PHASE II : THE TYR ARC ( 23 of 28 )
: “ Full Moon
BWS Freedom, Battle Group Valkyrie
0400 Hours, 05 February 2681 (2681.036)
Every morning now, Phalanx had risen from bed feeling tired instead of refreshed. Years of combat flying had a way of wearing down a person. Being exposed time and time again to the stress of battle was not healthy, physically or mentally. Now, instead of feeling jittery or anxious at the idea of going into combat again as he thought he should, he felt almost nothing. The same way that skin forms calluses in areas that are repeatedly irritated... it loses sensitivity.
It frightened him. Was he losing his mind? Would he eventually stop being human, stop feeling? He didn't want to know the answer. Instead, he occupied himself with constant work, spending the required hours in the simulator to qualify to fly the Bearcat. And he had met with the members of his squadron, the "Harbingers," and sized them up. But unconsciously, he had made an effort to try not to get close to any of them.
But he still did his duty faithfully, and did his best to prepare them for the coming battles. They'd all watched the vids. They all knew what these new aliens were capable of. But there was also a lot about them that they didn't know. Knowledge is one of the most powerful weapons that soldiers can carry into battle. And that was something they sorely lacked.
Phalanx let these thoughts trickle through his mind without paying much attention to any of them as he strapped himself into his Bearcat. Maybe this'll help loosen me up, he thought to himself. He powered up the fighter's reactor, and watched as systems flickered to life. An advanced HUD display built into his helmet's visor glimmered in front of him. As he turned his head, an intricate system of cameras mimicked the movements of his head, giving him a view unimpeded by the mass of his fighter. It gave a feeling almost like flying without a fighter around you. Confed technology. The Bearcat was quite a ship.
The only thing was, it probably couldn't take as much of a beating as its shield and armor values suggested, Phalanx thought as he glanced at the readouts displaying the massive power output from his engines and weapons and various subsystems. The Bearcat was a very compact design, and it generated a lot of energy for its size. Blast through the shields and armor, and it wouldn't take much after that to blow it apart.
He was directed to the launch strip on the right hand side, while his wingman and second-in-command, "Stalker", came up alongside on the left. She turned her head to face him and waved. Phalanx hesitated a moment before returning the wave. Then he steadied himself and braced for the launch.
When he was given the signal to launch, he brought the engines to full power and ignited the afterburners. The Bearcat lifted slightly off the deck as its wings pushed it upwards before it cleared the end of the flight bay. Then the fighter and rider dove together back into their proper element, space.
Phalanx felt his muscles relax as soon as he hit the open void. It had been a long time since he'd been weightless. He'd either been on planets or shuttles or starbases or capital ships, and all of them had gravity, whether it had been real or artificial.
He planted his foot down on the right rudder pedal as far as it would go and sent the Bearcat rolling. The stars before him swirled madly until he broke off his roll and steadied the fighter.
Stalker pulled up alongside his fighter and did not copy the maneuver. The wing commander of the BWS Freedom was acting more like a young rookie while the less experienced pilot looked more disciplined.
Despite the fact that any acceleration was compensated for by the acceleration absorbers, Phalanx had still held his breath throughout the roll. He released it slowly now as he brought his fighter around toward the Freedom and then into formation alongside it. Gliding through space, except before combat, had always been a gentle and serene experience for him. But not this time.
Two hours later
Phalanx brought his fighter back down onto the Freedom's deck after completing the flight. He had allowed his thoughts to wander during that time, knowing that an attack on the carrier at this time was unlikely, with all the various fighter wings surrounding the carrier group. The chances of enemy fighters sneaking past the scouts and patrols undetected were next to nil. After parking his ship back in its assigned slot in the hangar, he dismounted his fighter and hurried to catch up with Stalker.
Since taking charge of the squadron, he'd instituted a rigorous training schedule. Fortunately for him, all of the pilots were veterans, which was why they had been entrusted to fly the advanced Bearcat fighters in the first place. None of them complained or argued, and all of them were disciplined, skilled flyers.
Of them all, though, Stalker was probably the best. Phalanx had to admit that even he would likely lose to her in a one on one dogfight. She flew smart and didn't make mistakes, and had the reflexes Phalanx had lost through the years as he had gotten older. Alright, fine, he mentally replied, to a ribbing from another voice in his head... as he had gotten old.
For the last few days, Harbinger Squadron had been taking turns with the Black Angel Intruder Squadron flying CAP for Battle Group Valkyrie. Four Bearcats at a time would fly six hour shifts before swapping out for a fresh flight. Meanwhile, the other fighter squadrons had been patrolling the area around Tyr VII, escorting shuttles from the planet to the transports in orbit, or waiting on the launch decks on Alert-15, ready to launch once the patrols detected an incoming attack. They had been charged with protecting the civilians, and it was a job they took seriously.
Today, the Harbingers were not flying guard, but Phalanx hadn't been flying with them lately, and had decided to fly. The rest of the squadron was not going to be sitting on their butts doing nothing, though. With the entire squadron present at one time because none of them had to fly CAP, Phalanx had ordered them all to meet in the simulators for a training session today.
Stalker held the lift door open while Phalanx ran to get in.
"Thanks." He nodded, shaking out the cramps in his arms and legs at the same time.
"You're welcome," she replied. "So, what have you got planned for today?"
"Just a simple simulated battle between our entire squadron and a squadron of the same number of Mantas. We've been getting precious little data on the ships of these aliens, and it may not be entirely accurate, but it should be close to the real thing."
"Better than nothing."
The lift stopped, and the door opened. Several technicians entered and gave perfect salutes. The two Border World pilots returned the greeting with sloppy salutes. Obviously, the Confederation and the Border Worlds were exchanging more than just pilots. The Confeds still weren't used to the more relaxed attitude in the Border Worlds.
The lift resumed, and finally reached the rec deck. Stalker and Phalanx exited and moved down the hall until they reached the simulator room. Phalanx was pleased to find all of the members of his squadron assembled and present, even at this early hour. The moment he entered, all eyes fell on him and side talk stopped.
"All right everybody. The techs have finally finished programming in the new data we got in our recent clashes with the Nephilim. Stats, models, flight characteristics, and AI. It may not be completely accurate, but I've been told it's close. Today we run a training exercise to get us to work as a team. All eighteen of us will be flying up against an equally large number of Mantas. I assume you've all studied the Intell we've collected on this fighter's capabilities?"
All of the pilots replied that they had.
"Okay, I knew I could count on you guys to do your 'homework'. But before we begin, let's warm up a bit. We're doing the 'hound' drill. Partner up!" Phalanx looked down at a list in his PPC noteputer and paired them up. "Whip, you're with Owl. Half-life and Straggler. Mouse and Sundown. Ghoul and Fortune. Apples and Ripper. Thrush... work with Backwash. Gorge and Locust. Grizzly, you're with Black Crow. Stalker, you're with me. Everybody... go to it."
With that, all of the pilots secured themselves into the simulator pods. Phalanx placed his flight helmet on top of the simulator pod, climbed inside, and put on the helmet designed for use with the simulators. After powering up the simulator, he loaded up the scenario and linked up with Stalker's pod, and then selected the Bearcat as his fighter. One of the special screens on the simulator, the VIS, had been designed to display controls that were unique to various types of fighters. In this case, the control interface for the Bearcat's avionics flashed to life.
"Colonel, I'm ready," Stalker signaled.
"Okay... you first or me first?"
Stalker's fighter drifted in towards him. There were no other ships in their simulation - the other pilots were paired up and practicing in their own "virtual space". Phalanx targeted it and locked on. When they had closed to within 2,000 meters, she slowed, and then pulled a 180 degree loop to let him get position on her tail.
"Just hit your burners and we'll start," Phalanx intoned.
This so-called "hound" drill was something Phalanx had cooked up, and was designed to give pilots more practice at dodging missiles than they would ever want. The scenario gave the ships of both pilots unlimited afterburner fuel, and an inexhaustible supply of missiles and decoys. A counter was displayed showing the number of missiles fired, the number of hits scored, and also the number of "deaths" for both pilots. The idea was that one pilot would act as the aggressor, staying on the other fighter's tail, and firing missiles one at a time. The other pilot, the one being fired upon, would attempt to evade, and "deal" with incoming missiles by dodging them or fooling them with decoys. The two would trade roles whenever the pair felt like it. Or, as it had been in the past couple days, whenever Phalanx had ordered the whole squadron to switch with their partners. Each pilot would learn how to use missiles effectively, as well as dodge them effectively.
Still... Phalanx knew that missiles were designed to be deadly, and that if an enemy fighter penetrated close enough to your ship and launched one... there would be nothing that any pilot could do about it to escape it. That's where it became important not to screw up in the first place to allow an enemy fighter to get that close to you.
Stalker cut hard to the right and lit her afterburners. Phalanx matched the maneuver, but turned to keep her ship in sight, and when he had finished the turn, her fighter was moving across his sights from the left to the right. She kept turning, though, and Phalanx was forced to slow down to tighten up his turn radius. Suddenly, her fighter kicked out of its turn and shot ahead, accelerating and gaining distance between them. Phalanx broke off his turn and tried to keep up, but she already had a head start and was still increasing speed, still pulling away.
She kept flying in a steady path, though, and it gave Phalanx a medium-range, zero-deflection angle shot for his guns. He opened fire, taking advantage of the Bearcat's auto-tracking guns. The distance was great enough, though, that Stalker was able to slip her fighter away from the stream of gun blasts without having to swerve sharply and lose ground. Phalanx was able to keep up with her ship now, but he wasn't able to gain on her.
His guns were drained, and Stalker knew it. She autoslid, rotating her fighter around while still moving in the same direction, and came roaring back at him. Phalanx knew that if this had been real combat, all four tachyon cannons on her fighter would be blazing at him now. As it was though, she merely glided past to let him tail her again.
The exercise went on for five more minutes. He didn't know how the other pilots were doing, but as for himself, he hadn't been able to score a single missile hit, and in fact had only managed to get 4 good shots off. Apparently not good enough, though.
And then it was Stalker's turn. True to her callsign, she managed to hang with Phalanx throughout his maneuvers as if his Bearcat was towing hers on a cable. During the five minutes in which she had the chance to shoot at him, he was fired at 13 times, was hit twice... and had also "died" once. It all happened when Stalker had gotten directly behind his fighter, and angled the missile downward when she fired it. The missile came out low, and then arced upwards to track his fighter, forcing him to dive down. When he made that move, he'd dodged the missile alright... but she had already anticipated that move and was there waiting for him with her guns. It all happened so fast... three quick, synchronized bursts from all four tachyons, dishing out 600 cm of damage in just seven tenths of a second, and then another missile, and he was gone.
After congratulating Stalker, he called out to the other pilots in their pods, and told them to link in to the simulated mission he was generating. His squadron was quick to comply, and soon all eighteen of them "materialized" in space, already moving at cruise speed, in perfect formation. And right in front of them, their targets, 18 Mantas.
"Alright people, here they come. I want an opening salvo of missiles, one from each of us, and three of us to each target. Stagger your missile fire at 2 second intervals so the target has a harder time dodging."
A mixed response of "roger"s and "affirmative"s and other synonyms of the word "yes" replied to his orders.
Phalanx switched frequencies over to his wing of three, "Stalker, Apples, you two are with me. Lock on to... to Manta 6."
As each of the other groups of fighters locked their weapons, Phalanx's HUD lit up with strings of numbers and letters imposed over the brackets around each fighter, showing him which enemy Mantas were being targeted and by which of his own fighters. This was a great thing, since the Bearcat carried no FoF missiles, and they would need to get their missiles on a target manually, and they needed to make sure that they all didn't fire on the same ship. While that might kill that one fighter almost certainly, it was a waste of firepower.
"Okay... I fire first, then Stalker, and then Apples."
"Commence firing." Phalanx thumbed the trigger and a single IR missile streaked out towards the target at 16,000 klicks range.
As the other two pilots launched their missiles, a few of the Mantas also returned fire. But their shots were scattered, and the pilots who were locked on to easily eluded the missiles with decoys. The 6 Mantas that were targeted, however, had a much harder time. There was a reason for the 2 second interval. It was the time it took for a missile to turn around. As each wave of missiles passed by their targets, another would approach, just as the previous missiles got turned around, catching them between.
None of the missiles struck... yet. But as those 6 Mantas were dancing with missiles, they weren't in the fight with the rest of them. With numbers temporarily in their favor, the Harbingers rushed in, blazing away with their tachyon cannons. The Mantas shot back, but the greater firepower bearing down on them forced them to break away, and the Bearcat pilots took advantage of it, swinging around to get behind them.
Phalanx threw his fighter into a barrel roll, silently blessing the merits of an autotracking system, which allowed him to fire accurately at an enemy without flying directly at that enemy and into its fire.
"Stalker, Apples, take this target," he said quietly, then switched targets to attack a Manta bearing down on one of the Bearcats. "Fortune, break right and bring him to me."
Doing as she was told, Fortune spun away from the Manta, allowing it to tail and follow her. Phalanx broke left and the two fighters screamed past each other as he opened fire at the enemy head on. The Manta was quick to react, and lost only its forward shields. The panicked turn, however, gave Fortune the opportunity to pull a loop and settle into a perfect firing position on its tail. Rather than bother with her guns, she fired a pair of IR missiles and splashed her target.
"Enemy downed." There was no excitement in her voice; it was just a simulation.
A decision to glance quickly behind himself proved to be a good one. By taking on the Manta that was gunning for Fortune, Phalanx had left his own backside exposed. There was an enemy fighter behind him now, blasting away at him.
He had a good lead on the Manta, and braked hard as he turned, then accelerated away, continuing the turn. The Manta followed him through it anyway. Phalanx did several quick rolls, then snapped away off of the spin, and then reversed the turn and pulled up, then rolled in the other direction, varying his speed the whole time. The Manta was still there, and in fact was now even closer and in a better position than it had been before.
It opened up with its guns, forcing Phalanx to swerve off to avoid the barrage, but it immediately cut inside of his turn and loosed a missile. With the missile curving in at an angle, decoys would've been unlikely to work. He straightened out his fighter as soon as he heard the missile lock and released decoys as fast as the decoy ejectors would go. The missile streaked through the cloud of decoys and missed narrowly, but the Manta opened up with guns again.
The rear shields on Phalanx's cyber-Bearcat were ripped through, and half the armor was shredded up. The only thing that saved him was the fact that the Manta had already used up much of its gun energy a moment earlier to force him into a turn, and its capacitors were now dry. But his years of experience also let him know without checking that this had been coming, and he hadn't even attempted to dodge the bolts. Since the Manta had accelerated hard inside of his turn to catch up to him, it was flying faster than he was.
Phalanx was decelerating his Bearcat even as he was shot up. Phalanx watched the Manta overshoot, and then accelerated again to counter-attack it. The Manta pilot, or rather the computer AI controlling it, realized that it couldn't stop in time and instead, poured on the afterburners to pull away from him.
And in doing so, it ran right into Stalker. She opened up with her tachyons as if she was going to send a full barrage of fire right into the Manta, but fired only a single burst. That was enough, though, to scare it into pulling up hard. Phalanx again saw the reason for her callsign. Even as the Manta made its move, she was already swooping in right behind it. Her guns ripped into it, the range too close for it to have any hope of dodging. And by firing only one salvo earlier, she'd saved up enough energy to serve up massive punishment here.
The Manta's shields, already slightly weakened when Phalanx had squeezed off a burst at it as it flew past, were simple now to tear through. Its armor was ripped off by a second burst, and the third wrecked its engines. Without any hesitation, a missile followed as her guns fell silent. The Manta, unable to maneuver effectively with its damaged engines, did the only thing it could and threw up decoys. In the end it didn't help, and it exploded anyways. Here in the simulators, a yellow ball expanded from where it had been and then disappeared.
"Target destroyed," she reported, and instantly shifted to vector her fighter towards the battle again.
There wasn't much left to fight though, by the time they got back. 4 Mantas, all surrounded and outnumbered. Mainly his pilots had to worry about accidentally ramming each other or shooting down each other. Phalanx was pleased to see that rather than dawdle, his pilots dispatched the remaining Nephilim ships quickly.
After crawling out of the simulator pod, Phalanx shook out his cramps, and gathered all of his pilots around.
"Okay, that was a good job out there -- er, in there. Looks like you all work real well together. Just remember, this time the numbers were even. All the intelligence reports we've gotten indicate that we'll be outnumbered against the Nephilim. So that's what we'll practice for tomorrow. That's it for today. Dismissed."
He watched as they filed out of the simulator room, and then sat down at a computer work station and pulled up the recording of the mock battle they'd just fought, reviewing it and watching it several times over, looking up the statistics. They hadn't lost a single ship, which was amazing, considering how advanced the alien ships were. Based on ship statistics alone, the Bearcats would have won, but they should've taken heavy losses.
The fact they had done so well had a lot to do with the fact that his own pilots had good teamwork. Intelligence reports had indicated that the aliens didn't really fight as a team. But among human pilots, and even Kilrathi pilots, teamwork counted for a whole hell of a lot in squadron to squadron battles. Pilots literally trusted each other with their lives. No pilot, no matter how skilled, can keep track of everything going on around them. Phalanx hoped to forge his pilots into one cohesive unit, one in which every pilot would already know what the other pilots were going to do. Out there, in space, it would mean the difference between life and death, victory, and defeat.
He was glad to see that in the simulators, his pilots had been no less serious about it than if it had been actual combat. He knew they wouldn't let him down.
But then, to his own surprise, a dark and sinister voice in his consciousness whispered a single burning question... would he let them down?