Chapter 13
Here Comes the Cavalry

Location: ESS Brasidas, Outer Rim of the Uranian Sphere
Date: Thu 11 Jul 121
Time: UST 0148

Captain Rajamani of the Brasidas sat in his chair on the bridge waiting for the latest update from the Ticonderoga. Three hours earlier, the battle group received a signal from the Tico out of nowhere. As suddenly as it had disappeared, they were in contact again.
Triangulating the signal, they determined that the Tico was a good fifty gims away. How she got that far off undetected was still a mystery. Cryptically, the battle group was told to hold position until she rendezvoused with them. Maybe answers would be forthcoming after the rendezvous and maybe not. All Captain Rajamani and the rest of the battle group could do was wait.
The monotony of waiting was broken at long last by the radar operator announcing, "Sir, incoming contacts."
Could it be the Tico? Not likely as there should only be one contact and all Navy ships are supposed to open communications as soon as they come within range. Regardless, the Captain wanted to know for certain.
"You got an ID on them?" he asked.
Before he could get an answer, the radar operator yelled, "Missiles inbound!"
"Intercept!" Captain Rajamani shouted back. "All hands to action stations!"
"Aye-aye, sir!"
So it was the Shellies. He did not have time to see just how many contacts they were dealing with, but Admiral Vargin was already stepping out, which told him that something big was going down. It was a strategic scenario and as much as he felt his place was on the bridge, he needed to be there to help coordinate the battle group's response.
"Get me the Laocoon and patch it into the conference room," he told the communications officer as he rose from his chair. To his XO, he said, "Ellegaard, you have the bridge."
"Aye-aye, sir," Commander Ellegaard replied.
The Captain knew the ship was in good hands, so he had less regret as he made his way to the conference room. When he arrived, Admiral Vargin and most of his staff were already there and the feeds were open to Captain Mercedes of the Laocoon and a load of other ship captains and high-level staffers for the battle group.
Heavy Carrier Battle Group One was essentially two carrier battle groups with the Ticonderoga and an extra layer of staff on top. Each carrier battle group had a cruiser squadron under it and under the cruiser squadron were two destroyer squadrons. Each of those levels had commanders and their staff hovering over the ship captains.
In theory, it made things easier. You could break down big formations and build them back up again, mix and match as needed. That was the theory. Sometimes it worked. Other times it was a big Charlie Foxtrot. Everyone worked fairly well together during the exercise, but this was not an exercise.
Admiral Vargin, being the most senior officer present, took the lead. It was a good thing Commodore Phuong of the One-Seven was junior in rank if not in position or she and Admiral Vargin might be jockeying for control of the situation.
"Gentlemen," the Admiral began, pausing briefly before adding, "ladies." He cleared his throat and continued, "We have a situation. As you all are aware, we are under attack. We need to respond to the threat and respond soon." He turned to his staff operations officer and said, "Captain Murakami?"
Captain Murakami stood up and switched the main display to show the radar.
"We're still compiling tactical data," he said, "but it would appear that we're being engaged by two Sheolite fleets. We haven't seen the Shellies throw around this much hardware since Ganymede. We're still analyzing their patterns to determine if we've encountered these fleets before."
"And what's the composition of these fleets?" a member of the One-Seven's staff asked. "What exactly are we up against?"
Captain Murakami looked a bit perturbed at the interruption, but promptly replied, "Each of the two fleets appear to consist of a dreadnought, a carrier, two cruisers, four destroyers, and six patrol escorts."
"That's nearly two-to-one odds," Captain Mercedes said. "We don't stand a chance. We have to pull out, contact 8th for backup."
It was true that they stood little chance in a stand-up fight so sorely outnumbered, but Captain Rajamani could hardly leave it at that.
"What about the Ticonderoga?" he asked.
"Advise them to reroute," Admiral Vargin replied, clearly having already made up his mind about the situation. "We're in no position to stand and fight. We go into a phased withdrawal. The Starlights and Marathons pull out first, full steam, followed by the Brasidas and Laocoon. The escorts will provide cover. We'll scramble fighters if they send their birds out. Any questions?"
There honestly did not seem to be any better option and if there was, no one was bringing it to the table. All the assembled officers could do was simply reply, "No, sir."
Satisfied with the strategy he had laid out, the Admiral said, "Then execute. Dismissed."

* * *

Date: Thu 11 Jul 121
Time: UST 0206

All the pilots of Carrier Airwing Group 42 were packed into the briefing room as the CAG prepared to go over the mission details. Before he could start, though, he saw two unfamiliar faces enter the room.
"Can I help you gentlemen?" the CAG asked, a polite precursor before he ordered them out of his briefing room.
"They called for all pilots, sir," one of them--a bespectacled O-4--replied.
The CAG then remembered that the Brasidas had picked up a couple of stray Air Force pilots from the Ticonderoga. Given the situation, they could use every man they could get.
"Well, I think I have a place for you," the CAG said. "Take a seat."

* * *

Location: ESS Ticonderoga, Outside Union Space
Date: Thu 11 Jul 121
Time: UST 0217

"All teams are back on board!" one of the operators announced. "We're clear!"
Without a moment's hesitation, Commodore Frazier ordered, "Blow the charges."
"Blow charges, aye."
The ship shook violently the breaching tubes attached to Hangar Four and the braces on the ship's dorsal were blown apart. The shockwave from the simultaneous explosions gave the ship a bit of a boost as it separated from the Sheolite mothership.
"Okay, we're clear!"
"Get us some distance," the Commodore said. "When we get about five hundred klicks out, set off the care packages."
"Aye-aye, sir."
There was a subtle rumbling as the engines roared to life. The Sheolite mothership appeared to be dead in the water, but they weren't going to take any chances. It wouldn't take long to get far enough out for the safe detonation of the bombs left on board. It wouldn't be enough to destroy a monstrous ship like that, but it would give the Shellies something else to do besides follow them.
With that taken care of, Commodore Frazier turned his attention to the next stage of their escape plan.
"Chief, this is Frazier. What's the status on Pandora's Box?"
"I'm making the calculations now, sir," Chief Bianchi replied. "About fifteen more minutes."
That could be a long time if the Sheolites decided to try anything, but the Commodore had to accept the cards he'd been dealt.
"Let me know when you're ready to go," he said.
"Aye-aye, sir. Bianchi, out."
As soon as Chief Bianchi hung up, an operator told the Commodore, "Care packages detonated, sir."
"That should keep 'em busy while we make our exit," Commodore Frazier replied.
All that was left was to keep an eye on the Shelly mothership while they put as much distance between the two them with conventional engines until they could spacefold again. Unfortunately, it wasn't going to be that simple.
"Sir!" the radar operator exclaimed. "New contacts inbound!"
"What!? Is it the Shellies?"
"I'm analyzing the signature now, sir, but it doesn't look like any Shelly ships I've ever seen and they're not ours either."
"Who else is there?"
"Could be unregistered crafts, sir, pirates maybe, but there's an awful lot of them for that."
"Sir," the communications officer said, "we're being hailed by one the unknown crafts."
"Open a channel," the Commodore said. Taking a tone that was firm but neutral, he then said to the unknown ships, "This is Commodore Frazier of the ESS Ticonderoga. Identify yourself."
The reply was in some language he'd never heard before. It definitely wasn't one of the big six, but what was it?
"What the hell's he saying? Does anyone know what language he's speaking?"
It took a moment before one of the bridge crew finally spoke up.
"Um, sir, it kinda sounds like a Semitic language, but it isn't Arabic. Maybe Hebrew?"
Any cracks about Jews in space zooming along in flying Stars of David to protect the Hebrew race were clearly out of line in the current situation.
"Does anyone here speak Hebrew?" Commodore Frazier asked the bridge crew. When no one replied in the affirmative, he then ordered, "Check personnel records for anyone with a Level 2 rating in Hebrew, Level 1 if you can find it."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Before long, the operator doing the search replied, "We've got 24 Level 2s and seven Level 1s, sir."
"Transfer them to my screen."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Commodore Frazier sat back down in his chair and scrolled through the list of names. He picked one that wasn't likely to be killed, incapacitated or in quarantine at the moment. It was an Army chaplain. Isaak Teufel. Being a chaplain, he might be a little more of the diplomatic type, which they probably needed in this situation.
He called up the chaplain, who answered on the first ring.
"Yes?" the chaplain asked, sounding almost like he was expecting the call.
"Chaplain Teufel, this is Commodore Frazier. We have a situation that might require your abilities as a Hebrew speaker. I need you to report to the bridge pronto."
"Of course," the chaplain replied obligingly, not even hesitating for a moment or asking any questions. "I'll be right there."
"I'll send a couple MAs to meet you en route and escort you here."
"Understood."
With internal comms working just fine, the Commodore easily got ahold of Commander Chandaria so he could peel off a couple MAs to go meet the chaplain.
In a matter of minutes, honestly a bit faster than Commodore Frazier was expecting, Chaplain Teufel appeared on the bridge with his two MA escorts.
"Hello, Commodore," Chaplain Teufel said in a friendly albeit somewhat off-putting manner. "How can I help you?"
Commodore Frazier couldn't help feeling a bit creeped out by the chaplain for some reason, but now wasn't the time to get hung up on a weird vibe.
"I want you to listen to this," the Commodore said, replaying the response from the unknown ships.
While the message played, Chaplain Teufel stroked his chin thoughtfully. The Commodore certainly hoped it was getting through to him.
When it was done playing, he then asked the chaplain, "Is it Hebrew?"
"No, Commodore," Chaplain Teufel replied. "It isn't."
That certainly deep-sixed their theory about the mystery language. Maybe, just maybe the chaplain had some clue what it was supposed to be.
"Do you know what it is?"
"Yes," the chaplain said, "it appears to be a bit of a mishmash of bad Aramaic and Enochian."
Aramaic Commodore Frazier had heard of, even though he thought it was supposed to be a dead language, but what about the other one?
"Enochian?"
"The tongue of angels, Commodore," Chaplain Teufel said ominously, then adding, "if you believe the magus John Dee, that is."
What the hell? Tongue of angels? Magus? What was going on here?
Pushing aside the major Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot factor of the situation, Commodore Frazier took a bit of a leap of faith and asked the chaplain, "Can you understand it?"
For the first time, Chaplain Teufel did not answer like he was anticipating the question from the start. He actually paused for a moment before saying, "It's a little difficult, I must admit, but the gentleman on the other end has identified himself as the seraph Ben Michael of the Sons of God and he says we are intruding on their territory."
It just kept on getting weirder and weirder.
"Sons of God... What the hell?"
Time to make another leap of faith.
"Can you communicate with them?"
"I can try, Commodore," the chaplain said, not sounding 100% sure of himself, "though I can't make any guarantees."
Captain Yuen, who had been silent up to this point, stepped in and asked Commodore Frazier, "Are you sure about this?"
"We have to buy time," the Commodore replied. "It's worth a shot." He nodded to Chaplain Teufel. "Go ahead, Chaplain. Tell them that this is the Earth Union starship Ticonderoga and that we have no hostile intentions."
"I'll do what I can, Commodore."
The chaplain was given a headset as the Ticonderoga hailed the source of the previous transmission. The chaplain started talking, hopefully staying on script and making a fair translation in the process. Commodore Frazier thought he caught the mention of 'Ticonderoga', which gave him a small sliver of confidence.
There was some back-and-forth. The person on the other end--this 'Ben Michael' character--didn't sound too happy. Then there was silence. The Commodore didn't let the dead air stand too long.
"Well?" Commodore Frazier asked, fearing the worst.
Chaplain Teufel set down his headset, looked directly at the Commodore and said, "It would appear we've had a bit of a breakdown in communications. I suggest you ready yourselves for an attack."
"Goddammit," the Commodore cursed under his breath. Drawing himself up, he started issuing orders. "Alright, let's get some distance. Angle the shields and brace for incoming fire."
"Aye-aye, sir."
"Weapons hold," the Commodore told combat systems. "Let them fire the first shot."
"Aye-aye, sir."
They weren't in the best of shape after all the trouble with the saboteurs and the Shellies. This really was the last thing they needed right now, but hopefully they'd be spacefolding far away from here very soon. Surely they could hold out until then.
"Incoming signal from the Brasidas," the communications officer said.
"Route it to my channel," the Commodore replied, already making his way back to his chair.
"Aye-aye, sir."
Because of the great distance between their current location and where the rest of the battle group was, it took a good three minutes to transmit messages between the two locations. It made coordinating their escape plan a real pain.
"Ticonderoga, this is Vargin. We have two enemy fleets closing in on our position and we have to withdraw. Cannot rendezvous as planned. Repeat, cannot rendezvous as planned. Submitting coordinates for new rendezvous point. Over."
Commodore Frazier thought it was the unknown hostiles that were the last thing they needed. He was wrong. This was it. There was no way the two fleets attacking the rest of the battle group could be from the five that the Ticonderoga escaped from earlier. If the Commodore recalled what the Shelly liaison had said, the Shellies had ten fleets, which meant 70% of all their forces had been mustered just for this operation. It was insane. Exactly who was behind this whole mess?
There was no time to worry about that, though. Commodore Frazier had to take the new information into consideration and act accordingly. He started by calling up the Engine Room.
"Chief?"
"Three more minutes, sir," Chief Bianchi replied/
Commodore Frazier looked at his watch. It seemed that earlier estimate of fifteen minutes was off by a bit.
"How long would it take you to redo the calculations?"
"Excuse me, sir?" Chief Bianchi asked, plainly confused.
"The Shellies are moving in on the rest of the battle group," the Commodore explained. "If we go to the current coordinates, we'll be smack in the middle of it."
It took Chief Bianchi a moment before she replied, "It'll take another twenty, twenty-five minutes at least, sir."
Commodore Frazier glanced at the radar. The incoming hostiles were no trivial threat based on size alone. Who knew how well they were armed? Surviving twenty to twenty-five minutes would be pushing their luck more than the Commodore was comfortable doing.
It was risky either way, so Commodore Frazier had to take a chance.
"We don't have that kind of time," the Commodore said. "Continue as planned. Let me know when we're ready and be ready to punch it on my mark."
"Aye-aye, sir. Bianchi, out."
The Commodore ran his fingers through his hair, feeling the anxiety digging into the pit of his stomach.
"This is gonna get hairy."
"You have a gift for understatement," Yuen replied.
"Sir," the radar operator exclaimed, "we've got more contacts! Hundreds of them! They're small. Could be missiles, could be superlights."
"Analyzing now, sir," another operator chimed in.
Things just kept getting better and better.
"Evasive maneuvers!" the Commodore shouted. "Weapons free! Take 'em down! Redirect power from non-essential systems to weapons and shields!"
As if they didn't have enough to deal with already, yet another operator shouted, "Sir, the Sheolite mothership is active again!"
"Unless it opens fire on us, ignore it," the Commodore ordered. "Focus on the incoming hostiles."
"Aye-aye, sir."
Like a lifesaver for a man fallen overboard at sea, Chief Bianchi's sweet, sweet voice contacted Commodore Frazier.
"Sir, this is Bianchi."
"Are we good to go, Chief?"
"On your mark, sir."
There was no time for second guessing or any thinking of any kind. They had to get out of there that instant.
"Punch it!"
"Aye-aye, sir."
As the spacefolding engines prepared to engage, the Commodore's eyes watched the radar screen and the flood of combat systems data, especially the status of the shields. They were going to make it, but would they just be going from the frying pan into the fire?

* * *

Location: Outer Rim of the Uranian Sphere
Date: Thu 11 Jul 121
Time: UST 0231

The air was thick with Shelly fighters, but Matt had faced worse odds before. If the Union focused as much on offensive craft as the Sheolites, they would only be outnumbered by about two to one. Still, due to the Shellies' inflexible, suicidal tactics, one Union pilot who knew what he was doing was easily worth at least four Shellies.
That did not change the fact that a lot of pilots were going to die covering the battle group's withdrawal. Not all Shellies were made equal and neither were all Union pilots. And then there were the simple factors of chance and bad luck that could be the death of even the most decorated ace.
Matt had to push these thoughts aside and focus on staying alive and keeping as many of his wingmates alive as he could. He and Major Samedi had been temporarily assigned to the Brasidas' own VF-333, the Triple Triangles. It was almost like flying for the Crazy Eights again, except that he was not flying with Lydia.
Lydia... He still had not heard anything about what happened to the Ticonderoga. The battle group had been holding its position in the hopes of being contacting by the wayward Ticonderoga, but now they had little choice but to pull out in the face of overwhelming Shelly numbers.
As much as he worried about Lydia, Sean, and his squadron, Matt had to concentrate on staying alive. The battle group's defenders were taking a cautious, almost timid approach, trying to repel the Shelly fighters without getting too entangled in a firefight with them. The goal was simply to provide cover for the retreating ships, so it was perhaps the best strategy to minimize losses, but they do say that the best defense is a good offense.
Matt would have preferred to clear out the enemy as much as possible to minimize the threat they posed to the battle group, but he was bound to fly according to the orders of the local chain of command. He simply had to make the most of it.
Matt's flight was in the process of driving some Shellies away from a patrol escort when abruptly, his radar screen went black.
"My scopes are down!" he exclaimed. He switched to his private channel with Major Samedi and asked him, "Sabado, are you getting anything?"
"Negative, boss," Samedi replied. "Mine are down, too."
The fact that Matt and Samedi were able to communicate meant that it wasn't a total blackout. Still, without their radar, they were practically flying blind.
"Triangles," the squadron leader said, "activate ECCM."
Matt had already tried that and nothing. He did it again for good measure.
"No good, Triangle One," one of the other pilots replied.
Staying calm, Triangle One told the squadron, "Open it up, Triangles. You'll have to trust your eyes for now. I'll try rebooting my system. If it works, follow suit."
A full reboot of the system in the middle of combat was about as risky as flying without radar, but that was why Triangle One was the only person trying it for starters.
Matt was getting ready to reboot his system too if he had to, but then the radar came back up and started picking up contacts again.
"Instruments back online," someone said. "New contact. Friendly signature. It's the Tico!"
Matt checked his own readout to confirm for himself. The signal checked out. It was the Ticonderoga, but where had she come from? How did they not pick up her signal sooner?
One small disappointment from leaving search and rescue to resume combat flying was how little data you could pull from a Hornet's sensors. That being said, Matt's scan of the Ticonderoga did yield some results, only they were not at all encouraging.
"She's not firing," Matt said, mostly to himself, but the private channel with Samedi was still open. "Energy reading's weak. Something's wrong. She's a sitting duck right now."
Matt knew what he was supposed to do. As long as he was attached to the VF-333, he was supposed to abide by the squadron leader's orders. That was what he was supposed to do, but it was not what he had to do.
"I've got to get to her, Sabado," Matt told Samedi. "You don't have to come with me."
He was trying to spare Samedi the repercussions of his decision, but Samedi was not going for it.
"It's our squadron out there, Cav. I'm on your wing."
Matt could not help but feel comforted by the display of solidarity, even as they were about to disobey orders and possibly get themselves killed taking even more insane risks than their current engagement.
"Triangle One, this Triangle One-Five," Matt told the squadron leader. "Breaking off to cover the Tico. My callsign is now Blau One."
Samedi followed Matt's lead, saying, "Triangle One, this is Triangle One-Six. My callsign is now Blau Two. Forming on Blau One's wing."
Naturally, Triangle One was not going to simply let such an egregious breach slide.
"Triangle One-Five, Triangle One-Six, abort. I repeat, abort. Do not engage bandits outside our operating range."
Matt was by no means a loose cannon, but this was one time when following orders and good sense did not line up with doing what he thought was right. One of them had to give and Matt had no intention of standing by the wayside and leaving the Ticonderoga helpless.
"Cannot comply, Triangle One," Matt insisted. "Proceeding as planned."
"Abort, dammit! Get back here!"
Matt was not going to be dissuaded.
"Triangle One," he said firmly, "you focus on your squadron and your mission. My squadron is out there. My mission is out there."
There was a brief silence before Triangle One grudgingly replied, "Acknowledged, Blau One. Just try not to get yourselves killed."
"Roger that, Triangle One. Out."
The Shellies were too busy engaging the rest of the battle group to pay too much attention to the Ticonderoga just yet, but that was bound to change soon.
"Stick to your cannons as much you can, Sabado," Matt told Samedi. "Save your missiles for the warships."
"Our load isn't going to do much to those ships," Samedi replied.
Typically, Air Force pilots never engaged Shelly warships, but this was where Matt's experience flying with Navy pilots came in handy. While it was true that the Starbeams a Hornet carried were best suited for taking out other superlights, they could be effective against heavier ships if used right.
"Focus on their guns and their engines and we can do some damage," Matt said.
"It's a crazy risk, Cav."
"We won't make a run on them unless we have to. Concentrate on the small fry. They're the biggest risk to the Tico right now."
Going toe-to-toe with the Shelly warships was pretty well suicidal, so Matt had every intention of leaving that as a last result in case they started to threaten the Ticonderoga. In the meantime, the enemy fighters and incoming missiles were the higher priority, tactically speaking, that is.
A couple squadrons of Shelly fighters were breaking off from the main attack and moving in to buzz the Ticonderoga. While Samedi just had to focus on sticking to Matt's wing, Matt had split his attention between the enemy and the Ticonderoga herself. While he could focus on simply taking down the fighters, it would count for little if the others were scoring hits. Instead his objective was to target formation leaders as much as possible, but to mainly harry them enough to abandon their attack runs.
At first, they seemed to be more interested in scouting than attacking, but after a few passes they started to shift into attack mode and it did not take long for them to realize that the Ticonderoga's only defense were the two Hornets peppering them as they went by.
That was when they started to get better coordinated and focus their attention on Matt and Samedi. That was when the two airmen's lives got considerably more difficult.
They were taking a lot of fire, but the two Shelly squadrons were not cooperating all that well and were almost as dangerous to each other as to their targets.
"Cav," Samedi said, "my shields are running low."
"Shadow me," Matt told him. "I'll try to draw their fire."
He was putting himself at greater risk trying to run interference with his own bird, but Matt was not about to lose his wingman. He just needed to buy time for Samedi's shields to regenerate.
Samedi did not share Matt's confidence, noting, "Cav, you're not much better off than me."
Matt glanced at the readings for his shield strength. He only had about a fifteen percent edge over Samedi and that was dwindling fast. Still, he refused to give up. They could not afford to die.
"Stay close," Matt said, trying his best to reassure Samedi. "We can outfly them."
"Cav, I'm at ten percent."
Samedi was sounding more and more nervous with each transmission, but that was only natural given how their odds of survival were getting slimmer and slimmer by the second. Matt could not let the odds get to him, though, or else it really would be over.
"Stay focused, Sabado."
On the verge of panic, Samedi cried, "Cav, my shields are gone! I'm not going to make it!"
If the two of them did not die that moment, they would not have had much longer to live. However, instead of dying in a hail of enemy fire, the opposite happened. A massive wave of fire passed over them, scattering the Shelly fighters in all directions.
The Ticonderoga was now in the fight.
"Whoo!" Samedi whooped triumphantly. "Yeah!"
Someone on the main channel started shouting, "They're pulling out! They're pulling out!"
Sure enough, the Shelly warships were breaking off their pursuit and the fighters were returning to their carriers. For whatever reason, the Ticonderoga's sudden appearance made them abandon their attack. Maybe it was because they thought more reinforcements were on the way. Or maybe they were just too confused by what had happened. Whatever the case might have been, it looked like it was over.
On their private channel, Samedi sighed heavily. "Bondye, I thought I was dead."
It certainly was a close call, but two pilots succeeded in helping protect the Ticonderoga until she could defend herself and return the favor. Now it was time to return home.
"Ticonderoga, this is Blau One," Matt said. "Do you copy?"
It took a moment before an operator replied, "Blau One, this is Ticonderoga. That was some good looking out."
Matt smiled.
"Ticonderoga, this is Blau One. Request permission to land."