PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 44 of 44 )
“ Preparations & Reflections ”
"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; Combat Information Center
Nephele System, Union of Border Worlds
1650 Hours, 11 Feb 2681 (2681.042)
Have you got that report from 8th Cruiser Squadron yet, Lieutenant?" Commander Warren Kent, Battle Group Valkyrie's senior Intell officer, asked crisply. The ships from the 8th had joined them about a half hour ago, and from the looks of it they had been involved in some heavy fighting. The preliminary report they had sent a few hours ago had been a little sketchy.
"Excellent." Commander Kent scanned quickly over the report. It seemed the 8th had run headlong into the two Nephilim dreadnoughts. The Confed ships had been able to knock out three of the destroyers and one of the cruisers that had been escorting the dreadnoughts, as well as putting several torps into the dreadnoughts themselves. In end, though, the 8th had been forced to break off and retreat, losing a cruiser and a destroyer in the process.
"You've added these to the final combat report for the Admiral?" Kent asked the junior officer.
"How long till you get that report finalized?"
"Uh..." The Lieutenant hesitated. "Another couple of hours, at least. We're still having trouble tallying up the fighter losses."
"Ours or theirs?"
"Uh, both, sir. We're not sure how many of our damaged fighters are salvageable and we don't know how many fighters were on those carriers our pilots iced."
"Well, get on it," Kent said sharply. "The Admiral wants those reports before we jump out, and I'd rather not disappoint her."
Commander Kent then walked over to another console, this one manned by a junior officer responsible for tracking the fleet's assets. The officer manning this console saw him coming, and had his report ready to hand. Commander Kent nodded approvingly. His family had been British aristocracy right up a century ago, when they had bought up a nice big chunk of Masa and became Border Worlds aristocracy instead. As a result of that heritage, efficiency and thoroughness were what he prized most. It made him a good Intell officer, but not much fun at parties.
He quickly glanced over the report. As some carrier groups had taken heavier losses than others, there was some shuffling of ships and fighters taking place, in an effort to try and balance the strengths of the various groups.
Naturally, most of the assets were going to Valley Forge group, indeed now designated Carrier Battle Group Auriga/CVBG-A -- which was not to be confused with the Endeavour's group, the Light Carrier Battle Group Aurora/CVEBG-A. The group had already been joined by a frigate diverted from the local militia. A Kilrathi heavy cruiser had also "joined" the group under somewhat mysterious -- if not questionable -- circumstances. The Valeria was transferring over the flight of Dauntless, as well as the two Panthers and their pilots that had escaped the destruction of the Bunker Hill. Those would be flying over to Forge within the hour (the other Bunker Hill survivors would be staying with the Valeria). Admiral Hanton had tried to talk Captain Vandermann into taking extra fighters, maybe the Bearcat unit from the Littenia or one of the Valkyries' Intruder units, but the Captain had turned her down for some reason, oddly insisting that the Forge and her group only needed the bare minimum. Still, counting the fighters from the frigate and the cruiser, as well as those transferred over by the Valkyries, the Forge group now had over 70 operational fighters. It wasn't as strong as the other fleet carrier groups, but it was no longer crippled.
It wasn't all one-way traffic, though. While Forge group was short of fighters, it had a surplus of capships. It had originally had five escorts, three destroyers and two cruisers. The loss of the cruiser and destroyer had been balanced out by the addition of the frigate and Kilrathi cruiser. The Yorktown group however, had only started with two destroyers and a cruiser, and had lost one of those destroyers a couple of days ago. For that reason, the Forge group was transferring one of its destroyers over to the Yorktown.
Last but by no means least, Lt. Colonel Lane and her pilots had flown over to the Defiance, along with the 12 remaining fighters in their unit, as well as the six Avengers seconded from the Freedom's Hell Knight Squadron. The Defiance already had techs on board that could service the Jags, but the Valeria had also sent over two shuttles filled with spare parts, as well as missiles and torps. CVEs weren't designed for extended engagements, and the Defiance had already burned up most of her reserves. The extra supplies and fighters should prepare her for anything she might face in Loki.
"Good work, Lieutenant," he said briefly, and then walked over to check on another of his subordinates. He was determined to see that as long as he was in charge of it, the Valeria's Intell Office division would be the most efficient in the Fleet.
Excalibur 101 (Taipan Lead)
About 1900 Hours
Lt. Colonel Alex "Skywalker" Witt glanced over his shoulder, making sure that the group of Confed and Border Worlds craft behind him was still in formation.
The Excaliburs from his Taipan Squadron were arrayed in a loose wedge, surrounding an SWACS craft launched from the Yorktown. The SWACS had a powerful array of scanners and radars, allowing it to monitor hundreds of thousands of cubic kilometers all at the same time. It was much more efficient for tracking and recon duties than the fighter patrols used by the Border Worlders. Following behind the SWACS was a squadron of F-109 Vampires from the Yorktown, easily the most lethal fighters at the Fleet's disposal.
Say what you will about Confed's politics, Skywalker reflected, but you can't say they skimp on equipment for their forces. And the thing was, there were a lot of Border Worlders who did have a lot to say about Confed's politics. Even now, nearly a year after the Treaty of McAuliffe, opinion in the Border Worlds Union was still divided, with extremists on both sides. There were some who said that the Border Worlders should have nothing to do with Confed at all, and that they should go back to the "good old days" where the Union had stood alone. At the other extreme were the people who said that the Border Worlds should disband their military altogether, and simply maintain a militia force along the lines of Confed InSys, while leaving the real fighting to "Big Brother" Confed.
In Skywalker's opinion, the extremists (on both sides) needed their heads examined. On the one hand, it was a big, dangerous universe out there, filled with threats like the Nephilim. The Border Worlders couldn't afford to isolate themselves from valuable alliances. It was one thing to stand alone when you had no choice, and quite another to stand alone out of misguided nationalism. As this invasion and undeclared state of war had proved, there were some threats the Border Worlders couldn't fight on their own, and it was nice to have friends who carried big sticks.
On the other hand, though, despite the alliance and wary friendship that had developed between them, it was important to never forget that the Border Worlds and Confed were still two separate, sovereign nations in their own right. Relations between sovereign nations were constantly in flux, driven by changes in political will and strategic priorities. As the Confed's Senate's decision to hold back several of its most powerful fleets back to protect the Inner Worlds showed, Confed had its own set of priorities, which might not always be the priorities that the Border Worlders had. For that reason, it was important that the Border Worlders maintained a capable military themselves. Trusting in your allies was all well and good, but no nation with any sense left its defense entirely in the hands of another nation.
Luckily, though, it seemed that most of the public and the politicians shared Skywalker's view that the middle way was the best way. Military spending had of course been cut back rather sharply after the Treaty was signed, but the military hadn't been as badly gutted as some had feared. The Arcadia-class carriers were still being built, as were warships like the Nemesis-class battlecruisers. Similarly, fighters like the Retaliator and Jaguar were still in production. The Border Worlders couldn't come anywhere near to matching Confed, of course, and they weren't trying to. Instead, they were going for a small, capable military that could effectively defend their home territory. In all likelihood, that military would be a lot more battered before they finished fighting this invasion, but it would continue playing an active role, just like it had done throughout the battle so far. The Border Worlders would continue to be Confed's partners, but it simply wasn't in their nature to sit back and let someone else do the fighting.
Skywalker dragged his thoughts back to the job at hand as a light flashed on his comm panel, indicating an incoming message from the SWACS. The fighters and the SWACS were performing a recon several million klicks out from the jump point, scanning for the first signs of the incoming bug fleet. It was only a matter of time now. The Neph scouts that had "escaped" had plenty of time to warn their commanders.
"Taipan Leader here. You see anything?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. Looks like about two dozen Morays and Mantas, about 100,000 klicks distance at bearing 240-60-100."
"Hmmm. So they can't see us yet," Skywalker said thoughtfully. Taking out those fighters would convince the Nephs that there was something the humans didn't want them to find. He quickly switched channels.
"Taipan Lead to Grendal Lead. We're going to put ourselves right in the path of those fighters. You take point in front of the SWACS. We'll drop back behind the SWACS and go into cloak."
"If you say so, Colonel." Major Michael "Shooter" Rosencrantz, the Grendal Squadron Leader, sounded a little dubious, and with good reason. So far in this campaign, cloaked fighters had had a very poor survival rate against the Nephilim. That, of course, was why they were trying this experiment here and now, where the Vampires could bail the Excals out if they got into trouble.
"Trust me. Or at least, trust the Force," Skywalker said with a grin. The Excaliburs shimmered and faded out of sight, as well vanishing from the radar screens of the Vampire pilots and SWACS operators.
Skywalker wasn't too keen on being a guinea pig either, but he had faith in the Valeria's techs and science officers. They had spent the last two weeks poring over all the data they had on Nephilim anti-cloak technology. At first they hadn't been having much luck. The real breakthrough had come a few days earlier, when four of their recon fighters had been destroyed while scouting an enemy carrier group. Before they had gone down though, the doomed Arrow pilots had not only been able to sent back the necessary data on the enemy carrier, but also real-time data on the sensors that the Nephilim were using to track them. That information, as well data gained from the analysis of Nephilim wreckage, had told the science officers all the needed to know about how the Nephilim anti-cloak sensors worked.
Figuring out how the anti-cloak sensors worked had been the hard part. Figuring out how to counter those sensors could have been just as difficult, but the solution the techs had come up with had been elegant in its stark simplicity. Rather than trying to upgrade the cloaking devices, which would have been a massive undertaking, they had re-modulated and reprogrammed the RHAWS (Radar Homing And Warning System) and ECM (Electronic Counter Measures) suites of the Arrows and Excaliburs, making using of what was already there rather than trying to add new technology. Whenever the fighters went into cloak, the RHAWS and ECM would switch to exclusively countering the frequencies used by the anti-cloak sensors. The defensive systems would both selectively jam incoming signals, and generate false normal returns, essentially telling the Nephilim sensors "no-one here but us cockroaches." The modifications themselves had been simple, a matter of minutes per fighter, which was significant given that the techs were being run off their feet.
In theory, the reprogrammed ECM and RHAWS would once again make the human fighters "invisible" to the Nephilim anti-cloak sensors, and restore the advantages of cloaking. Now, they had to find out if the theory worked in practice. If it didn't, the humans wouldn't lose much. The bugs would simply know there was a squadron of Excals there, which they would know anyway if the Excals stayed out of cloak. If it did work, though, it would give the humans a huge edge in the battles to come. At least until the Nephilim figured out what they were doing and re-modulated their own sensors to compensate, at which point the humans would have to adapt in turn, part of the ongoing struggle between offense and defense that had existed throughout the history of warfare.
A few minutes later, the Nephilim fighters came within range of the Terran fighters' own radar. The Vampires held station as the enemy fighters closed in, and then broke formation at the last minute, selecting half a dozen enemy fighters and gang-banging them. All six Neph fighters fireballed. The rest of the Morays and Mantas swerved to engage the Vampires. At the same time, the Excaliburs dropped out of cloak behind the enemy, launching their missiles at point blank range. Another dozen fighters detonated under the rain of missiles. The remaining fighters didn't last long either, as the Excals and Vampires systematically burned them down. By all appearances, the enemy hadn't even seen the Excaliburs until it was too late.
"You see any signs of the bug fleet?" Skywalker asked the SWACS crew as the last Neph fighter went down in flames. By proving their cloaks worked, they had already achieved one major objective on this flight. Now, if they could just achieve the other...
"Hang on a second, sir... okay, got it. Yes, it looks like they're on way in. I read at least a couple of dozen capships, with more traces at the edge of scanning range."
"Nice job. All right, people, let's form up and get back to the fleet. We're blowing this system."
Bridge, BWS Valeria
"Admiral, here's that report from Intell you wanted," Lieutenant Reston said as he handed over a data pad.
"Thank you, Lieutenant. Dismissed," the Admiral said absently, all her attention focused on the data pad. It contained the final kill tallies and casualty reports for the battle fought in the Nephele, as well as the fleet strengths at the end of the battle. In a sense, it was the verdict on her strategies and leadership in this system.
Admiral Hanton would be the first one to admit that her plan to split up the Combined Fleet, and hence draw the Nephilim units into individual battles, had gotten off to a disastrous start. The loss of the TCS Bunker Hill and her entire battle group had shaken the Admiral's confidence badly. Although she knew that the disaster had been due in large part to bad decisions made aboard the Bunker Hill, the simple fact that they had taken such a massive loss so early on had made her doubt the entire plan. At the time, she had come close to abandoning the plan altogether and simply ordering the fleet to regroup. She had backed herself, though, and the results had vindicated that decision.
The joint Terran fleet had been able to destroy three of the Leviathan supercarriers/fleet carriers in Nephele (one of the supercarriers had been taken out by pilots from the Bunker Hill, one by the Border Worlders, and one by the crew of the Valley Forge). They had also seriously damaged the two dreadnoughts. In addition to that, they had destroyed ten Nephilim heavy cruisers, roughly two dozen destroyers and corvettes, and a handful of transports. The total number of fighters destroyed was a little harder to estimate, because they didn't know how many fighters had gone down with the carriers. Intell's best guess, though, was that the Terrans had taken out about 1,500 Alien fighters altogether.
That was in exchange for the loss of the Bunker Hill, three heavy cruisers, five destroyers, two torpedo boats and a corvette. They had also lost about 200 fighters. However, taking into account the fighters aboard the Kilrathi cruiser and Border Worlds frigate that had "joined" the fleet with the Forge's CVBG-A, the net loss of fighters came to about 165 craft. That, coupled with the 90 fighters they had lost in Tyr, left them with just under 500 operational fighters from the 750 they had started out with. Or to put it another way, they had lost a third of their fighter strength in just over a week of fighting.
All in all statistically, the Combined Fleet had done extremely well in Nephele. Taking out three supercarriers (each of which was the equivalent of two or three fleet carriers) in exchange for one fleet carrier was a trade that any commander would willingly make. The humans had also seriously weakened the Nephilim in terms of both heavy and light warship strength. They had achieved 3 to 1 kill ratio in all capship categories (carriers, heavy warships and light warships). That was not quite as good as the 4 to 1 ratio they had achieved in Tyr, but it was important to remember that almost all the ships destroyed in Tyr had been corvettes or destroyers. Last but not least, they had achieved a better than 7 to 1 kill ratio in terms of fighters destroyed.
That was the good news. The bad news was that the Nephilim fleet was still extremely powerful, far more powerful than the Admiral had thought it would be after all the losses the humans had inflicted in Tyr and Nephele. It still far outclassed the human fleet in both capship and fighter strength. The Nephilim still had three more of those Leviathans, the two dreadnoughts and over half a dozen heavy cruisers. Worst of all though, their recon and SWACS flights showed that the Nephilim still had about four dozen destroyers and corvettes left. Either the Saratoga's count of these craft had been even further off than they had first thought, or -- horrible thought -- these extra ships were reinforcements that had poured out of the still open wormhole. Similarly, counting the 700 fighters the humans had destroyed in Tyr, and the 1,500 they had destroyed here, the Nephilim should have been down to about 1,300 fighters. Counting the fighters on these "new" ships, though, Intell estimated that the total number of Nephilim fighters would be closer to 1,800.
Also, while the humans did have 500 operational fighters, quite a few of those were only operational in the loosest sense of the word. The techs and deck crews were working around the clock, but day after day of full on combat meant that damage was beginning to accumulate faster than it could be repaired. And because the techs had their hands full with repairing the combat damage, routine maintenance and overhauls were being neglected. That problem was only being compounded by the fact that the fighters were racking up hundreds of hours of flight time in their patrols, sweeps and combat missions. Similarly, many of the capships were carrying damage that they simply hadn't had time or facilities to repair. None of these problems were critical yet, but they would only get bigger while the fleet struggled to hold the line. The longer this battle went on, the more the tide would turn against the humans. They couldn't afford a prolonged battle of attrition; it was as simple as that.
The Admiral shook her head. No matter how well they did, there always seemed to be more Nephilim ships than they had thought they would be facing. The frustrating part was that neither she nor those under her command had failed in any way. The fighter pilots had done magnificently; throwing themselves into battle against impossible odds time and again, and still managing to snatch victory while amassing kill ratios that any unit would be proud of. Similarly, those aboard the cruisers and destroyers had performed brilliantly, a fact that was clearly evident when comparing the casualties. No matter how much damage they did though, that decisive edge that they were searching for remained tantalizingly just out of reach.
At times, the Admiral felt a little like Alice in Wonderland, running the Red Queen's Race. No matter how well they did, it seemed that all they could do was to hold their place. The Admiral had hoped that they would be able to break the back of the Nephilim fleet in Nephele, but that hadn't happened. The battle still hung in the balance. All it would take would be one bad move, one mistake on her part, and the Nephilim would be able to use their numbers to swamp the human fleet. Not only that, if large numbers of enemy ships poured out of the wormhole before the Midway managed to close it, her entire plan to thin the Nephilim fleet out would be shot to hell. Still, that was out of her hands. As she had had to do so often in her career, all she could do was to play her part, and hope that those fighting elsewhere would play theirs.
The Admiral had also seen the reports on the reserves that were gathering in Nifelheim. Rather than reassure her, the reports simply worried her all the more. She had always known that with the Confed Senate stubbornly insisting that so much firepower be held back to protect politically important Inner Worlds, any help they would get would be minimal, but this was ridiculous. It wasn't quite so much the number of reserve fighters that concerned the Admiral. Between them, the three Confed and three Border Worlds CVEs and their escorts carried about 250 fighters, which was the equivalent of two fleet carrier groups.
No, what worried the Admiral was the quality of the fighters and their pilots. None of the fighters were Confed frontline types such as Panthers and Tigersharks, which now often seen on escort carriers [ author's note : this is from the WC:P manual ]. Instead, roughly half the fighters were Confed second line types such as Excaliburs and Bearcats, or Border Worlds frontline types such as Intruders and Jaguars. The other half were obsolete (or at least obsolescent) types such as Thunderbolts, Avengers, and Banshees.
Even that wouldn't have worried the Admiral so much if those fighters had been in the hands of frontline pilots. After all, the Border Worlders in the main fleet flew many of these craft, and they had done very well against the Nephilim. However, the reason that the Border Worlders had done so well was that they had mostly been experienced, combat hardened pilots. The Confed pilots they were fighting alongside hadn't been quite so experienced, but they had the lavish equipment and superb training that Confed gave its frontline forces. Both the Confed and Border Worlds pilots had been fully prepared for their baptism of fire against the Nephilim.
The reserve pilots, though, were a totally different story. The reserves had been scraped together from units that been planet bound for years, rookies who were fresh out of the Academy, and veterans who had been away from the frontlines since the First Kilrathi War. These units were more than capable of dealing with pirates and the occasional Kilrathi raiding party, but the Admiral had serious doubts about how well they would do in all out combat. Her peace of mind hadn't been helped any by recent reports that the reserve pilots had already lost several fighters in routine encounters with pirates, as well as training and landing accidents. If she sent them against the Nephilim fleet, they would likely die in droves.
That wasn't meant to be insulting or disparaging to the reserve pilots, it was simply a statement of fact. The Admiral had worked with reserves before, and she knew that the vast majority of them were loyal, brave and dedicated. They would give their all when they were sent against the Nephilim, and they would more than likely get the job done. However, the Admiral was a realist. She had fought in the Battle of Terra, and she had seen first hand what happened when reserve pilots were thrown against an overwhelming enemy force. They would get the job done, but a hell of a lot of them would die doing it. Unless the main fleet had severely weakened the Nephilim by the time they got to Nifelheim, those reserves would be little more than meat thrown to the wolves.
The Admiral frowned slightly. It all came down to that. The main fleet had to break the back of the Nephilim force in Loki, before leading the bugs to Nifelheim. The humans had to take out at least two and preferably three or four of those big ships, as well as devastating the Nephilim cruisers, destroyers, and corvettes. She glanced back over the report, and her eyes lit on the mention of the two damaged dreadnaughts.
"Admiral, report from Lt. Colonel Witt. The SWACS has picked up the Nephilim fleet inbound to our position. Their fighters should be within strike range in about two and a half hours," the comm officer's voice interrupted Admiral Hanton's thoughts.
"Hmmm? Oh, right. Signal all ships to recover their non jump-capable fighters and secure for jump stations. Jump capable fighters will perform CAP and recon as usual. We'll be jumping out about an hour before those Neph fighters make range. In the meantime, if anyone needs me I'll be in my ready room."
"Aye, aye, Admiral," the Comm Officer said, as Admiral Hanton walked off the bridge, her mind already busy mapping out plans for the next round of this battle.
Nephele-Loki Jump Point
About 2100 Hours
The capships of the combined Confed/Border Worlds fleet ignited their engines and accelerated towards the nearby jump point. With the Nephilim fighters now slightly less than an hour out of strike range, they could be sure that they had the Nephs' attention. There was no point in pushing their luck any further.
Excaliburs from Taipan Squadron jumped through first, making sure that there weren't any nasty surprises waiting for them on the other side (being able to count on the protection of their cloaks once again had greatly boosted value of the Excaliburs as scout craft). Other recon units had been sweeping the area beyond the jump point for the last few hours, but the fleet's commanders were being extra careful. That was partly due to fact that they now knew that the Nephilim wormhole was still open. It was hard to know exactly how many Nephilim ships had come through or where they were.
Once the Taipans had reported an all clear, the Vampires from the Yorktown jumped through, closely followed by the Panther squadrons. They jumped through with missiles armed and weapons hot, ready for anything and everything. Luckily, though, there weren't any Nephilim waiting for them in Loki. No one was quite sure if was lucky for them or for the Nephilim. Running headlong into a squadron of Vampires and several squadrons of Panthers can be hazardous to your health.
The destroyers, corvettes and torpedo boats jumped through next, establishing a secure zone on the far side of the jump point. The carrier groups went through next, jumping into Loki one by one. As each carrier secured from the jump, its flight deck spawned further fighter squadrons. If the Nephilim fighters somehow came through earlier than expected, the Terrans would be ready for them.
Just like when the fleet had jumped into Nephele, the last ships to come through were the heavy cruisers from the 8th Cruiser Squadron. The cruisers dumped mines, clogging the area around the jump point with anti-matter ship killer mines and anti-fighter missile mines. The mines were dumped on both sides of the jump point. They wanted the Nephilim coming after them, but there was no point in making it too easy.
One the cruisers had finished mining the Loki side of the jump point, all the capships once again ignited their engines, and accelerated away from the jump point. This time, instead of splitting up, the fleet reformed into the various carrier groups and capship squadrons, and stayed together. They would be splitting up, but not for a few more hours, when they were well away from the jump point.
The fleet that raced deeper into the Loki System was somewhat smaller and considerably more battered than the one that had jumped into Nephele only four days ago. Each and every person aboard was acutely aware of the gap where the Bunker Hill should have been, to say nothing of the gaps left by the loss of the cruisers, destroyers, and other warships. The humans had fought tooth and nail against the Nephilim in Nephele, holding the line against massive odds and taking their fair share of losses and wounds in the process. Now, they had to do it all over again.
Nephele-Loki Jump Point
About 2345 Hours, 11 Feb 2681 (2681.042)
The Nephilim fighters that had been chasing Hanton's Combined Fleet had simply run headlong into the mines left on the Nephele side of the jump point. After the first couple of squadrons had vanished in fire and debris, the rest had broken off to return to their ships. Now, those ships were fast approaching the jump point.
Fighters raced towards the jump point, their guns spitting fire, blasting away the mines one by one. Behind them, the sleek, repulsive corvettes and destroyers gathered. They held station just outside the minefield, waiting with barely concealed impatience while the fighters cleared the mines. The powerful, hulking cruisers waited behind the smaller ships. The still more massive carriers and dreadnoughts, organic monsters filled with power and menace, waited behind them.
Once the last mines detonated, the Nephilim fighters raced towards the jump point, with the corvettes and destroyers right behind them. The much smaller human fleet had humiliated them in Nephele, and they were eager to continue the battle. They were eager for Alpha Quadrant blood, and any Terran, Kilrathi, or alien aligned with either or that may just happen to be caught in the crossfire would do just fine. In their haste and fury, though, they didn't check for mines on the other side before they jumped through. That mistake cost them another couple of fighter squadrons, two corvettes, and a destroyer. It was one final slap in the face from the Terran "Combined Fleet," one final message that the battles in this system would be just as bloody and humiliating for the Nephilim.
Welcome to Loki.