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Written By Nick "Chaeronea" Deane

Backlash Three
Inner Asteroid Belt, Nifelheim System
Approximately the same time

Colonel Jack 'Samurai' Tanagawa reefed his fighter into a sideslip to the left even as the Excalibur on his tail fired another burst from its tachyon cannons. This guy's good, he thought to himself. On one level the Confed pilot's skill was reassuring to the Sicily's Wing Commander - the more skilled pilots the combined reserve force had, the better they'd all fare against the Nephilim. On the other hand, the fighter pilot in him wished that just maybe this particular flier would let his game slip a little.

"Maneater, where are you?" he asked his wingman even as he barrel-rolled his own Excalibur to evade his pursuer's fire.

"Clobbering your trailer, sir," Major Michelle 'Maneater' Ross responded. Even though she was a Confederation officer, Ross was flying this mission on Tanagawa's wing to evaluate the performance of the Border Worlds pilots she'd helped convert over to Excaliburs. She wasn't used to flying on anyone's wing, having commanded her own squadron for a number of years. However playing second fiddle to the senior wing commander of the entire task force wasn't all that much of a step down, and Samurai and the other two members of Backlash Flight certainly seemed to have adapted well to the ex-Confederation fighters. A few more days and they might be up to the same standards as my people, she thought as she opened fire on Samurai's attacker. Her lips curved in a wry smile as she held the trigger down and followed her target through an evasive scissors. I'm shooting at one of my own squadron to protect a Border Worlds pilot. Who would ever have thought it?

"Glad to hear it," Tanagawa announced. "You know, I'm getting really tired of playing follow-the-leader." With that brief warning he autoslid the big fighter, sending it flipping end over end until he was flying tail-first. Still moving in his original direction of travel, Samurai waited for an instant until the Excalibur's autotracking system locked onto his attacker before opening fire. All four tachyon guns and the two reaper cannons burned lines of destruction to their target. The Confederation fighter jumped like a scalded cat but both Excaliburs continued to pour on the fire. Their target's blip faded from red to green as it 'died', but they weren't out of the woods yet. A Thunderbolt zoomed in behind Maneater's fighter and cut loose with full guns. "Break right!" Samurai snapped to his wingman even as he disengaged his autoslide and raced back in the direction he'd come from.

Maneater needed no urging. She'd already flung her Excalibur into a hard bank, barely dodging the Thunderbolt's 'Sunday punch'. Although slower and less agile than the Excalibur, the 'lead sled' was tough and had massive firepower for such an old fighter. Of course firepower was no use if it couldn't be brought to bear, as the Thunderbolt pilot was finding out the hard way. However, his shots were coming closer and closer to the leader of the Black Knights. "Time we had a face-to-face, my lad," Maneater growled to the pilot of the heavy fighter as she flipped her own craft end over end and cut loose. The Thunderbolt pilot appeared to accept the challenge and matched her shot for shot, until Samurai's fire ripped into him from the flank. The cumbersome fighter attempted to break clear of the twin torrents of energy but was caught by the pair of missiles fired by the Sicily's wing commander.

"Overkill is a confirmed kill," Tanagawa remarked over the comm. "You all right?" he asked his wingman.

"I'm fine. My shields are coming back up to full strength," she reported. "How about you?"

"Same here." Tanagawa frowned. "Y'know, I didn't think there'd be Thunderbolts on BARCAP. They're too slow."

"They usually aren't," Maneater agreed absently as she studied her fighter's sensors. "The D'Arby's still launching the rest of her fighters, and it looks like someone's decided to do something about it. What say we give them a hand?"

Samurai took in the situation at a glance. The Confederation and Border Worlds fighters were swarming like a hive full of bees around the Avenger torpedo bombers closing in on the Miles D'Arby. However, a pair of Border Worlds craft had managed to slip past the Confederation cordon and had planted themselves squarely in front of the little carrier. Even as the Border Worlds colonel watched another Thunderbolt launched from the D'Arby, only to be engaged by one of the obstructing fighters. He opened a comm freq to his flight leader.

"Warhawk, this is Samurai. What's the Mean Machines' status?"

"They're fine," Major Leanne 'Warhawk' Porter, leader of the 92nd Tactical Fighter Squadron, responded tersely. The 92nd, better known as the Gunslingers, were the UBW squadron which had been hastily converted from Banshees to Excaliburs. "We've got three Intruders, two Jaguars, four Bearcats and four Marauders flying HAVCAP on the Avengers with us. The Confees are pushing us but we can deal with 'em."

"Got it," Tanagawa replied crisply. "We're busy elsewhere. Catch you later." Ramming his throttles all the way forward he aimed his fighter towards the rapidly growing furball in front of the Confed capship. He ignited the Excalibur's afterburners and casually asked Maneater, "You coming?"

"Coming? I'm not even breathing hard yet," she replied tartly even as she afterburned to keep up. Her voice changed abruptly to a businesslike tone. "Looks like two Thuds and two 'Cats gang banging a 'Truder. Don't know why his buddy isn't backing him up - whoa! Sorry, man, but you're toast!" Indeed the Intruder's transponder signal had faded from blue to green, and the Thunderbolts had turned their attention to the other Border Worlder. A pair of yellow dots sprung into existence on sensor screens and HUDs even as the fighter began frantically jinking. The pair of Thunderbolts dodged the virtual missiles with contemptuous ease, and all four Confederation planes replied with a volley of their own ordnance. The Border Worlder never had a chance.

Tanagawa swore softly even as the Border Worlds fighter 'died'. "Let's get 'em," he ordered Maneater harshly.

Ross didn't reply for a second, and then she spoke hurriedly. "Colonel, that last fighter - I don't think it was shooting at the Thuds when it fired those missiles! I caught some sensor data and I think it was a Marauder -"

"- and Marauders pack torpedoes!" Samurai answered excitedly as he studied his sensors. The simulated ordnance hadn't gone ballistic or tried to pursue the Confed fighters in the area.

It was headed straight for the D'Arby.

That poor brave bastard must have been waiting for torpedo lock and the perfect angle, Tanagawa thought admiringly of the Marauder pilot. With the carrier's turrets mauled by the Border Worlds SEAD strike, the D'Arby's crew could do nothing but watch the oncoming 'torpedoes' and brace for impact. The Sicily's wing commander watched as the two yellow dots closed, then merged, with the D'Arby.

The D'Arby and her sister ships were built of much sterner stuff than the escort carriers of the First Kilrathi War and, with a skilled damage control crew, could probably survive a pair of torpedo impacts. The problem was that the torpedoes were coming from dead ahead and their antimatter warheads would have detonated on the unprotected flight deck. Tanagawa had served on carriers for quite a few years - more than he liked to admit - and was well aware of just how dangerous explosions and fire on a flight deck were. Even without armed and fueled fighters ready for launch, flight decks have supplies of fuel and ordnance close at hand. Secondary explosions were a constant danger, no matter the safeguards in place, but the Miles D'Arby could probably have survived the damage.

What she couldn't survive was the impact of any more torpedoes. The four Avengers of the Mean Machines had launched their full loads almost simultaneously, and even with her full armament available it was doubtful if the capship could have weathered the hellish storm. With most of her turrets out of action due to the SEAD strike she didn't have a prayer. Her pilots tried, of course, but they were caught on the horns of a cruel dilemma. If they continued engaging the Border Worlds fighters they condemned their carrier to fiery destruction. On the other hand, if they tried shooting the torpedoes down, they exposed themselves to the fire of those same Border Worlds fighters. In the end it didn't matter. The Confederation fighters were burned down by the Border Worlds strike force and eleven torpedoes tore into the D'Arby's side, obliterating her utterly.

Tanagawa finally let out a long-held breath as the fighters of both sides began reassembling into their original formations. His comm vidscreen lit up, revealing a man in a rumpled Confederation Navy uniform with commodore's insignia. "Congratulations, Colonel Tanagawa," he said calmly. More calmly than any man who just had his ship shot out from under him had any right to be, Jack thought. Either the Confee was arrogant enough to dismiss the Border Worlders' victory as a fluke or he had ice water in his veins. "I really didn't expect your people to win," he admitted. "They did well."

"Thanks, Commodore, but Pyrrhus won battles too," Tanagawa replied. Two Marauders, three Intruders, a single Bearcat, four Jaguars and three Thunderbolts - one third of the entire strike group - had been 'killed' in the savage battle. "We've still got a way to go before we're as good as I'd like. Anyway, could you let your people know that they really gave us a run for our money?"

A broad grin split the Confederation officer's face. "Consider it done."

"Thanks. Well it's time for me to gather up my little lost sheep and get the flock outta here."

Inner Asteroid Belt, Nifelheim System
1113 hours, February 13, 2681 (2681.044)

"You know, I think we've watched this for long enough. What do you say we pack up our bat and ball and head for home?"

Kristy Joyce rolled her eyes. "Alex, we're stuck here until we get the chance to bounce some Confed fighters as payback. That's the orders the boss gave us, because we're the only fighters with cloaking devices who got shot down. Now quit whining like a five year old, okay?"

"Blow me," Alex Morgan growled.

"Why, are you trying to hack into a Defence Department computer in sixty seconds?" Kristy giggled.

Alex grinned. "Girl, you've seen Swordfish way too many times."

"What can I say?" the Scrappers' medic shrugged. "That Jackson guy was really cute."

"His name's Jackman, not Jackson," Alex corrected. "And if you think he looks good in Swordfish then you should see X-Men."


"Yeah. He spends a fair part of it brawling in a black leather bodysuit."

"Now we'll have to strain to hear ourselves think over the static," Galen O'Brien piped up.

"What static?" Alex curiously asked Kristy's gunner.

"From the Captain drooling into her helmet mike," O'Brien chuckled. Laughter sounded over the comm net for a few seconds.

"Heads up," Stardust announced suddenly. "There's a pair of Thunderbolts on a landing run, eleven o'clock low at fifteen thousand klicks. Let's bounce 'em, buzz the carrier and head for home."

"Sounds good, but maybe we should take the pair of Bearcats six thousand klicks behind them," Storm replied coolly, and then grinned as his wingleader cursed. Both their fighters had their cloaking systems active, making their sensors much less effective. On the other hand, they were almost invisible to the Confederation fighters' sensors.

"Okay," Stardust agreed after her vitriol had run its course. "We sneak up behind the Bearcats, nail 'em with Javelins, then we go after the Thuds. Let's get in position." The pair of Marauders cut their velocity to let the interceptors cruise past them, then slid into position behind them. Stardust selected a pair of Javelin heat-seeking missiles and waited until the lock chime sounded in her headphones, then opened a comm to her wingman. "Ready?"

"Master Arm switch is safe but I'm locked on," Storm answered. "Let's give them something to remember us by."

"Go!" Stardust ordered even as she decloaked. She had a perfect firing position a thousand klicks behind one of the Bearcats, and smiled coldly as the missile lock tone chimed. "Fox One, shithead!" she growled to her target, just as if she'd really launched the missiles locked onto the Bearcat.

Stardust glanced at her HUD to track her wingman, and a startled curse escaped her lips as she spotted Storm's fighter. A thousand klicks was extremely long range in atmospheric combat but was considered knife-fighting range in space. However that wasn't close enough for Alex. Christ, he can't be more than three hundred klicks behind his target, Kristy thought in horror. That wasn't knife-fighting range - that was the range of claws and teeth!

Both the Confederation fighters broke away from their pursuers, but their pilots knew that the Marauders could have fired the heatseekers right up their tailpipes if the engagement had been for real. The Border Worlders hit their afterburners simultaneously and sped after the pair of Thunderbolts that had been their original targets. The pair of heavy fighters split up and ignited their own afterburners, no doubt yelling for help, which was the worst thing they could have done. On full burners the Thunderbolt only gave up a two hundred KPS speed advantage to the Marauder, which wasn't all that much in space combat. However their maneuver had let the Border Worlders cut the corner and close the range even more, before the Confed fighters decided to make a beeline for their carrier.

Storm bared his teeth in a cruel smile as his target's glowing engines expanded in his HUD. Let's see, he thought. The Thuds are just over five thousand klicks away and the enhanced mass drivers Confed put on the Marauder have a range of forty-two hundred klicks, so they should be in range right! As if on cue the ITTS lit up, projecting its 'shoot-here' circle directly over the Thunderbolt's rear turret. The Border Worlds pilot obligingly pulled the trigger, activating his gun camera. "Sayonara, sucker," he growled.

"Storm! We've got four Excaliburs heading straight for us and I don't think they're delivering candygrams," Stardust barked. "Stay on AB and come to heading zero-one-six by three-four-niner. We should be able to get to the flattop before the Excals get us."

Alex cursed even as he hauled his Marauder onto the new vector. Stupid bloody brain-dead gimboid! he berated himself. You focused on the Thud, lost your SA and got boresighted just like Draco did in Seggalion! Don't do it again! "Let's go say hello to the D'Arby," he told his wingleader. "Luke, I want you to keep an eye on the scanner and let me know as soon as the Confeds get within fifteen thousand klicks of us."

"Copy," Sergeant Luke Evans, Alex's gunner and RIO, replied tersely. "I've got them at twenty-two thousand klicks, five hundred kps closure. Whatever you've got planned, you'd better do it fast."

"We're doing it," Storm shot back. "Stardust, I don't think we'll have time to get a torp lock on the carrier before the CAP nabs us."

"Neither do I." The fire-maned flight leader paused for a few seconds then asked her wingman, "Do you remember the maritime strike they flew in that twen-cen novel Red October? I say we go with that."

"Gotcha. We've got maybe twenty seconds to reach the D'Arby -"

"- and ten before the CAP hits the fifteen K mark," Evans cut in. Alex heard the whine of the gun turret's servomotors as his gunner gave the Stormfire a trial rotation within its mounting. The minuscule vibration of his Marauder's engines seemed to merge with his own accelerated heartbeat as he flew towards the Confederation carrier. The young ex-privateer quickly calculated velocity and vectors and came to a single conclusion.

"Stardust, the Excals are gonna catch us right on the carrier's doorstep," he announced grimly.

"Snuggle up behind me and set your shields to full rear arc," Joyce ordered. "We've only got one shot so we'd better do it right."

Storm double-clicked his mike in acknowledgement as he eased his fighter's nose right behind the Stormfire turret of Stardust's Marauder. I sure hope that Galen's got that thing safed, he thought as he mirrored his leader's minute shifts in vector.

"Bandits in missile range!" Luke called sharply. "Switching to antimissile mode!"

"Gotcha," Stardust replied. "Storm, roll left on my mark. Two, one, mark!" The two Marauders rolled out parallel to their course, as precisely as if they were flying an aerobatic display rather than combat manoeuvres. "Hit it!"

Both Border Worlds fighters skimmed just above the carrier's top deck, bracketing the superstructure perfectly between them. Their decoy ejectors trailed clouds of flares and electronic noisemakers along the length of the little vessel's hull before they zoomed past the engines, vanishing into the thruster wash. The radiation and ionisation from the D'Arby's engines would cause trouble for the Marauders' electronics, but anyone trying for a lock on the Scrappers would have an even harder time than usual.

Kristy laughed wildly as she keyed her comm to the Guard frequency. "Second-line flyers, my ass!" she crowed. "It's been fun, D'Arby, but we've gotta dash. Ciao!" With that final cheap shot the Marauders shut down their afterburners, engaged their cloaking devices, and vanished. Ever since the Terran Confederation and the Union of Border Worlds signed the Treaty of McAuliffe less than a year ago, the Union's armed forces had been officially designated as Confederation reserve units. As a rule even Confed's regular reserve units tended to look down on the Border Worlds military, and Border Worlds militia and reserves were regarded with even more contempt. So, even with the two task groups beginning to work together and trust each other, nobody could really pass up a chance to thumb their nose at the other side.

Lounge, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
1251 hours, February 13, 2681

Anthony Grimm stared moodily into his cup of almost-cold coffee, as if he was waiting for it to answer the most profound riddles of the universe. He was caught so deep in brooding that he barely registered the person taking a seat at his elbow. He certainly didn't expect the comradely slap on the shoulder that the person gave. Startled, he turned to see Hermann 'Mongrel' Stucke's broadly grinning face.

"So you haven't gone to sleep on us," the Confed pilot commented. He shoveled a forkful of mixed vegetables into his mouth as he awaited the Border Worlder's answer.

Grimm shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I was just... thinking."

"About the exercise? I heard that you took some heavy losses but still won."

"Yeah, we lost a third of the strike package but still managed to put the D'Arby down," Grimm commented. "I wonder if it would have been worth it if it'd been real," he said softly. Mongrel nodded.

"I know what you mean, mein freund. In military terms, losing a dozen fighters to destroy an enemy carrier is a great deal," Stucke advised. "But when those dozen fighters are flown by your friends it becomes hard to think in purely military terms, nicht wahr?" At Grimm's nod the German pilot asked, "So did you make it out alive?"

The young Border Worlder shook his head. "Nah, I got bushwhacked by a pair of Bearcats and that was all she wrote. Still at least my wingleader made it through okay, and managed to dust one of the 'Cats that got me."

Stucke nodded. "Bearcats are verdammt good fighters, even if they take a lot more maintenance than almost any other plane. If you had a pair of them on your six then it's auf wiedersehen. You should spend a bit less time watching your leader's six and a bit more watching your own," he told the young Border Worlder. Grimm bristled.

"Look, my job as a Dash-Two is to watch my leader's six," he growled. "I know there's plenty of jokes in Confed about Border Worlders' lack of discipline, but when we're given a job to do we get it done! What you're asking me to do is dereliction of duty."

"Hardly. I'm telling you that it's a little difficult to do your job if you're dead," the Confed pilot shot back, surprised by Grimm's vehemence. "Look, responsibility goes both ways. Your wingleader has to protect you as well as you covering him. Dammit, being a wingleader or flight leader isn't an excuse to abandon your wingman to die!" He shrugged. "Of course it's up to you. If you want to play hero and throw your life away, go right ahead."

"Did you see the footage of what the Nephilim did to Dakota?" Anthony asked Stucke. At the German pilot's brief nod the fair-haired rookie's mouth tightened. "I went through the Academy to protect the Border Worlds from their enemies, regardless of whether they were human, Kilrathi or something else. Now we have the Nephilim, who show up and wipe out every living thing on an entire world for no reason except to get their rocks off. I don't know about you, Hermann, but I'd rather die than let those bastards do the same thing to a major system like Orestes or Landreich - or even a Confed system like Vega or Ella." Grimm's eyes blazed as he locked eyes with the blond German. "Now maybe I'm crazy, or maybe I'm just stupid, but I'm trying to come to terms with the idea that I probably won't be alive a week after we face off with these scum. Does that explain why I was so deep in thought?"

Recreation Deck Lounge, Avernus Station
Nifelheim System
1712 hours, February 13, 2681 (2681.044)

Major Michelle Ross stood at the plastiglass observation window, watching Nifelheim II turn below as she mulled over the results of the exercise in her mind, when a cool damp patch formed on her shoulder. Damn air conditioning must be stuffing up, she thought irritably as she brushed at it. However her fingers came into contact with an even colder object. The Confed pilot turned to see a bottle of beer resting on her shoulder, held in place by Jack DeVille.

"Well that's one way of getting my attention," she joked as she grabbed the bottle and twisted the cap off. The blond Border Worlder nodded.

"I know a few others but they're not permitted in public," he deadpanned, blue eyes twinkling with mirth. Ross burst out laughing and a few seconds later DeVille joined in.

"So what's on your mind?" she asked, taking a swig of beer. Jack's expression abruptly changed from amused to pensive.

"I was thinking about the exercise and how we'd handle the real thing," the handsome major admitted as he toyed with his own bottle of beer. "Not many of us have experience with full-on fleet battles."

Ross regarded him steadily. "By 'us', do you mean the whole taskforce or just your squadron?"

"Just my squadron," Jack replied. "We're based in the Lennox system, right at the meeting point of Confed, Union and Kilrathi space. As such, we're pretty skilled at handling small-scale raids. But if it comes down to anything bigger than a Cult of Sivar raiding party or those pirates in Seggalion, then we're in deep shit." He paused to take a sip of beer then continued. "There's only a few of us who have been in a furball bigger than a squadron a side, apart from that rumble in Seggalion. Riot, Bloodhawk and the colonel all fought in the First Kilrathi War, and I was in some nasty fights during the Black Lance Incident."

"What's the biggest fight you've been in?" the Confed squadron leader queried, more to keep the conversation going than because she really wanted to know. She had no idea who Riot was, and all she knew about Bloodhawk was that he blamed the Confederation for the death of his wife and child on Telamon. But she could see that her lover was nervous and wanted to talk.

"The biggest? Probably the time we got into a furball with the TCS Minsk's battlegroup in Kurasawa. I was flying a Banshee with the colonel off the escort carrier Oriskany, and the Minsk threw an alpha strike at us." DeVille shook his head at the memory. "Fuck, did we get massacred. We started out with the Oriskany and her flight wing, a Sheffield class destroyer and two Caernaven frigates. By the time we were able to jump out we'd lost twenty-nine fighters out of our original forty, as well as the destroyer and one of the frigates. I don't know what Confed's losses were like."

Maneater's voice was as empty as the void outside the observation lounge's window. "Fifty-seven fighters out of the ninety that they started out with. Also the diversion strike that you threw at the group right at the end cost the group one destroyer crippled and another one damaged. You guys certainly left the Minsk's skipper something to remember you by."

The Scrapper's eyes widened as he turned his gaze back to Ross. "Were you there?"

"No, but some of my friends that I'd served with were assigned to the Minsk's air wing," she answered. "Some were rescued by Confed SAR, some were rescued by Border Worlds SAR, and some didn't get rescued at all."

"That's the chance we take," Jack said fatalistically. "Every pilot is a test pilot. Every time we launch, land or do anything in a plane we're flipping the finger to the Grim Reaper, daring him to reach out and grab us. And we're just daring him even more when we go into combat." He finished off his beer and deftly tossed the empty bottle into a nearby bin. "No combat pilot with half a brain expects to live long."

"True," Maneater allowed. "But not many people expect to fight alongside people who killed their friends." She finished off her own drink and gave DeVille a sideways look. "Strange how the universe works, isn't it?"

"Hell yeah," the blond Border Worlder agreed with an ironic laugh. "But the question is, do we work together to survive the present or do we remain mired in the past?"

"We have to stick together if we're going to make it out alive," the Confed pilot agreed. She cocked her head to one side. "What do you think our chances are?"

Jack's blue eyes narrowed in concentration as he stared out the lounge's huge window. "Depends. We'll probably just be used for raiding and harassing, and if we are then things look relatively good. I don't know about you Confee reservists, but Border Worlders train for hit-and-run strikes rather than set-piece battles."

"Probably because you Border Worlders don't have the resources to afford to take major losses."

"True," DeVille agreed. "Why take losses when you don't have to?" The ones we do have to take are bad enough, he thought moodily. "Anyway, with the Combined Fleet in system taking most of the burden, the chances of us being in a full fleet action are minimal."

"But if we do get caught in one?" Ross asked insistently. DeVille looked her straight in the eye.

"Then we're well and truly fucked."

FINIS 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 Burrito..."

"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.


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