ALTERNATE TALES OF THE STAR FORCE

STAR BLAZERS---A ROOT OF BITTERNESS

Being the third part of THE NEW COMET--- BY: Frederick P. Kopetz

This Act is being completed with the Cooperation and Assistance of Derek A.C. Wakefield (as usual)---Freddo

ACT SIX: REVELATIONS COMPLETED…

I. BALKAL'S LAST GASP

Space Battleship Argo

Some Distance From Beta Nikaldis IV

One Hundred and Eleven Lightyears Away From Earth…

Monday, December 16, 2205

1641 Hours: Earth Time

Wildstar's Tiger was the first one to slam home on the Argo's lower flight deck five minutes later. Because of the electrical fire in the port wingtip, it was still smoking when it came to a stop on the flight deck. It was surrounded by flight deck crewmen with fire extinguishers who put out the blaze while Derek slowly taxied to an empty deck-level bay space. When the fires were out and he and Sandor opened the cockpit, a figure in yellow holding a black peacoat came running up as Conroy's plane began to approach the ship.

"Nova?" said Derek.

Nova looked at her husband with an intense glare, and, just as he dropped his flight helmet on the deck, she hauled off and slapped him across the face.

"What the hell was that for?" he barked.

"I've got my reasons!" snapped Nova. "That's for risking your butt for no good reason, sir! Lock me up in irons, if you want to, but…but…oh, I'm glad you made it home, you big, silly jackass! I would have been stuck with Tinwit if you hadn't gotten back!" she yelled as she threw her arms around her husband and kissed him hard. Then, she hugged him and let the tears flow.

"nova…" said Derek. "Okay…I'm glad to be back….but don't you ever slap me like that again!"

"Don't go risking your life for no good reason in a battle zone!"

"Nova…we're all risking our lives on this ship…or did you forget?" he said as he watched two more Tigers roaring in through the magnetic arresting field. "Sandor, let's get out of here before we get hit by a plane."

"Okay, but I have to check that plane out before we get on the bridge. You two go up alone."

"Got it," said Derek. "Nova, let the bridge crew know we'll be up from that phone. Meet me in the lift. What's that in your hand?"

"Your coat," she said.

"Thanks," he said as he pecked her on the cheek and took off.

A moment later, Nova ran up just as Wildstar was closing up his peacoat and beginning to enter the lift (he was holding the hatch open for her.)

"Upper deck," Derek said as he punched a button while Nova boarded. The lift began to whiz upwards as Nova said, "I have another reason for going a bit crazy about you risking your life, but I couldn't say it down there."

"What is it?"

"You remember Operation Stork?"

"Yeah…but I thought we gave up on it, and…"

"Derek, two days ago, I missed my period."

Then, he looked at her. "Don't tell me that…"

"I don't know yet," said Nova. "I went down to see Doctor Sane this morning and took a test."

"What were the results?"

"Inconclusive. We'll need to do a blood sample in a few days"

"So that's why you're so worried about me?"

Nova nodded, "Derek, if I am pregnant, do you want our children growing up without a father because you have to go and test your manhood in a Tiger?"

"Good point," he said as she handed him an ascot. "Hey, this isn't mine…."

"It's mine," said Nova. "Smell the perfume on it?"

Derek rolled his eyes until he saw Nova smiling at him. "That's a nice thing…thanks…for babying me."

She smiled back at him. "You're welcome…sir. No more slapping you on the flight deck."

"You're forgiven…but you watch your butt," he said as he patted her stomach. "If you are…"

"I know…I'll be careful. But, you be careful, too."

"I will be. When we defeat these guys."

"Good," she said as the lift came to the end of its run.

About five minutes later, Derek and Nova took their usual respective places on the Argo's bridge just as Sandor showed up to relieve Bando. As the other crew members left, Wildstar said to Eager (as he resumed his normal post) "Anything nearby?"

"Five more planes are showing up. Range, two megameters!"

"Domon, did the rest of the Tigers get in yet?"

"Nope, there are still two outside."

"Keep them out there! Order Conroy back out with his element to get those guys and cover us."

"Got it."

"Nova, what are we facing?"

"More of them showed up. We're facing ten battleships, two missile cruisers, a carrier, and twenty destroyers at MP-212. They're in two groups, range, fifteen megameters, speed, ten space knots. They're preparing something…."

"Maybe an antimatter missile attack," said Derek. "Homer, order the Arizona and the Gamilons to form up port and starboard of us. We may need backup if they start firing while I get us ready. Kitano, after they form up, face us right towards MP-212; center of the enemy fleet. When we're all ready, Homer, tell Venture we'll take them ASAP."

"ASAP?" said Homer.

Derek nodded. He took off his peacoat. "Mister Domon, great work today. You're relieved."

"Huh?" said Domon.

"Go below and get some coffee. It must have been a rough battle," said Wildstar as he walked up to his post. "I hope you understand…I want to do this myself."

"Do what, sir?" said Domon as he stood.

Wildstar grinned evilly and opened a small locker and took out a dark pair of goggles. "Show these guys payback is a real bitch. Mister Orion, when we're lined up and I give the word, begin transferring power to the wave motion gun! I've had enough crap from the enemy for one day!"

"Yessir," said Orion as the Argo began to maneuver about.

"Sir," said Homer. "Venture reports they're taking formation about us," he said as the ship slowly turned. "He asks what's going on?"

"Tell him to cover us with his main guns, and to watch the fireworks. We are clear of Desslok's location, Nova?"

"Roger, he and the other fleet are below the ecliptic, Derek. Range of enemy fleet, thirteen megameters, speed increasing to twelve space knots! They're preparing something!"

"So am I," said Wildstar as he put on his goggles. "Are we in place, Kitano?"

"Affirmative."

"Stop all engines," said Wildstar. "Begin transfer."

"Stop: all engines!" said Orion. "Transfer beginning," he said as the low, ominous hum began to ring up through the Argo's hull. "Energy level, seventy-two percent!"

"Open target scope," said Wildstar with a wicked grin.

As the target scope and firing pistol came up, Wildstar opened the intership comm channel and said, "All hands….now hear this! The wave motion gun will be fired in three minutes! Find secure stations and prepare for recoil shock!"

"Energy level, eighty percent!" said Orion.

A dim glow appeared at the Argo's bow as the magnetic field began to lock into place.

Not that far away (about one hundred and ten megameters away, to be exact) Balkal was having a debate with Desslok.

"Well, Gamilon," he said. "I have Wildstar occupied with Task Group Two, thanks to the viciousness of my General Tarvitz. Unfortunately, you are facing my Task Group One, with my cruiser, three more cruisers, eight battleships, twelve destroyers, one carrier. What do you have left?"

"My command cruiser, twenty destroyers, two battleships, six missile cruisers, two spacecraft carriers. But I could take you out with one ship," said Desslok.

"Why?"

"You shall soon find out," said Desslok as he hit a key near his command chair and a computer graphic of a skull was transmitted to Balkal as the Gamilon Leader laughed coldly in the background for a moment. Then, Desslok nodded to Talan and the signal went dead.

"Sire, the carriers have launched all torpedo planes and all fighter escorts," said Talan. "We are ready; they're in position before us."

"Fine. Activate SMITE!" said Desslok.

The Gamilstadt's SMITE transmitters went off at once, transporting all of the Gamilon planes right over the Cometine carriers. Then, they began to attack before any more of them could launch.

Soon, the carriers were smoking hulks. A few Gamilon planes were destroyed as they flew away strafing the Cometine destroyers and one of the space battleships, but the Cometines paid them back by using their shock cannons on their battlewagons to attack the Gamilons. Around the Gamilstadt, Desslok's destroyers and one of his battleships blew apart under the barrage even as his other ships returned fire with their long-range guns; luckily, both of Desslok's surviving carriers were battlecarriers with long-range guns that helped the surviving battleship send a withering barrage into the heart of the Cometine fleet.

"Second wave!" barked Desslok as Astrena stood nearby watching with a smile. "Talan, fire eight armor-piercing torpedoes…and then prepare for me to send them into the heart of the enemy fleet!"

"Torpedoes: FIRE!" barked Talan.

The Gamilstadt fired a wave of torpedoes, which Desslok immediately SMITED right into the heart of the Cometine fleet. The enemy destroyer captains were not expecting this resourceful and brilliant new tactic of Desslok's, and they were caught with their pants down as eight of them were blown apart.

"The success rate of your attack was one hundred percent, sir!" said a lieutenant, "They all hit at once!"

"Glorious," said Desslok. "Talan, I will have to improve the warheads on those for more striking power. If I do that, I will call them Desslok torpedoes!"

"Brilliant, sir."

An officer knelt and handed Desslok a message. "EDF code, sir. It's from the Argo."

Desslok looked over the message. "Good job, Commodore Wildstar. And thank you for your kind words about the anti-SMITE code and my help. Send congratulations to him after the battle."

"Yessir!"

In the meantime, the Argo took a few hits from small Cometine missiles even as the Arizona and the Gamilons helped repel other waves of missiles and to shoot up approaching destroyers with their energy weapons.

"Energy level, one hundred percent!" said Orion.

"Ten seconds to firing," said Wildstar as he focused on the approaching enemy fleet. The enemy finally fired a barrage of anti-matter missiles at the Terran and Gamilon ships. "Ten…Nine…."

"Range, nine megameters!" cried Nova as Derek continued to count down. "Enemy missiles approaching!"

Derek continued counting. "Seven…Six…Five…Four…Three…Two…One…ZERO. FIRE!"

The Argo's wave motion gun fired right at the missiles and at the heart of the enemy fleet. First, the missiles went up, followed by the enemy fleet as ship after ship went up.

On his flagship, the anti-missile cruiser Megada, General Tarvitz only had time to send out one last report to Marshal Balkal before his ship melted around him in the tachyon holocaust that engulfed his task force. None of them survived.

"Sir!" said an officer aboard Marshal Balkal's flagship, the missile cruiser Jalkrentz. "General Tarvitz sends a message!"

"Is the Argo finished?" smiled Balkal.

"Negative. Tarvitz was; along with his task force. Wave motion gun, sir. It was Tarvitz's last message!"

"I thought that Yvona had disabled it!" yelled Balkal.

"She did not, it seems," said General Pigda, Balkal's executive officer. "I suggest a retreat! We have lost all of our carriers and destroyers, lord. We have only four cruisers and four battleships left. Desslok's fleet outnumbers us, and we are detecting a tachyon buildup in his ship, my lord."

"If he has one of those damned surge cannons," muttered Balkal. "Good point! Retreat! Warp us out of here; take us on a course towards the Eritz Gatlantis."

"Home, sir?"

"Yes…I must apologize to Princess Invidia….personally…"

"Understood," said Pigda. "Everyone…break off the attack…we're going home…"

"Energy level, eighty percent!" screamed a Gamilon officer as Desslok stood behind the firing stand of his Desslok Cannon.

"Sir!" said one of his men. "The enemy fleet is executing a one-hundred and eighty degree turn in unison…"

"Hmmmh?" said Desslok.

"They've warped out!" said Talan as they faded away.

Desslok laughed. "Cowards, it appears. Continue the energy buildup for one minute, it could be a trick…"

A minute passed. When the buildup reached ninety-five percent, the radar officer said, "Leader Desslok, no sign of the enemy fleet!"

"They're gone," said Astrena as she stood near him with her eyes closed. "There are no Cometine or R'Khell life-forces left alive in this system, Desslok. We've won!"

"Stop energy buildup," said Desslok as the whine of the Desslok Gun died out. "Engineer, reverse circuits and reverse polarity of the tachyon flow. Talan, order all forces to stand down to normal readiness, and begin plotting a course back to Gamilon. Our work here is done."

"Yessir," said Talan with a brisk salute.

II. BITTERNESS HEALED…

Space Battleship Argo

The Edge of the Beta Nikaldis IV System

One Hundred and Eleven Lightyears Away From Earth…

Monday, December 16, 2205

1830 Hours: Earth Time

After the battle, the Argo, Arizona, and the Gamilon Fleet cruised as one towards the system's edge. The fleet's fighters worked together in a sweep to confirm that all that remained of the enemy raid was debris and silence.

As was their custom, Commodore Wildstar and Desslok stood together facing each other on the decks of their ships, which were cruising along together; Wildstar wore space gear, while Desslok stood under the repaired atmospheric field of the Gamilstadt.

Both men were silent, until Wildstar began, "Desslok, I need to apologize to you face-to-face for some of what I said today. In haste, I misjudged your intentions. Thank you for helping us in battle today with the codes and the lives of your fighting men."

Desslok stood silent, and then he replied, "Wildstar, I did so both because of our treaty of alliance and my oath to stand by your side in battle. In spite of your rash words, I still count you as a friend. We will need our friendship in this war. This was more than a skirmish. It was the first battle of a long war. Tell Nova I congratulate her on her bravery in battle today."

"And tell Astrena that we appreciate her bravery today and her aid to us."

Wildstar and Desslok stood facing each other in silence for a moment. "Desslok, what will you do now?"

"Prepare for war. I wanted peace for our Empire, but Invidia has made it otherwise."

"Invidia was a cruel enemy, wasn't she?"

Desslok nodded. "She still is. I must say she has gotten worse. Even Zordar was a better man than her. As vile as Zordar was, compared to her, he was a good man."

"We must keep in touch."

"We shall, Wildstar," sighed Desslok. "We shall. I pray it would have been in better circumstances. I have rebuilt so much on Gamilon that I hope to show to you and Nova."

"We shall see it," said Wildstar.

"I pray so," said Desslok. "The enemy…they are retaking old domains of Zordar's, some of which were once mine. They are working relentlessly toward us. I pray we stop them before they reach our home worlds."

"Me too, Desslok."

Desslok nodded. Then, he raised his hand. "Farewell, Wildstar! We will meet again…soon…"

"Yes, Desslok…" said Wildstar. "Soon."

Desslok saluted Wildstar and Wildstar returned the salute. Then, the two men parted. Soon, the two ships and fleets also parted, once again at peace.

"How did it go?" asked Sandor as Wildstar came back onto the Argo's bridge.

"I think we patched our rift with Desslok," said Derek. "But I think it'll get much, much worse."

"Our rift?" said Homer.

"No…the war. Desslok said this is just the beginning. I think it is, too…"

"Derek, what's next?" asked Nova.

"Well, the Commander has ordered our ships home…so the Arizona and the Argo will go home. We should arrive before New Year's."

"And then?" said Nova.

"And then…we shall see…" said Derek. "We shall see."

III. WHILE AT HOME…

San Diego Megalopolis

The Vicinity of Pan-Am University

Greatland's Coffee House

1900 Hours: Local Time (1200 Hours Earth Space-Time)

Sunday, December 22, 2205

Once again, Dawn Westland sat staring at her cup of coffee at Greatland's. He's late, she thought with a slight tinge of irritation as she waited for Jefferson Hardy. Where is he, anyhow? I wonder why he's delayed?

A moment later, Hardy ran in, kissing Dawn on the hand as he sat down, admiring her outfit. "Cute suit."

"Thanks…bought it just for you tonight…"

Hardy raised an eyebrow. "Interestin'"

"What I'd like to know is why you were late…"

Hardy sighed. "A long phone call from the Great Megalopolis."

"Oh?"

"There was a big space battle," he whispered. "It'll soon be on the news, but word has it the Argo and the Arizona both wiped out a major Cometine fleet."

"What does that have to do with you?"

"I got a phone call in mah office from EDF Command. My TDY here might be ending soonah than I think. "

"No! Not when I liked having you around!" said Dawn.

Hardy smiled at that. "I'm not going yet. Talk is that I might be called back to Great Island after New Year's. Hope you'll write."

"Oh, of course I will!" said Dawn with a smile. "After my past…I never thought I'd grow attracted to a pilot again, but…"

"What is this about yoah past that you keep on talkin' about?" asked Hardy as he signaled a waitress over to order. "I'm wonderin' now and then if you got any feelings for the…"

"NO, No, and NO!" snapped Dawn.

"That sure was decided," said Hardy. "I hope you never wipe me outta your life like that, Dawn…"

Dawn smiled. "I'd never want to…Jeff," she said softly. "You've been a great friend…"

"Friend?"

"Okay, boyfriend," laughed Dawn. "I told my mother about you."

"What's she think?"

"She's reserving judgment for now."

"I wonduh why?"

"I'd rather not talk about it," said Dawn as she stirred her coffee…and smiled at her "Jeff".

Hardy smiled back…but he wondered how long this time of good feelings would last.

Maybe she'll forget all about me when I go back over the Pacific, he thought. I'd love to know who this guy is who still has a big place in her heart…even though she's denyin' it like the plague…

A few days later, Deke Wakefield lay alone in his new digs on the Academy grounds in the BOQ complex. To be exact, it was Christmas Eve. He was all alone.

He was very depressed.

This sucks, he thought. I'm about to spend yet another Christmas all alone. No one here but myself and a few other hard cases with no families. Not even any professors to take my home to be with their families like in past years. Even Brew couldn't do it. "We're having a big get-together in Texas," he said, "And, sorry, bro, no room for you…"

Deke absently watched the vidscreen for a bit, and he tuned in to a station showing a variation of the original Christmas Story. He dimly watched Mary and Joseph being turned away by another innkeeper in the vid-show.

"I'm sorry," said the dialogue. "No room here at the inn."

"Please," said Joseph on the special as Deke played absently with a combat knife. "My wife….you can see she is great with child. Is there no place for a woman when it is near her time?"

"Go ask the accursed Romans for a place to stay," snapped the innkeeper. "It is due to this census of Caesar Augustus that Bethlehem is so crowded. My innyard is full!"

Deke turned off the vidset with a snap and said, "Yeah, no room at the inn for you, either, Deke. Least I ain't schlepping around out in the cold…"

Then, his phone rang. "Who the hell is this?"

He picked the phone up, prepared to snap at whoever was on the other end as he answered, "Ensign Wakefield's quarters…sir…"

"Deke?" said a familiar voice at the other end of the phone. "Is that really you?"

"Sasha? Where are you? How come the number's blocked? And why's the video off?"

"I'm staying at my Uncle's house for the holidays. The number's blocked, along with the video…because he's a high-up in the Government," said Sasha as she sat barefoot in the Wildstars' large, empty house at the edge of the Great Megalopolis. "I'd invite you over, but…I'm not supposed to let anyone in here. How are you?"

"Depressed. Alone. Feeling like shit," said Deke. "Where's your uncle?"

"Away on business," said Sasha as she looked at a display case in the Wildstars' living room. In the display case was a model of the Argo. Some of her Uncle's and Aunt's military honors were framed on the walls here and there as ornaments. In fact, she was staring at an oil portrait of Abraham Avatar as she spoke. "I miss you, Deke."

The naked, unadorned expression of Sasha's feelings made Wakefield's heart jump a little. She cares, he thought. Damnit, she really cares. Thing is…there's Dawn, and…oh, crap! Get that Westland out of your mind, Wakefield! Brew would tell me that it's a good thing I've got someone to call me on Christmas Eve…I…oh, damn, so…confused…I…thought Deke as pictures of both Dawn and Sasha swam in front of his eyes.

"Deke?" asked Sasha.

"Yeah?"

"I…?" said Sasha as she struggled with her own emotions. Her heart was telling her: Invite yourself over to his place! No one will know! You can just jump into his bed, and….

But, her psychic sense said to her, Do you just want him to think of you that way? The same thing that happened with your boyfriend on Iscandar? The one who slept with you and then drowned the next day? Is that what you want, Sasha? To kill him?

I'll tell him everything, she thought.

No you won't! part of her thought as an image of her on a beach, in a bikini and barefoot came to her mind. The beach was on Iscandar. You know darn well it is not…

"Not what?" said Deke. "Sasha, what are you talking about?"

"It's not time yet," she said cryptically. "I'm sorry…Deke…I have to go…my Aunt is on the other line…"

"Sasha?"

"We'll talk again….soon," she promised. Then, she hung up.

"Yeah," said Deke bitterly as he listened to the dial tone on the phone. "No room at the inn, Mister Wakefield. No room at the inn."

Then, he tried calling Dawn's mother…Lynn…who was the closest thing to family he had now.

He got her voice mail, and hung up.

Thus, Deke Wakefield was more miserable than ever as, outside, it began to rain.

It would be a long and lonely night.

IV. CHRISTMAS DAY…

Space Battleship Argo

Dock Number Five

EDF Centaurus Base

Alpha Centauri System

1410 Hours Earth Space-Time

Wednesday, December 25, 2205

The Argo sat in a repair dock on Centaurus near the Arizona and some other EDF vessels.

The Argo and Arizona were having their recent battle damage repaired, but, even as some of the Mechanical and Engineering Group members worked with the dockyard personnel at the Earth base, a Christmas party was in progress aboard the Argo.

Since Nova loved setting up parties, she was in charge of the spread for the party on the Argo's starboard observation deck. Even though it was called a Christmas party, some of the decorations at the party referred to other faiths, such as Judaism (which was celebrating Hanukkah around this time) and to Islam (the solemn Muslim holiday of Ashura was also being celebrated around this time this year).

Nova herself wore one of her favorite dresses with a nice pair of boots to the party; she looked very Christmassy, right down to the small holly sprig she wore at her neckline.

She sat with Derek Wildstar and with Mark Venture (who had come over from the Arizona) and some of her other friends as she finally got a moment to dig in to the turkey meal she had ordered this day.

"Like it?" she said breathlessly as both Captains ate their dinner.

"The ham's good," said Derek. He was eating ham; the crew had a choice today between ham, turkey, and a vegetarian meal for the holidays.

Nova smiled at that one, until Venture took a sip of his coffee and said, "Nova, did you make this? It's still horrible!"

Nova hissed out an angry breath. "No, I didn't make the coffee, Mark," she snapped. "One of the galley people made it."

"But you should have tested it for taste," said Venture with a wink while he picked at his turkey.

"I did; I gave some to Derek," Nova replied. "He liked it."

"It was good," said Derek. "It really was."

"Mark, it's Christmas," said Holly from across the table. "Stop razzing Nova about the coffee."

"Even though it DOES taste like somethin' I'd feed the pigs back home," said Eager as he sat down and dug into his ham.

"You're impossible!" cried Nova. "How's your dinner, Hemsford?" she asked as the big Marine commander sat there attacking his dinner.

"Great," he said with a smile. "Especially since you know I'm Muslim and don't dig no filthy swine."

"What's filthy about pigs?" asked Eager as he dug into his ham. Not far away, Aliscea Rosstowski was making a face. She was eating a vegetarian meal as per her own traditions (Pellians usually didn't eat meat), and was trying not to look too hard at Paul eating his turkey.

"Ya damn cracker," said Hemsford with a grin. "Pigs sleep…and root…in shit. They're very unclean animals."

"Thanks for letting us know," said Nova as she turned slightly pale.

"The turkey's good," said Venture.

"Thanks," said Nova with a smile.

"Same with the cranberry sauce," said Derek.

Nova smiled again until Eager added, "Hey, Nova?"

"What?"

"Remember that first Christmas we had on the way to Iscandar? The one where Orion showed up as Santa Claus?"

"Oh, yes, I remember that," said Nova as she thought back in her mind to another Christmas celebrated on this deck six years ago….

Space Battleship Argo

Just Beyond the Octopus Star Storm

December 29, 2199

It was a day since the Argo had escaped the Octopus Star Storm, and Nova had finally gotten the holiday party she had asked Captain Avatar for some days ago. It couldn't have been done when she had asked because no one knew when the Argo would have escaped the Star Storm and gotten back on her way to Iscandar, but things had worked out, and Ensign Forrester had been allowed to set up a party for the crew at last.

Nova's idea had been for there to be a "Santa Claus" at the party in costume. Captain Avatar declined the role, so Orion was the one in the red suit by default. With his portly build and his white beard, he looked the part.

Derek Wildstar thought that Nova's idea was extremely silly, but some people had gotten on line to tell "Santa" their Christmas wishes. When Nova had ended up on Orion's lap, he asked her, "So what do you want for Christmas, lass?"

Nova blushed and whispered one word in Orion's ear. "Derek."

Her wish made him blush, but Wildstar had wondered what was going on between them when she got off Orion's lap with a little lap.

He had just thought, "Women. God knows how they think…."

Derek came back to reality when he looked at Nova, who was smiling a sort of enigmatic Mona Lisa smile as Eager talked on and on about the food they had enjoyed at that party six years ago. "So, what did you ask Orion for that day?" he asked.

"Same thing I wished for on the Voton Star, Derek," said Nova. "But, with Santa, I was able to be a little more…specific…"

"Didja get your wish?" teased Derek.

Nova tweaked him on the nose. "What do you think I'm married to? A hunk of coal that came in my stocking?" she said as she stood up to stretch.

IQ-9 zipped up. "Nova, I heard you talking about that Christmas party six years ago!"

"Yes, IQ. I had you down for maintenance then."

"Why?"

"You can probably figure it out," said Nova as she smiled at her husband.

The robot saw his opportunity as he got behind his friend. "Nova, is this the reason why you shut me down?"

And, at that, his hand grabbed her skirt from behind, and up it went. The crew noticed and applauded like crazy.

"Yes!" Nova snapped. "That's exactly the reason why I had you down for maintenance."

"I thought so," said the robot.

"That should teach you one thing," said Mark with a chuckle.

"What?"

"Around him, you have to make sure you're wearing pants," said Derek.

Nova sat down, put her head against her hands, and huffed. Then, she nursed her own embarrassment in a cup of her coffee as the party went on.

Coffee. It is the substance that fueled old sea-going fleets, and the same fuel that kept spacers going since the early days of the Gamilon War.

Coffee. It was the refuge of the lonely, a friend to the friendless.

As it snowed outside a few hours later in the Megalopolis, it was all of the above to one very depressed Ensign who sat nursing his grief, pain, and confusion at being alone on Christmas with a large cup of java.

"Want more?" said the waitress in the diner not far from the Space Fighters' Training School grounds as Deke Wakefield sat alone over his cup of coffee and an untimely breakfast of hotcakes and bacon.

"Yeah, thanks, Madge," said Wakefield.

Not far away, some civilian worker who worked at the base put a melancholy Christmas song on the jukebox in the Lancers' Diner. The Lancers' Diner was open 24 hours, never closed, and it was a traditional haunt for cadets, faculty at the SFTS, and personnel who worked at the Academy and the nearby airbase. The heavyset waitress in her black and white uniform was used to seeing men and women in uniform at all hours and in all states of mind.

"So what's eating you tonight?" asked Madge.

"Stuck here by myself. Couldn't get leave," lied Wakefield.

"Yeah, hon, I was kinda hoping for leave myself, but you know the way Hiroshi-san is."

Wakefield nodded as he glanced over at the chubby Japanese manager of the diner. "Understood."

"So, where do you think you're going tonight?"

"Nowhere," said Deke. "That's my whole life. Nowheresville."

"Where's your buddy? You know, the brew-man?"

"Brewski got leave; I didn't," said Deke. "Sorry…I'm not good company tonight."

"S'Okay," said Madge. "Neither am I. My friggin' ex-husband…"

Deke nodded, letting the conversation drop (with a grateful heart) as Madge refilled his cup and went over to gripe at Hiroshi.

Then, the door slammed. A figure in a black flight jacket came in, letting in the snow and the cold and cursing a blue streak.

It was Hartcliffe. He came in and said, "Friggin' Goddamn Angie, thinkin' she's bloody pregnant and not wantin' to put out tonight 'cause she's in a bloody damn mood!"

"Hello, sir," said Deke without much enthusiasm.

"Wakefield! Where's yer shadow?"

"Which one?" said Deke.

"You know, the other flyboy?"

"Hartcliffe, we're all pilots. Brew's on leave."

"He's so lucky that I'm not around to rag 'is ass! Marge! Baby luv! Gimme a bloody menu!"

"Are you drunk again?" snapped Marge as she came over. "If you are, you know what Mister Yamagata said to you the last time about coming in here intoxicated."

"I've got a bloody fire in me belly, mate," sang Hartcliffe, who sang like a maniac and breathed a boozy smell like vodka in Marge's face. "And I like yer legs!"

"Hartcliffe," she said to him. "You have a wife. Go home to her. It's Christmas."

"I wanna cuppa coffee…then a piece o' arse…"

Hiroshi came over, angrily rolling up a sleeve. "What you want is to get your carcass out of my establishment tonight."

"Come on, mate, just one cuppa joe…"

"You can go down the road to the truck," snapped Hiroshi Yamagata. "Now go. Before I call the MP's, that is…"

"See yas assholes later," said Hartcliffe as he stood up, dumped over a sugar container on the counter, and flashed a single finger in salute at the owner as he left. Of course, it was his middle finger.

"Madge, that man is not to enter this establishment ever again," snapped Hiroshi after the door slammed closed. "I don't care if Commodore Wildstar himself is escorting the jerk. He's not wanted in this place."

Deke nodded. He decided he had had enough of this place and Hartcliffe for one night. He slapped a twenty-credit note on the counter and said, "Madge, take that for my bill. Don't worry about the change."

"Thanks…" she said. "At least you're decent."

"Someone around here has to be," said Deke as he gathered up his music player and gear bag. "Have a good night."

At that, he left.

Deke was walking around out in the blustery, snowy weather, listening to "California Dreamin'" on his personal headset. He had been meaning to walk back to the SFTS and back to the BOQ complex, but, instead, he found himself walking down a long, four-lane boulevard in a district lined with high-rise apartment buildings, various business establishments, and factories. The part of the city that he was in was officially called "Meadow Point" (because there had once been a large meadow here shortly after Earth had been healed by the Cosmo-DNA) but it was unofficially called "Dogtown" by most everyone at the Space Fighters' Training School. Even though it was maybe six kilometers away from the Academy, it was not one of the nicer neighborhoods in the large Tokyo Megalopolis. In fact, it was slightly slummy, somewhat dangerous, and very depressing in appearance. Although the buildings were maybe five years old, they looked as if they were sixty years old or so.

Deke finally found himself sitting in a park, playing "California Dreamin'" again as some rummy with a bottle in a bag came up to him.

"What's up?" asked Deke.

"Man, it's Christmas," said the rummy. "Booze'll do ya some good; put some heat in yer belly, bud," said the bearded old man. "Want some?"

"I think I'll pass," said Deke, who looked at his chrono and realized it was now about 2300 Hours.

"I used ta have a family," said the old man. "They all died in the danged war."

"Which one?"

"The one Blue Boy brought. Goddamned Desslok. I wish he'd friggin' die or somethin. They should kicked his ass down to Hell for what he did."

"Well, we kicked Gamilon all to hell."

"But they rebuilt the joint. And where am I's livin? The slums o' Dogtown. No job, no babe, no shit."

Deke gave the old man a cigarette. He had a hard time lighting it for him since the wind was blowing quite hard. Not far away, the wind rattled a burglar grille in some storefront. Of course, it was closed for the holidays.

"Thanks buddy," said the old man. "Need a place to crash?"

"I have an apartment, but I don't wanna be there tonight. Thanks."

"The underground city's a good place. As good a place as any. No one bugs ya down there either if'n yas knows where to look."

"Thanks, but I'll pass." Deke shivered in the cold…he was really missing San Diego right about now.

"Well…see ya later. Ho ho ho, Merry fuggin' Christmas."

"Yeah…Merry Christmas…"

Deke sat alone, not knowing that about ten kilometers away, someone had been awakened by a very strange dream.

Deke sat in a blue funk listening again and again to California Dreamin' as suddenly, he looked up and saw a young woman approaching him in the snow and cold.

For a stunned minute, through his blurred vision, he thought that it was Nova Wildstar playing mother hen and walking up in a royal blue coat. (Deke knew Nova owned a coat like that; he had seen her in it). The answer surprised him even more when he saw that the figure in the long knee-length, Russian-looking coat and high black boots had a long mane of sunny blonde hair blowing out in the wind below a white fur beret.

"Sasha?" he said as his breath blew out in the cold. "What are you doing out here?"

"Looking for you, Deke. When you decide to get lost, you get lost real good," said Sasha as she walked up with her boots crunching in the snow and ice.

"Sasha, do you know what time it is?"

"Yes; twenty-three thirty-two and twenty-one seconds," she said as brightly as possible in the cold. "And I had a good reason for looking for you."

"Why? And why did you track me to this neighborhood? This is not one of the better parts of town, you know!" he snapped. "A young lady like you could get attacked out here real easy."

"I know. Nova told me about this place. She and Angie Hartcliffe had to come out here one night to drag Bryan out of some house of ill repute that's right up that street," snapped Sasha as she pointed to a street sign that read "PARAMOUNT PLACE." "Someone thought they were hookers for some reason. They kicked their butts. I know I'm taking a risk being here. But I came here for a good reason."

"Why?"

"I had a dream about you," she said as tears ran down her cheeks. "It was not pleasant. It was nightmarish. When I woke up, I knew I had to find you and find out what was going on with you," Sasha snapped. "Now, Deke, tell me. WHAT IS GOING ON?"

"What do you mean?"

"You know damn well what I mean!" snapped Sasha. "Your health has been going downhill! You've been depressed! You've barely given me the time of day! Tell me what has been eating at you! I am your friend, and I am damn worried!"

Deke took a deep breath. Okay, he thought. I have to spill it. "Sasha. This has to do with my old girlfriend, Dawn Westland."

"Why would an old girlfriend have such a hold on you? Are you still seeing her? Writing to her? Calling her?"

"Okay. Dawn…and I…grew up together. Her parents and my parents were very close in San Diego. We grew up beside each other and went to school together. In high school, we began to become an item. We became boyfriend and girlfriend. We slept together many times. She was gorgeous. And wonderful. But, then, when I joined the Junior Space Cadet Corps and got involved in the military, she didn't like the change in my personality. She didn't want me being in the military. I had to be there, especially after my parents died. I had to do my part for Earth during the Gamilon War, the Cometine War, and even in the Rikasha business. But Dawn didn't want me in the military, nor the Academy. She wanted me safe at home in one piece. I had to be a pilot. Near the time I entered the Academy, near it…we broke up. It was her idea. She refused my letters and phone calls after that. It was like a knife to my heart."

"Have you tried writing lately?"

"I've written…to her, and to her mother, whom I'm close with."

"Has she ever answered you?"

Deke began to drum against the park bench with his drumsticks. "Her mother has answered me. She never has."

"Some friend," snapped Sasha. "And you're still carrying a torch for her? How long has it been since you've spoken to her?"

"Three years going on four."

"Three years going on four? And she keeps on sending your mail back? Is something not adding up in your head, Deke? I'm sorry, but…"

"I didn't say it made any sense!" snapped Deke. "I'm stuck. Real stuck. Part of me wants to go back, but part of me…"

"Wants to move on?"

"How did you know that?"

"I'm a good judge of character, Deke," lied Sasha as she read his thoughts.

"I'll take you home," said Deke. "Can we crash out at your place…to talk…I mean? I…"

Sasha shook her head. "No."

"But…"

"No. Deke, I have in-laws. I'm staying at their house over the holidays. I can't bring guests in. I'm sorry."

"I'll get you home. Where are you staying?"

"College Point," said Sasha.

"That's about eleven kilometers away from here. You're not walking there!"

"I can take a bus and a tube train and then another bus," said Sasha.

"You're not doing that," said Deke. "I'll hail you a cab and pay for it."

"How can you afford that? And why are you so concerned?"

"Sasha, I'm a drunken sailor out on the town," he joked. They both laughed at that.

"Besides," he said. "This neighborhood is not the best. We can both see that. Got that? I don't want you walking around here at midnight."

"Why not?"

"You're….I…my….I care. That's why."

"Okay," said Sasha. "Let's go wait there in that bus shelter."

They walked into the Plexiglas bus shelter. It was dirty, graffiti-covered, and looked like some neighborhood punks had recently tried to kick it over. Five minutes later, after they talked some more, a yellow air-taxi showed up.

Deke talked to the driver and surprised Sasha when he gave the driver a fifty. As Deke opened the door for Sasha, she slipped on a patch of ice and he caught her. Then, they stood staring into each other's eyes for a moment. Deke had a strong desire to kiss her as he looked into her deep brown eyes. A moment later, he did so. It was a long moment until they parted lips.

"I…I…" stammered Sasha. "I need to get home."

"Yeah…me too," said Deke as he patted her hand. He winked at her, and she winked back as the taxi door closed.

Then, a moment later, the taxi drove off. Deke was left alone. Again.

For Deke, that night was very bitter. He wished that he could have brought Sasha here with him. He knew it wasn't quite right, and he felt ashamed of himself for having blurted out his wish to stay at Sasha's place (wherever the heck she was staying). Yet, their kiss had inflamed passions in him that he hadn't felt in a long time.

Passions that drove Dawn out of his mind altogether; passions that forced him to bitterly satisfy his own unfulfilled urges by himself before going to sleep as he fantasized about Sasha and how she looked tonight.

Well, he finally thought as he lay spent in his own sweat after he was done. You've gone and done it, Wakefield. You don't know how things are going with…

Deke refused to bring himself to even think Dawn's name. Instead, he thought of what Sasha and he had said before he had parted…

"Three years going on four? And she keeps on sending your mail back? Is something not adding up in your head, Deke? I'm sorry, but…"

"I didn't say it made any sense! I'm stuck. Real stuck. Part of me wants to go back, but part of me…"

"Wants to move on?"

"How did you know that?"

"I'm a good judge of character, Deke…"

And she is a good judge of character, thought Deke as he fell asleep. What I think I need to do is forget my past and think of the future…but how? How do you do that?

Commodore Derek Wildstar didn't go to bed alone that night, of course.

As Christmas Day faded into the 26th, he and Nova were having an early and passionate celebration of their fourth wedding anniversary aboard the Argo. Their time together was very sweet, even in the light of some news that Nova had been forced to share with Derek that evening after dinner when Doctor Sane called her into Sickbay for a short time.

"So..?" said Commodore Wildstar as the two lovers lay spent in each other's sweat in their arms.

"Doctor Sane said it was a false alarm. Again. I'm not pregnant…like we thought I was."

"And there's still nothing physically wrong with you?"

Nova shook her head. "He tested you, too, Derek. Nothing wrong with you, either," she said as she patted the appropriate parts of his anatomy under the sheet. "Everything's in working order."

"Yeah," said Derek as he shut his eyes.

"We've been together for four years now, Derek. I know it's crazy, in the midst of a war and all, but I want to have a baby with you," she said as a tear ran down her cheek. "I got an e-mail from Angie Hartcliffe, who thinks she's pregnant. If that wretch Bryan can give her a child and they don't want it, why are we unable to have one when we want it?"

"Nerves?" said Derek as a tear ran down his cheek. "Fear? Or maybe the great Commodore Wildstar's not really as much of a man as he thinks he is…"

"Don't you dare say that!" said Nova in a fierce voice. "You had me screaming before…or don't you remember? You're more of a man than that rotten fleabag Hartcliffe will ever be, Derek!"

Derek nodded weakly and accepted a kiss from his wife. He kissed her back and said, "Okay, let's try again. You wanna?"

Nova nodded with a sweet smile. "Let's. And besides…I can't sleep, anyway. Happy anniversary, Derek," she said as she began to kiss him.

After they kissed, Derek replied, "Happy anniversary…Nova…"

That night, Sasha lay alone in her bed in the Wildstars' guest room in the empty house on College Point. She was just as unfulfilled as Deke had been, and she had been forced to handle her pent-up passions in a similar fashion. When she was done with her business, she lay sweaty and naked in her bed, thinking, I hope that I didn't have a mistake in the visions I saw…in what I felt. I hope that we will be together…at some point…and soon. But he has to forget her, first, and heal. I think I made him realize that he's on a fool's errand…tonight. I hope I did. How much longer can I wait? How much longer? I have to talk this out with someone…but who? Mother? I don't think she'd understand…thought Sasha as she pulled on a grayish-purple robe of hers. Who would understand what I'm going through now? Who?

V. THE DAY AFTER NEW YEAR'S….

Earth

Tokyo Megalopolis

Derek and Nova Wildstar's Residence

2026 Hours Earth Space-Time

Thursday, January 2, 2206

It was evening, and it was snowing out again.

However, until the school year started again at the Space Fighters' Training School, Sasha Wildstar was still staying at her aunt and uncle's home in the Megalopolis. As of this morning, she was no longer alone, however, since the Argo and Arizona had finally both come home together. Derek and Nova Wildstar were now home again, and they had enjoyed a nice day of reunion with Sasha.

That evening, Sasha had decided to get ready for bed early. She sat in a light blue set of pajamas, slippers, and her robe on her bed as Nova stood behind casually dressed in a set of battered denim coveralls and no shirt that she had been wearing as she and Derek had worked together cleaning the house that night.

Sasha was smiling as Nova worked out the many kinks in her long hair with a fine hairbrush.

"You're so good at this, Auntie," said Sasha in a soft voice.

"Thanks," Nova replied in a soft voice.

"What's Uncle doing?"

"Working on an abstract of the ship's log and some reports for now in his office," said Nova. "That leaves us for a bit. What's on your mind?"

"How did you fall in love with Uncle again?"

"I had to get him to notice me, first," said Nova as she worked out a particularly nasty knot in Sasha's hair. "That's usually what happens with men. They got so involved with their own business that you sort of have to put a neon sign on your head to get them to notice you. Of course, that spandex Star Force uniform helped quite a bit….but it still took time."

"Okay," said Sasha. "There's this boy I'm interested in."

"Interested in? Could he be a pilot?"

"How'd you know?"

"Not hard to notice these things," said Nova as she worked at Sasha's hair.

"Okay, it's Deke," said Sasha. "I hope it's not just a crush…I told you about the Iscandarian that time, and…"

"I know," said Nova. "You have to be careful about these things, Sasha. You just can't jump into the sack with the first man who comes along. You've got to be patient…and make sure he really cares for you…"

"I'm sure he does," said Sasha. "But Deke's got…issues…"

"Issues? I think I sort of know what you mean….it's about his family?"

"Yes, and his old girlfriend."

"What's her name?"

"Dawn Westland. She lives in San Diego. She broke up with Deke like three years ago, won't answer his mail, won't give him the time of day, and Deke's still stuck on her. Is that common with males?"

"More common than you'd think. You know Diane Henson?"

"That weird Engineer girl who came to talk to us once at the Academy?"

Nova nodded. "She used to be Derek's girlfriend a long time ago. She dumped him and then had some lesser examples of the human race go and beat him up for fun afterwards. I'm friends with her now, but Derek still has bad memories about it. Men take a while to get over these things, Sasha."

"So how long do I wait for Deke? How long?"

"If you feel for him, give him his space, and give him his time, and he'll come around. Has he kissed you yet?"

Sasha giggled. "Yes. He's a great kisser."

"Just like your Uncle?" said Nova.

"Yes," giggled Sasha. "What if Uncle kissed me the same way he kissed you?"

"That'd be weird, immoral, and I thought we said we weren't going there again, Miss," said Nova in a very prim and ladylike voice as she shook her finger. Then, she blushed because she realized that a…boob…was close to popping out of her coveralls. "Excuse me a minute," said Nova with a blush as she adjusted herself.

"When you have a baby, those coveralls would be very convenient in warm weather," said Sasha.

"I know," said Nova with a deeper blush. "When my mother had the twins that you met, she had a little trouble with her milk because she had her children in her forties, and I had to take a hormone preparation and help her feed my baby brother and sister every now and then. Your Uncle liked that."

"I thought he would!" said Sasha brightly.

Nova threw a pillow at her niece. "Now, stop that!" she yelled.

Sasha grinned and said, "Auntie, watch the coveralls…"

"Just for that," growled Nova as she jumped barefoot on the bed, "I'm gonna tickle you to death!"

"No! have mercy! Stop!" yelled Sasha as he aunt wrestled her down onto the bed and tickled her. "STOP IT!" she cried through her giggles.

Derek came in a moment later. "What are you doing?"

"I'm disciplining your niece!" cried Nova as Sasha giggled so hard she felt as if she might wet herself.

"I wish you'd give me some of that kind of discipline," said Derek with a leer and a wink.

Nova whipped the other pillow at her husband. "Now stop that!"

"You two are at it again!" sang Sasha.

"STOP IT!" yelled both Wildstars as Sasha giggled like crazy.

VI. MANY DIRE RETURNS

Deep Space

The Eritz Gatlantis

February 1, 2006

1000 Hours Earth Space-Time.

"You are an idiot, General Balkal!" yelled Princess Invidia as the trembling Cometine General knelt before her throne in the seat of her new House of the Comet Empire. "I give you all these ships, and you still can't defeat Star Force and Desslok?"

"Princess," he said. "They were just too determined for us. We inflicted a lot of damage on Desslok's fleet, but…"

"I want Desslok captured or dead!" snarled Invidia. "You have no excuse! For this you should be beheaded, and right now!"

"Princess," said General Dyre. "Perhaps we should give him one more chance."

"To do what? Make of us a laughingstock across the galaxy? They joke about House Gatlantis. They say we are the greatest failure of the Comet Empire."

"Princess, we can't win if you keep on executing generals. What about Breda last week?"

Invidia gave Dyre a look that would have made a lesser man faint.

"Like it or not, we need someone to help us finish up at Rotella, Princess. Send him there and tell him to conquer the place…or else."

"Yes. Rotella is a running sore on my backside," said Invidia. "They have a fleet and actually dare to fight us! Balkal, leave! You have a new fleet of two hundred ships. Do not return until you destroy or capture Rotella. Is that understood?"

Balkal stood up and saluted. "It is my pleasure, Princess."

Invidia curtly nodded at him as he left. Finally, she turned to Dyre and said, "We need a new strategy against the Star Force and the Gamilons. But what?"

"Give it time," said Dyre. "We will think of something."

"In the meantime, keep what pressure you can upon Earth. I want to drive them mad with attacks so that when we do get to the Milky Way again, we can take them in a short time."

"I will do our best, Princess," said Dyre. "You know we have our means…and you know we have agents on Earth, too."

"Tell me about them…"

"The Josiahite Cult. They are useful, along with the R'Khells."

"That Yvona clone was a failure!"

"But they are useful for the mischief. More useful than you may think, Princess…"

Earth

Somewhere in China

Friday, February 21, 2006

1600 Hours, Local Time

Sergeant Mick Stovall, once Deke Wakefield's nemesis at the Space Fighters' Training School in a certain affair involving Dawn Westland, was now a Space Marine Squad Leader as part of the 112th Infantry Platoon in China. They were fighting a group of Josiahites that had taken over a small village.

Stovall was, by now, a hardened, callous Marine killer. He had been joined recently by three Marine Privates who had just completed basic and advanced Infantry training, namely, Private Daniel Caruthers, Private William Perkins, and Private Harold Smith. Of course, like himself, it was a very interesting coincidence that Stovall's platoon mates Caruthers, Perkins, and Smith had also been drummed out of the Space Fighters' Training School in disgrace like Stovall himself had been years ago. Along with ten other men, they formed Charlie Squad of the 112th Platoon.

Charlie Squad had already earned commendations from its commanders because of its high body count here in the "pacification" fighting in this part of China, which was a sort of stronghold of the Josiahite Cult. They earned commendations by a simple expedient; killing anyone and everyone who got in their way. They had already destroyed three villages, and tonight, they had left a fourth village in flames. Everyone in the village had been considered a "cultist" by Stovall, and everyone, men, women, children, and babies had died together in a barrage of laser fire, Boffer Gun grenades, and a napalm air strike from a squadron of Cosmo Tigers that had been called in by Stovall.

Stovall had just committed a basket-load of war crimes tonight, but, no one cared. The bastard got results.

"That was cool," said Stovall as he and Caruthers looked at the smoking ruins with a smile as sunset neared. "We hadda destroy the whole Goddamn village in order to save it."

"That smells good," said Caruthers. "I know it sounds sick, Sarge, but it smells like roast pork."

"Burning cultists," said Stovall with a laugh. "Best Goddamn smell in the world, except for pussy. You ever screw a chick yet?"

"Plenty, bro," said Caruthers with a laugh.

"You people are sick," said Perkins.

"Drop dead, asshole," laughed Caruthers. "You were in on that scheme to drive that Decker dickwad out of the Academy, too. Only that damn Wildstar and that Goddamn Wakefield stopped us."

"Wakefield?" said Stovall. "Deke Wakefield? That jackass from San Diego?"

"As I told ya before, Sarge," said Caruthers. "The same self-righteous flyboy that screwed you over screwed us over!"

"One of these days, I'm gonna frag that son-of-a-bitch!" laughed Stovall as he fired his blaster into the ground. "Him and all the Wildstar family!"

"Guy's supposed to graduate this May," said Perkins.

"When he gets out in the Fleet we can arrange a little accident for him then," said Stovall. Stovall then began to dig in the ground.

"What'cha lookin' for?" said Perkins. "We buried some victims there the other day."

"Souvenirs," said Stovall. "I wanna skull to hang up someplace," he said as he opened the grave with an entrenching tool.

"They won't be rotten enough yet," said Smith.

"We can boil the head when we get it," said Stovall as he threw out a rotting human arm. Then, he found some human bones, that he threw into the dirt. Then, smiling like an idiot, he dug like a dog and said, "I found somethin'! Somethin good!"

"What?" asked Perkins.

"This better be good, Sarge," said Caruthers.

"It is," said Stovall as he emerged from the grave, covered in dirt, grinning like a sin-sick devil. He had a dirt-covered object in his hand.

"Sarge?" said Caruthers. "Ya find a skull?"

"Somethin' better," said Stovall as his voice went unnaturally deep. "And it's all mine!"

Stovall then knocked some dirt off…a perfectly round, clear, gleaming crystalline ball. A globe.

"This is great," said Stovall in a weird, deep voice as he claimed the Sphere. "At last! AT LONG LAST, I live again! Ha Hahahahahahahaha! haaaaaa!"

"Sarge?" said Caruthers. "Sergeant Stovall?"

"I will be him…when it suits me," said Stovall as he smiled like a devil. "Bear in mind, I am now your Master! I am the Dark Lord!"

"What?" said Caruthers. "Buddy, have ya gone nuts??"

Stovall then pumped a shot through Caruthers' heart.

"Yes," said Stovall. "I have gone nuts. And it feels great! Any of you jackasses wanna be next?"

Perkins and Smith shook their heads.

"Good," said Stovall as Ekogaru took him over. "Bury him down here. Let's say the cultists got him. You know, it's really not a lie," said Stovall as he grinned. "I know. You think I'm nuts. Stay with me, and I will make things great for you. Screw with me, and…well…you see how you'll end up," said Stovall as he kicked Caruthers' corpse in the face.

At that, the two privates helped Stovall bury their comrade.

But it was just the beginning.

It was just the beginning of many, many things.

END …

TO BE CONTINUED WITH BOOK FOUR -- "THE NET TIGHTENS"