: “ Loud and Clear ”

Aboard Vampire 117 "Grendel Lead"
Same Time

The fighting had been exhaustive, and it looked like a stalemate was taking place.

The remaining pair of Orca-class destroyers, along with the few surviving corvettes (Rosencrantz was too mentally fatigued to count them) were gathering up what few escape pods… well, what looked like escape pods… there were that had launched from the Tiamat and the two Hydra-class cruisers, leaving the remaining Nephilim fighters to combat the Confederation fighter screen. Morays and Mantas, with the few remaining Stingrays and the Remoras left over from the Rays that had been blown to pieces, harried the combined force.    

“Lima-Golf to all fighters, it’s time to get the hell out of dodge and back home. I want three squadrons to engage the fighters while the rest of the group tries to get away,” came Alvarez voice.    

No shit, Rosencrantz thought to himself. Normally cool, he’d had enough. Arkadyova was dead and he’d lost other members of his squadron, along with other members of the Confed strike group that had engaged. And now, the WC was resorting to stating the obvious.    

A gnawing ache permeated his limbs as he forced himself to think, take a deep breath, and stay focused.    

“Lima-Golf, Grendel Lead. The Grendels are good for this one,” affirmed Rosencrantz.    

“Lima-Golf, Theseus Lead. We’re in,” Major Coursain said.    

And then a final voice came. “Lima-Golf, Feline Lead. Consider us volunteered,” Carter called onto the frequency.    

There was a pause. “Alright then. Tigersharks and Piranhas, stay with the bombers. Thunderbolts, pull it in tight," Alvarez called.    

The formation shifted. Just in time, it seemed to Rosencrantz, because, from just out of missile range, the remaining Nephilim fighters began accelerating towards them again.    

“Grendels, on me. Come around and launch one MIRV if you’ve still got them,” Rosencrantz called.    

He banked his fighter sharply around, intent on doing as much damage as he could in as small a space of time as he could.    

He selected his single remaining MIRV, and fired it off. The missile streaked away and detonated in the midst of the enemy formation. Seven other MIRVs joined his, along with missiles from the other fighters present. The missile barrage, which included missiles from the Vampire group of the Hades, knocked down twenty-two of the hundred-plus fighters inbound, greatly improving the odds for the Confed fighters to a mere two-to-one.    

Again, the closing of range heralded the most savage part of the combat.    

Again, it was head-to-head against evil which had grown virtually unknown to others, and which had to be stopped here and now.    

Rosencrantz pulled the trigger. He hadn’t changed the weapons selected since the fight had begun, nearly forty minutes ago, and he wasn’t about to. The particle and tachyon cannons flashed again, sending a vibration through the airframe of the fighter as the bolts of energy streaked across space, shredding a Moray as his fighter streaked through space, passing between a pair of Mantas at an incredible speed. “Two, stay with me! Coming right!” Rosencrantz called.    

He once again rolled the Vampire up onto its starboard side, and hauled back on the stick, using the variable-geometry thrusters at the wingtips to his advantage.    

Around him, the rest of the Confed fighters dove into the fight with equal enthusiasm, some of them damaged, some without missiles, all of them with pilots fatigued from their earlier superhuman exertions to get the strike group through.    

“Lead, we’ve got company, five o’clock and coming in fast! Looks like a pair of Morays. I’m going after them!” Dagger called.    

“Copy that. Don’t get too involved. I may need you quick in an emergency,” Rosencrantz called.    

He brought his focus back onto his target, one of the two Mantas he’d shot between. He selected a Spiculum IR missile, one of his last three, and fired it off.    

The missile exploded in the decoys punched out by the enemy fighter. Rosencrantz swore. He’d needed that hit.    

He pulled the trigger again, weapons blazing out into space, impacting the after shields of the Manta as its pilot attempted to outmaneuver the Vampire on his tail. The attempt was laughable. Within another three seconds, Rosencrantz had worn down its shields and blown it to a distant memory.    

Then: “Lead, Two! You’ve got a Devil Ray, coming up fast from your nine o’clock!”    

Rosencrantz rolled his fighter to the left, and looked for the oncoming enemy. His shields flared, and he pulled back on the stick, bringing the Vampire’s smallest profile into line with the oncoming fighter. He spotted it as it flashed past to come around on his tail. He whipped his fighter around, tumbling in space, and punched in the afterburners. There was a very large danger here, as he was down to minimum afterburner reserves, but this Devil Ray needed to be dealt with… fast.    

He lined up a shot and opened fire, weapons blazing against the backdrop of stars. The Devil Ray eluded most of his shots, but he saw the shields flare at least twice, and the Devil Ray was reacting to him now, having lost the initiative.    

Bad move, bug, he thought to himself. Then his shields began flaring against the darkness of space. Looking over his right shoulder, he saw a pair of Stingrays plinking away with their light weaponry, along with one Remora. By themselves, they weren’t a threat, but together, they posed a significant problem.    

Looking forward, he saw the Devil Ray had come around again. It was the bigger threat.    

He bored in at full throttle, firing his weapons, hoping that Dagger could get to the bandits on his tail as he jinked around the incoming shots from the Devil Ray. As a result of his jinking, most of his own shots missed, but he was alive.    

Round one had been a tie. He could almost hear the bell for round two.    

Bringing his fighter around, his sharp eyes locked onto something: From above, an Excalibur with the markings of Theseus Squadron came in on afterburners, its four tachyon and twin ion cannon lighting up space. The Remora was blown to a distant memory immediately, followed by one of the Stingrays. The second Stingray snapped upwards to attempt to engage, and ate a missile, exploding as the Excalibur zipped by.    

It was working. Most Confederation pilots had experience in the Kilrathi Wars or other conflicts where they had been fighting outnumbered, which greatly helped them, while the aliens had to be careful, lest they hit an ally as they sought out an opponent with their weapons. This was the only advantage the Confed fighters had, although the odds were rapidly turning in their favor.    

Rosencrantz twisted and turned, always missing the Devil Ray by such a narrow margin that it was painful. This pilot was good… but he was better. And he was going to win.    

Or so he thought.    

From head-on came a Panther, guns blazing as Rosencrantz triggered off another volley. The shots of the Panther and Rosencrantz’ own shots impacted the fighter at the same time, and the Devil Ray pulled through the vertical plane. The Panther rolled and fired a volley directly into the stern of the craft, dropping the shields. Both the Panther and Rosencrantz fired at the same time, blowing the Devil Ray’s engine off of the ship, leaving the cockpit area to spin off into space.    

A quick glance at the markings showed it was Major Carter’s fighter. Rosencrantz smiled. Count on that guy to be in the right place at the right time…    

And then, his half a heartbeat’s worth of time used, Rosencrantz threw himself back into the fight.


Aboard Panther 101 "Feline Lead"
Same Time

Carter smiled. Rosencrantz had been all over that Devil Ray… he’d just been in time to hasten the departure of the thing from this battle. Then, checking his sensor grid, he frowned. Somebody else had joined the fight.    

“Two, what the hell are you still doing here?” he called.    

“You need every pilot you can get, sir -- ” Rogers began.    

“Yeah. Alive. Get your ass back to the strike group, that’s an order.” Carter said as Tango smoked a Remora.    

He could almost see the reluctance in the crippled Panther as it turned back towards the strike group. “Yessir,” came the dejected response.    

All around him, fighters swirled around, maneuvering for position. Flashes of light cut through the void, signaling life and death for those who had fired and were receiving them.    

“Lead, break right!” came Powell’s voice.    

Carter didn’t hesitate… and that saved his life. He slammed his control column to the right and pulled back hard, reefing the fighter into a tight corkscrew. Green blobs of plasma or some kind of energy, tinged purple, burned through space where his fighter had just been, fired by the avenging Manta that had used his run on the Devil Ray to get into position behind him.    

Rapidly cranking his fighter around, he managed to come head-to-head with his target, which was still shooting. He jinked left, down, then attempted to line up the alien fighter in his sights.    

The Manta rolled away, trying to clear his front arc. Carter kicked his last IFF missile into space, watching it streak forward and slam into the Manta, which began trailing gasses and pieces of armor as the missile hit punched through its shields and damaged its stern. He quickly lined it up to finish the kill --    

-- And saw his stream of weapons fire converge on the Manta at the same moment as that of another Panther, this one bearing the markings of the Endeavour’s squadrons.    

He waggled his wings as a salute to the marksmanship of the fighter, and banked back around to re-engage the enemy.    

Four of the little Remora-class fighters were closing on him. Taking careful aim, he cut his speed (the Remora weren’t much of a threat, and had no shields) and picked off each of the small, unmanned vehicles with precision shots before accelerating to full throttle again.    

Despite the fact that the Confederation ships were damaged, despite the fact that the pilots’ endurance was almost spent, the tide was clearly in favor of the beleaguered-no-longer Confederation pilots. Nephilim ships went down, fighter after fighter exploding or being left to drift in space in large pieces, or missiles streaked up tailpipes and exploded, setting off the fighters’ reactors and leaving no trace of what the fighter had once been.    

It was almost over.    

The remaining twenty or so Nephilim fighters, their morale broken, their numbers whittled down, turned and fled back to the cover of their Orca-class destroyers and the two remaining corvettes.    

“All fighters, form up on the bombers and return to course for the split point,” came Alvarez’ voice.    

It had been arranged beforehand in the pilots’ briefings that the fighters would split soon, leaving smaller groups of fighters to make their way home. Thinking of this, Carter felt suddenly lonely, in the enormous void of space.    

Looking around him, he surveyed the damage.    

Of the Yorktown’s craft, precious few had not suffered damage of one sort or another, though the Dragonslayers Wing fighters did seem to have taken less damage. Probably because the Nephilim attention had been focused on the newer, more "threatening" fighters. Hah.    

All in all, the Yorktown had lost twelve fighters, an entire squadron from the First Kilrathi War, nearly an entire squadron in this one…and that didn’t count the crippled fighters. Quite a few bombers were covered in carbon scoring, and several fighters were trailing vapor or fuel.    

His NAV computer beeped a warning at him. The fighters were coming up at the breakaway point.    

He keyed his comm array. “Nice working with you, Aurigas and Auroras. Like to do this again some time.”    

“Bravo-Zulu, guys. It’s been one hell of a party,” came Alvarez’ voice.    

"It's been... real," chimed in the voice of Major Kurt "Coroner" Powell from the Mosquitoes.

"Indeed it has... cheers, you old Yorktowners, you," spoke Major Frederick "Doppler" von Richthofen of the B-7 Dauntless  "Talons" squadron.

“You folks need help, don’t hesitate to ask. I’ll fly with you any time, anywhere,” Rosencrantz’ voice called.

"Careful, Major Rosencrantz," came the voice of Major Daniel "Bugfix" Burdock once more, "... CVBG-A just might take you up on that."

There were a number of additional comments after that.

“Auriga, Rapier groups, this is Garrison. Be careful out there,” said the Endeavour’s flight leader. “Best of luck to you all.”    

“We’ll see you guys when this is over. Rapier Group out," Alvarez called.    

With that, the fighter groups split in three directions, as Endeavour had her own targets to take out, and Battle Group Auriga was already outbound for another target.    

The Yorktown formation flew on in silence, missing more than ten percent of their number… but convinced that their sacrifices had just helped level the playing field significantly.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Bridge
0927 Hours (CST)

Commander Wallace stepped out onto the bridge from the lift, hoping nobody took offence at the filthy state of his uniform. He’d been assisting in engineering, helping to get the damaged starboard-side engines back on-line, which had involved cutting away fallen structural supports, climbing into access conduits, and, Wallace’s least favorite activity, helping the wounded and carrying the dead clear of the damaged spaces.    

Ramirez turned. “You’re a sight, Commander.”    

Wallace nodded. “Sorry, sir, but I’ve been occupied.”    

Ramirez nodded without smiling. “How bad is it?”    

Wallace shook his head. “It’s not good, but it’s not horrible. We can run the starboard engines to thirty percent, no more, or we risk loss of them permanently. Final casualty figures from below decks are ten dead, forty-one wounded, seven critical. Plasma burns and severe trauma are most of the critical cases and deaths. We’ve also got vacuum exposure for quite a few.”    

He took a breath, and coughed. The smell of burned circuitry and other, less wholesome but no less recognizable odors still permeated his sense of smell. He shook his head. “We’ve got the damaged portions of the frames cut away, and are replacing them now. Damage Control says it’s going to be a patch job, and that we’ll need a shipyard, but it’ll hold for as long as we’re in action. All fires out, and engineering is still trying to get more out of the starboard engine, but…” Ramirez trailed off. “They’re not hopeful. We’re limited to 95 KPS, full-out.”    

Ramirez and Kennedy both let out a breath. “That’s enough to conduct recovery operations, albeit a bit slower than normal. Speaking of which, are our tankers and SWACS ships still up?” Kennedy replied.    

“Yes sir. I thought it best to keep them up until we could get the rest of our fighters back aboard or at least into our region-” Ramirez began.    

“Sir! Eagle Eye Two reports inbound contacts! Well over fifty contacts… broadcasting friendly IFF codes!” called the starboard talker.    

Kennedy’s immediate instinct was to feel relief, but he restrained it. Too much blood had been spilled, to high a cost had been paid to let his guard down at what could be so critical a time.    

“Have one of the interceptors run a visual check. I don’t want the Nephilim somehow getting in here unopposed by using trickery,” Kennedy called out.    

Ramirez nodded, and the talker quickly relayed the orders.    

One of the four Wasp interceptors still up, piloted by Captain Kristen "Huntress" Clark, closed on afterburner, not using her still-unused booster pack so that, in an emergency, she would have a piece of equipment to fall back upon.    

She could see the blue-white drive plumes of numerous fighters… and sighed with relief. Nephilim fighters typically had yellow-orange drive plumes… but just to make sure…    

She closed the range and locked her targeting computer onto one of the inbounds, which was identified as a Tigershark piloted by Littlebear.    

She pulled smoothly into the formation, which reacted not at all to her presence, and gestured to get the attention of the pilot before her. She gave a series of hand signals meant to ask the pilot for positive authentication in case his IFF was shot out.    

He gave the correct pass sign, and she smiled. She made another gesture, and was rewarded with an obscene single-fingered sign.    

Boosting back to the Yorktown’s inner ring, and powering her comm system down to its lowest levels, she transmitted her information.    

“The fighters are from our strike, sir. Eagle Eye Two reads… seventy-five craft inbound,” called the starboard talker.    

Kennedy and Ramirez looked at one another. Twelve fighters were absent, and others most likely had a hell of a lot of damage.    

Ramirez walked to the intercom, and switched it on. “Now hear this: Flight Quarters, Flight Quarters. On the flight deck, prepare to recover fighters.”    

Kennedy felt some of the tension in his shoulders ease. It wasn’t over, but it was a hell of a lot closer than it had been.    

“Make sure every tanker we’ve got is up. If I guess right, most of the fighter escorts will be almost dry on fuel. We want to make sure they’ve got plenty for their landings. Nothing worse than only being able to make one pass at the boat,” Kennedy called out.    

Ramirez nodded. “I checked ten minutes ago. Both tankers are up and holding. We’ll have the fighters with the best fuel states make their passes first, while those with the worst fuel states cycle through the tankers and get something to drink. We’ll take them aboard next, and bring the damaged fighters aboard last.”    

Kennedy nodded. “Very well.”    

“Eyrie, Eyrie, this is Lima-Golf, requesting permission to land,” came Alvarez’ voice.


Aboard Piranha 133 "Sindri Star Lead"
0936 Hours (CST)

Martinez watched as the carrier grew in her sights. Never before had the Yorktown, damaged or not, looked so good.    

“Piranha one-three-three, call the ball,” came the LSO’s call.    

“One-three-three, roger ball,” Martinez replied.    

“One-three-three, call your needles,” the LSO said.    

“Up and center,” Martinez said in reply.    

“That’s affirmative. Fly your needles,” the LSO said.    

Martinez watched her range to the carrier slowly decrease, pulling the power back. Ninety klicks… eighty… seventy… sixty...

“You are slightly above glideslope. Less power,” the LSO called.    

Martinez pulled even more power off. She was the last of her squadron coming in to land. The small scout fighters, though designed for long range at cruising speeds, were less efficient than the larger fighters at afterburner, and most had heavier damage due to their lighter armor. Luckily, none of her birds was "crippled," meaning they could be turned around and sent back out again, to their pilots’ knowledge. The Yorktown’s arresting crews had been bringing planes aboard at a prodigious rate, having brought twenty-three craft aboard so far, using both the port and starboard bays. Martinez’ would be twenty-four.

Forty… thirty… twenty… ten…

Martinez chopped her throttles to idle, and the tractor beams caught her fighter, pulling her into the bay at a safe speed. As her fighter hit the durasteel deck, she hit her brakes, bringing the fighter to a full stop.  

The yellow-shirt quickly signaled her forward, so she eased off the brakes and applied throttle, steering the small scout fighter forward into a designated parking area. She killed her engines, and listened to the turbines wind down.    

Pins were placed in her primary weapons, her ejection pod, and her decoy dispenser. She opened her canopy, and climbed out.    

The flight deck was a cacophony of noise. Electric cutters were in operation, shearing off pieces of damaged bulkhead, while welding torches were used to replace them with fitted replacements. Already spotted forward were two of her Piranhas, though she knew full well the pilots were already in the ready room, either sleeping or trying to sort out what happened with the Intel weenies.    

She pulled her helmet off, making sure all of the connections between she and her fighter had been severed.    

Climbing down out of the cockpit, she felt her knees go rubbery, and grasped the ladder more tightly with her hands as she climbed down.    

She’d lost two more people today, leaving her an entire flight short… and with two more letters to write to families.    

Slamming a fist against the side of her fighter, she wondered whether the effort had been worth it, and instinctively knew that the answer was at once both yes and no.    

Yes, in the sense that billions who might’ve died under that dreadnought’s guns if they hadn’t succeeded would live, along with the other pilots whose lives her pilots had saved by engaging the enemy here and now, after weeks of preparation and their previous battles against the bugs.    

No, in the sense that her pilots had each been unique, with a unique role to fulfill in life, which they would not be present for now, having paid the ultimate price to keep others’ freedom safe.    

She stuffed her kneeboard and helmet into her flight bag and walked towards the ready room, looking forward once more to sleep before continuing to do what had to be done… and contemplating resigning from Confederation service once this tour of duty in hell was over. 


Aboard Panther 101 "Feline Lead"
Same Time

“Alright. Tango, Cardshark, you’re both heavily damaged, so you’ll have to wait to get back aboard. The rest of you, form up in reverse order and get aboard the carrier. Make sure to get it in one pass… the whole group is watching, and I want them to see that in spite of everything we went through today… we came out on top.” Carter called.    

There was a series of acknowledgements from the fighters in his flight, and the Panthers broke formation.    

Carter found his fighter flying alongside Colonel Alvarez’ Panther in the pattern.    

“Well done out there today, Major,” Alvarez called.    

“Thank you, ma’am. You didn’t fare too badly yourself,” Carter replied.    

“It could have been a hell of a lot better. We lost basically a squadron out there today…and I doubt whether some of these flying wrecks out here can ever be flown again,” Alvarez said sadly. “I’ll be happy if they give me a job flying with the reserves or the Home Defense units after this is over,” Alvarez said.    

Carter snickered. “Be careful what you say, Colonel. Things like that have a way of coming back to bite you in the ass when you least expect it, if you’ll pardon my saying so.”    

He heard Alvarez herself chuckle. “You’re certainly right about that one, Major. I’ll take it under advisement,” was the reply.    

Four of the Panthers had gotten aboard during the small conversation. The deck crew was working overtime. Carter imagined the techies weren’t too happy with what they were seeing… and when the ‘crippled’ birds came aboard, he could imagine the maintenance chief swearing a blue streak.    

Well, at least he’d get a fifteen minute reprieve. Alvarez wouldn’t send them out against that enemy force immediately, would she? It couldn’t be that bad… could it?    

Carter wondered how the combined fleet was doing, and noticed a communications beacon being launched from the Yorktown, in the direction he thought the Valeria group was in.    

He flew a pattern down the starboard side of the Yorktown, seeing the hundred-plus-meter-long scar that marked where the Nephilim torpedo blast had hit, seeing several compartments on each of a number of decks open to space.    

He hoped those compartments had been unoccupied when they were hit, but in his heart, knew better.    

Ahead, the Agincourt took the station ahead of the carrier, sporting her own blackened torpedo hit mark on her port side, well forward. It didn’t look horribly bad, but it had to have had some effect, he knew. He just hoped that the damage wasn’t internally focused, or it may have been a lot more serious.    

He broke left and re-entered the pattern. Another pair of Panthers had landed, and another pair were coming aboard. That left three fighters to come aboard.    

Looking to his right, he saw Alvarez’ fighter had broken away to fly a high cover over the Yorktown.    

Or so it seemed.    

He heard some commotion over the communications circuit, then a roar of cheers.    

Alvarez’ fighter screamed into the break at full afterburner, passing down the side of the Yorktown, flames streaming from her fighter’s exhausts. She performed a quick victory roll, then pulled through the vertical and resumed formation.    

The cheers that erupted from every pilot who saw that was a testament to the fact that actions speak louder than words… and the fliers and crewmen of Carrier Battle Group Rapier had acted, and spoken, very loudly indeed today.    

For a few seconds, the cheers went on in the clear, then ceased. In the meantime, recovery operations continued, Panthers coming aboard the Yorktown at a rapid rate.    

Finally, it was Carter’s turn.    

“Panther one-oh-one, call the ball.”    

“Panther one-oh-one, roger ball,” Carter called back.    

“Call your needles,” the LSO spoke.    

“Level and center.”    

“Disregard. You are level and slightly right of center,” the LSO replied.    

Carter just tapped his right rudder, then his left, cutting his throttles to one hundred fifty KPS.    

“Give me some power."    

Carter just touched the throttle, adding a bit more speed.    

“All right. Fly the ball,” the LSO called.    

The "ball" was a small circle of light projected onto the HUD of a fighter to help the pilot make his approach. If a pilot dropped low, the ball would go red, indicating that the pilot was going to sheer his aircraft’s landing gear right off, or was going to do significant structure damage if the tractor beams caught. If the ball went green, he was too high or too fast, and would miss the carrier or slam into the upper sections. At these speeds, finesse and attention to detail were exceptionally important.    

Carter watched his fighter get closer. At one two hundred klicks to the carrier, he cut his speed to one hundred twenty KPS… and five seconds later, to one hundred ten.    

Sixty klicks… fifty… forty… thirty… twenty…

He felt the jolt as the tractor beams caught, cut power and prepared to re-apply power for a breakaway should it become necessary… but the tractor beams steered him into the hangar bay and deposited him neatly on the deck.    

The yellow shirt directed him out of the landing area, making sure he was well clear, before his fighter was chalked and chained, and the pins inserted to safe his systems. He killed power, and opened the canopy.    

He took a breath.    

Another one behind him.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); “Vultures’ Row”
0947 Hours (CST)

Captain Ramirez had delegated command of the Yorktown to Commander Wallace for a while, and had come down to the catwalk that overlooked the entire hangar bay, termed "Vultures’ Row," because all the pilots watching landings seemed to be like vultures, circling if anything should happen to one of the pilots coming in.    

This was the riskiest part of the landing operations: The crippled fighters coming aboard.    

There were four aircraft that could qualify as "critically damaged’ in the pattern. Two of them were Shrikes, two were Panther heavy fighters, and the final craft was a crippled Tigershark from the Arkrunners.    

First to land would be the Panther of Mark ‘Tango’ Rogers, the wingman of Major Carter, who was also standing in Vultures’ Row, along with Major Karpoff and Captain Garza, the acting-CO of the Arkrunners due to the death of Major Brancer.    

Each of the officers was listening in as Rogers shot his approach. The best LSO aboard, Lieutenant Commander Pete Fitzgerald, was bringing the fighters aboard. The tension in the air was palpable nevertheless. Crash barriers had been rigged, and crash crews were standing by.    

“All right… nice and easy. Just another day at the office, Tango. Call the ball,” Fitzgerald’s voice rang out, shot through with confidence.    

The pilots loved Fitzgerald’s voice. They trusted him more than they trusted themselves, which said a lot, especially with pilots’ egos the way they were.    

“One-oh-five, roger ball.”    

“Call your needles,” Fitzgerald continued.    

“Up and right,” came the unsteady response.    

“That’s affirm. Fly the needles,” Fitzgerald replied.    

The damage to the Panther was not visible, but its effect was obvious. Rogers was wrestling with his fighter, and it showed.    

“Nice, easy adjustments, Lieutenant. Don’t muscle your fighter around…treat it like a lady,” Fitzgerald said as it came in.    

“If I had a lady as damaged as this one, I’d call the police to report domestic abuse!” Rogers said laughingly.    

“All right… that’s better… gimme a little power… good. Keep coming… keep coming…” came Fitzgerald’s voice.    

The tractor beams snagged the fighter easily.    

“Thanks, Commander. I owe you one,” Rogers said.    

“Don’t mention it,” Fitzgerald replied, then turned his attention to the next bird. They were bringing the damaged ones in one at a time, to avoid any pressuring of the damaged vessels.    

As Fitzgerald brought the next fighter, the second Panther, in, Carter got a good look at Tango’s fighter. Now he could see it. Carbon scoring ran the entire length of the right side, and there was no sponge armor left. Melted metal and exposed circuits and hydraulic lines were displayed for all to see. Pieces of burned sponge armor were still dropping to the deck, and there was fuel slowly dripping from the right-side tank.    

The deck boss, Dan McKnight, broke in, “Foul deck.”    

Fitzgerald acknowledged. “Foul deck. Pull off, one-ten,” he called, triggering the wave-off lights at the end of the carrier.    

The Panther eased into a painfully slow left-hand turn, clearing the carrier as crewmen ran into the landing area and the area that Tango’s damaged Panther had been towed through, checking for bits of metal, sponge armor, and anything else that might prove flammable, while the spilled fuel was cleaned up.    

“Come on, Danny, gimme the green light here… we’ve got a crippled bird in the groove…” Fitzgerald’s voice came.    

“Give us ten seconds,” McKnight replied.    

The ten seconds went by as the FOD walk down was completed. “Clear deck!” came the call.    

“All right… five-oh-two. Your turn. Call the ball,” Fitzgerald sang out.    

“Roger ball.” That was the voice of Rubio, her heavily damaged Shrike just now coming into visual range as a plume of blue light from her drives.    

“Call your needles,” Fitzgerald said.    

“Level and right,” Rubio replied.    

“That’s affirm. Fly the needles,” Fitzgerald replied.    

Slowly, ever so painfully slowly, Rubio got closer. Her slower Shrike had already had its maximum velocity reduced, and she had made it known that her starboard engine was acting erratically at best.    

“Five-oh-two, you’re still right of the glideslope. Gimme a little left rudder,” Fitzgerald called.    

Karpoff stood nervously watching his XO come in. She’d been the original CO of this squadron, not him, and if she died on something as minor as this, he’d never have the support of his squadron again. Whether he liked it or not, he needed her in his squadron.    

“Further right, five-oh-two… more… more… good! Hold that… hold it…” Fitzgerald called.    

And again, the tractor beams snagged their target fighter.    

If the crowd on Vultures’ Row had thought Tango’s fighter had looked bad, Rubio’s was worse. It looked as though a third of the right-side engine casing had been boiled away, and there was no sponge armor anywhere on the torpedo bomber. The right-side turret was cracked and starred, and ragged gashes ran down the bomber’s hull. Both engines were putting off excessive amounts of heat, causing a shimmering visual effect as Rubio’s bomber was towed off the flight line.    

The Panther and the Tigershark, whose pilot was still considered a hero after the events in Loki, managed to land without incident, although the Tigershark threw debris everywhere, much to the despair of the deck crews.    

Then came the bird that everybody had waited for: Shrike Five-Twelve under Second Lieutenant Juan "Don" Garcia.    

“All right, Don, just get her on deck in one piece, along with yourself, and we can all take a breather. Don’t mess this one up: Not only does your life, but your reputation as well, depend on this landing. Can’t let your squadronmates down, can you?” Fitzgerald called.    

“No sir,” came the determined reply.    

“All right… five-Twelve, call the ball.”    

“Roger ball.”    

“Call your needles.”    

“Down and left.”    

“Disregard. You are low and centered. Give me some power, Don… that’s it. Good… keep coming… you’re drifting right, Don… get the right wing up, Don… Don, power! Power! Power! Wave off! Wave off!”    

The damaged bomber was literally coming apart in Garcia’s lap, though nobody could know. The tractor beams got a partial hold, and managed to slow the fighter down considerably… but Garcia still came into the bay way too fast.    

The Shrike (or what was left of it, Carter saw) slammed down on the deck, its landing gear collapsing, and screeched towards the barrier on its belly. The single remaining engine flamed out, as Garcia cut fuel and shut down power. Fuel streamed from the wing and ignited, having done so due to the hot metal.    

The left wing tore off, and the Shrike’s fuselage flipped onto its side and began rolling along, until it came to a halt against the crash barrier.    

“Fire on the flight deck! Fire on the flight deck!” the loudspeaker boomed.    

One of the first men on the scene was Holland, Carter’s crew chief. Six other personnel, two of them wielding firefighting equipment, sprayed the fuselage with the foam, extinguishing that fire. Flames poured from the wing section, however, and more people went that way. A fire on the flight deck was a grave threat to the Yorktown.    

Medics raced towards the fuselage, as well as personnel with cutting tools. Already, cutting torches were flaring to life, and burning through pre-designated structural points that had been painted for just such an occasion.      

Out of the wreckage crawled the tail gunner, his arm at such an angle that it was obviously broke. The belly gunner, whose turret was actually on top now, was trapped in the wreckage, but was not severely hurt, held in place by his harness.    

And out of the cockpit, unconscious, was dragged Garcia, his handsome Latin features smeared with blood from a nasty facial cut, inflicted despite his helmet and visor. Behind him came his non-flying officer.    

Of the top turret, there was nothing left… and so there was no body to be sent home.    

Medical personnel quickly ran them to sickbay, carrying all of them on stretchers, checking their conditions and giving them whatever care they needed…although sickbay was already filled with the injured and dying.    

It took nearly ten minutes to extinguish the fire from the wing section, but that was it.    

Yorktown’s birds were back home.    

Only two of the five birds could be saved, and those would require four days’ worth of maintenance: Holland’s Tigershark, and Rubio’s Shrike torpedo bomber.


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Pilot Country
1108 Hours (CST)

Timothy Carter was carrying a wedding ring in his pocket. He wasn’t sure what had possessed him to buy the wedding ring in the first place. It sure as hell didn’t make any sense as he reflected on it.    

Sitting in the corner, nursing a glass of orange juice, was Selena Martinez.    

Carter walked up to her table. “May I?” He asked, gesturing to a chair beside her.    

Martinez, still silently contemplating the glass before her, nodded, then looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “I lost two more.”    

Carter nodded. “I know. I heard. I’m sorry.”    

Martinez slammed an open hand on the table top. “It doesn’t make any sense! We won, but…”    

“But you feel like we lost, right?” Carter replied.    

Martinez nodded.    

“It’s alright to feel that way. It’s natural and there’s nothing wrong with it… because we did lose something: People who would have made a difference further down the line, and I’m not talking about this battle. I’m talking about the future. No matter what they would have set themselves to, you can be damned sure it would have had an impact of some kind,” Carter said.    

Martinez shook her head, and changed the subject. “We’ve got nine fighters operational, and the techs say they can have the other three ready in an hour. Until that time, I’m not taking my flight out.”    

Carter nodded. “My squadron lost both the damaged aircraft that made it home. They’re being cannibalized right now for parts to get the others up and running. I’m down to eleven fighters, and I’ve got two pilots griping about not being able to fly.”    

Martinez took a sip of her drink. “Maybe they don’t realize how lucky they are.”    

Carter tilted his head to the side, considering. “Maybe, but that doesn’t mean they’re not willing to go, and that counts for something, doesn’t it?”    

Rosencrantz came storming in, his eyes cold and hard as flint. He got himself a drink that looked like lemonade, then saw Carter and Martinez, and walked over. “May I join you two?”    

Martinez nodded. “Please.”    

Rosencrantz looked around, then sat down. “I lost two today, including Arkadyova’s. She never gave up. She died taking the fight to the bad guys, and the other pilot never knew what hit him. He just sat on the tail of that Manta until the Devil Ray came right up behind him. He got the kill, too.”    

Martinez nodded. “Irena was never a quitter. She never complained, she never once doubted herself or the pilots around her.”    

Rosencrantz nodded. “She was a good XO… it’s going to be tough to replace her… if we survive to get replacements.”    

Carter nodded. “How’d your fighters make out?”    

Rosencrantz grimaced. “I can get six fighters up right now, and the rest are due to be back in action in two hours.”    

Silence reigned supreme after that as Captain Garza walked into the room. He had a lot of weight on his shoulders now. He was the CO of the Arkrunners with Brancer’s death. Brancer… Carter reflected. One hell of a pilot, and one hell of a person. He’d be sorely missed.    

He waved at Garza, who came over.    

The Captain sat down quietly, drinking what looked like some kind of grape juice. “What can I do for you, sirs?”    

Carter smiled. “Give us a toast, Captain. One to start off your command of a squadron correctly.”    

Garza appeared to contemplate the bottom of his glass for a while.    

He then raised it, some spark returning to his formerly empty eyes.    

“To those who can’t be here to celebrate with us: We must celebrate for them, and hold the line for them, because they’ve entrusted that responsibility to us.”    

Carter nodded. “To those who hold the line, both here, now, and past, in a better place.”    

The four officers clinked glasses.    

But each in their minds had the same question: When would it end?


Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54); Bridge
Same Time

Kennedy was pacing. The Stasheff had been detached, and with her went ten Tigershark fighters, two squadrons of five fighters apiece.    

But he wasn’t satisfied.    

He’d sent out the message a while ago that had released Stasheff to Battle Group Auriga, now outbound for its target: A Kraken-class ship killer.    

It made the dreadnought that Yorktown’s pilots had just paid in blood to destroy look tame by comparison.    

Luckily, the Yorktown’s Wasp complement was still operational… well, those that remained. Three out of the fourteen left had been lost during the fight against the incoming destroyer and the corvettes. Kennedy was glad the aircraft were back. He’d hated the necessity of taking every fighter he’d had and throwing it at the enemy, but it had proven necessary and, what was more, had been successful.    

Not that he planned on doing that again any time soon. He’d had quite enough of all-or-nothing strikes for a while. Unless the circumstances necessitated it, he wouldn’t send his pilots out like that again.    

Ramirez stepped up behind him. “Sir, we’ve just sent out the updated report to Admiral Hanton.”    

Kennedy nodded. “Very well. Inform the Endeavour and the Hades that we’ve successfully recovered our fighters and are standing by to lend assistance if necessary, though it is uncertain that we will be able to lend substantial assistance for…” Kennedy checked the bridge chrono, and continued, “Four hours.”    

Ramirez nodded to the portside talker, who relayed the command below decks.    

“Anything else on radar?” Kennedy asked.    

“Negative sir. Scope is clear. So, sir… if I may ask, now what?” Ramirez replied.    

Kennedy took a breath. “Now, Captain, comes the most difficult part of all.”    

Ramirez got a glint in his eye. “And that would be, sir?”    

Kennedy looked straight-on at Ramirez.    

“We wait.”