Stories of Knyghte in Midnight Squadron

Eight Years Earlier

Eight years earlier…. July 14, 2934

It was cold. The flicker of a luminescent bulb burning out created a stark contrast in the hall ahead of him. Cold steel surrounded him as he walked forward and there was a dryness to the air that caused his throat to burn slightly with every breath he drew. No one else walked these curved halls apparently, he was alone and it added to the sense of dread which hung over him. No windows to the space beyond, he never liked being closed in, it was what had driven him into space all those years ago. Here in the inner structures of the station he always felt like he had reached the depths of an abyss that had no exit. It felt like what he imagined it would be like if there were enough of him left in the end to make it into a coffin.

It never got easier walking this hall. He had been here 27 times in the past ten years, now it was 28. His steps slowed and he staggered for a moment, staring at his feet. His brow furrowed and he everything got a little hazy. He took in a sharp breath and coughed as the dry air permeated his lungs; piercing them and making him feel like he had sucked in a handful of ground glass. He forced his feet forward and quickened his pace, but the quickness was gone within an instant as he looked ahead and dread set back in. Onward he went, plodding ever forward down the never ending hallway.

Why had they made it so long? The walk took seemingly forever and the constant curvature of the passage only added to the perception of distance. It was the wrong place for such a long walk with no scenery and only flickering lights for company. They hadn’t even bothered to put up pictures; they didn’t have to be nice pictures. Just some cheap discount store knock offs and paintings done by amateurs who would stop trying in a year or two. But no, they didn’t even bother with that. There was just icy gray in every direction. Onward, the sound of his rubberized soles reverberating off of the metallic surface echoing through the passageway and the flicker of the lights popping and crackling was all that met his ears. Dread.

He wasn’t sure how long it had been when the curve of the hallway allowed the set of sliding double doors to materialize ahead of him on his right. He turned as he reached them and stared at them for what seemed like an eternity. No one came down the hall and no one opened the doors; he just stood there staring at them. He swallowed hard, took another deep breath and tried not to cough. He wanted to move forward, but his body refused to act. His brain screamed at him, “MOVE IT SOLDIER!” but it was for naught. Too many times at this door, too many times stepping through on his own. He wanted to move, either through the doors or back the way he came, but his legs refused to move.

“It never gets easier. Does it?” a familiar voice rasped from behind him. The voice brought a sense of movement, a requirement to act, and maybe most importantly it brought the remembrance of honor and duty.

Deckard turned his head and glanced back half-heartedly over his right shoulder, “No. And honestly I don’t want it too.” he said in a raspy whisper. He could only just make out the face of the man behind him, not that he needed to.

Cav “Golden Eagle” stood stoically behind him. He knew the pain. More importantly he knew the honor and duty; he knew what had to be done. Dressed in casual clothing as was his way of doing things when off duty; brown leather jacket lined with wool over a white turtle-neck, tan pants with black combat boots pulled over them, shined to a mirror finish and laced tight. His close cropped, blonde hair was recently trimmed, buzzed off short on the sides and flat-topped. His most striking feature were his golden eyes, piercing and noble. He was young compared to Deckard, only 25 years of age and had only been with the unit for a bit over two years, straight out of academy. His shoulders were back and head held high, he was a military man to his core and it showed in every facet. He had moved up the ranks quickly, his natural leadership ability and intuitive way of flying made him the perfect choice for officer.

“No,” Cav said, “Neither do I. But we need to do this and be done with it. Got a call from Admiral Gertz right after you left, we’re going back out in three hours. Word is there is a Vandul war party headed right for us. Apparently they weren’t happy with what we did to their ships. Frankly, dragging this out will only make it harder, Deck.”

Deckard steeled himself and pushed the code pad on the side of the doors. The doors slid apart silently opening into a darker room that otherwise mirrored the stark design of the corridor. Inside he could see a table with a gray cloth draped over it, just like it always was when he visited here. Both men stepped through the portal and into the dimly lit room; steel grey on all sides, the air colder and drier than it had been in the hall. Deckard shivered as he approached the table. To his right a man in a white lab coat prepared tools and vials on a workstation that was built into the wall, but designed to detach and hover wherever he needed it to. Deckard looked over at him, but the man never even looked up from his preparations.

Cav stepped past him and reached the table first. He stood quietly there for a moment then looked back at Deckard, “Commander?” he said with a quiet forcefulness.

Deckard realized he had stopped moving. He pushed his legs forward, they felt heavy and his feet barely lifted off the floor as they moved. It dawned on him that every time he was here it became more difficult to move, harder to do what had to be done. He knew at that moment, deep down, that his brain and his heart could not keep doing this. The process was too much for him.

He finally reached the table and stood staring down at it, wondering what tortures it held for him this day. Something was there under the cloth, the tools of his demise, the same as it always was, yet worse each time. They figured he had the strength to just weather through whatever they threw at him. Maybe they were right, but today he felt a twinge of knowing that this would be the one that broke him.

Cav stood tall and determined as ever, his hands clasped behind his back, his jaw set, his face like stone showing no emotion. Deckard could hardly recall a time when Cav let emotion impede his duty. He wasn’t emotionless by any means, but when it came to serving the UEEN he did what had to be done and he did it with ice in his veins. No matter how ugly the job, he took his team through it. But he was a good man with a good heart and a kind smile who watched over all those in his unit and made sure that they had whatever they needed; at least as much as he could on board a ship like the UEES ”Topher Allen”. Bengal Carriers had little in the way of creature comforts, Cav made sure he gathered little things when he went planetside to lift the spirits of his men and women. It was what made him easy to follow, more than other commanding officers Deckard had worked with; he cared.

The attendant had moved over to where they were by the table and handed Deckard a Glas to look over. Then without warning he pulled back the covering on the table. Under it was a pile of charred items; cloth, scraps of leather and synthleather, a helmet, and dog tags. Deckard reached down, it felt like he was moving in slow motion, and picked up the tags. He looked at them briefly: Ruben “Templar” Hrdlicka, UEES “Topher Allen”, the 107th “Charging Destriers”.
He forced back tears of regret and anger, clenching his fist tightly around the tags. It was his fault, it was always his fault. They relied on him and he failed them. He kept missing that wildcard, that x-factor. Every time he missed it someone died.

Cav reached over and put his hand on Deckard’s back, “We cannot linger, we have to go back out.”

Deckard turned his head and stared back into Cav’s eyes, “It is my fault. I made the call and I was wrong… again.”

He continued, “Last night we were sitting in the bunkhouse and watching a vid of his sister and her kids. His niece and nephew are so cute and funny. They went to the new Prime Zoo. His niece, Jenny is only two and a half, and every time one of the animals she was going to try and feed got close to her she would pull away and do this giggle and shriek thing. Then her brother Dillon would try to pick her up and carry her back to the animal. Every single time it turned into a wrestling match. We watched them for over an hour and laughed so hard I thought I would lose my dinner. All he could talk about was getting home on leave to see them. Then I get him killed less than eight hours later. Its my fault.

“I knew there were fighters behind that fuel carrier they had. I should have known it was more than two. That third one, it came out behind us.” his brow furrowed and he clenched his teeth so hard they ground together, “If I had just broken off for a second to scan it or done a fly by…”

“No! It doesn’t work that way and you know it! You stay with your wingman. When you break off you both end up dead. And then it really would have been all your fault. You did what had to be done out there. Don’t ever second guess yourself, Deck!” Cav stood staring back at him, his mouth slightly agape.

He slammed his fist down on the table and turned his head away, “He was my friend too. I made the call for us to go out, Deck. The three of us have been together for as long as I have been with this unit! The two of you were together longer, but he was my friend too. I get it, its hard, you want to trade places with him… with all of them. But we can’t. We have to move forward, he would have wanted us to move forward and protect his family!” he turned back to Deckard and leaned in close to him, “We all put ourselves on the line because we can, because we want to protect those who cannot protect themselves. We have too.” He whispered he last part, almost inaudible, and put his hand on Deckard’s shoulder.

Deckard hadn’t seen him react with such emotion before. He got it. Do what we do to protect the weak and those unable to fight. We were made to fight. Something bigger had built us to go out in the black and fight, and when necessary die. He understood it, but something in him was fractured. He knew in time he would break apart entirely.

Deckard signed off on the Glas and handed it back to the attendant. Reluctantly he laid the tags back on the table so they could be placed in a container and shipped back to Ruben’s sister on Terra. Cav was already moving toward the door. Deckard quickened his pace to catch up to him. As he reached the portal he stopped and looked back in for a moment, lowered his head and then turned and stepped out, the doors slid closed behind him.

Lifting Me Up

Lifting Me Up

March 7, 2937

“There is no reason to be anxious”, she whispered to herself for the 27th time. Taking hold of a six billion UEC troop transport and guiding it out into the black and down through a flaming atmosphere into one of the hottest battle lines in the war. She raised her hand to push back her fiery, red hair, but her fingers met with nothing. They had cropped her hair back, too short, yesterday and she hadn’t come to terms with the new length of it yet. Her eyes fixed solidly on the corridor ahead, she noted that the air was cool and the recycling system was blowing into her back. All the same, she sweated and felt like she was descending through the atmosphere without a ship. She shivered as a trickle of sweat rolled down her spine.

Her mind idled back to the previous day when Captain Mills told her, “You will be training with one of our best, Bell. He is a long time vet, and has been training some of our best dropship pilots for the past few years. You are in good hands.”

All she actually wanted was to be a ground pounder, a grunt; but they caught on to her flight training as a civ two years ago, said she had a talent for it. She would get some ground action while she trained they said, but there was a responsibility to handling a drop ship that she didn’t particularly want.

Her bunkmates had not been pleased to hear that she was going into flight training. She went from being just another grunt that was off of everyone’s radar, to being the Captains pet, the spoiled brat, and things far worse and far more explicit which she chose to outright forget.

She entered the cockpit, a two-seater like all dropships; the pilot sat in the left chair and all she could see of him was his olive green flight helmet. He flicked through switches, tapped out alterations to the ships control pads, and looked over the Glas consoles checking readouts.

“Take a seat, Háizi.” He said without looking up, his voice was calm and distant.

“Warrant Officer Bellisaria Romanov reporting for…”


Bell took her place in the right-hand control seat. The seat was hard and rigid, very little padding, but structurally it held her form and was not uncomfortable. She looked over the controls and noted that some of it was familiar, but all in all she would have been in real trouble if they had just thrown her into the seat and told her to fly it. She did not have all that much flight experience, less than two years and only as recreation. She had been out into the black before that, but never further than Mars. Her parents occasionally took the family ship out and went for a “family drive among the stars” on Sunday mornings. She would have seen it as romantic and wonderful except for knowing it for what it was truly was; a chance for her parents to show her sister and her, what they could do if they merely did what they were told and followed in their parent’s footsteps.

The pilot turned his head and looked at her. He wore a face that said he was all business, late thirties, green eyes, clean shaven, and all military. “Put on your helmet, kid.”

“Sir, shouldn’t I give you my name and personal info so you know who I am, Sir?” She respectfully inquired, letting her accent roll of her tongue as she saddled into her helmet.
The comms were ablaze with chatter going out to other drops ships which were taking off and those in orbit waiting for the full contingent so they could begin the burn to their destination.

He turned his head back to her again, “You are Bellisaria Romanov, daughter of Drs. Petrov and Malvina Romanov. Your father is chief surgeon at Moscow’s Central Dormitorium Hospital and your mother is a head of Oncology the UEE State Officials Hospital in Moscow; which doesn’t exist of course. Your sister is Natalya Romanov and is currently studying with private tutors at your parents’ home estate; she intends to go to medical school next year at the age of 16 and is considered a prodigy by those who have money enough not to know better. You left home to join the military as a way of showing disrespect to your parents who have spent their lives trying to force you to be something you do not want to be. They wanted you to save lives; you chose to join the UEE where you can take lives. You turn 18 in three months, and snuck in to the service early to get away from home. The UEE knows by the way, they just don’t care. You are six feet tall, weight 144 lbs., have red hair which used to be shoulder length, golden brown eyes, a birthmark on your left wrist, and believe yourself to be in reasonably good physical condition which you will soon find out is not the case. Did I leave out anything?”

The Captain had looked pale under the greenish light of his office the day before, “We gave him your dossier this morning; I doubt he will have time to read it all. We have him teaching classroom and group piloting when he is not in the field. You are getting some very special treatment by working directly with him. Keep that in mind.”

“Only my flight training, Sir” She said coldly, the Russian accent dripping out as she became mildly flustered by this arrogant Commander’s demeanor.

“I know all about the ‘flight training’ they think you have”, he chuckled, “We know what that’s really worth sitting here now. Don’t we?” He smiled at her, his brow lifting in a knowing look.

She drew in a deep breath, “They say I have a natural aptitude for it,” she said rising up and sitting a bit taller.

“We’ll see soon enough, but we both know these controls are not gonna be like flying daddy’s 300i”

The Commander grabbed the sticks and without taking his eyes off of Bell he hit the VTOL and lifted the ship straight up into the air, “Drop ship 47449, ‘Knyghte’, lifting off. Projected arrival with fleet in t-minus three minutes.”

The comm flared, sputtered and gargled back at them, “Affirmative 47449, estimated departure for Tiber is 16 minutes. Over.”

“Roger that Command, 47449 out.” The commander flipped through the ships nav Glas for a brief moment, “Might wanna take the stick, Háizi, yer flying.” He said and sat back lifting his hands over his helmet and lacing his fingers behind his head. “Wake me when we arrive with the fleet, will ya?”

Sweat beaded on Bell’s forehead almost immediately and began to run down into her face and eyes. She frantically looked over the gauges and panels trying to find the nav site so she could manually fly out of atmo to where the fleet was. She located the nav point, they were off course due to her scramble to find what she needed. She quickly corrected their heading and making sure they had a clear shot and were not going to cross paths with any other ships. She was behind schedule, there was no chance they would arrive when the commander had stated they would. She latched onto the throttle to give them more acceleration.

“Don’t.” The commander never moved his hands remained on his head; he was leaning back, eyes closed.

Bell took her hand off the throttle, noting the sweat on her palm, “But we are behi…”

“The fleet doesn’t leave for at least 14 minutes, we have time. But what we don’t have is excess fuel for you to waste it on a deadline that doesn’t matter.”

“I’m sorry, Sir.” Bell felt the pressure of the cabin starting to close in on her. She was in over her head. It wasn’t even her choice to be here. All the same, she did not want to fail. She wanted to prove she could do this, all of it; being a soldier, being a pilot, whatever was given to her she needed to show them she was independent.

“Don’t need sorry, just need us to get there in one piece.” He shifted to get more comfortable in his seat.

His lackadaisical behavior left her somewhat angry. Whoever he was, he was a poor flight officer and a worse teacher. Maybe he was not even the actual instructor, a stow away perhaps or an agent who had killed the actual pilot. His demeanor was far from official or even professional. Maybe he didn’t even know how to fly this vessel. She would be the only one who could handle it and get it where it needed to go. She ran through possible scenarios in her mind. She had to figure out who this guy was. There was no action she could take until she knew.

“Deckard Knyghte flew with the 107th ‘Charging Destriers’ and was acting CO for over three years. Was part of the force that helped us drive back the Vanduul. Always on the front lines, that one.” Her nose wrinkled at the memory of the Captain taking a slow draw off of a large and rather pungent cigar.

“So, Commander,” her accent drawled out, thicker than before, “How long have you been piloting ships for the UEE?”

“I’m trying to take a nap here, darlin’. Talk to me later.”

“How can you evaluate my flight skills if you are asleep?” she inquired, trying to remain composed.

He sat up in his seat and lowered his hands, “Well if we arrive safely and no one dies, then I know you will be able to handle more advanced training. If anyone dies, or the ship blows up, then it will be self-explanatory. Fair enough?” He settled back into the seat.

“But Commander, wouldn’t it be better to watch what I do, so you can evaluate how well or poorly I do it. After all, you are here to train me aren’t you?” She swallowed hard and wondered if he would notice how nervous she was.

He sat back up in the chair, obviously flustered. Ran his left hand down his face and neck and gave Bell a look of abject deference, “Alright, Háizi, I will watch you fly this ship if it will make you feel less stressed. Frankly you have the controls, you figured out how to read the navs, and you were able to make adjustments to the flight path without ramming anyone. You need some work, but yeah, Command was right, you seem to have a natural ability for this kind of thing. Time will tell me more. For now just get us caught up to the fleet and don’t burn unnecessary fuel doing it.”

Bell turned her head to look at him and found herself staring him straight in the eye. Not comfortable. Whatever his manner, he had that look of a man who knew how to command. She knew in that moment that he was less attentive because there was nothing about this process which he was particularly concerned with. He was vet, he had seen war, maybe he had seen things that would leave her heaving out her lunch; whatever the case, he knew how to pilot.

“I’m sorry, Sir. I didn’t mean to disrespect you. I just…”

“You are just scared. It’s a big ship, and expensive, heck of a lot bigger than yer daddy’s 300 ain’t it?” He smirked and the left side of his mouth quirked up mischievously.

“It is a 350, Sir.” She quipped at him, “modified for stealth.”

The commander smiled gave a short chuckle. “O’course it is. Only the best for the rich and powderful.” Deckard stressed the ‘D’ in powder.

“I don’t expect I will ever fly in another one. Those days are behind me.” Bell stated coldly. She meant every word of it. Whatever she had from this day forward, she would earn with her blood and sweat. Tears were not an option; life spins like a wheel, she would let it spin.

Flipping Out
Flipping Out

Flipping Out

Bell brought the ship out of hyperspace about 35 clicks from the planet. She grimaced and shook her head.

“Well you already know what you did wrong. Just let the nav computer do what it has to do next time, it is not going to overshoot the target. Meanwhile we have a bit of time to get into position, so gun this thing and put us there.” Deckard chastised her like a small child.

Frankly she was getting a bit tired of him calling her Háizi. She rolled with it though; he had more knowledge about flying than she did by far. And she liked his sense of humor, it felt like her own. Dry at times, sarcasm, loaded with irony; yeah she liked it.

She maxed out the throttle and aimed it for Tiber II, she knew the fight that was coming was going to be bloody and most of her platoon would go down there and not be seen again. Maybe she would die here as well; at least she would die fighting. She could make out the grey rock spinning along in its orbit. The Naval fighter escort pulled in next to them and had words with Deckard about dropping out of hyper too early. He just called it nav error and needled them as rookies, putting them in line alongside the transport. Not a moment too soon either. The ship rocked hard to port as it took a barrage of plasma fire. Deckard called out positions and the fighter escort went to work.

Deckard’s face went hard, like flint, “Da-shiong bao-jah-shr duh la doo-tze!”

His exclamation not completed when word came over the comms, “Frigate! Plus six. Frigate on yer four, Knyghte.”

Deckard was already moving and coordinating with the transport crew though, he had two turret gunners on board with him, “Samson, Ferrel, buckle in quick and hang on for a roll.”

He dropped the In Flight Control Systems and pulled the throttle back to half speed. Then without any notice he whipped the yoke to the right and down causing the ship to spin in what felt like an uncontrolled loop, corkscrewing around so that as it came back up his forward guns were pointed right at the frigate. He popped the IFCS one time and then right back off giving him a forward view. The transports front guns blazed and the shots from the turreted mass drivers arced passed the side windows and punched holes through the frigates stern and belly.

Deckard was already twisting the yoke to spin the ship and then fired the rear thrusters at full bore with the grav system shut off. Bell felt like she would vomit, but held herself together. The ship spun like a giant drill bit plowing forward on the frigate, he ignored the enemy fighters for the time being. Less than 80 meters out, Knyghte fired the maneuvering thrusters to stabilize the ship’s spin and cranked back hard on the stick causing the ship to go belly first toward the frigate, then he hit the IFCS bringing it back online and jammed the throttle down to full taking the ship straight up from now crippled enemy command ship. As he bolted forward a Vanduul Scythe crossed his path and without a lock he took it down before any of his escort fighters could get a lock on. He arced the ship back over and did a full spin to bring him back around one-hundred and eighty degrees, lining him up with yet another fighter. This time however the lock on toned and he let loose an A&R Stryker missile which shredded the Scythes’ hull and left it drifting.

He maneuvered the dropship defensively at that point letting his escort clean up the remaining mess. Bell sat in a near fetal position in her chair, knees pulled up to her chest and hands gripping the arms of the chair so tightly her knuckles were white and her fingernails bled. She was pale white, and sat breathing through her mouth.

Deckard reflected on his first fight like that, he looked the same. Two minutes later he had thrown up.

“Bell, go check on the troops, find out how many weren’t buckled in so we can file a report on how many we lost prior to landfall.” Knyghte went back to resetting the ships course and putting them back on track.

Bell sat for a moment looking at the Commander, as calm as if he had just finished a light nap and a cold beer. She forced herself up and felt like she would lose her lunch right then. She stumbled her way out of the cockpit and into the approach corridor, her stomach turning like an unbalanced washing machine.

Bell wandered back to the carrier hold to check on the troops. Weak kneed, she stumbled more than once as she clung tightly to the railing. Upon opening the bay door she was immediately hit with the smell of vomit, feces and urine. She backed out to try and regain her composure and managed to keep her last meal in check. She stepped in and was greeted with shouts of anger and frustration.

Second Lieutenant Dominic LeSele levered himself out of his seat and pushed his way toward her as much with his arms as his legs which looked as weak as hers felt. “What is this, Warrant Officer? What did you do?”

Suddenly Bell’s legs felt as strong as a horses and she stood up straight and gritted her teeth together. Her bearing took on a far different aspect than any in that room had witnessed prior.

“Perhaps instead of throwing forth accusations, you should find out what occurred first, Lieutenant.” Bell laced his title with as much contempt as she could muster; it dripped with it, oozed with venom.

“You will watch your tone with me, Warrant Officer!” He shouted, trying to make it appear he was in charge. “You will tell me what happened on that bridge or so help me I will have you court martialed for this disaster!”

“Well Lieutenant”, She narrowed her eyes and raised her voice to be heard over the moaning and complaining in the hold, “We were attacked by a Vanduul raiding party about 30 clicks out from the planet, not just a handful of them either. No, we were attacked by a large frigate and a half a dozen fighters. The commander, he flipped this ship in ways I have never heard of being done and shot down two fighters and did a sizable bit of damage to the frigate as well, but to do it he had to drop the grav sytem and IFCS. And frankly, every one of you bruisers and thugs should be writing thank you letters to the pilots of the UEEN right now for the fighter support that kept you all alive. Bunch of Pansy ingrates.”

The hold went silent. Bell stood her ground and stared straight into the Lieutenants face waiting for a reprimand that he was likely stupid enough to try. Instead he just stood there with his jaw hanging open and eyes darting back and forth.

“Thank you for that report, Warrant Officer. Dismissed.” He saluted her, another error on his part. She saluted him back and waited for him to put his hand down first so as to try and save him the difficulties of his own incompetence. She turned on her heel and headed back out into the hall, closing the door behind her, then vomited up her lunch.

Dropping In
Dropping In

Dropping In

Bell recovered her composure and tried to find a way to refocus. Music always had a calming and directive effect for her so she tried to conjure a song to get her mind off of the churning in her gut. She reached up and rubbed the back of her left ear. She felt the inaudible click of the audio player trigger on and mouthed the word “Flollo”. She quietly said, “low volume” and the sound level adjusted, low enough to be heard over the drumming of the ships engines without being too loud to hear the Commander if he issued her an order. The soothing, almost hypnotic sounds of the song began a single play through. This particular piece always conjured images of standing on a hilltop as she envisioned it would have been back on old Earth, watching the sun crawl across the sky. Clouds of silver, gold and platinum cascaded through the deepening azure like mercury on a sheet of molded blue glass. Envisioning the setting of night, shooting stars flitted out across the black bringing the melody to fruition. She steadied herself and moved back to the flight deck, her stomach calming. Her legs were beginning to steady and her vision had cleared. She hadn’t taken particular notice of how her head had been swimming until it stopped. Her equilibrium regained, she took her seat next to Knyghte.

She steadied herself and moved back to the flight deck, her stomach calming. Her legs were beginning to steady and her vision had cleared. She hadn’t taken particular notice of how her head had been swimming until it stopped. Her equilibrium regained, she took her seat next to Knyghte.

“It is a mess back there. No one appeared injured though. Well honestly I was just trying to stand up on my own and not throw up so I didn’t do a very thorough scan.” She said with a slight blush, averting her eyes from him.

“Deckard never took his eyes off the window in front of him, “Can’t say I am surprised at the condition of the hold,” he chuckled, “As far as you go, you’ll get your legs eventually, and those maneuvers won’t even faze you.”

He toggled up a larger vid screen and slid his finger up the side of it zooming in. The picture enlarged and there was a clear scene of battle. It took Bell a moment to realize it was the scene of the rendezvous point ahead of them. There was a sizable force of UEE ships engaged with an even larger group of Vanduul, and it did not appear the UEE was faring very well. She glanced over at Knyghte’s face; his brow was furrowed, his eyes looked troubled, and his jaw was clenched. He pushed against the already maxed out throttle but it had nowhere else to go.

“Wuh de tyen ah”, he muttered under his breath, “get back there and tell those men we are headed into a real mess here, get themselves ready for an even rougher ride and be ready to push out hard and fast.”

Bell ran to the back and flung open the door, “Get your men ready for a rough ride and fast exit, Lieutenant. The UEE is not doing so good up ahead.”

He nodded at her and stood up making his voice heard, “You heard her people! Time for the 27th to show the rest of the UEE how marines do their job! Time to turn the tables on some Vand!”

“HOOAH!” the marines voiced their approval in unison, with Bell joining in.

She hightailed it back to her seat and strapped in, the magnification screen stowed as there was no further need for an enhanced view of the fight. They were quickly becoming part of it. Deckard was already taking action to avoid getting hit with errant shots from both sides.

He flipped on the comm panel and hit global send, “UEE Command this is troop transport 47449 in bound from Earth with troops. Over.”

The comm channel buzzed and popped with the sounds of heavy fire, “47449, this is Command, we read you. Over.”

“Command I am recalculating vector for entry to a planetside landing and dustoff. I am sending you my fighter escort, Over.”

“Negative 47449, take you fighter escort to the planet with you. Over.”

“That is a negative Command. I am sending them to you, I can manage the drop point and they don’t do anyone any good when they are grounded. Over.”

“Copy that, Knyghte. I will defer to that tactical perspective…. This one time. Take it in safe and come back out alive, old friend. Over.”

“Confirmed, Knyghte out.” Deckard switched the comms over to address his escort and sent them into the heat of battle with explicit orders to form up on UEE Command, the Bengal Carrier UEES “Topher Allen”.

As the fighters moved off, the heavy fire began. She couldn’t tell which ships were firing on them but the impacts were starboard and aft. The shields held; the one thing troop transports had was heavy shielding. The ship rocked and reeled as the impacts continued and Deckard shifted his trajectory to a nearly direct approach with the planet. Bell calculated that he would pull back the nose when they started to heat up, otherwise they would burn up in the atmosphere.

The nose began a slow smolder as they impacted the atmosphere. The ship shuddered from both the entry and the shelling they were taking. She looked over and noticed that Deckard had a look on his face; it was disturbing to see in some ways, like a child opening a much desired present on Christmas day or a madman seeing his future unaware he was in a straightjacket, like the one she had seen in that old Earth film, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’.

“Deckard flipped on the in-ship comms, “Attention Marines, we are about to go in hot, it will not be a smooth ride. Make sure you are buckled in tight. Not being buckled in will result in death. Please return your seat backs and tray tables to their original upright positions. Thank you for flying air boulder.” And with that tidbit of pleasurable information he toggled off the comms.

Blasting rocked the ship repeatedly from behind. The aft shields held, but without even looking at the readouts she knew they were weakening and wouldn’t take much more.

“Its going to be a little hotter than I anticipated,” he chuckled, “hold on to the arms of the seat and don’t hit the stick, throttle or pedals.” Knyghte pushed down on the nose of the ship. The angle was far too steep for a ship this size; it would burn up quickly at this speed and angle, but she kept her hands and feet in tight and watched him work.

Deckard cranked back on the throttle and brought the ships rear thrusters offline. The port and starboard thrusters could be heard firing up full blast, throwing wisps of plasma past the front windows and the fore thrusters blazed so brightly the light was almost blinding in her peripheral vision. The front windows polarized to block out the glare and the blazing light of the entry. The hull creaked and groaned like a man being torn limb from limb and sounded like it would tear apart at any moment. Deckard jerked back on the stick, visibly having to muscle it back. If the ship’s thrusters got too hot in this descent they would lock up and he would never get the ship leveled back out. She wasn’t certain, but it seemed the shots behind them had stopped.

Still he levered the stick back and the ship began to nose up. The heat was beginning to burn her face as the nose visibly turned orange, then red and eventually started to turn white. Deckard toggled his flight panel and shifted all of the ships shields to the nose and belly, leaving the rest of it uncovered. Even a stray shot could tear them to shreds like this, but he just kept pulling back on the yoke. He diverted all remaining power to the shields and maneuvering thrusters and the nose continued to steadily arc back. Sweat ran off his face and his flight suit was visibly soaked through. It was then that she noticed her suit was too. Her face felt baked, like being caught in the backwash of an X72 LAM. Up the nose drifted, shifting from white back to red. Still Deckard pulled back on the yoke.

“Hold onto yer boots, this is about to get ugly,” Deckard smirked that crooked smile of his.

“Ugly”, she exclaimed, “it hasn’t already gotten ugly!?”

He began toggling the shield back to full ship coverage and reactivated the main thrusters, though he kept them idling. The ship cleared the cloud cover; the nose was now just a brilliant smoking orange. The windows stabilized and cleared. Below them the ground was a pock marked nightmare, black and scarred. The ship continued to groan under the pressure of what remained a descent that was too fast. The nose edged up a small bit more and then without warning Deckard fired the main thrusters at maximum velocity. And the ship plowed forward like a herd of spooked cattle. Oddly that was also how it sounded, high pitched groans and so much structural strain that you might have thought a stampede was coming down the hall from cargo hold.

In spite of the incredible strain on the ship, it held together and even leveled out; flying as smooth as any civ transport back on Earth. The ride was nice for a short time. She looked out the window at the husk of a planet. The surface resembled hewn marble, grey and black, unpolished, almost tranquil from here. Periodic spots of sienna and carnelian dotted the landscape: Beautiful in all its destructive glory. Those colorful dots were fires and explosions, they were death, and her mood changed from relaxed to agitated. She felt the blood pumping through her veins. Her mind wandered to the idea that she and many of her companions would soon be trod into the ground; their blood mingled with the blood of Vanduul soldiers and the mud of a war torn planet cloaked in ash.

Deckard keyed up the comms again, “Get ready folks, the landing is less than one minute out.”

He keyed the comms off again and began a rapid descent, though not nearly as rapid as the one that brought them through the atmosphere. Ahead she saw the battle front in all its horror. The flames of countless bombings on both sides, the arc of missiles launching into the horizon, the flares of laser fire flitting brilliantly across a void of hewn bodies in what was once a shallow valley, quickly becoming a small hill. She was sealed into the ship tight and secure, but in her mind she could hear the screams of men and women dying with holes punched through their torsos, arms and legs. She thought she could almost feel the splatter of blood from the men and women on the field as their blood coated and covered everything nearby. The ship came to a heavy rest on the outskirts of the base camp and Knyghte opened the side hatches and marines poured out of them and mustered to the camp for orders.

He looked at Bell, and for the first time in this trip his face wasn’t lackadaisical or smiling or sarcastic; it was somber and grim.

“Watch your back, Háizi. Come back alive.” It was all he said, then he turned his head away from her and powered up the lift thrusters for a quick liftoff.

Bell gathered her gun and pack and headed quickly out the doors. She had barely gotten her back leg out of the portal when the doors slid shut and the shuttle revved for a lift off. She quickly scurried out of the way and the ship bolted upward. She never would have thought a ship that size could lift off so fast, but it did. Maybe it was just that fast or maybe the pilot inside just knew how to make to move like that. She looked up and watched him go. She took a deep breath inhaling the scent of death, reached up and toggled her ear implant to active comms channel, and then bolted to the base camp to face her destiny.

Egret's Egress Pt 1
Deckard and Bell

Egret’s Egress

Deckard tagged the comm again as they broke atmo, “Command this is 47449. Over.”

The comms screeched and roared back at him in a cacophony of white noise and meaningless nonsense; then went silent. Bell pushed her sagging head upward in dismay and confusion, catching sight of Deckard. For the first time this trip he looked deeply concerned, maybe even scared. His eyes darted briefly and he arched his back to try and get a look behind the ship through the overhead window.

“Command. This is dropship 47449, code Egret. Come in Command. Over.”

The comms hissed and boiled back at him with no response then dropped silent again. Bell looked at Deckard her own face tightening under the duress of their situation. She knew something serious was going on if the ‘Topher Allen’ was not responding. It had been a rough day, dropping in only six hours earlier, watching so many women and men dying so quickly on a field of blood.

Her mind drifted….

Six hours earlier…

LeSele had not done a half-bad job getting them to the front, for a first timer. He was as green as any soldier there, fresh out of the Academy. It was fortunate for them that Sergeant Downs was there. His experience on the line was noted and revered among the marines of the 27th. LeSele had taken to asking him his opinion before making a move; he was proving to be a smart boy for an Acad brat.

They had pushed up the 32nd parallel, the hottest spot on the field. It wasn’t bravado that had brought them there. It was the reputation of the 27th and General Mitchel knew it well. He had called for them specifically when he heard they had landed. He sent them straight in, there was no real briefing to speak of; he just said it was hill of dead flesh and he wanted control of it.

No one had died getting there. It was a good omen the Sarge said. They pushed to the hill and the smell nearly caused her to gag. She had thought it was a euphemism: hill of dead flesh. But no, it was a giant hill of dead and rotting bodies, some were probably months old. It was as gruesome a vision as anyone could conceive. It had to have been 80 meters high at the peak. Soldiers rolled back down the hill; both alive and dead. Explosions rocked the area, and with each shell that hit the mound the soldiers were splattered with gore and blood, entrails hung from their helmets and packs. All along the base of the hill soldiers, men and women indistinguishable from each other, scavenged for ammo clips and rations. Their once olive green uniforms now brown and thick with caked blood and feces.

“Over the hill maggots! Maggots got no fear of dead bodies; they love ‘em! Over that hill now!”, the Sarge screamed over the blasts of missiles leveling parts of the flesh mound. And up they went, no complaints, no time to vomit, no thinking any more of what it was they were climbing. They just headed up the hill. Scrambling and slipping, every one of them pushed up the hill like the damned heading to a feast of fresh souls. Bell slipped and slid three meters down the hill on her face. She rose with rot in her nose and mouth, spat out a chuck of rotted flesh and pushed back up. She kept her footing from that point on; not wanting to cannibalize another soldier.

As the 27th crested the hill they stared down into a valley of carcasses and bodies 10 kilometers across and reaching to each horizon on their right and left. Nothing living moved in that valley and no one tried to cross it. Those wounded who had rolled down the wrong slope could be heard screaming below them.

Bell was knocked off her feet as the blast of an explosion hit some distance to her right. She looked up to see she was no longer in the middle of the line on the hill crest, but rather she was now the right side of the unit. The dozen other soldiers that had been there before were gone. She looked frantically around her checking both slopes but saw nothing moving. Twelve soldiers gone in an instant. She sat frozen, unable to cope with the nightmare situation any longer. Somewhere nearby she heard screaming and yelling. Soldiers prodding those around them to get up and move or they would die. Another blast, not as close, rocked her backward and she slid a meter or so down the embankment. Her head began to clear and she felt a sharp tug on her ammo belt. She heard a voice, it was Sarge. She couldn’t make out what he was saying or where he was.

Her vision cleared and the muffled voice became more vibrant, “MOVE!”

Sarge lifted her roughly to her feet and she stood wobbling. Then he struck her hard across the face with his open palm and she sparked back to life. He drug her back down the hill toward the base camp, but only about 12 meters or so then began running what was left of the unit parallel to the ridge. They ran for what seemed an hour before stopping to catch their breath for a brief moment.

“Ok marines! We are over this rise and crossing that valley! This is what we are getting paid the big bucks for! We get to the other side and we dig in!“

Somewhere behind her a voice shouted over the din of explosions, “Where’s the Lieutenant?”

Sarge looked back past her, “He was right flank at the last cap, Murphy. Now get up and move it you maggots! Move!”

The Sarge pushed Bell up the hill until her feet took hold and she moved on her own. They ran hard. No one looked up and there was no time to stop and breathe the stench. There was only getting to cover on the other side. And it was a long run over slick dead bodies and bloody husks of what were once men and women, but now was just rotted sludge.

They plowed into the hillside and buried their backs in it until they could regroup and figure out what to do next. Somehow the Vand had placed a landmine in the rot and Murphy had stepped right on it, he was dead before anyone realized he was gone. It was only now, when they did a head count, that the Sarge noted his passing. They numbered 32 now, 16 had already bought it and no one had fired a single shot yet.

“Ain’t no way to dig in here Sarge. This whole thing could roll down on top of us if we do.” Chen stated numbly.

He was right of course, and they all knew it. But that had never been Sarge’s plan anyway. It was a convenient half-truth to get them across the valley. No one needed him to say a word. Everyone already knew what had to be done; they rose up as one and began the push up the hill.

Deckard toggled the comms again, this time with a more frantic look on his face, “Command! This is 47449, code named Egret. Command come in! Over!”

The comms hissed to life and voice broke through, “47449, this is Command. Knyghte what is your position? Over.”

Deckard breathws a deep sigh of relief, “Command I am 17 clicks out moving toward sector 715-93-558. What is your status? Over.” His face was covered in sweat and his eyes blazed with an inner fire. Bell sat unbuckled in the second seat with her mouth agape and her hands hanging at her sides, staring at Knyghte and wondering what the next move was. All she wanted was to be far from Tiber II.

“Knyghte, we are down seven main thrusters and six maneuvers. Power plants are secure and holding strong, all weapons are online. But we are preparing for a hard burn and jump. You are to get the Egret clear and deliver your package home. Over.” The comms rasped like a like fifty year smoker with on his deathbed.

Deckard keyed back in, “Command I can return and provide cover fire if needed. Over” Even as he said the words his shook his head in denial and the left side of his mouth ticked. He knew he had to get the marines home and that Command would never agree. He would have said the same thing if someone had asked him.

“Negative, Knyghte! Deliver that package home!”

Deckard, continued shaking his head and his face wove a pattern of disgust, “affirmative, Command. Out.”

Four hours earlier…

The remains of the 27th, all 32 of them, broke over the ridge. The scene on the enemy side was nearly identical to what they had already seen. There were no enemy soldiers visible, but in the distance they could make out the missile batteries and laser cannons.
They receded down the front side of the hill out of the enemies view and Sarge called in the situation, “Base One, this is Iron Butterfly. The rolling waves are clear, no fish in sight. Over.”

The handset buzzed and a voice could be heard but not made out by anyone but Sarge as he held the comm unit to his ear. He voiced an, ‘Affirmative, Base One. Out” and handed the comm back Chen.

“We hold for the reinforcements. Catch yer breath, but keep yer eyes open.” Sarge blared at them over the roar of a set of heavy GTGs arching above them from their home camp.

Bell laid back on the soft husks and stared up into the sky. Above them were far distant flares of yellow, orange, red, and green. Somewhere out there was the orbital battle they had flown past to get down here. Up there men and women and aliens died just like they died down here. Up there, there were no mountains of bodies of clamber over; just fire and cold and death leaving one to drift in the black and vanish.

Egret's Egress Pt 2
Deckard and Bell

Egret’s Egress Pt 2

The comm sputtered and came alive. Deckard’s eyes bolted to the screen and shortly a face blurred into view, “This is Rear Admiral Thomas Higashi of the Idris Corvette UEE “Statesman”. We have sustained severe damage to our core containment system and our anti-matter chamber has been compromised. Additionally we have lost all but three of our gun batteries and have depleted our missile stores. With sufficient thrusters left to perform a ramming maneuver on the Vanduul destroyer designated ‘Cthulu’, we go to our end knowing we have performed at our best and gladly sacrifice ourselves to secure a retreat for the remaining fleet. Hail the defiant dead of the UEE!”

With that The Rear Admiral saluted those listening and the vid winked out. Deckard stared blindly at the screen as his dropship rushed to jump point. He shook his head but remained silent. Then he reached over to the nav panel and dropped the IFCS and spun the ship 180 degrees to watch as the ‘Statesman’ sacrificed herself to give them a clear passage out. They were still close enough to see the events taking place clearly. Deckard rose from his seat, raised his hand in salute and waited for the impact and detonation. Bell followed suit.

Those moments seemed to slow down and move at a crawl for Bell. The Cthulu gaped at them, an enormous ship easily four times the size of a Bengal carrier. It was jet black, with 12 louvered tentacles that reached out and grasped at the darkness like some kind of Lovecraftian horror. So black it seemed to absorb the light around it as lurched forward into the midst of the conflict rotating in counter-clockwise fashion. Within the center of it was a gigantic, red, laser cannon easily one-third of the ships overall size, which fired a continuous pulsing beam that tore through capital ships and cut smaller craft apart or vaporized them entirely. Slowly, ever so slowly, it pivoted toward the oncoming Statesman.

The Statesman’s two remaining rear thrusters were full on and the bluish-purple blaze glared floridly as she lunged forward. She fired her remaining guns at the destroyer, the shots vaporizing harmlessly on the mammoth ship’s shields. The rest of the armada turned and began their retreat, last in line was the UEES ‘Topher Allen” blasting behind her with her turrets and what remained of her fighters whipping through the black of space like fireflies in a storm filled sunset.

The Cthulu’s cannon fired off another lengthy blast of brilliant red light and three hornets melted and flashed apart under its glare. A second Idris, they later found out to be the UEES ‘Damocles’, cut across the path of the beam to shield a pair of marine dropships trying desperately to make it out of the area, and was sliced cleanly in two. The Idris flared as flashes of light erupted from her breached hull, and even as far out as Bell and Deckard were they could make out bodies drifting from the wreckage into the void of space. Vanduul Scythes darted about taking shots at any targets available and they watched as another marine dropship was lit up and flew apart like torn shreds of tissue paper in a strong breeze.

The Topher Allen rocketed passed the Egret and Bell felt a powerful shudder run through the ship as the Bengal went by. She latched onto the arms of her flight chair with thelittle strength that remained to her. In tow carrier brought a dozen other ships and a handful of hornets. She rumbled passed them and shortly thereafter they felt the shift of the jump engines being fired and the jump point blazed into being behind the Egret as she continued drifting toward it. Deckard’s eyes were fixed on the Statesman and Cthulu however and he stood like a saluting statue as the devastation before him continued. Bell stood stunned, watching both Deckard and battle. Her hand had dropped to her side and though she felt like breaking down in tears, she had no strength to cry.

Two hours earlier…

The defense force had arrived, and with only minor casualties. Fully 3,000 soldiers now stood just below the ridgeline and ready to move forward. Many were worn down and exhausted from having been on the front for weeks, and in some cases even months. But with effort this would be the turning point they had been waiting for. The enemy cannons and missiles had dropped off some. The other soldiers insisted it was normal, but Bell had an odd feeling about it.

The Sarge approached his remaining troops, “Word is we go in ten. We will roll over this ridge and move down to find a trench spot about 200 meters in. We may have to dig out some bodies to get back into the already dug out trench. Once in, we will set up claymores and prep for additional ground troops that are to be sent in if we can take it. We will take it.”

Sarge had a way of saying what had to be said, no matter how fictitious or even ludicrous it sounded. No one believed they would survive this push; maybe a handful would make it and live to tell about it. Well, at least tell about it for a few days before the next suicide mission.

The time came and the call was made. Bell cinched up her ammo belt and tightened her pack. Up they went and over the hill. Three thousand men and women ready to die for a cause that would mean pushing blood thirsty invaders off this rock and retaking it for Earth.

As they crested the ridge the Vanduul cannons and missiles erupted with rapid and violent impact on the marine forces. Within minutes half the force was down, if not more. But the marines pushed forward into the trench.

Bell hunkered down into the sludge of death left by the soldiers and Vanduul who had died there. The enemy shelling continued hard and fast. They would be lucky if a thousand troops had survived the push. However many were left, it wouldn’t be enough to move forward. She looked up the hill of bodies and it dawned on her that there was no way back out of this hole. Any attempt to climb back out would only result in death. Bell slumped down and held her head in her hands.

The hole was swelteringly hot, the moisture of decaying bodies couple with scorching heat of the planets sun and the fiery rain of enemy projectiles caused her to sweat profusely. She could feel dehydration setting in, her mouth was dry and her body was quickly using up what remained of its precious fluids.

The reality of it overwhelmed her and she began to lose grip on her emotions. She sat somberly bemoaning her lack of insight. Why hadn’t she seen the obvious trap? The moment those guns started firing on them she should have known. Regardless, she would have charged forward anyway, it would have been too late at that point to stop the charge. Still, she should have seen the outcome but her mind felt slowed, bogged down, foggy.

She began to sob quietly, her cries lost in the ongoing bombardment of the enemy’s cannons and missiles. There was no hope left. Only the waiting and the death after it. Her body would become a part of the landscape. She would be the hill, trod upon and spread over the area. At least she would be at rest, away from the shelling and sorrow of seeing those around her torn asunder in the crimson light of a blazing sky.

Then she heard Sarge screaming curses over the din, “Dìyù gǔn yóu! They’ve sounded a general retreat. They want us to make for the base camp. Sons of…”, he trailed off screaming profanity.

She sat and listened to him screaming into the comm unit about being pinned down and watched his reaction as they apparently told him the zone was too hot for a craft to land and pull them out. Back and forth it went for the better part of 20 minutes before he threw the handset down on the ground. Bell tried to think of a way to get them back over the hill without getting them all killed but her thoughts were a jumble of raw emotion and adrenaline driven panic. She poked her head up and looked at the artillery line not 150 meters away from them. A handful of cannons were closer, but not much, maybe 100 meters out or a bit more. Mounds of bodies lay between her unit and the line of turrets and launchers. And then it hit her, it was a longshot but it was better than doing nothing and dying like rat in a trap.

The Statesman fired her thrusters with what was obviously all of the remaining power they could manage and the ships jutting spine, bereft of her rail gun, punched a hole in the center of the red eye. Slowly it thrust forward, impaling the mass of black tentacles and blinding it with a last effort of desperate valor. The spine powered forward reaching deep into the brain of the massive monster and at long last her core containment gave way completely.

The eruption of the anti-matter engine created a black void, darker than the black of space in which it imploded, darker than the fowl ship which she had perforated. The singularity that was created was not so massive as to pose a threat to the Egret or her passengers but was substantial enough to devour the Cthulu and pull all other ships nearby into the void creating a massive collision of Vanduul craft which tried desperately to escape the gravity well they had created. Scythe and frigate impacted in a mass of chaos and destruction as the Cthulu melted around them and added to the massive destruction. As quickly as the black hole had appeared it vanished leaving behind a mass of shredded metal and ship parts.

Less than two hours earlier…

“Sarge give me that comm!”, Bell shouted and motioned to him with one hand.

“Why? What are you going to do that is gonna change Commands mind? Nothing, that’s what.” The Sarge shouted at her his face red and foam curling at the corners of his mouth. They stared at each other, like everyone in the trench they were covered from head to toe in the remains of the fallen. Sarge wiped his hand across his face smearing the blood and feces on his face as he tried to clear his vision.

“I got a plan and Command doesn’t have a say in it.”

He reached down grabbing the comm and tossed it to her.

Bell rekeyed the frequency and activated the unit, “Dropship 47449 this is the 27th Marine Corp. Deckard are you there?” Her voice was raw and frantic. If Deckard was out of range there would be no plan.

She waited and the comm remained silent. He was probably far enough out to be clear of the guns.

She was about to try again when his voice came over the link, “27th corps this is dropship 47449. Over.”

She grinned from ear to ear like a schoolgirl being asked out on a first date. It was all she could do not to jump up and down. She took a deep breath and tried to keep her exuberance in check. For all she knew he would reject her idea. Any sane person would have, that was how she knew he would jump at the chance.

“Deckard we are pinned down and Command is leaving us here. They say it is too hot for an evac at this location. Can you come in and get us if I can give you a break in the fire?”

‘Affirmative 27th. I am in atmo and close. ETA 12 minutes. Over”

“We’ll be waiting.” Bell dropped the comm into the muck and looked back up over the edge of the hole.

“Sarge, in 10 minutes pop a flare and be ready to board the Egret. Deckard is coming in.” She said with a smile.

“Girl, I don’t know what you got planned, but God himself goes with you.” He saluted her and turned back to the rest of his men and the scattered remains of other platoons that had joined them.

Bell climbed out of the hole and slithered on her belly toward the cannon, using the mounds and piles of dead flesh to mask her movement. She was covered with the sludge of melted fat and entrails before she had gone five meters, but that was working to her advantage. She only stopped twice to vomit, after that her stomach was empty. The cannon was only 70 meters away now. She could see the Vanduul gunners on the turret now, two of them. She moved quickly forward whenever they turned their backs to her and was able to close the gap in minutes. With ten minutes gone she reached the turret. Taking a firm grip on her P4AR rifle, trying to squeeze through the slime on her hands, she steeled herself for the suicidal move that was to come.

She raised herself up out of the gore covered ground in a smooth motion, aimed into the small opening of the dome covered turret pod and fired twice on the closest warrior. His back was to her and he dropped immediately to the ground with fist sized holes scorched in his back. His companion turned and reached for a gun, but he lay dead before his hand could grasp it, with holes in his chest and head. His black blood oozed out onto the platform. She latched onto their feet and drug them out one at a time, shoving them out into the mass of flesh to rest with their brethren.

Bell crouched and moved inside the turret housing. She took in the layout of the artillery line now that she was closer to it and found that the main power reactor was visible from her location. Great luck or perhaps the Sarge was right and God had come down the line with her. Spinning the turret around, she took aim on the power core. Her maneuvering however had caught the attention of the Vanduul on the other turrets and launchers and they started shouting and waving their arms.

She pulled the trigger.

The power plant went up in a power flash of blinding sparks followed by an explosion that shoved her onto her back on the floor of the pod and cleared a crater which took out a dozen of the enemy’s emplacements. Her ears rang as she tried futily to push herself to her feet. Her vision blurred and something wet ran down her face and neck. She stumbled out of the turret and fell face first onto the ground. She lay there for a bit rasping in the decay and choking on the fumes wafting off of the blown power core. In her mind a voice shouted for her to get up, but her arms and legs lacked the strength to push her upright. The ground was soft and warm; comfortable. Her eyes closed and she began to drift.

She drifted into a green pasture and blue skies rose above her. She looked up into the glare of a dazzling white sun. As her eyes drifted back down she beheld a pool in the distance and as she approached, it bubbled and fumed, growing ever larger. She now noticed it was red and there was a sweet smell which emanated from it and still she walked forward to see what it could be. She couldn’t place the smell, but it was not entirely pleasant. Bodies began to emerge from the pool, like swimmers finishing up a leisurely day of relaxation and play. They rose and she saw that they were missing arms and legs and heads. Many had gaping wounds on their bellies and chests and their entrails flowed out of them and back into the red pool; feeding it. Slowly but deliberately they shambled toward her; she screamed.

Bell woke screaming, her own blood in her eyes, nose and mouth. She shoved hard against the pulpous ground and got to her feet. Sarge had lit the flare and was looking back toward her. When he saw her rise he waved his arm and turned back to the trench. Above her she could see the Egret arcing in toward the clearing. She doubled her effort and ran with all the strength left in her to get to the EVAC point.

Deckard tapped the comm turning it off. Unfastened his straps and got up out of the flight seat. He walked casually back to the corridor and slid open a panel on the side which led into a central compartment between the hold and the deck. He stepped in and shrugged out of his flight suit, laying it across a drape bar. Reaching out he tapped a Glas panel which brought out a rotating closet, inside of which was his armor and rifle. He suited up.

Deckard slid back into the flight chair and strapped in. He toggled the panels drifting down out of the cloud cover and slapped the throttle to full. AAs blew up all around him as he dodged and weaved through the enemy fire. The ship jarred back and forth taking an occasional hit but holding together. Then the shelling simply stopped. He had a brief window of clear sailing and was able to pick out the glowing red flare dropped by the 27th.

Command had botched another one, sending them in this deep with no air support and limited artillery. If there was one thing you could count on with Marine Command, it was their inability to assess a trap.

Deckard was stunned at how few soldiers remained as he approached, maybe 40 troops stood waiting for his pickup and most of those were not the 27th. At least he thought they were his troops, they were coated in something wet and brown. Chances are it would take him weeks to get the smell out of the hold afterword. He hated smelly troop holds.

45 minutes earlier…

The Egret hit the ground hard and as the remaining marines of the 27th and the stragglers of other units ran to board her. The doors slid apart and there stood Deckard in his full suit of Cyclops combat armor pointing his Behring P4SC out over their heads. He fired a barrage of shots passed the marines and grabbed hold of a soldier dragging him onto the ship. The other marines limped into the hold, many dragging or carrying their colleagues with them. Stepping back out he latched onto Bell and drug her in as well, the Sarge tailing close behind. Deckard bounded out of the hold toward the flight deck as the Sarge hit the controls to close up the hold, standing his ground and aiming out of the quickly closing gap.

Deckard cranked the throttle to full lift off and nosed the ship straight up. Whether he had fuel enough or not after he broke atmo would be irrelevant if they got shot down. He powered down the weapons systems and put all the power into the thrusters hoping for just a hair more speed. The ascent was far from smooth, but no one would complain if they survived to tell of this day. Granted they were all going to need counseling when they got home, but at least they might get home.

Deckard lowered his arm and took one last look at the obliteration caused by the Statesman. He took his seat and buckled back in, then toggled the IFCS back on and wheeled the ship about 180 degrees.

Bell sat unbuckled staring into the void. Her face caked with death and her own blood. She no longer noticed the smell, though Deckard kept glancing at her out of the corner of his eye and wrinkling his nose. How could she ever sleep again, she wondered? Would she dream of the Flesh Hills of Tiber II or the devouring pool of blood? Would she be able to close her eyes at all or would the horrors of the Grinder live in her mind for the rest of her life. Maybe they have a pill that will make it all go away, she thought.

Her eyes drifted to Knyghte, “Will I ever see green fields or blue skies or white clouds? Or is it all just a dream that I won’t be able to hold onto now that I have seen the true face of war?”

“You’ve seen the inner workings of hell.” Deckard spoke quietly, “For the soldiers of this war there is no peace, only loss and the hope for death”

Bell’s upper lip quivered and a tear rolled off her cheek as she stared at the lead pilot. Was he so jaded that life held only darkness for him now? Was she going to end like him? She sank back into the flight seat and pulled her knees up to chest.

Knyghte goosed the thrusters and the jump point flared with soft blues and greens as the Egret passed through.

And all that’s best of dark and bright
Deckard and bell

And all that’s best of dark and bright

August 20, 2937

Repairs had taken nearly five weeks after the last heavy run they had done. The port side strut with lasers and missile banks had been completely blown off the vessel, they had lost one engine, and the port side had been pocked with over 200 holes from laser fire, but they had brought home their troops intact. Deckard recalled the pride he had felt over the job Bell, now Marx, had done. She had taken to the training better than any student prior and her confidence was sky high.

He walked the ship looking her over, checking for flaws in the repairs. But she was clean, only a trained eye would have been able to see the patch marks and welds. The Egret was ready to soar. He closed his eyes and ran his right hand across the port side letting his fingers feel for incongruities in the surface. His caress returned the sensation of a cool skin; silky smooth and devoid of flaws. He stopped briefly and just breathed in her scent. The hangar was dimly lit, the mood drawing him closer to her. He pressed in against her and she held her place. For Deckard there was no closer relationship, none her trusted or relied on more than her. She was all he had; every other relationship was temporal and fleeting. He breathed out deeply and sunk against her. No matter how bad things got, or how bad they had been, she was always there for him.

He opened his eyes and moved to the hold. He stepped through the portal and tapped the panel to close her up, then made his way to the deck. Bell had just finished all the pre-flight tests. She gave him a thumbs up and that sly grin he had come to expect from her. He slid to the right and took second seat strapping himself in. Quickly checked his flight controls and massaged the yoked to test it for nuances of pull or give. It held tight and had obviously gotten some work as well while the ship had been under the knife.

“Ships solid, Commander. Better than before if you ask me.” Bell piped up, “We got eleven minutes to make the rendezvous and grab our troops. It’ll be good to see the 27th again.”

Bell had a graceful, and perhaps even grateful, demeanor about her when she spoke of the 27th. They hadn’t seen the unit since Tiber II. Bell talked about them constantly and Deckard knew she was excited for a reunion with those who had made it out. Sarge had stayed in touch with her, as had Chen, but there were few left of that heroic brood that stormed the mounds and taken down the artillery line that day. The 27th had been replenished; many of her vets had been hospitalized for months after the affair. They had a new CO, Bell had told him, and they were considered an elite unit with 100 grunts of the grittiest and grimiest that their new Commander could muster. Technically she was still a part of the 27th. But with them down for months after Tiber, she and Deckard had been flying whatever troops they were told too, into whatever scenario they had too. They had seen some rough combat, but nothing would ever compare to T2.

Bell had received some commendation or other. Deckard couldn’t recall what it was. He couldn’t even remember his own medals, and wasn’t even sure where he had left them. If he ever got called to a fancy ceremony he would be scrambling to find them and chances were he wouldn’t find all of them and would end up demoted. She was excited about it though. He had to listen to her ramble on about it for days after she got the thing. But it was worth it; seeing her perk up and start to push past the nightmares and the memories was good for them both.

“Control this is Dropship 47449, preparing for liftoff. Request for civilian vectoring and clearance. Over.” Bell toned in on the comms as cool and smooth as any hardened vet.

“47449, this is control, you are cleared for a liftoff on vector 3115 mark eight. Over.”

“Copy that control, 47449 out. Bell grinned and took the ship forward as the hangar doors parted. She glided over the threshold and slid upward into Earth atmo as smooth as a dove on the wing. The Egret held tight, the controls seemed firm and clean. There were no hums, no vibration, and the engines purred out a rhythmic cadence so quiet it was almost like they were flying in civ craft.

Deckard glanced over at Bell and her big grin, “You might want to…”

“Run her hard and see if she holds together? Way ahead of you, Commander.” She turned that big grin toward him and Deckard couldn’t resist returning it with a chuckle. She had this stuff down. It was no longer about her learning to fly; her time with him was coming to a close and soon she would be lead pilot of her own ship with a fresh green recruit all her own to torture and train.

Things were good. He felt like he had been washed clean and come out starched and pressed. He was walking tall and looking good; like a respectable officer. His enjoyment for flying was back. The past was past, Bell had shown him that. He couldn’t change what had happened before, but he could move forward and make choices that improved his own life. He leaned back in the seat and put his arms up, lacing his fingers behind his head and closing his eyes, unable to wipe the grin off of his face.

Bell pushed the ship hard; rolling it, nose diving, forcing it straight upward, and banking hard back and forth. Deckard just laid back and enjoyed the sensations of the ship doing what it had to do in response to her every command. They coasted through a pink sunset as dusk closed out the day. Deckard took in the beauty of it and felt at peace.

Bell dropped into gateway station and set the ship down so softly that Deckard didn’t even know they were stationary. They both unstrapped and moved down to the hold to greet the 27th. They stood in the doorway as the portal slid apart and the 27th stood in line waiting to board. The pilots moved off the hold to let the troops by. Bell moved out to greet Sarge and Chen, now Corporal Chen and rumor was he would be promoted up to Sergeant himself in a few months. She hugged them and they slapped each other on the shoulders and exchanged insults and expletives for a moment before both men came over and shook Deckard’s hand and went on for too long about how grateful they were that he had come back in for them back on T2. Mention of the planet made things more somber for a brief time, but soon they were all laughing again.

The new brass stepped forward to greet the pilots. Major Floyd McDougal was a big man, maybe six foot six and 270, he had the look of a stereotypical marine with a square jaw and forearms the size hams.

Bell and Deckard both saluted. And the Major returned it with aplomb.

“Commander Knyghte. Warrant Officer Romanov. I’m Major McDougal, CO of the 27th. It’s a pleasure to meet you both.” He had a grip like a vice, but he had control of it. Deckard had no doubt the man could have crushed every bone in his hand if he’d had a mind too.

Bell thanked him, Deckard wasn’t sure why.

“The pleasure is ours, Major.” Deckard replied with a small smile, “Sir, if you will excuse us, we need to get the ship moving.”

The Major dismissed them with salutes and the pilots headed back to the flight deck leaving Sarge to bolt up the hold doors.

Deckard and Bell strapped in and she fired up the engines, commenting on them being so much quieter.

She keyed the ships internal comms, ‘I have a green light from the hold, prepare for liftoff.”

“Control this is dropship 47449, requesting clearance and vector for a hard burn extraction. Over.” Deckard toned in.

“47449 this is control, you have clearance on vector 2859 mark 17.8. Have a safe one and bring them home safely. Control out.”

Deckard settled back and watched as Bell pushed out from their landing and lifted the Egret’s nose skyward. He relaxed and let the G’s wash over him, lulling him into light sleep.

Of Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies
Deckard and Bell

Of Cloudless Climes and Starry Skies

Elysium III
UEEN Marine Dropship ‘UEE Egret’
August 23, 2937
Investigating Elysium III

Bell stared hard at the grayish-green planet as they coasted through the Elysium system. They had been aboard the “UEE Redmann”, a Bengal class carrier, scarcely two hours hence in it’s orbit around Elysium IV; had given the marines a chance to move about while they refueled and checked over the Egret’s armaments. Rumor was that the Elysium system was being scouted by Vanduul raiding parties and that they had made landfall on Elysium’s third planet, classified as a future terraforming target. Their job was to take the 27th in and land near the last known location of where Vanduul scouts had been seen entering orbit. The “Redmann”, currently in tow, was there to act as a tactical emplacement covering them as they entered and exited orbit.

“It doesn’t look like much,” she observed. “Other than using it as an outpost to reach deeper into UEE territory why would they be there? It is not even a good location for that. There are better staging areas for them to choose from. They had to know they would be seen this close to an inhabited planet.”

“I’m not the person to ask. I just drop the grunts where they tell me too and pick ‘em back up when they are done thrashing aliens and wasting ammo.” Deckard remarked with a smirk causing Bell to smile a little under her serious façade. “Besides, this is a clean and sweep, reports say their numbers are small and your devil dogs should be able to root ‘em out and hunt them down inside a day. This mission is a cake walk for the newly reformed 27th; you know, just to get their feet wet.”

Bell nodded her ascent and smiled lightly, but her eyes remained glued to the planet. Her brow still furrowed just slightly. Deckard might have missed that sign four or five months ago, but he read her features now like they had been partnered for years on these flights. He knew what she was feeling, he felt it too; there was something more at work here than a simple scouting party looking for a staging area. There was something darker at work. It was in his gut, a gnawing trepidation, a rumble of warning that said turn around. He had felt it many times before, had pushed through before, and had stared into the abyss and lived to tell about it. This would be no different.

Bell held her tongue, but he knew she wanted to high-tail it out of there. She followed his lead, trying to emulate the flint-faced resolve that had taken him years to build up. They had a job to do; take these marines in, drop them off, and when they were done go and get them. And she would do that job even if it meant her life in process.

To their left the blue giant pulsed with electrical fury through the polarized diamond-cut starprism windshield. To their right the deep black extended outward; specks of light flickered in the far distance like some ancient wisps tempting travelers to leave their path. Deckard felt invigorated by the prospect of one day traveling to those systems that no human had yet seen. There was a peace, even a comfort, in the depths of the black where a man could refashion himself and emerge back in the world as a new creation. He could reinvent himself there and leave all of his past behind him. He needed a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure; it was his new found dream. Soon, he thought to himself, soon I will travel without restriction or war, just one man among the stars and the openness of the void. He let his mind drift off for a short time.

When they were within a scant five clicks of the atmosphere Bell toggled the comm panel, “Command this is 47449 the UEE dropship Egret, preparing for atmospheric entry. Over.” Her voice was flat and routine, the comm messages had become rote memorization and flowed without need of conscious thought.

The comms came alive as clear as polished crystal, “Copy that 47449. You are cleared for drop. Over.”

“Copy that, Command. 47449, out.”

Bell nosed into a shallow entry and held the Egret stable as they pushed downward into the greenish haze of the planet’s atmosphere. Flares sparked off of the nose of the ship as they dropped, the gases of the atmosphere flaring up around them like orange and green fireworks. Deckard glanced over at Bell, noting that her jaw was clenched and her brow held a bead of sweat even though there was no real stress on the yoke. The green haze made for some breathtaking scenery with the sun glazing across the horizon as it began to rise over their destination. The ship lazed out under the cloud cover of green into a stark landscape of browns and greys; jutting spires of brown streaked grey stone rose upward creating a scene of jagged and dangerous razors reaching out to the stars like rusted blades in a pit waiting for an unwary denizen to fall into them.

Bell pulled back slowly on the yoke guiding the Egret toward the landing area displayed on the scans; a rare flat plateau among dagger like peaks. She set the ship down gently on the surface and waited for Sarge to give them the sign to seal up the hold. From there Deckard and Bell would wait it out with systems powered down to avoid detection by heat and electromagnetic scans.

“You don’t look too good, Marx.” Deckard remarked, his expression showing his own nervousness about the mission. “Once we have the hold sealed up I am going to get into my armor and I suggest you do the same.”

Bell nodded her agreement and wiped the sweat from her palms on the legs of her pants. She unfastened the seat harness but stayed in her seat watching the marines of the 27th as they headed out into the desolate terrain. Their faces were covered by the vacuum suit helmets, but she could tell by the gestures being made which one was Sarge. They headed down the incline in formation, graphically displaying their attitude on this mission; more drill than actual warfare.

Deckard slid silently into the hall and tapped his code into the Glas panel releasing the pilots’ armory door. He emerged a few minutes later suited up with his helmet under his left arm and his rifle grasped in his right hand. He sank back into his seat and leaned his rifle against the arm of his flight chair.

“Get yer gear on soldier,” Deckard stared hard at Bell and scratched his chin through the goatee which was in need a trim, “We may have to move at any moment. And if we get a hull breach these helmets…”

“…are all that stand between us and a painful death?” Bell cut him off with a grim smile and raised eyebrows.

Deckard grinned back at her, “Alright, alright, just go get suited up.” He leaned back and kicked his feet up on the console. Now we wait for the marines to clean up the area, he thought to himself, may as well get some shut eye.

* * *

Roughly three hours later….

The comms lit up with static and screaming, jarring Deckard awake. He rubbed his eyes and sat up straight. Bell was already on the comm with Sarge.

“Say again 27th. Say again. Over.” She gripped the comm panel so tightly her knuckles had turned white.

“Massive force of Vanduul. Severely outnumbered. Need immediate evac! Over!” Sarge’s voice was rattled; the man who never lost his nerve was shaken so badly he sounded like he was ready to try and run. Nothing about that was good. Bell blanched under the duress in his voice.

Deckard toggled on his comm system, “Command this is dropship 47449. Over.”

Bell did what she could to calculate in the position of the 27th, her hands shaking and breathing through her mouth. Her lips were dried and tacky but she wasn’t able to get a grasp of her emotions. She couldn’t do Tiber II again. She knew she wouldn’t be able to hold it together if it turned into another bloodbath.

Deckard, on the other hand, turned into cold forged steel. He went back and forth with Command about going in, but was met repeatedly with orders to lift off and return to the “Redmann”. He ended his comm link with a simple statement, “Affirmative Command, we will bring the 27th to the Redmann. Out”

Bell, hearing the blatant disobedience to a direct order from Command, turned from her comm channel and stared blankly at him for a moment.

“No time to waste, tell them we are inbound and to give us a clear shot in.” Deckard grabbed the yoke and toggled full control to his seat. Bell relayed the message and signed out with directive to keep their channel open in case something changed. Deckard shoved the throttle to maximum and pulled back on the stick enough to get them airborne, then made a beeline for the 27th.

He was about three clicks out when the bombardment started. They were shelled from at least three different positions. The rockets and plasma cannons rocked the ship like a toy boat in a bathtub making it nearly impossible to get a clean line of sight on their objective. He could hear the groans and cracks of the hull being torn into, watched as his left bank of weapons disappeared from his readouts. The Egret’s shields were at half power by the time he saw the red flares laid out by the 27th.

He shoved the nose toward them and came in hard and fast, skidding across the ground for nearly a hundred meters before grinding to a stop with the hold doors already open. The marines piled in dragging wounded and dead with them; in some cases only body parts made it back.

Without waiting Deckard shoved the nose up and hoped they had the doors closed. There was only one chance of getting out alive with Egret’s shields depleted and the existing damage, straight up at break neck speed and hope they could clear atmo before they got shot down.

“C’mon baby, you can do this.” He said out loud caressing the yoke and trying to soothe Egret with a calm voice. She squealed at him and the rear shield began to give way under the pounding of the missile batteries.

“What?” bell said with a confused look on her face.

“Just talking to her, Bell. She has it in her.”

Egret pushed hard against the gravity of the planet and limped her way clear of the artillery. The rear section was mush, but two of the main thrusters, seven of the 8 maneuvering thrusters, and the engines had held together; she was clearing the atmosphere. Claxons blared at him as he looked over the panels at the damage. Before Bell could see the readouts on the coolant leaks for the engines he locked down the power readout panel. He saw the pain and anguish she was in. Felt her slipping away from him. He toggled off the alarms and shoved her hard towards the Redmann.

Bell tried the comms but found nothing for her effort. She noted that the arrays were gone. Not damaged, just gone. Deckard ordered her to head back and check on the marines and told her to take her helmet just in case. She wasn’t happy about it but unbuckled and quickly headed back.

He pushed the Egret toward the Redmann with a deft skill that comes from years of combat flying. She wanted to twist and drift away from the carrier, but he massaged her in the right direction. Tears clouded his vision as he guided the dying beauty toward her last destination.

He looked over the damage readouts again and knew there was only one option. As soon as Bell had closed the hold doors, he dropped the hold clamps and let the transport hold drop from the Egret, momentum causing it to drift toward the Redmann. Once the hold was released it set off the automatic homing system. The Redmann would see he had jettisoned the marines and would send out a retrieval crew.

He pulled back on the yoke and propelled her out away from the survivors and the Redmann. His eyes stared blankly out into the black.


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