PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 25 of 44 )

: The Long Hard Road out of Hell
PART 1 OF 2

“We can chart our destiny straight and true
We can turn the stars around
Head for new horizon, but before we do
We’ve got to save our ship, before our ship goes down.”

- Blood, Sweat & Tears, 1973


VALLEY FORGE BATTLE GROUP

TCS Valley Forge; Combat Information Center
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 9 2681/2681.040; 1205 Hours (CST)

TO : Captain Eldon Vandermann, Commander TCS Valley Forge Battle Group
(
evandermann@tcn.valleyforge.crew)

FROM : Admiral Erin Hanton, Commander BWS Valeria, Battle Group Valkyrie
(
ehanton@ubwn.valeria.crew)

SUBJ : Arrival in Nephele System, Etruria Flank

You and your flight wing have my sincerest thanks for your efforts in Tyr. The sacrifices of brave Confed pilots and crew, along with some of our own Border Worlds pilots and Marines (and, yes, with even the forced support of Tanfen Corp and the late Lord John Tan) have bought the safety of the Tyr evacuees. They are are now safely tucked away in Masa behind a thoroughly-mined jump point and the protection of our armed forces. I understand the Forge did suffer heavy losses—but don’t worry, my friend, I am personally seeing to the transfer of replacement pilots at the earliest convenience.

As you know, even though the Nephilim gateway hasn’t been closed as we had hoped, the plan still stands to proceed. We are to fall back through the Nephele and Loki systems, hurting the aliens as much as we can—that is, before our Combined Fleet will join with the reserves in Nifelheim to wipe the Nephilim out in one final stroke. As I expected, when each carrier’s battle group went its own way upon making jump transit to Nephele, the Nephilim fleet broke apart, each faction following the ion trails of one battle group’s flight path. This has allowed us to inflict major losses on the enemy. However, the recent loss of the Bunker Hill, its group, and Admiral Rayak was a heavy blow...

DSSS Long Range scans by the fleet’s SEA/SWACS craft, cross-referenced with the sensor data of the 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron, TCS Endeavour, and the TCS Yorktown have conclusively indicated the bearing down of a large carrier battle group on your heading. Three Orca-class destroyers and a Hydra-class cruiser have been confirmed to be among it, along with at least one Barracuda-class corvette, a single Leviathan-class heavy fleet carrier spearheading it. It appears they have been shadowing you in the past three days since your arrival in-system on some limited form of stealth mode, only now becoming poised to strike. I understand your flight wing have run up against Orcas and Barracudas in the past, at least... all I can do is wish you and your people Godspeed in the coming hours.

I don’t want to overburden you or your crew, but I thought you should be aware that a recent burst message from East-West Industries has indicated there are still civilians on the planet Nephele II... those Nephilim capships cannot be allowed to get that far. You know the Yorktown’s battle group is nearby, and can assist you if needed—don’t hesitate to contact them.

I have faith in you, Eldon. Fight the good fight.
 

Rear Admiral Hanton, CO Carrier Battle Group Valkyrie/CVBG-V
 

Captain Vandermann turned away from his private communications console in the CIC, grimly but stoically nodding at Lt. Commander Schaefer, his XO and chief tactical officer. Both men exchanged a look with Colonel Trebek, who nodded understandingly at the two senior officers before stalking toward the turbolift with urgency.

For the pilots of the 71st Tactical Fighter Wing and crew of the TCS Valley Forge, their hour had finally come.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Rec Room
1530 Hours (CST)

War... it’s war, damn it. We got ourselves a brand new war.

Captain Dan "Bugfix" Burdock had finally comprehended it after the attack of the Nephilim corvette squadron three days ago; after the high death toll it had demanded. Now he truly caught a glimpse of what it meant... the dying, losses of comrades, destruction, and devastation that would come upon them. Gaps would rip open -- some never to be filled again. The pain and mourning would nag on those who survived, eating them away until they were little more than a shadow; a dark, empty, and sad image of their former selves.

The Naval squids lounging in their respective wardroom at the moment might beg the differ, but they simply couldn’t understand—as it was said, their idea of risqué was what their dicks did in the shower. They couldn’t understand -- no, not the way a pilot could, risking his or her life in the killing fields of space combat daily, the only thing between them and their merciless enemy shy of shields being a few inches of durasteel. The Marine jarheads aboard might, the whole gung-ho lot of them, but they had been conditioned to take such losses in stride perhaps at a cost of part of their humanity -- pain and mourning were an alien thing to them, and what didn’t kill them only made them stronger. He wasn’t sure if that was a trait he admired and respected in them or abhorred.

Burdock could only speculate at how the pilots of the other ships in the Combined Fleet were coping, but the atmosphere on the Forge he could feel. In the glance of every man and woman in the rec room he could see it, behind his eyes he could sense it, and in the very air itself he could smell it.

He looked around. Burdock could see 2nd Lieutenant Gregory "Klepth" Bousdoukos, 2nd Lieutenant Mo "Voodoo" Ayibobo, and 2nd Lieutenant Sophie "Mystique" Eloui deep in conversation at the bar. Klepth being an open-minded flirt who planned to use his Space Force service record to better his chances at landing a dream job afterward, Voodoo being -- save for his Rasta, reggae, and "godly visions" side -- essentially the same, and Mystique being the resident attractive female, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the three were talking about. But it was different today... a lot of things were different today. Sophie, in addition to having a passion for old tales, prophecies, and likewise things of mystery, saw a conspiracy behind everything. Between that fact and from the bitter, grim expressions on their faces, Burdock could tell what they were talking about... they were talking about whether or not they would survive the undeclared war with the bugs.

Burdock could feel that the mood aboard had changed. War and his apostles had come aboard. Grief, Sorrow, Guilt, Agony, Death. There were those who had taken up the fight. Their weapons were alcohol, drugs -- if they had a good connection with the shrink -- and all kinds of distractions, some by playing cards, others by spending time religiously in the simulator, others by staying tuned to the TNC and ISDN, and others by simply being alone, perhaps writing E-mails home or otherwise to their loved ones. Only the strong sought peace inside themselves through meditation. He had tried to do the latter, as he had been taught half of his life. It wasn’t easy.

Dan spotted Major Alan "The Orchin Man" Cardoso, CO of the 397th SFS "Aztecs" Panther squadron, at the other side of the bar with his XO, Captain Hishori "Dragoon" Nawazaki. The two shared a bottle of hard liquor as they sat in solemn silence, their thoughts going back out to the five pilots the Aztecs had lost in the last five days. Dan then caught a glimpse of Captain Andressa "Alba" Adrian, made squadron commander of the 402nd "Lancers" Shrike squadron in the wake of the death of Major Marcia "Madonna" Bittencourt three days ago. The uncharacteristically quiet woman was alone at her table, ignoring all chatter around her as she smoked a cigarette. Captain Adrian had just been thrust the unexpected burden of filling the shoes of her deceased CO. This, even as she was trying to cope with the loss of the four other Lancers who had also met their end in the brutal corvette scuffle. The Lancers... a month ago it had been a full squadron of sixteen... now it was down to but a hollow nine.

Captain Burdock then swept his gaze across the fifteen familiar faces of his squadron, the 114th "White Hope" Tigersharks. They had been lucky so far. Damn lucky. Being the relative rookie squadron of the Forge, he thanked God his squadron had been spared any casualties. He knew that their return to Nephele, with the bugs in hot pursuit, meant for ominous tidings in the days ahead. He feared with his soul that not all of them would be surviving the engagements to come, fearing that it would soon be him at Captain Adrian’s table, reconciling the deaths of too many fellow pilots.

"All pilots report to the briefing room," burst the voice of WC Colonel Trebek over the PA, jarring the pilots’ from their private reveries. "This is not a drill... all pilots report to the briefing room at once."

Dan Burdock stood from his seat after the others, ready to return to the firing line.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Wing Briefing Room
1540 Hours (CST)

The shuffling of seats and chatter greeted her sally, and the briefing room quieted. Entering from the ready room, Colonel Natasha Trebek glanced at the faces of the first row of seating: the squadron commanders, deputies from each of the six squadrons, and representatives from the Wing’s technical and maintenance staff and from the Forge’s Intelligence Office. The head of Intell, Lt. Commander Coliver was there, functioning as Trebek’s aide and liaison between the flight wing and the bridge crew, and so was the Captain himself.

The Wing Commander waited patiently until the last pilot sauntered into the room before beginning the briefing.

"Good day, pilots," the Colonel began, looking over the entire 71st FW now. "Before you check your ICIS for mission objectives, I would like you to understand what we’re up against today."

Fifty-two year-old Lt. Colonel Avery "Virus" Hale, CO of the 323rd "Fire Balls" Wasp squadron took his seat beside the other squadron commanders. He noticed that, for the first time since he transferred aboard, the grizzled Lt. Colonel Vance Trelane, CO of the fifty men and women that made up the Valley Forge’s TC Marine Corps complement, was among those in the briefing’s attendance.

Suspicious, Hale listened on...

Colonel Trebek sighed before proceeding. Hale had been through enough of these things to know she was building up to something big, and he didn’t like it. "In the past we have tangled with pirates," she said. "The Guild, a few stray bugs, and a handful of their capships... we have been tested, and have lost thirteen pilots to date. Twenty minutes ago we were informed of a Nephilim battle group that’s been taking up a pursuit course on our position for the past three days... the ETA of interception is two hours." Trebek took another deep breath. "It’s quite large, and quite formidable. We’re dealing with a Leviathan-class supercarrier, three Orca-class destroyers, and two Barracuda-class corvettes... as well as a Hydra-class cruiser -- that’s where the Forge’s Marine platoon will come in."

Gods, Lt. Colonel Hale mentally cursed, only bug heavies missing the party are Tiamat dreadnoughts and Kraken ship killers... or is that on tomorrow’s agenda?

Trebek continued, "Just yesterday, as you’re more than likely aware, the 15th and 18th DESRONs, 6th UBW Corvette Squadron, and pilots from the Yorktown were able to take down six cruisers and over nine destroyers." One could tell by the sympathetic tone in her voice that her statement was meant to give them hope. Interestingly enough she neglected to mention the two Leviathan supercarrier kills, the first taken out by the ill-fated Bunker Hill, the second by the Valkyries’ pilots from the BWS Valeria, Freedom, and Littenia.

Yeah, Hale wanted to say in response, knowing her reasoning, but look at how much support the Border Worlders had. And you know damned well what happened to the ’Hill...

"Their fighters... best estimates at this point put a count at -- I should stress this is only an estimate -- nearly three hundred," the WC went on reluctantly. Curious gazes from the seated pilots became horrified stares. "The Morays, Mantas, and a few Stingrays we have already encountered, even a couple of Skates, but today I’m afraid the bugs are holding nothing back. In addition to those, we’re looking at waves of Lamprey, Ray, Remora, and Devil Ray-class... I can only hope your squadrons are up to the task. They’re going to have to be." She stepped aside as Captain Vandermann took her place.

"I’m not going to lie to you people," the Captain spoke. "We’re facing a hell of a challenge today, one I can honestly say I’m not sure we will be able to walk away from. We’re facing a serious Nephilim battle group and we’re still short pilots." He paused for effect. "It’s going to be BARCAP duty today. Between our battle group’s three Murphy-class destroyers and two Plunkett-class artillery cruisers, we’re going to have to pull a victory out of this one or else those still unevacuated in this system are forfeit to the bugs."

Hale noticed one of his fellow squadron commanders, Captain Burdock, furrow his brow. He had talked to Burdock several times and knew he had a brother that was the CEO of East-West Industries, a small-time corporation whose transport division was currently operating out of Nephele.

Vandermann continued, "I’ve already given orders to bring the Forge and her escorts around... when those bug ships catch up to us, I can assure you we’ll be meeting them head on. We have our orders from Hanton to hold the line, but that notwithstanding, no carrier of mine is going to turn tail and run when the odds start to turn against her. Understood? Any questions?" No one uttered a word. "No... ? Very well, then. Check your ICIS and report to your fighters ASAP. Dismissed... and good luck."

Before becoming entangled in other engagements, Lt. Colonel Hale was a veteran of both of the Kilrathi Wars. He’d served first aboard the TCS Bradshaw during the Battle of Terra, then the now ill-fated TCS Saratoga. That was just before Hale had put in a short but memorable stint on the Rigel-class stealth carrier TCS Orion, CV/S-70.

"‘The Black Warship’..." he muttered softly, "... poor bastards."

That was through the Assault on Tr’Pakh and Ragark campaigns, long prior to the Battle of Cynium and all the "mutinous" unpleasantness that led up to its TCIB-shrouded crippling by the Hakaga supercarrier KIS Xy’lhax -- he still kept up with his old friend Hayes since the Admiralty Court had him exonerated under mysterious circumstances. Most recently, in the Battle of Cynium itself back in April of last year as a major, Hale had flown F/A-76 Longbows off the TCS Invincible, CV-45, in the carrier’s Unabomber Squadron, 6th FW.

He was one of the lucky ones. To one degree or another, the Third Enigma Campaign, the Secession War, the Battles of Colin’s Corridor, Operation Magenta, Circe -- he’d been there. He was a man that had seen more than his fair share of combat; seen more than his fair share of friends and comrades go screaming to their deaths as they were fried in their cockpits while still retaining his sanity. Hale still remembered the distinct yet indescribable feeling of the calm before the storm that preceded every horrible sortie he had flown throughout his blood-strewn memory lane... every horrible sortie that had forced him to watch too many good men and women he had known be snuffed out. It was a feeling he knew well.

Hale had that feeling now.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Flight Deck
1600 Hours (CST)

Over the last four hours the techns had prepped the readied planes of all six squadrons, working quickly but with a care born of long experience and a respect for the dangers of the flight deck. Red-shirted ordnance handlers had busily fit missiles into their respective hardpoints and checked over fire-control circuits and APUs while engineering techs dressed in blue oversaw the topping of fuel tanks. Thrusters were put through their final checks. The huge hangar area was like one large hive of frantic activity, and even MCPO Modeen, the ship’s Deck Boss, couldn’t help feeling like an outsider as he watched the bustling crews go about their well-rehearsed jobs.

The FCO, Chief Petty Officer Deitreich, giving each one clearance from behind the Flight Control window, one after another the entirety of the on board 71st FW soared out of the Valley Forge in what was a full Magnum Launch when all utility tractors and fuel bowsers were clear.

MCPO Modeen guided the pilots out on final exit in a routine fashion he’d repeated countless times in his life since entering the service, less-than-politely barking instructions at those that didn’t follow the standard operating procedure of flight deck protocol to the letter and flagging the planes out two at a time.

In just minutes, every fighter, bomber, and interceptor aboard the Forge was gone, flying out to meet and engage the alien enemy that awaited them all.

There were times the Deck Boss had wished he’d taken the flyer road over the thankless one he still stuck to. Plenty of times. No matter how many pilots’ fighters he had seen return from battle horribly redlined, no matter how many pilots he knew never returned at all, there always seemed to be more of those times.

Today wasn’t one of them.

The Deck Boss sighed heavily when the last fighter departed. The ECC, LSO, nervous techs, and miscellaneous disgruntled grease monkeys the only ones keeping him company now, he dropped his helmet to the deck and knelt down tiredly. "Go, pilots," he whispered under his breath, staring after the launched planes, "go, by god... all of you..."

 

397TH AZTECS

F-108A Panther 001 [ Alpha Lead ]
20,000 klicks from Nephilim Battle Group
1611 Hours (CST)

"Into the valley of death, rode the six hundred..."

Shutting his fighter’s bussard ramscoops, Major Alan "The Orchin Man" Cardoso watched the mottling of orange and red blips on his faceplate HUD fan out as the klicks between his fighter and the Nephilim battle group dropped by the hundreds. The rays of the system’s main sequence sun, Nephele Prime, cast an eerie glow that shone over the gathering stretched out before him, only heightening his mounting tension and probably others’ as well.

There were talon-like tendrils arcing out in front of the turret-bristling, two and a half kilometer-long Hydra-class cruiser at the front of the battle group’s forward marches, protruding from its dark mass as if reaching out to snare its prey. The vanguard Leviathan it flanked may have been more deadly in truth with its additional gun turrets, missiles, and fighter support, but visually it was the Hydra that caught his eye, hanging like Death himself over the battle scene that would shortly be playing itself out. It brought more than a tinge of fear to his conscience that he couldn’t fight down or ignore. As if to cap off the nightmarish scene, an obliterated ruin of twisted struts and scorched alloy that had once been the Blue Point Station depot rested just beyond the capships’ rear guard, a reminder of the Nephilim battle group’s looming might.

Alan had never been up against such odds.

"My God in heaven... Trebek was right..." gasped 2nd Lt. Jethrow "Riceburner" Beacon, only bringing voice to Cardoso’s thoughts and fears. "There’s hundreds of them... hundreds of them!"

He was right. All that seemed to be missing out there was the Nephilim’s "Squid"-class interceptors encountered by other battle groups.

"Squadron commanders," Colonel Trebek spoke over the comm. She must have been doing her best to remain strong, or at least to try and sound such to her flight wing. Cardoso had picked up on the feeling that the Wing Commander tended to think of herself as the 71st FW’s den mother since the beginning. "Be advised, Mosquitoes, you are to intercept and engage the Moray-class fighters until further orders; Steel Gunners and White Hope squadrons, you have the Manta and Skates; Aztecs, you have the Rays and Remoras; Lancers, you have the Lampreys and are to engage the Orcas... and the two Barracudas; Fire Balls, you have the Devil Rays, Stingrays, and are to assist the Lancers in SEAD of the Orcas if situation allows. Concentrate on your designated targets but your priority is to keep any enemies off the Forge. Squadron commanders of the Murphys’ three ’Shark squadrons... stay with your ship. Watch your sixes, people."

A minute later Cardoso brought up the somewhat kite-like Ray fighters, each one encircled by several small pick-shaped objects, finding the leader and locking his targeting reticule over it. Strangely, he couldn’t seem to find any of the Remora-class interceptor drones he’d been briefed on earlier.

"All right, Aztecs; Alpha Wing -- you’re with me," Major Cardoso spoke to his squadron and first element, his voice low and terse, "break and attack!"

The Orchin Man was ready to spray.

Unlocking his afterburners only after he pulled off a Shelton Slide, he opened up with full-guns on the Ray leader, spraying concentrated bursts of tachyon and ion cannon fire across the fighter’s fore and starboard shields before he hit hull. His wingman and XO, "Dragoon," got in the last volley, obliterating the leader in a few quick shots before he peeled off and dove away.

"This death means nothing -- you shall fall!" cackled the doomed Nephilim pilot over the comm before its Ray crumbled.

A moment later, Cardoso realized why he hadn’t found any Remoras on his scopes -- the Remoras were the pick-shaped objects encircling the Rays! Two of the Remoras broke away from their axis around the destroyed Ray leader’s fighter and targeted Cardoso’s Panther. He took two heavy maser bolts before he banked and came back around for a pass, fighting to get a nimble Remora into his sights. They were small, probably weak-shielded, but they were quite agile.

"You shall be swept aside by the aligned peoples!" spoke the Remora he was tailing.

"Yeah?" Cardoso chimed. "Blow me, fucker!"

A trained Pilum IFF fired to the Remora’s aft lit the small fighter up in an expanding gas cloud. A moment later, he saw 1st Lt. Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues score a kill on the second Remora.

"Another dead insecto pendéjo for the Burrito man, esé!" Rodrigues gloated, savoring the kill.

"You’re not over there ‘livin’ la vida loca’ again, are you, Burrito?" 2nd Lt. Ray "Reaper" Hunter inquired.

There was a chuckle before Burrito piped back, "Oh, si, mi amigo!"

A speck of humor in a dismal sea of fear. Little more.

While he searched through available targets to find the nearest Ray, Cardoso found his attention drawn back to the fearsome Hydra cruiser in the distance, growing larger in the corner of his eye. Sighing while he reclined his head, he brought his exec up on the command channel of the Aztecs’ DDT Wing element. "Dragoon..."

"Yes, Major?" Captain Nawazaki responded, the Japanese pilot’s helmeted visage appearing on his vidcomm VDU.

Cardoso unsealed and slipped his flight helmet halfway off for a moment and took a hard swig of the 1/5 bottle of New Samarkand vodka he had snuck aboard without incident. He’d had a feeling he was going to need it, and he was right. "Do... do you think we can do this?"

Dragoon hesitated before replying, "Death before dishonor, my friend."

 

114TH WHITE HOPES

F/A-105A Tigershark 101 [ Sky Raider Lead ]
1622 Hours (CST)

"One more bug fixed," Captain Burdock reported, his Tigershark flying through the clearing neon-green debris of a Manta-class heavy fighter as his gun banks recharged.

"Nice one, Captain," 1st Lt. Isabella "Lollapalooza" Pinto complimented. It was nice to have her back after the scare three days ago... SAR had almost come up empty in their search for her pod. He prayed he would live to have the chance to tell her just how much she had come to mean to him in the past month.

Targeting the nearest Skate interceptor cluster, a Skate-B, he broke line abreast formation with his XO, Captain Ian "Ploughman" McGregor, and lit the ’burners. Bringing his fighter in behind his enemy and matching its 455 KPS speed, he had to evade the bolts being fired at him from the Skate’s rear maser turret while still keeping his reticule centered to achieve ITTS lock. Not letting the interceptor out of his sights but still having to jink the flightstick -- his fore shields weren’t regenerating fast enough to keep up with the damage he was receiving -- he came frustratingly close to getting ITTS tone twice and lost it both times. Dropping his speed to 420 KPS, he put some distance between his fighter and the Skate to give himself breathing room. It didn’t take long for Burdock’s determination to pay off -- he had lock.

"Fox one!" he shouted into the comm. The Javelin II heat-seeker Burdock was only too happy to release took out the Skate-B’s aft shields and a barrage of laser, bullet mass, and charging bullet mass firepower punched through the bug’s hull. Before the ensuing green shockwave cleared and before the kill even registered in Burdock’s mind, the Skate cluster burst apart into three separate Skate fighters. The three hit their afterburners and each took different vectors like nothing happened.

"Aw, hell no..." chimed the voice of 1st Lt. Mark "2Pack" Dukovski. The pilot soon found himself evading shots from the two light burst maser cannons of one of the three Skates.

"Here we go again..." groaned 1st. Lt. Paul "Kraut" Hartmann.

"Christ..." Dan muttered in his cockpit, "not more of these..."

 

109TH STEEL GUNNERS

F/A-105A Tigershark 001 [ Cavalier Lead ]
1629 Hours (CST)

While the eager Aztecs, White Hopes, and Lancers were only beginning to engage the wings of Nephilim fighters, the Steel Gunners had already gotten their share.

"Simon says die, shitfaces! Hah! Who’s yer daddy, and don’t be givin’ me that ‘mother creature’ shit!"

"You okay, Simon?" Lt. Colonel Samuel "Sirdar" Richard of the 109th "Steel Gunners" asked his XO and wingman, Major Simon "Templar" Dynglh. Templar had just come out of a dogfight with the two Mantas that had killed 1st Lt. Jeremy "Brigade" Hester, his own Tigershark fighter badly damaged. The man was too brave for his own good, often prone to trying to play the hero when the situation arose. This time was no exception.

"I can hold it together, Sam," Templar replied.

"Yeah, just like Jeremy, right?" Sirdar pressed. "Get your head on straight, Simon. You get cocky out here you get killed. I know. I’ve seen it, and now so have you."

"Look, don’t worry about me -- let’s just worry about waxing these muthers, okay?"

Sirdar didn’t have time to continue the argument. His fighter shuddered under a missile impact, caught completely off-guard, not even having received a lock warning on his MFDs. Deploying a few chaff pods behind him as countermeasures and finding the Manta responsible, he yawed through the vessel’s crisscrossing gorgon heavy and light plasma fire. He peppered its fore shields with his own fire while he tailed it, then nailing and finishing it off it with a series of well-placed shots as it turned and soared by. The enemy fighter had proved to be highly maneuverable, managing to avoid most of the last slew before being lit up.

Becoming impatient and wanting to help his XO out, Sirdar pulled a "Cutthroat" maneuver. Carefully, he cut his throttle to zero and slid to a stop as the Manta began setting up its attack run. Sirdar kept his targeting reticule trained on the fighter as it came around, rotating his Tigershark on its X axis. Most of the Manta’s shots streaking harmlessly over or under the ’Shark’s wings, the Alien pilot was more concerned with shooting Sirdar than evading his shots.

Scoring the kill by the time the Manta reached his fighter, he found his XO being the target of a wing of three Skates he’d broken apart from an interceptor cluster. The man’s fighter was already spinning wildly out of control, his engines flickering off a trail of sparks behind it as it went.

"Simon!" Sirdar shouted, punching his afterburners to rush to his aid.

"I can handle it, damn it!" Templar protested. Sirdar could barely hear his voice over the building static in the transmission. "I can -- "

The Skate that had managed to get behind him struck hard. It only took two shots to finish off Templar’s fighter.

"Simon... god damn it..."

 

TCS Hood; Bridge
1647 Hours (CST)

"Then we are understood," Captain Vandermann spoke over the comm, his face looking unusually intense on the console’s screen. "The Hood, Nagato, and Stasheff are to hold the three Orca destroyers. The Fire Balls have already been instructed to assist in Wild Weasel if possible."

"Yes, Captain. We are understood." On the bridge of the TCS Hood, one of the two 1,200 meter Plunkett-class heavy artillery cruisers in the Forge’s battle group, Commander Elliot Tailor shot a salute back before Vandermann closed the transmission.

Commander Tailor paused for a moment, watching the twenty-two Dual Laser Turrets, three Triple Heavy Particle Cannons, and single "BFG" Triple Heavy Plasma Cannon of the Hood continue to tear into the fighters attacking the cruiser. Too many plasma shots and missiles were getting through to his ship, due to the fact that there were simply too many assailing Nephilim fighters, and a heavy toll was being taken on the Hood’s shields.

Suddenly, memories of the holoclips he’d seen of Earth’s ancient Second World War flooded through his mind like a kaleidoscope; imagery of another Hood, a battleship of the British fleet, making its last, valiant stand against the German Navy’s seemingly indomitable Bismarck.

Had Confed sealed the Hood’s fate in merely her christening?

Bleak-faced, Tailor turned to his executive officer, Lt. Commander Castellitto, asking, "This is not going to go well, is it, Castellitto?"

"I don’t know if I want to answer that, sir," the XO spoke.

Hell, I don’t know if I want you to answer that, Tailor thought to himself. "No... I didn’t suppose you would." The Commander was already moving to the fore viewports, folding his arms behind his back as he watched the battle continue to unfold. So far so good, but the Forge’s fighters were already taking losses. The squadrons were over their heads in the two hundred-some bugs left—there would be no help from them against the hulking destroyers the Hood had been ordered to take on. "ETA to the Orcas?"

"T-minus five minutes to firing range, sir," Castellitto reported.

"Inform the Nagato and Stasheff to fall back into Echelon Right formation... we will take point on the assault..." Tailor stopped, sighing deeply as he kept his back to his bridge crew. "There’s little point in all three of us going down."

 

402ND LANCERS

TB-81B Shrike 001 [ Pyrethrins Lead ]
1705 Hours (CST)

Another bubble-like Lamprey shield killer-class fighter disintegrated under Captain Andressa "Alba" Adrian’s particle and mass driver full-guns bombardment. With no time to spare, she found a second one dropping a bead on one of her squadron’s pilots in a neighboring element. She targeted it 3,000 klicks off, hit it up with ITTS-locked Stormfire Mk2 fire while she awaited missile lock, then released a pair of Pilum IFFs. Both missiles struck home.

"My thread is ended!" the second Lamprey’s bug pilot shrieked. Music to her ears.

"That one’s for you, Madonna," Alba softly spoke. Nothing would bring back the "Lancers" CO whose boots she was forced to fill and whose shadow she was forced to live in, but every bug kill brought her one death closer to finding her peace of mind. Or so she convinced herself.

How did she do it? Alba wondered of the late Major "Madonna" Bittencourt. How could she deal with watching her pilots die?

Since the Nephele conflict had begun a little under an hour ago, Andressa Adrian had watched three of her Lancers crash and burn, their gut-wrenching death cries being heard over the entire squadron’s comm channel. A squadron that had reported for duty on the Valley Forge as a proud sixteen was now reduced to a pale six.

The rest of the Lampreys being adequately handled by the rest of her squadron, Alba brought one of the two Barracuda-class corvettes into her sights. Coming into range, she got off five quick rockets from her Dragonfly RP launcher before having to evade its fire.

As she came back around she realized how awkward the stubby Barracudas were. She found it, with its poor handling, to be little more than essentially a big, clunky, slow fighter. Easily able to fall behind it, she maintained a position safe of the corvette’s line of fire as she hammered away at its engines, making quick work of the vessel. She passed through the corvette’s shockwave, one more death closer to her peace of mind.

"Why do you resist?" droned a Nephilim voice over her headset. But it couldn’t be the voice of any Nephilim aboard the Barracuda she had just destroyed...

Alba startled as her fighter’s cockpit shook, becoming bathed in red light as a wing of Mantas ambushed her from behind with an IR missile and a flurry of gorgon heavy cannon bolts. Yet even as the two Mantas began their onslaught, a fierce combo of flak cannon bursts fired from out of her sight tore into the assailants, shrugging them off her back as both of them erupted in gouts of flame and spinning biometal.

"What the..."

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
1710 Hours (CST)

"TCS Valley Forge reports two kills!" Lt. JG Erin Ishii proudly announced into the comm from her manned defense console, smiling. The pair of Mantas assaulting one of the "Lancers" off the bow erupted in a combined burst of debris and two quickly-dissipating shockwaves.

"Worry about that supercarrier, Lieutenant," Captain Vandermann spoke, more than a flicker of apprehension to his voice. "Our fighters can fend for themselves."

"But, sir," Lt. Ishii protested. She tried to sound as respectful as possible, knowing well the Captain’s unpredictability. The Lieutenant, along with Lt. St. Germain, were still recovering from the news of the Bunker Hill’s loss -- Commodore Geoffory Arnold, Third Fleet CO Admiral Victor Rayak’s exec and the former captain of the Forge, had been lost when she went down. Ishii had a mounting feeling the Forge’s group was about to suffer the same fate if Vandermann continued to have his way. "That Leviathan supercarrier is 4,000 klicks away. If I hadn’t have intervened that pilot would have surel -- "

"I said worry about that supercarrier, Lieutenant," Vandermann repeated himself, more sternly this time if that was possible. The cool, collected air about the Captain was gone, replaced by the motif of an erratic, enigmatic CO whose moods could and would change at any given moment. "Do you wish to be relieved of your duties?"

Lieutenant Ishii backed down. "No, sir."

"Good." Vandermann turned to Lt. Commander Schaefer, observing the readout on his console adjacent to the shipboard sensor ops. "4,900 klicks to the Hydra cruiser... is this correct?"

"Ah, yessir," Schaefer replied. The man seemed timid now, unsure of his CO for the first time since the Captain had first arrived.

"Very well, then. Launch the Marine LC and see that at least seven fighters from the Piranha squadron get it to that Hydra. Got it, Commander?" The Captain narrowed his eyes to slits. "Or maybe you wish to be relieved of your duties instead...?"

"No, sir." Schaefer stood, turned crisply on his heels, and walked away to carry out the Captain’s orders. He suppressed a frown as he went.

Vandermann took his command chair again, surveying the battle from his seat. "Helm, take us within firing range of that Leviathan, then full stop. Order the Forstchen, Ohlander, and their respective fighters to do the same. The Orcas are the responsibility of the rest of the Plunketts and the Murphys... the Leviathan is ours."

 

CONT...