PHASE V : THE NIFELHEIM ARC ( 55 of 62)
“ Check and Mate ”
Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Wing Commander’s Office
1238 Hours (CST), 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)
“So where do we go from here?” Alvarez asked.
“Fighter sweeps. We can’t mount another major strike right after we hit them. Our pilots won’t be able to function effectively. What we can do is sting the bastards and wear their numbers down a bit. I’ll put my pilots up against two-to-one odds against the bugs in equivalent fighters and we’ll still come out on top,” replied Captain Tyler of the Fearless Felines.
“I’d do the same any day of the week and twice on Sundays,” called the captain who commanded the Black Dragons, formerly off the Endeavour.
“What about mixing groups of fighters? Give every team of fighters a wing pair from the Sindri Stars and we’ve got much better sensor coverage than your average bug hunting group does. Then add in either some of Coursain’s Excaliburs, a pair of the Cavaliers, or fighter from Hercules? That’d give you a balanced capability-” Garza spoke up.
“Negative. We’re not sending out any craft armed with torpedoes, and the Shrikes are staying home for this one. They’ve been hammered this entire time, and our heavy torpedo bombers are precious right now. No, we’re not placing them at risk. Besides, the objective is to eliminate enemy fighter strength,” Alvarez replied. “But the mixing in of the Piranhas is a good idea. We’re going to go with that. Anybody else have anything to offer?” she said after a sip of coffee.
“Ma’am, with all due respect, the Death Stingers are going out if there’s a fighter sweep. We know our role is point-defense, and we know we’ve played a critical role in keeping the Yorktown safe… but my pilots’ morale is in the gutter. We’re tired of being kept back while you folks go out and risk it all. We want a piece of the action, ma’am. If we go through with this, I’d like at least some of my pilots to be able to leave the BARCAP stations,” spoke up Major Pierce.
Alvarez nodded, considering. True, the Death Stingers’ Wasps had a shorter endurance than most fighters…but that didn’t mean they weren’t effective. In truth, because of their strap-on booster packs, they practically begged to be used as an ambush or rapid-response force. The trick would be keeping their fuel levels up… “Very well, Major. I’ll consider it.”
“I’d recommend fighter groups of no less than six fighters, ma’am, Sindri Stars included. If we’re going on a fighter sweep, we do want numbers. Your typical Nephilim patrol usually consists of about four bogeys. It’d be nice to have a numbers advantage this time,” put in the officer in charge of the Hammerheads, also late of the Endeavour.
“Set it up so that you’ve got two scout fighters and four medium or heavy fighters, or Interceptors. One hell of a headache for any Nephilim patrol we find. Though once they catch on, they’ll either increase their numbers or they’ll refuse to play along. At that point, we may have to start using bait,” Lieutenant Colonel Popov, the Wing Commander for the fighters from the rest of the ships in Battle Group Rapier, put in.
“True enough. At that point, though, we suck them in… and use the Wasps’ ability to cover massive distances in minimum time to our advantage. Remember people: If we’re beating on them, they can’t be trying to find and hit Waltzing Matilda,” Alvarez replied. “Anything further?”
“Make the sweeps two-or three-point patrols. Every bug we splash now is one less they’ll be able to throw at us later,” Rosencrantz interjected.
“Has there been any word from Major Carter about cross-decking with the Valeria or at least getting tanker support from them?” Martinez asked.
Alvarez grimaced. “Not a peep, though both task forces are under radio silence. As soon as we hear from Battle Group Valkyrie, you’ll probably get the word. With regards to the two- and three-point idea, it’s a good one. Everybody take an hour, grab some rest and/or chow, and then get ready to get right back to work. I want you to have pilots going out in shifts, so that we’ve got strength back at home if we need it. Major Pierce, that includes you. I’d say pick your six best pilots and tell them to be ready to get out there. I want them to conserve as much fuel as possible. Worst comes to worst, we’ll shift them over to the Maribel and have them on alert-five. The good news is that your people still have nearly seventy percent of their stockpile of Swarmers, so that’s one missile type you don’t have a restriction on. If you can get a kill, fire them off. Alright, people. That about does it. Go get some sack time and some food. I’ll see you back here in one hour.”
Rosencrantz left Alvarez’ office feeling slightly elated. For a while, anyhow, barring any nasty surprises, there wouldn’t be anymore strike missions that would require everything they had. It would fall to the Vampires, as the pre-eminent fighter in Battle Group Rapier, to rack up the kills against the Nephilim. While the attrition of fighter sweeps had the possibility of being bad, especially when it came to pilot stress and fatigue levels, it would be nothing compared to what would happen to the Nephilim.
Especially now that the fighter pilots wouldn’t be tied to a strike’s apron strings.
Finally, all the ACM practice that his squadron had received before shipping out with the Yorktown would be put to more use than shielding a strike. Now, their task was to kill the enemy’s fighters, as many as they could, as fast as they could. Granted, circumstances would be a bit in the enemy’s favor in overall numbers and given the fact that Rapier’s pilots would be going out with half missile armaments, but… on the whole, Rosencrantz would lay down his bets on his own people. Though this would be a hard day on one of them, he thought, remembering Carson and his down-checked bird.
Returning to his quarters, he changed out of his flight suit and into his blues, finding it difficult to remember what it was like to wear them. Checking himself in the mirror, he headed for the officers’ mess, which, while it was somewhat shunned compared to the "dirty shirt" wardroom where pilots could eat wearing their flight suits, where the minimum of ‘decorum’ was needed, it had its advantages. The officers’ mess required a clean uniform, no flightsuits allowed, but had (typically) a much more sophisticated decor and sometimes (though very rarely) better food. For some reason today, Rosencrantz just felt like getting spruced up.
He entered the mess and looked around. There were a surprising number of people here, in uniform. He soon found out why: One of the chefs had whipped up a cheesecake from somewhere, and it was going exceptionally quickly. Rosencrantz quickly appropriated himself a piece, and sat down at an empty chair. He looked over and saw himself sitting next to Commander Preston Wallace, the Yorktown’s XO.
“Surprised to see me here, Major?” Wallace asked, in between the last few bites of his cake.
“Er… a bit, sir. I figured you’d be on the bridge or in CIC,” Rosencrantz replied, waiting to begin eating until the commander was finished talking. Wallace noticed and smiled.
“Please, don’t stand on politeness, Major. You picked a good time to drop by, though.”
Rosencrantz gave a grin. “I can see that, but I’m not sure how the mess crew managed to put this together. After all, isn’t it a little bit wasteful?”
Wallace leaned back after wiping his mouth with a napkin. “Surprisingly enough, it’s the bugs fault. That torpedo hit caused some collateral damage that’s taken until now to manifest itself. We’re losing power to some of the refrigeration units, because of damaged wiring and the like. So rather than risk the entire stash of refrigerated goods after I looked it over with damage control, I figured we’d eat out of there for a while, rather than using from everything. They shut the power off, but it’s cold enough residually to keep everything frozen until we’re done using it. What you’re eating came from ingredients kept in one of the affected reefers.”
Rosencrantz swallowed, gave a close-mouthed smile, and nodded, then took a drink of water. “Well, sir, let me be the first to say I thoroughly approve… though I hope the rest of the crew is getting its share of the goodies as well.”
Wallace gave an affirmative gesture. “Don’t worry about that, Major. Everybody gets a share of the spoils. Even the lowliest spaceman-third. The diet may have more dairy and eggs than it usually does, but there was also frozen meat and the like. We’ve got to use it or lose it. I also figured it might pick morale up a bit.”
Rosencrantz gave another smile as he swallowed. “Well, sir,” he said after taking another drink of water, “you were certainly right about that one.”
Wallace grinned his appreciation. “So, Major… what can we expect of the flight wing?”
“We’re looking at fighter sweeps to cut down on Nephilim fighter strength before we mount another major offensive. But it’s going to help us pilots out quite a lot. I’ve got-” Rosencrantz checked his watch, “-about another fifty minutes before I report back to Colonel Alvarez for further planning and decision making. But it looks like every fighter we’ve got is going out on patrols this time. Even the Wasps. Not all at once, no. But sooner or later, everybody’s going to get a shot at the bugs, and this time without having to worry about a strike. That makes for a big difference. No worrying about making sure the bombers hit their targets, just making sure we hit ours.” Rosencrantz said.
“I remember,” Wallace replied, thinking back to his own flight time off the light carrier Victorious during the tail end of the First Kilrathi War. “It was good just to get out without the rest of the air wing and take it to the enemy without having to worry about anything but getting you and your wingman back alive. A bomber strike may be one of the decisive moments in battle, but it’s about ten times as stressful as a fighter sweep.”
“I’m surprised Colonel Alvarez hasn’t gone the way of Captain Peploe,” Rosencrantz said, referring to the former captain of the Stasheff, who was now at one of the medical facilities in the system along with those people who couldn’t be evacuated, due to a bad ulcer, exacerbated by stressful conditions in combat and the constant strain of the past weeks. “The way she handles things, never breaking, always quiet, and never seems to take a rest.”
“Linche actually made her get some rest before we jumped here. Too bad he’s off flight status. We could really have used him,” Wallace replied, referring to the lieutenant colonel who was second in command of Yorktown’s flight wing. An old back injury had reared its ugly head during flight operations and the surgeon had taken away his flight status until he could get through rehabilitation… perhaps permanently.
It occurred to Rosencrantz that the only casualties of this conflict weren’t just those related to combat; it was the people who suffered the strain of the conditions that those in the military were under. Even if you weren’t on the front lines, you were always at risk in some way or another. Quite a few people didn’t just realize it. You were risking your life so that theirs could be business as usual.
Rosencrantz finished his cake, and then brought his plate back to the dispenser. “I’ve got to get going now, sir. Thanks for the chat.”
“Anytime, Major. Be nice to see you pilots up here a bit more often, but the old man knows why you don’t get up here much lately. Don’t worry about it. We may drop down to one of your wardrooms some time,” Wallace replied with a grin.
Rosencrantz returned the grin. “Careful, sir. Pilot country can be a dangerous place.”
And with that, he left the officers’ mess, still wearing the grin.
Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54);
Ready Room 3
“Thank god!” came the voice of First Lieutenant Kara "Kay" Hastings from the back of the ready room. “They’re finally going to turn us loose from escorting this group around! Now we get to kick some ass!”
“About time, too. Don’t they know how hard it is sitting and baby-sitting while the strikes are going in, knowing that all we can do is to sit and wait to be attacked?” added her wingman, Second Lieutenant Fjahad "Saladin" Isfara.
“Okay. Now that we’ve all cried in our coffee about being left out of this for so long, let’s get to planning who’s going to be the first to go out. I’ve got to report to Colonel Alvarez in less than ten minutes, and we’ve got to have a decision. I want one wing pair each from Two Flight, and the two fighters from Four Flight,” Pierce said.
“Sir, you said that there would be six slots open -- ” began Captain Kristin "Huntress" Clark, the squadron’s second-in-command.
“That’s right. The four that I’ve selected, and myself and my wingman for the first rotation. And that’s not negotiable. The pair from the Endeavour have seen more hostiles than we have, and I want the most experienced pilots we can get for the first run. They can bring back more information on the enemy’s capabilities with reduced chances of their being killed off. The rest of the squadron can then absorb and utilize that information to best effect,” Pierce explained.
“I understand, sir, but the leading two fighters -- ” Clark began to protest.
“-Are myself and my wingman for the first sweep, and you and yours for the second. And that, Captain, is all the argument that I will brook. You’ve got eight minutes to decide on the pair from your flight,” Pierce said, aware that he was being unfair, but knowing that it would help keep the rotations even…and that he couldn’t send people out before him.
“Take Costanza and Marconi. They’re a good team,” Clark replied after a few seconds thought.
“Very well,” Pierce said. “I’ll need them here as soon as I get back from the WC’s office to brief them on any specifics the Colonel comes up with. I want you here too, so that you can get an early read on this. Understood?”
There were nods from the pilots assembled. “Alright then. See you folks in… probably an hour or two,” Pierce called, then turned and exited the ready room, heading for Alvarez’ office.
He made his way through the corridors of the Yorktown, passing through hatchways, stepping over combings, until he came to the Wing Commander’s office. He was surprised to see a trio of ghostly silhouettes standing before Alvarez, in addition to almost all of the Yorktown’s squadron commanders. Entering, he joined the group. A few seconds later, Martinez joined the group.
“I’ve asked Colonel Popov and Major Coursain to join us, as their squadrons will be involved in the fighter sweeps. The Maribel’s fighter will be maintained for close-in defense, along with pieces of every squadron in the fleet while the remainder conduct the fighter sweeps. Keep in mind, we’re still in the preliminary stages of this, while waiting for confirmation from Valeria about readiness on their end,” Alvarez began without preamble.
“Are we considering cross-decking operations?” asked Captain James Tyler, the XO for the Felines and in temporary command of the squadron until Major Carter returned.
“Yes. If necessary. We’re hoping that, if any of the fighters assigned to the sweep get damaged enough that they can’t return to Yorktown, then they’ll have the option of recovering aboard Valeria,” Alvarez replied.
A wave of silence fell upon the room. While they were allies, most Confederation fliers were uneasy about members of the Union of Border Worlds… partly because of the Confederation’s actions during the Black Lance Incident, and their embarrassment over Confed’s role in it, and their fear that the Border Worlds still to this day held it against them. While it didn’t seem logical for the Confederation to be more fearful of the Border Worlds than the other way around, there were times when it was a reality.
“In any case, once we hear from Major Carter, we should be able to proceed with the sweep. Which, incidentally, will be as follows.”
Alvarez activated the holographic display, which showed a view, centered on the Yorktown, slowly changing elevation and heading. Emanating out from the Yorktown, the majority of the sweeping fighters were heading in the general direction of the Nephilim battle group’s last known position, with a number out to the flanks and rear.
“We’ll be sending up sorties consisting of six fighters apiece, five groups at a time. Three will close on the previously established coordinates of the Nephilim, and will be escorted by a pair of Piranhas for extra sensor coverage, while the other pair of patrols will stay close in to Yorktown and circle the force to deter any enemy strikes that might be inbound. The rest of the fighters will remain on the deck, prepped for further sweeps or to respond to any alerts that we get. The Shrikes won’t be going up, so you torpedo pilots can get some rest,” Alvarez said.
As expected, there was some good natured razzing about the need of sleep for bomber pilots, which Karpoff took humorously, if with a bit of a wry smile.
“Major Pierce, with your Wasps’ booster capabilities, you’re going to be a response force. Any time a patrol bites off more than it can chew, say odds of two-to-one or higher, your fighters will break from their assigned holding point ahead of Rapier, here, and move to assist at best speed. Don’t worry about fuel endurance, tankers are available from either Valeria, if they agree, or Yorktown. We’ll maintain a patrol with the SWACS out with you, and a pair of tankers. I’d like you to keep six Wasps available for response duties on the forward station at all times. Bare minimum is four,” Alvarez continued.
“You’ve got it, ma’am,” Pierce replied.
“The forward sweeps will consist, in addition to the pair of Piranhas, of four heavy fighters. The roving patrols close in will be a mix of Tigersharks and heavy fighters. Unfortunately, some of the Tigershark pilots are going to have to hot spin and go right back out due to a lack of numbers, but it can’t be helped. At least half of Yorktown’s fighters are going to be back here, so we’re not worried about close-in defense. We can always call back the roving patrols. The tanker group is going to be as follows: We’re going to have one SWACS and a pair of tankers out with the six Wasps, and we’re putting four T-Bolts from Hercules out with them in case extra firepower is needed,” Alvarez said.
“Colonel, how long are these sweeps going to be?” Rosencrantz asked.
“That depends on how far out the enemy is. But we’re looking at four hour patrols, worst-case scenario. And yes, I know that cuts it close for our fighters, but we’ve got no choice. We’ve got to cut down on their fighter strength before we can hit them with the knockout. And don’t forget, Valeria’s birds will be in on this as well, so you might get some support from them as well. But we’re going to be working as a team. This is going to be just like the First Kilrathi War, for those of you who remember. We’ve got to sterilize the target area before going in with the bombers,” Alvarez replied.
“It’s going to be tough on my pilots, ma’am. We’re looking at one of them flying for eight hours straight, worst-case scenario. We could really have used the ‘Sharks from the Stasheff on this one,” replied Garza.
“I’m aware of the difficulties, Captain, but we don’t have a choice. If it comes down to it, issue go and no-go pills for that pilot. I’ll see what I can do about possibly rotating your pilots off for Panthers or Vampires, but we’re a little tight on fighters right now -- ” Alvarez began.
“Ma’am, I might have a solution, if it comes down to it,” Rosencrantz interjected. Upon receiving a nod from Alvarez to continue, he explained his plan. “I’ve got a pilot whose Vampire was down-checked after the last strike. He’s going to be rattling around here without a bird to fly. If I recall correctly, he worked his way into my squadron from a Tigershark training squadron, and still has the certification for the ‘Shark. If it comes down to it, he could sit in for Captain Garza’s over-time pilot.”
Garza was startled, but looked almost satisfied about it. “Double-check his certification, but it sounds good. It would certainly be better than some poor bastard stuck in a cockpit for eight straight.”
Everybody inwardly, if not outwardly, winced at that thought. Though it was theoretically possible, nobody had wanted to put that theory to the test. The idea of being stuck in a fighter for anything over eight hours was painful to say the least.
“That said, ladies and gentlemen, we’re not a ‘go-mission’ yet. Until we get word from Valeria, though, figure on going up in… two to four hours. In the meantime, get your pilots rested, and try to get as many of your birds as possible back into the fight. We’ve got five bent birds that we could really use if they were made operational,” Alvarez said. “Final questions?”
There were none.
“Then you’re dismissed. Brief in two hours,” she said.
Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54);
Kennedy and Ramirez were examining the plot, waiting for any word from Valeria or the appearance of Major Carter and his wingman, but to no avail. They’d both been briefed on Alvarez’ plan, and both of them thought that it showed a lot of insight into the capabilities of both the Yorktown’s fighters and their pilots, along with quite a bit of strategic ingenuity.
Now, all they could do was wait.
“Any reports on getting the engines back up to top speed?” Kennedy asked, following up on a report from the chief engineer that he’d heard five hours earlier.
“Turned out not to be possible, not with the supplies we have here. We still need a space dock for this girl,” Ramirez replied, looking over the sortie list and the plotting board. There was a large X, the estimated position of the enemy force, above which was a question mark.
“Any word from the Stasheff?” Kennedy asked.
“Negative sir. She’s still under radio silence,” Ramirez replied.
Both officers took a sip of coffee from their mugs, examining the plot. A minor squeak at the rear of the bridge announced that somebody was entering the compartment. Ramirez turned to find his XO had returned.
“Sorry, sir. Had to make another DC inspection of the patches along the impact area. Looks like we’re in good shape. As good as it’s going to be without time in dock. No handling restrictions except the engines. We got lucky,” Wallace said.
“Very well. I’m going to go below and grab some chow. You have the bridge, XO. See you in a while, Admiral,” Ramirez said.
Kennedy watched the exchange between the Captain and his first officer. Wallace was being evaluated for carrier command, and judging by his actions in this conflict, he’d be getting it… if they survived.
He observed as Wallace looked over status displays, watched the bridge crew go about its tasks with a critical eye, looking for minute details that may or may not be correctly taken care of.
He smiled as he observed Wallace’s slow circuit of the bridge before resuming his post near the center of the bridge. Kennedy preferred not to sit in the captain’s chair because he wasn’t the ship’s CO, and, admiral or no, he didn’t want to be underfoot. He’d had his time in the captain’s chair, however, as commander of the Concordia-class fleet carrier Bennington during the last half of the Black Lance Incident. And Bennington hadn’t been near the Border Worlds. It had been ordered to stand by and engage the Black Lance when Tolwyn’s plot had been uncovered. It had also ensured that no Black Lance could sneak out of the area of the ‘clean-up’ operations in the Border Worlds when the then-newly established Union and Confed worked to get rid of the menace posed by the GE pilots and their bioweapons.
He took a few moments to consider what was going to happen in the fleet after this was over. Obviously, new construction would have to be authorized to replace the ships that had been lost, new technologies would be developed to deal with a large number of enemies. Hopefully, further budgetary allocations would be made to allow greater military preparation and more personnel in the military. The lessons learned in combat would be applied after the fact, but that was better, Kennedy supposed, than their not being applied at all.
It was interesting. In a way, Tolwyn had been right, though he’d never admit it openly. Warfare pushed humanity to excel… because if they didn’t, they would cease to exist. Survival was a powerful impetus… but one couldn’t allow it to override morality or compassion… which was what Tolwyn had done to the detriment of known space. All had suffered as a result. And if the trust in the military hadn’t been shaken so badly, maybe things would’ve been different when the Nephilim had shown their ugly heads…
But that was the past, and Kennedy knew he had to stay in the present if he were to get his command through this.