PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 17 of 44 )

: Common Heroes
PART 4 OF 4

 

TCS Chicago, Flagship 15th DESRON
Captain's Quarters
0800 Hours ZULU, 08 Feb 2681 (2681.039)

Morning found Colby with bloodshot eyes and drunker than a skunk. In his left hand he held the neck of an empty bottle of vodka, his regular poison. His sidearm lay in his shaking right hand, steadied only by the fact that the barrel was between his teeth. Loaded and ready, the weapon had remained motionless for almost three hours now. The events of the brutal battles he had seen over the last few days kept replaying in his mind like a horrible nightmare that he simply could not awake from. Through CO's school they teach you that a combat command and death were synonymous. They tried to tell people that inevitably a commander would give an order that would result in people being killed. For better or worse, the mission must come first. People had to die. He lifted the weapon to his temple and closed his eyes.

"This oughtta be good."

Shocked by the voice, Colby dropped the weapon. He looked toward the door and saw his XO, Joe Galloway standing in the doorway. He was still shocked that anyone was present. Hadn't he locked the door? How did Galloway open it without Colby noticing? More importantly, how long had he been standing there?

Without words, Galloway walked around the desk, picked up the weapon and put it back in Colby's hand. "If you're going to do it, let's get it over with." With that, Galloway raised Colby's hand back up to his temple and took a step back.

Colby placed the weapon on the desk. "I can't do this, Joe. In the beginning, it was just for glamour and glory, but now these kids have names, faces and families. It's not only the enemy that we're killing, it's our own kids as well."

"Colt, just because you care about your troops, doesn't make you a bad commander. In fact, it makes you a great commander."

Colby sat in silence for a moment contemplating the possibility that he was not a bad officer; that possibly, the recent losses were not his fault.

"Now come on," Galloway continued, "we need you on the bridge. A message just came in that you're going to want to see."

 

Bridge, TCS Chicago
A Few Minutes Later...

"Captain on the bridge!"

Still feeling the effects of the vodka, Colby strode somewhat uneasily over to the comm station.

"Sir, message from Admiral Hanton," a tech said, handing the message to Colby.

Colby scanned it with Galloway beside him. When he was done, he looked at the XO.

"So, the 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron will be joining us," he said, turning to Joe.

"We've already picked them up on sensors. They're about 25 minutes out. We also received a transmission from an Admiral Mark Kaiten who is apparently aboard. He wants to speak with you."

"What the heck is an admiral doing aboard a torpedo boat?" Colby asked.

"Don't know," Galloway pulled in closer to Colby's ear and whispered, "but I doubt that you'd want to meet a flag officer drunk. Why don't you go get cleaned up?"

Colby stammered for a moment and then smiled. Joe always took care of him. "Okay, then, I'll be in my quarters. Call me when Admiral Kaiten arrives."

"Aye, sir," Galloway responded.

 

Captain's Wardroom
A Few Minutes Later...

The wardroom was a small room primarily composed of a table for twelve. Colby sat at the head of the table, sucking down cup after cup of coffee. Desperately he was trying to regain some sense - to shake off this hangover. Adm. Kaiten and his party had docked and were due in at any moment. Instead of meeting the Admiral at the airlock, he stole these last few minutes trying to regain his senses.

The door opened and Colby thought, No, just a couple more cups!

Adm. Kaiten strode over to Colby followed by an entourage of SEALs and Colby's senior staff. Colby came to attention.

"At ease, Captain Colby," Kaiten said. "Please, have a seat. I'm sure you're wondering what I'm doing here."

Colby nodded. Maybe if he could get by without speaking, the Admiral wouldn't notice. If only the room would stop spinning. Maybe if it could spin a little slower, at least. Yes, that would help. He would definitely have to post an order that the Wardroom was not permitted to spin while senior officers were present.

"While I can't tell you the nature of the mission that I or these SEALs were on, I can tell you that it's been canceled. Shortly after the 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron got it's orders to rendezvous with you, I received a message from HQ." Kaiten paused and then in a loud voice said, "Attention to orders!"

At those words, everyone in the room came to attention. Colby wobbled a bit on the way up, but managed to keep from toppling over.

Kaiten then began to recite the warrant that had been used for centuries. He knew it by heart, having been promoted quite a few times and also having it read in other ceremonies.

"To all who shall see these presents, greetings. Know ye that reposing special trust and confidence in Colton J. Colby, I do appoint this individual a commodore in the Terran Confederate Navy."

This was very strange. Colby actually saw three images of the Admiral. Which one to look at? So many choices.

"This appointee will carefully and diligently carry out the duties of the grade to which appointed. And I do strictly charge and require that all personnel of lesser grade will render obedience to appropriate orders which may be given from time to time."

Now this was strange. While he was quite sure that Kaiten was standing still, the few images of the Admiral that he was seeing had begun dancing all over the room. Colby was beginning to be sick. The images of Kaiten were circling each other faster and faster in a frenzy of motion. He was becoming dizzy and nauseous at the same time. He felt himself sway over to his right, but caught himself just before he fell over.

"Given under my hand, this 8th day of February, in the year of our Lord, twenty-six, eighty one. Signed, Mark Kaiten, Special Operations Deneb, Admiral, Terran Confederate Space Navy, Commanding."

"These orders have been approved by Admiral Hanton, and by Rear Admiral Kennedy." Kaiten stepped forward to remove Colby's rank insignia. From his pocket he removed a pair of single stars, slightly tarnished.

"These were mine when I first pinned on Commodore" he said as he fastened the stars onto Colby, "now I hope you wear them with the same dignity that I did."

Colby shook Kaiten's outstretched hand, proud of himself for being able to pinpoint the location of the Admiral's hand. "Thank you, sir. I certainly will."

Kaiten tarried a moment in front of Colby, looking into his eyes. Inwardly, Colby cursed himself as he realized that "certainly" had come out slurred. Then, turning on his heel, Kaiten announced that everyone was dismissed.

Turning back to Colby, he lowered his tone and asked, "Son, are you drunk?"

Colby mustered every bit of strength and bearing that he possibly could and answered, "No, sir."

Kaiten stared at him for a moment, frowned and turned and left the room. Once gone, Colby sank into his chair and promptly passed out.

 

Captain's Quarters
TCS Chicago
About 1200 Hours

Colby awoke in his bunk with a serious hangover. The room was completely dark and his head felt like it had been run over by a destroyer. He debated turning on the light, but knew that the invasion of light would only serve to bring him more pain. They should be able to get along without me for a few hours, he thought to himself. I'll just lie back and sleep this off.

As he lay his head back on the pillow, he noticed a tiny red dot of light in the room. Trying to focus, he could only make out a single red dot, glowing slightly in what should be the far side of his stateroom. He lay his head back on the pillow, but his mind wouldn't let him rest, knowing that there wasn't any control panel over there, no readout, no electronic panel of any kind. What was that light from?

"We've got a problem," a voice said from the corner of the room.

Startled, Colby groped for the light switch by his bunk. He flicked it, but no light came on.

"What we've got here is a senior officer, just promoted to commodore, drunk as the day is long and carrying around a death wish." The voice inhaled on the cigarette, the red glow burning brighter.

Colby saw the outline of his desk between him and his visitor, along with the outline of several of his bottles that he'd thought he'd hidden.

"Who cares if this guy's found my stash, I know how to take care of him," Colby said to himself. He reached under his mattress for the sidearm he kept there. No sooner did he discover that it was missing, as where it was. He felt the cold barrel press up against his temple.

"Now listen closely. I don't care if you don't want to live, you're now in command of a slew of men who not only want to live, but want to win this war. If you can't lead these men, step aside and let someone competent lead them. I know about your drinking. As of now, you will not have another drink. I know about the times that you sit in here contemplating whether to live or die. The time has come to make a choice, I am here fully willing and able to kill you right now. So I'm giving you a choice, do you want to live or die?" The point was accented with the barrel of the weapon being pushed into his temple harder.

Colby barely hesitated. "I choose to live," he said, his voice barely audible.

"In that case, let this be a reminder to you that you have taken a vow to your crew that you will be the leader that they need you to be. Should you fail to fulfill that vow, I will be back." The barrel of the weapon was removed. "Let this serve as a reminder of our vow." With that, the stranger crushed the tip of the cigarette into Colby's left shoulder. Colby cried out in pain, but the stranger held it on his shoulder for what seemed an eternity. Then, turning the weapon around in his hand, the stranger brought the butt end of the sidearm down hard against Colby's head, knocking him unconscious.

 

Captain's Quarters, TCS Chicago
20 Minutes later

The knocking on the door awakened Colby again. In addition to his hangover, his head now also pounded from the blow that knocked him unconscious. The light was already on, as he squinted to his desk. Whoever had been there before had removed all of the bottles that were on his desk. He reached under his mattress. Still no sidearm. He quickly debated conducting a search of the ship for it, possibly turning up who had come into his room. He decided against it, thinking that it would probably have been planted elsewhere, in a common space or used to frame someone else. It would probably be a useless endeavor. Swinging his legs over the side of the bed, he headed for the door as the knocking persisted. When he opened the door, he found the XO standing on the other side.

"Sir, I thought you'd be on the bridge an hour ago. Is everything all right?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, Joe," he said, rubbing the knot on his head. "Cover things for me a bit longer while I get ready. I'll be there in a little while."

"Aye, sir," Joe responded. He turned to leave the room, but stopped and looked over his shoulder. "Sir, I almost forgot. We've received orders regarding the next phase of our mission."

"Have we got any tactical information about the force we'll be up against?"

"Yes, sir, it's waiting for you in the CIC."

"Good, I'll be there in a minute."

 

Bridge, TCS Chicago
10 Minutes later...

"Captain on deck!" the yeoman called out as Colby walked onto the bridge. Colby glanced at the yeoman, who immediately corrected himself.

"Sorry, sir. Commodore on deck," the yeoman said.

"No problem," Colby said, "Still getting used to it myself." He strode over to the command chair from where Joe had just stood up. He picked up the intercom handset and hit the button for the 1MC and said, "Attention all hands. With the increase in the size of our force and with my promotion, I will be directing our little fleet's movements from the CIC. Cdr. Galloway will effectively take command of the Chicago." He hung up the handset and put a hand on Galloway's shoulder. "Take your seat, Joe. It's been a long time coming." With that, Colby left the bridge and headed for the CIC as Galloway settled into the command chair. His command chair.

 

Combat Information Center
About 1230 Hours

Colby reviewed the orders as the CIC crew awaited his orders. A group of Nephilim ships had broken off from the main force. Four destroyers and four cruisers were going to be the task at hand. He looked at the plotting table where all of the ships from the 15th DESRON, 18th DESRON and 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron were displayed. He moved the tactical map over to where the Neph ships had been plotted. In between was emptiness. Nothing. Nothing to hide behind, nothing to aide in any sort of surprise. Then he remembered something that one of his professors had taught him while at the Academy. Divide and conquer. With the right timing, it might just work.

Colby looked over to the comm officer in the CIC. "Set up a video conference with all the ship captains." He began programming in courses and way points while the comm officer went about the task of getting all of the captains from 22 ships on a secure video link. When it was done, the large comm screen in the CIC was a myriad of the faces of all the captains. Colby smiled, remembering the ancient Brady Bunch holovids where all of the faces of the family made for a checkerboard screen. This was now his family. Making sure that it was a secure comm channel, Colby went ahead with the briefing.

"Good morning, gentlemen. I have received our orders. A group of ships has broken off from the main Nephilim force, and we are to take them out. The force consists of four destroyer-sized ships and four cruiser-sized ships. Here's what I'd like to do. 1st Torpedo will proceed ahead of the main force and make a run by the Neph force. As the destroyers begin to engage, break off and make a run back toward us. The combined strength of all three of our forces should make short work of the destroyers. Then we'll turn our collective attention on the remaining cruisers. Sound like a plan?"

Capt. Bishop of the 18th DESRON spoke up. "When would you like to launch fighters, sir?"

"When we rendezvous with 1st Torpedo with those destroyers close behind, fighters should be airborne and waiting. Then we'll refuel and rearm fighters as needed while en route to the cruisers."

Lt. Cmdr. Crisologo of the 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron asked, "What happens if we get to the Nephilim force and they don't give chase as we're expecting, sir?"

"That's the weakest part of the plan, Commander. When you arrive at the force, fire on the cruisers. Of course the Neph ships will return fire, at which time you'll break off and make your run back to us. If they don't give chase, I don't think we'll have a choice but to regroup and hit them full force, head on."

"... in which case, it gets really bloody," chimed in Cdr. Wehrmann.

"Let's hope that it doesn't come to that. Standard tactical is to send the faster ships to eliminate the threat. They've given us no reason thus far not to believe that they would follow normal logic on that. Let's work under the assumption that they'll follow." Colby waited a few seconds. When none spoke, he said, "All right then, let's get to making preparations. We'll move into staging positions and I expect to give the order for 1st Torpedo to move off at 1400 Hours. Good luck everyone. Colby out."

 

Captain's Quarters, TCS Chicago
1350 Hours

Colby sat in his room and looked at the top of the desk, where a bottle of rum sat. It was practically begging him to be opened. The events of the early morning ran through his mind. What kind of commander had he become? How many decisions had been affected by his lack of ability to think straight? Of the four ships that had been lost, how many of those had been due to his inability to lead effectively? If this one person knew about his problems with depression and alcohol, how many more knew? The whole crew? The crews of all of the ships? What must the captains be thinking? Did they still trust his decision-making? More to the point, did he, himself, still trust his decision-making ability? Joe. It had to be Joe in his room this morning. He was the one who had confronted him about it before. Then again, that was just what eliminated Joe from the list of suspects. The fact that Joe had confronted him face to face ruled out the possibility that Joe would threaten him privately. Maybe Weps. He's seen the way the weapons officer had looked at him. Yeah, the way he looked at Colby, he must have known. He was generally a quiet man, hiding God only knows what inside. Then again, he tended to be a gentle man most of the time.

Colby forced himself to stop thinking of who it might have been. Maybe he'd never find out. Nonetheless, whomever it had been had served their purpose. Colby was rethinking several things and taking a serious look at his ability to command. Loud shouting and running footsteps in the hallway running by his cabin brought his mind back to the present. He stepped out into the hallway to investigate. He saw the last of several crewmen round the corner in the corridor. Curious, Colby followed the running footsteps. He ended up in engineering where one of the younger crewmen was keeping others at bay with a lit welding torch. Colby stopped at the doorway and surveyed the scene. There was quite a crowd gathered here in engineering. Colby recognized one of the engineering chiefs talking to the young man. Colby began to weed his way through the crowd toward the scene. As he drew closer, he could hear the young man's voice, full of panic.

"I didn't sign on for any of this. This is just supposed to be an easy way to get some money for school, not people dying everywhere! I want to go home! I don't want to be here! I didn't - " Colby cut the man off.

"Son, put the torch down before you hurt someone," he said with a booming voice. At once, the crowd realized who was present and became quiet.

"I'll hurt you, sir, if you don't get me off of this ship. I just want to go home."

Colby turned to the nearest crewman and said, "Go fetch the Master at Arms." Then to the young man, "Son, you have until the Master at Arms arrives to put that torch down and get back to your station."

"I don't want to be here!" the young man screamed.

The chief who had been talking to the young man tried to rush in and grab the torch, but the young man was faster and the bright flame of the torch met with the chief's hands and face. The chief fell to the ground screaming while the young man resumed his defensive posture. Colby grew red with rage.

"I promise you, son, that this is your last warning. Put the torch down now!" The young man looked at Colby, but held on to the torch.

Just then, the Master at Arms arrived. Colby reached for the sidearm that he carried and withdrew it. Without a second's hesitation, he pointed the weapon at the young man and fired. The man fell to the ground, gasping for breath from a sucking chest wound. Colby walked toward the man and stopped, standing over him. The crowd was stunned into silence. Colby stood watching until the young man stopped breathing. He turned to the crowd and addressed them.

"Make no mistake; we are at war. The laws governing wartime are more strict than you've been used to. Mutiny, disobeying a direct order and attempted murder carry with them the possibility of capital punishment. Get it straight in each of your minds that we are at war. Anyone who does not want to be a part of what has happened so far or what is about to happen is free to leave." With that, Colby pointed toward the only exit aboard the ship, the airlock. Colby tossed the Master at Arms his sidearm and said, "Have the body thrown in with the trash and sent into space the next time we do a trash dump."

 

Bridge
TCS Los Angeles, Flagship 1st Torpedo
1400 Hours

Having received the order from Colby, Lt. Cmdr. Crisologo gave the order for all of his ships to move out. They increased in speed to 2/3 heading toward the Nephilim force.

"Ready all weapons, bring shields on-line, have the engine room stand by for flank speed once we reach the target. Relay all orders to the other ships," Crisologo ordered.

"All ships acknowledge and report ready," the comm officer said.

"Weps, stand by to target a destroyer. Relay that target to all ships. If we happen to take out a ship, it would be most beneficial to have it be a destroyer. Tell all ships to fire only one torpedo during this run. If we happen to take out a ship, that's great but we'll want to save the bulk of our munitions for the battles later on.

"Weps, aye."

About half an hour later, they were nearing the last reported position of the Nephilim cruiser group. 30,000 klicks out, they began to receive real-time tracking of the Nephilim ships. All of the ships were still moving in the same direction, a point 210 degrees relative to their position. In effect, they had not changed their course and seemed not to take notice of the approaching force.

10,000 klicks out, the Nephilim opened fire. At this range, the shots that were on target were easily absorbed by the shields. It was a good sign, the first that the Nephilim were even concerned by the PT boats.

5,000 klicks out, Crisologo gave the order to fire their torpedoes. They streamed away, amidst a flurry of Nephilim cover-fire. The reports slowly began to come in. The San Francisco had lost port shielding and would soon be taking damage. The LaJolla was taking damage as well. LaJunta and El Paso were taking heavy fire and expecting shielding to fail momentarily. Of the ten torpedoes, four found their target. Two of the Nephilim ships shook violently from the explosions, but only one began the slow process on small internal explosions that eventually enveloped the ship in a white hot fireball.

"All ships, hard to starboard! Flank speed!" Crisologo ordered.

The ships quickly turned and headed for the rendezvous point. Aboard the Los Angeles, Cmdr. Crisologo kept a close eye on the Nephilim ships.

"Are any of them turning to pursue?" he asked.

His tactical officer was looking at his screen intensely. "Negative pursuit thus far, sir."

Crisologo cursed silently. If they didn't pursue, this would turn ugly. The damage they had taken would be in vain and they'd have to go back into the mêlée again. Only this time, the Nephilim would be expecting them. Crisologo looked again, only to see the same thing. 24,000 klicks away, soon they would be out of sensor range and unable to tell if any ships would give pursuit. Of course, if they hadn't by the time they were out of sensor range, the chance was nil that any chase would be given.

"Sir! They're turning to follow!"

"How many? Are the destroyers leaving the cruisers?" Crisologo asked.

The tech hesitated for a moment. Then, "Yes, sir. The cruisers are continuing on the same course while at least two of the destroyers have altered course." Then he turned to face Crisologo. "Sorry, sir, we're out of sensor range. Couldn't tell if the other destroyer turned to follow."

"Or if the cruisers turned to follow either," Crisologo finished. "Relay that report back to the Commodore, along with a status report of what was damaged."

 

CIC, TCS Chicago
About The Same Time

Colby looked over the report from Crisologo. Damage was acceptable, just so long as no ships had been destroyed. And they'd even managed to take out a destroyer! Colby couldn't help but to smile at that fact. He looked at the plotting table and calculated about 30 minutes or so before the party arrived. He asked the comm tech to set up a comm link between Cdr. Galloway on the bridge and Capt. Bishop.

"Gentlemen, Commander Crisologo just sent word that they managed to take out a destroyer!"

"That's fantastic, sir," Galloway chimed in. "So do we have word of whether or not the ploy worked?"

"We know that at least two destroyers are in pursuit, but they were at maximum sensor range and couldn't tell if the rest of the force was in pursuit. Let's get about 10,000 clicks between us and the 18th DESRON, so the 1st Torpedo can drive straight through us if the whole force is in pursuit. That way, hopefully we can have them at least partially surrounded."

"Sounds good," Bishop said. "We'll move into position now. Do we have an ETA?"

"Half an hour. I'll give you both a holler as they get closer. Colby out."

He could feel the intensity building within him. This was usually the time that he slipped away to have a quick pull on something strong to numb him for the coming fight, but he resisted the urge this time. A little too tersely, he called for one of the techs to get him another cup of coffee. "Calm down, old boy," he told himself. "You've done this a hundred times before. Nothing new, you know what you're doing, just tend to the business at hand." Inside, he knew that he was still shaking like a leaf on a tree.

 

CIC, TCS Chicago
About 1510 Hours

"Sir, 1st Torpedo is 30,000 klicks out. Nephilim force coming into range. Reading... two... three... three ships only."

Colby sighed in relief. The plan had worked. "Radio all ships to close
and engage."

It took a moment for the tech to radio the ships, passing along the message, not bothering to encode the transmission. Simultaneously, the six ships from the 15th DESRON, six ships from the 18th DESRON and the ten PT boats converged on the enemy destroyers.

The Nephilim destroyers, having only realizing that they had been ambushed when the Confed destroyers came into sensor range, began to disgorge fighters from their bellies. One by one, just as fast as they were able to launch fighters, two or three Confed fighters converged on the recently launched enemy fighter and destroyed it with relative ease.

The PT boats had barely enough time to turn around and begin the process of obtaining a torpedo lock before the missiles and torpedoes from the two DESRONs began impacting onto the three Nephilim destroyers. Within moments, they had all three started to show signs of the small internal explosions that would eventually lead to the entire engulfing of each ship. The whole process took no more than four minutes from the time that the first missile was loosed, until the last of the enemy ships exploded in a white-hot fireball. The Nephilim ships hadn't even had time to launch all of their fighters.

Colby began barking orders again. "Have the fighters establish a wedge formation 10,000 klicks out from our position. After that's done, we'll begin the process of recovering them for rearming and refueling as needed. Order all ships to set course for the cruisers and make best speed for them. We'll run as fast as our slowest ship can go... and get me another cup of coffee."

 

Excalibur 001
1545 Hours

Lt. Col. Ward saw the first of the four cruisers come into sight. Along with them, he saw the first wave of enemy fighters emerging from the cruisers. "All ships, break and attack," he ordered.

This battle would be more intense, the first being a relative cakewalk compared to this. Ward welcomed the chance at some competition. He streaked after an enemy fighter, his wing man close on his tail.

 

Bridge, TCS Los Angeles
About The Same Time

Lt. Cdr. Crisologo ordered his ships to begin their run, each locking onto one target and flying in at full speed. Speed and maneuverability being one of their greatest advantages, they would have to depend on the fighter cover to keep Nephilim fighters from ripping them to shreds.

"Weps, begin torpedo lock. Fire all guns, careful of friendly fighters."

 

CIC, TCS Chicago
About The Same Time

Colby grabbed onto the table as the Chicago shook from a direct hit of an enemy fighter's missiles. "Comm! Radio the fighters. Have fighters from the Denver, Manchester, Clark and Balboa provide security for the two DESRONs. Fighters from the Blue Ridge and Kiev will provide cover 1st Torpedo. All other fighters can engage enemy fighters. Instruct the fighters to leave the cruisers to us."

 

Bridge, TCS Los Angeles
About The Same Time

As the Los Angeles streaked toward the closest cruiser, Lt. Cmdr. Crisologo rejoiced at the tone of a torpedo lock. "Fire torpedoes!"

All ten PT boats cut loose with their torpedoes, unleashing a wall of anti-matter warheads. The Nephilim cruisers cut loose with their defense systems, downing a few torpedoes in the process. Most, however, reached their destination, impacting on two of the four cruisers. Explosions ripped through the ships, but the heavily armored cruisers remained intact.

"Radio all boats, hard over to starboard and prepare to make another run!" Crisologo said.

 

Bridge, TCS Chicago
About The Same Time

Cdr. Galloway began his run into the heart of the melee. Missiles streaked away and CIS systems blazed away as Nephilim missiles streaked closer. Shields were low, but holding. The view screen caught his attention as the first cruiser exploded in a silent blaze, as the Chicago's torps finished the job begun by the PTs. They maneuvered past the debris of the first cruiser as they closed on the second.

"What is the shield status of that next cruiser?" Galloway asked.

"Armour weakened all around, aft armor and hull has been severely compromised."

"Maneuver us around to the aft side of the cruiser and pound them there. Hit them with everything we've got."

 

CIC, TCS Chicago
About The Same Time

Colby stood before the plotting table, eyes fixed on the developments of the battle. The cruisers had seemed to be employing a wagon-wheel defense, not unlike the cowboy wagon trains when Indians attacked. The theory had been that in a circle, you had someone else watching your back. Without orders, however, some of the PT boats had penetrated their perimeter circle and shattered their defense. It now seemed that the Nephilim were leaving each ship to its own devices. Two of the ships were attacking independently while the third seemed to be making a run for the jump point at the far end of the system. Colby picked up the handset and keyed up the Los Angeles. "Commander Crislogo, take your boats and make sure that third cruiser doesn't get away," he ordered.

"Roger that, sir," Crisologo responded, "moving out now."

 

Excalibur 001
About The Same Time

Ward was among the group of ships designated to take care of the Nephilim fighter cover. He was hot on the tail of a Nephilim fighter, merely toying with him. At this point in his career, promotion depended more on what command programs were implemented and successfully managed, rather than a pilot's kill score. That, along with the fact that it had been a while since he had been in a dogfight, had led him into his current situation. He had been toying with this fighter for nearly seven minutes now. He had stayed on this on fighter's tail exclusively, firing the occasional volley of fire to keep the fighter's shielding low, but not destroying it all together. Whenever the fighter would line up on another Confed ship, Ward would fire a few shots to send it scurrying. Then he would follow and sit on his tail for a while again. The Confed ships had vastly outnumbered Nephilim ships for some time, so there was no real threat. Granted, if he'd seen a junior pilot playing the same game, he probably would have given the young pilot a thorough dressing down, but he was having fun. During this game, he'd wandered quite far from the rest of the melee. In fact, he had become so entranced in his enjoyment that he'd ordered the other ships to stay away from this one fighter.

It was when his mind began to wander to places more serene that he lost sight of the enemy fighter. In a second, he was brought back to reality, and an icy panic ran through his veins as he realized that he didn't know where the Nephilim ship was. He almost gave himself whiplash as he jerked his head around, scanning the surrounding space for the fighter. He jerked his head back to the control panel when he heard the tone of a missile lock. Eyes wide and pulse racing, he jerked the stick hard over and hit the afterburner. The Nephilim ship was staying with him. The hunter had become the hunted. The predicament he found himself in was truly rich. The commander, caught in a childish game that he would have chewed out a younger pilot for, now having the tables turned. If he called for help, the whole fighter wing would see his folly and possibly lose respect for him. On the other hand, what were his choices? Try and outmaneuver the enemy and possibly end up ejecting or dead. Continuing to pull every evasive maneuver he could think of, and a few impromptu maneuvers, he felt his heart racing, pulse pounding and the drops of sweat running down his face. Then there was the question of whether or not another fighter would be able to make it in time to save him. Ward dropped chaff and rolled right as a missile streaked by. Maybe he could wander back and they would see an enemy ship on his tail and give him some help. No, that would be almost as bad, if they saw an enemy fighter on his tail. He pulled back in a loop, but the fighter stayed right with him. Tough little booger, he thought as he felt another trickle of sweat run down his side. Another chaff and a roll right as another missile went flying by.

How many more could this old boy have? he thought.

He'd just resigned himself that he'd have to call for help as the fighter exploded behind him. Whirling around in his seat, he saw another fighter back there. Looking back to his radar, he saw a blue dot.

"Sorry, sir, I know that you were toying with him, but the battle is coming to a close and I thought we might need you back there."

It was Ward's wing man, young 2nd Lt. Jackson. Ward could hear the smile in the younger man's voice. In wisdom beyond his years, he had provided salvation for the Colonel, not only in life from the Nephilim fighter, but also with the excuse of why Ward couldn't... wouldn't call for help. Ward made a mental note to somehow reward the young man for the act later.

As the two pilots approached the battle, Ward saw that the battle was indeed coming to an end. The PT boats had caught the cruiser which had tried to escape and were giving it a good thrashing. By the impacts on its hull, Ward could tell that shielding had been lost and it would be completely obliterated within moments. The rest of the ships had already roasted one of the two remaining cruisers and the other stood no chance against all of the Confed ships. As for the Nephilim fighter cover, it was nonexistent. His fighters had completely wiped out all of the fighter cover and were providing assistance on the cruisers with what missiles they had left. In short, it was over.

"Coach to Base, requesting permission to begin recovery of fighters, over," he said into his mike.

There was a momentary pause, then, "Roger that, Coach. We'll alert all ships to standby for recovery operations. Welcome back."

 

Captain's quarters
TCS Chicago
About 1700 Hours

Colby sat back in his chair at his desk and smiled. It had all gone extremely well. Two of the PT boats had been destroyed, the LaJolla and LaRue, but most of the crew had managed to be recovered. Other ships had been damaged, but nothing to warrant being taken out of service. They had lost 7 fighters, but the total number of losses against the number of ships they had faced had made for an outstanding report. This was one report that he'd been more than happy to send back to Admiral Hanton and his own superiors at Confed HQ.

On a personal front, though, while still fighting the desire, he was beginning to feel the withdrawal from the alcohol. Sometime during the battle, someone had been in his room and checked through all of his things, looking for more bottles. All of his hiding places had been found; there was nothing left. He held his hand out in front of him as he typed the report and noticed that it shook visibly. Apart from that, he'd begun to sweat almost constantly and his vision was sometimes blurry. Then there was the constant headache that he carried around with him. Hard to believe that just a few drinks would cure all of this, but he resigned himself that his visitor had been right. He had made up his mind to be the leader that was needed during this time, no matter what. Inside, he asked himself if he truly meant that. Would he step down from his command if it was what he thought best for the crew?

Time would tell.

 

FIN