PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 32 of 66 )

: “ The Tiger Hunt ”

"When on surrounded ground, plot. When on deadly ground, fight."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Flight Deck, BWS Valeria
Loki VI Debris Field,
Loki System, Union of Border Worlds
0930 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

The flight deck shook with the howl of high performance turbines as a flight of Excaliburs from the Taipan Squadron raced out into space on full afterburner. The remaining Excaliburs followed, heading out to reinforce the HAVCAP (High Asset Value Combat Air Patrol) that was protecting one of the SWACS craft as it lurked at the edge of the debris field, scanning for signs of the incoming attack.

Elsewhere on the flight deck, there were scenes of barely controlled chaos as the deck crews prepped entire squadrons of fighters, bombers, electronic warfare craft and others for the launch. Fuel lines pumped afterburner fuel from the Valeria’s bunkers into afterburner tanks, while red shirted armorers made the final checks on the lethal missiles, torpedoes and other warheads slung underneath the bellies of the combat craft. Techs and crew chiefs made last minute repairs, fixing critical faults and problems as best they could in the time they had, and flagging less serious troubles for when the fighters returned. The Border Worlders tended to push safety regulations a lot further than other nations did, and a lot of the fighters and other craft that the Valeria’s techs classed as “combat ready” had damage and faults that would have grounded them in Confederation service. It was a system that occasionally cost lives, but it did allow the Border Worlders to generate far more craft for each mission than they otherwise would have.

Meanwhile, the pilots strapped themselves into their cockpits, running their own checks and preparing themselves mentally for what was likely to be toughest battle of their lives.

For one, Major Jameel “Paladin” Ul-Huq had no illusions about what was coming towards them as he prepped his recon Arrow for launch. The Border Worlders had stung the Nephilim badly over the last couple of days, ambushing and wiping out the scout groups of fighters sent into the debris field to find them, and then annihilating half a dozen corvettes and destroyers that had been sent in to flush them out. They had kept the Nephilim focused and fixated on them throughout, hopefully keeping the enemy fleet unaware of the jaws of the trap that was closing in on it.

Now, with the Admiral’s decision to reveal the position of their carriers, the Nephilim would throw everything at them but the proverbial kitchen sink. That was what the Border Worlders wanted of course, as it would strip the enemy carrier groups of vital fighter cover and bomber support right when they needed it most. Still, with that much firepower coming down on them like a ton of bricks, it would take all the skill, cunning, and courage the Border Worlders had to survive the coming onslaught.

From talking to his pilots, and from his own years of experience on the frontlines of one major battle after another, Paladin knew that the pilots who were readying themselves to meet that onslaught were sacred as hell. That was entirely normal, as you had to be either stupid or crazy to not be scared about the prospect of coming under attack from three separate super-carrier groups. After all, every scenario they had planned and studied said that would lose close to 40 or 50 fighters today at the very least. The pilots had every right to be scared because one out of every three of them would likely go down in flames in the coming battle.

The true measure of a man or woman’s courage though, was not in the absence of fear, but in the ability to master it. Fear, after all, was a lot like fire. It was a good servant but a bad master. When it was controlled and mastered, it gave you an edge, sharpening your senses like nothing else could, letting you survive what you ordinarily could not. When allowed to run out of control, it would paralyze you and blind you, turning you from a fighter pilot into a mere target.

When it came to courage and the ability to overcome fear, Paladin had no doubts about either the pilots under his command or those they would be flying alongside. For right alongside the fear of what was to come, he had seen an iron determination that they wouldn’t be broken or defeated by what the Nephilim would throw at them today. The universe had learned long ago that while Border Worlders were often outnumbered and outgunned, they were never outclassed. They had a reputation for bravery and tenacity in battle that had been earned through blood and sacrifice on dozens of battlefields, against enemies many and varied. The pilots who were headed into battle today were the heirs of that tradition, and they were determined to teach the Aligned Peoples the same lesson that both the Warriors of Sivar and the Master Race had learnt in blood and pain.

Never fuck with the Border Worlds on their home turf.

There were many in the galaxy that found the ferocity and oftentimes suicidal courage with which the Border Worlders fought difficult to understand. After all, they didn’t have a religion that glorified combat and honorable death in battle like the Kilrathi did. Nor did they have wealth and resources that had to be protected at all costs like the Andorrans did. The worlds of the Union were relatively poor and technologically backwards compared to those of the other human nations, and life on the newly tamed and colonized worlds of the frontier was harder and much more dangerous than on planets where human habitation had been long established. So why fight so hard to defend that life?

The answers to that were simple, and yet at the same time almost impossible to understand for those who weren’t of the frontier. The Border Worlders fought so hard and with such determination because these worlds were theirs, and theirs alone. The Border Worlds had been settled by those who had no place in the safer and more comfortable Inner Worlds. Some had been outcasts, misfits and petty criminals who had found themselves being uprooted and deported to the harsh and untamed worlds of the frontier, much as similar people had been deported to the harsh and untamed continent of Australia in another century. Others, like those who had settled New Zealand and South Africa in another time, were those who had no seen no future for themselves and their families in the settled and comfortable worlds, where most of the land and wealth and power had already been concentrated in hands of those who were favored by birth and lineage. And still others had been idealists and iconoclasts who wanted a more free and egalitarian society that was less bound by petty laws and rules that restricted the freedom of the individual, much like those who had left Mother England for America had been.

They had all come here, to a place where they could carve out their own future and destiny as they wanted, not as someone else had dictated it. They had settled the harsh and unforgiving worlds on the edge of human civilization, and through generation after generation of blood, sweat and tears, had created a place that was uniquely theirs. Their lives hadn’t been easy, but through their determination and vision they had created a nation all their own, a nation with a difficult past and an uncertain present, but a nation with a future that was limited only by the dreams and courage of its people. That was what they had bequeathed to the current generation that was fighting to protect it, and that was what this generation was determined to bequeath to future generations. This nation that their forefathers had created and which they held in trust would go to their children and to no one else. Anyone who wanted to take it by force would literally have to do it over their dead bodies.

The other reason that the Border Worlders fought with such ferocity and determination was because they knew that the universe was a harsh and merciless place. No one understood that better than the people of the frontier. The Union simply didn’t have the capacity and the reserves to absorb massive disasters like the McAuliffe Ambush at the start of the First Kilrathi War, or the losses of the Battle of Terra. Maybe one day in the future it would have those reserves (after all, Confed itself had sprung from similar humble beginnings to the Union) but not just now. For now, they knew that one massive reversal would cripple or destroy the Border Worlds Union. There were no second chances. Each time they went into battle, they understood that their families, their home worlds, and everything else they believed in and cared for was on the line. They were determined not to fail because they simply couldn’t afford to fail.

Of course, sometimes courage and determination were no match for numbers and firepower. The Border Worlders weren’t simply going into this battle hoping to win through on ferocity and determination, though. The enemy might vastly outnumber them, but the Border Worlders drew confidence from the fact that the Nephilim were going to fight them on their terms and on their turf. One of the most vital advantages the Border Worlders had always enjoyed was their knowledge of the terrain, and it was no different this time. They had mapped the Loki VI debris field over a decade ago, and they knew it thoroughly. Many had flown through this system well before the battle to hold the line had begun, and all had spent the past few days both flying through it and poring over the maps till they could read them in their sleep. They knew where the debris field would allow them to fly on afterburner, and where the debris was so thick that fighters would have to fly on half throttle or be splattered against the rocks. They knew where the debris would interfere with sensors, and which were the best places for ambushes. That knowledge would allow them rip into the enemy attack force well before it got near the carriers. They had the home ground advantage. For the enemy, it would be deadly ground.

Second, they had spent the past few days plotting and planning for precisely this kind of battle. They had all known that they would have to defend the carriers sooner or later, and they were ready. They had laid mines along certain choke points where the debris was so think that any attack force would be forced along predictable corridors, and positioned the carriers so that the enemy could have to go through those corridors to get to them. Each squadron had been assigned its own specific role in attriting the enemy well before they got near the carriers, and support craft like jammers and refuelers were standing by to act as force multipliers. While the unexpected always could and would happen in battle, that planning and preparation gave them another huge edge over the enemy.

In short, the Border Worlders were as prepared and as well equipped for this fight as it was possible to get. Now it simply remained to be seen if that readiness would be enough.


Recon Arrow 007 (Ghost Warrior Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field, A Few Minutes Later
0945 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

The last of the Arrows hurtled out of the launch bay, linking up on Paladin’s wing as they turned away from the Valeria’s launch circuit. The SWACS had just sent word that a large enemy force, close to 500 enemy fighters in all, was headed for the debris field. And that was a conservative estimate, as a good number of that 500 were clusters, each of which would spawn more fighters when the cluster itself was broken up. That put the odds at worse than three to one, but the situation wasn’t quite as bleak as the numbers made it sound. It would take the Nephilim several hours to navigate the torturous routes of the debris field with such a large force, and the Border Worlders planned to meet the enemy well before then, cutting them to ribbons with ambushes and hit-and-run tactics. After all, the best defense was a good offense.

All around them, other squadrons were launching from the Valeria and the Littenia, as well as from the cruisers and destroyers that were covering them. Those fighters from the Freedom that would be joining them for the fleet battle were already circling nearby. The squadrons quickly formed up, and then began splitting off one by one, each squadron making its own way into the debris field by its assigned route. For the kind of tactics the Border Worlders had in mind, small units would work far better than a huge intercept force.

Behind them, the carriers had already pulled back into position they had planned earlier, the portion of the debris field that due to both the composition of the field itself and the mines the Border Worlders had laid earlier, would be the most difficult for enemy fighters and capships to reach. By moving from the position where the Nephilim had previously found the Valeria, they were also forcing the Nephilim to search for them anew. It wouldn’t be possible to hide again, as the Nephilim already had a rough fix on their position, but by making the Nephilim search for them they gave fighter pilots an extra couple of hours to attrite the enemy force.

Meanwhile, the cruisers and destroyers positioned themselves where they could provide both anti-aircraft fire to defend the carriers, and could intercept any enemy capship that had managed to run the gauntlet. There were five of the warships in all. Battle Group Valkyrie contributed the battlecruiser Nemesis and the destroyer Courage. The Littenia group contributed the Tallahassee-class heavy cruiser Ravager and the destroyers Braveheart and Fortitude. The rest of Battle Group Valkyrie’s escorts, the Tallahassee-class warship Spitfire and the destroyers Endurance and Resolve, had remained behind with the Freedom to combat any surprises by the Nephilim and to help keep an escape route clear.

The Arrows were the last fighters to break away from the carriers. Their role in the fleet defense battle had been changed at the last minute, thanks to an idea that Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes had taken up with the Wing Commander a short while ago. The idea had been brilliant, innovative, and totally unconventional. It was also, as far as Paladin was concerned, absolutely stark raving mad. The senior officers agreed, but they thought that it might just be crazy enough to work. And if there was one thing that everyone agreed on, they needed to do a few things that would ordinarily have been unthinkable if they were going to win this one.

For that reason, Paladin was now explaining the details of that idea to his pilots. None of them were at all happy about it, but all of them were fast enough on the uptake to grasp the possibilities. The Arrows were the only fighters that had the agility that the mission required, and so the Ghost Warriors were the only unit that could possibly pull it off. If it worked, it would allow the Border Worlders to deliver a first strike that would rock the enemy force back on to its heels right at the outset, and cause massive losses without taking any of their own.

“Ins’Allah,” Paladin muttered to himself as he finished delivering the message to his pilots. The phrase translated roughly as “If it is the will of God” or “If Allah wills it.” It was part prayer, and partly an expression of the fatalistic acceptance of powers greater than human that had allowed his people to survive and thrive in a world where they had been in turn both the oppressors and the oppressed, a vicious cycle that it had taken centuries to break.

He bit back a smile as he heard, over the open comm system, Goliath’s deep voice muttering in Hebrew as if in counter-point to his own prayer. Two faiths that had been at war throughout the centuries, two peoples who had been at each others throats for most of their histories, but no more. The various threats that humanity had faced, from the Kilrathi to the Black Lance to the Nephilim, had done that much good at least.

By now, the Arrows had picked up the last of their “riders,” which were now nestled right in the centre of the fighter formation. The Arrows turned, slowly and very carefully, before accelerating away from the warships. The Arrows would normally have been able to use their agility to take any path they liked through the debris field, but now they had to take the widest and clearest corridors possible, minimizing the need for any sudden or violent maneuvering. Even so, the thought of what could happen if one of them miscalculated a turn was enough to make the pilots’ blood run cold. All it would take was a slight over-correction on the stick or a little too much throttle, and the Ghost Warrior Squadron would cease to exist.

Luckily, they had the help of one of the command and control shuttles to help steer them along the right path, as well as all the maps they had built up of the debris field. Over two hours of painstaking flying later, the command and control craft informed them that would soon be within radar range of the Nephilim formation, which was taking an equally slow and cautious path through the debris field. Just like the Arrows, they were sticking to the widest and clearest paths they could find. A little careful maneuvering by the Arrow pilots put the two groups on a direct collision course.

Now came the most dangerous part of the flight. The Arrows had to all accelerate to afterburner speed at the same time, while maintaining formation and hoping that that what they were carrying among them would do the exact same thing at the exact same time. If the Valeria’s weapons officers or programmers had erred in the slightest, this mission was about to come to fiery and spectacular end.

Paladin gave his pilots a verbal countdown, though that same countdown had begun running on HUDs of all the Arrows as soon as he sent the activation code, as well as (hopefully) in the flight computers of what was in the middle of the formation. All the pilots, whether Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or even Agonistic, took the time to send a quick prayer in the direction of whatever God looked out for fools, madmen and Border Worlders. Though come to think of it, any God that was watching would have been hard pressed to tell the difference between the three.

As the counter reached zero, Paladin slammed the throttle into afterburner and involuntarily shut his eyes, half certain that the next thing he would see would be heaven, or maybe the other place. The Arrow surged ahead though, and the oblivion he was expecting didn’t happen. Now it was just a straight run towards the enemy.

A quartet of Stalkers decloaked just before the Nephilim would have picked the Arrows up on radar, two on each side of the Border Worlds formation. Their jamming helped confuse the Nephilim for a few seconds more, allowing the Arrows a clear run towards the enemy. The speed of the Arrows did the rest. Just before they would have plunged into the enemy formation though, Paladin sent out a second activation code, and both Arrows and Stalkers peeled off and ran flat out. They didn’t want to be anywhere near what was about to happen.

The dozen CSM missiles that had been riding among the Arrows though, plunged straight ahead, right into the heart of the enemy formation. Given the interference caused by the debris, there was no way that the Valeria’s weapons officers would have been able to steer the missiles to their targets. All they had time to do was program the missiles to follow the Arrows’ transponders and maintain a minimum distance from them, essentially turning the Arrows into beacons for the missiles. The other advantage of that was that because Arrows and CSM missiles had similar sized radar returns, the Nephilim hadn’t been able to tell the two apart through the Stalkers’ jamming, and hence had taken no evasive action.

Now, the missiles simply ran along their last heading, the Arrow pilots having cut their transponders when Paladin sent the second activation code, and detonated moments later, right at the heart of the Nephilim formation. And these weren’t the ship killing attack missiles with anti-matter warheads that released their energy in a focused and shaped blast. Oh no. These were ground bombardment weapons with nuclear warheads, designed to destroy troop concentrations, armored columns or even (God forbid) entire cities. They now released the power of their multi-megaton warheads simultaneously to avoid fratricide, creating a new sun at the heart of the enemy formation.

Some of the Nephilim fighters simply vaporized in the power of the blast, gone as if they had never existed. Several more melted and broke apart, the fury of raw fusion too much for them to withstand. Even more took damage that left them crippled and limping, and almost all had some or most of their sensors and radars fried by the intense electro-magnetic pulse that resulted from the detonation. All in all, the explosion destroyed over forty of the enemy, crippled and blinded many more, and left the rest in a state of shock.

With that one stroke, the Border Worlders had sent a loud and clear message to the enemy. Welcome to our world. Welcome to your death.

Those Nephilim that survived proceeded forward even more slowly and cautiously than before. They split into much smaller groups, no longer willing to stick together, and longer willing to stay in the wide and easy corridors. That, of course, would slow them down even further, and leave them open to the other groups that were waiting for them.


Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field
1220 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

“Gun check.”

The Retaliator’s heavy frame shuddered slightly as the forward cannons lit up, the four hard-hitting tachyon guns and twin fast-firing stormfire cannons giving voice in a synchronized but fittingly discordant song of death. Even in the modern era of self-repairing hardware and almost infallible diagnostic systems, there always something that could wrong. After all, it was a fact of military life that the hardware you depended on was built by the lowest bidder. For most pilots, there was still no substitute for that quick check that ensured the weapons would be ready when the pilot needed them.

Nearby, other fighters from the Reaper and Starkiller Squadrons did the same, lighting up the space around them with a spectacular display of firepower that no one else was near enough to see, though that would change soon enough. There were several enemy squadrons moving towards them, and the Retaliator pilots intended to give them a reception they would never forget. There were only twenty-six of the Retaliators, down from the 36 the two squadrons had fielded only two weeks ago, but numbers were only one of many factors that could affect outcome of a battle. These fighters were the best the Union had, every bit a match for Confed’s Panthers, and the pilots were likewise the best in the Union. Not only that, they had already stacked the deck to ensure that this most certainly would not be a fair fight.

There was another burst of fire from each fighter a split second later, this one coming from the twin reaper cannons that protected each Retaliator’s six. The Retaliator was unique among the space superiority fighters operated by any nation in having tailguns. That addition had been heatedly debated among scientists and engineers as the design had been finalized, with many arguing that tailguns were wasted on a fighter that was fast and maneuverable enough to stay with an Excalibur.

For the pilots though, the tailguns were a godsend. The Retaliator was in many ways a cross between a traditional superiority fighter and a heavy fighter. It wasn’t as fast or as agile as Confed’s latest superiority fighters, focusing instead on heavy shields and killer firepower. In that context, the tailguns added significantly to the fighter’s survivability. They had enough punch to take out light fighters like Stingrays and individual Skates, and made heavier fighters wary of trying to tail the Retaliators. They also made an excellent final defense against missiles that weren’t fooled by the fighter’s decoys.

Another reason the pilots were glad of the tailguns was that most of them had graduated to the Retaliator from heavy fighters such as Vindicators and Thunderbolts. The tailguns allowed the gunners they had worked with for years to transfer with them to their new steeds. That kept these highly experienced units intact, rather than splitting them in half as would have happened if they had transferred to single seat craft.

Of course, like all fighter pilots, or at least all human fighter pilots, the Retaliators drivers worked in pairs and covered each other’s sixes. In the confusion of a multiple bogey dogfight though, having an extra crewmember in each fighter to watch their sixes allowed both pilots to concentrate more on offence, utilizing the Retaliators’ fearsome firepower to the full. And that after all, was why they were out there. The Retaliator was designed first and foremost as a fighter killer, using its firepower to smash through an enemy formation like a steam train. It wasn’t exactly an elegant technique, but it was a brutally effective one. For each of the ten Retaliators that had gone down in the campaign to date, between ten and a dozen enemy fighters had fallen to their guns and missiles.

A few more minutes passed before the anticipated call came from the Border Worlds command and control shuttle that had been assigned to work with the Retaliators. The shuttle was lurking 30,000 clicks further back, but even so its powerful scanners were able to detect the incoming enemy craft well before the Border Worlds fighters could. The flipside to that, of course, was that the Border Worlders could see the enemy fighters well before the enemy could see their fighters, and could maneuver into the best position to make their attack well in advance.

“Reaper, this is Deadeye. We tally approximately one hundred and twenty; repeat, one-two-zero, enemy fighters headed your way. Looks like a mixture of Mantas and Morays with a good number of fighter clusters and Devil Rays thrown in. They’re on a heading of 120-59-90, average speed 300 KPS, over.”

“Reaper lead copies all, Deadeye. We’re positioning to intercept. Please transfer telemetry soonest, over.”

Almost instantly, the data from the shuttle appeared on the pilots’ cockpit displays and HUDs, transferred by the shuttle via real-time data link. In essence, it allowed the pilots to see everything the shuttle crew saw, giving them one huge advantage over the opponents before the battle had even started. The Retaliators themselves kept their radars in standby mode, but warmed up just in case. There was always the possibility, no matter how remote, that the shuttle’s feed could be jammed or the shuttle itself destroyed. The fighter pilots had to be ready for that eventuality to prevent their advantage from suddenly turning into a huge liability.

“Ready?” Raptor asked over the intercom as the fighters accelerated towards a particularly dense cluster of planetary debris that would give them some cover from enemy radar and visual detection while still giving them a clear field of fire for their missiles.

“Ready to rock and roll, Colonel.” Answered his tailgunner, Lieutenant James Chang, or Backlash, as his squadron mates called him. Backlash had been flying with him over eight years, and over those years Raptor had learned to trust the gunner implicitly. Backlash was a highly accurate shot who had earned his Aces ribbon during the Battle for the Bush, a feat that very few gunners achieved. What was even more amazing was that most of those kills had been scored in a Vindicator, whose rear armament was puny to say the least.

One reason for that was the teamwork the two of them had developed over the years. When fighting light fighters such as Kilrathi Darkets or pirate Razors that could outmaneuver the Vindicator easily, a favorite tactic of theirs had been for Raptor to take a high deflection shot at the enemy’s forward section as the fighters closed. While often not enough to destroy the fighter, one or two solid hits from the Vindicator’s forward guns would shear away the shields and much of the amour of such light craft. More often than, anger and damaged pride made their opponents reckless enough to press the attack by tailing the Vindicator immediately, thinking it safe to ignore the threat from the Vindicator’s single rear laser. They only realized their mistake when Backlash’s deadly shooting ripped through the weakened amour to hit the fighter’s vitals. With the much heavier punch of the twin reaper cannons at his disposal, the gunner was even more deadly, as he had proven by adding two further kills to his score in this campaign.

A few minutes later, the formation of enemy fighters began approaching their position. Or perhaps formation wasn’t the right word, for that implied some kind of order, some kind of organization. A better term would have been swarm, as the fighters darted back on forth at random, with small streams of fighters constantly breaking away from them the main body, circling aimlessly for a while, and them streaking back to rejoin. It was more like a group of insects moving more or less in the same direction than any a coherent military grouping. The human pilots had seen this often enough over the last couple of weeks to know that this was normal. While there had been much talk and many theories about a Nephilim “hive mind”, their opponents had never been the all seeing, all knowing, and all powerful Gestalt beings so beloved of science fiction. The Nephilim might indeed have a hive mind, but if so, it was a fragmented and schizophrenic mind that seemed to only be as fast on the uptake as its slowest member, not a mind that was greater than the sum of its parts. They also knew that this lack of cohesion meant the Nephilim had a hard time responding effectively to new tactics, and would be slow to react to the unexpected.

Knowing all that, and knowing what they were about to unleash on the Nephilim, the Border Worlders felt almost sorry for their opponents. Almost being the operative word. The fact that they were outnumbered five to one helped keep things in perspective. If the Nephilim broke through in force, it was all over. To prevent that from happening, they would have to savage this group of enemy fighters, just like their comrades would have to do to their opponents.

The key to what the Retaliator pilots planned to do lay in the electronic hardware concealed beneath their fighters’ sleek noses, hardware that helped make the Retaliator the most expensive fighter the Union had ever produced. While the fighter boasted massive firepower, all the firepower in the world was useless if it wasn’t guided by an effective fire-control system. The Retaliator’s weapons were guided by a formidable unit called the Synchronized Tracking and Offensive Radar Module, a rather prosaic name for a system whose nature was better described by its acronym, STORM, because that was exactly what it could unleash on the enemy.

The STORM fire control system had three key components. The first was a powerful multi-mode radar that was capable of tracking dozens of fighter size targets simultaneously, even in a heavy ECM environment. The second was a secure data-link that allowed STORM units in separate Retaliators to share information, essentially allowing a unit of Retaliators to act as a coordinated hunting pack. The data-link also allowed information to be shared with SWACS and EW craft, maximizing the effectiveness of those craft in supporting the Retaliators. Last but certainly not least was a high speed and extremely capable CPU, verging on being an artificial intelligence, which integrated the information from the radar and the data-link with those from the Retaliator’s other sensors and RHAWS systems to build up a comprehensive picture of the tactical situation. The processor then filtered the information to avoid overloading the pilot, prioritizing the targets based on the threat they presented and recommending attack options, before presenting the vital data to the pilot on his or her HUD and MFD screens. The system was designed to maximize the pilot’s situational awareness, giving him or her the best chance of staying alive in the confusion of a massive dogfight.

Right now, the STORM units were using the data fed to them by the SWACS to prosecute a long-range missile attack against the approaching enemy craft. The Border Worlds pilots knew that being sucked into hard turning knife fight with this many enemy fighters would be fatal. The Border Worlders might have better training and tactics on their side, but sometime quantity had a quality all of its own. The enemy fighters would swarm them, cut them off from each other, and pound them to dust in a furball. That was the kind of fight the Nephilim would excel at, and it was the kind of fight that they would want. One of the most basic rules of warfare was that you never did what your opponent wanted you to do. You don’t do what he expects, and you don’t fight on his terms. To survive and win, the Border Worlders would have enforce their own rules on the battle when that was possible, cheat whenever they could, and run like hell when neither of those things was likely.

They knew that the enemy fighters would see them before they were in range to launch their missiles, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t hit first and hit hard. Most battles were fought on the assumption that when the enemy was in range, so were you; but that wasn’t always the case. It was possible to hit the enemy before he could hit you. Sometimes the only way to do that was to through the creation of newer and more advanced weapons that outranged the competition. An example of that approach was the Andorrans’ fearsome Talon SIM-200 anti-bomber missile. At other times though, it just involved a little ingenuity and lateral thinking.

In this case, the Border Worlders had resorted not to new weapons, but to old ones. The latest generation of fighter missiles used by Confed, the Union and the Nephilim alike were specifically geared towards the close range dogfights where most kills were scored. These missiles had numerous advantages over their older counterparts, including being smaller, more maneuverable and packing a more lethal warhead. However, they also had one key drawback that the Border Worlders were hoping to exploit. Their smaller size and decreased fuel load meant they only had only about half the maximum and effective ranges of the older weapons. The Border Worlders had ransacked the three carriers’ armories to find the old weapons, which had initially been intended only as reserve stocks till the production lines could start churning out the new warheads in large numbers.

There were only enough of the old missile to put six such warheads on each of the Retaliators, but six missiles per fighter multiplied by twenty six fighters meant in excess of a hundred and fifty warheads. Under favorable conditions, these old missiles launched at 12,000 klicks range (just out the launch envelope of the newer missiles) had a kill probability of about 20 to 30%. The trick, of course, was to ensure that the conditions were favorable.

Just over a minute later, the enemy fighters finally read the Retaliators on their radar screens, and punched their afterburners, accelerating straight for the Border Worlders. For their part, the Border Worlders ignited their own afterburners, racing towards the enemy. While they could have remained where they were, picking of the leading enemy fighters as they came within range, that wasn’t what they had in mind. The lack of cohesion n the Nephilim attack meant that the formation was spread out, with the stragglers a good 10,000 or so klicks behind the leaders. Even if everything went exactly as planned, the Border Worlders would only down about 30 or 40 enemy fighters with the 150 missiles they were going to launch in their first strike. That would be an unacceptable rate of return, unless they could make sure that they hit the right 30 or 40 fighters.

As they came to within 10,00 klicks of the leaders, four Stalkers dropped out of cloak on the sides of the Retaliator formation, activating their powerful jammers to scramble enemy tracking and communication systems. That had two effects, first giving the Retaliators a much better chance of surviving the gauntlet they would have to run, and second making it much more likely that the Retaliators could hit their targets. There were too many enemy craft and too few Stalkers for the jamming to create the complete chaos that it had in past battles, but hopefully it would be enough.

A few seconds later, the Retaliators began launching their missiles in salvoes as they came within range of the Devil Rays and clusters that were their targets. These were the most dangerous of the enemy craft and were the ones that had to taken out first. The STORM units on each fighter coordinated the missile launches, ensuring maximum damage much more effectively than the pilots alone could have. The fluid nature of space combat meant there were simply too many variables for the unaided human mind to ensure that enough warheads were launched at each target to ensure a kill, while avoiding target duplication and wastage of missiles. For that reason, target selection and lock-on was left entirely to STORM. This trick would likely only work once, not to mention that they had no more of the old missiles left, and they had to get the best value from it that they could.

The surprise of the attack, the jamming, and the capabilities of the old warheads combined well enough that the attack succeeded better than the Border Worlders had dared hope. Almost all of the Devil Rays and fighter clusters, over forty in all, detonated in brilliant explosions, their RHAWS and ECM systems scrambled by the jamming, their maneuvering ability defeated by the multiple launches, their defenses overwhelmed by shattering force of the several missiles that hit each target. In effect, the heart of the Nephilim formation had been cut out with both precision and brutality.

Now though, the Border Worlders had to pay the price for their attack. To escape, they had to blow through the leading edges of spread out enemy formation, exiting out the other side before running for cover. That in turn gave the Nephilim a chance for revenge. The jamming of the Stalkers, along with their own speed and the liberal use of their decoys, helped the Retaliators foil most missile launches, but there was no escaping the maser and plasma bolts that lashed towards. First one Retaliator, then another, and then another, exploded into flame and debris, their crews dying before they even had a chance to scream.

For their part, the Border Worlders lashed out with their own weapons, forward cannons and tailguns raking anything that crossed their path, while their remaining warheads, all of them the new generation missiles now, slammed into anything the pilots could lock into. They didn’t turn to dogfight though, knowing that would be fatal, and even STORM couldn’t process a coordinated missile attack when the pilot was too busy to think about anything more than staying alive. For that reason, the Border Worlders damaged far more than they killed in the last phase of the attack, bringing down only half a dozen fighters but leaving many more limping.

Then they were through the gauntlet, running for the safety of the debris field. The Nephilim tried to pursue, but they had been taken of guard by the surprise of the attack, which lasted less than 60 seconds in all. That, combined with the jamming of the Stalkers and the fact that the SWACS was leading the Retaliators away by the fastest and safest route, allowed them to make their escape.

The attack had claimed close to fifty enemy craft and damaged many more, but it had cost the Border Worlders five of their Retaliators, all ten pilots and gunners lost without ejecting. The results of the attack might look good on a balance sheet, but the crews grimly aware that a fifth of them had been lost in under a minute, and there was plenty of fighting still to go. Those people who had just vanished from the face of the Universe were friends and comrades who had served with them for years, and they would be sorely missed. For now though, there was no time to mourn, simply time to think about the next battle, and the next bunch of dirty tricks they would have to pull to turn the tables on their enemies. It would only get harder from now on in.