: “ Into the Inferno ”

"For now we see through a glass darkly;"
- Corinthians I: 13 verse 12



Excalibur 001 (Taipan Lead)
Nifelheim System, Union of Border Worlds
1410 Hours, 17 Feb 2681 (2681.048)

"Taipan Lead, Camelot Lead. Requesting permission to rendezvous, estimated time of arrival five minutes, over."

Camelot Lead? Who the hell was Camelot Lead? Lieutenant Colonel Alex "Skywalker" Witt tried frantically to place either the other pilot's voice or callsign, before remembering that the Confed reserves used tactical callsigns for their squadrons, whereas the Border Worlders used the names of the squadrons themselves. "Camelot" had to be the Black Knights. That bit of confusion wasn't the first on this mission, nor was it likely to be the most serious. The incoming force was moving too fast to allow anything except the most basic and haphazard planning. A "come as you are" alpha strike was unbelievably risky even by Border Worlds standards, which was really saying something, but they had no other choice. The whole operation was being held together more by instinct and faith rather than by any detailed mission plan.

"Taipan lead copies all, Camelot. Valkyrie strike is on course 136-28-127, 350 KPS. Link up on the starboard side of the lead formation, over." There hadn't been any time to set up scrambled frequencies that fighters from all three battle groups could use either. After all, there had barely been enough time to scramble or divert the fighters and bombers from the various carriers. They were just hoping that the Nephilim weren't able to listen in on their transmissions from outside the system. Just because *they* couldn't do it didn't mean that the aliens couldn't. There was still so much they didn't know about their enemy. 

"Camelot lead copies all. Increasing speed to overtake second formation on 135-28-127, 1,300 KPS. Heads up." That meant the other Excalibur leader was taking her fighters very close to the trailing bombers and their escorts in order to link with the lead fighters as soon as possible. In fact, the Excaliburs would be slicing by just to one side of the ships they were overtaking as they went past, separated only by a single axis as they shot by an overtaking speed of close to 1,000 KPS. It was a risky move to be sure, but no more than anything else that they were doing today. The Taipans had been in some tough situations in the battle for the Bush and the battle to hold the line, but this impromptu strike against a massive incoming force surely had to take the cake.

The Confederation reserve Excaliburs raced in on Skywalker's starboard wing a few minutes later, braking hard at the last minute to avoid overshooting, and sliding into formation with the barest of delays. It was the kind of precision flying that would have done most frontline squadrons proud, suggesting a lot of flight and dogfighting time. The reserve units had already proven themselves far better than many people had assumed them to be in their mock dogfights with the Valkyries. Now they were going to get a chance to prove how well they could handle the real thing.

As soon as the Black Knights were in formation, the four Excaliburs that had been transferred to the Taipans recently dropped back slightly, and slid to starboard to link up with the Confederation fighters. Unlike the others fighters flown by the Taipans, those four Excaliburs were not cloak capable, and hence would be better off working with the non cloak capable Excaliburs flown by the Confeds. At the same time, the four cloak capable Retaliators from the testing station broke away from the Vandals and slid into formation with the Taipans. That left Skywalker with a dozen cloak capable fighters under his command, while the Black Knight CO, Major Michelle "Maneater" Ross, now led sixteen non cloak capable Excaliburs. That gave both Excalibur units many more tactical options, as all of the fighters under Skywalker's command could now use their cloaks for both scouting and ambushes, while Maneater now had significantly more firepower at her disposal. Of course, putting a flight of fighters into each squadron that had never fought with that squadron before only increased the possibilities for confusion and mistakes. This was no time to be looking for ideal solutions though, just for solutions that might be good enough.

The two Retaliator Squadrons, the Reapers and the Vandals, were flying in formation to Skywalker's port wing. The Retaliators were marginally slower and less agile than the Excaliburs were, but made up for it with thicker shields, heavier armour, and crushing firepower. Each of them mounted six heavy forward cannons just like the Excaliburs did, but also each carried twin tailguns. In addition, they were each carrying a full warload of eighteen image-recognition, heat-seeker and friend-or-foe missiles. All that firepower was guided by their fearsomely accurate STORM fire control systems, as well as the steady aim of their veteran pilots. They more than anyone else would be responsible for thinning out the enemy fighter cover in the first missile exchanges, hopefully cutting the odds down enough that they and the Excaliburs could keep the remaining enemy fighters engaged while the bombers and their escorts got through.

At the moment though, the Retaliator pilots were using their powerful radars to keep watch for any enemy ships or fighters that might have jumped in ahead of the main force. The strike group was moving too quickly for the lumbering SWACS craft to keep up, which meant that the Border Worlders didn't have the radar coverage that they had made such good use of over the past few weeks. In STORM though, they had the next best thing to the SWACS. The STORM units in individual Retaliators could communicate and share information via data-link, allowing the pilots to scan a huge volume of space. Each pilot focused on a different region, while STORM made sure there were no gaps in the coverage, and allowed each pilot to see what the others saw. With a little luck, they would be able to see the enemy and put themselves in a good position to attack well before the Nephilim saw them.   

Whether they would be able to do that depended a great deal on the Stalker electronic warfare craft, which were now pacing the Excaliburs and Retaliators, already hidden under their SHROUD cloaking devices. The EW birds were spread well away from the fighters, giving the fighter pilots room to maneuver, and maximizing their own jamming coverage. The strike group needed the element of surprise if it was to have any chance of surviving, let alone succeeding, which meant that any enemy scouts that appeared had to be jammed in a matter of seconds, before they had a chance to radio a warning back to their comrades.

The Stalkers were probably the most vital assets the strike group had. They were packed with sensors and computers that could track and analyze enemy radar and communication signals at lightening speed. Once the computers had done their job, the electronics warfare officer in the back seat of each craft could use the powerful array of jamming pods to scramble those signals. In sufficient numbers, a unit of Stalkers could effectively leave groups of enemy fighters deaf, dumb, and blind, easy pickings for the Confederation and Border Worlds fighter pilots. Even if that wasn't possible, they could still seriously degrade the other side's sensor and communication capabilities, making it that much harder for the Nephilim to fight as a cohesive unit. In addition, each Stalker carried a quartet of Blinder missiles. The Blinders didn't carry a warhead in the conventional sense. Instead, they were able to punch through a capital ship's phase shielding in much the same way that a torpedo did, before burying themselves deep into the warship's hull. Once they were embedded, they flooded the ship's systems with a torrent of electronic white noise, temporarily disabling the radars, target tracking equipment and other vital systems. That meant the bombers wouldn't have to face the gauntlet of maser cannon and missile fire from the ship's turrets that they would normally have to run in order to deliver their torpedoes. In essence, the Stalkers were force multipliers, allowing the fighters and bombers to do much more damage in a shorter time and with fewer casualties than they normally would.

For all their impressive abilities though, it wasn't the Retaliators, Excaliburs or Stalkers that were the key to the successful completion of this mission. Given the odds that they were facing, there was no way that they could hope to overwhelm the enemy fighters. All that they could do, all that they could even hope to do, was to open up a big enough gap in the enemy defenses, and of course hold that gap open long enough, for the torpedo bomber pilots to do their job. By all estimates, they would only have enough time for one torpedo run. They would have to do enough in that time to cripple the enemy force, or at least damage it badly enough to allow Battle Group Valkyrie and Taskforce Jasmine some chance of survival, to say nothing of the rest of their fleet.

That of course would be a lot easier said than done. The whole operation would depend on the three squadrons of Avenger strike bombers that were shadowing the superiority fighters. Though calling them three squadrons was really a bit generous. Both the Predators and the Hell Knights had been depleted by the losses they had suffered in the past two weeks of fighting, as well as by the lack of the flight that had been transferred to the BWS Defiance. The two units could field little more than the equivalent of one full strength squadron between them for the strike mission. They all had battle hardened pilots and crews, but the question was whether there were enough of them to make a difference. The Mean Machines were at full strength, but they lacked the battle experience of the frontline units. No matter how well trained you were, you never knew if you could bear to fly straight and level long enough to deliver your torpedoes while every enemy gunner and fighter pilot tried to blow you out of the sky. Not until you had done it for real. 

This mission would have been much easier if they had the Dauntless heavy bombers from Thor's Hammer squadron. The massive strike craft could each deliver a dozen ship killer torpedoes in one run, compared to the four warheads that each Avenger could launch. Not only that, they had enough shields and armor to withstand anything that the enemy could throw at them, up to and including anti-matter blasts. They also had some of the most skilled and experienced bomber crews in the Fleet. What they didn't have though, was enough speed to keep up with the strike force if they hoped to hit the enemy force as it came through the jump point. Both Raptor and Admiral Hanton had felt that the advantages to be gained by hitting the enemy hard and fast would outweigh those of waiting for the heavy bombers. Besides, doing the best you could with what you had was nothing new to those who were fighting to hold the line.   

At least the Avengers wouldn't have to go in on their own. The attack run on the enemy ships would be led by Thunderbolts from the Timber Wolf reserve squadron. The Thunderbolt had been a magnificent heavy fighter in its day, but was now largely relegated to being a light strike craft. Their heavy cannons and rockets would be used to sweep away the enemy shield generators, as well as any gun turrets and missile launchers that were still operational after the Blinders had done their work, hopefully opening up the enemy ships to the killer punch that would delivered by the Avengers. The Thunderbolts would also be the last line of defense for the bombers, charged with taking on any enemy fighters that got past the superiority fighters and the close escort.

With any luck, though, (a phrase that had featured all too prominently in the planning of this mission), it wouldn't come to that. There were three squadrons of Intruders tasked with holding off the enemy fighters before they got near the Avengers and Thunderbolts. Once again, the number of squadrons was a little deceptive, as the Black Angels, Revenants, and White Knights had all suffered heavy losses in recent weeks. Between them, they could field maybe two full strength squadrons' worth of fighters at best, but those were two squadrons worth of skilled and dangerous fighter pilots who had survived the worst that the Nephilim could throw at them.

Until now, that is.


Excalibur 001 (Taipan Lead)
Near The Nifelheim-Seggalion Jump Point
Nifelheim System
1430 Hours

"Rap, anything on the radar?" Skywalker asked the Wing Commander. Comm procedure among the Border Worlders tended to be a lot looser than among their Confed allies, but not quite that loose. The reason that Skywalker got away with it was that he was Raptor's second in command aboard the Valeria, and they had learned to trust each other's judgement during the battle for the Bush. Phalanx and Mirage were the other veterans of that battle, and the four of them formed a little clique among the Battle Group Valkyrie's senior pilots. It stopped Raptor from becoming too isolated by his rank in the way that all too many Wing Commanders did, and it also provided an informal channel for information to pass more freely between the brass and the rank and file pilots. Simply by the different nature of their jobs, the Squadron Leaders knew what was happening with the pilots and gunners much better than the Wing Commander did, and they could ensure that information got passed on when it had to.

That friendship also meant that they were better aware of each other's problems, and how those problems might affect the flight wing. Skywalker had a suspicion that was the reason why Raptor had stopped Phalanx from flying lead on this strike, or at least one of the reasons. Phalanx had been more than a little down about the losses his unit had suffered. Other units he had led had suffered heavy losses in the past, and Phalanx seemed at least partially convinced it was all part of a pattern. Neither Raptor nor Admiral Hanton thought so, otherwise Phalanx would never have been allowed to remain the Freedom's Wing Commander or even to lead the Harbingers. Nonetheless, flying lead on a desperate strike like this was no place for someone who carried that sort of guilt or self doubt, however temporarily. The strike lead was going to have to lead his pilots into the maelstrom and hope that some of them would come out of it alive. There would be some losses that the strike lead couldn't do anything about, and some pilots who would have to be sacrificed in order give the rest a fighting chance. It took a good deal of ruthlessness and cold heartedness to lead fighter pilots into battle against massive odds. As cruel as it sounded, there were times when compassion or concern for the lives of others could be counter productive. Sure, such a view was brutally inhuman, but so was war itself. It was a necessary evil at times, but being necessary didn't make it any the less evil.       

"I've got nothing, Skywalker. We're still outside scanning range, even at maximum gain." The Retaliator pilots had been running their STORM radars at maximum power, sacrificing both EMCON and the service lives of the radar modules in order try and scan the jump point, and more importantly, what might await them there. 

"Not for the Sith," Skywalker decided. "Colonel, we're going ahead to take a look at the jump point. With your permission?"

"Good thinking. I'll detail four of the Stalkers to trail you for jamming cover if you need it. Keep me updated. Reaper Lead out."

"Taipans, Lead," Skywalker said, switching back to the more formal comm procedure. "Accelerate to 1,300 KPS till we're 10,000 klicks ahead of the formation, and then assume cloaked scouting spread. The four elements will then proceed individually under cloak and rendezvous at the jump point. Acknowledge, over."

Skywalker waited till all the other pilots had sounded off, and then pushed the Excalibur's throttle into the afterburner zone. The sleek fighter responded eagerly, leaping ahead of the rest of the formation, and accelerating from cruise speed to full afterburner in a heartbeat. The rest of the Taipans stayed with him easily in their standard combat spread. Skywalker's wingman was tucked in close behind him, the second element was a little further behind them, and the other flight a little further behind still. The Taipans hadn't been together as a unit as long as the Reapers had, but they had well and truly received their baptism of fire in the Bush and in this campaign. Even the newest pilot in the unit was now a combat veteran, and they all knew what to do without any further instructions.

Once the Excaliburs were far enough away from the other fighters to eliminate the possibility of collisions, the four elements spread out further from each other. The goal for the element leads in cloaked scouting missions was not so much to cross-cover each other, but rather to maximize the amount of space they could cover with their radars and other sensors. Cloaks made it difficult, though hardly impossible, for the enemy to see them, but they also limited the amount information that could be gained by their own sensors. The pilots could of course burn through the distortion created by the cloaks by running their active scanners at full power, but pouring out that much electromagnetic energy into the ether would make them show up loud and clear on enemy passive sensors, which rather defeated the point of cloaking. Cloaked warfare was as much an art as a science, and it was an art that the Taipans were masters at.

Once Skywalker was satisfied with the spacing of the formation, he activated his fighter's cloak. The familiar howl sounded in his ears as cloak began distorting any nearby electromagnetic waves so that they flowed *around* rather than through the Excalibur, effectively hiding the fighter and its pilot from eyes and sensors alike. At the same time, the universe faded from vibrant living colour to dreary shades of grey, and weapon deactivation warnings flashed on his HUD as the cloak drew power elsewhere. Luckily, the Excalibur's designers had been smart enough to minimize the relevance of colour on the Excalibur's HUD and MFD displays, allowing him to access their information just as easily as before.

Skywalker quickly checked the transponders that told him where the other cloaked Excaliburs were. Even spread out as they were, there was still the chance of flying into each other if they weren't careful. During the Black Lance Huntdown he had witnessed a massive explosion as two cloaked Dragons collided barely a thousand meters ahead of him, followed by equally spectacular fireball as a Dragon from the trailing element had flown into the wreckage. If those Black Lancers were true examples of the Master Race, humanity was in even more trouble than he had thought. Once he was satisfied there were no other fighters in his path, he locked in the autoslide, allowing the Excalibur to cover the remaining distance at afterburner speed without wasting fuel.

The flight to the jump point was uneventful, and only took a few minutes. Skywalker watched his scanners like the proverbial hawk throughout, but he could see no sign of the enemy fleet, or even of the scout fighters or corvettes that he would have expected to be jumping in ahead of the fleet itself. The Nephilim had proven themselves to be a little slow on the uptake throughout this campaign, but Skywalker doubted that even they would be dumb enough to jump a fleet into a heavily fortified system held by a determined enemy without checking it out first. Skywalker and his wingman waited patiently for several minutes, watching for any sign of the enemy. The area around the jump point remained quiet. As they said in every B grade holo-vid, it was too quiet.

"Taipans, Lead. I have nothing on scanners. Sound off by elements, over."

"Lead, Three. Nothing here either."

"Lead, Five. I've got nothing."

"Lead, Seven. Nothing here either."

"Taipan Lead copies all. All right, pull back 15,000 klicks from the jump point, and beginning patrolling the area by sectors. Lead and Two will take the sunward sector, Three and Four away sun, Five and Six above the plane, Seven and Eight below the plane. I want to know the second the tachyon readings shift in the slightest. Acknowledge."




Skywalker switched from the Taipans' squadron frequency to the general strike frequency. "Rap, the jump point is clear, and it doesn't make sense in the slightest. From what the Admiral said about their course and speed, they should have had scouts here long before now."

"Reaper Leader copies all. The strike package will be there in three minu…"

"Tachyon spike!" Taipan Five shouted, breaking into the strike frequency, her voice rising with excitement. It was a definite breach of protocol, but then, Border Worlders didn't set much store in protocol anyway. "We've got incoming!"      

Skywalker swore under his breath. As usually happened in warfare, the enemy had chosen the most inconvenient time to put in an appearance. The strike group was close enough to the jump point that it could be detected by an aggressive scouting unit, but not so close that the human superiority fighters and EW birds could hit the scouts quickly enough and hard enough to stop the bugs from radioing back a warning to their fleet. If that happened the Nephilim could either overwhelm them by pouring fighters through the jump point en masse, or simply stand off on the other side of the jump point and make the human pilots come to them. Neither of those scenarios boded well for either victory or survival.

In other words, it was up to the Taipans and the handful of Stalkers accompanying them to shut the scouts down before they could report back. Even as the jump point flashed open in a swirl of white and purple fire, Skywalker was yelling orders to his pilots. He didn't bother with detailed tactics, knowing there was no time for such things. Instead, he simply told them what they had to do, gambling that his pilots training and combat experience would see them through. You didn't last very long as a combat pilot without being able to think on your feet.

First through the jump point were three small capital ships, coming in hard and fast, jumping in so close to each other that they were risking jumping into the very same space. Jump exit points were random to a certain degree, and sane captains made sure their ships were well separated in both time and space when jumping in. These intruders apparently had no such concerns. They closed their maneuvering scoops and began rapidly accelerating sunwards as soon as they had successfully negotiated the jump transit. It was a good, ballsy tactic that allowed them to quickly clear any defenses that might have been lurking near the jump point.

Always assuming, of course, that the purpose of such defenses was to stop ships from jumping into Nifelheim. As the minefields had been set up to keep enemy ships boxed in, what the scouts did was cut of their own escape route. That didn't mean that they couldn't still be deadly to the strike force, or in fact to the entire human fleet. There was nothing that the minefield could do to stop them sending a message to anyone waiting on the other side of the jump point.

All three ships had their radar and other sensors running at full power, discarding all attempts at stealth or subtlety as they aggressively searched for nearby fighters or capital ships. The tactical computer on Skywalker's Excalibur was already detecting target tracking and missile guidance radars in addition to the search sensors, along with waves of electronic interference as the ships blanketed the area around the jump point with jamming. The computer automatically interrogated all three ships for friendly IFF codes, flicking through the thousands of Confed, Border Worlds and Kilrathi (not friendly exactly, but the enemy of my enemy and all that) codes stored in its memory banks. Receiving nothing in reply, the computer switched to its most reliable back up mode of identification, trying to match the electronic signatures of the ships to its database of Confed, Border Worlds and Kilrathi vessels. Nothing matched, and the process of elimination left the computer with only one conclusion.

All this binary deduction happened in less than the time it took the fighter's pilot to draw a single breath, and all that Skywalker knew or cared about was the end result. The computer placed a bright red box around each capital ship, designating it as hostile. Skywalker took a deep breath and armed a full salvo of missiles as he tried to maneuver into position, while at the same time trying to keep the Excalibur's scoops closed far enough that he could stay with the rapidly accelerating ships. The human pilots only had a small window of opportunity before the ships started moving too fast for the missiles to catch up. The heatseeker and image recognition missiles on the Excaliburs wouldn't be able to take down phase shielded capital ships, but they might be able to damage the translight communication arrays, which like gun turrets and shield emitters needed to be outside the main shields in order to function. Skywalker was also fighting to maintain a solid missile lock on his target through the waves of jamming washing over his fighter. The jamming wasn't particularly sophisticated compared to what the Stalkers were capable of, but the sheer amount of power generated by capital ship scale ECM pods and their proximity to the Excaliburs more than made up for that.

Seconds later, three of the Stalkers dropped out cloak, one behind each of the ships, launching their Blinder missile at close to point blank range. The missiles punched through shielding and armor with ease and began scrambling the ships' electronic systems. The intensity of the radar and sensor readings washing over the Excaliburs began decreasing almost immediately, though it would be several minutes before the ships' electronic systems would be completely disabled. The Taipans didn't have time to wait though, not now that those ships were aware of the threat. The Stalkers had given them an opportunity to make an attack run on the ships without getting blown out of the sky. It was up to the Excalibur pilots to do the rest.

Skywalker lined up his missile shot on the nearest ship, but held his fire until the rest of the squadron had reported they were ready to launch. Those reports came in rapidly as the other pilots closed in on their own targets. The calls were scratchy and distorted by the jamming from the three ships, which was continuing as strongly as before, unaffected by the Blinders. Just as Skywalker was about to give the order to decloak and fire, all three ships slammed their maneuvering scoops wide open. The capital ships decelerated rapidly, turning the missile run into a potential collision course.

"Sithspawn!" Skywalker cursed as he pulled back hard on the flight stick to avoid the impact. Over the comm channel, he heard startled yelps and curses from his pilots as they too were forced to take evasive action. Without exception, the Excaliburs overshot their targets, and were forced to make a wide detour before reforming and lining up for another attack run. With a single move, the scouts had defeated the planned attack, and they hadn't even been able to see the cloaked Excaliburs. It was move that would have done any Confed or Border Worlds frigate skipper proud.

"Impressive. Most impressive," Skywalker complimented his opponents in a hollow voice. Beneath the bravado though, he was aware of just how little time was left to stop these ships. The Stalkers were blanketing the area with their own jamming, but they wouldn't be able to block a translight signal for long. There were just too many signal variables for four jammers to cover.

Even as the Excaliburs lined up again for their missile run, the capital ships began releasing fighters. For the second time in as many minutes, Skywalker was forced to take evasive action as a fighter screamed by only a few hundred meters in front of the Excalibur's nose. It was the first time he had seen one of the intruders with his own eyes rather than as a computer generated image on his HUD, and something about the shape registered in his brain even as he slammed the stick over to avoid the collision.

"Taipans, Lead! Hold your fire!" he yelled. Part of his brain, the sensible part, told him he was being crazy, but he ignored it. The human fleet had already had one friendly fire incident when the Confed and Border Worlds reserves had joined up, and he had the horrible feeling they might be in the middle of another one. The Nephilim had already killed enough humans without the humans killing each other. He pulled the Excalibur's nose around hard, trying to track the other fighter and confirm the momentary glimpse he had gotten. The other pilot wasn't making it easy for him though, knowing it meant certain death to fly in a straight line when cloaked fighters were on the prowl. The fighter dodged and accelerated away from Skywalker, staying tantalizing close to visual range while just keeping outside it.

"The force is strong with this one," Skywalker muttered as he tapped the afterburners, risking a collision to confirm the sighting. The fighter finally stayed still long enough for him to see it was a metallic craft, as opposed to an organic Nephilim ship, with a little known but all too familiar set of markings on its boxy wings.

Skywalker switched to the strike frequency. "Colonel? You're not going to believe this…"