PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 34 of 62 )
“ Into the Inferno ”
"We are still the masters of our fate, we
are still the captains of our souls."
- Winston Churchill
"We are still the masters of our fate, we
are still the captains of our souls."
Bearcat 001 (Harbinger Lead)
Flight Deck, BWS Freedom
1320 Hours, 18 Feb 2681 (2681.049)
Lieutenant Colonel Yu Fei “Phalanx” Leung knew that it was against regulations. He knew that it was a hell of a bad example for a squadron leader on alert duty to be setting for the rest of his pilots. He knew that it was a stupid thing to do, one that could potentially cost valuable minutes and put lives in danger in the event of a scramble.
But, God, he was tempted.
After nearly four hours of sitting strapped into the cockpit of his Bearcat heavy fighter, he wanted nothing more than pop the canopy for a few minutes. He wanted to take his helmet off and feel real air on his face. Air that was warm and moist, air that might almost be that on a living world. It would probably reek of afterburner fuel and burnt metal and human sweat, but it would still feel and smell and even taste a lot better than the cold, sterile oxygen that he had been breathing ever since he had reported for alert duty. Hell, he even wanted to undo his straps and climb out of the cockpit for just a few seconds, to stretch arms and legs that had begun to ache from being trapped in the confines of the Bearcat’s cockpit for so long.
He wanted to do all those things, but he didn’t. The pilots of the Harbinger Squadron were on Alert-5, which meant that the entire squadron should be off the deck and racing to the fight within five minutes of the word coming down from the launch officer. Getting a near full strength squadron of fighters (which the Harbingers were once again, thanks to the fighters folded in from the Littenia and loaners from the reserves) was tricky enough at the best of times. The Harbingers, being a dedicated interceptor unit, were the best in the battle group at these rapid launches. They trained just as hard at it as they did at achieving any other part of their mission, and they took pride in regularly beating the five-minute mark. Phalanx wasn’t about to let that change now. His Bearcat was first on the launch ramp, and any delay in getting it off the deck would ripple through the whole unit.
Knowing all that, though, didn’t make the boredom or the discomfort that came with the job any easier to bear. The last couple of days might have been an emotional roller coaster for the crews of the Combined Fleet, but for the Valkyries, the hours immediately after the Nephilim had jumped into the system had been something of anti-climax. Everyone had half expected the aliens to tear head long into the system, ready to crush the rag-tag Confederation and Border Worlds force that had frustrated their plans for so long, and resume their glorious Harvest in the name of the Mother Creature and the Aligned People, or whatever other nonsense that they believed in.
Instead, the main alien fleet advancing from Ymir jump point was moving steadily forward, with a quartet of carrier battle groups spreading out from the jump point to string themselves in a line across the system. Small groups of destroyers and corvettes were both covering the advance and probing ahead, possibly offering themselves up as bait to draw the human forces into battle. At the same time, Nephilim fighters were plunging deep into the system find the human carrier groups.
It was a good strategy, one that showed that the Nephilim had learned from their earlier maulings at the hands of the Combined Fleet. The Confederation and Border Worlds pilots had all had time to study this system’s terrain, and were all too able to spring deadly ambushes on the Nephilim. The Valkyries had already cut down several fighter probes, and the battlecruiser Nemesis had savaged a group of corvettes and destroyers that had tried to ambush her as she prepared to slip through the enemy line. She was now out there somewhere, now the stealthy menace behind enemy lines that she had been designed to be rather than the carrier escort she had been for so long.
Even so, the human commanders would have left with a Hobson’s choice if everything had worked as the Nephilim had planned. They would either have had to wait until the Nephilim moved in and fight on terms that the Nephilim could dictate, or they would have had to expose their carriers to the much larger Nephilim fleet in an effort to find and attack the Nephilim carriers. What the Nephilim hadn’t counted on though, was the breaking of their master codes by Velina Sosa’s team a few days ago. With those codes in their hands, Admiral Hanton and her officers could listen in to what the Nephilim were planning, and even track the movements of some of their ships. It was a hell of an edge to have, and Hanton fully intended to make the most of it.
That strategy had already achieved one spectacular success. The Confederation carrier groups had earlier this morning singled out the Nephilim dreadnaught, the most dangerous ship in their fleet next to the Kraken shipkiller. The attack had been led by the fighters from the Yorktown, supported by strike forces from battle groups Aurora and Auriga. As the Freedom’s Wing Commander, Phalanx had been receiving regular updates on the battle as they had come in. He had startled everyone on his squadron channel with a savage war whoop as word had been come in of the dreadnaught’s destruction.
It hadn’t been long before the news had been announced to the rest of the crew either, and everyone on the Freedom’s flight deck had taken a few seconds out from their jobs to indulge in a few handshakes and backslaps. As thoroughly outgunned and outnumbered as the Combined Fleet was, it had been vitally important that they got a solid blow in right at the start of the fight. The Confederation pilots had done just that, and the victory was every bit as vital for the fleet’s morale as it was strategically important. The pilots and crews had already known intellectually that they could win this battle if they fought hard and fought smart, but now they felt it in their guts as well. They had drawn a line across the stars, and they were determined that the Nephilim would go no further. Come what may, the line would be held in this system.
The adrenaline jolt of the victory though, simply made the waiting harder and more boring for Phalanx and his pilots. The Border Worlds carriers too had singled out a target, a Nephilim carrier group that had been designated Group Epsilon. The problem was the Valeria, Freedom and Defiance could only muster around 140 operational fighters and strike craft between them. After leaving out the fighters that would be needed to cover the carriers themselves, they would have just over a hundred craft to throw at the enemy carrier group, which could deploy nearly three times that number. Border Worlds fighters were nowhere near as advanced as their Confederation counterparts, and those odds were too steep to risk unless they absolutely had to. Even if they managed to take the enemy carrier out, their losses could well be so high that they wouldn’t be able to play any further part in the battle. Charging the Nephilim group with their capital ship escorts wasn’t a particularly good idea either. With the Nemesis already having been detached as an independent raider, and the losses they had suffered earlier in the campaign, the three carriers had a single heavy cruiser and five destroyers and corvettes between them. They might win the battle, but the losses would leave the carriers wide open to any other Nephilim capital ships in the vicinity.
To that end, Commodore Riviera had proposed a daring, nearly foolhardy plan earlier in the day. Taskforce Abbey, consisting of the Defiance and her two remaining corvette escorts, would stage a hit-and-run on the lead elements of Epsilon. They would take out the corvettes and destroyers screening Group Epsilon, and then use the speed of their ships to get out before the carrier or cruiser could react. Meanwhile, the Valeria and Freedom would remain concealed near Nifelheim III, ready to cover Abbey with their fighters if needed, and at the same time preparing for their strike against the cruiser and carrier.
Of course, doing both those things while also carrying out normal flight operations on the same flight deck was far from easy. Admiral Hanton had taken the calculated risk of cutting their patrols to a bare minimum. Instead, the Valeria’s flight deck crews concentrated on fuelling and arming their fighters, bombers, and electronic warfare craft for the battle ahead. The Freedom’s fighters flew the CAP and close escort missions that were necessary, cycling off the escorting cruiser and destroyers when needed, while her deck crews prepared her own bombers for the strike. The Harbingers had been ordered to wait on deck throughout, awaiting the order to launch and assist the patrols or to cover Abbey if needed. There was no question that they were stretching themselves thin, but there didn’t seem to be another way.
So far, however, the Harbingers hadn’t been called upon. For the past couple of hours, their patrols had avoiding making contact with the enemy, instead relying on the SWACS to monitor the Nephilim patrols and to make sure they didn’t get too close to the carriers. Abbey was maintaining comm silence to retain the element of surprise. There was nothing for Phalanx and his pilots to do but to wait. And wait. And…
001 (Harbinger Lead)
Flight Deck, BWS Freedom
1345 Hours, 18 Feb 2681 (2681.049)
When the waiting ended, it ended abruptly. One second the flight deck was as normal as the deck of a carrier at war could every be. The next second, the deck was filled with blaring sirens and flashing red lights. Even before the intercom had broadcast the order to launch the Alert-5 fighters, the deck crews were racing to do just that. The deck crews had been just as much a part of the battle to hold the line as the pilots had been, and two weeks of intense fighting had honed their skills to a razor sharp edge.
That same edge had brought the Bearcat pilots to full alertness the instant the sirens had sounded. Phalanx slapped his left hand across the shoulder strap tensioner on the center of his torso, retracting any slack in the straps and positioning his spine upright for the incredible acceleration involved in a catapult launch. At the same time, he flicked his right hand across a row of emergency start switches located at the bottom of his console, powering up the fighter’s generators and switching to internal life support.
His displays and instruments powered up first. Phalanx glanced quickly at the life support and electrical displays, confirming that the Bearcat was now on its own internal supplies rather than those supplied by the Freedom, and then signaled the deck crews to disconnect the umbilicals. At the same time, his crew chief raised her hands up where Phalanx could see them, showing him the red tagged safety pins that had been removed from the missiles and the decoy dispenser. Phalanx acknowledged this with a salute, which was also the signal for the deck crew to move clear.
While all this had been going on, the fighter was being moved into position on the catapult, and the launch bar locked down to hold the fighter in place, while the jet blast deflector was raised behind the Bearcat. Phalanx powered up the engines, advancing the throttle into full afterburner. In the event of a cold launch, the extra thrust would hopefully give him enough power to get off the deck safely. He saluted the launch officer, and braced himself.
The force of the launch crushed him back into his seat, momentarily winding him. Phalanx had been launching from carrier decks for almost half his life, though, going all the way back to the First Kilrathi War, and he was well used to the sensation. It was just a little bit harder to deal with now than it had been when he had been a bright-eyed youth, but he could still cope with it. Phalanx knew that the day he could no longer deal with such stresses would be the day that he walked away from the cockpit. A couple of weeks ago he might have been looking forward to that day, but no longer.
Phalanx pulled the stick back and hard right as soon as he was clear of the launch bay, forcing the Bearcat into a climbing starboard turn that took it away from the Freedom’s path. Close to three weeks of combat operations had pushed the fighters as well as their pilots, and the lack of time for preventative maintenance between flights meant that the risk of an engine flameouts was higher than normal. The Freedom herself was too massive and cumbersome to turn aside quickly, and any fighter that flamed out in her path would find itself smeared across her bow.
Almost as soon as he had finished the turn and leveled out, he saw the flash of afterburners out of the corner of his eye as another Bearcat raced away from the Freedom, quickly followed by another, and then another, launching as fast as the catapults could cycle. The spacing between fighters almost insanely tight, but was typical of what they had been doing over the past weeks. Every margin that could have been shaved was shaved, be it in fighter maintenance, crew rest or flight operations. It had undoubtedly cost lives, but it has also saved many more being keeping the horribly outnumbered human forces in the fight. The other pilots rapidly executed their own clearing turns, and began forming into elements and flights almost immediately. The entire launch sequence had been carefully choreographed to ensure that leaders and wingman could link up with each other straight away, and fight right afterwards if needed. The Freedom and her pilots were at war, even if no-one had actually gotten around to declaring one, and three weeks of hard fighting had polished off any rough edges in their operations.
Once all the Harbingers were in formation (exactly four minutes and forty three seconds after the order), Phalanx turned his fighter to the intercept course sent to him by the Freedom’s communications officer as soon as he had launched. He fed in full afterburner once again, and the Bearcat leapt forward eagerly, rapidly accelerating to its blistering top speed of 1,400 KPS. Phalanx checked his course once again, and then locked in the autoslide, keeping the fighter at full speed without wasting fuel that he was likely to need later. He took a quick glance at his radar display, confirming that his entire squadron was in formation, and then turned his attention his comm panel.
He activated a tight beam laser link between his fighter and the Freedom. They had to keep their signal profile to a minimum to reduce the possibility of the Nephilim zeroing in on them, and the tight beam laser links were relatively secure. The only way that someone could listen in was if they were in the path of the beam itself, which was unlikely over such a short distance. The only drawback to such links was that they couldn’t be used between fighters, due to their small size and rapid maneuvers, but his pilots had been well trained. They would simply follow his lead until the time came to give them more information.
Phalanx expected the Freedom’s communications officer to answer the message, and give him more information about the situation. Instead, it was Commander Damien Chelsea who answered, and he looked unusually worried. Damien Chelsea was a smart and capable officer, so smart that he had become one of the Border Worlds Navy’s youngest carrier skippers. Chelsea had a heck of a lot of faith in himself as well as in his crew and his ship. It took a lot to faze him.
“Phalanx, it sounds like Abbey’s in a hell of a lot of trouble. Most of their fighters are down, and the Defiance’s taken a major hit. She’s lost her bridge, and the entire bridge crew along with it, including Commodore Riviera. Right now, they're running back towards the planetary ring and they’ve got Nephilim fighters in pursuit.”
”How many fighters? What types?” Phalanx asked crisply. He was saddened to hear about the battering Defiance had taken, and the loss of Riviera, who by all accounts had been one of the Union’s best small ship tacticians. His job, though, was to escort the Defiance back to safety, and that was what he was focusing on.
“About a dozen of them, Squid interceptors, according to the transmission we got from the Defiance. There aren’t any torpedo capable craft in the vicinity as far as we can tell, but the Defiance has lost her main comms, and the laser link they used cut out before we could confirm the details.”
”Besides which, those Squids could finish off the Defiance by themselves in the state that she is in,” Phalanx said. The Squids wouldn’t normally be a threat to carrier, even a small one like the Defiance, but their massed quantum disruptor cannons and missiles could tear the ship apart if they hit damaged structure where the bridge had been.
“Exactly. The Defiance’s corvette escorts are sticking close to her to cover her with guns, but they won’t last long without fighter cover. Good hunting, Colonel. Freedom out.”
Bearcat 001 (Harbinger Lead)
1407 Hours, 18 Feb 2681 (2681.049)
By now, the Bearcats were fast approaching the planetary rings where Taskforce Abbey had been hiding out before it had launched its strike the Epsilon group. Phalanx cut off the autoslide and pulled up sharply on the flight stick, taking his squadron over the plane of the rings rather than trying to fly through the debris. It was faster to go around on afterburners than to go through at normal speed, and it reduced the risk of collisions. The drawback of leaving the plane of the system was that it increased the risk of spatial disorientation, but the Harbingers hadn’t been flying in this system to become subconsciously dependant on its reference points, and they were all experienced enough to cope with the shift in perspective.
Phalanx had a brief and startling flash of déjà vu as the Bearcats skimmed past the edge of the rings, with chunks of rocks and ice racing past only a few hundred meters from his Bearcat’s wingtip. All the Valkyrie pilots had bad memories of the debris field in Loki where they had deliberately drawn a massive Nephilim attack down upon themselves, in the process leaving the Nephilim fleet wide open to attack by Confed forces, but for Phalanx the memories were worse than most. It was in a place that looked much this that the Harbingers and Reapers had tried to ambush a much larger group of Nephilim fighters, only to have the Nephilim turn the tables on their would be attackers. That battle had cost Phalanx four of his pilots, and had shattered both his confidence in himself and his squadron’s confidence in him. He had come very close to walking away from the job altogether, and letting someone else take over the burdens he felt he was no longer strong enough to carry.
What had stopped him from doing so in the end had been the simple realization that he was still the best man for the job. He didn’t mean that in an arrogant or egotistical way, it was just a statement of the facts. He had flown and fought in battles going all the way back to the First Kilrathi War, and he had been leading fighter squadrons longer than most of his pilots had been in the cockpit. Yes, he had made mistakes, and people under his command had died because of those mistakes, but each of those mistakes had taught him things that would prevent future deaths. People under his command would always die because that was just what happened in war. To let that fact break him would be a betrayal of all those who had followed him in the past. The best way he could honor them was by going forward, and by using all the hard lessons he had learned tosee that as many of his pilots made it back as possible. He had taken back command of the Harbingers and led them through the fiercest of the Loki fighting, earning back their trust in him as well as his own faith in himself. He too had drawn a line, in his mind and in his life, and he was determined not to go back across it.
A few more minutes of flight at the Bearcats’ blistering top speed had left the planetary rings well behind them. They were now very close to the Defiance’s estimated position, and Phalanx watched his radar screen closely for any sign of either the Border Worlds ships or their attackers. The seconds ticked past, and he became more and more worried about the fate of Taskforce Abbey. If the Nephilim had been able to hit them with enough fighters, it was very much possible that they had already destroyed the Border Worlds ships and turned back to their carriers. The Combined Fleet was going to need every single carrier it had to pull off a victory in this system. They had already lost the Saratoga, Bunker Hill, Valley Forge and Littenia, which meant that even a carrier as small as the Defiance was worth its weight in gold. Not only that, many of the men and women aboard the Defiance were good friends.
Finally, Phalanx saw a small blip might have been a ship above him and to his right. The signal was right at the edge of the radar’s detection range, and disappeared almost instantly. It might have been just a sensor artifact, or it might have been caused by ship momentarily presenting a larger radar profile as it maneuvered. He radioed a quick message to the other Harbingers and then cut the autoslide before pulling the Bearcat around sharply. His pilots stayed on his wing, though many overshot slightly and had to tap their afterburners once again to compensate. Phalanx waited a few seconds to make everyone was back in formation and then accelerated back to full afterburner, locking the autoslide in once again.
Once the Bearcats were racing in the direction where he had seen the blip, he narrowed the focus of his radar and boosted the set to maximum power, sacrificing both scanning area and EMCON for detection range. It was a gamble, but the Defiance’s comm damage made radar the only practical option for finding Abbey. Laser links only worked when one knew the location of the ship that would be receiving the signal. He could have also broadcast a message giving his own location and hoped that either the Defiance or one of her escorts could pick it up, but that would have given his location away to the Nephilim as well. No, he just had to trust that neither his eyes nor his radar screen had deceived him.
The hunch paid off seconds later, as his radar locked on a light blue blip, a friendly capital ship. Just a few seconds later, the range had close enough to differentiate the single blip into the three, the Defiance and the two corvettes that were practically hugging her sides to cover her from enemy attack. At the same time, the radar began picking up smaller fighter signals, all of them hostile. They were swirling around the three Border Worlds ship, but so far the massed fire from the point defense guns seemed to be keeping them at bay.
The Border Worlds ships detected the Harbingers more or less at the same time, and altered course so that the two groups were closing head on rather than at an angle. At the same time, the Squids broke away from harassing the warships and formed up to meet the incoming fighters. Phalanx could only count nine of the twelve reported fighters on his radar screen, a testament to the skill of Abbey’s gunnery crews. That gave the Harbingers a near two to one advantage in numbers. It was the kind of odds ratio that Combined Fleet pilots were all too familiar with, but they were usually on the wrong side of it.
Phalanx knew though, that time wasn’t on their side. They not only had to take these fighters out before any further Nephilim craft arrived, but they also had to get far enough away that the Nephilim could not track their journey back to Battle Group Valkyrie. The last thing they needed was the Nephilim trying a pre-emptive strike on their other carriers while their flight decks were full of craft being prepped for launch. The loss of half the remaining carriers in the Combined Fleet didn’t bear thinking about.
Phalanx quickly issued orders to his pilots, leaving one flight to cover Abbey while the rest accelerated ahead to engage the Squids. There was no time to designate specific targets for his pilots, and nor was there any need. The Combined Fleet pilots had been fighting these minor skirmishes almost on a daily basis over the past few weeks, in between the big strikes and fleet defense battles that shaped the course of the battle. Having to fight that many battles would break them if it went on long enough. For now, though, it had given them an added edge that combat fatigue had not yet worn away.
Phalanx himself locked on to the lead Squid as it accelerated towards the Border Worlders. The Squid was closing incredibly fast, powered by its booster, and it made a very small target with its arms locked behind it. Rather than try for a head on gun pass, Phalanx snapped off on image-recognition missile at extreme range, counting on the closing speed of the two fighters to compensate. The missile ploughed right into the Squid’s nose, blasting through its shields and ripping into its forward armor plating.
The Squid’s arms flared out as it cut its boosters, slowing down dramatically to allow itself a firing pass at the Bearcat. The Squid’s quantum disruptors made Phalanx’s forward shields crackle with violent energy, while the Bearcat’s three light tachyon cannons (the fourth had been shot away in an earlier battle, and the Freedom had run out of replacements) ripped deeper into the Nephilim craft’s prow. Burning armor and fleshy looking chunks of the fighter’s organic hull spalled away into space, but the two fighters were still closing much to quickly to allow either pilot more than a second’s firing time.
Rather than risk a collision at such speed, Phalanx rolled his fighter down and to the left, dodging the other fighter with only a couple of hundred meters to spare. He left the Squid to his wingman, one of the Littenia pilots who had joined the Harbingers. A torrent of tachyon cannon fire followed by a despairing cry of “The Aligned People shall consume you!” marked the end of the Nephilim interceptor. Several other Nephilim fighters went down almost at the same time, tag teamed by other pairs of Bearcats.
As he looped back around to rejoin the battle, Phalanx saw two Squids boosting straight towards the Defiance, aiming for the gaping hole in the upper hull where her bridge had been. He shouted a warning to pilots covering the escort carrier, but they were already moving to intercept. A salvo of missiles blew one of the Squids out of the sky instantly. The other took hits that blasted away its shielding and ripped two of its arms clean off, but somehow still managed to keep going till the crossfire from the corvettes’ heavy batteries vaporized it.
Phalanx breathed a sigh of relief, and quickly checked on his other pilots. By now almost all of the Nephilim fighters were down, thankfully without any casualties among the Harbingers. Once the last of the Nephilim were down, he led the Harbingers into escort formation around the battered carrier. Up close, he could see that the damage was even worse than he had expected. Not just the bridge but also a good part of the superstructure was gone, and there were several compartments that were open to space. He just hoped that the people into those compartments had been vaporized in the blast itself rather than suffering a far more agonizing death by explosive decompression. The Defiance’s hull and those of her escorts showed scorch marks and melted armor plating in various places, evidence of the battering they had taken from the Squids.
Phalanx activated a tight beam laser link to the Defiance, hoping the battered ship could still receive him. “Harbinger Lead to Defiance. Do you read? Over.”
”Captain Bernard speaking. About time that you people got here.
”You’re welcome. What’s your status?”
”Commodore Riviera is dead, along with the entire bridge crew. We’re just barely keeping this tub running from the CIC.”
“Understood. What’s the status of Epsilon?”
”All their light escorts are down, and we dented their fighter cover some. Both the carrier and cruiser are unhurt.”
”Harbinger Lead copies all. Okay, let’s get you people back under cover. We’ll give you an escort till we get relieved. Harbinger Lead out.”
As the battered formation began moving back towards Nifelheim III, Phalanx couldn’t help wondering if this one had been a win, a loss or something in-between. They had softened up Group Epsilon, leaving it open to attack, but the Defiance wouldn’t be fully operational till she got to dry dock. A hell of a lot of good people had died to achieve their initial goal in the battle for this system, one of the Union’s most promising light warship commanders among them. The trick was to make all that loss and sacrifice worthwhile, to make it mean something. The Valkyries would do just that. Of that much at least, Phalanx was certain.