: “ Aftershocks ”


Excalibur 301 "Theseus Lead"
Same Time

Major Kyle Coursain was a damned good pilot. Before the Nephilim had decided to make Armageddon come true, he had been up for command of one of the newly-established Panther squadrons operating off a carrier. He had been looking forward to that assignment, but the date for his acceptance of it had passed, and he had received notification that the slot had been given to another officer.    

All because of the damned bugs.    

It was one more reason he hated them.    

The Excalibur heavy fighter underneath him was a marvelous piece of equipment, even for a fighter that had been designed at the end of the First Kilrathi War. Its main armament was a wonderfully powerful quartet of Autotracking tachyon cannons and a pair of ion cannons that were mounted on the centerline. The Excalibur itself had the ability to carry an array of missiles, along with torpedoes. At the moment, Coursain’s fighters were carrying a pair of torpedoes apiece, along with six Spiculum IR missiles. They were ready for anything. That included intercepting the four bandits heading for the SWACS surveillance craft.

“Two, take the trailing pair. I’m on the lead,” Coursain called.

“Roger Lead.”    

Coursain’s fighter was streaking through space at thirteen hundred KPS, closing one the contacts. He ran a quick check using his navigation computer… he wouldn’t have much margin for error… he’d intercept the hostiles a scant twelve seconds before they reached the SWACS.    

He switched to tachyon cannons only, as they would track the target within a certain cone ahead of his fighter, and lined up. He selected one of his six Spiculum IR missiles, and prepared to fire.

As soon as he had lock, at a range of twenty-one thousand kilometers, he depressed the firing button.    

Explosive bolts blew the missile clear of the fighter, and it’s engine lit off with a roar. The missile streaked ahead, homing in on one of the Morays… which promptly sheered off and began dumping the Nephilim equivalent of missile decoys into space.    

Coursain locked onto the second fighter, and punched off another missile. While he didn’t like wasting missiles in long-range launches, he had to buy some more time. He was pleased to see that one of his missiles, the second, actually hit the assigned target, doing significant damage to the fighter, which heeled over and accelerated towards him, trailing vapors and pieces of its iridescent hull.    

He shifted back to the first Moray, to find that it was in knife fighting range. His shields flared as he danced the Excalibur all over the sky, dodging the most lethal of the blasts. Those that did manage to impact flared the aft shielding, but did little else.    

Coursain flipped the Excalibur over, pulled back on the sidestick controller, and was punched into his seat as the Excalibur pulled through the vertical, looping around to come head-to-head with the Moray. Coursain pulled the trigger as soon as he could see the Moray in the forward panel of his canopy. The autotracking tachyon cannons elevated and fired bursts into space, obviously surprising the Moray, which had not suspected that the Excalibur would be able to hit him from such a position. This surprise translated into a trio of hits for Coursain, which ripped the Nephilim fighter’s cockpit area apart in a spray of atmosphere, Nephilim hull material, and organic components which had once made up the pilot.    

Coursain’s wingman, a new second lieutenant, had managed to down one target, and was already hard at work on the other. Checking his sensors, Coursain saw that the enemy was down to less than half of their original strength in fighter craft, and that the Piranhas from both Endeavor and Yorktown were reducing their numbers further even as they watched.    

Then, something occurred to Coursain.    

“Eagle Eye Three, Theseus Lead. Any idea where these bogeys came from?” he called.    

“Wait one, Theseus Lead,” came the reply.    

As a Piranha from the Yorktown destroyed the last target, one of the component fighters that made up a Skate torpedo bomber, Coursain waited for an answer from the SWACS.    

“We’ve got the direction they originally came from, Theseus Lead, but no contact with a base ship or fleet.” Replied the controller.    

Coursain shook his head. “We need to find out if there’s a new group inbound for the force, or if those were indeed the fighters we ran into fighting our way to the Tiamat,” Coursain said.    

“I agree, Theseus Lead, but we’ve got more important things to attend to at the moment,” came Carter’s voice. “SAR operations are still being conducted, and we’ve got to give them cover. If those Nephilim weren’t from the remnants of the Tiamat force, then we could have more inbound.”    

Coursain spoke up again. “What about getting some reinforcements out here?”    

Carter’s voice came back over the frequency. “We’ve got two Thunderbolts from Hercules Squadron inbound, ETA is ten minutes, along with a pair of the 'Dev’s Tigersharks. When they get here, we’ll link up and start searching for whatever launched those fighters. Until then, we’re going to stay with the recovery shuttles.”    

“Understood, sir," Coursain replied. “Two, lets get back in formation.”    

The two Excaliburs performed a pair of sharp turns and headed back in the direction of the main Confed fighter force.    

“Theseus Lead, as soon as this is over, I owe you a drink,” called the senior controller aboard the SWACS.    

Coursain smiled. “As soon as we’re celebrating the Nephilim’s defeat,” he replied.    

“Amen,” Carter added, summoning forth laughter from another couple of the pilots.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Bridge
Same Time

Kennedy paced the deck, looking at the plot and frowning, as though the plotting board was an opponent he was trying to stare down.    

There were two possibilities about where the Nephilim fighters had come from. Either they were from the remains of the group that the combined three-carrier strike had obliterated, or they were a scouting group from a previously-engaged but still-undestroyed Nephilim group.    

Either way, it was trouble.    

Yorktown’s only operational fighters still with her group were what was left of her Wasp squadron, and the remaining nine Excaliburs and three Thunderbolts of her escorts. If the enemy was inbound… well, it wouldn’t be pretty.    

Commander Wallace had the bridge now, as Ramirez was in CIC, looking for any sign of the Nephilim that had launched the fighters. Every now and then, Wallace would send a covert glance the admiral’s way, watching the ‘old man’ as it were, as he paced back and forth.    

Kennedy was not only worried about the Nephilim, though. He was worried about the survivors of the Endeavor. They were coming in slowly, in a trickle, and now there was word that there may still have been survivors aboard the derelict light carrier.    

Kennedy knew he couldn’t risk all of his fighter strength covering the rescue operation, but he didn’t want the Nephilim taking any prisoners from a fellow ally’s gravesite. Not on his watch.    

He looked at the status display for the air wing’s fighters. The fighters from Endeavor that were still aboard would require at least another six hours work, whereas the entire complement from Yorktown, with the exception of the Shrikes and the Tigersharks, was operational. The problem was one of armament.      

Ships were being forced to go out with half of their missiles. The patrol that had just gone out was the last group that would go out with full weaponry… and the pair of Vampires assigned to escort it had gone out with only two Tracker MIRVs apiece, rather than their standard four.    

“Admiral, message coming in from Feline Lead,” the communications officer called.    

Kennedy walked over and picked up one of the headsets, then plugged it into the communications officer’s console. He nodded to the young ensign, who looked as though she had aged five years since the beginning of this campaign.    

The young officer punched a series of buttons, then said, “Feline Lead, you have Rapier-Actual on the line. Go.”    

Before anything was said, Kennedy turned to the computer display where the sorties were listed. Feline Lead was Major Tim Carter, one of the few whose fighter had come back from the strike on the Tiamat undamaged.    

“Rapier-Actual, this is Feline Lead. We’ve engaged and splashed around twenty hostiles attempting to enter the rescue zone. As soon as the reinforcements from Hercules and,” There was a pause, no doubt as Carter struggled to remember what the name of Endeavor’s Tigershark squadron was, “Hammerhead Squadrons arrive, I request permission to begin a sweep for enemy capital ships and fighters. Those bandits had to come from somewhere, and we need to know where.”    

Kennedy thought it over for a moment. He didn’t have a problem with Carter’s plan, except…    

“Feline Lead, Rapier-Actual. How many fighters would you be taking with you for your patrol-in-force?”    

There was another momentary delay. “I’d be taking the Sindri Stars, the Hunters, half of my flight, and the fighters from Theseus and Hercules squadrons.”    

Kennedy looked again at the list of fighters up. Carter would be heading into harm’s way with six Piranhas, two Panthers, the pair of torpedo-armed Excalibur heavy fighters, and the pair of Thunderbolts, for twelve fighters of mixed types total.    

One squadron… going into harm’s way. Half of them scout fighters, not meant for long, drawn-out, high-intensity engagements.    

Still, Carter knew what he was doing. He had, after all, survived this entire conflict so far, and two of his pilots were also squadron commanders who had survived the duration of this conflict.    

“Permission is granted, Feline Lead. However, if you run into something you’re not equipped to handle, you are to break contact, return to Eyrie, and report. We don’t need any martyrs now. Acknowledge,” Kennedy called.    

“Affirmative. Feline Lead copies all,” Carter called.    

“Understood. Rapier-Actual out,” Kennedy replied.    

He disconnected his headset from the communications console, then turned back to the plotting board.    

The display showed the three new navpoints for Carter’s patrol plotted out, along with an estimated time of arrival at each, and finally, estimated arrival time back aboard the Yorktown.    

When nobody was listening, or watching, the seemingly confident Rear Admiral, Kennedy whispered to himself, “Godspeed and good luck, Major.” 


Aboard Panther 101 "Feline Lead"
1809 Hours (CST)

Carter had the fighters arranged in a somewhat unorthodox formation. The Piranha scout fighters were in three groups of two, one head, one to port, and the other to starboard of the central cluster of fighters.    

In that central cluster, Carter had himself and Rusler, directly behind the leading Piranhas. Slightly "above" and behind them were Major Coursain and his wingman, and directly beneath them, "below" Carter and Rusler’s level on the z-plane, was First Lieutenant Alex "Polack" Pulaski and his wingmen, having just recently joined the group with their Thunderbolt heavy fighters.    

The remaining pair of Panthers and the two Vampires had linked up with the pair of Tigersharks from the Endeavour, and were flying cover to ensure the safety of the rescue crews combing the area around the Endeavour for survivors, so Carter wasn’t worried… that, and the fact that the Yorktown’s fighters were back on the line ensured the survivors of the light carrier would be well-looked after.    

Every two minutes, one of the pairs of Piranhas would break formation and move out fifteen thousand klicks from the main force, then energize its sensors. The Piranhas weren’t powerful fighters, but their main assets were their radar arrays, which had longer range than the rest of the fighters in the group. Their radars took what amounted to a snap-shot of the surrounding space out to a distance of sixty-five thousand klicks from the strike/reconnaissance package. As soon as that was done, the fighters rejoined the group and proceeded on, resuming their search with passive sensors only.    

“Nothing out there, Feline Lead. Active readings are negative for hostiles at this navpoint,” called Martinez, for it had been she and her wingman’s turn to take the active readings.    

“Copy, Sindri Lead. Return to formation,” Carter replied, looking at his own sensor displays.

In essence, they were listening for any hint of electronic chatter that the Nephilim might radiate, at least until the next active sensor sweep.    

“Lead…” called Rusler over the communications frequency.    

“What is it, three?” Carter replied.    

“Sir… I just picked up something… it’s not sensors… not a strong enough signal for that, but it might be a transmission of some kind,” Rusler replied.    

“Can you get a fix on it?” Carter asked.    

“Bearing three-two-seven z-plus ten relative, but no range indication yet,” Rusler stated.    

“Feline Lead, Theseus Lead. I detected this signal too, but it faded before I could get a track on it. Same bearing as your wingman picked up,” Coursain’s voice chipped in.    

Carter considered breaking radio silence to try and get a message to the Yorktown, but he couldn’t risk giving away either his patrol’s position or that of the Yorktown with those kind of burst transmissions. No, he’d have to check this out himself.

He felt himself hesitate at the thought of taking his patrol deeper into the hostile territory outside of the radius of Yorktown’s sensors, but he knew he didn’t have a choice. If he could get a location on the enemy forces, he could call in a strike… or engage with the fighters he had, if it was only remnants of another enemy group.    

“All fighters, come to course -- ” Carter looked at his heading display and did a quick computation in his head, then continued, “-zero-eight-two, z-plus eight, speed three hundred KPS. In eight minutes, if we haven’t detected that signal again, Hunters and Sindri Stars are to energize their radars and radiate to look for targets,” Carter said.    

There was a series of acknowledgements, followed by an eerie silence.    

Four minutes passed in silence… and then, the fighters RHAWS systems lit up, illuminating warning indicators in all of their cockpits.    

“Sindri Stars and Hunters only, energize and give me a reading now!” Carter called. “Everybody else, prepare for evasive maneuvers!”    

The report was less than five seconds in coming. “Feline Lead, Hunter Six: I show eight hostile contacts. Classifying now.”    

“Feline Lead, Sindri Lead. I show six Squid interceptors and two Orca-class destroyers, both showing damage. Both match the configuration and readings of the two destroyers that escaped from the Tiamat group. Range is ninety thousand klicks, dead ahead, z-plus two. The Squids are moving to intercept,” Martinez said.    

“Piranhas, stand by to engage. I want us in three groups. Two heavy fighters with each pair of Piranhas. Clear?” Carter called.    

Again, responses flooded the channel.    

“All right. Break and attack, but stay out of range of the Orcas,” Carter called.

The Piranhas shot ahead on afterburner, being the fastest fighters there. Quick to follow were the Excaliburs under Coursain, then the two Panthers, and then the Thunderbolts.    

The six Squid interceptors all showed damage. They were probably the only defensive force the destroyers had left after the pounding the Nephilim fighters had taken during the Tiamat strike.    

Then, he remembered something else.    

Triggering his radio, he switched to his long-range transmitter and called, “Eagle Eye Three, Feline Lead. We’ve got eyeballs on two Orca-class destroyers with minimal fighter escort. Engaging now. Our position is as follows…”    

As soon as he’d gotten the message out, one came back.    

“Feline Lead, Eagle Eye Three. Be advised, Eyrie is launching reinforcements, ETA to your current position…twenty-one minutes.” Replied the SWACS controller.    

Carter swallowed. “Understood.”    

Entire fleet actions had been decided in twenty-one minutes… but not a dogfight. Those were decided in seconds. “Three, we’ll hang back and cover the Piranhas. I don’t want to have to write any letters this time around.”    

He received a pair of mike clicks in return.    

The Squid interceptors pulled in their outrigger weapons pods and accelerated to over two thousand KPS, closing rapidly. The Piranhas began firing off missiles at twenty thousand KPS, the range scrolling down more rapidly than anything Carter had ever seen. He selected his own Pilum IFF missiles and prepared to fire them if needed. The advantage they offered was that he could launch them quickly, and they didn’t require anything in the way of locking time; they searched for, acquired, and prosecuted targets by themselves.    

Ahead, he saw Martinez and her wingman engage the leading pair of Squid, and, though they were outgunned, they didn’t hesitate to engage, their Stormfire cannons lighting up their noses with muzzle flashes, sending red tracers spraying through the void of space.    

The Squid, speeding in with their weapon outriggers tucked in behind them, were unable to return the barrage. The lead Squid took significant damage to its forward armor before arcing off into the vertical plane. The second took one of the Pilum IFF missiles launched by Martinez’ wingman directly upon the nosecone, knocking it out of afterburner, but decelerating it enough that its weapons outriggers could deploy. It sprayed weapons fire at the oncoming Piranha, which immediately flipped into a series of evasive maneuvers in an effort to throw off fire.    

“Jay, take the guy on Sindri Two. I’ll backstop Sindri Lead,” Carter said, pulling the nose of his fighter up and tracking the squid, which had completed a brief acceleration away, which had given its shields time to recharge.    

Martinez accelerated ahead, her own fighter tracking the damaged Squid, laser cannon flashing away, Martinez having switched to it due to its longer range. Though it had less damage, it kept the enemy in weapons range, keeping the pressure on.    

Carter’s panther roared in, and he pulled the trigger. Yellow-white tachyon beams and blue-white ion beams flashed from the Panther’s wingroots, streaking out towards the Squid.    

The Squid accelerated towards Martinez again, this time firing. Martinez flipped her Piranha into a half-roll, then triggered off a Spiculum IR missile. The Squid dumped decoys and attempted to accelerate, only to be caught broadside and torn in half by the missile’s impact and the power of Carter’s guns.    

In the meantime, Coursain’s Excaliburs with their autotracking tachyon cannons had knocked out both of the enemy Squids that the other pair of Yorktown’s Piranhas had engaged, blowing them to bits of floating flotsam.    

The pair of Squids engaged by the Endeavor’s Piranhas had made the mistake of trying to brush right by the scout fighters, seeing the Thunderbolt VII heavy fighters behind them as the greater threat. The Endeavor’s scout fighters literally shredded their targets with repeated Stormfire rounds, killing both in a matter of seconds.    

“We’re clear!” Martinez called, checking her scanners.    

“Everybody report damage!” Carter called.    

Miraculously, there was very little, besides some slight frontal armor damage to one of the Yorktown’s Piranhas that had gotten too close to the Nephilim missile locked onto it.    

Carter checked the mission clock. It had taken less than two minutes to dispatch of all six Nephilim fighters…and still none had been launched from the destroyers, which were advancing towards Carter’s fighters at what appeared to be their maximum speed.

“Do we engage the destroyers, Feline Lead?” Came Major Coursain’s voice.    

Carter wrestled with it. If he delayed, he could get more firepower out here to deal with the destroyers. On the other hand, the longer he delayed, the greater the chances that the Nephilim would call for help and get it from one of their other task forces.    

He took a deep breath. “We’ve only got enough firepower to knock out one of the destroyers for sure. Piranhas, you weren’t meant for this, but you’re going to run cover for the torpedo bombers while Feline Three and myself run SEAD against the target. Hercules Four, you and your wingman are clear for SEAD runs to start, then use those torps. Theseus Lead, you’re our first bombers. Make ‘em count.” Carter called out.    

Coursain gave a salute from his cockpit. “Yessir. Hunters and Sindri Stars, make sure you give us some distance. Turret fire’s likely to be heavy on our first pass.”    

“Tighten it up, three. Take out the portside turrets on… this target,” Carter called, transmitting his data.    

“Affirmative. Making my run now,” Rusler called. Carter was just ahead of him, going for the shield generator on the destroyer with his guns. 


Aboard Thunderbolt 307 "Hercules Four"
Same Time

Second Lieutenant Alexander "Polack" Pulaski was pushed back into his seat as the afterburners on his T-bolt kicked in. Whereas the Thunderbolt was concerned, the term ‘heavy fighter’ was accurate both in terms of firepower and shielding, and sheer mass.

One of the most powerful fighters of the Kilrathi Wars, the Thunderbolt was derisively termed the "lead sled" by those who had to fly her. However, once those pilot were in combat, and saw her lack of maneuverability was more than made up for by her armor and firepower, they came to love the heavy, sluggish fighter. And there was nothing like riding her down a catapult.    

Pulaski selected his entire bank of frontal weaponry: A pair each of photon guns, meson guns, and plasma cannons, which gave a hell of a bite to the Thunderbolt’s forward arc.    

Especially when it came to hitting something less maneuverable than the lead sled.    

Green fire erupted from the enemy destroyer, beams streaking towards and past the four fighters screaming towards the first Orca-class destroyer: The two Panthers under Carter, and the two Thunderbolt VIIs under Pulaski. 

It was odd, Pulaski thought in his single spare heartbeat; the Panther had been designed to replace the Thunderbolt, and yet now, both of the fighters were working together against a common enemy, both seemingly as effective. Ah, the strange twists that fate threw at you. 

He selected one of the missile launchers near the Orca’s after end, and accelerated directly for it, his wingman going for the turret forward of it.    

“Open fire… now!” Pulaski called.

Energy streamed from the front end of the Thunderbolt, slamming into the turret as Carter and Rusler took down the shield generator on the ship. The missile launcher exploded outwards under the pressure of the atmosphere beneath the hull plating as the hull became liquid or steam under the barrage from Pulaski’s guns.    

“Got one!” Pulaski called out. This was followed by a jubilant cry from his wingman, Second Lieutenant Hector "Hatchet" Blake, piloting Hercules Five, signifying that he’d gotten his target as well.    

Pulaski pulled out of his ‘dive’ towards the Orca, and skimmed along its surface, guns blazing away as the Thunderbolt moved across the destroyer too fast for its guns to track. The second destroyer, though in position as Pulaski and his wingman came around the starboard side, was unable to fire for fear of hitting its sister vessel. Instead, it began, or tried to begin, firing at the oncoming Excalibur torpedo bombers as they began their lock-on sequences.    

Turret after turret fell to the combined fire of the Thunderbolts and the Panthers skimming across the surface of the Nephilim capital ship, until its weapons had finally fallen silent.    

He checked his mission clock: Eight minutes had passed since the beginning of the engagement with the Squid interceptors.    

“We have torpedo lock-on. Torpedo away!” Called Coursain from his position aft of the Orca, targeting the engines.    

From above the now-defenseless Orca, Coursain’s wingman swept downward towards the capital ship’s bridge, firing his own Hellfire heavy torpedo.    

At the same time, Carter and Rusler, as well as Pulaski and his wingman, swept towards the second destroyer, intent upon destroying its defenses as well.    

Waves of green blasts spewed from the turrets and weapon emplacements of the second Orca, which could do nothing but defend itself as it watched the other destroyer take both torpedo impacts directly.    

For a moment, the hull of the destroyer resisted the damage to its bridge… then failed. It looked as though half of the bridge had been gouged out by some kind of prehistoric monster looking for its next meal.    

The engines flared as Coursain’s torpedo impacted there, followed by a number of secondary explosions as the delicate mechanisms/organisms that propelled the Nephilim ship were critically damaged.    

The Orca began a turn, belatedly, whether from the effects of the torpedoes or as an order to throw off more incoming fire, Pulaski didn’t know.    

He did, however, know it was his turn.    

As he weaved back and forth to avoid enemy fire, he pulled the trigger sporadically, trying for a chance hit at range on one of the many turrets that the destroyer was studded with.    

With a thud and a blue flare, he took a single turret shot to the forward part of his fighter that dropped his shields by half. He twitched the control yoke left, then right, making sure that he wasn’t moving in a predictable fashion.    

He dodged and weaved his fighter back and forth, shooting without pause at the enemy turrets --    

“Hercules Four and Five, make your runs at the damaged destroyers. Theseus Lead and Two, help us suppress the enemy turrets here, then make your run against the engines only, repeat, the engines only of the second destroyer. We don’t have the kill power, so we need to keep her here until assistance can arrive.” Carter’s voice filtered through.    

“Hercules Four acknowledges.”

“Theseus Lead, affirmative.”

Coursain’s pair of Excaliburs streaked in, guns firing madly as their autotracking tachyon cannons lit up space, searching for the turrets and missile batteries of the destroyer.    

Pulaski and his wingman peeled off, arcing back towards the now-crawling and crippled first destroyer, their Valiant light torpedoes locking onto the target.    

“Hercules Four has lock. Counting down…” Pulaski said.    

The targeting brackets seemed to inch ever closer to surrounding the target’s engines as Pulaski watched. “Five,” He called, remembering at the last instant to tell his wingman where to hit, “Target the Orca’s bridge. I’ve got the engines.”    

A pair of mike clicks in response was what he received.    

A seemingly endless period of time passed as the torpedo warhead locked onto its target. “Torpedo lock… weapon away!” Pulaski called, feeling the thump as the torpedo separated from his fighter and streaked ahead into space, riding a trail of blue flame and vapor. It closed on the target, making a slight left arc as the Orca, surprisingly under some modicum of control, began a turn to the left.    

But it couldn’t dodge the torpedo.    

With a blue-white flash of antimatter and matter combining explosively, the torpedo detonated, shredding the engine section of the destroyer, literally shattering the hull, first crushing it inward, followed by the explosion of the hull outward under the pressure of the atmosphere contained within the destroyer. With another tremendous flash, the bridge of the destroyer literally disappeared under the impact of his wingman’s torpedo.    

The destroyer’s hull began cracked, the ragged gashes left by the earlier torpedo hits running the length of the ship as structural integrity was lost.    

Black ichor began streaming through the cracks in the hull, possibly an attempt at damage control, but by far too little, too late.    

The destroyer literally crumbled into pieces ranging in size from no bigger than a man’s arm to pieces the size of half a Confederation corvette.    

Secondary explosions rippled throughout the debris field, until there was only a spray of iridescent black debris against the darkness of space.    

The second destroyer, meanwhile, was running for its life, Carter and Coursain spraying blasts across its surface to destroy the turrets and launchers there.    

“Hercules Four and Five are inbound to deal with the turrets,” Pulaski called out. Matching action to words, he turned towards the second destroyer and accelerated to afterburner.    

Both Coursain and his wingman were going for this destroyer’s engines this time, planning on knocking them out if they couldn’t destroy the ship entirely.


Aboard Panther 101 "Feline Lead"
Same Time

“Eagle Eye Three, Feline Lead. Scratch one destroyer, repeat, scratch one destroyer. However, be advised, we only have enough weapons to disable, not destroy, the second. Are any of those reinforcements packing torpedoes, over?” called Carter.    

“Feline Lead, be advised: You have Cavaliers Six and Seven inbound your position with escort, ETA twelve minutes.” Replied the controller aboard the SWACS.    

“Copy that,” Carter called as Coursain and his wingman began their runs.    

The second destroyer had literally been stripped of almost the entirety of its defenses by this time.    

Carter thought about what he would’ve done had he been the enemy captain at the beginning of this engagement. He’d have held back the entirety of his fighters and forced the Yorktown into another Alpha Strike with its battered fighters, while closing to engage with his capital ships. What the Nephilim had done was sheer stupidity… or perhaps desperation… or was it?    

“Piranhas, give me an active sensor scan, maximum range. Something’s screwy with this picture,” Carter said.    

Again, his instruments detected the powerful search radars of the Piranhas snap to life, sweeping space for something…anything out of place.    

“Feline Lead, this is Sindri Five: I’ve got a pair of Barracuda-class corvettes, heading for Eyrie at sixty-two thousand klicks and opening,” called Hewton from his Piranha.    

Carter swore to himself. His fighters had expended most of their armaments against the destroyers and the Squid interceptors… and now had very few missiles left with which to engage the corvettes. “Eagle Eye Three, Feline Lead: Eyrie has a pair of Barracuda-class corvettes inbound her position, just leaving our coordinates. Request the fighters escorting the Cavaliers hand them off to us while they engage the corvettes.” Carter said, watching as Pulaski flattened the last turret on the second Orca.    

“Feline Lead, copy that request. Go to channel Delta to contact Grendel Lead, over.”    

Carter dialled in the correct frequency. “Grendel Lead, this is Feline Lead, you up on this channel?”    

There was a moment’s static, followed by Rosencrantz’ voice. “Affirmative, Feline Lead. We are inbound your position with the big guns. ETA now… eleven minutes,” came the reply.    

“Grendel Lead, you’ve got a pair of Barracuda-class corvettes coming your way. We’ve got a crippled Nephilim destroyer here. Interested in squeezing the corvettes?” Carter offered.    

“What’d you have in mind, Feline Lead?” Rosencrantz replied.    

“I leave four of my scout fighters here, along with Major Coursain, then take the T-bolts and Panthers, along with another pair of Piranhas, and we trail the corvettes up to your position, at which point the bombers get picked up by the Piranhas and your fighters and mine deal with the corvettes.” Carter responded.    

There was another moment of silence.    

Carter didn’t think Rosencrantz was going to go for it, but then, the Colonel spoke up. “That’s affirmative, Feline Lead. Sounds alright to me. We’ll keep pushing towards you. You just push them towards us.”    

Carter smiled behind his oxygen mask. “Roger that, Grendel Lead. See you in a few. Three, on me. Hercules Four and Five, form up on me. Hunters Five and Six, also with me. Sindri Stars and Theseus Lead and Two, you folks stay here and watch this Orca. Make damned sure she doesn’t get away, and keep us apprised of her position. The rest of you, form up. We’re going to flush those corvettes to the Grendels and take them down.”


Aboard Vampire 117 "Grendel Lead"
Same Time

Rosencrantz fought to keep focused on the mission at hand.    

He fought to keep his mind off Arkadyova, and what a good exec and friend she’d been.    

Fought to keep from mourning her loss and the loss of Second Lieutenant Lilith Drake, both killed not twelve hours ago.    

He fought to keep the rest of his people alive.    

The other four fighters in his formation were just recently repaired, which showed in the somewhat patchwork appearance of their sponge armor. Pieces had been grafted on and adhered to patch holes burned or punched in the armor of the fighters, and, as a result, some of these newest fighters in the Confederation had taken on a somewhat moth-eaten appearance.    

Not that it impaired their fighting ability.    

That was done by the reductions in ammunition allocations, mainly missiles.    

Rosencrantz was glad at this point that the Vampire didn’t carry a Stormfire cannon, due to the fact that the Yorktown’s fighters had eaten up the stocks of ballistic ammunition aboard at a rate unanticipated by any of the logistics personnel that had given her the supplies for this deployment. They had focused more greatly on providing missile ammunition, and, as a result, Yorktown was now running much lower than she should’ve been, even with the resupply efforts of Avernus and the Third Fleet’s logistical support.    

But for now, he set those thoughts aside.    

He had a mission.    

“Cavaliers, Grendels, we’ve gotta kick the speed up a bit. Lets go to afterburner. Grendels, match speed with the Cavaliers. Cavaliers, punch it,” Rosencrantz ordered.    

Cavaliers Six and seven accelerated sluggishly compared to the swift, powerful Vampires, but they nevertheless doubled their speed, racing through the stars at speeds up to six hundred forty KPS. The Grendels easily matched their speed.    

“Feline Lead, Grendel Lead. Be advised, revised ETA to your position is now… four minutes,” Rosencrantz called after a quick calculation.    

“Understood, Grendel Lead. Be advised, targets are at their maximum speed, directly on course for Eyrie. We need to take them out before they get close or they could do some serious damage,” Carter called.    

For the next two-and-a-half minutes, each person in the strike group of six craft (four Vampires and the pair of Shrikes) anxiously watched their sensor scopes as they closed with the hostiles on afterburners. It didn’t take long before every pilot was glancing anxiously at his or her fuel displays, wondering how much time on afterburner the fighters would have left when they arrived at the threat zone.    

“Contact!” Rosencrantz called as his scanner highlighted a pair of orange blips, almost directly ahead. “I’ve got them! Two Barracuda-class corvettes, making a run almost directly towards us!” he called.    

“Grendel Lead, have the bombers keep clear. This one probably isn’t going to be pretty,” Carter’s voice came.    

“Affirmative, Feline Lead. Good call, Major. Cavaliers, you heard the man. Hunters, form up and escort the Shrikes clear of this mess. Major, as soon as they’re clear, we’ll engage the lead corvette. You take the trailer,” Rosencrantz replied.    

“Affirmative,” came Carter’s voice.    

His sensors began picking up Carter’s strike force approximately ten seconds later, closing rapidly upon the trailing corvette.    

“Grendels, one IFF a piece. Since it’s the closest, they should home in on the lead corvette once fired. Let ’em loose at…thirteen thousand klicks.” Rosencrantz called over the communications frequency.    

He got three sets of mike clicks.    

“Got you covered, skipper,” called First Lieutenant "Dagger" Bardzini from his position on Rosencrantz’ wing.    

Rosencrantz watched the range drop rapidly, preparing once more to engage the enemy.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)
“Vulture’s Row”
1914 Hours (CST) 

The fight hadn’t lasted very long.    

Both corvettes had been overwhelmed by the enemy attacks, and were unable to do much more than scorch the armor on the fighters before they were blown to flotsam in space. The torpedo bombers finished off the last destroyer with ease, as its engines were destroyed and it had been maneuvering on inertia only and whatever passed for Nephilim maneuvering thrusters.    

Now came the hardest part: Getting them all home.    

The final three birds were on approach as Kennedy watched: Rosencrantz, Carter, and Martinez were all coming in last, so as to make sure their squadrons were all aboard before they were.    

This mission had been as close to a clean sweep as the Yorktown’s fighter group had seen before this war started.    

The screech of rubber and the roar of engines announced the entry of Martinez’ Piranha into the hangar bay, since her fighter had been the smallest, and hence, the lowest on fuel.    

He watched as the Hispanic captain taxied her fighter into the parking area, shut down its engines, and chocked in place by the maintenance crews.    

She climbed out of the cockpit, fatigue evident in her slumped shoulders and the way each of her steps seemed drawn out.

Kennedy remembered his own time in the cockpit, when he’d come back from such missions against the Kilrathi, completely drained. He recalled one incident when he’d gotten out of his Hellcat V, (Kennedy had been one of the few excellent Hellcat V pilots, one of the few who could make the bird dance like any pilot could an Arrow), had dropped to his knees, and had felt like a bystander as his stomach had emptied itself of its contents, quite a bit of which had been the adrenaline which had been pumped into his system by the long-duration combat mission.    

But she’d survived it, and was a better pilot for it.    

Martinez had a bright future… if she chose to continue in the military after what the government had done to them.    

Hopefully, this damned war would end before too much longer.    

His gaze snapped to the landing area as Carter brought his Panther in for an excellent landing, as far as Kennedy could tell.    

Carter. Now that kid (they were all kids, it seemed to Kennedy) was going places. Young for his rank, young for a squadron command, he had exercised the good judgment and innovative thinking of a future carrier commander…if only after he had a bit more seasoning. Kennedy suspected he was concocting some kind of plan to take revenge upon those who’d left the Combined Fleet blowing in the wind, but he hoped he was wrong, for Carter’s sake. Politics and revenge could be a nasty business… not that he blamed the man.    

Finally, the third and final roar announced the landing of Michael Rosencrantz.    

A good man, knew how to handle his bird, a crack shot with its weaponry, and somebody who knew which chances to take and which were a step too far. He also, was going places… much sooner than either Carter or Martinez. He’d probably get his own wing command after this… or perhaps a carrier, after all the citations, commendations, and decorations people were going to bestow upon the survivors… if they did survive.    

Kennedy thought also about the other officers aboard the ship. For damned sure Alvarez would get a carrier after this, if at all possible. If not, she’d move on to one of the bigger and more prestigious carriers, after possibly a promotion and decorations aplenty. Captain Ramirez would hopefully get his Rear Admiral’s stars, and his XO would also get bumped up.    

Commander Stevens of the Endeavor… well, hopefully she would continue to move up as well… although with something on her record like the destruction of the CVL she’d served upon as XO might cause some difficulties later on.    

And then, he thought of himself. He was, effectively, the commander of the Third Fleet… or what was left of it. It was, in reality, a Vice Admiral’s billet, but he’d settle for the position instead of the rank and pay for now. Afterwards, though, he’d fight tooth and nail to get a larger share of the spending appropriations for the Confederation military. The Yorktown and her sisters needed updates or replacing, or would eventually… and with the losses the Third had sustained…    

Three fleet carriers and a light carrier. Probably losses nearing ten thousand personnel, not including civilian casualties, that was what the Third had sustained. And what about the ships that had been lost?    

In theory, the Third was supposed to be one of the most powerful, as the main threat was seen as the Kilrathi returning some day. Instead, after what Tolwyn had done, they’d lost most of their fighting edge. Oh certainly, they were deadly, but they were using standard equipment, and their carriers were all older. Even one of the newer Midway-class megacarriers, or one of the Vesuvius-class would’ve been priceless. Hell, even more of the CVE light carriers of Endeavour’s class would’ve helped. And their fighter wings, while potent, had not received any of the newest equipment, save one squadron, one single squadron, of the Vampire-class space superiority fighters.    

And they had been expected to hold the line, with the Border Worlders, using only that equipment, despite the ability of Confed to support them.    


The recovery thus concluded, Kennedy turned, and walked back up to his bridge to get a situation update.


As a whole, the surviving crew aboard the TCS Yorktown, along with the survivors of the Endeavour, and those crew aboard the other ships of her battle group, continued to wonder one question:    

What next?    

This was inevitably followed by the second, and final, question. The question that had loomed over the entire course of the campaign:    

When will it end?