PHASE III : THE NEPHELE ARC ( 9 of 44 )

: Retribution
PART 1 OF 3

 

Flight Wing Lounge, BWS Valeria
Nephele System,
1930 Hours, 07 Feb 2681 (2681.038)

The atmosphere in the lounge was quieter and more restrained than it normally was at this time of the evening (then again, "quieter and more restrained than usual" isn't really saying all that much when you're talking about Border Worlders. for one thing, the amount of alcohol being consumed would have had most Confed officers in fits). Still, there was very little of the noise and rough housing that usually accompanied these drinking sessions. The general mood was more reflective, a strange mix of elation and regret, as the people in the lounge thought back to what had happened over the last few days and the battles they had fought in the Tyr System.

The elation was over what they had achieved in Tyr. They had gotten over 100,000 civilians away from the planet, saving them from the Nephilim and almost certain death. Of course, it had been far from a solo effort, and the Valkyries would be the first ones to say so. Half the people on Tyr VII would have died if the Tanfen Corp hadn't (somewhat reluctantly) helped ferry them out of harm's way. Not only that, the Valkyries wouldn't have been able to evacuate any of the civilians if the other carriers and capship groups hadn't been running interference, keeping the Nephilim too busy to attack the transports. Still, the Valkyries had been ones who were most closely involved with the evacuation. They had commandeered the Tanfen ships, helped secure vital fuel and oxygen for the transports, protected the transports as they evacuated the civilians, and then helped escort the transports to the Masa jump point. They took great pride and satisfaction from the fact that they had helped snatch 100,000 innocent lives from the Reaper's grasp.

They also took a lot of pride from their combat performance in Tyr. Before the operation had started, there had been many in the Combined Fleet who had thought that the Border Worlders (with their older equipment, unconventional tactics, and their tendency to treat military regulations as suggested guidelines rather than absolute rules) would prove to be the weak link in the fleet. The battles in Tyr, though, had well and truly put those doubts to rest. The Valkyries had engaged the Nephilim on three separate occasions, including the two largest fighter battles of the Tyr campaign, each time with great success. They had destroyed between 200 and 250 enemy fighters altogether, close to a third of all Nephilim fighters shot down in Tyr. Other units had done better in other areas, such as in capship kills, but the Valkyries had been by far the top fighter destroyers of the Tyr Campaign.

Those high killscores were due to the fact that almost all of the pilots were combat vets. Most of them had seen serious action in both Kilrathi Wars, in the Border Worlds Conflict, and in the Battle for the Bush. History had proven several times (most notably in the Korean War of the 1950s) that experienced, combat hardened pilots could decimate the enemy, even when they were severely outnumbered or when their fighters were slightly outclassed. Similarly, as the Israelis had proven throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries (especially in the Six Day War of 1967 and over the Bekka Valley in 1982), numbers and firepower weren't quite as important as tactics, teamwork, and the sheer desire to win. The Border Worlders wanted to win more than any other unit in the Combined Fleet, for the simple reason that their homes and families were right in the path of the Nephilim invasion.

The regret, of course, was over what those achievements had cost them. The Valkyries had taken heavier losses than any other carrier group, due to the intensity of the battles they had been involved in, as well as their "all or nothing" fighting style. Between them, the Valeria and the Freedom had lost 27 fighters, with 12 pilots killed in action. The group had also lost one of its escort destroyers, and the heavy cruiser Warspite, which had been lost with all hands. Last, but certainly not least, several of the group's Marines had been killed on the raid to secure the fuel and oxygen reserves needed by the transports. The funeral for those who had fallen had been held only a few hours ago. There were very few in the room who hadn't lost a friend, squad mate or acquaintance. That was why they were a little quieter than normal this evening.

However, while the atmosphere in the room was quiet, it certainly wasn't gloomy or depressed. Border Worlders were, on the whole, people who looked at the bright side of any situation. (When you're outgunned, outnumbered, and surrounded by enemies, as the Border Worlders had been for much of the last decade, you either learn to look at the bright side or you go nuts.) The people in the room preferred to celebrate what they had achieved, and share their good memories of the friends who were gone.

That was exactly what they were doing this evening. The pilots who had done well in Tyr bought most of the rounds, and put up with the good natured hazing that was traditional at times like this. Border Worlders had a much more informal attitude to rank and protocol than Confeds did, so even the flight leaders and squadron leaders weren't exempt from the tradition. Lieutenant Colonel Quinn Lane, for example, ended up buying several rounds for her entire Jaguar squadron. (She had earned her Ace of Aces ribbon in Tyr.) They repaid her by recounting in excruciating detail the story of how she had picked up the callsign "Bubbles." The official line was that her fellow cadets had called her a bubblehead during training. Most of the Jaguar pilots, though, seemed to prefer the X-rated version of the story, which involved Quinn, an instructor, and a bubble bath. The hazing was a good way for the pilots to let off some steam, to unwind after their battles in Tyr and prepare for the battles that lay ahead.

That wasn't to say that they were forgetting about the dead. There were several heartfelt toasts to the people who had fallen, and pilots swapped stories and memories of their dead friends. They mourned the passing of their friends, but they weren't going to let those deaths drag them down into gloom and depression. They weren't going to wallow in pain and hurt. They were combat vets, and they understood that death was an inevitable part of combat. That didn't make it hurt any less, of course. Grief was a normal reaction to losing friends, and no one who wanted to stay sane could avoid dealing with that. When this conflict was all over, most of them would find a quiet place and do exactly that. They would cry or rage or drink themselves into oblivion or find solace from friends and family, doing whatever it took to work through that grief. But for now, they compartmentalized the hurt, putting it somewhere where it wouldn't interfere with getting the job done.

Raptor breathed a sigh of relief as he watched his pilots. Most of them seemed to be handling the losses well. It was hardest on the few rookies in the flight wing, but even they seemed to be coping with it well. The rookies had plenty of veteran pilots around them for advice and support. There were many Confed officers who tended to see the informal nature of the Border Worlds military, with its blurred lines between commanders and subordinates, as a weakness. The Border Worlders saw it as a strength. That informality allowed them to form much more cohesive units, drawing on each other's experience and strengths, especially at times like this. If this had been Confed, the rookies would have had a much harder time, as there would have been too many regulations and boundaries between the rookies and more senior pilots.

That wasn't to say that Confed's way of doing things was a bad way. For all the cheap shots they took at "by the book" Confeds, most of the Border Worlders had come to respect many of the Confeds they had fought alongside in Tyr. Confed's system of rules and regulations, on the whole, ensured the creation of a well-disciplined and effective officer corps. It was a good system for those who were prepared to fit into an accepted mould and to live by the rules. Besides, with such a large and complex military machine, the only way that Confed could function effectively was by having a lot of rules and regulations. Confed's military was geared towards fighting conventional wars by conventional rules, and it was very good at what it did. In large scale fleet actions and set piece battles (such as the Battle of Terra or Vukar Tag), Confed's efficiency and discipline made it a superb fighting force.

The trouble was, Confed's way of doing things just didn't work for the Border Worlders. Individual Border Worlders might have been able to fit into that rigid system (in fact, many had done so during the Kilrathi War, and were doing so again now that Confed and the Union were back on good terms), but on the whole, the Border Worlders would never fit into the system. They were too individualistic and too iconoclastic for that. The Border Worlders prided themselves on always getting the job done, but they didn't give a damn about anything else. They functioned best when they had just enough rules to prevent anarchy, while allowing their own individuality and independence to shine through. Any senior officer who tried to force them into a rigid mould would most likely have found a plasma grenade in his bunk, or a Nephelese sand viper in his boots.

Besides, with such a small military, the Border Worlders would be decimated if they ever started fighting in a predictable or conventional way, so a "by the book" military would have been a bad idea even if the ordinary pilots and soldiers would have tolerated it. The Border Worlds Navy needed people who could "think outside the square," which meant that informality and unconventional thinking were not just tolerated, but downright encouraged. That created a group of people who could come up with unusual and innovative solutions to problems, without being bound by protocol or ideas about the "right way" of doing things.

This approach made the Border Worlders masters at free form or fast moving warfare, and guerilla tactics such as ambushes and hit-and-run attacks. That was one of the reasons why the Border Worlders were in overall command of this operation. The human fleet was massively outnumbered, so the Border Worlders' fighting style was better suited to the current situation than Confed's set piece strategy was. All in all though, neither way of doing things was really better or worse than the other, just two very different styles for two very different groups of people who fought in two very different ways.

Raptor shook his head. One of the top ten signs you're a workaholic Wing Commander: you can turn a simple observation of your pilots into an analysis of comparative military and social philosophies. He leaned back in his chair, and sipped his drink. He had taken a table in dimly lit corner of the lounge, from where he could watch the other pilots without being too obvious about it. Now that he was satisfied they were coping well, he could stop being the Wing Commander, and simply be one of the pilots kicking back at the end of the day. For once, there was nothing pressing that demanded his attention. The Valeria's patrols had seen no sign of the Nephilim since the fleet had split up, giving the pilots and crew a well-earned break. Not only that, for once all the paperwork that came with his job had been tidied up and filed away. He had even been able to spend a couple of hours in the sims, brushing up on his dogfighting skills. Right now, though, he just wanted to relax. He propped his feet up on the chair opposite his, taking another sip of his drink and letting his mind drift to other matters.

"Hey, stranger," a quiet, familiar voice interrupted his thoughts a few minutes later.

"Hey, yourself. How did the flight go?" he asked, turning around and matching her smile. Even as he asked the question, though, he knew the answer. Chrys wouldn't be here in the lounge if the Reapers had encountered Nephilim fighters on their patrol. She would be on the bridge, reporting to Captain Que or Admiral Hanton. For all their informality and disregard for the rules, the Border Worlders took their jobs seriously, because they knew people's lives depended on it.

"Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zippo..."

"I get the idea. Looks like the Nephs don't want to play with us."

"Tell me about it. I just spent four hours flying in circles and listening to bad Bug jokes."

Lieutenant Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes' hair looked damp, indicating that she had hit the showers after the flight. She was carrying a tall glass in her left hand, containing a Hell's Kitchen mixed with what looked like half a gallon of cola and crushed ice. She set it down carefully on the table, and then pulled up a chair beside his. She sat down, propping her feet up in the chair opposite and draping her arm casually around his shoulders. The two of them didn't exactly flaunt their relationship, but they didn't make a secret of it either. They didn't need to. Raptor knew quite a few straight-laced Confed commanders who would have gone ballistic at the idea of a relationship between two officers who were serving together. Border Worlders, however, tended to be less anal retentive about things like that, as well about rules in general. As long as you didn't let it interfere with your job, no one really cared what (or rather who) you did in your spare time.

Neither of them said anything much for a while, simply enjoying the taste of their drinks, enjoying the quiet and the company. Simply enjoying being together. They both knew that this lull in the fighting wasn't going to last very long. Sooner or later, they would find the Nephilim, or the Nephilim would find them, and it would be back to the "normal" routine of scrambles and combat missions. For now though, they were going to enjoy the time they had.

"Something wrong?" Raptor asked a few minutes later, as he saw a sudden look of worry cross Chrys' face, breaking the mood.

"Oh, it's nothing. Just thinking about Sandy, that's all." Chry's wingman, Captain Jonathan "Sandman" Sandford, had been shot down during that final massive battle in Tyr. A search and rescue shuttle had picked him up soon afterwards, returning him to the ship.

"I thought the medics said he would be fine," Raptor said with a frown. Sandman had been with the Reapers since the squadron had been formed over eight years ago, and was a good friend to them both.

"Oh, he is fine. They're just keeping him in for observation," Chrys said with a smile. "The only danger he's in is from his doctor. She swears she's going to violate her Hippocratic Oath - the part about doing no harm - if he takes one more pass at her."

"So what's bothering you?" Raptor prompted. Chrys' flippant reply hadn't concealed the fact that something was on her mind.

"I was thinking how close the Nephilim came to getting his pod. I talked to a few of the Tanfen people while we were in Tyr, Rap. Some of the stories about what the Bugs do to human captives..." She shook her head, as if trying to chase away an unpleasant image.

"But they didn't get him, though. Thanks to you, even if you did almost get yourself killed doing it," Raptor said sourly.

"You heard about that, huh?" Chrys said, blushing slightly. She had been so focused on keeping a Devil Ray away from her wingman's pod that she had almost been shot down by a second Devil Ray. It was a silly mistake for anyone to make, but especially for the CO of the Valeria's top fighter squadron. Luckily though, another pair of Retaliators had taken the second Devil Ray out in time.

"Yeah. Try to be more careful, hmmm?"

"Look who's talking. Last time I checked, the best way to dodge a Hellcat was not by flying in front of its guns," Chrys said evenly.

"You're never going to let me forget that one, are you?" Raptor said lightly. Chrys had saved him from being shot down by a Hellcat, back when they had been fighting Confed over Circe all those years ago. Not that either of them would ever forget those few days over Circe, days that had changed their lives and those of a lot of other people, including some of the people they had been fighting against. Still, he got her point. They all made mistakes, and she didn't need him ragging her about hers.

[Author's note: If you want the full story on what happened in Circe, please check out the "Baptism of Fire" and "Battle for Circe" PBMs here.]

"How's the squad doing?" he asked, the sudden shift as much an apology as a change of topic.

"Pretty good, all things considered," Chrys said, flashing him a quick smile. Apology accepted. "Although there is something..."

She paused, trying to figure out what to say. "There's been some talk going around. About the Nephilim. And it's just not in the Reapers, either..."

Raptor raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything. Talk about the Nephilim would not just be normal, but to be expected, given their current situation. Still, Chrys' manner said this was something out of the ordinary.

"It's not about their fleet, or even what they do to prisoners," Chrys confirmed. "It's about those damn Kilrathi prophecies. About how the Nephilim are the harbingers of the Kn'thrak and so on."

She paused and looked at him curiously. "What do you think? About those prophecies, I mean."

Raptor frowned slightly. "I don't know. I mean, a month ago I would have said it was bullshit..."

"You did say it was bullshit," Chrys pointed out. "I think your exact words were 'sounds like your typical religious bullshit.'"

He did his best to glare at her. "Remind me again. Why the hell do I put up with you?"

"Because I'm great in the sack?" she said with a smile.

"Oh? Is that an invitation?"

"It depends. What are you doing this evening?"

"Ah, tonight's no good for me. I'm going to be 'entertaining' this real cute eighteen year-old tech..." He ducked as Chrys swung at him with her free hand.

"Hmmm. A lecher as well as an idiot. I don't why I put up with you."

"Me neither," he admitted. "Getting back on topic, though, no, I don't believe in prophecies. I admit it's spooky how the Cats knew they were coming, but there's got to be a logical explanation. Besides, the Nephilim sure as hell aren't an unstoppable force of doom. We gave them one hell of a black eye in Tyr. We can beat them."

"Right," Chrys agreed. "Still, talk about these prophecies can be dangerous if it gets out of hand."

"Do most of the pilots actually believe this stuff?"

"No. Most of the time, anyone who brings it up gets laughed at. It's just a couple of bad apples who are spreading through the wing. The longer it goes on, though..."

"Right. Talk to the other COs. Find out who these 'bad apples' are, and then very firmly ask them to cease and desist. Remind them that spreading fear and doubt is a capital offense under martial law."

"You wouldn't."

"No, I wouldn't," Raptor said with a grin. "But Captain Que might. He still hasn't got all that Confed training out of his system."

They talked about other things for the next few minutes. Then Lieutenant Reston, Admiral Hanton's aide, interrupted them.

"Colonel, the Admiral wants you to report to the bridge, ASAP. We just got a distress call from the Bunker Hill."

 

Bridge, BWS Valeria
1950 Hours

As soon as Raptor reached the bridge, he knew that that news was all bad. He could see it on the faces of the two senior officers who were waiting for him. He had served with both Admiral Hanton and Captain Que in the battle for the Bush, and he had come to like and respect them both. They were both veterans of the Kilrathi Wars and the Border Worlds Conflict (though they had been fighting for Confed at the time) and there was very little that surprised or upset them. Right now, though, they looked as distraught as he had ever seen them.

"How much did Reston tell you, Colonel?" Captain Que asked before Raptor had a chance to say anything.

"Just that we had picked up a distress call."

"It's a lot worse than that. It wasn't simply a call for help, Colonel. Listen to this." Captain Que pushed a button on one of the bridge consoles, playing back the message that they had received. A young woman's face appeared on the main viewscreen, looking desperate and terrified.

"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."

"It sounds like they were already going down when they sent that message," Admiral Hanton spoke for the first time. "And even if they weren't, any battle they're fighting will be over long before we can get there."

Raptor nodded. "What I can't figure out is why they didn't contact us earlier. Their fighter patrols should have given them plenty of warning of any attack."

"I'm hoping the Ghost Warriors will give us the answer to that, Colonel. I dispatched them to check out the Bunker Hill's patrol zone. They should be back in a few hours. In the meantime, I've put both Black Angel and White Knight Squadrons on defensive duty, with the Taipans and Dragon Riders scheduled to relieve them in a few hours."

"Good. I'd recommend putting the Reapers and Harbingers on Alert-5 as well," Raptor said. "If the Nephs managed to sneak up on the Bunker Hill, they could do the same to us."

"Do it," the Admiral said. "Sang, I want you to contact the Littenia battle group as well. If the Ghost Warriors manage to locate the Nephilim ships that attacked the Hill, we'll be launching an all out strike. Order the Littenia to rendezvous with us, so that we can launch our strikes simultaneously."

"Yes, Admiral." Captain Que turned to speak with the comm officer.

"Colonel, roughly how long will it take to organize the strike?" the Admiral asked.

Raptor thought for a few seconds before answering. This wasn't like the holo-vids, where a strike force could be thrown together during a commercial break. A magnum strike of the kind the Admiral had in mind involved not just the bomber squadrons, but several fighter squadrons for escort and space superiority, jamming craft to scramble enemy radar and communications, plus SEAD craft to clear the way for the bombers. Planning, preparing and launching that kind of operation took a lot of time, especially since they had to maintain their own defenses while doing it.

"About six hours for a bomber strike with full fighter and EW support. About ten hours if we want to rendezvous with the Littenia before we launch."

The Admiral nodded. The Valkyries could launch a faster strike on their own, but that risked leaving both the strike force and the capships without enough fighter cover. If they rendezvoused with the Littenia before launch, the two groups could pool their escorts and defensive units, allowing many more fighters to escort the strike force. That was standard in situations like this: if you don't know what you're facing, hit it with everything you've got. Overkill might be passé, but it was much more conducive to a long life than failing to sufficiently honor the threat.

"Go ahead and organize the strike, Colonel. The Ghost Warriors should be back with more information in a couple of hours. We'll decide then if we're going to launch separately or wait until the rendezvous."

 

Medical Bay, BWS Valeria
2210 Hours

The next two hours were filled with frantic activity, both for the pilots and the deck crews. The drinking session in the lounge was quickly broken up. The pilots from Reaper Squadron (as well as the Harbinger Squadron pilots aboard the BWS Freedom, Battle Group Valkyrie's second carrier) reported to the launch bays. They would be ready and waiting in their cockpits in case the Knights and Angels ran into trouble. Pilots from other units did their best to prepare for the upcoming strike or a possible scramble to defend the battle group, while the deck crews raced to get their craft ready. Meanwhile, Battle Group Valkyrie continued towards its rendezvous with the Littenia.

Most of the Ghost Warriors returned just before 2200 hours. The recon pilots had swept the Bunker Hill's patrol's zone, but found no sign of the Hill or her battle group. What they had found, however, were two Panther pilots who had escaped the destruction of the Bunker Hill. According to them, the Hill had been near the Alcor jump point when she had been destroyed. A single flight of Arrows had been sent to check out the coordinates given by the Panther pilots, but the rest of the Ghost Warriors had escorted the two Panthers back to the Valeria at top speed.

Once on board the Valeria, the two pilots had been escorted to the medical bay for a quick check-up. While medical staff were examining the two pilots, Commander Warren Kent, the battle group's senior Intel officer, held a informal de-briefing session with Lieutenant Colonel Ruth "Lynx" Lofton and Major Jameel "Paladin" Ul-Huq, the CO and exec of the Ghost Warriors respectively. The two of them didn't really have all that much information to give, though. They had avoided questioning the two Bunker Hill pilots over the comm. Fighter comm systems were relatively insecure, and there was always the chance that the Nephilim could be listening in. All things considered, that had probably been a wise choice. There was still several hours to go before the Valeria's strike would be ready, which gave them plenty of time to question the two survivors.

The medical staff only reluctantly allowed them to speak to the two pilots, stressing that both of them were mentally and physically exhausted. Still, there was no other alternative. The strike force could risk flying in blind, and couldn't even launch until they knew where the enemy ships were. The two pilots were the only ones who could give that information.

The two pilots were seated on the edges of two of the beds in the medical bay, both drinking deeply from tumblers of "medicinal" rum. They looked like they needed it. The two pilots stared blankly at Commander Kent, Lynx and Paladin as they entered the medical bay. Then their strict Confed training reasserted itself, and they jumped up, snapping to attention and saluting crisply.

"At ease, gentlemen," Commander Kent said, watching the two pilots closely. The crisp way that they had jumped to attention seemed to have been little more than ingrained reflex. Both pilots looked shell shocked, hardly surprising considering what they had been through.

"And the two of you are..." Kent prompted when neither of the pilots said anything.

"Sir! Captain Roger Elliot of the TCS Bunker Hill, callsign Chatterbox," said one of the pilots.

"First Lieutenant Robert Little, sir. Fatboy," said the other.

An idle part of Commander Kent's mind noted that "Fatboy" didn't exactly live up to his callsign. The pilot was thin almost to the point of emaciation. By contrast, "Chatterbox" most certainly lived up to his callsign. He began babbling, recounting the story of what had happened to the Bunker Hill, almost incoherent in his haste. Commander Kent quickly lost track of what the pilot was trying to tell him.

"Hold it, hold it," Kent said crisply. "Take a deep breath and start again, Captain. From the beginning this time."

"Yes, sir," Chatterbox said, making a visible effort to compose himself. "The Bunker Hill moved to her assigned patrol zone right after the fleet split up, just like we were ordered to. A few hours later, we started seeing signs that the Nephilim were following us. Then, about 0900 hours, the Nephs began creating some kind of jamming that scrambled our long-range tracking and comm systems. We managed to track the interference to its source, and bombers from another carrier took it out at about 1300 Hours..."

"Yes, I know. We had a report from the Littenia that they had destroyed the jammer," Kent said. "That restored full tracking and communications, correct?"

"Yes, sir. That's when the trouble really started. We picked up a full Nephilim carrier group coming down on us, cutting us off from the rest of the fleet..."

"Why didn't the Hill call for help at this point? Or at least alert the other carriers?"

"Well, sir, keep in mind that all us fighter jocks heard were rumors. The word going around, though, was that Admiral Rayak decided we didn't need any help. He said something like he'd never beg for help from Colonials..."

"Wait a second. Rayak? Victor Rayak? He's supposed to be back at Third Fleet HQ."

"Yes, sir. His shuttle rendezvoused with us after we jumped in. The word is that he wanted to take command of Third Fleet operations personally, using the Hill as his flagship. The Captain wasn't all that happy about it, but there wasn't all that much he could do about it, either."

Kent nodded. One of the weaknesses of Confed's system was that it was very difficult to challenge a superior officer, even when that officer was corrupt, incompetent, or downright insane. If Rayak had in fact been in command, it explained quite a few things, such as the bizarre decision not to inform the other carrier groups when the Hill had been cut off from the fleet. Rayak had a reputation for being somewhat... well, why mince words? Rayak had a reputation as an inbred, pencil-pushing jerk that had last seen action as a junior officer, back in the early years of the First Kilrathi War. How someone like that got to command one of Confed's most important fleets, responsible for the crucial border region between human and Kilrathi territory, was beyond Kent's comprehension.

Meanwhile, Chatterbox continued with his narrative, "The Neph carrier launched an all out strike on us, but our fighters scrambled and beat them off. We than went for an immediate counter-strike on their ships. We took out one of the escorts and damaged the carrier, but the strike sort of fell apart after the commanding officer was killed..."

Fatboy spoke up for the first time, his voice seething with anger. "That bastard Morrision... um, that's our WC, sir... refused to release any of our Tigersharks for SEAD duty. We had to do it ourselves, without rockets or HARMs. That's when the Boss... erm, Lt. Colonel Hoffman, was killed. He was trying to knock out the guns on one of those destroyers and got blown to bits."

Chatterbox took up the narrative again. "The strike birds had to break off and return to the Hill. That was about 1700 Hours. We were trying to organize another strike, but at around 1900 Hours, we picked up another Neph carrier group coming down on us. That group cut us off from the Alcor jump point, which is what we were running towards. We decided that the only way out was to turn around and try to get back to the rest of the fleet, past that carrier we had damaged earlier. We did start trying to call for help then, but those two carriers had started hitting us with short range jamming. I don't think any of our messages were getting through at that point."

Chatterbox paused to take a breath, and then continued, "The two carriers launched simultaneous strikes on us. Most of our fighters were scrambled to intercept them, but Rayak insisted that our own strike group launch and go for the damaged carrier. Most of us pilots thought it was nuts, but we had our orders. We managed to wipe out that carrier group, apart from the cruiser, and that was pretty much dead when we broke off."

Kent nodded, as another fact slotted into place. The destruction of the first carrier group must have created a gap in the jamming blanket, which explained how that last message from the Bunker Hill had been able to get out. Meanwhile, Chatterbox paused again, but not to catch his breath this time. Instead, he grabbed his tumbler, and drained the remaining rum in one swallow. He then continued with the story.

"By the time we got back, our group was just about finished. Our fighters and escorts were gone, and the Nephs were swarming all over the Hill. We got back just in time to see her blow up. That's when we broke off. There was nothing we could, sir. You've got to believe me. If there had been anything, anything at all..."

"Easy, Captain," Kent said soothingly. "No one's looking for scapegoats here and no one's going to do a 'Blair' on you. Your actions will most likely be subject to an investigation, but if your flight recorders confirm that you left the battle after the Hill's destruction, you should be cleared in no time. Now, you two were the only survivors of the strike group?"

"Yes, sir. There were a couple of others who survived the attack on the Neph carrier, but the Neph fighters near the Hill caught all of them. Our Panthers were the only ones fast enough to outrun them, and even then only barely..."

Chatterbox then filled in the last few details of how the two Panthers had escaped the battle zone, and then managed to make contact with the Ghost Warriors. Kent continued questioning them for another half-hour, filling in the gaps as thoroughly as he could. The more information the Valeria's pilots had, the safer and more successful the upcoming strike would be. Kent was just wrapping up the session when two more Ghost Warrior pilots sprinted into the medical bay, both breathing hard.

"Commander, these are Captains Blagburn and Ward," Lynx introduced the two. "They're two of the pilots I sent to check out the Hill's last coordinates."

"You found the place where she was destroyed?" Commander Kent asked sharply.

"Yes, sir," Captain Blagburn said, still trying to catch his breath after the run from the flight deck. "The other four Warriors are trying to follow the ion trails from the Nephilim fighters, to track them back to their carrier. Major Markinkoff sent us back to report."

The pilot paused for a second, obviously reluctant to say the rest. "Commander, the whole group is gone. We found the wreckage of both the Hill and her escorts, plus the wreckage several dozen Confed fighters."

The Ghost Warrior pilot smiled bitterly. "Along with the wreckage of well over a hundred Nephilim fighters. They made the bastards pay, all right."

"For all the good it did them," Kent said quietly. "Any escape pods? Ejection pods? Anything?"

"No, sir." Blagburn shook his head. "There weren't any active pod signals. Either no one at all had time to get clear, or..."

"No!" Chatterbox jumped in. "Commander, we were too far away to get a good read, but I'm positive I picked up SARBE signals..."

"Which means the Nephilim have those people," Commander Kent said, grimacing slightly. He had heard those stories in Tyr as well. This changed the entire mission, turning it from a simple strike to a potential rescue, with all the headaches that involved. He quickly stood up. Admiral Hanton needed to hear about this ASAP.

 

CONT...