: “ Welcome to Hell ”

"It is warm work, and this day may be the last to any one of us at any moment - but, mark you, I would not be elsewhere for thousands."
- Nelson aboard the Elephant, April 2nd, 1801

"You could not be successful in such an action without a large loss. We must make up our minds to affairs of this kind sometimes, or give up the game."
- The Duke of Wellington

"As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport."
- Shakespeare, "King Lear"


Avernus Station; Officers Quarters
19th February 2681 (2861.050)
1953 Hours (CST)

Task Force Breakdown

TF Alpha - Commodore Philip Johnston commanding
BWS Sicily: 6 Bearcats, 6 Intruders, 12 Marauders, 12 Thunderbolts
BWS Arnhem: 12 Jaguars, 12 Excaliburs, 10 Avengers
TCS Iwo Jima: 12 Excaliburs, 12 Bearcats, 12 Thunderbolts
BWS Circe (Kurasawa)
BWS Telamon (Kurasawa)
BWS Launceston 3 Intruders
BWS Christchurch 3 Intruders
BWS Auckland 3 Intruders
BWS Wollongong 3 Intruders

Avengers: 10
Bearcats: 18
Excaliburs: 24
Intruders: 18
Jaguars: 12
Marauders: 12
Thunderbolts: 24
Fighter Strength, TF Alpha: 118 total, 46 torp-capable

TF Bravo - Commodore Jeff C. Turnbull commanding
BWS Anzio: 12 Bearcats, 18 Avengers
TCS Miles D'Arby: 12 Excaliburs, 12 Bearcats, 12 Thunderbolts
TCS Okinawa: 12 Excaliburs, 12 Bearcats, 12 Thunderbolts
BWS Havok: 8 Intruders (Tallahassee)
TCS Achilles (Tallahassee)
BWS Penrith: 4 Excaliburs (Sheffield)
TCS Owain Glyndwr

Avengers: 18
Bearcats: 36
Excaliburs: 28
Intruders: 8
Thunderbolts: 24
Fighter Strength, TF Bravo: 114 fighters, 42 torp-capable

Captain Robert “Robber” Bell surveyed the Task Force breakdown ­ the thought occurred to him that this document in front of him didn't reflect the true figures, as the losses they'd so far incurred weren't taken into account. He'd have to check that when he had a free moment. Depressing as it was, the casualty report couldn't be ignored.

The reserves had pooled their resources and then split the group down the middle to get a more even spread of capabilities between the two groups rather than the less balanced force split offered by the more obvious divide of Confederation and Border World allegiance. The breakdown was common knowledge amongst the fleet but only today had Bell been granted access to the information regarding the whereabouts of these forces. This was need to know only but since he had basically taken over the day-to-day planning for Wing Commander Black, the WC had granted him clearance. Robber was deeply disturbed by the WC’s apathy and lackadaisical approach to his job. Black had never been an indolent man and his sudden lack of vigor and seeming disregard to basic requirements of his position was unthinkable. The changes had obviously been noted by Commodore Turnbull, but the two men were friends and Turnbull seemed unwilling to do anything about Black, even as they stood on the eve of destruction.

Robber brought up a graphic of the entire system, zoomed in a few times, zoomed back out, glanced at the numbers of ships and fighters again and began to put down on paper the plan that had began to formulate in his head the previous day.


BWS Sicily; Officers’ club
2048 Horus (CST)

Rat and Dani sat at a small circular table in a quiet corner of the lounge in the bar. They sipped their drinks and talked about what had happened that morning. Each tried to listen to the other recount their own fights but their own struggles dominated their concentration.

Rat saw the man approaching before he said anything. His back was to the wall, and he faced the door. He was a lot more laid back now ­- Dani was a large influence in this -­ but some old habits died hard. This one was probably for the best.

“Hi Dani. How’re you?”

“I'm okay, Stuart.”

“Are you not going to introduce me to your friend?” Stuart slurred.

“Stuart, this is Tony. Tony, this is Stuart. He’s a Thunderbolt driver. Tony is here with our trainees.”

“Areet?” Rat offered. Not exactly passive aggressive, just, I can see you’re drunk, I don’t know you, I don’t care to know you, so can we just get this little “hello, how are you?” over with and you can leave us in peace, eh?

“What?” Stuart asked with an exaggerated tilt of the head.

“I said, ‘Alight?’” Rat said, slightly louder and with less accent.

“What?” Stuart said again, “You not talking to me, mate? I'm just saying hello to Dani here, eh?”

Rat shook his head and took another swig of beer.

“I said, I'm just saying hello to your girlfriend, mate,” Stuart continued, threatening to spill his beer as he waved his arms around on less-than-steady feet. “You don’t mind me saying ‘hello’ to your girlfriend, do you? I'm just saying ‘hello’. I don’t care if you don’t want to talk to me. I'm just being friendly. Well don’t talk to me then. Don’t talk to me, doesn't bother me.”

Rat wasn't quite so nonchalant about this drunken idiot now. There was a definite nasty tone to his voice.

“I don’t mind you saying ‘hello’,” Rat answered carefully.

“That’s alright then, isn’t it?” Stuart sneered. “You don’t mind if I sit down, do you?”

Rat gave the faintest of shrugs and leaned back to look at Stuart. Stuart wasn't looking at Dani at all, he was staring straight at Rat. Rat looked at Dani. She shrugged, but didn't look happy about it. Stuart made no move to sit down in the empty chair beside him. Rat had his helmet bag and ’-suit over the fourth chair at the small table and Stuart was trying to shove them onto the floor.

“I said, you don’t mind if I sit down, do you?” Stuart repeated once or twice more. Rat had lost count of how many times he'd said it. Other things were running through his mind. He was sitting down and Stuart was standing, which put him at a disadvantage, but at least he was facing the guy and "Stuart" hadn't come up behind him.

“Yes, I mind if you sit down, if you want to know,” Rat’s voice came out before he'd made a conscious decision in his mind as to the best course of action here. He knew he didn't want the man to sit down, not just because he didn't like the guy but because he felt deeply uneasy about it. He knew he had to nip this in the bud. Drunks like this guy were liable to do anything. Enough was enough.

“You what?” Stuart continued to try to push Rat’s G-suit and helmet off the chair onto the floor, but without success. His coordination has been affected by the drink, Rat thought to himself.

“I said, ‘Yes, I mind if you sit down’.”

“Why can’t I sit down? I'm just saying hello to Dani.”

“You’re drunk and you’re being a prick. You asked me if I minded and I gave you an answer. Now piss off.”

“Don’t you tell me to piss off, you fat bald cunt!”

Rat was on his feet in an instant. He was on only his second pint. Stone cold sober. ‘Stuart’, however, was rather the worse for wear after god only knew how many drinks. Rat was confident that Stuart, though an inch or two taller than himself, would provide no real challenge if push came to shove. Or rather, if shove came to punch.

“I was only wanting to have a chat with Dani and you’re being rude! Don’t you tell me to piss off!”

“I already did,” Rat stared him down, stepping so that his eyes came to within an inch or so of his antagonist’s face, “and I'm not the one being rude.”

“You fucking were! I said hello and you ignored me!”

“I didn't ignore you,” Rat’s dangerously calm, low, quiet but menacing voice contrasted starkly with the uncontrolled ranting of Stuart, “I'm simply not used to having to shout at someone three feet away for them to hear me.”

“I've had a few drinks, you see, I'm a bit deaf. But you don’t ever tell me to piss off, slaphead. This isn’t your ship, you fat ugly cunt.”

“Look,” Rat concentrated on remaining calm, thinking that if the man had drunk enough for his ears to go cotton woolly he'd had at least four drinks too many, but that if it was the case, why could he hear him now when his voice was hardly above a whisper? “I can see you've had a few, fine. I'm trying to have a quiet drink with my girlfriend but you've come over here uninvited and you were being an obnoxious prick. You've said ‘hello,’ okay, so let’s not have any trouble. Why don’t you just bugger off, eh?”

“Come on then! Fucking hit me!” Stuart exploded, “Come on, you pussy, hit me! I dare you! Come on! Take a swing and I'll kick your fucking ass!” Rat clenched his fists and blew air out of his nose. If he'd been in a cartoon, it would have been smoke and flames pouring from his nostrils. Rat didn't want to start the fight. He never liked throwing the first punch. It was always easier to talk your way out of charges if it was self-defense but the guy was pushing it. He just started to say, “You have a swing then, if you want to fight,” when two tall pilots came over. A six-foot plus thin guy grabbed Stuart and dragged him away while his beefier companion put his arm on Rat’s chest and stopped him from doing anything silly.

“Come on, mate. Sit down. It’s over, he’s getting chucked out. Sit down, come on. Calm down. We all saw it was him that started it. You were sitting calmly with your lass and he was hassling you. Don’t worry, you won't get in any trouble over it.”

Rat sat down slowly, staring at Stuart as he was thrown out of the club. He stood in the doorway for several minutes, gesturing for Rat to follow him outside for a fight. Rat waved two-fingers at him and smiled, mouthing “Fuck off!”

He bought the big guy a drink ­- the thin one had vanished ­- and tried to relax. He couldn't. Dani told him to forget about it, but having been jumped once just recently, he couldn't discard the idea that Stuart and his mates -­ at least one had left the club with him ­ would try something when he left the officers’ club.

Jonathan -­  the big guy -- told them Stuart had been drinking all afternoon. His best mate had been killed that morning.

“We all lost mates today,” Rat snorted, “that doesn't give him the right to be an arsehole with me! Why me, eh? It’s always me. Am I wearing some sort of dickhead magnet or something?”

“It’s probably just your aftershave, babe!” grinned Dani. Rat finally laughed and started to relax again.


TCS Miles D’Arby; Pilot's Ready Room
20th February 2681 (2861.051)
0544 Hours (CST)

Capt. Zack "Poleaxe" Kocinski massaged his aching thumb. He'd broken it in high school during a football game, before half-time, and played the whole second half with it broken. It swelled up so much he had to cut his glove off after the game, but X-Rays had showed nothing. Nevertheless, his thumb joint had ended up with a lump on it, it would no longer straighten 100% and the tendon was now very prominent, standing out, stretching against the skin if he tried to spread his hand to its fullest extent. It ached and pulled against the skin when he did this, and ached after heavy use, or even if the weather stayed wet or cold for too long. Old wives tales about their bad joints and bad weather were all too real for Poleaxe.

Right now however, it was absolutely agonizing. He couldn't apply any pressure at all with it ­- he couldn't even hold a fork or a pen. He couldn't grip with it at all. Poleaxe suspected it was the excessive amount of “piccolo playing” on the HOTAS controls of his Excalibur he'd done in the last couple of days but it nagged at his mind that during the Saint Valentine’s Brawl he'd been tripped and had landed heavily on it. There didn't seem to be enough swelling for it to be broken again, but maybe he'd torn the ligament or something. Anatomy had never been his strongpoint. All he knew was it hurt like hell and if it came to a dogfight he worried if he'd be able to fly the aircraft to its limits. Maybe it was just a sprain, but it wasn't getting enough rest to recover. So fiddling with it wasn't going to help. Ignoring the throbbing, burning ache he tried to get some sleep.

Some time later, managing to catch forty winks in a chair, the alert klaxon sounded. He was jolted awake with a start. He jumped, slid out of the chair and landed with sickening force on his bad thumb. An absolute torrent of the foulest swear words poured out of him in English, Polish and a few other tongues, too. Tears welled in his eyes and all he could do was grip his wrist, kick out at chairs and thin air and scream “FUCK!” at the top of his voice till his throat and his lungs burned. The pain was absolutely excruciating.

Major Shelly "Maneater" Ross looked at him for barely three seconds before coming to a decision, “Zack, sit this one out. We'll go as a 3-ship Vic. Get yourself to the doc. Now.”

Poleaxe could only nod as he grimaced, biting down on his lip to cope with the pain. The agony had been indescribable but by the time he had reached the turbolift it was already starting to fade. Gingerly he experimentally flexed and worked his thumb ­- he could apply pressure with it again. The pain was fading by the second, down to a sort of dull burning. Clenching and unclenching his fist he cracked into an uncontrollable grin. The realization hit him that the fall had probably dislocated his thumb and landing on it had popped it back into place again. The rueful grin remained fixed on his face as he went to see the flight surgeon. Days of pain and discomfort could have been saved if he'd seen the sawbones sooner, but he'd been worried he might have been grounded if the doc had found he couldn't manipulate the aircraft controls properly with the injured thumb. He hadn't wanted to let anyone down. Now they were out there without him anyway. The grin left his face. If anything happened it would be his fault for being a stupid, stubborn bastard.

He told himself not to worry. Maneater was a good stick. She knew what she was doing. They'd be okay, even a man short. He was sure of it.


TCS Miles D’Arby; Mess Hall
0720 Hours (CST)

Poleaxe sat munching his cornflakes as Maneater and “Chip” Chippenham trudged into the mess area. Both were still in sweaty flightsuits. Both looked tired. Chip looked positively in shock. Zack jumped up, spilling his cornflakes.

“What happened?” he knew the answer before he was told.

“We got into a scrap with some bugs. Mantas and Morays. Some Squids joined in. It was hectic. We lost your erstwhile wingman that trainee ­ Davis, Davies ­ shit, I Can’t even remember his name.”

“Davidson,” Poleaxe said quietly.

“Yeah, that’s it. Chip got banged about badly too. Red lights across the board, ‘EJECT’ flashing in his face. We'd both have been dead meat if it hadn't been for a flight of Bearcats from the Anzio. They saved our bacon.”

“Shit,” Zack pressed down the rising hairs on the back of his neck, “I'm sorry.”

“Forget it,” Maneater cut his apology off gruffly. “Can’t be helped. How’s the thumb?”

“It’s okay. Doc reckons it was dislocated but it’s fine now.”

“Good, that means you'll be with us later. Briefing is in 25 minutes.” With that, she turned on her heel and strode out.

Poleaxe turned back to finish his cornflakes. Seeing the soggy mess scattered over the table and floor he shook his head. “Shit.”

“You can say that again,” Chip agreed.

“What’s the Op?” Poleaxe asked as he absently kicked at a cornflake.

“It’s a strike.”


TCS Miles D’Arby; Briefing Theater
0747 Hours (CST)

It wasn't a single strike but a series of strikes, all from different directions and with differing periods between them. Not exactly waves of attacks, more like a series of “splashes” from all directions designed to confuse the Bugs and divide their forces. Timing was critical as it was intended that the inner asteroid belt would provide cover for some of the attackers’ run-ins. To add cover, there would be some aircraft dropping modified decoys to mimic extra strike packages, to help protect the strike groups coming in from directions that lacked the natural cover of the ‘roid belt.

The attack was designed to cause maximum damage with minimum losses. The egress of each strike package would be covered by the attack of the next. Nobody was supposed to make any repeat runs. Get as many HARM and Torpedoes off as possible in one pass, then haul ass. Light the burner and keep going. There would be replenishment shuttles waiting well out of range of the Nephilim fighter screens and the strikers would get more go-juice and BBs and have a second go, if needed, in an organized manner. Nobody would be staying in the target area and making two or three or even more passes at once. No more than one subsequent attack for each strike package to avoid pilot fatigue and because the Bugs would then move away from the asteroid belt after that, if they stayed on the path projected from the data sent to them by CVBG-A late on the 18th. The group they were to attack had been spotted by their SWACS sweeps while they were pinning down and engaging a Kraken Ship Killer during the early hours of the morning. The second group had been moving away from CVBG-A straight toward Avernus Station and was projected to reach TF Bravo of Task Force Jasmine later this morning, just at the right time to use the inner belt as cover ­- assuming they hadn't changed course. Since nobody else had spotted them, it seemed a good bet -­ but with the damage to TF Alpha’s SWACS birds they hadn't been able to confirm it themselves.

If the Bug battle group had or did change course then the second round of attacks would be scrapped as the element of surprise would already have gone and they would lose all cover on their approach. Such attacks, if the Nephilim saw them coming ­- would be picked off piecemeal. The only other option then would be an all-out alpha strike ­- where they'd still be very much outnumbered and outgunned, but without any cover to hide their approach vectors. Not really an appealing prospect.

“Take off times start at 0832. That’s it ­- any questions?” There weren't any public ones but as they filed out of the auditorium someone muttered, “Who planned that? Blacky couldn't organize a shag in a brothel right now!”

“It wasn't Black, it was Robber, but keep a fucking lid on it, will you? It’s not exactly something to shout from the rooftops.”

“What isn’t?”

“Our wing commander has locked himself in his stateroom and hasn't been seen in more than 24 hours.”


“Shit indeed. Now shut up and let’s get on with this.”


Avernus Station; Squadron Commander’s Office
0821 Hours (CST)

“Enter!” Robber shouted without looking up from the computer terminal her was using. The door slid open. Padraig “Punk” O’Brien stood nervously in the doorway.

“Are you coming in or not?” Bell asked him.

“Can I talk to you, sir?”

“Of course you can. What’s wrong?”

“I'm worried about the mission.”

“Me too,” Robber confided, “About what, specifically?”

“About screwing up and letting you down, mostly. As well as the obvious.”


“What else? Someone was telling me dere’s only a fifty-fifty chance o’ surviving your first half-a-dozen combat missions. Oi’m not a gambling man like me da’ but those odds don’t seem too good to me, sure they don’t.”

“In WWI, WWII, Korea, even Vietnam, maybe -­ anytime when manpower, money and time precluded the proper training of pilots. You’re a hell of a lot bet off than someone with maybe 4 hours total flight time getting into a Sopwith Camel made of fabric and wood, without a parachute, and going on a dawn patrol behind enemy lines. You've had a chance to make the mistakes nuggets make in safety with nobody shooting at you. I'm not going to spin you some bullshit about ‘Train like you fight, fight like you train’ -­ we both know that’s not true. You can’t ever train that realistically -­ but it’s pretty good. You'll be okay. Don’t worry about screwing up ­- just follow my lead and I'll worry about not screwing up and letting you down!”

“Okay, Boss.”

“Right. Go and get a bite of breakfast and meet me for the preflight in ten minutes.”

Robber shook his head. He'd almost convinced himself with that speech.


TCS Miles D’Arby; Flight Deck
0831 Hours (CST)

Kocinski stretched his thumb inside his nomex glove for the dozenth time. On the right hand, it would mash hard down on the pickle button to loose off rocket-powered cans of insecticide in the form of high explosive guided missiles. It had better be working or this could be a very long day…

Poleaxe obeyed the waving wands of the plane handlers as he taxied up to the runway. Brakes on. Full power. Last check -­ everything in the green ­- go! No catapults on these little escort carriers. Brakes off, accelerating slowly at first but picking up speed with startling pace, and whoosh -- into space! Check the gauges again -­ still okay. Experimental wiggle of the stick -­ controls okay. Turn to the nav point heading that pops up. Look for your wingman ­- right where he should be. Check the targeting systems ­- lock him up ­- okay. Hope it works on the bugs when it doesn't have a friendly IFF signal to home in on. Pull the power back to high speed cruise. Relax. Check the visibility all round. Work those stiff neck muscles. Stick on the autopilot. Oh, and don’t forget to breathe!


There was about a 60/40 split in the fighter/bomber ratio of Task Force Bravo, and although some Avernus Station fighters were taking part in the raid there couldn't be a 1:1 bomber/escort ratio as some fighters had to be reserved as CAP for the flotilla, even if an attack wasn't expected. This meant that although the planning had very carefully limited the bombers’ exposure to enemy attention, some of the fighters were going to have to do double duty over the target area to provide adequate cover. Maybe Robber had figured the fighters could take care of themselves, maybe he decided not using all the bombers was a waste of resources, or maybe he reckoned his plan would let the various different coordinated attacks of bombers would take pressure off the fighters. Maybe Robber knew himself, maybe not. All Kocinski knew was that he was going to have to stay under fire for a lot longer than any of the strike packages. He couldn't help thinking this was some sort of historical irony -­ in the great raids of WWII, involving up to and over a thousand bombers in some cases, the bombers spent many hours over enemy territory, facing repeated waves of flak and fighters while their escorts, limited in endurance by their fuel reserves, spent only short periods in the firing line before they went home and, if the bombers were lucky -­ another group took over. Maybe it was some sort of cosmic Karma, he mused.

He flipped off the autopilot as they started to hear “spike” calls from other flights. It wouldn't be long now until the shooting started. As always, his mouth became dry and his leg started bouncing as the first enemy blips popped onto his scope. He'd seen it in Mongrel playing chess ­- whereas his sometime opponent Harold “Viking” Svensson, stuck his tongue out in nervous concentration, a comical sight in such a giant man.

Poleaxe watched as the range of his target counted down. He flicked the “closest target” button and the locked-up target didn't change. He watched the numbers spin down, waiting for the moment his guns would be in effective range. He had the enemy fighter, a Moray, slap bang dead center in his HUD, the reticle, the "pipper" just waiting to light up as the ITTS calculated the right moment to shoot, just as he did. He squirted off a short burst and then jinked as the bug fighter blasted high-energy particles at him. He managed another snapshot before the merge and then hauled his Excalibur around to try for a missile shot. He'd spurned the head-on shot, even though he'd had a lock, knowing the missile was much harder to dodge fired from a rear-aspect. He didn't have many and wasting a shot on the first bug in his sights wasn't part of his game plan. He spared a second of his attention to check that his wingman, Mark “Sparky” Jackson was still with him and turned back to getting a good shot at the bug.

It was always the same with large engagements like this. Poleaxe might as well have been in a P-51 fighting for an hour against waves and waves of Luftwaffe 190s and 109s for all he remembered of the fight. It was one of those where when the squadron intelligence officer came over to him and asked him how many he'd bagged, he'd point to the gun camera data disk and say, “You tell me!”

He examined the Excalibur in some detail when he eventually got back on the D’Arby. Carbon scoring ran the full length of the fuselage on the port side. The plexiglass canopy was cracked and melted ­- he had been kept alive by his pressure suit for half the sortie ­- and charred wires hung out of the avionics bay. Hydraulic fluid was still leaking from the main landing gear compartment ­- he'd had to blow the gear down with the auxiliary system, compressed air, meaning the miles of hydraulic pipes would have to be bled after repair to get rid of the air in the system , and the engines were in a sorry state. The port engine's reheat system was totally destroyed and the starboard exhaust temperature had gone off the scale on the way home. Poleaxe wasn't sure if there'd been a fire or not but there'd be masses of damage nonetheless. Paint that was designed to cope with atmospheric re-entry had blistered with the heat coming from the engine.


The strike had gone remarkably well, given the disparity in sizes of their own and the Nephilim group. Subterfuge had worked well. Perhaps the hive mind system the Bugs had made lying and deceit impossible for them, but they had fallen spectacularly into the trap. The old adage was that “No plan survives contact with the enemy” but this hadn't been the case. Everything had gone according to plan. Casualties were heavy, but not surprising. Kill ratios were 3 or 4 to one or more, even allowing for the ever-present problem of over claiming ­- still a problem in the 27th century with computers recording data and gun camera film of all kills ­- two or three fighters (and where they were in the vicinity) several gunners on capital ships would all be shooting at one fighter and all claim it as a kill -- and that was what Robber had hoped for. Any more would have taken a miracle, any less would have threatened the success of the mission. All in all, not a bad day’s work for the first operation above squadron level he'd ever planned!