PHASE I : PRELUDE - THE ENSURED PROPHECY ( 3 of 23 )

: “ Vikings go to Valhalla ( but where do pirates go? ) ”
PART 2 OF 2

 

VALLEY FORGE BATTLE GROUP

114TH WHITE HOPES (SHARK WING PATROL)

The Canewdon System, Deneb Quadrant, Epsilon Sector
JAN 7 2681/2681.007; 0203 Hours (CST)

“Hey..."

2nd Lt. Sophie "Mystique" Eloui switched to her squadron’s command frequency. "My scanner reads a red blip."

The voices that followed the announcement sounded thrilled.

"Really? That’s great!" Kingmaker joined in, euphoric. "Where is it?"

"All-riiight! Hostiles!"

"Are you sure?" the CO, Captain Dan "Uncle Willie" Burdock asked. "You wouldn’t pull my leg, would you?"

"That’s definitely... wha... wait... shit, it’s gone," Mystique said, distressed.

"Stay calm, Lieutenant," Burdock requested. Shit, did she really see something? he wondered. That came unexpectedly. It did not fit in his plans. His second time out. And now this. He had not get any time to really change his squadron’s flight roster. Colonel Trebek had the squadron commanders deal out patrol duty to all squadrons since she got on board. Sparing the 109th "Steel Gunners," the other F/A-105A Tigershark squad, mostly war vets, for whatever reason. For most of his men it meant about three hours rest only. At least she shortened the patrol to about three hours, too. Still there was not much space for arranging rotation of the flights. At least he managed to get Klepth off his wing for he was just blocking the comm with his babble. 1st Lieutenant Colfax "Kingmaker" DruPre’ Confa, the only son of one of the inner systems’ senators, was on his wing instead. Being a son seemed just to be his only profession. It quickly turned out that he tended to come across quite conceited and arrogant. To make it short... he was a real pain in the ass. And a burden to have him on the wing, for he knew everything better than even the superior officer. Not that Burdock considered himself as being superior, but he held the higher rank.

"Damn, sir," Kingmaker was bothering, "we must speed up and follow it."

Shit again, shit, shit... Burdock kept on mentally cursing. Two bloody hotheads. But then he gave in. "Mystique, you set the vector. Let’s burn some rubber."

"Some what?"

"Ah, forget it. Set speed 800 KPS on ’burners."

Five minutes had not yet passed when Mystique again came via the comm. "Three blips on my scanner... on an intercept course."

"What?" Burdock yelled. Noticing that he was about to panic he tried to control his emotions. He then continued calm, "Red... or blue?"

"Red... no blue..."

"Damn, Lieutenant Eloui, that’s not funny in any way. So would you please make up your mind." Burdock felt his temper rising again. He still could not see anything on his scanner as he was closing in on Mystique.

"They’re blue." Mystique seemed explicitly disappointed.

"Got them," Burdock sighed, relieved. He tried to contact them: "Captain Burdock of the TCS Valley Forge to incoming crafts: please identify yourself!" No response. They were still out of range for the computer to identify the type. It could not be Hartmann’s patrol, not on this vector. The Panthers were babysitting the capships. No one was supposed to be on this side of the system with exception of the pirates who Captain Vandermann presumed to be here somewhere. However they would hardly swirl around with Confed-IFFs. Or would they? He realized this was not primarily a question whether they would but rather whether they could. Burdock instantly felt very unpleasant as repressed memories emerge... the "Black Lance Incident." He quickly put these dark thoughts aside. That’s over... he truly hoped.

"They’re Thunderbolts," Mystique, still leading, cut in, drawing his attention to the present situation. "F-66C models. What shall we do?"

Actually Burdock did not know. They had neither been briefed on this situation nor were they cleared to engage. Regarding friendly ships, this was absurd moreover.

"I call mother," Burdock decided when the leading T-bolt, now within range of 5,200 klicks, opened up fire. He stared in shock not comprehending what was going on. Time rapidly slowed down. Just as in trance he saw his front shields flickering in somewhat blue and green. He heard the Tachyon beams scoring. He did not realize his shields disappearing. There was no reaction coming from his wingmen either. The two three-ship formations rushed by each other. The T-bolts immediately spun around and two of them went for Mystique of whom they must believe to be the leader. Burdock awoke when the remaining T-bolt dropped in behind him. His first thought was to cry for help, but Mystique was already screaming like hell. "Get those two bastards off my ass!"

There was no time to think. He had to get rid of the one T-bolt himself.

Burdock took a quick glance around. The T-bolts stayed tight on Mystique’s tail as they were somehow solidly attached to her fighters structure. Whereas Kingmaker seemed to hung in space perplexed. "Kingmaker, what the fuck are you doing? Jerking off? Help her!"

Kingmaker went to attack the leading T-bolt with ion guns which brought him parallel to his opponent’s wingman. The other T-bolt seeing this dived away left to get behind him. Suddenly he had two T-bolts on his tail, Burdock must have been successful in shaking off his T-bolt, and one in front of him. "Oh, mama," he stammered not being able to suppress the reflex of emptying himself into his flight suit.

"Mayday, mayday! This is Shark Leader, we’re engaged. I repeat. We are under attack!" Burdock sent a burst message to the Valley Forge.

"Copy, Shark Leader. This is Mother. What is the tactical situation?"

"Three Thunderbolts. Friendly fire... I repeat, we’re under friendly fire!"

"Disengage and return to mother," the order came rigid.

Burdock believed to recognize Vandermann’s voice as he ordered to retreat. Damn, was that man trying to be funny? His wing was heavily engaged by what on first sight looked to be friendly, but proved to be the very opposite. These were elite pilots from what he has seen.

"Sending Hartmann’s Orca wing as reinforcement. Panthers launching as well. Hold on at least."

You ought to say, Burdock cursed looking on his scanner. Chaos was ruling his wing. He was baffled as he was under pressure too. Blue on blue. There was no distinction between friend or foe. A flash... he was having a sense of deja vu... the Black Lance incident... something Todd had taught him in his typical, snide way. Burdock thumped his IFF interrogator to "Standby," flicked the radar to "Standby" and back "On-line" to get his system to process the surrounding targets as hostile. "Here we go," he proclaimed, satisfied about the change on his HUD despite that he now had 5 red blips on it (with the IFF interrogator being off line, the system was therefore not able to read any IFF signals—all targets the radar acquired were treated as the enemy).

Burdock had only finished instructing his wingmen on the necessary procedure to make the T-bolts out as hostile when Mystique hastily yelled, "Missiles incoming!" He glanced down on his radar counting five yellow blips.

Lt. Eloui was stressfully pulling the Tigershark’s nose left and right, up and down as she tried to shake off the one T-bolt and two other missiles that followed her as well as to exercise the instructions she just got from Captain Burdock plus dropping one decoy after the other. The T-bolt had fallen behind a bit, but the missiles had come closer with every turn that had shortened the distance in-between them and stubbornly ignoring the decoys. The missile warning klaxon ultimately stopped as Eloui switched-off the IFF interrogator. Friend-or-foes, she thought.

"Fuck, I’m hit. They fucking got me!" Kingmaker panicked. He was not quick enough to proceed the changes.

Burdock saw one missile smashing into Kingmaker’s six. The other one just missing him as he made a sharp left turn. What now happened appeared strange to him at first. The Thunderbolts, so far acting cold and superior, began to dance around. They were exercising movements that he soon recognized as evasive maneuvers. A look at his scanner explained the situation. There were three remaining red blips which tried hard to avoid the 3 swirling yellow blips. Another yellow blip, representing a ballistic-gone missile, was leaving the scene. The situation had suddenly changed to their favor. Burdock considered to take benefit from that. He decided otherwise. Three more red blips had appeared on his scanner exactly from where the Thunderbolts had came from.

"Disengage. Form on my wing. Maximum speed on afterburners," Dan ordered, then added dryly, "Time to lick our wounds." It did not surprise him to hear no protest from his wing mates. Kingmaker had reported a hulk status of 25 percent, totally lost rear armor and damage repair system. His capacitors were affected too. Not that Mystique looked a whole lot better. He himself had only half the original strength of his aft and front armor.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
0300 Hours (CST)

Lt. Susan Anderson had grown weary of staring at the bank of holovids in front of her, for the last few hours, that was all she had done. Her new captain seemed determined to find the pirates in Canewdon. She wondered why he was so damn determined to find and nail a band of pirates, according to what she had read they had only attacked three convoys, disabling no more than five transports in all of them. She hadn’t been able to access all the information that her superior, Lt. Commander Schaefer had been able to see during the conference held the day before on the situation. She would have continued her thought except for sudden beeping coming from the radar display.

"Sir, Major Cardoso’s patrol has made contact with three Arrow fighters while escorting the Forstchen to Nav 2."

"Tell him to issue a warning and if the three bogies proceed to fire first, take them down but make it clear they are not to be drawn into an ambush, make sure he stays close to that ship," Vandermann said, Susan looked back to her station, feeling a bit embarrassed about to tell the squadron commander of the Aztecs how to engage the enemy, when he most certainly knew the drill for such an engagement. Her new captain liked to make sure that everyone was perfectly clear on his orders and how he wanted the operation run, it might have been a good trait, but in Vandermann it was almost mocking, as if no one else knew how to do their duties.

On the outside Captain Vandermann seemed the perfect CO, the war-hardened man tempered by valor, experience, and the pain of loss. One could only wonder what private war was being fought within the Captain, what Mr. Hyde lay beyond Vandermann’s Dr. Jekyll facade.

"Alpha Flight, this is the barn, over." It was about fifteen seconds before she received the reply.

"Roger, barn. What’s the story?" Major Alan "Wolf" Cardoso said as his weary looking face appeared on the holovid. Susan couldn’t blame him, he had spent the last 10 hours basically escorting the TCS Forstchen, a new Murphy-class destroyer. She imagined he was quite fatigued, as she recalled reading in her briefing that they would get a one and a half hour break after five hours on duty. The Tigershark patrols at least rotated every 2 or 3 hours back to the flight deck, and had several hours before they were back on call. The Aztecs however were getting their flight time in, which she doubted they really needed, but practice is a good thing.

"Issue a warning to incoming, if they do not heed to, then you are authorized to open fire. Remain within designated limits of Forstchen and watch out for possible ambush or attack run on destroyer. If possible try to get a good reading on one of them if they manage to get any messages off." The look on Major Cardoso’s face was about what Susan had suspected it would be, it looked like he was dumbfounded that he would have to be told exactly what to do in such a case, she hoped however that he knew it was not her telling him but orders from Captain Vandermann.

"Roger that... issuing warning."

"This is Major Cardoso of the TCS Valley Forge to three inbound Arrows... you are heed to and leave this area, if you choose not to, we are authorized to open fire."

The Major let that sit in for about ten seconds when his reply came back.

"Confee pricks... they’re always here when you want them somewhere else. Ahh, time to send you boys somewhere else. Let’s dance!"

Major Cardoso armed his weapons and prepared to engage, not even taking in what the pirate had said.

"Nitro and Lizard, arm missiles and prepare to fire on my mark," Major Cardoso said as he hit a few quick buttons on the console in front of him, they would transmit the battle via burst signal back to the bridge on the Forge, so that the Captain could see what was happening. It was a new technologic advance, before they could only rely on the radar to see what was happening, but with the new fighters, gun flight recorder footage could be sent back instantly to show a situational update.

The three Arrows rolled into what Wolf realized was an old Kilrathi attack pattern, the reserve claw. The three ships came from the 9, 12, and 3 o’clock positions and let loose a missile barrages onto the Panthers.

"Dump ImRecs, boys, and pick a target," Wolf shouted as he banked and dumped decoys to dodge the missile strike. They appeared to be older Spiculum ImRecs, so the newer flare/chaff decoy countermeasures would better confuse them than the old IFF pulsars.

Nitro pulled onto the six of one of the fighters and let loose with his guns. The shields flared on the small arrows, but soon collapsed under the constant energy bombardment. Nitro followed the Arrow through an Immelman, then let loose a heat seeker that broke the Arrow into 4 large chunks as it split the main keel beam of the ship.

"One down! One down!" Nitro shouted into the comm.

"Roger that, prepare to jump..."

"Sir!" Lizard shouted in the middle of his message, "They are running away, headed back the way they came. I’m getting 3 faint blips beyond that sir, wait... wait... I’m getting a big blip, looks like a capship, sir!"

"Send me your scanner data, Lizard. Nitro, get on the comm with the Forge and tell them what we’ve found out." Major Cardoso looked at his shield and armor readout. He must have gotten the cream of the crop in that fight, because his right shield readout said that he had 38% left and the armor underneath had lost a good 14 cm of durasteel. 

He gave a quick look at his two wingman: Lizard had taken one missile but his shields had held; Nitro had taken a few gun hits, but otherwise was fine.

He looked over the sensor data now coming into his fighter. Lizard’s MFDs showed 6 blips, 2 Arrows, 3 unknowns, and one small capship. Vandermann would be happy, especially since the earlier encounter the Tigersharks had had with these pirates. Now they could move in and finish off this damn chase and maybe relax a bit. Since Vandermann’s arrival the entire crew had been on edge with his constant overlooking and reprimanding. Alan was glad he hadn’t yet seen the wrath of Captain Eldon Vandermann.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Rec Room
0312 Hours (CST)

"They must be freakin’ mad," Voodoo mumbled.

"... either that or they are some stone-cold professionals," Lt. Colonel Samuel "Sirdar" Richard added thoughtfully, the CO of the "Steel Gunners," the other Tigershark squadron.

"Aw, man... c’mon... they’re freaks. I’m tellin ya," 2nd Lt. Mo "Voodoo" Ayibobo insisted. "No one, having his mind clear, would fire a FF in close combat when there’s just friendly targets around."

"So this certainly does not apply to you, then!" 2nd Lt. Marc "2Pack" Dukovski provoked.

"Hey, just whaddya mean by that?" Voodoo raised, but was held back by Sirdar.

"Bring it on, you tubby bitch," Dukovski continued. It was all in good humor, and hopefully Voodoo realized that.

"Doubtless they risk getting hit themselves. Hey, Willie, what ’bout you?" Dukovski kept on teasing choosing Burdock this time (as he played on his odd callsign of "Uncle Willie"). "You were the one on that spot, man."

Burdock raised his head. He was tired, exhausted, his head ached. He had looked forward to a drink at the bar. Instead Vandermann had forbidden all alcohol during this mission. Too much had happened in too little time. He felt odds and end. Yet this was not over it had just begun. Major Cardoso of the Aztecs had reported three Arrows a couple of minutes ago. These must be the 3 red blips he had seen and Hartmann later identified as Arrows but did not follow. His task has been to track the Thunderbolts back to their ship but staying out of their scanner’s array. Burdock had additionally advised him to cut off their IFF transponders to get not in the same trouble he has got.

"We got’em," shouted "Line Man" from the "Steel Gunners" as he entered the bar. "It just came in. ‘Kraut’ Hartmann tracked them down." Line Man had the reputation of having his ears everywhere. It was supposed to be an old habit of him as he had worked for a communication company before he joined the Space Force. He held in momentarily. "Pssst, you’re not to know by now. So you didn’t get it from me!"

 

TCS Valley Forge; Captain’s Cabin
0335 Hours (CST)

They knew, they knew he was here.

How? How? Eldon asked himself. They knew he was commanding the Valley Forge’s battle group—they had known when to attack his 2 patrols. Right when they were singled out from the rest of the patrols, but he had hardly given them an impression, one arrow for one damaged Tigershark and a lightly pair of Panthers. This was The Guild he remembered, but something was different. These pilots were good, damn good. Eldon sat down on his bed and took off his boots.

He had about twenty minutes before he had to report to the Conference Room and discuss the upcoming action. He had already ordered the Forstchen to move in slowly, the other ships moving into a herding action around the ship. He was going to get them, and he was going to nail them. He smashed his hand on the side of his bunk making a rather dull sound. He was going to get The Guild and he was going to show them that he was no longer willing to put up with their taunts.

Across the room the computer jumped to life as it flashed that an message had just been received. Vandermann got up and walked over to the console and opened the message.

TO : evandermann@tcn.valleyforge.crew
FROM :
catharx@kil.emb.vukar-tag.com

SUBJ : <NONE>

Eldon, it is I, Catharx. The blood of my hrai has been spilled... that is why it has been so long since I have written. Something dark penetrated the Shrak’Hath System on the fringe on my hrai space. Two ships were destroyed and I was almost killed in the fighting. It appears to be the work of a renegade Lesser Clan with incredible backing. Some of the kil in my clan are growing impatient, something about the Prophecy of Kt’lan... the "Prophecy of Sivar." They tell me the time is at hand. I hope for our sake it is not, but if it is, let the Kilrathi Assembly of Clans and the Terran Confederation fight it to the death. We shall honor those who came before by fighting for those who live today.

Goodbye, my friend. May Sivar look on your crew favorably.

Catharx

Vandermann looked away from the hovering holographic text. Something about the message was sticky. Catharx’s words sounded almost unKil-like. Something was wrong, but he couldn’t worry about it now, as much as he wanted to, he needed to stop The Guild and whatever they were carrying. He looked at the clock and realized he had only five minutes to get to the conference room.

It was time to get to work... but not quite yet.

With a forearm arm, he wiped the sweat from his brow. After putting on his boots, Vandermann went over to his nightstand. "CV-18... TCS Odessa..." he read the inscription of the bridge plaque they’d managed to salvage from the wreckage of his first command aloud.

"Never again..." he rasped, running a thumb over the marble surface of the plaque.

Opening a drawer in his nightstand, he removed an unremarkable, unlabeled vial and opened it. He gazed at the pills within it for a couple moments, moments perhaps spent in hesitation. Then, in a single motion, Vandermann dropped a pill in his hand and swallowed it on a dry throat.

He stalked out of the room, his mind, formerly a mess of thoughts and buried emotions, now collected and methodical.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Conference Room
0355 Hours (CST)

"Hopefully all of you have read over the reports of today’s actions..." Captain Vandermann said as he stood in front of the holotank in the conference room. The room was built for battle, enough seats for all the commanding staff in the battle group, and a large holotank in the the middle of the room to display anything from incoming reports, to the entire region of known space. It now displayed the Canewdon System, with orange dots representing the locations of the two skirmishes from earlier. Four red dots represented the pirates, three Arrow escorts and some kind of small carrier. They were running for the Ayers jump point, but Vandermann had thought of that and had a destroyer waiting at it. The other capships were moving to intercept as well. Eldon would capture this ship, and make sure The Guild remembered he was no longer part of their "club."

Eldon watched as all the heads in the nodded. "Good, now this is how the next part of the operation is to be carried out..." The holotank switched over to a magnified view of the fleet movements. "In approximately one hour we will launch the Shrikes squadron to disable the main vessel. The first Tigershark squad will provide cover, the panthers will stay with the capships, and we’ll hold the Piranha squad on deck, and have the second Tigershark squad fly CAP." Colonel Trebek almost fell over in her chair. Vandermann had gone out and done the flight ops without consulting her? She had put up with his overbearing evil eye since he came aboard a few days ago, but planning flight ops? This was going a step too far. She would have to talk to him after the meeting about this.

He then continued, "After we have disabled the vessel, I want the Ohlander to put the vessel in tow and bring it back to the Forge, which will be waiting here." He pointed to a location about 500,000 klicks from the projected point of pickup. "From there we will send in a local team to go through it with a fine tooth comb—all people on board are to become prisons until we can transfer them off-ship. If that’s all, then let’s break into the individual briefings, you should all have an updated copy of them waiting in your ready rooms. Dismissed." Eldon returned to his seat, and took up a copy of the battle plan, it was not his work, no, Confed had come up with a computer database for "standard operating procedure" that would decide maneuvers in a non-war action. He despised not being able to plan it himself, he felt even worse that it had given him even the flight ops decisions, he had seen the look on Trebek’s face when he concluded that part, he knew she was not happy, and to prove himself right, a voice came from behind his chair.

"Sir?" Colonel Trebek said, trying to keep her rage inside for now.

"Ah, yes, Colonel. I think I know why you are here. It was not my call to plan your flight ops, to be honest, nothing aboard this ship so far has been my call. All the maneuvers we have been doing have being coming out of the computer and Rayak."

Eldon continued on but Trebek had stopped listening. He hadn’t been giving the orders? she thought. Was he some kind of coward that needed to be told when to stand and when to sit? To her, Captain Vandermann didn’t seem like the type to be a brownnoser. He seemed more like a potential genius, one under an umbrella of supervision. This however did not discount her anger at the moment.

"That does not explain why you at least didn’t share with me the fact that you had received the flight plans," she spoke up dutifully. "As Wing Commander of this carrier’s sole fighter wing, it would have been nice to have at least seen and approved them before having them be orders."

"I understand, Colonel. After this operation everything should return to normal. It’s the fact that we are dealing with The Guild is what has ConFleet in an uproar." The Captain paused for a moment as if weighing his next words carefully. "You have no doubt heard rumors that I was once part of The Guild. They are correct, except key details have been left out. Such as the fact that the Max Kruger ordered him to join up and gain information for the Landreich on their situation." Trebek had heard the rumors but had summarily dismissed them. Now, however, Vandermann seemed to be loosened up. He had told Trebek the truth, and even let her in on the fact that he was not given the orders. The genius she had sensed was really there, but he was under the guise of being someone else. She believed that after this mission, things might change for the better.

"Well, next time, sir, I’d appreciate you telling me that flight ops first, if at all possible."

"From now on, Colonel, you will have priority. Do not worry."

With that and a nod, Colonel Trebek left the room. Off to the briefing room to dispense the flight ops info to the 71st Tactical Fighter Wing.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Ready Room
0415 Hours (CST)

Major Marcia "Madonna" Bittencourt waited impatiently until the room filled with her TB-81B Shrike squadron’s pilots. There was this familiar tension in the air. The nervous tickle that would precede every combat action.

"Well, amigos. It’s finally upon us. Our turn has come now," she proclaimed solemnly as she looked into the faces. Andressa, her XO, who could not hold back her excitement, gave her a wink with the eye. Marcia pushed a button on the holo-projector and the little portable unit flickered to life. It displayed a Caernaven-class frigate. Obviously massively modified... armed with four medium caliber mass drivers turrets, two laser and one quad heavy neutron turret it was heavily protected. The ship had a single flight deck coming out the front. Next to the spinning image of the frigate where several columns displaying the ship’s and its component’s stats.

"Please have a close look at this," Marcia continued. "They named her ‘Amnesty.’" She paused, smiling bitterly. Marcia used to grow up in a region famous infamous for its pirate activities. She and her whole family had to suffer a lot from piracy, one reason for signing on with the Space Force. "How pity that they are facing us -- the 402nd ‘Lancers.’ We do not grant any mercy to pirates. If it was entirely my decision I would blow up this scum like total. Unfortunately it’s not mine." The Major paused again. "Anyway, the flight deck harbors eight Arrows and eight Thunderbolts and supposedly one or two small shuttles. Though this modified frigate is quite heavily armed it should be an easy run for us. Nevertheless pay attention to the heavy quad neutron turret. The exact performance of its engines and its maneuverability remains unclear, but with our superior weapons and crafts we will most likely be able to play with her. Yet, there are still their fighters which indeed provide the most threat. But I am confident that Lt. Colonel Samuel Richard will hold them off our backs. I am going to assign the targets now. Andressa, you together with ‘Boru’ Deak, ‘Molotov’ Kruztchev, and ‘Local’ Rhe-Trebing will go for the flight deck. Pike, your flight will assist the Steel Gunners in bringing down this heavy neutron. I will take care of the engines personally together with Robin, ‘BlackSun’ El-Harim and Baton ‘Anchor’ Haxhiu. ‘Credit’ Lassen, you and the rest will stay by in case something might go wrong." Birger "Credit" Lassen was about to raise his voices in protest when the door opened and "Sirdar" Richard entered.

"See you in five minutes on the flight deck. Dismissed," concluded "Madonna" Bittencourt. She needed to coordinate her attack strategy with Sirdar, so that he could cover her.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Barracks
0419 Hours (CST)

Burdock sat on his bed dazed by sleep, deadened by headaches, trying to concentrate.

It didn’t quite work...

The attack was being delivered... the 114th "White Hopes" on CAP by four each... ah... Kraut was still out... the 323rd "Fire Balls" Wasp squad in the tube... well, everything should have been fine.

So what’s left are four hours of sleep. Said and done. He did not make himself familiar with his new role as squadron commander, he did not get to know the people on board, not to mention his squadron, and did not even check all of the squad’s bios. He didn’t ride the sim, did not read the specs or the files he got when he signed up -- not a single one. He had no chance at all so far to do any of it. He was still a stranger within. It just added in making him feel odd.

But not now. Now he was sleeping. Sleeping like a rock.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Deck
0425 Hours (CST)

Captain Christia "Feuerhexe" Weidlich felt a tickle in her tummy as her Tigershark was drawn through the force curtain into the zero-G atmosphere of the launch bay. She was nervous and excited at the same time while the deck crews prepped her for catapult launch. The G-forces that would soon apply would push up her adrenaline level, additionally to the already increased rate caused by the upcoming bomber attack on that pirate ship. The "Steel Gunners" would provide top cover for the Shrikes. Lt. Colonel Samuel "Sirdar" Richard, his XO Major Simon "Templar" Dynglh, as well as an additional 2 Shrikes were already orbiting, waiting for their assembly. She was 5th in line with Quintus "Wise Guy" Fabricius Domitianus to follow her on cat two.

"Flight Control to Guard Three -- scramble."

Christia was forced deeply into her backseat, that badly in fact that her breast ached, and rocketed out into open space.

When they had formed and the Tigersharks had taken their assigned positions to cover the Shrikes, Major Bittencourt of the Shrikes took command.

The plan was as simple as the formation was. Four four-ship flights of Shrikes covered by 4 Tigersharks each. 3 attack groups and 1 acting as fire brigade—to jump in wherever it was needed. Marcia was concerned about the pirates’ fighter complement. More than she would have admit. Samuel shared her concerns. Vandermann’s plan was it just to ignore the fighters since this problem would be solved as soon as their target—the frigate—was disabled. But what if the pirates decided not to join their game? What if they broke loose with their carrier gone, having nothing left to lose? The real problem was that the frigate should not be destroyed. Did Vandermann want to play fair? Why don’t they take benefit from their superiority? Why hold back the Panthers?

"Sir, I have an unidentified contact on my radar. Shall I issue a warning? Or shoot it down straight?" Feuerhexe asked. Madonna glanced at her scanner. They could not go around it anymore.

"Damn, they start playing their own game. Shoot’em I’d say!" her XO, Andressa "Alba" Adrian cut in.

"This is Lieutenant Kenneth Ridgely, from observation post..." Strange, Lt. Ridgely thought. Our attack force it still more than 100,000 klicks away from the target and they are that nervous. Well, bomber pilots, he said to himself, smiling condescending. But as two fighters left and went on interception course he suddenly realized that he was the reason for their nervousness.

"Ooops!" He switched the IFF-transponder on. During the last hours he got used to see nothing else but red blips on his scanner. When Hartmann had sent him back to meet the attack force he had forgotten to bring the IFF-system on-line again. "May I lead you to our little hide-away behind some debris?" he tried to cover his faux-pas.

"You better stand out of our way. I do not want to see you get killed, little rookie!" Marcia responded harshly annoyed by this unnecessary incident caused by "Yeti" Ridgely. She had not intended to react that coarse. This was her temper. When Yeti silently line up with them she knew she had hit him hard with her reaction. Yeti, like the most plebes, acted very sensitive when their skills were doubted. The whole White Hope squad was more or less a bunch of rookies, though with much potential. But a paid drink at the bar would do wonders most times.

The battle had fully advanced. The Amnesty’s weapons were pretty much crippled except for one remaining mass driver turret. They neut gun had been a tough one. Pike’s team, attacking the gun in waves by two, had to break up its run twice. Tron, his wingman, was hit during the second run and vanished in a bright ball of fire right next to him. As a result of three trials the gun was free for a couple of moments in-between and shot down Robin, who sacrificed himself. He accelerated into the gun’s line of fire that had aimed to leading craft, Major Bittencourt’s one. In her first run, in which Robin was hit, the Major had just been able to take out the left engine (Robin was shot and her second team had to break up). Since then she had to abandon her run 3 times and had Anchor, this Shrike severely damaged, sent back. As supposed the enemy fighters gave her bombers a hard time, especially the nimble Arrows.

Due to their blitz attack the Amnesty had not been able to launch all of their fighters before Alba had taken out the flight deck. 2 Arrows and at least 2 T-bolts got stuck inside it. All the T-bolts outside were gone in the meanwhile. One deadly damaged had really managed to land on the flight deck, but that landing was soon followed by an explosion and a second as Alba wanted to be on the safe side and pumped in another torp. The odds were slowly turning against the remaining Arrows as all targets except the right engine were down. The bombers retreated and Sirdar’s Tigersharks turned their full attention towards the Arrows.

Christia felt the cold sweat running down her back. She pulled the control stick hard up-right and hit the afterburner. She glanced back. The Arrow, hard on her heels, whooshed by. But not for long. It quickly turned around in a tight upward loop and rolled over slightly adjusting course. There it was again—closer than ever. Christia instinctively swallowed, but could not. Her throat felt as dry as the soil on Nephele II. She went over to corkscrew maneuvers, continued with a tight loop and started to scream for help, the Arrow was still following.

"You let me know when I can give you a hand?" It was "Yeti" Ridgely.

"Under the given circumstances I do not think it’ll be too unfair if I’d use a missile. What do you think, Feuerhexe?" He did not wait for a response. "And since I’ll be utilizing one it might as well be an ImRec. My last. This is for you, hon. You owe me!"

Christia did another kickstop. The Arrow tried to follow. As it was turning its position remained still relatively to Yeti’s. The ImRec locked and he let it go. A white explosion illuminated the surrounding space and took his sight. Both, the Arrow and Feuerhexe, were consumed by it. Shortly after, he was still blinded by the light, a Tigershark barrel-rolled out of the shrinking cloud.

"Ooh, that was close. Don’t expect me to say thank you." It was Christia.

"I’ll buy you a beer, lover boy!" Of course she was relieved and thankful. Yet she could not thank a rookie. It would have been totally against the holy uphold tradition. Besides most everyone on the ship knew how to take her. Being too polite and friendly would just damage the reputation she worked so hard on.

"Cancel a flat top!" Marcia shouted triumphantly on the tactical main channel. She had taken out the last engine. "Stand by to await the arrival of the Ohlander."

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
0635 Hours (CST)

It had been a while since Vandermann had felt as alive as he did now.

Two hours ago his flight wing had crippled the Amnesty and tallied up a few "Guildys" for the ships record. He stood up from the command chair and looked around the bridge. The crew was working like an organ in the body, rhythmically doing its function to a ever increasing beat.

Lt. Amy St. Germain cocked an eyebrow from her station as the Captain began walking. "You paying our... guests a visit, sir?"

Vandermann gave the attractive young lieutenant a tight smile, then walked towards the lift and hit the button, calling the lift to the bridge. He stepped in and hit Level Five.

St. Germain had called it. He was going to pay a visit to his old comrades.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Brig
0648 Hours (CST)

"Who are you?" asked the interrogator. The man looking back at him was a dark, colored man with short black hair. He had a small mustache, and wore a set of antique glasses. He looked like an old Earth college professor.

The man turned to the questioner and replied, "Have we not gone over this before? You are of no concern to me—the package has been sent." The interrogator was about to try again when Captain Vandermann entered the room. Immediately the man looked right at him and smiled.

"Ahh... the good Captain Vandermann. So nice to see you. So how does it feel to be back in Confed commanding a carrier? Not still scared of losing another ship, are we?"

Vandermann’s features grew a bright red, the color of concentrated anger. Vandermann grabbed the other chair in the room and slammed it on the floor directly in front of... "Dr. Jack Whittaker. Now why would a person like you be in with The Guild?"

Dr. Whittaker looked towards Vandermann, then the interrogator. "Mr. Herald, you are dismissed." The Lt. looked at Vandermann, then exited the room.

"So, Doctor, why are you so far out here?" The Doctor looked at Vandermann, held his gaze, then began with a story of an old Kilrathi prophecy speaking of the coming of great darkness after their home is destroyed, the return of a great enemy that once tested the Kilrathi in ancient times but left, finding the Kilrathi unworthy. The prophecy -- the Prophecy of Kt’lan -- was the cornerstone of Kilrathi civilization. The prophecy drove the Kilrathi to become a superior warlike race. He spoke of a Confed drone coming back from beyond the space where the Kilrathi built their Hakaga fleet back in 2668. It reported that a "space-faring race of unimaginable strength" was 10,000 light years away and closing. It remained to be seen whether that space-faring race was an as-yet undiscovered alien race, perhaps the "Star Gods" of the aforementioned prophecy, or the Mantu, an alien race whose century-long war ended in stalemate with the Kilrathi confirmed to be on the Kilrathi’s outer marches.

After listening to this for over two hours, Vandermann promptly stood up and walked out of the cell.

"Good of you to come, Eldon," Whittaker called. "Good luck."

Feeling the troubles of the day beginning to get the better of him, Vandermann retired to his cabin. With now-quivering hands, he went to his nightstand, opened the drawer, and sought out the vial of pills that he could always trust to chase away the demons and give him his absolution.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
The Seggalion System, Downing Quadrant, Epsilon Sector
2681.028; 0735 Hours (CST)

It had been several weeks since the pirates had been dropped off at Berkley Naval Base. From there the pirates were sent to Alexandria II, in orbit around McAuliffe, for more questioning and court, while the Valley Forge had continued its duties and responsibilities in the Epsilon Sector. Vandermann had told Confed High Command the story of Dr. Whittaker, but they had dismissed it as a cover for something else.

Just like the brass. Vandermann promised himself he would retire before he let the Admiralty Court promote him.

They were cruising across the system, now heading for the Lennox jump point. It was time for the Forge battle group to travel to the next UBW patrol system.

"Time to jump two hours, thirty-five minutes at current velocity of 98 KPS," one of the two nav officers on the bridge, Ensign Jed Wright, said as he watched the plot screen.

"Very well," Vandermann replied.

"Sir, incoming communiqué from Torgo," Lt. Susan Anderson said as she watched the communications from the Panthers on FORCAP patrol ahead of the battle group. "AA Priority. FYEO."

"I’ll take it in the ready room," Vandermann quickly retorted, as he was already heading for his ready room. He made his way into the room and sat down in front of the Tri-D holoscreen.

TO : Captain Eldon Vandermann, Commander TCS Valley Forge Battle Group
(evandermann@tcn.valleyforge.crew)

FROM : Admiral Victor Rayak, Commander Third Fleet, Torgo System, Epsilon Sector
(rayak@tcn.3rdfleet.com)

SUBJ : New orders

As of this hour you and your battle group shall report to Nephele for a joint operation with UBW forces. On arrival, the CIC of the UBW First Fleet will take command and lead the operation to completion. Jump to Nephele at top speed and await further orders.

Admiral Rayak, CO Third Fleet

Vandermann got up and briskly walked back to the bridge.

"Ensign Wright, forget about the Lennox patrol," he spoke. "Full speed to the Nifelheim jump point. Plot a direct jump route to Nephele."

"Yessir."

The Valley Forge and her battle group sped towards the Nifelheim jump point and on to Loki, then finally Nephele, where they would face something worse than a group of pirates. Something much worse.

Vandermann smiled in momentary satisfaction. He knew what his crew could only hope -- the Forge was ready.

 

FIN