PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 10 of 44 )

: Retribution
PART 2 OF 3

 


BWS Valeria; Command Briefing Room
About 2300 Hours

There were several more people at this meeting than at the last one. In addition to Admiral Hanton, Captain Que, Raptor and Lieutenant Reston, both Commander Chelsea and Lt. Commander Lange (the skipper and first officer of the Freedom) were present, as were the skippers of the escorts. Commander Kent was there as well, along with Lieutenant Hess, the CO of Battle Group Valkyrie's Marine Alpha Platoon.

"The entire battle group," Admiral Hanton said as Kent finished his report, shaking her head as if still waiting for the information to sink in. "I kept hoping there had been some kind of mistake made somewhere, and that part of the group had survived, but... God damn it all."

"It's not your fault, Admiral," Chelsea said quietly. "I hate to speak ill of the dead, but if what those pilots are telling us is right, then Admiral Rayak and the Hill's Wing Commander FUBARed the battle right from the start. The Hill's pilots would most likely have taken that first carrier on their initial attack if they had been given SEAD support. That would have given them a much better chance of getting out of the trap in one piece."

"Chelsea's right," Raptor said. "Beside, Rayak should have alerted us in any case. If they had alerted us when they were first cut from the Fleet, either us or the Littenia group could have been standing by to assist them. There's no way that you could have foreseen an idiot like Rayak being in command."

"I'm the commanding officer of this operation, Colonel. This entire plan was mine, and now it's all gone to hell..." The Admiral's voice trailed off as she stared into the distance.

Chelsea picked up on it just before Raptor did. There was something very wrong about the Admiral's reaction. She seemed shaken, all her confidence shattered. That didn't fit in with what they knew of her. Sure, losing the Bunker Hill had been a major blow, maybe a massive one, but this reaction seemed out of character. They had all known there were risks in the kind of hit and run operations they were carrying out. Given how badly they were outnumbered, it was almost inevitable that they would have to accept major losses sooner or later. An experienced commander like Admiral Hanton would certainly have anticipated such losses and prepared for them. There was definitely something very wrong here.

"That's not all," Captain Que said, correctly reading the looks on their faces. "The Admiral sent a message to Confed HQ right after we got the distress call, informing them that we had lost the Bunker Hill. They gave us some bad news in return. You know that report we received in Tyr that the Neph gateway into our space had been closed? It turns out that was simply a rumor that some idiot decided to report to us as fact. As far as we know, the gateway is still open."

"Oh, shit," several people could be heard saying, all more or less at the same time.

Chelsea went one better. He walked over to the plotting table in the middle of the room, and methodically began banging his head against it. Raptor felt like joining him, and he was sure that a lot of other people in the room felt the same. They had all been counting on the fact that the alien gateway had been closed, and that the Nephilim would be unable to get any further reinforcements. This news knocked all their hopes and plans into the proverbial cocked hat. Confusion and misinformation were normal in warfare, especially in a fast moving battle like this one, but knowing that didn't do much to lessen the shock.

"All right, that's not helping. Chelsea, your head may not be worth much, but that holo-table is," the Admiral said firmly after a moment. Though none of the other officers said anything, all of them instantly picked up on the change in her voice and manner. The Admiral Hanton they all knew, trusted, and respected was back. She had been given two devastating bits of news in the last few hours, and it had obviously shaken her confidence, but now she was fully in command of the situation once again.

"All right, ladies and gentlemen," she continued. "There is absolutely nothing that we can do about the Nephilim gateway into our space. We just have to keep hoping that the Midway crew do in fact track it down and put it out of business before long. In the meantime, our job is the same it has always been, to hold the line against the invasion. We'll simply have to deal with any enemy reinforcements if and when they show up."

"Now, we have both a strike and a rescue to carry out. Lieutenant Hess, how long will it take for your Marines to be ready for a boarding and rescue operation?"

"About six hours, Admiral. Five, if we really push it."

"Which means that we'll be ready about two hours before our rendezvous with the Littenia," Captain Que said thoughtfully. "Which in turn means we have decide whether we launch independent strikes from both groups, or wait till we link up."

"If there are prisoners aboard the Nephilim ships, we need to get them out ASAP. I say we go as soon as we can," Chelsea said. As usual, he was the one who was most willing to take risks.

"We won't get them out at all if we FUBAR the mission," Captain Que said, as always the more cautious of the two. "From what the Bunker Hill pilots tell us, there is at least one complete Nephilim battle group out there, plus the surviving cruiser from the first group. And despite all the losses the Bunker Hill pilots inflicted on them, they could still have upwards of two or three hundred fighters. I'd rather we didn't make the same mistake the Bunker Hill's WC made, which is sending out an inadequate strike force that gets beaten off. Our bombers and shuttles need as much fighter cover and SEAD support as possible, which will mean leaving the carriers lightly defended. That in turn means waiting till we link up with the Littenia group, so that we can pool our escorts and defense units."

"I have to agree with Sang, Chelsea," Raptor said, as the Captain paused to catch his breath after what was (for him) a very long speech. "Besides which, Admiral, my pilots need time to get some sleep. We've had them standing by all this time, because we didn't know if we might have to fight off an attack ourselves. If we stand them down now for an operation that launches in five hours, they'd only be getting three or so hours sleep at most. I'd rather not be leading a wing of zombies into a fleet attack."

"Agreed," the Admiral said. "It looks like the best option will be to launch after the rendezvous, which will be in about 0600 Hours tomorrow. Colonel, stand your pilots down and tell them to get some rest. The Ghost Warriors and our other patrols didn't see any signs of enemy activity, so it should be safe to recall the two squads that are still flying. The Warriors can replace them on CAP. The pilots from Reaper and Harbinger squadrons will have to spend the night sleeping their cockpits though, just in case the Warriors do encounter something. Sang, I want you to continue coordinating with the Littenia. Inform them that we will in fact be launching a joint strike at 0600 Hours."

"They'll have to get their Marines prepped as well, sir," Lieutenant Hess added. "With Kaslowski and her platoon still riding herd on the Tanfenners, we're down to half strength."

"Okay, last but not least," the Admiral said. "Reston, I want you to order the comm officer to contact the other groups. Let them know about what has happened to the Bunker Hill, and about the Nephilim gateway. It's especially important that you inform the Yorktown. The death of both Rayak and his exec, Commodore Geoffory Arnold, means that Rear Admiral Kennedy is now in command of Third Fleet."

The Admiral paused and took a deep breath. "Before you do that, though, I want you to establish a tight beam laser link to the four Ghost Warriors that are tracking the Nephilim ships. Our Marines can't launch a rescue without knowing which ship the captives are on, and exactly where they're being held. Tell the Warriors that I want full spectrum, close range scans of those ships when they find them. Infra-red, deep imaging radar, lifesign reading, the lot. Have them relay the data back to us via laser link, in real time."

The Admiral's voice was absolutely steady as she gave that order, and neither her face nor her eyes showed the pain she was feeling. She had just given those four recon pilots a death sentence. They still didn't know exactly how effective Nephilim anti-cloak technology was, but they did know that recon ships had a hard time surviving against the Nephs. Ordering those fighters to do a close range, high power scan was as good as ensuring their destruction. That was why she had ordered the data sent back in real time, because she didn't expect the recon pilots to survive long enough to transmit it normally. Between them, though, the four pilots just might be able get enough information to allow a successful rescue. Those four pilots had to die so that dozens of Marines, captives, and fighters pilots would have a better chance of survival. That was the kind of hard decision that a commanding officer had to make, and Admiral Hanton had no hesitation in making it. That didn't mean that it didn't hurt like hell, though.

 

Flight Wing Briefing Room, BWS Valeria
About 6 Hours Later
0500 Hours, 08 Feb 2681 (2681.039)

The briefing room was packed, with every available seat taken by Battle Group Valkyrie's squadron leaders, execs and flight leaders, as well as Marine officers and NCOs. Every squadron on board would either be flying in the strike or would be guarding the ship while the strike force was away. As they had done in Tyr, the squadron leaders and other senior officers from the Littenia battle group would be taking part in the briefing via video screens that had been set up around the briefing room. Ship to ship transmissions were much more secure than those between fighters, so there was little danger of the Nephilim listening in.

Looking around the room, Raptor could tell that all these pilots were pumped up and ready to go. By now, everyone in the two battle groups knew what had happened to the Bunker Hill battle group (either through official channels or through the grapevine) and they were eager to help rescue those who were still alive, and to avenge those who were dead. It was strange in a way. A few months ago, most of these people wouldn't have cared one way or the other what had happened to a Confed battle group. The experience of fighting side by side in Tyr had changed that. No one had forgotten that it was the Bunker Hill's Panthers that had rescued their Marine raiding group, helping save the lives of dozens of Border Worlds Marines and ensuring that Tanfen transports had enough fuel and oxygen to leave Tyr safely. The Border Worlds and Tanfen Marines had shown great courage and skill in the operation to secure the reserves, and the HG pilots escorting them had fought to the last man to defend them when the Nephilim attacked, but it would all have have come to nothing if the Bunker Hill pilots hadn't arrived in time. While the pilots in the room might not exactly be fond of the Confeds, they knew the Confeds were valuable allies against the Nephilim, allies who had fought well and bravely alongside them in Tyr. They felt they owed something to the crew of the Bunker Hill, and they wanted to repay that debt.

The other reason that they were pumped up, of course, was because of the deaths of the four Ghost Warriors. As Admiral Hanton had expected, each and every one of the recon craft had been hunted down and destroyed before they could get clear of the Nephilim ships, though not before they had carried out their mission. If the pilots in the room hadn't been eager for blood before, this loss would have made them that way in any case. Everyone in the room was determined to make sure that the Ghost Warriors hadn't died for nothing.

"All right, let's get started," Raptor said. "We seem to have caught a break for once, ladies and gentlemen. According to the data sent back to us by the Ghost Warriors, all the Nephilim ship are clustered near the Alcor jump point, including the damaged cruiser from the destroyed battle group. They're roughly 150,000 klicks out from the jump point, and they seem intent on staying there. We don't know if they're simply waiting for repairs to the cruiser or trying to secure the jump point, but the point is that they're still isolated from their main fleet. It's possible they believe that with the Bunker Hill and her battle group destroyed there are no other carriers near enough to strike at them, or that their jamming made sure that we don't know about the Hill's destruction. Our job, of course, is to teach them just how wrong they are on both counts.

"Now, the Valkyries and the Littenia group will be linking up in about an hour. We'll be holding back the Ghost Warriors and the fighters from the Littenia's escorts, about thirty fighters in all, to protect the carriers and escorts. Apart from that though, we'll launching a magnum strike. Every fighter, every bomber, every Stalker, every shuttle. Basically, if it's spaceworthy, we're going to use it. That'll give us a combined strength of about 200 combat craft plus the shuttles. Admiral Hanton wants this Nephilim group terminated with extreme prejudice, and that's just what we're going to be doing."

"The Nephilim group in question consists of one Leviathan-class supercarrier, one fully operational Hydra-class heavy cruiser, one crippled Marlin-type Hydra-class heavy cruiser, and two Orca-class destroyers. It's very hard to estimate just how many fighters they have, because we don't know exactly how many fighters the Hill's pilots were able to take down. For that matter, we don't know how many fighters from the destroyed carrier were able to recover on the other one, which is why we're launching so many fighters of our own. However, even a worst case scenario, which is where all five of those ships are packed to gills, only leaves us facing 350 to 400 fighters, or roughly two to one odds. With the help of the Stalkers, and the other little surprises we've prepared for the Nephs, we should be able handle that many. A more realistic scenario is that we'll be facing 200 to 250 fighters, which we'll certainly be able to handle."

"The plan for taking out this group is simplicity itself. Our fighters, with the help of the Stalkers, are going to take the Nephilim fighters head on. Depending on the number of fighters that we encounter, we'll either try to wipe them out right then and there, or contain them and prevent them from molesting our bombers. Once the fighter cover is neutralized one way or the other, the bombers are going to start blowing the living daylights out the carrier's escorts. We want those escorts out of the fight as fast as possible.

"The carrier itself presents a more serious problem. We can't simply blow it to bits, because that's where the captives are being held. Therefore, we'll be going for an operational kill rather than a ship kill. Basically, we're going to skin it of its turrets and shield generators, take out its engines, its launchers, and all except one of its hangars. That'll put it out of the fight just as effectively as destroying it will. Once the carrier is disabled, all the escorts taken out, and the fighter cover shut down, the Marines should be able to move in. I'll leave that part of the briefing to Lieutenant Hess here. Lieutenant...?"

"Thank you, Colonel," Lieutenant Hess said as he stepped up the podium. He pressed a button on the podium, and the screen behind him lit with a schematic of the Leviathan. Most of the image had been obtained by the imaging radar aboard the recon fighters before they had been destroyed. The Valeria's computers had then created the composite from the partial scans obtained by all four recon fighters. One of the hangar bays was highlighted on the diagram, as was an area several hundred meters further back into the ship and two levels down. Lieutenant Hess pointed to this area.

"The infra-red and lifesign data sent back by the Ghost Warriors shows that the captives are being held two levels below the aft portside hangar bay. Unfortunately, the holding area is set roughly in the center of the ship, so cutting our way directly into the holding area isn't practical, even if we could burn through the ship's armor at that point. Therefore, our shuttles will be landing inside the aft portside bay, which as the Colonel said would be the only hanger left operational at this point. We've also got data on the phase shield frequencies and IFF transponders used by the Nephilim ships, and we're fairly sure that we can fool the shields into letting us in.

"Once in, we need to fight our way down two levels, which is going to be far easier said than done. We can expect heavy resistance all the way down, as I doubt the Nephs are going to take too kindly to being boarded. We don't know what kind of weapons they might have, but we do know that we'll be heavily outnumbered. Between Alpha Platoon and the Littenia's Marine contingent, we can only muster about a hundred Marines, while we can expect several hundred Nephs trying to stop us. Therefore, we're going for a quick in and out operation. If there are any captives that have been separated from the main group, that's just too damn bad, because we won't be able to look for them.

"Once we get down to the holding area, we're going to grab the prisoners, and haul ass out of there. The shuttles and their crews will be keeping the landing bay secure while we're grabbing the captives, so we shouldn't have any problems making a quick exit. That'll clear the way for you flyboys to blow the Nephs back to whatever hell they came from," Lieutenant Hess finished his speech.

"All right, all of you should be receiving more detailed orders for your individual units before we launch," Raptor said. "For now, though, any questions?"

"Yeah," Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung, the Harbinger Squadron CO, called out from the back of the room. "How do we know the rest of the Nephilim fleet won't interfere? This whole thing could go to hell in a handbasket if we run into more fighters than we expect."

"We don't know for sure," Raptor replied. "However, Intell thinks it's pretty unlikely they'll have assigned more than two of those supercarriers to any one sector. We just have to hope they know what they're talking about."

"Or else this'll be the shortest offensive of all time," Lt. Colonel Alex "Skywalker" Witt, the Taipan Squadron CO, said wryly.

"Exactly. Okay, anything else? No? Well, then, we launch in one hour. Good luck and good hunting."

 

Bridge, BWS Valeria
About An Hour Later
0600 Hours, 08 Feb 2861 (2681.039)

"Coming up on the rendezvous point now, Admiral," the helm officer called out.

"Thank you, helm," the Admiral said absently, her attention fixed on the bridge viewports.

There, off the starboard bow, she could already see the ships from the Littenia group heading towards them. The Littenia battle group was much smaller than Battle Group Valkyrie was. Battle Group Valkyrie consisted of an Arcadia-class fleet carrier, a Ranger-class light carrier, a battlecruiser, a heavy cruiser, and three destroyers (it had also started out with a further cruiser and destroyer, both of which had been lost in the fighting in Tyr). It had been designed to be the most powerful battle group the Border Worlds Navy had, able to project Border Worlds fury and firepower anywhere the government needed it to. The battle group had already played a pivotal role in the Tyr campaign, and the Admiral expected it would continue doing so for as long as this battle to hold the line lasted.

By contrast, the Littenia group consisted of only a single Arcadia-class fleet carrier, backed up by a cruiser and two destroyers. The Littenia had been only a few days out the docks when she had been rushed off to deal with the Nephilim threat, which meant that there had been no time to pair her up with a light carrier or with further escorts. As a result, the Littenia group could field much fewer fighters than Battle Group Valkyrie could. On the plus side though, the group had seen very little action in the Tyr campaign, so all of its fighters should be available and ready to fly.

As the two groups met at the rendezvous point, the Littenia herself took up position alongside the Valeria and the Freedom. The three cruisers from the two groups arrayed themselves in a loose triangle around the carriers. Their lethal laser, anti-matter cannon, torpedo and CSM batteries would help shield the carriers from both fighter and capship attack. The five destroyers took up an even looser defensive formation around the cruisers, allowing them to act as pickets for the larger ships while giving them plenty of room to use their speed and agility to good advantage. The outermost ring of the defenses was formed by the 14 remaining Ghost Warriors, as well as by the 16 Intruders that were based on the Littenia's escorts. Grouping two carrier groups like this was risky in itself, but the Admiral had decided that this was the best compromise between the safety of the capships and freeing up the maximum number of fighters and bombers for the strike force. Besides, war was all about calculated risk. Their patrols and recon teams had seen no sign of the Nephilim in the vicinity, so it was a risk well worth taking.

By now, the other fighters were launching. Normally, Battle Group Valkyrie (with its two carriers and multitude of fighter carrying escorts) would have been able to contribute 162 fighters and bombers, plus a dozen Stalkers, bringing the total up to 174. However, 27 of its craft had been lost in the fierce battles they had fought in Tyr, and they had just lost 4 more. Another 9 craft were still too badly damaged to fly, in spite of the best efforts of the deck crews. That, along with the need to leave the 14 Ghost Warriors to defend the capships, reduced their total contribution to 120 fighters, bombers, and EW craft. The Littenia group was able to add another 72 fighters and bombers, plus ten Stalkers (the Littenia's entire complement), a total of 82 craft. That brought the total strike force to just over 200 fighters, bombers and EW craft, plus of course the shuttles.

The two Retaliator squadrons (one each from the Valeria and the Littenia) were the first to form up. The Retaliators formed a loose screen ahead of the rest of the strike group. These were the Border Worlders' top fighters, and it would their job to take on and destroy any enemy fighters that tried to ambush the strike force while it was en route. The Retaliator had been compared to Confed's Panther, but that was only a rough-and-ready comparison at best. The Retaliator was similar to the Panther in power, but not in style. It wasn't a dancer like the Panther, as it was slower and less agile. However, it had much heavier shielding and much heavier firepower. It was designed to smash right through an enemy formation, rolling over its opponents like a steam train and smashing them under with sheer brute force. It might not be the most elegant design in the galaxy, but as the Reapers had proven in Tyr, it was a brutally effective one.

Admiral Hanton smiled wryly as she watched the Retaliators form up. Just be glad they're on your side, Erin... this time, she thought. She had come to respect and even like many of the Reaper Squadron pilots, especially Raptor and Mirage, but she couldn't help remembering that they had been among the pilots who had very nearly blown the TCS Melbourne out from under her feet in Circe. Not that she really blamed them. They had simply been trying to defend their home. She and her crew had had to learn the same lesson that the Kilrathi had learnt during the War, the lesson that the Nephilim were about to learn. That anyone who messed with the Border Worlders on their home turf usually ended up regretting it.

Outside the ship, the Bearcat squadrons (one from the Freedom and the other from Littenia) were now forming up. These also formed a loose escort screen, but to the flanks of the rest of the formation. Their job was to intercept any attackers that had managed to outflank the Retaliators. The Bearcats had also been compared to Confed's Panthers, and in this case the comparison was closer. The Bearcats were dancers just like the Panthers, not brute force sluggers like the Retaliators were. The Bearcats were less heavily armed than Panthers were, but were faster and more agile. The Bearcats and Retaliators complement each other well. The Retaliators would use their firepower and shielding to blast the enemy heavy fighters and superiority fighters, while the Bearcats would use their speed and agility to clean up the enemy light and medium fighters that might be able to outrun the Retaliators.

The Valeria's Excaliburs and Jaguars then formed the front of a loose wedge within the escort screen created by the Retaliators and Bearcats. Their job, of course, was to take on any fighters that got past the screening fighters. The Excalibur was similar to Confed's Tigershark in performance and defenses (better shields and a higher speed but lighter armor), but was significantly better when it came to offensive capability. Its powerful array of quad tachyon cannons, twin reaper cannons and twelve missiles were capable of pounding almost any Nephilim fighter to dust in fairly short order, and that capability was only enhanced by its auto-tracking and auto-slide abilities. The Jaguar was less capable than the Excalibur, but was still a good match for the Tigershark in most respects. Its twin tachyon cannons, twin light tachyon guns and twin stormfires, backed up by its eight missiles, made it an opponent to taken seriously. The overall effect was that of a gun heavy Tigershark.

The two Intruder squadrons based aboard the Valeria's escorts formed the flanks of the wedge. (The Littenia carried neither Intruders nor Jaguars, having swapped them for Retaliators and Bearcats.) The Intruders were identical to Tigersharks in almost all respects (speed, agility, shields, and firepower) except that they had lighter armor, meaning they could take less of a pounding than the Tigersharks. Their secondary role in this mission was to assist the Jaguars and Excaliburs in taking out the fighters that got past the outer screen. However, their primary job was to provide SEAD for the bombers and shuttles. At least half the slots in their internal missile bays had been loaded with HARMs. However, they wouldn't be doing it all on their own.

The twenty Stalkers, ten from each battle group, then took up formation within the wedge created by the Jaguars, Excaliburs and Intruders. The Stalkers each carried a powerful array of jamming pods that could scramble the radar, tracking systems and communications of enemy fighters. However, each Stalker had an even more potent weapon, four Blinder anti-ship missiles. These could disable the radar systems of the Nephilim ships (well, assuming that they worked just as well on the organic ships used by the Nephilim as they did on other ships), setting the ships up for attack by the Intruders and other fighters.

The two Avenger bomber squadrons (one each from the Freedom and Littenia) were the next to form up within the wedge. On paper, the Avenger was an obsolete (or at least obsolescent) design, as it didn't have the agility or anti-fighter weapons of newer bombers like the Confed Shrike. However, the Border Worlders had a long history taking old designs and turning them into useful craft. The Avenger had a similar afterburner speed, similar defenses, and (with its loadout of four heavy torpedoes) a similar punch to the Shrike. The Border Worlds bomber pilots had simply changed their tactics to reflect the Avenger's weaknesses. Instead of trying to dogfight, they worked in groups of four to six. They would make high speed torpedo runs on their targets, using the crossfire for their front and rear guns (plus their missiles and the support of escort fighters) to keep enemy fighters off their backs. They would then use their torpedo salvos to knock their targets, before pulling out and making a high-speed exit. This tactic was highly effective against lighter enemy ships such as the destroyers in the group they were attacking.

The Valeria's B-7 Dauntless bombers, which were forming up behind the Avengers, were totally different. Captain Que had once described these bombers as "a ship captain's worst nightmare," and that description wasn't far off the mark. The Dauntless could carry twelve, count'em twelve, heavy torpedoes, and just as importantly could fire all those torpedoes in one devastating attack run. That gave it a knock out punch greater than any other bomber in existence, including Confed's Devastator. Just one of these bombers, if it reached striking range, could wipe out any heavy capship in a matter of seconds. On this mission, they would be used to put the enemy cruisers down as fast as possible. They would also be used to deliver one other surprise to the Nephilim. The main weakness of the Dauntless was that it needed good fighter escorts, but that was true of virtually any heavy bomber.

The next to join the formation were the twenty shuttles launched by the two battle groups. They would naturally need heavy protection. Still, with fighter squadrons all around them, that shouldn't be a problem. Only the four Pelileu-class assault shuttles were being used to carry the 100 Marines. These had a reasonable loadout of lasers and ground suppression weapons, which would be used to keep the Nephs' heads down during landing. The other shuttles were unarmed general purpose craft, and were there to bring the captives out. They didn't know how many captives there were, and it would be tragic if they didn't have enough transport capacity to get them all out.

The last fighters to join the formation, closing off the wedge, was the squadron of Banshee light/heavy fighters from the Littenia. These fighters were there mainly to act as a backstop (preventing any sneak attacks from the rear) as well as to escort the shuttles throughout the mission. After all, someone needed to keep an eye on the shuttles at all times. The Banshees hadn't gone up against the Nephilim so far, so no one knew just how well they would do. On paper, though, their speed, agility, good missile loads, and good gun loadouts (for light fighters, which wasn't saying much) of laser and ion scatter cannons should make them a fair match for Nephilim light or medium fighters.

Once the Banshees were in place, the entire formation fired up their engines and headed for the Alcor jump point. The Retaliators and Bearcats roamed freely to the front, sides, and in few cases even to the rear of the formation, daring any Nephilim fighters to try and interfere. By contrast, the rest of the formation maintained the loose wedge, with the fighters moving at the same speed as the bombers and shuttles. They would stay that way till they reached the target zone.

Admiral Hanton watched as the last of the fighters faded into the distance. Despite everything that the other officers had said, the loss of the Bunker Hill group weighed heavily on her conscience, as did the deaths of the Ghost Warrior pilots. She knew that some of those who flying on this mission would also be going to their deaths. She just hoped that the gain, both in terms of the lives saved in the rescue, and the innocent civilians lives they were fighting to protect in the long term, would be worth the deaths. Still, there was nothing she could do about it now, because her part in this operation was over. All she could do now was believe in her plans and strategies, and put her faith in the pilots and soldiers under her command.

"Good luck, my friends," she said, too softly for anyone on the bridge to hear. "Godspeed."

 

CONT...