: Into the Inferno

"War is a matter of vital importance to the State; the province of life or
death; the road to survival or ruin. It is mandatory that it be thoroughly studied.
- Sun Tzu, "The Art of War"



Bridge, BWS Valeria
Nifelheim System, Union of Border Worlds
1600 Hours, 17 Feb 2681 (2681.048)

The Valeria's bridge was as busy as one would expect at a time like this. Not only was the Valeria at the centre of a powerful battle group, she was also the command ship for the entire operation to hold the line. A steady stream of officers and enlisted crew entered and exited the bridge. Some were bringing reports from all parts of ship and the battle group that for one reason or other couldn't be delivered electronically, while others were carrying the hundreds of tasks that kept the whole operation running smoothly. In addition to that, the normal bridge crew was busy doing all the jobs that had to be carried out no matter what else was going on.

In spite of all that activity, though, the atmosphere on the bridge lack the feeling of tightly controlled urgency and barely concealed fear that had been there earlier in the day. The news that the ships coming in from Seggalion hadn't in fact been a third Nephilim attack fleet had made the prospect of battle just that little bit less imminent. The crew knew that they were still in for a hell of a fight, but they wouldn't be facing near certain annihilation as they had feared earlier. They knew that they could win this battle if they did everything right, and that was just what they were doing. All the jobs that still needed to be done before the upcoming battle were being done quickly, efficiently, and methodically. The crew was ready, as much as any crew could be ready to take on an enemy fleet that outgunned them by four to one.

It was for that reason that Captain Sang Que's heart sank as he saw Commander Warren Kent hurry out of the lift, half running across the bridge as he approached the command chair. Commander Kent was Battle Group Valkyrie's senior intelligence officer, and the only thing that annoyed him more than the jokes about Border Worlds Intelligence was having to rush in anything he did. Besides, there weren't any reports from Intel due just now, which meant that something unexpected had happened. Unexpected occurrences during the battle to hold the line had been bad news more often than not. Captain Que hoped that this was an exception. They couldn't take any more bad news just now, especially after the complication that Lord Commander Maximillan Gan had just dropped into their laps.

"Where's the Admiral?" Kent asked, barely taking the time to salute. Sang Que knew better than to read anything into that. That was just par for the course in the Border Worlds.

"She's in a conference call with Admiral Singh and the President," Sang Que replied. "What's going on?"

"Intel section received a high priority trans from Looking Glass about an hour ago," Kent said, referring to Border Worlds military high command, located at Landreich Prime.

"It had so many layers of encryption on it that it took us this long to decipher it." He added quickly, responding to the Captain's raised eyebrow. It was unusual for a transmission to go straight to intelligence rather going through communications, and even more unusual for there to be such a delay in passing the message on. Whatever it was, it was something that Border Worlds Intelligence desperately wanted to keep secret.

"Something that you can't discuss on the bridge?" Sang Que guessed.

Kent nodded. That left them no choice but to wait until the Admiral had finished her conference call, more than twenty minutes later. Captain Que turned the bridge over to his second officer and followed the other two officers into the command briefing room.

Commander Kent wasted no time in filling the Admiral and Captain Que in on what Intelligence had learned. Several days ago, a team of Border Worlds cipher experts led by Velina Sosa had succeeded in breaking a complex Nephilim code. Not only that, the code breakers believed that they had understood the master encryption pattern in all Nephilim codes, something that had previously baffled Border Worlds and Confed Intel alike. The Nephilim were using tactile vibrations in addition to audible sound to encode the information, something that species like humans and Kilrathi who understood speech by sound alone would have been unlikely to guess. Understanding the key had been a stroke of pure genius on the part of the code breakers, but that wasn't what concerned any of the officers just now. The only thing that mattered to them now was just how this information could be used to even the odds in this battle.

Kent explained that while the Nephilim were, whether by accident or design, using an encryption pattern that the humans had been highly unlikely to break, they hadn't been very imaginative in safeguarding their codes any further. In the few days that it had the key, Border Worlds Intelligence had been able to break literally dozens of enemy codes. And more than that, it seemed that a few slight variations in the key pattern could be used to unlock any new code that they encountered.

The implications of that development were breath taking. They could understand virtually everything that the Nephilim would be saying to each other. Not only that, the Nephilim didn't know the humans had that information. Even a species that was as slow on the uptake as the Nephilim sometimes were would have changed their codes if there had been any possibility those codes had been compromised. Knowing what the Nephilim would be doing before they did it would give Admiral Hanton a much better chance of dictating the flow of the battle.

"Who else has this information?" The Admiral asked, hoping Intelligence hadn't sent that information to every ship on the frontier. The more they used the key, the greater the possibility that the Nephilim would realize they had it.

"Outside of Looking Glass, just Confed Intel and ourselves. Confed will distribute it to their fleets on a need to know basis. The only units on the frontier that are currently cleared for it are the Third Fleet battle groups here in Nifelheim."

"Good. See to it that the information is forwarded to Commodore Johnston and General Harris as well. They will need it if either Taskforce Jasmine or Avernus Station are cut off from contact with us."

The Admiral took a deep breath. "There are some other developments that you should be aware of. As you know, both the Free Republic of Landreich and the unaligned frontier colonies have been willing to send fighting forces to help us in holding of the Nephilim. More than willing, as a matter of fact. President Cale had been calling each colony's leaders personally, and emphasizing the risk the Nephilim pose to them as well as to us. In addition to the two escort carrier groups that the FRLN is sending us, the unaligned nations are sending about three-dozen vessels of frigate class or above to help us. The problem is time. Command has been running one computer simulation after another, and they all confirm that there's no way those ships will get here in time to help us hold the line."

Neither of the other two officers could help grimacing when they heard that. The frontier systems were notoriously independent, and had never been good at banding together for the common defence. At the start of the First Kilrathi War, there had been literally hundreds of colonies that were independent of the Confederation. [Author's Note: Action Stations Novel.] Most had been part of the Confederation War effort, and some had later become full members of Confed. After the war, dozens of the frontier colonies had banded together to create the Union of Border Worlds. Others became part of smaller nations like the Free Republic of Landreich or the Grovsner Colonies. Still others though, several dozen at the least, had stayed independent of any nation, ruling and defending themselves. It took time to assemble a cohesive force from such a diaspora, and they didn't have that time.

"So what's the plan? Frontier Shield?" Captain Que asked, referring to a strategic defensive battle plan that the Border Worlds Navy had practiced over a dozen times in the years since the Union's independence. It was designed to slow down and wear away at an invading force as it advanced towards their core systems. The current operation to hold the line was in fact a variation of that strategy. Since the bulk of the Border Worlds Navy's fighting capability had already been committed to the stand here, the shield would have to be formed from the ships sent by the other nations, as well as the Border Worlds ships that had been fighting in other parts of the Union. They would have far less fighting capability than Frontier Shield had been designed for, but it was better than nothing.

The Admiral shook her head. "No. Without our fleet carriers or Confed reinforcements, all that Frontier Shield will do is delay the inevitable if the Nephilim break through us in strength. We might be able to get a few million more people out of harm's way in the time that it would buy us, but the Nephilim would still kill billions throughout the frontier worlds before the Inner Fleets can respond, if in fact they ever do. President Cale has made it clear that's not an option. Instead, he has accepted the recommendation from both myself and Admiral Singh to implement Union Hammer."

Captain Que whistled softly. The Border Worlds Navy had rehearsed Union Hammer a dozen times as well, but the results had been mixed to say the least. As a result, Union Hammer had been shelved away with the plans the Navy had hoped it would never have to use for real. Whereas Frontier Shield was geared towards defense, Union Hammer was tailored towards an all out offence. It was designed to focus as much firepower as the Union or its allies could muster into one lethal hammer blow anywhere in their territory. The problem with it was that it was a one shot, all or nothing deal. If it failed, it would leave the Union with no reserve capability at all. They were either going to hit the Nephilim for six or they were about to get bowled neck and crop.

"It's risky, I know," the Admiral said, nodding in agreement. "Still, it seems to be the best option of a bad lot. In any case, it's out of our hands. We'll just have to hold the line as best we can, and leave Union Hammer to take care of itself. Commander, thank you for bringing me the information on the code. I know you have a lot to do, so I won't hold you up. Captain, I want you on the flight deck with a full Marine guard of honour to welcome Lord Commander Gan aboard when his shuttle arrives. It's the least we can do after the welcome we initially gave him."

Captain Que escorted Maximillan Gan into the command briefing room about half an hour later. The Admiral was waiting for them, as were the rest of the battle group's senior officers, all in full dress uniform. None of them were thrilled about taking time out from their duties to attend the welcoming ceremony, but all understood the need to do so. Tanfen was not simply supplying munitions and equipment the Union desperately needed, they were now also committing their own private guard units, ships, and fighters to the battle. The Corporation's resources weren't great compared to those of a nation state, of course, but every bit helped. It was both common sense and common courtesy to show respect to those who were standing by you in a time of great need.

"Lord Commander Gan. I welcome you aboard," the Admiral said, as she stood and bowed slightly, one hand made into a fist and clasped by the other in the Chinese custom
"Your welcome is appreciated," Max said, returning the bow. Accompanying him were three of his guards, a man and two women. Also accompanying him was Lieutenant Kyra Kaslowski, the Border Worlds Marine officer who had been assigned to baby sit the young heir of House Gan when his ships had been commandeered by the Union. By all reports, the youngster had very much come of age since then.

"Have you eaten yet?" The greeting sounded incongruous to Western ears, but showing concern for a guest's needs was central to the Eastern custom.

"Yes, I have, thank you," Max said, a little surprised by the Admiral's knowledge of Tanfen custom, though rigorous TPRO training kept him from showing it. The courtesy itself wasn't surprising, despite the strained nature of their previous meetings in Tyr. Both Tanfen and the Union had realized since that they would need each others' *willing* co-operation to survive this invasion.
"I understand that you have been updated on our situation?" The Admiral asked as the officers and their guests seated themselves around the briefing table, getting straight down to business. The greetings that been exchanged had satisfied the nominal requirements of protocol, and everyone here was realistic enough to realise that any more would be counter-productive in a war zone.

"Yes, I have," Max said, wincing slightly. It had been a massive shock to discover that the relatively safe resupplying area he had hoped to find for his ships was about to come under attack by a second massive Nephilim fleet, not just the tattered remains of the fleet Confed and the Border Worlds had been fighting for the past two weeks. It had been just as much of a shock for the officers to learn that the 100,000 thousand Tyr refugees they had sent to "safety" were now right back in the firing line.

"Admiral Hanton, I hope you realize that I had no choice but to bring my fleet here. With Nephilim raiders attacking us in Masa, and the destruction or our Sutari sector base, our facilities here were the only ones that we could reach before we ran out of fuel and oxygen."

"Of course. And I hope you understand that we had no choice but to react to the arrival of unannounced and unidentified ships as we did. In any case, what is done is done. Our priority now has to be to ensure the safety of the refugees. Given scale of the battle that's due to unfold here at any time, it would be very unwise to jump the transports into the system. The safest course of action would be for them to remain on the far side of the jump point until we've defeated the Nephilim. Once that is done, we can let them into the system and allow them into resupply safely."

Given the speed with which events had unfolded, it was unlikely the battle would take more than a few days, though everyone here knew that it was still very much a matter of "if" rather than "when" they defeated the Nephilim. If they didn't, those people would be slaughtered. As callous as it sounded though, if the fleet was defeated, the loss of those people would pale into insignificance. A hundred thousand would be a drop in the ocean among the billions who would die. In this battle, there was no acceptable outcome other than complete and total victory.

"I understand, Admiral. My fleet includes several munitions super freighters, which can be used to supply your fleet with weapons. However, I request permission for my forces to join in the fighting as well. I have with me half a dozen light warships, a similar number of Orion pickets, and three-dozen fighters. It wouldn't be honorable for us to remain behind the jump point while others fight the Nephilim on our behalf."

The Admiral nodded. That had been the response she had been hoping for, but the offer had been generous none the less. Lord Maximillan and the entire Tanfen Corporation had been drawn into this battle against their will, and they had already done more than could be reasonable asked of a non-governmental group.

"Excellent. I don't need to tell you that we can use every soldier, ship, and fighter that you have. I would like your forces to join those that we have stationed at Avernus Station. They are primarily non-military forces similar to your own. You will be charged with defending Avernus and the research base against any Nephilim units that get past the main fleet battle line."

The rest of the meeting was focused on the finer details that would fill out the broad-brush strokes of those plans and help turn them into reality. The reserve forces had stockpiled weapons and spare parts that had already been shared out among the fleet, but the munitions on Max's freighters was a welcome boost. There was no such thing as having too much ammunition in a fleet battle. Due the fact that most of the fleet was already positioned in other parts of the system, the Valkyries and the Confed and Border Worlds reserves, the very forces that had been poised to destroy Max's group, would get first pick of the new munitions. The rest of would go with Max's forces to Avernus, and would be held in reserve for other fleet units that had to fall back there. That stock of munitions was a stroke of luck, and would give them all a good bit extra firepower when they engaged the Nephilim. Right now, they would take all the luck they could get.


Officer's Mess, BWS Valeria
Nifelheim System, Union of Border Worlds
2230 Hours, 17 Feb 2681 (2681.048)

Raptor leaned back in his chair and rubbed his aching eyes, before absently taking another sip of the drink he had ordered over twenty minutes ago, and turning his attention back to the data pad in front of him. He finished scrolling through the last of the flight wings' status reports, and then called up the computerized library to look up information on Nifelheim itself. The screen went blank for a second, and then switched to the database section.



Nifelheim System Data: Nifelheim is a single K-series orange main sequence star that supports six planets, detailed below.

Nifelheim I: This planet orbits Nifelheim at a distance of 0.2 AU, half the distance from Mercury to Sol. However clouds of various corrosive nitride compounds reflect a great deal of the star's energy, meaning the temperature only ranges from 120 to 160 degrees Fahrenheit (the highest temperature ever recorded on Earth was 134 degrees Fahrenheit) rather than the metal-melting temperatures of Mercury's surface. Still, the temperature, the corrosive atmosphere, the lack of free-standing water, rough and broken terrain and gravity of 1.47 G all combine to make Nifelheim I almost uninhabitable. People still try because Nifelheim I holds vast mineral wealth, especially radioactives, industrial ores such as iron and bauxite, and various crystals and gems.

Nifelheim II: The sole habitable planet in the Nifelheim system, Nifelheim II orbits its star at 0.6 AU. 80% of its surface is covered by water and this, coupled with the tropical heat and 1.1 G gravity, makes it uncomfortable at best. People suffering from any respiratory ailment, especially asthma, are urged to ensure they have appropriate medication close at hand. The atmosphere is a standard oxygen-nitrogen mixture that means that while respirators may be helpful they are not required.

Most of Nifelheim II's surface is covered in lush jungle similar to the Amazon rainforest of Earth in the early nineteenth century, except for the capital city. The cooler polar regions have temperate forests; however even at the poles the 27-hour day often reaches 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Several of the lusher polar regions, as well as most of the equatorial belt, have been declared a nature reserve open only to research expeditions studying the vast variety of flora and fauna. The harvesting of native flora and fauna in approved areas is Nifelheim II's major industry, unlike the rest of the system, which focuses on mining. Seventy percent of the system's population of 150, 000 call Nifelheim II home.

Nifelheim III: This world is a medium gas giant, similar in size to Neptune in the Sol system. It orbits Nifelheim at a range of 1.8 AU and is the innermost planet to have any moons. It plays host to 4 medium moons, 10 small moons and 12 moonlets.

Nifelheim IV: This world is a large gas giant almost as large as Jupiter in the Sol system, however it is more often likened to Saturn for its spectacular rings. Nifelheim IV has a large number of moons including one giant moon, one large moon, 8 medium moons, 11 small moons and 7 moonlets. It orbits the system primary at a distance of 3.4 AU.

Nifelheim V: Nifelheim V is an airless terrestrial world almost as large as Earth but much less dense, accounting for its low gravity of 0.69 G. A small mining operation on this world focuses on harvesting its large reserves of light metals such as bauxite and sodium, as well as modest amounts of certain rare and exotic minerals. It orbits the system primary at a distance of 6.6 AU.

Nifelheim VI:  Nifelheim VI is a small world, approximately the size of Pluto, ringed by a small asteroid belt. It orbits the system primary at a distance of 25.8 AU and in turn is orbited by 3 medium moons, 6 small moons and 11 moonlets.

Other Features and Notes: In addition to its planets the Nifelheim system also possesses two asteroid belts, one at 1 AU and one at 13 AU. The inner one is heavily industrialized with most of the thirty thousand miners making their homes on Avernus Station, the main starbase in the Nifelheim system, in the heart of the belt. This belt also contains an experimental fighter-testing base, jointly operated by the Border Worlds Union and the Tanfen Corporation. The outer belt has a much smaller population and is a far more dangerous stretch of space rife with claim jumping, theft, sabotage and outright murder.

Infrastructure:  Nifelheim II is the heart of the Nifelheim system with nearly three quarters of the system's population living in the capital city of Jorgenson's Wreck. Approximately thirty thousand miners and support personnel live and work in the inner asteroid belt, leaving just over nine thousand scattered throughout the various other settlements.

One of the system's larger independent facilities is the Aligheri Correctional Facility on Nifelheim I, a mine that uses prisoners sentenced to hard labor as its workforce. Housing almost a thousand prisoners and staff, the Facility produces three quarters of the minerals mined on the system's inhospitable innermost planet.

As mentioned earlier a large portion of Nifelheim II's surface area is classified as a nature reserve. Two corporate research centers and one research centre run by the UBW government study various aspects of the planet's ecosystem and biosphere. The government-run centre is currently studying the possible effect of weather control on the planet. One of the corporate sites, run by the Tanfen Corporation, is located on the floor of one of the oceans assessing the commercial potential of the aquatic flora and fauna. The third centre is located in the heart of tropical jungle doing the same thing to the jungle ecology that the Tanfen facility is doing to the oceanic one.

One of the major problems faced by any protected ecosystem is poaching and Nifelheim II is no exception. Despite the best efforts of local authorities smugglers and privateers do a roaring trade in whale teeth & ivory, seal fur, summerfig wood and various other goods from the restricted areas. Rumors abound of a well-organized criminal syndicate coordinating most of the smuggling from a base in the outer system but no evidence has been found to support this theory.






The screen switched to a schematic map of the system, showing the sun, planets, and major asteroid belts. He entered a few more commands, superimposing the jump points, space stations, and their major fleet groups on the map. In essence, the screen now encompassed the field of battle for their upcoming showdown with the Nephilim. They would have to know that terrain thoroughly, and make the best possible use of it they could to survive that battle. From the map, it was obvious that there would be three main battle zones, though the battle was likely range well beyond those areas.

The first was at the Loki-Nifelheim jump point, a little less than 0.2 AU away from the sun, and just slightly inside the orbit of Nifelheim I. One possible advantage of that position was that the intense solar radiation in that region, along with the reflected energy from Nifelheim I, would degrade Nephilim sensor efficiency as they came through, making it harder for them to get their bearings and locate their enemies. It would do the same to the human forces, of course, but the humans would have the advantage of knowing the terrain in advance and knowing where the Nephilim would be starting from. It wasn't much, but every little bit helped.

The second was at the asteroid belt concealing Avernus Station and the research base. That was also the fallback point for any ships that were badly damaged or for fighter squadrons who had lost their ships. It was about a third of the way between the first jump point and the Ymir-Nifelheim jump point. That meant the asteroid belt had the potential to be either the safest or the most dangerous place in the system, depending on how the battle turned out. If everything went well, most of the enemy forces would get nowhere near the asteroid belt. Those that did could be picked off by the defenders based on Avernus and the testing station, while the ships and stations remained safely concealed in the asteroids. If large numbers of Nephilim broke through though, the people in the asteroid belt would be the meat in the proverbial sandwich.

It was the third battle zone that concerned Raptor the most, as that was where they would have to engage the bulk of the enemy fleet. It was located at the Ymir-Nifelheim jump point, about 2.6 AU away from the sun, and roughly half way between Nifelheim III and Nifelheim IV. There wasn't much "cover" around the jump point itself, but the planets to either side had moons and ring systems that would be ideal for ambush or hit and run attacks. Raptor zoomed the map in on that region, mentally comparing the admiral's revised battle plans with the schematic in front of him. He was running all the scenarios and outcomes through his mind, trying to account for every single possibility, and mainly succeeding in giving himself a headache.       

"Anyone ever tell you that you worry too much?" Chrys asked quietly. He had been so absorbed in what he was doing that he had forgotten he was due to meet her, Skywalker, and Phalanx. Not only that, he hadn't even noticed her sitting down opposite him.

"Well, I've got to make up for you, don't I?" Raptor said with a smile. He took another sip of his drink, and then grimaced as he realized that the ice had melted long ago, turning it into a lukewarm and watery slurry. They had to avoid alcohol altogether because of the fleet's alert status, but the cold drink had been pleasant enough half an hour ago. Chrys glanced upwards as if asking for strength, and then pushed the drink she had ordered for herself across the table, before turning around and waving to the bar tender to get her another one.


"No problem," Chrys said, matching his smile. She knew that he was talking about more than just the drink. Rap did worry too much sometimes, often working himself into knots brooding about things he had no control over. The way Chrys saw it, it was her job to keep him grounded in the here and now.

The two pilots talked quietly about things that had nothing to do with the upcoming battle until Skywalker and Phalanx joined them. All four of them had served together in the Bush, and had learned to work well together in that campaign. They were also all veterans of the Kilrathi Wars and the Border Worlds Conflict (though they hadn't all been fighting on the same side in Circe), making them among the most combat experienced pilots in the fleet.

Informal meetings like this one allowed them to bounce ideas and plans off each other, allowing them to refine the strategies that had been set for the flight wing by the Admiral or by Intel. It was more than a little unusual by Confed standards, but it worked well in practice, which was what really mattered in the Border Worlds. It helped that all four of them could balance out each others' weaknesses. Raptor and Phalanx were both good tacticians, having been trained in Confed's orthodox tactics during the First Kilrathi War, and learning a lot about more unorthodox warfare in the years they had led squadrons on the frontier. As a former strike fighter pilot, Raptor was by far the most offensively focused in the group, always looking for ways to take the fight to the enemy. Phalanx on the other hand was an interceptor pilot, and he was the one Raptor counted to make sure the battle group was adequately protected no matter what else was happening. It was far too easy for an attack minded Wing Commander to get so focused on delivering the knockout blow that he forgot defense was just as important. In contrast to the other two, Mirage and Skywalker had been executive officers until a year ago, and were more in touch with what their squadrons could do, and how the men and women under their commands thought. They were usually the ones who put a reality check on what the tacticians came up with. No matter how sound the plan was, it was doomed to failure if the pilots were too tired or the planes too badly damaged to carry it out.

Raptor quickly explained the plans that the Admiral had already set out for the fleet in general. The whole battle plan depending on fast moving combat groups that were small enough to evade easy detection while still being large enough to bring massive firepower to bear when they needed to. They would have to find the enemy ships before those enemy ships could find them, and then strike fast and hard. The idea was that by staying mobile and well organized, they could carve up the much larger but tactically disorganized Nephilim force. The one thing that they would have to do above all else was to avoid going toe to toe with the full enemy fleet. In that scenario, the Nephilim could use their greater numbers and firepower to overwhelm the human ships. If they could lure the Nephilim fleets into splitting up into smaller units though, the human groups would be able to gain at least a temporary advantage in fighting strength, and use that to hammer the Nephilim.

Of course, the success of the whole plan depended on the Nephilim acting more or less in the same manner that they had in past battles. One thing that far too many tacticians forgot was that the enemy also had a vote. Just because their enemies hadn't shown themselves to be very tactically astute for the past few weeks wasn't proof that they couldn't be much smarter now than they had been in the past. A few weeks or even months was an incredibly short time to try and understand the thinking or behavior of an entire species. Close to four decades of constant contact and combat with the Kilrathi hadn't stopped humans from falling for the False Treaty. Not only that, humans had been given literally thousands of years to understand their own species, and yet they fooled each other with great regularity. There were just no guarantees when you were dealing sentient beings. They just had to hope and pray that what they had learned about their enemy was more or less accurate.

That wasn't the only thing that they were taking on faith. It was hard to imagine a more disparate (or should that be desperate?) alliance of fighting forces than the one that had been formed in this last ditch attempt to hold the line. The units that they were throwing into the battle included frontline Confederation troops, regular Border Worlds military personnel, Confed reserves, Border Worlds Militia, Tanfen corporate troops, their arch enemies from Porhen industries, Nifelheim System Homeguard, civilian volunteers, and even a handful of Kilrathi warriors. They could count on their forces not to turn on each other, though just barely, given the threat that the Nephilim posed to them all. That didn't mean, though, that they could expect this operation to run smoothly. All the different elements of their force had different equipment, different training, and different ideas of how to do things. There was a very good chance the whole battle line could degenerate into chaos if it wasn't managed properly. That was one of the reasons the Admiral had structured the order of battle as she had. The idea was to keep group similar units into fighting forces that would work well together.

The force that was fighting near the Loki jump point had all of the Confed and Border Worlds reserve elements in it. It included six escort carriers, a pair each of heavy and light cruisers, five frigates and a destroyer, and about 250 fighters. Not only did the Confed and Border Worlds reserves have similar carriers, escorts, and fighters to each other, but they had also been training together for a while now. The pilots had all accrued a hell of a lot of flight and dogfighting time recently, impressing even the frontline pilots who had been assigned to spar with them, and had practiced large scale fleet attack and fleet defense scenarios. They could be counted on to work as a cohesive team. They would have to, since they would now be taking on the Leviathan heavy carrier that was coming at them from Loki, as well close to twenty escorting warships and six hundred fighters.

Similarly, the force that was delegated to guard Avernus station grouped together the corporate pilots, Homeguard and the volunteers. That force had about a hundred fighters altogether, mainly First Kilrathi War era Confed fighters like Hellcats and Thunderbolts or similar Border Worlds fighters. They also had six light warships -- two frigates and four corvettes -- along with a couple of fighter tenders and half a dozen Orion gunships. Their job would be to take care of any leakers that got past either the reserves or the main fleet. While the Tanfen and Porhen pilots had never trained together, their battles over the years should have given them a very good understanding of each others' training and tactics. They could be counted on not to get in each others' way. The Homeguard had dealt with both corporate forces regularly as they escorted their corporations' convoys through Nifelheim. Not only that, Homeguard and corporate squadrons sometimes worked together on operations that were of mutual interest, such as anti-piracy sweeps. The civilian pilots had of course trained with neither, many having not even been inside the cockpit of a fighter until a few days ago. Most had worked as privateers or commercial freighter pilots though, and had at least a passing familiarity with how Homeguard and corporate pilots worked.

The force that was taking on the main enemy fleet coming at them from Ymir jump point was by far the most cohesive of the lot. It included all their frontline forces who, having fought together for the past three weeks across several star systems, should understand each other thoroughly by now. Even so, the Admiral had grouped similar forces together, allowing them the maximum freedom to move fast and strike freely. They would in for a hell of a fight if they were to stop the massive enemy force that was coming at them from Ymir, which included up to four Leviathans, a dreadnaught, a dozen cruisers, and anywhere between thirty and fifty light escorts.

Battle Group Valkyrie was teamed up the escort carrier BWS Defiance, along with her two remaining corvette escorts. Between them, the three Border Worlds carriers could field close to one hundred and fifty fighters, bombers and electronic warfare craft. Thanks to the fighters the Valkyries had swapped with the testing station and the reserves, the bulk vast bulk of those fighters were frontline Border Worlds combat craft. That included two full strength Retaliator units, a full strength Bearcat squadron, and one slightly under strength unit composed of cloak capable Excalibur and Retaliators. They would be supported by less powerful but still extremely capable fighters like Jaguars and Intruders. For ship killing power, they had the equivalent of a squadron and a half of Avengers torpedo bombers, and half a squadron worth of Dauntless heavy bombers, plus a handful of Vindicator fighter-bombers from the Defiance. Add to that the information gathering abilities of their specialized recon Arrows and the electronic warfare ability provided by their Stalkers, and you had an extremely capable force.

According to the Admiral's battle plan, the Border Worlds force would be stationed sunward of the Ymir-Nifelheim jump point, most likely concealed within Nifelheim III's system of moons and moonlets to begin with. A powerful Confed force lead by the Yorktown would be waiting on opposite them relative to the jump point, concealed near Nifelheim IV. That put them on either side of the Nephilim force as it entered, and would allow them to slash at the Nephilim from opposite directions, making it much harder for the Nephilim to track down the carriers by triangulating the attacks. The job of the Confed and Border Worlds carrier groups would to destroy the bulk of the enemy's strike power, especially the Leviathan carriers.                 

The Yorktown would be supported by the light carrier TCS Endeavour and her battle group. The combined flight wings of the two carriers also fielded about 150 fighters and bombers. The fighter wings were considerably more powerful than that of the Border Worlds force. The wings included one near full strength unit of Vampires, two units each of Panthers and Wasps, as well lighter fighters such as Tigersharks and Piranhas.  The down side was that they lacked ship killing power. They didn't have heavy bombers such as the Dauntless, relying instead on two depleted squadrons of Shrikes, and nor did they have specialized EW craft. They did however have the firepower of two Plunkett artillery cruisers and four Murphy class destroyers, all of which were more powerful than the Border Worlders' First Kilrathi War era escorts.

Battle Group Auriga, now lead by the stealth strike cruiser TCS Hades, was stationed near the Yorktown's force, but their job wouldn't be to engage the enemy ships directly to start with. Instead, Battle Group Auriga's task was to hunt down and eliminate the Kraken-class ship killer, the single biggest threat to their fleet. The Hades was supported by a Kilrathi Fralthi II class carrier and a Plunkett-class heavy artillery cruiser, as well as frigate and destroyer light escorts. Battle Group Auriga had the least fighter strength of any of their groups, a mere 47 fighters in all. The only thing that was offsetting that was that the wing was composed entirely of frontline Confed fighters, including a squadron of Vampires. Thankfully, Krakens didn't carry a big fighter complement or heavy anti-ship weapons other than the plasma cannon itself, but any escorts the Kraken might have were a different story. As in so many things though, they didn't have a choice except to try their best and hope for the best.

The last grouping was composed of a trio of Plunkett class cruisers, seven Murphy class and four Defiance class fleet destroyers, and five torpedo boats. Those were the survivors of the 8th Cruiser, 15th and 18th Destroyer and 1st Torpedo boat squadrons. They were being held back half way between the Valkyries and Avernus Station to protect them from the ship killer and enemy fighter waves as long as possible. The capital ships had a reasonable sized flight wing between them, well over fifty fighters, but these were mainly older craft. Once that ship killer was taken out, and the Border Worlds and Confed carrier groups had slashed away a good portion of the enemy's carrier strength, the capital ships would run in at full speed. They too would begin slashing away at the enemy's flanks, using the heavy firepower of the Plunketts and the torpedo capability of the lighter ships to rip into the Nephilim escorts, hopefully whittling the fleet down even further.

Assuming everything had gone according to plan until that point (which was a hell of a big assumption in any battle) and assuming that none of their own groups had been destroyed (an even bigger assumption seeing that they had lost carriers at virtually every stage of this battle), the humans would move in for the kill once the hit and run attacks had cut the fleet down to a manageable size. With the Valkyries and the capital ships closing in from one side, and the Yorktown, Endeavour and Battle Group Auriga from the other, they would trap the surviving Nephilim ships between them and pound them with fighter and bomber strikes, before their capital ships moved in to finish the job. It would be bloody as hell, no two ways about it, but it could be done.

That though, was the grand master plan. What concerned the four officers was the role Battle Group Valkyrie's flight wing would have to play in order to do their bit for the big picture. That was what they talked about, well past midnight and into the small hours of the morning, as the Valeria herself made her way towards Nifelheim III at flank speed.