Copyright Notice: The characters and events in the following story are the sole property of the author and may not be used or archived without permission.



© 2003 Darrin A. Colbourne

"Looks like they're not kidding this time." VADM Mitchell said. He, BGEN Carver and LTGN Maxwell were watching the plots of several ships sortieing from Slither-occupied systems. The vessels had to be the enemy's massive assault ships, and their mission could only be to push the US Navy out of Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Stations. Things were tense aboard Revolution as the icons of nearly forty ships burned through space toward their goal.

"There's about six distinct task groups." Maxwell said.

"Not task groups as we know the term." Carver said. "From what we know of their deepspace combat doctrine, they don't use screening ships or specialized cloak ships...which makes sense, since all of their ships can cloak."

"Right." Mitchell said. "What we'll be facing is a good, ol' fashioned line of battle. They'll try to cut through our fleets like a scythe, then retake the worlds we just took from them."

Maxwell regarded the screen again. "They're not a line yet." She observed.

"This is just the all-hands drill." Mitchell said. "Everybody is making best speed to a staging area near the contested systems." He used the controls to zoom in on a particular section of the star-chart, then put his finger on a bright, thin nebula. "Here. Their projected orbits all end in this nebula. Our scanning systems would have a hard time tracking even an uncloaked ship in there. They gather here, form up, cloak, and they'll be within a few days striking distance of any one of the three systems."

"They're not likely to split up again once they've joined." Carver said. "They can slam each world in turn if we decide to hunker down, or force us to draw several ships out of position if we decide to meet the assault head on."

"Fortunately, our battle group reinforcements have started to arrive." Mitchell said. "Still, we will have to meet them. They've forced me to play a hand I was holding until we were more secure." He started touching more contacts on the control panel as he continued. "Basically, they stole my idea. Now my intent to render the Slither Naval presence ineffective will have to start with the battle fleet making it's way here."

The view shifted to the icons of several US Navy ships pulling out of the various stations and forming up with some of the new arrivals from home. Mitchell swept a hand across the scene. "Task Group Zulu." He said. "Enough ships to do the job, and I've got just the right man to command it."

Vice Admiral Randall Teague had a determined look on his dark, pug-dog face as he strode through the corridors of the USS Invincible. It was a mask that reflected his eagerness to get into the fray. A battle-hardened veteran and former space aviator, still fit and strong in his fifties, he'd been wanting to make a big contribution to the US campaign since the war began. Now he had his chance, in the form of this latest mission. He considered it a wonderful opportunity to excel.

He certainly had enough tools at his disposal. Including Invincible, the core of Task Group Zulu was a fleet of six aerospace carriers and over six hundred tactical aerospace craft. Backing them up were two battlecruisers, twelve missile cruisers, twenty-eight destroyers and frigates and four cloak ships. Trailing the formation was a support force centered on three massive replenishment ships. Fifty-seven ships in all, it was the largest battlegroup deployed by the US Navy in over twenty years.

Every ship and aerospace craft would be needed. There were forty-two Slither dreadnaughts headed toward US held territory at high speed, each one a mile long and carrying three hundred attack craft. Plus, they had learned a lesson from the ships defeated by Task Groups Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. They were traveling buttoned up and uncloaked, saving their energy for their final push into the enemy's lines. Teague's task was simple on paper: Stop this advance in its tracks. The trick was in the execution.

Planning that execution was what he had in mind when he entered the carrier's Combat Information Center. His staff was waiting for him around the plotting table in the back of the space. "As you were." He called out before the officer of the deck could announce his presence.

He began as soon as he reached the plotting table. "First thing," He said, his Tennessee accent evident, "where is the enemy now?"

Commander Megan McBeth, the intelligence officer, fielded this question, indicating a series of icons being displayed on the table. "Here, Sir, approximately three light-years out from the assumed staging area."

"So we still expect them to head into the nebula?" Teague asked.

"Yes, Sir." McBeth said. "If they continue to hold course and speed, the first ships will enter the nebula in about two standard days."

"That's our deadline, then. Ken, how long would it take to give Space Shadow a new weapons loadout?"

"Four hours, give or take, depending on the loadout." Captain Ken Tanada, the Cloak Warfare officer, said. Space Shadow was one of the cloak ships assigned to Task Group Zulu.

"I'll let you know what loadout soon. Chuck, how experienced are the pilots we've been given?"

"Experienced enough, Sir." Captain Chuck Broll, the Aerospace Warfare officer, said. "The wings that were chopped to us were all deployed against the Slithers in Alpha, Bravo and Charlie Stations."

"Outstanding! All right, let me lay this out for you ladies and gentlemen. We have an awful lot of firepower at hand, but the enemy that's headed for us is more powerful still. What's more, they're angry. We pushed them out of territory they stole fair and square and they've decided that they're gonna push us back, hard! You know what will happen if those ships manage to link up and strike in force. Any task group stationed in these systems will be hard pressed to stop them. The only thing standing in the way of that eventuality is us. We're powerful, but we have to be smart as well to beat these things. What we do in the next few days will determine the course of the campaign." He touched the image of the nebula on the plotting table. "This is the Rubicon, ladies and gentlemen. This is the river we dare not let them cross.

"Now, let's discuss how we're going to stop them from doing it..."

The Slither Fleet Commander hissed in anticipation. He was staring intently at his argon vapor screens as the icons of his and his enemy's fleets moved. The Interlopers had sent an armada to meet him in deep space. He knew from the data transmitted back via disaster beacons from the ships in the fallen systems that though the enemy's ships were small, they were quite capable.

Still, even such capable vessels had to have their limits, and he was sure that the armada that he was assembling would be powerful enough to test and ultimately surpass them. It was time the small, clawless things learned not to meddle in their betters' affairs.

He clicked and hissed orders to his subordinates, and soon the warships closest to the nebula began launching attack craft. Their mission: soften up the Interlopers' ships and whittle down their attack craft numbers.

"Multiple Bogies!" A watchstander in CIC sang out. "Multiple blips separating from leading enemy ships!"

"It's an offensive sweep." Capt. Broll said. "They want us to throw our planes at these attackers and try to knock out enough so that we can't strike back at them effectively."

Teague nodded in agreement. "Still, if Space Shadow does her job right, we'll have more than enough planes to meet them and finish off their motherships. Speaking of which..." He looked over at Tanada.

"We're halfway through the reload now, Sir." Tanada said. The replenishment ship doing the job was actually ahead of schedule. The staff officer had impressed upon her crew the fact that the faster the cloak ship was loaded, the sooner she could get underway on her assigned mission. Having to rush to her destination might compromise her stealthy characteristics.

Meanwhile, Teague had the enemy attackers to deal with. "Launch the plus-fives and plus-fifteens." He said. "And let's get ready for when Shadow's task is complete."

Commander Ronald Lane, Commander, Aerospace Wing 36, was in his Pegasus fighter on the Invincible's Number One catapult when the announcement came to launch the plus-five and plus-fifteen craft. He did a final check of all his controls and internal systems, while his Scanner Intercept Officer, Lieutenant Commander Marcy Sessions, did the same in back. The fighter's electroweak engines were already up and running. When he got the signal from the yellow-jacketed deck officer nearby he gunned them to the max, blanketing the space in a bright rainbow of colors. The officer signaled the catapult operator and hit the deck, and soon the flight deck redshifted and disappeared into a ring of white light as the plane was thrown off the deck at faster-than-light speeds. Lane immediately pulled "up" and to port, ending up in a holding orbit around the task force. Other Pegasus craft from the first launch wave joined him, then others from the next wave. After twenty minutes, a hundred and twenty Pegasus fighters and six Shadow EM craft were orbiting the fleet, waiting for the "go" signal.

That signal came from Lane, who had overall command of the defensive fighter force. "Cobra Lead to squadron leaders," he said into his hyperwave mike, "Execute!"

As one, the fighters and EM craft broke orbit and streaked into space ahead of the formation.

The Slither attack ships picked up the launches of the enemy attack craft on their long-range sensing systems, then immediately lost most of the tracks as the enemy saucers activated their camouflaging systems. Not to be outdone, the Slither pilots activated their own cloaking devices, then increased their speed to get into attack range first.

"They've cloaked!" Lane said into his mike. "Let the Shadows target the enemy formation for your fire control systems!"

The EM craft were already doing just that, searchlighting the Slither ships with powerful FTL tracking beams. Before they cloaked there had been a definite count of over three hundred attackers. The Shadows' scanners managed to uncover about a hundred at a time.

It was good enough for Lane. "Tallyho!" He called. "It's open season on Slithers!"

Each of the Pegasus fighters was carrying six massive Hathor and two Slingshot anti-aerospace missiles in its weapons bay. The "Tallyho" call was the signal for those weapons bays to be opened. As soon as they got solid locks on any enemy ships, the pilots rippled off their Hathors.

"Cobra Lead, Fox Three!" Lane called as he launched his first.

The Slithers launched as well, but they were having less success against the Pegasus craft. They were suffering from a lack of a command and control ship, and it showed when they started taking heavy losses due to Hathor hits. They were also hampered by the fact that two-thirds of their ordnance was meant for the Interlopers' warships and not for the smaller, faster and more agile attack craft.

Still, the Slither attack ships pressed on. The Flight Commander reasoned that they were still scoring some hits on the enemy attackers, and what they lacked in command and control they made up for in sheer numbers.

"Spade Two, Fox Three!"

"Knight Seven, Fox Three!"

"Cobra Four, Fox Two!"

"Splash One Slither!"

"Eagle Six going defensive!"

"King Five is lost! No ejection!

Teague listened to the hyperwave calls with rapt attention as he studied the display of the aerospace battle on the plotting table. The two sides were closing the distance rapidly in space-time. His pilots were taking losses, but none of them turned directly away from the enemy until all their ordnance was expended, and for every Human pilot lost five Slithers went with him. The Hathors, with hypersensitive tracking systems, rarely missed once they locked on to a target, and the Human pilots in those cockpits were mostly veterans of the war's first naval engagements, so they knew how the alien pilots flew. By the time all the Hathors and Slingshots were expended, eighteen Pegasus fighters and one Shadow were lost, but the Slither force had gone from over three hundred ships to forty-seven.

Unfortunately, those forty-seven attackers were breaking speed records trying to get into attack range. Broll was already organizing the task group's anti-aerospace defenses. The missile cruisers and destroyers were already deployed in atom-shell orbits, and they were augmented by a CAP of ten Lances. The Lances were vectored to the attacking ships by the Shadow craft and started scoring their own kills, then the cruisers and destroyers joined the action when the Slithers were in range.

By the time they got through all the Interlopers' missiles only five attack craft made it to anti-ship range. They loosed their missiles and turned away quickly, being chased by more missiles from the CAP. Two more were lost this way, and the others simply poured on the speed and got out of Dodge.

"VAMPIRE! VAMPIRE! Missiles in the void!" This call went out on every ship as twenty anti-ship missiles bore down on the task group. Arrow missiles were launched immediately to counter the force. Three got within point blank range when the shooting was done. These were handled by satellite-borne point defenses.

Teague surreptitiously let out the breath he'd been holding. They'd averted what could have been a disaster for the US Navy, and made it look easy, but they weren't home free yet.

"Recall the defense force!" He ordered. "I want them refueled, rearmed and back in the sky before those lizards get the chance to tell their bosses how badly they screwed up!"

"That's the last one," said Commander Ford McHenry, the XO of the Space Shadow, as he observed the replenishment ship's robot arm inserting the final weapon in the weapons loading hatch on a monitor.

"Finally." Captain Gideon Nozizwe, the cloak ship's CO, said. His voice conveyed his feelings. He was eager to get into the fight, and wasn't thrilled with his command's role in the current operation. He considered it a waste of Shadow's capabilities. She was the first of the most advanced class of cloak ship in the Navy, and her combat record bespoke a ship and crew not afraid to take risks and jump into the enemy's teeth. He considered it a slight to his Zulu warrior heritage to have to accept such a...routine assignment.

However, accept it he did. Arguing would have been useless, and he reasoned that he wouldn't have gotten the assignment if Admiral Teague hadn't thought his ship was right for the job. Now he was just eager to get on with it.

"Prepare to get underway after the loading hatch is closed and the deck is pressurized." He said to McHenry. "It's time we took part in this action."

"They call that crew rest?" Commander Lane groused as he checked his systems again. "Barely enough time to grab a cup of coffee and take a leak!"

"You had time to take a leak?" Sessions groused right back.

"Well, yeah!" Lane said, a smirk forming under his facemask. "I didn't take time to check my hair and makeup!"

"Ha, Ha." Sessions said. "Just for that, first missile locks up on us, I'm ejecting without you."

Lane's laughter was drowned out by the sound of the electroweak jets as his Pegasus jumped into the void.

The Fleet Commander was watching the enemy ships carefully. The attack craft transports were launching their charges again. He was expecting this. It was most likely an attempt to drive some of his ships off course and prevent them from entering the nebula. Their efforts would prove fruitless. He still had thousands of attack craft at his disposal and in this campaign all of them were expendable. He gave the order to launch more of them to intercept the enemy craft.

He was more interested in the positions of the enemy cloaked vessels. His passive systems only had intermittent tracks on them at best. They could still be a threat, and he would have preferred to know exactly where they were. Still, there were only a handful, and none of the Interlopers' other ships could cloak. That made the specialized vessels a marginal threat, one that could easily be handled once the armada formed up in the staging area.

Space Shadow was executing a wide orbit, running parallel to the nebula's ecliptic plane. Along the orbit was a set of preselected waypoints. Nozizwe watched closely as his ship approached the first one. "Prepare to shoot tubes One and Two." He ordered.

"Tubes vented, outer doors open." McHenry said, fulfilling his role as fire control officer. "Solutions, set. Weapons ready in all respects."

Nozizwe continued to mark the ship's position. When it got to the right point he said: "Shoot One and Two."

The cloak ship shuddered as the weapons were launched from the tubes. "Tubes One and Two fired electromagnetically." McHenry said. "Weapons running hot, straight and normal."

Two down, Nozizwe thought. "Reload both tubes and prepare to shoot tubes Three and Four."

"Cobra Lead, Fox Three!" Lane called out, then fired. The Pegasus-Shadow force was having a much rougher time of it than before. The Slithers were getting smart. Two Shadows were lost immediately to the attack ships' first salvo, and this wave of attackers was concentrating solely on the planes headed their way. This was one of those times that Lane hated to be the center of attention. His side was still getting the lion's share of kills, but that share was a lot smaller than before. This missile exchange threatened to become an old-fashioned dogfight, and while he was sure his pilots could handle Aerospace Combat Maneuvering with the best of them, conventional wisdom said that once you were drawn into the furball, you've lost half the battle. Better to dust the bad guys from long range whenever the chance presented itself

As he watched two more fighters take hits, he figured that the Slithers were reading the same playbook.

"The bad guys are scoring a lot more kills than before." Broll observed.

"That's to be expected," Teague said, sounding a great deal more cool than he actually felt. "But we can't let up. We have to keep it up until Space Shadow completes her mission. We'll need to use some Lances in the next wave. Try not to compromise the planned strike package."

"Aye, Sir."

"Shoot tubes Five and Six." Nozizwe said.

"Five and Six fired electromagnetically." McHenry said. "Weapons running hot, straight and normal."

The firing cycle was repetitive, tedious, but it was working. The weapons were ending up right where they were supposed to. Not that the Captain had had any doubts about accomplishing the mission. It was just nice to see things working so smoothly.

For a day and a half, the Interlopers harassed and harangued the fleet, and for a day and a half, the attack ships met them, yet the enemy attackers always failed to push through and strike the motherships themselves. This troubled the Fleet Commander somewhat. Why waste so many pilots and missiles just to destroy what to the Slithers were cannon fodder?

He had little time to worry about it. The first group of his ships entered the nebula. The others would catch up, and the combined force would deal with the enemy's ships and attack craft decisively, before pressing on to retake the outer systems.

"Admiral, the first ships are entering the nebula." McBeth said.

"Very well." Teague said. "Chuck, recall the defense force and launch the strike."

"Yes, Sir." Broll said. He had a lopsided grin on his face.

"Final correction made." McHenry said. "We should rendezvous with the replenishment ship in six standard hours."

"Very well." Nozizwe said. Space Shadow was now traveling at flank speed back to the task group and its attendant replenishment ships. It was unlikely, but the Captain was hoping to get back and get a new weapons loadout in time to help do some damage to the enemy ships.

Then again, if his mission were truly successful, the anticipated strike would be just a mopping up operation anyway.

The Fleet Commander took one more scan of the enemy fleet as he recalled his attack ships. The enemy attack ships had been recalled as well, as if their controllers had grown tired of trying to stop his advance. That was probably not the case, but since they hadn't stopped him from entering the nebula he could only assume that they'd be waiting for him with a massive strike on the other side. It would do them little good. With the entire fleet cloaked when it left the nebula, they'd be hard pressed to even see his ships, and until they managed to beat the cloak he'd have the advantage of surprise.

A scanner technician hissed a warning. The Commander's ship was about to enter the nebula. Once inside the scanners would be useless due to natural jamming and deflection, communications would be scrambled, energy shielding wouldn't function. The Fleet Commander hissed his awareness. It wouldn't stop the rendezvous. Everything had been perfectly timed so that the fleet would emerge on the other side as one massive cloaked force.

It would only be a matter of a few hours.

There was a hush in Invincible's CIC as everyone alternately checked their watches and the projected tracks of the Slither fleet as it made its way through the nebula...

Hours ticked by. Minutes. Seconds. Finally the end was in sight.

The Slither Fleet Commander gave a battle cry, a roar that his ancestors in ancient times had used to signal to others that prey was in their midst and ready to be brought down. His bridge crew roared right along with him, then brought the cloaking systems fully on-line...

Teague checked his watch one last time. ""

At the edge of the nebula, the fifty Sunspot mines that Space Shadow had launched into space detected the wake turbulence caused by the transit of the Slither ships and began to maneuver. They'd been positioned almost perfectly, owing to the fact that the Slithers had been so predictable in plotting their course. When the armada reached the edge of the nebula, the mines streaked forward and detonated.

The results were spectacular. Each mine had a plasma warhead with a tachyon trigger. Each detonation blasted into the void at a hundred times the speed of light, exciting the hydrogen and helium in the nebula and starting a chain reaction that created wall-like field of superheat and superforce, one that the Slither ships slammed right into. Their cloaking fields were wiped out as their hulls were ripped apart and crushed under the assault. Missiles detonated in their launch silos, fuel for their attack ships detonated and jetted into space, thousands of the raptor-like life-forms were killed in one stroke.

When the Slither armada finally emerged from the nebula, it was little more than a collection of burning wrecks, venting atmosphere and being propelled by nothing but inertia.

The Fleet Commander, one of the few survivors on the burning bridge, rolled on the deck in agony from his many wounds. He finally understood what the enemy cloaked vessels had been doing while he was distracted by the aerospace battles, but the knowledge gave him little consolation.

The mood was different in Invincible. As he looked at the slowly crawling tracks on his screens, a grin crawled across Teague's face. "Let's add insult to injury."

Broll gave the order. "Execute the Strike...Now, Now, Now!"

And a moment later, the hundred anti-ship armed Lance aerospace craft that had been orbiting the task group broke out and assaulted the Slither ships just as the battlecruisers started launching Mace missiles. The first ship was utterly destroyed after twenty minutes, with the others following in rapid succession. Cheers went up after the first kill and persisted as each track flashed out of existence. After twenty-five minutes, there was nothing left of the Slither armada but particulate debris.

When it was over, the officer of the deck wanted to quiet everyone down, but Teague motioned for him to let it die down naturally. It had been a well-fought battle and a great victory. Everyone had a right to celebrate.

They were also celebrating aboard Revolution. "Fantastic!" Maxwell said.

"I told you he was the right man for the job!" Mitchell said. "And he's not done yet." He indicated the chart of Slither-held territory. "Once we get him re-armed and replenished he's going to execute a wide patrol orbit around this perimeter. I defy any Slither ship to come out of these bases now, or try and get to the bases from the homeworld. And with them bottled up, we can solidify our gains here, then plan to take back these other systems as well."

"You'll still need to get those ships out of those systems." Carver said, bringing his colleagues back to Earth.

"All in due time." Mitchell said with a smile. "All in due time."