Author Topic: "Operation: Fearless" a Freespace Story - Chapter 4 - Part 2  (Read 649 times)

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Offline Trivial Psychic

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"Operation: Fearless" a Freespace Story - Chapter 4 - Part 2
Link to Chapter 4 Part 1

October 10th, 2367 – 09:25 Hours, TGT

   Sacks was crossing the flaming bridge with his fellow pilots and officers in tow.  As the volcanic eruptions threw molten rock and ash to either side of the bridge, a pillar became visible, rising out of the inferno below, and the bridge rose to meet it.  The top of the pillar widened out, enough that the group could all stand there together.  Beyond it, the flaming bridge continued, towards the potential infinity.  Sacks knew that this pillar top represented the point of no return… the last time they could turn around and return to the safety of solid land.  Sacks wasn’t sure who would turn back and who would go on… save one.  He knew that he himself would go, but he also knew that Lizzy would stay beside him as far as he chose to go.

   It was then that a noise outside roused Sacks from his slumber.  For a moment, Sacks thought that he was still aboard the Hood, and had continued his dream of the day before, but this wasn’t his old pillow.  Clearing his head, Sacks quietly turned over in his rack and peered out from the privacy curtain, to see two figures embracing near a darkened corner of the pilot’s barracks room.  As they turned, Sacks could make out the face of Jen Manetti, her eyes closed and breathing deeply, dressed only in her regulation tank top shirt and underwear.  In the foreground, facing away from Sacks, he recognized the frame and crew cut of Corp. Lewis Mars.  He was still mostly in uniform, but wouldn’t be for much longer, Sacks wagered.  He smiled to himself, recalling the prediction he’d made that Mars would be with them at least this far.

   Sacks deliberately made a few sounds like he was waking up, just audible enough for the pair to hear him.  We waited a few seconds, then stuck his head out of the curtain gap to see them looking back at him with expressions of extreme embarrassment and concern.  Mars’ uniform coat was completely unbuttoned, and his belt buckle was undone.  Even his undershirt showed signs of displacement.

   “Corporal Mars,” began Sacks, trying his best to sound like he’d just woken up, “I’m relieved to see you alive and in good health.  I feel more secure knowing you’ll be on board.”

   “I am…” Mars paused, trying to find the best words, “very pleased to be here, sir.”

   “Thank you for your assistance this morning, Lt.” Sacks said, looking Manetti in the eyes, “you’ve made me proud.”

   Sacks then quickly pulled on his off-duty clothes, brushed his hair, and grabbed his bag of toiletries.  He looked around at the racks in the room, and seeing that they were empty, he made leisurely for the door.  As he moved, he subtly reached into his bag and pulled something out, then pretended to give Manetti a high-five as he passed them just next to the door.

   “Carry on,” he said as the door closed behind him.  Manetti opened her palm to see a condom in its wrapper.

   “The man certainly watches out for you,” noted Mars with the merest hint of jealousy in his voice.

   “He watches out for all of us,” corrected Manetti with a smile, “Sometimes I even think that he’s the de facto squadron co-commander.  Now, less talk, more fun!”  Manetti, roughly pulled Mars’ jacket off him, and unzipped his pants, then backed him onto a large table in the center of the room.  After pulling pants down to his ankles, she got back up, grabbed the underside of her tank top and pulled it off over her head.  At that moment, Mars had to admit, he really was pleased to be there.

October 10th, 2367 – 10:17 Hours, TGT

   Sacks had taken his time getting cleaned up and returning to the pilot’s barrack’s room.  He knocked on the door in a specific knock, one long, four quick, two long.  The door slid open and Mallory stuck his head out, looking puzzled.

   “What was that for, sir?” he asked.

   “Forget it,” replied Sacks, as he entered the room.  Several of his old fellow Gamma wing pilots were already setting up their bunks.  Those pilots from Omega, Mu, and Delta wings, had all been sent to sleep after the earlier mission, the pilots had been spread out through the ship’s pilot’s barracks, to take advantage of the extra space before more pilots arrived.  As more were expected soon, they were being grouped together again.  In fact, the room could hold as many as twelve pilots in the racks… three times that if they hot-racked.  There were already four more pilots in the room that Sacks didn’t recognize, but then he saw the squadron insignia on their duffle bags… the 129th Mustangs… his old squadron.  “Of COURSE,” he thought, “They were reassigned to the Phoenicia after the Delacroix was lost to the Ravana.  Talk about your bad luck streak.”

   Sacks hadn’t met these pilots, but based on the glances they were giving him, they knew who he was, and probably learned from those pilots he did know from the 129th.  Based on their familiarity with his own pilots though, Sacks guessed that they were the pilots who fleshed out Delta and Theta wings.  Sacks kept his usual, relaxed attitude and paid no notice of the new pilots, while he went to his rack, switched into his uniform, and left again.

   Sacks walked over to one of the more popular observation portholes of the Orion class design, and found that Tanner, Habu, Ka-Rek, and Manetti, were already there, gazing out into the dark mist.

   “Good morning Lt. Sacks,” announced Habu, “I trust your rejuvenation period was effective?”

   “I might have slept longer,” he conceded, giving Manetti an ironic glance.  In turn, Manetti, blushed just slightly, and Tanner rolled her eyes.  The two Vasudans appeared to have completely missed the covert signals. “But I had a dream, and it woke me up,” he finished with a partial truth.  At the mention of a dream, Tanner raised an eyebrow.

   “My people believe that our nocturnal minds interface with a higher spatial plane, which is occupied by the lower thoughts of the Gods,” explained Ka-Rek, “our visions are a result of our mind’s attempts to interpret those thoughts of the Gods that our minds encounter.” He then gave what could pass for a chuckle and added, “However the Terran explanation that they are a result of the subconscious mind interpreting our desires and concerns through imagery captured from our conscious lives, seems far more plausible.”

   “The Lieutenant’s dreams have been prophetic lately,” commented Tanner, giving Sacks a discerning glare.

   “How so?” asked Habu.

   “I knew that Corporal Mars would be joining us on this mission,” Sacks summed, and Manetti gave him a slightly shocked look, then he added, “Even before we knew he had survived the Hood’s destruction.”

   “Is there anything more you can share with us at this time?” asked Habu, with interest.

   “Nothing new,” he admitted, “but my first dream occurred before the Hood’s destruction, and it pretty much summed up the voluntary risk beyond Phase 2.”  Habu was about to make a further inquiry, when Ka-Rek pointed out the porthole.  A cluster of blue glows appeared off the destroyer’s flank, and several freighters, emerged, with a few corvettes and fighter escort.

   “Attention, all personnel,” began a page, “would the following pilots please report to quarterdeck for mission briefing.  Pilots Habu, Tanner, Sacks, Ka-Rek, Manetti, Hik-Soh, and Parker.  Again, please report to quarterdeck.”

   “Duty calls,” Sacks commented, then headed off towards quarterdeck.  Manetti remained a moment, staring into the infinitely shifting darkness, her mind deep in thought.  “He KNEW Lewis would be here… because of a DREAM?” she thought, “That’s gotta be bull****!  He’s in the loop somehow, and hasn’t told us.”  Manetti then made off swiftly for quarterdeck, making a mental note to speak to Major Kaplan in private as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

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

   “Thank you all for coming so soon,” began Snipes, “Our second shipment of personnel, supplies, and warships has just arrived from Gamma Draconis.  To sum it up, we have three Tritons, two Deimos, a Mentu, a Vasudan Gas Miner, and the rest of Lambda wing Argos.  We’ve also got three more Terran and three more Vasudan fighter wings at our disposal.  These wings give us a bomber force and flesh out our heavy assault capabilities.

   “Today’s gonna be quite busy, so I’ll get down to your first mission.  The Maras you flew this morning are having their BSCD modified to add the ability to camouflage the weapons systems, so they won’t be available for this mission.  Instead, you’ll all be flying stealths.  Beta wing will consist of Tanner, Manetti, Sacks, and Parker.  Mu wing will consist of Habu, Ka-Rek and Hik-Soh.”

   “You will jump to these co-ordinates,” began sacks, motioning to the display screen, which showed absolutely nothing besides icons indicating the two fighter wings, “Now our information isn’t exact on this, but a small convoy of Shivan transports and freighters will be passing through this vicinity, within ten minutes of your jumping.  Your first objective is to locate these vessels.  When you do, radio in the Hamako, which will assume the usual task of jamming all transmissions, and watch your back for any more arrivals.  Once that’s done, you will engage these vessels, disable and disarm them.  Destroy any fighters escorting them.  Let nothing escape.  Upon completion, secure the area while our transports dock with them.  They’ll eliminate any Shivans aboard and secure their systems, until they can be towed out of the area.  Once they’ve jumped and we’ve withdrawn the Hamako, return to the Yorktown.

   “Since stealth fighters have limited armament capacities, you’ll have to specialize your weaponry.  Beta, you’ll be responsible for eliminating the fighter escort.  We’d therefore suggest you mount Prometheus-S cannons as your primary.  I’d prefer the Kayser if I were in your shoes, but the Pegasus’ reactor systems can’t handle that kind of power output.  Mu wing will be tasked with disabling and disarming the convoy ships.  We therefore insist that you mount Disruptors.  This will severely limit Mu’s dog-fighting ability, so Beta, keep a close eye on them.  We have however, modified your fighters to mount the Stiletto-II anti-subsystem missiles.  You’ll only be able to mount a maximum of three per fighter though, and we do suggest you carry some form of anti-fighter missile.  You can choose to carry the Tornado, but you’ll only be able to carry enough for two entire volleys in the larger bank.  We therefore recommend that you carry the Harpoon, which is also better for anti-turret work than the Tornado.  Any questions?”

   “How many targets can we expect?” asked Parker.  “Felix Parker, THAT was his name,” recalled Sacks.  He’d been a new recruit with the 129th, when Sacks got the boot.  Parker was only five foot nine, had a somewhat slim build, and a simple part-and-sweep style to his dark brown hair.  His appearance was not very impressive or intimidating, but Sacks knew that he’d been part of the Mustangs’ wrestling team.  The moral was… of course, don’t judge a book by its cover.

   “Our information suggests one Asmodeus, two Mephisto freighters, and three Azrael transports,” replied Snipes, “The freighters are fully loaded with cargo, which we’d prefer to take intact, so chose your targets carefully.”

   “And what of the escort?” asked Ka-Rek.

   “Only two wings of Mara,” informed Snipes, “but there may be a wing of Dragons in there, so stay sharp.”

   “I have a concern,” spoke up Tanner, and Snipes gave her a look that said, “Uh oh, what did I miss?”  “We may not have enough fire power to deal with the escorts, protect the Hamako, and capture the convoy, with just two wings of lightly-armed stealth fighters.  I’d like request assistance from Rho wing.  We can load them with a mix of dogfight and anti-subsystem weapons so they can assist us in any mission capacity.  Once the Hamako is in place, stealth isn’t really necessary.”  As she spoke, all eyes in the room drifter her way, then back to Snipes once she’d finished.

   Snipes curled his lower lip upwards, gave Tanner a discerning stare, and then bowed his head slightly.  “You make a good case, Commander,” he conceded, “Very well, I’ll see what I can do.  Now, we are on a limited timeframe, so unless there’s anything pressing, report to the launch bay and stand by.  Oh, and by the way, Beta wing will have situational command of this mission.  Dismissed!”

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

   Sacks had never flown in a Pegasus before.  Compared to the Perseus or even the Mara he’d flown that morning, the stealth seemed cramped and minimalist.  The number of controls were far fewer than he was used to, and the layout was a bit unfamiliar, but Sacks knew that he’d get the hang of it by the time he really needed them.

   The razor-thin triangular shape of Sacks’ stealth fighter cruised gracefully out of the Yorktown’s fighterbay, with Manetti’s fighter just a ship length ahead, and Parker just behind.  Mu wing had already launched and had formed up some distance away.  He was surprised at how delicate the controls were.  A merest breath of a stick nudge left or right, and his fighter would dip a wing perceptibly.  Sacks unfortunately also knew that this agility combined with its legendary speed, meant that the fighter was weakly armored, with limited shields.  “I’ll be using that afterburner quite often,” he surmised.

   Sacks had chosen an armament, which matched the mission profile that Snipes had advised.  A pair of Prometheus-S cannons as his primary weapons, backed up by eight Harpoons for dog-fighting, and one Stiletto-II to use on a turret or engine subsystem.  The rest of his wing had chosen additional Harpoons over disruption weapons, instead banking on the thought that Rho wing would be backing them up.  Sacks didn’t want to be without options if the need arose.  Had his fighter been able to mount a second primary weapons bank, he’d’ve loaded Disruptor cannons as well.
   “Beta, form up with Mu wing,” ordered Tanner, glad to be back in a position of authority again.  She hadn’t been second to any pilot in a combat situation since before her days in the 77th, and even then she’d always been a wing leader.

   Having someone else in a cockpit who was telling her what to do… reminded her too much of her condescending squadron commander from back in the 103rd Flaming Skulls, aboard the GTD Forrestal.  Cmdr. Lori Dallas been assigned as that Squadron’s commander just before Tanner’s marital meltdown and subsequent alcoholism.  This had been before Tanner learned to control her vice, and upon learning of it, Dallas used it to make Tanner’s life a living hell.  She’d made sure that Tanner got all the worst assignments possible, and found fault with her every move.  Tanner had to endure it, or face exposure as an unfit pilot, or worse.

   All that ended, the day that Dallas chose to berate her in front of the entire squadron for raising an entirely legitimate question during a briefing.  Dallas made the mistake of laying a hand on Tanner… not as a strike, nor even an inappropriate touch, but as one angry mother might give a small, misbehaving child… she cupped Tanner’s mouth between her thumb and forefinger.  In response, Tanner laid her out flat.  Dallas didn’t come to for nearly an hour.  Testimony from the other pilots confirmed that she’d been riding Tanner much harder than she deserved… even harder than those who knew of her problem would deem warranted.  Unfortunately, Tanner, then a Lt. Commander, had struck a superior officer in the presence of witnesses.  Whether Dallas had deserved it or not, it still required disciplinary action.  The ship’s Admiral had understood the nature of the incident (though was not aware of Tanner’s alcoholism) and chose non-judicial punishment, which included transfer to the Hood.  Within a month, she’d won Rear Admiral Troy’s respect, had been promoted to Commander and given the 77th as her own squadron… which was lacking a good leader.  Cmdr. Dallas, Tanner’s former commander, had fared worse however, and was rotated out of flight status and given a desk job.  Tanner never regretted her decision… but she learned quite quickly how to control and compartmentalize her alcoholism… though never giving it up.  She considered it her own character-builder.

   Being given a wing position under a pilot of equal rank had been unsettling, but Habu’s attitude lacked any hint of malice.  He gave instructions when necessary, but he left out what one might have instructed a lesser-experienced pilot, and in doing so gave credit without needing to say anything.  As a result, Tanner’s experience in that situation was far less discomforting than she’d expected.  That said, she was glad to be the one in command again.

   “We’re in position and ready to jump, Yorktown,” reported Tanner.

   “Very well,” replied Snipes over the Comm. “execute jump.  Report in when you’ve made contact.”

   The subspace jump indicator flashed on the instrument panel, indicating that Sacks was cleared to jump out at his discretion.  Sacks punched the button and the familiar blue glow formed ahead of his fighter.  The Pegasus entered glow, and after another few seconds it emerged back into the nebula, with Sacks’ fellow pilots alongside him.

   “OK,” began Tanner, “our information on the location of the enemy convoy is sketchy, so we’ll need to cover a lot of ground, as quickly as possible, without drawing undue attention.  Beta and Mu wings, we’ll use search formation Theta.  Beta wing we’ll take sectors one through fifteen.  Mu wing, sixteen through twenty-five.  We’ll reallocate after that point.  Maintain radio silence until our search is done or we make contact.  Keep your locator beacons on point-to-point so we can keep track of each other.  Engage stealth mode, now!”

   With that, the fighters disappeared from each other’s radar, though still represented by an active, focused data stream that linked them all.  They all spread out until they were out of visual with each other, keeping just close enough so that anything attempting to pass between them would be seen, or otherwise detected.

   Time passed, and all twenty-five sectors had been scanned without contacts.  They then continued scanning sectors twenty-six through fifty… but still no contacts.  On the third scan run though, Sacks thought he saw a disturbance in the nebula some distance directly upwards and aft from his cockpit, and Sacks broke formation.

   “Possible contact,” he reported succinctly, “moving to investigate.”  Deploying all power to his engines, Sacks closed the distance without using afterburners, which would have given away his position from the energy flare.  Soon after, scrambled contacts began showing up on his radar, and Sacks reported.  “Contacts confirmed.  Stand by for target identification.”  Ten seconds later, his radar had settled, and confirmed the presence of all expected targets… unfortunately, also including the wing of Dragons.  The Shivans were passing through their search area at an oblique angle to the scanning patterns.  Had Sacks not investigated, they’d have passed right through without being detected.  Sacks reported his discovery.

   “Copy that,” replied Tanner, “All pilots, close formation.  We’ll take a wide arc and come up on their sixes.  Beta wing will obtain missile lock on the Dragons first.  We’ll try to take them out before the rest.  Mu wing, are any of your pilots mounting anti-fighter missiles?”

   “Affirmative Beta 1,” Habu responded, “but we are only carrying the minimal capacity.”

   “It’ll have to do,” Tanner conceded, “when you open fire, let off a volley at each Mara, then break for the transports, but see if you can score some Disruptor hits on the fighters’ engines if their aft shield vectors are down.  Maybe you can slow them down some.”

   “We’re nearly in position, Beta 1,” broke in Sacks, which was really a very subtle way to say “time to call in the Hamako,” but Sacks knew enough not to try to tell Tanner what to do on her own turf.

   “Hamako, this is Beta wing,” she called, “we’re ready to begin our attack run.  I’m relaying your arrival co-ordinates and vector.  Begin jamming and if you would… sensor range boosting as soon as you complete your jump.”

   Soon after there was blip on Sacks’ radar that signaled its arrival, followed by Tanner over the Comm. “Engage your targets!”  Sacks had already target locked his dragon, and snapped-off two twin-volleys of Harpoons, then punched his burners and raced in pursuit.  The first volley struck the Dragon’s aft shields, right where Sacks had intended, but the nimble and diminutive target pulled a tight snap-roll and the second pair of missiles fared poorer.  One grazed the shields, while the other slipped through gap and delivered a glancing blow to the hull.  The dragon spun off-balance for a moment, then regained its posture and made to attack.  Fortunately, Sacks had followed his own missiles closely, using the enhanced afterburner speed of the Pegasus to close the distance rapidly.  Before the dragon could a make a run for it, several volleys of Prometheus-S cannon bolts leapt off the Pegasus’ winglets and took the dragon in its tail section.  The impact spun the dragon end-for-end, while Sacks continued raining shots on it.  Two seconds later, the Dragon blasted to pieces, and Sacks looked for a second target.

   Up ahead, he spied the three Ptah fighters from Mu wing, closing on the three Shivan Azrael class transports, designated Libra wing.  Unfortunately, as they disappeared into the mists, Sacks also made out a pair of Mara swooping down from above.

   “Mu wing,” called Sacks, “you’ve got bandits, six o’clock high! Take evasive action!”

   “The Shivans are no threat, Beta wing,” came the voice of Rho wing leader.  The two Mara then took radical course changes as a pair of Tornado double-volleys weaved out of the darkness, achieving a one hundred percent successful hit rate.  Both Mara were shredded immediately.  A pair of Tauret fighters then emerged from the nebula and turned to assume close escort of Mu wing.

   It was then that a Mara crossed Sacks’ path, with a Pegasus in close pursuit, and another Mara behind.  Sacks wasn’t sure which of Beta wing that was, but he reacted without a second thought, and joined the fighter train.  He only had two pair of Harpoons left, and his one Stiletto, but he closed in on his target and opened up with Prometheus fire.  Ahead, the lead Mara had just fallen to a volley of missiles, but the Pegasus pilot had realized that he was under fire from behind, and was attempting to evade.

   “I got one on my tail!” came the voice of Parker, not yet frantic.

   “I’m on it,” replied Sacks, “Just keep him busy while I line up my shots.”  The Mara attempted to evade Sacks’ assault, but it refused to break contact with Parker.  A few more aimed shots and the Mara’s rear shield vector collapsed, but rather than go for the kill, Sacks had a better idea.  He continued to keep the Mara’s shields down with timed shots, then when the timing was right, he targeted its engine subsystem, switched to his only Stiletto, stomped on the afterburners, and fired.  He literally shot the missile right up its ass.  There was a brief shockwave that knocked the Pegasus from its large ventral surface area, and there was a momentary blue electrical glow.  Sacks came about to see the Mara, drifting powerless in space.  Sensors confirmed that he’d completely disabled it, and knocked out other systems in the process.

   “Leave that one be,” he ordered Parker, “Beta leader, I may have a bonus prize for us.  I’ve got a disabled Mara here.  If the Yorktown can scramble an extra transport or support ship, I might have another Shivan fighter for us.”

   “Roger, Beta 3” replied Tanner, “I’ll contact Snipes and get clearance.  We’ve got the situation under control and the freighters are being disabled as we speak.  All other enemy fighters are down.  Hold your position for now.”

   Some twenty seconds passed until Snipes himself spoke over the Comm. “Yorktown to Beta wing, we can only manage an Isis class transport.  The docking ring isn’t designed to interface with fighters, let alone a Shivan one, but its crew is making some modifications as we speak, and our experience with the Mara should give us a starting point.  It’ll be at your position in two minutes.  In the meantime, Mu and Rho wings have secured the freighters and transports, so we can begin the primary recovery Op.”

   Due to size limitations, the Isis and Elysium class transports were the only craft capable of performing such a recovery.  An Argo would’ve dwarfed even larger Asmodeus class.  However, once docked, the engines of an Elysium were just barely powerful enough to lug the Shivan freighter into subspace to a rendezvous with the Yorktown.  The diminutive Mephistos required a very delicate approach by Isis class transports, to a point on the nose between the forward turrets.  Nowhere else on the ship could fit an approach.  The only smaller craft available would have been an escape pod, but its engines would clearly have not been up to the task of freighter towing.  Even with an Isis class, towing a Mephisto was awkward and looked downright ungainly.  The Isis could have sufficed for the Azrael class transports as well, but availability of the Elysium and its better towing ability, made it the ship of choice for that mission.

   “Beta wing,” Snipes broke in, “Sigma three will be at your position in the next thirty seconds to recover the Mara.  In the meantime, we need to prepare you for another mission.  A support ship is being deployed to rearm you.  Any of you armed with Stilettos or other non-anti-fighter missiles we get those weapons swapped out for Tornadoes.  Unfortunately, we can’t swap out Mu wing’s Disruptor cannons, so they will be unable to assist you.”  Outside, Sacks saw the familiar blue glow of a subspace vortex opening, and the Hygeia support ship it released headed for Tanner’s fighter.

   “What’s the job?” asked Sacks, keeping the superfluous talk to a minimum.

   “Escort,” Snipes replied just as succinctly, “Our third and final convoy is arriving from Gamma Draconis.  Our Maras still haven’t finished their refits and we need to scout the nearside of the node before they can jump in.”

   “Understood, Yorktown,” replied Tanner, as Sigma three jumped in near the Mara, “We’ll be ready to jump as soon as we’re done here.  I assume the Hamako will follow us?”

   “Affirmative, Beta 1,” confirmed Snipes, “you’ll jump ahead then call her in once the area is confirmed clear.  Once you jump the Hamako will be without escort and vulnerable, so make it quick.”

   “Iota 1 here,” called an Elysium class transport, “we’ve secured the Asmodeus.  All on-board hostiles have been eliminated, and we’ve disconnected their comm. system.  We’re powering up for jump now.”  In the distance, a subspace entry vortex opened, and in its shine Sacks made out the silhouette of the freighter with its smaller transport docked under the nose.  It took extra energy for the transport to open a larger vortex than it was designed to, and a longer time for the straining engines to lug the freighter into subspace.

   “Sigma 1 here,” signaled a Vasudan officer, “Mephisto one has been secured.  We are jumping out presently.”

   “Sigma 2, ready to depart.”

   Within thirty seconds, the remaining three Elysium transports of Iota wing had prepared the Azrael transports for jump, and departed.  It wasn’t long after that, Sigma three reported that they’d secured the dockpoint with the Mara and were prepared to depart as well.

   “That’s the last of ‘em,” summed Snipes, a little redundantly, “Mu wing, you are relieved.  Hamako, stand by.  Beta wing, the convoy will be entering the nebula within five minutes.  Jump to the node and secure the area.”

   “Confirmed, Yorktown” replied Tanner, “Jumping now.”

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

   At first, Sacks thought that the jump co-ordinates they’d been given were false, as the nebular environment was quite different than when they’d been at the node the last time.  The gas cloud was denser and there were electric and EM discharges flashing about, causing some disruption to Sacks’ instruments.  His initial concerns were laid to rest, when his HUD confirmed the location of the jumpnode.

   “Beta wing,” began Tanner, “fan out.  We’ll make a quick pass through the node and scan for hostiles.  Keep engines at full power but don’t even tap your afterburners.”

   Again, Beta wing took up their diamond-shaped search formation, and ploughed through the dense gas.  It took about a minute and ten seconds before Tanner was satisfied that they were alone.

   “I’m still reading ion trails from multiple Shivan craft that are about fifteen minutes old,” reported Manetti, after reviewing their collected scan data, “and by the size of them there’s been nothing bigger than a Moloch class corvette coming through.  The Shivans may have reached their peak of activity.”

   “It begs the question of what they’re doing with all that firepower back in Capella,” Parker wondered aloud, then cautiously added, “or beyond.”

   No one replied to that cold thought, but the tension was broken with the arrival of the Hamako.

   “Yorktown, this is the Hamako,” reported the AWACS, “we’ve completed our jump. Our jamming is active and enhanced sensor range is coming online now.  Beta wing, we’ve got possible contacts at the fringe of our range.  It could be just EM interference from this storm, but on the other hand…”

   “Copy that, Hamako,” replied Tanner, “Betas three and four, investigate the contact.  Keep in mind that the convoy will be arriving in just over three minutes.  Don’t be long.”

   “Roger that,” confirmed Sacks, and angled his fighter away from the formation with Parker in tow, cruising off towards the unknown.  After about a minute, the pair was approaching the edge of the AWACS sensor boost, but the contacts still hadn’t solidified.  Sacks’ fighter was then abruptly rocked by an EM discharge and for a moment his entire cockpit went dark.  During that brief moment of visual clarity, Sacks made out the side profile in the storm, of a Cain class cruiser.  When his instruments came back online, Sacks checked with Parker, “did you see it?”

   “See what, sir,” replied the Lieutenant, his facial expression indicating that he thought Sacks might be slowly losing his marbles, “you were out of contact for a moment there.”

   “Stay on my wing,” Sacks retorted softly, then turned his fighter to take a wide arc, coming up on the cruiser’s tail.  At about a kilometer distance, his radar was finally able to filter out the interference from the nebula, and it was then that his sensors confirmed what his eyes had just a mere moment before… this was no Cain, it was a Lilith.  Then, there were more.

   “I count two Cains, a Lilith, and a Rakshasa,” reported Parker, “no fighter escort though.  They’re just sitting there.  They’re not making for the node at all.”

   “Continue to shadow them,” ordered Tanner, “the Convoy is about to enter the nebula.  If they make a move to engage, you can let us know as soon as they do.”

   After a few seconds, Sacks’ relayed radar showed a jump signature from within the node, as the Hampton Roads exited subspace.

   “Welcome to the Nebula, Hampton Roads,” signaled the Hamako, then jokingly added, “to your left you get a wonderful view of a dense charged gas cloud.  To your right, you have a view of another lovely gas cloud, which also conceals a group of Shivan cruisers outside sensor range.”

   “Funny,” replied Grant, suppressing a chuckle, “and I suppose that there’s a Sathanas behind us.”

   “Could be,” continued the Hamako, “but I was serious about the cruisers.  We’ve got a pair of stealth fighters shadowing them right now.  Beta 3, any change in their behavior?”

   “Nothing so far,” reported Sacks, then he hit on an idea… a few of them, in fact, “Beta 1, it might be a good idea if we split our formation to points at the edge of the Hamako’s sensor range, just in case we’re missing something.  The Convoy’s fighter escort should be nearly through and they can give her cover if the Shivans jump in that close.  If you approve, I’ll also get scans of these cruisers.”

   “Approved on both counts, Lt.” replied Tanner, “We’ll deploy in standard tetrahedral fashion, aiming off Beta 3’s position.”

   “What use is there in scanning the cruisers?” asked Parker, as he pulled his fighter away towards his assigned position.

   “It’ll give us an engine signature to identify these cruisers from any others,” replied Tanner.

   “If we ever encounter them again, then it becomes a strong possibility that they’re actually shadowing our ships,” explained Manetti.

   “And we’ll know that they’re onto us and can tighten up our combat security measures,” finished Sacks, as he took point on the belly of the lead Shivan cruiser, the SC Hela, and began his scan.  Another set of jump vortices appeared on Sacks’ radar, also from within the node.  It signaled the arrival of three Satis class freighters and cargo, as well as three more Terran and two more Vasudan fighter and bomber wings.  Sacks finished his scan and moved on to the Rakshasa class SC Orcus.

   “Beta 2 here,” began Manetti, “I’m in position, nothing to report.”

   “Beta 1 in position,” reported Tanner, as Sacks began his scan, “I have no new contacts, hostile or otherwise.”

   “Beta 4 reporting, I’m at the designated co-ordinates.  Nothing new yet, but we still have some gaps in our detection sheath.”

   “Phi wing here,” signaled a Vasudan pilot, “my wing is flying Ptah class stealth fighters and will assist.  Pilots, deploy in tetrahedral formation, inverted to Beta wing.”

   “That would be greatly appreciated, Phi wing,” replied Tanner.  By this point, Sacks had completed scanning the Orcus and had moved on to a Cain class, the SC Baal and begun his scan.

   “This is the Har-Wer,” called the Vasudan pilot of the freighter, “we and our sister freighters are now ready to jump to the Yorktown.”

   “We’ll be along as soon as the Pershing comes through and jumps,” replied Grant.

   Almost as soon as the freighters entered their jump vortices, another cluster opened within the node.  The GTC Pershing emerged with another pair of Vasudan and a pair of Terran fighter and bomber wings alongside.  Sacks completed his scan of the Baal and moved on to the last cruiser, the SC Demogorgon, another Cain.

   “This is Phi 3,” called the Vasudan pilot, “my radar is detecting possible hostile indicators.”

   “Beta 2 here,” added Manetti, “I’ve got it too.  By the size and speed, I’d say freighters or transports, but I can’t get any range details yet.”

   “Whatever they are, we’ll be gone by the time they get here,” declared Grant.

   "Which will be any time now,” added the Pershing’s Captain, “our subspace drive has cooled off, and our field coils have reenergized.  Co-ordinates set for jump.  Departing now.”

   “That’s our cue as well,” concluded Grant, “Hampton Roads, jumping out.”

   “All convoy fighters and bombers, that aren’t currently maintaining our sensor perimeter, may jump to the Yorktown,” declared the Hamako.

   “I’ve acquired scans of all Shivan cruisers,” reported Sacks, “They still haven’t tried to make a move.”

   “Beta 4 to Beta 1,” broke in Parker, “should we try to do a capture on those freighters?”

   “Negative, Beta 4,” replied Tanner, “our fighters aren’t equipped to disable any targets, and we don’t have any transports ready to board and extract them.  There’s also those cruisers out there… a little too close for comfort.”

   “That could in fact be the reason that those cruisers are there,” surmised Sacks, “They’ve noticed that we’ve been snatching some of their supplies and craft.  If they suddenly lose contact with this group, then they can counter-attack almost immediately.”

   “And they chose the node because it’s the only real landmark in the system that we might chose to make a run by, and could possibly encounter and try to take the bait,” finished Parker, the light in his head illuminating suddenly.

   “Yorktown to Hamako,” called Snipes, “Your mission is complete.  Jump out before those freighters get too close.  Beta and Phi wings, follow after five seconds.”

   “Copy that Yorktown,” replied the Hamako, “we’re on our way.”  Sacks was already putting some distance between him and the cruisers, when the AWACS warped out, and his enhanced sensors dropped out.

   “All fighters, jump now!” ordered Tanner, who retained situational command over Phi wing.

   “Its’ gonna be a tight fit back at the Yorktown,” commented Manetti, thinking of the nine wings and pilots that just arrived.

   Sacks was thinking about if his rack was getting moved again, when the blue mist engulfed his fighter.

October 10th, 2367 – 11:00 Hours, TGT

   The pilots of Beta and Mu wing sat in debriefing, as Snipes delivered the roundup of their missions.  The Shivan freighters and transports had been snapped up without a fuss.  The Mara they’d captured was undergoing its refit and would be ready soon.  Sacks was even presented with a distinguished flying cross for managing to hit a fighter with a Stiletto… and to a lesser extent for the idea of capturing it.

   “This afternoon, we will be conducting another cargo raid,” Snipes continued, “but we’ve got the new arrivals handling that.  You may also wish to know that the Phoenicia successfully made it to the Capella jump node.  Unfortunately, communications with Command have been spotty as before, and we haven’t received confirmation that it arrived successfully.  We have heard however, that Shivan forces entering Capella have slowed, and that it’s mostly supply ships now.  Furthermore, the Sathanas fleet, which now numbers some eighty juggernauts, has not engaged our forces, but have instead formed a ring formation around the Capellean sun at a distance of about point three AU.  There’s no data on what they’re actually doing there, and you can expect our communications from this point to be even more impeded.

   “Our next set of missions won’t be until mid-afternoon, so get something to eat.  Lt. Sacks, I’ll be needing you for a mission with me at fourteen hundred.  Report to Quarterdeck at that time.  Dismissed!”

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

   As Sacks entered the mess hall seating area, tray in hand, he made out a table some distance along the right side, where his Gamma wing mates had almost always set together back on the Hood.  Yuka and Mallory were already there, on one side, while Sharpov and Rashid were on the other.  Sacks caught sight of Manetti at the far end of the hall grabbing a drink, then she turned and headed back to the table.  Sacks had already made his way towards the table, to take his usual seat, and was passing by several other crew members, and could hear bits of conversations.  Three major topics were making the rounds: what was going on back in Capella, what was the point of this operation, and the hottest topic, would anyone volunteer to stay beyond Phase 2.

   Sacks reached the table and moved to sit down.  Manetti was nearly there as well, but when she saw Sacks she slowed to a near stop, gave him a discerning stare, then resumed her pace and joined the rest of her old wing.

   “Hey there, sir,” began Mallory, “congratulations on your commendation.”

   “Yeah,” added Sharpov, “ramming a Stiletto into a Mara at point-blank range… talk about stickin’ it to the enemy.”

   “Thanks,” replied Sacks simply, as he picked up his fork and began to rummage through his food.  Of course, all food in the GTVA military was synthesized.  Only a few facilities near habitable planets could get fresh food with any frequency.  Everyone else had to be satisfied with recycled bio-matter, which is a less gross way of saying ‘what you eat today, you ate a few days ago, and a few days before that and so on.’  The ship’s synthesizers could change its consistency, add some degree of flavor and nutrients, color and even shape it.  The result was something that, if you squinted hard and didn’t try to taste it for too long, could almost pass for a good facsimile of the real thing.  It was an essential part of keeping a ship in the field with minimal re-supplying needed.  The meal before Sacks was simulated mashed potatoes, beans, and meatloaf.

   “Young Boris here was just saying that he thinks that Command’s plan is to cut the Shivans off by somehow resealing the jumpnode to Gamma Draconis,” Yuka said, introducing Sacks into the existing conversation.

   “I think that we’re somehow building a large explosive device that is gonna collapse the jumpnode, but because the far side had a Knossos portal installed at that end, we can only blow if from this end,” Sharpov theorized.

   “But Snipes said that the Shivans wouldn’t know we’d be there,” argued Rashid, “I can see us perhaps using captured Shivan fighters, but that wouldn’t keep the Yorktown hidden forever.”

   “Besides,” added Sacks, “if Command was gonna blow a jumpnode to cut off the Shivans, they’d blow the ones leading to Vega and Epsilon Pegasi.  Blowing the node on this side might have been an option earlier on, but now it would just keep the Shivans from returning home.”

   “Assuming that we can seal a jumpnode,” continued Manetti, skeptically, “sure, we know that it is possible… the Lucifer’s destruction proved it, but that thing blew with a hell of a lot of power.  I don’t think that the GTVA’s got anything in its arsenal that can create an explosion of that magnitude.”

   “There’s the MESON bomb,” suggested Mallory.

   “Umm, taking out a Knossos is a far cry from collapsing a jumpnode,” countered Sacks, “It’d prob’ly take a whole destroyer full of ‘em to do the job.  Sorry Boris, but I think we’ve shot down your theory.”

   “Speaking of our mission,” segued Rashid, “have any of you given any thought to whether you’re staying past Phase 2 at all?” She then subtly gave Sharpov a hopeful look.

   “With eighty Saths in Capella,” began Mallory, “it sounds like the GTVA is about to get a major thrashing, and I don’t want to be anywhere near that.  Count me in.”

   “Snipes was right,” said Yuka, “I’ve got no-one left back home.  I’m in too.”  Rick Yuka didn’t talk about it much, but he’d lost his entire family in Regulus.  They’d been executed as collaborators by a pro-NTF mob early in the rebellion, all because his father had been a business partner with a Vasudan.  After that, he’d shut down and became rather anti-social.  His former squadron commander had recommended him for counseling, but it hadn’t helped.  Yuka managed to alienate his entire squadron and even blew up at the X.O. when she’d tried to give him a pep talk.  He ended up in the 77th soon afterwards.  Fortunately, in the 77th, there were many others who were in the same boat, so being an anti-social among other anti-socials, helped him to belong.  The 77th, his Gamma wing mates in particular, had become Rick’s new family.  He’d been close friends with Sharpov’s predecessor, a Lieutenant Junior Grade named Levinson.  He had also lost family to the NTF, but he ended up pushing Tanner too far and was court-martialed for it.  Following that, Yuka refrained from getting close to anyone else.  He still chummed with the rest of Gamma wing, even accepting Sharpov as Gamma 6 in place of Levinson, but he kept everyone at a little less than arm’s length.

   “What about you, sir,” asked Manetti, looking at Sacks, “have you made your decision?”

   All eyes at the table turned to him, as if everyone… even those who’d already made their intentions known, were waiting for his decision before making their own.  It briefly sent Sacks back to his dream.  Everyone was waiting for him and would follow his lead.

   Sacks continued to chew his food, and raised his head and stared at the far wall, as if looking for answers.  In reality, he’d made his choice before he’d even learned of their mission aboard the Aquitaine, but he didn’t want his team to lock themselves into a decision to volunteer too early, simply because he had.

   “I’m not making any decisions yet,” he replied, “I want to get a better idea of what’s gonna be in store for us beyond Phase 2.”

   “Well, we can have this conversation again after your next rack time,” added Manetti, with a touch of irony in her voice.  Sacks rolled his eyes slightly and continued eating.  The topic moved on to rumors of battles within Capella and Command’s plan to stop the Shivans.  Sacks didn’t join in.  Once he was done eating, he finished his vitamin juice and got up without a word and headed off to prepare for his mission.

Link to Chapter 5
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The Trivial Psychic Strikes Again!