HOLDING THE LINE: CHECK AND MATE, PART TWO

Written by Joe Guida and Rajan Ragupathy


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Wing Commander’s Office

Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)

0515 Hours

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After a short conversation, Rosencrantz was glad to see that there was no tension in the Border World pilots about being aboard the Confed ship. Truth be told, he had been worried. After what had happened, he wasn’t sure he could’ve put aside any feelings he’d had. But apparently, combat had removed any resentment the other pilots had had.

    

He and the Border Worlds Colonel walked into the office that Colonel Alvarez despised, but used. She was looking at a three-dimensional map of the system, her gaze indicating that she was deep in thought. She looked up, and smiled. “Good to see you again, Colonel.” She said, extending her hand as she stepped around the desk.

    

“Likewise, Colonel.” The other officer replied, genuine pleasure evident in his eyes.

    

“Coffee?” Alvarez asked, playing the good host.

    

Rosencrantz shook his head. “Not right now, thanks.”

    

Alvarez nodded. “Alright, then. We’ll get down to business. Admiral Kennedy should be joining us shortly.”

    

She returned to the holomap, and began pointing to various symbols. “As you can see, our reconnaissance groups have detected one, possibly two enemy carriers headed into the heart of the system. Now Yorktown can hit them, but,” she turned to face the assembled group, “we’ll be out of range of the enemy strike force due to our engine damage after one or two strikes. As it is, our striking power had been very low, due to losses. We had seven Shrikes left after the strike on the Tiamat. Now that we’ve picked up Endeavor’s survivors, we’ve got fourteen. Despite that, we’ll lose the ability to hit them after possibly one, but certainly two strikes-Admiral on deck!” Alvarez finished, coming to attention as Kennedy walked in.

    

“At ease.” Kennedy said, walking up to the Border Worlder. “Welcome aboard, Colonel. How are things on the Valeria?”

    

“Going well, sir. Nephilim Group Epsilon gave us a difficult time, but it’s out of action now.” Raptor replied.

    

“Excellent. Well, you can see our quandary.” Kennedy began. “The fact that we’ve got a good deal of striking power again is negated by the fact that we have limited time in which to use it…unless my idea works.” Kennedy began.

    

He turned to the holomap. “Valeria and her group are within striking distance of the enemy forces, and will be for quite some time after Battlegroup Rapier falls out of range due to damage. However,” he continued, “Battlegroup Valkyrie will be within range of Yorktown’s flight wing. If we could run a shuttle operation, either stage fighters directly from Valeria or use it as a point to stage refuelling vessels from, we could keep Yorktown’s fighters in range and bolster Valeria’s own striking power at the same time.”

    

Kennedy took a breath, then continued. “This is the plan I’d like to propose to Admiral Hanton, and I can’t risk sending a drone. It’d take too long, and could be intercepted.” He gave a small smile. “That, and I’d like to hear what you have to say about it. If you agree, I’ll be sending Major Carter, CO of our Panther squadron, back to the Valeria with you to present the plan. I know it lacks something in detail, but that can be hashed out on the go. The important thing right now is to hit those bastards before they can get to the inner system.”

    

Kennedy looked as though he were about to continue, then stopped, smiled, and shook his head momentarily. “You’ll have to excuse my poor manners. I’ve forgotten that you and your people have just come from another engagement, Colonel. Please, feel free to get some rest. Major Rosencrantz will show you to your quarters. After you feel you’ve had sufficient time to recuperate, notify Commander Wallace and I’ll be right down. Again, welcome aboard.” He concluded, extending a hand.

 

“Thank you, Admiral.” Raptor said, saluting before taking the offered handshake. “I don’t want to seem ungrateful for your hospitality…”

 

Admiral Kennedy’s brows furrowed slightly. “By all means, speak your mind, Colonel.”

 

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate the concern, but I understand we’re working against a very limited timeframe here. Both Major Richardson and I have been flying combat missions for over a decade, and we know just how far we can safely push ourselves. With your permission, Admiral, I would like us to be part of the initial strike against those carriers. On the transit back, we along with Major Carter and his wingman can break off and land on the Valeria.”

 

“Any particular reason, Colonel?” Kennedy asked, raising an eyebrow. It was true that flight crew rest requirements were both bent and broken in combat, but this was still rather irregular.

 

“Two, sir. First, it’ll let me experience the logistics involved these shuttle missions first hand, and will better allow me to make an assessment of the plan when I present it to Admiral Hanton. I know your people have computed the scenarios already, but the safety margins are going to be very thin, especially when we’ll have to deal with enemy harassment, damaged craft, and possibly injured pilots. I need to know if this can work before I commit my flight wing to it.”

 

“Secondly, with only fourteen Shrikes left, it’s vital to give them as much cover as possible, especially early on. Our Retaliators are roughly equivalent to your Panthers, and it seems like a waste to draw off the fighters flown by myself, Major Richardson, Major Carter and his wingman away from the strike group solely to fly a separate courier mission to the Valeria. All we really need is to have our Retaliators refuelled and rearmed, and we’ll be good to go.”

 

The Admiral nodded. “Very well, Colonel. Here’s what you need to know…”

 

 

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Nifelheim System, Downing Quadrant, Vega Sector

Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)

Briefing Room

February 19th, 2681/2681.050

0730 hrs.

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A two-hour catnap seemed to have been just what the doctor ordered, judging by the spring in the steps of the Retaliator pilots and gunners, Alvarez thought with a smile as they walked into the room. The map table displayed nearly three hours’ worth of work on Alvarez’, Ramirez’, and Rosencrantz’ parts, planning and estimating.

    

“Good to see you, Colonel. Please, grab a cup of coffee and join us. We’re just now finalizing the strike plans.” Alvarez said.

 

“Thank you, Ma’am.” Raptor said. While they were technically equals, this was Alvarez’s flight wing. Truth to tell, he found it refreshing to let someone else make the decisions, even if only for a few hours. He poured himself a large cup of coffee with cream and far too much sugar, his usual morning pick-me-up.

 

“So here we are: We’re going to be making a single-point detour along the way to prevent them from tracking the fighters back to either Yorktown or Valeria. We’ll be holding back the Excaliburs, T-bolts, and Wasps here for the first, and possibly the second strikes, until Yorktown has fallen out of range. Once we’re clear, we commit the Thunderbolts and the Excaliburs, and possibly the Wasps as well.” Alvarez said.

    

Major Pierce, the commander of the Wasp point-defense squadron, smiled. He and his pilots had been held back by the short endurance of their fighters, but with tankers coming into operation, it wouldn’t be a factor in the upcoming strikes. For the first time, the point-defense group would be taking it to the enemy at range, rather than waiting.

    

“We’re going to be integrating Endeavor’s surviving pilots with ours, to a degree. The Shrikes will replace the Cavaliers’ losses, and Captain Rubio will take command of six of them, while the most junior member will be detailed off as Major Karpoff’s wingman. That gives us fourteen Shrikes to hit the Nephilim carriers with. Their Tigersharks and Panthers still have enough fighters to be considered squadrons in their own right, and will continue to operate as such. While the torpedo bomber squadron did as well, I’m going to integrate them for purposes of coordination. The Piranhas and the Wasps will be integrated into Yorktown’s squadrons.” Alvarez continued.

    

From the senior survivor of the Endeavor’s torpedo bombers, there was a shifting of feet and a slight reluctance in his gaze. This stopped immediately when Commander Stevens, senior surviving officer of the Endeavor, stepped forward. “No arguments, and no hard feelings, Captain, but we can’t afford to ease feelings. This has to be done, and you’ll give the Yorktown’s wing your full cooperation. Clear?” She said.

    

“Yes ma’am.” The pilot immediately responded.

    

Stevens nodded at Alvarez, who nodded her own thanks. “The forward screen for the strike will consist of both of the Panther squadrons, the Felines and the Black Dragons, with the Grendels and the pilots from Reaper Squadron up front, unless there are any objections…?” Alvarez continued.

 

“Our Retaliators have a top afterburner speed of 1200 KPS, so they may not be able to keep pace with the Vampires in a running fight.” Raptor said. “We might be more useful riding shotgun with the close escorts. We have a lot of missiles at our disposal, plus a very good fire control system that lets us share data and co-ordinate launches. We can take any heavy hitters which get that far.”

    

“Alright then. Arkrunners, Sindri Stars, and Hammerheads will hold back with the Cavaliers as close-in defense. Once the enemy fighters have engaged, and dependent upon their strength, SEAD runs will commence upon this,” Alvarez pointed to a Nephilim Hydra-class cruiser,

“-which we’ve chosen as the primary target. Secondary targets, though not important as of yet, will include these two Orca-class destroyers, and as many Barracuda-class corvettes as can safely be engaged. I’ll be on-scene with the torpedo bombers to evaluate what moves will be made when.” She concluded.

    

Alvarez looked around, searching for any questions, or dissent, and found none. “Alright, then here’s another critical piece of information. As soon as the strike is over, the group will remove itself from Nephilim sensor range. Once we’re clear, the Reaper Squadron pilots, along with Major Carter and his wingman, will split off and return to the Valeria. Their mission is critical to this fight, and must be kept from the Nephilim. We’re going to try and keep clear of enemy contact, but under no circumstances is the enemy to follow the four of them to the Valeria, or know that we’re in communication. Their mission pertains to joint operations over the course of the next few days, and must be kept quiet. Understood?”

    

There was total silence.

    

“Alright. Colonel, do you have any comments or ideas?”

 

“Just one, Ma’am. I would suggest a secondary objective should be a strike on the engines or steering of one of those carriers. We don’t have enough firepower to take them out just yet, and it would be foolish to try. Simply slowing them down, though, will buy us time we badly need.”

    

Alvarez nodded. “Very well. I will make a decision on that as part of my on-site evaluation, and give the go ahead if I think it’s achievable. We launch in forty-five minutes. Dismissed.”

    

The group filed out of the room to brief their individual squadrons on the upcoming strike and subsequent operations.

 

Before the group was quite clear of the hatch, Carter called out, “Colonel?”

    

The man turned.

    

Carter extended his hand. “Major Timothy Carter, commanding the Fearless Felines. Good to be working with you, sir.”

 

“Good to meet you, Major. Colonel Alvarez speaks very highly of you.” The grip of the handshake, the calm demeanour, and the hardened look in the eyes, along with the man’s rank and the fact that he was the wing commander aboard the flagship of the entire Border Worlds fleet bespoke this man’s skill in a fighter.

    

“What do you think of the admiral’s idea, if I can ask, sir?” Carter began.

 

The other pilot smiled. “Truth to tell, it sounds crazy enough to be something a Border Worlder came up with. Then again, crazy works more often than people might think.”

    

Carter nodded. “In any case, good to be flying with you, sir. I’ll see you on deck.”

 

 

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Aboard TCS Yorktown (CV-54)

Flight Deck

0807 hrs.

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Carter was doing the walkaround on his fighter, not even consciously realizing that he was running his hands over the sponge armor, checking for fluid leaks, and making sure the weapons were secure, so everyday had it become. And yet, despite the fact that he could now do this in his sleep, it lacked none of the attention to detail that routine things typically did.

    

A sudden bark of laughter echoed above the hubbub of the flight deck, even above APUs that were being started and shouted orders.

    

Turning he saw Raptor shaking hands enthusiastically with the Deck Boss, CPO Daniel McKnight. Obviously, they knew one another. Carter smiled. It was nice to know that, even in a place as hectic as a carrier’s deck, the world could be smaller than you thought.

 

“Well, this is certainly a better piece of equipment than that Thunderbolt you brought back after that mission in Hell’s Kitchen. It’s in one piece, even!” McKnight said with a grin, admiring the sleek form of the Retaliator.

 

“Don’t knock the Thunderbolt, Chief.” Raptor said with a smile. “There aren’t many fighters that can take a missile up the tailpipe and still fly halfway across a system.”

 

“Aye, she was a mess. Took the deck crew nearly a month to get her back in flying condition. Pity you weren’t around to see it.” The Chief said, a slight edge in his voice.

 

The smile on Raptor’s face faded slightly. The Chief and he had both been aboard the TCS Vigilance, one of the Yorktown’s sister ships, when the Black Lance conflict had begun simmering. Not long after that, Raptor had volunteered for a shuttle supply run, and quietly disappeared en-route. He had never regretted the choice he had made, but he did regret not being able to explain his disappearance to his friends and colleagues. It would have been much too risky for all concerned.

 

“I did what I had to, Chief. I’m not going to apologise for it.”

 

The Chief nodded sombrely. “Nasty things, civil wars. I’m glad I never had to make the choice you did. I’m glad they never sent the Vigilance to fight the Union either. We didn’t sign up to kill humans.”

 

“None of us did.” Raptor agreed. He had done what had needed to be done over Circe, but he took no pride in those kills. “Different war now, though. Is my bird ready?”

 

“Aye, Colonel. She’s fully fuelled, and the decoy dispenser’s been topped up. Missile armament is four ImRec, four Friend-Or-Foe and four heatseekers. Our birds use a different calibre of stormfire ammunition though, so you only have the rounds you came aboard with.”

 

“Excellent. When all this is over, Chief, we’ll have to meet up on Avernus for a drink, catch up on the past few years.” Raptor said, shaking the enlisted man’s hand before he could offer the more traditional salute.

 

Once he was back in the cockpit, Raptor began running through his pre-flight checks, using the familiar routine to push the conflicting emotions he felt to the back of his mind. On the one hand, his visit to the Yorktown was like a step back to simpler times, when his responsibilities had been lighter, and loyalties a lot less tangled. He knew that he could still function in this world. He had gotten a glimpse of what life might have been like if he had stayed with Confed, and it had been good.

 

At the same time, he knew that he would never go back. Other Border Worlds officers who had served with Confed during the War had accepted posts with Confed once again, but he knew that wasn’t the path for him. His loyalty to the Union was by choice as well as by blood, and he doubted that choice would change any time soon. Even when this Nephilim invasion was defeated, there would be a hell of a lot of work to do, both in fighting the threats the Union faced in the present and in building a military that could fight the threats the Union would face in the future. If the war with the Nephilim went on as long as the one with the Kilrathi had, Confed would need a capable partner who could stand alongside it.

 

For now, the Nephilim right here needed and deserved his full attention. He finished his checks, and then waited for his turn on the catapults. Looking around him, he could see that Alvarez hadn’t been kidding about going all out on this strike. Row after row of fighters and bombers were being prepped for launch, as were refuellers, SWACS and SAR craft to support the combat craft. Most of these craft were a far cry from the shiny, pristine images that sprang to most people’s minds when thinking of Confed warcraft. Almost all had scorch marks from enemy fire and discolorations in their sponge armour that spoke of hasty patch up jobs. Many also showed signs of damage that had yet to be repaired, though nothing serious enough to stop them flying and fighting. This was plainly the flight deck of a carrier at war.

 

Just like old times, in fact…

 

 

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Aboard Panther 101 (Feline Lead)

Same Time

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Carter looked across the flight deck at the squadron of Piranha scout fighters, at the head of which, Martinez was just completing her preflight. She looked at his fighter, saw him watching, smiled, and waved. Carter returned the wave with a gloved hand, then started his APUs. All of his systems came to life, including all of the displays.

    

There were roars echoing up and down the flight deck as fighters came to life, firing up their engines, crews moving in the hectic but controlled manner that marked an experienced deck crew conducting flight operations.

    

His crew chief got his attention, standing upon a ladder beside the cockpit, holding up the red flags for him to see clearly. “Sir, I count four IFF, four IR, ejection system, and decoy dispenser, for a total of ten.”

    

Carter nodded. Instead of six Pilum FF missiles and six Spiculum IR missiles, due to the shortage of munitions that was rapidly increasing in severity aboard Yorktown, Kennedy had authorized the fighters to go out with two-thirds munitions to conserve missiles and thus, increase combat time for Battlegroup Rapier. Missiles were now being husbanded, conserved for emergencies and dire situations. Luckily, most of the pilots aboard Yorktown were good enough that it was no great change; most of their kills were made with guns.

    

“That’s the count, chief. Get clear.” Carter called.

    

“Bring us back some scalps, sir.” The crew chief called, then disconnected the headset from the external jack, sealed the panel, and disconnected the ladder he had been standing on, clearing the fighter.

    

Carter dumped power to his engines. With a roar, the starboard engine once more awoke, and with the power it produced, Carter started the port engine.

    

Ahead, the Piranha squadron was being jockeyed into position to be launched first, followed by the Wasp interceptors and the Panthers of the Black Dragon squadron from the Endeavor. Immediately after them were Alvarez and one of the Seahawk SWACS craft, followed by the pair of Retaliator heavy fighters. These would be followed by the eleven remaining fighters belonging to the Fearless Felines, the twelve remaining Vampires of the Grendels, and so on.

    

All in all, the launch would be complex…more so than usual with the craft that had formerly belonged to other carriers.

    

Carter triggered his communications array. “Feline Lead, two lit, in the green.”

    

“That’s affirmative Feline Lead. Stand by.” Came the reply.

    

Carter took a breath. Once more unto the breach…

 

 

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Aboard Panther 100 (Lima-Golf)

0839 hrs.

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Alvarez found herself shaking her head. The Yorktown’s flight deck personnel had done a tremendous job once more. Only thirty minutes had passed since the first craft had launched, and already, all of the craft that were going into battle had been launched. It came to a total of ninety-one fighters and bombers, including Endeavor’s orphans and the pair of Retaliators, which would be going in harm’s way.

    

Looking around her at the sparking drive trails, Alvarez smiled. The bugs couldn’t last forever, and, if reports were to be believed, the beating they had just been dealt had brought the Combined Fleet a great deal closer to victory.

    

She took a breath, then triggered her communications system. “Strike, this is Lima Golf. Felines, Grendels, and Black Dragons take position eight thousand klicks ahead of the main group. Sindri Stars, four thousand klicks aft of them. Hammerheads, Arkrunners, assume positions above and below the Cavaliers, respectively. Cavaliers, four thousand klicks behind the Sindri Stars. Reapers, we’re going to be taking station one thousand klicks ahead of the Cavaliers. All craft go to three hundred fifty KPS, and assume course zero-six-two Z-plus five.”

    

Alvarez got a wave of acknowledgements almost immediately, and the squadrons became a swirling mass as they assumed formation, course, and speed. Surprisingly enough, there was no confusion to come out of the twisting mass of fighters.

    

“Feline Lead copies.”

    

“Grendel Lead, that’s affirm.”

    

“Cavalier Lead, roger.”

    

“Arkrunner Lead, yes ma’am.”

    

“Hammerheads copy.”

    

“Black Dragon Lead, complying with orders.”

    

“Sindri Lead, acknowledged.”

 

“Reaper Lead, roger.”

 

Alvarez watched as all of the fighters formed up and assumed speed. She wasn’t moving as fast as she’d like, but the Shrikes could only go so fast, and she didn’t want anybody pushing their engines too hard for too long, and becoming unable to participate in the strike. No, there was strength in numbers, and she wanted the numbers as high as she could make them.

    

Thinking quickly, she recalled a few ideas that had come up during the briefing, and decided to make them known now, rather than in the midst of the battle.

    

“Alright. Reaper Lead, you, your wingman and I are going to hold with the main body of the strike group. As much as I’d like your fighters up ahead, it makes more sense to increase the Shrike’s protection, and you can observe better from back here. Cavaliers, after the primary target has been hit, I want you to shift your fire to the carrier that was closest to it. Go for an engine shot, see if we can slow it down and force the enemy commander to make a hard choice. If possible, people, go for gun kills, but don’t risk your lives. I’d rather have you without missiles and alive than with missiles but dead. Tigersharks, you’re going to make SEAD runs once the enemy fighter screen has been dealt with, but make sure you can get back and help the bombers if need be. Everybody clear?” Alvarez said.

    

“Yes ma’am.” Karpoff replied.

    

“Copy that.” Garza called.

    

“Got it, ma’am.” The leader of the Hammerheads, the surviving Tigersharks from Endeavor, a Captain Ethan Anderson, replied.

 

“Reaper Lead copies all.” Raptor replied.

    

Alvarez leaned back in her ejection seat, trying to relax as much as possible. It wouldn’t be long before she couldn’t afford to.

 

 

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Aboard Tigershark 310 (Arkrunner Eight)

Same Time

===========================================

    

The techs had worked miracles, Holland thought. His fighter was supposed to have been out of commission for two days, but they’d gotten it turned back around. Granted, there were some problems with the avionics, and the armor, though patched, didn’t look great, but there wasn’t anything to down-check the fighter.

    

He was back in the fight.

    

Upon reflection, he wasn’t sure if he was grateful or frightened. It increased his chances of getting killed, or worse, being captured after ejection, but on the other hand, he didn’t have to sweat it out while his squadronmates were putting it on the line against the bugs.

    

No, he was glad he was back out here with them.

    

Looking at his sensors, set to low power though they were, he saw the pair of Border Worlds Retaliators. Damn, but those things looked deadly. And, if the markings he’d seen on them were any indication, the pilots were more than competent; they were elite.

    

The rumour mill had it that the leader of the two fighters, Colonel Ragupathy, also known as Raptor, had fought against an instructor in an obsolete craft during his time at the Academy, before the Border Worlds had broken away from Confed…and he’d come close to winning, obsolete vessel not withstanding. Having been at that Academy recently (though it seemed so far off now, Holland reflected), he knew that Raptor-class heavy fighter to still be there, space worthy and flown during demonstrations.

    

He checked the mission chronometer. If all went according to plan, they would be meeting the enemy in…thirty-six minutes.

    

It sounded like a short amount of time, but Holland knew better after what seemed years (though only weeks, possibly months) of experience. Seconds had a way of dragging into eons when you were waiting desperately to get something over with. Waiting was something a fighter pilot couldn’t cope with. Once the fight was on, it was fine…but the waiting was what ground people down.

    

He quickly checked all of his displays, searching for even the slightest hint that something was wrong with his fighter. So far, there was nothing. Granted, his navigation system was having a few problems correcting for solar drift and his communications weren't showing a visual, but he could live with those glitches. It was more important that he be out here, taking the fight to the enemy.

    

With the rest of the squadron...and, for that matter, the rest of the wing.

    

He looked at the chronometer. Only a few seconds had passed. He allowed himself a chuckle, and shook his head momentarily, remembering Einstein’s Theory of Relativity:

    

“When you put your hand on a hot plate, seconds can seem like hours…”

 

 

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Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)

Nifelheim System

0900 Hours, 19 Feb 2681 (2681.050)

=====================================

 

Raptor couldn’t help wondering if he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut during the briefing. The idea of slowing down one of the Nephilim carriers was in itself tactically sound. The speed of the Nephilim force was dictated by its carriers, and any reduction in a carrier’s top speed would have drastic effects on the entire force. As Colonel Alvarez had said, it would leave the Nephilim commander with a very hard choice. The Nephilim would either have to let the damaged carrier and its escorts fall behind, or reduce the speed of their entire formation to allow the damaged ship to keep up.

 

Either way, it would have serious consequences for the Nephilim. A damaged carrier that was allowed to fall behind, even with escorts, would have no chance against the combined strike power that Rapier and Valkyrie would bring down on her. Not only that, the ships that continued on ahead would have lost half their fighter cover and several warships from their force. That in turn would not only make them vulnerable to further strikes from the pursuing carriers, but also attacks from the Combined Fleet’s warship squadrons and the fighters based on Avernus Station.

 

That would be an ideal situation for the human commanders, but no one was really counting on it. It was more likely that the Nephilim would slow their entire force down to allow the damaged carrier to keep up. That would keep them within effective range of the Yorktown and Valeria for longer, allowing them to wear away at the enemy force with follow up strikes. If the Nephilim could be slowed down enough, it might even allow the capital squadrons to cut off their route into the inner system, allowing the Nephilim to be brought to bay well away from the civilian ships around Avernus.

 

All that was assuming they could in fact cause enough damage to a carrier to slow it down. While the theory itself was sound, it was the execution that would be tricky. The skill and commitment of the Cavaliers wasn’t in question, but it was a big task all the same. The Yorktown’s strike force was formidable, but it would still be badly outnumbered by the fighters the two Nephilim carriers and their escorts would be able to throw at them. In such a situation, a fast strike that knocked out the primary target and made a hasty retreat might well have been the way to go. Trying to hit the carrier’s engines as well might be a case of a bridge too far, as it were.

 

What had inspired him to speak up had been the example of another chase centuries ago, one that he remembered from his military history classes at the Academy. It had happened in the early part of Earth’s Second World War. At that time, Great Britain had been dependant on Atlantic convoys from the United States, Canada and South America for both food and war materials. When the powerful German battleship Bismarck had sailed out to threaten the convoy shipping lanes, stopping her had been a strategic priority. When the Bismarck engaged and sunk the HMS Hood however, sinking the German battleship became a matter of national importance. The Mighty Hood, as she had been affectionately known, had been a talisman for both the Royal Navy and the British people, and her loss couldn’t be allowed to go unavenged. A formidable force of Royal Navy battleships, aircraft carriers and cruisers had pursued the Bismarck, but she had come very close to returning to friendly air cover, where the British ships couldn’t follow her. That had been until torpedo bombers from the carrier Ark Royal had wrecked her steering, leaving her turning in circles, and at the mercy of the British battleships. The Bismarck had duly been sunk with a massive loss of lives.

 

In this case, they were trying to keep the Nephilim within the range on enemy strike craft than away from friendly fighter cover, but the key idea was still the same, to buy time, time that would allow them to pour more and more assets into the battle. If it didn’t work, however, they would be wasting lives and machines that could have been saved if they had stuck to a less ambitious strike plan.

 

He knew this plan was characteristic of the way he thought. He dreamed big, and he preferred to take the fight to the enemy whenever it could. It was a way of thinking that could achieve spectacular results, but it could also blow up in his face. He had learned very early on how to watch out for the signs a plan wasn’t working, and when to call it off. It was far better to end up looking like a fool than to forge stubbornly ahead, making a bad situation even worse.

 

What worried him was the fact he wasn’t in control this time around. The final decision on whether to proceed on with or abort any objective would belong to Colonel Alvarez, as of course it should. He had worked with Alavarez in several of the larger operations the Combined Fleet had flown, and he knew her by reputation from the Kilrathi war. Confed’s frontline carrier force during the War had been remarkably small, at one time down to only four fleet carriers. That along with the high “turnover” rate of carriers and fighter squadrons meant those who survived for any length knew each other at least in passing. Alvarez was known both then and now as a steady officer who took no unnecessary risks with the lives of those under her command. Besides, she knew the capabilities of those under her command better than he did. He would just have to trust her judgment, just as she had trusted his in accepting the plan.

 

He glanced at the mission chronometer. Only a few more minutes till they met the enemy. He took at deep breath and blew it out slowly, pushing all his worries to the back of his mind, a skill he had learned over many years in the cockpit. For the duration of this mission, he wasn’t a Wing Commander or Squadron Leader, just a pilot leading an element of fighters. He had been in enough battles to know that some enemy fighters almost always found a way through the outer fighter screen. For now, all his attention would have to be on protecting the bombers.

 

 

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Aboard Panther 100 ‘Lima-Golf’

0904 hrs.

===================================

    

“Head up all fighters! Sindri Star Lead has contacts, bearing three-four-two, z-plus one, picking up some signal chatter and sensor emissions!” Came the call.

    

Despite all the mental preparation, Alvarez flinched at it. Once more unto the breach went the Yorktown’s fighter wing, the survivors of the Endeavor, and the two Retaliators off of the Valeria. Ninety-one craft were going into this engagement…and she found herself wondering how many were going to be coming out of it…or not.

    

She took a breath. “All fighters, this is Lima-Golf. Sindri Stars, light them up, full power. All craft, prepare for inbound fighters. Advance screen is Grendel Squadron, backstopped by Felines and Black Dragons. Hammerheads and Arkrunners, I want you eight thousand klicks ahead of the bombers. Don’t let any fighters break through if you can help it. Cavaliers, stand by one. Sindri Lead, find me the primary target and list number and types of ships larger than a cruiser.”

    

The Piranha squadron, led by Martinez, energized their radars, lighting space up with energy emitted by the small scout fighters.

    

“Lima-Golf, I count five, repeat, five enemy Hydra-class cruisers, and two Leviathan-class carriers. I also count six destroyers and fifteen corvettes. Hostiles are now launching additional fighters. Their current screen consists of…three-zero craft.” Martinez called.

    

“Cavaliers, primary target remains the same. Arkrunners, when we punch through their fighter screen, you’re to stay with the bombers. Hammerheads, you’ll break off and form up with the Black Dragons for SEAD runs. Secondary target is as follows:” She began, cycling through targets with her fighter’s sensors, then isolating the aftermost Nephilim carrier, and designating it. “Engines on carrier designate Bravo, I repeat, after carrier, designate target Bravo. Go for the engines and try to slow them down after completion of primary objective. Reaper Lead, you your wingman, and myself will hang back and pick up any fighters that get through the Tigersharks.” Alvarez ordered.

    

“Grendel Lead copies all.”

    

“Feline Lead, that’s affirm.”

    

“Black Dragon Lead, good to go.”

    

“Arkrunner Lead, affirmative.”

    

“Hammerhead Lead, Roger.”

    

“Cavalier Lead, that’s affirm.”

    

“Sindri Lead, orders confirmed.”

 

“Reaper Lead copies.”

 

    

“Sindri Lead, give me a count on the fighters.” Alvarez called.

    

“Enemy fighter count now up to seven-zero fighters, still climbing.” Martinez replied.

    

“All ships, go to seven hundred KPS and begin your run.” Alvarez ordered. Matching actions to words, she throttled up her fighter, and kicked in the afterburners, noting that the Retaliators at her three o’clock position stayed stationary, as if glued in position despite the incredible acceleration of the strike group.

    

Directly behind her, visible if she looked over her shoulder, was the bomber squadron, breaking into two elements of seven bombers apiece. Major Karpoff had opted to keep the bombers in larger groups with fewer axes of attack, rather than spread the bombers out and decrease defensive effectiveness.

    

“Black Dragons, Felines, and Grendels, launch one missile apiece at twenty thousand klicks, then take it to them at your best speeds. We need to keep their fighter groups from linking up with those still launching. Sindri Stars, as soon as the fighters engage, peel off and engage further fighters. We’re going to make them pay if they want to start a furball between us and our targets.” Alvarez ordered, watching the range scroll down rapidly on her HUD.

    

She selected an IFF missile and prepared to fire it. “Reaper Lead, if they break through the Tigersharks, maneuver at your discretion to keep them off the bombers. That’s our mission.”

 

“Reaper Lead copies, Lima Golf. We’ve got your six.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED