The Last Star

1

7th June, 2247

Earth

"Halt!" The green clad man snarled with acidic vehemence, teeth bared in a grim snarl. "Get into a line!" He glared menacingly. "No you maggots, a straight line!"

Before him twenty young men and women formed two lines one behind the other, clumsily checking their spacing and shuffling their feet into a unified rank. Like the angry man they wore green uniforms, basic military fatigues that served as the day to day clothing of Earth Force when not in action. In previous years these young people would have had three or four different uniforms for different roles and occasions, but recently the EA had just given them two changes of the same simplistic gear.

"I have never, never, seen a more shabby bunch of gutter trash then you lot! I am appalled that you can't even march in time!" The man growled, his arm decorated with three downward facing gold chevrons surmounted by three more arches above them. On his head sat a stiff khaki Stetson colloquially known as a lemon squeezer thanks to its pointy shape. He was every inch a drill instructor, in deed as well as appearance.

"You can teach monkeys to march better than you!"

He strolled up and down the line slowly, focusing on each person in turn, testing their resolve. Most looked down as he fixed his eyes on them, and that was not what he needed to see.

"You have been here one week, a whole week, and you still fail to understand the basics." He snapped off. "I know you do not want to be here, I know this is not your choice, but you are here now! You are my responsibility! You will watch, you will learn, you will copy and you will succeed or else you will die!"

He made his way back to the front of the group, his voice clear enough to easily carry over them.

"Let me make this clear people, in five weeks you will leave this facility. In the past if you were not ready you would be pushed back to join a new batch of recruits. That is no longer policy. Policy is that every able bodied man and woman is expected to serve on the front line after six weeks training, whether you learn anything or not!"

They looked terrified, not of him but of the truth in his words.

"So you have a choice, and it is your choice." The Sergeant Major informed. "Either you make the effort, you decide right now to pay attention, to work hard and to learn what I teach and leave this facility wit the knowledge and skill to fight and survive, or you don't. You leave with the same skills you came in with, you walk out of here a civilian in uniform, then you go into battle and you die. Because believe me, you will all be going into battle, ready or not."

He kept his face straight, he didn't want to intimidate these people or scare them, but sometimes fear was a damn good motivator of men.

"The Minbari are already securing Beta Durani. Our people there fought well but it wasn't enough, the war goes on and we are still fighting, we still need new troops to deploy into the next battle. This is a war of survival people, we don't lose this war and start again later. If we lose, we die. Our families, our friends, our children, our future. It's all gone."

They were all looking his way, wide eyed.

"I know you don't want to be here, you didn't choose this war but neither did Earth! But here it is, and here we are! I know you still see yourselves as civilians, as shop assistants, office workers, bank tellers, traders and all the rest, and that you just happen to be in the army. This stops now! You are one thing now and one thing only! Soldiers! And you will remain a soldier until your dying day!"

He paused.

"My job is to make sure your dying day isn't anytime soon. But I cannot do this unless you are ready to learn!"

He stepped back.

"Now I know exactly what you are thinking. You want to know what marching in time matters? Why does lining up neatly seem so important in modern war? Easy, it makes you work as a team! It turns you from individuals into a unit! The best thing you have out there is the man or woman in the fox hole next to you! You life is in their hands, and theirs in yours! You must work as one, move as one, fight as one and think as one! If you go into battle alone, you die alone."

He inhaled before continuing.

"You are not soldiers, but you will be. A draftee is no different from a volunteer, both of you have a motivation to succeed. When you are out there it doesn't matter where you came from or why, a bullet or mortar round doesn't care if you joined up willingly or not! You will both have the same goal, to live long enough to come home!"

He examined his platoon, making sure his words were sinking in.

"The Minbari are a dangerous enemy, they are advanced, their ships are lethal, but on the ground they die as easily as anyone else! On the ground we are all equal, bullets and plasma bolts mangle them the same as anyone else. If you face a Minbari, when you face one, you have a good chance of walking away if you listen to me!"

He pointed to the stripes on his shoulder.

"I have seen this before! I have fought in battles nobody expected us to win! I have faced soldiers that would turn the Minbari to mince meat and I have beaten them! Once or twice armed with just a crowbar!"

Some recruits grinned, others looked at him with mild awe.

"I am living proof people, when you screw with Earth Force you better be ready for the Rain of Pain! Now, left face! By the left, march!"

He drilled them for two hours straight, pushing them through the same routine until finally they got it, finally they had their timing down to the point where they didn't need to look over their shoulders, they just knew instinctively where the rest of their unit was. They passed lesson one, and while he'd prefer to drill them more he just did not have time. The condensed training schedule was designed to get trained people on the front as fast as possible, quantity over quality, and so the Sergeant lined them up, gave them some short acknowledgement of success, then sent them to the showers before handing off to the weapons instructors.

He watched them fall out, laughing among themselves and clearly pleased to have passed his basic instruction on drill, something most soldiers would have don in the first couple of days. They didn't understand the gulf between them and the old volunteer army, and they didn't know what horrors waited them on the battlefield. The Sergeant guessed Earth Force preferred it that way, keeping them in the dark until it was impossible for them to run or escape. He thought it an underhanded way to treat people who were expected to fight and die for their world, but he had no place to question it. Like them he was just a GROPO, and a lame one at that.

Sergeant Major Alfredo Garibaldi made his way to the NCO's lounge, a pleasant couple of rooms in one of the ubiquitous wooden huts holding a small bar and a collection of comfortable chairs for the various Drill Instructors to retire to when off duty. He stepped up and entered through the front door, his leg twinging after being stood on for four hours straight. He didn't show his discomfort of course, but it was a constant reminder of why his life had taken such a turn.

Almost fifteen years earlier he had been wounded in action, shot in the back of the knee by a Dilgar soldier during the battle of Balos. While not fatal in itself the wound had severed tendons and damaged cartilage, mangling the back of his leg beyond the ability to adequately repair it. Certainly the doctors had done a great job, in the past he would have been unable to walk without sticks or even may have faced amputation, instead he had almost full mobility. Unfortunately he couldn't put weight on it for long periods at a time and had trouble sprinting, and of course could never achieve a glider landing like his Airborne unit required.

Inevitably Garibaldi had been retired, accepting a honourable discharge eon medical grounds with a full pension despite his relatively short service. At first he'd harboured mixed feelings on the matter, pleased to be at home with his wife Sophia and child Michael, but sad to see the back of his unit, men and women he'd fought with in some of the hardest fighting in human history. They were also his family after a fashion, and while he kept in touch it was hard to see them deploy to the frontier worlds while he remained behind.

Ultimately he moved on with his life, setting up a private Security company and hiring his services as a Private Investigator. Using his military training on one hand, and the knowledge shared by his mother as a Detective in the Boston Police Department on the other he'd proven rather successful. He had contacts in high places, access to information through friends in EarthGov that let him crack cases even the Police found tough and on one occasion had actually helped thwart a plot by the Narn Government to split ties between humans and the Centauri. He had even taken on his son and shown him the ropes when he was old enough.

Then the war had come.

At first the Minbari were just a name, an enemy to be beaten. Ships were sent, soldiers deployed, public support was strong as Earth flexed its muscles. No one had challenged Earth Force in over a decade, not since the Dilgar and for all that time the fleet had been resting happily on its laurels and with some justification. The warships that took on the Minbari were even stronger than those that had flattened the Dilgar, and yet it had made difference whatsoever

Unthinkably Earth Force was defeated, more than defeated it had been a slaughter. The Minbari threw aside the best Earth had with contemptible ease creating undisguised panic in the military which really had not gone down well with the civilian population. Reservist were at once called up and plans to initiate a planetary draft set up in the Dilgar war but never used were put into effect. Alfredo naturally volunteered, but his injury meant he was at first refused. It wasn't until later he was accepted into the military again but even then it had been as a second line role. Specifically a Drill Instructor.

He didn't think he was suited for the job and still believed firmly his place was on the front defending his nation in person, however he realised he was at least playing his part in the machine of war, so was content to show these wet behind the ears civies a little real soldiering.

As the months dragged on the age and suitability of the recruits dropped steadily, highlighting the increasingly dire straights Earth was in. Time and again Garibaldi petitioned for a transfer to the front, citing his exemplary combat record and experience as the most important factors, but he was always refused. Then his own son had been drafted, given the most basic of training, and then sent to Proxima. Already Alfredo had been desperate to get to the front, that mission now became critical and yet still he was refused.

He did have one moment of hope, Michael had been assigned to the regular infantry but when he mentioned his father's name had been transferred to Airborne and the 99th no less. While Alfredo was relieved to have his son serving with his old unit and his old friends the 99th wasn't the same as it had been. Like most other units it had been swelled by raw recruits and had many platoons within it that had the minimum of training despite the Regiments apparent elite status. He trusted his old friends to look out for Michael, but there was only so much they could do especially in the face of a probable Minbari invasion.

Proxima was the obvious target for the next stage of the Minbari advance, and somehow Alfredo was going to be there. He had to be there.

"Hey Crowbar, got a drink lined up." The bar keeper smiled, a buxom middle aged woman who ran the place with the efficiency of a machine. "Ice cold."

He dropped on a bar stool and accepted the glass. "Thanks Dusty."

"On the house, as always."

He grinned, the first drink was always free, the blue ribbons on his chest showing he'd already paid for them by serving on Balos. As well as the solemnly respected Balosian Campaign medal Garibaldi had managed to acquire a pair of Silver stars, several Bronze stars and a host of campaign awards and distinctions, including six stripes of rank on his arm. He wasn't the longest serving soldier on the base or the most senior, but his decorations were unmatched.

He glanced around the room as he took a long refreshing draft of the beer, nodding to the three other instructors taking a few off duty moments in the comfortable surroundings.

"Hey Cliff, how's Blue Platoon coming on?"

"Just great." The other man answered. "This morning they managed to tie their own shoe laces with no help from me at all."

"Amazing, they'll turn the war single handed." He joked grimly. "How about your elite Barb? Still holding their hands to the bathroom?"

"Half of them haven't even found the bathroom yet." The female instructor joked. "Once they do they'll be lethal."

"I saw you got your guys marching in step." Cliff observed. "Makes a change."

"Yeah, for what it's worth." Garibaldi shrugged and drunk some more. "Poor buggers don't have a clue."

"They'll learn fast in the field." Barb said. "Not a whole lot of choice."

"Just kids." Cliff shook his head. "The Minbari are going to tear them apart in minutes." He froze. "Hey, sorry Freddy, I forgot you got a boy out there. I'm sure he knows what he's doing."

"Yeah, course he does!" Barb grinned supportively. "He's the son of the Crowbar! The Minbari are probably avoiding the whole damn planet because of him!"

Garibaldi smiled widely, wanting to believe it was true but somehow not quite banishing the sick feeling in his gut whenever he thought about his son in battle. "He'll be good, my old buddies will be watching out for him."

"Definitely, the fighting 99th." Cliff beamed. "Death from above man, the Rain of Pain."

"Yeah that's them." Garibaldi acknowledged. "Good guys, each one of 'em."

"Plus the Minbari don't even know about Proxima." Barb added. "With the beacons down they might never find it."

"Or us." Cliff agreed. "Hyperspace out here is pretty damn rough, kept us out of the way for centuries of galactic war."

"We said that about Beta Durani, and Signet, and Deneb, and Ross, and Cooke, and all the other worlds we've lost. Even without the beacons they find them eventually. They'll find Proxima too, and then us."

He was right of course, it was just easier not to confront such a painful truth.

"We'll be ready for them." Cliff said. "They'll have the fight of their lives."

"Yeah, we'll fight alright." Garibaldi nodded in agreement. "But will we win?"

No one could answer, hope and reality cancelling each other out and leaving an empty silence.

"We still have a major fleet, I saw it heading back from Mars." Barb offered. "Hell of a lot of ships."

"Plenty, but not as many as we sent into Balos." Garibaldi recalled. "And even then it was a close thing."

"We're still turning out ships almost daily, production has never been higher."

"But is it keeping up with losses?" Garibaldi pointed out. "Maybe if we avoid another big battle for a few months."

"All the reports say we still outnumber them." Cliff spoke. "And if it came to an all out battle we'd win just by swamping their fleet."

"You believe that?" Garibaldi wondered.

"You don't?"

"Not really." He answered. "I think its going to take more than numbers to win this one, I just don't know what."

"Let's hope the brass do." Barb said simply. "Or else we're dead."

"Lot of that going around I hear." Garibaldi drunk up. "If we live through this I swear I'm going to give up drinking."

"Damn Crowbar, what would be the point?" Cliff laughed. "Here's to living fast, because you never know when it will stop."

"Life." Garibaldi drained his glass. "And keeping it."

Beta Durani Colony

Earth Alliance Space

Minbari Occupied.

Local space was dominated by debris, twisted and tortured metal rent from the hulls of Earth Force ships. Blackened grey material floated in a wide thin cloud slowly dispersing across the system and eventually into the depths of interstellar space, eternal monuments to the fallen of this battle and this war. Some of the ships and fighters maintained formation, momentum taking the bulk of their forms forward at the same speed with which they died, cut down before they could even break or evade, so swift was the fury of a Minbari fleet.

It was rare for Earth to commit large numbers of ships to battle anymore, usually only when the need was great or when there was no other choice. At Beta Durani the fleet had been surprised, caught unawares close to the planet where they were refitting and taking on fresh supplies before splitting up into raiding groups. In ideal circumstances an Earth Fleet was of little concern to the Minbari, but caught like this it was even more of a shooting gallery.

Beta Durani was away from the main Minbari thrust, no one expected it to be attacked and picquet ships had not been properly posted. It was on oversight Earth Force should not have made, but this was no longer the extremely professional force that had faced the Dilgar. Experienced officers were increasingly rare as losses mounted, the veterans of past wars had been some of the first to fall as the pre war fleet was sent into the first disastrous battles without any understanding of the gulf in power they faced. Those that were left were frequently under trained, ill equipped mentally for the rigours of space combat and prone to slips and errors, especially after long deployments.

The Minbari exploited it ruthlessly, wiping out a full fleet of ships including the Commander of Earth Naval Forces, Admiral Donald Ferguson on the bridge of his flagship, the Dreadnought Charlemagne. The loss of the highest rated Naval officer in the Force had been a crushing blow to moral, almost as great as the loss of the colony itself. No defence had been prepared and only the barest contingencies laid. Instead of a brutal war of attrition as had happened elsewhere Durani had been taken almost overnight with the army as unprepared as the fleet.

On Minbar the victory was lauded and had cemented Shai Alyt Branmer as the greatest of warriors, finally crushing any disparaging comments from the more obtuse members of the Warrior class sneering at his Religious heritage. On Earth it was the bitterest blow of the war so far, a loss that could not be replaced.

The Minbari fleet had long gone from Durani, leaving a small garrison of warships and a few supply bases in the area to mark their presence. Any human assault would be spotted far away and reinforcements could be deployed if required, but Branmer was confident Earth Force would not be making any moves on Durani. He was partially right, for while no offensive could be made Earth was not content to simply let the Minbari live a simple life in the system.

Among the debris, floating serenely alongside a blitzed Dreadnought between the colony and its primary moon was an Artemis Frigate, a common enough light ship in EA fleets. Armed with rail guns they had fallen out of favour with Earth Force as their limited stock of ammunition required an extensive supply train to maintain, while the newer pure energy weapon armed ships could operate far more independently. Despite this the Artemis class could pack a surprising punch, and its solid slugs had proven devastating to Minbari crystalline armour on the rare occasions they hit, making them a very useful vessel among the EA, and a prime target for the Minbari who tended to engage them first. An Artemis posting was usually a guaranteed death sentence.

This particular ship was a mess, its armour shredded, its guns silent and inert, its hull missing about a third of its mass. It hung cold and silent in escort formation with the equally ruined dreadnought, bent metal and internal supports clearly visible through the damaged sections, decks and bulkheads bent out like a stack of burnt cards. The ship had literally been torn apart at enemy hands, but unknown to anyone in the system that enemy had not been the Minbari, but the Dilgar.

The EAS Danube was a veteran ship that had fought its last battle fifteen years ago over Omelos, there it had met a Dilgar Tratharti gunship of the Home Fleet and come off second best. The ship was smashed but the internal bulkheads did their job and most of the crew survived to be rescued afterwards, the ship towed home to be repaired. Ultimately budget cuts meant she was not reactivated and simply dumped in a scrap yard and left, her career seemingly over.

The Minbari war changed Earth Forces priorities, and the old stockpiles and mothball yards were raided for ships, and when they ran out Earth turned to the scrapyards. The Danube had been extensively damaged forward, but her aft section including her engines and reactors were still in reasonable condition, good enough to be reactivated without much trouble. The weapons and sensors required more effort with the entire forward half of the ship requiring replacement, though with the ship yards now at full tilt the work was expected to be done rapidly. At that point however fate intervened in the shape of the EIA.

The EIA had been faced with the problem of reconnaissance in occupied space., normal missions involving flybys had been quickly outlawed as far too dangerous and messages from resistance fighter son the ground were often short and could not reveal the disposition of Minbari warships high above in space. They needed an alternate method when one of their number, Heather O'Leary, had suggested using a little Trojan Horse.

One thing that was common in systems taken by the Minbari were wrecked human ships, common enough to be part of the back ground and ignored. They had no need to study them and could not salvage them for resources, so simply left them to drift. Heather proposed they quietly refit a handful of scrapped ships with sensors and drop them into occupied systems to coast through and gather data from right under the enemies nose. It was of course incredibly dangerous, the ships chosen were barely space worthy, would have no support and most had no weapons and glaring gaps in their armour. It was however also the only plan on the table, and so received the green light.

The Danube had been deployed over a month earlier deep in the system by a cruiser, the jump point hidden behind one of the outer planets. It had proceeded on a pre-plotted course to reach the colony at a specific time on a specific day, soaking up data on the way. Conditions on a fully operational Artemis were cramped and uncomfortable, but on these flying wrecks they were a nightmare, especially as the ship's energy signature had to be kept to an absolute minimum to avoid raising suspicion. Service on these ships were for volunteers only, even in the hard fighting of the Minbari war there were some jobs Earth Force would not force on its crews.

The Danube had held its cover for the duration of its harsh mission, logged, registered and then ignored by the Minbari. If they had been paying attention they may have noticed the ship slowing infinitesimally over the weeks of its journey, altering its velocity so it did not rocket past the colony but instead passed at a reasonable speed. The small group of people within the ship, living in a fraction of the normal space due to power concerns and the massive internal damage had been incredibly patient, and now at last the end of their mission was in sight.

"Crossing Durani orbit in ten minutes." Lieutenant Elizabeth Lockley informed, the intense young woman focused entirely on her display. Like the rest of the bridge crew she was in a full space suit and had been for the past eight hours, the life support having been shut down as they crossed the Minbari at their closest point, doing all they could to remain unnoticed.

"Just one more piece of junk, nothing to see here." Muttered the Commanding officer, praying in those words that the Minbari would be too busy chanting or something to notice the small vessel. Captain Edward MacDougan didn't put a lot of faith in pure prayer but every little helped, especially at this crucial juncture.

"Passive sensors at full." Lockley reported. "No indication we've been spotted yet."

"Stand by on active sensors." MacDougan informed. "But not until the last second, we don't want to give the game away after sitting in this can for a month."

MacDougan had implicit trust in his twenty person crew, and no one more so than Lockley. He wasn't fully aware of her back ground, he knew from her record her father had served on Balos and had turned into a drunk afterwards, finding himself booted out of the Corps to die in a gutter somewhere. He also knew she had been a true wild child, constantly in trouble with the Police with her best friend, a girl Lockley said virtually nothing about even in the close quarters of the ship. Whatever had happened it had changed her, she joined the Force a couple of years before the war and had served with distinction, always volunteering for the hardest jobs. This mission certainly counted, and would likely see her make Commander if they lived long enough.

MacDougan himself had an adventurous spirit, but the war had quickly knocked that out of him. In the past he would have taken a mission like this just to see if he could do it, but now he was here because he wanted closure. Somewhere out there among the wrecks was his former command, the Hyperion class Cruiser Diomedes. Like the rest of the fleet he had been surprised here, but had the presence of mind to roll his ship before it was hit, turning a killing blow into merely a crippling one and allowing him to evacuate. He hadn't seen the ship yet, but he knew it and one hundred fourteen souls of her crew were still out there.

MacDougan left the Dilgar war as a full Commander with an enviable reputation under his belt. His conduct as a Corvette Commander had become a text book example of how best to operate behind enemy lines raiding convoys and ambushing hostile supply lines. He had been given command of a Hyperion cruiser, a rare privilege given the navy was down sizing and command of a capital ship was a prize most officers fought tooth and nail over. During his time commanding the ship he had learned even more about deep space operations and was recognised as an expert on First Contact protocol.

Ironically that knowledge had ended his time as a ship captain, seeing him transferred to the Earth Force Officer Academy while another man took his ship and crew. The promotion to Captain was not much of a compensation. While there he taught First Contact protocols to future officers and gave them a series of ethical and moral dilemmas to solve, ingraining in them that simply following orders like a robot did not make a good officer.

When the war came he applied for a front line post and was accepted, First contact scenarios no longer being an effective use of such an officer. Before he was transferred out General Lefcourt had personally handed him his orders of command, and remarked bitterly that he should have sent Jankowski to one or two of his lessons. The EAS Diomedes had been waiting for him, a fresh ship and fresh crew that he had quickly whipped into shape.

The Hyperion class were fine ships, the back bone of the navy with a commendable combat record. They had borne the brunt of the Dilgar war proving themselves clearly superior to their equivalents in enemy service, indeed they had been known to stand up to dreadnoughts and survive long enough to withdraw or wait for help. Their thick armour and sturdy construction had been matched by potent firepower, heavy cannons that had been made even more formidable after the war, upgrading to Pulse weapons back engineered from captured Dilgar technology combined with human principles.

The ship's combat record ended up being its undoing. So effective had they been against the Dilgar that Earth had greatly reduced the budget for new designs, convinced the older ships would be more than adequate for the foreseeable future. They had received only one upgrade in their lifetimes and their replacements had only just entered the design phase when the Minbari war broke out. The Minbari quickly demonstrated that their armour and weapons counted for precisely nothing when compared to Sharlin warcruisers and their escorts.

Command of a Hyperion had been a pre-war dream for most officers, the usual mission of patrolling borders and showing the flag appealing more than command of a Dreadnought consigned to lumbering around the core systems scaring aliens and reassuring civilians. That dream had quickly become a nightmare, and the stately cruisers proved just as vulnerable as any other human vessel. The conquerors of the Dilgar falling themselves one after another.

After the first couple of battles the Minbari had clearly gathered extensive information on human vessels including full technical readouts. Initially they had simply cut the ships to pieces with long raking volleys from their Neutron cannons, but later they became far more efficient and pinpointed weak spots. A good Minbari crew could knock out a Hyperion in less than three seconds with just three shots, one hit on the reactor in its central block, one hit on the fuel tanks on the engine section, and one hit on the bridge at the front where the tower met the main hull. Even if one of those hits didn't trigger a catastrophic explosion, it would at the least cripple the ship and leave it helpless to be destroyed later. The famous EAS Lexington had narrowly avoided such a fate after suffering similar crippling hits, most ships didn't.

The Diomedes had been luckier than most, MacDougans twist serving to throw off the Minbari aim enough so that his ship did not immediately explode and so that the strike aimed for the bridge missed. It was a measure of the clinical precision of the Minbari that they always tried to hit the bridge first, decapitating the warship and killing the command crew. It was said no Captain survived battle with the Minbari fleet, though the crew was often more fortunate.

The concentration of damage usually left large portions of the crippled ship intact with many of the crew surviving, helped by the extensive compartmentalisation and emphasis on crew survivability built into EA ships. The Minbari had no problem killing crews trapped on ships or wiping out escape pods, but usually there was a small window for crew to abandon ship and try to escape while the enemy was busy engaging other Earth assets. MacDougan had seized one such opportunity, evacuating his vessel as swiftly as he could and just running for the gate. His crew and many others had been scooped up by fleeing civilian ships, and while at one point it looked like the Minbari might have engaged the unarmed vessels they ultimately did not. While they killed human soldiers no matter what, they treated civilians with complete indifference.

Their scans had indeed confirmed that the civilian population centres on Beta Durani were untouched, left to their own devices while military facilities had been glassed from orbit. Small scale Guerrilla activities had commenced, but no real armed resistance was possible despite much effort. The Minbari kept to their bases well away from human settlements unwilling to interact with their future victims. That distance was a mistake and one soon to be exploited.

"Coming up on zero hour." Lockley reported.

"Standby to cold start reactors." MacDougan ordered. "What do we have out there?"

"At least one Sharlin." Lockley reported. "Three or four escorts too."

"How about the planet, got any data?"

"We'll know more when we go active, but looks like three concentrations down there."

"Away from the cities?"

"Yes sir, just like the EIA predicted."

"Good, we can go ahead with the operation."

Strictly speaking the operation would go ahead no matter what, he had orders to facilitate an attack on the Minbari surface installations regardless of the risk to civilians, the war was just too desperate to pass up an opportunity like this.

"One minute, all system checks show green, enemy ships right where we expected them to be."

MacDougan huffed. "Thank heaven for unimaginative Minbari."

He watched the mission counter approach zero, a clock that had been slowly counting down for a month only now, finally, approaching the end. The anticipation was palpable, the culmination of so much patience and the sudden arrival of so much danger. A lot was riding on this, a lot of coordination had been invested and MacDougan was just one piece in the puzzle. If the other pieces weren't in place, or were running even a minute late, he was dead.

The clock reached zero.

"Go active."

The Danube powered up, her sensors first followed by communications and finally engines. The surge of energy was at once spotted by the Minbari who began to respond, the power curves of their own vessels increasing as they slowly alerted themselves to the human presence.

"Confirm one Sharlin and three Tinashis." Lockley barked. Finding the Minbari ships was no problem, Earth sensors could tell something was there and retrieve a rough profile to make an identification. Hitting it at anything beyond point blank range was an entirely different prospect.

"Focus on the planet, get me co-ordinates!" MacDougan ordered quickly.

"Scanning." She reported, the arrays hidden amid the wrecked hull working quickly. "Got it, one military base and two supply dumps!"

"Download now, then push engines to full!" MacDougan proceeded to part two of the operation. "And better hope Bill gets his jump coordinates right."

The Danube began to move, the engines pushing hard against the cold. Far to her side the Minbari ships spotted her and changed course, powering their weapon arrays and sensing blood. The Danube had an excessive ECM package, one powerful enough to affect even Minbari senses at long ranges forcing them to close in before they could also achieve a precise lock. Fooling a Minbari weapons lock had been something Earth Force took a tremendous measure e of pride in, even though the system was nowhere near as effective as the enemy Jammers.

"We've got incoming, thirty seconds to contact!"

"Come on old girl, don't fail me now." MacDougan tapped the chair arm. "You got your crew home once before, you can do it again."

"I'm reading fighters." Lockley warned. "Wait, jump point activating, here they come!"

The mission was a masterpiece of timing, coordinating a ship launched a month ago with other ones sent just a week earlier. Two vessels had been deployed from Proxima travelling circuitously on minimal power around the edges of the beacon grids hoping to pass undetected through enemy lines. Like most missions against the Minbari it was risky, but while a hundred ships were easy to spot in hyperspace two vessels alone moving slowly and quietly were far harder to pick up, even for the Minbari. Their route was planned so that they would arrive over Beta Durani the exact same minute that the Danube went active, and that they would receive from that ship jump coordinates for a precise insertion just above the Colony along with exact location of the Minbari facilities on the surface, data that was fed into targeting computers before the ships even made their jump.

The blue vortex opened behind the Danube and from it raced two Hyperions at full burn, one of them holding open the entry point while the second one immediately opened an exit jump point a few thousand miles away. Again it was a risk, hyperspace physics were still a new study and opening two jump points quite so close to each other was not smart, the chances of them mingling destructively was a very real and deadly possibility.

"Jump point confirmed!" Lockley cheered.

"Get us out of here!" Yelled MacDougan, salvation close enough to touch. "Give it all she's got!"

The Danube had a head start but the two cruisers were moving much faster, still accelerating from hyperspace. If they left the jump point would close, stranding the Danube or destroying it if it was still in transit when the point collapsed. Lockley drove the old ship for all it was worth, the two bigger ships closing astern and beyond them the Minbari.

"Nearly there!" The Lieutenant willed them on. "Almost!"

MacDougan was virtually out of his chair, leaning forward unconsciously as he shared Lockley's wish. "Come on girl! Few more miles!"

The ship made it, clearing normal space with a few seconds to spare, much to the huge relief of Captain MacDougan.

"We're through!" Lockley laughed as she released the tension. "Locking onto temporary beacon."

"Amen to that." MacDougan pushed himself back down into his chair. "Better cross off one of our nine lives Lieutenant, that one was by the skin of our teeth."

Behind them the two Hyperions headed for the jump point, their own missions only half way complete. Recovering the Danube and its vital information was one thing, but after sneaking two ships this far into occupied space Earth Force wasn't going to leave without a little calling card.

"Enemy Frigates approaching range, energy spikes!"

Captain William Hague grimaced, the idea of running from Frigate class vessels still despicable in his mind. Yet these were Minbari frigates, and those three ships were quite capable of taking apart his cruiser with ease. Even if they didn't the Sharlin hot on their heels surely would.

"Are the coordinates locked in?" He asked.

"Yes sir." Replied his First Officer, an able young woman named Sandra Hiroshi. "Batteries locked on surface targets."

Hague hated doing this, he was firing on Earth territory, on human soil, but that ground was no longer theirs and had become a sanctuary to the enemy. His job, like the fighters below was to show the Minbari no ground was safe for them.

"Open fire, drop mines and launch tactical nuclear weapons."

Hague's ship, the EAS Endymion, fired first, his companion cruiser close behind. He had to fire first, as mission commander he would take responsibility for lacing destruction on this colony world. Pulse cannons spattered orange fire downwards, the second ship engaging soon after. The gunfire was focused on the military base, suppressing ground based anti ship and anti fighter defences while the hanger bays unloaded a series of megaton yield hyper velocity missiles. They were small enough not to affect the ecosphere, but big enough to utterly annihilate the two Minbari supply bases.

The two human ships arced through orbit at the top of their barrage, nuclear missiles streaking to the ground in balls of fire and friction ignited gas, streams of vapour in their wake. The pulse cannons tore up the ground, smashing troops formations, vehicle parks and any defences that could intercept the surprise missile attack.

"Minbari cruisers inbound!" Hiroshi said. "They should be walking right into our surprise party."

At the same time as the Danube had begun her voyage, so too had Earth Force launched a few other devices on ballistic trajectories. Fusion mines. They were unguided as any propulsion systems would have been spotted and as such were imprecise, but in another example of exquisite timing they arrived exactly in time to screen the retreating EA warships.

"Nuke 'em." Hague ordered with cold relish.

The mines detonated, none of them sadly close enough to repeat the glorious demise of the Black Star, though one did manage to burn away most of the Sharlin cruiser's drive fin, a very commendable achievement in itself. The remainder forced the Tinashis to break off their pursuit, and that was all Hague needed.

The planet focused missiles hit their targets after a five second flight, easily outrunning the Minbari fighters hastily sent to stop them. The multiple nuclear explosions bracketed the bases, highlighting why it was a poor idea for the Minbari to put their installations so close to each other. The explosions would be visible from the nearest human city as lights on the horizon forming into mushroom clouds, a hated sight but now a small beacon of hope, a signal they had not been forgotten and that in some small way Earth Force was still fighting. It might not be a liberation, but it was a gesture that the war was still raging on and that humanity wasn't about to quit any time soon.

"Confirm detonations, primary targets all destroyed!" Hiroshi reported with glee.

"Take us out." Hague said pointedly, keeping them focused on the needs at hand. "Straight through the jump point."

The Endymion roared through in triumph, the second cruiser on her tail closing the vortex after them and sealing their escape. As a final assurance they dropped a small brace of mines behind them, mines that would be lost in hyperspace within the hour but would catch any pursuer before then. After an hour the EA ships would be long gone and the temporary beacon they were following would shut down.

"We're clear." Hiroshi smiled, turning in her seat to face the Captain. "We did it, no sign of pursuit."

"Well done Commander, well done everyone." Hague congratulated sincerely. "Pass the word throughout the ship, we nuked the enemy bases and we're heading home."

The bridge crew engaged in a few cheers and a round of applause, it was a hell of an achievement and would go down well back home. Hague let them celebrate, any success was rare in this war and while what they had done was an insignificant embarrassment for the Minbari, for Earth it was something to be lauded.

"Comms, get me ship to ship." Hague said after the initial joy.

"Aye sir, going through." The beaming officer said.

"Endymion to Lexington, still with me John?"

From the other ship an equally proud voice replied.

"Yes sir, we gave those boneheads something to cry about!"

"Sure did, it'll be hard for them to pick up the pieces after that one. Any damage?"

"No sir." Commander John Sheridan replied. "Lady Lex is still in one piece, and those new weapons worked as well as we expected."

Following her near death experience the Lexington had been extensively rebuilt and brought up to the latest Hyperion specifications, including the addition of enhanced laser and Pulse cannons based on Centauri principles acquired from the Narn. While still far from a match for Minbari weapons in terms of pure ability, they had given Earth Force ships a significant boost to their range and firepower, something which had made abject massacres more like fighting massacres instead. It wasn't much, but it at least counted for something.

"Very good Commander, we'll jump on the temporary beacon and then wait for the scheduled activation of the Proxima grid."

"Understood sir." Sheridan replied.

"We'll stop off at Proxima, make our reports, then head back to Earth. I think we've earned a week's leave while our ships refuel."

"Looking forward to it sir."

"Good work out there John, I always knew you weren't a one hit wonder. Hague out."

John Sheridan couldn't help but laugh a little at that. "One hit wonder? If he means the Black Star that was one hell of a hit!"

"Certainly was sir." Lieutenant Commander Justin Carroll answered in a quiet English voice. "Not an experience I'd be happy to repeat."

"You and me both." Sheridan agreed readily. "But we showed those boneheads a little lesson there. Try to kill a defenceless ship, get fried in a thermonuclear microwave hell."

"That we did sir."

Carroll had been the Communications officer on the Lexington at the time and like the rest of the crew hadn't been expecting an ambush so close to Earth. When the Black Star jumped into the middle of them it was a swift and brutal display of the sheer level of technology and destructive power the Minbari could command, four warships were wiped out in less than a minute, the Lexington surviving by pure luck. It was a measure of fortune which had not extended to Captain Sterns.

The veteran officer, a survivor of some of the worst battles of the Dilgar war, a man who had exchanged fire with Deathwalker was killed instantly when a bulkhead imploded, driving debris through the ship like a battering ram. It had put Sheridan in command whether he liked it or not, and Carroll had become his de facto first officer.

The destruction of the Black Star had been half the victory, the stately ship drawn into a ring of nuclear weapons that blasted the ship, triggering a critical failure deep in its hull that immolated the flagship from the inside out. However the small squadron of vessels that answered the Lexington's distress call picked up several more Minbari ships waiting in hyperspace, detecting their transmissions as they tried to raise their fallen comrade. Sheridan guessed that when they didn't get an answer they would eventually jump in at the same co-ordinates to look for the Black Star, and when they did they were going to be in for a big surprise.

Using the missiles on the rescue ships Sheridan repeated the trick, deploying dozens of nuclear weapons of various sizes in and around the Black Stars initial jump point, seeding the asteroids, the wrecks, even pieces of the Black Star itself. Sure enough after a day of waiting the Minbari warships jumped in exactly where predicted, arriving right into a pre planned kill zone with no warning or preparation. It was a massacre, coming out of hyperspace the Sharlin's were sensor blind and their jump engines were operating at full power, a volatile combination that was easily destabilised by the wave of nuclear blasts. One of the ships made it out, venting air and plasma as it turned and ran, the human ships not quick enough to hunt it down.

It was a clear victory, the one time the Minbari had lost more tonnage in a battle than Earth Force, even though the EA had still bled for it. Sheridan became a hero, his name and deed broadcast galaxy wide and of course picked up by the Minbari. They regarded him with a level of hatred surpassed only by the Shadows themselves, and it became a stated war aim of the Warrior Caste to bring him death. Sheridan was flattered.

After a couple of extremely covert missions Sheridan found himself back on the Lexington, his quick witted thinking and resourcefulness had given him a role in General Lefcourt's Long Range Raiding Group. When it became obvious stand up fights were a terrible idea Earth Force had begun adopting Guerrilla tactics on a starship scale, deploying small groups of raiders behind enemy lines to raid supplies, hit convoys, basically do whatever they could to slow the advance and buy Earth some time to create a viable defensive strategy. The ships chosen for the mission were the best, the most independently minded and creative who could operate far from home without orders for months at a time, in the case of Captain Jack Maynard that deployment was 18 months and counting with no sign he'd be back anytime soon.

The men and women chosen for these missions would have been commanding Explorer ships in peacetime and during the course of the war had discovered many new worlds that would never make it onto the official star maps. Some were turned into bases to support the raiders, others were mined for valuable materials, and one deep beyond human space was being prepared as Eden, the final hidden refuge of humanity if the war should reach Earth and destroy the cradle of man kind.

Sheridan had been a wise choice and had constantly out foxed the Minbari, further enhancing the utter hatred felt by most of the Warrior Caste. They viewed these raids as without honour and had a hard time adapting to match them, the concept of Guerrilla war utterly alien to their sensibilities. If they considered him a nuisance before that estimation increased vastly when Sheridan teamed up with Captain William Hague, the other hero of the Long Range Raiders.

Together the two officers had formulated new strategies, enacted a massively complex deception campaign designed to keep the Minbari constantly looking over their shoulders, and on several occasions had actually penetrated Minbari space itself and knocked out a handful of bases within their borders. The sheer level of rage those missions had caused was hard to fully estimate, but it amused Sheridan and his crew no end. He figured the Minbari hated his guts anyway, so anything else he did to annoy them was just a bonus and he went out of his way to let the Minbari know exactly who it was that ran rings around them. He had even gone so far as to leave a calling card, a beacon painted with a Tiger chewing up an image of the Black Star. It had the desired effect.

The Raiders, or as they were better known among themselves 'Bill's Marauders' were fighting their own war with the Minbari largely separate from the formal command structure. The dozen ships of the group had their own bond of comradeship, their own customs and traditions, their own awards, even their own slang and jargon. They were utterly loyal to one another and devoted to defending and embodying the greater qualities of Earth. They had taken enormous risks on a nearly daily basis and knew they were the closest thing to a success Earth Force had. In terms of pure materiel contributions their operations had only a slight affect on the course of the war, but in terms of morale, both human and Minbari, their contribution had a significant effect one way or another.

"All told sir," Commander Carroll remarked conversationally. "I'd rather have our job than the Danube's."

Sheridan smiled. "Yeah, poor old Mackie, I bet he's freezing his ass off on that tin can."

"A whole month squeezed into just a dozen rooms. Must have been like the early Mars missions."

"Must have been." The Commanding officer agreed. "And just as daring."

"I assume sir you noticed the crew roster on the Danube?" Carroll broached the subject carefully.

"If you're referring to Lieutenant Lockley, then yeah, I noticed." Sheridan answered plainly. "That was a few years ago now Justin."

"Yes sir, no implication." The officer replied quickly. "Just good to see we brought that ship home in one piece."

Sheridan nodded. "Yeah, yeah that is a damn good bit of news."

His relationship with Elizabeth Lockley had not been the smartest move of his life, but like pretty much everything else he had done it had seemed like a good idea at the time. He could still recall the look of utter horror on his parents faces when he informed them he had been married. In Vegas. By Elvis. While just a little bit completely drunk.

He had affection for Lockley, and he sure as hell respected her as a forthright officer with absolutely no sense of fear. She'd tasted the worst life had to offer and after that there was nothing left that would scare her. It made her a brave soldier and fearless leader, but it also made her almost impossible to live with, especially when Sheridan's personality tended to clash with hers in a series of blazing rows that could have melted lead.

While both of them were in the same fleet he hadn't met her, indeed he'd gone well out of his way to avoid crossing paths with his old flame, the end of their brief marriage still quite an open wound to them both. Sheridan had moved on, meeting a bright young biologist on Mars during his first operational deployment on the Moon-Mars run. Lockley, as far as he could tell, had not and was just as much of a spitfire as before.

But she was also alive, and that made Sheridan a happy man, even if he didn't strictly speaking want to have a reunion, one that would almost certainly cost him parts of his anatomy that could not be replaced.

"Well one thing is for sure." Sheridan beamed. "There are going to be some very angry boneheads out there tonight."