Front Lines - One Final Duty

Plywood Fiend

Rear Admiral
Hello, it's me again.

I can't help but feel a bit of a swine for posting this, considering the number of projects i've started and stopped abrupty once inspiration fizzled, including Front Lines itself.

Having played the exceptional Standoff episode 5 however, I find myself in a Wing Commander mood, and this part of the original intended Front Lines series was always something which was rattling around in the back of my head, so I decided to write it up at long last.

I've basically jumped right to the end, just as Lancelot Flight is making its run on Kilrah. I'm going to pick up the story there and run with it to the end in what will probably be about 3 to 6 chapters.

Thanks again to all who read Front Lines back in the day, I hope you enjoy this one.

Front Lines

One Final Duty

By Richard Paul

Chapter 1: Messenger of Doom

Salamander’s Perspective – TCS Hermes


People stared at me as I made my way to the war-room. The Fleet had been gathered at Hyperion for two days now and we’d done nothing but fly uneventful patrol missions and gaze lovingly at the system’s new asteroid field. We’d seen not a trace of the enemy thus far, and the tension was only getting worse.

As it turns out, that seemingly abandoned world which Colonel Blair had put to the torch was in fact the site of a Kilrathi R&D base. Intel had made a rather strong point of stating it’s apparent importance to the enemy based on all manner of probable statistics and factors like it’s proximity to the Kilrah system and our inability to detect it when we arrived. The cynical amongst us, in other words all of us, believed that this was little more than exaggerated showmanship to boost our morale in these final days.

The war would be over soon, one way or another. The briefing I was about to attend would tell me how and when our own part in this final chapter would unfold.

As I stepped inside, things were quiet. Captain Moran was standing grim faced at the map table with her arms folded. Our com officer, Lieutenant Johann Robinson, was staring intently at the lines of text on his terminal. He looked like a man trying to ignore bad news.

“Captain?” I said quietly after a few moments in which Moran didn’t address me. Her head then snapped around and she seemed to come back to the waking world.

“Ah, Colonel, my apologies.” She stopped and sighed, “I’ve just received the Fleet’s orders. They’re… well, they’re pretty much what we were afraid of.”

I nodded, my thoughts settling into a kind of numb professionalism. Dejection and panic could wait until after the business here was concluded.

“Lancelot Flight launches first thing in the morning.” She said, “You know what their objectives are; sneak to Kilrah and blow it to hell.”
“Yes ma’am.”
“Commodore Taggart believes that they’ll stand a greater chance of success if we, that is the fleet, effectively the entire remains of the Confederation Navy, stage a diversionary attack on the enemy fleet.”

I exhaled hard, the enemy had at least ten fleet carriers remaining, possibly twice that number. We had three.

“Scout corvettes have already detected a large enemy force moving towards our position. Looks like they took a back route through to Freya. So, that’s stage one of the cheerfully labelled ‘Operation Blitzkrieg’ already completed; draw out the enemy force and weaken the Kilrathi home-guard. Now we have to hold them in place for as long as we can, make them think that the fleet was being readied for a last-ditch strike on their homeworld. Then, when things get bad, we bug out. With any luck they’ll think the danger has passed and not notice the Excaliburs until it’s too late.”

She couldn’t hide her frustration, nor her incredulity as to what our military planning had come to. In truth, I don’t think she was even trying. It was hard to blame her; this war had grown crazy in its old age. Before the end of the week, one of the two sides’ home worlds would be an ashen husk. Gone were the days of desperate times and unconventional strategies, now we had entered the realm of maniac ideas, and of complete and utter sacrifice. Our hope was hanging by a whisker.

“I won’t lie to you Colonel, I have gone over this plan with the boys from tactical and none of us can see any possible chance survival here. We won’t be going home, even if Colonel Blair and his wing complete their mission.”

Samantha.

I halted the impending internal drivel and brought the train of thought to a quick end. Yes, she would die, so would Fool and Torrent and Adish and Scar and all of us. Any chance that the species had to survive would require each and every one of us to lay down our lives.

Maybe.

Yes, yes that’s true. More times than I could remember me and my friends had beaten the odds. We could do so again.

Maybe.

“Understood.” I said finally, my voice quiet.
“Computer,” the Captain said, “display Blitzkrieg file Alpha 2-0.”

The map table sprung to life. On the right were the myriad blue arrows and outlines that represented our fleet. It was quiet large to be fair, three fleet carriers plus their escorts, a score of light carrier groups and about two dozen other ships. Believe it or not we’d even managed to rustle up a Ralari. Supposedly it was something Confed snagged during the Vega campaign.

On the left were over twice as many red dots, all moving slowly from a blue jump point indicator in the left hand corner towards us.

“As we speak, Commander Rutherford is already ordering the fleet to move back towards Freya. It will be our job to hold the jump point until Lancelot wing is safely through and then for as long as possible afterwards. After all, they still need to get back the same way.”

She scoffed, then shook her head, seemingly reprimanding herself.
“On the plus side,” she continued, forcing cheer into her voice with no small effort, “The word from Intel is that the Cats are indeed expecting us to make an all or nothing assault on their homeworld with our full strength. With so many of their ships dry-docked it would, they supposedly believe, make sense for us to launch a few torpedoes into their ranks to thin them out, or worse still, launch a few nukes at the planet. That’s why they’ve detached the majority of their operational homeguard to intercept us. That’s a lot less carrier groups for Colonel Blair and his wing to worry about.”

“Are you sure we shouldn’t try taking the fleet through anyway?” I offered, doubtful but strangely hopeful.
“We can’t. It would take three days to properly mobilise the fleet on the other side of the Kilrah jump point, and in three days the enemy armada will be well underway.”
“I see.”
“There is no great strategy here Colonel. We fly in and we kill as many of them as we can, and we hold that jump point for as long as possible; understood?”
“Yes ma’am.”
“Very well then. One more thing; I don’t believe in lying to my people, but I’m going to have to ask you to do just that. Your fighter wing must believe that they have a chance of coming through this alive. We need to buy Lancelot Flight as much time as we possibly can, and you know better than I that we’ll have a better chance of holding them back if the crew has some kind of hope left.”

Indeed I did, and more than a few of the pilots were getting perilously close to flipping their lids as it was. So many had put all their hope in the Behemoth, and when that went up in flames, they started sinking into despair. We’d had three pilots try and drink themselves to death over the past month, and another had been found in gunnery control two Tuesdays back with a pistol in his mouth. One of the psyches managed to talk them out of pulling the trigger, but there was no way that that pilot was getting back into a cockpit ever again.

There were those though who were standing firm. They recognised the Temblor bomb for what it was; a chance. It was our last hope, and it was a long shot, but it was enough to keep us fighting for a little longer; and if it didn’t work, well, we wouldn’t be around long enough to worry too much about it.

“We may yet survive Ma’am,” I said finally, “This is hardly Confed’s first twilight, nor the first time we’ve come up against hopeless odds.”

I thought back to that H’varkann in Brimstone, a million years ago, or six months ago if you want to be pedantic. I’d been certain that we were all going to die then, and instead we won. Granted the price had been high, and the next carrier group that tried to repeat our success against the KIS H’varkann itself was annihilated utterly, but all the same, I’ve found that following that battle I can never quite bring myself to believe I’m utterly doomed. I always believe that there’s always a chance to win, no matter how small.

Moran stared at me for a few seconds, and then her face forced itself back into her standard day-to-day composure.

“Of course Colonel, you’re quite right. Forgive me, the news from Commodore Taggart was a bit of a shock and I’ve not been sleeping too well these past few days, it’s put me in a gloomy mindset. Yes; tell your people that we have a chance. Tell them that we’re about to win the war.”

I wasn’t sure if she was humouring me or trying to convince herself, but only an idiot would have missed the laboured edge to her voice.
“I understand.” I paused, then added; “I just want to say, in case… in case I never get the chance to, that it was an honour serving with you Captain. The Hermes was lucky to have you as her C.O. Er, still is lucky, that is.”

She nearly managed to smile.
“Likewise Colonel, you’ve done the ship and the wing proud. Hell, maybe they’ll give you my job once this is over.”
“Your job?”
“Yes, once the war is finished, I’m resigning. I’m heading back to Dakota to start a bakery. No more Kats, no more carriers, just several thousand unhealthy sticky buns.”

I laughed, that was a cheery dream, and it was a nice thing to see after the Captain’s earlier dejection. I passed that off as a momentary lapse.

You had to feel sorry for her. Until recently she’d been a relatively unassuming C.O of a single cruiser, a tough but straightforward job. Next thing you know, she inherits command of the entire Hermes carrier group, a job she handled far better than she seemed to realise. Now, with so many of our ships destroyed, the Hermes found herself with the unofficial title of the Terran Confederation’s Flagship. For the moment, it seemed, she commanded the navy.

I considered my job tough at the best of times, but I imagine I’d be reduced to a gibbering vegetable if I had to do hers.

“Sounds like a fine plan.” I said. There was silence for a moment after that, the cheery line of discussion finding nowhere else to branch out to.
“I’d best get to the briefing room.”
“Indeed. Good luck Colonel. Wipe them out.”

Razor’s Perspective

Half an hour Later – TCS Hermes briefing room.

“And so to summarise ladies and gentlemen, we must hold the jump point until Lancelot flight is through, and then for long enough to make the Kilrathi think we were assembling the fleet for an all out attack on Kilrah. Once the Excaliburs are safely through and well on their way, we pull back to Proxima. By the time we get there, we’ll either have effectively won the war, or we fight to the last man in defence of Earth.”

Never before had I felt such an atmosphere of terror in that briefing room. Not even when we engaged the H’varkann. This was it, really and properly it. The war was about to end. There would be no anticlimactic return to the kind of drawn out conflict we’d all grown used to like after the battle of Earth. We quite literally couldn’t fight for much longer, and if Colonel Blair succeeded, the Kilrathi force would be destroyed utterly.

If he succeeded.

And that was it, this plan that Covert Ops and HQ had put together seemed so ridiculous and so near-impossible that it was hard not to expect to die before the end of the day.

“We launch in twelve hours.” Carl continued from the Wing Commander’s podium, “That’s how long you have to send letters home, have one of the galleys ‘proto-steaks’ or do whatever you feel you need to do.”

He paused and scanned the assembled faces. He tried to hide his disappointed expression, but he can never hide anything from me. I suspect he saw no small amount of fear and depression.

“These are not final goodbyes or last meals people. This is much deserved R&R before the final battle. When we’re done and the Kats are beaten, I shall see to it personally that we all die horribly of liver failure following an alcoholic binge the likes of which the universe cannot imagine.”

Against all odds, people started to laugh. This was without a doubt the strangest briefing any of us had ever attended, but with no specific instructions for the wing beyond ‘hold the jump point’ and ‘fight with all you have and more’, what else was there to do but build morale?

“Any and all carriers we have will be positioned behind our wall of fighters, destroyers, cruisers and corvettes. So long as they remain intact, we’ll be able to rearm and refuel. If they go down though…”

Heads nodded grimly, everyone knew that if the carriers went down, so did we. Carl left the wing to mutter amongst itself for a moment before speaking.

“Does anyone have any questions?”
“Yes sir.” Beowulf asked, standing up “Do we have any idea of the enemy fleet’s total numbers?”
“Not exactly.” Salamander replied, “Our scouts report an immense, quote-unquote, electromagnetic signature heading our way. That kind of signature could not be generated by anything less than seven fleet carriers, in truth that number may even be as high as twelve, not to mention escorts.”

Gasps and angry mutterings followed. I’m pretty sure I heard someone behind me break into tears. Ordinarily I’d be tempted to turn round and slap them upside the head, today though, well, today was different. In forty years of war this day, this mission and this briefing were unique, or uniquely horrific perhaps.

“Anyone else?” Salamander said.
“Do you believe sir,” 1st Lieutenant Graham ‘Wassail’ Jones asked, “Do you honestly believe that we have a chance of winning this fight?”

There was a moment’s silence, and I noticed on Carl’s face a strange half-smiling half spiteful expression that I hadn’t seen since one of the rookies we got assigned after the Hermes’ repairs were complete called him a wanker behind his back. Said rookie spent a well earned two weeks as the unhappy minion of the deck crew.

“If I didn’t believe we had a chance Lieutenant, if HQ didn’t think we had a chance, then we wouldn’t be here. We’d be high tailing it back to Earth already. I won’t lie to you, this mission goes beyond simply ‘dangerous’, and even if we do manage to hold off the Kilrathi and buy Lancelot Flight the time they need, even if Kilrah is destroyed, we may still all die. Then again, maybe we won’t. As ever, it depends on us, and each and every pilot and soldier in this fleet. We must do our duty, as we always have. We must fight with every ounce of strength and conviction we can muster because if we don’t, humanity becomes extinct. Think about that for a second, extinction; it is not the stuff of cheap holo-vids anymore, it is not the grim possibility that scientists warn us about every time a new strain of Watson’s disease breaks out. It means the complete and purposeful extermination of our race, our history, our culture, our families, our friends and our homes.”

He stopped for air. The room had gone deathly silent. The way he was speaking, no one would even dare clear their throat until he was done.

“Extinction; that is what awaits us if we fail. If those cats break through our defences quickly enough to still be able to detect the Excalibur’s engine trails and raise the alarm. Now, I will not allow that to happen, you will not allow that to happen, nor will any human in this system. We fight to win, as we always do, because the alternative goes beyond unthinkable.”

Another pause, he looked again at the sea of faces and, presumably still disappointed with the expressions he saw, shook his head.

“Look, I know you’re frightened. I am shitting myself to be honest.”

Laughs, some forced, some not.
“I know you’re tired as well. Most of you have been fighting the Kilrathi your entire adult lives. This war has gone on for far too long. It must end and it shall end. We have one final battle people, one final charge against the furry darkness. Let’s get that done, and then let’s go home.”

Someone started to clap, when it occurred to them that no one else was going to join them, they stopped. Carl nodded appreciatively to his lone fan before turning his head back towards the centre of the room.

“Dismissed, and good luck.”

People stood up and filed silently out of the briefing room. I stood to the side as everyone moved out. Torrent, or perhaps I should call her Major Ryuku Katori, clapped me on the shoulder as she went passed. It was a peculiar gesture perhaps to anyone watching, but Torrent, unlike everyone else, knew why I was looking far more worried than I ever had done before in a briefing, and not just because of the impending battle.

She was the only one I’d told, and now I had to tell Carl, but as he stepped away from the Wing Commander’s podium and made his way tiredly towards me, smiling his usual half-hearted ‘just another day at the office’ smile which was always a cover for stress or apprehension, I felt my entire body go cold. I honestly don’t think I’d ever been that scared, not even in the cockpit, because at least there I can fight back against the adversity and danger.

This was all wrong. We were twelve hours away from a battle which could determine the final ending of the war, we could all be dead soon. That extinction prospect that he’d just warned us about might become a reality, and even if it did all go right, we might lose each other, he might be killed or maybe I would. We’d both fought through so much but none of that meant anything, either of us could still die easily, at a moment’s notice.

And, on top of all that, I was pregnant. With Armageddon less than a day away, me and Carl were going to be parents, and it was that, as well as the thought of telling him, which scared me more than anything.

To be Continued
 
Good to see things are moving again, all the same. (An' I'm still prepared to point out any questionable spelling. ;) )

[Edit] Ah! Got one right off! Second paragraph, 'stating its apparent importance', if you please. 'It's' signifies 'it is', and the possessive should actually be 'its' - at least, that's according to my education.

And, now that I've come through to the other side of it, it seems a bit superfluous to have pointed that out, as you used it elsewhere exactly as I would. Oh well.
Your way to set an atmosphere is still effin' awesome and a half - I've read published authors who haven't quite managed that all the way through.
Generally, though, I'd like to see more commas - well, to a certain extent, anyway. NOT ANYTHING like old 19th century Swedish, capisce? Bloody commas all over the place, takes all week to read a single paragraph...
There also seems to be less mix-ups between 'then' and 'than' - let the records show that I approve.

Lookin' forward to the continuation.
 
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