PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 39 of 66 )

: “ The Tiger Hunt ”

“Now the general who wins a battle makes many calculations in his temple ere the battle is fought.
The general who loses a battle makes but few calculations beforehand.
Thus do many calculations lead to victory, and few calculations to defeat, how much more no calculation at all!”
- Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Retaliator 001 (Reaper Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
1535 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

“You ever think that the name was a bad idea, Chrys?” Raptor thought aloud over the secure frequency the Reapers reserved for their own use. The pilots and gunners of the 121st had been through a hell of a lot together over the last decade, and at times like this, it somehow felt good to share random thoughts with friends.

“I don’t think that someone with a name like yours has any right to throw stones at my name, Rap.” Mirage replied acidly.

In spite of the situation, or maybe because of it, Raptor had to smile at that. The prospect of being swarmed under by close to 300 enemy fighters certainly didn’t seem to have either daunted Chrys’ fighting spirit or blunted her sharp tongue any. There were some things that just didn’t change. It was a welcome reminder of happier times and happier places, of all the worlds they’d been to and all the experiences they’d had. It had been a good life, even if currently looked like being a short one, and he wouldn’t have traded it in for anything. Not least because if he had become a lawyer like his mother had wanted, he would never have had the chance to meet Chrys. Looking back now, he still found it hard to believe the difference the often stubborn, always feisty and endlessly kind Border Worlder had made to his life over the years.
Neither of them said anything about that, of course. They weren’t going to get maudlin over a comm channel. For one thing, they had said their goodbyes before this mission, just like they had before every other mission, and there was nothing left to say that hadn’t been said before. Besides, just like everyone else here, they had come to terms with both their own mortality and the prospect of loss long ago. One of these days, one of them would make that fatal mistake, and that would be that. It hadn’t happened when they had faced the Kilrathi, the Confederation or the Black Lance, but maybe it would happen here and now. It would probably happen here and now, given what they were facing. If that was what fate had in store for them, then so be it. They had both committed themselves mind and heart and soul to this cause, to the Union and to their people, long before they had met each other. It had been one of the things that had kept them together all these years, and if it was what finally tore them apart, well, that was just one of life’s ironies. Neither of them regretted the choices that had brought them to this point, in this place and in this time.

“I meant the name of the battle group. Battle Group Valkyrie,” he said after a second or two, keeping the conversation going.

“Oh? What’s such a bad idea about that?”

“It seems like a bad omen, that’s all. In Norse mythology, the Valkyries picked the warriors who would die in a battle.”

“Well, the Norsers got that right. We are going to select the ones who’ll die today,” Chrys said, with a fierce grin that he could detect even under her helmet. “I had no idea you were such an expert on mythology, though.”

“They were called Norsemen, actually. And that’s just one of the many benefits of an Academy education,” Raptor said. Chrys was one of few senior pilots serving with Battle Group Valkyrie who had never been through the Confed Academy, having spent the entire war fighting with the frontier militias, and it was something he never ceased ragging her about.

Chrys pretended to rub the visor of her helmet with a straight middle finger, making it perfectly clear what she thought. “That’s what they were teaching you guys at the Academy? Sweet Jesus, no wonder we were losing the war.”

“Hey, we did a heck of a lot better than you clods in the Militia.”

“Oh yeah? If it hadn’t be for us clods in the Militia, anyone on Earth during the Battle of Terra would have needed level two million sunscreen and lead underwear. Though I guess it doesn’t surprise me that Confed was into mythology.”

“How come?”

“These were the people who thought Plan Orange Five and the Armistice were good ideas, remember? Not to mention the ones who gave Tolwyn a promotion for services to humanity in ’73. The ones who think that the Inner Fleets…”

“… are actually doing some good where they are. I know, I know.” That was a familiar complaint among those fighting to hold the line, Confed and Border Worlder alike. Seeing not just one or two but all of the powerful Inner Worlds Fleets sitting on their hands while the men and women of the Combined Fleet gave everything to hold back the invasion was frustrating as hell.

They kept the conversation going in that manner, inconsequential chitchat that served to help keep their minds off what was bearing down on them. Cutting across their conversation, they could hear and see others in the squadron doing the same thing. All the plans had been laid out, all the orders had been given, and all the fighters were in place. Now there was nothing to do but wait for the enemy to come to them, and for the killing to begin.

And there would be enough of that to sate the most blood thirsty on either side. The Nephilim were determined they wouldn’t be stopped, and the pilots facing them were just as determined that they would not be broken. Both sides had suffered horribly to date, with the Border Worlders losing close to four dozen of their fighters in the Tiger Hunt, and Nephilim losing hundreds, but both sides knew that the climax of the hunt was about to be played out. The prey had been brought to ground, and the tiger was preparing to feed. The Nephilim eagerly anticipated a feast, a true harvest of death and suffering among those who had taunted and frustrated them for the past few days.

Of course, this prey had teeth, and was determined to make the enemy bleed. They would fight, just as they had fought before and others were fighting even now. They would fight with all the ferocity and icy determination of those who were fighting for everything they loved. You want to threaten my family? You want to attack my home? You want to destroy my nation? Over my dead body, motherfucker.

The fighters that were now standing between the incoming Nephilim strike group and the Border Worlds carriers numbered only about fifty in all. All the rest had been sent out to intercept a second Nephilim group of both fighters and warships that was bearing down on them. The fighters lying in wait consisted of the powerful Retaliators from the Reaper and Starkiller squadrons, a handful of surviving Intruders from the Revenant Squadron, the recon Arrows of Ghost Warrior Squadron, as well as the White Knights from the BWS Freedom. The White Knights had been held in reserve up to now, but if this situation didn’t warrant calling in the reserves, then it would be difficult see what did. They had to blunt the onslaught and mire the enemy down in their defenses, buying time for their comrades to return. And of course, the more fighters they tied down here, the fewer would be defending the Nephilim mother ships when the rest of the Combined Fleet descended on them like the wrath of God.

The defending fighters had concealed themselves in another of those choke points that occurred from place to place in the debris field. Going by the data feed they had from the SWACS on enemy movements, and the positioning of their carriers, the Nephilim would be within sensor range in a matter of minutes, and within missile range soon after that. The SWACS was hovering a few thousand klicks behind the position of the Border Worlds fighters, using its powerful scanners to keep them updated constantly on the enemy’s position and tactics.

As the SWACS warned that the enemy was closing to within 200,000 klicks, the Border Worlds fighters powered down. The pilots switched their ion engines, weapons, and even shields to standby mode to keep any revealing electronic signature to a minimum. Without those tell-tale signs, the Nephilim would have a much harder time picking them out, especially as each fighter was snuggled up against an asteroid, merging the two radar signatures together. All their communications from now until they attacked would be by tight-beam laser link, only made possible by the fact the fighters were just about stationary relative to each other. The only times they moved at all was when a pilot tapped his or her thrusters for a split second to compensate for the drift of the asteroids.
The nature of the communications too changed the instant those laser links snapped on. Only the most critical messages went out, and those were kept to as few words as possible. Clipped commands were met with terse replies, as pilots and gunners switched their thoughts from friends and families and lovers and homes, all that they were trying to protect, to the task of protecting them. There were many people, from athletes to musicians to surgeons, who had to put themselves “in the zone” to function at their best, but it was most essential for those whose work centered on the grim business of killing and being killed. They simply couldn’t afford the distraction of thinking about what they had to lose, and they certainly couldn’t think of the enemy as a living, breathing entity that might have just as much to lose as they did. All that they could do afford to think about were the battle and the mission, how to survive and how to win. And most importantly of all, they had to focus on how to kill, because that was why they were out here.

That sudden change in personality was almost frightening. Those in the cockpits went from being warm human beings with strengths and foibles, joys and sorrows, loves and losses, to being cold, calculating killers. No longer people with separate lives, but parts of a war machine. Reaper and Revenant, Knight and Warrior. As frightening as that change was, it was also necessary. People who had been in combat for as many years as most of those here had simply had to compartmentalize, to keep the killer separate from the person. As dangerous as it was to let the human part intrude into the killer in combat, it was just as dangerous to let the killer intrude into the human. The destruction that wrought was far slower, but just as certain. They all had seen it far too often, men and women with empty eyes and burnt out souls, seeking and finding death at their own hands or those of their enemies. To survive and to stay sane, they had to keep what they did separate from what they were. They had to be more than just the Reaper and the Revenant, the Knight and the Warrior at other times in their lives, but for here and for now, that was all they could be.

The Retaliators, with their advanced data-links, now began receiving radar information directly from the SWACS, allowing them to build up a comprehensive picture of the attacking force without putting out a single watt of tell-tale energy from their own radars. The pilots passed on the information to those flying the less advanced Arrows and Intruders as succinctly as they could, allowing those pilots to prepare for the ambush as well. Meanwhile, the STORM fire-control systems in each of the Retaliators were talking to each other in their own binary dialect, setting up attacking options and selecting those who would be the first to die with a precise and merciless logic.

Information flashed across each pilot’s HUD in a never-ending stream, updating itself almost faster than the pilots could process it. Every minute change in the enemy’s position was instantly detected and calmly reported.

As the enemy closed to within normal sensor range, the pilots’ breathing quickened as nerves impulses triggered the small glands buried near each kidney in an eons old reflex, sending adrenaline flooding veins all the way back their hearts, and then to each and every part of their bodies. More and more blood hurtled towards brains and hearts and limbs, drawn to where it was most needed, supercharging cells with fuel and oxygen, preparing the body for the life and death struggle that was about to take place. Eyes dilated, drinking in the scene before them, and colors became so sharp they were almost painful to behold. Sounds that normally faded into the background thundered in their ears. Other senses faded away, scaled back so as to minimize the processing load on the brain, a brain that would be never be as sorely taxed as it would be the frantic scramble of fighter combat.
The enemy kept moving, coming closer and closer, but slowing down as they approached the dense patch of asteroids that limited their sensors. They had been mauled by the Border Worlders often enough to be wary by now, but it did them little good. The Border Worlders’ use of the SWACS, along with their knowledge of the asteroid field, gave them an edge that no amount of caution could negate. As the first wave of enemy fighters came within optimum range of their missiles, the Retaliators and Intruders powered up. Thanks to the advance warning they had had, their missiles were already locked on and ready to fly. The Nephilim, on the other hand, had to react to the surprise appearance of enemy fighters from among the asteroids, giving the humans fighter pilots the a short lived but crucial advantage.

The Border Worlds fighter pilots cut loose with a deadly salvo of IR and FOF missiles in the spilt seconds they had, and then turned and ran flat out back into the debris field. Fighting this way was horribly wasteful of missiles, but it inflicted losses on the enemy while minimizing the chances of the enemy taking down one of them. The Border Worlders were prepared to use up missiles like there was no tomorrow, for the simple reason that none of them would live to see tomorrow if they didn’t win this battle. And to do that, preserving fighters and pilots now was far more important than conserving missiles.

Behind them, the missiles blasted into the leading ranks of enemy fighters in a chain of bright detonations, ripping some fighters to shreds and leaving others torn and bleeding. This attack did not wreak the havoc that previous ambushes had caused, but the sight of a dozen and a half Nephilim fighters going down was infuriating to their comrades. Their minds simply couldn’t adapt fast enough, and in spite of everything they had learnt since first heading into the Loki VI debris field, they did what generations of collective thought had programmed them to do. They gave chase, lighting their afterburners and going after the fleeing Intruders and Retaliators like the proverbial bull in the china shop.

As expected, this only served to spread out the Nephilim fighters, with the lighter ones racing head of their comrades. Not only that, the fact that they were trying to run through the debris field without knowing it intimately only served to cause further losses and damage among the leading Nephilim fighters, as they flew into rocks and into each other. In turn, this helped thin them out even further than before, breaking their unit cohesion, destroying the swarm tactics that the Nephilim used so effectively. The leading pack broke into smaller and smaller groups that got further and further from each other.

At the same time, the recon Arrows from Ghost Warrior Squadron made their move. They shimmered out cloak just behind the stragglers of the pack that was chasing the Retaliators and Intruders, launching heat-seeker and image rec missiles up their opponents’ tailpipes at near point blank range. More explosions rippled through the enemy formation, and half a dozen more enemy fighters went down. Mere pinpricks, these losses, only a small fraction of the strength the Nephilim had, but each enemy fighter going down now was one less that the Nephilim could throw at the carriers. Each death was one more small step towards victory, one more slap in the face for the enemy.

Even as the Nephilim fighters swung around to deal with the threat on their rear, the Arrows swooped back into cloak, fading from eyes and sensors like the ghosts they were named for, gone like a wisp of smoke on a hot summer breeze. The Arrow pilots lit their afterburners and hurried to catch up with their comrades. Behind them, the Nephilim pilots howled with frustration, once again running headlong into the impossibility of fighting an enemy who refused you a stand up battle. They knew that if they had been given a chance to throw their numbers and their group tactics against the Border Worlds fighters from the start, they could have won easily. The Border Worlders knew that too, which was precisely why they had refused that kind of battle, sticking instead to the guerrilla war they excelled at. Never do what your opponent expects, never do what he wants, never give him the chance to anticipate you or force battle on his terms. As the ancient Chinese war master Sun Tzu had said, “To succeed in battle, be extremely subtle and mysterious, even to the point of formlessness. Only then can you be the director of your opponent's fate.” And if the Nephilim didn’t like it, that was just too bad. Maybe they could go invade someone who was prepared to play nice.

The Nephilim were nothing if not tenacious though, and they set off once more after their fleeing opponents. And that, of course, lead them straight towards the next obstacle in the layered death trap that had been set up for their benefit over the past few days. Those traps would come as a nasty shock to the Nephilim and would allow the Border Worlders to both mount a ferocious defense and to go on the attack whenever they could. To quote the war master once again “Those who are skilled at attack do not divulge their operational secrets. Those skilled at defense prepare thoroughly, without gaps.” The Nephilim might not have studied Sun Tzu, but they were about to receive an education in just how applicable his precepts were to the modern battlefield.


Recon Arrow 007 (Ghost Warrior Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field
1555 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

Major Jameel “Paladin” Ul-Huq eased forward on the throttle, gently steering the Recon Arrow away from the refueling/rearming shuttle that had just finished topping up the fighter for the battles ahead. Only seconds after he pulled away, a Retaliator, its afterburner tanks just about dry and most of its missile racks empty, nestled up against the shuttle with a finesse that belied the heavy fighter’s size and weight. The quick and precise docking was a testament both to the fighter’s delicate handling and the skill of its pilot. Only the best squadrons in the Border Worlds Union had been slated to receive the deadly space superiority fighters, and both the Reapers and the Starkillers had proven that their reputation was well deserved. The same was true of just about everyone else here. Only the most skilled and experienced pilots and units in the Union had been chosen to serve on the new Arcadia carriers, and they had performed as only the best could.

The entire ambush group had rendezvoused with the shuttles only minutes earlier. Thanks to the sacrifices of the Revenant Squadron earlier in the battle, these vital assets were still intact, and were proving worth their weight in gold in readying the combat units to head back into the fray. The fighters had shaken the Nephilim pursuit thanks to their superior knowledge of the debris field, and also some judicious jamming by their Stalker EW craft, which had scrambled the sensors of the leading enemy fighters long enough for the Border Worlds fighters to be well out of sensor range. The Stalkers too had had an impact on the battle out of all proportion to their numbers, helping the Border Worlds fighters both in springing lethal ambushes and in getting out of tricky situations. Last but not least, the SWACS and their command and control shuttles had acted as their “eyes in the sky” throughout, keeping them updated constantly on the ebb and flow of the running battle fought at high speed in the confusing maze of the debris field.

Those three groups, the rearming shuttles, the jamming support and the SWACS, had collectively been one of the key elements to the Border Worlders’ success and survival to date. They acted as force multipliers and allowed one fighter to have the impact of several, especially in the drawn out and high speed style of battle the Border Worlders favored. They extended and conserved the reach and effectiveness of the Border Worlds forces, making it much easier for them to fight in the way that suited them, while also making it much harder for the Nephilim to carry out their plans as they wished. More than anything else, they gave the Border Worlders a fighting chance of surviving this battle of attrition against a numerically superior enemy. As Sun Tzu had said “To be near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, to wait at ease while the enemy is toiling and struggling, to be well-fed while the enemy is famished, this is the art of husbanding one's strength.”

To those who had followed the strategy of the Tiger Hunt to date, not just merely the battle being fought now, it would be obvious that Sun Tzu had been a major influence on how the Valkyries fought. There were many who questioned just what relevance the thoughts and strategies of a man who had never heard of the gun, let alone the guided missile or the ion engine, might have to fighter warfare. The precepts of Sun Tzu might be dismissed by some as being of no relevance on the modern, high-tech battlefield, but to think that was to misunderstand what Sun Tzu was all about. The ancient general had not couched his philosophies in terms of time and technology, but rather in terms of the things that never changed in war, the man and the mind. They were the most fundamental elements of warfare, and like all basic truths were constant regardless of time. Just as Hippocrates’ thoughts on the cardinal and basic rules that governed medicine and healers had outlasted many of the more “sophisticated” attempts at medical theory, so Sun Tzu remained a valuable guide to the precepts of war while many of the more “modern” thinkers had fallen by the wayside.

Battle Group Valkyrie’s commanders certainly hadn’t missed their chance to learn from the master, as part of their overall strategy of fighting smart as well as fighting hard and fighting well. The Border Worlds forces were renowned for their tenacity and often near suicidal ferocity in battle, but against opponents who outnumbered and outgunned them as heavily as first the Kilrathi and then the Nephilim did, that would not have been enough. In order to have a chance at winning rather than just dying bravely, they had to use their minds, to out-think and out-plan their opponents. That was where Sun Tzu’s thoughts on the use of information, surprise, movement and logistics were invaluable. They gave the Border Worlders an edge that went a long way towards neutralizing their numerical disadvantage, while at the same time making the maximum use of the advantages they had in mobility, tactics and unit cohesion.

In the end, the outcome of this battle would come down to knowledge as much as anything else, and exploiting to the full the power that knowledge bestowed. The process that allowed the Valkyries to do that so effectively had begun over a decade ago, as the Border Worlds Union had started on the long road of turning their armed forces from a rag-tag militia to a professional military. It was now coming into fruition with dedicated and skilled teams like the Valkyries and the units that would be based around the other Arcadias. For a small, financially weak nation like the Union, military power of any sort was hard to come by. To make the most of what they had, the Union’s defenders had to be smart, to think further and plan better than those who opposed them. They had to understand the enemy, knowing his strengths and weakness intimately, understand best how to counter the first and to exploit the second. Similarly, they had to know their own virtues and vulnerabilities, and then make the most of the former while dealing honestly and effectively with the latter. Most of all, they had to understand the art of waging war. The Valkyries had worked hard to achieve those goals, and that made them a far stronger force in reality than their table of equipment on paper might have indicated. That was what had allowed the Border Worlders to hold out so long against an enemy force that, on paper, should have crushed them without any trouble at all.

That wasn’t to say that this numerically superior enemy couldn’t still beat them, of course. Sun Tzu might have said “He who knows his enemy and knows himself will never be defeated in a thousand battles” but the reality here was rather grimmer. For all the qualitative advantages the Border Worlders had, quantity did have a quality all of its own. The relentless advance of the enemy group had by now forced them back to the edge of the fixed defenses that they had laid out earlier, only a few hundred thousand klicks away from the carriers. This was where the balance could swing if they weren’t careful, as the Border Worlders were rapidly running out of the maneuvering room that their hit and fade strategy required. On the plus side though, the fixed defenses they had laid out over the past few days could wreak some serious damage on the Nephilim if properly used.

The first layer of the defense that the Nephilim would hit was the minefield sown by the battle group’s escorts and the three bomber squadrons earlier. There were hundreds upon hundreds of high explosive, anti-matter and missile mines lying in wait along the choke points in the debris field. The mines were not stealthy per se, but they lurked with their guidance and maneuvering systems inactive, just waiting for the coded radio signal that would trigger them.  Their casings were as cold as the vacuum itself, and their radar signatures would blend in with all the rocks and debris that concealed them. Any enemy group that was trapped inside the field when the mines went active would be in for a very bad day indeed.

The trick, of course, was to lure them there. That would be the job of the Ghost Warriors, as they had the fastest fighters of the lot, which would give them the best chance of surviving the operation. Not only that, as the unit who had first shepherded a volley of nuclear missiles into the enemy formation, and then blasted them with a deadly salvo of anti-matter warheads, they made the perfect bait. They more than any other would be the unit that the Nephilim would be eager to see wiped out once and for all, and that eagerness could well prove to be the enemy’s undoing.

The rest of the ambush group began pulling back, along with the shuttles. They would be waiting on the far side of the minefield, as there was nothing more that they could do here. Meanwhile, the Ghost Warriors dropped back into cloak, preparing themselves mentally for the dangerous task of drawing the enemy in. As they had been reminded so many times over the past few days, any trap that was worth setting had to have bait that was worth taking. It was up to the bait to make sure that it didn’t end up as the entrée for the tiger.

The Nephilim drew inexorably closer and closer to the waiting Recon Arrows, who watched their movements through the eyes of the SWACS. This time, they didn’t wait till the Nephilim were past them, or were even within optimum missile range. Instead, once the Nephilim were within the outer edge of their missile envelopes, they decloaked and let fly, stinging the enemy with a barrage of IR missiles. As expected, this long-range salvo didn’t do all that much damage, but that wasn’t the point. As soon as they had slapped the enemy in the face, they dropped back into cloak and ran.

This time, though, there was one crucial, and perhaps fatal difference. Several of the Arrow pilots alternately turned on and off the modified ECM and RHAWS equipment that had helped them to avoid the Nephilim anti-cloak sensors. This allowed them to be seen bright and clear on the enemy’s radar screens for a few seconds before they faded back out of sight, only to fade back in seconds later. Those fighters presented a bright, glittering lure, without making it look too obvious, as would have happened if the entire squadron had done it, or if they had kept the ECM and RHAWS gear off constantly. It was a well-planned and elaborate teasing act. As Sun Tzu said “First be as coy as a maiden, till the enemy gives you an opening…” 

No-one quite knew what the Nephilim thought of the tease. Perhaps they thought that the tricks that the Border Worlders had used to evade their sensors had failed at last, or perhaps they were so eager to avenge their fallen comrades that they didn’t care. Perhaps their mentality wasn’t capable of making such distinctions. Whatever the case though, they committed themselves to the chase.

What followed was five minutes of pure hell for the Ghost Warriors as they ran all out. The enemy still couldn’t launch missiles at them while they were cloaked, but the Nephilim pushed forward towards gun range with a reckless abandon. They didn’t bother to take evasive action as they charged straight ahead now, even though several of them ended up splattered against the rocks. Little by little, their faster fighters crept towards the Arrows.

For their part, the Arrow pilots ducked and dodged, trying to avoid the rocks that hurtled past them so fast they were little more than grey blurs, while at the same time trying to keep ahead of the guns of the Nephilim. Two of them didn’t make it, taken out either by the rocks or by maser and plasma cannon blasts from the pursuing fighters. It all happened so fast that none of their teammates could be sure. By now though, the Arrows were in the minefield, racing through it via one of the only three safe paths that had been set up in advance. Inactive or not, no one wanted to risk a chance collision with a mine. An accidental detonation now would not only shred an Arrow, but it would blow the surprise.

Speaking of surprises and blowing things up…

As the last of the Arrows cleared the inner edge of the field, a couple of dozen enemy fighters were right behind them. Several dozen more though, were inside the field itself, and the rest of the enemy force was on the far side. There wouldn’t be a better time. Paladin flicked a switch on his comm console, and the Arrow’s comm system blasted out a short and precise signal on a preset frequency. The result was apparent only seconds later, giving the Nephilim no chance to react. Quoth the war master “…and then be as swift as a running hare, and it will be too late for the enemy to oppose you.”

The results were everything they could have hoped for. The now active mines were detonated in rapid sequence as their proximity fuses detected targets within lethal range, and over a dozen Nephilim fighters vanished in gouts of flame, while twice that number spun away leaking fluids as the blasts tore into them.  Those who survived the first onslaught tried frantically to maneuver through the field, but found that a very difficult task indeed. Even the safe paths that had been used by the Arrows were no longer safe, as they had been lined with the missile mines, which now shredded fighters trying to use those paths.

Those Nephilim fighters that had cleared the edge of the field found no safety either, as the Retaliators and Intruders that had been lying in wait swooped towards them, while Stalkers scrambled their sensors. It wasn’t all one way, and the Border Worlders lost four of their own in the short and vicious dogfight that followed. That brought the number of fighters the Border Worlders had lost today to over 25 (not counting any losses from the group that had gone after the capships, whose status was still uncertain), and the total in this Tiger Hunt to over 50 craft. By the time it was over though, there were no Nephilim fighters left intact on the far side of the field.

Meanwhile, the Nephilim behind them, still 250 or so strong, had reorganized themselves, and were now blasting a path through the field through sheer numbers and firepower. They would take more losses doing that, and it would cost them time, but they would breach this defense and then go for the capital ships that lay beyond, the target that the Nephilim still fixated on with a single minded determination.

The Border Worlders had won this round, and won themselves a little breathing space, but the battle was far from over. And the next stage would be far more dangerous for them, as they would no longer have the option of evading the enemy or using hit and fade attacks. When trying to defend the carriers, the Border Worlders would have to hold their ground against a numerically superior enemy force, which was a large ask. Sun Tzu had laid out very precise rules for engaging a significantly larger enemy force in a toe to toe battle, rules which could be summed up in one word: don’t. This time, though, the Border Worlders were forced to violate those rules. In order to keep the enemy fighters focused on them, they had been forced to draw the Nephilim into going after the carriers. In order to protect ships that were too large and slow to outrun the incoming attack, they would now have to take the enemy head on.

In short, they would soon have to fight the kind of conventional battle that Confed excelled at, but the Border Worlds forces traditionally hadn’t. This would another crucial test of how far the Border Worlds military had come in the last decade, and would gauge their ability to fight a toe-toe to battle when the situation demanded it. If they did it well, they would come out of it intact, though hardly unscathed. If not, this would indeed be their last stand.