: Into the Inferno

"By the pricking of my thumbs,
something wicked this way comes.
Open, locks, whoever knocks!"
- William Shakespeare, "MacBeth"


Deep Space, Ymir System
Union of Border Worlds
1200 Hours, 16 Feb 2681 (2681.047)

The first things which would tip you off something is wrong in this system would be the fighters. There are dozens of them here, including Confed Excaliburs and Thunderbolts, Border Worlds Banshees and Vindicators, and the scratch built craft flown by privateers. Once they had each been sleek and powerful. Once they had been able to slip the surly bonds of earth and dance on laughter silvered wings, and do a hundred things, things the earth bound have never dreamed of. Once they had been able to soar among the stars with a freedom and a grace that the angels, and perhaps even the Gods themselves, might have looked upon with envy. Once, but not any longer. Now they are torn and crumpled and twisted, mere collections of metal and plastic and circuits. Now they are robbed of all that had given them life and purpose and beauty.

The shattered hulls of once proud warships are littered here and there. Their spines have been broken apart by the missiles and torpedoes that slammed into them. Their bodies have been torn open as casually as a cruel child might tear the wings off a butterfly. Bits of their names and registries are visible on the shattered bows, clues to what they had once been and what they could have been if the calamity that had befallen them hadn't taken place. But it had, and so they weren't anymore and never could be again. Their stories had ended here, on this battleground, in this graveyard.

Dead bodies drift in never-changing orbits around their ships, or the sun, or maybe a planet or a moon, or maybe a chunk of rock with just enough gravitational attraction to trap and hold the frozen and lifeless chunks of meat. Dead bodies that have been scorched by laser fire, blown apart by plasma bolts, pierced by stormfire rounds and missile fragments. Dead bodies of men and women, young men and women for the most part. These men and women had once been bright and happy, talented and dedicated. These men and women had each once been somebody's child, somebody's parent, somebody's friend, somebody's lover. No more. Now they are just frozen husks of blood and flesh and bone, and the only ties that bind them are the inexorable bonds of gravity.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is war in all its glory.

The Ymir System had been hit early in the invasion, and hit hard. A probing force of Nephilim warships had jumped into the system from Kilrathi space. The invaders had easily overwhelmed and wiped out the ill-prepared Confed and Border Worlds garrison forces that had been tasked with defending it. The fighter pilots and warship crews had been largely kept in the dark about what had been happening elsewhere in the galaxy. They had no hope of being ready for an all out assault by a new and hostile alien species. Many fighters hadn't even gotten off the ground, destroyed by enemy cruise missiles while still on the runway. Those pilots who had been able to engage the enemy had been wiped out by overwhelming numbers and concentrated firepower that they had no answers to.

In many ways though, the military personnel who had died here had been the fortunate ones. They had at least had a fighting chance, and their deaths, horrible as they had been, had been mercifully swift. For the civilian population of Ymir, though, neither of those things had been true. The Nephilim had pounded the farms and settlements below with warheads and weapon fire, reducing decades of toil and effort to rubble in a matter of minutes. Those who survived the bombardment were left to cope with the cruelties of cold and disease and hunger, war's inevitable camp followers. As many people had died in the weeks that followed as in the assault itself.

And that wasn't the worst of it. The Nephilim had landed an occupation force before the assault ships pulled out. The ground troops had rounded up of those of the survivors who hadn't been fast enough to evade them. Anyone who had resisted had been brutally put down, and they too had perhaps been the lucky ones. The rest of the captives had ended up at the mercy of a species which had none. They were slaughtered as a food source, used for cruel experiments, or simply tortured for the sheer hell of it. Hundreds died each day at the hands of their captors.

Ymir was unusual in that it was the only human colony where the Nephilim had attempted to take and hold ground rather than simply destroying what they saw and then moving on. Both the Confed and Border Worlds governments were keenly aware of that fact, and of what was happening to the unfortunates who had ended up in the hands of the enemy. The fact that they had done nothing about it would have been surprising to a casual observer, but not to those who understood how things really worked.

The simple fact was that, for one reason or another, there was no help to send. The Combined Fleet, made up of Border Worlds First Fleet and the Confed Third Fleet, was the force that was tasked with defending this sector of space. It was tied up fighting an enemy fleet that was ripping through the Frontier. The human pilots and crews had spent the last two weeks fighting a desperate holding action, hanging on for as long as they possible could before pulling back to the next system. The two human fleets had lost over half their strength in the holding action, but they had finally broken the back of the enemy fleet. They still had to take on what remained though, and bring the battle to a close.

The reserves that both the Border Worlders and Third Fleet could call upon had been tied up preparing to back up the Combined Fleet. Once they were in position, the reserves would help wipe out the Nephilim fleet once and for all. The Border Worlders had stretched their resources to the limit doing that and holding off the raiding forces that were threatening other systems in the Union. They had gotten to the point where they using cadets fresh out the Academy and hastily trained civilian volunteers to fill out the ranks of the reserve groups. The cupboard was bare, and there was nothing to spare for a rescue mission to help the people here in Ymir.

The reasons for that were complex, but at the end of the day they could be boiled down to a shortage of resources. There was never enough money to go around in the Union, and something had to be cut. In the wake of the mutual defense treaty signed with Confed in the past year, there had been a well intentioned viewpoint held by many in the upper echelons of the military and the government. This view was that there was no longer any need for the Border Worlders to maintain a military that was capable of fully independent and unilateral action. Instead, the conventional wisdom was that the Border Worlders should act as Confed reserves, as the treaty itself designated the Border Worlds military to be, and maintain the forces needed to fill that role.

And perhaps they were right. After all, who was to say that hospitals and schools and crop improvements had to be the things that were cut to pay for carriers and fighter squadrons? The Union certainly needed all of those things if its people were to survive and to prosper. Whatever the rights and wrongs of those choices, the result of those decisions was that Confed had been left shouldering the bulk of the defense burden for the Frontier. That was the burden they had accepted when they had signed the treaty. After all, it was generally accepted Confed would have the resources to take care of any problems.

And certainly, it could be argued that Confed had the resources to intervene in Ymir. The 4th and 7th Fleets were lurking right next door in Vega Sector, and two further fleets were waiting in the Sol Sector. It could be argued that among those four large and well equipped battle fleets, the ships and crews could be found to liberate Ymir before any more people died. But to argue that was to blatantly ignore the harsh principles of Realpolitik.

The simple fact was that the people of Ymir weren't very important in the larger scheme of things. Despite the best efforts of the government to put a positive spin of things, the appearance of the Nephilim had induced widespread fear among the population of the inner Confed sectors. They had never seen the Nephilim, and they had no wish to. While the current threat was on the Frontier, the rumors of the Nephilim wormhole technology meant that people everywhere feared enemy fleets appearing on their doorsteps without warning. Everyone wanted a cruiser or destroyer squadron within a couple of jumps of their home systems, and at least one carrier battle group in each quadrant. From a purely military point of view, the resources could have been found among the four fleets to help Ymir's population without compromising the defense of the inner sectors. However, that would have left some places without a readily visible military presence, and that was unacceptable. The feeling of safety was often more important to people than the reality.

Naturally, Confed's leaders had responded to their people's concerns. That after all, was what they had been democratically elected to office to do. More importantly, that was what they had to do if they hoped to be democratically elected to office ever again. And cruel as it might sound, the people in Ymir who were dying at the hands of the Nephilim wouldn't be voting in Confed's next general election. The people in their home districts who were seeing Nephilim in the back of closets and in dark corners would be, and that was what counted.

That wasn't to say that Confed's leaders were oblivious to the suffering of Ymir's people. On the contrary, there were already plans under way for a rescue effort to be mounted. The Senators and other leaders all felt strongly that something should be done, and that the military resources should be found to help those poor people. The trouble was, none of them wanted those resources to come from their home districts. They didn't want to risk the electoral oblivion that would result if the voters felt they had been left unprotected by the representative who was meant to look out for their interests. The Senators argued and traded horses over just where the ships for the rescue effort would come from. The date for launching that rescue effort kept being pushed further and further back in the meantime.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is human nature in all its glory.


Recon Excalibur 009 (Spectre Lead)
Confed Reconnaissance Patrol
Ymir System, About The Same Time

This, Captain Eduardo "Echo" Chavez thought as he turned the sleek fighter into the next leg of its patrol run, is so fucking pointless. There was nothing moving in this system except for himself and his three wingmates, all of them flying a long-range recon sweep of Ymir. It was the same mission that the squadron had been flying on a daily basis for the last two weeks, and absolutely nothing had changed in that time. They would jump into the system using one of the small jump lines that interwove themselves through the main space lanes and would sweep the system for several hours. The Excaliburs would then jump back to their carrier, waiting well back from the battle zone along with other ships of the Inner Fleets. The round trip usually took just under 48 hours.

These flights were an exercise in frustration and discomfort for the Excalibur pilots. The recon Excalibur carried a highly efficient life support system that could sustain the pilot for days at a time, and its matter/anti-matter reactors supplied enough power to the jump drive for several trans-system hops. Those features made these long missions possible, but they certainly didn't make the flights pleasant. The Excalibur had neither a head nor any way to carry hot food, so the pilots made the trip eating out of a plastic tube and getting rid of their body wastes in a similar manner. Add in the damage done to a person's backside by two days of sitting still on a rock hard ejection seat, and it was easy to see why the pilots would hardly be in the best of moods when they got back to their ship. 

Each flight would report the exact same thing when they got back. Militarily speaking, this system was empty. There was certainly life on the planets, but out here in space, there was nothing stirring. The Nephilim fighters and capital ships that had razed this system were long gone. They had either joined up with the fleet that was tackling the Combined Fleet head on, or split up into more of the raiding parties that the Border Worlders were running themselves ragged trying to stop. This system would be ripe for the retaking, just as soon as the ships were available to retake it. In the meantime, the recon flights kept their commanders up to date on the conditions that awaited the rescue force.

Chavez could never quite decide whether he would prefer to be doing this safe but boring work or if he would much rather be with the Third Fleet. On the one hand, he was glad that he and his squadron mates had been spared experiencing the hell the Combined Fleet was going through. The daily tactical reports they received showcased the casualties the frontline forces were taking in horrifying detail. The last few weeks of fighting had seen the destruction of four fleet carriers and dozens of other warships, not to mention hundreds of fighters. And as devastating as those losses were, they were nothing compared to deaths of thousands of good men and women. Every day, Chavez had found the names of people he had known in the casualty lists. Academy classmates, former squadron or ship mates, old friends and bitter rivals, all of them gone forever. Echo could only imagine what their families would be going through, and the fear that loved ones of those who had been lucky enough to survive so far must be living with. He was grateful that his own family could count on him returning to them safe and sound after these interminable missions.

And yet, there was a rebellious part of his mind and spirit that longed to be out there on the battle line. Many of the pilots that he knew felt the same way. This conflict, the possible first phase of a new war, was what they had all trained for. It was what they had waited in readiness for throughout their careers. They wanted to make a difference in the battle that would decide the fate of a hundred world and billions upon billions of people. Just as importantly, they wanted to be backing up their friends and colleagues who had been struggling against the Nephilim threat for so long. Having to sit on the sidelines while their comrades took losses that could have been avoided if the frontline forces had more ships and crews was driving them nuts. Some small part of each pilot, the part that couldn't be over-ridden by common sense, wanted to be in the thick of the battle.

There's an old saying: Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.

The first clue that Echo had that this wouldn't be just another boring and uncomfortable mission was an urgent call from Captain Catherine "Ripper" O'Shea, the second element lead. She and her wingman had been patrolling much closer to the Hawking jump point, leading to Kilrathi space, while Echo's element had been sweeping closer to the main planet.

"Contact! Multiple bogeys vectoring sunwards from the jump point."

Echo debated whether to report the initial contact back to the ship via a trans-light burst, but very quickly decided against it. The trouble with trans-light signals was that they could be detected by anyone near-by, and that would reveal his element to the Nephilim. Instead, he ordered his wingman to form up alongside. He pulled the Excalibur's nose around sharply, and then punched his afterburners before locking in the autoslide. Meanwhile, reports continued to stream in from Ripper and her wingman.

"Nine, Eleven. Engaging cloak. We're heading for the jump point." Ripper sounded tense but calm.

"Eleven, Twelve. Bandits, twelve o'clock high and closing! They're coming right at us!"

"Calm down, I don't think they've seen us. They're just sweeping out from the jump point."

"Eleven, Nine. We're on the way, ETA: three minutes."

"Nine, Eleven. Roger."

"Ten, Nine. Engage cloak now!"

"Ten," Echo's wingman responded tersely as his fighter vanished from Echo's sensor board. Echo dropped into cloak as well.

"Nine, Eleven. Multiple capital ship sized contacts, I read at least two-dozen ships. Secondary targets, I es... zen... gets."

"Eleven, Nine. Didn't copy last, over."

"... ind... am... in..."

"... ing! ... rays... cud..."

Echo swore under his breath. It was obvious that Ripper's transmissions were being jammed. What was less clear was whether the Nephilim had figured that they were there, or were simply jamming the frequencies as a routine precaution after jumping in. If Ripper's report of two dozen capital ships was accurate, then this was no simple raiding group. The excrement was about make contact with the bladed air-conditioning device in a big way.

Echo took his hands off the stick and throttle, letting the big fighter fly itself for a few seconds. There wasn't anywhere it could go except in a straight line while the auto-slide was engaged in any case. He fed a series of instructions into the Excalibur's central computer system, telling it to find a frequency that he could transmit on which wasn't being scrambled by the jamming. Normally, that would only have taken seconds.  In this case, it took nearly a minute before the system reported it was ready, a testament to the sheer power of the jamming. That minute was punctuated by several more messages from the other two Excaliburs, all of them garbled.

The computer finally locked down a clear comm channel, and Echo tuned in once again to Ripper's element. He started to ask for a status report. He was cut off by a drawn out and blood curdling howl of agony that reverberated in his headphones. A scream that sounded very much like that of someone dying.

"Cathy?" Echo inquired sharply, momentarily forgetting comm discipline in his concern for his squadron mate. Years of training and doctrine quickly reasserted themselves though. The Confed military wasn't like the Border Worlds Militia (many Confed officers still thought of the entire Border Worlds military as the militia), whose pilots did things any which way they liked. In the Confed Fleet, discipline and adherence to training were everything.

"Eleven, Nine. Come in, over."

"Oh, shit. Oh, Christ!" Ripper was still in one piece, but she sounded frantic. The comm channel was much clearer than it had been previously, but Ripper's image on Echo's VDU was still streaked with interference.   

"Eleven, Nine. Status report, over!"

"They got Clippy! I've got a dozen more fighters following me. They could see us while we were cloaked! Repeat, those fighters can see through our cloaks!"

Echo swore savagely. Recon Excaliburs had been experiencing decidedly mixed success in using their cloaks to hide from enemy sensors recently. The flights that had been sent to check out the signs of alien incursion at the very start of the conflict had mostly been lost, providing near certain proof that the Nephilim had some way of defeating cloaks. On the other hand, recon Excals from the doomed TCS Saratoga had been able to evade the Nephilim fighters and report the loss of their carrier to Confed HQ. That meant the anti-cloak gear was far from infallible. There had to be certain situations where the anti-cloak sensors could be defeated. The trouble was that the pilots of the Inner Fleets simply hadn't had enough contact with the enemy to work out what those situations were, and which countermeasures would be effective against those sensors.

Adding to Echo's frustration was the knowledge that those pilots who had been in regular contact with the enemy, mainly the recon Arrow and Excalibur pilots of the Border Worlds First Fleet, had been able to devise precisely the countermeasures that his people needed. His senior officers hadn't officially confirmed that, but it was common knowledge among the crew chiefs. Over the years, Echo had come to trust the NCO grapevine as much if not more than the official information releases from higher up. There was very little happening on any ship or base that the chiefs didn't know about, and they weren't shy about sharing that information with each other.

Unfortunately, Confed HQ had slapped a need to know restriction on the exact details of just how the frontline pilots had been able to evade the Nephilim sensors. The thinking was that these countermeasures needed to analyzed for safety and effectiveness. If they were found to be workable, they could be implemented across the Inner Fleets' recon Excaliburs en masse, rather than in dribs and drabs by individual squadrons. That would maximize the tactical advantage that could be gained. Besides, there was thought to be little chance of the Inner Fleet pilots making contact with the enemy in any case, so there was no urgent need for them to have access to these countermeasures. The level of secrecy surrounding the technical details of the countermeasures had been something that even the NCO network was unwilling to break, carrying as it did penalties of several years hard labor on a prison planet somewhere. The fighters had therefore gone out with the basic ECM setup, which might or might not be enough in any given situation. 

What that meant here and now was that neither Echo nor his wingman knew whether their cloaks could hide them from the Nephilim pilots at any given time. It was pretty clear now that Ripper's cloak couldn't. She was running flat out from the fighters that were pursuing her. The Excalibur was no slow coach, and she was able to maintain her lead over the standard Nephilim fighters. However, the specialized Squid interceptors were using their boosters, and were closing in on her slowly but relentlessly.

"Eleven, Nine. Download your data to me and head for the jump point."

"Nine, Eleven. Transmitting data now."

Information scrolled across Echo's VDU too fast to be read, as Ripper dumped all the information that she had obtained straight to his Excalibur's storage drives via direct data link. A few seconds later, the Excalibur's computer presented a summary of the information on the VDU. Ripper had scanned dozens of capital ships and over two hundred fighters, and that was only part of the force that was gathering in this system. Echo felt his breath catch in his throat. Whatever happened, one of them had to report all this back to HQ, or this force would stab the Combined Fleet in the back and then rip right through the frontier worlds.

"Eleven, Nine. I got the data. Get out of here."

"Nine, Eleven. I copy. Good luck." With that, Ripper was no longer part of the mission. She had to devote all her attention to staying ahead of her pursuers longer enough to make the jump point. It was a heck of a long run, but with a little bit of luck, she would make it.

Echo ordered his wingman to separate from him and take a different vector towards the position of the enemy ships. That would minimize the chances of them both being caught, and also maximize the information that they could gain from their scans. The two fighters would transfer their data to each other every few seconds, giving each pilot a more complete picture of the situation. That way, none of the data would be lost if only one of them survived long enough to send the information back to HQ. All recon pilots knew the bitter truth that they were often more expendable than the information they collected was.

By now, the leading flights of Nephilim fighters were approaching Echo's fighter rapidly. Echo pushed the stick over hard to gain as much separation from them as possible while still keeping his nose pointed towards the capital ships. The impressive sets of cameras, infra-red scanners, ELINT gear and imaging radars that the recon Excalibur carried were already busy recording, absorbing every scrap of information on the Nephilim fighters and picket ships. Additional information streamed in from his wingman, who was scanning the pickets on his side. The core of the enemy force still lay ahead though, and that was what they had to scan.

Over the comm channel, Echo heard a short, fervent prayer from Ripper, and then silence. Echo glanced at his navigation display and cursed. Even at the Excalibur's best speed, Ripper would still be well short of the jump point. He hoped for her sake that she had gone down with her fighter rather than ending up in the hands of the Nephilim.

Meanwhile, they were now past the picket ships, and scanning the heavy warships at the centre. The sheer volume of information flooding into the Excalibur's data banks was frightening. They had already known that this was no simple raiding group, but it was rapidly becoming clear this wasn't just a reinforcement group for the Nephilim fleet either. This was much, much more. And then Echo finally recognized what was at the very heart of the fleet.

"Mother of God..."

The transmissions from his wingman stopped abruptly. Echo broke away from the enemy ships. He had seen just about everything that he was likely to see, and the priority now was to get the information to his superiors. If this force caught the Combined Fleet unawares, it would rip right through the defensive line. Literally dozens of words and billions of lives were at stake here.

Echo took his left hand off the throttle, flying the Excalibur one handed. At the same time, he ordered the computer to compress all the information into one package, ready to be sent out via a trans-light burst. He kept his left hand positioned over the transmit button, but he knew he had to hold off pushing it until it was obvious he had no chance of escaping. Sending off a trans-light signal right in the middle of all these fighters would be like signing his own death warrant. The burst would not only give away his location, but would also drain off so much power that the Excalibur would drop out of cloak.

As he approached the picket lines once again, though, he could see that the Nephilim had put up a near solid wall of fighters and interceptors. They were now well aware of the spies in their midst, and determined that the recon pilots wouldn't spoil the surprise they had planned for the human fleet that frustrated them for so long. They intended their first strike to be what the Kilrathi would have called a jak-tu, the blow that both started and finished a fight. From there, they would be able to tear right through the Frontier as they had been prevented from doing for the last few weeks.

Echo steered his fighter towards the point where the enemy fighter cover looked to be the thinnest, mouthing a silent prayer to whatever Gods were listening. The Excalibur had just eased past the outer picket lines and started accelerating away from the enemy ships when the Nephilim fighters began to move. One after the other, they fired their boosters and afterburners, heading straight for him. Something had protected him until now, maybe the fighter's ECM or maybe just sheer dumb luck, but the game was obviously up.

Echo knew that he had no more chance of out-running those Squids than Ripper had. He clamped down on the transmit key, and the signal ripped out from the Excalibur's nose. At the same time, a brilliant burst of color flooded his eyeballs as the cloak shut down. Knowing there was no chance of escaping, he armed the recon Excalibur's meager array of laser cannons and broke into the enemy fighters. It wasn't that he hoped to fight his way clear or even hoped to take a few of them with him; it was just there was nothing else to do. Whatever happened now though, his job was done. The Inner Fleets would have to move once they got this data. 

A few seconds later, a volley of missiles tore the Excalibur wide open, adding one more corpse to those littering the system.