PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 53 of 62 )
“ Check and Mate ”
Aboard Piranha 133 "Sindri Star Lead"
Nifelheim System, Union Of Border Worlds
0943 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)
Martinez wished Carter luck as she watched his fighter, his wingman, and the pair of Retaliators peeled away from the formation, even as the formation blossomed in space like a flower expelling pollen.
"Don't let those bastards get away, Sindri Stars. We can't afford for them to tail us home," Martinez called, even as she tallied up her final weapons.
She had a grand total of forty rounds of Stormfire cannon ammunition left, which may or may not be enough to certainly destroy one fighter. She had no missiles left, and her afterburner fuel was down to around twenty percent.
She figured the rest of her squadron would be in a similar way, but they still had the power to get the job done.
Lining up the first target as the range diminished rapidly, Martinez watched as the two targets immediately turned tail and began running for their lives as four Piranhas accelerated towards them.
Martinez lined up the bandit that was farthest from the scout fighters, and continued closing, even as the second pair of Piranhas opened fire from long range with their laser cannons, hoping to inflict damage and slow the enemy down, then close in for the kill.
Martinez’ full frontal array of weaponry, everything short of her Stormfire cannons, blazed brightly in space as it spanned the distance between the two fighters. The ion fire slammed into the shields, while the laser cannon fire chipped away, slowly wearing down the enemy defenses. As soon as her wingman joined in, the weapons fire chewed through the enemy shielding. The Moray writhed like a living creature under to touch of its pilot, but to no avail.
The Moray literally came apart under the abuse, pieces peeling away until something vital exploded, hurling the remaining pieces of fighter in all directions.
“Splash one!” called her wingman.
Not twenty seconds later, the second Moray disappeared from the radar scopes… and the Yorktown’s flight group was once more alone among the stars.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen, the scopes are clear, no further signs of pursuit, and our messengers are away. Come to course one-seven-one z-plus two, and set speed to three hundred fifty KPS,” came Alvarez’ voice.
There came a series of acknowledgements, to which Martinez added her own as One Flight returned to formation, led by Martinez.
Martinez looked around, seeing the most damaged of the fighters, belonging to Carson from Grendel Squadron, trailing fuel as the pressurized tank spewed its contents into the void through a hole no larger than a pinprick. She shook her head. Another Vampire out of action… and the Vampires were one of the Yorktown’s greatest assets. They needed every last one.
Well, it looked like they’d be down another fighter… or more. There were two pilots who weren’t coming back this one.
Martinez knew it was worth it, that the damage they’d inflicted upon the enemy had bought them precious time, and with that time came options. But at the same time, due to the situation the Combined Fleet was in in this system, they had only two options: Attack, or don’t.
If they attacked, the attackers put themselves in harm’s way, hoping to knock the enemy back on his heels enough to keep him from concentrating his force and hitting them back.
If they didn’t, they assumed a defensive posture and waited for the enemy to attack, which gave the enemy the initiative.
So in truth, they didn’t have any choice. They had to keep on swinging. One hit after another, keeping the enemy off-balance until he fell over from the combined impact of a hundred small hits, as opposed to one large one.
Then, before she knew it, her comm channels crackled to life. Checking her mission clock, she found it was already 1118 Hours.
“Eyrie, this is Lima-Golf, inbound with strike. Mission accomplished. We are inbound, count is plus five,” came Alvarez voice.
“Lima-Golf, authenticate Tango-Sierra,” replied the controller aboard Yorktown.
“Lima-Golf authenticates Charlie-Mike,” Alvarez replied.
“Lima-Golf, this is Rapier-actual. Confirm your count,” came the voice of Admiral Kennedy.
“Rapier-actual, my count is plus five. Over,” Alvarez said.
Aboard Panther 100 "Lima-Golf"
“Understood, Lima-Golf. Bring them in, and well done,” came the controller’s voice.
Alvarez swallowed. The final phrase, pertaining to the number of fighters the strike group had remaining, meant that the strike group had lost a pair of fighters. Had the count been "seven," it would have meant no losses.
In all reality, however, Alvarez counted Yorktown’s wing as fortunate to have gotten off so lightly… though she doubted the maintenance crews would feel the same once the crippled fighters landed. They’d have quite a bit of maintenance work to do… seven fighters at least would be out of action, while fifteen others had damage of light-to-moderate seriousness, and could be restored probably before the day was out to flying status.
“All right people. Line them up and prepare for landing. Keep it cool and collected. No hot-dogging, and if you feel like it’s too much, take another pass around. We’ve got the tankers here to deal with fuel problems. Cavaliers, you’re first,” Alvarez called.
“Copy that. Cavaliers, you heard the woman. Lets get them aboard. Start off in reverse order.”
One by one, the Shrike torpedo bombers made their approaches, the surviving bombers being brought aboard safely. Next aboard were the Tigersharks, two of which were badly damaged, one from the Hammerheads, the other from the Arkrunners, though both made it aboard without incident.
Alvarez looked around. Gleaming in the light of Nifelheim’s sun, the Yorktown hung placidly in space, her escorting ships above and below her. The scene, fighters landing aboard a carrier in space, was a scene she’d seen so many times during her career that it struck her as funny that she thought of it as peaceful.
Yet, somehow, peaceful it was. Orderly and efficient, with no loss of life, and yet, thrilling at the same time, with life balanced against death on a knife’s edge, which only the pilot’s skills could affect.
Pilots rolled the dice against death every time they climbed into their fighters… maybe they could be considered the ultimate addicts, whose addiction was adrenaline and the thrill of doing something that was incredibly difficult.
The cost if they faltered even a bit, or made one tiny mistake: Death.
Maybe, Alvarez thought, most pilots were the ultimate gamblers, not addicts. Nothing else compared to betting one’s life in the ultimate game of chance.
She snapped herself out of her reverie as the Sindri Stars began making their approaches, while the Excaliburs and Thunderbolts from the Maribel and the Agincourt, and the Wasps from Yorktown flew combat air patrols all around the task force, making sure that the battle group wasn’t ambushed without warning.
One after another, the small single-person scout fighters made their traps, with only one pilot, flying a damaged craft, showing any hint of a struggle getting aboard.
That left only the Panthers and Vampires to be brought aboard.
“Black Dragons, you’re first. Pack it in,” Alvarez ordered.
For a squadron whose home had just been destroyed, the Black Dragons managed not to show any loss of morale or coordination. Each pilot brought his or her fighter craft aboard the Yorktown smoothly and effectively, with little or no fuss.
“Lima-Golf, Grendel Lead,” Rosencrantz’ voice came.
“Grendel Lead, go,” Alvarez replied.
“Request permission for myself to be the last aboard. I’ve got a pilot with a bent bird out here, and I want to make sure he gets aboard safely.” Rosencrantz finished.
Alvarez felt a momentary pang of concern. While the Vampire in question, flown by Second Lieutenant Carson, was in bad shape, she hadn’t thought it had been that bad. Rosencrantz wanted to hold his pilot’s hand as he put it on the deck? It sounded serious.
“Understood, Grendel Lead. Your squadron will be the last aboard, in whatever order you see fit. Feline Squadron, this is Lima Golf: I’ll be leading you in,” she replied.
“Copy that, Lima-Golf. Felines, you heard the lady. Form up,” came the voice of Captain James Tyler, the squadron XO. He was in command while Carter was away with the Valeria and her group.
Carter… there was a pilot who was going places. Rosencrantz was next in line for a Wing Commander slot, but Carter was headed there, possibly early. At the very least, he was going to be an assistant wing commander, or maybe commander of a planetary flight wing… before going on to a Wing Commander’s slot, and then, probably a carrier. She wouldn’t be surprised.
Aboard Vampire 117 "Grendel Lead"
“All right, Nine. Bring it in nice and easy. I’m right on your wing,” Rosencrantz called.
“Grendel Nine, call the ball and your state,” called the LSO.
“Grendel Nine has twenty-one percent, roger ball,” Came Carson’s voice, an edge of nervousness coloring his normally confident tone.
“Grendel Nine, call your needles," Fitzgerald continued.
“Down and center,” Carson replied.
Rosencrantz checked his own indicators, making sure that they were showing the same thing, and not something different. They showed he was on the glideslope, centered up.
Obviously, Carson’s avionics had been given one hell of a beating as well.
“Disregard. You are center and on glideslope,” Fitzgerald called out. “Alright, Carson. Just sweet-talk that bird down. Piece of cake. If Rubio could get her bird on deck in the condition it was in, you can do it with that Vampire of yours.”
Rosencrantz smiled. Nobody knew how many lives were saved, how many successful landings accomplished, because of the experienced, cool voice of a good LSO.
“Copy that, Paddles,” came Carson’s voice.
“That’s it, Lieutenant. Nice and easy. Not a care in the world. This is just CarQuals all over again. Just a trap you need to stay current,” came Fitzgerald’s voice again.
Rosencrantz could feel the tension start to ease out of Carson, and even himself. Fitzgerald was one hell of an officer. He’d wanted to go back to being a pilot after this one was over. Rosencrantz just hoped that they made it out of this one, and to hell with the next assignment he got handed.
The Yorktown swelled in his sights as he and Carson got nearer.
“That’s perfect, Carson… keep coming… level your wings… good. Boy, that thruster must be a bitch… good thing you’re flying it… keep coming…”
And then suddenly, it was over.
“Good trap, Grendel Nine. Nicely done,” came Fitzgerald’s voice.
Then, it was Rosencrantz’ turn. He banked to the right and ‘climbed’ away from the carrier, taking himself and his fighter back to the beginning of the landing pattern to repeat Carson’s performance.
“Grendel Lead, call the ball and say your state,” came Fitzgerald’s voice.
“Grendel Lead has the ball, state two-zero percent,” Rosencrantz replied.
“Alright, Shooter. Bring her aboard. Call your needles,” came the next stage.
“Grendel Nine is slightly left and on glideslope,” Rosencrantz replied.
“That’s affirm. Fly your needles,” Fitzgerald replied.
And Rosencrantz did just that, until he felt the tractor beams snag his fighter, at which point, he cut his engines.
“Nice pass, Grendel Lead, but not the best I’ve seen you do,” Fitzgerald teased.
“Want to come out with us next time, Fitz? I’m sure we could work something out with Colonel Alvarez,” Rosencrantz fired back.
Laughter passed through the tight-beam transmission. “Thanks, but no thanks, Grendel Lead. I’ve already done my time…though if you need me, I’m here,” Fitzgerald said, only half-jokingly, Rosencrantz knew. Once a pilot, always a pilot, even if all you’d flown was a shuttle. It applied more than anything else to flying in combat, which Fitzgerald had done.
Rosencrantz taxied his fighter into position, which was, surprisingly, just behind the catapult. Were they going out again?
Climbing out of the cockpit, he felt the adrenaline draining out of him rapidly, bringing on a ‘ghost’ fatigue that all pilots felt after a mission was over. All of a sudden, his helmet felt heavier, along with his kneeboard and flight suit. His boots felt like artificial gravity had just been increased by half a G.
He carried himself to his squadron’s ready room, where he collapsed into one of the padded chairs that were a pilot’s best friend after a long mission. He waited for the rest of his squadron to arrive, including Carson, who had been set upon by the techs, who were already trying to get his battered Vampire back into the fight.
When Carson walked into the ready room, he looked haggard, his usually ruddy face somewhat pasty, his hair matted with sweat. Rosencrantz knew the landing had been a trial, but he would be willing to put money on Carson’s also having a nasty brush with death, maybe even thinking he’d been done for. He’d seen that look in other pilots’ eyes before, but never had it been in the eyes of somebody as seemingly young as Carson.
He smiled, remembering something said as the strike group had headed home.
Standing, he turned and gestured broadly with the sweep of an arm in Carson’s direction. “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the winner of the ‘Most Badly Bent Bird’ award. Despite incredible odds, he managed to get his conglomeration of moving parts home without serious separation of the aforementioned odds and ends! And his bravery in facing the plane captain whose bird he bent is the stuff of legends… Ladies and gentlemen, I give you first lieutenant William ‘Matchlock’ Carson!”
Almost immediately, following in their leader’s footsteps, trying to cheer up one of their number who was obviously struggling at the moment, the rest of the squadron began pouring on the applause, some of them going to far as to rise and let loose loud whistles. Carson looked up, shocked, and slowly, hesitantly, a feline grin began to spread across his features.
Second lieutenant Anna Desmond, whose fighter had come through the fight intact, stood up, holding a sheath of papers rolled into a tube, and walked forward. “So tell us, Lieutenant, how does it feel to receive this great honor?”
Stepping immediately into the role of the flattered celebrity, Carson stepped forward towards the "microphone," and began speaking. “Well, Anna, I’ve got to say I’ve never been more shocked in my life. This experience is irreplaceable, and unique as far as I can remember.”
To this last comment, a great deal of laughter erupted from the assembled squadron, Rosencrantz included.
Taking the reins again, Rosencrantz stepped forward. “Now that we’ve settled the matter of Mister Carson’s award for most mangled fighter, who’d like to protect him from the maintenance troops who will undoubtedly be gunning for him in his sleep tonight for causing them so much extra work?” Again, there was general laughter, along with a sheepish smile from Carson.
“Seriously, ladies and gentlemen, we did well, all things considered. We attack and damaged a superior enemy force. Now, we play piranhas versus a shark: We nibble them to death… or at least that’s my guess,” Rosencrantz said. “As a result, we’ll probably be running fighter sweeps to take down enemy fighter strength, and soften them up for the knockout punch. Also, we may have slowed their force down enough that Yorktown will be able to keep up for a longer period of time… but be prepared to cross-deck with the Valeria and her group, and make frequent tanker escort missions to extend the effective range of our birds. Until I get word from Colonel Alvarez, however, take some time to recover. No alcohol, but relax, try and grab some rest. Now, to the matter of this debriefing…”
The mood in the Cavaliers’ ready room was somewhat more subdued. They’d lost one of their number, which meant that once again there was a group of empty seats where there should have been friends.
However, that didn’t mean that Karpoff was any less proud of them.
“You people did damned good work today. Corvettes, fighters, cruisers, and a damaged carrier. You took everything the enemy threw at you. And thanks to some brilliant maneuvering on the part of Silence, the enemy’s trap came back around and bit them in the ass!” He called out.
A ragged cheer rose, accompanied by clapping and one or two rebel yells.
“Now we get some rest, right boss?” came a call from the back of the room.
Karpoff’s elation faded slightly. “Nobody knows. Colonel Alvarez has yet to brief anybody on their next activities… which means, if you want to grab some sleep, I would recommend you do it now.”
Karpoff almost wished that he hadn’t made that statement, as (jokingly) several pilots immediately rolled their heads either forward or to one side, closed their eyes, and began making loud snoring noises.
“Walked into that one, Major,” Rubio said, a grin spreading across her features.
“We’ve just got a ready room full of comedians here…but before any of you start taking their go or no-go pills, we’ve got a debriefing to pull. We should have the information from the gun cameras and sensor returns in just a bit, but it looks like the scoreboard is now Cavaliers one, bugs zero. I’d also like to express my gratitude to all of you, including those of you who’ve just joined us from the Dev, for your performance. You’ve all gone through a lot, but we’re not finished yet, and the battle could still go either way. So keep it up. The folks here are depending on us,” Karpoff finished.
“They always are…” called out Rubio’s wingman, Anna Dicer.
“Fighter pilots make movies… but bomber pilots make history!” came a cry from one of Endeavour’s bomber pilots. At this, another cheer erupted.
“You know that, and I know that, but keep it down around Colonel Alvarez. She might take it personally,” Karpoff said with a grin. “So… we’ll run through it from the beginning of the engagement…”
Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54);
Fatigue could kill. One slip, one minor mistake, and it could end or permanently change a life. Under combat conditions, fatigue compounded exponentially, along with the workload required of those in the military.
For the technicians and crewmen that maintained the Yorktown’s flight wing, it was worse than for the pilots. They knew the quirks of each and every fighter that flew off their deck, by necessity. They also knew the pilots who flew the fighters. Even during the times that there was little or no work to be done, when the fighters were out on strikes, rest as difficult to get. This was because they worried, like so many parents, about the pilots and their craft. So many had not come back from the strikes that had been launched in the past three weeks…
Right now, though, they were busy. The delicate ballet of maintaining a combat air patrol with the Yorktown’s Wasp interceptors, along with SWACS aircraft and refueling shuttles was being carried out in addition to repairing eight fighters that were in badly damaged condition, along with those with more minor ‘gripes’. Then there was upkeep work to be done, the normal maintenance work that needed to be performed even if fighters weren’t damaged in combat.
All in all, the Yorktown’s flight wing maintenance staff was stretched thin. The survivors that they’d picked up from the Endeavor had all volunteered to pitch in and help, but only so many of them knew how to maintain the fighters that flew from their carrier. Everybody pitched in where they could… but life was still difficult.
CPO McKnight was looking over the work taking place on Carson’s Vampire. Barely had it touched down and been towed clear of the landing area when the last bit of fuel remaining in the fighter had decided to spray spectacularly out of the high-pressure lines damaged by the fragmentation blast from an exploding Nephilim missile or a micro-meteor strike while the fighter’s shields were down. The resulting mess had taken ten minutes to clean up, and quite a bit of AFFF (aqueous fire-fighting foam) had been sprayed across the deck to ensure that the fuel didn’t ignite and cause an explosion. One of the carrier captain’s worst fears is a conflagration on the flight deck during flight operations, as few places are more dangerous and have more ordinance than a carrier deck.
McKnight watched as the crews swarmed over the Vampire, removing access panels (though a few had actually been missing, blown off by the Nephilim) and removing damaged sponge armor and inoperative components from the fighter. It looked like the fighter was being taken almost down to the frame.
Walking over, McKnight (who had a brief reprieve from deck operations) actually saw a number of structural members belonging to the fighter were exposed, charred carbon black, and one or two were warped or marred.
Petty Officer Third Class Antonio Rigotti, the plane captain for Vampire 119, was peering into a Bussard intake shaking his head. “Somebody get me an adjustable spanner and a cutting torch! We need this cowling taken completely off. It looks like there’s debris lodged down in here.”
“On the way!” called a green shirt who’d just started off to get tools in any case.
“Looks like one hell of a bent bird,” McKnight said, approaching the fighter.
Rigotti didn’t even look up, shining a flashlight down the intake. “You’ve got that right, Chief. The white shirt’s on his way over. I don’t know that we’ll be able to save this bird.”
“You’re not going to have a happy pilot over that one, plane captain.” McKnight replied, himself looking down the intake.
“Can’t be helped. I’d rather not have my pilot going into combat in a fighter that may or may not even be able to make it off the deck without falling apart,” Rigotti replied.
“It’s that bad?” McKnight asked, spotting the debris. “Looks metallic… maybe part of the engine cowl?”
“Could be… and could be. You know the fuel spill when he shut the fighter down? The fuel feed lines were almost totally severed. The vertical swivels actually sliced through the fuel lines by putting tension on the fuel lines that were already damaged, or jamming the edge of some debris back against the fuel lines. And the space frame damage may or may not be something we can repair. As for the engine pod… well, they’re trying to see if machining a new pivot point is feasible, but they’re saying it doesn’t look good… which means our pilot may have to lock the engine pods if he wants to fly in a straight line. And that means that the Vampire loses the roll rate and pitch rate that gives it its maneuvering edge. Where’s that spanner?” Rigotti finished.
“Right here,” called the green shirt.
“Attachment point here… and here…” Rigotti began, then began applying pressure to the connecting bolts.
One loosened nicely, but the other…
“Damn. Looks like the thing was heated to the point of fusing with the connection point. I was afraid of that. Get me the torch… and where’s the shooter?” Rigotti said, referring not to the catapult officer, but the white shirt ‘troubleshooter’.
“Right here. Take it apart,” came a voice from behind.
McKnight could see the young man wince, as this would probably mean that somebody else would be creating a new connection point to replace the one that had literally melted.
Rigotti lit off the cutting torch, narrowed the bean down to a pencil-thin width, and began cutting. Even with the connection point as damaged as it was, the ablative, heat and stress-resistant connection point took ten minutes to cut through. With a distinctive POP the panel finally came loose.
Inside, a slab of some kind of material was wedged in tightly, part of it melted against the alloy "funnel" that channeled stray hydrogen into the fuel cells of the fighter.
“Any idea what it is?” Rigotti asked.
“No clue. Analysis will tell us later. Right now, we need to know how much damage was done inside the collection system. But this isn’t the problem. You can run on one collector and one fuel cell. The problem is going to be the starboard side engine pod and swivel assembly. That’s all chewed up, and the engine itself is being taken apart and checked over right now.” The troubleshooter replied.
“What’s your evaluation so far?” Rigotti asked as a pair of green shirts began assessing the level of damage to the hydrogen scoop.
“Off the top of my head? This bird’s going to be down-checked and probably become the parts bird for a while.” The white-shirt shook his head. “Damned shame too. A brand-new, top-of-the-line bird, and it’ll be taken for parts. The pilot’s not going to be happy. But I could be wrong.”
Rigotti shook his head as well. “Damn. I’m not looking forward to telling Matchlock about this…”
“Occupational hazards. Trust me, I’ve been there and done that,” McKnight added, remembering his words with the Border Worlds Wing Commander not long ago.
Colonel Alvarez was pacing. There had been no signal from Major Carter that he and the Reapers had reached the Valeria successfully, but, on the other hand, no signal that they had not done so. And with the fleet under radio silence, all she could do was to trust in the abilities of the four pilots and two tail gunners that had winged their way to the Valeria.
In the meantime, however, she couldn’t waste time worrying.
She turned back to her information terminal, and pulled up the information on the flight wing. So far, from this raid alone, six fighters and a torpedo bomber were out of action, to say nothing of the losses that had been incurred.
One bomber down, and one Tigershark also lost.
Both losses were serious, but the bomber was the worse of the two. A carrier’s effectiveness was directly proportional, in a fleet engagement like the one they were engaged in now, to the number of heavy strike craft carried, capable of inflicting capital ship losses on the enemy’s fleet. And the loss of even one of them diminished the Yorktown’s effectiveness all out of proportion to the size, cost, and capabilities of the single bomber.
The question was, what next?