PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 47 of 62 )
End of the Spiral
"We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day."
- Henry V - Act IV, Scene iii
Carrier Battle Group Auriga, CVBG-A
18th FEB 2681/2681.049; 0431 Hours (CST)
He was sitting in front of the screen. Why he had come here he had no clear remembrance. He knew it was there yet he could not quite put his finger on it. By using a combination of keys on the keyboard he brought up an access mask on the screen. It was one that could not possibly been gained access to via any of the on-screen menus, but only by pressing that certain combination and order of keys. Only a selected few knew this combination. Squadron commanders did not belong to them. Without second thought he typed in the clearance code. He did not know where he got it from. Apparently he knew more than he was aware of. After successful login he moved around in the system. Unerring. Going straight for the sought data. Faster than any man, any ordinary man, could hope to remember let alone read, he scanned through the information. There was no need to remember, understand or know about for him. The data were forwarded right away. He was tapped into their collective self.
Suddenly he heard something. His senses were heightened like they had never been. For he had refined senses before. Sharper, more precise and more sensitive as he had come from a long, very long line of samurais. He had been brought up the old ways. Some of his senses had been superior to even those of a Kilrathi. Now they were beyond that even. With unconcerned composure he accessed another file and skimmed through it. Then without haste he properly logged out. A combination of keys on the board and the screen returned to the standard configuration.
"What are you doing here this time of the day?"
It was their "brainpower" individual, called intelligence officer, that went by the name of Ethan Coliver. Yet it did not seem to possess any mental power. When he reached out -- there was nothing. Nothing to read. Nothing to control.
It was then that he was released purposely. Blinking both eyes and shaking his head almost unnoticeably he turned around calmly and stared at Lieutenant Commander Coliver.
"I asked what are you doing here?" Coliver repeated.
"I .. I just .. ahm .. don't know," was the honest answer, but his opposite did not wholly buy it.
"Guess I couldn't sleep so I started wandering around. What are you doing here?" he returned the question.
"Do you want to start playing games, Major?" the Lieutenant Commander retorted with an undertone that was hard to tell.
"Do you thing this is a game?" A short pause. "Think again!" With that the Major left.
He was very confident that he would indeed outwit them. That Coliver individual, however clever it may think it was. A single intellect. How much information could it possibly gather -- access, manage and process. Not enough. If he knew pity he would have been sorry for it/him. That his like had advanced so far after all -- single those -- always on their own, impeding, fighting and killing each other even -- was beyond his understanding. Yet he did not strive for understanding. He sought to harvest.
Coliver -- left standing -- contemplatively watched the screen. His right hand moved over his chin, causing some faint noises at the one-day stubble beard. Then some moments later he leaned over the keyboard for close examination.
About one minute later a crumbled sleepy face puzzled. "Ethan? What the…?"
"I need you to follow up on something for me. NOW!"
TCS Hades; Wing Commander's Office
18th FEB 2681/2681.049; 1231 Hours (CST)
Colonel Samuel "Sirdar" Richard, the newly appointed Wing Commander of the 71st TFW, which in about 6 hours would basically be the 188th TFW, pored over the after-action reports from CVBG-A’s participation in their successful cooperation with CVEBG-A and CVBG-R in destroying a Tiamat dreadnought and her associated battle group.
Sirdar had felt a pang of selfish guilt the moment he realized he had unconsciously gone straight to the casualty report of his old squadron, the Steel Gunners. I am no longer their squadron commander, he had to tell himself. Their lives were still his responsibility, but not his immediate one: the lives of all the pilots in the Wing were his responsibility now, but his primary responsibility wasn’t keeping the pilots of the ‘Gunners or any of the 188th alive, but the completion of the assigned mission tasking -- preferably with minimal casualties.
You couldn’t help but send men and women to their death in battle, and he couldn’t try to favor his old squadron in doing so. Not many had perished in helping the Air Wings of the Rapier and Endeavour -- and again, Richards felt another small pang of guilt for treating his own pilots’ lives more highly than those of other carriers’.
And the reason for their own good fortune? Partly because they were assisting the action rather than bearing the brunt of the fighting, and partly perhaps because as the size of two forces increases the casualty ratios actually drop. A larger percentage of pilots will be shot down in a 4 v 4 dogfight, on average, than when two squadrons of 16 aircraft meet, and even fewer, percentage wise, will perish when forces of Wing size clash, even though the number of casualties will be higher. The fog of war, the sheer numbers and confusion -- make it harder to score kills and easier to escape. Situational Awareness. Add to this the fact that the curve plotting likelihood of getting shot down drops almost vertically to a flat, low level after the first few combat missions and the small number of KIA and MIA became understandable. Small, but significant, as even those small few were a large blow to the already diminished 71st Tactical Fighter Wing.
Still, those losses were somewhat offset by the fact that the Murphy-class destroyer TCS Stasheff had been loaned back from CVBG-R, along with its 9-strong squadron of Tigersharks, as payment in kind for services rendered. All in all, not a bad deal, Sirdar thought, then felt another pang of guilt as he realized he was talking about people’s lives. Maybe that’s why Trebek is such a hard-faced bitch -- she has to be to do this bloody job.
Sirdar knew they’d need every one of those extra fighters if the rumor of what they were up against was true…
February 18th, 2681/2681.049; 1805 Hours (CST)
Lieutenant Commander Donovan Keyes looked at the tactical display shown on the large plotting board’, showing his destroyer’s position within Carrier Battle Group Auriga. The Murphy-class destroyer had been detached a matter of hours ago, her complement of Tigersharks having been recovered, re-equipped, and respotted for launch.
Looking around through the bridge viewport, he could make out clearly the TCS Nagato, the powerful remaining Plunkett-class cruiser in Battle Group Auriga. He could make out the Murphy-class destroyer Ohlander, a sister ship to the Stasheff.
Because Stasheff was directly "above" them ("up" and "down" being relative and meaningless terms in a freefall environment), Keyes couldn’t make out the mainstays of the force, the stealth strike cruiser Hades and the Kilrathi Fralthi-II-class cruiser Shrak’har. Bringing up the rear, as a guard, was the Border Worlds’ modified Caernaven-class frigate Condor, which also could not be seen due to her position.
“Sir, there’s a transmission coming in... you’re needed in the comm center for a briefing,” the portside speaker called.
“Very well. Lieutenant Anderson, you have the conn. I’ll be in communications,” Keyes said.
He walked through the cramped corridors, passing crewmen and what few pilots were wandering around, rather that waiting near the launch bay.
He quickly entered the communications center. The officer nodded and keyed the transmission.
Looking around the ship, he couldn’t help but feel that he was an interloper, somehow. Commander Peploe had built the unit that was the crew of this ship, not him.
Somehow, though, nature or fate or destiny or whatever you wanted to call it always had a way of jumping up and biting you in the ass or kissing you when you least expected it.
Commander Peploe, after all she’d been through, hadn’t made it to participating in the final chapter (hopefully) of this fight. Upon entry to Nifelheim, she had vomited blood after complaining of stomach pains, taking only mild painkillers and stomach-settling medicines, thinking it was something she’d eaten.
She had been wrong.
Bleeding ulcers, was what the ship’s corpsman had said. He was a reservist, who, before he’d been called for a tour of active duty on the Stasheff, had been a surgeon at a renowned hospital in Venice System. He knew what he was talking about, and within two hours, Peploe had been transferred to Avernus Station, confined to the medical bay there… despite her protests.
He, Lieutenant Commander Donovan Keyes, had been thrust into the hot seat. Now he had to deal with the bugs, keep the ship in one piece, and work as part of the unit this ship had originally been assigned to. What’s more, he had to do it well.
He was startled back to life by the words, “Lieutenant Commander Keyes, are you with us?”
That was Catharx, the Kilrathi commanding Carrier Battle Group Auriga, his voice low and rumbling, menacing, ominous, yet somehow comforting. You definitely wanted him on your side, and if he wasn’t, then you damned well had to respect his abilities.
"Aye sir. I’m here,” Keyes replied.
About the same time
Captain Brendan "Ranger" Whitlam looked across the hangar bay to the second catapult, where his wingman, Second Lieutenant Don "Donny" Wohl, sat waiting in his own fighter for the call to launch. The Vipers and Perseus COs had settled the dispute as to who should be the alert squadron the old-fashioned way: They’d flipped a coin. Perseus had won, and as a result, all of their fighters were spotted for launch before those of the Vipers. Each squadron, which had originally only been an eight or nine-fighter formation, had been reduced to five members. Luckily the two squadrons flew the same fighter, making maintenance much simpler if parts and armaments were needed for repairs or equipping.
So now they sat, waiting for anything.
“Lead, this is Two,” came Wohl’s voice.
“Go ahead, Two,” Whitlam replied.
“Any idea what’s going on now, skipper?” came the expected question.
“Yes, I do, and so do you, Two. You heard the briefing we got,” Whitlam replied.
“No, no skipper. That’s not what I meant. I meant now,” came the voice.
“I suspect that there are briefings and the like taking place in the command staff. Our role in this upcoming strike is probably being determined,” Whitlam said.
“And we’re stuck down here, unable to give our opinion on things? Aw man this sucks -- ” Wohl said.
“Don, when did you start whining?” Whitlam asked coldly.
“Err… what?” Wohl’s voice came back, falteringly.
“You’re griping, Don. When did you start?” Whitlam said.
“How about the day he was born?” came one renegade voice.
Laughter erupted over the squadron frequency. Wohl had always been the upbeat one in the squadron, never faltering despite the tasks asked. “I figure we’re the best pilots in the group. ‘Of whom much is given, much is expected.’ So I figure we’re the best, if they keep throwing impossible tasks at us. That, and I saw the Yorktown get torpedoed…” came the completely serious response.
During it’s first part, the laughter flared up, but when Don commented that the carrier had been hit, and that they had all seen it… the laughter faded quickly and efficiently, as if a tap had been turned off.
Ops Planning Area
1754 Hours (CST)
Ronin had been summoned to a council of war before the main briefing that was due to take place at 1830 Hours. The meeting had been called by the commanders of the battle groups that had successfully collaborated in the destruction of the Tiamat that morning. Plans had been made to have the command staff and senior flight personnel of all three groups convene holographically but when Nawazaki arrived he immediately knew something was amiss.
Like most of the other CVBG-A pilots he had tried to get some sleep while he could, but his rest had been fitful and uneasy, racked with nightmares where the ghost of Voodoo tried to warn him of something but try as he might, he couldn’t understand the words. After grabbing a quick shower and a foul cup of strong instant coffee he had hurried straight to the meeting and thus had no inkling of what was going on.
“What’s happening?” he asked. The reluctant reply was forestalled by Sirdar’s wheelchair rolling up to the dais.
“I’m sure all of you were expecting to see the Yorktown and Endeavour people here,” Sirdar’s tone was somber, “but all has not gone according to plan. Endeavour engaged and managed to destroy a Leviathan supercarrier, but the Endeavour herself was lost in doing so. The Yorktown group went to her aid and is currently rescuing survivors and mopping up Bug stragglers. This means we’re on our own.
“CVLBG-A did however manage to send us some sensor data,” the viewscreen behind him flickered into life, showing a diagram of the Nifelheim system with a flashing red blob moving their way, “showing this battle group approaching. It’s a Kraken -- a shipkiller -- and it’s heading straight for us.”
TCS Hades; Flight Wing Briefing Room
1831 Hours (CST)
The Space Force pilots were gathered for the first official briefing of CVBG-A's new 188th FW, consolidated as one single flight wing from the entirety of the now-disbanded 71st FW and the Vampire "Dark Brood" Squadron the Hades brought along. Colonel Samuel "Sirdar" Richard, whose first briefing as the Wing Commander it would be, hovered in his wheelchair just left of the podium's desk. Present on the podium next to him were Lt. Commander Ethan Coliver, Marjakh nar Vukar Tag (the Kilrathi equivalent of a senior intelligence officer, yet unknown to most currently present), and last was Lt. Colonel Antonio Caviedes, CO of the 117th Marine Assault Detachment, the fifty-man platoon stationed aboard the Hades. Yet first before them all was standing -- clad in a mesh of plated body armor, chainmail, a ceremonial-looking cloak, and various body piercings with gold rings, the very picture of a Kilrathi noble -- Catharx.
Catharx had set the proclaimed changes of just a couple days ago effective immediately. That had meant for a hectic, loud and chaotic night of reorganization for just about everyone from officers to engineers. The Kilrathi CO had come aboard the Hades with a small contingent of his Cadre even before the midnight hour himself. The most important changes were meanwhile completed, but minor works were still being done.
Now the last of the wing's pilots found their seat in the Hades the briefing theatre or rather had to stand as it was not built nor equipped to host so many pilots (representatives not currently on duty from the squadrons not based on the Hades being present as well) and Marines. The former wing commander of the 188th, Lt. Colonel "Chaos" Kaiser approached Sirdar. "For what it's worth, whatever assistance you may need in the days ahead I'm prepared to offer you whatever support I can give," the departing WC spoke, leaning towards Sirdar's head.
Richard turned to reply, yet Kaiser did not let him. "No worries, man." He put it down. Richard nodded, expressing his thanks.
"All right, boys'n gals, welcome once again to Nifelheim and listen up! I'm going to get right to it. The rumors you guys have probably been hearing through the grapevine are true -- through Confed recon units that were not a part of the fleet -- yeah, you see ConFleet is doing something for us, too -- we learned about a second Nephilim fleet."
There was a loud grunting to be heard all over the room. "Guess Confed just wanted to make sure with that recon that we're definitely write-offs," someone shouted.
"Right, and to prove their tactic of holding back the Inner Fleets," someone else added.
Catharx favored the respective pilots with a long and penetrating look, enough to silence them as well as the whole room.
"Yes, bad news, I agree," Richard continued. "Probing actions conducted by those recon forces in Ymir have given Confed and the Combined Fleet the intelligence to consider a campaign in force against them. All battle groups and units of the Fleet have been given target allocations. We did some damned fine work earlier today watching the Yorktown's back, but now CVBG-A has got a Kraken-class ship killer to take down all by her lonesome -- the only one detected -- and it's accompanied by a small battle group."
Yet another tumult arose. Though most pilots were unfamiliar with that ship class -- partly because their Intell GIFs had been sketchy, partly because that type seemed to be a rare appearance, but mostly simply because they had not studied their files as they were supposed to do -- its name alone spoke fearfully for it.
"Shit, who in the fuck is asking for more?" Captain Quintus "Wise Guy" Fabricius Domitianus spoke out, more to himself than anyone else.
"Looks like we're getting only the tough ones," replied Feuerhexe, one of those gathered who had heard it.
"Hot damn, looks like we're set to be this campaign's real heroes!" 1st Lieutenant Tom "Line Man" Brimen jumped in.
"Yeah, well you can bet serious credits Vandermann and Schaefer would've loved that!" Wise Guy chimed in, sarcastic as per his character.
"Hey, folks, calm down and listen closely. Now what I'm going to brief you on from this point can be pretty much considered tentative... we're not exactly sure how the enemy is going to come at us, where, or even exactly when, so the details of this briefing are subject to change come Zero Hour -- your COs and I just figured it would be a good idea to touch base with you flyboys'n girls and lay the rough game plan out nice and early. We think to some degree of certainly we've got at least a few hours to prepare based on the latest long-range scans the Endeavour has kindly FLASHed us -- still, nothing is certain at this point." Sirdar took a deep, measured breath.
"Now, this Kraken is not too heavily armed from what we know. It has merely thirteen Maser Turrets. Its main weapon -- and our main problem -- is the one Ship Killer Plasma Gun it is equipped with. As the intelligence data gathered by the Midway, on which's data we have to rely in this case, point out this Plasma gun is capable of destroying a Plunkett-sized cruiser with just one blast. This is why we cannot engage with our capships as long as this veritable CSM gun is operational. That, ladies and gentlemen, means we've got to weaken the ship first by destroying this big fucking gun and the turrets. As far as we know it does not have any missile launchers. So the turrets are indeed our only concern."
"Hey, you forgot its battle group," someone shouted from the "Mosquitoes" corner.
"Yeah, what's with its escorts?" a blond woman from the "Steel Gunners" asked.
Kaiser turned around and rose from his seat to see those pilots. He gave them a stern look. Though he did not knew them and they did not know him, it worked. They shut up and looked down. Kaiser was satisfied. It always worked.
"To be honest, we don’t know much about its battle group as of yet," Coliver, who felt he had to make some sort of an apology. Military Intelligence was, as the old joke said -- a contradiction in terms, but it was no laughing matter that they had very little hard facts to brief such a dangerous operation with.
"That is right," Richard spoke again. "As it is why we are sending another FORCAP sortie by the Dark Broods first, again escorting a wing of SWACS, to reconnoiter and confirm the Kraken battle group. In fact its FORCAP from now on until that damn thing is found. See Nav One now on your ICIS. Assuming the Nephilim will proceed by standard Fleet Operations doctrine, we have no reason not to believe they don't, the Tigershark squadrons of the Hopes and Gunners are to lure the escorts away, the presumed and then most likely sent Orca destroyers fastest to intercept. That will happen at Nav Two. The Shrak'har's two squadrons, bypassing the escorts, will make a first run on the fallen-back Kraken to eliminate its turrets."
Richard made a sort pause to let his words sink in. "If our battle plan isn't screwed up entirely by now, Phase Two kicks in. The Nagato and Hades to move in and attack the Nephilim escort ships, busy with the Tigersharks. The Ohlander, Condor, and Shrak'har are to cover.
“Simultaneously the Aztecs will escort the Talons and the Lancers squadrons in a C-line to deliver their payload to the Kraken. The 'Dakhath' and 'Krahnakh' squadrons are then to take SEAD duty and if possible take out the bridge's and engines' shield emitters to allow the bombers a clear run. Primarily that ship killer gun has to be taken out, all turrets and any other weapon you may find. The engine has to be disabled, too. That all will meanwhile happen at Nav Three. The Dark Broods, and the Tigershark squadrons of the Ohlander, Stasheff and Nagato are to maintain a perimeter and provide BARCAP for CVBG-A at all times. The Tigersharks and Mosquitoes will be engaged in other tasks including attacking the Kraken’s escorts. When the Nagato and Hades enter the fray against the enemy battle group's escort ships -- this is, however, under the strict discretion that they are not to advance closer than 75,000 klicks from the Kraken until the successful neutralization of the Ship Killer Plasma Gun. Same regards for all other CVBG-A capships by the way."
Richard again made a short pause to make sure that everyone had time to follow as well as to check their ICIS screens.
"When the Kraken hangs dead in space, the Nagato and Hades will move in to finish it off. The escort ships should be eliminated by then."
The Wing Commander addressed Lt. Colonel Caviedes, "Lt. Colonel, do you have anything to add for your Marines...?"
Caviedes made one step forward. "The Hades' 117th TCMC Assault Detachment is to be on stand-by; full alert status if needed to deal with any Nephilim boarding parties or if and when a boarding operation of the Kraken is determined to be necessary."
"Kalahn, any last words?" Richard turned to Catharx.
"Last words? I should think that a fateful way of putting it, but we will carry out our conquest step by step, taking care that our position remains secure throughout. But in the end our kaga will pull us through. Victory it shall be!"
"Okay, pilots, check your ICIS screens for all the mission details. Notice to await mission greenlight through confirmation of the enemy battle group by our FORCAP sortie and then the get-goes throughout the campaign from your respective CO." The WC let a pause hang in the air for a few moments, letting the missions specifics settle into the pilots' brains again. "Good luck then, pilots. I know most of us in this room have already been to hell and back over the past few days -- and this waiting game is basically just sucking -- but I can tell you this one's going to take all we got, and maybe even a little bit extra."
The sentiment was true -- the only way out now... was through. There would be no other way.
Stasheff; Ready Room
About the same time
First Lieutenant Ryan "Chief" Clancy looked around the room, tired of reading the ship’s small newsletter. It was weeks out of date, a result of this conflict (nobody had been allowed the time to perform the non-essential tasks when survival meant round-the-clock operations), and so Clancy had almost memorized all seven pages of the damned thing.
He walked to the small mess area aft, and grabbed a glass of orange juice. Quickly downing it, he returned to the ready room to try and compose a letter. His mind drifted, however.
They were so damned close to the end of this conflict. So damned close, one way or the other. Everybody couldn’t wait for the Stasheff and her squadrons to be shifted back to a nice, quiet rear area. They’d held the line for quite a while… let somebody else do it once this was over with.
But only when it was over with. They couldn’t trust anybody else to hold the line, not after they’d sacrificed so much and had worked so hard to accomplish that task themselves.
After this, Clancy was hoping to get a transfer to a nice naval air station in the Alcor System or some other nice, quiet, out-of-the-way place where nothing ever happened. A promotion would also be nice, or, failing that, a few medals or ribbons that he could show to his kids… if he survived to have kids… if he ever chose to have kids, because, in this universe, with the way things were looking now, having kids might be doing them a greater disservice than not having them.
The galaxy did indeed seem to be alternating between being an idiotic and illogical place to live, or a dangerous place to live on the verge of being destroyed or ripped apart at the seams by some threat. And it always seemed like the Confederation was at the forefront of the fighting to resolve the problems. And with it, soldiers or pilots like him, feeling out of place but doing their damnedest anyhow to protect those who were behind the wall they formed and supported.
Sometimes Clancy wondered if the galaxy didn’t feed on conflict. Most of the technological advances in a society were discovered during times of conflict, because for the most part, Geoffrey Tolwyn had been correct. Conflict did indeed bring progress and advancement about, through sheer necessity.
Not that he agreed with Tolwyn’s methods, but the guy had saved Earth from the Kilrathi at the lowest point in the Confederation’s war.
And, Clancy remembered with a swelling of pride in his heart, the fleet that had held the line had been the same one he served in today: The Third Fleet, tried and true, ready for action, though stripped of many resources, experienced pilots, and front-line equipment because of the politicians, had fought off the entirety of the Kilrathi force, most times with less than the Combined Fleet had to offer.
Ah, irony in all its forms…
“Attention. All pilots report to the ready room at 1830 Hours. Repeat, all pilots report to the ready room. Stand down the alert-five.” Blared the loudspeaker suddenly.
“Aw hell…” Clancy muttered, “So much for quiet.”
Over the next twenty minutes, the pilots of the Stasheff filed into their small ready room. There were, after all, only ten pilots, which was two more than had been planned for by the designers of this ship. Still, necessity was indeed the mother of improvisation, and two extra chairs, which tied into the ICIS systems aboard the ship, had been installed, welded directly into the bulkhead.
“Attention on deck!” called one of the pilots from the rear of the room.
Lieutenant Commander Donovan Keyes, the newly-appointed CO of the Stasheff, walked in amidst the pilots jumping to their feet. “As you were, ladies and gentlemen.” He said, taking position at the forward podium.
Once all of the pilots had been seated, the briefing began. “All right, pilots. I’ve just finished my briefing with Commodore Murdoch and Kalahn Catharx. Even as we speak, the Hades pilots and the others in the force are being briefed on their missions, so I’m going to brief you on yours.”
Keyes took a breath. “I know it’s been tough. I know you’re all still tired, despite the respite we’ve been given here. But now, ladies and gentlemen, is the big moment. I need each and every one of you to give it your all… because if we fail here, everything we’ve fought so hard for and lived through before this will have been for nothing. This is the line we have to hold. We beat them here, and it’s over. So I need you to give me your all.”
Looking over the room, Captain David "Ad-lib" Prescott and Captain Whitlam noticed their pilots’ eyes clearer and sharper than they’d been in a while. The pilots sat up straighter, looked more determined and confident, and more aggressive than they had in quite some time.
They’d finally been told that the end was in sight, never mind that the last hurdle they had to cross was the highest yet. Still… after what had seemed an eternity, the end was in sight.
As one, Prescott and Whitlam replied, “Yes, sir.”
Keyes looked over the ten assembled pilots, found himself wondering how many of them would be coming back from this, perhaps the last fight, and felt his throat close up. He swallowed against it, cleared his throat, and pressed on.
“Perseus and Viper Squadrons will be providing close-in defense for the entirety of the task force, once we’ve spotted the opponents. I know it's not what many of you wanted, but it’s what’s needed, and it’s what we’re going to be best at after all of the practice we’ve been getting. As soon as we spot the enemy battle group, all fighters will prepare for launch. At this point, we know one thing for certain: We’re going to be heading up against a Kraken-class ship killer. The plan is for the strike group from the Hades, Nagato, and Shrak’har to lure away the enemy escorts, nullify the Kraken’s defenses, and then take the bastard’s big gun off line. Once that happens, Nagato and Hades will close the range and blow the Kraken to pieces.”
Keyes took a breath. “When the call comes to engage, Stasheff will be providing anti-torpedo and anti-fighter support, as well as anti-capital ship support, for the Hades and Nagato. When the time comes to close the range, we’re going to stay right with them. Things are likely to get hectic, so don’t be surprised if you get ordered away. Your primary mission is to provide fighter cover for the battle group, not the Stasheff herself. Is that clear?” Keyes asked.
There was silence as the pilots took in the fact that they would be asked to treat the ship they called home as just another member of the task force for the sake of unit cohesion and of the mission. It was a difficult pill to swallow… but they had no objections.
Keyes nodded. “Very well. Now, I know some of you may have reservations. The truth is, so do I. Everybody gets scared. I’m scared. I know some of you are scared. But we can’t let fear control our actions. We’re going to fight. If not today, then tomorrow. Eventually, we will fight… and we’re going to win,” he finished.
There was a silence in the room, but there was no longer tension. Instead, there was an air of confidence, one that spoke volumes about how the pilots would perform in the upcoming engagement, despite the losses that they’d taken and the engagements they’d already been in almost continuously.
Finally, one question broke the silence:
“When do we engage the enemy?” called Clancy.
Keyes smiled. “As soon as we find the bastards.”
Smiles broke out on the faces of every pilot in the room. Not happy smiles. The smiles of raptors preparing to make their kills.
They were ready.
TCS 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 fool-proof, 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.
“All right, 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 dreadnought and the efforts to rescues 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 dreadnought 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.”
TCS Hades; CIC
2300 Hours (CST)
The door hissed open and Murdoch entered the Hades combat information centre.
"... Uploading the coordinates now. I repeat: This places the Kraken only two nav points away from us. The battle group consists of one Kraken-ship killer, three Orca-class destroyers and six Barracuda-class corvettes. Yet readings are still quite poor with all that noise due to the density of asteroids and because of the countless mining activities in this system. That makes it hard to rule out the possibility of other capships pulling up in the Kraken battle group's rear echelons. One reason more Coroner's Mosquitoes went in for closer examination. What’s more, readings now confirm alien fighters. 4, 5, 8... numbers increasing fast as we speak, mostly Stingrays and Squids, closing in fast on our boys."
Murdoch nodded sparsely as he joined the other commanding officers gathered around the Tri-D holoprojector.
"Did you get visual contact yet?" Colonel Richard was first to speak up.
"Not yet. Major Powell."
"... Got visual confirmation, yes. Albeit briefly before it got too hot... Damn, get a move on, Windjammer," Major Powell himself cut in.
"Major, did you get anything beyond the Kraken on your scanners?" Murdoch inquired.
"Negative, sir," was Powell's response. "Only got visuals of the Kraken and its mentioned escorts."
"What about a bypass," Murdoch went on.
"That's a negative, too, sir, unless you want us to start the mess here and now. We're 4 against what … 15 now. We don't stand a chance of living long enough to tell you anything of worth. Going on afterburners now. Birdseye [SWACS unit] you get the hell out of there too."
When Murdoch turned around to face the other senior officers again Coliver could see his eyes and eyebrows both still narrowed. A sure sign that Murdoch disapproved Powell taking initiative before awaiting commands approval or even orders.
"So battle is finally at hand," Catharx spoke for the first time since confirmation of the Kraken group.
"So it seems, and we're not getting the time we thought we had!" Colonel Richard added thoughtfully with a side view to Coliver, who deliberately ignored him.
"What's with your flight wing, Colonel?" Murdoch apparently aiming at something addressed. Richard.
"Weary and too thinly spread out. What worries me most though is that we don't have any numbers on the fighter carrying capabilities of this Kraken. And when I read it here, it’s damn big." Colonel Richard looked troubled.
Although the CIC was adjacent to the bridge and the wall to separate both if wished was open, Murdoch pressed a button opening a direct line, instead of shouting over the distance.
"Ensign Milfort, how far away is battle group Rapier?" Murdoch looked over to the female Ensign manning the tactical/DSSS console at the other end of the bridge.
"About 11 hours, sir. Yet fighters only could be here in about 2 hours!" the Ensign, knowing Murdoch and where he was driving at, offered.
"Kalahn, as CO of Battle Group Auriga, I think it would be best for you to make that call." Murdoch finally approached Catharx.
A faint rumbling coming from deep within the cat's throat was to force its way out while Catharx mighty right paw rose to form a fist. Yet it was released the next moment and the rumbling died out as the Kilrathi found approval for Murdoch's suggestion in the eyes of the other officers.
"I shall make that call." However, pressing a button, Catharx did the most important thing first. "Lieutenant St. Germain, call for immediate Magnum Launch."