: “ Into the Inferno ”

"Success comes most readily to the commander whose ideas have not been
canalised into any one fixed channel, but can develop freely from the
conditions around him."
- General Erwin Rommel



Wing Commander’s Quarters, BWS Sicily
Nifelheim System
2130 Hours, 16 Feb 2681 (2681.047)

Colonel Jack “Samurai” Tanagawa signed off on the last of the stack of papers currently on his desk, and then stashed them all in his out tray. He turned his attention to the next stack, and sighed heavily when he saw that this bundle was even heavier than the last one had been. Even in the middle of an all out war, the paperwork kept piling up. And as much as the officers liked to complain about it, the good ones realised that this was just as much a part of their job as flying missions and training their pilots was. The efforts of the literally thousands of people involved in the fleet’s flight operations had to be monitored and co-ordinated to prevent the whole thing from degenerating into chaos, or even grinding to a halt altogether. The much hated paper shuffling ensured that crew chiefs got the right spare parts at the right time, and the pilots had missiles and fuel when they needed them. There had been instances during the Kilrathi Wars when the frontline troops had ended with totally inappropriate equipment or even no equipment at all because someone hadn’t kept the supply chain moving along.

Of course, like anything else, the paperwork could be taken to extremes. Samurai had talked with Colonel Black and the other Confed Wing Commanders often enough to realise how good he had it in comparison to them. His paperwork mainly related to the pilots, their fighters, and the fuel, munitions and spare parts that they would need to take them into combat. The Confed officers had to do all that, but in addition they had to fill out a mountain of officer and unit performance evaluations, crew morale and stress level reports, and even reports on each unit’s combat efficiency as measured by fuel and missile usage. The Border Worlders did measure such things in peacetime operations, but let them fall by the wayside once they were in a combat zone. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the pilots and units who had carried out their missions and landed safely were performing well, or that being shot at regularly tended to increase their stress levels and decrease their morale.

The Border Worlds system might have seemed slap-dash by Confed’s standards, but it worked well enough while avoiding chaining the Wing Commanders and Squadron Leaders to their desks. That was one of the reasons why senior Border Worlds pilots tended to fly a lot more than their Confed counterparts did. That did have its disadvantages, as these officers tended to suffer more casualties than the Confed brass did. That in turn meant that the command structure was often at more at risk of being damaged than was the case with Confed. However, it did wonders for their pilots’ morale and efficiency to see that their superiors were out on the frontlines, sharing the risks that came with the job right alongside them. Senior officers who flew regularly also tended to have a better appreciation of the risks and difficulties involved in any particular mission than those who were not so affectionately referred to as REMFs.

Like with a lot of things though, it wasn’t a question of nation’s system being better or worse than the other’s, more a case of different needs and different cultures. Confed was a huge nation with a huge military and a huge military bureaucracy. A hell of a lot of paperwork needed to done to keep the wheels of that massive machine moving smoothly. Not only that, the bureaucratic culture meant that officers had to fit into that mould in order to keep their careers on track. The Border Worlders had a much smaller fleet with a lot fewer pilots. For them, it was a lot more important to get the best possible value out of each pilot every time they went into battle. That meant senior officers and their fighters actually taking part in the battle rather than sitting on the flight deck. The disregard for rules and regulations common in the Union also meant that things tended to keep moving along even when all the points on the checklist weren’t ticked off.

None of that though, made finishing the pile of work that did end up on Samurai’s desk any easier. In addition to the routine work that came with being the Sicily’s Wing Commander and the senior WC of Task Force Jasmine, he was currently co-ordinating the transfer of pilots and fighters between the reserves and the main fleet. The reserves had some surplus fighters, but were lacking in combat experienced pilots. The main fleet, on the other hand, had lost a lot of fighters in the last two weeks of fighting, but had been able to recover some of the pilots who had been shot down. Pilots and fighters moving to a lot of different ships and units, but most them went in a few big transfers.

The testing station in the asteroid belt was transferring its Intruder defence squadron to the TCS Endeavour, though the Intruder pilots were going to Battle Group Valkyrie. The Valkyries had in turn transferred over enough of their pilots to the Endeavour to fly the eighteen Intruders. The reason for all that shuffling was that while the Endeavour needed both pilots and fighters, the station’s pilots were privy to classified information that they hadn’t been cleared to share with their Confed counterparts. The Border Worlds commanders had thought it best to keep them away from the Confed ship, rather than put them in a position where they would have to keep secrets from the people they would be flying alongside.

The Valeria had already transferred over two dozen of her damaged fighter craft to Avernus Station and the testing base. These had much better repair and servicing facilities than the carrier did as well as a lot more support personnel who were free to work on the fighters, and so would be able to get them combat ready a heck of a lot faster. In exchange, the Valkyries were taking the testing station’s Retaliator defence squadron, along with the four cloak capable Retaliator-C prototypes, four non-cloaking Excalibur-A fighters, and three Bearcat interceptors. These transfers didn’t so much boost the numbers in their flight wing (they had transferred out almost as many as they had transferred in) as stack the fight wing with powerful space superiority fighters and interceptors in exchange for less capable craft.

Meanwhile, both the 15th Confed Destroyer Squadron, and the escort carrier BWS Defiance were getting additional fighters. The 15th DESRON picked up surplus Thunderbolts and Excaliburs from the reserves, chosen because its pilots were already flying these craft. Similarly, the Defiance picked up Banshees and Vindicators. Each picked up about a dozen fighters, a welcome boost to their small flight wings, which had been further depleted by the fighting they had seen recently.

Neither the fleet carrier TCS Yorktown nor Battle Group Auriga (the former Valley Forge battle group, now based around the strike cruiser TCS Hades) were getting any additional fighters. In the Yorktown’s case, it was because she had taken the fewest flight wing casualties of all the fleet carriers in the Loki battle, as well as in the campaign overall. Battle Group Auriga had already received a fresh infusion of fighters when the Hades joined it. 

In addition, all the main fleet units were sending to the reserve units those pilots who currently didn’t have fighters, but were qualified on the craft flown by the reserves. The Valkyries were also sending over officers and enlisted personnel who had been rescued from the Littenia. These would be transferred to various reserve capital ships, filling any gaps in their crew complements and adding an extra leavening of combat experience to those ships.

Last, but certainly not least, they had to keep apart the forces sent by the Tanfen Corporation and their arch-rivals, Porhen Industries. Both mega-corporations had committed squadrons from their private security forces as part of the deal that had ended the behind-the-scenes turf war they had been waging for the past few weeks. Tanfen had sent one of their most experienced units, the 44th Blades. Not to be outdone, Porhen had committed their veteran Black Jaegers, both units having jumped in after the Combined Fleet had arrived. The trouble was that the two units were bitter enemies, and letting them anywhere near each other was a sure recipe for disaster. For now, Hanton had assigned the Blades to help guard Avernus Station, while the Jaegers were detailed to cover the fighter testing base.

Keeping track of all that was a bear of a job, but someone had to do it. Samurai had drawn the short straw because all of the main fleet’s Wing Commanders were either trying to catch on their sleep or taking a little time away from their ships. Not that he begrudged them the opportunity for a little R&R after the two week long running battle the main fleet had been fighting across the Tyr, Nephele and Loki systems. Of course, the reserves hadn’t been exactly been sitting on their hands in that time. First there had been frantic dash to assemble and make the run to Nifelheim. Once they had gotten here, they had been working flat out to integrate the Confed and Border Worlds taskforces, as well as putting in a heck of a lot of time in training and simulated combat. Still, that didn’t compare to the hell that the main fleet had been through.

Samurai’s doorbell chimed just as he finished the last of his paperwork. The person on the other side opened the door and walked in without waiting for an invitation. That would have been a serious breach of protocol in ConFleet, but was par for the course in the Border Worlds. Samurai looked up in annoyance, half expecting it was his aide with another stack of papers. His eyes snapped wide open as he recognised the other man, and he jumped out of his chair, nearly catching his knee on the edge of the desk in the process.

”Johnny! Why didn’t you call and tell me you were coming to see your old man?” he demanded as he caught his son in a bear hug, ruffling his hair affectionately.

“Hey, Dad,” Jonathan “Ronin” Tanagawa said, trying to smooth his hair back into something that didn’t look like an angry porcupine. He gave it up as a lost cause and hugged his father back.

“I didn’t realize you were with the taskforce till a couple of hours back," he explained as the two broke the embrace and stepped back. “One of the Excal pilots you sent to join us mentioned your name, so I caught the first shuttle over.”

”I take it you boys haven’t been getting much news from home,” Samurai said. He motioned his son to take the spare chair, and stepped over to wall cabinet, pulling out a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses. “Ice?”

”Neat, thanks. No, we haven’t. I thought you were still back at the Academy,” Jonathan commented. He had been assigned to the Taipans, the Valeria’s Excalibur space superiority squadron, and had been in the thick of the fighting.

“They pulled me out of retirement when they formed this taskforce. I couldn’t very well stay home while they sent my cadets off to fight,” Samurai said, handing a generously filled glass to his son and resuming his own seat behind the desk. 

Neither of them even raised an eyebrow at the idea of Samurai having a bottle of hard liquor in his quarters, or the thought of two officers of such different ranks drinking together. The Border Worlds military was technically a part of the Confed reserves under the treaty signed last year, which meant that Confed regs applied. A warship was meant to be dry apart from the Captain’s table, and in certain cases the ship’s lounge. As with most such rules, the Border Worlders honoured them far more in the breach than in the observance. Their methods of dealing with anyone who was actually impaired while on duty were rough enough to ensure that efficiency wasn’t compromised.

“Cadets? You’re telling me that this taskforce is…” Ronin said, more than a little alarmed.

Samurai laughed quietly. “Oh, no. We’ve got one cadet squadron, plus a few other final year students slotting into some of the other units. Most of them are Militia and reserve units, plus a unit of Tanfen pilots.” He quickly filled Ronin on how the taskforce had been formed to help backstop the main fleet, as well as its trek through the various systems, and the minor skirmishes along the way.

”Well, at least they weren’t trying to hurt him,” Ronin commented with a grin, as his father described their first encounter with the Confed reserve force. From there, it didn’t take long to describe the joining up of the two taskforces and the simulated battles between them.

Samurai gave his son a quick once over while they sipped their drinks, waiting for him to begin his story. Physically, he looked unhurt. However, the psychological effects of the battle were obvious in the tension in his jawline, as well as in tracery of fine lines around his mouth and eyes. He had lost weight in the two months since Samurai had last seen him, making the bones of his face stand out a little and the skin sag slightly.

“Congratulations on the promotion, son,” he said finally, when a few more seconds passed without Ronin saying anything. The youngster now wore the silver bar of a first lieutenant, despite only having graduated from the Academy at the end of the previous year. The brutal losses incurred in all out fighter battles tended to make for quick promotions for those who were good enough and lucky enough to survive.

”Thanks," Ronin said, but declined to say any more, instead taking another sip of his drink.

“They weren’t all Remoras, were they?” Samurai said as a way of prompting his son, pointing to one of the ribbons on Ronin’s duty uniform. Ronin wore the ribbon of an Ace medal with two bars, signifying a total of fifteen confirmed kills. He also wore his 25th combat mission ribbon, along with a number of fighter qualification ribbons. The kid had obviously been through a hell of a lot, and Samurai didn’t want him bottling it up inside.

”No, of course not," Ronin said with a smile, a smile that quickly faded. “It’s been bad, Dad. The squad’s lost a third of its pilots. They made me section lead after Rogue got chopped on a strike…” Samurai winced slightly at that. Rogue had been one of the young pilots he had commanded when he had been the CO of the Taipans during the Battle for the Bush, and one that he had high hopes for.

Ronin quickly sketched in the missions the Valkyries had been involved in since the start of the campaign. They had flown just about every type of mission possible, in operations ranging from the effort to evacuate the civilian population of Tyr to rescuing the survivors of the Bunker Hill from the bowels of an enemy carrier to the diversionary battle fought in the ruins of Loki VI. Just like everyone else in the fleet, they had done everything that was asked of them, and had done it despite overwhelming odds. The cost had been high though, both in terms of the number who hadn’t made it and in the effects on those who had.

”I know how it feels, son. ” Samurai said with a sigh, as Ronin finished his story. “This is my third war, and it never gets any easier. There’s not much you can do except stay alive while it’s going on, and try to cope with it afterwards.

”Yeah,” Ronin agreed, throwing the last of his drink down his throat. He looked up at his father with a hopeful look in his eyes. “But the worst of this one is over now, isn’t it?”


Bridge, BWS Valeria
Nifelheim System
2225 Hours, 16 Feb 2681 (2681.047)

”All the carrier battle groups and capital ship squadrons have reported in, Admiral,” Captain Sang Que said heavily. “They’re issuing immediate recall orders to anyone who was on shore leave, and are preparing to move out.”

”Good,” Admiral Hanton said, not adding that this was about the only good thing in the whole fiasco. 

All around them, the Valeria’s bridge crew were scrambling to man their stations, and get the massive warship ready for battle. The ship was currently at general quarters, which meant that every position was supposed to be manned, even though a good portion of the crew and pilots were still off the ship. All of the Valeria’s complement of shuttles had been dispatched to get them back as soon as possible, as had the shuttles from every other carrier.

Those who were on the bridge at the moment fell into two distinct groups. First there were the men and women who had actually been on duty when the bad news had arrived. They were working calmly and methodically to bring the various systems up to full power, and co-ordinating the efforts of the departments in other areas of the ship who were doing the same. None of them actually knew what the emergency was, but Sang Que’s orders had left them in no doubt as to the urgency of the situation. This was one of those situations where you did the job first and thought about why you were doing it afterwards.

The other group was the shift that had been off duty when it all hit the fan. Most of them had been in their quarters, many already in their bunks. These were now streaming to their stations. Most of them looked rumpled and some looked barely awake. All of them had to be wondering just how they had suddenly gone from being on stand down to general quarters in a system that had been secured by friendly forces. As with their counterparts from the duty shift though, none of them wasted any time in doing what they were supposed to be doing. The Valeria had been blessed with a veteran crew even at the start of the campaign, and the fighting they had seen had hardened them even further.

In general, the Valeria was well on her way to being ready to fight, even though the bad news had arrived less than twenty minutes before. The other ships and units from the main fleet and the reserves where reporting similar readiness. The Admiral thanked her lucky stars that she had decided to limit the shore leave to one shift from each carrier at a time. In addition, she had ordered the various warships in the fleet to keep their systems on standby rather than shutting down altogether. That bit of good luck meant that they would at least be able to fight when the enemy came for them. Then again, it probably wasn’t so much luck as the caution born from decades of combat experience. She had learned the hard way that no matter how in hand the situation seemed, you could always get hit for six just when you least expected it. And as it had happened, God had just decided to take the long handle to them. They had thought that the battle was just about over. It turned out that they were probably right, but the ending wouldn’t the one they have been hoping for.  

“Captain, engineering reports all pumps and reactors are up to speed. We can get underway, sir,” the Valeria’s current helmsman (actually a woman in this case) reported without turning away from her console.

”What’s the status on our current flight operations?” Sang Que demanded from the bridge’s flight control officer. As was usual in these situations, the Captain had the primary responsibility for the running of the ship, leaving the Admiral free to formulate her strategies. Erin Hanton had often shown a remarkable talent for pulling rabbits out of her hat during her long career, not least during this current campaign. Pulling off a victory from this situation though, would be one hell of an achievement even for her.

“The Ghost Warriors are clear, sir. The Vandals are just launching now, and we’ve got three shuttles on landing approach.”

”Get the Vandals clear, and tell those shuttles to hold off. Let me know as soon as we’re clear to maneuver.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”

”Ahead 100 KPS, bring us on a heading for the Ymir jump point," Captain Que ordered once the flight control officer had reported that all of the smaller craft were clear. The carrier accelerated into her new course with all the smoothness one would expect from a warship that was only months out of the construction yards. She hadn’t experienced the battle damage and the wear and tear which lead to the crankiness that older ships all developed sooner or later. Of course, the chances were that she would never get old enough for that to happen.

”What’s the status on those drones?” Sang Que said as soon as the ship was headed for the jump point, turning towards the fire control officer. 

“We’ve got the jumpers loaded, sir. The redshirts are bringing up the rest of the gear from the stores now.”

”Good. Launch the jumpers when ready, Commander.”

”Aye, aye, sir. Firing tube one… and tube two.”

The Valeria’s bow mounted capital ship missile tubes fired one after the other. Each sent a jump capable scout vehicle hurtling towards the Ymir jump point. Seconds later, the tubes reloaded and fired again, and then for a third time. The half dozen scouts would head into Ymir and monitor the enemy’s approach. Two would remain just on the far side of the jump point, while the rest headed into the system on pre-programmed trajectories.

The scout drones weren’t used often because they were much less operationally flexible than recon fighters, as well as carrying a smaller array of sensors. In this situation though, they would be invaluable. The human fleet had already barricaded all the jump points in the Nifelheim system with mines. The mines were currently inactive, but no one wanted to risk sending fighters through them when there were other craft that could do the job. They were going to need every pilot and fighter they had before this was over. 

By now, flight operations had resumed, and the shuttles were unloading most of the remaining pilots and crews aboard. Meanwhile, squadron after squadron of fighters and support craft were being prepared for launch. Until a cohesive strategy for dealing with this new threat had been established, they had to be ready for anything and everything. The other carriers were doing the exact same thing, while the capital ship squadrons were moving to defensive positions.

Very few of the commanders knew exactly what was happening, just that what had been expected to be a simple mopping up operation had all of a sudden turned pear shaped. The speed of the events had left them all bewildered, and they were acting more on what their training and experience told them was right than on solid information. That would see them through for now, but it could cause the fleet to degenerate into chaos if a more cohesive strategy wasn’t forthcoming very soon. The fleet’s survival depended very much on just how fast and how effectively Hanton and her senior commanders responded to their changed situation.

Over the next fifteen or so minutes, the rest of Battle Group Valkyrie’s brass arrived on the Valeria’s bridge. These were the officers with whom Hanton had served the longest, in some cases for over a decade. They were the ones that she depended on to help her formulate the strategy that she would put to the rest of the fleet. It wasn’t so much a case of not trusting the rest of the fleet’s commanders as a case of working with people whose minds and ways of thinking that she understood thoroughly.

The battle group’s two Wing Commanders, Raptor and Phalanx, arrived first, having delegated command of the battle group’s flight operations to Lieutenant Colonel Alex “Skywalker” Witt, the Valeria’s deputy Wing Commander. Commander Warren Kent, the Valeria’s senior Intelligence officer, was right on their heels. The skippers of the various escort capital ships arrived afterwards, having made sure that everything was running as well as possible before turning command over to their executive officers. Commander Damien Chelsea, the skipper of the light carrier Freedom, arrived last of all. The Freedom and her escorts had executed a breakaway manoeuvre, separating from the Valeria to minimise the chances of both carriers being taken out by the same attack.

Once all the officers were gathered on the bridge, Hanton lead them all into the command briefing room that adjoined the bridge itself. For one thing, it was a lot more private than the bridge was. They had to sort out their plans and put on a united front in the face of this disaster, and that shouldn’t be done in front of the crew. For another, the briefing room had much better facilities, including video displays, computer terminals and a holographic projection table. Hanton’s aide, Lieutenant Reston, had already set up the room, and was now standing by to help with the briefing.

Hanton wasted no time in confirming what her subordinates had already guessed, that they were neck deep in shit and sinking fast. The footage from the recon Excaliburs showed what was happening in graphic detail. They would in for a hell of hard fight just to hold off the enemy fleet coming in from Ymir, not to mention the remains of the enemy fleet in Loki, long enough for help from the Inner Fleets to reach them. Chelsea was the one who said so outright.

The Admiral took a deep breath before giving them the really bad news. There was going to be no help from the Inner Fleets. The Confed Senate had decided that none of the four frontline fleets would move out from their current positions, and nor would individual carrier groups or warship squadrons detached from those fleets. The survival of the dozens upon dozens of frontier worlds, whether Confed, Border Worlds or unaligned, would depend on this one battered fleet of Confed and Border Worlds ships. If they failed, a hundred billion or more people on those worlds would become, in the words of the Honourable Senator Diego, “a sacrifice for the greater good of humanity.”

The reaction to that was about Hanton would have expected. The initial reaction, as evidenced by their angry words, was naturally to blame Confed for hanging them out to dry. The thought that four powerful fleets, the supposed elite of the Confed military who had sat out all the fighting so far, would continue sitting on their hands while they fought a desperate battle against massive odds was galling as hell. The thought some Confed politician could decide that they and their families would be sacrificed for the greater good” sent their blood pressures soaring.

As tempting as it would be to blame this whole mess on the big, bad Confederation though, everyone here knew that it would also be grossly unfair. The Border Worlders had largely been the architects of their current situation. The simple fact was that they wouldn’t have needed the Inner Fleets if they had been willing to invest a little more money in their own defence over the past year rather than letting Confed shoulder the bulk of the load. If they had stuck to their initial plans to upgrade the Border Worlds military, they would have been to field at least one and possibly two additional fleet carriers with a full complement of fighters and escorts. While they didn’t like the fact that the Confed Senate had decided that they were expendable, they were the ones who had put themselves in that position to begin with.

They also knew that while the Confed politicos might have been willing to write the frontier worlds off, the men and women of the Third Fleet hadn’t. The Confed pilots and crews that they had been fighting alongside them for the past two weeks had given everything to the battle, including their lives in far too many cases. Now those brave men and women too had been hung out to dry. If they were going to survive this one, the Confeds and Border Worlders had to stand shoulder to shoulder against the threat, not turn on each other in trying to apportion blame.

Hanton gave them a few minutes to let those thoughts and feelings running through their heads. They were only human, and they needed time to adjust to the shock of what had happened before they could try and find a way of the quagmire they now found themselves in. She was prepared to step in if it looked like they were going to go off on a tangent, but that didn’t prove necessary. These people were veterans whose combat experience dated all the way back to the First Kilrathi War. You simply didn’t survive very long against such opponents as the Drakhai, the Enslavers of Races squadron or the Black Lance without being able to adjust rapidly to surprises and setbacks.

The ideas started flowing slowly at first, but the contributions soon snowballed. They had all worked together for a long time, and they knew how to bounce ideas off each other. Initially, all they came up with were hypotheses and guesses that might or might not be workable. Each of these were held up the light and subjected to a through, often brutal analysis. Flaws and shortcomings were pointed with no regard for feelings or egos, something that was possible because each of them knew and respected the others. As the more flawed ideas were discarded, a core of potential strategies to draw on became more and more apparent. They continued debating and refining those for the next couple of hours, well into the witching hour and the new day. By the end of that session, they knew what they would need to do to have a chance of surviving this. It still wasn’t a great chance by any means, but it was a chance nonetheless. It was the only chance that they had.