PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 22 of 62 )

: Welcome to the Family


 

 

Captain's Cabin, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System
2130 Hours (CST)
17 Feb 2681 (2681.048)

There are few things in this universe more opinionated than a Chief Petty Officer. Everything from policy decisions to military strategy is likely to draw a response from one of these seasoned spacers, and officers are no different. There are good officers and bad officers, but to hear a Chief talk about it, there are no human officers. Officers aren't recruited, they'll tell you. They're manufactured like munitions on some great assembly line. Navy Chiefs, being an overworked, hard-drinking lot tend to have a lot of odd opinions on a great many things, but for a moment, let's imagine they are correct.

If such a line exists, then somewhere in this universe is an underpaid, disgruntled quality assurance inspector charged with the onerous duty of making sure that each officer coming off the line is identical to the last: Stiff, proper, unyielding. A truly boring, mind-numbing duty to be sure. Could anyone fault him, then, if come Friday he was more interested in completing his work and finishing his shift than he was with the perfection of the product? Can anyone blame him if, seeing that an officer had two arms, two legs, and a head all in the proper places, he marked him a pass, punched out of the time clock, and headed for the local pub?

If this is true, then Captain John Ashley is the product of just such a lazy Friday afternoon. On the outside, everything was up to specs. He looked like central casting's idea of the perfect naval officer, something directly out of a tri-vid entertainment broadcast. His close-cropped sandy blond hair, graying slightly at the temples, steely blue eyes, and handsome features would look at home gracing any recruiting poster. It was only when one looked closer that one realized that something wasn't quite right.

Commanding a spacecraft is not a forgiving occupation. Space is no man's friend, and the hard vacuum held at bay by nothing more than the ship's bulkheads would like nothing better than to claw the breath from the lungs of any spacer unwary enough to make so much as the tiniest mistake. Commanding a spacefaring warship leaves even less room for error, as unlike civilians, the military man knows that somewhere out there in the void is another commander just like himself who has made it his business to take the lives of the commander and his crew. As a result, starship captains tend to be a conservative lot, running their ships from a checklist. If A and B happen, do C followed by D. They aren't to be faulted for this approach, however. It keeps their crews alive, you see.

Once in a very long while, however, you find an officer who in no way, shape, or form fits that mould. Aggressive, even bold, they are the legends of their time, or at their worst, they get themselves and others killed. There is no middle of the road. Never do you find an average aggressive commander. Either they are revered for eternity as heroes, or reviled as incompetent fools whose thirst for glory got their men killed.

John Ashley was one of these. A maverick, a cowboy, he didn't so much march to his own drummer as he took control of the whole parade and changed its course. You could see it in his eyes. This was a man who seized fate in his own two hands and wrung every last drop of opportunity out of it. When he took command of a starship, the checklist went out the window, for better or for worse, and only time would tell if he would be remembered as a hero or a fool.

One thing the tri-vids always get wrong about warships is the amount of space available. The captain of a cruiser is always furnished with a suite of rooms to make most civilians envious. This is not so. Above all, the Nemesis was a ship of war, devoted to the task of tearing victory from the clutching hands of her enemies and holding it for herself. Space was at a premium, even with her more than six-hundred meter length, with missile magazines, shield generators, machine shops to manufacture what spare parts she couldn't carry, and even a small flight deck for her complement of fighters and EW spacecraft shoe horned in.

The captain's cabin seemed to have been added almost as an afterthought, almost as if the designers of the ship had been ignorant of the need for someone to actually command their glorious warship until the late in the Nemesis' construction. Planetside, or on board one of the larger space stations, it could have passed for a janitor's closet somewhere. A bunk, a desk with a single chair, and a closet in which the captain could hang his uniform were its primary attractions, with a functional head and single-person shower stall squeezed in just off the main room.

Stretched out on the bunk, his hands resting atop his chest, John Ashley gave the impression of dozing lightly as his XO sat at the desk, a hard-copy paper printout clutched in hands that were growing increasingly white-knuckled as she read the content of the dispatch. Dark-haired and fair-skinned to Ashley's deep tan and light hair, Commander Christine Muldoon was her commander's polar opposite in more ways than one.

She read the dispatch once, twice, and then a third time, just to make sure she hadn't misread it either of the other two times before. Cursing silently under her breath, she fixed her intense gaze upon the reclining captain. Without saying so much as a word, she watched him, waiting for his trademark manic grin to break out on his face, waiting for him to sit up and produce their real orders. This had to be one of his jokes. It had to be.

The grin never came. One eye flickered open, fixing on the young officer sitting at his desk. Soon followed by the other, he watched her expectantly, watching as the clouds gathered and waiting for the fury of the storm he saw building. He wasn't forced to wait too terribly long. Tossing the print-out onto the desk's uncluttered metal surface, she finally broke the silence.

"Sir, permission to speak freely?" she asked.

"Always, Chris," Ashley drawled, the words coming out more like ahlways, Chris... "What's on your mind?"

"Captain, are these orders for real?" Chris blurted out.

Ashley chuckled, his eyes drifting closed. "They look pretty real to me..."

Christine gave an exasperated little sigh. Once, just once, she wished she could make him take something, anything seriously.

"Captain, this isn't a laughing matter," she insisted. Picking up the print-out once more, she started to read their orders aloud. "'To Captain Jonathan E. Ashley, BWS Nemesis. You are hereby requested and required to use all means necessary to divert the maximum number of enemy fleet assets from their attack on elements of our battle group. To this end, you are to begin operations independent of your task force no later than twelve hours after receiving this document. The survival of the Nemesis is to be considered of lesser importance than degrading the enemy's combat effectiveness. Signed, Chief of Naval Staff.'" Her head came back up, glaring at Ashley with a vengeance. "Captain, this document denies us all support from our escorts!"

"Yep," Ashley confirmed with a nod. "It also says we're expendable."

"That's just my point, sir. It's a suicide mission!"

The captain shrugged, one corner of his mouth going up in a slight smirk. "'Ours is not to question why. Ours is but..."

"'... But to do and die,'" she finished. "I know the quote, sir. It's not terribly comforting."

"It's not supposed to be." Ashley rolled to a sitting position, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Commander, I'm about to give you a no-shitter. We don't have a snowball's chance in hell, here. Our friends out there ate the Saratoga alive, belched, and came looking for seconds. Yeah, we took out a dreadnought, but we had to sacrifice the Valley Forge to do it, and we're running out of capital ships real fast. Command has already written us off the roll. If it was me, I'd have 'It-is-my-sad-duty-to-inform-you' letters for all of us. This has been a suicide mission from the day we left port. I don't expect to survive this one. When I got my orders, I saddled up my horse, rode out to the ridge, and watched the sunrise over the mountains. If I ever see another one, I'll be very surprised."

"What about reinforcements?" Chris asked.

"Yeah, and while we're dreaming, I'd like a pony..." Ashley chuckled. "Everything that flies and shoots is setting up a defensive perimeter around our capital worlds. Our real job isn't to stop this enemy. It's to slow them down so that they've got enough time to get their defenses ready."

"So that's it, then?" Chris asked, her chin raised defiantly. "You're just giving up?"

Ashley's eyes burst into flame, and he spitted her on the end of a glare fierce enough to scour the flesh from her bones, but still the XO didn't back down. The day he signed on as the captain of the Nemesis, Ashley had served with Chris Muldoon as his executive officer. All that time spent in the service together was enough to smooth the ragged edges of a rocky relationship, but every once and a while, they still went at it like cats and dogs.

"Like hell!" Ashley exclaimed, leaping to his feet as he set about pacing. "I don't know if you watched the newscast from New Warsaw City during the attack on Dakota, but I did. I watched the whole damn thing, from start to finish. I watched as those ships out there wiped that city off the map. They didn't land. They didn't give them the slightest chance to fight back. They just made orbit around the planet and blasted them into oblivion from orbit. I'll piss on my mother's grave before I let these bastards have a crack at my home planet. That's the bottom line."

Chris stiffened in her seat, drawing her up even straighter, impossible as that seemed at the time. "Aye, sir. Do you want me to inform the crew?"

Ashley shook his head, setting an unlit cigar between his teeth. "I'll take care of it myself. They deserve to get this direct from me."

 

Bridge, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System
2151 Hours (CST)

"Captain on the bridge!"

Ashley winced as he stepped out of the lift. Ever since he'd taken command, he'd alternately pleaded, argued, cajoled, and ordered the crew to stop doing that. Unfortunately, a crew takes its cues from its captain... and in the case of the Lady N, that made for a crew that was fiercely independent and imbued with a sense of humor that could only be termed sick. He figured they kept doing that just to see the old man flinch.

"As you were," he ordered, waving off his yeoman and turning down an offered cup of coffee as he made for the comm station. "Put me on the PA, Chief." Ashley ordered, scooping up the microphone as the enlisted tech at the station worked his controls. Looking up at the captain, the NCO gave him the thumbs-up to let him know he was live.

"All hands, this is the captain..." he began, speaking into the microphone. "As you probably know already, seeing as I'm always the last to know what's going on aboard this tub, an Excalibur heavy fighter arrived from command a couple of hours ago with orders to be hand delivered directly to me. I'm sure you've been speculating as to what the content of those orders was... Well, let me break the suspense. The brass have finally seen fit to take us off fleet defense duty and let us do our job. Nemesis has never been an escort craft. She was designed with one thing and one thing only in mind: Making the enemy miserable. Well, we're going to make those damn bugs wish they'd never been hatched."

Ashley took a deep breath before continuing. "We will detach from Battle Group Valkyrie and engage in a series of hit-and-run attacks to draw off portions of the enemy fleet and leave the rest open for an assault by our carriers. With a little luck and a lot of hard work, the enemy'll spend so much time looking for us, Valkyrie will be able to rip them a new one, and they'll never notice. Today we sail into history. Good luck, and Godspeed to us all."

 

Flight Deck, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System

"'Today, we sail into history... 'man, I saw that movie." Sitting high on the wing of the newly arrived Excalibur, one of Nemesis' four fighter pilots laughed, shifting his voice into a decent impression of Sean Connery. "'We will leave our fleet behind! We will pass through the American patrols, past their sonar nets, and lay off their largest city, and listen to their rock and roll... While we conduct missile drills!'"

"Can it, Duke. This's the real deal." That was Lieutenant Commander Mark Allen, callsign Wolfman, commander of the Nemesis' flight element. A fairly unremarkable man, physically, he still managed to somehow not so much stand out from a crowd as he did dominate it through sheer force of personality. Even out of uniform, there was no doubt who was in command.

"Awe, I'm just having a little fun, boss... I don't mean any harm," the pilot assured him. "Hey, look who's here... where you headed, postie?"

Wolfman turned away from chastising his pilot, and sure enough, there was the courier pilot, just finishing up her quick checks on her flightsuit. Apparently, she'd been so deep into preparing for her departure that she hadn't even noticed the Nemesis pilots leaning against or draped over her fighter.

"I'm getting off this tub before you bright spots charge headlong into hell," she shot back. "Now, unless you want to come along for the ride, I suggest you get off my bird. Shouldn't you be off acting heroic somewhere, anyway? Standing around and saying things like 'once more unto the breach, dear friends'?"

Wolfman shrugged. "I prefer 'a man can die but once' myself..."

"And I've always been partial to 'The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers', but what's say we cut to the chase here?" Duke drawled from his perch upon the wing. Mark grinned.

"Listen..." looking down, Wolfman checked the pilot's nametag, "...Magic. We need this bird. Nemesis' only got four Intruders to her name. That Big Ex could make all the difference in the next couple of days."

"Which is really too bad, 'cause that 'Big Ex' is my bird, and I'm going home," Magic insisted, tapping her foot. "Now, if you'll excuse me..." Moving towards the ladder, she pulled up short when the Duke jumped down off his place on the wing, physically putting himself between her and the fighter.

"Just a minute..." the larger pilot drawled, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "I think you should hear the boss out." Sighing, Magic speared Duke with a drop-dead glare, and turned to face the Wolfman.

"Look, take one of our Intruders," he suggested reasonably. "They've got their own jump drives... They'll get you home. If you're so hot to get off this ship, then go. We won't keep you... But the Excalibur stays."

"Sorry to burst your bubble, Commander, but I'm not leaving without my fighter," she insisted, glaring across at him from eye level. "That's final."

An evil grin split Mark's face. "Fair enough. Chief?" he called out, waving the hangar bay's Marine guard over without looking away. "Find Magic here some quarters. She's going to be staying with us a while longer."

 

Captain's Cabin, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System
2313 Hours (CST)

"And you're just going to let him get away with this?!" Christine ranted, pacing back and forth before her captain as he once again lounged on his bunk. Her slim form fairly vibrated with rage as she reported the flight commander's latest antics.

"Well, as a matter of fact... yeah. I am."

That brought her up short. Fixing the full intensity of her glare upon the captain, she paused. Her eyes closed, and it soon became clear that she was silently counting to ten.

"May I ask why, sir?" she asked coolly, her eyes still closed.

"You may." Ashley answered, grinning his most infuriating grin. This was why she couldn't stand to look at him right now. No matter how angry she got, no matter how indignant, he just seemed amused... it drove her nuts. The Commander's eyes shot open.

"Why?" she fairly spat.

"You and I both know we need that fighter," he reminded her. "We've got no cloaking fighters, no heavies. That's a lot of firepower compared with our other birds." Shifting his cigar from one corner of his mouth to another, he grinned. "If the brass wants their fighter back, they're welcome to send another carrier group out here to take it from us."

"Captain, do you realize that what he's doing is..."

"Kidnapping?" he interrupted. "Theft of government property? Hell, maybe even treason if we get a really mean JAG back home? Yeah, I know. Oh, and it's not what he did. It's what I'm doing."

That really cut her off. Stopping in mid-pace, she stuck him on the end of a look that would turn a person's blood to liquid nitrogen. "You. Did. What?"

"Look, Christine..." He leaned forward, taking the unlit cigar from his mouth. "I told you. I don't expect to live through the week. This fighter might just buy our crew a couple more days of life with which to make the enemy miserable. I'll tell you what... If we live through this battle, I'll let you tell command what our big bad fighter boss did. Good enough?"

Counting to ten once again, Chris visibly calmed herself. "Now I remember why I divorced you." she said simply. "Promise me you won't listen to any more of Mister Allen's crazy ideas."

"Cross my heart and hope to die..." Ashley said, making the motions with his cigar. Satisfied, Chris walked out of the captain's cabin. Mere minutes after she left, there was a knock at the door. Lying back on the bunk, the captain settled his cigar once more between his teeth.

"It's open!" he called out. Opening the hatch, Mark stepped inside.

"I've got a great idea, boss... It's a little crazy, but it just might work," he began. Ashley grinned.

"Have a seat... let's hear it.

 

Officer's Lounge, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System
1000 Hours (CST)
18 Feb 2681 (2681.049)

Somewhere onboard the UBW's Nemesis is an under-used, under-appreciated compartment intended solely for informing officers of the strategies and worries occupying the captain's mind. This room has fallen into disuse in favor of the more comfortable, more appealing Officer's Lounge. Instead of the once proud natural oak table, he room now sports a series of second hand hospital beds and medical equipment. The briefing room has become a small emergency sickbay.

Instead, you will find the command crew clustered around a table in the Officer's Lounge, cups of coffee or tea, or whatever the drink of choice happens to be clutched in their hands as they grab an all-too-rare chance to relax while sharing ideas. Pacing around the perimeter like an ever-watchful sentry, you will find Captain Ashley, a glass of orange juice in one hand, and his omnipresent cigar in the other, gesturing with the thick instrument like a conductor leading a symphony.

"I ran a full diagnostic on the engine core. Every nut and bolt is accounted for. You'll have one hundred percent power on the main sublights any time you want it, and a hundred and ten percent on a five minute notice." Blowing gently on her cup of tea, the chief engineer took a long sip of the hot liquid before continuing. "Weapons ran a live-fire test on the Stormfires, and the number three CIWS jammed on us. We've got the problem tracked down and solved, but I'd keep an eye on that turret."

Ashley nodded, taking all the information in. During combat, the Stormfire turrets were the ship's primary defense against starfighters and incoming missiles. Without them, they would be practically naked. The possibility of losing just one of the twelve, however, wasn't especially daunting.

"Very well. What about you, Mark?" he asked, turning to the flight commander. "How ready are your people?"

"We're almost good to go, sir. I got checked out on the Excalibur before I was assigned to the Nemesis, so I can fly her just fine, but that means we've got an extra Intruder sitting around. That's not much of a problem other than how divvying up parking space is concerned, but I'd love to get another qualified pilot for her. The more firepower we've got, the better." Mark shrugged. "As to my idea..."

Chris shot Ashley a dirty look.

The captain just grinned in return. "Keep talking."

"As to my idea... well, I had my ground crew pull a handful of MOCSS decoys from the magazines. They're chopping them up as we speak. We can pretty much leave the antennae alone... Our Stalker ECM craft have more powerful transmitters anyway, but we're going to need the infrared signal enhancers and the controllers from the decoys. That gives us about ten, maybe eight hours before they'll be ready. Once we're all set up, though, we should be able to put out a signal that'll make the Stalkers look like just about any cap ship in the database, human, Kilrathi, or otherwise."

"Excellent..." Ashley nodded, taking a long sip of his juice. "Mark's gotten us the toy. Anyone have any ideas as to how to play with it?"

"Well, the obvious idea is to have them pretend to be supply ships. Once we draw in the enemy ships, they disappear, and the Nemesis is waiting there to clean house..." Mark shrugged. "That's what I was thinking when I came up with it, anyway."

"What if we try another approach? We want to draw away as many ships as we can, right?" Chris leaned forward, setting her coffee mug on the table as she got into the conversation. "Why not pretend to be a threat they can't ignore? Like a Concordia-class carrier, a pair of Brooklyn-class light cruisers, and a Repleetah-class battle cruiser?"

"Actually, as near as we can figure, the more powerful computers and power cores on the Stalkers will be able to handle anything up to the size of a Constitution-class battleship, but I see where she's going with this, boss," Mark said, jumping right in. "If we repaint the fighters, especially with the new Excalibur thrown into the mix, we can give the impression that we're something they've never seen before: A new battle group. If we play our cards right, we can have the Nephilim out chasing a phantom carrier group all day if we have to. Once they're off chasing our little fleet, we can play cat and mouse with them. Do hit-and-run raids to sap their strength. I think Chris has something here, boss."

"A new battle group..." the chief engineer murmured to herself, a slow grin spreading across her face. "...Or an old one. Long live the Tiger's Claw. I agree with Chris on this one."

Ashley nodded slowly. "Get on it right away. I want battle plans for how we'd implement this, and I want our phantom fleet ready ASAP. No mention of this goes out on the airwaves. We can't even tell the rest of our forces what we're up to, otherwise the bugs could listen in, and we'd lose the surprise. Mark, tell your pilots what we'll need from them for this, and make sure they're ready. Chris, I want you to work with communications. Put together some fake radio chatter for our fleet. I want this to be absolutely perfect. I don't want there to be even a hint that these ships aren't exactly what they appear to be. Use junior officers and NCOs for the radio voices, people who wouldn't have been on the air before. We don't want the bad guys recognizing us from earlier trans..."

The PA system crackled to life, cutting him off in mid-sentence with the harsh blast of the general quarters alarm. The red battle lighting snapped on as all around them, officers abandoned cups of coffee and whatever breakfast they had been eating, tipping over their chairs in their haste to get to their battle stations.

"All hands stand to battlestations!" blared the warning call. "Multiple enemy capital ships and fighters inbound. I say again, all hands stand to battlestations! Captain Ashley to the bridge!"

 

Bridge, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System

"Report!" Ashley called out as he stormed onto the bridge, unlit cigar tightly clamped between his teeth as he made for the command chair. Spinning it once, he dropped into it, his weight bringing it to a slow stop facing forwards.

"We've got six large contacts inbound and a small cloud of fighters. The warbook gives us a ninety eight percent probability that four of the larger contacts are corvette analogues, Barracuda-class, and the other two are Orca-class destroyers."

"Time to intercept?" Chris asked, hurrying to her station to the right of the captain.

"At this speed? Ten minutes." The sensor officer turned in his seat, casting an apologetic glance at the captain. "Rigged for silent running like we are, our passive sensors can't pick them out if they really try to sneak up on us... I don't think we're the target, though. I think they're headed for the main fleet, and we just bumped into them. They know we're here, though, sir."

"Scramble the fighters," the captain ordered, chomping the tip off his unlit cigar and spitting it into the nearest waste bin. "Arm all batteries. Pass the order: Fire as you bear. Helm, plot us an intercept course that takes us right down the center of their formation. I want to split their line right down the middle.

 

Excalibur 907; Wolfpack Lead
Nifelheim System

"Pick your dance partners and call them as you see them, folks," Wolfman ordered, flipping the safeties off his weapons and warming up his cloak. "I'll be performing hit-and-run attacks, so I'll be alone, but the rest of you stay together. Cover your wingmen and concentrate your fire. We'll be outnumbered and outgunned, so watch your backs. Good luck."

"As acknowledgements streamed in from the other three fighters, Wolfman peeled away. Taking a deep breath, he reached out and flipped the red cover off the cloaking control. Flipping the switch, he steeled himself for combat even as his craft faded from view.

 

Intruder 701; Wolfpack Two
Nifelheim System

"Roger, Lead. Good hunting." Flexing his hand on the HOTAS, the Duke set his mouth into a thin, grim line. "Okay, kiddies, let's play a game. I spy with my little eye..." Consulting his scopes, he paused for but a moment. "... Twelve fighters inbound, Morays and Mantas in no discernable formation, Morays leading. Switch to missiles."

Suiting actions to words, he flicked his fire selector from guns to missiles, arming his racks of Spiculum missiles hanging underneath the fighter's wings. Counting off the seconds until he came into range, he hummed quietly to himself from Beethoven's 9th symphony as he waited for the harsh, warbling tone of missile lock. Rewarded by the awful screech in his ears, he laughed.

"Fox two!" he crowed. "One Spiculum on the lead Moray! Fire at will!" Pushing the throttle all the way forward into the overthrust detente, feeling more than hearing the deep bang as his afterburners kicked in, sending his fighter rocketing onward into the fray.

 

Excalibur 907; Wolfpack Lead

Mark grinned with pride as his pilots burst into the enemy formation like wolves into a herd of sheep. A trio of Spiculum image recognition missiles ripped forth from the flight, one getting spoofed by the target's frantic maneuvering, and streaking harmlessly away into the void. No such luck for the other two. Flying straight and true, they slammed into the fighter on a side-aspect strike, painting the Moray all over the sky in a brilliant burst of expanding gasses.

As he watched, the three human fighters circled around for another pass, unloading with cannons on a Manta that stumbled too close. Alive but hurt, the fighter kicked over into afterburn and pulled away laterally to the formation. Snapping around to pursue, his fighters brought themselves into perfect position for another of the enemy heavy fighters to drop down on their six.

"Not on my watch, kiddo..." the Wolfman growled, bringing his stick around. Disengaging the cloak, he armed his missiles. Within moments, he heard the sweet, sweet tone of target lock declaring the enemy's doom. Squeezing the trigger, he cut loose with a pair of Spiculums. The lethal projectiles lanced out, smashing into the target's rear end almost before it had a chance to react. In a flash, the manta's shields went down, exposing the armor to the Wolfman's tender mercies.

Laughing aloud, he switched to guns. Pulling back on the HOTAS, and pushing the throttle all the way into afterburn to follow the manta through a power "climb", he lined up his gunsight. A loving stroke sent pulse after pulse of lethal energies spraying into the fighter's aft. The blasts tore through the fighter's regenerating shields like tissue paper, pounding away at the already damaged armor beneath. Speared on the end of this savage assault, the manta disintegrated, pieces of its spaceframe spiraling off into the void. Pulling back out of afterburn, Mark triggered the cloak, fading once more from view to stalk his next victim.

 

Bridge, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System

"We're coming into extreme range now, sir," growled the gunnery coordinator, a grizzled old Chief Petty Officer with a face like a frog and a voice to match. A brief flare of light washed over the captain's face as his old, scarred butane lighter flashed to life in his hand. Rotating the cigar to get an even burn on the tip, he snapped it closed, slipping it back into his pocket. Taking a drag, he sent a smoke ring ceilingward where the putrid, burnt-rope-smelling fumes would be collected by the ventilators.

"Unleash hell, Chief." Ashley ordered. To an outsider, this would seem like an unreasonable waste of time, not giving the order right away, but the captain had his reasons. What seemed to be a casual movement was actually carefully timed, giving the gunners time to work out firing solutions and for the ship to come into optimum firing range. "All batteries, fire on the closest ship and don't let up. Have the missile launchers provide fire support for the fighters."

Low tremors ran through the superstructure of the great ship as Nemesis opened up with her antimatter guns, coupled with the more rapid staccato hammering of the heavy plasma cannons. Packets of lethal fire streaked through the dark, pummeling away at the corvette. Masers streaked out from the enemy formation to caress the great warship's protective energy cocoon, sending shudders through the craft.

"Damage report!" Chris called out above the incoming fire klaxons. As far as hits go, this one was pretty negligible... But it was constant. The corvettes had their range, and they weren't letting up for anything.

"We're taking a beating, Commander," the damage control officer reported without looking up from his console. "Nothing serious yet, but these beasties are wearing down our shields. It's only a matter of time before they get through and hit something important."

Nodding, the Captain turned to the Gunner's Mate. "Get me a firing solution on the torpedoes for the lead Orca. In the mean time, continue firing. Kill that lead corvette."

"Aye, sir." True to his orders, the CPO started barking commands into his microphone, ordering up firing solutions, passing along Ashley's commands, and threatening a face far worse than death if the gunners should fail in their assigned tasks: The wrath of a Chief Petty Officer. The guns spoke again and again, blowing deep wounds through the enemy's superstructure until it could take no more.

A good strike from one of the heavy plasma guns knocked the corvette's bow around, bringing it broadside to the antimatter guns. A good solid hit from the AMGs broke the ship's spine, bending it in the center and splitting it at the seams. Fighters fled the area as the smaller ship burst like a child's balloon stuck with a pin.

A raucous cheer went up from the bridge crew as the Lady N made her first kill of the engagement. At the center of the storm was the Captain, leaning forward in his chair as he barked orders, coordinating their next move even before the noise died down.

"We've got that firing solution you wanted, Captain," the Chief barked across the deck. "Torpedo room signals ready."

"Fire."

 

Intruder 701; Wolfpack Two
Nifelheim System

Torpedoes streamed outward from the Lady N's mounts, rocketing towards the lead destroyer. The missile launches from the friendly ship had helped a great deal, but the battle was quickly degenerating into trench warfare, with both sides making the odd sortie as they clustered under the firepower of their respective capital ships. Hauling his stick around, Duke followed the torpedoes in with weapons blazing, clearing a path for the lethal munitions. Ahead, he watched as the Excalibur materialized and swatted an unwary Moray from the stars, only to disappear from view once again.

The boss was making good use of the heavy fighter's cloak, but the battle was a hard one nonetheless. His fighters survived mainly because to attack was to expose ones self to counterattack from the Excalibur's powerful weapons. Sooner or later, though, the enemy was going to realize that there was only one cloaking fighter out there and fifteen of them. When that happened, Duke's small command would be in deep trouble, supporting fire notwithstanding.

The torpedoes struck true, smashing into the Orca's thick hull with all the fury of a hurricane. Gaping rents opened in the enemy's superstructure, venting much of the interior to space. Deep down inside the ship, the engine went critical, blowing the large craft apart.

 

Bridge, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System

If the death of the corvette prompted a cheer, then the destroyer's demise brought only a ripple of silent celebration. This deep into the enemy formation, the Nemesis crew had to struggle simply to survive. Masers bit into their armor as the corvettes made runs only to be repulsed by the fury of the battle cruiser's weapons.

"The remaining Orca's making a pass over top of our bow from port to starboard, sir," reported the sensorman. Even as the last syllable fell from his lips, the ship began to shudder and shake as the maser strikes clawed their way through the overworked and overtaxed shields to slash at the hull.

"Helm, roll ninety degrees starboard," Ashley snapped, climbing to his feet as the order was carried out. "All weapons, full broadside to port!"

 

Excalibur 907; Wolfpack Lead
Nifelheim System

If there is anything in this life more awesome than a full on Nemesis broadside, Lieutenant Commander Mark Allen, Union of Border Worlds Navy, had yet to see it. Blasts of raw destructive power stretched between the Lady N and her Orca attacker, rending deep gashes in the other ship's superstructure. The smaller ship seemed to disintegrate under the attack, melting away under the fierce barrage of firepower until finally something vital was hit. Reeling from the damage taken, the Orca shuddered under secondary explosions as the Nemesis pulled away, leaving her target a lifeless hulk, drifting in space.

Forcing himself to focus on the task at hand, Wolfman scanned his scopes, searching for his next victim... And found it right away. The remaining Manta heavy fighters, deprived of their primary capital ship support, arrowed towards the Nemesis with torpedoes armed and murder on their minds.

"All fighters, all fighters," Wolfman called out over his comms. "Break and attack... Stop those Mantas at all cost. If you've got any hopes, dreams, or significant others waiting at home for you, don't let them get through to the Lady N. It's a long walk home, people." Even as he gave the orders, Wolfman felt his heart sink. There were four of his fighters and five of the enemy. There were just...

 

Intruder 701; Wolfpack Two
Nifelheim System

"... Just too many of them, Lead!" Duke exclaimed, cutting loose with a full gun burst. Long since having run out of missiles, he opened up on the juking fighter with everything he had, hoping to overwhelm its shields with sheer brute force and tear it apart before it had a chance to unleash its deadly payload. "It's all up to..."

 

Bridge, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System

"...All up to the Stormfires now. Let them have it, Chief," Ashley ordered. Punching in the appropriate command, CPO Everett E. Barrett, Gunner's Mate/Guns let out a stream of curses to turn the air blue.

"Number three CIWS is jammed!" he fairly roared, spinning about in his chair.

"Son of a..." Ashley growled. "Evacuate that section! Get a..."

 

Excalibur 907; Wolfpack Lead
Nifelheim System

"Get a fighter on that Manta!" Wolfman called over the radio. "Someone tag that motherless lowlife!" A series of impacts shook the heavy fighter, dancing it all over the place as he struggled to get a lock on his own diving Manta. He didn't even spare a moment's attention to the incoming fire. His shields would just have to hold. For now, all he had time for was the fighter before him and the tone warbling in his ears. Clamping down on the trigger viciously, he released all six of his remaining missiles at the Manta bracketed in his viewscreen. Without waiting to see their effect, he switched to guns and let loose with a long burst against the Manta's shields.

The missiles struck true, blotting the fighter from the stars without a moment to spare. Juking around the debris, he snapped his stick around, scanning the scopes for the other Manta as he waited for his guns to recharge.

"Shit!" he called out. "I'm out of position! Someone get on that bastard..."

Even as he spoke, the Manta burst into flame under a concerted missile barrage. The shields dropped and the heavy fighter spun away, its own rotation tearing it apart as it passed, a great fiery pinwheel rolling across the sky. As soon as the shock of the fighter's sudden death had passed, Wolfman was on the comm.

"Beautiful shot! Beautiful shot!"  he congratulated. "Who tagged that one? Duke?"

"Two. That's a negative." Duke responded. "I'm bingo on missiles here, commander."

"Three here. I wish, boss."

"Four... I thought that was you, Lead."

"Well, what the..." Wolfman began, frowning at his comm display. If he didn't do it, and his pilots didn't own up to it, then...

"Wolfpack Lead, this is Magic..." Came a new voice, interrupting his thoughts. "I hope you don't mind me borrowing your old Intruder, 'cause I'll be damned if I'm going to die out here waiting for you folks to tag some lowlife Manta."

 

Pilot's Barracks, BWS Nemesis
Nifelheim System
1231 Hours (CST)

The Nemesis flight crew has always been a bit different. They dyed their standard issue flight suits black. They, to a man, customized their helmets with colorful and intricate painted designs and patterns. They painted illegal but often overlooked nose art on their fighters in the form of shark's mouths, streaks of fire, or other aggressive designs. All this reckless individuality stemmed mainly from their commanding officer.

In his eyes, being a little different helped build unit integrity and esprit de corps, something he worked for day and night. On coming aboard, he had turned down a cabin in officer's country in favor of a bunk bed and locker in the barracks with the rest of his pilots. His flight lived together, they ate together, they partied together, and when the time came, they fought together. Unit integrity.

Lounging on the bottom bunk, his only concession to rank, Mark lay back, his head pillowed in his hands. His eyes were closed, leading the casual observer to probably think he was asleep. Magic certainly made this mistake when she came to the foot of his bunk. She took one look at him, and started to walk away.

"What's on your mind, Magic?" he asked, not even bothering to open his eyes. Any of his men would have tried to wake him up. The visiting flier paused, taking a deep breath before turning about and making her pitch.

"Commander..." she began. "I've decided to accept your offer and fly your extra Intruder back to base. You can keep the Excalibur..." She paused, collecting her thoughts. Mark sat up, fixing the Space Force pilot on the end of his brown-eyed gaze.

"I smell a 'but' in there somewhere, captain." he informed her. "Let's hear it."

"But..." she continued. "I don't want to go. You said yourself that your people could use another pilot. That three-man formation you were using out there today is just begging to be swarmed. You don't need a trio, you need a finger-four. Something that can split off into elements without leaving someone naked."

The pilot had a point, and in truth, she hadn't said anything the Navy pilot hadn't been thinking himself. Mark reached beneath his pillow, producing a printout from the ship's computer. "Hamilton, Sarah. Captain, Union of Border Worlds Space Force. Callsign: Magic. Current Assignment: Special courier." He shrugged, setting the paper down. "A little light reading. The fact of the matter, Captain, is you're exactly right. I need you. Everything you just said has been running through my mind since the minute you got here. There are a couple of things I want to get cleared up, though. The first is that from here on out, there's no turning back. You can't change your mind now and pull out. You're one of us, for good or ill."

Magic nodded. "Aye, sir."

"Second... There will be unit bloody integrity. You move into the barracks. You get yourself a bunk. You eat with us, and you party with us."

Again, she nodded. "Aye, sir. Anything you say."

Wolfman cracked a smile. "Damn right, anything I say. Welcome to the family."
 

 

 

FIN