PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 7 of 44 )
“ The Fallen ”
Hill; Briefing Room
About Two Hours later
1900 Hours (CST), 07 Feb 2681
All right, ladies and gents, time to get to work."
The WC waited patiently as the last few people settled themselves into their seats. "There's good news, bad news and very bad news," he paused for effect before continuing, "the good news is that the Nephilim carrier group has stopped pursuing us for the time being, presumably whilst they effect repairs on their damaged ships.
"The bad news is that as you probably all know, Colonel Hoffman didn't return from the last mission. Neither did several of the pilots of the Shrikes or the other Panthers escorting them. We are now down to less than two-thirds strength in both pilots and aircraft, although the Shrike and Panther communities have come off rather worse. They're both down to about half strength, but even then, the 'planes are bent and the pilots fatigued. I appreciate what sort of strain you're under but you've just got to hang in there: Losses so far have been bad but not catastrophic."
"The very bad news is that we've just spotted another Alien battle group heading to intercept us before we get to the Alcor jump point." He let it sink in for a moment, "we've therefore got two choices: carry on to the Alcor jump point and try and smash through this new alien force, or turn around and try and sneak past the first crippled battle group to return to the rest of the fleet.
"The Admiral, Captain, and I have discussed it and decided that the latter is the most strategically desirable and tactically sensible course of action. However, as we attempt to skirt past them we can expect to come under another heavy attack."
"I presume I don't have to tell you that if one of the ships in the Bunker Hill's battle group gets disabled, we will have a huge problem. If it's the Bunker Hill herself we are very obviously in deep shit. If it's one of our escorts, we will be faced with the difficult decision as whether to stay and help defend them until they can make repairs and get under way again or keep going, save the rest of the group and leave them to certain destruction."
"Sir," Warrior protested, "you're not seriously suggesting that we leg it and leave them to their fate? I wouldn't do that to a wounded dog!"
"Well if you boys and girls do your job properly, the situation need never arise."
Suddenly the doors of the briefing theatre hissed open and a young Naval officer dashed in, running straight up to the WC.
"Sir, you have to read this," he panted, handing a slip of paper to the Wing Commander, who turned pale as he read it.
"I have just been told that the two Nephilim battle groups have launched simultaneous strikes at us. Early estimates run at 4-500 craft."
"Bojemoi!" Tsar was shocked. Others sat in stunned silence.
"That's it then? Das vidanya tovarish? Goodnight, Vienna? That's seven or eight to one!"
"Secure that shit, soldier! I don't want that sort of talk! We will not roll over and die for a bunch of overgrown 'roaches! If we go down, we're going to go down swinging! We'll continue as planned, and try and fight our way back to the rest of the fleet. Alright?"
"Yessir!" came the chorus. Warrior turned to Tsar as the WC left and their video screens came to life, shaking his head.
"First cats, now insects. What's next -- the attack of the killer amoebas?"
Twenty Minutes later
Near TCS Bunker Hill
"Die, you mother fuck!" Warrior screamed at the Manta heavy fighter he was attacking, as if it would help finish it off faster. It exploded in a crimson fireball, but everywhere he looked there seemed to be more Nephilim of one sort or another. His scanner was almost swamped with red dots. He would pick the closest, get into a firing position and have four more on his tail. How can you fight like that? Even if you got a shot or two in, by the time you'd shaken your own pursuers, his shields had regenerated. And when you did eventually fluke a kill, a dozen more of the ugly bastards took his place. The simple fact that he was up here in his heavily damaged fighter proved how desperate the situation was. Even a crippled fighter was better than nothing.
Meanwhile, Tsar was discovering the limitations of the Wasp. A great interceptor it may be, and even a passable dogfighter, but it didn't have much staying power. Once those precious few missiles were used up, good though they were, it was left with guns that soaked up energy at an alarming rate. Great for finishing of targets already crippled by a missile hit, but not fantastic after 10 frantic minutes when everything in the sky seems hostile, and you can't get in a decent snapshot because your energy well is empty...
Everything had been put up, including the Shrikes, just to stop the attack from the battle damaged Alien battle group. Even then the escort cruiser TCS Kinsasha and the destroyer Glasgow had taken moderate to severe damage, with the New Delhi [the other destroyer] and the Bunker Hill not escaping unscathed either. And there was still the second attack to deal with.
They were running flat out away from that attack, 100 KPS, but the Alien attack, even cruising, was traveling three times as fast, meaning a closure rate of double their own speed. They had a head start, and no-one had any idea of what sort of a range the Nephilim ships had, but it seemed unlikely that they could outrun them before they were overtaken by the massive strike force.
To cut some time off their own route, Admiral Rayak had decided that they would go through the first alien battle group, rather than detour around as first planned, which meant that a significant portion of the Bunker Hill's already diminished defensive forces were leaving to try and take them out before the capships got there. Four Shrikes (all the spaceworthy examples of the type still aboard the Bunker Hill), a couple of Panthers and four Tigersharks. Warrior watched them go. They stood a better chance than he did, by his reckoning. That Nephilim carrier and her escorts had twice thrown everything they had at them, defended against one attack themselves, and were a destroyer short already. Arrayed against the Bunker Hill's defenders was the entire air group of a pristine Nephilim battle group.
Warrior felt light-headed at the realization. He knew they were going to die. All logic dictated it. He'd come to terms with death at an early age; everybody dies sooner or later, there's nothing you can do to stop it, so why worry? You may as well have fun before it happens, and if that fun hastens the inevitable, well, that's just hard-luck. Flying fighters was worth the risk. He'd faced the possibility of death before, even a reasonable probability, but never a dead-certainty. He should, he supposed, be afraid, but he wasn't. The proximity of death didn't fill him with fear, rather it seemed to drain him. He felt hollow inside. It felt similar to the first time he broke a neighbor's window as a boy. The awful realization that it had happened, and nothing could change it. That was the feeling, he could put his finger on it, now. Like it had already happened.
Or had it? The Bunker Hill was finished, that was for damn certain. A simple time/distance equation proved that. But what about him? His fighter wasn't the fastest in the fleet, but his AB tanks had been topped off after the engagement, and when they ran out, he could put all the power into the engines. How long would it take to get to the rest of the fleet? Would his life support keep him alive that long? Of course it would, the SWACS and escorts had already done it. Wait a second. If you did that, even if you make it to the rest of the fleet, you'll be court martialed for, oh, lessee, cowardice in the face of the enemy, desertion, gross dereliction of duty, theft of Confed property namely 1 (one) F-108 Panther Space Superiority Fighter and warload... et cetera. Nope, getting splattered by some giant bug was better than that.
"Ah, shit!" Warrior said to the universe in general.
"What's up?" Tsar. Warrior realized he must have automatically transmitted his comment without realizing.
"Well, we're screwed, aren't we?"
Nearing Nephilim battle group,
ETA : 1 minute
About The Same Time
Fatboy and Chatterbox lit their afterburners and accelerated past the Shrikes, followed quickly by the Tigersharks as the enemy came into range. There were a few long-range missile shots, and then they were through the merge and arcing around to tackle each other, a cross somewhere between chess players and boxers, circling, searching, looking for an opening to try and exploit. Move and counter move, at first graceful, but then degenerating into a close-range, bloody brawl.
The few interceptors the enemy had left were soon locked in combat with the Panthers and Tigersharks, and the Shrikes blasted past unimpeded, turning immediately to attack the carrier. It was still in a bad way from the earlier attack and the already shattered carrier soon succumbed to the volley of torpedoes crashing into it.
The Shrikes turned their attention to the destroyer. However, its defenses were still reasonably intact. One Shrike was knocked out by a missile turret before it even got close enough to get a torpedo lock. A second was caught in the crossfire of two turrets as the pilot bravely but stupidly sat almost stationary whilst taking out the shield generator. He pulled his crippled aircraft away from the destroyer, but the afterburners had been damaged, and the bomber moved agonizingly slowly. Far too slowly. A Squid sliced past, its guns almost cutting the Shrike in half.
The sacrifice had however made it possible for the other pair of Shrikes to attack the destroyer though, and they attacked its engines first. If it couldn't move, it couldn't chase the Hill...
By the time Fatboy had run out of adversaries, the destroyer too was an explosion-wracked hulk, and the cruiser damaged badly enough for it to turn and move away. Fatboy called off the attack, and they turned to return to the Bunker Hill.
"Gimme a status! Alpha."
"Two. I'll live."
"Bravo Two. Chainsaw didn't make it."
"Three. We lost Four - she punched out."
"Flame? We can pick her up later."
"Too late. They got her."
"Oh, Jesus... Charlie Flight?"
"Charlie Lead. I'm pretty banged up. Two's gone... crashed into the cruiser."
"Kamikazed, you mean?"
"Sonnova..." Fatboy shook his head. "What about the other pair?"
"Both dead before we knocked the destroyer out."
Fatboy took his hand off the throttle and rubbed the back of his neck. All the hairs were standing up, and he felt icy cold.
Near the TCS Bunker Hill
A Few Minutes Later
1935 Hours, 07 Feb 2681
Warrior desperately chased the huge missile. It was called a missile but really it was beyond even a torpedo; the cap ship missile was larger than his own fighter. He was overtaking it, but too slowly. It would impact with the Glasgow well before he got in range. All he could hope for was that it would be taken out by the destroyer's close in defenses, but given the profusion of targets the turrets were faced with, he didn't give it more than a one in five chance of being shot down.
Things were turning very pear shaped. The individual Nephilim craft were nothing to write home about, but their sheer numbers... they were winning simply through attrition. Every time they destroyed a wave of the enemy there was the rise of hope, maybe this is the last wave, just maybe... and then another huge swarm would appear on the edge of sensor range, and he could hear the Grim Reaper laughing at them.
He realized he was still pushing the throttle through the reheat detent, desperately willing the fighter to go faster and overtake the deadly projectile, but his fuel was long since gone. It was instinct. He fired a long, long burst, but he knew it was futile. A flash, and the hope that maybe the guns' projectiles had exceeded the specs in the manual, and then the awful realization that it was the missile detonating not under his fire, but inside its target.
"We're hit! severe casualties on decks three through seven, sections 5 through nine! We're losing life support!"
A massive secondary explosion ripped through the doomed destroyer. There was a ripple as he passed through the bubble of expanding hot gases transmitting the remnants of the deadly blast wave, then the debris hitting was his shields. Plasteel, ceramite, and body parts. His best efforts had been as much use as a man pissing on a forest fire.
Tsar had lost count of how many bugs he'd got. Possibly a couple of dozen. It hadn't helped much, though. The Bunker Hill's surviving escorts had tucked in close and tried to add their anti-spacecraft defenses to the carrier's to produce an impenetrable blanket of fire. It hadn't worked. The captain of the Kinshasha deserved to be either shot or given the medal of honor after he deliberately put the cruiser in the path of another capship missile/CSM. The cruiser was still roughly in one piece, more or less, but her left side was now exposed to hard vacuum.
The Bunker Hill had still taken a hard hit a few minutes later. It ripped through into the flight deck, taking out the portside hangars and cooking off several missiles and torpedoes when one of the replenishment shuttles that was being "bombed up" was destroyed. Miraculously though, so far the carrier seemed to have suffered no real structural damage, and the engines were still running, though one of the reactors was nearing redline values after a near miss to the engineering section. Coolant was being vented to space from ruptured lines, and it seemed to Tsar almost as if the the carrier herself was bleeding. Bleeding to death.
The destroyers had fared less well. One had been completely destroyed, exploding so forcefully that debris caused damage to the other ships. The second destroyer had the bridge section knocked out, and it was being steered from the engine room from instructions radioed to it by the Bunker Hill. The turrets (those that were left, anyway) were still firing, and her hull was relatively intact.
Warrior was dead. Tsar had heard him scream, briefly, as the Stingray blew his fighter to pieces. The Stingray hadn't lasted long, he'd made sure of that, but who would do the same for him? His perspex canopy was starred and cracked, his MFDs smoking and sparking. It was impossible not to take damage, no matter how good a pilot you were. For every one you had in your sights, three would be behind you.
And the endless waves of fighters -- how many waves? And why not come all at once? Because, you fool, Tsar realized, if they did they would be in far more danger from collisions and friendly fire than from us, of course!
The shuttles were gone. One or more had been destroyed on board the carrier and the others had been destroyed in the last attack, along with several fighters trying to refuel and re-arm at the time. He'd cursed when he was last in the queue but just as quickly given thanks when he found himself outside the huge scarlet fireball that engulfed the Wasp and two Tigersharks in close formation with the replenishment shuttle he was joining. It had saved his life, but not for long. He had no afterburner fuel and no missiles with which to fight the incoming wave of hostiles.
Perhaps if they survived this coming wave of enemy... they were getting further from the enemy carrier every moment. The survivors (if any) from the strike mission would be returning any minute. Maybe, just maybe. Fate cruelly held out the hope of survival only to take it away again.
"Bandits! Multiple bandits inbound!"
"Da. I see them. Missile!" Tsar hauled back on the stick, thumbing the "decoy" button on the throttle madly. Only one burst of chaff and flares emerged. The missile was still tracking him. He tried to tighten his barrel roll, keeping his speed high to force the missile to turn even tighter to maintain its intercept course. The missile, traveling even faster, shouldn't ever be able to hit him, in theory.
The downside is that an Image Recognition or Friend-or-Foe missile will come back for another pass, and once it is behind you the same trick will not work. However, if you turn to face the missile again it exposes your rear to the enemy and the possibility of more missiles. Tsar bored straight on, jinking from side to side and up and down randomly. The missiles often built up so much speed as they shot toward you that they couldn't even track small maneuvers.
It didn't work. The missile smashed straight into the Wasp virtually cutting it in half. The kinetic impact was heavy, and the missile penetrated the interceptor's armor before detonating. The explosion tore the entire right side off the Wasp.
The world seemed to slow down to Tsar and with terrifying clarity he observed the canopy shatter into fragments. Saw hypersonic shrapnel rip through durasteel, perspex and his own body. Felt the agony in his ears as the cockpit pressure suddenly dropped. Felt the blood start to boil in his veins, and all the alveoli in his lungs burst. Tasted the boiling blood frothing up his throat. His vision went red as the capillaries in his eyes suddenly burst. He reached for his sidearm to blow his own brains out, but the impulses sent out by his brain never reached his right arm that they had been sent to, because the explosion had torn it off at the shoulder. What little air there had been in his lungs was blasted out of them with the boiling blood as his chest was at a much higher pressure than the void outside his body leaving only empty, soundless, frantic gasps. Blood was everywhere, bursting, erupting from the veins, arteries and capillaries that had all ruptured beneath the skin, spraying everywhere. His death agonies ended as his entire body disintegrated, followed almost instantly by what was left of his fighter.
The Bunker Hill's luck too ran out. Running at 110% of stated safe limits, and with a coolant leak, it was only a matter of time: The number three reactor went critical and suffered a meltdown. The results of this were not as catastrophic as might be thought. A nuclear reactor, contrary to popular belief, cannot go off like a nuclear bomb. A matter/anti-matter fusion reactor as this was cannot even suffer an runaway reaction. Unlike a fission reactor where the whole of its nuclear fuel is already in the reactor, a fusion reactor's anti-matter fuel is being constantly fed to it, and the reaction can be stopped simply by stopping this fuel supply.
However, the super-heated plasma in the reactor needed to be vented, and found its own release. The explosion completely destroyed the engine room and the right bank of engines, but the safeguards did their work and the carrier herself stayed intact. Blue-white plasma, ionized gas as hot as the hottest stars, burst violently forth at hypersonic speeds, vaporizing virtually anything it touched. It was still white hot as it hit the nearby Kinsasha. The already shattered Plunkett-class vessel simply disintegrated as the debris and hot gases hit it. The wave of white hot gas continued on expanding and cooling so that by the time it hit the New Delhi, it merely rocked the ship and the red hot gases (now no longer hot enough to remain in their high-energy ionized state) simply washed over it.
Like a wounded beast chased by hunters or predators until it dropped, the Bunker Hill's heart had given out, and she lay at the mercy of her pursuers. Her war was over.
TCS Bunker Hill; CIC
The Wing Commander, Colonel Harold Morrison, took off his headset, flinging it across the room. Most of their fighters were dead, and the Nephilim were swooping in. "That's it. We're finished."
The Captain didn't react, except to throw one furious glance at Rayak. Admiral Hanton's formidable Battle Group Valkyrie (CVBG-V) was only a few hours away. If Rayak had allowed him to call for help as soon as they had slowed down the first alien battle group, the Valkyries might have been able to link up with them, or at least launch their fighters to provide additional cover. Rayak had insisted they take the alien group on their own, saying he "would be damned if he would beg for help from Colonials."
"Any luck?" he asked his comm officer anyway.
"No, sir," the comm officer said tiredly, pushing her hair out of her eyes with one hand. By the time they had found out about the second group, it had been far too late. The two alien groups had thrown a short range jamming blanket over them, cutting them off from any help.
"Not that it matters," she added bitterly.
"Keep trying," the Captain said, laying a comforting hand on her shoulder. "Let them know what happened to us."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The Captain rounded on Rayak. "What the bloody hell did you think you were playing at, Rayak, sending off half our remaining fighters to knock out that other carrier group?"
"I..." Admiral Victor Rayak, CO of the Third Fleet stammered, "We'd never have made it going around them! We needed to get back in range of the rest of the fleet for reinforcements."
"We'd have lasted longer if we'd had more ships to defend us! What the hell is the point of saving a few minutes when we wouldn't last that long without those fighters? And why the hell didn't you let me call for help earlier?"
"Our ships are so superior... we should have been able to kill that battle group, but... the second group... the communications... I'm sorry," Rayak was almost in tears. "God I'm sorry..."
"Well, at least you didn't deliberately send us out on a suicide mission. I assume even you wouldn't be stupid enough to come along if you'd expected this to happen!"
"Oh, Christ, what have I done?" Rayak put his head in his hands and sobbed. Suddenly he seemed to reach a decision, and reached inside his jacket, pulling out a Colt C-6 Assegai pistol.
"No!" the WC and the Captain both reached to stop him -- even Commodore Arnold, who watched in helpless horror -- but it was too late. Rayak pulled the trigger. The left side of his head disintegrated, blood and brain fragments being sprayed all over the wall, ceiling, his XO, the WC, and the Captain.
"Oh, God...!" Morrison groaned.
"I don't think he's listening," said the Captain.
A Few Minutes Later...
Fatboy, Chatterbox, and the two Tigersharks hurtled through the blackness. Every available fighter was needed at the Bunker Hill. The single remaining Shrike had been left trailing in their wake minutes ago. All excess energy had been poured into the engines, and the Bunker Hill herself was traveling toward them at 100 KPS, but even so... Fatboy dreaded what they might find when they got back. The SWACS feed had been lost about the same time they'd attacked the alien carrier, and they were flying blind.
"We're almost in sensor range now," Chatterbox told him, "I can't see anything..."
"Give it another minute or - there! She's still in one piece! I don't see any of the escorts, though."
"Mayday, mayday, this is TCS Bunker Hill ------ to any friendly craft, we have been --- ushed by ---- Nephilim ----- and figh ---- forces. We have ------. Don't forget us. We to --- of the bastards down. Bunker Hill out."
"Hold on! We're on our way!"
"Too late, she's - AAARRRGHH!!! - "
"No, come on, she can't be! She can't be!"
A massive blue-white explosion lit up the void ahead of them, confirming their worst fears. The TCS Bunker Hill, CV-52, once a fearsome, nearly 800 meter-long Concordia fleet carrier, once the pride of the Third Fleet, once home to over 3,000 men and women, was no more. The Nephilim raised an eerie, ear-splitting howl, glorying in the kill, mocking the fallen.
"You bastards! Die, you mother fuckers!" Fatboy started to use his remaining few seconds of afterburner fuel, suicidally ploughing into the mêlée. The Tigersharks followed him. One splashed a Moray before a Manta blew it to pieces and the second Tigershark was obliterated before he could even get a kill.
"This is suicide! It's pointless!" Chatterbox roared.
"They have to pay!"
"They will! We'll get them, but dying here isn't going to do anything! We have to get back to the rest of the fleet!"
"We'd never make it!"
"We will, they'll never chase us that far. If the other carriers are suffering these kinds of losses they'll need every fighter they can get! Not to mention the fact that I'd rather prolong the inevitable..."
"I guess so. It just doesn't feel right."
"Death hardly ever does," Chatterbox told him.
"It's over, isn't it?" Fatboy despaired, "it's all over."
For the first time in his life, Chatterbox didn't know what to say. There just weren't the words.