PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 33 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
VALLEY FORGE BATTLE GROUP
TCS Valley Forge; Flight
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 10 2681/2681.041; 1850 Hours (CST)
Major Burdock arrived on the flight deck as one of the last, just behind the 402nd "Lancers" pilots. The coffee rich with caffeine he had before had already demanded his attention. Drink one and carry away two, he mentally grunted. A bit absentmindedly he joined the crowd that loosely gathered around the officer that would lead the evacuation from now on.
"What are you looking at, pilot?" growled the middle-aged, scruffy, disgruntled-looking Deck Boss of the Forges flight and repair deck, MCPO Modeen. The older man with greased coveralls bore a dark five oclock shadow; the whites in his eyes were reddenedeither from an excessive lack of sleep or use of the various narcotics banned by Confed that Vandermann had been cracking down on. Burdock suspected the latter.
"Good." The Deck Boss gave a grunt. He looked like hed put in a full shift and then some. "You on the roster for the escort this evening?"
Burdock gave the MCPO a glare, feeling a tinge of hurt pride that the Deck Boss of the Forge didnt even recognize him from the common pilot. "Hey -- Im the squadron commander of the White Hopes."
"Right-o. And my names Jack Daniels."
"But I -- "
"Christ... just move along, pilot."
Wincing with uncertainty about the strange Deck Boss, Burdock walked on.
"... under the Emergency Decree 45A," Burdock overheard from afar, "passed by the Border Worlds Senate... well, Im a drafted officer of the Union of Border Worlds Space Navy with the brevet rank of a Lieutenant Commander. Satisfied? With Special Orders, I was commissioned by Admiral Robin Singh personally..."
"Awrgh! Would somebody shut that overblown asshole up already?" 2nd Lt. Kyra "Moonlight" van de Frost moaned as Burdock passed.
"Kyra!" now-Captain Pinto, puzzled by this sudden outbreak of temper by "Moonlight," denounced her, more for the fun of it than to be serious. Moonlight was a shy and pale woman, almost a girl still, and never one to speak up... let alone show off.
"After all is said and done. Theres still a lot more said than done," "Wise Guy" murmured to Burdock, who normally appreciated his smart-ass comments. For they both shared that passion for old sayings and little wisdom. But this time Burdock was not listening to him. "That voice..." he mumbled instead, struggling to catch a glimpse of that UBW Lt. Commander.
"... I heard that, pilot!" the Border World Lt. Commander, who was somewhat young for an officer of his rank, remarked on "Wise Guy"s comment, turning towards the pilots faction.
"A last note, then. To let there be no doubts: what we really need to concentrate on is getting those civilians once and for all off the planet and out of this system. Safely." He rotated to face both parties in turn, the Marines first and then the pilots. "You were chosen for this job because, as youre probably aware, the Valley Forge Battle Group is the closest unit to Nephele II, and the only one that can get there on time. Im very pleased that it is the Forge thats doing the job. I know you went through... considerable duress yesterday -- I know -- but Im still counting on you all to get the job done. I know you wont let me down. Pilots, you need to report to the final squad briefings; platoon, report for further briefing to your OICs in Bravo and Charlie units. Dis-missed, then!"
Colin Burdock tasted the final words of his briefing to the last, rolling them on his tongue like they were some precious samples of one fine brandy. How delightful, he thought enthusiastically letting this briefing pass again in front of his minds eye. Something I could get addicted to, he admitted, not without a decent portion of self-irony. Dan Burdock stood there flabbergasted, his lower jaw hanging down. The gathering was breaking up as the individual groups were running towards their craft, where the final briefings would take place.
"My brother..." Dan shook his head in disbelief.
There he was -- a broad smile on his face -- his younger brother, Colin Burdock, resplendent in the dress uniform of a UBW Naval officer. It took Dan some time to come to words when his brother hugged him heartily.
"Thats a story, Im tellin ya. But one to tell another time. Just this: those bloody monks have fooled me... pulled the wool over my eyes, they did. Damn! I set heaven and hell in motion to get back. And Will at Third Fleet Logistics in Torgo put his job on the line to get me an old, shabby F/A-76 Longbow... Anyway, Im here, with the blessing of even Singh -- "
"CINC of the Border Worlds Navy? Way to go straight to the top, Brother."
"Yeah... well, theres really only the one fleet to speak of in the Union, but... yknow." Colin cocked a grin, then proudly announced, "He appointed me as man-in-charge for this operation, as it is a rescue op and East-West has got transports to spare."
"Yeah, yeah, little brother, calm down. For it means nothing else than that you are responsible for the success of it. And your balls will be cut off if it fails."
"Heh, heh. Be positive! Anyway, how is it out here smashing the bugs? Pretty, ah, cool, Id suppose. But, damn, I wish I could stay. Maybe I -- "
"No. You dont."
"What?" Colin asked, interrupted in his spirited train of thought.
"I said you dont. You do not wish youd been here. Believe me, you dont wish for that," Dan answered wearily. "I do not wish to be here... not after what Ive been through. Hell, I wish Id stayed where I was. The tense duty roster were running allows just too little recovery... if at all."
"Just yesterday I watched four of my pilots get fried in their cockpits. Yesterday!" Dan sighed. "Jesus Christ, Colin. The fighting, the killing, the falling of comrades, the emotional distress that it puts on a guy... and the constant fear -- yes, I think thats what it is. Fear, the fear that you or someone you care about could be next. Tell me -- how can a person go on and not break...?" He directed the last question more to hang in the air than for Colin to answer it.
Whereas Colin, evidently startled by what his brother was revealing, answered simply with the squadron motto of the White Hopes: "Hope has a place."
"Yes... " Dan replied, tired, "... but just where the hell is that place? I want to know."
"Hey, come on, Danny," Colin tried to cheer up his brother, throwing his right arm around Dans shoulder. He pointed with the index finger of his other arms hand to Dans heart, touching his flight suit: "There it is -- and you know that." After a moments pause he added, "After all, theres always hope!"
F-106A Piranha 001 [ Alpha Lead
1910 Hours (CST)
In the dead of space an unremarkable rock floated in an irregular pattern. Much had happened in its lifetime, from the birth of the Terran sun, to the exploration of Vega, and to the destruction of Kilrah. It had existed for millions of years, and it had drifted to every part of this system. It had been knocked on its way by military and civilian craft alike.
In one instant, the rock was incinerated by an ion blast coming from a small, one-man fighter.
The newly-promoted Major Kurt "Coroner" Powell watched as his guns energy banks returned to normal. Having the time, he took a look out the cockpit of his Piranha. About half a million klicks in front of him was Nephele II. He and his four-wingman element were sent in on TARCAP recon to scout out the planet just beyond its gravity well and confirm the existence of the two Orca-class destroyers and three Triton-class transports, and confirm/deny the possibility of any Nephilim troop landing/deployment.
The planet had all been evacuated except for the fifty-some religious monks who refused to leave.
Why do we have to risk our asses for a handful of monks who wont leave? Kurt thought to himself. Let them die... if they havent already.
The undeclared war had changed nearly every pilot on the Forge -- any squadron commander would tell you the same. The carrier had lost almost half of its pilots to the Nephilim already... and for what? Their job to hold the line wasnt holding all that well. The Nephilim had taken Tartarus, Dakota, and Hellespont before the fleet could even engage them. They had given up Tyr to the enemy, and now they were already set to give up Nephele. The massive enemy fleet was pushing them back daily.
As a result of that, as well as the losses, morale on the Forge was in the proverbial toilet -- plain and simple. Having an insane Captain wasnt helping much, either. Kurt only hoped to himself that the Third Fleet and UBW Navys First Fleet would make their stand and draw the line in Nifelheim. That was what their entire plan depended on. If that failed, the two fleets, the reserves, and just about everyone on the frontier, was, well, fucked.
Offhandedly, he hoped the Cats would continue to not be involved. He knew he was far from being the only one, but Coroner hated the Cats. His reasoning was simple enoughthey had destroyed his home in Gemini when they took over New Constantinople. Kurt would just as soon kill the Kilrathi along with the Nephilim... Cats and Bugs -- in his eyes, the difference was minimal, if nonexistent.
"What the hell are we doing out here?" the German 1st Lt. Nobert "Blitz" Bauer asked.
"I dont know, man," replied 2nd Lt. Edwin "Daz" Dauzz. He was a young pilot. Not thinking before he said something. "Were probably going to die out here... just like everyone else in our squadron..."
Flyboy... Lilith... Poomba... Munster... Dusty... Jackal... Lazarus... Stuka...
The list kept on growing, seven of the eight casualties so far occurring in the previous days ferocious engagement. Major Powell had been named the Mosquitoes new CO with Major Ulyssus "Flyboy" Grants passing, with Captain Lisa "Nitefall" Alkofer as Kurts new XO. Including himself, the Mosquitoes were down to eight pilots from the original sixteen.
Coroner knew he had been right in the beginning in his decision to not let him get to know the pilots of his squadron too well -- they might turn up dead.
"Cut it out, people," Kurt said sternly, the voice of reason. "The Captain wouldnt do that to us." The only problem with that statement was that Kurt didnt believe that one himself. But, after all, he was the CO and he had to see that morale was kept up.
F-106A Piranha 001 [ Alpha Lead
1920 Hours (CST)
The yellow-orange dustball sphere that was Neph II now took up most of Kurts view. On the fringe of the Border Worlds on what had been considered the Etruria Flank during the original Kilrathi War, it was a planet tucked just on the inside of the Nephele Systems "green band," the range of distances that a planet could occupy that would support human life.
He looked down at his HUD. Five red blips had appeared at relative long range. "Look out, people... weve got company. When they reach 15,000 klicks break and attack," Kurt ordered. He hit his afterburners, his velocity kicking up to 1,400 KPS. 1st Lt. Albert "Hitman" Hotz followed suit.
"You are nothing before us!" came the voice of one Nephilim pilot.
"My brethren shall consume you!" came another.
There were five Moray medium fighters. Nothing too fancy and nothing they couldnt handle, Major Powell gauged. Probably a long range patrol. Blitz and Daz broke to port and took on two of the Morays.
Coroner switched to full guns and took his target. He pulled an afterburner Shelton Slide with ease and opened fire with his laser, ion, and Stormfire Mk2 cannons, weakening the aft shields of the Moray, Hitman doing the same.
"Death from above, you buggered piece of shit!" Hitman exclaimed.
1st Lt. Hotz came at a separate vector and hit nearly the exact same spot as Kurt did, his barrage hitting the fighters bare biometal armor. The Moray came apart, translucent green fire trailing behind it before it went up in a muffled blast.
Blitz, Daz, and Nitefall finished off the remaining four Morays with ease.
"Form up, people," Kurt ordered in the aftermath of the scuffle. "We still have a patrol to finish."
F-106A Piranha 001 [ Alpha Lead
1935 Hours (CST)
Coroner looked down to check his cockpits MFDs. Assessing the situation, he locked onto one of the destroyers, bringing it up on his object viewer VDU. The two ungainly Orcas were just breaking high orbit; the three Tritons had situated themselves in geosynchronys low orbit.
Damn... looks theyve already had a chance to land their troops... or whatever they have, Kurt thought.
A warning went off in Kurts cockpit. Two Manta heavy fighters had swung behind his group and fired off a missile. He deployed his chaff pod and flares. The missile took the bait, following the countermeasures and exploding harmlessly.
"Break and attack!" Major Powell shouted. Locking onto the first Manta, he pulled a tight loop and swung behind it. Bringing up his Javelin II heat-seekers, he fought to keep the nimble fighter lined up in his reticule until he had missile lock. A hint of a grin crossing his lips, he let it go. The missile slammed into the back of the fighter, Kurt giving the Manta no respite afterward as he opened with full guns. He nearly destroyed it. Unfortunately for Kurts kill score, Blitz was in the immediate vicinity. He, too, opened fire and in the blink of an eye the fighter came apart.
"I go into the blackness!" the alien pilot screamed a split second before its fighter gave off a satisfying explosion.
"Damned right you do..." was Kurts posthumous response.
"Can someone get this guy off me?!" Hitman yelled a moment later.
"I got your wing, Hitman," Kurt responded quickly, banking toward him to assist and lighting the burners. "Hang tight."
"I dunno, sir... the shitheads all over me -- I cant shake him," Hitman continued. The Manta tailing him kept the heat on him, hitting his fighters aft up with solid gorgon heavy and light plasma bolts. It was only a matter of seconds before the Piranha was torn apart. "Oh, God, oh, God help me... sheist!" were Hitmans last words before his fighter exploded.
In a rare moment of concentrated rage, he, Blitz, and Daz opened fire simultaneously. Blitz released a couple of heat-seekers, watching as they slammed into the back of the fighter, ripping it apart as he veered away.
"They got Hitman..." his XO, Nitefall, trailed off, her soft voice cracking. "W-why didnt he eject? Why didnt Flyboy eject, or Stuka, or... fuck it. Kurt, I dont know how much longer I can do this..."
"Just keep it together, Lisa," Kurt coaxed. It was no time for his squadron to fall apart. "We have to count on each other if we’re going to pull through this, and I’ve got to count on you. You’re my XO -- act the part. Okay?"
After a pause, Nitefall gave her response, "I... I will try, Major."
"And thats all I can ask, Lisa. All right, then... form up, Mosquitoes," advised Kurt. "Time to get back to the Forge and report what we gotten so the Marines can land and the other squadrons can do their thing with the bug capships. Lets get out of here before we start running into more fighters." The WC is not gonna be happy, Coroner thought. Five Morays and two Mantas for one Piranha -- one of the Forges last. Not a good trade at all.
Well, at least we know the bugs landed on the planet for sure, Kurt thought in retrospect. He could only hope the Marines on stand-by would be ready...
TS-10 Hercules Marine LC Scythe Two
On landing vector to planet Nephele II; Hightower Flats
1944 Hours (CST)
"Shit. Those hits we took on the way down did more damage than I thought -- were coming in hot, people... brace for impact!"
All aboard the Landing Craft were heaved against their straps as it dove headlong into the rough, sandy terrain of Nephele II. Following the initial impact at 550 KPH, the LC scraped along the surface for some eighty meters past the designated drop zone before the retros kicked in.
First Lieutenant Temuulan Dshugder-Warmuths thoughts had been of Lt. Colonel Vance Trelane, the CO of the Forges TCMC 97th Assault Detachment whose boots she had been thrust into after his death on the Hydra cruiser the day before.
A lot of good Marines died yesterday -- the best. And Vance...
Serving together years ago as Navy SEALs, the two of them had shared an understanding, a kinship... and whats more, though none of the men knew -- nor would they ever -- they had been lovers. Her suffering was to be a private one.
When the LC came to a full halt, Lieutenant Dshugder promptly stood and brandished her sleek M-58A1 Laser Assault Rifle. Making a quarter turn, she faced her fourteen-man unit of seven fire teams. "Tench-hut!"
"Sir!" was the units joint response back, preceding an instinctive salute.
Lieutenant Dshugder jabbed a finger at the loading ramp, not yet lowered. "Marines -- lock, load, and move! Go, go, go!"
The Marines scrambled to get off their straps and gear up.
Dshugders senior NCO, Master Sergeant Halverson, strode down the LCs aisle, doing his customary checking on their personal preparation. Satisfied, he returned to Dshugders side and awaited further instructions.
"On the ready-line!" Dshugder barked. "I want a nice clean dispersal. Watch the suit in front of youanybody trips over anybody elses boots going out gets their ass booted right back to the LC. Lets go, lets go!"
Cursorily double-checking their C-520 Combat Armor, they then slung up their M-58 and HK-57 LARs, M-47 and M-48 Semiauto Laser Rifles, M-297 neutron mini guns, Marscorp MPR-27s, MF500 mass driver flechette/scatter guns, Smith & Wesson Marauder Mk3 Heavy Machine Guns, SMGs, and RPGs before forming up. They were ready to go.
Before the Marine LCs loading ramp was even halfway dropped, the jarheads were piling out, roaring as they hit the ground running. Shouting out loud with adrenaline and testosterone-induced enthusiasm as they went, the fourteen men clomped beyond the hydraulic legs of the LC ahead of Dshugder and across the red-speckled desert terrain of Neph II.
She glanced up at the thin blue sky and Nephele Prime, the insignificant main sequence G-type star on the edge of nowhere that was the systems sun. The harsh, still-lingering late afternoon rays of Nephele Prime beat down hard upon the mens brows, while the rising heat the sands were giving off cooked them from below. It was already close to nine p.m., local time, and the temperature was still pushing 47 degrees centigrade.
"All right, Marines. I want full DCS and tactical assimilation of our target by twenty-one hundred. Clear?" A few groans rose from the group but nothing in the way of a strong protest. Lieutenant Dshugder paused for a moment, then tapped her helmet comset on. "Charlie Squad, this is Bravo Squad. Status report, Charlie Squad."
"Sallinos here, sir," spoke 2nd Lieutenant Sallinos, the platoons current ExO and the OIC of the second Marine unit presently just under a klick west of the target area. "LC Scythe Three touched down without incident. Were moving ahead; unloading the HAPC."
"Good. Lets stick with the plan, then. Your unit approaches the target from the west; we approach it from the east."
"Roger that, sir. Good luck."
"For both of us, Lieutenant."
"Copy on that one, sir. Sallinos out."
Master Sergeant Halverson took a moment to exchange a brief nod with Lieutenant Dshugder, then raced to take point in front of the five PFCs, three lance corporals, two corporals, two sergeants, and warrant officer in the unit. They spread out fast then, each respective fire team trying to cover as much ground as possible without losing sight of one another.
Nephele Primes last rays of the day were taking their toll on the marching Marines, all them them breaking a heavy sweat. None caredthey had a job to do.
And Temuulan... she had the man she loved to avenge.
The Marines regrouped before the Lieutenant after trekking away from the LC a hundred meters. It was now nearly dusk, visibility quickly becoming poor. The Marines slipped on and activated their nightvision goggles, the terrain before them suddenly becoming lit up in neon-green starlight.
"Hold position, people," she spoke, huffing. She turned to one of the Marines. "Mr. Cantieri -- lets get a readout."
"Yessir." Quickly, the thirty-something Chief Warrant Officer (W-3) removed his C-555A sonic reader from its hip holder and keyed in a few commands. "Lifesigns are due west... earlier telemetry was on the money," Cantieri reported moments later. "Theyre clustered... looks like theyre all together."
"Hard to tell, sir, but Im getting movement... switching to DCS ranging..." Cantieris eyes widened. He looked up from his reader and pointed ahead. "That rockery ahead... Im getting sporadic life signs approaching us from around that point..."
"You heard the Warrant Officer, Marines -- stay sharp!"
The rock face that lay ahead of them was made up of a small series of red-tinted rocky hillsides. They seemed almost out of place, each one protruding from the otherwise flat, barren terrain.
"What the fuckre those?"
Dshugder squinted ahead. The details were hard to make out, even with the aid of her telescopic nightvision goggles. "Looks like... pods of some form... organic..." The truth dawning on her, she brought her M-58 Laser Assault Rifle to readiness and braced for the recoil. "Shit -- theyre some kinda bug landing pods! The Tritons must have dropped those things from low orbit!"
In fast succession, Nephilim slithered out of the roughly cabbage-like pods in the distance, thick, viscous fluid trailing behind them as they skittered forward. Others came from around the rock face. Some burst from strategic locations out of the surrounding sand itself, cementing the truth -- the Marines were surrounded.
"Bugs! Bugs!" shouted Lance Corporal Stevens.
It was a welcome announcement to Dshugders fourteen bloodthirsty Marines.
"Hell ye-ah! Bug hunting is back in season, boys..." chimed the overly eager, pimply-faced PFC Jamey, leering behind his bulky MPR-27, "... and now its time to up and get medieval on their ugly-fuck xeno asses!"
"That it is, Private," the older Sergeant Parrish agreed, shouldering the Stenson Drakon sniper rifle he was so proficient with and taking aim on a Nephilim eyeballing him. His eyes narrowed to slits as he targeted the creature with his laser scope. "Lets do this."
"Oo-rah!" they shouted in unison.
Without delay the Marines took their targets and opened up on them, those that had their safeties on wasting no time in flicking them off and rushing forward onto the battlefield. Gleefully, in steady and not-so-steady firing patterns, they peppered the bugs with their flechette, laser, neutron, and mag-pulse firepower.
TCS Valley Forge; Bridge
2020 Hours (CST)
"Status of the mission?"
"The Mosquitoes have returned from their patrol... 1st Lt. Hotz didnt make i -- "
"I didnt inquire as to our casualties, Lt. St. Germain."
"Y-yessir... Talon Flight is flying air support for the Marines planetside... White Hopes and Steel Gunners are falling back to protect the battle group with the Stasheff and Ohlanders fighters... the Aztecs, Lancers, and Fire Balls have already launched and are en route to engaging the Orcas and Tritons, sir."
As the Neph II evacuation and Operation Scour began in earnest, Captain Eldon Vandermann found himself breaking a nervous sweat. His fingers gripped the armrests of his command chair tightly, digging in as his ears began picking up every conversation on the bridge -- no matter how hushed. He felt himself losing his mind even as he felt reality steadily slipping and giving way around him.
No... not now... not again...
"Yes, youre feeling it. Arent you, Eldon?"
Startling at the sound of the familiar voice Vandermann spun around in his chair. His gaze settled on Commander Schaefer. "What did you say, Schaefer?"
"Ah, sir...?" Commander Schaefer turned from his duties and gave him a befuddled look, one that quickly became a look of concern. "I... I didnt say anything, sir."
Vandermann held the Commanders gaze for several moments before easing back, grunting, and turning around again. He knew who the voice belonged to but he didnt want to believe it was he who was speaking to him -- not here; not now.
"Blood, Eldon, my son... blood on your hands there is," the voice pressed on. Vandermann sat quietly, acting oblivious to it, observing the scuffle with the Tritons and Orcas on the long range monitors. He ignored it as the voice as it continued, "Blood on your hands... and more yet to come."