PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 43 of 62 )
“ Check and Mate ”
Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Bridge
Nifelheim System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
February 19th, 2681/2681.050
William Kennedy looked wearily out at the stars, wondering what would come next.
He’d been up for twenty-three hours straight, making decisions for the task force, worrying, waiting for word of the strike that they’d launched at the Tiamat-class dreadnought, sweating it out when the backlash from the bugs came in the form of Barracuda-class corvettes and an Orca-class destroyer, along with fighters.
He’d mourned at word of their losses, and bled with the rest of them as he counted those that would never come home, having made the ultimate sacrifice. He’d listened as word of the damage inflicted upon his task force had come in, and silently celebrated that they were still combat-capable, despite the fighter losses and the damage to the Yorktown and the Agincourt.
Now, even after all of that, it seemed that there was still another hurdle for Carrier Battle Group Rapier to clear: A pair of Nephilim heavy carriers that were heading towards the civilians still in the Nifelheim System, despite everything the Combined Fleet had done. All that stood between them and the civilians were the newly trained reservists… and everything that the men and women of the Yorktown and her escorting ships could throw at them. The problem was that the Nephilim were rapidly drawing ahead, due to the fact that Yorktown’s speed was limited because of battle damage.
But they could still get a couple of strikes off before the Nephilim managed to pull too far ahead. The problem was time. A number of combat craft, one of them a member of the precious torpedo bomber squadron assigned to Yorktown, were still down for repairs, and the longer he waited to launch a strike, the more fighters he could throw at the Nephilim. But the longer he waited, the greater the chances that the Nephilim would be out of strike range by the time he could attack.
If only his only flight deck wasn’t forced to slow by battle damage. If only the fighters had more range…
Kennedy stopped cold. He walked to the tactical display, and looked at the symbols representing the last known coordinates of all friendly forces in the area, and their estimated positions.
“Captain!” Kennedy called, trying to keep his voice down in the quiet of the bridge.
Ramirez walked over, still wearing his helmet and protective gear. “Sir?”
Kennedy turned to Ramirez. “Captain, am I correct in thinking that in five to eight hours, we’ll be out of range of the Nephilim, based upon their estimated positions?”
Ramirez nodded. “On target so far, sir. We can’t maintain enough speed to keep up with them.”
“So what we need is to do is extend the range of the air wing, correct?” Kennedy asked, the idea coming to him like an epiphany.
“Yessir. But even our tankers will only extend the range of our fighters so far, and they’ll need to be escorted because of Nephilim fighter activity,” Ramirez said.
“Then what if, John… what if we used another carrier battle group to refuel our fighters or as a staging point for the wing?” Kennedy asked.
The other man paused for a moment, quietly thinking. “The idea certainly has potential, sir. It may as much as double our striking range. The only tough point is time in transit for the fighters. At some point, it just doesn’t pay to stage them from here, and at that point, you either transfer the air wing or cease flight operations outside our area,” Ramirez replied.
“That’s true, but at this point, we can get the extra range we need when the Nephilim go out of Yorktown’s. For now, we can launch our own strikes, but… prep a pair of drones for transit to the Valeria, as couriers to Admiral Hanton. I’m going to record a message. Have them ready to launch in thirty minutes,” Kennedy said.
“Yessir,” Ramirez responded. He tossed off a quick salute, then turned and began speaking to the port talker.
Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
On approach to TCS Yorktown
0422 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)
“Maybe now we’ll find out just what’s going on,” Lieutenant James Chang called out over the fighter’s intercom. The gunner’s casual tone belied his intense curiosity about the unexpected detour the two Retaliators had taken, flying halfway across the system to land on a carrier that was definitely not their own.
“I’m sure we will. Right now, I’m more concerned about whether we’ll get breakfast before we fly back or not,” Raptor replied, keeping his own voice light. He had a few ideas about the terse message he had received from Admiral Hanton, but he was keeping them to himself for now.
The Reaper Squadron had been part of a strike force that had finally taken out Nephilim Group Epsilon shortly after midnight. The Border Worlders had been harrying and wearing down the enemy carrier battle group for most of the previous day, and had fought three major engagements in the battle. The pilots and gunners had all been looking forward to a hot breakfast and then hitting their bunks for a few hours peace before their next mission. On the way back to Battle Group Valkyrie though, Raptor had been ordered to hand the strike group over to his second in command, and head for the Yorktown along with his wingman.
The two Border Worlds fighters maintained their course and speed as they closed in on the Yorktown, making it very clear that they had no problems with being seen. The Yorktown’s SWACS craft were almost certain to have detected them by now, and they were sure to be challenged on the way in. The Combined Fleet had been in a war situation for the past fortnight, even if no one had actually gotten around to declaring a war, which meant that Battle Group Rapier’s anti-fighter defenses would be on full alert. Sure enough, the first challenge came when the two fighters were about ten minutes flight time away from their destination.
“Incoming fighters, this is the TCS Yorktown. Identify yourselves and authenticate code November Oscar Romeo Foxtrot Oscar Lima Kilo, over.”
”Yorktown, this is Reaper Lead. Authentication code Sierra Uncle Foxtrot Foxtrot Oscar Lima Kilo, over.”
”Yorktown confirms authentication code, Reaper Lead. A wing of our fighters will be alongside within two minutes to escort you in. Yorktown out.”
”Reaper Lead copies all, Yorktown. Over and out.”
As promised, two of the Yorktown’s Piranha scout fighters raced in on full afterburner shortly afterwards, detouring wide of the two Border Worlds fighters to avoid a high speed merge, and instead angling in from their starboard beam. The Retaliators were cruising at 400 KPS, and the lighter fighters had no problems closing the distance.
Raptor watched the smaller craft with a Wing Commander’s professional eyes, and nodded approvingly when he saw them closing in for a visual inspection. Sensors could be fooled, and identification codes could be intercepted. The Yorktown’s pilots weren’t taking any chances. That was hardly a surprise given all they had been through, but it was reassuring all the same. If his suspicions about Admiral Hanton’s message were right, he and his pilots would be working very closely with the Yorktown’s flight wing in the very near future.
The lead Piranha pulled up alongside him, the pilot giving the unit and personal markings on his fighter the once over. He returned the favor, noting the Squadron Leader’s markings on the tail assembly, and an impressive number of Nephilim kill markings on the nose. The Piranha was light on both defenses and firepower, and being able to run up a string of victories in it said a lot about the pilot’s skill and courage. He noted too that the second Confed pilot had dropped back slightly, putting himself in good position to cover his wingleader from any attack. Of course, Frost had done the exact same thing to cover her wingleader. None of their actions indicated any mistrust of their allies, just the caution of hardened fighter pilots who wouldn’t fully relax until they knew that this battle was over. Until then, they would keep doing all the little things right, because that was what would keep them alive to see the end.
The Piranha Squadron Leader finished the inspection, and the Confed fighters silently pulled into the lead, taking their allies back to the Waltzing Matilda.
Aboard Piranha 133 (Sindri Lead)
“And you’ll hand them over to Eyrie once they reach ten thousand klicks, over.” Came the call from the SWACS patrol craft.
Selena Martinez nodded to herself, and keyed her radio. “Sindri Lead copies all.” She said, then looked back over her shoulder again.
The sleek, deadly looking fighter directly behind her was a sight to behold…especially when it was directly behind a pilot. Not that Martinez doubted her abilities, but the Retaliator had proven time and again that it was a killer against the Nephilim, and even against other incredibly powerful human fighters such as the Dragon. She’d seen the reports, but this was the first time she’d actually seen a Retaliator up close.
“Lead, Two. Gotta say those things look fun to fly… although I wouldn’t want to be on their bad side,” called Martinez’ wingman.
“You can say that again, Two. Did you see the markings on them? They’ve chalked up a lot of bugs, and if their squadron mates are as good as they are…well, I’m glad they’re on our side.” Martinez replied, looking once more over her shoulder.
Quadruple autotracking tachyon cannons, twin stormfire guns, twin reaper tail guns, up to eighteen missiles (or so intelligence said), and if the look she’d gotten at the engine nozzles was any indication, auto sliding capability. The fighter had wing commander’s markings on it, leaving Martinez to believe that her reconnaissance mission that had turned up the enemy carrier group was being taken very seriously.
It was a shame they were operating under radio silence. Martinez would’ve liked the chance to converse with her fellow pilots, and see how things were aboard the Valeria. Just seeing those fighters, reminding Martinez and her wingman that they weren’t alone in their struggle with the Nephilim, was bound to be good for morale, but just looking, not being able to talk with another pilot while they were that close…
Martinez continued watching the sleek, deadly fighter over her shoulder as they closed on the Yorktown, wondering about the pilots who flew them.
The time passed rather quickly, and before Martinez realized it, they were approaching the ten thousand kilometer "bubble" around the Yorktown where her onboard controllers and the LSO would assume control of the aircraft around the ship.
“Eyrie, this is Sindri Lead. We’re handing off Reaper Lead and wingman to you,” Martinez called.
“That’s affirmative, Sindri Lead. You are released back to patrol duties. Good hunting,” Came the controller’s reply.
Martinez couldn’t say anything to the Retaliator pilot, so she resorted to an old pilot’s trick. Easing her fighter to port, she let off the engine power until she was alongside the lead Retaliator. She was pleased to see that Two had done the same thing. Looking over, she caught a glimpse of the helmeted figure turning his eyes towards her. She tossed off a quick salute, then waggled her fighter’s wings.
She grinned as the Retaliator pilot returned the salute, and the gesture. She and her wingman then peeled away from the two Border Worlds fighters, to return to the void.
Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
On Landing Approach To TCS Yorktown
0445 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)
Raptor couldn’t shake a strong sense of déjà vu as he turned into his final approach. Concordia class fleet carriers like the Yorktown had been a staple of the Confederation’s carrier force during the First Kilrathi War. Raptor had trained on, worked alongside and flown off ships of this class in his time with Confed, and his entire tour of duty after the War had been on one of these ships. He had flown literally hundreds of landing approaches on such ships. Even though he hadn’t been a Confederation pilot for almost a decade, the approach was so familiar that he could almost do it from memory.
That was just as well, since it turned out that Confederation and Border Worlds ALS systems weren’t one hundred percent compatible. It was nothing that half an hours work by the techs couldn’t fix, but for now it was safer all around for the Retaliator pilots to land manually. Frost too was an ex-Confed pilot, and she was just as familiar with the Concordia-class as Raptor was. Not only that, the Border Worlders had “borrowed” shamelessly from the design of these ships when building their own Arcadia class carriers, including the characteristic fly through flight deck. Even so, the two Retaliator pilots would have to be meticulous with their approach. Pilots were judged almost as much on their carrier landings as their combat records, and there were certain to be interested parties watching to see how their allies performed.
“Yorktown Control, this is Retaliator Zero-Zero-One, on final approach.”
“Retaliator Zero-Zero-One, call the ball.”
”Retaliator Zero-Zero-One, roger ball. Retaliator, twenty-five metric tons. Live armament, five guided missiles, two hundred stormfire rounds.”
“Retaliator Zero-Zero-One, call your needles.”
“Retaliator Zero-Zero-One, down and centre.”
“Affirmative. Fly your needles.”
Raptor kept a light hand on the stick and throttles as he guided the big fighter down the glide slope. The Retaliator was very responsive to the controls for such a heavy craft, and it was important to avoid over controlling the fighter. On the upside, those same handling characteristics made it a superb dogfighter, able to turn and burn with virtually any enemy craft.
One hundred KPS… ninety… eighty… eventy…
“A little too fast… easy does it,” the LSO called out. Raptor feathered the throttle back a notch.
Forty KPS… thirty… twenty… ten…
Raptor felt the Retaliator judder slightly as the landing bay tractor beams took hold, guiding the fighter towards the carrier’s deck. As usual, he flared the fighter’s nose up a touch just before contact, going for the safety of letting the short and sturdy main undercarriage take the initial impact over the style of a three point landing. The Retaliator wasn’t as tolerant of rough landings as most other Border Worlds fighters due to its sophisticated avionics.
The Yorktown’s deck hands attached a tow tractor to the heavy fighter’s front undercarriage almost as soon as it was on the deck, towing it towards a dispersal slot. Raptor winced slightly as he saw just how many of those slots were empty. From the looks of it, Battle Group Rapier had suffered its fair share of casualties in the battle. As he shut the engines down, he could see Frost coming in for her own landing. As usual, she showed her wing leader up, bringing the big fighter down in almost the minimum length possible, and displaying the ice cold precision flying that had earned her callsign.
He waited until the deck hands had towed the other Retaliator into the slot alongside his before popping the canopy, allowing the four Border Worlds pilots and gunners to climb out as one group. He had instructed everyone earlier to remove their helmets and gloves, and to leave them in the cockpits before climbing out, ensuring that they wouldn’t be trying to remove their flight gear while meeting any reception committee. He remembered all too well how much importance Confed put on ceremony and protocol.
This would be just like old times…
Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54);
Kennedy watched, along with Commander Wallace, as the two Border Worlds fighters made their approach. Fast and smooth, he thought with approval. The lead Retaliator was a touch fast, but in a fighter like that, nobody could blame the pilot. All in all, considering that it had been some time since this pilot had landed on a Confed carrier, if ever, it was a remarkable approach.
The fighter touched down with the usual sound of rubber meeting non-skid material, and was quickly cleared off the recovery area. Not thirty seconds after, the second Retaliator came in.
Kennedy turned to Wallace. “That’s your cue, Commander.”
Wallace saluted. “Aye, sir.” He turned and jogged off, heading for the flight deck.
Looking at the sleek Border Worlds fighters, Kennedy couldn’t help but be impressed. Both had a large number of hash marks representing kills stenciled underneath the canopies, the one with wing commander’s markings having the greater amount. Both fighters bespoke speed and killing power, even sitting on deck with their engines down and their pilots debarking. They’d already removed their helmets, gloves, and other flight gear that could impede communication, even.
Kennedy knew things were going to be a bit on the formal side, but he thought that it might be a good way to ease any tensions between the Border Worlds pilots and the crew before they started.
Rosencrantz couldn’t help but study the pilot before him as the welcoming party headed for the Border Worlders. They were, in essence, the same person, except for rank and position. Both of them flew the best fighters that their respective governments and militaries could field, both of them were squadron commanders, though this man, with the word "Raptor" stenciled on his suit, was also a wing commander and higher in rank.
That word jogged something in his memory. Even as he thought about it, he remembered. The Academy, and the dogfight between the restored Raptor and a Hellcat V after some boasting. It had been the stuff of legend, a meeting of old and new, the older pilot in the Hellcat V winning against the young upstart. That was where this man had gotten his callsign.
Judging by the number of kills painted on this man’s fighter, the fight he’d lost in the Raptor had been the exception, rather than the norm. Rosencrantz wondered what it had been that had caused this man to become a Border Worlds pilot rather than continue in Confederation service, then set that thought aside. It wasn’t important.
He saw Wallace draw himself erect. “Company! Aten… SHUN!”
He snapped to attention and looked at the man from across the formalities
Flight Deck, TCS Yorktown
0500 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.50)
As Raptor had expected, there was a reception committee waiting to greet them as they stepped away from their fighters. A Naval officer with Commander’s rank tabs on his shoulders headed the group, accompanied by a Space Force Major and several junior officers from both services, along with a cadre of Marine guards. Raptor wondered idly if the guards were intended to be ceremonial or functional. That question was answered when a Marine bugler piped the visitors aboard. He found the whole thing to be just a tad over formal, but different services did things different ways.
When in Rome…
“Company! Aten… SHUN!” The Confed reception committee all snapped to attention. The Navy Commander stepped forward and saluted smartly.
“Commander Wallace, First Officer of the TCS Yorktown. Welcome aboard, Sir.”
The “sir” was a courtesy that Commander Wallace did not, strictly speaking, need to extend. The mutual defense treaty signed last year between the Terran Confederation and Union of Border Worlds had designated the Border Worlds military as part of Confed’s reserves, with all Border Worlds officers holding Confederation ranks. Raptor’s Confederation rank was Lieutenant Colonel, making him an O5 just like Commander Wallace was. The operation to hold the line however had been designated as a joint operation between the Confederation and Border Worlds militaries rather than the Confederation military and its reserves. That had partly been due to the political sensitivities of the situation, but also due to the stark military realities facing the massively outnumbered and outgunned human forces. They had needed to have their most experienced and capable officers in command, regardless of which uniform they wore. It seemed that the Yorktown’s officers were determined to follow that protocol to the letter.
“Thank you, Commander.” Raptor returned the salute, and the other Confederation and Border Worlds officers exchanged salutes. The four Border Worlders then turned and saluted the Confederation colors, just as they had discussed earlier. That too wasn’t strictly necessary, since it wasn’t their flag, but it was common courtesy to show respect for a flag that one’s allies fought and died under. It was true that Border Worlders had a well-earned reputation for being both blunt and brash, but they weren’t quite as uncouth as they were sometimes made out to be.
Thankfully, the meeting was a lot less formal after that, with the salutes being replaced by handshakes, and introductions being made. The Space Force officer introduced himself as Major Rosencrantz, CO of the Yorktown’s Vampire squadron. He explained that he was to escort Raptor to a meeting with Colonel Alvarez. In the meantime, the other Border Worlders would be shown to the mess for an early breakfast with their Confed counterparts, and then to guest quarters where they could get some rest.
“I must say, Colonel, that it’s a pleasure to finally meet the legend,” Major Rosencrantz said with a grin as the two pilots took the turbolift up from the flight deck.
“Legend?” Raptor asked with a raised eyebrow, not sure if the Confed pilot was pulling his leg or not. His record with Confed during the Kilrathi War had been good, but not exceptional. A double handful of kills, three of his own fighters written off, a few medals and a couple of commendations. It had been good enough to keep him in the military during the Reduction In Forces after the war, but the same was true was thousands of other pilots. If he had gained any fame, it would have been for his defection back to the Border Worlds during the Black Lance Conflict, but even there he was hardly unique. A lot of Border Worlders had been flying for Confed at the time, and many had decided they would rather fight for their kin than against them. His record with the Border Worlds was much the same as during the War. He had led first a squadron and then a wing through some important campaigns, and had done well, but not extraordinarily so.
“I was a few classes behind you at the Academy. The Raptor dogfight was part of cadet folklore by the time I graduated.”
“Ah, that. I was young and stupid,” Raptor said with a smile. He had gotten his callsign thanks to an old and badly damaged Raptor class fighter he had helped restore to flying condition while studying at the Academy. All those who had worked on the project had been very proud of “their” beautiful fighter, but Raptor was the one who had made the mistake of shooting his mouth off about it. After he’d had a few drinks one evening, he had claimed the old fighter could beat a frontline Hellcat if flown right. As usually happened, another pilot accepted the challenge. It was a hell of a dogfight, but in the end he had been soundly beaten in front of most of the Academy’s staff and cadets. By the end of the week, he had been widely known as “that Raptor freak.” It was an inglorious way of gaining one’s callsign, but as Chrys delighted in pointing out, it could have been a lot worse. After all, he could have been flying a Ferret.
“I saw the hull damage on my way in. Torpedo hit?” He asked, bringing the conversation back to the present. Truth to tell, he was enjoying his visit to the Yorktown, but the tactical situation in Nifelheim was never far from his mind. The Combined Fleet was at long last gaining the upper hand, but the battle hadn’t been won just yet.
“I’m afraid so, Colonel. The casualties were minimal, thank God, but the damage cut Waltzing Matilda’s speed by a third. The Agincourt was hit as well, but her damage isn’t as severe.”
“And the flight wing?”
”In fairly good shape, all things considered. We’re at about seventy five to eighty percent strength counting the survivors from the Endeavour. At lot of our craft are carrying damage, but not enough to stop them flying.”
”That’s good to hear.” Raptor said, inwardly breathing a sigh of relief. Battle Group Valkyrie’s flight wing had taken a lot of punishment in the strike against Group Epsilon, though he had been called away before the final assessment of their operation strength could be made. Valkyrie and Rapier were the heaviest hitters the fleet had left, and using them well was their best chance of finishing this battle with the minimum of losses.
Of course, that might all depend on what Colonel
Alvarez had to say….