Lieutenant Rice's console blinked. "Sir, the Esmeralda sent in a message, text only."
Captain Anderson nodded to her. "What is it?"
"Sir, in the message the Captain of the Esmeralda is simply saying thank you and Godspeed."
First Officer Williams smiled. "I think we should definitely return the gratitude. It's not every day a carrier requests half its crew be brought planetside between cargo loads."
Lieutenant Rice looked down at her screen for a split second as her fingers clattered on the console. "Done sir."
"Well then." Captain Anderson said, looking over the crew. "I think it's time." He depressed a button on the arm of his chair.
The disembodied voice of Admiral Jameson resonated throughout the bridge. "Yes Captain?"
"I think we're ready to set out Admiral."
"I'll be there shortly." The voice vanished with a crackle.
In the mess, Mathew sat. His hands were holding up his head, elbows on the tabletop. A tall glass of water, half drank, lay before him.
“You going to be alright?”
Mathew looked up, letting his hands slide across his face. “We'll see.” Mathew said, speaking through his fingertips with muffled words. “I have little hope.”
“Hah.” Juke laughed. He sat down next to Mathew with a bowl of grits. “So that's it. The punctuation of your final day in public, accentuated by the train wreck that is your hangover.”
“Please, no big words. It hurts to think.”
“Want some?” Juke offered the white porridge.
Mathew shook his head, his lip curling in disgust. “God no. What is that?”
“It's breakfast for the next year. Get used to it.”
Mathew set his head down on the table. “I don't want to.”
Juke laughed, stuffing a spoon full of the ground corn into his mouth.
The speakers in the Mess crackled. “Scipio, this is Admiral Jameson. I am pleased to tell you all that the repairs to the Scipio have been completed. We are now fully stocked and ready to depart. While we are in controlled UEE Space, patrols en-route will be at a minimum, so enjoy the next few days as we make our way to rendezvous with the rest of the Carrier Battle Group before heading to the border worlds for our first assignment. That being said, today marks the beginning of the Scipio's ninety seventh assignment. There's meaning to this. Though some men and women have stayed on from the previous assignment, this crew, is nonetheless a different crew. Let's treat her well, and have her back in top shape for her ninety eighth assignment. For the Empire.”
“Ninety seven?” Mathew asked, looking to Juke.
A voice came from behind them. “Yup.”
The two looked over their shoulders as Hawk walked toward them in the narrow space between the tables.
“This will be my third year.” He said, walking around the table to sit in front of the two. He put down a glass of orange juice. “I served on the ninety fifth, ninety sixth and now the ninety seventh tour the Scipio has taken part in.”
“What was it like?” Juke asked.
Hawk looked at him. “You know better than to ask that.”
“I know. I'm sorry. I just can't seem to help it. You're sitting here, with hours of combat experience, and all I want is to pick your brain. I need to know, before I see it for myself.”
“Nothing I can tell you will prepare you for what you're going to experience.”
“Still, it can at least give me an idea.”
Hawk sighed. He took a sip of his drink and looked at the table intently. “To be honest Juke, I couldn't explain it to you if I tried.”
Juke nodded. “I figured.”
The table went silent for a while, then Hawk looked up again, but his gaze peered into infinity. “Chaos.” he said. “Complete and utter chaos. Comms were down, IFF was disrupted. You had to actually get close to your target to identify it, lest you blow your own men into oblivion from a distance.” His eyes locked on to Juke's. “You don't get close to Vanduul. You never, get close to Vanduul. They will slice you in half.”
Juke was silent, his eyes wide; his ears wider.
“I was with the Hounds then. My flight leader had ejected, and my other wingman was killed instantly when his fighter exploded. I took heavy damage trying to protect Lieutenant Colonel Jackson before the Vanduul rammed his body, tearing him in two. I had to pull back, I had no choice. I diverted all power to engines and got the hell out of dodge when Wolf pulled in to back us up. I remember drifting into the Scipio's bay, falling to the flight deck floor like a rock once I got into her gravity influence.”
Hawk took a deep breath.
“The flight deck was on fire. I opened the canopy and ran off the nose of my hornet. I thought I'd broken my ankle when I landed on the deck. Crewmen everywhere were scrambling. The alarms were blaring like banshees. I didn't know what to do. They called me a hero, called me a doctor, but for a good three minutes I just stood there, like an idiot, trying to make sense of it all. Then, someone yelled for help, so I helped; then I helped again, and again.”
His eyes were bloodshot.
“I had my arms elbow deep into half amputated legs, trying to pinch femoral arteries while waiting for the medics to arrive. I had lost my belt and most of the straps on my flight suit, having used them as makeshift tourniquets. I remember hearing the upper decks depressurize, the bulkheads tearing right off and vanishing into space. I don't even know how we ever got through that jump point in one piece.” Lieutenant Colonel Lucas “Hawk” Gabriel shook his head and felt the warm droplet of saline flick off his cheek. He sniffled and wiped his face. “Anyway, we made it back. That's all that matters in the end.” Hawk got up, raised his glass to the two young pilots and proceeded to chug the rest the orange juice within. He belched, and put the glass down. “Bring that back to the cooks would you?”
“Yes sir.” Juke said, taking the glass. “No problem.”
Hawk turned and walked away, leaving the two to watch him in silence; his words still reverberating through their minds.