PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 59 of 66 )

: Calculated Risk
PART 2 OF 2 : REFLECTIONS


 


Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
Tigershark 701, "Arkrunner Lead"
February 14th, 2681/2681.045, 1520
Hours (CST)

Major Adam "Foxxman" Brancer looked at his radar scope and fifty red pips glowed back at him, almost taunting him with his impotence. It was all he could do to keep from screaming into his cockpit with frustration. The strike had done its job and pulled the biggest and most deadly teeth of the enemy task force they were after, and the main body of fighters was now engaging the remainder of the enemy fighters. Follow-up strikes would most likely be ordered to engage what few enemy capital ships were left.
   
It had all seemed a bit too easy, and now he knew why.
   
Fifty bandits, a formidable strike force, were inbound on the
Yorktown's position, and they were directly between the Yorktown's own inbound strike craft, the only ones who had spotted them, and the carrier herself, jamming any and all communications.
   
There was another consideration: Most of the
Yorktown's healthy fighters were still at the location of the enemy force, cleaning up what few enemies were left at that location. And of the fighters that had spotted the enemy force, two of the escorting sixteen fighters were heavily damaged and in no condition to engage the enemy, while of the other eleven Shrikes, two were showing damage.
   
Quickly checking over his armaments, Brancer found that he had half his
Dragonfly missiles left along with a pair of Javelin HS missiles, old missiles, but definitely powerful. He also had little or no damage. Taking into account the damaged fighters, he knew he had a little over three-on-one odds against his fighters, not counting the Shrikes which, while the were formidable craft, were not designed with dogfighting in mind, or CAP missions.
   
Still with the
Yorktown force were twenty-eight fighters: Fourteen Wasp Interceptors, designed for task force defense, and nine Tigershark medium multi-role fighters, the same as what Brancer was himself piloting. The other five were HF-66 Thunderbolt VII heavy fighters, originally designed for anti-fighter and light anti-capital ship work. That combined group would go a long way towards evening the odds against them. It would give them forty-four fighters and interceptors, not counting the Shrikes, which could be counted on to use their laser turrets to best advantage. If they could get word to the task force in time, they could engage the enemy in a nearly even-odds fight, and with the capital ships in the task force well able to protect themselves.
   
Brancer stopped himself. He needed to focus on the matter at hand, or
just over three thousand people on the Yorktown alone would be forfeit to the damned bugs. He took a deep breath.
   
"What do you want to do, Major?" came the voice of Major Karpoff, flying
the lead Shrike torpedo bomber.
   
"I guess we don't have a hell of a lot of choice, Major. We've got to
get their attention. Bloody their noses a bit while somebody runs ahead to tell the Yorktown what's headed her way," Brancer replied.
   
"We're all low on fuel, Major. We can't sustain prolonged afterburner
use... unless you've got somebody who still has some 'burner fuel left," Karpoff said.
   
"Nope. Somebody's going to have to slip away undetected. I'd suggest
somebody who's still got some gas call the Yorktown for tankers and her BARCAP," Brancer replied.
   
"None of mine have more than a few seconds of afterburners left,
Foxxman. It'll have to be one of yours," Karpoff spoke after approximately thirty seconds pause.
   
"Stand by one, Major. Alright, Arkrunners. Anybody want to volunteer to
run back to the Yorktown? Preferably somebody who has quite a bit more afterburner fuel than anybody else?" Brancer called.
   
There was a deafening silence while all of the Arkrunners checked their
fuel status. Brancer checked his mission timer. Only six minutes left until the bugs reached the Yorktown.
   
"I'll do it
," came a quiet voice. "I can get it done."
   
"Say again
," Brancer called, hating himself for not trying to do it himself. But his fuel reserves were too low, and he didn't have enough armaments to guarantee that he could get through.
   
"I can do it. I've got enough time on burners to get me to the task
force," said Second Lieutenant Maxwell "Hammer" Holland, flying Arkrunner Eight, a plebe on his first cruise who had so far racked up eight kills.
   
"Hammer, you sure you want to do this? You'll be running this gauntlet
alone," Brancer replied.
   
"Major, what's more important? My life, or the survival of the
Yorktown? Yes sir, I'm ready. I can do this, and I'm in the best shape to do it. Just give me the go-ahead," Holland replied.
   
"Arkangel, did you copy that?" Brancer said.
   
"Affirm
," Karpoff's voice replied.
   
"Alright.
Holland, we're going to key up our IFF codes and hit them with everything we've got. Once that happens, get clear and get word to the Yorktown. No heroics, just get the message out and I'll be satisfied. Understood?" Brancer said after a few moments' pause.
   
"Understood,"
Holland said.
   
"Arkrunners, activate IFF and start pushing out all the energy you can
in three... two... one," Brancer called.
   
Upon his signal, every radar of every fighter locked onto the
Alien ships, all of them accelerating on what afterburners they had left.
   
It worked. The Nephilim ships quickly slowed their forward movement and
began coming around as one. Off to one side, Holland's Tigershark accelerated away, all emissions minimized except for those of the Tigershark's afterburners, which boosted the fighter away at 1,200 KPS, skirting the soon-to-be battlefield as the pilots who remained behind called out targets and began firing off missiles at fifteen thousand klicks to their targets.

If one views space from within the vacuum, one small speck of light
seems to make no difference. It merely glitters a bit brighter for a moment if a distant sun goes nova, or slowly dims as it burns out. There is no sound, only silence, because sound cannot travel through a vacuum. A star, as seen from space, is only a small pinpoint of light or a glowing sphere, and, when viewing the later, the rest of the stars are dimmer because of the excess of ambient light.
  
A similar situation played out now, as people in crafted-metal and
grown/spawned biological cockpits fought it out, nobody noticed the one small pinpoint of light that accelerated away from the battle, drawing little or no attention to itself. Until three Moray-class fighters angled towards Maxwell Holland's Tigershark.

 

Tigershark 710, "Arkrunner Eight"
Same Time

Second Lieutenant Maxwell
"Hammer" Holland looked back over his shoulder with dismay.
   
Small pinpoints of light, three of them, to be exact, had broken away
from the main fight and were attempting to close on his fighter. Each was an enemy, he was sure of it. Bright flashes lit up space, along with the white streaks that marked missile paths.
   
However, the Morays were falling behind. His objective was to build up
enough of a lead that when (not if) his afterburners flamed out from lack of fuel, he could maintain speed long enough to reach to Yorktown before the bugs caught up with him.
   
Holland had been raised a Roman Catholic. He had gone through all of the Sacraments: Baptism, Reconciliation, First Communion, Confirmation. And now wished that he'd had time to go to confession with the Catholic chaplain aboard the Yorktown before he'd left the "Waltzing Matilda." He'd managed to keep his conscience clear, and had avoided doing anything that might be called a mortal sin. Well, except maybe drinking to excess after the Battle of Tyr, but he imagined that it could be forgiven. After all, he'd come damned near having his fighter blown out from under him, and he didn't want to test the hospitality of the bugs. Especially after the rumors had started flying around of what they did to captured pilots.
   
Glancing at his scope, he saw that the range was still opening. He had a
100 KPS speed advantage on the aliens and given the distance, he might be able to get a transmission through to the Yorktown.
   
Quickly setting his communications array to let loose the most powerful
beam it could, he activated his communications unit. "Eyrie, this is Arkrunner Eight. You have an inbound strike on this bearing. Requesting immediate assistance, over."
   
Only the hiss of static answered his call, which he continued to repeat,
hoping, praying, that there would be a response and that something unforeseen hadn't happened.

 

Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Bridge
Same Time

Admiral William Kennedy looked at the plot. They were expecting the
strike back at any time. Hopefully, they had managed to take out the dreadnought, and wouldn't be forced to go after such a tough target a second time, especially after the surprise had worn off.
   
Still and all, he thought that the air group would do just fine, even
going out with only eighty-two fighters. The Assistant WC had screamed bloody murder about not being able to fly himself, but his personal fighter, a Tigershark, was undergoing a complete refit after taking heavy damage. Not only that, but somebody was needed to manage goings on in the task force while the WC and the strike group was away.
   
A slight movement caught Kennedy's eye. A communications specialist
seemed to straighten slightly, then work his console. Probably just stiff, Kennedy thought. He could understand the feeling, his spine letting him know that it was tired of being upright for this long. He could hear the cot in his day cabin off the flag bridge calling his name, but refrained. It wouldn't be good for morale to let this crew think he didn't care about their welfare. So he'd stand watch with them until the strike came back.
   
Kennedy settled for leaning against the wall at the back of the bridge,
holding onto an overhead stanchion to keep himself upright and awake.
   
Ever since the loss of the
Bunker Hill and Admiral Rayak, he'd been in charge of directing the Third Fleet, or what he could direct. The orders they were following had been laid out well beforehand by Admiral Hanton, a woman who he held in the highest respect after all she'd accomplished, and all the casualties she'd inflicted upon the aliens.
   
And now, the Third Fleet was his, with all its history and its list of
battles fought and won. Granted, most of them were from the Kilrathi Wars, but better that than the disgrace that the Fleet had been forced to shoulder after the Black Lance incident and the Huntdown. Now, he'd been elevated to the level of Tolwyn, before his fall from grace, along with Admiral Banbridge and all who'd commanded the fleet during the First Kilrathi War.
   
It was a burden that weighed heavily on him
especially now that its striking power had been reduced by more than half (he wasn't discounting the Endeavour or its fine crew, but it couldn't make up for the loss of the Bunker Hill or Valley Forge). If only Saratoga hadn't been lost during the opening days of the conflict. A fourth fleet carrier would've been a blessing beyond all compare at this moment.
   
"Sir
," the communications expert called.
   
"What is it, Ensign?" Kennedy asked, straightening up and walking
towards the console the young man was working at.
   
"I'm getting a transmission, very faint
but it seems to be closing on our position. I'm not sure, but -- " the communications officer began.
   
Suddenly, alarms began to go off. "Sir, multiple contacts, closing,
bearing zero-five-seven z-plus six, relative, range one hundred thousand klicks and closing fast!" the sensor officer said.
   
"Have the SWACS confirm and move the fighter screen to intercept!"
Kennedy barked, moving towards the plot.
   
"All hands, man your battle
stations! Set condition Zed! Seal off all compartments! Repeat, all hands to battle stations! Set condition Zed in all compartments!" called the CO of the Yorktown, John Ramirez.
   
"Sir, the communication is coming from that lead ship. It seems to be
moving more quickly than the rest," the Comm Officer began.
   
"I'm positively identifying the lead craft as a Confederation
Tigershark. The three ships pursuing it are tentatively identified as Nephilim Moray-class fighters." The sensor officer said.
   
"Death Stingers, come to course one-eight-two z-plus six and intercept.
Weapons free," the communications officer relayed.
   
"XO, Go to CIC and monitor from there. I don't want to get tunnel vision
and miss something important," Ramirez said. The Yorktown's executive officer, Commander Preston Wallace, nodded and quickly walked off the bridge, entered the lift, and disappeared from sight.
   
"Sir, the signal from that fighter. It sounds like there's an attack
incoming along that bearing," the Comm Officer called out.
   
"Any news about the rest of the strike?" Kennedy asked.
   
"None, sir
," the Ensign replied.
   
Kennedy hesitated, but only for an instant. "Vector the interceptor
force onto that bearing. It could be that the strike force, or what's left of it, is trying to buy us time to stop these newcomers. We're not going to leave them hanging."
   
"Ahead flank, come to one-one-zero z-minus ten
," Ramirez called.
   
"Signal the rest of the task force to conform to our movements. And get
that Tigershark aboard ASAP," Kennedy added, nodding at Ramirez.
   
In the meantime, the fourteen Wasp interceptors, piloted by the Death
Stingers Squadron, accelerated away from the fleet carrier, engaging the oncoming group of Morays before continuing to accelerate down that bearing, with the other Tigersharks and the Thunderbolt heavy fighters in hot pursuit.
   
The damaged Tigershark, however, chose not to join the outbound
fighters, but instead continued towards the Yorktown, its speed falling off as it exhausted its afterburners.
   
Lieutenant Colonel Marcus Linche, the Assistant Wing Commander,
stepped onto the bridge, quickly moving to take a position beside Kennedy. "What's the story, sir?"
   
"We've got a strike believed to be inbound. I've dispatched the
interceptors, but I don't know what happened to the strike force," Kennedy replied.
   
"Sir, incoming communication from the Tigershark!"
the Comm Officer called.
   
Kennedy picked up a headset, plugged it into the communications station,
and put it on. He then nodded at the ensign while Linche and Ramirez scrambled to plug in as well.
   
"Go ahead, Arkrunner Eight
," the Ensign said.
   
"Eyrie, this is Arkrunner Eight. Request immediate fuelling support. The
strike is inbound but they're engaged with hostiles at the moment. Fifty, repeat, five-zero bandits inbound your position. Major Brancer chose to engage rather than let them close. He requests all available interceptors to assist as well as all available tankers as soon as possible." Came the voice.
   
Kennedy straightened up and covered the mouthpiece of the headset.
Turning to Linche, he nodded. Linche immediately relayed word to the Air Boss, and within forty seconds, a refueling vessel had been launched, along with a pair of SAR vessels, with another pair of tankers preparing to launch as well.
   
"All right, Arkrunner Eight. You're cleared into the pattern. Bring that
bird aboard, pilot," the Communications Officer said.
 
Much to his surprise, the Tigershark peeled off towards the newly launched
tanker. Kennedy shook his head in surprise. "Arkrunner Eight, what're you up to?"
   
It was clear that the pilot recognized the voice on the frequency. "Sir,
I had to leave my squadron to get here and warn you. As soon as I've topped off my tanks, I'm heading back out."
   
Kennedy felt a grim smile spread across his features. "Where do we get
such men as these," he murmured to himself. "Very well, Eight. Just watch your six."

 

Tigershark 701, "Blackjack Lead"
Same Time

Things were getting desperate.
   
That's how they looked to Brancer, and Karpoff had muttered something
similar, not realizing the comment had been heard over the pilots'
communications frequency.
   
A trio of blasts slammed into his aft shielding, and he threw his
Tigershark into a vicious roll, pulling the joystick hard towards his torso, watching six more blasts sizzle past before the Devil Ray seemed to lose interest.
   
So far, nobody had yet been destroyed, but one of the Shrikes had lost a
side turret, and three more craft were now showing in the red, in exchange for all of the Skate clusters, four Morays, and one of the Devil Ray fighters.
   
That left thirty-six of the bad guys left, and the Confederation pilots
were now on the defensive, being pushed away from their carrier. Which was fine with them. As long as the Yorktown was safe, they could still hit the bugs where it hurt.
   
Pulling the Tigershark into a hard loop, Brancer lined up a Devil Ray,
which was trying to kill another Tigershark, this on bearing the markings of his XO, Captain Philip "Littlebear" Garza.
   
"Bear, go vertical on my mark
," Brancer said, selecting his last missile, a Javelin heat-seeker.
   
"Ready." Garza grunted, going through all sorts of maneuvers to keep the
Devil Ray from blowing him apart.
   
"Now!" Brancer called.
   
Pulling through the vertical, Garza stood the Tigershark on its tail and
used his last shot of afterburners to dodge the oncoming gorgon blasts. Sure enough, the Devil Ray followed, and Brancer's missile sounded out a tone as it locked on. Mashing the firing button, he felt the shudder run through his 'Shark as the explosive bolts blew the missile off the pylon and into space.
   
The small but powerful missile locked onto the target, which was now
frantically pumping out decoys, and doing everything it could to distract the seeker head. A split-second before impact, the Devil Ray pilot snap-rolled and pumped out four decoys. The missile locked onto the first, and exploded in the cloud of greenish-looking flares.
   
Brancer released the trigger, sending the fully-charged mass driver
cannon rounds slamming into the now-exposed dorsal surface of the Devil Ray.
   
A screech sounded over his communications array, and an image of the
Alien ace, breaking into static, appeared momentarily.
   
"So long, roach!" Brancer called
only to feel his own fighter shudder under heavy blows. His shields failed, followed by his aft armor. Only a desperate snap-roll to the right managed to throw off the aim of the wingman of the Devil Ray that he'd just eliminated. And the Devil Ray was still with him.

Glancing at his damage out of the corner of his eye, he saw that it wasn't good. The blasts had chewed into his core, putting him into the yellow
warning area, and his radar was flickering on and off, affecting the ITTS.
   
"Never rains, but it pours," Brancer muttered, throwing his fighter into
yet another series of evasive maneuvers and again, his shields went down. This time, they were forward. A pair of Morays closed in for the kill. Brancer saw a flash, reached for his ejection handle --
   
--
and stopped, realizing that the flash --
   
--
was from the Morays' aft sections. Both fighters disintegrated, along with another Devil Ray (the one behind him, thankfully), under the impact of the Swarmer missiles launched by the fourteen Wasp interceptors roaring in from ahead at full afterburner. Hard upon the heel of that hit came three more explosions, Pilum FF missiles, followed by a rapid-fire series of laser cannons paired with mass driver rounds as nine Tigersharks streaked in, killing five Morays. Last but not least, five Thunderbolts let fly with Spiculum image recognition missiles that killed another pair of Devil Rays and one Moray. The Nephilim fighters quickly discovered that, though the Thunderbolts were much less maneuverable than the other fighters, they carried rear armaments. This lesson cost them another pair of Morays.
   
Brancer put his fighter through a split-S, coming out
"inverted" (though there are no ups or downs in space) relative to the fight. Pulling through the vertical plane, he selected his full frontal arsenal and fired off six quick shots, utterly destroying another Moray. A series of purple-white smoke trails announced that the Wasps had come back around and unleashed another round of Swarmer missiles. This assault decimated the final Devil Ray and seven of the Morays, but cost them severe damage to one of their own as it attempted to engage the last Devil Ray, and so absorbed several of the Swarmer missiles. A Thunderbolt too took heavy damage as it attempted to dogfight with a Moray. However, that was the last damage inflicted by the Nephilim. Within another thirty seconds, all of the alien fighters were nothing more than bad memories.
   
"Arkrunners, check in
," Brancer called after taking a moment to return his breathing to normal and blink the sweat out of his eyes.
   
"Two."
   
"Three."
   
"Four."
   
"Five. That was a bit hairy, boss."
   
"Six."
   
"Seven."
   
"Nine is fine."
   
"Ten."
   
"Eleven."
   
"Twelve."
   
"Thirteen, I'm good."
   
"Fourteen."
   
Brancer said a silent thanks to whatever god had been watching over them
during this battle. His own internal systems had been re-routed and the self-repair routines had everything working in some semblance of order, which made it a good day in his book. It looked like his fighter would need some down-time, though. He could see the carbon scoring all over the front of the fighter, and there was a small pit in his canopy. He didn't even want to look aft.
   
"Death Stingers to strike group: How many do you folks reckon you owe
us?" Major Matthew "Cougar" Pierce called.
   
Brancer smiled as Karpoff replied
, "It may cost me retirement, but you'll not buy yourself another drink for the duration of this campaign, Stinger Lead."
   
"Careful, Cavalier Lead. I may hold you to that-Hello! Bandits, inbound,
six o'clock high!" called Pierce.
   
"Tally-ho!" Captain Brendan
"Ranger" Whitlam, CO of one of the Tigershark groups off the destroyer Stasheff, called.
   
Brancer steeled himself once more for a fight
and let out a sigh of relief, and unclenched his hand from around the flight stick as the red pips turned to blue ones. Locking onto one of the incoming targets, he saw that it was a Vampire, and its IFF showed it as that of Major Rosencrantz.
   
"Just what the hell are you idiots in intercept doing away from the
Yorktown?" came Alvarez' voice, a bit angry, but more tired and worn-out sounding.
   
Brancer interjected, "They just came to save the day, Ma'am. That's all."

 

Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Bridge
1558
Hours

Kennedy watched as the last of the fighters, ironically one of the first
six to return from the strike (three Panthers and two Excaliburs had been sent back due to damage before the actual attack on the Tiamat dreadnought), entered the landing pattern. It was Tigershark 710, piloted by Second Lieutenant Maxwell "Hammer" Holland.
   
The tiny fighter wobbled a bit, showing its pilot's fatigue after almost
two hours of non-stop fighting and flying. Kennedy listened in on the communications frequency.
   
"Zero-point-zero, Tigershark ball
," the LSO started.
   
"Roger ball
," came Holland's voice.
   
"Call your needles
," the LSO said.
   
"Down and right
," Holland replied as he slowed and adjusted his fighter's course.
   
"Affirmative. Fly your needles
," the LSO ordered.
   
Lining up the vertical and horizontal needles,
Holland's fighter came in completely on the glide slope, slowing a bit more ever second. Kennedy held his breath as he always did after a large sortie, watching fighter come aboard with damage.
   
Gawd, how had he ever given up the flying for this seemingly-eternal job
of sweating it out, filling out papers at the nest while the eagles flew ahead?
   
Kennedy grimaced. Arthritis was a curse, despite the fact that he had
been gladdened never to have to put a damaged fighter on the deck of a moving carrier again.
   
The Tigershark slowed and seemed to hover in space as the arresting
tractor beams caught the fighter and brought it in a controlled manner onto the flight deck.
   
"Captain, I'll be on the flight deck
," Kennedy said, leaving the bridge.
   
Entering the lift, Kennedy keyed it for the flight deck. When he
arrived, his nostrils were assailed by the scents of burned sponge armor, metal, sweat, fuel, hydraulic fluids and fried circuitry.
   
The smell of a carrier at war.
   
Quite a few of the pilots, exhausted by their exertions, had simply
chosen to remain in their cockpits, asleep. The WC wanted at least an hour before the final strike on the destroyers, if indeed the Admiral decided that it was necessary. The combined flight wing of the task force had suffered heavily. Two fighters had been completely lost, while another twenty-five would be out of action for at least a day, more likely three, was what the techs were saying. Granted, the fighters had eliminated the corvettes and skinned most of the turrets off the destroyers, but it didn't mean that Kennedy was willing to risk his pilots against an enemy who now knew what it was up against.
   
Kennedy was amazed that any pilot could sleep. Even during his days in
the war, following the Battle of Terra, he'd never heard a flight deck with so much commotion on it. Techs swarmed over fighters, pulling out damaged engines and swapping them for new ones, removing access panels, removing and repairing overloaded and burned-out circuitry and circuit boards, patching up holes in fuel tanks and lines, adhering new sponge armor to the places where it had been burned off, and, in one fascinating to watch case, repairing the shattered turret of a Shrike torpedo bomber. Kennedy found it interesting, but not enough so to merit the death of the gunner inside, which had occurred.
   
He shook his head. It had been so long. He'd nearly forgotten what
happened to people when you sent them into harm's way: They didn't always come back.
   
He could never allow himself to forget that again. So far, two good
people weren't coming back, because he'd been forced to throw them at a target that may have been just at the edge of what the flight wing aboard Yorktown could handle. Never again would he commit them to something like that and yet at the same time, somehow, he knew he would be forced to some time soon and that he'd make the same decision again, because thousands of civilian lives were on the line.
   
With that final thought, Kennedy turned and walked back off of the
flight deck, headed for the bridge back to his world of paperwork and slow, agonizingly long waits.

 

Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Officers' Quarters, Cabin 209
1802 Hours

The second strike had gone well. The Border Worlders' fleet had
obliterated the main strike force of the enemy, leaving the pair of Orca-class destroyers wide open for attack by the Yorktown's flight wing as they attempted to fall back upon another group of Nephilim warships. The strike had actually been one of the cheapest victories the Yorktown's flight wing had achieved. The lack of cover had enabled nearly all of the escort fighters to be loaded out with SEAD-specialized HARM missiles, enabling them to take out turrets and missile launchers. What few enemy fighters had managed to straggle back to the destroyers had been damaged or out of armaments, and easy kills.
   
But the knowledge that their victory had been the wipeout of an entire
battle group and one of the largest-known types of Nephilim warships didn't make this task any easier, thought Major Timothy Carter. As the CO of the squadron, it was his job to write the letters home when a pilot was lost, and one had been lost from his squadron today.
   
A bottle of
"medicinal" brandy was on his desk, having been purchased before the Yorktown had left Gonwyn's Glory for this fight. And yet it lay unopened, the seal unbroken, due to Carter's conscience, which asked him not to drink before he wrote a letter to the parents of Second Lieutenant Damien "Short" McLeod, explaining that their son had died bravely, under fire, saving three of his wingmates. For this action, he would be receiving the Confederation Flying Cross but he would not be coming home, his remains consumed by the explosion that had destroyed his Panther heavy fighter. No, to write a note under such circumstances, while drunk, would've been the height of disrespect. Carter took up a PDP and began writing.

Dear Mr. & Mrs. McLeod,

It is my sad duty to inform you of the loss of your son, Damien,
only a few short hours ago in combat. Damien, or "Short" to his squadron mates, will be sorely missed, due to his uniqueness and his indomitable spirit. Whenever times seemed to get rough, or people seemed to be down, Damien took the time to cheer them up or attempt to smooth out the road ahead to the best of his ability.
       
It is my intention to see that your son is awarded the Confederation
Flying Cross for conspicuous bravery, and conduct above and beyond the call of duty for a pilot in the Confederation Space Forces. I cannot at this time, due to the current situation, tell you exactly how your son died, but rest assured, he fell, loved by all who knew him, saving other lives, probably more than he will ever know. Through his sacrifice, others may live. I realize I don't have to tell you this, but I will attempt to put into words how special your son was. As a squadron commander, I see unique and skilled pilots every day of my career at this point. Each is a highly-trained, well-equipped operator of some of the most dangerous equipment known to mankind, and knows that he or she flies with death every day. Damien knew this and chose to do this anyway. He was a large part of, if not the primary, glue that helped this unit act as a team instead of its individual parts. He rose to the challenge of  meeting the enemy in combat time and again, head-on, without flinching or looking to see what he might  lose. Instead, he looked at what others, including yourselves, would lose should he ever fail in his task of protecting those who are unable to protect themselves.

He will be sorely missed.

Respectfully Yours,
           
MAJ Timothy L. Carter
Commanding Officer, VFA-209

Taking a deep breath, Carter set the PDP down in front of him and scrolled through the text he had written in what had seemed like minutes, but instead had taken him the better part of two hours. Pouring himself a shot of the brandy into a tumbler, he gunned it down, re-corked the bottle, stowed it in his desk drawer, and removed his boots, placing them at the foot of his bed in the event of a scramble.
   
He wondered why medals were given out even after pilots were killed.
Surely, they were beyond caring about such things, or, if not beyond, incapable. Human life was so fragile, and, once destroyed or distorted, tended to remain that way. So why give them pieces of tin, brass, copper, silver, or gold that weren't going to comfort a grieving widow, a set of parents in mourning, and which was most certainly not going to be able to spend time or play with a child. Instead, there would be a void.
   
Turning on his side, Carter continued to follow the line of thought.
Medals were given to show that, despite everything, including the possibility of death, the person or persons who had been destroyed, whose lives had been forcefully removed from them, had upheld the principles and defended their loved ones at the ultimate cost to themselves, knowing but ignoring the fact that it could, and quite often did, cost them their own chance at establishing a future for themselves in the process. They were given as a way of saying, "He/She chose to uphold the good of the many, rather than the good of Himself/Herself, in spite of the fact that the good of the many would cost them their lives."
   
But Carter knew that the Confederation Flying Cross would be of little
comfort to Mister and Missus McLeod. Not after losing their youngest son in a conflict Confed should've been ready for.
   
Sleep came fitfully for Carter that night.

 

Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Wing Commander's Quarters
Same Time

Colonel Alvarez was not a happy woman.
   
Two good pilots were both dead as a result of today's strike. Two
fighters lost and another twenty-one so heavily chewed up that it would be nearly two days before they were back on the line, although the chiefs were muttering about pulling twenty-hour days just to pull that off. On top of that, she'd just received news about the TCS Valley Forge, CV-53, the direct sister ship of the Yorktown, which told of its destruction at the hands of enemy forces. Yet another piece of bad news indicated that the Border Worlds carrier Littenia was crippled beyond all repair (at this point in time) and was being abandoned.
   
All of this, and untold numbers of fighters, in exchange for two
Tiamat-class dreadnoughts destroyed, along with a pair (possibly a trio) of Leviathan-class Nephilim carriers.
   
Alvarez took her head in her hands. She couldn't afford to sleep; she
had to draw up the flight rosters for tomorrow. There were indications of a smaller enemy group, one consisting of possibly a group of smaller ships, in the area, and the air wing, or what was left of it, would have to be running CAP patrols. But for a day, she would do all she could to stand the wing down as much as possible. This battle had been draining, as had the last series of running battles throughout the Tyr and Nephele systems, and it wasn't over yet. She needed her people rested, so that they wouldn't make costly mistakes.
   
It didn't help that she herself was so tired that she was having trouble
reading the type on the PDP in front of her.
   
"Ma'am?"
came a voice from the corridor. Looking up, Alvarez realized that she had dozed off, the PDP still blinking in her lap. She quickly snapped herself awake through sheer force of will, and recognized Lieutenant Colonel Linche, her Assistant Wing Commander. The smirk on his face indicated that he was mildly amused by the sight of Alvarez asleep in her chair, the cup of cold coffee on her desk and the PDP in her lap.
   
She grimaced. "Must've been the past week catching up with me. What can I do for you, Marcus?"
   
Linche held up a PDP. "I need you to sign this request for the
maintenance crews. Some idiot quartermaster is going by the book and won't release replacement parts for a number of the fighters' reactors unless you sign for them."
   
Alvarez frowned. Paperwork, bringing her back from much-needed sleep,
after a pair of strikes (for indeed, Alvarez had flown with the second strike against the two Orca-class destroyers), and requests for replacement pilots that had gone nowhere for good reasons: There weren't any to be had. It didn't help that it was a valid reason, it only frustrated her the more.
   
Alvarez swallowed the urge to lash out at the man. Linche was doing well
at his job: Taking pressure off the Wing Commander, to allow her to attend to more important matters. Only a few times before had he run into things that he himself couldn't overcome, and he wouldn't have come to her unless this was one of those times.
   
"If I find out who this bastard is, I'll kick his posterior up between
his shoulder blades. Wasting my time like this. Doesn't he know that this air wing is the only thing keeping him alive?" Alvarez said, pressing her thumb to the PDP.
   
"Nope. He probably thinks that the term 'capital ship' means 'a
gargantuan vessel constructed in such a way as to be invulnerable to any enemy fire, whether or not this enemy's technology has been encountered before or not'," Linche said, a wry smile forming on his own lips. Taking back the PDP, he turned to her. "You look tired, Colonel. Maybe you should get a few hours' rest."
   
Alvarez shook her head. "Too much to get done, and I'm still debating
whether or not to lead the first patrol tomorrow."
   
Linche frowned, disapproval obvious on his face. "You're kidding. You've
had the least sleep of anybody on the Yorktown, with possibly the exception of Admiral Kennedy, and yet you think you can fly with the eagles tomorrow morning? Maybe I ought to sic the CMO on you. He could force you to get some rest."
   
Alvarez gave a rueful shake of the head, and pointed to the corridor.
"If my pilots don't get any rest, Marcus, I don't get any rest."
   
Linche nodded. "That's the point-they ARE getting rest, and you're not.
You won't remain effective as a leader for long if you can't remain lucid. And begging the colonel's pardon, but the state you were in when I entered bespeaks a definite absence of lucidity."
   
Alvarez nodded. "Fine, fine. I submit to the judgment of my peers. Wake
me up in four hours, Marcus," she said.
   
Linche nodded, and exited her quarters.
   
Alvarez felt her bed calling out to her, and, instead of fighting it as
she had done for the past two hours, instead walked into her bedroom, removed her boots, changed into her sleeping clothes, and was unconscious twenty seconds after her head hit the pillow.

 

Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Officers' Quarters, Cabin 221
Same Time

Captain Selena
"Minnie" Martinez sat, reading a letter from her brother at the Trojan Four Shipyards. It wasn't a new letter; in fact, it was dated over a month ago. However, there had been no new mail received lately, due to the EMCON regulations that blanketed the task force, and Martinez had had enough of the war for a while. Tears welled in her eyes as she recalled that, just an hour before, she had been forced to write another letter, this one to a young bride instead of a parent, telling her that her husband, equally young, had fallen in combat.
  
Second Lieutenant Craig
"Chain" MacKenzie must've been one of the youngest people she'd ever known to be married. It helped, she supposed, that he'd married a high-school sweetheart, then been accepted into the Space Forces Academy. Immediately after training, he'd been transferred to the TCS Constellation, an older cruiser that patrolled the Inner Colonies, and so he hadn't been too far from his wife. Then, an impolitic remark to a superior officer had ruined everything, or so Martinez assumed. MacKenzie had been transferred to the Yorktown a week after telling a superior officer what he thought of the man's demeanor towards the people serving under him, and MacKenzie, though said to be "lucky" for not receiving a black mark on his record for insubordination, had been shipped out to the frontier, separated from his beloved. Despite this, he had never complained. While not the best pilot in the squadron, he had been reliable and a good marksman, and had earned many a drink during the running battle that had now entered its third system. Until he had died during this last assault.
 
She quickly made the sign of the cross, and said a silent prayer, asking
that God comfort the grieving widow he had left behind, who had yet to know that she would never see the man she had given herself to again.
   
Once she had concluded, Martinez swore viciously to herself. Another
life wasted by the torture, strife, and turmoil caught up in those three little letters, W-A-R.
   
Thus, reading her brother's letter had enabled her to find escape from
some of the anxiety, anger, frustration, and sadness that welled up inside her like an underground spring. In the letter, her brother talked about such normal things: The taxes, the price of certain goods, what life was like in the shipyards, as much of his work as he could talk about. It had the unexpected effect of relaxing Martinez, actually helping her unwind rather than making her homesick, as one might expect.
   
She was dead tired. Her squadron, despite its losses and damages, was
still one of the most operational squadrons aboard the Yorktown, and as such, had been picked to assist in anti-fighter escort with the second strike. Martinez had nearly rebelled at the suggestion that her pilots should go out again, less than an hour after a textbook-perfect ambush and the destruction of a number of capital ships, plus one of their number, but remembered what the crew of the Bunker Hill had gone through when they had been surrounded and cut off. There was an old expression: No rest for the weary.
   
It seemed strangely appropriate, and unfortunately accurate at the
moment.
   
Martinez had swallowed her fatigue, her sadness, and her anger at having to go out again, and had led her squadron once more into battle. It had been a milk run, with only eight-to-ten Nephilim fighters destroyed, all of them damaged survivors from the Alien strike against CVBG Valkyrie. They had not proven much of a challenge, but Martinez had been cautious, unwilling to waste any more of her squadron's lives on targets that were, in fact, superfluous. She had taken her time, and done it right, and in the end, had only delayed the strike a few minutes with her caution. The upside was that she had been forced to write 'only' one letter tonight about a lost pilot.
   
She most certainly did not want to do that again.
   
But she knew she would.

As the
Yorktown battle group traced their path towards the Nifelheim jump point, each person in the task force felt the people they were leaving behind. And hoped, prayed, that they would not be among those who would die along the path the carrier was meant to follow ahead. From the distant vantage point, the carrier was but an infinitesimal speck of light among the billions upon billions of pinpricks of light that pierced the darkness, moving ever so slowly towards the future.

 

FIN