PHASE IV : THE LOKI ARC ( 42 of 66 )

: “ The Tiger Hunt ”

"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori."
- Latin Proverb

Recon Arrow 007 (Ghost Warrior Lead)
Loki VI Debris Field, Loki System
1635 Hours, 14 Feb 2681 (2681.045)

“The Lord is God, the Lord is one…”

“There is no god but God…”

“… Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done…”

It hadn’t been planned that way, but in that one quiet moment before the madness sprang up to consume them once again, there were many Ghost Warriors and other pilots who felt the need to commune with powers greater than they were. Over the open comm channel, in the privacy of their cockpits, or simply in the silences of their own souls, they made peace with their creators. The prayers were in Hebrew and Arabic, English and Mandarin, and half a dozen other languages besides, a poignant reminder of the sum of humanity that was fighting against this alien threat. In another time, in another place, the differences of religion and language and culture would have set them at each others throats, but the last half century had done much to teach humanity just how petty such differences were. All the enemies they had faced, whether Kilrathi or Nephilim or Black Lance, had made no such distinction when they killed. The unity those dark years had created might have been a fragile one, but it was a unity that stood them in good stead.

The prayers were not so much for themselves as for others. Some prayed for the safety of friends and families and lovers who were counting on this desperate battle for their survival. Some prayed for their nation, whose survival was balanced on a knife-edge. Some prayed for the souls of friends who had already given their lives over the hours of frantic hit and run battles. And they all prayed for the brave souls on board the transport they were guarding. Those people had chosen to give their lives so that they could strike one further blow at the enemy.

The transport Haratos City was the centre-piece of an elaborate trap. Lightly shielded and with minimal weapons, the role she normally would be able to play in a conventional fleet battle would have been just about nil. Just after they had learned of the second enemy strike group though, the transport’s captain had gone to Admiral Hanton with a shocking, almost unthinkable plan. The transport had already used up most of the supplies she carried supporting Battle Group Valkyrie over the last two weeks. What little remained could be quickly jettisoned overboard to be scooped up by the tractor beams of the other transports, making the ship herself expendable. Her value was now not as a cargo-carrier, but as a weapon. With her reactors primed to explode, she would essentially become a giant guided missile.

Admiral Hanton had been appalled, of course, but she had been enough of a realist to see that with not just one but two strike groups headed towards them, the time might well come when such measures were needed if the Border Worlds carriers were to survive. The people of the frontier, always outgunned and outnumbered, had been forced to resort to such measures all too often in past, and would probably have to do so again. She had reluctantly given the go-ahead, hoping all the while that the desperate plan would never have to be put into action.

In the hour or since then, all except the most essential bridge and engine room crew, volunteers all, had been shuttled off the ship. A MOCSS decoy attached to the ship’s hull altered the Haratos City’s signature so that she would read on enemy sensors as a mighty battlecruiser, a much more appealing target to Nephilim fighter and bomber pilots. The transport had moved to the very front of the defensive line established by the Border Worlds cruisers and destroyers, where she would be the first to meet the Nephilim onslaught.

All of her spare power, from weapons to cargo cooling systems to much of the life support, had been shifted to her shields, giving the ship more chance of surviving long to do what she had to. Most important of all, the ship’s engine reactor control rods had been pulled almost all of the way out, causing the reactors to begin the long and slow process of going critical. The process was slow because it had been designed to be. Its builders had never foreseen their ship being used this way, and the crew had been forced to bypass or sabotage multiple safeguards to do so. The slow build-up to full criticality ensured that when the explosion did happen, it would release an amount of energy that was almost beyond human comprehension.

Since then, the crew who had remained aboard the Haratos City had watched and waited as the fighter battle raged. They had hoped, as everyone in the Border Worlds force had hoped, that it would not come to this. For those who weren’t aboard the ship, the mental anguish suffered by those two dozen brave men and women was impossible to comprehend. It was one thing to give one’s life in the heat of battle, to make the split second to ram a torpedo or to take an enemy pilot with you into the afterlife. It was another to make the decision to give one’s life, and then to spend an eternity on a knife-edge of fear and hope, waiting for death to come to you. That time had been spend thinking of beloved faces that would never be seen again, of homes and worlds that would never be revisited, of all the choices made and all the paths not taken. Time spent thinking of all the sweetness of this life denied forever, and all the uncertainties of the life that lay beyond. It would be enough to break anyone, no matter how strongly he or she believed in the cause.

It wasn’t the first time in the dark decades humanity had endured recently that brave people had made such a choice. The Marines who had boarded the Kilrathi Hakagas in the Battle of Terra and had detonated the explosives while they themselves were at ground zero had made it. The crews of the Landreich ships that had taken out enemy warships by detonating alongside them had made it. The Border Worlds fighter pilots who taken obsolete Sabres and Ferrets against state of the art Dragons and Excaliburs had made it. The doctors and nurses who had chosen to go to Telamon IV, knowing a horribly effective virus still awaited them, had made it. They had all known going in that their fate was sealed, and had chosen to go in anyway.

It was an act of desperation that was almost impossible to comprehend. Why would anyone do this? Why commit an act that went against every creed that treasured life? Why go against the oldest and most basic of biological imperatives, imperatives that drove every living thing to keep living, to survive, to perpetuate its genes? Why choose the dark certainty of death over all the light and hope that life offered? It was a question that was impossible to answer to a certainty, perhaps one that was almost impossible to understand. All the explanations were lacking, but there had to be some explanation that sufficed none the less. Such an act of sacrifice deserved an explanation, no, demanded an explanation.

Certainly, anger and grief had something to do with it. Many of these people had lost a lot that mattered to them in the invasion, and they wanted to hit back at those who had caused that pain, and to expunge the pain in the chill oblivion of death. Yet that in itself wasn’t the full answer. Even those who had lost those who were nearest and dearest to them had others who they cared for, and others who cared for them. They still had siblings and friends, parents and grandparents, all convincing reasons to live. Not only that, others had lost as much as these people had, and had opted not to take the path they had chosen. Life, for all the pain and grief that it could bring, had an inherent sweetness, an inherent worth, that few except the most hardened zealots would willingly give up. These people were not fanatics, and anger and grief were not in themselves the full answer. They didn’t even come close to being the full answer.

Loyalty to their country, to their people, certainly had something to do with their choice as well, but that didn’t provide a full explanation either. The Border Worlds armed forces had a reputation for a near suicidal ferocity and tenacity in battle, but near was the operative word. No nation could demand that its soldiers give up their lives like this, if for no other reason than that a nation which did that would soon find itself with no soldiers left. Asking people to throw their lives on command, going into battle with not just the possibility or the probability, but the absolute certainty of death, went far beyond the bonds of loyalty and obligation that bound these people to their nation. These people were volunteers to the last man, making a choice for themselves that their government wouldn’t have demanded of them. Loyalty was part of the answer, but it wasn’t the full answer by any stretch of the imagination.

In the end, emotions alone, both the positive and the destructive, couldn’t provide an answer. Strange as it might sound, the missing component in that equation might well be that of the intellect. It was important to remember that each of these people had made a conscious, rational choice to do this. There was perhaps an understanding that death was neither the worst nor the most fearsome of the fates that awaited them or their nation. The prospect of their homes being swarmed under by the alien horde, of those they cared about dying horribly or living lives of misery and degradation, were in many ways worse than prospects of the death that surely awaited them if they went through with this act. In a total war, as this war most surely was, individuals could make the completely rational choice that their own survival was less important than the survival of the group, of the species. The existence of what they loved was more important than their own existence. It was not so much an act of anger and hate, this thing that they did, but of courage and perhaps even of love.

Ahead of them, the Intruders and Avengers that had tried and failed to make this unnecessary were now falling back towards them as fast as they could. They had hoped that their attack could wipe out the remaining Nephilim Red Mantas, and eliminate the possibility of the Nephilim being able to threaten their carriers. Unfortunately, they had tried the same trick once too often, as even a group as slow on the uptake as the Nephilim were would get wise eventually. The Nephilim had regrouped after the shock of the mace and missile attack, and were now pressing forward with all speed. They were past the minefields now, having taken a few more casualties in the process, but nowhere near enough to stop or even slow down the horde.

The Nephilim were now through all the fixed defenses laid down earlier. Now the only things standing between the Nephilim bombers and the Border Worlds carriers were the defending fighters, cruisers and destroyers. And of course, the crew of the Haratos City. They had to meet the attacking force, and if not stop it, at least pull its teeth enough that the carriers would have a fighting chance of survival. Those of their comrades who had gone to ambush the second force still hadn’t returned, so it was all up to them.

Now, as the defensive line of fighters fell back and the Nephilim surged forward, it was time for those brave people to make the final, irrevocable choice. As the engines fired up, the captain could steer her in either direction. The Haratos City could fall back behind the screen of warships, and her crew could shove the control rods back in, averting the coming explosion. No one would say a word against them if they made that choice, a choice that everyone was half hoping they would make anyway. No one wanted to see their comrades willingly obliterate themselves in a blaze of nuclear fire.

Or the ship could move forward, into the teeth of the enemy guns. Once she did that, her fate would be sealed, as she wouldn’t be able to survive the onslaught for more than a few seconds. The MOCSS decoy might make her look like a battlecruiser, but it couldn’t give her the hull or the shields of a warship. Once she began racing forward, she would be committed to the act, to taking the enemy down with her. The Kilrathi called it Tagugar, the Japanese Kamikaze, but it meant the same thing in the end, giving up everything for one good chance to kick the enemy in the balls.

The seconds seem to stretch into eternity, as the lives and futures and hopes and dreams of two dozen men and women balanced on a knife-edge. Then the ship’s engines flared, thrusting her forward like a spear towards the seething heart of the dark horde. The crew had made their choice, and though none of the Border Worlders would have put it like that, they had made a choice that had driven generations of people before them who had fought in a just cause, giving up their lives for their people and for their nation.

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

It is fitting and proper to die for your country.

The Haratos City surged ahead of the cruisers and destroyers that were holding their defensive line, like a lone knight charging out to meet the enemy. The Ghost Warriors raced ahead and alongside of her, as did the powerful Retaliators of Reaper and Starkiller squadrons. Their missiles slashed into the enemy ranks, destroying the first few fighters that angled towards the disguised transport. It was all an act, of course, one more step in the elaborate masquerade. A “cruiser” hurtling towards certain doom, alone and unaided, would have seemed strange even to the Nephilim. A lone cruiser attacking with fighter support seemed like just one more of the crazy things that the Border Worlders had been doing all day. This attack combined enough force to be believable with little enough force to tempt the Nephilim into going in for the kill. As Sun Tzu had said, all warfare was based on deception. Give the enemy a convincing enough target to draw him in, and then clamp your jaws down on his throat before he has a chance to react.

The Haratos City opened up with her laser turrets, two double streams of fire that lanced towards the enemy. To maintain the illusion for a few crucial seconds longer, the Ghost Warriors, running so close to the transport that their signatures were almost indistinguishable from hers, cut loose as well. The pilots used the Arrows’ auto slide ability to spin around like turrets, pouring fire in all directions. The double lances of laser and ion cannon fire that seemed to the Nephilim to sprout from the Haratos City’s hull changed the pathetic volume of fire put out from the transport to one that could conceivable have come from a warship. Flying like this was insanely dangerous, as the pilots risked shattering their craft against the transport’s hull. Then again, there had been nothing particularly safe or sane about anything the Border Worlders had done today. And perhaps the Gods of whatever faith that were watching had a soft spot in their hearts for madmen and desperate Border Worlders, if there was a difference, because none of the Arrows flew into the transport.

The Nephilim were now rushing headlong at them, and several of their Manta bombers were at the forefront of the wave, angling their noses towards the “cruiser” to gain a firing solution for their torpedoes. They too had been witness to all the outrageous and insane things that the Border Worlders had done in this battle. They had been blasted with nuclear missiles on two different occasions, had anti-matter weapons rip through their formations, and had been showered with missiles. They had seen their hive mates die by the score, and had in many cases been themselves left torn, bleeding and crippled. They wanted their foe to pay for that, and this was their first real chance to do that. A big juicy target like the “cruiser” they saw headed towards them was just too tempting to pass up. They were so determined that they all but ignored the covering fighters. After all, why focus your energies on killing one human when you can kill hundreds? The Nephilim were so caught up in the blood lust of the kill they could almost taste it, and that blinded them to the trap whose jaws were closing in on them, just as the jaws of another trap were even now closing in on their fleet.

Paladin’s comm screen crackled into life, and he found himself looking at the face of the Haratos City’s skipper, a face that showed not the torment of one who fought against death, but the serenity of a man who saw the Grim Reaper approaching and had accepted that fact. The Captain refused to say anything heroic, or to make any statements that live on in posterity. All that he would utter were two simple statements.

”Twenty seconds till she goes critical. Get out of here.”

The Arrows and Retaliators wheeled away and lit their afterburners, racing away from the coming explosion. By now, Nephilim fighters were swarming over the Haratos City, eager for the kill even before their bombers had finished locking their torpedoes. Maser and plasma canon bursts raked her shields, causing them to flare and buckle under the assault. The shields held for a few seconds before giving way before the relentless barrage. The gunfire punched into the hull, melting and vaporizing the armor plating before attacking the metal underneath. Escaping gas began to stream out of rents in the hull, while small explosions rippled across the hull as the first missiles struck. And behind them came the first wave of torpedoes that would seal the ship’s fate, hurtling towards the Haratos City as the Mantas fired.

Then again, her fate had been sealed long before any Nephilim fighter had fired at her. Just before the first torpedoes struck her, her reactor went critical, vaporizing the ship in a giant thermonuclear fireball. The fireball washed outwards in all directions, vaporizing the torpedoes and missiles that the Nephilim had assumed would be what destroyed her without even slowing down. The blast then consumed the nearest fighters, the ones that had been raking the ship with gunfire, but its fury was far sated. The bombers that had fired the torpedoes, over a dozen of them, went up next, and over a dozen other bombers had their delicate target tracking and phase shield decoding equipment fried by the blast. That was a firepower kill, as it removed those bombers from attacking the carriers with their torpedoes. In all, the sacrifice of the Haratos City’s crew managed to take out close to half the remaining Manta bombers, helping ensure the safety of the carriers just that little bit further.

The Nephilim weren’t ones to stopped by such a reversal, and they once again launched themselves forward with the same grim determination that had taken this far in the face of a pounding that would have seen most other attack forces break and run. The defensive line of cruisers and destroyers was now directly ahead of them, the next targets for their fury. This time, they kept their bombers back as they raced in for the kill, aware now that the Border Worlders thought no sacrifice too great to knock out them out and remove the threat to their carriers once and for all. Instead, it was the fighters that took the lead on the onslaught, as the Nephilim horde, still hundreds strong, surged towards the line of Border Worlds warships. Their massed gunfire and missile strikes would be enough to bring down even the shields of capital warships if enough of them could concentrate their fire at the right ship and at the right time.

The Border Worlds ships, for their part, were falling back steadily, pulling back towards the carriers. They still kept their prows turned towards the enemy as their engines backed up, allowing them to bring their fixed weapon batteries as well as most of their turreted weapons to bear on the approaching fighters. The capital ships no longer had any weapons of mass destruction such as the nuclear CSM missiles left, having fired them off earlier in the battle, but their standard CSM and torpedo warheads were respectable anti-fighter weapons when set to proximity detonation, and the smaller ships also mounted the seeker missiles that had been staple anti-fighter weapons ever since the Kilrathi war.

The Border Worlders had sent all their ships to assist in this holding effort. That included those that had previously been held back to protect the Freedom, which had started moving up when they learnt of the second enemy attack wave. If they didn’t stop this attack from killing the two fleet carriers, then the Freedom wouldn’t last long in any case. The battlecruiser Nemesis held the centre of the line. She was easily the most powerful combatant warship the Border Worlds Navy had, the first of her class. Her hull bristled with multiple anti-matter and heavy plasma cannon turrets that could shred fighters with a single hit. She also mounted multiple rapid-fire missile launchers that could each salvo off a dozen missiles in as many seconds. For close range “knife fighting”, she also mounted a dozen rapid stormfire CIWS, which could fill the space around her with a wall of hurtling metal for as long as there was ammunition in her bunkers. Flanking her were the Tallahassee-class heavy cruisers Spitfire and Ravager. They were old designs, as the class having been in service as far back as the very first Kilrathi War. These particular ships though, were brand new, and were the most up to date builds of their class, with improvements in sensors and weaponry that made them far stronger than their statistics on paper might have indicated. They each mounted several anti-matter turrets, along with a multitude of laser turrets. Last but not least, were the destroyers Courage, Endurance, Resolve, Fortitude, and Braveheart. They too were designs that dated back to the First Kilrathi War, but like the cruisers were the latest builds of their class. Together, the eight ships represented a formidable aggregation of firepower.

As formidable as they were, though, they knew that they couldn’t hope to stop this massive attack force, still well over 250 fighters strong, without far more fighter cover than they had. The days when capital ships ruled supreme and fighters were little more than an inconvenience to them had well and truly ended with the Kilrathi assault on McAuliffe at the start of the First Kilrathi War. If they tried to stand and fight, they would die, it was that simple. All they could hope for was to try and bloody the Nephilim force, and slow it down a little more, helping buy some more time for the fighters they had sent to stop the second attack group to return. That was why the warships were already falling back towards the carriers. They would do what they could, and then get back as fast as they could.

As the Nephilim raced in, the warships cut loose with every different type of missile weapon they had, causing explosions to blossom in the midst of the enemy formation, deadly blooms of fire that sent shattered fighters and bits of fighters in all directions. The fact that the Nephilim were keeping their bombers back meant that they couldn’t reply effectively to such an attack, but the fighters kept closing in relentlessly. The Border Worlds fighters that were covering the warships added to the chaos with their own fire, but their launches were few and far between, as they were running out of missiles. The Border Worlds pilots prayed fervently to whatever Gods were listening that they would get a chance to reload before they had to defend the carriers. About the only good news was that virtually all the forty odd fighters they had left had miraculously come through the last phase of the battle intact, as the Nephilim had been too intent on the capital ships to worry about them. Of course, intact didn’t mean unscathed, as several of the fighters had picked up extra damage, in some cases so severe that it was a wonder they were still flying.

The Nephilim kept closing in the Border Worlds ships. The retreating cruisers and destroyers now opened up with their energy weapons, turning the blackness of space into a Technicolor palette, filling the void with a solid wall of red and gold and green fire. The wave of firepower smashed into the Nephilim, destroying several and wounding more, but the Nephilim just wouldn’t stop. They accelerated ahead, their missiles slamming into the shields of the warships, their gunfire beginning to wash over the shields in waves of violent fire. The phase shielding used on the Border Worlds ships wasn’t as strong as those used on the latest Confed designs, and could be brought down by concentrated fire. The destroyers escaped the worst of it, as they were too small for the Nephilim to really concentrate on. So too did the Nemesis, though for the reason that her missile launchers and CIWS swiftly discouraged any fighter that tried to press the attack. It was the two heavy cruisers that took the worst of it, and both received several heavy hits as their shields bucked under the onslaught.

In the end, it was the Ravager that drew the short straw. A concerted barrage of gunfire followed by a wave of missiles sent explosions rippling across her hull from bow to stern. Her engines took several hits, and she began to lose speed, falling behind the other ships. As the Nephilim closed in to finish her, her captain assessed the situation, and came to the grim conclusion that there was no escape for his crew. Abandoning ship now would only result in his crew being captured by the Nephilim, something that didn’t bear thinking about. Instead, he decided to follow the example set by the crew of the Haratos City. He ordered engines full ahead, sending the ship back towards the enemy, a move that caught the Nephilim by surprise.

The Ravager salvoed each and every one of her remaining warheads, weapons of every type, a tactic that was called a “weapons dump” or “kitchen sink.” The missiles were set to a 0.5 second delay, which meant that they detonated almost as soon as they had left the ship. The cluster of detonations consumed the Nephilim that were harrying the ship, as well as those that were trying to slip past to attack her sisters. The force of multiple warheads detonating right under her nose also ripped the cruiser apart, her death wreaking further havoc on the Nephilim.

Even as the Ravager sacrificed herself, the Border Worlders’ Stalker EW craft made their move. Each and every one of the jamming craft decloaked simultaneously, saturating the electromagnetic spectrum with a torrent of radiation that blinded the Nephilim for a few vital minutes, allowing the surviving Border Worlds ships to turn tail and head back through the debris field towards their carriers as fast they could. The cruisers and destroyers dumped all the remaining mines they carried in their weapons bays behind them. Even when combined with the jamming, the mines wouldn’t do much except slow the Nephilim down for a few minutes more, about ten or fifteen at the most, but the Border Worlders would take that, and take that gladly.

That delay of a few minutes would give the warships time to form up again around their carriers to protect them against the assault that was coming. It would give the fighter pilots enough time to each grab a few missiles and some afterburner fuel from the support craft before they had to hurl themselves back into the fray. The next battle would be over the carriers themselves, and those few minutes to get ready would make all the difference in the world. The coming battle would determine whether the Border Worlds force survived in any state to fight again. No more hit and run. No more surprise attacks and unconventional tactics. This would a straight out, toe-to-toe slugfest. To put it simply, it was time to stand and fight, time to do or die.