PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 27 of 66 )

: “ The Tiger Hunt ”

"Many assume that half efforts can be effective.
A small jump may be easier than a large one, but no one wishing to cross
a wide ditch would cross half of it first."
- Gen. Carl von Clausewitt

BWS Valeria; Bridge
Inside the Loki VI debris field
The Loki System, Union of Border Worlds
0600 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (268.045)

“Admiral on the bridge!”

Border Worlders being what they were, no one snapped to attention. Most of the officers and crew on the bridge didn’t even glance up at the Marine guard’s words. They had a job to do, and arcane little formalities like saluting or jumping to attention came a long way down the list of priorities.

While the men and women aboard the Valeria might technically be Confed Reserves under the treaty signed the previous year between Confed and the Union, they were first and foremost officers of the Border Worlds military. After all, they were wearing Border Worlds uniforms and serving on a Border Worlds ship, which was operating under the direction of the Border Worlds government in Border Worlds territory. As such, the ship operated as Border Worlds ships had always done. It would be years before the informal culture of the Border Worlds military changed, if in fact it ever did.

“At ease,” Admiral Hanton said laconically. She was Terran born and had been spent her early career with the Confed Space Navy, which meant that the way Border Worlders did things had been something of a shock to the system when she had joined the Border Worlds Navy in the wake of the Black Lance “Incident.” After eight years in the Union, though, she had learned that there were some things that just couldn’t be changed, no matter how hard you tried. The stars would always keep burning, the planets would keep turning, and Border Worlders would keep treating military protocol and regulations as suggested guidelines rather than absolute rules. It was just a part of who they were, and she didn’t let it bother her.

The only officer who did rise to his feet was the Valeria’s skipper, Captain Sang Que, and that was only to vacate the command chair. A native Terran like herself, his Earth origins were evident in his accent and command style, which was strict by Border Worlds standards, though it would have been considered unacceptably relaxed by his former Confed comrades. Like her, he had been in the Border Worlds Navy for years, and had been forced to adapt to the way Border Worlders did things just to stay sane.

“Any trouble overnight?” she asked, taking her seat in the vacated command chair. Captain Que took the first officer’s chair nearby, while the first officer headed of the first sleep he had had in the past twenty-four hours. Captain Que too was technically off watch now that the Admiral was here, but the Valeria’s crew had been working nothing close to ordinary hours over the past couple of days. The mission they had undertaking, drawing the attention and fire of three powerful enemy carrier groups so that the remaining units of the Combined Fleet could sneak on the enemy fleet and rip it apart, demanded everything these men and women could give. The successful outcome of this campaign, along with the survival of the only operational fleet carriers the Border Worlds Navy had, depended on their missing nothing. For that reason, two of the senior officers were nearly always on the bridge.

”Nothing vital,” Captain Que said, shaking his head. “The Nephilim have been sending out ‘nuisance raids’ of a dozen fighters or so, which seems pretty suicidal seeing that we’ve been able intercept each raid with a squadron or more of fighters. Lots of casualties for them, very few for us. My guess is that they’re trying to tire out our pilots or get them to burn up missiles.”

“Softening us up for something big,” the Admiral said, nodding slightly. “Either that, or they’re hoping that one of our pilots will make a mistake and give away the position of our warships.”

The Admiral paused, thinking it over. “You know, if they’re that eager to find our carriers... maybe we should let them. What do you think?”

Captain Que frowned. The Valeria’s tactical staff had planned for the event of a major attack on the carriers, and wargamed that scenario in the simulators several times over the past few days. The results had always been depressingly similar. Even the best case scenario had the Border Worlders losing between 40 and 50 of their fighters, along with the loss of at least a couple of their escort capital ships. The worst-case scenario predicted the utter annihilation of the two fleet carriers, the light carrier Freedom, their escorts and fighters, with the loss of all hands. That in effect would mean the destruction of the Border Worlds Navy as an effective fighting force, both now and for years to come. For a naturally cautious man like Captain Sang Que, that gamble was a huge one to swallow.

However, the scenarios for what would happen if a significant part of the Nephilim fighter cover wasn’t focused on the Border Worlders when the Confed groups made their move were even worse. The Confed attack groups consisted of single carriers and their escorts, or capship squadrons with limited fighter support. They were all widely separated and unable to support each other like the Border Worlds carriers could.  If the Nephilim carriers could focus their fighter cover on the Confeds in a concerted attack, those groups could be picked off one by one. The light carrier TCS Endeavour, the 8th Cruiser squadron, and mixed group of destroyers, corvettes and torpedo boats that were directly targeting the Nephilim carriers would be the first to die. Their destruction was almost certain even in a best-case scenario. The worst case scenario was that the Nephilim carriers could then move in on the fleet carriers Yorktown and Valley Forge, which were carrying out attacks against Nephilim dreadnoughts further back, in effect sandwiching the Confed carriers between the Nephilim carriers and the dreadnaughts. That would see the fighting capability of the Combined Fleet being almost utterly wiped out.

Either way, it was a gamble, and the potential gains and losses would shift this battle to hold the line decisively one way or the other. If they gambled wrong, then they would lose this battle, and billions of people in the Border Worlds Union and the frontier worlds of the Confederation would perish. Those were the stakes they were playing for.

”You know what I think?” Captain Que said finally. “I think we’ve been in the Union too long.”

The Admiral smiled wryly. It was true that neither of them would have contemplated a plan this fraught with risk when they had been with the Confederation. One of the most valuable things they had learned since then was that people who were massively outnumbered and outgunned simply couldn’t afford to play it safe. That was a sure path to defeat, while taking huge risks like this one at least gave them a chance of victory.

“Yes, it is contagious, isn't it?” she said. Whether the recklessness and seeming insanity of the Border Worlders was contagious or not though, she knew there was only one choice. The Confed ships were all operating under strict comm silence to avoid giving themselves away, but the best projections of the Valeria’s tacticians, as well as Admiral Hanton’s own instincts, told her that today would be the day that the Confeds made their move. Over the years, she had learned never to ignore those instincts. Today was the day the Nephilim fighter cover had to be drawn away at costs, and that meant giving the Nephilim a target they simply couldn’t resist.

“Order the Littenia and her battle group to move up to support us. Have the Freedom and her escorts move into a backstop position 200,000 clicks from us,” she ordered the Comm Officer. Before now, they had dispersed the carriers to avoid the Nephilim stumbling on to more than one of them by accident. Now though, it made sense to concentrate their firepower and defenses as much as possible. The two fleet carriers would take on the main attack, while the Freedom kept an eye out for any sneak attacks or flanking moves.

She took a deep breath. “And order our fighter patrols to let one of those nuisance raids get close enough to scan the Valeria before destroying it. Tell them to make sure the bugs last long enough to get a message out, but not to make it look too easy.”

That last item was of crucial importance. The revealing of the position of the Border Worlds carriers was the final piece of bait that would hopefully lure the Nephilim into the jaws of the trap the Admiral had laid out days ago. As slow on the uptake as the Nephilim were however, even they would suspect something if their fighters were allowed to stroll right up to the Valeria.

After all, when serving bait, presentation is everything.

”Aye, Admiral,” the Comm Officer said, quickly carrying out her orders.

The next half hour or so dragged on, wearing at their nerves, but finally word came through from their fighters. A group of Stingrays had been allowed to run through a “gap” between the patrol zones covered by Black Angel and Taipan squadrons. The Taipans had caught up and taken them down one by one in a running battle, but the last pair had gotten a good read on the Valeria before the Taipans wiped them out.

All the officers on the bridge were aware that the Admiral had bet everything they had on a single throw of the dice, hoping to roll a pair of sixes. Whatever happened today would swing this campaign decisively towards either victory or defeat. They were also aware of the simple fact that once you throw the dice, you can’t ever call them back. For better or for worse, they were committed now.


BWS Valeria; Officers' Mess
0830 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

With battle group having spent the past few hours expecting a massive Nephilim attack, tension among the crew and flight wing was at fever pitch. The plans had already been made, and the preparations were in place, so there was nothing to do but wait. The crew remained at battle stations, and most of the pilots who were not flying CAP or patrol missions were sitting in their cockpits, ready to race off the deck at the first sign of an incoming attack.

Raptor had insisted though, that the pilots were cycled to the mess one squadron at a time for some hot food. There was no telling how much longer it would be before the attack began, and how long the battle would continue after that. The pilots were already short on sleep, and he didn’t want them going into battle on short rations on top of that. The pilots might not realize they were hungry amid the tension and the adrenaline rush of being on combat alert, but if they didn’t eat, they might find themselves short of vital reserves right when they needed those reserves most. When you got right down to it, the human body was a machine like any other, and it needed to be refueled just like another machine. No Wing Commander would dream of launching his fighters into battle short on fuel if he had any choice at all in the matter, and it made no sense to treat the pilots any differently.

Right now, it was the Reapers’ turn to eat, and the squadron’s pilots and gunners were tucking in with gusto. A lot of people had trouble eating before a battle. That was normal, and it said nothing about that person’s courage or character, any more than being regularly seasick had said anything about Nelson’s abilities as a leader and sailor. The Reapers were a veteran outfit though, and they had all learned that it never paid to pass up a hot meal when it was offered, because you never knew when your next meal would be, or what it would be like. There was a good chance that they might be spending the next couple of days living off unappetizing MREs, short for Meals Ready to Eat, or as they were more commonly known among the pilots, Meals Regurgitated by Eyokas.

A lot of that gusto might also have had something to do with the fact that the Valeria was the first ship any of them had served on where the hot food didn’t taste almost as bad as the said MREs. Having been able to pick and choose among the crews of older carriers had given Battle Group Valkyrie a top notch crew and flight wing, but it had also produced unexpected benefits, such as a cooking staff who could prepare fish that didn’t end up tasting like cabbage, or vice versa. Raptor suspected that it was Captain Que rather than Admiral Hanton who had taken care of that little detail. The Admiral tended to believe to believe that the body was nothing more than a vehicle for the mind, while the Captain believed that the mind worked best when the body was well cared for.

For his part, Raptor agreed with the Captain. He piled his plate with food and moved to the side of the nearly empty mess hall where the squadron was sitting, acknowledging the casual greetings from the old hands in the unit. Rank didn’t hold the same awe in the devil-may-care Border Worlds military as it did in some others, and Raptor still flew with the Reapers often enough to be accepted as one of the squadron. Of course, there was more of a gap between him and the others than there had been when he had simply been the unit’s XO or Squadron Leader, but he didn’t feel like an outsider, something he had feared becoming when he had first been promoted to Wing Commander. The Reapers had through a lot together, and a good chunk of the unit had been with it for most of the last decade, all the way from their baptism of fire during the vicious human versus human fratricide of the Circe conflict. The bonds forged by those shared experiences were hard to break.

He pulled up a chair at the table by the viewport, opposite the Reaper’s current Squadron Leader, Lieutenant Colonel Chrys “Mirage” Rhodes. Chrys glanced up and smiled, clearly glad to see him, though no one would have guessed it from her first words.

“That stuff’s going to kill you, y’know. It would serve you right, too,” she said, gesturing toward his plate. Raptor had gone heavy on the meat, eggs and fried potatoes when loading up his plate, complete with liberal doses of butter and salt. It was the kind of meal that would have had any half decent cardiologist in fits.

“Ah, that’s my whole plan in life. Live well, die young, and leave a good looking corpse,” Raptor said, matching the smile. Eating healthily was a sensible thing to do, but the way he saw it, eating healthily 100 percent of the time was a case of taking a good idea a little too far. Besides, when the Grim Reaper finally came for him, it was far likely to be in the form of an enemy missile or anti-matter burst than through atherosclerosis.

“Well, one out of three isn't bad,” Chrys shot back. “You’re no spring chicken, and rigor mortis would probably improve that face of yours.”

“Look who’s talking,” Raptor said.

He did his best not to laugh as Chrys clutched her chest, pretending to be mortally wounded. “Oooh. With a wit like that, it’s amazing you’re not a general by now.”

”I repeat, look who’s talking, Lieutenant Colonel.”

As usual, there was no edge to their sparring. It was simply a habit they had developed when they had met all those years ago. They had both been posted to the Reaper Squadron as flight leaders when the unit had first been formed on Circe. Despite both being natives of Circe, and both being committed Border Worlders, they had been as different as night and day. Chrys had spent her entire life on the frontier, serving with first the forces of the Landreich and then with the Border Worlds militia. As a result, she was like most people on the frontier; on the one hand open, trusting and generous towards the people she knew, on the other hand somewhat cynical towards the motives of leaders and governments, especially those of the Confederation. She also had a very practical and pragmatic approach to running a squadron, and believed in doing whatever worked to get the job done.

Raptor had left Circe while he was still in his teens to attend the Confed Academy, and had flown for Confed during the First Kilrathi War, as well as in the years between the War and the “Incident.” He had far more experience with Confed’s way of running things, which taught that there was one right way and a whole lot of wrong ways of doing anything. He had also been the more idealistic of the pair, having believed in Confed for much of his adult life, though that idealism had been badly shaken by the events leading up to the Border Worlds Conflict. It was no surprise therefore, that the two of them had struck sparks off each other when they had first met. That had changed as they as they had gotten to know and understand each other, but the old pattern was still there.

They continued talking for a while longer, enjoying each other’s company, but gradually the silence between words grew longer and longer, each busy thinking about what was to come. They both knew that this battle would be tougher than anything the Valkyries had faced in this campaign to date, if not in their entire careers.

Chrys was thinking about the plans the flight wing’s officers had mapped out for the upcoming battle. The Valkyries and the Littenia battle group would be able to field about 175 fighters and bombers between them, taking into account the two dozen odd craft they had lost over the last couple of days. Of those, the ten Avenger bombers from Hell Knight Squadron and the twelve remaining Intruders from White Knight Squadron would be held back protect the Freedom and as reserves to help combat any “sucker punch” by the Nephilim, leaving them with just over 150 craft to commit to the fleet battle. The Border Worlders knew that the enemy strike could easily consist of four times that number of fighters as well as several capital ships, and they had planned accordingly.

The senior officers all knew that they couldn’t simply establish a defensive line and hope to repel wave after wave of attacking Nephilim fighters. The odds would simply be too great, and the amount of space they would need to defend would be too vast to create a line that would hold out indefinitely. Sooner or later, the enemy would be able to break through in force, and then it would be all over. Refusing to give up ground at any cost might have been a viable strategy for the Confederation, whose fighters were more advanced and whose fleet doctrine and fighting tactics were geared for large-scale fleet battles. Even then, though, the traditional defense had its limits, as the Bunker Hill had discovered the hard way.

The Border Worlders’ fighting style was geared towards high speed and unconventional warfare, and that was what they had to exploit to survive this battle. At the same time, they couldn’t simply go all out at the enemy and count on speed, surprise and ferocity to see them through, as Border Worlders were sometimes wont to do. That approach might allow them to slash into the heart of the enemy attack, inflicting heavy losses and possibly holding the enemy back for a while, but that too would fail in the end. The enemy fighters would eventually surround them, wear them down, cut units off from each other, and annihilate them, before moving on to finish the carriers.

No, if they were going to survive, they would need to combine the best of both styles. They would need to retain mobility and fight in ways the enemy didn’t expect, while maintaining unit cohesion and keeping the enemy away from the carriers. In the heat and confusion of a large-scale fleet battle, that was a very tall order.

Fortunately though, the Valkyries were in the unique position of being able to integrate the best aspects of Confed and Border Worlds doctrine. Admiral Hanton, Captain Que and Commander Chelsea (the skipper of the Freedom), along with about a dozen of their senior officers, had been Confed officers who had served aboard the infamous TCS Melbourne, which ironically had been the carrier that had led the attack on Circe. After that attack had been beaten back, several of them had found themselves being tried for treason by a court of Tolwyn’s cronies. They had been sentenced to die, and had come within days of execution before Colonel Blair had exposed Tolwyn’s plot to instigate a war. After that experience, the Melbourne officers had refused Confed’s offer of their old jobs back. They had spent the past eight years in the Border Worlds, learning from the people they worked alongside, and teaching them at the same time. Other senior officers among the Navy crew and flight wing pilots were native Border Worlders who had served with the Confederation during the First Kilrathi War, and had carried something of that early training with them as they built careers for themselves in the newly independent Border Worlds Union. Add in like people like Chrys who were 100 percent steeped in the Border tradition, and newly arrived Confed exchange officers like Skywalker’s exec, and the battle group had a huge range of talents and skills to draw on. Just like brittle iron and soft carbon combined to produce much stronger steel, that fusion of very different training and experiences created new tactics and new ways of looking at the world that would serve them well.

That background was what was responsible for the battle group’s fighting style. Right from the time it had been created, the senior officers had pursued a policy of fighting smart as well as fighting hard, and had chosen and trained their subordinates accordingly. The battle group made heavy use of recon, stealth, force multipliers and electronic warfare capability, and had been outfitted with a flight wing that suited this particular style. With the battle group including two carriers and several escorts that could carry combat craft, it would have been tempting to pack that carrying capacity with fighters and bombers to maximize the group’s firepower. Fortunately, though, Admiral Hanton had resisted that temptation. While the battle group did pack ample firepower (more in fact that any other Border Worlds carrier group), some of that extra carrying ability had been used to extend the battle group’s special capabilities.

The battle group carried an Arrow unit that was specially trained and equipped for stealth reconnaissance, which had proven invaluable so far in this campaign, and would likely continue to do so. The battle group also had a larger than usual complement of Stalker EW craft. These too had dramatically demonstrated their worth several times in the campaign to date. Finally, as the battle group had included a Marine transport vessel that was equipped with its own complement of landing and transport craft, the carriers hadn’t had to carry as many transport shuttles as they normally would have. Some of the shuttles instead filled the force multiplier role. They hadn’t seen much use so far in this campaign, but they would most likely do so in the battle today.

As for the Littenia battle group, it wasn’t quite so well equipped. Its flight wing mainly consisted of fighters and bombers, though it did field a half squadron of Stalkers that could support those from Battle Group Valkyrie. The plan had been to include a light carrier in the group which would have fielded the additional support craft (the BWS Liberty, sister ship to the Freedom), but she had still be in the very final stages of construction when the Littenia, herself just out of the docks, had been rushed off to help fight the invasion. The good thing about support and special capability craft though, was that only a few of them were needed, so Battle Group Valkyrie should be able to provide enough support capability to see them through the upcoming battle. As far as crew and pilots went, none of the Valkyries would have had any cause for complaint about the Littenia crew who would be serving alongside them. These new Arcadia-class carriers were infinitely more capable than the old escort carriers and destroyer conversions that had formed the backbone of the Union fleet, so being posted to them was a plum assignment, which in turn meant that only the best had made it. The crew and pilots of the Littenia had been put together more hastily than the Valkyries had been, due to the invasion, but they were courageous and capable men and women who had fought well alongside the Valkyries in Tyr and Nephele.

Those factors and considerations were what had affected the plans the senior pilots had made and refined over the last few days for fighting this type of battle, the same blueprints that Chrys was now reviewing in her head. There were two key planks to their strategy. The first was that they couldn’t hope to face the kind of numbers that the Nephilim would be sending against them in a toe-to-toe slugfest. Instead, they would need to attrite the hell out of the enemy out force before they got anywhere near the carriers. Small groups of Border Worlds fighters, mainly consisting of a squadron or two, would slash at the flanks and rear of the of the Nephilim attack force, striking fast and doing as much damage as they could before the Nephilim reacted, and then pulling back into the cover offered by the debris field. Other units would ambush the Nephilim point units and tail-enders. The Border Worlders also had a few nasty surprises planned for the attacking force, mainly involving things that went boom! The Border Worlders had no illusion that such tactics would stop the attack. The Border Worlds fighters would have to give ground to avoid being overwhelmed, which meant they would be pushed back towards the carriers. They hoped, though, that the attrition inflicted by the hit and run attacks would cut the attacking force down to a manageable size when the time came that they did have to meet the enemy head on.

The other key to their strategy was the effective use of their support craft and force multipliers. Seeing as they were so badly outnumbered, each of their fighters and bombers would have to able to carry the workload of several craft if they were going to survive. To do that, they would have to first maximize their own situational awareness and ability to react to the flow of the battle, secondly minimize the ability of the enemy to do the same, and last but not least, maximize the endurance and combat capability of their fighters.

The first of those things would be done their command and control craft. The most effective was the Seahawk SWACS they had borrowed from the Valley Forge, which would coordinate the overall battle. The Border Worlders had their own command and control shuttles, unlicensed copies of the Kilrathi Gratha shuttles, which the Landreich had captured during the Goliath affair and later passed onto the Border Worlders. These were less powerful than the Confed SWACS, especially in the interference caused by the debris field, but would be invaluable for guiding in the hit and run groups and getting them out safely, as well as helping coordinate the defense of the carriers later on. The shuttles would also feed data back to the SWACS, and get information from it in return, allowing everyone to keep an eye on the big picture.

Minimizing the enemy’s situational awareness would be done by the Stalker EW craft. Counting those from Battle Group Valkyrie and the Littenia, the Border Worlders had a full strength squadron of them. They were highly effective at scrambling enemy communications and tracking systems, and would be used to isolate and blind small groups of enemy craft as the raiders went in, and then cover their egress. The Border Worlders were also counting on the stealth capabilities of their Arrows and Excaliburs to take the enemy unawares. Not only were the modulations their techs had made to the ECM and RHAWS systems of these fighters effective at hiding them from Nephilim anti-cloak sensors, but also to date the Nephilim had been kept unaware of that fact. That made Arrows and Excals ideal for ambushing the enemy from cloak.

Finally, they would be using their refueling and rearming shuttles to keep maximize the amount of time their fighters could spend in battle. The quick attacks that would be needed to attrite the enemy would by necessity use up a lot of missiles, and the high-speed ingress and egress of the attacking groups would burn up afterburner fuel very quickly. It wouldn’t be practical for the fighters to return to the carriers, land, and take off again each time they needed a top up, so this would have to be done in flight. The Border Worlds refueling and rearming shuttles (again, unlicensed copies of the Kilrathi Kofar shuttles) weren’t quite as good as Confed’s latest support craft, but they would do the job.

[Writer’s note: Details of the Gratha and Kofar shuttles can be found in the WC novel “False Colors,” written by William R. Forstchen.]

That, in a nutshell, was the Border Worlders’ plan for fighting a fleet defense battle against massively numerically superior enemy forces. It was a unique blend of Border Worlds daring and aggression with Confed doctrine, and a dash of Kilrathi tech thrown in for flavor. The plan had been endlessly modified, refined and practiced since Battle Group Valkyrie had first been formed (if there was one certainty in flying for the Border Worlds, it was that you were going to fighting numerically superior forces), but it had never been tested in combat before. As with a lot of other things, they were once again throwing the dice. That was normal for the Border Worlders. And if it failed, well, like the Kilrathi said, no warrior should die in bed with claws sheathed. It was far better to risk it all and die trying to win than to slowly and cautiously plod your way towards defeat.

For his part, Raptor was going over the capabilities of the squadrons that would be fighting this battle. The top guns would be the two Retaliator squadrons, the Reapers and the Starkillers. Their fighters were roughly equivalent in power to Confed’s Panthers, though very different in style. They were slower and less agile, but made up for it with heavier shielding and much more punishing firepower, consisting of six forward cannons, twin tailguns, and up to eighteen missiles. They were the most capable fighters the Union had, and were rare as hen’s teeth, with only the Arcadia carriers and major military bases getting a Retaliator Squadron. As a result, the fighters only went to the Union’s elite fighter units. The combination of the advanced and heavily armed fighters with top-notch pilots made the Retaliators fearsome opponents in combat.

Almost as deadly as the Retaliators were the two Bearcat units, the Harbinger Squadron based on the Freedom and the Summoner Squadron based on the Littenia. The Bearcats too were roughly similar to Panthers, though they were faster and more agile (they could maneuver equally well in the two major axes, without having to “roll-yaw” before turning in the vertical) while packing less firepower. They weren’t elite units, but the pilots were well trained and combat experienced, and they didn’t give way before anyone. The Harbingers had shown that a couple of days ago when they had taken on and destroyed a highly skilled Nephilim squadron. The two Bearcat units would be used to slash at the flanks of the incoming enemy force.

Next up was the lone Excalibur unit, the Taipans. The stripped down C and D model Excaliburs used by the Confed militia were roughly similar to the Tigershark, having roughly the same speed, agility and shielding, lighter armor, and more powerful guns. The Border Worlds Navy though, had held out for (and had gotten) the full spec and much more capable Excalibur A, complete with autotracking ability, cloaking device, reaper cannons, and half again as many missiles. These fighters would be deadly in the kind of ambushes the Border Worlders had planned. The Taipans themselves were a composite unit, made up of both Border Worlders and Confed exchange pilots. The unit had had a rocky start, with tensions rife between the two groups, but the experience of fighting side by side in Tyr and Nephele had forged them into a very tight knit and extremely capable squadron.

Then there were the two units who would be flying Intruder medium fighters, Battle Group Valkyrie’s Black Angels and the Littenia’s Revenant Squadron. There was another Intruder unit, the White Knights, but they wouldn’t come into play unless the Nephilim did something unexpected. The Intruder was almost identical to the Confed Tigershark in most respects, having similar shielding, speed, agility and firepower, but was much more lightly armored. The Black Angels and the Revenants were unusual in that they were both Navy rather than Space Force units. They were especially adept at defense, as they had shown during the evacuation of the Tyr refugees. They would be used to cover the carriers, the SWACS and the refueling craft, while the more offensively oriented units slashed at the enemy.

Last but not least of the fighter units were the light fighter squadrons. The Ghost Warriors from Battle Group Valkyrie would be flying Arrow Mk3 recon fighters. These fighters wouldn’t last long in a slugfest, as they were lightly shielded and lightly armed, but their stealth ability would make them useful ambushers, though they wouldn’t be carrying out those ambushes in quite the same the Excaliburs would. The Night Watch from the Littenia flew Banshees, which were probably better point defense fighters than the Confed’s Piranhas. While they again had lighter armor (a weakness shared by all the BW fighters), they had better shielding and a considerably more lethal weapons array. The Banshees too would mainly be using their speed to slash at the enemy. The two light fighter squadrons were both competent and experienced units.

After that came the bomber units. The Predators were a veteran unit who were based on the Littenia, and flew Avenger medium bombers. While the Avenger was a capable enough bomber, it was starting to show its age, and there were doubts about how well it would fare attacking capships while the Border Worlds fighters were so heavily outnumbered. Border Worlders being what they were though, they had decided to use the Avengers in a role totally different from the one for which it had been designed, one of those surprises they had planned for the Nephilim.

The other bomber unit was Battle Group Valkyrie’s Thor’s Hammer squadron, who flew the deadly Dauntless heavy bombers. The Dauntless’ had often been described as “a ship captain’s worst nightmare,” and they would have a chance to prove that appellation if the Nephilim came at the Border Worlders with capships. The Dauntless’ each had about the same amount of shielding and armor as the average corvette, allowing them to absorb massive amounts of damage. They packed a dozen heavy torpedoes, and could fire all of them one devastating attack run. That was enough ship killing firepower to cause a carrier or dreadnaught to literally disintegrate, something that not even Confed’s fearsome Devastators could match. The Border Worlders had twelve of the beasts (with the other six having been loaned to the Valley Forge), and even if only a third or a quarter of them survived to release their torpedoes, would devastate any enemy capship group. The Border Worlders were counting on that, as that would allow their own capships to engage the survivors at even or numerically superior odd. Thor’s Hammer Squadron was one of the best bomber units in the Union, and they could be counted on to do the job no matter what happened.

The Stalker EW craft belonged to Battle Group Valkyrie’s Nightstalker Squadron and the Littenia’s Nosferatu Squadron. They had only the bare minimum in dogfighting capability, being armed with only a single Stormfire cannon, but their role was not to dogfight. Their powerful jamming pods could either overload enemy sensors and communications with “noise” or create false returns to confuse and deceive the enemy. The Stalkers also each had a quartet of Blinder missiles that would disable the sensors and radars of attacking capital ships. The Stalkers were cloak capable, allowing them to get close enough to do their work and then escape safely.

Lastly, the supporting shuttle craft. The twelve shuttles carried by battle group Valkyrie’s carriers were configured according to their roles. Some were solely transport craft, but the rest were support craft, divided into 2 SAR craft, 2 command and control shuttles, and 4 refueling and rearming shuttles. The Littenia could add 1 SAR, 1 command and control craft, and 2 refueling and rearming shuttles. They would be held back just behind the combat zone, hopefully far enough to be safe while being near enough to…

“She must be pretty hot,” Chrys commented after about five minutes had passed without anything being said.


”That girl you’re thinking about. She must be pretty hot.”

”Oh, she is,” Raptor said, hitting her with his most charming smile.

“Uh-huh. Nice try, Rap,” Chrys said, and then smiled ruefully, knowing exactly what he had been thinking about. “Hell of a way to make a living, isn't it?”

Raptor laughed quietly. “Hell of a way to spend Valentine’s Day, at least.”

Chrys laughed as well. “Well, we’ve had better. Had worse, too.” In the eight years since they had met, Valentine’s Day had always been a memorable occasional, though memorable for reasons ranging from a smash up dinner at Landreich’s best restaurant to hunting down and wiping out the Black Dragon pirate gang in a desolate asteroid belt. This one, though, promised to take the cake as far as being memorable went.

She paused for a few seconds before speaking again. “Rap, there’s something I’ve been thinking about. A little additional chaos for the Valentine’s Day Massacre.”

Raptor raised an eyebrow. “Why didn’t you bring this up earlier?”

“Because I just thought of it a couple of hours ago, that’s why. And because I’m not sure of it. It’s crazy.”

Raptor nearly choked on his food. Coming from a fifth generation Border Worlder who had lived on the frontier all her life, that was a truly scary statement.

“Okay, what is it?” he asked cautiously.

“Well, remember that refugee convoy we had to save from a Kilrathi destroyer in the Bush..”