PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 18 of 44 )

: On the Brink
PART 1 OF 2

 

Squadron Leader's Quarters, TCS Yorktown
Nephele System, Vega Sector
08 Feb 2681 (2681.039), 1400 Hours ZULU (H-Hour minus 5)

Major Rosencrantz lay back on his bunk, a datapad in his hands. The information it displayed did not bode well. The whole plan had gone to hell after the Fleet's retreat into Nephele, with the early destruction of the TCS Bunker Hill. By now, the Fleet had scattered across half the system, individual groups carrying out a running firefight with the bugs. The Yorktown and her escorts had found themselves in a relatively safe grid of space, but that hadn't lasted long.

A knock sounded through the bulkhead. Rosencratz set the datapad and went to the door. He opened the mechanical door with a press of a button. Arkadyova stood before him. Her face betrayed no anticipation. Rosencrantz nodded his head slightly, motioning her to enter. The door hissed shut behind her.

"How bad, Michael?"

"Bad. Very bad," he said as he offered her a chair. She sat, her posture announcing concern. Rosencrantz remained standing.

"We've got to punch through an defensive screen like I haven't seen since the Cat Wars. Rena, we'll be losing good people."

"You have the orders from Alvarez?" she inquired. Rosencrantz plucked the datapad from his bed and tossed it to her. She snatched it in mid-air and perused the orders.

"Long story short: Us, the Shrikes, and the Agincourt against a Hydra, three Orcas, and whatever else they have in store for us. Bad as it is, we've probably got the milk run."

Arkadyova studied the datapad, taking in the particulars. Rosencrantz had been correct; The team that included the Grendels (Strike Group Alpha) would have the easier task. The Grendels had their Vampires, and the Shrikes were excellent ship killers. Besides, they would have the awesome firepower of the Plunkett class heavy cruiser to back them up. Still, it was going to be far from a 'milk run.'

The group that included the destroyers Perez and Maribel (Strike Group Bravo), was scheduled for a full-on confrontation with an equally strong enemy group. They would have support from the rest of the Yorktown's squadrons, but only they and their handful of Thunderbolts would be able to harm the enemy ships. The Yorktown battle group was heading into a meat grinder. Arkadyova looked up from the datapad.

"There's going to be a meeting in Tactical in a few hours. We'll figure out some way to survive this one," Rosencrantz said.

Arkadyova nodded. She looked at Rosencrantz. She saw a man heavily weighed down by the chains of command, but not one who would be crushed by them. She herself had known the same fear.

"Fear not, Michael, and rest well knowing that every last one of us appreciates how you feel."

Rosencrantz smiled. Arkadyova rose to leave. As the door closed behind her, he lay back in his bed and pondered the coming battle.

 

Tactical Room
1600 Hours ZULU (H-Hour minus three)

Colonel Alvarez, Captain Ramirez, and the squadron commanders of Grendel and Cavalier squadrons stood around the map table. For an hour, they had pored over every bit of SWACs data available. The enemy was closing fast, and the Yorktown needed nothing short of a minor miracle.

The Colonel, the Captain, and Rosencrantz were huddled over the map table while the Cavaliers' CO, Vladimir "Arkangel" Karpoff, circled the table, checking each aspect and vector. Arkadyova stood back, silent. She worked the plan in her head as the others debated tactics.

"What about a flanking move by the Yorktown here to here?" Major Karpoff posited. His finger traced a path across the table.

"That'll open up our rear to attack. The Perez and the Maribel have enough trouble as is," Ramirez responded.

"Here's our problem," Rosencrantz interjected. "My Vampires can hit them hard and fast, but we can't do a damn thing to the big boys without the Shrikes or the Agincourt. And without an escort, you folks will get shredded."

Regretful nods and stares met Rosencrantz's comment. Rosencrantz leaned back against the console. He looked to Arkadyova. Her eyes moved purposefully over the display. She glanced at him, indicating that an idea had formed.

"Can we risk leaving the Shrikes and the Agincourt unprotected for a short while?"

"Maybe. What are you thinking?" Captain Ramirez responded, curious to see what Arkadyova had plotted out. She drew nearer to the map table.

"It seems we're scheduled to take a direct route to ensure that no hostiles reach the Yorktown. With an indirect route, we will miss most of the incoming fighters, but the Shrikes will still need our protection, no matter what," Arkadyova intoned.

Rosencrantz followed her reasoning. "We're hobbled by the fact that we have to keep pace with the bombers, limiting our ability to soften the targets," he said. Alvarez listened closely.

"Continue," she directed. Rosencrantz nodded to Arkadyova. She straightened her back to a formal posture.

"I propose that we send the Vampires out with a combination wild weasel/space superiority loadout. At this point, two-thirds of the distance to the nav point, the Vampires accelerate to attack speed. We will enter the engagement area and attempt to suppress any enemy fighters. Then, we will attempt to destroy as many turrets as possible and return to cover the bombers and Agincourt."

Alvarez pursed her lips and thought for a moment. She saw Karpoff study the navmap, undoubtedly turning the plan over in his head.

"Major, what's your read on this?" she asked.

"It'll be tough, but we can hack it. Just as long as the Vamps don't leave us by our lonesome too long, we should be ok."

"Good. Once our two groups finish dealing with the capships, we can link up and take out the fighters you bypassed. It's risky but do-able. I'll forward this to Tactical and alert your flight crews of the changes in loadouts. You have three hours until you sortie. Good luck out there. And come back alive."

 

Flight Lockers, Grendel Squadron
1700 Hours ZULU (H-Hour minus 2)

Miles Walker, "Footman" in the cockpit, sat on a bench in the Grendels' locker room. He had dressed for combat, though he had left the front of his jumpsuit unzipped. He sat in silence and gauged the distance to his up-ended helmet. With a single flick of his wrist, he drew a card from the deck in his left hand and delicately flung it into the helmet. Again, he landed another card. As he was about to try for the hat trick, the door hissed open. Anna "Whisper" Desmond entered.

"Hey, Whisper. What's up?" he asked. In the locker room and on the flight deck, the Grendels left behind their names and used only their callsigns. Whisper turned to Footman. He landed another card in his helmet.

"I just came for the quiet. This is about the last silent place on the ship. You?"

"Same. Hey? Care to play a hand?" Footman asked, reaching for his helmet. Whisper sat down in front of him. Footman shuffled the cards and dealt.

"This one's going to be tough," she said as she discarded a pair of cards. He passed her two from the deck.

"Yeah. I saw the Major earlier. He had the sourest expression I've ever seen on him."

"It'll be messy," she responded tersely. Footman and Whisper revealed their hands. They both held nothing of value.

 

Yorktown Cabin - Shared by Lts. Drake and Waterston
1800 Hours ZULU (H-Hour - 1)

"Time to face the world, Cat."

"I'll be watching your back, Lil," Kat Waterston said. She pulled up the zipper on her uniform and opened her foot locker. She plucked a small cross from a pouch and put it in one of her pockets.

"Don't worry, Kat. It'll just be a little stroll to there and back in time for a quick round in the lounge," Lilith Drake said to her roommate. The two exited their cabin for the lockers.

 

Flight Deck, TCS Yorktown
1900 Hours ZULU (H-Hour)

"Okay, people, you all know the plan. We're the varsity team, and it's time to play. Now, everyone to your ships. We launch in ten," Shooter sternly commanded. The Shrikes and Agincourt has already lined up for transit. Only the Grendels remained on the Yorktown. Rosencrantz walked to his fighter. Beneath it stood his crew chief, Jen Sheldon.

"I'll be lighting a candle for you, Rosie. Just bring this baby back in roughly the same number of pieces that you took her out with." Jen gave a grin. Shooter smiled. He gave her a wink and climbed into his cockpit. The other Grendels lined up for the launch cue.

One by one, the Vampires were hurled from the launch bays. WhiteWitch, as always, brought up the rear and signaled the Yorktown. Shooter keyed his comm.

"Assume formation and set course for Nav Two. Grendels, check your axes."

The fighters pulled into formation, the Vampires taking point while the Shrikes took cover under the massive, intimidating guns of the Agincourt. As the the ships synchronized, the Grendels locked on autoslide and once again demonstrated their prowess of moving as a single entity. As the Vampires settled back into their main orientation, Shooter gazed out his cockpit and allowed his thoughts to wander for a moment. He peered at the Agincourt and mused over its name. It comforted him to think about that ancient battle where 200 prevailed against thousands. At that, he focused his attention on his instruments and the long, silent journey ahead of them.

 

Divergence Point, Nav Two
2000 Hours ZULU (H-Hour + 1)

"Coming up on separation point," Whisper informed them. The collective guts of every pilot and spacer tightened.

"Grendel Squadron breaking formation. Accelerate to attack velocity. Arm all weapons and prepare to engage," Shooter ordered. The Vampires dropped out of autoslide just long enough to light their afterburners and autoslide at maximum speed. Free from the constraints of escort duty, the Grendels could focus on their specialty: space superiority.

After a few minutes, Grendel Squadron approached the outer edge of the engagement area. Numerous returns began to show up on radar. Shooter activated his comm systems.

"Reading multiple bogies, small and large. Remember, we're not here to dogfight. Torchie, Harpy, Trader, when in range, launch a full spread of Trackers to keep those Squids busy. Everyone else, get your ARMs ready, and don't forget your guns, either. We're going down their throats at full speed. Watch it, people."

The Grendels marveled at the sight they saw before them. Three Orcas and a Hydra lined up in a triangular formation. The large, aquatic ships looked like menacing creatures of the deep that had welled up from a watery hell, bristling with weaponry. The ships' interceptors closed.

"Trackers, now," Shooter ordered. A flail of the huge MIRVs sailed toward the oncoming Squids. The Squids scattered to avoid the blossoming IFF missiles spewed from the Trackers while the Vampires blazed in toward their targets. As they neared the massive capships, dozens of tiny turrets swiveled to meet the new threats.

"Turret radar active, missile turrets online," Whisper reported. The Grendels swooped in low over the capships, jinking and autosliding about. Shooter fired off a missile at one of the destroyers' missile turrets. His efforts were greeted by a plume of fire. Laser blasts from the gun turrets whizzed around him, cooking his shields every so often. He rolled out, looking for another missile turret to kill.

"Flak getting thick here at Destroyer Two! Shields getting pounded!" Footman announced. The threat indicator lit up. A missile headed for him. He rolled and spun out, releasing decoys to spoof the missile. He pitched down just in time to avoid a part of the bug ship's hull. The missile pursuing him impacted with a flash on its own ship.

Arkadyova trudged through the ordered madness. She silently fired off her ARMs as green bolts blasted past her. She then noticed that all the Trackers had spent their fuel. The Squids were returning for more, though they were a few ships lighter.

"Enemy fighters approaching. Be ready," she warned. No sooner had she issued that update than Footman had picked up a tail. He rolled about, using his superior maneuverability to great advantage. Suddenly, a second fighter took up pursuit. The two squids fired, whittling away at his shields. As he swung around the underside of a destroyer, a Squid dodged in front of him, guns blazing. He pulled away. His nose pointed toward a missile turret as it fired an IR at his fighter. His Vampire exploded in a ball of light and gas.

"Shit, Footman's dead. Phase I is over, people. Get back to the Agincourt," Shooter ordered as the Grendels lit off their 'burners and headed for the Agincourt.

 

TCS Agincourt

"Agincourt to bombers! Incoming contacts on an alternative vector! Reading Stingray-class fighters."

As the Vampires tangled with their quarry, Archangel ordered his own bombers to engage afterburners. With luck the Grendels make this whole exercise academic. Just in case, he switched his weapons to his image-recognition missiles and locked onto the lead Stingray, hoping that the missile would have time to lock before the incredibly fast interceptors were on top of his bombers. He ordered his wingman, 1st Lt. "Blondie" Kempus, to do the same, while the rest of the squadron began to designate targets among the three capital ships.

"Listen up people, keep your gunners sharp on those fighters!" now-Captain Frances "Silence" Rubio, the old squadron leader, advised.

"No duh?" GM3 Ryan Stephens, Karpoff's dorsal turret gunner, snapped off sarcastically. "We know our jobs, bitch."

"Keep it locked up!" 1st Lt. Mark "Bung Boxer" Marsters, Karpoff's weapons officer, chided. Archangel had flown a two-seater back when he was with Sabre-C's, and Marsters had been a torpedo officer in a Longbow, so their attitudes about mixing it up with fighters were a little different. But the lieutenant wasn't half-bad for a NFO and Archangel enjoyed having him alongside, especially for long patrols when the Gwyneddian's humor was very appreciated.

Archangel flipped his receiver to the command link, blotting out the Agincourt's datafeed and just leaving the receiver open to the low-level communications between spacecraft. He also set the receiver to keep down the bug chatter -- he didn't care what the Nephilim said because he couldn't understand it, and he doubted they cared to hear what he thought of them.

The Stingrays closed in. Suddenly, they broke into trios and formed into their deadly clusters. The Agincourt's CIC blared a warning over the comm.

"Careful, pilots. Stingray clusters detected. Watch your backs, but keep them away from the Agincourt."

The clusters rocketed toward the Agincourt while the bombers tried to take their flanks. Suddenly, as a pair of Shrikes began to charge their mass drivers, the Stingray cluster they had targeted turned and fired. A massive blue ball of searing plasma hurtled toward one of Shrikes. The pilot turned, only to condemn herself. The plasma burst hit her unshielded port side, and the sluggish craft cartwheeled into the Shrike next to it.

In an effort to dodge the phalanx of fire from the Shrikes, the Stingray clusters broke up and bobbed in a beeline to the Agincourt. The Shrikes nearest to the Agincourt lit their burners and prepared to fire. Suddenly, the Stingrays formed up again and doubled back, hoping to repeat their performance. They let loose a pair of plasma bursts, neither of which connected, and resumed their course for the Agincourt with the Shrikes closing.

Inside the Agincourt, all hands were bracing for impact as the Stingray clusters began firing plasma bursts. Likewise, the Agincourt opened up with its massive batteries. Three turrets converged on one cluster, eviscerating it and its component ships. The other cluster broke off, but to no avail. The Shrikes pursuing it closed into mass driver range and vaporized it with a trio of charged barrages. As they surveyed the void, a transmission came through.

"Grendels to Agincourt. Phase I complete."

 

Rendezvous Point, Nav Three
2100 Hours ZULU (H-Hour + 2)

As Shooter and the other Grendels arrived back at the Agincourt, they saw the effects of what had transpired. He counted fewer Shrikes than before, and the Agincourt has numerous black marks on her sides.

"Grendels to all remaining craft. Here to escort you the rest of the way," he said. The Vampires joined formation with the capship and bomber. They linked up and crawled their way to Nav Two, where the bugs were on full alert.

"Back to work, people. Grendels, turrets, Shrikes, bag'em. Cover us, Agincourt," he said. The Grendels burned back in. They picked off the turrets one by one. The Agincourt, meanwhile, had gone full speed into the thicket of battle, drawing fire off from its little friends. The Agincourt's own heavy batteries targeted one of the picketing Orcas, pounding it particle cannon and plasma fire.

Suddenly, a missile impacted on Whisper's starboard shields. Her ship rocked violently, and her radio went dead. A salvo of laser blasts punched into the wounded side, and she went up in a fiery blaze.

Arkangel keyed his comm and assigned his remaining bombers to their task.

"Silence, you take Seeker, Slice-n-Dice and Wildman and hit that cruiser. Mayor, take Kit Fox, Ferret, and Don with you on the destroyer designated Orca Alpha. Watch that strange blister on the bottom front of the bridge, Agincourt is getting weird power signals out of it and the ship isn't registering with known destroyers of that class. Could be a new weapon. Alto and Chip, form up on Blondie and me. By the books, people, no room for hotshotting. We want good clean kills. Break!"

Archangel carefully considered the "speech" he had just given. Apprehensions built every second as the newly launched Squids closed on the Vampires. Would Rubio follow his orders or would she go after her own glory? How would the rest of the squadron handle it? Most importantly, there would be a lot of triple-a coming off those four warships - who would live and who would die?

Archangel blocked those thoughts out the second that he heard the commotion the Grendels were raising. "Fox One away! Fox Two away!" "They're coming around! Watch that number two one!" "Splash target! Oh, wait, damn! No kill!" "Break and attack!"

The Squids had barely evaded the first wave of missiles, instead braking hard and screaming back toward their capital ships. Archangel almost breathed a sigh of relief, but he knew that it was far from over. The afterburners on the Vampires lit off, giving chase to the demonically fast Bug interceptors and splashing the damaged one with their guns. But they were getting dangerously close to the big ships' defensive guns, and suddenly space lit up with dozens of shots from heavy masers and missile turrets. The Vampires scattered to avoid the fire, and in the confusion the Squids rocketed past them, heading straight for the Cavaliers.

Archangel quickly ordered every wingleader to engage the inbounds with missiles and let their subordinates continue with the torpedo locks. If the Squids didn't get dropped fast, they would wreak havoc on the bombers making their torpedo runs. Seconds seemed to stretch into hours as the enemy fighters raced in. Vlad heard the steady tone of the missile lock in his ear, but held his fire, not wanting the enemy to break off his run and survive. He hoped to get the fighter with a one-two punch of missile and guns, and was not about to let his target escape. His heart pounded in his throat and he sensed that he had stopped breathing as the distance closed. Mayor had long since let a missile go, and he heard the Vampires screaming that three Mantas had appeared from behind the cruiser.

The enemy fighter finally flung itself into its attack configuration, opening fire with its four wingtip cannons. Archangel gently squeezed the firing stud and he felt the missile let go. Then he quickly flipped over to full guns and opened fire. As the missile streaked in toward its target the Squid juked sharply upward, but not quickly enough, and the image-recognition warhead carried right into the fighter's shields, punching through them and hitting the armor below. Archangel's first shots went wide, but the third and fourth salvoes tore into the damaged armor. The enemy fighter tried to skid away, barely avoiding Blondie's own missile, but Archangel auto-slid the bomber hard to the right, cutting engines and letting the bomber's inertia carry it forward. The fighter pulled up to escape and GM3 Stephens took a few shots at it, but quickly the fighter was under Archangel's guns again. He locked on another image-recognition missile and fired a second time, sending it square into the enemy fighter's exhaust port. An explosion tore apart the rear half of the fighter, rocketing the forward portion deep into space.

"Splash one target!" Vlad shouted for joy, while Stephens and GM2 Annette Kishlansky whooped and hollered their own delight. He then maneuvered back to his original course, lit his engines, and punched afterburners to pull back into formation.

There was no time to continue his elation. Silence had waxed her Squid but the third one had hammered Alto's bomber, and was coming around for another pass. Kishlansky opened up with the bottom turret, and several bombers dropped mines to discourage the interceptor. The Squid darted in for the kill, but the turret gunners discouraged him enough that Alto's bomber survived. Her top turret gunner had not, though, and the bomber was leaking atmosphere.

Two Vampires flashed across Archangel's line of sight, dropping missiles quickly and spurting forth fiery death with their guns. The Squid continued to juke and avoid the Vampires, but it was once again out of the Cavalier formation. Archangel kept a close watch on it as he switched to torpedoes and lined up for his run. "Alto, how are you doing?"

Static cut through the first part of the message that 2nd Lt. Danielle Caldbeck radioed back, "... lost atmospheric containment for my gunners. Portillo is still okay, but I can't hail Ramsey."

"Can you still fight?"

"Sir, I've taken a lot of damage, I think I ought to head back."

Archangel breathed deeply, grunting in frustration, "Alto, can you still fight?"

The silence where Alto's breathing had been seemed to drown out the sounds of battle in the background, leaving a very hollow place in Archangel's heart. "Yes, sir, we can fight. I don't know how long, but we can."

Part of his mind knew he was killing them. Part of his mind knew she needed to do her duty, no matter if she should die or not. In war, people died. He had learned that as a second lieutenant, on an attack similar to the one that Lieutenant Caldbeck was about to make. The stakes had been high back then, much much higher. But did that change anything at all? She had known full well what signing into the Terran Confederation Space Navy could mean, even if she had thought it unlikely. When young Vladimir Karpoff had signed up, his mind had been full of high adventure and taking part in the greatest crusade in human history. Almost his entire NROTC class had died during the Terra Campaign, wiping forever the visions of glory from Second Lieutenant Karpoff's mind as he lay in a hospital bed recovering. And now it was Second Lieutenant Danielle Caldbeck's turn to learn the harsh realities of war... all Archangel could do was pray that she lived to put the lessons to good use.

The Vampires were still doing an excellent job of holding down the enemy turrets and Archangel planned to capitalize his strike on that. His own torpedo began to track the bridge of the mighty Orca-class destroyer as the other members of his squadron began to gain lock.

"Cavs, attack pattern Alpha! Fire at will! Break and attack!" Archangel shouted as he punched his afterburners. The rest of the squadron lit off just microseconds apart, breaking the formation a little bit but not enough to concern its new CO.

A million thoughts flashed through Vlad's head as he began the long cruise toward his target. As they loomed ever larger in his viewscreen, he thought back to the last thing that he had tried a torpedo run against - a Kilrathi Fralthra cruiser from a time that seemed very long ago. But his mind returned to the present as he watched the enemy capital ships begin to adjust their defensive fire toward the bombers.

The Grendels had done well. Most of the missile turrets were down, leaving the less dangerous gun turrets. But as the heavier guns turned to begin engaging the Agincourt, the lighter cannons were beginning to find their marks. The formation thinned as each bomber juked as best as it could without giving up the precious torpedo lock. A few torpedoes were being let go to calls of "Tallyho!" but Archangel held out, waiting through the warbling tone. Even after the triple beep led to the long holding lock tone, he held just a few more seconds. A cannon blast tore into his shields and he rolled so the shots would hopefully not be able to hit. Then he pressed the firing stud and felt the heavy torpedo drop from the bomber's hull.

As he remembered to breathe again, he pitched the bomber hard under the bow of the destroyer, punching afterburners to escape any torpedo blasts. He felt more than saw or heard three soft-kills, torpedoes that were shot down and detonated. But a series of blasts rocked through the enemy formation as torpedoes found their mark. If they had penetrated armor or not was still to be seen...

"Three hits!" Torchie, a Vampire pilot, called out as she circled the enemy warships. "Cruiser's bridge is down, Orca Two is hit as well, looks like some hull damage and an atmosphere leak!"

Cheers erupted but the squadron knew the task was far from over. Archangel checked to make sure that everyone was okay, and he got twelve blue blips on his screen for his bombers. "Attack Pattern Charlie against the cruiser! Wax it but watch that damned Orca!"

"Archangel, that blister is some kind of shield generator or something," Prestandolu commented.

"Roger that, Mayor. I want to gun down these two crippled ships, concentrate your fire on them and their turrets! Alto, how are you sitting?"

"Took damage to the port engines, Arch, but we can still fight!"

"That's what I like to hear, Alto! Watch yourself!"

As the bomber squadron circled around for their second pass, the cruiser and destroyers began to come under the Agincourt's heavy guns. The destroyer she had originally taken on had been reduced to a shattered, leaking hulk. But it was clear these ships were giving as well as they got, as the Agincourt's shields quivered and began to buckle.

"Cav Leader, this is Grendel Leader," the Shooter called out. "We've got people low on fuel and ammo, armor's getting thin. I'm sending a few of my people back to the Agincourt. The rest will take you in."

"Roger that, Grendel Leader! Thanks for the cover!"

"Hold formation, Seeker!" Silence radioed. "Seeker, return to formation! Seeker, damn it! Haikiri, report!"

"Seeker, report!" Archangel called as the bombers began to line up for a second attack. Silence's flight of four bombers was in a loose formation of three while the fourth, that of Second Lieutenant Akino "Seeker" Haikiri flew off into deep space. Silence reported that the bomber was still underpowered and that the turrets were moving, but it was clear from the slow, lazy curve the bomber was making that it was not under the control of its pilots.

"Shit! Silence, have Dicer form up on your wing. Wildman, you take Seeker's wing and keep us informed of what's going on. Silence, concentrate on taking out that damned cruiser!"

"Archangel, we should probably check on my wingman..."

"Wildman has her, Silence, just concentrate on your run!" The low warble of target acquisition began as the torpedo began sorting its way through the cruiser's shielding energy fields.

"Archangel, the destroyers..."

"The cruiser, Silence!"

"I'm designating Orca Bravo! It's still a live target!"

Archangel almost screamed in frustration. He wanted the cruiser kill badly. He also knew that the Agincourt would stand a helluva lot better chance against two destroyers than a cruiser and a destroyer. No doubt the ConFed warship was already feeling the effects of dealing with first one destroyer, and then the combined guns of two more destroyers and a cruiser. Silence was trying to push him around by ignoring his authority, and it would be bad for the men to see him "pull rank" against an officer that (before her recent demotion) had been superior to him, and one that they trusted more than him.

So now the problem led to power politics in a very small, very tight unit. He had to somehow appease the respect she had without letting her just get her way. "Silence, designate Orca Alpha as your target, go for the sure kill and then we'll hit Bravo. Mayor, hit this cruiser with me! You target engines, I'm going for superstructure damage!"

Archangel cut speed to keep the squadron together. Silence's outburst had cost them precious seconds that they should have been locking torpedoes, and he wanted to keep the torpedo salvo tight, so the enemy would have to concentrate on several targets inbound from two different axes all at the same time. Defensive fire off of the cruiser was getting thick. The turrets ringing the engine housing of the Hydra cruiser lanced out, scoring hit after hit on Mayor's bombers.

"Shields are dropping fast, lotta forward armor damage!" 2nd Lt. Kit "Kit Fox" Daniels called out.

"Tuck in behind me more!" Mayor called. Archangel watched as Kit Fox maneuvered her battered bomber behind Mayor's. Archangel's torpedo had almost gained lock, and there were precious little but big guns between him and the cruiser, no turrets to speak of.

"That bitch still has a missile turret up, Mayor!" Lieutenant Mark "Ferret" Defaunce called, pulling his bomber up slowly, almost losing the torpedo lock.

"Hold formation, kid!" Mayor counted. "Don't worry, it's tracking me anyhow!"

"Going in," Mayor's Grendel escort, Matchlock, calmly announced. He burned in ahead and began to lay into the hideous bulb with his guns

Archangel glanced after Matchlock as he went after the missile turret. Matchlock sailed over the side of the ship, firing while Archangel made his torpedo run. The guidance package let out the triple beep denoting lock, and he let the heavy torpedo go. As the torpedo rocketed in toward the cruiser's defenseless hull, he checked Silence's progress. She and Slice-and-Dice were making excellent runs also, while the crippled destroyer desperately rolled to keep her torpedoes from hitting the exposed areas of the ship. The Agincourt had punched through the shields on Orca Bravo, but it was taking heavy hits along its starboard bow from the Hydra. Finally Blondie let her torpedo go, and the two of them pulled out and away from the cruiser.

"Two missiles inbound!" Ferret shouted.

"Hold formation, kid!" Mayor shouted back. "Three seconds!"

Ferret looked desperate. "Damnit! Two more! Breaking off!"

"Matchlock! Hurry!" Shooter barked.

"Turret dead," he replied flatly.

"Hold it, Ferret! Fuck! Torpedoes away!" Mayor screamed, pulling up as hard as he could. It was too late though-the first two missiles streaked past him to chase Ferret, but the second two impacted hard into the bomber's belly, and after a second of struggling to keep together, the bomber exploded.

But even as Prestondolu died, his torpedo drove itself into the engine housing of the enemy cruiser. A flash of light consumed the rear quarter of the ship seconds before Archangel's own torpedo impacted just fore of the bridge. The destroyed bomber's forward fuselage and cockpit drove themselves even further into the explosion. The entire cruiser rattled and Karpoff thought he heard a wailing scream of agony from the cruiser itself, penetrating space and tearing through his brain. Fires erupted from every orifice, giving the cruiser the appearance of a beautiful sunburst, and then the entire thing collapsed on itself, pieces floating away in all directions.

"We're hit!" Ferret screamed, breaking Archangel's concentration on the destruction he and Mayor had wrought. "Ohhh shit, I'm hit! Damn it to hell!" He screamed in pain. "Oh god damn, my leg! Shit!"

Wiley, his NFO, cut in. "Somebody radio a medical shuttle! We've got an engine overload! Ejecting!"

Another explosion rocked space, and Silence bellowed her joy. "Scratch one destroyer, amigos!"

"Who got out?" Archangel called. Two bombers were down, and even though he didn't see anybody eject from Mayor's, maybe somebody had gotten out. Maybe the top turret gunner, Kivanc, maybe he had gotten out -

"Agincourt to Cavaliers, Orca Bravo is down!" the Agincourt's comm officer announced. A giant burst of fire and incandescent vapor burst into the night as the last destroyer joined its dead brothers.

For half a second despair racked Karpoff, almost a sense of abandonment after the loss his squadron was feeling. Even the elation of the kill was not helping. His men were dead. And he had nobody to blame but himself...

"Form up," Archangel ordered without ceremony. Shooter surveyed the damage done. He disliked it, but he felt no guilt whatsoever. As the last, lone Squid died before WhiteWitch's guns, Shooter looked at the wrecked hulks of the once-fearsome warships. The deaths of two comrades, and indeed, the deaths of so many good bomber crews tempered his pride in his team's work. At this, he slumped in his seat, and thought about the Yorktown and the second team, something that he hadn't had time to do until now.

Dear god, let them be safe...

 

CONT...