Disclaimer: "Space: Above and Beyond", its characters and devices, are the property of Glen Morgan and James Wong, Hard Eight Productions, and Fox Entertainment. While no permission has been granted to use these characters and devices, this is a work of fan fiction and no copyright infringement is intended.

AUTHOR'S NOTES: The characters in this story, aside from those attributed to the parties above, belong to me, and may not be used without my expressed permission. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental. Historical references are made to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769 - 1852), and to several military units of the United States, the United Kingdom, and other countries. Literary quotations are attributed to Plato, William Shakespeare, Lord Tennyson, and Rupert Brooke. The military terminology definitions can be found at http://www.planetx.com/space:aab

I dedicate this to Glen Morgan and James Wong, the cast and crew of "Space: Above and Beyond", and the loyal fans.

Rated PG-13 for some crude language and violence.
E-mail Address: mnai1969@yahoo.com



Mohamed Nor Ariffin Ismail

"March on, join bravely, let us to it pell mell;
If not to Heaven, then hand in hand to Hell."

William Shakespeare, Richard III, Act V, Scene III.


The deaths of the Chig ambassador, Aerotech Chief Executive E. Allen Wayne, the Special Representative of the Secretary General, and several members of the Earth Forces High Command in a bomb explosion aboard the U.S.S. Saratoga during Operation Homeward Bound resulted in the collapse of the cease-fire between Earth and its enemy in space. While revealing the truth about the insidious role of Aerotech in instigating the war, the incident destroyed any quick hopes of establishing an immediate peace between the warring parties, and the hostilities continued soon after.
The resulting scandal caused public opinion to turn against Aerotech, and the UN General Assembly, at the instigation of Nicholas Chaput, launched a special commission of inquiry to investigate the matter. Secretary General Diane Hayden quickly distanced herself from both her associates in Aerotech and the peace faction on Earth, and jumped on the war hawks bandwagon in order to camouflage her relationship with the corporation. The front lines stabilized as the Chigs were able to mobilize fully to counter the Earth Forces Roundhammer offensive, and the war consequently resulted in a stalemate.

In February 2065, several months after the collapse of the cease-fire, the Chigs launched a counter-offensive to regain their lost territories. Earth Forces were driven back in most sectors, while barely holding on to the newly won territories of Ixion and Demios. In the Elysian sector, the garrison on Planet Herron found itself trapped behind enemy lines, and struggled to hold on in the face of overwhelming forces. Faced with discouraging news on all fronts, the Earth Forces Chiefs of Staff Committee and the Military Secretariat of the United Nations scrambled feverishly to produce a plan to regain the military initiative from the enemy.

This story chronicles the efforts of those members of Earth Forces who spearheaded the offensive, and takes place in the Elysian sector.

June 1, 2065. U.S.S. Saratoga Officers Mess Hall, 12:30 hours.

Captain Nathan West looked over the rank and file of the newly reactivated 58th Squadron as they ate their lunch in the mess hall of the Saratoga. Observing an unwritten rule of military protocol regarding rank and seniority, the junior members of the squadron consumed their meals a few seats away from him and Lt. Hawkes, who sat at the head of the table. As commanding officer and executive officer of the 58th, they kept an informal distance from their subordinates. Besides, their relationship went back to boot camp and they were season veterans compared to these young newcomers.

For his part, West still had a very hard time believing the fact that he was the commanding officer of the 58th, or that it had been almost a year since the loss of Damphousse, Vansen, and Wang. He did not exactly like the circumstances that placed him in the leadership position of the squadron. He felt as if he had paid for his advancement with the lives of his comrades. At the young age of 24, he felt really old. At the same time, however, he was proud of his squadron, and of the fact that he was able to carry on the tradition of the 58th. Deep down inside, he believed that he was keeping the original members alive through the new members.

Both he and Hawkes did a lot of growing up over these past many months, and had come to depend on each other for emotional support. West turned to his right, and looked at his friend and rival. More of a friend and less of a rival now that they had been together for more than two years. Immediately following the successful completion of Operation Homeward Bound, their future was quite uncertain.
The feeling of uncertainty was aggravated even more when the search and rescue teams were not able to locate Damphousse and Vansen, and reported that the cargo hold containing Wang was blown to smithereens. Death had claimed one more friend; death in a metal coffin in the middle of space.
Their pain was evident by the fact that they could not even retrieve Wang's body in order to give him the dignity of a proper burial. Both he and Hawkes were temporarily taken off the active duty list, and the prospect of permanent reassignments to other squadrons loomed before their very eyes.
Consequently, they begged Commodore Ross to allow them to stay together, and he concurred. They were both reassigned to the Miramar Fighter Training Command back on Earth, where they both tried to rebuild their personal and professional lives. West had an angry and stormy reunion with his family; his first reunion with them since his assignment to the front lines and Neil's death.
Furthermore, his relationship with Kylen was nonchalant at best; both of them had changed since their separation following the Tellus colony launch, and they were no longer the idealists who were bent on spreading humanity throughout the cosmos.
Consequently, he spent a lot of his professional and social time with Hawkes, and with McQueen during the latter's recovery at the Bethesda medical facilities. Both he and Hawkes were elated when they received orders in November of 2064 to report back to the 15th Fleet and reactivate the 58th. Upon arriving aboard the Saratoga, West discovered that he was given command of the newly reactivated squadron, as well as a promotion, and Hawkes was designated as his second in command and executive officer.

His walk down memory lane brought a somewhat stoic smile to his face. He was suddenly awakened from his reverie when he heard a coin being dropped in his glass of water.

"A penny for your thoughts, sir," Hawkes laughed, raising his own glass to take a sip.

"Very funny, Coop," West retorted as he reached for a spoon to remove the penny from his own glass. "I didn't know you carried money with you."

Hawkes gave him a wink. "It's my good luck charm."

"Thought you weren't superstitious, Coop."

"Hey, it don't hurt," came the reply. "Besides, what were you day dreaming about?"

"If you must know," West answered with a mocked disapproving look in his eyes. "I was just thinking about the things as they used to be. Almost a year ago, before they changed."

"I know how you feel, Captain," Hawkes said. "I think we have...."

"Cooper," West interrupted gently, but firmly. "You and I have been through a lot together. How many times must I tell you? It is Nathan, and not sir or Captain. Okay?"

"Okay, Nathan. We have become new people since they asked us to reactivate the squadron. I don't know about you, but I feel I can go on again."

West looked over Hawkes with fraternal affection. Two years ago, they would have preferred killing each other rather than the enemy. During their boot camp training at Loxley, they established a love-hate relationship for the simple reason that they loved to hate each other. Each of them brought along emotional baggage when they joined the Marines. West saw Hawkes as the epitome of what was taken from him in the name of social justice; namely Kylen Celina, his girlfriend, and his membership of the Tellus colonization program. Then, the war happened. This damned war. The war took a lot from both of them.
First, Mike "Pags" Pagodin was killed by a Chig soldier during a training mission at Hellas Plains on Mars. Then, Lt. Kelly Winslow met her death during the engagement with 'Chiggy Von Richthofen', the enemy's top ace pilot.
Not long after that, West lost his younger brother, Neil, during a mission on Planet Mors, and that incident scarred him tremendously. With the death of Wang during the Homeward Bound rescue operation, Damphousse and Vansen still missing in action, and McQueen removed from active duty due to his injuries, West found himself almost alone in facing his future.
Since his family was back on Earth, Hawkes was the only one he had left.
He then realized that they had to depend on each other. West took on the role of a surrogate older brother, designating Hawkes as the replacement for Neil. Realizing the emotional and psychological fragility of an InVitro who was only six years old at that time, he became more patient and understanding in his interactions with Hawkes.
Now, almost a year later, they managed to strengthen their relationship with a bond that went beyond friendship or family.

Hawkes turned away from West, and resumed eating. As he chewed his food absentmindedly, his mind began to travel back in time. He also saw the changes in his relationship with his friend, now his superior officer. Two years ago, during boot camp at Loxley, he would have sneered in disgust at the mere suggestion that he and West would become the best of friends. At first, Hawkes saw West as the personification of the prejudices that the natural borns held against the InVitros. However, as their relationship progressed during their assignment together, he began to see the changes in his friend. West became less obsessed with finding Kylen Celina, the love of his life, and began to concentrate more on his relationship with the rest of the 58th. This became evident when West was used as the decoy with the dead members of the 61st squadron in order to counter the Chig ambush.
When Hawkes and the rest of the team returned to the Saratoga from their mission, they found that West had narrowly escaped a medical mind wipe by insisting that McQueen investigate the possibility that the 58th was still alive. Hawkes saw that West was a changed man as he was wheeled into their quarters by McQueen. This was no longer the arrogant and bigoted jerk who took pleasure in provoking him during their training at Loxley.
He realized that West had mellowed out since that incident, and had become more patient and understanding. Additionally, West provided emotional support to him following his addiction to the Phyllophetamines or 'Green Meanies' painkiller drugs during their R & R on the pleasure ship Bacchus. West was there for him after the grave losses during Operation Homeward Bound, the only remaining member of his so-called family. As such, he had placed great value in a man he used to detest.

Their individual reveries were interrupted when Lieutenant (jg) Christine Wu, one of the Saratoga's communication officers, joined them at the head of the table, much to the disguised envy of the junior members of the 58th.

"Hey, guys," she said excitedly as she placed a cup of coffee on the table, and took up a seat next to West and directly opposite Hawkes. "Guess what?"

"Don't tell me, Chris," Hawkes replied as he mockingly closed his eyes and placed his index fingers to this forehead. "Either the PX had just received a new shipment of romance novels or Captain Bogdanis of the 93rd just asked you out on a date!"

"Oh, shut up, Hawkes," she retorted in an annoyed tone. "Humor is really not your forte. Anyway, I just found out something really interesting."

"Well, are you going to tell us or will this turn into a game of 20 questions?" West asked sarcastically. "Go on. You are about to explode, and there people eating!"

"All right, all right," she said, realizing that West did not have a very patient nature.
"Apparently, the top brass will be congregating on the 'Toga. A few minutes ago, before I came off duty, I received a transmission stating that General Westinghouse and his staff would be coming aboard in about two hours. Something big is up."

"That doesn't mean anything, Chris," West sighed impatiently. "The brass usually pop in and out where the 'Toga is concerned. After all, Admiral Ross is the fleet's deputy commander."

Rear Admiral Glen Van Ross. At the mere mention of his name, Hawkes and West would always sit up and take interest. They owed a lot to this man. Following the deaths of Admiral Stenner and General Alcott, the protagonists of the criminal charges against the 58th for inadvertently releasing information about Operation Roundhammer to the enemy, during the bomb explosion which the Chig ambassador triggered while the cease-fire negotiations were taking place, Ross gave the 58th the opportunity to redeem their honor by taking part in the Homeward Bound rescue operation.
In successfully bringing back the survivors of the Tellus and Vesta colonies, the remaining members of the 58th atoned for their actions on the planetoid Anvil. Ross was the prime factor in convincing the Judge Advocate General's Office to drop all charges against Hawkes and West, and to absolve them of any criminal wrongdoing.
Furthermore, with Paul Wang dead, and Shane Vansen and Vanessa Damphousse still missing in action, Ross charged West and Hawkes with the responsibility of rebuilding the squadron following their return to active duty after a training stint at Miramar. West was promoted to Captain and given command of the 58th, and Hawkes was designated as Executive Officer. Since the bomb explosion also took the lives of the top brass, Ross was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral, and appointed Deputy Commander of the 15th Fleet.

"You sure know how to take away the fun in all things, don't you, SIR," she responded mockingly, acknowledging his seniority in rank.

West looked at her, and just smiled. As much as he enjoyed her friendship, he admitted that she could be annoying at times. "Okay, then, what is the BIG news that you're simply dying to tell us?"

"I also received another transmission from the High Command stating that the Duke of Wellington will be part of General Westinghouse's delegation," she added.

"The Duke of Wellington! Wow!" Hawkes exclaimed, dropping his fork onto his food tray.

Hawkes' excited tone sparked the curious attention of the junior members of the 58th. Glancing down the table to find the look of anticipation on their faces, West waived them over to join the conversation. In one precision drill-like movement, Second Lieutenants Wally Paxton, Rodney Morales, Elena Habib, and Julia Montallo stood up, and occupied the empty seats near the head of the table. West quickly scrutinized each new member of the squadron. They were as diverse as the original members were. Elena Habib, a 20 year old short and slender woman of Middle Eastern descent from Los Angeles; Julia Montallo, a 19 year old tall Italian woman from New York; Rodney Morales, a 20 year old athletic and muscular Hispanic man from Puerto Rico; and Wally Paxton, a 21 year old tall and lanky cowboy from rural Texas. They immediately focused their attention on Christine Wu.

"Man, that's totally awesome! Unbelievable!" Hawkes exclaimed in a lower tone. "Wellington, here on the 'Toga. They gotta be planning something big."

"I thought he was assigned to the Military Secretariat's Strategic Analysis Unit," West added. "That was what I read in the Military Who's Who."

"So did I," Wu continued. "But, the fleet received a communiqué from Colonel McQueen stating that Wellington is coming here."

Tyrus Cassius McQueen. As always, Hawkes and West held him in awe, and constantly reminded their subordinates of the influence this man had on the original 58th. Since his injuries during the abortive peace negotiations necessitated his retirement from active duty and compelled him to return to Earth for reconstructive surgery, McQueen managed to secure an appointment as the Senior Liaison Officer of the Chiefs of Staff Committee as well as a promotion to full colonel. As much as he hated a desk job, it was the only way he could stay in the military in spite of his physical handicap. As liaison officer at U.N. Military Headquarters in New York, he also happened to be in a position to monitor the progress and developments of his protégés Hawkes and West.

"Sir," Morales spoke out in a meek tone, as he focused his attention on West. "Sorry for being dense, but who is the Duke of Wellington, aside from the guy who kicked Napoleon's ass at Waterloo?"

"Morales," West answered with a stoic smile, aware that the young lieutenant was a bit afraid of him. "I don't bite. The present, I think the 13th, Duke of Wellington happens to be the direct descendant of the original duke who defeated Napoleon. Also, he is one of the heroes of Ixion."

"Ixion, sir?" Habib asked.

"Yeah, Habib, Ixion," Hawkes added.

"The Duke," West continued, "was part of the ground offensive at Ixion. At the time, Lt. Hawkes and I, as well as our former comrades, were stranded on Demios when the Chigs attacked us by surprise. When the brass decided to temporarily abandon Demios and take the fight to Ixion, Wellington was serving as a major in the British Light Infantry. His regiment was supposed to have landed in the second wave at Demios. With the attention shifted to Ixion, the Light Infantry was part of the first wave landing, and managed to secure a foothold for the ground forces. As the battle raged in the skies above planet between the 15th Fleet and the Chigs, our forces were really taking quite a beating."

"There was even a rumor that the Brass considered abandoning the 100,000 troops on Ixion like the way they ditched us back on Demios," Hawkes interjected bitterly.

West placed his hand on his friend's left arm to calm him. The Demios phase of Operation Roundhammer filled the survivors with acute bitterness towards the top brass. The success at Ixion only managed to provide small comfort to the fact that Demios resulted in the deaths of approximately 23,000 brave soldiers, a 92% casualty rate. Consequently, both he and Hawkes developed a deep suspicion of high ranking military planners.

"As I was saying," West continued, "the ground forces took such a beating that the success of the operation was in question. A Chig artillery barrage destroyed the Light Infantry's command post, killing or wounding virtually all of the regiment's senior officers. As the only surviving regimental command officer, Wellington took command of the Light Infantry, and launched a counter-attack against the enemy's gun emplacements. The ground commanders used his actions to form the spearhead of the counter offensive. The Light Infantry destroyed the enemy gun batteries, which were harassing our ships in the skies above Ixion. With the guns on planet neutralized, the fleet was able to concentrate against the enemy's forces above planet, thus isolating them from their ground troops. Our own ground forces were able to mop up enemy resistance and occupy planet."

"Sir," Montallo interrupted, "we know about the Light Infantry and the fight for Ixion, but I don't seem to recall anywhere the mention of any Duke."

"Well, Lieutenant," Hawkes admonished, "that's because at the time Wellington was known as Major Adam Wellesley. He only got that fancy title a few months ago. You people should read up on recent events."

West smiled at the admonishment that Hawkes had just given the junior officers. In rebuilding the squadron, Hawkes had developed a toughness in training the new members. Considering the fact the replacements were virtually shipped out to the Saratoga upon their graduation from boot camp, both he and Hawkes had to prepare them emotionally, mentally, and physically for what was ahead. Their tasks were made more difficult by the fact that the newcomers were first assigned to the 58th without any battle experience, apart from the flight simulators. With Hawkes still having difficulty in communicating with others, he inadvertently assumed the role of the tough disciplinarian who kept the squadron on its toes, even though he managed to learn some restraint with respect to his temperamental outbursts. West, on the other hand, took on the role of the caring shepherd, the leader who gave these young warriors their inner strength. As tough as they were on the junior members, they were successful in creating an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. They needed that. Still, it was hard for both of them to make friends with the new members when the memory of their dead and missing colleagues still lingering in their thoughts.

"Getting back to my original point," Wu said, reminding the others of her continued presence at the table. "Something REALLY BIG must be in the air. After all, it is not everyday that they send someone from Strategic Analysis to the front lines. A new offensive must be in the works."

"Excuse me for being ignorant, ma'am," Morales said, "but how can a mid ranking officer like a major become part of Strategic Analysis."

"Again," Hawkes said with a stern and impatient look in his eyes, "you guys should read up on recent and current events. Wellington holds the rank of Brigadier in the British Army."

"Brigadier?" Paxton asked.

"Finally, you're alive, Paxton," West said teasingly, causing the young lieutenant to flush with embarrassment.

"Can I get back to my story, please?" Wu pleaded.

"Go ahead, Chris," Hawkes said.

"To answer your question, Lt. Morales," Wu began, "the Duke received a battlefield promotion to full Colonel at Ixion, and given command of the Light Infantry. Following the Chig offensive in February, he was promoted to Brigadier and assigned to Strategic Analysis due to his specialty in war games and battlefield simulations."

"Yeah," Hawkes added. "In his interview with the press right after Ixion, he jokingly referred himself as a desk jockey, and called Ixion his baptism of fire."

"Lt. Hawkes is right," Wu acknowledged. "Ixion was Wellington's first major combat experience, aside from the minor battles which he fought during the A.I. Wars, and he did one hell of a job. That is why he is considered a hero, and has managed to rise from major to Brigadier in less than a year. I wonder what the brass is up to."

"Ours is not to reason why, Lt. Wu," West exclaimed playfully.

"Tennyson!" Wu said in an exasperated tone, "I thank God that you at least didn't choose psychology as your field of study. You would love having me on a couch, wouldn't you?"

"Only figuratively, Wu," came the reply, as the others at the table snickered.

At that moment, the ship's klaxon sounded.

"RED ALERT! ALL HANDS TO BATTLE STATIONS! ALL HANDS TO BATTLE STATIONS!" the Officer of the Watch announced on the ship's public address system.

"Damn!" Wu shouted, as she pointed accusingly to the public announcement speaker. "Why can't I ever eat in peace! I am off duty!"

"Not anymore, Chris," West laughed as he turned his attention to the 58th. "YOU HEARD THE MAN!" he shouted sternly. "MOVE!"

At once, the mess hall emptied as the crew ran to their duty stations. The members of the 58th ran to their quarters while Lt. Wu ran to the bridge. Grabbing their helmets and flight equipment, they all scrambled to the flight deck, trying to avoid collision with frantic crewmembers along the way. As they quickly entered the hangar bay along with members of other squadrons, they immediately stopped short of Colonel Margaret Bane, the Saratoga's CAG (Commander of the Air Group).

Colonel Margaret Bane, USMC, assumed command of the 5th Air Wing two weeks after McQueen was transferred back to Earth. A career officer who took great pride in her 'marriage' to the Corps, she was instrumental in rebuilding the morale of all the Saratoga's fighter squadrons following the breakdown of the cease-fire. Unlike McQueen, who was grounded due to injuries with his inner ear, Bane regularly flew sorties with the pilots under her command. Seeing a high-ranking officer fighting at their side in the front lines did a lot to lift the spirits of the battle weary pilots. Bane was not blind to the performances of her subordinates, and always gave good work its due credit. She always encouraged suggestions from her pilots, and respected their opinions. However, she was never able to interact with her subordinates in an informal atmosphere, and preferred to keep the company of her peers. Consequently, they found her to be aloof, and usually took their personal problems to either the chaplain or the ship's psychologist.

Holding a clipboard under her left arm and clicking on a stop watch in her right hand, Bane looked up to the startled members of the Saratoga's fighter squadrons. "Very good, people!" she exclaimed happily. "I am impressed. I expected a response time of 10 minutes, and you people did it in 8 minutes and 22 seconds!"

"Is this a drill, ma'am?" West panted as he attempted to catch his breath.

She walked up to West, and looked straight into his eyes. "Yes, it is! Do you have any objections, Captain West?"

"Ma'am, no ma'am!" he answered, standing at attention, much to the amusement of his subordinates and the members of the other squadrons.

Colonel Bane's stern stare quieted the entire room. "I wish to remind you people that we are in a war zone here! I want you to be on your toes! Is that understood?"

"Ma'am, yes ma'am!" came the thunderous reply.

"Good. Give yourselves a pat on the back, but remember you are still on YELLOW ALERT," she reminded. "DISMISS!"

With that, the flight crews turned and exited the hangar bay. Bane approached West and Hawkes, who lingered behind the other pilots. "West! Hawkes!" she snapped. "In my office!"

"Oh, no," West whispered to Hawkes. "Detention after class."

"Man, I hate this!" Hawkes whined.

Almost in parade-like precision, the two young veterans marched behind Colonel Bane as they followed her to her office. Upon arriving, she opened the door and entered, followed by Hawkes and West. Hawkes closed the door behind him, and stood next to West. She threw her clipboard and stopwatch on her desk, and sat on her chair. Eyeing the two junior officers standing at attention, she pointed to the two chairs opposite her. "At ease, gentlemen, and have a seat."

"Thank you, ma'am," came the unison reply.

"Gentlemen," she began, "I wish to discuss the status of the 58th."

West clenched his fist and took a deep breath. Hawkes clenched his teeth together, and prepared for a tongue-lashing. Both of them dreaded performance reviews.

Looking at West, she began her questioning. "What do you think of your squadron, Captain West?"

"May I be absolutely frank, ma'am?" he replied.

"I expect nothing less from you, West."

Looking straight at Colonel Bane, West vividly remembered the first day she took command of the air group. As a no nonsense career officer, she had a reputation of being both aloof and tough. She lacked McQueen's understanding nature, and West found it difficult to approach her. She rarely mingled with the flight crews, and only kept the company of the ship's senior officers. However, her redeeming quality was that she appreciated honesty above all else, and seemed to respect the opinions of even the lowest ranking officer during briefing sessions.

"Ma'am," West began, looking straight into Bane's eyes. "When Admiral Ross gave me command of the 58th eight months ago, I thought that the replacement pilots were going to be season veterans, orphans from other squadrons. I really did not expect a bunch of inexperienced 'cherries' right out of flight school."

"I see," Bane said, as she began writing in her file. "Are you telling me that you are not up to commanding the squadron?"

"No, ma'am" came the reply.

"I hope not, Captain," Bane added. "I wouldn't want to tell the admiral that he was wrong in recommending you for promotion. Well, go on."

"Well, ma'am," West continued, "when the squadron was reactivated in last November, Lt. Hawkes and I intensified our training sessions to prepare the 'newbies' for action in a war zone. Until their baptism of fire during the Chig counter-offensive, they were basically virgin warriors. We were given eight 'newbies', and we have lost four of them in the last four months. Somehow, I feel responsible, as if I haven't done enough on my part to prepare them for the realities of war. In my opinion, losing four of these kids---my kids, is not acceptable to me."

"Your kids, Captain?" Bane asked as she gave West an inquiring look. "You are only a few years older than they are."

"Yes, ma'am, my kids," West replied firmly. "In society's eyes, I can only assume the role of an older brother. That is not how I see it, or how the Corps should see it. They are marines, and I am their commanding officer. For as long as they wear the Corps' uniforms and assigned to my squadron, I am responsible for their lives and their actions. With all due respect, ma'am, I may be only a few years older than them, but I am more experienced where this terrible war is concerned."

Bane wrote in her file, and turned her attention to Hawkes. "What are your thoughts in this matter, Lieutenant?"

Hawkes took a deep breath, and cleared his throat. Aside from Admiral Ross, he never did feel comfortable around superior officers who were not InVitros. "Ma'am," he began, "I agree with the captain. As much as we try to prepare them for war, I can't help feeling responsible for the squadron's 50% casualty rate. It ain't helping their morale one damn bit!"

At the mention of the expletive, Bane raised her eyebrows.

"Uh, sorry, ma'am," Hawkes quickly apologized.

Bane sat back in her chair, and placed her hands on her desk. She looked at Hawkes, and shifted her attention to West. She leaned forward, and looked at the contents of her file. "Gentlemen," she began, "I must say that I am more than satisfied with your performances. You are experiencing what is commonly known as the burden of command. True, you have experienced a 50% casualty rate, but those are the fortunes of war. You did not take any unnecessary risks during the conduct of your missions, and you took pains to ensure the well being of your squadron. For that, I must commend you."

"Thank you, ma'am," Hawkes and West replied in unison.

"True, these young officers entrusted to your command came right out of boot camp," Bane continued. "Our losses are such that we have used up all the apples in the barrel, and have been forced to go to the tree. To the best of your abilities, you both have tried to prepare them for what lies ahead. You can do no more, and I hope to God that you won't do any less. The main question is this. Do you trust them enough to place your own lives in their hands?"

"I beg your pardon, ma'am," West queried, hoping for a clarification.

"Just answer the question, Captain. Do you trust them?"

"I do, ma'am."

Turning her attention to Hawkes, Bane repeated her question. "What about you, Lieutenant?"

"Yes, ma'am," came the reply.

"Gentlemen, out here, these kids trust you more than anyone in this Universe, with the exception of God himself," Bane sternly reminded. "Live up to your part of the bargain, and hope that they will do the same. Very well, then, dismiss."

"Ma'am, yes ma'am" Hawkes and West responded as they stood up, saluted, and turned to leave the room.

Bane looked at the two young men reflectively as they left the room. In her opinion, they were still children, emotionally scarred by the fortunes of war and having to sacrifice their youth to this whole monstrous enterprise. They were simply too young for burdening this awesome responsibility. She shook her head, and closed the file on her desk.

Next : In The Shadow Of Greatness - part 2 of 9

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