|HOLDING THE LINE CHAPTER 116: FURTHER DOWN THE SPIRAL 1 (2/3)
"Further Down the Spiral"
Part One of Three: "Soldiers of Fear" (2/3)
"All warfare is based on deception."
- Sun Tzu
Andrew "Neo" Modeen [email@example.com]
Jason "Dundradal" McHale [firstname.lastname@example.org]
James Andrew "JAG" Greenhow [Rambo.email@example.com]
Daniel "Bugfix" Klette [firstname.lastname@example.org]
Nathan "Monolith" Johnson [email@example.com]
Jeremy "Hollywood/Echo" Johnson [firstname.lastname@example.org]
TCS Valley Forge; Captain's Ready Room
1145 Hours (CST), 13 Feb 2681 (2681.044)
Loki System, Union of Border Worlds
Captain Eldon Vandermann had been dealing with his personal demons in the darkened solace of his empty ready room. It was when he was interrupted by Colonel Trebek over the PA about the morning's completed TARCAP sortie that he was jarred from this private reverie.
The two 'Hill pilots had landed again without incident, though it was the grim tidings the pilots brought in failing to locate the dreadnought battle group he was told to expect and intercept by Hanton via FLASH transmission just yesterday. Regardless of not having the battle group's position, the Aztecs and Mosquitoes' encounter with the stray Nephilim fighters- doubtless the battle group's CAP-confirmed all he needed to have confirmed.
He would have to accelerate his stratagem now. This time, he promised himself, he would be prepared, come hell or high water.
Vandermann opened an unremarkable drawer, smiling in relief as he noted the full contents of the medicinal vial he drew. Too long he had gone without his fix, too many ops and command decisions made without his absolution.
Licking his lips, Eldon twisted the vial's cap off and gingerly retrieved two pills. Feverishly, he swallowed both down on a dry throat.
TCS Valley Forge; Wing Commander's Office
1150 Hours (CST)
There was a buzz coming from the door.
Startled from her work, Colonel Natasha Trebek, Wing Commander of the
Forge's 71st Fighter Wing, called out in a tired tone of voice, "Yes, come in."
"Ah, Colonel," greeted the voice of Commander Nate Schaefer, Vandermann's XO.
"Good day, Commander. What can I do for you? The meeting isn't until 2200."
"As I'm well aware." The Commander hesitated a little, cleared his throat, and then began, "As you know, it is one of my jobs as executive officer of this vessel to oversee and to coordinate the different duty rosters in our battle group."
"Commander...? Well, I know that. That's why I regularly submit the latest status of the flight roster."
"Right, Colonel. That's why I'm here."
"Oh, so you want to discuss the composition of the flight roster?" the Colonel responded tersely. Of course, it was the Commander's very good right to do so. Generally the XO or Captain trusted the Wing Commander in the way the latter arranged the flight roster and they would not interfere. Then again, it was quite common to verify it together with the WC, too. But not today. The WC had enough paper work to go through still. Not to speak of the serious problems she saw herself faced with of late. The mounting stress her flight wing was under eventually threatened it to break apart. She had to take one of her squadron commanders off the roster by now. Her wing's effective combat strength was down 30%, which was unacceptable. The consumption of alcohol and other drugs was extensive and getting out of hand.
The "alien" reinforcement as of lately did nothing to improve anything... they just made it that much worse. The boiling tension swelling between her pilots and the Border Worlders; even worse between her pilots and the Kilrathi and yet worse between the Border
Worlders and the Kilrathi, which had already erupted in some first open clashes, constituted her most feared nightmare. As if all that wasn't enough there was the Commander standing in front of her wanting to discuss the flight roster.
"I have noticed that Major Burdock was taken off the roster," the Commander continued, unswerving, "and that Paul Hartmann is currently acting CO, with -is this correct? A grade increase to Major." An awkward pause. "I do think that is a very good decision." He waited for a reaction of hers. As there was none-none that was perceptible, at any rate-he then dared to add, "and one that was overdue," Two little wrinkles emerged on the WC's forehead on top of the root of her nose, " if I may say so," he was quick to attach when he noticed the change in the facial features of the Colonel to even up his boldness in speaking to the WC in that way.
"And just what, Commander, makes you think so?" she addressed him
resolutely. "If I may ask so?" the cynicism in her voice clearly showing.
"It is rather indisputable that he does not mind to consume hard liquors."
"True. You know damn well what I think of the Captain's loose handling of the strict regulations regarding alcohol."
"Yes, we are both in total agreement"
"About that one point," the Colonel, interfering, made clear. She would not allow herself to be drawn over to the other, and for the most part fairly odd, positions of the Commander.
"Oh sure, that's just what I meant as well," the Commander reacted, fraternizing once again. Point and counterpoint. He went on in the same tone. "I warned the Captain about it numerous times, protesting strongly against this disregard of discipline. He keeps putting it down and ignoring my advice. Ignoring me! So far that is. It won't be for very much longer..."
The Commander, Schaefer, was beginning to trail off. There was something about the way he had spoken the last two sentences, the Wing Commander noticed. It was as if he had gone over the edge... some private great fall from grace.
Whatever, she never could tell with Schaefer. As such, Trebek brushed it aside, not affording it another thought at the moment as she noted, "But what then is true in regard to Major Burdock is also true for the great majority of my pilots as it regards the troubles that come along with it."
"But you cannot deny that Burdock just isn't a... well, a leader which..."
"Ah, interesting," Trebek cut him short disdainfully as he fumbled for the most polite words. "Sorry to have to interrupt you. How'd you know?"
Schaefer was beginning to feel uncomfortable because of the rather open hostility brought over to him. The WC unexpectedly aggressive behavior would end up putting him off his stroke. He must not allow it happen. He ought not to follow Vandermann's path; a path that was false. A way that would definitively lead to failure, and failure only. Vandermann had become unfaithful; a renegade, in his eyes. Had lost sight of the grand scheme, of the ultimate objective. He, however, Schaefer, would succeed. Failure was simply not an option.
"Uhm, I did... ahem, I mean... it is showing that he cannot handle his command. He is not strong enough, not fit, not vigilant enough, not dutiful, not ambitious, not disciplined, not like"
"Like Hartmann?" the Colonel interrupted, knowing very well to where the Commander was aiming at. Paul "Kraut" Hartmann embodied the picture of the perfect soldier to the XO. She could perfectly picture this. German by ancestry, descending from Erich Hartmann (Erich Hartmann had been the most successful pilot when it came down to the kill scores and one of the luckiest regarding the survival of 17 shot-downs... all the way right up to the end of the 22nd century, though he lived in the first half of the 20th.) Paul Hartmann was punctual, disciplined, self-controlled, hard working, ambitious, and efficient. A by-the-book flyer, but reaching performance and efficiency only barely matched by others of his rank and experience. No doubt, he would make an excellent Squadron Commander one day. Quite soon probably. He already had been his squadron's acting CO before Burdock's transfer. What he lacked, though, in comparison to Burdock was combat experience, *war* experience. Burdock, on the other hand, had seen the last weeks of the Kilrathi Wars, had flown combat mission during the Black Lance affair, and even had a command-though for a short time-before. While Hartmann had-besides some pirate clashes-none of the practice that Burdock had to benefit from. He had his very own qualities. Outstanding skills and characteristics, which in turn made him truly outstanding, in fact. Being exceptional in his very own way, also being so very different from most others. Being different, one's usually bound to be somewhat lonely, too. Hartmann was no lone wolf; but one to socialize with others the way Burdock did he wasn't either. Burdock was the one who held the squadron together, the mother hen, just as Trebek was to the 71st, collectively.
It was a hard task for him still, but he could not act differently. That was how he was and that was why he was chosen as CO in favor of the more experienced-and now late-Ian "Ploughman" McGregor. Right now, he, Burdock, was struggling not to break apart under that burden. A battle he was losing was what it presently looked like. But that was a different story. And one she intended to solve between the two of them only. Certainly not with the Captain, least of all the XO. Whereas Hartmann's capability to lead a squadron into the battle field, while on it and out again, and to head it and hold it together the periods in-between, he had yet to prove. Hartmann's time would come. Quicker, she sensed afraid when the high death toll rate continued, than she would like to see. Trebek would not force Hartmann, of whom she knew he still needed that time to grow into this role, unless she had to.
"Yes, my thoughts exactly," Schaefer was happy to see the Wing Commander apparently going along with his opinion for the moment. Maybe we aren't so different after all, he thought euphorically; but he jumped to conclusions, as he would find out shortly.
"He is the right man for the right post," he revealed, relieved, "indeed, he serves The Movemen..." He stopped himself immediately and cleared his throat intently, intensively. What has gotten into me? He cursed himself. How could I have let such truths slip over my tongue?
Perhaps, he thought intuitively, he had done it subconsciously... on
purpose. Perhaps he *wanted* to let the Colonel in. Yes, that was it, he decided. He was just looking for some signal; some sign-any sign, at this point-that the woman could be trusted.
"What are you talking about?" the WC asked, perplexed. She could not get a clue about Schaefer. The XO had positively changed during their conversation. He tried to cover himself. Most people would probably pay no attention to it, would maybe not even take notice of it. Not so the WC. When she was still attending the TCN Service Academy in Houston she had begun taking extra classes in psychology, which she had continued upon graduation of the Academy.
"Ahm, the current situation, the movement of our fleet... in that current situation he would serve best as Commanding Officer of a squadron. Most valuable he would be!"
"Sorry, Commander, I don't see that all the way you do."
"Uhm, what? No, I am... really. Hartmann is a very good choice, a very capable... really... yes..." he continued, under the WC's uncompromising gaze, "Yes, I know it is not totally my business, but I" he broke off, interrupted.
"Now that's right. This is *none* of your business!" Trebek said, furiously.
"Ah, wait." It is very well a part at least of my business, he wanted to protest, but was cut short.
"Will there be anything else, Commander?" Trebek was about to explode, about to forget herself; her reserved distance. Without waiting for an answer she started leading the XO towards the door. She had get him out of her sight or she would explode indeed.
"*Calm down*, girl!" she kept saying to herself, hoping it was just in her head. "There is still a big friggin' heap of paper. After Action Reports, manpower B.S., all that crap, all still waiting for me. One of the... many duties I have," she managed to say. "I am quite sure, sir, that you are well aware of how that is."
"Yes, Colonel. Well aware."
With that, she drove the XO through the door; out of her office, but not before concluding the conversation, "Oh, and by the way, Major Burdock is off the roster because of an eye irritation." She pressed the button at the door take make the door shut immediately, without the usual five sec delay.
Natasha Trebek leaned against the closed door, still enraged.
What was going on inside the XO's head? How dare him? Who the fuck did he think he was? To think he could interfere with her flight wing? And then Burdock... that was her decision only. She only had to show responsibility for it and show it she would.
She was not wrong on Burdock or Hartmann, was she? Trebek revealed a presence of a slight doubt. No, she decided, she was not wrong. Something had to be done to maintain or to be more precise to regain order and stability among her flight wing. Burdock was, of course, momentarily relieved because of the obvious problems he was having. Trying to solve this just by changing the duty roster, transferring commands or by promotion was not working. She had been a Wing Commander long enough to know this. She had taken Burdock aside and spoken with him personally.
In the end she had but two options to confront Burdock with. To consider them she had taken him off the CO's slot in the Hopes. Those two options were all too clear. She needed a stable, reliable and responsible squadron CO. Bugfix, as his callsign now was known, had done a well and good enough job so far and after the death of his XO. He had literally been living up to his new callsign, fixing all the bugs indeed-internal (the problems that usually came along with having a new combat command) and external (killing the Nephilim, who have been commonly dubbed as "bugs" or "xenos") alike.
She now had done all she could do. It was up to him at this point. Nobody could really help one there. It was a way everybody had to go alone. The alternative to it was Hartmann permanently taking over. Able and strong he was, but not so much inner strength. His self-confidence was outside, hard as ceramic, as ceramic it was easy to break. Her joker, he was. Like a diamond he was, but ever endangered by fire. Fire would destroy her diamond, what a pebble stone otherwise would survive. Hartmann still needed to acquire something of a pebble stone or he would die in the fire. He need that inner strength, that density of a rock.
Outside, Schaefer was still standing in front of the Wing Commander's office, swearing and muttering to himself both in his head and aloud.
Damn it! Damn! Bitch! You just wait, you frigid bitch! I will make you pay for that! You want it the hard way? You shall have it! You shall feel so sorry for it. Oh, yes, and how you will feel sorry!
Schaefer calmed himself, took in multiple deep breaths. Hartmann was the better choice, either way one looked at it. He was the ideal candidate. On the spur of the moment, he considered introducing him.
Schaefer had gone over the edge, indeed. The border was crossed. No way back was there. No, not anymore. Schaefer was determined; devoted. As he has been his whole life. As he was raised, taught, and conditioned to be. As he eventually had sworn by taking the ultimate oath. Never losing track, always staying focused.
At all times having The Plan in mind. Being present. Keeping *vigilant*.
Enough was enough. The time was running. The time was ticking. The bomb was made ready. This bomb was now ticking.
To the misfortune of those in CVBG-A, the length of its countdown remained as-yet unknown.
TCS Valley Forge; Marine Barracks
1153 Hours (CST)
Another ditch in the road. Keep moving. Another stop sign. Keep moving on. The years go by so fast... just another lonely highway in the black of night; in the black of space. There's hope in the darkness somewhere... somewhere...
Iwo Jima... Korea... Panama... the Gulf War... Solaris IX... the WEC insurrection... the magnitude was there in spades, but what could the conflict the 97th Assault Detachment was faced with be compared to?
Freshly promoted Captain Temuulan Dshugder-Warmuth (O-3) couldn't help feeling like the ever-stoic General Aves at the tide of the cataclysmic Yan War of the twenty-third century. Aves knew what his brigade had to continue to do, press the thin red line and hold it, by God, but also knew well what awaited them all on the Iapetus moon.
Fuck it... let history write the rest. Hope in the darkness? Maybe, but all I have found is cold truth. Cold truth and... and...
"Fold," Dshugder muttered, slapping her playing cards on the table. "I'm turning in, boys."
"You all right, sir?" the also freshly promoted First Lt. Escobar Cantieri asked. A year ago they were strangers; now, with what the two had been through in even such a short time, Escobar would give his life for her. Not for king or country or even the Glory of the Corps, but simply because he knew Dshugder would do the same for him anytime and anyplace.
Wasn't that was it was all about? The camaraderie? The kinmanship?
Yes, gone was the idealistic "You're worth ten civvies," nothing-gets-to-me, fresh-outta-boot-camp-and-looking-to-kick-ass motifs.
Replacing them was something darker, stronger; the real stuff of the Corps when all the bullshit was stripped of it.
"Never better," she responded, already up and to her tidied bunk.
Semper Fi... Do or Die.
TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Rec Room
1155 Hours (CST)
The rec room of the 71st Tactical Fighter Wing seemed filled to capacity as Major Dan "Bugfix" Burdock looked around. Almost every pilot in the wing was here. Even the Cats from the Shrak'har sat at the bar. They shot a quick glance over to Burdock and the White Hopes, a glance as if they could be accepted with these Terrans. Captain Vandermann certainly believed they belonged here, and Burdock wasn't one to question orders, but Kilrathi... that could be another story.
"What do you think about the Cats, Dan?" 1st Lt. Ken "Yeti" Ridgely asked as he took a sip of his beer.
"In all honesty, I'm not sure yet. The Captain trusts them for some reason, so we have to follow his lead, however odd it may seem at times."
Again the Kilrathi squadron commander glanced over at the 114th White Hopes table. Colonel Trebek had informed all the Squadron COs to try and establish communication between the Terrans and Cats, but the sentiment of over forty years of war dug deep into many of the men and women's souls that occupied the room. Burdock had really nothing against Kilrathi, he just wasn't used to working with them. He had heard the stories of Captain Vandermann and Project Goliath in the Landreich ten years ago. He had worked hand in hand with Catharx nar Vukar Tag, commander of the Kilrathi group. Apparently a strong friendship had been born during their time there and had continued on until now when the Cat had come to the Forge's rescue.
"What do they keep staring at?" 2nd Lt. Ted "Buffer" Snugbelly angrily spit out.
"I think they are just as scared of us as we are of them," Burdock replied.
"They went through hell just to reach us, losing a lot of their kil on the way. I'd expect them to be a little suspicious of us, wondering if we were worth all the effort it took them to get h..."
Before Burdock could finish, Kal Shintahr Jhathar nar Vukar Tag, overall flight commander for the Kilrathi squadrons and CO of the Dakhath Squadron, and Shintahr Mharvek nar Vukar Tag, flight leader of the Kranhakh squadron, pulled up two seats and sat down with the White Hopes. Jhathar had in his hand a bottle of some sort containing an amber liquid.
"May we join you?" Jhathar asked as he sat down.
"I don't see why not. I'm Major Dan 'Bugfix' Burdock, now off the White Hope flight roster's CO spot thanks to the infinite wisdom of the higher-ups, mind you, and these are the White Hopes." Each White Hope in turn introduced themselves, and afterwards Jhathar poured the contents of the bottle into enough shotglasses for everyone.
"What is this stuff?" one of the White Hopes asked, sniffing it carefully.
"Sckviska," came the answer. "A celebratory drink from the Shrak'har. To celebrate our coming together in fighting this new, yet perhaps so very old enemy."
Burdock, being the leader of the squadron, decided he ought to start the show by taking his shot first. Besides, after receiving word from the grapevine that the WC had decided to remove him from the roster and fill his spot as the White Hopes' CO with Paul "Kraut" Hartmann, he figured he could use the drink.
Bringing the warm, amber liquid to his mouth he tilted his head back and almost gasped as it slid down his throat. Almost immediately he felt his eyes start to water. "Whoa now, *that's* an alcoholic beverage," Burdock gasped as he set down the glass.
The two Cats, after watching Dan drink his shot, started to laugh. The other White Hopes soon took it up as Dan's face had turned bright red and his eyes were watering profusely. "This is some of Lord Catharx's personal stock, he ordered us to bring it over to share with our new comrades. I am glad you enjoy it," Jhathar replied, his feline teeth showing as he broke into a smile.
After several more rounds, the group loosened up and began to get acquainted with their two new Kilrathi friends. Perhaps bringing them in wasn't such an odd idea on Vandermann's part, thought Dan. Hell, could even be the best thing for morale... the uniting of not only humanity, but of species to fight the Nephilim.
Dan could only start to feel bad for the Aliens. They'd picked the wrong quadrant to start a war in, because the whole of the Confederation, UBW, and Kilrathi Council was uniting to kick their roach asses back to where they came from.
It's gonna be a bad year to be a roach...
Today, the tables of the 109th "Steel Gunners" F/A-105A Tigershark
Multi-Role Squadron, the 323rd "Fire Balls" F-110A Wasp Interceptor
Squadron, and the 402nd "Lancers" TB-81B Shrike Torpedo Bomber (Class B) Squadron had been dragged close together, the pilots of each conversing and interacting with one another in a friendly enough fashion.
While the pilots traded combat tales, shooting the breeze or otherwise playing cards, the squadron COs were carrying their own discussion. At the moment, the two forty-something lieutenant colonels in respective command of the Steel Gunners and Fire Balls seemed to be doing most of the talking.
"You actually *knew* Mustang, Vertigo, and all those salty old vets on the Orion? The Black Warship herself?" Lt. Colonel Samuel "Sirdar" Richard of the Steel Gunners asked, clearly interested. Between his own and Major Burdock's White Hopes, Sirdar's was considered the "veteran" of the two Tigershark squadrons the Forge had in its flight wing.
"The one and only," Lt. Colonel Avery "Virus" Hale affirmed. "Probably a lot different from the characters you've read about or seen in those shitty made-for-Tri-D movies on the tube. Traitors? Not even funny. Good people on that tub... and quite a history it had in its time. The Invincible, too, I should say, though I often found seeing eye-to-eye with that Huynh fellow was a bit trying at times, but worth the effort."
"I must say," Sirdar continued, "I've led a pretty sheltered career-two carrier assignments total-and here I am, a lieutenant colonel and just one step from a wing command. But you know what? I haven't been out there enough... I haven't seen the things you've seen. The Secession Wars, the Battles of Colin's Corridor, Operation Magenta, Circe, Ragark... Christ, you were *there*... I was out running patrols and running pirates out of house and home. You know what I'm saying?"
"Experience has its... perks, maybe." Hale looked down, a solemn note to his usually gruff voice. "But you know what, Sirdar? If I could... I'd just as soon remember none of it. Not a damn thing..." He shook his head. "My friends... comrades... watching them-no, letting them die around me, wondering if I could have done anything to save them and cursing myself for getting too close to one of my pilots yet again..."
"I'm sorry..." Sirdar said. "I know how you feel. I haven't seen it as much as you and probably never will, but"
Major Andressa "Alba" Adrian, CO of the Lancers raised her head from the table. While Sirdar's squadron had lost only three and Hale's had lost seven, her Lancers had lost ten to date. Ten deaths, and it had not been too long before that she had been thrown into the Squadron CO's chair as a result of the loss of her friend Marcia "Madonna" Bittencourt. As she jabbed an accusing finger Sirdar's way, a ravenous look wrinkled her typically timid face. "You want to see what Virus has seen? You want to know what he's known? You want to feel what he's felt all these years, all the bottled up pain and regret?" she shouted. Heads turned in the rec room. "You can pull rank on me all you bloody want, but... damn you, Sirdar... you don't want that. You *know* you don't want that."
Alba cut Sirdar off, continuing, "I'd convinced myself that if I dropped that nuke on Neph II, annihilate and burn all those fucking bugs right where they stood, it'd make at least some of my pain go away... if I'd avenge the deaths of my Lancers, it would bring me some kind of peace of mind. Well, you know what, Lt. Colonel? It brought me *nothing*, not a god damned thing." She got inches away from the face of the Steel Gunners' CO. "You better think real long and hard right now about what you really want out of this, Sirdar, because I want you to remember this little piece of advice, and I want you to remember it good: the war always wins, Sirdar. It always wins."
Leaving the two COs with that last thought, the pilots and her own flyers looking on in shock and amazement, Major Adrian stalked out of the rec room.
As Sirdar sat in silent contemplation of Adrian's words, Lt. Colonel Hale lit up a fresh cigar and kicked a foot up on the table. "She's right, you know," he said between measured puffs. "Quite right."
Seconds later, the commotion and chatter in the rec room had all but returned to normal.
What a rag-tag friggin' bunch we are, Fatboy thought. Bloody Border Worlder barbarians (sorry, shouldn't have that thought... they did rescue us and the other survivors from the 'Hill and her group), fucking Cats, fer cryin' out loud, a goddamn Firekkan and, well, us. Dead men. Could have been, should have been, would have been, save for those barbarians.
How are we going to be received? Half the Aztecs' own numbers have been killed, including their last CO. Our grief, however large, is going to be removed from their own, so somehow less real. Oh, yeah, they'll sympathize, commiserate, probably say an obligatory "we know how you feel" but how could they?
Everyone he and 'Box had flown alongside, been friends with, even simply lived with, were dead. One hundred and thirty-eight of the Naval staff were alive. One hundred and thirty-eight out of three and a half thousand. The only one of them he actually knew was Commander Alexia Sheldon, the ship's executive officer, and even that was more by reputation than anything else. If he'd passed her in the corridor he'd salute and say "Good morning, ma'am," but actually know her, no. The only person he could possibly talk to that could appreciate what he was feeling was Chatterbox, and for once, the man didn't want to talk. Not about what happened, anyway.
It had all come tumbling out for those Border Worlders-he couldn't tell them fast enough-and then nothing. He'd clammed up. Fatboy didn't blame him. What could you really say? It was over and done with. They couldn't do anything to change it at the time, and they certainly couldn't now. When you looked at it like that, what was the point of bringing it all up again?
But he didn't look at it like that. He wanted to talk to someone about it. Warrior, the Boss, but not one of the faces that confronted him now. That was all they were, as yet, not names, not people, just faces. He couldn't put names to them yet-it would be a while before that-he'd never been good with names. He'd not been on the 'Hill for very long and some of the pilots in the other squadrons... he knew the faces, even the personalities, but for some of them he couldn't remember names, not even callsigns. Now he never would. He felt especially guilty about that, and now he or some of the Forge's pilots might be dead before he knew their names, too.
Confronted by the sea of unknown pilot faces-there were aliens among them as well, a Wu and a Varni apparent right away, as well as at least one Firekkan-the two 'Hill pilots stopped, their eyes searching for some face that they recognized or some quiet corner they could stake out for themselves. Suddenly out of the crowd appeared Captain Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto.
"Hello, boys. Why the long faces?"
"I... ah, that is... um," Chatterbox was left speechless, an increasingly common occurrence in the days after the demise of the Bunker Hill. On this occasion though it was more probable that he had been rendered dumbstruck not by any mental trauma but by the vision of a woman standing before them.
"Cat got your tongue?" Pinto teased.
"We were just looking to have a quiet drink or three," explained Fatboy.
"Oh no you don't. You're going to properly meet the rest of the 71st and get blind, puking drunk," she told them, "well, maybe not too drunk if we're going to be flying again soon. I don't know about you, but I hate flying with a hangover."
"C'mon," she slipped in between them and hooked one on each arm, "I'll introduce you. First, well... I'm Captain Isabella Pinto."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Robert Little. 'Fatboy,'" he grinned sheepishly at the strange look she gave him, "and this is my superior officer and good friend Roger Elliot, 'Box, short for"
"'Chatterbox.' I know. I'm 'Lollapalooza.'" Fatboy subconsciously tagged her as "Lollypop" as she steered them round the bar.
"He doesn't say much, and you're positively anorexic. Do you 'Hill guys give each other callsigns that are opposite of what you're actually like, or something?"
"He's not normally like this and mine's a... long story."
"Hmm. You can tell me later. Anyway, this over here is Kurt Powell, callsign 'Coroner,' the Mosquitoes' new commanding officer."
"Oh, great," muttered the sulking Coroner under his breath as the three strolled across together as one, "more misfits. I wonder why Vandermann thought these two rejects were worth the Stasheff?"
"Well, he's mad, isn't he? Besides, I heard their arrival had nothing to do with the Stasheff's reassignment."
"Either way, I reckon 'ol Peploe and the rest of the Stasheff's people are breathin' a sigh of relief."
"Too true. Maybe we should apply for a transfer!" He was only half joking.
"You two did okay today, I guess," Coroner grudgingly admitted, "maybe if you'd got back to the Bunker Hill faster you might still be there."
Fatboy sniffed very loudly. Chatterbox winced and started to brace himself, expecting that Little's explosive temper was going to start a fight their first time in the Forge's bar.
"Yeah, I guess we might at that. But we didn't, and we're here now. Maybe we'll make a difference here?"
"Maybe you will." The two eyed each other up, the Lieutenant totally unfazed by the Major's rank of the man sitting in front of him. Suddenly Powell's features cracked into a grin, "yeah, maybe you will at that. Glad to have you on board." Handclasps, relieved smiles from Pinto and Elliot. A few inane jokes. More drinks.
"Next we'll go and meet Uncle Willie," Lollypop announced, "Dan 'Bugfix' Burdock, my new CO... unless what I'm hearing is really true and Kraut's got the job now."
"COs don't seem to last long round here, do they?" Chatterbox said without thinking.
A wave of uneasy silence washed over those gathered. He'd stumbled onto a touchy area. "No, well they have a tendency toward heroic self-sacrifice round here."
"S'okay, I know what you mean," she shrugged, "forget it."
They started shaking hands with the pilots of the 114th, getting claps on the back, big grins and firm handclasps. "Lollypop" let loose with a string of names but Fatboy didn't catch many: Kraut, the XO, Buffer, one of the younger pilots and a guy called Yeti.
Suddenly he found himself eye to slitted eye with a furry face.
Yellow-white teeth, fangs even, gleamed as the Kilrathi showed its teeth in what Fatboy fervently hoped was a smile.
"I am pleased to make your acquaintances, Captain Elliot and Lieutenant Little. I am Kal Shintahr Jhathar nar Vukar Tag." Suddenly Fatboy was aware of the huge paw extended toward his midriff. The claws were not extended thankfully, and he swallowed nervously as he shook the Kilrathi's "hand," his own engulfed by the massive appendage. He couldn't help but think how easily the Cat could have disemboweled him.
"I, too, extend my greetings, humans," The other cat cocked its head as he introduced himself, "I am Shintahr Mharvek nar Vukar Tag."
Another paw, which he grasped a bit more firmly this time, trying to smile, "Uh, how d'you do?"
"Later," Burdock said. All Fatboy could do was grunt in what he hoped was a reasonably friendly manner as he nodded toward the man.
"Those Kilrathi seemed friendly enough," said 'Box as they wandered away.
"Not exactly what I imagined. I've never seen one in the flesh before."
"In the fur, so to speak," corrected Chatterbox.
"Exactly," Fatboy realized he was clenching and unclenching his free hand nervously and his throat was very dry, "I need another drink," he whispered hoarsely.
"Last but not least," Lollapalooza announced, "drumroll please, your new boss, Major Hishori Nawazaki... Ronin. I think I'll just leave you people to get acquainted. I feel a tequila calling me."
Ronin... they'd heard a thing or two about that man from the rumors abound. Number one, he'd been through some serious shit, first with his CO dying on him only days ago, having to take his place as squadron commander of the Aztecs. Number two, quite recently he'd gone MIA-presumed dead, actually-after crashing on Neph II during the last big engagement.
"Catch you later," Chatterbox said. Their eyes met momentarily and she was gone.
"Must be weird, just the two of you out of what, nigh-on three and a half thousand people?" Ronin ventured, trying to break the ice.
"It's not just the two of us that survived. There were another 138 rescued from the bowels of that Leviathan," Chatterbox told him, "straight out of Starship Troopers, man!"
"Starship Troopers, 1997 Tristar and Touchstone Pictures, Directed by Paul Verhoven. Casper van Dien, Dina Mayer, Denise Richards, Jake Busey, Neil Patrick Harris, and Michael Ironside. Based on the Hugo award-winning novel by Robert Anson Heinlein. 'Course, those things dropping from the ceilings and shit is more like Aliens, friggin' organic ships and crap, too."
"What the hell is he talking about?" Ronin asked Fatboy as 'Box rambled on.
"20th Century films," explained Fatboy, "it's one of his many quirks."
"Yeah, I like the classics, y'know, not just pre-holo but pre-CGI. Mind you, some of the early CGI stuff when they were still being inventive was good, too. Like Starship Troopers. I mean, it was heavily reworked for the screen and for the director's taste, but I think it worked very well. Still, you've got to laugh, haven't you?"
"Well, in Star Trek and Star Wars and stuff all the aliens were just geezers in latex suits, so all the aliens were humanoid, with a few exceptions. Star Trek even made up an explanation for it. Then people said 'That's stupid, aliens will be really weird and strange.' Along comes CGI and hundreds of weird and wonderful aliens are devised."
"Well, what's the major alien species we come across out here in the
galaxy?" Pause for effect. "*Them*!" Chatterbox jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the Kilrathi drinking with the White Hopes behind them, "seven-plus feet tall humanoid cats. Talk about ironic."
"You'll have to excuse 'Box. He's ill," Fatboy cut in.
"What's wrong with him?"
"Nothing serious. Just verbal diarrhea," joked Fatboy.
"Very fucking funny!" Chatterbox shot back, but quickly shut up.
"The way I heard it, you guys had a choice of the Forge or the Yorktown. Why'd you choose us?"
"Uh," Fatboy glanced down, swirling his pint, "we, ah, tossed a coin!"
"And I thought you two must be lucky..."
"What exactly do you mean by that?" Fatboy asked, a little sharper than he meant to. He didn't want to piss his new CO off the first time he met him.
"Nothing. Forget it." Ronin shook his head almost imperceptibly. "Oh, look, you're going to find out sooner or later-the Forge isn't the happiest ship in the Fleet at the moment. Leadership problems."
"We know all about them!" 'Box snorted.
"No, not incompetence. Something else. Look, we never had this conversation, all right?"
"Sure." The puzzled expressions on the two ex-Bunker Hill pilots reassured Nawazaki, though he still decided to change the subject.
"So... am I to understand you two have officially decided to join the
Aztecs...?" Ronin ventured.
"Er..." Little looked blankly back at him.
"I saw them repainting your kite."
Fatboy saw the misconception. "Ah. It's just the nose art, not the squadron markings," he confessed, slightly guiltily, "we've not exactly decided if we're going to request a permanent transfer to any squadron or wing yet. Confed hasn't decided if it's going to disestablish our wing and squadron or rebuild them. If they don't disestablish-well, we're the only link to the squadron's heritage... you know how it is-we'd like to keep the history and traditions alive if possible."
"Fair enough. I can understand that." It was a link, however tenuous, to their dead comrades and those that had gone before them. As long as the squadron survived some part of them lived on, too.
"Until and unless, of course, we're Aztecs. Just think of us as exchange pilots with the squadron."
"Okay, we can do that. I don't know what Confed will do, most of the squadrons out here will be well under strength by the time this is over...there could be a lot of reorganization."
Beers in hand they strolled across to one of the pool tables where a noisy doubles match was in progress between other members of the Aztecs.
"All the comforts of home," 'Box joked.
"Yeah, well, you can only watch the same old movies so many times... well, most of us, anyway," Ronin qualified the remark, "so the pool tables tend to be in pretty high demand. But there are another couple in the ready room as well."
"That's cool. As long as the beer lasts I think we'll survive."
"Hmm." Alcohol was usually rationed, not to keep people sober but because booze was not very high on the priority list for resupply. The logistics of supplying the Fleet were staggering, especially when you considered that a fleet carrier could only sustain a few days of full-scale combat operations before needing a resupply of fuel and ordnance. There was, therefore, a constant stream of transports traveling to and from the Fleet at all times, with their own escorts, and they, too, needed supplies. Planning an Alpha Strike on a Nephilim battle fleet was nowhere near as difficult a task as keeping the Fleet supplied.
"You'll know most of these guys already," Ronin carried on, "since you flew with them this morning."
"Uh, yeah..." Fatboy felt awkward. Put on the spot, he could barely remember any of the pilots' names.
"Draft; Burrito; Shiva; Ice; Nitro; Riceburner; Cesar, and last but by no means least, Lizard." Nawazaki introduced the Aztecs as handshakes and greetings were exchanged.
"Right, I'm going to take a...I'm off to the little boys' room. Make yourselves at home."
There was a moment of awkward silence, intensified as the track playing in the background faded out at the end of the song. Fatboy knew if he didn't do something quickly he'd end up explaining the same things he had to Ronin and all the others they'd met since the demise of their ship later, or worse still being quizzed (Fatboy thought "interrogated") about it and their feelings. He felt a terrible irrational fear rising in his gut, and a panic starting. Luckily 'Box was already ahead of him.
"Right, the next round of drinks says me'n Fatboy here," 'Box slapped him rather too heavily on the back, making him spill some of his drink, "can kick any two of your asses at 9-ball. Any takers...?" There were. As the balls were racked and the side bets made, Robert Little breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe the tightening of his gut and feeling in his bowels had just been the drink.
TO BE CONTINUED