Table of Contents . . .




One year later. . .

TCS St. Helens; Admiral Eisens Day Cabin
En route to Firekka System; ETA: 00:09
The Antares System, Antares Quadrant, Epsilon Sector
MAR 09 2685/2685.068; 1409 Hours (CST)

How little time he had to himself these days.

Fleet Admiral William Eisen allowed himself a few moments of relaxation in his comfortable chair, a cup of steaming coffee in his hand. Leaning back and closing his eyes, he let himself sink into its inviting softness. As he fondly remembered, he’d seen to it that the chair from his old cabin on the long gone Victory be moved to his new ship.

The memory of his first love brought a fond smile to his face. So many decades he’d spent on "Tin Can Sally." Even when he’d been given the Lexington, it simply couldn’t compare to the ship that he’d lived and, well, ended up growing old on. But the St. Helens... could any commander in Space Navy ask for a better ship? That wasn’t possible. With the destruction of its twin ship, the Vesuvius, twelve years before, he was on the only supercarrier in the ConFleet Armada. That was something of a novelty, even with the coming of the even more impressive megacarriers. He’d thought the command a temporary position, a role that would be handed over to a more youthful, aggressive Confed officer as soon as he finished sorting out the Border Worlds/Black Lance mess. He couldn’t believe it when, not three days after the Tribunal’s hearing and subsequent sentencing of Space Marshal Geoffrey Tolwyn, they dropped him a quaint little E-mail telling him he’s the best—and only—man for the job, promoting him to commodore and even wishing him luck.

Oh, there were other factors for his command. For one thing, he had long suspected the Admiralty Courts if not the High Command, too, felt guilty for not listening to his perfectly valid concerns when he served aboard the Lexington, when those corrupt in power saw to it that he would be thought of as a traitor. After all, who was it they had chosen as his replacement back then? Captain Hugh Paulson, one of the Black Lance’s top advocates, if inadvertently.

Hell, Eisen even heard ConFleet named one of the newer ships to come out of the Vesuvii line after him. Normally a ship was named after a captain after the said captain was dead... but he took it in the flattering sense it was hopefully meant.

Even early into his twelve year command of the St. Helens he’d seen more action than he witnessed during even the mission to Kilrah. Eleven years ago he’d been called to the front lines to deal with the string of conflicts at the beginning of the Ninth Kilrathi Empire’s formation, and it wasn’t the first time. Damned, back-stabbing Kilrathi. No one had denied there was a shaky peace after the Treaty of Torgo/Ko-bar Yagar, but no one ever saw a second war coming. Chancellor Melek told them their warships were dismantled, that they would co-exist peacefully with humanity. But neither Melek or even Murragh had ever accounted for the warring clans. And even after the Nephilim invasion the Kilrathi prophets had allegedly foreseen—a terrible conflict that forced both the Confederation and the remnants of the Kilrathi to join forces and unite to stop their common enemy, to a degree—they had still betrayed the truce. Though the St. Helens came too late to participate in the Battle of Zu’naga of late 2673, it spent many of the following years containing the Kilrathi incursions that followed before the Imperium dissolved into both the more democratic Kilrathi Assembly of Clans and the unknown-intentioned Tenth Kilrathi Empire of Clan Kur'u'tak (this new Empire already nearly entirely wiping out the Andorran Republic) after the Treaty of McAuliffe. By the time the Nephilim aliens that had showed up in Kilrathi space in ’81 were fought off, he had his fleet admiral’s rank to show for his efforts.

Now there was the Firekkan secession. The Firekkan Commonwealth on one side, their fledgling Andorran allies on the other, and the Tenth Kilrathi Empire waiting like vultures to take advantage of the situation. After a year of defiance, the Firekkan Commonwealth had finally given in. It managed to limp on even after the loss of Ki’roth to the Kilrathi a year ago, but was unable to repel the Confed incursions from the Third and Seventh Fleets that followed, even with the aid of the Andorran Republic. Through the efforts of the TCS Mistral Sea, the Beldar, the Yorktown, and other carriers, the Commonwealth had no choice but to surrender and rejoin the Confederation. Eisen didn’t know if he shared Confed’s eagerness in that regard. The Firekkans wanted freedom and independence—who was Confed to deny them it? Eisen’s protests to the Senate did not fall on deaf ears, as there were more than a few that shared his opinion. In the end, the Confederation granted the Firekkans their independence, hence the official formation of the Firekkan Commonwealth, only it was with the caveat that Confed could still patrol and monitor the Firekkan borders. With that aside, his days of dancing around the rules were over. He would follow orders and retire honorably.

Eisen could almost laugh at himself. Retirement? He’d been thinking about it for twenty years. But somehow his thoughts seemed more certain these days. The thrill of commanding a carrier no longer gave him the satisfaction it once did; the chores of duty no longer seemed so bearable.

Putting his coffee down, Eisen gingerly picked up the framed, seven year-old portrait on his desk. His wife was waiting for him on Earth. Hell, she’d been waiting for as long as he could remember. Only once or twice a year they were able to see each other, either when duty recalled him to Sol Station or in the unlikely event he was close enough to take leave there. And his two beautiful daughters... All grown up, married, and already with children of their own. Eisen’s grandchildren.

"I’ll make it up to you," he uttered, putting the picture back. "You’ll see."

A muddled blue flash outside his cabin viewport told Eisen the St. Helens had just made the jump to Firekka, bringing his mind back to the mission at hand.

The P.A. intercom clicked. "Sir, we’ll be coming up on Ki’roth in a few minutes," came the voice of Commander Ted "Radio" Rollins, his communications officer.

"Thank you," he acknowledged. "Ill be right there."

Reluctantly, he stood from his chair. After stretching and taking a long sip of coffee, he prepared to return to his duties.


TCS St. Helens; Bridge
1427 Hours (CST)

Eisen was looking at the data, but he wasnt believing it.

"The Apollyon, the Kyzuko, the Trieste..." he spoke the names of the well-known Confed carriers, "... all destroyed."

Possibilities that could explain the tragedy bounced around in his head. Could the Firekkan Commonwealth be trying to climb out of the ashes of its defeat? Those still loyal to it could have gotten support from the Andorrans, then turning their attention to taking out Firekkas Confed garrison.

No, that didnt add up. It had been nearly a year since the so-called rebel faction of the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans moved into the system to obliterate the Commonwealths own garrison fleet and forced the surrender of Firekka and Confed Intell had noticed no changethe silenced Commonwealth fleet now had neither the support nor the manpower to attempt such a vengeful move, let alone succeed.

"Sir, Kiroth Station has been trying to get a transmission to us for the last ten minutes, but theyve been under some kind of dampening field. Its really weirdits not like any kind of jamming Ive seen. I... I think I can open a channel now, but Im not sure."

"Do it."


Five seconds later the staticewn torso of a Confed officer appeared on the screen of the communications console. "... St. Helens... are in need of... hell come back... took out the Garrison... dont know how much longer... cant hold this trans..." The patchy transmission trailed off into an irritating buzzing noise and the screen became a complete blizzard-like haze.

"Sorry, sir, lost it."

"Inform the nearest fleet of what has happened. Tell them to send whatever they can here right away."

"Will do."

"Who is ‘he?" Eisen pondered, asking no one particular. "Is he saying one man took out the entire Confed garrison fleet?"

"Damned if I know, sir," Rollins offered.

Eisen sighed, then moved to Lieutenant JG Lauren McKnight. "Can you get any kind of bearings on just who or what did this? Where they came from?" Before anything he had to find out just what it was he was dealing with.

"Im working on breaking down engine signatures, but theyre all pretty badly dissipated." She rotated her chair for a moment. "If I had to guess, Id say it was the Kilrathi. For all we know the same Battle Group that could have done this may be sitting here cloaked, waiting to strike at any moment."

"It could be the Firekkans themselves, sir," Ensign Klauser offered. "Or at least Firekkan sympathists."

Speculation would get them nowhere. "Im not ruling ruling anyone out as our suspects yet. I need facts here."

"Orders, sir?"

"Send a couple shuttles over to Kiroth Station with medical teams and repair crews. And..." He hesitated as something occurred to him, "... better send a detachment of Marines along with them. If this is a trap, I want our people ready."

"Ill give the order, sir."

He grimaced, looking to the frontal viewports. "Somethings just not right here."

FRLS Mjollnir; Bridge
En route to Firekka System, Epsilon Sector; ETA: 00:21
The Ghorah Khar System, Isaac Quadrant, Enigma Sector
1442 Hours (CST)

"Weve lost seven more, sir!"

Vice-Admiral Jason "Bear" Bondarevsky grunted. The engagement had been going on for little over five minutes, which was five minutes longer than it should have been. The Mjollnir and her accompanying two light CVE carriers which made up the three capship battle group he led, the Gorgon and Praetoria, had been called in by the St. Helens to help Kiroth Station. Though the Landreich Republic and the Free Republic Navy certainly owed Confed no favors, Bear refused to sit on the sidelines when he could help a ship and crew in need. When en route to render assistance, as it prepared to jump into the Epsilon Sector, the Mjollnir suddenly found itself under attack by a small, unclassified fighter. "Status of the enemy ship?"

"Unchanged, sir! I-Im not reading any damage!" Ensign Patton reported. His cracking voice gave away the young mans shock and nervousness.

By all rights, Jason was shocked, too. Hed sat back and watched at least fifteen salvos of Pilums, Javelins, and ImRecs slam into the shields of the enemy fighter. That was another thingthey werent even penetrating the ships shields. "You cant get any kind of readout on the ship at all?"

"Im trying, sir," Patton replied.

No need to raise the tension. Jason nodded, then left the busy ensign to his duties.

Jason looked up just in time to see the fighter swoop down in front of the bridge viewports, dive-bombing one of the Mjollnirs last squadrons, the VF-401 "Shadow Cats." It was the best glimpse hed gotten of it. The enemy ship was small yet bulky, with sleek structural bumps protruding from several locations on its hull. It was mostly grayish in texture, though much of its exterior was plastered with unattractive shades of yellow and green in a careless manner. Jason saw another round of twin plasma balls emitted from somewhere in its fore section, then a pair of energy discharges from the two globes of light that hovered outside either side of the craft before it vanished from sight. A moment later, an orange glow reflected along the viewport struts, indicating the destruction of another friendly fighter.

"Its cloaked again, sir!" a voice called from behind him, one he recognized as Janet "Sparks" McCulloughs. He spared a moment to glance at her, watching the perky features of the redheaded engineer he had come to love coming to life amidst the chaos of the situation.

Walking closer to the viewports, he observed the grim battle continuing to unfold. A wing of the Mjollnirs F-109S Vampiresthe last, from what he could tellwere afterburning out, pulling a desperate series of maneuvers in an attempt to throw off their quarry. Suddenly and inexplicably the rear fighter exploded, then the lead. In the distance he could see the enemy fighter shimmering back into view ahead of the dissipating explosions, then shimmering back out seconds later.

The son of a bitch rammed them in cloak, Jason scorned. He rammed two fighters in cloak, and walked away without a fucking scratch!

Patton looked helplessly to his superior. "T-that was our last wing... it took out our last wing..."

Doomsday... Doomsday was out there. Damn you and your doom stories, Etienne, you old bastard... you were finally right.

Jason threw himself in his chair, feverishly rubbing a hand over his face. Opening his eyes, he saw the enemy ship shimmer back out of cloak, appearing directly in front of the Mjollnir, its nose facing the bridge. "What the hell is that thing?!" Jason yelled, standing back up.

No sooner did he speak those words than a face appeared over the viewports. A face he recognized with both grim remembrance and disbelief.

Commodore Christopher "Maverick" Blair, streaks of his long, greasy hair draping over his face. Hed been presumed dead four years ago in the Nephilim War, and when he came out of hiding to aid the Firekkan Commonwealth a year ago, he was presumed dead a second time when an outlaw faction of the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans moved in on the Antares Quadrant and took out his flagship. "I have destroyed your fighter complement," he spoke calmly. "Step aside or you will join them in oblivion."

Star Runner; Cockpit
1450 Hours (CST)

On one of the VDUs in his MFD array, Blair could see Jason struggling for words as the Landreicher stared into his old friends cold, empty eyes. "W-why...?" he asked.

"Why?" Could he be so ignorant, so daft? Didnt he know what he could do to him? "I stopped giving explanations a long time ago, Bondarevsky. Step aside or die."

"Youre willing to destroy my ship... Chris, dont you"

"Shut up!" Blair burst, insanity creeping into his voice. He collected himself, then continued, "Maybe youre not aware of what has happened. I just shot down everything your ship had at its disposal and suffered zero damage. If you only knew the power They gave me... I can destroy you and the entire Armada if I wanted."

"Chris... what happened to you?"

"You have... one minute... to turn around." Blairs face contorted as he fought to hold down the overwhelming anger he was holding at bay within. "Then I open fire."

"Damn it, talk to me!" Jason pleaded. "Tell me whats happening, why youre doing this. I know about what you did for the Firekkan Commonwealth a year ago, I know all about it. Maybe its the Nephilim; how they captured you and probed your mind back in the last war, what they put you throughI dont know! Just help me understand!"

"You dont have a clue why Im doing what Im doing. Not a fucking clue!" he spat, a pause between each carefully mouthed word. "I have risen from the ashes of my shame with a mission of vindication. The Confederation, the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans... they are my enemies, and soon I will destroy them. The Kilrathi... they took away so much... Angel, Flint... but the Confederation... the wrong they did me I can forgive, but dont think I dont know what theyve done. Confed couldnt let the Firekkans secede. No, they, the self-proclaimed protectors of the galaxy, had to make it their problem; they had to destroy it, humiliate them even as they surrendered. Confed denied the Firekkans freedom; independence. Confed made everything we sacrificed mean nothing... everything Flint sacrificed..." Blair trailed off, then looking away. When he looked back up a few seconds later, the empty, unrelenting rage was back in his eyes. "You have twenty-five seconds."

"I cant pretend to understand what youve lost, but what youre doing... its wrong... you cant do this."

"Dont you think Ive thought about it? For so long I held myself back, buried myself in the System. So many years I played role the Confederation had me play; I was their war hero, their damned living legend. That Blair is dead and gone. Im here to make the wrong things right, and youre in the way. You have seven seconds to start turning around."

"I-I cant do that, Chris. You know I cant do that."

"Three seconds."

Jason held his poker face, waiting to call his bluff. "Blair, dont do this."

He doesnt think I can do it... doesnt think I have it in me... idiot...

"Your time is up. You now give me no choice."

Last mistake hell ever make...


Blair released the quartet of plasma charges hed had on stand-by, throwing pure energy from his main cannons and the two pulsating globules of light outside. Moments later, explosions were blossoming out over the Mjollnir as the charges tore in and out of the Kilrathi-borne carriers hull like so much tissue. The Bhantkara carrier shook on its axis, gave a shudder, then all 920 meters of it erupted in a release of flame and broken debris.

For a moment he felt as if griefterrible griefwould overcome him. It didnt make sense. Jason was part of Confed, he was the enemy, to hell with their past! He told himself this as he forced the emotion down, then focusing his attention solely on the task at hand.

The vindication of the the galaxy; the purging of the enemy.

A swirling flash of fluorescent light alerted Blair to the coming of a new ship out of jump. From the Antares System over the Epsilon Sector line, it had to have been.

Pulling his fighter into a turn, he saw the massive ship in question as it came into view. He couldnt believe his eyes.

TCS St. Helens; Bridge
1458 Hours (CST)

"Do you have any idea what you just did, son?"

If Admiral Eisen was in the same room with Blair hed grab the man by the shoulders and shake the holy hell out of him until he made him understand. He had come too late to save Vice-Admiral Bondarevsky, but not too late to stop his killer.

The Confederation patriot and hero turned berserker offered no explanation in his defense. Only his maddening gaze and empty expression, the visage of a man that had turned his back on all that he had once believed in.

"Give me an answer, God damn it!"

"You are in my way, Eisen," Blair said instead, his monotone voice containing no trace of remorse. "I suggest you get out of it. Now."

Didnt he know the man better than this? Wasnt this the same man hed watched turn the Victory from the joke of the Armada to a legend, whod done everything in his power to make the wrong things right when the Confederation rotted from within from the seeds of Tolwyns Black Lance? The man who showed no fear in the face of the Nephilim, the worst alien threat Confed had ever faced?

The Heart of the Tiger was nowhere to be seen in the eyes of Christopher Blair.

Eisen stiffened his stance. "No."

"I destroyed the Mjollnir and the foolhardy duo of jeep carriers that followed. Dont be a fool."

"Im not going anywhere."

"Then you have one minute to change your mind."

Eisen swallowed as he felt the gaze of everyone on the bridge fall on him. "Open your eyes, son!" he exclaimed. If there was any trace of the man Blair had once been still within him, any hope... "Is this how you want history to remember you? Dont let it end like this!"

For a long period of silence Blair said nothing. "You have twenty seconds. Move."

"I cant do that, son."

Frustration, and something darker, crept into Blairs face. He looked almost worried. "Ill kill you!" he shouted. "Dont you know that?"

The admiral stood his ground. "Just do what you know is right, son. In all the time you served under me, I never knew you to do anything else."

"Damn you, Eisen! Get out of my way!"

Eisen crossed his arms over his chest. If all the decades spent in his career were to mean anything, if his life had had any purpose at all, he dare not waver his position. Not now.

"You do what you know is right."

Blair rose from his chair, nearly in hysterics. "Your time is up!" he bellowed.

Eisen brought his heels together and stood in military fashion. He closed his eyes and imagined his wife, his children, the grandchildren he had seen far too little of.

Sorry, baby, the silent apology ran through his mind, sorry...

As the St. Helens heaved and shuddered, he had his answer. The friend he once knew was dead and gone. The price of this knowledge was a heavy one.

For this time, Bill Eisen knew he wouldnt be coming home.

Star Runner; Cockpit
1503 Hours (CST)

Against the backdrop of a field strewn with fragments and shards of the shattered, blasted ships that comprised the Star Runners kills, the supernova that had once been the TCS St. Helens died down. An orange glow surrounded the broken skeletal structure of the annihilated supercarrier, casting its haunting light over its destroyer.

Damn it, he did do the right thing. The price of freedom was eternal vigilance. Eisen stood in the way of justice, of vindication, of retribution. In the end he had been no different than Paladin; than Bondarevskyignorant and seasoned, bearing no sense of what needed to be done or even why.

Then why does it hurt so damned much?

"Oh... god," Blair said, his voice cracking with solemn bitterness. He could hold it at bay no longer. "What have I done?"

There was no one left to answer; no one left to blame.

"Jesus Christ, what have I done?"

He deserved to die, deserved to be vindicated, he desperately told himself. Anything to make himself believe he had not just murdered one of the truest friends hed known in his lifetime.

Blair let himself fall weeping atop the Star Runners navigational console. For many minutes he lay there, punishing himself.

"Look at you... blubbering like the baby boy I left on Peron. Get yourself together, Christopher."

Blair made himself look up. Standing beside him was Major Arnold Blair, unsoiled, circa 2633 Space Force uniform and all. Just as he remembered him from the eyes of a four year old boy. "Father..." he found himself muttering, "Dad...?"

Arnold took one long, stern look at Blair. He shook his head. "Youre no son of mine."

"No, Dad... Dad, wait!" He reached a hand up at his father pleadingly. "Please!"

"Christopher Blair... ‘Maverick, they called you." It was a new voice. On his other side was standing Geoffrey Tolwyn, proudly dressed in his Space Navy uniform with full regalia and the Space Marshals rank insignia necklace he had worn to his death a decade ago. "Yes, its always our heroes that fall the hardest, isnt it?"

Blair cringed, trying but unable to back away from the horror that could not be. "Tolwyn... no..."

"Youre not half the man your father was, Chris," Tolwyn spoke. "Youre not even half the man I was, monster or not. I looked into the eyes of countless green kids, twenty and straight out of the Academy, and sent them to their death and knew that tomorrow and tomorrow, and tomorrow after that theyd send more of them out to die. Millions died and billions died..." Tolwyn stood away, straightening his uniform and standing to attention in military posture, proud and dignified even in the afterlife. "No matter what I may have been responsible for doing in the interest of mankind, at least I grieved for every last one."

Blair summoned the strength at least to see the two as what they were. "Youre nothing... both of you!" he howled accusingly. "Ghosts of a past that means nothing anymorespecters!"

Tolwyn and Arnold stood together, their gazes setting on Blair with venom. "Then why do our words do such damage?" Tolwyn asked.

He had no answer.

Blair threw himself back on the navigation console, intent on crying himself to sleep and awakening to face no more inner demons.

For now, more so than ever before, there was no going back for Christopher Blair.