PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 43 of 44 )

: Preparations & Reflections
PART 1 OF 2

"One who speaks deferentially but increases his preparations will advance;
one who speaks belligerently and advances hastily will retreat."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War


BWS Valeria; Flight Wing Briefing Room
Nephele System,
Approaching the Nephele-Loki Jump Point
0800 Hours, 11 Feb 2681 (2681.042)

The briefing room was even more crowded than it normally was for these flight wing meetings. The Littenia battle group had remained with Battle Group Valkyrie following the attack on the Neph carrier group three days ago. Seeing as the groups were so close together, every squadron CO, exec and flight leader from the Littenia and the Freedom had shuttled over to the Valeria for the meeting, rather than using the video conference screens. Teleconferencing was all very well, but most people still preferred face to face meetings.

"All right, everyone here?" Raptor asked, as the last few stragglers tried to find seats. Most of them ended up standing at the back of the room. Raptor gave them a few more seconds before launching into the briefing.

"All right, as I'm sure most of you have heard by now, our fleet has began pulling back to the Loki jump point. Our own group will be first to reach the jump point, and Admiral Hanton wants us to provide cover for the rest of the fleet as it regroups. We'll be flying CAP at full squadron strength throughout the day, both over our own ships and over the jump point. We'll also be sending out patrols, again at full squadron strength, to escort the other groups on their way in and also to keep an eye out for any enemy activity."

"Now, all this is simply a precaution. Intell thinks that it is very unlikely that we'll see major combat action today. According to the reports we have received, most of the other carrier groups and capship units have been able to wipe out the enemy ships that went after them. One or two units weren't able to do that, but they have been able to outrun any pursuit. Therefore, it's very unlikely that any enemy forces will be able to tail our units here. Most likely, we'll be able to regroup with any trouble."

"So, we simply wait until the fleet regroups and then jump out to Loki?" Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung asked.

Raptor smiled slightly. "Not quite. You see, we don't simply want to jump out to Loki, we want to draw the Nephilim there after us. If we simply jump as soon as we can, we'll be running the risk that Nephilim will jump into another system, which will send all our plans right out of the window. Even after we regroup, we'll hold station near the jump point till we can be sure that the Nephilim have found us again and are coming after us. Then, and only then, do we jump."

"Now, that last bit will be most difficult part of this whole operation. We need to wait long enough for the Nephs to regroup and come after us, but not so long that they'll be able to launch a strike on us before we jump out. That's the reason why those patrols are so important, we need to know exactly what the Nephs are doing. As I said, we'll be doing patrol work through out the day, but we'll be assisted by SWACS craft from the Yorktown and Valley Forge once those ships join us."

"The rosters for patrol and CAP duty have all been drawn up, and will be forwarded to each of you within the hour. Aside from that, there are a couple of other things that we need to cover. First, it seems that the Valley Forge has lost most of her Shrike bombers in battles she fought in Tyr and here in Nephele. The Forge's Wing Commander has requested that the Valkyries transfer over a flight of bombers to make good the losses. Colonel Al-Fayeed, I want you to detail six of your Dauntless', with pilots and crews, to fly over to the Valley Forge once she rejoins the fleet."

"Aye, aye, sir," Lt. Colonel Rashid Al-Fayeed, the CO of the "Thor's Hammer" Heavy Bomber Squadron, said crisply.

"Similarly, the BWS Defiance, the CVE that's been working with the 6th Corvette Squadron, has lost over half her flight wing over the last couple of weeks. We'll be transferring a flight of Avengers from Freedom to give Defiance some strike power. Colonel Lane, we'll also be transferring your Jaguar unit over to make good the fighter losses."

"Aye, Colonel," Lt. Colonel Quinn Lane replied mournfully. While she understood the reasons, being transferred from a state of the art fleet carrier to an old and ramshackle escort carrier wasn't exactly something she was looking forward to.

"Cheer up, Quinn. The Defiance's flight wing is very light on experienced pilots, so you and your squad will do a lot more good working with them than you'll do here."

"Let me get this right. We're being transferred to a ship whose designation stands for Combustible-Vulnerable-Expendable, has lost half its wing already, and is packed with rookie pilots. Is that meant to make me feel better... sir?" Quinn asked, drawing a burst of laughter from the other pilots, Raptor included. Border Worlders tended to take a lighter approach to military life, and life in general, than most other people did. Life on the Frontier wasn't easy, and being able to laugh at it was a good way of coping.

"All right, as you were," Raptor said after a moment, though he let them enjoy the mood for a seconds more before speaking again. The next announcement he had would put a damper on that mood, but it couldn't be helped. "Last but not least, the memorial service for the pilots and Marines killed on the 8th will be held on the flight deck at 1200 Hours. Naturally, I expect all pilots who aren't flying at the time to be there. Apart from that though, your time is your own. I suggest you make the most of the lull while it while it lasts, because things will probably turn nasty once we jump into Loki. I've served with Admiral Hanton long enough to know that she likes to rotate her units. We might not exactly have had it easy in this system, but we've had it easier than the Forge group or those poor bastards on the Bunker Hill. The next time a tough assignment comes up, we'll probably be the ones doing it, so enjoy the break while you can."

"Apart from that, any questions? No? All right then, dismissed."

 

Medical bay, BWS Valeria
1030 Hours

Even when she wasn't in combat, the Valeria was a very noisy, very busy ship. The engineering sections rang with the throb of the massive engines and turbines that drove the ship forward and provided the power that kept her and her crew alive. The flight deck shook with the scream of fighters racing off the deck on full afterburner, or the thuds of craft slamming down on the deck as they returned from their missions. Every duty station on the ship hummed with the buzz of conversations among the crew as they went about their tasks. Virtually every part of the ship was filled with the noise and bustle of a carrier that was home to thousands of people.

None of that noise or bustle intruded into the medical bay, by decree of the chief medical officer, a decree that was rigidly enforced by steely eyed nurses and orderlies. Here no one ran, no one shouted, and no one even talked any louder than was strictly necessary. Most of time, the only sounds were the quiet humming of the medical monitors, and whispered conversations among patients and staff. This was a quiet place, a place of healing. On a ship dedicated to war and violence, this was one place that was dedicated to patching up the wounds of war, both the physical and the psychological.

Dr. Gareth Wagstall paused beside the bed of one of his patients, a Marine who had lost part of his arm during the assault on the Nephilim supercarrier. The young man's arm had been mangled by a Nephilim's mandibles, and the doctors had to amputate it at the elbow, replacing the missing portion of the limb with a prosthetic. The Marine had been kept sedated for the last two days, but now he was alert and lucid. The doctor exchanged a few words with him while checking his medical charts. The Marine seemed to be coping well. The doctor believed the young man would make a rapid recovery. With a little luck, he might even be able return to frontline duty, which seemed to be what he wanted most.

Dr. Wagstall paused beside the next bed, and shook his head sadly. What a waste. The bed contained the body of a young woman. And body was the right word, because there wasn't a mind inside. She had ejected from her crippled Jaguar during the battle three days ago. During the ejection though, she had slammed her head on something, maybe the canopy, resulting in multiple skull fractures and severe intra-cranial bleeding. By the time SAR had picked her up and returned her to the ship, the bleeding had resulted in massive brain damage. Even 27th century medicine had its limits, and there had been nothing the doctors could do. Right now, the life support machines were all that were keeping her alive. Dr. Wagstall had held off turning the machines off for the past three days, hoping for a miracle perhaps, but her brain activity monitors remained as flat and lifeless as ever. With a sigh, he reached out and switched off the life support equipment, noting the time of death.

The doctor moved from patient to patient as he made his rounds, doing what he could to heal the wounds of war. In some cases, that was very little, and all he could do was ease their pain and suffering. This was the aspect of war that was never shown on the holo-vids, and very rarely even on the news vids. It was the aspect of war that few saw, and even fewer wanted to know about. The doctor knew that if any war could be called justified, this war against the Nephilim was justified. The survival of the human race depended on it. The thing was, even a justified war didn't look all that glorious to those who had to pick up the pieces.

The doctor finished his rounds and returned to his office. Waiting on his desk were the files of two more of his patients, patients whose injuries were emotional rather than physical. For the past few days, Dr. Wagstall had been observing the two pilots who had escaped the destruction of the Bunker Hill. The 140 odd survivors had all been suffering from grief and shock to some extent. For the two pilots though, those emotions had been compounded by the guilt that came from fleeing the battle zone when the Hill had been destroyed. There had been nothing they could have done, but they still felt guilty all the same. It was Dr. Wagstall's job to decide if they were fit to return to duty. In his opinion, both pilots were borderline, and under normal circumstances he would have recommended that both undergo detailed psychological evaluation and counseling. As it was though, the Fleet needed every pilot it could get, so the doctor had to make a decision on the information he had. After wrestling with his conscience for several minutes, he picked up his pen and certified them both fit for duty.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
1200 Hours

For once, the flight deck was just as quiet and peaceful as the medical bay was, though for a very different reason. All flight operations had been shut down for an hour, with the Freedom and Littenia picking up the slack. On board the Valeria, though, all the fighters that had been on the flight deck were now stowed away in the hangers below, leaving the deck itself clear for the memorial service.

Under normal circumstances, the memorial services for those killed in action were held as soon as possible after the event. This time, though, it had been done differently, for two reasons. In the first place, the Valkyries and the Littenia pilots had spent the days after their attack on the Alien carrier flying round the clock patrols and sweeps, just in case the Nephilim tried to follow them and extract a little revenge. That hadn't left much time for planning or holding the memorial service. In the second place, they had already held a memorial on the 7th for the pilots, Navy crew, and Marines killed in Tyr. Holding two large funerals close together tended to be bad for morale.

Right now, the deck was packed with hundreds of pilots, Marines, and Navy crew, standing shoulder to shoulder. People had come from all three carriers and their escorts to pay their respects. The small Border Worlds military was closely knit, and there were very few people in the two battle groups who hadn't lost a friend. And among the sea of dark blue Border Worlds uniforms, a group of blue-green Confed uniforms stood out like a beacon. All the Bunker Hill survivors were here, here to pay their respects to those who had given their lives to rescue them.

In a way, it was symbolic of what was happening throughout the Fleet. Confeds and Border Worlders standing shoulder to shoulder in a common cause, united by the battles they had fought, and by knowledge of what had each had sacrificed for that cause. On at least two occasions in the battle for this system, the Border Worlders had seen the Confeds give everything they had to defend Border Worlds lives and Border Worlds territory. On at least two occasions, Confeds had been bailed out of difficult or impossible situations by the Border Worlders. The one good thing to come out of this war was that it had taught the Confed and Border Worlds pilots and crews respect for each other, and taught them that they had far more in common than they had realized. What had started out as two separate fleets cooperating against a common enemy had, in many ways, become one unified force.

The first part of the memorial consisted of eulogies given by the individual squadron COs and Marine commanders, who shared their memories of the close to fifty pilots and Marines who had died in the raid. As Admiral Hanton waited for her turn to speak, she spent her time observing the pilots, Marines and crew around her, judging their mood. In the whole, they seemed to be dealing with it well. The Admiral had heard reports that morale in the Forge group - or rather Battle Group Auriga as it was now called to commemorate that specific battle group's unique union of Confeds, Border Worlders, and Kilrathi - had taken a nose dive after the losses they had suffered. That hadn't happened here, for several reasons. First, and most importantly, their losses hadn't been anywhere near as bad what the Forge had suffered. Fifty casualties sounded like a lot, but it was important to remember that those losses were shared among two carrier groups. Second, for the most part, these people were highly experienced and combat hardened. That emotional hardening might not be the healthiest thing psychologically, but it was necessary for people who had spent as much time in combat as they had. Thirdly, these people still had faith in their commanders, something that seemed to be lacking aboard the Forge at least for one looking from the outside in.

The Admiral shook her head slightly at that thought. The reports that she was getting from the Forge group were disturbing to say the least. There was nothing blatantly obvious in the reports, no signs of an all out mutiny or insurrection of really any kind, but there were a lot of noticeable discrepancies, little things that didn't quite add up that might justly arouse suspicion. For one thing, Captain Vandermann's reports that recounted in official fashion the battle against the enemy carrier group differed in several subtle but important ways from those sent in by his Wing Commander and senior Intell officer. Admiral Hanton had been commanding troops long enough to know that such discrepancies couldn't simply be the result of miscommunication. Either there was infighting among the senior officers, or someone was trying to cover something up. The thing was, there was nothing she could do about it without a smoking gun. She was the fleet's commander, but as a Border Worlds officer, her jurisdiction over the command structure of a Confed ship was limited at best. If she rushed in without knowing all the facts, all she would achieve would be rip apart the newfound trust between the Confeds and Border Worlders, treaty or no treaty. For now, all she could do was wait and see.

By now, the COs had finished giving their individual eulogies. The Admiral pushed all thoughts about what was happening aboard the Forge out of her mind, and stepped up to the front, silently rehearsing what she was going to say.

"We're gathered here today to remember 46 brave men and women who gave their lives in the line of duty. An year ago, maybe even a month ago, I would have said that they died fighting for the Border Worlds Union. I don't say that now, not because these brave people forsook their duty to the Union, but because they embraced a greater duty. They died fighting for all humanity, not just for one faction or one government. That is something that we must all remember as we continue their fight. If we can remember that all of us, whether Confeds or Border Worlders, share a common humanity that is far more important than all our differences, then we will have achieved a precious victory. It will be a victory we will have won before we next step onto a battlefield, and it will be what allows us to achieve ultimate victory on that battlefield. That is how we can best honor those who gave their lives for our cause."

The Admiral paused for a moment, and then began reading out the names of the pilots and Marines who had died.

"Major Alexi Markinkoff, 26th Light Fighter Squadron..."

The grim litany went on for several minutes. As she spoke each name, the boosters on each casket fired, taking the dead on their final journey. As the last of the caskets slid through the air-shield, the Marine guard of honor fired a twenty-one gun salute, and the sound of the last post echoed through the flight deck.

 

Retaliator 007 (Reaper Lead)
Nephele System,
Near The Nephele-Loki Jump Point,
1400 Hours

Lt. Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes eased the flight stick of her Retaliator gently to the right, steering the fighter away from the Valeria's launch circuit. Once she was a safe distance away from the carrier, she chopped the throttle back to idle, and looked around while she waited for the rest of her squadron to form up.

By now, Battle Group Valkyrie and the Littenia battle group had been joined by several other units of the Fleet. The light carrier TCS Endeavour had been the first to arrive, and now held station alongside the larger ships. The 15th and 18th Destroyer Squadrons, the 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron and the 6th Border Worlds Corvette Squadron had also joined the fleet over the past few hours. The carrier Yorktown and her battle group were just now linking up with the other carriers. In fact, the only units that weren't here yet were the Valley Forge's Battle Group Auriga (which was about an hour away), and the 8th Cruiser Squadron, which was about two hours away.

Mirage and the rest of the rest of the Reaper Squadron had been detailed to meet the TCS Valley Forge on her way in, and then to give her an escort back to jump point. All the other patrols and fighter sweeps had seen no sign of the enemy so far, so it was likely to be a long, boring escort. Still, Chrys was glad to be well away from the Valeria for a while, especially after the funeral. She had watched far too many of her friends take that final flight.

A few minutes later, the rest of Reaper Squadron had launched and joined her. Just as they were about start off for their rendezvous with the Forge, the Bearcats from Harbinger Squadron returned from their patrol, circling while they waited for clearance to land on the Freedom. Mirage noted that a couple of the Bearcats had scorch marks on their armor, and one was trailing sparks from a damaged engine.

"Reaper Lead to Harbinger Lead. You run into any trouble?"

"I wouldn't call it trouble exactly," Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung replied. "Just a dozen or so Morays and Mantas nosing around."

"Oh? Did any of them get away?"

"A couple. For some reason, none of us could hit the last two," Phalanx said with a grin. "Shame, really. Now their fleet's going to know all about our build-up."

"Real shame. Your pilots should spend more time in the sims," Mirage agreed, matching the grin. By the time the Neph fighters got back to their ship, and Nephs started trying to regroup for an attack on the fleet, the 8th Cruiser Squadron should have joined up. After that, they could jump out right before the Nephs attacked.

"Nice job, Phalanx. Now, we've a patrol to fly," Mirage said.

The Retaliators hit their afterburners, racing away from the gathered fleet, and then engaged auto-slide. At their top speed of 1,200 KPS, it took less than 5 minutes to reach the Forge battle group. Mirage had been half hoping that they would run into more enemy scouts on their way there, but that was not to be.

Mirage shook her head in horror when she saw the state the Forge group was in. She had heard reports of the kind of damage the group had taken, but hearing about and seeing it for herself were two totally different things. As the fighters slowed down to 100 KPS and settled in beside the capships for the long flight back to the fleet, she carefully looked the battle group over.

The Forge group looked like it had been to hell and back. One side of the Forge was torn and scorched from where an enemy CSM had blasted her. Chrys knew that close to two hundred people had died in that missile blast, to say nothing of the damage itself. The Forge had also nearly lost half her pilots and Marine detachment in the battles she had fought so far in this campaign. Not only that, two of her escorts, one of the group's two Plunkett-class artillery cruiser and one of the two Murphy-class destroyers, were now gone. In their place were an old Caernaven-class Border Worlds patrol frigate and a Fralthi II-class Kilrathi cruiser.

A Kilrathi cruiser...

She eyed the ship warily, and then reached over to her weapons console and flipped the "master arm" switch to "safe." She had fought Kilrathi dozens of times over the past decade, and she was used to slamming the missile release the instant she had a missile lock on a Kilrathi. She didn't quite trust herself to not hit the release if she got a lock on this Cat.

Still, for some reason, flying alongside the cruiser didn't bring back the old feelings of anger and hate towards the Kilrathi. Maybe she was just too tired and emotionally numb after that funeral. She would certainly have expected to feel at least a little anger towards the Cats. A lot of her friends had gone down in flames under a Kilrathi's guns.

She shook her head. Yeah, and we lost friends when Confed attacked Circe. And Admiral Hanton and Captain Que must have lost friends when we torpedoed the Melbourne. We all manage to work together. Maybe it'll be the same with the Kilrathi. After all, we've all got a new enemy now that doesn't seem to be picking favorites with anybody...

Mirage wasn't sure if that thought gladdened or saddened her. Maybe people really did need a common enemy before they would be willing to work together. The last time the humans had been truly united was when they had a common enemy in the Kilrathi. Once that threat was gone, the humans had turned on each other. Would the same thing happen once the Nephilim threat was gone, maybe even unite the humanity with the Kilrathi as well? She thought so. After all, while she couldn't speak for the Cats, it was human nature...

Cynic, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Rap's said accusingly in the back of her mind.

Dreamer, she shot back with a smile. It was true enough. After nearly a decade together, they each had a good idea of how the other thought. Chrys had always been pragmatic and practical, someone who was clear eyed and cynical about a lot of things. As a die-hard Border Worlder, she saw the strategic advantages of the alliance with Confed, but she didn't really expect it to last. After all, it hadn't lasted the last time. Rap was just as committed to the Border Worlds as she was, but he was idealistic enough to believe that this alliance would work.

She shook her head again. Maybe it would work and maybe it wouldn't. Whatever happened, though, she was going to focus on the present, and let the future of the alliance take care of itself. After all, there was a hell of a lot to worry about right here in the present.

 

CONT...