PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 38 of 66 )

: “ The Tiger Hunt ”

"Let your rapidity be that of the wind, your compactness that of the forest.
In raiding and plundering be like fire, in immovability like a mountain.
Let your plans be dark and impenetrable as night, and when you strike, fall like a thunderbolt."
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Recon Arrow 007 (Ghost Warrior Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
1325 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

Major Jameel “Paladin” Ul-Huq powered down his radar, the last of his active sensors to go off-line. His recon Arrow was now putting out absolutely no energy that could be detected by the enemy sensors. He ran a quick check of his RHAWS and ESM displays to check that none of his pilots were broadcasting across the electromagnetic spectrum either. He had emphasized that point to them over and over and over again, but Border Worlders being what they were, it never hurt to make sure. 

The Arrows were concealed in a part of the debris field that wasn’t particularly dense, but was composed almost entirely of the kind of ferromagnetic metal rich rocks that played havoc with radars and targeting systems by generating false returns. These returns were known as ghosts, an irony that wasn’t lost on any of the Ghost Warriors, and would make it harder for the Nephilim pilots to tell which the real targets were. That wasn’t so important right now, while the Arrows were still hidden by their cloaks, but it would become critical in a few minutes.

Paladin smiled slightly as he reviewed in his mind the attacks that the Border Worlders had carried out to date on the large attacking force that was hunting down their carriers. They hadn’t sought to fight the enemy on anything like even terms, and they certainly hadn’t been interested in anything that even remotely resembled a fair fight. That might have worked for chivalrous knights or the medieval Samurai, but not for a people who were trying to defend their homes and families while massively outnumbered.

No, the tactics used by the Border Worlders weren’t those of the chivalrous warrior meeting a noble enemy on the field of honor, but rather the tactics of the mugger, the reaver, the assassin. Not so much those of the Samurai as those of the Ninja. Strike from the shadows, hit hard, and then run like hell.  Since the Ghost Warriors’ first attack, several small groups of fighters, a squadron or two at the most, had jumped the enemy when the Nephilim least expected it, cut loose with everything they had, and then ran all out. They would stand and fight only when forced to, either when they were cornered or after the enemy had driven them back towards their carriers.

For now, each of their attacks destroyed a dozen of the enemy here, a half dozen there. Then the attackers faded away, using their knowledge of the terrain and the advantages they had in stealth, jamming and surveillance capability to confuse and frustrate the enemy. The stream of attacks was steadily hemorrhaging the enemy force, bleeding away its strength a little bit at a time. The death of a thousand cuts, Phalanx had called it, referring to a particularly nasty form of torture and execution used by the ancient Chinese.

Now, the Ghost Warriors were in position to make a few more of those cuts on the enemy’s skin. Their first mission, shepherding a volley of nuclear armed CSMs into the heart of the enemy formation, had been a great success, but neither Paladin nor his pilots were willing to limit the Ghost Warriors’ role in the battle to that one strike. They had no intention of sitting by while the heavier fighters fought the enemy. This in fact had been the Ghost Warriors’ planned role in the fleet battle, with the CSM attack having been a last minute addition.
It had taken both Paladin and Lynx a lot of fast talking to have this plan taken seriously while the flight wing had been debating how to best way to defend the carriers over the last few days, but they had won through in the end. The recon pilots planned to show their colleagues who flew larger and more powerful fighters that it wasn’t so much the size of the dog in the fight that counted as the size of the fight in the dog. The Arrows were lightly armored and lightly shielded, and would be no match for the Nephilim in a conventional fight, but that wasn’t how the Border Worlders planned to use the recon craft.

The Border Worlds pilots had positioned themselves a few minutes flight time ahead of the Nephilim groups that were trying to bull their way through the debris field to reach the carriers. This patch of the debris, despite its effect on sensors, was one of the few areas in this sector of the field clear enough to let a large formation pass through, so it was almost certain that at least some of the Nephilim would fly this way. With their radars powered down, the Ghost Warriors were absolutely dependent on the command and control shuttles that were monitoring and controlling the fight to alert them to the enemy’s approach. Unlike the more advanced Retaliators, the Arrows couldn’t get radar information directly from the shuttles, but the shuttle crew could still vector them towards the enemy.

The heads up call from the shuttle came less a minute later. The Arrow pilots all powered up their engines but waited for the enemy to come to them rather than the other way around. The closer they could stay to this particular patch of debris the better. From what the shuttle crew told them, the course taken by this group of Nephilim would take them near, though not through, the sensor fooling debris. As long as the Arrows could keep the false returns from the debris between them and the Nephilim when they decloaked to attack, they would have a few vital seconds when the Nephilim pilots would be unable to tell whether they were real or just more of the ghosts they were seeing from the debris. And a few seconds would be all it would take to teach the Nephilim that there was a heck of difference between a ghost and a Ghost Warrior.

The shuttle crew gave them a countdown of the range to the enemy formation. When the enemy craft reached 20,000 clicks range from them, the Ghost Warriors began accelerating towards the enemy fighters. The Border Worlds pilots also separated from each other, and set their approaches so that none of them would run the risk of crossing each other’s path as they released their weapons. Given what they planned to do, the consequences of running into each other’s line of fire would be disastrous.

“This one’s for you, Ruth,” Paladin said quietly as he armed the quartet of missiles slung below his fighter. Lt. Colonel Lofton had been a friend and a mentor, the one person more than any other who had been responsible for the creation of the Ghost Warrior Squadron. The pilots were determined to make the Nephilim pay for their squadron leader’s death. Revenge might be officially frowned upon by the higher ups, even in the Border Worlds, but if you could gain that revenge while doing your job, so much the better.

“All fighters, go active!” Paladin ordered, activating his own radar at the same time. The energy might show up on the Nephilim pilots’ threat boards, but it was far to late for them to do anything about it now. Besides, the Border Worlders would need the radar picture to cause maximum damage with their missile attack.

Paladin eased his fighter slightly downwards and to the right, aligning the Arrow’s nose with the centre of the enemy formation. His radar showed the other pilots doing the same, setting up a killing zone from which there would be no escape for the enemy pilots unlucky enough to be in their sights.

“All pilots, attack!” Paladin snapped as he hit the button that deactivated the Arrow’s cloaking device, causing the familiar shriek to fill his headphones and the brilliant burst of living color to fold his eyes.  Close to a dozen Arrows shimmered into view around him, missiles already dropping away from their bellies and streaking towards the Nephilim.

This was the most dangerous part of the attack, the one time that the Nephilim had a decent chance to catch and destroy the Arrows. Paladin wished fleetingly that there was some way to attack while cloaked, but he might as well have wished for the Inner Fleets to back them up, and a fortune in unmarked bills to fund his retirement. The power drain from a cloaking device made it impossible to fire energy weapons while cloaked, while the electromagnetic and gravitational distortions generated by the cloaking field itself caused both guided and dumbfire missiles to miss their intended targets. The closest anyone had come to fighters that could fire while hidden from sensors was with the NSBC (Nanotech Sensor Beam Countermeasures) system used on the Andorran Osprey, but there was no way the Border Worlders could afford such advanced technology. As was often the case, though, where technology failed, ingenuity would suffice.

As the Border Worlders had hoped, the ghost returns generated by the debris made the Nephilim pilots slow to pick up on the fact that there were now a few more dots on their radar screens than there had been a second before. A few of them picked up the Arrows visually and broke towards them, but by then it was already much too late. The Arrows salvoed their missiles into the heart of the enemy formation, and then broke away and accelerated away on full afterburners, already shimmering back into cloak. All except two made it, one torn apart by plasma bursts from a Manta, the other slamming into an asteroid at full speed as the pilot tried to dodge another Nephilim fighter. The rest of the Arrows faded away, not staying to watch what was about to happen.

Behind them, the missiles, close to fifty in all, tracked towards the center of the Nephilim formation. Instead of detonating, they began to split open, each releasing half a hundred sub-munitions into the heart of the enemy formation. Each sub munition locked onto the nearest heat source and began tracking. These were actually ground attack weapons, designed to destroy concentrations of armor and artillery, and they didn’t have the speed or accuracy to score direct hits on moving fighters. A few of the sub-munitions did score direct hits, more by luck than by anything else, but most missed their targets by dozens of meters.

Then again, a distance of a few dozen meters becomes something of an academic issue when each of the 2,000 or so sub-munitions strewn through the heart of an enemy formation is tipped with a matter/anti-matter warhead.

[Author’s Note: Weapons of this type are described in the WC novel “End Run” written by Andrew Keith and William R. Forstchen.]

The powerful detonations swallowed some of the enemy fighters whole, and flung others through space like so many toys. Some of the Nephilim craft unlucky enough to be in the zone of maximum impact literally vanished, reduced to their component atoms. Others were ripped in two, and still others smashed by flying debris. Even those who escaped the blast itself took casualties as they flew into the asteroids or each other in their haste to escape the devastation. In all, the attack destroyed close to two dozen Nephilim craft, including half a dozen of the surviving bomber clusters, and left others damaged and limping, as the death of a thousand cuts continued.


Intruder 001 (Revenant Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
1405 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

Commander Gareth “Bulldog” Conner swore quietly as he eased the Intruder into yet another long slow orbit. That was all his and his squadronmates’ roles in this battle had consisted of to date, boring circles in space as they lurked just behind the current battle lines. Their job was to protect the refueling and rearming shuttles as the shuttles topped up the fighter units and support squadrons that had burnt up their fuel and ammunition slashing at the enemy. The only change came every hour or so, when both the shuttles and their escorts had to fall a few hundred thousand klicks further back, as the sheer momentum and determination of the attacking Nephilim pushed the Border Worlders back towards their carriers.

Bulldog knew that this job was a vital one. The Navy units specialized in defense, and they could best serve the Border Worlds effort right where they were. These shuttles were the only thing that were allowing the Border Worlders to keep harassing the enemy in the manner they had been, as otherwise they would have had to fall back to the carriers every time they needed a top up. That in turn would have made it impossible to bleed the Nephilim force enough to contain the attack when the Nephilim finally reached the carriers.

The only way an operation of this kind could work was if there was a place for every unit, and every unit stayed in its place. As hard as it was for the naturally offensive minded Border Worlders to accept, that was part of the doctrine of fighting smart. The refueling shuttles had to keep topping up other units, the SWACS and the command and control units had to keep monitoring and controlling the flow of the battle, and the Stalkers had to keep providing jamming support if the fighter pilots had attacking the enemy were to have any chance against the massive attack force. And someone had to ensure that vulnerable units like the refueling shuttles were protected as they lurked near the front lines. That didn’t make the job any less boring.

All that changed less than ten minutes later. A few minutes after the shuttles had finished refueling the two Retaliator squadrons, a frantic heads up call came from the Confed SWACS that was coordinating this sector of the battlefield. A group of Nephilim fighters had managed to afterburn past the screen provided by the harassing groups of Border Worlds fighters, and were now headed straight for the fuelling shuttles. The Nephilim had finally realized that taking out these shuttles would be fastest way to swing the balance of this battle back in their favor.

The sixteen Intruders wheeled about smoothly at Bulldog’s command, turning to intercept the incoming threat. They were joined almost at once by a flight of four Stalkers that had been heading in to refuel with the shuttles. Behind them, the shuttles were already falling further back towards the carriers, but everyone knew that the lumbering craft would never be able outrun or dodge the attacking fighters. If the Intruders couldn’t stop the incoming attack dead in its tracks, the shuttles were as good as dead, and so was the Border Worlders’ battle plan. The shuttles might be unglamorous, but the fuel and weapons they provided were the only things that kept the other units going.

For the want of a nail…

Unfortunately, the Revenants wouldn’t be able to count on any help apart from the Stalkers for a good few minutes. The Border Worlds fighter squadrons were spread thin, stretching themselves almost to the breaking point as they tried to bleed the enemy alpha strike. The closest units were the two Retaliator squadrons, and they wouldn’t be able to get here for almost five minutes even if they raced at breakneck speed through the debris field. For now, it was just the sixteen fighters and their jamming support against more than thrice that number of attackers.

Bulldog smiled tightly. You poor bastards, he thought, and he wasn’t referring to his pilots. The Revenants welcomed this fight, whatever its outcome, for the simple reason that this was what they lived for. There had been many in the Border Worlds who had raised eyebrows and questions when the Revenant Squadron had first been formed in the Kilrathi War. After all, it seemed just a little bizarre to name a newly formed unit after the walking dead.

And yet, that was exactly what every man and woman in this unit was. The squadron had originally been formed from the survivors of half a dozen units that had been wiped out almost to the man in short but brutal battles fought by the frontier forces during the Kilrathi assault on Earth. Most of those pilots had themselves stared the Reaper in the eye, pulled out of shattered cockpits and burning fighters, saved from the clutches of death only by the favor of Lady Luck and the skill of the surgeons. Others has lost everything and everyone they cared about in those desperate months and years at the tail end of the war that had shattered so many lives. Those times had left behind many scarred men and women who needed a purpose to keep them going. The Revenant Squadron had given them that reason. The close-knit unit had become a family of sorts to replace the ones they had lost, and Union itself had become a home to defend and protect, one that they were determined would not be lost as past homes had been.

Revenants. Those who return from the grave. Those in whom the fires of loyalty and duty burn so strongly that nothing can stop them. Those whose most compelling reason to live was their duty to the Union and an undying enmity of those who tried to destroy it.

In the dozen years since the unit had been formed, the Revenant Squadron had been in the thick of every major battle the Border Worlders had fought. From the brief battle with Confed and the Black Lance Hunt-Down, to the Kilrathi incursions after Kilrathi warlords tried to raise the banner of a new Imperium, all the way to the Battle for the Bush, the Revenants had been there. The unit had been devastated time and again, but it had never been broken. Like the undead creature it took its name from, the squadron rose again each and every time, drawing in more of those pilots who had looked the Grim Reaper in the eye and returned to fight again.

More importantly, no target they had been charged with protecting had ever been lost to the enemy. That was a record they were proud of, and one that they were determined wasn’t going to come an end here. A few dozen overgrown roaches sure as hell weren’t going to do what Tolwyn’s Master Race and the Kilrathi Empire’s finest warriors hadn’t been able to do. They would hold the line, even if that meant that the Revenant Squadron had to rise from the dead yet again.

The information from the SWACS was that the Nephilim fighters were now only 200,000 klicks away and hurtling through the debris field towards them at high speed, apparently not caring about the losses they were taking from collisions with each other and the debris. The bugs knew that they had only a few minutes before more Border Worlds squadrons arrived to wipe them out. For now though, the Nephilim had the edge, and they planned to use that window of opportunity to hamstring the Border Worlds force.

Bulldog knew that for all the ferocity and the near suicidal tactics that made the Revenant Squadron notorious (even in the Border Worlds, where such a fighting style wasn’t exactly uncommon), the Intruders wouldn’t be able to hold the line in a straight out fight against those kinds of odds. They might make the Nephilim pay dearly for their attack, but some of the enemy fighters would inevitably break through and savage the shuttles. In order to win, they had to shift the odds in their favor, even if it was only by a small amount.

He eased the flight stick over to the left slightly, the rest of his squadron following him. That took them out of the direct path of the enemy fighters, and onto an oblique path that would allow them to outflank the Nephilim craft, ending up behind the enemy. That would reduce the amount of time the Intruders had to destroy their opponents, but it would also give them the chance for one or two good free shots at the enemy.

As the two groups of fighters closed in on each other, the Stalkers began broadcasting a hail of electronic noise from their sophisticated jamming arrays. The interference would scramble enemy radar, tracking and communication systems. That would not only allow the Revenants to attack without prior detection, it would also help conceal the shuttles from the enemy. Otherwise, the Nephilim fighters could have simply ignored the attack from their rear and burned straight towards the shuttles, outrunning the Intruders that were coming up behind them.

The Revenants kept their own radars off to avoid the possibility of detection by the Nephilim, relying instead on the information and steering cues from the SWACS to guide them in. In a matter of seconds, the paths of the two groups of fighters converged. Bulldog held his breath as the SWACS operator reported that the Nephilim fighters should be crossing their path any second now. The Intruders were hidden in the jamming haze generated by the Stalkers, but all it would take was for the Nephilim to burn through the jamming for just a split second, and the element of surprise would be lost.

Just a handful of seconds later, the group of Nephilim fighters streaked into view in front of the Border Worlds fighters, and crossing the Intruders’ flight path at a slight angle. As Bulldog had hoped, the oblique course they had taken had put them on the Nephilim fighters’ six, giving them a free shot with their heat-seeker missiles. Already, he could hear the wavering growl tone in his headphones as the missiles locked in on afterburners that were radiating a massive amount of infrared energy.

Bulldog tapped his own afterburners and eased the flight stick over slightly, setting up a zero deflection shot at close range. The rest of the squadron were now in line abreast formation around him, or as close to it as they could manage in the debris field, setting up their own missile shots. The growling in his headphones solidified into a continuous tone and the red brackets on his HUD encircled one of the fighters in front of him.

Now or never…

“FOX TWO!” Bulldog snapped, his thumb mashing down on the missile release even before the words left his mouth. A heat-seeker missile dropped away from each of the Intruder’s twin under-fuselage missile bays, streaking towards the fighter in front of him. He could hear launch calls from the rest of his squadron, and other missile trails streaked through the space on either side of his fighter.

As soon as the missiles were gone, Bulldog snapped on his radar and switched to image-rec missiles. That too was part of the hasty plan the Intruder pilots had concocted in the few seconds they had. The fact that heat-seekers tracked so well when used in a stern quarter attack made them ideal for the surprise first shot, but the Intruders now only had a second or so before the enemy reacted to the threat on their six. The faster lock time of the image recognition missiles would let them get another salvo in.

Explosions bloomed among the fighters at the rear of the Nephilim formation as the first volley of missiles found its targets. Several fighters disintegrated, and others had hulls torn open by the high explosive warheads, leaving them leaking smoke and bright green and red trails of fluids. The element of surprise had been complete, thanks to the cover provided by the Stalkers and the Nephilim pilots’ own eagerness to reach the shuttles. It seemed that the Nephilim were no more immune to target fixation than humans or Kilrathi were.

Even as the Nephilim began wheeling around to deal with the unexpected threat of their flanks, the second volley of missiles struck home with devastating force. More explosions rippled through the formation, and more fighters broke up in flame and debris. In all, the two missile salvos accounted for about twenty fighters, and left several others limping.

Before the Nephilim could adjust to what was happening, the Intruders slashed into the middle of the thirty or so fighters that were left, their guns blazing. It might have been safer to hang back and try for another missile salvo, but the Revenants knew that they had to turn this battle into a close range furball as soon as they could. Otherwise, some of the Nephilim might be able to break off and head out to continue hunting the shuttles. All four of the Stalkers were with the Border Worlds fighters, and as soon as the Nephilim managed to get out of range of the jamming, they would be able to reacquire the shuttles. If that happened, all this would have been for nothing. The Intruders just weren’t fast enough to catch the Nephilim fighters in a tail chase.

The battle now dissolved into a swirling mass of fighters that tore and slashed at each other, neither side asking for or giving any quarter. There was no more time for unit cohesion or clever tactics, just the grim business of killing or being killed. Both sides knew that this one dogfight was crucial to the outcome of the battle. If the Nephilim won, it would assure them of victory. If the Border Worlders triumphed, it would give them an even chance of coping with anything else that the Nephilim could throw at them.

Time and again, Nephilim fighters tried to break away from the swirling dogfight. Time and again, the battered and outnumbered Intruders threw themselves in the way, holding the line with everything they had. Fighters dissolved into debris and good men and women died as the Border Worlders spent their remaining missiles, their fighters, and even their lives like water to buy a few more minutes. The stubborn defense held against all attempts to destroy it, and though the cost was horrific, the Revenants refused to break. Like the creatures they took their name from, they refused to simply lie down and quit. Their ferocity and determination put up a solid wall in front of the enemy, one that was as stout as a forest, as immovable as a mountain. Though more and more of them were dying by the minute, the Nephilim were suffering even worse.

By the time the two Retaliator squadrons that had been racing frantically to the rescue reached the battle, it was all but over. Of the close to fifty fighters that the Nephilim had thrown at the shuttles, less than a dozen were left. Those survivors were hammered into oblivion split seconds later, removing the last of the threat to the shuttles.

And of the sixteen Intruders who had hurled themselves into the teeth of the enemy, only seven were left. Only three other pilots had been able to eject.


Excalibur 001 (Taipan Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field
1438 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

“One minute!” The controller on board the SWACS called out sharply. Like the Ghost Warriors before them, the Excaliburs under Lt. Colonel Alex “Skywalker” Witt’s command had their radars switched off, allowing them to run silent under cloak.

It had to be said that there were quite a few people in the battle group who thought that Skywalker was, well, a little strange. His in-depth knowledge of the most minute Star Wars trivia (a movie series that most people in the 27th century had never even heard of), along with his compulsive quoting, marked him as eccentric even in the Border Worlds, where eccentricity was hardly unusual. Still, his shipmates made allowances for two reasons. First, he was a native Terran, and everyone knew the Earthlings were a little odd. Second, he was an extremely effective Squadron Leader who always got the job done, no matter what.

“Fifty seconds!”

Right now, his job was to further savage the Nephilim strike force that had already been thoroughly brutalized by the Reapers and the Ghost Warriors, as well as several other squadrons. As always, there was going to be no pretence of a fair fight, or any concern for the Nephilim who were dying under the onslaught. The enemy had given up any right to such consideration when they had come into Border Worlds space with guns blazing. This was going to be a gang-bang pure and simple.

“Forty seconds!”

The entire squadron of cloaked Excalibur-As was concealed in the debris field, right in the path of the oncoming Nephilim. The Nephilim pilots had pressed on into the debris with dogged determination, in spite of the hail of nuclear warheads, high explosive missiles, and anti-matter cluster weapons that had blasted and scorched them. Those attacks had blown away well over a third of the original strike force, nearly a 180 fighters and bombers in all, but still the enemy kept on coming. For the Border Worlders, it was hard not to be scared of such single-minded determination. Not even the Black Lance, so supremely convinced of their destiny as the rulers of humanity and their status as the Master Race, had been such implacable opponents.

“Thirty seconds!”

That made the human pilots all the more determined to stop them. The Nephilim would never turn back or give up unless they were forced to, and they were now perilously close to the Border Worlds capships. The Border Worlders had lost close to twenty of their own craft so far today, bringing their total losses in this tiger hunt to about 45 fighters. They had been bled badly, and expected to suffer even worse, but they were determined that they wouldn’t be the ones who broke. Thousands of their crewmates were depending on them to hold the enemy at bay, and millions of innocents had their lives riding on this campaign.

“Twenty seconds!”

This wasn’t some abstract matter of honor and patriotism for the Border Worlders. It was about the survival of anything and everything they cared about, from friends and families and lovers, to home worlds and systems, to the very Union itself. They were fighting with the desperation of people who lived with the knowledge that if they broke, it would all be over. All the generations of sweat and toil to hack a living out of the untamed worlds of the frontier, all the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers who had fought and died to defend their nation, all the love and hope of countless parents who had dreamed of a better tomorrow and a brighter future for their children. All of it would be gone, wiped out in the blink of an eye by a genocidal race none of them had even known existed a few weeks ago.

“Ten seconds!”

If they broke, that is. None of the pilots said it, but they were all quietly determined that it wouldn’t happen. Like the Kilrathi before them, like the Black Lance and even Confed, the Nephilim would learn that there was more to war and battle than just numbers and firepower. The Border Worlders had defeated each and every threat to their homes and families, and they wouldn’t fail now.

“Go! Go! Go!”

Inside each cockpit came an ear splitting howl as the pilots disengaged their cloaking devices. The entire squadron shimmered into view, seemingly out of nowhere, already in the perfect killing position at the tail end of the Nephilim formation. Their image-recognition missiles were already locked onto their selected targets. As always, the key to a successful cloaked attack lay in complete surprise and brutal precision.

Cries of “Fox One!” filled the comm channel as the pilots mashed down on the firing keys, sending full salvoes of guided missiles at the handful of surviving bomber clusters and Devil Rays that had escaped until now. Each target had at least three or four missiles directed at it, giving it no chance of escape.

Even as over a dozen enemy fighters dissolved into flames and debris, the Excalibur pilots had turned on the fighters nearest them, using the few seconds of stunned surprise that had followed their sudden appearance to good advantage. Deadly streams of tachyon and reaper cannon fire savaged the unfortunate Morays and Mantas, guided by deadly accurate auto-tracking systems and the steady aim of veteran pilots.

Another half dozen enemy fighters vanished in brilliant explosions, and an equal number were left torn and limping. The Excalibur pilots didn’t wait around to finish them though. The fighters were already fading back into cloak, vanishing right under the eyes of the enraged Nephilim fighter pilots. For the first time, the Nephilim fully realized that the Border Worlders had found some way to avoid their anti-cloak sensors. That realization didn’t help them much right here and now, however.

Swarms of Nephilim light fighters broke off, circling their comrades like vigilant sheepdogs. The Excalibur pilots didn’t make the mistake of attacking again immediately, knowing that for now the element of surprise was lost. Instead, they patiently shadowed the wounded formation for another fifteen minutes. That gave the Nephilim pilots enough time to think that maybe, just maybe, the enemy fighters had broken off and run, as all the Border Worlds attack groups had done so far. Finally, the Nephilim regrouped and headed purposefully into the debris.

Still the Border Worlders waited, shadowing the formation for another ten minutes. Patience was a virtue, after all. Just then, the Nephilim reached a particularly dense part of the debris field, and began to spread out as they tried to navigate through the asteroids. The Border Worlders too spread out, selecting victims from among the light fighters that guarded the tail end of the formation. These targets weren’t as tempting as the clusters and Devil Rays they had hit earlier, but had the overwhelming advantage of being isolated and vulnerable. The Excaliburs waited until most of the Nephilim fighters were too deep into the rocks to quickly turn back before cutting loose on the tailenders.

Once again, the attack was swift, precise and brutal. Pairs of image-recognition, instantly followed by salvoes of gunfire, ripped into a dozen Morays and Mantas, tearing the unfortunate fighters to shreds. This time, the Border Worlders didn’t hang around to attack secondary targets, already fading back into cloak. Even so, one of the pilots wasn’t quite fast enough to escape a swarm of friend or foe warheads launched by an enemy fighter.

Skywalker took stock of the situation as the Excaliburs regrouped under cloak. Most of his surviving fighters had suffered only minor damage, and each pilot had between half and a third of his or her missiles and decoys left. He knew that they would be pushing their luck if they made yet another attack, but they had no choice. The Nephilim attack group was still massive, in spite of everything the Border Worlders had done to it, and they had to take every chance they had to wear it down further. He swallowed hard and ordered his pilots to once again begin shadowing the enemy. They had been following the enemy for another ten minutes when his comm screen suddenly crackled into life.

“Reaper Lead to Taipan Lead. Come in, over.” The urgency in the Wing Commander’s voice was unmistakable, and Skywalker felt his throat dry out even further. Something had to be badly wrong.

“Taipan Lead here.”

“Skywalker, we’ve got a big problem. The SWACS just picked up a second strike group headed for us. The initial estimate is two cruisers, a dozen corvette and destroyer class vessels, and roughly two hundred fighters.”

Skywalker closed his eyes and swore bitterly. The Border Worlders had been throwing everything they had into stopping the first force, and it had looked like they were succeeding, albeit at a terrible cost. This second force, though, changed everything. There was no way the Border Worlders would be able to hold out against two massive strike forces at once. And it got worse. Up till now, the Border Worlds had enjoyed the advantage of being able to refuel and rearm while the Nephilim couldn’t, but all that would change once the capships moved in. With those ships to act as forward bases, the Nephilim could cycle their fighters continuously until they smashed the Border Worlders. After all the careful planning, all the brilliant tactics, all the gallant sacrifice, after everything they had gone through, it seemed they were going to be overwhelmed by the sheer weight of numbers alone. It seemed terribly unjust, but that was war for you.

“I know, I said the same thing,” Raptor said. ”We’re not just going to bend over for the bastards, though. Phalanx is going to lead an all out attack on that second strike group. We’re going to pull as many squadrons as we can from the delaying action to link up with the Harbingers, starting with yours. With a little luck, you can break the back of that group before it links up with the group we’re fighting now.”

With a little luck, he says, Skywalker thought wryly. Like any born Border Worlder, the Wing Commander believed that the best answer to an impossible defensive situation lay in a swift and savage attack. Confidence and optimism were all well and good, but the Border Worlders tended to take them to extremes.

“How much support are we going to have?” He asked, quickly dragging his thoughts back to matter at hand. He had served with Raptor and Admiral Hanton long enough to know that there was usually method in their madness.

"Usually" being the operative word, of course.

“If everyone manages to link up in time, you’ll have all the Bearcats from Harbinger and Summoner squadrons, your Excaliburs, Night Watch and Black Angel squadrons, all our bombers, plus half of the Stalkers.”

Skywalker ran the numbers through his head quickly and then whistled under his breath. That was about a hundred strike craft in all, enough that they just might have a chance of quickly breaking the back of that second group. However, their plan had one glaring draw back: It would leave only about 50 Border Worlds fighters to hold back the close to 300 enemy fighters and bombers left in the initial strike group. Until the Border Worlds attack group finished their target and ran back to help, the Border Worlds carriers would be terribly vulnerable. It was still a better option than trying to hold back the two Nephilim groups after they had linked up, but not by much. Skywalker had no hesitation in pointing that out.

“Let them come,” Lieutenant Colonel Rhodes cut into the channel, a certain dreadful eagerness clearly showing through the tension and strain in her voice. “We’re pulling back into our defenses. If the Nephilim want to fight us there, in front of our capships’ guns, that’s just fine. Bring them on.”

Border Worlders! Skywalker thought, shaking his head. In the eight years he had spent in the Union, he had often had cause to recall the comment Lord Wellington had made when reviewing the troops. I don’t know what effect they’ll have on the enemy, but by God, they scare me.

Still, Mirage had a point. The Border Worlders had spent the past three days preparing a formidable defensive position at the heart of the debris field for just this kind of eventuality, Hanton’s last stand as they only half jokingly called it. The defense field included not just anti-fighter mines, but also missile and turret mines, and even a handful of rapid firing missile satellites carried by the transports that had accompanied the two battle groups. They had originally been intended for garrisoning captured space stations or similar objectives, but they were just as useful in a defensive situation. Throw in the guns of the carriers, the weapons of their escorting cruisers and destroyers, and the fighters themselves, and the enemy would pay a horrific price for taking on the Border Worlders on their chosen ground. This might well indeed end up as being Hanton’s last stand, but if it was, they would leave the Nephilim with one hell of a body count to remember it by.