PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 2 of 44 )

: The Road to Hell
PART 1 OF 4 : A FEW GOOD MEN
[ AN INTERLUDE ]

Author's Note: Nifelheim or Nifhel, is the realm of the goddess Hel in Teutonic mythology. This was the land of the dead, and Hel was believed to be the daughter of Loki, who the Christians associated with Lucifer. Nifelheim was therefore naturally believed to be Hell by the Christian monks who originally committed the tales to writing.


CVE-95 TCS Miles D'Arby, in the Torgo System
07 Feb 2681 (268l.O38) 0336 ZULU

Captain Robert "Robber" Bell slid into the cockpit of his aging McCall Industries' HF-66 Thunderbolt VII. The ejection seat beneath him felt strangely cold and hard without the uncomfortable protection of his pressure suit, G-suit and harness. His hands went instinctively to the throttle and limp stick in front of him. The smooth plastic and sterile sensations were also alien to him. It was ironic: although these sensations were the closest contact he'd ever had with the big fighter, the contact seemed so unnatural. The spacecraft was dead like this, but when he was strapped in, every touch dulled by thick protective clothing, he was a part of the spacecraft. He was the spacecraft. It was part of him, an extension of him. Now, without his flying gear, all the systems dark and silent, it was lifeless; merely twenty tonnes of plastic and durasteel.

Robber clambered out of the cockpit and slid down the boarding ladder past the shark's mouth painted on the nose. It did nothing to make the heavy fighter look aggressive or ugly -- the Jug did that all herself: It always reminded Robber of a hyena, a big, ugly carnivore, powerful enough to crush steel in its jaws.

His boots rang loudly on the metal of the landing bay deck, loud enough to wake the dead in the near silence of the dog-watches. Other than the ever-present hum of the carrier in the background, a noise so constant it was unnoticed unless (heaven forbid) it should stop. A shiver went down Robber's spine: He'd come down here because he hadn't been able to sleep, but the experience had simply disquieted him further. They were going to war, and although he'd been preparing for it all his adult life, he wasn't ready. He was filled with trepidation. It wasn't fear exactly, at least, not a fear of dying, or at least, that wasn't all of it. Really he was more afraid of screwing up and getting someone else killed.

Oh, he wasn't stupid enough to try and fool himself that that was all it was -- he was scared to go into combat -- anyone saying they weren't was either a bloody liar or a bloody idiot. More so when he considered the Thunderbolt. No pilot likes to admit that his own fighter is inferior to any other -- certainly not in public, anyway, but Robber knew it in his heart that the T-bolt was not really up to the task.

Now, well past his prime, he was to go into battle against an unknown foe flying an ancient fighter on board an even older escort carrier. It wasn't even that - the three escort carriers (the Miles D'Arby, Okinawa, and Iwo Jima) in the 3rd Reserve Wing were all ex-marine Landing Assault ships, used in dozens of planetary assaults and other conflicts, and discarded after the end of their useful service life in that role. The Navy had bought them and turned them into escort carriers after the end of the war. They fitted in excellently, having more deck space and firepower than purpose built escort carriers. Even so, they were lightly armoured (though by no means fragile - none had ever been lost in combat) and not designed for a stand up fight against a well equipped enemy. For seeing off a pirate or privateer molesting a convoy and general police duties they were perfect but they had never been designed to fight in a fleet engagement.

Robber had decided that one of either two situations must be true: 1) Either Confed was totally desperate, or 2) They were simply expendable assets for the coming conflict. The second seemed more likely. He'd heard through the grapevine that the Confed Senate was holding back the powerful 1st, 4th and 7th Fleets to defend the more strategically (and politically) vital Inner Worlds. Either the three escort carriers and their group were likely to face annihilation or the whole of the border region was. Fuckin' A...

 

Feb 7 2681 (268l.O38) 0702 ZULU

Jack "Blade" Scott strode across the noisy and bustling flight deck to the waiting Thunderbolt. He still couldn't get over its size. And its ugliness. As well as the usual high-viz markings, warnings and "how to" stencils (not to mention the obligatory shark-mouth nose art) the fighter was "decorated" in a variety of different colors in several different mediums. Smears of grease, pockmarks of micrometeorite impacts, dents, the strange out of place gleam of a clean, new replacement panel here and there, and a disgusting greenish substance resembling verdigris that was [allegedly] an anti-corrosion measure, all combined to make the big fighter look even uglier than it already did. When his Arrow squadron had been disbanded he'd requested transfer to a Bearcat Squadron. He hadn't gotten F-104 Bearcats, he hadn't even gotten F-103 Excaliburs -- no, he'd been sent to a Thunderbolt squadron. As always the huge fighter seemed to mock him, sneering down on him as he carried out his pre-flight walkaround. At 5'6" he was utterly dwarfed by his mount and he felt completely out of place. Not like his flight leader, Harold "Viking" Svensson, who seemed to fit the fighter perfectly: Big, ugly and slow. Slow physically, but certainly not mentally -- the man had a PhD in Astrophysics! What the hell he was doing flying fighters was anyone's guess -- Blade had never dared ask him.

As customary, Blade worked his way clockwise around his fighter checking for anything obviously wrong with it such as FOD (Foreign Object Debris), loose panels, missing modules, (not unknown or even uncommon) loose wires, fluid leaks (although the T-Bolt always seemed to have a minor leak of some sort), damage to the fighter, et cetera. He paused at the left side maingear. The tyre was worn down to the steel mesh under the rubber. It had perhaps two or three landings left, at the most. He glared across at his crew chief Ben "Bad Boy" Smith but the man just shrugged.

"What the hell is this?" Blade demanded, "I told you this was going last time - why hasn't it been changed?"

"Never got 'round to it. It wasn't an urgent gripe. Anyway, it'll do another couple of sorties with your greasers. That's just Viking squealin' 'em again."

Blade relented with this piece of flattery even though he knew it wasn't true -- he didn't get all that many perfect landings.

"Alright, but see it gets changed before I take her up again, okay?"

"Yes, Sah! Anyt'ing you say, Sah!" Bad Boy threw a pronounced, clumsy mock salute, a stupid grin on his face. Ben Smith was black, 6'3" and well over 200lbs, towering above the diminutive fighter jock. Scott grinned from ear to ear and thumped his crew chief on the arm.

"She'll do fine, long as the wings don't fall off!"

"Not much chance of that, is there?" Bad Boy laughed, "ol' Betty here's built like the proverbial brick sanitation facility."

That much was true. These were all old airframes that had been used in the Kilrathi Wars but none were showing signs of fatigue and Confed had just passed the Thunderbolt for a 5,000 hour extension to the airframe's service life after virtually all of them had passed tests for fatigue damage with flying colors. Plus the fact that there wasn't really a fighter to replace it, so the old Thud soldiered on.

Blade finished his walkaround, having a last glance to double check, but all the lights were on, nothing (other than the defective tyre) was obviously wrong with it and the torpedo hadn't moved at all when he'd jumped up, clamped both hands on it and bounced up and down vigorously. He started to climb up the boarding ladder and then remembered to check the circuit breakers. Two needed to be reset.

"Who was working on her last?"

"Johnson and Rogers," Smith told him, "but I shoulda checked'em myself. Sorry 'bout dat."

Suitably chastised, Bad Boy helped Blade strap into the big fighter's ejection seat. A quick glance at the canopy to check for scratches or dirt and the crew chief slid down the ladder and rolled it away. As he did so the start-cart trundled up and was plugged in. Bad Boy gave Blade the thumbs up and the pilot tried to start the craft's reactor. Nothing. He waited a second or two and tried again. Still no joy. Shit. If it failed to start a third time he would have to unstrap, check one of the spares over and then see if that one would start. He really didn't think he could be arsed with that, so crossing his fingers he tried again.

"C'mon, start you bitch!" Suddenly the generator whined into life and the MFDs and other displays flickered into life. The start-cart was disconnected and moved to another fighter while Blade fixed his position in the navicomp from the carrier's datafeed, inputted the nav point coordinates and checked over the various systems. Miraculously everything seemed to be "up," although he couldn't check the vital radar/ladar package because its emissions were a cancer hazard, not to mention capable of blinding and sterilizing those in its footprint. Not wanting to irradiate half the carrier's complement, he merely switched it from stand-by to warm-up. Shutting the canopy blocked out the sounds of the other T-bolts firing up but left the comforting hum of his own fighter penetrating the sound protection of his cockpit and helmet.

Looking to his left he could see that Robber was in one of the spare fighters as "his" Thunderbolt had either failed to start or failed the preflight inspection. His attention was quickly grabbed by his own business as the plane handlers started to line the fourship up on the flight deck for a formation takeoff. Rolling into position on Viking's wing, he wound the engines up to full military power when instructed (the jet blast deflectors had to be raised, but couldn't be until the 'planes were in position) and had a last check to see that all the control jets were working. Thumbs up, salute from the catapult officer (even though there were no catapults installed on the escort carrier) and all four Thunderbolts lit the 'burners simultaneously, roaring off down the flight deck through the atmosphere retaining field and into a gentle left turn as briefed before takeoff.

Blade whipped his head round over his shoulder to see that Robber and his wingman Malcolm "Mad Dog" McKaig were where they were supposed to be and barring a little bobble or two they were exactly in position. A perfect textbook formation takeoff. And so it bloody well should be, Blade thought to himself. Between them the four veterans probably had more flying hours than the average front line squadron totaled.

They rolled out of the turn exactly on cue as Nav One slid into view on the HUD. Flicking on the Autopilot, Blade flicked the radar from "Stby" to "Trsmt" and waited a moment. Nothing. He cycled it a couple of times, hoping it was just a glitch. Still nothing. Bugger!

"Lead, Two. The radar's gone tits-up. I'm blind."

"Okay, Jack. Doesn't matter, 'cause I doubt there's anyone up here but us anyhow, but if we do meet anything you'll just have to sit on my butt and cover."

"Copy," Blade replied. Business as bloody usual, then, he thought to himself bitterly.

 

07 Feb 2681 (268l.O38) 0824 ZULU

"Juggernaught, Strike. Mayday call and possible unknown contact 300 by 240 for 90. Can you investigate?"

"Copy. ETA 4 minutes."

"Roger that. A fourship of Bearcats has also been vectored to intercept as backup."

That sent the pulse rate up a bit. Even a false alarm chasing ghosts was better than the boredom of a routine sortie.

"Juggernaught, Strike. Update on bogey: Large contact, possibly capship and fighters."

"Privateer, d'you reckon?" Blade aired his suspicions.

"Out-and-out bloody pirate more like. The War's over, remember?"

"Frigate?" Blade ventured.

"Most likely. Pirates modify them to carry fighters."

"Never said there were fighters, just that there might be."

"We'll soon find out, and if there are, I hope those frigging Bearcats get a bloody move on."

"Sabertooth copies. We're on our way."

"Observe proper comm discipline," Strike cut in as Blade sniggered at his flight leader's faux pas.

"Copy, Sabertooth. See you at the party. Out," Viking replied to the Bearcat leader, ignoring Strike's rebuke, "Juggernaught, go button seven."

"Contact!" one of the Bearcat pilots, Carlos "Greaser" Sanchez, announced triumphantly, "multiple bogeys twelve level for 30 and closing rapidly."

Contrary to popular belief, callsigns were not chosen but almost always the nickname you were labeled with very early in your flying career, leading to such unflattering epithets as "Puke," "Rat" and other such offensive sobriquets. Greaser had his handle given to him by an obnoxious flight instructor while he was still learning to fly due to his Hispanic origins. Since then he'd turned it to his own advantage and now claimed it was due to his skill and finesse when landing. It was true enough -- he always put it down without a whisper of protest from the fighter's long-suffering tyres, getting a "greaser."

Although the fighters they flew had Automated Landing Systems or technically could even match speed with the carrier for the pilot to gently ease down onto the deck, both of these methods were quite time-consuming and the hectic pace of carrier combat operations meant that manual landings were the norm and these landings were graded. Setting the fighter on the deck in one piece, at speed, with another fighter just a few seconds behind was a difficult and stressful task and besides which no one liked looking bad around the boat. The competitive nature of fighter pilots was just as high as for Olympic athletes, and since if you wanted to know the skill of a pilot you looked at the landing grades, not the killboard, (especially in peacetime) these grades were a matter of pride. Greaser invariably had the highest average. It was really a big "fuck you" to the arrogant, racist twat that gave him his callsign in the first place. Right now, his first spotting of the radar contact before even his flight leader was another point to him.

"Copy," Jim "Jimbo" Reid grudgingly admitted. The rivalry between himself and Greaser was a strong but friendly one. They'd down a pint or two in the bar afterwards, although that didn't stop him adding almost gleefully, "spike. They're painting us."

"Copy, Sabertooth. Juggernaught has no contact yet." The faster Bearcats had obviously overtaken the lumbering Thunderbolts and as usual would get all the glory should there be an engagement.

"They've locked us up -- are we clear to engage?"

"Affirmative. Weapons free, repeat, weapons free."

"Engage!"

Blade was listening to this exchange and groaned. Hunters were hunters, and spear carriers were spear carriers, as per usual. Of course with his radar up the spout he'd have been a spear carrier today anyway. On the other hand, the Bearcats couldn't tackle the frigate themselves so there was hope for some action yet, and he still had his Dumbfires. Come to think of it the Heat-seekers would also work without a radar/ladar lock. The only thing that wouldn't work was his torpedo. Waitasec - could he fire that unguided, like a giant DF? Would it arm or fire without a lock? About ten years ago as a sprog he probably practiced a situation like this but he was buggered if he could remember the drill now. Time to find the check lists...

Here we go: "INTERLOCKS OUT." Yes, it would fire, armed without a lock, as long as the master arm was on. Terminal fusing was via contact fuses in the nose and tail of the torp so it would detonate, provided it had traveled the requisite safe distance from his fighter. He was good to go!

The massive nebulosity that surrounded the Ariel and Caliban Systems dominated the view that confronted the Thunderbolt pilots. The dust and gases of the nebula were both illuminated and excited by the hot young star in the center of it, reflecting its bright blue light in some areas and glowing with its own red emission as the doubly ionized hydrogen shone with a blood red color, bisected by a dark lane of dust. The gas and dust was extremely tenuous, far less dense than the air in a room, but compared to the almost perfect vacuum of interstellar space it may as well be a thick pea-soup fog. From further away it would seem to be a mere green (of the far less abundant, but brighter glow from oxygen molecules) and dusty charcoal-grey, a ghostly shape without photographic assistance. However, from only a few light years away the light was intense enough for the pilots' eyes to pick out the other colors and the intricate details of the tendrils of gas and dust.

It was romantic, poetic and beautiful, and completely wasted on the fighter pilots as they concentrated on the enemy craft they were rapidly closing on. The Bearcats were already locked in combat with the pirates even older machinery. The result was inevitable, and not far away. The frigate had already decided to cut its losses and run, leaving its doomed fighters and boarding shuttles to their fate. Their cowardice would avail them little; it would only be a few more minutes of pursuit before the sluggish Thunderbolts overhauled and destroyed the even slower capship. The pirates wouldn't surrender - couldn't surrender: Terran Confederation justice for pirates was swift, uncompromising and above all, final.

Against the Bearcats the F-86 Hellcat Vs, despite outnumbering them two to one, had no chance against the Confed fighters. None at all - it was surprising they had lasted this long already. The pirates were using the stricken freighter as cover and sniping from behind and actually from inside the broken hull much like little fishes on a coral reef. Even so, it seemed futile until a brace of Longbows appeared and loosed a massive thirty-two missile volley at the Bearcats.

"Holy shit! Break! Break Left!"

"Two -- Help!"

"Eject! For cryin' out loud, punch out!"

Blade ignored the Bearcat pilots' predicament as he lined up his shot on the frigate, blotting out their frantic distress calls. He needed to ensure he had his line up exactly right since he was firing his ordnance unguided. Besides, he told himself, he was too far away to render any immediate assistance in any case.

Steady, steady... NOW! He stabbed his thumb viciously down on the pickle button. With a flash and a roar the ventrally mounted torpedo thundered from under the T-bolt's belly straight toward its target. Blade instantly selected Dart Dumbfires and rippled those too at the pirate frigate, then hauled the the Thud around as tight as the big fighter could manage. It shuddered violently in the shockwaves of the multiple warhead detonations.

"Better stay clear," Viking cautioned his flight, "she's about to go." No sooner had his warning been voiced than another torpedo impacted deep within the frigate's engines causing massive secondary explosions to tear through the pirate vessel's structure, almost ripping the ship in two.

Blade realized he'd fucked up: he was now heading toward the dogfight but he couldn't find a target with his scanner and HUD blank. He still had his aiming reticule and kill circle and the heat-seekers would give an audible tone when they locked on but he had to be pointing at a fighter's ass for that. This was going to be a head on pass and the first he'd know about it would be when he was getting shot at. What he wanted to do was tuck in on Viking's wing but he couldn't find him either. He could ask Viking to form on his wing and then drop into trail, but it's a bit embarrassing to ask your flight leader to do this. Fuck it - he didn't have much choice.

"Viking, get on my wing, man. I'm flying blind here."

"Sure thing, but you're buying all night. Gimme ten." Viking was trying to formate on Blade's fighter but Blade was currently cruising at 85% throttle, and the closure rate was low. Without tapping burner and wasting valuable fuel, Viking wouldn't be in position before the merge, and was asking for Blade to throttle back another 10%.

"Wilco." A few moments later Viking's Thunderbolt slid past on Blade's left-hand side. Simultaneously and without any communicated signal they pushed their throttles up to full military power.

"We're going for the Longbows," Viking told his wingman, "they're near the far end of the freighter." Blade could just pick them out. The dark shape of the freighter stood out clearly against the blue and red shades of the nebula, and little streaks and flashes could be seen traveling to and from the crippled ship.

"Come right 60. We'll extend a little and sneak up on'em." Blade just double-clicked the transmit button and concentrated on flying close formation. After a gentle right turn they rolled out and flew straight and level for a few seconds.

"Ready, on my mark, break left and prepare to engage. wait for it... BREAK!" The two T-bolts whipped round directly astern of their almost stationary targets, still sniping at the Bearcats. Blade squirted the burner to come abeam of Viking so that the other Thunderbolt's exhaust signature could not distract his missiles' seeker heads.

A warbling tone, and suddenly a set of locked brackets spiraled into the center of his HUD, directly on top of a Longbow which was rapidly becoming more clearly visible. He loosed a HS, thought for a split second, and thumbed off another.

"Fox two! Missiles away!" The two large warheads streaked across the quickly narrowing intervening distance and slammed into the Longbow just as it started to accelerate. Almost unbelievably it survived, albeit heavily damaged, and the twin particle guns in the rear suddenly opened up.

"Fox Two!" Viking had waited to see which of the bombers Blade's missiles would lock onto before engaging himself so they did not both engage the same target. He also let fly a pair of missiles but "his" Longbow was already moving, its exhausts incandescent with the afterburners lit. The sluggish bomber could not hope to outrun the missiles and the afterburner only gave them an easier target. Decoys burst into view and the pilot judged his break almost perfectly. It didn't matter -- the two missiles still ripped into the aft section of the clumsy Longbow and its rear guns, blazing away all this time were instantly silenced. There was a small flash from the nose and the pilot sailed clear. The bomber suddenly swapped ends and broke up.

"Splash one!"

Blade sat on the tail of his own 'Bow, trying to line up a guns kill to finish it off, but the tail gunner was annoyingly accurate and every time he lined up a perfect no-deflection shot he had to break away or take a burst full in the face. Yet if he slid outside about a 30 degree cone directly behind the bomber's tail his HS unlocked and left him with no aim mark but the muzzle flashes from the Longbow's tailgunner. There was nothing to do but bite the bullet, literally. High energy particles crashed into his front shields but a short burst of full guns silenced the Longbow's rear gunner forever. A second burst ripped the full length of the bomber, shredding what was left of its shields and causing terminal damage.

"Splash two!" Blade announced, and then asked, puzzled, "where the hell are the Robber and Mad Dog?"

"3 O'clock low. They'll cross our nose from right to left."

"Got'em. I tally one Hellcat and two Bearcats also."

"Yeah, that's the last Hellcat. One of the Bearcats definitely got hit, but I don't know... Sabertooth, what's your status?"

"Puke's RTB with severe core damage, and Rat's gone for a walk," confirmed Jimbo.

"Copy that. We're all okay."

It weaved and jinked desperately, but under the combined fire of so many fighters the remaining Hellcat was vaporized in seconds.

"Is that it?" Blade asked, "no more hiding in the wreckage like the 'Bows?"

"Nothing on the scanner," Viking assured Blade, "but keep alert anyway."

"Better check for survivors on that freighter," Greaser pointed out.

"There's no need to check," came a disembodied voice over the radio, "this is the first mate of the Elizabeth. There's four dead, eight seriously injured, and six of us not too badly banged about down here but life support's out and I don't like the sounds the hull's making."

"Copy that. Help is on the way. We'll have you out in no time."

"Much obliged, mister."

"Don't mention it. Just doing our job."

 

CONT...