June 1st, 2065. U.S.S. Saratoga, 14:25 hours.

An ISSAPC, escorted by a squadron of Hammerhead fighters, took off from the battleship H.M.S. Agincourt, and approached the U.S.S. Saratoga.

"Saratoga control, this is Top Brass," the pilot of the ISSAPC radioed. "We are 0.2 MSK off your starboard bow. Request permission to come aboard."

"Top Brass, this is Saratoga control," one of the controllers replied. "We have you on LIDAR. Please transmit IFF codes for landing clearance."

"Saratoga control, transmission commencing. We are standing by for confirmation and further instructions."

Looking over the IFF codes transmitted by the ISSAPC, the controller signaled a thumbs up to Lieutenant Commander Dan Casey, the Officer of the Watch. Casey picked up the comlink, and addressed the pilots of the approaching vessel. "Top Brass, this is Saratoga. IFF confirmed, and you are cleared to land. Proceed to landing pad 5, and welcome aboard."

Switching on the PA system, Casey addressed the ship's company. "Attention all personnel! Attention all personnel! The Eagle has landed."

In full dress uniforms, the United States Navy and Marine Corps Honor Guard detachment stood at attention as the ISSAPC carrying the Supreme Commander of the Earth Forces Elysian sector landed on the Saratoga. The Saratoga's senior officers were attired in dress uniforms as well as they waited to greet the VIPs.
Hawkes, West, Wu, the junior members of the 58th, and members of the Saratoga's crew watched the ceremony from the viewing balcony above the loading deck, while keeping an eye out for the Hero of Ixion. Rear Admiral Ross, Colonel Bane, and the Saratoga's senior officers saluted as General Michael Westinghouse, Supreme Commander of Earth Forces in the Elysian sector, and the brass delegation disembarked from the ISSAPC and approached them.

"Welcome to the U.S.S. Saratoga, General Westinghouse," Ross said as he greeted the Supreme Commander.

"Thank you, Admiral," Westinghouse replied as he duly returned the salute, and shook hands with Ross. "May I introduce my staff."

One by one, Admiral Ross and his senior officers greeted the members of the Earth Forces Command. West took it upon himself to point out the respective individuals to the rest of the 58th. First identified was Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Rillian-Pennington, K.C.B., of the Royal Air Force, the Deputy Supreme Commander; then, Vice Admiral Mikhail Rugayev of the Russian Navy, Commander of Naval Forces; General Francois De La Barre of the French Army, Commander of Ground Forces; and Lieutenant General Allison Matthews of the United States Air Force, Commander of Air Forces. Then, with a bit of excitement, West pointed out the Duke of Wellington. The rest of the 58th all pushed forward to get a look at the descendant of one of Earth's famous military figures as he was introduced to Admiral Ross.

Brigadier Adam Payne Wellesley, K.G., D.S.M., M.M., V.C., 13th Duke of Wellington, was truly a very unique officer. Standing at approximately 5 feet and 6 inches tall and weighing just about 145 pounds, he was dwarfed in size by the other members of the top brass. He also lacked the look of a heroic warrior, and indeed was the epitome of the anti-hero. With the bespectacled face of a scholar, he looked more like a university professor instead of a soldier.
Physically, he had no resemblance to his ancestor, the famous Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. With olive complexion and dark hair, West noted the mixed ethnic heritage of the present Duke, unlike his ancestor who was of Anglo-Irish stock. A professional officer who served with quiet anonymity during the A.I. Wars, Wellington gained his fame at Ixion. His conduct at a critical moment during the ground battle on planet shifted the tide of battle in favor of Earth Forces. Just moments before on the space carrier U.S.S. Saratoga, Glen Ross had impressed on General Weirick, the Supreme Commander at Ixion, of the merits of seeking victory at Ixion.
As a result of Wellington's actions, the ground forces were able to take the upper hand against the Chigs on planet, allowing the 15th Fleet to tackle the enemy in space. Wellington gained the attention of the Supreme Commander and Ross, and was given rapid promotion. The military and civilian press followed his career from Ixion onwards, especially after he inherited the title of the Duke of Wellington.

As much as he looked out of place in the company of career military officers, Wellington behaved as if he was one of them. The Duke wore a Number 2 dress uniform of the British army; with 3 stars and a crown on his epaulettes to indicate his rank, a cap with a general officer's badge, campaign ribbons on his chest, and carried a general's swagger stick in his left hand. He shook hands with Admiral Ross, Colonel Bane, the senior officers, and stood behind General Westinghouse.

Following the welcoming ceremony, the brass, accompanied by their entourage of aides and senior officers, proceeded to the Saratoga's conference room. Along the way, they passed the corridors, which were lined with members of the crew, and security personnel who stood at attention and saluted. Colonel Bane remained to dismiss the honor guard before proceeding to the conference room to join the meeting. The 58th retired to their wardroom, and discussed their encounter, albeit from a distance, with the high and mighty who were responsible for their fates in this war.

Paxton began the discussion. "Captain, I was quite surprised by the Duke of Wellington."

West looked at Paxton and the rest of the 58th. "Really? You don't say? In what way?" he asked teasingly.

"Well, sir, by his appearance," Paxton replied as he blushed. " I pictured him differently. Taller and much older."

West chuckled quietly to himself. It was hard to believe that Wellington, who was only 8 years older than him, was in part responsible for the ground victory at Ixion. He also managed to advance quickly up the ranks, a rare achievement made possible only by a state of war.

"Yes, Paxton," West said. "He is not what you expected. He is only 32 years old and a small man who looks like a bookworm. However, looks can be deceiving. The man is a soldier to the core."

"How did he manage to rise to quickly to his current rank?" Morales asked.

"Not to take anything away from his already established abilities, in part, you could say that Secretary General Hayden suddenly developed a fondness for men in uniform, especially following the breakdown of the cease-fire," West answered in a cynical tone, a cynicism which he had developed after an encounter with both Hayden and Nicholas Chaput on the Saratoga following the assassination of Secretary General Spencer Chartwell. "She needed heroes to bolster the image of her administration, and found one in the Duke."

"Also, not many of the top brass were happy that this young guy got promoted over several senior and more experienced officers," Hawkes added. "Still, you gotta admit that he makes 'em look really good, and he is popular with the common foot soldier."

"Speaking from a professional perspective, sir," Montallo said uneasily, "isn't it somewhat dangerous to place a person with little experience in such a highly sensitive position. I mean, his only battlefield experience against the Chigs was at Ixion, and he is young compared to the other members of the brass."

"You're on the ball there, Montallo," Hawkes replied. "He is young, and his quick rise through the ranks did ruffle a few feathers. Still, this guy's a hero, and everyone loves a hero, especially the two Ps."

"The two Ps, sir?" Montallo asked.

"The politicians and the press," Hawkes retorted

"Besides, age has nothing to do with ability or wisdom," West added. "During WWII in the last century, General Eisenhower had no battle experience when he was appointed to head Operation Torch in North Africa. Lord Mountbatten was in his early 40s when appointed Supreme Allied Commander, Southeast Asia Theater. Major General James Gavin was only 37 years old when he took command of the 82nd Airborne Division. In times of war, demonstrated ability takes precedence over age."

"I wonder what the brass might be discussing, sir," Habib questioned out loud.

"The entire fleet shares your sentiments, Habib," West assured. "We'll find out soon enough."

June 1, 2065. U.S.S. Saratoga Conference Room, 14:55 hours.

The top brass of the Elysian Sector Theater of Command occupied the seats at the oval shaped table, and their aides took the seats along the wall. As Supreme Commander, General Westinghouse naturally took the seat at the head of the table. He looked at the faces along the table, and took out a document from a folder right in front of him. "In my hand, ladies and gentlemen, is a confidential communiqué from the Military Secretariat in New York," said Westinghouse as he waved the document in his left hand. "The situation is critical. I don't need to remind you that our forces are on the defensive in all sectors. The Herron garrison is trapped deep behind enemy lines. We are barely holding on to Ixion and Demios. A month ago, we were pushed out of the Tyherrian system. We have to regain the military initiative. And we have to do it soon."

"What are our orders from the Chiefs of Staff Committee, General?" Admiral Ross asked.

"The message is clear and simple. Our colleagues in New York have decided that the time is right to launch a general offensive," Westinghouse replied, triggering looks of disbelief from those in the room.

"A general offensive, sir?" Air Chief Marshal Rillian-Pennington asked. "We have been badly mauled on all fronts for the past few months, and are just barely holding on to certain sectors. Are we prepared to go on the offensive?"

"At this point, Mesdames et messieurs," General De La Barre voiced in a strong French accent, "I agree with the Chiefs of Staff Committee. I don't think the enemy expects us to go on the offensive anytime soon. The situation is excellent! We must attack. Where do they propose we begin the offensive?"

"For that, I turn the floor to the representative of Strategic Analysis," Westinghouse said.

Wellington looked uneasily at the people around the room, and stood up. "I hope you don't mind terribly if I stand," he said in a polished British accent. "I can think better when I stand."

The whole room chuckled at the remark.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Wellington began, as he produced two folders from his briefcase. "Four months ago, on my appointment to the Strategic Analysis Unit, the Chiefs of Staff Committee instructed us to work on a plan to regain the military initiative from the enemy. For three months, we were not able to produce anything viable due to the dynamic nature of this war. Each time we came up with a plan, the enemy made it pointless by seizing a particular sector from our forces. However, we have not been unproductive in the meantime. Finally, after taking all pertinent factors into account, the Strategic Analysis Unit has produced only two viable plans for going on the offensive and taking the fight back to the enemy. In my personal opinion, only one of them has a better than 50% chance of succeeding."

"What are they, Wellington?" Rillian-Pennington asked.

"Plan Alpha calls for the reinforcement of Ixion and Demios, and using these two bases as the starting point of an attack against the enemy. Since Ixion is only 50 AUs (Astronomical Units) from what Intelligence believes to be the Chig home world, we will be taking the fight right to their front door. Plan Beta calls for the minimal reinforcement of the critical strong points along the front lines; Ixion, Demios, Danau Toba, Dhoby Ghaut, Nafaris, Airfixon Prime, Kuripan, Santoria, the Ariffian cluster, the Jadenian asteroid belt, etc. We hope that this will confuse the enemy in trying to pinpoint the location of our offensive. In the meantime, we will quietly mobilize our forces in the Elysian sector, with the 2nd and 6th fleets reinforcing the 15th fleet. From the moment of full mobilization, we will launch an attack designed to force a breakthrough to Herron. We will then use Herron as our forward base of operations as we take the fight back to enemy territory. Since I am here, you can safely deduce as to which plan has the blessing of the Military Secretariat."

"I assume that you favor Plan Beta, Wellington," General Matthews said.

"That is correct, General Matthews."

"I find this plan to be quite risky, Wellington," Rillian-Pennington said. "Before you joined us, we have been discussing the possibility of abandoning Herron. The garrison has been under siege for the past four months. They are about 2000 KMSKs behind enemy lines. All of our efforts to force a breakthrough have been futile. Since all supply convoys to Herron have been badly mauled, we are barely able to sustain the garrison. At this point in time, I strongly recommend that we abandon Herron."

"I agree with the Air Chief Marshal, Brigadier," Admiral Rugayev said. "In my opinion, Plan Alpha has the better chance of success. It would be a great risk to base any offensive on Plan Beta. Are you prepared to take such a gamble?"

"With all due respect to you, Admiral, and to Air Chief Marshall Rillian-Pennington, I am not taking a gamble," Wellington replied tersely.

"WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU'RE NOT TAKING A GAMBLE?" Rillian-Pennington shouted. "Your Plan Beta is based on the slightest, and I emphasize SLIGHTEST, chance that it will succeed in breaking through to Herron. There are about 10,000 troops on Herron. We have suffered high casualties in just trying supply them. I'm afraid to imagine what the casualty rate would be like if we should try to force a breakthrough to them. Plan Beta means that we must endure a high casualty rate, and I don't find that acceptable at all. The only course of action is to withdraw the garrison and abandon the base."

"Herron is the key to our success, sir," Wellington insisted.

"WHAT THE BLOODY HELL ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT, WELLINGTON?" Rillian-Pennington screamed as he jumped to his feet. "You spent the last four months sitting behind a desk in New York while we were out here fighting the enemy. I'm afraid that your simulated battles and 'Tactical Exercises Without Troops' have no bearing whatsoever on those of us at the front lines. You 'desk-jockeys' are out of touch with reality, and have no regard at all for those of us who fight face to face with the enemy."

"Begging your pardon, Air Chief Marshal, I was on planet at Ixion," Wellington countered calmly. "I know what it feels like when the only choices are to fight or die. I have fought the enemy face to face. Can you say the same, sir?"

"Gentlemen, enough!" Westinghouse shouted, and pounded his fist on the table. A stern look from Westinghouse caused Rillian-Pennington to sit back down. "We are here to fight the enemy, not each other. Wellington, would you please provide an explanation to justify the viability of Plan Beta?"

"As I was saying, ladies and gentlemen," Wellington continued, "Herron is the key to our success. On the face of it, Alpha would seem to be the easiest route to victory due to the proximity of the front lines to the enemy's home world. We would be fighting right on his front yard. On the assumption, that fortune would be on our side, we would be ending this war in one single stroke."

"I agree," Rillian-Pennington said as he settled back in his chair.

"However, there are other factors to consider, ones which will work to our disadvantage," Wellington countered.

"What are they?" General De La Barre asked.

"First of all, ladies and gentlemen," Wellington began, "it is true that Ixion is only 50 AUs from what is presumed to be the enemy's home world. In such a scenario, it would then be 50 AUs of the most heavily defended territory along the front lines. Ever since we took Ixion from the Chigs, they have thrown everything against us to take it back. For now, we are barely holding on to it. To launch an offensive from Ixion would be tantamount to revealing our plans to the enemy."

"Wellington has a point, ladies and gentlemen," Ross interjected. "The historical analogy would be as if the Western Allied Forces had launched Operation Overlord at Calais instead of Normandy during the Second World War."

"Precisely," Wellington concurred. "I strongly believe the enemy operations against Ixion has two objectives; to take the planet from us or to bait us into massing our forces to defend it. Secondly, if we were to use Ixion as the springboard of our offensive, we would be facing every gun in the Chig arsenal. I am sure that they will do everything they can to prevent us from breaking through the front door."

"Mais, oui, bien sur!" General De La Barre said. "Knocking on the front door is not the best way to get in, n'est-ce pas?"

The whole room relaxed with laughter as the tension created by the heated verbal exchange between Rillian-Pennington and Wellington gradually subsided.

"I must note my concerns regarding the riskiness of Plan Beta, Wellington," Rillian-Pennington said.

"I agree with you, sir," Wellington replied. "Plan Beta is a risk, but it is a calculated risk. We aim to breakthrough to Herron, and use it as a launch pad to take the fight back to the enemy. In this case, Herron itself would be our greatest asset. The moment we put Plan Beta into motion, the enemy will ultimately rush reinforcements to support their front line units. The planetary batteries on Herron could be used to harass their troop movements, and to disrupt their lines of communication. The enemy would be facing us in both front and back."

"Don't you think they know that, Wellington," Rillian-Pennington protested. "Herron has been a thorn in their side ever since they began their counter-offensive. That is why they have vigorously attacked every supply convoy we have tried to ship out to the garrison. They are trying to isolate our troops, and starve them into submission."

"That is true, sir," came the reply. "However, they did not anticipate such a heavy resistance from the garrison. As such, their attention is diverted away from us. They are more concerned with neutralizing this pocket of resistance in their territory before carrying on with their offensive. Each time they initiate an assault on Herron means that we will be facing less troops on the front lines once our own offensive commences. The moment that happens, we will be pushing them back against the guns of Herron. This will create havoc behind their lines."

"Brigadier," General Matthews voiced concernedly, "your Plan Beta is based on the assumption that Herron will hold out long enough for us to begin our offensive. What if it falls?"

"My sentiments exactly, Wellington," Rillian-Pennington agreed. "What if the garrison falls? What happens then?"

"It can not fall, ladies and gentlemen, for the simple reason that it must not fall," Wellington said stoically. "We have a responsibility to make sure that it doesn't fall. For one thing, our success depends on Herron standing."

"Have you considered a scenario where we would evacuate Herron?" Westinghouse asked. "Have you even considered a plan that did not depend on our garrison standing?"

"Yes, sir, I have," Wellington replied somberly. "If we were to evacuate Herron, we would be subjecting the evacuation convoy to a possible massacre. Those transport ships would make excellent targets for enemy squadrons. The Herron fighter squadrons would be overwhelmed in trying to protect an evacuation convoy, and we would be risking more lives in trying evacuate them. On planet itself, the ground forces have a fighting chance, and the air forces have the support of the anti-aircraft defenses. Furthermore, the Valerian electromagnetic defense shield has proven successful in protecting the garrison from a full-scale aerial bombardment. In the words of Winston Churchill, ladies and gentlemen, wars are not won by evacuations."

"What are the chances of success or failure?" Admiral Rugayev asked.

"It would be irresponsible for me to give that estimate, Admiral," Wellington replied.

"What the bloody hell do you mean by that, Wellington?" Rillian-Pennington shouted. "First, you come to us with an outlandish plan to regain the initiative from the enemy. Then, you refuse to claim responsibility for it. This is unacceptable!"

"It would be irresponsible for me to take unknown factors into account, sir," Wellington said. "All I can do is to anticipate the possibilities of certain developments, and be flexible enough to allow react to them accordingly. We were caught by surprise at Demios where nothing went exactly according to plan. I didn't think that abandoning 25,000 troops on Demios was part of Operation Roundhammer."

"You are right, Wellington," Ross added grudgingly. "We did not anticipate abandoning our people on Demios. We reacted according to the fortunes of war."

"Thank you, Admiral," Wellington acknowledged. "If we succeed, ladies and gentlemen, we have landed with both feet planted firmly inside enemy territory. We would then be able to isolate their front line units from their bases in the rear. We would be able to conduct this war from a position of strength."

"I do see the merits of your plan, Wellington," Westinghouse interjected. "My question is of the timing. Why now? It is practically short notice to implement it at this time."

"This strategic window of opportunity will not present itself for another 20 months, ladies and gentlemen," Wellington replied. "For the next two weeks, Herron's positional orbit around the Elysian star will allow for the maximum concentration of our forces that the offensive requires. That 14-day time period will be the shortest distance between our frontline forces and Herron. This is the best time to attack."

"What if we fail, Wellington?" Rillian-Pennington asked in a somber tone. "What then?"

"In that case, sir," Wellington replied in an equally serious tone, "someone else from Strategic Analysis will be planning the conduct of this war."

"Would you be prepared to resign should this operation fail, Wellington?" Westinghouse asked.

"You won't need my resignation for the simple reason that I will be dead, General" came the somber reply.

"You're not planning to commit suicide, are you?" Westinghouse retorted half jokingly.

"No, sir," Wellington replied. "I will be dead since I will be with our troops on Herron. I have orders from both the Military Secretariat and the Chiefs of Staff Committee to assume command of the Herron garrison 24 hours prior to the commencement of Plant Beta, codename Operation Golden Bullet."

"You, in command of the garrison on Herron?" Rillian-Pennington asked. "Why, man?"

"As you have poignantly described Plan Beta as a gamble, Air Chief Marshal," Wellington said, "then I should be the one to make the riskiest wager. Why should I ask our troops to take such a calculated risk if I would not be prepared to the risk myself? Furthermore, the garrison commander of Herron, Major-General Cunningham, was killed in the last enemy attack there. For these reason, ladies and gentlemen, I will be on Herron."

"Well, ladies and gentlemen," Westinghouse began, "we have made our concerns known to the architect of Operation Golden Bullet himself. I do have some doubts, myself, but our orders are explicit. We have to get back on the offensive, and the Chiefs of Staff Committee has deemed this plan as having the better chance of succeeding. Wellington, what is the timetable of Operation Golden Bullet?"

"The Chiefs of Staff have left that decision to you, ladies and gentlemen, the front line commanders," Wellington answered. "You are responsible for implementing this plan, and are ultimately responsible for the time line of this operation."

"It will take weeks, if not months, for us to fully mobilize for this operation," Rillian-Pennington said.

"That is true," Admiral Rugayev added. "We are not prepared for an operation of this magnitude. We still have to signal the 2nd and 6th fleets to join us."

"The 2nd and 6th fleets are on their way here, Admiral," Wellington countered. "They were ordered to weigh anchor at 06:00 hours yesterday morning, and proceed to rendezvous with the supporting convoys from Earth at maximum speed. The combined armada will be here in about 24 hours. As we speak, ladies and gentlemen, our strong points along the front lines are being reinforced."

"Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that we have been presented with a fait accompli," Westinghouse conceded.

"I have two questions for you, Wellington," Rillian-Pennington voiced. "How will you be getting to Herron? And once you are there, provided you get through safely, how much time will you need to prepare the garrison before we begin Golden Bullet?"

"I will need to be on the next supply convoy to Herron, sir," Wellington replied.

"We have stopped all convoy operations to Herron last month, Wellington," Ross interjected. "I am not prepared to risk lives and materiel, which will be desperately needed for Golden Bullet, in order to put together a convoy just to transport you to Herron."

"In that case, Admiral," Wellington began, "I would like to request an ISSAPC and the services of several squadrons. We could feign a raid into enemy territory or a reconnaissance mission or a probing mission or anything to get their attention. We could then quietly slip the ISSAPC and possibly a squadron escort to Herron. The garrison itself could be alerted to our activities, and could also provide some cover. Once I am on Herron, ladies and gentlemen, I need about 24 hours to prepare the garrison before you launch the offensive. I will also transmit a message regarding the state of the garrison itself in order to give you an idea of how long we are able to hold out."

"Are you aware that you're asking these young men and women to sacrifice themselves just for you, just to get you to Herron?" Ross asked.

"I have my orders, Admiral," Wellington said. "I have to be on Herron."

"We all have our orders, ladies and gentlemen," General Westinghouse said, as he turned to face Colonel Bane. "Colonel, as Commander of the 5th Air Wing, you are now responsible for working out the logistics of transporting the Duke of Wellington to Herron. I want an operational synopsis first thing tomorrow morning."

"Yes, sir," Bane acknowledged.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Westinghouse said as he addressed the room. "I suggest we adjourned for now. We'll resume tomorrow at 10:00 hours to discuss the details of Golden Bullet. I don't have to remind you of the necessity for discretion, and I expect all of you to act responsibly. Very well, then, dismiss."

The top echelon of the Elysian sector command stood up, and proceeded to the exit. Air Chief Marshal Rillian-Pennington conferred quietly with Admiral Rugayev, and briefly looked at Wellington. The two officers left the room together. Wellington took his briefcase, and proceeded to his quarters. Ross motioned Bane over to him.

"Colonel, I don't like this one bit," Ross said.

"Sir?" Bane replied.

"Wellington has produced a reasonable plan for the offensive," Ross began, "but I don't understand why the Chiefs of Staff have assigned him to Herron. He should be with us, conducting his plan with the Tactical Operations Unit."

"Do you think that they have assigned him to Herron just to get him out of the way, sir?"

"Maybe," came the reply. "Or, he may also have weaseled the 'Old Man' to give him Herron just for the publicity. I don't like this at all, Bane! Damn, this whole thing stinks!"

"Not Wellington, sir," Bane protested. "He has never acted like a prima donna before. Why would he start now? If there is an officer in the whole armed forces who hates publicity more than anything, it is Wellington."

"That is true, Colonel. All I know is that we are sending Wellington on a mission; one from which he may never come back." Ross turned his back to Bane, and faced the stellar cartography charts on the wall. "Colonel, I want you to make sure that we are able to get the Duke of Wellington safely to Herron. Before you give General Westinghouse a synopsis, I want you to brief me on all the possible scenarios, the success and failure probability rates. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir."

"I also want our best people on this assignment, Colonel."

"You can bet on it, Admiral."

Ross turned to look at Bane, who in turn gave him a knowing smile. He saluted and left the room, leaving her to plan the details of the upcoming mission.

June 1, 2065. The Tun Tavern, 20:00 hours.

All the members of the 58th squadron sat around a table in the Tun Tavern, enjoying after dinner drinks and listening to the jukebox. Since they were off duty, they were casually dressed in T-shirts and camouflage pants instead of their flight suits. Several pilots from other squadrons were also having drinks, while others occupied themselves by playing games. Montallo finished her martini, and stood up. "I'm going to get a refill," she announced. "Anyone want another?"

"Just one more, Montallo," Hawkes advised. "The same goes for the rest of you guys. We're on dawn patrol tomorrow, and I don't want nobody flying with a hangover."

"I'm aware of the rules, sir," Montallo sighed. "Only two drinks per day."

"You don't mind a friendly reminder from a superior officer, do you, Lieutenant?" West asked firmly.

"No, sir," Montallo replied quietly, embarrassed at being reprimanded.

"Good, carry on."

"Hey Julia, I'll join you," said Paxton as he stood up.

"Get me a beer, Wally," Morales said. "You owe me one."

"What's this about drinking debts in the squadron, Lieutenant?" West asked.

"Well, sir, Paxton and I had a bet about our assignment tomorrow," Morales answered. "He bet me a drink that we would not be on dawn patrol tomorrow. Man, was he peeved when he found out our duty schedule before dinner."

"I see," West said as he took a sip from his bottle of beer. "I don't mind friendly wagers between my subordinates for the sake of morale, but don't make a habit of it. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir!"

Montallo and Paxton returned to the table with the drinks. At the same time, Wu passed the 58th and waved. She went to the bar, and ordered a drink. Then she proceeded to join Captain Bogdanis and the 93rd. "Well, she finally got his attention," Hawkes chuckled.

"Seems that way, Coop," West said as he patted his friend's right shoulder. "Sorry, man. Better luck next time."

"Hey, man! I ain't interested in her," Hawkes protested.

"Yeah, right! Sure Coop! Whatever you say!" West teased.

"HEY!!!!" Hawkes shouted as he lightly slapped West on the left shoulder.

The junior members of the 58th laughed as West and Hawkes got into a playful shoving match. Colonel Bane walked into the bar, and laughed quietly at their horseplay. She approached them, and firmly grabbed their shoulders. The atmosphere at the table suddenly turned serious, and the laughter immediately died down. "Whatever the two of you do to each other, just be sure that you don't end up in sick bay. You are on dawn patrol tomorrow!" she said.

With that, she lightly slapped both Hawkes and West on the shoulder, and proceeded to the bar. She bought a drink, and occupied an empty table near the window. She raised her glass to the 58th, and turned away from them.

"Man, that was weird," Hawkes said.

"You took the words right out of my mouth, buddy," West replied. "I have never seen the colonel so relaxed and casual before."

Lieutenant Commander Dan Casey approached the 58th's table. "Hey there, guys," Casey said cheerfully. "Mind if I join you?"

"Not at all, Commander," Hawkes replied. "Pull up a chair."

"Thanks, Cooper," Casey said as he sat down. Turning his attention to Habib, he gave her a flirtatious smile. "Good evening, Lieutenant Habib."

"Good evening, sir," Habib replied shyly.

West smiled at what he saw. "Lieutenant Commander Casey, I don't need to remind you of the regulations regarding fraternization, do I?" he asked teasingly.

"Captain West, I am an officer of the United States Navy, and by decree, a gentleman," Casey replied in a mocked dignified tone.

"You may be a gentlemen, by decree, Commander," West retorted playfully, "but are you a gentleman in fact?"

"Touché, Nathan," came the reply.

The whole table laughed at the mischievous banter between West and Casey. Both West and Hawkes had known Casey from the moment they were assigned to the Saratoga in late 2063. Their friendship managed to last this long due to the fact that Casey was not transferred to another vessel when he received his promotion last November, the same time West and Hawkes returned to active duty. Casey was a constant reminder of the fact that friendships still existed despite the war. "Any poker game tonight, guys?" Casey asked.

"Sorry, Dan," Hawkes said regretfully. "We're on dawn patrol tomorrow, and have to turn in soon."

"Oh, come on, guys, just one hand," Casey whined playfully. "I feel lucky tonight."

Habib cleared her throat disapprovingly. Casey suddenly turned red. "I mean, poker," he protested.

"Better luck, next time, Dan," West teased mercilessly.

"You people are incorrigible. I'll just go and hang out with the 22nd. Good night, guys. Good night, Lieutenant Habib," Casey said.

"Good night, Commander Casey," the 58th chanted playfully.

Casey shook his head, and went to join the 22nd's poker game. A few minutes later, Wellington entered the bar, followed by Captain Leland Eugene, his aide, a tall and slender man about the same age as West. A pilot sitting near the entrance stood at attention, and announced the Duke's presence to those in the room. "ATTENTION ON DECK!" he announced.

The entire room stood at attention. Wellington looked around the room casually, and shook his head. "At ease, ladies and gentlemen," Wellington said. "This is only a social call. Just ignore me, and carry on."

The entire room gradually settled back into a relaxed atmosphere at the request, and went about their business. Wellington and Eugene proceeded to an empty table next to the one occupied by the 58th. Both of them were dressed in No. 14 British Army casual uniforms, wore black berets with the Light Infantry's regimental and rank insignia badges, and carried officer's batons. What was more striking was the fact that Wellington had a pocket watch with a chain attached to his belt instead of wearing a digital wristwatch. "May I get you a drink, Your Grace?" Captain Eugene asked.

"Thank you, Eugene," Wellington answered. "I would like a cup of tea, please. Darjeeling, two sugars, and milk. Get yourself something as well, and put it all on my ticket."

Eugene took Wellington's ticket, and headed to the bar. Wellington took off his beret, folded it, and slid it under his right shoulder epaulette. He smiled and nodded to Colonel Bane. A few minutes later, Eugene returned to the table with two cups of tea. He placed the cups on the table, took off his beret, and slid it under his right shoulder epaulette. He took a seat next to Wellington. The two officers then lifted their cups, and silently toasted each other.

Wellington suddenly choked on his tea. He placed the cup on the table, and reached for a napkin. Looking censoriously at Eugene, he politely admonished his aide. "For God's sakes, man, I asked for Darjeeling tea. This is Earl Grey."

"I do apologize, Your Grace," Eugene said as he stood up, and took the beverage back to the bar.

The 58th looked at the two British officers in amazement, their curiosity piqued by the strange rituals they had just witnessed. Even though global unification had been in effect since 2048 with the military being under a single command, the individual units still maintained their own separate identities, rituals, and traditions. Both West and Hawkes took refresher courses in military protocol, military history, and cross cultural relations during their assignment at Miramar. After their encounters with the various military units from different countries, they decided that it would be prudent for them to gain a better understanding of the people they were going to meet during the course of this war.

"Hey, Nathan," Hawkes said, triggering a bit of envy from the rest of the squadron by the casual way he addressed West. "Don't them two remind you of that British major we ran into during our extraction from Minerva?"

"You're right," West replied as he took another sip of his beer. "Major.......Damn! I can't remember his name. It is at the tip of my tongue. It's Major....................."

"Major MacKendrick, buddy," Hawkes smiled. "I'm surprised you don't remember his name and all, considering the excitement we faced on Minerva."

"Heck, man," West said defensively. "You were the one who bonded with him. The rest of us found him to be quite strange. Damphousse didn't particularly appreciate it when he actually propositioned her for sex, and Vansen wasn't too pleased about drinking recycled urine."

"Yeah, you're right," Hawkes said quietly, saddened by the reminder of past adventures with friends who were gone.

"What happened on Minerva, sir?" Habib asked hesitantly.

"Long story, Habib," Hawkes warned with a teasing sparkle in his eyes. "Do you really want to know?"

"Yes, sir," came the reply. "I, sorry, we really do. We find your experiences to be fascinating, sir."

"Oh, do you now?" West asked teasingly, causing the youngsters to blush.

"Well, Habib," Hawkes began, "the Captain and I were part of a mission there. We radioed for extraction, but the extraction point was 100 clicks away. One of our team members was injured, and we managed to commandeer a tank along the way. We encountered this weird British off....."

"Eccentric, Hawkes," West interjected, as he pointed to the next table with his eyes.

"Ah, yes, eccentric," Hawkes corrected himself, quickly glancing to Wellington and Eugene who were involved in their own conversation. "Anyway, we encountered this officer, Major MacKendrick of the Coldstream Guards, on our way to the extraction point. His battalion was wiped out at the Battle of Mandrake Ri....."

"Mandrake Ridge? Coldstream Guards?" Wellington interjected as he rose from his seat, and approached them. "Forgive me for intruding. I can't help overhearing your conversation, err....."

Suddenly realizing that Wellington was looking for his nametag and insignia, Hawkes stood up and saluted. The rest of the 58th followed suit. "First Lieutenant Cooper Hawkes, USMC, 5th Air Wing, 58th Fighter Squadron, sir."

"Very nice to meet you, 'Leftenant'," Wellington said as he returned the salute, and shook hands with him. "I am Adam Wellesley. Would you be so good enough as to introduce your comrades, 'Leftenant'?"

The entire squadron smiled upon hearing Wellington's eloquent accent, and the British pronunciation of the word 'lieutenant'. One by one, they introduced themselves and shook hands with him.

"This is my aide-de-camp, Captain Leland Eugene, Light Infantry," Wellington said as he ushered Eugene forward.

The 58th and Eugene introduced themselves to each other. Eugene pulled up a chair for Wellington, and stood behind him. "Oh, do sit down, Leland," Wellington chastised him impatiently. "You look like a member of the Foot Guards standing at attention in front of Buckingham Palace."

"Very good, Your Grace," Eugene said reservedly.

The 58th tried valiantly to suppress a chuckle as Eugene pulled up a chair, and sat next to the Duke. Wellington turned his attention to Hawkes. "You mentioned something about the Coldstream Guards and the Battle of Mandrake Ridge."

"That's correct, Your Grace," Hawkes said as he tried to follow Eugene's lead in conversing according to British social protocol.

Wellington held up his right palm, and shook his head. "Leftenant Hawkes," he instructed, "you are not bound by British social niceties, and may dispense with such formalities."

"Yes, sir," Hawkes began, "....uh last year, me and Captain West were part of a mission on Planet Minerva. We were stranded about 100 clicks, I mean kilometers, away from the extraction point. We managed to hitch a ride with a tank from the 7th Cavalry, and stumbled into a tank trap dug by a British soldier, a Major Cyril MacKendrick of the Coldstream Guards. He told us that he had been on Minerva 8 months, the only survivor of the Battle of Mandrake Ridge."

"The only survivor?" Eugene queried.

"That is correct, Captain," West added. "He told us that his entire battalion was wiped out."

"What happened next?" Wellington asked.

West made a gesture to Hawkes, inviting him to continue the story.

"Anyway," Hawkes continued, "Colonel McQueen, our C.O. at the time, persuaded Major MacKendrick to join us, and we continued the journey once the tank was repaired. Prior to that, we had to endure an enemy air raid, one that was correctly predicted by the major. Apparently, the major had managed to decipher the patterns of the Chig language. We were almost at the extraction point when a Chig armored vehicle attacked us. We managed to destroy the enemy tank. Once we arrived at the extraction point, all of our people boarded the ISSCV except for the major. He insisted on staying behind to contribute to the war effort in his own way, and drove away in the tank."

"I see," Wellington said. "Do you know what happened to MacKendrick?"

"As far as we both know, he is still on Minerva, sir," West said.

"He was," Wellington corrected, smiling at the developing curiosity of both West and Hawkes. "Would you like to know his fate?"

"Yes, sir," Hawkes replied.

"He was rescued during our retreat in the February offensive by the enemy," Wellington said. "Our forces established a defensive base on Minerva, and apparently found MacKendrick in the process. The officer commanding debriefed him, and turned him over to Military Intelligence. He is currently serving with them."

"He's part of the Alien Interpretation Unit, sir?" West asked in disbelief.

"No, Captain," Wellington replied. "He is with Military Intelligence proper. I met him in April when I was in New York. Your Colonel McQueen introduced us. Quite a fascinating man, this Colonel MacKendrick. Your mentioning his name brought me to your table. Apparently you corroborated his story. I thought some of his stories were rubbish, especially the part about deciphering the enemy's language. If you will excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, it is getting a bit late and I happen to be intruding on your private gathering."

Wellington and Eugene stood up, and the 58th followed suit. Glancing at his pocket watch, Wellington wished the squadron good night. Both he and Eugene went back to their table, picked up their swagger sticks, and left the bar. The 58th sat back down, and looked at each other silently. Colonel Bane joined them, and took the seat vacated by Wellington. Apparently, they had attracted the attention of the entire room when Wellington joined their conversation.

"Well, people," Bane said gleefully, "how does it feel to hob nob with the high and mighty?"

"He seems to be a regular guy, ma'am," Paxton answered.

"That he is, ma'am," Montallo agreed.

"One thing's for sure, Colonel," West said cautiously, "he doesn't act like an English aristocrat."

"And what do you know about English aristocrats, Captain?" Bane asked curiously, turning towards West.

"Not much, ma'am," West replied frankly. "Hawkes and I met a few during our stint at Miramar, RAF pilots. They were aloof, uppity, mingled with a selected group, and very conscious of their social backgrounds and high-class upbringing. I physically had to restrain Hawkes from sending a few of them to the infirmary. Wellington, however, is different. He is not like that."

"I see," Bane said. Directing her attention at the entire squadron, her expression suddenly turned cold and serious. "Just remember the three stars and crown on his shoulders whenever you are around him. Report to the briefing room at 04:30 hours tomorrow. Major Davis will brief you on your assignment, and your sortie will be at 05:00 hours."

"Yes, ma'am," the 58th said in unison.

Bane finished her drink, stood up and left the bar. The 58th stared at her briefly, and looked questioningly to each other. "What was that about?" Morales asked, looking a bit baffled.

"I don't know, people," West said as he shook his head. "I have never seen her that way before."

Hawkes looked at his watch, and spoke to the rest of the squadron. "Okay, people, time for bed. We have a lot ahead of us tomorrow."

The entire squadron groaned as they finished their drinks, stood up, and headed for their quarters.

Next : In The Shadow Of Greatness - part 3 of 9

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