Chapter 4 – New Beginnings

May 13, 2180 (New Era Calendar)/

Antilla System, GSA Battle Cruiser Exped, Antilla Aerospace

Michan Rolance dealt out furious blow after furious blow to the black punching bag. His grunts of agony echoed throughout the Exped's workout room. Tears streamed down his face as he continued to pummel the hanging punching bag. His knuckles were bruised and bloodied, but Michan didn't care. The physical pain paled in comparison to the emotional agony that had been his companion in the days following the Battle for Destrega Prime.

Agony, fueled by regret, would not let him stop as he rained flurries of punches and kicks down on to the punching bag. Tears ran unchecked down his face as he unloaded. With each punch, flashbacks returned him to the moments proceeding the battle. If only he had told her then how he felt, then maybe—just maybe—she'd have survived. If he could be rational at a time like this, he might have acknowledged the fact that she may have died regardless; as cold and unfeeling as that may have been.

But he was anything but rational.

He lowered his hands, took a deep breath, and resumed his onslaught of the punching bag, resolved to carry the burden of Savela Olos' death on his broad shoulders.

Jab. Jab. Cross. Hook.

Savela's fleeting smile flashed in Michan's head.

Jab. Jab. Cross. Hook.

We'll talk about this when we're back aboard the Exped, echoed some of Savela's last words.

Jab. Jab. Cross. Hook.

"Damn you, Rolance!" Michan growled through gritted teeth.

The combo came faster and harder with each repetition, pummeling into the bag with furious intensity. Michan loosed an anguished roar as he unloaded with one last smashing fist. The punching bag snapped from the chain suspending it off the floor and landed with a meaty thud against the gym's steel deck.

"Flight Officer Rolance!"

Michan turned to see Commander Warren approaching him with a slight limp. Immediately, Michan wiped the sweat and tears from his face and assumed an upright posture before snapping the Commander a salute.

"Commander, sir!"

"At ease, son,"

Michan relaxed and regarded the Commander curiously.

"A question, sir."

"Go ahead, Mister Rolance."

"How long have you been there?"

The Commander smiled wearily before answering. "Long enough, son. Long enough. Take a walk with me."

Before even thinking, Michan responded: "I'd rather stay here sir."

"I don't believe I was asking, son."

"Understood, Commander," Michan said begrudgingly as he grabbed his gear and draped a damp towel over his neck. The two walked in awkward silence through the corridors of the Exped for what seemed like hours. They stepped onto a lift, rode it down a few decks, then stepped off onto the residential deck.

The silence continued until Commander Warren broke it with a question.

He walked alongside the Commander in awkward silence until the Commander broke it with a question.

"What could you have done differently?"

Michan paused, pretending to be unsure he heard the question correctly. He had, but didn't quite understand it.

"Excuse me, sir?"

With hands folded at the small of his back, a smirk appeared at the corner of the Commander's mouth.

"You heard me correctly the first time, Mister Rolance. What could you have done differently?"

Michan loosed a nervous chuckle, "I don't think I quite understand what you mean, Commander."

"What could you have done differently so that Miss Olos would still be with us?"

The question caught him completely off guard. Not because he didn't have an answer, but because he wasn't ready to take responsibility… and there was no doubt in his mind that Savela's death was his fault.

"Why are you doing this to me, Commander?"

"Answer the question, Mister Rolance."

"Fine. For one, if I had stepped up and told her how I felt, there is no doubt in my mind that she would still be here."

"Is that so? How do you plot that, son?"

"Her mind was occupied with our last conversation. She was flying angry, her thoughts not on the mission! If she'd been thinking clearly she would've avoided that triple-A."

Virtually ignoring what Michan had just said, the Commander took the conversation in a different direction.

"Twenty years ago, I led a squadron to its death by leading them into a Patriot ambush that saw us facing three-to-one odds. I ordered a retreat, but it was too late. Ten good men and women died that day. For a long, long time, I blamed myself for their deaths."

"And you don't now? That's real convenient, sir," Michan responded without thinking and knew the Commander would admonish him for the comment.

"Mind your tone, Flight Officer. You're going to want to hear what I have to say."

Commander Warren's rebuke didn't contain any of its customary anger. Instead it carried with it, almost, a plea.

"I was a couple of years older than you are now when I had my first command, and I too had fallen in love with another pilot in the squadron. When we were ambushed, my first instinct was to keep her safe, so I ordered the damned retreat. They chewed us apart when we tried to make the run to hyperspace. As it turned out, there was a reason why mingling among squad mates was frowned upon."

Michan looked at the Commander blankly as he told his story—half listening, half wishing for this discussion to be over.

"So how did you eventually get over it?"

"To be honest with you, I don't think I ever did. It's part of the reason why I think I'm so protective of your squad. Listen, Mister Rolance, you will need search deep to find the strength to say goodbye and forgive yourself."

The Commander stopped and placed a firm hand on Michan's shoulder.

"Michan, what I am about to do will hurt me a whole hell of a lot more than it will hurt you. I believe your judgment is impaired and furthermore believe you unfit to fly with this unit. As such, effective immediately, your flight status is rescinded."

Michan's eyes went wide in shock and a chasm formed at the pit of his stomach. His eyes began to well as his hands bunched into tightly clenched fists.

"No, Commander. Please," came the words – barely an audible whisper. His eyes pleaded with the Commander, but any semblance of compassion that the Commander may have showed earlier was nowhere to be found.

"I'm sorry, Michan."

By now, they were in front of Michan's quarters. During their journey through the Exped he'd lost track of himself. That didn't really matter to him. The pit in his gut continued to grow, and the emotional pain that accompanied it transported him back to his life before the military—before Savela.

Once again, he was an orphan; alone and without purpose. Anger and despair his only companions.

As the door to his quarters slid shut behind him, Michan dropped his gear and slouched back against the door until he sat on the floor. He closed his eyes as the tears fell down the side of his face.

Michan Rolance had seen better days.


May 15, 2180 (New Era Calendar)/

Antilla System, GSA Battle Cruiser Exped, Antilla Aerospace

For the first time in what seemed like months, Antes Eslos was on his feet and walking unassisted through the corridors of the Exped, although it had merely been days. It would be at least another week before he'd be cleared to get back into the cockpit—or at least that was what he'd been told by Doctor Einbert. As far as Antes was concerned, he was physically ready to strap back in and hit the black at anytime. But mentally, emotionally, he knew that he was anything but fit to fly.

With time to actively reflect on the Battle for Destrega Prime and his brief experience with what was called the Fusion System, parts of Antes' psyche had undergone trauma that a small part of him worried that he'd never recover completely. In his mind's eye, Savela Olos's death replayed itself over and over. And the deafening cry that came from Michan after she'd been shot down was something that Antes could never forget.

As traumatic as her death had been for him and his squadron, the nightmare of the white light was something that would weigh on Antes heavily. The dream brought on by the Fusion System, if it could be called that, had penetrated deeply into Antes' subconscious revealing his worst fears: his mother's death when he was a young boy; Savela's death under his command; and his fear at being an inferior pilot when compared to the likes of Izzy and the Confederate ace, Enygma Trigent.

Things Antes rarely admitted to himself had been all he thought about since he'd awakened. That was what everyone did, right? Bury their fears and insecurities deep down to avoid being paralyzed by them.

He walked past a pair of energetic flight-technicians, probably coming from the same place he was headed, in the middle of spirited conversation and a wave of melancholy washed over him. Antes offered them a smile and a curt head nod and wondered to himself if he would ever be that carefree and enthusiastic again.

That train of thought derailed instantly the minute the doors to the Exped's hangar bay invited Antes in. The familiar scent of JP-5 fusial drive coolant traced across his upper lip and he inhaled deeply, closing his eyes. The sound of repair crews working on fixes to the damaged flight deck and plane captains performing maintenance and repairs on the Exped's compliment of Hammerheads put Antes immediately at ease. As strange as it may have sounded, something about the commotion was soothing. It felt like…

Home.

Antes opened his eyes and took in the flight deck and despite the damage suffered in the battle, it shined with an aura that warmed him from head to toe. Alpha Squadron's Z-42 Hammerheads rested on landing struts to his left. Interspersed among them were the six Interceptors that some of his squadron had stolen in their escape from Predo-5. Nowhere in sight was the Alpha prototype that prompted Antes' brief stay in the Exped's infirmary. On the opposite end of the hangar bay, the Hammerheads of Gonzo Antreya's Defiant Squadron.

"Antes!" called out the familiar voice. He turned to see Izzy approaching with a wide smile on his face. In tow were Enygma and Mahogany.

Spade, Antes corrected himself in his mind.

"Good to see you up on your feet, Antes," Izzy said with a pat on the shoulder. The two exchanged a handshake that ended with a backslap. "I know laying up in that bed like that had to be hell."

"You don't know the half of it," Antes said with a wry grin before shaking hands with Enygma. "Enygma. Good to see you again. I wish I could have hit that Mars simulation with you guys, but you know…"

Antes' voice trailed off as he looked himself up and down, "… I'm kinda not ready to strap in. Even into a sim unfortunately."

Enygma smiled, "Of course. From what I've heard, you're quite the pilot Mister Eslos, a shame you weren't able to join us.

Antes addressed Spade with a weary glance. "Spade," Antes said with a quick nod of acknowledgement and an extending of his hand.

"I trust there are no hard feelings, Mister Eslos," Spade said, referencing her deep cover identity as the Patriot Number Two, Mahogany Stenson. She took Antes' handshake.

"Not as hard as my sister," Antes replied forcing a smile, remembering the moments before escaping Predo-5 and Spade shooting Zamir Stenbach in the chest. "Not nearly as hard as Stenbach."

That's a little dark, Antes. A little too dark.

"Regardless, thank you, Mister Eslos, for saving my life and allowing me to return home," Spade gave Antes' hand a warm squeeze.

Antes searched her eyes for any bit of deception, and where he hoped to find it, he only saw an undeniable sincerity. There was a brief silence of the awkward variety, which Izzy stepped in to navigate with a light jab at Antes.

"That's the Golden Boy for you. You can always count on him to do the right thing, even if he doesn't know it."

Antes gave Izzy a humorous look, "Out of the infirmary bed for twenty minutes and I'm already getting a hard time. I trust it will be easier for you, Enygma, when you return to Pegasus."

The group loosed a round of light, polite laughter.

A small chuckle escaped from the Confederate pilot, "I can only hope, but I know better. I'm not too worried about my father. It is the other Ruling Houses that I fear will have something to say. But I am ready. I don't have a choice, do I?"

"I guess not," Izzy answered as Antes turned to walk them towards the waiting shuttle craft.

The small, boxy shuttle had a pair of thruster housings that rested center-aft. A ramp extended from the port-side of the craft and at its base, a pair of Confederate soldiers stood dutifully with CR5 Assault Rifles brandished at their sides. Enygma snapped the two soldiers a salute and they retreated up into the shuttle craft. Spade and Enygma followed.

Before he disappeared into the guts of the shuttle, Enygma turned to face Antes and Izzy.

"It's only been a few days, but I leave you as friends knowing that when we meet next, you will still be friends to me. Farewell."

And like that, the shuttle door closed behind them, and the boxy craft was already through the magnetic containment field.


May 15, 2180 (New Era Calendar)/

Antilla System, Confederate Battle Cruiser Italiano, Antilla Aerospace

When Enygma and Spade emerged onto the bridge of the Battle Cruiser Italiano, the activity belied an urgency that Enygma hadn't seen since the conclusion of the battle. Quick to meet them was the chubby Captain Santorin. He offered the Daemon Squadron pilots a crisp salute.

"Majors, we are about ready to return to Pegasus. All Confederate ships are reporting in with courses plotted in. They are simply waiting for the order."

"Excellent work, Captain," Spade said, returning the salute. "Let's return home."

Before Santorin could give the order to the fleet, the Italiano's communication's officer shouted from her station.

"Captain Santorin! We have an incoming communiqué from the Exped, sir."

Captain Santorin looked to Enygma and Spade for his prompt.

"Place the transmission on screen."

Santorin pointed towards his communication officer and instantly the image from the Exped's bridge had transposed itself onto the Italiano's forward viewscreen. Captain Rakes' bearded visage dominated the screen. Behind and to Rakes' left stood Captain Gonzo Antreya.

Rakes began to speak, "Captain, Majors. I understand you and the people under your command face an identical danger to the one we ourselves face, and I know you will do whatever you can do insulate your subordinates from the aftermath of our decisions. As we will do the same."

Enygma stepped forward and replied to Captain Rakes.

"Captain Rakes, the Confederate Fifth Fleet share a debt with you and your people. We hope that when the time comes we will be able to even the balance. The amount gratitude we owe to Antilla for this time to resupply and recuperate simply cannot be measured, and we hope that the bonds forged in the last few days will be a hint of the future we are all working toward."

"Well said, Major." Rakes responded with a curt nod of the head and a warm smile. "Safe travels."

"You as well, Captain. Farewell. Trigent, out."

The image on the viewscreen winked out and Enygma turned to Captain Santorin, "Take us home, Captain."

With that directive, Captain Santorin began barking orders to his bridge crew and like that, what was left of the Confederate Fifth Fleet leapt into Hyperspace to return to the Pegasus System where the unknown awaited.