: “ The Downward Spiral ”

Theres no time to discriminate,
Hate every motherfucker in your way.

B. Warner


TCS Valley Forge; Operations Planning Center
The Nephele System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
FEB 10 2681/2681.041; 2102 Hours (CST)

A delicate finger pressed the stop button, freezing the last Marine’s final cry of defiance at the enemy relayed from the planet. A running count of time elapsed, along with one last image of him laying wounded after he went down, screaming out before blazing away the alien horde, himself with them. The owner of that hand leaned back and sipped a glass of cappuccino, taking it all in.

Another person in the OPC, silent all this while, raised his voice, "Well, you’ve seen it now. Your opinion?"

"As we expected." The voice of the first person. Feminine. "An unavoidable loss of personnel, but they can be replaced."

"My personnel."

"There are greater concerns."

"And they are?" the other voice prompted, his body shrouded in shadows. The room they were both in was dark, lit only by the harsh light of the Tri-D holo player. A small pool of light from a meager overhead lamp provided the only illumination. In the background was the dull thrum of a power plant, the only indication of their location. The room they were in, the OPC, was devoid of ornament or decoration. The floor and walls were solid durasteel.

"We have already tested our theory firsthand. For now, we do not yet know the means of transmission. All it touches, dies."

The other voice snorted in derision. "Then how are any of us to recover any intelligence from them? I’ve paid well for what your peers have supplied me so far, but I find my patience is wearing thin of late. And now you want to cut your losses -- to hell with our progress?"

"No choice, I am afraid. There are a few research stations we have selected that are... expendable. They will have to be sanctioned afterwards."

"Is there any other way, then? Your peers would very much like additional research about this as well as my own, I’m sure."

"No. I cannot authorize that. It’s too dangerous."

"Naturally. And my ship’s Marines had to waste a company to find that out."

"They are replaceable. I know you know this—I am well aware of your past. But this fact means that if their presence is found on any world, it would have to be cleansed. From the lowest microbe all the way up."

There was an intake of breath.

"You don’t mean...?"

"Yes. Secondary Objective, as we have already discussed."

"But -- "

"It will be necessary now more than ever -- just see that it goes through. We cannot take any risks. That is what we are here for. Humanity’s ultimate future is more important than the loss of a few. And those who are infected... they cannot be saved, though it is a pity." Another sip of cappuccino. "As you know, profits on my side stand to be... compromised. Loss of market share and the like, you understand."

"I don’t like this."

"You do not have to. We must."

There was a pause. A missed motion for a zippo lighter on the table caused the video to playback on itself, causing the Marine’s last scream to echo again and again in the small confines of the room. Smoke filled the room, only to be sucked away by ventilation fans in coils of incense like smoke. There was a long pause, the Marine’s screams repeating again and again. The other voice did not take long to make a decision.

"I will inform the Joint Chiefs of this myself."

"Premature, to be sure. Our relations are... not as they were. For now," the other voice paused as it continued drinking from the cup, "no one must touch anything from them. Nothing. We will have to enforce extreme sanction to those who do so."

"And it will extend to your peers?"

"I will inform the Corporate Council as to the ramifications of what we have seen here. See that you extend it to your own."

The speaker of the other voice leaned back and coughed. A smoker’s cough. A rough wheezing before he stubbed out the cigar, showing a callused hand in the pool of light, as he extended out to the ashtray. "Very well. Will there be anything else?"


"Your shuttle is waiting, then. You can see yourself out."

There was a noise as a chair was pushed aside, and a shuffling motion. The small pool of light caught a flash of a lapel pin as the figure headed out of the OPC. It showed a half tarot card.

"I was never here."

"That’s right."

A relatively silent door hissed open before sealing itself shut.

The owner of the other voice sat in the room, thinking, before pressing the stop button yet again, silencing the screams, forever. Pressing another button, the player, and the optical ROM itself began smoking, before melting into a pile of useless goo.

The owner of that voice stood up in the darkness. With a wave of a hand as the figure turned to leave, the room plunged into darkness yet again, as if the brief conversation of only a few moments ago had never taken place.



F-110A Wasp 001 [ Theta Lead ]
125,000 klicks to upper atmosphere, planet Nephele II
2105 Hours (CST)

The nearby ’Sharks of the "White Hopes" and "Steel Gunners" could be seen escorting the lone Marine LC Scythe Two to the East-West transport vessel SS Seven Seas out the Wasp interceptor’s canopy windows.

Only one LC... something must have gone wrong down there...

He’d already seen 2nd Lt. Mo "Voodoo" Ayibobo’s Tigershark being shot down before the LC had taken off, just one more casualty to add to the already formidable list the 71st FW had been racking up over the last few days.

Lt. Colonel Avery "Virus" Hale, the Fire Balls’ CO, shook his head, refocused his attention, and eased his Wasp into the appropriate vector for the coming assault.

The middle-aged man sighed. There were those that would compare the conflict the Forge and her flight wing was involved in to Operation Thor’s Hammer of ’55, perhaps the Third Enigma Campaign of late ’67, or even the Battle of Cynium he’d seen firsthand on the Invincible in its 74th "Unabombers" Bombardment Squadron, but in the last two days alone he’d seen more good men and women he’d known die before his eyes than throughout his entire participation in the Battle of Terra. Kids, most of them.

Caught in the vicious circle, going into a downward spiral my whole life... no way out but death—not now; not ever.

"Fire Balls, check in."

One by one the eight remaining pilots in the squadron did so over the command channel.

Captain Caleb "Pupae" DiPeso, the exec, and Captain Luke "Kamikaze" Causey both reported in first, each commanding their own two-fighter element in the Fire Balls’ Beta and Gamma Wings. The two men were fine pilots... worthy successors to the ones that had been killed during the Alien carrier group engagement.

The routine check-in ended with his female Firekkan XO as of yesterday, Major "Firedrake" K’tik, with a quick, "We are ready, Ker-nel Hale!"

"All right then, Major Nawazaki. The Fire Balls are good to go," Lt. Col. Hale informed the Aztecs’ CO. "Pilots, engage afterburners on my mark... Now!" The Wasps could, of course, engage their SRB booster packs at this time, but that would leave the Panthers unable to keep up to escort them.

Ronin’s image appeared on the fighter’s VDU. Though they seldom talked in the rec room, Avery liked the now-Major Nawazaki, the young, dedicated man that had replaced Major Cardoso after his sacrifice the previous day. "My Alpha Wing, DDTs—you heard the Colonel," Hale listened to the young squadron commander ordering his respective squadron on their comm channel, "Engage afterburners and as soon as you achieve maximum velocity engage autoslide."

A full wing of Wasps, followed by five Panthers, surged out to meet the enemy force.



F-108A Panther 001 [ Alpha Lead ]
100,000 klicks to upper atmosphere, planet Nephele II
2110 Hours (CST)

"Contatos Inimigos a frente, Insectos à vista. What are your orders, Ronin?" Captain Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues asked over Ronin’s headset. Captain Rodrigues had had detected their primary target: three Triton-class transports and their two Orca-class destroyer escort. Though the Marine operation was over with, the Tritons had been given priority because they were confirmed to have been deploying drop pods of the Nephilim creatures to the surface. Secondary Objective would shortly make the matter moot, but the Aztecs had their directives.

"DDT Wing, stick to the Wasps. Fire at will but maintain tactical formation."

"That’s an affirmatory, Alpha Lead."

Soon after, all hell broke loose.

Ronin banked hard to port, struggling to and finally acquiring a lock on a Manta, then exchanging tachyon and ion fire with the alien’s gorgon and plasma cannons. In frustration of his nimble opponent, he cycled over to his Dragonfly RP hardpoint from his Wild Weasel Loadout and pumped six rockets in the Manta’s general direction. Simultaneously with Ronin’s struggle, every other member of the flight had their hands full, taking out Mantas, Stingrays and an occasional Devil Ray.

A clear path was all the Fire Balls needed to easily hit the three segmented, almost centipede-like transports. They locked onto the Tritons, their missiles acquiring tone almost at once.

"Commence firing, DDT Wing. Colonel? Major?"

Lt. Col. Avery "Virus" Hale thumbed the trigger in his cockpit. A resulting full salvo of swarmer pod missiles were thrust forward upon his target, currently at a range of 8,000 klicks. Pulling away, he spoke into a new command channel, "Major Adrian, she’s all yours."

"Yessir." On cue, torpedoes from two of the Shrikes in the Lancers Squadron’s Pyrethrins Wing raced towards the transport.


Nephilim Triton-class Transport Alpha; Command Center
2115 Hours (CST)

The cluster of Aliens in the crowded, dank darkness of the vessel’s nervecenter froze. Simultaneously, the clicking and skittering sounds of their movement ceased.

"This death means nothing..."

First, what could only be described as the faint pinpricks of stars had appeared on the event horizon. If not for the premonitions of the hive mind’s collective it would have been disregarded as quickly and easily as it had materialized.

"There is no true end..."

The defense grids busily straining to keep up with the Terran fighters’ fire, two of the Triton’s three turreted masers rotated to take careful shots at the incoming human torpedo. Too late. A high pitched noise, almost a scream, would be the last, if any, sound the Aliens would hear.

"The Mother Creature shall avenge us..."

The conquerors had been conquered.


F-108A Panther 001 [ Alpha Lead ]
80,000 klicks to upper atmosphere, planet Nephele II
2119 Hours (CST)

Ronin raised and shook a clenched fist in triumph, his gaze fixed on the ghostly-tinted, ashen, dead hulk of the elongated Nephilim transport.

"Most commendable, my friends -- one of the Triton gaijin is down!" Keying up the Fire Balls’ command channel on his comm, Major Nawazaki continued, "Your men did well, Colonel Hale. Now let’s form up, and meet up with the other Shrikes and our squad’s Echo Wing before the bugs get real nasty. Aztec Alpha One ou -- "

"Too late!"

Even as the warning was shouting, Nephilim swarmed over them. As the Aztecs began fighting back, three three Vindicator-class medium fighters with UBW Space Force markings could be seen streaking up from the upper atmosphere of Nephele II’s northern hemisphere. More by luck than by good judgment, they had a clear run at the capships, which were between them and the developing dogfight.



Vindicator 001 [ Talon Lead ]
Low orbit over planet Nephele II
2122 Hours (CST)

Major Frederick “Doppler” von Richthofen allowed himself a small smile as his Vindicator cleared the last wisps of Neph II’s blazing atmosphere, far above the evacuating Marine LC. His smile waned as he picked up new transmissions from the Confed strike force, “Talon Flight, this is Pyrethrins Lead. Do you read me? Over.”

He toggled his communications, “Affirmative, Pyrethrins Lead. Richthofen here. Any more bugs to bust?”

“Hell yeah, Richthofen!” Major Andressa “Alba” Adrian’s voice came over the comm. A woman he’d seen and heard of but had never been formally introduced to, she was the CO of the Shrike squadron, the 402nd “Lancers.” “They’ve got far more fighters than we thought, and now the bugs’ CAP has us tied up... we’ll have to delay Secondary Objective.”

“Ah... Secondary Objective?” Richthofen inquired. “Am I to understand my Flight was not let in on something?”

“Never mind it right now -- we managed to kill one transport, but we’re counting on you to take out the rest.”

Richthofen grinned despite himself. “Three Vins against two transports and a pair of destroyers?” he asked sarcastically. He then said in a more carefree tone, “No problem.” He switched back to the flight’s command channel. “All right, Talons, listen up! We’ve got a new job.”

“What’s that?” Torch interrupted.

“Doppler” didn’t miss a beat, “Those four capships over there.”

“Anubis, start your attack run on the engine of the furthest transport. Torch and I’ll take out those turreted masers -- just keep an eye out for enemy fighters. I want this to be a clean one!” Frederick waited for acknowledgements before afterburning ahead. “What the hell... this can’t be right...” As he set up his strafing run, he saw something that caused the blood to drain out of his face. “Confed fighters! I’m tracking nearly twenty capship missiles headed your way. Speed two thousand KPS. Holy mother of... those missiles are shielded!”

As soon as he finished his transmission, three “missiles” changed course to intercept Talon Flight. At 3,000 klicks, the strange missiles slowed considerably and opened four wing-like protrusions that began spitting green fire. “Correction, Confed! Be advised those things are fighters! Watch out...” He was cut short as a quartet of Quantum Disruptor beams slashed into his port shields. “Damn it!” he cursed, wrenching his fighter around. This isn’t working, he thought. “Talons! I don’t like my new friend. Want to trade?”

Torch and Anubis grinned, pulling their fighters for a head-to-head pass with Doppler. Just before they would have collided, Doppler inverted and jinked his fighter around his two wing-mates, firing a pair of Dart Dumbfires that the Talons had been equipped with for ground support into the Squid-class interceptor chasing Torch, blowing the fighter into a cloud of superheated junk. Torch and Anubis also each fired a single dumbfire into the Squid pursuing Doppler, which met the same fate.

The last Squid broke off and accelerated away on its booster. Anubis lined the fleeing fighter in his sights and fired another pair of dumbfires. They slammed into the interceptor at a relative speed of 1,000 KPS. The first blew through the Squid’s shields and stripped off its rear armor. The second flew right up its tailpipe. The force of the explosion sent parts scattering across the Nephele upper atmosphere. They quickly burned up on re-entry in a beautiful starburst pattern, but no one ever saw it.

“Okay, Talons, let’s try that again. Anubis, arm your Lance Torpedoes and begin your run. Torch, you take the second transport. I’ll wax those turrets.” Anubis and Torch lined up their attack runs, and Richthofen afterburned ahead, again. This time, though, there was no interruption. With striking precision, Doppler ripped the pairs of aft turrets off the transports in four short bursts of his Stormfire Mk1s. He then covered his wingmates while they waited for their torpedo locks.

The annoying beeping of the locking warhead finally ceased in Anubis’ cockpit, replaced by a single dull note. “I’ve got tone. Torpedo away!” he shouted. The huge missile broke free from his fighter with a dull clunk, and accelerated toward the lumbering transport. At a range of 2,000 klicks, it took just over a second for the still-accelerating torpedo to pass through the doomed ship’s phase shields and slam its multi-megaton warhead into the massive engine.

The blinding blue-white explosion tore through the engineering compartment, shattered the fuel containers, and ruptured the ship’s main reactor. A split second later, the whole aft end of the ship detonated like a giant bomb, blasting apart the ship’s three large cargo sections and sending the bow tumbling toward Nephele II. A second later, Torch’s torpedo echoed the carnage upon the last transport.

“All right, Talons!” Frederick shouted over his wingmates’ victory whoops and hollers. “Now we just have to nix those Orcas, and we can all go home!”

“Not so fast. I think we pissed off the bugs. I read two Mantas and a Devil Ray inbound from the fight with Confed. ETA, one minute thirty seconds,” Anubis said once again in his usual monotone.

“Damn. Well, we better take these big S.O.B.s out quickly then. Torch and Anubis, take out their engines. Record their shield frequencies to get a faster lock, so maybe we can take them out faster next time.”

Twenty seconds later, the two Talons were dead center of the massive Orca engine assemblies. “Piss-poor design,” Anubis mumbled to himself. “That large cap in the center lets a fighter sit right in their blind spot and lock-on without worry of damage or radiation from their engine exhaust.” The beeping finally turned to a solid tone. Anubis recorded the frequency and let his torpedo fly. “Torpedo away!” he called out as he afterburned away from the soon-to-be massive explosion. He glanced out his rear turret window. In the distance, he could see Torch’s fighter maneuver away as well. “Goodbye, bugs,” he muttered with a smile as the torpedoes exploded in rapid succession.

To his complete shock, and that of his wingmates, there was absolutely no damage. “Doppler! Torch! Did you guys see that, or am I going nuts?!”

“Damn. Yeah, we saw it. Stand by.” Richthofen suppressed a building rage as he called up the squadron commander of the Lancers. “Hey! Lancer One! Why the hell aren’t our torpedoes penetrating those destroyer’s shields?”

The combat-stressed voice of Major Adrian came back over the comm, “I don’t have a clue. With their shield generators destroyed, there shouldn’t have been any problem.”

“What generators?” Richthofen demanded.

“The bulbous things on top of those towers on their backs!” There was a muffled explosion over the comm. “Damn! Can’t talk anymore! Hurry up and wax those ships!”

“If it’s not hell or high water, it’s hell and high water!” Anubis shouted after hearing the news. “What the hell do we do now?”

“Drop decoys and kill those towers!” Richthofen shouted, breaking hard on full afterburners and leaving a string of decoys in his wake. A pair of FoF missiles slammed into the decoys and the Devil Ray swooped down after him.

“Shit! Forgot about them... thought the reports said Orcas only had’em for the bridge,” Torch said. “C’mon, Anubis! Let’s get those towers before we’re roach food!” She and Anubis lit their afterburners and shot toward the shields of Anubis’ former target with the Mantas hot on their heels.

“Torch! See if you can take one of those bastards down. I’ll take out the towers.”

“You got it!” she said, and jinked her fighter up while activating her retro-thrusters. The fighter slowed quickly, and the two heavy fighters shot by. Torch lit her afterburners and fired off her last two Dart Dumbfires into the trailing Manta’s tail, followed by a barrage from her Stormfire cannons. Hundreds of rounds chewed the armor-stripped engine to pieces in less than a second, and the Manta careened out of control before exploding.

The second Manta broke off its pursuit of Anubis and quickly locked onto Torch’s tail. She tried her best to shake it, but the Manta was just too maneuverable. “Someone help me out here!” she shouted. Her missile lock warning sounded as the Manta fired off its entire load of IFF missiles, one ImRec missile, and a Proteus FoF MIRV missile for good measure. “Oh shit!” She had less than a second to react, so she dumped all of her remaining decoys, cut her engines, and performed a three axis pivot to expose as much of her shields to the incoming missiles as possible.

The chaff pods attracted all of the active missiles but the single ImRec. Torch let out an uncharacteristic scream as the ImRec struck home, nearly followed by the Proteus which, after rocketing past her, released three more FoFs. Only one of the FoFs caught her fighter, but the damage had already been done.

“Stefani -- NOOO!!!” Anubis called out as he watched Torch’s Vindicator swallowed by the two explosions, enveloped while finishing his last shield-buster run. “Damn you, you fucking insects! Damn you to... What the hell?!” his anger and cursing stammered off as the wildly gyrating fighter burst free of the flames, all shields down and the armor completely ripped off the left side and bottom of the fighter. The rest of its armor wasn’t in much better shape. “Hah! You stupid roach! Thought you could take down a Talon, did you? Eat this!” he yelled, firing his last dumbfire at the Manta, and two seconds later, following it up with a heat-seeker.

The Manta was rocked by the heavy rocket and veered away from the new assault, dropping decoys all the way. The heat-seeker missed badly, but Torch was safe for the moment.

The same couldn’t be said for Richthofen. Talon Flight was good, and Richthofen had some of the best flight stats in the UBW Space Force himself, but a Devil Ray simply outclassed even an upgraded Vindicator too badly. It was everything Doppler could do just to dodge shots. Evading his determined pursuer just wasn’t possible.

He flinched as the triple gorgon heavy beams streaked between the Vin’s spoiler-type horizontal stabilizer and its boxy hull, passing less than six inches from his cockpit. The heavy masers ripped into his aft armor, tearing off huge chunks. Okay, this is it, Richthofen, he thought. It may be my time, but I’m not going out like this. “Anubis! Send me your targeting data on your destroyer. Now!”

The few seconds it took to download the data were nerve-wracking. The Devil Ray continued to hound him, but got no more shots through his rapidly regenerating shields. Doppler had shifted all but his engine power to his shield regeneration rate, nearly tripling it, and was now twisting the fighter through turns that caused the bulky ship’s structure to begin to groan with stresses it hadn’t been built for.

“Got it!” he cried triumphantly as the download completed. “Okay, buggy. Let’s dance.” Richthofen switched all energy to his engines and shot off at an incredible rate, his Vin’s hull now shuddering with the thrust of the engines. As he closed on the Orca’s bridge, he armed all four torpedoes. The phase-lock data let him lock in less than two seconds as he skimmed over the hull, maser turrets firing at him and missing by a wide margin.

“All right, swine, choke on this. Talon One, fox two!” he shouted, unleashing all four torpedoes at the bridge. Doppler pulled a high-G corkscrew around the rapidly expanding balls of nuclear plasma that began consuming the bridge and much of the upper hull, losing most of his shields and shorting out his targeting computer in the process. The Devil Ray came off worse. It swerved too sharply in its attempt to avoid the blast and pulled a Shelton Slide right into the heart of the explosions. It emerged from the nuclear fireballs in several unidentifiable chunks. Doppler hoped the Orca would go the way of the transports, but that was not to be. Still, with its bridge destroyed, it was out of the fight for now.



F/A-105A Tigershark 001 [ Sky Raider Lead ]
2138 Hours (CST)

They got Voodoo... that’s five now. Five...

"No... won’t think about that. Not now." Major Dan "Bugfix" Burdock sighed. Since the White Hopes and Steel Gunners had successfully escorted the Marine LC to his brother’s waiting East-West transport, all of the Piranhas and ’Sharks -- including the Ohlander’s and Stasheff’s -- had fallen back to defend the Forge. Most of the Nephilim fighters had already been eliminated, Talon Flight, the Fire Balls, and Lancers presently engaging the rest and the capships.

As he patched into the Forge’s DSSS long range sensor feed while passing over the carrier’s ventral side, he idly noticed a single Shrike from Major Alba’s Lancers Squadron sheering off from the battle in orbit and making a B-line toward Neph II on full ’burners. The Shrike’s IFF signal identified it as belonging to none other than Major Alba herself.



TB-81B Shrike 001 [ Pyrethrins Lead ]
Upper atmosphere, planet Nephele II
2140 Hours (CST)

With the evacuation phase of Operation Scour complete, the bug fighters now off her back, and the rest of her squadron busy with the capships, it was time to complete the Lancers’ Secondary Objective. With the Marines’ confirmed encounter of the bugs on the surface that cost thirteen Marines’ lives and half of the monks they were supposed to evacuate, the mission would have to go through. The greenlight had come in from the Forge a half hour ago.

Secondary Objective: tactical thermonuclear airburst of the Nephilim landing zone in the region immediately east of Hightower Flats. It only took one bomber.

"Come on... come on..." Contrails streaking behind her Shrike bomber as she skimmed through Neph II’s upper atmosphere, the KPS reader on her display automatically changing to KPH, Major Andressa "Alba" Adrian counted down the klicks to the drop zone.

Sweeping over the targeted drop zone, Alba thumbed the trigger and released the special ordnance from her bomber’s bay. Dropped from a slot meant to be occupied by a Lancer torpedo, the fission bomb began its long journey to the surface.

The canopy windows adjusting to screen out the harmful rays like a second eyelid, Alba caught only a glimpse of the spectacle before pulling away -- everything was dark for a moment except for a glowing point of light, which, after a sudden flash, spread out and dissipated. The filters in the windows gradually shifted so that, after several seconds, background light started to come back in until her view returned to normal.

In a minute the shockwave from the air-detonated warhead’s sixty kiloton payload would rush and cascade to the surface, hit, then reverberate back up. The much stronger M/AM warheads could have easily been utilized to better effectiveness but it would have been an unnecessary overkill -- entire miles would be wastefully decimated and much of the province below would be rendered unlivable for years. Most of the surrounding structures and nearly all of Hightower Flats would remain intact with the payload used, but the fatal doses of radiation resulting would serve the Objective’s purpose more than sufficiently.

"Got you, bastards," she whispered softly, her Shrike streaking away from the scene in a steep vertical climb, "... got you..."

The ten KIA Lancers that had been haunting the Major were avenged.



F-108A Panther 002 [ DDT Lead ]
2142 Hours (CST)

"Damn, Cesar... I knew we shouldn’t have maintained formation," 1st Lt. Bruno "Nitro" Dias complained as two more Devil Rays lined up on him.

"Nitro... er, you sent the message to the whole squadron. Activate the private cha -- "

Major Nawazaki, trying to remain cool under fire in his maser-scorched Panther, had already lost his patience with the junior officers. "Lieutenants Dias and van Binsbergen," he began, "you two will respectively shut the fuck up -- now -- or I can assure you the bugs won’t be the only ones trying to shoot your asses down. Do I make myself clear, pilots?"

"Yessir," was the two pilots’ mutual response.

"Glad we’re understood. Now let’s keep it together, DDT Wing."

Indeed, what had seemed like a perfectly good plan had been all but ruined as another flight of Devil Rays had joined the fight, along with several other fighters. Nephilim Reinforcements. The three Talons just didn’t have enough speed or firepower to get the Devil Rays, resulting in unforeseen problems for the Aztecs.

The Aztecs, all nine fighters, would engage the same target, maximizing firepower, and take out the bug in one shot. Nevertheless, that left their six open to any enemy craft. Had the enemy been slower, although more powerful, or faster and weaker, Ronin’s strategy would be the right choice, but the Devil Rays were faster and more powerful. Even worse, that left the Lancers’ Shrike bombers and the Fire Balls’ Wasp interceptors virtually undefended.

"Draft, what do you want? I’m kinda busy right now." Captain Angela "Draft" Rai had activated a private comm channel to Captain Carlos "Burrito" Rodrigues.

"Burrito... what’s going on?" she asked. "The bugs are chewing us up, damn it. Why won’t Nawazaki let us split up? We need to get that Orca."

"Don’t ask me, Angela -- you’re his exec, not me. Though he has been acting awkward since Cardoso died yesterday... no mystery there. Can’t say for sure, but he’s probably just trying to protect us..."

"Protecting is one thing he’s certainly not doing. We got to..." Draft’seyes widened, the expression on her face a mix of annoyance and fear, "Shit! The last Orca’s got missile lock on me! Talk to you later."

Draft’s Panther zig-zagged off Ronin’s wing, dropping decoy chaff madly as the destroyer’s ImRec missile veered closer. The missile exploded, missing her Panther by a only few critical meters. The Aztecs had been so tied up on their personal dogfight that they didn’t realize how close the Orca was.

"Komatta na!" shouted the voice of Major Nawazaki over her headset. Snapping a cursory glance to her starboard, she watched a second ImRec streak into the stern of Ronin’s fighter as he made a flyby.

Draft flailed a hand against her cockpit window helplessly, crying out, "Ronin!"



Vindicator 001 [ Talon Lead ]
2146 Hours (CST)

“Damn it... not another one...” Major Richthofen winced as another friendly blip winked off on his HUD. Refocusing himself, he directed his attention back to the sortie at hand, ordering, “Talons, check in.” He could feel his hands and voice shaking—he was just now coming down off the adrenaline high of the first Orca run.

There was a couple seconds delay as Anubis finished off another Manta. “Anubis here. I’m okay, but Torch’s fighter is roasted. Her shields are busted, her armor’s gone, and her comm’s on the fritz. I’m flying cover for her now. I think we’re done here. I’ve got two torps, you’re out, and Torch is off-line.”

“Yeah. Shit. Okay, I’ll let our Confed hosts know the situation.” His radar let out a warning beep, interrupting him. There were two more Mantas and three Squids headed back toward them. “Aw, hell. You reading this, Anubis?”

“Unfortunately. Well, we might as well take as many as we...” he was drowned out by multiple metallic howls. In the cold vacuum around them, fourteen Bloodfang Model B, Mark II-class super fighters led by a pair of Paktahn bombers raced into visibility from the far side of Nephele II. Half the Kilrathi swept down upon the incoming fighters like the wrath of God. Plasma, Mass Driver, Ion, and Tachyon cannons ripped the Nephilim apart. The other seven Bloodfangs and single Paktahn then continued into the mêlée between the Confed and Nephilim fighters.

Richthofen opened all channels, “Kilrathi fighters, this is Major Frederick von Richthofen of the Border Worlds’ Space Force, thanking you for your assistance. Please identify yourselves.” There was no answer. “I repeat, please identify yourselves.” There was still no answer, so he switched back to his command channel.

“What’s the Cats’ story?” Anubis asked stoically while one of the Paktahns torpedoed the crippled Nephilim destroyer. Its engines burst apart in a massive eruption that sent the burning hulk spiraling out of control to soon meet the same fiery fate as its three former wards in Nephele’s ionosphere.

“I don’t know. They’re giving us the silent treatment. Not that I care as long as they’re roasting those roaches.” He chuckled aloud as the second group broke formation and attacked the second Orca destroyer, the Bloodfangs covering the other Paktahn as it torpedoed the engines and bridge in sequence. The wrecked warship’s remnants began to plummet towards the planet below and the eight Kilrathi sped off to join their comrades, quickly and methodically finishing off the remnants of the fighters that had been harassing the Forge’s strike force.

Within minutes, the battle was over and Operation Scour was completed.

Richthofen’s comm crackled with static. Torch’s tired voice could barely be heard through the distortion, “Hey, guys, we’ve got incoming.”

“What?” Doppler and Anubis asked simultaneously. The question of how Stefani got her comm on-line and operational again never crossed their minds, though she’d obviously been able to do something.

“Oh... nuthin’ much. Just a Fralthi II.”

Indeed, just coming out of the sensor shadow of Neph II’s horizon was a wartime Kilrathi cruiser of 23,000 metric tonnage giving off the IFF transponder signal of the "KIS Shrak’har ras Kt’ann." It was pristine, bright crimson and dull brown; Fralthi II-class, bristling with its 15 laser turrets and missile launchers.

The cavalry had arrived.