PHASE II : THE TYR ARC ( 2 of 28 )
: “ An Estimation of the Enemy
On Approach to the Tyr Jump Point
February 2nd, 2681 1100 Hours
Major Michael Rosencrantz stared into the metal mirror. The small clock on the countertop read 1100. He had gone off-duty at 0600 in preparation for the jump. In the interim, he had managed only three hours of sleep, a fact readily discernable from the face in the mirror. Time to face the world, boys and girls. He held his hand at eye level, inspecting it for the common twitch pilots often acquired after their fortieth year. Nothing. Rock-steady. Rosencrantz smiled. I guess this means I put off becoming a transport pilot another day.
Rosencrantz began this day, like all others, with a shave followed by an abbreviated shower. Though water discipline had been significantly lightened since the end of the war, he maintained the habit. When he finished, he dressed, pulling on the dark uniform blues of Confed Space Forces. He appraised his reflection, deeming himself worthy for duty.
Rosencrantz exited his quarters and made his way to pilot country. He eagerly poured himself a mug of coffee and drank. The doors to the lounge hissed open to reveal two of his wingmates, Lieutenants Walker and Carson, respectively "Footman" and "Matchlock." They nodded to him as they went for their own cups of coffee.
The Grendels' duty shift had yet to start. Today, as in other days when the Grendels pulled first duty out of a jump, the majority of the pilots congregated in the lounge before heading to the briefing room. More began to filter in.
Rosencrantz turned his head and saw his XO standing off to his right. Irena Arkadyova appraised the squadron. Rosencrantz saw satisfaction in her eyes. The team met her expectations. Arkadyova instinctively knew Rosencrantz saw her measured gaze, and she responded with a confirming nod. Rosencrantz checked his watch. He took a final swallow of his coffee and stood.
The rest of the Grendels immediately took notice of this and finished their coffee and banter. Rosencrantz deposited his mug on the dirty dishes rack at the bar and gave a final nod to the Grendels. Each followed suit. Rosencrantz and Arkadyova left for the briefing room.
On Approach to Tyr Jump Point
The WC stood at the podium in the briefing room. She surveyed the pilots before her. A large portion of her air wing filled the room, with the last of the Grendels, her heavy-hitters, filtering in. The pilots took their seats, ready for whatever the Wing Commander could throw at them. The WC went through the assignments. She finished with the assignment for Brancer's Arkrunners, then leveled her gaze at the Grendels seated at the rear of the briefing room.
"Grendel Squadron. We've got a wakeup call for you. We're sending you out on forward patrol ahead of Yorktown before the jump."
The Grendels all took notice of this. A patrol usually consisted of a handful of Pirhanas to sweep an area. Sending out sixteen Vampires was not a patrol; it was Recon-In-Force. The WC wanted to know what was out there, but she didn't want it to see another day.
"After launch, jump into Tyr. Confirm the area secure, then signal the Yorktown. We'll jump when you give the all clear. After the Yorktown jumps in, proceed on your patrol. We need you to scout along two vectors. Tactical suggests dividing your squadron into two wings, but the decision is at Major Ronsecrantz's discretion. The two patrol areas are shown here."
The squadron collectively peered at the navmap in front. Rosencrantz and Arkadyova, sitting next to each other, exchanged glances. They leaned closer to whisper among themselves.
"Tactical has the right idea on this one. We'll split into my Delta Wing and your Echo Wing. Go through the navpoints. Standard procedure."
"I wish we had better intelligence."
"Me too. But, I think Alvarez figures, like I do, that overwhelming force will make up for shoddy info, at least this time out."
Arkadyova nodded. She pursed her lips, staring at the mission map. Her eyes glided from point to point, burning the mission data into her mind. She looked over to Rosencrantz and nodded. He nodded back without a word. Col. Alvarez dismissed the Grendels. The Vampire pilots rose and left for the flight deck.
The Grendels reached the pilots' lockers and removed their flightsuits and helmets. They removed their blues and put on their flightsuits, attaching each pressure clasp with care. The Grendels finished as one, standing to make sure that everyone else was in top form. They took their helmets and headed for their fighters.
Rosencrantz walked to his fighter. Beneath it stood his crew chief, Jen Sheldon. She held a checklist in her hands, furiously marking off various systems as "nominal." Rosencrantz smiled wryly. She looked up at him.
"Hell of a day," she declared. "You're loaded for bear, and most anything bigger. Standard loadout: IRs, Pilums, and Trackers."
"Thanks, Jen," Rosencrantz said. She handed her checklist to him with a pen. He signed off on the fighter and its ordinance. She smiled and took the checklist, running off to help service one of the numerous other fighters awaiting the scramble after jump. He put his helmet on and climbed into the cockpit. A tech pulled the ladder away the moment he sat in his seat.
He craned his neck and looked around. The rest of the Vampires had acquired their pilots. An alarm klaxon sounded, accompanied by flashing warning lights. The Yorktown was readying for her jump. Non-essential crew members cleared the launch deck for the protection of sealed rooms while every cockpit on the flightline hissed shut.
On his HUD, Rosencrantz saw the launch clock count down. He glanced out his cockpit and saw the techs readying for launch. He waited his turn for launch. Rosencrantz scanned his controls for the pre-flight inspection. All systems go. He looked out the cockpit to his right where the launch officer stood. Rosencrantz gave a thumbs-up, signaling that he was go-for-launch. The launch officer signaled readiness back to him.
Rosencrantz throttled up to maximum. He checked to his right again. The launch officer hunched forward, arm extended. At that moment, Rosencrantz steeled himself. The catapult flung his Vampire into the void. In an instant, man and machine became one. Rosencrantz transformed himself psychologically into a being of pure will and focus. The word across his helmet read: Shooter.
As he cleared the Yorktown's launch bay, Shooter pulled hard to starboard and assumed a holding pattern beside the Yorktown until the remainder of the Grendels had launched. As always, Capt. Arkadyova brought up the tail end of the launch cue.
"WhiteWitch to Yorktown control: Grendel Squadron is out of the barn."
"Confirmed, Grendel Squadron. Good Luck, and good hunting."
Grendel Squadron formed up and took the point. The Vampires slid silently towards the jump buoy. As they approached the buoy, each Vampire's navcomputer linked for jump. When all were synchronized, Shooter gave the order to jump. With a tremendous flash, the Vampires' miniaturized jump drives engaged, propelling them to the Tyr System.
For an instant, the pilots of Grendel Squadron felt themselves thrown forward through space-time, then dumped like a pail of water. The 16 tiny ships emerged from a plume of spatial energy into the Tyr System. For most, transit through jumpspace caused a quick wave of nausea. Rosencrantz felt nothing. He scanned the area, finding it empty of everything but Taipan Squadron's Excaliburs, now out of cloak. The area was secure. Shooter keyed his trans-jump comm system.
"Shooter to Yorktown. Area Secure. Send the rest through."
Fighters, torpedo boats, corvettes, and finally, the big capships poured through the jump point. When the Yorktown had completed its jump, Shooter radioed in for permission to sortie. Col. Alvarez replied in the affirmative. The sixteen Grendels assumed formation, awaiting Shooter's orders. Shooter punched his navmap, revealing his squadron in detail. He assigned seven of the pilots to WhiteWitch's Echo Wing. He kept the remaining seven for Delta Wing.
"Okay, people, separate. WhiteWitch, you have your navdata for Charlie Zone. If you run into the neighbors, make sure they don't come back to ask for sugar."
"That's an affirmative. Echo Wing in transit. WhiteWitch out."
Grendel Squadron divided into Delta and Echo Wings, each en route to its respective Navpoint. As a unit, the Grendels throttled to full afterburner and locked on autoslide, allowing them maximum speed at minimal fuel expense. Shooter spoke into his comm unit.
"Grendel Squadron, this is Shooter. Test your axes on my mark. Three... Two... One... Mark."
With that, the Grendels initiated their pre-sortie ritual. Each pilot tested the maneuverability of his or her craft while in transit to their destination. The Vampire's greatest virtue, its autoslide capability, allowed them to perform this test without losing any time.
The Grendels pitched, rolled, and yawed as one. Observers on the capships paused in wonder, admiring the training made manifest in this astrobatic display. Two wings of fighters, traveling on separate vectors, acted as one. It left little doubt in the minds of anyone watching that Grendel Squadron had ceased to be a unit and had become a weapon comprised of sixteen components.
Shooter requested status. He received fifteen nominal reports. At that, the comm channel went silent. Grendel Squadron slid silently into the void.
Delta Wing Nav
As Delta Wing neared Nav 1, Shooter began to tense up. He made a visual inspection of the wing. Shooter keyed the comm.
"Shooter here. Anything to report?"
"Negative, sir. Approaching Nav 1. All scanners clear," responded his crack-shot lieutenant, William "Matchlock" Carson. Matchlock's voice betrayed a small hint of distance. Matchlock searched his display for any alien signal. The absence frustrated him.
"We've been a bit too discreet. Perhaps we can smoke a few out. Matchlock, BlueNote: switch your scanners to maximum active. Everyone else, power down your actives. Let's see what sort of response we get."
Delta Wing neared Nav 1. As it drew closer, all but two of the Vampires went to silent running. BlueNote and Matchlock diverted all power to their active sensors, announcing their presence to any and all in the area. Matchlock peered at his navmap, hoping that his sledgehammer-subtle scanning would flush out whatever was surely out there.
"BlueNote, do you copy?"
"Right here, Matchlock. Nothing on my screens."
"Good. Five minutes until Nav 1."
Delta Wing glided silently through the perpetual night of space. As the Vampires approached the Navpoint, Matchlock's gut tightened. He glanced out his cockpit at his wingmates for reassurance.
"Affirmative. I've got one... no, two... no, three, yes - three confirmed sensor contacts at extreme sensor range."
"Talk to me, BlueNote," Shooter interjected, breaking his previous radio silence. He linked his navcomputer with BlueNote's.
"Sir, I got three unknowns who aren't giving me any IFF signals. Double-checking the warbook." BlueNote ran his sensor readings through the onboard IFF database. The computer searched its records, comparing the signals to Confed, UBW, Kilrathi, and even obscure codes such as Double Helix, Varni, Wu, and Yan. Nothing.
"Sir, it's confirmed. These contacts are unknown. The warbook doesn't have anything on them. It looks like we found the folks we were looking for."
Shooter examined his navmap. The nebulous dots on the map seemed to remain in one general area. Proceeding with contact would require abandoning the navroute. He keyed his long distance transmitter and radioed the Yorktown.
"Yorktown, this is Shooter, over."
Shooter waited a tense moment. His tension lifted as Col. Alvarez filtered through his speakers. A very light amount of static crackled over her voice due to the distance.
"Yorktown here. Report."
"Yorktown, we've detected three unidentified contacts on a vector that would force us to abandon our patrol route if we pursue. Requesting authorization to pursue."
"Upload scanner data."
With that, BlueNote stored his sensor log into a single file and encrypted it. He pressed the "Transmit" button, sending a microburst transmission back to the Yorktown where Tactical could pore over the readings. He waited for confirmation.
"Received burst. Analyzing Delta Wing, you're cleared for pursuit, but be careful. Good luck."
Shooter worked the minutiae in his head. He weighed his options. Delta Wing would be going in totally blind, the least favorable of any combat situation. He licked his lips, restoring moisture to his mouth.
"All fighters, adjust course for intercept, maximum speed. Matchlock, BlueNote: maintain full active scanning. Everyone else, maintain silent running. Perhaps we can fool them into thinking that there's just two of us. Then, we drop the hammer on the suckers."
Delta Wing dropped out of autoslide, altered its vector, then throttled up and re-engaged autoslide. The Vampires closed on the unidentifieds' position. BlueNote peered at his navmap. He absorbed each new bit of data that his sensors collected.
"BlueNote here. New sensor data. I've got enough for a radar silhouette. It looks like three medium fighters. These things have got to be curious about us. They have to be picking up our scanners, but they're still loitering."
Shooter didn't like that one bit. A foe that made its intentions that obvious either had nothing to fear, or, more likely, planned a feint. He keyed the comm.
"Stay frosty, people. This looks like a trap."
"ETA: One minute and closing," BlueNote intoned. Shooter considered ordering a switch to combat mode. He decided against it. They'll make it a foot race. "Aspect change in contacts. They're running for it!" BlueNote exclaimed. Shooter smiled inwardly. He ordered Delta Wing to pursue. From what he could tell, the alien mediums were running full out. His Vampires would overtake them easily. Delta Wing closed in for the kill. Shooter signaled Matchlock and BlueNote.
"How much do we have on these things?"
"Full 3D image, plus a few stray bits of signal data. Not enough for a combat profile," Matchlock replied.
Shooter looked down at his navmap and studied the image of his quarry. The alien fighters, with their fins and aquatic shape, seemed a more fitting inhabitant of a sea of blue rather than black. Shooter paused for a moment and allowed himself a second to study his new prey.
"Sir! New unidentified contacts ahead!"
Shooter snapped his attention to the new blips on his navmap. The enemy had sprung its trap. Three new ships screamed toward Delta Wing. Shooter examined them with his navmap. They were heavier, probably packing a meaner set of guns.
"BlueNote, log your sensor data and burst it back to Yorktown. Matchlock, burst yours to one of the picket ships, just in case. What the ?"
An insectoid face appeared on his comm screen. It uttered a shriek in an alien tongue. Shooter powered up all systems as Delta Wing hurtled closer to combat range.
"Okay people, combat status: Sensors active, weapons hot. In range in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Break and attack!"
At once, Delta Wing separated. Each Grendel found a target and bored in. The aliens responded in kind, scattering in different directions. One of the mediums locked on to Torchie, a relatively new arrival to the Grendels. It let loose with a barrage of its guns.
"Bad guy on my tail," Torchie radioed in.
The medium pursuing her had a tail of its own. Lilith "Harpy" Drake took aim and opened up with full guns onto the medium's rear end. She marveled at the massive destruction wrought upon the medium by her Vampire. She thumbed her missile hat switch, firing an ImRec at point-blank range. The alien fighter disintegrated in a flash, its only legacy a harmless aqua-colored shockwave.
"Bad guy off your tail."
Shooter closed in on another medium. Two solid blasts from his guns shredded the alien to nothingness. Shooter then jinked up and engaged autoslide to allow him a better view of the battle.
Miles "Footman" Walker had caught the attention of an alien heavy fighter, attention that he did little to discourage. He had noticed that BlueNote had targeted it. Together, they were successfully using "the old bait and switch." BlueNote unleashed his powerful guns upon the back of the heavy, causing it to trail smoke and debris. The alien broke off and attempted to run. Footman flipped his fighter and waited for tone. Four red triangles encompassed the target box. The ImRec dropped away from his ship and sped toward the dying heavy. The heavy fighter vaporized in a flash on contact.
The last medium fell quickly to Torchie and Harpy's guns. Two other Vampires, piloted by Trader and Dagger danced with one of the remaining heavies. The alien got off a lucky shot with its big gun. The blast depleted a terrific amount of energy from Trader's forward shields.
"Son of a gun!" Trader called out.
"Stop playing, you two," Shooter commanded, concentrating on the remaining heavy fighter.
Trader and Dagger engaged autoslide and brought their weapons to bear on the heavy fighter. The alien found itself between a pincer attack of ImRecs. It released countermeasures, but to no avail. The two ImRecs impacted on the alien fighter, destroying it utterly.
The final alien flailed about in a desperate attempt at survival. It jinked and rolled furiously, enough to evade the deadly guns of the Vampires. The alien targeted Shooter. It straightened out, lining up with his tail. The other Vampires quickly took aim while Shooter burned away. Almost out of spite, the alien launched a missile at Shooter as seven sets of full guns dissolved its fighter. Shooter dropped decoys and jinked repeatedly. The missile closed in.
"Gotcha covered, sir."
Matchlock lined up his sights and fired a perfect deflection shot. Shooter twisted away as the missile erupted into a fireball. He straightened out and found the area clear of all hostiles. Only then did he allow himself to breathe.
"Great shooting, Matchlock. I owe you a few rounds of Glenfiddich when we get back."
"Well, sir, you know If I had let you take that missile, the Psych Officer would probably let me have the whole bottle," Matchlock replied, his grin seeping through the comm system.
Shooter returned in kind. "Just for that, I'll make you cut it with water." The adrenaline rush was catching up with them. With the danger now past, it felt good to release the tension.
"Folks, we've still got a nav route to patrol. We did good here today. Now, let's finish up and get back to the barn. Shooter out," he radioed in.
As his comm system clicked off, alarms sounded in his cockpit. Shooter's ECM warning display popped up. Delta Wing had just been blasted with active sensors from an unknown source.
"Damn. We've been made, people," Shooter cursed. Delta Wing had been tricked into giving up some of its most precious information, its combat abilities. The pilots scanned their ECM displays, looking for the source of the enemy sensor readings. A high probability vector showed up on their respective navmaps.
"Okay, people, this isn't good, but I'm not going to trade that much intelligence for the little we obtained in that dogfight. We're going in to find the source of these sensor readings, then bug out on an alternate vector. We are not going on a straight line back to the York, god forbid these things have cloak. Stay sharp. We're going in."
Delta Wing cruised toward their contact with deadly purpose. Minutes passed. What had once been a vague sensor reading developed into multiple contacts. Delta Wing drew nearer. The pilots' sensors drank up every little bit of data. A cruiser lay before them, along with a pair of destroyers. A few inconclusive readings signified smaller contacts, either fighters or corvettes. Shooter had had his fill.
"Ok, people, let's get the hell out of here. Hopefully we got enough info so that tactical can do something useful. Make your heading along the decoy vector. Full speed. Form up. Let's get back to base."
Echo Wing Nav
"This is WhiteWitch. Report your status," Arkadyova enunciated.
Years of schooling in various academies and other high institutions had eroded her accent down to the crisp, precise inflection she gave to her words. Command required clarity. Clarity demanded that she drill that small bit of her heritage out of her. Such precision formed her outlook on life. It was a part of the discipline.
The rest of Echo Wing responded to her query. A chorus of "All systems nominal" greeted her. Three navpoints of empty space had done little to the Vampires except add extra hours to their active flight time. Without any contacts, friendly or hostile, WhiteWitch had little to do except stare at her scanner display.
"Something tells me that the cockpit cams of these missions don't get much play at high schools when the Academy goes to recruit," mused Robert Wells, a man far better known by his callsign: Psi-Cho. WhiteWitch had mixed feelings on comm chatter, but she welcomed it on this mission. Additionally, the fact that Psi-Cho knew the time and place for his humor swayed her opinion.
"Well, it's just one more navpoint. Besides, I'd take rotting my brains out with boredom over mixing it up with ancient forces of darkness bent on universal destruction any day," chimed in the pilot to her left, Joseph "Cockney" Fergus. As one might assume, Fergus had kept his accent.
"Cut the chatter," WhiteWitch said with a bit too much force. The Colonel had ordered pilots to keep all speculations on that Kilrathi folk tale to themselves. WhiteWitch agreed. The last thing a pilot needed to think when he flew was that his death was foretold and inevitable.
"As Cockney said: We have one navpoint left. We'll do it by the numbers. WhiteWitch out."
Echo Wing continued on course. They reached their final navpoint without ceremony. It, like the others, proved to be nothing but void. WhiteWitch sighed. The patrol had proven fruitless. She keyed her long range transmitter and signaled the Yorktown.
"WhiteWitch to Yorktown. Area secured. Returning to base."
Echo Wing, this is Yorktown. We'd like you to check something out on your way back. We sent out an SWACS after you launched. It reported finding two large contacts in an area near the G'wriss jump point. We've triangulated a rough location for you to visit on your way back. Approach with extreme caution. Uploading the navdata now."
"Data received. On our way. WhiteWitch out."
WhiteWitch and her Vampires slid into the blackness, hoping that this milk run would end swiftly. Ten minutes passed. No trace of any signal could be found. WhiteWitch could only wonder what shadows she had been tasked with chasing.
"I'm picking up something awfully faint. It's very subtle. I can hardly make it out."
"Everyone, sensors to maximum. Whisper, upload the vector of whatever you found," WhiteWitch commanded. Echo Wing blanketed space with its active sensors. The Vampires closed in on the source of Whisper's faint signal.
"There. Again," Whisper announced. Echo Wing continued to advance. Any previous boredom had been quickly discarded. Echo Wing homed in, a collection of bloodhounds that had finally acquired a scent.
"Whisper?" WhiteWitch queried.
"There it is again. It's a standard radio signal. Channel x-ray. It repeats every 45 seconds."
"X-ray? That's broadband, extreme short-range communication. This far out, we should be hearing it on one of the regular comm channels. Even emergency beacons use something faster than that," commented another of the flight, Roland "Tommygun" Etherway.
"I've got contacts. Two readings. Large. No excess power emissions," Cockney interjected.
The anticipation thickened. The absence of excess power emissions had only two meanings: either a ship had hard-rigged itself for silent running, or it had been hulled. The sensor contacts grew more substantial on the Grendels' scopes. Every 45 seconds, the signal Whisper heard became less faint. Their quarry came into view.
"What in the name of God " uttered Cockney. All joviality had disappeared from his voice. It would be a long time returning. The Grendels closed. Their horror increased as the view became clearer.
"How the hell could this have happened? We should be hearing an emergency beacon. I mean, those things are protected better than ordnance," Tommygun gasped. He furiously scanned for any signs of life. He searched in vain.
"Whisper, are you still receiving that signal?" inquired WhiteWitch. Her demeanor had turned icy. She was on wartime footing.
"Aye, loud and clear. Patching it through," she responded. A young voice stuttered onto the comm system, half pleading, half resigned.
"This is Ensign Suri of the TCS Narvik. We were part of a convoy out of Tyr 7 to the Korghu Zhar Starbase in the G'wriss System. We got there okay late on the 18th. After a day's layover, we departed on the 20th. Right before we left, the starbase told us about a general alert in Roberts Quad. We made a run for the jump point, and we thought we were ok. As we neared the jump point, we picked up unidentified fighters. They approached too fast for us to outrun them. We came through the jump point and ran full out for the nearest starbase. About five minutes later, they followed us through the jump point and attacked. They took out the Canton immediately. Then they came for us. They destroyed everything. I was deep in the ship when their weapons hit. I found a spacesuit and a radio. I don't know how far it can reach, but it can't be much. If you hear this, please respond. My suit can only keep me alive a few more hours. Suri out."
WhiteWitch looked at the timestamp on the message. It read: 2681.020.0748. Too late. She activated her long-range comm system.
"Echo Wing to Yorktown. Reporting on unidentified contacts."
"Report, Echo Wing."
"We have found the remains of a convoy, two Pelican transports: the TCS Narvik and the TCS Canton. That was what the SWACS picked up. They have both been destroyed."
"Are there any survivors?"
"No, sir, not that we can tell. Whatever hit these transports did not leave much to chance."
The WC paused a moment. WhiteWitch waited intently. Col. Alvarez spoke again, breaking the silence. She now spoke with the same hardened edge that WhiteWitch had displayed earlier.
"Echo Wing, hold position until relieved. Scan the area as thoroughly as possible. We're sending a pair of Marine LCs and escorts to do a full scan of the debris. Return to base when they arrive."
"Aye, sir. Orders received and confirmed."
Echo Wing began its deathwatch. The pilots scanned the area. Once again, Ensign Suri's automated epitaph sounded. WhiteWitch toggled it off. She had no time to listen to the dead.