PHASE II : THE TYR ARC ( 28 of 28 )

: Reaping the Whirlwind

 

Command Briefing Room, BWS Valeria
Tyr System
1200 Hours, 6th Feb 2681 (2681.037)

“All right, let's get started," Admiral Hanton said. She had called a meeting of all the fleet's senior officers to map out their strategy over the next few days. Only the officers from Battle Group Valkyrie were in the briefing room itself. The Valeria's engineering staff had set up video screens all round the room, letting officers from other units take part in the meeting. Virtually every admiral, captain, and first officer from Confed's Third Fleet and the Border Worlds First Fleet was "present" at the meeting.

"It's about time we began pulling out of this system," she continued. "Our recon and SWACS flights show that in spite of all our delaying tactics, the Nephilim fleet is now only a few hours away from Tyr VII. Not only that, the attack on the transports yesterday shows that the Nephilim know about those transports, and consider them a target. Last but not least, the transport captains report they've finished loading all of Tyr's civilian population, so there's no real reason to stay here any longer."

"The transports will fall back towards the Masa jump point, just as we planned. Our fighters will protect them till they reach the jump point, and then mine the jump point to prevent the Nephilim from following them. In the meantime, our own ships will fall back towards the Nephele jump point, drawing the Nephilim away from the civilians. The carriers and their escorts will fall back first, with the cruiser and destroyer squadrons screening them in case the Nephilim try to attack. We'll all regroup at the Nephele jump point early on the 7th, and then jump out, again mining the jump point behind us."

The Admiral paused to take a breath, and then continued. "Now, while we're using the cruiser and destroyer units to screen us from any attack, I think there's a good chance that our capships can pull out this system without coming under attack. The Nephilim have had just enough time to get used to idea that we're trying to slow them down. The fact that we're now suddenly pulling out will catch them off guard. From everything we've seen so far, the Nephilim don't react well to the unexpected. It will take them time to regroup and come after us, and by then, we'll be in Nephele."

"Admiral Hanton, if I may?" That came from Rear Admiral William Kennedy, the CO of the Yorktown's battle group. "I realize that the original plan was to delay the Nephilim for as long as as we could, and then fall back to the next system. However, given that we've done well in our battles so far, I wonder if it might not be best to change the plan. I hate giving up a system to these bastards. Maybe we should hold the Nephilim here, and have the reserves link up with us, instead of the other way around."

Admiral Hanton shook her head. "It's tempting to try and hold them here, but I think giving into that temptation would be the worst mistake we could make. The reason that we've done so well up to now is that we've been able to force the Nephilim into battles where *we* have the advantage. As long as we stick to hit and run tactics, we force the Nephilim to face us more or less on even terms, where we can use our superiority in ships, fighters and pilots to rip them apart. If we tried to stand up against the full strength of their fleet though, they would most likely use their numbers to crush us. Even if we do win, we would lose so many ships that it would be a phyrric victory."

"Besides, there is no need to do anything so risky, because it looks like things are finally going our way. Now, this hasn't been confirmed yet, but if the reports I've been getting from Confed HQ are accurate, the Midway either has already been able to shut down the wormhole gate in Kilrah. That means the bugs that we're fighting will have no way of getting reinforcements. Not only that, Admiral Leonard reports that the reserves from Confed Third Fleet and the Border Worlds First Fleet are assembling in Nifelheim, just as we planned. The entire reserve force should be assembled in about a week."

No one, not even the most experienced officers, could help cheering and whooping when they heard the news. They had all known that the reinforcements, scraped together from reserve, homeguard and militia units, were assembling in Nifelheim, but it was good to know that everything was going according to plan. The news that the wormhole had been shut down was even better. The enemy fleet they were fighting was big, but at least it wouldn't get any bigger. One way or another, this battle would surely be over one week from now.

The Admiral waited till the noise had died down before she continued. "So, as you can see, it would be best to stick to the original plan. We fall back through Nephele and Loki, hurting the bugs as much as we can in each system, and then link up with the reserves in Nifelheim to wipe them out. For now, though, we need to concentrate on getting our ships and the transports out of this system. The transports will be at much higher risk of attack than our ships are, because the Nephilim seem to have already marked them as a target. Because of that, we'll be providing a heavy fighter escort for them as they pull out. I'll leave that part of the operation up to the wing commanders. Please let your WCs know that there will be a separate briefing for them in about an hour..."

 

Flight Wing Briefing Room, BWS Valeria
1300 Hours

Raptor tugged nervously at his uniform, as he waited for the last of Battle Group Valkyrie's Squadron Leaders to take their seats. Once again, the Wing Commanders, and squadron leaders from the other units would be taking part in the briefing via video screens that had been set up all around the room. Admiral Hanton had put Raptor in charge of the various flight wings for this operation, so he would be the one giving the briefing. He was used to briefing his own squadron commanders, but he wasn't used to giving orders to other Wing Commanders.

"Okay, everyone here?" he asked, and then went on without waiting for an answer. "We'll be escorting the transports from Tyr VII orbit to the Masa jump point, via these four nav points. The transports can only move at about 100 KPS, so it will take about four hours to reach the jump point. Our number one priority is to make sure that the transports get to the jump point safely. We've got 100,000 civilians packed aboard 53 transports. That means each transport will be carrying between 1,000 and 2,000 people, so losing even one transport would be a disaster. Because of that, we've set up a triple layer defense system to protect the transports."

"The fighters from the TCS Bunker Hill and the TCS Endeavour will be our first line of defense. You'll be flying a loose escort roughly 1,000,000 klicks out from the transports. Your job will be to intercept, and if possible, destroy any attacking force that could threaten the transports. With a little luck, you'll be able to stop the bugs before they get anywhere near the transports."

"If the Nephilim do manage to get past the outer screen, the Valkyries and the Tanfen fighters will be the second line of defense. We'll be flying close escort for the transports, and can engage anything that gets past the other screen. The third and last line of defense will be Battle Group Valkyrie's cruisers and destroyers. They'll provide additional anti-aircraft firepower, and can also take out capships that the Nephilim throw at us."

"Of course, we're not going to leave our own ships unprotected while we're covering the transports. The fighters from the BWS Littenia and BWS Defiance will cover the carriers as they fall back towards the Nephele jump point. The fighters from the cruiser and destroyer units will cover those units as they screen the carriers."

"Now, last but not least, the fighters from the TCS Yorktown and the TCS Valley Forge. You people are going to be our reserves for this operation. You'll be loitering at Nav Point 5, roughly halfway between the Masa and Nephele jump points. That'll put you about twenty minutes away from both the transports and our own capships at all times. That means you can reinforce the outer fighter screen, help defend the transports, or help cover the carriers, depending on the situation. That should cover all possibilities. Okay, any questions?"

"Just one thing," said Lt. Colonel Linche, the assistant/deputy WC of the Yorktown. "No offense, Colonel, but we all know the fighters you Valkyries fly are a little... antiquated, shall we say? Besides, your pilots haven't had the benefit of Confed training. Maybe it would be better if you take the reserve slot, while we fly close escort."

Raptor could see several of his pilots bristle at what Lt. Colonel Linche had said. They weren't the only ones. He could feel his own blood pressure rising. Lt. Colonel Linche had been trying to be diplomatic, but his meaning was clear enough. He didn't think the Valkyries could handle the close escort job. The Treaty of McAuliffe had officially made the Border Worlds military part of the Confed reserves. That meant that some people in Confed's military tended to lump the Border Worlders in with homeguard and militia units as "weekend warriors," an assumption that the Border Worlders bitterly resented.

"Thank you, Colonel Linche," Raptor said, not quite keeping the bite out of his voice. "I think that the battle yesterday proves that we can handle large scale engagements. Besides, given the layered defense that we've got set up, flying close escort is likely to be the safest job of all."

"What he means," Lt. Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes, the Reaper Squadron CO, said sweetly, "is that the only way the bugs will get anywhere near the transports is if you Confeds screw the pooch."

"And if that happens," Lt. Colonel Alex "Skywalker" Witt, the Taipan Squadron CO, added with a grin, "we'd rather the Border Worlders were there to protect the transports."

"Okay, moving right along," Raptor said quickly. He had a feeling he was losing control of this briefing. "Any other questions. No? In that case, good luck and good hunting."

 

Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
1500 Hours, 06 Feb 2681

The Valeria's flight deck hummed with activity, as the deck crew prepped the fighters for launch. Tankers nuzzled up beside parked fighters, while towcarts dragged other fighters to their launch slots. Techs and crew chiefs were scrambling all over the fighters, making sure their afterburner tanks were topped up and running last minute checks. Red shirted crewmen loaded lethal warheads onto launch racks, while pilots and gunners ran checks of their own, trying not to get in the way of the deck crews.

Raptor ducked underneath the wing of his Retaliator heavy fighter, making sure the arming pins had been pulled from the missiles slung under the wing. The Retaliator was carrying a full combat load for this mission, 6 IR missiles, 6 FoF missiles, and 6 of the new LRIR missiles. The heavy warload would make the fighter slightly less agile, but the extra firepower was well worth it. Besides, the fighter would be fully agile once a few of the missiles had been fired off.

He finished checking the missiles, and then moved towards the tail of the fighter, checking that the arming pin had been pulled from the decoy dispenser as well. He had heard plenty of horror stories about pilots who had found themselves unable to use their decoys, all because some tech had forgotten to pull the arming pin. He didn't know how true those stories were, but he always made a point of checking his fighter out before a mission.

He finished the checks, and then glanced upwards, towards the fighter's cockpit. His gunner, Lt. James Chang, AKA "Backlash," was up there, running his own checks. Backlash gave him a thumbs up, indicating that the fighter's twin reaper tailguns were working properly, and that the arming pins had been pulled from their ejection systems. Backlash had been flying with him since the Reaper Squadron had been formed over eight years ago, and had proven himself to be an excellent tailgunner.

Raptor walked towards the fighter's nose, and started climbing the ladder that had been placed beside the cockpit. The Reapers would be launching in a few minutes. He had more checks to run before then, checks that could only be run from inside the cockpit.

"Aren't you forgetting something?" a voice said acidly from underneath the Retaliator's nose.

Raptor laughed quietly, and jumped down off the ladder, ducking back underneath the fighter. Chrys was waiting for him. She wore a flightsuit with Reaper Squadron patches on the shoulders, and she was carrying her flight helmet. The helmet also has the Reaper Squadron logo on it, showing the Grim Reaper with a bloodied scythe drawn back and ready to strike.

"Sorry. Lot on my mind," he apologized, as he leant down and kissed her goodbye. That was something they did before every mission, something they had done during all the years they had been together.

"Uh huh. Be careful out there."

"Yeah. You be careful, too, okay?"

That, too, was something they did before every mission. They always told each other to be careful. It was their personal good luck ritual. It was a way of ensuring they would see each other again after this mission, just like they had done after all the other missions.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Freedom
About The Same Time

Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung sat in the cockpit of Bearcat heavy fighter. He thought about the mission ahead as he waited for launch clearance. Or perhaps brooded would be a better word. Phalanx had lost one of his Bearcat pilots in the battle yesterday. He couldn't help wondering how many he would lose on this mission.

Phalanx knew that every squadron commander lost people who were under his or her command, but that didn't make the losses any easier to accept. He was tired of leading pilots into battle against impossible odds, tired of sending pilots to their deaths. He was tired of the fighting, tired of the killing.

It just never seemed to end. First there had been the First Kilrathi War, and then the Border Worlds Conflict, and then more strife with Confed and the Kilrathi, and now there was this war against the Nephilim. Phalanx had been in so many battles that he had lost count. He had survived all of them, but many of the pilots he had lead into battle had never come back.

Phalanx knew that he was becoming worn out by all the fighting and all the losses, and that was dangerous. A Squadron Leader who became worn out started making mistakes, or even worse, just stopped caring. Maybe it was time to just walk away, time to let someone who was younger and stronger take over his job...

He shook his head, annoyed with himself. This wasn't the time to be thinking about that. Once this mission was over, he would take the time to sort all this out. For now though, he simply had to focus on the mission ahead.

 

Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
About The Same Time

The Taipans stood in one corner of the flight deck, taking care to stay of out of the way of the deck crew. They had gathered for one final pep talk from their Squadron Leader before they launched.

"... And remember, we can't afford to lose any of the transports," Lt. Colonel Alex "Skywalker" Witt said. "Apart from that, watch your six, and may the Force be with you."

"And remember, none of you will be able to sign on with the Nephilim," Lt. Colonel Ryan "Knight" Speares, the most senior of the Confed liaison pilots serving with the Taipans, added snidely.

"Is that supposed to mean something, Knight?" Skywalker asked with a frown.

Skywalker would normally have just let a remark like that go unchallenged, but Knight had been insubordinate ever since he had set foot aboard the Valeria. Skywalker knew that it had something to do with his past aboard the TCS Melbourne, and his subsequent defection to the Border Worlds. What worried Skywalker was that the "war" between the two of them was also affecting the rest of the squad. The Taipans had split into two groups, with most of the Border Worlders on one side, and the Confed pilots on the other.

"Once a traitor, always a traitor. Isn't that right, Skywalker?" Knight said, confirming what Skywalker had been thinking.

"Listen, you little fuckwit..." Major Edward "Renegade" Perkins began as he started forward.

Skywalker at once threw out an arm to hold his friend back. Renegade looked mad enough to stuff Knight into an Excalibur's intakes. While the engines were running.

"Cool it, Ren," Skywalker said. "As for you, Knight, I don't really care what you think of me. If you ever disobey me in combat though, I'll make sure you're busted down to flying garbage scows. Do you understand me?"

Knight didn't say anything.

"Do you understand me?" Skywalker yelled, loud enough to draw stares from the deck crews working nearby.

"Yes, sir," Knight said finally, sounding as if the words were choking him.

"If you boys," Major Gabby "Flamer" Mackay said, stressing the last word, "can think past all the testosterone in your systems, please remember that we're supposed to be fighting the Nephilim, not each other."

Despite her callsign, Flamer was probably the most level headed and easy going of the Taipans. She was also one of the few who had refused to choose sides. Both the Border Worlders and the Confed pilots respected her, and her words managed to calm things down somewhat.

"Agreed," Skywalker said quietly. "We'll sort this out later. Get out there and kick some Nephilim butt."

 

Tyr VII Orbit, Tyr System
A Few Minutes Later

The evacuation fleet was already leaving orbit when the Border Worlds fighters got there. There were all kinds of transports in the fleet, from white painted hospital ships to battered passenger craft to hastily converted cargo ships. Some carried the rampant stallion logo of the Tanfen Corporation, some the half moon and stars insignia of Border Worlds militia craft, while others carried the badges of minor civilian corporations. Some were old, some were brand new. Some were in good condition, some were almost falling apart. What all 53 transports had in common, though, was that they were all packed with frightened men, women and children. These transports were the last hope of survival for the civilian population of Tyr VII.

Battle Group Valkyrie's destroyers and cruisers had linked up with the transports earlier in the day, and they were now watching over the civilian ships like vigilant sheepdogs guarding a flock. There were four Sheffield-class destroyers (the BWS Resolve, BWS Endurance, BWS Fury, and BWS Courage), two large Tallahassee-class cruisers (the BWS Warspite and the BWS Spitfire), and a single Nemesis-class battlecruiser (the BWS Nemesis herself). The ships bristled with firepower, from anti-fighter laser turrets to heavy anti-matter and plasma cannons, to say nothing of cruise missile and torpedo launchers. They were the last line of defense for the civilians. Even though the fighters were meant to stop any attacking force before it got near the transports, no one wanted to take any chances with so many innocent lives.

The Border Worlds fighters took up station around the transports as they left orbit, forming a protective shell around the civilian ships. There were five Border Worlds fighter squadrons taking part in this operation: one squadron of Retaliator heavy fighters (Reaper Squadron), one squadron of Bearcat heavy fighters (Harbinger Squadron), one squadron of Excalibur heavy fighters (Taipan Squadron), and two squadrons of Intruder medium fighters (White Knight and Black Angel Squadrons). The five squadrons would normally have 90 fighters between them, but with several fighters lost or damaged in the battle the day before, they were down to 80 fighters.

There were also about a dozen Tanfen fighters (Hellcats and Thunderbolts) flying close escort, bringing the total number of fighters up to 92. Last but not least, the Border Worlders had added a dozen Stalker EW craft (Nightstalker Squadron, who would provide jamming and EW support to the fighters), plus a squadron of bombers for mining the jump point, and taking out attacking capships. It was a formidable force, but if everything went according to plan, it would never even have to engage the enemy.

That was because there were five more squadrons of Confed fighters making up the outer fighter screen. The outer screen included two Tigershark squadrons and one Panther squadron from the TCS Bunker Hill, and one squadron each of Tigersharks and Panthers from the TCS Endeavour. (The Wasp and Shrike squadrons had remained with the carriers.) These fighters were too far away for the Border Worlders to pick up on radar, but they would be shadowing the transports all the way to the jump point. If everything went accord to plan, they would intercept any attacking force, and either destroy the bugs or hold them long enough for the fighters from the Yorktown and Valley Forge to get there.

If everything went according to plan, that is. As every fighter pilot knew, though, very few plans survived contact with the enemy.

 

Deep Space, Tyr System
About Two Hours Later
1710 Hours, 06 Feb 2681

Nav point 2 and all is well, Raptor thought wryly. They had just passed the halfway point of their flight, and so far there was no sign of the Nephilim. Raptor wanted to believe that the next two hours would be just as quiet as the last two had been, but he had that nagging feeling that something was about to happen. The Nephilim had been in their faces ever since they had jumped into this system, and he couldn't believe the bugs would just let a convoy this big go unmolested.

If something did happen though, he was confident his pilots could handle it. He thought back to what Lt. Colonel Linche had said at the briefing. It was true that the Border Worlders were flying older designs than Confed did, but their fighters were hardly antiques.

Both the Retaliator and the Bearcat were roughly similar to Confed's new Panther. The Retaliator was slightly slower and less agile than the Panther, but made up for it with heavy shielding and brute firepower. With its six forward guns, twin tailguns, and eighteen missiles, it could smash right through an enemy formation. The Bearcat, on the other hand, was less heavily armed than the Panther, but was faster and more agile overall. A Bearcat pilot could easily maneuver in both the horizontal and vertical planes, without having to go through the time wasting ro-yaw maneuver that Panthers had to perform to dogfight in the vertical.

Similarly, the Intruder was roughly equal to Confed's new Tigershark. It had similar shields, weapons, speed and agility. Its only weakness was that it was more lightly armored than the Tigershark. The Excalibur also had lighter armor than the Tigershark, but made up for it with heavier shielding and a higher top speed. It also had much better guns (4 tachyon cannons and 2 reaper guns left 2 lasers and 2 mass drivers in the dust), auto-tracking ability, and a heavier missile load. (The Border Worlders were flying the wartime standard Excalibur-A, not the stripped down models used by the Confed Militia.) In the hands of good pilots, all the Border Worlds fighters were more than capable of taking on the Nephilim.

As for the pilots, Lt. Colonel Linche did have a point. The senior Border Worlds pilots had been trained by Confed early on in their careers, but the younger pilots had been trained in the Border Worlds. Their training wasn't quite as good as the training Confed gave its pilots. What the Border Worlders did have though, was combat experience. Unlike many of the Confed pilots, most of the Valkyries were combat vets. The older pilots had fought in the Kilrathi Wars, in the Border Worlds Conflict, and in the Bush. Even many of the "rookies" had flown in the Battle for the Bush, or had seen hard action on the Kilrathi frontier. That experience would more than make up for any gaps in their training. The white hot fire of combat incinerated those who couldn't make the grade, and tempered those who did survive, burning out any flaws or weaknesses.

In short, Lt. Colonel Linche had been both right and wrong. He had been correct in pointing out that the Border Worlders did fly older fighters, and that their training might not be up to the same standard as Confed training. Where he had been wrong though, was in assuming that meant the Border Worlders couldn't pull their own weight against the Nephilim. The Border Worlders had proved time and again that they could stand up to the Kilrathi, and given the chance, they would prove they could stand up to the Nephilim.

Raptor shook his head, realizing that he had let his thoughts drift. He turned his attention back to his radar, as well as to the comm frequencies. There was still no sign of the Nephilim, but the nagging feeling in his gut was still there. It was another fifteen minutes before a light flashed on his comm panel, indicating a incoming message.

"Colonel, we've got trouble," Admiral Hanton said from on board the Valeria. "The squadrons that were screening the transports intercepted a group of about 100 Nephilim fighters about two minutes ago. Once they were heavily engaged though, a second group of about 250 fighters afterburned straight past them. The Nephilim should reach the transports in about 10 minutes. The Squadron Leaders report that they can handle the first group, but they can't disengage in time to help help you out."

"Shit," Raptor muttered under his breath. "All right, we'll need the reserves here ASAP."

"I've already ordered the fighters from the Yorktown and the Forge to help you out," the Admiral said. "They should be there in about 20 minutes."

"Good. Any idea on what kind of fighters we'll be facing?" Raptor asked.

"If the information I've been getting is accurate, the second strike group has roughly 100 each of Moray medium fighters, and Manta heavy fighters. We don't know how many of the Mantas are carrying torpedoes. There also seem to be about three dozen Skate bomber clusters," the Admiral said, and then paused for a second before adding, "Colonel, there are also about a dozen Devil Rays in that pack."

"Shit!" Raptor said again, and would probably have said something a lot stronger if he hadn't been talking to an Admiral. Trying to hold off 250 fighters would have been hard enough, but the Devil Rays would make it a whole lot harder. The Devil Rays were fearsome fighters, roughly equal to Confed's Vampires. They were also supposed to be extremely rare, but it seemed the Nephilim commander wasn't sticking to the script.

"Just hold them off till the reserves get there. Good luck, Colonel," Admiral Hanton signed off. Raptor quickly switched channels, and filled the other pilots in on what was happening.

"Trust the Confeds to screw up a good plan," someone muttered.

"That's enough!" Raptor said sharply. There would be plenty of time for that later.

Besides, this situation really wasn't the Confeds' fault. They had all expected the Nephilim to attack, but no-one had expected the attack force to be quite this big. The first group of 100 fighters had been large enough that the screening fighters would assume that it was the real strike force, instead of just being a diversion. It was just one of the FURBs that happen in combat. It *had* been a good plan, but like most plans, it hadn't survived contact with the enemy. Now they had to deal with the consequences. Now they had to reap the whirlwind.

 

Deep Space, Tyr System
About Ten Minutes Later
1735 Hours, 06 Feb 2681

The waiting was the worst part. As they waited for the Nephilim to come within range, all the Border Worlds and Tanfen pilots had plenty of time to think, and to worry, and to be afraid. Unless they did everything right, both they and the civilians were going to die. Even if they did do everything right, they knew that a lot of them would be going down in flames over the next few minutes.

They all knew what they had to do, and they knew that this was going to be one of the hardest battles of their lives. They had to keep 250 Nephilim fighters away from the transports for at least ten minutes, till the fighters from the Yorktown and Valley Forge arrived to help them out. That was a whole lot easier said than done. The 92 Border Worlds and Tanfen fighters were going to be outnumbered by almost three to one, which meant that they would have to fight like they had never fought before if they were going to save the civilians.

There's an old saying: be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it. After Lt. Col. Linche's comments, a lot of the Border Worlders would have wished for a chance to prove themselves to the Confeds. Well, now they were either going to prove themselves in the most spectacular way possible, or both they and the civilians would be going down in flames.

The Nephilim finally arrived. The sheer number of Nephilim fighters turned radar screens solid red. The human pilots waited for them, keeping close to the transports, and making no move to intercept the Nephilim. The Nephilim slowly closed in, taking their time. They knew that they had the advantage here, and they were going to enjoy toying with their prey. The human pilots waited till the Nephilim had closed to within 10,000 klicks before making their move.

"Reaper Lead to Stalker Lead. Join the party."

"Stalker Lead copies. Starting the music... now."

All twelve of the Stalkers began blasting a storm of electronic noise, or "music," from their jamming pods. The Stalkers had been designed specifically for the job of jamming enemy communications, guidance and radar systems. No one was sure if the jamming would actually affect the Nephilim, but if Nephilim jamming could interfere with human systems, then it was a good bet that human jamming could scramble Nephilim systems. In theory, that is. No one knew if it would work in combat.

It worked. The Nephilim reeled as the jamming began scrambling their tracking and guidance systems. The Nephilim formation hadn't been that solid to begin with, and now it dissolved into a swirling, chaotic mass of fighters. The Nephilim hadn't encountered the Stalkers before, and they didn't know how to cope with them. Given enough time, the Nephilim might have been able to counter the jamming, but the humans didn't give them that time.

The Border Worlds and Tanfen fighters began launching their missiles at the confused Nephilim, unloading half their missiles in one massive, lethal salvo. Even the bombers were launched their missiles, before retreating behind the capships. The capships opened up at the same time, firing with everything from their laser turrets to their heavy anti-ship guns. This was why the humans had waited for the Nephilim to close within 10,000 klicks. The Nephilim, already reeling from the jamming, had no way of dealing with the massive barrage of firepower that now hit them.

The missile salvo tore swathes through the Nephilim. With so many of their systems scrambled, the Nephilim couldn't effectively decoy the missiles, nor could they dodge the missiles very well. Meanwhile, the capships' laser turrets showered Nephilim fighters with blast after blast, overloading their shields and tearing through their hulls. The heavy anti-matter and plasma cannons ripped through shields as if they didn't exist, crippling or destroying fighters with a single hit.

Over fifty Nephilim fighters went down in that first brutal barrage. Dozens more were crippled or seriously damaged. The Devil Rays and Skate clusters took the worst of it, as the Border Worlders had been targeting them whenever they could. Nearly half of them were now down. The damage might have been far worse if the humans had been able to keep firing for more than a few seconds, but they couldn't. The fighter pilots had to stop firing, or they would risk being left without any missiles. The capships had to stop firing before they ran their gun capacitors dry. Firing all guns was a strain on any ship, no matter how big.

The remaining 200 or so Nephilim fighters did the only thing they could. They were still blinded by the jamming, but retreat wasn't an option for them. They accelerated straight towards the human fighters, engaging them at close range. At that range, the capships couldn't blast them with another huge salvo once their guns recharged, and the fighter pilots couldn't pick them off with missiles. The battle now broke up into dozens of individual dogfights, with neither side asking or giving any quarter.

 

Over The Next Few Minutes...

Lt. Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes, and her wingman, Captain Johnathan "Sandman" Sandford, went straight for one of the Devil Rays. For its part, the Devil Ray afterburned straight towards them. The Nephilim pilot was an ace, and he was confident he could take the two Border Worlders.

Mirage and Sandman broke in different directions, and then swung around to attack the Devil Ray's flanks. The Devil Ray swung around impossibly fast, salvoing plasma bursts at Mirage's Retaliator. Mirage pulled a split-S and then punched her afterburners, opening up distance between her and the Devil Ray.

Sandman, meanwhile, was now on the Devil Ray's six, about to take a missile shot. The Devil Ray autoslid, pouring plasma bursts into Sandman's forward shields at close to point blank range. The bursts tore apart the shields before Sandman could react. The Retaliator began to break up under the barrage.

Sandman and his gunner barely ejected in time. The Devil Ray circled the two lifepods for a few seconds, and then moved towards them, getting ready to tractor them in.

Mirage returned to the fight just as the Devil Ray started tractoring in Sandman's lifepod. She cut loose with a pair of FoF missiles. The missiles punched through the Ray's rear shields, and ripped up the armor underneath. The Devil Ray cut its tractor beam, and started to accelerate. Mirage went after it.

Target fixation was something that could happen to any fighter pilot, no matter how experienced, and it was happening to Mirage right now. She was so focused on fighting the Devil Ray, and keeping it away from Sandman's pod, that she never noticed another Devil Ray stalking her through the dogfight. She never knew about the missiles that were locking on to her.

Luckily for her, another pair of Retaliators did notice the second Devil Ray. They caught the Devil Ray in a deadly missile crossfire, blowing it out of the sky before it could launch its own missiles. Mirage, meanwhile, finished off her own opponent with a deadly accurate burst from her tachyon guns.

And all around her, the battle raged on, not really caring if one Squadron Leader lived or died.

 

Meanwhile...

Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung pulled his Bearcat up into a tight inside loop, forcing the Manta that had been on his six to overshoot. Now he was on *its* six. He cut loose with his tachyon guns, ripping through the Manta's shields. An image-rec missile finished the job, blowing the Manta to dust.

"I can't shake... eeeaaarrrggghh!"

The voice trailed off in a horrible scream. There was a brilliant explosion just behind Phalanx's Bearcat. He turned his head around just in time to see the remains of what had once been a Bearcat go flying in all directions.

"Son of a bitch!" Phalanx swore. He didn't know yet who the dead pilot was, but it was bad enough knowing that it had been one of his Bearcat pilots. It was yet another pilot who had died under his command. It was yet another death he was responsible for.

Phalanx put those thoughts firmly out of his mind. He would grieve properly later, once this battle was over. For now, he was simply going to grieve by killing as many Nephilim as he could.

And the battle raged on, not caring about one more death on the conscience of a pilot who carried the burden of too many deaths already.

 

Meanwhile...

Major Gabby "Flamer" Mackay banked her Excalibur down and to the left, barely avoiding a plasma burst. Four Mantas had managed to separate from her wingman, and were now rapidly wearing down her shields.

Flamer reversed her left turn as another Manta fired at her, dodging to the right instead. Even as she completed the move though, a plasma burst from yet another Manta tore through her starboard shields, ripping the tachyon cannons off her wingtip.

With a sick jolt, Flamer realized exactly what was happening. The Nephilim could have finished her off long ago, but they were playing with her instead. They wanted the kill to last as long as possible. She tried dodging again, but as she had expected, she flew right into another plasma burst. The Excalibur shuddered from the hit, and smoke filled the cockpit. She couldn't last much longer.

"The void shall consume you!" one of the Nephilim taunted her.

Flamer took a deep breath, and then coughed as she drew in a mouthful of smoke. If the Nephilim didn't kill her, the smoke would. There was no way she could escape the Nephilim on her own, and none of the other Border Worlders were near enough to help her. She could always eject, but she was too mad about what the Nephilim were doing to her to consider that. There was only one thing left to do.

She flipped her opponents the bird.

"Consume this, motherfucker!"

She hauled the Excalibur's nose and punched the afterburners, sending it racing towards the Mantas. At the last second, her hand stabbed down on the fighter's self-destruct. The fireball from the Excalibur's overloading reactor washed out in all directions, vaporizing all four of the Nephilim fighters.

And the battle raged on, not caring about one brave pilot who, even in death, had beaten her enemies.

 

Meanwhile...

Lt. Colonel Ryan "Knight" Speares slammed his thumb down on the missile release, and then whooped as the Moray he had been targeting exploded into hundreds of minute fragments. Knight banked his Excalibur away from the explosion, searching from a new target. He saw another Moray at his one o'clock, and set off after it.

"This is Taipan Lead... I could use some help here!"

Knight's head whipped around. Taipan Lead... that was Skywalker. Knight finally managed to locate him. Skywalker had been cut off from the rest of the Taipans by three Mantas, who were now pounding his Excalibur relentlessly. He wouldn't last long without help.

Knight broke off to go to Skywalker's aid, and then hesitated just for a second. He could turn away now and just leave Skywalker to die. No one would ever know. It wouldn't even really be his fault. These things happened in combat all the time...

Knight shook his head, and then punched the afterburners, sending his Excalibur racing towards the Mantas. Simply leaving a fellow pilot to the Nephilim would be murder, pure and simple. Knight hated Skywalker, but he was no murderer.

Knight slammed his thumb down on the missile release once again, firing his last two missiles at the Manta closest to him. The warheads blew through the Manta's shields, blasting it to pieces.

The second Manta had no time to react to its wingmate's death. Knight was on its tail before the Nephilim pilot knew what had happened. The Excalibur's guns poured burst after burst into the Manta, tearing the fighter apart. Meanwhile, Skywalker had turned on the last Manta, blowing it out of the sky.

And the battle raged on, not caring that the Taipans had taken the first step towards healing the rift in their squadron, though they didn't know it yet.

 

Meanwhile...

No matter how determined the defending pilots are, they can't always keep out every attacking fighter, especially not when the enemy force is so much larger. Sometimes the defending pilots make a mistake. Sometimes there are just too many attackers. And sometimes, shit just happens.

It happened to the heavy cruiser Warspite. The cruiser had been guarding the outer edges of the transport fleet when a group of Nephilim managed to break through the fighter screen. The group included two Skate bomber clusters, about a dozen Manta bombers, and several Manta fighters.

The Warspite's heavy anti-matter guns blew first one, and then both of the slow clusters to atoms. A pair of nearby Retaliators managed to take out two of the Manta bombers, before being dragged into a dogfight with the Manta fighters. The Retaliator pilots fought bravely, managing to take down most of their enemies, but they both went down in the end.

The remaining Manta bombers, meanwhile, were now free to concentrate on the Warspite. They raked the cruiser's hull with a barrage of torpedoes and plasma bursts. The cruiser's hull began to buckle under the abuse it was taking. A massive explosion ripped through the ship, snapping its spine clean in half. The cruiser broke apart too fast for any of the crew to get clear.

The Warspite's destruction had left a hole in the defensive line. The Mantas surged ahead, trying to reach the vulnerable transports. The battlecruiser Nemesis was trying to turn, trying to use her heavy guns to plug the gap, but the Mantas would be past her by the time she finished her turn.

The only thing standing in the way of the Mantas was a Tanfen Longbow. The Longbow was piloted by Lord John Tan, the Tanfen CEO. He had stayed out of the battle up to now, but now he had no choice except to get involved. The Nephilim were heading straight for the civilian ships, including the medical frigate that Lord John's wife and newborn daughter were on.

The Longbow unleashed a full spread of FoF missiles at the Nephilim. Two of the Mantas went down under the barrage, and several more were hit. The Mantas broke off for a few seconds, and then came back at the Longbow in a pack. Their plasma guns raked the Tanfen craft, blowing it to bits.

Lord John's valiant stand had only held off the Nephilim for about ten seconds, but that had been long enough. The Nemesis finished her turn, and brought the full power of her broadside to bear on the Nephilim. The massive battlecruiser cut loose with every weapon she had, from her AMG and plasma cannons to her missile launchers, and even her stormfire point defense guns.

The massive broadside blew each and every one of the remaining Mantas to atoms. A flight of Intruders from Black Angel Squadron raced in a few seconds later, sealing the gap in the defensive line.

And the battle raged on, not caring about the woman who was now a widow, or the child that would never know her father.

 

A Few Minutes Later...

The battle raged on. To an outside observer, the massive dogfight have looked elegant, even pretty. Brightly colored beams lit up the darkness with a web of swirling fire. The ruby red of laser beams crossed the deep emerald of plasma bursts, which in turn set off the shining gold of the anti-matter blasts. Missiles left sparkling trails of their own as they hunted their targets, and every now and then a fighter detonated in a bright burst of colors. It looked like a pretty ballet, or a scripted dance.

To the pilots caught up in the dogfight though, the dance was anything but pretty or scripted. They were dancing the deadliest of dance of all, with death the prize for those who couldn't keep up, and few extra seconds of life for those who could. Dance as fast as you can, and the Devil take the hindmost. Time and again, the two groups of fighters tore into each other with everything they had. The Nephilim tried time and again to break through the fighter screen and reach the transports, but the human pilots threw them back every time.

In the end, it was the Nephilim who fell back. Nearly half the Nephilim fighters were down by now, in exchange for about two dozen Tanfen and Border Worlds fighters. Judging by the numbers, the battle was going the way of the human pilots. Numbers though, very rarely tell the whole story. The only way the human pilots had been able to stay in the fight this long was by throwing everything they had into the battle. They had used up almost all of their fuel, missiles, and decoys. Many of their fighters were damaged, and the pilots were exhausted. As the Nephilim regrouped for a massive assault, the human pilots knew they had very little chance of holding the line.

For their part, the Nephilim took their time, knowing the state the humans were in. They were once again savoring the kill, and wanted to toy with their prey as long as possible. Once again though, the Nephilim's own cruelty backfired on them. As they started accelerating towards the humans, dozens of fighters at the rear of the Nephilim formation exploded, as waves of missiles from Confed Vampires and Panthers smashed into them. With most of their sensors still blinded by the jamming, the Nephilim had never even seen the reserves coming. The Nephilim were now trapped between the two groups of fighters, and left with nowhere to go.

The Tanfen and Border Worlds pilots took the chance to go on the offensive. They might no longer have missiles, but they still had their guns, and were more than willing to use them. The concentrated gunfire ripped huge gaps in the Nephilim formation. The Confed fighters meanwhile, were still showering the Nephilim with missiles, blasting even larger swathes through the remaining Nephilim. A few seconds later, the Tigersharks and Piranhas reached the battle zone, and the battle was all over bar the shouting.

 

Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)

Raptor pushed back his helmet visor and rubbed his eyes. The strain of trying to track fighter sized targets against the vast background of space had made his eyes ache like hell, and they weren't only part of him that was hurting. He couldn't remember having been in a battle this intense since the Kilrathi War. If it was any indication of the battles yet to come, this campaign was going to be as difficult and bloody as any he had seen during the War.

The Valkyries had lost sixteen fighters altogether: 3 Retaliators from Reaper Squadron, 2 Bearcats from Harbinger Squadron, 3 Excaliburs from Taipan Squadron, 2 Intruders from Black Angel Squadron, 4 Intruders from White Knight Squadron, and two Stalkers from Nightstalker Squadron. They had also lost a second capship, a destroyer that had been so badly damaged that it had to be abandoned. The Tanfeners had lost about about a dozen fighters altogether.

They had also just received word from the screening fighters. The fighters from the Bunker Hill and Endeavour had managed to destroy the 100 Nephilim fighters that they had engaged. The Confeds had lost 6 fighters from the Bunker Hill, and a further 8 from the Endeavour.

The final count from the battle came to about 350 Nephilim fighters destroyed, in exchange for 42 human fighters, and the two capships. In purely military terms, it was a major victory. To the pilots, though, it didn't feel much like a victory at the moment. Some of the downed pilots had managed to eject, but it looked like they had lost at least two dozen pilots in the battle. Not only that, hundreds of good people had gone down with the Warspite. No matter how many Nephilim they had destroyed, the loss of so many lives hurt like hell.

They were still polling the transports, making sure that all of them had come through the battle safely. Even one stray torpedo or plasma bolt could have hulled one of the thin skinned transports, adding thousands of innocent lives to the death toll from this battle. The count could be heard by all the pilots.

"... 47... 48... 49... 50... 51... 52... 53..."

There was long pause before someone said, "That's it! We've got them all!"

No one was able to say anything for a few minutes after that, because the comm channels were swamped with the whoops of both Confed and Border Worlds pilots. All the civilians were safe. That in a way, made it all fighting and deaths worthwhile. No amount of killing would make up for the human lives lost in the battle, but those had died hadn't died for nothing. They had died so that thousands of others could live.

 

Tyr-Masa Jump Point
Tyr System
Another Two Hours Later
1945 Hours, 06 Feb 2681

The jump point flared open in a blaze of white-purple fire as yet another transport jumped through to the Masa System, and hopefully to safety. Most of the transports had already made the jump, taking the civilians out of harm's way. Confed had a base in Masa, and it would be able to house to the refugees in the short term. The civilians weren't going to be very comfortable there, but it was far better than being slaughtered by the Nephilim.

The Border Worlds cruisers and destroyers moved towards the jump point once the last of transports had gone through. The capships sowed the area around the jump point with thousands of mines, everything from large matter/anti-matter ship killer mines to anti-fighter missile mines. Once the capships had finished, the bombers moved in, filling any gaps in the mine field with even more mines. Finally, a radio signal activated the mines, making this jump point all but impassable. The Nephilim would either take heavy casualties going through the mines, or it would take them several days to clear a path through the field. Either way, the humans hoped it would discourage the Nephilim from going after the civilians, and encourage them to come after the fleet instead.

The human fighters and capships turned back towards their fleet, which was even now falling back towards the Nephele jump point. They had done the first part of their job, which was getting the civilians out of Tyr in one piece. Now all that remained was to get themselves out of the system.

 

Bridge, BWS Valeria
Near The Tyr-Nephele Jump Point
Several Hours Later
0400 Hours, 7th Feb 2681 (2681.038)

Admiral Hanton listened to the reports coming in from the rest of the fleet. So far everything had gone exactly as planned. The fleet had been able to fall back to Nephele jump point without coming under attack. The fact that the humans were suddenly pulling out of Tyr had taken the Nephilim by surprise, just as she had predicted. According to their patrols, the Nephilim were still regrouping to try and come after the human fleet, but the humans would be long gone by then.

The break in the fighting had given the pilots a chance to rest up after their massive battle. The techs and deck crews, on the other hand, had been doing nothing of the sort. They had been working frantically to get the damaged fighters back to combat condition. Most of the techs would probably be pulling 24 hour shifts over the next few days. The fighter pilots might get all the glory, but they depended on the dedication and hard work of the deck crews to keep them flying.

Any way you looked at it though, the operation had been a major success. They had gotten the civilians out safely, and they had inflicted a major defeat on the Nephilim in the process. The battle had also produced one unexpected bonus. Judging by the comm chatter the Admiral had overheard as the fighters returned, the battle had gone a long way towards improving relations between the Confed and Border Worlds pilots. The Confeds had a lot more respect for the Border Worlders' fighting skills. After all, the Border Worlders had been able to hold off a vastly larger enemy force. For their part, the Border Worlders realized that both they and the civilians would have died if the Confeds hadn't arrived when they did. They realized that they needed Confed's technology and firepower on their side if they were going to beat the Nephilim. The two groups were finally starting to become one cohesive unit, not just two forces that were fighting the same enemy. It was a good sign.

As the first ships began moving towards the jump point, the Admiral turned her attention to reviewing the battle in this system. All in all, the humans had destroyed a little over three dozen Nephilim corvettes and destroyers, two cruisers, and a handful of transports. That was in exchange for the loss of the Warspite, four destroyers (plus one more that was so badly damaged it was out of action), two torpedo boats, and a corvette. The humans had also destroyed just over 700 Nephilim fighters, in exchange for about 90 Confed and Border Worlds fighters, and about another 30 Tanfen fighters.

The reason that most of the numbers weren't exact was because there was always confusion over combat counts. Enemy craft that were counted as destroyed might have survived, while there might have been kills that no one had claimed. Similarly, human fighters that were now listed as damaged might be later written off as unsalvageable, or deck crews might be able to get "unsalvageable" fighters back into combat. In the end though, the figures tended to balance each other out.

At first glance, it looked like the humans had dealt the Nephilim a massive blow. They had a kill ratio of 4 to 1 in terms of capships (counting the destroyer that was out of action, and not counting the Nephilim transports). That was much better than the Admiral had hoped for at the start of this battle. The kill ratio for the fighters was even more impressive. The humans had a kill ratio of about 8 to 1 (not counting the Tanfen fighters, which had been something of a bonus) or about 6 to 1 (counting the Tanfen fighters). Those impressive kill ratios were a tribute to the skill, training and leadership of the human forces.

Unfortunately though, it looked like the partial estimates they had received from the Saratoga had underestimated the size of the Nephilim fleet. If the recon and SWACS data collected in Tyr was accurate, the Saratoga's pilots had seriously underestimated the number of Nephilim destroyers and corvettes, and probably the number of cruisers as well. And of course, more ships meant more fighters. The Valeria's tactical staff now put the initial number of Nephilim fighters at 3,500, not 3,000.

That mean that while the humans had dealt the Nephilim a serious blow in this system, it wasn't as crippling as it looked at first glance. Even taking into account the 700 fighters and three dozen odd corvettes and destroyers the humans had destroyed in this system, the Nephilim would still have close to 2,800 fighters, and dozens upon dozens of destroyers and corvettes left. Not only that, the humans hadn't inflicted major losses on the cruisers, carriers and dreadnaughts that made up the heart of the Nephilim fleet. The humans had done well in Tyr, but they would have to do even better if they were going to beat the Nephilim.

The Admiral smiled wolfishly. Well, then, we'll just have to hit the bastards even harder, she thought. The human fleet wouldn't have to worry about protecting civilians in Nephele or Loki. Nephele's small population should already have been evacuated by now, and Loki was uninhabited. That meant the humans could focus all their energy on simply hurting the Nephilim.

The Admiral already had a plan on how they were going to do that. So far, she had kept her carriers away from the fighting, not wanting to risk them early on in the battle. Once they jumped into Nephele though, she would unleash them on the Nephilim. The carriers would split up and make hit and run attacks against the Nephilim, ripping large chunks out of the Nephilim fleet. That kind of hit and run battle suited the humans far better than it suited the larger Nephilim fleet. If they were lucky, they would even be able to kill a few of the Nephilim carriers in Nephele.

The Admiral also knew that the Nephilim's strategic position could only get weaker from this point on. With the wormhole closed, the Nephilim would cut off from reinforcements, and constantly worn down by human attacks. The humans on the other hand, fighting a battle that suited them, and waiting for their reserves to form up, could only get stronger. They would savage the Nephilim in Nephele and Tyr over the next week, and then lead the bugs to where the reserves were waiting.

They would win. There was going to be a lot of hard, bloody fighting in the week ahead, but if they stuck to the plan and kept fighting well, the Admiral knew that they would win.

And how many will die before we win, Erin? a nagging voice said in the back of her mind. How much blood will we have to spill? How many families will have to mourn their dead? How many?

She shook her head. As cruel as it sounded, she couldn't afford to think of those under her command as people, with lives and hopes and dreams and families of their own. If she did that, she would go insane long before this was over. The only thing she could do was think of them as numbers. She had to think of them as ships and fighters and kill ratios. And of course, by keeping the numbers of ships and fighters lost as low as possible, she would be keeping as many of her people alive as she could. That would have to be enough.

 

Tyr-Nephele Jump Point
Over The Next Few minutes

The human fleet poured out of Tyr, abandoning the system they had jumped into only five days earlier. They had held the line as long as they could, but now it was time to pull out and run. Jump capable fighters went through first, making sure there were no nasty surprises waiting for the fleet in Nephele. Then the light capships went through, followed by the carrier groups. The 8th Cruiser Squadron came through last, screening the fleet from any last minute attack by the Nephilim.

As they came through the jump point, the cruisers began dumping mines, filling the area around the jump point with lethal warheads. This time though, they left gaps in the field, and no bombers moved in to plug those gaps. After all, they wanted the Nephilim to come after them instead of going after the civilians. The gaps in the field allowed the Nephilim to get through the jump point quickly, without being too obvious. The trick probably wouldn't have worked against humans or even against the Kilrathi, but it would probably work against the Nephilim.

Once all the ships were through the jump point, they began to split up, with each capship squadron and carrier group going a different way. Nephele had a lot of planets, moons, and asteroids - perfect for individual groups and squadrons to hide behind. The ships would make high speed hit and run attacks against the Nephilim over the next few days, and then fade away before the Nephilim could react. If everything went according to plan, a hell of a lot of Nephilim were going to die in this system.

 

Tyr-Nephele Jump Point
0650 Hours, 07 Feb 2681

The Nephilim finally arrived, pouring out of the jump point in search of the human fleet that had humiliated them in Tyr. Their scouts had found the gaps in the minefield almost at once, and the Nephilim were able to jump through without major problems. They only lost a few scout fighters to the minefield. The entire Nephilim fleet came through to Nephele instead of going after the civilians. Admiral Hanton's calculated gamble had paid off.

The Nephilim soon found faint ion trails from the human capships. The trails were several hours old by now, far too faint for the Nephilim to track the human ships, but the trails told the Nephilim that the humans had split up. The massive Nephilim fleet broke up as well, trying to hunt down the human ships. Again, this was just as Admiral Hanton had predicted. The Nephilim would be trying to hunt the human ships down, but they would be doing it a system the humans knew far better than the Nephilim did. The small groups of Nephilim ships were now vulnerable to kind of attacks the Admiral had in mind. Yet another calculated gamble had paid off.

The Admiral had gambled a lot in the battle so far, and she would be gambling even more in the battles yet to come. When you get down to it, any battle strategy is made up of calculated risks. A commander whose forces are outnumbered four to one has to take risks in order to win. Right now, she was risking her carriers in these hit and run battles. She knew that some of them might not survive, but that was a chance she had to take.

As the Nephilim began splitting up, they passed briefly in front of Nephele's G-type sun. The sun cast red light and black shadows over the Nephilim ships. Red and black, the colors of blood and night, of death and oblivion. It was almost like an omen.

An omen that this system was about to become a killing ground.

 

FIN