Author: toadie
Rating: R
Summary: John Crichton is not the man he thinks he is.
Notes Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’
- Friedrich Nietzsche 1886
Archiving: Please contact the author for permission.
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Black & White

Part 17    

Fireballs erupted in the alien's formation as the first missiles of the Imperial fleet tore home. Fighters had been launched and were throwing themselves in apparent reckless abandon at the attacking ships, twisting and turning to avoid destruction as they tried to get close enough to launch their smaller short-range missiles into the enemy's poorly defended rear. Unfortunately, the only way to the enemy's rear was through the body of the attacking ships. They died by the dozen as entire fighter units were blotted out with nuclear fire. But the remainder kept going, and now it was their turn.

They ignored the smaller ships, electing not to waste missiles against them.  The wave of fighter-launched missiles was sufficient to punch through even the densest of point defense, without ever entering energy weapon range, but John felt a cold sense of foreboding as he watched the plot. The smaller ships, destroyers and even light cruisers didn’t break off their attack runs to turn and offer aid to their larger companions as he thought they would. Instead they spent themselves viciously, ignoring the missiles hammering into them to bear down on the carriers. The carriers turned to flee, hiding behind the defensive fire of their escorts, but the aliens were determined to succeed at any cost. John watched in horror as first one, then a second, then a third carrier were destroyed. Entire flotillas of attacking ships were destroyed but it only took one to survive long enough to ram. These were tactic of desperation, but why? They held the advantage. Winkler had underestimated them despite all of John’s warnings and was now paying dearly. His arrogance had cost him his own life plus the lives of the countless billions on the planet and the thousands of Imperial Navy personnel who were now dying in an unwinnable battle.

Without their own fighters to combat the attacking Imperial ones, obviously the aliens commander had decided to spend ships like a wastrel, to take them out of the equation. For no matter how many fighters were killed, there deaths were cheap against their success in destroying larger more capable craft, with crews of thousands rather than the two man crews of a fighter.

The surviving fighters' courses towards their remaining motherships took them directly into the remaining flotillas of destroyers, armed only with their internal lasers. There was little the fighters could do to harm the ships but that didn't stop them from trying. They realized with so many ships destroyed that a good portion of them were dead anyway. Too many fighters and too few launch-bays to receive them. Perhaps they hoped the attacking destroyers, feeling the added pressure of the wave of fighters bearing down upon them, would turn to face the battle and let the surviving carriers make good their escape. If so, they were wrong, and John clenched his teeth as the faster fighters attacked. They dove down on the destroyers raking their shields with fire, then wheeled once more and turned back. This time clouds of missiles erupted into his fighters' formations, and this time the long-range losses were completely one-sided, for there were no answering Imperial missiles. But they were only one-sided for the time it took the vengeful human pilots to close once more with the ships, minnows to their bulk, the fighter might have been but a smarter missile had never been invented. The pilots slammed their fighters into the destroyers by the score, embracing the aliens' tactics as their own, all in a bid to gain both revenge and allow as many of their compatriots to survive long enough to be recovered and rearmed.

John stood, hands locked tight against the rail in front of him as losses mounted, carriers, fighter, destroyers, battle cruisers and battleships all were dying but not before taking their measure from the alien ships. A sidebar on the plot gave the losses so far, and he felt a spasm of pain as he absorbed them. Only five carriers out of the twelve had been destroyed, but four hundred of the eleven hundred plus fighters were dead. The aliens had lost hard also, eight battle cruisers had succumbed to the fighters, and each of them carried much larger crews than the fighters, but that didn’t make him feel the loss any less. Every one of those lives had been spent due to his actions. Their blood on his hands even more so than on those of the aliens who had killed them. There was no such thing as an "acceptable rate of exchange" against these beings… and they had lost almost a quarter of the Fleet's fighter strength in killing them.

He watched as small clusters of icons gathered around the larger ones signifying the carriers. For all the sacrifices made by their escorts and fellow pilots to ensure that as many as possible would survive John knew that some of those pilots were as good as dead as they waited for recovery, watching as their life support ran out. The worst was that they must know it already, they were all in exactly the same boat, having launched at almost exactly the same moment. And still they waited their turn like the professionals they were.

John felt as if someone had kicked him in the belly. He sensed the same shocked horror rippling through all the officers and ratings on Flag Bridge, and there was nothing he could do about it. He was as much a spectator as they were, staring at the plot. The information on it was minutes old, the events it showed already over and done, but it didn't feel that way, and his face clenched with pain as he watched a third of the fighter strength be wiped away in mere seconds.

#

The fleets met, ship after ship exploded, suffered a violent death. John’s vessels kept out of it, having neither the maneuvering ability nor firepower to exploit their position to the rear of the invading fleet. All they could do was watch. Soon it became evident that the aliens with their larger fleet were going to be the victors. It might take hours but in the end they would be the ones left standing in this all or nothing battle. There could be no retreat or mercy here.

Space was ugly with butchery as the aliens' destroyers led the attack into the heart of the Imperial Fleet. It was almost impossible to defend against an enemy that was willing to die as long as he achieved his goal. The Imperial Fleet was forced to retreat further and further from earth just to simply maintain some semblance of order. Only the newly rearmed fighters were allowing the Fleet to hold its own against the wave of attackers, as they swooped in and caused as much damage as they could on the suicide ships before they even got into range of their targets' missiles. But it was slowly winnowing down the strength of the fighters, diluting the Imperial Fleets' overall defensive power. But it was working, for now at least.

John had gambled Earth and lost. He had expected some ships to follow him, perhaps even to repeat the maneuver a few times, weaken the alien fleet before the climatic battle. Instead here he was, witnessing the fall of an empire and the death of a planet, all through his offices. What made it worse was the absence of the Republican Fleet, the integral part of his plan. They would have given humanity the edge in numbers allowing the combined fleets to wipe the floor with these aliens, as weakened as they were after fighting with the defense station and the Imperial Fleet. Instead the defense grid was as good as gone, the sporadic fire it did emit of no consequence.

John glanced at a secondary plot showing the Defense grid as it finally succumbed to gravity and friction and tumbled into Earth atmosphere. It seemed to explode into flame, birthing massive balls of fire to rain down on the already ravaged world. Humanity's greatest-ever construct was gone, not even ruins left behind for future generations to gawk at. John closed his eyes as the symbolism hit him. Just as the station died in flame so would all humanity and there was nothing he could do about it. This was his one chance, his desperate gamble and he had lost.

Aeryn could feel the death of hope around her and she turned to John to see what he would do about it, but he sat stolid and silent as the rest. His eyes were closed and pain seemed to radiate from him in waves so intense they were palpable. All hope seemed to have been drained out of John and the others witnessing the battle. It was at an end, all hope gone. And there was nothing she could do to convince them otherwise. Or herself.

***

The first alien starship blew up with no warning at all.

A Destroyer on the flank of the alien's formation had never even realized its killer was there. Its sensors had been locked upon the Imperial Fleet and it had never occurred to the beings that crewed the destroyer that there might be anyone else to worry about. And because it hadn't occurred to them, they were taken fatally by surprise as the missile salvo erupted out of the blind spot created by the sensor interference of its own drive field. There were no point defense counter missiles, no fire from close-in laser defenses, and the lethal salvo smashed home like so many hammers of nuclear and antimatter fury.

The destroyer's shields did their best, but the sheer savagery of the attack was scarcely even blunted, and the entire ship vanished in a sun-bright bubble of fire.

That was the first ship to die; it wasn't the last. The other salvos, which had accompanied the one that killed it, began to arrive almost in the same instant, and ship-killing blasts of fury marched through the alien formation like the boots of some demented war god. A second destroyer, a third and then the killing spasms of flame came for the Battleships and battle cruisers as well. They were larger, easier but far tougher targets, with shielding and armor that far surpassed that which protected their smaller consorts, and like those other ship, they'd never even guessed that any danger might lurk behind them. Multiple hits were needed to kill any one of them, and the hits came not in simple multiples, but in dozens. Shattered and vaporized hulls, clouds of plasma littered with the splintered fragments of battleships…

#

Second of Command sat stunned even as O’a’lack raged about the bridge, hitting and smashing equipment. These new ships came into their rear, seemingly from nowhere. All attention had been focused on the immediate threat before them; all sensors focused there. He cursed himself for allowing this to happen but he cursed O’a’lack for bringing this about.

As he watched, unable to get O’a’lack to issue the necessary orders, the fleet reeled under the devastating impact of the totally unanticipated carnage. For a handful of minutes, even the boulderlike discipline that had sent attack force after attack force of alien battleships unwaveringly into the teeth of the Imperials' most furious firepower wavered. The sheer surprise of their losses, far more than their scale, grievous though they were, stunned them, and separate squadrons reacted as separate squadrons, not the interchangeable units of the finely honed machine their enemies were accustomed to facing. Some of them, in the absence of any order to the contrary, continued to close in on the remnants of the Imperial Fleet, even as successive waves of missiles sliced into them from astern. Other squadrons of battle cruisers turned abruptly to charge towards the source of that fire.

The fire screaming down upon them no longer took even those who continued closing upon the Imperial Fleet completely unawares. Their command link installations had taken charge of their point defense systems, concentrating counter missiles and laser fire alike upon as many of the incoming missiles which could be seen by any of the units forming that group. Some of those missiles still got through, of course. A few of them could not be seen by any member of the battle groups and remained untargeted by the defenses, and the uncaring laws of statistics said that even some of those which could be seen would evade all fire directed upon them. But the defensive systems managed to sharply reduce the number of warheads getting through to their targets, and whoever had suddenly attacked them found himself forced to concentrate his fire upon the hostile warships suddenly charging straight towards him.

Second of command could only feel pride at the way his ships were performing even with a mad man in charge, perhaps even better without him in charge though. He watched as O’a’lack continued his panic fueled rage around the bridge and came to a decision. Enough was enough.

***

"All right, people," Commander Brian Letham, CO of Fighter Squadron Forty-seven, operating off of the Republican Navy Carrier Reprisal, said. "Don't get carried away, we’re kicking their asses now but only because we got the jump on them.  The Imps have been hit hard and won’t be able to offer much more than covering fire. So I want a tight formation maintained and all standard tactical doctrines observed.”

With those words Fighter Squadron Forty-seven of the Republican Navy Fleet under the command of Commodore Scott Gemmell rocketed into space. Lieutenant Slavia Irvine facing, for the first time, true combat.

"Attention Alpha-Zulu-Seven!" The sharp voice in her earphones that snapped her back to the present belonged to Captain Barbara Shields, the task force fighter group commander…

"Alpha-Zulu-Seven, execute Omega!" Shields's voice snapped now. "I say again, Execute Omega!"

"Follow me in!" Commander Brain Letham, barked like a bass echo of Shields's soprano voice of doom, and the entire squadron formed up behind him sliding into their allotted positions, and hit their drives. No more instruction was needed, now it was do or die. They all knew the targets they'd been assigned, and they all knew the standing orders to hit "targets of opportunity," meaning no haring off on their own.

The squadron followed Letham in, and presently Slavia heard an electronic beep indicating that her target was now on her scope. The defensive fire was sporadic, but lethal, ship killer missiles turned into fused proximity SAMs. Entire squadrons were blotted out by nuclear fire before they even got close enough to fire their missiles. She cursed as a near miss scrambled her electronics for a second, forcing her to lose her place in the formation, pushing her to the rear, the last place anyone wants to be on a attack run.

Finally the target area appeared on the HUD while missiles slashed out, tearing holes in the ranks of fighters which staggered and wove like drunkards to get their missiles into range. Slavia locked in her targeting solutions, ordering the targeting computer to lock onto her squadron's target Battleship. It then signaled her as she swept into launch range and as one her squadron launched at almost knife fighting range their missiles into the flanks of their target.

Her missiles flashed from their launcher carrying the newly developed fighter-launched anti-matter missile, giving them a much greater impact especially in a mass, time on target firing like this one.  The squadron, as one, pulled a tight one hundred and eighty-degree turn racing to get out of range of both the coming explosion and wrathful vengeance of the survivors. Her vision graying as she went to full power and sought the reuniting formation.

Behind her, antimatter was released from its nonmaterial container and met matter.  The resulting energy release was beyond the comprehension of human minds. For an instant, space was one vast, undifferentiated glare. Then as it faded, all that was left of the ship that had been at the heart of the explosion was a scattering of dust and glowing gases.

Slavia became aware that the sound she was hearing as she stared back at that, the sounds was a wild enthusiastic yell, coming not only from her comm., but from her own throat. She had survived, now all she had to do was survive again. This thought stilled most of her excitement but not it all. Her adrenaline was pumping and she was willing to do it all again even knowing the risks. Old fighter pilots were very rare dogs indeed.

"Out-fucking-standing, people!" Letham yelled. "If everybody did that well, we may not need a second strike!"

Slavia was surprised that she felt disappointed that she might not have to go and do it all again.

***

John was stunned as he watched the alien fleet withering between the fire of the two fleets. Gemmell's arrival may have been late but his timing was excellent. With the loss of the defense grid all the scanner buoys scattered around the system failed to give warning of such an arrival. His arrival thankfully was not only a surprise to him but to the aliens. The seemed to have lost the cohesiveness they displayed earlier, almost as if they were acting independently.

A call from his Comm-Tech returned his attention to the plot before him and Gemmell appeared on it. They stared at one another; both with expressions of profound shock and relief for several seconds before Gemmell ventured to interrupt the silence. “Sorry we’re late Crichton, but it took some,” he paused as if to think of the right word before carrying on, “persuasion to get the fleet moving at all. You now how politics can be.” He shrugged, trying to displace the sense of guilt he felt. He glanced away from John on his screen to the larger screen on his bridge that displayed a planet not recognizable as Earth. It looked more like a true vision of hell. It was completely covered in cloud that swirled with such speed and violence it covered entire hemispheres and was eerily lit from below by massive fires.

“You’re here now Gemmell, that’s what matters. Your timing could have been better but at least you made it.” John glanced again at the screen dominating his bridge, the image of earth, wreathed in cloud and fire, continents ablaze. He looked away from it reluctantly and stared back at Gemmell. It was obvious to the other what each was doing and why. But neither was going to broach the subject, they didn’t know how.

“Yes, sorry about that.” Gemmell's voice lacked any apology, for there could be no apology for what has happened, the scale was simply too massive for any blame to be apportioned, though both knew that it would be. Just as both knew who would ultimately be blamed. How could you apologize for something like that?

As they spoke the ships of the alien fleet that still could, entered Q-space. A reckless and almost suicidal move this close into a primary, but Crichton could understand their choice. A chance of survival against certain death was something of something, infinitely more than all of nothing.

#

“What will you do now?” Gemmell asked when John arrived on his carrier, followed by a pale and apparently thoughtful Lieutenant Aeryn Sun, his liaison officer. He would debrief her later but now, he had much to ask Crichton. He placed Aeryn into the hands of his intelligence office and escorted Crichton back to his quarters and broke out a bottle of bourbon, simply placing the open bottle and a glass in front of Crichton.

He sat there and watched as John stared at the bottle for almost five minutes ignoring the question utterly. He then reached forward and poured a full glass and slid it towards John, who jerked as if caught daydreaming and reached for and emptied the glass in one motion. He repeated this with the second and third. By the fourth he was ready to talk.

“I’ll go to the one place where I can,” he began slowly, staring into the bottom of his glass as if finding the answer there. “Back to the Uncharted Territories. Where else can I go? It is not like the Republic will let me stay, and the Imperial remnant certainly won’t welcome me with open arms.”

“How will you get back.” Gemmell asked. Not denying John's comment about the Republic. In truth he had already received orders about Crichton, to give him whatever he wanted and get rid of him as quickly as possible. He had been reluctant to do this to the man but now he saw there was a way to achieve it that made everyone happy, well, everyone but John, but at least he’d survive.

“The Devron system of course.” John smiled at him, like a boy about to share a big secret. That only served to make Gemmell nervous.

“What’s in the Devron system?” he asked with suspicion.

“One of the engineering models of the Knossos portal. Just as powerful as the full sized version but too small for a capital ship, too small for most ships in fact. But just large enough for a scout cruiser, that is, if you can get me one.” John relayed this information as if it were of no consequence. But after the battle was over the political fall out had begun. Entire systems seceded from the Imperium to join the Republic, some for protection that the Imperium could no longer offer most of it’s members, and others because they were in all but title subjugated planets. One of those had been the Devron system. Which meant that the Republic now had an example of the technology that the Imperium had used to devastating effect in its military campaigns. A tool of war that could perhaps be used to bring member worlds closer than ever conceived before. To construct a series of portals throughout the Republic, making it possible to travel in hours between member planets instead of days of weeks.

“I didn’t know that.” He said quietly, wondering just how many other surprises like this were scattered about the universe by the Imperium and just who knew of them and could make use of them.

“Not many people do, it was mothballed and hidden. Sort of an emergency back up copy should anything go disastrously wrong.” John sat back on the couch, eyes closed and body seemingly relaxed but about him seemed to be an aura of pain and alertness, like a sunbathing snake.

“How do you know about it?” Gemmell probed.

A sad smile appeared on John's face as he contemplated all the decisions that led him to this place. “I made it my business to know, Gemmell. My survival depended upon knowledge, and if I were ever to get Aeryn home I would need some means of doing it. The Devron system was my choice. Isolated and hidden with automatic defenses to which I have the codes. I could have been in and out in six hours, enough time to power up the device send her home and erase the fact I had ever been there.”

“Talking of Aeryn, are you going to take her?”

“I’ll, make the offer, it is the least I can do.” With a sigh he opened his eyes and leaned forward, carefully placing his glass on the table in front of him. “But first, I am going to pass out.” And he promptly did.

***

Second of Command stared at the scattering of symbols representing surviving ships of the Fleet of the people. He swore viciously and kicked the body of O’a’lack that still lay on the deck with a neat hole drilled through his forehead and a much messier hole in the back of it.

Second of Command had made his decision, but too late to save the situation. The fleet was shattered, worse than shattered, barely one ship in fifty survived. Never before had the people suffered such a defeat, any defeat.

He would not break tradition; he would not raise himself above his position as O’a’lack had. He had simply removed anyone between him and command of the remnant. No one would challenge him and he would lead his ships back home and he would be the one to pay for O’a’lack's madness.

But they would be back, where he would be amongst them he had no idea, but the people would be back to lay claim once more to these territories and to wipe these vermin out. Make them pay for their victory in blood. But before that could even start, he had to intercept the colony transports and let them know to turn back. Then he would answer and pay. But so would they, eventually. The People would not stand for this challenge to their power.

***

John finally tracked Aeryn down in the gym. Now that he thought about it, it should have been the first place he looked. She was confused and needed time not to think, so obviously she would be here doing a punishing workout. He stood at the side of the mat not speaking, simply waiting for her to acknowledge his presence in the room. And he waited and waited. Eventually with a sigh she turned to him. Not speaking. John took that as permission to begin to talk.

“I’m leaving.” Was all he said.

“Leaving?”

“I’m going home.” He watched as she tried to grasp the meaning behind this stateme

Aeryn found this conversation difficult. It simply made no sense to her. This entire situation made no sense to her. He wasn’t John but he also wasn’t the John she thought he was. He was some sort of amalgam of the two. She had witnessed this many times while with him on his ship. He had the same qualities that inspired loyalty in those around him but he also had a harder, more deadly edge to him. Most frightening of all, these qualities were married with sheer capability. She was certain that if he decided to do anything it would be done, one way or another.

Finally she simply had to ask. “I thought you were home.”

“No I’m not. My home hasn’t existed for a long time, if it ever did.” She watched him smile sadly and again she saw him as John. Quickly she clamped down on this feeling. She could accept him as a friend but he wasn’t John.

“But what about…?” She gestured at the people about them, blatantly listening while trying to appear not to.

“They’ll never accept me Aeryn. I’m the Butcher of Hell... or the Betrayer of Earth. I can’t fit in anywhere here now.” With a sigh he sat crossed legs on the mat and patted the space beside him. Slowly almost against her will she walked to him and sat beside him.

“So where’s home.” She asked in a quiet voice, thwarting those trying to listen in.

“The one place that I can be me again. The one place where I’ll be accepted for who I am.” He watched as she suddenly realized just where has was going both in speech and in fact.

“Moya. You’re returning to Moya! How?” Aeryn was shocked and surprised. She had given up on going home. She had a place here, but it wasn’t home.

“I have a way. Want to come?”

#

The scout cruiser exited the Knossos portal to be greeted with nothing, just the vast emptiness of space as their welcome. They could have been anywhere but for the intangible feeling of being home. John had always thought of Earth as home but that was denied to him now, even the company of other humans was out of the question, he would forever bear the mark of Cain as far as his people were concerned. So here he was, returning to the life as an outcast, a fugitive. Only this time he didn’t have the dream of home to sustain him, he had no bright path to follow, just himself, alone.

He was back, only he was different. He had Aeryn, only she was different too. All they had once built up between them had been torn down and what little they had rebuilt stood fragile and ready to fall at the slightest hurdle. But they were home now. All they had to do was follow the breadcrumb trail to Moya and perhaps they could heal together.

Unnoticed by either of them or the ship's sensors as they exited the portal was a tiny surveillance drone. It had been idle for over a cycle now, waiting until it’s sensors detected a specific phenomenon. Now it had and it went active, scanning and probing as much as it could with passive sensors gathering and collating the information as it pored in. The exit of the ship was noted and once it was well out of range the drone warmed up it’s transmitters and sent a specific microburst transmission to a hidden base deep in the territories. There the message was received with a cold smile.

“Welcome home John, I have missed you.” With that Scorpius turned on his heel and started shouting for Braca to have the Command carrier readied. Their quarry had returned.

 

Fin

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