PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 6 of 44 )
“ The Fallen ”
TCS Bunker Hill; Ready
About Two Hours later
1410 Hours (CST), 7 Feb 2681
Bad news, man," Chatterbox announced as Warrior entered the ready room.
"What's up?" Warrior asked.
"The Alien transmitter was taken out about an hour ago."
Warrior was confused. "I thought that would be good news..."
"Well, yes, in theory..." Chatterbox then uncharacteristically paused for effect, going on, "... except that it's revealed an Alien carrier group heading straight for us, cutting us off from the rest of the Fleet!"
"Ah. That would be bad. What are we planning on doing about it?" Warrior asked.
"How the hell should I know -- 'We are but mushrooms,' remember? Briefing's in five minutes, ask the Boss."
"I'd rather smear my balls with honey and lie naked on an ant nest!" Warrior retorted.
"All right, you prepubescent little piss-pots," the Boss addressed his pilots warmly, "listen up, and listen good, 'cause I ain't about to repeat myself. After our glorious victory, the bugs have gotten to wondering what happened to that lovely destroyer they used to have running around this system, and came looking for it, only to find us. They seem a little pissed at us. So pissed in fact, that right this minute, I'm told, they've launched a strike on us. I have no exact estimate of the numbers of Nephilim ships involved in this strike, because there are too many for the scanner to count. For those of you who don't know, that means that over one hundred and fifty fighters and bombers launched from the carrier and her escorts are on their way here."
"The plan we have devised is elegant in its stark simplicity: Get up there and kill the little fuckers. Then when you're done killing the little fuckers, you'll rearm and refuel because then we're going after the big fuckers! Everybody clear on what they're supposed to do? Goood. Well, GET MOVING!"
"And I thought I was starting to like this guy," Warrior muttered.
"I heard that!"
A Few Minutes Later...
Warrior was helped to strap into his Panther by the crew chief who removed the safety pins from the ejection system and handed them to Warrior (who placed them in one of his flightsuit's numerous zip pockets) before saluting and disappearing down the ladder. After powering up and checking that the Nav data had downloaded properly, Warrior closed the canopy, checked it was down and locked, then taxied forward and to the left.
He trickled forward until instructed to stop, and the blast deflector was raised behind him. He checked that he was getting full movement from the thrust vectoring unit and that the control jets worked, and then saluted to the plane handler who gave Warrior the thumbs up back. Warrior firewalled the throttle and ignited the burner. The Panther hurtled down the flight deck, through the atmosphere-retaining forcefield and out into the "big black."
Warrior took a quick glance at his VDU display and MFDs. Everything was in the green. He came out of burner quickly to preserve his fuel and cut the corner to slide up onto the wing of his leader, which for this flight happened to be Chatterbox. Hero hadn't been cleared by the quack after his ejection as safe to fly again, but Warrior suspected that his disappearance from the flight roster might have rather more to do with his argument with the Boss than any injury he might have sustained.
All the spaceworthy aircraft in the Panther squadron except the pair providing CAP for the SWACS (twelve in total after losses and those being repaired) were setting up a BARCAP patrol to stop the Nephilim strike getting through. With them were most of the group's Tigersharks, leaving only TCS Glasgow's (one of the destroyers) 8 F/A-105s and the Bunker Hill's squadron of Wasps to intercept any alien craft that got through.
"Gunslinger, Deadeye. Multiple bandits 220 by 30 for 120," the SWACS driver verbally informed the Panther squadron (Alpha, Bravo and Charlie flights) of the location of the Nephilim strike group whilst simultaneously sending a databurst to update the enemy positions on their navmaps/scanners.
"Boss copies. Two minutes, people."
Warrior mentally went through his checklist. Target: Locked; Guns: Full; Missiles: ImRec; Throttle: Mil - okay...
"Boss, do we take out the bombers first, or take out the fighters first and leave the bombers to carry on unescorted?" Warrior asked.
"Go for the fighters, then either us or the inner defenses can pick off the bombers more easily. We'll get minced otherwise."
There were a few BVR missile shots before the merge, and then all hell broke loose. There were so many Alien craft! Morays and Mantas, mostly. There was a flash to Warrior's right, and suddenly the number of blips on his scanner seemed to double: Someone had gotten a Ray. The Remoras seemed to be unshielded, because one blast of guns and they were history. They were numerous, but not terribly deadly. They were purely an annoyance. Warrior wondered if he should count them as "kills" -- they barely seemed to count. Morays seemed to be little better. For the enemy's standard fighter type they didn't seem particularly good. On the other hand, during the last part of the First Kilrathi War and even after the standard Confed type had been the F-86 Hellcat. Hard to believe that Confed had actually signed a contract to buy the damn things, let alone the vast numbers that they were produced in. Now they'd all been dumped on reserve units, or the Border Worlds. Even the Border World militia wouldn't touch them if they had a choice. The Kilrathi had gone with the Dralthi as their "standard" type during the war, too, and that was outperformed by, well, just about everything. Maybe "standard" fighters are the cheapest, or easiest to build. They certainly weren't picked for quality.
Warrior almost idly picked another one off and then got the shock of his life when the Manta the Moray had been acting as a decoy for opened fire. The whole aircraft shuddered under the hail of fire and Warrior barely managed to get the craft out of the volley before it exploded. He had no rear armor and fairly severe damage to the craft. Normally the armor wouldn't have worried him too much, except that his shield generators were about 80% trashed. Without their normal healthy recharge rate Warrior felt very, very vulnerable. Not only that but his other main aid to survival, his afterburner, was also 60% damaged, and working in intermittent, short bursts. This wasn't as bad as it might be because although he couldn't run from the bugs, it did cause their targeting systems hellish problems getting a firing solution.
Warrior did the only sensible thing: He jinked madly, puking decoys every time the "lock" klaxon sounded, and pleaded for help. Lt. Bob "Fatboy" Little (who was as skinny as a rake) obligingly cleared Warrior's six whilst his auto-repair system tried to patch up the damage his overconfidence had caused.
Warrior split-essed and locked up the closest target, another Manta. It had already taken what must have been a missile from the rear, but had light damage. The cumbersome heavy fighter twisted to try and evade Warrior, but despite its best efforts, it couldn't lose him. A quick check of his own tail first and Warrior hosed it, stripping off its shields and the remains of its armor. Smoke, sparks and phosphorescent debris flew off it as his shots hit home. Suddenly the nose of the stricken vessel pitched up violently then it swapped ends and broke up.
Warrior instantly broke hard left, then right, jabbing the "select closest target" button again. High and to the right was a Devil Ray space superiority fighter rolling in on him. As he brought the nose of his fighter around he got a good lock tone with his ImRec, and fired, followed quickly by a second missile. The Devil Ray rolled inverted and plunged down past his nose, continuing its rolling motion, over and over like a falling leaf, dumping masses of decoys as it did so. Both missiles missed, but Warrior saw one definitely arc back for a second try. Warrior changed targets and went after some Stingrays that were joining up.
Several Minutes Later...
It was long as dogfights go, maybe twenty minutes, but as usually happens, one minute the sky is full of targets and the next you're virtually alone. It took another couple of minutes for everyone to form up again. They'd trashed a hell of a lot of bugs, but lost four Panthers, along with a bunch of Tigersharks. No one had escaped without at least losing some armor and two of the Panthers would be grounded for quite a while. Warrior's would probably be the "hangar queen" for the rest of the cruise: 48% core damage, and no armor at all remaining on the rear or left side. It was a mess.
"Warrior, you and Phoenix had better get those heaps of junk back on deck. We might be able to salvage something," the Boss dished out the orders, "we'll go and find a replenishment shuttle. Then Frag and Puma, you guys go and relieve the Panthers on HAVCAP. They need to come to this nav point, where we'll rendezvous with the strike birds."
"What's going on, Boss?"
"We'll be launching a retaliatory strike, assuming of course the Wasps and Tigersharks get the ships that slipped past us. If we can take out their ships, or even just immobilize them we can rejoin the fleet."
"And if that doesn't work?"
"The Alcor jump point. It's a long run, and the Bunker Hill isn't exactly the fastest tub in the world, but it'll be the only chance we have. At the rate that enemy battle group is bearing down on us we'll be dead well before the rest of the fleet could get here. Answer your questions?"
"Yes. Worse luck." Warrior shook his head. First the Boss and now the Nephilim, he thought, I must have done something really fucking terrible in a past life...
Meanwhile, near the TCS Bunker Hill...
Captain Piotr "Tsar" Chenkov blasted out of the Bunker Hill's flight deck on full afterburners. Checking he was clear of the ship he ignited his SRB booster. Tsar loved the massive feeling of speed the booster gave him, better than burner, catapult launches or re-entry. He loved everything about his job and his fighter. The Wasp was fantastic: Brilliant missiles that would take out the heaviest fighter with one shot, fast, maneuverable, and no long, boring CAP or fighter-sweep missions. Just a scramble, a few quick kills and back to the bar for celebratory drinks.
Tsar chopped the booster and waited for the others to form up on his wing. He waggled the Wasp from side to side, and got answering nods, almost at the same instant as the enemy blips started to appear on the scanner.
"Engage," he commanded, and ignited his 'burners. Not wishing to waste his Swarmer missiles on the fragile Skate torpedo bombers, he cycled through the targets until he found something heavier, a Manta. The Swarmer missiles easily tracked the alien ship but its pilot tried to evade the inevitable, jinking and twisting even as the missiles slammed into his ship. The Manta almost seemed to be writhing in agony. Tsar put it out of his misery with a well aimed burst of guns. Next came a Devil Ray. This took a Swarmer and an ImRec. Tsar was shocked that any fighter could absorb such punishment. He used another ImRec on a Skate that found itself in front of him, and chased one of the component pieces. Though fragile, it presented a reasonably difficult target and it took several seconds to get in a killing burst of gunfire.
Suddenly a huge shape loomed above him, blotting out the stars as he looked through the Wasp's canopy. A Ray. Tsar pounded away at it, and chopped the throttle as he crashed heavily into the Ray's shields. It seemed almost as slow as a capital ship, and nearly as tough. Finally it exploded, flinging its entourage of Remora everywhere.
Damn! This makes it ten times harder to find worthwhile targets for Swarmers! Even so, it was not long before the skies were clear of bandits.
"Status! Call off! Alpha!"
"Three -- I'm hit bad, but I'll make it,"
"Four -- I'm hit, moderate damage only."
"Two - I've taken a few hits."
A long pause. No three.
Tsar cursed, "Three?" No answer. Damn.
"Four?" Double damn.
"Hotshot and Mindbender. They didn't eject," Tsar could see no SARBE beepers on his scanner, "there is no point in remaining here. Let us return to the carrier."
A Few Minutes Later...
Warrior eased his battered ship onto the 180 radial of "Mother," the TCS Bunker Hill.
"Strike, Warrior for recovery."
"Copy, Warrior, call the ball."
"Panther ball, state 0.0, manual approach."
"Copy that, Warrior. You're cleared to land."
Warrior couldn't use the automated landing system as it had been knocked out during the fight. Still he was on the glide path and all he needed to do was keep her steady and remember to throttle back before reaching the runway threshold. Then it would be an easy enough matter to drop the gear and gently put her on the deck. He hoped.
15,000 klicks back in trail he heard Phoenix get landing clearance as well. If anything went wrong with Warrior's landing, that would give him time for a wave-off, and if everything went okay, enough time for Warrior to land and taxi into one of the hangar bays to clear the flight deck.
Warrior had throttled back to 150 KPS by the time he crossed the landing bay threshold, and then dropped the gear, chopping the throttle to nothing whilst dropping the nose. Warrior didn't get a "greaser," there was a large squeal of protest from his tires, but he got her safely down and taxied left off the runway. A few seconds behind him Phoenix set his bird down as well, and Warrior relaxed. He checked everything was still off and safe, and powered down the Panther's systems as his crew chief got to the Panther with the ladder. He waited while Warrior replaced the ejection seat's safety pins, and when Warrior gave him the thumbs up he climbed the ladder and helped the exhausted pilot unstrap and clamber rather unsteadily out.
"She's a hell of a mess, man," "Spanners," his crew chief grumbled.
"You shoulda seen the other guy," Warrior shot back.
"Hey," Spanners was craning his neck to look at some foreign material on the Panther's hull, "what the fuck is this stuff?" It was gelatinous, a sickly green color, and was dripping onto the deck.
"Don't touch that! It could be anything. Acidic or toxic or something..." though also curious Warrior didn't want to get too close, and tugged Spanners away, "c'mon, we better get someone from science division down here. They'll want to take a look at that gunk."
"Rather them than me," Spanners held his nose, "it stinks!"
About Half an
1515 Hours, 7 Feb 2681
The Boss disengaged his Panther from the replenishment shuttle. Frag and Puma in their lightly damaged ships had already headed back to swap places with the pristine fighters providing cover for the SWACS. Everyone had rearmed and refueled, and they headed back toward the earlier nav point where they had intercepted the alien attack. Boss had just done one orbit when the two Panthers arrived with the Shrikes in trail.
"No Wild Weasel?" growled the Boss.
"The WC wouldn't release the Tigershark squads for it. Said they'd be better off staying to protect the carrier."
"I'll fucking kill him when we get back!" The Boss was furious, "I had them scheduled to go in two minutes ahead of the Shrikes on a SEAD [Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses] strike on the guns and shield generators! All right, fuck it! We'll self-weasel. We'll split the Panthers into two groups - some will take out the fighters while the others try and thin out the enemy guns, then go for the fighters themselves to keep them off the Shrikes' backs while they make their attack runs. Okay?"
A few mike double-clicks, a 'copy' and a couple of "roger that" calls were his reply. They didn't really have much choice.
"We'll weasel, Bravo and Charlie flights can provide top cover."
1550 Hours, 7 Feb 2681
"Jee-Zuz H. Kee-Fucking-Rist!" Fatboy exclaimed, looking at the Nephilim carrier, which looked like a gigantic sea-cucumber, but about a tenth as appealing, "their carriers are even uglier than their destroyers!"
The Boss thought there'd been a lot of alien fighters in the strike package, but there seemed to be even more here. Thinking back, there couldn't have been anything like the numbers in the attack wave as the SWACS count had predicted. Maybe it was a feint to see what sort of strength they were up against, and draw them out. Without having properly fought them before it was impossible to know what to expect from the Nephilim. At least with the Kats you could get into their heads, into their minds, out-guess'em, out think them, but these bugs? How do you think like a hive mind?
Ignoring the oncoming interceptors he bored straight in for the alien carrier. Contour hugging, he streaked low over the surface of the alien vessel. Movement to his left caught his eye, and he whipped his head over only to see one of the huge guns turn to track him. The Boss was already jinking before the turret opened up on him, the incandescent projectiles flying over and around his Panther. Cursing, he cycled through the capship's separate areas until he found the offending emplacement.
He took a deep breath and swung the Panther in a flat, skidding left hand turn, deftly stopping the turn with his nose squarely pointed at the gun. The aiming reticule had by chance fallen directly over the bore of the huge gun's barrel. As he blasted it with his own guns, the Boss realized with some alarm that the alien turret was larger than his whole fighter, let alone his guns. He bunted the stick to dive beneath its blasts, and gave it a last, fatal shot before yanking hard on the stick to avoid slamming into the Nephilim carrier's hull.
"Boss, we need to get that shield generator down so the Shrikes can use their torps," Fatboy reminded him.
"Copy that. I'll get it," the Boss characteristically took the job on himself.
Selecting it he skimmed around the hull of the carrier. The missile klaxon whooped, and he punched decoys before rolling inverted and pulling the stick down and right. He'd seen the missile launch from out of the corner of his eye. Without changing his selected target from the shield emitter, he blasted away at the missile turret, puking decoys as he did so before climbing out inverted and rolling to line up on the shield emitter again. The Panther was rocked by another burst of turret fire as he lined up. He ignored it and chopped the throttle to slow his approach and allow time to fire longer before he had to pull-up to avoid hitting the alien ship. The turret fire became more intense, and he firewalled the throttle, only getting off a couple of shots before he had to turn away, extend, and come back again. It took him four passes, and by the time he had got the alien shield generators he had lost layers of armor all round.
"Fatboy, we have to knock out more of the defenses on this carrier, otherwise the Shrikes are never going to make it!"
"What about the destroyer and cruiser, Boss?"
"We'll tackle them next. The carrier is the main priority, then the destroyer. The cruiser's not much of a threat to the Bunker Hill battle group."
"Boss, can we start our attack runs yet?" The Shrike flight leader was getting impatient.
"Be my guest, but be advised, they still have a significant number of guns left."
"Copy, but we're coming in anyway. Try and get a few of the destroyer's guns while we take out the carrier."
"Wilco, out." The Boss lit the 'burners and snaked the Panther from side to side as he got some distance from the carrier. He latched onto a Moray that was foolish enough to get his attention by firing at him. He dispatched it in seconds, and made his way toward the Nephilim destroyer, the type that had been assigned the TCIS codename "Orca."
He set about single-handedly eliminating its turrets, too, but his attention was focused on the destroyer and he failed to notice the Manta attacking him. The missile klaxon and Alien gun impacts warned him simultaneously of his predicament. A quick 180 whilst dumping decoys should have got rid of the missile, but although it lost its lock it still crashed heavily into his shields. He held the trigger down and at the same time squeezed off three FF missiles, two of which hit the Manta head on. The Manta exploded in a fireball, but the Panther was a mess as well, no frontal armor and some system damage, including badly damaged shields. The Boss cursed fluently but nevertheless reversed his turn and went back to the job of knocking out turrets.
A Moray came in from 3 o'clock high, and instinctively he rolled in behind it, chasing it low over the strange surface of the alien capital ship. The Moray suddenly pulled up vertically, lighting the burners, and the Boss found himself staring down the barrel of a very large gun.
About An Hour Later
Warrior was standing on "goofers' gallery," the observation area that looks out over the flight deck, watching the strike birds return. Some were missing. Most of the rest were badly battered, trailing smoke, sparks and flame. Warrior recognized the familiar "smiley face" nose art on Fatboy's Panther as it crossed the ramp, and he went down to greet him.
Fatboy popped the canopy and disconnected himself from the numerous umbilical, electrical and mechanical fastenings that fixed him into the cockpit, ripping out the wires and flinging the seat straps away hard enough to clatter against the canopy, shattering the already starred and cracked material. He half climbed, half slid down the boarding ladder, anger and despair fighting for control of his features.
"I'll fucking kill him!" Fatboy was fuming. He pulled out his pistol and thumbed off the safety.
"Whoa! Calm down, man. What happened?"
"The WC cancelled the SEAD strike, didn't he? Me and the Boss had to do it ourselves with only a space superiority loadout. I'm gonna kill him, the stupid jerk!"
"What happened to the Boss?"
"He didn't make it, did he? Stubborn bastard took on a friggin' destroyer all by himself, didn't he?"
"He didn't eject?"
"Never got the chance, did he? And even if he had, how the fuck would we have picked him up from the middle of an enemy group, especially as we're going full speed in the opposite bloody direction! I think maybe he decided not to pull the handle."
"Yup. And we didn't even get that carrier. The strike fell apart after the Boss died. We barely got out of there." Fatboy holstered his weapon, "C'mon, let's go get plastered."