PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 31 of 66 )

: “ Further Down the Spiral ”
PART 2 OF 3 : INTO THE VOID ( 3 / 3 )

"What though the field is lost?
All is not lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate
And courage never to submit or yield,
And what is else not to be overcome."
- Milton


F/A-105A Tigershark 102 [ Sky Raider Two ]
The Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 14 2681/2681.045; 0833 Hours (CST)

Lots at stake. Lots to prove.

Plasma barrages from a Triple Heavy Plasma Cannon "B.F.G." belonging to Commander Hotei’s nearby Heavy Artillery Cruiser Nagato streaked above and beyond the nimble ’Shark fighters of the White Hopes. They lit a flare through the starry black backdrop of deep space toward the ultimate Alien enemy that lay in their path. After the vessel’s standard shields had been hammered down some, a single pulse from the BFG connected with one of the two remaining Barracuda-class corvettes in the vicinity and obliterated the enemy capship, if to little fanfare... all of the good guys were too busy trying to avoid getting caught in the veritable locust swarm of Nephilim fighters pouring from the innards of that dreadnought on the event horizon, never mind trying to meet their individual respective mission goals.

Major Dan "Bugfix" Burdock clutched and jinked his flightstick with the hyperactivity of a ten year-old with an Attention Deficit Disorder all doped up on Ritalin. Green plasma bolts whizzing far closer than the friendly fire of the Nagato, it was becoming more and more clear that it would save a lot of strife to just turn around and face the bug that hounded him so feverishly. Dodging and weaved through the ever-familiar crisscrossing volleys of his Devil Ray pursuer, Burdock turned the chase around on his quarry with full-guns blazing and a pair of Pilum IFFs hot for the IFF signal of the Devil Ray that most definitely registered as "Hostile."

"Sky Raider Lead to Sky Raider Two... form on my wing," came the voice of the White Hopes’ spit-shiny new CO, Major Paul "Kraut" Hartmann. The man’s helmeted face appeared on Burdock’s vidcomm, a face he wanted to hate out of what was probably just petty jealousy, but in truth had respected in the highest regard in all the time their roles had been reversed and it had been Hartmann the XO, Burdock the squadron commander. It had been Burdock’s conclusion that Hartmann had been a loyal XO and just as importantly a wingman he could trust his tail with anytime. He would do no less for the man even throughout this certainly unforeseen, thoroughly awkward switch of positions and roles.

Still, as far as Burdock was concerned and he hoped his squadronmates were concerned too-whether or not they’d admit it-he had hoped with all they’d been through he’d finally come far enough that he finally became a guy they would gladly follow into battle and call leader. The White Hopes were still his squadron and he was still their squadron commander. Hartmann, while certainly up to the job in qualification and experience, was merely filling a role in a squadron that had been carved by Burdock until such a time as Burdock "redeemed" himself sufficiently in the eyes of his WC, the ever-sociable Colonel Natasha Trebek. Simply put, it was bad for morale to  play rank ping pong with the guy that a squadron is supposed to look up to and call their leader.

"Sky Raider Lead to Sky Raider Two... repeat, form on my wing. That means you, Bugfix."

Okay, Major Burdock thought, now you’re just pissing me off, Paul. Burdock had been convinced that in that moment upon joining his squadron out on the battlefield it was the right decision to form on Kraut’s wing instead of taking back command. Meanwhile that moment lay behind them. In the heat of the present moment it didn’t seem like such a correct decision all the way to Burdock. But he had made a choice back then... and now he had no choice but to drop his pursuit of the Devil Ray he was only one more round from chalking one up for on the Bugfix killboard to form up on Kraut’s wing. The German CO was usually understanding about these type of things and generally wouldn’t ask him or anybody else to drop what he’s doing and form up unless there was good reason. Still, being forced to do so - to be expected to ask "How high?" when there’s a squadron CO figure there again telling you to "Jump!" - now only served as another humbling reminder that he was no longer the guy in charge of his squadron. He felt a tinge of frustration, but at the same time felt a renewed sense of understanding at his former subordinates as he would bark orders at them, reasonable or questionable regardless.

Burdock sighed. When his shuttle had arrived on the Forge that first fateful day of January the 6th, squadron commandership of the Hopes had been the furthest possibility on his mind... yet the WC had thrown it on him before he was even off the flight deck. In shock and perhaps even an idealistic sense of bravado in being the Leader, he’d accepted the position. After the earlier bloody engagements, he’d questioned his decision and the WC’s choice in him... was this what "growing up" entailed?

Cutting his velocity by a quick 1/3, Burdock followed orders and was at least glad to see the Devil Ray he’d tried to rabbit hunt to extinction previously had apparently now become soured on his scent, now turning its attentions elsewhere. He was allowed a few moments as he took Kraut’s wing to survey the battle scene abound, not yet at its apex but still quite the battle to watch unfold.

As ordered, Sirdar’s own ’Sharks from the 109th Steel Gunners were covering the adjacent forward defense zones of the outer defense sector. So the White Hopes zones were just behind the ones of the Steel Gunners and they would have to deal with everything that slipped by the Steel Gunners. The Steel Gunners, their mission goal was to keep occupied and/or destroy any and all Alien heavy fighters, consisting so far of the expected few-but-damned-troublesome Devil Rays and a handful of Stingrays. Most of which seeming hell-bent on attempting foolhardy attack runs on the nearby pair of capships consisting of the Plunkett cruiser Nagato and Fralthi II cruiser Shrak’har, both of whose cover fire the White Hopes were flying under. Since the battle had begun, if the two capships’ gun/missile emplacements hadn’t nailed such Stingrays, Sirdar’s and Burdock’s boys did, which still didn’t discourage the next Stingray from doing the same thing. Apart from that goal, the Hopes and Gunners were to engage and eliminate at least two out of the three Barracuda corvettes that seemed to be set up as little more than support ships for the dreadnought... not that it needed them. One Barracuda had already bit it moments ago before Burdock’s very eyes, leaving only one left to the eager guns of the ’Sharks on the field. Being that there was never any "work as a team" stipulation given by the WC, the Hopes and Gunners seemed to be having some friendly competition over who could nail the corvette before the other.

Step right up, step right up... test your mettle...


F/A-105A Tigershark 101 [ Sky Raider Lead ]
0839 Hours (CST)

The Nephilim had evaded all but one of Kraut’s missiles. The one could not turn him in. Half of Hartmann’s rocket pod was gone, one ImRec, too, Hartmann started to become clear. The tension in his eyes relieved, his view spectrum enlarged, this thoughts began to flow again. He had left his assigned zone. At any rate, he had chased to Devil Ray away from the Forge. Hartmann tried hard find comfort in that thought but without success. He returned and prepared himself to face whatever the consequences of his behavior would be. He had gone wild, had forgotten about his objective, abandoned his position, his zone, his wing, his squadron. His duty, a duty has had once pledged to serve. A duty he had always lived with every part of him. What had got into him? How could he have forgot himself? He was shocked. This was an experience completely new to him.

Is that what having a command is all about? he wondered. What had he done? In short he had given up his command. It was only fair then if they now would take it away from him.

"Kraut" Hartmann was not surprised when he found Major Burdock finally flying into position on his wing as he entered his defense zone.

"Okay, I’m your man now," he heard the Major saying. He didn’t know what to make of it, but detected no hard feelings.

In Hartmann’s mind, a first and in this case, last squadron commander’s decision was made by him. He began, "I pass m…" Hartmann was thrown off of the comm when trying to pass his command on to Burdock.

"I am your wingman. Sky Raider Two out," Burdock made clear to everyone via the squadron main comm channel.


F/A-105A Tigershark 102 [ Sky Raider Two ]
0844 Hours (CST)

In Bugfix’s own cockpit, Burdock figured this probably was not what Trebek had in mind. He, too, was a little surprised by his own decision. It had only occurred to him moments ago. It was the right decision, he knew. On Trebek’s behalf, in regard to Hartmann, for the whole squadron, for now. For now he would assume position as Kraut’s wingman... for now.


TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
0848 Hours (CST)

Acting oblivious to the continuing commotion and voices of the pilots in the conflict outside heard on the comm so far, Captain Eldon Vandermann clasped both hands behind his back as he stood in silence before the great bridge viewports. No emotion could be read on his face, at least none that he allowed any of his crewmen to view. He had to be strong, be the leader, the figurehead and epitome of all that was good and right who was worthy of following to death even, if need be.

This moment was critical. The Alpha Strike against the Nephilim battle group had already commenced... uncertainty and grim despair was written on the faces of every man and woman he’d passed his glance over on his ship, and it was for damned good reason. They’d already been forced to deal with loss since Vandermann had come aboard... terrible loss. It was important now, more than ever, to hold together.

It had been only a few hours now since the last dosage of his "medicine" had been taken. Since he had come back into the possession of his medicine of choice after so many pained weeks, he had found a welcome return to clear-headed focus. His grasp on what needed to be done was waiting patiently for him, and he was only too relieved to be able to embrace it once more. For the crew’s sake; for his sanity’s sake.

He wouldn’t think about that anymore. Unwanted thoughts always had a habit of creeping into his psyche... some calling him "junkie," the others otherwise demeaning his lack of self-sufficiency in just the right way to press his buttons. No, he wouldn’t think about that anymore. He had his fix... that was all that mattered.

It was just as Vandermann was about to pull himself away from his lone reverie and return to his command when all of a sudden the lift doors hissed open. It was not the next shift of bridge officers, or bothersome orderlies, or more Kilrathi from the Shrak’har with questions about the situation and/or what lay ahead, but a 5-man detail of the Forge’s own Marines-led by the same Captain Temuulan Dshugder-Warmuth that had brought away such success from Neph II’s Operation Scour-that stormed across the bridge the instant the lift doors opened enough to allow them passage. All eyes fell immediately and unexpectedly at the Marines-whose very posture and stature indicated to all present a strong and clear sense that they were here on business of the most urgent nature-who marched towards the subject of their "visit" with just as little emotion displayed on their faces as Vandermann was managing.

Even as the steel-faced Captain was about to open his mouth in query of the Marines’ presence, he found himself held at gunpoint. His first thought was mutiny, but by the Marines’ posture it was clear to Eldon at least they were just following orders, and otherwise doubtless following Standard Operating Procedure for whatever kind of textbook situation this predicament happened to fall under... although there did seem to be some kind of personal satisfaction within each of them, though it was kept in obvious close check.

A venomous flash of anger betrayed her features as Captain Dshugder of the Marines stood face to face, toe to toe with Vandermann. Her subordinates with their M-58s trained on him, she spoke the words she made no secret she relished in speaking to the Captain, words perhaps rehearsed several times to be sure they came out just right. "Captain Eldon Vandermann," Dshugder began, her voice as gruff and authoritative as possible, "under just cause, you are hereby removed of your command pending a full hearing by the Admiralty Court and are confined to the brig until such a time."

"What is the meaning of this... this insubordination?"

Dshugder winced. "I’m afraid it’s suspicion of murder, sir. Good suspicion, sir, with hard evidence for not one but two murders... to say nothing of all the Marines you let die under Lt. Colonel Trelane’s command and all the Marines you sacrificed on Nephele II to satisfy your own sick ends."

Vandermann’s eyes narrowed. "This is an outrage, a -- "

A nod from Dshugder and two burly Marines bore down on Vandermann, each grabbing one of his shoulders. They weren’t too forceful, but certainly forceful enough to give the Captain no illusion about the futility of any kind of resistance or argument. "Please come with us, sir," the tighter-gripped of the two ventured, emphasized quickly but unnecessarily by a terse, "Now."

Knowing when to keep his mouth shut, the humbled Captain swept his gaze over the WC and every of his bridge crew’s shocked faces as he was led to the lift. He would have his time to talk. If not, his failure would have been complete right there and then. Vandermann prayed for the former.

Stifling a repressed grin, Commander Nathan Schaefer made the best of the situation, making his way to the command chair and laying a hand on one of the armrests. "I’m... I’m just as shocked as the rest of you, I’m sure, and I’m sure you already must know what this recent... turn of events must mean," he spoke to the befuddled faces of the bridge staff. "Our mission must be carried out-this cannot and will not stand in our way. Effective immediately and until further notice from the High Command in regard to Vandermann and the resolution of his... situation, I am now acting captain of the TCS Valley Forge and commanding officer of CVBG-A."

Fighting back the grin he struggled to repress earlier, a steadfast Schaefer took his seat in the command chair to no protest.



F-108A Panther 001 [ Alpha Lead ]
0852 Hours (CST)

Ronin slid another few klicks in toward the bombers. The pilot of the lead bomber gave him the thumbs up. Ronin saluted and then slid away again to a reasonable distance. His four-ship escort needed some "breathing space." Close escort was a job fighter pilots hated. Not the fact that they were tied to the slower, less maneuverable bombers, but the fact that it gave them an entirely defensive role. Fighter pilots are by their very nature aggressive, offensive personalities, and even in a defensive role they liked to have the initiative, to be the attacker. The reason is simply that once you become purely defensive and reacting to an attacker’s moves you are not a fighter but a target, already half way to defeat. Fighters are far better used to head off attacks on bombers before the enemy are ever within sight of the bomber formations. There they can use their abilities and spacecraft performance to the full. When escorting bombers, both the initial speed and position are dictated by the bombers. It is akin to a guard dog being chained up by the back door of a large house. Dogs roaming free over the ground can attack a would-be burglar far more easily. However, there is always the small possibility they may slip past the free dogs and enter the house.

The solution therefore (when the resources are available) is to have two or even three groups of fighters. Firstly, a free ranging fighter sweep ahead and to the flanks of the bombers’ route. Secondly, "top cover," a group of fighters near to the bombers, but able to attack any enemy interceptors that appear, and give chase, knowing that the third group, the close escort, are there as a last line of defense. This is as much a psychological prop for the bomber crews as much as anything else. Being attacked by enemy fighters with your own nowhere to be seen is very disheartening, even if the main group of enemy spacecraft are already heading back to base with their tails between their legs never having seen let alone intercepted their prey, the bombers. And of course, there are always some enemy that may make it through to the bombers.

Ronin appreciated the psychological aspect and was reinforcing the knowledge of their protective presence upon the bomber pilots, who, knowing they were in good hands, would be more comfortable heading into danger and therefore probably better at their job as a result.

Ronin listened with increasing frustration and a sense of impotence to the cacophony of calls on the radio; insults, exhortations, "splash" calls, maydays and screams. No doubt the bomber pilots were listening to the same thing and whereas Ronin wanted nothing better than to "get stuck in" and enter the fray, presumably the bomber pilots were thinking of their dangerous attack runs with increasing trepidation.

He glanced over his left shoulder. 1st Lt Miani "Shiva" Tnisu was flying a perfect wing formation and he thought he could just make out Captain Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues and his wingman 1st Lieutenant Torr "Ice" Grael out and slightly behind over his right shoulder. The scanner told him they were there but that way he had a better picture in his mind. The better he could visualize the scene around him, now and in the future, the higher his situational awareness and the more likely he (and the rest of the flight) were to survive the next few minutes. Spacecraft, even whole flights had been known to fly into the ground, ships and other spacecraft merely because the flight leader had a poor picture of what was around him, and the wingmen had simply done what they were supposed to do and stayed in formation, often never seeing the thing that killed them. Extreme examples, but in a dogfight it was very easy for one aircraft to "break" and collect another, or for a leader to drag his wingman between another element leader and his quarry whilst blindly chasing his own target, simply be not being fully aware of what was going on around him. Even with the sensor technology of the 27th Century the Mk1 eyeball still had a big part to play.

"Okay, here we go!"

"Fighters coming in, two o’clock low!"

"Tally. Let’s get them!"

A head on pass with the Morays. High energy projectiles passing in both directions to slam into the Panther’s shields virtually unnoticed by Ronin, his entire world shrunken to a small circle projected onto the HUD for those few moments, the bug fighter looming larger and larger until it broke away at the last second, so close Ronin could see every detail on its surface. It seemed almost like skin. And the creature’s attack and last second change of direction reminded him of a fish, darting in and then out again, whether or not it had managed to tear off a chunk of flesh. As these thoughts flashed through his head he had already rolled in behind it, his hands and feet working automatically without conscious thought to place the Nephilim ship squarely in his gun sight and keep it there as the fire from his guns pounded into it. He spared one eye to glance at the targeting scanner and watched first its shields and then its armor rapidly eroded, watched it change color on the scanner and then explode, the last few bursts of full-guns smashing into the large chunks of debris.

Ronin thumbed the closest target button but his eyes had shifted to the bombers. Massed turret fire pinpointed their position without too much trouble, not far from where his mental picture told him they should be.

"Protect the bombers, people," he reminded his flight while pushing the throttle through the gate into afterburners. Cycling the target he locked up a Manta that was harassing Talon Squadron. The Nephilim were using the big fighter-bombers somewhat like the Germans had used Me 110s during WWII, as a bomber destroyer. They were tough targets and so he selected an ImRec and let fly. He hesitated for a second or so, then fired a second missile. The first had crossed half the distance to the Manta when the bug fighter seemed to notice. It fired a bunch of decoys off and pulled into the vertical. The first missile seemed momentarily confused as to whether the Manta of the cloud of chaff and flares was its real prey. It wriggled, started a slight corkscrew, corrected, and decided on the former. It shot vertically upwards into the Manta’s exhaust area. Meanwhile the second missile hadn’t been fooled at all and simply cut the corner, smashing directly into the center of the platform the Manta had so kindly presented it at almost the same moment. The Alien fighter simply vaporized.

A flash off to his left caught his attention: Burrito had hit another Manta with a missile of his own and was now finishing it off with guns. Satisfying himself that the strike flights were safe for the time being he selected the closest target, another Moray, and turned into it. The Nephilim fighter accepted the challenge. A couple of long range shots forced it to break away and present a different set of shields to his guns, but Ronin now had all the angle advantage he needed. The bug had simply delayed its death a few seconds.

Having demolished that wave of attackers they took stock of the situation. Most of the enemy fighters were out of the way, and the bombers were lining up on the Hydra-class cruiser. Slowly coming from the right though, was a Barracuda-class corvette. Two had already been destroyed but this one had slipped through the TARCAP.

"Let’s get this Barracuda," he ordered.

"Copy," Burrito replied, "I’m right behind you. Let’s do it."

The Barracuda was a big slow target. It could not get away from the Panthers even if it wanted to, but instead it seemed to ignore them, heading for the Kilrathi bombers, trying to cut them off from the Hydra. Ronin attacked it, but it seemed to take forever to strip its shields, even under the combined firepower of  two Panthers. Nevertheless, it seemed to be too busy getting rid of the minor annoyance of the fighters swarming over it to attack the bombers. A third set of guns joined in and eventually, shuddering under the weight of fire, the corvette was wracked by a series of explosions which finally tore it apart.

"Let’s get over there and see if we can lend a hand," Ronin suggested.


F-108A Panther 007 [ DDT Four ]
0855 Hours (CST)

"Okay," Major Angela "Draft" Rai unnecessarily reiterated, her visage popping up on the vidcomm screen of 1st Lieutenant Bob "Fatboy" Little’s Panther, "we’re the DDT Wing. You know what to do. We’re about two minutes out, so stay sharp."

"What the hell does ‘DDT’ stand for, anyway?" Fatboy demanded, "I can’t work out the acronym."

"DDT-Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane," Chatterbox explained, "Apart from the popular professional wrestling move, it was a pesticide developed in the 20th Century. An organo-halogen that was intended to revolutionize insecticides, but it wasn’t as good as it was supposed to be. Some bugs were resistant, and bred, creating superbugs. Plus, it built up in the food chain, poisoning higher predators, and causing things like birds of prey to lay thin shelled, infertile eggs. Eventually it was banned and raptor populations slowly recovered, but it lingered in the soil and was used in the third world and by unscrupulous landowners for a long time after."

"You mean it’s... bugspray?"

"Uh... yeah, but why say two words when two hundred will do?" Chatterbox laughed, "you’ve gotta keep the mood light, haven’t you?"

"You’re not scared, then?"

"Um... I decline to answer that question on the grounds it may serve to incriminate my own person."

"Yeah, me too, I’m shitting myself here!"

"Mark Twain said: ‘Courage is the mastery of fear, resistance to fear, not
the absence of fear.’"

"I thought he said: ‘Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated’?"

"Well, he said that, too, but I thought the other one was far more relevant!"

"Quite. Where do you get all this shit, anyway?"

"I don’t know. I read some here, see some there, hear this and that, and it goes in. I don’t have a photographic memory, but there was this one guy in basic..."

"Look," Draft cut in, "is this really relevant?"

"Uh, no..." admitted Fatboy.

"Right then... shut up!"

Chatterbox bit back the vicious retort that automatically came to his lips. The admonishment was a fair one, if a conversation doesn’t concern everyone it shouldn't be on the primary mission frequency, but their new XO sounded edgy. Very, very edgy. Was she too close to snapping? He couldn’t tell, the two Hill pilots didn’t know her well enough yet to make that judgment, but she made him uneasy. He knew she didn’t entirely trust them, and their was a rumor she’d been about to attack their new Kilrathi allies before one of the others stopped her, during the mission Ronin had gotten shot down.

She might or might not trust them, but he certainly wasn’t too sure about her either...


F-108A Panther 002 [ DDT Lead ]
0859 Hours (CST)

Draft latched onto a Manta and hosepiped Ion Cannon blasts at it. The Manta twisted and writhed as if in pain but it couldn’t escape the Aztec XO’s relentless fire. A Moray suddenly flashed from right to left between her and her quarry, its shields flashing and flaring as it collected some of her fire. A Panther followed closely behind in hot pursuit. Draft released the trigger momentarily but it was too late, ion fire was already speeding across the narrow space between them to crash heavily into its left flank. The shields of the big fighter flickered and seemed to absorb the blasts without apparent problems but 2nd Lieutenant Jethrow "Riceburner" Beacon turned the spacewaves blue with his colorful and explicit instructions on what Draft should do with her fighter’s weapon systems. Draft grinned and kept firing at the Alien fighter. She was quickly rewarded as an explosion tore the right-hand side of the Manta to pieces. The nose pitched violently upwards and the fighter disintegrated, debris crashing noisily but harmlessly into her shields.

Next she selected the Hydra and afterburned toward it. The massive Alien craft had ten gun turrets and four missile turrets confronting the strike group. The Aztecs’ agile space superiority fighters had a chance against these formidable defenses but heavily laden bombers locked into torpedo runs were sitting ducks. The only cover was, ironically, the cruiser itself. The closer to the Hydra you got, the fewer guns it could bring to bear upon them. So Draft careened headlong toward the very thing that was at this moment trying hard to kill her. She fired off her Anti-Radiation Missiles, almost rippled them, as fast as she could change target and get a lock, not bothering to see if each hit. She pulled out of the kamikaze-like run only meters from the craggy surface of the Alien capital ship, skimming close to its surface, searching out the shield generator. The shield generator would be taken out first, just in case... fourteen weapon turrets between four people was three and a half each, not too tall of an order, but bad enough.


F-108A Panther 008 [ DDT Three ]
0902 Hours (CST)

At that same moment Chatterbox was playing chicken with a missile turret. Dumping decoys and barrel-rolling around the missiles fired at him he had already taken out two of the Hydra’s four missile emplacements. Dealing with a third, he was holding a running commentary interspersed with insults and taunts. It mattered little that the enemy could not hear him -- he was simply having fun.

"Come on, you muther! Is that the best you can do? Chew on this, bastard! Want some more? No, didn’t think so! Whoa! Close, but no cigar! That got you, didn’t it?"

He searched for the last missile turret but was disappointed to find it had already been taken out by one of the others, so he locked up the closest gun turret and loosed a missile at that.


F-108A Panther 007 [ DDT Four ]
0906 Hours (CST)

Fatboy realized with surprise that his left leg was juddering, nervously tapping out a tattoo on the cockpit floor. His palms were sweaty and his fingers twitched and flexed reflexively. His stomach was pulling high-G maneuvers of its own accord, and he was biting his lip. The pain did little to steady his nerves; in fact he hardly noticed it at all. His mind was focused on the vast bulk of the Alien cruiser that filled his HUD.

Ahead was a turret. It seemed huge and the speed with which something so large and seemingly unwieldy could move to track targets amazed and scared him. Nevertheless he placed the pipper over it, gritted his teeth and pulled the trigger. As his guns rapidly emptied their energy banks into the gun turret the monster seemed to sense him. He’d gotten its attention now. The massive gun swiveled ’round toward him and opened fire. Instinctively he ducked as the huge energy bolts hurtled overhead. Suddenly the urge to laugh overcame him and he laughed out loud. His finger tightened on the trigger, his guns slamming into the turret though it carried on firing. It was a futile effort, the Alien turret would not depress far enough to hit him. Suddenly the gun exploded. A short burst of afterburners brought him within range of the next turret. He lined up and started to fire.

Fatboy’s head suddenly snapped forward as he was flung hard into his straps. He’d inadvertently got so close to the Hydra that he’d bounced off of it, and up into its firing arc. He immediately bunted the stick and opened the throttle but three or four very large bangs rocked the aircraft before he could get out of the firing line. One of his MFDs changed to show the damage-his shield generator was badly damaged and he’d taken some core light damage as well. Not too bad. Yet.

He resumed his fire at the turret, his left leg still dancing its own little jig.


F-108A Panther 002 [ DDT Two ]
0912 Hours (CST)

"That’s it!" Draft exclaimed triumphantly over the Aztecs’ command channel when the smoke cleared, "The cruiser’s defenseless!"

"Okay, then," Chatterbox’s voice came a short moment later. The fickle former ’Hill pilot sounded as if he felt he’d been cheated out of something, "I guess it’s time to see if Ronin has left us any fighters to have a go at, eh?"

The enemy fighters had mostly ignored them while they were close to the Hydra, but one or two moved to attack them now. There were also far less fighters than anticipated defending it -- where were all the Devil Rays and other large fighters? They were only being engaged by Squid and Morays. Perhaps the Aliens had launched more of an attack on the Forge than expected.

Draft still had most of her rocket pod left, and after using both her Image Recognition missiles earlier was reduced to using the unguided rockets and guns. Their small warheads were made up for by their sheer numbers, and it had to be said, it was fun sending rocket after rocket into the enemy fighters while it struggled futilely to escape.

"I’m hit! I’m hit!"

"Who’s hit?" she demanded.

"Alpha Four! I’ve taken serious damage here! Somebody get it off me!"

"I’m on my way!" Ronin’s voice.

"Hang on, I’m coming," Burrito reassured him.

"Argh! I’m not gonna make it! I’ve got to eject!"

"Hold on! We’re coming, I’m nearly in range!"

"Too late. Ejecting!"

"Damnit! God damn it!" Burrito was furious. At the Nephilim fighter? At Ice for breaking off on his own? At himself for letting him get shot down? It was impossible to tell, but he poured out his rage on the bug fighter, sending a brace of missiles into it and holding down the trigger until long after his guns gasped for energy and the enemy fighter had exploded.

"Strike, Gold Lead. We have a pilot in need of SAR, approximate position of the enemy cruiser."

"Copy, Gold Lead. SAR already deployed. They are aware of your request."

"Understood, listening out." Any Condor-class Search And Rescue shuttle obviously couldn’t enter the combat zone unarmed and unescorted. In a few minutes the Hydra should be put out of action and they would come in and pick up survivors. There’d been more than one ejection already.

"Lead, Beta Three. I’d like to provide RESCAP."

"Okay, ’Box, but not on your own."

"I’ll do it." The words were out of Fatboy’s mouth before he realized he’d said it. Every fiber of him rebelled against the idea of staying in the combat zone any longer than necessary but a little voice inside was telling him he should. That really, he had to. He couldn’t abandon anyone else. Not again.

There was a couple of seconds silence.

"Very well... you two stay and provide RESCAP. Draft, take Riceburner and get back on the Forge. No sense risking any more fighters. Burrito and I will try and clear up a few more. I’ve still some missiles left. Shiva, you go with Draft."

"I’d rather stay."

"You’ll do as you’re ordered, I’m not having any more single spacecraft elements get themselves shot down."


"You didn’t have to do this, you know," ’Box suddenly said.

"I know. Neither did you."

"I know."


"Don’t feel you have to stay and do this because I am," ’Box told him.

"That’s not why I’m doing it."




"Fine. Glad we got that sorted out then." Suddenly, the silence became deafening.

The Aztecs primary role in the mission had been completed. Switching frequencies, the Major keyed over to the channel of the former Border Worlder squadron presently inducted into the 71st FW and spoke in a hushed tone, "Talon Squadron; Major Richthofen... that Hydra’s all yours."



Vindicator 001 [ Talon Lead ]
0915 Hours (CST)

"You heard the lady, Talons, let’s do this. Tallyho!"

Major Frederick "Doppler" von Richthofen led his two Vindicator medium fighter-flying wingmates into the thick of the battle as 1st Lieutenant Melinda "Python" Fitzroy wasted no time in leading the six B-7 Dauntless heavy bombers (donated to the Talons and CVBG-A’s 71st FW courtesy of the BWS Valeria’s Thor’s Hammer Squadron) on their torpedo runs. The Talons did, of course, now have at their disposal at least one fully functional oldie-but-goodie "Mace" that he’d seen saw fit to have installed on his ’Vin personally after the recent Operation Scour, but Richthofen still felt apt to save it for a "rainy day," in a manner of speaking.

With an uncharacteristically eager Captain Stefani "Torch" Kozlowski to his port side and an equally psyched Captain Seth "Anubis" Milhalik to his starboard side, Richthofen and his wingmen had the Dauntless’ backs while they moved in for the kill. As far as taking on the Nephilim cruiser’s CAP, aside from what fighters Kal Shintahr Jhathar nar Vukar Tag and his Cats in the "Dakhaths" Squadron ("Deathstroke") had tied up at the moment and aside from picking off an occasional Manta or Moray along the way, there was nothing. That alone gave the Major the distinct impression the xenos either didn’t know what six torpedo bombers under wingman cover making a B-line for one of their biggest capships meant or didn’t think it of concern. He gave them credit enough at least to assume the former. It was smooth sailing for the Talons, right up until the last, yet ever so greatly anticipated...

"Talon Four to Talon Leader," came the terse, quickly-spoken voice of Lieutenant "Python" Fitzroy over the command channel, "My bombers have missile lock. Orders, sir?"

Richthofen allowed himself to smile, one with an almost morbid edge to it. How could he not? "You tell your boys’n girls you most certainly have got your green light, Python. Talon Leader out."

"Fox two!"

The first salvo of six ship-killing torpedoes would have likely been enough as it was. Then swooped another B-7, then another, until a third made its run and the entire mass of the Hydra-class cruiser was so broken up it literally crumbled in on itself before going up in an all-too familiar fiery haze.

"Oh yeah... scratch one heavy!" cried Torch.

Overkill. The final shockwave effect from its shattered core provided a satisfying end to a most satisfying capship kill.

"Skabak, Talons!" shouted the deep, felinoid voice of Jhathar nar Vukar Tag in the headsets of every pilot in Doppler’s squadron. "A kill worthy of the War-God’s honor, surely, Major Richthofen!"

The Major’s smile took on more of an amused sense now. Had his squadron just impressed their resident Cat allies? "Thank you, Kal Shintahr," he offered in response, not sure how else to take it.

One more of the big orange dots on Major Richthofen’s HUD was gone -- one more blip closer to victory.


TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
In approach vector to Nephilim dreadnought battle group
0919 Hours (CST)

After a brief Tri-D conference with a well-composed Commander Tomoyasha Hotei of the TCS Nagato on a performance/status update, "Captain" Schaefer departed the bridge to tend to "pressing matters" who knows where on the Forge. Like magic, the bridge quickly became the embodiment of uncomfortable silence in the absence of their new, or put into better terms, "replacement" authority figure.

Lieutenant Commander Erin Ishii, now not only taking on the duties of Fire Control Officer/FCO but also First Officer XO with Schaefer’s field promotion, shuffled her way to her friend at the Comm Shack, Lt. JG Amy St. Germain.

Ensign Jed Wright of the conn was already there, exchanging words of comfort and worry with his fellow officer. He himself had been handling things of late rather well, with the loss of his close friend and fellow ’80 Service Academy graduate Matt Turner... now being told that it was Vandermann behind it. Erin had her own doubts and her reservations about Vandermann, but for Jed it had to have been far more personal... they had been childhood friends, for heaven’s sakes. She did not envy him that, though few could envy her own loss with Matt. The perfect, logical example she had chosen to ignore of why not to get too close to a fellow officer in a time of war, or even to get too close to a fellow officer at all. Looking at Amy and Jed, knowing well of the two’s private and frequent fraternizations, she hoped neither of them would have to go through that, too.

Ishii ran a hand through her hair, flinging it back before letting a sigh. "Amy... Jed..."

Lt. St. Germain forced a coaxing smile. "You holding up all right, sister?"

Ishii tried to force one in return to look strong before her friend, but gave up quickly. No use. "When is this shit going to end? When is this going to stop, and how much more will we have to lose?"

The continuing uncomfortable silence was the XO’s only answer. Had she really wanted one anyway?


TCS Valley Forge; Brig
0925 Hours (CST)

"Guards, you’re dismissed."


"I want to speak to the old man alone, if you please."


The two Marines nodding and departing, Captain Nathan Schaefer straightened out his tunic and put on a mock look of condescendence as he made his entrance into the Forge’s brig. The limited prison-type facility seldom held anyone other than crewers, pilots, or the occasional Marine jarhead who decided to get rambunctious while intoxicated (hopefully off-duty), but today it held something of a celebrity on the Forge. Today it held Captain Eldon Vandermann and only Captain Eldon Vandermann.

"We had an understanding, Nate," muttered the humbled Vandermann from within the shadowy interior of his cell of the utmost ill-decor. "An understanding." If one might claim the man’s day cabin had been spartan, his new place of residence offered a strong challenge to that claim.

Look at you... pathetic! Schaefer mused in satisfaction, A rat in a cage, and myself at last in the place I so rightly deserve to be in during the Valley Forge’s most pivotal hour. "No, Eldon, that’s where you’re wrong. We had an understanding. You had a role you were expected to fill... you failed. You got sloppy, you lost control; lost sight of The Plan. What’s worse is you knew it, too."

"My only crime is trying to spare this ship... this crew. Unlike you, I still have some morals left. Damn you, Nathan... you didn’t have to kill that ensign... that MCPO. I’m not a murderer." Vandermann flailed his arms helplessly as he stood in his cell to face the bald-shaven Schaefer. "This isn't the way! For the love of God, we don’t have to be murderers!"

Captain Schaefer gave his former superior a sideways glance. "Oh, but aren’t you? Hypocrisy doesn’t suit you. You don’t think I read the report on your wife? Really, Eldon... poor woman. Estella was her name, wasn't it?"

"Schaefer, no..."

"2673. It was on the eve of our G.E. boys’ magnificent testing run on Telamon IV, wasn’t it? She found out... a little too much about you, didn’t she? Found out just what it was you were doing in the Black Projects Division and Unit 212... or at least had some idea; perhaps how deep you’d gone, confronted you about it, didn’t she?" Schaefer gave a muted, hoarse chuckle. "Must have been a sight indeed. But you always were the good soldier, weren’t you? Knew what had to be done to maintain The Plan and acted on it, you did, more so than most of us. You used to be my role model, in a very strong sense... but how sadly things have changed."

"Damn you... damn you..."

"It’s really quite simple the way I see it, I’m willing to die for the furthering of The Plan; you are not. You’ve grown weak, Eldon. Weak and old, ready to be put out to pasture and replaced by the new. Last week you proved it in Nephele. Really... bothering with those monks? How trite. And involving Tanfen’s TISD, of all mundane conglomerates...? Ludicrous, if not borderline treason against The Plan. Oh, you can go play the hard-ass captain who spouts those Cat Codices you love so much on cue all you want... but what of the Project? What of the Movement?"

"There must be another way. There mus -- "

"There isn't, and that’s what you’ve lost sight of. I won't let you throw away a decade of meticulous planning just because you’ve become one of them... one of the sheep. The blasted Hunt-Down may have slashed our numbers... but it did not take away our purpose. You’ve become a cancer that can’t be afforded." Schaefer took a step back, looking to Vandermann with repugnance. "I own you, Eldon, and now I’m taking your place-nothing personal, just call it a clash of principles... an irreparable clash."

"This ship... this crew... damn it all, we don’t have to die, Schaefer. There’s just no sense to it."

"Don’t you get it? Didn’t you believe in The Plan; The Project? You must have, even if you’ve lost your vision... hell, you were the Old Man’s right hand man, his top lieutenant right there beside old Ludmilla Petranova, Hugh Paulson, Victor Rayak, and their like." Vandermann offered no denial at this point, so Schaefer went on, "Never did understand what he saw in you... ‘Fighting keeps us fit,’ ‘conflict ensures our readiness; our survival.’" Schaefer harrumphed. "You’ve dug your grave, so lie in it. When it’s all said and done and history marches on... you go down the bad guy, I go down the martyr with the rest of my brothers and sisters."

"My God, just list -- "

"If the line is held against the Nephilim and their threat is brought to a halt in the here and now... what happens next? The peoples of Confed would only become complacent and confused again in the resulting peacetime, like after the First Kilrathi War, wouldn’t they? No, Vandermann, the war must continue, The Plan must continue." The younger officer shook his head in disappointment. "I would have hoped at the very least you would understand that much, Eldon."

"We don’t have to die. None of us do."

Something of a sardonic smile stretched across Schaefer’s face, one he was no longer afraid to show. "I’m afraid that’s just no longer your call to make, Eldon."

"So I see."

"I trust your ultimate loyalty to The Plan remains...?"

"I will not reveal your history, if that’s what you’re asking."

"See that you don’t. Good day. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance."

"Yes... yes, quite right," Vandermann softly spoke in a solemn tone as Schaefer turned to leave. "I suppose it is at that."