: “ Into the Inferno ”

"The victorious army first realizes the conditions for victory, and then seeks to engage in battle."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War



Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
Nifelheim System, Union of Border Worlds
1325 Hours, 17 Feb 2681 (2681.048)

The flight deck looked and sounded like it was in a state of complete, utter and irretrievable chaos. It wasn’t really, of course. The safe launching and recovery of dozens of fighter craft depended on hundreds of steps carried out a carefully planned and choreographed sequence of events. A mistake, omission or mistiming in any of those events could lead to disaster. At best, they would lose a fighter and its pilot, while at worst a crash could trigger a chain reaction that would gut the carrier itself. The hundreds of mean and women who worked on the flight deck knew that, and as a result they had trained for and rehearsed these situations until they were second nature. The Valeria’s crewmembers were among the best in the Union, and while some unkind souls might claim this was not saying much, they were very good at what they did. The past few weeks of all out combat operations had honed those skills even further, and they now carried out their tasks with the sort of speed and efficiency that would have had them in the running for the top deck crew award in the next GCM competition. That was assuming that the Union of Border Worlds survived long enough to see said competition, naturally.

Still, reality and appearance could be as far apart in the military as in any other field of human life, and a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking he had stepped into a madhouse. The first thing that would hit anyone stepping on to the flight deck was the noise. It wasn’t just that it was loud to the point that anyone who wasn’t wearing ear protection would begin accruing permanent hearing damage within a matter of minutes. It was also constant and seemingly never ending. The shrill screech of the scramble alarm continued to drone on in the background, just as it had been throughout the ship for the past few minutes. Here though, it competed for attention with dozens of other sounds. Fighters warming up their engines shook the deck with their thunder, the high-pitched howl of the fast and responsive engines on light fighters blending in eerie harmony with the deep and rumbling roars of the massive turbines that powered their heavier brethren. Underlying them was the thrumming of the Valeria’s own gigantic engines as she accelerated and maneuvered, as powerful and implacable as an avalanche. The intercom system continued blaring instructions, though just about no-one heard those, focused on tasks that they had practiced so often that they could do them in their sleep. And mixed with all that was the noise made by all the people on the deck. Crew chiefs yelled orders to crews who were positioning the fighters for launch, and yelled at the armorers and fuelers who working all around them and trying like hell to do their jobs without stopping the techs from doing theirs. Pilots and gunners who were running for their planes yelled out to each other questions, instructions, wishes of good luck and the plain macho bullshit that was traditional at times like this. The noises mixed and swirled until they took on a life their own, the sound that was unique to a flight deck in the middle of a scramble, thoroughly disorienting and utterly exhilarating all at the same time.

And once you got past the shock of the noise, and actually got out onto the flight deck, you had to expend as much of your attention on watching out for life and limb as you did on doing what you had to do. A flight deck was a dangerous place at the best of times, and carriers in peacetime often lost more deck crew in accidents as they did pilots in crashes. However, that was nothing compared to the danger in the middle of an emergency launch such as this one. Fighters were being hurled off the deck as rapidly as the catapults could cycle, and each launch brought with it its own risks. Someone who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, even if that was only by a couple of meters or a few seconds, would likely meet a most gruesome death. A fighter’s intakes created a suction so powerful they could pull in a man or a woman just as easily as they could a fly, and the spinning turbines would shred that unfortunate individual into hamburger in a matter of seconds, though the turbines themselves would be wrecked in the process. Bone strike, the flight deck crews called the phenomenon with the typical gallows humor they exhibited towards the risks of their job. At the other end of the fighter, the flames from the afterburners could burn a man to a crisp, and the wash could send him flying back until he inevitably slammed into a solid object. The recoiling catapults could grind someone’s bones into powder, and the razor sharp edges of wings and control surfaces moving at high speed as a fighter hurtled into space would slice anyone who encountered them in half with the same ease that an electric carving knife would cut through cheddar. In addition to all that, there were the dangers that came from fuel and stormfire ammunition and live warheads. Those dangers were not just to one person but also to all of them. Any fire or explosion now, on a flight deck that was packed with fuelled and armed fighters, would not only kill everyone here on the deck, it would gut the ship itself.

The deck crews knew and accepted those risks. They knew about them, they did what they could to minimize them and to keep themselves safe, but they didn’t dwell on them. Nor did they dwell on their two crewmates who had already died in this scramble, long before a shot had been fired in anger. There would be time to think about them later, once the fighters were safely away, but for now, their focus on doing the job. They were fighting for the Union just as much as the fighter pilots were, and the risks that they were taking were an inherent part of their job. Marines were paid to charge into the teeth of enemy artillery, and fighter pilots were paid to dance with heatseeker missiles. This was what the deck crews were paid to do. Their job might not be anywhere as glamorous as those of the fighter pilots or Marines, but it was just as demanding, and they took just as much pride in doing it right as their frontline counterparts did.

For the fighter pilots, of course, the scramble to get off the flight deck was just the prelude to doing their job, hunting down and wiping anyone who dared to threaten their ship and their crewmates. That didn’t make it any less harrowing. They had the smallest of windows to get off the deck safely in a magnum launch, and missing that window would most likely result in their ending up as an unwilling component of a pile of pulverized flesh and fire scorched metal, along with anyone else who was unfortunate enough to be nearby at the time. The takeoffs had to be done without the assistance of most of the sophisticated aids that pilots nowadays took for granted, as those could not cycle fast enough to cope with the pace at which the fighters were launched. Without meaning to be jingoistic, though (well, okay, maybe just a little bit) the Border Worlds pilots knew that they were better equipped to do that than the pilots of any other nation. They had all spent at least part of their careers flying off scratch conversions or old escort carriers that lacked the technology that Valeria had, and they had learned long ago not to depend on technology. Instead, they depended on skills and experience gained through years of flying in the often primitive conditions on the frontier, where a very brutal form of natural selection acted on pilots. Those who could make the grade lived, and those who couldn’t died, it was as simple as that.

As with the deck crews, that experience and all that they had learned in their training had been honed to a razor’s edge by the hard fighting they had seen in the last few weeks. The Valeria and her pilots had been through hell and back together, and had survived what all too many other ships and crews had not. They were survivors, and they were determined to keep on being survivors. Whatever it was that was coming after them (and this scramble had happened so fast that none of the pilots or gunners had been told that yet), it was soon going to wish that it had picked someone else to tangle with.


Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
Nifelheim System, Union of Border Worlds
A Few Minutes Later

The space around the Valeria too looked to be in complete chaos, as dozens of fighters and other combat craft milled around the Valeria and her escorts in a seemingly aimless fashion. The fighters crisscrossed each others’ paths at high speeds, often only avoiding collision with each other and newly launched ships by a few dozen meters. This chaos too was deceptive, and anyone who watched closely could see the method in the seeming madness. The fighters that had been launched earlier were quickly and efficiently formatting with each other, singletons linking up with their wingmen, elements joining up to form flights, flights to become squadrons. Fighters recently exiting the launch bay broke cleanly away from the launch pattern to link up with their units. The pilots all followed the standing orders they had been given for situations like these, supplemented by tersely worded instructions from their flight controllers. The Valkyries might have never seen this particular scramble coming, but plans for an event like this had been finalized well ahead of time. As with so many aspects of warfare, preparation and planning were what separated the winners from the losers, the living from the dead.
The Reapers were one of the last squadrons to be launched. The Reaper Squadron pilots were the most combat experienced on the Valeria, and were rightly considered among the best fighter pilots in the entire Union. Similarly, their Retaliator space superiority fighters were the most powerful fighter craft the Union had. Normally, they would have been one of the first up to deal with any threat. Even the best pilots were useless if they didn’t get enough rest though, and the Reapers had finished a grueling series of simulated missions and an ACM training mission against one of the reserve units just hours ago. As a result, the entire squadron had been on stand down when the alarms went off, and the pilots had been off duty. It had taken precious minutes for them to get back to the flight deck and change into their flight gear.

As fighters cleared the launch circuit and began forming up though, Raptor noted with relief that there was as yet no sign of the threat, either on the Retaliator’s own powerful radar or in the data being relayed to him by the Valeria and the SWACS craft via data link. Still, one thing that you very quickly learned as a fighter pilot, especially on the frontier, was to take nothing for granted. The enemy had surprised them once already, and couldn’t be allowed to do so again. Like the saying went, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Trying to get a handle on the tactical situation while running pre-combat checks and flying his fighter wasn’t ideal by any means, but at least Raptor knew that he wouldn’t have to worry about being bounced while he did it. Over the intercom, he could hear his tailgunner, Lieutenant James Chang, alias Backlash, talking to himself as he ran the diagnostics on fighter’s twin reaper tailguns. Glancing over his right shoulder, he could see the Retaliator flown by his wingman, Major Alexa “Frost” Richardson, trailing his fighter in a loose combat spread, but matching his every move precisely. Over the years, he had come to trust both of them absolutely. It would take a very determined enemy fighter pilot indeed to take him down with both Backlash and Frost watching his six. It was same for every other pilot in the Reaper Squadron, each knowing that they could always put their lives in the hands of their colleagues if they needed to. The core of the Reaper Squadron had been together since the Border Worlds Conflict, and one of the first things that new members of the squadron learned was the credo of always watching out for each other. The Reapers fought as a team, and they were fiercely loyal to each other. They looked out each other both on and off duty, and because of that, far more of them had survived the all out battles they had fought against Confed, the Kilrathi, the Black Lance and the Nephilim over the past decade than they otherwise would have.

Of course, that fierce loyalty to each other and to the squadron had its drawbacks, especially in terms of their individual careers. There were only a handful of commissioned officers in the Border Worlds military who fought as tailgunners, and very few Majors who were flying wing. Both James and Alexa could have reached higher ranks if they had transferred out of the unit, but both had opted not to. In that, they were far from unique. Very few of the people who transferred into the Reaper Squadron transferred back out any time soon, even though there were at least half a dozen pilots in the squadron who had the service records and the experience to be XOs or even Squadron Leaders. On the plus side though, this meant that the squadron achieved a spectacular concentration of experience and talent. This was where the pilots and gunners wanted to be, and HQ had sense enough not to interfere. As a result, the Reaper Squadron was one of the best weapons the Union had. They had proven that several times already in the battle to hold the line.

The rest of the squadron had formed up by the time Raptor finished the last of his checks. Most of those checks would normally have been done while the fighter was still on the deck, but there had only been time today to do the bare minimum. The second element of Green Flight was trailing Raptor and Frost on the starboard side, while the last element was trailing to port. Red Flight was several thousand klicks behind Green, off to starboard and above them. Blue Flight was the same distance behind as Red, but to port and below. Above and below were arbitrary terms in space, of course, but pilots had discovered long ago that it was much better for their sanity if everyone in a formation agreed which direction was up. Having the flights separated in all three axes allowed all of them the maximum freedom to maneuver rapidly if they needed to without fear of collision. It also increased the volume of space they could cover with their radars, the information from which was shared instantaneously between the fighters via the data links, allowing all of them to see what any one of them saw. Last but certainly not least, the formation allowed them to cover each other more effectively. Whichever vector a group of enemy fighters choose to swoop in behind a flight, they would find another flight of Retaliators swooping in behind them, and would end up being torn to shreds by the lethal crossfire created by the tailguns of the Retaliators in front and the forward cannons of those coming in from behind. The Reapers had practiced and flown sweeps at full squadron strength countless times, and the flight leaders had all known what to do without anyone telling them.

Similarly, the Valkyries had practiced dealing this with kind of defensive emergency several times, and each squadron had standing orders on what to do. The squadrons that had launched earlier had all formed up already, and were now taking up position to cover both the Valeria and the Freedom. The Freedom had executed a breakaway maneuver several hours earlier, when they had first learnt of a second enemy fleet, and was now separated from the Valeria by 100,000 klicks. That was far enough away that probing enemy fighters were very unlikely to find both carriers before being destroyed, but close enough that fighters from both carriers could move to support each other with a minimum of delay. The Border Worlds carriers and their escorts had nowhere near as much firepower as Confederation ships did, so they didn’t fight using conventional Confed battle tactics. Instead, their style of fighting relied on speed and flexibility. They used fast, slashing attacks that allowed them to concentrate as much firepower as possible on an enemy group as quickly as possible. They would overwhelm the enemy in one brutal strike if they could, or do as much damage as possible before the other side responded in strength. Once the enemy did respond, the Border Worlders preferred to get out quickly and conserve their strength rather than engage in a toe-to-toe slugging match on unfavorable terms. Right now, for example, the two groups were positioning themselves so that they could hit an incoming group from both sides. If that group turned out to be too large to fight though, the carrier groups could break away and retreat in different directions. Dishonor before death was a widely accepted principle on the frontier.       

By now, the pilots from Black Angel, White Knight and Revenant Squadrons were flying close escort on the two carriers and their various cruiser and destroyer escorts. Their Intruders were the fighters best suited to that job. They had the speed, agility and firepower to be excellent dogfighters, but they were limited in the free chase role by their short-ranged sensors. Working tight defense under the co-ordination of the Valeria’s tactical crew and the SWACS operators made the most of their strengths while nullifying their weakness. Still, close escort was a job that most fighter pilots hated, as it limited their opportunities to seize the initiative and to go on the attack. Border Worlders being Border Worlders, it was a minor miracle that all three Intruder squadrons were sticking to the plan, but the last few weeks had done a whole lot to drive home the importance of fighting to a plan. That was what had gotten them out of the scrapes they had found themselves in.

The Ghost Warrior recon Arrows were already sweeping well ahead of the carriers, invisible behind their cloaks as they looked for the first signs of the enemy. They were too lightly armed and shielded to be effective as conventional dogfighters, though they had proven surprisingly useful in carrying out unorthodox strikes. Their forte, though, was in gathering information that would allow the more powerful fighters and bombers to bring down the hammer on the enemy. The information they provided was another key component of the Valkyries’ battle strategy, allowing the commanders to target attacks in the ways that would cause the most damage and incur the fewest casualties. The “good old days”, when the Border Worlders had gone in guns blazing with no thought as to the consequences, were well and truly over. Nowadays, they knew that they had to fight smart as well as fight hard if they were to have any chance of surviving.

Meanwhile, the Bearcats from Harbinger Squadron flew point 20,000 klicks ahead of the Valeria. Bearcats were blisteringly fast and incredibly agile, while still being heavily armed and extremely well defended, making them the best close range dogfighters the Border Worlders had. The plan was that the Bearcats would use their speed to make the first intercept of any incoming group. The job of the Bearcats was to open up the enemy fighter screen by slashing at it and disrupting it enough for the other fighter squadrons to pounce. Behind the Harbingers, Taipan Squadron’s Excaliburs and the newly transferred Retaliators of the Vandal Squadron flew loose escort, sweeping freely through the area around the carriers. While not as fast as the Bearcats, each packed six heavy forward guns and a fearsome missile load, twelve warheads per Excalibur and eighteen per Retaliator. They along with the Reapers would smash into the enemy formation after it had been disrupted by the first attack of the Bearcats, while Stalker electronic warfare craft would blind enemy sensors and prevent the enemy fighter pilots from responding effectively. The four heavy fighter squadrons would collectively gut any incoming bomber formation in the first strike. They would then deal with the enemy fighter cover, leaving the remaining bombers and any fighter escort they might have to be cleaned up by the Intruders. 

All the fighter and EW units were now up. The only squadrons being launched now were the bomber units, as well as the various support craft such as refuelers and SAR shuttles. All of their SWACS craft had been launched as soon as the alert had been sounded, but all other support craft had been held back until the fighters were clear. There was actually no immediate need for these craft to be launched now, as there was no immediate capital ship threat or any need to either refuel the fighters or search for pilots. Still, living nose to nose with the Kilrathi all these years had made paranoia almost a virtue among Border Worlders commanders. That was doubly true now, when the Combined Fleet was staring at the possibility of being sandwiched between two enemy fleets. Besides, if the worst really did come to the worst, there was no point at all in having those craft and their pilots aboard the carriers if the ships went down. That was something the Border Worlders had become all too aware of in the past few days. The only thing that had kept the loss of the Littenia from being a death blow for the Border Worlds Navy was the fact that her flight wing had been off the ship at the time, and hence had been able to be recovered by the Valeria and the Freedom. Those craft and their pilots had now been integrated into Battle Group Valkyrie’s own squadrons, bring them up to strength for this phase of the battle.

The trouble was, none of them had been told just what this phase was about. The only orders the Reapers were a curt reminder from the comm officer to join the other squadrons that were flying loose escort, which they did as soon as they had formed up. Apart from that, neither they or nor any of the other pilots had been given any information at all about the situation. Even as the Wing Commander, all Raptor had been told was that “the situation was still developing.” What that usually meant was that the brass wasn’t sure what the hell was going on either. He normally hated being kept out of the loop, but he had served with both Admiral Hanton and Captain Que in the battle for the Bush. They were friends as well as colleagues, and he knew that it wasn’t in their nature to withhold information just for the hell of it. For now at least, he decided to keep his mouth shut and do as he was told. Border Worlders being what they were though, the rest of the pilots had their own opinions. As he had half expected, Lieutenant Colonel Chrys “Mirage” Rhodes was the first one to speak up. She had never been shy about voicing what she thought.

“Hey, Fearless Leader. You get the feeling Hanton’s treating us like mushrooms?” she asked with her customary acid tongued bluntness. Mushrooms were kept in the dark and fed manure (often the bovine male variety), a phenomenon that service people were all too familiar with.

”Be quiet, you,” Raptor said lightly, but firmly enough that she got the point. The Border Worlds military was nowhere near as strict on comm discipline as some others, but there were limits. Chrys was going to do her career some major harm if she kept saying things like that about an Admiral over an open channel. Erin Hanton wasn’t the vindictive sort, but she didn’t stand for insubordination either.

“Aye, aye, Colonel,” Mirage said, seeming to take the hint, her voice all business now.

“So, you think Hanton does it because she thinks it makes her look good or just because she gets off on it?” she piped up cheerfully a few seconds later. Like a lot of the Union’s officers, she didn’t give a damn about making herself look good to her superiors. The high profile case last year of a Border Worlds pilot who had been kicked out of the military for gross insubordination and reckless breaches of flight safety had caused people across the human nations to hurt themselves laughing, having assumed that was what got you into the Border Worlds military in the first place. Mirage did her job, did it well, and gave her all on every mission she flew for the Union. And if that wasn’t good enough for her superiors, then the hell with them.

Raptor bit back a groan. He had never really regretted his decision to turn his back on the Confed Space Force and sign up with the Border Worlds. Still, there were times when he remembered longingly what it was like to work with people who did as they were told without answering back. It was no wonder that that Border Worlds Squadron Leaders and Wing Commanders tended to get gray hair early. He knew though, that the devil-may-care attitude was deceptive. At the first sign of trouble, the loud mouthed and seemingly undisciplined band of pilots he led would turn into a ruthless and deadly group of killers. They did what was important to protect their homes and their kin, and they didn’t give a damn about anything else.

A light flashed beside his comm screen before he could think of a suitable reply. The words “secure transmission” filled the screen, and then a list of the recipients scrolled across. The transmission was only being sent to him and to the Squadron Leaders, whereas most tactical updates also went to the XOs and flight leaders. The screen then switched to show Captain Sang Que’s face.

”Sorry to keep you in the dark, Ladies and Gentlemen.” He said pointedly, a sure sign the previous exchange had not gone unnoticed aboard the Valeria. “The drones we sent into Seggalion have picked a large force approaching the jump point. The scouts didn’t have time to transmit much information before they were destroyed. However, our best estimate is that this force consists of at least three dozen destroyer and cruiser sized vessels, plus fighter cover. From their speed and approach vectors, we estimate they’ll be jumping into Nifelheim within the hour.”

The first reaction Raptor felt on hearing the news was a simple, exhilarating surge of adrenaline. All the waiting, all the seeming endless planning and preparations, all the worrying and wondering, all of it was over. The Nephilim were on their way, and the final phase of the drawn out battle they had been fighting all these weeks was about to begin. Despite knowing how badly outnumbered they were, a part of him was looking forward to that resolution. He was tired of this fight, and he wanted it over with.

Then his brain caught up with the hormone surge, and he felt like he had been kicked in the gut. The Nephilim forces that they knew about were coming at them from Loki and from Ymir, not from Seggalion. Right on heels of that devastating revelation, his mood flashed towards optimism, thinking that these were reinforcements, only to plunge back into despair a split second later. There was no way that the Union or the other frontier nations could have put that many warships together at such short notice. Confed could have, but short of a mass mutiny in fleet, there was no way that Confed ships would be coming to help them after the Senate had voted against releasing the Inner Fleets. He could imagine one captain going rogue to join the fight (Hell, it had already happened with the Hades) but not forty. The chances were not at all good that these ships were Kilrathi either, even if they had decided to put old hatreds aside and stand together with the humans against the alien invaders. Virtually all the ships that the various Kilrathi warlords had on the frontier had already been gathered into a mighty battle fleet, only to be wiped out en masse by a Kraken ship killer. The Kilrathi couldn’t put together forty warships any more than the Union could. 

Sherlock Holmes had said that once you had eliminated the impossible, whatever remained, however improbable, was likely to be the truth. From everything they knew, it was impossible that these ships were Confed, Border Worlds, or Kilrathi. That left one extremely ugly explanation for what they were seeing. Since the beginning of this battle to hold the line, the humans had become painfully aware of the sheer numbers the Nephilim had, and the flanking abilities created by the aliens’ wormhole technology. It certainly wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that that were not two but three Nephilim fleets out there, carefully positioned to catch the humans in three-way crossfire. And if that was so, then every man and woman in the Combined Fleet was as good as dead already. They had worked out a plan that just might have allowed them to take on two enemy fleets, but there was no way in hell they could fight three.