PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 54 of 62 )
“ Check and Mate ”
Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
On Long Range Approach to Battle Group Valkyrie
1100 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)
"Valeria, this is Reaper Lead on approach with three wingmen. Requesting approach vectors and landing clearance, over.”
”Reaper Lead, this is Valeria Control. Transmit IFF codes and authenticate code Mike Echo Dog Echo Uncle Sierra Alpha, over.”
”Reaper Lead copies all, Valeria. Transmitting IFF now,” Raptor said. “Authentication code Golf Oscar Romeo Golf Oscar November, over.”
”Valeria copies all, Reaper Lead. Be advised, the Taipans are on CAP duty. Expect to be challenged on the way in. Transmitting your approach vector now. Welcome back. Valeria out.”
“Good to be back, Valeria. Reaper Lead out.”
Raptor fed the co-ordinates displayed on his communication screen into the navigation system, and then leaned back in his seat as he waited for the nav computer to plot a new course. He was glad of a chance to relax for a few seconds after the intense flying and combat of the past few hours.
Raptor and his wingman, Major Alexa “Frost” Richardson, had been part of a Border Worlds strike group that had destroyed a Nephilim carrier and its sole surviving escort in the early hours of the morning. On the way back to the Valeria, though, Raptor had received a terse message from Admiral Hanton to hand command of the strike group over to his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel Yu Fei “Phalanx” Leung, and instead divert to the TCS Yorktown.
Once aboard the Waltzing Matilda, he had learned what had become of the remaining Nephilim ships that had jumped in from Ymir on the 18th. In the twenty-four hours of desperate fighting that had followed, the Confederation and Border Worlds carriers had accounted for a Nephilim dreadnaught and two Leviathan super carriers, along with numerous escorts.
The fighting had been far from easy. The human forces had lost the TCS Endeavour, and both the Yorktown and the Border Worlds escort carrier Defiance had suffered severe damage. The last two Nephilim carriers, along with their surviving escorts, had broken past the defensive line held by the human carriers, and were headed for the heart of the system.
The Yorktown’s reconnaissance pilots had been able to track down the Nephilim carriers, and the Yorktown’s commanders had been preparing to launch an alpha strike against the enemy ships. Due to the damage she had suffered though, the Yorktown had been unable to keep pace with the fast moving enemy force. She would only have time for one or possibly two strikes before the Nephilim passed out of effective range of her strike craft.
By staging additional tanker refueling from Battle Group Valkyrie, though, or even possibly operating the Yorktown’s combat craft from the Valeria’s own flight deck, Battle Group Rapier’s flight wing could remain in striking distance of the Nephilim ships for much longer. It was an intriguing plan, and one that Raptor had been keen to be a part of. Before committing his flight wing to such a task though, he had wanted to see first hand if the logistics were feasible.
As a result, he and Frost had volunteered to accompany the strike group on its mission. The objective had been to destroy at least one of the carriers’ heavy escorts, along with as much of its fighter cover as possible. As a secondary objective, Raptor had suggested trying to take out the engines of one of the Nephilim carriers. Crippling a carrier would either have forced the Nephilim force to split up, or slow down enough for the damaged ship to keep up. Either way, it would have bought the human forces more time and more options.
“Colonel, why are we taking the scenic route?” Frost enquired with the lack of deference for rank and communications protocol that Raptor had become well used to since joining the Border Worlds military.
Raptor frowned slightly. Come to think of it, that was a very good question. With his mind on the mission they had just flown, he had turned automatically onto the course the Valeria had given him without noticing that it involved a very long detour.
“Valeria, this is Reaper Lead. Is there a reason why we’re being detoured to the other side of the group? Over.”
”Reaper Lead, we’re shuttling repair crews back and forth from the Defiance. Your course will keep yourselves and the Taipans clear of the flight path. Over.”
”Reaper Lead copies all, Valeria. Over and out,” Raptor said.
The flight continued in silence for the next few minutes, every pilot and gunner’s thoughts on those who had fallen to get them this close to the end of the campaign. The Combined Fleet had lost thousands of men and women in last fortnight’s fighting, and the survivors were painfully aware that it wasn’t over yet. They were very close to victory now, but there would still be dozens if not hundreds more spouses and parents who would get the worst news of their lives in the coming days.
A pair of Excalibur heavy fighters raced in to intercept them as they turned on the second leg of their approach. It was standard practice to visually identify incoming fighters even if all the identification codes checked out. The Nephilim might be slow on the uptake, but they had pulled a few nasty tricks in the campaign. No one was in any mood to take chances.
“Reaper Lead, Taipan Four. Who are your friends? Over.”
”Taipan Four, Reaper Lead. I can vouch for them. I’ll tell you about it on board.” In other words, not over an open channel. The close cooperation between the Yorktown and the Valeria would be even more effective if the Nephilim were kept in the dark for as long as possible. There wasn’t much likelihood of the Nephilim listening in this close to the Border Worlds ships, but there was still so much they didn’t know about their enemy’s capabilities.
A few more minutes of flying, and the sleek, slightly battle scarred silhouette of the Valeria loomed ahead of the four fighters as they turned into their final approach. As much as Raptor had enjoyed his visit to the Yorktown, this was where he felt he belonged.
Home, sweet home…
Command Briefing Room, BWS Valeria
Admiral Hanton had left orders for Raptor and Major Carter to report as soon as they had landed. Raptor escorted the Confed officer to the command level, while the remaining pilots and gunners took the chance to grab an early lunch in the officer’s mess. The Admiral and Captain Que were waiting for the two pilots when they arrived, along with Phalanx and Lieutenant Colonel Alex “Skywalker” Witt. Phalanx was the Wing Commander of the BWS Freedom in addition being the deputy Wing Commander of Battle Group Valkyrie as a whole. Skywalker was the commanding officer of the Taipans, and was Raptor’s deputy Wing Commander aboard the Valeria.
Raptor and Major Carter exchanged salutes with the two senior officers. “Admiral, this is Major Timothy Carter from the TCS Yorktown. Admiral Kennedy sent him along to be our liaison officer with Battle Group Rapier during our combined operations.”
”Welcome aboard the Valeria, Major. I understand that Rapier has already been in action against the Nephilim carriers. I would like you to bring me up to date on the results of the operation.”
”Aye, aye, Admiral,” the Confed officer replied. He concisely but accurately filled in the details of the strike mission they had just flown.
”What’s the estimate on Nephilim losses?” Skywalker asked as the Major came to the end of the report. Major Carter looked slightly surprised that the other pilot had asked before the Admiral had given permission for questions, but he took it in stride. Different services did things different ways.
“There were confirmed kills on a Hydra class heavy cruiser and two Barracuda corvettes, with probable kills on a destroyer and another corvette. We won’t have a reliable tally on fighter kills until Intell has a chance to review the mission.”
“The most important thing though, is the engine damage on the Leviathan,” Captain Que said in his usual quiet voice. “Do you know if the engines were simply crippled or destroyed altogether?”
“The engines took multiple direct hits, Sir. Even if they weren’t slagged completely, they will be out of action for several days.”
”So the question now is, do the Nephilim abandon the damaged ship or hold back to defend it?” Skywalker said.
”We should have the answer to that in a couple of hours,” Admiral Hanton replied. “I’ve ordered the Ghost Warriors to scout out the area. The debris trail from such a major battle should make it simple to track that carrier down. In the meantime though, we need to decide on a strategy to take it out. Crippled or not, a Leviathan won’t be an easy target, especially if the other Nephilim ships decide to defend her.”
“Our first priority should be taking out as much of her fighter cover as possible. They will almost certainly be expecting a follow up strike on the carrier, and that make getting our bombers through a lot harder if their fighters are at full strength,” Phalanx said.
”Agreed. A combined fighter sweep from Battle Groups Rapier and Valkyrie will do a great deal to thin out the defenders,” the Admiral said. “Colonel, you’ve had the chance to see Rapier’s operations first hand. Are the joint missions going to be problematic?”
”I don’t believe so, Admiral. The Yorktown is still close enough for her fighters to reach the combat zone if we provide refueling en-route. I had a chance to talk with the deck crew while I was on board. There shouldn’t be any compatibility problems with refueling. Their frontline fighters are designed to take refueling from reserve tankers as well as their own, and the Confed reserves use refueling shuttles just like we do. Not only that, the damage to the Leviathan’s engines will allow the Yorktown to either hold that range or even close up slightly.”
“Besides, we’ve had plenty of experience working with the Confees this past fortnight,” Phalanx pointed out. “Our fighters aren’t quite as good as theirs, but they are close enough to be compatible.”
“What about recovering damaged Confed fighters? They may not be able make it back to the Yorktown even if we’re providing refueling on the way back.”
”That may be a problem,” Raptor agreed. “I noticed while I was landing on the Yorktown that our ALS system couldn’t interface with theirs. If the pilot is unable to bring the fighter in manually…”
”Colonel, if I may make a suggestion?” Major Carter said. “Your technicians could use the ALS on my Panther to calibrate the Valeria’s systems with ours. My wingman and I could perform a few touch and go landings while we’re waiting for your recon pilots to report back, if that would be any help.”
”That’s an excellent idea, Major,” Captain Que said. “I’ll get the deck crew working on that as soon as possible.”
”Alright. Any other questions?” the Admiral said after a few seconds' silence. “No? In that case, I’ll get Intell working on the mission planning for the fighter sweep, and send message drones to the Yorktown to advise Admiral Kennedy of our plans. In the meantime, I want normal patrolling to continue against surprise attacks, while the rest of the fighter squadrons prepare for the sweep. Dismissed.”
As the pilots left the briefing room, Raptor tapped the Confed pilot on the shoulder. “Major, my deputies and I are going grab some lunch while we have the chance. Would you like to join us before starting on the ALS calibrations?”
”Of course, Colonel.”
Officer’s Mess, BWS Valeria
Lieutenant Colonel Chrys “Mirage” Rhodes, the commanding officer of the Reaper Squadron, joined the four pilots for the meal. Mirage, Skywalker, Phalanx and Raptor had served together in past campaigns. They met for a drink or a meal when their different schedules permitted, to share ideas or simply take a break from their responsibilities.
The noonday meal was well underway when the officers arrived, but they were able to get a secluded table by one of the viewports, where they would be able to talk without being overheard. The food itself was nothing special, but it was hot, filling, and plentiful, and the pilots dug in hungrily. All of them had been flying long enough to know that you never passed up a hot meal in a combat zone.
The conversation over the meal was cordial. Relationships between Confed and the Union had been strained over the past decade, and their pilots had often had cause to think of each other as potential adversaries. Over the past few weeks though, the Confeds and Border Worlders had fought shoulder to shoulder against the Nephilim, relying on each other and entrusting their lives to each other. While the experience wouldn’t forge instant trust or friendship between the sides, it had created a mutual respect for each other’s courage and abilities.
For the most part, they avoided talking about the current operation. For one thing, they all needed a mental break after all the shocks, losses and strain of the past few weeks, and especially the last couple of days. For another thing, Confed security regulations were a lot stricter than those in the Border Worlders, and talking about operational details would have put Major Carter in a very difficult position.
Instead, they talked about their homes and families, about plans they were making and what they would be going back to when this campaign was over. No one knew what the Nephilim were planning, or how long this new war would last. In their hearts though, they were all hoping that this alien incursion into human and Kilrathi space was a once off, and that defeating it would bring an end to the war. Humanity was just recovering from over three decades of war with the Kilrathi, and no one wanted a repeat of that nightmare.
The conversation drifted slightly as they finished their food and took a few moments to relax over cups of coffee. They were now talking about politics, especially about relations between Confed and the Union. The Border Worlders tried to play down the simmering anger in the Union about the Confed Senate’s decision to leave the Frontier at the mercy of the Nephilim, but were surprised to find that Major Carter was in firm agreement. If anything, feelings among Third Fleet’s pilots and crews were running even higher than those in the Union. They felt abandoned and betrayed by those who had sent them out to fight and then denied them crucial support when the battle had taken a turn for the worse. There were even those who were muttering about getting their own back on the Senators when this was all over, though plenty of others were arguing against it. However this campaign turned out, there would be a lot of fences to mend, and plenty of work for the diplomats to do.
“Davidson’s going to be trouble. He’s already calling for the Union to break all ties with Confed,” Phalanx said, referring to the far right Border Worlds Senator who was spearheading the opposition to Confed. His opinions were still very much in the minority, but his vocal and extreme views ensured that he was constantly in the news. As with all such people, he tended to attract more support when things were going wrong and people were looking for someone to blame.
“Davidson is an idiot. Most people think he’s lost touch with reality,” Mirage disagreed. The Senator had made some truly outlandish claims in recent days, including that the Confed carriers lost in the campaign had actually gone into cloak, and were poised to attack the Union.
“The trouble is there are always people who’ll believe a conspiracy theory, no matter how far out it is or who is saying it,” Phalanx pointed out. “There isn’t a lot of trust out there at the moment.”
“Especially when people on our side of the border keep feeding the rumors,” Major Carter said. “Senator Ganson is arguing that Confed should annex the Union to keep the Nephilim gaining a foothold on our border.”
”Maybe Davidson isn’t so paranoid after all. Someone really is out to get him,” Raptor said with a smile. Senator Ganson had been a constant thorn in Confed/Border Worlds relations, refusing to even recognize the legitimacy of the Union as an independent state, let alone the alliance between the two nations.
“They’re not all troublemakers, though,” Major Carter pointed out. “Senator Taggart has been pushing hard to make the alliance work, and there are a lot of other people who support him, politicians and otherwise.”
”Same on our side of the border,” Raptor agreed. “President Cale’s staked a lot on the Treaty, and he won’t let it go under so quickly. Besides, most people in the Union support the Treaty in principle, even if they don’t like all its terms.”
“What about you, Colonel?” Major Carter asked curiously. “Do you think the Treaty will last?”
”I think it has to,” Raptor said, and both Phalanx and Skywalker nodded in agreement. “The last thing either Confed or the Union can afford is to be sparring with each other. We need to be watching each other’s backs, especially if the Nephilim keep coming at us.”
The meal finished on that somber note. Phalanx had to leave to catch a shuttle back to the Freedom, and Skywalker offered to escort Major Carter back to the flight deck to begin the ALS recalibration. For his part, Raptor could barely keep his eyes open. He had flown two difficult strike missions in the last twenty-four hours, with a pair of long cross system flights in between. The heavy meal only added to the sleepiness, and he only just kept himself from yawning openly as he started the walk back to his quarters, with Chrys walking beside him.
“So, what was it like?” Chrys asked curiously as they walked towards the lifts.
“Being back on a Confed carrier.”
“Any particular reason you’re asking?”
“Good, in a lot of ways. It reminded me a lot of how it was during the War. The good parts, I mean.”
“There were good parts to the War?”
“Well, there was shore leave on Vespus…”
”Sorry. I meant the way it was among the carrier crews during the War. It didn’t matter if you were a Confed or a Border Worlder, or what your background or race or politics were. I’m not saying that it was all sweetness and light or that we all liked each other, but there was a real sense that all of humanity was in it together.”
“And you miss that,” Chrys said.
”Sometimes. It was good not having always remember that the pilots you’re working with now might be opponents a few years down the track. We had a common cause, and nothing was allowed to get in the way of that.”
”Yeah, well, you always were an idealist,” Chrys said with a smile. “Everyone’s always out for themselves, no matter what kind of spin they put on it.”
“And you always were a cynic,” Raptor said, matching the smile.
“So, any regrets?”
“Ah, that.” Raptor said, finally seeing what she was driving at. He had never denied that he had enjoyed flying for Confed, and it was natural to wonder if he wanted to go back to that life. A lot of other Border Worlds pilots had done exactly that since the Treaty had been signed.
“I guess I’m sorry that relations between Confed and the Union broke down the way they did, and that we ended up facing each other across the gunsights. I’m not sorry about the choice I made though.”
“So you wouldn’t go back if you could?”
“No. Like it or not, we’re two separate nations now, and different nations will always have different interests. Besides, I wouldn’t trade my life here in the Union for anything.”
”Glad to hear it.”
”All right. Your turn to answer the tough questions.”
Chrys pulled a face. “Make it quick. I’ve got to report for patrol duty in ten minutes.
”I noticed you didn’t say anything when Major Carter asked about the alliance with Confed. Do you think it’s going to work out?”
”It’ll all probably end in tears.”
”Really,” Chrys said, and then sighed. “Maybe. Optimism isn’t really my forte.
“Be nice. I think both Confed and the Union were a little starry eyed when we signed the Treaty last year. Everything was supposed to go back to the way it was before the Black Lance affair. Like you said though, we’re separate nations now, and we’ve each got our own interests.”
”So when the smoke from this invasion clears…”
“There’s going to be a lot of hard talking. We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to make the Treaty work. What parts we’re going to keep, what we’re going to throw out, whether we’re going to start again from scratch…”
”You think we’ll have to?”
Chrys smiled wryly. “Optimism, remember?”