|HOLDING THE LINE CHAPTER 117: FURTHER DOWN THE SPIRAL 1 (3/3)
"Holding The Line"
CARRIER BATTLE GROUP AURIGA, CVBG-A
"FURTHER DOWN THE SPIRAL"
Part One of Three
SOLDIERS OF FEAR
"All warfare is based on deception."
- Sun Tzu
Andrew "Neo" Modeen [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Jason "Dundradal" McHale [email@example.com]
James Andrew "JAG" Greenhow [Rambo.firstname.lastname@example.org]
Daniel "Bugfix" Klette [email@example.com]
Nathan "Monolith" Johnson [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Jeremy "Hollywood" Johnson [email@example.com]
TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Rec Room
1155 Hours (CST) 13 Feb 2681/2681.44
Cockroaches have lived and endured for millions of years. In an age of
Darwinism, they've stood the test of time with little need for the benefit of evolution. Hell, in the grand scheme of things, when all the chips are cashed in, they are probably set to outlive the human race.
The roach in the rec room of the Forge's pilot country skittered across the floor, on the prowl for some much-needed nourishment. This roach has lived for a long while indeed. Under the noses of the humans, Firekkans, and the couple of Wu working together on the ship it called called home, it has seen many battles on board the TCS Valley Forge. It would have seemed safe to say that this roach has seen a lot and will see a lot more to come yet.
In a single instant, in a fraction of a second, the roach was crushed by the boot of a young pilot by the name of 1st Lieutenant Nobert "Blitz" Bauer, one of the 722nd "Mosquitoes."
"Shit, now I got this crap on my boot," Blitz grumbled. He regained his composure and sauntered over to the rest of his fellow pilots at their respective table. He saw Lisa "Nitefall" Alkofer, Edwin "Daz" Dauzz, and his CO, Major Kurt "Coroner" Powell awaiting the grace of his presence.
"Who was that?" Blitz asked. With a nod he indicated the two pilots that had been bickering with the Aztecs on the other side of the room.
"That," Kurt responded, "that was those two newbies from the Bunker Hill."
"They were kinda cute," Nitefall said, in a surprisingly girlish fashion.
"Oh, shut up," Kurt replied, just a hint of jealousy in his voice. He had always had something of a crush on her since they'd started flying together. As wingmen he'd always felt a certain bond with the woman, a connection that defied their traditional wingman-wing leader roles... he never quite decided to hope it was love or hope it wasn't. But Kurt put that thought out of his mind for the time being.
It's different now, right? Kurt thought to himself. I'm not just her wingman anymore... I'm squadron commander now. End of case... isn't it?
Kurt looked around the room and noticed the worst thing he could have feared to see.
The Cats were a fierce species. Felinoid and some as tall as eight feet, they were at least twice the mass of the humans they had been locked in war with for so many blood-strewn years.
Kurt's hatred of the Kilrathi didn't die with the end of the Kilrathi Wars. He made no secret of it.
Major Powell put his hand over his chest as they passed to go and get another drink from the bartender. On the way back they sat down at Bugfix's table with the White Hopes. They began to exchange the usual pleasantries, catching up with each other, and even getting to know the Cats that had joined them at the table.
"What's wrong?" Lisa asked, concerned.
"Nothing, 'Lis. I think I need to get some sleep," Kurt replied.
"I'll walk you back to the barracks."
"Only if you want to leave." They both got up, leaving Daz and Blitz to battle it out in their never-ending championship to see who can drink the most. As they started walking out, one of the Cats looked over at Kurt and muttered something in Kilrathi to one of his comrades.
Kurt snapped. He marched up to the Cat and got in his face, even if he had to look up to do it. Lisa was right behind him.
"What did you say, mother fucker?"
"I said nothing that concerns you, friend," the Cat responded, followed by a low growling noise characteristic of Kilrathi speech.
"Fuck you and fuck your whole goddamn race!" Kurt snarled, more than a little angrily. "If you want to say something about someone, you say it to their face. That's just a little piece of advice, furry."
The Cat stood up and showed his fangs, unconsciously unsheathing his claws. "My brethren and I are on your ship as allies... we will honor our pact as such." Another growl. "But if you are challenging a Warrior of Kilrah, then come, human. I will tear you apart limb from limb."
Major Powell didn't flinch. "Bring it on, mother fucker! It wouldn't be the first time I killed a Cat with my bare hands."
Dan Burdock stood up and tried to get between them. "Come on, guys, let's just sit down and have a couple drinks," the White Hopes' CO coaxed. "You know... mellow out and act like the allies we're supposed to be. Shall we?" Just when Dan turned his back, Kurt lunged forward to attack the Cat. Dan turned around and grabbed a hold of Kurt's shirt, ripping it open and revealing something Kurt never thought he would show to anyone. Across Kurt's chest was five scars roughly matching those of a Kilrathi's claws. Some of the spectators in the rec room watching the argument stood in shock as they saw the scars.
Lisa looked away from his chest as she grabbed his hand. "Come on, Major, let's get out of here."
"Okay... okay," Kurt agreed. With that, they took their leave of the rec room.
The tension was going to be very high while the Kilrathi were on board,
Lisa knew. She could only hope that she could find out what had happened to Kurt and why he had such hatred toward the Kilrathi.
Major Frederick "Doppler" von Richthofen's stern expression dissolved into a friendly smile with a force of will as he entered the flight wing rec room, which looked like it had just settled down after something of a scene. The grim feeling he was having had little to do with their current situation, as he'd seen worse towards the end of the First Kilrathi War and later during the Incident, from which he'd never quite recovered. Instead, it had more to do with a decision he'd made just minutes ago during a discussion with 'ol Screwloose down in the hangar deck. He pushed away the dark thoughts as he spotted his squadron mates in the VF-14 "Talons." Stefani and Seth were having a conversation in a secluded corner of the room, well away from their Confed "compatriots."
"Damn it! I hate this assignment," Captain Stefani "Torch" Kozlowski hissed. "The whole damned crew is depressed, the Captain's crazy, and
Confee tactics and regs suck the-"
"Easy there," Seth "Anubis" Milhalik interrupted. "You're too sober to be that riled up."
"Yeah, I know. Still, give us some of those..." She paused, looking around before continuing in a much softer voice, "Give us some of those captured Dragons and we'll send the whole damned bug fleet home."
"Those fighters are overrated," came a new voice, causing her to jump.
"Damn it, Frederick, don't sneak up on me like that!"
"Yeah, well you need to keep little secrets like that quiet," the Major aid with a smile as he sat down at the table. He took one glance at the rinks his two friends had and picked one up. "What's this swag?" he asked, aking in a whiff of the pungent drink's odor, and wincing as if in pain. "Gads, how can you drink this stuff? Budweiser? For heaven's sake, you've got to try the real stuff," he said, placing a large glass bottle on the table."
"What's that?" Seth asked warily.
Frederick grinned. "The best, and original, German beer. Not that watered-down... stuff they serve here. I'll be back in a minute." He left the bottle on the table, walking over to the bar to retrieve three beer steins and a corkscrew. As he turned to head back to his squadron's table, he noticed six pilots wearing Border Worlds colors enter the bar. One of them said something to one of the Confed pilots, who pointed right at Frederick. The Major set the glasses down on the bar as they walked over.
"Some of Hanton's Dauntless gang... reinforcements," Stefani muttered.
"Those B-7s... now *those* crates aren't overrated. Forty-five meters of ship killin' potential, you better believe..."
The pilots, four men and two women, walked over nonchalantly. One woman, whose UBW Space Force uniform bore lieutenant's bars, stepped forward and spoke, "We're formerly of the 84th HBS 'Thor's Hammer' Squadron. I'm First Lieutenant Melinda Fitzroy-"
"We're on a Confederation carrier, Lieutenant. Where are those salutes?" Richthofen sternly interrupted. Taken aback, the Border Worlder pilots glanced at each other in confusion before turning back to the Major and flipping him off textbook-perfect.
Richthofen doubled over with laughter, bracing one arm against the bar to keep from falling over, and drawing the attention of most of the other squadrons. "God, it's about time we got a few more sane people on this tub!" he said much more jovially. "I'm Major Frederick von Richthofen, CO of Talon Squadron," he said, extending his hand. "I take it you're the bunch from the BWS Valeria?"
Fitzroy smiled and nodded, shaking Frederick's hand. "That's us," she said. "I'm Melinda 'Python' Fitzroy. This here's First Lieutenant David
'Gattling' Jenkins." Frederick shook the man's hand. "And these are Second Lieutenants Cindy 'Oddball' Garrenger, Michael 'Thorn' Richardson, Kefka 'Broke It' Daniels, and Ferris 'Twinkie' Douglas." Melinda gestured to each of the pilots as she introduced them, Frederick shaking their hands.
"Twinkie?" Richthofen asked with a raised eyebrow.
"Please, don't ask. You're really better off not knowing," Python replied.
"Uh-huh," Frederick said, but left it alone. "Okay, we'll need six more steins. If a couple of you could help me here...?"
The group carried the large mugs over to the table, "requisitioning" a few more chairs along the way. Once back at the table, there was another round of introductions, and a trading of a couple of short stories while Frederick poured the beer.
"So, have you met ol' Screwloose yet?" Seth asked, knowing the answer immediately by the expressions on their faces.
"Oh yeah," Ferris chimed in. "Have to say that handle fits him really well."
"Yeah, the stuff he wants to do to our bombers..." Melinda said, trailing off in disbelief. "He seemed a little angry about somethin', too."
"That's my fault," Stefani said. "One of the bugs chewed up my 'Vin real bad last mission. It's taken the better part of two days and scrounging from the Confed storage to fix the old girl. Needless to say, he was not happy about that."
"That's an understatement," Seth said with a chuckle.
"Ah, there we go," Frederick said, cutting off a reply from Cindy. "Heh, what do ya know? Exactly enough for one round," he said with a large smile. "Well, if that's not a good sign, I don't know what is." The others grabbed their 'steins and Frederick raised his in a toast. "To all the Talons, both new and long departed! Welcome to the team!" The nine squadron mates clinked their steins together, sloshing some beer on the table with a resounding "Hear, hear!" and turned up their end to take a draft. After the toast, the nine Talons sat back to exchange stories and anecdotes in lively banter greatly contrasting the gloom of the other squadrons.
At long last, the Talons were a squadron once again.
TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Barracks
1220 Hours (CST)
Fatboy had always thought he knew what fear was, and that he had conquered it. But now he wasn't sure anymore. He had felt the adrenaline coursing through his veins, and the hammering of his heart pumping that adrenaline to his tightening muscles. Then either the explosive action in which all else was forgotten, or the anti-climactic "cooling down" period, and the relief that came with it, the drained, washed out feeling that came after the high. But now, his nerves felt like they had been stretched beyond endurance. Before, he never had to clench his buttocks and will himself not to void his churning bowels. He hadn't known what "shit-scared" really meant. Now his stomach quailed even at the little things. He'd thought these feelings would subside in a few days, that he'd get over it, but they were still there. His body was in turmoil, pumping chemicals into his system to prompt the "fight-or-flight" response even at the smallest threat, but all he felt was "flight." There seemed to be no fight left in him.
He looked into the mirror and wiped away the flecks of spittle around his mouth. He hardly recognized the face that stared back with scared eyes in sunken sockets, skin sagging from already gaunt features. Despite himself, he vomited again, a dry retch from an already emptied stomach.
He knew it wasn't the booze.
The door quivered. Fists banged on it.
"You okay in there?"
"Yeah," spluttered Fatboy, "just a bit too much to drink."
Ronin emerged from the toilets in the 397th's barracks and instinctively wiped his hands on his fatigue pants. They were still damp from washing them, but it was between the fingers and the moisture remained. He shrugged inwardly; air-blower hand dryers never worked properly. Suddenly, some sixth sense told him he was being watched. He could feel the gaze upon him. He looked around, searching for the eyes burning into him. His gaze met that of Major Angela "Draft" Rai, his XO. Her eyes said, "I need to talk to you."
"How can I help you?" Ronin inquired as soon as she was close enough to hear him.
"What do you make of the two new guys?"
"I was going to ask you the same question."
"They're both experienced pilots," Draft said carefully, "and Captain
Elliot is a competent flight leader. Technically he's even senior to
"I hear a 'but'..." prompted Nawazaki.
"But I'm not quite sure of their fitness to fly. Mentally, I mean-it's difficult to tell, not knowing them before, but Lt. Little at least is certainly showing signs of 'twitch.'"
"Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome?" Ronin suggested.
"Or simply the onset of combat fatigue."
"Hardly surprising. They're not the only ones. The 71st has suffered 40% losses so far... just about that many pilots and fighters gone, not counting all the hangar queens we've got sitting idly out on the flight deck. Everyone has lost friends. I think if you looked you'd find quite a few pilots exhibiting symptoms. Morale is very low on board, and having an effect... I rate our current combat effectiveness at 50% or less."
"I still think we should pull them off the flight roster, at least for a day or two."
"No. I don't think that's a good idea at all. Firstly they are helping to relieve the load on the other pilots in the squadron, who, as I've said, are stressed, too. Secondly, it may damage morale further. Theirs and the Aztecs. Thirdly, those two have been to hell and back. They want to fight, and we need them. I don't believe they're a danger to themselves or the other Aztecs, so, no. Unless they ask to be taken off temporarily, or turn in their wings, they stay on the flight roster. All right?"
"Okay, boss." She knew he was right, of course. The Forge and everyone on her needed to be rotated out of the frontline for a few days. Hell, every ship in the Fleet did. It just wasn't possible. Maybe she was worrying for nothing-they had enough problems without imagining more, but even so, something about those two made her uneasy.
"How are you bearing up?" Draft asked Ronin, changing tact.
"Me?" A shrug. "I'm all right."
She studied him closely. Outwardly he appeared calm and collected-a sign of inner peace or merely a front? She looked into his dark eyes, the windows to the soul. They were melancholy, but nothing more. No signs of tension, fear, or worry, just a great sadness. Was it the deaths of several of the Aztecs, or his friend Alan "The Orchin Man" Cardoso? Or something else? What had happened to him on that planet before he returned from the dead?
Something still nagged at her gut, but Rai was not now sure where to look for the problem. She was looking elsewhere for trouble, but what of herself? Was she suffering from stress? Or fear?
The doubts and fears she had over the last couple of days should have eased. She had worried about the fate of Voodoo, Ronin, and Matt Turner. Mixed news-Voodoo was dead, although the lack of details forthcoming from Ronin was disquieting, allayed somewhat by his miraculous return from the dead. There was again a great weight removed from her shoulders with him back as CO. And Matt... what had happened to Matt Turner? Guiltily she admitted to herself that his disappearance had slipped her mind under the pressure of her personal fears. There is nothing like the death of a friend to make you ponder your own mortality.
People in high risk jobs, racing drivers, fighter pilots, cops and such all believed "it could never happen to me." They were invincible. If they stopped believing that, they lost their edge, and their edge was what kept them alive. Occasionally, a comrade or colleague would "buy the farm" (fighter pilots never said "die") and for a few days, perhaps even a couple of weeks, nagging doubts would creep in, until sooner or later you'd convince yourself that it was their own fault, that the guy had screwed up, and that since you were good, the best, it couldn't happen to you. But in a war, when it happens like this, over and over again, the constant reminders of your own mortality, the doubts remain. And grow. You think about death. Suddenly you are no longer one of the 5%, the aces who get nearly half the kills in any war, you are simply another statistic. You lose your edge.
It's war. People die. Big deal-everybody dies, sooner or later. So it's sooner-so what? If you say it often enough, you might start to believe it, and you keep flying. But the constant doubts remain: Have I still got my edge?
Ronin was a warrior, in the vein of his ancestors. A warrior in whose body beat the heart of a samurai. Though separated from them by a millennium, he tried to follow their ways and code of honor. Two days ago, Ronin had considered seppuku, the ritual Japanese suicide, but had not performed it. Was that cowardice or bravery on his part, he mused? The Orchin Man had nearly committed suicide out of cowardice, but in the end had embraced death in a noble sacrifice. On the other hand, the two 'Hill pilots had chosen life over death, bravely. By saving themselves and their aircraft from oblivion, rather than staying to meet an easy death, they had gained more honor than by throwing their lives away senselessly. As it was for himself-he could not take the easy way out-the Aztecs were his responsibility, and he could not turn away from it. He could not leave them or delegate their problems to Draft. As much as he felt he had lost his personal honor on the surface of Nephele II-he knew he could regain none now by taking his own life.
Vandermann, the Forge, and the internal drama that seemed to be playing itself out within the ship-all of it was secondary. Ronin would take the only honorable course presented to him now... and live.
TCS Valley Forge; Auxiliary Engineering
2150 Hours (CST)
"Raul... hey, Raul? Where your skinny ass at?"
Cautiously at first, MCPO Modeen, the gruff Deck Boss of the Forge's flight deck, made his way into the tight, surprisingly enclosed environs of the Auxiliary Engine Chamber. He'd left Chief Master Sergeant Deitreich, the FCO, primarily in charge on the Deck in his absence. After checking the expanse of Main Engineering for a head count, he'd been informed by Chief Engineer Julie Reddy that a young spaceman by the name of Raul Jones was the only hand unaccounted for at the moment, though he could very well have just been taking a smoke break in the wardroom.
Modeen milled about at first, straining his vision about the ill-lit chamber, looking for any sign of any person or persons still at their post at this late hour. His cursory visual search turning up nothing, he was nearly ready to give up and leave when he made his discovery: legs, poking out of the array of pipes adjacent to a plasma conduit.
Approaching the legs, he soon found their owner. A male officer lying face-down in a soiled uniform. Rigor mortis had apparently set in, by the look of it. His skin had a light blue tint to it, the veins having a more purple tint to them. Clotted blood was soaked into the fabric of his uniform around his collar, neck, and down his back.
A clearly defined hole was visible in the back of the body's head. By the look of it, it had been a well-trained enough gunshot that had done this unfortunate officer in; a face-shot at relative close range. Modeen wrinkled his nose, gauging by the hole's smoothness at first that it was left by a laser pistol of some variety. It was about at that moment that his expertise in ballistics-if somewhat limited-kicked in, telling him it was more likely left by a slug of something more crude, perhaps an older style of a Marine handgun; likely gauss-based.
Rolling the body over with a boot, the rank tabs and name-plate told Modeen the rest of the story.
"What the fuck is... aw, shit..."
Ensign Matthew Turner, "Matt" to his friends on the bridge. Missing for days, now...
"Dead," Modeen finally brought voice to his discovery, "*Murdered*."
"Oh? Is that a fact?"
Modeen turned at the sound of the deep voice-a hauntingly familiar one-his gaze slowly shifting to the newcomer now looming over him from the entryway. In the shock of his discovery he hadn't even noticed the door open behind him.
"A bit contagious... wouldn't it seem?"
Another gunshot, just as well-trained. MCPO Modeen was dropped instantly, his blood, skull, and brains spattering across the conduit behind him. Muffled by the enclosed environs, mixed with the droning hum of the Forge's engine core, the shot rang out on deaf ears.
Calmly and methodically, the figure gathered himself and exited the chamber, not a worry on his mind.
TCS Valley Forge; Operations Planning Center
2203 Hours (CST)
As the last officer found his way to his seat in the OPC, the
2200-scheduled Combat Assessment Meeting could begin now in earnest. As everyone gathered within the room was fully aware of, it was a well-known formality-the customary meeting of the higher-ups; the touching of bases before the flyers were buzzed to the Flight Wing Rec Room for the next day's missions.
A very weary Colonel Natasha Trebek looked about the room, observing the familiar faces from the bridge staff and the COs with their deputies from her 71st FW. The beady eyes of Lt. Commander Coliver, forever the resident "spook," haunted her as she gathered herself. Seeing everything in satisfaction, she cleared her throat, then began, "As you are aware, our TARCAP and FORCAP sorties ahead of CVBG-A's heading are long over with. As you are also aware, all of which have been thus far unsuccessful in pinpointing the location of the Tiamat-class dreadnought and its battle group." A number of sighs were heard, along with the sound of men and women shuffling in their seats. "At this point there is little more I tell you of the big picture, as there is very little new we know." Natasha addressed two of the 71st COs, "Major Hartmann, Major Powell-you are to immediately begin preparation of the Mosquitoes and White Hopes for a FORCAP recon mission-"
Major Paul "Kraut" Hartmann raised from his seat to offer protest on behalf of the squadron he had only recently taken command of, "Colonel, I-"
Trebek sympathetically waved him back down, predicting the protest. She finished her sentence, "... for tomorrow morning. No later than 0630 tomorrow I want wings of the White Hopes and Mosquitoes flying in tandem-'Squitoes flying point and Hopes flying backup-and make no mistake about it... that dreadnought group is to be found. No excuses." She nodded at the head spook. "Lt. Commander Coliver here will supply you with the necessary up-to-the-minute intelligence."
In later conclusion, Trebek advised the squadron COs to tell their pilots to get some rest while they can. She wished she could afford to follow her own advice.
Alone to her paperwork in the minutes thereafter, she was only dimly aware when the fateful announcement rang over the PA.
TCS Valley Forge; Auxiliary Engineering
2230 Hours (CST)
The bodies of Ensign Matthew Turner and MCPO Antoine Modeen, discovered by the engineering staff on or around 2210 Hours Confed Standard Time, had been removed to the infirmary only minutes ago.
It had been a long time since Lt. Commander Ethan Coliver had felt more in his element. No more reports, summaries, and so many other pieces of daily miscellany-he was now given the opportunity to solve the biggest mystery plaguing the Forge and her battle group since they had left Nephele. Left to ponder the murder of the formerly missing bridge officer at the scene of the crime while his subordinates and medical staff did their work, Coliver was still running one troubling fact through his mind...
The murder weapon had been left behind. In plain sight, no less. It was an old, Marine-issue C-244 M7 Pistol, certainly not of the variety that would be seen in the Corps today.
"Commander, sir," one of Coliver's Intell boys by the name of Lieland addressed him suddenly, his youthful face lighting up with his eyes, "Sir, this gun... it's registered under a man by the name of 'Armin.' An Armin Joseph... Vandermann." All eyes turned to the officer. "Whoever killed Turner and Modeen was using the handgun of the Captain's father."
"Very well. Good work, Salazar." Coliver nodded in satisfaction at the officer. He pursed his lips, duty overcoming his features. He turned tightly on his heels to the two Marines by the door. "Under the circumstances, the course of action on my part seems clear-the order is given for the arrest of Captain Eldon Vandermann." As the Marines gave a brief nod of acknowledgement, saluted, and left the chamber, Coliver's gaze traveled the room, understanding the weight of the order he had just given.
No one offered any protest. The order was to be carried out.
TO BE CONTINUED...