PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 41 of 66 )

: The Tiger Hunt

I would rather have a good plan than a perfect plan two weeks from now.
- Gen. George Patton

Intruder 017 (White Knight Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field
1620 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

Lieutenant Colonel Erik "Knight" Martin silently wished a slow, painful and horribly embarrassing death on each and every one of the hide bound, short sighted, penny pinching idiots who had decided to push the Intruder into service with a downgraded sensor array. The Intruder's radar and targeting gear was much shorter ranged and considerably less capable than those fitted to other new generation fighters such as the Retaliator and the Jaguar. As a result, he had to depend on the information feed from the SWACS to develop a picture of the tactical situation, as his squadron and others waited for the Nephilim to break through the minefield. Even that had to be received verbally, as the Intruder lacked an active data link that would allow information to be relayed in real time.

The reasons for the downgraded systems were, as always, cost cutting and the need to be able to justify military expenditure in the brave new Universe where the Border Worlds military wouldn't have to be in the messy business of fighting wars anymore. Hey, we've got this wonderful new treaty that says we can sit on our butts and let Confed do all the hard work, right? I mean, it's not like in a crisis Confed will have its own systems and interests to look after. They'll come running whenever we call, right? It's not like we even need a military for anything other than show, right?

Idiots! Knight repeated vehemently. The downgrading of the Intruders was just one of the many military cutbacks that the troops on the frontline had been forced to put up with over the last year. Even with the downgraded sensors, the production run of the Intruder had been severely curtailed. The Intruder had originally been intended to be as ubiquitous as the Hellcat had been during the First Kilrathi War, equipping frontline and militia units alike. Instead, only about half the frontline units that had been slated to receive the Intruder had done so, along with a handful of lucky militia squadrons. The rest had been forced to soldier on with Vindicators and Hellcats.

In the same way, other combat craft such as the Retaliator, Jaguar and Stalker had all had their production runs scaled back, leaving far fewer of them to deal with the invasion than would have been the case if the original production plans had been adhered to. The changes were largely due to the new wisdom that had appeared almost overnight in the upper echelons of the military and the government after the signing of the Treaty of McAuliffe. Under the terms of the Treaty, the forces of the Border Worlds Union were classed as part of Confed's reserves. The new ideology was that the Border Worlds Navy and Space Force weren't really part of an independent nation's military any more. They were just reserve elements for the Confederation, and should be equipped accordingly, while all the serious fighting should be left to Confed.

It was for those reasons that the hardliners had also stymied the introduction of the new Lynx light fighter. The Lynx, which was designed to replace aging craft like the Banshee and Arrow, had been scheduled to enter frontline service this year. If everything had gone according to plan, it would have been available to the squadrons fighting the Nephilim invasion. The constant cutbacks and schedule changes and indecisiveness about whether to fund it or not had trapped it in an extended design cycle, leaving only a handful of proto-types flying. Even now, there was doubt about whether the program would ever get the go ahead, or if it would be another sacrifice to the ideological hardliners who insisted that the Border Worlders should restrict themselves to maintaining a militia and reserve force only. The new Seraphim attack fighter developed in conjunction with the Tanfen Corporation had suffered the exact same fate.

The ideologically driven changes hadn't stopped there. Considering planning, design, approval, and building time, the Arcadia carrier program had been under way for well over half a dozen years now, and was finally bearing fruit. The original schedule had called for at least four and possibly all five of the carriers to be on line by now. Instead, someone had last year come up the bright idea of letting that program go under altogether, and instead developing a light fleet carrier in conjunction with Confed. Never mind that the Arcadia program would deliver, and in fact had already delivered, almost identical carriers years earlier and at far less expense.

Luckily, saner people in both the government and the military had shot down that bit of stupidity, but it had done a lot of damage all the same. The confusion had delayed the service introduction of the last two carriers in the Arcadia class. Those carriers would have made a world of difference in fighting off the invasion, especially with the much vaunted Inner Fleets sitting on their hands instead of racing to the Union's rescue as some had rather navely assumed they would. The exact same thing had happened to the powerful Nemesis-class battlecruisers, which could have been with the carrier battle groups in strength, instead of in dribs and drabs as was now the case.

And while introduction of new fighter and capital ships types and the production of such designs were scaled back and slowed down, the cutting back of older types had proceeded full steam ahead. The original plan had been for the decommissioning of older jeep and converted carriers to keep pace with the introduction of the Arcadias, but the changes of the last year had produced a serious downgrading in frontline carrier strength. Older ships were being retired on schedule, but the new ships just weren't there to replace them. Fighter squadrons too had been cut back or disbanded altogether, cutting back the numbers of fighters the Union could throw into this current battle.

The cutbacks in fighter and capship strength had hurt the ability of the Border Worlds Navy as a whole to fight the invasion, but it was nowhere near as bad as the damage that had been done to personnel strength. One of the few things that the Union had always had going for it had been the dedication and loyalty of its soldiers. They had gone out day after day, year after year, putting themselves on the line in every battle that the Union had fought. They had dedicated themselves heart and soul to the cause, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Their casual downgrading to the status of reserves, weekend warriors, was a kick in the teeth for these full time soldiers. As a result, the Union military had lost a heck of a lot of experienced and skilled pilots and Navy crew over the past year. There were some, including several whom Knight had known personally, who had resigned in disgust. Others had chosen to take part in an exchange program that allowed them to pursue careers with Confed, either because they genuinely believed that was the best way to defend the Union, or because they saw no future for themselves in the downgraded Border Worlds military. Still others, while willing to stick with the Union through thick and thin, had been too vocal in their views of the changes that were taking place. They had firmly been shown the door by those in charge, who didn't want anyone rocking the boat. The somewhat Darwinian nature of the changes meant that the only ones who were left were those who were wise enough to see that the Union would still need them someday in the future, loyal enough to put up with all the crap they would have to endure in the meantime, and smart enough to know when to keep their mouths shut.

The real tragedy was that all these changes that had been introduced for political and ideological reasons over last year ran counter to almost a decade of hard work by the government, the military and the industry of the Union. They had all recognized right when the Union had been formed that if the Border Worlds were going to survive, the rag-tag militias that had gone up against Confed and the Black Lance during the "Incident" had to be transformed. The Border Worlds military had to become a capable and professional fighting force, one that was well equipped, well trained and well led. The leaders of the newly formed Border Worlds had made that one of their first priorities, and had pushed the plan forward with vision and enthusiasm. It hadn't been easy, especially for a new and financially struggling nation, but all the raw ingredients for success had been there. Because the worlds that formed the Union had been a full part of the Confederation war effort so much longer than those of groups like the Free Republic of Landreich, they had inherited shipyards and fighter construction facilities such as those at Speradon when they had declared their independence, along with the skill and knowledge of the people who had worked in those yards. That had gotten the programs that would eventually produce fighters like the Retaliator, Jaguar and Intruder and capital ships like the Arcadia and Nemesis classes off to a running start. The first hand knowledge gleaned from the Confed and Black Lance ships, weapons and fighters captured during the "Incident" certainly hadn't hurt either. On the military personnel side, the Border Worlds had inherited literally thousands of veterans who had fought for Confed in the Kilrathi War, and who would go on to form the core of the developing Border Worlds military. Last, but not least, the Border Worlds Union had started out with the resources of close to eighty worlds, a number that in the decade or so since independence had grown to over a hundred. That was still much less than what Confed or the Kilrathi Assembly had, but it was a heck of a lot more than the two-dozen odd worlds that the Landreich possessed, and which had allowed the Landreich to build a pretty good military in its own right. The leaders of the Union had been determined to do even better.

[ Author's Note : I'm drawing the number of worlds in the Union from the expanded WC Universe Map drawn up by the resident WC expert in these parts, Ben "LOAF" Lesnick, which shows the Union having 75-80 worlds, taken from WC4 and older sources such as Armada. The 100 worlds figure factors in growth from converts and/or new colonies in the time from WC4 to WCP. ]

To that end, they had succeeded admirably. From the start, the end goal of the Border Worlds military had been envisioned as true fleet carrier military, quite unlike the Landreich model. The Landreich had gone for a "frigate navy," consisting mainly of capital ships such including primarily frigates and secondarily cruisers, along with small jeep carriers providing fighter support. That did have some advantages, especially in being easy to create and maintain, but it lacked power projection ability and the sheer level of firepower needed to fight major conflicts. Jeep carriers could neither carry the heavy bombers needed to destroy large enemy capital ship forces, nor did they have the fighter numbers to create and maintain space superiority. The Border Worlders had been forced to adopt a frigate navy model to defend themselves with in the interim years, but they had kept their eyes on the real prize throughout. That prize was the Arcadia class, as well as the fighters, bombers, support craft, and escort ships that would maximize the effectiveness of the carriers. In order to achieve that, they had often been forced to think outside the square, with the government, military and industry working together to a coherent plan to achieve what they wanted with what they had. It had taken a lot of sacrifice, a fair bit of lateral thinking - the single biggest coup had been enticing the wealthy and powerful Tanfen Corporation into setting up their base of operation in the Union by offering the Families two worlds as their own- and quite a bit of luck, but by 2680, it had looked like it was all coming together.

That had changed when the treaty was signed. Before, the emphasis had been on self reliance and looking after their own defense themselves. Afterwards, the emphasis by the ideological purists seemed to be on reversing all the progress made in the Union's ability to defend itself in the past decade, and one more reducing its armed forces to a rag tag militia. It was all based on an idealized vision of the past, where all security came from a benevolent and distant government on Terra, which had never once chose to sacrifice frontier worlds when it felt necessary to do so. It wasn't for nothing that those who thought so were often referred to as the "forward to the past" brigade. (That was the polite term, but there were plenty of others.) It was one thing to create treaties and alliances for mutual co-operation and defense. That was both necessary and wise in a dangerous universe. It was another to freeload off your allies, or leave command of your defenses in the hands of foreign politicians hundreds of light years away.

These changes had come at a crucial time, when the new capital ships and fighters were just coming on line. Luckily though, the progress of the last decade had built up far too much momentum for the hardliners to stop completely. They had certainly tried hard enough though, shouting all the while that what they did would both increase the Union's security and divert money to where it was more urgently needed. Their efforts hadn't quite killed the Union's ability to defend itself when the invasion struck, but they had certainly hamstrung it, just in time for the Nephilim to attack. These recent changes could of course be reversed, and anyone with a grain of sense would have realized just why they should be reversed. The production lines could be re-opened, delayed or suspended development programs could be started up again, and all the good people who had been lost to the military in the last year could be recalled and re-integrated back into the forces. The trouble was that doing so would take months, and that was time they just didn't have. The invasion had to be dealt with here and now, with what the ideologues and optimists had left them with.

The worst part of it was that it could all have been avoided, as history had provided them with a glaring example of just why this path shouldn't have been taken. Just like Confed had been before the Battle of Terra, the Border Worlders, after years of being on the back foot, had finally been getting to the point where their military was capable of holding its own. Just like Confed at that time, they could have pressed on and taken a strangle hold on the advantage they had. Just like Confed, they hadn't done so, based on optimism and a nave belief that promises made on paper were always translated exactly into the real world. Just like Confed before the Battle of Terra, they had slashed their military capability for political and ideological reasons. Just like Confed, they now had to fight a battle on whose victory their survival depended, and had to fight it in a situation where they were at a severe disadvantage. It was indeed truly said that those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.

Luckily for all the innocent people who depended on that victory, there had been a few strategically placed people in both the military and the government who hadn't bought into the vision of a bright new world where Big Brother could deal with everything. They hadn't run directly against the course set by prevailing wisdom in the last year, which would have been both futile and inimical to the concept of democracy itself. Instead, they had gone along with the lawful (if somewhat unwise) path chosen by those who were in power. However, they had made what changes were within their power to do so, changes that would hopefully give the Union a fighting chance of survival.

Since the Border Worlds military had less than the number of new ships, fighters and experienced personnel than was optimal to fight off any threat, those who had an eye towards the Union's survival had decided to concentrate those forces, rather than have them spread out all over the place as would have been the case with the reserve model that current wisdom said should be adopted. The best of the Border Worlds military's frontline pilots, crews and commanders had been allocated to groups like the Littenia group and Battle Group Valkyrie, and those groups had been allocated first pick of the new fighters, bombers and support craft. They would have to be the ones who took the war to the enemy, and it made sense that they had the best that was available. In the same way, selected militia units that had caught the eyes of their commanders over the past few years had been slated as part of a ready reserve that would back up the frontline forces when needed. Those reserves were now gathering in Nifelheim. There were other plans too, including a "Hail Mary" last-ditch option that was even now being put into place.

It had all been done very subtly so as not to tip off the hardliners, so subtly that even many of those who were selected had been unaware of the crucial role they would play if the worst happened, as indeed it had. They were the thin blue line, the ones who had to help hold back the invading tide and ensure their nation had a chance to survive the mistakes that it had made. And however much they might despise the ideologues that had put them in this situation, the men and women gathered here would do exactly that. The mistakes of the past year wouldn't kill the Union if they had anything to say about it. It wasn't a perfect solution by any means, but as a great commander of another age had said, it was better to have a good plan to put into action now than a perfect plan when it was too late to make a difference. They would hold the line with they had right here and right now.

The comm system beeped, indicating an incoming message, and then the comm screen switched to show the helmeted head of one of the SWACS operators. The information that he received from the operator jolted Knight out of his dark musings, focusing his thoughts away from what could have been if they had been wiser to what must be if they were going to survive.

It seemed that in terms of numbers, the Nephilim were still as formidable as before, still nearly 300 strong in spite of everything that the Border Worlders had done. The reason for the Nephilim maintaining, if not in fact increasing, their numbers in spite of everything the Border Worlds had thrown at them was the fighter cluster technology used by the Nephilim. Early in the battle, the Border Worlders had focused most of their energies on taking out the massive Skate and Stingray clusters, along with the Devil Ray space superiority fighters, as these had posed the biggest threat to the Border Worlders. The weapons the Border Worlds pilots had used has been pretty indiscriminate, including nuclear and anti-matter warheads. These had, in addition to destroying the clusters themselves, had left component fighters badly damaged and temporarily out of the battle. Now, however, the severely crippled Skates and Stingrays were steadily limping in join their brethren, once more adding their numbers and firepower to the fight. If one looked at it solely in terms of numbers, it would be easy to be disheartened. It was like the Red Queen's Race, as the Border Worlders were best standing still, and at worst going backwards.

In terms of actual strength though, the Nephilim attack force had been severely diminished. There were no longer any bomber clusters left, clusters that could have ripped a carrier or cruiser wide open in a single attack run. There were now less than a dozen Stingray clusters with their massive plasma cannons. There were virtually no Devil Rays, and that would make life a whole lot easier for the Border World fighter pilots. The fact that a Devil Ray was equal to a Vampire, not to mention that each was flown by an ace, would have meant that each Devil Ray would have had to have at least one Retaliator focusing on it in the upcoming toe-to-toe battle. Instead, each of the lethal space superiority fighters could focus on wreaking havoc on the weaker Nephilim craft. There weren't even all that many "Red Mantas" - the torpedo carrying variant of the Manta fighters-left by now, less than a third of their initial numbers.

Instead, the bulk of the enemy force was now made up the fast but relatively weak Moray medium fighters. In addition, there were significant numbers of Stingrays that were too badly damaged to cluster back together, Skates from the broken up clusters, and a fair number of "Green Mantas," along with perhaps forty to fifty of the Red Mantas. Many if not most of the surviving Nephilim fighters were showing damage now, be it from missiles and gunfire, collisions with asteroid debris or mines, or the blast effects of the nuclear and anti-matter weapons that they had been showered with. The SWACS crew couldn't be sure, but from the aimless way the surviving components of the destroyed clusters had drifted back to rejoin the attacking force, it was suspected that many of them had their radars and comm systems fried by the repeated EMP effects they had been subjected to. In short, the Nephilim might look pretty strong at first glance, but a closer analysis showed that they were hurting, and hurting badly.

The trouble was, so were the Border Worlds pilots who were trying so desperately to keep the still massive enemy force away from their capital ships. There were now just over forty of the defending fighters left, along with a handful of Stalker EW craft and the bombers that had been held back in reserve aboard the Freedom. Virtually all their fighters had some degree of damage. Some were so badly damaged that it was a wonder they were still flying. In any normal situation, they would be back on board the carriers, but that just wasn't an option anymore. Those fighters were only being kept aloft by a lot of frantic rerouting and repair work by their damage control systems, along with the sheer stubbornness and foolhardiness of their pilots. They had done a lot of things today that even the Border Worlders thought were crazy-which took some doing for people who had once sent Ferrets and Rapiers against Dragons-and they would have to keep doing them if they were going to survive.

They were also running badly low on fuel and munitions. Their tactics to date had all been based on swift and brutal strikes with weapons of mass destructions, lethal missile ambushes and fast moving hit and run attacks that slashed and sliced away at the enemy. All of those were good tactics against a massively superior attack force, but those tactics had consumed their resources at a ferocious rate. Even with the weapons stockpiles and fuel bunkers of three carriers to draw upon, the supply situation wasn't looking good. Today's all out battle had come on top of three days worth of round the clock combat operations, not to mention two weeks of running battle across the Tyr, Nephele, and Loki systems. The refueling and rearming shuttles were flying non-stop to keep the fighters supplied, but there were only enough ready stockpiles for a couple more hours of fighting. There were still further reserves aboard the transports that accompanied the carrier groups, but it would take too far too long to get them ready for use, especially with everything else the crews had to do just now.

Last but certainly not least, there was the effect that close to half a dozen hours of combat was having on the defending pilots. They had already been short on sleep from the patrols, sweeps and strike missions they had been flying non-stop over the past few days. The added energy drain of this battle left all of them bone weary, and some drained to the point of exhaustion. All that was keeping them going right now was adrenaline, anger and determination. That would see them through for a couple more hours as well, but it wasn't a good state to be flying in, not by a very long chalk. Still, as so often happened in life, they simply had to do the best that they could with what they had available. They were all that standing between the Nephilim and everything that they cared about, and they would not give way. Not now, not ever. The thin blue line would hold no matter what, if for no other reason than that the alternatives were unthinkable. Without the Inner Fleets or the support they could have had if the Union had pressed ahead with re-arming after the treaty, they were the only hope for billions of their people.

The Nephilim fighters were just about through the outer minefield by now. That field had been the most complete of the defensive fields they had set over the past few days, though not the only one by any means. It had achieved what they had expected it to, which was delay the enemy for a good while and inflict some damage in the process, which was all that they could have hoped for from a passive defense. From here, the Nephilim only had to deal with a few smaller defensive fields, and then they would be able to engage the Border Worlds capital ships.

The Intruders from Revenant and White Knight squadrons lurked about 10,000 or so klicks from the inside of the minefield, once again powered down to minimize their sensor signatures. There was no jamming support from the Stalkers this time, as the EW craft had been pulled further back to help shield the surprises being prepared by the capships from enemy detection. However, the general interference from the debris, along with the degraded communication and sensor capability suffered by the Nephilim, would hopefully be enough to keep them undetected while the Nephilim fighters regrouped inside the minefield.

And then... the fun would start.

Accompanying the fighters were remaining bombers from the Hell Knight bomber squadron. The unit was down to less than two thirds strength, both because of losses in previous battles and because a flight had been lent to the escort carrier BWS Defiance, which would hopefully be helping demolish one of those enemy carriers about now. The bombers that were left, though, should be enough to hit the Nephilim with one more solid punch.

The bombers were loaded in quite a different way from what they normally would have carried. Battle Group Valkyrie's commanders had taken a big gamble, not for the first time in this battle, and had opted not to put the usual torpedoes and anti-fighter guided missiles on the Avengers. They had trusted the bombers from Thor's Hammer and Predator squadrons to deal with any enemy capital ships, and had instead armed the Hell Knights to the teeth with mace missiles in their torpedo slots, along with coneburst and starburst warheads on their missile rails. The Intruders too had each filled some of their missile slots with conebursts and starbursts. It had taken every last one of these rare warheads the carriers had, but there would never be a better time to use them. They were going to give the Nephilim one more taste of cleansing fire, hopefully taking out enough of the Red Mantas to defang the attacking force, and then turn and run like hell.

Unfortunately, the plan didn't go as they had hoped this time. The Nephilim came through the mines, but bitter experience had taught them not to cluster together when they regrouped. Instead, the groups of fighters kept a wary distance from each other, minimizing the chances that they would be caught in any massive blast. As the first fighters began accelerating forward, Knight swore under his breath. They would only be able to get a few of the leading fighters, but that was better than nothing. The more they took down here, the fewer would be able to swarm them as they tried to cover the capital ships.

"Steady... steady... fire! Let the bastards have it!"

Even as he spoke, the fighters and bombers around him powered up. The coneburst and starburst missiles went first, trailing long streaks of fire behind them as massed ranks of warheads blasted towards the enemy. They were followed split seconds later by the maces. Close to a hundred missiles and over thirty thermonuclear warheads lanced towards the Nephilim. Even as the missiles raced away, the Border Worlders were swinging around and lighting their afterburners, getting the hell out of dodge. They knew this attack would leave a horde of enraged enemy fighter pilots right on their heels, and they wanted as much of a head start as they could get.

Behind them, the conebursts and starbursts tore into the leading enemy craft. These weapons were unguided, and tended to expend their energy over a large area. Therefore they only killed a handful of targets, but they damaged several more, leaving a couple of dozen fighters with stripped armor and damaged hulls. The maces did better, killing close to a dozen fighters, and leaving several dozen more limping, but the real damage was what their electromagnetic pulses did to the dozens of enemy fighters that were near ground zero. These had sensors, communications and other vital systems fried, further breaking down the ability of the Nephilim to fight as a cohesive force.

The shock of the attack rocked the Nephilim back on their heels for a few seconds, but then they lit their afterburners and gave chase. They should have been able to overhaul the Border Worlders easily, as the entire formation was tied to the speed of the Avengers, but that short delay had given the Border Worlders time to get through another of those pre-laid minefields. Once the last of them were clear of the edges, Knight activated the mines, turning them from passive debris among the rocks to lethal obstacles. The Nephilim discovered that the hard way as powerful explosions gutted several of their leading fighters.

This minefield was much smaller than the outer field, but the Nephilim had no way of knowing that. It took them time to assess the situation and to get through the obstacle, and by then the Intruders and Avengers had vanished from the edge of their sensors, running back to rejoin their comrades in what was shaping up to be one hell of a last stand.

Once they were safely out of Nephilim sensor range, Knight activated his comm system, sending a message to Admiral Hanton to let her know that the attack hadn't been quite as successful as they had hoped. He then keyed in another message to Major Ul-Huq, the CO of the Ghost Warriors, sending the other pilot a message that he had hoped he would never have to send.

"Sorry, buddy, they're right behind us and they're pissed off as hell. Looks like the plan's a go."

And may God forgive us...