: “ Into the Inferno ”

"Extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases."
- Hippocrates



Battle Group Valkyrie
Nifelheim System, Union Of Border Worlds
1345 Hours, 17 Feb 2681 (2681.048)

How do you deal with the inevitability of death? It’s something that all of us have thought of, but usually only in the abstract. We all know that we’re going to going to die. We all know that the sand is trickling away from the hourglass, marking the oh so slow but ever so certain steps on that journey we are all on, the fateful shuffle from the cradle to the grave. We all know that somewhere, sometime, in the hour and in the place of his choosing, Death will swing his scythe and cut short our time on this mortal coil. We all know that it happens to everyone. We all know it will happen to us.

The trouble is, we never truly believe it.

Oh, we accept the inevitability of death intellectually. We accept it in the front of our brains, in that hallowed cortex that allows us to think and plan and rationalise, in that bit of grey matter we proudly claim separates us from the animals. But we don’t accept it deep down where it counts. We don’t accept it in our guts, and we don’t accept in the subconscious part of the brain that governs all the things we do without thinking. We know that our time is coming, but we convince ourselves that it will be some time in distant future, some time so far away it’s meaningless to us. We never accept death in the here and now.

That’s not such a bad thing. If we truly thought about death, about the ending of all that makes us alive and vital and special, it would paralyse us. The thought of death would consume all of our focus, all of our time and attention. It would become the focus of our lives, and in doing so it would make life itself worthless. So we file the knowledge away, and never think about it if we can help it. Deep down somewhere, in spite of all the logic and reason in the world, we all convince ourselves that we’re immortal. We make sure that we live in the now, and we tune out the sound of that clock ticking away.

That is, until the ticking becomes too loud to ignore. Until we hear Death running the whetstone over the edge of his scythe and we know that he’s coming for ourselves and ourselves alone. Not for some casual acquaintance or a friend or for the friend of a friend. For ourselves. For the person that we always somehow believed was different.

Some never get to hear it. Death comes for them suddenly, without warning. He comes for them just as surely as he does for everyone else, but he doesn’t give them time to think about it. He comes in the form of the car that runs the red light, or the fatal heart attack, or that bit of food they really should have chewed properly before swallowing. He comes for them in the form of the sudden bullet to the head or the knife in the back, or the fighter lurking in the sun. For some, Death takes them without giving them the chance to be afraid, but he also denies them the chance to make peace with their Gods, with their loved ones, with themselves. 

For most of us though, Death gives us fair warning that he’s on the way. He gives us the time to know and to accept that in the end we’re each no different from anyone else who has ever lived. He might do it in the form of that sympathetic mask the doctor puts on before he gives us the bad news or through the grin on a killer’s face or through the shriek of the missile alarm. He might do it slowly through a long, lingering illness or in the space of a few minutes’ pain.

He might do it through the word that there’s yet another enemy fleet on the way, all set to crush you.

The possibility of death certainly wasn’t new or foreign to any of the Valkyrie pilots. They had faced it all too often in the running battles they had fought across three systems, battles where without exception they had been horribly outnumbered and outgunned. Their fleet and their ships had faced destruction through any number of unexpected setbacks and sudden reversals of fortune. They themselves had all those horrible moments when an enemy pilot on their six wouldn’t be shaken off no matter what, when they knew the missiles would be coming for them if they if they didn’t do something right now. At one time or another, they had all seen the finger of God pointing at them.

The thing was, there had never been any time when it seemed quite so real, quite so inevitable, as it did right now. There had been no time to dwell on it when they themselves had been in immediate and mortal danger. There had been no time to think about death, only time for the eons old fight or flight or flight response, the adrenaline driven surge of instinct that crystallised all their training and experience towards the driving need to stay alive. And once the threat was over, they had convinced themselves that it hadn’t all been quite as immediate as it had seemed. They convinced themselves that Death hadn’t really been coming for them, but rather for the poor bastards who hadn’t quite been fast enough and good enough to make it. They kept telling themselves they were better, smarter, and luckier than the rest. Sure, it was classic denial, but it was what had allowed them to go back out and fly the next mission or twenty rather than end up as one of the poor unfortunates curled up in the foetal position in an infirmary bed.

It was the same when their ships had been surrounded and cut off in the Loki debris field, pounded constantly by the enemy. They had kept telling themselves that what had happened to the Saratoga or the Bunker Hill or the Valley Forge wouldn’t really happen to them. They had always had a plan, and if they were smart enough and good enough to see it through, they would be there at the victory parades. That self belief had helped get them through all the scrapes they had found themselves in. Even when they had been told of the second enemy fleet, even when they had been told the Inner Fleets were going to sit on their hands while the ships and crews that had done all the fighting to date got pounded yet again, there had still been hope. They had scrambled to come up with a new plan, and gotten ready to carry it out, and convinced themselves that they really could do it.

But this… this was too much. Everyone who heard of the new ships coming at them from Seggalion felt the same sense of shock and betrayal. They felt like they were in one of those Bible stories, the ones where the stern and unrelenting God of the Old Testament kept heaping one trial after another on the most faithful of his followers to see just how much they could endure with their faith intact. They had all been fighting for too long to have the illusion that there was anything fair about life or war, but surely the universe had owed them a break just this once. They had been through so much, fought so hard and for so long, and it just wasn’t right that it should end this way.


Command Briefing Room
BWS Valeria
About The Same Time

The senior officers took the news pretty well, all things considered. Maybe it was sheer anger that stopped them from going under, from breaking down and gibbering in panic. It was certainly true that the anger they felt helped crowd out the fear, forced them to focus on something other than the tide of panic and helplessness. They were angry with the Gods for doing this to them. They were angry with their leaders for putting them in this situation. Most of all, they were angry with the Nephilim for being such cowards that a four to one advantage in numbers wasn’t good enough for them. That made no logical sense because a fair war was a contradiction in terms, and they would have done the very same thing without any hesitation whatsoever had the roles been reversed, but it felt good all the same, and they clung to it. They let the bright, hot glow of that anger warm them, and push away the chill of Death’s breath on the back of their necks.

The other thing saved them was the fact that they didn’t have time to panic. The incoming ships were less than an hour away from the jump point. They knew that whatever they did, they had to do it fast. Whether the plan was to attack -- which was suicidal with forty ships coming at them -- or to run -- which was pointless, with enemy fleets approaching Nifelheim from three different jump points-, they had to get started now. The Squadron Leaders who were the first pilots to hear the news all knew they were responsible for the lives of dozens of others. More importantly, over the past few months they had all had that responsibility ingrained into them through training and battle until it was as much a part of them as their limbs were. The Valkyries were a tightly knit unit, and they had always looked out for each other. That knowledge kept them going when it might have been easier to just give up and die. It might not have been a lot, but it was enough to hold them together, and that was good enough for now.

Those two things were what allowed them to function in the few minutes after Captain Que gave them the news. Those two things, and that constant, irrational glimmer of hope in the human heart that is impossible to extinguish. None of them believed that they would get out of this alive, not now. But if they were going to their deaths, they were determined to do it in a way that would have some meaning. Maybe, just maybe, they could do enough to give the rest of the Combined Fleet a fighting chance, or at least buy their comrades enough time to retreat and regroup, and then to hope for a miracle or that the Confed Senate would come to its senses about the Inner Fleets. Maybe they could do enough that their families and loved ones back home would survive the onslaught. Once again, that hope wasn’t much, but it was all they had.

Hope and determination were all well and good, but they wouldn’t be enough in the absence of some kind of plan. The Valkyries would achieve nothing by simply throwing themselves at the incoming enemy fleet piecemeal. Even if those forty ships were “only” destroyers, each Nephilim destroyer carried twenty fighters apiece, which meant that the incoming force could have up to 800 fighters, easily six or seven times the number the Valkyries had. A more realistic estimate would assume that the Nephilim force also included cruisers. The Nephilim Hydra class cruisers each carried a flight wing of 50 fighters, which meant that Border Worlders could be facing well over a thousand enemy fighters. In all likelihood, the Border Worlders would only get one chance at crippling the enemy fleet, and they would have to make the most of that opportunity.

That was what this impromptu conference was all about. Admiral Hanton and Captain Que were in the briefing room itself. Each of the Squadron Leaders was now patched into one of the video conference screens set up around the briefing room, as were the Captains and First Officers of the Freedom and the escorting cruisers and destroyers. Also taking part in the briefing via the vid-link were Commodore Johnson and Commodore Turnbull, the commanding officers of the Border Worlds and Confed reserve groups, as well as their respective Wing Commanders, Colonel Jack Tanagawa and Colonel Michael Black.

The commanders from the remaining elements of the Combined Fleet were not taking part for the simple reason that there was nothing they could do. The bulk of the fleet had positioned itself to deal with massive Nephilim force coming at them from the Ymir System. As much as Admiral Hanton would have loved to have the flight wings of the Endeavour and the Yorktown to back up the Valkyries, those fighters would not be able get here for at least three hours, which would be much too late to do any good. The fleet’s cruisers and destroyers would take even longer to reach them. Not only that, calling in either the fighters or the capital ships would mean that those units wouldn’t be in place to counter the other Nephilim force when *it* decided to jump in. In fact, for all they knew, this Nephilim fleet could be a diversion designed to achieve that very result. Everyone who had that particular thought very quickly decided not to dwell on it. The idea that the Nephilim could afford to use forty capital warships as a mere diversion while also carrying out full scale assaults on two other fronts was too depressing to contemplate for very long. As a result, the Admiral had passed on word of the new group to the rest of the fleet, along with strict orders to stay where they were. The Valkyries had no choice but to deal with this threat by themselves.

To make matters worse, the reserve groups, while close enough for their fighters to link up with the Valkyries, couldn’t commit all their fighters to the battle either. The reserves had been tasked with taking on the remains of the original Nephilim fleet when it came at them from Loki. That fleet had been severely battered by the Combined Fleet over the past two weeks, but still had enough fighters and capital ships to be a deadly threat. The reserves would have had a hell of a time containing it even they were at full strength. No one had any trouble imagining what the result would be if the Nephilim were able to hit the reserves while their fighters were helping the Valkyries.

In short, they were screwed no matter what they did. There were no good options in a situation like this, just as lot of bad options and a couple that weren’t quite as a bad as the rest were. None of them had any illusions about what their chances of surviving this were. The pilots who went after the new enemy group be the first to die, but none of them had a good chance of coming out this alive.

The Admiral knew that as well as anyone, but she was determined that her command would give a good accounting of itself in the coming battle. She had overheard her officers and pilots half jokingly talk about “Hanton’s Last Stand” several times over the past few weeks. It had come frighteningly close to being the truth during the battle in Loki. The odds were even worse now, and there wasn’t a debris field to hide them this time. If this was where her battle ended though, then so be it. Every soldier’s luck ran out sooner or later if he or she kept fighting long enough, and Hanton had been fighting all her adult life. She had been entrusted with holding the line by her people and her government, and that was a responsibility that she would never abrogate or hide from while she was alive.

“Alright, let’s get started, ladies and gentlemen. As far as I can see, the only chance we have of stopping or crippling this incoming group is to hit it with an all out bomber strike while the Nephilim are still jumping in. Their fighter cover will be at its lowest level during the jump transit, and they’ll be coming in without any information on our forces or the defences we’ve prepared. Keep in mind that our minefields are set up to stop ships from jumping out of this system, not from jumping in. If we can hit fast hard enough and with little enough warning, we can use the mines to keep them trapped while our torpedo bombers blast them. The Valkyries will form the bulk of the strike group, but we’ll need additional strike capability and fighter cover from the reserves.”

”Who’s going to be leading the strike?” Commodore Turnbull inquired.

”I am,” Lieutenant Colonel Yu Fei “Phalanx” Leung, the Freedom’s Wing Commander, said immediately. “No disrespect intended to Colonel Tanagawa or Colonel Black, but co-ordinating a multiple squadron strike from three different carrier groups is going to be a logistical nightmare. That’s especially true considering that we all have different equipment and different standard operating procedures, and haven’t trained together for this kind of operation. The strike commander needs to be able to hold them all together no matter what. I’ve racked up more command flight hours over the last couple of weeks than anyone else here, including Raptor, and I’ve been involved in three large scale operations of this type.”

Phalanx took a deep breath and rushed on before anyone had a chance to interrupt him. “In addition to that, we have no clear chain of command established among the pilots from the three carrier groups, and no time to hammer one out. Far too many strikes fall apart in that kind of situation if the strike commander is killed. My fighter is faster and more manoeuvrable than anything the rest of you have. Not only that, I’ve got the combat hours and the experience to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

”All of that’s true,” Raptor said quietly once Phalanx finished. “But I should be the one going.”

“Colonel, that doesn’t…”

”Hear me out, Phalanx.” Raptor said, deliberately using the other pilot’s callsign rather than either his name or his rank, one fighter pilot to another. Pulling rank wouldn’t help, not in front of so many other officers of similar or superior rank. “Like you said, the whole strike could fall apart if the strike leader is killed. I’ve got a tailgunner to watch my six, a wingman I’ve flown with for a decade, and STORM to maximise my situational awareness. That gives me a much better chance to avoid being dusted while I focus on running the strike.”

”Second, if it does all turn to custard, our battle groups will be entirely on the defensive from then on in. The Nephilim will be coming after the ships if they get past us, and pilots who’re left will have to cover them. You’re much better at that than I am, buddy. They trained me as a heavy fighter jockey, and we’ve never been good at playing defence. We’re always looking for ways to attack even when we can’t. You would do a much better job in a purely defensive battle than I would.”

”Aye, Colonel,” Phalanx said. He saw the point, but wasn’t entirely happy about it. Even during the most desperate moments of the battle in Loki, Raptor had been looking for ways to take the battle to the enemy. It was an integral part of his temperament, and it was usually an asset, but not in the situations when they were down to a handful of fighters. Phalanx though, had been an interceptor pilot throughout his career, which made him a much better goal keeper than Raptor was.

”Okay, that’s settled,” Raptor said, taking Phalanx’s reluctant acceptance as agreement, and moving quickly along before anyone else jumped in. The practical reasons he had given were all good and valid ones, but they weren’t the only ones. “Alright, I’ll need every one of our Avengers if we’re going to put a dent in that fleet, which means both Hell Knight and Predator squadrons. Thor’s Hammer is going to be too slow to reach the jump point before the Nephilim do, though, so we’re still going to be light on torpedo capability. What can the reserve carriers spare us in terms of strike power?”

”We’ve already got the Avengers from Mean Machine squadron on CAP, and I can have the Timber Wolves launch from the Sicily and meet you en route,” Colonel Tanagawa offered. “They fly Thunderbolts, so they won’t much good against the big ships, but they’re trained and equipped for SEAD duty.”

”Good enough.” The Admiral said. “What about the fighter cover?”

”We won’t have anywhere near enough for either the strike group or our ships, but what else is new?” Phalanx said with a touch of gallows humor. “Our best chance is to send just about every fighter we have on the strike, and then try to get Valeria and Freedom within range of Taskforce Jasmine’s fighter cover. We should just about make it if we run all out with scoops closed. Assuming you can keep the bugs busy for thirty minutes or so, Colonel.”

”We’ll do our best,” Raptor said, matching his friend’s wry smile. Hell, with a situation like this, you either had to smile at it or break down crying. “I’ll take the Reapers, Vandals, Taipans, Revenants, White Knights and Black Angels. That’ll leave the Harbingers and what’s left of the Ghost Warriors to cover the ships.”

“You can have the Black Knight squadron as well,” Commodore Turnbull said, still trying to get used to the ad-hoc way these Border Worlders did things. If this had been a Confed command, there would have been a proper briefing from Intell, after which the senior officer would simply have given the orders, and everyone else would have gone along. While that kind of ad-hoc planning wasn’t ideal though, there weren’t many alternatives. “Their Excaliburs aren’t cloak capable, but they should compliment your Retaliators nicely.”

”Good. How soon can they get to us?” Captain Que asked. A stray thought flashed through his mind that a strike which included Black Angels, Black Knights and White Knights could be even more confusing than anticipated. Still, there was no point looking a gift horse in the mouth. Like a lot of other people at the meeting, his mind was trying to run in half a dozen directions at once, trying to figure a way out of this mess.

”They’ll need to scramble from the Miles D’Arby. We’re a bit further away, but they should link up with your strike group about the same time the Timber Wolves do,” Colonel Black said.

”The brainiacs from the testing station have been reconfiguring shuttle craft to act as EW platforms,” Samurai added. “We can use those to cover the capital ships, and free up all your Stalkers for the strike force.”

“Excellent. That’ll give us enough jamming capability to scramble their fighter radars and comms, and still be able to hit their capital ships with Blinder missiles as they come through the jump point,” Raptor said. “We’ll go in fast with all four Excalibur and Retaliator squadrons to ambush their lead fighters as they come through the jump, while the Stalkers stop them getting a message through to their ships. The Thunderbolts and Avengers will follow up as quickly as possible to hit the capital ships when they come through, with the Intruders providing cover.”

It took a few more minutes to hash out all the details, but that was the gist of the meeting. They would throw virtually all of Battle Group Valkyrie’s strike power at the enemy force, along with everything the reserves could spare them, and hope like hell that it would be enough to cripple the incoming force. It was a desperate move to be sure, but this was a time for desperate measures if ever there was one.