PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 38 of 62 )
“ Into the Inferno ”
"We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight
on the landing grounds, we
shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender."
- Winston Churchill
Recon Arrow 007 (Ghost Warrior Lead)
1638 Hours, 18 Feb 2681 (2681.049)
The pair of Arrow light fighters raced away from Battle Group Valkyrie, their presence going almost unnoticed among their compatriots. The Nephilim were in this part of the system in force by now, and their fighter patrols were operating at full squadron strength. That in turn had forced their human counterparts to mount their CAP and patrol missions in larger numbers than usual. It was stretching pilots and fighters to the limit, especially as the battle group was also preparing for an alpha strike, but it had to be done. Under any normal circumstances, a pair of fighters heading out on their own would just be begging to end up on a Nephilim killboard somewhere.
Then again, there was nothing conventional about the missions that the Ghost Warriors flew. They could fight if and when they had to, but even then they much preferred unconventional tactics that baffled and frustrated the enemy while still delivering painful blows. Their primary role, however, was as information gatherers. They found the enemy and relayed that information back to their superiors, allowing their commanders to direct the battle group’s heavy hitters right where they could do the most damage. The work that the Ghost Warriors did amplified the ability of other units to do their jobs, and thereby allowed the recon pilots to have an effect on the battle that was out of all proportion to their numbers or firepower.
Right now, the task of the Ghost Warriors was to locate a group of Nephilim ships that had been designed Group Epsilon. The Nephilim battle group was based around a carrier and a heavy cruiser, which until a few hours ago had been accompanied by a substantial escort of corvettes and destroyers. That had been until Task Force Abbey had ambushed and wiped out the escorts, which had made the mistake of ranging too far ahead of their heavy hitters. During the battle though, the taskforce’s flagship had been crippled by a Nephilim counterstroke. A torpedo had torn away the Defiance’s bridge, instantly killing the taskforce’s flag officers and the escort carrier’s own bridge crew.
As a result, Battle Group Valkyrie’s focus immediately afterwards had been to shepherd the wounded carrier and her escorts back to safety, delaying their timetable for their strike against Group Epsilon in the process. Escort carriers might have been designed with expendability in mind, but that wasn’t an option just now. The Combined Fleet had already the lost the Saratoga, Bunker Hill, Litennia and Valley Forge in the brutal fighting of the past few weeks, and was seriously short on carrier capacity as a result. Any carrier deck, even a small one that was seriously damaged, was worth its weight in gold.
Major Jameel “Paladin” Ul-Huq, the Ghost Warriors CO, shook his head at that thought as the Arrows cleared the battle group’s outer CAP screen. By all rights, a carrier that had been so badly damaged should be on her way to the nearest dry dock. Instead, her surviving officers were running the ship from the combat information centre while repair crews worked frantically to patch up the damage as best they could. She could still move, fire her weapons and launch her fighters, and that was good enough for now. A squadron of Intruders had already been flown over to partially replace the losses of her devastated flight wing, and dozens of officers and enlisted personnel had been shuttled over from the Valeria and Freedom to replace the casualties. Even now, the Defiance was preparing to take her place in the battle line once again, flanked as always by her faithful corvette escorts.
Salvaging Taskforce Abbey had been a small but significant victory for the embattled human forces. As with most victories in this campaign however, it had come at a price. Nephilim Group Epsilon had taken the opportunity to pull back and regroup after the battering it had taken. Its fighters had gone all out to screen the withdrawal, probing ahead aggressively to keep the Border Worlds fighter patrols and SWACS craft back far enough to stop them tracking the retreating ships. The Border Worlders had lost track of Group Epsilon about an hour ago, and their commanders were very worried about that fact. The battle for this system was balanced on a knife edge, and Group Epsilon conceivably threaten both Battle Group Valkyrie and Battle Group Rapier, especially since the Yorktown had already been damaged in an earlier battle. The Valeria and the Yorktown were the only fleet carriers the human forces had left, and taking out either of them would probably guarantee victory for the Nephilim.
Paladin and his wingman, along with the rest of the Ghost Warriors, had been dispatched to see that didn’t happen. Their brief was to find the missing ships before the Nephilim located the human battle groups, and ideally without the Nephilim knowing that they had been found. Paladin glanced at his radar screen to ensure that his wingman was in position, and then at his nav map to check that they were clear of the designated CAP orbits. He activated the fighter’s cloaking device, and the universe around him faded into dreary shades of grey. The cloaking device would hide him from eyes and sensors alike, allowing him to go quietly about the unglamorous but oh-so-important work of ferreting out the secrets his commanders needed to know.
BWS Valeria; Officers’ Lounge
1720 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)
Lieutenant Colonel Alex “Skywalker” Witt picked up his drink from the bar, wishing once again that the battle group’s alert status allowed alcohol. During most campaigns, there were lulls in the fighting during which the pilots could relax a little, and have a stiff drink or three if they wanted. The Combined Fleet though, had been on full alert ever since it had received word that there were separate two enemy fleet headed for Nifelheim. It hadn’t really been all that long, but Skywalker had never been one for the teetotal lifestyle. Right now, he would kill for a good ale, or even better, a single malt scotch.
Yeah, well, if wishes were horses…
Looking around the bar, he saw Lieutenant Colonel Chrys “Mirage” Rhodes sitting at a table near the viewport, apparently lost in thought as she sipped her drink. He wondered for a moment whether he should disturb her or not, then decided they could both use the company. The two of them, along with Raptor and Phalanx, formed a small clique among Battle Group Valkyrie’s senior pilots, thanks to the history they had in common. All four of them were veterans of the First Kilrathi War and had fought in the Border Worlds conflict, and most recently had all served together during the battle for the Bush. Right now though, Phalanx was busy with his work as the Wing Commander of the Freedom, and Raptor was working with Intell on a plan to deal with Group Epsilon.
“You know, it’s a real shame to see a good looking woman drinking on her own.” He offered gallantly as he approached the table.
“In your dreams, Skywalker,” Mirage said with a faint smile. She pushed one of the chairs out with her leg, inviting him to sit down.
“You just got back from patrol, right? How is it looking out there?” Mirage asked as he took a seat.
”Not good, I’m afraid. My guys had to go under cloak twice to avoid Nephilim fighter sweeps. The bastards are aggressive as hell, and they’re out there in numbers. None of which is any different from the past few weeks, it’s just that…” he trailed off, not quite sure how to put his gut feeling into words.
“They seem cockier now. Like they know they’re going to win,” Mirage said somberly. The Combined Fleet had been massively outnumbered and outgunned throughout the battle to hold the line, but its commanders and crews had never let the Nephilim dictate terms to them. By staying mobile and picking their battles, they had been able to run the Nephilim ragged. They had taken some devastating losses in each system they had fought in, but they had also inflicted far worse on their opponents each time.
What was different about the battle for this system was that they were facing fresh opponents with undamaged warships and fully stocked flight decks. These particular Nephilim hadn’t been savaged for weeks on end as the Combined Fleet’s past opponents had been, and they were more than eager to meet the human fleet head on. This time around, each blow they had landed on the Nephilim had been met with a counterpunch. Taking out the Nephilim dreadnaught had resulted in severe damage to the Yorktown. Savaging Group Epsilon’s escorts had lead to the crippling of the Defiance. While the results might still favor the Combined Fleet on paper, the Nephilim could absorb the blows far better than the thinly stretched human forces could. One or two more such exchanges could well knock the Combined Fleet out of the battle.
Skywalker glanced up from his drink in surprise, not expecting such a comment from Chrys. While her analysis was right on the money, she was not usually one to dwell on the negative. She had been fighting with the frontier militias all her adult life, first with the Landreich and then with the Union, and she had the never-say-die attitude that typified the colonial forces. As a former Confed officer, Skywalker found the irrepressible attitude of those he fought with more than a little annoying at times, but also heartening given the often desperate situations they found themselves in. It was jarring to see Mirage so downcast about the situation.
“You sound tired,” Skywalker observed carefully. That hadn’t been quite what he had been thinking, but now that he had said it, he could see it was at least partly true. Chrys’s face was drawn and she had dark shadows under her eyes, making her skin look almost bruised.
“Try fed up,” Mirage replied. “I knew just about every pilot who died on the Defiance. I know most of their families too, and I can only imagine what they’ll be going through. We’ve been losing good people throughout this campaign, and sometimes I get the feeling that it’s all going to be for nothing.”
“You don’t really believe that, do you?”
“No, not really,” Mirage said with a guilty smile. “I just needed to vent. We’ve withstood everything that the Nephilim have thrown at us so far, and we’ve given them one hell of a bloody nose in the process. We can do it one more time.”
”Attagirl. I have to admit, though, it’s getting harder and harder to keep my pilots’ morale up. They all thought this was going to be over by now.”
“It’s not just your pilots or even just this ship. Every unit in the Fleet’s taken more than enough casualties to break its spirit. It’s a miracle none of them have broken yet, but we have to finish this soon. Otherwise, the Nephilim will win just by outlasting us.”
Command Briefing Room
Nifelheim System1800 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)
From the haste with which this briefing had been convened, all of the officers knew that something important had happened. The battle group’s senior Navy, Space Force and Marine officers had all been ordered to take part. The officers who were on the Valeria herself were all present in the briefing room, while those from the Freedom and the escort ships were taking part by video link. No one from the Defiance was taking part, however, due to her severely damaged communication systems. There was a low but steady buzz of conversation in the air as they waited for the briefing to begin.
Admiral Hanton wasted no time, calling the briefing to order at precisely the scheduled 1800 start time. “I have some bad news, Ladies and Gentlemen. A few minutes ago, we received a transmission from the Yorktown. Earlier this afternoon, the Yorktown intercepted what was believed to be a distress call from the Endeavour. Admiral Kennedy ordered Battle Group Rapier to the area immediately to offer assistance. However, we’ve just had confirmation that the Yorktown’s pilots have found the wreckage of the Endeavour. She destroyed the Nephilim carrier that she was fighting, but she herself was torpedoed in the battle. Rapier is now working to rescue survivors, and to mop up any Nephilim stragglers that may be in the vicinity.”
The outcry that the Admiral had half expected didn’t materialize. The Combined Fleet had already lost four fleet carriers, dozens of escort warships, and hundreds of fighter craft in the brutal fighting of the last few weeks. As callous as it sounded, they were no longer shocked by the losses they were taking. The officers knew that neither the gods nor the Nephilim would be interested in anything that they had to say about this latest body blow, and so they didn’t bother saying it. Instead, their reaction showed in their slumped shoulders and downcast eyes. Little by little, surely but surely, they were losing the certainty that they could win this battle. They still had hope, they still had belief, but they no longer had surety.
Any way one looked at it, their situation over the past day had gone from being difficult to being downright precarious. They had accounted for a Nephilim dreadnaught and a carrier, but they had lost the Endeavour, and effectively lost the use of the Defiance as an offensive asset. Battle groups Rapier and Valkyrie still three Leviathan groups to contend with in this part of the system, and two of those groups would still be fresh and undamaged. In contrast, neither Valkyrie nor Rapier was anywhere full strength. They simply could not afford to keep going the way they had been.
“How many survivors?” Captain Sang Que asked, hoping for at least one small bit of good news to come out of the past hours.
“We don’t know yet. The Yorktown’s SAR craft are pulling in escape capsules from the Endeavour and the ejection pods of her pilot. We do know that several of her fighters survived, and are now covering the rescue effort. Part of her battle group survived as well, and has pulled back deeper into the system.”
The Admiral took a deep breath. As callous as it sounded, they couldn’t spend too much time on either the loss of the Endeavour or the rescue effort. Admiral Kennedy was the man on the spot, and he was more than capable of overseeing the rescue efforts.
“Our immediate problem, however, remains Group Epsilon. The Ghost Warriors are trying to track the surviving ships down, but we can’t wait for that to happen. There are far too many of their fighters in this area for us to continue conducting normal flight operations or for our ships to move out if they need to. We cannot let them continue dictating terms to us, and we certainly can’t afford to pull back from our current position. That’ll only allow what’s left of Epsilon time to regroup, and possibly to link up with other elements of their fleet.”
“For that reason, our Intell and Tactical staff have been working on plans for a large scale fighter sweep, mounted from all three of our carriers. The objective will be to tempt Epsilon’s fighters into a battle fought on terms favorable to us, and therefore destroy the bulk of Epsilon’s fighter force. This will ensure that Epsilon will not be able to go back on the offensive. Since our flight wing has already been preparing for an alpha strike, it will be possible to launch the sweep by 2000 Hours. Following the completion of the sweep, our fighters will be recovered and re-armed for the attack on the capital ships.”
Much of the next hour was taken up with the specifics of the planned fighter sweep, with the bulk of the briefing coming from the Intell personnel and flight wing officers. The plan had been designed with flexibility in mind, especially considering that they were still waiting for the Ghost Warriors to find Group Epsilon, and incorporated several contingency scenarios. For all the planning though, every officer knew that they were taking a huge risk, balancing the possibility of their own flight wing being destroyed with the undoubted benefits of removing the threat posed by Epsilon’s fighters.
“What’s the status of Union Hammer?” Captain Sang Que asked as the meeting wound down, as usual reluctant to pursue the dangerous option when there was an alternative available.
The Admiral shook her head. “Slower than we hoped. The latest estimate is another forty-eight hours away at the very least. No, we’re going to have to deal with Epsilon ourselves.”
The Admiral fielded several other questions, but there were no serious objections. As the clock ticked towards 1900 Hours, the flight wing officers were dismissed to begin preparing their units for the battle, and those officers from the other ships in the group were also excused. The officers who were in the Valeria’s own briefing room however, had another meeting to attend.
Hades; Operations Planning Center (OPC)
1905 Hours (CST)
They all knew that this was risky, but it was a risk that had to be taken. The battle was moving too fast and taking far too many unexpected turns for any one battle group commander to maintain sight of the big picture all the time. The key battle groups that made up the Combined Fleet needed to work together if they were to succeed in beating the Nephilim, and the only way they could do that was by each commander keeping up to date with what the others were doing. As important as maintaining comm silence was, sharing information was even more important. That was the reason for this one last conference before they all plunged back into the fighting. The signals between the warships were being re-routed through one-use communications buoys that minimized the chances of the Nephilim triangulating the position of any of the warships, but even so, the conference would have to be brief. In addition, the transmissions were encrypted and compressed into irregular bursts that would look nothing like a coherent message to anyone who didn’t know the correct codes and frequencies. It wasn’t foolproof, but it would do.
Kalahn Catharx, Commodore Murdoch and Lieutenant Commander Coliver represented Battle Group Auriga from aboard the Hades herself, as additional ship-to-ship transmissions within the battle group would only have increased the possibility of detection. Admiral Hanton’s image, along with that of Captain Que and other senior officers of battle group Valkyrie, appeared on a large viewscreen. The images of Admiral Kennedy and Captain Ramirez of Battle Group Rapier appeared on another viewscreen, as did that of Commander Heather Stevens, now the senior surviving officer of the ill-fated TCS Endeavour.
“Alright, ladies and gentlemen,” Admiral Hanton began briskly, skipping the pleasantries. “I wish I could begin by saying just how well the battle is going, but the simple truth is that it’s still very much in the balance. I’m sure you’re all aware of the grievous loss the fleet suffered earlier this afternoon. Commander Stevens, please accept my condolences on the loss of your shipmates. I realize this won’t be of much consolation right now, but their sacrifices will undoubtedly help save thousands of others.”
”Thank you, Admiral,” Stevens said quietly.
“Indeed,” Catharx rumbled. “Far better death with claws extended than life without honor, as my people say.” Murdoch shot the Kilrathi a look, not quite masking the distaste he felt. Humans saw matters of life and death in many shades of grey, and the starker views of the Kilrathi could be jarring at times.
“Quite. Commander, I would appreciate a report on the status of Battle Group Aurora.”
Stevens shook her head. “Near total loss, Admiral. The Dev’s little more than a hulk, and what escorts we had are scattered. The only blessing is that we had detached 8th cruiser to reinforce the capital ship line, as per your orders.”
The Admiral nodded. The decision to strip the Endeavour of her most powerful escorts had been an agonizing one, but the Combined Fleet’s lack of warships had left her with no other choice. As it turned out, it had been a blessing in disguise. “How did the Nephilim manage to surprise Aurora in the way they did? The codes you received should have…”
”What codes, Admiral?” Stevens interrupted in surprise.
Admiral Hanton’s eyes widened briefly, and then narrowed in anger. That though, was the only sign of both the boiling fury she was feeling. “The Nephilim communication codes that Velina Sosa’s team broke only a few days ago. They were shared with Confed Intelligence, and were to have been distributed to every frontline unit in the Third Fleet.”
Stevens shook her head vehemently. “We received no such codes, Admiral. We couldn’t decipher any of the Nephilim battle communications.”
”That’s impossible. They had to know how vital those codes were…” The Admiral broke off, thinking furiously. They already knew that there were individuals, maybe even an organized group, working behind the scenes against them. They had been partly responsible for the loss of the Valley Forge, and possibly that of the Bunker Hill as well. Now their efforts might well have cost the fleet another carrier. Once the Nephilim had been dealt with, there would be a reckoning, no two ways about it. She quickly turned and gave orders to one of the officers standing behind her, who nodded and quickly left the room.
“Listen carefully, all of you. You will each be shortly receiving a data stream that contains the codes. Disregard any and all previous codes that you might have received. I wouldn’t put it past someone who wanted to sabotage our efforts to have sent you codes that are almost accurate. I promise you all that we’ll find these bastards and make them pay. For now though, our focus has to be on the Nephilim.”
”To that end, Admiral Kennedy, I have a new mission for Battle Group Rapier. One, possibly two of the enemy carrier groups may have slipped past our carriers while we were engaging the other units of their fleet. We still have our warships screening the approach to Avernus Station, plus the forces on Avernus itself, but I want those ships found well before then. I want the Yorktown to find those ships, get an idea of their idea of their movement and intentions, and then shadow them. Harass them and slow them down if you can, but don’t put your ship at undue risk. The loss of another carrier now would finish us.”
”Aye, Admiral,” Kennedy said steadily. He was thinking of his pilots and crews, already exhausted from their fight with the dreadnaught and the efforts to rescue the crew of the Endeavour. They had given this battle their all, and they were now being asked to give even more. Slowly but surely though, they were moving ever close to the end of their long campaign with each battle.
“Battle Group Valkyrie has the enemy group that we codenamed Epsilon on the retreat, but we still need to hunt it down and finish it. As soon as we’ve done that, we’ll be moving into position to support the Yorktown. Our flight wing isn’t in the best of shape as it is, but if we work together with your pilots, we will be in good position to cripple and if possible destroy those carriers.”
“Kalahn Catharx, with the dreadnaught destroyed, that Ship Killer is the single biggest threat to our forces in this system. I need to be able to bring our warships squadron into the battle, but I can’t do that while there is the risk of them being wiped out en masse by the Kraken’s plasma gun. Find it and put it out of action.”
”Aside from that, any questions?” The Admiral waited for a few seconds, and then nodded briskly. “Very well. Good luck and good hunting, all of you.”