: Into the Inferno

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things; the decayed and
degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is
worth war is much worse. A man who has nothing for which he is willing to
fight, nothing he cares more about than his own personal safety, is a
miserable creature who has no chance of being free, unless made and kept so
by the exertions of better men than himself."

- John Stuart Mill, 1861



BWS Valeria; Wing Gunnery Control
Nifelheim System
1200 Hours, 17 Feb 2681 (218.048)

The gunnery control suite was intended for use as a last resort in combat. In the unlikely event that the ship's computer guided tracking and target allocation systems failed utterly, the gunnery officer could manually direct the fire of the Valeria's heavy batteries from there. Many new carriers had dispensed with gunnery control altogether, relying instead on multiple redundant computer systems. The Border Worlders had based the Arcadia-class carriers on older technology, though, and the designers had been reluctant to rely on the computers altogether.

Outside of combat, gunnery control was popular with crew and pilots who were looking for a temporary escape from the hustle and bustle of life on a carrier. The floor to ceiling viewports that ringed the suite, designed to give the gunnery officer an unobstructed line of sight to his or her targets, also provided spectacular panoramic views of distant stars and nearby planets. People came up here to think, to re-establish their connections with the universe or whatever gods they believed in, or simply to drink in the sheer beauty of what they were fighting to protect. Outsiders who came to the Border Worlds often looked down on the Frontier systems as undeveloped or technologically backwards. While that was true to some extent, most Border Worlders believed that these pristine, unspoilt systems had a beauty that more "advanced" sectors had long since lost.

Raptor hadn't climbed all the way up (Chrys had been nagging him about the amount of exercise he got these days, so he had foregone taking the lift) simply to be alone, though. He and Chrys hadn't had a chance to talk face to face since their evening out had been turned upside down. From the moment their shuttle had touched down, they had both been caught up in their respective jobs. Chrys had been preparing the Reaper Squadron for the battles ahead. When they hadn't been flying CAP or escort for the battle group, they had been training in the simulators or flying ACM against the reserve squadrons. Meanwhile, Raptor had been organising the flight wing, sorting out deliveries of fuel and munitions, and attending strategy sessions with the fleet's brass. Neither of them had slept the night before, and they were finally getting a long overdue break. It was likely to be the only chance they would get to sleep in the next twenty-four hours.

Before that though, they were meeting here to talk, and this too was likely to be the only chance they would get to do that in the near future. They had already spoken a couple of times in the course of their duties, and would likely do so again as soon as they were back on duty, but there was a world of difference between speaking to and talking with someone. People who really knew each other communicated in far more ways than just words alone. Expressions and gestures often said as much if not more than the words that were spoken, and their thoughts ran together in a way that was only possible when they talked face to face. This was likely to be the only chance they would get to talk about what was happening all around them, and how all their plans had suddenly gone to hell in a hand basket. The two of them counted on each other for strength and support, and a chance to touch base with each other would do them both as much good as hours of sleep.

Chrys was already in gunnery control when he got there, well away from the handful of other people in the suite. She was looking intently out at the stars, but turned around at the sound of his footsteps, smiling slightly. Raptor did a double take when he saw that she had somehow found the time between missions to colour her hair. Her normally rich chocolate brown locks were now a deep golden brown, verging on chestnut. It was a very uncharacteristic thing for Chrys to do. She was normally quite proud of her dark mane, one of very few things she was vain about.

"You like it?" she asked lightly.

"Very nice," Raptor answered. Imminent alien invasion or not, there was only ever one safe answer when a woman asked you that question. "Why now, though?"

"I've been thinking about for a while," Chrys said. "And since quite a few people were walking around muttering that it was a good day to dye"

"Die, Chrys. It's a good day to -- " he broke off suddenly and glared at her. "You're taking the piss, aren't you?"

"I'll get my laughs where I can," Chrys said, turning to look out at the stars again, the smile fading from her face. "Especially now that we've all been hung out to dry," she added bitterly.

"Yeah, doesn't look too good, does it?" he said, moving up to stand beside her. He remembered enough from his Academy command psychology papers to make a couple of good guesses as to just why Chrys had coloured her hair. One theory was that a long-term change like this was a gesture of defiance in an impossible situation, a way of giving the finger to the circumstances they faced. It was her way of saying she expected to survive long enough to enjoy her new hairstyle. The other view was that she didn't expect to survive at all. She was making the change she had wanted now because she didn't expect to get another chance.

Raptor shook his head, remembering just why he had hated psychology so much at the Academy. The two of them stood in silence for a few minutes longer, their shoulders barely touching. In spite of the silence, they each drank in comfort and strength from the other's nearness and touch that couldn't have been given with words. They had been through a hell of a lot together, and they would go through this ordeal together. As Chrys had said, you had to take what you could get.

"How did the training flight go?" Raptor asked finally, trying to ease into the conversation. Each of Battle Group Valkyrie's fighter squadrons had paired off with one of the reserve squadrons, a move designed to let the reserves get some valuable dogfighting practice against frontline fighter pilots. The Reapers had drawn Colonel Onslow's unit, the Scrappers. The plan had been that the two units would start out with 1 on 1, 2 on 1, 2 on 2 and 4 on 4 engagements to hone their dogfighting skills before moving up to a full squadron versus squadron melee.

"It was interesting," Chrys said with a wry smile. "My people were expecting to wipe the floor with them. Hell, I was expecting to wipe the floor with them."

"So what happened? Don't tell me you actually lost," Raptor asked, intrigued. One the one hand, it would be a stinging slap in the face for the Reaper Squadron to lose any training engagement. On the other hand, it would say a heck of a lot about the reserves if they had been able to keep up with the Reapers, who rightly prided themselves on being among the best in the Union.

"Of course not," Chrys said with a snort. "They were damn tough opponents, though.  They're very good pilots technique wise, and they fight dirty."

"Unlike us, of course." Raptor said with a straight face. The tactics used by most Border Worlds fighter pilots would have been far more likely to find favour with the Marquis De Sade than the Marquis of Queensbury.

"Naturally. They don't have the kind of hardware or combat experience we do, but they know how to use their fighters' strengths and they watch out for each other. They won more than a third of the individual bouts, and it's been a long time since anyone has done that against us. We took the entire unit down in the melee, but I "lost" eight of my squadron in the process."

"So you're saying that we don't have to worry about how well they'll hold up against the Nephilim?" Raptor asked sceptically.

Chrys shook her head emphatically. "No. They're good dogfighters, but you know as well as I do that being good in training isn't the same as being good in combat. There are only four pilots in the entire squadron that fought in the Kilrathi War or the Black Lance Incident. All the others are just kids. They have a heck of a lot of potential, but how well they'll hold up when the Nephilim come at them with all guns blazing," Chrys trailed off, shrugging helplessly.

They both knew the statistics all too well. The chances of any pilot surviving his or her first five combat missions were abysmal. A lot of kids in that squadron and in many others would never live to realise their potential. It was hard not to be bitter about all the lives that would be wasted in this battle even if they won by some miracle. And if they lost, billions of their people would die "for the greater good".

Still, there was no point in dwelling on the mistakes of the past. The Border Worlds Union simply did not have enough ships, fighters, or troops for this battle, and there was nothing that any of those here could do about that. There had been many in the Border Worlds military who had warned repeatedly that the Union had to be ready to defend itself against any eventuality. They had argued that case before their commanders, lobbied sympathetic Senators and government officials, fought tooth and nail against the cutbacks that had left the Navy in its present state. Their efforts hadn't been enough to stop the cuts from going through, but they had done all that they could have done, all that it was possible to do within a democratic system.

And that was the rub. It was a democratic system, which meant that the decisions that affected the entire nation had to be taken by those who had been elected by the people to represent their interests. That included to the right to set defense priorities and military allocations. The military could advise, it could lobby, and it could influence those decisions just as any other group in a free society could do. What the military could never do in a free society was take the decisions that were the lawful province of those who had been selected by the people. The military of a free and democratic society ultimately had to be the servant of the government, and never the master. To think anything else, to think that a self chosen few could control and guide the masses for their own good, was to start down the road that Tolwyn had taken. That road led to madness. That road led to Telamon. The Border Worlders understood that better than most because they had been at the receiving end of Tolwyn's madness.

No, the role of the military in a truly free society was to defend that society, and nothing more. The soldiers simply had to accept the decisions they didn't like, and continue to do their job regardless. That didn't mean they couldn't have their own thoughts and opinions, of course, but they couldn't let those feelings interfere with their role. They had to take the tools and the weapons they had been given, and use those to fight against all threats to their home and to their people. They had to fight to the best of their ability, and trust that their struggle and sacrifice wouldn't be wasted. Raptor and Chrys understood that, and so did most of those they were fighting with. Their job was to protect and to serve this new, struggling, vulnerable nation of theirs. It was the job of others to nurture and guide that nation into becoming something stronger, richer, better.

In the Union's short and turbulent history, neither side had yet let the other down. The Union had survived and defeated every threat to its existence, and in the process had grown bigger, stronger and wealthier. What had once been a rag-tag collection of quarrelling colonies was now a united and proud nation of a hundred worlds. The average per capita income in the Border Worlds Union was only seventy five percent that in the Confederation, but that was close to half again what it had been a decade ago. There were still over 12 billion people, nearly a eighth of the Union's population, who lived on less than half the average income, and officially below the poverty line. That was far too many, but it was a hell of a lot better than the 25 billion who had been living in poverty when the First Kilrathi War had ended. Simply by becoming a nation in its own right, looking after its own people first and foremost, the Border Worlds Union had done a hell of a lot for the people of the frontier. In the same way, having its own united military instead of a rag-tag collection of militias had allowed the Union's soldiers to see off the Black Lance, the Kilrathi and the assorted pirates and other scum who had threatened the Union. They would simply have to do their best against the Nephilim as well, and hope that this time would be no different.  

"How does that quote go?" Chrys asked, their thoughts running in parallel as they often did. "Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die."

Raptor raised an eyebrow, feigning puzzlement. "Alfred Hitchcock?"

Chrys slapped him lightly on the back of the head. "Idiot. Alfred Lord Tennyson, as you well know. The Charge of the Light Brigade."

"I'm impressed," Raptor said, and meant it. He had always been the more bookish of the two of them, while Chrys was far more practical.

"Why? Just because I didn't go to some fancy Academy" Chrys said with a mock scowl.

Raptor laughed shamefacedly. "I give you such a hard time about that, don't I?"

"Yeah, you do, and you enjoy it." Chrys said without rancour. The casual sparring was so much a part of their relationship that neither of them gave it much thought. It was just a reflection of the fact that they were two very different people. They were both native Border Worlders, both from families that had lived on Circe for a handful of generations, but that was where the similarities ended. They came from backgrounds that were figuratively if not literally worlds apart, something both of them knew intellectually and neither of them gave a damn about emotionally.

Raptor's parents had been well-educated, professional people who had worked hard to provide a better future for themselves and their children. They hadn't been rich exactly, but they had been well off by any standards and certainly the standards of the Border Worlds. Their children hadn't lacked for anything while they were growing up. They had never quite understood why their eldest son decided to abandon the comfortable career path they had mapped out for him for the dangerous life of a Confed fighter pilot, but they had let him follow his dreams. He had gone to school on Terra and then on to the Confederation Space Force Academy. He had graduated as a pilot just before the Battle of Terra, and had flown with Confed in those last desperate years of the First Kilrathi War, as well as in the years immediately after the war. In many ways, he had been as much a Confed as a Border Worlder. It hadn't been until the "Incident" that he had been forced to choose one over the other. That had really been no choice at all, and he had ended up back on Circe, fighting to defend his home against his former comrades.  As much he had loved his life in the Confederation, he knew that he would always be a Border Worlder by choice as well as by blood. 

Chrys' background had been very different. Her family had been farming folk in the backwoods of Circe, carrying on a tradition that had been established when their ancestors had first arrived in the Border Worlds. They weren't poor, but they never had money to waste either. Her parents had worked morning to night just to ensure that the children were fed, the taxes were paid, and the farm stayed viable. They hadn't had much time or patience for her dreams of flying. She had defied them to go after her goals anyway, and that had opened up a rift in the family that had lasted years. Chrys had ended up serving with the forces of the Landreich Republic during the war, and had fought with them to defend the frontier worlds. In the years after the war, she had been one of the first to sign up with the Border Worlds Militia to defend the newly formed Union. When the attacks on shipping along the frontier threatened to lead to an all out war, she had requested a posting to the squadrons that were defending her homeworld. Whatever issues she might have had with her family, they were still her family, and she would have done anything to protect them.

That was the common thread that bound the two of them. That was the thread that had kept two such very different people together through all the years. They shared a deep and unshakable commitment to the defence of their home, their families and their nation. It wasn't simply an abstract matter of pride and patriotism, not simply a matter of waving a flag or following a leader. Everything that they had, everything that they treasured and valued in life, was right here in the Border Worlds Union. It was the same for the other pilots, crews, and Marines who had stayed loyal to the Union in spite of all the changes and cutbacks. These hundred worlds on the edge of human space, worlds whose existence depended on keeping away the threats and enemies they lived toe to toe with, belonged to them and to their kin. Their ancestors were buried here, they themselves had been born here, and their children would be raised here. The Union was not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but it was theirs. No one was going to take that away from them. They might not like the situation their leaders had placed them in, but they would fight to the last breath and to the last drop of blood if that was what it took to safeguard the people and the places that had shaped their lives.

"So, any idea how we're going to get out of this mess?" Chrys asked. Courage and determination were all well and good, but the brutal reality of war was that numbers and firepower tended to win far more battles. The Combined Fleet was badly deficient in both those areas compared to the Nephilim fleet, or rather fleets, that they would soon be facing.

Chrys hadn't been at the strategy session with the fleet's brass, busy instead running her squadron through the wringer in the simulators. Raptor quickly explained the plan they had come up with. The frontline units of the Combined Fleet would take on the enemy force coming at them from Ymir, while the reserves would engage the taskforce that would be emerging from the Loki jump point. All their units would have to keep moving, pick their battles carefully, fight as they had never fought before, and hope God was in a really good mood.

"That's the best plan you could come up with?" Chrys demanded angrily. Planning and strategy had never been her strongest points, something that she readily admitted. She hadn't spent years studying those things like the Academy graduates had. On the flipside though, she had a gift for understanding people, for empathising with them and motivating them. She knew her own strengths and weaknesses as well as she did those of others, and she knew whom to count on to balance her weaknesses just as she balanced out the weaknesses of others. She had counted on people like Raptor and Damien Chelsea and the Admiral to be the tacticians and planners.  

"You mean other than stealing a shuttle and making a run for the Andorra sector?" Raptor said with a half smile. He was far more introspective than Chrys was, the one who observed and analysed and remembered. Chrys' faith that he and the others could put together some kind of master plan was touching, but it wasn't realistic in this case. Even the best poker player couldn't turn a pair of twos into a royal flush, and even the best planner couldn't guarantee victory when the order of battle was stacked so heavily against them.
"I hear Andorra is nice this time of year," Chrys said with a straight face. She leaned her head against his shoulder, a silent apology. None of them were miracle workers. They just had to do the very best that they possibly could, and hope that it would be enough.

"Yeah, but we couldn't afford to live there on our salaries," Raptor said, giving her a quick hug. Apology accepted.

They were both scared as hell about what was headed towards them. They each realised what they were feeling, and each knew that the other realised it too. Anyone with half a brain would be scared at the prospect of tackling an enemy fleet that outnumbered them by four to one, and probably outgunned them by even more. Chances were that they could lose their friends, their lives, and worst of all each other, and those prospects scared them just as they would scare anyone else. They were not superhuman and they were not superheroes, just ordinary people who were doing a job that had to be done. They had both been fighting long enough to know that there was nothing good about war. Lord Arthur Wellesly, the Duke of Wellington, had been right on the money when he said that the only thing that could be sadder than a battle won was a battle lost. Even for the victors and the survivors there would be shattered lives and shattered dreams that would haunt them for as long as they lived.

What kept them going, not just the two of them but also all the other veterans who had been fighting throughout their lives to defend the nation, was the sure knowledge that while war was a terrible thing, it wasn't the worst of things. It was far worse to see your family and your friends, all the people you loved and cherished and adored, suffer or die because you weren't willing to stand up and fight for them. It was far worse to see a nation and a people that you loved and honoured be conquered and subjugated, turned into a slave state and a slave race because you weren't willing to put yourself on the line for them. It was far worse to know that the ideals and values that gave your life meaning and purpose would vanish, trampled under the heels of those who had more power than morality. Might didn't make right, but might would be right as long as no one was willing to stand up to it.

No, war was never a good thing, but sometimes it was a necessary thing. It had been necessary against the Kilrathi, whose aggression driven them to try to wipe out or enslave humanity, just as they had enslaved or wiped out every other race that they had met. It had been necessary against the Black Lance, whose arrogant belief in their own superiority and their status as the Master Race had allowed them to plot the murder of the hundreds of billions who didn't meet their arbitrary standards. It was necessary against the Nephilim, who for reasons known only to themselves, had elected to attack and harvest humans and Kilrathi alike. It was necessary, and that was the only thing that mattered. They either had to fight like hell and defeat this enemy, or be responsible for the loss of everything that they cared about.

That was what the two of them talked about as they continued watching the stars, though not in those words as often as not. Instead, their conversation ranged from the people in their lives to things they wanted to do and places they had good memories of, all touchstones to who they were and what they believed in. They had been together too long to need to spell everything out to know what they each thought. They both believed in what they were doing, and would do so for as long as they lived. They weren't happy about the situation, but they were at peace with themselves.

At least, they were at peace until the scramble alarm sounded.