: Old Friends and New...


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Ready Room 42
Loki System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector
February 15th 2681 (2681.046), 2100 Hours (CST)

Major Michael Rosencrantz looked up from behind the map table as the last of the gun camera footage from Yorktown's enormous last battle played out, meeting the eyes of his pilots.

Around him, faces that could be most accurately described as haggard met his eyes, their faces lit with triumph. They had strapped on an enemy of overwhelming strength and sent him packing. Despite their losses, they had inflicted a massive pounding on the enemy. It looked as though the Nephilim were back upon their heels a bit, and Rosencrantz, despite the fact that they had knocked the enemy's teeth down his throat, was anticipating further sorties.

"So, to sum up, we plastered them. That's the good news. The not-so-good news is, we, meaning this squadron, are down two fighters until the techs can get Psi-Cho's and Whisper's fighters back on the line, which should be some time tomorrow. The bad news is that we're going out with half-loads on missiles, due to the fact that we've been spending them like water. That isn't to say that it hasn't been worth it, but we're down a bit in the weaponry department, especially after the ambush," Rosencrantz concluded.


"What about flight time? We going to get a break or is it business as usual?" came the voice of First Lieutenant Victor "Trader" Jaeger.

Rosencrantz knew he couldn't hesitate, or they would be disheartened. He had to show that he had confidence in them, or they wouldn't believe they could do it. Hell, he didn't believe he could do it.

Blowing out a breath, he took the question head-on. "Personally, I'd expect more flight operations. Yes, we've got them a bit on their insectoid asses, but they still outnumber us quite a bit, even if we have whittled that down by quite a margin. Nope. I'm afraid you'll probably be going back out again. Soon."

"Goddammit. It's not enough that they throw us into combat with less sleep than anybody else aboard the ship. They have to send us out with half-armament loadouts now, too!" called a rather irate First Lieutenant William "Matchlock" Carson.

"Okay. Now that we've all had a chance to cry, let's try and keep it together, shall we? Look, I know you're all tired. I know you all need a break, and I damned well do, too. The thing is, the Nephilim will most assuredly use any down-time we take in this system to hit us with everything they've got. You all know how close they came to doing that yesterday, and that it was by the grace of God and the courage of one of Yorktown's fliers that they were prevented from taking our home base out from under us. Unlike some others," Rosencrantz said.

He knew he ought to tell the other pilots about the Valley Forge right now. He knew it. But he couldn't. Their spirits had actually been given a boost at the thought of inflicting such harm on the enemy as to render him on the defensive, at least temporarily, and he didn't want to kick them in the guts again with more bad news.

"What's that supposed to mean, sir?" asked Captain Irena Arkadyova.

Rosencrantz shook his head. "You'll find out in less than an hour. We're prepping for any eventuality right now, and I suspect you'll be told when its necessary. Not my choice, folks, so don't resent me for it."

There was silence in the ready room as the pilots took their places in the leather chairs, most of them drifting off into catnaps.

"All squadron leaders, report to WC's office immediately," came the voice of the young ensign at the communications station.

Rosencrantz winced. At this point, he was so tired that the page reminded him of when a student would be called to the principal's office in grade school. Dragging himself to his feet, he exited the ready room, under the curious stares of those pilots that were conscious.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)
Ready Room 5
Same Time

Major Timothy Carter bumped into Major Adam Brancer as he exited the ready room in which most of his pilots were either catnapping or reading up on what information there was about the enemy in this system. "Sorry, Adam."

"No problem, Tim. What do you think the brass want now?" Brancer asked as the two of them walked down the twisting passageways that led to the WC's office.

"No clue. I just hope they're not sending us up again against something bigger than those destroyers. Hell, I'm not even sure my people would be able to stand up against those destroyers right now. All of them are completely beaten. We were debriefing for four hours after the strike, and then, even with the sleep they got, it wasn't enough, especially when the SWACS called in that false alert," Carter replied.

That ended the effective conversation between the two. As they headed towards the office, they could see the rest of the leaders of Yorktown's respective squadrons moving ahead and behind them, giving them a slightly eerie feeling, though neither knew why.

Carter's gut told him something was up. A call didn't involve all of the squadron COs if something important wasn't happening. He just hoped to God it wasn't another twenty-four hour alert. His people would collapse under that kind of strain.

He knew something was really up when the tremor of the engines increased through the deckplates. Looking over at Brancer, the both of them quickly hurried towards the WC's office, and entered, quickly followed by the last squadron CO to show up, Captain Selena Martinez.

And, much to their surprise, the WC wore a broad smile on her face. Carter gauged the mood of the group. It looked almost as though the WC was in a mood to celebrate. Lieutenant Colonel Linche, the assistant wing commander, was also present, a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. The mood in the office felt tense, but inexplicably upbeat. Carter braced himself for the bottom to fall out of the situation. Then, Admiral Kennedy walked in.

"Admiral on deck!" Carter snapped out, pulling himself to attention.

"As you were," Kennedy called.

Each of the squadron COs relaxed, but only slightly.

Kennedy took a breath, and began speaking. "Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to inform you that, while you were performing the tasks assigned to you here with more skill and endurance than I've seen in quite a long time, Confed and Border Worlds reserves made the jump to the Nifelheim System, where they are now holding position, waiting for us to jump through and join us. Admiral Hanton has ordered us to fall back, and we are doing so at top speed."

"So far, there is no sign that we've been detected or are being pursued, but we're going to keep a careful watch on our aft arcs. You can tell your people for me, Colonel, Majors, Captain, that within two hours, we're going to be linking up with friendly reinforcements. And we'll be ready to kick the Nephilim out of our galaxy once and for all. Give all of your pilots and support crews this message from the Old Man: Bravo-Zulu, all hands," Kennedy concluded.

It was all Carter could do not to cheer. After all this time alone, with no backup, help had finally arrived, and they would see them in less than two hours.

Rosencrantz looked so relieved that Carter thought he was going to pass out. Instead, Rosencrantz let out a whoop and gave a little jump, which was followed by a cheer from the assembled squadron leaders.

"Keep in mind, folks, that this doesn't mean that we can take a break just yet. We've got two hours, and a lot can happen in that time. Be on your guard. It'd be a damned shame to lose to the bad guys now, with help so near at hand," Kennedy said.

Carter nodded as the Admiral walked out, then turned to Alvarez. He felt as if he'd just gotten about four hours sleep.

Alvarez cleared her throat to get the squadron leaders' combined attention. "Alright, ladies and gentlemen. You heard the admiral. We're very close to being out of this hell-hole. All we have to do is hang in there two more hours. Can you give me that?" she asked.

As one, they answered, "Yessir!"

Alvarez nodded. "Very well. Major Pierce, I'd like your Wasps up and operating. You'll be escorting us to the jump point. Major Rosencrantz, I want you to prep your Vampires for a recon jump into the Nifelheim System. Just because we've got friends there doesn't mean we don't have enemies there, too. Major Carter, I want every Panther that is flyable ready to make the jump into Nifelheim. We're not taking any chances. Major Karpoff, I want your bombers ready to fight, however many are combat capable right now. I want the rest of the squadrons ready to buy us time should anything go wrong. Clear?" Alvarez said. There were acknowledgements from all around.

"Very well. Two hours, folks, then we're in friendly territory, regardless of what the Nephilim do. I'm damned proud of all of you. It's not over yet, but the Nephilim are weakening, and we're not. As Admiral Kennedy said: Bravo-Zulu. Now get to work, and maybe we'll all get a good night's sleep tonight," Alvarez said.

With that motivation foremost in their minds, each of the squadron leaders returned to their respective ready rooms. The resounding cheers were heard throughout the ship.


Aboard Vampire 117, "Grendel Lead"
15th Feb 2681 (2681.046), 2258 hrs

Rosencrantz was tucked into the cockpit of his fighter, looking forward, for once, to the uncomfortable transition through a jump point, and into another system. Loki had too many memories, most of them bad, for him to wish to stay there any longer than he had to.

Directly behind him, at ten thousand klicks distance, was the entirety of Battle Group Rapier. At the lead of the task force was the Plunkett-class Agincourt, her own jump-capable fighters assembled ahead of her, the eleven Excaliburs that had survived in the campaign thus far.

To either side and slightly behind the Yorktown were the Murphy-class destroyers Stasheff and Maribel, their own fighter wings still aboard, but ready to launch the instant they went through the jump point.

And at the center of her own formation, the Yorktown hovered in space, a home for so many in so dark a time. Everybody aboard her fought for a purpose: To preserve the Confederation and the Border Worlds. But there was something more; everybody aboard the ships of the task force fought for one another, because they knew that none of their number would desert another of their number in time of need. No, each individual in that task force fought because they were part of a larger whole, because they knew that if every one of them didn't do their jobs, the entire group would fail and that would be the end of the task force.

Rosencrantz looked at the mission timer. "Grendels, we've got thirty seconds to jump. Stand by."

In those last few seconds, he looked around.

Yorktown's group wasn't the only group in this area of space.
The entire Combined Fleet had assembled for the jump to the Nifelheim System. From the smallest capital ships, the PT boats of the 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron, to the flagship fleet carrier, the Valeria, all of the Combined Fleet had shown up for this jump. Granted, they were in contact with the reserves on the other side of the jump point, but no chances were being taken. And Grendel Squadron had been chosen to take the vanguard jump into the system immediately after the reconnaissance Excaliburs had jumped through and determined that the jump point was safe. But still, the fleet, in all its battered glory, was here.

Rosencrantz took a deep breath. Most of the Yorktown's fighters were aboard, but the point-defense Wasp squadrons were ready to launch immediately if anything happened, followed by the multi-purpose Tigersharks of Arkrunner Squadron under Major Brancer.

Ten seconds.

Rosencrantz grinned behind his oxygen mask. It was a whole new ballgame once they made it into Nifelheim. The enemy'd had their proverbial teeth knocked down their throat, and, while it hadn't been cheap, it had been effective enough to send the Nephilim reeling.

"All clear signal!" Captain Arkadyova called from her Vampire.

"Grendels, jump in three... two... one... jump!"

With a brilliant green, blue and white eruption of light, the jump point leading to Nifelheim opened before them, appearing like a maw. For less than a fraction of a second, the Vampires were in two places at once. And then, they were in one.

"Skywalker, this is Shooter. Good to see you made it through in one piece. As soon as the Grendels have formed up, I'll take them on a long-range sweep of the area."

Another pilot cut in, "Major, we've been here for a week. We've kept a  constant CAP on the jump point since we got here and run long-range patrols throughout the system. If the Nephilim had stuck their heads in here we'd know about it."

"Nevertheless we still have to fly recon. Can't be too careful, Colonel," the Grendels' leader replied as his pilots' Vampires formed up into a loose patrol formation.

"I Find your lack of faith... disturbing," the Excalibur leader muttered in a hollow voice. Shooter ignored him.

Immediately, the Vampire squadron accelerated away from the jump point, clearing the way for the entire Combined fleet to come through behind it. Next through the jump point came the Panthers of the fleet, their weaponry at the ready and their pilots ready for anything, despite the long wait in cockpits when closing with the jump points.

Immediately after them, the smaller warships, the PT boats, corvettes, and destroyers jumped through, their crews tired from the strain that was always present on smaller warships during times of strife, but still ready, willing, and able to put up one hell of a fight. These were followed by the fleet's carriers and finally the heavy cruiser rearguard .

Over the airwaves came the voice of Admiral Hanton:

"This is Admiral Erin Hanton, CO of the Combined Fleet. You have no idea how glad we are to see you people." The Admiral said warmly.

"Lieutenant Colonel Paul Onslow, CO Scrapper Squadron, Border Worlds Militia." One of the Intruder pilots replied. "And the feeling is mutual, Admiral. We were half expecting..."

"Major Michelle Ross, CO Black Knight Squadron, Confleet Reserves," one of the Excalibur pilots cut in sharply, sounding annoyed at being left out.

"Sorry." Colonel Onslow apologized. "As you can see, Admiral, both the Confed and Border Worlds reserve groups are here. We've also got some extra back up that we picked up along the way. There's a whole of lot Confeds, Border Worlders and Tanfenners here who are cocked, locked, and ready to rock."

"All of our groups are assembled a little further into the system," Major Ross said. "The capships will escort you to the staging area, Admiral. Our two squadrons have been ordered to cover the jump point. There are another half a dozen squadrons on their way in reinforce us, so you don't need to worry about watching your backs."

"Excellent. My pilots and crews could certainly use a break, so it'll be good to have someone else take over the watch for a while," Admiral Hanton replied. "Now, I'll leave you to your job. Valeria out."

With each word spoken, Rosencrantz could feel some of the tension that had formed a fist around his heart as they came through the jump point ease. Amazing, even after the amount of time he'd spent in combat, to still be nervous like this.

"Grendel Squadron, Feline Squadron, this is Lima-Golf. We've just gotten orders from Admiral Hanton aboard the Valeria. I'm afraid you'll have to hold a little while longer until the rest of the squadrons from Avernus Station and the escort carriers show up to patrol the jump point. Once they've arrived, you'll be brought back aboard. And when we reach Avernus Station, you'll be able to catch some well-deserved R&R, until twelve hundred tomorrow," Colonel Alvarez called form her Panther. She too had jumped through the point with the first real wave of fighters.

Luckily, Rosencrantz thought, Yorktown's complement had, for the most part, been aboard the ship, rather than in space, so the recovery shouldn't take too long. Then, rest. Blessed, uninterrupted rest. And if the Nephilim did indeed happen to interrupt his pilots... well, God help them, because Rosencrantz didn't want to think about what the reaction would be.


Aboard Panther 101, "Feline Lead"
15th Feb 2681 (2681.046), 2320 Hours (CST)

Carter looked ahead at the Yorktown through his HUD, making a manual approach to the ship.

With a welcome shudder did the tractor beams lock onto the Panther, reeling it in. The last of the fighters from the Yorktown to come aboard.

As he taxied to the aircraft tie-downs, he felt a great sense of relief wash over him. He had six hours of relaxation coming, and everybody was going to make the most of it. Pilots who hadn't been able to have drinks in weeks were going to be able to knock a few back (not too many of course - hangovers were most certainly frowned upon both by those who bore them and by those persons' superiors), and just relax, for the first time since the conflict had started.

The maintenance officers would even get some downtime, luckily enough, because they'd been at work non-stop. Whereas the pilots were able to grab a few hours sleep here and there, the mechanics and technicians who kept the fighters flying had been working round-the-clock, utilizing dwindling supplies of spare parts and rearming fighters with ever-decreasing supplies of missiles and ammunition.

No, the techs had to continue working (albeit with reinforcements that would be called upon from other ships and stations) to get the Yorktown's entire air group operational again after the beating they had taken during the strike against the dreadnought.

Carter hauled himself out of his fighter, heading for pilot country, intent on downing a very stiff belt of liquor, then hitting the rack almost immediately. His squadron was one of the fortunate ones that had drawn the first six hours of recreational down-time. And he intended to use the majority of it sleeping off the fatigue that gnawed at him.

Arriving in the lounge, he found surprisingly few pilots from his squadron. Granted, his XO Captain Tyler, was present, but the rest of the squadron was probably making their quarters sound like a chainsaw convention.

Carter waved at Tyler, walked up to the self-serve bar, and poured himself a small glass of dark beer, sipping it, and looking at it from his table. Then, it caught his eye. In a flash, he had set his glass on the table and moved to the viewport, his eyes focusing quickly on one of the more prominent warships there:

A Kilrathi Fralthi-II-class cruiser.

"What the hell?" Carter muttered.

"Word-for-word what I said, sir," Tyler said, coming up quietly beside him.

"When did we pick up a Cat capital ship?" Carter asked, turning to face his XO, but not taking his eyes off the dagger-like Kilrathi vessel.

"Apparently, Captain Vandermann of the Valley Forge had some friends in Kilrathi territory. They joined the Forge's group just before she made the jump into Loki, according to what I've heard. Since Vandermann went down with his ship, that self-same Kilrathi is in charge of Battle Group Auriga," Tyler replied.

Carter's jaw just about hit the floor. "You've got to be joking! What about Murdoch on the Hades? He's a flag officer, and the majority of that group is composed of Terran warships!" he asked, indicating a sleek, blacked-out vessel that had just recently joined the Combined Fleet.

Tyler shook his head. "Murdoch consented to serve under the Kilrathi."

Carter felt so shocked that he couldn't speak. He just stood and sipped his drink, examining the capital ships from a distance.

He turned to the flatscreen in the room that was broadcasting news from Earth and the Inner Worlds areas, watching the broadcast with rapt attention, especially since it pertained to the plight of the Combined Fleet as of this moment.

A head-and-shoulders shot of Barbara Miles, older though she was, but still with perfect features for somebody her age (maybe she is computer-generated, Carter thought wryly), talking about the latest Senate vote coming up.

"The entire Confederation will most likely be watching tomorrow evening as a resolution will be put before the Senate to send further reinforcements to the fleets operating against the newest threat the Confederation has known, code-named Nephilim. It is unclear as to how this vote will be resolved, but sources indicate that Senator James Taggart and Senator Gaston Diego will once more be opponents in the upcoming vote. Both Taggart's Federationist party and Diego's Populist party have been at odds during the past years over the status of the military, but that has since ceased with the appearance of this new enemy. Now, it would seem, that, like all other politicians, they've found something else to argue about. Senator Diego had this to say during an interview earlier this week about the conflict," Miles said.

The camera cut to a shot of Diego sitting in a chair, being interviewed by Miles herself. "We're still recovering from almost forty years of conflict with the Kilrathi. Even today, with much of the economy rebuilt or stabilized, we're seeing the after-effects of the previous war. People who were once in favor of drastic military buildups are coming out of hiding again and pushing for that same goal. In my opinion, with the forces we have in hand, we can hold the line. My advisors have informed me of studies performed by the Confederation military, and increased spending to the military is just plain wasteful. I would, however, like to encourage our people out in the Border Worlds to keep up their fine work in engaging the enemy. Well done, all of you."

The news drifted to other topics, and Carter felt his blood pressure spike a bit. "That bastard. A kick in the pants followed by a pat on the back. Who does that pacifistic idiot think he's fooling?" He said.

Tyler nodded. "He's just leery of another Black Lance-type flare-up. Can't say I blame him."

"Doesn't he realize that things are a hell of a lot different when you're out at the tip of the spear? Diego has had NO experience in the military. None. He's undercutting what we've done here under the pretence of keeping the military under control. Yeah, he's got us under control. So tightly-controlled that we're going to lose this war if he keeps pushing like this!" Carter snapped, then shook his head. "Sorry, James."

"It's alright, sir. That's part of why I'm here. So that you don't do something stupid like snap at the brass. Besides," he said with a knowing grin, "I know how tired you've been lately. Tell you what, just polish off your drink and head back to your quarters. Make sure to get some rest. I'd like to think that the Nephilim might give us some more time than what we've got, but even I'm not that nave."

Carter summoned a grin of his own. "Aye aye, sir. Anybody tell you you'd make a great squadron commander, Captain Tyler?" He walked off, leaving Tyler with his jaw hanging down around his knees. Not five minutes later, he'd joined the majority of his pilots in their heavy slumbering.


Aboard Piranha 133, "Sindri Star Lead"
Same Time

Only five more hours, Martinez thought to herself from inside the cockpit of her Piranha. The entire balance of her squadron was up, along with Grendel Squadron. Her group was operating closer in to the Yorktown, because Major Pierce's Wasp interceptors were taking their allotted six hours' rest immediately. While she pitied the Wasps' pilots because they had in fact been on the line longer than her squadron had, and more continuously, she still wished that her people had drawn the first six hours of down-time allotted.

The fourteen remaining Piranha scout fighters were one of the groups that were flying against the possibility of an unexpected Nephilim assault. With her autopilot flying her fighter, for the most part, she allowed herself to drift in and out of short, ten-minute catnaps that did quite a bit to sustain her these days. As a matter of fact, she thought wryly, she probably got more rest through catnaps than she had through actual sleep within the past couple of days.

She was still thinking about this when she was startled out of her semi-conscious state by a red glow on her radar display. She shook her head, blinked her eyes, and looked again.

Still red.

"Two, do you have that contact? I'm showing distance as fifty-two thousand klicks, closing slowly," she asked, keying her communications array.

"Affirmative, Lead. I've got contact. It's not transmitting any IFF or transponder codes. Size of contact indicates small capital ship or very large fighter," came the call from her wingman.

"Eyrie, this is Sindri Lead. Be advised, I have a contact on heading one-one-six, z-minus ten. Contact is not, repeat, not transmitting friendly IFF codes or making efforts at communication. Contact is classified as a corvette-sized vessel or a large fighter. Request permission to close and ID," Martinez called, addressing the Yorktown by her callsign rather than give away any information if the Nephilim were listening in.

"Sindri Lead, Eyrie. You are ordered to intercept and ID. Be advised, weapons are free, and we have no reports of friendly traffic in the area your contact is, over," called the controller from Yorktown.

"Understood, Eyrie. One Flight, Two Flight, on me. Three and Four Flights, continue on assigned patrol, but maintain sensor contact with us. I don't want to get suckered into a trap and then have half my squadron jumped by some over-eager bugs."

"Two Flight."


"Four Flight."

Martinez flipped the safeties off her primary weapons, and selected IFF missiles. They would be the fastest to fire in the event of an emergency, and so would give her the maximum amount of time to react should things go haywire.

"One Flight, Two Flight, punch it. Assume course one-one-six z-minus ten, speed 1400 KPS. Lets go, ladies and gentlemen!" Martinez said, then matching actions to words, accelerated to maximum throttle and yawed the fighter onto the new heading. She locked her targeting computer onto the unknown, and watched the range drop quickly.

Doing some quick mental calculations, she estimated it would take her fighters about forty seconds to reach the hostile.

Twenty seconds in, she keyed her communications array as her fighters reached twenty-four thousand klicks from their target. "Attention unknown vessel, this is Captain Selena Martinez of the Sindri Stars. You have ten seconds to cut your speed or you will be considered hostile and fired upon. Respond immediately, over."

In response, the target seemed to get a bit smaller, and her rate of closure dropped ever so slightly. She selected her full array of energy weapons, not selecting her Stormfire cannon only because it was better suited to small fighters, and checked her range.

At fifteen thousand six hundred klicks from her target, Martinez repeated herself for the last time. "Unknown vessel, this is your final warning. Heave-to or you will be fired upon. And don't make the mistake of thinking I won't."

Immediately, the vessel stopped. Two Flight pulled out of afterburner, slowing to five hundred KPS, while One Flight shot screaming over their target, dropped out of 'burners, and came around in a head-on pass.

"Attention Confederation fighters, this is the merchant ship Edward Keats, two days out of the Elohim System. We apologize for not responding to your calls, but we were afraid that you might've been pirates masquerading as Confed fighter -- " came a man's voice.

Martinez groaned. A merchie? Here? Now? She keyed her mike. "Edward Keats, all merchant traffic was diverted out of and around this System at least four days ago. What the hell are you doing? This is a combat zone!"

There was a slight hesitation that made Martinez suspicious. "We didn't get word, somehow. You're saying this is a combat zone? Aw." The voice trailed off and Martinez could hear the hubbub of a very angry bridge crew. There were a few expletives used that she hadn't heard before, but her gut was still telling her something was wrong.

"Eyrie, Sindri Lead. We've made contact with a merchant vessel calling herself the Edward Keats, claiming to be out of Elohim. Something doesn't smell right here. They're saying they didn't get the word about this zone -- " Martinez stopped as the Keats' drives flared, and the small ship accelerated directly towards One Flight.

Towards the Elohim jump point.

"Edward Keats, heave-to and prepare to be boarded. Cut your engines right now!!" Martinez called, dropping her targeting reticule on the quickly-approaching freighter.

She could start making out the details on its hull. It was an old Clydesdale-class transport, but some modifications had been made. Such as another turret holding what looked like a tachyon gun and a small hatch on the bottom.

Which promptly opened and dropped a pair of Arrow-class light fighters.

"Two Flight, get the Arrows now! One Flight, break and attack! Eyrie, this is Sindri Lead, we are under attack by pirates! Request a Marine LC with boarding party out here now!"

One of the Arrows sprayed a flurry of ion and laser cannon bolts out her way while the flak cannon mounted above the vessel began sending the exploding rounds into space, and the tachyon turret opened fire on her wingman.

She slammed her throttles back into afterburner and snap-rolled her fighter out of danger. The Arrow attempted to come around on her tail, but she managed to snap-roll out of danger once again, using the superior agility of the Piranha to dodge the bolts. The Arrow overshot, and hit its afterburners, attempting to outrun the Piranha.

Martinez smiled grimly to herself, and selected her Stormfire chain gun. "Wrong answer, my friend." She said.

Lining up the ITTS pipper with her targeting reticule, she pulled the trigger in short bursts. The shields of the Arrow flared under the abuse, and she triggered a long stream. The Arrow flew right into the hail of fire. Its shields collapsed and its left engine caught fire as pieces spalled away from the cowling. The Arrow banked away, heading back towards the Clydesdale.

In the meantime, the rest of her fighters set about destroying the defenses of the Clydesdale, arcing in to destroy its weaponry with well-placed ion and laser cannon rounds, while the second Arrow, its pilot proving to be a skilled dogfighter, engaged Two Flight and managed to avoid most of their shots.

Martinez brought her Piranha around again, and raked the tachyon turret with her ion cannons, rolled one hundred and eighty degrees, orienting herself with the belly of her fighter facing the freighter's belly, shot past under afterburner, then pulled her control stick in towards her as hard as she could.

The Piranha arced into a loop, ending up arcing in directly towards the tachyon turret. Martinez let fly with her ion cannons, and the turret froze as it vented to space.

The transport came to a stop in space, as did both of the Arrows, and a single voice came over the communications frequencies as the pirates saw it was hopeless:

"Attention Confederation fighters, this is the Edward Keats. Please cease fire. We surrender and will cease all operations."

Martinez sighed. Maybe now they could get called back to the Yorktown early. But her gut told her it wouldn't be quite that easy.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Flight Deck
February 16th 2681 (2681.047), 0025 Hours (CST)

Admiral Kennedy entered the Clydesdale-class transport known as the Edward Keats as a distraction from some work that he needed to do. His staff had that handled for the moment, and he could afford to spend some time appreciating his people's victories.

"And this is the beauty of finding these pirates, Admiral. Over here," a young, enthusiastic lieutenant junior grade said.

As Kennedy walked into the freighter, he couldn't help but agree. There, stacked in front of Kennedy on pallets, were over forty Spiculum IR missiles, and twenty Dart DF missiles, all of them ready for use.

"This will certainly make the air wing happy. Get the techs in here and lets see if we can use any of these for our own purposes. Anything else?" Kennedy said.

"A locker full of small arms and ammo, and those two Arrow light fighters, but nothing much else. On the other hand, it's better than nothing, sir," the officer said.

"True, and these missiles will help with our supply problems, if only a little. Now, what do we do with the fighters?" Kennedy asked.

"Just put out the information on the communications grid that anybody with a pair of spare pilots can come and pick them up. It'll add to the overall combat strength of the force, and we don't have the parts to maintain them aboard," the officer suggested.

"Very well. I'll get the word out," Kennedy said. "Keep up the good work, Lieutenant."

"Aye aye, sir," the officer replied, then went back to work.

Kennedy exited the Keats and headed for his quarters. He had some information to look over, and he needed to review the status of his men and women. The techs were working overtime trying to get birds patched and back on the line. The good news was that so far, two of the four damaged Shrikes had been repaired, and the two damaged Tigersharks were back on the line. That left eighteen fighters of various types still under repair, including two of the group's precious Shrike torpedo bombers.

Entering his quarters, he was again struck by the sense of history that pervaded the place. Mostly because of the amount of money and time he'd put into his position as CO of Battle Group Rapier.

Along the walls hung portraits of the past ships named Yorktown. The first portrait was that of an aircraft carrier belonging to the United States of America, launched in 1936, the first in a class of three carriers, of which, during World War II, two had sunk, including the Yorktown, CV-3. The second was another aircraft carrier, this one larger and built around revisions that had been tested in combat. This Yorktown, CV-10, had been the second of the exceptionally successful Essex-class carrier, again used by the United States of America. This Yorktown, launched in 1943, less than a year after the previous Yorktown had been sunk.

Second-to-last was an image of a blocky, yet at the same time elegant-looking ship, bristling with electronic antennae, missile launchers, and a pair of single-mount guns. This was the guided-missile cruiser Yorktown, CG-48, had been involved in a number of low-level conflicts around the world, and several moderate-level conflicts in which the interests of the United States had been threatened. This cruiser, despite the fact that she lacked an air complement, had been more than ten times as deadly as her predecessors, due to the advanced in electronics, weaponry, propulsion, and ship design made in the years between the end of World War II and the time she had been launched.

Finally, there was a picture of the modern-day Yorktown, in all her current splendor. She was hardly the most beautiful warship to travel in the cold, hard vacuum of space, but with her air wing and armaments, she was certainly among the most deadly.

The final touch in the quarters was a seven-foot-long model of the Yorktown, CV-54, complete with a number of small aircraft on the deck. Kennedy took the time to look over every detail, taking in the number of small aircraft that was similar to his own present number of aircraft, aboard his Yorktown.

He sat down at his desk and activated his personal computer terminal. He brought up all the relevant data on Nifelheim and on the alien force they would engage here. Even given the pounding they had inflicted upon their adversaries, the battle was in no way over. Not until they engaged inside this system's boundaries.

Kennedy sat back and wished that either Saratoga, Bunker Hill, or Valley Forge had survived to meet them here. He really wished that one of the Vesuvius-class supercarriers was here, or that the Midway was here and another carrier going after her target in the Kilrah System.

Well, Willy, he thought to himself, No use crying over spilled milk. Get to work, keep looking as if everything is going to fall into place, and make sure you keep the morale of those under you high.

Accessing the battle plan laid out by Admiral Hanton, he saw its potential for use against the enemy force. The only flaws he saw were those that couldn't be corrected, such as the Combined Fleet's losses in material and manpower making up shortages in those two critical areas.

Hopefully, the Confederation Senate would come to the correct conclusion and choose to reinforce this battered fleet. Otherwise, those fat pompous bastards in the Senate weren't deserving of his life or those of his crew or air wing. The only problem was, the citizens who put their faith in them would be.

Kennedy shook himself out of his reflections. The vote hadn't been cast yet, and he was already looking for negative results. Either this campaign had worn him down more than he cared to admit, or...

Kennedy shook his head and grimaced. "Must be getting old." He chuckled. Looking over the information, he saw to his surprise that the light carrier Endeavour and her group had been assigned to work with the Yorktown for the upcoming operation. That brought a smile to his face. Another air wing to work with, and, while they'd have their own objectives, they'd be within his working area, and could provide support, or be supported in their own objectives.

Then, he felt his jaw drop.

There was a request, forwarded from the "TCS" Shrak'har, commanded by Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag. Accessing his reference files, he found that the ship under that name was a Kilrathi Fralthi-II-class cruiser left over from the First Kilrathi War and substantially refitted.

Kennedy leaned back against the backrest of his chair. He'd been aware of the presence of a Kilrathi cruiser in CVBG Auriga, and that CVBG Auriga itself was under the command of a Kilrathi CO, who'd taken up residence on the newly-arrived TCS Hades, much to the displeasure of its commanding officer, Commodore Garrison Murdoch.

What was more surprising was the letter that was enclosed within the message:

To: wkennedy@tcn.yorktown.crew
From: cnarvukartag@tcn.shrakhar.crew
Date Sent: 2681.046

Admiral Kennedy,

Let me begin with a few words of introduction. I am Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak, a Kilrathi warrior who has chosen to fight at the side of the same Terran Confederation that slew the Kilrathi homeworld. Why have I done this? Simply put, it would be to fight what you humans refer to as "extinction."

The former commander of Carrier Battle Group Auriga, Captain Eldon Vandermann, was very complimentary about your abilities as a warrior, and put forward the opinion that, of all the admirals and captains in the fleet short of Hanton herself, you would be the most receptive to a request for assistance, should anything necessitate such a demand.

That is the purpose of this letter, Admiral William Kennedy, Commander of the Third Fleet. I should like to ask, though it goes against everything my culture stands for, for assistance in the upcoming battle. As you will recall, one of Auriga's escorts, the TCS Stasheff, was transferred recently to your command. Even if she had not been, despite all that I might believe, Battle Group Auriga lacks in the area of fighter support. A good commander must be aware of his commands strengths and weaknesses, and seek to rectify them as quickly and with as little internal strife as possible. In the event that I request it, I would ask that your force be the one to provide fighter support, for the reason that you seem to have fared the best in that area during this conflict. I look forward to your response.

Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak
Commanding Officer, CVBG Auriga

Kennedy sat back and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Well, this was certainly a novel sensation: Being asked by a Kilrathi for help in an upcoming battle. And what was more, one of his fellow commanders had recommended him before going down with his ship.

Vandermann. Well, there had been a troubled soul, thought Kennedy. Great portions of his record blacked out, a number of questionable command decisions. And yet... the man had been possessed of a natural flair for tactical and strategic planning, and had the backbone to take responsibility for those decisions others had found questionable.

Kennedy quickly composed a message, replying to the Kilrathi officer's request:

To: cnarvukartag@tcn.shrakhar.crew
From: wkennedy@tcn.yorktown.crew

Kalahn Catharx nar Vukar Tag dai Nokhtak,

I must say that I was surprised by your letter, and slightly taken aback to hear a Kilrathi of your stature asking for help. We certainly live in interesting times when our kind, from our respective generations, are able to put aside past differences and pride such as you have done. I am most greatly impressed.

In the upcoming operations, Carrier Battle Group Rapier will be conducting operations with the light carrier Endeavour's battle group, which will limit direct support between our two groups.

However, in response to your request, I will give orders, as soon as I have sent out this message, placing the fighter wing of the TCS Stasheff on alert, ready to respond to any requests you make in the upcoming battle, within reason. Rest assured, you will not go into battle alone.

Admiral William Kennedy
Commanding Officer, Confederation 3rd Fleet
Commanding Officer, CVBG Rapier

As soon as the message was sent, he composed and sent a new set of orders to Lieutenant Commander Donovan Keyes, the commander of the Murphy-class destroyer Stasheff, to be relayed to the squadron commander aboard that vessel. The fighter complement of the Stasheff, while a experienced, lacked in the ability to project force, as it carried no torpedo bombers, only nine Tigersharks from the remnants of two squadrons. Luckily, there had been no problems so far, giving the destroyer one more fighter than it normally would carry, and a better ability to divide its forces. That gave it an ideal wing for the situation ahead.

His task completed, Kennedy took a breath, and logged off. He poured himself a cup of hot chocolate, and then joined quite a number of the crew of the Yorktown in taking their leave of consciousness.