: Storm Clouds ”


BWS Valeria; Bridge
Torgo System, Union of Border Worlds
January 28th, 2681

A pair of Excaliburs screamed past the Valeria's bridge, trailing long plumes of fire from their afterburners. The fighters seemed to shimmer as they passed the bridge, and then faded out of sight, hidden from view by their cloaks as they began their patrols. The Excalibur might no longer be state of the art, but it was still lethal in the hands of a good pilot. It was certainly a huge step up from the days when the Border Worlders had been flying Sabres and Rapier IIs.

"Taipans Eight and Nine are clear. Taipans Ten and Eleven launching now," the launch control officer reported over the ship's intercom. Two more fighters from the Valeria's Excal squadron raced out of the launch bay, and then accelerated straight ahead as they headed for their own patrol zone. They too cloaked and faded out of sight. The Excal squadron, the "Taipans," had long range patrol duty today. It was boring work, but someone had to do it.

Of course, Admiral Erin Hanton reflected wryly, most of their recent work had been boring. Battle Group Valkyrie had seen very little combat action since the group had begun its shakedown cruise a few weeks ago. They had spent that time prowling the Kilrathi frontier, but there had been very little activity on the frontier. They had only encountered one small Kilrathi raiding force (one corvette and a dozen fighters, which had been quickly destroyed by the Valeria's flight wing), and made life hell for the pirates and smugglers who were trying to work the frontier.

Apart from that though, there seemed to be very little out here, certainly nothing that could challenge a battle group this powerful. The Kilrathi were still screaming about that Prophecy of theirs, but so far, they didn't seem to be doing much. The only worrying note had been one vague message from Confed HQ about a few days ago, warning them about a "possible enemy incursion." All requests for further information had been met with a wall of silence. Typical.

The flight wing had stepped up patrols since they had received that message, but they hadn't seen anything, Kilrathi or otherwise. Most of the senior officers were starting to think the warning had been a false alarm. Despite the Treaty of McAuliffe, the Confed and Border Worlds forces were still having a hard time learning to trust each other. After all, eight years of hostility couldn't be buried in a few months, or even a year. There was still...

"Reapers Five and Six, launching now," the flight control officer said, just as two powerful Retaliator-class fighters hurtled out of the launch bay. The Retaliator was the Union's hottest fighter, comparable to Confed's new Panther, but much more heavily armed. The battle group's Retaliator unit, the 121th "Reapers," were flying a space superiority sweep.

"Admiral, we have an incoming message. Message code reads one Alpha-one, eyes only."

Admiral Hanton raised one eyebrow slightly. A message coded one Alpha-one could only be viewed by flag rank officers. The messages were heavily encrypted, and the coding was almost impossible to break. That level of security was highly unusual, especially in peacetime. She had a feeling that things weren't going to stay quiet much longer...

It took nearly a minute for the message to download to her terminal, and another two minutes for the ship's computers to decrypt the messaging coding. Whoever had sent the message wasn't taking any chances on any unauthorized person seeing the message, not even the comm officer. From the size of the file, the Admiral expected a video or holo message, but instead the screen displayed a simple text message.


From : Admiral Robin Singh, CINC, Union of Border Worlds Naval Fleet

To : Rear Admiral Erin Hanton

By direction of the President and Admiralty of the Union of Border Worlds Navy, you are hereby requested and required to take command of a combined Confederation and Union of Border Worlds fleet which will be assembling in Nephele, and operating in Union territory for the duration of the current emergency. The said fleet will consist of:

- TCS Yorktown (Concordia-class fleet carrier, plus escorts)
- TCS Bunker Hill (Concordia-class fleet carrier, plus escorts)
- TCS Valley Forge (Concordia-class fleet carrier, plus escorts)
- TCS Endeavour (Endeavor-class light carrier, plus escorts)
- BWS Valeria (Arcadia-class fleet carrier, plus escorts)
- BWS Littenia (Arcadia-class fleet carrier, plus escorts)
- BWS Freedom (Ranger-class light carrier, plus escorts)

- 8th Confed Cruiser Sqn (4 Plunkett-class CAs, 4 Murphy-class DDs)
- 15th Confed Destroyer Sqn (8 Murphy-class destroyers)
- 18th Confed Destroyer Sqn (6 Defiance-class DDs, 2 Magellen-class FGs)
- 1st Confed Torpedo Boat Sqn (12 Los Angeles-class torpedo boats)
- 6th UBW Corvette Sqn (4 Adm. Halsey-class corvettes, 1 CVE)

- The total fighter strength of this group will be roughly 750 fighters

The emergency in question is an attack on our systems by a previously unknown, but highly advanced and obviously hostile alien race. This alien race, codenamed the "Nephilim" by ConFleet, has already attacked and destroyed the the TCS Saratoga in the Tartarus System, as well as the Dakota colony. We have reason to believe that the Nephilim have also attacked and destroyed several Kilrathi colonies. The Nephilim fleet which attacked the Saratoga consisted of at least two dreadnoughts, six carriers, at least a dozen heavy cruisers, and (at the very least, we couldn't get a full count) six dozen destroyers and corvettes. The dreadnoughts and carriers each carry 250-300 combat craft. Tactical estimates total enemy fighter strength at roughly 3,000 combat craft, counting those on the cruisers and destroyers.

Needless to say, the Nephilim pose a grave threat to our security, and must be stopped at all costs. Attached to this message is all information that we currently have on the Nephilim. Most of the data was gathered by the TCS Midway, which is currently operating in the Kilrah Sector, and was broadcast to ConFleet via a relay station in the H'hrass System. I'm sure you'll find it useful. Under Emergency Decree 45A, passed by the Border Worlds Senate a few hours ago, you also have full emergency powers to deal with the current situation, including the right to impose martial law. Good luck, Admiral, you're going to need it.

Signed, Admiral Robin Singh, CINC, Border Worlds Fleet


Attached to the message were dozens of other files, including an analysis of the current political situation (the Confed Senate had, as expected, refused to release the First, Fourth, and Seventh), as well as the data the Midway had gathered on Nephilim fighters, capships, technology and tactics. The Admiral spent only a few minutes skimming over the files. The data would be of much more interest to the people in Tactical. Right now, her job was to take command of the fleet.

"Helm, set course for Nephele via the shortest jump route, flank speed."

"Aye, aye, Admiral," the helmsman responded promptly.

"Comms, order all fighter patrols to rendezvous with us en route to the jump point."

"Aye, aye, Admiral."

"Also, order all senior officers to report to the command briefing room in two hours time. Relay that order to the other ships as well."


BWS Valeria; Command Briefing Room
About Two Hours Later

The rest of the battle group's senior officers were already in the briefing room by the time Raptor got there. In addition to the Valeria's own senior officers, Commander Damien Chelsea, Lt. Commander Kathy Lange, and Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung (the skipper, first officer, and wing commander of the light carrier BWS Freedom) were present. Also present were the skippers of the group's cruisers and destroyers, as well as Captain Maria "Prowl" Dominguez and Lt. Eric "Jaeger" Hess, the most senior of the battle group's Marines.

"Sorry I'm late," Raptor apologized, snapping off a quick salute, and then grabbing a chair at the far end of the table. "We were just analyzing the results of that last fleet attack exercise..."

The flight wing had spent a lot of its time going through battle drills and combat exercises, making sure they could work as a team when they needed to. So far, the individual squadrons and pilots had worked very well together, molding themselves into an effective combat unit. The only good thing about so many older Durango and CVE-type carriers being scrapped recently was that newer carriers like the Valeria and Freedom had been able to pick and choose the best pilots and squadrons in the Union. Hopefully, that would make up for the fact that their fighters were generally older and less advanced than those flown by Confed.

"What's there to analyze? My team kicked your butts," Phalanx said with a grin. That kind of informality would never have been tolerated by Confed, but Border Worlders did things their own way.

"Only because Tactical disallowed that torpedo run of ours," Raptor replied.

"Your bombers were too close and coming too fast. Half of them would have been vaporized if those torpedoes had been real."

"A few bombers in exchange for two carriers, three cruisers and half a dozen other ships is a good trade in my book."

"It's still suicide," Phalanx insisted.

"This is the Border Worlds, remember? Suicide is par for the course."

"Ah, gentlemen... could we get started?" Admiral Hanton said firmly. "I received a message from HQ about an hour ago, authorizing me to take command of a joint Confed-Border Worlds fleet. A summary of the information we received should be on your terminal screens."

The room was silent for the next few minutes, as the officers scanned through the information on their screens. The Valeria's Tactical division had been spent the past two hours compiling the summary from the reams of information the Admiral had sent them. The summary included a report on the Kilrathi Prophecy of Sivar and Kt'lan, the actual events in the Kilrah Sector, the reports of Nephilim attacks on Tartarus and Dakota, as well as an evaluation of Nephilim numbers, tactics, and technology. Admiral Hanton didn't believe in holding back information from her officers.

"Seven hundred and fifty fighters against three thousand? Jesus H. Christ..." Captain Sang Que said finally. "What are those idiots in the Confed Senate thinking?"

"Well, from the sound of it, the Senators from the Inner Worlds have got their panties in a bunch right now," the Admiral replied. "They're insisting that the Confed First, Fourth, and Seventh Fleets be held back to protect the Inner Worlds. For now, they'll only allow Confed Third Fleet to move out."

That had always been the problem with Confed politics. Most of the population (and hence most of the economic and political power) was concentrated in a few densely populated worlds in the Sol and Vega sectors. The Senators from those systems always demanded that carriers were stationed within a few jumps of their homeworlds. That meant forces which could be better used on the frontier were instead wasted patrolling the Inner Worlds. During the tail end of the Kilrathi War, ageing light carriers had held the line against the Kilrathi, while newly built fleet carriers had been held back near Sol. Confed's attitude in times of trouble had always been "screw the frontier." That attitude was at work again.

"Shit. One, just one, of those big Vesuvius supercarriers would make all the difference," Chelsea said.

The Vesuvius class carried over 400 fighters in four fighter wings, and even one of the massive ships would indeed have made all the difference in the battle with the Nephilim. Confed had at least two of the monsters (the St. Helens and the McKinley), plus a new Midway-class megacarrier (the TCS Mistral Sea) scheduled to enter service very soon, and several other heavy fleet carriers. In spite of all that though, the only help they were being given were a few Concordia-class light fleet carriers, a design that was well past its prime. It was hard not to feel a little cheated. Three whole fleets would be left sitting in Confed Space with their fingers up their backsides, while the Nephilim ravaged the Border Worlds. Confed had promised to help defend the Border Worlds when the Treaty of McAuliffe was signed, but the Border Worlds were obviously not high on Confed's list of priorities.

"Well, I hope they realize that if the Nephilim get past us, they'll rip right into Vega Sector," Raptor said. "Of course, the Border Worlds are going to get roasted first."

"That's what Confed's always wanted, right?" Chelsea said bitterly. "The Border Worlds were always meant to be a buffer between the Inner Worlds and anything nasty that came growling out the Kilrathi Empire. It doesn't really matter what happens to us, as long as the Inner Worlds stay safe and snug."

"All right, enough whining," the Admiral said firmly. "In the old days, we'd have had to fight the Nephilim all by ourselves. With Third Fleet's help, we've got at least some chance of stopping them."

"Chelsea, I want to coordinate the work Tactical is doing on analyzing the Nephilim ships and tactics," she continued. Other than the Admiral herself, Chelsea probably had the best tactical mind in the entire group.

"Yes, Admiral."

"Colonel, your job is to brief the flight wing on the alien fighters, and the best way to counter them."

"Yes, Admiral."

"Sang, your job is to coordinate with the other ships in the fleet when they link up with us. Make sure that they get all the information that we have. Confed's so big on secrecy that it keeps secrets from itself. I won't be surprised of half the skippers haven't got any idea what's going on."

"Aye, aye, Admiral."

"Apart from that, any questions? No? Dismissed, then."


BWS Valeria; Flight Wing Briefing Room
About Twelve Hours Later

"All right, we'll be making the jump to Loki within the hour. From there, we'll jump to Nephele to rendezvous with the rest of the fleet," Raptor said. The flight wing's squadron commanders and executive officers were gathered in the briefing room for an informal strategy session. The group was lot more subdued than usual. They all knew about the size of the enemy force they going to be facing, and they all knew the difficulty of the task ahead of them.

"Now, you should all have the Midway's data on the Nephilim fighters," he continued. "The bad news is that is that the Nephilim fighters are much more heavily armored than ours. On average, they have about twice as much armor as our fighters do. That means their hulls can take much more damage than the hulls on our fighters can. Not only that, whatever they use for armor must be lighter than what we use, because they're also more agile than our fighters."

"Like I said, that's the bad news," he said, as his previous words raised a muted groan from the others. "The good news is that our fighters are much better shielded, which should cancel out any armor advantage that the Nephilim have. Not only that, our fighters are generally better armed. Our Retaliators, Jaguars, Bearcats, and Excaliburs in particular seriously outgun most Nephilim fighters. We've also got dedicated radar jamming craft to support our fighters, which the bugs don't have. Last but not least, the auto-tracking on our Excals, Bearcats and Retaliators should cancel out any agility advantage the Bugs have."

"All in all, it pretty much balances out. Their fighters are better armored and more agile, ours are better shielded and better armed. We may not have the state-of-the-art fighters that Confed does, but we can certainly take on the Nephilim on even terms."

He didn't mention that there was one alien fighter, the Devil Ray, that could outclass their fighters on all counts. Going by the stats, the Devil Ray could even fly rings around Confed's fearsome Vampire. Luckily for them, though, Devil Rays were as about rare as an Inner Worlds Senator with balls. Hopefully, if and when they did run into Devil Rays, they would have the numbers and the tactics to deal with the advanced craft. There was no point in ruining morale by bringing it up now.

"Our real advantage, though, is in training and tactics," he continued without missing a beat. "It looks like most of the Nephilim are pretty crap pilots. They don't use any tactics at all in combat, they simply swarm and hope to take a target down through sheer weight of numbers. If we maintain our discipline and watch each other's backs, we should do well against the Nephilim. The key here is to fight smart. We need to use our recon and EW capabilities to make up for their numbers, and our tactics to make up for any weaknesses in our fighters. All the data we have has been downloaded into the simulators, so I expect to see all your pilots putting in a lot of time in the sims."

"Now, for you Arrow and Excal pilots, there's some bad news on the cloaking front. The data we got back indicates that the Bugs may, and I repeat may, be able to detect cloaked fighters. 'Till we know more, we have to take extreme care when using the cloaks. I want all recon Arrow pilots to maintain at least 20,000 klicks from any enemy ships, even when cloaked. Your sensors are good enough to pick most of the important data at that range, so don't try getting in close. I'd rather not lose a pilot just to learn what Admiral Von Roach is having for breakfast. If any enemy fighters get within 20,000 klicks, just light the 'burners and get the hell out of there."

"The same thing goes for you Excal jocks. I want you only using your cloaks for your patrols and sneaking past enemy long range sensors. Don't try cute tricks like cloaking in combat, or cloaking when there's an enemy fighter on your six, because there is a very good chance that the Bugs can see you at short range. If you get into trouble, rely on your wingmates, not your cloak."

"Last thing, there's something that you should all see. This is a video transmission beamed out by TCN journalists on Dakota. This, people, is what we're up against." He hit the button that activated the holo-player, and then quickly took a seat among the front row of pilots. He had already seen this footage once before, and he had been glad he been sitting down when he had seen it. It wouldn't be any easier to see second time around.

The holo-screen showed the destruction of New Warsaw in perfect, graphic, horrible detail. The city was being systematically erased, street by street, block by block. The beams from Nephilim warships blasted buildings apart one by one, moving relentlessly toward the camera, wiping a city out of existence with surgical precision. An entire city and its inhabitants were being erased right in front of their eyes, simply because some Nephilim commander had decided it couldn't exist.

Raptor spent most of his time watching the faces of the pilots around him. All their faces reflected the exact same emotions, horror and anger, disgust and grief. None of them were raw rookies fresh out of the Academy. They had all flown against the Kilrathi, and they had seen the worst war could bring. This cold, systematic destruction was as bad the worst the Kilrathi done, as the Black Lance had done. This was destruction for no purpose at all, destruction for the sake of destruction. This was could happen to every planet in the Union. This was what they were up against. They were so absorbed in watching the destruction being played out in front of their eyes that they barely noticed the gut wrenching twist as the ship jumped into Loki.


BWS Valeria; Admiral Hanton's Quarters
Loki System
About Six Hours Later
January 29th, 2681

The shrill whistle of the ship's intercom cut through the darkness of the small cabin, dragging Admiral Hanton reluctantly back to the land of the living. She had just pulled a double shift, staying on the bridge till the ship had made the jump to Loki, before turning command of the bridge over to Captain Que, and returning here for some much needed sleep. She glanced over at the bed side clock. Less than six hours since she had crashed. The intercom whistled again. The Admiral reached over and stabbed the intercom button. Hard.

"Hanton here," she said, making no effort to disguise the annoyance in her voice. It might be a cliché, but she was definitely getting too old for this shit. In the old days, she might have been able to shrug off getting only six hours sleep after such a long shift, but not anymore. She was fifty years old, and felt like she was going on eighty. Over twenty years on the frontlines, fighting one desperate battle after another, would do that to anyone.

"Sorry to disturb you, Admiral. We've got a P-for real time message addressed to you. Message tag says it comes from Union Internal Security."

"Great. Divert it to my cabin terminal. And send one of the ratings to my cabin with a pot of black coffee. Strong," the Admiral said. She grabbed her jacket off a nearby chair, and waited for the coffee to arrive before answering the message. When she felt halfway human again, she activated the cabin terminal. The person at the other end was a woman in her thirties, good looking in a cool, distant manner. She was dressed in civilian clothes, and the wall behind was emblazoned with the logo of the Tanfen Corporation.

"Hello, Erin," the other woman said, as if they were the best of friends.

"Do we know each other?" the Admiral asked, raising one eyebrow slightly.

"No, but I know of you. I am Sue Yen Ng Lai, of the Tanfen Internal Security Division. As for how I know of you, well, your reputation precedes you, Admiral Hanton."

That's putting it mildly, Sue thought to herself. Erin Hanton had been one of Confed's most highly decorated escort carrier skippers during the Kilrathi War. She and her crew had accounted for over three dozen enemy warships (including several enemy carriers), as well as hundreds of fighters. After the war, she had been given command of the fleet carrier TCS Melbourne, becoming one of the youngest women ever to command a fleet carrier. It was as the Melbourne's skipper that Erin Hanton had become known to millions across the galaxy.

The Melbourne had been sent into Circe during the Border Worlds conflict. Tolwyn had ordered them to take down the 'illegally elected' Border Worlds government, and return the system to Confed control. That was where Erin Hanton had suffered the first (and so far the only) defeat of her career. The Melbourne and her battle group had been savaged by fanatical resistance from the Border Worlders. In the end, Hanton had no choice but to pull out of the system. To make matters worse, she and her senior officers had been put on trial by Tolwyn's cronies 'for treason and negligence in abandoning Circe' when they returned to Confed space. They had been found guilty and sentenced to death, only to have the charges quashed at the last minute when Colonel Blair had exposed Tolwyn's plot. The Melbourne's officers had received a full pardon.

As if all that hadn't been spectacular enough, Erin Hanton had turned down Confed's offer of her old job back. The Confederation that existed during the "Incident" was riddled with corruption and graft, and wasn't the same entity that she had once believed in. She had resigned her Confed commission, before she and over two dozen of her officers had signed on with the Union of Border Worlds. Since then, she had served the Union with same skill and dedication with which she had once served Confed. She and her crew had played a vital role in fighting off the Kilrathi invasion of the "Bush." Now she was an admiral, and it was her decisions that would determine how this new conflict played out. Erin Hanton had a reputation as brilliant military tactician, and a pragmatic officer. That was why Sue had contacted her. Then again, Hanton also had a reputation for being both shrewd and ethical, so Sue had her work cut out for her.

"Uh-huh. I'm not even going to ask how you got this frequency. Or how your message has a Union Security tag," the Admiral said, interrupting Sue's thoughts.

"Let's just say that Tanfen and the UIS have a... mutually beneficial arrangement," Sue said with a smile, one that quickly faded. "We're aware of the aliens that attacked Tartarus and Dakota."

"I see. And what's Tanfen's stake in all this?" the Admiral said, keeping her face still.

"We're just trying to minimize damage to our own interests," Sue said, spreading her hands slightly. "The military are the ones who get paid to do the fighting. I'm sure that your pilots will do a fine job of protecting the Union."

"I appreciate the vote of confidence," Admiral Hanton said dryly. "Look, is there a purpose to this?"

Sue looked both determined and defiant at the same time, as if she were bracing herself. "There's something you have to understand about Tanfen, Admiral. We're in it for profit, pure and simple. Ideas like patriotism, glory and duty take a back seat to looking after the interests of the families that make up the corporation. We don't do anything unless it benefits us, or harms our rivals. You soldiers do the fighting, and we profit from the carnage."

"I see," the Admiral said, though she didn't see at all. To a soldier who had dedicated her life to protecting others, Tanfen's focus on pure profit was repugnant. "And you're telling me all this because...?"

"I'm telling you all this because our transports are going to operating in the same area as your fleet. Tanfen is willing to cooperate with your forces if we possibly can. We won't get in the way, and we're even willing to offer what assistance we can. Refueling from our fleet tenders, information sharing, whatever you need. All we ask is that you don't interfere with us as we go about our lawful business."

"Which is...?" Admiral Hanton prompted quietly.

"As you know, Tanfen has one of the largest merchant fleets in the sector. We'll be using them to evacuate our personnel, equipment and other assets from the systems in the path of the invasion. We've got billions of credits invested in these systems. We don't want to see that money thrown away, not if we can help it. Like I said, we look out for our own interests first and foremost. That's not to say that Tanfen can't be most helpful to your operation. A mutually beneficial arrangement, shall we say?"

"Uh-huh. In other words, you're trying to bribe me to stay out of the way. What about the civilians on those planets?" Admiral Hanton asked, trying to keep her anger in check. "Those transports would save a lot of innocent lives."

"No one is innocent, Admiral. And Tanfen doesn't do charity work. Getting the civilians is out your problem, not ours," Sue said coldly, her face now a calm, icy mask, hiding her thoughts from the Admiral. And then the screen blanked out. Admiral Hanton looked at the blank screen for a few seconds, holding the now cold mug of coffee in her hand, and thinking about what Sue had told her.

We'll see whose problem it is, Sue Yen Ng Lai of the Tanfen Corporation, she thought to herself. She then reached over and activated the ship's intercom.

"Comms? Get me a line to Admiral Singh at Border Worlds HQ."


Recon Arrow Ghost Warrior-7
Loki System
About Eight Hours Later

Major Jameel "Paladin" Ul-Huq, the executive officer of Battle Group Valkyrie's "Ghost Warrior" recon squadron, couldn't helping feeling a little nervous. He was sitting in the cockpit of an Arrow, one of the most fragile fighters in the known universe. The Arrow was a light fighter in every sense of the word. It was lightly shielded, lightly armored and lightly armed. In fact, the Valeria's Wing Commander had once commented that the only people crazier than the designers who had created the Arrow were the pilots who flew it.

Of course, the Arrow did have a few things going for it, including its small sensor profile, its speed and agility, and its cloaking device. Their sensors had also been upgraded for increased range and accuracy. That was why Battle Group Valkyrie used the Arrows as dedicated recon craft. The Arrows were meant to spot enemy movements, and then call in the heavy firepower to deal with the threat. Up till a few hours ago, Paladin would have been one hundred percent confident that his fighter could do the job. With the news that the Bugs might be able to see cloaked fighters though, that job had become much harder.

Still, the Ghost Warriors were among the best recon pilots in the entire Union. They had trained for this job over and over again, with dozens of hours in the simulators, and even more time in the cockpit. They would do their jobs, cloak or no cloak. Paladin knew that if he had to, if he really had to, he would go against orders and close in with an enemy ship, hoping that the cloak would let him stay alive long enough to transmit his data back to the ship. Any one of the Ghost Warriors would do the same. That was what recon pilots were paid for. The recon pilots would do their jobs, but Paladin knew that not all of them would make it back.

For now though, Paladin and his wingman, a young woman who went by the callsign Razor, were flying a routine patrol through the Loki System. They were simply following standard operating procedure by sweeping the system ahead of the rest of battle group. They didn't expect to find any sign of the Nephilim here, several jumps away from where the attacks had taken place. It was something of a surprise therefore, when about halfway through their patrol, they found wreckage that their sensors identifying as belonging to Border Worlds craft, as well as wreckage from several Kilrathi fighters and a small capship. The wreckage had no residual energy signature, which meant that it was at least twelve hours old. They reported their find to the Valeria, and continued with the patrol.

Near the end of their patrol, they encountered more wreckage, this time from Kilrathi Vaktoth-class fighters. This wreckage was fairly leaping with energy signatures. There were fresh ion trails leading away from the site of the battle. Paladin reported this find to the Valeria as well, along with the fact that he intended to follow the ion trails.

"Roger that, proceed with extreme caution. We'll have Reaper and Harbinger Squadrons standing by to assist you," the Valeria's comm officer replied.

Proceed with extreme caution. That was a laugh. Fighter pilots who didn't 'proceed with extreme caution' when tracking enemy craft ended up dead pretty darn quick. Paladin pushed his throttle forward as he followed the ion trails, maintaining what he hoped was a reasonable overtake speed on the fighters that had destroyed these Vaktoths. The trick was to move fast enough to catch up with the fighters, but not so fast that they came up on them suddenly. Razor stayed on tight on his wing. Both pilots maintained their cloaks. Even a little protection would be better than none.

It was another five minutes before their scanners picked up the fighters. Paladin checked over the sensor profiles, staying just at the outer edge of scanning range. There was a big difference between taking risks that you had to take and taking needless risks. Razor though, was too young and too eager to make that distinction.

"We can't get a good read at this range," she protested.

"The Colonel told us to keep our distance," Paladin reminded her sharply.

"The Colonel's just being overcautious."

"The Colonel was flying combat missions while you were in grade school," Paladin said absently, his attention fixed on the scanner readings. As he had expected, the long range sensor profiles of the fighters looked nothing like any fighter he had seen before. He said so out loud, forgetting that his comm system was still transmitting.

"Nephilim!" Razor said at once. She sounded panicked, and she had every reason to be. If the enemy fleet was in the system, the Border Worlders were as good as dead. "Valeria, Valeria, we have confirmed hostile craft in the system. Repeat, confirmed hostile craft..."