PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 41 of 62 )

: Scraps of Honour
PART 15 OF 15 : DEATH OF A THOUSAND CUTS ( 3 / 3 )


"War is the remedy that our enemies have chosen, and I say let us give them all they want."
-
General William Tecumseh Sherman

 

Timber Wolf One
Nav Point Five, Nifelheim System
0649 hours, 19 February 2681 (2681.050)

Lt. Colonel Gil "Wolfen" Franklin drummed his fingers nervously on the control console as his fighter drifted on the edge of the asteroid field. Although there were plenty of asteroids between the orbital paths of the two innermost planets in the Nifelheim system, they hadn't formed an even belt. Instead they had gathered in clumps and clusters with large stretches of empty space between them. To the Nephilim pursuing Strike Group One it should look like one of far too many small gatherings of dead rocks with a higher than usual metal content, which conveniently explained why their sensors would have trouble penetrating to the field's interior.
 
Of course they weren't aware that most of the field's metallic content was slag delivered from the orbital refineries situated near Avernus Station, courtesy of a volley of modified CSMs from the frigates Wollongong and Christchurch, specifically to mess with their sensors. Hopefully the quick preparations were enough to hide the twelve Thunderbolts of the Sicily's Timber Wolf squadron and the twelve Bearcats of the Spartans flying off the Iwo Jima. The twenty-four fighters had shut down their active sensors in order to minimize their own sensor profile and had also cut their engines to the lowest level they could maintain while still having enough thrust to avoid any of the towering hunks of stone within which they hid. The pilots of both squadrons had been ordered in their prelaunch briefings to observe radio silence once they had taken up position in the asteroid field, so there was nobody for any of the Spartans or Timber Wolves to chat with to pass the time -- the Timber Wolf pilots were even forbidden from using their intercoms to speak to their gunners.
 
"Timber Lead, this is Timber Eight," a voice suddenly announced over Wolfen's comm. "I've got Group One on my passive scopes, and it looks like they brought company." The announcement from Lieutenant Bridget "Rabid" O'Reilly, also known as Timber Eight, was almost superfluous. The Timber Wolves' second flight, the one to which Rabid was assigned, had taken up a flanking position on the outsystem edge of the artificial asteroid field in which they were hiding. It seemed that this little effort to broaden the squadron's sensor coverage had succeeded, as Wolfen was sure that even a pilot as headstrong as Rabid would only break comm silence in one case -- contact with the enemy.

"Eight, this is Lead. How many bogeys?" Wolfen demanded as he began powering up his Thunderbolt. The communications systems of Strike Group Two's fighters were set to the absolute minimum power needed to make sure that any messages got through to their intended recipients without alerting any incoming hostiles. The blips on his sensor screen representing the rest of the Timber Wolves brightened from grey to blue as the rest of the squadron began powering up.
 
"Hard to tell, boss. They're right on the edge of my sensor range unless I go active," Rabid advised.
 
"Stay passive, Eight," Wolfen urged. No sense alerting the prey before it's well and truly in the net. "Phalanx Lead, this is Timber Lead. Status?"
 
"Phalanx is ready to go," the rough voice of Major Yevgeny "Hunter" Kurzkov growled. "Lights are out but all else is fine."
 
"Same with my people," Wolfen told the Confed pilot before switching his attention back to his own squadron. "Moonfire, you picking the bad guys up yet?"
 
"Very faintly," Captain Jonas "Moonfire" Larsen admitted. "I have Strike Group One on my screen but the enemy contacts are intermittent -- the ion wash from Group One's thrusters could be causing interference."
 
"Okay," the Timber Wolves' leader breathed. "Rabid, you've got a good tally and vector on the Bugs, right?"
 
"That's affirmative. Looks like about fifteen bad guys following Group One. Should be right in the X-ring in about eighty seconds."
 
"Fine. You're calling the snapcount til they reach the target zone. Timber Wolves, on Rabid's mark we light our sensors up and head out on full burner. We hit them with the MIRVs on my mark. Hunter, give us fifteen seconds before you come after us. We'll see if we can draw them off Group One and lure them towards you," Wolfen ordered, cinching his chest harness straps even tighter.
 
"Copy, Wolfen. Call us if you need us earlier."
 
"Seventy seconds," Rabid warned. The prospect of having a mere second lieutenant, especially one with a record of disciplinary action like O'Reilly's, calling the countdown for a whole strike group would have sent a lot of Confed officers into an apopleptic fit. The Timber Wolves were waiting for their cue to attack solely on Bridget O'Reilly's command, and many Terran Confederation officers would have said that such responsibility should go to a more senior officer. But the Border Worlders put much less store in rank than their Confed allies, and Rabid had the best sensor data on the Nephilim force. That was enough for Wolfen to trust her with the responsibility.
 
"Sixty seconds."
 
The pilots of the ambushing group conducted their last-minute checks and rechecks, confirming the readiness of guns and missiles and triple-checking the status of the rest of their fighters' systems. They had the time to run those checks now, and so they took the chance to make sure that their comms, sensors and the myriad of other systems so vital to their fighters' well-being were working at full spec and wouldn't fail in the mist of the dogfight that was rapidly approaching..
 
"Fifty seconds."
 
Wolfen felt his breathing and heartbeat become more rapid as the sudden spike of adrenaline brought on by Rabid's countdown hit his system. The hard-eyed veteran pilot knew that the rest of his fliers, both pilots and gunners, were reacting the same way, in the age old fight-or-flight reflex carried in their genes from when their distant ancestors had come down from the trees to wander the Serengeti back on Earth. The extra oxygen taken into his lungs poured into his blood and his senses became hyper-alert, with the colors and lights of the Thunderbolt's controls so intense they were almost painful to his eyes.
 
"Forty seconds."
 
It was a balancing act that Wolfen, and indeed every fighter pilot, performed every time they went into combat. Fear and anticipation caused the body to produce adrenaline, bringing the body to a higher pitch. Reflexes were faster, muscles were more responsive and senses became more acute. But all that enhancement needed to be controlled and focused on the task at hand, to be brought to bear, in order to be effective. The fear and anticipation had to be controlled through rigorous mental discipline, or all that energy would be wasted in panic and confusion. But if a warrior, whether a pilot or a soldier, didn't have the adrenaline rush from fear or anticipation of battle then they weren't functioning at their peak. It was a delicate balancing act but it was one that every pilot, every gunner, every crewman and officer in Taskforce Jasmine and the Combined Fleet would have to walk over and over again if they were to defeat the Nephilim.
 
"Thirty seconds."
 
"Moonfire, Dusty, what's the status of your flights?" the Timber Wolves' leader asked his two flight commanders. A quick check of the status display on his HUD showed that the other three Thunderbolts in his flight were reporting all clear.
 
"Two Flight reports as fully operational," Moonfire reported crisply.
 
"Three Flight's ready to roll," Captain Dustin "Dusty" Kilmer told his CO in a casual laid-back drawl that sounded like he was on the verge of falling asleep. Wolfen smiled at the tone of his friend's voice -- the higher the tension went, the more relaxed and casual Kilmer sounded. In the middle of a furball or on a strike run he sounded like he was seated in the rec room with his feet up on the table and a beer in his hand, while relaxing on R&R planetside he sounded tense and hyper. It was an amusing contradiction, but one that wasn't really relevant, so the leader of the Timber Wolves banished the thought from his mind and focused back on the current situation.
 
"Twenty seconds."
 
Now Wolfen could get a close look at the alien fighters pursuing Strike Group One, even with only his Thunderbolt's passive sensors engaged. There appeared to be about sixteen of them and the battle was still raging, with the sensor display showing the yellow dots of missiles flying back and forth between the two groups of fighters. Some of the Nephilim had managed to work their way around to the front of Strike Group One and were trying to slow them down by coming at the lead fighters head-to-head, hoping to avoid the heavy firepower of the Bearcats and Excaliburs covering the formation's rear. Unfortunately this left them facing the Scrappers as well as the Marauders flown by the Mustangs. The few Squids which tried playing roadblock were torn to shreds by concentrated fire from meson cannons, particle beam guns and mass drivers, which left the remaining Nephilim trailing well behind the human fighters. Perfect, Wolfen thought with a hungry smile reminiscent of his lupine callsign.
 
"Ten seconds."
 
"Timber Wolves ready?" Wolfen asked his squadron. A ragged chorus of affirmatives came over the comm channel as he took a deep breath.
 
"Go go go! Let's kick some ass!!'
 
With Rabid's enthusiastic outcry, every pilot in the Timber Wolves rammed their throttle forward to the firewall, lighting the afterburners and sending a dozen Thunderbolt heavy fighters racing out of the asteroid field. As their active sensors came online they received a much clearer picture of the fracas raging twenty-eight thousand klicks ahead of them. A quick scan of the nineteen enemy fighters revealed to Wolfen that they were all Squids, which made sense as they were the fastest fighters the Nephilim had revealed so far. But they carried very few decoys and had probably expended those that they had carried in their pursuit of Strike Group One. And that was just fine with Wolfen. The Timber Wolves' leader locked onto the nearest Squid and checked the range. Nineteen thousand klicks -- close enough. "Launch Trackers!" he ordered over the comm system even as his thumb came down on the firing button.
 
The HF-66 Thunderbolt had been designed to handle almost any role that could be assigned to a heavy fighter when it had started coming off the production lines, and one of those missions had been anti-capship strike. The heavy hardpoint beneath the fuselage was strong enough to carry a heavy torpedo like the venerable Mark IV, so it had no trouble carrying a Tracker MIRV. Originally designed for the Vampire superfighter that was just now entering Confed's arsenal, the Tracker was basically a booster rocket set to fire off explosive bolts that would release the four Pilum IFF missiles attached to it once it reached a distance of twenty thousand klicks. The beauty of it was that, because it stayed on a straight course and didn't actually lock onto a target until the Pilums seperated, the enemy didn't receive any warning from their RHAWS to let them know that they were under attack. The dozen Trackers soared into the midst of the swarm of Nephilim fighters, trailing plumes of smoke before they released their deadly payload. What little order the alien formation had dissolved into chaos as forty-eight IFF missiles suddenly broke free and went hunting for targets.
 
"Snuggle up, people," Wolfen ordered his squadron as they continued to close on the enemy. The Timber Wolves' fighters sideslipped and shifted to a tighter supporting formation, guns primed and ready for battle just in time to face the first enemy fighters heading their way. The four Squids had extended their wings to bring their disruptor cannons to bear, spitting green fire as they went head-to-head with the Timber Wolves. Unfortunately for the Nephilim, facing off with a dozen Thunderbolts in close formation is the equivalent of sticking your head in a food processor and pressing the 'On' switch. The Thunderbolt was slow and ponderous to the point where it had been dubbed 'the Lead Sled', but that was the price it paid for its immense firepower. The 'Sunday Punch' of a single Thunderbolt could damage a corvette with a single firing pass and destroy it with a few more. The coordinated firepower of a dozen Thunderbolts could burn down a flight of enemy fighters with little effort, and that is precisely what they did to the four Squids.
 
"Wolfen, two bandits at seven o'clock high!"
 
"I see them, Ripper!" Wolfen called in reply, catching sight of a pair of Squids looping down behind the Timber Wolves. "Keep going, people! The gunners can take them!" he urged, maintaining his course towards Strike Group One. An explosion flared ahead of him as the last Nephilim interceptor still facing off with Strike Group One met a fiery end. We don't have the agility to turn and burn with them. Of course, we don't really need it right now, the Timber Wolves' leader thought as he watched the two Squids drop into position behind his squadron. As the alien fighters bored in the tail gunners opened up, a dozen mass drivers spitting chunks of metal travelling at a respectable fraction of the speed of light. Green light flared as mass driver rounds punched into the Squids' shields and armor, sending both alien fighters spinning away in an attempt to evade the incoming fire. One erupted in a flash of green light as even more projectiles tore through its armor to the reactor, while the other Squid managed to break away trailing emerald sparks and chunks of debris. The wings folded back along the Squid's fuselage as it hit its afterburners, accelerating out of the arc of fire of the Timber Wolves' gunners. The interceptor was still accelerating when a pair of smoke-trailing image-recognition missiles blindsided it, detonating in a fireball as soon as the warheads struck the chitinous armor.
 
"I can't believe that you only left one of them for us," Hunter griped as the Spartans closed up behind the Timber Wolves and the now recombined Strike Group Two formed up on the other Confed and Border Worlds craft.
 
"Sorry for being so good at our job," Wolfen replied unrepentantly before switching his comm to the command frequency. "Warhawk, this is Wolfen. What's your group's status?"
 
"Nice timing on the ambush, Wolfen," the Gunslingers' leader answered in a voice that revealed her fatigue but hid any joy or relief. "We've lost two Excaliburs and a Marauder so far, plus Gunslinger Eight is NORDO so I'll be sending her and her wingleader back to the Arnhem. The rest of us have expended most of our missiles already and several have sustained damage, but we're good to go back and finish the job."
 
"Good to hear. I bet Gunslinger Eight is pissed at us," the leader of Strike Group Two commented in a wry voice. NORDO was an old radio code from the days when flight only took place in Earth's atmosphere, rather than in the deeps of space. It meant "No Radio," or that a craft's comm system was malfunctioning. The problem was that a fighter's IFF transponder was also tied into the comm system, which meant that Gunslinger Eight would have been the target of some of the missiles the Timber Wolves had fired at the Nephilim menacing Strike Group One. "We're yours to command, Gunslinger One. What are your orders?"
 
Warhawk's eyes were intense as she gazed out of the visual display of Wolfen's comm system. "We stick with the plan. Join up with my strike group, and then we'll go back and finish the job we started."

 

Scrapper Five
Near Nav Point 4, Nifelheim System
0654 Hours, 19 February 2681

Stardust watched her sensor display intently as the combined strike group of Border Worlders, Confeds and Tanfenners closed in on their mutual enemy. The pair of Orca destroyers were proceeding away from them at flank speed with the five remaining Barracuda corvettes tucked in neatly behind them. They'll have to turn back and face us eventually, the strawberry-blonde Scrapper thought with a thrill of anticipation. The Barracudas' guns are mounted forward so they can't shoot over their shoulders at us, so they'll have to turn and face us. The Orcas have already launched their fighters at us, so the big question is will they sacrifice the Barracudas to cover their escape? Or will they stick with them and duke it out with us?
 
"Bandits! Bearing zero-two-seven by one-four-three, range sixty-one thousand klicks!" a pilot exclaimed. Stardust's eyes snapped up to the indicated bearing on her sensor screen, then narrowed in irritation as she studied the cluster of red blips. The whole idea of this bait-and-switch strategy was to draw out the Bug fighters and destroy them away from the capships' supporting guns. So much for that!
 
"Looks like they're desperate," Storm surmised. "There's no way those fighters came from this group - the vector and range are proof of that. So I'd say they're just running and screaming for help from anyone in the area." Stardust could almost see the cruel smile forming on the former privateer's face. "Not that it's gonna do them any good."
 
"Don't get cocky, Storm," Diamond admonished the younger pilot. "Looks like there's about twenty fighters coming to join the party, and I doubt we can lure these ones away from the ships." The Scrappers' XO suddenly stopped speaking as Warhawk's voice sounded over the comm channel used by all the fighters of the augmented strike group.
 
"Gunslingers, Spartans engage the enemy fighters. See if you can cut them off before they rendezvous with the capships," the Gunslingers' leader ordered harshly. "Scrappers, Mustangs, focus on the corvettes and don't lose any more of your Marauders. Timber Wolves, take out the turrets on those destroyers and set them up for the Marauders' torpedo runs. Let's get it done, people." With those words the Gunslingers and Spartans broke away from the main formation, set course for the oncoming swarm of Nephilim fighters and hit their afterburners while the remaining squadrons continued to bore in on the alien capships.
 
"They're turning to engage!" Eric "Zealot" Maslevski exclaimed. True to the young lieutenant's word, the Orcas and Barracudas were reversing course and heading back towards the Border Worlds and Tanfen fighters. The Barracudas had formed up in a loose arrowhead formation to screen the slowly turning and much more massive destroyers and had reduced their thrust to minimal levels.
 
"The corvettes are just holding position. Looks like they're waiting for the Orcas to catch up and then they'll hit us en masse," Onslaught commented thoughtfully. "That means we've got to punch through the screen fast and get the Timber Wolves skinning those Orcas as soon as possible. Mako, let's get both our squadrons focused on the lead 'vette and clear a path for the Wolves."
 
"No!" the Tanfen squadron commander replied vehemently. "It'll just expose all of us to coordinated fire from all the capships! We saw what driving straight through a corvette squadron did to Tanto -- "
 
"You turning chickenshit on us, Mako?" Storm sneered. "Tanto knew the chances he was taking. We all do, and it's a chance we're ready to take. Now let's get the job done!"
 
 "I'm not turning coward," Mako snarled. "I'm trying to not throw my life away needlessly! If we hit one of the Barracudas on an outer flank then those corvettes on the other flank will have to be more careful when they shoot at us."
 
"He's got a point," Onslaught admitted. "Scrappers, Mustangs, listen up. We're going to head towards the lead Barracuda then break right and hit the last corvette on that flank. Timber Wolves, follow us in then keep going towards the Orcas -- you'll be coming up on them from behind."
 
"Sounds good," Wolfen commented.
 
"I agree. Let's go!" Mako ordered. The thirty-five fighters charged en masse towards the Nephilim warships, dodging and jinking to avoid the fire of the alien vessels as they bored in. The Nephilim corvettes charged to meet them, the Barracudas aimed like the head of a spear at the heart of the Border Worlds formation. Energy blasts and mass driver fire flew back and forth as the two forces closed and the range scrolled down at an incredible pace.

Even as his Intruder's guns spat death, Onslaught watched the range to the leading corvette decrease rapidly, carefully timing the breakaway. Silver Flight, the flight of the Scrappers that he led, was at the front of the combined formation so the responsibility for the timing was his. 4,000 klicks... 3,500... 3,000... steady... "Break!" he yelled as his flight crossed the twenty-five hundred klick mark. Wrenching the joystick to his right he guided his fighter into a sharp bank, leading the three squadrons in a headlong race down the flank of the Nephilim screen. The Intruder's shields flared blue as they were knocked down to half strength by a pair of maser blasts from the next corvette in line before he flew past and locked onto his true target. The third Barracuda was right out on the end of the Nephilim screen which left it relatively unsupported, as its fellows had to turn sharply to bring their guns to bear on the fighters now swarming around it like flies around honey.
 
"Timber Wolves, break! Go for the nearest Orca!" Wolfen bellowed into the comm. Obediently the dozen Thunderbolts hit their afterburners and raced towards the two vessels that looked more crustacean than mechanical. Emerald bursts of energy shot from the aft turrets of the pair of Orcas, only to have the Timber Wolves dodge them with agility surprising for the lumbering Thunderbolts.
 
Stardust saw none of this. Instead her attention was focused on the Barracuda that the rest of the Scrappers were attacking. Aligning her targeting reticle with the dot projected by her Marauders ITTS she waited until Harbinger broke away from his own attack run on the Nephilim corvette before opening fire. A faint shudder, more of a quiver of anticipation really, reverberated through the Marauders frame as the mass drivers and meson blasters spat death into the Barracudas hull. The piscine warship twisted convulsively as its nose came up, trying to bring its forward masers to bear on Scrapper Five even as the rest of the Mustangs and Scrappers kept up a savage barrage of mass driver bolts and energy blasts. Stardusts lips peeled back from her teeth in a primal snarl as she held her course straight towards the alien warship, finger tight on the trigger as she continued her unrelenting attack. The range had closed to less than a thousand klicks and her forward shields suddenly dropped to less than half strength as the Barracuda's cannons suddenly began hammering away at her fighter, but her guns still fired at the Nephilim ship. A glance at the target status monitor showed the corvette's core as a deep scarlet. Almost got him --
 
A ruler-straight line of smoke suddenly tore past the Marauder's canopy, close enough that Stardust flinched. A quick glance over her shoulder confirmed that Storm had followed her into her attack run, and had been the pilot who had fired the missile. The smoke trail continued straight into the Barracuda's mangled hull, the missile that had created the smoke trail punching deep into the corvette's vitals to administer the coup de grace to the Nephilim vessel. Explosions bloomed from the various rents in the hull before the whole ship blew itself to pieces.
 
"Jesus Christ, Stardust!" Storm exclaimed. "How close were you going to get? Trying to shoot him down with your sidearm or something?"
 
"Just close enough to make sure my shots hit," Stardust protested. "You're overstating things -"
 
"Will you two cut the crap and help us out already???" Harbinger screamed over the comm as the rest of the Scrappers screamed in to attack one of the remaining Barracudas. The flashes of gunfire lit up space once again, and Stardust could see the Mustangs dogpiling another of the alien ships. A hot flush of shame colored her face as she wrenched her Marauder's control column to the side, hauling the fighter around onto a vector which would lead her back to the rest of the squadron.
 
What the heck is wrong with me? the Scrappers' medic wondered. I wasn't just reckless, I was acting crazy! Hell, I was being stupid, which is worse! But why am I acting like this? I don't usually act this dumb or psycho... Shaking her head sharply to clear it the strawberry blonde Scrapper brought her attention back to the battle. "We're inbound, Harbinger," she reported to her flight commander as she double-checked the power levels on her guns' capacitors. "Hey Storm, you didn't waste a torpedo on that corvette, did you?" Stardust asked suddenly as she lined up her reticle on her target.
 
"Nah, just shut down the targeting on one of my heatseekers," Storm answered as he dropped into position on Stardust's wing. "Just used it as a dumbfire like the Tanfeners did in Seggalion when they shot down those pirate shuttles."
 
"Sounds like a good idea," Stardust said approvingly. "Now let's bail the others out." In truth it looked like the Scrappers had everything under control, with the fighters swarming agilely around the Barracuda and dodging fire from its maser cannons. A couple of the Scrappers hadn't been as successful as the rest of their squadronmates, with a pair of Intruders and a Marauder trailing sparks as they boosted away from the capship. Stardust hoped that whatever damage was causing the sparks could be fixed by the fighters' autorepair systems before the time came to make the torpedo runs on the Orcas. That one's going to be a stone-cold bitch, she thought as she disabled the tracking system for her remaining missiles. Lining the reticle up on the Barracuda the Scrappers' medic took note of the range to her target. "Seven thousand klicks," she murmured aloud. "Storm, we each fire a Javelin at five thousand klicks. Scrappers, get clear now!" Stardust suddenly ordered even as the two Marauders crossed the five thousand klick mark. "Fox three!"
 
The Scrappers around the Nephilim corvette scattered like a flock of pigeons surprised by a predator as the Javelins dropped away from the two Marauders. Rocketing forward at two thousand KPS, the pair of missiles plowed headlong into the Barracuda's front, tearing deep inside the ship before exploding. The alien warship suddenly lurched as though it had been kicked, before its side and prow erupted and began spilling air and fleshlike hull tissue into the void. Tumbling helplessly end over end the fishlike vessel belched an explosion of green energy mingled with organic tissue that none of the human pilots or flightcrews wanted to think about. A quick volley of mass driver rounds from the guns of Stardust and Storm's Marauders delivered the killing blow and broke the Barracuda's back.
 
Stardust watched the crippled hulk intently as she rejoined the rest of her squadron. As a pilot and an officer in the Border Worlds Militia she was sworn to defend the citizens and worlds of the Union of Border Worlds from any attacker, foreign or domestic. She had no problem with that -- alongside the other pilots and crew of the 349th she'd fought Kilrathi and human pirates, and had even assisted the law enforcement authorities on Lennox in a couple of confrontations with terrorists and more normal criminals. The Nephilim were an enemy that Kristy Joyce and the rest of Taskforce Jasmine would fight to the death, not just because of their oaths of service to defend their countrymen but because the Nephilim were an enemy that had to be fought, regardless of political allegiances or an arbitrary border on a stellar map. The images of the destruction of the Tartarus Heavy Industries shipyards and the orbital bombardment of Dakota's cities were proof enough that coexistence with this alien race was simply not an option. Their malignant cruelty to the civilians she had sworn to protect enraged her.
 
But as a doctor she was fascinated by them.
 
Seeing the Nephilim fighters and capital ships up close rather than just in briefing room holos and gun-camera footage made it easy for Stardust to see how they could be mistaken for living creatures. But deep down she wondered if it was a mistake after all, if the Morays, Mantas, Stingrays, Remoras, Squids, Devil Rays, and even the capships from the relatively small and agile Barracudas like the one she had just destroyed up to the monolithic Leviathans and Tiamats were in fact living creatures. The idea of a living creature almost two klicks long, the size of the Leviathan, that could survive unaided in deep space defied every law of biology that the strawberry-blonde Scrapper knew. But looking at the Nephilim fighters and ships that she had fought Stardust couldn't help but think that the alien craft were something far different to the human and Kilrathi ships she was so familiar with. It's not like the mechanical installations like the engines and weapons turrets make it impossible for them to be alive, she mused. Heck, both humans and Kilrathi can accept cyberware, and on a creature the size of a capital ship like a Leviathan -- heck, even the size of one of those Barracudas - things like gun turrets wouldn't be anywhere near as invasive as a cyberlimb. What we could learn from them...
 
"If anyone thinks that those things aren't alive then I'll call them a liar to their face," Stardust muttered over the comm channel, craning her neck to look at the last Barracuda even as it struggled to hold off the attack of the Mustangs, energy blasts burning bright against the darkness of the void. An unaccustomed tremor sounded in her voice as she spoke, and a chill raced down her spine as the Nephilim corvette suddenly erupted in a fireball.
 
"Beasts from the hells," Zealot agreed somberly, and Stardust silently groaned. The last thing she wanted to put up with was another religious rant from the young Archchristian about the evils of the enemy, although she had to admit that he was pretty good about not pushing his beliefs onto his fellow Scrappers (a rare virtue amongst members of the fanatical sect). Still, with everyone's nerves on edge the last thing the squadron needed was doom-and-gloom quotes from the Bible. "I will make a covenant of peace with my people and rid the land of wild beasts, so that they may dwell in the desert and sleep in the forests in safety," he intoned quietly, and Stardust raised her eyebrows in surprise. Not so doom-and-gloom after all. Guess the boy's lightening up.
 
"Nice quote," Harbinger commented. "But here's something for both of you to think about - who cares if they're alive or where they're from? They launched unprovoked attacks on our worlds, they've forced thousands of civilians to flee for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs, and they won't stop until we make them stop! So it doesn't matter what they are or where they're from. All we have to do is kill them," the former InSys pilot concluded emphatically.
 
"Hear hear," Cateran answered, and his reply was far from the only expression of agreement over the Scrappers' squadron net.
 
As if on cue Wolfen's voice sounded over the comm channel. "Scrapper Lead this is Timber Lead. Enemy turrets suppressed, engage targets when ready," he informed Onslaught. Although the Timber Wolves' leader's enunciation was as crisp as ever Stardust could clearly hear an undertone of weariness in his voice, and a chill touched her heart. Her instincts told her that something had gone wrong for the Thunderbolt squadron on their SEAD run against the Orcas, and she checked her scanner display even as she turned her Marauder towards the pair of defenseless capships.
 
"Scrapper Lead copies," Onslaught informed Wolfen as the rest of the Scrappers began closing in on the Orcas. "Stardust, you and Storm are to take out the engines of the rearmost destroyer. Bloodhawk, Dancer, I want you to do the same to the forward Orca. Riot and Zealot take out the bridge in the rear Orca if the Mustangs haven't caught up with us by that time." The Marauder pilots of the 349th acknowledged their leader's order and broke away to attack their targets, leaving the half-dozen Intruders .
 
Stardust selected both the torpedoes her fighter carried and locked onto the nearest Orca. Almost instantly the rangefinder calculated the range to the target of and he and flashed it up on the HUD. At the current range of fourteen thousand klicks, the Marauder's targeting computer couldn't begin to decode the frequency of the huge warship's shields so she eased the throttle forward until the afterburners cut in, sending the attack fighter forward at twelve hundred KPS. A quick look confirmed that Storm was keeping pace with her, in position off her starboard wing. There was no need for communication between the two, with the number of missions they had flown and the teamwork that had grown between them. So the two pilots merely sat and waited to reach the range at which their torpedoes could start locking on to their target, alert for any incoming enemy fighters or fire. Finally the pair of Marauders crossed the ten thousand klick line and the targeting brackets popped up on Stardust's HUD. Rather than targeting the entire hull of the Nephilim destroyer, however, she selected the ship's engines as her target as she continued to close the range. As the fighter's computer began decoding the Orca's shield frequency and the targeting brackets closed around the alien ship Stardust became more nervous, glancing at the sensor screen every couple of seconds. "This is too easy, dammit," she muttered. "Where the hell are the fighters or the incoming?"
 
"The Timber Wolves skinned this puppy already," Storm shot back. "As for the fighters they got caught up with the Spartans and the Gunslingers. They've done their job and now it's time for us to do ours, so just keep it together and let's get the job done." True to his word the only enemy craft appearing on the sensor screen were the pair of Orcas they were closing in on.
 
Stardust suddenly grinned, her nervousness vanishing like a popped soap bubble. "You're telling me to calm down and focus? I think that's one of the signs of the end of the universe," she smirked as the chime of the torpedo lock sounded.
 
"Maybe," Storm admitted before his voice turned cold and angry. "Got some payback for the roaches right here. Remember Dakota, you bastards!" he growled as the pair of torpedoes rocketed away from his fighter.
 
Stardust nodded in agreement. Her wingman's words had brought her back to the here-and-now and restored her focus. It didn't matter what could be learned from study of the Nephilim's bio-technology. It didn't matter whether or not their machines of war were alive or just constructs of organic compounds. All that mattered was that they had slaughtered innocent people by the thousands and would not stop until they were dead. It was a case of kill or be killed, the simplest form of warfare. "Open wide, you filth," Stardust hissed as her thumb came down on the firing button, sending her own torpedoes at their target. For a few seconds the two pilots merely watched, waiting for their weapons to strike home. And then suddenly a series of explosions bloomed along the Orca's rear end as the torpedo volley blew the engines into useless junk, leaving to dead in space. Both of the Scrapper pilots let out yells of exultation as the explosions continued to rock the alien warship as Riot and Zealot moved into position for their own attack.  As Stardust and Storm watched the other two Marauders swung out wide to the Orca's flank before lining up on the crippled capship.  As they aimed their weapons Riot's and Zealot's fighters hung motionless in space, their hovering reminding Stardust of vultures waiting for prey to die.  But these birds of prey were fully capable of making a kill on their own, merely waiting for the right time. As their torpedoes finally locked onto the crippled Orca Riot and Zealot let fly, the four torpedoes tearing through the armor of the warship's bridge before detonating.  The glare of detonating antimatter shone incandescent for a moment before a series of explosions began tearing the Orca apart.  The explosions built to a crescendo before the Orca's keel finally broke, sending chunks of organic matter scattering into the void as a final detonation tore the ship to pieces.
 
A triumphant smile graced Stardust's face as she witnessed the destruction of the Nephilim destroyer, becoming even broader as she watched Bloodhawk, Dancer and the Tanfen pilots eliminate the other Orca in a pyre of antimatter. That wasn't too hard after all, the Scrappers' medic thought.
Of course, it's a lot easier to win when the opponents are playing by your rules.  We were able to keep them from using their numerical advantage against us.  Now all we have to do is keep things that way...


 

FIN