PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 11 of 66 )

: The Tiger Hunt

"Among the pillars of victory, the first and greatest is the art of the
unexpected, for it is by surprise that the Warrior achieves domination
on the field of battle."
- Kilrathi Proverb (from the Second Codex)

BWS Freedom; Flight Deck
The Loki System, Union of Border Worlds
1600 Hours, 12 Feb 2681 (2681.043)

Lt. Colonel Yu Fei "Phalanx" Leung ran a hand over the barrel of the tachyon cannon on his F-104 Bearcat fighter's left wing, the single remaining gun on that side. The other one had been shot off in a vicious attack on his flank by a Manta. He remembered how he'd responded, too, by swinging around to the right to settle behind the Manta as it burst past, flying way too fast when it had fired on him. A pair of missiles had destroyed the Manta, shredding it into a thousand pieces that spun away to be lost in the huge expanse of space.

Both bad decisions on his part. The reason the Manta had been going so fast was because it was trying to save a fellow Manta that Phalanx had been gunning down. The Nephilim fighters were already in retreat, and Phalanx should've just let one of the other pilots handle that Manta while staying with his original target and bringing it down. Instead, it got away to return safely to its fleet. And, even more stupidly, he'd used two missiles to kill the Manta that had shot him up. With his whole squadron behind him, their combined gunfire would've torn it apart without wasting valuable armament on an enemy who was clearly doomed. He had let his personal feelings override his judgment.

He knew that they couldn't count on reinforcements to save the day. While there were several escort carriers that would be joining their force soon, he knew those units were very, very green. And there were huge differences between veteran units and green ones. It was said that armies are like mountains. They are immense, powerful, and stand tall and strong... but once they start to topple, there's almost no stopping the avalanche. Battles are won and lost not by individual talent, but by sheer grit and skill and most importantly, a unit's unity. Green fighter wings didn't have that.

A hand on the shoulder snapped him out of his thoughts. A tech in awful looking coveralls loomed into view, but was so tall that all Phalanx could see was her coveralls. She looked big enough to haul a torpedo up onto the flight deck and hurl it into space at an enemy capship all by herself. Phalanx tilted his head back to make eye contact.

"Well, I'm sorry, but we can't find a replacement for the light tachyon cannon you lost there."

"Shit," Phalanx hissed. "Thanks for looking anyway."

"You're welcome..." the tech rubbed her nose and her eyes focused distantly in thought for a moment. "Hey, maybe we could substitute a gun in there... a different kind. We got a few ion cannons and particle cannons lying around."

"But it wouldn't be a great fit, would it?"

"No... and it probably would be incompatible with the autotracking guns, so even if I got it on there, it wouldn't swivel and aim properly."

"Yeah." Phalanx turned to glance again at the mangled left wing tip, then drifted his gaze across the rest of the fighter. It looked like shit, with patches of armor just bolted back on where it had been blown away, and breaches in the hull just sealed back up hastily. But it still flew as well as could be expected. The technicians had done a hell of a job maintaining these birds... none had yet had a system break down in combat... except from enemy fire, of course. And even though their jobs weren't the most glamorous, it was an important one, and they got it done well. "Listen, it's all right if it doesn't work, but could you try anyway?"

"I mean to."

"Thanks a lot. You guys have done a great job holding our fighters together."

She shrugged, "Just doing our jobs."

Phalanx shook his head. "They oughta give medals to you guys too."

At that, the technician's look turned grim. "Well, right now, medals won't do anybody any good. A shiny piece of metal isn't gonna help save anyone from those bugs."

The two of them were silent for a moment as they shared a look through the open front end of the Freedom's flight deck. Ahead of them, so far off in the distance that it was only visible as a glowing band, but drawing steadily closer, a vast field of shattered planetary fragments hung suspended. The odd thing about many astronomical events was the apparent slowness with which they occurred. It made all of space seem like one big glorious special effects show taking place in slow motion, and it made you feel like you were insignificant... just some insect buzzing around to live out your short life, the world going on its own way without you after you were dead.

But this... this had been man-made. Loki VI was now nothing more than a sphere of debris, large and small, and a big cloud of dust. This astronomical event had not been slow or graceful at all. The planet had been ripped apart in one cataclysmic, violent explosion, hurling chunks of rock out at an initial speed of nearly 500 kilometers per second. Phalanx shivered. We can destroy whole planets now, he thought.

The process of jumping a massive vessel across the expanses between stars had been called the greatest man-made physical phenomenon. That had been the case for several centuries, until the destruction of Loki VI and the Kilrathi homeworld.

Phalanx smiled, "But you know what? That huge pile of planetary garbage just might save us."


BWS Valeria; Flight Deck
2100 Hours, 12 Feb 2681

Checking the straps once more quickly before launching, Phalanx propped his legs up on top of a tool chest. A mish mash of other equipment was strewn across the floor of the passenger area on the shuttle. He'd just departed from a meeting with the other squadron leaders for Battle Group Valkyrie, where they had discussed some of the strategies they could use against the Nephilim in the coming battles. It seemed to Phalanx that the overall strategy Admiral Hanton had come up with was a bold plan, and one that showed how much faith she had in her troops. Very few people, to Phalanx's knowledge, had used such a strategy before. Part of the reason for that was because few commanders would ever use their troops as bait. Units had been used as diversions before, but they usually just engaged briefly and broke away once they drew the enemy to themselves. Here, Hanton was asking her people to stand and fight against overwhelming odds. She had enough confidence in them that she believed they could weather the storm of Nephilim ships and fighters long enough for the ambushing forces to hit the enemy unawares.

The shuttle pilot was cleared for launch, and took it slow in maneuvering the craft clear of the flight bay. Phalanx was actually just hitching a ride on this shuttle, which happened to be carrying pieces of equipment and even munitions and charge capacitors. The Freedom was a small carrier, and hadn't been able to spare much space for supplies. Fortunately, the Valeria had some spare parts it could give up to its smaller counterpart.

Once they were out into space, the shuttle's sensor display lit up brilliantly. All around them, the battle group's ships had rigged themselves to run with a lot of "noise". Sensors were operating at full power, irradiating the space particles around them and leaving big traces of their emissions. The engines of the big ships were burning with less power, but the same amount of fuel was dumped in anyway, operating less efficiently, and leaving a huge trail of ionized gases behind. Hydrogen intakes glowed brightly as they scooped in the surrounding gases to feed propulsion systems.

The ride was very brief, and in just under two minutes, the shuttle had touched down on the Freedom's deck. Phalanx got up and opened the main door at the rear, which opened downward and settled on the ground to act as a ramp. There was nobody to greet him as he walked down, and instead, deck hands came up immediately and began unloading the supplies. They moved painfully, sluggishly, and there were dark circles around their eyes. Their muscles must be so sore from working so hard, he thought.

All around the flight bay he saw the same thing. Weary people in filthy clothes were struggling hard to keep the fleet in one piece. Their enemies were time and fatigue. Right now, it was hard to tell which side was winning. But, looking at how hard they were fighting, Phalanx felt admiration lump up in his throat.

He crossed into the lift and took it several levels up, and then headed for the simulator pod room. When he got there, he found most of his pilots hard at work, practicing their techniques with relentless drive and focus. A few were taking breaks and watching the screens, drinking coffee.

Phalanx moved to the controls for the simulator scenarios, and pressed down the intercom button. "All right, troops, get out of cyberspace."

The pilots inside the simulator pods grunted replies, shutting down and popping them open. They assembled in a crooked line in front of him. "Wait a minute, where's Mouse?"

Several of the pilots turned to look around. There was still one pod shut and active.

"Breach, tell that idiot to get his ass out here."

The veteran pilot, known for his reliability and uncommon ability to swing into just the right position to secure a gap or fill in a weakness, reached out and banged hard on the pod. They heard a muffled curse from the pod, followed by a hasty shutdown, and then the pod opened up to the snickers and jeers of the other pilots. Mouse climbed out, his face reddening, and held his hands behind his back.

"Mouse, didn't you hear me when I told you to get out?"

"No, sir. I'm sorry, I didn't."

"Oh, really?" Phalanx squinted. "Put your hands at your side."

Mouse groaned, stuck his hands out, and in his hands he held a music player with headphones.

"Ah. I see. Just how loud were you playing that thing? How do you expect to hear a general alert or a call to battle stations while you're wearing that? What would happen if we suddenly had to go into battle and we all launched except for you? We'd all be busy fighting for our lives short one pilot with you still playing around in the simulator."

"I'm sorry, sir, it won't happen again."

Phalanx softened his tone, "Look, it's fine to have that, and it's fine to play it, too. Off duty. Make sure you don't have the volume on that thing jacked up so high that you wouldn't hear it if a torpedo hit the ship."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir."

"All right, enough of that. Admiral Hanton's come up with a plan. It's not a plan I like, and unless you are bored with life, I don't think you're gonna like it much, either. It's risky, but you know and I know that if we play it safe and conservative, we're gonna lose. So we take a chance. What we're gonna do is head right for Loki VI's ruins, leaving a nice bright trail of emissions behind us for the Nephilim to find. Meanwhile, elements of the fleet split up to head to deeper space, running silent and hiding their signatures. They are to be the trap that smashes the Nephilim where they're vulnerable, from the sides and from behind. But... like any trap, there has to be bait. Guess what? We're the bait."


Harbinger Lead
Deep Space, 322 mark 008, the Loki System
2250 Hours, 12 Feb 2681

For some reason, Phalanx had an urge to pull the trigger on his flight stick for his three remaining tachyon cannons. Especially since no other pilots were around him at the moment. His squadron, along with the Retaliators from Reaper Squadron, was strung out like a net, searching for Alien patrols. They were each flying solo, but close enough to one another to overlap their sensor fields, while also maintaining a vidcomm link. The Retaliators were behind them, ready to assist and reinforce if they had to fight.

"Nav Area Baker reached," a voice within the cockpit intoned. Nav Charlie came up next, and Phalanx was about to correct course to head for it when his comm crackled.

"Harbinger 2 to Harbinger lead. Enemy spotted. I count 46, that is, four-six, Nephilim fighters. Lights and mediums."

Phalanx jerked his head up. For anybody else, Confed, Andorran, Kilrathi, even Border Worlds, scouting in such a manner was a highly unusual tactic. Their Intell on Nephilim ships was still sketchy, and there was little data on the range of their fighters, or the endurance of their pilots. It seemed that the Nephilim sent this force out not only the scout, but to bull its way through any of their picket fighters to find the fleet.

"That's their scouting party?" Breach muttered.

"Weird, ain't it? But that's how they operate," Phalanx replied. "It's just as we expected, though. They're following right along the ion trail we left. Okay, form up. Head for Nav Bravo. We'll regroup there and fight. I'm calling in the Retaliators."

Phalanx spun his ship around and afterburned for Nav Bravo. The rest of the squadron would home in right for that spot, pulling away from the enemy until they reached it, and there they'd make their stand. The thoughts that run through every person's mind before battle now tickled at the edges of his mind. "Harbinger Lead to Reaper Lead."

"Reaper Lead here." Mirage's voice sounded faint, coming from across nearly a million kilometers. "You've spotted the enemy."

"That's right. We're gonna head for Nav Bravo. See you there."

"Wait a minute. What's the composition of their forces?"

"Two shy of four dozen fighters. Lights and mediums in the mix."

"Phalanx... I had an idea just after we took off on this sortie."


"I've got a plan."

"Great. Anything that makes it easier to kill more of the enemy and less of us." Phalanx paused. "What is it?"

"It's a lot to explain. Just trust me on this one." There was another pause, and quiet beeps as Mirage worked her fighter's controls. "Head for these coordinates as fast as you can. You're gonna love this," Mirage read off the coordinates.

"Confirmed, Reaper Leader," Phalanx replied, a bit confused. "All right, Harbinger lead to Harbinger squadron, change in plans. Form up on my wing now."

"Hey, Phalanx?"


"Check your 'six' when you reach those coordinates. You'll get it when you get here."

Over the next minute, Bearcat fighters flocked towards his position, settling in on his wings. The Nephilim fighters were just right behind. Gripping his flight stick tightly, Phalanx glanced around to make sure all pilots were present and accounted for.

"Afterburners... on 3... 2... 1... mark." The Bearcats, with their incredible acceleration, leapt forward in unison with blazing speed, their engines howling as they hit top speed at 1,400 KPS. The Nephilim ships, though, were still behind them and keeping up, just 18,000 kilometers behind them. It was gonna be another half million klicks to the coordinates Mirage gave to Phalanx. Once their formation was stable and they were settled in, Phalanx checked the coordinates he'd been given. They were right on the outer edges of the ruins of Loki VII. What the hell did Mirage have in mind?

Rocky chunks of all sizes lay in front of them, some the size of cities. The sun directly behind the field of debris glowed eerily, the light filtering through and diffused by particles and gases. And nearly directly on their flight path was what appeared to be like a floating mountain in space. Suddenly, it hit him. It was a trick so old that ancient armies on Terra had used it. The entire Harbinger squadron disengaged autoslide as they hit the debris field, and every pilot leaned on the afterburners as they fled right past the enormous rock.

Phalanx threw a glance over his shoulder to confirm what he'd guessed. And there, sitting in the shadow of the rock, powered down, was the entire Retaliator squadron. Phalanx grinned. The Nephilim fighters weren't far behind now. Phalanx did some quick math. Since the enemy fighters were 18,000 klicks from him, then when he was 18,000 klicks from Mirage, she'd be right behind them. Estimating that a fighter would take about 4 seconds to power up from idle, with a speed of 1,400 KPS, that'd mean he'd have to give the signal when he was about 6,000 klicks from Mirage's position.

Broadcasting on all channels, Phalanx dropped four words that sent everything into action. "Let's do'em in."

Every Bearcat in the squadron autoslid, then turned around and came shooting back right at the Nephilim. At the same time, the Retaliators powered up suddenly and fell in right behind the foe, each fighter still in perfect formation. The Nephilim were trapped from two sides. The results should be predictable.

The Reaper pilots let fly with salvo after salvo of missiles, and their tachyon cannons ripped into the completely shocked and unprepared Nephilim pilots. A dozen enemies fell with a single stroke. Then the Retaliators broke formation neatly as they pursued the other enemy ships that scattered in panic to evade.

The Harbingers joined the battle at that point, opening up with a salvo of missiles fired in a staggered pattern. Clearly, the Nephilim pilots had lost their taste for battle. Each enemy fighter broke and ran for itself, completely abandoning the others. The Nephilim had collapsed psychologically, their cohesion toppling like an avalanche. They couldn't stick together. Decoys were strewn all over the place as they tried to escape, but 6 more enemy ships were destroyed, and several more damaged. Phalanx felt confidence flowing into him like a drug, and he knew his pilots must've felt the same way he did. Invincible.

But the battle wasn't won, yet. The Nephilim still had the numbers over them.

With Stalker glued to his wing, Phalanx, holding the centre of the formation of Bearcats, plunged in. The moment the ITTS marker appeared, he pulled the trigger. The autotracking guns flared and snarled, and the Moray he shot at pulled away fast, trying to get away. Energy bursts from both sides speared past each other. Who could tell who was shooting at who?

His ship bucked suddenly and violently, and Phalanx rolled away to the right as the rest of a stream of fire swept past him. He jerked his head around to find his attacker, and spotted it. A single Manta, the only one charging at the squadron of Border Worlds fighters, while the rest of its comrades were peeling away to get clear. Something about it made Phalanx keep his gaze firmly fixed on it, while his hands reached for the targeting computer and locked on.

A transmission came vomiting out of the speakers in his cockpit, in an awful, unholy voice, "I will incinerate you for that."

What the fuck?

Phalanx was about to engage it when Stalker stormed in, guns screaming. The Manta coolly, almost mockingly, dodged her bursts and then returned fire. Phalanx, soaring to his right, perpendicular to the rest of the battle, suddenly saw something that made him gasp. The rearward group of Nephilim fighters being pursued by the Retaliators jinked and dodged as they roared towards his own Bearcats. The forward group had seemed to scatter in a cloud in panic, but now he could see them all pulling around in a full loop, and were now descending onto the Retaliators from behind.

"Reapers, watch your sixes!"

The Retaliators broke up into evasive maneuvers at his shouted warning. The fighters they had been pursuing were now freed up, and came gunning right at the Bearcats.

The initial jubilation, excitement for battle, that feeling of invincibility, suddenly vanished. The remaining 28 Nephilim fighters  rallied together in a fearsome counterattack, and with one smooth operation, they had turned the tables on their ambushers.

The Retaliators scrambled to try to reform and link up to support each other, but each had an attacker at their backs. The back line of Nephilim fighters opened up on the Harbingers, and the Bearcats, weakened already from the initial pass, had to give way. The rest of his pilots were at a sudden disadvantage, and the first line of Nephilim fighters was coming around swiftly.

The practice sessions in the sims kicked in for them, and wingmates linked up with each other to beat off each others' attackers. It had evolved to a close quarters dogfight. Only Phalanx sat there alone, his wingmate Stalker already dueling with that Manta. He realized just how bad that was in seconds.

A half dozen fighters came at him at once, and all he could do was run for it. Shots rained at him and hammered his ship as he desperately tried to dodge the worst of it. He rolled and flipped the ship back in the other direction, bringing his still intact left side shields to face the enemy. Shots slammed into those shields as well, and shredded through them. Armor was liquefied by the intense bolts of energy, and the remaining tachyon cannon on the left wing was shot off. Phalanx slapped a button on his console, and shifted his power configuration to a purely defensive one, with power going to shields and engines, and none to the guns. He braked hard, and snapped his fighter directly towards the swarm of Nephilim fighters coming at him. His forward shields were still holding, and enemy ships were running low on gun energy. Still, charging right at them made him easier to hit, and his forward shields collapsed as well. He pulled the trigger and fired the two starboard side tachyon cannons, draining all the gun energy in an instant. He snapped off a poor missile shot at one of Nephilim fighters, and it was easily dodged. Then four of the enemy let fly with their own guided warheads.

Phalanx did exactly what experience had ingrained into him as a reflex by now. He turned towards the missiles and streamed out decoys, then pulled away at the last moment. The missiles streaked past him, into the cloud of decoys. He'd survived so far, but he knew he wouldn't last much longer if they kept this up. The damage display screen to his left glowed with damage all over his fighter. Phalanx thought that maybe his time was finally up. Strangely, he could feel himself completely at ease with the prospect of impending death.

Luckily for him, the Retaliators had managed to out-wrestle their foes and had the upper hand now. Most of the group of fighters that had attacked Phalanx now broke off to engage the Reapers. Two Morays remained behind to try to finish him off. Rather than loop around for another passage-at-arms with those two, Phalanx lit up the afterburners to run and let his shields regenerate first. The Moray pair came around and pursued him.

Stalker clenched her flightstick hard as she held onto her tight turn. The Manta behind her was using its superior turn rate, and it'd eventually out turn her and settle on her tail. She had to try something else fast, or die. Stalker slammed her throttle back, cutting speed, and then wrenched the stick back in the other direction. The Manta tracking her spun to a stop when it faced her and raked at the left side of her fighter with its guns, before a burst of afterburners took her Bearcat clear of its cone of fire. A classic kick-stop maneuver. The Manta reversed its turn as well to follow her, and Stalker again reversed her turn, going into the scissors. The Manta slowed dramatically, tightened its turn radius to track her, anticipated the next closing of the scissors. Stalker saw it coming and ignited the 'burners to try to escape.

A missile dropped out from the belly of the strange organic fighter and streaked towards her fighter like a comet. The medium range gave her plenty of time to counter the threat. Stalker lined up her fighter's flight path directly with the missile's and dumped decoys behind her. But a savage staccato of gunshots stitched the rear of her ship, shearing through the shields and damaging the engines.

"Engines hit." The calm tone of the computer's voice mocked the severity of the situation.

"Goddamn it! I need help! Phalanx!" Stalker switched on velocity lock and spun her fighter on its axis to take the rest of the hits against her starboard shields. The Manta finally drained its guns, but it kept up the attack with a missile launch. Stalker boosted away and the missile swept by behind her. The Nephilim pilot cut inside her turn and closed the gap. Stalker was trapped. Turning to the left would give up with slight lead she had, giving the Manta a shot opportunity so perfect that it'd be impossible to dodge. Continuing her right turn would throw the Manta off her tail for a moment, but that missile it had fired was still tracking, and it'd loop around and come right behind her. There may have been other things she could've tried, but she couldn't think of any fast enough and she had to make a choice.

Stalker kept turning. The Manta swerved, flying off axis as it tried to keep pace. The missile had snapped around and was coming right for her. It was still a ways off, but her damaged engines weren't giving her enough speed to evade. So she did the only thing she could. She straightened her fighter out of its turn, threw up decoy chaff, and prayed.

It worked. The missile took the bait, and narrowly missed her ship. But no sooner had she avoided disaster than the missile lock warning blared yet again. The Manta behind her had taken advantage of that moment when she'd been forced to deal with the missile and made up for the angle lost when Stalker used the autoslide. Point-blank range, zero deflection. For Stalker, two seconds stretched on forever, and none of it seemed real. Her left thumb on the throttle kept the afterburners lit, while her right pinky punched out decoy after decoy, seemingly on their own, independent of her control. It was futile, and she knew it.

Phalanx was rushing in, trying to get there just in time, his heart about to burst at what he saw. He was too late.

The missile's explosive thrust pierced her fighter through and sent it tumbling out of control. The ship was stricken, and it could no longer sustain its master. Stalker ejected as fast as she could. The canopy blew away and the ejection pod shot out, carrying her off to safety.

Breath escaped him in relief when he saw her ejection pod rocketing clear. And then came rushing right back into him in shock when the Manta fired its guns and executed her.

"No..." Phalanx couldn't believe it. In all his years as a pilot he'd never seen anybody murder a helpless pilot. He'd heard of such things, but seeing it now made him sick.

The Manta wheeled smoothly about to face him, and its pilot addressed him again, "Dare to face me, wretch? For my slain brethren, I will kill you myself."

"You bastard!"

Anger consumed him, and he charged ahead, firing. Both of them released a missile at medium range, but the Manta, undamaged, had the advantage. Both dropped decoys and vaulted past the missiles on afterburners and came face to face. They clashed, green plasma and white-hot tachyons flaring against blue and green shields. Phalanx's Bearcat came away from the exchange hurting badly. His two tachyons hadn't even penetrated the Manta's shields. He pulled up hard, cutting speed to almost nothing, then flipped around for another pass. The Manta matched his move, and when Phalanx turned around, he saw that the two Morays chasing him before were now flanking the Manta.


Phalanx locked onto one of the Morays, then dropped the nose of his Bearcat and launched. The missile streaked downward, and had to claw its way back towards the Moray. The Nephilim pilot reacted immediately and dropped decoys, but the missile's arcing trajectory meant that it couldn't even see the decoys to be fooled. The Moray pulled up the moment it realized this, and the missile passed under it. Then the Manta and the remaining Moray opened up. Phalanx switched to a defensive power configuration as fast as he could, and then threw his ship to the left, rolling as he went. The shots from both attackers struck his left and right side shields as he rolled, and despite his best efforts, both shields failed on him again. Phalanx spun his fighter away from both attackers, and threw all the power he could to his engines. The Bearcat accelerated violently, outracing the two Nephilim behind him. They still had him at medium range, but luckily their guns were left with only enough energy to sustain a trickle of fire. Coming from both of them, though, was still deadly enough. Phalanx dodged any way he could, but the rear shields were quickly losing their strength. His fighter had hit top speed now, and he shifted power away from the engines and back into the shields. He just had to try to survive as long as he could.

A Moray tried to pull off an early turn maneuver on Mirage, but when she countered it with a hard brake, the Nephilim pilot failed to abort his own move and got lit up from behind at point blank range. Four tachyon cannons flayed it to bits in just over one second of sustained fire.

For a few brief seconds, she was freed up from the rest of the battle. She scanned the area quickly and sized up the situation. Over half the Nephilim ships were now destroyed, while their own forces were mostly intact. It was the enemy's turn to go on the defensive now. Suddenly to her right she saw a Bearcat, armor and hull in shreds, running for it flat out and flying in her direction, with a Manta and a Moray in hot pursuit. Mirage moved to impose her Retaliator right between them, opposing the two Nephilim fighters head on. Identifying the Moray as the weaker of the two, she dropped the gunsights onto it and lit it up. The Moray took a vicious pounding before it peeled away. The Manta ripped off a missile at her, trying to force her to accelerate into its guns, but Mirage, knowing that it was out of guns energy, held her fighter level and steady as she released countermeasures. The missile whizzed past her left wing as she poured on the afterburners. Shots from the Manta's guns splashed against her shields as she charged in, but only brought them down to half power. Mirage locked the autoslide and whipped the Retaliator around, and released autoslide as the Manta soared by. The powerful engines of her space superiority fighter fought against its inertia and shot it back in the other direction like a wrestler hitting the ropes and bouncing back. The Manta spun away in the same direction, then afterburned away. Mirage rotated her fighter to follow, then came pounding after it. Her tachyon cannons erupted, spewing fiery death right at the rear of the Nephilim fighter.

And every single shot missed.

The Manta pilot had it timed perfectly, jinking hard at every burst from her Retaliator's guns. Mirage's eyes widened in surprise. She tried to counter it by changing up the timing of her guns, rather than holding the trigger down, but the capacitors were already drained. The Manta held a straight line, using its greater speed to outrun her fighter.

"Oh yeah? Dodge this." The commander of the Retaliator squadron activated the Stormfire Mk1 cannons and loosed a barrage of deadly rounds. This time it was the Manta's turn to be surprised. It twisted into a series of evasive maneuvers, but the unbroken stream of shells guaranteed hits. The Stormfires weren't doing much damage, but Mirage could keep it up as long as there was ammunition left. The Nephilim fighter's defenses were gradually worn down.

Mirage thought she had the Manta, and that it was only a matter of time.

The Manta suddenly cut upwards and decelerated sharply. Mirage slowed her own ship down, thinking it was just a last, desperate maneuver, and switched back to her primary guns to finish the job. Two missiles unexpectedly came snarling out from the Manta, and then the Manta itself reversed direction and sped up. But Mirage was close, so close that a killing shot was almost certain...

Alarms went off in her cockpit. The deafening wail of the missile lock warning. Mirage's head snapped upward, and above she could see a pair of Nephilim FoFs looping around, trailing a long whorl of gas, and coming straight down on her Retaliator from above. Too off angle to fool with decoys, yet not off-angle enough to dodge. FoFs were slower, but because of that they could make tighter turns. Mirage squeezed off a guns burst and followed it up with a missile, then spun to match the FoFs' course, aborting her attack on the Manta.

The tachyon cannon salvo ripped up the remaining shields and some of the armor on the Manta, but the missile missed its mark and smashed into a decoy instead. Mirage lit the afterburners, lined up the rear of her Retaliator with the incoming FoFs and ejected a string of decoys of her own. Both missiles went for the countermeasures and exploded against them.

But now the Nephilim pilot allowed her Retaliator dive beneath, and swung his Manta down to track. The roles of aggressor and defender had been reversed again. And the Manta had somehow avoided getting killed yet again.

Mirage rolled to the right and pulled up, trying to hold the slight lead her fighter had over the Manta, which now followed close behind. The Manta, with its superior speed, acceleration, and agility, would have blown up any other less maneuverable fighter out there in the hands of this Nephilim pilot. But the Retaliator had what no other space superiority fighter had: a rear turret. Mirage moved back and forth to maximize the effectiveness of the twin guns behind her, and her gunner poured it on. In following the Retaliator through each turn, the Manta ended up flying right into the stream of energy bursts. It fell behind gradually and was finally forced to break off its attack. But its guns had managed to tear up the rear shields on the Retaliator before it fell back.

Mirage hauled her fighter up and tried to get position on the Manta, but its lead was too great, and it used its better speed to outrun her before it came around to fight again. Head to head, neutral positioning... again. Undaunted, both closed in and resumed their duel.

Phalanx grimaced even before closing to within guns range of the two Morays still chasing him. They had regrouped and were coming at him again. Knowing that his two tachyon cannons wouldn't even hurt the Moray, he opted to charge his shields with more power. One Moray shot forward ahead of the other one and raked him with bolts. He spun past it as best as he could, then was assailed by the second one. Phalanx discharged his guns at it anyway, seeing it was already damaged, trying to scare it off. But the damned thing hung in there, and now Phalanx was trapped between two enemies. If he kept going, the Moray behind had a shot at him. If he turned around, the damaged one would get a clean shot at him.

Phalanx picked a random vector and feinted a move in that direction,
then cut back, hoping to shake them both. The Moray in front of him spiraled onto his six and opened up.

"Phalanx, pull up hard -- now!"

Under the stress of the situation, Phalanx couldn't tell who it was, but he knew it was one of his own pilots. They each trusted one another with their very lives, and he didn't hesitate.

His ravaged Bearcat pitched hard, the damaged Moray close behind, firing. And then out of nowhere, a pair of Harbinger pilots swooped down on the Moray and slashed at it together with 8 tachyon cannons.

But before the hail of deadly energy bursts could get there, the Moray broke off and got out of the way. The fearsome tachyon discharges screamed through empty space. The other, undamaged enemy fighter had been trailing further back and had warned it.

No matter. The panicked turn the Moray took allowed Phalanx to come around behind it, and one of the Bearcats broke formation to press its attack on it. The other one turned to take on the other Moray. Together, Phalanx and the second Bearcat made short work of the wounded Moray, then came around to help finish the remaining one. Phalanx finally recognized his rescuers.

"Owl, Ghoul... thanks."

"Anytime," Owl replied, flying beside him now. Ghoul was still locked in a one on one life or death struggle, too busy to say anything. Owl applied the afterburners and urged his Bearcat faster, ahead of Phalanx, to give Ghoul some back up.

The situation was starting to turn in favor of the humans. While the Bearcats were only just barely now fighting with equal numbers against their foes, the Reapers, having fought together longer, had eventually used their teamwork to defeat the Nephilim that were unfortunate enough to go up against them. The Retaliators swept back towards the Bearcats and, combined, worked their weapons mercilessly upon the remaining enemies, and began exterminating them one at a time. Phalanx felt a little more satisfaction with each Alien ship that died. But never could there be enough satisfaction to fill in the hollowness he felt inside. Instead, the more he tried to fill the void inside, it would only seem to grow bigger. You don't feel better about yourself when you suddenly begin taking pleasure in another's suffering.

Finally there remained a lone Manta, the leader of the now extinct group of Nephilim fighter craft. Mirage's Retaliator smoked in several places from armor hits it had sustained, and the Manta was likewise hurting. Both had taken greater and greater risks as they fought, mutually damaging each other, and abandoning conservative tactics.

The Border Worlders know all about fighting against the odds. Others never granted them any mercy, any quarter. Likewise, they showed none for this last enemy, surrounding it on all sides and then pummeling it together with their guns.

No one raised a cheer as it exploded. No one laughed or smiled or celebrated. That was what actors in holo-vids always seemed to be doing at the end of every battle, which they always won. They always seemed to conveniently forget that people that had fought by their side had fallen, their lives passed away forever.

Instead, in a grim mood, these survivors formed up loosely and began the painful trip home. No, there was nothing to celebrate. Because it wasn't really victory. It was a mission accomplished.

They counted. One Retaliator lost. Four Bearcats missing. No pods. They recounted. Same numbers.

The Harbingers would never see Stalker, Ripper, Apples, and Scrambled again. The Reapers would have to bury Crow and his gunner.

It was just another of those lousy deals with the Universe, where they had given up the lives of 6 of their crewmates... their friends... and gotten nothing in return, Phalanx thought.

No, he corrected himself, not nothing. They had taken another step towards protecting everything that mattered to them. That was the deal. This had only been a down payment. Was it worth it?

To the pilots who had given their lives, Phalanx answered, "We'll make it worth it. Rest in peace, friends. No one can ask any more of you now. Rest in peace."