PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 26 of 44 )

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

 


A Few Minutes Later...
 

VALLEY FORGE BATTLE GROUP, 722ND MOSQUITOES

F-106A Piranha 001 [ Zeta Lead ]
FEB 9 2681/2681.040; 1720 Hours (CST)

4,200 klicks to the cruiser...

Far from the ongoing mêlée of the main battle, Major Ulyssus "Flyboy" Grant carefully maneuvered his scout fighter between the two Morays that had taken an interest in him. He used sporadic bursts of his ’burners to keep the Moray medium fighters off-guard while his two wingmen, Captain Heather "Lilith" Newman and 1st Lt. Sara "Poomba" Macri -- the three of them being the last of the seven Piranhas from his 722nd "Mosquitoes" squadron assigned to escort the Marine LC -- delivered the killing blows with their heat-seekers and laser and ion cannons.

Captain Kurt "Coroner" Powell led the eight Piranhas in the Mosquitoes’ second element, currently tangling with the mottling of Morays and Mantas several thousand klicks off the TCS Valley Forge’s bow. Powell’s pilots were getting out clean, Grant was pleased to notice from afar, but the Major had problems of his own.

"We’re taking damage, Mosquitoes... request assistance..." It was the pilot of the Marine LC the Mosquitoes were escorting. A trio of Devil Rays space superiority fighters -- easily the deadliest of the Nephilim’s starfighters and easily the equivalent to the Confed Panther or newer F-109A Vampire -- were circling around the LC, dealing its shields critical blows with every pass.

"Are those Devil Rays?" Captain Newman, also his XO, asked suspiciously.

"Devil Rays?" Flyboy heard Lt. Macri gasp. "You gotta be kiddin’ me. I thought the Fire Balls and Aztecs are supposed to be handling those sons of bitches!"

"Sixteen Wasps and a few Panthers can’t handle almost a dozen Devil Rays and thirty Stingrays at once, Poomba," Flyboy spoke. "Jesus, be realistic!"

Lt. Macri grumbled something under her breath, but knew her CO was right.

Meanwhile, the dark, insectoid mass of the humongous Hydra-class cruiser, now less than 2,500 klicks away, almost entirely took up Flyboy’s cockpit view. It was an imposing sight, to say the least.

Captain Newman’s fighter fell out of formation as it was struck by a Devil Ray’s missile, a missile that was followed up by a plasma barrage. Flyboy jerked his flightstick hard to port, desperately trying to fight off her attacker before it was too late.

It was.

"M-Major Grant!" Newman cried before her fighter exploded.

"Heather!" Lt. Macri screamed. When she spoke again her voice was of pure venom, "Ulyssus, let’s make these bastards pay!"

Forcing back his emotions, he chose his words carefully as he received ITTS just in time to fire his last Spiculum ImRec at the Devil Ray responsible. "We just... have to get that LC to the Hydra..."

"No, sir! Fuck our orders -- Vandermann is truly the fucking lunatic everyone says he is if he expects us to survive out here... he sent us to die, can’t you see? W -- "

"That’s just about enough of your insubordination, Lieutenant," Flyboy cut her off, stressing her rank. "We’ve got a duty here. Our carrier... our comrades, our friends... the Confederation... everything is depending on us getting those Marines aboard that cruiser. If you want Captain Newman’s death to mean anything, you’d see that. Clear?"

Busy tangling with the second Devil Ray, a few minutes would pass before Lt. Macri gave her meager response, "Y-yes, sir."

1,000 klicks to the cruiser...

 

TS-10 Hercules Marine LC Scythe One
1725 Hours (CST)

Lt. Colonel Vance Trelane (O-5), ex-Navy SEAL, CO of the Forge’s TCMC 97th Assault Detachment platoon (Third Division), and OIC of the Marine boarding operation in progress, fought against his emotions. He shoved them back, denying their hold on his psyche and burying them deep beneath his gruff CO persona as best he could.

Vance himself knew it was only to be a facade. As long as his Marines couldn’t see past it, however, he also knew it mattered little.

Trelane looked away from the viewports of the cramped 65 meter-long Landing Craft; away from the situation that just wouldn’t stop deteriorating. Outside, the last fighter in their seven-Piranha escort had just been destroyed by their persistent Devil Ray pursuers. Their sacrifice had bought the Marines just enough time to get to the Hydra-class cruiser.

After the LC shot through the Hydra’s phase shields, hollow, foreboding sounds of steel wetly clanking against biometal alloy were heard first. Then there was the sounds of the Hydra’s hull being burned through, sounds that filled the LC as its MIP-like universal dock collars attached themselves to the capship’s superstructure. The Marines could all feel the LC shake, still taking blows from the Devil Rays.

The Piranhas had gotten them this far... now it was up to them.

Colonel Trelane unstrapped himself, stood, and picked up his oldstyle C-47 Ballistic Assault Rifle -- long retired and replaced in the Corps, but not in his heart. He slapped in a fresh duel-feed magazine. "Marines!" Colonel Trelane exclaimed at his men. "Gear up!"

"Sir!" That was Master Gunnery Sergeant Hartigan, Trelane’s senior NCO. "You heard the man, people -- get your shit together and move! Let’s go!"

Back aboard the Forge, personal preparation had proceeded at the same paceas LC load-up but with additional care. Something could go wrong with the LC, or the supplies crammed into it, or with communications or backup, but no soldier would allow anything to go wrong with his or her personal weaponry. Each of them was capable of fighting and winning a small war on his or her own.

First the 2.6 kg C-525 Personal Space Armor had been snapped together, pressurized, and checked for cracks or warps. Then the special combat boots, capable of resisting any combination of weather, corrosion, and teeth. C-532 Life Support Packs that would enable a fragile human being to survive for over a month in a hostile environment without any supplemental aid whatsoever, with a 7-hour air supply and 72-hour power supply. C-545 webbing, BDUs, vest, and pack that were the standard issue Fleet Marine issue camouflage, the one that sensed the surroundings and blended the colors to match with it that made the half-platoon in the LC look deep Fleet gray at the moment. Harnesses to keep you from bouncing around during a rough drop or while the LC was grinding through an inhospitable atmosphere. C-512 Combat Helmets to protect your skull, with built-in fiberoptic visors to shield your eyes from glare and flash with infra-red, magnifying, and night vision devices, in addition to 8,000 kilometer-ranged communications Heads Up Display comsets mounted on the helmet that allowed you to communicate with the LC, the platoon at large, or whichever buddy happened to be guarding your rear. Bayonets. K-bar knives.

Now, it was time for the final checks. Fingers flowed smoothly over fastenings and snaps. When everything was done and ready, when all had been checked out and operational, the whole procedure was run again from scratch. And when that was over, if you had a minute, you spent it checking out your neighbor’s work.

Hartigan strode back and forth among his people, doing his own unobtrusive checking even though he knew it was unnecessary. He was, however, a firm believer in the for-want-of-a-nail school, like Trelane. Now was the time to spot the overlooked strap, the forgotten catch. Once things turned hairy, regrets were usually fatal.

"All right, Marines -- by the numbers! Prepare to deploy!"

"Sir!" Hartigan shouted at Colonel Trelane’s order. "Positions for boarding! Standard dispersal pattern! Move! Move! Move!"

The docking port finished its work and hissed open. That instant, the Marines formed up and filed through in single-file, each of the twenty men -- nearly half of the Forge’s Marine complement -- waved in by Hartigan. Trelene took point beside Comtech Corporal Sullivan and PFCs Weems, Caviedés, and Langley as they split into fire teams and fanned out militarily into the expanse of the Hydra cruiser’s innards. The pilot of the LC, Pilot-Corporal Hiram, pulled up the rear.

They were in a dark, dank corridor that HQ, TCIS, and CICINTEL reports indicated would lead them to the Nephilim equivalent of an engine room. It was hot and humid inside, making the Colonel want to take off his space armor the minute it began to set in, but it was not wholly inhospitable. Being alienated by their unfamiliar surroundings each Marine proceeded warily, no less determined but all the more cautious of their environs.

When the bugs did make their appearance, however, the Marines were ready.

"Xenos!"

Dropping from above, crawling from the recesses of the pits below them, squeezing from craters in the hive-like walls of the cruiser... the Nephilim came out of nowhere, and yet everywhere. They were fearsome aliens—eight feet tall, with long, spidery limbs and thoracic wing-like appendages they fluttered. The Marines promptly opened up, a couple with the C-47s of their own they opted to stick with—both with their 2.3mm firepower and micro-grenades—others with their laser-sighted M-58A1 and HK-57 Laser Assault Rifles, M-47 and M-48 Semiauto Laser Rifles, Marscorp MPR-27s, and SMGs. The heavier weapons included the shoulder-slung, twenty kilo M-297 neutron mini guns that were the Standard Squad Automatic Weapon of the Marine Infantry, the Smith & Wesson Marauder Mk3 Heavy Machine Gun, and RPGs.

They were prepared, or so they had convinced themselves.

"Oo-rah!" was the Marines’ collective roar.

"Three-round bursts, Marines! Focus!" Lt. Colonel Trelane shouted, the back-to-back firing Marines getting cramped. Fragmentation bombs as well as flak and plasma grenades were thrown at times when the action fell into its more heated moments, though nothing seemed to keep the Aliens at bay for longer than a few seconds. Although the Nephilim were dropping almost as soon as they were appearing, the Marines were not going without their own share of casualties...

Lance Corporal Pike was pounced upon from by one of the first of the bugs to spring forth, going down with his assault rifle firing off erratically; PFC Dodd was mauled by another, the arm holding his rifle being severed at the shoulder with one lash from the creature’s sharp limbs; Staff Sergeant Breanne was literally scooped up by a Nephilim’s pincers, her neck clamped down ferociously by the creature’s crustacean-like mandibles before it was gunned down by surrounding Marines.

"C-Colonel!"

Right before Trelane’s eyes his ExO, Major Heuwen, was impaled through the gut and hoisted into the air by the large, vaguely praying mantis-like creature that had popped up in front of him. The Major’s blood spattered across Trelane’s face and chest, the man flailing his arms and legs in the air helplessly in a disabling paroxysm of pain. A hoarse gurgle came from his throat before the Major fell mercifully silent.

Colonel Trelane felt the warm blood of his friend trickle down his cheeks, a look of fury immediately eclipsing his authoritative demeanor. "C’mon, you miserable bug piece of shit!" he yelled challengingly at the creature when it was done with Heuwen, casting the soldier aside like rubbish. Taking notice of Trelane then, it reared back on its sickly haunches and hissed, mandibles unclenched. "Fuck you, ugly! What’ve you got? Get some!" Having a clean shot, he gritted his teeth as he disobeyed his own orders by unleashing raw, fully-automatic firepower into the Nephilim’s torso.

 

323RD FIRE BALLS

F-110A Wasp 001 [ Theta Lead ]
1735 Hours (CST)

Lt. Colonel Avery "Virus" Hale’s eyes set on the distant Forge for a moment, watching as the grand old carrier he called home reached her target and engaged the Leviathan carrier. Looking past the impressive exchange of maser, dual laser, anti-matter, and flak fire between the two capships, he then observed the other squadrons nearby. Each one was split up into varying elements and wings, still carrying out their respective orders from Trebek to the letter.

Jettisoning his now-dead SRB booster rocket pod as he came into range of his own target, Hale’s Wasp interceptor’s 3,000 KPS velocity dropped back to 1,400. Determination in his eye, he afterburned upon one of the two remaining Orca-class destroyers tangling with the Forge’s escorts. An element from the Lancers was nearby, he noticed.

"Fire Balls or Lancers squadrons, this is the TCS Hood... if you’re out there," an unfamiliar voice spoke over his command channel, "we’re taking heavy damage an -- "

He was too far out of range to offer any assistance. Colonel Hale could only watch the Plunkett cruiser, weakened from its long but victorious battle against the first of the three Orcas minutes ago, collapse into an incandescent fireball. It had taken on another Orcas head-on and lost, more from being swarmed by the Nephilim fighters it had attracted than the Orca itself.

Hale’s wingman, Captain Kenshin "Mako" Heitachi, had already been shot off his side and six others in his squadron had already suffered similar fates to the Devil Rays and Stingrays. It felt like the Battle of Terra all over again, only this time he felt immune to the emotions that had plagued him as a younger man; immune to the hurt of loss.

Wasn’t he?

"You ready for this, Caleb?" Colonel Hale asked his new wingman as he prepared to fire off a volley of swarmer missiles at the Orca.

"Are any of us?" Captain Caleb "Pupae" DiPeso came back.

"Good question. Attack my target." Hale fired off his swarmer pods the instant he received the beep that signified missile lock, Pupae doing the same. He watched with satisfaction as his own payload scattered into a series of smaller missiles that flew toward their target with systematic precision, gray, misty trails left in their wake.

The effect was immediate and gratifying to the Murphy-class destroyer TCS Stasheff, the support ship currently engaged in a brutal capship-to-capship battle with the Orca. Most of the turreted maser batteries of the Orca he had targeted were immediately blown off its bulbous mass, its phase shield generator was shot, and its bridge was left wide open. A missile strafing run was all it took to take out the last turrets, before a torpedo spread from the Stasheff ripped the forward hull apart. A heavy torpedo fired from one of Major Adrian’s Shrikes took out the engines and lit the unshapely Orca up.

"We have become your prey, warrior!" gurgled the dying Orca’s commander. Hale had to smile at that one.

Now I just wish they’d put me in one of those new TB-80 Devastators... the Colonel mentally scorned in the aftermath, though knowing full well no ship in the entire Combined Fleet had one. Bloody fucking Wasps... just not enough firepower. The rooks are getting all the kills.

The Orca kill’s skeletal hull now dead in space, Lt. Colonel Hale leapt back into the fray. He, his squadron and the Murphy’s 8-fighter Tigershark squadron distracted the Devil Rays, Stingrays, and Mantas. Meanwhile, the Murphy and the Lancers element present turned to deal with the last Orca, whose guns and escorting fighters were even now pounding the TCS Nagato.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
1740 Hours (CST)

"This is Lieutenant Kunen, White Hope Squadron, Sky Raider Wing..." a pilot’s voice came over the bridge comm console, "requesting clearance to land."

Comm Officer Lt. Amy St. Germain brought the pilot’s Tigershark on her identifier VDU. 1st Lt. Rico "Crow" Kunen’s fighter was heavily damaged, half his weapons destroyed, his engines nearly shot. No way he would last out there. "Tigershark 107, you are cleared to l -- "

Captain Vandermann swooped over her shoulder, pushing her aside as he spoke to the pilot, "Clearance denied, Lieutenant. ‘The true Warrior perseveres against any and all obstacles, and gains the greater glory for his efforts.’" Vandermann then closed off the channel.

Helmsman Ensign Wright turned to Ensign Turner in navigation, whispering, "He’s quoting the Cat codices again, Matt..."

"Listen to him... he’s getting crazier by the minute. Doesn’t give a fuck who dies..."

"The Forstchen reports heavy damage, sir," junior tactical/radar officer Lt. Susan Anderson spoke, looking up from tactical at the Captain. "Their squadron is already... it’s already gone. It’s the Nephilim fighters... she’s getting swarmed out there, Captain. Maybe we should pull her back so as t -- "

"No!" Vandermann nearly shrieked, sweat permeating his brow. He realized quickly -- to his shame -- that he was losing his cool in front of his crew; exposing his weakness at a most inopportune time. The Captain cleared his throat and tugged on his collar as if it were too tight, trying to regain some semblance of his composure. "I mean to say... ‘There is no dishonor in caution, so long as the careful Warrior avoids the pitfalls of cowardice.’ We are going to win this... I know it... we must not waver our hand. We dare not... not now."

Ensign Turner rustled in his seat. "Perhaps we should contact Rear Admiral Kennedy or Captain Ramerez... the Yorktown’s battle group can’t be more than a nav point away an -- "

"We will handle the Nephilim threat on our own, Ensign," Vandermann admonished the suggestion. "And I’m quite certain they have problems of their own to tend to."

"Any chance we can make our Phase-Transit Cannon operational?" Ensign Wright spoke up, inquiring offhandedly of anyone on the bridge with the answer. The Forge had been re-fitted to Concordia class standard several years ago at its last Torgo Superbase dry-docking, and upgraded several times since, leaving her with a mismatch of ancient and modern weapons.

"Did you sleep through the Fleet Academy, Ensign? The PTC was retired sixteen years ago," Lt. Commander Schaefer replied curtly. The bald-shaven XO gave the Ensign a look, disappointed the younger man wasn’t fully aware of the stats of his own ship. "The Forge wasn’t even refit and recommissioned until a year later."

"Hence, we don’t have one," Captain Vandermann finished. He intently walked over to Lt. Ishii’s defense console, then peered up.

The nightmarish, misshapen bulk of the Leviathan-class supercarrier filled the bridge viewports. The Forge’s eleven laser turrets, four flak cannons, four AMGs, and two IR turrets were busy hammering away at the Leviathan’s point defenses, knocking out its 14x1 IR missile launchers and fourteen turreted masers one by one. At the moment the Forge was in satisfactory condition, save for its weakened fore shields from the pounding it was receiving from the Leviathan’s maser fire and compromised starboard and aft shields from repeated Stingray and Skate-T strafing runs. Fortunately, the threat of further strafing was being kept relatively bottled up by the Lancers, Steel Gunners, and the Tigersharks from the Ohlander and Stasheff.

"I’m picking up an energy spike, sir. The Leviathan... it’s..." Lt. Ishii looked away from her instruments, suddenly shooting a worried glance to the Captain. "Capship missile detected -- it’s incoming!"

Vandermann met her gaze, cursorily searching her eyes for any sign of falsehood. He set his jaw a moment later, repressing his disbelief.

"What?"

"Capship missile, sir!"

"Are you certain?" It was something he couldn’t have anticipated. "Leviathans have n -- "

"All hands, brace for impact!" Schaefer shouted over his captain. He knew time was not on their side.

A second passed and the Forge rocked violently as a fluke shot from one of her turrets detonated the plasma-based CSM, barely meters from impact. The blast from the warhead enveloped the Forge. The already-withered shields meant nothing, torn apart by the power of the blast. The blast wave narrowly missed the flight deck, instead tearing along the bow and port side for over a hundred meters before burying itself in the titanium alloy beneath the isometal-plated durasteel hull of the carrier’s nacelle, dangerously close to the engine array. Simultaneously, the bridge crew was thrown to the heaving deck or against their respective consoles, the powerful explosions ripping into the ship and sending massive tremors through the bulkheads. The ventilation system filters already overloaded, the room took on a surreal sense; smoke-filled, red lights from battle displays illuminating the bridge in a Dantesque light.

"Damage report!" the Captain bellowed when the rocking ceased, awkwardly pulling himself to his feet against his command chair. Blood trickled freely from a gash he’d received on his forehead.

Lt. Anderson glanced at the Captain with concern. "Sir... are you all r -- "

"The report!"

"Hull breaches on decks two and three, sections four through seven, sir!" Anderson piped. She began to cough on the smoke that was beginning to fill the bridge. "Awaiting casualty reports... emergency magnetic shields in place and holdin—"

Lt. Ishii interrupted the Lieutenant, the worry in her eyes fast becoming horror, "It’s not over yet -- here comes another one!"

 

397TH AZTECS

F-108A Panther 001 [ Alpha Lead ]
1745 Hours (CST)

Death before dishonor...

Major Cardoso broke off his chase of a Ray interceptor cluster, his afterburners locked when he saw the second capship missile streaking toward the damaged TCS Valley Forge. He knew one more capship blow would do the carrier in. He couldn’t allow that. He wouldn’t.

"Hold the line..." he rasped, holding his course. "Protect the Forge..."

He knew his duty, a duty he had once pledged to serve with his dying breath. A duty which he now intended to perform.

"Dragoon to The Orchin Man... what are you doing, sir?" his XO asked. Cardoso ignored Dragoon, holding his course.

Major Cardoso’s Spiculum IR and Javelin heat-seeker reserves were gone, giving him no hope of destroying the capship missile through his fighter’s ordnance. There was only one way he could do what had to be done... something he had known he had it in him to do the day he graduated the TCNSF Academy on Hilthros but never thought he’d have to follow through with.

"Alan -- no!" Captain Angela "Draft" Rai exclaimed.

Major Cardoso was beyond hearing now, remembering well the grim vision of his fate he had dreamt two days before. He pressed on knowing full well what he was doing, the capship missile impacting against his fighter’s side seconds later.

 

TCS Forstchen; Bridge
1750 Hours (CST)

"Godspeed, pilot..."

Commander Albrecht von Sydow retreated a few solemn steps to the command chair of his Murphy-class destroyer. Just moments ago he had watched as the heroic pilot of a Panther fighter maneuvered his fighter into the path of the second capship missile, sacrificing himself to protect the Forge against the ship killer missile. In the blink of an eye, the speck of a fighter was gone, existing now only as a splinter in his mind’s eye.

"What’s our status, DuVall?" he calmly asked his much younger exec, first sparing a look out the viewports at the nearing Nephilim supercarrier.

"Our shields are almost gone... our fore dual laser turrets have been destroyed," Lt. Commander DuVall answered grimly, then adding, "Those Stingrays... they’re still coming, sir, and our Tigershark squadron is already dead."

"Your evaluation, DuVall?"

"We..." The Lt. Commander trailed off, sighing, then giving the only reply he could, "We’ve had it, sir. We’re done."

That was all the Commander had to know. "Thank you."

"Sound abandon ship, sir?" DuVall asked. "Sir...?"

He knew there was no time. "Conn..." Dutifully, ignoring his XO’s perfectly reasonable question, Commander Von Sydow walked over to navigation. A young ensign turned, awaiting the order he dreaded to carry out but knew he must.

"Yessir?"

"Ramming speed, Ensign Douglas."

"Yessir."

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
1758 Hours (CST)

Captain Vandermann raised a hand to shield his eyes as together the Leviathan supercarrier and the TCS Forstchen went up in a flash and a white hot haze, the resulting shockwave passing over the Forge with a resounding light rumble. The sacrifice of the Murphy-class Forstchen had destroyed the massive vessel, reducing the capship to shattered, blackened slag.

"Th-they did it, sir," Lieutenant Ishii said, her gaze fixed on the broken, skeletal supercarrier’s hulk through the viewports. The destruction of the Leviathan, with the destruction of the second and final Barracuda by the Lancers, left only a single Orca-class destroyer and the Hydra-class cruiser.

"Yes. They did." Vandermann turned to Lieutenant St. Germain, his expression unreadable. "Open a channel to the Marines on the Hydra."

St. Germain did so. "Yessir."

"Lieutenant Colonel Trelane here, sir," the Marine OIC spoke. Frantic shouts, screams, and gunfire could be heard in the background. Not a soul on the bridge envied them.

"What’s your status, Colonel?" Vandermann was quick to ask.

"Sir, we’ve set just a few anti-matter charges on our way to the engine room so far... we can’t afford to set any more if I’m going to get my men out of here—and there’s no telling what condition our LC is in now, or if it’s even still there. Request permission to blow this motherfucker and go home, sir."

"Request denied," Captain Vandermann spoke, a decidedly icy, almost curt tone to his cold voice. "You knew the risks, Colonel, and you know your duty. Lay the rest of those charges... if you don’t take out that Hydra we’re done for. Are we understood?"

"Yessir, but with all due respect, Captain, you’re... you’re asking us to stay here and die."

"You know your duty, Colonel," Vandermann repeated. His voice was even icier than before.

"Yes... yes, sir. Trelane out."

 

TCS Nagato; Bridge
1804 Hours (CST)

"Stingray and Manta bombardment is continuing, sir..." Ensign Dupontel reported to Commander Tomoyasha Hotei. "We can’t hold out much longer."

The last Orca-class destroyer still hung outside the Plunkett-class cruiser Nagato’s viewports like a dead star, staring them in the face as it spoke their doom. Perhaps it was inevitable.

Wasn’t it?

"The Forge?"

"She’s holding together... that CSM impact nearly did her in." The Ensign sighed quietly. "Hull breaches, structural damage -- I’m guessing at least a couple hundred casualties at this point. There’s still some Mantas hounding her... she’s hurt, Commander, there’s no doubt about it."

"I see."

The Ensign gave a cough. "Should we move to defend, sir?"

"No. I’m afraid Vandermann seemed quite adamant about not needing assistance." A foolish, perhaps arrogant decision on the part of the Forge’s Captain to be sure, but he was in charge of the battle group. Besides, the other escort ships stood to benefit more from the combined effort the Nagato could bolster against the alien destroyer remaining and its defenders. "Have the Ohlander and Stasheff answered our hails?" Commander Hotei inquired of the two surviving Murphys.

"Yessir. Commanders Podovsk and Peploe both report they’re closing in on the last Orca, course three-one-zero, Z minus twenty. But they’re still quite a ways behind and..." Ensign Dupontel trailed off, the hesitating young man knowing his question was already understood. "Commander... ah, ma’am, shall I give the order to... to..." He was asking if the Nagato should follow in the Forstchen’s footsteps and ram the Orca. A last resort, one not to be taken lightly.

"No. Not just yet, Ensign," she spoke, watching the Orca’s turret batteries continue to splash their deadly energy across the Nagato’s shields. "We still ha—"

"Inbound Skates, Commander!" Ensign Fukikoshi reported from defense, looking up. "Normal, T, and M-class. They’re locking more warheads... I-I don’t know if we can take another volley. Sir...?"

The Commander stood, clenching and unclenching her fists as she decided to follow her gut.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Engineering
1805 Hours (CST)

The men and women worked feverishly at their stations, all thoughts of what was going on outside consciously blanked out as they focused on their set tasks amidst the chaos that continued to unfold around them. They braced themselves against whatever handy as another tremor ripped through and shook the engine room and the entire ship, the reddened lights flickering on and off.

Chief Engineer Julie Reddy, uniform coveralls dampened and stained with blood not her own, let go of the nearby plasteel bulkhead. Wearily, with painful hesitation, her glance returned to the young engineer she had once thought of as a son.

Gathering his instruments, the medic whose work she had been watching shook his head at the Chief Engineer before leaving to tend to another of the many injured crewmen among the dead. Reddy sagged against the glass of the containment chamber housing the Hydrogen-Deuterium-Tritium Impulse/Fusion reactor powering the Forge’s engine array, her palm leaving behind a crimson smear as she found herself having to once again avert her gaze from the engineer lying still within.

Petty Officer Nelson had remained at his post since the CSM’s initial impact even after the Propulsion Chief and all the others had fled, doing so long enough to keep auxiliary power from failing and the Valley Forge from being destroyed... and long enough to inhale enough poisonous coolant gas to ensure his death.

Reddy cursed. The damned technicians claimed nothing else but this corrosive, teratogenic, gamma-emitting poison had a high enough specific heat to protect the engine array against meltdown. They also claimed its protection was fail-safe.

Yet even as she cursed, Reddy wept. During the last few days she had disciplined Nelson in response to what Reddy had perceived as flippancy. In retrospect, she realized she had overreacted, had singled the boy out for punishment in an effort to make clear that she would show no favoritism to the young man that had taken the place in her heart of the son she had lost in the Space Force during the Cynium Campaign only months ago.

Billy... her son. Her only son.

Getting to her feet and sidestepping the primary fuel control collar, the Chief Engineer entered the containment chamber and drew close to the boy’s side. Gingerly pulling the thin white sheet that had been laid over the Petty Officer’s face, she touched his forehead.

Nelson’s skin burned Reddy’s hand. The fever resulted from exposure to the intensely radioactive gas. The on-hand medic had done what he could to stop the hemorrhage, working desperately over the boy for as long as would be fair to the others wounded, but the damage to the cell walls was too great; thin, pink-red blood oozed from the boy’s nose and mouth.

The Chief Engineer collapsed to her knees and did not rise this time. In her attempt to teach the boy discipline, she had made the final days of Nelson’s life miserable. The boy would never know the depths to which Reddy regretted the fact.

Reddy balled a shaking fist at her side. She found her sorrow quickly boiling into anger and scorn; anger and scorn not at the Aliens that still marauded the Forge outside, but at a man she thought she had come to respect.

"Damn you, Vandermann," she seethed, burying her tear-streaked face in Nelson’s chest. "Damn you..."

 

114TH WHITE HOPES

F/A-105A Tigershark 101 [ Sky Raider Lead ]
1811 Hours (CST)

"Almost there..."

Swooping away from the wing of Mantas he’d been tailing from five thousand klicks away, Captain Dan "Bugfix" Burdock cut across the bridge section of the TCS Nagato and veered down upon the final Orca-class destroyer, joining the elements of the nearby Fire Balls Squadron. Pouring twelve of his Rockets and the last two of his Dart Dumbfires at the nearing destroyer in quick, steady succession, he picked off several of the Orca’s fourteen turreted masers before falling behind it and dropping his speed to 1/3. When a salvo of six warheads discharged from Burdock’s Rocket Pod impacted against the bare hull of the capship’s phase shield generator, the ship was left wide open. The engines had already been punched through from the efforts of the Nagato’s gunners, so the destroyer was now both crippled and vulnerable in space. A quick torpedo run by one of the Shrikes that had targeted the Orca enveloped the bug vessel in a sudden, tremendous explosion whose shockwave nearly took the Lancers’ fighter with it.

"Captain Burdock of the White Hopes happy to report another bug fixed," he spoke into the comm’s main channel, watching the Lancer responsible for the kill flying by without a word.

"This is Commander Hotei," came the relieved voice of a woman—the Nagato’s skipper. "Thanks for the assist, Captain."

"You did good, kid," Lt. Colonel Avery "Virus" Hale spoke, a knowing tone to his gruff voice. Burdock noticed the older man’s Wasp interceptor forming on his port side, taking his wing in place of his lost wingman.

Burdock cracked an empty grin over his shoulder, exchanging a wave with the Fire Balls’ CO in the Wasp’s cockpit.

"You did good," Hale repeated.

But not good enough, Dan knew. Not even close.

Timmy... he was just a kid, Burdock thought back. A nice kid. Wanted to be a war hero. Always talked about his family to the rest of the squadron... the girl he had to come home to... the pictures he’d show... and Ginger... god, she would have made a better squadron commander than I turned out to be...

The White Hopes’ luck had finally run out.

His XO, Captain Ian "Ploughman" McGregor, 1st Lt. Rico "Crow" Kunen, 2nd Lt. Auhangamea Aunuu Tok "Ginger" Teaehoa, and 2nd Lt. Timmy "Peekaboo" Pho... four of his pilots were already dead.

"Rico..." Burdock rasped, sotto voce. "Damn you, Vandermann..." If the Captain hadn’t denied his request to land, Lt. Kunen might still be alive. If he’d contacted the nearby Yorktown battle group as he must have known he could, so might the Hood and Forstchen and all the other pilots that had now found their graves in the Nephele System.

Space was a lonely place for dying.

Burdock pulled away from the Orca’s wreckage, veering sharply off Hale’s wing. He returned to the battle zone, finding himself soon recalling the words of Captain Nawazaki from five days before:

"Remember their sacrifice, and continue their battle. That is all we can do to honor their memory. But honor it we must. Live and learn... die and forget."

"La larga huida del infierno," 2nd Lt. Fernando Garcia "Django" Casagrande muttered over the 114ths’ command channel.

Burdock made a face, somber. He couldn’t grok much of the Old Earth tongues. "Say again, Django?"

"It’s going to be a long road, Captain. A long, hard road out of hell."

That it was.

 

Nephilim Hydra-class Cruiser; Engine Room
1816 Hours (CST)

"This is TARFU!" a young NCO burst from his position. "All sorts of fuckin’ FUBARed!"

Lt. Colonel Trelane and the six surviving Marines in his detachment’s boarding operation -- most down to the C-244 and M-42 machine pistols and personal combat shotguns they lugged around as sidearms and secondary firearms—barricaded the engine room’s entryway. Out of flak grenades and using the last micro-grenades in his assault rifle’s launcher reserves sparingly, the Colonel laid out suppressing fire with them. Meanwhile, Master Gunnery Sergeant Hartigan and Trelane’s topkick, First Sergeant Delrin, were seeing to the continuing placement of the last set of anti-matter charges along the engine room’s viscous walls.

Down to his C-47’s last magazine, he fired off a three-round burst into the cranium of an advancing Nephilim. The lurching creature was dropped dead in its tracks, thrashing only briefly on its way down.

Crouching for a moment, Trelane opened a channel on his combat helmet’s comset to the Forge. "Captain Vandermann, this is Colonel Trelane," he reported. "Almost all of the charges are laid... we’re down to just the seven of us... the bugs are a lot tougher than we were counting on. We’re pretty much trapped in the engine room for the mo -- "

"What’s the status on the charges?" the Captain queried, his tone authoritative and detached as if he was asking for a jury verdict. He might as well have been.

Trelane hesitated. "Twenty of the thirty we brought along have been placed." In truth only fifteen were, but even with twenty they were still hopelessly behind schedule.

"Just twenty?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then I don’t need to remind you of your duty, Colonel."

"Captain? Captain?" Trelane tapped his comset a couple times, wanting to make sure his Captain had closed the channel—no, wanting to make sure his Captain was truly asking he and his men to die.

Turning around, he saw Master Gunnery Sergeant Hartigan. He wished he hadn’t.

"Gunny...?"

The man’s corpse was lying strewn against a wall, his innards slowly being picked apart by a Nephilim he hadn’t even heard or seen drop from above... First Sergeant Delrin was to be found nearby in a similar state. A micro-grenade blast to the thorax fired in a moment of rage ripped through the bug’s flesh like so much tissue. From behind the smoking barrel of his underslung grenade launcher when it was done, the Colonel winced, then drew the cylindrical remote detonator from his side.

The four remaining Marines stopped their firing, an awkward silence falling over the tough-as-nails Marines for the first time since they had boarded the Hydra. They saw the detonator in their OIC’s hand; knew exactly what he was going to do when he flicked open the cover.

They nodded.

"Semper Fidelis, Marines," Trelane whispered over the skittering rustle of the oncoming Nephilim, pressing the detonator’s button with his thumb.

 

TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
1820 Hours (CST)

As the impressive, blossoming thermonuclear/anti-matter explosion that had incinerated and torn apart the great Hydra-class cruiser from the inside out died down, the last dozen or so of the Nephilim fighters could be seen being picked off by the Forge’s squadrons through the bridge viewports.

The entire Nephilim battle group had been destroyed -- every single capship. The scattered debris of their mighty capships, strewn like garbage about the dismal battle scene the badly-damaged Forge was limping through, floated amidst the vacuum of space as the only trace of the bug fleet that had decided to pursue the carrier from the Nephele-Tyr jump point three days ago.

It was a victory, yes, one to remember and draw pride from in the days ahead for its survivors, but it was a hollow one... one that had cost the Forge Battle Group two of its capships, twenty Marines, and thirty-nine of its pilots. The Mosquitoes lost 7, the Steel Gunners lost 3, the White Hopes lost 4, the Fire Balls lost 7, the Aztecs lost 2, the Lancers lost 3, all 8 in the Forstchen’s squadron were lost, 2 in the Ohlander’s were lost, and 3 in the Stasheff’s were lost. SAR came up empty.

Pressurized coolant and super-heated plasma venting into space from ruptured lines and trailing behind her as she went, the TCS Valley Forge pressed on. For the crew, the 97th Assault Detachment, and 71st Tactical Fighter Wing aboard the carrier, indeed it had been a long, hard road out of Hell.

Captain Vandermann straightened his Naval uniform then took his seat once more, the gazes of his bridge crew all suddenly falling accusingly down on him. He felt each one. "What’s the matter with you all?" he burst moments later, unable to take it. "Let’s hear it. Is there something wrong?" He waited for an answer, an almost frenzied look on his sweat-ridden face. "Well, is there? Talk, damn you!"

The Captain received no answer, for no one would speak the truth -- today he had lost the trust and respect of his crew.

 

“I want to live; I want to love
But it’s a long hard road out of Hell.
I live fast and die fast, too.
Don’t have any time to do this for you.
I want to live; I want to love
But it’s a long hard road out of Hell.”
- Long Hard Road out of Hell, 1997

 

FIN