PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 29 of 62 )
“ Scraps of Honour ”
"By way of deception thou shall make war."
"By way of deception thou shall make war."
Nifelheim-Loki Jump Point
0400 Hours, February 18, 2681
Lightning crackled in the airless void as quantum forces tore the fabric of space-time asunder. Even as the blue-white vortex erupted into existence the first ships passed into the new star system, although they were barely recognizable as such. They more resembled obscene beasts from the deepest darkest oceans, never intended to see the light of sun or star, yet somehow forcing their way to a realm where they were completely unwelcome. Fighters darted through space with the swift agility of ravenous piranha while corvettes and destroyers moved with the deliberate menace of sharks. And then a pair of even more gargantuan ships pushed through the gap between the stars limned in crackling fire.
There was no doubt that the creatures that built or grew these ships were alien in every sense of the word. No human mind -- no sane mind -- could have conceived the fusion of crustacean carapace and living tissue with technological systems of which these ships were constructed. But while the minds and motivations of the crews of these ships may have been incomprehensible to any humans unfortunate enough to fall into their clutches, their objectives were not. Once all the alien capships were through the jump point they set course for the worlds of the Nifelheim System, intent on hunting down the fleet which had humiliated them so bloodily throughout Tyr, Nephele and Loki.
And once the hunt was finished, the harvest could truly begin.
Commodore's Cabin, BWS Sicily
0406 Hours, 18th February 2681
“Whatever this is, it better be good,” Commodore Philip Johnson growled into the intercom by the head of his bunk as he awoke. Ever since getting the word that his reserve group would have to take on the Nephilim survivors from Loki on their own, he’d been getting by on three hours of sleep a night as well as a steady diet of coffee and stims. Having turned out the light only a short while ago, he was not in a good mood upon being woken.
"Sir, this is the Officer of the Watch," the voice replied hurriedly. "Goldeneye is reporting multiple transits of the Loki jump point."
Those ten words were all it took to jolt him wide awake instantly. As the senior taskforce commander he'd ordered the reserves to take up position half a million kilometers outside the orbit of Nifelheim I, to give them time to react when the Nephilim came through. The converted SWACS shuttles they had picked up from Station G-243 had kept an electronic eye on the jump point while the rest of the task force made ready for battle. And now the enemy had finally arrived.
“I’ll be up to the bridge straight away,” Johnson told the OOW as he got out of bed. “Make sure Captain Voss is there, and that someone has a situation update ready.” Silently he gave thanks for the two hours of sleep he’d already had. A nagging feeling at the back of his mind told him that sleep would continue to be in short supply for some time to come. Wearily the commander of Taskforce Jasmine began to lace up his boots as doubts kept running through his mind. The largest group he’d commanded previously was a pair of destroyers on patrol duties, yet now he was responsible for half a dozen carriers and their escorts, and quite possibly the survival of the entire Union of Border Worlds.
Here’s where we find out if I have what it takes…
Bridge, BWS Sicily
0409 hours, 18th February 2681
“Commodore on the -- ”
“As you were,” Johnson replied absently as he entered the bridge, just in case anyone had come to attention. It was pretty unlikely in the Border Worlds Navy, but there were enough former Confed personnel in service with the UBWN for him to say the words just in case. “What’s the situation?” he asked as he walked over to the map table.
“Here’s the latest take from Goldeneye,” Captain Blair Voss informed him, referring to one of the SWACS modified shuttles as she brought up its data. “We’re tracking at least fourteen Barracuda corvettes, five Orca destroyers and numerous fighters, with more contacts coming through.”
Johnson nodded. “How far is Goldeneye out from the enemy formation?”
“One hundred seventy thousand klicks from the jump point,” the Sicily’s captain replied. “Standing orders are to keep at least one hundred fifty thousand klicks separation from the nearest enemy units.”
The round-faced officer scowled. “Blair, that’s cutting it very damned fine. I thought these SWACS units were supposed to be able to scan at least twice that distance. Are they still having system problems?” Silently Philip Johnson began to curse -- he’d become used to having ships and fighters that were mostly reliable and didn’t need constant babying. The SWACS prototypes, by contrast, were balky maintenance-intensive hangar queens much like most new technology. The fact that they were one of the few advantages he had over the aliens only made them more vital.
Voss shook her head. “We’re less than a quarter of an AU from the system primary. The radiation output really plays hell with sensors -- I doubt the Bug capships can see more than fifty thousand klicks.” She paused then added in a softer voice, “Philip, they’re as safe as any of us in this system are.”
Johnson nodded reluctantly. “All right. At least it makes them even less likely to find the mines.” He turned to the Sicily’s communications officer. “Comms, bring the fleet to yellow alert.”
“Yes sir,” the young ensign answered crisply before turning back to his console.
“Sir, latest update from Goldeneye,” Voss reported, bringing up the latest position data on the Nephilim. “The enemy fleet is moving away from the jump point. No further transits -- looks like everyone who’s coming to this party has already shown up.”
“Looks like Intel was right on the money,” Voss admitted. “Twenty-two Barracuda corvettes, seven Orca destroyers, one Hydra cruiser and one Leviathan carrier.” The hard-faced woman with the artificial hand looked up at her commander, concern in her eyes. “Sir, that carrier alone carries more fighters than this whole taskforce.”
"I know," Johnson admitted. The Leviathan fulfilled the same role as Confed's new Midway class carriers - not just carrying fighters, but carrying a hell of a lot of fighters. Based on data gathered by the TCS Midway and the Combined Fleet, Navy Intelligence estimated that a fully stocked Leviathan could carry up to three hundred fighters. Taskforce Jasmine's commander ran the numbers in his mind once again as he gazed at the map table. The Nephilim had twenty-two Barracuda corvettes, seven Orca destroyers, one Hydra heavy cruiser and one Leviathan carrier, all supported by six hundred fighters in total. To oppose them Johnson had a grand total of five Caernaven frigates, one Sheffield destroyer, two Kurasawa light cruisers, two Tallahassee heavy cruisers and six Khorsan escort carriers, with two hundred and thirty-two fighters. Although it looked impressive on paper Taskforce Jasmine was grossly outmatched in a stand-up fight. Of course Border Worlders never fought a stand-up fight if they had any other option.
The plan Philip Johnson had hastily come up with was simple enough. The combined Confed-Border Worlds task force would avoid the main body of the invading Nephilim and ambush isolated fighters and patrol ships, bleeding their enemy white until the Nephilim fleet's strength was reduced to a more manageable level. At that point, depending on the tactical situation, Task Force Jasmine could either continue to whittle away at the Nephilim, close in for a slugfest with much better odds or wait for help from the Combined Fleet once they had finished with the new Nephilim fleet from Ymir. Of course, plans tend to become casualties fairly early on in combat situations.
He watched as Blair Voss brought up the data display for the inner Nifelheim system, showing the star, the orbits of the inner planets and even the asteroid belt near Nifelheim II's orbit. A blue circle displayed the position of his ships while a red arc showed the location of the Nephilim armada. The two fleets and the innermost planet of the system formed the points of an equilateral triangle, each side nearly half a million kilometers long. “All right, they’ll probably fan out a bit and start a search pattern,” the Border Worlds officer announced. “There were no reports that they’d managed to capture any navigation databases so they shouldn’t be very familiar with the layout of this system. That means that if we give them some time they’ll get separated.” I hope. Once again he turned to the Sicily’s communications officer. “Comms, notify Admiral Hanton of our situation and inform her of the Nephilim’s strength.”
“Understood, sir,” the Comms Officer replied as he turned back to his console. A few moments later he turned back to Commodore Johnson. ”Fleet command reports that the Nephilim fleet from Ymir jumped in at oh-four-hundred hours. That would be the same time as these guys jumped in from Loki.”
“Coordinated assault,” Johnson murmured, nodding in understanding. “They jump in at both places at the same time so we can’t concentrate our forces.” He nodded decisively as he spoke loud enough for the rest of the bridge crew to hear. “Well there’s no point worrying about the Ymir fleet now. We’ve got all we can handle with our guests right here, so we should give them our full attention. Captain Voss, the SWACS is due back on deck by 0600, correct?"
"Fine. I want a second SWACS with an escort flight halfway between Goldeneye and ourselves, in position by 0500 hours as a backup. Yellow alert should be enough warning for now, so we'll leave that be."
"Anything else, Commodore?" Captain Voss asked dryly.
"Yes," Johnson replied. "Have someone get me a cup of tea. I need some caffeine to jump-start my brain after only two hours of sleep."
"Why not coffee? More caffeine, so it would wake you up quicker."
"Tea is soothing," the commodore answered. "Coffee makes me tense. And now that our cuddly little friends have shown up, I get the distinct feeling that there will be more than enough tension to go around in the days ahead."
Briefing Room, BWS Sicily
0604 hours, 18th February 2681
“All right people, wake up. Grab yourself some coffee if you need it, but I need you all awake right now,” Paul Onslow ordered. The tension in his voice was undeniable and the Scrappers’ usual horseplay was at a minimum as they took their seats. The pilots had barely settled into their seats when their leader dropped the first bombshell.
“At 0400 both Nephilim fleets jumped into Nifelheim. They started aggressive probing maneuvers, looking for any sign of our forces,” the scarred colonel stated grimly. “For now we have to ignore the force that jumped in from Ymir and concentrate on the forces from Loki that are in our faces. They haven’t found us yet and we don’t intend for them to - at least, not at the moment.” Onslow looked around at his squadron. Some of them looked nervous or worried, but none looked truly afraid. They’d all had time to get used to the situation and, while they hadn’t truly mastered their fear, they’d learned to lock it away for the time being.
Paul Onslow nodded to himself in approval as he activated the holoprojector. They’re a good crew. They’ll look after each other and see that each other pulls through. “Here’s a breakdown of our forces against the Bugs in our neck of the woods,” he said. “They have six hundred fighters, give or take. We have two hundred and thirty-two. For capships they have twenty-two corvettes, seven destroyers, one heavy cruiser and one megacarrier, while we have five frigates, one destroyer, two light cruisers, two heavy cruisers and six escort carriers. In other words,” he continued, his eyes sweeping the ranks of the assembled pilots, “if we go into a straight-up fight with them at this point we will lose.”
“That’s an understatement,” Dragan Emerson murmured drolly. Alex Morgan nodded in agreement.
“We wouldn’t be defeated,” the ex-privateer commented under his breath. “We’d be shat upon from a great height.”
“So how do we shift the odds, boss?” Todd McLaughlin asked, trying not to elbow his flight leader in the ribs as he shifted in his seat.
“We play hit-and-run,” Onslow explained. “We hit patrols, scouting fighters, isolated capships, whatever will whittle away their strength while conserving ours. The conservation of our own strength is critical, people. Even if you’re sure that you’ll be picked up by SAR, don’t get your bird destroyed or crippled in return for a kill - they can afford to lose a squadron easier than we can lose a single fighter,” the scarred veteran exaggerated. He preferred to be truthful, even brutally so with the people under his command, but an exaggeration this small would get the point across even more effectively, possibly saving someone’s life. “This is much like what the Combined Fleet has been doing for the past two weeks and it’s worked so far,” he continued, bringing up a new holographic display.
“To make it easier to do this, Commodore Johnson has broken Task Force Jasmine into two task groups.” The holoprojecter showed a list of the Table of Organisation and Equipment for the Border Worlds and Confederation components of Taskforce Jasmine in two columns, listing each ship and the fighters assigned to it. “Task Group Alpha consists of most of the Border Worlds ships, while Task Group Beta consists of most of the Confed ships. The two groups should be able to hit the enemy from different angles, making each group harder to pin down.”
“That’s the theory,” Jack DeVille drawled. “Let’s hope it works.”
Anthony Grimm frowned. “So we’re basically playing wolfpack with escort carriers instead of U-boats,” he observed thoughtfully. Onslow nodded.
“Commodore Johnson referred to this as playing matador,” the Scrappers’ leader responded. “We’re basically dodging around, slashing away at our adversary and waiting for him to bleed to the point where we can deliver the coup de grace.”
“And we hope that we’re not gored through the guts while we’re dodging,” Vincent Tsu observed darkly. A murmur of agreement ran through the audience.
“That’s the idea. Now we’re scheduled to fly patrols in the following area, covering Task Force Alpha’s advance,” Onslow answered, keying up a map of the inner Nifelheim system overlaid with a series of navpoints. “Black Flight goes wheels-up at 0800 and checks out Navpoints 1 and 2, returning to the Sicily at Nav 3.” As he spoke a blue icon followed the path he described as the azure circle representing Task Group Alpha moved along a course paralleling the innermost planet’s orbit but moving in the opposite direction. “Red Flight launches at 1100 hours, checks out Navpoints 4 and 5 before landing at Nav 6 while Silver Flight launches at 1400 to check out
Navpoints 7 and 8. Comm frequencies and IFF codes are the same ones we used during training, and we’re carrying standard ordnance loadouts. The SWACS shuttles will be doing their best to spot any targets of opportunity so keep your ears perked up for orders from them. Any questions?”
“You usually lead off any missions with Silver Flight going first,” Dragan Emerson observed. “You know, lead from the front and all that. Why not now?”
Paul Onslow’s answering smile was almost a smirk. “Normally I would but Jack’s bird has a bent wing. Seems the engines took a bit of a hammering during that exercise we held against the Reapers, and the techs want to double-check that everything’s okay. They’ve double-checked the reactors and propulsion systems on all the Intruders, especially after you and Tony had to force-land on the Hades yesterday.”
“Oh, so our second-in-command likes to play rough, hmmm?” the stocky Slavic pilot grinned. A few subdued chuckles were the only reply to his innuendo aside from Jack’s raised middle finger. Jeez, even a cheap shot at DeVille didn’t raise morale. Things are really bad, the rookie thought uneasily.
“If you want to find out how rough you’ll have to ask him for yourself,” the Scrappers’ leader replied dryly. “Preferably well away from my innocent ears.” That comment provoked a more amused rumble of laughter from the assembled pilots. “All right, are there any serious questions?”
“We’re covering the right flank of the advance, which is the out-system side,” Anthony Grimm noted. The slim young blond pilot with the innocent face leaned forward in his seat. “The in-system flank is the one that’s facing the Nephilim, so that’s the one that’s most likely to draw the bad guys in. Who’s patrolling that side?”
“The Spartans from the Iwo Jima,” the militia colonel told him. “Their Bearcats are more capable in a furball than most of our fighters, and their pilots have trained on them for a lot longer than our pilots have. So it makes sense to put them on the picket line.”
“Wait a minute,” Eric Maslevski objected. “I thought you said that Task Force Alpha was Border Worlds ships. The Iwo Jima is a Confederation escort carrier.”
“I said that Task Force Alpha was mostly made up of Border Worlds ships,” Onslow corrected him. “The confees were better set up to destroy fighters but they lacked real anti-ship firepower. Let’s face it, three squadrons of Thunderbolts and a heavy cruiser aren’t much chop against the kind of firepower our local bug population can kick out. On the other hand we had plenty of strike aircraft and capship firepower, but had less anti-fighter capability. So Commodore Johnson did a swap. The Iwo Jima was reassigned to us while the cruiser Havok, the destroyer Penrith, and the escort carrier Arnhem were assigned to Task Force Bravo. That should even things out.” The colonel frowned in puzzlement at the expression on Vincent Tsu’s face. “Something funny, Major?” he asked dryly.
The former InSys pilot shook his head, bemused grin still in place. “No sir. It’s just ironic that Confed has so many more ships than the Union, yet they still need to borrow them from us to get the job done.”
“Tell me about it,” John Hawke grunted. “Right at the end of the first war against the Kats we were trying to hold the frontiers with beat-up old Ranger and Khorsan-class light carriers held together with baling wire and prayers while new Concordias were held back near the core worlds, all in the name of politics. Now it looks like they’re doing the same thing again,” the harsh-featured former Confed pilot muttered,
“Well, we’re better off with what little help we’ve received from Confed than without it,” Paul Onslow commented. ”All right, that’s it for the briefing. Go grab yourself some breakfast and get ready to roll when you’re scheduled. Kristy, I need to talk to you once everyone else has gone.”
Deep Space, Nifelheim System
1548 hours, 18th February 2681
“Do you think the Bugs have gone to sleep, Lead?” Jack "Diamond" DeVille inquired. The patrol had been uneventful ever since they had launched nearly two hours ago and the Scrappers’ second-in-command was feeling a little antsy with the lack of activity. So far the Nephilim had done nothing except head for the innermost planet of the system and dispatch fighter sweeps to scout ahead of them and on their flanks. Some of the squadron leaders had speculated that the aliens had picked up residual signals from the mining colony that had also functioned as a maximum-security prison, and would send down scouting parties to check it for signs of life. And normally this would have been the perfect time to attack, while the enemy was pinned in the gravity well. But normal circumstances didn’t involve being outnumbered by more than two to one in fighters and even more in capital ships.
So the combined Border Worlds-Confed forces had to wait until the Nephilim spread themselves thin enough to even the odds. The only problem was that the Nephilim weren’t cooperating. True, they had started sending out long-range fighter patrols to begin scouting the system but they had apparently learned from their experiences with the Combined Fleet. Instead of patrolling in flights, which had proven vulnerable to ambush over and over again, the Nephilim fighters were conducting their reconnaissance sweeps in groups of twenty or more.
“They’re still awake,” Paul Onslow confirmed. “They’re just taking their time. Why should they rush? They’ve still got superior numbers so they feel confident of themselves.”
The blond major blinked. His commanding officer had sounded distracted, almost worried, when he’d spoken. “What’s on your mind, boss?” he asked.
“Kristy’s acting squirrelly,” the Scrappers’ leader finally confessed. “When I spoke to her after the briefing she looked like she was about to bolt. Hell, she looked scared of me.” He shook his head. “She didn’t seem like herself, Jack.”
“Sure doesn’t seem like her,” Diamond agreed as he double-checked his nav computer. “Any idea what’s bothering her so much?”
Onslaught shook his head. “No ideas on this end -“ he began when he was suddenly interrupted by one of the SWACS controllers.
“Delta Lead, this is Catseye. We’re picking up a distress call from two hundred thirty thousand klicks out, relative bearing zero-three-one by one-one-niner,” the coordinator aboard the SWACS prototype advised over the comm channel. “We’re downloading a navpoint to you right now.”
“Delta Lead copies,” Onslaught acknowledged as he guided his Intruder down and to the right, lining it up on the new navpoint showing on his HUD. ”What’s the situation, Catseye?”
“A Tanfen merchant vessel is under attack by unknown fighters, at least a dozen,” Catseye told him. “The comms signals are fairly distorted, but from what we can see the fighters seem to be Nephilim. The distortion’s making things a bit hazy, I’m afraid.”
“Catseye this is Delta Four,” Danica ‘Dancer’ Owens cut in. “The navpoint’s within a hundred thousand klicks of the jump point from Seggalion. Did the ship get hit as soon as it jumped in?” she asked.
“Negative, Four. We only just got the distress call so as far as we can tell the Nephilim don’t know about the jump point. Besides, the stealth mines blocking it have been activated so they can’t get out that way,” Catseye answered.
Onslaught’s mind hurriedly ticked through fuel, speed and time calculations as Dani questioned the SWACS controller. The Intruders could cruise at 425 KPS while the Marauders could only reach 400. That wouldn’t reduce their afterburner fuel for the dogfight itself. On the other hand Onslaught and Diamond’s fighters could reach 1,200 KPS with their afterburners engaged, while Bloodhawk and Dancer’s heavier craft could only reach 1,000 KPS on burners. So the question is, do I split us up so that we can get someone to the Tanfenners ASAP and risk having them overwhelmed? Or do we all stick together so that we hit the Bugs hard and together? And do we use our afterburners or not? It’ll cut pretty heavily into our fuel and that will put my people even more at risk when they finally get into this furball… but can the civvies hold out until we arrive if we just cruise? the militia veteran wondered. The Intruder could get to the ship in distress within nine minutes, while the Marauders would take a full ten minutes to arrive. If they used afterburners the Intruders could be there in less than three minutes, and the heavier fighters in four.
And Paul Onslow had been in enough battles to know that time was the most precious commodity. “Delta, go max burners. We need to bail out that merchie ASAP. Maybe we can’t save her but we’re going to give it our best shot! Catseye, vector in any fighters going spare in the area. We don’t know how many Bugs are at the navpoint and I don’t want to lose anyone.” Suiting actions to words Onslaught rammed the throttle to the stops and ignited the afterburners. Let’s hope we get there in time…