End of Worlds

Chapter 1

Pilot's Quarters

TCS Absolution

Granita System

Lieutenant Colonel Brenell Zollern, head of Absolution's security, stood over the corpse of one Lieutenant Edgar Mainz. Cause of death was fairly clear. The stench of charred flesh and bone has yet to be filtered out of the quarters by the ship's life-support. It was a smell that brought back many memories, none of them good. The thirty-one year old Marine was veteran of several ground pounding engagements before the wound he received from a nasty slap by a Kilrathi soldier in the trenches of Repleetah. After rehab, he transferred to fleet security. He had enough of the trenches, and by the time hit vat-grown left eye had been fully accepted by his body, most of the men under his command on that Godforsaken planet were already transferred off, or dead. Which was just as well, Zollern had enough of up close and personal with the Cats.

He glanced over at Lieutenant Commander Mirat, one of the ship's doctors. She was a fair lass, if he did say so himself, a petite blonde with the face of an angel. Reminded him of his own daughter, though she was only three years of age. Since Ellie died while she was visiting her parents on Sirius Prime, during that damnable "truce", Zollern had not much time for women. He suppose he should thank God for minor miracles, as the Catholic chaplain of his old T.C.M.C. outfit would say, that Serena was left with his parents back in the Luyten System. Otherwise she too would be a rotting corpse under the shine of Sirius.

After the bio-attack on Epsilon Prima ten days ago, along with the subsequent evacuation of the Absolution task force to the Granita System, it was not a wonder that more suicides had occurred. He has seen enough of this as well back on Repleetah. Some Marines just could not handle the day upon day, month upon month of death. He briefly touched the three scared gouges across his left cheek bone. That planet cost him an eye, and cost many of his men a great deal more. If not for his own wound, he might have died with the rest of them on that planet, be it by the Cats or his own hand, he could not say.

"What's the verdict, doctor?" he said, his slightly Germanic accent raising its head again. Since he joined the Corps, and spent so much time around all these English speakers, his own accent was slowly fading from Luytener Deutsche.

"He's dead," she said as a-matter-of-factly. Zollern knew for a fact she did not require a fancy full-body scanner to tell that. The fact that part of his head was missing was sort of a giveaway.

Zollern scowled. "No kidding."

Mirat glanced over her shoulder at him, shooting him a look of reproach. "Suicide; self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. It was a pulse weapon, but you would know more about weapons than I." Mirat was not fond of war– who was?– but she was of the impression that Marines were a little bit on the death-hungry side.

Zollern could not admit to innocence to that, at least back when he first signed on. Kicking the Cats out of the Enigma Sector cost the lives of a majority of his graduating class; out of fifteen graduates of the Luyten Academy that enlisted that week, only Zollern and two others were still breathing. They were all lolly-ho about the war, at least until all of them ended up as replacement officers in Repleetah.

"I need details, Commander," Zollern told her. He felt no particular reason to explain his actions to anyone, but with a dozen other items on his daily agenda, he wanted to wrap this investigation up. "I have a report to write up, and Captain Powers is a bigger stickler for the regs than even me."

This time Mirat did not even bother looking at him. "Self-inflicted shot to head from a pulse pistol. Judging by the coolness of the wound, I'd say his time of death was less than an hour ago. That would have been just before he was scheduled to go back on patrol, I assume." Mirat knew little about the operations of Old Abby's fighter compliment, a squadron of Epees. Zollern knew the schedule; after all, the wing commander was the one who reported Mainz missing. It was a silly report, as far as Zollern was concerned. Missing? Just where on this ship was he suppose to go?

As always, he took the direct approach and headed to the pilot's quarters, assuming the W.C. overlooked the Obvious. Sure enough, he was there, dead on the floor. After that, Zollern summoned medical personnel, and informed the captain. Powers was none too pleased. "Can you certify suicide?" This time Mirat looked back at him, questions in her face. "I've already scanned the pistol; only Mainz's fingerprints were on it. I need one of the medical personnel to certify it before I commit it to paper."

Mirat gave a most unladylike snort. "Are you suggesting somebody killed him?"

Zollern shrugged. "I wouldn't be much of a security chief if I ever discounted the idea."

Mirat shook her head. "No, this man was a suicide, count on it."

Zollern said nothing. The captain was not one for counting on anything short of solid evidence. He was already angry over the loss of a second pilot in a week. The previous one was a Lieutenant Hatford, and she was K.I.A. while the task force was "evacuating" the Epsilon System. Evacuating my foot, Zollern had thought. The Cats just pasted Epsilon Prima with the Life-Eater and the Commodore of this little flotilla decided to escape before one of the locals brought the disease on board. They were running, no two ways about it.

"What do you know of Mainz?" Zollern asked. "Aside form his medical record?" Zollern knew nothing about the pilots defending this old battleship, save what was on their files. They all kept their noses clean, and as a ground pounder, he had little desire to mingle with those hot shots. Still, it could have been worse. The last pilot to die took her fighter with her. At least Mainz did not take his Epee with him. Zollern had known of more than one pilot to go out in blaze of glory.

"No," Mirat admitted. "I've never spoken with him outside of sickbay. Here's a thought; you could go ask his fellow pilots." She said with a heavy dose of sarcasm.

Zollern had no immediate comeback, snappy or otherwise. Instead, he turned to leave the quarters. "If you find anything out of the ordinary, do let me know," he said, leaving the room without waiting for her to have the last word.

Flight Deck

TCS Absolution

On one of his rare visits to the ships flight deck, Zollern had yet another opportunity to see just how far moral had plummeted this year. Rock bottom would be an improvement. Despite the stiff upper lip command officers give, as well as the propaganda spewing from the media, everybody knew in their bones that the Cats were winning. Most did not even expect to live to see 2670. If he thought walking to the flight deck was depressing, and it was, the corridors of Abby were in far better keep than the deck.

In the corridors, here and there panels were missing from the ceiling, and the floor was seriously scuffed. The flight deck made the mess out there look tidy. Zollern was one for the regs, so much so that his Marine uniform was the very model of perfection on his body, at least in this grunt's oh-so humble opinion. The fighter techs did not even try to look spit-and-polish. All of them wore baggy overalls, and none were clean. The newest one looks like it had not seen the inside of a laundromat in over a year. Given the status of the ship's washers, it was hardly a surprise. Maintenance labeled those machine luxuries, and treated them as such.

There was little order on the flight deck. Crates of tools were left untended wherever the last user decided to drop them. The floor with caked with dried out coolant, and the walls had more than one scorch mark upon them. Several panels were missing off the ceiling, the durasteel plating being cannibalized to patch up holes in the fighters' armor. Wiring hang down from the ceiling, and though it was a good ten meters clearance on the deck, it was still a safety hazard. He sometimes wondered if maintenance slipped because the Absolution happens to be going of seventy years old. The ship's birthday party was coming up, and though seventy should be call for celebration, he doubted even this annual celebration would break the fog of glume flowing through the halls.

Even the fighters were not clearly organized. Nine of them sat, in no particular order, across the whole flight deck. Only four were pushed into their berth, against the wall and out of the way. Part of a tenth– or rather eleventh, since one of the working fighters was shipped over a few weeks ago– sat against the back of the deck, completely in pieces. That fighter was damaged during the retreat, and lack of supplies meant anything useful would be stripped and used as spare parts.

Zollern sought out the late Mainz's technician, which was not that hard to do within this chaotic stew of sights, sounds and smells. Flight Technician Mrah'kar nar Redstone was one of two Kilrathi serving on board the Absolution, and both were from the city of Redstone. Their records told the whole story; two refugee Prides in Redstone in the Ella System merged and took the city's name as their Pride's name. Mrah'kar was the junior of the two Kilrathi, about twelve years of age. Her Pride lived within the Confederation long since before she was born, and her generation knew nothing of life within the Empire, save what their mothers and aunts told them.

Since the two original Prides were full of fighter technicians, it was only natural that Mrah'Kar would follow in their footsteps. The Army, and his own beloved Marine Corps, refused to take Confederation Cats into their services, for a number of reasons. Friendly-fire was the most often sited, and Zollern agreed. Combat drones were not very smart, and tended to attack all Kilrathi they saw. After thousands of years, one would have expected humanity to have finally developed a descent A.I.

Mrah'kar spotted Zollern approach her, and bowed to the Chief of Security. "What brings you down here, Lieutenant Colonel?" she asked, her voice thick with a purring accent.

As Zollern had extensive records on the Cats, and kept constant track on both the Kilrathi techs, both Cats knew him well. Every time he saw either of the Cats, his mind went back to his left eye, his original one that was left behind on Repleetah that is to say. He was lucky then, to get off with only deep scars. Had the Kilrathi he fought that day had better reach, he would have taken off Zollern's head. Despite all the Cats had done to him, and the rest of humanity, Zollern did not hold it against these Cats. He rather liked these Kilrathi; unlike his own species, they never talked back to superior officers.

Mrah'kar was as tall as any male, that being almost a full meter taller than Zollern, though he was far from being a tall human. They did, however, lack the sheer bulk of a Kilrathi warrior. Not to mention the main. Mrah'kar looked for all intent purposes like a lioness standing upright and wearing a Confed technician's jumpsuit. She was quite an asset in a pinch; her brute strength a great asset when taking apart a busted up Epee. As it was for lifting fuel cells for the fighter's pulse weapons, as she was single-handedly doing when Zollern approached.

"You worked on Lieutenant Mainz's fighter," Zollern stated it more than asked, for both already knew the answer.

"I do," Mrah'kar replied with a bit of pride. She took great pride in her work, and ability to fix anything with the right parts. Sometimes, even without them. "The good lieutenant is most overdo for his flight. You know where he is?" She phrase the statement as a question, though she had already deduced he must, for why else would Zollern bother to come down to the flight deck.

"Don't wait up for him," Zollern told her. "He's dead."

Mrah'kar displayed no obvious shock, but then again, Zollern always had a difficult time reading their faces. "Dead? How? He was quite strong and healthy yesterday." Her voice did display shock, that much Zollern could detect.

Zollern shook his head. "Come now, you know I can't say." Though no doubt the rumor mill will inform anybody and everybody on board Abby within two days. Keeping it under wraps was all but impossible, but just because something was impossible did not mean he would be the one to break regulations.

Mrah'kar cocked her head. "I thank you for informing me. It saddens me to see another fit comrade's life snuffed out pointlessly– but you did not come down just to tell me."

Zollern never let their cat-like features fool him into believing they were dumb animals. Doing so on the ground was a fast way to get killed by them. As the D.I. back in Basic pounded into his, and everyone else's head, never, ever take one's opponent lightly. Mrah'kar was quick witted, and knew a human never did something without a reason– even if the reason made no sense to her Kilrathi mind.

"His filed is limited, I need to know more about the man. You're his tech, I'm sure you knew him better than security ever did," Zollern told her. "I need to know what sort of man he was."

Mrah'kar tapped a claw to her chin. "You expect fowl play." She said without hesitation.

Zollern frowned. "You know that I am not at liberty to discuss any investigation."

The tech continued, as if she had not even mentioned fowl play. "The lieutenant loved to fly. He was never late for a mission, and never failed his comrades or ship." She continued to describe how brave and noble a warrior he was, the typical rambling he would have expected from a "We Regret to Inform You" letter. Nothing that really explained why he would have cauterized his own brain. "He was always a cheerful one, even in the face of impossible odds. At least up until the previous week; since then he has been acting more distant than usual– like he was seeking answers."

Changes in attitude always peaked Zollern's curiosity when investigating personnel. "When exactly did you notice the change?"

Mrah'kar purred a Kilrathi sigh. "It was during the evacuation of the Epsilon System. Lieutenant Spears was killed during the action, and Lieutenant Mainz had not been the same since. They were close, mates perhaps, but certainly inseparable."

Zollern buried his face into his left palm. Gods, not another one of these. He had to deal with more than one lost-love suicides when working security onboard the Mackinac. At least when Mainz's grief overwhelmed him, he was not in the cockpit– and that was the only good thing Zollern could think of. The pilot suicides on board Mackinac all ended with the pilot's fighters being destroyed as well, usually on some bone-headed blaze of glory. He served on that carrier up until the False Peace, took a few weeks leave when she was put into docks for overhaul, and ended up on Absolution when its former Security Chief decided to retire. He retired for keeps, shortly after returning to his home on New Warsaw.

"Are you feeling well, sir?" The Kilrathi paused from her oration upon noticing Zollern's sudden change. "A pain of the head?"

"In a matter of speaking," Zollern replied, though head was not where the exact pain resided. He was going to have to write up a report for Captain Powers, explaining that one of his pilots killed himself over a lost love. Zollern sighed in exasperation. At least it would not be as bad as the wing commander's job. He would have to write the next of kin, telling how bravely Mainz died and that they should be proud of him. Yeah, right. He bravely put the business end of a pistol to his head and proudly pulled the trigger. Another damned young fool, in Zollern's opinion.

"Thank you, Mrah'kar, I believe you have answered my question," he said, to which the technician gave a slight bow and returned to working on the Epee. Zollern slowly turned away from the Cat; after years on the line, he could never turn his back to a Cat, even one he trusted. He had far more to worry about at the moment that a technician leaping on his back. The Captain would shortly take that role. He would not be pleased by Zollern's report. Then again, he never known anything that pleased Powers.

Conference Hall

TCS Absolution

Zollern filed his fourth suicide report since the task force left Epsilon, and as he predicted, the Captain was not pleased. Captain Powers always wore a mask of perpetually being pissed off. The man never laughed, never cracked a smile. If he did not know combat drones better, he would have sworn Powers was a machine. No, the machinery on board Abby has far more personality that its captain.

After he finished up his daily reports, the ones that did not involve crewmembers blowing out half their skull, he decided to pay a stop at the ship's conference hall. Decades ago, this ship was once worthy of an admiral and all his staff. The conference room was a hall some fifty meters long and ten meters wide, and looked more like something that belonged in one of those seaside hotels in Vespus that something belonging on a warship. Gone were those days, as with the walls that once formed offices, cubicles and state rooms.

Absolution's hall was converted over to one giant recreation center, a galley, lounge and the whole works rolled up into a chamber in the middle of the ship. View screens lined the wall, giving clear views of space around the ship, as if the hall hung from the belly of the ship. Designed to house flag personnel, the hall was naturally buried deep inside the ship, past several bulkheads and a meter's worth of durasteel.

Stepping into the hall, Zollern was not expecting much activity. There seldom was anymore, not when the ship's atmosphere was thick with despair. He had four dead crewmen in the morgue to account for just how hopeless life has become for the good guys. There was a bit of buzz in the hall, and most of the off-duty crew was crowed inside. Zollern looked up from the double doors that were locked open, and managed a crooked smile. 'Happy 70th Birthday Abby' the banner read. He briefly wondered if the ship's cooks scrounged up seventy candles for the birthday cake. He wanted to laugh out loud; by all rights, Abby should have been decommissioned back when he was a toddler.

He recognized a few of the crewmembers mingling. The two Kilrathi were easy enough to spot, standing head and shoulders above the tallest human. The females were far more at ease than male Kilrathi could ever be in a crowd. He spotted the ship's wing commander in a corner, along with a few of the ship's pilots. The pilots he did not know, and would have to call up their records to even get their names.

The party, if one could call this such, was a restrained affair. Captain Powers outright banned all alcohol on the ship even before Epsilon was pasted. A wise move; Zollern did not think booze and depression were a good mix, and Confed could not afford an epidemic of alcoholism on any of its ships, even one as rusty as Absolution. Without heavy drinks, the party was indeed a sober affair. Even with it– it would be difficult to celebrate when the constant threat of extinction stared you in the face.

One surprise in the crowd was Commodore Harris himself. He stood, surrounded by some of Abby's senior officers, and a few unfamiliar faces. Most likely his own staff. The fact that they and Harris were onboard irked Zollern. Anytime that anybody comes on board, security should be kept informed. Zollern stocked off to a quiet corner of the room, out of earshot of the nearest person. He tapped the radio built into a cufflink upon his right sleeve. In an instant, a soft voice reverberated from his ear piece.

"Security," called the voice. It sounded like Captain Sanders, T.C.M.C. It had better be, for she was scheduled for this watch.

"Zollern here," the chief said, using his Marine discipline to keep the anger from his voice. "Are you aware Commodore Harris is on board."

He waited only a second for Sanders to reply. "Yes sir, he came on board over an hour ago."

"Don't you think I should have been informed?" he snapped, keeping his voice down. Morale was already rock bottom without the Head of Security balling out a subordinate in front of the crew.

"Uh, yes sir," She quickly added. "Sorry sir."

"Sorry?" Zollern snorted. "Captain, what was I suppose to say if he surprised me? That the Absolution's chief wasn't even aware he was on board. 'Oh what an unexpected surprise'," the last bit he doused with sarcasm. "I need to keep on top of all things, at all times. You're making me look bad, Captain."

"Sorry sir, it won't happen again," Sanders assured him.

Zollern scowled. "If it does, I'll see to it you're flying cargo ships to the grunts on the frontline of some heavily fortified planet." He did not even bother waiting for a response before cutting the connection. He knew the war was going bad when Marines no longer cared about doing their jobs right. Just because the Kilrathi might come busting out of the depths of space at any moment to extinguish their sparks from the universe forever was no excuse for this lapse in discipline. Or sloppy work.

Already here more than an hour, and mingling. That must mean he already gave his little pep-talk, about how valuable the ship and crew were to the Confederation, and how victory over the Cats was inevitable, for anything less was unacceptable. Valuable ship, huh? So that must be why Harris chose the newer Ceres-class cruiser, Gemini as his flag ship, despite the fact that Abby was designed for such a role. Of course, the more modern ship had almost the same firepower as the older one, plus flight deck room for twice as many fighters, up to and including Sabers or Thunderbolts.

Zollern suppose he could not blame the Commodore, with all that luxury onboard the TCS Gemini, and silk-lined halls could not compete with modern and functional communication equipment. At a sudden thought, he glanced around the hall, searching for the captains of the other ships. Or at least the skipper of the destroyer Monrovia; he knew for a fact that the Kaitan's Captain would not be here. He had a personal feud with Powers. Nothing like boosting morale when two of the task force's captains were enemies.

"Can I get a drink for you, Colonel?" asked one of the ship's communication officers, who was doubling as a waiter in this event.

Ensign Walt Vickers was just out of the academy on Earth, quite literally its last graduating class. He received his commission during the False Peace and was assigned to Absolution only a couple of months before Recife, as well as a couple dozen other cities on Earth, abruptly ceased to exist. He was a tall man of twenty-two years, his regulation haircut a pitch black, only a few shades darker than his skin. He spoke with a clear Brazilian accent, indication that Dutch must be his first language. That was alright, for most of the fleet's naval officers knew both Dutch and English, the later the official language of the fleet, and the former the common language of commerce.

Despite having his home blown away, and standing on the edge of human extinction, Vickers still kept an upbeat attitude. Sometimes it galled Zollern. "After the week I've had, I doubt you have the right medicine."

Vickers shook his head. "You'll have to speak to the Captain about that, sir."

"To answer your question, Ensign, no. I was just stopping by to gage the mood of the crew," Zollern explained. "I still have my own work to attend to."

Vickers frowned, and almost forgot himself. "Well, hell, Colonel, take a day off and enjoy the party."

Zollern let out a 'hmph' in displeasure. "Party? I've heard that old crypts upon the homeworld are more lively than this."

Vickers frowned, though if it was because Zollern spoke the truth, or he was thinking of his own planet in ruins, and the hundred million extra Terrans added to the war's death toll, the Colonel could not tell. "It was quite different last year, sir. I remember it well, for it was just a couple of days after I was assigned on Abby. With the cease fire and all, the crew thought it would be the last birthday for the old girl, who would finally be decommed. The XO was circulating a petition to get her saved from the wrecking yard as a museum ship. Not that everybody bought that line from Jukaga; the pilots were rather pissed that they were getting their wings clipped."

At that instant, Zollern thought about asking Vickers about the two dead pilots, and their relationship, but dismissed it in the same instant. No, he would not bring work in here, not today. He would let the crew have their celebration. For all he, or anyone knew, it might very well be the last one they have. Gods, who would have ever thought the story of Man would end like this.

"Thank you, Ensign," he said, cutting off the communication officer from his rambling speech. He should have gone into politics, not the fleet. "I hope this party raises morale." Which itself should not be difficult, with morale already as low as a sleeping prairie dog. More over, he hoped to not have to deal with another suicide for the rest of this week. If it keeps up, in a year, the Kilrathi navy would be out of a job.

"Leaving so soon?" Vickers asked. "Come on, Colonel, join the fun."

"Another time," Zollern said, trying his best to be diplomatic. Who knows, maybe some other time he would try to enjoy himself, but not today. "My work won't finish itself."