PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 31 of 44 )
“ The Downward Spiral ”
“There will come a time when
our silence will be more
powerful than the voices you are strangling today!”
- August Spies
Nephilim reach for Nephele.
Escaped from Hell; caught in Purgatory,
the TCS Valley Forge - left shaken in its state down to its primary
VALLEY FORGE BATTLE GROUP
TCS Valley Forge; Wardroom
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 10 2681/2681.041; 0705 Hours (CST)
Captain Eldon Vandermann, standing by himself in a corner of the officers O-Lounge, blankly stares out into the starry maw of the Nephele System. Today his head hangs low. The day before, many of his crew, Marines, and pilots had been killed in action when the Forge Battle Group attacked a pursuing Nephilim squadron of capital ships. Though he knows his crew is beginning to think otherwise, the loss of comrades was never easy for Eldon.
Flashes of all his previous combat experiences pass through his mind. The loss of the Odessa, the Battle of Baka Kar, the Black Lance affair -- during them all and more Eldon had lost comrades. As he remains deep in his thoughts the voice of his father rings through his head once more. It keeps repeating the same phrase over and over again. Eldon, however, maintains his vigil and ignores it. This time.
He turns from the viewports and heads towards the corridor, ignoring the looks he receives from the off-duty officers that take notice of him. On the walk back to his cabin he never once brings his head up to eye level with any he passes by.
TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
0840 Hours (CST)
"Hes lost it. Yesterday was the proof."
The bridge staff discussed their CO, Captain Vandermann, after his erratic actions the day before when he had ordered twenty Marines to their deaths and let nearly 40 pilots from the Forges flight wing, the 71st FW, be wiped out. They were tired, each of them pulling double-shifts.
Even the Wing Commander, Colonel Natasha Trebek, had to wonder about the man. "It had come to a point where I was beginning to trust the man... I thought I had an understanding with him. Now I realize I dont know him at all."
"I know what you mean, Natasha," Lt. Commander Nate Schaefer agreed, nodding his head sadly.
They said what they know about him, most of it coming from Lieutenant JG Amy St. Germain, the comm officer, who had done her digging: In his youth, even after graduating top in his class from the Fleet Service Academy in Houston, Vandermann soon tired of the desk job he subsequently worked at BuShips for two years, then leaving to become something of a pirate for The Guild, easily the Landreichs most proficient clan. Then, after his Confed Marine father died under strange circumstances in the Battle of Repleetah, he felt obligated to return to Confed, where he began as a lowly ensign on the Bengal-class strike carrier TCS Odessa; in 2661 he lost his then-command of the TCS Odessa in a Kilrathi offensive into the TrkPahn Sector; he joined the Free Republic of Landreich Navy then until his participation in Project Goliath on the KIS Karga/FRLS Mjollnir in 2670-2671. Then, from his rejoining the Confederation under mysterious circumstances in early 2671 to his taking command of the Valley Forge in 2681, what he did and where he was was unknown.
"Classified?" Ensign Jed Wright asked.
"You got it. By Confed HQ... dont know who, in particular." Lt. St. Germain furrowed her brow suspiciously. "I smell Special Operations allover it... maybe TCIS or TCIB -- all those narcissistic Intell bastards that had the TCS Orion be their scapegoat for all those years -- or worse... Black Ops."
"I thought the Black Projects Division was shut down after 73," Ensign Turner interjected.
"Uh-huh, and I suppose you think theres no corruption in Confed, either, right? Remember that little incident we call The Secession War that lasted five years? Well, those Andorrans seceded for a reason." Lt. St. Germain grunted, then went on, "I suppose its possible he was in on that Project Omega thing Confed started toward the end of the First Kilrathi War but never got around to finishing."
"Impossible," Colonel Trebek spoke, shaking her head, though she seemed surprised the young lieutenant even heard of the said Project. "Confed pulled the plug on that before the war was even over when Tolwyn pushed Ubarovs Behemoth Project out the door."
"Thats right, Colonel," Lt. Susan Anderson, the junior tactical/radar officer spoke. Guess that made two of them. "Maybe that old Y-12 group...?"
"Youre referring to the Belisarius Group?"
"Yeah, thats the one."
The Colonel shook her head. "You might as well suggest he was in the Society of Mandarins, Lieutenant."
"Well, we can do this fun bullshit speculation all we want," Ensign Wright offered. "The Captains psych analysis is off-limits and we can assume the ship shrink wont say a word about their talks, erratic or not."
"Thats a given." It was important to note that patient-doctor confidentiality had always been a rigorously maintained thing, even in wartime.
"You know, we dont even know how old he is," Lt. Anderson pointed out offhandedly.
One by one, all eyes began to fall on Lt. Commander Schaefer. "Youre the only one aboard thats served with Vandermann before, sir," Lt. St. Germain pointed out. "Youre his exec, and youve got just about as patchy a history as the Captain... though I could say the same about Colonel Trebek here." The young woman leaned forward. "Strictly off the record... what do you know about the Captain?"
"Strictly off the record?" The XO lifted his shoulders and gave an earnest enough shrug. "Well, Im really not sure what t -- "
"Good. Youre all here."
"Attention on deck!"
They almost didnt notice their CO making his entrance onto the bridge. Like they ever did. Captain Vandermann approached from the lift flanked by a small coterie of the senior staff in the carriers Intelligence Office. He walked up to the bridge crew, finding all of them gathered around Lt. St. Germains console. He eyed them suspiciously as they immediately stood to attention, saluting the Captain as he stood beside his command chair.
"At ease, people," he spoke. His voice was cool now, collected. So much unlike yesterday... it was night and day with Vandermann. "I have good news... and I have good news. The good news, you say? Very well. First, I took the time to go over the recommendations of the Forges previous captain, the now-late Geoffory Arnold. Congratulations, Lieutenant Commander Erin Ishii."
Lt. Ishii gasped. "Th-thank you, Captain."
Lt. Commander Schaefer was already sulking back to his seat when Vandermann continued, "And... congratulations, Commander Nathan Schaefer. Youve always made a fine executive officer and we both know this is long overdue -- youve earned it."
"Thank you, sir. I wont let you down."
"Very well... Lt. Anderson and Ensign Milfort will be taking over tactical then, Anderson assuming seniority in your stead." Vandermann tipped his head at his XO, then became more serious. "Now then... the other good news. Im happy to inform you that Rear Admiral Hanton has come through, if only in a small way. The local militia is sending a Caernaven-class patrol frigate with three Vindicator-class medium fighters and their pilots to join the Valley Forge Battle Group from the Loki-Nephele jump point." His gaze traveled over the bridge crews faces. "I expect the rendezvous to be brief, as we are still scheduled to evacuate the populace on Nephele II in just a few hours. See that the new pilots are made to feel at home."
"But... just three fighters, sir?" Ensign Matt Turner inquired. Yesterday they had lost thirty-nine.
"Is that a problem, Ensign?"
"I dont think you appreciate how desperate the tactical situation is, Ensign. Most of the Border Worlds Navy is either here with us, or trying to stop Nephilim groups raiding behind our lines. The Militia and Homeguard are busy trying to scrape together what reserves they can to backstop us at Nifelheim, while the Confed Senate has the First, Fourth, and Seventh Fleets sitting safely at home with their fingers up their backsides. We will be grateful for what reinforcements we are given -- any reinforcements. Is that clear?"
Turner winced, but held his COs stern glance. The mood swings again. "Crystal, sir."
"Good." Vandermann turned on his heels, marching halfway back to the lift before turning back around. "However, you should be advised of the possibility that we will soon be taking on... additional reinforcements." He gave Colonel Trebek a look. "Colonel, youre with me."
After the Captain and WC left, heading to the command ready room to plan the days Nephele II mission, Ensign Turner turned a cocksure glance at the now-Lt. Commander Ishii.
"So, Erin..." he started, as he did nearly every day. To the same result. He had no reason to think his effrontery would bear any different fruit today. "Were having dinner tonight, right?"
Ishii groaned, rolling her eyes. "You dont ever give up, do you, Matt?"
"No." Turner grinned wryly. "Why dont we just make it easy on both of us... and just say yes?"
Ishii sighed, giving the Ensign a long gaze. "Okay."
"Okay?" Turner perked up and grinned sheepishly, his heart nearly skipping a beat. "Okay? Are you serious?"
"Yes. But were going to have to make it an early one... unless you want to invoke the wrath of our dear friend Captain Hook. Bout 1600 hours all right for you?"
"Youre joking with me, right? Youre not actually -- "
"No, Im not joking," Ishii assured him, smiling. "Now shut up, sit down, and lets do our jobs."
"All right, maam!" Ensign Turner scurried off to his console, going about his daily duties with newfound vigor. Sensor sweeps and MFD diagnostics never seemed so much fun.
"I neednt remind you of the fiancée you have on Earth...?" Ensign Wright asked a moment later, jabbing him in the side.
Turners eyes jolted wide. "Oh, shit... her..."
TCS Valley Forge; Flight
Wing Rec Room
1047 Hours (CST)
Today the atmosphere was of a decidedly subdued and bleak nature. The rec room was dimly lit, but it was packed. Hardly any time before had the now-Major Dan "Bugfix" Burdock seen the place quite this crowded. Almost every pilot in the 71st FW was there, except for the pilots of the 397th SFS "Aztecs" and 323rd "Fire Balls." The first were on CAP, the latter were holding themselves available in the Ready Room.
Anyone who could be here, thoughthey were here. No one wanted to be alone now.
In the far corner of the rec room a blurred news monitor was showing TNC reporter Terry MacGillies with the ISDN Allied Forces News Watch, covering the latest headlines from the front.
Dan was surprised to see his new XO, Captain Paul "Kraut" Hartmann, in this place. Reserved, passionless, and always dutiful he was in this room. Most came to the flight wing rec room for the talking and -- the great majority -- the drinking. It was a place not very frequently visited by Hartmann. Kraut was sitting on a table with two other "Germans," 1st Lieutenant Norbert "Blitz" Bauer and 2nd Lieutenant Albert "Hitman" Hotz, both of the 722nd "Mosquitoes." The three were each having a beer. Nobody was saying a thing. They were nipping at their beers as if they were not thirsty.
Eleven, Burdock thought. Eleven left. Eleven from fifteen. Fifteen men and woman that he had been responsible for. He had failed four of them.
1st Lieutenant Rico "Crow" Kunen, the lonely hunter. He never talked a lot, especially not of himself. Burdock, though, knew from Ricos personal file that his whole family was killed by the Kilrathi in 2666 when he was a ten year old youth. Burdock had guessed with relative certainty that was where "Crow"s introverted nature originated from. When being in the cockpit, however, he showed it by killing the opponent fast. Cold and silent, his presence was only noticed by the fast-declining numbers of enemy craft. He would be surely missed and that not for his kill skill alone.
And then there was his loyal XO, Captain Ian "Ploughman" McGregor, who had been an undeniable help in the first weeks after Burdocks arrival. He owed Ian for having managed to get through to his men so quickly and easily. Ian, while the same age as Burdock, had a whole lot more in the way of leadership experience than Burdock. By all rights, it should have been his squad. "Ploughman" had always been a close and confidential advisor. Everything regarding the squadron they had discussed together, and he wouldnt have had it any other way.
He forced his grief aside, though only be startled by the memory of Lieutenant Timothy "Peekaboo" Pho. Timmy, the kid, oh no...
He had so far avoided writing to Timmys parents about the death of their one and only son. Pho had been a second lieutenant, fresh out of Flight School with the polish still on his flight wings and youthful idealism still in place.
Damn it, I cant... cant...
His throat felt choked up. His thoughts raced on to the last name on that dark list so far: "Ginger." Her real name was Auhangamea Aunuu Tok Teaehoa. He never did learn how to pronounce the name properly.
Now, I dont need to bother any longer, Burdock thought, smiling bitterly. Ginger, whom he thought that nothing could break. She who not for a single moment took anything for which she did not have to fight. Always fighting till the last -- that was her, and that was what cost proud and rebellious "Ginger" her life in the end. An end that Burdock still could not believe was meant to come so soon. The last one standing -- that should have been her role.
Crow, the lonely hunter, Ploughman, the skilled worker, Peekaboo, the kid, and Ginger, the rebellious. Statistics would say just four out of sixteen. But four, four from sixteen... no just, NO, DAMN IT, JUST... a voice inside him was crying, ... four!
"... the joint Tanfen/UBW evacuation fleet is struggling to get some 100,000 refugees from Tyr VII, threatened by the Nephilim advance in this system, safely to Masa. Rumors it had that the Union of the Border Worlds applied its Martial Law Edict in order to get a hand on Tanfens enormous sector fleet of cargo and other ships. UBW officials however have neither confirmed nor denied such rumors. At the same time there is information that indicates that the combined Confed/UBW fleet assigned to protect the evacuation has encountered heavy contact with the alien threat. The allied Confed/UBW command has classified all footage, but assures us that information will be released soon. While we wait for the latest news on the evacuation of Tyr the evacuation of Nephele is almost completed. The only planet not yet entirely withdrawn from is Nephele II. We go live now to Hightower Flats on Nephele II where our last man on spot -- or should I say our last woman -- brings us the latest details from the conclusion of the evacuation phase. Cynthia. Hows it going so far?"
The already blended in in-screen picture grew to full screen showing the TCNs Terran News Channel Reporter Cynthia Wanner with two men, one in his mid-twenties wearing the latest fashion in sunglasses and one with an Asian look in his late thirties, standing in front of the Nephelese Council Hall. In the lower left corner the name of TNC Reporter Cynthia G. Wanner was displayed, as the very last reporter on spot, and the date and time, which showed the 2681.038, 2030 Confed Standard/Zulu Time.
"Wait ... this coverage is three days old!" shouted one 2nd Lieutenant Sherman "Dumptruck" Langer of the 109th "Steel Gunners." "And we were even in-system that day and time! What took it so long?"
"Hey, boy, dont you know that TCIS gets on everything first? Were only served what they think we can handle. Yet, youre right... this has taken quite some time! I would guess the censorship should have been done in five hours maximum. There is something to this!" 1st Lieutenant Tom C. "Line Man" Brimen explained. He loved to teach someone a lesson, especially when he was having a home play as it could be regarded for his knowledge on commtech [information and communication technology].
"... passing your question on to Colin Burdock, CEO of East-West Trade, Inc., the transport division of East-West Industries, Corp., head of operations in the evacuation of the Nephele System. May I say Colin?"
"Well, Colin, we talked before the interview and you were saying that your people were almost done here except for one small group you needed to get to leave their estate. Weve already heard from Governor Estacado, but Id like to hear it from youis that right?"
"Yes, Cynthia -- thats absolutely correct. Some people do not or moreover will not want to realize how serious the situation is. But as we talk these people are being picked up and within the next thirty minutes they will boarding this shuttle over there. The very last shuttle to leave this planet, I should say."
"So youre saying in roughly thirty minutes from now this planet will be totally abandoned? Not even one person left? Wow! Kinda weird if youre of the last of the 20,000 inhabitants this world initially had."
"Currently there are only... well, about ninety refugees, including the ones that are already checked in as well as the ones still coming plus transports crews, the rest of the homeguard, InSys, hmmm... and us here, of course. There are also reports of some Zen Buddhist monks that have barricaded themselves into a private estate near the Hightower Flats spaceport, but that remains to be confirmed. But so few... yes, this indeed has been something really... for lack of a better word, spooky. And more than a few are leaving with mixed feelings... like on whether we will ever come back again."
"Yeah, right! But will we?"
"Sure thing! We will. I am absolutely convinced we will come back. And that will not take long. Look, Cynthia, the Border Worlds, even with a planet like Nephele IIwhich some might say is a dismal wasteland -- nonetheless have become our home. This territory of space belongs to mankind; belongs to us. And those Nephilim guys better do not mess with us. They will not break us. Never! It will only make us stronger. And by god, they better learn to fear us quickly. And... they will! Hey, this goes out to my brother Danny Burdock, his comrades in the fighter wing and all men on board the TCS Valley Forge: kick the hell outta those damned insects! Crash some for me, will you, Danny?"
"Wow, uh-huh! Hit me, man! Those are strong words, yeah!" Mark T. "2Pack" Dukovski was cheering, whereas nobody else raised a word. "Dont worry, man! Well killem all! We sure will! Wont we, Buggy Boy?" With that he looked over to Major "Bugfix" Burdock, who had joined the crowd in front of the monitor a while ago. Burdock just nodded, silently acknowledging the 1st Lieutenant. Damn... damn low morale is around here, Dukovski thought.
"Powerful words..." TNC Reporter Cynthia Wanner also confirmed. "So what is still left to be done? What will you be doing the last thirty minutes minutes planetside?"
"First, Im going the make sure that the one shuttle loaded with people who have already checked in..." he looked over the airfield to confirm his impression before he continued, "...is settled and ready for take off. Then I will see that we get in the very last refugees into the other shuttle. Well have the last homeguard fighters escort us up in orbit where the evacuation fleet is already assembled and waiting."
"Oh great, thank you! Now, a few words from Mr. Ushio Jergun, the representative of the Nephelese Council. Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Jergun! Mr. Jergun, such a close co-operation of a private company with a government is a thing rather rarely found. It is all the more remarkable given that in this case no billions of extra profits are awaiting the helping company in question. How did it start?"
"Honestly, I dont know that. But I cannot say how grateful we are about the help we are getting from East-West Industries. This is a brilliant example of how a responsible company can benefit society. Please let me thank East-West on behalf of the people of Neph II and I even dare to say of the people of the Border Worlds Union. Thank you!"
"Ah, ssshhh... that is nothing compared to the new home that many of us Eastn Westers have found in the Border Worlds." Colin Burdock tried to brush it off in stride, but it was obvious that he was bathing in the compliment.
Cynthia Wanner retook the initiative to ask Mr. Jergun some more questions. What the public did not know was that Mr. Jergun had been left alone to represent the Nephelese Council by this fellow politicians, who had preferred to get their butts out of the line of fire well ahead of time. They had left Jergun all alone to coordinate the evacuation from the governmental side of things. Jergun had been isolated by the other politicians in the weeks prior. They disliked him for being popular with the common people because he took his job seriously. Ushio Jergun was one of the few politicians who acted on behalf of the people who elected him. He stood up for their interests. Thinking simply in terms of how to survive the next election was alien to him. The isolation and certain misinformation by his colleagues had barricaded his career and dissolved his means of doing well in politics. He wanted a new job.
"Hey, what is it that I dont get, Burdock!" 1st Lt. Birger "Credit" Lassen, the troublemaker from the Shrike squad, was raising his voice in his trademark less-than-subtle tone. "If your brother evacuated all people like he claims, how come there are still civvies on Nephele II? Tell me, hmm?!"
Dan Burdock was not in the mood for this. It made him wonder, too. But he had no intention of racking his brains over it. So he shrugged his shoulders and tried to look vicious at Lieutenant Lassen, which he found was easy. It worked, too. Credit, who already was opening his mouth to say more, gave in.
"Hes not really looking for a fight," Captain Pinto whispered close to him from the other side. Burdock turned his head.
"I was surprised he gave up so quickly," Dan admitted. "Seen him arguing with Major Adrian earlier on..."
"Yeah. Remember his argument with Ginger the other day that ended up in a skirmish? Oh, my... that was just yesterday! I believe hes feeling like shit. Right this moment."
"Yeah, youre probably right. He actually isnt such an asshole after all." After a short pause Dan continued thoughtfully, "Hah, he hadnt stood the faintest chance against Ginger. Got pretty badly beaten up."
"... As the Nephelese are leaving their homeworld the combined Confed/UBW forces fall back into Nephele. Let us hope that their effort to hold the line will be a success. If not, the people of Nephele may never see their homes again. For the TNC with the Allied Forces News Watch from Nephele II, Im Cynthia Wanner."
Vindicator 001 [ Talon Lead
1130 Hours (CST)
Major Frederick Doppler von Richthofen slowly turned his head from left to right, scanning for enemies. It was a routine that dated back to the earliest days of aerial combat; constantly swiveling ones head to spot danger. Richthofen glanced behind him through the rear turret for a second.
He saw only his flights 620 meter-long Caernaven-class patrol frigate a thousand meters astern and the twin glows from his engine exhaust. In these times of advanced sensors and autopilots, few pilots still maintained the same level of vigilance. Instead, many flew with their eyes on the scanners, or even worse, slept during patrols, counting on the computer to alert them to an enemy presence.
It was a tactic that had cost many lives during the Black Lance Incident and the long Hunt-Down afterwards that had wiped out Tolwyns Gene Nazis once and for all. Fighter sensors did nothing to alert a pilot to a cloaked fighter, and the old Dragons had been notorious for sneaking up right behind (or right in front, depending on how adventurous the pilot was feeling) of an enemy, decloaking, and snapping off a shot with their fission guns. Such attacks were frightening and devastatingly effective, and the same effect could be achieved with a Dart Dumbfire fired at close range.
A pilot has to see the enemy first, or die, the Major thought to himself, starting the process over again: left, front, scanner, right, rear, above, and toward the sun. The constant scanning also weakened the advantage of SHROUDed or other LO stealth fighters, which, while they remained undetectable to sensors, could still be seen with the naked eye.
Frederick trusted his two wingmen, Captain Stefani Torch Kozlowski, to his right rear, and Captain Seth Anubis Milhalik, off his port wing, to spot anything in his Vindicators two large blind spots: wide swaths of the aft port and starboard sides. Just as they trusted each other to do the same, maintaining the same visual scanning that Richthofen had drilled into them during Talon Flights long life, dating back to the Hunt-Down.
Torch Kozlowski paused and blinked hard, giving her eyes a rest. Escort duty was always long and tedious, but it was even worse with the constant tension of the knowledge that the enemy was out there, waiting and far stranger than anything they had faced before. She glanced at the time: 1132 hours CST. The fighter escort from the Forge should have been here already, she thought. Just then, her radar sounded a small alarm. The HUD was showing contacts at long range. Four, eight, twelve targets inbound, moving too fast to be anything but fighters or missiles, and too slow to be missiles.
Torch toggled off her autopilot and opened a comm channel, Tallyho! This is Talon Three. I have twelve bogeys inbound, maximum range, bearing ero-three-five mark 18 relative.
Doppler checked his scanners before replying, Roger that -- twelve bogeys. Talon Two and BWS Condor, please confirm. Over.
Talon Two here, affirmative. I tally twelve contacts. Over.
Ensign Dante Marxs face replaced Anubis image on the upper-left VDU MFD. This is the Condor," the young Border Worlds Navy ensign spoke. "We read it, too. Captain Watterson wants you to investigate the contacts and wishes you luck.
Doppler nodded. Roger that. Well keep you advised. He switched to the command channel and said, All right, Talon Flight. We are going to investigate those contacts. We will intercept them thirty thousand klicks out. Form up and accelerate to maximum standard power. Acknowledge.
Torch here. I read ya, Captain Kozlowski said in a deep, rumbling voice. When Seth Milhalik replied, his voice was dark and formal, always reasonable, but seeming to hint at some doom only he knew of. Both were stark contrasts to Fredericks prim and proper Prussian accent, still distinguishable after nearly 15 years in the Border Worlds Union Space Force.
Frederick double-checked his weapon inventory and power settings during the approach. Laser and Tachyon cannons toggled to group fire. Secondary guns set to the Vindicators twin Stormfire Mark 1s, the most effective gun Richthofen had ever encountered, even if it did have a limited amount of ammo. Missile ordnance checked out at two sets of four heat-seeker missiles and four Lance torpedoes. Despite those, plus modifications to their fighters maneuverability that ate a whole forty percent of their power, Doppler knew that a chicken at a coyote convention stood a higher chance at survival if those contacts were hostile.
A minute and a half later, he let out a sigh of relief when the computer identified them as Confederation Tigersharks. Frederick was grinning as he answered their challenge. Roger, Confederation forces. This is Major Frederick von Richthofen of the Border Worlds Space Force. Talon Flight and BWS Condor requesting escort to rendezvous with TCS Valley Forge.
The voice of the other pilot, Captain Quintus Domitianus sounded relieved, but still carried an overtone of sorrow. A big affirmative on that, Major Richthofen. And welcome to the Nephele System.
The transmission ended. No other greetings, no chit-chat, none of the banter or one-upmanship that was common to all fighter pilots. That in itself told Doppler a whole lot about morale on the Forge. Doppler shook his head. My God, he thought, what have these people been through?