: Into the Inferno

"Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its
Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, 'This was their finest hour'."
- Winston Churchill, June 1940



BWS Valeria; Wing Command Briefing Room 
Nifelheim System
0200 Hours, 17th Feb 2681 (2681.048)

Everyone knew the routine of these big briefings by now.  It was an unspoken but clearly understood rule in the fleet that any senior officer who could attend would do so. Most of Battle Group Valkyrie's brass was crowded into the briefing room itself.  In addition to Admiral Hanton, Captain Sang Que, and Commander Damien Chelsea, the skippers of the escorting cruisers and destroyers were present. The Wing Commanders were there as well, along with the Squadron Leaders of those few units that weren't flying at the moment. The senior officers of the other units in the fleet, including those from the main fleet, the reserves, and the various stations, were taking part in the briefing via video screens that had been set up all around the room.

Of course, there was very little else that was routine about this particular meeting. These strategy sessions were usually held at the beginning of the battle for each system, allowing the Admiral to brief her commanders on exactly she wanted the fleet to achieve over the next few days. The Admiral would lay out the grand strategy for the upcoming battles. She assigned the objectives for each unit, and then left it to the commanders of the individual carrier groups and warship squadrons to decide exactly how exactly they were going to achieve those objectives. That allowed the fleet to fight to a coherent operational plan while still allowing the commanders who were on the scene the maximum flexibility possible.

That had been the pattern for the battles they had fought in the Tyr, Nephele and Loki systems. In each of those systems, they had been able to dictate the terms of the engagement. They had been able to fight in a way that suited them rather than their enemy, despite being heavily outnumbered and outgunned each and every single time.  They had done that by staying mobile and picking their battles, maximising the advantages offered by their better command systems and crew training. That had allowed them to steadily whittle away at the massive enemy fleet until they had worn it down to a shadow of its former self. The enemy armada that had once included half a dozen super carriers and two dreadnaughts was now down to a single carrier and a couple of dozen escorts. 

That had been the reason why their last strategy meeting, held a little over twelve hours ago, had been pretty upbeat. All through the last two weeks, while they had been wearing down the enemy fleet, the Combined Fleet had been retreating through relatively unimportant and lightly populated systems in order to draw the Nephilim here. Meanwhile, a back-up force drawn from the Border Worlds Militia and Confed Third Fleet reserves had assembled here in Nifelheim. The Admiral had selected this system for the final engagement because it had the kind of terrain that suited their fighting style. Nifelheim had a lot of planets, moons and asteroid belts that would favour a fast moving and well coordinated force that knew the terrain. The icing on the cake had been that the system had a fair number of resources that would help break the back of the Nephilim. Those resources included a well equipped and well defended space station that could act as a fall back point if any of their carriers were lost. The system also housed a fighter testing base that had contributed several dozen fighters to the fleet, and whose repair facilities were even now busy getting damaged fighters back into action. Over the past few days, the reserves had further cemented their advantage by planting mines around the jump points, and setting up automated defences that would create killing zones around strategically vital areas. This system had been where they would finish the Nephilim once and for all.

That had been the plan. Had being the operative word, naturally. Over the past few hours, all of their careful planning had been thrown into disarray. Most of the commanders knew little about what was happening as yet, but they all knew that something was badly wrong. Their ships and pilots had suddenly been put on full combat alert. Crews who had been enjoying some well earned shore leave after a fortnight of hard fighting had abruptly been recalled, despite the fact that there had been no activity from the Loki jump point the Combined Fleet had come through. Their carrier battle groups and warship squadrons were now dispersing across the system, moving out of the positions that would have allowed them to quickly and effectively put down any enemy force that exited the Loki jump point. They had been ordered to attend an unexpected and unplanned briefing, something which all their experience told them couldn't be good. And more than anything else, the tension and worry on the Admiral's face told them that things had gone badly awry.

Erin Hanton wasn't one for cheap theatrics, and she didn't keep the other officers in suspense. At 0200 precisely, the scheduled starting time, she called the briefing to order and began speaking.

"Alright, there's no easy way to put this, so I won't bother. Just after 1200 Hours yesterday, a flight of Confed recon Excaliburs patrolling the Ymir System detected a large force of Nephilim warships that had jumped in from Kilrathi space. Judging from their vectors, they're headed for Nifelheim. Neither Confed nor Border Worlds intelligence knew anything about this force, which is quite distinct from both the fleet we've been fighting for the last two weeks and the ships that the Midway has been fighting her way through on her way to Kilrah. That's not surprising given the few resources we have inside Kilrathi space, and the lack of communication between some of the feudal planets and the central hierarchy of the Assembly of Clans. All the Excaliburs were lost, but not before they were able to send detailed scans of the enemy fleet."

The Admiral paused slightly. She had deliberately padded the first part of her speech with the needless information about their intelligence capabilities and the status of the Excaliburs in order to give the other officers the time needed to absorb the two key sentences. No matter how experienced and well trained they were, they were still only mortal. The brain could only process information at a certain speed, especially when that information was shocking and unwanted. Now though, she had to hit them with worse news still.

"According to the scans we received from Confed HQ, the Nephilim force consists of at least three and possibly four Leviathan-class super carriers, as well as a Tiamat-class dreadnaught. They're supported by over a dozen heavy cruisers, and three or four dozen destroyers and corvettes. When combined with the carrier and the escorting warships that we have to assume will hit us from Loki at the same time, we're looking at a conventional force almost as large as that we faced in Tyr at the start of this campaign. In addition to that however, the force includes a Kraken ship killer identical to the one that single-handedly wiped out a Kilrathi battle fleet. That is the force that we will have to take on and destroy."

The Admiral paused again, though this time not from choice. The news that they were suddenly facing such an overwhelming enemy fleet when they had been so close to a final victory rocked the officers back on their heels. The stoic resilience that was so much a part of a successful military officer's makeup was temporarily gone. A mass of voices swamped the communication channels, as everyone demanded answers to their questions and tried to talk over each other. Rather than try and shout them down, the Admiral waited for a couple of minutes. That was long enough for years of training and discipline to re-assert themselves. She took a deep breath, and decided to give them the rest of the bad news. It was best to get all the shocks out of the way so that they could get around to talking about what they had to do.

"The Confed Senate has just met in an emergency session, following a request for aid from the Border Worlds government under the mutual defence treaty signed last year. Unfortunately, news of this enemy force only strengthened the case for the Inner Fleets being held back to protect the core sectors. None of the Inner Fleets will be released until the wormhole has been shut down. Neither will individual carriers, warship squadrons or fighter wings from any of the fleets. The Border Worlds government is trying scrape up extra forces to back us up, but the military cutbacks of the last year mean that there's very little to send. Not only that, anything that they can put together may not be ready in time to help us out. We have to proceed on the assumption that we're on our own, ladies and gentlemen."

This time, there was no outburst of raised voices. In its way though, the drawn out silence that followed was more disturbing still. The shock and disbelief showed in the sagging jawlines and drawn faces of the people on every screen. A military setback, even something as drastic as a whole enemy fleet appearing right on top of them, was something that they could adjust to. It was part of the job, something that every officer as experienced as these commanders were had to get used. What they hadn't expected though, was being thrown to the wolves by their own government. There was no other way of looking at it, not when they were being denied any help whatsoever.

The silence was finally broken by one of the squadron commanders, a scar faced Colonel in Border Worlds Militia uniform. "So. What was the bad news you had for us, Admiral?"

That wry comment, lame as it was, was greeted by a burst of laughter from the other officers. The laughter was in equal parts nervous and forced, but it was laughter all the same. With a situation this farcical, this tragic, this shocking, one either had to laugh at it or break down altogether. They weren't quite dealing with it just yet, but they were on their way. At least they were responding now, and hopefully starting to think about finding a way out of the hole they were in.

"That was the bad news, Pr'shrik ek Pakthi," the massive Kilrathi warrior rumbled from where he was watching the proceedings aboard the bridge of his cruiser. Hanton didn't know enough about Kilrathi facial expressions to tell if the Kil was being literal or mocking. She did understand enough of the Kilrathi language to know that the term he used was an honour name, something that was very rarely given to humans. "The good news is that the Nephilim would have gone through a lot of Kilrathi systems to reach the Border Worlds."

"How so, Kalahn?" the Admiral asked respectfully.

The Kilrathi showed his fangs in what might have been a smile, but probably wasn't. "We Kilrathi might not be as well armed as we were in the days of the Empire, but we haven't forgotten how to fight. You can be sure that their fighter strength was bled away for each step they took. Va ka garga ka naru ha garga, as my people say."

The Admiral felt an ice cold shiver race down her spine as she recognised the phrase: those not of the blood must have their blood spilt. As warlike and bloodthirsty as such a philosophy was, it wasn't all that different from the view the people of the Frontier took towards any who came their way with less than honourable intentions. She bared her teeth in a feral grin to match the Kil's. "My people have a similar saying, Kalahn. Never, ever, fuck with the Border Worlds on our home turf."

"That's the thing to keep in mind, people," she said, turning her attention to the other officers. "We have the home ground advantage here. We know the battle field, we know where the best ambush spots are and we know how to use those things to run rings around the Nephilim. Now, I'm not going to insult your intelligence by telling you that this fight will be easy or bloodless. In fact, it'll be very far from either of those things. If we do everything right though, we can win this one."

"The first thing we'll be doing is to augment the minefields we've laid around the jump points even further. The mines the reserves have laid down are geared towards keeping the enemy fleet trapped inside this system once it jumps in. I want everyone to understand this, because we can't afford any mistakes. We're *not* going to change the pattern of those mines, and nor are we going to activate the mines before the Nephilim jump in. We don't want to keep the enemy ships out of Nifelheim. We want to lock them in."

In practical terms, that strategy would be pretty easy to implement. It was much simpler to use mines to block a jump point entry, thus keeping the target ship in the system it was already in, than it was to stop a ship that was exiting the jump point. Ships needed to hit a jump point at precise approach vectors and a certain speed in order to achieve a successful jump transit. That made it fairly straight forward to sow mines in such a way that the ship couldn't achieve either the correct angles or the correct speed to jump out. On other hand, the fluid nature of jump space meant that when ships exited a jump point, they could emerge at any point in a sphere around the jump point itself. That meant the entire cubic radius of the sphere had to be saturated with mines in order to block the ships from jumping in. For the number of mines they had, the humans could create a much deadlier field if they stuck to locking the Nephilim in rather than keeping them out. And as long as the mines were kept inactive until the Nephilim were already well into the system, the chances of the mines being detected was pretty slim. The downside to the plan, though...

The Admiral nodded grimly. "There won't be any quick way out for us either once we activate the mines. As harsh as it sounds, ladies and gentlemen, that's the situation which would result in the least loss of life. The last thing we want is to put a barrier of mines between us and the Nephilim. If we do that, there's absolutely nothing stopping the Nephilim from bypassing us altogether and ripping through the Border Worlds. There's no force out there capable of stopping them, and nothing to keep them from slaughtering billions of innocents. If we lock them into Nifelheim, there's no chance of civilians being caught in the crossfire. Not only that, the longer we keep them trapped here, the more chance we have that the Union can scrape together something, anything to use in the fight." 

"Now, I'm assuming that the Nephilim try to hit us from both Loki and Nifelheim simultaneously, as they would have to be pretty stupid not to. Commodore Johnson, Commodore Turnbull, I'm sorry to have to do this to you. I know that your pilots and crews weren't expecting to be throwing into an all out fleet engagement, but there's no other choice. I need the reserves to take on that carrier group coming in from Loki. You need to take her out if you can, or hold her off long enough for the main fleet to finish with the forces coming in from Ymir."

"Aye, Admiral," Johnson said, his face showing no sign of what he was feeling. Everyone knew that those orders were as good as a death sentence for a lot of the reserve and militia pilots, and maybe for all of them. No-one doubted the courage or skill of the reserves, but they didn't have the firepower or the battle experience needed to take on a frontline carrier battle group. They had been intended as support elements for the main fleet units in fighting a fleet action, not for fighting a fleet action themselves. The reserve pilots faced the best odds of any unit in the fleet, being "only" outnumbered five to two, but it was a hell of an ask all the same. As the Admiral had said though, there was no other choice.

"As for the main fleet units, we're going to be engaging the ships coming in from Ymir. We can't afford to take them on in a toe to toe fleet action though. Their fighters can overwhelm ours in a mass engagement and that ship killer can wipe out our capital ships if we bunch up together. We're going to do what we did in Nephele, split up and try to slice away at the Nephilim bit by bit. I need everyone to keep moving, fight only when the situation is favorable, and try to help each other out whenever possible. I know that's a lot easier said than done, but that's what we have to do. The carrier groups will try and pick off their flat-tops one by one. We already know that our carriers can beat theirs in a head to head match, so the trick is making sure we gull them into separating as they hunt for us. We do that by running silent and making the most of our recon and SWACS capability. Let's make them work to find us, rather than the other way around. The two DESRONs, the 8th Cruiser Squadron and the 6th Corvette Squadron will fight independently of the carriers, and pick off the enemy warships and transports whenever possible. At all costs though, avoid any sector where that ship killer might be until she's destroyed.

"Kalahn, the job of taking out the ship killer falls to Battle Group Auriga. The stealth capabilities of the Hades give her a better chance than any other ship of slipping through the enemy pickets and getting within strike range of the Kraken. I need your pilots to put her down as fast as possible. That'll allow us to make the best use of our capital ships in ripping at the enemy fleet.

"Last but not least, the volunteers, the Tanfen test pilots and the Avernus Station pilots. Your job will be to cover the station, and take care of any leakers that get past either the reserves or the main fleet. If significant numbers of Nephilim ships manage to break past us, you'll need to pull back to the testing station. Any squadrons or warships from the main fleet or the reserves that are cut off from their units will try and link up with you.

"That's the plan, ladies and gentlemen. I'm sure that it'll need a hell of a lot of fine tuning, but it's the best chance we have of pulling a victory out of this. The movement orders I gave a few hours ago mean that your ships will already be in position when the Nephilim jump in. We have a hell of a lot of work to do before that, so I won't hold you up too much longer. Before you all go, though, I want to say one more thing."

The Admiral paused for just a second before continuing, "We have no other choice but to do this, Ladies and Gentlemen. This fight's not about national pride or government policy. It's not about a line on a map or some great strategic prize. This is about the survival of a hundred worlds and a hundred billion people in the Border Worlds Union alone. And there are billions of other people who are counting on us, people who live on the frontier worlds of the Confederation and the unaligned worlds. If we fail, the result could be the worst slaughter since the early days of the First Kilrathi War. They're all counting on us to see that doesn't happen. Good luck and Godspeed, everyone."


Border Worlds Presidential Residence
Landreich Prime, Union of Border Worlds
About The Same Time

"There are some who say the decision to withhold the Inner Fleet shows the Confederation government has reneged on its commitment on the Treaty. They say that the Confederation is a fair weather friend, one who makes wonderful promises when it suits Confed interests to do so and then casually breaks its word as soon as it's convenient. They claim that Confed can't be relied on to see its plans through. I say that these people are wrong!"

The Honourable Senator Davidson leaned forward as he delivered that statement, his voice ringing with conviction and authority. "The Confederation hasn't reneged on its commitment because it never had any commitment to the Treaty in the first place! Confed isn't a fair weather friend because it was never our friend to begin with! And the Confederation has most certainly seen its plan through. That plan was to ensure the destruction of the entire Border Worlds Union as a punishment for daring to reject Confed's corrupt rule!"

"This so called peace treaty was a masterpiece of deception to rival the Kilrathi Armistice. They convinced us to leave ourselves at the mercy of their whims, all under the guise of friendship and co-operation. They deceived us into cutting back our armed forces to the bone, leaving us dependent on the protection of the Confed Fleets for our very survival. And when the time came that we needed those fleets, what do they do? They do what they intended to do all along! They keep those fleets safely at home, leaving us helpless against the Nephilim! They're willing to sacrifice billions of people to their ruthless ambition to bring all of humanity under their hegemony. That is the true nature of Confederation, crushing anyone won't be..."

"You can see the foam coming out of his mouth if you look close enough," President Cale said with a sigh, switching off the holovision monitor.

The Border Worlds Senate was due to meet shortly in order to consider its response to the current situation, as well as Confed's refusal to send help from the Inner Fleets. President Cale had already canvassed support from the moderates in the Senate for a measured response that would nevertheless indicate the Border Worlds Government's displeasure with the Confed decision. Something as simple as recalling their ambassador, the diplomatic equivalent of a slap in the face, would let the Confeds know how unhappy they were about being sacrificed "for the greater good," but wouldn't burn their bridges with the Confederation. The not-so-Honourable Senator Davidson though, had wasted no time getting off the mark, and was presently holding a live press briefing that would be carried across the Union. The anti-Confederation invective that he was filling the airwaves would undoubtedly sway some voters, and that might influence some of the Senators into acting rashly.

That was the reason why President Cale had called two of the most influential Senators into his office for a private meeting. He had to bring them both around to his way of seeing things before they got out on the floor of the Senate. Once that happened, they would wield far more power than he would, and the decisions that would determine whether the Union survived this crisis would be in their hands. He would be able to influence matters, guide the Senate in what he felt was the right decision, but he couldn't step in and take matters into his own hands. That was because the governmental system of the Border Worlds Union was largely based on the British parliamentary system. Under that system, the bulk of the power was invested in the legislature, power that was held in check by the judiciary and the Sovereign. The Border Worlders had replaced the hereditary Monarch with an elected President, but the balance of power remained much the same. The President was largely a politically neutral figure. He acted as a unifying force for the nation, provided advice to the legislature and helped prevent abuse of power, but didn't have much direct power in his own right.

It was the respect and influence that came with his role that President Cale hoped to put to good use. The two men he had called here, Senators More and Konstantin, were staunch political opponents. Senator More had long been an advocate of cutting fleet spending, arguing that the money spend on warships and fighters could be far better used in providing health care, housing and other necessities, all things that the Union desperately needed. That had earned him a lot of goodwill and support from the people who were battling hard to make a better life for themselves and their children on the untamed worlds of the frontier. However, it had cost him and his party massively in terms of votes from the servicemen and women. Both those who were currently on the frontlines and the veterans who had served in the past knew all too well what it was like to go into battle without the weapons and equipment they needed. Senator Konstantin was the fleet's foremost defender in the Senate, a position that had seen him butt heads with More on almost weekly basis. At the end of the day though, both of them had the Union's best interests at heart, even if they differed wildly on just what those interests were.

"When the Senate convenes, we need to be able to deal with this situation rationally. We don't have the time or the energy to waste in rabble rousing," Cale continued, this time directly addressing the two Senators.

"Everyone knows Davidson is an idiot. He lost any credibility he had after the cloaked carrier incident," Senator More said dismissively. He was referring the claims Davidson had made a few days ago that the Saratoga and the Bunker Hill, rather than being destroyed by the Nephilim, had instead gone into cloak and were poised to help overthrow the Union.

"I would not be too sure of that," Konstantin cautioned. "There are going to be a hell of a lot of people out there who are going to be feeling angry and betrayed. No-one likes being told that his family has to be sacrificed for "the greater good", especially when the person saying that is sitting safely in the Inner Worlds. They might not buy into the idea of a Confed plot, but they'll be feeling like they've been abandoned."

"There are a hell of a lot of people right here who feel the same way. A mutual defence treaty means that you defend each other no matter what, not just as long as it's convenient," Senator More said angrily, slapping his hand down on the table. "Dammit! The only reason the battle is still being fought on the Frontier is because Hanton's kept drawing the Bugs sideways through our systems rather than back into the Inner Worlds. That was the deal with Confed. We provide a buffer zone to contain anything that comes out of the Core before it hits Confed space, and they give us the support we need to finish it. Except when push comes to shove, they tell us we're expendable!"

"Make no mistake, Gentlemen, I'm far from happy with their decision," President Cale said evenly. "The simple fact though, is that we can't go out there and demonise the Confeds. For one thing, it would be churlish as hell after everything that Third Fleet's crews has done for us. They've spilt a hell of a lot of blood in the fight so far, and they'll spill a lot more before all this is over. Let's not forget that our esteemed colleagues have thrown Third to the wolves as well. The last thing those boys and girls need now is for us to be attacking them. Their morale is going be down the tubes as it is, and it'll go down a hell of a lot further if they feel abandoned by the people they're fighting with as well as the people who sent them out to fight."

"Not only that, for purely practical reasons, we can't afford a major rift with Confed over this. We could be looking at the start of a whole new inter-species war here, Gentlemen. If that's the case, and if we manage to get through this mess in one piece, then we have to be standing shoulder to shoulder with Confed. I don't like being considered a sacrificial pawn anymore than you do, but we can't let the whole alliance go into a meltdown over this one incident. We've all been in politics long enough to know that sometimes you just have to grin and take it. That's what I need you to do when you get out on that Senate floor. Let's make sure that we all keep our eyes on our real enemies, shall we? All our energy has to be focused on dealing with the Nephilim, not on squabbling with the Confeds. Agreed?"

Both Senators nodded. President Cale took a deep breath, not allowing himself to relax because the next part of his pitch would be just as important. He had to convince them to put aside any partisan differences and work together, something that would force them to ignore years of rivalry and decades of political experience. It was only natural for politicians to try and leverage some advantage out of any crisis, and that was what they couldn't afford to do. There just wasn't time for infighting or back room deals of any kind.

"We also can't afford to waste valuable time scoring political points over who was right and who was wrong," the President said, this time looking directly at Konstantin. "We made our decisions based on the information that we had available at the time, and with the aim of achieving the best results that we could. I'm sure that we would have made some of those decisions differently if we had known then what we know now, but that kind of hindsight is only available to the voters and the historians. We'll let them judge how well any of us did. Personally, I think that if the Union survives intact and free long enough for us to be judged in the polling booths, let alone the history books, all of us will have performed magnificently. Agreed?"

"Agreed, Mister President," Konstantin said softly. This turn of events was in many ways a vindication of his crusade to maintain the strength of the Fleet. However, it was a victory that he genuinely took no pleasure in. If the battered remains of the Combined Fleet failed to contain the Nephilim armada, then it was all over for the Union. The nation that he had spent all of his adult life first striving to create, and then to defend, would be gone forever. Even if they did manage to pull a victory out of it, and that was a mighty big if, thousands of the service people whose cause he had championed could die for that victory. If this was a triumph for his policies, it was the kind of triumph that he had never asked for and would never want.

"Neither can we can't afford to cling to policies that were suitable in the past, but aren't right for what we're facing now." The President said gently, looking at Senator More. It had been easy enough for Konstantin to be gracious, but More would have to give up programs that he had put his heart and soul into. "David, I agree with you one hundred percent that we need to divert more money into health and education and social spending. We need all those things; our people need all those things. Right now though, what we need are fighters and ships. We need to get as many of our ships online as quickly as we can, and that means we need the money to rush them into action. This is not the time for those military funding cuts you wanted, and we don't have time for a budget fight in the Senate. We just can't have any delay getting those ships ready. I need your support in getting the Senate to free up the money, the equipment and the manpower we need. Is that clear?"

"Clear, sir," Senator More said bitterly. His policies had made perfect sense, and would have done a lot to improve the lot of the ordinary people if the Nephilim hadn't arrived or if the Inner Fleets had been available to help. As it was, he was smart enough to know that this wasn't the time or the place to do what he wanted. There would be other opportunities though, always given that the Union made it through this. That was what mattered now.

"Good. Now, we have a lot to get through. I hope and pray that the Combined Fleet can stop the Nephilim, but we can't rely solely on that. I've already made requests for assistance from the Andorran Republic and the Free Republic of Landreich. The response from the Andorrans was, and I quote 'The current geo-political situation makes any cooperative military action between our nations politically untenable.' In other words, they're still pissed off about us going into an alliance with Confed, and they would rather watch from the sidelines while we get burned by the Nephilim. Bastards."

"As long as they've got the Collin's Corridor to stop the Nephilim coming after them, they won't see any profit for them in helping us out," Senator Moore added glumly. The Andorrans had become increasingly isolationist over the past few years, relying on the formidable fortifications that guarded the jump routes leading into their space to keep them safe. Approaching them had always been a long shot, considering the cold war that existed between them and the Confederation, but it had to be tried.

"I think they might have troubles of their own," Senator Konstantin said. "Fleet Intel's been picking up Kilrathi signal traffic near the Andorran border. One of the warlords seems to be making a play for Andorra."

"Not our problem just now," the President said curtly. "The responses from the Landreich and the unaligned worlds have been a lot more positive. They all understand that they could be just as much at risk as we are if the Nephilim break through in force. The Landreich has already committed two escort carrier battle groups from the FRLN, while many of the unaligned worlds are willing to send a frigate or a destroyer. The trouble is that it's going to take time to muster those forces and then get them to Nifelheim. We won't have any assistance at the front line for days, maybe a week."

"That will be much too late to make any difference in Nifelheim," Senator Konstantin said wearily. It was hard to believe, given everything that had happened to date, that the campaign to hold the line had only lasted two weeks in total. There wasn't much reason to believe that the battle for Nifelheim would be any more protracted.

"I think the best we can hope is to organise those ships into a second line of defence, along with anything else that we can scrape up," President Cale agreed. "Vladi, you've always had your finger on the military pulse. How many ships can we put together at short notice?"

"Not bloody much," Konstantin said. "We were always banking on the Combined Fleet and its reserves to contain the main Nephilim thrust. All the other ships that we have, and there are precious few of them, are scattered across three sectors trying to stop Nephilim raiders. Almost all of them are engaged at the moment, and it will take them time to get back. I'll do what I can, but..."

"What about the Arcadia carriers? Can't any more of them be made battle ready?" Senator More said, acutely aware of the irony of what he was asking. He was the one who had blocked the expansion of the Arcadia class beyond the five existing carriers, and had forced the construction of the last two of those be slowed down to save money. As a result, with the Arcadia herself in dock for repairs, the Union had been limited to two fleet carriers at the start of the current conflict. With the Littenia knocked out in the Loki battle, the Navy was down to just one operational fleet carrier.

"The Panneria is at least two months away from completion. The Mounteria is almost ready for shakedown trials though, and we've been fast tracking the repairs on the Arcadia ever since we got hit. With a little luck, both ships can be under way in a week. The trouble is that we haven't gotten anywhere near enough crewers, pilots or fighters for them. We have had literally thousands of the veterans we forced into early retirement or the inactive reserves signing up over the last two weeks, but they have all been out of uniform for months. It takes time to get people up to combat standard, sir, not matter how willing they are. As for the fighters, each carrier will have between a third and a half of its rated flight wing. If we are lucky, that is," Konstantin said with a sigh.

There wasn't much that could be said about that, and they all knew that it was much the same story with their lighter ships. Offhand, Konstantin could name at least four heavy cruisers, a couple of escort carriers, and a dozen destroyers and frigates that were currently in dry dock, their reactors cold and their crews disbanded. It would take weeks to get them back on line. What ships they did have were either fighting with the Combined Fleet or scattered across a hundred worlds, fighting off Nephilim raiders and trying to hold the Union together while the fleet carrier groups tried to hold the line. They just hadn't been ready for a battle of this magnitude, and no amount of second guessing or finger pointing would change that.

If this had been a movie, the President would have said something dramatic like "You'll have those ships ready to fight tomorrow!" and it would have been done. Real life didn't work that way. The paradox of military planning was that when you had all the time in the world to prepare, you almost never saw the threat as being imminent. And when you did see an imminent threat, it was usually far too late to prepare. The mistake the Union had made had been in planning for the best case scenario rather than for the worst, and the price of that mistake might be its very existence.

"God Almighty. We're just going to be pissing into the wind," Senator More said finally, appalled. Untested ships that were being rushed into battle, veterans whose skills could be rusty as hell, incomplete flight wings... it was a recipe for a disaster, no two ways about it. If that hastily thrown together force had to take on Nephilim supercarriers, any one of which would have more fighters than the entire force put together, state of the art Nephilim warships, a Kraken ship killer...

"It is not much, but it's all we are going to have if they Nephilim get past the Combined Fleet," Konstantin said. "I just hope Hanton is as good as everyone keeps telling me she is. Otherwise we are all going to be, as you Anglo-Saxons say, up the creek without a paddle."

"A little less defeatism when you address the Senate, if you don't mind," President Cale admonished the two Senators. He had finished convincing them of what they had to do, but he still had to convince them it could be done. Any nation that went into a battle thinking it was going to lose was as good as beaten, it was as simple as that. He took a deep breath before launching into the final and most crucial part of his pitch.

"I admit that things look bleak, but we can't give up. There have been other times in history when the situation looked hopeless, but courage and determination helped achieve victory. A hell of a lot of us can trace our roots back to Britain and her Empire. Think back to early 1940, during Earth's Second World War. Europe had fallen to the Nazis and neither the Americans nor the Russians had yet gotten themselves off the sidelines. Britain and her Commonwealth allies stood alone. The pilots of the Royal Air Force had to take on and defeat the seemingly invincible Luftwaffe. They were outgunned and outnumbered, and by most estimates they didn't have a chance in hell, but they didn't give up. They held on with skill and courage, and the nation rallied around them to ensure that the forces of evil wouldn't prevail. It was Britain's darkest hour, but also her finest.

"This will be ours, Gentlemen. I would back our pilots and crews against any in the galaxy. Hanton's one of the best and the Combined Fleet isn't just going to roll over. I don't want the Senators thinking about imminent defeat. I want them thinking about what we need to do to help our soldiers win. And we will win, Gentlemen. As Winston Churchill said all those years ago, victory at all costs, victory in spite of terror, victory however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival."