draft as sternly as she could, "and Ill have no choice but to open fire on you. And you, too, Riceburner. Theyre not our enemies... yet."
Captain Rai lowered her head, relenting. Mianis was the voice of reasonmoreover, she was right.
TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
2200 Hours (CST)
Three pilots, their fighters, thirteen Marines, and another LC gone for thirty-two monks of the fifty-some that were supposed to be evacuated. In retrospect, Operation Scour was a victory, but still one that left a sour taste in Captain Vandermanns mouth.
"Sir, weve just got a report from the Aztecs and Talon Flight that a Fralthi Mark II and her Kilrathi fighter escorts have appeared out of Nephele IIs sensor shadow," Lt. St. Germain informed as her fingers danced over the comm console. "Incoming transmission from the Fralthi, Captain."
The Kilrathis Fralthi cruisers had always been a thorn in Confeds side throughout the War. First with the ancient but still dogged 475 meter Fralthi A-type, circa 2640s to early 50s, capable of holding some 50 light fighters of the era in its hangar; second with the 500 meter Fralthi B-type, a light carrier/cruiser circa mid-2650s to early 60s, with a 20-fighter complement; third and last with the 550 meter Fralthi II-class, circa late 2660s to the present, capable of holding 30 fighters in its hangar.
"Put it on the main screen, Lt.," Vandermann replied as he stood up and fixed his dress jacket, as if ready to receive this new guest.
As if the guest was expected...
A burly, regal Kilrathi appeared on the screen. He was older Kilrathi, but the poise he assumed spoke pride -- he seemed to have a noticeably keen bearing. With green eyes gleaming against his tawny fur and standing clad in a mesh of plated body armor, chainmail, a ceremonial-looking cloak, and various body piercings with gold rings, the figure was the very picture of a Kilrathi noble. The instant it saw Vandermann a large smile creased on its felinoid face. "Ahhh, Eldon. So good it is to see you, my takhar."
"Right on time, Catharx. You never were one to miss a date." The two laughed. The bridge seemed in awe as they saw their cold, sometimes distant, but always unpredictable CO take up the laughter.
Catharx... the Kilrathi Vandermann had befriended in his time in the Border Worlds Free Republic of Landreich Navy finished laughing and paused, about to speak. The crew had heard about the Cat, but knew little in the way of details. Catharx was a member of Prince Murraghs Cadre from the KIS Karga, but before that he had been on the Fralthi I leading the battle group that had destroyed Vandermanns ship in 2661, the Odessa. Inducted into the Kargas Cadre, he and just a few others had been evacuated before the ships shields failed in the Vaku System when confronting the TCS Juneau and Dover on 2669.315, lethal doses of radiation from Vakus anomalous brown dwarf threatening to kill everyone inside before Kalralahr Largka Cakg dai Nokhtak called for the joint Zukara. Ironically, it seemed Catharx, the same kil that had cost him his first command, would later become a close friend to Eldon.
As it was known to the Captain, Catharx had once served as a junior adjutant to the late Emperors Dowager mother, the Empress Graknala, in the Imperial Palace on Vukar Tag. It was there he had ascended through the local Kilrah Creshe civil service academy, though he quickly moved onto the Caxkis Fang Gathering officer training school and thence a place in the Fifth Fleet of the Imperial Claw. By the time Confed launched Operation Back Lash and Vukar Tag was raided in early 2668, Catharx was fighting on the front lines.
It had been in the years 2670 and 2671 that the kil had met face to face with and befriended Vandermann, during Project Goliath, the FRLNs operation to refit the 920 meter-long KIS Karga -- later renamed the FRLS Mjollnir upon its Landreich recommissioning -- one of the Kilrathis Bhantkara-class supercarriers. A new carrier at the time, it had been heavily damaged in an attempted mission of vengeance on the Landreich ordered by Crown Prince Thrakhath for their actions during the Battle of Terra.
"Never if it involved a close friend," the gruff Kilrathi voice came back. "I was on my way back from tending to matters on the Feudal Planets... the minute I received your message and learned of the Forges recent losses, I made all haste from Hrekkah to replace the many brave warriors of yours that have been embraced in kabaka of late. In the eyes of Sivar your warriors have proven they have the zaga -- the warrior spirit -- and it will be an honor to fight beside those still left.
"I bring to you a new arm to which you may thrash at the enemy, Eldon. The KIS Shrakhar ras Ktann is the newest and last of my clans Fralthis, formerly of the Fifth Fleet of the Imperial ClawI wish to supplement your battle group with my own," Catharx replied. The bridge crew was almost in shock. After the recent events they didnt think things could get any stranger, and now this. A Kilrathi Kalahn showing up with his personal fleet to add to the Forges sorely-bruised numbers...
"Whats your ETA to our position, Catharx?"
"Twenty-five minutes to rendezvous."
"Good. I trust your flagship has a shuttle to bring you over so we can discuss the situation personally...?"
"Of course. I will be awaiting our meeting, my friend."
"Until then." And with that, the screen abruptly turned black, then began the standard display of the spinning Confed insignia. "Mr. Schaefer, please tell flight ops to prepare the flight deck and inform the officers of Kalahn Catharxs arrival," Vandermann instructed his XO. "You have the bridge." Commander Schaefer gave a quick salute then, as Vandermann turned and exited on the lift, the bridge became alive with chatter about what had just happened.
The Kilrathi had joined the game.
TCS Valley Forge; Flight
2238 Hours (CST)
"Shuttle Zero-One requesting landing clearance, over."
"Affirmative, Shuttle Zero-One, you are clear to land. Pattern is clear."
The Naktarg-class assault shuttle lumbered toward the flight deck. Once the pilot guided the shuttle into the hold of the ALS landing tractor beams, it wasnt long before it touched the flight deck with a thump. As it taxied towards Captain Vandermann on its suspensors it slowed and finally stopped. The loading ramp lowered and a seven foot tall Kilrathi Kalahn exited the shuttle, stopping only for a moment to observe the flight deck. So much larger than he was used to on his cruiser.
Catharx was flanked by a three-Kilrathi Honor Guard, each Guardsman bearing Ekrashk-34 laser rifles with the traditional Dor-Chak sidearms clad in the Kahlrahrr II armor of Kilrathi Marines, and a Kilrathi pilot still in his flightsuit with helmet in-hand. In full ceremonial dress garbs, kaschee scarf coiled around his neck, Koractu sword slung over his shoulder, vorshooka blade within reach at one thigh, and vorshaki dueling knife sheathed at his hip, Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak made his way down the ramp in purposeful strides. He was a highborn noble in Clan Vukar Tag, one of the Lesser Clans in the Assembly that was a dissociated branch of the former Imperial Clan Kiranka, and he certainly looked the part.
As Catharx took notice of Captain Vandermann and started walking toward him, what looked like a smile appeared on the kils face.
Vandermann began to approach Catharx, and when they met they embraced in a quick hug and a round of greetings.
"Too long has it been, Eldon, since we last saw one another."
"Almost four years, Catharx. Much too long. How does your blood flow, old friend?"
"Thick. And yours, Eldon?"
"For now it flows," was Vandermanns untelling answer.
"Indeed?" Catharxs rigid brow creased. Wizened feline eyes bore into the Captains. "So much you have changed, my takhar... I can see it in your eyes. Has it been so long, Eldon? Have you been through so much?"
"I... I..." Vandermann stopped himself and looked down, breaking his kil friends unflinching, penetrating gaze. He returned it a moment later, deciding to make a tactful change of subject. "So howve you kept busy all these years? You know what Ive been doing."
"Do I? Ah, but we have catching up to do, as you Terrans say." Catharx gave a grunt. "For three years I have held the proconsulate chair of Clan Vukar Tag on the Assemblys Provisional Counsel for my baron. Much there is to be done, with turmoil still erupting throughout the Feudal Planets... even after all these years."
Vandermann harrumphed. He didnt have to read the look on his face to know his friend took little pride -- or honor -- in what he had been doing. "Just how is the Assembly these days? Still fretting over the Mantu?"
"Though they still skirmish along our outer marches, the Mantu are less than a concern right now. It is a time of prophecy come true, of the believed return of the Star Gods of nearly four millennia ago that humiliated the early warriors of my people. The need to reestablish our grand race is now, either through a new Imperium or somehow the reunification of our eight Great Clans. The final strings of Clan Caxkis uprisings since Mangkrah and Dgoliks reigns have been quelled... the militaristic Ninth Empire is all but behind us now. Chancellor Melek nar Kiranka still champions his caretaker government and the Hyilghar Prince Murragh Cakg dai Nokhtak is still fighting to prove himself as the rightful heir to the throne with his followers -- neither kil approves of the other but neither kil openly opposes the other. Their acknowledged differing political standpoints... one of the foremost keys to the delicate balance of the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans infrastructure it has been. There are other would-be claimants... the Kilrahra Dawx Jhorrad lak Haka, a kil named Ksihrak nar Bdlu, the little-known, yet rising Kal Thakhra Baron Qyhirp nar Kurutak to name three..."
Vandermann harrumphed. "A lot of tension, I take it?"
"It is such, but I do not believe my race is quite ready for another Dynastic War. Still, there are other problems within the Assembly, some of..." Something unreadable flashed in his eye and Catharx trailed off, suddenly sighing sadly. His head dipped low and his shoulders sagged. "Politics. I have become a politician. How I long for the days of glory long gone... when you and I fought for the Mjollnir against Vorghath and Ukar dai Ragark lak Hakas entourage..."
"Those were interesting days."
"Days perhaps we may relive to greater glory in this time of looming Knthrak and gatagakvu, I should think."
"Perhaps." Vandermann led the group past the fawning Deck Boss and FCO and stopped near the lift doors. "There are moments... many moments... when I... regret leaving old Maxs Free Republic Navy."
"You never told me what made you decide to leave. This was before the Free Republic of Landreich aligned themselves with the Union of Border Worlds for that brief period...?"
The Captain gave a nod. "It was because of circumstances... outside of my control. But... how was your journey here?"
"Uneventful, I wish I could say." A distinct sadness crept into the kils otherwise stoic features. "My hrai suffered greatly on its arrival in this system... our Ralatha destroyer escort was felled by Alien assault. It was captained by my only son, Crathar..."
"Im sorry, Catharx..."
The Kilrathi noble shook his head. "Do not mourn him, Eldon, for he was embraced in kabaka -- honorable death in battle, just as many of your fighter pilots and crew have been. His passing was with glory." The fresh, deep scar on Catharxs furred forehead betrayed his unfeeling words, the mark that could only be where he had recently drawn his dagger in mourning.
"But allow me to introduce you to my nephew, Kal Shintahr Jhathar nar Vukar Tag," Catharx spoke, gesturing to the younger kil pilot next to him. "In your ranking he is a colonel, the flight commander to the two squadrons of two eights of proud warriors the Shrakhar ras Ktann brings to you of my own Cadre, the Dakhath and Krahnakh squadrons -- Deathstroke and Unseen squadrons, in your harakh tongue."
"It is an honor," Jhathar rasped at the Captain, bowing his head slightly.
"Likewise. Ill have my exec show your crew around the ship and get familiar with things, but for now let us sojourn to the CIC to discuss our immediate plans, shall we?"
Catharx gave a quick nod in response. "As you wish, Eldon."
As Captain Vandermann left the flight deck with the five Kilrathi it became a buzz of whispering and talk. The crew had never seen the Captain like that. It was hard to believe it was the same man that only yesterday had callously ordered twenty of the Forges Marines to their deaths, watched as the Forstchen sacrificed herself on his planning, and sat by as half of the Forges entire flight wing was killed while denying the pilots of the damaged fighters requests to land.
Meanwhile, Major Frederick von Richthofen entered from flight control, done with debriefing and his After Action Reports. He watched some of the Talon Flight Groundcrew, now coming aboard from the BWS Condor after awaiting news of Talon Flights return at the designated time. They were bringing ordnance and sorely needed parts to repair Torchs fighter -- the Forge may have been about to provide everything necessary in addition to able and willing repair crews, but Captain Watterson and the Condor personnel felt the need to compartmentalize Talon Flight so as not to be a burden. Richthofen walked up to their Type R shuttle and met with the crew chief inside, where he was led to and shown a set of unmarked crates.
"Recognize any of these, Major?"
"Yes. Thank you, Chief."
The two men first went through a code-card check not unlike the military protocol of centuries past when dealing with nuclear weapons, then opened one to check its contents. Inside was a missile with a bulbous, unmistakable warhead: a Mace tactical nuke.
The Major nodded, satisfied. "Well need it."
TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
2305 Hours (CST)
"All right, then... that settles it. Well do it. Lt. St. Germain, give me all-ships."
Vandermann paused before he addressed every fighting man and woman in the Valley Forge Battle Group on the Murphy destroyers Ohlander and Stasheff, Plunkett artillery cruiser Nagato, the UBW Caernaven patrol frigate Condor, and the Fralthi II, "All personnel, pay attention," the Captain spoke in his best authoritative tone. "Under Emergency Decree 45A of the Border Worlds Senate, the Treaty of McAuliffe, the authority of Space Marshal J.R. Brenner of Vega ConFleet Operations, the authority of Rear Admiral Hanton of the Combined Fleet and the authority of Rear Admiral Kennedy of the Third Fleet, I am empowered to draft any willing and able fighting ship into our battle group.
"As such, I hereby officially draft the KIS Shrakhar ras Ktann and BWS Condor, with both their pilots and personnel, into not only the Valley Forge Battle Group but the Terran Confederation Space Navy and Space Force for the duration of our mission. Accordingly, the Shrakhar ras Ktann and Condor are henceforth the TCS Shrakhar and TCS Condor. The chain of command and ranking systems among the former Border Worlds Navy, Border Worlds Space Force, and Kilrathi members of our Battle Group are to be retained among the respectful crewsI dont want to shake things up any more than need be, but were all bearing the same flag now.
"In recognition of this unique convergence of Union of Border Worlds, Kilrathi Assembly of Clans, and Confederation crews, I also hereby entitle the Valley Forge Battle Group, CVBG-A -- Battle Group Auriga. Together we are going to hold the line against the Nephilim. Together we stand stronger. We will begin by holding the line, but additionally I plan to make sure Battle Group Auriga is there to help in pushing the line forward. Together we can help destroy this new threat.
"We are fighting for all of us, lest it be Terran, Border Worlder, kil, Landreicher, or any other species that we are in alliance with... we are here to preserve our way of life. I promise you that this battle group is going to have its share of bug crunching. We must prevail or we will lose our way of life, of thinking, of being. As the First Emperor Xag states in a maxim of the Fourth Codex, it is Better Death with claws extended than Life without honor. That is all."
Vandermann then quickly turned to his astronavigator-at-the-moment Ensign 2nd Class Warren Douglas. "Helmsman, set course for the Loki jump point. Best possible speed, and relay the message to all other ships in the battle group."
Vandermann then quickly left the bridge, presumably retiring to his cabin or ready room. With the Captain off the bridge and Commander Schaefer giving a tour of the Forge to their visitors, Lt. Commander Ishii was in temporary command. The bridge quickly descended into a cascade of no longer hushed whispering and muttering about the Captain.
"Well that was certainly interesting," Ishii commented, leaving her defense console to Ensign Milfort as she took the command chair.
"Got that right," Lt. St. Germain agreed. She glanced over at Ensign Jed Wright.
"Damn straight," the Ensign chimed. "Id say that was just about the the craziest thing hes done yet. Hell, he even quoted the Cat codices again!"
"Something is definitely fucked up around here... but Ill certainly never underestimate him again."
"One thingI guess we know now what the additional reinforcements are he was babbling about earlier..." Ensign Wright paused for a moment, looking around the bridge as if trying to find someone. He frowned, his gaze landing on Ensign Douglas, seated at Ensign Turners nav console. "Say, you havent seen Matt, have you, Amy? Warrens still covering for his ass."
"Last I heard he was... recuperating... in a certain someones quarters." Lt. St. Germain looked over to Lt. Cmdr. Ishii, exchanged a glance, then both women looked back to Wright with negatory nods.
TCS Valley Forge; Corridor
2324 Hours (CST)
The lift door hissing closed, Ensign Matt Turner exited and scurried down the corridor. He rounded the corner in hasteful strides, quickly finding the door he sought and stopping.
"Still on the bridge talking to that furball buddy of his... should be there for awhile. Wont be long before were in Loki..."
He overrode the locking mechanism on the door with the security card hed appropriated. Holding his breath and hesitating as the door hissed open, he entered the Captains spartan cabin. Immediately upon stepping in a gust of the cold, stale air that permeated the cabin washed over him -- the Captains preference, it must have been. Fitting.
Turners gaze swept over the mans quarters, finding it to be in disarray -- blankets and clothes strewn about. Not far from the door he curiously noted a C-244 pistol lying on the floor. Shrugging at it and walking in, he first noticed a picture a few feet from the pistol, the glass broken within the frame that held a photo of an older-looking woman with a girlish smile -- his wife?
He crouched down. Next to the picture, Turner noticed what looked like a broken vial of pills in pieces near one of the walls.
"Medicine, huh?" the Ensign whispered to himself. "No wonder the Captains so schizo -- he ran outta his damn meds. Or are they even legal?" Inspecting the splintered vial, he was unable to read the medical inscription on it and unwilling to waste the time necessary to put the pieces together so he could.
He walked over to the Captains bunk. He was drawn aback by the sight of movement, though was quickly relieved to see it was only a chubby tabby cat, coiled up and peacefully sleeping on the bed without paying any heed to the Ensign.
"Aw, doesnt that just figure?" Turner mused. "Hes got one for a boyfriend, why wouldnt he have one for a pet?"
Next to the cat, the bridge plaque of Vandermanns first command, impossible to miss, was resting on the nightstand beside an astray, the grim memoir displayed ceremoniously.
"TCS Odessa, CV-18," Ensign Turner read aloud softly, then gravely adding, "His first victim."
Moving on, he made his way to the Captains hardcopy file cabinet in the corner of the cabin. Drawing a palm-held, security-issue magnetic taser, he was quick to overload the lock. Hastily he began rooting through the Captains hardcopy file cabinet, immediately finding an assorted jumble of papers, some crumpled, some torn, some simply jammed in. Skimming over them -- most little more than TCIA and TCIB GI papers, others the triplicate copies of mundane manpower reports he must have written -- his fingers stopped over a particular set.
"Hello, whats this..."
Ensign Turner noted the set in question was emblazoned with the Strategic Readiness Agency header from the year 2673 and "Unit 212." An immediate burning curiosity came over him.
"SRA, eh, Vandermann?" he whispered to himself. "Unless Im mistaken, that was Tolwyns little shindig... and he was into that Black Projects Division shit. What oh what have you been up to these years, my dear Captain? Inquiring minds wanna know..."
Reading over the terse headlines, he flipped through the stack until he found two yellowing pairs of SRA papers held together by paperclips. Looking between them, there was no mistaking the black arm patch rather conspicuously nestled there -- an arm patch with a very familiar lightning bolt insignia pattern on it.
This... this he had not been expecting to find.
"My god..." Turner gasped loudly, wide-eyed in recognition of his finding. He retreated back a few steps. "Vandermann was in the Black Lance... the fucking Black Lance!"
He heard the door shut as he made his revelation known out loud. He then glanced over to where the C-244 pistol had been by the door -- it was gone. Ensign Turner peered up to see a silhouetted figure standing in the shadows near the doorway.
"You..." he seethed at the figure. His eyes suddenly widened as he made out the face. "But y -- "
Before he could finish his sentence, the young ensign was promptly shot in the face.
“Problems have solutions
A lifetime of fucking things up fixed in one determined flash.
in this world
the deepest shade of mushroom blue
spilling out of my head.”
- The Downward Spiral (NIN), 1994