PHASE I : PRELUDE - THE ENSURED PROPHECY ( 23 of 23 )

: Storm Clouds ”
PART 2 OF 2

 

Recon Arrow Ghost Warrior-7
Loki System
About Eight Hours Later...

Major Jameel "Paladin" Ul-Huq, the executive officer of Battle Group Valkyrie's "Ghost Warrior" recon squadron, couldn't helping feeling a little nervous. He was sitting in the cockpit of an Arrow, one of the most fragile fighters in the known universe. The Arrow was a light fighter in every sense of the word. It was lightly shielded, lightly armored and lightly armed. In fact, the Valeria's Wing Commander had once commented that the only people crazier than the designers who had created the Arrow were the pilots who flew it.

Of course, the Arrow did have a few things going for it, including its small sensor profile, its speed and agility, and its cloaking device. Their sensors had also been upgraded for increased range and accuracy. That was why Battle Group Valkyrie used the Arrows as dedicated recon craft. The Arrows were meant to spot enemy movements, and then call in the heavy firepower to deal with the threat. Up till a few hours ago, Paladin would have been one hundred percent confident that his fighter could do the job. With the news that the Bugs might be able to see cloaked fighters though, that job had become much harder.

Still, the Ghost Warriors were among the best recon pilots in the entire Union. They had trained for this job over and over again, with dozens of hours in the simulators, and even more time in the cockpit. They would do their jobs, cloak or no cloak. Paladin knew that if he had to, if he really had to, he would go against orders and close in with an enemy ship, hoping that the cloak would let him stay alive long enough to transmit his data back to the ship. Any one of the Ghost Warriors would do the same. That was what recon pilots were paid for. The recon pilots would do their jobs, but Paladin knew that not all of them would make it back.

For now though, Paladin and his wingman, a young woman who went by the callsign Razor, were flying a routine patrol through the Loki VI System. They were simply following standard operating procedure by sweeping the system ahead of the rest of the battle group. They didn't expect to find any sign of the Nephilim here, several jumps away from where the attacks had taken place. It was something of a surprise therefore, when about halfway through their patrol, they found wreckage that their sensors identifying as belonging to Border Worlds craft, as well as wreckage from several Kilrathi fighters and a small capship. The wreckage had no residual energy signature, which meant that it was at least twelve hours old. They reported their find to the Valeria, and continued with the patrol.

Near the end of their patrol, they encountered more wreckage, this time from Kilrathi Vaktoth-class fighters. This wreckage was fairly leaping with energy signatures. There were fresh ion trails leading away from the site of the battle. Paladin reported this find to the Valeria as well, along with the fact that he intended to follow the ion trails.

"Roger that, proceed with extreme caution. We'll have Reaper and Harbinger Squadrons standing by to assist you," the Valeria's comm officer replied.

Proceed with extreme caution? That was a laugh. Fighter pilots who didn't "proceed with extreme caution" when tracking enemy craft ended up dead pretty darn quick. Paladin pushed his throttle forward as he followed the ion trails, maintaining what he hoped was a reasonable overtake speed on the fighters that had destroyed these Vaktoths. The trick was to move fast enough to catch up with the fighters, but not so fast that they came up on them suddenly. Razor stayed on tight on his wing. Both pilots maintained their cloaks. Even a little protection would be better than none.

It was another five minutes before their scanners picked up the fighters. Paladin checked over the sensor profiles, staying just at the outer edge of scanning range. There was a big difference between taking risks that you had to take and taking needless risks. Razor, though, was too young and too eager to make that distinction.

"We can't get a good read at this range," she protested.

"The Colonel told us to keep our distance," Paladin reminded her sharply.

"The Colonel's just being over cautious."

"The Colonel was flying combat missions while you were in grade school," Paladin said absently, his attention fixed on the scanner readings. As he had expected, the long range sensor profiles of the fighters looked nothing like any fighter he had seen before. He said so out loud, forgetting that his comm system was still transmitting.

"Nephilim!" Razor said at once. She sounded panicked, and she had every reason to be. If the enemy fleet was in the system, the Border Worlders were as good as dead. "Valeria, Valeria, we have confirmed hostile craft in the system. Repeat, confirmed hostile craft..."

"Roger that, launching Reaper and Harbinger Squadrons..."

"Hold it, hold it, hold it," Paladin said. He narrowed the focus of his sensors, concentrating on one of the contacts, and fed the data into his targeting computer. The computer instantly spat back the result. Confederation Tigershark-class medium fighter. That explained why he hadn't recognized the signature. The Tigershark had only entered service a few months ago.

"False alarm, Valeria. Those are Tigersharks," he said quickly. If Valeria didn't stop the launch, those Tigershark pilots would find themselves staring down the barrels of over a hundred tachyon cannons. Which begged the question, of course, just what were Tigersharks doing out here? Paladin slammed the throttle into full afterburn, leaving Razor in his wake, and quickly closing in on the Tigersharks. He pulled up alongside the trailing fighter, still hidden by his cloak, and scanned the ID markings on its tail assembly.

"CV-54. TCS Yorktown. Hey, Valeria, those fighters are from the Yorktown..."

 

Launch Bay, BWS Valeria
About The Same Time

The launch bay was filled with the howl of fighter turbines as Reaper Squadron's Retaliators prepared to launch. The first pair of fighters were already positioned at the end of the runway, ready to hurl themselves into open space. The same thing would happening aboard the Freedom as the Bearcats from Harbinger Squadron also prepared to launch.

Raptor had been on the flight deck when the Recon Arrow pilots had first reported the wreckage. He wasn't technically on flight duty at the moment, but he had opted to fly with the Reapers. If this did turn out to be a real contact with the Nephilim, he had wanted to see them first hand as soon as he could. He wasn't arrogant enough to think leading from the front was the only way for a wing commander to lead (or even necessarily the best way), but it was the way he knew best. He had only been a wing commander for less than an year, and the habits he had picked up in his eight years as a squadron commander were hard to break.

Now he was strapped into the cockpit of the lead Retaliator, his heart slamming against his ribs, adrenaline pumping through his system, and that nagging thought in the back of his mind that he might be making a mistake. His responsibilities as Wing Commander took up a lot of his time, and he'd had nowhere near as much flight or simulator time as the other Retaliator pilots had over the past few weeks. He didn't want to be the weak link when the squadron went into battle.

He tried to take his mind off that thought by checking up on his weapons loadout one last time before the launch. The Retaliator was "loaded for bear," to quote the old cliché. Four powerful tachyon cannons, two stormfires with a full load of ammunition, two reaper tailguns, six long range IR missiles, six friend-or-foe missiles, and six short range IR missiles. Whoever had designed the Retaliator must have been a firepower nut, because the Retaliator had certainly been stacked with firepower. It was designed to smash through an enemy formation with sheer brute force. It might not be elegant, but as the Kilrathi had learnt to their cost recently, it was highly effective.

He glanced up just as the launch control officer jumped in front of the fighter, and drew her finger across her throat, the signal to abort the launch. He quickly shut down the engines, and then popped the fighter's canopy. The launch officer scrambled up on the fighter's wing.

"Sorry, Colonel, false alarm. Those bogeys were just Tigersharks from the Yorktown," she said, shouting to be heard above the noise. The fighters behind him were still powering down their engines.

"Great. Stand down the Harbingers and Reaper Red and Blue Flights," Raptor shouted back. The adrenaline drained out of his system all of a sudden. They wouldn't be making contact with the Nephilim, at least not today.

"What about Reaper Green Flight?"

"Did the Arrows get a position fix on the Yorktown?"

"Yeah!" the launch officer yelled back.

"Then we're launching, Reaper Green." If the Yorktown was in the system, it would be only be polite to make contact as soon as possible, and then give the Confeds a fighter escort for their rendezvous with Battle Group Valkyrie. Besides, it would be a good chance to get a little more flight time.

 

Tigershark Arkrunner-1
Loki System, near TCS Yorktown
About An Hour Later

The Tigershark Combat Air Patrol intercepted the six Border Worlds fighters when they were about a 100,000 klicks from the Yorktown. The Border Worlders had already transmitted a greeting, along with their IFF codes, but CAP pilots were always over cautious when any strange fighter approached their carrier. The Border Worlds leader rocked his wings slightly in greeting as the Tigersharks came within visual range.

As he eyed the sleek Border Worlders fighters, Major Adam "Foxxman" Brancer, the Tigershark leader, couldn't help thinking of all the things that had changed over the past year. A year ago, Confed and Border Worlds fighters would be preparing for combat when they met each other. Now the Border Worlders were Confed's allies, and the two groups would be fighting side by side in the largest fleet action since the Battle of Terra. What a difference a year made.

"Ark Runner Lead to Border Worlds fighters. Identify yourselves," he said, going through the formalities.

"121st Fighter Squadron, from the BWS Valeria. We're here to escort the Yorktown to her rendezvous with the Valeria." The Valeria had been coming in from the Torgo jump point, while the Yorktown had been coming in from the Nifelheim jump point. The two groups would link up about halfway to the jump point leading into Nephele, a journey of about four hours at the Yorktown's flank speed.

"VF-74 Arkrunners, from the TCS Yorktown. We accept your offer of escort, with thanks." That concluded the formalities required.

"I was sure you would," the Border Worlds leader said wryly, as his fighter banked smoothly to the left, and then linked up on Brancer's starboard wing. The other Border Worlders did the same, as the entire group turned towards the Yorktown. The mixed group of fighters would be flying escort to the Yorktown during her journey to the rendezvous point, a combination of CAP and honor guard.

Brancer glanced over again at the Border Worlds fighter on his wing, checking over its deadly profile. The fighter bristled with guns, both fore and aft, and had a hell of a lot of missiles slung under the wings and fuselage. His sensors showed that it was both heavily armored and heavily shielded, but it was still fast and maneuverable enough to stay easily with his Tigershark. In short, it looked like it could kick some serious ass. The Yorktown's Vampires would be able to take these craft, but any other fighter would have a hard time.

Brancer started slightly as he noticed the markings on the other fighter's tail assembly for the first time. The Border Worlds fighter carried the distinctive markings of a wing commander. Confed would never send a wing commander out for a simple escort like this one. He wasn't sure if he should feel honored, or if he should just take it as an example of the off hand way Border Worlders did things. He suspected it was the latter. Border Worlders never did things the way you expected them to. That was one of the things that had allowed the Union to survive all these years.

He glanced further forward, at the fighter's nose, and felt a chill run through him. There were four long rows of kill markings under the fighter's canopy. The first three rows were made up of Kilrathi insignia, one for each Kilrathi this pilot had shot down in his career. The last row, though, was made up of human skulls. This pilot had taken down humans as well. Brancer couldn't help wondering just how many of those pilots had been Confeds. He was suddenly very glad the Border Worlders were on their side. They might not do things the way Confed did, and their fighters might not be as good as the Confed's craft, but one thing was certain. They knew how to fight.

 

BWS Valeria; Launch Bay
About Four Hours Later

Raptor was in a very good mood as he popped the canopy and climbed out of the cockpit. The five hours of flight time, away from the pressures and workload of commanding the flight wing, had done a great job of clearing his head. He felt more relaxed now than he had at any time since they had received word of the enemy fleet. He was reminded again of just why he had become a pilot all those years ago. He had joined the military because he thought it was his duty (there had been a war going on, after all), but he had signed up to be a pilot simply because he had wanted to fly. Other people did it for the glamour, or because it was the best way to kill Cats, but he had done it because he wanted to fly the latest and hottest fighters in the galaxy.

He had always wanted to fly, ever since he had been a child, but being a wing commander wasn't something he had sought. Getting kicked up the chain of command was just something that had happened as the years had gone by. He had been a captain when the Kilrathi War ended. Somehow, Confed had decide that he was good enough to stay in the military through the RIF, and had even kicked him up to Major. (It had to have been a computer error. Even his best friends had told him so.) When the Border Worlds conflict had erupted, he had left Confed and gone home to the Border Worlds, only to find himself facing Confed pilots across the gunsights. He had been all of twenty seven years old when his CO had been killed by a Confed Hellcat, and he'd found himself in command of a squadron. He had been too inexperienced and too callow for the job. He had known it, and everyone else in the squadron had known it, but he was the squadron's most senior surviving officer. He had done his best, and somehow managed to take them through the conflict. He had lead the squadron for the next eight years, learning as he went along. That had been until last year, when HQ had the bright idea of kicking him up to Wing Commander. Even now, he sometimes wondered if he had matured enough to handle the responsibility. He had come a long way from the kid who just wanted to fly fighters, but that kid was still a part of him, the part of him who relished every last second he could spend in open space.

The other reason for his good mood was the four Confed capships that were now holding formation alongside the Border Worlds ships. Apart from the Yorktown herself, there were two sleek Murphy-class destroyers, and a massive Plunkett heavy artillery cruiser. The Plunkett in particular was a most impressive sight, its hull studded with over twenty laser turrets, as well as several triple particle cannon turrets. It also mounted a "triple BFG" under its bow, three hard hitting plasma cannons. It was far more powerful than the Border Worlds cruisers, verging on being a small battleship. It was good to have that firepower on their side, and even better to know that these ships were only a small part of the fleet that would be forming in Nephele. They would still be heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the Nephilim, but at least the Border Worlders wouldn't be fighting alone. For all the cheap shots they took at the Confeds, the Border Worlders knew that Confed forces were well trained and well equipped. They would certainly do their bit against the Nephilim.

As he walked towards the lift, though, Raptor saw Captain Sang Que waiting for him. His good mood started to fade, replaced by a sense of foreboding. The Captain wouldn't be down here in the launch bay unless something important had happened. Judging by the look on Sang Que's face, whatever had happened wasn't good. The Captain didn't waste any time confirming those suspicions.

"Bad news, Colonel. We just heard that the Nephilim ripped through Alcor and Hellespont."

"Shit!" Raptor slammed his flight helmet against the wall in frustration, drawing a few stares from the people working nearby. The frustrating thing was that they might have been able to do something. If their fleet had already been assembled and in place to intercept the Nephilim. If they had had more warning. If they had the transports needed to evacuate those planets. If all the 'ifs' in the universe could change one single thing. As it was, they could do exactly nothing to protect the people in those systems.

"How bad?" he asked, keeping his voice down.

"None one knows for sure. If they razed those systems like they did in Dakota, though, and I don't see any reason why they wouldn't, we could be looking at over 200,000 casualties. And that's the conservative estimate."

"Ah, shit!" Raptor repeated. This time he drop-kicked the helmet, hitting it so hard that he shattered the visor, and not caring who saw him. Another two hundred thousand people dead, killed just because they choose to live in the wrong systems. Even the Kilrathi hadn't done this. The Kilrathi had been savage, merciless, but they had only committed atrocities on this scale during the last year of the war, when they had been desperate to win. The Nephilim had no reason for doing this, none at all. There had been no military bases or heavy industry in those systems, nothing worth committing genocide for. The Nephilim were due some some serious payback for this.

"Yeah. That just about covers it. You had a chance to check out the bar yet, Colonel?" Sang Que said. "I have this sudden need to get very, very drunk."

 

BWS Valeria; Command Briefing Room
Nephele System
About Twelve Hours Later
February 30th, 2681

Admiral Hanton had called another briefing a few hours after the ship completed its jump into Nephele. All of the officers assembled around the table looked like hell, the result of a sleepless night spent thinking about the dead in Alcor and Hellespont, or a night spent drinking in a futile attempt to forget about the dead. It had only been about 48 hours since they got Admiral Singh's message, but it already felt like it had been a week.

"All right, let's get started," the Admiral said. "As you know, we should reach the staging area in about two hours. Before that though, I think it would be a good idea to bring you up to date on what's been happening recently, and what'll happen once the fleet's been assembled. First, the bad news. The Confed Senate held a final, binding vote a few hours ago, and decided that the First, Fourth and Seventh Fleets will under no circumstances move out of Confed space. If any of you still had hopes of seeing ConFleet come charging in with all guns blazing, you can forget it."

"The good news, though, is that Admirals Leonard and Singh are doing their best to scrape together what forces they can. Third Fleet reserves, Border Worlds Navy reserves, Homeguard squadrons, you name it. Most of those units are still flying older fighters, but they'll be better than nothing. The reserve forces will be gathering in the Nifelheim system, which will keep them out of harm's way for a while. It'll take roughly two weeks for the reserve units to form up, so we've got to hold the Nephilim back until then. The idea is to try and inflict as damage as we can on the Nephilim as we can, and then fall back and link up with the reserves for the final push."

"This is what we're going to do. Once our fleet is assembled, we jump into the Tyr System. Our best tactical projections indicate that the Nephilim will be moving there next. We'll engage the Nephilim there. We hold the Nephilim as long as we can, and then jump back here to Nephele, then to Loki, and finally to Nifelheim. This to be a classic fighting retreat, ladies and gentlemen. I don't think there's an hope that we can actually stand in the path of the invasion, and simply try to hold a system. If we try to do that, we'll get swept under by their fighters. We simply delay them as long as we can in each system, and inflict as much damage as we can, while keeping our own losses at a minimum. We make them pay for each system they take, and try to bleed them dry. We only try to hold the line when we've linked up with the reserves. If we do that, we might have some chance of actually winning this one."

"Now, our tactics in each system is to rely on simple hit and run attacks. As I said, we don't have the fighter strength to simply stand against them, so we avoid full scale fleet battles where we can. Instead, we stay mobile and hit them where they're weakest. Our individual carrier groups and capships squadrons are more mobile than that huge fleet, so we'll attack the flanks and rear of the enemy fleet, cutting off enemy units and obliterating them. If we can, we'll separate their carriers from the rest of the fleet, and pick them off one by one. That'll do as much much to slow the Nephilim down as trying to stand in their way. The Nephilim Admiral can't keep advancing straight ahead while his flanks or rear are being threatened. He'll have to try and fight us, and that'll slow his force down, which in turn would give our reserves time to assemble. Once the Nephilim start catching up with us, we jump into the next system and repeat the process all over again. Chances are that the Nephilim will follow us when we jump, so they'll be going right where we want them to go. With a bit of luck, we can lead them straight into the ambush in Nifelheim."

The Admiral paused and took a deep breath. "Now, the big flaw in that plan is it'll mean giving up several systems to the Nephilim. I've picked the line of retreat that puts the least number of colonists in danger, which means avoiding the major Confed worlds, but there are still going to be casualties. Nephele is lightly populated, and Loki is unpopulated, but both Tyr and Nifelheim have a large number of inhabitants... nearly a quarter of a million people between them. We'll be doing our best to try and get them out in time, but we have to accept the fact that we won't be able to save everyone. We just don't have enough transports to move so many people at such short notice. Even with the help of Tanfen's transport fleet, we're still looking at tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties. I know you don't like it, and I don't like it either, but that's the way its going to have to be."

Those last words seemed to resound in the silence that followed. The officers, in their minds, were seeing the devastation on Dakota and Alcor and Hellespont once again, only this time the devastation was being repeated in the systems they would be forced to give up to the Nephilim. Civilian casualties had been a brutal fact of war for centuries, but that didn't make it any easier to accept. The alternatives though, were far worse. If they failed to stop the Nephilim, that destruction would be wreaked across dozens of systems, and the death toll would climb into the millions. The Admiral's plan was the only one that made sense. Heroic last stands looked great in the holo-vids, but in the holo-vids, the cavalry always came riding over the horizon just when all seemed lost. That wasn't going to happen this time, because the Confed Senate had lacked the balls to release the First, Fourth, and Seventh Fleets. There was no cavalry in this story, and for the colonists in the path of the invasion, there was no happy ending either. There was just a handfull of Confed and Border Worlds carriers who would try to make the difference between a bad ending and a far worse ending.

"How did you get Tanfen's transport fleet to help us, anyway?" Chelsea asked finally, breaking the silence, and sounding as if he desperately wanted to look on the bright side. "I thought Tanfen never did anything unless it turned a profit."

"They don't, but they're still going to help us," the Admiral said, smiling wolfishly. "Tanfen thinks they're going to use those transports to evacuate their own people and assets from those systems. Once they jump in though, we move in with our fighters and marines, and commandeer those transports. I don't care if we have to hold a gun to their heads, we're going to use those transports to get out as many people out as we can."

"Tanfen isn't going to like that," Captain Que said with a slight smile. He wasn't disagreeing with the Admiral, because he would have done exactly the same thing. He was just stating a fact.

"I don't care if Tanfen likes or not. Battle Group Valkyrie will concentrate on getting the civilians away from Tyr, while the rest of the Fleet keeps our Nephilim friends entertained. For the duration of this crisis, I have the authority to order martial law in any system we operate in. Either the Tanfen captains evacuate the civilians, or we put them under arrest. The Tanfen first officers will be more cooperative after they see their captains dragged off in chains. And if that doesn't work, we can always start summary executions." The Admiral sounded like she meant every word she said, and she probably did.

 

Fleet Staging Area, Nephele System
Over The Next Two Days

The smaller ships in the fleet (the torpedo boats, corvettes, and destroyers) had already reached the staging area by the time Valeria and the Yorktown got there. The torpedo boat squadron had been the first to arrive. The twelve Los Angeles-class torpedo boats were fast, agile, and extremely well armed for their size. They were highly effective against both fighters and small capships. They wouldn't have been much use in a full scale fleet action, but they would ideal for the kind of hit and run tactics that Admiral Hanton had in mind.

The 6th UBW Corvette Squadron was likewise made up of small, high speed craft that were well suited to fast moving warfare. By themselves, the four corvettes would have been a serious threat to enemy picket ships and patrols. The corvettes were also supported by a TCS Tarawa-type CVE (the BWS Defiance), which carried thirty Intruder, Jaguar, and Vindicator fighters. The fighter craft would provide fighter cover for the corvettes, while the Vindicators could also use their torpedoes for hit and run strikes. Like the torpedo boats, the corvettes would be dead meat if they ever ran into large numbers of enemy ships, but they were well suited to nipping at the rear and flanks of the enemy fleet.

The two destroyers squadrons though, represented some serious firepower. The 15th Confed Destroyer Squadron was made up eight Murphy-class destroyers. The Murphys were equally effective against fighters and capships, and were quite capable of taking down ships as large as cruisers when working as a pack. The Murphys also carried eight fighters each, giving the squadron a total of 64 fighters. The 18th Destroyer Squadron was made of six Defiance-class destroyers, along with a couple of scout frigates. The Defiance class didn't carry any fighters at all, and wasn't as effective at dealing with enemy fighters as the Murphy class, but it was a superb ship killer. Each Defiance-class DD carried ten torpedo tubes, making them absolutely lethal against enemy capships. The two destroyer squadrons would work together most of the time, forming up into a lethal pack that could savage enemy ships and fighters.

The light carrier TCS Endeavour reached the staging area only a few hours after the two fleet carriers did. The Endeavour carried close to seventy of Confed's latest fighters (Wasps, Tigersharks, Panthers, and Shrikes) and was escorted by a Plunkett-class artillery cruiser and another two Murphy-class DDs, along with a pair of scout frigates. Like the other carriers, the Endeavour and her battle group would be hitting the Nephilim where they were weakest, and then keep moving before the Nephilim could track her down. Hit and run, just like Admiral Hanton had said.

The 8th Confed Cruiser Squadron jumped in another few hours later. The group consisted of four Plunkett cruisers and four Murphy-class DD escorts. This was the fleet's heaviest firepower. The Plunketts were capable of pounding enemy capships to dust with their plasma cannons and torpedo tubes, or engaging several fighters simultaneously with their laser turrets. The sight of these deadly cruisers lifted the spirits of everyone in the fleet, though they knew the Nephilim cruisers and dreadnoughts were just as deadly. The four Murphys screened the larger capships, and provided extra cover. The 8th would also work independently, hunting down and destroying enemy units whenever they could.

The fleet carriers Bunker Hill and Valley Forge arrived next, virtually at the same time. They were identical to the Yorktown in every way and carried the same number of fighters, though neither of them had a Vampire squadron on board. Instead, they each carried two squadrons of Tigersharks, plus one each of Wasps, Panthers, and Shrikes. They were each escorted by the usual gaggle of Plunketts and Murphys.

The Border Worlds fleet carrier Littenia was the last to arrive, getting there nearly a day after the other ships. She was the Valeria's sister ship, but she had literally only been days out of the docks when she had been rushed to the frontier due to the current crisis. She had a full wing of 90 fighter craft on board, including a full squadron of Retaliators and another of Bearcats, but her pilots were literally drawn from anyone who was available at the time. She also wasn't escorted by a light carrier (unlike Valeria, which had the light carrier Freedom for support), which meant that she had considerably less strike power. She was escorted by one Achilles-class cruiser (big brother to the older and slightly less imposing Tallahassee-class), and a pair of Sheffields. It wasn't an ideal arrangement, but desperate times called for desperate measures.

No one in the fleet was sitting idle while they waited for the fleet to form up. The senior officers spent their time going over Admiral Hanton's plan in detail, sorting out all the details, and fine-tuning their strategies. Like the saying went, the devil was in the details. All it would take was one misunderstanding, one order interpreted the wrong way or one captain who ignored orders to derail the whole plan. The crew aboard the ships checked and rechecked each and every system, making sure that everything was working the way it was supposed to. The pilots spent their time in the cockpit and in the simulators, learning to work together in what little time they had. Confed pilots who flew by the book had to learn to trust Border Worlders who flew on instinct, and vice versa. It wasn't going to happen overnight, of course, and probably not until they had fought and died side by side, but at least they made a start. Everyone, from the most senior officers down to the ratings, tried not to think of how badly outnumbered they were. They tried not to think of how likely it was that most of them would be buying a piece of space in the next few weeks.

Once the Littenia had joined up, the entire fleet prepared to move out. In spite all the grumbling from the Border Worlders about the help that Confed had sent them (or rather the lack thereof), they all knew that this was one of the most powerful human fleets ever assembled. There were five fleet carriers (Yorktown, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, Valeria, and Littenia), plus three smaller carriers (Endeavour, Freedom and Defiance). There were also two squadrons of destroyers, one squadron of cruisers, one squadron of corvettes and one squadron of torpedo boats. The carrier escorts were equal to yet another destroyer squadron, and yet another cruiser squadron. It was a mighty fleet indeed, probably the most powerful human fleet seen since the Battle of Terra.

The trouble was, it was nothing compared to what was waiting for them.

The Nephilim fleet had six heavy carriers and two dreadnoughts. Each of those ships carried between 250 and 300 hundred fighters, as many fighters as a Midway-class megacarrier. Reflect, if you will, on the difference between that and the paltry 90 fighters carried by a human fleet carrier. The Nephilim fleet had a total of about 3,000 fighters (counting those on the carriers and destroyers), compared to only 750 human fighters. The humans fighters were out numbered by four to one. The number of capships was more evenly balanced, but they were still massively outnumbered. Besides, in modern warfare, fighter strength was what really mattered. No capship could survive a sustained fighter assault. It would take all the skill, guile and determination the humans had to pull a victory out of this one.

 

Tyr-Nephele Jump Node
Tyr System
February 2nd, 2681

The jump point flared open, bathing the surrounding space in a ghostly splash of white and purple fire. The jump point spat and crackled with violent energy, almost as if it knew of the violence that was yet to come. Anyone who was truly superstitious would have called it an omen, but then, most knew that omens don't mean anything. Kind of like prophecies...

Taipan Squadron's Excaliburs jumped through first, scanning the system for any sign of the Nephilim. They still didn't know if cloaks would work against the bugs or not, but sending in cloaked fighters was better that sending in fighters that had no protection at all. Once the Excaliburs had reported an all clear, Vampires from the Yorktown came through in force, establishing a clear zone of space superiority around the jump point. Then came squadron after squadron of Panthers, making sure that nothing could attack the capships as they came through.

The corvettes and torpedo boats came through next, jumping in at one minute intervals, close followed by the escort carrier Defiance. The Defiance at once began launching her fighters to support the Panthers and Vampires. The destroyers came through right afterwards, then the cruisers, then the light carriers, and finally the precious fleet carriers. Fighters raced of the launch decks of each carrier as soon as it had completed its jump, forming an ring of steel around the capships. They had come through the jump point pumped up and ready to fight, but the Nephilim were nowhere to be seen.

The capships began securing from jump stations, while recon patrols were launched to scour the system. If the Nephilim had already reached Tyr, it was vital to find them as soon as possible. On the other hand, if the bugs hadn't reached this system yet, the humans would move to the next system and try to intercept them there. As it would turn out, though, they didn't have long to wait till the Nephilim showed themselves.

 

Tyr-Hellespont Jump Node
On The Other Side Of The Tyr System
Less Than An Hour Later

The jump point flared open, bathing the surrounding space in a ghostly splash of white and purple fire. This jump point behaved itself. Maybe it was scared of what was coming through. Certainly, if jump points were sentient, it should have been scared of what was coming through. This was the force that had foretold in the Kilrathi Prophecy of Sivar/Kt'lan, a prophecy that had turned out to be frighteningly accurate. This was the force that the Kilrathi feared as the harbingers of the Kn'thrak. They were the ones who destroyed everything they touched. They were the ones who would rend the universe barren, harvest it, and plunge it into darkness. Even if one didn't believe in prophecy, the Nephilim were every bit as a fearsome as the Kilrathi believed them to be. They had proven that by demolishing every force that had tried to stand in their way.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The fighters came through first, sleek and glistening, darting through space as if they were alive. They moved with sleek and sinister grace, no effort wasted, almost like the void of space was their home. They weren't built of shining metal and glittering plastisteel, but seemed almost flesh and blood, natural predators. First there were dozens, and then dozens of dozens and then hundreds, and then their numbers were beyond counting. They were legion, and they were everywhere. ("Their number shall rend the universe barren and crush the breath from our clans.")

The capships came through next, right on the heels of the fighters. They too looked sleekly organic, like giant whales swimming through a school of minnows. These ships didn't have points or sharp angles like the human ships, but sleek, smoothly flowing curves. Unlike the human ships, they didn't come through in any orderly manner. Corvettes and destroyers jumped through almost at random, pouring out as fast as fast as they could, as if they couldn't wait to rape and ravage this system like they had so many others. Last of all came the massive cruisers, carriers, and dreadnoughts, fearsome ships that dwarfed their smaller cousins. They were the true heart of the Nephilim fleet, the heart that would have to be torn apart if this sector was ever to be cleansed of evil. The Nephilim didn't know it yet, but on the other side of this system was a spear that would be plunged into that heart. Maybe not now, maybe not in this system, but it would happen. The innocents who had been murdered by the Nephilim deserved no less.

The forces had been gathered. The plans had been made. Now the battle could begin.

 

FIN