: False Hopes and Nightmares


Nifelheim System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)
Quarters of Admiral William Kennedy
February 16th, 2681/2681.047, 0900 hrs CST

Rear Admiral William Kennedy, the officer in command of Carrier Battle Group Rapier, jolted awake, looked at the chronometer next to his bunk, and rolled to his feet. He quickly dashed for where his uniform was hung, then stopped himself, remembering that today was different, at least for three more hours, than yesterday.
He did a quick calculation, then realized why he felt so good... and almost felt guilty for it. He'd gotten just over eight hours of uninterrupted sleep. Almost a third of a day, despite his internal clock telling him that he needed to be up sooner. No dreams, no nothing, just blissful oblivion.
The first thing he did was to walk towards the small refresher station in his room. He turned on the shower and enjoyed the cold water, which brought him completely awake, then the steaming hot water that completely brought him to full alertness. Stepping out of the shower, he quickly shaved and put on a clean uniform.
Exiting his quarters, while reviewing the information he had pulled down on a PDP, Kennedy headed for the Officers' Mess, and arrived to find it very scarcely populated. Only two other people were present, both of them junior lieutenants, when he arrived. The cooking staff was kept to a minimum as well. It seemed that everybody was taking time to get in as much rest as possible.
Kennedy grimaced. Judging by the figures that Hanton was sending him, they were going to need it.

Nevertheless, the atmosphere aboard the 'Waltzing Matilda', seemed quite a bit more upbeat today than it had been yesterday. Being in friendly territory, with some friendly forces to back them up and preparing to spring what should be the final trap on the Nephilim probably helped crew morale quite a bit.
He quickly selected some of the canned pineapple, bacon, and an omelet, along with a fairly tall glass of orange juice to start the day with. He'd need all the energy he could get, and he wanted to make sure that he was completely and utterly focused. One couldn't think on an empty stomach, could he?
One piece of excellent news that he could focus on was that it seemed the fighter repairs had been accelerated. Apparently, the Tanfen Corporation had been willing to trade the two Arrow light fighters captured from the pirates by the Sindri Stars for some extra armaments and manpower, the latter of which had been used to accelerate the repair process on all of the battle group's damaged fighters and bombers. So, the entire air group, or what was left of it, was operational again. That was an unexpected, but very welcome piece of news.
Captain Ramirez entered the mess, looked around, and walked up to his seat next to the admiral. He quickly took a seat. "Good morning, sir. I certainly hope you slept well."
"I did, Captain. And you?" Kennedy replied between mouthfuls of omelet.
"Very well, sir. Thank you for asking. Nice thinking on the part of the quartermaster and his group to trade the Arrows for munitions and spare manpower, if I do say so," Ramirez replied.
"Damned masterful. Hell, that takes a load off my mind. Have that info transmitted up the line as soon as you can. Maybe it'll take a load off Hanton's mind, knowing that we've got a fully operational air group again. That, and our poor techs can finally get a little rest," Kennedy said.
Ramirez nodded, then looked up from his cereal. He actually preferred it to hot breakfasts, making him something of an oddity aboard the Yorktown. He took a sip of orange juice from his own glass, then continued. "It looks like we'll be ready when the bugs show up this time. Admiral Hanton is one hell of a tactician to have cooked this up."
Kennedy nodded. "Yep. I've still got to say, though, that it'd be a hell of a lot easier to swallow if we had one or two more carriers here. Hell, even a pair of CVEs would be nice right about now," Kennedy said, referring to some of the many newly-commissioned escort carriers that the Confederation Senate enjoyed so much. Partly because they cost less than a third of what a fleet carrier cost in maintenance and upkeep, as well as to build, but could project masses of aircraft at the same time, similar to that of a fleet carrier, and were easier to crew, equip, and were more easily replaced.
"Well, the Senate votes on that very issue in about nine hours, Admiral... All we can do is hope they make the right choice, because despite our victories, we've still got a hell of a row to hoe out here," Ramirez responded.
"We do indeed, Captain. We do indeed." And indeed, the task awaiting them was no small one.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)
Crew Quarters, 1205 hrs.

Adam Brancer walked out of the mess hall, stomach full, feeling better than he had in quite some time. Six hours' worth of sleep had done wonders for his state of mind, to say nothing of his physical state. And what was better, as far as he was concerned, was that the Nephilim hadn't been spotted entering the system yet. That meant a more regular flight rotation than at any of the other times in the past week.
His pilots had also taken the opportunity to grab as much rest as possible, and he had woken up to quite a surprise: Pulling down information on his PDP, he had noticed that all of his fighters were operational again. That meant he could put sixteen fighters into the black again if he needed to, and that would be bad news for the Nephilim.
At this point, however, there was also bad news. The Dragonfly rocket pods that his pilots enjoyed so much were running low. They only had enough loadouts for another two or three missions' worth of firings, and then the Dragonflies would be gone. He'd already made it known that he wanted missiles and rockets conserved if at all possible, but that he didn't want his pilot to jeopardize their lives in the process.

He knew that the admiral, the captain of the Yorktown, and the CAG were in a video conference right now with the rest of the Combined Fleet COs, planning the next assault on the Nephilim and working on ways to improve the plan. He was thinking over a few squadron matters when he heard shouting around one corner. Coming around, he saw Major Karpoff arguing with Captain Rubio again.
"You'd just like to sit this one out, Major. So go ahead. Everybody knows I can run the squadron better than you can, so let me do it. You're obviously not command material -- " Rubio was saying.
Here we go again, thought Brancer as he took a breath in preparation for speaking.
"Captain, this is now my squadron, not yours. You gave up the privilege of command when you inhaled the smoke put off by that joint, knowing full well that it was against regs to do so. You've also openly defied me on several occasions, in combat, no less. I'm going to tell you, Silence, that if you ever, ever do anything to undermine my command of this squadron again, if you ever disobey my direct orders again, I'll have your goddamned wings right then and there. This isn't your squadron anymore, captain, it's mine, due to the choices you made. If you're not happy with that, you've got nobody to blame but yourself."
"You self-righteous bastard. You think that just because your fitness report is better than mine that you've got the right to talk to me that way, that just because I had one or two joints to relax, at a time when everybody in the squadron was wound up so tight that they almost snapped, that you're better than I am? I'll pit my flying skills against yours any day. As for taking command, I don't have to. You don't have it because you don't know the first thing about commanding a squadron, and it shows. Because I took the initiative, you feel threatened -- " Rubio began.
"Major, Captain, may I have a word with you in private?" Brancer asked. The two of them looked up, surprised that somebody had been listening to their exchange.
Technically, Brancer was senior to the both of them, but he was talking to members of another squadron. Therefore, he made his tone as respectful as he possibly could. He felt a bit of anger boiling up inside himself. If Colonel Alvarez had caught them having it out, it would've been over in less than five minutes. And he was sure that she knew about Rubio's defiance of Karpoff's orders in combat; Alvarez wanted to see if Karpoff would do something about it before she brought the hammer down. That or Alvarez was too busy seeing to the needs of the wing as a whole, something that she was suited for, and was supposed to be doing. A person in her position couldn't afford to concentrate on just one squadron at a time.
The three of them stepped into an unoccupied space just off of the corridor in which Karpoff and Rubio had just been hashing their differences out, when Brancer sealed the hatch and broke out into a roar.
"What in the name of hell do you assholes think you're doing?! You are supposed to be inspiring cooperation and confidence in your troops, not driving apart what few pilots you have left so that they form two different factions!" he bellowed. Even he, a young Major, knew better than to argue in public.
"And you, Mister Brancer, can stow that nonsense. Lest we forget, I was flying before you were out of flight school -- " Rubio began.
"And lest we forget, captain," Brancer cut her off, putting emphasis on her rank, "I outrank you, and, unlike you, I still hold a squadron command. So you can button it right now, unless you'd like to strap me on, and I assure you, you don't. You've openly disobeyed the orders of a superior officer at least twice now. Do not ever do it again. It could be construed as mutiny, punishable by death. You've also been undermining the authority of your commanding officer, who was made your commanding officer because you proved yourself unworthy of the position by violating regulations put in place to safeguard the lives of those under your command!"
Brancer turned to Karpoff. "And you, Major, are hardly blameless in this. You have let her run amok because you have had no confidence in your own abilities. Granted, this command assignment was not expected, but you haven't show initiative in taking the reigns of this squadron. You've also attempted to put a stop to these little shows of defiance a bit too lightly. If Captain Rubio doesn't learn that there are consequences to her actions, she will continue to defy you!!"
Brancer took a breath and let to both of them think things over. Granted, it wasn't proper etiquette to barge in on another squadron's business, but nobody else had noticed that there was a problem within the chain of command in the only remaining seven torpedo bombers on the Yorktown, and with that few left, they couldn't afford to have the squadron splintered when the time came for this one final showdown.
Karpoff and Rubio eyed one another, then Karpoff offered his hand. "Captain, I'd like your advice on the next strike. You are my XO. The final decision rests with me, but I'd like your input on how we assault the Nephilim."
Rubio looked at the hand for a moment, then grasped it firmly. "Aye aye, sir. I apologize for my behavior earlier and in times prior to this, as it has undermined the efficiency of this squadron. As your XO, it is my job to see that things run smoothly, and from now on, sir, you have my word that I shall endeavor to do so."
Brancer nodded. "Then I doubt you'll be needing me any longer. Have a nice day Major Karpoff, Captain Rubio." They nodded in response as he, followed by them, walked out of the compartment.

One problem solved.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)
Crew Quarters, Same Time

Major Tim Carter found himself a bit surprised at what he was doing. He'd never much been one for relationships during his career. He didn't see that they had any place in the military, at least not until the later years of flag rank. Yet here he was, holding somebody in a close embrace. Nothing had happened, aside from a few light kisses, and Carter didn't think much else would happen, but... he was uncomfortable at not feeling uncomfortable. Captain Selena Martinez leaned into his embrace, her head on his right shoulder, her feelings reflecting much the same things. Oh, granted, she'd eventually planned on having a relationship... much later. And certainly not now, in the middle of a fight for the possible survival of the human race, but... dammit, there it was.
The two of them stared out at the stars in the abandoned lounge overlooking the flight deck, immersed in silence, taking comfort from the other's presence.
Carter was the first to break the silence. "Strange, isn't it?"

 Martinez nodded. "It most certainly is."

"Wartime tends to have strange effects on people, though," Carter replied.
Martinez smirked. "It certainly does."
Carter kissed the top of her head lightly. "It's funny, but I never imagined anything like this happening this cruise. I just never really thought that way. My career has been so busy since the Academy, even during the breaks between conflicts," he said, letting his voice trail off.
"I know. You get so wrapped up in your career that you never really give yourself personal time for a family. Your squadron becomes your family, and you become a member of theirs. It seems like an ideal arrangement. And yet..." Martinez began.
"And yet, here we are, stargazing, you and I," Carter said. "It doesn't make a lot of sense, does it?"
"Nope. None at all. But I think the question we should be asking ourselves is... does it have to?" Martinez said, turning her dark eyes towards his green ones.
Carter smiled wistfully. "Personally, I'd say no."
Martinez smiled as well. "Agreed."
They kissed softly, then returned to looking upon the stars glinting within the eternal void of space.
They sat there, again taking comfort in the presence of the other for quite some time. Neither of their squadrons were scheduled to fly, but each carried their beepers, in case they left the Yorktown to head to Avernus Station, and they could be reached by intercom anywhere within the confines of the Yorktown.
Both of them knew the stakes for which they were fighting. Both had chosen, in spite of those stakes, to fight anyhow, all those years ago when they had been newly-minted Second Lieutenants out of the Space Force Academy. And both held a continuing commitment to those depending upon them. Thus, there was a measure of common ground that added its weight to their current situation. Another factor was that they were both of the same religion. Roman Catholicism had not died out over the years. It had only become quite a bit more rare, as mankind had extended its reach into the stars surrounding the planet that it had first been created upon. Granted, Carter wasn't quite as devout as Martinez, but that was more due to the fact that more of his time was taken up due to his higher rank.
Martinez, in the meantime, was thinking about what avenues this relationship-was it a relationship? -- might take if it continued. Oh, they could keep it quiet for a while, granted, if they needed to. But would it go anywhere? Would it end up with Selena Martinez becoming Selena Martinez Carter or would it even go on after the next engagement? Would one of them be killed and the next be left to mourn? If they survived, would there be any feelings between them, or was this just two people seeking refuge from the loneliness they felt in times of war?

 All excellent questions, she decided. She looked over to see Carter staring out at the stars, a look of wonderment on his face, wonderment mixed with... what? Determination? And interesting mix to be sure.
Carter's thoughts were echoing the paths along which Martinez found hers moving. And he came to the conclusion: Only time would tell, and only skill in destroying life would preserve it.
One of the stranger balances in the universe, Carter thought. He looked over and saw Martinez examining his face. He gave a gentle smile. "I guess we're lucky we're adults, aren't we?"
Martinez nodded. "Yeah. That and we've got more important matters to distract us for now but I do want to figure this out, eventually."
Carter nodded. "Me too. You're a wonderful person, Selena."
"And you, Timothy."
The two of them once again turned to gazing at the stars, which would, they both knew, eventually become alive with streaks of green, yellow, red, blue, missile trails, decoys, and explosions when the enemy arrived.
But for now, they sat and enjoyed the view.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Briefing Room
February 17th, 2681/2681.048
0208 Hours (CST)

Major Matthew "Cougar'" Pierce, CO of the "Death Stingers," the Wasp point-defense squadron aboard the Yorktown, sat, waiting. He'd been standing in this damned room for over an hour, ever since he'd arrived back at the Waltzing Matilda after the all-pilots recall had been issued at 2230. He assumed that it was important, as every major squadron leader was here. He'd managed to get a little work done, pilot evaluations, mainly, but for the most part, he and the other squadron COs had been left waiting.
Looking around, he got chills down his spine for the fourth time in ten minutes. Assembled were Admiral Kennedy, Captain Ramirez, Colonel Alvarez and Lieutenant Colonel Linche, Marine Colonel Jacob White, and all of the squadron commanders. Also appearing on several displays were the captains of the Yorktown's escorting vessels, and the COs of their fighter detachments.

Something big was certainly up. And probably something that wasn't good news, judging by the lines on Kennedy's face.
A few moments later, as the final communications links were established with the other vessels, Admiral Kennedy stepped up to the map table.  "Alright, ladies and gentlemen. We've got trouble, and it's in numbers. At approximately noon, a day and a half ago, Confederation reconnaissance forces were probing the Ymir jump point when they detected some unusual contacts. As they moved in, they were engaged by Nephilim fighters. It appears that the bugs have another fleet, and it's coming in through the Ymir jump point, right into our laps. This second fleet has remained undetected, and it looks like its completely intact. Contact was lost with all the recon fliers, but those that managed to get word of the enemy back to their base have given us the warning we needed. The bad news is, the bugs have effectively doubled their strength. This is a brand-new fleet, with fresh compliments of fighters and support vessels. Even with the reinforcements, things have just gone from bad to worse."
A wave of shock ran throughout the room. Even though things had been bad before, they had just gotten a hell of a lot worse. It looked like the odds had just doubled against the Combined Fleet... again. And this time, there were no more fallback points, no reinforcements to call on. Or were there, Pierce wondered.
Beside him, Major Rosencrantz of the Grendels took a step forward. "Sir. Any word about reinforcements from the Inner Fleets? With this information, they have to have acknowledged that we need help."
Kennedy swallowed... hard. Pierce knew what the words the admiral was going to say were before he even parted his lips to speak.
"Yes Major Rosencrantz, there is news. The Confederation Senate finished the vote at 2000 Hours yesterday, and determined that no help would be sent to the Combined Fleet from the inner worlds," Kennedy said. It looked as if he were about to choke on the words he had just formed.
The way things were going right now, he just might, Pierce thought... a half second before chaos erupted in the room.
"Are they out of their fucking minds -- "
"Those two-faced sons of-"
"They've just sentenced all of us to death! Reinforcements or no -- "
"For God's sake -- "
"THAT'S ENOUGH!!" Kennedy roared out. But even that couldn't stop the uproar. The facts stated themselves. They had been hung out to dry by the higher ups, who sat safely behind a thick layer of the best defenses the Confederation had to offer. Pierce couldn't believe it. It was all probably that bastard Diego, he thought. He'd been pushing for military cutbacks, and had decided that they could write off the Border Worlds and anything in it, because the bugs would spread themselves out and be destroyed. So what if it cost the lives of every man and woman in the Combined Fleet? Small price for securing the future of the Confederation, right?

Carter couldn't believe it. He looked at Alvarez, who looked as though she' d taken a baseball bat to the diaphragm. Absolutely stunned. He knew how she felt. No help? No support? Not even a supply convoy with replacement pilots and/or fighters? Nothing?!
He could deal with difficult assignments, it was part of the job. He had given his oath to the citizens of the Terran Confederation, and he would stand by it. But it appeared that their government had just broken the faith with them.

There was no excuse for this. None whatsoever. They were being hung out to dry, just like the soldiers in the Philippines had been in the Second World War, and all because some idiot strategist, probably one who'd never been on the business end of a loaded weapon, had decided that it would be more strategically expedient to let the Combined Fleet fight to the death and weaken the Nephilim probably to a terminal strength level than to risk sending any help, no matter how small, to the besieged men and women who held the line.
He looked at Admiral Kennedy. The man's delivery of the news had made him sick at heart. Carter could see that. Anybody who looked could.
This was absolute betrayal.
It was completely and utterly unfair and... hell, it was just plain stupid! It was quite possibly the death sentence of the Combined Fleet and all of its personnel. Carter felt a wave of absolute fury pour through him.

Martinez' clenched and unclenched her fists. Just as a ray of hope that they would survive, in spite of the odds against them had presented itself, it had been taken away by politicians and bureaucrats, the pencil-pushers and paper-shufflers who thought that fighting was bloodless, that soldiers were idiots for signing up to put their lives on the line, even when there were no enemies to fight.
Looking around the room, she spotted no less than four officers that looked like they were on the verge of exploding. Only years of conditioning, possibly aided by the shock of the news they had just been given, prevented the torrents of dark emotions from flowing freely.
By God, if any of them survived this, there would be a reckoning. The Confederation Senate may just have an overthrow by the military on their hands. Right now, the words of Admiral Geoffrey Tolwyn rang clearly in her head: "A few must always be sacrificed to make way for the future."
A few were going to be sacrificed, alright. Only it wasn't a few. It was officers whose courage, skill, and dedication had placed them at the tip of the spear when it had been thrust into the side of their opponent.
Now, it seemed that the shaft had been amputated. The head of the spear, while still sharp, was nowhere near as deadly as it could have been, and it would eventually be destroyed.
Didn't the Senate realize that if the bugs got a foothold here, they would be able to overrun the Confederation only months after that? Didn't the idiots think on a wartime footing instead of watching cost-benefit analyses all day long, moaning about the expenditures of the budget that kept them safe?

Captain Ramirez looked around him, and couldn't help but join in their anger at the Confederation Senate. That the Senate would hang good people like this out to dry, after giving them a ray of hope, and after they had fought so long and so hard to have any chance of winning.
By God, he vowed, if it takes the rest of my years, there'll be a reckoning for this.
The other captains of ships called Yorktown had never dealt with anything quite so insidious during their tours. Then again, life had been much simpler during the earlier times. No multi-hundred-world Confederation to worry about, only one nation on one planet.

He longed to see home again, the house he had grown up in, the Terran Confederation Space Force Academy, and his personal favorite place, the city of Oakland in California.
And yet, even as he thought of these things, he realized that he would probably never see them again. Not now. Not when this had happened. On top of the fact that they were getting no support, the aliens' numbers had just doubled again. And while the aliens were probably a fresh, unbloodied striking force, the Combined Fleet, even after its stand-down, was tired, battle-scarred, and outnumbered just as badly as it had been at the beginning.
Well, by God, he thought, if I'm going to die, at least I'll have had the privilege of serving with men and women like these, instead of fat, pompous, lazy bureaucrats that couldn't fight their way out of a wet paper bag. Those bastards wouldn't (and couldn't, because they were too stupid, in Ramirez' opinion) know what their freedom cost those who fought for it.
It wasn't how he'd wanted his tenure of command on the Yorktown to end. Oh, he knew it would eventually have come to an end, probably with his XO taking over, and he being shipped off to become a commodore or to retire. But to be spent on behalf of those who didn't feel like supporting the troops that they had sent to fight overwhelming odds in the first place?!

Rosencrantz looked at Arkadyova. Both knew that this was it. This was the turning point. Either the enemy would be stopped here, or they wouldn't be stopped anywhere. It was that simple. She nodded, sharing his look.
She vented it differently. "Anybody know if the Border Worlds Fleet is hiring? It makes me physically sick to think that we're all risking our lives for people like this." She said.
Several ripples of dark laughter swept the room... and then it got a bit noisy again, with people talking to their counterparts about this situation. He felt rage, betrayal, and remorse just like the others, but it wasn't for himself. He was a combat pilot, slated most likely to die in combat. They flew with death every day, even without a war on.
Now, there was only one group that would suffer for the Senate's mistake. And that's exactly what it was, in Rosencrantz' opinion: A mistake. Not political maneuvering, not strategic necessity, not smart thinking.
A mistake. And the group that would suffer for it would be the whole of humanity.
Well, it wouldn't be because he gave up.
A sense of calm, yet powerful resolve filled him as he thought this. In the event that they failed, it wouldn't because he hadn't given his all, because his squadron had refused to stand the line. No, it would be because of those behind the line and their lack of support. History would not reflect poorly on him or Arkadyova.
If it reflected them at all. Rosencrantz remembered an old saying: 'History is written by the victors. Well, if the bugs beat them, there wouldn't be any human history anymore. All of their years of existence would be wiped from the face of the galaxy by this menace. Women, children, civilians; it wouldn't matter.
By this time, the uproar had quieted down. Kennedy was once more standing, waiting for the last vestiges of the hubbub to disappear. When he had everybody's complete attention, he took a breath, and spoke.

"Alright, ladies and gentlemen. I know this hurts, badly. I know what you're all thinking, but by God we're not going to lay down and let the Nephilim roll over use because our civilian population, in all its infinite wisdom, decided to elect leaders as stupid as these. We all volunteered for this fate, and by God, we're going to live up to it. If we're going to die, we're going to make our deaths count for something, like all those who've gone before us. In any case, the Nephilim are going to take it in the teeth before we go down," Kennedy said.
Rosencrantz nodded. There was nothing more to say on this subject. "What's our target, Admiral?"

Kennedy nodded. He was glad his fears hadn't been justified. Yorktown's crew seemed to have actually pulled it together and wanted to get down to business. That was fine with him.
"Coming in with the new fleet via the Ymir jump point is a Tiamat-class dreadnought, just like we fought in Loki. Only this time we've got other commitments and support. The TCS Endeavour will be working with out flight wing against this target, since we don't have any diversionary raids going on this time. We've also got a commitment to assist in the defense of CVBG Auriga if the need arises, so we're going to be understandably busy during this upcoming engagement."
Kennedy took a deep breath, then continued. "This one's going to be messy, folks. We can't hit and run any more. It's our turn to run the gauntlet. I want everybody at this best for this one. We can't afford to falter now. But bear this in mind: Whether or not we make it through this one, I've never had the honor to serve with a better group than this one, right here, right now. I'm damned proud of what you've all accomplished. You've earned the right to go forward, and to live. Now, you've got to ensure that you do. That's all, people. I expect the WC to have plans for a strike on the Tiamat by no later than 0900 Hours. I'd like you squadron COs to inform your pilots personally. It might lessen the blow. That said, you're dismissed."
The squadron commanders and Alvarez immediately exited the room, probably going to break the unfortunate news to their pilots. Kennedy did not envy them that task.
Ramirez stepped up beside him. "Once more unto the breach, Admiral?"
Kennedy nodded. "It would appear so, Captain."
Ramirez smiled grimly. "Well, don't worry. We'll give them a fight they'll never forget, and I can guarantee that not one pilot or one crewmember from this ship will stop until either they're dead or the bugs have been flattened."
Kennedy smiled grimly. "I know, Captain. But I certainly hope that of the two possibilities you've just listed, it is the latter that we see brought to fruition, and not the latter."
For a fraction of a second, Ramirez could see the burdens that Kennedy carried around with him, day after day, during any time of conflict that involved the forces under his command. His responsibility to get them all home alive counterbalanced, no, outweighed by his responsibility to defend the Confederation he'd sworn his oath of service to. His knowledge of these burdens, sending pilots, men and women, and ships with their crews out to die, again and again, knowing that some of them would never come back, would remain in the memories of their loved ones as they had last seen them before they died. From the lowliest petty officer to the highest colonel or captain. And it never ended.
Ramirez saw in Kennedy's eyes what it was to be a commander, somebody who knew what they must do in order to serve faithfully and to the best of their ability. And he hoped to God that he never made admiral.

Kennedy looked away from Ramirez as the rest of the pilots and ship COs filed out. He didn't want Ramirez to see the burdens he carried, nor did hewant the captain to try and share in them. The life of an admiral wasn't an easy one, knowing that you had at one point been one of those fresh-faced young pilots or ensigns you were sending out to die.
Instead, he walked to the intercom mounted on the bulkhead.

"Communications, this is Kennedy. Get me a secure channel to the Endeavour, Captain Griffin. Pipe it through to my quarters. I'll be there in five minutes."
Kennedy turned and left the briefing room, hoping, praying that it would soon be over. One way or the other.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Combat Intelligence Center
Same Time

 Alvarez walked in, a sense of serenity surprisingly falling over here. Serenity? That was the last thing she expected. Beside her was Major Brancer, and Major Carter. Major Karpoff was due to join them shortly.
"Alright, folks. We're going to be working with the Endeavor's flight group for this one, and, like the admiral said, we've also got a commitment to assist in the defense of CVBG Auriga if the need arises... and seeing the circumstances, I think we will. We're going to be spread pretty thin as a flight group this time around, so I want any and all ideas on the table now, no matter how far-fetched they may seem." Alvarez said.
Carter looked at the map of the Nifelheim System, displayed by a holoprojector that typically displayed the positions and strengths of Yorktown's group. Also displayed were the jump points leading to and from the system, all of them surrounded by mines of one type or another.
"What about using the asteroid belts between planets five and six? We can jump out of there and spring another ambush on the Tiamat just like we did in Loki," Carter suggested.
"Just doing what we did in Loki won't win the entire battle. We need a guaranteed way to hit the dreadnought and take her out of the fight, instantly, and with as little loss to our side as possible," Alvarez replied. "I'm not negating your idea, Mister Carter, but somebody has to play devil's advocate. And what if, the bad old 'what if' the Nephilim maneuver in the Z-axis and bypass the field completely? We could be caught out of position and overwhelmed."
"Ma'am, the Nephilim can't afford to do that. If they do, they lose any element of surprise, because if they 'descend' on the system, they leave everything they have out in the open where sensors can pick it up easily. That, and, if we can force them into running, the minefields around the jump points should help a bit," Brancer spoke up.
"Sorry I'm late, but I thought this might help," Major Karpoff said as he walked in, carrying four cups of coffee.
"Vlad, you're a lifesaver," Carter called, taking the proffered mug.


Aboard Piranha 133, "Sindri Star Lead"
Same Time

 As her fighter roared off into space, Martinez could feel the morale of her squadron sagging. It was as if a very large, very dark cloud had descended upon them, and they were now feeling the effects of gloom and oppression.
"Alright, folks. Form up. We're going to be running a patrol-in-force this time, and I want us to look like a force to be reckoned with," Martinez said.
She only got mike clicks from her pilots. No jokes, no humor, no sarcasm, nothing.
Truth be told, she didn't blame them. She felt almost the same way herself. She was still in shock over the decision of the Confederation Senate. These were the people she had sworn to protect and obey? The same ones that were now hanging hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions, out to dry?
As if echoing her thoughts, the leader of Four Flight, Second Lieutenant Justin 'Longhorn' Peters, piped up. He was two people and two fighters short, as a result of the vicious fight in Loki, and was somewhat bitter as a result. "What the hell do those idiots in the government playing at? They're applying political motivations to a battlefield. That's happened before in our history. Vietnam, and, more recently, Repleetah. It hasn't worked before, and the soldiers on the front line paid for it. I don't feel like paying for the life of some fat-ass, stupid politician who doesn't have the guts to pick up a rifle or climb into the cockpit of a fight for  themselves."
"Sindri Stars, Lead. I know you all feel like we've been stabbed in the back. I feel the same way, after all that we've been through, but remember, those politicians make up less than one percent of the population. Think of the billions who'll die if the bugs break the line that we were supposed to hold. Think of your families and pull it together. This fight is almost over, one way or the other. In the meantime, keep the chatter down, do your jobs, and focus on getting through one day at a time. That's all we can do," Martinez said.
"Two Flight."
"Three Flight."
"Four Flight," came the responses.
Martinez grimaced to herself. She felt like she'd been quoting out of a manual, but it seemed to have gotten through. The Stars' flying sharpened, their formations tightened up, and they made short, accurate, professional reports of anything out of the ordinary. And that was the way it went for the rest of the four-point patrol-in-force.


Aboard TCS Agincourt (CAA-21)
Briefing Room, 0327 hrs.

Lieutenant Colonel Vladmir Popov, commanding officer of the combined squadrons of the "small-fry" of the Yorktown's task force, or the fighters that flew off of destroyers and cruisers, looked down from the podium he stood at.
Assembled before him were the COs of the four small squadrons that flew off of Yorktown's two escorting destroyers, Maribel and Stasheff, and the cruiser they were currently on, the Agincourt. The Stasheff was currently carrying two squadrons of fighters, the Vipers and Perseus, if they could be called that. Stasheff had been transferred to the fleet from CVBG Auriga to replace the lost TCS Perez, and, as a result, had gained the four remaining fighters from the Perez' original eight, Perseus Squadron. As a result, she now carried one over he maximum complement, having lost three of her own fighters. Luckily, it made for easier subdivision when in combat situations, and there was little or no squabbling over who was senior. All of them flew Tigershark multi-role fighters, so there was no need for different tech support or munitions, and the crew chiefs didn't have to learn new specs to maintain the fighters. Perseus Squadron was commanded by Captain Brendan "Ranger" Whitlam, while the Vipers were commanded by Captain David "Ad-lib" Prescott.
The next squadron in line, aboard the TCS Maribel, were Hercules Squadron, flying HF-66 Thunderbolt heavy fighters. They were well-armed, suited to some anti-fighter duties and things like SEAD missions, but their lack of maneuverability made them poor dogfighters. Their role in dogfights was to rip through on afterburners and kill anything between them and the other side of the furball. They were commanded by Major Wilhelm "Baron" von der Graf. They were also valuable to the Yorktown's task force in that they could carry torpedoes, and CVBG Rapier needed all the torpedo-wielding craft it could get.
Last, but certainly no least, was the squadron that Popov flew with, Theseus Squadron, flying Excalibur-C heavy fighters. They were fast, agile, well-armed, even in their modified form, and could mount torpedoes as well. Their armor was a bit on the light side, as was usual with any "wonder-fighter" of the Kilrathi Wars, but the pilots just shrugged it off, saying, 'the bad guys have to hit us first." Their CO was Major Kyle "Killer" Coursain. When Popov flew with them, he was usually an odd-man out, one without a wingman, directing the fight when the group of squadrons flew as a unit. While not nearly as effective as a fleet or light carrier's wing, they were nevertheless one hell of a force to be reckoned with.
And now, they had to face facts.
"We're doing what?" Captains Whitlam and Prescott said at exactly the same time.
"You're on standby for support of Battle Group Auriga, that's what. Admiral Kennedy himself promised to support them, and they're going to need it. They've got the smallest fighter complement of the group, and you guys will increase their strength by twenty percent. You'll be in range of the Yorktown group, but you'll be on call for support of CVBG Auriga should the need arise." Popov said.
"And Admiral Kennedy said so?" von der Graf said. Clearly, he wasn't happy about losing nearly half the dogfighting strength of the composite wing, which, as a whole, was known as the Dragonslayers.
"For the time being, you'll maintain one of your squadrons on alert to assist Battle Group Auriga should it become necessary. The other will fly cover for the Stasheff and assist in the defense of the Yorktown if necessary," Popov finished.
Whitlam and Prescott looked at one another, their expressions saying exactly what they thought of that idea. Luckily, this wing wasn't a democracy, and Popov didn't need their opinions to concur with his own for them to follow the orders he issued.
Luckily, the Yorktown's wing was still the most complete in the task force, so he had other fighters capable of dogfighting to cover the Thunderbolts if they needed to be used in the torpedo bombing role.
"When do we get our mission stats?" Coursain asked, getting down to business.
"In less than an hour. In the meantime, I'd like you all to brief your pilots, and to get some rest, if possible. We're not sure when the bugs will come through, but I'd like everybody at their best... especially considering what the Senate just did to us," Popov said.
"With regards to that... anybody know if the Border Worlds is hiring? I've had it with these dumbass politicians sitting on their hands, with very few exceptions," Prsescott spat. The silence in the room hung like a pall.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Flight Operations
1329 Hours (CST)

Alvarez sprinted to the visual terminal in Flight Operations as the general quarters klaxon sounded.

Reaching it, she keyed it to the bridge. "Colonel Alvarez here, Admiral. What's going on?"
Kennedy's face appeared. "We've just received word. There's a third fleet, possibly Nephilim coming in from the Seggalion jump point. Lots of ships, maybe another entire strike fleet. We're taking position, with the Endeavour, to intercept anything coming in from Ymir now," Kennedy said, his face set into grim lines. Alvarez knew why.
Two fleets, and there was some hope, however small, that they may get through the fight and win. But three? No. They were finished. It was over.
Alvarez nodded, as much to herself as the admiral. "Aye aye, sir. We'll be ready." She signed off, turned, and said to the comms technician, "Get me the Endeavour's WC, Colonel Taylor, right now. I mean, right now, as in yesterday, crewman."