PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 10 of 66 )

: “ The Tiger Hunt ”

"In battle, one gains victory through the unorthodox...
one who excels at sending forth the unorthodox is as inexhaustible as Heaven,
as unlimited as the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers..."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

BWS Valeria; Command Briefing Room
The Loki System, Union of Border Worlds
About ten hours after the jump into Loki
0700 Hours, 12 Feb 2681 (2681.043)

By now, the combined Confed and Border Worlds fleet was deep into the Loki System, and still heading away from the jump point. The had established a significant lead over the Nephilim, enough so that the Nephilim would have a hard time tracking down them down within the next few hours or launching a strike on them. That also meant that the Nephilim wouldn't be able to observe what they were doing, giving them an opportunity to execute the next part of the plan. If it succeeded, that plan would break the back of the Nephilim fleet that had been hounding them once and for all.

Admiral Erin Hanton had called this meeting to explain the plan to the Fleet's senior officers. Every Admiral, Captain, First Officer, and Wing Commander in the Combined Fleet was "present" at the meeting. They had either shuttled over personally to the Valeria, or in the case of those who couldn't leave their ships, were listening in via video conference screens. Either way, though, the Admiral had made sure that they were all getting the information first hand. The plan that she had in mind was too intricate, and there was too far too much at stake, to risk any misunderstandings.

"Let's begin, ladies and gentlemen," she said crisply. "I'm sure that you've all received the final combat report on our battles in the Nephele System by now, but let's recap just in case. Our fleet was able to inflict significant losses on the Nephilim in Nephele. Enemy losses include three Leviathan supercarriers, ten Hydra heavy cruisers, and roughly two dozen Barracuda corvettes and Orca destroyers, plus about 1,500 enemy fighters. The 8th Cruiser Squadron was also able to seriously damage the two Nephilim dreadnoughts."

"However, in spite of all those losses, it seems that the Nephilim fleet is still far more powerful than we planned for at this stage in the battle. They still have three more Leviathans, the two dreadnoughts and over half a dozen heavy cruisers. Worst of all, in spite of all the losses they suffered in Tyr and Nephele, they still have about four dozen destroyers and corvettes, as well as about 1,800 fighters. Either the initial reports we received badly underestimated the size of this fleet, or these extra ships are reinforcements that have poured out of the wormhole in Kilrathi space in the last two weeks."

"Last, but not least, our own reinforcement situation isn't quite as rosy as we would like. While there six Confed and Border Worlds escort carriers gathering in Nifelheim, carrying about 250 fighters, these are mainly second line or obsolescent craft, flown by pilots who have very little experience in all out warfare. If we simply throw them against the Nephilim fleet while it is still intact, the casualties among the reserves are likely to be horrendous.

"Therefore, we have to do in this system what we weren't quite able to do in Nephele, which is to shatter the Nephilim fleet once and for all. Our goals for the battle in Loki are to destroy at least two, and preferably three or four of the carriers and dreadnoughts. We also need to wipe out the great majority of their cruisers, destroyers, corvettes and fighters. By the time we jump out of this system, I want this Nephilim fleet to be nothing more than a shadow of its former self.

"Now, the question of just how we're going to do that is problematic. I considered simply splitting up the fleet and drawing the Nephilim into individual battles like we did in Nephele, but I doubt they will fall for the same trick twice in a row. We are going to be using a 'divide and conquer' strategy in this system, but with a difference. Instead of simply spitting up and relying on the Nephs to follow each group, we're going to present the Nephs with a target they simply can't resist, and then blast them when they go for the bait.

"In about two hours, we'll be about halfway between the jump point and Loki VI, or rather what's left of Loki VI. Battle Group Valkyrie and the Littenia group will continue straight towards it. We'll be doing it in the open, leaving behind full drive trails and plasma trails as if from damage, and lots of scanning emissions as if we were searching for the Nephilim fleet. That's the bait I was talking about it. Now, there's no guarantee that the Nephilim will take it, but I'm betting that they will. We humiliated them in Nephele, and the need for revenge is a powerful drive in any sentient species. It doesn't matter if you're human, Kilrathi, or Firekkan -- if someone humiliates you, you want to get your own back, even if it isn't always in your own best interests to do so. I'm guessing that the Nephilim will be the same. The chance to take out two fleet carriers and a light carrier plus their escorts in one fell swoop is too much for most commanders and tacticians to resist in any case, and I'm hoping the drive for revenge will override normal common sense about a target that looks too good to be true.

"If everything goes according to plan, it shouldn't take too long for the Nephilim to track us down, and move to the attack. Now, the analysis of the damage reports sent in by the 8th Cruiser Squadron shows that the two dreadnoughts most likely won't be able to keep pace with the carriers if they move to attack us. That's been confirmed by long Range SWACS scans from Yorktown and Valley Forge, which shows that the dreadnoughts are already lagging behind significantly. By drawing the carriers forward to attack us, we should be able to open up enough distance between the two groups so that fighters aboard the carriers won't be able to effectively defend the dreadnoughts, and vice versa. We effectively halve the fighter strength they can bring to bear in any one place, which in turn opens up both groups to attack. That'll allow us to attack and destroy large portions of this fleet piecemeal.

"That's where the rest of you come in. While the Valkryries and the Littenia group are moving forward towards Loki VI, the Yorktown and the Valley Forge will split off and circle back towards the jump point. You will sneak around those dreadnoughts and attack them from behind. I know that it'll be faster to attack them from the front, but that puts you at risk of being sandwiched between the dreadnoughts and carriers before they move far enough apart. You'll be doing this in stealth mode, with minimum drive emissions and scanning. That'll make it harder for you to track down and attack those dreadnoughts, but the element of surprise is everything in this plan. I doubt that the Nephilim will be stupid enough to leave their dreadnoughts clustered together when they're so vulnerable, so you'll have to hunt them down separately. We also don't know how many escorts will be with each dreadnought, but you should be prepared for an all out fleet battle, as brutal as any of those in Nephele.

"Now, those dreadnoughts and their escorts are the primary target of this plan, but seeing as we're risking so much in this battle, I'm not willing to settle for them alone. At the same time as the carrier groups split off, so will the capship squadrons. Commodore Colby, I'm assigning you to work with the 6th BW Corvette Squadron in addition to the units you led in Nephele. Your units will also split off in stealth mode, but you will accelerate ahead of the Valkyries and the Littenia. That avoids the risk of you being in the path of those carriers when they strike at us. You will then circle back towards the jump point.

"That'll put you on the flanks of those carriers as they take up position to attack us. I want you to try and overwhelm at least one of those carrier groups while their fighters are busy concentrating on us. More than one carrier will be a bonus, but again I doubt the Nephilim will be stupid enough to cluster their carriers while they're so vulnerable. Locating even one of those carriers while you're in stealth mode is going to be difficult. Destroying even one carrier though, will make you a threat on their flanks, which should draw some of the heat off us. Understood?"

"Aye, aye, Admiral," Commodore Colby said. He had originally been in command of the 15th DESRON, but his unit's marked victories in Tyr and Nephele had lead to him being given command of the 18th DESRON and 1st Torpedo Boat Squadron as well. Now Admiral Hanton was entrusting him with even more responsibility. Sending four capship units after a single carrier group might seem like overkill at first glance, but it wasn't when one looked closely. After the battles they had fought in Tyr and Nephele, those four units only had about two dozen ships between them. Not only that, all of those were light capships (corvettes, torpedo boats and destroyers), and many were carrying damage. They needed all the firepower they could get if they were going to overwhelm that carrier, with all its escorts and the fighters that remained behind to defend it.

"Now, last but not least, the Endeavour's battle group, and the 8th Cruiser Squadron. You will be doing much the same thing that the capship units are, accelerating ahead and then circling back to attack the flanks of the carriers, but on the opposite flank to that used by the capship units. Again, your mission is to try and single out at least one of carrier groups for attack. Trying to take out four out of those five Nephilim super ships in one system is probably being a little over-optimistic, but we're going to try anyway. Taking out a carrier group with a flight wing as small as yours will be difficult, but with the support of your capships you should be able to do it. All right, that's our strategy for this system in a nutshell. Any questions?"

"Just one," Rear Admiral Kennedy, the CO of the Yorktown group, said in his slow, deep voice. "Going to stealth mode will cut both our speed and our tracking ability significantly. We'll have to rely on First Kilrathi War-era fighter patrols to find the Neph ships. Even under the best of circumstances, it will take the better part of three days to circle back, track down our targets, destroy them and then get back to where we can support you. The units attacking the flanks won't be able to do it much faster. It's going to take them a hell of a long time to track down those carriers in stealth mode. Even if it takes the Nephs a few hours to catch up with you, you're still looking at fighting off attacks from those three carriers for two days or more. Those carriers could have upwards of 1,000 fighters, and two days is a long time to be fighting those kinds of odds. Are you sure that's the wisest thing to do?"

"I would hardly be sending my own ship into the firing line if I thought it was a suicide mission, Admiral," Admiral Hanton said with smile. "First, I doubt the odds will be quite as bad as you paint them. Those carriers will have to hold back a certain number of fighters to defend themselves. If they don't, well, Commodore Colby and the Endeavour crew will most likely win the war for us right then and there. Second, I'm confident that my pilots can handle the job. These two battle groups are probably in the best shape of all the carrier groups, and Border Worlders spend their entire careers training for defensive battles fought on their own turf. Last but not least, the ruins of Loki VI will provide us with some cover, which will make it harder for the Nephilim to hunt us down. Now, I'm under no illusions that this diversion is going to be either easy or bloodless. In fact, it will be far from either of those things, but it can be done."

She held up her hand to forestall any further objections. "Yes, I'm aware that it's a risk, and a big one. The thing is, ladies and gentlemen, war is all about calculated risks. That's especially true when you're heavily outnumbered. A side that's massively outnumbered never wins by fighting conservatively, because conservative tactics always favor the stronger side. Given how much we stand to gain here, I think that this is a risk  well worth taking. Okay, anything else?"

"And just what happens if the Aliens decide not to take the bait? This whole plan hinges on them acting the way we expect them to." That came from the Valley Forge's CO, the enigmatic Captain Eldon Vandermann.

"If they don't, Captain Vandermann, then we'll still be in good position to cut them to pieces with hit and run attacks. We'll have the Valkyries and the Littenia group in front of them, the Forge and Yorktown behind them, and the capship units and the Endeavour on their flanks. If the Nephs don't play into our trap, I'll contact your groups via tight beam laser link with new orders for all of you."

The Admiral paused for a second; waiting to see if there were any other questions, and then continued. "Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we all have a lot of work to do before we split up, so let's get to it. The tactical and Intell divisions will provide you with all the fine details. One other thing: Colonel Trebek, I would like you to transfer over any SWACS craft that the Forge can spare to the Valeria. Coordinating fighter battles in Loki's ruins is going to be difficult, and SWACS will help immensely."

"Of course, Admiral," the Valley Forge's WC said crisply.

"Very well, dismissed, then."


Deep Space, Loki System
About 0900 Hours

The preparations continued for the next two hours. Every detail was gone through in detail by the commanders and tactical officers of the various groups, as it would be tough to make major changes once they had split up. By the time the Combined Fleet had reached the halfway point, though, the last of those details had been ironed out. Now it was time to go their separate ways.

The TCS Yorktown and the TCS Valley Forge were the first to break off, each accompanied by her escorting capships. The ships accelerated away from their original flight path at right angles. They would keep going like that for a few million klicks, before pulling another right angle turn and circling back to towards the jump point. Theirs was a difficult task. Taking out a Tiamat-class dreadnought was a challenge at the best of times, but these Nephilim dreadnoughts would probably be accompanied by a number of escorts as well. The two Confed fleet carriers had powerful flight wings though, and they would more than likely be able to do the job.

The four light capship squadrons broke off next, as did the TCS Endeavour and the 8th Cruiser Squadron. As per their instructions, they accelerated ahead of the Border Worlds carriers. They would stay ahead of the Border Worlders for several hours, before turning back to outflank the Nephilim carrier groups. Their task was no less difficult than those facing the Yorktown and Valley Forge groups. They had to hunt down and eliminate the Nephilim Leviathans, without giving the Nephilim any warning that they were being hunted. If the Nephilim caught wind of these flanking groups, they could either scatter or turn their attack on the flanking ships. The flanking groups had fewer fighters than the fleet carriers did, but more capship support. Again, if everything went according to plan, they should be able to get the job done.

The Border Worlds carrier groups, of course, simply continued straight ahead at the same speed. The only change was that their engineers and sensor crews massively increased their drive emissions and active scanning, helping maintain the illusion of a large group of ships that were searching for the Nephilim (the other groups, of course, had all gone silent before they had split off). Their job was perhaps the most difficult of all, keeping the attention of those Nephilim carrier groups focused on them for several days, and hopefully surviving that experience.

As they separated, both the Confed and Border Worlds crews were acutely aware of how much they were depending on each other. The Confeds were counting on the Border Worlders to keep the Nephilim divided and distracted. If that failed, the Confed groups could find themselves cut off and destroyed one by one. At the same time, the Border Worlders were counting on the Confeds to track down and destroy the attacking carriers fast enough to keep the Border Worlds carriers from being swarmed under. Over the past two weeks, the Confeds and Border Worlders had learnt to trust each other. That trust hadn't come easy, but instead had been forged through shared danger and hardship and loss. Now they were going to put that trust to its ultimate test.


BWS Valeria; Lounge
1200 Hours

"There you go, Colonel," the barkeep said as he handed over a glass containing a double Hell's Kitchen.

"Thanks," Raptor said absently as he turned away from the bar. As a matter of fact, he wouldn't have noticed the difference if the barkeep had handed him a glass of water. He was busy thinking about the mission Admiral Hanton had set the flight wing. The mission from hell, to his way of thinking.

That wasn't to say that he didn't have every confidence in his flight wing. The fighters they flew, while not as advanced as the best that Confed had, were more than up the task. A simple analysis of statistics and flight characteristics showed that fighters like the Retaliator, Bearcat, Excalibur, and Intruder were a match for most Nephilim craft. The Nephilim did have an advantage in some areas (such as in armor protection and agility), but the Border Worlds fighters had the edge in others, such as in firepower, shielding and special abilities like auto-slide and auto-tracking. Their Stalker EW craft had proven extremely useful in jamming and confusing the Nephilim, allowing the Border Worlders to exploit their better tactics and teamwork to the max, and their B-7 Dauntless bombers were superb ship killers. Last but not least, now that they could use their cloaks once again, the Excaliburs and Arrows should be able to wreak some serious havoc on the Nephilim. While there were some craft in the Border Worlds line-up (such as Avengers or Banshees) that were getting obsolescent, they should do fine if used to support the more modern craft.

Similarly, he had every confidence in his pilots. Battle Group Valkyrie had been able to draw some of the very best pilots and squadrons in the Union (from older carriers that were being scrapped) when it had been first formed. Those who had put together the Littenia's wing hadn't been able to be quite so picky, as the carrier had been rushed into service to combat the Nephilim threat,  but the available pool of pilots and units from those older carriers meant that the Littenia's wing, too, was of very high quality. In the short time he had been serving aboard the Valeria, Raptor had come to know that the men and women under his command were loyal, brave and highly dedicated.

Of course, loyalty and courage didn't mean all that much in fighter combat they weren't backed up by training and experience, but the pilots had that, too. Most of the senior pilots, the squadron leaders, execs and flight leaders who would be controlling the battle, had fought for Confed during the First Kilrathi War, and had benefited from the superb training Confed gave its forces. And while the younger pilots had been trained in the Union (where training standards weren't quite as good), Border Worlds training was nothing to be sneezed at either. Raptor had put in a short stint at the Border Worlds Space Force Academy between the Battle for the Bush and this current campaign, and he had seen first hand the effort that the instructors had put in.

Besides, whatever deficiencies there might be in the training of the younger pilots had been more than compensated for by their wealth of combat experience. The pilots aboard the Border Worlds ships were probably the most combat experienced in the entire fleet. Most had seen hard action in the Kilrathi Wars, the Border Worlds Conflict, Cynium, and the Battle for the Bush, or the vicious skirmishes that cropped up along the frontier. The fact that most Border Worlds systems were within two jumps of Kilrathi territory meant that there was really no such thing as "peacetime" in the Border Worlds. That experience had given them an edge that could never be learned in a classroom.

In short, Raptor had believed, right from the start of this campaign against the Nephilim, that the Border Worlders were ready. That belief had been borne out by their victories in Tyr and Nephele. The Valkyries had been tested harder than any other carrier group in Tyr. They had been involved in the two largest and most intense fighter battles in Tyr, and had taken more losses than any other carrier group, losing 27 fighters and two of their escorts. On the flip side though, they had also destroyed more enemy fighters than any other carrier group. Between 200 and 250 Nephilim craft had fallen to their guns, close to third of all fighters shot down in Tyr. Far more importantly, the 100,000 refugees they had been charged with protecting had all escaped the system safely. And while the Border Worlders had had a much more straightforward assignment in Nephele (taking out an enemy carrier group whose flight wing had been weakened by pilots from the Bunker Hill), nothing in war was simple or easy, and the Border Worlders had completed their task admirably. They had taken out the 250 enemy fighters facing them, had destroyed the carrier's escorts in record time, and then had disabled the carrier without destroying it, allowing their Marines to extract the Bunker Hill survivors. All this had been done while racing against time to stop the ships reaching a nearby jump point, and with minimum casualties. They had lost just 17 fighters in that battle, plus another four lost in a recon mission earlier. They had pulled that off by fighting dirty, of course, but no one ever said life or war was meant to be fair. They had handled every challenge they had faced so far, and Raptor knew they were ready for the challenge ahead of them.

However, while he had confidence in his fighters and pilots, he had been around long enough to be realistic about the situation. This was likely to be by far the toughest challenge the Border Worlders would face in this campaign, if not in their careers. Those three enemy carriers and their battle groups would hit them with everything but the proverbial kitchen sink. The Border Worlders would likely be dealing with waves of fighters at odds of anywhere from 3-1 to 5-1, as well as capship assaults. Not only that, the battle would have to last not just a few minutes or a few hours, but close to two or three days if they were going to give the other groups enough time to sneak up on and destroy their targets. That meant the Border Worlders couldn't simply disengage and run, or try to lose the Nephs among Loki's ruins. They could play hide and seek in the ruins, using them for to gain a breather from the fighting, but they had to make sure that the Aliens stayed interested in them. In short, it was going to be two days of hell. If they did everything right, they just might survive, but they were going to have to fight like they had never fought before, and a lot of good people were going to die in that fighting.

Raptor also had in the back of his mind what had happened to the Bunker Hill battle group in Nephele only a few days ago. It had been sandwiched between two enemy carrier groups. The Hill, her escorts, and her fighters had been annihilated, and only 140 odd of the over 5,000 people in the group had survived. The Hill's pilots too had been well equipped, well trained, brave and experienced. The odds that the Hill had faced been somewhat worse than what they were facing (roughly 6-1) and the loss of the battle group had been due in large part to mistakes and bad decisions by the Hill's commanding officers. He was hoping that they could avoid those kinds of mistakes, but what had happened to the Bunker Hill was still an important lesson. Sometimes, no matter how good you were or what you did, you could end up in a situation from which you couldn't escape.

All in all, this was the battle that would be the true test of the Border Worlders. It was the battle that would test whether their claims that they were good enough to stand shoulder to shoulder with Confed really were true, or if those claims were just empty boasting. Of course, if they flunked that test, they were all going to be dead.

Right now, though, Raptor was on his way to meet some of the pilots he had served with the longest. He would be calling a briefing for all the COs and execs later, but he first wanted to get some feedback from those he knew and trusted. His friends had taken a seat on the far side of the lounge, near the viewports. He joined them, and quickly filled them in on Admiral Hanton's plan. As expected, none of them looked happy when they heard the task Admiral Hanton had set them.

"Great. So we're going to be the goat," Lt. Colonel Alex "Skywalker" Witt said grimly. He commanded the Valeria's Excalibur squadron, and was also the Valeria's deputy Wing Commander.

"Goat?" Lt. Colonel Chrys "Mirage" Rhodes asked, raising an eyebrow and looking totally baffled. She led the Reapers, the Valeria's Retaliator space superiority squadron.

"A small domesticated mammal native to Terra," Skywalker explained helpfully. He was unique among the senior pilots in that he was from Earth, not from the Border Worlds. "It has four legs, eats plants..."

"I know what a goat is!" Mirage snapped. She hated it when people  treated her like a yokel simply because she had been born and raised in the Border Worlds.

"Why did you ask, then?" Skywalker said reasonably.

"Knock it off, you two," Raptor said, before Chrys could come up with a suitably devastating reply.

"Sorry," Skywalker apologized. "Anyway, I was talking about an old
story that comes from India."

"Really? How does it go?" Mirage asked, more to take her thoughts off the odds they would be facing than out of any real curiosity.

"Well, they have tigers in the jungles there. Or at least they used to. About the only place you can see a tiger now are in a few of the bigger zoos on Earth," Skywalker said. He paused for just a second, as if wondering whether he should explain what a tiger was. He saw the look on Chrys' face and quickly decided against it.

"Anyway, that wasn't the case ten or twelve centuries ago, when the Indian jungles teamed with them. Sometimes, tigers that were old or wounded turned into man-eaters. They had to be hunted down and destroyed. Now, the hunters didn't go thrashing around the jungle looking for the tiger. Instead they took a goat, and staked it out near the tiger's hunting grounds. The tiger would find the goat and begin feeding, and while it was busy eating, the hunters would sneak up and nab it. Trouble was, by then..."

"It was a little late for the goat. Nice," Mirage finished, grimacing slightly. That did describe their situation rather nicely. They were indeed the bait that would draw out the "tiger," leaving it vulnerable to the hunters. She just hoped they wouldn't end up like the goat in Skywalker's story.

"Yeah. I keep thinking about what happened to the Hill," Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung said. He led the Harbingers, the battle group's Bearcat interceptor unit, and was also the WC of the Freedom, Battle Group Valkyrie's second carrier. "If we end up getting trapped by those carriers like they did..."

"Oh, we're not going to end up like they did," Mirage said, sounding like she was determined to look on the bright side. "For one thing, Admiral Hanton is a hell of a lot better tactician than that idiot Rayak was. And for another, we've got a WC who's at least marginally competent."

"Thanks. I think," Raptor said wryly.

"No charge," Mirage said with a smile. "So, what are we going to do?"

"Well, I think..." Phalanx began. The others leaned forward to listen as he spoke, and then began swapping ideas back and forth, trying to come up with the tactics that would help stop them being eaten by the tiger.


BWS Valeria; Portside Hanger Bay
About 1430 Hours

"Okay, a little more to the left... I said left!... okay, good, start lowering... gently, gently, those things cost more than we'll make in twenty years..."

The enlisted spaceman operating the winch finally managed to lower the replacement radar array safely into the Retaliator's forward avionics bay, and Chief Tech Russel Allston breathed a sigh of relief. The Retaliators were powerful fighters, but their high performance components would tolerate much less rough handling than those of most other Border Worlds fighters. The designers had pushed the limits of Border Worlds tech, creating a fighter that the pilots loved, but was hell for the techs to work with.

That wouldn't normally have been a problem, as the new Arcadia class carriers had more than enough techs and engineers to keep the fighters running smoothly, but those people were being run off their feet at the moment, as were the techs on the Littenia, Freedom, and their escorts. That was the way it had been much of the past two weeks, as fighters came back from their missions damaged, and the techs raced to repair them as fast as possible before their next mission. Now, with the news that the Border Worlds ships were going to engage in the biggest battle they had fought so far, there was even more pressure on the techs to have as many fighters ready for battle as was humanly possible.

As the Chief finished plugging the radar into the rest of the Retaliator's systems (it had lost its old radar when a Nephilim plasma blast had eaten through the forward armor), he quickly ran over the numbers in his head once again. The three carriers and their escorts would normally have about 270 fighters between them. However, they had lost a total of 48 fighters in Tyr and Nephele. Another 24 had been transferred to the Valley Forge and the Defiance to replace some of the losses those ships had suffered. Of the remaining 200 odd, at least two dozen were still carrying damage. Those fighters were the ones that Allston and hundreds of others were racing to repair.

As he moved towards his next job, an Excalibur with a damaged shield generator, he shook his head slightly. The Admiral wanted all those 200 fighters ready to fly by midnight, and Chief Allston would see that she got her wish. Those fighters would not all be letter perfect, but they would be ready to fly and fight. The Border Worlders might not survive the coming battle, but if they didn't, it wouldn't be because the techs hadn't done their jobs. Come hell or high water, the fighters would be ready when the pilots needed them.


BWS Valeria; Flight Wing Briefing Room
About 1800 Hours

To quote the old cliché, the tension in the briefing room was thick enough to be cut with a knife. The room was packed, as the various WCs, squadron COs, and squadron execs had all shuttled over to the Valeria for this strategy session. This was to be a different sort of meeting from the one Admiral Hanton had held earlier. That had simply been a briefing from a commander to her subordinates. This though, was a meeting between people who were more or less equals, and who would be working together very closely over the next couple of days. Instead of simply getting a list of orders, they were going to swap ideas and fine tune their plans, in much the same way that the pilots in the lounge had done earlier. For all that informality though, no one here was relaxed in the slightest, because they all knew how hard their task was going to be.

"All right, let's get started," Raptor said, after stepping up to the front of the room and waiting for the background conversations to die down. "The good news, or the bad news depending on how you look at it, is that the Admiral's plan seems to working. The SWACS have already picked up signs that those carriers are on our trail. We should be able to get to Loki VI before they're within strike range, but things should start getting very interesting soon after that. I hope you all caught plenty of sleep over the last few days, because I doubt we'll get much tonight or the next couple of nights."

"Now, given how badly we're outnumbered, we're going to be adopting a mainly defensive posture throughout this operation. Trying to mount any kind of preemptive attack on those carriers is useless, as they will be able to swamp our fighters with theirs. Instead we're going to head into the ruins of Loki VI, and fend off any attacks they send after us. We'll of course be mounting strikes on any capships they send after us, but that'll be the extent of our offensive operations. Most of our time will be spent flying patrols, sweeps, BARCAPs, and fleet defense operations. As much as we all enjoy a good fleet defense battle, though..."

That got a couple of laughs. Fleet defense battles were commonly regarded as a fighter pilot's worst nightmare. They often involved hundreds of fighters and multiple capships slugging it out, with gunfire and missiles flying all over the place. Casualties among both the attacking and defending pilots tended to be horrendous. In those situations, fighters were simply considered expendable assets used to defend or destroy a capship, in much the same way that torpedoes and missiles were. Of course, the fighter pilots saw it rather differently.

"As much as we all enjoy a good fleet defense battle, we want to keep the number of pitched battles to a minimum. The last thing we want is to give the Nephilim a chance to throw all their fighters at us in one go, and smash us under through sheer weight of numbers like they did to the Bunker Hill. A short, large-scale battle favors the Nephilim. A protracted, multiple phase battle favors us, because it gives our Confed friends that much more time to sneak around and shove a torpedo or twelve up those carriers' backsides. The key here is to try and control the battle so it develops the way we want to. We have the advantage of early warning from our recon Arrows and SWACS, as well as the jamming abilities of our Stalkers. If we fight smart and make the best use of those advantages, we just might come out of this one alive. Now, as for the specific details..."

Thrashing out those specific details took the better part of three hours, as the pilots fine tuned the plan that had been developed a few hours earlier in the lounge, and then refined with input from Valeria's tactical staff. The planners and commanders of the two battle groups had been just as busy as the techs and deck crews.

"All right, I'll make sure that each of you gets a copy of the patrol and CAP schedules once you get back to your ships," Raptor said, as the meeting wound down. "To start with though, Phalanx, your Bearcats will have the initial patrol once we get close to Loki VI, with the Retaliators from Reaper Squadron for backup. The Intruders from Black Angel Squadron will relieve you in six hours, with the Littenia's Retaliators for backup. I expect the Nephilim to start sending fighter probes into Loki VI's ruins either late tonight or early tomorrow morning, so stay alert. We don't want them finding our ships too early."

He glanced around and took a deep breath, wondering how many of these people would be here once this tiger hunt was over. Wondering if any of them would be here. "Apart from that, good luck, all of you."


Near Loki VI, the Loki System
About 2100 Hours

Loki VI. A name engraved in humanity's memory, engraved as a symbol of both hope and despair. To the younger pilots and crewers in the two battle groups, it was a name that had dominated the news vids for weeks, and been the source of endless debate and speculation for months or years afterwards. To those who had fought in the First Kilrathi War, it was far more than that.

This was where Admiral Tolwyn had tested his Behemoth super-laser, utterly destroying the planet, and for a short while, given humanity's battered defenders hope of victory against the Kilrathi. This was also where that hope had been brutally and totally crushed by a Kilrathi ambush. The implications of that disaster reached far beyond the First Kilrathi War, perhaps starting Tolwyn on the road to being the monster that he finally became, which in turn had driven a wedge between Confed and the Union for nearly a decade. In short, Loki VI was the place where a desperate gamble against overwhelming odds had failed, and failed disastrously. The symbolism wasn't lost on anyone. Everyone in the two battle groups, from Admiral Hanton on down, was hoping that history wasn't going to repeat itself.

On a more practical level, though, Loki VI was the ideal place to carry out their plan. The Behemoth super-laser had not vaporized the planet. There was simply too much solid matter in any world for any weapon designed by humans to do that. Instead, the laser had generated seismic shocks that had literally ripped the world apart, tearing continents asunder, rendering them down into chunks of free floating rubble. The remains of Loki VI had formed what looked like an asteroid field, except that it was much denser by far than most asteroid fields. Giant chunks of rock the size of cities and mountains formed the core of the field, while smaller boulders and fragments orbited them in a constant, swirling dance. Dust and gas from the shattered world filled the gaps between these, forming a hiding place that would help conceal the Border Worlds carriers and their escorts from Nephilim eyes and sensors.

[Author's note : I'm drawing this from the WC3 Novel, where it is speculated that the Behemoth laser tears a world apart rather than vaporizing it. In other words, it works much the same way that the Temblor Bomb does. Also, in the WC3 game, the schematic Tolwyn shows Eisen and Blair has the world flying apart rather than vaporizing.]

As they entered the cover provided by Loki's ruins, the two Border Worlds carrier groups began to separate. The plasma trails and ion trails they had left should have convinced the Nephilim that the ships were here, but they did not want to make it easy for the Nephilim to find them. The longer they could keep playing cat-and-mouse in the ruins, the more time they could give the other units, while minimizing the time they were exposed to direct attack by the Neph fighters. At the same time, they didn't want the Nephs to not find any sign of them, as that might encourage the Nephilim to look elsewhere. They had to perform a balancing act, using first one and then the other carrier group as bait. Just how well they performed that balancing act would determine their own survival, as well as the outcome of the battle in this system, if not the entire campaign.