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"Holding The Line" Campaign
Carrier Battle Group Auriga, CVBG-A

"Further Down the Spiral"

Part One of Three: "Soldiers of Fear" (1/3)

"All warfare is based on deception."

- Sun Tzu

Written by...

Andrew "Neo" Modeen []
Jason "Dundradal" McHale []
James Andrew "JAG" Greenhow []
Daniel "Bugfix" Klette []
Nathan "Monolith" Johnson []
Jeremy "Hollywood/Echo" Johnson []

Planet Earth; Colombo, Sri Lanka
"The Lakes" Retirement Community
The Sol System, Terra Quadrant, Sol Sector
MAY 9 2749 (2749.129) 2020 Hours (CST)

So much pain... so many regrets... sooner or later, it all caught up with a man. No escape; no shelter, not for anybody.

Never. Not in the end.

In the solitude-though perhaps not today, which made it quite unique in and of itself-of the place he called home, an elderly man let the top button of his cotton tunic loose and reclined in his comforter. He exhaled softly, letting the smooth aroma of his herbal tea of choice-Ginseng-be drawn into his nostrils before taking careful sips.

Outside, the bustle of everyday life in Sri Lanka could be heard. The indecipherable (he preferred it that way) chatter of the locals, the whine of the inescapable air traffic lanes, and the sound of a Tri-D television in the background-it was far from a 100% tranquil locale, but then one must remember that finding a 100% tranquil locale on Earth in the mid twenty-eighth century was a virtual impossibility. One seeking any kind of true tranquility and peace of mind had to go far beyond Earth, beyond Sol, to the outlying colonies in the Hawking, Avalon, or even Argent sectors. This truth suggested to the man that it wasn't truly Zen-like "tranquility and peace of mind" he sought but an atmosphere that still allowed him to glimpse some semblance of/be part of in some small way normal, everyday humanity on its homeworld... only this being from afar, lost, alone, and incognito within a country and culture on Earth that was likely as alien to him as he was to them.

"Ah, Jediah... Mr. Wright, sir..." came the soft, yet urgent feminine voice of the man's guest.

"'Sir'? Oh, no more of that, miss, please," he responded, knowing the infamous journalist was trying to be as polite as she could, but was growing impatient. He suggested, "My friends call me 'Jed.'" The man suddenly averted his tired glance, realizing his choice of words. "At least... they did... when they were alive."

Vice-Admiral (Ret.) Jediah Wright, having dwelled for some time in his quaint suburban residence, provided to him at the expense of the Terran taxpayers he'd defended in his younger years, was perfectly content to live as much in recluse as modern day society would allow. He valued his solitude, ignored his loneliness, and lived each day in quiet reflection. He'd come to enjoy writing in his old age, which partially explained why he didn't turn the woman-the journalist-that had come knocking on his door hours ago away immediately.

"Oh, don't mind me, miss. Just an old man out of his time... we're a dime a dozen." A wizened, good-humored smile spread across his face. "I'm ready to continue when you are, Ms. Chen," the elderly man spoke. He gave the woman one more glance before turning to stare wistfully out the scenic veranda windows adjacent to the deck.

The journalist, "Michele Chen from G.E.T. Holo-Mag" she'd introduced herself as (and there had been a genuine moment of what looked like hurt or at least something close to it when she realized he really, honestly didn't recognize her as the celebrity she obviously seemed to be in at least her own mind... Jed couldn't say. Maybe she *was* for all he knew-he didn't watch TV or read the holo-news or any such frivolous activities), crossed her legs and adjusted the thin-rimmed glasses she wore evidently only to appear eccentric. "If you're ready then I'm ready, Mr. Wright." She paused, and then added thoughtfully, "Sir."

"Sir?" Jed rasped. He fidgeted in his comforter, suddenly finding it unconforming to his shape. "Again with the 'sirs.' Yes, yes, I was called that once. Not too long ago, I think..."

"It's been almost thirty years since you left the Space Navy, Mr. Wright. It's the year 2749 and you just celebrated your ninety-fourth birthday last month."

Okay, so she had done her homework on him. Apart from locating his address and tracking him down-something he'd thought he'd made sure was next-to-impossible for any would-be prying eyes-Jed wasn't impressed. "Yes, I know that-you don't think I know that?" he snapped, a little more sharply than he thought he should have afterward. "Forgive me, I... I..." he let himself trail off, and then sunk back into his seat. "These days... the years all blend into one. Not even sure what year this is, you know? Every day...damn it... I feel myself slipping further... further..."

"Mr. Wright...?"

"Further down... to what, I don't know... death, insanity... whatever the hell it is at the bottom; at the end. Maybe nothing?" He paused, considering his words. "Would that be so bad? Sometimes... sometimes I'm not sure."

"I-I... don't follow."

Her sagely host shook his head, hoping to rid himself of that train of thought. He knew where it led; a place he had found himself running from for longer than he would allow himself to remember. "Forgive me." He continued shaking his head, muttering to himself in a scornful manner. "Forgive me... my words are unnerving you. I forget my manners... forget that I am in the presence of a lady."

The journalist managed a sincere enough smile. "You had been talking about the Forge, Mr. Wright," she said, trying to steer the conversation back on course. She had a documentary to write, after all, and heaven help the war vet from a time long forgotten who got in her way. "The TCS Valley Forge and her battle group."

A pained look crossed the elderly man's face. "That again... that..."

"History records what happened during that time... the efforts of the heroic Admiral Hanton's Combined Fleet against the 'Nephilim' Aliens of the time, the ships that went down, the lives lost..." The journalist hesitated, seemingly only just now wondering if bringing this subject up with her host was such a good idea. "I'd like to hear it from you."

"I-I... I knew you were going somewhere with this... hoping you wouldn't..." Wright found himself trailing off again. He scolded himself for sounding so feeble, but... the memories! He sat upright then, a more determined but no less tired look coming about him. "CVBG-A... the proudest of the proud, the fewest of the few..." he broke off, perhaps for effect, "... the dead. You want to know about the Forge, Ms. Chen?"

"Like I said, I want to hear it from you. If that's possible, of course."

He let her in, she must have known that was easily more than half the battle right there. All bullshit aside, Jed had accepted the possibility that there was a great burden lying buried in that horrible year of 2681...perhaps even as he sat wasting away in solitude past the prime of even his golden years, the thought had crossed his mind that maybe getting the whole thing off his chest might relieve the burden and pain of it. Even a *portion* of it would make it worthwhile, he'd figured one night. If there was the possibility that some of that hurt, that pain, that regret-any of it-could be lifted from his psyche after the passing of more decades than he really kept track of, then so be it he was opening his door to media circus and hoopla for one evening out of his life to do it. Small price.

"Then you'll hear it," the sagely veteran promised. "I'll tell you every bit. You've read the history books I'm sure, so I'm not going to bore you with details you already know. You know how it begins; you know how it ends, am I right?" It was what was in between that even avid students of TCN history had never known about the TCS Valley Forge's involvement in the "war" of 2681, could be naught but oblivious to. He hadn't kept in touch with the men and women that had escaped the Forge after what had happened, but he knew from the look in each and every one of their eyes that they would never on their children's lives gossip or recount what had happened to any writer of the media or likely anyone at all. No one wanted to remember, not even for the good name of "history".

Jed was tired of burying the past; sick and tired of pretending nothing happened, lying unconvincingly to himself even as he'd watch himself slowly turn into a feeble, elderly recluse prepared to die alone over the whole damned ordeal as long as the lie was clutched until the very end. If there was truly an afterlife that awaited him in the not-too-distant future and not just the black void of absolute thoughtless nothing, then he didn't want to go there as the guilt-ridden, bitter old man whose prolonged life was regarded as a curse, not a gift that he had become in his old age.

The host's now-reddened eyes narrowed as he leaned closer, the wrinkles that had been both noticeable and unnoticeable creasing visibly on the man's face. The true extremity of his age was laid bare, a lonely, frustrated man not far under the surface if one bothered to look close enough. He hoped against hope the open ear the young woman offered him truly meant she would listen to what he had to say for what it was truly worth, not just headlines or popularity points toward whatever masses she had in whatever non-official or official fan club she had in the media.

"February, the year 2681," Jediah began at last. It was neither that the words were difficult for him to find-they weren't-or even that he just didn't know how to most accurately tell his tale,-it wasn't-no, if anything was weighing his tongue, it was the working of up the nerve to finally open up to another person with a matter he wasn't even comfortable opening up to himself with. He went on without delay, "Ah, yes... Hanton was having us play a little game of hide and seek... cat and mouse, as it were..."



TCS Valley Forge; Wardroom
En route back to Loki-Nephele jump point
The Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 13 2681/2681.044; 1005 Hours (CST)

Today the atmosphere aboard the Forge was a mixed bag. On the one hand, the crew was rested. It had been three days since Operation Scour was carried out on and over Nephele II, and the pilots, Marines, and crewmen among the battle group- ConFleet, Border Worlder, and Kilrathi alike- had enjoyed an uneventful jump transit into Loki. On the other hand, the tension was nearly at the boiling point.

For the Navy hands taking a break in the wardroom following a not-so-friendly game of poker at their usual table, there were only questions. Questions without answers...

"And just where the hell is Matt? Does anyone know? Does anyone even wonder anymore?" Lt. Commander Erin Ishii, the only one not drinking at the table, burst amidst the discussion. With the Captain off the Forge for the moment on a tour of the now-TCS Shrak'har, the bridge crew was free to speak their minds, as they were prone to do in his absence. "It's been three days... he didn't get lost!"

Lt. JG Amy St. Germain could only offer a helpless shrug toward her friend and crewmate. "I wish I knew, Erin. I know how much he means to you."

"I bet our pal Vandermann took care of him," Ensign Jed Wright sneered, slamming his downed glass on the table and sliding it across. Even before they'd come aboard the Valley Forge, Wright and Ensign Turner had been best friends from the Service Academy, much in the same way Ishii and St. Germain were. Their shared posting had been the luck of the draw, but suddenly it didn't seem so lucky anymore.


"Yeah, you heard me," he snarled. "I bet he *killed* him. Matt was sounding pretty dedicated to finding out more about the Captain's background, wasn't he? Well, maybe he got too close is all I'm suggesting. Maybe he got too close and he got *whacked*."

"This is a Confederation carrier, Ensign Wright," inputted the sullen WC, Colonel Natasha Trebek, "not the Mafia. Besides, there's no body."

"So?" Wright pressed the matter. "Coulda flushed the body out an airlock... threw it down a waste chute to be jettisoned..."

Trebek gave a steady shake of her head, unwilling to consider the Ensign's words. "Listen to yourself. You're suggesting our Captain is in the business of going around killing his crew."

"But can we really put it past him?" That came from Lt. Commander Ishii, continuing the paranoia. But was it truly paranoia? "First he orders half our Marines to their deaths on that Hydra, denies our pilots with damaged fighters to land, leaves the Forstchen and Hood no choice but to sacrifice themselves in battle, lets another good share of our Marines get wiped out on Neph II, then is calling in the Kilrathi without so much as the slightest explanation... and now he trades the Stasheff away-with all five fighters-to the Yorktown bunch like she's nothing. I mean, sure, the Yorktown's ferryin' the new CO of the Third Fleet around nowadays, but honestly... for *what*? Those two Panther pilots from the Bunker Hill? We can use the fighters, granted, but that's just two pilots and both are probably psych headcases after everything they've been through. Gods, what's Vandermann *doing*?"

Colonel Trebek shook her head. "Even right now Captain Elliot and Lieutenant Little are out there flying... TARCAP ahead of us, looking for the enemy Hanton is having us intercept. Didn't even get a second to catch their breath when they arrived... just back out into the foray. Nothing I can do but follow orders and ask them to do it, too."

"I pity those two," Ensign Wright spoke up again. "They lose the 'Hill only to come here... where the same damned thing is going to happen to the Forge if Captain Hook keeps having his merry way."

"Just what the hell are we turning back toward the jump point for, anyway?" Ensign Douglas inquired. "Vandermann never did get around to mentioning what Hanton said in that transmission he received, you know."

Ensign Douglas sighed. "I just wanna know what Vandermann's got up his sleeve... I don't trust the bastard."

"His only friend is a fucking Cat. What do you expect?" Wright muttered scornfully. "Why, right this second he's seeing his furry boyfriend on that Fralthi... god only knows what's going through his mind anymore."

"We could always have the doc pronounce him unfit for command... have our boy Commander Schaefer take over," St. Germain suggested. "I wouldn't shed any tears over it, that's for damned sure. And, hey Erin, you'd even get to be the new XO." Erin gave a dismal grunt, St. Germain's small attempt to at least make her smile failing.

"Well, what now?" Colonel Trebek asked, no one willing to venture a response to St. Germain's suggestion. "Amy, you run the Comm Shack. You talk to those guys in our Intell Office. You know what's going on out there? I'm as much out of the loop as the rest of you."

Amy cocked an eyebrow. "Do you really want to know? I mean, everything that's coming in and out is R2 classified for Captain's eyes only so I don't know or anything... but do you *really* want to know? I'm not so sure I do anymore."

"For one thing, this stealth mode mandate by Hanton is ridiculous," groaned Ensign 2nd Class Rebecca Milfort, the junior tactical officer who ran the sensor console on the bridge. "We can't even use the Forge's active sensors...and SWACS is out of the question, too, because of the power signatures they give off. We're counting on our pilots to ID the enemy up close and personal... and what if they don't come back?"

"Then we get this cat and mouse shit over with and end our bug hunt," grumbled Wright. "Let the motherfucking xenos come."

Milfort nodded, understanding Wright's sentiment if not wholly sharing it. "I just wish I knew what was going on out there."

"Out *there*?" Lt. Ishii asked. "Christ, Jed, what about in *here*?"

No answers, only questions. Questions without answers...


TCS Shrak'har; Warriors' Hall
1015 Hours (CST)

The makeshift Warriors' Hall of the former KIS Shrak'har ras Kt'ann was lined with murals and intricate tapestries depicting long since deceased Kilrathi warriors.

One in particular caught the eye of Captain Eldon Vandermann. It was of none other than Xag, writer of the maxims in the Ten Kilrathi Codices, depicted as the greatly revered kil was overlooking one of the great civil battles of the Dynastic Wars. Eldon had been introduced to Xag and the codices by his longtime friend, and Proconsul of Clan Vukar Tag, Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak, who, sitting on the other end of the table, eagerly sipped at his morning jirak.

"Do you like that one, Eldon?" Catharx, as if reading Eldon's mind pointed to the tapestry of Xag, a great prophet in his time and First Emperor to the ancient First Kilrathi Empire. "Yes, I always did enjoy Dynastic artwork... well, ever since you first showed it to me on Mjollnir." Catharx paused for a moment as his mind rushed back more then ten years to Project Goliath and the refitting of the ex-KIS Karga, now FRLS Mjollnir. "It has been many years since I thought about the time spent on him. He was a good ship."

Eldon was reminded of the cultural variance in the Kilrathi's thinking of their vessels as masculine rather than feminine. "That he was. I wish we were still in those times, Catharx. Life was so much easier back then. Working with people who weren't doing it for any other reason than to save lives and protect themselves. Today, I just don't know anymore." Catharx could detect an audible waver in Eldon's speech. Something was eating at him. Catharx had noticed it ever since Eldon sent him the communiqué informing him of the Forge's situation and requesting his assistance several weeks ago. It had been the most disturbing thing Catharx had ever received from Eldon. Catharx had felt it his duty as his closest friend to report to his position with no second thoughts. It had been a hard journey, with the loss of his son and many of his clan in the attack by the Nephilim. Yet Catharx had persevered to reach his closest friend.

"Times are always changing, Eldon. With all the upheavals at Cynium and then the Treaty at McAuliffe, everything is a mixed matched. But the times on Mjollnir were some of the best of my life. Do you remember the first Christmas on board?"

A smile grew across Eldon's face as he recalled the event. "Yeah, the first break the entire crew had taken since we started working on him."

"The first Terran Christmas party I ever attended. A most joyous event. Tolwyn's present of the Terran pet cat Thrakhath was... intensely humorous." Catharx let out a low chuckle, always a strange sound coming from a Kilrathi. Even to Eldon it still was an odd thing to hear.

Vandermann came to a stop beside a meter-high statue of Sivar, the Kilrathi War God, whose fearsome personage stood on a pedestal and loomed over the chamber like a brooding rain cloud. "I wish times were till like that, Catharx. So much has changed over the years. So much." Catharx detected another waver in Eldon's voice as he spoke the words.

"Yes, so much has changed. With the appearance of this new enemy in our midst... the dreaded 'Star Gods' of my people's legend perhaps they will prove to be... I'm sure much more will change. It was good of you to call me here, Eldon. To show the Confederation and the Union that we Kilrathi are ready and willing to help." A smile broke out across Catharx's face. "Come, Eldon, let me show you the rest of the Shrak'har. He is a mighty ship."

The two stood up and headed for the door, the tapestry of Xag watching them as they exit the hall.

TCS Shrak'har; Flag Bridge
1045 Hours (CST)

As Catharx and Eldon reached the final part of the tour, the bridge of the Shrak'har was abuzz with commotion. Eight Kilrathi warriors manned their stations, each busy with their work. Carrier Battle Group Auriga was preparing for its next mission. Only Eldon, Catharx, and the skippers of the other capships in the group knew what was to come next. It was to be a hunt, not unlike an African big game safari.

"I love what you've done with the place," Eldon remarked sarcastically. Turning his head from side to side admiring the enormous view the bridge viewports provided.

"*Rah uah*! Is it not a beautiful sight, my takhar? Many hours have I spent staring out those 'ports. It reminds you of how small we really are."

As they spoke Kal Shintahr Vhrahnek nar Vukar Tag approached the two. "My lord." He lowered his head in a bow as he approached them.

"Arise, Vhrahnek. You remember Eldon Vandermann."

"But of course," the younger kil spoke to his elder. "Tell me... how does your blood flow, Captain?"


"Pleasant to hear."

"And yours?"

"It flows thick as well," Vhrahnek replied. As captain of the Shrak'har, Vhrahnek had done an excellent job. He had served with Catharx and Eldon on board Mjollnir, specializing in advanced control systems, helping to repair the ships damaged navigational and maneuvering systems. Eldon began to walk around the stations observing each one of the bridge crew at work. Some of the faces were familiar to Eldon, as he had met most of them years ago either on Goliath or from his operations in Kilrathi space. Each officer was deeply absorbed in work and Eldon was glad to see that each seemed in the best of morale (considering what had happened on their way here) and that each was ready and willing to prevent the Nephilim tide from washing up on any more systems. "They seem to be an excellent group, Catharx. Filled with much zaga, to be sure, perhaps more than worthy of our hrai."

Eldon paused for a moment and walked to the center of the bridge. He took one last look at the picture window before leaving the bridge for the flight deck. I will not expend these lives in futile efforts, Eldon thought to himself. He felt almost closer to and more at home on board his friend's ship then his own. "I'm afraid I must be getting back, Catharx. The briefing for the next stage will occur at 1430 Hours... I'll contact you then."

"Very well, Eldon." Captain Eldon Vandermann of the TCS Valley Forge exited the bridge for the flight deck, leaving a vacuum around Catharx. What had gotten into Eldon as of late and what was his motive for being at times almost cynical of the current operation? Catharx wasn't sure what his old friend was thinking anymore, and he was growing more and more wary of his decisions, something he would have never done several years ago.

Catharx ended his thought chain and sat himself down in the Admiral's control station behind the captain's seat. Staring out the viewports, he lapsed deep into thought.


TCS Valley Forge TARCAP Patrol, somewhere in the Loki System
1100 Hours (CST)

This, thought Bob "Fatboy" Little, is friggin' stupid! We're out here on a fighter sweep looking for bugs. We've got no goddamn SWACS, no long-range sensors either because we've got silent running rigged. Just like the War "go here, here and here, then come back and tell us what you killed. Oh, and by the way, you'll have no long range targeting, nav or comms contact with anyone else..."

It's bloody daft- we're trying to find their mothership and battle group without giving away the position of our own, but what are we supposed to do? Just shoot some of them and follow the rest home? Sounds like another one of Rayak's hair-brained schemes. The bastards will be shooting back; you can't just stop shooting at them and expect them to run away! The only way we're going to find the fucking thing is if we happen to stumble across it by accident. Pretty big if, and if we do, what are we gonna do? We've nothing to tackle a capship with! Are we just going to use harsh language? If we do find them we'll have very little chance of getting back to the Forge to tell them where the fucker is anyway!

Let's face it, it ain't gonna happen, it's a milk run. They'd never have put 'Box leading it otherwise. The most, the absolute most we're going to meet is a few Nephilim stragglers, and I wouldn't put much money on that, either.

The eight Forge fighters sliced silently and effortlessly through the vacuum, hunting for some sign of their adversaries. An ion trail, a transmission, a targeting trace. The vast volume of interplanetary nothing meant that they were unlikely to find anything, but as they say, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

"Got a number of bogeys, 1 o'clock low, range 60. Crossing right to left, closure 200 KPS," Roger "Chatterbox" Elliot said, his targeting systems springing to life. In his own Panther Fatboy shook his head in silent disbelief.

"Got them. They're turning. They must have spotted us."

"Yup. ETA one minute."

"Rock 'n Roll, motherfuckers!"


They hit the merge with a combined closure rate of nearly 1,000 KPS, the Alien ships so dark against the black background of space it was impossible to pick them out until they were tearing past just meters away.

'Box had locked up a Moray, but he recognized the dark silhouette of a Manta hurtle over his canopy even as he craned his neck around, looking over his shoulder to track the Moray. He flung his Panther hard around, putting his bodyweight behind the stick as if he could gain a few extra degrees per second turn rate through physical force or sheer willpower.

Between grunts of effort and snarls of frustration he muttered his way through the dogfight, "Come to papa... that's it, just keep it there, die, you sunuva..." the Moray promptly disintegrated under the hail of full guns, "sonnova-fucking-gross-mega-wierd-looking-alien-monster-type-thing!"

Chatterbox selected the closest target and as usual found it directly behind him. He had been so intent on the destruction of the one in front he had been oblivious to the fire from behind. He broke hard left, cursing fluently. Very shortly he was astern of the hapless Moray and despite its frantic gyrations he was still on its tail and awaiting the right moment for the kill.

"Stop jinking! I'm gonna get you! Stop wriggling, you bastard! *Got ya*, you mother! Who needs missiles when you've got such skill, eh?"

"And such a big mouth! Shut up!"

"Bugger off, Fatso! Huh- what the fuck?!"

Something had just flashed diagonally past his nose from 11 high to 4 low. 'Box instinctively rolled in behind it as it plunged away, only for what he recognized to be Confed fire to zip past seemingly mere centimeters away.

"Jesus! Cease fire! *Cease fire*, you idiot!" A 106. One of the Mosquitoes' Piranhas firing its peashooters at a Manta which, try as it might, could not get away from the annoyance snapping futilely at its heels. The F-106 meanwhile had the Manta dead to rights; save for the fact its firepower was insufficient. Being too thrifty to "waste" a missile, even on such a tough target, it was taking forever to wear away the Manta's heavy shields and armour.

'Box decided enough was enough and launched a Spiculum V ImRec.

"Fox one! Damnit!" His missile ploughed not into the Manta's tail section but instead dived headlong into the cloud of decoys the Manta dumped generously.

"Try again...another ImRec-FFs wouldn't even scratch that thing. Fox one!" This missile stubbornly ignored the chaff and flares the Manta scattered desperately and 'Box watched it fly straight into the Nephilim's tailpipe and detonate. The Manta seemed to shudder but carried on, minus all of its rear shields and most of its armour. Under the continued combined fire of the two Forge fighters the big bug fighter-bomber broke up and exploded.

"Three down! Shit hot!"

Fatboy winced as Chatterbox again over modulated the comms system with his war whoop. He too was sat solidly on the tail of a Manta. It had dodged or decoyed two missiles and seemed to absorb a third missile without taking any obvious damage. Getting frustrated, Fatboy launched two more ImRecs simultaneously from point blank range, so close that he had to pull up sharply to avoid colliding with the aft end of the Manta. Though the Manta disappeared under the nose, he saw the flashes and felt the concussions of the twin explosions. Having already retarded the throttle to idle, he had to "S" turn as he bunted the nose to try and produce some separation. As the Manta slid back into view Fatboy could see smoke, sparks, and debris streaming from it. He fired a short burst of guns and the Nephilim fighter pitched up violently and started to break up as its pilot finally decided to leave the stricken craft.

Fatboy, realizing the Manta was finished, was already advancing the throttle to full military power as he saw the pilot eject straight into the path of his onrushing Panther. He flinched, instinctively ducking and blinking as the ejection pod impacted with his fighter. He expected the canopy to be smeared with green gunk and chitin body parts but the shields merely flashed, crackling in protest as the luckless bug pilot and his ejection pod-if it could be called that-were vaporized.

"Christ!" Fatboy exclaimed out of shock. But that was it. He thumbed the closest target button before he realized the scanner contained only blue blips. The eight Confed fighters had annihilated an identical number of enemies in less than three minutes without any losses themselves. It was almost unbelievable.

"Holy mother of *god*!" Chatterbox exclaimed, "that was more fun than Sheila Morgan on our prom night!"

"Er, weren't we supposed to leave one alive so we could follow it?" Fatboy reminded them.

"You killed the last one, don't bitch at me!"

"We can apportion blame later," Lieutenant Miani "Shiva" Tnisu told them, "right now, can we extrapolate a bearing from their original heading?"

"I suppose so, but we don't know whether they were outbound or inbound and we've no idea of range. Either we try searching one direction and then the other, or we split up. Either way we have no idea how far to extend a search for the enemy battle group and even if we find it, well, even if we don't split up I don't exactly fancy it."

"So the mission's a bust? We just RTB and say 'the hell with it'?" Shiva asked.

"You got a better idea?" 'Box shot back.

"Not exactly, no."

"Okay then, let's set a course for Mother and get the hell out of here."

"I agree," said Fatboy, "time to leg-it."

"Amen to that."

Vicinity of TCS Valley Forge, entering Landing Pattern
1135 Hours (CST)

The eight fighters found the Forge almost exactly where they expected it. The nav point was extrapolated from the last known vector without any updates in between takeoff and entering the landing pattern, and the error margin was still only 3 klicks when the carrier appeared on their scanners.

"Mother, Wildcat Lead. Four Fox one-oh-eights and four Fox one-oh-sixes for recovery."

"You are cleared for landing. Contact Paddles on button three."

"Roger that. Request an aerobatic pass."

"Denied." No victory rolls then. Fair enough. As the lead Panther came abeam of the carrier's superstructure it rocked violently from side to side, the wing waggle an almost as well known symbol of success as a victory roll.

"Wildcat lead, do you have a problem?"

"Ah, just a little lateral stability problem."

"Are you declaring an emergency?"

"No," Chatterbox said, nearly bursting out laughing, wondering what the flight controller actually thought as four more of the spacecraft behind him rocked side-to-side as they passed the bridge, "it's under control now. Nothing to worry about."

"Copy that," they sounded dubious, "was the mission a success?"

"Negative," 'Box replied, suddenly serious again, "No joy, we couldn't find the damn Tiamat. That dreadnought's out there, though. Somewhere."

They were like two assassins locked in pitch black cellar, each with a knife, trying to find the other, each afraid to make a sound or stretch out too far with his fingertips lest he give himself away, and both with flashlights but knowing they dare not use them. After the first thrust, the light would be switched on, and then perhaps, if both still lived, the stronger, faster killer would win. Farcical, stumbling around in the dark waiting for the touch of cold steel, but deadly serious at the same time.

"Roger. Paddles on three. Out."

Chatterbox double-clicked the transmit button before switching channels to talk to the LSO as he made a gentle one-eighty onto the centerline of the carrier.

"Finals, gear down."

"I have you in sight. We've no ALS today... too much of a beacon, so it's manual landings only." The Landing Signals Officer shut up for a moment then to allow the pilot to communicate any problems before continuing, "You're a little high, ease back a touch on the power..."

Fatboy sat for several moments in the cockpit of his Panther after landing. Adrenaline was still coursing through his veins not only from the manual landing (always hairy) but more from the combat. His breath was coming in shaky, ragged gasps and every muscle and tendon in his body was quivering with barely-suppressed energy, like a drawn bowstring, ready to be released. His body still wanted to do something, anything, fight or flight, but his mind fought for control, trying to calm his system down. There was a strange taste in his mouth and his arms and neck were beginning to ache with the internal struggle. His heart pounded like a jackhammer and he was clenching and unclenching his fists. It was getting worse, not better, with every combat hop. He didn't know how long he sat like that, whether it was seconds or minutes. It could almost have been hours or days. Eventually he became aware of a voice seeming to come from a long way off, dragging him out of his reverie.

"Sir, are you all right? Sir? Lieutenant Little?"

"I'm okay."

"The pins... sir?"

"Pins? Uh, yeah." Fatboy remembered that he was sitting atop a live ejection mechanism and that the safing pins were zipped in his breast pocket. Ejector systems didn't go off by accident very often but when they did it was never very pretty. He pulled them out and the crew chief replaced them. As soon as the seat was made safe, he unstrapped and started to clamber out of the cockpit. As he backed down the boarding ladder he came face-to-bright-yellow-face with his "smiley face" nose art, now looking rather the worse for wear with scorch marks, dirt and a dent or two.

"You want that touched up?" shouted the crew chief from below.

"No. Eighty-six it."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Ditch the bitch. It's no longer appropriate. Paint over it with something more sinister."

"Like what? Something in mind, sir...?"

"I don't know, a skull and crossbones, the reaper or something. Something, y'know, nasty. Something *grim*."

"Aye, sir!"

"And cut out that 'sir' shit. Call me 'Bob' or 'Fatboy' like everyone else does."

"All right... Bob."

"Much better."

As Fatboy walked away his hands were still shaking.


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