PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 4 of 44 )
: “ New Fears ”
Light Carrier Battle Group Aurora (CVEBG-A)
0435 Hours, 07 Feb 2681 (2681.038)
Break right on my mark... ready? Ready... m -- AHHH!"
Colonel Taylor sighed heavily and shut down the flight recorder playback. He leaned back in his chair and spun it around to face the rear of his office and the large window that overlooked the flight deck. Maintenance techs walked slowly about performing their regular duties. A fighter was being cycled down to the repair deck to be checked over after its patrol.
Colonel Taylor looked over the activity with remorseful observance. He'd lost eight pilots out there, during the final battle in Tyr. Six men and two women's lives had gone from those of staunch defenders of their homes to nothing but a whisper in the void in a matter of seconds. Taylor had to watch eight glimpses of the last seconds of life and had to write eight letters to eight families in a futile attempt to explain why their loved ones' lives had been ripped away from them.
It wasn't so much this fact that disturbed him. It wasn't necessarily the loss of life that bothered him so much. It was the fact that the loss of life didn't bother him. The fact that he had become inured to the deaths of his brothers-in-arms and that their loss had become nothing out of the ordinary scared the hell out of him.
And even more than that was the fact that he could have done more to prevent their deaths. He had not failed his superiors and their objectives but he had failed his pilots. His mission on this ship, his duty to the Confederation, his very purpose in life, was these pilots. To make sure that they could complete their missions and come back intact. That was his task.
And he had failed.
Taylor looked down once again on the maintenance technicians on the flight deck. He could see their attitudes in their movements. They had a purpose, a reason to do the things they did. They too knew that others were relying on them and they were doing the best they could to complete their duties in the name of the Endeavour, the Terran Confederation, and the newly found yet still-undeclared war with the Nephilim. They were doing what they could to save the lives of others.
Yet there was someone out there, someone on this ship, that was not thinking about any of that. There was someone out there that was spending every waking moment betraying the ideals of the uniform that they wore.
And he was killing Taylor's pilots.
Because of this man Taylor could not give his pilots the information they needed and as a result they were conducting their missions in the dark. This time eight of them had paid for the deeds of this traitor with their lives.
This time... how many the next time? ... how many?
Colonel Taylor rose from his desk and left his office. He walked fast and his mouth was tight-lipped. The remorseful look on his face had been replaced with his normal angry disposition. After a sort walk and a lift ride he arrived at the office of Lieutenant Commander Heather Stevens, the ship's executive officer and the woman whose newly designated purpose in life was to find this traitor. The strain was beginning to show. Her normally vibrant eyes were tired and weary and her body was looming over his desk with the air of someone who was operating on frustration, adrenaline, and coffee.
Taylor entered the room quietly. She hadn't noticed his knock. He drew himself up to his full height and stood at-ease without a word. Stevens was glaring at what looked like a communications report that was printed on her computer terminal.
"No luck yet, Commander?" Taylor asked quietly.
Stevens jumped. "Jesus, Colonel. Knock, would you?"
Taylor strode across the room and stood in front of her desk. "I did... twice," he said in a quiet tone that betrayed the fact that he sympathized with and shared in her situation. "Listen, I know you're tired of hearing this, but you know the question I came to ask."
"Colonel, the answer to that question is the same thing I told the Admiral, and the Captain, and the Comm techs. This guy is good, damn good. I've gone through everything from Comm records to maintenance schedules to mess hall times. I just don't know. We're working as fast as we can."
Taylor could hear the stress in her voice. She was tired of being hounded with the same unanswered question.
"I'm going to make this simple. This isn't coming from the Captain, who's worried about the ship's tactical projection ability or the Admiral who's concerned about the versatility of his battle group. This is coming from the man who saw eight pilots killed before his eyes yesterday. I watched six men and two women turn from people I could have a drink with to nothing more than a vapor trail. And I watched this knowing that I sent them to their deaths. I couldn't do my job because the Admiral and the Captain were more concerned with their ships and battle group than the lives of their men and the reason that it had to be that way was that this traitor is still out there."
Taylor said all of this is a quiet tone, softer than his usually commanding voice. His was tired too. Tired of the insane restrictions that were being placed on them because of the security risk. Tired of the losses and the frustration and the constant regret, the feeling that he could be doing so much more.
And most of all, he was tired of the fear...
The fear that screamed quietly in the back of his mind that maybe, just maybe, this guy knew what he was doing. And that he was indeed the psycho they all thought him to be. He might just be capable of that which they all dreaded. Because of him they may lose the ship, the battle group and possibly the war.
The rage, the fear, the fatigue, and a billion other thoughts boiled in Taylor's eyes, hidden behind the practiced, detached mask of leadership. He watched Commander Stevens for one more brief moment before rising and making his departure.
"I'll leave you to your work, Commander. We're depending on you."
With that, Taylor left the office as quietly as he had entered. He floated down the corridor. His walk was that of a man lost in thought. His functions were automatic and detached. One foot in front of the other. Arm swing nine inches to the front, six to the rear. He maintained the quiet dignity that was the defining factor of his personality. He had not spoken Stevens' name once in their encounter. Completely detached. All business. That was the way most on this ship knew him. The man who slept in his uniform and conducted inspections with a white glove and a T-square. That was the way he liked it. He was The Raven.
But the current situation was tearing him apart. He had never dealt with a traitor before. His enemies had always been those that you could stand and fight. Two forces, on opposing sides of the battlefield, each strong in their ideals and sure of their goals... but this, this was something totally different. And he couldn't do a damn thing about it.
Taylor found himself in his quarters. He changed from his duty uniform to a physical training jumpsuit. He abandoned the heavy boots for a pair of running shoes and then proceeded to the gym. Still lost in thought he began to unload all of his frustrations on a punching bag. The rage, fear and all the other emotions flowed from his mind to his fists and were pounded into the soft leather of the bag. Minutes flowed together and time lost its place. Taylor's knuckles became sore and then began to bleed but he didn't notice.
The punches kept flying. He clenched his teeth and growled as each impact now brought pain. Somehow that helped. He was showing to his lost comrades that he was suffering, too.
He kept going, the sweat flying from his body and his tired muscles reverberating with each contact. He growled and the rage was visible in his eyes now. He screamed and hit the bag with one final blow.
He stood there and waited. His shoulders were slumped and his T-shirt was soaked. He was panting, his arms hurt and he was tired. Sweat was mixed with tears of anger and tears of regret. He waited.
No retribution came. No solution presented itself. The guilt did not go away. Taylor simply stood there... waiting.
Taylor recognized the voice behind him. It was first lieutenant Robert Donavan, a pilot from the Emerald Falcons' squadron. He spoke as if mocking Taylor, like a man looking for a fight. Taylor didn't turn.
"Raven. Damnit, Taylor, I wanna talk to you!"
Donavan was closer this time. Directly behind him. Taylor still didn't turn.
"Taylor. You killed her. You goddamned bastard, you killed Diamond! Yo -- "
Taylor turned and snarled. He gripped Donavan's neck and picked him up off the ground. He whirled ninety degrees and slammed Donavan's back into the wall of the gym. Holding him pinned against the wall with one hand pressed hard into his collarbone, Taylor looked into Donavan's eyes. He said nothing. Not a word. He did not move to strike him or harm him or even defend himself. He simply looked up into the younger man's eyes that were now wide with fear. He could read them quite simply. Donavan could not believe that the textbook officer would turn on him and he had no way in hell of knowing what to do next.
In that same moment Donavan looked into Taylor's eyes and saw all the things that had driven him to such an outburst. He saw all the things that the Raven would never let anyone see. He saw the remorse and the pain and the regrets. He saw the need for revenge and that is what scared him the most.
"C-Colonel," Donavan started, half out of breath and scared as hell.
"Don't say a word, Donavan," Taylor barked, loosening his grip but not letting the man down from the wall. "You're damn right I killed her. I didn't pull the damn trigger but I killed her. She and seven others just like her are dead because I didn't do enough. And now it's my job, my job to explain to her brother and seven more families just why she's dead. It's my job to make excuses. And if you think for one minute that I wouldn't trade my life for any one of there's then you're dead wrong. Get out of my face you selfish maggot. You haven't the slightest clue what's going on here." Taylor snapped his hand away and dropped Donavan to the floor, his legs collapsing under the sudden pressure. Taylor stared down at him this time with a look of contempt mixed just as much with understanding.
"Colonel Taylor to Flight Control on the double. Colonel Taylor to Flight Control on the double," the voice of the communications officer on the PA rang off of the empty walls of the gymnasium. Neither man said anything as Taylor walked quietly from the room.
About The Same Time
Jenn burst out of the barracks and darted down the hall in a panic, still clutching the data-pad in her hand. The "Reaper" had caught her completely off guard with the letter and had thrust her into a state of confusion and disarray.
Jenn turned a corner and arrived at a lift door. Frantically, she pushed the button repeatedly as if it would make the lift car arrive faster. Finally a light flashed and the lift door opened. Colonel Paul "Raven" Taylor stood before in her in the lift car. She stared at him, her eyes wide with fear and surprise.
"Hello, Lieutenant," he said blankly, his thoughts obviously elsewhere.
Usually, she would have acted calm and cool as she figured out a way to get herself out of the predicament. However, in her current condition, there was only one thought that raced through her mind: RUN!
Jenn took a step back before turning tail and running in the opposite direction. She passed by crewmember after crewmember. They jumped out of her way and wondered why she was running full tilt through the bowels of the ship.
She took a look
behind her to see if Taylor had followed her. Much to her relief,
he wasn't. She turned her head forward in time to see a fleeting
glimpse of the ship's Chief Operations Officer before she collided
with him, sending them both stumbling back in opposite directions.
The datapad Jenn was holding flew out of her hand and hit the
wall before falling to
Commander Stevens helped Lt. Commander Halverson up before giving Jenn a hand. "You're not going to make us post a speed limit around here, are you Lieutenant?" asked Stevens dryly.
Jenn looked blankly at the Commander, her mind in a state of chaos. Commander Stevens returned the look with a stern one. "Well, Lieutenant? What do you have to say for yourself?"
The words did not come out of Jenn's mouth. She knew what she wanted to tell the Commander, but the words could not escape her lips despite her best efforts to make them. It was as if fear was a tangible thing that had grabbed her vocal cords and crushed them, preventing her from speaking.
Not being able to say anything, Jenn's eyes darted around the surrounding area, looking for something to help her. She found it. Rushing over to the side of the corridor, Jenn picked up the data-pad and handed it to Stevens. She waited nervously for a reaction as the Commander read it over.
Lt. Commander Halverson looked over Stevens' shoulder and caught a glimpse of the letter. He looked at Jenn with, at first, a look of disbelief and then one of sympathy. Commander Stevens' face however, betrayed no emotion. She looked at Jenn and simply said, "Come with me, Lieutenant," before walking away towards her office.
Jenn took a deep breath and followed the Commander, leaving Halverson alone. He knew that Stevens was obsessed. Her search for the traitor had become her only mission, consuming her days and nights. It was no longer simply an investigation, it was a personal vendetta and she was determined to win it.
He chuckled softly to himself. The game of chess with the XO continued and he still had the upper hand. He had Stevens and her group of "detectives" running around like rats in a maze.
The fools... they should be spending their final days doing something more meaningful. Not wasting their time chasing him around as if he was the enemy. He was not the enemy... he was their savior, come to guide them painlessly through the fire and destruction that would fall upon the universe as it vanquished the Kilrathi savages.
Griffin could feel the ship slow down as they approached the area where they would deploy their forces. He could hear the hum of the engines become less and less noticeable. He was aware of all of the signs that indicated that the ship was coming to a stop, including the raspy voice of the helm officer on duty.
"We have arrived at the pre-determined coordinates, sir," he said.
Griffin nodded and hid his annoyance. Of course we have, Lieutenant. It's pretty obvious, he thought to himself.
Griffin turned his attention towards the voice calling out for him. Jesse Coins, the Endeavour's communications officer sat at his post with his right hand holding his headset up to his ear. "Flight Control reports that Ranger Wing and its accompanying Seahawk is ready for launch on your go-ahead, sir."
"Acknowledged, Lieutenant. Tell them that clearance is granted," Griffin replied.
Coins nodded and turned back to his station, relaying the message down to the flight control officer. Minutes later, four Piranha scouts along with a pair of Panther-class fighters and a Seahawk-class SWACS ship emerged from the underside of the ship and headed out on their patrol.
"Ranger Patrol to Home Base, proceeding with sweep," said Lt. Commander Catherine Waller over the comm.
"Acknowledged, Ranger Patrol. Good hunting."
Jenn walked out of the commander's office and ran her hand through her hair. She had just gone through a grueling interview with the XO. Interview... ? More like an interrogation. Stevens spent over two hours minutes grilling her with questions about the email she received and what she knew about the suspected traitor. Not to mention her friends, her family, her entire life...
The experience was frightening. Not just because she had been bombarded with question after question in which her answers determined what kind of theory the Commander thought up, but also because the Commander seemed much more distant, impersonal, and lost in her work. This investigation was an obsession to Commander Stevens and Jenn didn't know how the XO would react to the answers that she had given.
Suddenly, Jenn was jarred off balance and two hands grabbed her arms to stabilize her before she fell to the ground. "Whoa there, you all right?" asked the young officer who caught her.
Damn... she thought. "Ah... yeah, I'm fine. I'm sorry. My mind must have been wandering again," she stammered out with a small, shy smile. "It's the second time it's happened today."
The young man smiled back at her. "That's quite all right. There are a lot of things going on lately. It's easy for people to be preoccupied with things," he said as he walked by her, brushing her shoulder.
Jenn shivered as a cold chill ran down her back. The young man grinned.
Seahawk-class SWACS (Ranger Eyes)
0752 Hours ZULU
"All right, folks, we've arrived at Nav 1. Let's fire up those eyes and ears," the navigator said to the radar operator of the SWACS.
Behind the pilot and the navigator, two officers ran their fingers along keypads and control panels as if they were playing a piano.
"Proceeding with sensor sweep, pass one," said one of the officers.
Over the next couple minutes, the two men worked over the ship's scanners, looking for any sign of enemy activity. The Seahawk's powerful sensors were far more advanced than those found on a fighter and helped to extend the range in which they could see. The two men used those capabilities to its fullest.
"Doesn't look like anything is out here, but us. Scanners show nothing," said the senior radar operator.
The less-experienced junior officer nodded his head, "Confirmed, sir. I haven't even got-"
The junior officer stopped in his tracks as a flash of red appeared on his scanners... and then just as quickly, disappeared.
The other man turned his head and looked at the junior officer. "Is something wrong, Ensign?" he asked.
The young man swallowed hard and then tried to regain the contact. "Um... I had a contact on screen, sir. No ID," he said nervously. "Trying to reestablish contact."
"Are we done here, Lieutenant?" asked the navigator.
"Standby, just checking up on something Ensign Fraise supposedly found," replied the Lieutenant, his voice sounding rather unconvinced by the young man's claims of a sensor contact.
Ensign Fraise shook his head slowly as his hopes of finding his sensor contact dimmed. His hands trembled slightly as his fingers ran over the console while he desperately tried to get something on screen.
"Give it up, Ensign. There's nothing out there," said the Lieutenant with a hint of impatience.
"I swear, sir... there was something out there. The scanners picked it up," he protested. "I saw it myself!"
The Lieutenant looked back at him sternly. "Ensign Fraise, what you saw was most likely a sensor glitch. Nothing more."
Fraise opened his mouth again, but then closed it. It was no use arguing with the Lieutenant. He was as stubborn as a fucking mule. Besides, Fraise himself couldn't find the contact anymore. The Lieutenant could be right, it could've been just a sensor glitch. After all, he did have more experience.
Ensign Fraise leaned back in his seat as the Seahawk banked around with its escorting fighters. Despite his attempts to convince himself that it was a glitch, he still had the feeling that there was something very wrong.
About 0900 Hours
"We still haven't encountered many of the Nephilim capships. But these fighters, there are only a few of them that we haven't seen in combat," said Lt. Commander Richard Anderson as he walked through the halls of the ship, glancing down at a PDP datapad.
His CO walked along side him and nodded. "We should schedule extra simulation time for the pilots against those fighters we haven't fought before," he said. "The more we know about them before combat, the less of a surprise they will be to us during combat."
"True enough," agreed Anderson. "I'll set up some sim time for our pilots."
"Good," said the commander as he turned the corner and entered the main briefing room. The wing's senior officers had assembled in the briefing room to discuss flight tactics to use against the enemy.
"Welcome, Commander Cavanaugh, Lt. Cmdr. Anderson," greeted the WC, Paul Taylor. "Take a seat and we can get started."
The two men obliged and sat down in two of the empty chairs. Taylor went over to a console at the front of the room and activated a large monitor that was situated on the wall. It displayed a list of known enemy fighters.
"So far, these are the fighter types of the Nephilim that have been encountered by Confederation and Border Worlds forces. As you can see, the enemy has quite a diverse selection of spacecraft to choose from," Taylor said. "Not only that, but they still massively outnumber us. We need to find some ways to maximize our damage to the enemy while minimizing our losses."
"That much is obvious," remarked Renegade harshly.
Taylor looked at him sternly for a moment and then continued. "One of our SWACS returned from a patrol about twenty minutes ago. Other than an anomalous sensor glitch, they obtained nothing on their scanners."
"Sensor glitch, eh?" asked Serge "Orion" Cayouette, second in command of the Hornets squadron. "What if they have some sort of cloaking or sensor dampening technology?"
"That is simply speculation on your part, Major," replied Taylor.
Renegade fired back. "A *lot* of our information is speculation... sir."
Taylor sighed. "I realize that, Colonel," he said calmly. "But until we get some sort of basis for Mr. Cayouette's point, I suggest that we do not jump the gun, so to speak."
A moment of silence followed which was broken by Lisa "Mercury" O'Neil, XO of the Warhawks strike squadron. "Well, I'll tell you this. If we run into any of their big capships, we'll be in for one hell of a ride," she said as she picked up a datapad. "According to this, their capships are huge. The standard carrier for their fleet is the size of the Midway," she exclaimed. "That's almost three times the size of this ship. And if we run into any of those Tiamats or whatever the hell Confed is calling them... "
Her CO raised his hand and stopped her from saying anymore. "Suffice it to say, Colonel, it will be pretty tough to knock one of those things down with our Shrikes," he said.
Taylor nodded and looked around at his pilots. Most of them looked like they were desperately short on sleep. The hours since they had flown the last grueling mission in Tyr had been meant to give the pilots a break. The Endeavour's unique problems though, had ruled that out. "One thing is for sure, we're not going to do any good out there if our tanks are empty," he said rather quietly. "Meet back here in six hours. Until then, get some rest."
The pilots got up. Some, like Renegade and Orion of the Hornets left the room promptly while others like Garrison of the Dragons and Cavanaugh of the Falcons stayed back a few minutes to have brief conversations with Taylor before heading off. Each of them knew that Taylor was right about what he said. Fighting tired wasn't the way they were going to win this war.
He could feel it in his blood. The time was fast approaching. The end of the savages was near. All of the injustices, all of the horrors he had endured because of them would be made up for soon.
He laughed quietly to himself. His comrades were trying to stop the Nephilim instead of welcoming them and assisting them in their glorious task. Considering them threats instead of saviors. Poor souls. It was very unfortunate that they had chosen this course of action. He had become quite fond of some of them. It was a shame their lives had to be wasted because of their inability to see the truth.
Looking out to the stars with wide eyes and a tortured mind, he waited eagerly for Armageddon to arrive.