PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 8 of 44 )

: Fell on Black Days

 

Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
Nephele System, Vega Sector
February 7th, 2681 (2681.038)
1200 Hours Zulu

“… And those who gave their lives did not do so in vain, for those valiant souls fell to protect those who could not protect themselves, and to grant them safe passage to their new homes. So today, on the 7th of February in the year of our Lord 2681, we pay our last respects to our fallen comrades.”

Jarin watched as Admiral Hanton went through with the memorial service for those lost during the final hours of the Tyr operation. He kept his thoughts a blank, they would be back into action soon enough and there was no time to grieve. Coffins rose from the deck and were nudged into space as Hanton read off the names of the dead pilots.

“Captain Kevin Taylor, 62nd Heavy Fighter Squadron...”

Number nine, Jarin thought.

“First Lieutenant Trent Landon, 62nd Heavy Fighter Squadron...”

Number ten...

“First Lieutenant Heather Clark, VF-78 Medium Fighter Squadron...”

Number eleven... one "We regret to inform you" letter...

“Ensign Troy Ellester, VF-78 Medium Fighter Squadron...”

Number twelve... and one more "We regret…"

The Admiral paused for just a second, before reading out the next part of the grim list: the names of the eight Marines who had been killed when they had stormed a pirate held fuel depot to secure the fuel reserves needed by the civilian ships.

“Corporal Robert Heath, Battle Group Valkyrie Bravo Platoon.”

“Private First Class…”

Several more names followed. Jarin was just thankful that these "We regret…" letters would be written by someone else.

“And the crew of the BWS Warspite, whose bodies will remain forever in the system they died to protect. May our dead find eternal rest among the stars that gave us birth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”

 

Rec Room, BWS Freedom
One hour later

Jarin leaned back against the durasteel bulkhead, quietly staring at the half empty drink in front of him. Had to happen sooner or later, he thought to himself. There’s no way to get out of any war clean. But there’s no point in beating myself up over it. Nothing could’ve saved my pilots.

After taking a sip from his drink, he pulled a datapad from his pocket and powered it up. After opening up the letter he was preparing, he went back to work on finishing it.

BWS Freedom, VF-78 Fighter Squadron : 2681.037

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Clark,

It is with the most profound regret that I must inform you of the death of your daughter, First Lieutenant Heather Clark. Your daughter was an invaluable asset to the pilots and crew of the Freedom, and will be sorely missed. Please be assured that 1st Lt Clark fell in combat, flying with the skill and bravery representative of the Union of Border Worlds. I pray that this is of some comfort to you and 1st Lt Clark’s other loved ones.

While I know there is nothing I can do to stem the grief you must feel, I would like you to know that the memory of your daughter will live forever on in our hearts, and that we shall ensure her death was not in vain. I have recommended that your daughter posthumously receive the Border Worlds Flying Cross, and a Silver Star for valor in the face of overwhelming odds.

With deepest sympathies,

Commander Jarin Beleforte
Squadron Commander, VF-78 Fighter Squadron

Short, sweet, and to the point, Jarin thought. He saved the document and shut the datapad back off, a wave of weariness settling on him. Somehow it just didn’t seem right. But then again, this sort of thing wasn’t supposed to seem right. Who ever said saying goodbye was easy? he noted to himself. Jarin finished off his drink and retrieved another from the bar.

“Hey, boss, over here,” called Ensign Alexa "Shade" Sheldon.

Jarin walked over and sat down at the empty chair. Shade, 1st Lt Terri "Jolt" Heston, and Lt Commander Will "Diablo" Vaughn filled the other three chairs. “What’s up, people?”

“Not much, sir. Just talking about the next stage of the campaign. Think it’ll be worse than this one?” Jolt asked.

“Yeah. Doesn’t look good at all. We did good in Tyr, but even with all our kills, that Nephilim fleet is still pretty darn huge.”

“Great. Do we even have a chance?”

“Yes… yes we do. We’ll win this thing. The Admiral said right from the start that this was going to be a fighting retreat, not a short, sharp battle. We'll knock the Nephs out of action after we’ve fallen back to the rendezvous in Nifelheim. And if we do it right, we can bring our kill ratios up high enough so the battle at the rendezvous point will be a turkey shoot.”

Shade nodded. “Of course, this is all a theory, isn’t it?”

“True enough. We’ll just have to wait and see, won’t we?”

“And if we do lose?” Will asked.

Jarin stared straight at him. “That’s not an option.”

“Let’s just hope the bugs see it that way.”

“It’s our job to nail the idea into whatever they use for skulls.”

“And that is definitely something to toast. To our life… and the bug’s lack of it.”

The four pilots clinked their glasses together and sat silently, collecting their thoughts on the campaign ahead. “We’ve got a long, hard road ahead.”

“Nobody ever said the pilot’s life would be easy, Lex.”

“I know, sir, I know. It’s just it seems… I don’t know. This is the first major war I’ve seen, you know? It’s kind of a new experience.”

Will began to chuckle. “You’ll get over it eventually, Shade.”

“Diablo’s got a point. I suppose in a way me and him are lucky. We went through all this back when the Kilrathi were mucking things up. The same goes for most of the other guys here on the Freedom and over on the Val. They've faced the Cats, the Black Lance, even Confed. Once you've survived all that, a few thousand overgrown roaches don't seem that bad. The way I look at it now is that this is like the Kilrathi Wars, the only difference being there are more targets to shoot at this time around. It helps.”

Shade mulled this over as she finished off her drink. “I think I see what you mean. You’re basically saying that war is war, the only thing that really changes is how many things there are to blow up?”

“Yeah, that’s about it,” Jarin said with a smile.

“And if it helps any, by the time the next war rolls around you’ll be sitting at some table telling the newer pilots the exact same thing we’re telling you,” Will added.

She stayed quiet for a few moments, thinking. “Assuming any of us live that long.”

 

Bridge, BWS Valeria
February 7th, 2681
1940 Hours Zulu

Captain Sang Que stood at the center of the Valeria’s bridge, staring intently at the status report monitors overhead. Right now, it seemed as if this part of Nephele was free of the Nephilim. None of the patrol wings from either the Valeria or the Freedom had detected any signs of the Nephilim since entering the system.

Of course, they might just have slipped past our patrols. They're out there somewhere, just waiting to make their move, he thought. It was just one of those gut feelings you get after years of combat duty. Things had been far too quiet since they had jumped into the system.

The only action so far had been when the Bunker Hill's flight wing had taken out an Alien destroyer, and when fighters from the BWS Littenia had knocked out a jammer that was giving the Bunker Hill problems. Both of those had happened several hours ago, and there had been no reports of enemy contacts since then. With two massive fleets hunting for each other in one system, someone had to have found something. This continued silence was making Captain Que very nervous.

Turning towards flight control, Sang said, “Who’s next up on the patrol roster, Ensign?”

“Lieutenant Colonel Lofton and the Ghost Warriors, sir.”

He nodded and smiled. If the Nephilim were out there, the Ghost Warriors would find them. They were some of the best recon pilots the Border Worlds had. “Very well. I want them in the air by the hour.”

“Aye aye, sir.”

Sang Que then strode over to the tactical displays. Several monitors showed sensory feeds from the battle group’s picket ships and patrol wings, as well as the sensor data from the core ships themselves. And for all the coverage this provided, there wasn’t even a single enemy fighter on screen.

Where are you hiding, my Nephilim friends… he thought. What game are you playing today?

He was still staring at the tactical displays when the communications officer called for him. “Captain, we’ve got an incoming transmission from the TCS Bunker Hill. There’s a lot of interference, but I’m working on yanking that out.”

“On screen, Lieutenant.”

A moment later, the face of the Bunker Hill’s comm officer appeared on the comm screen. Static faded and surged over the display. Her lips were moving, but all that was coming over the bridge speakers was silence. “Where’s our audio?” asked Que.

“Working on it, this trans has been chopped to shreds. It looks like it’s beginning to repeat, so I’m going to keep the feed open until I have something more solid. Just a few more seconds… there. I’ve boosted the audio and cleared it up enough for most of it to be understandable. Best I could do, sir. Playing message now.”

The bridge crew watched in silence, several of them paling slightly. Sang Que only looked on sternly. When the message ended, he said, “All right, scramble the Ghost Warriors. I want them to check out to the Bunker Hill’s position ASAP. And get Admiral Hanton up here.”

The bridge crew jumped into action. In just a few short minutes, the eighteen Arrows of the 26th Light Fighter Squadron had launched, splitting into smaller groups and heading towards the Bunker Hill on several vectors. At about the same time, Admiral Erin Hanton stepped onto the bridge.

“Admiral on the bridge,” announced one of the marine guards at the door.

Admiral Hanton spared him a cursory nod and said, “All right, Sang, what have we got?”

Captain Que pressed a button on the comm panel to replay the Bunker Hill’s fragmented message. “ 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.”

Hanton closed her eyes in concentration. The first word out of her mouth was, “Damn.”

“Excuse me, Admiral?”

“Sorry, Sang. Anyway, I take it you’ve already launched the recon flights?”

“Definitely. They should be within DSSS outer sensory range of the Hill in about an hour.”

“Alright. I want the White Knights and Black Angels launched immediately and on point defense patrols. Switch them off with the Taipans and the Dragon Riders in five hours. And send tightbeam comms to every fighter bearing ship we’ve got and have them launch point defense as well.”

As the appropriate bridge officers complied with her orders, Sang took her aside. “That’s quite a bit of response for an attack on a carrier group millions of klicks away. None of our patrols have seen anything in our patrol zone.”

“True. Better safe then sorry though. Besides, I’ve - ”

“Got a bad feeling about this. Yeah, me, too.”

“Exactly. Why only this one distress call from the Hill?”

“You're thinking they might have been hit by some kind of stealth attack?” Captain Que asked, his heart sinking. That would explain why the Bunker Hill hadn't seen the enemy. It also badly altered the balance of power. If the Nephilim had some kind of cloaking system they couldn't detect...

The Admiral shook her head. “I don't want to speculate until we have more data.”

“Guess we’re stuck with the waiting game until Lofton reports in.”

“Just what I wanted to do this evening. This is what I get for thinking I could get a decent nights sleep while there’s a war on.”

Sang chuckled lightly. “I take it you’ll be wanting your usual triple strength cup of coffee then.”

Admiral Hanton shook her head. “I've been drinking too much of that stuff lately. Reston!”

“Yes, ma'am?”

“Go find the Colonel and get him up here ASAP.”

Sang Que meanwhile, had turned to stare out one of the large viewports, watching the fighters launch. Mulling over the situation, he prayed for the best but expected the worst. That message hadn't left much room for hope.

That is what war is about, he thought grimly. Fear and doubt, pain and loss. Thinking otherwise only gets you overconfident and dead, or just plain dead. We have no more time to rest. It is time to fight. Good luck, my comrades... God deliver you safely from the enemy.

He continued to stare silently out the view port with a dark look on his face, silently waiting to see what this new stage of the war would bring.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Freedom
About The Same Time

Ignoring the piercing red alert siren, Jarin double-hopped down the metal stairs, his black flight boots clanging loudly against the rungs. Once he hit the bottom, he spun to his right and sprinted to the waiting Intruder. Barely pausing as he reached the ladder, Jarin scaled it and dropped into the cockpit, sliding on his flight helmet and gloves. A whirring sound came from behind him as the motors for the canopy engaged, lowering it.

As he heard the final hiss of the canopy sealing closed, he ran down the scramble checklist, and then taxied over to the primary catapult. Jarin was given clearance to launch then the catapult promptly fired, launching the fighter into space. Not long after the rest of his squadron formed up, and Jarin guided them to the escort point ahead of the fleet.

“Hey, boss,” Lt. Jack "Prophet" Mueller said, “Any clue as to why we were scrambled? Doesn’t look like much is going on here.”

“My bet is somebody found the bugs and the Admiral wants to make sure that if they sneak up on us, they won't do much damage,” Jarin responded.

The next hour passed in silence, apart from the standard status updates. Each of the Black Angels had one eye glued to their scanners, and one eye searching the great void. From all they could tell, the Border Worlds vessels were all alone. If the Nephilim were in the vicinity, they certainly weren’t acting like the rude houseguests they had been in Tyr.

Then a transmission came in on the UBW tactical network, and their attention snapped to their comm VDUs. “This is Lieutenant Colonel Lofton of the Ghost Warriors to Command. Bad news, Admiral...”

 

FIN